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!
I’ve been focusing on that question a lot lately. It’s been necessary for self-preservation, because it’s been one of “those years” for me. I’ve had a break-up from an LTR (A “long term relationship” – I hate that term, by the way), some health issues, a surgery or two (make that 3). The old saying, “It never rains, it always pours” really threw its wrecking ball around in my life and I was in serious need of rejuvenation. (I just needed to have cataract surgery first so I could see well enough to go get it!)
My rejuvenation was delivered at a retreat for retreat leaders in a beautiful beachfront home on the Emerald Isle of North Carolina. Thanks to weather in the upper 60’s and a window that faced the ocean, I fell asleep listening to the surf crash against the thin strip of beach Hurricane Florence left behind… a sand bar bikini if you will.
Bless her heart, that poor girl had been through it, too. The beach erosion on the coast of North Carolina was unreal, just a little slip of that beautiful girl’s old self was left. Half the coast was still dangling from its hinges, and the squeal of buzz saws and drills filled the air until Miller time each day. She actually got a huge facelift while we were there, but that’s a story for another day.
As we spent our mornings in retreat, each leader taking her turn, my mind began to unwind and my sleep was deep and long. Fabulous food, guided yoga nidra, inspiring (and mercifully frank) conversations, and long walks on the beach brought yet more rejuvenation.
I wrote words in the sand with a stylus only to watch the waves snatch and erase them in a flourish of froth. I inhaled deeply and wrote the poet Mary Oliver’s question, “What will you do with your one amazing life?” and before I could even exhale, the question had disappeared into the surf. That kind of experience takes your breath away. It righteously changes how you think your one, fabulous life.
Which is actually a good thing, because with stress and violence becoming leading causes of death across the world for man and animal alike, the question of how to restore and find renewal is one of increased urgency. Polar bears are running out of ice faster than we can find answers to climate change.
We’re leaving our kids with one heck of a mess. My son, Mr. Science, says in twelve years (probably less) climate change will be utterly irreversible. He’s pretty pissed off about that and he has a right to be. Take a deep breath and think about that for a minute: When today’s cutie kindergartener graduates from high school, it will be too late. That’s some pretty scary math.
Accck!!!! I hate change as much (or more) than the next person, but this is real people! It’s us: dying from heat stroke, Lyme disease, the tropical diseases borne on the bite of a blood-sucking insect whose turfs are rapidly expanding, and massive storm systems. Imagine how much Excedrin is being consumed by folks who work for the CDC or FEMA. Seriously. They have very scary jobs! Our country has money and boots on the ground but it’s those who don’t who will suffer the most.
Is panic a solution? (Uh, no.) Twitter feeds? No. (No, Mr. President, stop it!) Hysteria and vociferous Facebook attacks on those with alternate persuasions also only add distance to our ability to work together. Our anger actually contributes to non-solutions. Doing nothing or going backwards hasn’t proved productive yet. But meanwhile, meanwhile, the science is more damning by the day. It says climate change is coming sooner than we thought and that it’s way more devastating than we can currently imagine.
But here’s another thing science says: When you’re stressed and freaked out and distanced from everyone else you can’t think of strong solutions! (It’s a brain hierarchy thing and it’s real.)
Rational, deliberate thought and a deep sense of having a caring community is what you need. Caring community is how we survived up until now and guess what? It’s still what we all need, it’s what our planet needs. It’s the only way to find real answers and accept the behavioral changes necessary for the survival of all. Oh, and with 1-5 Americans now taking anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, or anti-psychotic medications we probably need some new answers to the chronic stress that plagues us all, too.
Now that I’ve climbed all the way up on my soapbox, let me finish, I’m almost done, I know you’re busy.
Do I realize that I’m one of the lucky ones? Yes. I’m relaxed and inspired now. I’m jazzed and recharged. I’ve spent time with highly intelligent, creative, and intuitive thought leaders. After time with my tribe, my duffel bag is stuffed full of new things (attitudes, skill sets, ideas). After this time of deep self-reflection, I’m actively exploring new ways to do what I do so I can play my small part to bring about needed reflection and change. I want to do my part to ease suffering in our precious world. But I had to start with myself. Because, where else can you really start to bring about reflection and change?
Life is short, so I’ll return to my original question: What do you want your future to look like? Where will you find the renewal and support necessary to have hard conversations, first with yourself, and then with others?
Think about it, just don’t wait too long. Time is not on your side.
Lost in the Crowd
Flying in and out of a big airport recently, I was struck by how few people ever made eye contact with me during the 2 hours we called it home. It was very odd. Because we had waited in the same lines, offered our identity to gloved handlers who made sure our faces matched our photo, literally rubbed shoulders as we retrieved our possessions from the TSA scanner, and knelt alongside one another to put our shoes back on. We were living a shared experience without acknowledging our togetherness. I quietly wondered how many of us were widows, how many of us were grieving someone, how many of us had received a dreaded diagnosis and I mourned our lack of community.
I bustled down one of those moving sidewalks. The one where some are grateful to rest and ride while the icy and stoic veterans of the runway brusquely walk past. I found my departure gate, located an open chair, unwrapped my over-priced sandwich, and indulged in a little people watching.
I felt like I was watching fish in an aquarium. My son and I were aquarists for years with both salt and fresh water tanks. At night we would turn on the light that lived inside the hood that kept the fish safe from the cat and watch them swim around in their little underwater world. It was like having pop art in your den. The yellow tang, azure damsel, orange and white striped clowns, spotted triggerfish, and elegant angels would claim first one corner and then another, darting behind or inside the miniature sunken ship for rare moments of solitude. They never made eye contact with one another or with you, but they all knew where the container of food resided and when you made your way to that, they would swim in quick formation to the top to await their feeding.
So it was with us. The glass-walled airport was our home away from home. We the little fish swimming inside, darting inside restrooms or restaurants for rare moments of solitude. It was like watching pop art in a public place. The garish overhead lights accentuating the neon colors of clothing, the white lettering on T-shirts, the “whoa girl!” make-up applied by eyes not yet fully awake. Avoiding eye contact with the other, we rose in formation when our group was called to board. It was at once a claustrophobic and lonely experience.
An archaeologist would remind us that isolation for humans is dangerous. That isolation makes us vulnerable to predators and defenseless when attacked. That being unaware of others and our surroundings is, in and of itself, dangerous. We are pack animals, healthiest in a tribe, happiest when we belong to someone or something.
My day in the fish tank was a reminder that being truly seen and authentically known by another is an increasingly rare experience in our age of online identity and text messaging. We long to be understood, to have our story heard, and yet continue to isolate ourselves from the contact that makes such a knowing possible. Reaching out, being the first to lock eyes and offer a smile is a gift we can all afford to give. Isolation is never a good survival strategy.
I imagine you heard about the bitter Artic weather in Chicago recently. Minus 41. Please know that was the actual temperature, not the modern-day, Dixie-darlin’ weather-girl, wind-chill stuff. Six homeless people and scores of animals left outside died, giving new meaning to the words “bitter cold.”
So I guess you can imagine how excited I was to be flying there to perform stories and lead a Navigating Loss retreat. As we began our descent into O’Hare, the depth of the cold was perceptible. No, that’s too small a word. You could feel its wickedness rising up. It was palpable. Even the clouds looked cold. The landscape was white on white, snow distinguished from ice only by its opacity. Thick icicles hung from rooftops, trees, and power lines. The outside walls of the warehouses at the edges of the city were frozen in place, as if they had been spray-painted by the cold. I felt like I was flying into the set of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The airport had just reopened after several days in the deep freeze and we landed on an ice rink of a runway lined by four-feet high walls of piled up snow.
This is yet another reason that I reside in the South. But my dear storytelling friend Patricia had been waiting for me in the cell lot with a warm car so I can’t even pretend to have been affected by what they had just endured. We slid across the hotel parking lot with my luggage and then left for dinner at the pastor’s house where we were greeted by two very curious dogs and a warm fire in the hearth. It was a symbolic beginning for what was to be a very friendly, enthusiastically embracing, achingly lovely weekend.
The story concert came first. My sister was there. Friends from the Network of Biblical Storytellers’ Prairie Wind Guild came. I felt enfolded in warmth and affection.
Saturday dawned bright and cold as 27 people arrived for the Navigating Loss retreat. We were a mess of a mix: Widows and widowers, orphaned 50-somethings, those facing unrelenting illness and its accompanying loss of financial and physical freedom. As we shared our stories of love and loss we bonded deeply. As we laughed at the absurdity of society’s rules about grieving and the deeper absurdity and danger of pretending we’re not, the weather warmed to a balmy 26. Homemade soup and thick sandwiches were consumed, along with cookies of every description. (I hate the cold but love the heartiness of a Midwest buffet!)
Sunday it rose above freezing, I took credit for bringing the warmth of the South with me as I shared the sermon-story “Sometimes the Angels Ride Harleys,” which you can listen to here:
Then I spent the night with my sister and met her new dog. Drank some red wine and ate take-out Chinese. As I flew back through the friendly skies the white clouds of change were appearing on the horizon. Thank God I was back on Southern soil before they were socked again by an ice storm. May the fire of love and understanding warm what’s left of this winter for all of us!
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.
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!
I’ve been on the road working most of October. Half the time I’ve driven and the other times I’ve flown. And flying is where this story begins.
It started at 4:30 a.m. when I had to be AT the Asheville airport at 5:30 a.m. in order to make my 6:30 a.m. flight. When I awoke to the sound of a torrential rainfall (thanks to Hurricane Michael) I saw a text on my phone, “Your flight to Charlotte has been cancelled. Our next available flight leaves at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow. Please call….” Really?! My hospice-sponsored retreat was to start at that same time on Friday – in Pennsylvania! How in the @#&$ was I going to get there?
I looked at my watch. I looked at my already-packed luggage. I threw it all in the car and began driving to Charlotte in a torrential rainfall, in the dark. I called the airline on my cell and asked if flights would be cancelled from Charlotte. “Well, probably, yes, but we’re not sure when that will start.” A quick glance at the weather radar revealed that I was racing along the edge of a powerful and rapidly advancing front. I put the pedal to the metal. Thank God the troopers were somewhere having eggs and bacon.
I had to park in the “long term lot” so I could afford to leave and the only available lot was located somewhere in outer Mongolia. But, the good news is that there was a shuttle which I was able to walk about a block to catch in the pouring rain. The lovely woman driving it waited for me. “Honey, I’m not supposed to wait on anybody, but it looked to me like you’d had a hard day.” God love her.
Inside the airport, as sopping wet as wet gets, standing in my own little puddle of sweat and rainwater, I checked the flight board. My flight to Pittsburgh was on time. I took a deep breath, uttered a prayer of thanks under my breath, got my boarding pass and entered security. And that’s when things got weird…
You know how I have dark hair and eyes? And my eyes kind of have that Asian fold due to my wee bit of Cherokee heritage (I think…). Well, apparently that makes me appear middle eastern to folks who have never left central North Carolina. Who knew? I was “removed” from the security line and patted down as a terrorist threat. Then I was handed over to a tall, rail-thin, 30-something, skin-headed man whose moments of power apparently don’t come often enough. As I watched him carefully snap on his exam gloves, I prayed he wasn’t the cavity search person. Instead, he unzipped my already x-rayed luggage and ruthlessly riflied through it.
He tossed my underwear onto the counter and uncovered what he knew he would find: Contraband.
“Well now, what do we have here?” his testosterone and power-syndrome rapidly rising. He ripped the tops off my watercolor pens and began rubbing them on a TSA memo pad. Now, I know that it pays to remain courteous when dealing with law-enforcement because they have a very stressful job and there really are dangerous people out there but It had already been a very trying day and my flight was leaving in less than 20 minutes and before I could stop myself the words, “What are you? 6? They’re watercolor markers!” flew out of my mouth and that was that.
As I tried to apologize and explain that I lead retreats for women and that’s why I had the “contraband” in my luggage while dropping hints that my flight left in less than 20 minutes, he opened the package of printed retreat workbooks and examined them closely. Felt the staples on each one. Then he leaned into my face and said, “Just what is it that do you do again?” And I said meekly that I lead retreats for women. And he says, “Widows, right? This says widows” And I replied, “Sometimes, yes.This time, yes.”
Well, small world. His mother was a widow. Where was this retreat anyway? She’d been having a really hard time in the three years since his Dad had died and he wanted her to come. I heard the last call for my flight over the PA so, desperately and rapidly, I said, “It’s really far away and that’s why I need to fly there and can I please go now so I can make my flight? I’m so sorry you lost your Daddy. Please give your Mom this magazine (Widow) and maybe I can come to her town some time and lead a retreat.”
Yes, absolutely. Of course. With tears in his eyes he threw all my stuff back into the suitcase, zipped it and followed me until the last possible moment, to tell me about his Mom and the loss of his Daddy and how much it hurt. I squeezed his hand, ran down the corridor, and made my flight.
While I caught my breath I looked around at all the other people squished into that tin can with wings, ignoring the safety instructions (and one another) and I wondered how many of them, like my new friend in security, had lost someone dear to them and never really dealt with it. I wondered how many were still hiding their pain, stuffing it deep down inside because they never received any help to sort through their feelings, or felt truly heard, or treated themselves with enough compassion to recover from that loss.
And I started wondering what would happen if we just reached out and touched each other’s pain. What would happen if we looked each other gently in the eyes and began sharing our stories of love and loss? Love is what makes life real and loss is what shows us how much we have loved. And our stories are what can guide us through this life we share together on this little blue and green ball spinning in space called Earth.