Saturday, August 11, 2018

If a Snowflake Falls in the Forest, God's Around to Hear It

If you go out into nature, you'll find God. Which God you find depends on personal preference, and that's none of my concern. I've been looking for the past year, and while I believe more than ever there's a direct route to Him in nature, my own reservations keep me away. I wasn't always afraid. 

In the spring of 2003 I spent an afternoon exploring trails in a hemlock forest a short drive from my post-college apartment. I was with my friend Hammie, also known as Hamster or Hamstick, all plays on his last name coined by his buddies, one of whom had been my on-again, off-again college boyfriend when booze or babes weren't more enticing. Hammie played wilderness guide to my forest newbie, leading me along an earthen path that would narrow and widen like a snake devouring its prey. Eventually we found the stream he promised. Revealing our unevenly tanned feet, we gingerly stepped onto large rocks made smooth and slick by cool, flowing water. The forest was quiet save the occasional creature shifting leaves and birds talking bird business and crickets playing ambient noise. I don't remember anything we said or how long we stayed, but looking back on the still frame of that afternoon—two 20-something friends escaping the confines of small apartments, unsatisfying love lives, and uncertain career paths—it was as pure as a stream running through a protected forest. On the hike back, I was stung by bees that clung so hard to my pants leg I had to pry them off with a stick.  

That was the last time I ventured into a forest, or any place too far from civilization. Since having children, I've become so accustomed to noise and disruption that I'm uncomfortable with silence and stillness. I steer clear of nature as it pertains to anywhere that reeks of isolation. As a writer I'm ashamed that I don't pine for nature as my muse. As a woman searching for God, I'm frustrated that I can't connect with Him in places where his glory is most visible. But for me nature means unwanted departure from the city's noise and movement, which I cling to for reasons, like wounds, both superficial and deep.

Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus! 

Religion and I have a long history. From the time I was born until age 17, I attended a small Freewill Baptist church in a small, middle-class town in North Central West Virginia. Although a large part of the congregation was family from my mother's side, it barely represented the universe of humans my Pap Aubrey created, having fathered 20-something children who had children who had children who had children, with all those generations intact until Grandma Helen died in 2007. Every Sunday we churched alongside aunts, uncles, and cousins once, twice, three times removed. 

The church of my youth was modest and tidy, painted in a shade of almost-white likely named after textiles, dairy, or dinnerware. The narrow, lengthwise stage was elevated by one step and outlined at its front by three wooden kneelers where remorseful sinners loudly requested mercy whenever they felt led, often clustering together with sympathetic arms clasped around shoulders slouched in defeat. There were three sections of short oak pews with aisles in between. Mom, my brother, and I were partial to the section to the right, unless we were so late that we had to find seats in the middle. The left-hand section was the most civilized and the least populated, its tone set by the reverend's son and daughter-in-law, he in perfectly tailored designer suits and she channeling Dynasty-era Joan Collins. Although they were Resting Bitch Face before it was a thing, they were friendly, gracious people. Still, boundaries persisted. The left was a section for people with clean credit, orderly junk drawers, and flyaway hairs that didn't dare. 

Reverend Bright was old and short, but he had the ups of an NBA great. When he was really feeling the spirit, which was often, his bulbous bald head would turn red and signal his ascent toward the ceiling. Up and down he'd go, shouting the victory of the Lord—Glory! Glory hallelujah!—like a ball player roaring to the crowd after a slam dunk. His sermons were founded on fire and brimstone that didn't motivate me, nor did Sunday school in the stuffy upstairs classroom where my best friend Marcie and I would feign reform when teacher Bobby halfheartedly chastised us for giggling throughout the lesson. More than anything, church made me bored and hungry. I wished I could bring trinkets and snacks like I did when I attended Catholic mass with my grandmother on Dad's side. Baptist church also clocked in at two hours, which was one hour and 15 minutes too long. Most Sundays the weight of damnation, death, and dogma was too much. I'd think to myself, Those Catholics might be doomed for worshipping Mary and confessing sins to the wrong guy, but they're okay by me. 

Fast forward 29 years and I've abandoned my holiday-only church habit for regular attendance. I sit in the middle of three large sections in the sanctuary of a prosperous Methodist church in my small, prosperous city. I always choose a seat on the end of the row, making sure there's at least one empty chair between me and my fellow congregant-stranger, because spiritual awakening can't happen with a stranger all up in my aura. Throughout the sermons I go through waves of emotions, generally a mix of despair and hope, as I have felt every day for the past year for sure, and maybe two, possibly six. 

Can you disconnect from the speed and volume of the world to get closer to God?

During an early-summer sermon, Pastor Kevin told us about his office in the church, which is situated such that it receives all the noise from the busy intersection below. Whether his window is open or closed, the buzz persists. Yet he tunes it out, he said, because the work he's doing—the Lord's work, that is—makes it easy to do so. He also goes on silent retreats. Silent as in no talking, no music or TV or video, for days. In the sermon, he extolled the virtues of occasionally retreating, not necessarily literally, from the aspects of daily life that get between us and God. My list of those things is long.

Last summer I had the perfect opportunity to get down with God on a weekend getaway with two of my college girlfriends. We'd take our kids to a cabin at a remote lake in nearby Pennsylvania. There's no internet! They typed with delight in a group message. Let's shop in advance because the nearest store is 30 minutes away, they said. As the planning became more specific and settled, the walls closed in. I imagined two and a half  days without my social fix on social media or the TV that's on all day for background noise or drive-thru coffee or passersby on the street outside my house. Or generally the option to go somewhere new when the place I'm in has lost its capacity for distracting me. A few weeks before we were set to go, I bailed. I'll catch you another time, God. Preferably in a spot out in nature with a coffeehouse and a pizza shop nearby. 

How do I get to know God? 

I've been talking to God all my adult life, but kept Him at arm's length because the religion of my youth made a lasting impression that Christianity was defined by all the things one could not do or that "real" Christians wouldn't want to do: wear pants to church; associate in any meaningful way with gays; listen to worldly music; be Catholic; patronize establishments that serve alcohol; be a liberal; believe black lives matter; appreciate "weirdo" things like street art, nude paintings, body piercing, yoga, or environmentalism. Although these "rules" weren't explicitly taught to me, they became part of my understanding of Christianity from the time I was a child until I was roughly 41 years old. The church of my youth, ironically called Freewill, made me feel anything but free. It told me that God is vengeance, guilt, and alienation, in turn feeding the fire of anxiety that would burn low and slow for decades like a coal fire deep within me. 

Last year a new friend invited me to her church, now mine as well. Thanks to her and a vibrant pastor, for the first time in my life I go to church because I actually enjoy it. There are no sermons encouraging God's children to tell sinners what they're doing wrong, no thundering proclamations about the "world" out to crush our rights as Christians. The focus is on salvation, not sin, and personal growth, not wagging fingers. I'm learning that while God has some hard and fast rules, the guilt factors imposed by the religion of my youth probably aren't on God's list of Things To Hold Against Danielle. Although I don't agree with all the tenets of evangelical Christianity that my church upholds and I cringe at some of the habits and lingo of the churchgoing crowd, I like where I am and where I'm heading. I don't expect to ever become an unrecognizable version of myself because I've endeavored to get some Jesus in my life. Some Christians feel it's their duty to crystallize God, pour Him into a gel capsule, cover it in peanut butter, and shove it down the throat of the sinner who'll thank them later. I don't want to be like them. And in all fairness, they probably don't want to be like me. 

Does God answer prayer?

Pastor Kevin was silent when I asked, save for the small burst of air he pushed through his lips as he shrugged and cocked his head. Dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap befitting his alter ego, Rev Kev, he sat in a leather chair across from me in his large office dominated by a long, wide table reminiscent of The Last Supper, unless you'd been in church on a particular Sunday last spring when he respectfully dismantled that great work of art. It turns out the Last Supper table was u-shaped, Jesus wasn't seated in the middle, and there were no chairs. Also, all those left hands all over the table? No way. That's the hand for doing bathroom business. Pastor Kevin is part preacher, part brainiac—the peanut butter and jelly of Jesusdom if you ask me. We had met that day to discuss my numerous hangups about religion. Of my inquiry on prayer, he eventually answered: "Don't worry about whether it works. Use prayer as a form of communion with God." I like that.

For now I'll commune with God amidst the noise of my everyday life. Every writer isn't cut out to follow the steps of Thoreau or Whitman or Muir. Nor is every writer able to tune out exuberant vacationers, towering hotels, and banner-flying airplanes on a commercialized beach, but I can. Put me at the very edge of the water where the sand becomes silky sludge between my fingers, dripping and plopping into tiny fairy castles quickly wiped away again and again, leave me me to stare straight out to the line where the sea meets the sky—that's my personal heaven. So maybe that coveted vacation I haven't had in two years has a purpose after all. God, send me an oceanfront condo so we can talk some more. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Funerals, Fear, and Folk Songs: Anxiety and the Modern Mom

There are no pews in St. James Catholic Church. Budgetary constraints, I assume. Father What's His Name compensates with extra rounds of standing and sitting. Or at least that's what it felt like on an oddly warm, rainy Friday morning in January. For the entirety of the service, I focused alternately on the parquet flooring, the frayed edge of a stranger's suit jacket in front of me, and the side of my ex's face a few inches away.

If nothing else, my ex and I get holidays, birthdays, and death right. (Added points for our mutual love of carbohydrate binging.) His grandmother had passed. They held a Catholic service, long by the clock, made even longer by my persistent discomfort. The problem wasn't the funeral. Although death isn't a safe subject with me, I don't have trouble with funerals per se. It's not the sullen atmosphere or even the lifeless body in front of me. It's anxiety.

Anxiety pays no mind to circumstance or atmosphere. I've had bouts of it—from the "something's wrong but I don't know what" variety to full-blown panic attacks—in all sorts of places: in my car en route to a big move, in the lobby of the Empire State Building, in a coffee shop, at my cousin's wedding (in which I was a bridesmaid, to boot). My personal hell began to heat up in high school and found its full fury during my sophomore year of college, when I was formally diagnosed.

In the nearly 20 years since learning I have generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, I've often wondered if I'd be better off not knowing what's wrong with me. As it is, my anxiety, which is largely focused on my health and safety, gives way to more anxiety as I imagine the havoc all this constant stress wreaks on my body. Stress can kill you, they say. Having children has upped the ante. The sleep deprivation I experienced with both of my boys, along with wondering what will happen to them if I die of whatever disease I'm sure I have on any given day, has had me walking a tightrope for the past six years. Don't look down. Yet I always do.

St. James is small and an architectural oddity as far Catholic churches go. There is no sanctuary or nave, just one big rectangular room with wooden upholstered chairs arranged in four sections facing a simple altar. Although the high ceilings and asymmetrical design elements are aesthetically appealing, on that oddly warm funeral morning I knew better than to look upward or around lest the dizziness set in. I spent that long hour telling myself silent affirmations: You're fine. Breathe. You don't need to get up. It'll be over soon.  I can't pinpoint what triggers my anxiety every time, but there's one surefire situation: when I'm expected to remain in a contained area for a long period of time, when leaving is either impossible or would make a spectacle of me. So funerals, weddings, seminars, church services, elevators, interviews, airplanes—all possible culprits.

Among the many difficulties I've brought upon myself in my lifetime, anxiety is not one them. For that I'm grateful, because it exempts me from being harder on myself than I already am. I'm also grateful that I don't have social anxiety. Conversation is one of my favorite things in life, whether it's with a friend or a stranger. Some people with anxiety find comfort in patterns. I do not. I find big changes exhilarating (perhaps too much?), although I might get anxious if the process involves containment, like when I moved to Memphis. I was 29 years old and making the big move with my precious pit bull-lab mix, Kaiser, riding shotgun. About halfway into the 12-hour drive, I felt that familiar sensation of impending doom. Minutes later I hightailed it off the interstate somewhere in Kentucky and sat in the parking lot outside Piggly Wiggly, listening to my mom on the other end of my flip phone recite scripture and talk me off the ledge. After we hung up, I bought Advil that I never took and a cinnamon roll, which I shared in the parking lot with my canine life partner.

During the first year of being a resident of Memphis' hip Cooper-Young neighborhood, panic attacks were a regular occurrence. The first one was at Otherlands, a hippified coffeehouse a few blocks from my sweet, updated guesthouse. I was sitting alone when I spotted my new, shiny first friend in town, Elle. She was a dirty blonde, short and stout, with a sway back that gave way to an unmistakable way of walking. In a moment of abject exasperation, I threw pride to the wind and asked her to sit with me because I was having a panic attack. She knew just what to do. It wasn't long before I learned that Elle had anxiety too, the social kind. So our afflictions complemented each other, and for a few good, strong years we helped each other along. We lost touch after I left town, and I struggle to this day between resenting her for what happened in the end and appreciating her for what she was while she was. Of anxiety's few sure things, here is one: You can get by with a little help from your friends. (I suggest having a good dog and a never-failing mom too.)

There have been times in my life that my mind hasn't been my worst enemy, like when I lived in South Beach in my early 20s. Now in my 40s, I'm tempted to say it was simply the glory of youth, but I know better, because a year later panic and worry would hit me hard. Maybe it was living at the beach—and that beach town in particular. Who could be bothered by irrational fears when there's never-ending sunshine, red-hot salsa dancing on sidewalks, colorful Art Deco architecture, fried plantains done right, and the ocean, which needs no adjectives because it just is. I remember not having anxiety back then, but I don't remember how it felt. I wish I could, in hopes I could lasso that carefree mind of the past and drag it into the present.

Do not read listicles about anxiety online, like "What It's Really Like to Live With Anxiety" or "10 Things People With Anxiety Want You to Know." They're terrible, all of them. If I don't answer my phone, it's not because of my anxiety. It's because my iPhone rings when it feels like it, or maybe I'm hiding in the bathroom so my kids can't ask for chocolate one thousand more times. If I'm grumpy, it's not because of my anxiety. It's because I have hormones. If I look fine, it's not because I don't have anxiety, it's because I do. Wait, what? Scroll past. Anxiety encompasses a set of disorders that can't be neatly summed up. If you need to know what anxiety's like, it's because you care about someone who suffers with it. So ask them instead. The answer won't make sense, but the act of showing you care will.

I made it through my ex's grandma's funeral without losing my cool, at least not visibly. We proceeded from St. James Catholic Church to the gymnasium next door, where I ate fried chicken, pasta marinara, and crusty Italian bread without a care in the world, unless you count the carbs (I did). Another one to add to my anxiety gratitude list: If I don't tell you I have anxiety, you'll likely never know. I go through life appearing mostly normal, except those mornings at kindergarten dropoff when I haven't had time to conceal my dark circles.

In 1943, singer-songwriter Woodie Guthrie famously painted his guitar with these words: This machine kills fascists. That's how I feel about my mind: It's the machine that can kill anxiety. Ironically, it's also the machine that creates it. It takes creativity to overcome that conundrum. My life's work is to come up with effective ways to diffuse my thoughts. That creativity is literal too: Writing is my machine.

This blog kills anxiety.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Why #metoo Isn't Enough

In my first college apartment, my bed was like a little girl's birthday cake, with comforter, pillow shams, and dust ruffle all done in shades of sugary pink and purple. Tucked carefully underneath all that sweetness was a kitchen knife. I didn't sleep with it from the start, just after that one night. 

I remember his name, first and last, and his messy, wavy, straw-colored hair. Other than that he was unremarkable, and I imagine I regarded him with the same indifference as I would any man whose presence didn't move me. He came to my place with my roommate's boyfriend that night. They were both from our hometown area. Maybe we played cards. Maybe we sat around the glass-top coffee table that my parents had given me. Maybe I was wearing my favorite ripped boy jeans, the kind that, in 1994, actually came from the boy's department. Or maybe I stayed in my room most of the night listening to Chicago love songs that reminded me of my former high school boyfriend.

The evening could've easily faded from memory were it not for that defining moment late into the night. As I awoke from perfect sleep and put the pieces together—there was an uninvited man in my bed and a hand on my bare upper thigh—my first thought was, "Is this really happening to me?" My answer to my own question was unequivocal, and I shut him down in seconds flat. I don't remember if I yelled or woke up my roommates, but I know  he spent the rest of the night in the parking lot in his car. I didn't tell my parents, ever, and I didn't speak of it to anyone else for years. It wasn't because I was embarrassed or ashamed. It was a nonissue. I'd taken care of it, hadn't I? The vestiges of that night: a kitchen knife taking up residence under my bed and a fear of being alone at night. The knife would give way to ownership of mean-looking dogs and the fear would remain. 

I chose not to say #metoo on Facebook and Twitter. As a writer with a decade in marketing, I'm prone to look at social media through that lens. To sell anything—a product, an idea, a movement—it takes more than believing in its worth or usefulness. A simple hashtag is enough to manifest solidarity among the affected and empathetic others, but it's not enough to budge a dissenter. Scores of Americans, men and women alike, resist the belief that we have a problem in America. They dilute the root cause of sexual assault and harassment with statements about boys being boys; harmless locker room talk; women asking for it; and a few bad apples. They'll do it when confronted with the fact that rape and sexual assault victims are 91% female. They'll do it no matter how many times they see #metoo—or rather, how many times they ignore it. 

I was out of pigtails but still years from a training bra the first time a grown man terrified me. His name was Joe H. he lived in my neighborhood, and he was a convicted child molester. I'd never met him, nor had any of my friends who were there that day. We were all playing in a yard across the street from my house. Joe H. appeared from behind the brick garage in the next yard up, exposing himself from the waist down. Did I see what he intended? I don't remember. For me, it was his long, sunken face and dark, empty eyes that exposed him. Half a lifetime later, I remember the events in this sequence: I screamed "There's a man!" and ran with all my might toward home. My older brother took off in the opposite direction, throwing rocks at the lanky gray-haired man running up the alley. When I burst through the front door and explained what happened, my dad grabbed a club and flew up the alley after my brother and the bad man. In the weeks and months to follow, my parents and the neighbor parents talked of court dates, and Joe eventually went to jail. Although I knew he was gone, the anxiety that would one day become my shadow made perhaps its earliest appearance: When I would play in the front yard, I kept one hand clasped onto the stair rail, and when I would play around the neighborhood, I made sure I was in plain sight and that I had an escape route. 

Of course Joe H. was a sicko. The problem is, in America we tend to stop there. We don't want to address what lies behind that word. Calling out a sicko doesn't address the fact the vast majority of sex offenders are male. Why are we unwilling to ask why? Social media is on fire with all the ways in which society demeans and devalues women. These are important conversations. Yet what we see so little of is discussion about what American culture does to men. In this country, males are taught, either implicitly or directly, that emotions are for women, that women are for pleasure, that pleasure is their birthright. Sexual pleasure is one half of the equation. The other half is pleasure derived from women's work. It's normal to expect—or passively allow—Mom/wife/partner to take on the emotional labor of the relationship or household. By not acknowledging and addressing this imbalance, we do a disservice to men and women, girls and boys, alike. 

A few years after the Joe H. incident, I would start junior high. I was only 12 when the school bus and my innocence collided, with the latter dying on impact. My slight, 100-pound body was no longer meant for yellow Huffy bicycles, a pink Nash skateboard, or a cousin's unruly pony; it had become a thing in and of itself. On the school bus, a few boys in particular grabbed a few of my body parts in particular on a regular basis. It was no secret; they'd do it openly as I walked down the aisle or when we were seated near the back, with giggles and jokes on all sides. Even at 41 years old, I cringe to admit that back then what should've felt invasive instead felt rebellious to me, so I never told the bus driver, a teacher, or my parents. 

As for those boys, none grew up to be rapists or abusers or any variety of criminal. That's good news—for them. What about me? While over the years I've given plenty of thought to how their behavior underscores a cultural failure, I've honestly never considered how it specifically impacted me, not until this week. Given my history of relationships plagued by power struggles, maybe those early days were more than an example of a young girl thumbing her nose at parental supervision.  

The girl who slept with a kitchen knife, who held onto the porch rail, who indulged young boys' reckless hands, she gave life to two sons. I was first a single mother, then a partnered mother, and now a single mom again. Despite my failures with relationships, I don't feel ill equipped to teach my boys respect, at all. My history is a chunk of coal. All the pressure and stress that's been put on me (at times by me), is a means to creating something clearer, more defined, and reflective of light. I hope to be that light for my sons. One of my biggest goals as a mother of boys is to teach them respect, particularly for women but also for themselves. Respect given is respect held.  

My sons are young, only five and two, but I'm already doing the work. It has to start early.  It's not enough to throw in an occasional comment about the Golden Rule or to correct or punish bad behavior. Raising respectful boys means finding teaching opportunities in everyday life and modeling respectful behavior and language. It means allowing our boys to express emotion and encouraging them to talk about their feelings. Although parents are the first line of defense in shaping young minds, that responsibility extends to other family members, mentors, educators, and communities too. 

Women who speak out about women's issues are often labeled man-haters or damaged goods. I am neither bitter nor scarred. Some of the most endearing people I've known are men. Among my most loyal friends are men. They differ in personality and background, but what they have in common is respect for women. I can both value men and recognize cultural deficiencies at the same time. And I guarantee that among the thousands of women saying #metoo, the same is true. In the social media realm, in all our socio-political banter and arguments, it can be comforting to assume people are one-dimensional. Let's have discourse that shows we're better than that. 

Today I say #metoo—and then some. Behind every hashtag is a person and a story. Be willing to listen. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Hands to the Earth, Hands to the Sky

A few weeks ago I cleared my garden for the last time. Over the course of an hour or two, I toiled over net-like ground cover, firmly rooted dandelions, and innocuous-looking weeds with vicious, tiny thorns. Over the summer the garden had become another child of mine as I nurtured its new life. My three kids—two bipeds, one quadruped—delighted in taunting its branches and leaves with curious hands, kicked-up heels, and lifted legs. Despite human, canine, and botanical competition, my garden-child flourished, bringing me bouquets of Swiss chard, bundles of sugary cherry tomatoes, and bushels of hot and sweet banana peppers that hung in perfect position like ornaments on the Christmas tree. And I relished each time I left its confines with hands stained by soil and chlorophyll.

It was my first garden ever, a dream decades in the making come to life. In late May my boyfriend planted it with our oldest son, who was thrilled at the chance to wield a shovel and "help" with the wheelbarrow. His five-year-old five-minute-long attention span got the best of his interest early on, but Daddy toiled on. I watched from the window with the two-year-old, his little voice occasionally declaring "Daddy!" as he pointed to his father's folded form, which we didn't see upright again for a couple hours.

And then we waited.

Not long after the first rain fell to nourish our seedlings, the cycle of life bore its burden in full. As life began to bloom in our garden bed, death fell upon our home. A family of five became four. An annual trip to the ocean passed us by in favor of scheduled visits and makeshift family nights shrouded in the uncertainty of what the future holds. The sky cried for us all summer. And with a slight chill on our hearts, we watched our garden grow.

When I was 23 and a second-time-around college student, I chose ceramics to fulfill one of my core requirements. That was 18 years ago, but I can easily recall how the dry, gray clay gave way to a creamy texture as I sprinkled it with water and shaped it into a small cone between both hands. With pressure from the bottom of my right fist on its apex and support from my left palm against its side, I compressed the cone into a short, fat cylinder. The anticipation would well up inside me as I pushed my right thumb into its top to make a shallow well and then began pulling the clay from its center with both thumbs on the inside and fingers on the outside, thinning it out, lifting it up and up. As my potter's wheel turned round and round, the clay would lightly stroke my fingertips, forming faint lines all the way up its length, and I would exhale with pleasure as I watched it stretch tall and stand strong.

There wasn't a moment I didn't enjoy my time in the studio, so much so that I signed up for another semester and then a class at a local studio after I graduated. The ritual of throwing down a ball of clay, wetting it, shaping it, and lifting it upward to become a creation of one's own, it's what love is made of. That famous scene in the movie Ghost isn't so far fetched. The feel of wet clay is very sensual—and perhaps sexual, although my feeling is those are two messes best kept separate. Eighteen years later, products of my affair with clay are part of my everyday life: I eat from a cereal bowl I made, store utensils in a bulbous urn, keep change in a short, fat pot. And still other pieces remain in high-up places safe from reckless little hands, so I can remember for years to come the joy of that moment in time.

In late July I celebrated my birthday dinner with two girlfriends I've known since college. Over tapas and talk of separation, my girlfriends extolled the many virtues of yoga. I had only done it once prior, when I was 16 at the local YWCA with my best friend. All I remember is spending a lot of time doing nothing, and that maybe Ginny fell asleep at the end. In the same year I tried yoga for the time, I became a runner, and from then on I assumed sitting too still for too long on a mat wasn't for me. But on my 41st birthday, between bites of indulgent combinations of sugar and butter, amidst sideways glances at college girls blissfully unaware that firm butts don't last forever, my girlfriends assured me yoga wouldn't put me to sleep.

A few weeks later, I began a new journey with a yogi named Adriene on YouTube, albeit in the discomfort of my own home with a two-year-old clumsily petting my downward dog. I quickly found respect for a practice I had too easily dismissed, for how it emboldens me to find release in this body balled up with worry. In practicing yoga I've learned to allow myself to think of nothing at all, for maybe the first time ever. In forward fold, I become soft and supple like the clay between my fingers so many years ago. With my palms as support, I lift my self, softly and slowly, up and up, until I can stretch no more. When Adriene says reach for the sky, I do in earnest.

When life shifts shape, it's asking us to respond. What will you do? Last summer, in my garden and in my yoga practice, I felt removed from unresolved situations, unpaid bills, unanswered emails, unrepentant anxiety—even if momentarily. When you find a moment to savor, it saves you from yourself. And what is contentment if not a collection of moments? Put your hands into the earth. Reach for the sky. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Gift of Produce.

Yesterday the cucumbers were rotten, every one of them. I love the little produce market downtown in theory, but I've been disappointed more than once by a selection that lost its will to live. Aware of my cucumber conundrum, the cashier with the caricature-sized eyes and glistening silver strands that scoff at graying sold me a perfect-specimen seedless cucumber at a discount. As she rang me up, she fumbled for the words to describe making a decision without first consulting an authority. "Do you know what I mean?" she asked. I did, but on the spot I couldn't recall the phrase "executive decision." For a writer, that should've been a no-brainer, except my brain is shrouded in fog from sleep deprivation, the perpetrator of which was kicking his fat, dimpled legs in the stroller beside the dragon fruit.

Attractively Greying Cashier and I briefly discussed motherhood and aging while she rung up my judiciously discounted vegetable. She told me not to expect much from my forties. Challenge acknowledged, I shoved her warning along with my receipt into the abyss of my diaper bag and told her to have a good day. 

Twenty years prior to my forties, I started shopping in junk shops and thrift stores. I amassed a respectable collection culled from South Florida through my home state of West Virginia and all the way up to New York City. Along the way, I developed quite a knack for incorporating old with new. Forty is that way. It's vintage you in an arranged marriage with current you. The stakes are higher than the price.

At nearly 41, I have much to behold: new wrinkles; leaky heart valves; a toddler who inhales oxygen and exhales crumbs; a five-year-old whose brain is on a steady drip of Red Bull; and a confounding case of partnership. There are female mammogram techs carefully arranging my boobs on a platter to be slowly smashed and male dermatologists ungracefully exposing my butt crack to check for signs of damage from UV rays it has never met. There are student loans that age like inner-thigh fat, bigger and uglier. There is an overdose of the freelancer's nemesis: the gig that almost was. There is laundry like that unblow-out-able magic birthday candle. There are carbs and food coloring and artificial flavors and pesticides out to ruin me and my children. Beyond all that sits my resolve—like a snarling granite gargoyle guarding the home of my hopes. Despite life's hurdles and the produce cashier's warning, my instinct tells me the best is yet to come.

For some, forty is an apex held up by years of traveling an upward trajectory. For me, it's a mountain of hindsight dying to crow I told you so. Except I know better than to harbor regret, at least not an amount I can't manage to carry. If I hadn't quit college at 18, I would've missed the adventures of living in South Beach and New York City. If I hadn't clung to that immature painter who destroyed my heart through college and then some, I wouldn't have learned that love is deeply flawed. If I hadn't left behind the dreamy, brainy singer who said I'm "like a box of stars," I would've gotten married far too soon. If I hadn't crushed my better judgment for the womanizing scoundrel, I wouldn't have had my first son. If I hadn't gotten close to friends who would let me down in the biggest ways, I wouldn't have learned a heavy lesson about perspective. The ifs go on and on, at least for some of us.

Forty forges a new partnership between nature and nurture. We're tasked with managing—or juggling—the things we can't change about ourselves along with the repercussions of our past. When the supremely gifted singer Chris Cornell committed suicide at the age of 52 last month, he gave life to a jarring truth: Nature doesn't respect age. We don't outgrow afflictions like anxiety and depression. We don't suffer them less because we're busier or more stable or even wildly wealthy. Like Chris Cornell, I know anxiety. It has hounded me for decades, and thankfully I've manged to elude it in large enough bounds to breathe. Since the birth of my second son, anxiety has gained ground, clawing at me daily, urging me to believe disaster or disease is looming. Keeping good time with anxiety is the half-life of every impractical or impulsive choice over two decades of living life on my terms. Some days I long for ten years ago, when life was wide open, when accountability was low, when sleep disruption and stress didn't glare back from the mirror.

This morning I hurt my back moving a table from the back deck to the one in front. I could've waited for help, if I were someone else entirely. Waiting is for tall people or redheads or engineers, I think. At first I carried the table, and then I dragged it. Then the chairs and the 6-foot-tall umbrella that was deceptively cumbersome. I moved the grill to the other side of the deck and sprayed everything, porch included, with the hose. And then planned on scrubbing all the furniture and the deck with soap later. I sprayed the garden, still fragile in its new life, and wondered how much was enough or too much. I wonder that sort of thing often. All the while, my little one was squealing over dandelions, discovering the texture of mulch,  and mumbling about bubbles and balls. My dog was wriggling on his back in the overgrown grass. It was all there before me, the ache and the reward.

Some women celebrate 40. Because it makes sense. Because they have lives like the bay, not like the ocean. I don't begrudge them their calm, undulating peace. Nor do I resent the roughness with which life handles me. I've given it permission, mostly. I give myself permission too: to learn from it; to keep moving, always, even when the steps are so small that no one sees them but me; to hold onto my dreams; and to see the gifts I'm presented—like motivation in the form of a seedless cucumber.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Love Thy Neighbor, Love Thy Self

Genevieve died on an unseasonably warm Saturday in the penultimate week of January. She was alone, her body cold by the time her son found her.

I didn't find out until a week later. As I jogged past her house, a gathering of people on her porch and front yard slowed me to a near walk, and I watched as if they were onstage; accordingly, the actors didn't watch me back. Sons led elders by bony elbows to and from vehicles, and packed boxes filled with trappings of a good, long life into backseats and trunks. Two great-nephews posed in casual conversation on the porch, one with an upper thigh resting on the low cement wall and the other leaning against the supporting column. A collection of women in their Sunday best leaned sideways in lawn chairs to hear each other above the clatter of great-grandchildren squealing in pursuit or complaining of itchy tights and chokey clip-on ties.

On my run the day afterward, I mustered the nerve to approach the balding, heavy bellied man vacuuming Genevieve's porch to ask the fate of my neighbor. Kind toward my inquiry, her son told me his mom had been 90 and in good health and that she had lived a good, long life but was ready to go. Was Genevieve's life good? Was she ready? How did he know? Odds are, he didn't. It's just what you say when an elderly person passes. It's better than saying So-and-So was a miserable wretch or hadn't amounted to much or had struggled for decades with some affliction or another. Or in some cases, maybe it is true: Maybe a lucky percentage of us learn to eschew or at least better manage the crises of existence—like angst, regret, depression, anger, anxiety—to be still in the contentment of simply being alive.
Although I had only been neighbors with Genevieve for seven months, I had grown fond of the old woman who was on that stark-white cement-block porch with the lion's share of potted plants every time the weather allowed. Every once in a while, her voice, soft and slow as its owner, would drift outward on a peony-infused breeze to greet me with cute quips as I huffed and puffed my way up one last hill before home. On many a run, I'd resolve to stop and get to know her a little better. Next time, I'd promise myself. As life demonstrates over and again, time is indifferent to our resolutions.

While I explained to Genevieve's son how her spunk had endeared her to me, so much so that I'd written about her a few months prior, a second son, also balding but slimmer with a sharp nose and Siberian Husky eyes, found his way to the porch. As he thanked me for memorializing his mother, I felt grateful for the sunglasses hiding my distress and cursed the post-motherhood hormonal changes that have turned me into a water balloon ripe for bursting with a slight poke of sharp emotion. Or maybe I've always been that way. Dreamers tend to feel emotion to its fullest, for better or for worse. As I walked away, I discovered a last name painted on a small, black sign hanging from a pole in Genevieve's front yard—the kind of sign that always includes an apostrophe that makes the last name possessive for no good reason. I used that sign to look up her obituary later that day.

Two days past Genevieve's funeral reception, the Blessed Mother statue in her yard was gone. All that was left was an empty stone box. Her once-lush porch was bare too. Past the cold emptiness at eye level, in the lone front window on the upper level sat her Singer, now more memorial than machine. I'd seen it many times before and had imagined her sewing curtains and pillowcases and mending polyester old-lady pants like my Nanni did when I was a child. Damn it. Why did I never stop to talk? Now Genevieve's obituary was my only window into her world: She was a widow and had worked in publishing at the university in my city. Publishing! Was she a writer or editor like me? Did she get a rush from a beautifully crafted sentence like I do?  I'll never know. I'll never get to ask her what it was like to be a working mother at a time when that was far from the norm. I've lost the chance to learn about her youth or tell her that her love of plants and porches reminds me of my mom's mom. I'll never get to convince her that thong underwear are actually comfortable or hear her opinions on government and God

My impression of Genevieve matched the assurances her sons gave. With a green thumb, quick wit, and a likable demeanor, she struck me as someone who found pleasure in the small things. But that word impression begs further discovery. Think of a footprint in the mud: In order to create that impression, something—more mud, in this case—had to be displaced. There's always something displaced or suppressed or dismissed when we make impressions. Each of us is exactly how outsiders perceive us, and then some. After my neighbor passed, I lost the chance to know her, and especially to know how and why and when she found happiness.

Once a month I dole out advice as a contributor to a health and wellness blog. My editor allows me creative license, which makes it fun; I also take it seriously and feel a responsibility toward the readers. I choose my words with purpose and awareness, lest I fall into the trap of providing hyperbole for the sake of creating traffic. Marketing wellness is big business these days, and it's not uncommon to find advice that proclaims anything from gardening to speed dating to drinking bone broth is going to produce benefits that will supersede genetics, disease, and other contributing factors to the problems in our lives.

It's all part of the "cult of happiness" in America. In the form of blogs, books, and webinars, it tempts us to think we're doing it all wrong. We are urged to find joy in every waking moment and to feel required to see the good in anything bad. I find this insulting to the fact of being human and thus being equipped with multiple emotions, all of which have a purpose and none of which can exist in a pure state. There's a lot of pressure in the realm of mass-produced self-help. The headlines are on constant rotation, reminding us that if we would just do the "Five Things Happy People Do" or learn "The One Way You'll Attract the Right Partner" or avoid the "Top Ten Interview Mistakes," we'll get life right. The cult of happiness sells the idea that we are always one numbered list away from achieving nirvana. It's insidious. 

What is happiness, anyway? 

In the southern part of my home state of West Virginia, a region often disparaged for its backwardness and certainly not heralded as a bastion of joy, a beacon of wisdom goes about his days infusing average lives with hope, faith, and charity. His name is Samuel. He has no wife, no children, and no job other than serving his parishioners at the Greek Orthodox church. I've never met nor laid eyes on him, yet I've easily become a fan. By proxy, Father Samuel has helped me better understand happiness

That proxy is a cherished friend. I'll call her Loretta, as a nod to her love of my impression of Loretta Lynn in "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man." We met during college and, as they say, we've been together ever since. In 16 years, she's proved to be one of a few soulmates I've had the great fortune to find. About five years ago, Loretta became a member of the Greek Orthodox church along with her husband, whose existence I discovered about as quickly as her rogue move on religion (orthodoxy being an unorthodox step for a lifelong Baptist). My dear Loretta has always been full of surprises, though: like how she didn't let on her real age for the first six months of our friendship; or how as a barista she informed a regular that she didn't have to like her to pour her coffee; or the time she punched a classmate, sending her glasses flying off her face, for giving a catty critique in painting class.
During our somewhat-regular phone dates, Loretta gives me updates on the picture of her world as colored by a rock-solid marriage, a precocious preschooler, a firebrand attitude, and life-altering depression and anxiety—all kept on the canvas under the auspices of an Orthodox priest with a knack for reconciling human nature with God's grace. As an advisor, Father Samuel is both mirror and crystal, reflecting the darkness that naturally comes from life's trials and the light that persists through good deeds and better judgment. His West-by-God wisdom travels upward past strip mines and sulfur creeks, hills and hollows, rhododendrons and roadkill. When his advice finally reaches me secondhand, I'm reminded that happiness is not a science.  

Trying to follow the cult of happiness with all its statistics, rules, and prescriptions might even lead to less happiness. The looming expectation to be happy, be prepared, be vigilant—right now, all the time—is a lot. We aren't doing ourselves a disservice by feeling negative emotions. We will still raise decent children even if we don't follow the rules set by the free-rangers, the helicopters, or any other -ers. We won't meet the right person by following a handbook. However, we can nourish our lives with a little more peace and progress by picking through all the heaps and piles of advice to discover morsels that make sense for each of us as individuals. Sometimes those morsels are easier found when digging with a partnera seasoned neighbor, a trusted confidante, or an enlightened fellow in a white collar. 

One Sunday during the Christmas season this year, Father Samuel told his parishioners, "Charity isn't about hugging a stinky person." And thus my admiration grew. The man has a way of putting our foibles into focus. Loretta will be leaving him soon, moving out of state. We're both a little worried about what she'll do without him, but if his secondhand impact on me is any indication, I think she'll be just fine.