Tag Archives: hope

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.

Life is Sweet

Let’s have a moment of music appreciation today. This song got me out of a dark place today. Natalie Merchant, “Life Is Sweet”:

natalie merchant

It’s a pity
it’s a crying shame
who pulled you down again?
how painful it must be
to bruise so easily inside

It’s a pity
it’s a downright crime
but it happens all the time
you wanna stay little daddy’s girl
wanna hide from the vicious world outside

Call it seasonal depression. Or emotional fatigue. Or denial. I call it “dragging the wagon.” Today I was dragging the wagon behind me and in that wagon is every brave thing I’ve ever wanted to do and left short, every pound I’ve failed to lose, every person I ever disappointed, every dream I had that didn’t come true.

So who pulled me down again? The bruise inside, the one I work on and sometimes think I’m getting past. The fear of putting my heart into the vicious world and getting it shredded. The fear of running back for comfort to my daddy and him not being there.

Three friends have lost their daddies in the past week. And the story I haven’t been telling for a couple of months now is that I almost lost mine. It scares me so much that I can’t look at it straight on. My dad was very close to dying. He’s back now. He called me the other day to thank me for the orchid I brought when he was in the rehab place. We’ll eat turkey next week and be grateful.

I’m sad for Heather and Jonathan and Laura who are trying to find words to say goodbye and thank you and good job, Dad.

But don’t cry
know the tears’ll do no good
so dry your eyes

They told you life is hard
it’s misery from the start
it’s dull and slow and painful

I tell you life is sweet
in spite of the misery
there’s so much more
be grateful

10700549_10204326604998278_6333280427733818279_oThis weekend, I took the kids down to the playfort in the backyard and got choked up when I saw that the cherry tree had dropped all of its leaves overnight. One day, a globe of golden whispering leaves and the next day, a silent carpet over the frosty ground. Some trees, like my neighbor’s sugar maple, take weeks to shed their leaves, so long that we get kind of used the change. Others–whoosh and they’re gone in the first hard freeze.

That cherry tree was a wedding gift from my coworkers when Richard and I married. It stayed in a pot for months, waiting on the soil to soften up with spring. I got around to planting it after Richard died. It’s been especially precious to me now that my babies play in its shade. Time and sunlight and being grounded–that’s all it needed to grow.

For almost ten years, I’ve grown used to the miracle of that tree. Pink pom poms in spring, pale green leaves through the summer, then the golden show of fall. And every year, the shock of the day when it’s just gone. Bare and spare. Reminding me how suddenly everything can change.

Who do you believe?
who will you listen to
who will it be?
it’s high time that you decide
in your own mind

Dragging the wagon. Carrying all this fear and sadness around and not writing it out. Afraid to write it wrong or write it right. Trying to speak my truth but the hand over my mouth is my own. That’s why I found myself crying at my desk at lunchtime. “Life Is Sweet” came on Pandora and it took me back all those years to when I first loved this song and had no earthly idea how true it is. I sat there and cried because I’m so tired of wanting things to be different but not making them different. Time to make up my own mind.

mapleThere’s a red maple outside my office window, and as it’s been losing its scarlet leaves this week, more sunshine gets through. I sat there today next to the window, half of my tired body warmed in the light and half of it shivering. Natalie’s words calling out to me from my phone.

They told you life is hard

it’s misery from the start
it’s dull and slow and painful

I tell you life is sweet
in spite of the misery
there’s so much more
be grateful

Who do you believe?
who will you listen to
who will it be?

I closed my eyes. In the dark quiet there behind my eyelids, the left eye caught a reddish glow from the sun shining through. The right eye looked out into the darkness.

It’s high time you decide
it’s time you make up your own sweet little mind

With my eyes still closed, I turned towards the sun. I sat still and let it warm me. Just like my cherry tree, “Time and sunlight and being grounded–that’s all I need to grow.”

They told you life is long
be thankful when it’s done
don’t ask for more
you should be grateful

But I tell you life is short
be thankful because before you know
it will be over

Cause life is sweet
and life is also very short
your life is sweet

If you are the praying type, say a peaceful one for Ted and Heather, Stephen and Jonathan, Gary and Laura. And say a thankful one for Sam and Ashley.

Daddy, I’m glad you’re back. I love you and I’m grateful for you. Save me some turkey.

Goals, Outcomes, and Daffodils

daffodils in snow

As I left my office yesterday afternoon to walk to the car, my heart was equal parts heavy and joyful.  Heavy for a friend whose life is in a tangle right now.  She’s sad and confused and overwhelmed.  I remember those sunless days in my own past and ache for her.  I know she’ll figure it out and find herself on the other side of this, but right now she has no place to rest.  The path ahead seems so long and dark and she’s having a hard time believing that she will find her way.

The other part of my heart was joyful, because yesterday I reached a goal I had set for myself a few months back.  February 4th marks the one year anniversary of Baddest Mother Ever.  I wanted to reach 100,000 page views on the site in that first year.  That happened yesterday!  Thank you so much for reading and sharing and building this community.  I feel great joy that I have stuck with this and it is growing.

These are the thoughts that were on my mind when I looked down into the snow and saw green shoots of daffodils peeking up into the frigid air.  Those shoots took me right back to a time in my life when I had no idea what my future would look like.  My birthday is in late October, right around the time you plant spring bulbs so that they can sleep through the winter and surprise you in the spring.  I got a big bag of daffodil bulbs from my mom for a birthday present about a month after Fartbuster came home with lipstick on his collar that first time.  I hadn’t told anyone about our situation because I was ashamed of my husband’s behavior.  One bright Sunday afternoon, I took my bag of bulbs and a trowel out to the backyard and started planting them around the pine trees and along the fence.  On my own and with time to think, my thoughts gravitated back to our marriage, my trust in him, and whether we would ever get back on track and feel normal again.  With each bulb that I tucked into the earth, I wondered, “Will I still be living here to see these come up in the spring?  Will I be married?  Will we make it?”

I tried to bury my fear and sadness with the bulbs.  I committed to a goal–I would be in that house in the spring to watch these flowers bloom.

Well, I reached my goal–I was in that house in the spring when the daffodils bloomed, but Fartbuster wasn’t there.  My marriage was gone.  That’s the difference between a goal and an outcome.  A goal is a milestone along the path.  An outcome is the result of all those goals…with a measure of dumb luck thrown in.  So yes, I reached my goal of seeing the daffodils bloom, but the outcome wasn’t what I had imagined.  Simply achieving the goal didn’t predict the outcome.

We don’t always get to control the outcome.  We control the goals.  I planted the daffodils at just the right depth and I added bone meal.  I tucked them into the warming red dirt and I covered them with a layer of pine straw.  But that’s as far as I could influence the outcome.  Floods or freezes or insects could have taken it from there and the outcome would have been out of my hands.  Same thing with my marriage to Fartbuster.  My goals, like going to counseling and working on my own self, were reached.  Instead of saving my marriage, I saved my self.

So if you’re walking briskly through the cold wind, with your chin tucked to your chest, look around for that little shoot of green.  That daffodil has something to tell you.

Scientia Et Pietas

Tonight I had dinner with my friend, Tara, who writes “I Might Need a Nap.”   There ain’t nothing in this world that two fishbowl margaritas (both mine!) and a three-hour talk can’t fix.  Well, maybe not full on fix but at least make a far sight better.

Pardon me, gentle readers–it seems that tequila makes me talk like Ellie Mae Clampett.  I shall clutch my pearls at myself forthwith.

We have known each other since Governor’s Honors in 1985 and we both ended up at Wesleyan College.  We talked about raising kids, the fish tacos in Hawaii, ICU waiting room chairs, Jesus, cheer moms, first husbands, high grass snakes, The Young and the Restless, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and churches that rely on PowerPoint.  We talked until my voice gave out.

I wrote this haiku once when I lost my voice:

I croak, squeak then try to speak.
My little one asks,
“Mom, are you leaving your voice?”

Word were new to Vivi at the time and she got “losing” and “leaving” mixed up…but dang if she didn’t hit on something.  I don’t mind the periodic losing of my voice–I’ve usually run it into the ground through excessive use, not neglect.  Losing my voice gives me a reason to hush, to rest, to listen.

But leaving my voice?  Oh, I’ve done that too.  Those are the times that make me sad when I look back.  The times I didn’t speak up for myself.  The times I didn’t ask for what I needed.  The times I left a question unasked.  The times I witnessed injustice and didn’t say anything.  Or the times I saw injustice and ONLY said something about how wrong it was but didn’t do anything to fix it.  Those are times when I left my voice.

Bare Bulb Coffee and the Women of Wesleyan...two groups that are changing the world for the better

Bare Bulb Coffee and the Women of Wesleyan…two groups that are changing the world for the better

As we were saying goodbye in the parking lot, Tara pressed a small gift into my hand.  She said, “We’re both red clay girls and I thought of you because this is made from red clay.”  I looked at the small medallion under the street light and thought at first that it was an alien head (might have been the two margaritas talking…and just for the record, I was walking back to my hotel on the other side of the parking lot).   Tara works with an organization called Bare Bulb Coffee.  It’s a coffee shop/community center/art gallery/church/social service organization with a Quiche of the Day and an actual plan for righting some of the wrongs in the world.  Nikki Collins McMillan is the Ministry Director and Head Percolator…and another Wesleyan Woman.

The shape on the medallion and the name of Bare Bulb Coffee both hearken back to the coffee farmers who grow the fair-trade beans used by Bare Bulb.  Tara told me, “In the homes in that region, you walk into their houses and there’ll be a string with a bare light bulb hanging down.”  I croaked, “Oh yeah!  My Grandmama Eunice had one of those over the dining room table!”  Tara replied, “No…that’s the thing.  There’s no electricity wired to the houses.  It’s just a string.  The bare bulb is a symbol of hope.”

On the Wesleyan College seal, the official motto of the college reads Scientia Et Pietas–“knowledge and responsibility.”  Tara and Nikki have taken their knowledge and translated it into service to those among us who are underserved.  I can’t think of two better examples of Wesleyan alumnae who are making a difference in this world.  They’re using their voices and that gives me hope.

Also on the Wesleyan College seal, the seated figure of Wisdom holds forth a laurel crown.  Above her, a ribbon bears the words “Niminum ne crede colori.”  The phrase is from Virgil and I was told back then that it meant “put not your faith in outward appearances.”  I’ve always interpreted this as “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but tonight when I looked up the translation again, it turns out that Virgil addressed this line to a lovely youth.  The words in their full context mean:  “Oh, handsome child, trust not too much in your youthful color.”  So I guess that’s more of a “pretty is as pretty does” or “looks won’t last, honey.”

These women?  Nikki and Tara?  They are women I first met when we were all handsome children glowing with youthful color.  They’ve grown older and wiser.  They give me hope.  They make me proud.  They make me want to do more with my voice.

The Artist at Our Wedding

Jamie paintingThere are 3 watercolors hanging in my dining room, each signed “Jamie Calkin March 5, 2005.”  The first is a meditative scene under the white tent.  Just two wrought iron chairs sitting side by side atop a Persian rug, the river flowing in the background, everything poised for the wedding to begin.  The second depicts the wedding ceremony itself, the same tent now filled with about 30 friends and family members, bride and groom seated together, a pair of massive tulip poplars soaring above the scene.  The last painting is a scene from the reception, our blue kayak buoyed by white balloons, drifting around the pool while a cellist plays.

After Richard’s doctors told him that they could give him no further treatments, he surprised us all when he said, “I want to go home and I want to marry Ashley.”  Oh.  OH!  I told my sister, my stepmother and a couple of dear friends and damn if they didn’t manage to put together what we ended up hailing as “A Wedding In a Week.”  I mean, BOW DOWN, wedding gods, these ladies had it nailed (and one of them is only a lady in drag shows!).  My friend, Andrea, called me the day after Richard announced that we were getting married and said, “I only need to know two things–what flavor cake do you like and do you want to wear a tiara?”  Everything else?  HANDLED.  Those days of planning something happy were a magical respite from the quiet panic of leaving the hospital and flying home…well, to die.  We knew it but we weren’t saying it so let’s get married in the meantime.  Andrea even gave me a pair of rose-colored glasses to wear to the spa on the day before the wedding.  She understood–her mother had died when she was only 20.

We had swanky catering, a string trio, an Episcopal priest, wedding finery, a Cecelia Villaveces cake…all in a week.  The clerk of court even brought the license to the house with a witness so Richard wouldn’t have to go out.  All because someone knew someone who knew someone who loved us.  Magic.

When my friend, Katie Calkin, said, “Jamie wants to give you a painting for your wedding,” I was so touched.  I thought she meant that we would send him a photograph from the wedding and he would paint it for us.  But Jamie works in the moment, in plein air, with his watercolor kit, a stack of paper and wide open space.  So on the morning of March 5, 2005, when I peeked out the bedroom window to check on the hubbub in the backyard, I saw Jamie sitting in the grass, leaning against a crepe myrtle with his kit spread out around him.  That was the first moment that brought me to tears that day.  Why?  Because Jamie was so happy.  He radiated joy, an artist in his element, on a sunny day, doing what he loves best.

Katie and I had known each other through work for a couple of years, but the first time I met Jamie was at a planning meeting for a quilt project in memory of their son, Abraham.  Abraham was born with a heart problem.  He spent his entire brief life in intensive care, swaddled in love, but his heart just wasn’t strong enough. In the aftermath of his loss, the people who had loved him wanted to mark his life.  It turned out that several of the Calkins’ friends were quilters, so they hatched a plan to honor Abraham and ease the fretful hours of other parents with children in the NICU.  They lined up volunteers with the goal of making one crib-sized quilt for each day of Abraham’s life.  The quilts would be donated to the neo-natal intensive care units where Abraham had spent his life.  All they needed was 50+ people to make a quilt.  Never one to let sensibility overcome my rampant enthusiasm, I signed up to make a quilt right away…even though I didn’t know how to sew.

I learned to sew, along with a few others, and I made a rail fence pattern with fish called “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starfish.”  Katie made a quilt for her son.  Jamie made a quilt with dinosaurs.  Abraham’s grandparents made quilts.  Strangers made quilts and Abraham’s Aunties made quilts.  When the project was finished, the quilts were displayed in the hospital lobby for one day and we all got to marvel at the beauty of what love for this fragile boy had brought into the world.  Taking heartache and turning it into kindness.  The first time I saw Jamie, he was hollow and it seeped out of his eyes.  The morning of the quilt show, I saw him smile.  The morning of our wedding, I saw him at peace with the world.

Seeing Jamie there in the sunlight on my wedding day gave me hope.  Not that Richard was going to get better.  Not that we would live a long and happy life together.  It simply gave me hope that I would make it out the other side.  There was Jamie, like a messenger from some other day in the future, when I might be able to sit in the sun and feel at peace with the world.  wedding march

He and I exchanged letters that night that crossed in the mail.  I thanked Jamie for giving me hope that I could be happy again.  He thanked us for including him in the day and confided that he had felt Abraham there during the ceremony.  I hope he was there and I hope he had two pieces of cake.

Katie was one of the first people I talked to after Richard died.  I told her that he had been thinking of Bermuda, a place where we had been so happy.  I said, “Abraham would be three now–old enough to learn how to swim.  I hope he and Richard are at the beach today.”

jamie pool painting

I’ve been thinking about Katie, Abraham and Jamie a lot this week because I stumbled upon a blog called “Being Everlee’s Mom.”  It’s an exquisitely written record of fresh heartbreak.  The author and her husband lost their infant daughter, Everlee, last month.  I’m so glad that she’s writing.  The only way out of grief is through.  It helps when you can look around and see other people who are a little farther down the road.  They turn back and wave to you and say, “This way.  Follow my voice.”

Please visit Jamie’s website to see more of his work here.