Conundrum

It’s not easy being a person of conscience, of ethics and morals and decency. It’s really not. Your own particular brand of conscience may require tithing and public prayer before digging in to your chicken fried chicken at Black Eyed Pea (90s me), regular donations to Public Media (00s me), monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood not because you think abortion is a party but because you hate the idea of women bleeding to death from botched back-alley abortions (10s me).

Your decency might be to support the US flag, no matter what the circumstances. You might believe, honestly and truly, that patriotism is unquestioning.

Your morality might include sponsoring a child through Compassion International, a fantastic organization which I still happen to support monetarily, even in my post-church life.

You might volunteer in a soup kitchen, you might always tip 20% because you comprehend that those in the service industry need to buy groceries; you might even drive a Prius.

And if you’re like me, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you refuse a plastic bag in favor of your reusable one, or hand the paper-wrapped straw back to the drive through window attendant while explaining to their puzzled faces that you carry your own stainless steel straws with you, it just seems like it’s never enough…

because it’s clear that no matter what choice you make, it’s going to have a harmful, unintended consequence somewhere in this great big world.

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The genius TV sitcom “The Good Place” is handling this conundrum with a deft touch this season. As Michael, so brilliantly played by Ted Danson, and his posse of afterlife wanderers is realizing, the most innocuous choices can have magnificently terrible consequences. A simple tomato purchase is rife with opportunity to wreck a distant life in an accidental and unavoidable ripple effect: pesticides and underpaid laborers, for example.

Here lately, I find myself stymied by the quest for toothpaste:

the tubes that normal toothpaste come in are not recyclable. So when I throw them in the bin, where do they end up? Land fill.

I could order the chewable tablets that you bite down on, they’re packaged in glass, but then there is a truck that has to deliver them to my house, which creates more exhaust fumes, and thereby a larger contribution to global climate change.

Baking soda just tastes gross.

I have settled for a brand that touts itself as good for the groundwater, and it comes in a tube that is made from plant material and is recyclable.

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But then I am plagued by the follow up thought: I hear that recycling is at a near-halt because the Chinese are no longer buying and shipping our waste to China, and American waste companies can’t afford to actually recycle the volumes of plastic and cardboard that are now stacking up in warehouses.

What about the turtles, fish, and ducks, friends? WHAT ABOUT THEM?

And can we talk relationships? I spent a good hour today worried and upset and angry. Like so many others, I posted the video of the red capped teen staring. I try to keep my social media political posts to a minimum- just a couple a month, normally. My life’s work is about finding joy and sharing peace. Not about stirring up discord.

But this incident of the Catholic high school boys and the Native American elder really bothers me. Maybe it’s because I taught high school. I am familiar with that smirk, I have been cornered by a high school boy who threatened me harm out of the sight of security cameras, I have been hit by a student, I too have found myself in the midst of an unruly group of inadequately supervised teens and known the fear of turning every which way only to realize I was at the mercy of the “Lord of the Flies” adolescents.

But those aren’t the relationships that upset me today. Not tribal elders, not smartass teens, not their school leadership. And yes, I have seen the opposing arguments that we don’t know the real story, and to be frank, I am not buying most of it.

No, today it came from an old friend. A friend who is so staunch in her conservative world view that she posted a response that I could not even begin to handle. I deleted the whole thread, which I was planning to do anyway, but once the conservative mommy blog link was shared, I churned. I churned all afternoon. I would gladly have had an actual dialogue with this friend, but what I was unequivocally not willing to do was read a right wing mommy blog.

And here’s where I am stuck: What happens when our own particular value systems are so firmly at odds with each other that to compromise feels like we are cutting a piece of our gut out and laying it on a table as blood sacrifice?

There’s a lot of talk that goes: “We all, at the most basic level, share the same values. We just want a safe and happy place to raise and love our families.” Yeah, well, that’s the easy and obvious one. But if you go just one step deeper than that, to ask the questions about what justice looks like, what good citizenship looks like, how money should be spent, which lives have value and where people should be able to breathe freely, things get more complex. And those values are as essential to our humanity as loving and providing for our families.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said:

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

Those rude teenagers in Washington DC are not my enemy. And that gentleman beating the peace drum is not the enemy of the conservatives.

When does keeping the peace with friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and relatives, at the cost of staying silent on issues we feel passionately about, begin to erode our souls? How do we compromise when to compromise feels like betraying everything we hold dear? Or does it even matter, except in the voting booth? Does dialogue about issues matter?

I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that my own worry about which toothpaste to use is a microcosm of everything else that I am fearful about right now. It just seems like a decision about freedom and equality is too tough, so I’ll debate the merits of my organic toothpaste purchase. Shall I buy mint or vanilla flavored?

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Short and Sweet: Wee, Wee Feet

On these dark, gloomy winter days, I am finding immeasurable joy in cuddling my new grandchild, Hazel. She’s wearing the little crocheted booties that my grandmother Juanita made for my first child thirty years ago. She made them for me, for all my cousins, for all my aunts, and for my own father. There is something exquisitely magical about heirlooms. They seem to hold in them all the love of all the generations that came before.

richard puckett, april 1941

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French Fries and Legos

In 2016, my husband and I bought a new car. It’s  Ford Escape (we aren’t big spenders, no BMWs or Caddys for us, at least not in this current life), but I splurged and opted for leather seats and a sun roof. This was our first post-child-rearing car, it was the one I wanted to drive for a long time, and I kept its interior clean. No jelly smudges on the upholstery, no milk stains on the carpet.

Oh my stars- milk in the carpet! Once, when my kids were little, I smelled something truly vile in my car, a little red Ford Escort. Or maybe it was the white Ford Tempo. It’s all a blur (though it’s clear we’re loyal Ford folks). I searched and searched, until I found a bottle under the driver’s seat. The milk in it had curdled, was leaking gas and fluid, and smelled to high heaven. It was rank like a boys’ locker room laundry hamper; like rotten, sulfuric eggs or fresh skunk spray on a humid morning. The smell lingered for months, no matter how much scrubbing or Resolve I used.

This new cinnamon-red, tan-leather-upholstered, luxurious clean crossover was my reward for all the years of driving three kids around, pulling through McDonalds to grab them sustenance before a game, piano lesson, or orthodontic appointment. Since we were new empty nesters, we anticipated a good five years of clean, quiet road trips to little wineries and out-of-the-way art galleries. I even got my nose pierced to celebrate the Empty Nest! I was ready to rock!

Just last week, while cleaning out the SUV, my husband found a french fry wedged between the seats. A french fry.

You see, our life took a major shift lately. A good one, a happy one, but still: a shift. We became grandparents. And not just grandparents of one little newborn. Our daughter’s partner has two children, and so we are insta-grandparents (just add white wine and stir).

Thrown in the deep end, so to speak. In it up to our eyeballs. Trial by fire. Zero learning curve.

So now, we have added trips to the children’s museum and Chik Fil A back into rotation.

My husband just glommed right onto this grandpa thing. Maybe it’s his silver beard. Quite possibly it’s his jolly, extroverted personality. More likely, it’s his big heart. I took a little time to adjust to the idea. I am an introvert who likes neatness and order and quiet. I willingly relinquished those things while raising a family, and I was pretty excited about having them back for a bit. Also, being a grandparent means you’re in phase three- the last phase- and that’s sobering. Then I met the kids who would be joining our family, and fell in love. The girl is seven, a second grader who reads well and instinctively mothers her little brother, a four-year-old with a glimmer of impishness in his eyes. Now I couldn’t care any less about a french fry in my car.

There’s a single Lego sitting on my fireplace mantel. I found it under the TV stand while looking for the remote, just sitting innocently on the hardwood floor, thankfully out of stepping-upon range, waiting for its owner to get back down to floor level and play his games of imaginary build and destroy.

A friend teased yesterday, learning about my newborn grandchild, “I bet you have your own car seat in your car.” I do. I bought a car seat, a pack-and-play, and a swing. There’s baby shampoo, formula, diapers, and wipes in what has been my yoga room and is now a shared space. My asanas are now kept company with Pampers and that wonderful smell of baby shampoo. And atop my refrigerator I have current family photos with four new and welcome faces.

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There’s no instruction book for being a grandparent, though I did stumble across an amazing book called Grandpa Magic: 116 Easy Tricks, Amazing Brainteasers, and Simple Stunts to Wow the Grandkids while at Barnes and Noble(see below for link). It was one of my husband’s favorite Christmas presents. I found him studying the tricks Sunday afternoon in his home office. He has big plans brewing, I think.

The kids? They’re the easy part. Spending time in the back yard playing school, coloring pages, bubble baths? I know how to do that stuff, though it’s exhausting. One afternoon of helping them ride their new bikes in our neighborhood wiped me out. Now I understand why my in-laws looked so frazzled after my kids visited.

I fear that the hard part is going to be knowing when to help my daughter and her partner and when to back off; when to offer advice and when to hush. When to let them stumble while they figure out the best way to parent. Parenting hurts. When your child is sick, when someone hurts their feelings, when they fail, your heart aches. I don’t think that’s going to get any easier.

I just want to be the safe place. The lap that offers the best cuddles for the little ones and the ear that provides unerring support and love for their parents.

Maybe I’ll even practice a magic trick or two. Everyone needs a fairy grandmother with a little magic in her wand.

 

 

 

 

Fairies, Poetry, and a Magic Kingdom

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

-WB Yeats

I captured this sweet little fairy house in Tinkerbell’s Pixie Hollow, Disneyland, Anaheim.

I love fairies, and I firmly believe that life becomes more lovely and love-filled when we allow our spirits to recognize magic, in all its various forms, in all its abundant places. Whether enchantment arrives by pixiedust, baby giggles, healing hands, sunlight, or the gift of forgiveness, magic is free, it’s beautiful, and it’s for each one of us to enjoy. And to share.

What’s your magic?

Curses!

Yes loves those kinda hoesJust a couple of days ago, freshman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib lit up the internet and news outlets with her statement, saying she wants to “impeach the mother f*@&er.”

Without any desire to further any political agenda, I posit this:

It was her choice of language, rather than her intention to impeach, that has folks up in arms.

We like our women demure, after all.

Recently, while teaching my film appreciation class at the local college, I showed my students a great scene from 2017’s Oscar nominee, I, Tonya. Allison Janney is ripping into her daughter Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, and Janney drops some spectacularly foul and cutting language. Janney is a classy lady, though character LaVona Harding most assuredly is not. The cussing was glorious.

Unlike LaVona Harding, or even Rashida Tlaib, I don’t talk a whole lot. Not really. I move pretty quietly through the world. I do not change the social temperature of a room by walking in. I listen and observe more than I speak. I wait for invitations to be included.

It’s not that I am afraid of speaking. One of the common misconceptions about introverts is that we are quiet little mice hiding in a corner. Not at all. If I feel something is crucial, I am saying it. If one is in need of a vocal advocate, I am the person for that job. If I think injustice is happening and I can do something about it, I cannot be hushed.

Once, in my freshman year of high school, I got thrown out of my English class by my favorite teacher. We were studying poetry, and he was reading Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to the class as an example of poetic lyrics. I seethed until my hand shot up in the air, interrupting his recitation. “Yes, Kim?” he called, eyebrow raised nearly to his hairline. “I cannot listen to this poem. It is full of Satanic backward masking.” Yeah, I did that. Every head turned to me as I argued what I had heard my youth ministers teaching us about the entire summer before, a summer whose sunshine I wasted, spending hours in my room searching for subliminal Devil messages in magazine ads. I stuck to my guns, even as my beloved teacher was at first courteously incredulous, then irritated, then angry enough to ask me to leave the class. I had never been thrown out of a class before. In fact, it was the only time I ever was.

I am still that way. If I see injustice or rudeness, I want to say something. It’s gotten me in trouble more than once. Instead of multiple photos of my adorable yet exasperating dachshund, I tend to use social media to proclaim causes, even political ones. I have been taken to task by a couple of family members for it, folks who just want me to be vanilla. Passive. Like any introvert, I don’t enjoy small, meaningless talk about weather or traffic, though I can fake it just fine. I enjoy getting to the heart of things.

When I speak, I want it to resonate. I want it to land, to impact, to preach. And I want to be articulate, with colorful vocabulary. Cussing is one of my favorite ways to accomplish that.

Now, I know what you might be tempted to say: it’s not Godly. It’s not ladylike. It shows a lack of vocabulary development. Only less intelligent people resort to cussing. I say, “Bullshit.”

I did not grow up hearing cussing. My mom may have been strung out much of the time, but she was a strung out Lady. I only remember one “bad word” coming out of her mouth when I was about seven and didn’t like any of the shoe choices on a shopping trip; she told me she was “tired of my crap.” That was the only time. The. Only. Time. Oh- and I remember my dad telling her to “stop bitching” at him just once. Not a lot of colorful language in my house.

We were not allowed to say fart (I still really hate that word) or pee or anything even more risque’. Darn? Nope, that’s just a substitute for damn. Gosh? Nope, that’s just a substitute for using the Lord’s name in vain; though my Pop used awesome substitutes, my favorites were: “For crying in the beer” and “Foot.” These were used a lot when playing cards or dominoes.

Sometimes, when I was feeling dangerous, I would sneak a look at the back of Tiger Beat magazine at the Safeway (when I wasn’t perusing home decorating mags), and there were ads that showed really gorgeous rear ends in those little terry cloth shorts that had the stripe down the side, and the captions might read: “Do you want a great butt?” And I would think…”I guess so. But what I really want is to say the word ‘butt.'” It’s a great word. So one day, while sitting in line on the blacktop, waiting to go back inside from fifth grade recess, I put my head down and whispered into my own lap, “Butt.” I cannot tell you what a thrill it was- I think the hair stood up on my arms as I looked around to see if anyone had heard. No one had, so I repeated it once for good measure. The freedom! I didn’t instantly become a sailor, though, I was still a church girl, after all.

It would not be until my junior year in high school that I would start to really get going with the cussing. I sat with Richie in Theatre class, and he was an artist in profanity. Like the dad in A Christmas Story. A real artist. He loved the band Rush and he was very cynical and a really great friend. He committed suicide within a year of graduation; he had developed a drug habit and one night walked out of the grocery store where he was working, carrying the store’s entire cash deposit for the night. He called me in despair to tell me, and took his own life soon after. I loved him like a brother. From Richie, I learned them all, the myriad great combinations of cussing that only come to those with bright, agile minds.

I had to shut them away in my brain when I went to Christian college, and when we were in youth ministry, of course I watched my mouth diligently. It was appropriate and right for me to do so in those settings. Even though I cuss now, I don’t do it in the wrong settings, even I know that wearing a shirt with “F*&k the Patriarchy” to the mall might be off-putting, and when I am around all family except my cousin Rebecca, I keep it clean (I love you, Rebecca!)

Once, when we were still in ministry, I said a bad word at home, to my husband. His eyes got big, and he gently reminded me that Christian ladies probably shouldn’t say such things. He had fallen in line. I snapped him right back out. Now he knows better.

Travis knows that he’s married to a quiet but fierce woman. He doesn’t get to hush me. He lets me say what I need to say; though there have probably been a few times when I should have let him hush me. But a strong-willed woman’s going to make some foolish comments some times.

Studies from places like Yale and Keele Universities have actually shown that cursing or using strong language helps with eliciting emotional response and catharsis. People who cuss have been shown to be both more honest and more intelligent. People who cuss have integrity. Hell yes.

Some words jolt the listener. Every so often you want to give a little verbal shake to make your point. Not always, of course. There are times and situations when a gentle word is what is needed. Cussing that is too frequent or plentiful can deafen people to your message.

On the whole religious aspect of cussing, I guess I get it. The apostle Paul warns against “unwholesome talk.” Jesus warned his followers not to use words of contempt for people, to speak kindness instead. These are good things. Worthy concepts. Let’s get real, though, we have all known people who, without a single “D@^^it” or “F*&k off” manage to wound, maybe with gossip, sarcasm or neglect, manipulation or oppression. Unwholesome talk is a lot broader than cussing.

So…

Who gets to decide what those forbidden words are? Societal norms? Church ladies? Teachers? Bosses? Yes. For me, yes. So, when I am in my home or hanging out with certain friends, I may spice up my speech with a well-placed “S&!t.” When I am watching certain politicians on the news, I promise there is liberal use of the word “a$$h@!e.” When I am in a church for a wedding or funeral, or with my sweet aunties, I am careful and courteous- I am not so used to cussing that it can’t be curtailed. Loads of cussing is really not my default setting.

I guess some of my mom’s lessons stuck after all. Crap.

 

Why I Try Not To Look Backward. Mostly.

img_1868“For those of us with an inward turn of mind, which is another name for melancholy introspection, the beginning of a new year inevitably leads to thoughts about both the future and the past.” Michael Dirda

Sitting in a quiet living room, I’m finally settling down from the busiest Christmas we may have ever had. Why busy? Grandchildren. Specifically, a two week old, plus our bonus grands. There was a Paw Patrol fire truck, an Our Generation doll, lots of Legos, infant toys, candy, and noise. I usually take lots of photos, but to be honest, once the kids and grandkids arrived, the chaos was a little overwhelming, so I just rode the wave and tried to be present (I also managed to finagle rocking the baby during dinner. At seventeen days old, her coos made for excellent dinner conversation).

Amid all this, my father-in-law had brought a bag of old family VHS tapes. It was his intention that we all sit and watch. He even brought a VCR player since we no longer have one in the house. Now, you’d think I’d be all about sitting and watching my kids, who are now in their twenties, open the Thomas the Tank Engine train sets and American Girl dolls they got for Christmas when they were little. But I wasn’t. Not only was I not all about it, I was quietly but adamantly opposed to this activity. Why?

Because I just cannot allow myself to look back. I can’t. Hell, I already had all of our VHS tapes converted to DVD, but I haven’t watched a single one. As soon as they arrive in the mail, I organize and store them. Seems I can do the work of putting them in chronological order, that’s brain stuff. But pop them in the DVD player that we keep in the house so I can watch Harry Potter and Broadway musical DVDs? That’s a pass.

For what reason, I wonder?

There is a price to be paid when you choose to love. In this case, it’s my parental love, but I think that the same thing happens to loves that are romantic, or platonic, or familial. When you love someone with your very soul, and you walk alongside them for a lifetime (or what may only feel like a lifetime), to look backwards just reminds you of time spent. Of the grains of sand that have already fallen to the bottom of the hourglass. Of the years that are gone.

When I look back, I cry. It’s just that simple.

I don’t need a video to remind me what my children looked like when they were five- I can see my son, running alongside his border collie Trixie as she herded him in our back yard, his blond hair flying in the breeze. I hear my older daughter’s sweet little voice singing along to a Mickey Mouse cassette tape we kept in our bright red Ford Escort. I recall with utter clarity what the younger daughter looked like in the wedding dress I made for her sixth Christmas, complete with veil and silk flower bouquet. I remember their giggles when I tickled their piggies, and their cries when I pulled glass or sticker burrs out of the soles of those little plump feet; or when knees were skinned, requiring a mommy’s kiss and a Peanuts bandaid.

Their hurts are more significant now. The stakes are higher. The wounds deeper.

 

Sometimes, there’s mascara on their pillows after a visit. If you’re the parent of a child in his/her twenties, you may have experienced this. She comes for a Christmas visit, all the way from Los Angeles, where her life looks wonderful, complete with lots of Instagram photos of cocktails with friends, acting and producing projects, her sweet dog, hikes. Lots of smiles. She insists she’s happy, and you know it’s true- but you also know that she got her final divorce papers in the mail just days before the holiday. You understand that a seven year relationship with a drug addict is finally, blessedly over. And you know that she’s grieving. That she knows what’s best, but that she also has to hurt a bit. And so…you find mascara on the pillowcases in the guest room when you go to strip the bed.

I don’t need any help in grieving for my children. No old VHS tapes are necessary to get the tears flowing, you know?

 

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: watching your youngest give birth to a beautiful baby girl in the very same week that the other was opening the packet of papers from the county of Los Angeles. This is the child who had struggled to find her place in the world, who second guessed every decision she ever made, whose anxiety over making the wrong decision about career has held her hostage since high school. I got to be with her for all of her labor, with her dear partner at her shoulder and me at her knees, helping to hold her legs up as she pushed out an exquisite little peanut with black hair. That daughter knows who she is, now.

I shed some tears then, too.

We regained a relationship with my son after a period of estrangement. He was back with us for Christmas. Alone and finally looking healthy and happy. There hasn’t been a day since our reconciliation that I have not looked to Heaven and sent up a thank you.

 

And so…with all that emotion swirling around in my spirit, with gratitude and grief and trepidation and joy, did I really need to look back? Did I want to? NO. I did not. I knew that sitting in a sentimental place from 25 years ago would tip the scales, that I would become an incapacitated blubbering mess.

Forward. Ever forward.

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The problematic VHS tapes.

And yet for days now, my dreams have been…backwards. Having left the classroom four years ago, I find my dream self back in the classroom, helping first graders sound out words or directing high schoolers in a competition play. I look down to see a nursing baby at my breast. I see and hear myself singing, something I have rarely done since my vocal injury in 2011. My grandmother, June, keeps visiting. She died from breast cancer in 1982, but she’s been coming to me in all different forms: chemo-ridden, in her forties and wise, in her twenties and vibrant…all dreams from ago. My slumbering, defenseless brain and heart are taking me backwards when my wakeful, cautious self says no to looking behind.

I think my dreams are trying to tell me to embrace the past, while being open to the future. Maybe my heart is telling me to risk a peek back. I don’t quite feel ready- so for now the past will stay safely ensconced in the VHS tapes that now sit in our garage, awaiting digital transfer. And safely, forever and ever, ensconced in this mother’s heart. No rewinding necessary.

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