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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Women, Rooted in Kindness

It’s World Kindness Day, a day for wearing cardigan sweaters a la Mr. Rogers and for random acts of kindness like paying for the latte of the lady behind you in the line at Starbucks. I am stuck on my sofa, snuggled up under a crocheted mossy green blanket, post-surgical bandaged knee propped up and crutches nearby for my occasional forays to the kitchen for cookies. I am not out and about in the world to share my own sprinkling of kindness, so I will do the next best thing: tell you of two of the kindest women I have ever known; women whose unexpected impact on my life and the lives of others cannot be measured.

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. It’s not that I am afraid of speaking, in fact my voice has, at times, caused friction in relationships, especially in relationships with those who have certain ideas about how I am meant to interact with the world, or with women who, though friends, are competitive. My innate quietness has served to isolate me through much of my life. Even if it looked like I was surrounded by friends, I was likely lonely. But when the time was right, when my spirit, heart, and intellect were ready for new lessons, when I could hear what the Goddess had to tell me, She delivered two amazing women into my adult life. In my youth, there were women who filled that need, but when I became an adult, there weren’t as many. These two women fully attended to what I had to say. They heard me. We don’t often talk about the power of female mentoring. These mentors are not family members, they are just women who befriended me; and beyond friendship, they gave wisdom and advice and profound examples of something I wanted to emulate.

Ellen-Ketchum

Ellen was brassy and clever, with the mouth of a sailor and the heart of a warrior artist. She was a former administrator with a Tony Award winning regional theatre, and I met her when I auditioned for the role of Julie Jordan in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Carousel. I walked into the theatre not really knowing much of anybody, but knowing that I loved Julie Jordan. I had a good audition, I got the part; and from that moment on, I had a new mentor.

Ellen made my family her own. She harmlessly flirted with my husband so he’d feel a little sexy, she grabbed on to my theatrical daughters and coached them, particularly the older daughter, who was beginning her college studies in theatre. For me? First, she reignited my confidence. I had struggled to find a home in the theatre community of our area; but she nurtured my talent and endorsed it. Publicly. Once, I walked into her theatre, where she was holding an acting class, and she introduced me to her students as “one of the best actresses in the Houston area.” Now, there are many amazing actresses in Houston, so the validity of that proclamation might be in question. But no matter, because there is, quite literally, no measure for what that compliment, coming from a former South Coast Rep staffer, did for me after years of being shuffled to the side in the town where I have struggled to do theatre.

Ellen had me choreograph, assistant direct, act, and sit. We would sit and talk shop after rehearsals. We would sit in her living room and drink glass after glass of white wine and pet her dogs, laugh with her roomie and swap stories about kids and other actors and husbands. In her bedroom, she displayed a gorgeous black and white photo of herself: in her forties, laughing a huge laugh. Ellen was the first ballsy woman I had ever truly known and deeply loved. She challenged and cultivated my bravura and my art.

Even as she languished in chemo for ovarian cancer, Ellen kept her toes bright red with professional manicures. She wore sandals, even though her ankles weren’t narrow and her feet were wrinkled. She brazenly lifted her shirt to “shoot up” with insulin, she didn’t care who saw her stomach. She didn’t wear makeup but she wore a smile as wide as her face and as big as her voice.

I miss Ellen every day. I miss her spirit, she radiated joy and tenacity and authenticity, no matter the cancer or the gray hair or the bastards that tried to hold her down. 

There has been another mentor, too. One who nurtured my spirit and mothered my soul. Dorothy.

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In our final youth ministry position, Dorothy was a church elder’s wife. She is a well of deep wisdom. Her walk with the Divine One is potent and real; it is her life’s work to act as an intermediary between God and Her beloved people, especially women. When my husband had to face the church and confess his addiction, it was Dorothy who sat in my living room and listened to my heartbreak, fury, and worry, without judgement. The next Easter, when I was barely able to walk with my chin up, it was Dorothy who took me shopping for my very own Easter outfit and shoes so that I could stride into the church building with a little spark of confidence. When I struggled with the temptation of attraction to another man, it was Dorothy I entrusted with that burden. She has been present through all the physical relocations, hers and mine. We have been involved in each other’s family weddings; my youngest was a flower girl in her daughter’s wedding, and they all came for my daughter’s wedding. We got to live with Dorothy and her husband one autumn for a month. Just at the time when my relationship with my son was undergoing a sea change and a prolonged silence, Dorothy was there to prop me up and keep me going. Here’s the thing about Dorothy: she is sweet, for sure. Gentle and kind and nurturing, yes, but she is sharp and wise and discerning, too, and when she perceives a threat to a loved one, she is resolute in her protection. For me, whose own mother was such a disappointment and void, Dorothy became Mother.

Both of these women listened with their full attention, they weren’t waiting for me to stop talking so that they could start. They didn’t interrupt. They didn’t have an agenda. There was never a sense that they wanted to change who I was. They just loved. They heard me. They saw me. They spent years cultivating these deep and precious friendships.

For learning how to love in the healthiest of ways, I had Dorothy to nurture me.

For learning how to live in the most courageous of ways, I had Ellen to show me.

For learning what authenticity really looks like, what finding my life’s mission and then embracing it wholly, I had both. Their kindnesses came not in syrupy-sweet, cutesy packages but in brave and truthful love and the living of it.

Beginning way back in childhood, I was the tag-along friend, the one who was, quite often, passive in the relationship. I have owned that- too often I waited to be included, standing to the side for silly photos instead of jumping in, keeping my ideas of what might be fun pastimes to myself, holding the secrets of my family safe. So many times, I have, in the presence of, shall we call them “strong personality” friends, just acquiesced and enabled my own hushed invisibility. To be honest, I was lonely in my own friendships.

What I have begun to understand as I write my life, is that authentic friendship is multi-directional. When a friendship is one-sided, when all conversations are from one point of view, when a friend no longer asks about you and interrupts your story to redirect the conversation back to herself, it’s time to rethink the friendship. Time to walk away and search for healthier relationships. I have learned that there are women who, when they are friends with someone like me, a quieter presence, will take care to include and invite, who don’t compete, who seek meaningful conversation, and who are trustworthy in the very best ways. Women who are actively kind, like I hope to be.

The Divine One has been kind enough to place people in my life now who, with nurturing and time, will be life-long friends. Friends with whom cynicism is not the regular language and score-keeping is not the modus operandi. Friends who, knowing I have been lonely, have stopped by the office to say hi, or sent encouraging messages, or sent precious gifts. People who are proving how powerful and nourishing it is to be seen and heard. Some of these women are from college, some from grad school, some from teaching, some from theatre, some from old churches. I love their diversity.

  Women can, and should, hold each other up. When we are together, our collective voice resonates and proclaims victory and strength. Vulnerable, authentic friendship with women I trust has become a non-negotiable aspect of my life. Kindness of the sort that is sacrificial, ongoing, and world changing is a constant, conscious effort. But it’s worth it. Ever so much.

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I loved this story of two English women using their gifts for crochet to spread a little kindness!

https://www.kenilworthweeklynews.co.uk/news/people/kenilworth-women-pass-out-crochet-hearts-with-messages-of-hope-for-world-kindness-day-1-9141537