Thursday, June 22, 2017

Building a mystery

When I was a child, you’d never find me holed up with a Nancy Drew book.  During the long, hot summer months, while my older sister poured over The Clue in the Diary and The Quest of the Missing Map, I eagerly made my way through the Little House series and all of the Betsy Books…twice.  Sure, I read Harriet the Spy, but that’s only because she was one tough cookie with a secret notebook and a penchant for writing.  Back then I had no interest whatsoever in the mysteries of life, the unsolved, the uncertain and unsettled.  Even as a kid, I clung to the idea that knowing an outcome ahead of time would save me a lot of heartache.  Over the years, that naivete revealed I can never really predict what will happen next.
Ever.
It took decades before I read a mystery novel, the quintessentially popular DaVinci Code, not something by Mary Higgins Clark or Scott Turrow.  Still, I love films with a “whodunnit” premise and have thoroughly enjoyed some episodes of the new Sherlock Holmes series on PBS, so perhaps I’ll visit the library and look up Arthur Conan Doyle.  Then again, maybe I won’t, for living with the ambiguity of this past year has been enough of a real-life mystery for me.
How could I have known last summer that a part-time job which was supposed to be a doorway into managing a training school would be kaput in less than sixteen months?  Or that I’d be dipping my toes into the realm of becoming a professional editor?  Or that I’d fall in love with a man who has become my best friend?   Even now, the endless, meandering roads through all of these realities aren’t marked with goalposts, nor is an endgame in sight.
But that’s all part of the plan I suppose…and more will always be revealed. 

You think I’d be used to mysteries by now.  After all, I’ve made enough leaps of faith to give a bullfrog a jump for his money.  Not once or twice, but three times I’ve left a job without the safety net of another one waiting in the wings.  I’ve made choices based on intuition instead of expectation and had to wait quite a while before being met with a tangible outcome.   Even so, when I find myself unsure of the future, my knee jerk reaction is usually to panic.
Last month, the hours at my part-time job were cut in half, and two weeks ago, one of my cats accidentally snapped off a claw and needed an emergency run to the vet.  This coincided with having my air conditioner serviced for the summer only to have it clang and run hard a week later when our first heat wave blew into town.  When the technician arrived, he told me that since the unit is twenty-one years old, I’d be better off replacing it than trying to patch it together. 
“It’ll run you about $3,500.00 to $4,000.00,” he said.  “But we have a three-year payment plan.”
I don’t plan on being here three years, I thought. 
Luckily, it’s been running just fine, and since I don’t like AC anyway, I’m giving it a rest for now.  In the meantime, I figured out my finances and will be just fine…like I always have been in the past.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a rough night, tossing and turning trying to get a grip on unexpected expenses that have been racking up this season. 
“It’s just life,” I told Steve the next day.  “Everyone goes through this…it’s just my turn right now.”
“I was going to tell you that last night when you were upset,” he smiled.  “But I had faith you’d figure it out.”
“Yeah, ‘cause you know stuff, right?”
Steve laughed, as that’s his go-to line whenever I ask him a science/math/ecology question and he always has an educated answer…just like Dr. Watson.
In the Sherlock Holmes books, Dr. Watson is described as being strongly built with a thick neck and a small moustache.  For those of you who know my Steve, that’s him all over (except he has a manly moustache)…plus, like he says, he knows all kinds of stuff.  While I may be oddly eccentric, exceptionally introverted, and sometimes uber-anxious, Steve is matter-of-fact, charmingly gregarious, and oftentimes easygoing.  Together we’re a good balance of intuition and objectivity, courage and caution, organization and spontaneity.  And the good news is that we enhance all of these congruent qualities in each other.
Since I flew away from my parents’ nest, I've built a mystery of an uncommon life, one that had no roadmap or fixed destination…at least not one I had hoped for.  With every risky decision, I stood alone to meet the consequences head-on.  Some were incredibly painful, but most have been extraordinary.  Over time, I learned to accept the unknown, to lean into that which cannot yet be seen, to trust that choices based on faith will yield an abundant harvest, which I then embraced all by myself. 
But no longer.

Just last week I sent Steve a meme that reads:  Walk with me…we’ll figure out where we’re going later.  There are still a lot of unknowns in both of our lives.  Some stuff we have control over, but a lot of it we don’t because it involves other people and time-frames that aren’t dictated by our terms.  I’m working toward jump-starting a new career while Steve is closing the circle in part of his past.  I’m taking care of business while he’s taking care of other people.  I’m dotting i’s and crossing t’s while he’s looking at the bigger picture. 
“It doesn’t really matter what’s around the corner,” I recently told him.  “Because I know that, no matter what, you’ll be there with me…and I’ll be there with you.”
“That’s the deal,” he nodded.  “You’re my constant.”
“And you’re mine,” I smiled.
Steve and I are walking together toward an unknown future, but one that we know will be a peaceful, happy one.  After all, we’re intentionally creating a peaceful, happy relationship right now, one that will mature as time moves us forward.  It’s been quite a journey so far, and even though not all of it has been easy, it’s been more than worth the wait.
 Sure, I’m still building a mystery.  But this time around, I have a partner who’s quirky and kind, intelligent and interesting…and the most incredible Dr. Watson I know. 






Thursday, June 15, 2017

In the game

A couple weekends ago, I played an exciting game of Parcheesi with Satish and Danta.  In fact, it was probably the most electrifying game I’ve ever played…bar none.  The boys came over for an afternoon play date and I had the board all set up upon their arrival.  Eagerly munching chips and sipping lemonade, we got down to business, as my fellas are all about healthy competition.  Of course, Satish being a stellar player in most everything, won the first round…but not so easily this time, for over the past six months my sweetheart and I have played often and I’ve been honing my skills.
Just then, Steve stopped over to say hi to the boys and warned them, “You know Kate’s the Queen of Parcheesi.  She beats my butt almost every time.”
“Let’s play again!” they both cheered.
So Steve left to take care of his many responsibilities and the next round commenced.  It was neck and neck for a while until Danta pulled ahead of both Satish and me, quickly getting three of his four pieces to home base.  The last piece was only halfway around the board, but on his next turn, Danta rolled doubles, which allowed him to move fourteen spaces and garner an extra turn.  Then he rolled doubles again, which moved him within a few spaces of winning the game.
“You’d better not roll doubles this time,” Satish chided.  “’Cause the guy nearest home will have to go back to the beginning and you’ll have to start all over again.”
Danta shrugged and rolled the dice…doubles for the third time!
Satish and I looked at each other and shouted, “Awww!”
“Too bad, Danta,” I said, giving him a sad smile.
“Oh, well,” he replied, gloomily moving his piece back to the starting block.
The game got pretty heated after that…but it was all in good fun.  Roll after roll after roll, Satish and I were catching up, but because Danta only had one man to move, he did so at a rapid pace.  Sure enough, five minutes later, he and I were neck and neck once more.  I only needed to roll a four to win the game.  He needed to roll a three.
“Come on,” Danta cheered, blowing on the dice.  And just like that…he rolled a three!
Hurray!” Satish and I shouted, delighted that Danta had stayed in the game so he could bounce back from seemingly bad luck to soundly beat us both.
“I wish Steve were here,” Danta laughed. 
Handing him my phone, I suggested, “Why don’t you call him and tell him that you’re now the King of Parcheesi and I’ve been demoted to Princess.”
Danta laughed and it made me chuckle to hear his side of the conversation as he excitedly shared the details with Steve, who I’m sure was overjoyed to hear that I had lost…at least once.

For the past four years, I’ve been contemplating how to move around the board game of life.  I’ve had several opportunities to teach around the Toledo area, but none of them have been long-term.  After ending a contract with a literary agent in New York City, I’ve been actively seeking a new one, and while a few have shown interest in my work at the onset, every lead fizzed out quickly.  Again and again it seems that after a period of growth and stability, the tables quickly turn and I end up stuck in this place of starting over…professionally, financially, and emotionally.
But not really.
Like Danta, I’ve already worked hard to get the majority of the pieces in my life to find their way home.  I’m at peace with the difficult choices I’ve made that led me into the darkness of the unknown, but ultimately brought me into the light on the other side.  I’ve finally come to understand that while I may not have all the answers, I’m able to live in the mystery with enough experience to know that everything will always be alright.  I always have enough to eat.  I’m always able to maintain my home.  I’m always able to find a way to continue earning a living doing the things that I love.  So even though in the past six weeks I feel like I have to start all over again, in reality, I’m just starting where I left off yesterday. 
While the rules may seem the same, the way I play the game is changing.  I’m more mindful when making commitments.  I’m more open to the suggestions of others, those who’ve been where I am and have successfully recreated their lives.  I’m learning how to relax into the reality that every day is another chance to roll the dice and see where my circumstances might lead me, then have the courage to act when I need to.
And to wait when further action seems futile.

There’s a story about a man who noticed a small opening in a chrysalis that hung from a tree branch.  For hours, he sat and watched a butterfly struggle to force its body through the hole, yet it seemed to make little progress.  In fact, at one point it stopped moving altogether and looked like it was stuck.  So the man thought he would help the butterfly and gently enlarged the opening so it could emerge.  But when it did, its body was swollen and its wings were shriveled.  The man waited for the butterfly to fly away, but it could do nothing but drag around its shriveled wings.  For despite the good intentions of the man, he didn’t realize that the chrysalis had been designed so that the fluid of the butterfly’s body would be pushed into the wings through the struggling process.   Only then, when it was ready would the butterfly finally emerge and be able to take flight.  
We all have struggles with which we wrestle.  We all have challenges and lessons and trials we must endure.  Still, we can choose to take responsibility for our own growth.  We can trust the often difficult process of recreation, knowing that sometimes we will have to start over.   But like a butterfly emerging in its own time, our transformation will be complete…until the next time.
All we need to do is stay in the game and roll the dice with hopeful anticipation. 














Monday, June 12, 2017

Be a nice girl

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I spent some quality time with my pals, Satish and Danta.  Both of them played in soccer tournaments, Danta in Columbus and Satish in Sylvania, so I helped out their mom with transportation.  While she took Danta back and forth to our state capital, I chauffeured Satish to his local games, spending the night in-between them. 
Alas, Satish had sprained one of his big toes a month ago, so he wasn’t sure if playing would be the best option.  Even though he’s consistently a starter, on Saturday he was on the field only for a few minutes before the coach noticed he was limping and pulled him to the sidelines where he assisted in coaching his team to 2-2 tie game.  Sunday saw him sitting on the bench, cheering his team to a 4-0 victory and a place in the semi-finals. 
Yet before that game had even started, Satish lamented, “I don’t think it’s a good idea if I play.  I’m not doing my best right now.”
“Does your foot hurt?” I asked
“Yeah,” he nodded.  “And my stamina is bad, too.  I haven’t been able to run for almost a month.”
As he’s always been a team player, I wasn’t surprised at all that Satish would let go of his inspiring desire to kick some grass, even with an injury.  Since he was little, I’ve known him to be aware of the bigger picture, even if his place within it has changed.  Still, his presence on the sidelines buoyed his teammates.  His encouragement gave them the will to keep going.  His suggestions to the coach were well-received and I’m certain made the difference between winning and losing, particularly in Sunday’s game. 
Through his choices, Satish continually teaches me that teamwork is something you do, even when you’re not in the spotlight.

In early May, my mother left a voicemail on my cell.  Mother’s Day was soon approaching and as I haven’t seen my family in more than seven years, this time of year is usually difficult for me.  So when I heard Mom’s message, I knew something was wrong.  When I returned the call, my sister answered the phone and told me that my father had a massive heart attack and died that afternoon.  When I asked if I could come over to Mom’s house to sit with her, my sister was hesitant to answer.  “I’ll text you,” she replied.
I didn’t hear back from her, so I called once more and this time, my mother answered the phone.  Again, I asked if I could come be with her and she answered me cautiously.  “Maybe later.”
In the interim, I had called my significant other and told Steve what had happened.  “I’m on my way home right now,” he said.  “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
By the time he arrived, I had picked a lily-of-the-valley and lilac bouquet from my garden in case Mom wanted to see me.  “That’s pretty, Kate,” he smiled, kissing my cheek.  “Those are my favorites.”
“Mine, too.”
We sat in my dining room talking for a couple of hours while I waited to hear back from my mother.  At one point, I said, “Honey, why don’t you go home and eat?  I’ll be okay.”
“Nope,” Steve said.  “I’m good.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded and held me close. 
Shortly afterward, Mom called and said I could come over for a little bit if I wanted to.  So I drove across town, unsure of what to say.  Unsure of what to feel.  Unsure of what would follow.
I didn’t stay long.
When I came home that night, I was in tears, yet for the first time in my life, I wasn’t alone.  Steve was there to listen.  To hold me.  To let me know that whatever I needed, he would be there for me.  In that moment, he once again showed me that love isn’t something you say...it’s something you do. 
My father was buried on the day before Mother’s Day, and while I went to the funeral, out of respect for my mother’s wishes, I didn’t sit with the family, nor did I attend the visitation.  Perhaps it would have been too uncomfortable for my mother and sisters.  Or maybe it was my consequence for choosing to separate myself from them.  After all, none of us had seen each other since the fall of 2009, and a lot of time has passed.
Even so, when Steve and I walked into the funeral home, we were met with the receiving line of my nuclear and extended families.  It was overwhelming, but before we had even entered the building, I had asked Steve to stay by my side, no matter what.
And through everything, he did. 
The next I emailed Mom and she responded, saying in part that Steve seemed like a nice guy and she hoped I was happy.
I wrote back, He’s a good man and I feel very blessed.

For a while now I’ve thought about what it means to be nice, something I was told to be throughout my childhood. 
“Be nice, Katie,” I was admonished whenever I wanted to scream or throw a tantrum.
“Be nice, Katie,” I was ordered when I squabbled with my older sister and she threw a particularly venomous insult my way.
“Be nice, Katie,” I was told whenever I was stood up or treated poorly by some guy.  “Kill him with kindness.”
But I don’t want to be nice anymore, at least not to my own detriment.
I can be open-minded.  I can be professional.  I can even be polite.  
But I’ve paid a high price for being a nice girl, which often resulted in being taken advantage of, being used, then being discarded when something or someone else came along. 
In the end, I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter how forgiving I am.  How much integrity I strive to live by.  How much I tell the truth.  It doesn’t matter what I know or what I say, or even what I believe.
It matters what I do.
In the past, being a nice girl meant choosing to step aside so that someone else could succeed.  Being nice meant choosing to circumvent my own feelings to placate someone else’s.  Being nice meant I chose to stuff what I wanted deep down inside because it was more often than not an unpopular choice.  Sure, I’ve lived life on my own terms for the past three decades, but when it comes to my relationships, I've learned the hard way the difference between being a nice girl and being a good woman. 
It’s not a surprise that, for the past seven years, I’ve been surrounded with people who’ve shown me how to be in healthy friendships.  Who accept me when I’m content and when I’m not.   When I'm miserable and when I’m joyful.  When I’m at peace and when I’m searching for the meaning behind unanswerable questions.  It’s not been easy, and the past seven months have challenged me all the more since Steve and I chose to be in a relationship.
Yet every day I keep choosing him, for his presence in my life buoys me more than I can say.
Every day I choose to love him as best as I can, because it’s through love that our relationship is made holy.
Every day I choose to tell him the truth, for it’s through being honest with each other that I have finally been able to let go of being a nice girl so that the good woman within me can bloom all the more. 




Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Steady hands, watchful hearts

The summer solstice is almost here and I’ve been spending more time relaxing in the backyard.  My gardens are lush and lovely.  The birds and bunnies keeps my cats occupied from dawn until dusk.  On hot, sunny days, I fill up the baby pool and soak my feet while reading a good book.  Yesterday I was thinking about the neighbors who lived two houses away when I was growing up on Eastwick drive in south Toledo.  Every summer, when I sip a glass of iced tea or sit on a nylon lawn chair, I remember Mr. and Mrs. Barton and how they always made me feel welcome in their home.
So here’s a chapter from my memoir, OPEN ROAD: a life worth waiting for…to celebrate the season and all the wonderful incarnations of guardian angels I’ve had over the years. 

Steady Hands, Watchful Hearts
           
I'm nine years old and sit on the edge of the Barton's above ground pool, dangling my feet into the cool, clear water.  It's late July 1976, and the bicentennial celebrations have dwindled, but I'm looking forward to Mr. and Mrs. Barton's annual picnic they have every August.  I'll get to come over to their home early to shuck ears of corn while sitting in a lawn chair next to Mrs. Barton, tossing the husks and silk into a tall, gray garbage bin.  I’ll help Mr. Barton with the pool toys, making sure they're inflated and ready for fun.  The Bartons invite nearly everyone from our block, and there will be at least fifteen kids who will run excitedly around their lawn, searching for hidden candy bars and trinkets during the Scavenger Hunt.   Last year I found a Marathon bar and made it last for a whole month!
Mr. and Mrs. Barton live a stone's throw away from our house.  Mr. Barton is a principal for Washington Local Schools and Mrs. Barton teaches for Toledo Public.  They have no children, but treat my sisters and me as if we were their own daughters.  We get to swim in their pool any time we want, as long as we call ahead and lock the gate behind us.  When they're away on vacation, we always volunteer to skim the pool and cut their grass.
I love to be around them.  Mr. Barton is jolly and spirited.  Mrs. Barton is sweet and earthy.  I wish it could be summer all the time, for whenever they're on vacation, just like we are now, every day can be a fun day in their backyard.  It was at the Barton's where I taught my sisters how to stand on the edge of their pool and fall backwards, taking the Nestea plunge as I shouted, "Nestea, iced tea...ah!" just like in the commercial we see while watching “Tattletales” and “The Joker’s Wild.” 
Mr. and Mrs. Barton say I'm a hoot. 
Now as I watch my feet kick beneath the pool's surface, I glance at my sisters playing with the neighbor girls.  They're having fun splashing and shoving each other under the water.  But I feel sad today.  For the first time in my life, I begin to understand what it means to feel depressed.
Mrs. Barton sits in a lawn chair, slathering sun screen on her freckled shoulders.  She smiles at me.  Her white, Jackie O shades glint in the afternoon sun.  I long to tell her how I'm feeling, but I know I can't.  I can't say anything to anyone.  I don't know what kind of trouble that would bring, and I really don't want to find out.
I get out of the pool as my sisters call to me, "Are you going home, Katie?"
I shake my head.  "I'm going to sit with Mrs. Barton for a while."
And so I do.  I spread my towel on a chair next to hers so my legs won't stick on the nylon webbing.  Mrs. Barton asks me lots of questions, curious to know what I think...what I feel.  She makes me feel safe.
Mr. Barton joins us with a glass of iced tea and winks at me.  "Will we have a commercial break soon?" he teases.  "Is Nestea sponsoring this afternoon's pool time?"
I smile at him and for a while I forget that I am sad. 

***

When I was very young, television characters personified who I thought I should be.  I was Jan Brady or Laura Ingalls, both the middle daughter of three girls.  I wore glasses like Jan and wanted to be a schoolteacher like Laura.  I had crushes on boys who didn’t know I existed and was considered to be a tomboy by those who did.  As a pre-adolescent, I longed to look like one of Charlie’s Angels or sing like Karen Carpenter.  Posters of Scott Baio and Donny Osmond papered the back of my bedroom door.  I worshiped David Cassidy as well as Mark Hamill.
Living in a fantasy world of television and music helped me retreat into a filtered reality that felt safe and familiar, one that would never disappoint.  A world that allowed me to dream of more desirable, far away places.
Stepping into the reality of my neighborhood or school meant letting go, if only for a little while, the rich, imaginary world I had created inside my head.  It was difficult to be one of the youngest in my class.  I wasn't shy necessarily, just afraid of boys and parties and gatherings in which I would be expected to put on a smile and play along with being social.  Even now, I prefer small, intimate lunches or dinners with one or two friends rather than a block party or reception, and I wonder if that comfort level initially germinated when I spent summer afternoons with the Bartons.
My sisters and I were always welcome to swim in their pool and enjoyed games of "Red Light, Green Light" all summer long while they visited with our parents over cocktails and hor d'oeurves.   The adults would sip their whiskey sours while my sisters and I roasted marshmallows for s'mores or chased after fireflies as the sun set, the Midwestern sky a blaze of orange and yellow.
Occasionally the Bartons would spend time with us during the holidays, and I have fond memories of several Christmases when they joined us for dinner and board games.  When I was older, I discovered Mom and Dad had asked them to be our legal guardians and I was relieved.  The Bartons knew us well, my sisters and me. 
Educators while in the classroom or out, Mr. and Mrs. Barton set an example for me to follow when I became a teacher.  They listened.  They cared.  When my sisters and I trotted down to their house on a summer afternoon, they were always happy to see us, but still completed the project they were working on, the conversation they were having, or the plans they were making. 

Being with the Bartons allowed me to see a different way of living, and while I never imagined I would be childless, they made it seem less sad, less disappointing.  Duffy, their hound dog, was their surrogate child and they spoiled him mercilessly.  We did, too.  My sisters and I sometimes brought a few dog biscuits when we visited, and Duffy was an eager recipient.
When Mr. Barton hurt his back and an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital, I was terrified.  When he returned later in the week, I was elated.  When Mrs. Barton broke her toe, I asked what I could do to help her around the house.  Afterwards, when she poured me a glass of bubbling 7-UP, I delighted in an hour or so of easy conversation.
Years later, when I went to college to study education, Mr. Barton invited me to his elementary school during my holiday breaks so I could shadow some of his best teachers and learn from the pros.  When I applied to Washington Local Schools five years later, Mr. Barton was at the top of my reference list.  He reminded me throughout my career that it may have been his name that got me in the door for an interview, but it was my ability that secured the position.  Always, he was a staunch supporter of my success in the classroom. 
During the summers of my childhood and early adolescence, Mr. and Mrs. Barton's pool gave me an escape, a place to float and think and wonder.  They were a wonderful couple who provided sanctuary in the midst of confusion as I broke open the shell of my ever-evolving identity so that their seeds of love, generosity, and compassion could be planted with steady hands and watchful hearts.