Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When It's Right, You'll Know It

Even in its state of disrepair, I knew I'd
found my home.

   On a Tuesday morning in mid-June, I found myself once more driving past the familiar Talladega Super Speedway. on my way to Atlanta. I had an 11:30 rendezvous with a lavender bridesmaid dress. My friend Kaye is getting married for the first time and I was happy to oblige her request that I stand up in her honor. "I'll wear a feed sack, if that's what you want," I said, although I was relieved to find she had selected a fashionable forties-style knee-length number instead. Two years ago, Kaye met her true love, and they are destined to be wed in July. When I met her husband-to-be, Todd, I could understand why she knew he was "the one" within a few short weeks of their meeting. He had all the right stuff: smart, self-aware, very kind and compassionate, with a great sense of humor—plus he looks like Steven Spielberg.
   I stopped at the Starbucks in Oxford to fuel up on an iced-Chai Latte and called my realtor, Shirley, who was anxious to hear my reaction to the inspection report on the house I had contracted to purchase. After my first ill-fated attempt at home buying, I now had my financial ducks in a row and was ramping up for the big commitment. In hindsight, I was grateful that first house fell through. The initial disappointment gave way to clarity, and I knew more now about what I required in a home—specifically, what I could live without and what was essential to my happiness.
   I'd been looking at homes in the neighborhood where I lived with my now-ex-husband for the past seven years. I wanted to stay close to Jack's school, but houses in the area come at a premium, and property taxes reflect the neighborhood's fine public school system. Plus, to stay in the same 'hood meant running into my past. When I thought of my dream house, something different always came to mind: An airy, two-story home, with a porch, a foyer, spacious rooms with high, high ceilings and solid, hardwood floors, built-in cabinets, french doors, and a claw-foot tub. Unfortunately, I could not afford this house in my old zip code.
   One day, while checking the dismal real estate listings in my price-range, I typed in the zip code of a nearby neighbor known for its historic homes. Images of turn-of-the-20th-century Craftsman bungalows and stately Victorians soon populated my search results. I could get twice the home and be just a 10-minute commute away from Jack's school.
   The first house that caught my eye was a grand Craftsman, which needed a new roof and soffits, but was well-priced. It was in "short sale," which meant the bank, as well as the owner, would have to approve the offer and months could pass before receiving an answer on a contract. The home possessed the aesthetic all details I desired—right down to the claw-foot tub—but it had also suffered from some bad remodeling along the way. There would still be trade-offs. As the realtor and I stood outside, admiring the detailed gables, I noticed a similar house under renovation two doors down.
   "What's going on with that house?" I asked. Many homes in this area are fixed up and split into apartments to accommodate the college students.
   "Oh, that house?" the realtor said. "The guy who bought it is fixing it up to sell. It will be a single family home, but all new inside. Not what you want at all."
   I envisioned a sterile, new interior, gutted of all charm and didn't give that house a second thought. We continued on to tour another home, also a Craftsman design, but smaller and with fewer historic amenities. This home had the basics (hardwood floors, high ceilings, a charming staircase leading to three bedrooms upstairs), however, and seemed move-in ready. I could close by the end of July and be done with the time-consuming house-hunting process.
   "This house will be more manageable for you,"Shirley said. "Since it's smaller, it will be less expensive to heat and cool, too."
   The realtor's practical advice beat down my desire for aesthetics. The larger home did seem imposing and needed a lot work. I decided to write an offer on the smaller Craftsman. I would install my own claw-foot tub, thank you very much! I wrote a fair offer, and told the realtor I would not negotiate. Of course, my contract was contingent on having a home inspector peruse the place thoroughly. To my surprise, the Sellers accepted my price and met all my terms, save one: They wanted the inspection conducted quickly so as not to drag out the process. Although I was very busy and traveling on Tuesday, after making a few calls, Earl the home inspector, agreed to meet me first thing on Monday.
   At 8 a.m. the air was already thick and hot, but Earl donned his overhauls and climbed up into the attic. As I waited on the second floor, I began to notice flaws that I had previously overlooked. The floors were definitively bowed inward from the exterior walls to the center of the house—like the way New Orleans creates a bowl. And several of the door frames had a Dr. Seuss aesthetic. When I closed the bathroom door, a full two inches of daylight could be seen between the top of the door and the frame. Could I really live with that? How much would it cost to straighten the door frames and shim the floors? Downstairs too, there were issues with settling. Yes, this house was over 70 years old, and some settling was to be expected, but how much settling should I settle for?
  That night when the inspection report arrived in my Inbox, more issues were evident. Although the current buyers seemed attentive, the house had been neglected at some point over the years. Wood rot had set in. Repointing the brick was long overdue. A shoddy job bolstering up the floor joists added to the complaints. This home had "issues" and clearly needed some TLC, but I wasn't sure I could make that commitment—for better or for worse.
   Fortunately, I had not succumbed to the cardinal sin of house buying this time: I had not let myself become emotionally involved. Although caught up in the initial infatuation of owning this old home, I was reluctant to take on its many problems at this point in my life. I refused to settle.

    Sipping my latte in the parking lot, I explained my concerns to Shirley the Realtor.
   "It's an old home!" she countered, feeling her commission grow cold. "You can't expect everything to be perfect and new! Just give it a little more thought. We can have a foundation specialist come out and look at the basement, and I know someone who can shim up those floors upstairs—"
   "Okay, okay!" I said. "Let me sleep on it. I'll call you back tomorrow with my final decision."
   An hour and a half later, I stood in front of a fitting room mirror, having a lavender dress altered to my curves. Despite my wise-cracks, the dress was lovely. I had never had a dress tailor-made to me, and I realized I perhaps all this time I had been going about things wrong. I always excepted what was on the rack and then fit myself into it. Perhaps it was time that I allowed someone to fit things around me. Sure, it might cost a little more, and take a bit more time, but the end result was custom-made and unique to my liking.

  The next morning, as I spend west I20, an idea crystalized in my mind so clearly that I laughed out loud. Why hadn't I seen it before? I recalled something Shirley said, "You can't get everything you want! You can't have an old home and have it be all new." Actually...I could.
  Arriving in Birmingham, I drove straight to the house that was being renovated next door to the grand old Craftsman. The electricians were taking a smoke-break outside and I sweet-talked them into showing me around. Even with its walls torn out and plaster shards on the floor, as soon as I walked into the foyer, I knew this was it. I was home—and I didn't have to settle.
   In a few days I returned to my house with the builder. Since I was writing a contract on the place at this point, I could choose the paint colors, floor finishes, fixtures and tile. I was relieved to find that the builder had saved the old built-in cabinetry, and kept intact the century's old staircase, which led to the second floor from that gracious foyer. Yes, he was even restoring the claw-foot tub. The new floor plan would be spacious and airy, combining a smart modern floor plan with old-world character. It was as though the home were custom-made just for me. I had to share the good news with someone, so I called Kaye.
  "That's wonderful," she said. "I'm so happy for you!"
   I described the house to her and we chatted for a while. Then she handed the phone to her beloved, Todd.
   "Mazel Tov on your new house!" he said.
   "Thank you! Can't wait for you guys to come visit," I said. "You know, Mr. Groom, you're very fortunate to by marrying my amazing friend Kaye."
   "Yes," Todd said softly. "I am very lucky to have found my love. She is home to me."
   I smiled and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. For a moment I couldn't respond,  but I knew exactly what he meant.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Little rocks

When in doubt, I ask my sisters for advice. I'm fortunate that I have three sisters to turn to when I need help sorting out a problem. I think three is exactly the right number for me under the Goldilocks Rule of Siblings. One might be too hot, another too cold, but someone will always be j-u-s-t right. Since I've started dating again, I'm finding I need my sisters—all three of them—more than ever for guidance. (And yes, maybe if I'd asked more questions of them when I was younger, I wouldn't be going through this do-over now.)
   Recently, I asked my sister Mary how she knew her husband, David, was the right man for her. They've been married for more than thirty years now, and happily so, but when they met, they seemed to be very different people—not at all the couple I would have put together. Of course, I was only a kid at the time they met and married, so what did I know?  

It was the 4th of July, and Mary and I were exploring the creek at my parents' old farm. The house was razed last fall, and the property cleared of privet and brambles in hopes of finding a buyer for the acreage. Divested of its old ramshackle barns, fences and blackberry bramble, the property exuded a park-like quality and hardly resembled the place where we all grew up. We hadn't been there together since before our father died, but it was the 4th of July and we had come to shoot off fireworks, just as we had when we were kids.
   The landscape seemed to have shifted since we lived there decades ago. Mary and I tried to recall where the barns formerly stood, and wondered why the lofty, old pine tree by the bank, where we once caught catfish, looked so different. Instinctively, we began to hunt for colorful pieces of shale and crystals among the creek bed. I was six and she was fourteen, again.
   As the sun went down, the night's first fireworks popped nearby. I heard Jack's cries of delight. Earlier in the day, his Uncle Mike took him to the fireworks stand where they purchased half an arsenal to light up the night. In the distance, I heard my son shout, "That was awesome! Do it again!"
   Mary picked up an yellowish stone, like a tiny, cratered moon, and turned it over in her hand. "Here's a pretty one," she said.
   I took the rock and examined the shimmering slivers of crystal imbedded within its surface, reflecting the dying light of day. I had hoped to find a crystal for Jack like the ones we sometimes found in the creek bed. This one wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it was interesting and pretty and it would do. I slipped in into my pocket.
Sisters playing in the creek, 1965.
From left: Katrina (8), Brigid (2), Gretchen (12) and Mary (10).
  "So how did you know when you met David that he was 'it'?" I asked "How do you know when you've met the right guy?"
   Mary bent low to pick up another rock. After a moment she let it fall back onto the ground. She stood up and stretched her back. "Well," she said. "I'm not sure. But I think when it's right, nothing else will matter."
  Another explosion erupted, and for a moment we looked up and watched the gray smoke drift slowly into the soft, pale light. Mary continued.
   "I have a friend who had been dating this fellow for a while, and she seemed very happy with him. She had been married before and still lived in the house that she bought with her first husband, but her children were grown and she seemed ready to start a new life. One day, he asked her to marry him. At first she was thrilled, but then she started finding excuses not to marry this guy. She didn't want to start their new life in her old house. No, problem, says he, we'll buy a new house of our own. That seemed like a perfect solution, but she couldn't see it. And at every turn, this woman found reasons why she could not marry this man. Nothing against him specifically, just logistical hurdles she could not overcome. So it seemed to me that she just didn't want to marry the guy, but she swore up and down that she did."
   Mary paused and picked up a small smooth stone and handed it to me. "This one is pretty," she said. "So you see, if it was really right, that old house wouldn't matter to her. So I guess he wasn't the right man for her after all but she didn't want to admit it."
  I rubbed the remaining dirt from the small, smooth stone and felt its coolness between my fingers.  Now clean, it appeared almost white and I could appreciate a translucent quality at one tip, as if it would soon crystalize.
  "Why are you asking me this?" Mary asked, with an impish smile. I was fourteen and she, twenty-two, again. "Do you think you've met someone special?"
   "Maybe, I'm not sure," I said. "I don't know. He seems like good guy, but he lives in Atlanta. I guess we'll just see where it goes. But it's awfully soon for me to be involved with anyone. I'm barely divorced."
  "Yeah, well," Mary said. "I'm sure you'll figure it out. Like I said, if it's right, none of that will matter."
   I picked up a smooth, flat piece of dark slate and ran my fingers around its sharp edges. From reflex memory of performing the task thousands of times before, I positioned the flat stone in the crook of my index finger and flung. It skimmed the top of the darkening creek, and skipped once...twice...three times, before it was swallowed, whole.
   Near the pile of stones where our house used to stand, a battery of firecrackers exploded and male voices shouted what sounded like a battle cry. Above the din, I heard Jack's reedy excitement, "That was awesome!"
   The hazy light of day retreated as the artillery fire sounded again. Mary and I tentatively made our way across the stream, stepping on protruding rocks, trying to keep our sneakers dry. After all, I am forty-eight, and she is fifty-six. I hopped across and then, extended my hand to help my sister to the other side.
    I smiled. Why worry about the future? I was back in my beloved childhood haunt, by the creek where I spent so many happy hours, with my family whom I loved. And my son was now experiencing a piece of my childhood that he only heard tale of before. In that moment, nothing else mattered.
   As I climbed the loamy creek bank to rejoin our 4th of July party, I felt the moon-shaped rock dig into my thigh. I stopped, retrieved it from my pocket and examined the stone one more time. Then I lobbed it into the darkest waters of the creek, and watched until the ripples met the shore. After all, it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Friday, July 8, 2011

You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can't Make a Shetland Pony Do Anything

Growing up on a small, family farm in the south was rather idyllic in many ways. Although at times I longed to be a City Mouse, and live closer to my school friends, country life afforded amenities that my in-town peers did not possess. For example, living in the country, we could shoot off fireworks on the Fourth of July since we were outside the Little Rock city limits. We also had a stream running through the property that provided a place to swim and catch fish in the summer. City kids paid big bucks to go away to camps and do the stuff we did everyday on our farm. Our most prized country amenity, however, was a little brown Shetland pony named Butterball.
  Butterball became the family pet around the time I was born. She was a Christmas pony. With four girls in the house, there is no doubt that Santa fielded his share of requests from us for a pony, and Butterball was finally delivered. She was fully grown when she arrived, and no one knew for sure how old she was, but she became a fixture on our farm for decades. In her latter years, my sisters' children enjoyed her largess as she dutifully gave them rides and pulled the little cart my Dad bought just for her.
My sister Gretchen and me, riding Butterball.
   To be honest, I was never the horsey type. I took riding lessons as a Girl Scout, but I never fell in love with horses the way many girls do. They were always too big and intimidating for my taste. I don't recall being thrown off (extremely) or clinging to a run-away—no horse trauma—but I possessed a healthy respect for the beasts, who were, after all, a great deal bigger than I. Yet, Butterball the Pony was the perfect scale. At one point when I was about ten, I fancied myself as an equestrian and determined I would make Butterball my mount. I imagined the tricks I could teach her and the adventures we would have galloping across the open pasture. We would have been great pals, too, if not for one major consideration: She was stubborn. Shetlands are known for their ornery streak. If they do not want to go, they simply will not be moved. There is no sugar cube or switch that can prompt a Shetland with her ears pinned back. All you city kids out there can just take my word for it, a Shetland pony will out-stubborn a mule.
   One fine summer day, I decided to play Annie Oakley and bridle-up Butterball for a ride on the range. I caught her without much trouble, slipped the steel bit between her big, yellow teeth and fastened the bridle tight. Saddling the pony was trickier. She had a habit of bloating out her stomach so that, once cinched, all she had to do was exhale to loosen the saddle, and her riders would slide precariously off to one side to humorous effect for anyone watching. For this reason, I determined to ride bare back.
   Butterball was short enough to climb aboard without benefit of a saddle horn or stirrup. One would simply take a lunge across her sway-back and quickly swing a leg over. Voila! I was aboard the horse and ready to ride. Of course, Butterball had other ideas.
   I prompted her to walk via clicking my tongue against the roof of my mouth and tugging on the reins. She complied, slowly ambling along in the general direction of my intention. There was an old cedar tree in the pasture, and Butterball made her way to that goal. I realized what she was doing but could not stop her. If she were going at a full gallop (which thankfully, she was not) she would make for that tree and expertly run so close to the trunk to "brush off" her hapless rider. Even still, I knew that tree was home base for her. Butterball outweighed me, of course, and my ten-year-old biceps were hardly a match for her will. I tugged on the reigns to try to make her turn the other way. No luck. She ambled to the cedar so close that my knee touched bark, and there she stopped. She bent down her large brown head, pulling the reins defiantly from my fingers. With bit in mouth, she started to nibble at a blade of unseen grass, ignoring my attempts to move her from that spot. And there I sat, my big adventure curtailed by the pony's desire to stand in the shade: The end of the trail. All I could do was cry in frustration or get off and give up my aspirations as an cowgirl.
Perhaps my sister Mary had the better idea.
At least expectations were low when riding a cow.
   Turns out good ol' Butterball was a wonderful Dharma teacher, and it's taken all these years for me to appreciate her lessons.
   How often do we try to push or pull a relationship when it has the inertia of a fat, Shetland pony? You cannot make someone do or feel something that they cannot do or feel. You can cajole and coax and sweet-talk all you like, but if the person on the end of the line is not willing to go there with you, then you might as well call it a day. Somewhere along the line—perhaps before she came to live with us—that pony learned to dig in when she didn't want to serve, and she found that an effective means of dissuading her young mistresses from riding on her back. Even if it was good exercise for her and companionship to boot, once she had it in her head not to go, that was it. People learn to dig in too when they don't feel like going the distance. Sometimes it's for the best. They are just not up to the task and should recuse themselves. Sometimes it does him or her a disservice, but I've found I cannot persuade a stubborn person any more than I can a stubborn pony. Better to walk away and, if I really want to become Annie Oakley, find a horse more suited to the task.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sunday Morning Buddhism

On the other end of Sunday...dusk in Little Rock.
Since I've been on the road a lot lately, I haven't much chance to add to the blog, but that does not mean I'm not gathering insight and inspiration for stories. Look for more adventures soon. In the meantime, I'll share this Buddhist-Catholic prayer, written this weekend when the soft glow and quiet of Sunday morning delivered a moment of clarity. 

Sunday Morning Prayer
I don’t know what happens next and that’s okay. 
You tell me. I will write it down. 
I am not giving up, only giving in to the knowledge that all things are possible 
and in that possibility, I cannot possibly know the next step on this path, only that I am on the Right path after so very long. 
I concede to a greater understanding that will be delivered to me when I am ready to clearly see it. 
I know that everything that has transpired has been right, 
and has brought me to this place where I understand so much more than I did yesterday. 
Help me to learn from my experience. 
Keep my eyes open. 
Give me the strength to Act and not React
and do what is required of me and nothing more, nothing less. 
To love beyond all fear. 
To show compassion beyond all self-regard. 
To be in this moment, complete and whole and happy. 
To treat others with respect and love, even when that is difficult. 
To not race ahead to that which I cannot possibly comprehend, because it is Future. 
To know there is a future than is destined for me.
To listen to my teachers and be humbled by all that is honest and good. 
To know that these three most important words: I don’t know, will be a comfort, not a source of anxiety. 
To know that as long as I stay true to my convictions—the truest and most genuine essence of myself—all will be well. 
This is my prayer: Guide my way.