Friday, August 11, 2017

Lipstick Maverick

"Lipstick Maverick"
an excerpt from my memoir, OPEN ROAD: a life worth waiting for

It's five o’clock on Monday morning.  The sun has yet to rise and the house is shrouded in silence.  I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, studying my twelve-year-old reflection with bitter judgment.  My hair is too bushy, my make-up is too dark, and glasses hide most of my face behind a thick layer of plastic. 
“You are ugly,” I say out loud.  “You are fat and ugly and I hate you.”
My reflection does nothing but stare back at me with the same venomous look on her face. 
I step on the scale and find that I have gained four pounds since last week, no thanks to the hours I've spent running or doing aerobics.  My clothes are tight and uncomfortable, but I have to wear them anyway.  I have no choice.
Closing my eyes, I wait until the dark abyss fills my awareness, and then I say to myself, “I’m not me…I’m not me…I’m not me” until the feeling of dread passes.  I say it over and over and over again until I have distanced myself from reality...until I feel as though I am no longer standing there.  My anger folds in on itself and begins to retreat to the back of my mind. 
Once again, I am in control.
“I’m not me…I’m not me…I’m not me,” I continue chanting. 

A year passes.
Now I'm thirteen and my Aunt Karen has come to visit.  It's summertime and she and my cousins will stay for nearly a week.  Mom's youngest sister lives hours away, so we only see her family a couple of times a year.  It's a treat when all the cousins can hang out together.  We sleep in the basement and stay up late watching TV or listening to "Another One Bites the Dust," changing the lyrics to "Another One Bites Your Butt," an allusion to all the mosquitoes swarming our backyard this season. 
This year I've lost all the baby fat from grade school and now wear a size seven, something I'm simultaneously very proud of, but also hide from my mother.  She thinks I'm too thin, but I think I'm just right.  I weigh myself every day on the pink scale in the bathroom and if the needle hovers any higher than 103 pounds, I make sure to cut back on my food and walk an extra lap around the neighborhood.  It took a long time to drop all that weight.  I won't ever put it back on and have to endure Patricia's teasing again.  She even had the gall to tell me that one of the little girls down the street didn't want me to baby-sit her because I was too fat.  Patricia, of course, is skinny and can eat whatever she wants. 
I had to wear a bra in fourth grade which totally embarrassed me, especially when Adam Chandler would run his finger down my back every day.  I wanted to tell the teacher but was too afraid.  I got my first period at camp in sixth grade while riding a horse of all things, and, likewise, was too afraid to tell the teachers as well.  I pinned handkerchiefs inside my underpants, then buried the soiled ones in the garbage can when no one was looking.
Now I don't get my period anymore and I'm glad.  One less thing for Patricia to bother me about.  She's fourteen and still hasn't gotten hers.
Aunt Karen is staying in my room and I love watching her get ready to go out.  We're heading to the mall to visit Olde Towne and get our pictures taken.  They'll look like old fashioned photos from the early 1900's and I can't wait.  Aunt Karen teases her platinum blonde hair, then spritzes it lightly with spray.  My room smells like Shalimar and White Rain.  She's wearing dark blue jeans with wide back pockets.  Her blouse is colorful and gauzy.  I think she looks like a beautiful gypsy…or Marilyn Monroe.  I can’t decide which one.
Standing in front of the dresser mirror, she pulls a long, black cylinder from her make-up bag and uncaps the lipstick.  It doesn't look like my mother's short, thick tubes of Estee Lauder and it certainly doesn't smell like waxy chemicals.  Aunt Karen smoothes it on her lips, then turns to me.  "Here, Katie...want to try it on?"
I take the thin, black lipstick and look at the name written in tiny gold letters on the side:  toasted topaz.  I enjoy the alliteration.  I learned about that in seventh grade and love to say the words aloud.  "Toasted topaz would look terrific on my toes," I smile at Aunt Karen.  I walk the short distance to the mirror and study my face.  My cheekbones are prominent as are my brow bones, but I'm proud of the effort I've put into looking this way.  It's as if I can see my real face for the first time, not the fat-faced Hippo of my childhood.
The lipstick looks really nice against my olive skin now toasted tan in the summer.  I cap the stick and hand it back to Aunt Karen.  She slides the slender black tube into her back pocket as if it were a gun slipping into a tiny holster.  I wonder, How does it keep from melting when she sits down?
I've never seen my mother carry a lipstick in her back pocket and it intrigues me.
My aunt is a maverick, and in that moment, I want to be one, too.

My mother often said she would never want to return to her teenage years.  When I was thirteen, I thought she was crazy.  Who would deny themselves the ability to go back in time in order to relive a period where there were minimal responsibilities, lots of fun things to occupy her time, and endless hours to listen to music and watch television?  It wasn't until I reached my early twenties that I began to understand what Mom had meant.  
Being a teenager was hellacious.
The summer before my eighth grade year, I vowed to make some serious changes in my life.  Tired of being called “fat” or “chubby” by my sister, Patricia, (who was genetically predisposed to be ultra-thin), I started riding my bike and taking long walks at the park.  I stopped eating cookies, bread, and ice cream.  When I begged my mother to buy me only skim milk and yogurt, she balked, but did it anyway. 
As long as I ate something, Mom left me to my own devices until the following spring when I wore a bathing suit for the first time since the previous August.  By then I had lost nearly thirty pounds and my ribs showed through my skin and the sharp angles of my collarbones stood out beneath the straps of the suit.  I was barely surviving on bananas and Vitamin C tablets.  Eating at the dinner table became a game of “hide the food in my napkin” or “dump it in the trashcan when no one is looking.” 
When I admitted my periods had stopped, Mom was frantic and took me to the doctor who weighed and measured me.  “One hundred and five...she’s a little on the slender side for her height,” Dr. Woodley said, tucking a pencil in the bun of hair twisted near her nape.  She gave me a soft smile.  “No more losing, Katie,” she gently admonished.  “And I want to see you in six months if your periods don’t start up again.”
I nodded, but silently vowed to lose just two more pounds.  By then I had dropped three clothes sizes and could easily fit into most of Patricia’s outfits.  I could even wear some of the shorts and tops left over from my grade school days.  Fearful of gaining, I decided that maintaining 103 pounds on my five foot, five inch frame was acceptable and so I continued to vigilantly watch what I ate. 
Nothing crossed my lips until I had carefully calculated how many calories it contained, and how many laps around the neighborhood I would have to complete in order to burn it off.  I had even rationed my Easter candy in a white shoebox I kept in my closet, tightly sealing the M&M’s, jellybeans, and chocolate eggs in Ziploc bags.  If I allowed myself one slip up, one extra goodie, I was certain I would lose control and end up where I started:  fat and ugly and no boys would want me…ever.  At least that's what Patricia always told me.
Boys followed her everywhere.  Even when we were on vacation at the beach, she was sure to have at least two boys chatting her up by the pool or on the beach.  Patricia flirted carelessly with them and I often saw her as a Midwestern Scarlett O’Hara in the opening scenes of “Gone with the Wind,” effortlessly entertaining the Tarrleton twins while anticipating the arrival of her one, true love.
On the other hand, I was labeled “Hippo” by my father, and often asked by my mother, “Why don’t you try harder, Kate?  I’m sure there are nice boys out there looking for nice girls like you.”
But there were no nice boys in my circle.  There were boys who pretended to like a girl, but if someone better came along, off they went to chase another skirt.  There were boys who smoked pot.  Boys who only wanted to get to second base or even further if allowed.  (I had no idea what that meant until I was a senior in high school).  There were dorky boys who kept their noses pressed in books and jocks who either snapped my bra or pinched my behind on the school bus, just to get a rise out of me.  And then there were boys who liked my sister and sidled up to me, only pretending to be my friend so that they could get closer to her.
No, there were no nice boys out there.  So why bother?
But I did anyway. 
I bothered to make myself as thin as possible, to lacquer my hair, to wear make-up and paint my nails.  I bothered to wear nylons to church, despite that fact that I loathed panty hose.  I even bothered to try out for the eighth grade musical because a boy I had a crush on was rumored to have the lead.  He did and I made the cut, but he never noticed me at all, choosing to take another chorus girl to the cast party.  I bothered to attend youth group and Sunday School partly because Steven Napp would be there.  No matter that he liked my older sister.  What else was new? 
As I lost weight, I thought I would be more attractive to boys.  I could wear skinny jeans and halter tops, sleeveless dresses and more grown up bathing suits.  I lined my eyes with Maybelline, glossed my mouth with Lip Smacker, and spritzed Love’s Baby Soft on my shoulders and wrists.  I tried to be like the pure girls who resembled that fresh pile of grapes...clean, untouched, and yet on full display. 
It did no good. 
There always seemed to be an invisible barbed wire fence around me with a sign secured firmly to my heart that read: “KEEP OUT."
           
I always loved to watch Aunt Karen do her hair and put on makeup.  She had an attitude that was vastly different than mine.  Sure, I was only thirteen and barely able to apply mascara without poking myself in the eye, but Aunt Karen knew her strengths and played to them by using the endless goodies in her cosmetics drawer.  She had the bluest eyes and lined them meticulously.  Her blonde hair was short, stylishly cut, and accentuated her features.  And when she pulled that lipstick from her back pocket to reapply a gorgeous shade of red or pink, I was mesmerized.  As she blotted the excess, then puckered her lips, it was as if she was saying to the world, “Stand back…I’m comin’ atcha!” 
All my thirteen-year-old self could muster at the time was a silent, “Am I good enough?”
Aunt Karen is still a maverick, although she told me recently that she now keeps her lipstick in her bra.  “That way I don’t have to reach as far since I’m older,” she laughed.  My incredible aunt inspires me to tell the truth, be who I am, and never settle for less than what is right for me even though it often means making many choices on my own.  We aren't rebels, my aunt and I.  We don't need to be defiant to feel unique or genuine.
We simply feel the need to go our own way.
It was Aunt Karen who inherently showed me that I didn't have to fade away to feel myself more fully.  I was a silent, yet captivated witness to the self confidence I would eventually embody in my thirties and forties. 
But it's better late than never.
Better to be authentic than fake it for someone else's comfort.
Better to be happily at home within myself than trying to balance precariously on the razor's edge of someone else’s expectations.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

You never know

You never know
Originally published on November 22, 2015

Last Sunday I had a long-awaited play date with my pal, Satish.  When he was little, that meant an afternoon of basketball, T-ball, and maybe even time to read a book or two.  Now that he's older, it means we hang out and watch a football game.  This week it was the Lions "versing" the Green Bay Packers...or at least that's how Satish and his little brother, Danta, say "versus". 
Satish didn't know what time I was going to come over, so when I arrived a little later than planned, I heard his voice call from the living room, "Finally!"  He wasn't being rude -- it's just his way of letting me know he was looking forward to seeing me. 
As he's ten now, there's an unspoken agreement between us that a hello hug is not really necessary, but a good-bye hug is fine as long as I don't kiss him in front of his soccer buddies.  So instead of snuggling on the couch with a storybook like we did when he was younger, Satish regaled me on what would have to happen in order for the University of Michigan to make it to a bowl game.
"First, they'd have to do super well in the rest of their games," he explained.  "And other teams would have to do poorly so Michigan could rise in the ranks."  Shaking his head sadly, Satish said, "Really, there are too many variables that have to go right in order for it to happen."
I smiled, delighted by his ever-present astute wisdom.  "Well, you never know."
Satish flashed me a knowing smile.  "Yeah, you never know."
When we get together, the boys and I love playing chess or a board game.  When they were little, I always asked if I should let them win at chess or play my best.  Neither Satish nor Danta wanted me to throw the game, so after a stealth move on my part, one of them usually said, "Drat!  Now I'm going to lose!"
Shaking my head, I always replied, "The game's not over yet...you never know."
Time proved that the tide often turned and they end up being victorious.  Actually...nowadays Satish always beats me soundly, although the last time we played I gave him a pretty good run for his money.
Seeing a clear opening early in the match, I snatched his queen with a pawn.  "Holy cow, dude!" I cried.  "That was too easy!"
"I haven't practiced for a long time and I'm not thinking properly," he lamented.  "That's why you're going to win." 
Of course, with his next move, Satish captured my queen and eventually won the match.
In any event, last Sunday at the beginning of the Lions vs. Packers game, Satish (a die-hard Lions fan to the end) bitterly complained about the poor season they're having this year. 
"See?  They're already down three points and it's not even a few minutes into the first quarter," he sighed.
"Oh, well," I shrugged.  "There are three more quarters.  You never know...they could kick their butts into high gear and get the job done."
And that's just how it went.  Play by play, down by down, the Lions tried to rally.  I've never, ever seen a "fourth down and inches", but sure enough, there it was on the big screen TV. 
Alas, all too quickly it was time to leave as I was driving Satish to his indoor soccer game and didn't know how long it would take to get there.
"Don't worry...there's lots of time," he said as we buckled up and hit the road.  "We always have to wait until the other team finishes using the court."
Sure enough, we arrived before anyone else, so Satish and I chatted until the rest of his teammates arrived.
"Are you taping the Lions game?" I asked.
"Nah...I don't usually tape football games."
"Not even Michigan ones?"
"Nope."
"How come?"
Satish shrugged.  "Because it's too hard to not hear the final score before I have time to watch it.  Sometimes Danta tells me who won and that kinda spoils it for me."
"Yeah...it's more fun to have the suspense, huh?  Makes the game more interesting."
"Yep."
Once his buddies arrived, Satish put on his game face and talked with them while I found a seat near the window where I could watch the last few minutes of a pretty good soccer match.  
Moments later, Satish hurried over to me.  "Katie!  Someone just told me that the Lions are up ten to seven!"
"Well, how about that?" I beamed.  "They might win after all."
"Yeah...you never know," he grinned as he trotted off to the soccer field.

Like many people, I like to know when and how things will happen.  I want to keep a pulse on the future, working toward something new, not spinning my wheels waiting around for the inevitable.  Yes, I'm a Type A, but according to my friend, Brenda, I'm a relaxed Type A who's mellowing as the years go by.  Still, on Friday, while teaching a knitting group in Danta's lower-elementary classroom, one of the boys grinned at me.  "Aren't you that control freaky friend of Danta's I met at his house last month?"
Remembering my diligence in getting them to the soccer field on time, I had to laugh.  "Yeah, but I'm also a lot of fun...or don't you remember that part?"
Eric nodded playfully.  "Oh, sure...that, too."
Lately I've been earnest in letting go of my control freaky ways.  The philosopher, Alan Watt, once wrote:  Supposing you knew the future and could control it perfectly.  What would you do?  You'd say, "Let's shuffle the deck and have another deal."
Isn't that the truth? 
Sure, I'd love to know a lot of things, but I've recently figured out that to have it all figured out is impossible, for the variables are always changing.  These days I don't get too comfortable with what I think or feel or intuit because I've learned that it's better to go with the flow than get stuck in the muck of a limiting mindset.  For the first time in my life, I'm a woman without a clear plan, and ever since I let go of needing one, I've received more joy, abundance, and creative energy than I've had in nearly ten years.  I'm working in a host of venues, doing a variety of work, meeting a plethora of people and discovering that the future will take care of itself while I take of myself in the present moment.  After all, I can never know all the events that are taking place behind the scenes...the things other people are experiencing, the pieces that need to be put into place in order for my dreams to come true. 

At halftime during Satish's game, I needed to go back to the lobby as the strong odor of the rubber turf was giving me a headache.  I couldn't catch his eye to let him know I wasn't leaving, that I'd be watching from the other side of the glass.  When he got back on the field, I noticed Satish glancing toward the sidelines where his father and other parents were standing. 
I'm still here, I silently said, hoping he'd pick up on my mental telepathy.
I needn't have worried.  My pal and I know each other all too well.  When the game was done and I congratulated him on a match well-played, he beamed. 
"I was watching from the lobby," I smiled as we headed to the parking lot.  "You know I'd never leave in the middle of one of your games."
He gave me a hug, nodding.
I savored the moment, knowing Satish is growing up all too fast...somewhere in-between being a child and becoming a young adult. 
In this game of life, I feel as though I'm still in the middle, too -- somewhere between where I've been and where I'm going.  But isn't that true for everyone?  Aren't we all hanging in the balance of what has been and what will be?  It's what we do right now that matters, for as Alan Watt also reminds us, Tomorrow never comes
Life is always changing, and with everything that's left behind in Satish's childhood, something richer comes to life as he grows up.  We've traded stuffed animals for soccer balls and good-night kisses for high fives.  Still, through it all, I've come to understand that embracing change always reveals the joy of what has been as it clears the path for something new.
Satish may never know how much I love him.  But today, tomorrow, and forever, I know for certain there will be endless opportunities to show him.




Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Don't get me started

Don't get me started
Originally published on June 12, 2013

School's out for the summer in Toledo.  Cookouts and picnics abound in my neighborhood as well as the sound of laughing children, happy to be outside after a long winter into spring.  For two and half months, my friends who are teachers are able to work on home projects, attend workshops and prepare for the 2013-14 school year.  In addition, many of them have a summer job to help cover their expenses. 
When I quit teaching fourteen years ago, someone asked, "What are you going to do now?"
"Work less and get paid more," I replied.
"How could you work any less?" she sneered.  "After all, you get your summer's off."
"Why don't you come into my classroom on a Monday morning at 9:00," I said.  "I'll leave you nothing...no lessons or behavioral plans; no indication of what the kids need or their challenges.  By Friday at 3:00, you tell me how little I work."
Her eyebrows shot up.  "I wouldn't want your job in a million years."           
And so it goes.

Teachers in America have become the target for why our children are failing.  Many of my former colleagues, all highly educated and trained professionals, are now facing the fact that their salaries may one day be linked to how well their students perform on standardized tests.  They've been instructed to teach to the test to avoid having their schools labeled "at risk," and often feel scapegoated by those who spend little to no time in their classrooms.  
I began every school year by saying something like this to the parents of my first graders at Open House:  "You are most welcome in our classroom at any time.  It's important for you to know what's happening here at school.  I encourage you to keep in mind that while I'm responsible for your child's academic work and safety while he or she is with me from nine until three, you are responsible for the other eighteen hours of the day. 
"You are your child's first and most important teacher.  For the first five years of their life, you taught them how to speak and think and eat and everything else a little person need to learn.  You taught them your values and your habits and they will reflect you here in the classroom. Let's work together to make your child's education a success."
I was lucky.  The majority of the parents attended conferences and signed their children's homework notebooks.  Some of them called to talk about issues at home and asked my advice on what I was doing in the classroom that seemed to make a difference.
But that was in the nineties.  Testing was just beginning to become influential and by late 1998, I could see the writing on the wall.  Watching my first graders sob over mandated standardized tests was one of the reasons I left the classroom the following spring.  No longer would I be able to teach creative, developmentally accurate lessons.   And with more and more children coming to school without their basic needs met (let alone the need to be seen and heard and loved), I knew that if I continued teaching, my life would be so stressful, I'd end up burned out before my fortieth birthday.

I've been out of the classroom more than I was in it, but I still teach.  I choose where and when and how.  I choose how much I will charge for my services and live with the reality of being in a service profession which can be feast or famine.  But it's still my choice, and it's one I'm thankful to make.
I stay in touch with many of my former students and their parents, some who are very close friends.  They keep me grounded in why I love working with children, why I wanted to become a teacher in the first place.   While I am deeply blessed to be surrounded by many people who love and nurture their children, it's heartbreaking for me to watch how many parents don't parent. 
There was a blog posted last week by a woman who sardonically bragged about being "the worst end of the school year mom ever."  She hadn't checked her son's homework notebook in three weeks, complained mightily about the time and energy it took to throw together a mediocre project and whined about how she just wished the school year would end already.  She didn't make the time to check his work or make sure he was doing his best on a project, but she made the time to a write a blog complaining about it. 
I wonder what her son is learning from his mother's behavior.  Beyond that, does she realize how difficult the end of the year is for teachers who are trying to cover curriculum, complete grade cards, and manage a classroom filled with children infested with spring fever?  I wonder how she would feel if she were under pressure at work to finish a project that was a year in the making only to have her co-workers drop the ball in the final quarter.     

Teachers do not create children. 
Parents create children.
Teachers can influence them greatly, but the unpleasant truth is the lack of accountability for who is responsible for the other eighteen hours in a child's day and how that environment more profoundly colors who the child is and who he/she becomes.
I recently spent the day at a friend's home and in a five hour period, her sons and I played chess and Monopoly, did a little knitting, wrote a story, played outside, and finally, at the end of the day, read some books before bedtime.  This is common place for my friend's boys and I love every moment I get to spend with them.  Their parents often hold them close and listen to what they have to say.  They occasionally will ask a question, then they listen some more.  The boys are well adjusted, bright, articulate and confident children.  They are also curious and honest and hardworking when given a task.  It's no wonder they do well in school and continue to thrive in their home environment.
But not all children are as fortunate.
When shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I was trying to steer a large cart through a narrow aisle.  A family with four small children sat in the seasonal area, trying out lawn furniture.  The littlest, a boy who couldn't have been more than fourteen months, was pulling himself up on his father's chair.  As I approached the family, I said to the father, "Excuse me, I don't want to bump into your baby."
He had been staring into space and when I spoke, he reached down and grabbed the baby's arm, pulling the boy into his lap.  "I forgot I had another one," he grumbled.
I glanced at the mother whose face didn't register a thing.  I imagined she had heard him, but chose not to acknowledge his sardonic comment.  The other three children looked at me with grimy faces, oblivious to their father's cruelty.  I felt sorry for them all.  So I smiled at the kids and sent them all thoughts of peace.
Then, as I walked away, I sent a prayer to the teachers who will one day have all four of those children in their classrooms.




Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer lovin'

Yesterday afternoon, I relaxed in my baby-pool while enjoying a bowl of juicy watermelon.  It was supposed to thunderstorm, but alas, rain must have fallen elsewhere, for my sweetheart and I enjoyed a lazy day catching rays and listening to music.  While Steve trimmed shrubs, I soaked in the sun, enjoying Beatles radio on Pandora.  Song after song after song, I was reminded of the summers I spent as a child in south Toledo where my friends and I blared music on our transistor radios while lying on aluminum foil, our preteen bodies coated in baby oil.  Soon enough, I longed for a soft-serve ice cream cone at Penguin Palace, at swim at the Rec Center, and an afternoon goofing around on the Slip and Slide in my own backyard.
The night before Steve and I went to a Toledo Mud Hen’s baseball game with his daughters.  Sitting in the stands, I remembered a summer night when I was seven and my father caught a pop fly with his bare hands.  We had been sitting in the second row near first base, and I’ll never forget how amazed I was that Dad not only caught the ball, but was brave enough to ask the players to autograph it at the end of the game.  Back then the only sounds on the loud speaker were the announcer’s voice and the pipe organ playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame".  This past Saturday, I was surprised at how much things have changed.  Now it’s no longer only about the game, for music constantly blared, t-shirts were tossed into the eagerly awaiting crowd, and there were constant interruptions from advertisements and video shots of the crowd on the Jumbotron.
As we left the stadium, I was talking with Steve’s youngest about how when I was her age, there was no such thing as the Internet or cell phones.  “When I was twenty-two, things were a lot simpler,” I told her. 
Silently I added, Man, I miss those days sometimes.
While I’m not a fan of all things summer related (like fireworks and high humidity and endless road construction), I do enjoy this season more now that we’re finally in mid-July.  The crickets are chirping, shadows are getting longer, and my garden is finally producing after an odd start this past spring.  There’s still a lot to look forward to (like peach season, endless hours relaxing on the front porch swing, and the week Steve and I will spend at Posey Lake in Michigan), so I don’t want to wish summer away.  When I was little girl, I’d keep track of how many days until school started so I could pack in every ounce of fun before the inevitable loss of freedom.
These days I’m waxing nostalgic for the summers of my childhood.
Back then, time was different…slower somehow.  Every day there seemed to be endless hours to ride my bike, watch game shows on TV, bask in the sun coated with baby oil, and even go to a matinee movie if it was too hot and muggy.  When I was ten in the summer of 1977, Star Wars was released and I did odd jobs around the house to earn a dollar and a trip to the Glenbyrne I and II where I watched Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star eleven times.  The next summer, my sisters and I memorized all of the songs (and most of the lines) from Grease.  
Not every day was stellar though.  I recall a particularly humdrum Sunday afternoon when we deviled my mother for something to do.  She took a nap while my father drove us to Penguin Palace for chocolate ice cream cones coated with chocolate shot, then we came home and watched fifteen years worth of 35 millimeter silent home movies in the basement until suppertime. 
It was heavenly…and one of my most cherished memories.

These days, there’s still so much to love about summertime – the vibrant colors in my flower gardens.  Long hours of evening sunlight, perfect for twilight bike rides.  Open windows and canopied swings.  Sweet basil and baseball and board games played on the back porch.  It’s a wonderful thing to turn off the phone and tune in to the natural world.  Or visit with a friend over iced coffee at an outdoor cafe.  Or sit in the sun, savoring a good book. 
Before we know it, autumn will arrive in all its glory.  School will be back in session.  Life will get busier for many of us.   But for now, it’s nice to slow down and enjoy the little things easily discovered during this season of light.  So I’m headed outside to watch the baby cardinals play in the birdbath.  To breathe in the cool breeze blowing in from the northwest.  To bask in the baby pool for a bit before I go back to work.
And abundantly enjoy every moment this beautiful summer day has to offer. 



Friday, July 7, 2017

Counting crows

When I was a beginner yoga student, I despised cobra pose.  While it was one of the basic positions taught every week, I mightily struggled with it for more than three years.  Ironically, arching up into cobra made me feel as though I was choking, even though my throat and neck were lengthening upward, supported by my hands, arms, shoulders, and upper back. Yet practice after practice, I became more aware of how incredibly challenging it was to lift the front of my body off of the floor and extend the pose upward through my head.
I was stuck in my throat…literally.    
Over the years, I tried every variation, every modification.  Sometimes I pushed myself to do it.  Other times I skipped it altogether.  Even now I prefer to practice sphinx, or baby cobra, instead.  It’s much more stable to prop myself on my forearms and while my neck is in neutral position, I’m still able to stretch without feeling strangled.    
Having practiced for more than twenty years, I’m not surprised at all to recognize that my neck and upper back were incredibly tight, having held on to unspoken words for almost three decades.  And it’s not really a revelation to realize that through diligently working with a host of healing modalities, my ability to speak up for myself has been transformed.   While I’ve always been able to bang the drum for the underdog or any child in my care if I knew they needed a strong support system, I’ve not always been forthright in speaking my own truth. 
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I became a writer. 
Still, for a while now I’ve been practicing honesty…with myself and with others.  Not that it’s been a cake walk.  I’ve lost friends who couldn’t understand my reasons for setting boundaries.  I’ve lost work because I was outspoken enough to ask that my business policies be respected.  Like struggling to make peace with cobra pose, I’ve often grappled with the knowledge that, for me at least, it’s a risk every time I open my mouth to say how I feel.   To be really truthful, sometimes I have to push myself to find the courage to speak.  Other times, I still keep my mouth shut out of fear.
Conversations that begin with my saying to someone, “Can we talk?” are always like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates.  I never, ever know what I’m going to get. 

A few weeks ago I noticed several crows circling over my neighborhood.  It had been a while since I had seen more than one, and that was years ago when a brazen bird angrily chased an unsuspecting cat out of my yard.  For days, three crows flew into the tall treetops across the street and silently sat there, fluttering their wings, surveying the territory.  One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my porch next to a friend with whom I had recently argued.  The spat ended quickly, but because I needed time to sift out my angry emotions to get to the heart of what I was feeling, a day later I was still a bit bruised and didn’t know what to say. 
So, like the crows, I said nothing.
They nestled together, not moving an inch the entire time we sat on the porch.  As the person talked about the plans we had made earlier in the day, I listened, but I also noticed the crows and their silent, stoic posture.  Moments later, just as I was getting up to cut the grass, the crows instantly flew away.
Later that evening, I pulled Animal Speak from my bookshelf and looked up “crow”, remembering that the feisty black bird had shown up in significant moments in the past.  I read in part:  Crow’s voice is a notable characteristic which reminds us to listen for the ways creation is continually calling out to us.  Wherever crows are, there is magic, for they are symbols of creation and spiritual strength. 
The next evening my friend and I were sitting on the porch after having hashed out the better part of our disagreement.  As another round of conversation started, I noticed the three crows sitting in the treetop, but this time, they were cawing loudly…over and over again.  I don’t remember exactly what I said to my friend, but I do recall firmly saying what I needed to say, even though it was incredibly difficult.  For a long while, the cawing of the crows echoed around us as we talked past twilight, finally creating some common ground.
Oddly enough, since then I’ve not seen or heard another crow, and these days I’m counting humming birds, robins, and rabbits. 

I believe that everything in nature continually speaks to us, and if we know how to truly listen, magic can be a constant presence in our lives.  While I was jolted to discover that a group of crows is called a “murder”, it doesn’t really surprise me, for whenever they show up in my life, I know that a part of me has to die in order for another part to be born.  This time around the trio of messengers reminded me that while my truth might not always be the same as another’s, I no longer need to stay silent out of fear or apprehension...and that miracles spontaneously arise when I’m being my most authentic self. 
In the fall, I’ll be re-introducing preparatory work for the crow pose in my yoga classes.  While I’m still not able to hold it for long, I have found that being in it, even for a split second, arching my neck upward toward the sky has never made me feel more alive and free.
 


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day

I’ve been waxing nostalgic a bit this holiday weekend.  While thumbing through a host of magazines while relaxing in the sun, I’ve seen s’mores and sandcastles and sparklers galore.  Children have been riding their bikes through the neighborhood and just this afternoon, a little one who lives behind my house pitched a tantrum that could rival any I threw as a three year old.  I’ve thought of a boy who lived across the street when I was a kid and how we used to celebrate his July 5th birthday a day early every summer. 
This afternoon while hanging out in my baby pool, Steve squirted me with the hose.  “Too bad, I’m already wet,” I told him.
“I’m thirteen and a half,” he chuckled. 
“No kidding,” I laughed back. 
“The first love of my life was the girl next door,” he told me.  “She was eight years old when she moved in and gave me my first kiss.  At the time I thought girls were icky.  But she ruined me for life because I liked it.”
“My first kiss was from a boy who lived up the street,” I told him, shading my eyes from the sun.  “We were in second grade together and Jimmy walked by my desk.  He said my name, and when I turned to look at him, he planted one right on my lips.   I really liked him because we were such great friends...it was sad when he moved away.”
It’s been years since I’ve thought of Jimmy.  Even longer since I remembered that first kiss.  Still, what an incredibly sweet thing to recall on the one day I have least looked forward to all year long…until now.
While I’m all well and good celebrating Independence Day, I’m not a big fan of fireworks…unless I’m at a professional display and know when the end is near.  Yet beginning in late June, folks in my neighborhood set them off at ever-increasing intervals until the 4th, when it seems as though the loud explosions last all night long.  With every searing bottle rocket and imploding Roman candle, my cats freak out, except for Forest (bless him) who sits in the window sill watching for the sparks of light in the night sky.  The house shakes, the windows rattle, and my ears ring for hours.
Thankfully, this year I’ve spent the past few nights at Steve’s apartment, for I find that when I’m with him, the noise doesn’t rattle me as much.  When I was getting ready to go home on Sunday morning, I sheepishly asked, “Can I stay here tonight and tomorrow?”
“I was going to ask if you wanted to,” he smiled.  “You can stay over whenever you like…I enjoy having you around.”
I let out a sigh of relief.  “Can I sleep over here until the 4th of July?”
He looked down at his dog and smiled gleefully.  “How fortuitous.”
“Good,” I nodded.
Then Steve hugged me, saying, “I’m happy to have you stay ‘cause I know how much those fireworks scare you.”
“They don’t scare me,” I replied defiantly.
“You sound like a little kid,” Steve chuckled.
“Well, they don’t,” I said, hugging him back.  “They hurt my sensitive little ears.”
Then we both laughed out loud…because it’s absolutely true.

I’m sensitive to lots of things:  loud noise, strong emotions, and bright light…just to name a few.  Looking back on my childhood, I spent the lion’s share of my time in the cool, dark basement or the quiet sanctuary of my room in the northwest corner of the house.  Sure, I played outside, but preferred to hang out in the shaded corners of my backyard or the limbs of the tree in our front yard.  And while I sometimes enjoyed playing with the kids in the neighborhood, the memories that stick with me the most are the ones when I was on my own.
I imagine that part of my independent streak was due to my being overly sensitive to a lot of things I couldn’t control.  At the time, I figured that if I removed myself from the situation, I wouldn’t have to deal with it…or at least deal with my feelings about it.  I could hide from the world while riding my bike or enjoying a picnic by myself or a quiet walk in the woods where I talked to imaginary friends who lived in the tree trunks.   The pattern stuck and as an adult, I’ve spent the majority of my time in solitude.
But no longer. 
Steve and I give each other space all the time, although I admit that today I interrupted him more than I should to share a silly squirrel story or a slice of watermelon.  And of course, when his inner-devil wanted to come out and play, he ambushed me with the garden hose.  Still, I find that I have time for everything I used to do before we got together…and hope he feels the same way, too.  Both of us are independent, yet we’ve become more interdependent as the months go by.  I can lean on him when I need to, and he can lean on me, too.  We share moments from our past, stories of the present, and dreams for our future, all the while continuing to be authentically ourselves.  I suppose we’ve learned the beauty in what Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:  Stand together, yet not too near together, for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

I never thought I’d ever want to be with someone more than I have wanted to be alone, and yet that has been my one sign to know when a relationship is real.  For years I’ve been telling my friends, “I’ll know I’m with the right person when I’d rather be with him than alone in this peaceful life I've created.”
Just last night I sat on the couch, gazing out his living room window, in awe of the fireworks that exploded over the treetops in front of his duplex.  “Oh!  There’s another one!” I chirped.  “And another one!”
The sky darkened while Steve leaned over and looked out the window. 
“When I was kid, I’d sit in my bedroom window and watch the fireworks,” I told him.  “It was great to be safe in my room and watch from a distance.”
As Steve walked away to take care of stuff around the apartment, I marveled at how safe it felt to be with him, no matter how close the fireworks were being shot off, no matter how loud they were, or how I could never know when a loud boom would rattle the windows.  Later that night I went to bed while he watched TV and as I lay there listening to the crash and boom in the distance, surprisingly I didn’t mind at all…and was soon fast asleep. 
Tonight I’ll be writing while Steve goes to a meeting, but later on this evening I’m sure we’ll spend some quality time together.  The night sky will soon be lit up with light and I'll be snuggled in with Steve, quietly celebrating the uncommonly incredible life we're creating together.  


Friday, June 30, 2017

Pyromaniac

I'm taking the holiday weekend off, so I thought I'd share one of Open Road's most-read blogs from 2014, written shortly after the Fourth of July.  This one’s for all of us who love to play with fire…in the healthiest of ways.  


Pyromaniac
Originally published on July 7, 2014

After a simply gorgeous holiday weekend, I'm enjoying a cool, cloudy morning here in Toledo, Ohio.  It's like the calm after the storm...because for the past couple of weeks I've gone to bed listening to the boom and pop of firecrackers, bottle rockets, and Roman candles.   Loud, explosive racket is not my cup of tea, so it's really not until the week after the Fourth of July that I really begin to enjoy the summer season.
The anticipation of the holiday weekend is over.  Crickets and cicadas now serenade the city with their rhythmic cadence.  And I can fall asleep without the scent of sulfur and smoke drifting through my open windows.  There seems to be a peace that permeates the energy around my little house in the Heartland that's hard to describe now that the crash and boom of the fireworks is over.
Not that I don't like a small inferno now and again, mind you. 
Ever since I was little I've been fascinated by fire.  I can remember Sunday afternoons in the middle of winter when my mother would let my sisters and me light a candle in the middle of the kitchen table.  We'd meticulously peel back the wrappers of old crayons and melt them in the flickering flame to create colorful, waxy pictures on a paper plate.  I wasn't all that interested in what I was making; I'd much rather gaze at the transformation of something once solid into a gooey liquid that could burn my fingers if I let it.  And sometimes I did -- just to see what it would feel like.

Years later when my life was chaotic and unstable, I'd come home in the evening, turn off all the lamps and light a white candle on the coffee table, then sit and stare at the flame...studying the blue center...marveling at the way it would turn the tangible wax into vapor.
When I lived at Esalen Institute, a friend of mine casually observed the fact that I've always been attracted to fiery men.  "I don't know if that's what you really need," he said.  "You've got enough fire power for ten people." 
It was true.  I worked like a horse.  Plodded through a task with the tenacity to plow through and overcome any adversity.  Like the wildfires that slowly charred the Santa Lucia mountains during my stay in Big Sur, I was persistent enough to burn through old patterns of being in order to allow new growth to emerge from the ashes.
After all, I was born with Mars in Leo -- and for those of you who don't know much about astrology, that's a pretty powerful placement.  To combine the energy of the planet of ambition, fire, and power with the drive and determination of needing to be creative, no matter how many obstacles are in my way, I can understand why I was a workaholic for so many years.  It took a long, long time to transform my innate tendency from a raging bonfire to a hospitable hearth.
         
Now I realize the reason I'm attracted to fire is not for the heat and intensity of what it appears to be at first sight...but for the transformative power it has to create complete and utter change.  No other element can instantly reduce a stack of paper into ashes.  Water will take a while to dissolve it.  Earth will take even longer to create the pressure necessary to change paper into pulp.  Air may rip it to shreds, but even though it may take a different form and shape, it's still inherently what it is. 
Fire changes anything instantly.  It's one of the reasons I choose to use it as a ritual when I need to let go of something or want to create something new.  When I need to rid myself of old baggage or open the door to an alternate way of being.  I've burned old cards and letters.  Journal entries.  I've ceremoniously written out lists of what I want and then burned them, sending a silent prayer along with the smoke that an unseen force will get the message and deliver the goods.
Word to the wise:  like that old adage says, "Be careful what you wish for."  I'd amend it to "be careful what you write and transform with fire" because on several occasions, I've wished for something too specific and the results blew up in my face, burning me one too many times because I set an intention with too many parameters.  After all, fire knows no boundaries and can easily change direction as the wind blows. 

Every culture uses fire in celebration.  In honoring the dead.  As a symbol for light or enlightenment.  Fire is perhaps the most primitive element in our transformation toolbox.  And it's by far my favorite one. 
During this past deep-freeze of a winter, I was imminently thankful every time my furnace roared to life.  Thankful the hot water tank hummed along so I could take warm showers after shoveling mountains of snow.   As springtime emerged, I delighted in the rising sun, the warmer days, the return of brighter solar energy to our hemisphere.  And I'm certain as fall approaches, I'll light more candles in the evening and relax in my living room while the flames flicker and reflect off of the walls and hardwood. 
But today I have other plans. 
For a few weeks I've felt as though I'm on the cusp of something I can't quite describe.  Something's imminent and I can see my old hesitation to trust in the unknown.  To trust something new.  It's in moments like these that I'm reminded of a simple rite of passage that I use in times like these. 
A few years ago, I wrote someone a much-needed letter.  I said everything I didn't say when we were together.  Everything I needed to say to him now.  I opened a vein and bled my heart dry on the pages, draining myself of whatever sorrow still trickled through my veins. 
At the end I wrote, "I need to burn this so that I can have the freedom to move on.  To forgive.  To let go."
That night I took the letter outside and burned it in a glass bowl on the edge of my flower gardens.  Burned it until the paper had crinkled and curled.  Burned it until there was nothing left but a small pile of ashes.
Or so I thought.
The next morning I went outside to get the bowl and noticed that in the tiny heap of cinders, there were two minuscule scraps of paper.  One was blank.  The other had been charred, but not completely destroyed.  Browned around the edges, only one word could be easily seen:  "free." 
         
I'm not a pyromaniac in the literal sense, although I love the freedom fire allows me to embrace as I transform that which has been into that which is no more.  So tonight I'll write a few pages sitting at the very same table at which I used to melt crayons as a child, then burn them surrounded by the gardens in my backyard.  I'll be celebrating freedom on my own, and it will be a quiet, simple Independence Day.
One that will surely outlast any fireworks display on the block.