Thursday, June 21, 2018

Be the Flood


I often write blogs when life seems to be saying something to me repeatedly. I’d like to think that I would notice those messages, whispered over and over, on my own…but maybe Oprah made me do it.

I vividly remember hearing Oprah say that if you don’t listen when God whispers in your ear, He’ll shout. The implication, of course, is that we really don’t want God shouting in our ears. God, life, light, the universe, the force—whatever it is, she’s right. I’ve learned that things always go better for me when I listen to the whispers.

Like many of us, I’m feeling drained and desperate these days. I’ve been pouring myself into my family, my little world, and my work, but I’m empty. I know I can’t fix the world right now, today, so I do my best for the global scene and do my best locally and then try to believe that’s enough. It’s not feeling like much lately. And I’m not special or alone—I see it in the people around me, in my friends’ thoughtful posts online, in the shops I go into, even in the way people drive. We are burning out.

So when life sent me two bright exceptions, I noticed. I enjoyed them thoroughly. And all the while, the analytical part of my brain wondered, What is the big picture here? Then a fellow blogger whispered in my ear.

The latest blog by the Hands Free Mama, Rachel Macy Stafford, is a beautiful tribute to her daughter and to Rachel’s loving appreciation of her daughter’s gifts. And it gave me the clue I needed to finish my thoughts.

I felt a bit jealous when I read Rachel’s loving descriptions of her noticing, wandering child. Partly, I think, because who wouldn’t want to their own inherent gifts appreciated and nurtured like that? That is love! We all yearn for that. I also think a bit of it was my own nature—if I can see something good that people do, I want to do it, too! Now, in my forties, I’ve learned to smile at that feeling and remind myself that the gifts this amazing young lady has are really not in my wheelhouse. I have other gifts.

Once the jealousy passed through, an epiphany jumped into its place. Life whispered. I got to glimpse the bigger picture. Rachel’s right; we absolutely do need folks like her daughter to heal this broken world. I want to take her wisdom one step further, though—we need folks exactly like each and every one of us to heal this broken world. 

That’s the thought makes my puzzle pieces fit, the amazingly huge and yet mundane bit of wisdom that we can carry with us everywhere. I’d like to share my two bright moments and see if you think I’m onto something.

We went to see Incredibles II for Father’s Day, as many people probably did. In our case, no one had turned on the lights in the theater or the projector. Strips of lights lined the stairs, but nearly everyone had to use their phone lights to find their seats. After we’d sat munching popcorn in the dark for a few minutes, I got silly.

Now, I know this impulse came from ME. From the truest, most inherent part of who I am, which is also a part of me that has been buried, straightened, controlled, managed, and otherwise manipulated to Behave itself. But that day--maybe because I was so tired, maybe because the weight seemed so heavy, maybe because God nudged me—I did what I almost never do. I actually got silly.

I took out my phone, turned the flashlight on, aimed it at the enormous screen, and started making shadow puppets in front of a theater full of people. My family and I giggled, then little snort-laughs started exploding from other people all around us. I couldn’t keep it going very long (I don’t know a ton of one-handed shadows), but when I turned my light off, someone else turned theirs on. We did this for about twenty minutes!

Twenty minutes of spontaneous group fun…in the dark…with total strangers! That bright spot (literal bright spot!) started me thinking.

I have a few other inherent parts of me that get a lot of flack. For instance, I always tackle “too much.” That’s in quotes because, really, how do you define “too much”? And who is in charge of defining it anyway? (I’m laughing at myself here.) If I ever end up faced with that eternal, boring pair of matching interview questions about my greatest strength and weakness, that’s my answer: I can handle A LOT, but sometimes I try to handle “too much.”

My wonderful husband even gave me a plaque to celebrate that.

Our life is insanely full right now. It’s far surpassed the normal madness of modern life. I’m not just talking work and parenting, both of which are jobs and a half these days. I mean that we’ve got huge life changes happening, deep growing we’re doing, and friends and family we want to be there for. I bet 4 out of 5 dentists would agree that anything I add to my list right now is “too much.”

Yet I’m also, inherently, in my bones, a baker. I love to bake! Cookies, cakes, muffins, even pastry. (Somehow no one complains about that quality of mine…hmmm.) I’ve had some buttermilk in the house, waiting to be a part of the best muffin recipe ever. And, as a family, we all want to be part of our new neighborhood. And the baker in me knows that food never fails to make a great conversation, so…

So today, with a book edit due Monday and a host of other things on my mind, I baked mini-muffins, then took them to three of our neighbors. My daughter and I spent a few minutes with each one, chatting and enjoying every minute of it. And now I sit, with happiness filling my heart, in the den we’re not fully moved into (we will be building the wall unit next week), not finishing my editing project because…

I’m also a writer. A writer who drops everything when insight happens, who tries to transform the whispers in her ear into understandings to share. Who feels most real, alive, and heart-full when crafting words to put out into the world.

I’ve spent a lifetime taming all these parts of me, my random childishness, my inflated sense of the possible, my absolute need to breathe in ideas and breathe out newly created thoughts. They do not fit the busy-ness of modern life.

Yet they do fill my cup. Just like wandering does for Rachel’s daughter. Just like some precious, irreplaceable gift does for you.

My hope for the world lies in that thought. I’m nothing fancy—my gifts won’t cure cancer or bring about world peace. At least, they won’t do that on their own. But they can fill my cup, they can bring me health and peace and joy, they can give me overflowing love to spill out into the world.

Be fiercely, joyfully, wholly yourself. Be who you are, in everyday moments and in life-changing ones. Lean into your true self, let your own gifts fill your cup. Let it spill from you into the world around you. No gift, no overflow can be too little—every drop counts.

Drop by drop, we can make a flood. Drop by drop, we can heal the brokenness. Drop by drop, we can fill this world with love.

Monday, June 4, 2018

How Dishwasher Rearrangers Came to Be

My very own creation fable!

Once upon a time, a family moved into a new home. The home held every possible convenience, every invention that could possibly make work easier.

As the family lived in the home day after day, they used each appliance, one after another, for the very first time. One of these fantastical devices, the dishwasher, pleased none of the family.

“This won’t fit!”
“The cups are all wet!”
“Are the plates supposed to clank like that?”
“This bowl fell over—is that soap inside?”

Their cries of distress and distaste filled the new home. The situation grew more and more terrible until one day, the youngest child stepped forward.

“I will solve this problem,” the child vowed.

At bus stops, in waiting rooms, and in the wee hours before sleep, the child pored over the dishwasher manual. The young one read and learned, learned and read. The child studied diagrams and troubleshooting charts until one day it all became clear.

“I know how we are meant to place our dishes!” the child announced.

Slowly and patiently, patiently and slowly, the child shared this newfound knowledge with each member of the family. There were places made for plates, slots for silverware, beds for bowls, and grooves for glasses. When all had been shown, the child knew that the dishwasher would now become a blessing in their new home.

“We will have clean, dry, unchipped dishes!” the child rejoiced.

Until one day, the dirty plates were once again out of place, the bowls out of their beds, the silverware out of its slots, and the glasses out of their grooves! Once again, the dishes were clanking, wet, and soapy. What had happened to dishwashing in their new home?

Quickly and carefully, carefully and quickly, the child replaced each plate, bowl, glass, and piece of silver. With each put each in its proper place, she started the fantastical appliance. Once again the dishes shone, dry and clean!

All was well in the new home. And, since the child never failed to rearrange each dish that was found out of place, all remained well.

And that, my dear ones, is how Dishwasher Rearrangers came to be.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Rufous Conveyance

I envision our new life in the “Tree House” as filled with lots of fun, laughter, relaxation, and comfortable hospitality. Casual. All about family and friends. Open doors and open hearts. You know, unpretentious.

And yet.

My first inspiration came to me in the most pretentious form possible—a red, well, sort-of wheelbarrow.  Almost a wheelbarrow. Souped-up wheelbarrow? A conveyance enough like a wheelbarrow to keep William Carlos Williams on my mind for days.

For everyone not enough of an English geek (or not pretentious enough!) to automatically think of it, William Carlos Williams wrote a poem about a red wheelbarrow, a poem that tends to elicit strong feelings from readers. Either the poem is a glorious, laser-focused verse elevating the mundane to art…or a futile, failed attempt to make a barnyard mean something it doesn’t.

I won’t copy the whole poem here—oh, who am I kidding? Of course I will! Here you go: 

The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends 
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens


Here’s our red wheelbarrow-like visitor. It arrived in response to our neighbors’ plaintive cries that something, anything be done about the native vegetation (weeds) surrounding the oak and palmettos, the oak that gave our house its family nickname, the Tree House. The oak grows on common property, directly between our house and the pond. Yet apparently the ragged growth there ruined the viewing pleasure of those around us.


Red landscape wagon to the rescue! 

The Landscape Wagon 
so many cried
out for

the landscape
wagon

proper plants
aboard

to welcome the
gator

The gator cometh...
Ayup, folks, that’s my pseudo-pretentious return to blogging from the Tree House. May all your wheeled conveyances be poetic!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Empathy 2

Decent hospital art--though I did wonder why the column in back is the one in focus?!?


Cancer has been on my heart a lot lately. It touches so many people I love in so many ways. So, though this post has been sitting in my drafts for months, I think now is the time to publish.

I know my experiences reflect the experience of a lucky, well-insured woman in America. I know a lot of people have it a lot worse. I hate that anyone faces a lack of insurance. I hate that anyone faces a cancer diagnosis. And that’s kind of the point of the post.

Having my toes dipped, ever so slightly, into this pool has cracked my heart wide open for everyone who must swim in it.

Maintaining healthy breasts definitely has some pluses and minuses, at least in my experience. I meet some amazing people during the whole process, but, oh my word, the process just stinks.

I understand where it’s all coming from—I mean, I’m a well-informed, experienced (ie, getting old) adult who actually used to sell breast localization, aspiration, and biopsy needles. So I know the stats. (Skip this part if stats bore you.) Cancer causes the second highest number of deaths in women and breast cancer, the most common cancer women, causes the second highest number of cancer deaths. It’s a thing we need to prevent, if possible.

To get back to me, I have a family history of breast cancer. I also have fibrocystic breasts, aka lumpy breasts. That means that my self-exams do not involve checking for lumps. My exams involve checking to make sure that I have the same NUMBER of lumps, in the same PLACES, and roughly the same SIZE as last time. Except that they’re cysts, so they swell (and hurt like crap) sometimes. And swelling’s normal. Except when it’s not. Hurting is a good (non-cancerous) sign. Except when it’s not. It’s probably nothing. Except when it’s not.

So around about July 9, while out of town having a blast on a girls’ weekend, something swelled at the wrong time and in the wrong place. When I got home, I called my doctor to utter the magic words “history” and “lump” thus getting the next available appointment, which in this busy practice ended up being July 24. Seriously, though, that was pretty fast.

Spoiler: Let me just say that I’m fine. On August 9, one month later, I found out I’m fine. And they’ve now counted and mapped my lumps for future reference. Yay!

So my doctor (awesomely) gave me orders for both a screening mammogram AND follow-up imaging, just in case, to streamline the process. I set it up with a local hospital because I love the people there. And I got in on July 26.

I really do love the people there. Let’s just start with the outpatient registrar, who totally laughed when I said that, while I could 100% confirm the birthdate on my ID bracelet, I do not identify with the age that goes with it. Then she sent me down the hall to the infamous “door with the pink flowers”—I mean, really. We all know it’s mammography, but the subtly off-pink flowers in place of a sign give it an almost self-parodying Steel Magnolias vibe. Who doesn’t love that?

The mammography techs rock. They must give the same reassurances and make the same jokes a billion times a week, but they still do it. They make that utterly (udderly!) ludicrous process normal and quick, while keeping it human. But the one monkey wrench in the whole works comes after the techs do their good work: the radiologist.

I’ve been assured that he’s a genius and that “if I had to pick anyone in the world to read my films, it would be him” but… One, I’ve been in enough workplaces to be able to see that everyone works around this guy. And two, I don’t know if it’s hospital policy or what, but he MAILS results. In an envelope. In the mail. Like, the USPS (slowly) carries it to your mailbox. They call it snail mail for a reason, folks.

So both the hospital and my doctor have online records with a tab for lab results. I signed up and duly checked them every day…about twenty times a day. Seriously, the activity log for both accounts shows stalker-level check ins. Nothing. Well, that’s not true. My “radiology” tab showed a bill for the mammogram, so at least I knew it happened…but that was it. Nothing else. And do not even try to call for results. That’s not an option. The gods of medical records laugh at your feeble attempts to game the system that way.

A WEEK LATER, on August 2, I got an envelope from the hospital in the mail. I assumed it was a bill because, hey, that’s all that showed up in my electronic file. I opened it up to find a form letter. “Normally benign” blah-blah-blah, but “follow up imaging needed.”

Since my awesome doctor had given me the order already, I immediately called the hospital to schedule the ultrasound ASAP, for August 9.

I got there plenty early for the appointment (I wonder why?) and stopped by medical records to see what I could do about getting results some way other than IN THE MAIL. Turns out the only other way is in person. The kindhearted lady there also gave me about six copies of the release I need to sign to let my husband pick up my results as needed, since he works across the street. She even told me how to write my own release in case I ran out of forms!

Then things got fun. The ultrasound tech, Brittany, turned out to be even cooler than mammogram techs, if that’s possible. She kept me chatting about life with boys (our sons are about the same age) and told me fun stories of how much gel you get all over you practicing on each other in ultrasound tech school. She also told me I could feel free not to identify with age on my bracelet; she thought I was much younger. (She actually *IS* much younger, though, so that was cool.)

The best part? She promised to get me results before I left that day. Since that meant waiting, she suggested I’d be most comfortable in the “breast room” aka the mammography suite. I, of course, heard that as “restroom” and momentarily thought she’d lost her mind, but we had a good laugh. In the end, I was free to roam about the hospital. The radiologist had gone into a procedure unexpectedly, but the tech promised to haunt the door until he came out and then call my cell.

While I waited, I got an amazingly strong, delicious latte, expertly made by the lady in the gift shop. I mean, if your cysts are already swollen and sore, why not have caffeine? I also had the joyful experience of listening to a woman a little older than I am lovingly debate with her mother about whether the city of Charlotte is in North or South Carolina. The hysterical dialogue could have been from a Laurel and Hardy routine, but they were so sweet with each other.

In practically no time, Brittany the tech stopped by to let me know that all my cysts were just being their usual cystic selves. Freedom!

Of course, I did get my official results IN THE MAIL a week later. Both my doctor and the radiologist want me to do another ultrasound in six months, now that they’ve mapped my cysts. I can live with that. I may even name the cysts—I figure they’re like little constellations in there. Why not?

I gotta tell you, though—this stinks. I have a friend who describes the brain as a computer. Do you know how annoying it is when your antivirus or backup software runs ALL THE TIME, hanging up the program you’re using? Well, my Norton Cancer Anxiety program ran pretty constantly for that month, hanging up all the other programs in my brain.

I didn’t want to talk about it because what is there to say? But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either. The kids—feeding, driving, and chatting with them—distracted me pretty well, but otherwise I couldn’t concentrate. I could only do the necessities then read beach novels on my Kindle to calm myself. For a month. And this was my second time in two years.

I guess I need to work on being more zen.

But I had to think: I have insurance and I do not have cancer. How unbelievable paralyzing, all-consuming, and life-altering would this have been if either of those factors changed?

I hate that any person worries about medical bills while wondering if they have cancer. I hate that anyone misses a vital screening for financial reasons. I hate that anyone goes into debt to stay alive.

I’m going back to my Empathy post here. My experience doesn’t compare to others’, but it does give me a path toward empathizing with their experiences. And once I’ve done that, how can I not care?

If anyone in our country faces any of those completely avoidable financial stresses, our system is broken. We need to fix it. I don’t know how, but I’m looking. I’m listening. I’m thinking. I won't forget. And I will vote.

Postscript: I started the process of trying to get life insurance after my August all-clear. Through bureaucratic incompetence, the process took five months. As of this writing, three weeks before my follow-up ultrasound, I have just been denied life insurance. In a way it's validating--I'm not crazy for worrying--but in a way...well, the life insurance company doesn't think I'm a good bet. 

Too bad. I'm doing this thing called life! 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Tragedy of Passing

A little fine print to begin...This blog will discuss the movie, The Greatest Showman, as a work of art. Without touching on the historical accuracy of the story, I will consider the characters, plot, lyrics, and themes of the story as the theater and English major I am. I will use "passing" according to Merriam-Webster's definition 10c, "to identify oneself or be identified as something one is not."

Oddly, I noticed that my old blog, Exceptional, received two hits this week. Good! That's the blog in which I claim that any student considered average just hasn't been caught being exceptional. I'm going to double down on that claim. ANYONE considered average just hasn't been caught yet--they're passing as average and that is tragic.

I firmly believe that good art addresses the deepest wounds of the society in which its made. As The Greatest Showman sweeps the nation, let's think about why. What wounds does it expose in all of us? And what can it tell us about how to heal?

The movie's very effective structure sets up lots of contrasts among the characters--Barnum and Lind come from poverty, Charity and Carlisle come from wealth.  And, most notably, all four can pass as average, which the individuals--the freaks--Barnum hires cannot.

Barnum hires freaks for his show by selling them a community in which they can fully belong. He sings,
Come one!
Come all!
You hear
The call
To anyone who's searching for a way to break free

To quote the story's love song, "we're able to be/just you and me/inside these walls." Barnum sells his show as place to celebrate difference, to applaud each individual's uniqueness. In the beginning of the movie, it's implied that he may not be fully invested in that as a principle--it seems to be more of an opportunity to profit. By the end of the movie, in a powerful, traditional story arc, the salesman has sold something that's more real than knows. The illusion he sold to those who are visibly outliers becomes salvation for Barnum, who is equally, if less visibly, an outlier.

Barnum sees the status of Jenny Lind as the ultimate goal. A renowned, internationally celebrated artist, Lind moves among the upper class, even royalty. In the movie's story, Barnum and Lind come from similar impoverished backgrounds and so feel themselves to be outliers. Internally, their pasts mark them apart from average as much as physical traits mark Barnum's employees as outliers. Yet, outwardly, Barnum and Lind can pass. Given the right money, opportunities, connections, and talents, they can impersonate what they can never be, what no one can ever be: Average. Acceptable. Normal. Socially untroubling.

What makes a tragedy out of successfully passing? What we must do to pass. If we humans deny what makes us unique, if we try to amputate all the parts that don't fit into the cookie cutter, if we hide parts of ourselves as deadly secrets, we become walking wounded. We live lives ruled by fear of discovery, consumed by a cannibalistic level of the natural human desire for belonging.

Lind, in her insecurity, has lived alone. She sings alone. Her costuming is iconically cold and untouchable. Cold, solitary images fill lyrics of her song--she sings of stealing the cold, distant, unattainable stars, she sings of towers--solitary structures, she sings of a soloist's spotlights, she sings of how it will "never be enough." In the movie, she pushes too hard to seize on her tentative sense of belonging with Barnum and she loses him. She also triggers a crisis in  Barnum's life.

Barnum, in contrast, has unwittingly created a community--a community that welcomes all, without any requirement of passing. In crisis, he turns back to the people he worked with in the beginning, the team that created his success. Among them, he can be fully himself. He reclaims his unique place in that group and his sense of belonging in the song "From Now On."  With his community, he sings the driving refrain of "And we will come back home/Home again!"

Why does this story resonate so profoundly--and not just with the eternally alienated teen population? My husband, our fourth grade son, and I were as affected as our teen daughter. Maybe it's because each and every human being is an outlier. We are all unique. And we are constantly being told to fit the norm. To be physically standard with inoffensive thoughts and experiences. To speak what others accept. To be an acceptable weight with an acceptable education and income and possessions... I could list items we are pressured to police about ourselves until this blog ran a hundred screens long.

For the love of humanity, people, it will never happen! We don't need a normal ticket to belong in the greatest show. We just need to decide that we all belong in this existence. We all belong. In every beautiful variation on this planet, in every facet of uniqueness, every person belongs. We. All. Belong. As. We. Are.

And if you want a scientific pathway to the idea that average is the true fiction, look up the story of Gilbert S. Daniels and his 1940s research on pilot size for the Air Force. You can find the story almost anywhere--here's a good version.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

failure



sometimes
failure
that inky soup
lies in puddles
you can see
and step around
or watch diminish
soaked in
evaporated

sometimes
you wake up
in the soup
no toehold
nowhere to breathe

Friday, January 12, 2018

Chrysalis

the props are packed
the crutches kicked away
the milquetoast
thoroughly burned
now
I split open
my amanuensis shell
twig-perched
I pulse wings
to see
if circulation
sparks color