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Brand New Starts

3 Feb

I can still remember the feel of the scratchy rug beneath my body. We sat in a circle on the colorful carpeted ground, our kindergarten teacher reading to us from a storybook. It might have been about farm animals, or red fire trucks, or rainbow fish.

I looked up and saw my dad peeking his face through that narrow, rectangular crack in the schoolroom door. The smile on his face revealed that things were about to change.

He checked me out from school that day. There was a cool breeze in the air that afternoon, an ease and happiness as we celebrated the soon-to-be arrival of my new little brother.

For five years, it had just been me. I was the blonde wild child, having solo adventures with my 1970s-era Mom and Dad. We read and explored and sang music and hiked.

And then it wasn’t just me.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I was used to a rambling elementary school, nestled amongst trees and green grass and rolling mountains on the vista in the distance. And at home, after school, a wide open back yard and a nearby back-of-the-back-yard creek.

Then, at 9-years-old, I learned that people also lived in big cities.

My new school had three stories and no grass, just concrete. My new home was concrete, too—an apartment that was small and different, but somehow also signified adventure.

We drove down interstates, went to the ballet, saw “Star Wars” and “Rocky” on screens bigger than I’d ever seen, walked across a college campus larger than the whole of my prior, much more permanent hometown.

Austin was home for just a year, yet it showed me what ‘bigger’ and ‘more’ and sometimes-but-not-always-better could be.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Thank God she asked to sit next to me on the school bus that day.

A new student at a new school for my first year of high school, I would pull into myself at the cafeteria table, in P.E., on the bus for field trips.

She, too, was new and nervous like me.

But then she asked if she could next to me on that Autumn visit to the Museum of Art, and we talked about (imagine! 14-year-olds talking about) Emily Dickinson and Bob Dylan and Arkansas and Mississippi.

A brand new friendship blossomed that day, and we navigated the world of high school with other new, just-a-little-weird kids. We became soul sisters and college roommates and bridesmaids.

When I came home from school that day and raved to my mother about my new friend Angela, Mom admitted that she had been praying every single morning since we’d moved states away to this new place. She’d prayed for friends, and that I wouldn’t be so sad, and that I’d find my way.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

“You can’t do this! You CAN NOT do this!”

I yelled.

But the yelling only hit the thin walls and bounced off the cracking, yellow linoleum in the small, cheap, perfectly-collegiate apartment. I yelled, then cried, then did it all over again in a sad, unexpected routine.

A marriage, a child, a divorce in a span of time that was really was too short.

The new start from just two years ago–a start marked by giddy grins, and big dreams, and white lace—gone too quickly, maybe gone because it had been too quickly.

I held onto that sweet, blonde bundle (so much like me, so much like him) and yelled again, but this time a bit quieter.

Yelling only works for so long, after all, and I learned to be strong and optimistic and thankful for friends and family.

The apartment walls, the baby, my newfound ‘me-ness.’

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I may have said it looked like something that exploded in “The Exorcist,” but I was totally wrong about the taste of guacamole.

Delicious, divine.

It took me close to 40 years to appreciate the avocado.

I was 27 before I even tried a salad.

And let’s not even mention the fact that I wrongly charred my steaks for way too many decades of my life.

Or that I didn’t really know about wine.

The discovery of something new, something really good on the palate. A small thing, sure, but a small thing that spills over and into other parts of your life.

After all, said Virginia Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

(I also think the Bible says something in the realm of, “And then God made cake on the eighth day.”)

New food, new appreciation, new enjoyment.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I sat in the hospital room, clutching my little girl’s hand.

I felt hopeless, out of control, angry, overwhelmingly exhausted.

She lay there, listless and drained. But with a small, sweet smile on her face. (“It will be okay, Momma,” it said.)

We received a diagnosis that hurt my heart and scared me so.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I’m not sure why mountains do things for my soul, but they most certainly do.

I stood atop one once, surrounded by fellow teenagers, our faces shining and our insides burning. We were in love with God.

That was one beginning.

I stood atop one once, by myself, looking down at the ant-sized scene below. There was a camp, and a lake, and a road. I was in love with God.

That was another beginning.

God brings me to mountains again and again, to remind me that beginnings aren’t really beginnings. They’re beginnings again.

A brand new start.

Again.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I (we all) could write a book about the changes, the turns in direction, the new starts in our lives.

The night I met my new husband, the births of my children, the time I learned to drive a stick shift, the first trip out of the country, the first time I lost someone close to me, the completion of my first 5K, the first turning of a page, my discovery of grace.

Life is about those things. Those new things.

Each day is a movement from here to there, from falling down to getting up, from not knowing to understanding, from old to new, from happy to sad, from sad to happy.

At this time of year (the beginning of the year), brand new starts are commonplace. They’re expected, in fact. They’re talked about, often bragged about (then often bemoaned about).

Resolutions, changes, starting overs, vows, promises.

And, as I think about all of those brand new starts throughout my life, I know that they are good things.

We cannot stay stagnant.

And we must embrace the starts, despite how they come to us.

They may be welcome, like those resolutions and changes we celebrate at the new year, during the season of Lent, during a pivotal birthday year (30!, 50!), as the calendar changes from cold to warm again. They are the brand new starts we want and desire.

But they may also come unbidden (an illness, a death, a loss, a challenge), and knock us off our feet. They are not welcome, and we do everything we can to push them away.

Until we realize that they, too, are opportunities. Sometimes even blessings.

Someone (it could have been Bob Dylan, or maybe my mother) once said, “There’s nothing so stable as change.”

It’s so true.

We can’t make it through life without old doors closing, new doors (or windows) opening, maps unfurling, pages turning.

Let’s get started on something new.

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An ode to 1977 (or: Why in the world do I love Star Wars?)

22 Dec

starwars4

Not many of my childhood memories are vivid.

But that one from the summer of 1977 most definitely is.

My mother, father and three-year-old brother sat in an Austin, Texas theatre with a crowd of moviegoers eagerly anticipating something. We’d heard about the something, but still weren’t quite sure what to expect.

When the crawl of that first “Star Wars” rolled up the screen (in my mind, still the biggest screen I’ve ever experienced), I looked over to my little brother’s face. My mother sat between us, and he sat on my Dad’s lap.

His eyes were huge.

He stared at the words, and then the spaceship, and then the explosions, and then the creatures. And his young eyes simply tried to take it all in.

Ever since, I’ve tried to do the same thing.

I’ve taken it all in as a loving fan girl; I’ve tried to understand why the phenomenon called “Star Wars” has even appealed to me for so long. After all, it’s only a movie.

And I’ve come to a two-pronged conclusion about that:

  1. I go big.
  2. I love my Dad.

Let me explain.

I recently had a discussion with a friend who had never seen any of the Star Wars movies and who wasn’t necessarily anticipating the release of the new “The Force Awakens” installment.

I’m not a Star Wars snob, so it doesn’t bother me that others don’t care for it. But the conversation did make me wonder what it was that made me love it so much—and why it didn’t have the same appeal for my friend.

“Maybe it says something about me, and how I obsess over imaginary things,” I told him.

Hmm. Imaginary things?

I love created worlds—whether they’re in a book, or a t.v. show, or a movie.

I love when a director, or an author, or a sculptor, or a songwriter, creates a world I could never have imagined for myself and then makes it so real that I want to live in that place.

I will become fascinated with those worlds; I will fall in love (or hate) with its inhabitants and stand in awe of the creators who made it for me.

I will immerse myself in those worlds.

In a pretty big way.

Because, if I love something, I want to celebrate it big.

(That applies to real-life, non-imaginary things as well. Just ask my kids about their birthday celebrations. Or how we do vacations.)

So, in the case of Star Wars (or Harry Potter, or Emily Dickinson, or a superhero), I will watch and rewatch, read and reread, discuss and discuss some more. And I might even wear my hair in a Leia-inspired bun, or wear a shirt emblazoned with words from my girl Emily D.

Because I go big, and happy, and unapologetic.

(Some people think it’s a little crazy. I will leave that for any future couch-pondering I may or may not need in my old age.)

And then there’s the second reason.

My Dad.

That first Star Wars viewing in 1977 started a tradition with my father that’s still one of the most important from my childhood.

From that point on, we went to see any new science fiction movie that made it to our double-plex movie theatre. We stood in a line that stretched around the building to see “The Empire Strikes Back,” but we also watched movies with such inauspicious titles as “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone” and “Outland” (and others involving questionable 3D and even more questionable men in spandex spacesuits).

It was our thing.

We shared other things—a love for music, a common faith—but this was different. It was fun, and it was ours. (My Mom didn’t understand; she and I were close in other ways that involved the kitchen, and books, and the shopping mall. Those things were just as special, just in a different way.)

I had a special bond, a new sense of community with my Dad.

Ultimately, that community may be the real reason why Star Wars resonates with me, and why its newest iteration means so much to me and its countless other fans.

My Dad and I shared something.

My brother and I shared something (when that three-year-old grew older, he occasionally let me hang in his room with his hordes of action figures).

The other fans and I shared something.

My daughters and I now share something.

And, apparently, this sense of community is important to me–maybe even more important than I realized.

It must be why I look forward to hours upon hours in a stadium, cheering on my favorite football team.

Or why I enjoy concerts so much, as I sing and sway in unison with other aficionados.

Or why church is something I have to do every week—and if I miss it, I feel disconnected.

So, maybe I have my answers.

Star Wars isn’t entirely about “I am your father” or “May the Force be with you”…or Han Solo or the new (awesome!) heroine Rey.

For me, at least, it’s also about:

creativity,

and being a little crazy,

and community.

starwars1 starwars2 starwars3

 

 

On loss, and fear, and teeth, and flowers

1 Dec

train

Three months after Raymond died, I dreamt for the first time of my teeth falling out.

I cupped my hands together, and stared at the pile of silver-capped teeth. They had fallen en masse from my mouth and, as is often the case in dreams, that somehow seemed normal.

When I woke up, it felt very not normal.

It was the first time in my 46 years that I dreamt what I soon realized was quite the common nightmare.

For me, it was strange and uncommon and confusing, but I learned quickly (thanks to Google and plenty of amateur dream chasers) that it really wasn’t. In fact, people everywhere have the dream every night.

And it meant something.

The dropping-out-of-my-mouth teeth represented loss. And, more than that, they meant I was afraid of more loss. The “official” explanations I found said that the dream “highlights your feeling of having experienced a profound loss of something or someone in your life” and “signifies powerlessness, fear and loss of control.”

Looking back, it surprises me that it took that long for that particular dream to invade my sleep. Because loss—despite my sunny disposition, strong faith, undeterred resilience—had crashed into my life and settled onto my couch like it was an old friend (or an unwelcome intruder).

Loss—unexpected, inexorable, ugly—had moved in. Had taken an entire family of friends, my three-year-old cousin, a vibrant best friend with a toddler who needed her, my grandmother, our Raymond.

But I guess Raymond was the one that did it.

I’d had enough, and I finally listened.

The dream fairy crashed into my nighttime, kicking and screaming: “Here’s Greg and Karen! Here’s Haven! Here’s Erin! Here’s Grandma!”

And then she howled, “Here’s Raymond!”

Raymond—my dear, loved, haunted adopted son—took his own life on Christmas Eve, and it was too much to bear.

So the teeth fell out, and piled up.

Loss, it seems, piles up too and transforms itself…mostly into fear.

Suddenly you’re fearful of so much—the things that are rational and the things that are irrational; the bumps in the dark, but also the things right out in the sunlit open; the things you know are happening, and also the stories you create in your imagination; the memories of the past, and the future whatevers that you think might manifest.

It doesn’t make sense, and yet you’re simply afraid of something.

Of more.

Of something more.

My middle daughter told me of that dread, that worry that sits heavily on your chest, as she prepared to sing and play piano at one of the too-many memorial services we attended during this span of time. She understood on some level similar to me.

On a dreary, snowy day, she sang of “beautiful things” that come out of the dust, and I think that must be the message that has to emerge from loss and uncertainty and fear.

A while after my wake-up dream, I dreamt again.

I boarded a train and settled into a cushy, velvety seat bound for somewhere. Outside the window, flowers—yellow, crocusy, open-up flowers—began popping, growing, emerging from the ground.

They were all I could see, for miles and miles and miles.

And I didn’t need a book or an expert to tell me (or yell at me) what the dream meant.

The meanings were as clear as day (or as night, in this case):

I’m on a journey.

Things start anew.

Stops don’t mean it’s over.

Fear can’t control you.

We must enjoy the view.

It might take a while (it will take a while), but we’ll get there.

Flowers bloom. They always do.

Gan Gan’s dressing and other Southern blessings

25 Nov

thanksgiving

Just a pinch.

A cup or so.

A handful of that.

Whatever looks about right.

After-Thanksgiving dinner table discussions at my in-laws’ house invariably settles into one familiar conversation.

“Gan Gan, how do you make your dressing? Someone else has to learn how to make it before you’re gone. Are you going to teach us?”

The questions are always asked—by me, a cousin, my husband, a first-time visitor who has become infatuated with the dish—every single holiday.

Gan Gan (my husband’s grandmother) laughs.

“There’s not a recipe,” she says. “I just know how I make it.”

Gan Gan’s dressing is a wonderful concoction of cornbread, shredded chicken, saltine crackers, vegetables, spices (but no sage) of imagined variety.

But it’s all only imagined; she’s told us what’s in there, but without the evidence of a transcribed recipe, I can’t actually verify that for you.

And so it goes in the South.

If you were blessed enough to be raised by a Southern mother, grandmother, or aunt—or fed by an armada of church ladies–you know what I’m talking about.

Southern women own the best recipes in the world—for banana pudding, macaroni and cheese, shrimp n’ grits, hoppin john, chicken fried steak, biscuits, divinity—but none of those recipes are on paper.

They’re all recorded for posterity in these ladies’ heads, and in the “here’s what you do” lessons they’ve tried to give to their children, grandchildren and greats beyond that.

It’s the same way with my Mom’s sweet potato pie.

My favorite Thanksgiving dessert is a heavenly blend of sweet potatoes and sugar and butter and vanilla (I think) that’s better than any pumpkin ever dreamed of being.

But Mom doesn’t look at a recipe card or in a cookbook when she stays up late the night before Thanksgiving whipping it up.

She just makes it—with those pinches, handfuls, and dashes.

I’ve watched Gan Gan make her dressing, and I’ve watched Mom make that pie.

A few days after Thanksgiving last year, I tried to replicate the dressing.

The optimum word here being “tried.”

It was too dry, and not flavorful enough, and the accompanying gravy (also a treasured Gan Gan secret) wasn’t quite right. I had watched Gan Gan make it that year, and had even written down what I considered a pretty-accurate recipe for it.

Still, it wasn’t quite Gan Gan’s.

And that, I think, is the point.

It will always be Gan Gan’s dressing. And Mom’s sweet potato pie. And Miss Jane’s rolls. And Gran’s divinity.

Until I’ve become the recipient of the treasured secrets, or have become the bearer of my own secret favorites (I can make a mean red velvet cake and love to cook, so there’s certainly hope), I will do what all Southern daughters, granddaughters, nieces and adopted children do.

I will sit at the table with my fellow admirers and savor every single bite of the mystery and wonder that is Thanksgiving dinner.

And for that I am grateful.