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I’ve been M.I.A. for about a month now. Big things and big changes have been sweeping through my life, and most of what I’ve been writing has been in my journal (home for all the news that’s not fit to print).

One of the big things I’ve been dealing with is this:

At about five in the morning on December 21st, my dad collapsed (a couple of times), and they took him to the emergency room. After about seven hours of running every conceivable test that you can run on a body, they finally pinpointed what was causing the trouble – he had 80% blockage in his ‘widow-maker’ artery (runs along the front of the heart – and isn’t it nice that it’s named that & that the doctors and nurses actually call it that in front of you? Neat. Thanks. We weren’t scared enough) and 60-70% blockage in one of the arteries that runs alongside his heart.

He went from feeling fine and fit the day before, to facing open heart surgery the next morning. My dad is a 57 year old non-smoking, non-drinking, daily bran-eating, daily walker with a physique that could be featured in medical texts as ideal for the male of the species.

He also has a family history of high cholesterol that is unaffected by diet or exercise (as in, didn’t matter how many bran muffins my dad snarfed down, or how many miles he walked, he was going to have to deal with this anyway). His father died of a major heart attack at age 65, again somewhat unexpectedly – a fact which was forefront in all of our minds during this.

So, we were all thrown for the proverbial loop. And it called all sorts of things into question, made each of us face and deal with things that we’d been burying or looking away from. And I’m grateful.

I played the ‘what-if’ game about it all (I am the uncontested champion of this game), and no matter how I ran the scenarios through in my head, they did not turn out nearly as prettily as reality did. And so, I couldn’t be anything other than grateful. Grateful that it all happened, and grateful that it all went precisely the way that it did.

In the intervening weeks, dad’s done a lot of healing physically. I’d been more worried about his mental/emotional healing – when you discover the body’s ability to betray, you end up feeling whammied, and I was worried about how he’d handle the whammy. I shouldn’t have worried – I should have just trusted. Dad’s coping well – and he has a lot of time for introspection, since he’s in enforced low-activity for at least six weeks following the surgery.

I went over there this week to help them denude the house of all the Christmas hoopla, since pop can’t lift more than 5 to 10 pounds. And dad turns to me and says, “You still plan on taking me grocery shopping today?” And I, of course, said, “Absolutely!” when I was really thinking, “Hunh? Didn’t remember that…but okey dokey.”

I was probably the best one to bring – I let him have his way and do things his way…until he shouldn’t. I’m not shy about calling people out, and we all know it. So, I was the perfect policeman. We had a great talk the whole way there, and the whole time we were shopping.

And on the way home, the talk turned to how he was dealing with his recovery, and some of the things that were starting to glimmer in the murk for him. I mentioned that Dave (my brother) was probably having the hardest time with all of this. And dad, in typical understated fashion, said, “Well, he probably thought I was dying in his arms, so I suppose he would be.”

And I told him that wasn’t the reason. It was because when Dave was young, he hungered for my father’s attention (which for a variety of reasons, wasn’t available), and then when Dave got older, my dad hungered for more connection with his son…and now Dave is mulling all of it over, and wanting to deepen their relationship. But they’re both the stoic and stubborn products of our Austrian ancestry (which seems to cancel out the Irish in the worst possible ways…), and they don’t reach out well. So, I dropped my pebble into that still pond, and trusted that the ripples would wreak whatever changes to the shoreline that they were meant to – or not – and I let it go.

And then I turned to him and told him that I’d had a hard time with all of this, too, but not for the same reasons. I said that I just wasn’t ready to lose my father yet – I was greedy and wanted many more years together. He smiled. And I said that I felt like he and I were square, that we’d done all the reconnecting and that we had a good relationship, and that I didn’t have regrets – only the greedy desire for more of it. I asked him if he felt the same, and he smiled and said, “Yeah Carolyn, we’re good.”

I know how lucky I am to be able to have that conversation with my dad, and to know deeply that it’s true. I also know that I made my own luck there. I reached out to him in my typically tactless and blunt fashion when I was done being an angsty teen and told him I didn’t like the vibe we had and that I wanted more…and what I wanted it to look like. And then we built it.

In the course of our grocery shopping conversation/excursion, I told him that I regretted nothing about my life. It didn’t strike me until right now, that he’d looked at me kind of oddly, and said, “Really?” with the kind of incredulity that implies sincere and invested interest in the answer. No, dad, I regret nothing. Because all of it brought me here, made me who I am now in this moment. Even the worst stuff shaped me (and I’ve gone through some muddy and bloody trenches in my short life) – and is, perhaps, what I ended up being most grateful for since it affected the deepest and most lasting change.

I know he’s on his own road to reconciling his regrets and healing relationships. I know I can’t do it for him, and I wouldn’t if I could. All I can do is let him see me, and the way I’ve chosen to deal with life as a teacher, and rejoice that he still has the opportunity to choose to engage in it…or choose to let it fall away again.

It may appear that I am lackadaisical about all of this – I assure you I’m not. It’s more a matter of having put out the blaze, and looking at the smoldering foundation, and knowing that there’s both time and opportunity for the owner to build anew. And being grateful for it.

 


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My niece Abby and me, July 2010.

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Once upon a time, I was a high school English teacher, and in that life, there was something that I sought out eagerly each day, attempted to create, and leapt upon like a tigress when it appeared – the teachable moment. That happy circumstance when I had attention, interest, engagement, and most importantly, opportunity.

The funny thing is, that when you’re a teacher down to your bones, from the moment of your birth, the way that I am, finding the teachable moment is actually a kind of sixth sense – one that (to the dismay, and eye-rolls, of many of my associates), I can identify and take advantage of no matter the circumstance. I kind of can’t help it – I see the perfect moment to provide illumination, and I take it. I’m a teacher – and I can no more let the opportunity pass by, than I could stop being who I am.

Today I went to my folks’ house to do laundry and hang out with my three-year-old niece, Abby. She’s both the best and most important ‘student’ I’ve ever had, and the best and most important ‘teacher’ I’ve ever had.

We had a great time today – she loves her Auntie, and we have all sorts of adventures together when I’m there. She has an incredibly rich inner world, which she’s pleased as punch to draw me (and anyone else who’s handy) into.

Today, we had one of those unexpected teachable moments. I was in the laundry room folding a load, and she grabbed what she calls her ‘Jesus book’ – a children’s book of Bible stories – and her duckie, and planted herself next to the washer. I sank down onto the floor next to her, and asked her if she’d like me to tell her the stories in her book.

With the dryer humming in the background, and the washer swishing away behind us, we went through the entire book – a rare thing with that three-year-old attention span. I didn’t read what was on the pages, but told her the stories from memory. I pointed out all the major players, and gave her the gist of each tale in a few sentences.

The last story in the book was the one about Jesus and the little children – the one where the man tries to shag off the kids who’ve gathered around Jesus, and Jesus stops him and tells him to let the children stay. Abby was really tuned in, and I could just feel all of the tumblers working in her quick little mind.

She’s had a kind of rough time of things for being only three – nothing horrid, but not a whole lot of stability. I told her that she could talk to Jesus anytime she wanted to, and He would always listen to her, always. I asked her if she wanted me to show her how – she nodded and then got to her feet to stand in front of me. I held my hands in prayer in front of my heart, and I started, “Dear Jesus, I had a hard time today…” She mirrored my every movement, repeated each word, on her own.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19: 14)

I am her godmother. Once upon a time, when my sister was pregnant, she debated whether, with my unconventional spirituality, I would be a suitable godmother for her child. That was like a dagger in my heart – and I’ve had a hard time healing it. No matter my own personal spirituality, I told her, that God-forbid, if something happened to her, I would do everything in my power to do all that I thought she would have done, and more.

So, I became Abby’s godmother – a role I take seriously, despite my distance from the faith I was raised with. No matter how far away I get from Catholicism, it’s never gone – it’s just become a part of the broad and deep pool of spiritual knowing and experience I’ve built for myself. Every child needs spiritual teachers, no matter what tradition.

Today, I taught my niece to pray. I told her that she did have someone to take all her troubles to – that when she has a hard day, and things feel crummy, she had someone to talk to in every moment. Someone who, though they may not answer back, would hear everything that she told them. She seemed to really take it in. She paused. She was quiet and thoughtful.

Today, I was more grateful for my innate teacher habits than I’ve ever been – today, I had a golden moment with my niece, my goddaughter. Today, I was able to act as her spiritual teacher, the role I was given when she was born, and one I cherish the opportunity to fulfill.

It was especially poignant, because they will be moving in a few weeks, and I know she’s not terribly pleased about it. It will be her third move in as many years. I wanted her to have somewhere to go with all that she will feel about it.

I totally realize that she’s three, and that there’s a whole lot more to prayer than what I was able to tell her today, but this was an important moment. It was the first of many to come.

My dad & I, September 1980

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I know that this post is kind of ‘a day late and a dollar short,’ but I spent a good portion of my weekend with my mom and dad, which is the point of Mother’s and Father’s Day, anyhow.

My relationship with my father is intensely complicated…and it’s unbelievably simple. I love him, and he loves me. No matter how we’ve changed, or fought, or frozen each other out over the years, I had him and he had me, and we were lucky enough to have a relationship.

When everything goes completely off kilter in my world, and up is down, and right is left, all I have to do is go and hug him, and things even out, straighten out. I know it’s an illusion – he can’t slay all of my dragons (that’s my job) – but there’s something about his hugs that make all the bad things fade into the background, and that make me remember that I can do this (whatever it is).

My dad’s a ‘still waters run deep’ kind of a guy. He doesn’t spend words like they’re free – and you’re better off dropping an idea or a question in his lap and then coming back in a few days to see what he’s come to, instead of demanding answers on the spot. He’s the kind of man who has to chew on a thing for a while before he decides how it tastes.

You know you’re in his inner circle when he acts the goof and the clown in front of you. I get some of my playful and pranksterish tactics from having watched him. Every year, our family would sit down to watch The Wizard of Oz together on our ancient television. And every year, he’d wait until the three of us kids were completely enraptured and absorbed, waiting to see what would happen to Dorothy, waiting to see if, this time, the witch would triumph….and then, he’d scream at the top of his lungs, scaring the bejesus out of all of us! And, we’d go and cluster around him, seeking safety. Dirty rat (said in the most affectionate manner possible).

I get my work ethic from both of my parents, but mostly from Dad. He works so hard – too hard. And he’s spent more vacations painting our house or fixing something than any man should. (Thanks).

I spent a different kind of time with him. We used to walk around the yard and ‘visit’ each of the trees, each of the gardens, and I’d ask him questions. It was quiet time – meditative, but I know he’d balk at that term. He’s philosophical, but he’d deny that, too.

When I chose to go out on my own, and become a Reiki Master Teacher and go into business with Dani, he didn’t understand exactly what I did, or why I’d want to do it. And, being a father, he worried (worries) about me. Despite that, he’s proud of me, and believes that I can do whatever I put my mind to.

My dad and I, October 1980

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Thanks, Dad, for being there.

Thanks for having my back, even though you don’t understand why or what I’m doing half the time.

Thanks for every talk in the basement, watching you plane out a new piece of furniture.

Thanks for singing along with the radio – I could hear it come up through the air vent into my room, and I will never forget the sound of it. It comforted me in ways you cannot imagine.

Thanks for going along with (most of) my grand schemes, even though you wondered why I’d want to bother – and especially thanks, since most of them involved some labor on your part.

Thanks for shellacking all of the odd things I bring to you. I know that it’s a lot more work and effort than you make it out to be.

Thanks for being a brave enough guy to ask your daughters what kind of tampons we wanted from the store, and going to get them.

Thanks for thinking that no guy would ever really be good enough for me.

Thanks for all the late night chats. Thanks for always taking my calls.

Thanks for fixing my car before I even knew it was busted. Thanks for coming to the rescue when it busted before any of us knew it needed fixing.

Thank you for all the things that you are: from the persnickety to the playful, from the silly to the serene.

Thank you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day!

There’s something like a line of gold thread running through a man’s words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself. (John Gregory Brown, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, 1994)

Each year, I struggle to meet both of my father’s rules for gift giving:

Rule #1: Don’t spend any money.

Rule #2: Don’t spend any time.

Each year, in one way or another, I fail to meet those criteria. Except this year. This year, I made my father a keepsake art book — and told him that the money I’d spent I would’ve spent anyway, and that the time I spent was such a joy, it shouldn’t count. His birthday is today.

Happy birthday Dad!

Front cover.

First page.

Second page.

Third page.

Fourth page.

Fifth page.

Sixth page.

Seventh page.

Eighth page.

Ninth page.

Tenth page.

Back cover.

 

 

Today, the blogosphere proliferates with odes to mothers. I’ve never been much of a joiner, or a follower of the pack, but I felt inspired to follow suit.

Mom,

Thank you for making clothes for my dolls,

For remembering that I like chocolate better than anything,

For supplying me with supper when I’m hungry and won’t ask.

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Thank you for the beautiful ivory quilt you were making for you, but gave to me when I told you how much I liked it (I truly wasn’t angling for it),

For ferrying me to Girl Scouts and CCD, to babysitting gigs and jobs, to friends’ houses,

For loving me anyway when I was thirteen and so angry with you and the world,

For worrying about whether I’m paying attention to the things that need attending.

~~~~~~~

Thank you for helping me to grow a compassionate heart,

For letting me know that it was okay to question everything,

For helping me question everything, even when it made you afraid for me.

~~~~~~~

Thank you for always believing in me, in my writing, in my spark,

For putting aside the common sense that comes so easily to you, and supporting my mad dreams anyway,

For letting me quit eating meat when I was ten and I begged and begged.

~~~~~~~~

Thank you for every little thing that you’ve ever done (I noticed),

For telling me you love me,

For making sure that no matter how things were going in our home, I knew I was loved and wanted,

For wearing holey shoes so that our growing feet could have new ones.

~~~~~~~~

Thank you for every night you spent pacing the floor with me, a colicky baby,

For watching me walk across the stage when I graduated college,

For not complaining (too much) when I pressed you into service helping me with the crafty parts of projects,

For finally acknowledging that my taste is not your taste (you hit the jackpot with the scarves on my last birthday – so glad you went with your gut, and bought for me “what you would never have bought for yourself.”)

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Thank you for all the lunches you made for us, and the little notes and drawings you’d pop into them occasionally,

For making sure that we were fed, and clean, and healthy,

For reading to me, and imbuing me with a love of stories,

For listening to the drivel that I’d write when I was a teenager, and the papers I wrote in college.

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Thank you for showing me that it is good to make things with your hands,

For giving me the knowledge that we create our own lives,

For letting me create mine, even when it didn’t seem to jive with what you’d hoped for me.

~~~~~~~~~~

Thank you for your face – when I look in the mirror, I see me, and all the women who’ve come before me,

For drawing the lines we should not cross, and giving us deep moral natures,

For having philosophical discussions with me in the garage – winter or summer,

For surrendering and showing me how.

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Thank you for showing up every day, even when you were tired, and boneweary, and wanted rest,

For flying to my defense when I faced Goliaths,

For calling me on all the things I thought I could get away with,

For being patient.

~~~~~~~~~

Thank you for every mistake that you made, and for the knowledge that I can make them, too,

For being brave, and fragile, and human,

For every hug,

For every treat on every holiday.

~~~~~~~~~

Thank you, Mom, for everything.

Thank you for everything

Everything

Everything

You ever did.

I noticed.

 

 

For it was not into my ear you whispered, but into my heart. It was not my lips you kissed, but my soul. (Judy Garland)

I’m a perverse creature. On the surface, I am all calm, cool, and collected – a lot of the time. At first glance, I don’t allow much softness to come through. I’m working on that, actually… At first glance, you wouldn’t take me for a woman much given over to sentimentality or easily swayed by romance. At first glance.

The truth? Just because something seems to be true, doesn’t mean that it is…

So, last night, Jeremy and I watched What Dreams May Come – a movie I always watch with a handkerchief. It was his first time seeing it all the way through, and there were a few parts that got a little tough for him. He (politely) didn’t comment or make a big deal out of it when I dabbed surreptitiously at the corners of my eyes.

The movie over, my emotional needs satisfied, he thoughtful, we sat there. We each have our own blanket, and our own end of the couch, and then our legs tangle up and take over the middle. Sometimes we duel for dominance of the middle territory (this increases as warm weather increases, fueled by me), but today we were content and lazy and comfortably entwined.

And then we started talking about the movie. And he said, “I’d do that, you know. Find you.” And I just smiled in the way that only a woman can when a man pledges to do some knightly deed for her love (a smile that’s one part entranced, one part dubious, and one part patronizing).

He was quiet for a minute. He asked me if I thought it would be like that, when we die. I said I hoped so, that it would be something like that – reunion with friends and family, communion with others and with God, the presence of joy.

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. (Plato)

And then he blew me away. He said it didn’t matter to him – that if he died and it was all blackness and endings, and not the heaven that any of us hopes for or dreams of, that he would have spent all the days of his life hoping and dreaming with me and that was heaven enough.

I pretend that my heart is resistant to melting, but it isn’t. It puddled, instantly. He meant it. That is how he really feels. And it was equally humbling and exalting to know that.

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. (Lao Tzu)

It made me think of all the times I lost my patience when he took forever to make a decision. All the times I got in a snit because he forgot to do something or I tripped over his shoes. All the times that he left a job half done (I saw it as half-done) and I got an attitude. It made me think about how that couldn’t possibly feel heavenly. And I wanted more for him, and for me – to see our lives in the now, in every moment, as he saw them – a little slice of heaven. Guess I really will have to quit “sweating the small stuff,” hey?

Seeing our life through his eyes, let me see it differently, too. I always say that we’re building an empire – I think he sees us already enjoying the one we’ve built. I always focus ahead, on all that’s left to do – he sees all that we have done, and all that we are and have. I see the promise of heaven, someday – he sees it now, in the moment.

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. (Zora Neale Hurston)

After I started working at the shop, and Dani saw Jeremy and I together for the first time, she told me later that I was different around him. I, somewhat panicked, said, “How? What do you mean?” And she said, “You’re softer.” And I thought, Hmm – that’s not so bad, I guess. It’s hard not to be when he says things like that and means them.

 

The other day, Jeremy (my fiancé) and I had an argument, and I gave lack of confidence as a reason (excuse) for my behavior in the situation. He, incredulous, turned to me and said, “I ran 400 miles away from my family, my hometown, and my past. You stayed here with all these same people, took it on the chin, and kept going. Don’t tell me you’re not confident! You’re one of the most confident people I’ve ever met.”

Where do I begin? My first thought was, “That’s a lie. I’m not confident. That’s bravado and stubbornness disguised as confidence.” My second thought was, “He really thinks that about me?” And my third thought was, “I never really had a choice.” In many ways, I see what he did as brave – venturing off to try his fortunes all on his own – and what I did as “cowardly,” I guess.

I suppose that one of the main reasons I “stayed here and took it on the chin” was that, in my family, there is no running away. They will come get you – if not physically, then emotionally. I was too well trained to the family expectations to go haring off to Ireland as I longed to do. When my life crumbled around me, I heaved a sigh (well, a few hundred sighs, actually), squared my shoulders and kept marching.

At the time, I’d thought that I’d changed dramatically – and I had. Everything I believed about myself, about others, about the nature of life and love and relationship, about reality, about success and failure, about individuality, about “good” and “bad” had changed. Everything had changed. I had changed.

I just hadn’t changed as much as I thought.

The moment we try to please another and abandon our own truth for theirs, we essentially hand our power to them, violate our own integrity, cut ourselves off from our inner wisdom, and – at least for a while – disconnect from our ability to love and nurture ourselves. (Betty Ford)

I was the Good Daughter. I did my duty. I tried not to disappoint my parents – I followed the code of behavior they laid out (both written and unwritten). I was very good at covering up misbehavior and lying “for their own good.” (Honestly, there are some things that parents don’t want to know their children are doing, that the majority of kids end up doing).

I exceeded expectations. I developed a strong perfectionistic streak. I attended all functions, I said the right things to the right people. I worked a LOT – too much (important in our family – being jobless for any reason is “shameful” – along with a lot of other things). Wherever they stated an expectation, or where one was unspoken, I not only tried to meet it – I tried to do it perfectly, so that I would be “beyond reproach.”

When being a “good girl” or a “good boy” becomes a way of life, we can be sure that exhaustion will accumulate, resentments will build, desperation and neediness will increase, and we’ll travel deeper into the land of victim consciousness. (Betty Ford)

So, when my life fell apart, when living by all those codes and rules didn’t automatically guarantee success, security and safety, I questioned everything. I suppose I went through a sort of “second adolescence.” I rebelled against expectations, figuring that if it was impossible to meet their standards, I’d do whatever I damn well pleased and pretty much courted displeasure as much as I courted their pleasure before.

And then the pendulum swung again. And I realized that in courting their displeasure, I was destroying my relationships with my family. I had to find the “happy medium.” At first, I thought that I’d just swung too far the other way (from people-pleaser to people-displeaser), but it’s really not that simple. All that I’d really changed were the externals. The circumstances, the situations, the conditions. Deep down, I was still aiming to eventually shine in my parents’ eyes, and in everyone’s eyes.

And now, I think I’m finally starting to “get it.” I didn’t take things far enough. I changed my course of action, but I never really changed my reasons for acting or my rationale. I never went deep enough. I hadn’t touched what Dani calls “my core foundational beliefs.” And I realize that until I do that, nothing will really change. 

Now, I’m working to try to rewrite that story. Recast myself. Discover what it’s like to do something just because it’s what you want to do – and not because you know that action will get you the pat on the head. I’m trying to imagine my way towards what it means to be me – without the people-pleasing.

 

 

Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

By all accounts, I was one of those unsettling children who look out at you from a child’s face, but speak with a tone, confidence, and vernacular far beyond their years. I was what people tend to think of precocious in the classical sense, and not as a thinly veiled euphemism for too-worldly.

I have only ever known what it is to be precocious, and therefore, don’t exactly have the same perspective on many things that others (who weren’t quite as precocious) have. It is now, as an adult woman, that I look and see what that precociousness meant and what it wrought for me throughout my life. It is as I watch children and see them interact with one another, and watch them blooming “on schedule,” or “ahead of schedule,” or “behind schedule” with adult eyes. (Who determines these things, anyhow?)

In retrospect, I see my own journey with some clarity. (Can it ever happen any other way?) I can see how I tended to lack true peers – I could play the game well, and “fit in” with kids who weren’t quite at the level I was, but it felt like a lot of work. I could speak to adults with the maturity of one of their peers, but it came out of a child’s mouth and was often disregarded because of that – and I lacked the experiences of an adult, so that was one more barrier.

You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

I really wouldn’t say that I technically had a lonely childhood, but in some ways, that was very true. I realize now, that my love for reading and my passion for stories and books was partially inherent (I think we all come here with leanings toward talents and interests), and partially cultivated. I soon realized that having a book in front of your face gave you two things: a barrier and an excuse to not have to socialize, and something to talk about if you were made to interact.

When I was doing my student teaching internship, I happened to bump into one of my high school teachers. She remembered me instantly (having taught 168 kids a year, I now know how rare this is), and said that she remembered that I was never without a free reading book (again, having taught, I now know how rare this is).

Those books were my solace, my inspiration, and my shield. I was never really alone – I had a whole cast of characters holed up in my head. I was never really bored – even when I was stuck without a book, I could conjure one of the many stories I’d read to ponder.

I am going through the rest of the boxes I still have at my folks’ house, and I’ve come across some very old friends. I saved two things for last: my books and my genealogy research. Both are precious to me.

I share Einstein’s affirmation that anyone who is not lost on the rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe ‘is as good as a burnt out candle.’ (Madeleine L’Engle)

As I open these boxes, some for the first time in five years, I am transported. I remember the edition of Tom Sawyer that my mom’s parents gave us when I was about ten. I remember the huge, ponderous collection of Shakespeare’s Collected Works that my former mother-in-law gave me for my birthday one year. It has a maroon cover, and Bible-thin pages. I remember the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit my mom gave me shortly before I got married – a story that carries special significance in our house. The Bible my Aunt Margaret gave me for my confirmation. The canning books I bought when I thought it would be cool to make my own preserves (still planning on it, someday…).

The animal and plant guides I bought when I started to explore the complexity of our world… The poetry volumes I purchased as I discovered new voices… Philosophy… Spirituality… Religion… Life Sciences… My “Beach Reads”… Books from the Banned Books List… Classic Fiction… Eventually, I hope to have enough shelving to store / display them in some semblance of “order,” which will probably only make sense to me (which is fine, since I’m the one who’s into them all the time).

Then, this weekend, I came to some of my very old, very special friends. For Christmas, when I was twelve years old, my Uncle Dave gave me a series of books by Madeleine L’Engle, which I fell in love with. I’ve read my copy of A Wrinkle in Time so many times that I’ve loved the cover to smithereens. I promptly petitioned my parents for the rest of the series, and have read and re-read them repeatedly.

I am reading them again now, as an adult woman, whose precociousness, subsequent experience, and continually developing perspective, give me a new appreciation for the gift of them. These were the first books I’d read then, at twelve, that didn’t try to scrub the ugly things clean, in the way that so many people try to for children. They let the ugly be present, and they let the good and the beautiful be present, side by side, and gave the reader enough credit to make sense of it themselves.

Infinity is present in each part. A loving smile contains all art. The motes of starlight spark and dart. A grain of sand holds power and might. (Madeleine L’Engle)

L’Engle couched truths within fiction. I encountered God there, and science. I met with the age-old predicament of what I think of as can-or-should (as in, just because we can, does it mean that we should?). I entertained ideas of cosmic scope, and eternal reach, of infinite perplexity and infinite simplicity.

I lay on the couch last night, following Meg Murry through her troubles, her struggles, her challenges and triumphs. I walked along the path with old friends for a time, covering territory that felt familiar and brand-new at once. I spotted seeds of later-thought within the story – ideas that fueled the genesis of my spiritual questioning and my reasoning.

I lay there, at once twelve years old again, and brand-new to the world with all the wide-eyed optimism and belief in the possible – and at the same time, as I am now at 31 – older, a bit more cynical, a bit more hesitant, a bit more jaded, a bit less hopeful. I captured, for a bit, that sense of who I was when I’d read them for the first time – the wonder they awakened, the daydreams I embarked on, the debates they encouraged.

I like that girl I was, and there are days when I really miss her. In some ways, she was far braver then, than I am now (it helps when you don’t know all the facts of a situation, I suppose – it’s easier to talk myself out of things, or around them, now). Having got that sense of her – that essence of possibility and dreaming – I carry it forward into today. I marry it to my experience, and in that, I attempt to balance naiveté and experience.

I am grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for giving young readers enough credit, for having the guts to put it all on the page. I am grateful to Uncle Dave (and everyone else) for the gift of books – the gift of ideas, really. I am grateful to my parents for encouraging my precocity. I am grateful to my twelve-year-old self for having a courageous mind, and a questing heart, and an empathic way. I am grateful to have these thought-worlds to revisit, to rediscover, to recapture all the selves I have been. I am grateful, because they all contributed, and in this latest incarnation of self, I am especially pleased.

It seemed to travel with her, to sweep her aloft in the power of song, so that she was moving in glory among the stars, and for a moment, she, too, felt that the words Darkness and Light had no meaning, and only this melody was real. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

 

 

If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child.  ( Linda Sunshine)

There were no truer words written than that quote. My sister just left our apartment – and for the past several months I’ve edged far closer to the urge to throttle her than to just “love her dearly.” The confounding part of it all is that even as I plot her imminent demise, my heart is wrenching for her and because of her.

There has been no one in my life as controversial as Kate. There has been no one as exasperating, as infuriating, as utterly maddening as my sister. There has also been no one who knew me quite so well, so intimately – very few who saw inside the boxes I’d drawn shut against prying eyes, no one who saw so well into my darkest corners or who ferreted out my weaknesses or my secrets and shames quite so easily.

God help me, there is no one like my sister. She was born here in possession of a manual detailing exactly where to find each of my buttons, and in which combinations to push them in order to achieve nuclear fury. There is no one who has inspired me to walk the floors at night, a maternal vigil, worried sick, worried fiercely for them, like Kate.

I know some sisters who only see each other on Mother’s Day and some who will never speak again. But most are like my sister and me…linked by volatile love, best friends who make other best friends ever so slightly less best.   (Patricia Volk)

I don’t know if it has more to do with me being the oldest child or with the exact conditions of our childhood circumstances, but I have always been like a tigress about her (and about our brother – but he needed a different kind of sistering from me – a blog post for another day). Kathryn required someone strong enough to intimidate those who’d she’d riled up into refraining from giving her the sound trouncing which she’d earned (no matter the situation, you could put money on it – if there was drama, my sister was there). She needed someone calmer than herself – and who possessed sound judgment –who was determined enough to cut through her scatter and chatter to chuck some sense into the maelstrom from time to time.

No matter what has passed between us, I have tried to be a “good sister.” I have succeeded admirably at times, and I have failed horribly at others. And right now, her life is a minefield of her own making. I am finding it hard to carry on with the roles that we’ve adopted and lived since childhood. I am tired, and I find myself out of patience, and out of common sense advice, and out of synch with our hereditary patterns. I feel left-footed in our relationship, and I cannot regain balance long enough to resume the dance.

I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.  ( Maya Angelou)

All I can do now, is listen to her. Love her. And hope – hope that things will turn out okay, hope that she will find her way, hope that she knows that I love her passionately, even if I have a hard time showing her sometimes. All I can do is accept who she is, and instead of reacting to her way of being by changing my behavior, know that she and I will find a new way of relating to one another that leaves me feeling like the sane, rational being I was before she blew through my door.

Throughout our entire childhood, I tried to protect her, to shield her, as best I could from all the ugly things – whether they were of her making or not. That’s not working so well anymore, and it leaves me to wonder what role I am to play now in her life, if not as her champion and defender? As Dani always says, “Who would you be, without that story?” There are parts of me that are working at cross-purposes now: one part of me still takes pride in being her shield and sanctuary, and another resents it.

Who will I be if not the eldest child? The eldest daughter? Who am I without that story, and all of the roles I play in it? But then, who am I to step in and take her chance to be her own defender? Who am I to so little value her ability to decide for herself what is right? Because isn’t that what I do by incessantly charging in on my white horse, so confident that my way is the right way?

At what point do I take that step back, and allow her life to unfold in either joy or pain? At what point do I stop enabling her, and crippling her?

Like everyone else, we are evolving and growing. The old story no longer fits us – and we lack a new myth to live by. The only thing we can do, I suppose, is allow it to write itself in love and pain, in sorrow and triumph, over time and page by page. All I can do is open my door to her, and open my heart to her, and have faith that we will find our new myth, we will recast our roles, we will learn new steps to old music. All I can do is have faith that our sisterhood is strong enough to survive this and all storms to come, and know that even though the shoreline may be reshaped, it remains one strong, unbroken line between ports.

 

 

They left me

with your shadow,

saying things like

Life is not fair

 

& I believed them

for a long time.

 

But today,

I remembered

the way you laughed

& the heat

of your hand

in mine

 

& I knew that

life is more fair

than we can

ever imagine

if

we are there to live it

— Brian Andreas,  www.storypeople.com

 

I have lived here all of my life and have endured, to date, thirty-one Wisconsin Winters. I used to enjoy them more (I also used to own and wear snow-pants). The older I get, the harder it becomes to look at brown, brown, brown for nearly six months in a row, to feel the shrill bite of wind on my cheekbones day after day, to see the sky shrouded in mourning gray for weeks on end.

It used to be that, around March or so, I’d finally get weary of the limited palette around me, and start to long for the verdant greens of Spring – but this year, I was already longing for them a month ago, daydreaming out the window and remembering the way that the first gentler breezes of Spring carry the smell of new life with them.

I’m not melancholy, precisely – it’s more that I’m inspired to be introspective during these winters. You can’t really help it – going outside is not appealing most days, so that means you stay inside – with everyone else who is also not going outside, together like this, for months. *Sigh*

I get a little maudlin. I start missing the people I’ve loved who’ve gone. Which leads me to think about all of the good times we had together (which is a good thing), but which makes me miss them so much that my skin hurts with the ache of it, and I cry in the shower so that no one sees.

And I don’t bemoan the unfairness of life, the unfairness of them leaving me behind (or at least I try not to). As Dani says, “I didn’t ask ‘Why me?’ when any of the good things happened, so why should I ask ‘Why me?’ when the bad things happen?” And she’s right. All of the ‘Why me-ing’ in the world has never brought anyone back to us, never undone a flat tire, never unspilled the milk.

So, instead, I try to be present in the missing of these people I love, and let my sorrow – my ache over the holes they’ve left in my life – be a testament to being human. To knowing, in the most inescapable way, brevity. I tell stories about them to remind the others I love that our sorrow is shared and that it is sacred to share the joy in the remembering, too. I let the Winter inspire in me a desire to spin tales out from the past, and bring them into the present, invoking the power of the love I have for my dearly departed in each breath.

And then I step back and realize that this is what it means to know that life is more fair than we can ever imagine – we get this shot at it. We get to make each and every day of our time here into whatever shape and color and tone and vibrancy that we want to. We get the opportunity, in each moment, to fill that space with a creation that comes solely from us, original and infinite.

The trick of all of it is to be present in it – to miss and mourn my loved ones, bringing them forth in time, and learning them anew. Feeling the pain and the joy of it as a part of what it means to be human, to be ephemeral, to be inescapably brief – but not to let it keep me from moving on and moving into the coming moments with vibrancy and awareness and intensity.

It means that, even in the cavernous yowling morass of the bitter Winter, when every time I turn around I see and hear another mopey-moperson bemoaning their fate from birth to today, I choose to turn it around. To feel the feeling in the moment, and let it be part of my present, and then let it go so that I can move on. To dial-down the volume on the moaners and the ‘Why me’-ers around me and recast my pain and my challenges in a new light.

To see not the oppressive steel-gray skies and scudding snow-laden clouds, but instead, see the way the Winter light falls soft on everything, turning the very air into shimmer and translucence. To see not the dour countenances on the pedestrians trudging past the window, but the child on the sidewalk in the bright red jacket whose mittens hang from strings threaded through her sleeves, face tilted up, mouth open, tongue out, waiting and giggling as crisp lacy snowflakes christen her face.

Come have a look through my kaleidoscope eyes. Come walk with me, as I make my way down the Path of Mastery (complete with fits and starts and pitstops and potholes). Our very impermanence is what makes us burn so brightly, and struggle so valiantly, and feel so deeply – it’s what makes us seize the day, and the moment. Come in, settle in, share a moment with me.

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"Who are YOU?" said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then." (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 5)