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Miracle at Walmart

My Baby Kai

I am embarrassed to say I shopped at Walmart the other day. I don’t support their policies toward the human beings in their employ, but there it was and I needed something in a hurry, so I stopped in.

I have stereotypes about Walmart shoppers. Facebook does a good job of reinforcing them. And sure enough, in the checkout line I was behind a large woman in too tight stretch pants and a spaghetti strap tank top (buying cheap stuff – just as I was.) She had the words “Baby Kai” tattooed on her shoulder blade. I have a son, Kai, now 20, and when he was a baby we called him “Baby Kai”. I normally wouldn’t comment on a tattoo, but I couldn’t help myself.

I told her about my Kai and asked her how old her Kai was. She hesitated and then said her baby Kai had never been born. I told her I was sorry and apologized for asking. Her cheeks got pink and then she rushed to say she had had two healthy children and another was on the way.

The line was slow and long. We began to talk. I told her about my losses. She said that there were things you never got over. I told her that was true, but that it seemed with time, it got easier to bear. She was sweet, thoughtful and soft spoken. She spoke with her eyes and had a beautiful smile. I have no idea how old she was, but we were two mothers, and in a very short time we had bonded — in the Walmart checkout line, no less. We exchanged a long soulful look when we parted.

What a wonderful thing to have happened to me in many ways.

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Girl Meets Boy

 

“We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jar of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.”

Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations

Girl Meets Boy (At a Disco)

For B.G.

Saturday night at a popular disco/bar in a small California college town a boy asks a girl to dance.

The next morning, the girl’s ears still ring from the deafening beat and volume of the music. She recalls the gyrating bodies on the cramped dance floor, the patterns of light racing around the walls as the disco ball spun overhead and the sharp sour taste of beer in the plastic cup she clutched in her hand.

She also thinks back to the tall lanky boy with a head of dark curls who appeared out of nowhere and asked her to dance.

The girl must have told the boy where she lives because, a couple of days later, he strolls down her tree-lined street and finds her reading quietly in the shade on her front porch. They talk, make a date and their love story unfolds from there.

They both will go on to live other love stories, but for the girl at least, this is her first one.

Over the next few years, the boy and the girl learn about love and share wild adventures – and some tragedies. During summer breaks, the boy makes heroic long-distance drives to see the girl. He is there to support her when her father dies. The girl always stands patiently by the side of the road while the boy grabs his collection of tools and disappears under the hood of his beloved Bugeye Sprite to make the mysterious repair that puts them back on the road again.

They get to know each other’s families and the girl often stays with the boy’s family during holidays. A few things she remembers from the boy’s house are the thick perfectly folded guest room towels she was afraid to use, sneaking into the boy’s room when the house was asleep, the boy showing her how his father folded the Land O’Lakes butter packaging so the Native American Indian girl’s knees looked like breasts, and the soft raspy sounds made by the three big white fluffy (debarked) dogs in the backyard.

The boy’s mother teaches the girl to put a dish towel in the bottom of the sink when washing crystal by hand, so the glasses won’t crack against the hard porcelain. She shows her how to make a pie crust using lard and how to pile that pie high with huge California strawberries which shrink while cooking.

There’s much much more, but this story does not end with the boy and the girl living happily-ever-after, however.

Over time, a divide grew between them about religion. They cling together for as long as they can until the girl meets another, leaves to make a life with him and resolutely locks away her memories and feelings for the boy from the disco. The boy felt love-lost for a while, but eventually made a happy life with another who shared his faith.

Girl Meets Boy (Again)

One day the girl, now a woman in her 60s, receives a surprising message. The boy, now a man also in his 60s, has sent her a text.

Four decades from their first meeting at the disco, the boy/man and the girl/woman connect again — this time through the magic of the internet. Suffice it to say, they are no longer shiny and new. The man is grieving the profound loss of his wife of 31 years. The woman is numb and exhausted from the effort of tying up the loose ends following her divorce.

Now, a few mornings after the surprising text message, the woman sits quietly sipping her morning coffee at her kitchen table. She looks up and reflects on the story she has been writing about a girl and a boy meeting at a disco. The ending is eluding her – shifting and changing like a cloud on a windy day. It is still being played out and she doesn’t know how she wants it to end.

She can’t remember the last time she cried, but now her tears start flowing like a river as she begins to unlock the feelings, stories and people she shut away so many years ago.

She cries because she desperately misses the boy she knew, so joyously and vividly alive. She cries because this boy has had to walk a difficult and challenging path through life as a man.

She grieves for their family members who have passed away – her father, his mother and father, his sister.  She even cries for the dogs, the house, the safe familiar rooms, the cars in the driveway; the trees, leaves, flowers, blades of grass in the lawn. And Bugeyes? Is Bugeyes gone too?

She grieves for the pretty girl she was, and for all that is now finished for her – romantic love, touch; being cherished and desired.

The girl who learned to never let anything in has become the woman freely welcoming all that arises.

Perhaps the boy/man and the girl/woman will meet again someday.  Perhaps they won’t. Still, for as long as they live, they hold within them the remembrance of their youthful love, the unique times in which they lived, and the people they loved who are now gone.

The woman now knows what she did not know as a girl when, 40 years ago, she so easily and innocently took the risk to love the boy:  That there is no love without grief and no grief without love. That grief and love are as intimately connected as lover’s hands entwined.

And that, although there is no end to grief in life ….. there is also no end to love.

 

 

Popeye and the illusions that save us

When I was a little girl, I loved the TV cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man. Popeye was a crusty old sailor who rose above his lot in life to fight for justice, rescue the girl and generally save the day. His secret power was spinach. He got a boost of heroic energy when he consumed a can of spinach – sometimes inhaling it in through the pipe, perennially hanging from his mouth.

Popeye had a theme song — a memorable nonsensical tune. (I’ve posted the lyrics below.)

The child (me) who loved Popeye was, unfortunately, often burdened by adult responsibilities — with no clue how to carry them out. Despite this, I was optimistic and resourceful — with an imperative to survive. Illusions of powerful super heroes are fortifying when one is as young and powerless as I was.

For example, I knew if I could just get my hands on one of those cans of spinach, I too could be able and strong and my problems (shame and confusion at my incompetence) would be forever over.

When I grew up and entered the work-a-day world, I felt called to the field of social justice. Back then, my illusion was the adult version of believing I could save the world. It amuses me now to think that it might have been Popeye the Sailor Man setting me on this path.

I do not remember my mom serving us spinach often, if at all. I do have a vague memory of being offered spinach once, but not in a can (like Popeye), and feeling angry and disappointed. It was obvious to me that the can was essential for the power, and the spinach by itself was yucky.

I do remember the exact moment when I realized Popeye wasn’t real. I was in a library arguing about it with a taller child  — who I could see was making a lot of sense, and as I walked away, the truth sunk in. It was bound to happen. It was like losing Santa Claus.

I have shed a lot of fantasies and illusions as the years have gone by. The romantic ones were the hardest. (Those are stories for another time and a bottle of wine.)

Today, at age 62, I am uncomfortably having to coexist with hard truths about our leaders, my fellow citizens and the humanity of the world in general.

It is in my dreams, however, where I experience the ultimate falling away of illusion and encounter the abject terror of being a soft small vulnerable mammal on a ravaged planet in an incomprehensible universe.

The truth can be cleansing and invigorating, but it can also be painful — like standing in an ice-cold shower.

I am harboring the illusion now – that it is this truth that will set me free.

 

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

I’m strong to the finich

Cause I eats me spinach.

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

I’m one tough Gazookus

Which hates all Palookas

Wot ain’t on the up and square.

I biffs ’em and buffs ’em

And always out roughs ’em

But none of ’em gets nowhere.

 

If anyone dares to risk my “Fisk”,

It’s “Boff” an’ it’s “Wham” un’erstan’?

So keep “Good Be-hav-or”

That’s your one life saver

With Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

I’m strong to the finich

Cause I eats me spinach.

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

Drawing the world in closer and truer to myself

Last week I made an energetic shift to the good. The world was a beautiful place. I felt confident and grounded. I patted myself on the back for doing all the personal growth work that led to this result. I had arrived!

Fast forward one week. I find myself googling apocalyptic art.

I feel scratchy and irritable. I am taking things personally; blaming, grumbling and complaining. I feel prickly, fragile, impatient and judge-y. I am two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together.

Try as I might, I can not summon the enlightened person I was the week before.

To add insult to injury, I hate myself for being this way. I am ashamed.

Is this then who I really am? Have I not learned anything in my long life? I see others meeting grave losses with grace and love. Right now, I have no love for even the simplest challenges. I have achieved nothing.

To escape, I watch British detective dramas – murder mysteries. Their simple formula is comforting. If there are interesting characters, they become my world for awhile. I like it there. I want to live there. The good guys prevail by solving the murder puzzle. The bad guys are identified and caught and, in the end, justice is done.

Justice – that is the happy ending I long for, and what feels so elusive in my life and in the real world.

I am going to be 62 years-old in August. As a survivor of childhood trauma, I know I have lost some of the years of a lifespan that was my birthright. They say people like me can die 20 years earlier than people without childhood trauma. I want to make some headway in healing my trauma with the time I have left — toward justice, if at all possible. I want to at least be on my way.

In a prayer and contemplation meditation group today, I felt rebellious. There we sat, a group of privileged white women, in a safe place with no fear about where our next meal was coming from, where we were going to sleep at night or whether a bomb was going to be dropped on us at any moment.

I decided that I was going to deliberately THINK and I wasn’t going to go “back to my breath” or “my word.”

For 20 minutes I thought hard about children in war-torn lands. Children who have lost their parents and relatives and are themselves at risk of dying every day. In my mind’s eye, I saw them crouching in dirty ragged clothes, protectively clutching their younger siblings against them. I saw their huge round frightened eyes.

I communed with those children. And as I write this, I realize that I feel more of a kinship with them than with the group of women around me.

My early life was a war torn country too.

My thoughts also wandered to where my dreams sometimes go – to a fire ravaged, smokey, grey post-apocalyptic landscape of destruction. I saw myself as a “skinless creature” – a crippled skeleton – as fragile as ash. Just one light touch – a single puff of air – would demolish me.

Some days, like today, I know that the “veil” between this skeleton and myself has thinned. Little things can hit me with a destructive power  – a criticism, a jostle, a grimace.

I am not really sure any of us are free of our version of it. We all have been wounded in some way. Jungian analyst, Duncan Carpenter, coined the words “the skinless core” to refer to this, our most exquisitely sensitive, unprotected and vulnerable inner self.

I know that this ash skeleton is part of my “skinless core” and, quite likely, my unseen traumatized self from my childhood.

Try as I might, I can not transcend or escape her. It seems no amount of meditating, crystal gazing, spa days or ice cream will soothe her.

It dawns on me what I can do.

I CAN witness her, commune with her, never forget her, see her truth, and give her a taste of the validation and justice she did not receive from the adults so many years ago in her childhood.  I CAN offer concern, reassurance, attention, empathy, and kindness. I can take her seriously.

Of course when I use the word “her”, I mean “me”.  As fragile as she is, I recognize that she is truly my own savior, part of the my growing personal imperative to draw my world in closer and truer to myself.

I will not wish her away anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

The teacher who saved my life

Beginning violin - Age 8

Betsy Lewis ~ Age 8

My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.

That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.

Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.

There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.

MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.

She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.

Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.

MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.

MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.

NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)

NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”

Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!

And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.

Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.

Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?

I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.

This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!

A team of one

12-4-2016

Today it is snowing outside my windows. I have a chicken roasting and my apartment smells delicious. I have a few work and household things to complete, but this is not overwhelming. Truth be told, I am still in my flannel nightgown at 11:00 in the morning and I am looking forward to reading a good novel today. I revel in the freedom to do exactly what I want, when I want.

I used to always be trying to achieve something — to arrive somewhere else more perfect. Lately, I think that I have “arrived” — as much as any human being can. I know there will always be changes and growth ahead, and I hope I will ride them out gracefully, but mostly I am living the life I want to live.

Yesterday morning, I smelled a gas leak. This new apartment is the first time I have had gas appliances in a few years. It was 7:30 am, but I called my landlords, who only live downstairs of me. They called the gas company and one of them came up. It was at that point I discovered that the oven nob was turned slightly on. I hadn’t used the oven that morning, but I did reach over it to an upper cabinet and had unknowingly nudged the knob “on”. It was embarrassing. Something I should have figured out myself, but my landlords are always gracious and kind and told me not to worry about it.

Just now, I realized that the clock isn’t right on the microwave. Most devices change automatically with the time change, but this one didn’t, and I hadn’t made it “fall back” as I should have.

When I was married, I had someone around who took up the slack and took care of the things I missed.

Now I do it all myself and have for several years. I am no longer part of a “team effort” and it made me feel a little afraid — all the things I have missed or am possibly missing, that another person might see. The things that need to be done — that I am not doing.

When my daughter is with me, she follows up on certain things for me. My son can always find, within seconds, things I have lost.

I have some moments of insecurity. Missed things? Little things, big things? I may never know if it was all for good or bad.

Maybe having a clock with the wrong time is better than having to compromise part of who I am for “the team.”

They say that isn’t the way it has to be, but I don’t believe it. That season of my life has passed. I make this choice to be a “team of one” (with lots of support waiting in the wings if I need it), doing exactly what I want, when I want, and living the life I hadn’t really dreamed of, but is the quirky, imperfect-perfect one I want right now.

If not now, when???

10-5-2015-marla

I  am getting ready for a trip to New York City. It’s #1 on my travel bucket list.

This is not the most affordable trip I could take. Like all trips, there is the getting there (not cheap) and the lodging (REALLY not cheap) and the eating, the transportation etc. However, I’ve pulled it together as affordably as I can. I am going with my good friend Patty, who has traveled to many exotic places, but has never been to New York City.

I would put it off if I were younger. But, at 61 years old, my new favorite things to say to myself is: “If not now, when???”

I had this trip planned some 7 years ago, but my kid got into trouble, so I canceled. The ensuing years were filled with worry and sacrifice. I look at the pictures from 7 years ago and it shows in my face, beyond what would be normal aging.

Now this child’s life is not my life — to protect with MY life anymore. But, for a long time there, I felt I was finished. Like I was done with new and growth and a future — and moving backward in a long slow slide to my own demise.

Getting another chance, at what I was planning when it all fell apart, feels like a reboot.  Back to the “before” and still capable of something approximating the future I had imagined. I am still a work in progress.

New York will probably look different to me now than it would have 7 years ago. I will get different things out of this visit – find different meanings and be changed and inspired in different ways.

And, thanks to Facebook, I have discovered that a friend I haven’t seen in 20+ years will be at a theater just down the street from where I am staying — the night I arrive in NYC. Our babies – her boy and my girl – were friends in the Indiana neighborhood where we both lived. New mothers together, we shared a pivotal time in our lives! My baby grew up and is a mother now herself. And her son is getting married soon.

We will both be exhausted by then. I will have traveled all day and she will be flying out early the next morning, but there is a chance we can meet for a few minutes when the play lets out.

It’s funny to think that we would both land, once again, at the same time and at the same place in this whole wide world.

 

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