Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tomatoes, lemons, and remembering Clay

Please don't take offense at this:
I don't like tomatoes,
Normally, as a general rule.
But you are certainly the exception.
See, you are MY tomato,
And that changes things.

When I put a few vegetable plants in the ground,
Just a corner of the yard, two weeks ago,
I was only half-joking when I said aloud,
"Be fruitful and multiply"
As I covered your roots with compost and soil,
Hoping but fearful.

The problem is that I kill everything.
Keeping plants alive is not one of my skills,
And I told the man at the garden center as much.
"Not to worry," he said. "These are hearty."
I'm not sure I believed him,
Which is probably why I spoke my blessing as I planted. 

And now, through some strange alchemy,
Some miracle of sun and water, soil and fertilizer,
Time and luck, God and me,
Here you are, proof of life.
Small, green, promising ripeness in a few weeks.
By then, I may learn to love tomatoes.


      I reached in the onion bin to pull out an onion to chop for the Greek pasta salad I was preparing for dinner with friends who are staying with us.  It had been a busy week with two rounds of houseguests, leaky faucets, disappointing news, critters in the attic - plus the normal rush of work, church and life.
       But when I reached into the bin, I found not onions - but lemons.  In my hurried  absent-mindedness, I put the lemons in the onion bin - instead of in their proper place in the fridge. I've done this before - putting the cereal box in the fridge and the milk in the cabinet.  It's a cue to me, a red flag, that I've got too much going on in that moment or even in that day.  Absent-minded.  Those two words say it all.  My mind has gone AWOL and is off thinking about yesterday's worries or tomorrow's future stress.  I"m not at all focused on the present moment and the lemons end up in the onion bin. 
        Luckily, hiding under the pile of lemons was one yellow onion, just enough for a big bowl of pasta salad.  And the good news is that the dressing for the pasta salad used, you guessed it, fresh squeezed lemons.  Sometimes, life really does give you lemons,  and if it does, I have a great pasta salad recipe for you.


I Remember
      This week is my brother’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Clay!
      He would have been 52, but he’s eternally 33, always young in my mind. He asked me for two favors when he was dying. One was to help save him from the melanoma ravaging his body. Two was to not forget him.
      Of course, I could do nothing to save him, other than be there for the rough journey.   But remember him I have.
      Unlike my Mom, I don’t visit him at his gravesite. He’s not there for me. But when my boys play their sports and score a goal, I can hear my brother, who was an awesome athlete, cheering them on with me. I know he’s ecstatic that his frilly, ballet/jazz/tap sister ended up with three boys who can wield a Barbie as a substitute gun toy. He’d love that I sometimes wear camouflage instead of pink and have bruises from fending off his nephews.
      When I went to the movie, Hunger Games, I smiled at a gory scene he would have liked. He loved action, fantasy and horror movies. Sometimes I go to one just because I know he would have loved it. I'll laugh at jokes I know his mischievous self would have liked. I can still hear his deep, rich laugh.
      I have a friend who also lost her brother, but she says she rarely thinks of him now that so many years have passed. We all have our ways of coping, but for me, to remember is good – bittersweet and soul enriching.
      You mattered, Clay. I probably wouldn’t have had kids had I not lost you. My oldest son is named for you.  I remember.
      And I forgive you for calling me egghead, bookworm and apestink.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Life is good.

“Listen--are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” 
― Mary Oliver
Good Mistakes
      My son David recently landed a solo part in The Young Americans show that came to his school.  Interestingly, his group was told: If you mess up, mess up big.  I had to laugh -what great advice.  Own your mistakes.  Even revel in them.  It takes the pressure off.  There is a story about a pottery class where the teacher told one group to make their best pot in a given time.  The other group was to produce as many pots as they could.  the group that did the most imaginative work was the one that focused on quantity, not perfection.  Process not outcome.       

     My new philosophy in life is to jump in and live - see mistakes as life lessons.  My favorite writing expression is:  You can't edit a blank page.  When I get stuck on story leads, I'll just start typing random ideas.  I see what rises to the top.  Eventually something always does, though the process may be messier than I would have liked.  Sort of like a well-lived life.


     I always cry at weddings. There's something so enchanting and hopeful and holy about two people making lifelong promises to love one another. I am a romantic at heart. But I couldn't cry at this wedding, because I was the one standing up front with the couple, talking about love, asking them if they vowed those vows. I even got to pronounce the magic words that officially made them husband and wife. It was even more special because these were my friends Mary and Paul. I've known Mary for years, and have gotten to know Paul over the nearly three years they've been together. I know their story, at least a lot of it, know what they value, what they love, and so the service I wrote for them was very personal. During the benediction in particular I loved watching Mary's face light up, and a delighted "Ah!" escaped her lips. 
      This was the Lowcountry blessing I wrote for my friends:

May God fill your life with
The hope of a sunrise over the marsh,
The strength of the live oaks,
The joy of dolphins at play in the harbor,
The beauty of springtime azaleas.

Azaleas at Providence Baptist Church on Daniel Island

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it... People think pleasing God is all God care about.  But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.  

     More often than I wish,  I have to remind myself to slow down and notice the beauty that surrounds us.  But not in these early days of spring.  Every time I turn a corner, I am surprised by another bank of pale pinks, soft whites, fiery reds or rich purples.  The azaleas are putting on a show this year.  I pause in my rush through the day and let myself be dazzled.  I find myself more present to the world, finding the bloom in each moment.  Sometimes, life is just beautiful.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

All our children

Update from last week:  The rescue of the bears.

“If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together.. there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. but the most important thing is, even if we're apart.. I'll always be with you.”    
                                                                              Winnie the Pooh

     Several of our loyal readers expressed concern about my heartless disposal of my daughter's favorite bears in the church yard sale last week. (If you didn't read last week's post, you should scroll down quickly and catch up!) Fear not.  Bear Bear, Pink Bear, along with giant Snowball (Big Bear's name is actually Snowball - I was corrected by my daughters)  were rescued from the yard sale by my dear husband who was appalled that I put them in the sale with a 25 cent sticker on their heads.  He clearly loves Alison more than I do. 

     Alison, who is now teaching high school English in inner city St. Louis, came home for her spring break and agreed to pose for a picture with the bears  - another photographic memory!  Alison remembers that Snowball protected her from murderers at night and she practiced putting on makeup with Bear Bear (which is why he looks a little rough these days.)  So the bears are safe, back at home, and now they are blog icons.

    Honestly, friends, at least I didn't put Pooh Bear in the yard sale.  I knew who was really important.  


Pieces and parts

     This is my second grader's Flat Stanley in Japan visiting a friend who teaches English to Japanese students. Here, Stanley Shay is enjoying tea and mochi. It feels so weird getting these photos of virtual Shay being over there so far from home. Before I know it the non-virtual Shay will be doing that. It pains my heart, yet thrills me at the same time - this loving and letting go that has to happen.
      Stanley Shay's caretaker is a lovely young woman, who is fearless in her travels. Her mother did a great job in grounding her and then giving her wings. I can only hope to do the same with my kids. I wish someone had told me that having children guts the soul - in a good way. But how can that be explained really? I sense this unconditional love that I feel for them is the closest taste I'll have of understanding Divine love. Children are a spiritual gift in that way.
       All I know is someone should have warned me how intricately I'm forever tied to them, come what may, 
wherever they may go, 
even as a Flat Stanley Shay
in Japan. 


     On Monday my dog Hurley had to go to the vet for a dental cleaning. For humans, this is not such a big deal. For dogs, it requires being put under general anesthesia. I've never had to do this with Hurley in the nearly two years that I've had him. So when the day arrived, I was a nervous wreck. Working in a hospital, I know there are always risks associated with anesthesia. I couldn't help thinking, "What if he doesn't wake up?" I dropped Hurley off at the vet with a goodbye hug, then sat in my car and cried my eyes out.
     I spent all morning trying to distract myself, but I mostly worried. A few hours later, our wonderful vet, Dr. Lynne Flood, called to tell me Hurley's teeth looked great and that he was starting to come out of the anesthesia. I was incredibly grateful, happy and relieved when I picked up my (still woozy) dog that afternoon. When I went back to work a couple days later, I was telling the whole story to my friend LaToya. She laughed and said, "You're such a mom."
     She's right, I think. Even though Hurley is "just" a dog, his care is entrusted to me and I love getting to mother him. I've always known that I was born to be a mom, taking good care of all my baby dolls and later my younger cousins when I was a child. There are lots of ways to mother, and to some extent I've seen myself take on that role with students, patients, kids I babysat or kept in the church nursery, even some of my friends, and now most clearly with Hurley. I still hope to give birth to my own children one day, but for now, I get to be a mom in other ways. Sometimes that means being a nervous wreck while my "baby" is under anesthesia.
     I wonder if God worries about us. Maybe God knows the outcome of every situation, even has the power to intervene anytime. Or maybe not. Jesus told us not to worry about tomorrow, but does that mean it's okay to worry about today, even for God. After all, God is our heavenly Parent, and it's hard to imagine any parent not worrying. I know I always will.


Saturday, March 10, 2012


     Although it is usually just said as an expression of boredom, lately I have literally been watching the grass grow. I decided that this spring, my first with my very own yard, I would find out how exactly one takes care of grass. Up until recently the extent of my knowledge was that you mow it when it gets too high. But now, I am doing my research, finding out about fertilizers and pre-emergent treatments, pest control and overwatering. 
      I attended a lawn care seminar at a local garden center last Saturday, and they told me that once my grass greens up, I should bring in a sample of it so they can tell me what kind it is and what I need to do to keep it looking its best. The weeds that are overrunning the grass right now, I was told to leave alone. They are winter weeds and will die soon anyway. By next year, with regular applications of pre-emergents, hopefully they won't be so out of control. 
     I'm thankful for the wisdom of experts, for their recommendation of caution and patience. Without it, I may have just hosed down the whole place with Roundup and started from scratch. This way takes more time and effort, but I can just imagine how satisfying it will be to look at my healthy lawn and remember how far we have come.


     It’s church yard sale weekend.  Providence is participating in the Red Balloon Yard sale on Daniel Island and so I’ve been weeding out clutter to donate.  An old foot massager.  Several remote control cars.  An alarm clock that still works but isn’t needed. Books. Old vases. A CD player.  An ancient Nintendo gameboy.  More books and bric-a-brac.  Unused photo albums. Where did all this stuff come from? My daughter, Savannah, who is home for spring break, goes through her closet and donates a half-dozen posters, a baby doll, several beanie babies, giant pink monster slippers, and some random trinkets. But it’s the bears that stop me.
       In Alison’s closet, I find the bears she loved as a toddler, with the uninspired names of Pink Bear and Bear Bear.  At two and a half, for reasons known only to her, Alison pronounced Bear Bear with an affected Scarlett O’Hara accent -  “Bay-uh, bay-uh.”  Even though Alison has now married and moved to St. Louis, leaving Bear Bear behind without a thought, I haven’t been able to muster up the grit to send the bears along to a new owner.  It’s time I decide - but first, I take a picture.  
     It’s my new de-cluttering strategy.  If I’m feeling too sentimental to get rid of something - even if that something has been stored in a box in a closet for ten years - I simply take a picture of it.  The memory can remain with the picture, taking up a lot less real estate than a box full of stuffed animals in a closet.  I’m feeling brave, so I photograph Big Bear (a five foot tall bear who has lived in Alison’s room for years) and sent him off to the yard sale as well. Those bears will find new children to love them and their digital image will remain to trigger memories and inspire blog posts.  The pictures of the bears are now safely stored in a file on my computer named “Favorite Old Things.”  
      Letting go of what we love is never easy... but it does free up closet space.


The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire 
not things we fear.                                             ~Brian Tracy

I took a walk with a photographer friend of mine who took this shot.
It's amazing what a long lens and shallow depth of field can do. Likewise in life we can change focus and reframe events.
It is said we are the stories we tell ourselves.  Can it really be that simple?

For a March day, it was.
Hello, spring.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Walking, waiting and weeding in Lent

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.
Mother Teresa
      On a recent walk at Charlestowne Landing, I had to watch my step. It's reptile alley time as I call it, with turtles and alligators sunning themselves for hours, soaking in the energy of spring. Not warmed enough to move quickly, they are less likely to slip into ponds as walkers come along, so I've learned to watch my step. I also take time to enjoy the remaining camellia blooms before they pass out of season, and I think how in Yosemite National Park, at just this time of year, Horsetail Fall looks like a waterfall of molten lava.
      This pleases me. I can't slow down time or pause my kids at what seem magical moments of development. But I can pause and reflect. One of my resolutions for Lent is to slow down and process more, do such things as have more game nights with the kids, linger over a meal. I'm realizing life is lived in the pauses, in doing the small things.

     Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. I watched the clock in an increasing state of frustration as the last minutes of February ticked away. I was waiting for news, potentially big news for me, a yes or no answer that I had been promised would come by the end of February. And of course this just had to be a Leap Year! But even with that excruciatingly long extra day, my answer still did not come. Instead, on March 1 I got an email telling me the decision would be delayed until March 15! Another two weeks?!
     How much of my life is spent waiting. And I think sometimes I would speed through it all if I could. I remember as a child, the six month stretch between my birthday and Christmas seemed an intolerably long time to go without presents. Later it seemed as if I would never be old enough to drive, never finish high school, never get to travel, never graduate from college, never find a job, and on and on. But all those nevers did eventually come to be, and now I can hardly remember what the waiting was like, until another situation like this one leaves me powerless to do anything but wait.
     There is an element of waiting in Lent. It is a slowing down season. Those of us who gave up some cherished food or habit may find ourselves thinking, "Hasn't it been 40 days yet?!" Fast-forwarding to Holy Week sounds like a good idea sometimes. But I have to keep reminding myself that there is value in the waiting. I need those times when there is nothing I can do but wait, when I am certain that I am not in control of what happens and when. At least that's what I keep telling myself as I continue watching the clock for the next two weeks. Delayed gratification is still not my strong suit.


    I’m still weeding my way through Lent - both literally and metaphorically.  I was pulling dandelion weeds from the grass in the back yard when I flashed onto a memory of my great grandmother.  Granny was a West Virginia mountain woman who never traveled more than a hundred miles from her birthplace throughout her life.  She was a country midwife who raised children and chickens on her small farm.  She took care of me after school, feeding me homemade apple cake while we watched that old vampire soap Dark Shadows
      But what I remembered at that moment were the dandelion leaves.  I have a vivid image of my grandmother, barely five feet tall, bent low over the spring grass in the front yard, pulling dandelion leaves and carefully tucking them into her upfolded apron.  She gathered the leaves, boiled them and served them to me for lunch, telling me they would make me grow tall and strong. Then she pulled up the roots to make tea, noting that it was good for the digestion and the liver.  
      Today, you can buy dried dandelion root at the health food store for $12 a bottle.  Whole Foods sells dandelion leaves for an exorbitant price. Researchers are beginning to document the myriad vitamins, minerals and who knows what other good things that are present in the dandelion weed.  Granny lived to be 102, eating dandelions as a spring tonic all her life.  
     I pause in my weeding and gather some of the young fresh dandelion leaves in a basket for the kitchen.  Perhaps some of the weeds in our lives don’t need to be pulled out, they simply need to be recognized as a gift.