Remember

I’m a creative type, thus I tend to have big feelings.  I also have a mind that loves logic, so I’m usually able to talk myself down from the cliff when my feelings get too big for my own good.  Too sad or mad or worried.  “What is true?” is a common question I ask myself.  “Remember…remember” is another personal mantra, and it points me back to what I know in my heart and mind and guts to be true.  My faith.  The basis for my whole being.  It works.  And I’ve had to utilize it’s grounding effects these last weeks.  When Facebook and the paper and NPR are overwhelming me with so many awful things I feel like unplugging completely.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m peri-menopausal and my hormones are out to lunch, but my feelings have gotten so enormous I’ve felt trapped under their weight.  And this isn’t even personal grief.  That’s a whole different level of sad.  This is a more existential, less experiential heartache – over the suffering of refugees in massive amounts, being met with xenophobia and hatred in many places.  Over the political circus our country is living through, and encouraging.  Over the here’s-what-we’re-AGAINST mentality that many in my faith family are embracing these days (or years) instead of here’s-what-we’re-FOR.  It’s enough to make me lose my freaking mind.  

I just about did.

But then I remembered.

That thing I mentioned earlier – the faith on which my whole being is based – brings me back down.  Because no matter the circumstances which the world, my country, my own life face, God is circumstance-immune.  What is true is true outside the confines of space and time, and certainly outside of Donald Trump’s ridiculous presidential candidacy.  No matter who is elected, no matter the fear we face, no matter the un-Christ-like behavior that his followers demonstrate, the God of the universe doesn’t change.  Can you imagine if that wasn’t true?  If the whole thing was really up to us to handle?  “Oh. Crap.” is my censored response.  But thankfully, the one who made the mountains and amoebas and babies and sun has it all held in capable, metaphysical, eternal hands.  So I can come down from the cliff of insanity.  And take a big ol’ breath of the air I had nothing to do with creating.

As the news keeps on coming I’ll have to do a lot more remembering in the weeks and months ahead (why oh why is the presidential race so unbearably long?).  A lot more breathing.  And maybe less Facebook surfing.  But hallelujah for something to remember.  And that it doesn’t all come down to me.  That’s some good news.

And All Will Be Made Well

I’ve been listening to Josh Garrels’ new album, Home, over and over since it was released this month.  That’s how I tend to listen to music that I love – repeatedly.  Until I run it into the ground.  Which can take years.  In that time the songs and the voices that sing them become so familiar I would know them from hearing one bar.  They become a part of my story.

I’m so glad to include Home in my complicated tale.  It’s absolutely welcome here.

The second half of the album is already near and dear to my heart.  As my cousin insightfully reacted to it, “Gah!”  I agree with her exasperation at such creativity and beauty and relevance.  It’s almost too wonderful to bear.  But not quite.  And in that not-quite I find a thankful addition to my life.

I don’t like a lot of “Christian” music.  It’s often trite, poorly written and produced, a copy of other artists’ styles.  In my mind, not worthy of it’s subject matter.  Then there are the few inspired musicians whose art is worth hearing no matter what you believe – because they make good music.  Josh Garrels knows how to speak of God unabashedly, but with insight and grit and authenticity.  There’s no false-modesty; no making it seem that trusting Jesus means you avoid the real, hard stuff of living; no fake-it-til-you-make-it.  It’s just him, and his God, and his contemplations about the two.  He gives his listeners an honest offering.  Sometimes, even for free. (more about that here)  And that makes the world better.

In his book The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse, Michael Gungor (another great musician) talks about pain as a source of great art.

Pain is that blessed and despised universal experience that creates more true art than any other human experience.  Love is racked with pain.  Life’s most joyful experiences – the birth of a newborn baby, the formation of deep friendship, or first consummation of love – all are associated with an experience of pain. A wedding is the joyful union of two lovers, but it begins with “Who gives this bride away?”

Garrels’ song Heaven’s Knife puts this idea to music.  He speaks of a precious experience that began with pain but ended in a beautiful realization.  He hits on a universal reality.  The place of pain is also the impetus of searching, the reaching outside of the self.  Pain is the place where all you can think to say is “Help.”  As Anne Lamott says, it’s one of the three prayers (along with thanks and wow), and to pray it, we have to see our need.  When we’ve reached the end of our rope, we cry out for a bit more – with less fraying and a softer braid to grip.  But we know we can’t make it ourselves.  That point of acknowledging need is the very birthplace of hope.  It makes us look up.

I read that this album was written from a place of trying to find joy, and you can sense his search in the music.  Working it out through writing – I can relate to that.  Some songs are more pensive.  Asking for mercy.  But as the album moves along, the songs feel to me like a rising out of a pit into the light.  He expresses the joy he sought – not shallow happiness which changes with each situation, but a gladness which can exist in the midst of sadness or terrible circumstances.  The less fickle, more reliable relative to happiness.  David and the other psalmists wrote with this in mind; they were working it out through writing, too.  Honestly dealing with the painful aspects of living on this planet.  Reading them lets me know I’m not alone.  And so does Josh Garrels’ music.

He demonstrates what Gungor says…

Pain is not the same thing as suffering.  One can fully experience the pain of life without being the tortured artist who lives in constant agony.  But creation is no easy task.  Good art demands a fight.

Thank goodness Josh Garrels is willing to fight the fight.  To work it out.  To make good art.  His attempts to find joy help mine.  Here’s a sample, in case it helps you, too…

 

And it may be broken down

All the bridges burned like an old ghost town

But this my son can be made new

It’s gonna be alright

Shake it out and let back in the light

And joy will come

Like a bird in the morning sun

And all will be made well

And all will be made well

And all will be made well

Once again

Getting Started

I turned 40 last month.  Which is fine.  I’ve been almost 40 for a couple years so I’ve gotten used to the idea.  But the rest of the world seems to think this is very bad news.

A perusal of birthday cards for those of us beginning our 4th decade is downright depressing.  And not just because of the bad rhymes.  “40, the Ultimate F Word,” “ Turning 40 is like hitting the age spot jackpot,” and the worst: “Every time a woman turns 40 a cougar is born.”  Wow.  If I believed any of that, things would seem bleak.  And then there’s the old stand by: “Over the hill.”  What hill does this refer to?  It must have a looooong downslope if I’ve already hit the top and am making my descent.  What a 1950s view of age.  I reject it.

Say I’m half way to the end of my story (which certainly isn’t certain).  What sort of a story arc is it if the climax comes at mid-point?  I prefer what I was taught in high school – that the climax comes late in the tale, after mostly rising action full of ups and downs, and the falling action just a bit before THE END.  I’m not ready for the denouement.  Yes, my body isn’t working as well as it has in years past.  There are wrinkles on my face that won’t unfurl after I wake.  And I admit that some things sag and others expand a bit more each day.  But here’s the great thing:  it’s all good.  I couldn’t have said that about myself when I was in my twenties.  Though I’m not as thin, not as young, I’m so much more comfortable in this house of a body.  This home of a spirit.  So much more ready to take on the day with confidence and humility and joy.  40 is the new 30, and my thirties were great, so I’m down with being what used to be thought of as old.

I recently finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  It’s the story of Louis Zamperini, a child delinquent turned Olympic athlete turned World War II P.O.W.  Turned 70-year-old skateboarder, turned eighty-one-year-old Olympic torch bearer, turned 90-year-old skier.  Among all the amazing aspects of his life, one sparkling achievement was never deciding he was old.  He knew he was still living.  He left behind the evil he’d experienced in the war and focused on what was ahead.  It has been a sweet and forceful reminder that such a thing is possible.  And at just the right time.

“Well, it’s been a decade of awesomeness,” my son declared the morning of his tenth birthday.  A pretty great perspective.  I’m stealing it.  Four decades of awesomeness sounds a lot better than thinking I’m on my way out.  And perspective effects everything.  If you center your thinking on all things negative – the times you have failed, hurt others, looked a fool, struggled to keep your head above water – then you are doomed to keep that bummer of a world and self view.  But if, rather, you accept those things – own up to them and ask forgiveness – then move the heck on, peace and contentment are possible. Thank goodness for that.

So I choose to be glad I’ve reached 40.  Glad I’m past all the past and ready for the next decade’s story to be written.  I’m hoping for more rising action.  Not willing to welcome the denouement.  40 is nothing.  I’m just getting started.

My Something

In reaction to the sad news littering the paper every day (yes, I still get the paper), I’m tempted to personally adopt the isolationist policies America held during the 20s and 30s sometimes.  Put my fingers in my ears and “la la la” against the injustices occurring all over the Middle East, Africa, even my own nation.  It’s an attractive option in my selfish, self-preservation moments.  But then I remember that I care.  I should care.  As a human, a woman, a mother, a daughter.  It should matter to me if women and children are sex-trafficked.  Or if an entire group of people are massacred because of their religious views, or if someone is assumed guilty because of his skin color and shot on site.  That’s the “righteous anger” Jesus talked about.  The question is, what do I do about it?  Beyond having opinions, and even expressing them.  Beyond being outraged while eating popcorn and watching a movie.

I’ve lived on both ends of the hopeless spectrum – deciding there’s nothing I can do so why worry, to deciding there’s nothing I can do and feeling distraught.  But neither, by definition, does any good.  I’ve also tried to make a difference, but in such small ways it has seemed pointless.  Giving money toward a good cause, teaching my kids that hating differences in others is not only mean but illogical, even marching in a parade.  But my money is a drop in the bucket of need, my kids are only three people in the world and don’t even have kindness-to-siblings down, and I don’t know if the parade changed anyone’s mind.  My efforts seem so tiny against the sheer volume of ick happening in the world.  It can be overwhelming.

But it comes down to this: my efforts are something.  And that’s all I can do.  It’s not a novel idea, but worth repeating (to myself daily): if everyone did nothing it would all be worse.  My something, plus another person’s something, plus another’s equals change sometimes.

I’ve been reading Love Does by Bob Goff, and it has inspired me to think much bigger than I typically do in my attempts to love the world, with actions rather than thoughts alone.  Bob (he’d definitely want me to call him Bob) has his finger on the pulse of the joy to be found in loving the world well.  With whimsy, open hands, and full engagement.  Strategic actions that cause change, even if in the life of just one person.  His accounts in the book cover acts of kindness and sweet mischief toward a single high-schooler, an elderly woman, a young man in love, his own kids, and hundreds of orphaned and wrongly-accused children in Uganda.  He demonstrates how the same outlook on the world’s ills – focusing on the actions we can take, with hope – can effect both meager and huge transformation, each important.  Our actions matter.  Let me be clear – his main message is not to change the world.  It’s that love is an action.  A verb.  And I’ve decided to apply that to my worry over the problems I hear on NPR each morning.  Love doesn’t take the isolationist approach that I’m tempted to adopt.  It moves.  Looks for opportunities and joyfully pounces.

As I’m finding is true with most things, my responsibility in regards to the world’s problems is not that complicated.  I see a need, I do something.  Even if it’s small.  I can’t give money to everything, I can’t make dinner for every person who just had a baby, I can’t fly to India with Bob and extract trafficked children from their overlords.  But I can do a little.  And I can do it with whimsy, with strategy, and with open hands.  I can continue to teach my kids compassion and patience and respect.  And pray that it sticks.  This way of thinking about doing love gets me excited.  My something is something.  And I can live with that.

Jumping In

In this first semester of having all three kids in school, I’m going out on a limb and taking a class called Abstraction at the Arts Center in my little college town.  It will involve drawing and painting with various media, all under the tent of “abstract,” which due to it’s nature is hard for me to wrap my head around.  And the very reason it’s good for me.

Abstraction: the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances. (dictionary.com)

Apart from concrete realities.  That does not describe me.  I like a plan, I’m a habitual eater (veggies and hummus, apples and peanut butter EVERY DAY for lunch), I organize my closet based on color and length of sleeve.

I could use a little abstraction in my life.

In our first class this week we did a drawing exercise.  An abstract one, technically.  But it had all sorts of rules: look only at the model, don’t look at the paper, and don’t pick up your pen.  Did I mention I’ve never taken a drawing or painting class? Ever.  I participated in art class in elementary through junior high, but I was almost always the last to begin and rarely finished, due to an intense need to get it right.  Getting it right was about following the rules, yes, but also about deciding on the very best art I could make.  What should I do?  Perfectionism spurred by fear and a love of beauty.  I wanted to make something beautiful.  I wanted to do my art well.

Writing used to be the same for me.  I hesitated to begin an essay or a story, because I wanted to get it right.  Wanted to write the whole thing, start to finish, nearly perfectly the first time.  I hated editing.  I’d rather think and think before I penned a single word than have to re-think a section.  Which never worked.  I’ve gotten much better at just starting and letting it go where it goes.  Sometimes I begin with the beginning, sometimes the middle, and occasionally the end.  Then I work around what’s there, often scrapping the first lines I wrote altogether.  I’ve gotten better at the do-over, which is good since it’s inevitable.  Better to embrace imperfection and jump right in.

Here’s the funny thing: I love abstract art.  Much more than literal depictions of country scenes or sitting portraits.  I like the lack of rules, the expansive room for interpretation, or no interpretation at all other than a feeling.  One that is subjective.  I like color and shape and how a combo of them can make me happy or sad or really calm.  How an abstract piece in my house can set a mood without necessarily meaning to.  I like that I can like it, without any deep artistic reasoning other than my personal preference.  There’s all kinds of freedom in that.

During that drawing exercise from my first class, I failed miserably.  Broke all the rules in my desire to make my depiction look good.  My teacher made sure I looked only at her for the next pose.  It was almost more than I could handle.  Knowing I was drawing all kinds of ridiculousness on my paper, wondering if I was putting her eyes near her knees, or if I was “supposed” to include eyes at all.  I was lost in the mix of no-rules-but-lots-of-rules situation and felt like an idiot.  I was doing it exactly wrong.  In every way.

At the end of class my teacher said the most important thing was to avoid being overly critical of ourselves.  So I also broke the most important rule.  Because I thought I sucked.  I needed to let my ridiculous picture be ok with me.  The point was not to make something beautiful, but to see the model, to let our style emerge, and for me, to give myself the freedom to let my image look however it looked.  To be abstract.  

We’ll see how I do in my class.  It’s hard to say at this point, but I’m hopeful.  That I’ll be able to jump off the cliff from concrete into abstraction and dive deep, arms flailing and feeling fine about it all.  Or terrified, but letting it happen anyway.  And at the very least, I can hope to earn the title “most improved.”

Down With That

I just discovered Glennon Doyle Melton.  For those of you in as much of the dark as I have been, Glennon is the writer of the popular blog momastery.com, the author of a memoir, Carry On Warrior, and a public speaker.  My dear friend Becky perked me up to Melton’s existence.  “I’m reading a book that’s basically this woman’s blog posts all put together, and it’s really good,” said she.  “Oh really?” said I, thinking I should check this out since I’ve often wondered how one does that.  Makes blog posts into a book, I mean.  For (hopefully) obvious reasons.  So I grabbed my library card and tracked the book down.  And I discovered something amazing.  It was like reading something I’d written myself, but better.  Funnier, with less grammatical errors and a more fascinating past full of drugs and drama.  But the same heart.  The same themes of hope and living in its light, the same verbiage, the same willingness to let it all hang out whether it makes her look good or not.  The not being better, actually, because it demonstrates her humanity.  Even the same love of Anne Lamott.  I’m so in Glennon’s camp.  Like the tent next to hers, but with rain leaking in because it’s not made as well.

My reaction to this was tri-fold: first I was sad.  Everything I’m saying has been said, by a more successful person at saying things.  My story isn’t nearly as dramatic.  She’d been there, done that before I even got started.  Excellent.

Once that sunk in I moved on to feeling lame for wishing I had a more “dramatic” (i.e. difficult and painful) past to propel me to success.  Nice.  Jealousy over someone else’s hardships to gain good writing material.  I am a jerk.

Third and lastly I settled on feeling excited.  Like I found a small treasure.  Yes, it’s for everyone willing to read it – not mine to keep – but I found a person who thinks the way I think.  And that’s always good.  It’s the point of writing, really.  To express yourself and let the world find what it wants and needs in your words.  To connect with the rest of the people on the planet.  To participate in beauty-finding, hope-giving things.  Glennon, if I may call her that, and by reading her writing I think I may, is down with that and so am I.  As Ben Lee sings, we’re all in this together.  My tent may be leakier, but I’m glad to be camping near Glennon Doyle Melton, whether she knows I’m there or not.

A Little Glimmer

In parenting, sometimes I need a little glimmer of hope to keep me going.  My six year old, Lily, is what we in our home like to call “feisty”.  Or spunky.  Or skilled at throwing fits that last longer than an inaugural address.  (You wanted to watch the first black president be sworn into office, Mom?  To witness an important historical event?  Who cares. You didn’t let me eat diaper cream and you will know my wrath.)  She is full of passion and drive and will make an awesome adult someday.  But right now, there are times she wears me out by 9:00 AM.

She can also be the absolute best: a sweetheart who’s generous and kind and sensitive to others’ needs.  That doesn’t happen as much as the grumpiness.  But this is where the glimmer comes in.  It’s what keeps me going, like a beacon in the dark night of the frontal-lobe-development-years, promising we’ll find land at some point.  It’s there, waiting.  And when her limbic system isn’t the one in total control, things will be much better.  At least that’s what National Geographic says.

Here are a few glimmers I’ve seen of late:

1.  We are at the grocery store.  They have matchbox cars on sale for a dollar.  “Only a dollar?” thinks limbic-system-controlled Lily. “What is money anyway?  And who cares if I spend it all on crap I don’t even want?  Not me.”  I tell her she should think about it.  That she probably won’t miss it tomorrow if she doesn’t buy it today.  That she doesn’t play with cars anyway, even if they’re pink.  I have little hope this talk will work, since they never ever do, but she stops.  Her eyes roll around in thinking mode.  “Ummm.  I’m gonna go put it back.”  And my terrible why-am-I-grocery-shopping-with-three-children mood disappears.  She listened!  She thought about it!  Her frontal lobe had a say this time!  Way to go, little girl!

2.  We are cleaning her room, attempting to organize her seven (yes seven) treasure boxes full of things like: a tiny rubber pig, an itty-bitty Jayhawk flag, a butterfly decoration from a cupcake she once ate, fun-shaped erasers, shells, rocks, plastic “jewels”, spider rings, a zipper found in a parking lot.  The list goes on.  And on.  I’m trying to teach her how to categorize.  This pile for beads, this pile for plastic butterflies, this pile to throw away.  I have little hope for the trash pile, knowing her need to keep everything, but she adds a paper frog.  Then a broken Chinese handcuff, then a bouncy ball.  And I can’t believe the giant step we’ve just taken together.  She listened!  She thought about it!  She got rid of six things and categorized her treasures into manageable piles so she can find them again.  My girl is maturing!  She’s using concrete thinking, using forethought!  Way to go, baby!

3. Mae (3) has run into my bathroom with Lily’s ring.  “Whooth ith thith?” She asks with a sly smile and a massively cute lisp. “Ith it mine?” She knows it isn’t.  She knows she’s stolen it and is enjoying her power.  Lily comes in, upset over the missing ring (which she got at Cici’s pizza in a toy dispenser for a quarter. It is precious.).  I expect to see her go-to move of grabbing it away from Mae, causing more crying, more grabbing, escalated drama.  But before I preemptively intervene she asks politely.  And when that doesn’t work she makes Mae a deal.  “Do you want another ring, Mae,” she asks. “Here, you can pick three.”  Mae gladly hands back the fake gold band and goes for the silver and pink hearts.  Which Lily also loves.  All her rings are precious to her.  I can’t believe it.  I am watching a miracle, and it’s beautiful.  Way to go, sweet Lily.

When I see those moments of future Lily shining through the six-year-old veneer, I’m completely encouraged.  They can actually buy me a day or two of energy for whatever she throws my way.  Because I know there are better days ahead.  I might have to wait fifteen years or so, but at least there are signs that she’s capable of awesomeness.  And because it’s a beautiful thing to watch.  She’s breathtaking when she’s kind, her inner beauty making her glow.  I can’t wait until I get to see that all the time.  For now I’ll have to take what I can get and keep praying for patience on the dark days.  And remember that her little brain is hard at work creating and pruning synaptic connections for her future self.  But I’m so thankful for the little glimpses.  They give me such hope, which is exactly what I need.

 

Wake Up Call

I know it’s not particularly cool to like John Mayer.  He’s a cliche to many people.  But whatever you think of him – his offensive and idiotic comments from 2010 that displayed what a jerk he was, his playboy reputation, his know-it-all attitude at times – you can’t deny his musicianship.  Unless you’re dumb.  His guitar skills, and his voice that sounds like melted chocolate, are stellar.  (I can’t hear you if you’re arguing with me.)  And I just found an album he made in 2012, in between two throat surgeries, that is flat-out beautiful.

I can’t believe I’ve never heard it, being a long-time John Mayer fan (to the dismay of my husband who calls him the modern-day Lionel Ritchie, which makes no sense at all).  I just recently heard his album from 2013, which is also great.  And here’s the thing about these albums: they’re both post-wake-up-call.  They were made after his move to Montana to get away from the push and pull of fame and get perspective.  Have some quiet. Figure himself out.  And you can tell.  Both albums feel more calm, self-assured, less trying than simply doing what he loves.  Both are more honest than his others have been.  Disarmingly so.  Both display a rougher voice because of the granuloma, using a less perfect instrument than he’s had before.  And it lends to the beauty.  It’s a metaphor for his life : beaten up a bit, a little haggard, comfortable in it’s imperfection and what the hard stuff has taught him.  Still like chocolate.  Maybe just 60% dark now.

I had my own wake-up call during my freshman year of college.  Not quite as drastic as Mayer’s binges of drugs and sex, and not internationally publicized, but just as life-changing for me.  I was dating a guy who went to another school, and we never saw each other.  Our relationship wasn’t based on much and on it’s last legs.  One Friday night I got home from my horrible waitressing job and had nothing to do.  My roommate was gone, my friends were all out, and as usual my boyfriend was not around.  I was bored, lonely, and antsy to do something.

Cue the call from my ex-boyfriend, asking if I wanted to hang out.  I briefly considered the awfulness of this idea, but since I had no other options, and because my decision-making skills sucked back then, I said yes.  We had a couple beers, we talked about my job and school and how he regretted our break up, and then he proceeded to kiss me.  And I didn’t stop him.  Not at first.

I know to some this is no big deal, and to others it’s horrifying.  For me it was a big deal.  A big mistake.  I was dating someone else and had just broken his trust.  The beer didn’t help, but really I should have seen it coming.  Inside I knew what I was doing – willingly playing with fire, both hoping for and fearing the same thing.  In the midst of his lips on mine, it hit me.  I hopped up, drove home intoxicated (yep) and sat in my dorm room in utter confusion over what in the world I had become.

It wasn’t that bad in comparison to, say, killing someone, or kidnapping, or sex-trafficking.  But on that night I realized, deep in my gut, that I was a mess.  Even without the beer and the cute boy and the loneliness, I was bound to hurt people.  And be selfish.  And disappoint.  I couldn’t escape myself or my humanness, which was a pretty awful realization.  It wasn’t a new development.  Kissing my ex just made it real.

And here’s the crazy thing: I’m so glad it happened.

After that night everything changed.  I broke up with my boyfriend, told my ex it was over, and most importantly did a what-do-I-believe-and-how-should-that-play-out overhaul.  It took some retreating into myself, some introspection, and a lot of praying.  I went to my own internal Montana for a bit.  But when I emerged I had some peace.  I sat more comfortably in my own skin, my own spirit.  I stopped trying to fix myself and left the fixing to God.

Brennan Manning, in one of my most favoritest books ever, puts it like this

Honesty brings an end to pretense through a candid acknowledgment of our fragile humanity.  It is always unpleasant, and usually painful, and that is why I am not very good at it.  But to stand in the truth before Godand one another has a unique reward.  It is the reward which a sense of reality always brings.  I know something extremely precious.  I am in touch with myself as I am.  My tendency to play the pseudo-messiah is torpedoed. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, pg. 142)

The wake-up-call effect is always good.  It was for me – it has colored and directed each day since.  And it was for John Mayer.  I’m not saying he’s wise now and that all is well with his life these days.  But every little move toward maturity and wisdom is a plus.  Every ounce of discarded idiocy is less weight to carry through life and to put on others.  So, as a fan, and a person who thinks that lovely voice needs to be connected to a more decent person than he seemed to be before, I’m happy for him.  I’m happy for those around him.  And I’m happy for me, because I love these albums.

So thank you, fragile humanity.  Thank you, ridiculous mistakes.  Thank you, wake-up call for helping John and I to see the depth of our depravity.  You did your job well.

Interview With John Mayer

Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey from Mayer’s album Born and Raised

Our Last Goodbye

The fields were black from being burned, or burning as we drove.  The wind was whipping that day, jiggling the back of the minivan so much that the kids began to feel sick.  We were headed to Nebraska for the viewing of my Grandmother’s body.  The funeral the next day.  The older kids tried to read, then lay on the seat moaning.  I reminded them that I felt that way for three straight months when they were in my belly.  Eyes wide, they imagined the horror and became distracted from their own misery for a moment.

I didn’t appreciate my grandma when I was a kid.  To be honest, I thought she was my boring grandma.  The one who bought me fake pearls from Wal-Mart for my birthday, who wore polyester pants, who didn’t care who Michael Jackson was.  I thought she was out of touch and uninteresting.  Bo-ring.  I, on the other hand, was with it, trying hard to be cool and caring very much about MJ.  Meanwhile she was mattering in people’s lives all around her.  She cared who they were.  And who I was.

I was an idiot.

As I got older I appreciated my grandma more.  When I had my first child I somehow felt a deeper connection to this woman who had done the same.  She’d had four – and one when she was forty, before that was a normal, “L.A.” thing to do.  And she’d gone back to school after that, getting her undergrad at 49.  She’d grown up in the depression, poor, on a farm in the middle of Kansas.  She was a preacher’s wife, with all the sacrifices and casseroles that entailed, and she put up with a lot from him.  As a grown-up I could see her as a person, a whole character with a backstory who’d faced obstacles I never would and had kept her sweet spirit.  Her giggles that bubbled up easily.

Grandma’s service was beautiful.  Full of anecdotes from her kids, songs sung by people who loved her, stories of the lives she impacted.  The summary of a life lived with gratitude and without expectation, full of quiet ambition and strength.  She mattered in the world.  This woman who loved people well and gave herself for others.  She lived a long, full life and remained humble and happy til the end.  Giggling even on her last day.  I want to be like that.  A Jenea version of the same character and hope.  I want to be like Orpha Hooge.

The drive home from Nebraska was less windy, but otherwise it felt the same.  No anxiety.  No sorrow.  No “oh poor Grandma”.  We were glad for her and proud to be part of her family.  I’d cried some tears, yes, but not really out of sadness.  More out of thankfulness for who she was.  But for her all was well.  She was free from a body that wouldn’t work and a mind whose synapses weren’t always firing.  Free from the loneliness of a nursing home.  Seeing the result of the hope she’d professed for so long.  We saw the same blackened fields, burned to allow  new grass to grow.  The same hills Grandma knew as a child.  And it made perfect sense.  The bookends of our last goodbye to my lovely grandmother.

It Must Be a Choice

My grandmother turned 95 last month.

I cannot imagine having lived nearly a century.

The changes she has witnessed in culture, the roller coaster of joys and aches, the countless births and deaths, the cycle of seasons experienced nearly 100 times.  Already, having lived through 38 winters, I feel a little weary of them.  And of disappointments, heartache, illness – all the negative aspects of life.  And I haven’t survived the Depression, the Spanish Flu, two world wars or the death of a child before myself.  How does one make it to old age with any amount of energy or uplifted spirit? It seems as though life beats you down over time, wears you out, spoils the innocence you enjoyed when you were young and unaware.  But it must be a choice.  It must take some effort and will to end things well.

***

On my drive to Nebraska to celebrate Grandma’s birthday, as the kids listened to the Sophia the First cd on headphones in the back, I listened to the cd version of the book This I Believe, the compilation of essays written by average and famous Americans about the values that direct their lives.  I’ve heard many of these essays during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on NPR, but I’d never experienced them in bulk.  In the very introduction I heard this quote, which confirmed the above sentences I’d typed myself just the day before:

“Beliefs are choices.  No one has authority over your personal beliefs. Your beliefs are in jeopardy only when you don’t know what they are.”

Each essay included in the book is really a proclamation of choice – about the principles on which each author has decided to base his or her life.  Influenced by circumstances, driven by various forces, every single one has asked the big questions, spent time contemplating, and come to a particular conclusion.  It doesn’t mean the ideas can’t shift and change at all over time, but it does mean he or she has done the work of questioning, of grappling, of exercising the heart and mind enough to discover what jives with the soul.

My grandmother has clearly made a choice.  She is sweet and kind, happy with the simplest pleasures, mostly that of being with her family.  She giggles.

She’s 95 and she giggles.

She has had four children, lost her husband and a child, been moved out of her house and into a nursing home and she still smiles to anyone she encounters.  She has lost much of her memory – she neither recognized me the first or second time we “met” at her party – but she has retained her calm, friendly spirit.  Though it’s hard to say whether she knew it was her great-granddaughter speaking, she got a kick out of Mae saying her name, she told Luke when introduced to him “That’s a good name for a boy,” and she happily watched the merriment around her even though she didn’t touch her cake.

One might think that in her dementia she is simply blissfully ignorant of the trials she’s survived in life and therefore happy.  But she has always been this way.  She’s never been an exuberant woman – not openly passionate or gregarious.  But she has always been kind, steadfast, quietly strong and patient.  And she has always giggled.  She made a choice a long time ago to live this way.  Decided what she believed, which values would direct her steps – those cliche but universally-relevant questions everyone asks at some point.  She answered them for herself and her choices have guided the rest of her days.

Listening to all the essays on This I Believe gave me a peek into many different ways of looking at the world, made me begin to form a mental essay on the subject myself, and, as the editors of the book point out is a common result, reaffirmed what I do believe.  I hope that if I live to be nearly a century old, despite all that life with throw at me, I’ll be able to smile and giggle, too (though for me a toothy guffaw may be more in character).  I hope I can end my days with the same uplifted heart my grandma possesses.

My favorite essays from This I Believe (in the order they appear in the book):

Be Cool to the Pizza Dude (Sarah Adams)

In Giving I Connect With Others (Isabel Allende)

How is It Possible to Believe in God? (William F. Buckley Jr)

The Power and Mystery of Naming Things (Eve Ensler)

The God Who Embraced Me (John W. Fountain)

The Power of Love to Transform and Heal (Jackie Lantry)

The Artistry in Hidden Talents (Mel Rusnov)

Jazz Is the Sound of God Laughing (Colleen Shaddox)

There Is No Such Thing as Too Much Barbecue (Jason Sheehan)

Always Go to the Funeral (Deirdre Sullivan)

How Do You Believe in a Mystery? (Loudon Wainwright III)