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My Word for 2017

Last night when I had finished writing in my gratitude journal, I took the pen and scrawled one word on the back of my left hand: WRITE. By the time I rolled out of bed this morning, the word had already faded between my pillowcase and cheek, but there was enough of it left to give me that nudge. WRITE.

So natuarlly, I spent most of the day clearing four bags of donations and two bags of pure-T trash out of the kids’ rooms. I rearranged furniture and glued broken Christmas ornaments together. I finished a book (My Sunshine Away) and started the next one (Hillbilly Elegy). I ate the last of the Jordan almonds that I bought for Christmas because they were Daddy’s favorite. I bought dog food and folded laundry. I exfoliated and moisturized (eradicating that reminder to WRITE along the way). I wished G’s mom safe travels on her way back to Brasil. I took the kids to a movie. I even started a Facebook thread about choosing a word for 2017.

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Folderol–that should be my word. Because now it’s 11:28 p.m. and I’m still chasing my tail.

I thought about “act.” Or “speak.” I want to dedicate this year to action and speaking my truth and speaking up for what I believe in. Then Jenna suggested “listen.” Isn’t that even more important than speaking? Maybe I need to focus on listening this year. When Vivi and I were cleaning in her room, I found a picture she had drawn of G and me arguing while she and Carlos sat in a porthole on the cruise ship. Oof. Do I really need more Speak? I need more Listen.

Friends suggested many gentle words: present, open-hearted, patient, kindness, grace, peace, smile, hope, light.

I’m not feeling like it’s going to be a gentle year. They suggested some fighting words too: rise, resist, courage, strength, grit, going, fierce, tenacious, valiant, endure, stand, endeavor, persevere.

I pondered words while I folded laundry. You can’t be doing laundry on New Year’s Day–it’s bad luck. I considered words while I ran to the grocery store to buy greens and peas. Gotta eat some peas for luck and greens for money on New Year’s Day, right? I tried out words while I swept under around the kitchen. If you sweep on New Year’s Day, you’ll sweep someone out of your life.

I celebrate the new by following old superstitions. Even though I know it’s all silliness, I follow the traditions because they remind me of where I come from and they give me a little illusion that I can control where I’m going.

And the one New Year superstition that I hope does prove true is the idea that whatever you’re doing at midnight is what you’ll be doing for the rest of the year ahead. I’m tapping away on my keyboard. Writing is the thing that I do to rise, resist, keep going, persevere. It’s my way of being fierce, tenacious, and valiant.

Writing is also where I find peace, how I practice grace, how I remain present. My best writing is kind and open-hearted and light.

So my word for 2017? WRITE.

And the grandfather clock that my Daddy made for me is striking 12 bells. Happy New Year, y’all. Let’s go find our stories.

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Saint Christopher Was Lost

If you follow me on Instagram (baddestmotherever), you already know that I’ve got a precious collection of Christmas ornaments and for the last few weeks, they’re the only thing I seem to be able to write about. This time, every year, when I unwrap and unbox them and hang each on the tree, every one whispers a memory about some other day, some other adventure, some memory sweet enough that I made the choice to commemorate it with a bauble. Decorating the tree is like reading myself a story that I’ve been writing one line at a time for the last 25 years.

This year, I lost a small part of that story and fear of losing it forever paralyzed me for days. Here’s what happened…

I bought this dark green glass St. Christopher medal on the island of Santorini, in the Greek Cyclades:

St. Christopher of Lycia, or ο Άγιος Χριστόφορος to his people.

St. Christopher of Lycia, or ο Άγιος Χριστόφορος to his people.

Richard and I had just survived a harrowing taxi cab ride along some 500-foot cliffs. The driver was a fisherman on his off days, and he was telling us about a giant fish he had speared recently. As he leaned across the passenger seat to retrieve a photo of the fish from the glove compartment, the taxi slewed hard to the right. Tires crunched onto the gravel shoulder, RIGHT ABOVE THE DROP of the cliff because there are no guard rails. The driver jerked the wheel back to the left just in time to save us all. And he went on talking about his fish.

The adrenaline hit my guts and limbs at the same moment and while I fought to keep from barfing, I nodded politely to admire the photo of the speared fish that was thrust into the back seat. That’s when I noticed a St. Christopher medal swaying drunkenly from the cab driver’s rear view mirror.

Cab drivers in Greece are a rare breed (maybe because they don’t always live long enough to breed?). They drive modern cars filled with modern tourists on roads that were carved out long before modern times. Most roads can accommodate 1.5 car widths, which makes passing on a cliff a lot like accidentally joining Cirque de Soleil. There is a superstition that if you have seen the image of St. Christopher, you cannot die on that day. While the Greek Orthodox church has not validated this idea, Greek cab drivers are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Every cab has a St. Christopher medal to honor the patron saint of travelers.

As soon as we were dropped off at the hotel in Oia, and as soon thereafter as my legs stopped shaking, I went into a gift shop and secured this St. Christopher medal because I never wanted to forget that I had survived that cab ride.

This medal is small, so I hang it near the top of the tree. And, because 2016 just can’t let us have anything nice, I dropped it. I dropped a 1-inch dark green ornament made of glass into a 9-foot dark green tree.

There was no THUNK to indicate that it had reached the floor. I climbed down from the ladder and started searching the branches below it–no medal. I couldn’t shake the tree to dislodge the ornament because I might break everything else in the quest for this one lost item. And it’s glass, so shaking didn’t seem like the best plan. I tried to focus on the red of the ribbon but saw nothing. I searched and searched. I looked on the other side of the tree, as if St. Christopher might have bounced off a limb and taken a detour. I turned the lights off for a different perspective. I turned on every light in the room in hopes of making a glint in all that dark green.

I gave up. I reassured myself that I would come back later with fresh eyes.

But what if I forgot to look for St. Christopher? What if I got used to it being lost and forgot to be sad and whatever snag had snagged him held him all the way to the chipper in the New Year? For two days, I kept returning to the tree in search of St. Christopher. I even set a reminder in my calendar to look for the lost green medal.

I was overtaken by a deep sadness. I had lost my patron saint of travelers at the same time I was losing my story-telling voice. Sick for three weeks straight, overwhelmed with holiday tasks, busy at work, aghast at every cabinet pick and tweet.

Christopher of Lycia was a giant who was known for carrying others safely across a raging river. He was a sure-footed and strong ferry. One day, he agreed to carry a small child across the river. Out in the depths, Christopher felt pulled down for the first time, crushed by a weight that didn’t seem to match the size of the child. He feared that they weren’t going to make it. Legend tells it that on the other bank, after Christopher had found a way across, the child revealed that he was the Christ and the weight Christopher felt was the weight of the world that the child carried.

After all the other ornaments had been placed on the tree, I gave it one more shot. Sometimes the best way to look for something is the opposite way. Read an essay backwards to find typos. Look in the freezer for your car keys. Do the opposite of what makes sense. So I lay down on the floor and I slid myself up under the lowest branches of the tree. Instead of looking down in the path that the ornament would have fallen, I looked up.

And that’s when I saw a little flash of red ribbon, tangled around a branch high above my head. I slid back out and with great joy, snaked my hand into the depths of the tree. There lay Saint Christopher, gold side down and ribbon tangled in the branch, utterly invisible from the outside. I hung him right up on a safe branch, on the other side of the river and out of trouble. I gave him a tap so that the medal swung like a pendulum, counting out the even arc of time.

In my own heart, I put down the burden and the weight of the world and I remembered that I can tell stories. I remembered that sometimes there are raging rivers and stories help us cross them. That’s what I can do.

And I will.

Stop Breathing. Now Breathe.

Before I even tell this story–I’m fine. It’s all fine.


Today was such a stupid day to cap off a long long string of stupid days. G had a horrible toothache and had found a dentist who could see him at noon. I’ve been out sick for a couple of days but was finally starting to feel better. Then Carlos said, “My tummy hurts” at bedtime last night.

You know how that sentence turns out. Lots of laundry and not much sleep. So when G and I were deciding how to manage today with a sick kid, we stood over our phones and hashed through the calendars.

“OK,” I said, “I can stay home this morning but I have two things this afternoon that I can’t move or miss–at 1 and 2:30.” He checked his phone. “That will work. I’ve got a few things this morning then dentist at 12:30.” We’d hand off Carlos at noon (Lord willing and the breakfast doesn’t rise).

Everything worked out fine. I logged in to work from the love seat while Carlos had some yogurt and screen time. Carlos got to play in a warm bubble bath until he was wrinkly so that I had time to diagnose form submission problems, send mass emails, post news stories, reschedule appointments. I kept the wheels on the bus and the boy hydrated and the laundry going. Like moms do.

By the time G got home, Carlos was dressed and fed and ready for an uhventure (to the dentist’s office!). I got myself dressed and fed and ready for a follow-up diagnostic mammogram.

The regular one I had on Monday didn’t get the thumbs up from the radiologist. Instead of getting the thin pink envelope in the mail that says, “All good!” I got the call from a very neutral sounding scheduling secretary to come back in for another look. OK. No big deal. Hooray for good insurance and 3D imaging and all of that. All of that stuff I never ever ever want to think about.

It’s weird when you work at the place where you get your healthcare. It’s not anonymous. It’s Monita taking my insurance card and Odessa printing forms and Cathy doing the scheduling. Vickie walks by and Connie is the boss and everyone knows my name. Even in the waiting room, I sat next to the mother of Carlos’ kindergarten teacher. It’s another day at work, except I’m remembering that sometimes it’s not good news.

She positioned my right breast and compressed the plastic plates. I watched the digital pressure reading–30 lbs. I stood calmly, doing as I was told. It’s not that bad, the squeezing. It’s better than not knowing. She steps behind the clear screen and as the imaging arm moves and clicks and whirrs, she says, “Hold your chin up high and breathe….stop breathing.” Three clicks.

As I’m holding it all together and focusing my eyes on a screw on a conduit clamp near the ceiling, everything stops.

Stop breathing. What if this is the first paragraph in the story where I stop breathing? I don’t want to stop breathing.

I tell myself that I’m being dramatic. That this is normal. That every time we upgrade the machinery, I need a new baseline. That I have about a 20% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime.

“And breathe.” She comes out from behind the screen and we move on to the next series of images. She spends more time on my right breast and I start to get suspicious. I let my eyes move to the screen where the digital image is displayed and a giant white constellation burns its way into my heart.

I’m held fast in the machine again and I don’t want to cry but I saw what I saw.

“And (whirr) stop breathing…(three clicks)…and breathe.”

She assured me that the images were going straight to the radiologist, and if he wanted to get an ultrasound they would do that right away, today. This was starting to sound serious. I sat in the waiting room with a copy of Oprah’s gift list that smelled too much like Elizabeth Taylor perfume. And I tried not to think about Christmas next year or this year and what it might look like for my little boy, who loves the tiny tree in his room so much that he falls asleep in its soft glow every night.

Then Molly stuck her head in a different door and called my name. Out in the hall, she said, “We’re going to go ahead and do an ultrasound today.”

As I lay on the table, the computer behind Molly cycled through the screensaver of slides that I publish for the hospital–meetings, recognitions, announcements, reminders. All that stuff I spend so much energy on. All that stuff that fills up my days. I stared at the mural on the wall, a hexagonal window with a white orchid resting on the sill. Molly began clicking and tapping Enter and clicking and dragging and tapping again. Taking the measure of things. That sound that I hadn’t heard since my babies were growing inside.

Then I waited for the doctor to look at whatever Molly had marked. I stared at the picture of an orchid in the picture of a window in a quiet room so that I wouldn’t think about the white constellation inside.

I hadn’t even told G where I was going–he had a toothache. I had a 2:30 meeting to get to. Would I go there, relieved? Would I go there knowing that I had a biopsy scheduled in a few days? Would I not even show up because it’s really hard to care about a meeting when you might have cancer?

Cancer. I started thinking about that quiet wait when I sat in one room while Richard sat in the other to hear The News. I laughed at those old cancer pants (that are still in my closet). I looked down at my plain black pants and then said, “Stop this. You’re being stupid.”

Or you’re not. OK, fine. If this is it and everything in my life is about to be flipped upside down, I’m not giving up. Little Gay will be the first person that I call. It’s her awful job in our family–being the doctor.

I wouldn’t be alone. I started naming all the women I know who are years and years and years past this quiet room where you wait on the doctor. Jo and Chris and Debbie and the other Debbie and Susan and the other Susan and Dominique.

And Gleam. And that friend’s mom and the other friend’s mom. Wait wait wait, don’t think about them. I cry. I cry for the tiny red and white elf Christmas ornament that Gleam brought me from Europe, that last trip she got to take with her daughter.

Don’t worry about things that aren’t true. Don’t. Just breathe.

And stop breathing.

Because the doctor walks in. Molly is with him and I brace myself.

He waves the wand and studies the screen. He declares it nothing to be concerned about. It’s dense tissue and some kind of cyst something something and I can’t hear because all I can feel is the breathing going in and out and my breathing sounds like laughing. I say, “Are you sure sure? Can we do a biopsy just to be sure?” He tells me to come back in six months and quit worrying about it.

Then I tell him that I’ll need to explain this to my sister and he rattles off so many Latinish words that I get lost in the glory of it. Words are breath and laughter is breath and I am breathing until I stop breathing.

And breathe.

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White Women, Take One Step Forward: Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote Part One about what got us here. Today, let’s think about action to take if you feel shitty about what is happening in our country.


Part Two: Take One Step Forward

My darling friend stood in my office today as we whispered about the violence and intimidation that’s already happening against gays, brown people, Jews, Muslims. All those people who aren’t now nor have ever been as safe as we are.  When she thought about what has been unleashed, this tender-hearted friend who didn’t vote to stop Trump covered her eyes in despair and said, “I can’t.”

But then she shook her head and stood up straighter. “No. I have to. I have to.”

Yes, we have to.

I reassured her: “You don’t have to turn into an activist overnight. Just take one step forward.”

Find one thing you can do and take one step deeper into that. One step forward.

This will require you to keep yourself uncomfortable.

Another friend, another conversation, same office (I have a sign in the window that says “Therapist’s Office” as a joke). My gentle friend is shell-shocked that her own family members voted for a man who has threatened to overturn equal rights for gay people. She has a gay child who has traveled a long road to find her place in the world. She said, “I’m furious. I’m heartbroken. I worked up the courage to ask my sister how she could do that and she answered, ‘I didn’t even think about (her child).'”

My friend’s face went flat at the idea of such a close betrayal. I promised her, “I have committed myself to staying uncomfortable. I am with you and I am with (your child).” She shook her head gently and said, “I’m so tired and sad. I don’t know if I can.”

I told her to rest for a bit then get back to it.

This is hard work, being uncomfortable.

It’s OK to take a break for an hour or two, but commit to keeping yourself uncomfortable. Here’s why I keep using that word–uncomfortable. As a white woman, I can slip into anonymity any time I choose not to bother with fighting the oppression of others. I could walk right past you in the grocery store and you would never know whose side I am on in this fight. But when I slip back into anonymity and put on the invisibility of white privilege, I am letting my comfort outweigh justice.

So yes–self-care and rest. Fill your tank then get back to it.

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Try some of this if you are ready to take one step forward:

Listen to the things that are hard to hear. If a person trusts you enough to tell their story about the grievances they live under, do not shift the conversation to your feelings about how hard it is to hear these things. Don’t shift the conversation to how bad you feel about the life they live. I cringe when Jasmine rages about the racism she faces in small-town Arkansas. I want to say, “Not me! I’m not bad!” to get rid of the bad feelings but I force myself to keep her words in the center of the conversation, to hear her truth without centering the conversation on myself. It’s the only way I can learn from experience that is not my own. Sometimes the only thing I can say in response is: “I hear you. I love you. I am listening.”

Call out racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-Semitism whenever you see it or hear it. People listen to white women, so use your voice, even if it shakes. If you struggle with confrontation, respond to an offensive comment with “Why do you say that?” or “What do you mean?” This turns the mirror back on the person who has made the offensive statement. It asks them to explain themselves, just like my grandmother did when I was being foolish. If silence is mistaken for consent, refuse to be silent, even if all you can reply is “That’s not OK.” (This paragraph is advice straight from my therapist, so y’all chip in for a copay.)

Use your body. On the bus, Holly witnessed an angry white man screaming “GO HOME!” at a fellow citizen simply because she took a phone call in another language. Holly moved her white body in between the aggressor and his victim. Be a shield. When Andrew witnessed a police stop that escalated, he moved his white body closer as an observer. He didn’t intervene, he remained present. Say hello to the person who looks frightened. If you see bullying, move closer to the victim for support. If you see another woman being pestered, walk up to her and ask, “Are you OK? Can I stand with you?” Look into these safety pins that everyone is talking about.

Not just for Islamophobia, for all types of harrassment

Not just for Islamophobia, for all types of harrassment

Expand your circle. I think the thing that has changed me the most in the last three years is the blogging community. It’s a way to learn from smart, passionate women who are not like me. I have met white lesbian mamas with black sons, trans parents, African Americans and American Africans, urban homesteaders, and even a California hippie firebrand. It can be as simple as following families you want to understand better on Instagram. Take a look. In the digital age, there is no excuse for not knowing people outside your hometown. Get in touch with like-minded people in your town.

Find some dollars. Heather checked through her annual budget and found new money to put behind causes that are important to her. “Unfortunately,” she said, “I can’t figure out how to write a check TO SCIENCE.”

Use whatever platform you have. If you can show people the truth, use that influence. For example, I needed a Veterans Day banner for our intranet home page. Instead of using a stock photo of all white male soldiers, I created one that reflects the actual ratio of OUR employees: six women, two men, fifty percent people of color. That’s what our employee family looks like, so that’s what our graphics look like. Jaime is in charge of alumnae communications for Wesleyan. She’s reaching out to under-represented alumnae to make events more inclusive and publications more reflective of our actual alumnae group. In her job as social media manager, if Nicole spots hate speech on our digital spaces, she sends it straight to HR.

Use your vote. Yeah, still. Every time. Every election. Local, state, national. You got an opinion about who would make the best dogcatcher in your town? Express it!

Hit the streets. I’ve put the Million Women March on Washington on my calendar for January 21, 2017. I’ve never done anything like this–never even gone to a protest at the Arch in Athens. But I didn’t read Shonda Rhimes’ book “Year of Yes” for nothing! It’s time to start opening my life to doing things that scare me. Peaceful protest is the cornerstone of our Bill Rights–it’s our FIRST RIGHT. “To petition the government for the redress of grievances.” See you there?

What else can we do to make this country a less shitty place for those who aren’t as safe as we are? Come on, white women. Our world needs us.

White Women, Take One Step Forward: Part One

This is a two-part post. Today, I’m talking about the election. Tomorrow, I’m talking about what action to take if you feel shitty about it and want to help. It was difficult for me to write this, because I have been raised like most white women–to be nice, to never make anyone angry, to try to keep everyone happy. I ran this essay past the three questions that Luvvie suggested asking yourself before publishing something that is scary to say: 1. Is it true? 2. Is it defensible? 3. Is it coming from a place of love?

I answered YES to all three. I love us and I know we can do better.


Part One: White Women

Half of eligible citizens didn’t even vote. The half that did were divided in just about half with Hillary winning the popular vote. That leaves 25% who decided that a failed reality TV celebrity will sit at the same desk as John F Kennedy.

And the power brokers in that 25% were white women. Forty-two percent of white women decided that his platform was the one that best represented their interests. OK.

Who are these women? I know many women who voted for Trump, some gleefully and some with great disdain. Let me clarify that because I have slipped into the default speech of white supremacy when I say “women” and assume we all know I am referring to “white women.” I know many white women who voted for him. I don’t know a single woman of color who voted for him. But let’s keep the focus on white women. Some of the white friends who chose T.Rump for our country:

  • She’s an evangelical and voted exclusively on the hope of overturning abortion rights.
  • She’s a highly educated and professional woman who refused to vote for him in the primaries and didn’t plan to vote for him in the general. But her state threatened to swing and she decided to do it because she wants a Supreme Court that interprets the Constitution very strictly.
  • She’s convinced that an outsider will shake up DC politics, for better or for worse.
  • She’s mortified by T.Rump but she votes a party ticket and puts her faith in the cooler heads that will surround him. She votes for the combined power of the executive and legislative team of Republicans.
  • She’s been paying more for healthcare under Obama.

I get it. I see y’all and I appreciate your candor and owning your motivation.

I also see all the other white women, who didn’t say a word about their votes. They weren’t willing to join the fray and that is their right. We don’t all want to talk about our politics.

Some of us went to college together, or we work together, or we met in Sunday School in 1975. We love and appreciate each other. Now let’s get real.

It’s the white women who now, in the aftermath, are clutching pearls and wailing, “Why is everyone being so hateful? We’ve got to get past the anger. Give him a chance. God is in control. I’m certainly not a racist or a bigot!” I’ve been clutching my pearls, too, in absolute horror.

Have you heard any of those things? Or said any of those things?

Here’s the deal: If you voted for him, you don’t get to say how we react to receiving him as First Citizen of our great nation. You don’t get to decide that people who have been put at risk are over-reacting. You don’t even get to stick this on god. To quote the Reverend Debra Williams: “Be careful when declaring that “God is in charge!” or that something is part of God’s plan. There are things that happen in this world that should not be pinned on God. I believe that God weeps when human beings do harm, or when they allow and celebrate tragic injustice. Do not be silent.”

White people who did not vote to stop Trump do not get a pass. No grading on the curve, no excuses. If you gave your whole vote to this whole package, you are wholly responsible for the outcome. Own it. Are you feeling stereotyped? Get used to it. You’re being lumped in with some pretty awful folks, huh?

Every other group of Americans that has been specifically threatened by Trump–people of color, immigrants, non-Christians, gay citizens, ad nauseum–showed up to stop him. Not women. Oh, and we’ve been threatened. Some of us decided that the damage he was going to do wouldn’t really reach them, but the “benefits” he promised would, so it was worth it to put him in office.

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Why Is Everyone So Mad at White Women?

Collateral damage, that’s why. Let me define: “Collateral damage is a general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target. In military terminology, it is frequently used for the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants or damage to non-combatant property during an attack on a legitimate military target.”

Harm on an unintended target. Most white women I know had very clean and precise reasons to vote for T.Rump. They sincerely don’t support “all that other mess.” I didn’t mean for my vote to take away your marriage rights–I love gay people!–I just want the lower taxes he promised. I didn’t mean to destroy healthcare guarantees for people with pre-existing conditions; I just wanted my premiums to go down.

I didn’t mean to blow up the house to kill the spider.

Well, it’s done. The thing about candidates is that you vote for the whole enchilada, not just six beans and 1/2 teaspoon of the sour cream.

So OK, white women who voted for T.Rump. You exercised your right to determine our country’s path as is your privilege. However…

HOWever…

Don’t turn your back on the rest of us while the debris falls from the sky. I have seen scads of  very nice white women today saying, “Why can’t we all just get along?” or “I don’t want to see all this ugliness.” “We need unity and to remember that we’re all Americans.” “I’m going to take a break from Facebook–too much anger and name-calling.” All after electing the name-callingest, angriest candidate who had no problem attacking Americans who crossed him.

You can’t dig a ditch then complain about the mud.

Or bake a shit pie to serve to the rest of the country then not eat your slice. Pull up a chair and have a seat at this table.

None of us gets a pass on experiencing what happens next. What is already happening. Not one. Whether you voted for Clinton, Trump, Johnson, Stein, or Depp, there will be no flouncing. I am not allowed to clutch my pearls and wail at how AWFUL this is then turn my back on it. I don’t get to say, “This isn’t my problem–I voted for Clinton.”

If you sincerely don’t want “the rest of the package” that comes along with whatever you DID like about this candidate, it’s time to start using your privilege and power to STOP the parts you don’t want.

Don’t want to be considered a racist? FIGHT FOR RACIAL JUSTICE.

Don’t want to be lumped in with the deplorable hate groups that have been emboldened by Trump? STAND UP TO THEM.

Don’t like what Trump has threatened and Pence has actually done to rob gay citizens of equal rights? SHOW US YOU ARE NOT GOING ALONG.

Use your privilege and your power to prove that you are not like those other people.

Build Me a Son Like Joe

For 50 years, the world has been home to my brother Joe. For 48 years and 2 weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of being his little sister and sometimes making him cry.

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

When we were little, I’m sure I made him cry in frustration a time or two. Now that we are older (some of us more than others…), I like to make him cry happy tears by holding up a mirror to show him what a fine man he has become. I wrote that piece a few weeks ago called What Does Love Carry In Its Hands? My brother is the perfect example of how to be good at loving the world. His hands are never empty–he carries hammers and hams and small people who need strong men.

He’s made me cry a time or two. Like that time when Richard was in the hospital and I invited the family over on Labor Day. When I mentioned how much I hated the chain link fence around the pool, he and Daddy set to work and by the time I got back from Kroger with dinner, my family had that fence rolled up and gone. I stood in the bedroom window and watched them, crying. Joe is the kind of man who always has tools around, in case something (or someone) needs fixing. After all that sweaty work, Joe manned the grill when it was time to cook dinner. I handed him a pack of tofu dogs. He cried.

Mr. Fixit

Mr. Fixit

A few months later, everybody cried when Richard died, but Joe didn’t show up with empty hands. We had planned to greet family and friends after the service at the church, so there were sandwich trays for that crowd. I hadn’t planned on all the folks who gravitated back to the house afterwards. We didn’t have much lying around to feed them. Then Big Gay opened after a knock at the kitchen door and there stood Joe with a glistening glazed ham. “Did you just drive around with a ham in your car?” she asked. “Yep,” he said. “Someone died…you make ham.” I cried.

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Now that I have a son of my own, I cry when I see my little boy run to his Unca Joe for a hug. Back when Carlos wasn’t very social, Unca Joe was the first relative that he identified with, that he sought out, who was allowed to love on him, whose name he remembered weeks later. Joe picks Carlos up and tosses him over his shoulder, toting him like a sack of giggling potatoes. That sight always makes me cry. Joe teaches Carlos that he is loved and he is safe. Last year, we were at Cowtail for Easter. Joe had a drill out, fixing an old chair. The loud noise made Carlos cry. Instead of telling Carlos to toughen up, or saving the task for later, Unca Joe called Carlos over and explained the drill to him. He helped Carlos hold the weight and aim the bit then let this little boy do the work. Carlos crowed with delight. I cried.

Sack of taters

Sack of taters

When Joe’s oldest son was christened, I didn’t know what kind of gift to give. Instead of a thing, I found this prayer and shared it with my brother. He cried.

A Father’s Prayer for His Son

By General Douglas MacArthur

Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee—and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.

Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here, let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those that fail.

Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high, a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men, one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.

And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously.

Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the meekness of true strength. Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”

He read it, standing there in the colorful nursery of his own tiny boy. He cried. He handed it to Daddy, and Daddy cried too. The only person in that room who understood how much Joe loved Grant was Daddy, because he could look upon a son who had been built strong and funny and kind and gracious and brave and gentle.

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

Joe, I hope that you know you are loved and admired every day, not just early in November. I hope that you know that, judging by the men you are raising, you have not lived in vain. I hope you know that our father, who loved you so, could dare to whisper, “That’s my boy. I have not lived in vain.”

Happy Birthday. Now let’s eat some smoked pig. We can blame the smoke if there’s any crying.

She Simply Needed to Rest

On the second night of my adventure to the beach, I lay tucked into bed with a book and five pillows. The hotel fan was set on Hi but I left the sliding glass door open to listen to the sound of the ocean.

My rest ended abruptly with an ominous THUNK followed by a frenzy of flapping. I peeked over the edge of the bed in fear that a bird had blundered into my space. But I saw nothing, and the room was quiet again. Had I imagined it in a half dream, like that falling feeling that startles me awake sometimes?

Another flapflapflap led my eye to the source. One large orange butterfly clung to the bright white sheet of the hotel bed. Something gentle that had wandered into a different world.

Gulf Fritillary at Tybee Beach

Gulf Fritillary at Tybee Beach

I scooted my hand under her feet–I decide it’s a female right away for no reasonable reason–but she flees from my touch and hops onto the sofa. I try again to shoo her towards the open door and back out into the dark night. She flies to the curtain, then up to the white coffered ceiling.

Safely out of reach of my helpful blunderings, she folds her wings together to reveal brown and opalescent white patches. As I stand on the sofa below her perch, I witness the moment when the energy of her body stills completely, as if she has flipped a switch to OFF.

After a while, I go back to my book and my bed, but I leave the door open all night so that she can return to the world if she needs to. I leave her unbothered so she can avoid the world if she needs to.

resting-butterfly

 

In the morning, the butterfly is still suspended from the ceiling, still folded. As I pack my bags, I make a mental note to carry her out onto the balcony before I leave. I couldn’t stand the thought that a harried hotel maid might swat at her. Someone else, with more on their mind, might see a bug instead of a butterfly.

I slip off my flip flops to stand on the couch but before I can lift myself up to reach her, the butterfly turns the switch to ON. With an orange fluttery flash that startles me from my wobbly perch, we both go tumbling through the air toward the door. She lingers on the railing of the balcony then takes off in circles of flight, off towards the sunrise.

Just like me, that butterfly needed a place to rest, a safe place to be still and turn the switch to OFF.

I’ve been off work this whole week, as a birthday treat to myself. I can’t recommend it highly enough! But even with the prospect of a week to do whatever I needed to do, I burned the first two days with errands and to-do lists. I voted, I donated outgrown clothes, I washed the car, I sold it. The pool project got finished and paid for. I polished that bracelet that has been needing attention. I got my toenails painted for the first time since July 4th. I bought a new car and read the manual to learn how the radio works. I bought the right kind of snacks at the grocery store and made sure the kids would have clean clothes for the week. I busied myself with getting ready to relax.

After two delicious nights on Tybee Island and hour after hour of reading and writing and laughing with old friends and eating shrimp at every opportunity, and taking naps, and sitting in the sun…I got back on someone else’s schedule and got myself to the dock to catch a ride to Ossabaw Island for a writing retreat.

I didn’t think I had a lot of expectations, but apparently I did. The island was still cleaning up after Hurricane Matthew. The air hung thick with mosquitos. There was no breeze. After the lush hotel bed, I was reduced to a bunk bed in a room with nine other women. Our lunch had gotten wet on the trip over. Someone drank one of my Diet Cokes that I had lovingly packed. There were many nice people and a couple who annoyed me right off the dock with incessant chattering. There was no place to hide except behind my rigid smile.

Oh, and that teacher I’ve been excited about working with? He couldn’t make it. There’s someone else and he’s perfectly skilled and kind and here, but I need a moment to adjust. I hit the end of my equanimity and I felt myself begin to flap, to wheel in crazy mental circles.

Like that butterfly, I needed a minute to myself.

I tried to go for a walk in the direction of the old tabby cabins, but the mosquitos threatened to carry me away, one drop of blood at a time. I walked around the corner of the wrap-around porch to find a place to cry but every Brumby rocker might invite a conversation. Finally, I grabbed my pack and walked back down the quarter mile track to the dock, the only stretch of this 24,000 acre island that I had already seen.

Ossabaw Island, 2 p.m.

Ossabaw Island, 2 p.m.

Just like the butterfly, I blundered into exactly the place I needed to be. Out on the dock, there was a cool breeze. No mosquitos. A wide blue sky. Space to breathe. Silence. Except for something big in the water that surfaced, flopped, and disappeared before I could spot it. Peace and quiet, rippling across the water and across my worried mind.

I folded myself and tucked my wings together. I hung there in quiet, as DNR trucks unloaded, a kayaker paddled by, a couple pulled up to the dock and unloaded. The chatter passed and quiet returned, every time.

After a while, with my wings recharged by rest, I went back up the dirt road to join my people. Good people, curious people, brave people who crossed the water to find a community of writers. We each stretched our wings and began to see where they might take us.

My neighbor on the dock.

My neighbor on the dock.