connection, Encouragement, Family, Grace, Health, Midlife

These Are Days

Each morning, I go down the hall and descend the 22 stairs. Another hall, then the dining room and kitchen. I turn the overhead light on, light over the sink on, and then the stove light. Check. Check. Check. Fill tea kettle and begin boiling water for coffee. A pilot flipping switches, warming up the engines.

IMG_3249The morning’s hamster wheel turns again – making breakfast, lunch (ok, you shamers, I’m up early and have the time, so I make the lunch), feed the pets and the whirl of the morning is over. Everyone is gone and it’s me again, dishes emptied and ready for reloading. Dog walk ahead, rental house tenant details, car emissions – will the old car pass? I’m busy and bored, gas and brake pressed together. My brakes are on and I can’t convince my foot to let go so I can roll. Don’t want to hit something, but I’m afraid I’ve already hit a wall. They say fear is excitement with the brakes on.

GRACE

PO: The post office in the town next to mine gets it. Three stations, three big hearts, all lifting you up. It’s an old timey brick building. No Saturday hours. Old ideals inside. A place that makes us each better. They know me, ask about my kids, take my trash even – used up stamp sheets, sticky backs of priority mail labels. They’d probably take your wad of chewed gum if you asked. Shipping can get complicated, and these folks always suggest the best timing and pricing. And when the lady postmaster sneezes, we collectively reply in hushed, loving church tones, “Bless you.”

IMG_3786Dry cleanerThis place and their clay tile roof building has been around forever. The guys inside, several of them brothers, know your name and use it. If they’re busy or you are, you can pay later when you return next. They have a sign by the register to discourage cell phone use that is handwritten and refreshingly kind and polite. We’re all better inside there on any day, busy holidays, heat of summer, etc. Inside, there’s a kind word. A smile.

Mechanic: You’re understandably frustrated the car is stalling, failing you. You’ve got better things to do and need a car to do them with. This place is tiny but full of understanding faces. The chairs are ripped, but you sit down and stay a while, laughing over automotive frustrations, talking of friends you share and the places you’re from and have travelled. The stress melts because people listen. You listen. If only for a moment, the car costs, the Uber you need to get home and the things you left undone can simply wait.

Pizza: Your local pizzeria is authentic pizza hand crafted by good people. Everything on the menu is a homerun. The staff is familiar and there’s a positive vibe buzzing inside. It employed your son years ago when he was in high school, and its owner supports the local schools, even coming in early once to make dozens of pizzas for your other son’s soccer team. Who does that? Pizza’s goodness on multiple levels.

zinniasThese simple errands bring life lessons. They rip open an ordinary day and inject it with a spirit that shines through you. Something about crossing that threshold, and you’re inside a safe space, a place where you go back to being your best self, stripped of competition, callousness, impatience. Here you have time to engage, spread a little warmth. Simple exchanges find you paying it forward as you head back out into the world, imbued with your best you that you want to share. You drive home in traffic with terrible drivers, the fuel light comes on and your phone has one bar. It’s okay for a while, but these bits, these little nuisances inevitably return, chipping away at your joy and take you back where you were before. You can always return to these places to refuel, but hopefully you’ll learn one day how to fill yourself up.

FAMILY

A rare recent Father’s Day had us eating brunch in Inman Park in Atlanta, three generations together, grandpa, father and grandson, sitting across from one another, countless memories between them, their own childhoods and those of their children, and then flying to New York to see our other son. Two boys, two cities, one dad who adores them both. My sons, my two hearts walking around, surprise me, invite me to wrestle with my own discomfort, and teach me about boundaries, trust and faith. To fly six states away for just a couple of days is to trust that love will seep in, do its thing and wash a familiar comfort over you, over all of us. The promise of that conversation over dinner, familiar smile and renewed connection is priceless.

HEALTH

frogYoga: “Visualize your jaw unclenching,” she instructed. So much for relaxing, that visual instead sent me to nightguards, root canals and crowns, decades of dental costs. I can’t help it, I’m English, I got the bad teeth. That morning, I drove the half hour to the Y where I unrolled my mat to practice before my favorite yoga teacher who it turns out wasn’t there that day. Instead, this broad-shouldered brown-haired girl led the class. I shouldn’t have been all judge-y, arms crossed and missing my teacher, as this instructor was kind and helpful, moving around the room correcting folks who got it wrong, me initially and later, me again. She wore a white t-shirt with graphics on it, maybe from Lake Burton or a sorority or a charity run, and Pullman brown yoga pants she could have lifted off a UPS truck. I’ll bet she can maneuver a ski boat with panache, settle into a slip at Hall’s Boathouse on Lake Rabun, and clean her own catch right there on the dock. She’s probably equally comfortable at the symphony, speaks several languages and knows the best BBQ joints, I’ll bet preferring North Carolina vinegary ones. She surprised me with her great music, too, starting with a lively song I recognized but couldn’t place, then moved into Adele 21, and REM, and even Sade’s By Your Side, that sexy song Richard and Samantha danced to in the Sex in the City pool scene. She must be hooked on that show, too.

She didn’t have that syrupy sweet voice you get sometimes, those instructors who are trying to relax you, so much so they almost put you in a trance, as if they’ve warmed your bottle and turned down your crib sheet. She did close the blinds in our room, darkening the space for her newborns down for their nap, but used a matter of fact adult tone which worked. It let us realize we are nurturing ourselves, not the YMCA doing all the heavy lifting. She’s creating the space, the framework, the movements, but it is up to us to find our own kind and gentle voice for ourselves.

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The Captain and Tennille

Physical Therapy: Lie on your left side,” she instructed. Uh oh, here we go again, time to dry needle the hip. Like putting your finger in a socket or having your teeth drilled, dry needling literally gets on your nerves, sending jarring reverberations up and down your body, sorting out the spots that most need it. Waiting for her to begin, I focused on the bright exercise balls in the distance, zoning out to Toni Tennille’s voice, “I will, I will, I will, ahh-ahhh-I’ll be there to share for-e-ver,” one of many 70s gems piped into the place. I pictured her bowl cut, bangs and hair curled under in uniform Plasti-Coil precision, a curvy cascade matching her large round eyes and mouth. Was it a curling iron or hot rollers that gave her that look? In spite of their sweet glances and lyrics, love couldn’t keep The Captain and Tennille together, and after nearly 40 years, they divorced. Sadly, just this past year, the Captain, Daryl Dragon, died, Tennille by his side. Thank God my physical therapist can’t see into my monkey mind, because surely she’d fail to understand this detailed tangent, but one song, one note, can send you places.

I have far to go so that my weak hip and collapsed foot arch don’t bench me, wrecking my ability to run pain free. I’ll have to do the homework, draping myself over an exercise ball, sucking in my gut and pressing my feet behind me, working my glutes and resolve to get strong again. That ball which I ordered last week still sits in our playroom waiting for me as I scrub the colander, slick with spaghetti residue.

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Leaving the Lyle Lovett concert on my birthday, headed home for that second dessert

My recent birthday carb loading – dinner and dessert, then dessert again (Alon’s midnight cake afterwards at home) – lasted several days. That pasta I made yesterday, filled with my favorite things – shrimp, red pepper, onion, garlic, spinach, tomatoes, corn, all doused in a lemony garlic wine goodness — has left me sluggish. Despite loving the hefty portion I inhaled, I’m reminded what my gyn advised, “Carbs are not your friend.”

HUMILITY

Not sure why I’m so restless or what’s happened exactly, but likely it’s a classic case of smack dab in the middle aged-ness. I used to believe I’d beat the odds of getting that mid-life middle, that I wouldn’t hobble when I got out of bed in the morning, and that my skin tone would stay even, and not spotty like my grandmother’s. Mostly, I assumed I’d wise up, find work that would fill me up, harnessing my energy, creativity and enthusiasm. I’m realizing I’m still at that same fork in the road obsessed with getting my direction right. Or is it left?

And then I turn on the sobering news of late and I feel completely self-absorbed, shallow and in need of a mindset makeover. I’m still alive, aren’t I? It’s just that I hardly recognize myself some days, here at home with my ordinary puttering rhythm, going on almost two years now. There’s that feeling I haven’t done much yet – I’ve barely scratched the surface — and I’m sending myself regular reminders that I’m supposed to be farther along, yet other reminders that I ought to sit with this a bit, right here in this moment. I guess the instruction is take off the brakes and give yourself a break.

A sunflower I planted about to bloom

ENCOURAGEMENT

Finally, there are these three: brilliant writers and thinkers and strugglers, each chipping away like all of us are, who’ve shared their personal, yet universal insights, a few favorites I’m sharing, too:

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it… I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. -Anne Lamott

We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.”-Brene Brown

“The women I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong and they handled it. They handled it a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”– Elizabeth Gilbert

These are days

These are days you’ll remember
Never before and never since
I promise
Will the whole world be warm as this
And as you feel it
You’ll know it’s true
That you are blessed and lucky
It’s true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow in you, in you

These are days you’ll remember
When May is rushing over you with desire
To be part of the miracles you see in every hour
You’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky
It’s true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow and bloom in you

These are days

These are the days you might fill with laughter until you break
These days you might feel a shaft of light
Make its way across your face
And when you do you’ll know how it was meant to be
See the signs and know their meaning
It’s true
You’ll know how it was meant to be
Hear the signs and know they’re speaking to you, to you

Source: LyricFind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

self care, Self reliance

Help Yourself

For as long as I can remember, I’ve practiced caring for others. My own self-care, as we call it today, amounted to brushing my teeth and bathing. As a child, I ate the things I liked that were put before me, typical meals of pot roast, spaghetti, or fried chicken, with white rice, buttered noodles and corn. The boiled to death cabbage, lima beans and peas I would put in my napkin, excuse myself from the table and head to the powder room to flush them down the toilet, or try to go unnoticed and feed it to the dog under the table. We had loads of other stuff in the house too, none of it checking the self-care box: Fruit Loops, Ritz crackers, fun size Milky Ways, 2-liter bottles of Sprite and root beer, and King Dons. If you were feeling particularly adventurous, there was maraschino cherry juice to wash it all down with, the jar in the fridge door. My exercise in high school amounted to playing on the tennis team, swimming in summer, occasionally jogging and generally running around, thinking and talking quickly, tightly strung like the tennis rackets I owned through the years, the Wilson junior valiant, Miss Chris and Chris Evert Autograph.

But enough about me. Back to the others. Hold the door, write your thank you notes, pass the (insert whatever is on the table) and then you can have one. Certainly, good manners are important to observe, but I think with the overt nudges from my mother, this practice went deeper. The idea that you always bat last was seeped into my soul at a very early date. It’s a wonder I was born before my twin, instead of letting him go first. Maybe he was a gentleman from the get go, and instead held the door open for me, insisting that his sister go in front.

It seems all the shoulds were always swirling in my conscience, with my mom running down her list before or even in lieu of ever asking me about me. Did you do your homework? Set the table? Make your bed? Clean the ring in the tub? At the end of every bath we’d sit in the tub, still full of water, bubbles now burst, and shake Ajax on a small sponge and as instructed, scrub the grimy tub ring surrounding us. Ingenious on our mother’s part, because who likes cleaning tubs? I look back and wonder if she ever took stock of the day for herself or her family, past the to dos. Was the day good? Or did you struggle? Are you making friends in your classes? Did you do anything interesting today? Would you like to talk about it, or can I do anything to help?

As a little girl I had a sudden, isolating bout of insomnia. Most nights I could hear my family one by one drift off to sleep, all of us upstairs in our house, and I was left wide eyed, lying there awake, which of course branded me the first one a burglar would get. It didn’t matter that we were never burgled, or that we had a 110 lb. German Shepherd who would protect us; it was forefront in my mind. I begged my sister to teach me how to fall asleep and, like the rest of the family, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You just lie there and it happens.” Like swallowing or sneezing, the practice was automatic, and it worked every time for everyone, pets included. Everyone, except me.

My dad decided that a few nights each week the two of us would go on walks before dinner, several miles to the end of our street and back. Early on in our regimen, all the walking caused whatever was running in my head to stop and join me and also drift to sleep. I loved these walks, just the two of us, where I felt special and cared for with no siblings along, and loved him doing something just for me.

Later, there were the couple of years when I was the last child in the house, the other two now off to college, one graduated. My parents were divorcing and had been sleeping in separate rooms. I used my mom’s bathroom in the mornings to get ready since it had a grownup vibe and a drawer full of makeup: a bottle of Revlon tawny beige foundation, but no blush, blue eye shadow and the skinniest silver tube of mascara. My Bonne Bell lip smackers tinted gloss completed the look, and the mini Susan Woody went out into the world.

Occasionally in the bathroom I’d see notes taped to the mirror and one time found a message scrawled directly on the glass in lipstick in my mom’s handwriting, which read, I will not be your scapegoat. I had no clue what this meant, but knew it wasn’t a sexy love note between my parents. This marital anti-bliss vibe ate at me, and as a result, I ate too. I’d cook a Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese after eating a full meal and eat the whole thing, or I’d grab an entire stack of Chips Ahoy cookies from the cookie jar, and then tear the plastic off a package of lady fingers and dive in, or nosh on fun size candy bars chewing the nougat and caramel, feeling it coat my teeth. All the tennis playing and wired-ness I possessed couldn’t offset this eating, and I began to want to purge myself of these binges.

One night while my dad sat in our den in his wing chair drinking Budweiser from a can and reading The Atlanta-Journal, as he did most nights, I asked him what you give kids who have swallowed poison, that thing you take to throw up. He asked me again what I was talking about, eyes still fixed on his paper, and when I repeated my question, he replied, “Ipecac.” “Can you spell that?” I asked. He did and I wrote it down.

Thus began a new chapter of self-care, one of eating and purging. I had chalked it up to my desire to stay thin, but it dawned on me just a few years ago that this bulimic season in my late teens occurred at precisely the same time as my parents’ separation. I don’t remember all the details, but I do know it was unsettling to see my sister’s bed unmade each day, knowing she hadn’t surprised us by coming home from college, but rather my dad slept in there. Or to come home from school late after tennis practice to find the house quiet, my plate of dinner warming in the oven, my mom in bed for the night. It was eerily soundless yet the house was perfectly neat, the fridge full and pets cared for, as if invisible elves were tending to all these things, while my mom stayed largely out of sight.

I’m not sure if it was the silence screaming loudly in our big house or the tawdry lipstick note, but this tense undercurrent didn’t sit well inside me. The self-care I chose was the only way I could control something, a way to give me the best of both worlds: eat comforting foods but not let them show. A little swig of Ipecac, my private salve, and no one would ever know. Thankfully it only happened a handful of times and then I stopped.

My self-care practice has gotten much better, and if I am going to continue to improve, there are three things I must remember:

1) What you eat stays with you, assuming you’ve dropped the propensity for purging, and you should choose good things, not the comfort foods from tv or grabbing your attention in the grocery aisles. The truly good for you comforting ones are those you’ve known all along, the things you adore, like home grown tomatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken and grilled fish, or a really good meatloaf. Salads you can tell were made with care with soft washed lettuces, avocado, grated carrot, thin cucumber slices, sunflower seeds, too. Homemade bread and eggs scrambled with cream cheese and snipped chives, pasta carbonara with whisked egg yolk, sugar cured bacon and plenty of parmigiano reggiano cheese, or steamed haricot vert with a little butter and salt and cracked pepper. Strawberries dusted with powdered sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar, a fistful of bing cherries or a plump satsuma orange at Christmastime, its cheery leaf like a holly’s.

2) Exercise flattens anxiety, your stomach too, and builds bone. There are the walks too, no longer with my dad, but with my dog in my neighborhood, or the long ones you take at the beach, wet sand underfoot, pelicans overhead diving for dinner, soaring over the sea. There is jogging and 10K races that leave you feeling strong with a smile on your face that lasts days. There are your bones, exactly 206 of them, which carried you into adulthood and will still carry you if you work them, move them with the earth under you, walk, run and lift, each time pushing yourself to do more.

3) Sleep is delicious brain food and like exercise, cuts the edge off a bad mood. My insomnia has all but gone and I am a good sleeper, rarely waking even during two pregnancies. Our bodies know what we need and if you’re like me and falling asleep in front of the tv and can’t get through a show, or at the kitchen table with dishes still to do, or worse, on the stair landing where you stopped to sit for just a minute, you ought to get yourself to bed. All these things that you do, that you work at, that you keep up, all of them will wait for you when you are ready. And you’re ready only after you’ve cared for you.

It’s easy to defer to your factory default setting and focus on everyone else, but in adopting this holy trifecta of eating, sleeping and moving, you can reset and shift back to you, where you’ve always been all along. As Anne Lamott so brilliantly put it, Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

I’m not sure why these obvious, common sense things — which all of us learned out of the gate — have taken decades to sink in, but I’m encouraged to finally realize that self-care begins with self.

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Me, circa the early ‘70s, modeling my new go go boots.

 

Empty nester, Family, Midlife, Parenting, Self reliance

Leaving the Nest

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Joe and Evan leaving Duke tour

I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?

As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.

We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.

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Heavy fog covers the way home.

We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.

I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.

Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.

I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?

There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.

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Five schools in three days requires sleep.

Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.

It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.

But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.

I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song —  singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.

I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?

 

Uncategorized

Who’s Behind You?

anneFor as long as I can remember, I’ve followed behind Anne; she’s been my guide, and I’ve always learned something from her outlook and opinion. I still do. Growing up, she was sensitive yet cool, never too tucked, too preppy, too anything. She just flowed – her long lean body and soft voice carried her in a way I liked, which was so different from my own. I may have arrived two years after her, but from the start, she was behind me, my sister and built-in friend.

She helped me in high school, giving my outfits the once over. We’d stand in front of my long mirror and she’d go to work so I could appear less matchy matchy and more put together, without looking like I’d tried. She lifted my tightly tucked-in shirt so it billowed slightly over my hips, pulled my jeans down some from my waist, and suggested I lose the grosgrain headband, and let my hair fall, framing my face. I trusted her in these “what not to wear” sessions, and afterward, left the house more confident. I think she rather enjoyed having me as her project, too.

Years earlier, I remember us standing at the base of the stairs in our house, two little girls with baby dolls on our hips waiting for an elevator at the pretend “Woody Club.” We were always good at improvising and could take the other’s lead, wherever our imaginations took us. The Club’s proprietor, Susan Woody, must have smirked to herself, seeing us lapping up the accommodations since she, unlike her “guests”, filled her day paying bills and folding laundry before heading out in her Bermuda shorts to water and weed. I always assumed that one day Anne and I would live in the same city and raise our kids together, but thanks to photos, phone and email, in some ways we kind of did.

Growing up, we had goldfish that never seemed to live very long. I don’t know why we didn’t add a pump and filter to their bowls, but no one else did, either. Where were our parents during these life and death decisions? The fish invariably died, and we held funerals in our woods. Anne would arrive for the service wearing a stole around her neck, impressively ecclesiastical, and somehow found a prayer book to bring along. We’d have a moment of silence, say a prayer and then something nice about the fish before laying it to rest on a cotton square in a cardboard Rich’s jewelry box. I guess we never dug deep enough because usually after a few days, the fish was gone, risen perhaps like Jesus, cotton strewn at the tomb. It was always a horrifying discovery, but because we both lived it, it was easier.

At night I often sneaked into Anne’s room and into her bed, a double white spool bed with exposed squeaky box springs. It was springy, cozy and familiar, far different than my own twin bed where I felt alone and far away from the family. My mom always said I should sleep in my own room, but I knew what I needed, and that was to be close to Anne, so I usually tiptoed to hers.

Anne and I loved cooking and we made all kinds of things but mostly we made tollhouse cookies, crepes and hand-cut French fries. We let our mom sample the successes, and the failures went straight in the trash. One time we cooked our parents a multi-course dinner — shrimp bisque, cube steak and I don’t remember what for a vegetable and dessert. Shrimp bisque is tricky, or at least that was our experience. We earned Girl Scout badges for our efforts, and for their part, our parents learned patience, waiting hours between courses, smiling politely sipping their bourbon. Even though the meal was a flop, Anne and I still compare recipes, new foods and a shared fascination with cooking.

I’ve never had to explain our family to Anne; she’s lived it all, including wearing those matching outfits we often were dressed in. Like my brother and me, she also died of embarrassment when our friends were over and Lad, our aging, flatulent German Shepherd, released huge silent stinky clouds into the room. At family picnics, I remember shielding her from the dreaded egg-laden potato salad, and even though she liked hoarding boxes of Girl Scout cookies in her desk, she’d usually let me have my own sleeve of Thin Mints. It’s been a shared back and forth, giving and getting.

I’ve been thinking about Anne lately since we spent Spring break together at the beach. I don’t remember us ever having a whole week together as adults, and I don’t think planning our parents’ funerals should count. Our beach week unfolded slowly, doing nothing and talking about everything. We drank wine over stories, laughs and the most remote memories, and cooked constantly and fed people. Our dynamic has refreshingly little push and pull, and is simply comfortable and easy, with wine refills, jokes and continued wonder at how we’ve remembered the things we have.

On the last day, we rode the kids’ bikes, which had seats set super high, and fortunately for 5’10” Anne, she pedaled comfortably for a change. Following behind her, I took this photo of her, 56, ever the young girl, cropped shirt billowing in the breeze, curls trailing down her back. We darted in and out of streets with no agenda, riding beside each another when we wanted to talk and single file when we didn’t. It was like we no longer lived 700 miles away from the other, and were just two sisters out riding bikes, like before.

Anne’s a Gemini full of decisions, sometimes unable to decide, but she’s steady, graceful and always there for me, her chatty loving Leo sister. She wears the moonstone ring I gave her on her middle finger and a pearl necklace we saw and bought together, both birthstones for her June 8 birthday. She’s a constant, my lighthouse, my insides. I trust her and no matter what, she listens and loves me, not in spite of who I am but because of it. There’s a difference.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a sister or someone they can call their person, and maybe it’s because I’m looking for them, but for years, I’ve seen folks who are ready and willing to step up. It’s the grocery store worker who grabs a cart when he notices that my arms are too full, or the hands-on work colleague who selflessly offered to watch our toddlers so my husband and I could get away. It’s the friend who emails job postings to nudge me along, or the person who always texts right back, invites me over, holds the door, gives a hand, a compliment or a ride when I least expect it (and most need it). It’s whoever lifts you up, be it stranger or friend, who notices and connects with you. We all need a reminder that we matter and a place alongside people that feels like home, somewhere we belong. So, look around and find them. Chances are, they’re looking too.

 

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For Real

Apparently I’m for real. Or so says my dad. Correction, said my dad who died over 25 years ago. (Yes, I’m counting.) We’d have conversations about everything — from his childhood, my grades, our shared insomnia or his crazy tennis serve — pretty much any topic we felt like covering we would. And there were so many. At the end of our conversation, he’d pause a minute, then look up, grinning ear to ear, almost unable to contain himself, and remark proudly, “Susie… you’re for real!”

He said it so often I could fill in the blank each time after I heard my name, and would offer up an “I know, I know, I’m for real.” I hated to disappoint him, but I never had a good response to his revelation, and honestly never knew what he meant. It was so predictable and the attention was embarrassing that I’d send him a teenage eye roll each time to round out our shtick. He didn’t care that I brushed him off. For him, what he said was a high compliment and he wanted me to know.

I understand those words now that I’ve had loads of conversations with others since, some unsatisfying and many good, like we had. This honesty and sharing and communicating completely, coupled with details on all the minutiae, is what fascinates me and fires me up. I think it makes me real.

He died before all this could simmer long enough to make sense, but I’ve thought a lot about who he was and who I am. Doesn’t everything pretty much trace back to our parents? Do they fuck us up or fill us up? The jury is still out, but I think it’s a combination. I suppose our perspectives’ origins come down to a simple multiple choice of a) mom or b) dad, with an evolving blend of nature and nurture folded in.

What is “for real” anyway? I know what it’s not. It’s not disingenuous, fake, closed or self-absorbed. These qualities are exhausting and discouraging to see in people, and I’ve gotten better at spotting and dodging them. Understanding who is for real involves an excavation, a peeling away of layers to get to what is underneath. Think of an artichoke and the heart inside you’re working to get.

In this vein of understanding myself better, I’m reminded of what my 8th grade Bible teacher wrote in my yearbook. My friends couldn’t do it, as he was way too handsome for us to focus in class, much less ask for a yearbook signature after, but I worked up the nerve. As I stood there, yearbook and pen in hand, excited yet nervous about what he was going to say, I had no idea he’d scrawl a message so succinct yet so wise. When I left his class, I opened my yearbook scanning for his remarks only to find scribbled quickly inside, “Settle down, Susan!” I was expecting to read something interesting about me, something good, something special. But this?

As I’ve gotten older I see that my friends share similar qualities. If like begets like, the people and experiences we attract mirror our own. Taking notice of who we choose to spend time with helps us better understand our own preferences, inclinations, outlook and style. I tend to ruminate, hesitate or just not decide about loads of things because I think I still don’t know myself well enough to choose or trust I’ll arrive at the right answer. Slowing down and looking around takes patience and practice, yet I’ve always been eager in the “Are with there yet?” or “How much longer?” thinking of a child. I’ve come to learn I have a ways to go still.

So as I’m trying to settle down and all the while stay for real, I understand that these insightful lessons I’m searching for aren’t going to unfold all at once, but arrive on their own schedule, when it’s time. They might just appear in the form of a compliment like my dad’s did, so I suppose I’ll keep turning the pages every day hoping to learn a thing or two. I’ll admit it is starting to get interesting.

My dad, Edgar Woody was his name, is now gone from my life, but I’m still here, remembering and understanding, learning and looking. I’d like to think he’d want to pull up a chair today so we could continue the discussions. I know I sure do, especially today, August 3rd, as I remember his birthday.