Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Thank U, Alanis

It’s been an uncommonly cold start to the New Year, so this month, instead of hiking at Wildwood Park, I’m hitting the gym for my daily dose of cardio.  While it’s not been too crowded with folks dedicated to their new year’s resolutions, there have been moments when I’ve had to crank up my MP3 player to drown out the chatter of fellow fitness aficionados.  Every so often I change the dozens of songs I’ve uploaded, but more often than not, keep at least a few tunes by Alanis Morrisette in the playlist.  This year her complete works are at the ready whenever I need an escape from winter, from worrying about the future, from wondering how I’m going to figure it all out. 
Having loosely followed Alanis’ career since Jagged Little Pill was released in 1995, I started earnestly listening to her lyrics in 2008 after moving back to Toledo, bitter and still a bit bruised from a short-lived adventure in Big Sur.  I distinctly remember driving up Kenwood Boulevard on a sunny Saturday afternoon with Narcissus blaring through the speakers at top volume and me singing the lyrics at the top of my lungs.  Every single word clearly described a “me-show man” with whom I had briefly been involved and who made part of my life in California a living hell.  It wasn’t my first experience with a narcissist and it wouldn’t be the last, but every time I met another self-centered boy, somehow Alanis’ ode to egotistical men everywhere was playing in the background. 
For the past ten years, I’ve collected every album she’s released, every song recorded for a film.  It’s not completely Ironic that I’ve taken solo road trips with various versions of myself along for the ride.  In fact, a lot of clarity surfaces when I hit the road and let Alanis’ music wash over me.  I’ve sifted through the pain of depression hoping That I Would Be Good, dealt with my tendency to create damsel/rescuer fantasies in confronting my Precious Illusions, and seriously contemplated the 21 Things I wanted in a lover years before he arrived at my doorstep.  (By the way, Steve has 19 of them, so I figure I did have a choice in the matter.) 
For years I’ve felt that Alanis has written the soundtrack of my life and imagine many of you feel the same way.  In crafting relatable songs that cut deeply, Alanis touches a primordial place in those of us who readily recognize ourselves in her lyrics.  There have been many Particular Times when I’ve wanted to vanish from pain, yet tried to work through difficult relationships, when I’ve fallen Head Over Feet for the wrong person, when I’ve carried a Torch way too long.  Lately, I’ve found myself letting go of the people who were Uninvited, who drove me a little bit Crazy, who had washed their Hands Clean of me long ago.  Through it all, I’ve discovered that in the end, All I Really Want is some patience, which is one of the reasons I’m still here.

Since my return from Big Sur, I think of my life as B.C. (before California) and A.C. (after California).  Before I moved west, a lot of my time was spent doing intense self-discovery.  Since I returned, my life has been about intimately discovering others as well as continuing on my own personal journey.  Personal relationships take the Front Row and my perspective has broadened in concentric circles that widen as the years go by.   Now I’m focused on creating Win and Win, on allowing myself to find contentment with being Incomplete, and allowing myself to receive Empathy not as a pity, but as a gift of healing.  I’ve let my significant other see Everything, let him show me how to Receive, and know that even our challenges teach us that The Only Way Out is Through
The past couple of years have been truly difficult, but in the face of death, illness, anger, and destruction, I’ve also discovered grace, peace, and truth.  While I’ve not always done it well, I’ve been trying to see the world as it is, to see people as they are…and love them still.  The other day while I was stretching after a workout, I listened to a song from the film “Dogma”.  Tears filled my eyes as I listened to Alanis sing about embodying unconditional love in the face of our often-broken humanity.  Perhaps more than any other song Alanis has written, Still reflects an awareness I’m only beginning to truly acknowledge, a path I’m only beginning to walk, even if I don't have it all figured out just yet.
Alanis...Thank U for seeing me.
I feel so less lonely. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Burn the ships

There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.
C. S. Lewis

It’s the last day of 2017 and I couldn’t be more thankful to say goodbye to a year that has revealed both the best of times and the very worst.  Still, even the most difficult challenges I’ve endured this year have allowed me to change and grow in ways I probably wouldn’t have if the past twelve months had brought only the status quo.  Even so, as 2018 dawns tomorrow, I’m affirming that what lies ahead will be infinitely better than anything I leave behind.
For Christmas I compiled a book of photographs for Steve.  In classic Virgo style, every time we took a trip or celebrated an event, I sat down at the computer, opened Shutterfly, and uploaded a ton of pictures.  It wasn’t all smooth sailing between us, for there were several times throughout 2017 when I was tempted to delete the book out of anger or frustration.  Thankfully, I never did.  During those incredibly painful times, I didn’t know how we would ever work through them, but I had faith that if our relationship was meant to be, we would find a way out of the darkness and into something brighter. 
Thankfully, we always did.
On Christmas Eve Steve and I had plans to visit the Sharmas, but an unexpected snowstorm blew through Toledo right before sunset, so we spent a cozy evening at home, sitting by the tree, sipping coffee, and playing Christmas Trivial Pursuit.  One of the topics was “Songs and Carols” and when it was my turn to ask Steve a question, I smiled, “Oh!  You’ll know this one for sure.” 
A few days previous we had been tooling around town with the radio on and I’ll Be Home for Christmas was playing.  “That was my dad’s favorite song,” Steve told me.
So on Christmas Eve, I read from the card:  “What 1943 Bing Crosby song had soldiers longing for home?”
Steve’s eyes filled with tears.
“You don’t have to say it out loud."
Steve swiped at his cheeks.  “I don’t know why I’m such a crybaby.”
“You love your dad,” I said.  “And you miss him.”

My own father died in May of this year and during the holiday season I found myself driving through Toledo Memorial, looking for his headstone.  When I found it in a quiet place near the mausoleum, it was hard to know what to feel.  At the time of his death, Dad and I hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in nearly nine years.  My mother asked that I not sit with the family during the funeral, so Steve and I didn’t attend the burial.  Now there I was, seven months later, gazing at his grave, thinking about all the things I had learned from him, all the things I needed to unlearn.
By example, Dad taught me to be responsible with money.  He modeled an amazing work ethic and dedication to doing a job well.  He loved music and movies and my mother.  Perhaps because of my father my checkbook is balanced, I have a little money in my savings account, and I always strive to do my very best when teaching a yoga class or writing an essay or novel.  But as the new year dawns, I find myself yearning for something else…something more.
As I drove away from the cemetery, something my father used to say rang in my head:  Keep your options open.  I’m not sure when he initially said it, but I think it may have been when I was interviewing for my first teaching position.  Keep your options open, Kate, he told me.  A better offer may come along.
At the time, I wanted to escape Toledo, so I ignored my father’s advice and took the first job I was offered and taught fourth grade in Troy, Ohio.  Dejected and bored with small town life, I moved back to my hometown nine months later, then taught for ten more years, all the while pining for a series of men who wouldn’t commit to me.  Since I quit teaching in 1999, I’ve spent the next eighteen years teaching yoga classes in a host of venues…all of which have ended due to low enrollment, lack of funds, or a consolidation of extra-curricular classes.  In 2011, I signed a contract with a literary agent who spent six months unsuccessfully pitching my work, then seemingly lost interest in trying to find a publishing house for my novels.  She’s since left the business and is now selling real estate. 
In truth, the only common denominator in all of these unfulfilled endeavors is me. 
At the time, none of them worked out as I thought they should have and I wondered why I kept falling into situations in which no one would really make a commitment.  Now I realize that my subconscious wanted to keep my options open, to keep a back door available for something better that might eventually come along.  All along it was me who couldn’t fully commit, so I attracted people and situations that reflected my inability to totally give of myself, for there was always a part I unintentionally withheld because I was afraid to fail.
Until now.
I don’t blame my father, for in the past, perhaps keeping my options open or partially investing myself kept me safe from falling into circumstances that would have been harmful.  But this year I’ve learned that to try and fall short is not a bad thing.  To try and fall short again does not mean I won’t ever find success…whatever that means.  I simply need to remember that failure is not an option, because even in the midst of trial and error, I’m still learning something new. 
Tonight there’s no turning back the clock, so it’s best to burn the ships that got me where I am today in order to finally relinquish the past and fully commit to a new life.  It may not be easy.  Things may not go as planned.  The outcome may be different than I imagine it.  In the end, it doesn't matter, for letting go of what has been is always the best first step forward into what will be.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The greatest gift

Last Friday Steve and I sat in an exam room, waiting for the surgeon who had operated on me in the fall.  A few weeks ago, I went through a battery of tests and an ultrasound to make sure all of the kidney stone fragments had been removed and was looking forward to getting a clean bill of health.
The doctor walked into the office with a grim look on his face.  “The ultrasound found a seven millimeter stone in your left kidney,” he said.  “I don’t know how we missed it, but medicine isn’t a perfect science.  We’d like to schedule you for surgery the day after Christmas unless you want to wait until after the new year.”
I couldn’t look at Steve because I knew I’d burst into tears.  “Let’s do it as soon as possible,” I replied.  “I’m on a break from teaching during the holidays, so it makes sense.” 
“Okay…we’d like to have you go to x-ray before you leave to get a clearer picture of the stone,” the doctor added.  “And you’ll need to go on a low calcium-oxalate diet.”
I nodded, having restricted my eating habits since I came home from the hospital.  It was bad enough to realize that the seemingly healthy vegan diet I had been on for four years was loaded with high-oxalate foods and was probably the reason I had stones in the first place.  Now I realized that no matter how I ate, I was probably doomed to deal with the issue for the rest of my life.
Steve walked me down to x-ray and we were soon on our way home where I was weepy for most of the afternoon.  I told Steve, “I don’t want another surgery, but I don’t have cancer and this isn’t fatal.  But I’m feeling so much better and don’t have any symptoms…so how could I have another stone?  It’s just frustrating.”
“I know, honey,” he said softly.  “But I know for a fact that you’re going to be just fine.  And you’ll get to learn once more that I’ll always be there for you.”
“I’d like to learn it another way,” I cried.
On Monday, the doctor’s office called.  “Kate, can you come in for another x-ray today?” his secretary asked.  “We couldn’t find the stone on the one you had last week and we’d like to get the results before your pre-op appointment tomorrow.”
My heart lightened.  “Sure…I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Cautiously optimistic about the outcome, I called Steve and told him the good news.  “I’ll keep you posted,” I said, smiling.  “I can’t believe it.”
That night we talked about what the results might bring.  “I think they’re going to call me in the morning and say, ‘Merry Christmas…no stone.’”
“Well, no matter what happens, we’ll deal with it together,” Steve said. 
Sure enough, the next morning the doctor called me himself with the good news.  What was thought to be a stone on the ultrasound was simply a shadow left over from the surgery in October.  “You’re good to go until your follow up appointment in July,” he said happily.  “Until then, drink a ton of lemon water and watch your diet, but don’t go too crazy.”
I’ve not been his patient for very long, but he knows I do my best to always follow the rules, dietary and otherwise. 
Still, this year I've learned that some rules are meant to be broken.

Since last January I haven’t done much time writing, for I’ve been spending most of 2017 building a relationship with my significant other.  I broke a few of my own rules in getting involved with him, but looking back on it now, I’m glad I did.  Some people say the honeymoon period can last up to two and a half years, but because Steve and I were friends before we got together, and because we promised to always be honest – even when it’s uncomfortable -- we moved through the elation stage in two and half months. 
For me, the wheels started to wobble in February and finally fell off in August when I walked away to get some clarity.  A couple of weeks later, Steve and I reconciled, then a couple of weeks after that, I ended up in the hospital with sepsis and pneumonia.  During a long recuperation since late September, I’ve taken the time to reevaluate what I want in a relationship and what I need for myself.  It’s been the most complicated, rewarding experience of my life to merge it with another person who is wholly unlike me in fundamental ways, yet nearly identical where it means the most.  Steve and I eat differently, speak differently, interact with the world differently.  But our spiritual beliefs are in harmony with each other, even though don’t manifest them in the same way.
Nearly a decade ago I reconciled with the fact that since we all get wounded in relationships, we need to heal in relationships…but not necessarily with the people who did the initial maiming.  That’s a great hypothesis…in theory.  In practice it has been incredibly difficult to be met with painful pieces from my past mirrored to me by someone I love.  Yet, Steve’s wholly unlike anyone I’ve ever known, for he's consistently determined to change his life for the better...and I’m not talking about the surface stuff either.  It’s a lot easier to change the way we dress than change the way we speak.  It’s easier to lose physical weight than lose the emotional weight we often drag around our entire lives.  
Shortly after my second surgery, Steve and I got into it.  Afterward, he went back to his place and I went to the gym.  In the evening Steve came over to sincerely apologize and tell me how he worked through it for himself.   But I interrupted and angrily lit into him, going on a tirade about all of the issues from our past that we’d already worked through.
For an hour.
The next day it was my turn to apologize, for I’d come to understand my reasons for ranting and promised I’d try to never do it again.
“I’m sure in the future I’ll do something to piss you off,” Steve smiled.
“And I’ll try to keep it about that and nothing else,” I laughed. 
Since then, our relationship has deepened into something neither of us can quite define, for there aren’t really words that accurately explain the love, respect, and dedication we feel for each other.  We take the time to talk, to listen, to help each other when we can, and to be supportive when we can’t.  A year ago I would never have guessed that we’d have to go through so much or that we would have grown together in the ways that we have.  Yet being with Steve has taught me the value in standing up for myself, the gift of perseverance, and the blessing of knowing I’ll spend the rest of my life being cherished by someone who sees everything about me…and loves me anyway.
During the holidays, we often hear that the best presents aren’t found beneath the Christmas tree.  At first I thought that maybe Steve is mine…or that I am his.  But truly, it's the indescribable, ever-expanding love between us that is our constant star, our humble birth, and the greatest gift I’ve ever known.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

My imaginary husband

This weekend I'm editing a compilation of blogs from Open Road and came across this one from 2014.  After being with my significant other for more than a year, I've discovered that while he's not exactly like my imaginary husband, there are plenty of similarities.  So it just goes to show...be careful what you wish for.  You may be blessed enough to receive it.

My imaginary husband
Originally published on October 3, 2014

During a couple of summers while I was in college, I worked as a traveling bank teller, filling in for people who were sick or on vacation.  Even though I loved organizing my cash drawer, calculating my balance sheet at the end of the day, and working in branches near my old stomping grounds in south Toledo, there were a few things I could do without.  I loathed payday Fridays when I often worked from 8:15 in the morning until well after 1:00 with no break, especially if they put me in the drive-through window.  And I hated asking for ID whenever an unknown customer arrived at my window, knowing I'd be met with, "I've been banking here for years!  You should know me by now!"   Even though I'd explain that I was only trying to protect their money, many customers didn't care.
But the worst was when a skeevy male customer sidled up to my window, licked his lips, then lifted an eyebrow.  "You single?" I'd hear at least once a week.  Over time I learned to keep a fake wedding band at my station and slip it on whenever a strange guy walked into the bank, knowing it was easier to tell a white lie than to put the effort into batting away questions about my personal life.
Once I started teaching, I retired my gold band and started hoping for the real thing.  Years went by and I bought a house.  Of course it needed work and to get the job done, I hired a few handymen along the way.  Most of them were gentlemen, doing their work with professionalism and kindness, but there were the few odd ducks who, after finishing the task at hand, asked if I was single or dating anyone.  In response, I immediately knew to lead with my imaginary husband to quash any more questions.  Which he did...immediately.
My pretend fella's named Nick and has evolved from a young guy I met in college to an adorable man who's an amalgamation of my grandfather, a character I wrote in my first novel, and Gregory Peck.  He's a professor who also travels to research his field of study.  (Funny...no one's ever asked what that is and I don't exactly know myself.)  Nick's a great conversationalist who keeps me laughing…and of course, he loves to cook.
My imaginary husband is not often home as he's usually out running errands or going to the grocery store.  Or he's taking one of the cats to the vet, but will be home within the hour.  He's visiting his friend in the hospital right up the street or biking home from the library.  When he gets back, he's taking me out for coffee/lunch/dinner or to the movies.
As you can see, this is a story I've honed over time and can pull out of my back pocket as needed.  Having been stalked, I've also honed my intuition where men are concerned.  I can spot a creepy dude at ten paces and if he opens his mouth to speak, it doesn't take more than two sentences before I know if there's an ulterior motive behind his intentions.
Thankfully, I haven't had to resurrect Nick in a long, long time. 
But this summer it was a different story.

A few months ago, the neighbors behind me were having some renovations done on their house.  I met the two workers while weeding out in my garden. 
It didn't take long for one of them to ask, "You got a boyfriend?"
I looked up from the impatiens and saw his Cheshire grin.  "No...I'm married."
"For real?"
"How long?"
Just like that, Nick resurfaced.  "We've been together ten years,” I replied.  “Married for two."
I went back to the flower bed.
"You got any kids?"
I shook my head.  "No."
I pulled out a gnarly bunch of chickweed, knowing another probing question was imminent.
"Why doesn't your husband cut the grass and do the yard work?" the man asked.  "Why does he leave it to you?"
"Oh, he's busy at work all day and I love to do this anyway," I replied, not looking up from the task at hand.  "And besides, he's a great cook, so I figure we're even."
And that was that...until yesterday.
The workers were back again, and for a while, it was just Mr. Cheshire working in my neighbor's yard while I pulled apart my rotting privacy fence.
"I've not seen your husband around in all the time we've been here," he casually observed. 
"Oh, he's busy working all day," I replied quickly.
"What's he do?"
"He's a professor."
I wasn't afraid of Mr. Cheshire...but very aware that this conversation was going to be a slippery slope into familiar territory.
"You think he's your other half?"
"What?" I asked, hammering the nails into a slat of wood so I could carry it to the curb without cutting my arms.
"You know like he's your half and you're his half."
I shook my head.  "No...I'm whole by myself and so is he.  That's what makes our relationship really strong.  We don't have to complete each other...we just enjoy being together."
A few moments later, he seductively said, "So you don't think you could be my other half?"
I wrinkled my brow.   "No...I don't think so.  How old are you anyway?
He grinned and dipped his head.  "How old do you think I am?" 
I laughed.  "Dude...I'm twenty years older than you.  I could be your mother."
Mr. Cheshire eyed me up and down.  "You don't look it and you're not my mother."
I tried to keep it light.  "Well, I'll take that as a compliment, but one thing I told my husband he'd never have to worry about is my being unfaithful to him...ever."
"So I can't get with you?"
My eyebrows popped at how brazen he was being.  "You can't take, 'no' for an answer, dude.  I'm not that kind of woman...and I told you...I'm married."
A while later I went inside to shower and change for my evening yoga class.  
Mr. Cheshire stopped by to return the extension cord I had lent them earlier in the day.  "You got cleaned up?"
"Yep...yoga class tonight."
He lowered his voice and leaned over to sniff my hair.  "You think I could be your private student?"
"You don't give up, do you?" I said, shaking my head.  "That's not going to happen and I don't think my husband would appreciate your asking."
He laughed and nodded.  "Okay...okay."
And that was the end of it.
I hope.
I don't tell lies, white or otherwise.  I may not say everything I'm thinking, but I won't blatantly fib to cover my tracks, my butt, or anything else.  Still, I'm not ashamed to admit that I have an imaginary husband, and I imagine many of you reading this can understand how difficult it can be to live alone as a single woman with men of all propensities coming in and out of the neighborhood. 
In the past I've often wished for the real thing.  A real man who would stand up for me in the face of rude behavior.  Who would gently talk to one neighbor who cuts their grass at ten PM when I'm trying to go to sleep or another one who throws wild parties with loud music that rattles my windows well after midnight.  I've longed for a husband to protect me from the unwanted advances of creeps, men who have shaky boundaries (or none at all), and difficult situations that I know would have been solved quickly had he been the one to confront the issue. 
Still, I've been doing just fine on my own so far, and thanks to my incredible imaginary husband, I have a pretty good idea about the kind of good wife I might be someday.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


On a Thursday night at the end of August, my yoga students and I were having a discussion about aging.  As most of the ladies are in my generation or a bit older, we’ve been noticing subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our bodies over the past decade.  Still, in looking back over my life, I’ve realized that despite the lines on my face and the fact that I can’t always remember trivial information, this has been the best decade so far. 
As class ended, I thought for a moment about my imminent birthday.  “I feel pretty lucky,” I commented.  “Not everyone gets to be fifty-one.” As soon as the words escaped my lips, another thought popped into my head:  Yeah, and you might not either.  Not sure exactly where that came from, I quickly brushed it off as just a non-consequential thought. 
But twenty-four hours later, I went septic in the emergency room. 
Twenty-four hours after that, even though they were doing everything they could, my doctors weren’t sure I would survive.
Of course, after a long stay in the hospital, I came home with the promise that I would soon make a full recovery.  It’s been pretty slow going, but after a second surgery in October and a lot of time to rest, I’m finally feeling more normal…at least what a new normal is like these days. 

In the week after my hospital stay, I could barely go up and down the stairs.  Washing dishes wore me out.  Changing the sheets took all the energy I had.  But I didn’t really care.  All I wanted to do was sleep or spend a few hours binge-watching reruns of Friends on Netflix.  Not wanting to add to my post-hospital melancholy, I chose to stay away from shows themed with espionage, drama, and heavy emotions.  Instead, I deliberately decided to spend a considerable amount of time with Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe, knowing a light comedy was exactly what I needed.  For much of the month of October, spending time with Friends allowed me to forget the long, often tedious road of recovery.
Every single day, I chuckled at Chander’s wry wit, playfully rolled my eyes when Phoebe or Joey said something particularly absurd, and laughed out loud whenever Ross found himself in a sticky situation.  (Remember his “paste pants”?)  Still, my favorite episode by far is “The One With the Cop” in which Ross, Rachel, and Chandler valiantly try to move an oversized couch up several flights of stairs. 
Every step of the way, Ross gives very specific (and annoying) instructions, shouting numerous times, “PI-VOT!  PI-VOT!  PI-VOT!!!”
Infuriated, Chandler finally shouts, “Shut up!  Shut up!  SHUT UP!!!!”
I’ve watched that short scene more than a few times while writing this blog and it never gets old.  I even found the outtakes on YouTube and laughed even harder.  

It’s not that I haven’t come a long way in the past couple of months.  Still, I don’t feel the same…and not only about my physical health.  In spending endless hours alone in silence while I rested on the couch, I did a lot of  soul searching about here I’ve been.  Where I am in the present.  Where I want to be in the future.  I used to think that by now I would have a lead on a salaried job, or at least part-time work that could supplement my income.  But lately I’m often up in the wee hours of the morning, as my days and nights are inverted and I'm not sleeping well.  While a part of me would like to line up an interview and start working outside of my home, a larger part is incredibly thankful to have a flexible schedule so I can get some much-needed rest.
In climbing my way up the winding staircase of healing, I’ve often had to stop and wait for pain to cease.  Wait to have a stent removed.  Wait for test results to arrive.  I’ve had to pivot my plans in order to accommodate my energy level, which frustrates me to no end, for I’m usually highly productive this time of year.  Sure, I still get things done, but my priorities have changed, particularly where my health is concerned.  I’m not hauling an over-sized couch up the stairs, but I have been hauling a lot of false perceptions about success, abundance, and productivity.  
So, as autumn slowly turns to winter, I’m choosing to slow down and appreciate even the simplest of blessings…a soothing afternoon nap, a mug of something warm and wonderful, a quiet evening spent with good friends.  After all, now more than ever, I know how blessed I am to enjoy this contented, peaceful life.

You can watch Ross, Rachel, and Chandler do their best to
PIVOT here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n67RYI_0sc0

Thursday, September 28, 2017

That's enough

In August, Steve and I spent a gorgeous week on the shores of Posey Lake near Hudson, Michigan.  While I worked in the gardens around the cottage, Steve trolled his friend’s fishing boat around the lake, searching for bass and bluegill.  The days were long and lazy, the nights cool and peaceful.  It was a far cry from the often stressful summer we’d been having.  I’d spent the majority of July and early August sick with an unrelenting fever, and Steve had been dealing with a lot of stuff in his personal life, so a week away was a welcome relief from life in Toledo. 
One sunny afternoon, Steve and I were boating around the lake when we saw a man working on his dock.  Steve admired the man’s luxurious ski boat, so we stopped to chat for a bit.  In less than five minutes, the man regaled us on all of the bells and whistles, saying that since the boat was last year’s model it only cost him a certain amount of money.
While I kept a straight face, I thought to myself, Good night!  That boat costs more than my house!
“Of course I added some more stuff to the tune of $20,000.00,” the man continued.  Then he proceeded to describe the extras he and his family couldn’t live without.
Later on when Steve and I were alone, I asked him, “Why in the world would he tell complete strangers all that stuff?”
“Because he identifies himself with what he has,” Steve replied. 
“I think that for him, nothing will ever be enough.”
“Probably not.”
For the rest of the week, I didn’t give the man and his luxury boat much thought…until I came home from vacation.

For months I knew that, come September, my financial life was going to change.  Big time.  My part-time work would end, and that meant a significant loss of income I would somehow need to recoup.  While I’m not frivolous and have lived within my means for decades, I realized that with the cost of living continually inching up, my income needed to be proportionate. 
In a last ditch effort to get my work into the hands of a new literary agent, I rewrote query letters, then sent more than a dozen in the hopes that one of my novels might appeal to someone. In less than a week, five rejections had piled up in my inbox. 
“I need to find work...now,” I told Steve.  “I don’t want to quit teaching yoga, but that might be inevitable.  I just can’t get ahead doing what I’m doing.”  Tears ran down my cheeks when I said, “After seventeen years of trying to get published, after hundreds of query letters, after writing ten books, it just doesn’t seem worth the work anymore.  I've not made a penny's profit in all the time I've been self-publishing and I don’t want to write if it’s not going anywhere.  It’s just a waste of my time.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “I need to take some time and figure it out.”
I had planned to spend the month of September writing my resume and looking for meaningful work.  But life had other plans.  On Friday the first, I went to the gym for a fitness test.  The week before I had been running a low-grade temp and knew I had lost some weight due to lack of appetite.  Even though I was in pretty good shape, I wanted to see where my weaknesses were and how to improve them.  After being put through my paces, it was surprising to learn that for a woman my age, I clocked in at athlete status. 
I decided to get a workout in before I went home, so I hit the weight room.  But half an hour into it, a relenting ache in my lower abdomen forced me to cut it short and go home.  Two hours later, I called Steve and asked him to bring home some ginger ale as I’d developed an upset stomach.  Shortly after sipping some soda and nibbling on corn chips, I was projectile vomiting.  An hour after that, the pain was excruciating and had radiated to my back.  On top of all that, my temperature had spiked to 105.4 which terrified me.  By six thirty, Steve and I were at the ER where I was immediately taken not to a triage room, but to the surgical corner at the far end of the floor.
After being poked and prodded by a host of doctors, after enduring the hell of drinking what seemed like a gallon of barium for a CT scan, after lingering in pain for a few hours, I was diagnosed with a kidney stone that was blocking a ureter. 
“You’re septic,” one of the ER doctors told me.  “We’re going to treat this as quickly as possible.”
So at two in the morning, I went in for emergency surgery to move the stone aside so the infection could drain.  Inserting the stint only took twenty minutes and afterward, the surgeon talked to Steve in the waiting room.
After explaining what had happened and that I would soon be moved to ICU, the doctor told him, “We sometimes lose patients like this.”
Of course, it devastated him and when Steve told me a few days later, I cried because during the first day in the ICU, I wasn’t sure I would make it.  I was in and out from the anesthesia, but when I was awake, I could hardly move.  The sepsis was pretty severe and my blood pressure kept falling.  After having a central line put in, I was given a lot fluids to stabilize my vitals and in the end, developed pneumonia because my lungs got too wet from being on bed rest.
By the third day, I could only sit up for an hour or so before needing to lie back down, but had gone from critical status to stable.  By that night, I was moved to a step-down room.
“You’re really lucky to be young and healthy,” one of the nurses told me.  “I’m sure it’s what pulled you through.”
But I didn’t feel lucky when all night long, I woke up coughing from the pneumonia.  When I could hardly roll over, let alone sit up and slide on my flip-flops.  When standing up took an eternity.  When walking to and from the bathroom seemed like a marathon.  But I did it anyway.   Every so often, I made myself walk up and down the short hallway outside my room.  The first day, I could only do it three or four times, and always with the help of the railing or Steve, who supported my snail’s pace.  Every time, I came back to my room exhausted, even though I had only been on my feet for less than ten minutes.   
By the third day in the step down room, I had been on antibiotics for nearly a week and felt stronger.  When the doctors came in for their morning rounds, I asked if I could go home that day.
“I don’t see why not,” the internist replied. 
After calling Steve and letting him know I was going to be released, I packed my duffle bag, then went for a walk.  After shuffling up and down the short hallway, I was heading back to my room when I stopped for a moment.  Looking down the long corridor past the nurse’s station, I thought to myself, Try it…just try it once.
So I did.
Scuttling along, I gradually made it all the way to the end of the hallway, then was able to make it back to my room.  Along the way, I marveled at the fact that in six days I had gone from being a seemingly healthy athlete to being utterly septic and unable to move.  Now, here I was, on the slow road to recovery, grateful beyond words to be on my feet.  I could finally walk on my own, and that was more than enough to know that eventually, I would be just fine.

I’ve been home from the hospital for a few weeks now and am back to teaching yoga in my home studio.  Still, I sleep a lot and rest and sit outside while I can.  I take walks, reminding myself that these days, it’s better to be the tortoise than the hare.  Just yesterday I slowly ambled through the local metro park, watching for signs of autumn.  After this week’s heat wave, we’re going to have to wait a while longer, but I don’t mind at all.
Time, I’ve learned, is the most precious thing we have…and I’ve been given more than enough to meander my way forward in this unfinished, uncertain, yet incredible life.  

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Plant a tree....watch it grow

Last month at a church rummage sale, I discovered a book by one of my favorite authors.  More than ten years ago, Sue Monk Kidd, who penned The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings, compiled a host of essays she had written for Guideposts magazine since the 1980’s.  Reading Firstlight has lovingly reminded me of Christmases long ago.  My grandmother always gave me a copy of Daily Guideposts from the time I was in eighth grade and I spent the better part of every holiday afternoon holed up in my room, eagerly searching through the book for Sue’s essays.  Each one was captivating because of her incredible attention to detail and open-hearted way of looking at life, from the simplest moments to the most perplexing.  Perhaps what struck me the most was the feeling of as she writes in Firstlight, “a soulful being together between the reader and the author".
Many of the essays I’ve been rereading remind me of some of the ones I have written for Open Road, so I now fully realize it was back then the initial seed of inspiration was planted.  A little more than a decade later, I would begin writing essays of my own.  One turned into a novel which turned into a sequel which turned into eight more books.  And I’m not done writing yet.
In one of my favorite essays, Sue writes about how growth takes time.  A seed must be buried in the darkness of the soil, releasing roots invisible to the eye, but necessary for the sprout to appear above the surface.  Over time the sprout becomes a seedling, and the seedling a sapling, and so on until a strong, healthy tree grows from what was once hidden in the earth.   A caterpillar begins its life cycle as an egg, then a larva, then a pupa where it completely transforms itself into an adult butterfly, never to return to its original state again.  It takes a butterfly only twenty-eight days to go from egg to its magical metamorphosis.  Sadly, it only lives for four to six weeks.  Of course a tree takes much longer to grow to its full height, but its beauty can last much longer than one human lifetime.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve and I were heading up to Posey Lake, Michigan for a much-needed vacation.  While I sat in the car waiting for him to fill the gas tank, I checked my phone for messages.  To my surprise, one of my former first graders sent me a private message on my professional Facebook PageRemember the trees you gave us and told us to plant them when we got home? Eric wrote.  Look at her now!
He sent a picture of a gorgeous pine tree that dwarfed a two-story house. 
Oh my gosh! I wrote back.  That’s amazing!  How old is that tree?
I planted it when I was six, he replied.  You gave it to me when I was in first grade, so it’s been going now for twenty-six years.
 I quickly did the math.  How in the world are there kids I taught who are now thirty-two years old? I wondered.  Then I realized that there are kids much older than that…and it made me laugh. 
Steve got back in the car and I showed him the picture.
“Who is that from?” he asked.
“One of my first graders…I gave them saplings on Earth Day the year Eric was in my class.  I think someone from a nursery donated a bunch of them.”  Smiling at the picture, I sighed, “That made my whole day.”
When I asked if I could use his photo in this blog, Eric enthusiastically replied, Sure!  I’ll get a better picture at my mom’s later today.  Can my daughter Mariah be in it?
What a joy a few hours later to see their smiling faces standing at the base of the tree and to read Eric’s profound caption:  I planted the tree with my dad.  I’m really proud of it and talk about it often.  I try not to be boastful about it, but I think that talking about it will hopefully plant a seed in someone to do the same.
Mariah is one blessed young woman to have such an incredible father.  I remember Eric fondly and am not at all surprised to know that he has loved and nurtured that tree for decades, much in the same way I’m sure he has and will love and nurture his daughter.

We can never know how our presence will impact another person.  I’ve not given birth, but I did spend my twenties and early thirties with hundreds of kids who I’m happy to still call my own.  Now every time a man or woman who I had the privilege to teach contacts me, it always lifts my spirits and connects me to the distant past in incredible ways which remind me once again that I didn’t have to have a child of my own to be a mother.  I’ve attended weddings of my former students, spent time with their families at graduation parties, and often run into people who ask, “Are you Miss Ingersoll?”
I laugh and nod.  “Yes.”
“You were my first grade teacher!” they smile broadly.  “You don’t look the same, but I could tell it was you from the sound of your voice.”
Then I laugh some more because that’s often how I recognize them as well…even the men.
They reminisce about stories from our classroom, and each one reminds me that even though teaching was incredibly demanding, it was time well spent…and then some, for many of the lessons I shared with them when they were little are now, decades later, being passed down to their children. What an incredible blessing to know that the seeds which were planted back then have magically metamorphosed into a soulful being together between what was once the teacher and the student, but has now transformed into something even more beautiful, yet indescribable.  

Eric with his daughter, Mariah, August 2017

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.