Category Archives: Indiana

Some Reasons You Might Think I’m Unbalanced: A Summer Sampler

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I’ve been taking stock of my behavior lately to see if, perhaps, I have become unbalanced. Unhinged. Unglued. Because I am incapable of determining this myself, I offer evidence of my derangedness for your consideration in the following paragraphs.

 

My current state of mind

 

Last night the bedroom was stuffy so I opted to sleep on the sofa. This morning at 7:30 (which, with our weird sleep patterns, is the equivalent of 3:30 a.m. to most of you), I heard an unfortunate soul down on the sidewalk talking loudly to himself. We’re a floor up from ground level, so I wasn’t particularly concerned but I wished he’d shut up so I could get back to sleep. I jammed my earphones deep into my ears and cranked up a British show on architecture that is so boring and soothing that it puts me to sleep. I dozed off. Then the voice sounded like it was in the room with me and there was rustling. As in it sounded like the man in question was dragging palm fronds around my living room in a re-enactment of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I forced my eyes open, rolled over—my nightshirt riding up and exposing my backside—and there right outside my personal living room was the be-hard-hatted head of a tree trimmer.

 

He was not proselytizing nonsensically but instead telling his work buddy the best methods to climb a tree. (Take note: always plan your climb ahead of time. Visualize.)

 

I went from pleasantly asleep to embarrassed (exposed backside, remember) to frothing-at-the-mouth angry in less than 60 seconds. Surely this is an unprecedented array of emotions for so short a time?

 

Though Seattle—the Emerald City—is very green and tree-inclined, we do not live on a very emerald-y block. We have one, full tree outside our window that is so thick and lovely that birds sit on it regularly and sing to us. The tree offered much needed shade during the heat wave two weeks ago. With this tree, a few months a year, we have the illusion from certain angles that we live in a tree house, and in summer, if one of us forgets our robe, we can streak across the living room post-shower with little worry that the Millennials in the 14-story building across the street will see our aging, naked flesh.

 

Those days are over. The tree now looks like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree only with a few leaves and zero ornaments. No self-respecting bird will ever sit on it again. I wanted to yell at the man in question, but I’m pretty sure I have no authority over the official tree trimmers of Seattle, so instead, I pulled the sheet over my head (and my backside) and I seethed for two hours until I fell back asleep (after they’d thrown the tree limbs into a very loud wood chipper and done additional trimming with a chainsaw).

 

Added disappointment: now that the shade of the tree is gone, our filthy windows are on display in the sunlight. (This perpetual sunlight that plagues Seattle in summer and further agitates my mood.) They haven’t been washed on the outside in the eleven years since Z moved in because no building manager has made it a priority. So basically, Z and I are now living in Ralph and Alice Kramden’s gray, depressing Honeymooners apartment in a New York City tenement.

 

In addition to this, I’m a little exhausted from the rollercoaster of emotions that is the current political climate in America. On the personal front, I’m delightfully happy. I’m teaching. I’m writing. I love reunifying with Z after three weeks in Indiana, and I enjoy his summer break because we have more hours of the day to hoot it up together and love each other up.

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Who wouldn’t want to come home to a man like Z and this basket of treats?

But then there is the national news and the distress that it causes. One day I’m worried about immigrants being booted from the country, including my husband. The next day I’m wondering if we should do research on where the nearest nuclear fallout shelter is. The day after that I’m weeping because actual Nazis doing actual Nazi salutes are spreading their hate on American soil. (Even if we were too young to remember World War II and those Nazis, weren’t we all raised on Indiana Jones? Wasn’t the premise of those movies Nazis are bad and we must put our lives on the line to fight them? The mind boggles that this is even a thing we are discussing nationally.)

 

Thus, emotional whiplash sufferer.

 

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After the attack. There used to be 50 more branches here and one of Snow White’s birds sitting there singing.

My state pride

 

When I was growing up, it was not out of the ordinary to hear an uncle tell a joke about someone living in Kentucky in which the Kentuckian was presented as being a bit of an idiot. For much of my childhood, I believed it to be an inherent truth that Kentuckians (other than my Uncle Clay who was born in Kentucky and wickedly clever) were not as smart as we were. One of my favorite jokes was about a Hoosier who yelled across the Ohio River to a Kentuckian who was hoping to get to the other side and offered to shine his flashlight so the Kentuckian could walk across the water on the beam of light. The Kentuckian hollered back, “I’m no fool! I know when I get half way across, you’ll turn the light off.”

 

So it was some shock to me as an adult to discover that Indiana is the butt of a lot of jokes. In particular and for reasons I don’t understand, Missouri apparently tells a lot of Dumb Hoosier jokes. Shows like The Middle don’t really highlight our strengths, and since we often come in on the wrong end of nationwide surveys and statistics about weight and education, not to mention backward-thinking legislation, we don’t exactly cover ourselves in glory either.

 

I tell you this so if you do feel it necessary to read the next paragraph and say, “Well, what do you expect? She’s from Indiana?” you should know that I’m already aware of your derision. I understand the tendency to mock.

 

Last month when I came home from Indiana, I had fourteen un-shucked ears of corn in my suitcase.

 

Go ahead. Laugh. You can’t hurt me with your ridicule and here’s why: Indiana sweet corn is hands down the best sweet corn there is out there, and my Aunt Jean’s sweet corn—freshly picked the morning of my flight in this case—is the best sweet corn in Indiana. And furthermore, if you are eating only one ear, or worse, a half an ear at a time, you are a fool. Indiana sweet corn must be eaten by the plateful. It should be your entire meal. Coat it in butter, salt it up, and worry about your pants fitting and your blood pressure spiking when corn is out of season because it will be, all too soon.

 

And no. Sweet corn from Washington does not “taste the same.”

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The. Best. Corn. Ever.

My forgetfulness

 

While I was still home, Mom and I drove north to see cousins of both the Hoosier and Irish variety. The Irish ones were in country for a graduation, and they were staying in a vacation rental in Douglas, Michigan. I hadn’t seen the parents for two years and it had been more like eight since I’d seen the offspring graduate in question, so it was a delightful afternoon catching up with them. We decided to go across the water to Saugatuck for lunch, and afterward we walked around the quaint artsy town that felt a bit like Cape Cod. The cousins asked if we’d been there before and we assured them we had not. We oohed and aahed at the tree-lined streets, the quaint cottages, the shops of art and books and fudge.

 

It was new to us, this sweet little coastal enclave. Later, Mom and I confessed to each other that we had gotten simultaneous senses of déjà vu but we shrugged it off. It just reminds us of pictures we’ve seen from New England we decided.

 

The afternoon was full of stories from Ireland and a lot of truly delightful conversation that so transported me to the west of Ireland that on the drive home (fortunately on the interstate so I was inclined to stay on the correct side of the road), I briefly forgot that I was actually in America and not Ireland. I kept wondering at how green and magical everything in southern Michigan looked and expected to see stone walls and sheep.

 

It was very discombobulating.

 

Later that night when we were back in our hotel room, Mom said, “You know, I think we have been in Saugatuck. We stopped there on the way home from Grand Haven a few years ago.” She was right. Somehow neither of us had been able to piece together a coherent memory of it when we were actually there, but everything we were oohing and aahing over had already been oohed and aahed over nine years ago.

 

How do you forget an entire town you’ve actually been in before? How do you forget you aren’t in Ireland when you’re driving down a U.S. highway?

 

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Inishbofin or South Central Michigan, you decide.

My choice to buy these shoes though no one forced me & I wasn’t on drugs:

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My false sense of my own intelligence

 

When I got back from Indiana, it was Hudge’s birthday and she decided to celebrate by treating herself, our friend Providence, Z and me to an Escape Room experience down in Belltown. None of us had ever done one. Among us, we have eight graduate degrees (come spring), one of us has a PhD, one of us did some work in “intelligence,” and at least one of us was raised on Trixie Belden mysteries, so I was feeling confident that we’d escape within the designated 60 minutes before we’d be “killed” by poison gas. I considered the possibility that we might even break records. We were instructed before going into the Victorian-inspired room of a supposed explorer that we could ask questions and hints would appear on the screen that was our countdown clock.

 

Friends, it was not pretty. I can’t believe that they use escape rooms as a team-building exercise because it did not feel like we were building a team. It felt like we were four headless chickens. And if I were being observed specifically, I think an employer might have fired me on the spot because I was not displaying my best qualities. I felt annoyed with myself but also everyone else for not being smarter and quicker. I got stroppy with Z who kept asking the game master (who gave cryptic help at best) for clues, which for reasons I can’t explain, felt like cheating and made me cross. (It should be noted that of the four of us, Z was the only male and the only person willing to ask for help, so I’m not sure what that says about Z or the notion that men would rather die at the side of the road than ask a passerby for directions.) When we had ten minutes to go, I wanted to sit down, put my head in my arms, and just tell the game master we gave up because it was clear we were not going to “win.” It was not a gold star Girl Scout behavior moment.

 

Also disturbing: at one point, we had to get on our hands and knees and crawl through a low space, and I discovered that I am now of an age where crawling is uncomfortable and best avoided. Something I’ve been doing since I was a baby is now, basically, a skill that is lost to me.

 

Finally, once we’d been gassed and the game master came in to talk us through our foul-ups and missed hints, my competitiveness re-animated. I got obsessed with other escape rooms I could try. I downloaded a puzzle on my iPad that I believed would make me a better contender next time I find myself in a locked room, and finally, I became particularly obsessed with an escape room in Cincinnati that has my surname in the title. I wondered if I should try to gather my family members together at the holidays and we could try to escape together. (Though in retrospect, we might hate each other—or at least they might hate me—when it’s all over.)

 

My choice to teach a class on writing and procrastination

 

You know me. You know my issues with deadlines and daily writing schedules and writing productivity. I think you can see the problem with this.

 

My inability to stay focused

 

Yesterday, a mini-van drove past with something like “Graffiti Be Gone” written on the side of it, and for a full fifteen minutes after it passed me, I considered that perhaps this is a business I should get into. I’m never good at imagining practical work that offers a real world service, and in Seattle, where graffiti abounds, this would be a real growth market. I considered how I might showcase my skills, to whom I might advertise, what the logo would look like. I even imagined the money I would make from this venture: how much it would be, what I would do with it, and how there might even be write-ups about me in trade magazines. I would win the equivalent of the Pulitzer for graffiti removal.

 

And then I realized in the midst of my reverie that I have never excelled at any sort of physical labor and I don’t know the first thing about graffiti removal. Do you just paint over it? Scrub it really hard with OxiClean? No idea. It’s the sort of thing I’d have to phone my Virgo mother for: Mom, what do you think I should use to get the Anarchy symbol off my front door?

 

(FYI, she would recommend dishwashing detergent. Right now, it is her go-to cleaning supply. I can’t think of the last time she recommended anything other than Lemon Fresh Joy. Most recently, it removed a mystery stain from my sofa arm. You should try it on everything from carpet stains to whatever you just dripped down your front while eating your lunch. It’s amazing.)

 

Anyhow, your takeaway should be this: if you have graffiti on your premises, don’t call me because I don’t have a clue what to do about it.

 

I do this sort of thing all the time. Often it’s for jobs I absolutely know I DO NOT want. Jobs that require you to stand all day or be outside under the sun holding a sign in a construction zone that says “SLOW.” I’ll worry about this. How ill-equipped I am for this work as if it is actually going to be my job. I consider how badly I’d feel at the end of the day. Whether or not I’d get along with the other workers. And then there is this moment that is the equivalent of waking from a nightmare when I realize, “Oh, wait. No one is really expecting me to get a job on a construction site. It’s okay. And some of those people who are doing that work actually enjoy it and have real skill at it, so you don’t even have to feel badly for them, Beth, because they have different strengths and proclivities than you do.”

 

Also, I should probably point out that when I had this Graffiti Be Gone daydream, I was sitting in Starbucks with Z having a conversation about the recent ugliness in Charlottesville. That is: I was in the middle of a conversation, and mostly holding up my end of it, yet inside my brain I had started a business for which I am badly equipped. Is there a drug you can take to stop this sort of behavior? Would a fidget spinner help?

 

No wonder then that halfway through a good many of our conversations, I will have to stop the words coming out of my mouth and say to Z, “Huh?” because it is suddenly clear to me that not only have I not heard him fully, I don’t even know what I’m talking about.

 

My refusal to admit when I don’t understand something

 

My tech whiz brother was here for a week, and as is our custom, Z and I pepper him with questions about tech issues we don’t understand. Earlier this year when he was visiting he made our Netflix stream more efficiently by hooking up some cables (a.k.a. “magic”). On the occasion of this trip, Z decided to ask him about BitCoin, the crypto-currency that you may have recently read about because if you had invested a thousand dollars in it four years ago it would be worth something like four gazillion dollars now. I don’t understand what it is. I don’t understand where it comes from. And I’m particularly unclear on how someone—some governing body—isn’t controlling it because it is my firm belief that the world tends towards chaos and thus this is a recipe for disaster. My brother spent ages trying to explain it, reading descriptions of it to us, offering analogies from which my non-tech brain should have been able to draw comparisons. At the end of the conversation, Z had some working knowledge of it, but I was in a full-on, feet-dug-in hrrmph because clearly, it is the stupidest thing to have ever been invented if I can’t easily grasp what it is and how it works.

 

My confused loyalties

 

I’ve spent more than a few minutes worrying about what I will do if the Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders play each other this football season because while I love the Seahawks, the reason I fell in love with them was Marshawn Lynch, and now he has taken his own particular brand of briefly-retired skill and quirky humor away from us and to his hometown. A decade ago if you’d asked me where the Seahawks were from, I would have said, “I dunno. San Diego? It’s a baseball team, right?” But now, I feel like my boyfriend just announced he’s taking someone else to the Homecoming dance.

 

Oh, Marshawn. We hardly knew ye.

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It still pains me not to see him in blue and green. Photo: Rick Scuterl/AP

My “breedism”

 

I love dogs and the only thing that really gets me out of the house for a walk is the promise of seeing the neighborhood dogs. Even though I know it is wrong, I need for a dog to look a certain way or it pains me. They don’t have to be purebred, but they need to not be pointy. They need to not be yappy. They need to look like they’ve got some intelligence going on behind the eyes (although I do not insist they have a working knowledge of Bitcoin). I am not particularly afraid of any dog and will hold my own with a pit bull or a German Shepherd or a Doberman so long as it isn’t frothing at the mouth to get to me. That said, I will cross the street to avoid a Chow. I don’t trust them and I don’t like their demeanor. Not only have I known ones with lightening-quick mood changes but the fact that they look like bears with blue tongues makes me uncertain that they are even canine.

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An appropriately shaped Skampy of Zimbabwe

My indecisiveness

 

I currently have twelve books I’m reading. Twelve. And that doesn’t count the numerous titles I plan to “get back to soon” that I started and jettisoned ages ago.

 

My need to rank things

 

I have an ice-crunching addiction that is, perhaps, the hardest thing about me for Z to deal with, which is saying a lot because there’s a lot about me that could be construed as “troublesome.” His ears are sensitive but my iron-poor blood cries out for glasses and glasses of ice to crunch on a daily basis. I get as excited about a good cup of ice as I used to get excited about a hand dipped Jif-infused peanut butter milkshake. Despite this frustration of Z’s, he regularly brings me bags of ice and I am constantly rearranging which brands and purveyors of bagged ice that I prefer in Greater Seattle (Fuel Star followed closely by Ready Ice are currently at the top). I try to have conversations with him about what restaurants have the best ice and what makes good ice (not too frozen, a little air) despite the fact that I know the subject pains him because it reminds him that he will be listening to me gnaw through half a bag while we’re trying to watch Game of Thrones.

 

My obsessiveness

 

I am watching Game of Thrones from beginning to the current episodes again for approximately the fifth time. Does anyone need to see anything five times? No. But I’m obsessed with the storytelling and want to know what was said in Season 1 that is now coming to fruition. (Also, I’m thinking Arya needs to add a few more names to her hit list. Some from the show. Some from my life. That early-morning tree torturer seems like he might be a good candidate, and I’m none too happy about a fellow on Facebook who recently suggested that my mother should “Get a clue.”)

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It’s on First Hill, not Westeros, but still something the Mother of Dragons might want in her home.

My inability to know when to end things

 

I have trouble with knowing when a visit or a phone conversation should end. I keep talking long past the point of interest by myself or the other party simply because I have no skill at dis-entangling myself. (For that matter, I once went on one date with someone with whom I saw zero future but somehow ended up in a three-and-a-half-year relationship because neither of us could figure out how to pull the plug after a year.)

 

This blog post is another example.

 

Hopefully at this juncture, you have enough evidence to determine for yourself my mental state and whether or not you’d feel comfortable sitting next to me on a cross-country bus trip.

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Little 3rd Grade Classroom on the Prairie

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Future tree-ring counters: me, Mrs. Turner, Cher-a-lyn Ford, Kevin Mathews (Photo from The Palladium-Item)

 

I was an introverted only child with high sensitivities, so everything about elementary school disagreed with me. I hated the noise, the feel of the cheap gritty brown paper we had to draw on, using the lockless bathroom at the back of the classroom where any unthinking dolt might ignore the octagonal sign that I’d flipped from “go” to “STOP” thus flinging the door open to expose me sitting there on the child-sized porcelain. I hated the near daily lectures about how badly behaved “we” were, and worse, the moment when the teacher would inevitably flip off the lights and snarl “BURY THEM!” and we were meant to not only put our heads on our desks but hide our (horrible, badly behaved) faces in our arms. (I spent those ten to twenty minutes each time it happened wondering a) if the teacher realized I was good and not one of the criminals in question b) if legal intervention could be used to right the injustice of all of us being punished because of one or two bad eggs and c) if it was possible to suffocate from having your nose buried in your own elbow crease.) I hated the smells in the cafeteria, the smell of the paste in the big jar, and the smell of the red rubber ball as it smacked into my face when we played Dodge Ball. There was much to hate.

 

In the mornings, Mom would have to work hard to cajole me out of bed. On more than one morning, she dressed me as I performed what I now recognize as the passive resistance moves people use when cops are trying to drag them away from a protest. Some mornings I would whine, “Why do I have to go?” I felt I wasn’t learning anything she hadn’t already taught me or that I wasn’t gleaning from the stack of library books on my nightstand. School seemed stupid and I didn’t mind groaning about it before 8 a.m. I probably deserved a swat on the backside or the pursed lips of disapproval, but instead, Mom would good naturedly answer my tedious query with, “Because you’re the principal.”

 

Good Lord, elementary school was boring. Aside from the things I outright hated, it was so repetitious and slow. I’d leave every day with a Little House book tucked under my arm so I could disappear into Laura’s pioneer life as soon as I finished my assignments, and if I didn’t have my nose buried in a book then I was staring out the window wishing for the sweet release from my incarceration when the final bell rang. I could draw from memory the views from each classroom because everything on the other side of the glass looked so much sweeter and alive than anything that was happening inside the four cinder block walls of my various classrooms.

 

But then third grade happened. Jessie Turner was my teacher that year at Finley Elementary, and suddenly Mom didn’t have to try to jam my uncooperative foot into a sock because I was up, washed, dressed, and ready to go before she’d had time to get ready herself. What a glorious year that was.

 

Since Mom called me to tell me a few weeks ago that Mrs. Turner had died, I’ve been thinking a lot about her and the classroom she created and what magic she wrought that made 1975-1976 the best academic year of my life and shaped the person I wanted to become. I can’t separate the individual from her classroom environment or from her lessons, but what I do know is that it was evident she was enthusiastic about her job, invested in her students, treated us like humans, allowed for zero dull moments, and required only that we be kind and curious. I can’t remember a single instance when we were barked at to bury our heads or treated like miniature convicts. On the very worst day—one of our members had decided to cut the strings on the loom where we were learning how to weave, thus ruining our joint tapestry—she sat at the front of the room, not looking up at us, fiddling with a book in front of her with tears visible in her clear, blue eyes, and said, voice cracking, how disappointed she was. Though I hadn’t been the guilty party, I wanted to throw myself at her feet and apologize, and I suspect the rest of my classmates felt the same because we were subdued for the rest of the day. Having disappointed her mattered to us because she mattered to us.

 

 

Mrs. Turner’s classroom was a study in stimulation. The walls were filled with posters, artwork, handicrafts, charts. There were a series of “stations” lining the room where we would read or weave or investigate the caterpillar that nibbled on leaves while we waited for it spin its cocoon. She rarely sat, but if she did, it was in front of us—not behind her desk to keep herself protected—but at a long, low table on which were piles of books and magazines and a mesh cage that contained a praying mantis and the egg mass we were waiting to see hatch. There wasn’t a spot in the room where our eyes would land on a blank space. I never had an urge to stare out the window and wish I were free while I was her student because we were so busy inside those walls.

 

She was never hemmed in by those walls either and saw the classroom not as a physical space. She frequently took us outside, marched us around the neighborhood—the oldest one in Richmond—and showed us living history: a side street where bricks hadn’t been covered with pavement, the star brick sidewalks that had been there for over a century, the old street names (Market & Marion) embedded on the corner of a house from a time before the streets had been boringly renamed 6th and C and those names written on ugly green signs on poles. She walked us past the old German cottages and Italianate houses and had us count out every seventh row of short bricks to help us identify buildings from a certain time period. She taught us to read and draw maps that we carried with us, and when we weren’t having history lessons, we were observing insects, wildlife, learning to count the rings of a tree trunk, and then expected to speculate about what might have been going on in the world when we got to that centermost ring where the tree had begun its life. She took the entire class to Camp Clements and there we hiked and made dioramas and had a campfire before falling into damp sleeping bags on stiff bunks. It is, perhaps, the only time in my childhood when I wasn’t homesick on an overnight, and I suspect that is because I was too busy to realize I missed my own bed. Plus, why would you want to make yourself miserable when you were so happy to be in Mrs. Turner’s presence?

 

My Little House long-dress-and-sunbonnet-wearing dreams were fulfilled because it was America’s Bicentennial. I regularly went to class decked out like Laura Ingalls Wilder (missing the irony that Laura hated her sunbonnet and would have never voluntarily worn one). In addition to our regular studies and the nature studies Mrs. Turner included in our curriculum—we did a host of activities to celebrate America’s birthday. We wove on a loom. We ground corn on a Native American grinding stone borrowed from the museum (and, sadly, returned broken because of too vigorous grinding) and then made cornbread after our hard work, which we slathered with butter we had churned. We carded wool, learned about spinning, and made nine-patch quilts. At her insistence, we memorized a poem called “Indian Children” that forced us to think about who had lived where we were now—and she told us when we were 50 we would still remember it. (It is the only poem I’ve ever memorized and she was right, I can still recite it.) She made me keep my first journal and taught me how to bend language to my will in order to create a cinquain (a sort of elementary-friendly haiku) that instilled in me a love of puzzling out the best words to use and where to use them.

 

She was a whirlwind in the classroom, moving from one space to the next in a cloud of the eucalyptus cough drops she sucked, and we were sucked into her vortex. We followed her where she went and had little opportunity to let our minds wander.

 

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Mrs. Turner as I knew her and in her youth, looking all Sundance-y!

At her memorial service, I was looking at old photographs of her and realized my fascination with the women of the Sundance Catalog likely stems from her influence 40 years ago. Though she wasn’t inclined to prairie skirts and cowboy boots, she dressed like a woman who, if she hadn’t been teaching 3rd graders the importance of ecology in east central Indiana, would have been hiking in the mountains or investigating cacti on some mesa somewhere. She was often in pants and shoes that wouldn’t hinder trekking, maybe a vest, and she regularly had on turquoise jewelry, which looked exactly right on her.

 

I was particularly entranced by the synchronicity that surrounded a silver ring she wore on her finger because it bore her initials; she explained one day that it had belonged to a good friend who had had the same initials until she got married, and then the ring made it’s way to Mrs. Turner. (I was so entranced by the meaning of that ring—the initials, the connection to another—that the following year I wore a ring with an “M” on it that I’d found in a bag of junk jewelry that someone else was casting off. I was, apparently, a weirdo even as a child as there was no “M”, lowercase or uppercase, in my name, but I wore the ring happily, and determined that I’d marry a man with an “M.” While I don’t think I chose Z because his surname begins with an M, it does make me feel a little 10-year-old-girl giddy that a ring I haven’t seen in years was prophetic. That’s nearly as good as having a friend with your initials share her ring with you.)

 

Mrs. Turner shared herself with us. She told us about the year she and her husband and children had lived in Alaska, how they’d have to bring the car battery into the house at night if they had any hope of the car starting in the morning, how beautiful and cold and empty it was. She spoke of the Eskimo people there and brought in a pair of goggles made from caribou hooves or antlers with tiny slits used to prevent snow blindness. She told us about the children’s novel her husband had written, The King Bear, about a boy growing up on a homestead in Alaska, and she lent me a copy so I could read it myself. I was in awe: an actual human person I knew married to a real live author. She talked about her children, talked about her childhood, told us about the wider world. One day she told us about the years when she and her family had lived in the mountains of Colorado, how beautiful it was, how much it meant to her, but how she wasn’t sure—again, her eyes damp, her voice cracking—that she would ever want to see it again because so many people were moving there and ruining that natural world she loved so much.

 

I’m not sure if before 3rd grade I’d ever been allowed to see my teachers as humans with loves and frailties, but it made a tremendous impact on me, and affected the way I saw the world. Made me notice when some of my less exotic bits of Indiana were bulldozed for parking lots, made me long to see distant places like Alaska and know more about people past and present from all walks of life.

 

She was the most compassionate teacher I had in elementary school. She saw us all as individuals and tried to meet our needs. In the spring, we wove baskets and she encouraged us to give them to our parents for Easter, but my parents were divorced, so she let me weave a second so I didn’t have to choose. One day she had gotten to the chapter in By the Shores of Silver Lake in which Laura’s bulldog Jack dies, and she asked me if I would read it to the class for her because the dog’s death upset her. I sat at her place at the long, low table, read solemnly and considered for the first time the possibility that though I was an introvert, it actually felt good to be at the front of a classroom. She recognized that a few of us needed more stimulation, and so she gave us tasks to perform: backdrops for the Christmas pageant that needed painting, seasonal decorating for the showcase window by the door, a play based on one of the Little House books (written, directed, and starring yours truly). There were other activities custom crafted for students with other likes and talents too, and I don’t think a single one of us felt ignored or left out. We trusted her because we knew she had our best interests at heart.

 

She was inspiring and we were inspired. Because she treated us with respect and expected us to be interested in the world around us, we (mostly) were respectful and interested. I left her classroom wanting to be a teacher, wanting to write, wanting to study history, and wanting to be as curious about the world as she was daily.

 

I was lucky in that my mother worked for the school system and so Mrs. Turner wasn’t lost to me completely the day I left her classroom. Though I didn’t see her with any regularity afterward, there were occasions when I’d be lucky enough to re-enter her orbit. In particular, I remember a visit to the beautiful brick Federal where she lived and as soon as I walked into it I was inspired because it was filled with bits and pieces of things that were of interest to her and her family. There were items I recognized as things she’d brought in to share with the class (those Alaskan snow goggles!) but also books, antiques, old family photos, an abandoned hornet’s nest. Her house was like her classroom with the added bonus of a ghost named Lydia who occasionally wreaked havoc. I closed my eyes and tried to soak up Lydia’s vibes, but couldn’t keep them closed because there was so much to see, so much I wanted to remember. Like her classroom, I felt charged by her living space. It was electric with ideas, with history, with feeling.

 

Though I hadn’t seen her for ages, when I got engaged eight years ago, I knew I wanted her at the wedding so I sent off an invitation. It was a cold December evening, she was now walking with a cane, and I can only imagine there were other ways she would have preferred spending a Saturday night, but she had her daughter bring her and the night was all the happier for her presence. I was glad, too, that she got to meet Z.

 

That’s the kind of teacher she was: one who would come to your wedding 33 years after you were her student and make you feel like your life event—your happiness—mattered deeply to her. Still.

 

My senior year of high school after friends and I had gone to see The Breakfast Club we suggested to a teacher there who was in charge of the National Honor Society that she should see the movie because it explained so well what it felt like to be a teenager in the 1980s. She shook her head, visibly cowered, and said, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to have to see that. I don’t want to know.” My public school education was adequate. I had other excellent teachers who shaped my worldview and inspired me, a couple of whom I stay in touch with and consider friends. But during the thirteen years I was in school, I had more teachers like the one who visibly shrank at the idea of having to understand her students better. They wore armor to protect themselves from us. They coasted through class sessions so they could get to the after-school coaching gigs that had drawn them to teaching in the first place. They saw us as would-be criminals who had to be contained, herded, de-toothed. We were a generation that was not delighted in. Many of them just wanted us to bury our heads so they wouldn’t have to look at us, see our faces, recognize us as individuals.

 

But not Jessie Turner.

 

She changed my life. I’m sure she changed more than mine. While I wouldn’t want to paint my little elementary school as bad or rough, we were—most all of us—poor. Of the elementary schools in Richmond, mine would have been one with more kids on free lunch, more kids that experts would predict would end up incarcerated because of “statistics,” more kids who weren’t going to be on track for college, more kids who no one expected to amount to much. If she saw us that way, she didn’t let on. For that single, glorious year, we were important and we were treated as if we were the same as everyone else.

 

Though I wouldn’t like to call it luck because the lucky thing would have been if she’d lived another 86 years, I was relieved that her memorial service happened to fall at a time when I was back home in Indiana so I was able to go, able to say goodbye, to introduce myself to her family and tell them what they already knew: how special she was, how much she mattered, what a difference she made to all of us. I loved looking at the photos from her life, reading a snippet from a journal that her children had put out, seeing a quilt students had made with messages written on it about how she’d changed their lives too. There was even a letter I’d written her twenty years ago out on a table for the world to read. It was a thank you that I’d written after an exercise in The Artist’s Way had forced me to name the person—outside of family—who had shaped me most. In the funeral home, the Bee Gees were playing in the background. There were flowers, balloons, bubbles. It felt like she was there and I could see her in her children. Certainly, she should have been there, celebrating and being celebrated.

 

A few days before the memorial service, I had lunch with C, a favorite former student of mine, whom I hadn’t seen for ten years. I recognized on the first day of her first class with me that C was different. Her energy and enthusiasm were catching. The world and the people in it fascinated her and she was hungry to gobble up all the knowledge she could. Now, she’s ten years deep into being a public school teacher. She’s done some inspiring things with students to get them to give back to the community, to the world at large, to respect people who are just like them but different.

 

Our lunch was a sort of lovefest. We both have great appreciation for each other, so we sat there laughing, eyes getting damp as we tried to express gratitude, faces red with embarrassment and heads shaking off praise heaped on by the other. The truth is, I am in awe of C. She is the kind of teacher I dreamed of being but don’t have quite enough energy or complete lack of cynicism to be. Even so, she insisted that she was inspired in my class, that she learned a lot, that she tortures her students with things I taught her or nuggets of information I passed on to her. It was humbling, and I don’t record it here to toot my own horn. I’m a good teacher. I can own that. But I’m not great. I’m not the teacher I planned to be back in third grade when I was learning at the feet of the master. I am plagued with demons of self-doubt, procrastination, discombobulated thinking on any given day. My lesson plans are as likely to be written on the back of an envelope as in a notebook and there will never be PowerPoint slides to accompany a lecture. It is unlikely that I’ll ever dedicate my free time to ushering students around on field trips or to conferences or to perform public service. I would never take them camping. I’ve got limitations.

 

Before meeting her end on the Space Shuttle Challenger, the teacher Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future. I teach.” Because she was so publicly and heroically dead, I didn’t roll my eyes like I wanted to the first time I read that line. It seems like something that is so full of itself that it should be too embarrassing to think let alone cross-stitch on and hang above your desk. I would certainly never say it about myself. In retrospect though, I suspect I was applying it to the average teachers I’d had. The ones who inspired me only to be good and get my homework in on time because I didn’t want to be hollered at. When I read McAuliffe’s quote, I wasn’t thinking about the few stellar teachers I’d had.

 

I sure wasn’t thinking about Jessie Turner.

 

Here’s the thing: anything C was praising me for while we had lunch? That was some quality, some nugget of wisdom, some way of teaching that I learned from Mrs. Turner (or a teacher who came later who had her qualities and thus I flitted around like a moth). I didn’t become Mrs. Turner. I couldn’t. No one could. But whatever magic it is she worked back at Finley Elementary certainly helped me be a conduit so a few of my students could carry the best bits of her towards infinity.

 

How lucky are we?

 

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An Antidote to Careful Living

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Today, I would like to talk to you about coasters.

 

You know what I mean, right? Those little bits of tile, slate, or cardboard that you use to protect your hardwoods from the sweaty bottom of your glass?

 

When I was growing up, Mom had a set of fruity ones of coiled raffia-esque material. For years, she only had one of the more polite, roundy fruits (an apple? an orange?) out for use because a) it went with her Early American décor and b) our end tables were Formica, and therefore impervious to the sweat from my Kool-Aid mug or a (glass) bottle of Coke no matter how icy  nor how long it sat there. However, the wooden bookcase next to the chair where most guests sat was maple, and therefore, at risk for water rings, hence the coaster.

 

One day I discovered that this coaster was from a set that Mom kept secreted in the drawer of the end table. This seemed like a remarkable discovery to me, and though I can’t remember the other sister-fruits, the one that made my heart race a little was a series of tiny coiled circles that added up to a cluster of grapes.

 

It was, ohmygosh, purple! Clearly Mom had either failed to recognize it’s majesty OR she was saving it for very special guests, like Indianapolis TV personality Cowboy Bob or, even, possibly, the president, should either of them happen to stop by our apartment in Richmond. I suspect I tried to encourage her to use it. (Mom is a great preserver of things that are “good” and to be used or worn “for something important” and I rail against this: if you have something nice, you must use it. Use it all up. If tomorrow never comes, then you’ve enjoyed your best blouse or your best teacup.) Though I don’t remember how I was alerted that this grapey treasure I’d found was off limits, the case was closed: the “good” coasters stayed in the drawer and never, to the best of my memory, ever saw the light of day.

 

But I knew they were there, those beautiful, unused grapes, just waiting to be liberated and fulfill their purpose in life.

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Photo Credit: Reluctant Girl Scout Mother (see how pristine the grapes are!)

 

I tell you this unnecessary story so you’ll know this about me: I am a coaster person. I believe in them. I believe you should try to have attractive ones that either match your personality or that are, at the very least, souvenirs from some travel/ favorite pub. Despite having been raised with those impenetrable Formica end tables, I was encouraged to respect hardwood and would no more think of putting a sweaty glass on a wooden table—my own or someone else’s— than I would take a box cutter to it. It’s barbaric.

 

At my former teaching job back in Indiana, each office was supplied with a set of truly depressing tan metal office furniture, including one bookcase (like that would be enough for all of my books), a rattle-y desk, and lateral filing cabinet. It was as far removed from my idea of a university as you can imagine. I draped scarves over surfaces, I covered the filing cabinet with magnets, I bought a little wooden table to put near the chairs where students would come to chat, and when my George W. Bush stimulus check arrived in 2008, I stimulated the economy by buying some not-that-expensive and only-vaguely-wooden-ish office furniture that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright designed it instead of the imagineers at Target. I wanted to be transported to another kind of academic office—the kind where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could sit around talking about hobbits and wardrobes when they weren’t teaching. And more importantly, I wanted my students to feel welcomed there and to feel like they were some place besides the bank trying to get a short-term loan.

 

On the whole, I was satisfied with my creation, particularly when someone new would walk in and use the word cozy or when an old student would email me and tell me that he or she missed sitting there across the faux oak, talking about their work.

 

That said, I was regularly in a state of consternation and apoplexy because people—and not just students—would come in with their oversized, dripping Big Gulp cups, look directly at the coasters I had out for their use, and then choose—deliberately choose—to set the cups or bottles on the table. This forced me into a position wherein I had to decide if my strong desire for friendliness and hospitality would win out over my equally strong desire not to have water rings on my surfaces.

 

And this brings me to the question that has been plaguing me for awhile: why, when we see or read a character who insists on someone using a coaster, are we immediately meant to assume that person is prissy, uptight, tedious, and annoying? Isn’t that a bit unfair? Isn’t it really the guest who assumes he or she can leave their mark on your belongings who is the problem? A cretin? Maybe even passive aggressive?

 

I haven’t come up with an answer for this yet, but I think it has something to do with injustice and lazy writing.

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Barbarous hoards have left glasses here, coasterless.

 

Lately, as Z watches me spend hours on a one-page piece of writing that doesn’t really matter, he has been trying to direct me towards Voltaire’s Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I am a weird perfectionist in that the perfectionism only applies to certain areas. My kitchen floor is rarely clean, for instance. You can’t see the top of Melvin, our coffee table. In high school, anything less than an A in a class I cared about would have gutted me, but I was perfectly content with a B in biology because I had no desire to dissect a frog.

 

But writing is my Waterloo. A single sentence in an email could take twenty minutes if I let myself, and I can’t tell you the number of times Z has walked into the room and seen my face all pinched and twisted while I stare at the screen or the notebook in front of me and said, with alarm, “What’s wrong?” Nothing is wrong except the words in front of me aren’t perfect.

 

I’m not sure how my quest for the perfect sentence and coasters are related except I’m sure they are.

 

Maybe it’s self-protection—I don’t want anyone to point out that I’ve misused a word or missed an opportunity for some lovely imagery. Criticism is the water-ring on the coffee table of my writing.

 

Ugh. That was a terrible metaphor.

 

We had a weekend heat wave here in Seattle, and since I knew it was a weekend-only heat situation I didn’t spiral into my Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder Depression (which Z will insist is NOT a thing and which, I am here to tell you, IS a thing). I did get completely addled from the heat though. It’s a bit like that old public service announcement where someone breaks open an egg on the hood of a car that has been sitting in the sun, the egg fries,  and then a commanding/ parental voice says, “Hot enough to fry an egg ? THEN IT’S HOT ENOUGH TO FRY YOUR DOG’S BRAIN.”

 

As PSAs go, I guess it was an effective one in that even in the dead of winter I used to worry that if I ran into CVS to get toilet paper and left Mac in the car that there would be some reflection of light that might turn 30 degrees into 100 in the two minutes I was inside.

 

Clearly, I’ve never been that strong with the science.

 

If it gets over 74 degrees my brain synapses start working with the sluggishness of a sloth. I’m extra clumsy. I can’t think of words. Z will ask a simple question like Do you want a glass of water? and you’d think he’d asked me to solve a geometry proof whilst riding a unicycle. I have no answer. He makes me a drink and then for good measure brings me a wet cloth to put on the top of my head to cool my core temperature down.

 

At one point on Sunday, Z and I were writing out some cards to friends and family for various reasons, and I kept putting words on the page that made no contextual sense and then I’d have to invent a whole second part of the sentence that made it seem like it was all planned out that way. I was so delusional from heat that I thought I’d gotten away with it, but then even Z—who is so supportive of everything I write that I sometimes distrust his praise—shook his head and raised an eyebrow as if I’d lost my mind.

 

Monday, it cooled down, which was a relief because I teach on Monday nights in a room that must formerly have been a terrarium, but the heat fog in my brain was still hovering. The critiques I wrote took twice as long as usual and were likely less coherent. I sketched out some lesson plans in my notebook with my trusty green pen and discovered that what the syllabus said we were meant to be learning I’d already taught the week before. I scratched down some other possible lecture points and activities, packed my bag, and headed out the door.

 

Without the notebook.

 

Class was fine. (I am good at improvising.) I’ve loved re-discovering how much the classroom agrees with me, and even beyond that, how much I like working one-on-one with someone to get their writing to a stronger, sharper place. This group is very enthusiastic and very forgiving of my tangents, which is good, because ¾ of the way through class I looked down and realized that the green pen I’d been writing lecture notes with in my notebook was still nestled in my cleavage. It had come with me even if the notebook was still back at the apartment.

 

I looked at it, plucked it from it’s resting place casually, as if I were brushing a stray hair off my shoulder, and went right on with the critique. I suppose I could have left it there and hoped no one noticed, but it was my favorite pen and I write better last-minute marginal notes with it while a critique is in progress.

 

This attitude—this ability to improvise, to not be bothered by a snafu or poorly executed phrase—this is the thing I need to embrace in lieu of perfectionism and self-protection.

 

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, yes. But also, if offered, always use the coasters.

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Can I offer you a drink?

 

 

Summer of a Dormouse

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When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating, swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.

                                       –Lord Byron, journal 7 December 1813

 

 

 

Uh oh. I’m quoting Byron. This can’t be good.

 

We’ll get there, but first, can we please talk some more about my eyes? Will you think less of me if I obsess some more about that ophthalmology appointment I had two months ago that resulted in my unfortunate bus trip and even more unfortunate selection of Frames for the Deranged? You don’t mind, do you?

 

What you need to know:

  • I have wonky eyes—one is very near-sighted, one is slightly far-sighted.
  • I have gone to the same eye doctor since I was twelve years old.
  • I am loathe to change health care providers of any sort because I like to know about them and them to know about me and for each of us to recognize the other in the Kroger parking lot. I’m small town like that.
  • I am a lover of history and tradition (well, the good traditions—not the crappy ones like sexism, racism, or no white shoes after Labor Day. This is America. You should be able to wear whatever color of shoes you want whenever you wish to do so!)
  • Did I mention I’ve gone to the same eye doctor since I was twelve?

 

Also, unrelated to eyes, you should know that Z sent me home to Indiana for two weeks because he knows that I get twitchy and growly if I am too long away from my own ones, the straight line of a Midwestern horizon, and the sound outside my window of something more natural (songbirds, cows, coyotes, whatever) instead of leaf blowers, sirens, and the domestic disputes of strangers. When I go home to Indiana, I get nostalgic. I am sometimes gripped in the vise of melancholy.

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Indiana aloft

In general, I have a lot of feelings.

 

Which is probably why—for reasons that are still a mystery to me—I found myself sitting in my old ophthalmologist’s parking lot crying big, snotty, snuffily tears that left yellow dye streaming down my cheeks because he’d just dilated my pupils.

 

I am such a mess.

 

Back in March, back in Seattle—despite the fact that I love Dr. B, the eye doctor I’ve been seeing since I was in 7th grade—I determined that it was time to get a new ophthalmologist because my eyes and I live in Seattle and because I (wrongly, it turns out) assumed that our vision insurance was only good in Washington. I wasn’t thrilled about not going to Dr. B, but I also was not thrilled with how little I could see at the bookstore or grocery because my eyes weren’t adjusting to different distances. So I made an appointment at the place where Z had gone because a) he had a good experience with a different doctor who worked there b) it was two blocks away and wouldn’t require a bus ride.

 

The new doctor was young and she seemed thorough, though she wasn’t what I would call personable. While I sat in her chair, I felt real pangs of homesickness for Dr. B. She asked me no questions and she seemed uninterested in answering any of the ones I had. She announced abruptly that I had dry eyes (I did that day—I hadn’t slept the night before but it’s not a standard condition for me), and when I questioned her about this, she shrugged and said, “Well, you have them now.”

 

And then the kicker, “It happens to women your age.”

 

There was something about the way she said “women your age” that unnerved me. In her tone was both the sense that I was 93 and thus shouldn’t expect to have well-behaved eyes at this point and also the certainness that she would never be so careless–as I had been–as to allow herself to age past 35.

 

Then she glanced over at my records, noted that I had good insurance coverage, and determined that I needed a test to confirm her dry eye diagnosis and to investigate my mismatched optic nerves. When I questioned her about the latter she said it could be nothing or it could be an indicator of something more sinister and it was worth having checked out. I thanked her for her expert opinion, scheduled the appointment for my further tests, and left with a box of complimentary eye drops.

 

All day the appointment niggled at me. I’m a fairly compliant patient. I almost always defer to the doctor’s expertise and try to do what they suggest, though I sometimes forget to comply. (I’m still not wild about the extra-strength fluoride toothpaste my dentist says I need.) But the more I thought about the dismissive way she diagnosed me, the more cheesed off I got.

 

And that side-eye she gave my insurance form before scheduling the additional tests? Hmm. That did seem dubious. The fact that she didn’t ask me if I had been suffering from allergies or sleeplessness lately before offering her diagnosis seemed like bad medicine to me too, and there was very little interest in my history and no suggestion that perhaps I should have my old records sent to her so she could see if I have, historically, mismatched optic nerves. When I got home and looked her up and discovered her special area of interest was dry eye, my dubiosity grew. After a few days of this, I canceled the appointment for further tests and decided I’d go see my old ophthalmologist next time I was in Richmond. If he said there was a problem, I’d reschedule the tests.

 

When I was twelve, I went to his partner for one visit during which I was forced into a pair of unattractive glasses because the guy insisted I “wasn’t ready” (meaning mature enough) for contacts yet. He was young and handsome, but he treated me like an ignorant kid and since I came out of the womb as a 40 year old and he knew nothing of my maturity level, I turned against him. I would come to hate the glasses, struggle with them (as in struggled with how much I hated them and how I looked in them), and am convinced that my dismissal of (bordering on hatred for) “pretty boys” stemmed from that interaction with him, his big blue eyes, and permanently feathered hair. When I went back in for a follow-up and his bearded, less hip, slow-talking partner, Dr. B., stepped in (looking like Gerry Adams only without the IRA connections), I realized I’d gotten the wrong guy; Dr. B was the one for me. I convinced my mother to let me switch permanently, and now it’s almost forty years later and he’s still my ideal eye doctor.

 

For an hour now I’ve been trying to outline for you the reasons why he has been the best eye doctor for me, but I’m failing, both because I find it indefinable and also because I have absolutely no idea why you would care.

 

I wouldn’t say he’s a guy about whom I know much or who knows much about me in a non-ocular sense. His goal always seemed to be appropriately focused on the health of my eyes and betterment of my vision and not so much winning me over with his charm. Honestly, I’ve never known if his low-toned responses to me meant that he liked me, disapproved of me, or was completely indifferent. (I was pleased in 2010 when he mentioned that he’d seen my wedding announcement in the paper. I quite liked the idea that briefly on some Sunday in the spring he was sitting at home having a cup of coffee and the Palladium-Item forced him to think about the girl with the wonky eyes that he’d been tending to for over three decades.)

 

I appreciated the way he’d come into the exam room, take the book I was reading from my hands and say—whether I was twelve, twenty, or forty—“Let me put your homework over here.” I appreciated the lozenges he sucked that clicked against his teeth as he asked me which set of letters was clearer. I appreciated the display of antique eyeglasses on the shelf that indicated he had an interest in history, and the juxtaposition of those with some children’s art of eye glasses that hung on the wall. He always told me exactly what he was going to do and he always answered my questions as if they were reasonable ones to have.

 

In college, when I admitted that I was rarely wearing my single contact (wonky eyes only need the one) because I was getting too little sleep, he shrugged and said, “Can you see okay?” I told him I thought I could and he said, “With your eyes, you don’t really need to wear that contact. One eye will fill in the gaps of the other if you don’t correct it, so if the contact bothers you, don’t wear it.”

 

I was not in trouble for bad vision behavior as I expected! Instead, I could make my own choices! Freedom!

 

While I sat in the largely unchanged waiting room a couple of weeks ago, Boz Scaggs’s song from Urban Cowboy played on the Muzak and I texted Leibovitz: it is still 1980 in Dr. B’s office—I’m listening to “Look What You’ve Done to Me. Remember when we went to see it. I think it was our first movie together. We had a volley of texts about the places in our lives where time seems to stand still.

 

Because the Muzak had transported me to a time three decades ago when I smelled perpetually of Love’s Baby Soft and my lips were greasy with Bonnie Belle lip balm, when Dr. B appeared a little later in the exam room—taking my book from me and setting it in the chair with his trademark phrase—I felt shocked to see his hair greyer and his pants worn higher. I’d heard his wife had had a spill and hurt herself and asked after her and learned she was having some other health issues that drove home the fact that time had passed.

He was older.

I was older.

Life really is only the length of a summer of dormouse.

 

The exam was like any other exam I’ve ever had. He was perhaps more careful because he knew of my concerns from the Seattle doctor, but he said, “Your eyes don’t look dry to me.” And after some photos and some pupil dilation, he said, “Your optic nerves look exactly like they always have.” I was relieved.

 

But then when I got ready to go, I had this sudden realization that Dr. B can’t be an eye doctor forever. At some point, he’s going to want to retire. And my eyes, which are aging, are, at some point, going to need to have more regular attention from someone who is geographically closer to me than Richmond, Indiana. There was a lump in my throat as I gathered my things, and then Dr. B did the most unexpected thing ever, which is this:

he hugged me.

 

So I stumbled into the lobby and paid as quickly as I could because I knew I was on the verge of a full-on, existential, snotty sob. I unlocked my car and sat there in it, honking my nose into a tissue. I finally pulled myself together, drove through the neighboring park, and had to pull over and have another round of weeping. There’s probably a word for this that I can’t think of, but it was simultaneously horrible and satisfying to be weeping in a public place while squirrels and geese loitered by my car in case I had some spare bread to toss their way.

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Opportunistic goose

I’m still not sure what all the emotion was about. We’re all getting older seemed to be a theme, but it was something else too. A goodbye to all that, maybe. I tried to explain to Leibovitz later but failed. I was never one of those divorced daughters who had “daddy issues.” I had “dad” issues, I suppose, but I was never looking for a father in all the wrong places to misquote another song from Urban Cowboy. Dr. B was not a father stand in. I had a father I saw much more regularly than I had eye exams, plus I had a stepfather, grandfathers, uncles, and filling in all those gaps heroically, I had a mother who did her job and a man’s job too, so I was okay in that department I think.

 

And yet–maybe there is something here–I’m finding as layers of people above me peel away and fly off to heaven that I miss that authority. I miss there being an adult out there somewhere who knows more than I do, who has some answers, who has a calm voice and lozenges.

 

I’m reminded late on election night last November when Leibovitz texted me and said her daughter—now in college—had said with great concern as the returns came in with different results than what we were hoping for, “What do we do now?” As in, who is in charge now?

 

We had no answers to give her because the truth is, no one. When you hit a certain age, you realize that those authorities in whom you’ve placed all of your trust, all of your belief, your sense of right? Well, they are just people.

 

Temporary arrangements.

 

Summer of a dormouse.

 

The one, less melancholy note from my experience is that while I was being escorted back to the exam room, Dr. B’s assistant looked at my new glasses and said, “Ohhh, I like your frames.” I felt vindicated for that earlier choice that seemed sub par. I’ve been wearing my glasses with more authority, pulling them off my face with aplomb, and wishing I could strut around town in them without tripping over my own feet (but they are, alas, just computer glasses and not meant for walking or strutting).

 

And then there’s this vision-related non sequitur: when I returned to Seattle, Z announced that security cameras have been installed in all the common areas of our apartment building because of some thievery or hooliganism. While I quite like the idea of Big Brother watching the Evil Doers, I’m less thrilled with the notion that if I grab Z inappropriately in an otherwise empty hallway, our building manager will see it, and Z himself admitted that he was concerned his pants would venture too far south when he was bending over to retrieve clothes out of the dryer.

 

We live in interesting times.

 

I feel lucky that while I’m living my own “downright existence” I’ve had connections–some close, some fleeting–with people who, for whatever reason, move me.

Next time, there will likely be less weeping and more complaining about heat and tourists. Brace yourselves.

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I complain, but would you look how gorgeous Puget Sound is?

Unfrozen: The Birthday Blog

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Hoosier Hinterland

I promised Z and myself that I would post one blog a month (with a plan to post more, but the one a month was non-negotiable). The only vows I’ve ever kept—other than the Girl Scout promise to try to serve God, my country, and mankind—are my wedding vows, and I am determined that I will increase that list of vow-keeping by one. All this to say, I can’t promise you that this blog will be polished, pretty, or politically palatable to you personally, but I will squeak it in under the wire so 2017 won’t be a total failure.

Our three-year-old friend Pippi has been learning about the good and bad choices a person can make and the negative consequences of said choices, and so periodically will announce to her parents with whom she is annoyed, You made a poor choice. Since hearing about this new mantra of hers, I’ve been thinking in those terms myself. Often, I apply it to other people and the poor choices they’ve made like cutting in line  or playing their music too loud in front of our buildling. But even more regularly, I apply it to myself. For instance, in yesterday’s poor choice category, I decided to put approximately 200 towels in the dryer and was surprised 54 minutes later when they were all still wet.

Z and I spent the holidays in Indiana. It was a better trip than I anticipated, in that I was worried about navigating my liberal self around my extended family and friends who have differing political views. (In case you haven’t looked up from the puppy videos on YouTube lately, this election has been so hard on relationships.) Luckily for me, magic happened on the flight to Indiana. While I was worrying the details of how I would actively attempt to maintain harmony but also not swallow my own voice, I walked through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport passing strangers and suddenly my heart was full to the brim with love for humanity. Usually, in an airport, I’m navigating people like they are traffic cones, but on this day, it was as if every person I passed had a light shining on them straight from heaven. Sure there might be a serial killer here somewhere, I thought, but on the whole, I love these people, even that guy there in the Patriots jersey.

 

And so the visit home went. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement amongst all concerned that we loved each other, wanted to do our best to maintain that warm regard, and so would avoid heated topics. In my case, I further distracted myself from the impending apocalypse with

  1. a) pain pills because of a inflamed nerve in my jaw
  2. b) grief over Carrie Fisher’s passing
  3. c) desolation at the thought that 12 days after Christmas (a.k.a. Epiphany), I would be having a birthday of a somewhat rather BIG number
  4. d) fudge

Z and I flew back to Seattle on the eve of my birthday. Though I’d been in a good enough mood while in Indiana with my mother and step-father, soaking up as much of my beloved Hoosier landscape and all the comforts of my real home, on the morning of this flight—the morning before my somewhat rather BIG birthday, I made a poor, poor choice.

I’ve got a little anxiety thing. I don’t know if it’s really a condition. It’s more of a little claustrophobia thing. A little incapable-of-calming-the-hell-down-sometimes thing. This is a middle age development that I blame on my overactive amygdala. Sometimes Z will startle me by unexpectedly rattling a potato chip bag, and I’ll let out a shriek. He’ll shake his head and tell me to calm myself and I say, “I can’t. It’s my amygdala.” It’s getting worse with age, and as such, I have to sometimes pull over into an alcove when I’m downtown because the people behind me are talking too loudly or walking on my heels or a seagull flies too close and I get agitated.

It’s a really interesting way to live your life, dodging personable seagulls. I can’t believe I used to ride roller coasters and watch scary movies for fun.

My poor choice on the day before my somewhat rather BIG birthday was when I was at the airport and consciously decided not to take one of the physician-prescribed relaxi pills that I occasionally need to quiet my mind and—since an overcrowded plane on the way home from my St. Thomas honeymoon—that I always want on any flight. (You may not be aware of this, but a plane is really just a tuna can hurtling through the sky.)

There are reasons I made this choice mostly involving a rental car at the end of our journey and a lighthearted debate that Z and I were having about who had to drive when we landed (and my desire not to be under the influence of relaxi pills since I was not the winner of the debate).

Regardless, it was a poor, poor choice.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the flight. It was a new airbus with cathedral-esque ceilings, the illusion of roominess, and fellow passengers who were well-behaved. But there wasn’t an entertainment center on the back of my seat to distract me from the tuna can nature of our travel, and the lavatory had the exact dimensions of a coffin.

And then there was an uncharacteristic set of ugly words between Z and me (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa), which left me for the rest of the flight with my ostrich pillow pulled tightly over my eyes while I cried and listened to a voice in my head on a loop that said, “your life hasn’t amounted to anything someone your age should have accomplished so much more you are a terrible wife you are a bad daughter you are hardly an adult you are an ungrateful person you’ve wasted it all”

It was harsh.

There was the added proof that I was a horrible person in that when we’d gotten on the plane, we were joined by a large tribe of people who were mentally handicapped and were on their way to Hawaii, and my first thought was not, “Oh, I’m so glad these people are having an adventure!” but instead “Oh, God. Why?” I was imagining all sorts of problems and noise and chaos during the flight. Instead, the fellow sitting across from me who had Down’s syndrome helped me find my seat belt and was chatting quietly with his seatmate, and it heightened my sense of what a shitty human being I can be.

We landed, climbed into our rental car with me behind the wheel, and within five minutes a woman had honked at me, shaken her fist, and ultimately flipped me off as she drove away in a huff, all because I had the audacity to go the speed limit and stay in my lane. As we drove up I-5 with Seattle looming on the horizon like Oz, all I could think was, I hate this place. I don’t want to live here. I hate everything about it. But then instantly I had competing thoughts of You don’t belong in Indiana anymore. You’re too liberal to fit in there. You’d have to constantly stifle your voice.

Also, You are almost quite literally a woman without a country.

There was some other inner ugliness that I will spare you, but suffice it to say, it all culminated with me trying to park a very small car in a very big parking space and failing. Z tried to give me directions, and instead, I threw up my hands, started sobbing, and said, “I can’t do this.”

I think by “this” I meant “park,” but I might have meant “live in this crowded, crowded city” or “live in Trump’s America” or “be a woman who is about to have a somewhat rather BIG birthday.” (Despite my earlier bad behavior, Z patted me and sent me indoors to crunch ice while he parked the car. And because he is fabulous, he waited until my mood lifted to point out that the rental car had a back-up camera I could have used while I was trying to get the small car in the big space.)

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Z travels with a birthday sign at the ready.

I fully expected to wake up the next day on my birthday in a similar or worse state. Now officially old. There is no way to pretend this somewhat rather BIG age is anything akin to youthful or that you have your finger on the pulse of anything (except maybe your own if it’s racing because of a seagull dive bombing you). So I anticipated waking up on January 6 with “this is the beginning of the end of my life” in my head.

Instead, there was more magic. I felt this incredible lightness. The sadist on the loop in my head had exhausted himself. (It was definitely a “he” saying all those horrible things to me the day before, fyi. It’s always a he.) It was as if the clock had ticked past the moment of my birth lo those many decades ago, and I was liberated. When you turn my somewhat rather BIG age, the truth is no one is watching you. No one really cares what you have to say. No one is trying to market anything to you except maybe term life insurance or some pharmaceuticals. No one notices that you’ve gotten rosacea and look as acne-stricken as you did at 13 mainly because no one is looking at you, full stop. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, how you look, what you think, and how you behave is of very little consequence.

This is not a bad thing. This is, maybe, one of the top ten most glorious things to ever happen to me. If no one is watching you or listening to you (or reading your blog), then my goodness, you can live your life by your own moral compass. You can say and do whatever you want . We celebrated my achievement of advanced age by spending two nights at our favorite place on Whidbey Island.

I ate pizza and we played Banana Grams and I got a cold, and it was all fine and lovely, even, in some ways, the cold.

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Almost two weeks later, Pippi’s mother had a new baby sister for Pippi: Elsa. Z and I were the first people to meet Pippi, and so we were invited to be on the first-day-of-Elsa’s-life welcoming committee. She was tiny and lovely and so completely calm in her daddy’s arms while her mother recounted the unpleasant experience of bringing her into the world. I was in awe of Elsa and how unfazed she seemed to be to have been born into this insane world at a time of uncertainty and rage. I was in more awe of her mother. I thought to myself, this is why the nations rage to control women: because women can do this thing that is more amazing than anything a man can ever do.

 

Sorry guys. It’s true. Z can open all the jars of jam in the world that I can’t unscrew myself and that is its own kind of amazing, but Pippi and Elsa’s mother? Z’s mother? My mother? That thing they do where they decide to bring life into the world and then they do it? You can’t top that.

Z and I left the hospital with big smiles on our faces at having been invited to share in the beginnings of a whole new person. A few days later, I scribbled Pippi’s and Elsa’s names—alongside the names of all the little girls and young women I love—on the back of my Princess Leia inspired sign and I took to the streets with Z beside me, waving his own sign promoting my rights. We did it for them. We did it for me. We did it for the women who came before us who should have had all of the best things and none of the worst. No matter what the critics say, we did not make a poor choice. We know this in our hearts and minds.

Happy Birthday to Elsa. Happy Birthday to me.

Elegy for the Rebel Alliance

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Because I’m from farm country where people don’t like to tempt fate by bragging about how great they feel or how well their crops are faring, we will answer vaguely when asked how we are doing with something like “fair to middling.” The most positive we can usually muster is “not bad.”

 

This drives Z crazy that I’m not naturally more positive and more willing to trust the benevolent God I profess to believe in most days. But I’m telling you, it’s in the DNA: don’t tempt fate.

 

So when people were saying at the beginning of December—prematurely, in my mind—that this year had been a bad one and they were glad it was over, I thought to myself, it isn’t over yet, people. Be careful, or this year is going to show you that you know nothing.

 

But they kept on with their proclamations as if the year were done, and now we’re supposed to head into 2017 without Carrie Fisher.

 

If I’m honest, this angers me as much as it makes me sad. In the same year I lose out on the chance of the first female president (a smart, qualified woman I admire, no less), I also have to face the specter of potential fascism—or at least a whole lot of presidential ignorance, misogyny, and bigotry—threatening to swallow my country whole without Carrie Fisher to comfort and inspire me with her sharp, wry take on it all. Couldn’t we have maybe lost one of our less treasured celebrities? Death could have ridden away with all of the Kardashians and Justin Bieber slung across the saddle of his pale horse and most of us wouldn’t have batted an eye. But Carrie Fisher? Really?

 

Screw you, 2016. Screw. You.

 

There are so many layers of Carrie Fisher that I will miss that I can’t really fathom exactly what I’ll miss most. I loved her writing. I loved her advocacy for mental health. I loved her honesty about her life both in her books and her interviews. I loved her little-known and short-lived talk show, Conversations from the Edge (and every time there was a hole in the late night talk show hosting line-up, I’d think Give it to Carrie Fisher! Carrie Fisher! But instead, we’d get more white guys because women can’t do late night hosting for some reason. Maybe because of our ovaries or something?)

 

I could write a blog post on each of these elements of her professional life. Maybe multiple blog posts on each of these even. I’m sad about the loss of her in all of the above capacities.

 

But what my brain keeps circling around tonight is Leia.

 

Leia is dead. Leia is dead. Leia is dead.

 

If it is possible to have a crush on an entire movie, in 1977, I had a crush on Star Wars. Thinking about any scene in the blockbuster gave me butterflies that summer, and the butterflies were not focused on Luke or Han or any one person. It was the whole of the movie: the jawas, the Tuskan Raiders, the droids, the landscapes, the light sabers. All of it. I thought about it a lot. I read the book. I got the action figures for Christmas. When the sequel came out three years later, having the agony of that wait finally sated was glorious.

 

I dare say I was not alone.

 

In college, I took a class structured around Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth in which there were plenty of contemporary references to Star Wars, and I discovered all of the reasons why Star Wars had captured the world’s imagination all of those years before. Essentially, the movies relied on a narrative that appears in myths throughout the ages and across cultures. We loved this movie so much because it was written in our collective unconcious.

 

My feminism at the time was in its infancy, but even so, I recognized how problematic it was for me that these myths—old and new—seemed to be about the boys. It was the hero’s journey, not the heroine’s. Women present in the journey were there only to help or hinder the male protagonist on his path: the Crone, the Temptress, Mother Nature. They had no real identities or stories of their own.

 

Later, after grad school, I would attend a seminar on the hero’s journey and when I raised the question about what a female protagonist’s journey might look like with the speaker who had written a famous book on the subject, I was met with some hemming and hawing, and then some lame correlation with a motherhood journey that annoyed me because if that’s the only journey a woman can expect to go on, it’s still all about the men: either the ones she gives birth to or the ones she lets get a leg over.

 

So I feel a little ashamed that it wasn’t until recently when Z and I re-watched the original trilogy that I began to recognize that Leia is the real hero of the movie, not Luke. It wasn’t until then that I began to imagine how much more interesting the movies would be if we’d gotten more of Leia’s story, if we’d spent more time on scenes with her instead of all those scenes with a moody Mark Hamill hanging out with Yoda in that swamp.

 

It also occurred to me how important Leia had been to me and my idea of a female protagonist, whether in fiction or on my own less interesting journey. It wasn’t until I saw her stuffing that hologram of herself into R2D2 for the hundredth time, rallying the Rebel Alliance that I could see how lucky I was to grow up with this image in my head: a princess, sure, but mostly just a woman with a smart mouth, and a smarter mind,  who wasn’t afraid to pick up a blaster if the situation called for it. She’d ask for help if she must, but she wasn’t sitting around waiting for someone to rescue her like the Disney princesses I was raised on.

 

Also, she gives, doesn’t get kisses.

 

 

 

When I hear “Princess Leia” I immediately picture that first, white-gowned Leia with the cinnamon rolls on her head and a mission on her mind: to save her people. Soldier Leia and bikini-clad Leia were of less interest to me because those versions of her were in service to someone else’s story (or fantasy—I never don’t cringe when I see her in her tiny gold bikini chained to Jabba the Hutt. The way she rescues herself is perfect, but all those moments before where she is an object to Jabba–and male viewers–are as intolerable to me as Han being frozen into a giant coffee table). Though I’ve seen arguments today about her latest incarnation as a general is her best role because she’s self-made instead of titled is problematic to me. Since we don’t get to see her earn her title, she is essentially one man’s (estranged) wife and another man’s mother.

 

 

What I’ve written here is more of an elegy for Leia Organa than it is an elegy for Carrie Fisher. True, Leia is just a character and the character is not the actor who plays her. Jody Foster was George Lucas’s second pick for Leia, and it is likely that had the stars aligned differently, none of us would have liked the movie less if we’d never known Fisher’s Leia was a possibility.

 

But that ten-year-old girl who is still alive and well inside of me? She cannot separate the two entities. It is still nearly impossible not to see all the ways that Carrie Fisher and Leia were the same person. They looked the same, sure, but more importantly, they shared that same acerbic wit. It seemed they had the same values. The same work ethic. The same need to call people out on their crap. (Possibly, they shared a similar taste in disappointing men.) Whatever be-bunned Leia did for me as a girl, Carrie Fisher as herself did for me as an adult woman.

 

They seemed to know themselves and their place in the universe inherently. You can’t really ask for a better role model for a ten-year-old girl or a middle-aged woman. At a time when girls were still being praised for good behavior, having someone to look up to on the big screen who would rebel against injustice was important. It’s still important.

 

So this is me, begging you not to taunt 2016 in it’s remaining three days. The year is not over. We can’t afford any other significant losses. We need our light bearers, our rebels, our artists to help us face whatever is in front of us.

 

Leia is dead. Leia is dead. Leia is dead.

 

 

 

In Dog Time

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The dark clouds keep hanging, don’t they? They have been in the city anyhow. The mood has not lifted for weeks, and as the marches and protests have lessened, there’s only the heavy feeling of resignation in their place.

 

For Thanksgiving, Z and I rode the bus to a friend’s house for a pleasant celebration and while we were there, the rain was pelting the house, some WWII big band music was on the radio, and I had this idea of what it must have been like in 1942 when Americans were fighting a war. What a great comfort that must have been to sit by a warm fire, listen to music, talk with good friends.

 

Then the evening was over and Z and I had to slog up a few blocks of a hill to get to the bus stop in a drenching rain, and as I walked past the little Craftsman bungalows with lights burning on dry interiors and where cars were parked in driveways and none of the inhabitants had to stand in the rain waiting for a bus, I thought some really uncharitable four-letter thoughts about those people.

 

So much for feeling gratitude.

 

Dogs and dog metaphors are my solace these days. My daily joy is when I leave the house between 5 and 6 in the evening to walk up to campus to meet Z. If you are a dog person who is without a dog, can I recommend walking in a city neighborhood between 4:30 and 6:30 when the dogs are being walked and all those tails are wagging?

 

You can have your sunrise or your sunset, but Dog Time is the best time.

 

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Mac, with snow nose.

A few weeks ago when I was feeling particularly blue, I ran into Higgins and his mom. Higgins is a Scottish terrier who reminds me of Mac. Like most Scotties, he’s not particularly interested in giving me more than a cursory greeting when there are bushes to sniff and vermin to patrol, so his mother and I say a couple of pleasantries to each other and then walk on. But the sight of him lifts my spirits just as much as a nuzzle from a more people-focused dog.

 

Z and I don’t have a dog for reasons that seem clear on some days and less so on others. This month it has seemed like a bad, bad idea to live a dogless life. I’ve followed so many dog groups and pages on Facebook that there are now more pictures of strangers’ dogs on my feed than there are of people I know.

 

The practical reasons we don’t have a dog for me are that we travel a lot and don’t have the disposable income right now to spend on a chic Seattle doggie retreat. The practical reasons for Z are that we have no yard and he suspects (probably rightly so) that I would not be the one popping up early in the morning to walk the dog in the rain. Also, Zimbabwean dogs are outside dogs and Z is not entirely on board with the way Americans push them around in strollers and dress them up like children. No matter how much I promise not to do these things, he doesn’t believe me.

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

We do have imaginary dogs: a Scottish terrier named Finley and an English bulldog, like the ones Z’s family raised when he was a kid, named Luigi. We have conversations about how we will train them, what our policies will be in off-leash dog parks, and whether or not we’ll let them eat table scraps. I do online searches about whether bulldogs and Scotties even like each other, but these dogs of ours, much like our imaginary children, are perfect: well behaved, best friends, come when called, and are terribly clever.

 

This next part is not a dog story, though it is about good behavior.

 

When I was an adolescent, Mom had one of those new-fangled decorative write-on-wipe-off memo boards on which she had written the Janis Joplin line, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” I studied this for ages. All of those “yous” seemed inelegant to me, plus I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant or what my divorced, hard-working mother was warning herself against. Eleven-year-old me understood the concept of having to compromise between two ideas or two desires and settle on something in the middle that is mediocre. I understood having to compromise to get along with my gaggle of boy cousins, who always seemed to want to be outdoors when all I wanted to do was stay inside playing with our Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman dolls. (That compromise usually looked like me doing what they wanted because there were more of them and I was the only girl until I was ten.)

 

But I wondered, how do you compromise yourself?

 

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Mac and Lilly, being themselves on a ramble.

Because I’m from the Midwest, I am “nice.” Or I have a nice veneer anyhow. As I’ve written about before, to be Midwestern—at least from my perspective—is to get along with those you encounter, to smile when they say something you disagree with (or make a joke of it at the very least), to purposely not hear them when they say something rude or bigoted or misogynistic, to help someone move house with a smile on your face even though you’d rather be doing just about anything else with your Saturday, and periodically, you have to pretend that watching some truly untalented kids play T-ball in a cornfield on a sweltering evening is as good as life gets.

 

Is this a compromise, this good behavior? To tell these little lies, is that compromising myself?

 

I ask, because I’m heading to Indiana this weekend for the holidays. For the last few weeks, I’ve been walking around Seattle with the equivalent of an ACME safe hanging over my head, but it’s easy enough to feel a kinship with the people here whose paths I cross because I can see—sometimes almost literally because of their gender or skin color or disability—that they too have ACME safes over their heads as well. But I don’t know what I’m going to see or how I’m going to feel when I get home surrounded by people who don’t think they have ACME safes over their heads. Will the nice kick in? Will I growl at them? Will I hide in the house and go the Emily Dickinson route?

 

Once when I was a child I was at the Indianapolis Art Museum in the Impressionist gallery, and Mom and the adults we were with had moved ahead. I was hanging back, mesmerized by a small bronze sculpture, a figure of a person. I reached out and touched the toe. It was so beautiful and full of mystery. In an instant, a very businesslike (but not unkind) security guard walked past me and said, “Please don’t touch the art.” My hands snapped like I’d touched a hot stove, and I clutched them behind my back for the rest of the visit, afraid that I’d get mesmerized by another sculpture or painting. I was mortified that I’d misbehaved in this cathedral of culture. I didn’t even confess my sin to Mom.

 

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Future art toucher with Ting the Pekingese.

I tell you this so you’ll know that I know how to behave in an art museum. I am quiet. I touch nothing. I keep my critical comments to myself if anyone is within earshot.

 

This fall while Mom was here, we made our way to the convention center, which has rotating artwork lining the halls of the open third floor. As luck would have it, it was my favorite exhibit that comes around yearly of children’s book illustrations.

 

The Washington State Convention Center is no art museum. It’s often full of tourists and conference goers or people like me who primarily use it because the escalators make a trip from downtown up to First Hill effortless. Most other people there are oblivious of the artwork as they crowd their way from one conference session to another. The day we went it was relatively empty, so we could linger where we wanted without bothering anyone or being bothered by others.

 

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Bubbles of Zimbabwe

All of the art is easily accessible with the exception of two short sections where there is a ramp with handrails. The incline is almost non-existent and I suspect the handrails are there purely as decoration, in case there is a lawsuit should someone fall. On the one side of the floor, Mom and I both stepped behind the railing so we could look more closely at brushstrokes and signatures. On the other side, just as I popped behind the handrail, the security guard—who sits on a stool by the restroom to make sure only conference attendees use the toilets there—told me I wasn’t allowed behind the rail.

 

I popped out obediently, but I looked around the expanse of the third floor with an eyebrow raised and asked her why not. What was so special about these five pictures that I couldn’t get as up-close to them as I could the others? I happily follow rules if they make sense, but this was senseless.

 

She settled onto her stool to tell me in great detail why. Two sentences in, it dawned on me she wasn’t a docent and the longer she talked, the more apparent it became that  everything she said was made-up. There was no logic involved, so I started to walk away. She raised her voice, calling me back sharply, “Do you want to know the reason or don’t you?” It was said in that voice that a couple of really officious teacher’s aides had used when I was in elementary school, as they tried to cow us into submission even though they knew (and we knew) they had no real authority over us.

 

I said, “Sure,” but I could NOT bring myself to turn my face or my attention back to her. What she was saying was boring and nonsensical. I let out a single non-committal noise, which she could interpret as understanding if she chose (but which secretly meant, “please shut up; you’re talking crap”). Finally, she was quiet and I moved on to the next set of rail-less illustrations.

 

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Mac & Luther, best buddies, would have sniffed beyond the handrail.

Mom was ten paintings behind me, and I heard the woman say something to her like, “That’s okay. I get it all the time.” Later, Mom insisted the woman was responding to Mom’s “thank you” and that she had not apologized for me. To the best of my knowledge, Mom has only ever lied to me about Santa Clause, so I’m forced to believe her. But when I heard that woman speak to my mother in that tired, nobody-respects-me voice, my face flamed and I felt nauseous because I knew—regardless of what Mom had said or what the toilet monitor was referring to—that I had embarrassed Mom with my rudeness. The Beth she raised is a person who would nod her head, do as she was told, and smile politely even if she knew she was right and the speaker was wrong. That Beth was raised to bite her tongue while ill-behaved children mistreated her toys. That Beth was raised to be, above all else, polite. I didn’t have to perform song and dance numbers for people. I didn’t have to eat vegetables. I had next to no chores. My single job as I was growing up was to be well-behaved, a guide that until now has served me well.

 

Yet here I was, a middle-aged woman, being shirty with a woman whose job monitoring the public toilets of Seattle could not have been pleasant.

 

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Seattle Irish Wolfhound, perhaps the most dignified dog on Earth.

Later, I made some excuse for myself to Mom about how living in the city has started stripping away my manners. That when you are daily surrounded by so many people who want to talk over you, cut into a line in front of you, hoot their horns because they think they know best how you should be driving your car or crossing a street, you lose the nice.

 

But probably the stripping away began before I moved to Seattle.

 

Several years ago a friend told me I wasn’t as nice as I thought I was. I can’t remember what it was in reference to, but it took me aback. This was in the days before therapy when my default setting was “how can I be the person who will most please you?” instead of being myself. I never thought of myself then as “nice” but certainly as someone who tried to give people the version of me that they most seemed to want. Slowly, layers of façade came off over years of talking to a shrink. Some people didn’t notice. Others did and didn’t like it.

 

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Man and dog in Central Park, big rain, no dark clouds.

So here I stand at the tail end of my own annus horribilis. No, my palace didn’t burn down, but it has been a year full to the brim with medical bills I didn’t ask for, a family health crisis that was terrifying, dead celebrities I’m missing, humans being ungodly to each other across the globe, Native Americans having to withstand tear gas and rubber bullets to protect their own water, forest fires raging in one of my favorite spots in Appalachia, a country—my country—making my husband feel unwelcome and my brother feel unsafe, and a president-elect who demonstrates with his own mouth and fingers the worst human qualities on a daily basis. And what I’m finding because of this year is that the last layer of that Midwestern filter has been peeled away.

 

After having talked to other female friends, I’ve learned that I am not alone in this. One friend who rarely cusses can’t keep the profanity inside herself. Another told me she’s done being bossed around by people or forced to rise to their expectations of her as a woman. A third, who has never been a gun nut, is seriously thinking about buying a firearm because she’s tired of not being taken seriously and thinks her state’s open-carry law might make her words have more weight. Others felt rifts around their family Thanksgiving table that they aren’t sure will ever be repairable.

 

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Hoosier Shepherd

My friends and I are being gentle with each other, but to the outside world, we are less so. At the very least, we are wary and self-protective.

 

So this trip to the heartland is going to be interesting. I’ve never been in Indiana without the bit of “nice” jammed between my teeth. Will I growl at people? Nip at their hands? Stick my head under the sofa with my backend to the world? Or will I fall back into old patterns without meaning to? Who knows.

 

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This is not a dog, but the same principle applies.

What I’m hoping for is to find some dogs to spend time with because the only real light I’ve gleaned from the world in the last three weeks (especially since the Gilmore Girls reunion was a little disappointing) is that dogs are always just 100% themselves. They don’t put on airs. They’re great judges of character. They are completely oblivious to politics. No one is their president.

 

They’re just content to be.

 

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Scottie puppy, Salthill Prom, Galway

I’m going to try to be. To enjoy my mother who knows my heart and shares my sadness, who gave me the twin messages of the importance of good behavior and not compromising yourself, and now the two are duking it out.

 

There might be some misbehavior. There might not. But right now, it’s Dog Time.

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Be forewarned: this is what a tantrum from me could look like.

 

 

Two Dreams Diverged

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Z is hounding me that October is almost over and I haven’t written a single blog this month. Not a word about my two weeks back in Indiana in September, Mom’s three week visit to Seattle, nor a week-long interlude with July, who we haven’t seen since this time last year when we descended on her cozy home in Wales. Nor have I mentioned Z’s birthday this week.

I also haven’t coughed up a sentence about how this is pretty much my favorite time of year from mid-September through my own birthday in January, and how though I generally find Pacific Northwest autumns subpar when compared to Indiana, it’s been stellar out here this year.

Nope, you’ve gotten bupkis from me. I’m beginning to feel guilty at night when I look over and see Z re-reading old blogs of mine, refreshing his browser, as if his wife in an alternate universe—the wife who is more productive, less anxiety-ridden, more inclined to clean and have a regular skincare regime—might have produced a nugget or two for him to read. (I just know that alternate-universe wife of his has a VERY popular blog that has a bajillion followers, just signed a three-book deal, and would not have banished half of his Zimbabwe-inspired art to his office. I also suspect she makes her own pie crusts, uses one of those plastic exercise balls to keep herself Olympically limber, and never takes a bad pic. I hate her.)

Even when I’m not blogging, I email Jane regularly about my joys and concerns of the day. She is the kind of friend who actually listens to me and tries to help me figure out what my really real (read: multi-dimensional/fully sensory/non-grainy) dreams mean, but her hot water heater is busted and I don’t want to bother her right now while she’s bathing with bottles of Aquafina and wet wipes.

So instead, I’m going to tell you about my dream analysis problems. Lucky, lucky you!

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Last night, I dreamed Sandra Bullock had died and somehow I had gained custody of her son Louis. In the dream, he was just a toddler. In the dream, I didn’t know Sandra Bullock any better than I do in real life, which is to say not at all. I’m not sure how the kid ended up in my arms. I like her as much as everyone else in the world does. A couple of her movies are my favorites, but I’ll probably never watch Speed or Miss Congeniality 2, so I’m not like a Kathy Bates style #1 fan. A few months ago I was happy enough to read a cast-off People about how she loves being a mother to Louis and his new sister, but it’s unclear why her “death” featured in my dream or how I got saddled with her little son.

For the record, I did feel terribly sad that she’d died because she seems like a genuinely decent human, and I was relieved to wake up and realize she’s still out there raising her kids and donating her millions to worthy causes.

Anyhow, I was carrying Dream Louis around the house, wondering what to do. He was upset and I was upset: poor Sandra, poor kid, poor me. Even dream Beth seemed to know she wasn’t equipped for instant motherhood. There is no What to Expect When You Suddenly Become the Guardian of Sandra Bullock’s Toddler for sale on Amazon, so I couldn’t bone up on what to do. I was wiping away his tears and shoving food in his mouth and jiggling him around in a manner meant to be soothing. But also, I was pacing because I knew Child Protective Services was headed to the house and if it seemed like anything about me wasn’t legit, then they’d take this kid away from me. Despite concerns about whether I could rear him appropriately and how his presence was going to alter my daily life, I suspected that I’d be a better mother to him than some arbitrary person. Particularly a person who may or may not love While You Were Sleeping as much as I do. (Seriously, y’all can have your White Christmas and your It’s a Wonderful Life, but if I don’t get to see While You Were Sleeping every December, I feel like a major strand of lights has gone out on the tree.)

In the dream, I was frantic to paint a picture of serene maternity as the authorities pulled up to the house. I wanted to look capable, confident, and like Louis and I already had a unique bond. So I asked Dream Louis what he wanted me to call him— like a special nickname between us—and he said quite clearly in his little toddler voice, “Carrington.”

I’ve never written “WTF” in a blog before because I like to keep things halfway wholesome in the public domain, but surely this is an instance that deserves it.

WTF.

Just as I was thinking, “This kid does NOT look like a Carrington. He’s got to come up with something better,” Z’s alarm went off, so I have no idea how it all turned out. Was I allowed to keep Louis/Carrington? Did I rise to the occasion like Sandra Bullock in Blind Side and make sure my young charge graduated from high school and went on to college? Would there be any money rolling in from the Bullock estate to help me raise this kid or was he going to have to get used to a lower standard of living, maybe eating the off-brand cereal and having a homemade Superman costume instead of a real one this Halloween?

Elements of the dream possibly worth exploring: motherhood, babies, Carrington.

Though there have been points in my life where I hungered to be a mother, this is not one of those times. There are a few small children I’m personally smitten with, but on the whole, I’m quite happy with my child-free life and the easy access I have to my non baby-proofed electrical sockets and cabinets full of poison.

So I don’t think this is about babies and the impending fossilization of my own womb.

In the mid 1990s during my “depressive” stage, I was briefly obsessed with Dora Carrington when the movie about her starring Emma Thompson came out. I read books. Studied her art. Felt cross that she wasn’t quite in the inner sanctum of the Bloomsbury group despite loving Lytton Strachey quite literally to the death. (One of the only times I haven’t liked Virginia Woolf was when I read something in her diary about Carrington that lacked compassion.) Two books about Carrington are sitting on the shelf by my desk here in my studio, but they are in the extra dusty upper reaches and are never taken down.

I suppose I did sort of date a guy in high school who turned out to be gay, but I wouldn’t have killed myself over him a la Carrington and I’ve never worn jodhpurs like her, so I don’t think this dream was about Carrington either.

I’m at a loss. It was all so real. Louis’s breath in my ear was kind of sweet and snotty because he’d been crying so hard and my arm hurt from the weight of him. My subconscious might have given me one of those “real” dreams to help me with something I’ve been struggling with (writing, geography, existential questions), but I’m not Robert Langdon and thus can’t decipher my own personal Da Vinci Code.

Hopefully Jane’s water heater will be fixed soon.

In the category of dreams becoming reality, it’s Z’s and my 10th anniversary of love today. If you’ve read this blog before or come within a mile of me, you already know our story, but it’s my favorite and all roads seem to lead to it eventually. (And why shouldn’t I prefer it to all others?)

Because it’s close to Halloween, I’ll tell you the extra eerie, woooooooo elements I sometimes leave out.

We met in the fall of 2001 when he was new faculty where I was teaching. We were at a faculty party, I saw him, felt the love instantly in a way I previously thought was entirely made up, and drove straight to Leibovitz’s house to say, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.” Over the following weeks, I gave him a battery of personality tests and listened carefully for him to say something that would put me off him forever, making special note that his delicious accent might well make something truly intolerable sound acceptable. He only ever said delightful and funny things though, and when he went home to Zimbabwe for the holidays, he left a message on my voicemail: “I’m just calling to say ‘banana,’” because I’d told him how much I’d miss hearing him say that while he was away. I played it for any friend or relative who would listen: all agreed, his accent was exquisite, and surely he must be flirting back to leave such a message.

This is not the wooooooo part, fyi.

He wasn’t flirting. For the next two years we were together almost every day—after work, having dinner, going to movies, shopping—but I made no headway and was choking on my love. Finally, a few days before he left to go back to Zimbabwe for good, I screwed up my courage and told him how I felt, vowing that I didn’t care where he went, I wanted to be with him.

(Note: I’m hoping this vow is not legally binding because we once stayed at a truly deplorable motel at Plymouth Rock and if he decided to take up residence there, we’d probably have to live apart. It was disgusting and the smell of the moldy carpet is still living somewhere in one of my olfactory receptors.)

He was kind when he said he didn’t feel the same way and that he’d always consider me his friend.

Later that day, I had a spiritual experience that I’m not recounting here because believers will say how could you ever doubt that you’d end up with him eventually after that? and cynics will say your brain simply invented that so you’d be comforted. Suffice it to say, while I had a sort of knowing that Z and I would end up together eventually, I was also full of doubt. Over the years, my brain has concocted a considerable amount of bullshit that did not ever come to fruition, so while I hung on to the possibility that maybe eventually we’d be together, I was pragmatic enough to know I needed to get on with my life in the meantime.

The next day, I dropped Z off at the airport, unsure when or if I’d see him again. I sniffed his neck when I hugged him goodbye and sent him on his way. I cried all the way home, stopped at the reservoir to collect myself and was greeted by a gaggle of goslings, waddling up the hill, which seemed to speak to all sorts of hope.

But none of this is really the weird, other-worldly part.

When he was teenager, he was an extra in a crowded market scene in that Richard Chamberlain-Sharon Stone “masterpiece,” King Solomon’s Mines. We’d watched it one night in his flat, and he pointed out the two very brief shots where he is in the background. He is playing the role of “European riffraff” and when there’s a kerfuffle in market scene involving the stars, the camera pans the crowd and there is Z—brows furrowed—as he looks to see what is going on.

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Z and friend, on set but not scowling.

The night he left for good, I went home and moped around the house like you do. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but if the movies are to be believed, I probably cried and ate a carton of ice cream. What I do remember is that I couldn’t get to sleep that night, so I turned on the TV. What was on the exact channel the TV was tuned to? King Solomon’s Mines. Whose face was staring at me a second later, brow furrowed?

Until I’d met him, I’d never seen the movie, and I have never seen it airing on cable since. But there it was, and there he was, peering at me from the big screen, daring me to try to forget about him.

But wait, there’s more. Woooooooo.

Two months later, my brother and I went to Ireland to celebrate his 21st birthday. It seemed a good way for me to distract myself from the terrible ache of life post Z. We saw nearly the whole of the Republic in something like six days and we had a good time. He was several years younger than me and, I could only assume, not that interested in the quality of his big sister’s broken heart. I wasn’t inclined to point out to him that I’d just passed a hamburger joint with Z’s first name in neon just as I was thinking of him, nor did I mention the irony of the rugby poster above our heads in Temple Bar that said “Ireland vs. Zimbabwe” just as we were having a conversation with a couple about rugby. My brain was filled with the photos and stories Z had shared about his own rugby days, but I didn’t say a word. Surely to goodness these were all signs from on high that Z was back in Africa, realizing he loved me.

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Stevie Nix & I keep our crystal visions to ourselves. Unless one of us decides to blog.

The night of my brother’s actual birthday, he was deep in his cups at the pub and I was tired and didn’t want to bring down the mood, so I left him dancing with a Scandinavian woman and went back to our hotel room where there was little to distract me from my thoughts. There was a tiny TV with bad reception that had sound on only one channel. Sadly, the channel with sound was playing a spooky old black and white movie starring one of those cadaverous actors like Peter Cushing. I was not interested in the plot but the company was nice and distracted me from the idea of Z. As I settled in to lose myself in a mindless scary movie, in his creepiest voice, Peter Cushing said Z’s very obscure and completely rare last name in reference to a developing situation with the occult.

I’ll grant you, the hamburger joint with his first name was just wishful thinking on my part. And the rugby poster with Zimbabwe written on it was probably a coincidence. But Peter Cushing in a movie I would NEVER have watched had there been even one other working channel on an otherwise soundless TV saying Z’s surname that if Googled produces only results for Z and a guy from Sweden?

Imagine some eerie music right here, would you?

If, three years later, Z had not come to his senses, then these would just be unfortunate coincidences, but because he did, I can only see it as messages from the divine or as an unbelievable plot device should I ever turn this into a novel.

All this week I’ve been forcing Z to remember how I arrived in Seattle right before his birthday in 2006, reminding him where we ate meals, where we walked on Alki Beach and badgering him about why he didn’t say right then how he felt. “Shame you slept on that foam egg crate all those nights in your living room and left me by myself in your bed,” I’ll say. And then I’ll pester him about why he let almost all the days of my visit go before he told me his feelings had changed.

Poor, poor Z. When I declared myself in 2003 (after two years of suffering in obsessed silence), IF ONLY he had gotten on board with my plan for his future he would have saved himself all of this future grief, wherein I force him to remember all of that wasted times. Total strangers on the interwebz would not be reading about his hesitancy. My friends who marvel at the quality of our rightness together now would not say to him, “What were you thinking? Why the delay?”

I’m insufferable on this count, and he’s a trooper. He’s put up with the teasing and the ribbing for a decade now. Though please note, he never will say, “You were right, Baby. I was SO wrong.” Instead, he says, “Things happened as they were supposed to.”

Possibly if he said he was wrong I might relent. Or possibly not.

Anyhow, today is the anniversary of the night we went to the Quarter Lounge around the corner from his apartment (and which you can see for yourself in the opening episode of Man in the High Castle—a First Hill claim to fame) and we had too much to drink and we were both being more honest than perhaps we had previously been, and soon enough he said what he said about us needing to be together, and I slammed down my hand on the table and said, “I KNEW I was right!” in a truly insufferable way (and so unlike how Sandra Bullock would respond as a romantic heroine).

This was not a cinematic climax to a love story with ocean waves breaking over rocks in the background as he wrapped me in a passionate embrace. Instead, something like “Play that Funky Music” or “Back in Black” was on the jukebox and I excused myself to the women’s room where I looked in the mirror at my red, bleary face and then did an honest-to-God happy dance with my arms raised in victory. Probably you will never see the story of our love on the big screen because of these details.

I may be incapable of deciphering my dream about Louis Bullock, but this Z dream of mine? The visions? The coincidental placement of rugby posters and hamburger joints? The late night TV programming of both America and Ireland? All those signs pointed to “yes” and that has made all the difference.

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Politics and Religion

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Whitewater United Methodist Church (Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)

 

Midwesterners often live by the adage that you should never talk about politics or religion. If we don’t live by it, we’ve heard it enough and have probably kicked ourselves at least once for bringing either topic up in “mixed company” only to have the conversation fall flat or get heated in un-enjoyable ways. Were I a better arguer, then maybe I’d love the challenge of heated debate or see such discourse as entertaining, educational or satisfying.

 

But I’m not.

 

I don’t enjoy strife. Z once got in an argument with a peace protestor by Westlake Center, and I skedaddled half a block away from him so I could avoid hearing whatever words he shared with the tired-looking woman with the “Give peace a chance” sign scribbled on cardboard. I’m not sure what I was afraid of: Z is not rude OR hawkish, but he does like clarity and finds idealistic platitudes useless and so wanted to know what giving peace a chance looked like to her in regard to the quagmire the Middle East had become. Still, I didn’t want to hear their words even if it was a pleasant exchange.

 

Were it not unseemly for an adult person to put her fingers in her ears and sing “la la la la” whenever there is a disagreement, I would do it.

 

At home in Indiana, I basically know the rules. I can have a religious or political discussion with a good friend who I already know basically believes what I believe. I know that with my extended family or friends who have differing beliefs, we can ignore uncomfortable topics (the best choice, really) or, if we are feeling brave, each say one conflicting thing politely to the other before we start talking about something innocuous like pie. The objective of these exchanges is that everyone knows there is no ill-will even if someone’s belief system is faulty. The closest I ever got to a political argument was when my uncle, the farmer, sputtered about how difficult the EPA was making his life re: what weed killer he could use on his crops, as if somehow my first-ever vote in the presidential election of 1992 a few months before had caused his headache. Of course even this wasn’t an argument. My uncle said his piece and I said, “Hmmm. I hadn’t considered that,” and then the subject got changed, though neither of our minds did.

 

But this political cycle is like the beast from the Book of Revelation, thrashing around, wreaking havoc where previously there were harmonious relationships. Usually, during the primary season, people who are not on the podium are relatively civil to each other as they try to figure out who would best lead their party of preference. They say things like, I don’t know, I kind of like the look of _______. Have you listened to him? and they save the ugliness for the second half of the year when they want to tear the opposition from limb to limb. But with the help of social media and everyone’s lack of tolerance and increased righteous indignation, this has been the some of the most stress-inducing six months of 2016 (and I’m  including the parts of the year where beloved pop icons died of drug overdoses, terrorists killed people trying to have a good time/do a hard day’s work, and my mother had a stem-cell transplant). One political party has almost completely imploded and the other has turned against itself like one of the more grizzly battle scenes from Game of Thrones.

 

Most of these battles are being fought in the media or on social media. Certainly, my own shouting fits and blood pressure spikes have only come from Facebook feeds and comments sections and not from any “real” interactions with humans. I don’t want to suggest that before Facebook was a regular part of our lives that we were a polite and genteel culture, but surely we’ve gotten ruder, haven’t we? And more full of ourselves? More certain that we are right and if we say something over and over enough times, everyone else will eventually be forced to agree with us because our logic and our words are so superior? Also, I’m not sure what convinced us all that our opinions actually matter and must be heard, like we’ll shrivel up and die Wicked Witch of the West style if we don’t speak our minds.

 

There’s got to be some diagnosis in the DSM-V that explains this lunacy.

 

A couple of weeks ago while I was talking to Mom on the phone, her call waiting went off and she came back, a bit breathless, and said that the church was on fire and she and my stepdad had to go. I sat around the rest of the afternoon feeling like I was waiting on a health report from someone who’d been rushed to the ER. The church is in the middle of the countryside and I knew the prognosis probably wasn’t good; it takes time for firefighters to do their job when they’re called in from the small neighboring towns and villages miles away. Later that night when she reported that the church was still standing but charred on the inside nearly beyond recognition and likely a lost cause, and later still when the photos rolled in, I cried. It felt like a family member had died.

 

I haven’t been in that little white church for probably two decades, and I haven’t attended services there since I was 19, but I always imagined it would be available to me. It is the oldest Methodist church in Indiana, nestled on the outskirts of a teeny village in the country, started at the time of circuit riders. It’s the church my mother and I started attending right after my maternal grandfather died unexpectedly and we were trying to find our way in the world without our patriarch. The church we started attending just before she and my stepdad started dating. It’s the church my great-grandmother went to and the church my great-great-grandparents attended. One particularly hot Sunday morning when I was bored during a sermon, I looked out the opened stained-glass window at the field behind the church and I could imagine the generations before me sitting there, so much hotter in their long dresses and suits, staring out the same window, their horses tied up outside, shuffling feet and nickering.

 

For me, the church was a source of great love and great conflict. Any church for me is that way, really, but this is the church where I came of age and where I first felt those tugs in opposing directions. I longed to belong, but never fully did. I was a divorced kid in a congregation that mostly wasn’t. I was an introvert in a congregation that, it seemed to me, preferred people not too timid to stand up and perform some service. I was living in the city and everyone else was from the country. I played the piano briefly when we lost our much more accomplished accompanist, but I wasn’t really a musician, so even that didn’t feel like the right fit. Plus, I’d spent more Sundays in mass with my father’s family than in a Protestant church until that time, so while I liked the deviations from the script that the Methodist minister took for dramatic effect or because he felt spiritually led to do so, I missed the comfort of the ceremony, beauty, and sameness offered at the Catholic Church.

 

There was an awful lot of politics in the church. People who thought they ran things. Other people who did a lot of the daily maintenance that kept the church running but got none (and asked for none) of the credit and had none of the say. People who had strong opinions about what the youth of the church should or shouldn’t be doing. People who had opinions if you skipped church to go to a Cincinnati Reds game. People who assumed that because you went there you must believe exactly how they believed and vote exactly how they voted. I’d feel crabby some Sundays, but then as the service came to a close we’d all stand to sing the doxology, say our goodbyes, and before getting into our cars and heading home, a sort of peace would descend that felt an awful lot like belonging. Like maybe despite the differences, we were all on the same team. And we were. If someone was in crisis, there were the prayers, the casseroles, the quiet concern.

 

In retrospect, I suspect I was just an emerging feminist trying to figure out what exactly my place was in an institution—or, at least, certainly a little country church—that liked it best when a person fit into a role. Though no one expressly told me my role was to be a good girl until I was a wife and mother or that I shouldn’t be overly interested in the leaders of the Women’s Movement or worldly concerns, it seemed to me that that was the track I was supposed to be on: one that didn’t ask too many questions, shake too many boats, or rattle any cages. So what to do with the secret knowledge that I spent as many Sundays in the sanctuary thinking lewd thoughts as I did concentrating on God? What to do when I felt cantankerous when someone made a request of me about performing some activity (lighting candles, speaking on behalf of the youth group in front of all those people, babysitting in the nursery) that I didn’t want to do? As a female, shouldn’t I be compliant and happily subservient? What to do with the realization that while I wanted to be one kind of person (a good, church-going, rule-following woman who read mostly Christian books and listened mostly to Christian music and shied away from anything too earthly), I also wanted to be myself (someone who devoured all texts, dipped toes into a variety of musical genres, and maybe rubbed up next to a boy I might not marry).

 

I never did make peace with that quandary, but eventually, my desire not to feel controlled outweighed my desire to conform.

 

I’m not sure what my little country church has to do with the 2016 election except on Facebook I read today that I can’t be a Christian if I vote for a Clinton and I also hear regularly in Seattle and online that if I were really a humanitarian—and surely that’s what Jesus was—then I would have chosen Sanders and not a “criminal” as my candidate. My “favorite” criticism this year has been the implication that by voting for a woman, I’m clearly making my choice based solely on our shared gender and have not relied on logic. As if I’m too feather-brained to realize I shouldn’t vote for someone for whom I hadn’t done some research and weighed the options.

 

All of that external judgment shares the same quadrant of my brain as my earlier internal conflicts in church. To be good? To be unapologetically myself? It isn’t lost on me that I’m still just as conflicted about being “good” and getting approval now as I was then, but also just as determined to be true to my own beliefs. The best example of this conflict hashing itself out is my choice this election season to wear a tiny, dime-sized button with a vivid pop-art picture of Clinton’s face that I pin on my purse and can cover up with my hand if I know the person viewing it will get too riled up. I’m not proud of this compromise, but it’s a good Midwestern coping mechanism as deeply ingrained as my need to be viewed as good and my desire to be an independent entity.

 

When I was home this winter, my stepdad would return from Sunday services, and I’d want to hear the news. The church, which was ten times larger when I went there, had dwindled down to a congregation smaller than ten and there’d been talk of closing. When I imagined it in February, I didn’t picture a tiny congregation of which my seventy-year-old stepdad was the youngest member. When I imagine it today, I don’t picture its now-charred remains. Instead, I imagine it when I was 16: people in every pew, friends of mine lighting the candles up front and our plans for the evening’s youth group activity being written about on the week’s program, my step-grandfather leading the singing as my step-grandmother plays the organ or piano, a message I’m half listening to while staring out the window or trying to catch the eye of a guy I have a crush on, maybe communion, an offering, another prayer, the smell of thousands of earlier church services, the doxology that ended it all so well (and that maybe we should be singing to each other now until after November to remember we’re all on the same human team): God be with you ‘til we meet again/by His counsels guide uphold you/With His sheep securely fold you/God be with you ‘til we meet again.

 

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(Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)

 

 

 

Hoosier Ecclesiastes

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For the last ten weeks, I’ve been in Indiana, sleeping in the bedroom of my girlhood home while my mother recuperated from a stem cell transplant. It’s a pretty scary and significant medical ordeal if you are unfamiliar with it, but she was in good hands at IU Health in Indianapolis. The day my stepfather and I brought her home with her brand new immune system I felt like I got a teensy inkling of how nerve-wracking it must be to bring a baby home from the hospital for the first time. Everything seemed like a danger. I got on Facebook and threatened to taze anyone who stopped  to see her or even thought about breathing their germy breaths on her. I fielded all calls because she didn’t have the energy to answer. (A bath would require a two-hour nap afterward, so there was no bonus energy for entertaining even her favorite people.) I stayed away from everyone myself—even perfectly healthy friends—because I was afraid I’d catch some bug  and give it to Mom.

 

I did my best to assure her that she’d feel like herself again eventually—as the doctors had promised—even though I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and Mom clearly knew it. Also, the Domestic Arts are not really in my skill set. I rubbed all knobs and switches with antibacterial wipes as if I were sprinkling the house with holy water. I had to try to figure out what food would taste good to her, and then felt like a failure (but also slightly relieved because it required no cooking) that the main thing that she could tolerate was Cherry Garcia. There was the ER trip after she broke out in hives for no good reason and the ensuing fear that she was rejecting a platelet transfusion. There was the frustration of her not acting quite like herself—no interest in TV, in conversation, in reading—and worrying that my “real” mother would never come back. There was the night my step-dad ended up in the ER and then the hospital for a few days and I felt torn between which parental unit I should be with—there’s the true curse of the Only Child…there’s only the one of you to go around.

 

Then there was the date of my return ticket to Seattle at the end of three weeks and my sense of impending failure: what sort of daughter leaves her mother to answer her own phone, fend off visitors, and go to a germy grocery to buy her own Cherry Garcia? I’ve never completely come to terms with the normal guilt I feel from moving to the other side of the country, but now? Ugh. At night when when I was alone in the bedroom of my teens, I’d feel cranky with myself that when Z and I got engaged eight years ago I didn’t at any point think that I could say, “Yes, of course, I’ll marry you, but I’m not leaving Indiana. We’ll buy a house with more square footage than any apartment we could ever afford in Seattle and we’ll learn about things like caulking and lawn mowers together and I’ll teach you to hate Daylight Savings Time, appreciate Mellencamp lyrically,  and to be more tolerant of the 14-haired mustaches so popular here on  Hoosier youth.” But I didn’t say any of those things then, hence the post-transplant-impending-flight-back-to-Seattle frustration.

 

Fortunately, Z is always clever, thoughtful, and clairvoyant about my feelings. He called one night to say he thought I should stay in Indiana awhile longer and since his sabbatical would be starting soon, he’d join me for a few weeks in Indiana. (Right now we will not discuss the state of my feminism—weak, apparently—and how I needed him to make this decision instead of me making it for myself. I’ll save that for some later blog post when I’m feeling more self-fulfilled and we can all just laugh at silly, silly Beth and her inability to name the thing she wants. Ha ha ha. But let me tell you, there were tears.)

 

Z arrived and went with me on my regular trips to restock ice cream and we all watched reruns of “King of Queens” every night. Mom started to laugh more and to want to eat things not made by Ben and Jerry’s. After she got the okay from her oncologist, we’d go out for dinner and I quit looking at her as if she were a toddler about to put a bobby pin in a light socket. Z and I took a road trip to Minnesota to see a friend get married. I texted Mom photos of every state line we crossed, interesting roadside attractions, a church where Laura Ingalls Wilder attended, landscape photos so she and I could try to scientifically determine if the flatness of Iowa was equal-to-or-greater-than the flatness of northern Indiana. She seemed interested in the world. When we got back a week later, there was a massive stack of books next to the sofa; she’d read every one of them while Z and I were away. Suddenly, when we’d enter the room, she’d be peering into a book through the $1 bright green reading glasses we stuck, as a lark, in her Easter basket.

 

I don’t know how you parents do it—not crowing about every achievement your child has made—because I was telling complete strangers, “Mom is reading again!” while they looked at me with confusion. Seeing her stack of recently read books is one of the sweetest sights ever. She was back. I won’t say it made it easy to leave her a week later, but it definitely made it easier.

 

It was a weird trip home. One of those strange moments in time where great joys (a mother on the road to recovery, the announcement of a cousin’s new baby, good health news from Zimbabwe about Z-ma who had been living under a potentially very dark medical cloud, another family friend whose post-cancer surgery scan was all clear, young people counting down the days until their driver’s licenses/ graduations/weddings) bump up against terrible sadness. There was a lot of drama and loss in the local community while I was home, and it was not lost on me that while I got to leave on the happy note of a mother who was nearly herself again , some of my cousins were called in to be with their own mother who is critically ill.

 

It was two-and-a-half months full of all the things that make being human glorious and terrible.

 

So now I’m three days back in Seattle, and I’m suffering my usual culture shock. Monday morning I was lying in my old Indiana bed, looking out the window at the long shadows of the trees in the backyard that were stretching west towards a cornfield, listening to birdsong, and feeling amused by a cheeky cardinal who desperately wants in my parents’ house and hangs on the screen, peering in, flapping his wings. This morning in Seattle, I woke to the bus out front that idles there during rush hour, waiting to dump off a host of workers at the neighboring hospitals. Outside my screen, there’s been one domestic altercation, one woman weeping because something unfortunate happened to her backpack, and at least five sirens. And let me not forget the early morning leaf blowers because at some point cleaning the street and sidewalk with a near noiseless broom became passé and you apparently aren’t really cleaning anything if you don’t have a leafblower strapped to your back causing a racket before the more artistic types among the citizenry are ready to get out of bed (ahem). Since I’ve moved here, there’s never not the sound of traffic, dogs, humans. There’s never not something unfortunate in the street to step over: trash, dog crap, or someone passed out in a doorway. If a bird were tweeting here or pecking at the window, I’d never hear it.

 

This is not to say I hate the city. In a week or two, I might like it again. No doubt the next time I leave it, I’ll feel a little blue about being parted from its company.

 

But today is not that day, and the news that Prince just died—thus sealing the door on the vault of my youth forever—isn’t helping. Other people who knew the intricacies of His Purple Majesty’s guitar licks and the nuances of his lyrics will be writing about him for the next weeks with passion, but I was never more than a middling-level fan who knew his major hits, his full name, can quote a line or two from Purple Rain, believed his Super Bowl halftime show to be the best in memory, and who still feels happy if one of his songs comes on the radio. But I don’t deserve to say much about him because I haven’t put the time in. I never went to a concert. Never read an unofficial biography. Never really “got” his movies. Didn’t follow his Princetograms. I’m glad that his music was playing as part of the soundtrack of my life, and I’m glad that when I hear one of his less-played, more raunchy songs, I still get the devilish thrill I did when I was a teenager as I sing along, that I’m still waiting for my mother to say, “Beth Lynn!”

 

And I’m glad that I never go to a wedding without mentally finishing the officiant’s “Dearly beloved…” with Prince’s “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

An electric word, life.

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