What’s Your Excuse?

She works out, has three young children, and wants to ask you, “What’s your excuse?”

Apparently, people are freaking out about this. There really is no reason to do that.

I think it’s just great that people who love fitness and working out have found something they enjoy and find rewarding. I confess that they make me chuckle sometimes, but only because they, like anyone who has “discovered” something that made a big impact on their lives, tend to go all ego-maniacal and think that the rest of us want what they want in a literal way.

We don’t.

But I do think most of us want something that we may be struggling to achieve but are holding out on making real. That is the way I read this photograph and this question.

What do you tell yourself you want, but are avoiding?

Most of us have something inside of us that we wish was part of our real life and not just part of our dreams. I don’t care about having a hard body. Yes, if a genie wanted to grant it to me I would accept it, but that is not the thing that I really wish were my reality.

So I think Maria can help me, and she can help you, by pushing the issue if we only will drop the take-everything-personally drama and give it some thought.

What do you really want, and what is the reason you give yourself for why you don’t yet have it in your life?

To Everything, Turn.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  – Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

Nowhere to Stop | a short essay on place

I prefer the road to the left after crossing the Kanawha River. Today a spiral staircase appears out of the rock face, and the last step drops just in front of my car.

My eyes have seen these delicate tiers, must have seen them, thousands of times. I was conceived in these hills. Only now on this autumn afternoon do the little elevations register.

Gorgeous golden sandstone, sculpted beyond pure function into art, I realize I have missed them all of my life because they are nearly one with the rock, tight to the white line of the road.

One has to have distance to see them.

I promise myself I will return, slow down, but when I go back I can’t pause. There are people behind me. They are pushing me along.

Next time, I will make it happen.

Next time, I will look for a place to pull over and take a photograph, but next time I realize there is no place to stop. One side is rock and one side is guard rail. There is no margin.

Who built you?

I drive this Appalachian road up from downtown Charleston because I can. There are other ways but I choose this one every time. It winds in unsurpassed beauty each season across water, over railroad tracks, gently up and up into layers of gracious homes and luscious trees. Every yard travelled pulls me more deeply into a sensed but barely visible past. At one turn there is a tiny set of graves. I must stop, unless turning right. If I turn right I may miss the dead, so focused I am on the Children’s Consignment Fair sign or the Old Colony Real Estate sign.

I promise myself this time, this time, I will focus. I will see those stairs to the top. I am sure they must no longer connect to anything, the mansion they once served long gone. I am certain the stairway’s connection has dissolved.

As I pass, unable to stop – there is nowhere to stop – I see where they lead.

They still climb to a house. I see young, contemporary dark wood in shocking contrast to the one hundred year old organic mineral steps; this is not their builder’s home, but I recognize this place. It is the home where my father’s friend lay dying for years, unable to live in this world and unable to find purchase in the next.

When I passed on the road above I would avert my eyes from this place. The pain was alternately dull and ripping to be outside looking in. I stopped looking. I stopped seeing. I stopped passing on the road above.

The road below brought me the staircase. I drive as carefully as I can, the visual distractions now equal between the captivating winding stairs and the dangers of looking too long.

There are others behind me, and nowhere to stop.

Of Disability & Dreams

I have done something awful to my back.

It feels familiar, like the resurrection of an injury from 20 years ago when I was a very physical gardener. I remember my huge front yard in North Carolina, and my youthful zeal to conquer it and all of the stones just under the surface of the grass. I worked hours on end, hacking at the rocky soil so I could transform the flowerless landscape into something beautiful.

Then, it happened. I knew it the instant my foot hit the spade. I did something irrevocable.

In my egotistical desire to demonstrate that I could do all of this hard labor myself, I slammed my right leg down as hard as I could onto the shovel blade, thinking of nothing but defeating a large stone lodged in the concrete-like clay earth.

My lower back tightened into the stone I was trying to best. Fire-like aches shot down my left leg. I fell down and had to drag myself to a tree to try to stand again. I ended up in physical therapy, and managed to restore myself to basic functionality, but I knew. I knew what I had done would never be fully undone.

Today as I hobble about my house and try to remember all of my old therapy exercises, I remember a woman I met the same year I hurt my back. She ran the most beautiful garden center I have ever known, and I secretly wanted her life for my own. She had acres of family property that she had transformed into ponds, herb gardens, sculpture gardens, and sheep pens. Visiting her land was a spiritual retreat for me and many others in the community, and I coveted her lifestyle. I’ll call her Linda.

One day, someone told me that Linda had been a very successful CEO-type in New York in a financial services company. It turned out her property was her father’s land. She lived with him in a large old house, just the two of them. Such a dramatic U-turn in life begged to be explained, and eventually it was.

On a typical afternoon in the city, Linda walked into a telephone booth. (Remember those?) She was on the phone when a truck speeding out of control plowed into the glass box that housed her body.

And that was all anyone could say.

I never knew how severely she was injured. I never knew how long she was in the hospital, how many surgeries she endured, or how close she came to death. What I did learn was that she could not be vanquished. She put all of her strength into her recovery, looked around and apparently said, “OK, what’s next?” She rebuilt her body and her life. She created a place of beautiful dreams from a blood-spattered nightmare.

There is so much we can never know about other people, what they want, why they are where they are, who they will become when they have to look at the death of their first dreams. It comes to us all, that realization that we have to let some things go. The question is, can we take up new dreams, and fight just as hard for them as we did for our first-borns?

I like to think the answer is yes.

Check Your Bags. And I Love You.

I’m starting to realize I actually am not opposed to this “getting older” thing.  This past weekend was my 25th high school reunion, and it was simply marvelous.

I remember being 18 years old and looking at people in their 40s and feeling so sad for them.  Their lives were over.  They had to work, most of them had children who were wearing them out, they had no idea how to dress properly and they were getting kind of grey and wrinkly.  Not me!  I was the opposite of all of that, and I could see them looking at me with some envy.  I believed I was in the best place in the world, and they were on the down slope to nowhere.

The thing is, when you are young, you can only look at things you’ve never been and guess what they are.  You take your experience, which is profoundly limited, and you make your best guess.  You don’t know what it’s like to get older.  But when you are older, ahh…….now I can see.  You can look back at your early years with knowledge.  That look of envy?  Not exactly.  It’s the look of the bittersweet happiness you feel when you think of who you were back then, and the irreplaceable warmth of gratitude for who you are now because of it.

In essence, it’s all good.

This reunion was unlike any previous event for the Class of 1986.  It was the great equalizer.  For the first time, some of our real heroes are dead.  We’ve lost classmates, too.  Some of us are taking our children to tour college campuses, while others are experiencing the late-blooming joy of new love and a baby.  We’re all over the map in some senses, and yet very connected in others.

A couple of nights before the reunion, I kept hearing dialogue from The Big Chill.  William Hurt’s character Nick is stoned and fighting with his old friends.  The primary source of the fight is repressed emotions about a mutual friend’s suicide.   At one point Nick snaps to Tom Berenger’s character Sam, “You’re wrong.  You don’t know me.  A long time ago we knew each other for a very short period.  It was easy back then.  You don’t know anything about me.  It’s only out here in the real world where things get tough.”

Sam is angry but he tells his friend, “You’re wrong.  I know I loved you and everyone here, and I’m not going to p*** that away because you’re higher than a kite.  I’ll go on believing that until I die.”

This scene has been lodged in my memory since I first saw the film.  It’s the ageless question of how “real” the friendships of very young classmates can actually be, especially when they remain under the glass of a nostalgic past.  I knew how I felt about my old friends, but I was anxious about what our time together would really show.

It didn’t take long to find out.

I noticed a new vibe at this reunion, one that said all bags had been checked before boarding the weekend.  One lovely consequence of getting older is that we are just  too weary to lug around all of the issues we dragged along to the previous reunions.  Half of us have experienced at least one divorce.  Some of us have lost siblings or children to illness or accident.  Many of us have deceased parents.  We’ve had career crashes, sickness, parenting fails, pounds on and pounds off, and severed relationships with people we once loved.  We all know it now.  No one has missed these experiences entirely, and if they claim they have, well, they are not telling the truth.

This time, we all came to the reunion to tell the truth.

I’m gay.  I’m a single parent.  I’m really sick.  I’m unemployed.  I’ve killed people.  I’ve delivered babies.  I’m afraid everyone will realize I was never a very good friend.  I married someone I didn’t love.  I’ve never been happier or more sure of myself.  I’m worried about my parents.  I’ve turned to God.  I’ve left the church.  I’m an alcoholic.  I fight terrorists.  I fight with my kids.  I finally know what I’m doing.  I have no idea what I’m doing.

My friend posted this on his Facebook page today:  “With the passage of twenty-five years, most of the people with whom I went to high school had turned into vague mythical shadows in the depths of my mind. What a pleasant surprise to find that the people with whom I was friends are still wonderful, and the people I didn’t know well are kind and thoughtful adults. The class of ’86 rules!!!”

Rules indeed.  Now, pass the aspirin and my cane.  I need to rest up for the 30th……you people wore me out.  And I still really love you.

The Big Game – Suited Up at the 40

It takes a while to really get it.  At the proverbial mid-field point myself, I would say I am still trying to live the reality every day, but better late than never.  Here’s how it works:

We think we are born naked, but we’re not really.  We are wearing tiny, invisible, game day uniforms.  Little knee pads, wee helmets, grippy cleats, the whole ensemble.  Over time we start to notice not only are we suited up, we’re on the field.  So is everyone else.

We look around and start trying to identify our team members.  We talk strategy, and possible plays, and rest periods and practice times.  Sometimes we lose teammates, and that hurts.  Sometimes we find out we are playing a position at which we are terrible, but fortunately we have the choice to move around.  Good teammates will let us do that.  Sometimes we get traded, and sometimes we get suspended.  We are injured, sometimes severely.  We win games.  We lose games.  We go into overtime.

Slowly it dawns on us that these things are not happening to us.  We are engaged in most outcomes, and certainly always in our responses to the dynamics of the game.  It’s a relief, and it’s also a humbling and sobering moment of truth.

One of biggest learning  points in The Big Game is that the refs are not ethical arbiters.  Law is only law, and what is legal or technically aligned with the rules of the game most often only coincidentally aligns with what is right.  Learning to know the difference and to respect what that difference requires of us is a demand of the game with no clock running down. 

It is always on.

There is no postponement of The Big Game.  We are all playing it right now, and the sooner the adults involved in the West Virginia AAA State Football tournament debacle wake up to that reality and what we are teaching kids with this ridiculous behavior, the better.  It may be too late, because at the moment the field is littered with nothing but losers as far as the eye can see.

On an up note, one great thing about The Big Game is that there is often a thrilling emergence of an unexpected hero.  My hope is that hero turns out to be the kids themselves.  Time will tell.

Real Friends: Manning Up to Curve Balls, Together

A very good friend of mine from college shared with me this (edited) email that her own father recently wrote to a group of his fraternity brothers.  My hands-down favorite has to be the “we all manned up” comment at the end.  The timelessness of the friendships moved me, and got me thinking about my own feelings about old friends.

Despite our ever more technologically connected world, I generally feel more disconnected from my friends.  I love Facebook for its capacity to keep me from not losing touch all together with far-flung relationships; and yet there is the danger of buying into the dynamic that people are products.  We set up our own profiles, we decide what photos go up, what stories are shared, what image or slice of our realities we want to present.  I only know what you want me to know, and vice versa.

I miss that greater sense of entirety about my friends’ lives.  When we all were in the same physical space more often, I knew that you said that dumb thing in front of an important person.  I knew your mom was mad at you, that your dog was really sick, that you wondered why I hadn’t called.  I knew you liked peanut butter in your milkshakes and had to take a nap every day or you became an unbearable pill to be around. 

We could talk about politics and sex and religion because we weren’t afraid the other one would walk if we said the “wrong thing.”  I knew you were a cheap date, that you were not sure you liked girls “that way,” and that you cried when you woke up from a bad dream.  I knew you were under too much pressure, that you had almost cheated on your taxes but didn’t at the last-minute.  I knew you were afraid, really afraid, that you had picked the wrong career, or the wrong life partner, or the wrong dress.  I knew you were an unrepentent dork about Star Trek, and that you were not even joking when you said, “Worf’s hair looks really good like that.”

Knowing these kinds of things is what makes for real friendship, and we can only know them from time spent together.

Here’s to real friends…………

Dear brothers, I certainly enjoyed seeing all of you this past weekend.  Sarah and Tim overdid the hospitality and I know everyone appreciated their generosity and hard work as much I did.

Many thoughts hit me on the rainy ride home.  I did not take notes, but I should have because the details were as interesting as the big picture was chronological — our “here’s what happened to me” stories.  Following are my general impressions of our collective “my life so far”stories:

  • Small decisions can have big long-term implications and impact.  Many of those “small decisions” start with a whim and develop into life changes.
  • Big decisions that turned out to be questionable can in fact be course-corrected for the better.
  • We are a funny bunch.   Our collective sense of humor has only gotten better over the years and  probably has served us well in life.
  • In spite of the very different paths we each have taken over the years we are a relatively homogenous group, sharing the same values, stories and friendship.
  • Fifty three years is a long time not to see someone you like to be with.
  • We have accomplished much, yet retain modest egos.
  • We received a damn good education at our school. The Liberal Arts degree (that some of us initially did not know how to turn into jobs) gave us a wonderful foundation for a wide variety of challenges.
  • It seems like we are all happy with the way things turned out and are content. Those of us who have retired seem to enjoy being irrelevant compared with the stress of running businesses, practices and careers.   Those of us still working have figured out both what we like to do and a way to get paid to do it.
  • We have all “manned up” and dealt with the curve balls life sends us all.

Image credit: The Complete Pitcher

Life and Death (and Life) in the the Garden

The creation myth recorded in the book of Genesis is perhaps the most well-known ancient story of human origins.  By “story of our origin” I mean exactly that.  It is not science, it is a story.  It is a genuine and compelling myth, and many cultures have them.  I like this framing of myth from Wikipedia:

…….academic use of the term generally does not pass judgment on truth or falsity.  In the study of folklore, a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form.  Many scholars in other fields use the term “myth” in somewhat different ways.  In a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story.

One of the reasons I adore mythology is that it tends to illustrate more deeply Truth (capital T) than does dry fact.  For example, the layering of conflict, hubris, love, temptation, foolishness, desire and loss in the Greek myth of Icarus is difficult to match.  By using a factually “untrue” story, the Greeks say more about the human condition in a few words than most others have in volumes.

Our weeping mulberry tree in November

The garden presents itself in special ways this time of year.  There is so much to learn and appreciate year ’round, but something about the autumn season seems to lend itself especially well to talking about some of the most difficult topics.  My parenting philosophy is to use both myth and nature to teach my daughter as early as possible about life.  Decline and death are difficult topics for many when it comes to talking with young children, but I find that the more I expose my child to the garden, the more naturally and comfortably she seems to absorb the conversations.

All year long, we talk about fertility, and seeds, and conditions for life.  We talk about living things thriving where they get what they need, and withering where they do not.  We discuss intervention and non-intervention in the food chain (not easy, but good).  We respect the passing of worms, and bugs, and birds.  We thank the world for sharing its bounty with us, and we remind ourselves of our reciprocal role in respecting the systems around us.

The garden is a place of joy, and loss, and natural comings and goings.  It is, in fact, the perfect place.  All the more understandable that getting kicked out was the ultimate punishment for Adam and Eve……….and all the more True that our restoration there is a natural culmination to a journey lived outside. 

Welcome, winter.  Spring will surely be here soon.

Image credit: Elizabeth Gaucher

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.

Buddha v. Papa Bear

My daughter holding, literally, The Teachings of the Buddha at Goat Rope Farm.

Now and again, I read something that just cuts to the chase so well it almost defies analysis or explanation.  But it sure deserves sharing…….  

After a friend cryptically posted a lament that she could not protect her children from heartache and negativity, some well-meaning soul suggested that the Teachings of the Buddha could ease her mind.  Buddha taught that on the path to enlightenment, one inevitably encounters many trials and tribulations, but it is the manner in which one responds to those trials that leads to a higher plane and (presumably) a more enriched life.  

Great perspective.  Excellent life lesson.  Not bad advice.  Except for one little thing.  Enter, Papa Bear.  

Papa Bear proceeded to outline what had actually occurred.  A six-year-old little girl was subjected to demands to do 50 push ups by an older girl/authority figure outside of the observation of her parents.  I don’t have more details, but having a little one myself, I don’t need them.  Papa Bear’s retort to the well-meaning friend?  “Buddha can suck it.”  

Please understand I mean no disrespect to the Buddha or any other revered teacher or religious entity.  But it does have a wonderful quality when people fiercely protect their loved ones to the tune of everyone else — even deities and near such — can, well……what he said.