Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wing Man

Last year I decided to do something different during the holidays. I just couldn't stand the thought of sitting around on New Year's Eve by myself. So when a dear friend invited me to visit her in New York City that seemed the perfect solution: New Year in New York.
    Traveling to Manhattan, the trip was charmed. Planes departed as scheduled. The bus lingered outside the LaGuardia baggage claim until the moment I alighted from my flight, as if it waited just for me. Trains and subway lines picked up speed and arrived at my stations early. I was never in a hurry and never stressed about travel, and every logistic unfolded without mishap. I even extended my trip a few days to go to Washington D.C. for the swearing in ceremony of a friend who'd just been elected to the Senate. At each turn, I met very kind, generous people—both friends and strangers—who took me in, made me laugh and served me food for thought. 
   As I neared the end of my vacation, one thing had not occurred on my New Year's Trip that I hoped would happen: I had not found romance on my travels. No, I was not looking for a one-night stand. (Shame on you, for thinking that! I was upholding my Buddhist Vows, thank you very much.) But I had considered that it would be very nice to meet someone handsome and interesting while I was out and about. I'm a hopeful romantic, remember? And I was down one Prince Charming.
  Yet, upon departing D.C., I was happy and content, having just enjoyed a quiet morning strolling around Georgetown by myself. After breakfast, I rode the Metro to Union Station to catch the train to BWI, where I had a direct flight back to Birmingham. The train lets out at a substation near the airport and requires passengers to board a shuttle bus, which goes to the terminal. My luck held. The shuttle was waiting for me when the train arrived, and a good thing too since— feeling cocky about my logistic good fortune—I had not provided extra time to catch this flight. As the bus lurched forward and lumbered toward the airport, the man sitting next to me began to cough. Ever the good Samaritan, I dug into my purse and extracted a lozenge. 
   "Zinc?" I asked him. 
   "No thanks," he replied. "Keep it." 
   I thought his response a bit terse, but I let it go after noticing he was a cross between Matt LaBlanc and Matthew Broderick with just a smidgeon of Tony Shalhoub thrown in for good measure. His tone softened when he turned to look at me, the lowly cough drop offerer in my urban-chic traveler togs: black leggings, black mini-skirt and black suede boots. We struck up a conversation and discovered we were on the same flight to Birmingham. As we began flirting, I took note that his left ring finger was quite definitely bare. All good.
   By the time we boarded the aircraft, there was no doubt that we would find two seats together. Cough Drop was cute and funny and, apparently, very smitten with me. I actually pinched him once to make sure he was real. Realizing this very well might be too good to be true, as we buckled our seat belts, I asked, "So your wife or girlfriend isn't gonna to be mad at you for flirting with me?"
    "No," he said, laughing. "No one's gonna be mad." 
   In turn, I told him about my separation and impending divorce, and that I had a son. 
   "That's all great," he said. "Thanks for being so honest with me. Really, that's perfect!"
   Before the plane took to the skies, we had a date planned for Saturday night. I couldn't believe my luck. As it turned out he was 35 (I asked to see his driver's license) and I slyly dismissed his query about my age, saying coyly, "I'm older than you. Does it really matter?" Apparently, it didn't. Descending into Alabama airspace, he mentioned a recent donation to a children's hospital. That was the altruistic icing on the cake. I just met a cute, compassionate guy on the last leg of my travels, and he even lived in my hometown. Perfect. 
   As we walked through the concourse in Birmingham, Cough Drop gave me his phone number. Then he said something unexpected, "My Mom's picking me up downstairs, would you like to meet her?"
   "No," I said, laughing. "That's quite alright."
    And although I hoped he didn't still live with his mother, the fact that he would have introduced me to her made me feel more confident about going out with him.  
 On Saturday night, I took a long, hot bath and spent more time than usual curling my hair and applying make-up. It was my first date in sixteen years. Understandably I was a bit nervous and excited, but I didn't have expectations of Cough Drop. He was smart, nice and funny, but I just wanted a fun night out with a cute guy. And yes, I did think about how nice it would be to kiss him. That's the Buddhist truth. And as we sat at the bar and kissed before God and Man and a few dozen sports fans watching ESPN, it was nice, really nice, actually.
  Afterwards, my very chatty traveling companion grew quiet.  
  "There's something I've been meaning to tell you." 
   Crap, I thought, this can't be good.
   In keeping with my Buddhist practice and finding the good in all events, what he told me could have been so much worse. For example, he could have said, "I am a serial killer and you're going to be my next victim." But what he confessed halted our interlude just as quickly. He hem-hawed around for a moment or two and then blurted out: "I'm married."  
  Apparently this fine fellow had been so taken with me on the bus to BWI that he removed his wedding band along with all moral underpinning—the latter of which he may never have possessed. 
 "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner," he said, as he explained that he and his wife were "having problems. Sort of like you and your husband."
 “Where is she now?" I asked, incredulous. 
   "Back at our condo. What's the problem? You're married, too!"
   "Oh my God! No, it's very different! I'm separated! My husband and I are getting divorced. There are attorneys involved and papers being drawn up! My husband already has a new girlfriend. It’s a done deal.”
    “That’s what you say.”
    “No, really,” I said. “My marriage is over. Yours, however, is not. I have to go.”
    "Listen, please, I don't want you to think I'm a bad guy,” he said. “You have to understand. You see, my wife is crazy! I mean really crazy. I spend all my time trying to keep her from going off the deep end."
 “Great! Is she going to show up here?”
   Cough Drop paused, then smiled.
   “You know, you would probably like my wife if you met her. Everyone loves her. She doesn’t seem crazy at all when you first meet her.”
 “And what does she think you’re doing right now?" I asked, but then thought better of it. "Never mind. I have to go. It’s okay. No harm. No foul. I’m not mad, but I have to go now.”
   "Please, don't go," he said. "Stay and talk to me."
 I put on my coat. I just wanted to leave this bar, get in my car, drive home and forget the whole awful mess. As I walked to the door,  Cough Drop followed me like a point guard, apologizing and begging me not to go away mad. It occurred to me then that his poor wife was probably a perfectly nice, sane person. He was the one who was crazy.
  “I just feel so sorry for you," he said. "I mean, your husband has a girlfriend and here you are, all alone.”
   “Really, I’m good," I said. "Don’t worry about me. Honestly, I’m not upset, but I should go.”
   “You know, I’d like to be your friend,” he said. “I could be your wing man. We could just go out and have fun, you know? You could call me anytime, for anything. Really. And you know, my wife really would like you. She could use a friend like you. I think you would like her, too.”
   “I'm sure I would,” I said, edging out of the door. 
   “Hey wait! I have an idea,” he said. “Maybe we could have a threesome!"  
    I did not see that coming. I'm sure my jaw dropped.
   "Not gonna happen,” I said, laughing at the absurdity of it all. “I'm leaving now. Thanks."
   So endth my official first date. I walked out of the bar and into the cold, clear night. Once in the parking lot, I sprinted to my car without looking back. I locked the doors, started the engine and sped away. I chose a circuitous route home, in case Cough Drop decided to follow me. Some houses in my neighborhood still had Christmas decorations on display, but the holidays were over. It was January. I made it through my first Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years Eve alone, without having a mental meltdown. 
   Though not an ideal entree back into the land of singledom, the date was not a total loss. I learned some important lessons. First, under the header of Be Careful What You Ask For, I learned that next time I traveled and wished for a romantic encounter, I would be more specific, as in: "I would like to meet a man, who is available and not a liar, nor a man who thinks his marital problems can be solved with a threesome." And I also knew that if a man I just met ever offered to introduce me to his mother at first blush, I would definitely take him up on it, and I would get her phone number—instead of his. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sticky Edges: A memory

Sometime after I left for college, my mother planted holly bushes and pines along the front of our house. After twenty years of growth, she finally had her wish: the foliage was so tall and dense that passersby could not see the old rock house from the road. Years ago, before the city expanded its boundaries, our house was considered "in the country." My parents' little farm—with its cows and pigs and large vegetable garden—was typical for the rural area. Now a strip mall replaced the dense woods across the street.  
My Mom with Jack (age 3-months) in 2002.
   It was dark by the time Jack and I turned off the road onto the hidden driveway. The porch light cast a yellowish light on the nandina bushes in front of the house. Although their simple branches were tangled in sticker vines, they set out red berries doing their best to look festive. The stone house was unchanged, yet it seemed smaller, as if its structure was shrinking with the same aging process as my parents, who were now well into their 80s. 
    As your parents reach this age, you hope to appreciate all the nuances about them. You want to breath them in like air. You hope to remember all those tiny details later. The sound of voice and laughter. The smell of fried chicken. The warm embrace. The coolness of their hands in yours. I tried to cling to these sensory gifts, though almost immediately they began to fade, like perfect snowflakes melting on my outstretched palm. Yet, sometime during each visit, patient appreciation gave way to reality and reminders of why I was always leaving: My life was no longer contained here.
   Brass bells tied with hay bailing twine cried out as Jack and I entered the too-warm house. The first thing I noticed was what was not there: No Christmas tree.
   The tree was always placed in the same spot, to the left of my Dad's red chair. There were years when my father had to fasten fishing line between the tree and a nail in the wall to anchor it in place. We never bought a tree. Dad went out in the nearby woods and cut them down. Mostly cedars, they were, with imperfect, crooked trunks and sticky branches that made my arms itch. No matter their shape or size, these home-grown trees were always perfect by the time their branches were weighed down with lights and ornaments and shiny, glass balls, and strewn with silver tinsel that shimmered and spun when the air stirred. But not this year. A tree had been too much this year, and besides, Jack and I would be back home before Christmas Eve.
   "Come in, come in," my Mother cooed, her soft voice broken by the remnants of a cold. I bent slightly to hug her. She was so thin. When had she become so thin? I prompted Jack to step closer. He hugged her around the legs and she bent to extend her arms around him.
   "Oh, Jack, you've gotten so big!" Mom said. "What do you have there?"
    She pointed to the black and white plush cat that he gripped by the tail. His right thumb returned to his mouth as he worked the thread-bare tail through his left thumb and fingers.
   "Let Grandma see," I said.
   "It's Gawky," Jack said, holding his beloved toy out to my Mom. Jack settled on this favored toy when he was two. Somehow "cat" came out "gawk" and then was turned to "Gawky." Jack could not sleep without Gawky.
   Mom took the cat and held and stroked it, as if it were real. She knew children. She knew just what to do and say. In fact, she was almost silly when talking to a child. She slipped into this tender role so easily. I put Jack down.
   "Oh, no!" she said in feigned distress, as she examine the ruined tail. "What's happened to his tail?"
   "That's his scratchy spot!" said Jack, smiling.
   "His what?" Mom asked.
   "His scratchy spot," I said loud enough for her to hear.
   "His scratchy spot?" Mom repeated. She positioned an oversized pair of reading glasses that must have been my Dad's on her nose and took a closer look. "Looks like his tail is coming apart."
   I looked and sure enough, the end of the tail had split and the poor cat's stuffing was exposed.
   "Jack, maybe Grandma could fix Gawky's tail for you while we're here," I offered. "She's a very good sewer!"
   Mother handed Jack back his cat and he grabbed the scratchy spot and plucked his thumb in his mouth, rubbing the well-worn place where comfort was known.
  Mother moved slowly, balancing herself on the doorframe as she walked from the living room to the kitchen. Among her known health concerns were osteoporosis and high blood pressure. After experiencing what she first called a "mild heart attack," and then insisted was nothing at all, her doctor placed her on a low-cholesteral, low-salt diet, which she mostly followed dutifully. Mom had been a nurse after all. She once worked in surgery. She knew how to follow the instructions of doctors.
   "Are you hungry?" Mother asked.
    "No Mom," I said, following her to the kitchen. "Jack was hungry, so we had to go ahead and eat. We stopped at Wendy's on the way."
   "Oh? Well, you must still want something! I have some cookies out in the freezer. I bet Jack would like a sugar cookie! I've got some icing made up, too. Jack, do you want to icing some cookies with Grandma?"
    Jack nodded, and I was sent to the old garage—which to my knowledge never housed an automobile— to forage through the large deep freeze and find frozen cookies.

   Mother was a good southern cook. She taught me to make fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy from roux. She made German dishes too: Potato pancakes and bean soup and mashed kohlrabi. Her recipe box was jammed full of yellowed clippings from The Arkansas GazetteSouthern Living, Family Circle. There were recipes clipped from bags of flour and chocolate chips and from the labels of soup cans. She collected these scraps, sometimes pasting them onto index cards before filing them away, but some were left as provided, such as the recipe for tamale pie scrawled on a scrap of paper by  a church friend at a potluck. She rarely made any of these new recipes, especially after my sisters and I moved away from home. Dad was a meat-and-potatoes man. No wonder Gazpacho—or "salad soup" as my mother wrote in her cramped cursive on the card—was never realized in her kitchen.
  Mother also liked to bake. Her thin-crusted Apple Pizza was a favorite, but her signature sweets were her sugar cookies. They were buttery, sweet, crisp and thin. Slice-n-bake was anathema in our home. The process of making sugar cookies from scratch was time consuming, but Mother always made them before every major holiday. She had dozens of cookie cutters that she had collected over the years. My favorite—and the oldest—were made of a thick red plastic and had fancy indentations that would imprint details into the dough. There were Santas, reindeer, wreaths, angels, camels (for the Three Wise Men) and snowmen at Christmas. Rabbits, chicks and egg shapes at Easter. Shamrocks for Saint Patrick's Day. Hearts at Valentines, and stars and flags for the Fourth of July. She had a menagerie of circus animals, dinosaurs and barnyard critters, too. She often took cookies to church functions when children would be present, and always had some ready for her grandchildren.

  Mother's deep freeze was an enormous white, metal beast that held everything from milk and cheese to steaks and potato chips. She hated to see food spoil, and since it was only Dad and her at home these days, she she found freezing the best solution for storing excess.
   I lifted the door of the freezer, pulling against the its vacuum seal. A cloud of cold air issued forth and it took me a minute to orient myself to the items cast in frost. Mother labeled most items with a slip of paper attached by a rubber band. There were also plastic containers of chicken broth, egg yolks, bread crumbs, fresh parsley and lemon juice. No item was too minescule to save for future use. A child of the Depression, Mom's sense of practical frugality hadn't waned over the decades.
   Just as promised, the jar of sugar cookies was in the back left corner of the freezer, behind the saltine crackers. A film of condensation covered the container as I carried it into the warm house. Jack was sitting on his knees on a chair at the kitchen table, a dish towel tied around his waste as an apron. Mom held a small bowl in which she was showing him how to mix red food coloring into white icing. She stirred with a toothpick until the sweet stuff was a bright pink. Then she picked up another bowl, dabbed a bit of white icing in it and added blue food color."To make Santa's eyes," she explained. "The eyes really make them come alive." And on she went, creating green and yellow and a dab of orange.
   Meanwhile the fog on the jar of frozen cookies began to disperse and I could discern an unusual yellow cast to the contents. I opened the jar and removed a few cookies. Usually, crisp and clearly defined, this batch was thick, hard and misshaped. Had she added too much baking powder? Or used self-rising flour? Something was distinctly off. The cookies possessed a faint sulfur, eggy odor, perhaps the reason for their yellow hue. Mom didn't seem to notice, nor did Jack, who grabbed a cookie and began to nibble at its frozen edges.
   In most aspects of life—with money, sex, religion, politics—Mother was very conservative, but when it came to decorating her sugar cookies, she was down-right decadent. She spent hours carefully glazing each cookie with buttery-sweet icing, adding red hots for Santa's nose and coconut beards. The reindeer got red-hot noses, too. Camels received special attention, often sporting silver dragees on their ornately iced backs. They were modeled after a picture Mom clipped from a magazine.
   Mother picked up a cookie shaped somewhat like a Christmas stocking and began to apply a thick layer of green icing. Her icing was usually quite smooth, but tonight it clumped in places where the powder sugar was not well integrated into the butter and milk, creating an acne of sugar. She placed the stocking down on a tray on the table, and picked up a camel. I tried not to stare as she labored through the process of applying the thick icing. Mom was—her own term—"slowing down." By this time, Jack abandoned his cookie to play in the adjoining room with all the old familiar toys that Grandma kept for his visits.
  "Oh fiddle!" Mom said. "I just can't get this eye right."
  I looked at the camel. Instead of a delicate dot of icing for an eye, he had a swath of blue across his nose.
   "Let me help," I said, taking the cookie from her. I did my best to transform the blue blotch into a bridle and reigns and then applied the slightest dab of icing to make an eye. It looked better, but not like Mom's famous designs. 
   Sitting down at the table across from Mom, I watched her cover an angel in white icing, her slender fingers grasping the knife. Then she handed the cookie to me to place the small details. Blue eyes, yellow halo, an oval mouth of pink. We worked together like this for a while. I didn't know that this odd batch of Christmas cookies would be her last. The slow unraveling of her mind was gradual and subtle, her thoughts catching on the sticky edges of the past. As dementia stole her, the careful tasks she perfected were among the first to be taken, and yet those Christmas cookies—and the memories they stir every year—remain a legacy of her love.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Oh! Christmas Tree

My Christmas tree, front view:

As if on cue, the weather turned chilly on Thanksgiving Day. When you're driving six hours in the rain, there's little else to do but grip the wheel, focus and try to quell your mind while the windshield wipers slap out a steady mantra. When we left on Tuesday before the holiday there were still a few golden leaves on the trees. Now, just a few days later, the cold front brought rain as if to target the those last leaves of fall and bring them down to earth. 
   Arriving back in Birmingham, I noted that some houses already had their Christmas decorations up, but the wet and barren chill didn't inspire a sense of merriment.
    I've always loved Christmas, or maybe just the promise of Christmas. A holiday so filled with songs about Peace of Earth and Joy to the World and topped off with giving and love, must generate a lot of good karma. No matter your religious beliefs, Christmas is hard to ignore. Gift giving is intoxicating, really, as are the parties and festive lights and delicious food. 
   Last night Jack and I made the definitive step into the Yuletide: We purchased a Christmas tree. The skies were gray and a light mist was falling when I picked Jack up from school, but no matter. We needed a tree, and today was the day. 
   By the time we made it to the Boy Scout tree lot, the rain was coming down steadily. I grabbed two umbrellas from the backseat, but Jack preferred to run ahead through the maze of trees. (Thankfully, it was a warm day.) We were handed a price list. The trees ranged from thirty-nine dollars up to over a hundred dollars. I asked where I could find the thirty-nine dollar trees.
   "They're in the back over there," explained a kindly Cub Scout Master. "Those are the trees with the yellow ribbons." 
    "Look for yellow!" I shouted after Jack. He was eyeing a blue, which was not in our price range.
    Jack stood by a stately spruce that towered over his head and mine. 
   "I like this one," he said.
    "Look for yellow," I countered, "That tree is $159."
    Jack looked at the tree with new respect, and then ran ahead to find a yellow-ribbon tree.
   The yellows were in the back of the lot, as foretold. The tallest was about the same height as Jack. This was not what I had in mind for the foyer of my new home. I had envisioned a stately evergreen, shimmering with lights and ornaments, visible from the street through my windows and door. My hopes sank. This was not the tree of my dreams, but I wasn't ready to settle just yet.
   "Let's keep looking," I said.
   "I like this one," said Jack, petting the fronds of a diminutive spruce. "It's cute and cuddly." 
   It's times like this that I feel unworthy to have this child. He would be happy with the littlest, scruffiest tree. He always goes for the underdog—like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the cartoon.
   "Okay, we'll keep that one in mind," I said, looking down at the price sheet. "Let's try to find the white-ribbon trees."
   Jack sprinted through the trees as I looked for white ribbons. The white-ribbon trees were fifty-four dollars. Not a bargain, but perhaps worth it if they were a bit more grand.
   Smelling a sure sale in the air, the Cub Scout Master approached us.
   "Did ya find one ya like?" he asked.
   "We're still looking around," I said. "Where are the white-ribbon trees?"
    The Scout Master trudged to the other end of the tree lot and pointed to a row of white-ribboned spruces. The first one was stout and full and—tall. It was the tallest of the white-ribbons. Jack ran up behind me and shouted, "I want that one!"
   "We'll take it!" I said to the Scout Master. 
   The rain was steadily coming down now. The Scout Master took off his glasses and wiped them on the end of his shirt. He motioned to an Eagle Scout who was standing under a tent, and together they hoisted the tree and carried to my car.

   As I drove home with the large tree strapped to the hood of my car like a prize elk, I begin to wonder how I would get the tree into my house. Surely it wasn't as heavy as all that. I couldn't recall what I had done on Christmas' past—before I was married, but then, I probably hadn't purchased an eight-foot tree. Well, I would manage, I thought. How heavy can a tree possibly be? I drove slowly, fearing the tree would shift and slide off the back of my car. A lot of discordant karma could be caused by a tree flying off of a car into traffic. "I'll figure it out when I get home," I thought, focusing on the wet road. 
   And as if scripted, as I pulled up in front of my house, a man who was out walking his dog in the rain stopped and asked me if I needed help with my tree. (Note: I am not making this up.) I'd seen this guy before, sometimes in scrubs. He lived on my street, but we'd never met. His dog was a well-groomed Sheep Dog, who probably weighed almost as much as my tree. I took the dog leash, and in no time, Dr. Do-Good had my prize tree on my front porch. 
   "It'll probably be lighter once it dries out," he said.
    I thanked him profusely and marveled at my luck. Getting the tree to the porch had been no problem at all, surely getting the tree into its stand and into my house wouldn't be so hard...

  There have only been a few points in my life where I felt that I had bitten off more than I could chew. One instance occurred while I was editing a story for NPR and the deadline was ticking down by the second. The other instance occurred while I was hanging on for dear life to my eight-foot tall spruce as it swayed precariously threatening to fall. 
   The following day, while Jack was at school, I determined to set up the tree so it would be ready to decorate when he came home. Problem: The tree—even dry—must have weighed eighty pounds. I could lift it, but only for a brief time. I managed to grab it full-on and wrangle it inside the front door. Then I managed to lift it into the stand. But once in the stand I had no way to secure it with those maddening metal screws provided in the tree stand. I couldn't hold the tree and secure it at the same time. While I was contemplating my next move, the tree swayed, swinging its weight and almost tipping over in the stand. I felt it falling toward me, and braced it with both arms. An image flashed in my head: There I was lying on the floor for days, pinned beneath my Christmas tree. I somehow found the strength to right the tree, but now I was stuck holding it up. And my arms were beginning to ache. I wasn't sure how long I could hold on.
   Fortunately, I brought my cell phone downstairs. Unfortunately, it was on the foyer table about four feet out of my reach. If I let the tree fall, it might ruin the tree and my new floors. This was an "I Love Lucy Moment" if ever there was one. And yet, I was determined to accomplish this feat. I hated to think that I had to depend upon a guy to do all the heavy lifting. Surely I could think of a solution.
   Slowly, I maneuvered around the tree to position myself closer to the phone. Keeping one hand on the trunk, I fully extended my arms until my fingertips grazed the phone and pulled it closer. Then, still holding up the tree with one hand, I called my next door neighbor, Emily, and prayed that she was home. (She's a freelance writer, like me, so there was a good chance she'd be there.) I put the phone on speaker and waited for the sound of the Emily's phone ringing. The call dropped. I redialed and waited for the sound of Emily's phone ringing. The call dropped again. My right arm, which was holding up the 80 lb. tree, began to tremble. I hit the redial button again...and the phone began to ring. Emily answered right away. She was at my front door in moments, following the trail of spruce fronds and laughing at me for trying to handle this enormous tree by myself. Within about five minutes we had the tree secured in the stand, but there was one little problem: The trunk was hopelessly crooked.
My Christmas tree, side view:
the Crooked Tree
I once thought of Christmas as the ultimate romance—filled with longing and love and hope. As a culture, we have a love affair with this holiday. And like a good love affair, Christmas is fleeting and intense and brings with it the heady feelings of joy. And as with romantic love, often the payoff is not as good as the build-up. Once the presents are opened and the parties are over, it's back to business as usual.  

   But maybe I've been going about it all wrong. Maybe—like the rest of life—Christmas is about the journey and not about the Big Day. Perhaps this Christmas will be about how I was almost smothered by my Christmas tree. And this tree will be special not because it is stately and grand, but because it's imperfect and funny—just like me. Christmas won't be perfect this year, but—with spruce fronds in my hair and the gentle scent of Ben Gay perfuming my aching arms—it could be the best Christmas ever.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Is Spiritual the New Sexy?

On Sunday something unusual happened: Jack and I attended church. Yes, my son who—last time I checked was sorta down with Jesus, not wild about shaving his head for Buddha, but most interested in Zeus and Perseus—was down-right giddy about attending Sunday service. Before you get all dewy eyed and start claiming miracles do happen, let me assure you there was a major “carrot” involved to inspire his shift in perspective about church: a girl. And not just any girl, but the girl who said “Yes” to his proposal of “Will You Be My Friend?” (And for those of you who are keeping score, it was not Caroline* the classmate who he previously asked to be his "girlfriend," but another girl in his class named Zoe.*)
   I didn't intend to bribe my son into going to a religious service. I'm friends with Zoe's parents and I knew they attended this particular church, so I called to get the scoop. The next thing I know, Jack and Zoe are sitting in a pew together, whispering to each other and giggling. (Yes, I did have to give Jack the evil-eye every now and then when he continued to talk after the service began, but overall, they behaved wonderfully). The day before, I explained to Jack that I was looking for a church to attend—in addition to my Buddhist practice at Losel Maitri—and we were going to try out this one and see if we liked it.
   "What if we don't like it?" Jack asked. 
    "Well, we'll try another one," I said. "Every church is a little bit different. Some have good music. Some have a priest or minister who gives inspiring sermons. One church might be more laid-back, another, more formal. We just have to try them out and see which one we feel most comfortable in. Some people call it 'church shopping'." 
      Suffice to say, by the time we left the church, Jack was sold and practically begging me to bring him back next week. I'm not sure how much spiritual instruction Jack received (they didn't have Sunday School because of the holiday) but I was very happy that this foray into the world of organized religion was a positive one. 
   Watching Jack whispering to Zoe during church, I felt a little tug at my heart. First of all, it was just plain sweet, but I was also struck by something I've learned of late in my Do-Over life. Although there are many attributes and circumstances that go into the making of any relationship, I now realize the importance of sharing a sense of faith and convictions with the one you love. Without that shared perspective and beliefs, you lack a strong foundation for continued spiritual and emotional growth. Exploring spirituality with someone you love can bring about remarkable discoveries about yourself and each other. 
   But there's more to having a spiritual practice than going to church or meditating—and this is the tricky part—you have to live it and apply its principles into every aspect of your life. No matter your beliefs, practice is essential or you're just paying lip service and not doing the work, nor reaping the rewards. Surrounding yourself with people who share those beliefs makes it so much easier to practice. Of course, there's no guarantee that a shared spiritual practice will bind you together through thick and thin, but it's a good foundation on which to build.
   Now I know a lot of happy marriages where the husband and wife practice differing religions, but I suspect they must meet in the middle and support the common practices that are evident in most faiths, and respect the differences. Maybe simply having a spiritual practice is the important thing. Of course, until I embraced my own spiritual practice, I didn't fully appreciate the relevance—and coming to terms with what I believe is really what my Do-Over life has been about. Like Jack, I had a "carrot" who showed me what true intimacy was by sharing his beliefs with me and loving me for mine.
  Granted, as a Buddhist in the Deep South who believes in a compassionate and loving God, it might be a tall order to find someone who's spiritually compatible. But at least I know now what's important to me. Yep, one of the litmus tests for the man of my dreams is that he be able to sit through the recitation of the Tibetan prayer book without laughing out loud at the part where we say, "Ho ha ha hum." (Okay, I admit I got tickled by that at first, too, but I was able to contain myself.) 
   I never thought I'd say this, but at this point in my life, attending Dharma class on a date is a huge turn-on. When you think about it, meditating and praying together are more intimate than sex. And I may be onto something as more 40-somethings go searching for what's missing in their lives. Could it be that spiritual is the new sexy?

*  Not her real name.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Do-Over Life: 1 Year Later

One year ago today, I launched this blog to chronicle my foray into Buddhist Practice. It's been my "Year of Living Buddhist-ly," otherwise known as My Do-Over Life. No, I have not achieved enlightenment, but I have edged my way closer to finding clarity in many areas of my life.  I've found that the more open I am to accepting the truths about myself, the happier I am—even if discovering those truths isn't exactly pleasant. And that the best way to learn about myself is through my relationships with others. In other words: I honor every person who enters my life as my teacher.
Jack's beloved and well-worn companion,
Panda Ping.
  Relationships have always been important to me. And the lessons I've learned have been a common theme throughout my blog. Whether it was through my relationship with my son, my relationship to my ISP, my relationships with my girlfriends, or my relationship with an annoying ex-boyfriend, these personal connections have taught me about my shortcomings and my strengths. I've always learned from the people in my life, starting with my parents and siblings, but now I'm more keenly aware of the messages imparted by everyone who crosses my path. How I react to each person and the actions he or she might inspire in me have helped define what is truest in me, and what I should let fall away. In fact, I look at this year as a reductive process, stripping away all the old, worn-out perceptionsreactions and dreams. Letting go of these old, comfortable ways may be harder for me than for Jack to give up his beloved Panda Ping. We all have relationships to people, places, things or behaviors that we cling to, either emotionally or physically. Understanding why they are so important to us is part of the process of growing up and letting go.

    I recently asked a friend and loyal blog reader to suggest a topic. Since relationships have been a running theme throughout the blog, I shouldn't have been surprised by his request: "An open letter to potential suitors on what qualities single moms look for in a future partner. (I know  your perspective on men may have changed since the first go-around, and I think that’s what would be interesting to readers).  I know it’s a personal topic, but I think that’s what makes your writing great." 
   At first I thought this topic was too personal, but since his query addresses the essential aspect of relationships, I decided to take on the challenge. (And yes, I've given this topic more than a little consideration over the past months.) In the past I've made lengthy lists of qualities that my Prince Charming should possess. Today, I have just one all-important characteristic, but it's a biggie and very simple, yet difficult to attain. And like most attributes we seek out in others, I know that I must first possess it myself. It's no coincidence that my Buddhist Practice is bringing me closer to this goal. 
   The ultimate quality in a future partner is not success or wealth or status—these qualities are superficial. It's not good looks or charisma or chemistry—although these attributes don't hurt. It's not kindness, compassion or unconditional love—yes, these qualities are admirable. The single most important quality in a future partner comes down to this: He must be Present. Let me explain.
   At this stage in the game—in our 40s—most of us have accumulated more baggage than can fit in the overhead compartment. Most people suffered disappointments, heartache, death of loved ones, abuse or worse. Many had parents who were less than present in their lives. Many have gone on to marriages and divorces with bitter consequences. All that is in the Past. Yes, I believe it is often necessary to explore those past wounds, find the source of the suffering and uproot it. (A good therapist can help, as can meditation and prayer.) I have a lot of compassion for anyone who has carried the woes of their past with them for decades, sometimes without even knowing it. I understand it because I've lugged my share of baggage with me, too. I'm clung to my emotional Panda Ping, afraid to let it go. But in embracing Buddhist philosophy coupled with the belief in a loving and Present God, I see that the past doesn't exist anymore. To cling to it is to cling to an allusion. 
   Likewise, projecting into the future is folly because the Future is an allusion as well. It doesn't exist. Remaining in the Present is the key to any spiritual practice. Of course, it's easier said than done when our thoughts are trained to race back to what is known, or rush into the future to concern ourselves about what is not known. 
   Being Present means simply focusing on whatever is happening right now; appreciating the beauty of the world as it is right now; loving the people who are in our lives right now; acting with compassion and kindness right now; speaking with the best intentions right now. Being present means finding joy in all of life.
   Being Present means being attentive, not self-absorbed or selfish. Being Present means not withholding affection, love or intimacy because of some deep-seated fear. I believe being present is the essential element necessary in any healthy relationship, romantic or otherwise.
  The good news is, we can choose to be present at anytime. We can choose to put aside our Panda Pings. What happened in the past is past. Every day provides the possibility for Do-Over. Over the months to come, as I strive to be more present in my Do-Over Life, I'm trying not to think about "future" partners. But when I do meet that special someone, we will both be present.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not-So-Psychic Friends

One of the fringe benefits of having children is that through them you can relive your childhood. Not in a weird I'm-going-to be-the-starring-quarterback-through-the-achievements-of-my-kid kinda way, but by gaining adult perspective on childhood woes.
In fourth grade, my new specs improved my vision,
but not my perspective.
   The truth is, I don't remember a lot of details from when I was Jack's age. But that was the year I was diagnosed as near-sighted and bestowed my first pair of glasses. I remember distinctly the first time I put on my new specs and walked out of the optometrist's office, amazed to see there were leaves on trees.
   In fourth grade, I had a cool teacher named Mrs. Shoptaw, and I can recall making my first foray into creative writing through book reports. And I remember we read the book A Wrinkle in Time. It was 1972 and there was a lot going on in the world. A quick Google reveals the details. Gas was 55-cents a gallon; terrorists attacked the Winter Olympics in Munich; Watergate became a household word; and the last ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. I don't remember my emotional reactions or thoughts about any of those events, but I can still recall all the words to the #1 single that year, Don McLean's American Pie, which provides further evidence of my childhood myopia.
   Although I can't be sure, it's probable that a lot of behaviors, which have dogged me all my life—my willfulness, my emotional outbursts, my love of chips and dips, my belief in fairytale romances,—all began somewhere around that time. In my Do-Over Life I can't transport myself back to fourth grade and rewrite my missteps, but thankfully, I have a son in 4th Grade to remind me of what it was like and provide some insight into typical fourth grade incidents.
  Jack's an amiable kid who makes friends easily. Last year his best friend was a boy named Tom.* Jack and Tom played together on the playground and got together often after school and on weekends. Tom was a nice boy and I liked his parents. When Tom came over to play, I knew I'd have several hours of relative quiet as they settled into playing their Nintendo games or trading Pokemon cards. They didn't bicker, and if they disagreed, the arguments were quickly resolved without incident.
  So I was surprised when Jack came home from school one day this fall reporting that Tom hit him on the playground. When I questioned Jack about what started the fight, he shrugged and said he didn't know. Tom was such an easy-going kid, so I suspected there must have been something Jack didn't want to tell me. Perhaps Jack had annoyed him or had hit him first? Jack was fine so I didn't make a big deal of it. But later that week Jack told me that Tom was "being mean to him." Turns out, Tom had run up to Jack on the playground and tackled him for no apparent reason.
   "Well, honey," I said, slipping into Dharma-Moma mode. "You never know what's going on in Tom's life. He could be frustrated by something that has nothing to do with you. But he shouldn't hit you or knock you down."
   Later that night, Jack's Dad called Tom's Dad. A few weeks went by and it seemed the problem was resolved. Then last week, while Jack was playing with his new Halo Megabloks figures, I asked him about his day. I expected the all-familar shrug, or the typical "It was fine," but he looked up at me and said, "Well, Tom knocked me down in the cafeteria today."
   "Really?" I said. "That's awful. Were you okay?"
   "Yes," Jack said. "I was just standing in line, talking to a friend and he jumped on me so I was caught off guard and I fell."
    "Did the teachers see it?"
    "Why do you think Tom would do such a thing?" I asked.
    "I don't know, Mom," Jack shrugged. "I can't know what Tom is thinking."
   Jack was right. We could spend all night trying to psycho-analyze Tom and why his behavior had changed, and we would never know what was really going through his ten-year-old head when he ambushed Jack in the milk line. After a word or two about telling the teachers if anything like this happened again, I let the subject drop. Jack wasn't looking for me to swoop in and fix the problem, he was just telling me about his day. He hadn't retaliated or escalated the incident into a fight, so I was proud of him for showing restraint. But more than that, I was proud of Jack for dismissing Tom's behavior as belonging to Tom, rather than taking it personally.
   Although I can't recall a similar situation during my fourth grade years, it's doubtful I wore my son's brand of Teflon. I was the girl who believed deep-down that the 4A classroom was somehow better than 4B—I, of course, was in 4B—because it was alphabetically superior. I took things personally.
   Buddhist Practice teaches that "taking things personally" is a form of egotism and causes a lot of unnecessary suffering. It's a hard rut to climb out of. The truth is, we can't know what others are thinking. We don't know if their words or actions are aimed at us, or the product of something else in their lives that has nothing to do with us. Our perception is limited. Generating a mind for compassion is the antidote.
   Of course, that's often easier said than done. For example, when a fellow-driver cuts me off in traffic, it's not a personal affront, but I can react as though that person deliberately intended to make me slam on the breaks. Or I feel that the person in the other car somehow thinks he's better than me (he's in 4A) and deserves to be ahead of me in line. Unless I make a rude gesture or honk my horn, my reaction isn't even registered by the offending driver. He is in his own little world—literally—but I'm left seething about his inconsiderate behavior. My reactive state might even cause me to drive recklessly and put myself and others in real danger.
   The truth is, I don't know what other people are thinking when they say or do things I take as a personal affront. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with other stuff in their lives. Perhaps the person is worried about a sick family member, or just got bad news about his job. Maybe he's just tired or running late for his child's soccer game. Maybe he's talking on his cell phone—while driving—because the President of the United States just called him for advice! (Okay, that's extreme, but you get the point.) Like Jack, I can't know what other people are thinking, so why not give them the benefit of the doubt, generate some compassion, and let it go.

* Not his real name.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unexpected Lessons

In the spring of 2007, I accepted a position as Senior Editor for a division of Time that created custom publications for clients. I was thrilled to be offered this full-time job, but one of the publications I was handed was on a topic of which I knew very little: Epilepsy. How in the world would I fill the pages of a magazine about seizures? "Okay," I told myself, "I can learn about anything." I would research and edify myself on this topic, just as I had learned about telecommunications, movies, personal finance, Latin-American cartoons for the assignments I received from other clients. I had some health-writing experience and I knew how to Google. How hard could it be to learn about epilepsy?
November is National
Epilepsy Awareness Month
  Epilepsy is a condition that's surrounded by a lot of stigma. Many people with epilepsy don't like to talk about it, let alone admit that they have seizures. For one, people with active seizures aren't supposed to drive. And there is this fear of the unknown that surrounds the condition. Seventy percent of all cases are idiopathic in nature, meaning there is no known cause. Epilepsy can literally strike out of the blue and transform someone's life forever. As many people are diagnosed with epilepsy every year as are diagnosed with breast cancer, but it doesn't get the play in the media, nor the dollars in research other more well-known diseases garner. (See, I have learned a lot.)
   As editor of this magazine, it was my job to develop stories of interest to people with epilepsy and those effected by the condition. So the best way to understand epilepsy was to talk to those who had it. Fortunately, I was given about fifty people with epilepsy who were the spokespeople for this magazine, and who were more than willing to share their stories. In fact, helping others with epilepsy and their family members was a way for them to make sense of their challenges. I learned through my journalism experience that I loved giving voice to those who might not otherwise have a chance to speak. I felt good providing a service to an underserved population, but I didn't realize (until later) how much I would by served personally by the people with epilepsy who informed every issue.
    During the height of my crisis in July, 2010, I assigned myself the cover story about a remarkable young woman named LaKeisha. I had spoken to her over the years, and was always impressed by her strong faith and optimism. Since this was a feature story, I spent more time interviewing her and learning about her incredible journey. She had almost died due to the sudden onset of her epilepsy. While recovering from her injuries, she lost everything—her home, her car, her job. At first, she felt that she'd lost all sense of who she was. All her dreams for the future were shattered, and she had to remake her life. But LaKeisha accepted help when it was offered, and found in helping others, she gained perspective. Although it took years for her to overcome all the set-backs, she never gave up faith. And that faith in something greater than herself sustained her, made her whole, gave her purpose and new direction. Her's was an inspiring story for someone like me who was embarking a Do-Over Life, but I was in such a fog, dealing with my personal dilemma, I wasn't able to apply the lessons she imparted to my life...not yet. At the time I was just grateful for the work and to focus on someone else's story rather than my own.
   The beautiful thing about lessons and the teachers who come into our lives to impart them, is that if you don't "get it" the first time, I believe God gives you another chance...and another...and fully appreciate the meaning.
   Earlier this year, I was assigned to write a story about Chris, another person with epilepsy who had overcome a life-threatening illness, only to literally wake up a different person with a seizure condition. I'd known Chris for years and always admired his spirit and conviction. Not only did he find the strength to survive the illness and manage his epilepsy, but like LaKeisha, he's gone on to re-cast his life using his experiences to help others. I knew Chris's story but until I went to his home for the interview I didn't understand it fully, because that's when I met Chris' wife, Debbie.
    In our interview, Debbie told me about visiting Chris in the hospital during those first difficult days and discovering that the resilient, smart, confident man she married had been changed in an instant. They had three small children at the time and her role shifted dramatically as Chris made his slow, but steady recovery. As much as I was impressed by Chris, who is a scholar, teacher, counselor, motivational speaker and accomplished author, Debbie blew me away.
  When they met in college, Debbie was attracted to Chris' good-looks and his spiritual maturity. (According to her, in that order.) They married young and started their careers and their family, and they were enjoying the realization of their shared dreams when Chris became gravely ill. This was not what she signed up for, but she vowed to love him "for better or worse, in sickness and in health," and she was true to her word. And here I was, getting divorced for reasons I didn't quite understand. I left the interview that night wondering what it was that made Debbie so strong, and thinking perhaps I was just too weak.
   I pondered this message on the drive home and in the weeks and months that followed. What was it that Chris and Debbie had that I didn't?
  It took several more months to yield an answer to this question, but an answer did arrive. Chris and Debbie shared this strong sense of Faith and it was the foundation of their marriage, which is what brought them together in the first place—that and Chris' long, hippy hair, which Debbie loved.
   What buoyed up LaKeisha, Chris and Debbie was their Faith in a power greater than their own. And when things got rough, these remarkable men and women said to God, "Okay, I'm struggling here. I no longer have all the answers, but I trust You do. Please show me the way." In return, they were given the guidance they needed. I'm not saying it was easy for any of these folks, but all of them now say that epilepsy was a blessing because it tested them and helped them define what is most genuine and true in themselves. One might say this is just optimism, or a way of making lemonade from lemons, but I believe that they were all given great Grace to overcome their difficulties, and then, in finding inner-peace, they've each turned around to help others—including me.
   Although I am sorry that these amazing people (now my friends) had to endure what they did, I am so grateful to them for sharing these lessons with me. A few years ago I thought I was being offered a job...really I was being given these priceless gifts of clarity.

PS: To all my Epilepsy Advocate friends, THANK YOU for sharing your stories of hope.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Attack of the Killer Bees

When I'm writing on deadline, anything can become a distraction. Today it was a fly. Not just your average fly, but a fly about the size of a pick-up truck..okay, the size of a smoked almond..okay, the size of a peanut. Suffice to say, he was a larger-than-average housefly. And he was a buzzy fly. You know the type. Some flies are rather stealth. Then there are the large, greenish dudes who exist just to make noise. The fly buzzing loudly against the casement windows in my office was of the latter breed, and if I were casting the remake of the horror movie with Jeff Goldbloom, he would have gotten the title role of the scientist, post-transformative experiment gone wrong.
   "Really?" I said to the fly. "You're going to do that buzzing thing in here? I have a big ol' house you could terrorize and lots of great windows to throw yourself against, but you have to come in the one room occupied by a human and bug the living crap out of me while I'm working?"
  "Buzzz, buzzz," he replied.
   "Why don't you go buzz the cat?" I said. "She has nothing better to do."
   "Buzzz, buzzz, buzzz," replied the fly.
   Good point, I thought. The cat's not Buddhist. Apparently the fly has been talking to the cockroaches and word's out that the smelly incense I burn in front of the statues of happy Asian men means I don't smash insects on sight. Okay fly, time for some Buddhist practice.
    I've never tried to catch a fly before, but I went to the bathroom and retrieved a thick white hand towel. And it was amazingly easy. I just waited until he stopped flying around and landed on the window, and I covered him gently with the towel cupped in my hand. Trying to get away, he flew into the towel. When I heard him buzzing his muted, pissed-off buzzy sound, I pulled the towel slowly from the window, folding the towel over the places where he might escape. Then I walked quickly to a window I could easily open (with one hand,) held the towel fully outside of it, and gave it a good shake. I didn't exactly see him blow me a kiss as he flew away, but there were no fly guts on the towel when I was done, so my practice was successful. It took all of three minutes. Amazing.
   I sat back down to write. After a while, I heard another buzzing sound, but this time it was not a big, fat green fly. It was a Bee, to be specific, it was a Should Bee. And it wasn't clattering around against a window. That's not where Should Bees are found. No, Should Bees throw themselves against the nice smooth, surfaces of your mind and try to annoy you into swatting them. Never heard of a Should Bee? As in "I Should Bee working right now, but I'm checking Facebook," (that one's rather benign). How about "I Should Bee more successful by this time in my life," or "At my age, I Should Bee happily married and edging towards a comfy retirement," or "I Should Bee a better wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter, person..."? Those are the Killer Bees and they will distract you from many a good purpose or intention, if you let them. You can spend the better part of your life swatting away the Should Bees, and they will keep coming back. And unlike the annoying buzzing fly, if you get too close to them, Should Bees will sting you in the ass every time.
   But today, when a Should Bee landed on my nose, and start buzzing about how I "Should Be Working at a Real Job with Benefits," I didn't reflexively try to slap it into oblivion. Of course, it started making noise so I would pay it more attention. I flicked it into the corner. Should Bees don't like to be flicked and it came back with a vengeance.
  "How do you think you're gonna pay the mortgage for this swanky new house on a freelancer's pay? I've seen your A/R statement, you know," said the Should Bee.
   "I've done this for years," I said. "I work hard, I'm a good writer and my clients love me."
   "Well, you Should Bee saving more, you know. What if something happens and you can't type? What if you break a hand or something? You can't just call in sick when you freelance."
   "I have savings. I have an emergency fund. I have a financial advisor. Go away!"
   The Should Bee was quiet for a moment.
   "But you've never done this all on your own before," it whispered sotta voce. "You're divorced now. You're all alone!"
   The Should Bee's sting found purchase in a very tender spot. Ouch! Fortunately, there was another sound, that familiar "ding!" of an email landing in my in-box. It was a meeting request from a client who wanted to discuss the project we were working on. I hit accept.
   The Should Bee was quiet, although I could still hear her flitting around against the well-worn grooves created by worry in my mind. And then I realized the secret of exterminating the Should Bees: They were all about the future and therefore they did not have any basis in reality. Should Bees are the product of limited perception, and as such, are flawed. As long as I stay in the present, they can't hurt me, because where I Should Bee is not as important as where I am Right Now. If I'm going to believe a perception, why not choose the one that says, "You are doing exactly what you should be doing in this moment"? It might take a little more faith to live in the moment, but faith is the ultimate Should Bee swatter.
   Without another thought of the Should Bee, I returned to my work. As I opened a new window on my computer and began writing my next assignment, I gently shooed the Should Bee out of my head and away from my Present. She might come back, but as long as I have faith that my life is as exactly as it should be, I'll never be stung again.