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 fa├žade, 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.