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 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; persistent cellulite; 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 in Memphis, 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.