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Now who is going to fix THAT?

 

 

 

My world was falling apart. I had to fix it. As a widow, you quickly learn life has a never-ending question: “Now who is going to fix THAT?”

I found my solution this time with two brothers who know how to do just about anything and everything which is a good thing because just about anything and everything needed doing at my place.

My gutters were filled with debris (a yearly gift from my towering oaks and sugar maple) SO I asked them to clean those out and then install gutter guard so I wouldn’t have to convince my son (who is afraid of heights) to climb up on the roof and repeatedly hit me in the head with a garden hose while trying to wash them out. (And off to Home Depot I went, to buy 92 sections of gutter guard.) My deck was in desperate need of waterproofing, the exterior window and door frames needed painting, two of my ceilings and one tile floor needed repairs, and my son’s room needed a new ceiling fan. Oh, and the exterior was growing mold from all the rain we’ve had so the oldest brother said, “Annhh, we’re gonna have to power warsh it first.”

Under the watery pressure of a power washer, the mold slipped off the house and flew right onto my window-panes. (Another job that now needs doing. It’s just like dental work, one job always leads to the next.) The first day with the brothers went fine. They started early and finished by noon because, “It gets too danged hot after lunchtime. We’ll see you tomorrow!”

Which brings us to day 2, or was it 3? No. No, it was 4. Four days went by before they showed back up again. Now I don’t know how it is where you are, but here in the mountains, contractors work with their own time-frame—one that exists somewhere outside of your reality.

As they waited for the exterior to dry, because it rained on the days they didn’t show up, they started on the interior. They moved things into the center of the room, pulled up the loose tile in my office, and uncovered an interesting problem.

It seems the contractor who built my office just stuffed the crevice in between the foundation and the floor with sand paper when he ran out of plywood. And of course the sandpaper couldn’t hold the weight of the tile, which happened to be in the entry way to the office where it was continually stepped on. I asked if I needed to go buy wood but the younger one said, “Naw, we got a piece back at the house, we got you covered.” When they showed up 3 days later, they built a tiny new piece of sub-floor, which had to go around the HVAC vent, which may be why the other guy didn’t do it. Because did you know… “You got to use a jigsaw for that, see? I got one but don’t look like he did. Not everybody does quality.” Yes, I see that.

So while the one brother worked on the subfloor issue, the other one moved furniture from my living room and hallway up against the walls so he could begin to repair the plaster ceilings using a drop cloth, of course, because they DO do quality. I was pleased to see that.

But I’ve not been that pleased to see all the rooms stay that way for what is now three, no four, no five weeks. But, I readily admit that not all of the delays are their fault.

Because you see, in between when the brothers did and didn’t show up to work, a whistle pig (That’s mountain vernacular for a ground hog.) took up residence in my backyard. That whistle pig drove my hunting hound nearly insane for over two weeks. (Don’t tell the game warden but Dot’s a serial killer—she’s killed 32 squirrels.) She stalked that thing day and night, while Mr. Pip, my part-Jack Russell, part-Besenji that looks like a Tater Tot with legs, dug so many tunnels to connect to that pig’s tunnels that all his white places turned brown. And in their dogged pursuit of that whistle pig they managed to completely destroy the latticework that girds my deck, the deck that was being waterproofed. Yes, my dogs meticulously tore apart almost fifty feet of lattice until that whistle pig finally encountered its date with destiny near the goldfish pond. The pig was so busy gorging itself on an enormous mushroom that mysteriously appeared overnight that it never saw death coming.

Anyway, when the brothers showed back up, that was the first thing they saw. “Oh Lord, look at that! I think the big-in kilt it! She’s pullin’ the guts out its hole.” Stop! Too much information! “Yeah, well that ain’t all she done! Look at that lattice. It’s all tore up, we cain’t stain that now. You’re gonna have to replace it.”

So off to Home Depot I went to get 50 feet of 6×9 lattice and another 5 gallons of deck stain.

Now, with the whistle pig gone and, on the occasions when they have shown up, they’ve done an amazing job restoring my property and yard. Even if they did clipper my blueberry bushes almost down to the ground, saying as they got in the truck, “We took care of them shrubs in the backyard for you while we was at it.” Shrubs? What shrubs in the back yard? Oh no…

So like I was saying in the beginning, a widow quickly learns two things. One, when your own man isn’t there to fix it you just have to call someone and two, there’s no problem several thousand dollars won’t cure. I’ll give you a heads up when they’re done. When will that be? “Oh, should be about middle of next week.” Should be, but you’ll notice I’m not holding my breath. “Aww. Don’t you worry about it. We got you covered.”

One Night Away from Death

As I write this, I am furiously drinking a lemon water in a panicked attempt to flush cortisol from my bloodstream so I can exit that hyper-alert state that comes upon you when you don’t feel safe or when you feel terrified. (Like when you realize you could have died, for instance.)

But let me calm down and start at the beginning. My week began innocently enough. I drove to the International Festival Gathering of Biblical Storytelling, which just happened to be happening in Dayton, Ohio. I told A Widows Tale for opening worship and it was a beautiful experience to share that story with my fellow storytellers from across the country and the world.

We spent three more days immersed in story and by Friday night we were just about glazed over from the joy of story.

That’s when someone mentioned having dinner in a lovely, vibrant, eclectic area of Dayton with fabulous restaurants. The foodies among us couldn’t resist, so we carpooled to said district and were not disappointed. We found gorgeous Thai food with an atmosphere to match, right down to the oriental letters tattooed on our well-coifed waiter’s wrist. (You can’t have fabulous food without atmosphere, right?) Then as evening fell, we wandered the district and enjoyed the ambience. We passed bars and restaurants filled with laughter and intriguing aromas, listened to street musicians and djembe drummers, visited a hat shop (this was Ohio, not NYC, so it was a hat shop, not a haberdashery), walked around a few drugged and drunk people huddled in front of a tattoo parlor, and hurried past a peep-show palace to get back to our car. (I said the district was eclectic. The peep-show and patrolling police let us know the district was clearly a heady work-in-progress.)

Saturday we had planned to return to try out the Italian place that looked promising but we were just t o o  t i r e d  so we went to a brew pub around the corner instead.

Which is how I remained one night away from death. Because you see, that district, the work-in-progress with the patrolling police? That’s where a crazy opened fire with an automatic weapon and a hundred rounds of ammunition on Saturday night, August 3. Before the police shot him in the street like a rabid animal he managed to kill 9 people and wound 26.

We heard the sirens, enough sirens to signal the end of the world. We watched the replays again and again on TV. The politicians owned by the gun lobby again assured us that more people die in car crashes each year than in armed massacres by insane people who clearly should never have access to a weapon. I’ve seen it and heard it so many times I’d become numb to it. Let’s be real, there were 3 other massacres just like it that weekend and like many of you, until then, I tuned it all out.

But I’d never been one night away from death before. I walked that street. I stood on that corner. That bullet-ridden body in Dayton could have been me or my storyteller friends or all of us. The shooter didn’t discriminate and was clearly a person whose story had not been kind to him.

Death missed me by that much. And I’m forever changed. I’m forever changed and I’m ready to do what it takes to get our gun laws changed. As one of the Australian storytellers noted, “You’re not safe anymore are you? When it happened to us, we passed a law. Don’t you think it’s time you passed a law?” Yes. I do. And I’m going to get busy and stay busy until we pass that law. Maybe you should too, because guess what? We’re all just one night away from death.

 

 

 

 

Lessons from My Mothers

I don’t reflect as often as I should on the lessons I’ve learned from other women but today the lessons from the “mothers” I’ve loved unfolded like a highway; complete with roadside restaurants, exit signs, and rest stops. True Confession One: I was too focused on the Big Boy restaurants and icebox pies to see the exits and rest stops I really needed to take. Confession Two: I still am.

My maternal grandmother’s teachings arrived first. She was a Victorian era bride who birthed 6 babies in the Roaring Twenties, lost one in childbirth, one to the Big Red Measles, and reared the other four in the Great Depression. Despite only having a 6th-grade education (Why waste education dollars on women? They’re just going to have babies and cook…) she had the best vocabulary of almost anyone I’ve known because she read the dictionary cover-to-cover and could whip your butt at Scrabble.

My grandfather ran a successful life insurance business and she kept his books – in her head. When the stock market crashed and they lost “all their savings” she kept their money in the mattress and saved the stubs of our pencils in a can on the stove. She put up beans all summer long and ate them on bread, often with a wilted salad made from wild greens, dressed with bacon fat, a pinch of sugar, and homemade vinegar. Grandma was soft on the outside – cast iron on the inside. She was harder on herself than anyone, ruled her family with an iron fist, did not trust others or “the system,” and lived to be almost a hundred. The last 20 years of that as a widow. From her I learned to be strong, resilient, self-supporting, frugal and wary of “systems” that make the rich richer and deny women an education, and take long naps. But I also learned to be mistrustful of others and isolated.
Five Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. One Rest Stop.

Then there was my first mother-in-law: A high-ranking Navy doctor’s wife who drank Bloody Marys for breakfast and chain-smoked Camels. She was world-traveled, politically astute, very loving and tragically lonely. She taught me how to survive in high society, give cocktail parties an admiral would enjoy, and be ridiculously generous. (She gave me a Wedgewood jewelry box, antique brass pitchers I still display, fur coats I almost never wear, a collection of tortoise shell combs from pre-war England, and a red vintage BMW.) She tolerated her husband’s dalliances and openly encouraged me to do the same. When he was gone at night she never asked where, she just poured another whiskey and once a month had a massage. (“Don’t be naïve, it’s just what men do. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.”) When I finally stopped looking the other way and spending my nights alone with a drink, I divorced her baby boy.
Three Icebox Pies. Two HUGE Exit Signs. One Rest Stop.

My second mother-in-law was a truly elegant, plantation-bred beauty with charming manners, deep faith, and love of family. She was playful, impeccably dressed, and amazingly fit. (She showed me how to do a split at 70 and encouraged me to exercise.) Her five children were the light of her life. She made a mean G&T and also cultivated the habit of looking the other way. A wickedly smart woman, she unfortunately bought into the myth that men always know best and only made decisions when she had to. I became the wife of her Rhett Butler-esque #1 Son and gave birth to the first-born son of the first-born son of the first-born son of the first-born son. From her I learned pride of lineage, the importance of daily exercise, the art of being Presbyterian, a love of tartans, and prayerfulness in the face of betrayal.
Five Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. Daily Rest Stops.

And this leads me to my own dear mother. She was an exquisite pianist and organist whose innate relationship to music is embedded in my mitochondria. (I guess that’s what happens when you lie as a baby on the console of an organ and the lid of a grand piano.)

She centered herself in the morning and at night with the power of prayer and was the wind beneath my pastor father’s wings; a wind that entertained constantly to secure and advance his career, a wind that kept its own power a family secret, and also allowed him to define whether or not she was still beautiful after she endured a 43-year fight with breast cancer. A true survivor, my mother wore carefully tailored outfits that hid the maiming she’d endured. She modeled positivity in the face of tragedy, fearlessness in claiming God’s healing and mercy, insisted I use my intelligence and gifts boldly, and was always affectionate and loving.
Eight Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. Two Rest Stops.

So as I reflect on my own life as a wife and mother I’m happy that I’ve learned to be truly loving, generous and affectionate. I’ve encouraged my son to be a kind gentleman, to use his deep intelligence, to live boldly, dream big, and be a man of prayerful intention. Like the women who taught me, I am resilient in the face of tragedy and betrayal and have become a fierce encourager for others facing the same. (This still rather surprises me!) I’m pretty bold about sharing the stories that have surprised me, wounded me, informed me, and made me (for better or for worse) who I am.

And, I’m working on taking the EXITS and REST STOPS along the highways of life. Like many women, I’ve spent too many years either trying to “hold it” or “hold it together.” And way too many years doing both at the same time!

Frozen?

I woke today to a world encased in ice. A glassy vision held stunningly still by the frozen air. The beauty of it took my breath away, as did the treachery I watched as the dogs slipped and stumbled in the undertaking of their morning constitutional.

For a moment I wondered if my heart had brought this upon the earth. If nature had somehow created a mirror image for the numbness that has all but rendered me useless for the last several months.

I watched a small bird fight to free its feathers and understood its agony explicitly. Frozen is a dreadful state to be in. When one gray moment blends into the next it’s hard not to feel hopelessly suspended. I’ve been up against something larger than my will.

The icy suspension brought metaphor, too: The tens of thousands who can’t pay a house note on frozen wages and the freezing of our personal freedoms in the name of safety. Environmental salvation so hard won disappearing into thin, cold air. Children ripped from the arms of parents and teachers with icy zeal in a Nazi-style round up. Yes, perhaps I am not the only one who feels a cold grip upon the very nature of my soul.

Just as it all becomes unbearable, the air outside warms and the stillness gives way to melting water that falls like rain. The ice loses its grip on limb and roof and chunks of it crash to the ground. I close my eyes and pray for a warmth like this to come and free our frozen hearts.

 

 

To Whine or Give Thanks? That is the Question.

I was out to a lunch buffet the other day and overheard a conversation that disgusted me. Two entitled twenty-somethings were discussing the upcoming holiday (Black Friday). They were mutually annoyed that before they could get around to having their parents order stuff or go shopping for deals they first had to suffer through Thanksgiving.

As they rose several times to refill their plates with what I must say was some pretty awesome Indian food (I do love me some Indian cuisine!), they were openly wishing that they could cherry-pick the food someone would lovingly prepare for them at home like they were doing with the buffet. The cloth napkins there are quite large and I thought about reaching out and swatting the girl, that’s what my grandmother would have done and her words were that 1. spoiled and 2. annoying.

There they were, putting fine food on a credit card that probably gets paid off by Daddy, whining about how long they had to wait to shop and then how they always had to wait until “at least Christmas eve” before they could get the loot they’d asked for. It gave me pause.

I’ve been pausing a lot this Thanksgiving season. It’s been pretty personally hard and I’ve been sorely tempted (and sorrily not always resisted the temptation) to whine about the stuff that’s been happening in my life. But then God keeps giving me conversations that make me hit the pause button.

Like the one I had with a friend whose spouse is undergoing not only dialysis but chemotherapy. Good Lord have mercy. It’s a medical miracle, to be sure, but one that involves so much pain and suffering. And this is a dear, dear person who is doing the suffering. Or the one I had with a stranger whose dog was hit by a car when she opened her door to receive a package and it ran out. Bless her heart. She was walking the lake, by herself, crying the whole way and asked if she could pet Pip. Her dog was a Jack Russell, too.

And then there is a new widow I’m working with who has no one to spend the holiday with and she’s too far away to invite over. She’s dreading it. Is in a countdown for it. Her only son is in the Army and he’s overseas. She fears for him. He’s all she has left of her life. They moved to a new town shortly before her spouse was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer (a nasty way to go). She knows no one. Doesn’t feel like going anywhere to meet anyone. It’s only been 3 months. How long does this take, she asks?

Maybe you’re not feeling lucky right now, either. Maybe things haven’t been that great for you, either. But you know what? You should still be grateful for all the parts of you that still work and for the blessings you have in your life. Because gratitude is an attitude and it brings good things to your heart.

So get out the magnifying glass and a piece of paper. Write down 10 things you’re grateful for. Do it today. Do it tomorrow. Do it on Thanksgiving. And get ready to feel better. Then go one more. Tell somebody that you’re grateful for them. Maybe it’s just the clerk at the drive-through window, maybe it’s your neighbor or the guy who empties your trash into that monster truck every week. None of us ever get enough gratitude really. We all want to know that we matter. So give that to someone. It won’t cost you a dime.

And it will refocus your heart and your mind on what you have. Which, no matter who you are or what your circumstances are, is a lot.

My rant is done. Happy THANKS-GIVING to you!

Get Out from Under the Covers

When something really bad happens to you (like widowhood, for instance) it’s really tempting to go under the covers and stay there for a while. In fact, I don’t think this is a bad strategy, in the scheme of things. Sure beats sitting around listening to other people tell you what you should do, must do, and so on when whatever it is (like widowhood, for instance) hasn’t happened to them.

Have you ever noticed how much smarter other people get when it’s time for them to solve your problems? Seriously, there they are, muddling through their less-than-stellar lives, bumbling along, confused and stressed out, just like everyone else UNTIL you mention how overwhelming your feelings are (because you’re facing widowhood head on, for instance) and you make the mistake of stopping to take a breath and TA DAH! said persons suddenly leap into your life to try and FIX YOU.

Too bad that doesn’t ever work, right? I mean, why spend all that useless time on personal development and internal skill-sets when you could just let someone who hasn’t done what you are trying so desperately to do fix you? It’s laughable, really, and yet their “help” can keep you from coming out from under the covers and putting on your big-girl pants.

Sometimes these well-meaning people can make you feel like a failure before you’ve even taken one step forward. Just because you say, “I don’t know if I should _____ or ____ ” doesn’t mean you won’t figure it out. It doesn’t mean you won’t find the answer that’s right for you! All that question means is that you are aware of the fact that you have choices.

Choices are good things. Choices are brain-judo you do in the safety of your home gym. The contemplation of choices is essential to the act of crawling out from under the covers after the unthinkable happens. And YOU are the only person who knows which one of those choices is the right one for you, right now. (That’s the cool thing about considering your options, most things are reversible. More on that in another blog.)

So bravo on you for being brave enough to come out from under the covers! Instead of letting someone try to “fix” you, ask yourself cool, contemplative questions, like, “I wonder what it would look like to ___________.” Yeah, that’s the ticket. Because Helen Keller was right, “Life is a grand adventure, or it’s nothing.”

Memorial Day

Sarge was my Daddy’s last best friend. I never knew his “real” name, everyone just called him Sarge, which I guess pretty well tells you that he was a career military man. They were the two widowed roosters in a hen house called the assisted living center. They were handsome and ornery but as Sarge said, “We’re too old to do anything about it.” When they moved my Daddy to the nursing unit, he came twice a day, like clockwork, just to say hello. He was a faithful friend until the very end.

After Daddy died, I gave him the lift chair and he played with the remote for hours on end. He put it through its paces like the drill sergeant he was. “Attention!” he’d holler as he pushed the button to go up and then he’d push the button to go down and say “At ease.” It was really funny. He loved that chair.

Like Daddy, Sarge was a child of the great depression and like Daddy, he lost his mother before he turned 9. But unlike Daddy, his father sent him to live with a distant relative, to work on his farm in exchange for room and board. People did that back then—it was how folks survived.

The first Easter Sarge lived on the farm, he carefully lined his Easter basket with field grass, like his mother had taught him, and left it on the stairs for the Easter bunny to find it. But when he ran downstairs on Sunday morning, the basket had a big horse turd in it instead of candy and Sarge said, “That’s when I knew the Easter bunny wasn’t never coming again, Santa Claus neither.” What a cruel joke. What kind of man does that to a child?

Needless to say, he left that farm as soon as he could in the only way that gave him a safe way out: The US Army. Sarge was a hard worker accustomed to sacrifice. The Army needed men like him, men who understood hardship and death. He stayed at it, married a sweet woman from home, and rose to the rank of Sergeant.

He travelled the world with the military and regaled the assisted living hens with stories of his exploits over supper. The two missionary women would try to one-up him but it never worked. He’d seen things—lots of things. “I’ve seen too many things a man shouldn’t have to see and I wish the good Lord would let me forget.” he told Daddy more than once. I guess, in a way, God answered his prayer. Sarge developed dementia and barely knew who he was for a few years before he died.

As Memorial Day dawns, I salute men like Sarge. I salute all the men and women who have seen things no one should have to see so the rest of us don’t have to. They sacrificed themselves on a daily basis so we wouldn’t have to. Sarge, and his fellow soldiers, who lost their minds and limbs and lives serving our country and protecting our freedoms will always be honored in my home and heart. On this weekend when we acknowledge their service, may they know peace.

 

 

Ode to a Songbird

I hit a bird today. A tiny, sparrow-like mama bird with a pale yellow body flying across the road with a morsel in her mouth. Too late I saw her; too late saw the morsel in her mouth; too late saw her hit the glass and fall to her death on the shoulder of the two-lane country road.

It ripped my heart out to hit her. Red-shouldered hawks have circled our skies for days, gathering meat for their nests, but she’d survived them. She understood the hawks and had probably outmaneuvered them more than once this spring. She’d withstood other predators, too: Squirrels, crows, possums, and coons all enjoy a songbird’s egg. But nothing in her DNA had prepared her to meet a windshield. She never saw death coming.

The little mother was on one of those missions that only another mother can understand; racing through each day, exhausting herself to find food for her young. Her flight path was lo and laser-focused on the first maple in the meadow where generations of mountain songbirds reared their young before her. The meadow was theirs long before the road was ours.

My mind leapt to the nest, to the young who were now without a mother. As I well understand, the death of a parent is a family affair, and I lifted a prayer that they will survive without her. In high contrast to our thoughts of immortality (despite our continued 100% morbidity), wild things live day to day and understand that death is never very far away.

For weeks now the songbirds have greeted me in the morning and their full throated singing has filled my heart with joy. They are such a reminder that new life is rising from the dark cold of winter, that what has been birthed in darkness will soon lift blooms above ground.

This sweet bird’s sudden death was another reminder to slow down and live more intentionally; to hold myself accountable for the precarious balance between humanity (the world’s most invasive and dangerous species) and the rest of nature. Her soft life was a reminder that we, too, face new threats to our survival: poisoned food and water, noxious air, global warming, the marriage of big food and big medicine. (Lord have mercy upon us.) We are all connected, you know. What kills the songbirds kills us, too. Let us remember (before it is too late!) that their songs, our songs, are too valuable to lose.