Monday, July 17, 2017

A Walk at Dusk in Summer

Photo courtesy of Amio Cajander/Flickr

Lately, after we get the girls to bed, I've been taking the dog out for long walks. It's really the only sensible time of day to be outside doing anything mid-July in Virginia. At dusk, the air is still thick and woolen, but the sun is sinking down and there's usually a breeze.

Snacks expects it now. After I've sung "Blackbird" to the last kid and closed the last bedroom door, I'll find him sprawled on our bed. As soon as I reach for my Chucks he leaps off the bed and clamors downstairs, whining at the front door.

He'll drag me down the sidewalk past the first few driveways before settling into a more reasonable pace– still yanking the leash, but not toppling me in the process. He's better than he was years ago when a random dog trainer stopped me on a walk to give me his business card. Older, a bit slower now. 

I find myself shaking off the day like the horses at the farm used to do when we'd let them out of their stalls after a long time being cooped up. Their skin would twitch, straw and dust flaking off as they trotted into the pasture, sniffing the air before settling to graze. I can feel the annoying bits of the day– Lily's impatience, Jovie's whining, my own irritability– chipping off. These long summer days can make our little ecosystem especially sensitive to the moods of one another. 

By the time I reach the magic tree down the block and around the corner (the one with all the wind chimes and hanging flower baskets), I can breathe evenly. Sometimes I'll listen to the latest interview on "On Being" though I also like to just listen to what's around me. There are always a few birds trilling and whirring cicadas. I listen for the local crows– there's a large group of them (OK fine ... a murder of crows... but I don't think they deserve such violence)– that hangs out in the tall trees in the neighborhood next door. At dusk they're always calling to each other, flying over in packs of four or five. An odd straggler cawing from the way back from time to time. I like to think they're keeping an eye on the proceedings below and reporting the days happenings to each other, like nosy grandma's on porch swings.

I use the walks for meditation, sort of. I focus on my breathing. Being in this moment. I catalog all the sights, sounds and smells. The gaggle of middle schoolers shouting hello to anyone they pass– daring for a response. The nearly naked gardener out mowing his lawn (no, this is not a Desperate Housewives-worthy hot lawn boy sort of situation. This man should not be gardening shirtless). The high school boys talking about God and girls down by the stream. The lazy blinking of fireflies. The light lemony tang of the mimosa's fuchsia blossoms– the girls and I call them troll flowers. The sweet scent of the honeysuckle that's draped over young trees in the woods. 

I just finished reading "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohllebon and so the park near my house has become sort of a laboratory where I test my new found knowledge about trees. I try to spot things mentioned in the book. Honeysuckle vines strangling young trees for instance. Bracket fungus climbing up the side of an old, slowly rotting tree. Trees of the same species that are grouped together looking out for each other– ceding space in the canopy so that everyone gets enough sunlight and communicating with one another through a series of fungal networks below the ground (that part I can't see obviously, but I think about it as I'm walking by. I wonder what they communicate to each other about these humans and their dogs constantly stopping to pee on their trunks). I've always loved trees and now I feel like I know just a little more about what's knowable of them (they live for hundreds, if not thousands of years– just not enough time for us to fully understand them, really. Though I think Tolkien was on to something with his Ents). 

Wohllebon writes that a beech tree will produce 1.8 million beechnuts in its lifetime. Of all of those seeds the mother tree produces, just one will develop into a full-grown tree. The rest will be eaten by animals or attacked by fungus or bacteria. I think about this as I'm walking. How we've pretty much won the lottery each time we see a mature tree. How lucky we are to all be balanced on the head of this pin spinning at the edge of a knife– humans, dogs, trees, crows and the rest.

The dog has become a bit more selective about our routes for the evening walk recently. I like to make a big loop– through our neighborhood down the tree-covered trail, then back to our street cutting through the next community over. But we haven't been making it that far. The other night it was the rubber-band twang of a toad in the stream that got him worried. He refused to go any further, so we turned around. A couple times we've reached a dark section and he'll stop in his track and spin to point the direction we just came. He can't be urged forward. I follow his lead, telling myself he's probably just looking after me when I really think he's kind of a pansy about the whole venture. What type of dog is afraid of the dark? 

There were reports that a bear was spotted crossing a road not far from here. Maybe it's the bear he smells. I consider what I might do if faced with a bear in the woods. Would Snacks fight valiantly to protect me? If he ran away or was incapacitated by said bear, what would I do? Generally, I think of myself as more of a "curl up in a tiny ball and hope for the best" sort of person rather than the "punch bear in the face" person. But who knows who I'd turn into with a little adrenaline? Probably "Pick up terrified dog and run like hell" person. 

My mom texted a picture of a mother bear and two cubs, spotted on the driveway of their home in Colorado the other day. We're visiting in a couple weeks, so I've had lots of reason to ponder these bear scenarios. 

Tonight, we made it down the steep hill to the creek when Snacks got spooked and wanted to turn around. I grumped at him, but we trudged back up the hill. We were nearing the entrance to our neighborhood again when he stopped in his tracks, sniffing the bushes just off the path. Something caught his attention. Probably a squirrel or a chipmunk I figured. "Come on buddy," I urged. "Let's go." But he started growling, his ears perked up. I looked down the path behind us, there was a red fox. She regarded us, and I regarded her. She didn't hurry off, just stared. Snacks seemed to feel pretty confident he could take down a fox. He had size on the fox, but I'm certain not the street smarts or cunning. He barked and tugged at the leash.

I thought about an essay by E.B. White I'd read earlier today. He writes about his attempts to kill a fox who'd carried off one of his chickens. 

"One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy. The fox is mine. He wants to destroy my form of society– a society of free geese, of Bantams unconfined. So I react in the natural way, building up my defenses, improving my weapons and my aim, spending more and more time on the problem of supremacy. ... When I realize what a vast amount of time the world would have for useful and sensible tasks if each country could take its mind off 'the enemy' I am appalled. I shot a fox last fall– a long, lucky shot with a .22 as he drank at the pond. It was cold murder. All he wanted at that moment was a drink of water, but the list of his crimes against me was a long one, and so I shot him dead, and he fell backward and sank into the mud.The war between me and the fox is as senseless as all wars. There is no way to rationalize it. The fox is not even the biggest and meanest killer here– I hold that distinction myself. I think nothing of sending half a dozen broilers to the guillotine. Come June, heads will be rolling behind my barn."

I pulled Snacks away telling him that this was the foxes place, not ours and that he wasn't going to bother us. We went our way, and she went hers.

Further down the path, I ran into Jovie's swim coach out with her brother walking the family dog, Snickers. "Our dog's under quarantine right now, so they can't meet each other," she tells me as I tug Snacks back from her little mop-headed dog. 

"Oh no! What happened?" I ask.

"He got attacked by a fox."

So that was a bit unsettling. While I'd been trying to figure out evasive maneuvers for bears, my fox playbook was completely blank. Even having been face-to-face with a fox moments earlier, I hadn't considered what I'd do if the fox toward us instead of slinking away. I still don't think I would've considered it the enemy. Just another critter trying to establish its space in the world. But then I guess that's where enemies are born, right?

I leave my moral quandaries for another day. 

I wrote this poem a few days ago ... so will close with that tonight.

"A Walk at Dusk in Summer"

The dogs too long toe nails click on the pavement
To the rhythm of his panting
Tongue out long and lean.
My own breath, my own soft Converse footsteps on concrete,
These are constant
As we walk down the concrete sidewalk.
The cicadas in the trees rattle
Like thousands of pennies in thousands of tin cans
Crescendoing in and out.
The soloists join in than fade as we pass.
The songbirds tucking the day away.
The lawn mower resting and sputtering–
An old man clearing the phlegm from his throat.
The long roar of a jet engine. 
The dull whir of a car engine.
And faintly, the people on their porches
Or walking by saying hello
Saying the dog is nice.
I don't know what jazz is really.
But I think all this is jazz.
The mellow concert of a neighborhood at dusk.
This is the world's music.
The music we all make together.
Trees, bugs, birds, people
And on and on and on.
Once I hear it, I can't stop listening.
Which is good–
Because the music won't stop anyway.
And anyway, it's glad that I finally heard
My part in it.
While I don't know what jazz is, really
In this place I know being here right now
is instrumental
To the story. To the music. 
To the song we all play,
Whether or not we know it.
But it's time we start knowing it.


P.S. I left on my walk today feeling bummed that I hadn't updated the blog in a couple weeks and that I had no solid inspiration for this week. But as always with stories, they unfold at surprising times. I wrote this in spirit of E.B. White and for the love of prose and poetry. And walking at night. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Muddling through life as a white sheep and chronic cryer

My sister Laura likes to say that among my siblings, I am the lone white ewe in a family of black sheep. I often bristle when she says this– nobody wants to feel like the other, especially in their own family. But I understand where she's coming from. 

There's six of us– two boys and four girls. We've all struggled with depression and anxiety for most of our lives probably starting at adolescence (cuz that's a real pleasant time in everybody's life, right?) I think what Laura's getting at is that out of the six of us, I'm probably the most aggressively optimistic. 

I refuse to wave that white flag in the face of all the misery.

I am basically Eric Idle in "The Life of Brian" – but, like, earnestly.


Despite those periods when I kind of just want to hunker down in a hovel deep in the Canadian wilderness basking in my aloneness, I still dumbly pursue the idea that happiness is a possible thing in this life. I paint rocks, write poetry on the sidewalk, dance in my kitchen, sing in my car, wear ridiculous T-shirts, and always, always, always try to strike up conversations with children.  

I know, I know. I'm just my own form of crazy in a family of crazy. 

And I do find happiness– all moment to moment. But its right there.

That's what we all get. The moment to moment. It takes a lot of practice though. And inevitably, my inner black sheep shakes off its white coat (or is it that my white sheep puts on a black coat? Why would a sheep want to even wear any kind of coat when it's 90 degrees and muggy? Maybe it's not the color of the coat that's my problem– it's the fact that I'm wearing one at all! Is this a breakthrough?! It's not depression that's my problem, it's that I'm chronically overheated!)

Where were we?

Finding happiness? Inner peace? That's usually what I show up here to chat about. 

Anyway, I just worry that the natural resting place for my brain is depression. Like the natural resting place for my dog is sprawled on the couch. And the natural resting place for all the puzzle pieces for all the puzzles is all over the family room floor. And the natural resting place for Lily is strutting around the room and squawking like a chicken. And the natural resting place for Jovie is crying at me that Lily always gets to pick the first bedtime story every single night in the history of bedtime stories from the time the cave mom held a candle up the wall and told the story (uh-gain) about the time the dad killed a bison with a spear. 

What if depression is where I always land if I stop running on the hamster wheel? (Wait a minute, what if I'm actually a hamster? What if I'm not a sheep at all? But a hamster in white sheep's clothing in a family of black sheep!!!) 

Breakthrough No. 2 and I haven't even gotten to the point of this post. 

Over the years, I've done various self-portraits and various mediums (Partly because I'm a really vain hamster in white sheep's clothing and partly because in addition to being a wannabe novelist, I'm also wannabe artist.)

There's this one portrait I did back in my 20s, that I feel best illustrates how depression feels to me:


It's cardboard on cardboard. Beige on beige. Barely visible. 

And cuz it's hard to see via scan, here it is with some creepy under lighting.


It's really not any better that way. But then, depression doesn't really change based on the lighting.

What worries me about depression being my resting place is that this is who I am in the mirror and this is who I am to the world. Flat. Monochromatic. 

When I went to that retreat that I keep talking about, I was instructed to write a letter to my fear. Here's how mine started:

"Dear Susan, 
I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you. I am afraid I will be on antidepressants forever. I am afraid of being depressed forever. I'm afraid I won't be able to stop crying..."

There's more, but I'll stop there. Because that last line was the point of this post. Crying.

That I won't be able to stop crying. Because for me, Crying and Depression go hand-in-hand. They're like BFFs. Until antidepressants, that meddling third wheel, comes in and breaks them up. Suddenly, depression is given a little vacay and Crying? Crying is stuffed into a box and shoved into the back of a closet somewhere. 

And I suppose that means I can go about my day like a regular functional person and all, but the problem is Crying and I have a long complicated history. I feel more human when I cry. Less like the automaton antidepressants turn me into. 

"OK, Susan," you say. "What do you want? Do you want to cry or not? Do you want to stop being depressed or what? And also, are you a hamster or an automaton? I can't keep up. I thought this post was going to be all about sheep. Once again you sucked me into a black hole." 

What is this? The Inquisition? Enough already, various friends and strangers of the internet.

I don't want to be depressed forever. That's fear No. 2. And I don't want to cry forever. That's fear No. 3 and also highly impractical. I just want to feel like I can walk out in the world without antidepressants and be able to cry about the things that people cry about and not cry about the things that people don't normally cry about (like, say, the preview for "Ferdinand" or any commercial featuring newborns.) 

But now that I'm writing this, I have to wonder whether crying is really the problem. Maybe my crying isn't as closely linked to depression as I've assumed it is. Maybe crying just gets a bad rap around here. 

See, I've been a cryer for as long as I can remember. 

When we did those Acrostic poems in elementary school using our first names, I'm pretty sure I used "Sensitive" (code for cryer if I ever heard one) as my second "S" ... it might have even been the first "S". 

In fourth grade, I spilled chocolate milk all over my pants in the middle of the cafeteria (a story which I've probably shared here before because it was so traumatic) and immediately started crying out of embarrassment– which made the clinic aide think I'd actually peed my pants. I overheard her telling my mother over the phone all conspiratorial, "Well, she said she spilled milk on her pants, but I think she did you know what." This only made me cry more. Humiliating.)

In sixth grade I went to see "The Lion King" with a group of friends– one of whom I had an enormous crush on. I was holding hands with said crush (it was a pretty big deal) up until Scar killed Mufasa and made Simba think it was his fault, at which point I started bawling and needed to use the hand-holding hand to wipe away the copious amounts of snot and tears pouring out of my various face holes. 

I've tried to block out most of middle school for the same reason most of us block out middle school, I'm all but certain I cried in school. I definitely cried about school. And high school? Between multiple breakups, not making the staff of the school literary magazine, "The City of Angels" soundtrack and my stint of editor of the school paper – Let's just say there were too many teardrops for one heart to be crying. 

By the time I got to college, I had enough experience with all the tears to designate a crying spot (on a bench in the sculpture garden behind the art museum). 

I just sort of feel like I get big feels and they come out through my eyeballs and that's just who I am. And, unfortunately, I live in this world where that type of reaction about things big and small in public places is not ... I don't want to say accepted ... but maybe it's just that people don't know what to do with it. And I don't know what to do with it. 

Whether I'm out in the world and all the sudden a beautiful song comes on or I'm having a conversation with someone who's having a hard time in life, I just can't help tearing up. I feel it coming– the knotty throat and hot eyes and red nose– and I try to hold that shit in. But I don't think it's in me. I don't think that's who I am.

I think I run into plenty of other people like this– mostly women probably because as a society we've kind of decided men aren't allowed to cry. Which is probably creating all these little deaths within them and the rest of us. I feel kinship with these people, definitely. I feel less like a basket case. Like it's OK to wear my heart on my sleeve. I mean, it's gonna be there anyway, whether I like it or not.

I had to read that letter to fear out loud to a stranger at that retreat I went to. I was crying even before I started reading it, which I was mortified about, but also knew was kind of inevitable. The woman I shared it with- Kat from Boston– was so gracious and so kind. She told me right away she felt the same. She was taking antidepressants. She had worried she wouldn't be able to stop crying if she went off them. She was this really beautiful, successful person– she told me later she was a doctor– and it was such a relief that she related. 

My friend Kate keeps telling me I need to follow this writer Glennon Doyle Melton because she thinks I'd find some commonalities. She emailed this to me a while back:


I don't know if I'm any more deeply feeling than the average hamster, but this made me feel better about the crying thing. And it even makes me feel better about the depression thing. However the two are linked. It is a messy world damnit. And it'd be kind of insane not to have feelings about it, right?

And it's probably better to have a soggy, red face that's dealing with all the feelings than a monochromatic cardboard face that has just given up. 

And see, here I go again with my white sheepishness. Finding the silver lining in my depression and tearfulness. 

Pay no attention to that crazed crying woman behind the curtain. She's just being the person she was created to be. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

What's next? Rock painting


So, in addition to my sidewalk poetry endeavors, I've been painting rocks.



What the hell is a grown ass woman doing painting rocks? You ask.

I don't know, for the same reason grown ass women do yoga with goats. Or stage equestrian competitions using stick horses. Or dye their hair to look like rainbows. Or pretend to be real-life mermaids.

Because these days it seems like the world is just one Tweet away from becoming a racist, sexist, elitist, homophobic, xenophobic, bigoted, patriarchal hellscape and we are just grasping for something– anything– to offer reminders that our life here on this wacky spinning piece of space debris still has room for joy, silliness and magic.

To avoid getting swallowed into a pit of despair, I decided to paint rocks and then leave them in shared spaces around my neighborhood. At the playground, by the pool, on the walking path, outside the library. I recruited Lily and Jovie to join in the fun, too. Oh and a few neighbors (you know you've found your people when you tell them you've been painting rocks and they turn around and throw a rock-painting party complete with brownies and wine).

They're not masterpieces or anything. Not destined for the Smithsonian (unless, of course, I should happen to leave a couple on the Mall... which now that I'm writing this might have to happen). I decided on rocks because they're plentiful and free. Plus, I always have plenty of acrylic paint on hand. The girls and I stick with bright colors, fun patterns and sometimes a little glitter. 


We're not changing the world here. Not doing anything big and bold. Probably the opposite. Little and goofy. But it makes me happy and maybe it makes someone else happy, too, and that is enough. 

Yesterday, I received a sign from the great beyond that I'm on the right track with this rock thing.

I was helping my parents move out of their home in Lancaster, Pa. when Mom mentioned there was a bucket of river rock in their shed. She said I could take it if I wanted. To which I squealed and probably jumped up and down while extolling the merits of river rock for rock painting projects (they're soooo smooth and sooooo flat! The perfect little canvases). The bucket of rocks was really, really heavy. As buckets of rocks are wont to be. But I hauled it from the shed and into the car, next to the gallon of maple syrup I also scored from my parents (we took bets on which item would make Brad's eyebrows go up more). 

Last night I was scrubbing the mud off of some of my new rocks, something happened that  I think is pretty much the definition of magic. And that something, was birds:



It was as if a fellow weirdo had reached out across time and space to say, "right on."

***

The question for me recently (recently and always) has been, what's next?

What do I do next? Who will I be in this next phase of life? What things do I pursue? What dreams do I leave behind (or at least lay fallow for now)? Where do I find inspiration? What will drive me? What will pull me out of bed each morning? What will will lead me to my big I AM MOANA! moment? (Or, you know, I AM SUSAN! Which doesn't sound nearly as poetic and triumphant. I'm guessing it also wouldn't happen while I'm sailing solo across the Pacific on a raft).  

Such big questions. It seems we never get to stop answering this question.

The rest of the world asks this question at all stages of life post childhood. Where are you going to college? What will you major in? What will you do for work? When will you get married? When will you have children? When will you have more children? When will you return to work? Where will you live? What are you going to do with your life?

What next? 
What next?
What next?

And, of course, I ask it of others, too. It's how humans seem to converse with one another.

I asked Lily's high school-aged soccer coach the question at the team party. I asked the young woman on the train who'd just graduated from UVA that question. I asked my parents this question, too. Now that they've sold their house in Lancaster and are moving back to Colorado for the time being, Where will you go next? I asked. 

I've asked this question of myself for decades. After high school. After college. After marriage. After babies. And again recently. 

What next? 
What next? 
What next? 

We all spend a lot of our lives agonizing over this question. And because of that it makes it difficult to settle into our lives right now. Right now doesn't seem to matter as much as what's next.

Except when you are perpetually focusing on what's next, you're not really living your life at all. You're planning all the time. 

Or, if you're like me, you're not even planning. You're just sort of flopping about the floor like an overtired three-year-old who's just been told that, no, there won't be ice cream for dinner and that they also have to take off their own shoes. I mean the horrors! THE HORRORS! What a hideous, manipulative, demanding mistress this thing we call life is.

So here I am, still flopping about the floor. One shoe partially off dreading what will no doubt be the worst dinner ever because, as mentioned previously, no ice cream.

And I'm reminded of an anecdote Liz Gilbert shared during that retreat I went on

Just a few days before the program, Liz's partner and person for life (PFL), Rayya Elias, became very ill. I guess its not that she became ill. Rayya was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer last year. She's been ill for awhile. Except that on the Tuesday before the retreat she was extremely ill. Throwing up blood in the bathroom for hours ill. So ill Liz was convinced she was witnessing the last moments of her PFL. All she could do was sit on the bathroom floor and hold Rayya.

And of course, because she's human and all, ask the question, "What's next?"

What was she supposed to do next?

Liz said the answer about what to do next came from Rayya, who said she was cold. 

The next thing to do was to get a blanket. So she did. And she trusted that she'd know what the next thing to do was when it was time to do it.

Liz said life is like this. We'll know what the next thing to do is when its time to do it. We shouldn't discount all the teeny, tiny, incremental steps we're taking toward that thing. They matter. They keep our PFL warm. Obsessing over the towering colossus of "what's next?" does not answer the question "what's next?"

But living will. Living and honoring each teeny, tiny, incremental step will.

***

As I was taking a walk through the woods yesterday, I listened to an interview with artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. He said something I think we all need to hear:

"... There’s a tendency for us to think that to be a prophet or to do anything grand, you have to have a special gift, be someone called for. And I think ultimately what really matters is the resolve — to want to do it, to give your life to that which you consider important. And if you have no skills to offer, or nothing special to offer, it’s all the more amazing that you do it, the more remarkable. And I think that resolve is all that really matters. ... the reason I made the distinction between minor prophet is because I’m not trying to put any capital letters here or trying to say that you’re going to be remembered as such, because it really doesn’t matter. It’s a private journey that no one needs to really know about."

Maybe I won't have that Moana moment, afterall. Maybe I don't need to. Maybe I stick to doing the things that seem important to me– even if they seem insignificant to everyone else– and those are the things that will define me. Those are the things that will quiet the endless drumming of "What's next? What's next? What's next?"

What's next isn't as important as what we are doing right now. That's both the groundwork and the evolving masterpiece of our personhood. Even if I can't see what it all ends up looking like, it's OK.

As Liz Gilbert's friend Richard from Texas always said, "It's all gonna be alright."

And as my inside voices say, "It's time to paint another rock."


Monday, June 19, 2017

On big sorrows and golden skies


On Sunday afternoon I got a Facebook alert on my phone from a neighborhood group I'm a member of.

"Dranesville Rd closed for missing teen investigation, both directions between Rt. 7 shopping center & Sugarland Rd, Fairfax/Loundon Co border"

The area is just a couple miles from my house. I visit the shopping center regularly for groceries. I scanned the comments and learned the remains of the teen– a 17-year-old girl– from Reston had been found in a pond a few miles away.

Her name was Nabra.

It's shocking when someone so young dies. Shocking when you learn someone so young was murdered. Shocking when you hear she was beaten with a baseball bat. Shocking when it's so close to your home. Because these things never happen so close to your home, right?

Nabra and her friends had been participating in late-night prayers at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society about a mile from the shopping center.

The mosque hosts prayers at midnight and 2 a.m. during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Frequently, members stop by the McDonald's or IHOP nearby to eat a meal before fasting begins at sunrise, the Washington Post reported.

"According to accounts from police and a mosque official, a group of four or five teens were walking back from breakfast at IHOP early Sunday when they were confronted by a motorist. All but one of the teens ran to the mosque, where the group reported that the girl had been left behind."

I wonder about the kids who made it back to the mosque. How heavy they must feel today. One minute giggling over a late-night meal over the stuff of high school then terrified by an assailant then ... desolate. They are children no more. 

The police arrested a suspect– not much more than kid himself at 22. I find myself making assumptions. Trying to solve the question of motive. They aren't investigating the Nabra's  slaying as a hate crime, the police are quick to point out. Clearing up the easiest conclusion to leap to: She was Muslim and so a target. 

As if that makes the incident any less unsettling.

Investigators believe there was some type of an argument. Some conversation between this 22-year-old man and a group of teenagers that led to Nabra's murder. 

The contents of that confrontation I'm sure will wend its way into neighborhood chatter. Maybe it was road rage, the police say. I don't like to make grand declarations or predictions. But I'll say this– I can all but guarantee whatever was said was not worthy of killing a 17-year-old girl. 

While it might not always be classified as a "hate crime," murder is always a crime of hate. Even if it's not hate of a particular creed or race. It's hate of something at the tip of our tongues of buried deep within our hearts. No one extinguishes the bright light of beautiful, vital person out of love. 

If love is love is love, then hate is hate is hate.

Today I stopped by my neighbor's house. As part of Ramadan, one of their daughters had organized a toy drive on behalf of Syrian refugees living in Maryland through their mosque. I'd been meaning to drop some items off for weeks and finally got around to it today. 

While visiting, I asked if their daughter knew Nabra. They're the same age and ADAMS is the closest mosque. Her mother said she did. Her daughter was really upset.They were all shaken. All shocked. I told them how sorry I was that their community was going through such a terrible ordeal.

The kids always walked to that McDonalds and the IHOP, my neighbor said. I told her they shouldn't have to be scared to walk down a sidewalk to get McDonald's on a well-traveled road. Even if it was late at night. They were in a group. They were going back to their house of worship. 

And you know what, even if they weren't in a group. Even if they weren't going to their house of worship. There's no justification for murder. 

My neighbor said she'd heard the suspect was drunk. That he was probably a college student or something. He's young, too.

She was distraught about Nabra and her family. I could see her holding back tears even while we talked. But she said there were two families affected by what happened Sunday.

"I'm sure [the suspect's] parents didn't expect they'd have to deal with something like this either," she said.

How beautiful that there can be such grace and love in the aftermath of such hate. I admire that strength. The wisdom of mothers.

Before I left we hugged. I'm not sure whether I was comforting her, or she was comforting me. It was probably both.

The Post interviewed Nabra's mother, who's devastated by the loss of her daughter, "her first reason for happiness."

The reporter described how Nabra's mother had loaned her daughter an abaya– a long, robe-like dress worn by Muslim women– since Nabra didn't generally wear traditional Muslim clothes.

"She heard from a detective that when the man in the car started shouting at the teens, Nabra tripped over the long garment and fell to the ground, just before she was struck."

This image of her last moments haunts me. 

I never met Nabra. I probably never would've met her either, had she lived. I don't know her mother or any of her family. Only a few members of her mosque, who happen to live next door. I've only ever driven past the same sidewalks she walked down with her friends.

But I was 17 once. I went on late-night food runs with friends. I wandered dark sidewalks all carefree and giddy. And I'm a mother with two daughters who I look at on days like these, overcome by their sweetness and their fragility while pleading with the creator to keep them safe. To allow me keep them for as long as I'm on this Earth. 

And I'm a human being on this planets full of other human beings. And that should be enough to mourn for Nabra. To mourn for her family and friends. It is enough.

***

Lily just wandered downstairs– we'd tucked her in a few minutes earlier. 

"Mom, I want to show you something," she said– cutting off my lecture about how it was bedtime. "I was looking out my window and saw the most beautiful golden sunset. Do you want to see it?"

Of course I wanted to see it. 

So Lily and I sat on the driveway and watched the clouds drift and the sky shift from gold to pale pink. We saw blinking fireflies. And heard a bird singing its goodnight song. It started sprinkling so we went inside. 

"I just thought you would like it, Mom," Lily told me as I tucked her back in. She knows my heart as I know hers.

The sky is always so beautiful after a storm. 

***

My heart is so small
it's almost invisible.
How can You place 
such big sorrows in it?
"Look," He answered,
"your eyes are even smaller,
yet they behold the world. 
 Rumi

Monday, June 12, 2017

Buzzards and Magnolias: Discovering Humanity in Nature

Photo courtesy of Mike Lewinski/Flickr

Driving to the grocery store and I spot a buzzard soaring near a strip mall. 

She dives, reverses and glides like a biplane in a flying circus. And I have to believe she is playing. Flying for the sake of flying. Because she can. 

Because she was designed to do it. 

Because it's delightful. 

The same reasons I like to sing and dance– though often I don't because maybe it's weird and maybe people will stare. Maybe I'm not all that good at it.

Watching the bird dip and sway and roll on those invisible sky waves gives me permission to sing and dance.

Does nature realize how wonderful it is?

Does it need to even?

Nature's all self-assured in its ballerina birds and lattice-work leaves and flowers that make painters fall apart trying to capture the exact shade of heaven. 


The giant magnolia tree in our new front yard is in bloom. When we first moved here it made me smile. There was a magnolia grandiflora in the front yard of the house I grew up in.

I find myself marveling at the flowers. The precise way the petals spoon around each other. How when they unfold the flowers are the size of a plate. The stamen the color of cranberries, crowned with an intricate lemony headpiece. How the bugs indulge in the pollen. I watched one beetle, completely enrobed in soft, golden pollen, roll among the creamy petals like a drunkard. Once the flowers bloom they only last a day or two before the petals become tea-stained, wilt and fall away. Nothing so perfect ever last forever, naturally.


I wish I could be like the vulture. Or the magnolia. Or the beetle living inside its divine embrace. I think we humans were meant to be this way. We're part of nature, too. We are all made of the same stuff. 

But we feel so apologetic about it. Or embarrassed by it. Or disdainful.

As if its unseemly or uncivilized to be ourselves.

Humans being our most human selves has become a thing of questionable importance almost. Maybe because it's difficult to quantify. It can't be predicted and put into a data set to be analyzed and used for marketing or product development. Or, maybe because it can and as a result self-expression and creativity feel pointless and unnecessary.

Which is frightening and unfortunate. It threatens our survival, I think. And it makes us devalue the lives all all the other species we share this planet with.

All the things we are doing that don't fill us– really fill our souls and bring us joy and peace– are unnatural. They separate us from the herd of natural beings of which the birds, beetles, flowers, trees and all the rest are part of.

Humans were meant to create. We were meant to tell the story of what happened here. It's what drives us to leave our mark. To carve our names on trees and etch pictures on rocks. To write poetry and novels and to build an internet filled with the history of everything and to keep digging and digging into what else there is to know. To unravel the story one discovery at a time. This is us.

This.

The rest? 

 It's just killing time. And sucking the purpose and meaning from our short lives here in the meantime.

I think about this as I watch what might be one of nature's ugliest birds dancing on the air like Anna Pavlova.

Go outside today. Explore this extraordinary world and rediscover your own extraordinary self. Then dance, sing, write, build, paint. Create, create, create.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Wagstaff/Flickr

Monday, June 5, 2017

Filling my sidewalk with chalk poetry and fixing my heart with gold

Recently, I decided I wanted to inject a little more art and spontaneity into the suburbs. So after listening to something or other on the internet about a poet writing verse on the sidewalks of New York, I decided to follow suit. Not in New York, of course, but in my own front yard. 



I've been keeping an eye out for short poems or excerpts of poems that might lend themselves to sidewalk art (if you have a favorite, please share! Also, you should decorate your own sidewalks!)

While searching for poetry I browsed through past columns Omid Safi had written for On Being– he often includes verse in his writing– whether it's his own or the work of others. I love Safi's pieces– they're filled with wisdom that's rooted in parts of the world I'm unfamiliar with, ideas that challenge me to look past my own upbringing and life experiences. And they're also infused with mysticism– a willingness to play and float and muse in realms we can't quite wrap our grounded brains around. 

I came across a post from back in April called "Illuminating the Beauty in Our Broken Places". I remember reading it the first time– the piece explores the art of kintsukuroi– a centuries-old Japanese practice of repairing cracked cups, dishes, mugs, etc. with silver or gold lacquer. Of finding "beauty in broken things or old things."


Safi writes:



"Give me someone who knows their own vulnerability and sees mine. 
Give me someone whose cracked spaces are golden.
Give me someone who has helped do kintsugi
Give me someone who is open to me doing kintsugi to their cracked heart.
So friends, wabi-sabi me.
Let me wabi-sabi you.
Let’s repair each other.
Let’s seek what’s cracked in each other.
Let’s heal our broken spaces.
Let’s fill what’s broken with gold.
May we emerge more beautiful, more whole, and luminous.
So, my love, come and see the beauty in my cracked spaces.
I see the beauty in yours.
You are not a heart that I will discard.
Do not discard me.
We can emerge from this healing golden, more beautiful.
May all that is cracked and broken
be healed

be illuminated."

I borrowed an excerpt for my sidewalk.

 A friend happened by and read the sidewalk. 

"Brocken?" she asked.

"Brocken?" I replied. 

She pointed to the sidewalk.

"Oh no! Brocken*!" I groaned.

I'm a terrible speller. How I started my career as a copy editor is kind of a mystery to me.

My friend figured the error was just part of the poem. "Nothing a little water can't fix," she told me– all kindness and understanding.

So I repaired my damaged word– though with water, not gold.

And until the sun dried it, the poem kind of looked like a dog had had an accident on it, which I'm not sure is the type of liquid gold the Japanese intended, but was kind of amusing nonetheless.

Today there's a nice gentle rain, washing away all the broken and fixed words anyway. Such is life.

One of my oldest friends stopped by Saturday night and the two of us sat by the fire pit– appreciating the perfect night, catching up on the news of each other's lives and inevitably reminiscing about our long history together. 

Somehow we landed on a discussion about moments in our lives that we were ashamed of. Decisions we'd made that back in high school we never thought we would've made as adults, choices we knew had hurt people in ways we never could've imagined hurting people. You know, those deep, deep cracks filled with dust and spiders that we rarely shine a light in. 

With Safi's words at the front of my brain that day, I told my friend that I thought those choices she'd made, those actions she'd taken, while not something she could take pride in had shaped her into a better person. Someone who's softer and more empathetic. Less inclined to judge. All of which are true.

Those cracks won't ever disappear, but they can be filled and reinforced rather than chipped away at by self-hatred and shame.

I thought about the darker chapters in my own story. How there are chinks, dents and gaping chasms I sometimes stare at in my mind's eye, feeling overwhelmed. Like they are too massive to fix. So I just shut the door on them.

These aren't the wounds caused by others or the things that I can explain away by circumstance, upbringing or other people's cruelties. Those external wounds seem much easier to own and fix. 

For instance, I am more or less comfortable sharing about the scars covering my arms. Sure, they were the result of self harm, but more than a decade removed from them, I can acknowledge the pain they sprouted from wasn't shameful (though the cutting definitely was– we are just such a weird species aren't we?) I can easily picture myself going into a tattoo parlor and asking an artist to gild these physical scars

The road to healing from the things done unto us somehow feels more straightforward than the road to healing the hurtful choices we ourselves have made. Those are more insidious injuries. We don't like to speak of them, so they often lurk within us, festering until we treat them.

Left to seed, the shame and guilt will cripple us– we've all seen this over and over, right? We see it in addiction, in anxiety, in depression, in intolerance, in cynicism, in pride, in self-righteousness– in every post that makes us cringe on Facebook. 

Unlike with kintsukuroi, where there's an outside tinkerer mending what's broken, the work of healing shame starts within ourselves. It starts with forgiving ourselves. Which, what with my Catholic upbringing, feels impossible. But it's necessary. I know it's necessary. Because those dark places stunt our growth. They're the vines and weeds overtaking our happiness, our ability to love, our ability to serve, our ability to live better lives.

And not that I'm any sort of Catholic or Christian now, but I'll borrow the good book in defense. 

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." 

As sinners we cannot throw stones at anyone, including ourselves (I'm speaking of metaphorical stones, of course, but should any of you be casting actual stones at yourselves, by all means, please stop!)

This is not to say you go on your merry way leaving a path of shattered souls in your wake. Only that you allow your moments of guilt or shame to be your teachers. You allow them to change you at a cellular level– because they can. I've seen it, just like with my friend. And while I might not be the best judge of my own growth, I think I've changed, too as a result of all the hard times I've been through and the ugly things I've put others through.

We all make bad choices. We all shift in and out of being people we like to being people we don't like all too much. Confronting the things we're ashamed of is just as capable of strengthening us as losing a job, a breakup, getting sick or losing someone. 

The girls are on bit of a "Moana" kick these days. I could go on (and on and on) about how much I love this movie but the scene that's getting me right now is one of the final ones. Moana walking through the parting ocean toward Te Ka, the raging lava monster.
"They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you / This is not who you are / I know who you are."

Rather than casting a stone, Moana looks the monster in the eye. She stops Te Ka from destroying the things that get close to her. She forgives her. She lets Te Ka know that she can see beyond her terrifying exterior. She restores her heart and as a result Te Ka transforms into Te Fiti, the Mother Island.


For those of us who need visualizations on what it means to confront our demons, this is as good an example as any. How often do we feed the demons within us that are desperate to be seen and forgiven? What purpose does that serve? Sure, the demon feels strong and looks like a badass, but she'll burn out eventually. 


We're not meant to be lava monsters, I don't think. We're meant to be verdant and life-giving. 

What's more, this is the only way we'll be able to escape this endless cycle of destruction we find ourselves in. We need to start by doing kintsugi on our own broken hearts. We have to be open to others helping us. And we have to be open to helping them, too. In this way, we'll fill all the cracked and broken spaces within us and among us.

* Sidenote: The Brocken is the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. So maybe my subconscious was trying to fix a mountain or something.