Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Special Place

C’mon. There’s somewhere I want to take you. Now, if you can’t handle simplicity, if barrenness can’t fill you with inspiration, or if you can’t convert sadness to joy and renewal, then stay behind—-where we're going won't interest you. There are a few benches, I think, outside the doors. Wait for us here.
To those who have not retreated to the benches, I want you to know that even you might not appreciate where we’re going. Often the things which inspire us individually rarely inspire others. The important thing is that we appreciate one another’s sources of inspiration and that we never mock or belittle them. Promise? All right, here, take my hand—-let’s go.
I found it this past summer: my mall.
We have two of them in my town. The one, Whitestone Mall, is crowded every day with shoppers. Recently remodeled, it smells of colognes and body splashes, leather, fancy coffees, and Chinese food.
My mall offers none of these things; my mall gives me much more.
Let’s walk through J.C. Penney-—a staple for almost every shopping mall. It’s up and running, with shoppers browsing the well-kept racks and riding elevators up to the housegoods and electronics departments. It’s a lively enough place, but this isn’t what I want you to see. This is the façade, the part that I wish to skip.
Let’s step out into the main part, just outside the Penney’s doors. It’s dark, dank, deserted and almost sacredly silent.
See, on your right, it’s the security offices. Apparently this was quite the hangout for gangs, so the rent-a-cops still hang around. Although, I think even the gangs have deserted my mall.
On both sides, the stores have closed. You know the most eerie part of my mall? The signs of life that remain—-the signs of off-brand stores such as Right Stage and Stomp It shoe store along with big names like Bath and Body Works and Claire’s and Victoria's Secret still hanging above the darkened store windows. There’s a spookiness in the items left inside the stores: the shelves, chairs, tables, sales signs; the American flag sticker stuck on the window of one of the stores; the bars pulled down over the doorway, keeping burglars from invisible merchandise. The whole mall has the resemblance of an abduction or evacuation—-quick and violent.
Look at the signs on the doors. “Closed,” they say. Others read, “We’ve moved to Whitestone Mall.” They’ve moved on, to bigger better place.
Look up there—-the ceiling is skeletal as if someone had started remodeling and then changed his mind and left it gutted. Oops, watch out, don’t step in the puddle. Aren’t those kind of neat? Mall maintenance made a frame of 2x4s and then draped black plastic over the frame to catch the drops of water dripping from the mutilated ceiling.
Doesn’t it feel like we’ve been walking for a long time? My mall is no longer than any other mall, but it feels like a long walk to the other end ahead, at Sears.
Wait, looky here on our left: the memory wall. It’s lined with peeling, faded pictures of my mall’s glory days-—when Barnum and Bailey set up outside in the mall's parking lot; when the arts and crafts shows, the boy scouts, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus still showed up for events. Everyone is so happy in the pictures. I can still hear their voices—-the life that went on in between Sears and Penney’s. I like to imagine who the shoppers were and where they are now. We could stay here and stare at the past, but we need to keep walking because I’m not sure what time this place closes.
Oh, but look. This is something I wanted to show you—-the security booth right here in the middle of the mall. Kind of tacky, if you ask me. It’s the sign on the front of the booth that intrigues me. It says “unity booth.” What do you suppose that means? The guard looks suspicious, so let’s just keep going.
Come this way, we’re going down to the fountain plaza. Watch your step. It’s empty of course, but look—-there are still pennies in the corners of the pool. People’s wishes lying around, minty green from the chlorine—-I wonder if they ever came true? Do you have a penny? What do you mean, ‘the magic is gone'? There's still magic here.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go, we’re almost to the end. See, this is the food court. Too bad it isn’t still opened; I would love to sit here with you and share an order of fries. Let’s sit down at this table. If you inhale really deeply you can still smell spices and grease from the Chinese restaurant and burger place.
The neon lights still glow on top of Reba’s Sweetshop. The puke pink and green walls have that chunky appearance from wearing too many coats of paint. The font of the sign is unprofessional (I’m a font snob, so I notice). A lot of the restaurants are like this—-I think McDonald's was the only brand name left there at the end. The mall had gone down with a fight and I have a feeling the food court had been on the losing end for a while with little restaurant after little restaurant in the changing hands of eager entrepreneurs.
Right down there is Sears—-still opened. But we don’t have to go in there. My inspiration isn’t found in stacks of neatly folded t-shirts or messy discount racks.
So I guess we’re done here. We’ve reached the end. That was it-—my place. It’s kind of neat, isn’t it? We walked from one end of stability to the other and in between enjoyed the desolation.
Maybe that’s why I love it—-I’m amazed that in its desolation, I find inspiration. I'm intrigued that without the stripping of its life, I would not have discovered this peace and wonder that I feel with each visit.
There is meaning in this place. I haven’t found it yet, but it’s here. I know it will come to me eventually, probably years down the road--after I’ve lived long enough to have experienced desolation emotionally, materially, or physically—-when this peace in desolation will speak to me.
Thank you for coming with me to my special place. Now, I want to see yours. I won’t laugh, I promise.
Take me there.

Little Man

Of all the things that I am to so many different people, I don’t believe I’ve mentioned the little fella for whom I play my favorite role as aunt.
I’m sitting with Oliver, my 15 month old nephew, in the back of my sister’s Explorer—-him along with his two best buddies, Dog and Bear, his ever present stuffed animals. We’re on the road to visit family in Maryland and so far we’ve watched three Veggie Tales (covering our eyes at the parts featuring the scary bear), learned how to high five, dined on peanut butter fudge and a box of Goldfish, and learned that headphones are to be inserted in the ears and not shoved into the eyes.
He’s such an intelligent little booger. He's the only one year old I know who can start any technological device; knows exactly how to turn on the DVD player or radio and probably an MP3 player if any of us were willing to risk giving him a try. Everything that he does seems to be deliberate and strategic. He stares at me with a studious gaze, leaving me to wonder what goes through his little mind. I laugh when he takes his pacifier out to jabber something and then pops it back in. The pacifier seems as out of place on his munchkin face as it would on a teenager's.
Since I live over 500 miles away, I’ve only spent about two out of his fifteen months with him. Summer and Christmas breaks are the only time I can manage to get home. So when I’m here, I spend as much time with him as I can.
I came home for Christmas a week ago not having seen him in five months. When my sister opened the door, Oliver in her arms, I was amazed not at his size or at his adorable smile but at his hair which has morphed from fine baby silk into little boy coarseness. He’s growing up so fast.
It always hurts me when I come back and hold out my arms only to have him recoil to his mommy, shooting cautious glances at me. I can’t blame him—-to him I’m just a woman who looks a lot like his mom but isn’t her; a person who appears and disappears every so often, sticking around just long enough to remain a faint memory in the back of his mind.
Because it’s been a while since I was around a baby for an extended amount of time, I watch him as if he were an exotic pet. When he toddles through the house, when he meticulously loops his little finger in the silk ribbon around Bear’s neck, when he plays airplane with his chicken nuggets, when he jabbers incoherently about his sippy cup, when he spins himself around until he gets dizzy, when he laughs at nothing, as if angels are whispering secrets in his ear, I watch, fascinated and absorbed, as if I’m watching a pet octopus play with a ball.
I’ve discovered all of his tickle spots—under his chin, the bottoms of his little feet, the insides of his legs. Learned his language—caca for cat and ghee ghee for dog along with his various other grunts and body language. I’ve identified his love for Goldfish and sweets and his gag-inducing disdain for deviled eggs and soda.
We just got back in the car from going in to get a drink at a gas station. When I asked him if he wanted to go in with me, he reached out his little arms, unsuspicious, almost fondly. I was happy for the moment to be holding his squooshy little body, kissing his fluffy cheeks, guiding his little arms through his jacket sleeves, feeding him Goldfish, and playing peek-a-boo with his blanket; but I’m sad that in one week he’ll wave goodbye and I’ll vanish back into his undeveloped memory. He’s learning so much these days, he hardly has room to retain the memory of an aunt who is rarely ever around, does he?
Little man, I hope that you always keep a place in your heart for me.

Not Coming Back

The other day I was sitting at the airport, viewing the ear marks of tightened security—- Nitro, the bomb dog walking by, his nose to the ground; the police nearly tackling an oblivious woman for wandering back into the gate area to meet her family; the suspicion surrounding an abandoned package next to the gift shop.
I became painfully aware that innocence, peace, and true security aren’t coming back—-not to the airport, not to America, not to the world. In fact, sometimes, I don’t even remember when they were here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wonderful Parts: Part 1

Christmas 2009

I curled up on the sofa the other night, intending to grade my endless stream of research papers. As background noise, I turned on the television. When I did, I found myself face to face with George Bailey talking to an angel in the glorious black and white Capra classic, It's a Wonderful Life (IAWL).
My mind immediately forgot about the grading as I focused on a man who had many more troubles than I. Piling the folders on the floor, I curled up in my PJs and watched the movie to the glorious end, sharing once again in George’s terror, realization, repentance, and contentment. Thoroughly inspired, I wrote the lines as my Facebook status: “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.”
One of my friends, a happilyeverafterist, commented on my post that she was a die-hard fan of “White Christmas” with all its happy sentiment. Somehow, she could never understand why anyone would enjoy a movie such as IAWL with such an ‘inconclusive ending’ where the main character has none of his dreams come true and is confined to rely on friends who only aided him as a bribe to keep him from committing suicide and would be gone the next morning to once again leave him to his miserable existence.
Since I couldn’t agree, we waged a status war, both of us defending our views, hers on romanticism and mine on reality. In her last attempt at an argument, she said, “None of his dreams came true at the end!”
I shrugged, and typed, “And how many times do our dreams come true in reality? The wonderful part of life is that it’s life—-that we have it at all. That God has given us the potential to make it wonderful and find the wonderful parts of it.”
With nothing to argue with there, the thread trailed off.
Even though I love the realistic sentiments in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I sometimes have to remind myself of my own argument. Everyone has things that they have to deal with-—some more than others. And I tend to believe that I’m not among the some. I just have to keep reminding myself that life is truly wonderful for all that it is—-and all that it isn’t.
This year and every year, I hope that you find the wonderful parts.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sitting at a green light. . .

Sitting at a green light the other day, I pondered the backwardness of life. As the ambulance wailed through the intersection, I began to wonder, why do we stop for an ambulance or a funeral motorcade but cut people off or cuss people out when they drive too slowly in an attempt to preserve their life? Why does time seem to slow when it seems that everything is crashing so quickly? And why don’t we write obituaries about people when they are living rather than after they're gone when it doesn’t matter?
I probably could have come up with many other oxymoronical quandaries, but the guy behind me honked, time unfroze, and I, along with life, moved on.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Throwing Stones

(This poem came from a writing exercise in Advanced Creative Writing in which we had to write a poem using a familiar adage (i.e. people who live in glass houses) and the following words: needle, whir, and mother.)

I’ve lived in this glass house
Watching through the panes
at the world passing by in a whir.
Mother told me--I still hear her voice--
“Stones have no place in these hands.”
Now with years behind me,
like a needle, the words still prick
at my heart as I stand
among the glistening shards
of my transparent walls,
trying to remember
the first stone.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Secret Place

There is just something delicious about going on an adventure alone, something selfish about the desire to experience something that no one else has discovered, to see something differently than anyone else has seen it. There’s something tantalizing about being able to take samples of my travels back like the explorers of old, to awe the simpletons back home who had been too scared or practical to embark along with me.
I was not abused or neglected as a child. So I’m not sure why I always longed to find a secret place to escape to like those of my favorite literary characters—be it a boxcar, a tree house, a cave, a garden, or a world behind a wardrobe, I wanted a place to call my own where no one could follow or intrude unless invited. I had friends who had tree houses or playhouses or attic spaces or basements to claim as their own. But somehow when my parents were looking for the houses of my childhood, a secret place for their solace seeking second daughter was not a prerequisite feature for signing a home owner’s contract.
No, I never found that secret place of solace in my childhood. Instead, I scrounged for privacy in the top bunk, or hid in plain sight behind the couch. In other words, I made do with the secret place I carved out in my heart.
I’ve wondered if this is a detrimental tendency, this desire for a secret place. But I don’t think it is; even Jesus needed to be alone, and Moses had to leave Joshua behind in order to go up the mountain. Now, I’m not Moses or Jesus and my purposes for being alone dissolve in the light of their purposes. But like them, I think there is a common need among humans for solace.
The truth is that I find my identity in the adventures I embark on, in the secret places that those adventures lead me to. And while a friend waiting with a knapsack and walking stick, ready to accompany me on my adventures is a priceless one to possess, sometimes I don’t want to share identities with anyone. Not even adventure craving amegos.
I’ve learned how to carve out that secret place now that I’m older—one of my favorite spots was beside the ice maker in my dorm during college (Jack, someone had named him—as in Jack Frost.) Jack stood back in a cranny cut out of the wall. Every evening, I would pull the cushions off the couches in my dorm floor’s dayroom and spend quality time with my computer and Jack. Jack knew how to make a girl happy. He had this humming noise that he produced whenever he was making ice—that constant humming noise kept my mind focused while the warm air that Jack’s motor blew out over me warmed my toes, insulated my imagination. Whenever Jack would stop purring and blowing air, I would stand, and scoop ice away from the back of him to manipulate him to start back up. Yes, I loved Jack. People would come to get ice and apologize for getting in my way even though it was I who was sprawled out in front of the machine. Could it be that they were sorry that they had invaded my secret place? I had to leave Jack behind—although I would gladly buy him and put him in my living room, given the chance.
Now, I’ve carved out another secret place—you're standing right in the middle of it, the puddle. Sometimes I open the webpage just to enter its solitude as I grade, or write, or do other chores, comforted, contented to be in my secret place.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This single thing

It’s Thanksgiving Eve

Because I’m not going to be able to go to her house tomorrow for Thanksgiving, my officemate Noelle brought me a homemade personal-sized pumpkin pie today. I told her that I couldn’t wait to eat it with Cool Whip on top.
By the end of the day, I perched on the chair beside her desk, finishing off the remnants of the crust and filling. She grinned. “So much for Cool Whip, huh?”
I laughed, slipping a piece of the flaky shell in my mouth.
“You like it? I used maple syrup instead of sugar. Can you taste the maple syrup?”
I looked at the orange mush left around the edges of the plate. “Mmm. Not really, but it’s delicious.”
Her shoulders slumped.
I hurried on. “But it’s been a whole year since I had a slice of pumpkin pie, so I probably just forgot what a regular pie tastes like.”
She nodded, satisfied with the answer. I picked up my computer case, wished her a Happy Thanksgiving and left.
Walking out into the darkening evening, I couldn’t believe that it had been a year already since Thanksgiving. Nor could I fathom that it has been 6 years since I spent a Thanksgiving with my family.
Thanksgiving Eve is more special to me even than the Thanksgiving Day. Something about the anticipation of a thing (or day) is sometimes more eventful than the event itself. It’s such a sensory holiday—engaging the olfactory senses especially. My dad always cubes loaves of bread to add into celery and onion sautéed in butter to create our stuffing. His concoction leaves the house laden with a mouth-watering aroma. When I was a kid, he would always let me rummage through the leftover portions of celery to find the yellow heart of the stalk to munch on. This is just one of the memories that I recall from the life I used to be a part of.
As I drove to the grocery store, I became keenly aware of the emotions which assault me at this time of the year—darkening emotions which slither in with the earlier darkening evenings. Nasty emotions which coat my soul and weigh it down.
I’m not sure what it is that inflicts me from November to December; after all, this is a time of giving thanks and a season of comfort, joy, peace, and promise. I reason with myself: Maybe it’s the feeling of meaning being sacrificed for tradition. Maybe it’s the cold and dark weather. Maybe it’s the idea that I still have at least 250 dollars worth of Christmas gifts to buy. Or maybe, I think as I walk into Publix grocery store, it’s the old fact for which I blame every melancholy tendency—I have no one to go home to, I have no one to love me in this mistletoe infested season full of romantic elements. Maybe it's because I am still single.
Last Christmas, I cried. Tears,--the kind that lonely women cry on TV— streamed down my face. This wasn’t how I had planned to spend my first Christmas away from home—in an apartment, setting up a pre-lit two-foot tall Christmas tree with one of my red t-shirts wrapped around the base as a tree skirt, listening to burned Christmas CDs—still single. I hung a lament of my loneliness with every ornament on the tree.

Last Thanksgiving I spent the day at Noelle’s house along with her husband and another friend she had invited—a bitter divorced man whom harassed me constantly, sulking half the night and verbally attacking me the other half.
I cried myself to sleep that night, promising myself that I would never again spend Thanksgiving at another person’s house.

Publix was bustling. Apparently, others had waited until the last minute to buy pumpkin, apples, potatoes, chocolate chips, wine, nutmeg—or like I had-- ground cloves. The workers ran around, offering assistance at every turn. But with them, happy couples pushed carts around, perhaps preparing to spend their first holiday giving thanks for one another. I consoled myself with the thought that the bag boy, would show me the attention I craved—they always insist upon carrying your bags even if it is one bag holding a container of Q-tips. But when my transaction was completed, he abandoned me to my bag of cloves and walnuts. I snatched up the bag, brushed past the Salvation Army bell ringer, trudged to the car, and drove home.
I cranked the oven on to 350 and commenced to gathering ingredients for pumpkin spice bars. I felt something like an emotional chameleon standing there measuring teaspoons of cinnamon and cups of flour and pumpkin into a bowl. I went from sad to satisfied back to lonely and again to satisfied. Then I decided to settle on one: I would take on a thankful mindset to match the holiday.
Things have changed in this year—and while I’ve forgotten what pumpkin pie tastes like, I have not forgotten the ever present reality of my marital status. But I have learned a few things about this state of living known as singleness. I’ve learned that it’s not a synonym for loneliness.
I’m not going to sulk about being single. I have a beautiful apartment, a purposeful job, plenty of opportunities to spread smiles and love, a free country in which to live, a family who misses me, a random life filled with the blessings and protection of a loving God. Yes, I might be single, but I am not lonely—not with so many blessings present in my life.
I was true to my word from last year— I’m not going to someone else’s home. Tomorrow I’m going to help make nearly 1,000 sailors and Marines feel at home for Thanksgiving at the USO. That’s what the pumpkin bars are for.
There are many lonely people in the world this Thanksgiving eve. Many whom might struggle to find a single thing to be thankful for. But I’m thankful that I am not among them.
Because even this single thing, I'm thankful for.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One person's treasure. . .

Someone once told me that I’m like a treasure chest. In order to see the ‘treasure’ inside, someone must dare to open my locked heart.
Another friend told me that if I were a book, I would be the kind with hidden pictures that people spend hours searching for.
Yet another friend informed me, “You are like a treasure chest. There is a man who is going to come some day and open you up. Until then, don’t let anyone steal anything from you.”
I’ve never understood any of these comparisons. What do my friends think that I could possibly be hoarding inside my ‘chest’ that would even remotely resemble treasure? As far as I can tell, I contain nothing more than random observations, scattered ideas, and unlabeled feelings, none of which amount to very much. Rather than flatter, their suspicion of my hidden treasure sort of scares me.
The word treasure takes me back to the treasure chest in my dentist’s office when I was a kid. Enduring the checkup, ignoring the gritty left over texture in my mouth, I clambered out of the chair and knelt at the treasure chest to choose a toy.
Made in China, I read the tiny raised words on the bottom. The toys were small, cheap, useless, inoperable, good for nothing but the pure thrill of receiving a prize. There were lots of others like them in the bottom of the chest. With my interest in it soon lost, the toy would be swiftly abandoned in the cup holder of our van, or crushed in the carpet, or hidden amid the countless other toys lying on my bedroom floor.
I'm scared that after laboring to open my treasure chest, instead of finding valuable treasure inside, people will soon spy the ‘made in China’ printed on the cheap plastic of my random facts and insignificant ideas. After learning my secret, I'm afraid they would move on to the next thrill.
Maybe that’s why I keep a padlock on my heart: I don’t want to be easily discarded.

My Little Box

Three months after I turned seven, my family moved from the South Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains, to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a town an hour from the coast. When summer arrived, we climbed in our red van and set out to visit the beach for the first time. Along the way, I scrambled from one side of the bench seat to the other, worried that I might miss seeing a fascinating part of the watery landscape or even the ocean itself. With every river or bay we passed, I’d yell, “Is that the ocean?” Each time my mom replied cryptically, “No, the ocean is bigger than that.” Dad would further enhance the description by adding, “And it has waves.” Their negative answer relieved me because none of those bodies of water quite matched the picture of the ocean I’d constructed in my mind. All I’d ever known were mountains, unwavering and stoic; so in my overactive imagination, the ocean with its movement, lived—a creature with intelligence, emotion, and immensity. Unlike those comprehendible bodies of water passing by my windows. After a child’s eternity, Mom announced, “We’re here.” But on both sides all I saw were mountains of sand. “Where is it?” I demanded. Mom addressed my impatience with a tone bordering on exasperation. “Just behind those sand dunes. Sit back. We’ll get out soon.” Satisfied with the promise of our proximity, I stuck my nose out the open window and kept my eyes on the dunes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the massive creature lunging over the top. Dad, like any jaded grown-up, took his time, finding a place to park. Speeding past myriad parking lots and miles of perfectly acceptable shoulder along the road, he ignored my shouts of “There’s one!” each time we approached what I thought looked like a particularly promising spot. Convinced of his cruelty, I sat back to hope that his search ended before the beach ran out. Just when I resigned to never actually seeing the ocean, he settled for a parking lot which looked annoyingly identical to the previous fifty. Even before the engine turned off, I yanked the door open and leaped out into a cushiony mound of the North Carolina Outer Banks. Like a lion across the zoo, the waves roared, compelling me to investigate just beyond the pile of sand. Curiously, I clambered to the top of the dune and gasped. For there before me, at last, was the ocean. Just as in my imagination, it lived, an aggressive yet irresolute creature, charging and retreating, playful and petulant. My mouth, round with awe, spread into a smile as I dashed forward to meet the foamy waves. For hours, I scavenged the shore, greedily rifling through each wave’s deposit of shells, seaweed, drift wood, and mysterious black egg pods. With my dollar store plastic shovel, I burrowed in the sand, determined to unearth the pirate Blackbeard’s illusive treasure that we’d read about at the Outer Banks welcome center. When my short-lived treasure hunt yielded no reward, I tormented tiny orange crabs, making them brandish their claws at the freckle-faced terror chasing them. Sometimes, I simply plopped myself in the shallow waves and giggled as the ocean knocked me about. Beneath and atop the sand, within the waves, the sunbeams, the wind—with all its charm, the ocean enticed me to stay at its shore forever. But when the sun melted into the horizon, my parents called, “Get your toys; it’s time to go home.” “But I’m not ready to go home.” I anchored my stubby beach bum toes in the sand. “Can’t I stay longer?” Clearly immune to the charm of the sea, they turned toward the van and said, “Nope. You can’t stay here forever. Come on.” Rather than working up a futile possibly spanking worthy tantrum, I consoled myself by stashing a pail of sand and a bottle of ocean water under my seat in the van. If I couldn’t stay with the ocean, then the ocean would stay with me. Early the next morning, I scrounged a shoebox-sized Tupperware container from the garage. In one side, I mounded my smuggled sand into a miniature beach, scattering the shore with tiny shells and driftwood splinters. Then I ceremoniously poured in the fishy-smelling ocean water and tossed the bottle aside. Like a pony-tailed goddess, I hovered over the box, waiting to see the tiny waves of my creation roar to life. But instead of lapping against the shore, the water simply rippled to the edge of the sand, and flattened out, still and lifeless in the bottom of the box. Like a creature removed from its natural habitat, the elements refused to stir. Somehow, during my ocean reconstruction plan, I never once considered that a measure of the sea could not function apart from its whole self. Not even a small doubt had dampened my expectancy to have the ocean roar at my command. But there staring at the unresponsive puddle of seawater I felt silly for my ignorant expectation. The box sat behind our house for days, neglected. Every so often I rearranged the shells or raked my fingers across the shore, hoping to evoke the wonder that crashed over me when the ocean first appeared beyond the sandy barrier. But with each of my visits the box disappointed me more, until finally at the edge of our yard I emptied the water and sand. Years later, high school science classes would teach me that the ocean rolls not at the water’s will, but by the earth’s revolution, the wind’s current, the moon’s gravity, and other complicated factors I’ve since forgotten. That little box, however, impressed a simple lesson deeply in my heart. So deeply that the lesson returns now two decades later when my life rebels against the confines of my little boxes of expectation, and refuses to function according to my blueprint of day planners and sticky note lists. Staring into my days which seem stagnant because I’ve scheduled the life out of them, I realize that the times I’m most vibrant and purposeful come when I allow other factors to influence my life. Just as the moon, the wind, and the earth give life to the ocean, larger forces like providence, spontaneity, and grace generate the power that truly gives impetus to my life. Even after all these years, my little box reminds me that the tide of life does not roll at my impulse, and that a life too tightly contained will certainly stagnate and die, just like the ocean trapped in a little box of water and sand.

Two Minutes Earlier: a story of time well wasted

Yesterday, as I was leaving the college campus, I pulled into the right lane behind a hefty pickup truck and another car which I couldn’t see around the pickup's hips. After sitting for a full minute at the light, I recognized impatient tension creeping up my neck. This was the right lane—we could turn at will when no traffic was coming. And--I looked to my left--no traffic was coming. So why were we still sitting there?
I got my answer: when the light turned green the little blue car in front of the truck turned LEFT.
That’s why we had sat there for—-I looked at the clock—-two whole minutes? I pulled off faster than usual, yelling at the little blue car which was a mile away by now.
I managed to tug my anger back down to a manageable level as I turned on my street to go home. As I rounded the curve, at a distance, I recognized the bouncy, stubby figure of my 'adopted' sister just walking out the back gate of the campus. I pulled to a stop beside her and without a word or invitation, she plopped herself in my passenger seat, grinning at me. I took her half a mile up the road to her destination and deposited her at Whataburger. "Too bad you weren't going farther." I mentioned as she got out of the car.
She shrugged. "Eh, it got me out of the cold for 2 extra minutes. Thanks so much."
It wasn’t until I was turning around to head home that I realized if I had been two minutes earlier she would not have been at the gate for me to have seen her. It wasn’t life saving or changing, just a good deed--an extra two minutes to get her out of the cold and off her feet.
I marveled that God penciled two ‘wasted’ minutes into my life for the express reason of being a blessing to someone else. In that moment, I was thankful for an economical God who magnificently manages my ‘valuable’ time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Magic is His Name

I’m sitting here tonight feeling a sense of the overwhelming certainty that uncertainty is certain. I question why when I am exceedingly bored with life and wish for spontaneity that it hides from me, while in the moments that I wish for solace and peace, spontaneity ambushes me.
This weekend, for instance, when I had time planned to spend a quiet evening with my computer and a caramel apple spice from Starbucks, I discovered that spontaneity is a distracter which shows up at the least expected times.
Saturday night I determined to sit for a while at Starbucks and write—just write. I had already started feeling that flutter in my stomach, the feeling a girl gets when she’s headed to see her boyfriend. My writing was calling, and I was headed there as fast as I could go. Taking a quick detour for a Christmas present, I ran into Barnes and Nobles grabbed the book I was coming for, a cartoon drawing kit on the discount rack for my little brother. But I'm a persnickety gift buyer, meaning that my gifts must show the care I put into buying them. So I wanted to check out all of my options. After all, I would never want to purchase a gift merely because it was on the discount rack.
I should have just stuck with the cartoon kit.
When I walked up to the customer service desk to ask the worker where the art books were, she was on the phone. I decided to find it myself. When I turned around, there in a brown bomber jacket was Magic, a sailor from the recreational center where I volunteer. He recognized me and at once threw his arms open for a hug.
After our greeting, he asked, “What are you doing tonight,” in a curious way that I knew was not akin to small talk. Magic is a sailor—sailors don’t make small talk with girls. Particularly not a sailor who has just told me that it is his birthday, and he's alone for the night because all of his friends are getting drunk and he promised himself he was laying off the liquor.
I could have made up a million excuses. Could have told him I had 25 papers waiting to be graded, two lectures to write before Monday, people to call, gifts to buy, a blog to tend, a kitchen that needed cleaning, a virginity and tender heart worth guarding— any of these excuses would have been viable for saying no to what he asked next.
“So, uh, you want to go to Olive Garden and get something to eat?”
But I said yes. Like the adventure craving creature that I am, I said yes. This isn’t significant to you, reader, not at all, I’m sure. After all, strangers meet, pick one another up, go out on the fly all the time.
I never have.
It was raining. In another setting with another heroine it would have been romantic. But I’m suspicious of the many elements for romance such as rain, random meetings, and handsome sailors in bomber jackets.
When we got to Olive Garden, we sat at his ‘special’ table where Cassy, his favorite server, waited. He goes there often; I could tell by the way they all knew him by name.
Cassy reminded me of an old time movie star—graceful, mature, very adept at what she does. She at once made me comfortable, almost in a maternal way though she wasn't that much older than I.
After we gave Cassy our order, Magic began to tell me about himself. He was a professional magician before joining the Navy. This I found out when he pulled out a deck of cards and commenced to performing while we waited for our food. He predicted what card I had drawn from the deck and made the salt shaker disappear. He was magical all right.
You should know that I wasn’t taken by his charm. It isn’t my nature to trust easily, particularly not military men whom I have known for only short periods of time; particularly not a military man whom I have known for only a short period of time who seemed to have a hungry look in his eyes and a pocket full of lies meant to get what is needed to satisfy his own needs.
After dinner he suggested that we go somewhere quiet. Somewhere for him to play his guitar, for us to ‘write’ a song together. After much deliberation ("It doesn’t have to be romantic," he clarified to me as I searched my mental list of places to go) we decided on Books a Million. When we walked in, him with his guitar swung over his shoulder, he swaggered up to the coffee shop counter. After greeting the man by name (cleverly reading his name tag), he ordered a white hot chocolate—an item which wasn’t on the menu but magically appeared just for him.
"Do you come here often," I asked.
I was amazed at his smooth way with people. I can only explain it in these terms: if he were walking along a path, flowers would bloom everywhere he walked. People just opened up to him--to his well-practiced charm. I, however, remained suspicious.
We sat while he tuned his guitar, me trying to hide my face from oncoming people who might see me with him sitting there singing country songs mingled with some of his own pieces.
Some girls would consider it a fairy tale to have a guy pick her up randomly on a rainy evening and serenade her with his guitar and homemade love songs. But I felt uneasy. My intuition alarm had been going off for quite a while. The first substantial sign of trouble came when I caught him in a lie. Pretty sure he told me a few that evening. The worst was the one he didn’t tell at all.
The evening culminated with The Little Mermaid hit “Kiss the Girl” which I have a suspicion was nothing more than a bridge meant to cross over into something else that he wanted out at the car.
I prayed, as we walked out in the rain that he would leave me alone—not ask or attempt for a kiss or anything else. My worst case scenario kicked in. But it was wrong. We said goodnight, I left the parking lot and after making sure he wasn’t following me, drove home.
That night, something I had heard the workers say at the recreational center suddenly came back to me. Something about Magic. It was a faint echo in the back of my mind. So faint, in fact, that I wondered if I weren't confusing him with someone else. Just in case, I decided to follow up on this the next day—when I would see him at church to which he invited himself.
After struggling to make him behave in church, he asked me to go to lunch. I was still pondering why this sailor wanted to spend time with me. I’m a decent girl whom I’m sure he gathered he would get nothing sexual from. Still perplexed, we drove to Steak and Shake for lunch. Besides, I wanted to figure out if what I had heard was true.
While waiting on our burgers, I decided to broach the subject that had been niggling at my mind. But he spoke first. “You changed hands.”
"What?” Looking down, I saw that I had put my ring on the left hand. It had been on my right hand the day before. Had I done that on purpose that morning? I wasn’t sure. “Oh, it was loose on my other hand so I switched it.”
"I was gonna say," he laughed almost nervously, "'you got engaged fast.’”
A perfect transition into my question.
"Are there many guys in the military who are married and pretend they aren’t?” I asked it innocently enough, pulling my glass of water closer to me, running my finger around the edge of it, a signal of female interrogation.
His eyes darkened just a bit. “Yeah, there are.”
“Are you married?” I swirled the straw in my cup of water.
Oh, the pleasure I find in watching a man squirm, writhing on his own hook. There’s something intoxicating about pinning them down with the very knowledge that they have been striving to conceal.
He looked me in the eye. Guilty as charged. “Yeah I am.” But honest. For that I respect him.
“That’s not going well for you, huh?” I asked dryly, folding my straw wrapper.
The mood changed entirely. He no longer had the cute almost patronizing look in his eyes; it was a sulky gaze as he explained, “I just like your company. Just the company, that’s all.” Noticing my mounting silent anger, he explained, "Look, you have the kind of personality that most women don't have. You're easy to talk to and don't make me feel like I have to impress you." He was silent for a moment before finishing, "There's a kindness about you that is hard to find."
I felt like writing up a receipt on a napkin—an hourly charge for my company. But I hate awkward situations, so I sat trying to find a way to recover from this one that seemed to be hovering in the air like smoke.
We decided to leave.
I began wondering how many of those calls or texts he took that day were from his wife. That one call he had to take away from the table—was that her? Did he really think I was that naïve or stupid? More importantly, am I?
My lesson for the weekend was, in short, don’t give up even an hour with my solace when spontaneity comes knocking. It can wait.
I learned that a firm handshake and a steady eye, confidence and charm are all tools that men use strategically to attract women to win them in their weakness.
I learned that nothing in the world can rival the pleasure of holding knowledge about a man—and using it against him.
I learned that you don’t trust men who do magic. And, by all means, never, ever trust a man whom has Magic as his name!

Just the Way 'Grits' Gotta Be

I’m holding a box of grits—cheese grits. They surprised me, when I found them sitting there in my cupboard because I don’t remember purchasing them. As a Carolina girl, it seems nearly heretical for me to admit that grits make me gag. Though somehow, in the grocery store that detail didn’t deter me from being drawn to the photo of glistening corn grounds displayed on the front of the box. By some mistake or impulse, I had dropped the box in my cart and now, here I stand willing to disregard all my previous conclusions and give grits a second chance.
I’ve done this second-chance business multiple times with various other gag stimulators—tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, grapefruit, sushi, yogurt, pears, and peas. Though each time the foods winds up in my napkin or in the trashcan, I’m not afraid to give them a second chance—or a third or a fourth.
As I dump the packet of grits and clumps of cheese into a bowl, it occurs to me that I have a similar practice with people. For some reason, I make arrangements to contact or spend time with people whom I’ve already concluded I dislike, whether for petty differences or major social flaws. Just as with the grits now cooking in the microwave, I always hope that my tastes will have matured enough to accept them beyond the distasteful textures of their personalities, their snobby perceptions of the world, their self-righteous outlook, or debilitating insecurities. Willing to acquire a taste for their company, I grant them a second chance, usually an evening visit at a coffee shop.
When the timer beeps I pull the grits from the microwave. They’re orange and gooey, and I’m eager to taste them. Once they’ve cooled, I place the first warm spoonful in my mouth.
Predictably, the expectation vanishes. The hope for taste bud maturity disappears as my mouth once again rejects their grainy texture and bland corny taste. Everything about the grits makes me regret ever having put them in my mouth.
I force myself to swallow the bite before scraping out the bowl, leaving the gooey blob steaming in the depths of the trash bag, as if begging for another second chance. But I shake my head and go in search of a bagel. I made my decision—from this time forth, grits will not receive another chance to appeal to me. The remaining packages will go to someone else—there are plenty of people who love will them.
As I savor my cream cheese slathered bagel, I make another resolution to cease self-inflicted quality time with people I do not enjoy. I won’t call them, won’t engage their company, and will not feel guilty for doing so. After all, they can always go to someone else—I’m sure there are plenty of other people who will love them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Just Add Water

One evening last week, I was left to wonder at how many things we allow to pass by—how many things that we just don’t allow to happen that were supposed to happen.
I was in Walmart—where good things usually happen. I walked by a very buff, nice looking military guy shopping with his grandmother (I assume) at 9:00.
This combination in itself was enough to intrigue me, but then he glanced at her for approval before putting a box of Twinkies in the cart. Reluctantly, I left them in the chip aisle and moseyed down to the meat section. A few aisles over in the ice cream section I met back up with them but then we again parted ways once again.
When I was walking out of the store, they pulled out of the checkout line right in front of me, and we basically walked out together. Out of the entire parking lot of cars, we had parked in the same row-- one space down from one another. The guy unloaded his Twinkies into Granny’s car as I unloaded my bags in the back of my car. Then it started to rain. Serendipitously, we managed to push our carts over to the same corral, at the exact same time.
I passed by him as I walked back to my car, all the while wanting so badly to turn and ask him for his story. Maybe if I could go back to the moment I’d blurt out—“Who are you? Why are you out with an old lady so late? Wanna go get a coffee, wait out the storm, talk for a few hours about our lives, and then move on when the rain lets up?” In hindsight, everything is easy and clear. Except for the naggin question: why did that happen? Why do things like that ever happen?
If God does indeed write our stories, He allowed those details (like so many other times) to line up. I’m in no way insinuating any romantic interest or purpose with this guy; I just want to know why things like that happen. Is coincidence a real thing? Is God involved in coincidental details like that? Is everything done on purpose?
I wonder if things are incumbent upon me more often. Does God give us a starter kit for our destiny (like little details lining up) and then let us do what we can with it?
I hope not—I’ll probably stare at it for a lifetime before opening the package. Like one of those friendship bread starters that I let sit on the counter until it sours.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Just Let Go

For my summer job, I work with words, spending my time writing just to have someone come along and either scrap it or hack it to pieces. That’s how it goes.
Today, for instance, I wrote two articles for a project that my co-worker is compiling; finally it came time for her to look over my work. She scooted her chair over to me and started revving up the motor on her 'chainsaw'. We managed to cut a 550 word essay down to 300, and a 433 word essay down to 320.
Anyone who writes for leisure knows that writing is an extension of yourself; just like your nose, your ears, or fingers, it’s an appendage not a product. Or, in another analogy, writing is akin to smearing your heart on paper.
I like my writing in general; it’s like a child—I've labored to get it out and given it life. I was used to having my work scrutinized in college when I was a writing major and when I interned at a newspaper, so it's not that I don't think there isn't room for improvement; it's just that I don't want anyone mutilating it.
I won’t lie—it hurts sometimes to see the words fall away; it's like watching my hair drifting down to the floor after someone has cut it off. In general, I'm fairly easy to convince to hit the delete button, the backspace. But some of the words I insist remain—they are there for a purpose. Fitting the right words—I mean the right words, the ones that are the best of the millions we have in our language-- is sometimes not an easy task; yet when I find that right word, it falls into place like the thump of a tumbler. After all, a 'look' doesn’t connotate a 'glance or a stare.' Have you ever considered the different connotations of stomach, gut, tummy, abdomen, and belly? All carry a different feel or meaning. You wouldn't say that a pregnant woman has a swollen gut. Nor would you say that the obese man needs to lose weight off his tummy. There are just different words for different occassions.
So while my writing is and always will be a part of me, my new job has made me realize the importance of separating myself from my work, to remove offense, but not to remove my pride in my work. I’ve learned how to write for the business as a service, rather than latching so tightly to my writing as my child.
But a deeper lesson that I've learned, as I've watched the paper drop into the trashcan, or dragged the document into the trash bin, or watched my entire essay dissolve under the delete button, is that letting go is what life is all about. Parents raise a child only to let him go to college or to marriage. You make friends merely to let them go when life moves them on; you make money just to let it go to the restaurants and bills; and we have burdens that we're supposed to just let go to God.
I've never been good at letting go. Even small things are difficult for me to release; I’ve never been able to hula hoop, because I won’t let go of the ring.
But God knew that the first step of any great thing is letting go. He let go of His Son to come save us. Love is letting go.
I’ve always been intrigued by the quotation that my parents always told me: “If you love something let it go. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it isn’t and never was.” (Or, as my dad modified it, “If it comes back it’s yours, if it doesn’t—hunt it down and kill it!”) I think this loving/letting go combination springs from the idea of imprisonment, from the idea of realizing the significance of freedom. When we cling to anything too tightly, it is bound to choke, to perish, fade, or in the least, despair.
Letting go—it seems so easy, but is so hard sometimes. You’ve got to love it before you can let it go, and you have to let it go if you love it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Home Collage

Tell me, will you, what could possibly trump an afternoon of changing sheets, smooshing meatloaf into a pan with your bare hands, smelling the sweet aroma of squash boiling on the stove, and feeling a summer breeze blowing through the window? This is how I spent my afternoon today—-ideal for me, seeing that this is all I’ve ever wanted out of life: caring for a home, fixing meals, doing laundry, stirring up dust, and unclogging garbage disposals; chasing kids, practicing patience, and waiting to flirt with my husband when he comes in the door; counting to ten in frustration, stifling tears to masquerade for strength, and not choosing to stuff my feelings deep down whenever things go wrong; clipping recipes and coupons, saying "I Love You" 24 times a day, trying to stay awake during movies, trying to remember what it was like the day before meeting the love of my life and moving a little closer to him every time I remember; sneaking time to write in the evenings when the kids have gone to bed, and trying everyday to be a better wife and mom and woman. That, in a nutshell, was what I’ve always wanted out of life. Maybe one day I’ll have that, maybe one day I won’t. That’s beside the point. I’m single for now-- and I was making supper wasn’t I?
Well, I called my mom 3 times in the process of making my dinner—just to make sure. “No, eggs won’t expire that quickly." "Yes, it’s okay if the hamburger is just a little brown." "Just add a little more cornstarch to stiffen up the squash casserole.” These are her recipes, after all and, let’s face it, I can never quite get my food to taste like hers. But her recipes are just another way I’m patching together a home of my own with the pieces of others—my aunt’s bedroom furniture, my grandmother’s table, my mom’s recipes, my friend’s Crockpot.
Aren’t all homes only collages of the home of others’?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Listen to Your Self Talking

The other day I heard that some people live their entire life without knowing they only have one kidney. It freaked me out; but then it made me think.
Lately, I’ve been discovering myself—-literally myself. It amazes me how we live with ourselves yet know ourselves so little. We live with a mole behind our left ear and never see it until we’re thirty when it turns to cancer; every ache and pain is trying to tell us something, and we do nothing other than moan and blame our age. I’ve always been fascinated with the ‘water works’ gurgles in my stomach and the feeling of cold water sliding all the way down my esophagus to plunge into my stomach with a splash. I'm amazed at the freckles which until recently had been ‘hiding’ on my creamy complexioned shoulders but have suddenly appeared once exposed to sunlight. I revel in the knowledge that a pain in my head can be relieved by pressing on the tips of my thumbs; and I marvel that my body can manage to sort through hundreds of vitamins, proteins, calories, fats, and other nutrients, get rid of the bad, and put it all in the right place. Fearfully and wonderfully made, I am.
It’s hot where I live, so recently I’ve been amazed to learn my body’s language of dehydration—it screams at me through swollen fingers, shakiness, and, in a final ditch effort, aching legs which I had previously associated with low blood sugar or hunger. Tipping back a glass of H2O typically solves all of these symptoms.
Listen to what your body is trying to tell you-—the fast food and processed food industries try to shout louder, but ignore them. Drink water, eat veggies, take the smaller piece, don’t clean your plate for once, exercise, oh, and by all means—always brush your tongue! But that’s a puddle I’ll jump into another day!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Drowning (and jumping) in Puddles

I don’t cook, scrapbook, travel, underwater basketweave, scuba dive, coal mine, wrangle kids, or engage in anything else that might keep you from skipping over this blog. So what exactly do I do to keep your interest? Well, I really can't say because I don't know what adventures might pop up from one day to the next. But that unpredictability of never knowing what I'll write from post to post is kind of to your advantage, wouldn't you say?
I’m the victim of my random life--and here I laugh because if, indeed, I am a victim, I rather enjoy my plight! Life has a way of presenting me with a smorgasbord of eclectic topics. Perhaps I'll express them in poetry, fiction, essays, or articles--you just never know. I'm a pastor’s kid, a second child, a teacher, a writer, and a melancholy--with that combination, I can’t escape having a unique view of life.
Drowning in Puddles is a concept that I’ve had in my mind for years. In college, I began writing a personal essay with this theme, but somehow the analogy just didn't work. Since then I’ve wondered how to apply this concept to something in my life. This is as good as any I guess. People have told me before that I think deep thoughts. To clear up this misconception, I’ll tell you that I don’t. Random and different are sometimes mislabeled as deep. But there's no doubt about it, my observations do tend toward the different side--they're not weird or revolutionary; I just see the world from a slightly different angle than the way most people see it. I like to think of my thoughts as puddles: most aren't deep, but they're things that most people usually walk around. I just choose to splash or submerge myself in them. And, on some occassions, to drown in these everyday circumstances, feelings, thoughts, or memories all pooled up in my heart.
If you don’t mind getting a little wet, we can go puddle jumping together. If I get in too deep, just tell me to stand up!