Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
You can also find Monica's writing here:

Ride Your Pony Thank You Jesus

A motorcycle thunders past my living room window and Billy Idol's "Mony Mony" lingers in the air like smoke, instantly calling forth air-conditionlesss summer MTV marathon memories from my pre-teen years.

Ride your pony. Ride your pony, Idol's top lip violently curling heavenward.

Humidity hangs as heavily as the perpetually wet beach towels decorating the side porch railing. Dory, Nemo and the Paw Patrol gang, official flags of summer.

Feel all right, I said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...

Feels like rain. Smells like rain. Looks like rain. Air like the bladder of a pregnant woman, forced to release a deluge on this little town tucked in the rolling green hills of Central Pennsylvania. A tired breeze filters through the window in place of Billy Idol's growl and sends a tumbleweed of black dog hair silently skimming across the wood floor.

I think, once more, of the vehicle I try not to see parked near Serge's house every Friday night and Saturday morning. Divorce in a small town. Motherfuck. I have an intellectual response and an emotional response and they usually reside at opposite ends of my response spectrum, my ultimate response falling anywhere in between based on various interchangeable life circumstances including but not limited to my stress level, alcohol consumption and the time of month... In other words, my reaction to the soul-constricting circumstances divorce faithfully serves up is a pull of a slot machine lever; Some days I'm all cherries, baby, the champion of divorce! Other days... Eh. Not so much. But I'm ridin' that pony, getting back on the fucker every time I fall off. It's all about the kids.

Later. After the rain. After stumbling onto a treasure trove of chanterelle mushrooms while walking in the woods, Cory stops the car in the middle of the country road we're rolling over. Wordless and shirtless, he hops out and begins picking black-eyed Susans he will present to me with a shy grin so I can fill the giant mason jar sitting atop the kitchen table he built me from wood he also scavenged from the side of the road.

Me, in the passenger seat, watching him in the rear-view mirror lope through weeds and wildflowers. I pop wild raspberries we just picked into my mouth, one at a time to make them last longer, and think strange thoughts about them. Raspberries; nature's finest jewelry, I declare to no one as I peer at the dozens of delicate caviar-like pouches of juice that comprise a single raspberry. It really does look like a precious stone bauble that might adorn the hand of an aging wealthy socialite. Strawberries hog the berry spotlight most of the time, but raspberries have always been my favorite. Strawberries can be cloying, the good girl of the berry world, all straightlaced and churching. Raspberries are their sassy cousin. Zingy. Church? Girl, please. We goin' clubbin.'

On the way home, chanterelles, raspberries and black-eyed Susans jostling for space in my lap, I spot another one of those "Thank you Jesus" signs that dot the yards of Jesus lovers across the land.

Thank you Jesus.

The only time I've ever uttered the phrase with the straight-forward sincerity the sign conveys is when offering a thank you to the universe at-large after a negative pregnancy test in my teens or a narrowly avoided car accident, but never from a place of genuine gratitude to the lord and savior of scriptural times.

Thank you Jesus, I whisper to myself. And I smile.

These People Know How to Party

I invited my former husband over to my backyard to enjoy some beers and toast s'mores with our kids several evenings ago. Serge lives three doors away. As in; his house, a house, a church, a house and then my house. This guy I've been clocking some time with was also enjoying our backyard fire pit with his boy, who shares a daycare class with my Charlie, so the seven of us - three adults (allegedly), and four kids - made for an interesting get-together.

Clocking some time with... Hahaha. I'm such an emotionally corrupt pussy. The word 'boyfriend' lodges heavily in the back of my throat every time I go to introduce Cory or speak about him to someone who is unfamiliar with his presence in my life. I had "boyfriends" in high school and college, but now? I'm an oldish broad with three kids and various and sundry life baggage-ness. Is boyfriend really the right term for this kind of post-divorce, solo-mom-of-three-sometimes-meets-up-with-solo-dad-of-one liaison? And shit. I'd feel squiggly calling him my boyfriend even if it was a word I felt completely comfortable flourishing like a gift bottle of wine during those social instances when an introduction requires the relationship elaboration.

I've experienced women pleased as punch to brandish the term like a weapon, stabbing you in the face repeatedly: My boyfriend this and my boyfriend that and while I don't begrudge them giving the word a workout worthy of a CrossFit sesh, it ain't for me. All boyfriend usage rights have long since expired for yours truly, probably around the time I pushed my third child into a snowy world in a 100-year-old farmhouse one cold March morning. Congratulations, it's a boy! Also? No more boyfriends for you, lady! So, what's left? Partner? Ugh. Manfriend? Hey everyone! I'd like you to meet my manfriend! Nah. It's best to let people wonder who this man is in relation to my life, especially since I spend most of my time pondering the same damn thing.

Cory? He don't care what I call him, just so long as I call him. He seems to dig me. God knows why, I mean, have you read this website? But, God bless his rangy ass, he digs me. Not because of some phony show I've put on in an effort to impress. He just enjoys my company, batshit craziness and all. And the other night we both enjoyed Serge's company. Serge is a charming sonuvabitch and he was in fine form that evening. I believe Cory hoofed it down the street to our local distillery no less than two times for emergency beer supplies and I think we all know that the amount of beer consumed directly correlates to how good a time was had...

I dunno. Life is weird and sad and bad and magical and heartwrenching and unbelievably fuckin' beautiful.

Chasing the Fix

I am no longer on social media and the difference it has made in my life is nothing short of astounding. Okay, that's a lie. I have what I refer to as a 'shell' Facebook account under a different name I use for work purposes. "Hello, I'm a producer for AccuWeather and your video of a tornado is really great! May we use it on our website and network with credit to you?" I don't follow anyone or post anything from that account other than work-related requests. I also check Twitter most mornings from my AccuWeather computer to see what's trending, again for work stuffs. There are no apps on my phone. Except the one that monitors my phone usage. Moment. Highly recommend. The number of times you check your phone and how many hours of your day you spend staring at that little screen will alarm you. The minutes add up to a horrific waste of life. The app keeps me honest with myself.

What happened to us? We walk around staring at screens and justifying all the staring at screens and how we need our phones so we're available 24/7 because we're all so goddamn important we can't let a text or email go unanswered for ten minutes and if we do someone else is texting or emailing again demanding a response and it's all bullshit. Half the stuff we all get up to on our smartphones doesn't really matter or even exist in the real world. Hearts and thumbs ups and Facebook debates with strangers, opinion articles passed off as news or fact that say nothing and mean even less, endless memes and photos of other people allegedly living amazing lives but who are just the same smartphone addicted junkie as the rest of us. Put down your phone and it all ghosts away, like that satisfactory snapping off of an old school TV where the image shrinks to a white dot that eventually disappears. Gone.

I used to spend hours of time scrolling social media feeds and reading news articles, justification acrobatics Cirque du Soleiling around my brain: I write online for a living, I need to keep up with social media so I can build a following who is interested in what I write which will, in turn, land me better writing gigs. Or: I need to read the news! News is important! I must be informed, especially with Trump at the wheel. And it's true, I do need to be aware of certain goings on in the universe as part of my job but that kind of thing can be accomplished in minutes, once a day. Truth be told, most online news these days is drummed up, clickbait nonsense. My desire to stay abreast of current events and trends was an imaginary value. I thought it made me informed and, in turn, a better person. It didn't. It just added to the noise in an already cluttered brain and I don't miss the bullshit headlines suckering me in for a read at all. I paid for each of those reads with time and time is a valuable commodity. Since deleting my news app I have discovered that anything important going on in the world will leak into my consciousness in one way or another and I can, at that point, choose to further inform myself in a mindful, intentional way. Endlessly scrolling a news app on my phone was an unnecessary time suck that almost always ended in reading ridiculous articles that were, in two words, consummate bullshit.

Picking up my phone became my default position. The slightest pause in my activity would see me reaching for my phone. Red stoplight. Pick up phone. Standing in line. Phone. That bled into my life as a mom, which of course, I'd justify by telling myself I work full-time and have three kids and, by god, If I want to read this article about how Kim Kardashian's waist-cincher changed her life while my kids splash in a backyard pool I bought with my hard-earned cash, I deserve it. While it's true that I have earned the right to read an article, what I was missing was the fact that reading the article and the one after that and the one after that was a monumental waste. Same thing goes for emails and texts. I'm checking for "important" work emails, I'd tell myself, ramping up a false sense of urgency and creating anxiety where there need be none. And then, when I'd made sure there were no emails awaiting my attention, I'd mindlessly wander to the good old news feed or Instagram or Facebook to scroll others' posts or maybe create my own post, which compelled me for hours afterward to check back in and see the reaction. And then check my work email some more. Then Instagram. Haven't checked Facebook in a few hours, let's see what's happening there.

Reading an article the other day - What is brain-hacking? - felt like someone throwing cold water on my face. My boyfriend, Anderson Cooper, talks to tech engineers in Silicon Valley who reveal some insidious shit about how they are basically programming people. Addicting them to their iPhones like sheisty drug dealers, creating computer codes that give your brain "rewards" that have no actual value. Thousands of ivy league educated engineers making the big bucks by devising ever-sneakier ways to keep your eyes on your smartphone, hooking you on that dopamine fix you get when someone hearts your photo or likes your status and the notification buzzes your physiology. Here's a bit with Anderson talking to a computer programmer whose job it was to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.
For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.

Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment--

Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?

Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.

When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.

Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.

Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?

Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.
The entire article is fascinating and worthy of your attention. Teams of highly paid engineers working to keep us addicted to our phones, constantly checking them like pulling at the lever of a slot machine to see what we're gonna get next. Facebook likes! Instagram hearts! Direct messages! Keep your Snapchat streak alive! Here is someone you may know on Facebook! Ping! Ping! Ping! Must click little, red notification. What if someone really needs me right now? (how often does anyone really need you right now?)

All those strangers hearting your photos, Facebook "friends" weighing in on your latest update, people you may have never even met in person causing you unnecessary anxiety or agitation. And there you are, little mule, checking scrolling checking scrolling in your endless quest to reach the carrot that doesn't even exist. It's all a fuckin' waste, man. A black hole of nothing that doesn't amount to shit. Oh, I'm not against keeping in touch with people who add value to your life or using social media in an intentional, limited way. There is genuine community to be found all across the Internet and it can be empowering and beautiful, but be honest with yourself: What percentage of your online life is truly adding value to your real life? What is your real life? Is your real life your online life? Do you even know any more?

I didn't know for the longest time. I confused my self-worth with my online activities which made me ridiculously defensive both online and in person to the point that I couldn't view a person's intentions or various situations with any sort of clarity. I allowed the Internet and the people on it, most of whom I've never even met, to dictate my mood, my self-esteem. It's still a struggle, letting go of the things that don't matter (figuring out which things don't matter is surprisingly difficult!) and focusing on real life and those online activities that add value to that life. I still feel the twitch to pick up my phone several times a day and find myself making up reasons to check it so I can scratch the itch, get that dopamine fix. But goddamn! When you wake up, pull your eyes out of your iPhone, realize what's slowly happening to all of us and wean yourself off the smartphone/online addiction, your mind immediately begins clearing out all the extraneous clutter and you feel good. Really, really good. THAT'S the fix I'm chasin' now.

The Erosion of Self 

I bobbed clumsily through life, barely afloat on an ocean of beer in 2016. But you'd never know it unless I told you. Is three bottles of beer an evening too much? I don't know. I'm genuinely asking but probably won't put much stock in your answer because I've answered the question every which way each time I ask it of myself, which is uncomfortably often.

The truth is it helps me relax in the evening after a day full of corporateness/meetings/managering and soul-destroying office jargon that, via notifications on my iPhone, trails me through my life like a determined stalker I can't shake no matter how fast I run, how well I hide. Notifications harassing me even as I wait for my kids at the bus stop, make dinner, put them to bed. Ping/email! Ping/email! Ping/text! Ping!Ping!Ping! The beer dulls the unrelenting torture just enough that I can get a little shut eye before the dance begins anew at 5:30 the next morning.

And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

I am straddling 40-years-old. I have been scrabbling like a motherfucker to figure out the kind of woman I want to be. Legacy. Because of my children, I think a lot about legacy. My legacy. It's only up to me, you know. It isn't as though there are folks who would expound on my alleged greatness upon my untimely departure from planet Earth, I don't think. I have to leave a legacy for my children in the way that I conduct myself on a daily basis and, much of the time, I don't think I'm doing that good of a job. I don't feel as if I've ever been truly known by anyone. Someone's daughter for 40 years, married for a decade, someone's mother for eight years and yet... I don't feel known. I feel misunderstood.

I am aware of the hole in my soul. I am a person who formed a personality around a gaping, nearly fatal wound. No one taught me integrity or how to be a good person. I was left to fend for myself. My life is a balancing act of pretending to be sweet and empathetic or revealing the black hole that swallows everything. Emotional black hole. I often wonder what it's like to experience life as someone else. Someone calm and assured, someone with great parents who instilled a sense of purpose and self worth within me. I'll never know. I can only view the world from this brain I was born with. And I am smart enough to know I am tortured. Is my brain too much... Or too little?

You with the lovely still-married parents who support you know matter what... Are you stronger than me or weaker than me? I can't figure it out.

This is heaven and we are god

It's taken me decades, but I am finally making peace with death. Oh, I still wake up at 3am in a panic; stomach churning, throat constricting, horrified by the idea of ceasing to exist. But that notion makes NOW so much more important.

Thing is, when I believed in the religious (Mormon) fairytale of an afterlife, ruling my own planet forever surrounded by family and friends, I was living half asleep. I didn't appreciate life like I do now. With the specter of death constantly looming, I feel more alive than I've ever felt. If death is the end, I find myself trying to find the beauty in each moment, every interaction with another human being takes on special meaning. I think harder about how my behavior affects others and I want to uplift, not cause anyone to feel badly.

THIS IS IT, motherfuckers. Right here, right now. This ain't a drill, this ain't a test you need to pass to get to the better thing. Who you are now is crucial. I'm not talking college degrees and jobs and money and status, I'm talking kindness and compassion and empathy and love. All the bullshit you've likely been taught about what makes a successful person that fires your ambition means nothing if it doesn't contribute to kindness, love and lifting up your fellow man, or worse, if it compromises kindness, love and your fellow man.

THIS IS HEAVEN AND WE ARE GOD. Think big thoughts and enjoy every sandwich, man.

When things get really bad in my life, when I feel rage and anger and hopelessness, I look around me and take it all in and my mind is blown every, single time. The sky, stars, trees, people, animals, kindness, love... It's magic. I get so choked up by the quiet mystery of the universe, the beautiful humanity; all of us living here together trying to raise our collective consciousness.

I email back and forth with my brother-in-law about this stuff and he wrote this:

"How very fast we would move forward/together on all fronts solving food and disease and war and energy and communication, travel throughout the universe, transportation and farming and even things like time... The most enormous, most pressing questions and problems that have vexed mankind for centuries would fall away like dominoes right down the line.

WE are god. Always have been. One soul.

One day something like pre & post enlightenment time marker will be recognized. And our lifetimes (and all that came before us) will be viewed as the dark age that it truly was/is. A slog of war and separatism and hate and money and inequality and slavery and ego all building and evolving (super slowly) towards an inevitable enlightenment, a togetherness of purpose... SCIENCE. Unlocking the whole motherfucker.

The goal is to slowly peel back the social frameworks imposed on us from birth and figure out who you are without all the shit that was forced on you and you passively accepted as true or right. Being raised an American is like being raised in a religion. Think beyond. Strip away all the labels that make you you and other people them.

WE are god. Always have been. One soul.

The only real, true things are love, relationships, nature, science and art.

Some of us recognize this more than others and it's our duty to lift up the lowest among us. If you see someone is struggling - they're easy to spot with the ignorant, narrow-minded and hateful rhetoric - it is your job to uplift and inspire, if only by passive example, because we are only as good as our weakest link. Humanity. THAT should be your religion.

“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

A postscript to my friend on this day: Thank you for being you. Your gentle, easy attitude combined with your critically-thinking beautiful brain and your generosity of spirit is a daily inspiration to better myself. You know who you are.