Reflections on Lent - Day 4
The storms have found us. Lightning strike, thunder boom. It has been a surprise for me today up on this hill. Was I not looking? Not paying attention to the weather? Apparently, that's a no go. I was working on the new novel when my alarm sounded. It was time for the live Reader Posse Round up at high-noon and I was looking forward to connecting with my readers, giving them a sneak peek of some new words from the page. But instead I kept repeating myself, finally gave in to giving up, hanging up. Calling it done. Later, I sent them an original short story as apology. Thanks for tuning in but today has been called due to weather.
My Lent embarkment has been to remember how to pray silently for a stranger each day. How to keep someone, place someone, on my heart in such a way it matters to me. Where I connect with someone human in a short, small way that reminds me to be human. 40 days. That's all. Surely, after having done this for three years running and then some I can pull off 40 days.
Then the storm. The things that waylay us. Storms in everyday. Storms in life. Things that derail us so easily from the goal we had, the lofty thing, the desire for better than we were before. But today - oh my, what a surprise. As I said, I was writing. Nested in. There had been grey skies and some clouds and so early on I built a fire just for purpose. The kind where you gaze and snuggle down and work sitting on the floor, laptop in - well, lap. Literally. I live up the hill without a basement much to speak of. More crawl space that I would think if I was crawling in the house would cave in upon me. Sometimes there seems to be no safe place. I have that closet I've written of. The one beneath the stairs. Close enough it's what I've got.
Today, I didn't venture out so no strangers met but still some find their way to mind. People used to ask me, "What do you do if you don't leave home that day? Then what? What prayers are lifted up or said?"
"There's always someone," I would reply. "An unknown authors name on the spine of novel laying out. The face in a newspaper, the voice on a radio."
Our worlds are encased with strangers.
Today, as the lightening struck near the house, connecting to the ground singing something out there somewhere, as thunder explodes even now as I write these words in such a way I start and jump, think - Will there be no end to this today? And the weather service sends me yet again an alarm that says Lightning has struck closer than a mile.
I want to tell them, Yes, I know. I'm living here. I was raised in the deep south. Full of storms and summers. This is the stuff that I was made of.
And I think of that first cousin to my stomping grounds, Alabama and her recent heartbreak. My stranger then today is this. Those who lost and are grieving still from storms that shook and killed and wiped away hearts and worlds. For them I bow my head today.
The lightning makes me jump, the thunderclaps are way too bold and truth be told the smallest vein of fear dares to run amok in me. But, I am not afraid to pray. For Peace be still. For kingdom come. Thy will be done. Even when my flesh opposes me.
Tonight, again - Alabama rests heavy on my heart. Because I know the storms have passed but the hurt lingers on. Always will. And the best we can do is to continue loving and try to understand.
Today is the day my Daddy died. It's been years now but when I woke up, got my coffee, looked out the window - those were my thoughts and that's when I began to cry. Just like I do every year. July 5th - I can count on it.
There's no getting over some things. As a woman told me who had lost her husband six months ago, "I'm still not over it,"
Of course your not, I said. You aren't meant to be.
She nodded. Seemed relieved and said, "That's right. That's right."
She left our meeting in a better mood.
We aren't meant to stay stuck in grief to the point we aren't enjoying life but the getting over it. I'll leave that to the other people.
He was a life-long Army man. Loved Holmes creek where he grew up. Knew it better than the back of his hand. After his death I have replayed moments where I wish I had made a different choice. Conversations where I wish I had communicated better. Times he had put out an olive branch to a stubborn teenager or young woman with a wild streak - and I just didn't take it the right way. Those times echoed to long and loud after his death. I wanted to take them back. Over and over again. Fix them. Perfect them. Don't we all. Always.
I pulled in the driveway a few days ago from a family vacation. One of those family get togethers where I flashed all my disfunction obsessions. We must be together. We must all sit next to Nana. We all must pay attention to each other every moment and tell stories. And, and, and - - - this vacation time together must be . . . perfect. Again. That word. My determined expectations. I am precious in my passions. As well as a pain the butt. I'll save that little blog I call Dysfunction Junction what's your function (being mine) for next week but the thread here is the same.
I'm a family girl. One that wants to run and roam. But I'm also the girl that packed her bags when I lived out in New Mexico after Daddy's health took a bad turn. Me and the boys moved back home. My sister packed up her stuff where she was in Georgia and did the same. No matter how crazy our times together may get when we are trying to take a break from life, it's real life we get great. It's real life where we tag-teamed when daddy was in the hospital. She took one shift, I took the other. We rode up and down that elevator so much that people thought we were twins, clones, time warping. We confused them in our coming and going but that weren't at all confused about the fact that we didn't miss a beat. Daddy wasn't there alone.
Daddy died today. One day after the 4th of July. Fireworks now, the sound of them from inside a house brings to mind that night. That last night. I think it was his stubborn that kept him alive that night. A soldier that didn't want to die on Independence Day. He passed the next morning.
My stubborn streak. I come by it honest. I got a double dose. His kind - quiet final, conclusive and my Mama's kind - determined, hard-edged, tenacious.
When I pulled up in the driveway after all those days of family togetherness, after July 4th crazy traffic and traffic jams, heat and more heat, a broken air conditioner. Too many hours on the road. There was Daddy's memorial stone right there in the circle as I turned in. The flag I put up for Mama on the porch blowing in the breeze on the hill. Daddy's old boat sittin' on that broken trailer. Me and sister begging Mama when she moved to please not leave that boat. We couldn't leave that boat. We had to have that boat. No matter how long it had sat up. No matter if we couldn't use it, float it. We had to keep Daddy's boat. It was his lifeblood. It's a freshwater creek boat, the kind you'd use with a cane pole and a red bobber. It's worth nothing but everything.
They fished from that boat just like me and sister did. He took em up in the creek in it when their heads couldn't clear the edge. Showed up how to fish and where the clear springs bubbled up in the swamps. Where you could scoop a cup of water up right there and drink it down. Him grinning to beat the band. Those Cyprus trees rising to the sky, him skulling that boat with one hand, whistling through his teeth.
That man survived Korea. Survived Vietnam. But still --- time and time and time.
Today instead of those missed opportunities, those imperfect moments that stuck out in my mind for years where I didn't say what I wish I had said, I thought of all the times we laughed. Together. Of the way I'd say, Daddy that would light up his smile and no doubt his heart. I saw this wild, long tapestry that was us, our relationship, and I saw how very, very much of it was good. How most of it was really, really good.
And I think about those boys of mine. (Yeah, I call them mine whether they want me to or not.) And how I gave him the greatest gift I could ever have given him by making him a PawPaw. About how my boys became his boys. And as much as this gypsy heart of mine wanted to roam the earth and exotic places, this Southern girl stayed close to home so that they had each other. So we all had each other. While there was still time.
In Daddy's memory I went to chapel and lit a candle. Whispered a prayer. Then bought a watermelon to eat with my baby boy's baby boys. I'll tell them creek stories of their Daddy's Pawpaw and help them remember a man I won't forget.
I think I hear him whistling.
I said I was gonna do this and that. Start Mama's Blog called Go Ask My Mama and publish my new Patreon page. I have not. For a few reasons. One being the shutters. I have been painting the shutters and the porch because Mama said -
It just looks so depressing.
To which I said -
It's not depressed. You're just depressed so you see it through depressed eyes.
(Me and Mama have conversations this way. So don't worry. We have been at this relationship for years. Not much has changed except I would say I think we laugh more. And that's a very good thing. We need it.)
So, Mama wanted me to paint the house. I can't afford to paint the house but I did want to please Mama so I stumbled across a house on Pinterest that looked liked mine but it had painted shutters and window-boxes. I sent that picture to cousin Deb and she said - WOW! What a difference. I had to write back that's not my house. But we did get paint for the shutters. It is called FIRECRACKER. We tried little tiny samples of red this and that and the only one that would POP is the FIRECRACKER. I never knew I wanted to have firecracker shutters but I have always known that I wanted to make Mama happy except for a few times that I was too mad to want to make her happy. One was when I was nineteen and the other might have been fifteen. OH, and two other times but outside of that Mama being happy has always been like a goal of mine. My Daddy was just happy. And he was easy to make happier. It didn't take much. A good day fishing whether we caught anything or not was a great day with Daddy. More on Daddy for fathers day.
Mama. Well making her happy was a good thing cause turns out she is right. An old brown house with brown shutters with a side of brown brick is a lot of brown. I would not survive on Survival Island. I've always thought I would but after painting yesterday for four hours in the middle of the day I realize I would be the first to go. The short straw. The weak link. People tell me you are supposed to drink water and not coffee to undertake these types of challenges. That and maybe not painting when it is 454 degrees in the shade. But I am determined. I do have that going for me. And then I have the tiniest little big of that thing where once you get into something like counting toothpicks you can't stop. So now it's all about MUST FINISH PAINTING THE SHUTTERS. Because the fact is it has picked up Mama's spirits considerably and I count that a great thing. Depression hurts at any age. And if happiness and a little relief from that can be had for the price of a gallon of paint and some muscle work on my part - I'm all in.
Now to the news at hand that has saddened my heart.
I'm not going to write much about Anthony Bourdain except for this because the news is full of it. But It's truly why I didn't post that blog yesterday. I didn't see that one coming. Just like Robin Williams who was someone else I admired immensely. One of my sons had been on the security detail for Robin Williams when he went to entertain the troops and I treasured a photo of them together. Like Robin I have been a true fan of Anthony Bourdain since the beginning of No Reservations. I have his shows recorded. I've loved his books which I own. The most important thing to me was his compassion and understanding of people from all walks of life and all cultures. Someone referred to him as a global ambassador and I thought that fit him perfectly.
Years ago I had a dream where I was hanging out with Anthony (or Tony as his friends called him.) We were eating and talking and laughing like old friends. Having the best time and the best conversation. And I think in the dream I actually called him Tony and told him I hated to go but that I had to be in New York the next day to speak so I had to catch a plane. To which he replied, Well, I'll just come with you. So that we could continue our conversation. It was something I always looked forward to as if I would actually meet him in person and we would just pick up that conversation and laughter where we left off.
My heart goes out to all who loved him, to all of his fans, and to those who are experiencing the darkness that drove him to such despair. I am posting a link here for an article written by my good friend author Kerry Madden which just ran in the L.A. Times about how Anthony's death resurrected her painful past with family members who died too young by their own hand.
Maybe, someday in the wide, strange world of the hereafter I could still pick up that conversation like we had never missed a beat. In the meantime, I'll take a deep breath, and rewatch his shows and keep painting those shutters for Mama while she's in this world.
Be ye kind to one another. And, be kind to yourself. This world so desperately needs a gentle touch if any of us are to carry on. And for those who struggle with the dark edges of a depression that leads you down the path of imaging your death here is the link to the National Suicide Hotline. It's NEVER too early to reach out and get help. And it's never something to be ashamed of. 1-800-273-8255
Peace to you and all you love from The Hill,
Sometimes you have to listen to your inner instincts. The small voice we hear that whispers, this way, follow me. For some it is the voice of God. For others their sixth sense. For me I’d say it’s a combination of both considering they are one and the same.
Fifteen years ago I moved to Nashville following that voice. That’s the short and simple version of the story but it was that clear. Nashville. No other place on a map filled with other places, many options. I knew no one in the city, had no relatives in the area, and no particular job. It was the city where I had to be. I’ve never regretted following that voice but never more-so than last Monday when the celestial heavens aligned.
While others across the nation had carefully plotted their path for many years I lived oblivious, caught up in the daily rapture and apocalypse of my own life. It was only a few weeks ago that I actually realized the eclipse was headed my way. Or that I was headed toward it. Then I began to feel a bit unsettled. I blamed it on the news, the rolling tide of my emotions. On deadlines or fatigue. On just being me - artistic and emotive, passionate.
Plans were in the making all around me. All of the big events, major parties, bands and eclipse watching gala's. Glasses sold out, were recalled, sold out again. I never bought any. I bought Guinness. There was that small instinctual voice again. Alone, it whispered. So alone it would be. I would sit on my porch, watch and wait with expectation. Experience the unknown of what would come.
I woke up Monday saying Eclipse Day! As if it were Christmas morning. I was giddy. Such a silly word but I felt silly not melancholy. I worked on a short story about a woman waiting for the eclipse. The refrigerator man came to repair the fridge. I looked at my watch. I told him that it was about to penumbra was coming. I told him he could take a Guinness with him. I might have been hinting.
My house is circled with trees. Large Oaks of every kind, Elms and Hickories. I love the light passing through the filter of their leaves. The sun on their bark, the fog that moves through their limbs in the early morning dawn. I have a relationship with these woods.
I sat on my tiny, front porch, watched the shadows shifting forward, opened a beer. There was the singing of the cicadas and the birds. Dogs barked off in the distance down the hill. It was the middle of the day but night was falling, the shadows lengthening. There was the slightest of breezes and I felt the coolness on my skin as the day gave pause, began to bow to the passing of the moon.
I watched this approaching night for the hours it unfolded and then at the speed of atoms splitting, totality crashed over me. It was as if the keys of a thousand doors were unlocked at once and forever. And it took my breath. I whispered Jesus, Jesus, Jesus - not in fear or even in prayer - but in awe and wonder. A word of praise and thanksgiving to have lived in this moment in time, to have lived in the path of this happening and to be experiencing it in such an immediate and profound way.
I stepped out into the open beneath the dark sky where stars had appeared. Fireflies lit up the grass everywhere as if they had been standing by waiting for their orders to lift off. There are few moments in life this powerful and profound.
Day began to slide out from under the moon again, sweep across the yard, shadows being chased away by light until the fullness of day returned. The sound of the crowd miles away at the Riverfront irrupted into cheers.
Late that afternoon I watched the Nasa coverage, the interviews with people from all nations. This moment so exciting, so breathtaking. So unifying.
The following day I was in Parnassus Books greeting customers Visitors who had traveled all these miles to be right where I was all along. Sharing stories of where they’d been, how they’d watched. One man from Texas looked at me and said, “Totality is everything.”
"Yes," I said. “90% isn’t good enough,” he continued, adamant about this. He was preaching to the choir. “No sir,” I said. “Its totality or nothing at all.”
Another couple had traveled from Tampa. The man told me that they had run from the clouds farther up in Kentucky. Ended up pulling off of the interstate and watching from a field behind JC Penny. The woman said it was perfect. Her eyes were still filled with the wonder that I had felt. “An Indian man from New York and his family stood next to us,” he said, “and he watched the whole thing with his hand on his heart. He told me afterwards that in his religion this was a spiritual experience.” He smiled at me, tired from so many miles but so fulfilled. “I told him, buddy in my religion it’s a spiritual experience too.”
Another man told me, “You know, for just a minute we all stopped fighting. It wasn’t about politics or arguing. We were all in the same place. Suddenly we were all on on the same page.”
Eclipse books were on sale. People were buying them up. Opening to the pages for their next pilgrimage. Marking the trajectory. “Argentina,” one woman told me, “I was born there and haven’t been back in thirty years but I’m going for this.”
I realize that the world has scoffers, people who fall into the category of - What is all the noise about? Big deal. Sun, moon, eclipse - I get it. And those that say, Well, that was an interesting show, now let’s get back to business. But there’s another group. The ones who were deeply affected when those celestial bodies aligned, who felt an awakening of bold Illumination. When for those few minutes we became one people, looking heavenward, eclipsed by the vastness of the universe, our politics as small as those distant stars in the horizon. When all the pleasure and pain of simply being human traveling through this vast corridor of time was the greatest miracle of all.
I had to say goodbye to my my loyal companion of the last decade of my life. What a blessing to have ever known the devotion and love of an old dog. The end was a long time coming but the 'so long' finally found us. He hung on way past the time he could make it. On our last regular trip to the vet when I was trying to 'fix him' and make him all better and they started talking 'quality of life' and gently let me know that he really wasn't going to need an update on those vaccinations because time had grown as short as time does.
There is really no need for me to go into how faithful and loyal an old dog can be. Those of you who've experienced this know all so well. I've read your Facebook posts and mourned with all of those who have said goodbye. I've lost family pets and good dogs but I've never known a beast such as this. He was a constant, gentle presence in my life with the most serious mind-reading eyes. If I cried he came and leaned on me, larger than life, soaked my tears in his fur. My happiness was his happiness. Truly. All he asked in life was a little food and water - and me. Granted he had the whole family and loved every one. Tolerated grandchildren leaning and cleaving. One who followed him everywhere toddling with one hand clutching his fur and one thumb in his mouth.
It was twelve years ago this little creature came into my life. He was to be a present for my mother. I researched dogs and for some reason beyond comprehension decided the gentle giant of a Great Pyrenees was just the beast my mother needed. Something to fill in the large, empty space my Dad's passing had left behind. The little space her fourteen year old dachshund's passing had left. Looking back I guess I was searching for the largest animal that could roam the halls of home.
I traveled to a goat farm in Smyrna that had advertised Pyr pups for sale. Not the blue-blood variety with long lineage papers but the kind that had a working goat farm. A Daddy dog and a mama dog and a cage full of puppies. A litter of eight perhaps. All pressing their tiny faces to the bars saying take me, take me. In the end I picked one. He had the baby fur of all Pyrenees pups. Silky to touch. It's their first fur. Eyes large and almond. Most human. And loved to be cuddled. He rode in my lap all the way home. Spent one night with me then I drove off to Florida to deliver him. Eight hours later I was crying as I handed him over to my mother. The thought of leaving him behind left an ache in my heart I couldn't explain. Three days later when I was ready to head back Nashville way she released him and said, I think he might be too big for me when he grows up. Maybe I need a smaller dog." This is the heart of a mother. She couldn't take from me what was meant to be hers when it caused me such pain. I drove home with the puppy who would become BIG DOG TITAN in due time.
When I first moved to Nashville I saw a sign for doggy day care and thought - What kind of person would bring a dog to day care. Then I discovered it was me. My guilt trips are not limited to my children and so while I wrote grants at NSCC he popped in a few days a week for 'social time' with kids his own age. He used to sneak away when he was still a puppy and in a little while as I searched frantically for him he had gone to visit the other pups at Doggy-Do's.
He snuck off one night to visit some cows and didn't come back. I was beside myself with worry but got a phone call the next day from a woman in her 70's who said, "We think we have your dog here. I'm sorry I didn't call you yesterday but he's a really big dog and he's got a big mouth so I was afraid to reach down and read his tag. We've had him locked up in the goat pen all night."
By the time I arrived he was inside this tiny country house in the kitchen with the woman's mother who was 92. She looked at me and said, "He's nothing but a baby!" She told me this twice. He'd eaten fried chicken and greens and cornbread. Happy to see me, a big smile on his face, a full tummy. Yes, we all know that dogs really smile.
He was a road warrior that covered thousands of miles with me who'd rather spend eight hours in a car than five minutes out of my sight. He loved to put his feet on the console and stick his big head out the sunroof. Gave me those special eyes when I put on my shoes. The ones said, "We're going? You're going? I"m coming too right? Taking me too right? I'll go lay right in front of the door right now so you don't forget me." The sight of my suitcase depressed him unless he figured out it was a road trip where he could travel along.
In a photo shoot so many years ago for a book cover I asked if I could bring my dog so that I could just look at him. It was the only time I've had photos that weren't 'gently touched up' as they put it. Someone once told me in that photo, God threw you a bone. Which I thought was funny but it was Titan that had made me smile. Did I mention he gave hugs? Friends and family can attest to this. Writer friends who came and stayed on the way to their next gig always ended up having a little photo shoot with Titan before they left. Shellie called me one day and asked, "Am I imagining things or does Titan give hugs?"
The last few years have been terribly rough on the personal front and he was my stable grace. On the longest ride of my life, him with me every mile filling up the backseat, I'd constantly reach back to touch him, to ground myself in the continued realities of his love. He stayed by my side and it wasn't until he passed that I realized how much he had tethered me to this world through that storm. He was my silent, strong. He showed me both what it was to be loved by God - because surely it is this absolute and unconditional - and what my loving God might look like if I could be half as true.
In the last months of his life he needed help to make it up the stairs because he had started to fall. He needed a fan in his face to help him breath when he slept. He had entered his elderly years yet I remained his sun. He still managed to bounce on his feet and run around in big circles when I came home. Desire overpowering his able. And, I think that desire to see me through the hard places had overpowered his able for a long time. But the night came when he couldn't go on, was in horrible pain and the next morning my sister met me at the vets for one last trip.
She brought her favorite soft blanket and a little fan to blow in his face. I sat on the floor, held his big head in my lap, said, "Good dog," over and over again. Best dog ever. So in that way he went to sleep with his head in my lap, my sister holding that fan to his face. Crazy to have these kind of luxuries when the world has gone mad and people are hurt and dying everywhere yet, in the final hour for anyone we love, family and friends, for a soldier in arms who has served by our side, we would wish a peaceful passing.
I will never have another dog like this in my life. Not like this. And, I had sworn to my mother I'd never have another dog period. No cat. No dog. No fish. No nothing. I'd be free to be me and travel when I needed and not search for sitters. No loving no nithing. But then a dog that ate in the trash, wandered the roads, got hit by a car, never had a bath, was matted and ticked, showed up at the house before Titan died. He officially belonged to a neighbor in that when they yelled he was supposed to show up. I started sneaking him food, putting a blanket out for him when it was freezing and he was left in the cold.
Soonater we said good-bye to Titan I left for Florida to continue packing for Mom's move for the 1000 time. In my absence, my sister paid a special visit with the neighbors and had a special conversation. When I returned the dog known as Kevin had been shaved, had his shots, wore a collar. He sleeps now on the floor as I write this. He's too young to snore. He is thankful for kindness, for food, and wants to be loved, to be petted or receive a gentle touch. Things all foreign and new to him. I've tried to tell him, it's not fair to you - you know. I had a great dog once. And, you'll never be him, can't be him. Kevin the dog we call buddy just looks at me as if - It's ok. I'm just happy to be here. I'll take what you've got. Even leftover love. It's more than I've known. I have pictures of this transformation I'll post later this week.)
There will never be another Big Dog Titan in my life. But God's teaching me that love's not just for one season. It's a perpetual thing. That it grows in the giving not in the keeping away.
CS Lewis wrote:
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal."
I have given my whole heart and I'm learning to give it again.
Thanks so much for reading, liking and sharing with friends.