Monday, December 31, 2012

The Last Gift

It was summer when I submitted the forms. It required a lot of thought, a lot of writing, and a visit to a local print shop to make 8x11.5 card stock images, because the people viewing them wanted to really view them. In their hands, so they could pass them around. I picked out the pictures I felt best represented not only myself as an artist, but also my life as a person. One of the ones I chose was Mother/Child Song.

I had wanted to submit art to this project for years. Why I waited so long, I don’t know, but I’ve come to learn that divine timing does exist, and it operates independently from any logic or reasoning that we might want to bestow upon it. I mailed the package off an address in Oregeon, and waited.

I waited a long time. When December rolled around, I was exhausted. 2012 had brought many lessons. Patience was one of them. You see, I’m very impatient by nature. When I want something, I want it immediately. I don’t want to wait for divine timing or for things to fall into place. I want to put them into place. I want to be the catalyst that sets things into action, not simply wait for them to unfold.

Oh, but yoga is a wonderful thing for the impatient. As is knitting. You can’t rush either of these practices. And I’ve learned many lessons in patience from both of them this year. Yoga has taught me to be in the moment, present, and patient. Knitting has shown me to rush is to re-do. To make something beautiful is going to take time, simple as that. If you mess up, you can put it down, take a break, then come back later, unravel it all, and try again. Or you can move on to a new project. It just depends on what you want…as most of life does.

In December, I got the letter. They wanted Mother/Child Song. Not only for the datebook, but for the 6 pack card set. I'm honored by this. Thousands of art images are submitted: about a hundred are used for the datebook. Out of that small number, only 6 are chosen for the card set. For years, I've used these datebooks. I've loved the art inside and dreamed of seeing my own there. Now it was going to happen..
I learned how good it feels when a dream is realized.

Here are a few other things I learned during this most amazing year...

- No matter how much we care about another person, sometimes they just don’t care about us, no matter what we do. It’s awful; we hurt…rejection is hell. But it works in the reverse too, and can sometimes be an even tougher pill to swallow, because..
- No matter how much another person might care about us, sometimes we just can’t make ourselves feel the same about them, no matter what they do, how much sense it would make, or how much we might want to. It’s awful; we hurt…but for an entirely different reason. This leads me to the next lesson….
- We need to be more careful what we do. That little voice inside, that ‘inkling,’ that intuition…it’s worth listening to. We know what we want, 99.9% of the time we know it the minute it presents in our lives. A lot of time and energy and grief in the world can be saved by simply honoring what that little voice is telling us is – and isn’t – right for us. But sometimes life can surprise us, as I learned a few weeks ago when I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded that…
- I love, love, love hockey. I have missed being a hockey fan tremendously since moving back to SC from Detroit 10+ years ago (Go Red Wings!!!) When given the chance to supervise/substitute coach a child’s hockey match, I got so caught up in the game I hated to leave the auditorium when it was over. So I’ve checked into the local schedules in Greenville, and made plans with a friend to attend a game soon. Because…
- I love trying new things, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to revisit old things. Simple things that we have always enjoyed and still enjoy can help remind us who we are. Hot dogs (turkey franks only now, but still, a dog’s a dog); movie theatre popcorn; Law and Order SVU; long phone conversations; high heels shoes; red nail polish; funky tights; being realistic and practical; occasionally swearing for shock value; solitude; my plain over-the-shoulder purse; reading all day; afternoon coffee and chocolate. These things are not exotic or uncommon, but they are still pieces in the complex puzzle of me. Such simplicity, yes, but…
- I’ve learned that simple things, ultimately, are where it’s at, and nothing is usually as glamorous as it seems. Yes, it is a tremendous thrill to me that my art will be featured in the 2014 edition of We ‘Moon, but the simple reality is that same art has hung on the wall of my son’s room for years, until he recently decided he was ‘too grown up’ for it and asked me to take it down so he could hang a Star Wars poster there instead. This is what I mean by being realistic and practical. Perhaps it’s what some people would call level-headed, but I think it’s just a form of wisdom. Or maybe it’s just that…
- I don’t like being the center of attention. Ever. I don’t do anything that I do –write, paint, etc. – to garner attention to myself on purpose. I seem capable of getting attention without seeking it, and I’m very uncomfortable in the spotlight. This year, I did what would become my last public speaking engagement, and the entire time, I felt ridiculous. Perhaps its maturity - I turned 39 this year, so it’s high time…which brings to mind another reality…
- Staying fit is just paramount to staying happy and healthy as one grows older, and is not something we can avoid doing if WE want to be happy and healthy as we grow older. Yes it takes effort, but most things worth doing do. Yoga, walking, running, and eating responsibly are ways I avoid the fate I have watched befall too many of my family members. My struggle with accepting their ‘fate’ is that it is an entirely avoidable one. Why on earth anyone would not strive to avoid it is beyond me, and ultimately just another way that…
- I am utterly and completely different than my family of origin. This has always been in evidence, but is somehow strikingly obvious now that I have a child of my own. I don’t know how or why I ended up the odd one out, but that is the way it is, and I’ve accepted it. I don’t try to change them. I wish they would not try to change me. Because…
- To try and change another person, even if it’s just over to your way of thinking, is a form of control…and there is nothing worse, I’ve found, in life than one person’s having control, or even trying to have control, over the life and/or will of another. Even if your intentions are noble, people have to come around to things in their own time, and they will, because...
- We cannot truly live if we live guarded. It’s an impossible paradox. It’s necessary to take risks, and chances, and sometimes we are going to lose. Sometimes we're going to look or feel like fools. But sometimes, we win. There are no such things as big or small risks…risks are risks. And it’s time I took a big one, because…
- My son and I are falling all over one another in this small space. It is time for a different home, a bigger home. I’ve hesitated to buy another place because I wasn’t sure where I wanted to be. The chance for a bigger house falls into my lap, but it's right up the road. Do I want to remain here?  Not really, but every time I look at moving, every time I consider relocating to somewhere better suited for me, I get sick, or some emergency happens, and reminds me that…
- It pays to have ‘people’. Friends, neighbors, family close by. This happened again in autumn, as I was contemplating a job offer some distance away. I reconsidered moving off on my own with a child when I could not get out of bed one day for illness, and had to call on someone else to assist me with getting him to and from school, dinner, etc. It reminded me that maybe, just maybe, I have a good life here. And whether or not this is the place I want to be, it is the place I am, and I’m not keen to leave because of another thing I’ve realized this year…
- I like my job. I really, really enjoy my work. It is not always easy, and some days I’m ready to peruse the want ads, yes. But this is true of all and any job, I believe. Teaching is the first career that has ever given me a sense of purpose in the world. My daily actions matter, and have an impact on the feelings and perhaps even the lives of others. Through teaching, I have a chance, every day, to live my message, to be an example of compassion and love, while opening the eyes of children to the personal joy of creating. It took me a long time to get into this zone. Teaching is tough in many ways. But after 8 years, I’m finding the rewards far outweigh the stresses. I’m not in a hurry to leave a job I enjoy, but…
- I am branching out into another field, because I believe we should always be learning and growing. This involves another degree, but is still in the field of education. This is something I’ve needed to do for a while, and have put off because I was busy doing other things. Now it’s time, and I realize there is nothing wrong with creating new goals. I’m blessed to have the chance to achieve them, and to have the education and opportunities that I’ve had to make my life possible. And this leads to the most important lesson, which I was blessed to experience many, many times this year…
- Gratitude is everything. I could easily write more about the many blessings carried on the winds of 2012, but there is no need. I hold them dear in my heart, even what is lost to me now, and I’m grateful for the experiences, even the ones that hurt, because they came with lessons, or because I was brave enough to take a risk. And this is what I want to share with you, as 2012 draws to a close. It’s not my personal wisdom that I’m sharing, it’s wisdom that we all have. I’m simply voicing it, so that you might be reminded to be grateful at this end of one year and beginning of another. Both endings and beginnings are auspicious, because they are one in the same. Be grateful that you dared to dream, to love, to live, to care in 2012, and continue all of these into 2013. We cannot be truly alive in the world and not feel, love, take risks, be ourselves... even if we don't know the outcome.


I take my new 2013 We ‘Moon datebook and card set out of the envelope, and smile, thinking how next year, at this time, I’ll be seeing my own art here. “You need to let the paper know,” a friend says. “That’s newsworthy.”
Maybe. But it would also garner attention, which I’d prefer to avoid. Still, as I smile at this dream realized, I don’t miss the truth behind it (because I am, at heart, far more logical than I am dreamy) - I could not have painted the picture they chose to use had I not had the experiences that caused the emotion I was expressing through paint the day I created the work. And I could not have had those experiences if I had been afraid to feel those emotions, hesitant to love, or guarded from intimacy in any way in the time leading up to the creating of this work.

In other words, this dream of mine could not have came true this year had I been afraid to feel, love, or take risks at any point in the past.
I consider this realization to be the last gift from 2012 to me.
And I am truly grateful.

For more information on We'Moon, visit http://www.wemoon.ws/

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Memory Book

Every Christmas, I make a gift for my son. I do this for a couple of reasons – first, because I feel nothing says love like taking time to make something that is special, unique, one-of-a-kind. And second, because it would be hard for me to encourage him to make gifts for others if I was not demonstrating the true value by making gifts for others as well. Every year, this is a fun process for us. This year, we made gingerbread cookies for our neighbors, ornaments and cards for friends and family, and all-natural body scrubs, which were a huge hit. And, in keeping with the tradition I started several years ago, I made my son a gift as well.

But I also gave him something more than the traditional knitted item…

this year, I gave him...


 ...the memory book. Or rather, the memory books, as what was meant to be one became three.

The day after Christmas finds me cleaning up, honoring Boxing Day, a tradition I began to observe while living in Michigan, close to the border of Canada, a country where that holiday is important enough to be featured on calendars. I like the idea, however, of something being over when it’s over. Christmas has ended for us. There are no more family coming, no other presents to expect, no more dinners to prepare or attend. There is, to me, no logical reason beyond sentiment to keep decorations on the mantels; to keep the tree up; or to keep the Christmas décor in my yard on display. When a thing is over, it’s over. Letting go has never been an easy thing for me, and sentiment makes it harder. So I shrug it off, pull out the Rubbermaid storage tubs, and get it done. By noon on the 26th, my house looks like Christmas never happened.

But it did. That’s the thing about life…what happens did happen, regardless of whether any evidence that it ever took place remains. Whether we stop and think about it, or remember it, or have mementos strewn around to remind us of it…it did happen. This is what inspired the memory book, this and the fact that life can go on for years in pretty much the same way…and then suddenly, like a magic wand was waved, everything changes at once.

And of course, the picture...


I came across the picture by accident. It shows my cousin Robby and me, on the porch of the house I grew up in, the house where my parents still live. We’re blowing bubbles. I’m five years older than Robby, so in the photo, we’re likely about 10 and 5. Or maybe 9 and 4. It’s hard to tell, and the photo isn’t dated. But I cannot recall the last time I actually looked at a photo of myself as a child. "It’s too confrontational," a friend once said to me, when I asked if she had any old photos of her childhood self. And I understood that completely. Still, this spilled out from a file while I was searching for something else, and I couldn’t help but stop and look.

I’ve not seen Robby for a long, long time, even though growing up we spent nearly every weekend together at either his home or mine. My other cousins, well, I could count the times I’ve seen them over the last 5 years on one hand. Aunts and uncles I see by chance, often out shopping or dining, or at funerals. And yet, they used to be as familiar to me as my own parents, an extentsion of them, somehow.

What happened? It’s hard to say, because it happened over time, not all at once. Divorces, remarriages, people moved, I moved, new family dynamics swooped in and took place of the old. Alltogether, it has culminated in today’s reality...as an adult, I rarely see my extended family, and I hate it. My son barely knows them at all. This isn’t ideal, and it sure as hell isn’t my ideal. I want for my son what I had growing up, a circle of family, a foundation of people who I knew were 'mine.' I was proud of my people, and loved introducing them to friends and boyfriends. They reflected who I was, where I came from. Now, it’s just easier not to think about the past, or why the seemingly never-ending party of family faces, food, and fun I grew up enjoying every weekend and holiday are not part of my son’s childhood as well.

Which begs the question…what is?


At my parents’ house, a few weeks ago, I took my son and nephew on a walk through the backyard in the same manner I had combed it in childhood. Many landmarks are the same, although the old school bell I used to sneak and ring in a neighboring yard is gone. The sawgrass patch where I foolishly tried to hide from my sister once, only to end up with the equivalent of a gazillion paper cuts, is still there, as is Mrs. Hagan's swing, where I sat and drew and wrote and dreamed as the preteen years came on. She never minded my presence there, but the new neighbors step outside and ask, "Can we help you with something?" The place where I held imaginary meetings with animal friends in my ‘Forest Club’ is overgrown, but can be found if one knows where to look. The place where beloved pets were buried has been lost to memory and foilage, but remnants of the old chicken coop remain, as well as the green 'dungeon door' on the side of the house, a door of childhood fear and mystery due to the fact that it was always locked, and my dad always had a tall tale to tell as to why.


Inside my parents’ home, I notice things that I’ve spent years not paying attention to. The Home Sweet Home sign that my father made the year my mother gave him a wood-burning set still hangs above the heater, where it has been for over 30 years. The bookshelf he made by hand and assembled in the bedroom still hovers like a mammoth, too big to be moved, bearing books I perused voraciously as a child. Encyclopedias from the 1970s that opened my eyes to the greater wonders of the world still remain, informationally useless in 2012, but visually as interesting to me now as they were then. The section on Native Americans is dog-eared, and there are pencil-written notes on the pages that describe the Navajo Nation. I close the book quickly. My friend is right; revisiting childhood is confrontational. Still, I’m left wondering what my son’s favorite childhood memories will be.

I’ve parented now for almost a decade, and like most parents, the birth to five year scrapbook stopped receiving updates at about age 2. And I’m not a big picture-taker, either. I’m just not. I always appreciate when I go on a trip with someone, and they break out a camera. It’s a relief; I don’t have to do it. I failed to see the purpose in collecting multitudes of photos after I’d moved a few times, hauling fat photo albums I never looked at from one closet to another, back and forth across the country. I never looked at them, or felt compelled to. They were in boxes, forgotten. At a certain point, I just quit taking more.

When my child was born, I reconsidered the value of photographic momentos. And now, faced with a crossroads, I have a couple of choices to make…two forks in the road. The only choices I cannot make are to remain standing, indecisive, or to turn around and go back. Our time here, at the home we’ve loved for eight years, will most likely draw to a close in 2013. I’m as sure of it as I am that the Cedar Waxwings will pass through in a few months, and that the buds on the Bradford Pear trees will burst into life in 10 weeks time. I’ve been offered a deal on a house that’s too sweet to pass up. And there’s another option as well, one that seems like a fairy tale come true, but in my heart, part of me knows just…isn’t…right...at least not right now.


Bugger, but it’s hard to ignore the heart, or make it feel something it just won’t feel. Or ignore the fact that it’s my son and I living in the new house that seems to be the most logical, sensible decision. And as much as I’d like to be flippant, free-spirited and dance through life unaware the way people think that I actually do, truth is I’m bloody logical and practical. It’s a side most people don’t see, but I began college as an accounting major. I planned on pursuing Criminal Justice studies as well, because of my love of detective stories, but ended up getting an engineering degree instead. Two decades later, I’m happily teaching art to elementary school children and enjoying crime dramas when I have the chance to watch television, but this would-be accountant hyperventilates when it’s time to balance the checkbook. How things change.

Change. Ugh. I talk about leaping, but fear change like anyone else. Moving and/or moving on signifies the end of a phase of life. Moving into this new house, if all goes as it could, ends the life my son and I have known here. It ends him running out the door to play with the neighborhood kids. It ends the ease of friendships that form when one can simply walk next door for conversation and coffee. It ends spontaneous walks in the woods, picnics by the creek, or bike rides on the trail. It begins a new phase, yes…but it ends the idyllic life we’ve know in this sweet, safe place. God, we’ve had it good here. Did I ever realize it until now?


Probably not; I don’t like to stop and think too much. But something about the picture of my cousin and I made me do just that. And so, in the weeks proceeding Christmas, I took my phone to Walgreens and, for the first time ever, proceeded to make prints from the 1351 photos stored on it. Almost 3 years worth of photos flashed before me there on that kiosk screen. I alternated between laughter and tears, then remembered I was in a public place and got my act together. In the end, hundreds of photos were printed. Hundreds. It was just too hard to pass on any of them, and the beautiful, handmade dolphin covered book I purchased for my son’s one memory book became three instead.


How young he looks in the early ones! How much he’s matured, and how much all the neighborhood kids have matured! There are friends he’s grown up with, friends we’ve not seen in a while, and friends we don’t see any more at all. Daytrips and play dates, making pottery and cookies and Christmas cards, all at the kitchen table, that force the family life seems to eternally whirl around. There are pets that are gone, and pets that are new to us, and pets we've had for the duration. There are parties and social activities, vacations and just images of daily life. Truth be known, I’d not seem many of these pictures for years, and many were taken simply to send via text or email to someone else. Now, they constitute our life here, in this place. I spend many an evening hour as my son sleeps arranging the images into the binders. When the task is 100% complete, I wrap the gift up. It's a total Christmas Eve hit.


My son loves pictures, and has always loved looking through other people’s photo albums. Why I never thought to give him his own, until now, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s another rule of parenting that I’ve violated; God knows there seem to be dozens. Still, what matters is I did it this year. Christmas 2012 will be remembered as the year of the memory book, possibly the beginning of a new tradition. As he turns each page, in rapt awe at all the life laid out before him in full color, I decide I will take more pictures, and make more books like this for him, because unlike me, he is sentimental, and I want to nurture that. Perhaps it wasn’t nurtured in me, or it was lost over the years as my extended family broke away and fell apart. I don’t know. Perhaps it can be rekindled. As my son grows older, I notice life is slowing down a bit more now, the blind haze of parenting an infant-toddler-young child alone is allowing more and more moments when I can  stop, take deep breaths, breathe, relax, and remember.

And what will he remember, when he is my age, and a photo falls to the floor while he's searching for something else?


I wish he'd had what I had growing up, the constant stream of family verses the unusual and difficult-to-understand-unless-you've-lived-it one-parent, one-child dynamic, which allows for a lot more intensity than people with spouses and/or other children can possibly understand. But what we have is what we have, and looking through the memory book/s, I feel a sense of love and pride...because while it is different than my own childhood in nearly every possibly way, it's still pretty doggone good. He’s looked at his books many times now, wanting me to tell what was happening in each photo, or tell him how old he was, or what happened to the toy he had in that picture, where are the people now who were with us in this picture? There is so much, within these books, to look at, talk about, and remember.


 “It goes by so fast,” he says, of Christmas, now that we’re boxing up all the decorations, and the hype has subsided to a dull roar, and he's eaten most of the gingerbread house that we made just yesterday morning.


“Remember that,” I tell him as I wrap another nutcracker doll in tissue paper. “Because it certainly does.”

Friday, December 21, 2012

Downtime

A friend called this morning to tell me about an interesting article she'd read. "I know you enjoy thinking about philosophical things," she said, and then proceeded to tell me about how the author of this article makes the claim that being busy all the time is, in actuality, a form of laziness. "He implies that we stay busy as possible mentally and physically," she said, "so we don't have to actually think."


As I listened to her phone call, I was loading dishes into the washer, had a load of clothes going, lunch on the stove and was still wondering what I was going to do with the rest of the day once the immediate tasks were complete. This was Friday, day 3 of a two-week vacation. And good heavens, did I desperately need something to do, because since I walked out of school on Tuesday afternoon, at almost 5pm, I have done  nothing but think...

…and it's unsettling. Really. I believe the guy who wrote the article my friend referred to might be onto something. On the whole, my life is good, and I can't really complain. But at the same time, 2012 was not my easiest year. I handled the tough things in my favorite way - staying busy. Busy as a parent, busy as a teacher, busy here at home. Since summer ended, I have painted most of the walls of my house and did a faux-rock finish on my patio. I've caught up on home repairs, tackling most of them myself because I'd rather pick up hot coals than ask for help. I've completed a ridiculous amount of writing assignments and an insane amount of knitting projects. I've built Lego structures with my son that the company would probably patent if they saw. And that's just during the weekdays. The weekends become a whirlwind of activity, day trips and overnighters.



It’s a flow, and I’ve been going with it. Until now.

Life comes to a screeching halt somehow when the biggest demand of one’s time – work – is suddenly absent from the day. I’ve finished the holiday shopping. All of the presents are wrapped. I’ve not been asked to contribute anything to the Christmas dinner (huge surprise there, as my culinary skills are far from renown.) So there we go...all that actually needs doing is done. My son plays with friends and I sit, keeping watch. The sun dips behind a cloud, the wind scatters leaves, and my mind wanders. I call to my son, and we take a long walk in the woods we love. When we get to the pond, we sit a while. The geese we knew as eggs are adults now. We throw them bread. They know us on sight and come running when we appear. Next year, they’ll leave this place. Only the parents will remain. For some reason, this saddens me. Summer was long. The young geese are familiar.




“What’s the only constant in life?” I ask my son. “That things are always changing,” he responds. We go see The Hobbit. I love, love, love going to the movies, simple pleasure that it is, and I especially love seeing fantasy movies with my son, because as a child, these were my favorite films. Amazing scenery, storylines loaded with villains and heroes, traditions and histories and loyalties. In movies like The Hobbit, the loss of a friend is not something to be taken lightly. I think on this a while. But mostly, I think about the opening lines of the film, when the main character, Bilbo Baggens, is reflecting on his youth. “In those days I was always on time. I was completely respectable. And nothing unexpected ever happened."

I’m rarely ever on time. I think I’m respectable, or try at least I try to be, given my profession. But my life’s been full of the unexpected, one twist being that I’ve no real idea anymore what I want. Or rather, I know what I wanted, but I think I’ve pretty much blown all and any chance in hell of having it. So what now, I wonder, sitting outside on the longest night of the year. What does one do with hard-won knowledge?

I found out two days ago that a piece of my artwork was selected for use in an international datebook and calendar that is sold and distributed all over the world. I submitted to this back in summer, and had completely forgotten about it. I’ve loved this publication for years. It’s a tremendous honor to know my work, Mother/Child Song, will be in the 2014 edition.



But until the writing of this blog, I’ve only mentioned the accomplishment to 4 people. They congratulate me, not having any idea how competitive this process actually is, or that this year was the first time I had nerve to actually submit my work. I don’t make a big deal out of it…truth is, I dislike the spotlight and don’t desire it at all…something it’s taken me a long time to learn. I’d prefer to be behind the scenes, behind the curtain, watching someone else enjoy the spotlight. I don’t want the Oscar anymore…but I’d very much like to be thanked in the winner’s acceptance speech.

And that’s it. So simple, like most of my dreams always were. In my blind and passionate pursuit of them, I should have taken time to examine them more closely. At the beach, on my birthday, I picked up dry sand and watched the wind sift it out of my hands. One tiny, stubborn grain remained. I closed my fist around it. Hope, I thought to myself.  Try as I might, I could not let it go.

It’s dark, and I need to go inside. I don’t like thinking so much. I finish up knitting a hat, a clever design of my own, a hat altered so that it will fit my hair when I have it up in a bun.



I think about the handmade yarn swifter that I want so much. Then I remember Christmas Eve is in two days, and I’ve not done the holiday cleaning yet. So I start making a mental list of all the things tomorrow will involve…shampooing carpets, washing walls, getting our lovely home ready for the New Year.

I’m looking forward to it. There will be a sweet Zen to all the scrubbing, shining, and polishing we’ll do. Not to mention there likely won’t be a moment of downtime to dwell upon what tiny grains of hope remain and how they persist...even when nothing unexpected happens.



Wednesday, December 19, 2012

All I Want for Christmas......

I'm gonna skip over all the general things we all want, like world peace and causeless joy and unbridled happiness, and get right down to the gritty nitty. Because, let's face it, there is some special present that we all want, some 'thing' that we long for, some item that we want to see under the Christmas tree each year. It's different for everyone, which is good, because we are all different and it stands to reason that we won't all desire the same things. Last year, for me, it was a Keurig. Of course, I was far from the only person who desired it. Several of my friends desired - and recieved - them. And I did recieve mine, in time, from a most unlikely source (thanks again, Jan Smoak and family!!!) so I've learned to believe in the power of stating what one truly wants, in the moment you actually want it, to the universe...or at least the readers of your blog.

I want a swifter for yarn.
And I'm gonna be nice enough, right here, to post the instructions for making it. Because I want it to be handmade. There is no gift, to me, as precious as one made by hand. And I know it's not likely I'll get a handmade gift this year. I may get something expensive, I may get something that would make any woman's eyes light up with glee, but if you know me, really know me at all...you'll know how I might feel about something like that, deep down inside.

A gift that would make my eyes light up with glee would be this....right here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNSEXRRxOzQ

And not only  because I need it, desperately, as these new, unwound additions to my stash prove. I can't knit anything until these skeins are wound, and I can't keep calling my friend to loan me her swifter, and the hard plastic models the shops sale are ridiculously expensive and somehow un-natural. My friend's was made for her by hand. There is a natural sense to it, a thought behind how the pieces were fit together, how they curve and move in unison to make sense of tangled messes. With a swifter, I can blend two skiens, create different weights, and salvage messy, twisted, loose fibers into something useful, something that will eventually be beautiful and functional.

I want this. I want to sit at my table in the evening with a hot cup of coffee and engage in the repetitive, meditative work of winding yarn. To do this with a friend, while we talk and while the children play. I want this the same way I want to look out of my kitchen window and see a scene like the one in the first picture posted - sheep grazing on a field that is my own. But that's in the far off, work-towards future. The swifter is in the now. And it's got to be handmade, it's got to be the one gift I get this year that is from someone's heart, that expresses I, too, am worth the time and labor it takes to make, rather than simply buy, something. And I want to think of it's creator every time I use it. I want to be reminded there is no gift like one made for by hand. I want to run my fingers down the edges of the plain, sanded wood (because I love it unfinished) and feel my heart healing. I want to know wrongs can be righted, that fences can be mended, that in the end, love can and does conquer all.

I want to hear, or read,  "I made this for you," just once, instead of being the one to say or write it all the time. (The wonderful handmade gifts my child makes me, of course, are always precious and treasured...and a tradition I hope he'll continue, even when the time comes that he could easily buy a gift instead.)

So that's my Christmas wish...right here, again in case you missed it the first time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNSEXRRxOzQ

I hope my Christmas wish, and yours, comes true!!!

(and forgive any typos in this post. I'm writing from a non-typical location while being reminded every two seconds by an eager 8 year old that I'm supposed to be somewhere else....)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Need for Real

It was that Toyotathon commercial that got me thinking...the one where the young girl who is car-shopping refers to her 4, 076 friends.

"I'll be your friend!" the saleslady says.
"4,077!" the girl happily replies.

It's so easy these days, isn't it?

I remember reading somewhere that we are lucky in life if we find one real, true friend. I have over 300 friends on Facebook. At any given moment, I could log into the site and find some way to engage with another soul ‘out there.' There’s always someone to chat with, or a post I can offer some witty comment on, which will then generate a flurry of more comments that reading and responding to could easily be allowed to occupy my time for the better part of an evening.

Not.

With the exception of an occasional announcement or sharing a blog link, and of course the Fiber Goddi page created for my knitting group, I have pretty much disengaged from the Facebook community. It just, somehow, became too much.

“How can you live without Facebook?” a friend asked, wide-eyed and shaking her head. There was a time when I would have felt the same way if someone had told me they were pulling back. But I guess, for me, the novelty has just worn off. I’ve reached a point where I need to like things in real life. I shudder to think of time I’ve wasted scrolling through endless newsfeeds; the childishness of some of the discussions I’ve spent time and energy engaging in; and of course, the grand Pooh-Bah of social networking gestures – deleting/blocking those who offend me in some way.

But the most embarrassing and possibly grandest blunder that I fell victim to and have watched so many others succumb to as well is the bizarre need to offer unsolicited advice about living on a near continuous basis via wise and insightful status updates. My initial reasons for doing this were not without merit – I wanted to use the site to promote my art and writing. In other words, I had something to sell. I even took a course on using social networking to promote creative works. Image, image, image; it was all about the image. Always post something positive; be a guiding light; make people smile with your words. If they like you, they’ll want to buy what you are selling. They’ll want to be in your club. They’ll want a piece of your world.

And it worked. During the time I was very active on Facebook, I had a surge of art sales and more blog hits than ever before. But the truth I finally realized is who on this earth can honestly make the claim that they know more about living than someone else? We know how to live our own lives, based on our own values and our own experiences, but do we have any right to tell someone who has not asked that they are doing it wrong? I don’t think so. Although people enjoyed my posts and often shared them, liked them, and/or commented on them, there was no small amount of pretention on my part for believing I was somehow responsible for and/or capable of bestowing knowledge onto other folks. Perhaps I have some insight to offer - everyone does to some extent - but it is highly unlikely I needed to offer it to 300+ people on a daily basis.

“Facebook is my connection to the world,” another friend says. “If that site closed down, my entire social circle would crumble because all my old friends are in different places these days. It’s the only way we can keep up. I can let them all know something at once, it’s so much easier than before!” I refrained from suggesting that she make the effort to cultivate new friendships where she is living now. I also refrained from telling her that I still find time to write letters by hand to my oldest friends, find time to mail them and even time to pick up the phone on occasion and make a call. I have come to believe that while social networking might have a viable place in society, it often displaces by making it oh-so-easy to sacrifice the intimacy of close friendships with a few people for the ease of communicating simultaneously with dozens and dozens of people. What might take time, effort, and energy to have done before – maintain friendships despite being busy; miles apart; or in new phases of life – is reduced to a simple 'comment' that can keep hundreds of our closest friends up to date about our lives.We are able maintain cool online personas, cultivate new friendships and maintain old ones without having to put any real, actual effort into it. We can be social without actually making the effort to be social. In the virtual communication world, we can hide so much, because there is no body language, no eye contact. We are in complete control of how close people can get. We can control who sees what of our lives and how much of it they see. We can be friends with our friends' friends, friends with our frenemies, even friends with our friends’ frenemies.

Wonderful, right?

I, for one, am not so sure.

I have come to realize that while social networking has a place in most of our lives, perhaps we should consider how big of a space it is allowed to occupy. I want what is real. I need what is real. I do not want my friends to see me as a wisdom-spouting profile pic, but actually see me, even if in means seeing me in my home, wearing my weekend uniform of yoga pants and tank top, spreading peanut butter onto toast and talking about my simple little dream of buying enough acres of land to graze a few sheep and maybe have a big garden with a trellis for honeysuckle vines and a gazebo someone built for me by hand. I want to see a real person when I am talking, to use my voice, to laugh out loud and someone hear it, to look into my friends’ eyes when we speak, to know that I am the focus of their attention, not wonder if they are really present in our conversation or are simultaneously conversing with 5 other people. I want to actually host people at my home, to use my fancy wine glasses and new patio furniture. When I have good news, I want to call someone and share it with them, so they might know how special they are by my taking time to connect instead of making a blanket statement in a status update and hoping they see it. When I make a really cool display outside the wall of my classroom (while my son sits in the hall and completes his homework for the entire week, hooray!!), I want to share my picture of the scene with people who actually know me and will smile at what I created because they know I miss Northern winters. I want a real, actual letter to curl up in bed with and read on a cold evening, and I want to write a real letter in response to it, on colorful stationary to be mailed in an envelope with floral swirls. I want a phone call from a friend, not a wall post from a near-stranger, wishing me Happy Birthday. I want to enjoy events without feeling compelled to step out of the event in order to post on Facebook that I am participating in the event, which will lead to my constantly being taken out of the event by a flurry of comments asking about the event.

Most importantly, I want to simply live my life, in the best way I know how to live my life, without any need to tell others how I am living my life or how they should be living thier lives. I am no longer willing to sacrifice intimacy of deep commucation for the ease of constant communication. Is it necessary to tell 300+ people all at once that my son lost a tooth or that I am pursuing a new certification so that I can teach in a different subject area? No. I only need to tell the ones who truly, actually care about us what is happening in our lives. And I need to take the time, effort and energy to do this properly, because I have come to realize it's always worth it. I believe the connections we make to others are what define who we become. We are born into a family, but our friendships are completely of our choosing. They take some degree of work to cultivate and maintain. They can be messy. They can ebb and flow as we grow in different directions. They can bring us joy and hurt, they can teach us things about life and about ourselves that we might not have learned any other way. And they exist and continue with or without the element of social networking thrown in.

They have to.

Otherwise, one might begin to wonder if they ever existed at all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For the Love of Lammy...

He came from nowhere, as the best things in life often do. One day he wasn’t there, the next day he was, simple as that. But to say we got off to a rough start was an understatement…he came in like a hurricane, chasing my other three cats, battling with them at night, and hanging out on the edge of the woods, watching my son and I when we were in the yard like a predator waiting to strike.


“Go away,” I’d stomp my foot and shout when I caught him terrorizing my little female kitties. He’d bolt like lightening, his black-bottomed feet disappearing through the trees. Then one day, he stopped running. “Go away,” I’d stomp, but he’d just yawn and bathe himself. I’d walk closer, and he’d rise slowly, never taking his eyes off me, and then slink off when I got too close.

I called the Humane Society and asked to borrow a trap one spring day when he’d been particularly brazen and refused to disengage from fighting with Sage, a rescue kitty who is handicapped. Now anyone who knows me knows that to say I am an animal lover is just putting it mildly. As a child, I greatly preferred the company of animals to people to such an extent my parents were actually concerned. I’d rather have spent my day in the woods with the family dog than have a play date with a classmate; that was just me. As an adult, I still prefer the company of animals to people at times. I’ve been blessed in life with some wonderful animal experiences and connections. I’ve done wildlife rehabilitation and rescue as well as domestic animal rehab and rescue (I once heard about an abused cat, went to the owner’s house, talked loudly and articulately and demanded they give up the cat or I’d go to authorities. I walked out with the animal in hand, then got the hell out of Dodge before they had a chance to consider doing to me what had been done to a 4lb animal – malnourishment, a broken jaw, wax burn marks, and a respiratory infection that required massive doses of antibiotics.)

But I’d had enough of this big grey bully, so I made the call. I am now extremely grateful that the Humane Society doesn’t loan traps anymore. Everything I’m about to write would never have happened if they had.

In my mind, the big grey tabby was a mean, feral nuisance. That was the only side of himself that he’d shown since he appeared in my life on a cold winter day. Then, on a cool June morning, I walked outside to feed my cats, and there he was, at the dish. Just sitting.

He didn’t run. He didn’t hiss. Instead, he looked at me and meowed. Tentatively, so tentatively, I knelt down, slowly reached out, and touched his fur. Of course, he immediately pulled away, and so we began a dance that would go on for much of that week. By the end of it, he had a name – Lammy, short for Lamington Deer, and he had established himself firmly in not only our home, but our hearts.


He wasn’t feral at all. He understood simple commands and responded to kitty talk. The second week he was ‘tame’; I tricked him into the cat carrier and took him to be neutered. I worried this act would violate the trust I’d been working so hard to build; it didn’t. During his convalescence, I attempted to make him an inside cat, but he wasn’t having it. Amazingly, he was house-trained rather than litter-box trained. Each morning, he’d wake me before dawn to go outside. I would stand by the door and wait, and within a few minutes, he was back, ready for breakfast. When I pulled into my drive each afternoon, he was there by the door, waiting.



It was a beautiful thing. Each day we grew to love him more. My son called him his ‘brother,’ and I called him my ‘soul kitty’. He had the freedom to go outside, where he loved to be, but spent much of his time indoors, with us. Although he never became too chummy with my other cats, he did mellow out considerably (neutering has that effect!) and they existed in a state of feline truce, giving each other considerable space.

We, however, did not give Lammy space. We enveloped him with love, and he ate it up. He had obviously had owners, once. But what had transpired to lead him to our door, we never questioned. “He could have gone to anyone, but he came to us,” I’d tell my son. And we were so grateful. His role in our family was that of an equal member. When we went on vacations, I’d check in with my neighbor near continuously to make sure he was okay. My friends teased me about Lammy, how much I adored him. But they adored him as well; it was impossible not to.

My son would often tease me about taking Lammy with him when he grew up and moved out. “Oh no,” I’d say, “Lammy stays here.”

And in all honesty, I believed that he would stay here, forever.

But it wasn’t to be. I was at work when I got the call. My father had came by my house to drop off some kale from the garden and seen a big grey tabby cat, killed in the road. He was almost 100% sure it was Lammy, so he moved him from the road to a safe spot where I could identify the body later. My heart fell to the floor. No, I thought. No, no, no, Lammy doesn’t go to the road. He just stays around the house, or in the garden. He lies under the eggplant bushes, or by the front door. He doesn’t go to the road, ever. Quickly, I contacted my neighbor. “It doesn’t look like him,” she said. “It’s too fluffy. Like a bigger cat or animal.”

But somehow, deep down inside, I knew that my father would not have taken such care to put the body in a safe spot and contact me at work unless he believed that it was Lammy. He knew how much I loved that cat, how much my son loved that cat. When school ended, I sat Eric down, and told him what had happened. Tough as it would be, I believed he deserved to know the truth. We drove home, praying ardently that my neighbor was right and that my father was wrong.

At home, we walked to the place where the body lay. For an instant, I thought it was a raccoon, or rather, had convinced my mind to see a raccoon (as if my woodsman father would confuse a raccoon with a cat!) but the black bottomed feet ruled out all doubt. And in that moment, our hearts broke wide open. I carried him to the back yard, my son in tears beside me. I did not try to hide my own. My only solace was that the injuries were ‘clean’, there was no external damage and death would have been instantaneous. Still, I’d rather someone else have been there to lift him up, carry him back across the road, to my yard, and dig the hole for burial. I wanted to be in the house, distancing myself from this reality, the way my mother used to do when we lost a family pet. My life, however, has been nothing like my mother’s. With my son weeping beside me, I dug the hole, and then placed the body in the ground.

When our dog died two years before, my son took total part in the burial process, helping to dig the hole and cover the body with dirt. His tears came later, when we got home and the emptiness of the house was too much. But he is older now; he understands better now both the depths of loving another creature and the finality of death. His grief was overwhelming, as was mine. The house, again, seems empty.


Now an angel cat statue and a flower pot sit atop the spot of ground where Lammy rests. Nearly a week later, I still shed tears at some point every day. I miss him the most at night, and on lazy mornings. Lammy brought us so much joy, and so many lessons about the unexpected. His surly demeanor I discovered was merely a front for fear; it melted completely with a little love and affection, and he became one of the dearest animals I’ve ever had the privilege to love. His time with us was short, only a year and a half, but the memories we made will last a lifetime. He taught me to look beyond first impressions and surly demeanors, to be careful what assumptions I might make, to give something a chance to come around to kindness in it's own time, and to remember almost every creature simply needs to feel safe before it can feel loved. Lammy came to us, when he could have went to anyone. I'll not forget that blessing. Nothing happens without purpose.

“My heart is starting to heal back again,” my son says to me this morning. “When I think of Lammy now, I can do it and not cry.”

“Good,” I say. “That’s the place you want to be in.”

I’m hoping I get there soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Zen and the Art of...

Swifting.
Or should I say, living.


I think, after 39 years, I still know so little about the latter. I wake up to thunder showers, which I love. But they evoke a melancholy that I will likely struggle with for the remainder of the day.

It's okay; it's been a long time coming. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted from feelings I did not want to confront by immersing myself in the pleasure of beautiful whirls and swirls and words and promises and surprises and smiles and the warm, lovey-dovey dream-being-fulfilled feelings that events of the last few months have conjured. I cruised through August, September and October with a smile that could guide a ship to shore, so bright it was.

There is a funny thing about being hurt, though. When you don’t acknowledge the pain, it festers like a neglected wound. You can distract yourself completely from the horrible way someone else made you feel, but it unless you finally confront it, acknowledge it, and accept that maybe, just maybe, everyone else was right about them and you were wrong, the hurt feelings are going to keep coming back again and again, rising up when you least expect it. Like the venomous snake on the floor of my home recently, waiting for me when I stepped through the door, catching me so off guard I almost made an impulsive decision that could have been quite costly, hurt feelings that catch us by surprise have the potential to bite. Hard.

But here is the thing about snakes - faster than the speed of light is their strike. We don’t even know we’ve been bitten until we see the blood. The pain comes later, as the poison settles in, getting worse and worse as time progresses. It paralyzes the muscles, all the way from the site of the bite to the heart. It's not an easy thing to endure, and yet, knowing this, all of this, there is still, inside of me, some botched idea that if I approach from the right direction, move in the right way, if the snake knows that my intention is not to harm, that it won’t bite me.

But it I am not the snake whisperer. I've got the scars to prove that snakes strike out in self-defense, even if your intentions are good.

I close my eyes, listening to the sound of rain hitting the windows. There is a sweet, sweet sadness to the start of this day. I’ve been running away from how I feel for a long time, and I’m not sure anymore about the direction I’m heading. The worst part is no one can show me, and I’ve lost confidence in my own ability to tell. Now I’m just riding the wave of it all, seeing what happens, and feeling numbness inside more than anything else. I flow through my morning asanas, reminding myself to breathe. Breath in your feelings, my mind says. Breathe through them, and let them go.

My friend Eddy tells Cherokee stories to children at school, and I listen with the same rapt attention that they give him. I’ve heard this one many times before, the tale of a young man fooled by a rattlesnake. It’s a long story, but in short, the snake begs the boy to pick him up and put him in his shirt, because it is so cold and without warmth the snake will die. Because the boy wants to believe the snake is good, he picks it up and tucks it into the folds of his shirt. When he feels the sting of the snake’s bite, he’s startled. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me,” the boy cries.

“But you knew what I was when you picked me up,” the snake says as it slithers off into the night.

The kids love the story. I wonder, however, if they really understand it. Probably not right now. In twenty years, maybe...

Yesterday evening, a friend came over, and we swifted some skeins of yarn in preparation for holiday projects. I enjoyed the friendly banter and the calming repetitiveness of the work, but it was the feel of natural fibers in my hands that I found the most soothing. This connection to the natural world evoked the same healing that spending time outdoors has always given me. There is some spectacular beauty to sitting at a kitchen table, as women 100 years ago or more might have done, swifting yarn while children played in the neighboring rooms. My friend’s swifter was handmade for her by someone she knows. I cannot imagine a more beautiful gift than one like this, made by hand. Even though it isn’t mine, I’m sad to see it go when she leaves. Something about using that simple instrument seemed to free me just a little from the heaviness that’s been resting where it shouldn’t. It seemed to make laughter a little easier, to make life a little better in some small way. My swifted skeins of yarn sit ready in the basket to be transformed into beautiful things. I am the alchemist of this fiber, I will make with it what I like, and it will simply form to my wishes. Perhaps this is what I love most about the craft; it is the one small area in life where I begin something with the end in mind. Knitting follows patterns; it actually makes sense. Life...not so much.

I’ve heard it said that we may forget what another person says or does, but we will never, ever forget how they made us feel. This is so true. The idealist in me wants to live in a way that lifts others up, but the realist in me has learned that this attitude will not keep others from bringing me down, or even knocking me down. Still, the dreamer in me wants to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, I am not a fool to care as much as I do, whether it is about people or snakes. Sometimes those lines get blurred anyway.

I’m ecstatic; my son has learned to tie his shoes. He’ll soon be another year older. We plan the party. Time passes, mercifully healing all wounds as it marches on.

It is the only thing that does.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A World of Value

Yesterday, I spent the entire morning and afternoon painting...
...my home, that is. It's been long overdue, and I was just in the mood for the mini-vacation that redecorating can sometimes be. I was ecstatic by the way the dry-brush technique looked, and inspired to take a bold leap of color with some red paint I had left over from another project. My son had a friend over and they sat at the table for hours, engaged in building a Lego city. Periodically, he came to check my progress. A lover of beauty, his eyes widened when he saw me painting the door red. "Oh, Mama, our house is the most beautiful of all," he said. I smiled.

When a friend called later, and asked what I was doing, I answered, "Painting."
"Oh I'm glad to hear that," she said. "It's about time you started a new painting." For a moment, I didn't respond. Then I simply said, "I'm painting my bathrooms and hallway, not a canvas." "Oh," she said, and shifted the conversation to the reason for her call.

The previous weekend, in a second hand store shopping for new reading material to have on hand for the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, I discovered a little gem called The Wisdom of the Elders, a collection of quotes by esteemed African American women and men compiled by Robert Fleming. The book's cover, featuring a linocut by artist Elizabeth Catlett, caught my eye, and I opened up to a random page to find a quote by Jean Toomer called, 'A World of Value."

"I must see my understandings produce results in human experience. Productivity is my first value. I must make and mold and build life. As an artist, I must shape human relationships. To me, life itself is the greatest material. I would far rather form a man than form a book. My whole being is devoted to making my small area of expertise a work of art. I am building a world."

To that, Fleming had added, "Novelist Jean Toomer, noted for his classic work Cane, wrote about the need to elevate the purpose of our lives above the usual pursuit of the dollar. Blind materialism rarely offers us the kind of positive outlets that allow us to tap into the totality of who we are. How many of us work for forty years without stopping to cultivate human relationships outside of the family or workplace?

It's not enough to fill our homes with pretty or costly things. We must be conscious of how we live, the colors we use on the canvases of our lives. We must open ourselves up to new experiences, new adventures, and new friendships. We must free ourselves from the prison of ego and habit and reshape our ideas of who we are.

The artful life begins when we take hidden dreams within us and bring them to life. Life as art affirms the best that is in us.

My life is a work of art."

Of course, I bought the book.
For months now, I've made it a point to do a variety of things that, for odd reasons, I've always wanted to do but hadn't. Small things. Visiting The Rock House, a local landmark that inspires much legend and lore. Wrapping my hair up in a beautiful scarf, gypsy style. Painting all of my doors red. Making Baba Ganoush from scratch. Going to the beach on my birthday weekend, staying at an ocean front hotel and diving into the sea on the morning of my birth. Seeing The Angel Oak Tree. Taking my son to a Renaissance Festival. Attending a knitting retreat, and mastering the most complicated pattern I've encountered since I first picked up my needles. The list goes on and on, but in order to do all of these new and wonderful things, I've had to lay down ego and habit and reshape my own ideas of who I am.

For years I spent my evenings alone with brushes and paint. I’m not sure what I was ultimately going for, but I was disciplined as hell. If I wasn't painting, I was writing. When I wasn't doing either of those things, I was thinking of what I could be painting or writing. What I wasn't always doing, however, was living. I'm sad to say there was a time when most of my friendships were maintained via email or text. I was just too busy to give any real, actual time to anyone...or was I? Truth is, I was no busier then than I am now. My priorities were simply skewed. I had, along the way, forgotten that it is pretty dang hard to paint about life, or write about life, if you aren't actually living your life. Whether it is big things or small, if you don't step away from time to time and allow yourself new friendships, new adventures, and new experiences, your subject matter becomes redundant...just like life.

This morning, as I went downstairs for coffee, I had to smile at the gazillion jillion coffee cups and wine glasses and tiny little saucers that were strewn all about my den and kitchen. It was a nice time, last night, as coffee gave way to wine and later back to coffee and there was laughter and friendship and my son, maturing by leaps and bounds every day, saying goodnight to everyone and putting himself to bed on his own, and the ones who left early and the ones who stayed later and the one who stayed longest and the talk we had as we tidied up the remnants of foods from the kitchen table. This was no Saturday evening alone, laboring over a canvas, trying to express the same idea in a new way while trying to keep alive a skeleton of a social life through texts and social networking. I've had enough evenings like that to do me for a long, long time. And while I'm still passionate about creating, I'm more passionate now about living. Fully. In the moment. I still have goals, but they are not the same as they were before. And that's okay.

I want to tell my friend, who for some reason needs to compartmentalize me as a painter only and is oddly bothered I'm not showing or making art right now, that change is the only thing in life that is a constant, no matter else what we try to hold on to. I want to tell her that writing is the only creative constant that I've never ebbed and flowed with, and that every experience I live becomes words in my head that I store for future reference, that even if I'm not talking about it, I'm working on the new story everyone's been asking about, only I'm doing it slowly, because I've got a life to live and child to raise and people to love and things to grow and make and mornings to spend on my patio with coffee listening to the birds sing and evenings to watch the sky turn dim, and then release its burst of stars, while I breath in deeply the night air and watch the foxes slip out of their hidden dens. I want to tell her that there is no hurry. That there is time. And that time is now. And it will all be as it's meant to be, so long as I remain strong and focused on what I know I want for my life. I do not buckle under what I've seen take down so many others - fear and the need to control. Or maybe fear of the loss of control. Or maybe just fear.


Gone now are the tiniest remnants of doubt that still lived in me. Life is nothing without risks, big or small. Sometimes the smallest risk takes the most courage. I write a lot about '20 seconds of insane courage,' a line I loved from movie I saw months ago. But in truth, courage isn't something that can be suddenly mustered up in a matter of seconds. It's simply something that is in us...or not. It took courage for me to step away from the habits, routine and ego associated with the way I'd lived for so long, to throw away familiarity and embrace new, untried ideas about living fully, in the moment. I want to tell my friend that living fully is a totally relevant thing, relevant to the person who is doing the living. In the end, only we know if our lives are what we want them to be. From the outside looking in, others see what they are conditioned to see. They interpret our lives based on their own experiences. This is not the gauge we should use to assess how we're doing; that mistake can be fatal to our spirits. Only we know what truths lay behind the words we write, the statuses we post, the pictures that can make even the most dysfunctional situation seem idyllic. Only we know if enough courage lies within us to seek our treasure, whatever and where ever it may be.

I want to tell my friend that I'm painting my house, not a canvas, because this is where I live right now, and it should be as beautiful as it can possibly be. That my red door makes me deliriously happy every time I see it, and that the piece of plant I found on the balcony of the hotel at the beach is growing just like I knew it would.
I want to tell her all of this and more, but I don't, because I know she won't understand. I'm not painting, haven’t since late summer, and she's determined to find out why. But I can’t tell her. I can only write this, hope she sees it, and understands.

.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Good Fortune

There are moments in my life when my child endears himself to me even more. As close as we are, as much as I already treasure him, I find it impossible to imagine something could make me love him even more. Then it does, and I stop the world for as long as I can, so I savor the moment.


Trick-or-treating last night in my hometown, my son was given a fortune cookie by the local Chinese restaurant. This was something new to him; we don’t eat Chinese food. I have nothing against it, mind you. I actually rather enjoy it…or, I did, but my body has decided, in the past year, to refuse to accept most of the foods I used to enjoy. I already do not eat meat. I gave up dairy some time ago. And now I’m forced to enjoy a wheat/gluten-free diet as well. This basically means I eat like a rabbit, which actually isn’t too bad once you get used to it and has a quite fabulous effect on one's energy level and figure. But my son and I have never been ‘foodies.’ I’m quick to tell people that dinner is not a big deal in our house. We eat to stay alive, not as a social activity. And as the saying goes, we ‘Simply eat. Not a lot. Mostly plants.’ When a friend got me involved with community gardening this summer, it opened up a whole new world of food to my son, because certain things – like eggplants – just flourished in abundance and had to be eaten as such. Also, he had his own row of crops to tend, and there was a certain magic to eating what he knew he’d grown and planted himself.

But back to the fortune cookie…I’m not sure why it delighted him so much. His fortune inside was pretty generic - you will soon be the recipient of good news – but he held on to it like he’d been given a gold doubloon. As I write this, I can still see him walking there beside me, his full bucket of goodies in one hand, his little slip of fortune held tightly in the other. “I’m not going to lose my fortune, Mama,” he said. Every so often, he’d stop and look at it again. We had parked at my parents home and walked the mile or so to town, been on our feet steadily for hours doing the candy rounds, and were walking back when he asked, “Mama, what is a fortune actually?”

By this time, his candy bucket was about half-full. Not because he’d eaten it, no. It was because he’d steadily given away his candy to children in line who were just arriving and did not have as much in their buckets. I celebrated this silently, but after many, many instances of him giving candy away, I finally stopped and told him he was making me very proud.

“What?” he said. “It’s just fair, I have already gotten so much and they didn’t have any yet.”

These are the moments I want to stop the world for, the moments when I see glimpses of who my son really is, who he is going to be, and my own good fortune to be the mother of a child who would so easily give away what he’d stood in line two hours to receive. In these moments, I recall others - how he packed a favorite stuffed animal into his book-bag so he could give it to a child in his classroom who was returning to school that day after being sick. The day he suggested, while at the grocery store, that we also buy food for my elderly grandmother and take it to her. How, on his own, he picked wildflowers on Mother’s Day for all the Mothers that we know. And recently, while out having lunch, when a friend jokingly asked if he could have some of his pizza, and my son pushed his plate towards him, saying, “You can have as much as you want.” My friend was amazed and a little embarrassed. “I was only teasing,” he said.

“No, have some,” my son replied. “It’s really good. Try it.”
Looking back at my little boy, I smiled. He is but a child, after all. A child who asked, what is a fortune?

“A fortune is the knowledge of what might happen in the future,” I told him. “But it’s also all the good stuff you have in life right now.”

“Like this candy?” he asked, holding up his bucket.

“Well, in some way. But really it’s more like all the other stuff. Friends, family, love, Lammy (our cat), our home, that we live by the woods, that we are happy and healthy and have all the things we need, that we are here, together, right now…you know…all the blessings.”

“Can we really tell what’s going to happen in the future?” he asks.

“Kind of. Well, most of the time. We create the future with our choices. It’s not something predestined that happens to us, many things will happen to us in our lives, good and bad things. It’s how we react to them that really determines what will be,” I say. “And how willing we are to really work for whatever it is that we want. So in a way, that fortune is true, because there is always going to be some good news that comes. But there’s going to always be bad news, too." I say. “But, remember the future is not what we worry about. It’s not guaranteed or promised to us. All we have is the moments we’re in, like right now. That’s what matters most. That's what we need to give our attention to, the moments. We can waste a lot of life worrying about what might or might not happen in a future that might or might not happen. Be in the moment. I think this is a real good one, don’t you?”

He shrugs, his eyes focused on the small slip of paper. “I’m not gonna lose my fortune,” he repeats. I smile at the way he holds the paper in his small fist. “I’m gonna save it forever.”

Then he stops walking, frowns a little. He didn’t want to dress up for this round of trick or treating, as we’d both dressed up extensively for a Halloween celebration the night before. And I didn’t force him, as it honestly made no difference to me. Kids need to make some choices for themselves, especially when it comes to spending hours walking around in a hot, itchy costume or just wearing one's regular clothes. A werewolf passed us by, followed by a clown, and I thought maybe the look on his face was because he regretted his choice not to put on the medieval Viking king ensemble he’d worn the night before. But I was wrong.

“Mama, I really don’t want all this candy. Will you be mad if I give the rest of it away?”

“No, love,” I responded. “It’s yours to do with as you wish.”

I didn’t tell him how glad I really was that he didn’t want to run home and eat as much of it as he could. Nor did I complain that we’d spent basically two hours on a quest for something he was now just going to give away. We have often labored, in some capacity, for something we were simply going to give away. I’ve demonstrated to him that there is a sacred beauty in doing something for purposes beyond self-gratification. And I’ve always been practical with him when it comes to unhealthy foods like candy. He knows what it means to be sick. He knows unhealthy food is the primary thing that makes us sick. This is a battle I don’t have to fight in my house, and for that, I’m so grateful, because every Halloween, he ends up giving away 90% of the candy collected.

At home, he pulls out a few select pieces for himself and we put the rest in a basket. We will take the basket to the Soup Kitchen, where we’ve donated many things before. He adds all the candy from his class party and a wrapped cookie he’d saved from a boxed lunch the day before. “Those kids will be so happy to get this,” he smiles. “And I certainly don’t need it all.”

I love my child beyond measure. I love our life here, the intense bond we share, and the way we live. And I also love all the wonderful things that are happening for us right now. I take his fortune and put it on the refrigerator, slipping it into a photo of the two of us on the coast of the Baltic Sea.

What is a fortune? It’s knowledge of what might happen in the future. But mostly, it’s all the good stuff that you have, in your life, right now. Which is all that matters, really. What you have right now.

Celebrate it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Eve and the Serpent...again

In mid-conversation with neighbors, I stepped into the hallway to put down some items still left in my car from a trip to the beach two weeks ago. As I lowered them to the floor, a movement caught my eye. For a few seconds, I was frozen there, staring at the snake inside of my house. Sprawled across the hallway floor, he looked up at me.
I knew his kind. I knew those patterns along his back, his diamond-shaped head, and the way his body thickened in the middle. I knew the pose he coiled into almost instantly upon seeing me there. In the wild, I back away. I'm on their turf. I have never killed a venomous snake in the wild. That is our agreement. In return, they stay away from my property. If they don't, all bets are off.

I've dealt with many serpentine encounters, having long sought the company of the forest as a refuge from the wildness of daily life. Once, jumping across a creek, I dislodged a bed of over-wintering snakes from a pile of debris. About 30 of them were suddenly visible, writhing there together in the creek below. I got out of there fast. I've lifted king snakes and black snakes with sticks to move them from where they lie sunning on walking trails. I've said hello to them as they peer down at me from tree branches. I've quickly passed by copperheads coiled in brush; and I once helped cut free a moccasin caught by a fisherman's wire. These are natural, normal encounters with serpents that don't bother me.

But in my front hallway? That rattled even me. I hate surprises. And I'm using the word hate lightly here...

Keeping the snake in sight, I stepped outside and asked my son to get me the garden hoe or small shovel. Curious, he asked why. Honest with him always, I gave the reason. But he's had his own encounters with snakes, and stood wide eyed, scared, and unable to move. The neighbor’s son found what I was looking for, and I turned towards the snake. "Sorry, little brother," I said.

Later I let the neighborhood kids have a good look from a safe distance. "Don't pick these guys up," I say. "Don't go anywhere near them." My son, scarred from his spring encounter, did not need this lesson. He held back, watching me. And I thought of my own childhood, my own mother, how she would call for my father in the event of emergencies such as this one. On the phone, she chastised me for killing the snake myself instead of going to a neighbor’s husband for help. "Oh, please, there wasn't time to even consider that," I said. Not to mention that it never, ever even entered my mind to do it.

Still I wonder about the image of me killing the snake, then discarding its remains, will affect my son in years to come. I wonder what he will grow to expect a woman to be capable of. I think of women like my mother, secure with a partner for so long that it doesn't even occur to them to handle a task themselves. It is too late now for me to ever adopt that persona, for far too long I've been my own hero. Still, my son's memory of me walking to the creek with a decapitated snake hanging from the end of a hoe is quite different than my own memory of my mother pulling her feet up into a chair, calling out for my father because she saw a mouse in the house.

How does each memory affect our interpretation of what a woman should be? I'd like to think about this more, to write about it, to pontificate with peers and scholars and explore the concepts and realities created by the absence of Adam, but sadly, I need to be at work soon.

There isn't even time to consider it.


Apologizing to Serpents

A flash of reddish brown diamonds
amongst the clover
and my heart stops
I can smell the venom
I am death, the serpent seems to say
Perhaps not to you
but to the child behind you
who plays
at striking distance.

I don’t make a move
or sound
My spade is in my hand
My son is five
Curious age
And he plays
at striking distance.

Copperheads are quick
but I am faster
My spade meets flesh and bone
In an instant
Eve slays the serpent
before there is a chance
for the world to come undone.
Later, as I cover my deed with dirt
I remember the serpent’s protest
as its life ended
And I wonder if there might have been another way
Everything desires to live
and what was its sin, really?

But in the absence of Adam
Eve must be swift.
Her shoulders sag at times
from a weight that should be shared.

Still, death does not stalk my house tonight
I sleep with my spade in my hand
and wake up
feeling strong.



Saturday, October 20, 2012

Harvesting Acorns, Coehlo and Insane Courage

I’m gathering a bucket of acorns…I do this every year. I can’t tell you why, but it’s a ritual I’ve completed for as long as I can remember. I love the way they look, all shiny with their rough little caps. As a child I popped the caps and made them into gnome hats. I used to do this with my son, too, when he was younger. We made acorn wreaths, donated acorns to wildlife rehabilitation centers, stored them until mid-winter and then put them out for hungry squirrels. I thought to make Cherokee acorn fritters last year, remembering their sweet taste, but then remembered fritters are deep-fried, and I don’t eat that way these days. And my son, almost eight now, isn’t so keen on gnome hats or making acorn wreaths for our doors anymore. Though he eagerly helped me at first, (ever so discerning, not accepting any acorn with even the most insignificant flaw), he abandoned me immediately when a friend came outside carrying a baseball bat and glove. I watch them only for a moment, thinking – or rather, knowing – this is actually a good thing, and then I resume my task. They practice hitting and pitching while I pick the ground clean and think about the coming seasons. The weather is perfect, just a little cool.


It is because of the evening’s coolness that I am wearing a jacket, the jacket of a man whose words I have both found and lost myself in since our paths crossed years ago. As I move, I catch a whiff of his scent, still lingering on the fabric, and smile. I expected, back in summer, to be picking up acorns from underneath the large oak in my backyard come fall. But I didn’t expect I’d find myself warm in the jacket of a man I once asked to stop communicating with me because it was just too painful to remain friends.

He returned to my world as summer was first beginning to fade, the words “It’s been a long time” catching me off guard as I stepped outside. I had to sit down, there on the curb, in front of my house, and breathe. I was dealing with a loss I hadn’t anticipated; confusion about my profession and pending return to work; and struggling with ideas about what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life. His timing was perfect, because a month earlier, even a week earlier, I might not have responded with, “Yes, too long.” I might not have responded at all.

We don’t analyze this now. Divine timing has its own reasoning. As I load the acorn bucket, I think of a line from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. “If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return.”

When you leave someone, however, it takes courage to risk a return. Tremendous courage. And what did this man find on his return into my life? We’re not sure yet, and that’s okay. The past few months have brought a slew of talk, words, actions, thoughts, openness and forgiveness, but no promises…we are much wiser now. Things unfold as they are meant to, and there are lessons every step of the way. We hurry nothing. We take time. We see the beauty in moments we wanted to rush through years ago, an impulsive time when we could only see the destination, not the journey. We could only think of immediate gratification, not the whole of what we could become in time.

A heavy silver bracelet circles my wrist, a sparkling star dangling from it. My birthday gift, from a man I thought I’d never speak to (or about) again. It makes me smile when the gems on the star catch the waning sunlight. He knows my love of the night sky; he remembers my enthusiasm over things like super-moons, white rainbows, and meteor showers. It is nice to have the things you love be regarded with wonder instead of disdain. It is nice to be reminded that one is worth pursuing, that you are worth someone else taking a risk for. And it seems surreal, me dancing so lightly before all this magic that is happening. I never expected it, and that’s part of the beauty. And I wonder, can something that was so glorious possibly be even better a second time around? No, don’t think of the future, I remind myself. Be in the moment, in the now. You are friends again, you are close again, and right now, it is enough. Let it unfold. Breathe. Be. I push aside leaves and find fat acorns hidden there. I am in this beautiful fall day, with the sun warm on my face, my child happy and thriving, and my heart healed, full as the bucket of acorns I hold.

I don’t know what I’ll do with them, but we don’t always have an immediate need for what we gather. When I read The Alchemist years ago, it changed my life. Overwhelmed by the power of its content, I looked to Coelho’s words for answers when life posed questions. I used his wisdom to embolden me, and I thought, or hoped, his tale of Santiago’s journey would mirror my own somehow. But I’ve traveled halfway around the world and back, faced storms of sand, became the wind, seen life become lead and this lead again become gold, and finally – finally – learned that I’ve always possessed the wisdom, passion and courage Coelho’s words inspire. I am the Alchemist, I possess the power to transform and be transformed. I just needed to realize it.

And while The Alchemist and Coehlo's other works continue to resonate strongly with me, I don’t think my tale will ever mirror Santiago’s. The treasure dangling from my wrist came from a place that is nowhere close to my backyard. If I choose to pursue it, my journey is just beginning. But I am not one to wade about in indecision; having lived half my life already, I know there is no time for mulling over 'what ifs?' We know whether or not we want a thing the second it presents itself, and 20 seconds of insane courage are all we need to reach out and take it. 20 seconds of insane courage can chart a course of action that will change our lives forever. 20 seconds is all it took for this person to extend an olive branch to me.

And it took less seconds, but possibly more courage, for me to respond.