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.