Friday, April 29, 2011

Riding out the Storm

It's likely that most people in Alabama have a storm story this week. Many are tragic, some are miraculous. Mine is one of the latter. With so much bad news coming in from across the South, perhaps it's good to know that sometimes we're in the right place at the right time—despite the conditions.
   On Tuesday, I traveled up to Little River Canyon to my cottage there. We built the place right before Jack was born and it's a small, but efficient get-away—the perfect writer's retreat. I admit I don't travel up there as much as I'd like. It's somewhat cut-off from the world, without cable or DSL or phone service. Usually, that's just fine.
   I arrived late Tuesday afternoon. Of course, I'd heard there were storms brewing for Wednesday. This weather report was concerning only because I planned to meet one of my best friends, Janet, in Chattanooga on Wednesday. Janet and I had been friends for twenty years. We'd been with each other during some of the saddest and happiest times in our lives. We were long overdue for a reunion.  I was determined to go to Chattanooga to see her come hell or high water, as my Dad would say. It would take more than a little rain to keep me from seeing Janet, as planned.
   Wednesday dawned and sure enough the sky was dark and heavy with clouds. By 8 AM it was pouring. No problem, I thought, this storm cell would pass. It couldn't rain like that all day. I planned to meet Janet around noon. I spent the morning in my pleasant cottage, writing and fielding email on my iPhone, my only link to the outside world. By 10 AM, as if on cue, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the gloom. I was in my car at 10:30 winding my way down the mountain and heading north to Chattanooga.
   Janet and I met at a restaurant in downtown Chattanooga. Her step-son had recently moved into a loft apartment nearby. We hadn't seen each other in eight months and we settled in quickly over salads and sandwiches and a hot, bubbly bowl of pimento cheese dip to recount what had happened since last we met. We talked for hours there. Meanwhile, another storm front moved in and began to dump hail. We scurried over to the apartment and spent some time talking with the landlady about what we would do if a tornado came through. Our deep conversation continued at the apartment. The weather was getting worse, but Janet had to get back to Knoxville to her family there, and I, to my mountain house. At 5 PM, Janet departed. She encouraged me to stay at the apartment in Chattanooga. When she left I was checking the Doppler Radar for the area, watching red and yellow blotches move quickly across the path between Chattanooga and Little River Canyon. I saw a distinct opening in the storm at 6:30. The next calm spot would not occur until at least 9 PM. If I hoped to drive in daylight, I had to leave now. Yes, I could stay here, but I felt I should go back to my house. I had no compelling reason; I just wanted to spend the night there.
   By the time I reached I59 south, the rain stopped and the sky brightened. The storm had not passed completely, but I was traveling between cells. Winds whipped up in the trees once I crossed the state line into Alabama. I felt the forceful tug of gusts on my car and slowed down a bit, but I was just miles away from my exit, Fort Payne/Rainsville. I felt confident that once I was off the highway, the worst would be over.
What I happened upon on CR861
   Fort Payne was eerily dark. Shops, gas stations and restaurants closed. The traffic lights, black. Power was out in throughout the valley. Cars took polite turns going through intersections. My radio crackled, I couldn't get the news. Well, whatever was going on made little difference because I only had one option: Get home. Earlier in the day, I spoke with Jack's dad in Birmingham. Schools closed early. Jack was safe. There had been tornadoes on the ground near the airport. Damage and deaths reported, but I had no idea to what extent, only that my family was safe. Some roads and interstates were closed. It would be foolish to try to make the 2-hour drive.
   As I headed up Lookout Mountain, twilight settled in around me. Still, it was not raining and I felt confident I had outrun the storm. I would be at my house within 45 minutes. I felt more vulnerable on open highway, to be sure. Crossing over the Little River bridge, I could hear the rush of the powerful waters below. I clinched the steering wheel a little tighter, thinking of how cold and dark that water certainly was after all the recent rain. But I was so close now. I would soon make the turn-off on county road 861. Though I'd have to travel dirt road for another five miles, the forest offered protection and comfort.
   It was still light when I slowed for CR861. Respectful of the pot-holes, I edged along the dirt road, which was in good condition, considering all the rain we'd had this spring. I was so close now. I expected the power would be out at the cottage, but there was at least one candle and flashlight. The night air was cool, thanks to the storm, so the lack of electricity would not be a hardship. I had everything I needed.
   Then I spotted a disturbing tableaux: a pick-up truck overturned in a ditch. I stopped my car and got out. "Hello?" I called. "Is anyone in there?" There was no answer and no one nearby. I thought the wreck must have occurred earlier in the day. I slowly approached the crumpled cab, took a deep breath and knelt down to look inside. Thankfully, the cab was empty. "Whoever was in there must have been badly injured," I said aloud to myself. What had happened? Was the truck overturned by high winds in the storm? Was it picked up and dropped here? When had it occurred? The truck hadn't been here when I traveled the road this morning. I took a few photos of the strange truck, then got back in my car and continued down the road.
   I had only gone a hundred yards when a young couple appeared, clinging to each other. I knew immediately that they had been in that crumpled truck cab. I'm fairly sure I said, 'Holy crap!" a couple of times to no one in particular.
   "Can we use your phone?" the boy asked. "Of course!" I replied. "Of course!" I stopped my car in the middle of the road and rushed over to them. Were they alright? What happened? The girl, Beth, was sobbing. "My mom's gonna kill me when she finds out!" The boy introduced himself as Caleb. Earlier in the day, they'd gone swimming at the Blue Hole, at the bottom of the canyon, and not far from the road. I gave him my phone to call their families. Beth kept sobbing and Caleb had an arm around her. There was dried blood on Caleb's ear. Beth was wearing a sundress and I saw the abrasions on her shoulders and back. That they survived the wreck with these seeming scratches, let alone walked away from the crash, amazed me.
   Caleb tried several numbers without luck. Cell phone service was out across the valley, though my phone, with the help of the AT&T satellite, was able to transmit. "You should go to the hospital," I said. "Just to get checked out. You don't know how you'll feel in a few hours." Like the typical 19-year-olds they were, Caleb and Beth insisted they were fine. I didn't buy it, nor did I want to scare them with what I knew about head trauma, how injuries to the brain can manifest over time. Beth looked pale and she couldn't stop crying. I suspected the experience of being in that accident was enough to launch her into shock.  Beth was driving too fast on the dirt road. When she hit a turn, the truck flipped. The back tires were near bald of tread. It was also possible that gusting winds helped to flip the empty truck bed. It had all happened so quickly. I put my arm around her and assured her that her mother wouldn't care about that old truck. "I'm a mom," I said. "And all I care about is that my child is okay. You'll see. It'll be fine. You're alive, Beth! That's all that matters."
   Beth seemed to take these words in, but then another wave of anxiety hit her. "Will you talk to my mom?" she asked. "Sure thing," I said. Beth gave me the number at her Mom's place of business and I dialed it, but no one answered. Her mother worked in Rainsville, just west of Fort Payne. We tried several numbers and could not reach any of Caleb or Beth's family. I decided to drive them down the mountain to their homes.
  Beth started to shake and cry again. Caleb gabbed her as she crumpled to the ground. She was hyperventilating. Caleb and I tried to sooth her, but then her eyes closed and she went pale. "She's stopped breathing," Caleb said. Oh, my God, I thought, this girl could die!
   The next few minutes were a blur. Caleb knew CPR, thank God. My shaking fingers dialed 911 and I waited impatiently for someone to answer. I tried to make my voice sound calm. "She's breathing again," Caleb said. I heard Beth cough and sputter as I talked to the emergency dispatcher. We were on a county road that was on the line between Cherokee and Dekalb counties so there was some confusion as to where we were. I stressed that this young woman had been in an accident, had stopped breathing and needed an ambulance now. "We're doing our best," the operator said. "There are calls coming in from all over the county." I didn't know then that just a few miles away, a tornado funnel half a mile wide had spilt open the small town of Rainsville, leaving death in its path. Hundreds were injured all over the county—thousands across the state. By morning, at least 35 would be reported dead in this county alone. All I knew is that I was on a deserted county road, night was falling, dark clouds ready to bust open at any minute, lightning flashing in the distance, and Beth needed an ambulance.
   Finally, the dispatcher had the information she needed and promised to send help soon. We didn't know how long it would take the EMTs to reach us. I found a beach towel in my trunk and covered Beth. I held her hand and stroked her arm in the soothing way Jack liked me to do before bedtime. She told me she had a baby, seven months old, who was with her grandmother. At one point, she asked me to call the baby's father, but I got no connection there either. Caleb and I tried to keep her talking and conscious but she was slipping in and out. Caleb told me she was prone to hyperventilating when she was anxious, and that she had stopped breathing before. "Beth an' I have been best friends since we was in diapers," he said. I worried about him, and the wound on his head. He seemed okay, but I made him promise to get checked out too. I asked Caleb if they'd been doing drugs. A lot of kids come out here to smoke pot. Caleb said no, that wasn't the case. I believed him. I wanted to know if there was some other reason why Beth was failing to breath.
  The emergency team began to arrive. Local volunteers were first on the scene. They asked Beth questions and she wouldn't respond. I wasn't sure if she was just scared, or drifting off again. She clutched my hand and I held on tight. Her vitals were taken. The fire department arrived. Someone mentioned a tornado had "flattened Rainsville," but it didn't register to me at the time how close Rainsville was to Fort Payne and to the Canyon. Finally, the ambulance and EMTs appeared on the road. At that point, I had to let go of Beth's hand so the paramedics could place a neck brace on her. She cried in pain when they moved her onto a backboard. Soon they loaded her on the rig. I'm not sure what happened once she was inside, but the EMTs worked on her for a while there. Caleb and I waited outside the rig. He wanted to ride along, but the EMT's wouldn't allow it. I told him I'd drive him to the hospital, but he wanted to go to his grandmother's first and let her know he was okay. His car was there, he said. Of course, I didn't like the idea of his driving and told him so. (The Momma Bird coming out in me full force.) He promised to have someone drive him. Finally, the ambulance started its engine and the line of emergency vehicles, which now included a Dekalb County policeman, who arrived on the scene last to write up a report. We slowly proceeded down CR861 toward the highway.
   A few large drops of rain started to fall as we made our way down the mountain to Caleb's grandmother's house in Fort Payne, but the promised deluge held off. Caleb thanked me profusely for my help.
   "I'm sorry to put you through all this, mam," he said.
   "Caleb, you're not putting me through anything," I assured him. "This is just what you do. I'm glad I could help."
   "If you hadn't come along, I don't know what we'd've done," he said. "It's my fault we went to the Blue Hole today. I just wanted to get Beth out of the house on her day off from work. She just don't get to have much fun."
   As Caleb spoke of Beth, I realized how much he loved her, and I smiled.
   "Are you sure you're just friends?" I teased.
   "Oh, yes, mam!" Caleb replied, too fast. "I just want to take care of her. We've grown up together and I just don't want any harm to come to her ever."
"You're a good friend, Caleb," I said. "And this wasn't your fault. Things happen. You took care of Beth when she needed you. Thank goodness you were with her."
   He seemed to let these words of comfort set in, but I knew he would play the events of the day over in his head, second-guessing his judgement for taking his best friend out for a swim on such a stormy day.
   Fort Payne, without electricity, seemed a shadow town. Caleb directed me to his grandmother's house. She must have been watching at the window for him, because she was on the porch before he got out of the car. I watched them embrace, then I drove away. I still had a chance to get back to my house before the next wave of storms. I just hoped the rain would hold off just a little while longer.
   As I crossed the Little River Bridge again, the reality of the day hit me full force. I knew taking Caleb back down the mountain was pushing my luck, but what else could I do? He threatened to walk if I couldn't or wouldn't drive him. Yeah, right. It was least ten miles down the mountain, and in the dark. And he was barefoot. No, I had to take him home, there was no choice. You do what you have to do. And now, all I just wanted to do was get home before the sky let loose.
  To the east, streaks of lightning illuminated the heavy, dark clouds of the next storm system that seemed to be waiting for me. The clouds were the color of primary finger paints after they've been mixed together into a murky, thick gray.  I turned onto CR 861 for the second time that night. On my way in, I passed a wrecker carrying Beth's totaled pickup. I took one last look and shook my head again, amazed that anyone had survived, let alone walked out of that wreckage.
  The final miles to the cottage consist of packed dirt and stone; the road climbing up and winding around to the Canyon rim. I drove slow, not wanting to take any chances now that I was so close to safety. But would the cottage be safe? Would it even be standing? I honestly didn't know if the storms had passed for the night, or if a tornado had lifted my little mountain home into the sky like Dorothy's Kansas clapboard and tossed it up to Oz. It was doubly dark on the mountain, without benefit of the periphery glow of the urban collective. My headlights found the house, right where it should be. Dark, no electricity of course, but untouched by the storms. I was hungry and exhausted. It was 9:42 PM.
   Inside the house, I lit a candle. Found the flashlight. Outside, lightning popped like a photographer's strobe. Thunder boomed over the canyon. I was safe. Beth and Caleb were safe. Right then, I received a text from my friend Janet. She was back Knoxville and wanted to know if I was okay. I texted her back, "Yes, long story, but I missed the storm. I'm fine."
   I sat on the deck and watched the light show for a while. I heard myself say "Thank you," then I went inside. The sky let loose and began to pour.

Post Script: 4/29/11 PM
I received a text from Caleb this afternoon. "Beth is doing great!"

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Impermanence Contemplation Day!

It's Easter Sunday, and yes, Jack is making his way through a big basket of chocolate eggs and gummy rabbits. My little Easter Bunny hopped out of bed at 7 AM (yawn) to get the festivities started. As much as I love the traditions, this year I've added a new ritual: the contemplation of impermanence and death. Sounds like a real downer, I know, but it's quite the opposite.
   This morning I've been thinking about the women I met at the dementia caregivers' workshop a few weeks ago. I wonder how they're doing with their loved ones. Did the strategies discussed in the workshop help change their perspective about the task that lies ahead of them? Did they go home and see their husbands in a different light?
   Many diseases—epilepsy, Parkinson's Disease, multiple sclerosis, alcoholism, to name a few—provoke irrevocable physical, emotional and cognitive changes in the affected person. These conditions may manifest themselves in differing ways, but the outcome is the same: a shift in physicality and/or personality and thus, a shift in their relationship with the world and everyone with whom they relate. The relationship between a healthy spouse and a sick spouse is altered permanently when significant cognitive changes occur.
   I admire all those ladies at the workshop. From my experience with my mother, know the challenges they will face, and that their relationships with the men they love will only continue to change and become more difficult in the months and years to follow. Their courage gives me pause: Could I love a man unconditionally and without expectation?
   The reality is this: In every marriage, both parties will experience a decline in health. No relationship will be spared separation through disease and death. We can live in denial and fear, or we can prepare for death long before it occurs. Letting go of our attachment to mortality is not pessimistic. Embracing impermanence is the only way to fill our lives with compassion and love. In the book, The Way to Freedom, the Dalai Lama writes "If your reflect upon death and impermanence, you will begin to make your life meaningful." In other words, making peace with death is the only way to live fully.
  The Christian Easter story provides the same teaching. In fact, this crux of Christian faith is a lesson in impermanence. Jesus did not cling to life; rather he submitted himself to death so that we might live fully. Whether you believe this literally or metaphorically matters not. To truly ponder Jesus' death and resurrection yields the same result: Relinquishing your aversion to death to live a more compassionate life. Too often, however, ill-directed Christian doctrine places emphasis on the end-goal of after life, turning Jesus' death and resurrection into our "Get Out of Jail Free" card: He did the work, so we don't have to. I believe, rather, that Jesus showed us how to practice compassion and love, embracing death without fear, yet it's up to us to emulate that example. And that, my friends, is the essence of Easter. (Who knew? Easter is really the ultimate Buddhist celebration.) I hope the ladies I met at the workshop find some comfort in today's traditions, too. Happy Easter.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Coldest Drink in Town

Take your nine-year old for an after-school Icee, and you can learn a lot. Those frozen, icy treats seem to have a truth-serum-like effect on Jack, at least. On Thursday, I scooped up Jack and his best friend Joe* from the "walkers" pick-up point behind the school and bestowed upon them the ultimate words for any grade-schooler: "Let's go for an Icee!" For a couple of bucks I can make a child's day, so why not? (Yes, and Dr. Clarke that's money in the bank for you, no doubt, when cavities come to call.) When else does hero-dom come at such a bargain?
After 40 years, the truth-serum quality
of the Icee remains the same.
   I'd already won major fun-Mom points by giving into the plaintive requests that Joe come home with us after school. I called Joe's Mom and asked if it was okay and she heartily gave her consent—and gained two more hours to relax or get done whatever it was she was trying to do on Thursday. Jack and Joe were elated. Is there anything better than discovering your best friend can come over to play? Yes. There's discovering your best friend can come over and you get a mid-week Icee.
  One of the reasons I give in so easily to Icee request is that I used to enjoy those treats so much when I was Jack's age. There was a 7-11 near my grade school, and sometimes (not everyday) I would walk up there with friends and purchase a cup of pure frozen cherry heaven. Amazing that the graphics on the cup have not changed significantly in 40 years. The Icee polar bear still remains in his 60s jovial form. He hasn't morphed into a skate-board totin', iPod-wearing cool dude—at least not permanently. I believe he did a stint as a surfer a while back (which makes no sense at all for an Arctic creature) but thankfully, the Icee Company realized the merit of remaining true to their brand—and their fan base of millions of Baby Boomers, like me. Icee Bear (his real name) is still the same lovable, letter-sweater-wearing Polar Bear from my childhood. The formula and basic machinery has remained true as well. Now Icees can be had in exotic and antioxidant-boosting flavors, such as pomegranate passion fruit, but the original is still the best: cherry. Turns out, Icee came of age at the same time I did, so it's natural I'd have such an affinity for the stuff. Today, there are more than 75,000 Icee machines in the U.S., which serve 500 million brain-freezing concoctions a year. Jack and I buy our share.
   Now, I'm passing on the tradition of sipping frozen cherry syrup through a red straw with a little spoon-shaped end. I'm also witness to what must have occurred 40 years ago when I walked with friends after exchanging a dime for a cup of pure sugary delight. I don't recall the conversations inspired by that happy thirst cessation. I do remember walking with friends, just as Jack walked with Joe the other day, sharing secrets and hopes and dreams. I recall the feeling of being a silly kid, who enjoyed the little twinge of independence that comes from being allowed to walk alone in the world. Of course, Jack and Joe weren't walking alone, but for a while they forgot I was there—or at least forgot I was a Mom. I got to overhear what occupies the third-grader mind as I listened to their Icee-induced conversation.

   "Mike* broke up with Catherine,*" Jack said.
   "How come?" I asked. 
    "Oh, Catherine cheated on him with a second-grader," he replied and he took another long pull of Icee through his red straw.
   "Really?!" I said. "She cheated on him? What does that mean?"
   "She was dating the second-grader behind Mike's back," replied Joe.
    "How awful for Mike!" I said. "He must have been really hurt."
     "Naw," said Jack. "He was happy about it 'cause he liked Amy* and now he's dating her."

I know all these kids of course, and know that their "romantic" relationships are just friendships at this point. When I asked what they meant by "dating," I as told it meant simply having a play-date with that special boy or girl. There was nothing overtly sexual about these relationships. Jack's had a "girlfriend" since first grade. In fact, he has the same girlfriend since first grade, which is a testament to his fidelity and sense of commitment—not to mention exceeding good taste in girls. (She's a doll.) And yet, these kids' seeming resilience to the impermanence (that good Buddhist word, again) of relationships stunned me. Mike wasn't upset when his relationship with Catherine changed. Instead of nursing a wounded ego, he was on to the next girl. Catherine, no doubt, was not happy in her relationship with Mike, or she would have never entertained the attentions of that second-grade beau. Neither Jack nor Joe were scandalized by any of this activity. They saw it as the normal waxing and waning of grade school friendships. 
   As we walked along, the conversation shifted. Joe and Jack began talking about Pokemon cards and the most advantageous way to use a Pikichu in battle. I walked behind the boys, sipping my cherry Icee and marveling at the microcosm of love and relationships going on at the third-grade level. Here, fidelities were made and broken at such a young age, and yet, no real damage done. Is current media (thanks Suite Life) introducing kids to complex aspects of romance too soon? Or is this good practice for their adult lives? I can still recall the heartbreak I felt when my first crush failed to return my affection in kind, so maybe this play-romance is useful. If so, it's very possible that these kids are ahead the curve in getting the whole romantic thing right. 

* Not his/her real name.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Impossible Dream

The one that got away...
I didn't think it would happen so soon. I had given up hope. The odds that I would fall in love so quickly seemed improbable. I thought maybe in a year or two, once my life had settled down a bit, I would find what I was looking for. They say (who are they anyway?), It will happen when you're not looking. I've always wondered how it's possible to find anything if I'm not looking. I mean, the only way you can not be looking is if your eyes are closed, or if you're asleep. I can't just turn off the innate ability to process the world around me. My brain doesn't have that switch, but maybe some people do. Maybe those brain-switch people are the They? Yes, of course, I do inherently know what They mean: If you're out there in an all-consuming hunt for that Thing you desire, it's quite probable you're neglecting the reasons within you that are necessary to attain said Thing. But even still, can we dispense of that inane, trite-ism? Because it is physically impossible to just not look when you know something is missing in your life.
   Yet on the scale of not looking, I wasn't really looking when I fell in love. It happened in the way that all great and monumental events in life occur: by seeming happenstance, one event unfolding organically upon another—naturally. I knew immediately, without hesitation. I had the feeling that I hoped I would have when It was right: I felt I was home.
   It all started when I bought a newspaper on Saturday. I haven't purchased a newspaper in years since I get my news online or via NPR, but a headline about the 2011 federal budget resolution caught my eye, and on a whim, I exchanged seventy-five cents for a thin volume of newsprint. After reading the news, I hunted to find the classified section to look at home listings, both rentals and those for sale. Since the Sunday paper boasts a separate real estate section, there weren't many offerings on Saturday, but it only takes one, and it was there: A house for sale my neighborhood with two bedrooms, one bath on a wonderful, quiet street within walking distance to Jack's school. My heart did a little flip.
   For the record, I'm a veteran homebuyer. This will be the fourth home I've bought in the past 18 years. And I always gravitate to old homes with hardwood floors, plaster walls and high ceilings. Of course, old homes also come with their share of baggage: scary, outdated electrical wiring, tiny closets and kitchens with counter space fit only for dicing grapes. I don't discount a property for these flaws. Here's where the metaphor departs, because unlike in a romantic relationship, "fixer upper" in real estate parlance is equity in the bank. A fixer-upper in boyfriend parlance is tantamount to heartbreak. Ripping up old linoleum and laying ceramic tile is a pain, but relatively easy. Ripping up a man's less-than-healthy relationship with his father, well, there is no contractor on earth who can guarantee that work (save for an exceptionally skilled shrink.) And fixing a man is not going to be my next DIY project, let me assure you. But I am game for renovating another home—if and only if, my instincts (and the tax assessment) tell me that it's gonna be worth the effort.
   I drove over the see the house that afternoon, walked around the exterior and called the Realtor to let him know I wanted to place an offer. He was holding an open house the next day and I planned to be there ready to pounce. But I knew after seeing the exterior of the house and the sweet, shady backyard with its iris beds and fig trees that this was a home I could love. It was indeed, love at first sight, rusted window units and all.
   When I did introduce myself to the interior of the home, I felt immediately comfortable. Sure there were some improvements to be made, but there was nothing that  me put me off. The house was very open and forthcoming with its faults. It knew it had been neglected over the years and just needs some TLC to restore it to it's true self. I didn't have to remodel or remake into some image of a home that I've seen on the pages of Southern Living or Dwell. The old house had, as They say in the realty world, good bones. The old oak floors, though stained from years of wear, felt substantial and solid and level under foot. The walls, with paint-faded patterns—the ghosts of family photos—needed fresh color, but there were very few cracks in the plaster, which was a testament to the home's solid foundation. Even the bathroom, with it's black and white tie floor, iron tub and spartan sink, seemed to be waiting for the next owner to move right in and give it a good scrub. Sure, some buyers would want to go wild with the place, blow out walls, modernize the fixtures, recess the lights, but I saw the house for what it was: a solid structure that had stood the test of time and was ready to take on a happy rebirth. The home, I discovered, was owned by an old man who had passed away a few years ago, and his son was just getting around to selling it. The house stood empty for years, and longer still since it carried the sounds of childhood laughter and joy.
   I brought Jack back to see the place and he fell for it too (of course, he's fickle about such things, and falls in love with every home he sees.) I wanted to involve him in the process, just as, when/if I ever become romantically entangled with a man, Jack will have sign off. I wrote up an offer that afternoon and felt the euphoria of dreams realized. I knew it would be a lot of work to get the house up to code, and I had to get my financial ducks in a row, but I also had confidence I could make all those things happen. Electricians and HVAC guys are in my Rolodex. I had already picked up loan papers from my credit union. I was in love and ready to make a commitment.
   Within 24-hours, I negotiated price and terms, and the contract was edging toward agreement. The one sticking point? Timing. The Seller wanted to close right away, and I needed a couple weeks to get my financing in order. Yes, it all came down to timing. Like so many things in life—meeting the right person, getting the job, having a child—timing was the essential element. Depending upon timing, the house and I were destined to be together— and not. I honestly thought it was meant to be, but there are always two sides to any relationship, and often the other person's perspective and motivations are quite different than your own.
   The Seller's perspective was this: He wanted to sell the home as soon as possible. He didn't want to wait. He wanted a sure thing. He decided he could not extend the closing for me. In the meantime, another suitor stepped in and made an offer, with a quicker closing. When the realtor called to deliver the bad news, I got that same awful, sinking feeling that I had in seventh grade when I didn't make cheerleader—the same feeling I had when a boyfriend called to say he "thought we should see other people." Yes, I had done the one thing you should never, ever do when buying real estate: I had become prematurely, emotionally attached.
   Of course, for a woman who becomes emotionally involved with her DSL service, that's a tall order to ask me to separate feelings from the home-buying process. Buying a home (a home, not a house) is an emotionally-charged prospect, especially now when so much of my life is in flux. Homes represent so much: stability, maturity, safety, comfort. In fact, research shows that "homeowners are more satisfied with their lives and are happier. Homeownership is positively associated with physical, mental and emotional health." 
   Of course we know that home-owning can bring about a lot of stress and anxiety, too. Just ask the millions of people who lost their houses to foreclosure over the past couple years. Homeownership is a tremendous responsibility. Just as in romantic relationships, commitment alone is not tantamount to happiness. Happiness, like a home, can only be owned if we take responsibility for our wellbeing. 
   I was disappointed, but just as when a relationship doesn't pan out, I now can step back and realize that maybe this was just a dress rehearsal for something better. I learned a lot by extending my heart and throwing myself into the house buying arena. Certainly, when the next "perfect" house comes on the market, I'll be ready with loan pre-approval in hand. I know more about what I want and what I need, and I will not settle. I can wait for the right house to come along. Most important, after going through what can be an intimidating process (signing a 30-year mortgage!), I know I do want to buy a home, I do want to make that commitment again. A place I can call my own is a central piece of the puzzle as I'm putting my life back together in my great Do-Over. Yes, the first step should be finding home.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Chicken v. Egg

Take a deep breath, folks, we're diving deep today...
Jack (Easter, 2003), in the good old days
when nap-time ruled.
   It's Springtime in the South and the world has turned chartreuse, seemingly overnight. Our drab, dormant landscape is alive again with buds and blossoms and new growth. It's the season of resurrection and rebirth. Easter. During this time of year we are shown that life is not a singular, linear existence. Indeed, we lives many lives and die many deaths within a lifetime. (Don't say I didn't warn you this entry was going to test your ear-pressure.) I'm riffing off of Buddhist belief in reincarnation, but this isn't exactly anything I've heard attributed directly to the Buddha. But when you think about this theory, it makes sense. "Why think about it?" you ask. Well, because reconceptualizing the standard conventions of impermanence and death may allow us to let go of anxiety. In theorem, the theory looks like this: Life minus anxiety = A happier, more compassionate life.  
   Embracing the fact that everything changes (impermanence) is a very Buddhist principle, which lies at the heart of finding peace within ourselves. It's a basic human reaction to be adverse to change. We are born with the desire for routine. As a parent, I realized this soon after bringing my newborn son home. All the "What to Expect" books advise creating and maintaining schedules for young children is central to their wellbeing; and children are slaves to their routines. When Jack was a baby, we stressed over keeping his nap time schedule intact—for our sakes and his. When he didn't nap or eat at the appointed hour, all hell broke loose. Of course, over the years, those nap times diminished and rigid mealtimes fell away. Today Jack would rather eat cauliflower than snooze in the middle of the afternoon, and eating is an activity that comes in last place after, well, just about any other activity, except sleeping. Yet, when he first refused to nap at 2 PM or proclaimed he wasn't hungry at noon, it rocked my world.
   Everything changes. Our resilience to the changes in our lives is dependent upon our past experience, our attachment to whatever is changing, and our emotional disposition. As adults, we grow comfortable with a set pattern in our lives, and become cranky when these familiar routines are disrupted. We become accustomed to having the ability to do certain things and go certain places. When your favorite restaurant is closed due to renovation, or you find you can no longer run five miles with ease, you get upset, even angry.
   In truth, we live in a world that has undergone dramatic changes since time began. It is only our limited perception that guards the status quo. On a microbiological-level, our very cells are changing right now—as they've done since we were born—though we blissfully unaware of it. Hair grows and falls out. Skin cells die and replenish, bone cells completely rejuvenate every seven years (yes, it's true!) and on and on. You are literally not the same person from moment to moment, and yet, we live day to day with the idea that the person who we perceive ourselves to be is static, fully-formed and definitive. Not so. Change is the only constant in our lives.
   Changes tend to happen so slowly that I don't notice them from day to day. But in truth, there are events happening right now that will shape my life in the weeks, months, years to come. No, I'm not aware of what those events are right now, but I am certain they are happening, just as I am certain that the Earth is rotating around the Sun, although I cannot feel its movement. I rock along in my groove until one day something occurs and the change manifests itself. My father dies. I lose your job. My child now longer requires my 24/7 attention. None of these events happened overnight. What appears to be a sudden change is actually an evolution of events, not predestined, but inevitable.
   The ability to step-back from your life and appreciate these changes is what we call perspective. At some point, you might realize that your life is profoundly different than it was a year or two ago. You may even feel like a different person because of what you've learned along the way. When you marry, for example, your life as a single person falls away and you embrace a new existence with your spouse. Parents know this feeling, too. You're happy as a couple, and then, after you have a child, you look at your pre-baby life and wonder what you did with your time before you had a child.
   Accepting, even embracing, change is central to one's wellbeing. Allowing our perception of what once was to die away, and celebrating the birth of whatever comes next can be difficult. We want our bodies to remain supple and lovely; our children to stay sweet and dependent; our careers to follow a upward trajectory; our parents to simply always be there for us. This, of course, is unrealistic, and it hinders our ability to appreciate whatever our "next life" might be. When we cling to the status quo, we are limiting our ability for happinesses and growth. Yet, when we feel we've hit the proverbial "wall" and feel life has stalled out, lost all meaning, taken a wrong turn at the Texaco, that's when change or growth is most likely to manifest. Lama Deshek, the Tibetan teacher at the Losel Maitri Buddhist Center,  recently said, "Whenever you find yourself saying, 'I don't know what to do now,' you are probably at a point where you have a great opportunity for growth and change." By this he means, that when you've finally shrugged your shoulders and let go of the sense that your life is set in stone, you are open for whatever comes next. Letting go and accepting change marks the death of the illusion that life is static. In shedding whatever it was you held tight—a job, a relationship, an image of yourself, a time in your life—you are opening yourself up for the growth that will most certainly blossom, and in that way, you are reborn. Everything fades, falls away, decays to make way for new growth...and life, after life.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Playing With Fire

Starting a new relationship is a lot like being drawn to a bonfire. It's warm and comforting—especially if you've been cold for long time. Fire has a lot of great attributes: beauty, warmth, light and the ability to roast food. You love the fire when it's providing you with heat and light, but stick out your hand and get too close, and you'll come to despise it. Of course, the fire didn't leap out and harm you. It was just being fire, doing its fire thing, and, yet, you'll curse it and throw water on it when it gets out of control.
   As a newly single woman I'm now grappling with the grown-up realities of romantic relationships, and how easily one can fall into that love-hate trap. This is a pattern I fostered long ago, perhaps from my very first crush. I'd meet a boy and we'd hit it off. We'd talk and flirt and I'd go home, day-dreaming about how wonderfully smart and witty and attractive he was. In this early infatuation—before we really knew much about each other—it was easy to attach all types of wonderful attributes on the dude. He's a great athlete. He laughs at my jokes. He know all the words to Rapper's Delight. And then, when and if the relationship crossed the line into the physical, therein followed the dreamy, dopamine-laden emotions generated from kissing and such. Ah, those are heady feelings indeed, fueling the flames of deeper attachment.
   As the relationship progresses, and we get to know each other better, red flags arise. He bores me to tears with tales of his basketball heroism. He calls five times a day, and has nothing to say. He snorts when he laughs at his own off-color jokes. Wabam! He's annoying! Aversion trickles in. The intense feelings of infatuation, dare I say, love, wither with disappointment when the bubble bursts. Angry feelings arise. Poof! The intelligent, funny, athlete is now an self-centered ass. When we spend extended time together, I start to resent him. As much as I once longed to hear his sweet voice, I now only wish he would shut up. Sound familiar?
   Of course, it can work the other way too when the object of your affection suddenly retreats from red hot to ice cold, and indifference sets in on his end. He stops calling and you feel the intense pull of withdrawal. He breaks up and you are effectively crushed by your one-time crush. Once the disappointment dissipates, you are left seething and wishing all types of nasty retribution for the cad, who, by the way, is pretty-much the same guy you loved just days before. You find yourself sniggering when he trips on the basketball court and driving around at midnight on a Saturday night decorating the trees in front of his parent's house with toilet paper.
   After almost three decades since my first romance, the feelings of attachment and aversion are much the same as they ever were—except, I dare say, today I would never drive around in the middle of the night effectively littering some poor man's flora with roles of extra-soft Charmin. (At a dollar fifty a roll, are you kidding?) Yet, even in recent flirtations I've felt myself go through the stages of attachment and aversion. At first, I'm impressed with a guy and begin to think that there could be something there. He's so sensitive. So smart. So compassionate. And really he's just so-so. Sure it's nice to have some one to talk to and share the everyday stuff about work or our past marriages, but then, at some point I start sizing him up as potential mate material, and that's when aversion comes into play. Reality check time. He's too old, too conservative, too self-centered, too boring, too egotistic. He's too-too much. Ultimately though, it is me not him. I'm the one who's heaped on the attributes too soon, and piled up the flaws too late.
  Of course, the principles of attraction and aversion play out with family, friends and colleagues, too.  We build expectations of a person and when they fail to meet our expectations, the person loses his or her shimmer. What's important to remember is that we cause this sense of disappointment. Rarely is the other person at fault. When aversive feelings arise, instead of faulting the other person for disappointing us, we should look inside to figure out why we needed that person to be whatever it was that we thought made us so happy. Sleuthing out the source of our attachments and aversions allows us to shift the focus of responsibility for our wellbeing and happiness off others and places it soundly on ourselves, where it belongs.
   "But aren't Buddhists supposed to be happy alone?" you ask. "Aren't they supposed to be self-reliant and untouched by the emotional realms?" Well, yes, I suppose if you're a true bodhisattva you are self-aware enough to see past these emotions and not get tangled up in them. That doesn't mean you can't have intimate relationships. Adhering to Buddha's teaching just means you see all relationships as excellent ways means for Buddhist practice. My divorce is definitely good material for Buddhist practice. Being a mom? Excellent Buddhist practice. Meeting a new guy, falling love and getting burned? Yes, you got it. It's Buddhist practice. In fact, dating just may be the ultimate test of mindful living. At this rate, I might just reach enlightenment in this lifetime.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cockroach Compassion: The Ultimate Practice

My Teacher arrived uninvited
this morning, alive and kicking—
and he left that way, too.
One of the most basic principles in Buddhist practice is embracing mindfulness in all aspects of life. Every morning, I start the day by reminding myself to be mindful in my thoughts, words, intentions and deeds. I burn a little piece of incense at the cute shrine I've installed in my apartment, and I make four prostrations. (And yes, it's probably a good thing that I am now living alone and there's no one—not even a cat—to give me shit about this morning ritual.) Today, however, I found myself not so alone as I performed my prostrations and prayers before the shrine. On the floor, not three feet from me was the very nemesis of my existence, a cockroach. I can tolerate spiders, wasps and any assortment of other creepy-crawlers, but for some reason cockroaches inspire a visceral aversion in me. And it's unfortunate that I live in the South where these dreaded creatures reside in abundance, not only crawling, but winged, too. Yes, most perversely these roaches (sometimes genteelly called Palmetto bugs) can fly. For these and many reasons, cockroaches gross me out, send me running for the Raid, or for a shoe to smash them into oblivion. But not today.
   You see Buddhist vows prescribe Thou Shalt Not Kill, although the Buddhist language is not quite so OT. Simply, one should live life in harmony with all creatures, not putting oneself above any living being and certainly not bringing about its death. The roach was lying on his back with his sticky feet flailing in the air, quite helpless. I kept an eye on him as I finished my prayers, asking for guidance in thought, word, intention and deed, while the roach kicked his little hairy legs in the air. Then I slowly rose, retrieved a brown paper grocery bag and a dust pan from the kitchen and returned to the living room where the roach was still splayed like a June Bug. I took a deep breath—you never know what a cockroach playing 'possum will do once nudged, one of their many trickeries and why they give me the heebie-geebies—and scooped him onto the dust pan and into the open bag. An aversive shiver went through me as I hurriedly crumpled the top of the bag to close off his exist, then I carried said bag out my front door and down the stairs to take my uninvited, yet honored, guest out of doors. I released him with an ungentle shake into the shrubbery far away from the entrance to my apartment. Once released, he began to crawl quite aggressively straight toward me, his "I'm dying act" now forgotten. I ran back into my building, discarding the paper bag in the lobby recycling bin before racing back upstairs into my apartment, locking the door behind me.
  I knew this day would come: the day I would have to make a conscious effort to show compassion to a cockroach, the nemesis of my nightmares. This is the reason Buddhism prescribes mindfulness and the honoring of life. The very act of stopping a reaction of aversion, gathering strength (and a dust pan and paper bag), carefully removing the loathsome creature and releasing him unharmed is the essence of all Buddhist practice. Now in a weird way, I'm grateful to the cockroach for giving me the opportunity to practice compassion. And practice is key in mastering any activity, right? Were he and his brethren hoards not on this earth, I would not be tested. Perhaps I have found the cockroach's purpose in the world is not to spread pestilence and fear, but to incite gentleness and compassion. Think about it next time before you call the exterminator or slam a shoe-heel down on this lowliest of creatures. The cockroach can be an excellent Dharma teacher, depending upon how you choose to perceive him.