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.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

You never know

You never know
Originally published on November 22, 2015

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

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

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