Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Defying the Odds

The Christmas season is my very favorite time of year -- the lights, the lush garlands and trees, the great food, and more cheerful people. I love everything about it and could probably live in a Christmas environment for the majority of the year, especially if there is snow. I know most people enjoy snow on Christmas, but I enjoy it ALL the time. I can never get enough of it, perhaps with the exception of driving to the UP of Michigan in a blizzard in the dark. There is something about the preparation and anticipation of this season that comforts me and makes me feel incredibly joyful, forgetting some of my usual stress and worry. It is the waiting for Christmas that I enjoy, much more than I do the actual day. Once the actual day arrives I start to feel the blues tapping on my door, fully settling in with a bowl of popcorn and their feet on the coffee table the next day.

For some reason, this year, I am feeling the blues arrogantly inching toward my doorstep a little earlier. I find that I am living more within the world of Lent, rather than Advent. I have been reflecting on all my mistakes the last several weeks -- kicking myself over stupid decisions and guilting myself over the things I haven't yet done that I know I should. I have been stupid, selfish, lazy, and cranky. I have put off responsibilities that should've received attention, because I was either too scared or too lazy to deal with them.

It frustrates me that I am allowing myself to be deterred from fully enjoying my favorite time of year, but I suppose it makes sense. The end of the year is a natural time to be reflective -- to evaluate what I've done, what I need to do, what I need to change. This last year was already a year of big and important changes for me. And I think that the next requires changes even bigger and even more transformative. I must become more than what I am, more of what I need to be. More than what I feel capable of.

Jesus came into this world superceding what anyone would have thought possible. I am sure Mary and Joseph probably both experienced their shares of doubts and disbelief. It's impossible to know what they thought, but it is human nature to doubt oneself and be hesitant to believe in something so incredible. I can imagine that Joseph most likely doubted in his abilities to take care of a wife and child, let alone the child of God. I am sure there were times when he considered backing out. It would have been much easier. But he didn't. I wonder what tremendous pressure he must have felt, and how heavily it must have weighed upon his spirit. He could've turned back at any moment -- when he found out about a pregnancy that he knew couldn't be his, when he found out they were in danger politically, when they were left with nowhere to go but a stable. But he didn't.

I can imagine that Mary must have feared how she would be able to face Joseph, her family, and her community, knowing full well that her situation would elicit much judgment and possibly even danger. And I am sure she also would have doubted her own abilities in being the vessel of God. Can you fathom how unworthy she must have felt? I know how unworthy I sometimes feel just to have minor positive things happen to me, let alone being chosen to carry the savior of the world. What must that have felt like? Flattering? Confusing? Terrifying? Exhausting? Perhaps, a little of them all? If it were me, I think that in the moment I received the overwhelming and terrifying news from Gabriel I would have pleaded with God to choose someone else. I would have moaned and complained that I couldn't possibly be the right person for the job. But Mary didn't. She could have given up at any time, and moved on with her life as if none of it had ever happened. But she didn't.

Mary and Joseph not only dealt with what was handed to them, but treated it as an honor and a gift. No matter how many doubts and how much fear infaltrated their thoughts, they graciously accepted their duty without animosity. They never retreated from the purpose that they had been given.

The last few years have been difficult ones for me in many ways. I have been constantly pushed and prodded to keep changing and growing, leaving my soul and spirit stretched and a little bruised. I feel exhausted. I have transformed so much already, but know that I have so much further yet to go. I am not fully convinced that I want to keep getting pushed right now. I often wonder why I can't get just a little break -- to be okay staying just as I am for a little while. I sometimes feel so overwhelmed with where I need to go and how far away it seems to be from where I am. Sometimes I really want to give up. And sometimes . . . I do.

Mary and Joseph didn't give up, even if they had wanted to. They were pushed and prodded, and kept transforming as often as they breathed. With each movement of air in and out of their lungs they were changing -- as a living, breathing work of God's art. Transformation IS life and breath. It is what makes us "live," rather than simply "survive." And as much as it sometimes hurts, I'd rather "live." I "survived" for a long time . . . and I am not quite ready to go back there.

I honestly don't know just how I will make the necessary changes that are long overdue. I suspect Mary and Joseph weren't quite sure themselves of how they would handle the struggles that lain in their futures. They kept walking -- walking into scary and unknown territory, hoping that the grace of God would help them find their way. I suppose that is all I can do, all any of us can do. I pray that God's grace will lead me to where I need to go. And that it will provide all the air my lungs need . . . just breathe. May God's grace find you all, and may you feel peace wherever you are in your own transformation. May we all become more than we ever thought possible.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's Not What You Think

"Well, there’s a war on Christmas, it’s under attack
But this year America’s taking it back."

These are some lyrics from one of my most favorite shows in the whole world: Stephen Colbert's Christmas special from 2008, titled "The Greatest Gift of All."

If you're not familiar with Stephen Colbert and his daily comedy show on Comedy Central, he does a fake news show, a la "Daily Show" and does so in his manufactured Bill O'Reilley-esque, pseudo-conservative persona. He plays a character in which he satirizes the conservative media. In my opinion, he is one of the funniest people around. And one of the smartest.

The lyrics above ring incredibly true for me. Not true in the sense that there is actually a war on Christmas. But true in that some people really seem to believe that liberals are out to destroy Christmas, and in turn, Christianity.

Now, I can't deny that there probably are some crazy, extreme left-wingers that would indeed love to see the demise of both Christmas and Christianity. But those such individuals are in a vastly small minority. This evil plot wouldn't even be on the radar for most liberals. And as challenging as it may be to believe, many liberals ARE Christians. I am one of them.

I remember several years ago when I first heard the phrase, "War on Christmas," and listened as some media types asserted that there was a swelling threat to the dear, old traditions of our beloved Christmas. I distinctly remember saying, "Huh?!"

I had never heard anything like this before and felt an intense level of befuddlement over the notion that people were "out to get" Christmas. Call me naive, but I don't get it. Call me even more naive, but I actually thought that this paranoia had died down in the last couple years. When to my surprise, I heard Bill O'Reilley and Glen Beck talking about it again this year.

I don't know how many people are actually in line with this concern. It may mostly just be some of the people that I see on tv. I doubt most Christians would be that fearful over a systematic overthrow of this important holiday. I hope so at least.

Now, if there were real and deliberate actions taken to eliminate a private citizen's choice to celebrate the birth of Jesus and/or to believe in the Christian faith, I would be first in line to oppose. And I would feel the same if it was another religion's beliefs and holidays. If I am going to demand that MY beliefs be accepted, I MUST demand the same rights for those of differing beliefs. But the fact is, this threat does not exist.

It is that same fear that drives this that causes people to feel like their country is being taken away. Who is it that is really and truly taking away all of these things from people? Honestly, I would like to hear what people think about that, because I just don't understand it. I don't understand why people feel that parts of themselves are so easy to apprehend. I don't want to simply dismiss people that feel this way (I'm not sure that I always succeed). But I would like for one of them to calmly give me a specific answer as to how this thievery is being accomplished.

There are no laws stating that a person cannot believe or celebrate as they choose in their own private homes. The one way in which I can see a change is in the public arena, such as schools. It is true that some schools no longer allow any holiday celebrations that are exclusively Christmas-centric. Some have abolished carols and nativities. This is different even from when I was in grade school. I admit that I could feel a little sadness over this, but I do not feel any animosity. I have to accept that things are different now. Things cannot stay the same forever. Nor should they.

I have had to adapt to these changes in my own personal life. I married a Jewish man. He is not religiously Jewish, but does like to get in touch with his cultural roots. I never in a million years expected to marry outside of my religion. It was not something I was ever against. I just simply never thought about it. I expected to be like everyone else in my family and in my small town, and marry someone that came from a very similar background.

As things many times go, life took an unexpected turn, and I fell in love with someone that grew up oppositely from me in many ways. He was Jewish; I was Christian. He was from the Bronx; I was from a small town. But we are much more alike than we are different. We are the same at our cores. And surprisingly, manage to hold most of the same beliefs, though I am "religious" and he is not.

Being with Kevin forced me to open up to new perspectives and to realize that no matter where you are or who you are with, you are still you and still hold your own beliefs. No one can take that away. While I never want to lose the core of who I am, I also don't ever want to stay the same forever. Things change, and so must I.

America is more and more moving further away from the homogenous WASP world most of us grew up with. There are more families of other cultures and religions than ever before. And in order to provide true equality we must all adapt to the shifting nature. And sometimes that means not getting to have public organizations and settings be the same as we have been used to. This sometimes means that OUR beliefs do not get to control the ways of all. Other beliefs must now be treated as equals to our own.

I know it's not an easy adjustment. It is difficult to say good-bye to the things we have known since childhood. And it's quite natural to feel some melancholy over the changes. But it is inevitable. What about the people that believe in a different God, or no God at all? What about the things they have been used to? Do you think that they want exactly what we want -- to find contentment knowing that they have the freedom to believe and live as they choose, to find comfort in seeing their beliefs reflected equally in government, schools, etc.? They are just as deserving as we are to receive all that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New York State of Mind

Billy Joel's song "New York State of Mind" is running through my head at the moment . . . because Kevin and I will soon be departing for NYC this coming Monday, to visit his family and take in some magical Manhattan moments. Each trip is practically a lifetime of experiences in a very brief span. I can see why people love the city. They most assuredly have the most interesting and strange happenings. It certainly leaves a mark on you, for better or for worse.

I personally could never live there, as much as I enjoy visiting. I am a small town girl (gratuitous Journey song plug) and have lived in them my whole life until the time we got married. I was born in Rochester, Minnesota (which is no small place) but only lived there for a year before we moved to Indiana, with the start of Dad's ministry career. So from year 1 until year 25 I had grown accustomed to the slow-paced sway and quiet style of the small town. I loved it. I still do. I'm a quiet person generally, and hate business and chaos. Let's put it this way: what many people consider a blast and a good-time (a.k.a "the party life") I consider it a migraine waiting to happen. I have a low threshhold for such things. If that makes me a boring, old-fart, than so be it! :)

The first time I went to New York with Kevin was August of 2003. I was extremely nervous. I was heading to the Big Apple for the first time and I was also meeting some of his family members for the first time as well. I really wasn't sure what to expect. I suppose I kept picturing what I had always seen in the movies -- the glamourized version of New York City. Umm, yeah, it's really not like that. The streets are much smaller and more narrow than I had expected. Everything is crowded and busy. It's a very exhausting place to be.

Kevin's parents and brother all live in the Bronx, which is where he was born and raised. Now, the other burroughs are vastly different from Manhattan. It's still crowded enough and busy. But it's not nearly so overwhelming. You get the feeling that you're in the "neighborhood," which is pretty cool. We stayed with Kevin's dad for the first night or two during that first trip. The first couple days we stayed within the Bronx and finally ventured into the city to visit Kevin's uncle, aunt, and cousin, and then to go to a comedy club (Caroline's to be exact). I vividly remember stepping out of the subway (that's a whole other lifetime of experiences there!) and emerging from the station stairs and seeing the vastness of Manhattan for the very first time. It was evening, and was mostly dark, just that slightly lighter hue of blue before it turns fully black. I stared up at the skyscrapers the same way I tilt my head backward to check out a sky full of stars. If my mouth wasn't actually open, it might as well have been. I was completely overwhelmed. I felt this rush of panic wash over me and suddenly wanted to be home. I had this thought of, "What the hell am I doing here . . . a small-town, simple-life girl?!"

Well, I was there because I was in love. And I had to expand my horizons in order to show that love, and allow myself to become inundated with new experiences and become a more opened person. I knew it . . . but let me tell you, it took me awhile to get adjusted!

We had a great time with his family. I've got to throw this in here . . . all of Kevin's family has been really wonderful to me from the very start. They've all treated me with love and kindness and made me a part of their family. I feel very lucky to have the in-laws that I do, and I know many people can't say that, which is why I feel I must. It could've been very easy for them to resent me, since Kevin moved away from all of them to be with me. In a way, I felt really guilty. But they never treated me as if I'd done wrong to them.

Later that evening we headed to Caroline's comedy club. Before the doors were open for the main room, we had to wait in their lounge. It was dark and terribly crowded. I was surrouned by all these people, drinking and whooping it up with their friends. They all seemed so incredibly comfortable and uber-extroverted. I felt myself shutting down more and more. I don't think I could've crawled inside myself any more than I did that night. I was like an ostrich that not only stuck my head in the sand, but my entire body. I was not comfortable. Poor Kevin. All he wanted to do was show me a good time and create an amazing trip, of the likes I had never seen before, and all I could do was shut down?! Well, we can't always perform swimmingly all the time, can we? ;)

The rest of the trip we stayed in Kevin's uncle's old apartment in Tuckahoe in Westchester. They had moved to Manhattan and were still trying to sublet this apartment. Luckily, they were generous enough to let us stay there. Westchester is a beautiful and cozy area. It's a great place for a vacation. However, if the entirety of your activities is not in Westchester and IS in the city, than it can be rather tiring taking the Metro trek every day, in addition to the subways, cabs, and buses that you take while in the city. Oh yeah, did I mention the walking?! You do an awful lot of walking!! Bring comfortable shoes if you should ever visit. :)

I stupidly wanted to look fabulous and so wore heels to make a journey into the city on one such day. And even before we got to the Metro station in Tuckahoe my feet were hurting and I had the makings of one hell of a rubbing burn on my inner thighs. We hadn't even started the day! I had to stop and get some baby powder to help.

Kevin had planned all sorts of amazing activities for us, including another comedy club (Comedy Cellar in the village) and a Ghostbusters sites trek (the firehouse station where they filmed and the library), a taping of Colin Quinn's "Tough Crowd" on Comedy Central, for which we originally stood in a wrong line for, finding out several minutes later that it was a line for Jason Mraz. He was so very thoughtful in wanting to create a memorable experience for me. And he did. It just didn't go exactly as he had planned.

We were out from the late morning until 11pm to 1am basically each day. It was insanely hot and humid that week, and I was getting completely worn-out and exhausted. I believe it was Thursday of that week, we were to go to my very first Broadway show (yay!) to see 42nd Street. I was in the middle of getting ready, finishing my make-up and hair and suddenly the power went out. Ohh great . . . I kind of chuckled about it and wondered if it would take long for it to come back on. Little did I know just how long it would take. It was maybe 20 minutes or so and we heard some murmurings and movements out in the hallway. Kevin went out to see if everyone's power was out, which it was. The neighbor lady across the hallway told him that she had a turkey in the oven. Kevin told her that we were supposed to go see a show and the lady offered to tap dance for us.

We got a hold of Kevin's uncle, whom had dropped us off after our trip to the Bronx zoo earlier that afternoon, and he and his wife and daughter trailed back to the Tuckahoe apartment to check on us. It was looking like the show wasn't going to happen that night. In fact, the power was out until the next morning. It was the big black-out on the eastern seaboard of 2003. Well, nothing could be more memorable than that!

Despite our plans being dumped we ended up having a really great time together, the five of us. We went out to eat at an Italian restaurant in Tuckahoe. Somehow, even without power, they were able to still safely prepare food. And we ate in a dark restaurant with the soft glow of a few small candles. Honestly, that's one of the coolest things I've ever done! There is nothing like that feeling of an occurrence that everyone, including complete strangers, is sharing with you.

The rest of the evening we all sat around the apartment (which was very very hot, since there was now no AC) and just talked. The next day when I woke up the power was on. I went to the bathroom to get cleaned up, looked in the mirror, and flinched back when I saw a bright red spot on my left eye. I had a broken blood vessel, which most likely happened during our flight to NY, and just took awhile to finally show up. I looked quite amusing. It was ugly, for sure. But it almost felt like a battle scar, something to feel proud of for making it through my first trip to NYC.

That afternoon we headed back to Kevin's dad's place. Unfortunately, the power was NOT on there yet. So we lugged ourselves and our luggage up four flights of stairs to his apartment. After a little while we took a walk around the neighborhood to see if any restaurants had power . . . we were starving. Well, good ol' Burger King was the first place with power we could find. And I had never adored air conditioning so much in my life!!

The next day we left NY and headed for home. By this time I was feeling terrible. I had a fever, the chills, and I had not an ounce of energy left in my cells. All the heat, humidity, business, and running around had caught up with me. I turned to Kevin and said while chuckling, "Don't ever do this to me again."

And he hasn't. :) Despite all his wonderful intentions that first trip he definitely learned my limits, and has since adapted his plans. I wish that I could've dealt with it all much better than I did, but I did the best I could. Every trip since then has gone much smoother. Each time we go back I enjoy it more and more. I've gotten used to the largeness of everything, the crowds, the subway, the tiring nature of getting from point A to point B (which always has multiple sub-points in between). One of my favorite moments was from our trip in December of 2004. One night after going to another comedy club we went to see the tree at Rockefeller Center. We leaned against the upper edge of the skating rink and watched two middle-aged ladies clinging to one another's sleeves, bobbing back and forth, trying to avoid a spill, while laughing hysterically. It was hilarious to watch, and gave me such a feeling of warmth. We walked around a bit to take in all the beauty of the giant lit snowflakes and trumpeting angels by the walkway. All the while, it was softly snowing. Hmmmmm, that was truly a magical Christmas moment for me!! It felt almost as if it were stolen from a movie.

I'm psyched because this year we will be going to see a matinee show of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas program and then go to Rockefeller Center to see the lighting of the tree. I can't tell you how excited I am for this!! It's times like this that really make you forget all of the stress and turmoil of your daily life. It's not often that this happens. And when it does, I want to soak it in as much as possible. I want live in the moment and let it take me away like Calgon.

As much as New York can be exhausting and dirty and loud, it can also be simply amazing. It can change you. Now, I am not the kind of person that believes every person should live in the city, and if you don't, you're lesser than. But I do believe that everyone should step outside of their safe places and open up to new people and new experiences. It broadens your mind. It gives you new perspectives. It gives you a more well-rounded understanding of people and of life. It makes you a better person. It made me a better person. Because of Kevin I have had to step outside of my comfort zone time and time again . . . and I am so grateful! I have met all sorts of people that I may not have met without him. I have been opened up to new ways of looking at the world through him. I married a Jewish guy from the Bronx. Who in the world would've thought that that was my future?! I never would have. This has all been something that I never expected and never ever planned. And it has been, without a doubt, the best thing to ever happen to me. If my life had played out like I had planned, it would never have been so sweet. The best things in life are the things that you don't expect.

I am so thankful for the opportunities that I've had to become broadened. I feel more richly fulfilled through them, and know that it is because of them that I have been able to feel more comfortable in my own skin and more adaptable. I can't wait to find out what new unexpected surprises are in store for this trip. Whatever happens . . . I know it will be memorable!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From Buds to Blossoms . . .

I'm taking a break . . . I'm supposed to be writing some portions of an e-book that I am writing for a client, about her experiences going through cancer and her process of healing. I've been working on it this afternoon and have made some good progress, but I keep feeling this well of emotions creeping up on me, feeling like a surging, swirling tempest, ready to pour out. I know then, that it is time to write . . . and not write for someone else, or write something logical, sensible, or rehearsed. It is time to write with pure freedom and raw emotion. Even though I may not have had this feeling much for a few years, I remember it all too well.

I've been listening to the soundtrack to "A Beauitful Mind." It is one of two of my favorite albums to listen to while I work. The other is the soundtrack to "Amistad." There is something about each of them that not only lulls me into a calm, focused state of being, but that also quakes awake my creative juices, even though I've listened to them each over a thousand times. Some music just does that to you. Not to mention that they each seem to stir my emotions to the surface, ready to handpick and cradle in my palm while I examine it. Do you ever turn your music up to a relatively high volume and just let it completely wash over you? There are many things that I do that with, and you should really try it with these two soundtracks. They're simply put: beautiful!

I spoke with my brother, Jeremy, this morning and he told me that my six year old niece, BryAnna will be having her first surgery tomorrow for ear reconstruction. It's almost funny that they call it "reconstruction," since BryAnna was born without external ears, and will soon be getting them for the first time. She was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, which is mainly marked by facial anomalies, such as one eye being slightly droopy and ear buds, instead of full ears. She has had a food tube and traech since she first came into the world. She has overcome each of them in her own tenacious way . . . eating and drinking orally and learning to breath and speak, at times, while using a special device that "plugs" her traech hole. She has overcome many many odds and I know will continue to do so.

On the day she was born I had just driven home from a day of classes at Indiana Wesleyan University. I pulled up alongside the curb in front of our house and began to assemble my books and bag, when my dad suddenly appeared by the passenger door. He opened it and knelt down. He paused. I noticed that his eyes were pink and puffy. Something was wrong. "She's in the hospital," he said, his voice shaky and unhinged. "The cord was wrapped around her neck four times and she has a collapsed lung."

I had no idea what or who he was talking about. I could barely get any syllables out of my mouth to ask him to explain. I think all I managed to say was, "What?"

I stumbled into the house, looking for Mom. She was crying. We embraced for a moment and then we all said, "Let's get to the hospital."

And off we drove . . . ready see BryAnna for the first time.

It was one of the most emotional and exhausting days of my life, and everyone else's life in our two families. I remember all of us circling around Mary's hospital bed, praying, and holding hands. There was much sadness and fear in that room, but there was also much love.

Shortly after we arrived they began to transport Bry to Riley hospital. Eventually Jeremy and my dad followed. It was terrible to be split apart in that moment, most especially for Jeremy and Mary. Then, and so many times since then they have proven how strong they are, and I marvel at their fortitude and stamina. I don't think I could do what they do.

That day I only briefly saw BryAnna as they wheeled her out of the room. She was a pink blur that whizzed by. I saw her for really the first time the next week, when we went to see them all at Riley. She was tiny and fragile. She had cords that seemed to drip out of every part of her body. I honestly didn't know what to expect, and it was more impactful than I could have imagined. Here was this tiny, precious being, completely unaware of all that was to come, all that she would have to endure. I felt my body go weak as I noticed the things that made her different. I felt anger toward myself for even noticing. I loved her, that was for sure. I didn't ever even have to see her or know her to love her. But when I did get to meet her for the first time, I felt such passion for this little girl. And I thought, "What in the world will I be able to give to her? How will I be able to help her?"

Bry was born on December 4, and was still living at Riley over Christmas. Mary and Jeremy came back home to celebrate with family, but it was a very lonely holiday. Their hearts, of course, were back in the NICU. In the ensuing months I got chances to hold her and take care of her. I was so afraid of hurting her or moving her in the wrong way. She was much more fragile than any baby that I had held, and I was terrified that I would do something wrong.

What started off as a frail, quiet baby has turned into a feisty, exuberant, sassy, and boisterous six year old. If you couldn't see or sometimes hear her differences, you'd never know that she was any different from any other first grader. She has more spunk and more spirit than any Olympic team, and more courage and determination than any army. We are all amazed by her. Everyone who comes into contact with her is amazed and touched. She has touched more lives in her short six years than most of us could hope to do in a lifetime. She will always be an inspiration, simply because she is a fighter. And I wish that I were more like her in that way. She puts me to shame.

BryAnna loves everyone and knows no stranger. And I'm so thankful for the relationship that Kevin and I both have with her . . . and with her sister, Nikole. We are incredibly close with them, and I am a better person because of it. They both mean more to us than they will ever realize, and the same goes for our other niece and nephews. Kids have such a powerful way of showing you the best parts of yourself. They see who you are at your core. They may not know all your deep, dark secrets, but they are able to see the true soul of who you are.

That is my wish for Bry . . . that the people in her life always see her beautiful spirit and loving soul, no matter what her outsides may look like. And I wish, more importantly, for her to see that in herself, always. To not ever feel lesser than or inferior because of her differences, but feel more beautiful because of them. She may not look the same as other kids, but to me, she is absolutely beautiful! Whatever differences I noticed in her the first time I saw her, quickly faded away, and I just saw her. And anyone that knows her, knows that that is a beautiful thing!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Day Unlike Any Other Day

I can hardly believe that four years ago today, I was up at around 5:30am, running on the fumes of four hours sleep, slightly late for my hair appointment, tired, nervous, excited, wondering if I was going to have enough stamina for the day, wondering if I would look okay in my dress, wondering if I would be a good wife. Four years ago was our wedding day. I am amazed at how right people were when they told me as a child and a teenager that time flies by the older you get. It seems as though each year picks up a little more speed, leaving me with breathless wonder if it'll be bursting with the pace of a cheetah by the time I'm in my golden years. So it is important to pause, take a breath (really letting it permeate through my body, slowly releasing it), and remember all of the moments that meant something -- big or small.

Today I am remembering one of those "big" moments -- the kind of moment that is so integral to the entirety of my life, but that seems so surreal and hard to grasp the fact that I experienced it. In the months preceeding our wedding I had several family members and friends tell me that the wedding day goes by in a blur, so be sure to stop and really plant my feet in the moment. While enough of the day is indeed a blur, I took heed to that advice and tried to take as many "mental pictures" as possible.

Snapshots of a room full of women (my mom, my grandma, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my nieces) that represent my past, my future, my spirit -- all getting our hair done in the salon of my sister-in-law's good friend. Mary (my sister-in-law) had made each of us a box full of food . . . blueberry muffins, mixed fruit, Dasani water (the best kind), and packaged them together as little breakfast presents.

Snapshots of two of my bridemaids (two very good friends) and I, finishing our make-up in our upstairs bathroom, talking about whether or not to put on a little dash of glitter, and chuckling over how crazy it seemed that the actual day was here.

Snapshots of my parents, emotional over the fact that a couple had come that they had a broken relationship with.

Snapshots of sitting on the steps of the sanctuary platform with my niece, Nikole, waiting to start another round of photographs . . . chatting and being silly as if there were nothing else going on just then . . . as if it was any normal day.

Snapshots of waiting in the lounge just before the ceremony started and realizing that Kevin had forgotten to put on his yamulkah, watching him run back into the house to retrieve it and helping him to feverishly attach it to his head before 3PM.

Snapshots of my wedding aisle entourage. The original plan was to have both of my parents walk me down the aisle, which they did, however there was a slightly altered plan. My niece, BryAnna was not ready to march with the other flower girls and so was carried down in the arms of my dad. I remember scrunching very tightly together for us all to fit between the pews in the back, which are closer together than those in the front.

Snapshots of Kevin's face and voice while he read his vows to me. Snapshots of his hands as he held the microphone up to me while I read mine to him. I remember holding his hands afterward and how they felt slightly cool and soft. I couldn't grip them tight enough.

Snapshots of the look in my dad's eyes as he spoke to us about how we met, especially the long, long phone calls (one of them being 14 hours long).

Snapshots of my brothers standing at the back of the sanctuary, holding lightsabers for us to pass underneath as we exited the church.

Snapshots of the warm glow in the reception hall that not only exuded from all the soft christmas lights and candles, but also from the people sitting and laughing amongst them.

Snapshots of dancing with my mom to the song "Come on Eileen" with all my cousins nearby, enjoying seeing her dance.

Snapshots of dancing to "Hava Nagila" while everyone huddled together on the dance floor. Holding hands they circled around us, creating such warmth and joy that it almost felt as if it were a vacuum and all of the positivity in the world had been trapped by us all for just a moment.

Snapshots of me feeling so nauseated and dizzy, with a pounding head, after it was all over. As I was trying to finish packing up my things so that Kevin and I could go spend our first night in our new apartment, I very nearly fainted. I was so determined that we would spend our wedding night in our new apartment, but eventually had to succumb to my health and I fell onto the air mattress in my old room. I gave up. We spent our wedding night on an air mattress on the floor of my old bedroom in my parents' house. I was asleep in about 20 minutes.

Snapshots of the day after our wedding, eating brunch in the church lounge with our family members that were left. I finally was able to truly enjoy their company, which we wouldn't have had if I had felt fine the night before. In the end, I'm so thankful that I had felt miserable so that we could have that Sunday brunch. It was relaxing and cathardic, and I remember how good it felt to have one more night in that house before I was truly gone.

Our wedding day was what we wanted -- warm, playful with some serious moments, easy-going (as easy-going as you can get for a wedding), personal, whimsical, and unique. We made almost everything ourselves . . . everything but the food and the photography. I made all the dresses with some help from my mom. I picked out all the flowers and greenery, arranging them myself, while my dad formed all the bouquets. Kevin and I made the invitations and programs. We did all the decorating ourselves (with family and friends of course). Dad officiated; Mom played; my brothers were our reception D.J.'s. It couldn't have been a more family-oriented event. Luckily we have family members and friends who are not only talented, but are also incredibly helpful when needed.

As wonderful as the day was, it wasn't perfect. Neither of us ever cared if it was perfect or not. Personally, I hate perfection. It leaves no room for randomness and surprises, which often are more beautiful than things that we expect or desire. Perfection is dull and rigid. I'm far too much of a free-spirit to have a goal of perfection. Our goal that day was to simply have an honest representation of our love for one another and for the people important to us.

My only regrets for that day lie in myself. And honestly, it wasn't so much what I did that day, but what I did after. Because of the self-esteem issues I was struggling with I kept replaying things over in my head that made me feel bad. I kept thinking of how I wish that I would've looked different at my wedding . . . that I was too fat. No girl wants to be "fat" on their wedding day. I kept thinking of how I felt jealous that it seemed as though my parents got more compliments from some of Kevin's family, than I did. I feel terrible that I felt that way to begin with, but also that I dwelt on it. I never should have allowed those couple of things take away any of the positivity from that day. I never should have focused on what I thought was lacking, instead of all that I had been given.

I suppose that it is human nature . . . but sometimes I guess I think I should have a higher set of standards to adhere to. But I make mistakes. What does that say about me, that about one of the best and most important days of my life, I saw the little bit of dirt in the corner, the little ball of dust under the bed? This is what I sometimes do in our marriage. While most things are great, I latch onto the one or two things that aren't so great. I try not to do this, and don't most of the time. But I am not perfect. I wondered on that day whether or not I would be a good wife. Some days I wonder still . . . I wonder if I am being a good wife. Am I showing my husband the unconditional love that he needs? Am I fashioning myself into the person that I need to be for him, while still being true to myself?

I don't think I have the answers for this. Perhaps I don't need to. As long as I am doing the best that I can, I suppose that is the answer. Each day I need to focus on the snapshots of our marriage -- the things that mean so much, no matter how big or how small. I need to forget about the little bits of dirt and dust . . . knowing that nothing is ever perfectly clean. And it doesn't need to be. Afterall, I did say that I hate perfection . . .

Thursday, October 8, 2009

When the Sidewalk Ends

I was out taking a walk earlier this evening with our dog, Desmond -- our nightly ritual poop-patrol stroll. It had been lightly raining most of the evening and during our walk I could feel it gently descending upon my ponytail and trenchcoat. I noticed the same thing that I always notice when I am outside after it has been raining: worms. Oodles of worms were scattered across the sidewalks -- shimmying over cement to find new resting places after having had their previous ones flooded. I once wrote a poem that was inspired by this, titled "Earth Drowning." The prologue I wrote for it was this: "Worm corpses scatter across sidewalks / Like tenets evicted from earth-carved homes."

This phenomenon always saddens me. I have always, since I was very young, had an unusual infatuation with worms. I used to go worm-hunting at least once a week, turning over rocks in our backyard, especially near the garden, searching for my squishy, slimey treasures, with the hopes I would find, if not the entirety of a worm's body, at least the end of one sticking up above the surface of soil. Once found I would pick them up as gently as possible, allow them to roam around the contours of my small palm, and softly stroke them as if they were a family pet. Then I would lay them upon the same soil in which I found them and lower the rock upon them once more.

They probably didn't appreciate being disturbed but in my mind I was showing them affection. I wanted to hug them . . . but, how exactly does one hug a worm? When I see them roaming homeless after the rain I wonder if they have any emotions of fear, panic, or desperation. Sometimes I'll pick one up and lay it in the grass, hoping that I was helping, rather than harming it. Perhaps I recreated their original predicament, but I hate to see them struggle across the hardness of the pavement, afraid that they will get stuck and dry out. The sidewalk must seem very frightfully wide-open and vulnerable -- a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.

I am reminded of someone whom I care about. I shall refrain from using his name or giving any details for the sake of his privacy. He too is suffering from an earth drowning -- wandering and struggling, emotionally homeless, in the wide-open harshness of life's sidewalk. He has made many mistakes in his life, and is aware of most, if not all of them. He has immersed himself in unhealthy activities and environments, many of which are in his past, some however, in the present. He has associated himself with people that did nothing but enable bad habits; and he has searched to fill his emptiness with empty, temporary relief.

For awhile he began to pick up his broken pieces, his broken self, and assemble the beginnings of a purposeful life. Sadly, he had some hard knocks thrown at him and has so far not recuperated. And ever since he started to fade downward it seems as though more and more events have come along to weigh upon him like several feet of dirt, suffocating his spirit and drowning out his hope of something different. He wants something more. He wants a better life. But he is crippled with the belief that nothing will ever change and nothing ever should change because he doesn't deserve anything better.

I understand this thinking. I once (for a long time) was overwhelmed with these same beliefs. I may not have expressed my hopelessness and self-hatred in the same ways, but they are the same feelings at the core, the same root problem. When you feel as though you are not worthy of anything good in life you end up sabotaging yourself. You paralyze yourself into living out the same lifeless, dead-end day over and over. I've been there. I hated myself more than I could ever express. I had such self-disgust that, in a way, I was content to feel miserable continuously. But then something happened . . . staying the same became too painful. There is a quote that goes, "You will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of change."

How true that is. It was true for me. It wasn't until it hurt too much to stay the same that I finally began making real changes in my life. Sometimes it takes a long time to get to that point. I thought my journey there was quite long, but there are so many others that have been and will be on that path far longer than what I can imagine. He is one in that category. I don't know how long it will take him to reach his point of exasperation. I pray that it will be sooner than later.

My heart feels heavy for him and his slow, staggering slide across the pavement. Every movement is pained. Just as long as he is moving . . . I don't want him to give up and allow his spirit to get stuck and shrivel up before he reaches the soil again -- soil that gives life and richness and nourishment. The sidewalk is a lonely place, but it is only temporary. There may be times when we are tossed out of our comfort zones, our known surroundings, or our planned paths, but we can find our way again to home. We can weather the struggles and the pain, with the hope of a new sanctuary.

I don't know how many of the evicted worms I see that survive the brutal flooding -- how many that survive the wait and make a new home on the other side of the sidewalk. Statistics are most likely grim. But I find peace and comfort in the thought that just maybe, there is someone out there watching, ready to pick me up and gently place me in a new bed of grass.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is That It?

One of our weekly rituals occurs on Wednesday evening . . . Kevin and I snuggle up to watch "Ghosthunters" -- about two Roto-Rooting plumbers by day, turned paranormal experts by night. I'm really rather obsessed with anything relating to ghosts. I can't get enough of ghost specials such as on Discovery or Travel Channel. It appears as though Jason and Grant (the co-founders of TAPS - The Atlantic Paranormal Society) also have their rituals. Almost every week they split the hour into two separate ghost-busting visits. And as they drive away from the client meeting of the first location they bump fists and Jason says, "On to the next." This always amuses us . . . I'm not completely sure why.

The other repetition that I've noticed lately happens while they are taken on the tour of the location that they are about to investigate. The client relays various stories to TAPS of the types of paranormal experiences that have happened in that particular room or area and Jason invariably says, "Is that it?"
Now, I'm sure that he doesn't mean for this to sound impatient, snotty, or condescending. He's just a to-the-point kind of guy and is most likely wanting to not waste any time. But that specific phrase has a rather touchy connotation for me. It rubs me the wrong way.

A few years ago I was looking for a job and was having a difficult time of it. Not so much in the way of actually finding something, but more in that I was struggling mightily with a bad self-esteem, lack of confidence in my workforce capabilities, social anxiety, and fears beyond what I could even explain. I had just signed up with another one of the temp agencies in town and shortly after they landed me an interview. I will not mention any names, so as to not "burn any bridges." I hadn't honestly done tons of interviews and my anxiety was exploding through the top of my curly head. You must know that job interviews are pretty much what I hate doing most in this world. :) So as you can imagine, I was full of dread.

I tried doing everything I could think of to help. I had already done preparation work -- practiced questions and answers, learned a tiny bit about the company, etc. And now I was trying to take at least one deep breath, pray, and tell myself that it will be just fine, no matter what.

As soon as the lady came out to the lobby to get me I got very bad vibes from her . . . you know, the kind of vibes that say, "Great, another peon to deal with. I'd like to get this over as soon as possible. If she thinks I'm going to go out of my way to make her feel comfortable, she's delusional."
So, let's just say, the lady wasn't terribly nice, or welcoming, or chipper. She looked as though I had already annoyed the hell out of her. Greeeaaaaattt, looking forward to this interview! As she perused through my resume, she asked a couple questions about past work history. I answered. And then she paused briefly, still looking at the paper in her hands, looked up and said, "Is that it?"

Huh? Is what it? Oh, my work history? I realized that my resume was basically a piece of poo on paper . . . and simply said, "Yep." What else could I really say? Oh, I'm sure a lot of people would've come up with a way to turn it around and inform her of the many reasons why they're qualified, but that's not me. I'm not good at advertising myself. I never have been. I hate feeling pushy, aggressive, or like I'm bragging. So I have always gone far, probably too far, in the other direction. I couldn't think of anything else to say at that time. I was still pretty new to all of this and I wasn't savvy, due to a lack of experience. And I felt ridiculously stupid.

I could tell within a couple minutes of the interview that this would be the last place that I'd want to work. I was determined to do the best that I could, however, and just see what would happen. But when this occurred I felt defeated. I felt like a complete loser. I tried to be upbeat and attentive the rest of the interview, but I could tell it wasn't going anywhere. Sometimes you just know. I could tell they wouldn't even consider me. But I sat there, nodding my head, feigning interest, and mustering up a couple questions, hoping that they would just let me go, so that I could go home and have a nice, fat, much-needed cry.

A day or two after, I got a call from the temp agency. "Um . . . they weren't impressed," she said. I just kind of chuckled and said, "yeah . . . I could tell." And the truth is, I wasn't impressed with them either. They were very cold and aloof and didn't ask me very many questions. They instead rambled on about how wonderful their company was and how it's grown so much, etc. Course, maybe they didn't ask many questions because they already knew that they didn't want me. Who knows . . .

Is that it . . . I can't tell you how many times that phrase has come back and haunted my thoughts, spooking away the confidence that I've been building. That's one of my
Ferocious Crap Moments -- the kind of bad moment that changes you and has a powerful effect on you. Yep, that's definitely one of mine! It's taken some work to shrug that one off. And sometimes I still have to let it go when I let myself start to believe that I am nothing more than the little, unimpressive person that they saw. Sometimes I look at myself as the shy, pathetic, nerdy girl that some people view me as being. But I'm not that, at least not entirely. Yes, sometimes parts of me are those qualities that are unimpressive. But that's not all. Sometimes parts of me are the impressive qualities that those who know and love me see. But that's not all either. Sometimes I'm simply in between. In fact, this is probably where I reside most -- not outstanding, not pathetic. Just normal. Just human.

I think our society caters too much to the extremes. Everyone is labeled as either a Rock Star or a Peon. An Admirable Human Being or a Degenerate. Why isn't it okay to be somewhere in the middle? Why isn't it okay for someone to encompass lovely qualities as well as some that are unlovely? None of us are perfect. We all have our strengths and our defects. We are never just one thing or one way.

I have struggled with a beaten down self-esteem since I was 12. It has only been in the last two or three years that I've made significant strides to changing this (I'm almost 29, by the way). I understand what it's like to hate yourself and see yourself as worthless, deserving nothing good. I have seen this in other people too, and I know what pain they feel. In fact, I feel pain
for them.

Do you think God looks at any of us and asks himself, "Hmmm, well that's nice, but . . . is that it?" The God that I love would never have such a limited, finite view of us. (That's what we tend to do to him.) No, I think he looks at us and sees everything that we have been, everything that we are, and everything that we can be. He sees every possibility in us . . . our fullest selves. And he must ache for us to see that in ourselves. It is true: we are our most devilish critics. But know this . . . you are more than your accomplishments, more than your flaws and deficiencies. You are a spirit full of life and love, with the potential for more than you can imagine. So, is that it? . . . not in the least!!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Cover me in sweet surprise
Free of regimen and raw election
With soft protection
From light
From heat
From hollow wind
I am tired
I am worn
Sometimes we need the darkness

Monday, September 21, 2009

Scars and the Real World

Kevin and I finally watched yesterday a movie that we'd been wanting to see for ages now . . . "Lars and the Real Girl." Any time a more quirky, independent movie comes out, you can bet we'll want to see it. We love movies that are quirky, darker, and unique (yes, and even downright weird). And not just for the sake of being different, but because those are the types of movies that we relate to more -- the types of movies that more accurately reflect who the two of us are as human beings. Neither of us fit terribly well into the mainstream. We're like the two random trout that swim upstream, in a school easing down.

I have always felt like an outsider, sometimes, even in my own family. I have never really felt like I fully belonged anywhere. I have a close family; I have friends; I have acquaintences. But in every group that I find myself, I feel as though there is some part of me that is hidden. I think that part of the reason for this is because I AM different. Everyone in this world is unique and has been made to be a special individual. I don't mean to diminish that. But there are some people that are so completely different that they cannot function within the "norm" at all. I'm not THAT far out there. I can certainly function. But I usually do end up going against the "norm" and doing my own thing.

My favorite quote of all time, from the moment that I heard it, is from a beautiful transcendentalist spirit, Henry David Thoreau:

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

If a single quote can sum up the whole of me, then this is the one. It's meaning has given me great comfort and hope through many times of feeling lost, feeling like a loser, and feeling stupid. I honestly feel as though God speaks to me through this . . . laying his gentle hands upon my shoulders, telling me that it's okay. Telling me that I'm okay just the way I am, that I don't need to be like anyone else to be good enough. Telling me that someday the very ways in which I feel like an outcast will be the ways in which my purpose will come to fruition.

It's hard to feel okay in a world of supermodels, rocket scientists, charismatic businessmen, and beloved comedians, when you don't feel beautiful enough, smart enough, outgoing enough, or funny enough -- when you feel like a mistake. A blemish of brown on a perfect canvas of white.

The other reason that I often feel like an outsider is that I make myself one. I tell myself that I don't belong, for one reason or another. And the root that all reasons are grown from is that I feel like I'm not good enough. And I waste no time in making sure that I remember this every day.
But the thing is . . . I think everyone feels like this, at least in some way, or at some time. We all feel like we don't belong and worry whether or not if what we are, the raw, bare, naked selves we always try to hide, is good enough. How sad for us all to wander along feeling the same loneliness, never connecting under the vulnerability that we all share. I suppose it's too scary to be the first one to open up and let someone in to know that you're not always "strong" or always "happy." It's hard for me to be that vulnerable too. I don't want to look stupid or weak. But the rare times that I have bared my soul to someone, I cannot describe just how liberating and comforting it is! When you show a person all of yourself, no pretenses, no masks, no filters, they respond better than we tend to imagine.

The truest connections that I have made in my life so far are the ones in which I allowed myself to be more vulnerable and shared the "uglier" parts or stories. It's so easy to get discouraged with people and with the world. There are people that would use your weaknesses to hurt or take advantage of you. But these people are outnumbered by the people that would nuture and accept your weaknesses. I get so disillusioned sometimes with the cruelty, arrogance, and selfishness of society. I sometimes let myself believe that most people operate more through these traits than through goodness.

Yesterday I was reminded of just how kind and compassionate people can be . . . and are. "Lars and the Real Girl," on the surface, is a about a deeply introverted young man that purchases a lifesize female doll and acts as if she is a real woman -- a companion. The story follows his reclusive life, showing how his belief in his doll companion opens him up to finding connections with townspeople and his family. On a deeper level the movie is about the brokenness in us all, as well as the goodness, compassion, and strength. The doll acts as a conduit of connections, revealing how every human soul is interconnected on some deep level.

Lars grew up without a mother, and found little affection or comfort from his father, who was overcome with his own grieving. This led Lars to experience human touch as pain. Some people thought that Lars was strange. Some thought he was just a recluse. And when he began dragging around a lifesize doll as a girlfriend some wondered if he had some form of mental illness. This is when something beautiful and touching begins to happen . . . his family, friends, coworkers, and church congregation begin to play along. They act as if his doll is real, talking with her, driving her to "work" and volunteer functions. They take photographs with her and give her a haircut. And little by little this eases Lars into more social interactions than he has ever permitted. He begins to open up and allow people into his world for the first time.

As Lars's psychologist explains, he created all of this as his way of working out what had been going on inside of him. A person will only change when they are ready. And Lars was finally ready.

This film was incredibly moving. It was one of the most caring, hopeful, and "pure" stories I have ever seen. When I say pure, I'm not speaking of whether or not it had violence, cursing, etc. I am speaking of a certain naturalness that it holds. It is not trying to be any certain thing. It's not trying to excite like an action adventure, scare like a horror, evoke hilarity like a comedy, or evoke uber-sentimentality like a drama or romance. It just is what it is. And already I hold it near and dear to my heart, as a special reminder to see the good in people. To give them a chance to bloom by giving them what love and kindness I can, no matter if I think they're strange or aloof. Those are probably the ones that need a brush with kindness the most.

As the people in the movie continued to pretend in the doll's realness along with Lars, they were fulfilled themselves and found things that were missing for them in their own lives. Somehow the doll was able to heal the loneliness and scars of all the characters. She helped them find each other, truly find each other, and realize the bonds that were always there, ready for them to experience.

We all have brokenness, loneliness, and scars. We have all been wounded by circumstances and people. We have all felt like an outsider, looking in to a world of "best friends." We have all felt as though we are not good enough for anything or anyone. And sometimes we have allowed these feelings to dictate how we have lived in this world. The trick is to remember that we are not the only one. We need to remember that people may be able to understand us better than we assume. There is goodness in this world. There are good people. There are people that will go out of their way to offer compassion. And no matter whether or not you feel as though you deserve it, you do. Your brokenness can heal. God works with many mediums . . . often his favorite paintbrush is an unlikely friendship. He only needs for us to open up ourselves to be art transformed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Transformation of Loss

Sometimes it comes quietly. Sometimes it arrives violently. Sometimes it is met with shock and surprise; sometimes with long-held expectation. It is the culmination of life's every moment, every matter. It is feared; it is loathed, and occasionally, welcomed. Whatever it is, I don't think that it is the end.

I don't mean to sound macabre, but death has been on my mind lately. It's not a subject I tend to spend hours upon hours thinking about. But my mind does naturally wander into the dark and dusty labyrinth of all things existential now and then. It's only human. With life, comes death. How can one avoid thoughts of it completely? While I certainly don't think it's healthy to dwell on the topic of death, I also do not think it healthy to never confront it either.

It's one of those vastly complex subjects that has physical, spiritual, and philosophical importance. Death is different to everyone, on some level. For some, death is merely the transition from our hours spent in human form on earth, to a spiritual being. For some death is Mother Nature's final say, her bid adieu. For some, death is a question: what will happen to me; is there anything after?

I grew up being taught that death was a transition from the physical to the spiritual -- that our time on earth was incomparable to the eternity that would be spent in heaven. There is no possible way for me to know whether or not this is true. I cannot prove, nor disprove its validity. But I choose to believe in something more than just our time here. If, for no other reason, than it is comforting. If I choose to believe in an entity greater than myself, than it is logical for me to believe in an existence greater than the one in which I am living.

This belief in an afterlife allows for something quite beautiful to occur: a celebration after a death, rather than a finalization. I have experienced this many times at funerals, where the people choose to celebrate a life lived and what is yet to come. I value this perspective. It gives me hope.

But even though this perspective is comforting, it of course does not alleviate all the pain of our loss. Loss is a profound thing. Nothing smacks your gut and knocks the wind out of you quite like losing someone you love. And nothing hangs heavier over you with blackness than losing someone you need.

I've been fortunate to not have had to experience this too many times, unlike many people. But I have had my losses. And I can still conjure up those desperate feelings when I think back to those times.

* * * * * * *

My first significant experience of death was the loss of my great-grandmother, Ruth (my mom's grandma). She died when I was in seventh grade. I was home from school, sick that day, and remember my mom walking into the family room, her eyes pink and puffy. When she told me I grabbed my notebook, in which I had been working on writing a play for a contest, and dedicated it to her. She had always wanted to be a writer.

At the funeral in Minnesota I stood several feet away from her casket, not wanting to approach. Death was foreign to me -- frightening and confusing. I knew what it was, what it meant. But I didn't understand how to interact with it. I was sad, and that's the only thing that really made sense to me.

* * * * * * *

I lost my grandfather, Clyde (my mom's dad), in November of 1998. I recall the late afternoon when we received the call. I had just gone to the basement for something and heard my mom answer the phone. I stopped. For some reason I got nervous and wondered if this was something important. I heard my mom's voice weaken, "What?" she said softly. "When?"
I knew. Something inside of me knew that it was my grandpa. I wish I hadn't been right.

He had died while working on the new addition to their church, doing what he did every day of most of his life: laying brick. He died with his boots in the mud.

Later that evening my immediate family all gathered in our living room, huddled together in a fractured communion of mourning. We had our arms around each other, already retelling the stories of his tricky card-playing, affinity to toothpicks, and silent dedication to his family and church.

The day of his funeral was chilly and very windy. I don't remember a lot of the funeral ceremony. I have bits-and-pieces type memories of the stories that were told, the music that played, and the squeezes of hands throughout my family. But I do remember the graveside. We huddled once again together, wind assaulting our faces, and watched and listened as the American Legion Honor Guard saluted my grandpa with the firing of rifles.

This is what affected me more than anything that day. Each firing resonated like a base drum in my gut . . . stung like a slap in my face. It had a powerful way of making me realize that he was truly gone.

* * * * * * *

I lost my grandmother, Ruth (my dad's mom) in October of 2000. She was one of the unfortunates that was stricken with Alzheimer's, which is what eventually facilitated her passing. I don't remember that phone call. I was in my second year of college and it all seems to be much more of a blur. I remember the car ride to Ohio, however. I rode with my brother, Jeremy, his wife, Mary, and my (at the time) one year old niece, Nikole. In the face of losing someone it was comforting and healing to be around my niece. She was a gentle light in what felt like a dark time.

It's sometimes strange to be so fully engulfed in the reality of death while being confronted with new life. I think it's difficult for our minds to know how to process it all -- to grasp and understand the cyclical nature of life and death -- to know that nothing is really ever over.

My grandma's funeral was lovely, as I remember it. My dad officiated and very tenderaly told stories of her and spoke of her favorite song, "The Tennessee Waltz," which was then played while we all sat in silence. It was this moment that affected me most.

I thought back to all of the times I would sit in the kitchen with her and our dog, Fluffy. She would softly chuckle, shoulders bobbing, and say, "My girl."

The song was so very her -- tender, warm, slower-paced, simple. To look up toward the coffin, realizing that her body was not responding to the music that she loved . . . I knew, that she was gone now.

* * * * * * *

I held death in my hands in February of this year. Our dog, Miko, that we had to put to sleep, was buried under a tree at my brother, Jeremy's house. I helped bury her. I carried her dead body out of the vet, into our apartment, and carefully placed her on the floor of our living room while we got a few things that we needed before heading to Wabash. I looked at her body, wrapped in her blue blanket, motionless, quiet. It was so surreal to see her there, knowing that she wasn't really there at all.

I helped dig the hole where she was placed. It was cold and very windy. I had snot dripping from my nose, mixing with the tears that were impossible to push back. I wanted this to be over. I wanted to go inside and forget about it all. But when I went to pick up her body out of the car to carry her over to her resting place, I didn't want to let go. I cradled her dead body, trying to transfer some last form of affection to her, knowing that she couldn't feel it.

I placed her in the ground, still wrapped in her blanket, with her rope and a picture of her with Kevin and I.

* * * * * * *

There is nothing more evasive to your own sense of life, than to hold death in your hands, your arms, against your chest. It changed me. I think that day I was able to embrace death more than I ever have before. I was able to see it, feel it, but know that life still goes on all around us and in us.

We will never fully understand what happens to us after death. Most of us are still simply trying to figure out life. We are constantly changing, constantly transforming. Perhaps death is just one, small step of that transformation . . . into something better.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Get-a-Way That Got Away

I have been on a lot of family vacations while growing up. Most of them were trips to Minnesota to see my mom's family or to Ohio to see my dad's family. But now and then we would travel elsewhere to New England, Tennessee, or Michigan. We never went to Disney World, or California, or Mount Rushmore. We never really did do the "grand adventure" type vacations. But that never bothered me too much, because what we did do, we made the most of it.

There have been many insanely wonderful times throughout those trips. Most of them would probably be mundane, in fact boring, to people outside of our family. But for some reason, those subtle, simple (trivial you might say) memories are my favorite. Usually they are moments of complete and utter silliness. If you don't know my family, then you don't know just how very silly we all are, especially when we are together. There is a certain ease when we are all together . . . the way in which a child easily fits into the crevice between the side of your body and your arm. We enjoy each other. Don't get me wrong; we're not the Brady Bunch! We don't neatly wrap up the problem of a broken vase or broken nose within 30 minutes and all have a group hug at the end. We're normal. We have our dysfunctions as does any other family. But we love being together -- something I truly cherish.

Although, I must admit we weren't always at the height of our enjoyment in each other's company while on all of our vacations. There were times when I would jab my elbows (they were extremely pointy back then) into any available flesh of my brothers to cease their taunting. There were times when Dad, exasperated with our indecision, would say, "I'm just the chauffer!" And there were also times when my brothers groaned with disaproval at the music choice of my parents. I suppose they just weren't as enlightened as me and could not absorb the beauty of the soundtracks from "Somewhere in Time" and "Out of Africa." ;)

And all of these memories, though frustrating at the time, are precisely the same, warming tales we love to retell around the dining room table. I can't think of any vacation that amplifies this phenomenon better than our most beloved trip to Southern Indiana. It was the summer of 1992. I believe it was August because the Summer Olympics were on at the time. I remember this because I was forced to inhale my Olympic fix and listen to Bob Costas through the fuzzy, black-and-white, 5-inch screen, on our mini-TV that we brought so as to not go into a TV withdrawal coma. My brother, Jeff had just graduated high shool and I had finished up my year in fifth grade.

My parents had found out about a minister's retreat in Southern Indiana, somewhere nearby Spring Mill State Park. I don't remember exactly where this place was, for the simple fact that it was in the middle of NOWHERE! We didn't know this at the time. We knew it was out in the woods -- not within any city limits. But we had no idea . . . The whole time while we drove down to the retreat, with me sitting in the back, right corner of the van in my hot-pink beanbag, surrounded by suitcases, coolers, and duffle bags, I was imagining what our "home" would look like for the next two weeks. I pictured a quaint, white country cottage, sitting on top of a small hill, overlooking a pond or two. I was excited. I had everything that I needed -- my Sony Walkman, coloring books, Travel Spirograph, and oodles upon oodles of paper, crayons, and markers. This trip was going to be amazing.

As we neared our hotspot destination, traveling down the final road that ran alongside a small river, we passed by lots of trees, and only a few random houses. I began to get a tad concerned when passing by those homes. They were, shall we say, a bit "Deliverance-ish." Old cars without tires, decrepit and retired Lazy-Boys, and a smattering of tools adorned the "yards." There weren't really any "yards" there; they were more like mudscapes. And one house that we passed had a good, old-fashioned outhouse in their mudscape. While that was not particularly alarming, the message painted on the side of it was: "The Can." Just in case someone wasn't sure. :) A few of the inhabitants of these homes happened to be out in their mudscapes as we passed along. Each of them stood, very still, and watched from the first point of sight until we were out of their vision. Had they never seen cars before? Or just cars that still worked?

I began to have a brooding feeling . . . what were we getting ourselves into? I was right about one thing: the house did sit on top of a hill. Small though, it was not. Dad turned our Astro Van left, onto the narrow, gravel path that meandered up the steep hill. On the right side -- the hill and trees. On the left side -- about a foot of ground and then . . . nothing. It dropped off almost at an eighty degree angle. I was definitely glad to be sitting on the right side of the van on that particular occasion.

After a couple intense minutes we found ourselves in the middle of a farm, cows and everything. It was a small, white farmhouse and barn, nestled in an opening, with trees surrounding it on all sides. Well, not quite what I had pictured. I tried, however, to reserve my judgment at least until we had explored the depths of the house. As we got out of the van our dog, Fluffy (a Peek-a-poo) saw the cows and bolted toward them with reckless abandon. She sprung around them, barking some kind of doggly obscenities and decided to take on the bull. Mind you, this dog was about as high as my mid-to-upper calf. I had never seen such aggression from her. And she, apparently, had never seen a cow.

After much shouting and cajoling we finally were able to grab her and take her inside. The inside was pretty much what you would expect for a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. The rooms weren't terribly large, or terribly small. There were two bedrooms, with a bathroom adjoining them. There was a nice, large screened-in porch, extending from the living room, which had walls of a sort of jade green. It was quite cozy. Nothing fancy, but still nice.

However . . . the first day and night there we were without running water. The owner of the retreat, Roy Lee, had to come and give us a few buckets of water to tide us over until it was fixed. Hmmm, no TV, no phone, no water . . . are you sure you want to call this a retreat?

I spent much of that first week playing with my Travel Spirograph, which uses Post-it-Notes, instead of full sheets of paper. My brother, Jeff, his girlfriend, and I decided to deem one wall of the living room the Spirograph Art Gallery. We plastered our bedazzled Post-it-Notes neatly in rows along the wall. By the end of the second week I think we had nearly covered it. We also spent many hours doing Mad Libs (a favorite pastime of mine). I tell you, there's not much that can produce the laughs that Mad Libs can, especially when my family is doing them. We don't limit ourselves to a simple noun or verb. We add adjectives to everything!

On one particular evening we decided to talk about Unsolved Mysteries, alien abductions, and such. This discussion, of course, took place right before we all went to bed. I scuttled into the tiny bedroom and pulled every available inch of covers up to my face. The bed sat in the far corner, with the two large windows on either side of it. I began to visualize aliens silently landing their spacecraft into the nearby field, and watching me through the windows. I kept looking out the two windows, my head bobbing back and forth like a ping-pong ball. There would be little sleep tonight!

I'm not sure if the next day was when we went to peruse Spring Mill Park or not. But if so, it would then make sense why I was in such a foul mood! Normally I love this kind of stuff. I have always loved parks and historical sites. But on this day I think I was annoyed with the world. Must have been the pre-teen hormonal resurgence. I moped around, dragging my feet, and posed with my arms crossed in every photograph. After we were done, and ready to get something to eat, we attempted to find an agreeable decision . . . which we did not. We all wanted to eat somewhere different. Mom didn't care; she just wanted to find any place that we could agree on. Dad didn't care; he just wanted to know where in the world he was driving the car. After several minutes of sibling banter, Dad finally zoomed the van back into a parking space and said, "All right, that's it! I'm not doing anything else. I'm just a chauffer for the rest of the day!" Needless to say, we did no more that day. :)

The first week was spent with my parents, brother, Jeff, and his girlfriend. My oldest brother, Jeremy did not come until the beginning of the second week. The night before he was to come there was an incredible thunderstorm. I was not aware of it at first, as I was asleep. But as the intensity grew I awoke, startled and terrified. I shot out of bed and through the adjoining bathroom, straight into the other bedroom where my parents were and leapt into their bed. A few minutes later we heard the loudest crack of thunder of our lives. Mom jumped. I jumped. Even Dad jumped. There would be little sleep tonight!

The next day Jeremy was due to arrive. It was getting late and there was no sign of him. And this was before we all had cell phones. Plus, there wasn't even a phone in our farmhouse. Mom and Dad were getting quite worried. We discovered that because of the previous night's storm, there was much flooding in the area, including in our immediate vicinity. Jeremy did finally arrive safe and sound, but much later than planned. He had had to take many detours due to the flooding. What a welcome! I wondered if our "neighbors" had lost any of their mudscape ornaments.

As Jeremy began to get settled in, he was setting up his bed, which was on the porch. All of a sudden I heard a shout. I ran to the porch to see what was wrong and saw a small lizard running around with Dad and Jeremy trying to shoo it off the porch with a broom. I guess it had been communing with us unknowingly. We never saw it again.

I had seen very little of the cows also after that first greeting. One afteroon I went for a walk and wandered through some woods, into a clearing. I stopped there. I suddenly thought of the cows . . . and the bull. Where were they? What if they come around while I'm out here? And I looked down at my shirt, realizing it was bright red. I panicked . . . a bull . . . a red shirt . . . this can't be good. I started having terrible visions of the bull charging through the clearing, chasing me through the woods. I had run track before but I didn't have that much confidence in my racing skills, enough to outrun a bull. I turned around, back toward the house, and walked quite briskly, hoping that my red shirt would not alert any unwanted guests. Luckily, I made it back without coming across any creatures.

The next week we spent every evening playing games, especially Pit and Balderdash. Jeremy got so excited when he finally won a hand at Pit that he bounced off of his chair and ran into the kitchen to show Fluffy his winning hand. We all had a good laugh over that one. During Balderdash I channeled Hee Haw and turned ever word into a colloquial, southern term, such as "allo" for "all though."

This was by far, the most different of all our vacations. It may honestly be the closest thing we have had to a "grand adventure," though we did not know it at the time we signed up for it. We returned home, happy to have our modern conveniences back, but somehow missing our "Little House on the Prairie" get-a-way. It was probably one of our most frustrating trips . . . and one of the most memorable. Besides, the worst things usually make for the best stories. And we all love a good story . . .

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Life and Breath of Poetry

For some reason, tonight some haunting words came back to me, to weave their way through the vast complexities of my soul. When I first heard them I felt a warming pain that both stung and comforted me in the same moment. These were not just words . . . they were a beckoning of the surrendering to our own agendas. They were more than syllables, vowels, and punctuation. They were a mourning for the loss of selflessness. These words hit me, and hit me hard (I love when things do this!). I'll admit, I'm moved by things quite easily. I frequently find beauty in the subtleties of life. But this was one of the most beautiful statements I had heard in a long time.

The words of which I am speaking are from Elizabeth Alexander -- the Inaugural poet from this last January. In her poem "Praise Song for the Day" she spoke this line:

". . . love with no need to pre-empt grievance."

This may mean little to nothing to most people, but for me, this is such a profound and poignant thought. To me, it's incredibly beautiful. I was not aware of this until just this evening, as I was reading some articles on Alexander, but it seems that many, if not most people were quite underwhelmed and even bored with her poem. They felt it was too prosaic and one even said, "bureaucratic." Well, that's the nature of poetry: it's a purely subjective art and speaks to some, while not others. It is practically impossible to truly judge a poem as "good" or "bad," though my professors did not seem to have this problem with me. :)

Poetry is my first love, and will always be my greatest love (aside from my husband, of course). Poetry is life and breath . . . it relfects the truth and beauty of our world and our experiences. To see someone's poetry battered to hell, like I just saw her's, I begin to feel very angered. Perhaps it hits a bit too close to home. I've had my share of that too. And though I don't looooove every poem I read, I can always find at least one good thing in it. And even if I couldn't, I know that it doesn't make it a "bad" poem, simply because it's not my taste. I think a more accurate gauge of whether or not a poem is good or bad is whether or not the poet crafted it from an honest place. But that, unfortunately, is also impossible to ascertain.

In my poetry, I most often try to create vivid imagery, in order to portray a "truth" of humanity. If anything was hammered home into my skull during my years of college, it was to "show" and not "tell." Excellent advice; a tip of my hat to all my old professors out there! And probably the first thing that I ever learned as I began my journey into writing (which was when I was nine), was that a writer is NEVER satisfied. No matter how many drafts we go through, it is never quite good enough for us. While I may be satisfied with parts, I am never fully pleased with the whole.

When I read others' work I very often wish that I had thought of that. I wish that I had been that insightful and creative. The aforementioned line of Alexander's is one of those wishes. It blew me away. Love with no need to pre-empt grievance . . . I had to really let that one sink in for awhile, and spin it around till I had viewed it from all angles. I'm still pondering the full meaning of it, quite honestly. The most basic understanding of it I think, is that of unconditional love. Love that needs not to be won or earned. Love that exists in spite of differences and accusations. Love that comes before a reason to love. Love that does not need to block or stifle criticism. But love that allows openness for all emotions, all freedoms, all circumstances.

When I heard her poem on that January afternoon I immediatly thought of Walt Whitman, whom often used the idea of "song" in his poetry. There was a similar tone, I thought, as in some of Whitman's work -- the calling upon of people to unite, and lift up one another in appreciation of the beauty of the human condition. There is a hopefulness to both Alexander's poem and that of Whitman's work.

I heard Alexander speak some time after the inauguration about her poem. She explained that when she said "praise song" she meant that as one modified noun -- a song of praise. The way in which I interpreted it when I heard it was that she was giving the command to praise the entity of "song." That's the other nature of poetry: it's open for interpretation. And while I appreciate the way in which she meant it, I sort of like my own piddly interpretation better. I like the idea of "song" being an entity to which we are offering our praise. It's that transcendentalist in me! I love to personify objects and ideas in writing. That technique lends itself quite well to poetry. It is a useful way in which to create many layers of meaning.

Like every person, the best poems (and this is subjective) have multiple layers, from which you can constantly find new meanings. This is what makes poetry so alive . . . that it breathes and takes upon a spirit and soul of its own. Corny? Perhaps. It may be the nerd in me. And trust me, I AM a nerd. :) But the fact that most poetry does not have a defined interpretation laid out for the reader allows speculations, discussions, and ponderings to continue indefinitely. It is a continous searching for the truth behind the metaphor. What could be more alive than that?

I am thankful for the insight of authors and poets. There is so much knowledge to be gained . . . and I am not only speaking of knowledge of facts and figures. There is knowledge of humanity, of society, of ourselves, and of the soul. They offer a looking glass -- an altered reflection, showing us not only what we were, what we are . . . but also what we can become.