Sunday, August 30, 2015

Centennial

This coming Thursday would have been my grandfather's 100th birthday.  For someone who can remember when he was fifty-six, it's nearly unfathomable to me how quickly forty-odd years can pass.  Then again, I'll be forty-nine in a couple of weeks and can recall with great clarity my first day in third grade...the very same age my pal, Danta, is this year.  His birthday is the day before mine, and I often tease him that since he was born earlier, he should be older.
"Yeah, but you were born in a different year, Kate," Danta always grins.  "That's why you'll always be older." His elfish smile reminds me of my grandfather's grin that's reflected in childhood photographs in which I'm tucked into Granddaddy's arms as he watches over me.
Since my return from California, memories from the past have been regularly revisiting me in dreams, in meditations, and in flashes of insight that come out of the dark and cast new light on how very far I've traveled in this lifetime.  I often wonder what my grandfather would have to say about where I've been, who I am now compared to who I was when he passed away in 1990.  Would he be confused about my choices?  Disappointed that life didn't turn out the way I had hoped?  Or would be as supportive now as he always was when I first flew out of the family nest and created one of my own?
It's hard to say.

This world is a vastly different one since he left it, and not only because I still miss him.  I hardly recognize the social environment I'm subject to whenever I venture out into the public arena.  And when I turn on my computer to catch up on email and peruse the news on the internet, I'm often appalled by the way people behave, the way they post abusive comments or scrape the bottom of the social barrel to hammer home an opinion.  It makes me long for the days of social decorum (as opposed to uber-political correctness), kindness (as opposed to public shaming), and a healthy sense of self-control (as opposed to the "no holds barred" method of commentating). 
My grandfather endured a host of incomparable changes during his lifetime.  He was born on the cusp of World War I, came of age in The Great Depression, and served in the military during World War II.  He lived through The Cold War, The Koren War, The Vietnam War, and the assassinations of two Kennedys, and Martin Luther King.  Of course I didn't stand witness to the man he was during those experiences, but I was a keen observer of the man he became in middle-age and beyond.  When my family visited his paint and supply store in Huntington, West Virginia, I watched how he interacted with customers and other employees.  I marveled at his wit and wisdom when sharing an idea about a paint color or a "better way to build a mousetrap".  He was humorous and generous and gregarious -- a wonderful example to follow when I became a teacher in my early twenties. 
I was thinking about Granddaddy yesterday while walking at Secor Park, a newly re-discovered oasis in northwest Ohio.  As I meandered my way along the winding path, I wondered, What would Granddaddy think about the world we live in now?  Would he be appalled?  Would he have any words of wisdom for me as I struggle to find some meaning in the mayhem?  I don't really know, for it's impossible to put words into anyone's mouth, least of all a dear man who always surprised me with a clever one-liner of insight, revealing his razor-sharp clarity as well as an awareness of the unity of all things.
It's not that I put my grandfather on a pedestal.  I'm sure he had his foibles, although I can't recall any.  Throughout my childhood and beyond, he was my Yoda and my Gandalf and my Merlin, all rolled into one; a magical man who always made me feel loved.  That's a blessing I still lean on, now more than ever. 
So "Happy Birthday" to my wonderful Granddaddy.  Had he lived to be 100 I'm certain there would never be an end to his wisdom, humility, and kindness.  Then again, through all of those who knew and loved him, his magical influence will live on...forever.


With Granddaddy, circa 1967

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

That's not me

There is a wilderness we walk alone 
however well-companioned.
Stephen Vincent Benet

Recently my aunt emailed me an old photo from the 1980's.  Isn't that you sitting on the back step behind your sister?  she wrote. 
The girl in question certainly looked like me, but I wasn't quite sure, so I downloaded and enlarged the picture to get a better look.  I didn't recall the t-shirt or the over-sized glasses the girl wore, but she did have dark hair and eyes...and the tight-lipped expression certainly looked familiar. 
Still I wrote to my aunt, That's not me...although we sure do look alike
It reminded me of the time I was seven-years-old and sat at local department store, waiting for my older sister to walk across the stage while modeling in a local fashion show.  Naturally I was bored out of my mind.  My tights itched to beat the band and my mother warned me that if I pulled the lace collar of my polyester dress one more time, I couldn't watch T.V. that night.  Sighing, I leaned forward and looked around the audience, hoping to be entertained by anything other than a long parade of maxi skirts and obnoxious plaid pants. 
It was then that I caught a glimpse of another little girl to my left...and she looked exactly like me.  We both lifted our brows and dropped our jaws to see a mirror reflection across the room at the Hudson's store.  Although I wouldn't have described it this way at the time, it certainly was a "Twilight Zone" moment.  
That can't be me...I'm sitting right here, I thought.  
Moments later she darted behind her mother's shoulder and I never saw her again.  But I never forgot her either...my twin in a green-checked dress.

Lately I look in the mirror and often don't recognize the woman I've become in the past five years.  It's not that I mind aging.  The lines around my eyes and the silver streak of hair over my left temple are things I gracefully accept as the years pass by.  Since my return from California, I've made changes in my diet, changes in the way I exercise, changes in the way I deal with day-to-day living and find that as I get older, things get better.
But not everything all of the time.
Last week I spent the better part of my vacation resting on the couch or in bed, and not because I wanted to.  There were "to do" lists to tackle and friends I wanted to visit.  Books I intended to read and a garden that needed nurturing.  But my body had other plans, for I had a debilitating migraine that stripped away the extraneous and forced me into seclusion.    It would have made sense if the migraine was triggered by more than the noise outside my window.  If I had to deal with an injury or an illness or a family crisis.  It would have made sense if I were walking through a life-changing event, enduring stress on the job, or embroiled in relationship challenges.  But I'm not experiencing any of those things.
Still, it's been an over-stimulating summer with neighborhood road construction that often shakes my house from the floorboards to the rafters.  Sirens blare on their way to and from Toledo Hospital, the life flight often sounds like it's going to land on my roof, and loud motorcycles can be heard tearing up and down the main roads.  My home used to be my haven, but during long, hot summer days, it's felt more like a prison. 
And yet cooler weather this week has brought a respite from the humidity and glaring sunlight that made me uncommonly queasy last week.   On cloudy mornings I can sit on my back porch with the windows closed to drown out some of the noise and still enjoy the lush beauty of my gardens in full bloom.   During the day the phone's not ringing all that much and I don't have a lot of commitments until after Labor Day.  I can enjoy the quiet simplicity of the crickets at twilight and the stillness of the house after sunset.  When the house is calm and silent after a long day of mayhem and activity, I can see it for what it truly is and appreciate the solace of space and time. 

There have been years that have aged me faster than others, but I find that if I can find my way back to the still point of peace, I'm not as affected by what's happening in the world around me.  I can take things as they come.  Let go of things I can't control.  Reframe that which needs to be revisited and come out on the other side with greater awareness and clarity.
 One my friends recently told me, "I've known you for more than twenty years and you are the one person in my life who is nothing like the woman you used to be when we met."
I smiled.  "It's been a lot of hard work to change."
"I don't know if it's that you've changed," she replied.  "I think you've been working hard to remove all of the parts of you that aren't really who you are...the parts that kept you hidden.  The real Kate has always been there deep inside...now I can see her more clearly."
"It's the old peeling the onion analogy, huh?" I smiled.  "Layer by layer, I can get to the real deal."
"Exactly."
I once thought that when I had made it through to the other side of a stressful event (leaving my job, earning my yoga certification, publishing a book) I'd never have to go back into darkness again.  It was the old story: "once I have the life I want, I'll be happy/content/satisfied".  I've lived long enough to know that I'm never, ever done.  Even when I think I've reached the mountain top, I can look out on the horizon and see ever larger ones to scale.  Now, instead of shrinking away from the unknown, I move more deeply into the experience, especially if it's something that doesn't make any sense.

When I was little and struggling to grow from a girl into a teenager, I would often close my eyes and chant, "“I’m not me…I’m not me…I’m not me” until the feeling of dread passed.  I said it over and over and over again until I had distanced myself from reality...until I felt as though I was no longer human.  My anger and frustration folded in on itself and began to retreat to the back of my mind.  Only then could I walk into the world with any sense of control.
I was thinking about the little girl I used to be last week while struggling to sit up or feed the cats or even get a drink of water.  I wished I could have been anyone other than who I was...if only to escape the pain.  Still, the pain wasn't me...not really.  The heaviness I dragged around with me was only another layer to be removed.  And so I spent the better part of ten days lying in a metaphoric tomb of darkness, listening to my breath.  Sifting through the past year.  Re-evaluating my priorities.  Hoping for a healthier future.  Every day seemed to bring more discomfort than the last, but still, I stuck it out, knowing that the other side would be that much brighter if I could only hold on.
And I did...but where I've been resurrected is someplace I really can't explain.
Heinrich Zimmer says the best things in life can't be told because they transcend thought.  The second best things are misunderstood because those are the ones explained with words that refer to that which can't be told...and that people often find themselves stuck in the thoughts or words.  After last week, I find that I'm not stuck in thought anymore.  Perhaps that's why my head hurt so badly...too many words swirling around inside.  And too many thoughts can inadvertently replace the layers I've worked so diligently to remove.  
For I've learned yet again to find the still point inside which teaches that, while a wave on the sea might forget for a moment that it's part of the ocean, in the end they are both one and the same.  In yoga we say, "Tat tvam asi" or "Thou art That".  
So while I can surely explain to you everything I'm not, I'm only just beginning to experience who I really am.

 







Saturday, August 22, 2015

Miss Kurtz

This morning I attended the celebration of life service for my friend's husband who died last Sunday.  It was a bittersweet time to spend with Joyce and her family, for I've known her since before she married Tom.  Before her children were born.  Long before life as we know it now would come to pass.  For back in 1978, Joyce was my seventh grade language arts teacher, the person who first inspired me to become a writer.
As I sat and listened to her speak about her beloved husband, it was as if I was transported back in time, sitting once more in the front row of her language arts class, captivated by her love of language, her ability to find just the right words to frame the occasion.  And when she sat down to play the piano in honor of Tom's memory, my heart overflowed with admiration and love for a woman who has taught me more than I can ever put into words.
How incredible to see one of my own former first graders at the service, for Jon had grown up in the same neighborhood with Joyce and Tom's kids.  What a joy to see his smiling face, to hear about his wife and three happy children, to catch up with his lovely mother who still has the same bright and beautiful smile I remember from my Greenwood days.  As we all stood at the cemetery after the final prayer, I was humbled by how time and circumstances may separate us for a while, yet life and all its ever-changing cycles can gently bring us together again. 
So in honor of my dear friend and incredible teacher...here's a chapter of my memoir that reveals how educators can touch our lives forever. 

Miss Kurtz

It's my first day at Byrnedale Junior High School.  I won't turn twelve for two weeks, so I'm one of the youngest students in the seventh grade.  Oddly, I'm also one of the tallest girls, and people often mistake me for being older than I actually am.  Older than my sister, Patricia, a misconception she never fails to correct.  She's in eighth grade and deposited me at my locker this morning saying, "You're on your own now, Kate." 
I watched her walk away with her friends and mumbled, “Big surprise.”  It seems I'm always on my own these days, either by choice or by design.
I carry my books down the orange-carpeted hallway in search of the Language Arts pod.  Language is my first class after lunch, so I left the multi-purpose room early.  That way I don't have to swim against a sea of kids who all seem to know where they're going.  Glancing at my computer typed schedule, I see that I've found my room with time to spare. 
The teacher is standing in front of a room full of trapezoid shaped tables, neatly writing on the black chalkboard.  No one else is there, so I'm glad I get my first choice of seats.  I take the one on the end in the front row near the doorway.  Whenever Greta and I go to the movies, I insist on the aisle seat even though she likes to sit in the middle.  It's safer knowing I can easily get up and leave if I need to...and I often feel the need to, especially when in a crowded room full of strangers.
The teacher smiles at me.  She has short brown hair and friendly eyes.  "I'm Miss Kurtz."
I nod and reply, "I'm Katie Ingersoll.  Am I too early?" 
"No," Miss Kurtz smiles.  She asks if I'm Patricia's little sister.
I nod again. 
The other kids start filing in and soon the classroom is packed with sweaty, stinky preteens, dressed in Polo shirts and jeans, full of chips and bologna sandwiches, not quite ready to settle down after forty-five minutes of lunchroom freedom.
Miss Kurtz lights up the classroom with her enthusiasm and kindness as she introduces herself, then gives us an overview of what we can expect this year.  She tells us we will be reading lots of books and asks what kind of literature we enjoy.  She also explains we will learn how to use language to tell stories, give information, and write letters.
I meticulously take notes in my college-ruled spiral and anticipate our first assignment.  After all, I'm a good student and reading is my favorite subject.  By sixth grade, I'd already been devouring thick novels and writing research papers that usually earned me "A's."  Math and Social Studies came pretty easy as well, and although Science was tricky, it wasn't too difficult for me.  I'm always proud to show my parents my grade card.  I think that if I do well in school, my teachers will like me.  That I'll feel accomplished and satisfied.  But somehow, no matter how smart my classmates think I am, no matter how many "A's" I earn, there's always something missing and I don't know what it is.
Miss Kurtz points to the chalkboard on which she's written a list of words.  "Each week I'm going to have you define and use vocabulary words that will help you to become better writers," she explains.  "Dictionaries are in the back of the classroom, so feel free to use them.  I'll give you some time now to begin."
I sharpen my pencil and pick up a dictionary on my way back to the table.  I write my name at the top of a blank sheet of loose-leaf paper, then meticulously add the date.  It's 1978.  I think, "In ten years, I'll graduate from college." That seems like a long way off.   And I've got a long way to go:  pimples, puberty and driver's ed, Prom and graduation from high school.  It's overwhelming to think about, so I turn my attention back to the assignment.
The first word is "transition," and I carefully write it in cursive.  I have no idea what this means, so I flip through the dictionary until I find the definition:  "a state of change, flux, or movement; a turning point or passage."  As I copy the definition, I try to think of a way I can use it in a sentence.  Chewing my lip, I put pencil to paper and write a simple sentence:  "Today I made the transition from sixth grade to seventh grade."  I'm not sure if it's long enough or if Miss Kurtz will think I'm using it correctly. 
Still, it's enough to remind me that I'm no longer an elementary school baby.  I've made the steady transition into the next stage of my learning and although I don't know it at the time, I am being led by one of the most influential teachers I will ever have.  Miss Kurtz will show me how to use words as a powerful tool, which can shift the ordinary into extraordinary ways of writing.  She will encourage and nurture my love of metaphor, even though I don't yet know what that means.
While in Miss Kurtz' class, I begin keeping a journal in a spiral notebook where I chronicle my bumpy road through junior high, my secret crushes, short poems, and longer stories.  Week by week, month by month, Miss Kurtz encourages me to work hard so I can become a better writer.  And I discover it's not work at all.
Through every transition in my life from that point on, writing will be a touchstone, a release, a passageway from one state of being to the next, a never-ending, always expressive confirmation of what I'm thinking and how I'm feeling, no matter how much the outer world may misunderstand or ignore me.

There are times when I feel as if I embody two different, yet oddly analogous people:  one who loves to be seen and appreciated for the creativity I bring into the world and simultaneously a person who wants nothing more than to shrink into myself and do my creating behind closed doors.  Having loved solitary pursuits as a child, I would purposely avoid afternoons at my friends’ houses for hours of silent reading time in my own bedroom.  Ramona Quimby and Harriet the Spy were wonderful company; I delighted in the way their authors held my imagination and created a world that seemed very real indeed. 
Yet from the time I was seven, I was also encouraged to perform. 
Patricia and I joined a children’s choir at our church and we sang special music at the Easter and Christmas Eve services.  Our director, Mr. Schneider, promised that if we harmonized correctly, “Stille Nacht” would make our parents cry with pure joy.  I relished the thrill of preparation, the weekly rehearsals with our eccentric leader.  Mr. Schneider mischievously told us that if we misbehaved, we would have to sit beneath his podium…a punishment far worse than it sounded, because he said that his nose perpetually dripped and anyone who caused mischief would certainly go home with their hair saturated with snot. 
Mr. Schneider taught me the excitement of anticipation, the satisfaction of “getting it right” after weeks of preparation.  I have a vivid memory of standing in front of the hushed congregation on Christmas Eve in 1973, with the lights dimmed and candles gleaming on the altar.  Knees knocking with eagerness, the children’s choir was dressed in itchy polyester robes and shiny black shoes.  Mr. Schneider beamed as we did our best.  And sure enough, we were rewarded with kisses from our mothers and cookies from the Sunday School committee. 
From then on, bitten by the musical bug, I consistently found ways to perform.  I played handbells and sang in a variety of choirs.  I sang solos in school performances and even participated in ensemble competitions, bringing home ribbons of excellence.  In college, I sang in a quartet with my sorority sisters during rush week, and in the decade that followed, eventually found my way back to a variety of church choirs and a swing gospel quartet. 
As I look back, it's curious to realize that even as an adult, I enjoyed the rehearsals much more than the performances.  I loved the camaraderie of learning a new piece of music and its painstaking journey from initial attempt to final execution.  The actual presentation often left me feeling like an organ grinder's monkey, expected to entertain the masses who always wanted more.  Finally, in my early thirties, I left public singing altogether, trading the rehearsal time for writing; exchanging the outer recital for the inner composition.

Perhaps it was in Miss Kurtz’ class that I learned the important lesson of appreciating literature and language for more than its entertainment value.  When we read Call of the Wild, she enthusiastically described the symbolic representation of Buck and his relationship with John Thorton.  She reminded us that we all have a call deep within that is beyond what human eyes can see, and challenged us to be brave enough to recognize and answer it. 
It was Miss Kurtz who taught me how to use language to persuade, to explain, to make connections between a story we had read and the events in our own lives.  Through her guidance, I was able to understand why I loved the books that lined the shelves in my bedroom.  Laura Ingalls represented that part of me who loved the outdoors, who was a bit disobedient at times, but in the end, wanted to do what was right.  Of course, Ramona Quimby was my doppelganger in all things naughty.  I still laugh every time I read the story of her comical reenactment of “Hansel and Gretel” in which she pushes her doll, Bendix, into her sister’s half-baked birthday cake.  When her mother opens the oven door and horrifically discovers her daughter’s transgression, Ramona calmly (and innocently) asks, “Is the witch done yet?”  Hilarious!
It was in seventh grade that I began to connect with my inner world, to gently accept the part of me that needed solace and silence to support that which was churning inside my spirit.  So I bought a large, spiral notebook with a monkey on the cover, its head surrounded by a daisy chain.  I wrote in it nearly every single day:  short stories, lists of words that sounded interesting, books I wanted to read, and song lyrics.  It was in this delicate act of balancing between active performance and quiet seeking that I finally discovered a path of equilibrium and stability...at least for a little while. 
Eventually I accepted the fact that I am indeed an introvert, not shy, but someone who seeks a more quiet way of being.  One who is able to publicly share my gifts with the world, but also needs to be alone in order to renew and find my center through peaceful reflection.  It would take decades, but in time, I would find the courage to listen to and comprehend what my inner voice had been whispering since I was a young girl...and then be brave enough to share it with the world.
           
My friend, Brian, has called me a reluctant rock star, particularly where children are concerned.  He often reminds me that any skillful performer is able to channel people’s energy and send it back to them at a higher level.  For me, it has been an ongoing challenge to accept my love of performing while at the same time recognize my need to be quietly reflective.  In honoring my introverted impulse, I can begin again, refreshed and re-energized.  I am infinitely thankful to have learned how to make the transition from solitude into society and back again. 
As fate would have it, in August of 2012 I was shopping for a new writing desk, when I saw someone I knew in the distance.  Walking closer, I realized it was Miss Kurtz, now Mrs. Joyce Yarnell, and was delighted that she recognized and remembered me.  We caught up on our lives and spent some time talking about the writing process and the book my agent had been pitching to editors.  It seemed only fitting to tell Joyce that her love of words had sparked my desire to become a writer.  Enthusiastic about my memoir, she asked if she could help me edit.  Of course, I eagerly took her up on the offer.    
A few weeks before Thanksgiving we met at a local coffee shop and sat in the corner for hours, talking and editing the foreward and introduction of this book.
"You've got a lot to say," Joyce smiled.
"And I'm only going to tell half of it," I replied, lifting an eyebrow.  "The rest of it will be mine...and mine alone."
"Wise woman," Joyce winked.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2013, Joyce sat by my side as we edited every line, every sentence, every paragraph of what would eventually become Open Road.  I cannot completely articulate the grace I have felt in having a mirror and a witness to this incredible process.  To have someone encourage me to continually strive for the precise word, the best phrase, the most inspirational tone.
To have the person who initially taught me the countless gifts of extraordinary language, gently encourage me as I made the slow and steady transition from novelist to writer. 


Saturday, August 15, 2015

May I please be excused?

When I was a kid, dinnertime was sacrosanct.  Every evening my mother prepared a meal while my sisters or I (whichever one was "Kitchen Aide" for the night) set the table and poured freshly brewed iced tea into tall, ice-filled glasses.  By the time my father got home from work, a piping hot dinner was served and we all sat around the table talking about the day gone by...how much homework had already been finished...what television show we wanted to watch that night.  Unfortunately, my place at the table was tightly wedged between the wall and my mother.  A flip-top garbage can sat behind me, so I was stuck fast until I asked permission to clear my plate.  Most of the time that meant I had to wait out my parent's post-supper cigarette while struggling to finish a plate of spaghetti or broccoli and baked beans. 
Like most kids born in the sixties and early seventies, I didn't think twice about my parents' smoking habit, for it seemed almost every adult lit up after a meal, while sitting on the porch at twilight, or while driving to and from the office.  But I truly hated it when I was trapped at the table inhaling their secondhand smoke all the while trying to eat.  I often asked to be excused before I was done and was told that I had to clean my plate first.  That's when the garbage can came in quite handy, for all I had to do was covertly toss forkfuls of whatever food happened to be lingering on the Corelle and beat it to my bedroom pronto. 
My parents kicked their habit more than two decades ago and since 2006, public places in Toledo, Ohio don't allow smokers.  Except for a few people who choose to light up at Wildwood park, I've been able to steer completely clear of second-hand smoke.  And yet, I find that breathing in a host of pollutants at the dinner table is not the only kind of toxic behavior in which I can find myself these days. 
As of this weekend, I'm ready to be excused.

There are many times (nearly every time really) when I pull out of my garage and think, It's an act of courage to get in this car and drive.  I cannot tell you how many times I've been on the road with people who can't remember the dashed line divides the street into two lanes or others who think that texting, smoking, and driving are activities that can be simultaneously and safely executed while behind the wheel of a car.  I've been cut off, nearly side-swiped, and made to endure rattling windows while the car next to me at a stop light blares his bass at a dangerously high decibel level. 
I've been in a grocery store where a man abusively yelled at his preschooler while dozens stood by and perhaps, like me, wondered what he would do his child in private if that's how he speaks to him in public.  I witnessed a woman at the park who stood by while her five-year-old fell off of her bike on a dangerously steep slope.  While the father was quick to scoop up his daughter, the woman angrily berated her for not using the brakes.  I had to put a serious brake on my desire to chastise the mother for assuming her little one would remember how to do so while anxiously speeding down an incline I wouldn't feel safe going down on my mountain bike. 
In the past week, my city has seen a rash of horrific crimes that include gang related violence, a wanted criminal killing a police dog, and a mother charged with aggravated murder in the death of her six-month-old son.  It's left my friends and me wondering what this world is coming to...and what we can to do to try and cope in a world where human behavior becomes more extreme.  I often feel as helpless as I did as a child.  I'm not the one smoking, but I'm still forced to inhale the second-hand energy of those with whom I'm sharing the road, the neighborhood, or the community.
As a child I didn't get to choose.  My parents dictated the boundaries, the rules, and the guidelines.  But as an adult, I know I have the freedom of choice.  I follow driving laws.  I pay my bills on time and file my taxes.  I take responsibility for my home and my health.  While I know I can't completely cut myself off from the world, I am consciously choosing when and where and how I interact with the public at large.  In the past I had to ask permission to be excused from an uncomfortable situation.  Now I politely excuse myself or decline an invitation that I know would leave me depleted and exhausted. 
These days that seems to be most anything beyond a walk in the woods.

I suppose it's the nature of being an introvert, or maybe I'm just ready for a more peaceful, spacious life away from the incessant noise and commotion of the city.  In any event, I've been excusing myself from a lot lately...and find that it's very healing to sit in my silent house for a few hours each day with no television, no radio, no phone, and no contact with the outside world, save an email here and there.
          I'm reminded that even though we're being bombarded with times like these, there have always been times like these, so a break is necessary from time to time.  So I'm thankful for the opportunity to take a "stay-cation" (instead of a vacation) where I'll hole up in my little house and hermit for a while.  I'll be readying the house for a spring listing.  Reading the stack of books on my bedside table.  Rocking in my backyard swing at twilight, mesmerized by the sound of crickets and watching for hummingbirds and butterflies that flit around the blooming trumpet vine.   
It's sacrosanct, this time alone...and something I look forward to every summer.  It's a precious week when I can excuse myself from the world for a little while in order to find a stronger sense of balance, a deeper place of peace.
          And return once more to that which is most sacred.





Friday, August 7, 2015

My own band of brothers

I'm the middle child of three girls...and that doesn't surprise most people at all.  I suppose if you spend enough time with me, you'd discover I embody many characteristics of the Middle Child Syndrome.  Yet I recently read an interview with Katrin Schumann which reveals that while we may have our quirks, middle children have some pretty fabulous super powers as well.  Who knew?
During my formative years I was introduced thus:  "This is Katie, our middle child."  Then my mother would often flash a knowing look as if to say, I've warned you.  She meant no harm.  It was simply her way of poking fun at my sassy, independent nature, even though my naughty ways often drove her mad.  Still, as an adult, when I'm asked my birth order, I usually bounce my eyebrows and reply, "I'm the middle child....can't you tell?"
To be honest, I've never minded being the peanut butter and jelly in the sandwich of my siblings.  As I was often terrified to try new things, I didn't want to be the oldest and have to experience everything first.  And I didn't want to be the baby of the family either and have to wait eons to get my ears pierced, wear make-up, or don pantyhose.  I didn't give a hoot that I would never be the first or ever be the last.
What I wanted was a brother.
Plenty of imaginary friends kept me company in-between going to school and spending time with the neighborhood kids.  At first they were Tom and Lucy from The Littles, then Fern from Charlotte's Web.  But over time I crafted an imaginary brother who would accompany me on bike rides, stand by my side whenever I had to go up to bat during gym class, and sit for hours talking beneath a shade tree in the backyard.  I can't remember his name, but I do recall that he was a great listener. 
He became the inspiration for Michael Schreiber, a character I wrote in both Surfacing  and  A Tapestry of Truth.  He'll show up again in another novel that's in the works.  But I find that in the years since I finished the books, a real band of brothers has come into my life, and each man is unique in the way they bring me joy and clarity.  Some are older than me.  Some are younger.  One is almost the same age (although every summer I remind him that he had a six-week head start the year we were born).  One lives in my neighborhood and a couple live across the country in California.  One is someone I've only recently met and another is someone I've known for more than twenty years.
But they all have one thing in common:  they're all named Richard.

Rick lives across the street and is one of handiest fellows I know.  Over the years he's helped me build a fence in my backyard, and most recently designed the raised bed that is now growing a host of greens in my garden.  He gives great advice on how to use power tools and reminds me of the importance to "measure twice and cut once".  Rick loves 1980's music and loves to share compilations of the greatest hits of Queen, Prince, and any rock band that recorded after disco died.  Not that he doesn't like a good dance party now and again.  He's friendly and generous and funny.  Over the years he's patiently listened to my challenges and happily celebrated my successes.  I spend time with him and his wife at Christmas and enjoy sunny afternoons on their deck in the summer.  Next year we're all anticipating a move to a new neighborhood, and yet I know that no matter where we live in the future, Rick will be my brother for the rest of my life.
His brother-in-law, Richard, has generously sent me rocks from all over the world, wherever he was stationed with the army.  I have stones from Baghdad and Iraq, Poland and Germany.  One Christmas, he and his wife sent me a gorgeous blanket they found in Korea which still keeps me warm and comfortable all winter long.  Richard is well-read and well-spoken.  Although I don't get to see him much, whenever he's in town for a visit, I always like to pop over and say "Hi" to him and his family, for he's a gentle soul that is a touchstone and a blessing.
Speaking of blessings, I couldn't imagine a more incredible cheerleader than my pal, Richard who lives in Santa Margarita, California.  We met at Esalen in 2007 while attending a writer's workshop.  After only a few days, it seemed as if I had known him my whole life.  Kind, articulate, and incredibly self-actualized, Richard has been a mirror and a muse in the years since my return to Ohio.  We email almost weekly and I save every single missive, for Richard writes from a place not often seen in our world today.  He's magical, mysterious, and miraculous.  And I'm infinitely thankful for whatever grace brought him into my life. 
Then there's my friend, Rick, who I met in 2001.  He's hilarious and serious and everything in-between.  Rick's a retired firefighter and was an incomparable professional.  I remember asking his son once if he ever worried about his dad going to work when he was little.  His son replied, "I knew that if anything ever happened to my dad, it wouldn't be because he didn't do it right."  After interviewing Rick in 2004 during research for Seven Generations, I learned that men can be extraordinary fathers, no matter their history.  I'm not surprised though, as his mom is pretty amazing herself.  We wrote a few children's books together and I'm hoping that someday I will find the time to edit them and figure out a way to get them into print so Rick can share them with his seven grandchildren. 
Most recently there's Rick, my compound pharmacist, who's always cheerful and helpful and on the lookout for the best way to serve his customers.  This month I had a change in insurance and even though I won't need any refills for more than a month, he's already on top of it, letting me know my new co-pay is $0.00.  You can't beat that!  There's another local Richard who comes to yoga class now and again.  We have a ball talking about tennis, California living, and Rolfing.  He's been a generous supporter of my work and a benevolent man who typifies the word "compassion". 
Last weekend I presented some of my work for "WomenUnbound" and afterwards, a woman in the audience made a comment that listening to my essays was like reading a friend's diary.  I replied that I learned how to craft a blog or a manuscript by listening to interviews of the writers from thirtysomething, particularly Richard Kramer.  Many of you might remember the blog I wrote in 2013 expounding on the joys of realizing I'm more of a "Melissa" than a "Hope".  Richard's heartfelt scripts about the quirky, creative single woman allowed me to embrace my inner maverick, all the while longing to have some sense of a healthy relationship with a man. 
Earlier this week I wrote Richard an email, thanking him for his profound influence on my life, both as a writer and a woman who doesn't quite fit the traditional mold, but is still trying to find my place in this world.  He wrote back the very next day and surprised me with the gift of his book, These Things Happen.  I cannot wait to read it, for great writers only get better with time, and I'm certain that Richard's novel will touch places deep within my heart.

My own band of brothers is a gracious plenty. 
I no longer need to lament the sorrows of having no male siblings, for the fellas who have entered my life always seem to arrive at the perfect moment.  And if I stop to think about it, they usually show up when I'm right in the middle of something:  a significant life change...a long-term project...a dark tunnel that is only just beginning to reveal a glimmer of light on the other side.  I find I can never really shake off the joys and sorrows of being a middle child, but I can always look around and celebrate the incredible people who have blessed my life with love.  
While going through the whittled-down collection of children's books I've saved since my teaching days, I've been pretty diligent about letting go of titles I know I'll never need again.  Huge bins of books by Eric Carle and Patricia Pollacco and Jonathan London are ready for a garage sale next week.  But yesterday as I pulled a Richard Scarry title from the shelf, I sat on the stairs and turned the pages of Naughty Bunny, remembering the long hours I used to spend reading in my bedroom as punishment for something I had done that day.  Naughty Bunny was my doppelganger in all things mischievous, but his mother loved him anyway.  In reading and re-reading one of my favorite Golden Books, I came to realize that no matter what I did, my mother did, too.
I can't let this one go, I thought.  So I slid it back on the shelf in-between my well-worn copies of The Littles and Charlotte's Web.  After all, the author is another Richard I continue to love and treasure.





Monday, August 3, 2015

Humble me...again

          Over the weekend I washed and waxed the car, all the while knowing that a repeat publication of this blog found in Open Road: the journey begins is pretty appropriate right now...for many, many reasons.  



Humble me
Originally published on May 20, 2013

If you've ever dipped your toes into the plethora of New Age philosophy, you may have heard the adage, "You are not a human being having a spiritual experience.  You are a spiritual being having a human experience."  These are intriguing words to roll around in the psyche, and yet they're very powerful when taken to the experiential level.
Nearly twenty years ago, I left formal religion behind in search of something else.  Through a labyrinth of therapy, artwork, Rolfing and writing, "God" became a more internal, more direct and tangible reality.  My journey into a more spiritual life has taken me on a roller coaster ride straight into the heart of who I really am, what I want to become, what I want to bring back into the world.  Through it all, my anchors have been yoga, meditation and prayer.
This winter, one of my workshop students laughed when I told the story of a multitude of my life's challenges that I likened to being repeatedly hit with a brick until I woke up and took charge of my life.
"I call that the Holy 2 X 4," she smiled.
I nodded. "Yes...and I've learned to duck when it comes my way now."  I no longer need to be hit in the head to make conscious choices about where I work, how I live, where I spend my precious time and energy.  But it was a lesson that, while in the learning, took many twists and turns along the way.

In the summer of 2010, I was in the midst of an intense financial crisis.  I'd been working twelve to fourteen hours days for nearly a year and was steadily making my way into a more secure place.  My savings was recovering, but I was still living eight weeks to eight weeks, relying solely on yoga income and sub work until a more stable teaching position would begin in the fall. 
A balloon payment was due on my house, so I was in the midst of refinancing.  The roof was slowly deteriorating and rainwater leaked into the basement, warping the drywall and tile floor.  I'd stepped on rusty nail while tearing down the wall and needed to get a tetanus shot that wasn't covered by insurance.  In addition, an optometrist had found a spot on one of my eyes that required exorbitant advanced testing, which was also not covered.
Soon the refinancing was put in order which would include enough to get a new roof and make other repairs on the house.  Even though I was given a clean bill of health from both doctors, the mounting bills on my desk made me itchy with anxiety.  Every day I told myself to hold on, to realize I had enough to cover what I needed in that moment.  As I'd enduring nearly a decade of unstable cash flow, this was nothing new, but still, I spent a lot of time sitting in meditation, yearning to gain patience and perspective. 
            
One afternoon in early August, my car's engine showed signs of trouble.  My little purple Pontiac was twelve years old and it had been nickel and diming me for years.  I sat in the driver's seat, shaking with fear.  What now? I thought.  I made it to AAA and was told that the engine was literally falling out and they would need to keep it overnight.  I soon discovered the entire repair would cost over $1,000.00.  
On the morning I was to pick up the car, I was frantic with fear.  Instead of getting on my yoga mat, I got on my knees in child's pose with my forehead on the floor and my arms raised overhead in surrender. 
I prayed in earnest, "I don't want to be afraid of money anymore.  I don't want to have to go through this experience again.  Please show me what you want me to do with this car.  If you want me to buy another used one or keep patching up the old one, please, please show me a sign.  Please make it personal to me and make sure I don't miss it."
Then I got up, wiped my tears, and went to the AAA.
"Your transmission's going," the mechanic told me.  "It's gonna need replacing in about three months."  He handed me the credit card receipt and I felt blood rush to my feet. 
"I looked online and the car's not worth the cost of a new transmission," I replied.  "I'm driving across the street to see if I can find a used Honda." 
Moments later, I pulled out of the parking lot and onto a side street.  Sitting at a stop sign, I waited for traffic to clear.  As I headed across the thoroughfare, something caught my eye.  In a split second, the driver of a huge SUV failed to yield the right of way and turned left, careening toward my car. 
"Oh, God!" I shouted as she sped toward me.  "No...no...no!"
It was too late.  She smashed into the passenger door, shattering the glass and sending my little tin can flying. 
My initial thought was, Am I awake?  Is this a dream? 
Then it hit me (pun intended).  This very personal and unmistakable accident was the answer to my prayer. 
I got out of the car and assessed the damage.  Someone from Honda came running out to help, and the mechanic from AAA hollered from the parking lot that he had called 911, that a police officer was on the way.   The young woman who hit me offered no apology.   Her SUV had a small dent, but the rear half of my car was demolished and would take thousands of dollars to repair.
After taking my statement, the officer said, "From my report, she'll be found liable...so expect a call from her insurance agent later today."
I nodded, thankful for that bit of grace.  When he asked if I needed help getting home, I shook my head, then walked into Honda's showroom on wobbly legs.  I scanned the salespeople and approached one of them.
"Were you just hit out there?" Wendy asked.
"I was...I've never been in an accident before."
"You okay?"
"Yeah...I was on the way over here anyway," I said, giving her a shaky smile.  "Guess she just gave me an extra push."
An hour later, Wendy gave me the keys to a brand new Civic that she said I could keep for the weekend.  By Monday, the insurance details had been worked out and with the settlement, I was able to pay AAA for the repairs on the Pontiac as well as lease the new car.  A week later, the refinancing papers were finalized and a new roof graced my house.  Through it all, every person along the way, from the bank officer, to the AAA mechanic, to the folks at Progressive insurance, and to Wendy at Honda, gave me a great gift.  The car accident may have been a "Holy 2 X 4," but each one helped me stand once again, and I know that in every circumstance, I am supported by an unseen force that continually encourages me to get up every time I fall.
           
Now when friends request my prayers, I relay this story and ask, "Do you want me to get on my knees or not?" 
I'm usually met with laughter, but they've witnessed the very human experiences this spiritual being has had over the years and my ability to tap into guidance whenever I need it, to mobilize the grace that's infused in every moment.  I simply have to humble myself and ask that it be revealed in time.
This past Christmas Wendy asked if I'd like to turn in my Civic for a newer one.   I did and my current lease is a better deal than the last.  

And this time around, I got on my knees in thanksgiving.