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.

Agency and Archery

Yesterday, I wrote about kinetic energy and potential energy and how both can be seen in the image of an archer pulling back on a bowstring. By pulling on the bowstring while pressing against the rigid curve of the bow, the archer amplifies the potential energy of the weapon, all thanks to the magic of math and angles and physics and stuff.

Every element of the machine has an effect on the outcome. Is the bow made from stiff oak or rubbery yew? Is the string linen or rawhide or polyethylene fiber? Are the archer’s muscles tired or fresh? Does her breath make her wobble or do her hips make a steady base? Is her elbow at the correct angle to amplify the power of pulling back, or does some force dissipate? Are the fletching feathers on the arrow in good shape and positioned for maximum aerodynamics? Does the wind blow?

Which part of this machine is truly powerful? Is it the arrow with its piercing metal tip? Is it the curved bow–just a piece of wood with a string tied to it? Taken separately, the bow and the string and the arrow are harmless. It’s when they work together that they can feed a family or end one. They are tools for converting potential energy into kinetic energy and converting deer into dinner.

Artemis (later Diana). Goddess of the hunt.

Artemis (later Diana). Goddess of the hunt.

 

And that brings me to the idea of AGENCY. Agency is the ability of a person to act for herself. A child has less agency than the parent. A person who refuses to vote surrenders agency. Financial independence supports agency. Systems of control, like racism and sexism, try to strip agency from others. Energy is one thing–agency is quite another. We can expend all the kinetic energy in the world, but does it lead to or stem from agency?

Think again about the example of the bow, the arrow, and the archer. We spend so much time paying attention to ENERGY. The bow thrums with potential energy; the arrow slices the air with kinetic energy. These tools have energy, but only the archer has agency. Until the archer decides to nock the arrow, and takes aim, and pulls back, and releases…the bow and arrow are useless.

Forget about the energy and the noise and the angles. Forget that your muscles may be tired or the wind might be high.

Go vote. It’s your agency and a lot of people fought long and hard for you to have it.

On another note: Have you ever wondered why British people make a rude gesture by holding up a reverse peace sign? Two fingers up with palm facing in and fingers slightly curved? In England, it’s called “flicking the v’s” and it’s similar to Americans shooting a bird. Those are the two fingers you use to pull a bowstring. English archers destroyed the French at Agincourt, so legend has it that the defiant sign for “piss off” hearkens back to English soldiers waggling those two fingers to remind the French who won. It’s an expression of agency AND archery!

Kinetic Energy and Potential Energy

Think back to elementary school science class. Remember learning about kinetic energy and potential energy? I was smitten with the word “kinetic” from the moment I heard it–that word is not one you bump into by accident. It is a book-learning, SAT kind of word. I’ve been thinking a lot about kinetic energy and potential energy this morning as I try to get myself packed to go to a writing retreat. I have re-organized our silverware drawer, talked to my insurance agent, folded everything that needs folding, and even done a few chores for other people because I am a bundle of nerves. I am downright kinetic.

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So, in case you are having trouble finding that fourth grade science part of your brain, a refresher: imagine an archer, pulling back the string of a bow. Potential energy is “the energy possessed by a body by virtue of its position relative to others, stresses within itself, electric charge, and other factors.” So when the archer pulls back on the bowstring, the string possesses a great amount of potential energy, all derived from the force the archer’s muscles can pull, the tautness of the string itself, the angle at which the string is stretched, etc. When the archer’s fingers let slip, we are watching kinetic energy as the arrow is pushed forward by the released energy of the bowstring. Kinetic energy is the energy of being in motion.

For potential to move to kinetic, the archer has to LET GO.

Last week, when I wrote about the challenge I’m facing with writing, Margaret reminded me of something our boot camp coach Tami used to say: if you want to run faster, you have to run faster. Simple in words, but hard in dead…right? Margaret pushed through her PhD with those words. Tami moved herself from a nursing career to an interior design career. To achieve the thing you want, you have to DO the thing you dream of. The only way to train your body to run faster is to push it to run faster. Not to talk about running, watching Chariots of Fire every night, join a running list serv, or shop for new shoes. You get better at running by running.

That got me thinking (see how I’ve been doing allllll this thinking but no writing?) about Wise Heather. Heather has been training for MONTHS for the Marine Corps Marathon. It’s her first full marathon and it’s this weekend. She’s running in memory of her father. She has hit every mark of her training plan, mile after mile after mile. She’s run in wind and rain and heat and other cities and other races. She knows the course elevation. She knows the forecasted temperatures. She knows she has to “beat the bridge” at mile 18 and she has practiced running that far, that fast.

Then her training plan told her to quit running. Not quit altogether, but quit pushing herself higher. This is the dreaded “taper” that runners have to do before a race. Cut the mileage back, let your muscles rest, all with the aim of going farther and faster because you slowed down.

Heather is pulling the bowstring and it is HARD. Building up potential energy requires those stresses in oneself. Waiting to let the string go and see how far it can push the arrow, in the right direction, if the wind is right.

I am writing these words, right now, about her, and about math and science and Margaret and Tami and elementary school, because I really want to be writing a book and it is HARD. I think about writing and talk about writing and read books written by people who know how to write. But the only way to write more is to write more. In sun and wind and rain and in other cities.

So. My car is packed. The string is pulled. Now I just have to let go. Change potential into kinetic.

This Saturday, think of Heather and remind her that she can do this. At the same time she is running her race, I will be writing mine. We can do this. Potential to kinetic.

Let’s go.

bullseye

Opening the Book

Laocoon Group

Laocoon and his sons. Ancient statue unearthed in 1500s and now on display in Vatican.

This is what my writing ritual looked like this morning:

  1. Eat all the carbs left over from the Leukemia Society bake sale.
  2. And drink two Diet Cokes.
  3. Feel all the guilt for abandoning my beloved children for a few hours so I can go downstairs and write. (They were both staring contentedly at their respective electronics.)
  4. Gather more carbs, the computer, a 44oz plastic cup of ice water, and that book written by the guy I get to study with in a couple of weeks.
  5. Plug in computer, eat a caramel apple (simultaneously).
  6. Stand in the morning sun as it makes shadows of the heart-shaped redbud leaves and read the last 10 pages of The World’s Largest Man. It’s so good, I can’t sit down. So good, I want to stand in the sun.
  7. Snot up 5 tissues because it’s over, along with so many other things in this life. Cry for my daddy, cry for Richard, cry for all those chipmunks that Biscuits has brought to the back door this week. Cry for autumn. Cry for carbs. Cry because the kids might be up there right now eating the last of the fudge cake that is supposed to be my reward for writing. Cry for my kids because they have an awful selfish mother like me.
  8. Climb quietly up the basement stairs to listen to the family up above. I don’t want to go up there and have to explain the red face, but I need to get close enough to hear three sets of footsteps (or at least the buzz of three screens) to confirm that no beloveds have died while I took a few minutes to pursue my dream.
  9. Skulk back down to the office and wake up computer from Sleep mode. Beg Facebook friends to harangue me into writing.
  10. Look up Harrison Scott Key on Facebook then suffer mild panic attack because this uproarious and visceral memoir that he’s written has won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. I sent him 25 pages of my manuscript to critique about a week ago. He’s probably at the store to buy more red pencils.
  11. Pull up manuscript. Spot every obvious flaw. Gnash teeth.
  12. Put on some music. Shuffle lands on Counting Crows “Long December” just as I’m thinking about almost writing that part of the story from December 31 of that awful year when Richard called from Baltimore, heartbroken because a doctor had told him it was time to go home and die. I sat in the sun on the last day of that longest December and didn’t know what to say to him. But I knew that this year would not be better than the last.
  13. Pace around small office. Lean in corners to cry. Rest head on molding around door. Crawl into grandmother’s platform rocker and try to remember what it was like before life got big.
  14. Sit down at the fucking hateful computer again.
  15. Glance up to the bookshelves and spot the green Mead notebook that I wrote in when Richard first got diagnosed. Take it off the shelf and contemplate opening it for the first time in a decade.
  16. Chicken out.
  17. Chicken back in.
  18. Step back into July 4, 2014.
  19. Wish I hadn’t.
  20. Distract myself with googling images of the Laocoon group because MAN, I GET THAT GUY. He was a Trojan priest who tried to warn them that the Trojan Horse left by the Greeks shouldn’t be allowed into the city. Athena, protector of the Greeks, struck him and his two sons with serpents. Basically, he tried to tell the truth, he tried to expose the lie that would kill them all….and died for it. Some say that he didn’t die from the venom. He was left to live and carry the loss of his sons, his city, his position, his everything. Telling the truth gets you snakebit, kids.
  21. Conclude that maybe I’m being a bit grandiose and should just get back to writing the simple story of a woman who made it through a couple of snake fights and might have some teeny grains of wisdom to share with other, equally snake-grappling folks.
  22. Write two paragraphs.
  23. Erase one.
  24. Listen to Bonnie Raitt sing “Not the Only One.”
  25. Write another paragraph.
  26. Call it a day.
  27. Climb upstairs, broken but unbowed (maybe a little bowed).
  28. Kiss children on heads.
  29. Eat some cake.

Ready I’m Not

Carlos invited me to play Hide and Seek in his room yesterday afternoon. “Mumma? Mumma? I count to ten and you hide, Mumma.”

Ten? That didn’t give me much time to find a hiding spot. I tip-toed across the hall and hid behind the open door of my bedroom.

“Seben, eight, nine….TEN! Ready….” He paused then shouted, “Ready I’m not…Here I come!”

My son, trying out a new game and trying to remember how the words are supposed to line up. And BOOM–his version was even better than what was supposed to be. My heart cracked open with a little more love for him than I ever thought possible. There we were, filling up a Saturday afternoon with playing. Him using new words. Me letting him boss me around. Shrieking and giggling and tumbling around, together.

Ready I’m not…Here I come.

Hide and seek

Hide and seek

That’s how we head into parenting. I don’t care if you’ve been a big sister to twelve kids, or spent 10 years as a nanny, taught second grade, worked as a NICU nurse–not one of us goes into parenting READY. For the first couple of years of Vivi’s life, my therapist’s main message to me was “You don’t have to be perfect, just good enough. Good enough parenting is what parenting is. Stop trying for an A+. Shoot for ‘Satisfactory.'” You’re in it, ready or not.

I had spent the first part of my life hiding. Hiding anything that I messed up. Hiding from anything that I might mess up. Hiding my shame. Hiding my own needs. Hiding myself because I had become absolutely convinced, somewhere along the way, that I wasn’t enough. Good enough, kind enough, smart enough, pretty enough. So I hid. Ready I’m not.

But here I come. Parenting is urgent and tedious, immediate and theoretical, all in one moment. It’s incessant. Still, I keep showing up. Less hide, more seek. I get up every day reminding myself that my good enough is enough. We’ve gotten this far and we’re having a pretty good time of it. I pour the milk and I add a blue bendy straw because blue is his favorite color.

So, today? Ready I’m not…here I come!

What Does Love Carry In Its Hands?

It seems that every time our country starts to boil over, we summon the ghost of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr to remind us:

 

darkness cannot drive out darkness

 

With all the respect that is due to the man who said this, I think this quote is getting a rubber stamp feel to it, kind of like “sending thoughts and prayers.” It’s a quick way of dispensing with the flayed feelings we face after ANOTHER “nothing can be worse than this” moment.

When we keened after the Charleston Nine were murdered at prayer meeting by a twisted little white boy who wanted to start a race war….darkness cannot drive out darkness.

When we howled in anguish after five police officers were ambushed in Dallas by a madman with a rifle while they were protecting the protestors at a peaceful demonstration against police brutality…only light can do that.

When we woke to wail at the news that a homegrown hater had slaughtered 49 dancing queens and kings at The Pulse in Orlando…hate cannot drive out hate.

When we watch another traffic stop turn into another bodycam video turn into another hashtag and the rage begins to boil so that fists fly into the air and some take a knee and we cry #BlackLivesMatter only to hear #AllLivesMatter in a weary call and response, we ask the question, “How much longer until we are all safe and free?”…only love can do that.

monk hands

Monk. Image courtesy Pixabay.

OK. Love can do that. 

But what does love carry in its hands?

What tools does love need to tackle this responsibility we have lain at its feet? “Oh, that? Love will handle that. Love takes care of the dirty work. Love’s got it. We can wait. Go on, Love. You’re strong, Love. You can do it, Love. Let us know when you’re finished, Love. We’ll be over here, out of the way…just waiting on you, Love. Let us know if there’s anything you need, Love!”

Love carries sandwiches to the hungry and water to the parched. Love carries a slender book of poems for the heartsick. Love carries a bucket and sponge when it shows up to clean that bathroom. Love carries a scalpel. Love carries a crochet hook that makes something warm to shield your shoulders from shivers. Love carries a clipboard from door to door to door. Love makes a casserole. Love will hold that baby while you take a nap. Love hands five dollars out the car window to the man with the sign. Love picks the daisies. Love picks up a pen. Love matches the socks and folds them together into a ball. Love turns the dirt and trains the vines along the fence. Love carries a lantern.

Yes, I know Dr. King was right when he said “Only love can do that.” But love can’t do anything with empty hands.

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A Heart Walking Around In a Body

So.

I’ve been quiet lately.

I can’t get one thing written before another something happens and then I have to sit and think about that, but before I can get my ideas to line up next to words, something else happens. Kap. Tulsa. Star Spangled Banners. Syria. My own backyard. Charlotte.

Today, I found myself in a simple story that summed up some of what I’ve been trying to say. I had a moment in the basement of the hospital that opened my heart to how pervasive racism is in my world.

Part of my job is to share good news. When one employee wants to recognize another for a kind deed or superior service, it’s my privilege to hear those stories and share them with the whole health system. What a delight–I get paid to make sure good people and good work get recognized! I get a front row seat to watch people being their best–the people who are being thanked and the people who are taking a moment to thank others.

Yesterday, I received a recognition note from a nurse up on the floors. She had witnessed a pair of transporters (the people who move patients from one area of the hospital to another) go out of their way to care for a patient. While the patient was being wheeled back to her room from a procedure, she confided that she didn’t have any family nearby who could visit her. Naturally, she was feeling low and lonely. The transporters, a young man and a young woman, decided to cheer her up. They went down to the gift shop and bought her a flower and a balloon, wrote her a kind note of encouragement, and let her know that they cared. The nurse reported that the patient had smiled all day long thanks to their kindness.

Their hearts were filled with love. With the best kind of kindness–kindness to a lonely stranger.

Heart with seeds. Image courtesy Pixabay. Kindness

Heart with seeds. Image courtesy Pixabay.

A few hours after I read this gracious story, I walked over to the main hospital to run an errand. As I turned a corner, I almost bumped into a man in black scrubs–the transporter uniform. I glanced at his name tag and saw that it was the same man who had been recognized for great kindness to a lonely patient.

I had knowledge of this man’s heart.

But my first response to him–the first thing I registered–was his body. He is a tall, broad-shouldered, young Black man. He wasn’t carrying a rose with a balloon tied to the vase. He wasn’t even smiling. In the second before I saw his name tag and realized this was the gentle heart of kindness, I saw his skin and his frame and I reacted as I am programmed to do: you are other; are you dangerous? Should I be afraid of you? In less than a second, I was assessing him based on his body.

What I often forget is that he has been programmed to have the same reaction to me. He almost walked into me and probably went through the same assessment: You are not like me? Are you dangerous? Should I be afraid of you? As a middle-aged white woman who has grown up in Georgia, I know that I am the most dangerous thing a young Black man can run into when walking around a corner. Fifty years ago, he could have been lynched if I had walked into him and knocked us both down.

I wanted to apologize to him for not looking where I was going, and all of that history that neither one of us caused but that both of us carry. I wanted him to know that I knew he had a kind and caring heart. To meet his eye. To strike up a conversation. To represent all white people everywhere and prove that I’m not one of the bad ones.

Then again, I wanted to leave him alone to live his own life without my whole internal narrative being projected onto him. Maybe he was just walking down the hall, doing his job, and didn’t need a bleeding heart white woman all up in his space trying to save the world because the world can’t be easy for him right now. Maybe my feelings about his feelings aren’t central to the story? Maybe I should keep walking and do my errand. Just like with my writing these days, I was thinking so many thoughts that I couldn’t find any words. I missed the chance to say, “Hey! I heard about a really nice thing you did! That was cool.”

Instead, he went his way; I went mine.

I walked away thinking, “What must it be like to be him, walking around in this country today? Where no one knows his heart but everyone sees his body? Does he live in genuine fear of people like me because of his body?” Yes, I think.

I guess what I learned today is this: We live afraid of each other because we don’t have a way of seeing the heart that’s walking around in the body. We have to learn to lengthen those seconds that we spend seeing each other. That which is holy in me honors that which is holy in you.

I didn’t have time or words to get there today, but for a moment I imagined what it’s like right now for that gentle heart to live this life, walking around in that body.