Write Walk

Walking the Talk & Writing the Walk

 

Straitjacket Emotions


She bellowed like Chewbacca, guttural, and LOUD. It always amazed me how loud someone so petite could be. Even when she was wearing her large hearing aids, which hung off her protruding ears, ears that looked like two tiny teacups, the high decimal sound that emanated from her mouth made it clear that she had no awareness of her screeching volume. And yet, she could see the wincing of others that her ear-piercing vocalizations produced, and I suspect her choleric temperament appreciated the immediate effect of her words.


Kelly O’Leary* was developmentally delayed and deaf, but she liked to pretend that she was just hard of hearing.


In her early 60s, she dressed like she was heading off to the mall with her high school friends. But instead of picking up a bottle of hair dye as an act of rebellious expression, she needed it to cover up her grey roots. And when a hearing person spoke to her, she nodded and smiled as if she had heard and understood every word, when those who knew her, knew she had understood nothing.


She had a boyfriend who was also intellectually delayed. He was bush-man handsome with a scruffy beard. Charming, if he didn’t talk. Michael* didn’t speak in words. Instead, he had a moaning grunt.  He had no interest in the relating aspects of a committed relationship; rather, he wanted a girlfriend so he could bury his head between warm breasts on the dance floor at the monthly sock hop.  But if truth be told, he would have preferred to be alone in his room lying on top of one of his girly magazines.


He didn’t like Kelly’s screaming either. But since he was her boyfriend, whenever they saw each other, which wasn’t very often, he frequently got the brunt of her tirades which he tolerated in exchange for holding her hand.


Her desires were like most people's––a home, love, the power to choose. But unlike most, there wasn’t even a flicker of hope, a shred of a chance, that she would ever have what she wanted. A serious relationship and independence would never be hers. She couldn’t live on her own.  This wasn’t going to change. Her wanting was not going to make things different. Seeds of rage were planted in this despairing soil, and only a handful of emotions were available to her to cart this pain out of her body and bring it to the outside world. Happy, Sad, and Mad; were the three emotional containers she had to express the complexity of a grown woman’s experience.


The group home staff turnover was high, and these were the three basic American Sign Language (ASL) signs of feeling that every part-timer familiarized themselves with and used frequently before they left, and new staff members replaced them.


Kelly’s emotional life remained within these three signs.


Exhilaratingly happy.


A puddle of sad tears.


Mad.  Hopping MAD.


I got to know Kelly when I was putting myself through university. And like so many who had come before me, I pulled out the three ASL signs for emotion that I learned in my introductory sign class with *Doris, the signing teacher. I was slow to pick up additional signs, but when I finally added a new one of feeling, my life with Kelly O’Leary changed.


Frustrated.


The new sign, Frustrated, opened the world for Kelly and me.


She no longer had to bellow and throw things. She could instead clench her jaw, tighten her lips around her teeth and raise the back of her right hand to her mouth with a tap, as her eyes bulged, though remaining in control.


The sign, !!Frustrated!!, made with a staccato movement, channeled her emotion into an expressive action. The sign for ‘Frustrated’ gave her somewhere else to go, wrangling the heat of her bubbling sentiment into a safe place so she could express how she felt more accurately.  


When we are understood, we don’t have to resort to the lowest common denominator to share our ideas or feelings. Working at the group home, I learned that ‘behavior IS communication’ and when one doesn’t have a well-stocked toolbox of language to convey what is going on inside of them, then a coarser alternative, like fists, becomes the surest option.


Kelly not only solidified this understanding but took it to a much deeper level. Having the nuance and texture to express more subtle emotions through different signs meant that Kelly no longer had to pinball between three extremes of feeling. Happy no longer had to bounce into sadness; her tears no longer had to ricochet into uncontrollable rages because we both had discovered a middle step, a different word of shared understanding.


As emotional intensity was reduced, ease replaced chaos. And we were both able to see the people beneath the emotion. Without strong feelings in the way, Kelly the person, who turned out to be loads of fun, came into focus, and she could see me more clearly too because she wasn’t seeing me through the red of rage.


Words inform how we behave, giving us choices on how we act. Because I wasn’t conscious of this acquisition when I was adding to my own vocabulary, I was unaware of the degree to which extensive language skills allowed me to remain even and in control. 

This experience caused me to wonder whether the words we choose and, often more aptly, the words that we have been given, are in fact, the deciding factors, the gatekeepers as it were, to what parts of ourselves are allowed to be shown to the rest of the world. Language not only connects us to the outside but also shapes the formless within. When we’re given more choice through the containers of language we use, emotional energy provides an individual with a depth and delicacy that otherwise cannot come into being without the words to hold them.


The energy of emotion is like the wind and needs a tangible vessel, like ocean waves or a wheatfield, to be seen. For Kelly and me, our wheatfield was the ASL sign, frustrated. 


*”Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual.” Cate Macabe                

  Some names have been changed in this article to this end. 

** photo credit: Raine Nectar - Pexels


Ted's Creative Opus


 It was probably only Charlie and me who were beside ourselves with excitement, the air charged with our anticipation.


It was Easter Sunday afternoon, and everyone but Ted had been sequestered inside after lunch, everyone was SUPPOSED to be resting in their rooms, everyone WAS resting in their rooms except for the two of us.


We were snooping.


Or at least, we were trying to snoop.


Even at the best of times, Charlie and I were anything but subtle, but it didn’t stop us from trying our best to casually grab quick glances out the patio’s sliding glass door, eyes darting, trying to locate the artificial hue of plastic colored eggs. An unspoken agreement had passed between us that we had teamed up and we were looking for the advantage. We WOULD find the golden egg!


Shameless.


It didn’t take long before our interpretation of nonchalant—long, hard stares that border on catatonic gazes—were noticed by Ben and we were unceremoniously shooed away, ordered to our rooms until we were called.


Charlie was a charming elderly gentleman with an old-school charm; someone who had been raised to wear a tie and sport’s coat for any festive occasion. Someone who had impeccable table manners, although he couldn’t read. A devout Jewish man, who spoke with a whiny New York accent. A Jew who loved what he called ‘kosher bacon’ and often asked me if I thought the Pope would take his calls since Charlie’s rabbi was not getting back to him soon enough.


Charlie and I were housemates.


We also lived with Ted and Ben, a married gay couple in their sixties, whose harmonized singing voices spoke of the harmonic love they brought to their union. Our house was completed by six other incredible humans and a cat named Gus.


We lived in an intentional, agricultural community called Camphill Village (https://camphillvillage.org/volunteer/), where people with all levels of abilities and needs lived and worked together in house communities, on the land, and in practical workshops, in a small village setting in upstate New York.


The build-up for Ted’s Yearly Easter Egg Hunt had been a growing buzz in the house for weeks. Ted had brought his take on the Easter egg hunt tradition to the Village from his earlier life in Boston and organizing its every detail was something that he clearly took great pleasure in, from start to finish.


Typically, it was Adam whose effervescent emotions lit up the house. His infectious laugh, a key element of his charm, a charm that could rouse a stump and convince it to move, was the glue that held our home together.


Ted, on the other hand, was much more stern; ‘ogre’ was the name he gave himself, and his love for dragons went with his image. He was beyond handsome, in that JFK, American blue-blood sort of way, a man whose presence demanded attention and respect.


But at Easter, something shifted in Ted, some of his prickly exterior melted away as he began to plan his creative opus. Stern ogre softened into strong, loving father. The Fort Knox iron walls that were most often locked up tight opened and the grouchy male exterior revealed a marshmallow heart for all to see.


It was marvelous.


It was actually this transformation that was the real reason I hung out downstairs with Charlie.


I looked out the sliding glass patio door on the dull Easter afternoon.


Ted was sitting outside at a close distance, I think he had finished hiding the Easter eggs and now lost in thought, he absently held what I assumed was the last purple plastic egg in his hands as he looked straight ahead. His profile, which was all I could see of his face, seemed more relaxed and serene than I had ever remembered seeing him. It was the image of a man who had completed a job well, a job that he had undertaken as an offering of love for us! And now he was taking a moment to savor it and soak it all in.


This gesture, the image of this man, did not land lightly in my mind or my heart.


I had been raised by a single mother.


Wonderful in many, many ways, but I had always missed the energy of a formidable male, missed the security of a masculine role model. I had missed my dad. I had been born a ‘daddy’s girl’ despite my absent parent.


But.


Here.


Now.


This empty hole of absent memories that had been created especially for ‘dad memories,’ was bursting with just this one. It’s amazing how deeply we can touch another’s life, for better or for worse, and have NO IDEA how the weight of our actions have made a meaningful shift in them, forever.


The Easter narrative of resurrection and salvation speaks of this veil of not knowing but in reverse.


Jesus knew who He was and why He had come; it was those whom He had come for who were clueless of the gift they were being given, blind to how His actions were changing their lives forever.


Ted had given me the golden easter egg, and I hadn't even stepped outside the house.


Photo Credit: Pixabay-jatocreate


Petition Shift


By nature and training, I am a person who prays: a lot.


When I hear an emergency siren, I say a silent prayer. The words are simple, “Dear God, please take care of the person or people that are in trouble and the person or people going to their aid.” Living in the country, I don’t have much occasion to utter this plea, but this past summer I spent a month living in an urban center where the screeching of sirens was constant. In the past, I didn’t pay much attention to my reflexive entreaties, but this siren-induced prayer blitz, caused me to notice how much I pray and how my prayers have changed.


The gift of grace has been working, making deep-seated necessary shifts, and I am different. There was no conscious striving on my part, which was dramatic and miraculous in itself. Instead, change, subtle and inconspicuous, has come.


I used to go to God with a long list of demands. This approach besides being desperate, sadly, also showed how little I trusted. The list went something like this:


“God, I’m ASKING—the Bible tells us to ask—for this amount of money.”

“God, please—God also likes manners—give me this job.”

“God, please send me my love.”

“God please give me …”

“Give me, Give Me, GIVE ME.”


My prayers were more like an order to Amazon, said with the same frantic urgency, rather than a reverent plea to the Creator. I still desire loving relationships, and I also crave a life filled with beautiful things, but there has been a shift in the point that I now dive down into these longings to ask God for help.


Instead of asking for money, I ask to be made a responsible steward of wealth. I ask for the grounding and clarity required to handle this responsibility. I ask to be given the stamina and work ethic necessary to sustain the gifting of prosperity. I also ask for a kind and humble heart which always remembers that all treasure, however accumulated, is never mine; rather, I am merely the custodian in charge of its care.


When asking for something new, I first look at what I have. Do I take care of it? Do I keep it clean and well-maintained? Do I share it or use it to help others? Sadly, my answer is ‘no’ to some of these questions; even if I do share, I find myself doing so begrudgingly. 


A lot of these questions show me how small my heart still is. And if I answer them truthfully, they let me know whether I’m ready for the things for which I ask.


So my prayers have changed.


“God help me to take care of the blessings that You have given me. Help me to be open-handed and remember that I am not sharing what is mine but what is Yours.”

And what about relationships: my desire for good friends, family, and love? Yes, these requests have shifted too. They have become less about the long list of requirements I demand in another and more about asking God to change me.


“Please, Lord, help me to be patient and kind. Please soften my stubborn, self-righteous heart. Make me a good listener. Help me to give people the room to evolve into who You’ve meant them to be, instead of trying to make them into a smaller version of themselves because I’m feeling jealous and afraid.”


“God Change ME.”


This is the essence of most of my prayers; this shorthand petition has become ceaseless as I move throughout my day.


“God Change ME.”


I’m still asking for the same things, but the emphasis is different. As I trust more, my demands have relaxed into requests. Trust is building that assures me that when I am ready for what I desire, it will come. In so many ways it already has, but as I wait for more, because we always want more, I ask, “God Change ME.”


*First appeared in Just Between Us Magazine, Winter Issue, http://justbetweenus.org, February 2018.

**Photo is by Jess Bailey Designs on Pexels.


The Other Side of the Bathroom Door


The pressure in my lower belly only intensifies as I fidget and sway. Side to side, I move in my standstill position in the line-up for the women’s bathroom. There are two women ahead of me. We’re all waiting for the two token stalls. I sigh audibly, both as a reflex and to convey my urgency, while still trying to hide my frustration with the far-too-slow people on the other side of the stall walls. 


There are areas in my life where I have no patience. And for a person who thinks of herself as a patient and flexible person, I find these moments unsettling, as they don’t match up with the person I think myself to be. Waiting in a public washroom line-up is one of the places where my impatience monster comes out and shows some of my ugly. I suppose I should be grateful for the pandemic’s lock-down in this regard, as there are few opportunities to use public washrooms. And so I’m able to avoid one of the main places this disproportionate reaction surfaces. 


Both sides of the bathroom door produce irritation and resentment. For even when I’ve secured a throne seat within a bathroom cubby, the huffing and puffing of another impatient bathroom-goer lead me to forget almost completely the discomfort which I only minutes before had been experiencing. How quickly our compassion leaves us when it is inconvenient. For now, in a dramatic shift in perspective, I find myself once again irritated that I am being rushed by this faceless stranger.


In the larger scheme of things, this reaction could be dismissed as inconsequential, and in and of itself, it most certainly is just that. But it reveals a character flaw that in its small form remains manageable enough to change with relative ease. For my center-of-the-universe, world-revolves-around-me impatience most certainly has the potential to have more serious consequences if the scenario in which it plays out is one of higher stakes. By minimizing our harmful flaws in the insignificant moments of our lives, we build a stronger foundation of emotional maturity to tackle the big stuff when it comes.


Would it be so hard to move a little more quickly when others are waiting?


Would it be such a stretch to step out of myself long enough to try and see it from the other side?


Even in the latest wave of COVID restrictions, I find myself grappling with these same questions. Different stage, same story. At the gas station, whether waiting or pumping, the same peevish twitch meets the challenge to acknowledge the needs of another. In the grocery line-up, when I eye hungrily the conveyer belt in another patron’s possession, willing them with my hard stare to ‘hurry up,’ when I know myself to be one of the slowest baggers of groceries around.


Both sides of the metaphorical bathroom door need to be remembered.


In this time when our politicians are calling on us to unite, I think if we can remember both sides, whether at the gas pump, in the grocery line-up, or even across our dinner tables or party lines––whatever place that requires a smidgen more selfless understanding––we might be off to a good start. 



Photo Credit: Anastasiia Chepinska


Jolene - A Short-Story told in Parts

Part 5 and 6 — Part 5 “Dinner.”


Jolene was like a Pavlovian dog at the sound of her mother’s call, and when she heard it, she bounded down the stairs. The muscle memory of holding the thick oak banister, smooth and solid, the game of avoiding the squeaky step, five steps down, the pattern of her gallop –– like a Morse code message that spelled out Yahoo! –– all the way to the last step, had been an evening ritual since Jolene could maneuver the stairs. What a relief to have a moment of reprieve from the ache in her chest and her gnawing thoughts.


But when she walked into the kitchen, despite all the windows being open and the evening breeze strong enough to make the curtains blow, the heaviness in the room had a stifling effect.  Mama looked down at her plate. The awkward silence that felt like it had the wrong address caused the few seconds of normal to leap off Jolene’s body and run for the door. Papa reached for his napkin and nudged his knife loudly against his empty plate. The piercing staccato of steel against china sent a sound wave out into the room as Jolene settled herself in her chair.


For a moment, no one moved, and no one spoke. Other families might have been able to continue with the meal in silence, but for these three, conversation at suppertime was as important as the food. Papa began. “Mama told me about your news, Jolene.”


He never used her name when he spoke to her, well maybe he did, and she had just never noticed. Maybe she was grasping at bits of nothing because she was bracing herself for the worst. They all had never been here before.


Mama and Papa exchanged glances before Papa’s gaze rested on his daughter. Her chestnut hair had fallen like a curtain over her eyes. Those bright, curious eyes that he knew so well, that he loved so much, were now hidden by her hair and the consequence of her lie.


“We’re going to have to talk about this, Jolene. I can start, but I think you’ll feel a whole lot better if you are brave and honest now.”


Jolene couldn’t answer. She instead looked down at her clasped hands and watched the tip of her left thumb mechanically move back and forth over the bottom joint of her right thumb; a nervous and unconscious attempt to self-soothe, as all words had left her the moment she sat down. Only the sound of the second hand’s journey around the grandfather clock’s face was heard in the deafening silence.


Papa pierced the empty with his words. “Raising you has been easy, Jolene.  You always seemed to accept what Mama and I taught you; even as a real little girl. It just seemed to make sense to you. A strong work ethic, respecting your elders, being kind and generous to those less fortunate. Your sweet nature just recognized your connection to others. You understood how your responsibility to the larger community started in your own backyard. ‘A clean earth starts with a clean room.’” Papa’s well-worn proclamation made Jolene and Mama smile as their heads nodded in unison, their eyes finding each other for a moment before both looking down into their laps. Papa continued, “You weren’t a perfect girl.” Jolene looked up, “and I liked that. Head too full of book learning for my taste, and boy can you be stubborn when your mind gets hold of something.” Again Mama and Jolene laughed a laugh of agreement. “Faults are expected in a person. But a lie.” Here Papa stopped and looked directly at his daughter and shook his head slowly as he continued, “Whether boldfaced or by omission, a lie is something different. Lying could damage your heart. Over time, if left unchecked, a dishonest heart is at risk of turning hard and cold. And that is where I draw the line.”


Mama’s face went white as the weight of Papa’s words collected around the edges of her own history and brought her own truth to her in an emotional punch.  In the same moment, Jolene’s lips began to quiver, and her hands began to shake as shock waves moved up her arms. Her knees also began to knock together under the table. They actually knocked together –– Jolene was surprised to discover it wasn’t just some figure of speech.


She couldn’t look at Papa or Mama. To see their disappointment would be too much to bear, so she looked straight ahead, eyes resting on her great-grandmother’s hand-painted butter dish. The butter was losing its shape in the heat, and as Jolene watched, a fly dove into the shiny goo, dying a kamikaze death, snuffing out its buzz and its life in an instant. Jolene wished she were the fly.


When Jolene finally spoke, it was as if the room held no one. It was the only way she could proceed. Her voice was hollow, the words coming from somewhere so deep that even she didn’t recognize them as her own.


“I’ve always wanted brothers and sisters. A sister to giggle and gossip with, or do homework or kitchen chores with, someone who I could roll my eyes at when Papa made one of his awful jokes. I wanted brothers too, at least one. A big brother, who was strong and fun and smart. Someone who looked out for me at school if I needed someone to look out for me, and someone who would lend a hand on the farm. Papa works so hard, and I try to help, try so hard to stop him from noticing that the boys aren’t here. I know that’s silly, but it’s still true. I miss them too. In so many ways, I miss them.”


Mama looked down at her hands in her lap and silently began to cry, her shoulders twitching in a half-shake. But the room was beginning to empty of the heaviness. Tears began to leave Jolene’s red bloodshot eyes and roll down her cheeks as she continued.


“You and Mama had already lost so much, hurt so much, before I came along. And then there was James….” Her voice trailed off for a moment, and they all sat in the stillness until a bawling heifer out in the front field brought sound back to the table.



“I wanted to make up for what you had lost, to be enough, but I wasn’t. And then when I wanted to go away to school, when I began to think it was even possible, I just knew it would hurt you, and I would rather die….” The words and their significance hung in the air for a split second before Jolene rushed to finish, “than to hurt you. So I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem like a lie at first. It just felt good to dream. And so I ignored the wrinkles. But then, of course, it got bigger, and I didn’t know how to bring it to you.”


Papa began, “Jolene, …”


But Mama, now overcome with a pulling apart realization, spoke uncharacteristically over her husband. “Child, I feel sick with the knowing that I gave you, my sweet girl, so much pain to carry. I was so much in my own grief of losing my babies, and in my own fear of losing you, that I couldn’t even see how much you were holding for me. My heart breaks to think that you felt that important parts of you had to get small because there was no place for them to come out. You know that I know how this feels. I know it from the inside.”


Papa blinked twice, and then his eyes squinted up, clearly not following the last of Mama’s words. 


“When I swallowed my dream as a girl, I didn’t think anyone would notice, that it wouldn’t matter in the end. As long as I did what others needed of me, what I was supposed to do, things would be alright. But I see that it did matter. It mattered very much because I see my most precious gift now doing the same thing.”


Mama looked at her bewildered husband’s face and smiled at him as she reached out her freckled hand and found his under the table resting on his right thigh and gave it a quick squeeze before bringing her hand back to her lap. She gazed at him for a moment with warm eyes and a soft smile.


“Paul, you are the love of my life. You have brought me nothing but happiness in our 36 years of marriage. I’m so glad I married you. But when I was a girl, Jolene’s age, or maybe a little younger, I had a dream of becoming a nurse. Nothing became of it. You know that my mother needed my help. But on wash days when I hung out the bedding on the line to dry, the white cotton sheets hanging like tents all around me, looking to my fanciful mind like starched white nurses’ uniforms, I would imagine my other life. I never spoke of it. I didn’t think it was important but seeing our daughter hide her dreams, it seems that it was of more consequence than I allowed it to be. I see now that we often lie to ourselves first before we begin to lie to others. Something always dies when we do.”



Part 6


It was late August, and again the old taupe Samsonite stood open on Jolene’s bed. 

But this time, it was Mama who was laying two freshly pressed blouses on what was already an almost fully packed suitcase. An afternoon breeze came in through the open window and brushed the backs of Mama’s knees as Papa’s voice came up the stairs. He was in conversation with Jolene at the bottom, telling her he was going into town to pick up a tractor part and would be back in an hour to drive everyone to the station.

Mama left the packing and walked over to the window breathing in the fresh air with relief. The blistering temperatures of a four-day heatwave had been broken by a rainstorm the night before. And this morning, the cooler temperatures brought a hopeful promise into the house after so much unbearable heat. Mama had decided to wash the bedding today, and as she looked out at her handiwork with satisfaction, the white clean sheets flapped in the breeze. She smiled as they swayed and tangled together before righting themselves again in what had become a stronger wind.


THE END

****


Jolene - A Short-Story told in Parts

Part 4


Mama almost dropped the tray when she was setting it on the counter beside the sink. She almost lost her footing on the stairs too, but as soon as her hands were empty, she filled them again with the cold, yellow lip of tile that formed the edge of the countertop and squeezed so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Her stomach cramped in tight knots as her heart knocked against her chest and her head throbbed. Trying to contain herself, she exhaled in short, quick breaths, like a woman in labor bracing herself for another contraction. And wasn’t she?


Mama couldn’t think. She had to find Papa. More basic and fundamental than thought was the knowledge that she needed to find her husband. He was probably in the barn. 


Mama looked around the kitchen. The table was already set, and the potato salad and cold ham slices were in the fridge. It had been too hot to turn the oven on today, so leftovers and a lemon pie she had made last night were ready for tonight’s supper. She’d only have to slice some bread and put it in the breadbasket; the butter was already on the table. Mama was retrieving the basket from the top of the fridge when she heard the squeak of the screen door open before it slammed shut and Papa appeared at the threshold. 


Mama’s voice was hushed. “Can we talk outside?”


Papa didn’t recognize this strained, insistent tone from his wife and moved past her to wash his hands. 


“Paul, I need to talk to you outside. Now.”


Mama never used Papa’s given name. He sometimes called her Bethy when he was being extra gentle or when he was teasing her, but most times, they were just “Mama and Papa” to each other as well as Jolene.


The request made him turn around quickly and find his wife’s eyes. They told him that he could dry his hands on his pants, and he did just that as the couple walked out of the side door.


As they climbed down the handful of side-porch steps, Papa’s alarmed whisper, “What is it, Bethy?” left an unaccustomed scratch to the air around them. Mama put her finger to her lips to quiet him and began to walk to the field behind the barn. Despite her short legs, she walked quickly, and Papa quickened his pace to keep up with her.


When they were safely on the other side of the barn, hidden from view from the house, Papa reached for Mama’s arm and spun her around. “All right Beth, now you really must tell me what has happened.” His brows crossed together in concern, and the heat of the day made his face pulse red.


Mama wanted to spill out all of her worry and anger, but there would be time for that. First, she must give her husband just the facts. Only a seasoned wife knew what information to share and what to leave out. “Jolene has been accepted to Purdue University. She went behind our backs to apply. She used Jean’s address for mailing. Papa, she lied. Our girl has lied to us.”


She began to cry. All of it came out, and she leaned her head against Papa’s strong chest and cried out deep sorrowful tears.


At first, Papa just folded his arms around her and brought her in close, and let her empty herself of all her heartache. After several minutes, when the right breast of his summer plaid shirt felt wet against his skin, he tenderly moved his wife away from him, cupping his hands around both of her shoulders, and said, “Tell me the whole story.”


Mama replayed the events that took place in Jolene’s room. Told him about the suitcase and the devious way that their daughter had hidden the truth from them for months. How she told Jolene it wasn’t okay to lie. Mama left out the part about her own fantasy of nursing as a girl and instead shared the devastating shape of the hurt that had left her spinning.


Papa was always the one to make sense of things, and so his words weren’t surprising. 

“Bethy, we knew she was going to grow up someday and leave us, and it sounds like that day has come.”


Jolene - A Short-Story told in Parts

Part 3


The words hung in the air for an endless moment as emotions that Jolene had been swallowing down since she had first decided to apply for college began to collect in her throat and form an Adam’s apple of regret and pain. The tears were further down, but Jolene knew they were coming. But she was most shocked to discover what came in between. It was searing anger that tasted metallic and corrosive in her mouth. And she tried to swallow it away like she did when the sour acid announcing vomit’s arrival in flu season slithered up the inside of her nape while she hugged the toilet bowl.


Jolene had experienced hot emotions before, like when she got less than an A on an assignment or when Jean was being annoying, but never with Papa and Mama. She never needed to. They were her safe spot and Jolene felt like she was theirs. And so when the disappointment and shame that had winded and weakened her moved over and let anger take the lead, she was afraid.


Jolene didn’t say anything after her anger stepped in, she just looked down at her indoor shoes, flip-flops that she had worn last summer that now made their way inside and had become her warm weather house shoes when Jolene put her winter slippers away. The tears that were in the queue chose an alternate route. Rather than hanging out in the lump in her throat, they began to make her eyes burn as she tried to blink them away. In the silence Mama spoke once more.


“You know I once had a dream to go to college. I wanted to be a nurse.”


Mama was leaning forward in the pink floral chair and looking at her feet too. She continued to speak to them, and as she did, she began to collect herself and seemed to reinhabit her body.


“But my folks didn’t have the money and I was expected to help Mama ––Gammy––with the younger children. I never allowed the want to get big enough to even think about it for real. In fact, I think you’re the first person I ever told. Not even Papa knows about that dream and Papa knows all of me.”


Jolene looked up. She had never known her Mama as a woman separate from Papa and herself. Never known her to want anything other than just what she had, never imagined that, other than those babies, there was more disappointment and pain. Jolene’s anger disappeared in an instant and was replaced by a hurt for the girl Mama once was, as she hung her head, whispering a humble consolation.


“Oh, Mama, I’m so sorry.”


A tear started to make its way down Mama’s right cheek. She didn’t wipe it away but let it slide all the way down her face until it reached the bottom of her jaw and stayed there for several minutes looking like a translucent mole before finally spilling to the floor. When it did, Mama wiped the wet away from her chin and looked up into Jolene’s eyes.


“It’s still not okay to lie.”


Mama stood up and walked over to the bureau and picked up the tray with the cookies and  the full glass of lemon-aid. She turned around and said:


“Jolene, I love you more than air and would do, will do, anything for you. Your Papa and I both would, but it isn’t okay to lie.”


And then Mama walked out of Jolene’s room, put the tray down in the hallway, and quietly closed the bedroom door before Jolene heard her pick up the tray and walk heavily down the stairs.


Photo Credit: Pexals-Jill Wellington



Jolene - A Short-Story told in Parts

Part 2


Mama didn’t knock when she entered Jolene’s room. It wasn’t that she was barging in, but that Jolene never shut her door, and that was what Mama was saying as she awkwardly balanced the tray that held Jolene’s afternoon snack. A cold glass of lemonade with bobbing ice-cubes that made a hallowed sound as they bumped up against the glass stood next to two oatmeal cookies that had just come out of the oven, whose familiar aroma had beat Mama up the stairs.


“Land-sakes child, why do you have your door closed? Are you sick?”


The words trailed off as the ice cubes in the glass of lemonade knocked together.  Mama froze, her mouth slack-jawed, her eyes taking in Jolene’s opened suitcase half-full of clothes at the bottom of her bed.


Jolene felt the fire of her betrayal burn on her cheeks as she stepped forward to take the tray from Mama’s now shaking hands and put it safely on the bureau behind her. She turned around to see her Mama’s shocked face, which was beginning to cave under the weight of her fear and confusion.


“Mama, let me explain,” Jolene said as she eyed her bed for a place to guide her mother to sit, but seeing the suitcase, thought the reading chair over in the corner with pink floral upholstery was the better choice. As Jolene ushered Mama over to the chair, it was only when she had settled her into a seated position, and Jolene had turned around that she realized that the suitcase was in direct line with her mother’s vision. Jolene sighed.


“What is this, Jolene? I don’t understand. Do you have plans that I don’t know about? Did you tell Papa? What is this, Jolene?”


Jolene’s Mama rhymed off the questions more to herself than to her daughter, trying to piece together the inconceivable. Finally, when finding no reasonable explanation, she stopped talking and looked up at her daughter––begging her with her eyes for reassurance and clarity. 


“I got into school, Mama. I was accepted to Purdue University.”


Jolene continued. Speeding up in a desperate attempt to mend the broken bridge of trust that, in a moment, had collapsed between them. “It’s a four-year English program - full scholarship -you and Papa won’t have to pay a thing.” Jolene strung the thoughts together like one long word.


Mama blinked. Her face working hard to understand but still not grasping what her daughter was telling her.


Jolene talked more quickly, still. “Miss Berry told me to apply. I used Jean’s address. I got into all three schools. Can you imagine, Mama? Mama, I’m sorry!! Mama!?!”


Mama looked up at Jolene out of her stupor and said dryly, “It’s only the end of June.”


She had never heard her Mama use that tone before; it felt like a slap. The retraction of warmth that was only there the second before, that had always been there, whose absence now left such coldness thrummed at Jolene’s heart in a taunt. This new sensation was all she could concentrate on as she stumbled backward and sat on her bed. It was only when her arm grazed the cold metal border of the ugly taupe Samsonite that she took in her mother’s question.


It was true, it was only the end of June, and school didn’t start until September. 


Before Jolene answered, she reached for the blue cardigan folded neatly on top of the pile of clothes. Fingering it wistfully as if the sweater represented the dream she would have to put back in her bureau drawer, Jolene finally spoke.


“It just felt good to imagine.”


Jolene - A Short-Story told in Parts

Part 1


Jolene was her Mama and Daddy’s only baby. They had lost three others before she was born. Jim came ten months after she did, but died just before his second birthday of the scarlet fever. 


Jolene had survived. 


She was all arms and legs, but she could eat as much as Papa. She was strong too, though string-bean skinny, with smooth, poreless skin and slight features. Her thin, straggly chestnut hair, having a mind of its own, often found its way into her eyes as she absently pushed it away.


They were close. 


Jolene, Mama, and Daddy were like three peas in a pod. Her Daddy doted on Jolene like she was the first princess to ever live in Lancaster County. His gentle heart taught her how a real man should treat a lady. And her Mama flitted and fussed around her like she was the most precious and breakable diamond that ever was, although Jolene liked to point out that diamonds don’t break. Reasoning aside, Mama still wanted to protect her hot-house flower under thick glass.


Jolene tried not to mind. She understood about all of those lost babies, and the many nights her Mama nursed a broken heart rather than a child at her breast. Her Mama’s heart was one of the kindest she had ever seen, but sometimes Jolene could hardly breathe with the pressure to be enough to replace four dead children.


Jolene was smart. She had always been at the head of her class, and Miss Berry told her that her marks were good enough to apply to university. 


It was the first time she had ever deceived her parents. She reasoned that she didn’t really have a chance, that she would never get in, and so when the fat envelopes started arriving at her best friend Jean’s –– she had used Jean’s address when she sent off the applications –– the dread began to sink in as the fantasy got real. But there was something else, another feeling that she only let herself feel when she was alone in her room with the covers up around her nose, and the house was still.


Hope.


Jolene felt hope, and it hurt to feel it because she knew where that hope would lead to if she let it out from underneath the covers and shared it with her parents.


Three weeks later, she did just that and let the hope out one Sunday afternoon before supper when she pulled her suitcase out from underneath her bed and began to pack without thinking. Because if she thought she would have to stop and she didn’t want to stop. 


That’s when her Mama walked in.


Photo Credit: pexels-r-khalil


River-Bottom Dirt and an Innocent Canoe


I can see the river bottom dirt underneath my now see-through shorts. The tiniest of black bugs, smaller than a flea, has risen on its two hind legs, rubbing together the front pair for what I’m assuming is a refreshing drink of the water that the sun’s rays are quickly drying off my left upper knee. I too am refreshed. Rather than bothered that my clothes are not waterproof, as my long-sleeve summer-plaid shirt dries over a stubby cedar bush, I bask in the exhilaration of noticing my body’s blood-flow. My lower back is being cooled as the wind sweeps away the damp and blows the bottom of my tank-top dry.


I look up at the red-bottomed canoe. Its threaded wicker seats looking romantically old-fashioned to my sentimental eyes. Reminiscent of simpler times when you didn’t have to move as far into the woods to find stillness void of grating noise. It looks completely innocent as the river gently rocks it in a slow-dance, like a child who has snatched the last cookie from the cookie jar, cheeks puffed with cookie crumb evidence, but sweet like a cherub, when the head shake of denial comes. The canoe too sways back and forth unconcerned, demonstrating its innocence. An onlooker would never suspect that it was this very canoe –– the one looking guiltless and nonchalant –– that was the culprit responsible for an unceremonious dump into late-July water, just a short time ago.


I know I should be embarrassed. I wasn’t holding onto the shore well enough, keeping the boat steady as my travelling companion disembarked, but I’m not, not at all. In fact, even while it was happening, I found myself laughing, an easy, even exuberant laugh. I was falling out of the canoe at the lip of the shore, we were RIGHT there, and everything in the boat was falling out too–– but I was fine! The sun was shining, the air was sweet, my body was obliging, and all was well. In that delightfully held moment, I could lean in on the trust all around me and laugh at the comedy of this burlesque moment.


My feet are swishing wet beneath me, my shoulders and legs are already dry, but there is one more detail of this story, one of the most important if truth be told. We didn’t lose the thermos of coffee. Warm and tasty, reassuring comfort in a metal cup. It is coffee who was the true hero in this summer afternoon tale.


Life is Uncomfortable


I know it may be obvious to most, but it has taken me a good chunk of my life to realize that practically all of human experience is in the tension of discomfort. Even when you are doing something that you love, pure pleasure is fleeting. 


I wish I had known this at twenty.


So much of my experience was more typical than I had thought it was. How many times did I think I was ‘doing it wrong,’ or there was ‘something wrong with ME,’ just because there was struggle involved and the road to get there, wherever “there” was, was filled with challenge and hard work.


I knew the lexicon’s meaning of ‘hard work’ but never made the leap to applying it in real-time. There was a complete disconnect between the words and what their implications would actually look like, feel like, in my day-to-day experience. Hold-ups and unforeseen problems made me anxious and often truly scared.


I don’t think I’m alone.


I think a lot of people, most I would say, think life should be much easier than it is, and by expecting it to be, this wrong thought makes life even harder. How much unnecessary grief and angst do we add to the work that is already challenging because we are fearful of ANY sort of discomfort and delay?


I don’t know how I learned it to be true, but for me, it absolutely was so, that discomfort and inconvenience were legitimate red flags that were warning me that something was wrong. I wasted so much time. So much time fearful of a paper tiger of misinformation.


My Eureka moment that I want to share with those who may be as misguided as I once was is this:


LIFE IS UNCOMFORTABLE.


It is, for the most part, a complete and utter DRUDGE with glimmers of delight. Even when doing things that we absolutely adore, most of the labor we do is grunt work.


THIS IS NORMAL.


When there is a snag, a bump, or a pothole, it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong. It isn’t a sign that we should stop what we’re doing, turn around and go back home and forget about it. Instead, we are to keep going. The bump or the pothole is part of the easy that WILL come if we continue. The ‘hard’ is part of the work. The tension of uncomfortable means that we are right where we need to be. If we can settle there, finding comfort in the discomfort, we’ll be happier. Grumpy and irritated at times, perhaps, but if we can move past these unpleasant emotions, not allowing them to deter our will’s POWER to continue, we will find deeper satisfaction. I know I have. 


LIFE IS UNCOMFORTABLE. 


It’s part of the price of admission that we ALL have to ante up and pay if we want to take a ride on this big blue marbled ball called Earth. If we have a pulse and we’re still breathing, tension will be constant. There is a relief that comes when we accept this. The HARD is a natural part of life. There’s no getting around it. So dig in!


The Three Amigos


I hear them before I see them. Their muffle-y, congested pug-nosed chorus of ‘Guard-Dog Bark,’ meets me on the road before I see their pushed-in faces.


They are the Three Amigos, a name that I have come to call the three ferocious snorfle-y dogs that live down the lane from where I’ve been staying during the lockdown. Although small, as a gang of three, they could cause some injury to a stranger who moved too quickly and had fear in their eyes. Three little punks looking for a rumble, but living in a rural area with little opportunity to scare many people away.


They live at the top of a hill, in a home that reminds me of the plantation house, Tara, in ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Tall white Colonial columns, enormous and imposing, all set on a big piece of land. The pups lounge on the shaded porch that runs along the front of the house, sniffing for pretors, listening for anything out-of-the-ordinary that might stir in the lazy air.


When they hear the crunch of gravel that my shoes stir up, although I’m still hidden in the grove of tall cedar trees that line that part of the dirt road, they tune up like musicians in an orchestra pit, and the barking begins. I feel my mouth turn up into an unconscious smile at the sound of the first crooning barks, as my head leans back and offers my laughter to the sky. But as soon as I come into view, the high sign is given among them, and they come storming down their hill in full charge. The alpha in lead position often tumbles head-first, face-plants, eating turf. His little legs getting lost in the momentum, falling out beneath him, before he finds them again and continues to motor down the last bit of the decline. His barking never stops. It muffles when he trips, but it and his commitment to getting to the bottom of the hill continue until he reaches his destination, which is me.


The Three Amigos initially would surround me, the alpha coming the closest taking a threatening posture, doing his absolute best to intimidate. I have no doubt that they would have lunged at me if I had moved too quickly or made any sudden gestures, but instead, I stood still and let the three bark until they could bark no more. It was then that I took a step, slowly, my eyes on them, as the crescendo of barks would start up again, but they didn’t rush me, and eventually, the three little trolls would let me pass. And when I had to go past them once more to return home, the same scenario would be repeated.


It has taken over ten weeks, but two out of the three dogs now come barreling down the slope for pets and attention rather than looking to shoo me away. The third is still leery, hanging back or not leaving the top of the hill at all, remaining on the porch, barking from a distance. But he too is weakening. Just yesterday, he came close enough to smell my ankles, look inquisitively up into my face –– just for a moment––before his gaze clouded again with doubt, and he retreated to a safe place to bark once more. Still not sure that I’m trustworthy, still sizing me up, he waits.


Every day our dance with one another continues. As it unfolds, I bring my curiosity with me on my evening strolls, wondering who will rush to me, galloping down the hill on little pug-dog legs and who will lag behind in trepidation.


As a writer, I turn everything in my life into metaphor, and these three little dogs have become a symbol for me of the unfolding of my writing life.


Unlike the menacing amigos, I received an immediate warm welcome when joining the pen and paper club. However, it wasn’t long before the critic and her minions stepped in, and like the little pooches, no friendly contact was offered until I consistently showed up to the page. 


Every day I must pay a visit––open and gentle, patient, and willing to be led rather than take the lead. I have been rewarded.  The soft little girl, with the round belly, now leans up against my ankle, slowly spilling herself to the ground, welcoming my pats, vulnerable and exposed. The first to make contact, she represents the willingness in me to write. The part of me who comes to the page with excitement and anticipation, knowing I will find love and attention there. But just as the warm-girl pug submits to her snorfle-y alpha brother, my writing also has a guard who is more cautious and restrained. I have yet to earn the full trust of my writing gatekeeper, but I’m gaining on the snorfle-y king pug who gives me hope. Like Snorfle, my consistency is key to the relationship I am building with the page. Showing up matters. But I’ve discovered another interesting detail about the fuzzy gatekeeper that I meet on the road each evening.


Although he is the alpha dog in the pack, he is not the strongest. If his labored breathing is any indication, I think his health is waning. My observations tell me that he is the oldest of the three. So, although he is the head-dog and the initial line of defense, he is aged and infirm. My scrutiny and subsequent reflections have revealed that his first appearances of virility and boldness speak more about his spirit than his actual constitution.


It makes me wonder if the gatekeeper at my writing’s door is more of a wise elder and protector rather than a formidable warrior intent on barring me from entering the gate indefinitely. That although there are safeguards that protect the treasure of my most intimate places, the goal is not to be closed and fortified forever.  My insides actually want to be opened. They hope that my gritty diligence and hard work will one day be found worthy. The guard at my writing life’s door, like the snorfle-y alpha dog, is there to remind me that what is being protected is precious, and I must remain mindful, always mindful, that it is dear. 


But then there is the wild-card, the pug who is most uncertain and afraid. His eyes tell me he will bite if I move too quickly. He holds the ugly feelings of the others. He is the keeper of the dangerous and forbidden. He holds hate and fear. 


What a hard job.


Rather than rejecting him as a bad dog outright, he calls on me to dig deeper. He asks me to be more patient, more loving –– more distant. To take the unassertive stance and defer to him. To know his goodness when he doesn’t show it. To recognize the riches found in the dark and the unseemly, to hold space here, to hold some of it, so he doesn’t have to hold all of it.


My writing is the same. 


I’ve focused on the smiley pug with the soft belly, warmed to her, and scowled at the ugly. But by not inviting all Three Amigos forward, I miss much.


The unfolding continues on my country road and in my writer’s heart.


All is well.


And I am grateful.


*photo credit: Susan Cruickshank



Paper-Bag Crowns & the Pandemic Anniversary


Chinese take-out bags and markers were spread out on the rust-speckled gold shag carpet in my room, along with a large piece of sturdy cardboard. The cardboard came from a box in the basement that had held a chair now sitting in the Forrest’s dining room. All the supplies necessary to create my patched-together extravaganza were beginning to take shape!


Grin.


My pet-sitting business had been one of the casualties of the COVID-19 shutdown and my friend’s parents generously opened their door to me, welcoming me in for the duration. That was over eight weeks ago. The old normal seems to have fallen away forever. And as we wait in this time of suspension, not knowing what our new world will look like, the milestones of life continue to anchor us in the fog.


Mr. and Mrs. Forrest’s 51st wedding anniversary was the Sunday after Easter –– and COVID Pandemic or not –– attention needed to be paid.


People. We needed people to celebrate. But how to do that with mandated social distancing and all gatherings greater than five outlawed? Zoom of course!  The internet conferencing platform that I wish I had bought stock in before the virus hit. My friend, and the Forrest’s daughter, took on the task of contacting her brothers and their families to meet at 9:30 on Sunday morning and deal with all of the tech issues. Alleluia! 


My bag of tricks for planning such occasions had also been severely limited due to the lockdown. So I had to improvise. The first to go were store-bought flowers. 


The purchase of freshly cut flowers is a way that I show love. But there would be no purchased flowers for this anniversary. I briefly thought about scheming to make it happen, but it was a good exercise in ‘acceptance’ to leave the pretty store-bought flowers alone and look for something closer. The night before their anniversary, I took a walk, scissors in hand, in search of a suitable alternative.


My efforts were rewarded with a collection of tree branches ladened with springtime buds that came from the side of the road that butted up against a neighboring farm. By putting these branches into tepid water, their new shoots would burst open into delicate green leaves and sweet flowers. The process is called ‘forcing.’ Green-needled branches from the large spruce out front rounded out the bouquet, all sitting prettily––I really must say––on the dining room’s newly changed burgundy tablecloth.


Balloons and streamers were also a way I typically brought festive excitement to an occasion. But no trips to a party store were possible so more ad-lib stretches were needed. 


I am not an artist. Sigh. Even my stick-figured people are not always recognizable. In fact, drawing anything beyond juvenile suns with circular orbs and lined spikes makes me nervous. So making a cardboard sign on the back of a notepad with balloons and a giant red heart was my Mona Lisa. But as I finished the final flourishes, admiring my handiwork, the thought of cardboard crowns popped into my head. Feeling brave from the glow of my notepad-sign success, I didn’t immediately push the thought away like I typically do. This one I let stay.


When we tromped downstairs to look for the cardboard I had requested, Mrs. Forrest handed me a piece, 3 feet X 1.5 feet. As soon as I saw it I realized it was far too rigid to make a decent crown, but it was clear that it was the perfect size for a GRAND anniversary sign. I inwardly and outwardly groaned. I was so happy with my little sign on the back of the notepad, smug with my favorable results but now I would need to make more balloons and hearts on a much, MUCH larger scale and my one-off success would be tested. I reluctantly reached for the cardboard and put it under my arm and asked Mrs. Forrest if she had any paper bags as well. I was still determined to make crowns and material to create them still needed to be collected. We trekked upstairs from the basement and I was given two Chinese take-out bags, one within the other, with a Confucius-like figure in the foreground and mountain scene set behind in red-orange ink. And if the drawing did not make the bag’s purpose obvious enough, the words, “Chinese Take-Out” in block letters sitting in the upper-right corner did. My canvasses had been found!


Like Edward Scissorhands, I cut angled peaks for Mr. Forrest’s crown and softer swells for Mrs. Forrest’s. On each point, I colored in a Crayola ‘gemstone,’ and then stapled the two ends together with three dull metallic staples. An addition that added to the whole paper-bag crown motif. All my decorations were ready for tomorrow’s assembling. I tucked them into a corner of my room and went to sleep satisfied.


In the grey light of early morning, I crept down the hall to the dining room to decorate the celebratory table with cardboard and brown paper. I got caught before I had finished my fussing by Mr. Forrest, who is also an early riser. But the conspiratorial twinkle in his eye assured me that all was well and I had just procured a co-conspirator for my TOP SECRET plan, which was now not so Top Secret.


Food is another critical ingredient for any good party. So I roped my co-schemer into making the Egg McMuffins I had planned for HIS anniversary breakfast!  Being much more thoughtful and chef-like in the kitchen than I am, this was a good turn. Mr. Forrest’s perfectly timed poached eggs with aged white cheddar cheese and sizzling bacon, all washed down with fresh coffee was a meal to satisfy a hungry belly and was done with a flare that was not my own.


A quiet man, a serious man, Mr. Forrest is not one for wearing paper-bag crowns.Yet he indulged my request with gracious solemnity. I made Mrs. Forrest’s crown too small and so it sat, perched like a bird’s nest, on her head rather than around it. And there we were, the Paper-Bag King and Queen and me eating homemade Egg McMuffins and drinking strong coffee. At the appointed hour of 9:30, I surreptitiously met their children on my laptop’s screen in my room before walking the computer, screen facing outward, back to the dining room table and placing it in front of the celebrating couple to hold Zoom Court with their extended progeny, who all sang a time-delayed, echo-y rendition of ‘Happy Anniversary’ to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ before having a nice visit.


Royal sentiment isn’t just forged in gold and gemstones. It finds itself in family, good food, and simple beauty. Making the choice to show up and gallantly stretching more than we think we can or more than we want to are marks of tender strength and nobility. Paper-Bag Crown Wisdom reveals that take-out bags, cardboard signs, and budding twigs are enough to conjure up the magic of Camelot if we are willing to wear our rose-colored glasses, even if just for a day. 


Hip Hip Hooray!


The sound of my computer’s keys slapping like shoes on wet pavement were the only things that I heard as I sat engrossed watching my words, one letter at a time, appearing on the screen. I was completely unaware of the soft hum of the library that went on around me. 


But my concentration was abruptly broken and my awareness was snapped back into the room by the sound of a siren coming up Main Street. It was a Friday afternoon on a mild day in March, a day when the mellow temperatures assured that winter’s grip had loosened and long underwear could soon be put away.  I couldn’t see the source of the blare from my second-floor perch but I looked up absentmindedly and cranked my head to the left. I was sitting at one of the upstairs tables that overlooked the main floor’s floor-to-ceiling front windows, which had a great view of the steady stream of afternoon traffic that was building as the week came to a close.  


My eyes took in the source of the whine just as it let out another blast. A white police cruiser with black and gold trim, lights on, was inching up the street. The intermittent sound reminded me of a home smoke-detector that chirps when its batteries have run low and need to be replaced. And behind the slow-moving police car were two full-length fire trucks. Their cherry red and electric blue lights swirling, cat-call sirens shrieking in an on-and-off pattern every couple of seconds. The entire scene’s incongruence––emergency vehicles, lights and sirens, the sluggish speed––not making sense to me or the other library patrons who had now gathered at the window. And then one sleuth at the glass figured it out. He was the first to see the half-ton truck bringing up the rear and he said, “It’s a parade. They’re having a parade.”


I had never seen a parade without a marching band or music, without a crowd spilling over the sidewalk cheering as a clown or a pretty young woman in a tiara and a satin sash passed by on a colorful float. No, I had never seen a parade so pared down and small. And yet here one was, the full-sized truck left little doubt that it was so. For standing in the cargo bed whooping and hollering as only teenagers can do, stood a dozen or so energized youth, a solitary cowbell clanging vigorously by one, fists and ski-poles punching the air by the others. But it was their sadly constructed sign that confirmed it. Pulsing with the beat of the cowbell moved a tattered piece of cardboard with the words “Vermont State Champs,” scrawled with little effort on a makeshift sign held by a young woman standing in the middle of the little group.  


I learned later that Brattleboro High School’s (BUHS) Boys Nordic Ski Team had won the state championships on February 24.*


But on that day in early March, only when the little parade went by us did we in the library fully grasp what the small band of people was doing. Everyone had been mesmerized and unmoving as the three-vehicle-parade had inched past the Edward Jones Investment building across the street. But the delicious vanity of young egos needing to be seen and heard, combined with their desire to celebrate both their new title win and the fact that they had gotten out of school early on a Friday afternoon gave us all another opportunity to show our admiration. For the little procession looped around at the top of Main Street, where it connects with Putney Road, and we could hear the squawking siren announcing their approach on their way back down the street for Parade Part Two. This time heading southbound, this time driving directly in front of the library, this time giving the two librarians at the front desk enough warning to run outside to cheer the approaching star athletes. The tone in the library shifted from hushed words and quiet calm to unconscious smiles and head wagging. 


In that moment, I felt proud to be an American.


Silly, simple fun.  


They had created it out of almost nothing but their will to make it so. Small-town, wholesome play on a Friday afternoon that not only lit up the young people in the back of that truck, and the dozens of others that they past on the street, but also made those of us in the library with our hunched-over shoulders, pause, and sit-up a little straighter. Giving us a buoyancy we didn’t know we needed, but we did. 


We all did.


In this time of fear, choose to create some moments of silly, wholesome fun. By sheer will make it so.


You need it. 


We all do.


*https://www.reformer.com/stories/nordic-season-reflection,598678

**Photo Credit: Sonder Quest on Unsplash. 



Darwin’s Theory of Adaption and My Crampons


We are bombarded daily with scary statistics of how climate change is going to end us. Twelve years tops, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tells us, before we fall off the cliff of life and everything goes black. The idea of the final apocalypse is mostly just too big for me to regularly consider as I make my Lilliputian attempts to save the planet by using a metal straw or bringing my reusable bags to the grocery store.


But I have noticed winter weather changes on the little road that leads to my piece of cozy on Newfane Hill. I’ve observed the increased regularity of glare ice coating the tiny laneway, making walking impossible and only tried by those with a death wish or a desire for a broken bone. Five years ago, this may have happened once in a season, but last winter I never left the house without my crampons strapped to my regular boots. And I’m told by friends in the city that icy sidewalks also became more of a dangerous norm.


So, when looking at the previous hibernal seasons, my anecdotal evidence would suggest that even in my personal experience I see a marked difference in the weather. But I must add, that I do not keep a personal log of daily weather variations on the hill and my memory is not always reliable.


Though there is one thing I am sure of. Two years ago when ice accumulation became menacing, I bought my first pair of grippers. And they have changed my life. There is absolutely no hyperbole in this statement. I have a confidence in winter-walking that before crampons I did not have. Even on the smoothest surface of ice, even with the steepest of decline, I walk with security.

 

This security caused me to wonder. 


In Susan King’s article, “What Is Adaptation Theory?”* she states, "Adaptation theory, … is an organism's ability to adapt to changes in its environment and adjust accordingly over time.”  Although, adaptation theory generally refers to the genetic changes a species makes to adjust to its environment, as I walked with self-assuredness down the laneway one afternoon to collect the mail on an ice-rink road, I mused that perhaps we humans will move forward into a new normal of weather, through our ingenuity and creativity. That as weather changes, we will develop adaptation techniques that we can’t even consider from where we stand right now.


I found this thought comforting.


It doesn’t give us a get-out-of-jail-free card. Each of us still has a personal responsibility to tread lightly on our planet. All of us need to take the job of stewardship seriously, so we can hand a healing Earth on to the next generation. But there are glimmers of promise.

 

Smart people will develop things like crampons to solve problems that, from this space in time, we can’t even know about, although in fearful anticipation we most assuredly can fret about while we wait. 


But is fretting the most useful thing to do?  I don’t think it is.


Perhaps, to some, a naive solution, but I choose to have hope. I will think of future generations as I make the very best choices I can make in my present life, while also trusting in the brilliant minds to come.


In the meantime, I’ll strap on my crampons and go get the mail, marveling the entire way at how much more able I am because of someone else’s ingenious idea that was realized.


King, Susan. “What is Adaptation Theory?”. sciencing.com, Leaf Group Ltd. / Leaf Group Media, 13 Mar. 2018, https://sciencing.com/adaptation-theory-5105998.html.


** Photo Credit: Patrick Schneider of unsplash.com



The Glimmering Tail of the In-Between


When the candle’s lick of fire was put out, no one jumped up to begin the next thing in the day. In fact, no one moved at all, instead, they continued to sit. And they waited. All eyes were on the candle, as the smoke began to waft upwards, meandering like a belly dancer in a leisurely sway, the wick still glowing with orange heat, until what for me was a ‘FINALLY’ moment, the smoke evaporated entirely. Only when the wick completely emptied of fever, turning charcoal black, did eyes begin to leave their resting position on the honey-yellow taper and look around the table to find others’ eyes with a nod of recognition and a smile. Only then did they say in unison the customary “Good Afternoon.” And then the busyness of the day’s frantic energy would once more descend, as chair legs began scraping against the brick-red squared linoleum floor, pushing away from the old oak table as people began to clear away the traces of the afternoon meal.   


There are tiny pockets of time that most of us never realize are there; so fleeting that we miss them as we move quickly through our day. I too was unseeing, missing the places that separate one activity from the next, where for an instant there is stillness and expansion. 


Yogis and mystics spend their lifetimes pursuing this emptiness, but for me, the first time I really noticed the glimmering tail of the in-between was sitting around a table, crammed with eleven others, all full after a mid-day meal, waiting for the candle’s wick to grow cold. 


The table was at Camphill Village, Copake, an agricultural community that works with developmentally delayed adults in Upstate New York (https://camphillvillage.org/volunteer/). The environment was unique to be sure, far removed from skyscrapers and concrete, but the lessons I learned there have made a lasting impression and have caused me to look at so much of my world in a different way.


To wait in the empty space took me a while to get used to, and I would have surely put up more of a fuss if I had felt like there was one other person around the table who shared my impatience, anyone else who also felt annoyed with the silly delay. I’m so grateful that there was no one there who acknowledged my silent childish protest, to indulge my frustration for having to wait an extra 30 seconds more than I was accustomed to or that I wanted to at that moment. Again and again, I’m amazed at how small and rigid my life becomes when I feed the selfish within me. But I was forced to remain. And in remaining, however begrudgingly, I opened. And as I had a weekly lunch date at Orchard’s table*, I saw much more than the glimmering tail of the in-between, I also began to appreciate the practice of its wisdom.


The author, Dani Shapiro, helped me further name my experience by describing her own when sitting in meditation in her book Devotion: A Memoir**. “It was the emptiness, the pause between actions, the stillness when one thing was finished but the next had not yet begun. Paradoxically, this was where effort came in, because it was so hard to be empty. To pause. To be still – not leaning forward, not falling back. Steady in the present … Just being.” 


Whether sitting around a big old oak table or sitting crossed-legged on the floor with other meditators, most of us need other people’s companionship to find our way into the world of the in-between. We need their presence to hold us still when we become uncomfortable and ache to fidget. For it is in this moment of restlessness, just before a breakthrough, when we are most compelled to stop.


I know on my own I would have gotten up and left the table rather than wade into the empty. I know that without those eleven other people there to hold me I would not have found the strength or the will to wait until every last drop of my own resistance left me. And without this patience, I would not have gotten to the other side of my discomfort. Let alone imagine the peace that I would find there. 


For my resignation eventually was replaced by a genuine comfort in those waiting moments, which then became paired with rejuvenation. The emptiness of space and time was physically and psychologically nourishing. I felt renewed in the nothing. And in the end, I found myself looking forward to those in-between snatches of empty, leaning into the cushion of stillness. I also began looking for them elsewhere and discovered that they are everywhere and had been all along. 


Yes, the quiet in-between is all around us, ready to replenish our tired bones. But we aren’t going to discover its gifts alone. We need each other. Not to do or say anything, just to be beside us; to sit quietly beside us and let the in-between rush in. 



*Each home in Camphill Village Copake has a name.

**Devotion: A Memoir. New York City (Harper Perennial, 2010), p. 136.

***Photo Credit: Pixabay-Pexels(com)


Forging a Relationship with Fire


Fire: primal, powerful and mesmerizing— and for me, an elusive, antagonistic teacher, whose wisdoms have not been easily shared. 


I can light a fire; I can get it going…..but then….smoke.


I would have given up building fires long ago if my need for its heat source while house-sitting in Newfane hadn’t been critical for daily life. Forging a relationship with this wily force has required an ongoing effort. But as my commitment has deepened with this unpredictable and often frustrating friend, I have also discovered that its lessons resonate in other parts of my life and have illuminated them as well.



Fire-Starting Wisdoms for Everyday Life: 


Time:

After the flash of a matchstick and the subsequent excitement that comes from bits of kindling and newspaper burning up in a fireworks display, no matter how tempting it might be to throw a giant log on the flames and go make coffee, DON’T. 


The initial flames of fire can be a misleading distraction to the unrefined eye. Their showy brilliance only makes it look like a fire has been established.  But superficial flames don’t mean that the heat of the fire has pierced the interior of the log and taken hold, which is the real key to fire success.


In life, experience has taught me that anything which looks grand and slick at the onset, often ends up not to be, and conversely, the things which don’t look like much at the beginning have proven to be my greatest treasures.


Fire has reaffirmed this lesson.


Space and Air:

Along with my premature practice of throwing large stumps of wood on my fledgling fire, I also would add too many logs at once. My poor fire had no room to breathe, no space for oxygen to circulate, to bring fuel to its flames because I had placed my logs too closely together.


And, as with fire, every aspect of life requires space and air to grow.


No writing project, relationship or garden carrot can hope to become the best version of itself without space and oxygen. The younger version of myself thought if close was good, then closer was better, and if a little was good, why not have the whole thing? I brought this more is better attitude, to my fire building. I had yet to learn, in this different arena, that space and air are critical ingredients to an effective outcome.


Embers:

The first time I house-sat, every morning I would sweep out the hearth. Ash and bits of charcoal, even live embers – everything was cleaned out. I left nothing but the cinder blocks, which cooled rapidly without anything to cover them. It seems silly now, but I was afraid that an out-of-control fire would burn down the house. Last winter when I returned to Vermont, it occurred to me to do it differently.


As I was scooping the remains of the previous night’s fire into the ash bucket one morning, my eye caught the glow of a live ember. Seeing the glowing coal, I considered that it might be a good idea to remove the ash and leave the embers. I left the woodstove door open a crack to give my baby coals some air while I went outside to dispose of the ash.  Visions of returning to a raging inferno accompanied me outside, but when I returned a few minutes later I didn’t find a three-alarm fire, instead, my little coals were glowing back at me, warm and cheerful, ready to be fed a healthy portion of kindling.


Fire taught me that if I want to make something easier, I have to be willing to make myself uncomfortable first. I have to feel the fear of uncertainty and take a risk.


The symbolism of the embers was also a rich find.


These nuggets of heat, a representation of the past, the concentrated reductions of the best of a person’s history, have the potential to help us in our now, IF we remember to bring their teachings with us. However, if we throw them out, then the pain and joy of experience are all for naught, meaningless and cruel. But, if instead, we carefully fish these tiny embers out from the ash of our past and breathe life into them and feed them a bit of emotional kindling, they will bring light and warmth to our present moment.


Ash:

My most recent discovery has been the benefits of ash.


I had returned to Vermont to do another two months house-sit.


The householders had not shared my pristine care of the hearth and so, on a cold evening when I went to build a fire, I discovered it was filled with the ash of long-ago heat. My Ah-Ha discovery was due to my laziness in cleaning out the woodstove before building my fire; never, NEVER underestimate the value of a little lazy! It’s often misunderstood, but the seeds of creativity sit in the silence and inactivity.


My fires are typically finicky at the beginning, like a colicky infant needing to be held and fed slowly. Ash, however, has brought a whole new dimension to my fire-starting skills. As I went to start my evening fire, I could feel my gut tighten with anticipation for another stretching experience. I scrunched up newspaper and laid a bunch of wood chips on top, bigger pieces of kindling and smaller logs at the ready, to be added in sequence. I lit the match, kaasshhh, and in no time the fire was ready for the kindling and then, holding my breath, the fire accepted the small logs and then the larger ones; voilà I had a roaring fire!


It was the ash; it HAD to be the ASH!!!!


All of this time I was cleaning out the ingredients I needed to make a successful fire. The irony was not lost on me as the heat from my newly built fire radiated its warmth.


My fire teacher had revealed another gem for life.


It had made sense to me that I bring the positive aspects of my past forward, my shiny embers, but to bring the ash? 


Yes, YES!!!


It is absolutely necessary to bring the pain, the junk of yesterday that’s been burned up and transformed, into the dust of experience. It is this dust, the stuff of our biggest heartbreaks that is the key to bringing life into our present, rich with vitality, that doesn’t take ages to build.


A clean hearth may look pretty, but it’s cold.  Although it will eventually produce a roaring fire, it TAKES A LONG TIME. But if we can embrace our past’s pain and find the courage, the strength, and the chutzpa to actually incorporate it, not to siphon it off and use it as a lifetime excuse, we can mix it into our present. Those places where we want to cringe, bow our heads in shame and forget, if we BRING IT ALL, strong and brave to our now, it’s FIRE!


The fire is now pumping out heat, and the tip of my nose is no longer cold. I have a feeling that my fire teacher isn’t done with revealing its lessons and I’m looking forward to discovering what they are.


Photo credit : Headway on Unsplash.

A previous version substantially rewritten for Vermont Views appeared at The Sunlight Press. Forging a Relationship with Fire, April 1, 2017


Fall Epiphany


The insulation of a fall jacket wasn’t quite enough to keep the bite in the air from delivering a chill to the skin.  But Jenny and I were going to be raking leaves so it wouldn’t be long before the heat of activity had moved through us, into our fingers and toes, warming us from the inside.


It was late autumn and the high winds of the season had blown most of the leaves off of the trees. There was a thick carpet of red and yellow foliage that covered the back garden. The few places where any grass could be seen showed brown and brittle from the previous night’s frost. 


In the mudroom, as we got ready to go outside, our sluggish movements and silence betrayed the apathy that we both felt. Raking leaves was the last thing either of us wanted to do.


Jenny and I lived together.


We lived in an agricultural community for developmentally delayed people in Upstate New York.


I was in my 30s, still finding my way.  Filled with idealism, passionate about making the world a better place, but learning how to walk it out in a real-life setting. 


Jenny was a youthful twenty-something whose personality bounced in a similar way as the ponytail that sat high on her head. She had thick glasses that constantly slipped down the bridge of her nose that she forever had to push back into place. Her laugh was infectious, devilish even though her heart was warm with melting affection.


I loved her.


But I also feared her.


She was prone to angry outbursts that sometimes turned violent, and whenever I was around her, my body would tense, on guard, ready to react if she suddenly went off. And like most of the folks I worked with, it was almost impossible to keep Jenny on task for any period of time. 


As we trudged out to the back, rakes in hand, me dragging the faded blue tarp up the stairs to the garden, I began to psyche myself up for the chore before us, getting ready to motivate both Jenny and me to finish the job.


Half-way through raking, I looked up to see that I had done most of the work on my own. A wave of frustration that had been building since we began seemed to break. Here I was constantly reminding this woman, encouraging this woman, to ‘help me’ do the job that we both needed to do, and still, she was just standing there, AGAIN, rake limp in hand, looking at —now biting— the cuticles of her right hand. 


This was impossible.


The tropical storm of indignation that had been brewing now erupted into an internal rant of hurricane proportions,  “I am doing all of the work around here, work that I don’t even WANT to do.”


And then I looked at Jenny in her rose-colored fall jacket, looked at her ponytail and thick glasses, has she munched on her cuticles, and a whole new idea was presented to me.


“She’s giving you a gift,” said the still small voice within.


“Pardon me?”


“Don’t you see she is giving you a gift?”


No, I didn’t see this at all, as a matter of fact, I felt the complete opposite, Jenny was the reason that this job was still not done.


The thought continued, “If you were out here on your own, you would have accomplished only a fraction of what you have done. Jenny may not be doing as much as you would like her to do, but she is giving you the energy to do more, just by standing beside you.”


“Her very presence is providing you with the physical motivation you need to continue.”


“Jenny is also giving you the opportunity to experience taking the lead. By occupying the weaker position, Jenny is allowing you to see your strength. In your humanity, you are equal, but by being your subordinate, she is helping you experience being the best, the strongest, the most capable in this moment, even if it is just raking leaves. Just by being with you, she is making your job easier, not to mention she is helping you complete this task!”


I looked over at Jenny; she didn’t want to be here either, that was clear. But she was here, and because she was, I was doing more than I would have done if I were alone.


I had never noticed this before.


In the past, when working with others, if I thought I was doing more than they were, a huge wave of resentment and arrogant pride would settle over me for being the one that had to do it all. But as I stood holding my rake up under my chin, feeling a blister beginning to form in the fold of skin between my thumb and index finger, as I looked at Jenny, I realized she was helping me get the job done. 


Before this realization, I sincerely believed that I valued people’s differing abilities, but when it came time to completing a task, I desired to work with someone who worked like me.


As I stood there watching Jenny, memories of being on the other side of this dynamic, which I recollected as being equally as irritating, came rushing back to me. 


The side where my presence, rather than my physical efforts, were what was needed by another.


A particular image came to mind of a friend. 


Whenever we made plans to do something, Jill would inevitably insist on doing half a dozen things around the house just before we were scheduled to walk out the door. A flaw that frustrated me beyond belief.


For years, I had secretly judged her, thinking her time management skills abysmal, harshly accusing her under my breath of being selfish. In those moments, I felt like she wasn’t respecting my time, but here, now, standing in the back garden with Jenny, it began to dawn on me that Jill’s motivation was not coming from an entirely selfish place. Although the tasks were simple enough for her to complete on her own, she needed the encouragement of my physical proximity, my energy, my just being there, to follow through and complete them.  


She had needed me, the way I needed Jenny now.


Not so much to do anything, but just to be there.


In a world obsessed with physical results, LARGE concrete results, these subtleties of help and support, so nuanced and delicate, had escaped my awareness.


I never knew…


I felt myself being pulled out of my reverie, back into the present moment, as my eyes came back into focus and came to rest on Jenny’s inert stance.


It was STILL frustrating watching her just stand there!


My mind’s need to see tangible results was having difficulty accepting what the deeper part of me knew to be true.


Jenny really was giving me the help I needed.


She wasn’t just standing there.


I sighed audibly.


‘Grrrrr.’


“FINE!!!!” I said in a half shout. 


Jenny looked up from her cuticles, her face showing surprise at the break in silence.


I asked Jenny to start raking again, as I began to move my rake in a quick sweeping motion. When we finished, Jenny helped carry the full tarp of crunchy leaves to the tiny forest that bordered the backyard’s boundary. We then put the garden tools away and began to walk back to the house.


“Should we have a cookie, Jenny?” I asked.


Jenny responded through her irresistible giggle and accompanying snort, “But of course, Susan.”



The Sunlight Press first published this article online, January 1, 2017.

https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2017/01/01/fall-epiphany/

Photo credit: Ronaldo de-Oliveira of Unsplash


Django


I move through my world as if underwater. My ears are full of the thick pressure of silence. 


The sound of my family’s voices are gone to me now. The peels of laughter from Rowan and Renna, sounds of their exuberant delight, have been hushed. I must confess, I do not miss the shrill screeching of their play. The sound of conversations between my Lady and Master has also been muted. Those in the early evening were what I liked best, as she stood at the kitchen counter making supper, and he poured glasses of milk. I remember their words to each other were warm like the kitchen. Even now, letting my nose guide me, I stay close during their evening meetings, knowing my food bowl will be filled soon. 


I miss listening to their conversations. 


I feel the loss of my Lady’s whispers too, where her lips quietly spoke into my floppy ears as she stroked my round flank. So tender was her voice, reassuring, and full of affection. 


It’s dark; it’s also so dark.


When blindness took away my sight, I would try to open my eyes as wide as I could, and then try to open them wider still, hoping to see again, even just a little. Light left gradually. And as it did my world shrank, smaller and smaller. Shadow replaced vibrant color, taking away the sharp focus of external shapes, leaving a blurry haze of uncertain images. 


My movements became timid and wobbly. 


And now I walk around the room like a drunken sailor or one of those Roombas––a robotic vacuum, gingerly inching around every corner, where a landmine of things to trip on lurk or a bonk on the head awaits. I don’t remember the floor moving when I could see, but it seems to do so now and makes me dizzy even though everything is black. Often I just stand still in the middle of the room. First, trying to sense where to step next, then feeling too disoriented to move further, choosing to lie down instead where I feel the solid floor beneath. Its cool strength holds me, allowing me to be part of it all, included in my home’s busyness, while still feeling the ground.


But I still love to walk. 


Despite the uncertainty, I love to move my legs, feel the surface of the floor or the soft grass against the pads of my paws, feel the evening air move through my fur and under my belly. I know my Master and Lady stand closer to me when I’m on the move. Knowing they’re so close makes me brave and keeps me curious.


Walking reminds me of how good it feels to be alive.



In the nothingness, there is still so much. 



And I am happy.


Even my sniffer doesn’t work so well anymore. The congestion in my lungs brings mucous to my small, pushed-in nose and makes inhaling difficult. I snuffle, and I snorffle as I do my best to breathe. 


My tongue has gotten in the way too. It had always stuck out a little bit, even when I was small, but as I find breathing more challenging my mouth’s resting position is now wide open, my tongue protruding, thick and sandpaper dry.  Because it is always in the air, deep pathways have formed, cracked crevices that look like a waterway system. The irony is it is the absence of moisture that has formed them. But I can still smell the sweet scent of my Lady approaching. It’s faint, but it lets me know she close by or is coming to me.


However, it is touch that has become my most loyal and dependable sense.


I know my people’s hands. The children’s, trying so hard to be gentle, succeeding sometimes, rough and tumble others; I utter a necessary warning growl to remind them to be careful. My Master’s hands. Bigger. But he still loves me softly; his hands are old friends that I’ve known all of my life. What a kind gentle-man is he. And then there’s my Lady’s. She coos love through her fingertips and cradles me over her shoulder like her baby because I am.  Her touch feeds me with its reassurance and care. It reminds me that I am safe, that I am home. 


Her hands are my timekeeper too, for it is her touch that carries me to my soft bed at night. And shows me my full bowl of breakfast in the morning. And how I love to eat. Mealtimes are some of my greatest pleasures. I eat LOUD; smacking and snorting, because I have to hold my breath as I chew. But how I adore my food!  And then when my meal is finished, and my tummy is full, my Lady comes to me once more with her soft, caring hands taking me to my water bowl. Her fingers wet with its water are brought to my parched tongue to let me know that it is time to drink. 


I am loved.


I am deaf. I am blind. I often can hardly breathe.


But my life is full.


Big Love holds me in its sweet hands.


I am apart of something bigger than my infirmity; I belong to my family, and they belong to me.




 


Write Walk


Walking the Talk

&

Writing the Walk


by

Susan Cruickshank


Susan Cruickshank is a dual citizen who spends half her time living in Vermont, while making her home base in Ontario, Canada.


She is growing her freelance writing

—Vermont Views Magazine

The Sunlight Press—

while chipping away at her first book, a memoir.


You can find her on Facebook:

 https://www.facebook.com/LivingANewFuture/

and Twitter:

Susan Cruickshank @LivingANewFutur


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