The White Lie I Told Myself About Blackness

“It took him [Kunta] a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they [whites] didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother’s milk made possible the life of privilege they led.” Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family

When I was thirteen years old, the miniseries Roots aired on television. Though I probably was old enough, and certainly would have let my own children watch it at that age, my parents would not let me watch. The saga of Kunta Kinte, portrayed by Levar Burton, unfolded in my family’s den while I hid in my room listening to records and wondering what story was being told.

Now I know. Strike that. Now I am learning. 

This week, we here in America have reached a boiling point. The long slow simmer of placid protest or blissful ambivalence has finally reached its tipping point. The death of George Floyd has ignited the earned frustration and justified fury of Blacks across the country. White allies, by turns broken-hearted and angry, walk alongside them in marches. My own daughter was one of them, she sent photos of black smoke rising from behind buildings, where police cars had been set afire.

I am not sure my elders would have understood.

My mother was a genteel racist, she voiced irritation when hearing Spanish spoken in public, she forbade me to have friends of color, going so far as to attempt grounding me from playing with a girl across the street whose name was Kathy Peters. She had dark hair, and my mother assumed she was a Mexican Catholic. I finally gained permission to enter Kathy’s home when I was able to provide the name of an acceptable evangelical church that the Peters family attended. Mom always and only spoke of people whose skin was a different color as “other.” As “wrong.” As “different.” Those for whom I worked as a teenager in retail trained me to follow Blacks who entered our stores so that I could thwart their assumed shoplifting. If a group of more than two Black people came in, I was to notify security, whether or not there had been any indication of intent to steal. When I was in college, a dear woman stated that our Black song leader should be worshiping at the church where his own people attended, “He would be happier with his own kind,” she said. I had not known that in 1986, it was unheard of for a white church in west Texas to allow a Black man to stand before the congregation to lead “It Is Well With My Soul”:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is no longer well with our collective soul here in America. It has never been, though we white folk may have been blindly, blissfully unaware. The truth will out as the smoke clears from the riots: who started what, who actually broke the windows, did the worst of the looters travel from afar, funded by extremists and anarchists with the intent of spreading strife and clouding the vital message, pitting Americans against one another? Where did the pallets of bricks, planted strategically in cities where protestors might turn to rioters, sending the handy bricks through windows, come from? Who ordered and paid for them? Will we begin to hold ourselves accountable? As a young woman, I said, “I never owned a slave, I don’t understand why today’s Black people, who never were slaves, are still so angry!” I cringe now to even think of it, there was so much I needed to learn about how roots affect the tree that grows, about how systemic, generational abuse can be borne so deeply in the soul that the bitter sorrow of admitted culpability and the mutual gift of radical love are needed to heal the wound.

I hope we will do both. Acknowledge and own our part as whites. Accept the blame, whether we understand and agree or not. Perhaps be granted grace by Blacks. For all my life, I have lied to myself, believing my inaction was enough. No longer. I know I intend to learn, read, ask, donate, phone call, letter write, and march. I will continue to do the terrifying work of confronting my own biases, because even at its most terrifying, it doesn’t hold a candle to the real physical terror that my Black fellow citizens face now and faced 200 years ago. I will seek forgiveness where I can. Most of all, I will learn to listen. Listen hard. Because other than recognizing the legacy of racism I inherited, other than acknowledging that as a white person in America I don’t have to overcome racial bias, I really don’t have much to add to the conversation. It’s time for me to hush up and learn.

The lie I told myself? That only bad people were guilty of racism. Now I know better. And as the wondrous Maya Angelou said, when we know better, we do better.

In this beautiful article, author Courtney Ariel lays out a list of ways white people can be effective allies. She calls this “holy work.”

https://sojo.net/articles/our-white-friends-desiring-be-allies?fbclid=IwAR3dRnGltvHQclba3DqVfvbOSSA9gyr3rWRsQS8a1FFXAYQ-YPgVYKAh9LE

 

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Using My Voice: to Sing, Whisper, or Roar?

I’m standing on a stage in a converted Vaudeville theatre. The house is empty. It’s the final week of dress rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone and I am belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glide with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I plant my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I take a deep breath, open my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. The director’s face freezes in horror as I cough and gasp, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager runs toward me with a bottle of water and I drink, but I still cannot squeeze a sound out of my throat. I end the song with tears streaming down my face. There’s no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome, had undergone prosthesis surgery to replace, was my undoing, just two days before opening night.

I’m standing on a stage in a church auditorium. I am flanked on both sides by middle-aged men, and I clasp my husband’s hand tightly as he bares his soul to the congregation, laying down his ministry, our mission, and our livelihood for a crowd of over 1,000 church members. Their eyes are wide and my spirit is shattered; the only sound in the room is my husband’s broken and trembling voice as he confesses his sex addiction for the whole world to see. I have nothing to say, and wouldn’t be permitted to speak anyhow. My church preaches and practices the silencing of women.

I’m standing on a stage in another sanctuary, an earlier one, clad in white satin. It’s a different brand of church that allows my voice to speak not only my wedding vows but also to sing all the love I feel for my new husband that day. We sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. We mean it. My voice rings clear and true that afternoon, it is quite beautiful. As I sing, I trust that my uncle and grandfather will keep my mentally ill and drug-addicted mother calm. She has hinted at a scene in my dressing room and again as I hand her a rose during the processional. For a few minutes, I stop worrying about her to bask in my husband’s blue-eyed adoration.

I’m standing on a stage in my senior year of high school, performing the song “Memory” from Cats for the Senior Farewell Talent Show. My accompanist is absent, having not found the sheet music in her bag. I sing a cappella after the speech teacher gives me a pep talk just before the lights turn on my frightened face. I haven’t yet learned that my voice is resonant and strong enough to make a melody without the help of a piano, without the crutch of another person on stage with me. I stand in the spotlight all alone and sing of moonlight and beauty, skipping the final verse when my nerve abandons me. After the talent show, my mother slaps me in front of what feels like the whole school, and I sense the heat of all those curious, sympathetic eyes as I flee to the shared dressing rooms, where my friends form a barricade to protect me from my own mother as she rages.

I’m standing on a different sort of stage, not a stage really, but oh-so-exposed anyway. In my own backyard, between the side of the house and the neighbor’s fence, my six-year-old self pulls down my pants and allows a little boy to put his tiny erect penis in between my legs. He sticks his tongue in my mouth, his friends watch, and I can utter no sound. I am silent. When it’s over, I hide in my room and cry. He does it again, then again, and I never speak a word. I stay silent and I suffer shame.

But my first time on a stage is joyous, though still quiet. My beloved Uncle Steve, who performs at Six Flags Over Texas in the early ’70s, invites me to sing with him at the final rehearsal of the amusement park’s Crazy Horse Saloon. Only six years old, I never utter even a peep. Yet it is so profound a moment that I will always know that I was wearing my white tennis dress that had red and blue edging and looked just like something Billie Jean King would wear. I will always recall the encouraging expressions of the invited audience as I gape and stare. No trauma, just stage fright and an introverted little girl.

So quiet. In so many key moments of my life, I have locked my heart, soul, and voice up tight. Lips compressed. Spirit screaming, though. Screaming, wailing, thrashing, and hurting. No more. No, no more. I am learning to speak my truth, from the small honesty of what I do or don’t want to eat when with my family to calling congressmen to press for justice; from expressing, rather than clutching, hurt feelings to setting a boundary to protect myself from a tyrannical boss. And when the spoken word is not sufficient unto the task, I write my soul’s truth, pouring heart and mind into words that I sometimes share.

I am discovering that being quiet is okay. Quiescence is beautiful, it implies a hush that is grounded in rest. But healthy tranquility is not the same as resentful placidity. Living quietly, in a place of hope, requires muscular work. Diligent mindfulness. Rigorous self-examination. The Divine Creator, She who holds our hearts and minds in such compassion, is present in our quiet; is heard best when we are still. And it is Her voice that can either sing, whisper, or roar through me if I will but avail myself of Her power and courage.

My voice returned in time for opening night, by the way. I belted about bluebirds and “dawn’s blinding sunbeams” as though I’d never known a day of vocal cord paralysis in my life. But underneath my voice was a support network not just of muscle and lung, but of love from family and friends, and the breath of the Creator.

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My New Avatar and My #CuratedLife

Cartoon versions of all my friends permeated my Facebook feed this week as the social media behemoth dropped its new avatar feature. Not one to miss an opportunity to immortalize myself in pixels, I tried to create mine without much success until I humbled myself, resorting to asking publicly for how-to instructions. I managed to get her created, and figured out how to save just one sticker, see exhibit above. I am finally getting a handle on Twitter and now TikTok is in the mix? Nope. No way. I fell in love with Facebook eleven years ago, here’s my first post, in fact, from March 25, 2008:

I have evolved from silly posts like that one, with some stops along the way for oversharing or airing professional grievances online, in an effort to live a truthful life. Now I am more judicious about where that truthful life really belongs. I have gotten better at using filters and hashtags and presenting my best public self. Mostly.

About five years ago, I found Pinterest, and I could, if I let myself, scroll through pinning pictures of beautiful living rooms and historical costuming all day long. I have boards called General Geekery (for Star Trek and Harry Potter), The Democratic Diva (mostly inspirational quotes about my core values), and Women I Adore (Obama, Streep, and Alcott). I save photos from Gilmore Girls and Supernatural and I have a new board called “It’s a Grand Baby!” That’s where I save a ridiculous number of nursery décor pins and ideas for entertaining one’s grandkids.

And now…Instagram. It’s my most recent foray into social media. It’s so dreamy! Here is where meals are perfectly plated, fashions are always forward, and delightful dogs make me smile. This is also where my favorite authors send what I pretend are personal exhortations and juicy little details about their lives (Did you know Glennon Doyle loses her keys all the time, just like me? We are so sympatico!)

No, really. My BFFS are Liz Gilbert, Brene’ Brown, Martha Beck, Glennon Doyle, Cheryl Strayed, and Oprah. All of them. They talk to me every day on Instagram. And podcasts! How could I not mention podcasts? Magic Lessons, SuperSoul, Robcast, On Being, What Women Want; these podcasts fill me up! I have a whole other genre that I love, spooky podcasts like Lore and Pleasing Terrors.

Here’s the thing about all this social media, all this curation: while I am a little bewildered, my daughters get it. In spades. It’s just how they live.

My son posts interesting memes that reveal his offbeat sense of humor and explore his love of interesting indie music. When my older daughter hits a gorgeous yoga pose, she somehow manages to photograph it and post it on Insta with just the right hashtag. For my senior pictures, I wore a fluffy pale blue boa and sat in front of a swirly brown background with the photographer hired by my school. For my younger daughter’s senior pictures, she scheduled two photographers and an independent studio space, complete with multiple changes of clothes, a variety of backgrounds, and my yellow bicycle with silk flowers wired to its basket.

When I was in my twenties, if Instagram had existed, it would have been full of photos of me dripping milk all over the front of my shirt or char-marked skillets full of cheeseburger macaroni Hamburger Helper (I grew up on the stuff, I raised my kids on it, and I still love it, I don’t care what anyone says). My wedding would have needed about $10,000 more to spend so that I could have all the details that make for perfect pins. My kids’ birthday parties would had to have been bigger and louder so they would stand out on Facebook and they’d get #invited to all the #coolkids parties.

I am so glad I didn’t live my twenties that way.

Though I sure as hell am doing my fifties that way! I have learned about hashtags pretty recently and I am working to figure out which ones grab attention; because now I am actively trying to create a new life- an author’s life- and I feel like I need to learn what resonates. It’s not that I am being disingenuous, nor am I trying to use people; but I am working to be a storyteller, and in the year 2020, that simply doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I have been known to post some sweaty, unflattering photos of myself, but I still keep trying to figure out the perfect angle to get a good selfie (what my mother in law charmingly called “facies” early on). When I walk outside, I am always looking for just the right bit of nature to photograph to add to my online presence, to cultivate the recognition and love of daily magic that I think is my calling. I use my bright yellow bike as a prop for my “brand,” even though I worked an acting gig eight years ago to save up for it, long before I had any knowledge of Instagram, WordPress, or Medium; or any idea that I would make a career change that would lead me to want to write and require “branding.”

Here’s where I have landed on all this social media stuff: it is, for me, a gift. I can stay in touch with childhood and college friends and see baby photos of my cousins’ infants. I can post requests for advice on taking care of plants, and one of my green-thumbed buddies will help. I can see the creative work my friends are up to: wire-wrapped jewelry, nature photography, writing, or acting. I can be inspired by the aforementioned authors/encouragers. I can feel a moment of gratitude and share it unironically, with the hashtag #lovemylife.

When I feel super courageous, I can post that photo that shows the realest me: wrinkles and spots and squish and dark eye circles.

I love the online stuff, it’s like a scrolling scrapbook. I can click on any year in my Facebook timeline, and I am instantly transported. What was I doing? Where were my kids? Who did I go to eat sushi with? Why did I wear that?

Of course, there is danger in the temptation to live and love only that way, so I take care. Take care to set the phone down. Take care to look into my husband’s real eyes, not just the ones saved in countless photos in my online accounts; all while he hugs me tight. Photos of gorgeous dinners aren’t nourishing, only in the eating and sharing do we savor the flavors and reap the nutrients. Snapchat pics of our loved ones, no matter how silly the filters, don’t replace the need for touch, for listening to each other sigh or laugh or cry. Hashtag activism isn’t enough, action is required. And Pinterest images, those perfectly lit tableaux of exquisite home furnishings, can never outshine the comfort of our own homes, even if they’re cluttered or not perfectly staged. That’s life. Life is lived by being present.

Have you ever gotten lost in the world of social media, or made a big gaff there? Tell me about it!

(This piece originally appeared in The Fine Line/Prime Women online magazine:

https://primewomen.com/ )

 

I Hugged My Husband On Wednesday…

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. In a moment of crisis, I hugged him because I had to. It was hug him or hurt myself; desperately upset and out of practice, my head knocked sharply on his shoulder as I thrust myself toward him, and I discovered there had been nothing to be afraid of, after all. Oh, joy of joys! His strong hands stroked my back, his broad shoulder absorbed my tears, and I broke open just enough to look around. The world is full of beauty:

books dog-eared with affectionate reading, sunshine sparkling through jewel-colored crystals, juicy peaches, baby toes, the hum of summer locusts in the woods. A Chopin nocturne.

Fresh starts. Worn paths.

Dandelions. Doodlebugs.

Apologies accepted. Grace granted.

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Who knew that resilience, that trauma recovery, that learning to love who you are, would turn out to be a lifelong journey? That ugly voices once thought vanquished could worm their way back in? But beauty and power lay in reconnecting with the deepest part of our spirit. The part that, merged with the Divine, beseeches us, “Don’t listen to the Darkness! Behold the Light! The birds! Sparkling water and leafy trees! Those who love you, not because you’ve earned their love, but simply because YOU ARE.”

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. I accepted his love for me. Though still reluctant to be touched, I am aware of it; I’m still working on shaping my own love for me. But I know where to look to find it, for the Divine Creator is an infinite and persistent source of love.

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How a Green Dress and Kindness from a Teacher Saved Me After Sex Abuse

“As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her.”

Trigger warning: there is a description of a child sexual encounter.

Hiding behind the house, between the brick wall and the wooden privacy fence…summer air… evening fresh…crickets chirping…and these words: “If you don’t let me, I won’t be your friend, and no one else will, either.” At the age of seven, my neighbor, Donny, who was my same age and size, convinced me to let him put his penis in me and stick his tongue in my mouth. With his little brother and all his friends watching. In fact, he liked it so much the first time that he came back for a couple of repeats; and I, who was so desperately lonely, was too afraid to lose one of my only friends to say no.

After the negotiations were concluded, Donny and his friends led me behind my house, and he made me pull my pants down. I couldn’t look up, I just stared at the feet of the boys. I had seen boy penises before, I had two little brothers after all, but theirs had never been erect, and they’d never been near my own skin. I let him put his penis into the space between my naked legs as he stuck his tongue in my mouth and enacted adult sex. He didn’t really understand where the penis went, so he slid it between the lips of my genitals, and it felt wrong somehow. Even with absolutely no knowledge of what sex is, no prior instruction or indoctrination, I believe human children instinctively sense a problem. I believe their spirits rebel against the aberration of sexual exposure. Mine did, and it felt shame.

If I close my eyes, I still see his face, with its button nose, freckles, and missing teeth. His hair was light brown. I can sense shadows of the boys who were encircling us, serving as witnesses and guards.

I can only assume he’d witnessed his own parents having sex. Or worse, saw porn in his house.

I remember when I found out that all the neighbors knew. Donny’s neighbor Karen was my age, and I knocked on her door, which her mom answered. “Can Karen play?” I asked. Karen’s mom simply glared and answered, “Karen is not allowed to play with girls like you.” She called me “nasty,” then she slammed the door in my face. Of course, I knew what she meant because I carried the shame in body, mind, and spirit.

Donny’s brother had tattled, so he told his parents that I was the one who forced him, not the other way around. As a result, I spent the next year in nearly complete isolation. I rode my purple bicycle with the banana seat around the block or down to the elementary school playground, but I never got off and dropped my bike in a friend’s driveway so we could play. I never rode bikes in a cluster of loud, boisterous, giggling girls.

I had always been quiet and preferred playing with just one or two friends, but this isolation was different. It was forced, it was ongoing, and it was complete. It’s when I started really knowing true loneliness and hushed days.

There was just one house where I was welcome. Our next-door neighbors were older folks, probably in their seventies. I remember white hair and a white mustache, and a kind spirit. His wife rarely came outside, but she did send out snacks. All the neighbors called the gentleman “Grandpa,” though he was none of our biological grandparent, for he filled the role for the neighborhood kids. He kept a pool table in his garage, which was a safe haven for me; I was never kicked out of that room. Occasionally, I asked Grandpa how to hold the cue stick, and he helped me hit the ball. I remember the click-click of the billiard balls striking each other. It’s a sound that, to this day, puts me right back in that garage, next door to my lonely house and my tainted back yard.

Grandpa had a tree in his front yard, a locust, which grew long brown bean pods. I used to climb into the tree and eat the hard little beans, observing the other kids as they played. I spent a lot of time in that tree. It was safe. The garage was safe. Grandpa was safe.

I began drawing with my pencil, little naked figures of anatomically correct boys and girls, with pointed penises and sharp clefts. I kicked the dog. I hid the drawings. These were the first inklings of my rage– not a cute, prissy, toddler-style anger expressed with pursed lips, but a violent and potent fury which was almost always turned back on my own self.

Incurlers: A Vintage Hair Rollers Buying Guide

I felt compelled to punish myself. I can’t explain it, really, it didn’t come out of clear and methodical planning, but out of gut-level, molecular shame: I began to insert hair curlers into my vagina. These were not smooth plastic ones, they were made of wire and had some sort of sharp plastic prickles around them. Wincing, with eyes teary, I would push them up inside me, which was not easy. My skin and muscles rejected the intrusion, and I forced myself to hold them there for about thirty minutes. When I drug them out of me, they were always covered with blood and mucus.

There was another place where I sensed love: from my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover. She set up a classroom store where students used good behavior reward coupons to shop for treats, it opened for business once a week. Early in the year, my eyes fell upon a beautiful dress. It was a soft minty green with a fitted bodice and full tulle and organza skirt (I didn’t know any of that vocabulary as a seven-year-old, but I surely recognized beauty). The bodice had satin piping in three rows around the rib cage. It had been donated by someone’s mom, but as far as I was concerned it was delivered by an angel, sent as a gift from the Almighty God, just for me.

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I started saving my behavior coupons like they were the very link to life itself. I was always a well-behaved child, so it was no struggle at all to mind my manners, take out my Mysterious Wisteria reader when told, and tidy my messes. I was quiet, though, and my extra special efforts could easily have been overlooked. When you’re good and always quiet anyway, sometimes teachers forget to notice you when they are busy corralling the noisy troublemakers who shoot rubber bands across the room, make fart noises during phonics instruction, or don’t clean up after themselves at the art table. But Mrs. Hoover saw me, and quietly set coupons on my desk for my goodness.

Each Friday when the class store opened, my classmates cashed in their coupons for pencils, Hot Wheels, or stickers. I held my breath and watched the green dress. My teacher watched me watch the green dress. After months of waiting and saving, I had enough coupons for it. 43 years later, I remember the moment it became mine. Mrs. Hoover beamed when I gave her my tickets, and I carried it home on a cloudy, gray winter day, holding it gingerly for all six blocks until I got to our little home.

This dress became the inspiration for years of imaginary play: princess, queen, debutante, wife, singing star, all enacted alone in my room wearing my heavenly mint green dress. It remains the most enchanted single item I remember from childhood, that gown scattered little bits of fairy dust over my wounded, solitary spirit until it eventually fell into tattered pieces.

I wish I was not so hurt by this story– I know there are so many women and girls who have endured violent rape. By comparison, my story seems tame, it was a kid my own size, for God’s sake. Indeed, in my telling of my experience with Donny as a middle-aged woman, there have been some who didn’t understand the trauma, who compared it to adult sexual molestation and thought that because the perpetrator was a child, rather than a trusted relative or adult, that it really should not count. They have said, “You were too young to even know what sex was, how could it have affected you so? It couldn’t possibly have.” Dismissed.change 2

Except that I suffered. I really did: isolation, fear, and an awareness of sexuality long before I was old enough. Blood and mucus. Shame. Sexual shame, yes, but just as debilitating and maybe more insidious is the shame of letting him. Many, many people who have been molested talk about this particular shame, and they were likely molested by a full-sized adult who had the physical strength to force them. I said yes to a boy my own size, not because he had strength on his side, but because I feared loneliness. Oh, and underpinning it all was the understanding that boys get to dictate what girls do with their bodies. I learned that if I said no, I would lose my few friends. I said yes, and I lost them anyway.

Though I didn’t realize the lessons I’d internalized, they informed most of the rest of my life, up until about my fortieth birthday. I didn’t ever think of myself as a virgin. I did think of myself as a slut. That’s a sad thing; I understood quite well about men and power; and I lived and worshiped in a church culture that placed such a high value on sexual purity that I was terrified I would be banished to hellfire should I perish in a car wreck. As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her nakedness. Even more, now I understand that the Divine One was with me, surrounding me, and in me: feeling the strange, hard little shape between my legs, trembling with fear and pain as I withdrew bloody curlers from inside myself, adoring a gentle and perceptive teacher, donning a discarded prom dress to escape my lonely world, and gently rocking my shameful spirit on its long, long journey to freedom.

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If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, there is help. Here’s a crisis text line, it’s discreet and could be the thing to save someone who’s hurting. https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/sexual-abuse/#understanding-sexual-abuse-1

 

Clarity, Closeness, and Chihuly

In Seattle, the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum showcases the Wonderland-worthy creations of master glass artist Dale Chihuly. Glass is my favorite art medium, and so I wandered the halls and gardens like a spellbound Alice, transported and awestruck, photographing nearly every corner of the place.

At my favorite indoor exhibit, the glass, beautifully lit as it seemingly floated in a narrow wooden canoe, its texture a contrast to the slick glass and mirrored floor, called to my heart. The vibrant color juxtaposed against the sea and walls of black, the sparkle and sheen of the glass, I loved it. It felt so clear, so clean.

Glass is heated to a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit so that the artist can shape it, whether into orbs, spirals, or vases. Only in extreme heat can the master artisan mold beauty. Here lately, I’ve felt the fire of stress and isolation, inertia and closeness torching the lies I tell myself about who I really am. I’ve endured a couple of rough patches as anxiety and the constant close quarters of seven humans in my formerly serene home do a number on my mental health. I talk a big talk about peace, serenity, and loving one’s self. But circumstances and the people I love, who love me too, are burning away the filters, impurities, the need to self-flagellate, the pattern of lies I tell myself.

It’s impossible, apparently, to be quarantined together for six weeks without some truths floating to the surface.

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So, moving forward, I am going to write my truth. Perhaps poetic, hopefully crafted beautifully, poignant truth about walking the path of restoration from trauma. I’ve come to that place in my journey, that fork-in-the-river where I decide: do I follow the stream I know, the one made clear by my damaged family history, or do I choose the uncharted? I’m ready to climb into my own canoe, surround myself with clarity and reflection, and do the work of making art of my soul.

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A Life Gone Spectacularly Awry

Have you ever watched the Netflix show “Nailed It!”? It is a burst of silly joy! If you don’t know the show, average folks attempt to recreate beautiful desserts, the sort of unicorn cakes and emoji cupcakes seen on Pinterest; you want to take them to your office holiday party or serve them at your child’s birthday to impress the other moms. These poor intrepid souls are not successful, except in the sense of simply having fun. Their decorations go spectacularly awry, their frosting discolored and fondant misshapen, but it’s convivial fun. The stakes are not, after all, life-and-death.

But right about now, our very existence feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher. It truly is life-and-death.

My fingernails, which are certainly not life-and-death (bear with me), look like garbage: the polish, a pastel pink, is uneven and ridged, bright turquoise peeks through; the shellac I couldn’t soak off, so I tried to just polish over it. The cuticles are either torn or calloused, their edges jagged.

It’s metaphorical. On day 33 of quarantine, my nails are indicative of my life right now. Serrated. Spread too thin. Easily broken. Mottled and ugly.

Our lives have gone spectacularly awry, like recipes ruined by too much salt, budgets blown by loss of income, book drafts lost in an unexpected power outage. If we’re lucky, we are healthy, our loved ones are safe, and we are only contending with isolation and collective worry. If we’re not, we’re burying loved ones from afar or waiting for financial ramifications that may change the very course of our lives. Perhaps enforced enclosure has revealed fault lines in marriages; now it is known that divorce is imminent. Schoolwork that was always a struggle becomes a seemingly, or truly, insurmountable task. Hell, even the daily mundane is beginning to feel impossible. The relentless pile of dirty dishes and laundry to be folded has morphed from annoying to cataclysmic.

On day 25, I had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I stopped talking, curled in my bed whimpering, sleeping, or pretending to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I considered ways to end my life. My husband was, of course, worried. He’s seen this a couple of times before, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a real bitch. I felt guilty for struggling but compelled to stick it out: the crowded, noisy house and the nagging worry that’s resting deep in my soul like, well, like a virus that’s just waiting to be fully awakened.

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I believed I needed permission to leave because I know deep in my bones that my quarantine experience is a walk in the park compared to so many others. My husband gave me that permission I felt I needed to run away into isolation for a couple of days; I am fortunate to have a place where I can escape, a tiny Vintage Cruiser camper, it’s my nest; decorated completely in Mary Poppins themed art and bedding, parked in the woods at one of the festivals where I work, it’s as close as this middle-aged lady with blown knees is ever going to get to treehouse living.

When I left my house, I had only sparkling water. I had stopped eating the day before; A 2:00 sandwich had been my last sustenance before the meltdown. And when I lost it, I had decided I would simply stop eating. It was the only way I thought I could exert control over what was beginning to feel like an existence of lethargic chaos. My husband had fetched TexMex from a local restaurant and it smelled so, so good. But I stubbornly resisted, snug in my blankets, crying in the dark. The next morning I threw clean underwear, a toothbrush, and both laptops in a bag, grabbed all the LaCroix Pina Fraise from the pantry, and lit out.

After a two hour drive and a journaling session, I felt ready to eat, no longer compelled to starve myself as a method of control. But of course, I had packed no food;  a trek into the nearest town was required. I took my place in the line to enter the grocery store, observing that every single person around me, in line, in the store, everyone was wearing a mask. I screwed up the courage to ask if I had crossed into a county that required them, as my home county did not. A very kind lady walked me to her car and let me grab a mask out of a box she had from her job. I meticulously pinched my fingers together so that I wouldn’t touch anything but the mask I would wear, as careful as a game of Operation when I was a kid. The grocery store experience was hushed and surreal, my first time in a grocery store since lockdowns and quarantines and masks became de rigueur.

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Back in camp, I walked and picked wildflowers. I studied. I slept and ate Pepperidge Farm Verona cookies. And most importantly, the thing I needed: I settled down. I  returned home in better shape; hugged husband, daughters, grandbabies. Realigned my expectations.

I will not presume to make light of Covid isolation. I gratefully acknowledge that my situation is safe. The boat I find myself in amid this storm is sufficient to weather it, at least for now. Others are not so lucky. But I do believe that for each one of us, we must look inward to discover what is awry in our current situation, breathe deeply, speak our truth to those we’re sharing space with, and let them help us. Then we must, in turn, help each other. Those in our homes, our neighborhoods, our extended families and strangers alike.

It is our collective spiritual practice, really. Beyond the hymns, rituals, pews, and flurry of activity so prevalent in our churches, separate from twelve-step fellowships and large-scale charity galas, it will be quiet service and relentless attention to the needs of our own spirits and the souls of those around us that will sustain us. If you find yourself lonely today, find the courage to reach out. Send a text. Facetime a beloved friend. Call a trusted family member. If you find yourself at peace, content and hopeful, look for someone who needs you. I have faith that our lives can transform from spectacularly awry to profoundly beautiful, if only we seek connection. Blessings, fellow humans.

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Distillation: A Quarantine Meditation

Day 28.

When stay-at-home orders came down from local and state governments, when all three of my places of employment closed their doors for the time being, when I drove eerily deserted highways across the country to bring my 31-year-old daughter home from California, when I stood still while a nurse took my temperature before allowing me to climb the stairs to my orthopedist’s office, I clung to my hope for normalcy.

After that appointment, when my doctor and I finally began to discuss full knee replacement and I scheduled yet another MRI, I defied my damaged joint and ventured a Target run just a couple of blocks from the clinic to grab milk, bread, and additional outlet covers so the grandbaby wouldn’t electrocute herself in her home explorations. My usual joy found wandering the home department, perusing throw pillows and baskets and sniffing candles was absent, though. The store was populated by employees who seemed nervous, moms in scrubs shopping before/after a shift at the nearby medical center, and a couple of rambunctious teenaged girls whose loud giggles and rowdy running interrupted the subdued energy of the store. The empty aisles seemed as holy as the aisles of a quiet cathedral, as still as a church awaiting its Sunday congregation. I had a realization.

We are being purified. I am being purified.

When I returned home with my meager purchases, I carried supplies to my laundry room where I was assaulted by scent. My laundry room reeked of the vinegar-soaked rags my intrepid housekeeper had used to wash light switches and doorknobs. The bitter-sweet, pungent aroma knocked me off-kilter, I detest the smell of vinegar; I cleared the washing machine so that I could toss these rags in, eliminate the scent.

We are, like the vinegar, being distilled; our lives heated by pandemic-driven fear and isolation. The fluff of life is seemingly boiled away, evaporating all but the truth of our natures, the honest crux of our lives. My own nature is being revealed as a little sharp, all angles and abrupt retorts. Anxious.

I fell back on a coping mechanism that has almost always served: cleaning. I have pulled weeds and pared down closets, cabinets, garage, linens, even playlists on my iPhone. My Disney playlist is shorter by 33 songs today. And yet… reducing stuff wasn’t quite enough. A different tactic was required.

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In response to the storm around me, after months of neglect, I resumed my meditation practice; my spirit was crying out for grounding.  I turned on a meditation app and spent ten minutes breathing, mind wandering as I struggled to bring focus back to the breath. The practice broke me open, though not all at once, but within an hour, I found myself alone on my sofa, sobbing. Weeping for the shared grief of those who have lost loved ones, for the fear I saw on the faces of those who were required and needed to work, for the loneliness of those who may live alone or who do not find themselves surrounded by love in this time of social distancing. My tears were cleansing, washing my soul much like the vinegar had washed parts of my home. Since those tears were shed, I have been cultivating a sense that both less and more are the pure and healthy way forward. Less stuff. Fewer obligations. More time with the ones we love and feel safe with. More time for story, less time for arguing.

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I don’t have a handy list of activities to keep your kids busy during this weird time. I am not a counselor who can publish lists of coping techniques or a chef with 25 healthy recipes for feeding your family in a time of crisis. I have no interest in creating a quiz that tells you what sort of potato your personality matches, I don’t know how to craft toilet paper or make non-toxic fingerpaint for preschoolers. Thankfully, we have Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and Google for all of those, don’t we? That’s not how my mind works. Not how my spirit rolls. What I can do is offer a meditation, a benediction:

May we be purified.

May our lives be distilled, refined into what is most crucial: love. Love for those on the front lines of fighting this virus, love for those confined with us, love for ourselves.

May gratitude and generosity be the energies that ignite our souls. May we seek ways to support each other: tip delivery personnel generously, contribute where possible to organizations whose work mitigates the damage of a world-wide shutdown, purchase a piece of handwork from an artist who just lost their source of income.

May we grant grace to those who see the world differently from us, understanding that they too are nervous about the future, also understanding that their faith may not leave space for ambiguity or doubt.

May we also grant grace to ourselves, for none of us is going to navigate this situation perfectly. We will each, without a doubt, say something we don’t mean to. I already have.

May we learn to appreciate quiet: quiet streets, quiet parks, quiet homes, quiet spirits; for if we can hold to the beauty of hush when this time of enforced rest is over, we may discover that there is healing, peace, and immeasurable strength in stillness.

May we also remember the beauty of noise: laughter at family dinner tables, chatting in  restaurants, classrooms, or church fellowship halls, excited players, moms, and dads at little league games. School choirs. Outdoor concerts.

May we move forward in soul with a renewed love for our collective humanity.

Stay well, friends.

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RenFest, Empathy, and Mindfulness

God, my feet hurt, like millions of shards of glass inside when I step, their skin is red and angry. Just touching them, even to rub, hurts. The ache is not only in my feet, though. Ankles, knees, arches, heels, basically my legs, hurt. I would rather wear my New Balance sneakers, the ones with patented foam cushions, today. But I can’t. Because I am on the management staff at a Renaissance Festival.

Yes, a Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!

To be completely precise, it’s a Medieval Faire, and we staffers wear all sorts of fun costumes. Sometimes I’m a pirate, sometimes I’m a fairy, sometimes I’m just in a pretty velvet gown. Whatever the costume, I am never in sneakers. I wear boots. The ground is rocky and hilly, and I have recently had knee surgery. I ache as I work and walk, it’s as simple as that.

In the world of the Ren Faire, fashion choices are as closely and critically scrutinized as those at any runway at New York Fashion Week. The “insiders,” those who have been attending for years, whose closets are stocked with thousand-dollar hand-crafted leather breastplates or jewel-encrusted Elizabethan gowns, love to see and be seen. We may be guilty of preening a bit, like peacocks proud of their beautiful feathery tails. We may also be guilty of sneering at those whose costumes are less correct, less complete, and no single faux pas gathers more derision than the improperly clad foot. “Why bother to wear a costume at all,” we whisper to each other, “if you don’t get the right boots to go with it?”

I am discovering, friends, that it might be that the wearer quite simply doesn’t have the physical stamina or health to do it. And here is where I finally get to the thrust of it, the point, the moral: We cannot always know the burdens that are carried and endured, unseen and unspoken.

 

My grandmother was a survivor of polio, contracted when she was a girl. Her legs were withered, her feet gnarled, with toes literally curled underneath the balls of her feet. When she walked, she walked on nubs, her weight carried by lower legs as thin as the shinbones themselves. As a child, I did not know why she walked as she did, slightly wobbly and frequently touching bits of furniture or wall to steady herself, nor did I give it a thought. She walked how she walked and I loved her dearly, no matter. In retrospect, I marvel that she had the courage to bear and raise five babies. What determination and possessed, to lift children from cribs and carry them with her.

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When her children celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, they threw a wedding. My grandmother, who had a JP wedding in her youth, made her own wedding dress, it was a beautiful ivory lace top and a moire taffeta skirt with a flounced knee-length hem. Ivory stockings. And she wore matching orthopedic SAS shoes. Her hand was firmly tucked in at my dad’s elbow as he walked her down the aisle until Daddy handed her to my grandfather, where her hand tucked lovingly into the elbow of the man who had been her firm foundation for half a century. Her shoes were not elegant, but her heart was.

Sometimes, we look at the outside appearance and make a judgment of worth, of intelligence, of taste. But we don’t know the battles the target of our judgment is facing: health, fear, pain, want.

The same is true for things less obvious, less visible than shoes. The student who is chronically tardy because she’s living with an alcoholic parent, the CEO whose money can’t save the mother disappearing in plain sight due to Alzheimer’s, the single father working three jobs to pay the light bill.

As I mulled over my grandmother’s cheerful tenacity and stretched in an attempt to minimize my own discomfort, I realized that the simple act of putting on my sneakers, of slipping on my grey no-show socks and tying that double knot, had become a spontaneous meditation. It had enabled presence. I was, for better and worse, fully present in the moment I set my sore feet on the floor. Mindfulness may be more than just walking amongst the bird and the trees. In fact, it must be; for how often do we actually find ourselves in a picture-perfect setting, like modern-day fairy-tale characters surrounded by chattering woodland creatures and babbling brooks? No, daily, modern mindfulness requires gentle rigor, a commitment to listening to both body and spirit. Presence needs an allowance of space and a measure of quiet for the mind to think thoughts and explore intentions. Dressing in solitude, without noise or conversation, this morning allowed me to be aware of my body and provided my mind a chance to make the sorts of connections that will allow me to do my work in the world, moving into and amid humanity from a place of compassion.

I am going to endeavor to seek mindfulness in this time of extreme stress and anxiety, to practice quietude, to intentionally turn off media and allow my spirit to rest. To breathe.

And then I will walk out of my home, sore feet and all, and chat with my neighbors. Conscious connection and gentle presence may be the way through this worldwide, yet crazily intimate, crisis. Peace, my friends. may you stay well.

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