Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It's Black Cat Appreciation Month

October is Black Cat Awareness month. Calico, Persian, Siamese, Grumpy, gray, white, and tabby–none of these cats have their own month of awareness. So what makes black cats so special?

I'll admit black cat awareness sounded silly when I first read it online–like some kind of crazy Halloween-themed PETA gimmick. But while researching black cats, I found a long history of their misunderstood association with the occult; I read stories that told how all black cats were killed during the Middle Ages; and, saddest of all, I found recent statistics that indicate a lingering prejudice against black cats. I guess this shouldn't have shocked me–in the past, I've been guilty of prejudice too.

Over the past year, my friend Laura and I, getting in touch with our inner cat lady, periodically went kitty "shopping." Though these excursions ended in allergic reactions and ring worm, still we trekked from the SPCA, to Petco, to privately owned animal shelters, to adoption day at Pet Smart looking for the perfect cat: an orange one with white paws and the perfect personality.

We saw orange cats only sporadically, but our options for black cats were never lacking: everywhere ebony kitties gazed at us with green, blue, or yellow eyes. But after a while they all looked the same.

One evening at the Hotel for Cats and Dogs Animal Shelter, we found the perfect butterscotch cat named Sunny. He poked his white-tipped paws between the bars, teasing for attention. After charming us into opening the cage, he blinked up with yellow marble eyes and nonchalantly weaved around our legs.

As we followed him around the room, I suddenly noticed the cages holding almost a dozen black cats—half the cats in the room. All the same. A few rubbed against the cages and reached out their paws. But many lay still, barely lifting their heads to inspect us, as if they knew we'd passed by like so many other people had before.

Statistics in a Huffington Post article show that black cats are less than half likely to be adopted than lighter colored cats. Maybe because the dark color doesn't readily reveal their facial expressions or because it gives them less individual identity than a white or orange cat or because of the black cat's association with bad luck–whatever the reason, fewer people pay attention to the kitties blending in with the shadows of the cage.

That evening, following Sunny around as if he were a celebrity, I felt guilty. So determined to find a perfect match for my closed-minded specifications, I had passed by who-knows-how-many black cats, to my shame, because they looked the same–uninteresting, unremarkable. To ease my conscience, I went to each cage, stuck my hand in, rubbed their fur, let them bat at my fingers, murmured comforting things to them. Once up close, I noticed each one was different. Some were fluffy others were short-haired, some had tuxedo markings or small spots, and one had only a single white whisker.

But lying there not bothering to get up or to get our attention–somehow those kitties looked familiar.

I've seen those same gazes of resignation from dozens of "black cat" students, the reserved ones in my classes, some who've given up on being special enough to gain my attention in the shadow of the other outspoken or flamboyant students.

This year, determined to go out of my way to know all my students, I asked them all to write an interesting fact about themselves on their first quiz. I learned that one guy is a tumbler for the basketball pep team, one girl was born with an extra finger on each hand, another guy was a TV show stand in for Tom Hank's son, one girl is named after the Pink Power Ranger, another unassuming girl took the Polar Plunge in Lake Michigan, and one particularly quiet guy can spin a basketball on a pencil for three hours. On and on went the little accomplishments or quirky traits marking each student as an individual with a pattern, a color, a personality all his own. Flipping through those cards, I felt lucky to spend time with those special people each week.

Why are black cats so special that they get an entire month of awareness? Well, I don't know that they're so special–it's just that we're so blind we can't see that they're just as special as any other cat. I'm glad for a month dedicated to the awareness of black cats and thankful for the correlating reminder that we're each endowed with defining qualities–no matter how ordinary we appear.

Maybe this month you'll just as easily ignore animals or people who all appear the same, with nothing apparently outstanding about them. But whether you're at the animal shelter looking for a new pet or just looking at the unremarkable people surrounding you every day, don't be afraid to cross paths with the black cats and get to know them. You'd be surprised at how lucky they'll make you feel–during Black Cat Awareness month and every other day of the year.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Good Capital People

A few weeks ago on our way to visit family in Maryland, my sister Heather and I decided to stop in D.C. for a day trip to introduce my five-year-old nephew Asa and three-year-old niece Ava to their country's capital—specifically to the Lincoln Memorial. The kids had nicknamed the memorial "the White President" after watching Night at the Museum 2 in which the mammoth monument comes alive to advise Larry Daley in the war against the lispy Pharaoh Kahmunrah. It only seemed right to set the kids' pop culture perception straight with a visit to the actual memorial and the Smithsonian of American History.
Come to think of it, my own perception of the Capital was hardly comprehensive. I hadn't been to D.C. in years (though I figured the last three weeks of binge-watching five seasons of The West Wing had to count for something.) The scene from the beltway provided me with a panorama of the Washington's Monument and Jefferson Memorial, a preview of our whirlwind sight-seeing tour the next day. No doubt, D.C. was a magnificent sight.
But the white buildings and well-lit streets aside, I knew enough to know that a pristine city D.C. is not. With my limited knowledge of a city's reputation for crime and with a feeling of vulnerability left over from memories of 9/11, my senses stood alert. Tomorrow everyone would be a suspect.
At midnight we pulled up to our hotel about twenty minutes out of downtown D.C. "Keep the doors locked," Heather said before going to check in. She soon came back followed by the manager who pointed us to the employee of the month parking space close to the front door.
"Are you sure that's okay?" my sister asked.
"Oh yes, honey." The woman nodded emphatically. "You go right on ahead."
The closer space, we found, made it much easier to haul in my sleeping niece and nephew and all our bags. The woman's kindness struck me as out of place: perhaps because, too busy being suspicious, I wasn't expecting it.

The next morning we buckled the kids into strollers, hoisted a backpack filled with essentials, and boarded the Metro. Waiting with two small children for a speeding train by a track with no rails and doors that snapped shut with little notice had the effect of a weed wacker on my nerves. Then there were the signs all around the station with gimmicky cartoon pictures encouraging passengers to report suspicious bags and packages. We'd be lucky to get out of the city alive.

After grabbing a crepe from Union Station, we greeted the muggy D.C. morning and headed down to Capitol Hill. As we admired the chiseled pillars and dome, the loud test of the emergency system blared over speakers in front of the Capitol building, a droning voice assuring that this was just a drill but additional instruction would be given in the event of a real emergency. I didn't want to think about a real emergency, so I turned to survey the Washington's Monument, the Mall, the many grand structures housing history and future all visible from the hill. As a child of the conservative right wing, the city seemed like a political Gotham housing corruption and deceit, extravagance and imprudence. I would have stared longer, thinking myself into a depressed stupor, but Ava and Asa were adamant about moving on.

We pushed their strollers a mile and a half up to the Washington Monument, snapped pictures, and took our first potty break. On our way out of the bathroom, a woman enthusiastically held the door for our stroller troupe to exit. "That's funny," my sister said when we'd passed. "You just don't expect people to be that nice in D.C."

As we walked toward the Lincoln Memorial, the asphalt was heating up, aggravating Asa and Ava's impatience to "see the White President" and to get out of their strollers. The busy streets just feet away, throngs of people waiting to absorb my niece and nephew, and a suspicious dark van crawling up and down the streets kept me on edge, distracting me from enjoying little more than the fantasy of leaving.

Finally, we reached the base of the Lincoln Memorial—only a few dozen steps stood between us and the statue. "Go sit on the steps before we go up to see the White President," Heather coaxed the kids, preparing her camera.

I'd seen it as soon as we walked up—a bag, a suspicious plastic bag with another bag inside it, wrapped with duct tape sitting in the middle of the first landing. I convinced my suspicion not to escalate into panic. But after several minutes, when no one claimed the bag, I headed toward the park ranger station, envisioning a deafening blast and searing shrapnel—or whatever bombs are made of—lodging in my back. It was such a beautiful day—didn't these things usually happen on beautiful days? And with all these people. . .
"I might seem paranoid," I told the park rangers, "but there's a suspicious looking bag down there." The man and woman shot a worried glance at each other.
"No. That's not paranoid at all." The man jumped up. "Show me."
I led him to the offending bag. After inspecting it, he shook his head. "I think it's a sandbag left over from a ceremony they had here earlier. Thank you for telling us though." His sincerity made me feel as relieved to not feel stupid as I was to find that it wasn't a bomb.

Suspicious bag aside, the Lincoln Memorial could hardly be considered a place conducive to remembering anyone or anything except the fastest path to an exit. Shoulder to shoulder, people milled about, attempting to snap pictures without getting someone else's head in the shot. Inside the memorial, colored people expressed their displeasure with the engraving of Lincoln's quotation, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." Outside the memorial on one pillar a preacher called folks to repentance; on the other pillar stood a college student exercising his first amendment right to be a moron by yelling mindless information to drown out the preacher's message. On the steps in the middle, followers of Ra Gohar Shahi held banners with a picture of the prophet's face beside his profile on the moon.
"Good grief this is annoying," I commented, steering a stroller toward the concession stand. "I'm surprised they're allowed to do this here."
Heather shrugged. "Freedom of Speech."
"Oh, yeah." I blinked. "I forgot about that."

A lemonade and a bag of Fritos later, onward we pushed, down the dirt sidewalks, across potholed streets, weaving in between bikes and joggers, past the White House. For the next mile and a half, we stopped frequently to clean spilled lemonade, address tantrums, forbid the dragging of feet, and fix the stroller wheels. (These were the type of strollers that are like 'that cart' in Walmart with the gimpy wheel that turns itself around and asks to be kicked.)
Along the way, I saw an orange plastic fish lying atop a storm drain, dropped by some child most likely. It looked as desperate to plop through that drain and bob out to the Potomac as I was to get out of D.C.
At four o'clock, we pushed the kids through the Smithsonian doors and attempted to view the artifacts along with hundreds of other vacationers with strollers and children. The Smithsonian struck me as the kind of place where I could spend a very long time contemplating and gathering inspiration. But as it was, about a third of the Smithsonian was closed for renovations, Kermit had been put away in lieu of Miss Piggy, C-3PO and R2-D2 were stored, and Asa and Ava—who up to this point had been fidgety and thoroughly unappreciative of the collection of First Ladies' tableware— began loudly declaring their impatience and hunger. After the complicated process of finding a souvenir that the disagreeable kids would agree on, we toted them to the Metro, promising McDonalds Happy Meals as soon as we got back on the road.
As if getting back would be that simple.
With each escalator ride, I tensed. Of course the kids couldn't ride down or up in strollers; they had to jump out each time with my sister and I holding their hands and the strollers. Earlier Heather had hooked on Ava's monkey back pack which had a long tail for holding. A glorified kid leash. On one of the train rides, Asa, bored and ornery, wrapped Ava's tail around the stroller handle. At the next escalator, when Ava jumped out of the stroller and stepped on the escalator, the tail was still wrapped around the stroller I was holding. As she descended, the stroller yanked her back until she fell. Other passengers waiting to climb on the escalator gasped and cried out. We've all seen the Rescue 911 shows: the kid who falls on the escalator and gets choked to death when his coat or shirt gets caught in the mechanisms under the moving steps.
I did the only thing I knew to do: yank on the monkey's tail. Up Ava came to her feet out of the jaws of death. The other passengers sighed with relief. Ava cried, embarrassed and scraped from her fall on the metal steps. I shook from adrenaline while trying to calm Ava until we got to the bottom where I proceeded to set her down then accidentally whack her in the head with the stroller handle.
"I want Nana," she wailed, believing, I suppose, that her grandmother could take care of her better than the two nitwits who got her into this mess.
At the final Metro stop, our ticket pass wouldn't open the turnstile. An irritated Metro worker manually opened the gate and took our tickets, asking pointedly if we'd need them again. "No," we assured him.
At the car, Heather dug in the backpack for her keys. The kids pounded on the door, ready for McNuggets; I all but pranced with joy to finally be this close to air conditioning and this far away from D.C. But Heather began emptying the backpack. In the bottom, she found sticks of gum and hand sanitizer—but no wallet, which meant no keys or cellphone.

After three more attempts at searching the backpack in some hope of the wallet's magical appearance, we wheeled the strollers back into the Metro station and stood formulating a plan that didn't involve spending the night huddled on a bench.
"Did you leave it at that concession stand?" I tried to jar her memory.
Heather shook her head. "No, because I used it to buy the stuff in the Smithsonian gift shop. Then I put it in the backpack."
Looking at the bag, hanging on the stroller, we were both thinking of the same thing: all the times in the Metro stops since the Smithsonian that the stroller had fallen back from the weight of the bags, and all the jerks and turns we'd taken, and all the sneaky hands in tight spaces watching for unwatched bags. But that was a scenario neither of us wanted to consider, so we went with the last place she'd had it for sure: the Smithsonian.
Heather used my phone to call the Smithsonian number that didn't provide a human contact but promised "if you leave a message, we'll return your call within 24 hours." The recording did, however, confirm our dread that the Smithsonian closed at 7:30. She called her husband Jon—a veritable Google search king—in South Carolina who began calling numbers.
Our desperate loitering caught the attention of a Metro worker coming on duty. "Do y'all need any help?"
We launched into our story which she punctuated with sympathetic noises. "Y'all need to get back into D.C." She reached into the ticket booth and returned, offering us two free Metro passes and wishes for success. I wanted to hug her.
On the platform upstairs, we squeezed aboard a train just loading for departure. "Is this even the right train?" Heather asked as we lurched out of the station.
It was 7:10, leaving us 20 minutes to get to the Smithsonian and find the wallet. Waiting for the train to depart, Heather called the D.C. police office which offered a similar 24 hour response message with the caveat of "if this is an emergency dial 911." If this wasn't an emergency, we didn't know what was. So Heather called 911. But even an emergency call can't survive in an underground Metro tunnel: the service cut out. Now our only hope was that Jon would get through to the Smithsonian security, that we would make it to the Smithsonian on time, that we were on the right train, that the wallet was indeed in the Smithsonian, that honest people existed. As we waited, I watched my draining battery, down 20% already since we first started calling people ten minutes earlier.
With each stop I forced down panic and frustration, trying to calm the hyper kids. We dragged them from elevator to escalator through ticket stations and into the Metro cars. On our last train, Jon's text came through: "Security at the museum has your stuff. Go back to the museum and go to the security office at the basement level."
"I don't think we're going to make it," Heather texted back.
"You have to run," He said simply. "One of you probably will need to run."
When we emerged at the Metro stop in front of the Smithsonian, Heather left the kids with me and ran.

Fifteen minutes later she came strolling back, wallet in hand. "They had already locked the doors. I had to pound to get someone's attention."
We steered the strollers toward the Metro and took our time getting down the escalators.
"Hey guys, Mommy got to go down in the Smithsonian basement," I told the kids. "Like Larry Daley."
Questions followed about the giant octopus, Jedediah, Dexter, and other movie characters confined in the basement, none of which Mommy had encountered on her visit.
As we passed through the last ticket stop, that kind Metro worker stepped out of the ticket booth. "Well?"
When my sister held up her wallet, the woman grinned as if our find had made it worth coming in for her shift.
We pushed through the turnstile and continued on our journey.

I've told this story a dozen times already. Earlier this week, I repeated it to my hair dresser as she snipped away. When I ended, she said, "They were some good people!"
"Yes, they were," I agreed.
The hotel manager, the people who held doors for us, the Metro lady, and that one honest person who turned in the wallet: I don't think I'll get tired of telling the story about their small kindnesses that surprised me out of my suspicion and ultimately inspired me into gratitude, hope, and a desire to do the same for others.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Made with Love

(This short post comes from a writing prompt in my MFA residency workshop. The writing prompt encouraged us to write a short essay about how food influences our lives. Mrs. M is a dear friend and a fellow writer.)

"And now we'll strain the sauce,"Mrs. M. pressed the pureed pineapple through the strainer theatrically, in response to my suggestion that she host a cooking show. "Aaand I have nothing else to say."

I broke out in an easy laughter, sitting on the barstool across from her--the same stool I sat on a month earlier when she'd told me that the doctors diagnosed her husband with liver cirrhosis. In the absence of the usual factors--drinking and smoking--the doctors didn't know the cause. But Mrs. M had told us that nine months ago, her life had changed and most notably so in her kitchen.

"All organic. Nothing processed. Nothing." Her hazel eyes shone with left over tears from the story, but her voice was charged, edged with excitement. "And so, I've found ways to be creative." She starts her mornings at 3:30, slicing fruit for smoothies, filling bottles with filtered water and lemon wedges, chopping vegetables and cooking fresh meats and breads for her husband's work lunch where she used to slather mayonnaise and sandwich deli meats and cheese between white bread.

I'd eaten at her house several times since then and learned each time the effort that she invested in each meal. Today was no different as she removed a tray from the oven to present fluffy golden biscuits made with the flour she purchased from the Middle East somewhere--18 dollars a pound. The jam sitting on the counter is pomegranate grape, also from some exotic place.

She's already explained that the meatballs are hand-made with turkey, the sauce from organic tomatoes, the noodles from her special flour, the salad from organic vegetables and fresh strained pineapple dressing. For dessert, she promises, pulling back a thin dishtowel from a 9x13 pyrex pan, "Apple dumplings sweetened with honey."

She arranges the food on the table set with her china and cloth napkins, and steps back to survey her spread. Nodding, she walks over to call her husband down from his study. "Dave, dinner's ready."

As I sit there, watching her watch him eat the nourishment and beam when he approves, it's clear that every meal and every moment in her kitchen has become more than a meal or a moment-- it's become an act of love and purpose.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Next Step: Home Again

I happened to notice just now that it's been exactly two years since my last post. Never have two years flown by so quickly or been quite so full of change as these.

As of three weeks ago, I earned my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Creative Nonfiction. Oh don't worry--I'm still the same as when I went in. I still don't know how to end my essays, am still terrified of query letters, still not sure if my writing is boring but am sure that it's not great. I learned much about developing my essays, learned the names of famous writers I hadn't known before, and, perhaps the most important benefit, met fantastic mentors and fellow writers whom I intend to keep around for life.

There was a moment during the senior year of my undergraduate years--I remember the exact spot on the sidewalk--when a thought cut my breath short: I couldn't leave, I didn't know enough. This, I've come to understand, is the final thought of us all who have time to think a final thought: We don't know enough. It is humanity's lament and must be, for there will ever be more to know. At the end of every endeavor or relationship or achievement or season, we can all look back and think the same.

Reliably, then, this thought again cut my breath short as I shook the MFA director's hand, signifying my end to the deadlines and assignments and handholding of mentorship. And over the next few weeks even until now, I've found myself wondering, now what? What's next? I don't know enough, and I especially don't know where to go now.

During my MFA I wrote mostly essays--my longest turned out to be about 25 pages. While fellow students were pumping out full blown memoirs about their exotic international or abused childhoods, I frequently had to accept that I have not been blessed with the gift to write memoir, at least not yet. Short and simple defined my work--has always defined my work, exemplified by the puddle.

However, I learned that most of my epiphanies were provided with the other writers in my writing group. The theme for my graduate thesis, "All the Ages We Ever Were," came from one of these writers. A week after graduation when we met for lunch, another of my fellow writers planted another idea. "Sarah, you should be a columnist. You've got the eye and the voice for it."

When she said it, I suddenly remembered people in my past who have said the same thing: "You should be a columnist." I have no idea how to become a columnist, and I'm just cynical enough to know that "you should be" is a far cry from actually "being," but maybe it's a step toward knowing what the next step in my life should be.

Wherever this big, long road of life takes me, it's a simple pleasure to splash around here. I'm ever in awe of how much this little Puddle feels so much like home. Thanks for splashing along.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Clap, clap, clap

Children are God's ever replenishing reminders to adults--reminders of what is important. My niece Ana is one of the brightest little memorandums in my life. Last I saw her was when I flew home for her first birthday, 3 months ago. Since then, I heard phone tales of her first steps and her first words and her transition from baby to little girl. I heard about what a happy child she was. And when Ana and her parents came down to visit me last week, I witnessed that all they told me was true. The child smiled nearly incessantly. From her waking moment of bouncing and laughing in her playpen, every little thing made her happy. Pick her up, she clapped her hands, grinning toothily. Set her down, same routine. Walk down the street and see a dog--party on. Put her in front of a mirror--clap clap, clap. Every little thing called for celebration. So often I find myself not looking forward to tomorrow. I hate Wednesdays because they're hump day. I hate Mondays because they aren't Saturday. I hate Sunday because Monday is the next day. I hate Thursdays because they aren't Friday. In simpler terms, I dread life most days. Celebration is out of the question. One of my favorite new movies is Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Quirky, simple, elegant--the movie reminds me of all the important little things that only one who has mastered the art of living would know. My favorite line comes right before Mr. Magorium dies when he tells his faithful worker Mahoney, "Your life is an occasion--rise to it." Life is an occasion that we're all invited to. And we've got so much to celebrate, starting with this day, this moment. On days when I'd rather cry than be brave and laugh and on the days when I don't even want to crawl out of bed, much less clap my hands, I hope to remember my little niece, with her open-mouthed grin, watching for reasons to slap her chunky hands together--clap, clap, clap.

The Desk

Mom is planning to buy more new furniture. Each time I come home to visit it feels that our house is a revolving furniture store, with fresh models of chests and tables and chairs and decorations But I wasn't prepared when, last week, Mom pointed to the desk. In a tone that spoke of long standing animosity, she said, "That monstrosity's going next. Since Joey's going to school this year, I won't need it." And she told me of her plans to set her new entertainment center against that wall in its place. In truth, I think she's always thought the desk transgressed her interior decorating style. My heart dropped a little as I looked at the simple oak desk. I don't even remember when it became a part of our house, but my dad built it, one of the pieces of furniture that had helped ignite my dad's love for woodwork. It was simple, with three side drawers and one long top drawer. With three shelves and, just above the desk under the bottom shelf, a light that always blinked three times before coming on. The desk is all corners, scary to have children around. More than once I've nearly ruptured a kidney by backing into the thing. And heavy. It was the piece of furniture my most dreaded lugging around during the frequent moves of my childhood. But it went with us to North Carolina, to Maryland, and back to two more moves in South Carolina. The desk set the tone for the rest of the furniture in the room to which Mom assigned it. Because once in place, the thing wouldn't be moving. When Mom said so flippantly that she was getting rid of it, I felt as if she had decided to send a family member to Goodwill. From my first memories, the bottom drawer always stuck, an obstacle that didn't impede me from pulling it open with all my strength to discover the comic books in there along with the pack of my dad's colored pencils, as well as a horn of some animal that he had begun to scrimshaw. remnants of his former life as an aspiring artist. The drawer smelled of ink and leather, the smell of a life shoved in the drawer, forgotten so that he could earn a living for us, leaving behind his ambition. Later the desk became command central for my home school years. Scattered with Mom's lesson plans, with pens and pencils, stickers and charts, text books and binders, it was always the place I referred to for answers. Most recently, however, it's a catch-all for dried up pens and broken pencils and the snack wrappers my brother's refuse to carry ten more feet to the kitchen trashcan. So I guess I can't make a good argument for my mom keeping it. Except to think, "But it's the desk." At the risk of sounding sentimental, I asked, "What will you do with it?" and ran my finger across the pointy edge, now a bit dull from age. "Chris is coming to get it. He hopes to pastor a church soon. Says it will be great for his office." I'm glad to know who's inheriting the desk, that it will be serving a noble purpose. But I kind of hope I'm there to say goodbye when my dad lugs it out for the last time.


Bouts of homesickness attack me sometimes when I'm 500 miles away from my hometown where I grew up. But I rarely crave the familiarity of my parents' house or my friends' houses, or even my beautiful town nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Oddly enough, the location my melancholy most reliably craves is our local grocery store, Ingles. Ingles is a run-of-the-mill grocery store chain in the south. Some of the store locations have a pharmacy, and almost all of them have a movie rental section, a deli, bakery, meat counter, and florist. There is absolutely nothing exclusive about them; I could just as easily buy groceries at Bi-Lo or Walmart or Publix. But a visit home isn't complete without at least once meandering the aisles of the Ingles store about 2 minutes from our house. I make excuses to stop in and eagerly agree to run out to the store for Mom, just to walk through, smelling the faintly sour odor of the dairy aisle, the mint gum and Windex at the registers, the pungent aroma of the coffee aisle, and sweet smell of the fruit section. Hugging myself against the chill, I stroll through the freezer section, and at the meat counter I inspect the chicken gizzards and cow tongue and other body parts of livestock that only rednecks would eat. I gawk around to see how many cashiers are still there who have been working at Ingles for ten years, at least. And for some reason, like a metal detector, my fondness seems to grow the strongest when I'm in the dog food aisle, though I haven't quite uncovered the memory connected to that emotion. But why would a grocery store hold any sway on my emotions? Especially when there's nothing special about it. Maybe it's just the familiarity fostered by all the 'runs to the store' for that item Mom forgot to get, and Wednesday evening trips for gallons of milk after church. Maybe it's all the times I scrounged for quarters and went to buy a USA Today as a teenager, eager to read about other parts of the United States. Maybe it was the mystery of living in a small town, where you never knew who you might see when you turned the corner to the canned goods aisle--be it an ex-boyfriend, snobby church member, or neighbor. Or maybe it's because when I was home-schooled, the grocery store was the one place we went consistently, representing a small venue of unpredictability. Even now, when I feel that life has become too mundane, or I can't bear facing my lonely apartment, I'll take that road I've passed a million times, just to see what's at the end. Or drive to the end of Palafox Street to see what the fishermen are catching at the pier. Or ask a random stranger for a story. At all times keeping my eyes open for any little adventure that might pop up, always hoping that one is just around the corner. The small ones are usually the best. Perhaps that's why Ingles is so dear to my heart--because it will always represent that first awakening of small time, anytime adventure for me.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Today I lugged two boxes, three clothing-gorged trash bags, and one over-the-door ironing board to Goodwill and handed them to the scraggly man who received them into the back of the warehouse where he would turn my trash into someone else's treasure. Last night, in my clutter purge I organized and straightened every shelf and drawer, searching for other things to add to my Goodwill cache. In the drawer beside my bed--the place where everything goes that doesn't have an assigned place--I found a few stray batteries, some stamps, crumpled memos from six months ago, three outdated housing manual, and an extra Hallmark card that said, "Thinking of you at this difficult time and wishing you peace." It's one of those .99 cent cards, an extra I picked up last time I was in the card aisle. I transferred it to another drawer newly dubbed my 'stationary drawer.' Wouldn't need the card anytime soon, surely, but I figured I'd keep it, 'cause eventually something sad will happen. I like being prepared. I finished my cleaning and went to bed in peace with the knowledge that everything was right in my world. Tonight, the card is lying beside me, opened, waiting to carry words of comfort to my coworker whose 15 month baby girl died last night in her sleep, silently, senselessly, peacefully. Not 3 months ago, I followed the little girl around the church nursery, coaxing her to give me the headband she'd pulled off her head; on Sunday I sat with her mother in church. This afternoon I gaped at the e-mail, announcing her death. Sometimes sadness sneaks in or strikes suddenly; it doesn't ask "ready or not" to warn us, and doesn't wait for you to stock up on sympathy cards. And inevitably, when it comes, I'm never truly prepared.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Even if I do say so myself, the visuals on my blog rock! The puddle wouldn't be nearly as cozy without the pictures. Here, at my gushing, seems the perfect place to present a confession. I’m an art thief. I’ll admit it--most of the pictures on my blog are not my own, but scavenged from dozens of other websites. I slink around on Google images until the perfect photo for my post pops up and then I—well I swipe it. I shamelessly copy and paste and repost, only dreaming of possessing the talent of these photographers. But here I wish to make it clear that though I covet their talent, I do not take credit for their work. This post is to celebrate the many photographers and artists who unknowingly supplied me with the aesthetic part of my blog. Thank you!! (Whew, now my conscience can breathe.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


(I wrote this a few months ago. Levi finally got the hint and has found better ways to fill his void, with missions work and investing more time in his business. I'm proud of him. We rarely talk, but it's understood that we'll always be there for each other.)
Levi lives in South Carolina, 500 miles away from me. A few months ago, he nabbed my number from a friend and texted me, clearly scoping out a possible relationship. He’s twelve years my senior, and though from an upstanding family, carries more baggage than the cargo hold of a 757. Aware of his reputation, I hesitated to begin communication with him, but, as usual, curiosity overtook my judgment. Slowly, like the saturated bottom of a cardboard box, my resolve gave way. Now thousands of texts and countless hours of phone conversations later, he’s convinced that I’m the one for him, but I remain just as sure that he’s not. We’re at a stalemate as complicated friends. He insists I’m “perfect” because of my godly encouragement, and assumes that I’m “beautiful” if only because I’m kind, and assures me that I’m “awesome” because I’m not vain like the women from his past. But his profuse complements don’t convince me because I suspect they’re more wistful than anything; he’s just tired of living a lonely life.
Levi’s life intrigues me. He’s served jail time briefly, been sued, married, divorced, fathered an illegitimate child, fostered an extensive string of dysfunctional relationships, traveled a good portion of the world, speaks 3 languages, started a business, made millions, owns 3 Ferraris, and is presently building an elaborate house. In the future he plans to take weekend trips to New York for Broadway shows, and France for shopping, and Belgium for waffles, and he intends to visit every continent—
At least, he would if he had someone to join him. Though money can charter him a trip to any country, and lend him every luxury, Levi suffers from the drawback that afflicts many affluent people: his life is filled with emptiness. He can’t find someone who will truly love him beyond his bank account.
This is why I think Levi isn’t more excited about that magnificent house that he’s going to move into, why he encourages the builders and painters to take their time. Because, though full of furniture, appliances, and decorations, the house echoes with emptiness. I can always tell when he’s struggling with loneliness because he describes the house to me, room by room. Through his verbal depiction, he leads my imagination through the heavy front door into the entry way where we walk under the sparkling chandelier cascading from the ceiling. He shows off the expansive kitchen with glossy cabinets and black appliances. And he points out the sleek leather furniture in the living room and the calming dark earth tone of the walls. We climb the wide staircase that he longs to ascend with a wife in his arms. And upstairs, he pauses in the spacious master bedroom where the walk-in closet rivals the size of my entire apartment bedroom. In this room, he rehearses his plans to tuck his wife in with a kiss in the mornings before he leaves for work and surprise her with gifts on her pillow at night. He revels in describing the sliding glass doors leading out to the balcony where he’ll keep sunrise and sunset rendezvous. Here is where the tour stops, with Levi on that balcony, contemplating how his life feels so lonely, so empty.
Why, you may ask, have I not leapt at the offer to change the marital status of this seemingly eligible man? The answer is simple: a belief. The belief hardly acknowledged in our culture that marriage after divorce is unbiblical. Based on Christ’s instruction in Matthew 5 and Mark 10, marrying a man who is divorced would mean violating a blatant biblical mandate. Acquiescing to Levi would be settling for God’s second best for my life. For this reason, I’ve let Levi know that there is no reason to hope that my mind will change.
But despite my resolve to adhere to this command, there is one thing that makes it hard for me to resist entertaining the Levi's proposal. One detail causes me to second guess my stand. It’s not Levi’s cars, his bank account, his suavity, or his travel itinerary. And none of the rooms in his expansive house could entice me to concede to his persistent proposal of marriage.
None of the rooms except one—the upstairs office. Or what I could turn into my office, he promises. My office where I could write all day if we got married.
There, converging in those 144 square feet of room, are my dreams—to be a wife and a writer. Married to a man who could sponsor my passion to write without dividing my energies with a career—it’s enough to make me rethink my morals. Enough to tempt me to claim Christ’s forgiveness in advance and elope in Portugal or some other exotic backdrop.
Besides, I reason, I’m twenty-six. Maybe the Lord has forgotten my desires. What if the man meant for me was aborted, or what if he’s distracted by a busty blonde or what if Levi and I were supposed to marry, but he just made a mistake by getting married to the wrong one? On and on my rationalizing goes.
Sometimes, I think I could make it work, that I could make it right. But my rationalizing never screams louder than the resounding no in my heart.
Levi wonders at my resolve. “How can you be so sure that God will bring someone else along?” Some days I wonder along with him. After all, I have no promise that God will lead another man into my life if I hold to His command. I possess even less of a guarantee that He will bring another man whose income would allow me to write.
My unmet desires sometime ring through my empty heart like Levi’s loneliness through his house. But all that changes when my eyes stop focusing on the one thing I don’t have and turn to the only thing that matters: God’s presence. The presence available to accompany every individual at all the world’s tables for one. My desire to do what is right is stronger than my yearning to write. And I long for God’s company over the companionship of a spouse.
My unfulfilled desires have revealed His capacity to fill even the hollowest places with joy that no human companion can offer. His arms are the only arms capable of holding me tightly enough to feel absolutely loved. His words are the only words sweet and gentle enough to offer genuine comfort.
Only when we’re willing to abandon our most precious plans and seek His exceeding abundant dreams will we realize that our hearts aren’t truly empty—they’re just open with potential to be filled with peace and purpose, with hope and happiness, and perhaps, most importantly, with the desire to know the Lover of our souls if only we give Him room.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Open House--er--Puddle

Three years ago, I started my blog unsure of what exactly I was getting into, what I would write, or who would read it. Given the uncertainties, I decided not to tell anyone until I was sure that it would work out. It soon became apparent that the Puddle could serve as that secret place I’ve always craved (see “The Secret Place.”) So I decided to keep it a secret. But usually my secret places can only remain clandestine for so long before I share them with a friend. So why am I still keeping my blog a secret?
It made people nervous when they found out that I had a secret blog. I imagine they wondered what I must be saying, what ornery laundry my passive aggressive personality had stitched and hung out to dry on my blog.
But they didn’t need to worry because I never meant for the Puddle to be a place to bash others or vent about my days—the internet is one big steam vent, releasing the angst and intolerance of society. I refuse to allow my blog to add so much as a molecule to that worthless steam. After all, writing is a confirmation of who we are, a reflection of our values. I for one don’t want a written record of my nastiness, anonymous or not.
Pure and simple, there’s only one real reason that I’ve kept my blog a secret: I’m terrified of disappointing people (see “One Person’s Treasure.”). I’m terrified that people will look at it and say, “Eh, I’ve seen better.” “That’s all she’s got?” Or “No wonder she kept THAT a secret.”
But maybe it’s time—-time to open the puddle for public splashing. To face the praise or ridicule. To bore or inspire what few readers I may acquire. To capture attention or to become just one more blog bone in the vast wasteland of the web. But just maybe it’s time to finally be heard.
I can’t promise there won’t be errors in the posts. I’ve considered going back and perfecting them all-—but then I wouldn’t be able to gauge how far I’ve come.
So here it is, still a little muddy, but a whole lot of fun.

Welcome to the Puddle, folks. Come on in and splash around.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Getting a Grip on Letting Go

(Written in 2010 upon the graduation of my first class of seniors.)

As an undergrad, I always wondered how my teachers did it—how they said goodbye to us semester after semester without shedding a tear. How they could change into shorts after convocation and head to the beach without even a backward glance at the students who had just disappeared out of their lives. Weren’t they sad that we were leaving, or afraid that others would come and make them forget us? Or did they actually want to forget us?
Now that I’m on the other side of the desk as a teacher, I’ve embraced this essential truth: for both students and teachers, college is a place where goodbyes are drafted the moment you say hello.
During my first year of teaching, I instructed mostly freshmen and sophomores, students who weren’t going anywhere soon. But when I began teaching upper level writing classes, I forged significant relationships with the students, especially my seven seniors. Though I wasn’t much older than they were, those few years provided enough distance for me to regard them with maternal care, affectionately dubbing them ‘my kids.’
By the spring semester, I had grown so close to my kids that even thinking of them leaving made my heart feel hollow. For no apparent reason, the Wednesday before midterms acutely reminded me of graduation’s proximity—acutely enough to propel me into a melancholic stupor.
Refusing to wallow pathetically in my office, I walked to my car, deciding to wallow pathetically somewhere else. Clearly, my sullen soul needed a drink, more specifically a bottle of green apple Jones soda—no, make that two; it was, undoubtedly, a two bottle day.
Just outside the front gate, the wad of emotion in the back of my throat began to slowly unfold, choking me. Typically, with the distraction of the radio or of people in the surrounding cars, I can redirect my emotions away from my tear ducts. That day, I didn’t even want to try.
Seventy days from graduation, I indulged in a full blown pity party, thinking of them, my regalia-clad kids, walking across the stage and out of my life. Already, I missed seeing their faces peek into my office window, watching their heads droop in shame as I collected everyone else’s manuscript, hearing them call my name across campus, listening to their quirky muses, and proudly claiming them as mine when others might look cockeyed at their eccentric antics.
Is this what it feels like, I sniffled, for parents to put a Barbie lunchbox in their little girl’s hand or a Superman backpack on their son’s back and wave goodbye through a bus window? Is this what parents suffer when they stare dolefully at the back window of a car stuffed with dorm accessories or filled with wedding balloons?
One and a half bottles later, I sought relief from a real Source of comfort—God, the Expert at letting go of people He loves. He responded to my plea for consolation by first making me accept that in two months these students would leave and, what’s more, that others would come and others would go. I already knew, of course, that whether or not I wanted to let them go, my kids were going to drive out that gate after convocation—I just hadn’t accepted it.
Once this literal struggle had been addressed, He gently pointed out the deeper one, reminding me, I never entrusted them into your care for you to keep them, only to guide them—and, all along, that guidance was meant to direct them out the front gate.
“But away from me!” I whimpered, dramatically soaking another tissue, taking another swig.
Yes. But if they were to stay here with you, they could never find out how I want to use them.
At this, my tears hiccupped to a stop. He was right. Holding them here would mean withholding them from adventure, from His provision, from trials and triumphs—from life. Life, after all, was what they needed to discover. Only through living life to its fullest would they find the inspiration to become the writers He's called them to be.
He assured me, You know that if you let them go, they’re going to be in good Hands.
Draining the bottle of its sour green liquid, I released the grip in my heart. “Okay, God. I’ll let them go.” I drew a deep breath before committing to the next part—the hardest part. “I won’t even want to hold them here.”
As I drove back onto campus, peace filled me, emanating from the comfort that God had created out of my emotional chaos. But, as if that peace weren’t enough, He offered a second solace—to match my second bottle of soda.
Just because you have to free them doesn’t mean you have to forget them.
As the simplicity of His comfort shamed my newly calmed soul, I shook my head. Why hadn’t I noticed this obvious consolation earlier—before giving myself a glucose-induced headache with that second bottle of Jones?
Walking back into my office to prepare for the final classes of the day, I thanked God that I wasn’t required to clean out my heart along with my office at the end of the semester; that I wouldn’t have to dispose of my memories along with the drafts of their compositions; that He’d understand if I burst into tears on the beach following convocation, or sniffled in a silent classroom as my kids drove out the front gate.
After four years of saying goodbye to students, I’m finally getting a grip on letting go, but I’m always thankful for that place in my heart where I can hold onto my kids forever.

Not Even a Scar

“Look. Will’s got another new girlfriend,” Mom called to me from where she inspected a Facebook picture on the computer screen.
As I reluctantly glanced over her shoulder, my gaze met the familiar grin and brown eyes of Will, my ex-boyfriend, standing next to a gorgeous brunette with a Crest Whitestrip smile. Immediately, I braced for the pain typically aroused by confronting that part of my past. But the sharp pangs of guilt and regret didn’t rip across my heart as I had expected. In fact, after slowly probing my heart for remaining tender areas, I realized that the old wounds were strangely painless, leaving only the faintest memories of my years as the girl with a blade.
Some people hurt themselves to create a distraction from life’s problems. Trying to forget the pain someone caused them or attempting to punish themselves for mistakes or shortcomings, a growing percent of Americans resort to violent scratching, pulling out hair, cutting, or burning to release emotion that otherwise would drive them insane. The thought of people intentionally harming themselves makes me shudder, but I don’t know why—after all, I cut myself nearly every day for years. Though I never harmed my flesh, I mutilated my heart. Rather than knives or razors, my blades were the memories of past mistakes. Somehow, slashing my soul with painful recollections was easier than forgiving myself for hurting Will.
During our early teen years, Will and I were best friends despite my being three years older. In time, our relationship morphed into more than friendship as Will grew to adore me. While I cared deeply for him, most days I struggled to know whether to treat him like a little brother, a friend, or a boyfriend. But by my eighteenth birthday, with college in the near future, I wondered if a better fit waited for me. Tying myself down to a relationship meant possibly missing my true soul mate later on.
Through my indecision, Will’s passion sustained our relationship. But even his consistent love did nothing to compel me to fully commit to him—or to fully separate from him. For two years my affections fluctuated, abusing his unwavering devotion until finally, one evening right before I returned to college for the spring semester, he called. His voice was low, almost expressionless, as if he had expended his passion or anger in planning this confession. “I could never see myself without you, but I can’t see myself with you because you’re so selfish.”
Year by year, he chronicled our unbalanced relationship, recounting the times I refused to say “I love you;” the evenings I recoiled at his touch; and the moments I instigated his affection, knowing full well my unwillingness to reciprocate it. He punctuated the inventory of my offenses by stating, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
As I lay in bed that night, his list of my mistakes replayed in my mind. He was right—I had been excessively selfish and blind to the extent that my vacillating affections had injured his emotions. Recalling all the love that Will had granted me in spite of my unwillingness to return it, I decided that ‘sorry’ would never be enough to rectify his pain—‘sorry’ was too easy. I needed to suffer too. That night, the cutting began.
The past became my weapon to disfigure my present. Selecting a memory of a time I hurt Will, I would run it across my heart, feeling the serrated blade of guilt and remorse tearing into my soul. Along with the memories, I tucked away the pink ribbon that Will used to bundle my letters when he handed them back to me. I pointedly referred to him as “my ex” rather than “an old friend” when mentioning him in conversation, hoping that someone would ask me to retell the story of our break-up. Sometimes I called him, just to check up, and I even added him as a friend on Facebook. Readily I collected any method to inflict on myself an equal amount of damage that my actions had inflicted on Will. As the years passed, my heart spread into a gaping
wound, expanding each time my offences came to mind.
A time of grief or pain is natural after a break up, but usually people are able to move on with their lives. So why, for years, did I keep hurting myself as punishment for the pain I caused Will? Maybe for the same reasons that many people hurt themselves physically on a regular basis. Although it’s not a simple answer, Susan Bowman, licensed counselor and author of See My Pain: Creative Strategies and Activities for Helping Young People Who Self-Injure, suggests, “When [people] cut themselves, . . . it becomes a control issue.” This certainly described me. I was willing to inflict on myself what humans naturally avoid—pain. Because pain, unlike the mistakes of my past, was something that I could control.
Almost four years after our breakup, my destructive habit climaxed when I called to check up on him. The conversation was going well—until he mentioned Blair, his most recent girlfriend. I’d seen pictures of her on Facebook. Posed in her booty shorts, low-cut tops, bronze tan, and straightened platinum hair, she epitomized all that I was not.
Hearing Will rave about her angered me. Before calculating the consequences of my words, I blurted out, “She looks like a slut, Will.”
In the silence, I sensed his struggle to contain the white hot rage burning inside him. “Don’t you ever say that again.”
“Well, it’s true.” I shot back. “All you have to do is look at her pictures—”
“You’re just jealous.”
I had no defense and no way to reverse the direction the conversation had taken.
“She loves me,” he yelled, “which is a lot more than you ever did.”
As the memories weighted the silence hanging between us, my heart raced from the confrontation and proximity of the past.
Finally, his voice softened. “You’ll never know how much you hurt me.” I knew he wasn’t referring to the comment I had just made.
The conversation provided enough blades to slash myself with for the next two days. Eating seemed irrelevant; sleep eluded me; even at work, I wielded the memories until my soul had no more surface to be abused.
Jill Pertler, in her article “Cutting: A Teen Trend on the Rise,” says that “self-injury is a cry for help. [People] engaging in these behaviors desperately need [people] to provide understanding and a willingness to listen.”
While a self-mutilator of any kind needs to talk about his issues, the healing process extends one step further than just finding someone to listen. People who hurt themselves by cutting their emotions or their body don’t need to be merely consoled or understood, but to be told that wounds can heal, on the skin or the heart, if left to mend without being ripped open repeatedly like a scab.
In the lowest point of my self-destruction, I slowly began to abandon my destructive tendencies by realizing that healing would come only by releasing my past, forgiving myself, and moving on. No one could pry the blades from me, especially since they always hung just a remembrance away. I would have to choose, each day, to cut or carry on, to bleed or bind up, to hurt or heal.
Forgiveness became my recovery room and time my physician as, eventually, I chose to carry on by removing Will from my Facebook page; decided to bind up my wounds by throwing away his letters; and resolved to heal by erasing his number from my phone. When enough time had passed, I sent Will a letter, apologizing for my selfishness in those years, and settled for “sorry” to correct my mistakes.
After seeing the picture of Will with his newest girlfriend on the computer screen, I marveled at my painless response. Yet in the next thought I wondered what Will was up to, wondered if he was really happy going through girlfriend after girlfriend. Perhaps my distant offenses had ruined his trust in women. Maybe my indecision had caused—
Suddenly realizing what was happening, I jerked the guilt away from my heart and hurried out of the room, away from the picture and the memories, choosing, once again, to leave behind the past, and heal.
The pain and memory of the wounds grow fainter every day. With time and right choices, I doubt they’ll even leave a scar—no matter how deep they once were.

The Words I Meant to Say

December 30, 2009
After following the winding cemetery road for what seemed like half an hour, I parked the Trailblazer and stepped out, hoping to remember the location of the grave. On the day of the funeral, my only depth perception had been the six feet of endless hole five inches from my toes. Now, almost a year later, despite my lack of orientation, I seemed to remember the plot being close to the oak tree about ten feet away. My boots made the first tracks in the two inch carpet of snow as I approached a marker decorated with a small Christmas tree. Taking a chance, I knelt and, with both hands, erased enough snow to reveal the name on the marker. This was it—Pappy’s grave.
Embraced by the dull cold and hovering stillness of the cemetery, I stared at the chiseled name. A towering concrete statue of Christ stood not far behind me, peering over my shoulder, as if ready to grant comfort. But I needed no closure, harbored no lingering questions, stifled no hot tears of anger. I had come to tell Pappy the words I meant to say nearly a year earlier.
February 9, 2009 around 9 p.m.
I opened the Valentine’s Day card from Mamaw and Pappy, guiltily tucking the enclosed ten dollar bill in my purse. I hadn’t called my grandparents in months. But with Mamaw’s tendency to ramble juxtaposed against my overflowing stacks of papers to grade, I once again attempted to reason my way out of dialing the number my fingers had tapped out like a cadence since I was six years old.
But no matter how I tried to concentrate on my to-do list, that night the call wouldn’t be postponed. More demanding than duty or propriety or even guilt, the insistent prodding felt much like one of the imperceptible yet compelling intuitions we obey regularly without understanding why, intuitions such as “wait another minute before walking out of the room,” “take another route to your destination,” “rethink that sentence before you say it.” In this case it prompted, “call your grandparents and thank them for the Valentine’s Day card.”
Obediently, I dialed the number and waited to hear Mamaw’s familiar greeting. Instead the voice that answered surprised me. “Hello.”
“Hey, Pappy.” I smiled, remembering the last time I saw him in August, when he had come back to life after being dead for years.
A stroke had changed Pappy in 2003 from a vigorous 64 year old owner of a construction company, to a lethargic senior, dwindling under depression, forced to delegate his work responsibilities to my uncles. Blaming the stroke for his despondency, the doctors offered explanations of imbalanced chemicals and damaged nerve endings. But I secretly suspected that the stroke merely activated the side-effects of many other disorders that had afflicted Pappy most all his life: pride, bitterness toward hypocritical fellow church goers, and perhaps, worst of all, mistakes from his youth that he had been making restitution for over forty years later. The physical restrictions of the stroke had severed his vivacity and halted his constant activity, forcing him to confront those darker corners of his mind. For six years the ghosts he wrestled with in the darkness had pulled Pappy down, nearly to the grave.
Then, just months before my grandparent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2008, something happened. Whether by medicine or miracle, Pappy broke free of despondency’s grasp. I saw it for myself during my visit for the anniversary party. The spicy smell of his aftershave stung my nose, and his piercing whistle laced its way through my heart, summonsing happy memories of before his stroke. We shared a box of Hostess cakes at midnight, laughing together well after the bedtime he’d kept only months before. His break-of-dawn energy enlivened the house as he hurried out to his carpentry shop only to return a few hours later speckled with sawdust and toting a new piece of furniture for Mamaw. Throughout the house he had wound his collection of antique clocks, offsetting them to chime one after another each hour. With the clocks, it seemed, he had rewound his life.
At the restaurant where we held the anniversary party, Pappy walked from table to table, greeting guests and radiating the fervor of a man who’d finally accepted forgiveness from God and himself. After we finished eating, he burst into a speech, loud and shameless, telling us of the perils he’d faced in his journey through the darkness. “So many times I laid awake at night making plans to end my life. But thinking of you all, I just couldn’t do it. I love you so much.” He punctuated the entire display with a noisy kiss on my grandmother’s cheek.
It was a resurrection worth celebrating. But my family, as if suspicious of his recovery, only edged their chairs back or rearranged the leftover scallops on their plates to avoid embracing the sentimental moment. As an emotionally retentive family, most of us were embarrassed by Pappy’s display of elation, acting as if resurrections happened every day and we could afford to ignore his and wait to appreciate the next.
Seemingly unaware of our discomfort, Pappy went about, scooping up the youngest of his fifteen grandchildren, tickling them, loving them. “I’m ready,” he proclaimed, “for the next fifty years of my life.”
So only six months later on that February night, my heart fell to hear not his lively voice on the phone, but the all too familiar tone of despair. I knew he’d been dragged back into the darkness by the draining effects of his stroke and a lack of support from his family. We chatted half-heartedly for a minute, neither of us exerting the energy to hide our emotions, me my disappointment and him his despair. When his voice grew raspy, he said, “Here’s your grandmother,” and handed over the phone.
My fear of Mamaw’s rambling didn’t come true; her heavy tone revealed the gravity of Pappy’s returned condition. As our brief conversation ended she asked, “Do you want to talk to your grandfather again?”
The unexpected question made me grip the phone tighter as the same quiet urgency that insisted I call in the first place again prodded, Tell him that you love him. Shaken by his returned depression and scared of an awkward situation, I considered my answer for five seconds. Finally, I decided, “No, I don’t guess so. Good night.”
The phone in my hand felt as heavy as the regret in my heart. In the darkness of my bedroom, the clock glared 10:00—too late to call back. Next time, I promised myself, I’ll tell him. Pressing my face into the pillow, I sobbed, fighting against the dread of what I somehow knew, beyond a doubt, would happen.
At noon the next day, my cell phone vibrated. For the second time in two days the voice on the other end surprised me as I stiffened to hear my father’s troubled tone. “Sweetie, I want you to sit down.”
With the previous night’s feeling of premonition fresh on my heart, I ignored Dad’s gentle command and remained on my feet. What I already knew couldn’t shock me. “It’s Pappy, isn’t it? How did he do it?”
Surprised at my confident assumption, he paused before replying, “Shot himself. They found him in his workshop.”
As we discussed the details of my travel arrangements to the funeral, my mind filled with questions; “why,” however, was not among them. Of all people, I felt most prepared for the tragedy since I had neglected one of the final opportunities to prevent it.
At my grandmother’s house, preparing for the funeral, I found a stack of pictures in Pappy’s office, dated just weeks before his death. In the glossy prints, it was evident that the darkness had already consumed most of him. Staring directly into the camera, he appeared spent, as if the effort to produce the weak smile on his lips had drained his energy. His eyes gazed blankly, as if he were too depleted to continue fighting, too weary to plead for light or hope. But even if he had mustered the strength to fight or plead, I wondered if any of us would have come to his rescue. My thoughts went immediately to memories of that last time I saw Pappy alive, when my family had disregarded his unbridled exuberance for life.
At the restaurant the night of the anniversary party, our family had pushed past one another without the common decency of strangers. Armed with pickaxes of petty differences, they silently began gouging away at a sliver-sized dispute that would later break into a chasm, splitting our family down the middle. Pappy’s rousing display of love and restoration, rather than bolstering a move toward repair, only seemed to accelerate the family’s excavation. We sat there fostering our pride and vendettas, ignoring the chance to rejoice with Pappy.
Consumed with ourselves, which one of us had absorbed the love he poured out with his recovery and had watered his soul with it when the dry times returned? Which of us did anything more than whisper our fear and suspicions behind his back or wring our hands, worrying over the inevitable? Which of us reached out to help him when the darkness started closing back in?
For nearly a year after his death, I waited, each day expecting to finally feel the crushing guilt for my own part in watching Pappy slip away without reaching to pull him back toward the light.
But in the cemetery that December morning, tracing his name on the stone marker, I whispered, “I love you, Pappy.”
The wind snatched the words from my mouth like an eager messenger, carrying the white wisps away from the frozen marker, up toward the waiting azure sky.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Curse

My family's curse came to mind while I was working in the nursery last Sunday morning. Each Sunday, all of us workers, draped in our ridiculously large purple smocks, eagerly accept babies from their parents before the morning service at our church. I’m not sure how, but whenever the assignments are given out for which baby each of us workers will care for, I can always pick mine out before I’m told. The one with the greenish plugs of slime in each nostril, the loner who stares and drools, the one with spit up curdles on her chin—these are always mine. They rarely assign me the sweet smelling, soft curled sweethearts. Sometimes this predictable arrangement bothers me.
Sunday I got the one with tummy problems. She kept hurling slimy streams of throw-up tinted purple from her grape juice. All morning I followed her with a fistful of paper towels and a pump bottle of hand sanitizer, frequently applying the gel to my own hands. My lips cracked from breathing through my mouth to avoid smelling that acrid stench of vomit. I lived for 45 minutes on high alert for her hurling, worried that the other babies might crawl through her soggy spots.
As I soaked up yet another gooey mound of vomit, my dad’s words came back to me: it’s the family curse. If something bad or random could happen, it will happen to us. I brooded, If there's a kid in the nursery who is gonna produce purple puke she would be given to ME. Around the nursery sat half a dozen perfect angels, smelling of Downy fabric softener and placidly pointing at pages of books or serenly cuddling on the lap of one of the other workers who gazed on me with pity as I monitored hyperactive slime monster. Shrugging as if my assignment didn't bother me, inside I contemplated self-pity.
I'm tempted to embrace the curse as an explanation for the bad things that happen in my life. It does seem that the catastrophic, inconvenient, unfortunate or merely quirky seems to prey on my family frequently enough. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that Lemony Snicket grew up in my family and chronicled our misfortunes.
But just as I wanted to tear off the smock and walk out of the nursery leaving the sour smelling child to contaminate someone else, I realized that this isn’t how I want to view the less than beautiful parts of my life.
As a little girl, I was amused by nothing greater than to be handed a pair of child safety scissors, the JC Penney catalogue, pieces of construction paper and a bottle of Elmer’s glue. I’d cut out pictures of food and ducks and tables and flowers then drizzle the backs of them in the milky white adhesive and slap them haphazardly onto a fresh piece of construction paper. I’d paste until no parts of the construction paper showed. Only an amateur or careless collager would leave holes in the picture.
I guess in some ways I'm still a collager. Life, after all, is a collage of experiences, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. If you remove the bad parts there are holes, the picture of life isn’t complete and not nearly as interesting. The bad parts are only a curse if we let them be.
Snapping me out of my reverie, the little hurler roll over on top of my feet and giggle up at me, reaching out her slobbery fingers. I grimaced at first, but finally grinned back and reached down to scoop her up. After all, I’d hate to have a hole in my picture.