The Handbasket is Empty

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One of the benefits of having lived so close to the edge for so long is that I don’t take a damn thing for granted. I know what it’s like to be facing losing (and then actually losing) my home. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one to addiction, to parent alone, to be afraid, to be facing homelessness, to be dependent on the charity of others. I know the sting and humiliation of throwing my lot at the mercy of an overworked DSHS caseworker in hopes of receiving aid. I know what it feels like to have our names on paper ornaments on the Giving Christmas Tree, where a “Boy, Age 8″ would like some Legos and a coat. I know well the spaces inhabiting our periphery, the margins of our lives, where we all hope to never go, and where hope is all you’ve got if you get there.

So when people talk about the state of the world, of the decay of society- it baffles me. The talking points and even the themes I hear sometimes at church and from the news networks just don’t fit with my lived experience. Contrary to the obtuse bloviating of pundits and doomsayers, I don’t see the hand-basket to hell overflowing- as a matter of fact, I think it’s nearly empty.

Whichever direction you face, you can see people doing good in the world. It would be hard to look past the good being done, it is so pervasive.

In my own life, despite the challenges and sometimes near catastrophic consequences of agency, there were mechanisms and safety nets and hands outstretched waiting to help. I lost my home, but I was able to uncouple myself legally to protect myself and my kids. My children’s father was swallowed by addiction, but there were laws, judges and courts to assure my children were protected AND that their father was protected- from himself and from doing further damage. Addiction is a nasty beast slouching around the land, but there are programs and therapies dedicated everywhere to slaying him. Yes, I was suddenly impoverished and without any child support and no hope of receiving any- but there were welfare programs in place for people just like me. Yes, it was hard to navigate some of it, and it’s difficult to prove qualification- but there are people who dedicate their lives to protecting the poor and needy, and do so without great financial gain themselves. I couldn’t provide gifts for children at the holidays, but how wonderful there are people who care enough to make sure children like mine are not forgotten. I was able to qualify for low-interest student loans and get an education, so I would be able to remove myself from desperation. Yes, work was required of me, but it was work I could not have done had there not been help available. My pride? Obliterated. But also obliterated was any notion or lingering idea that the blessings of any life were somehow owed or earned. “There but for the grace of God go I” is more than an idea.

Pulling back from my personal experience, I see these acts of good expanding, like a beautiful fractal, in the world at large. There are people working all over the world to help and aid the disadvantaged, whether it’s engineering systems of waste disposal in Central America, or digging wells in African villages in so families can have potable water.  There are programs everywhere, addressing every corner of need. NGO’s work to increase access to education for girls in central Asia. There are micro lending programs to help women start small businesses in order to support their families. Homeless shelters and rehabilitation programs can be found in every urban area. Organizations provide malarial nets to curb the devastating effects of mosquito born illnesses.  Children with disabilities who were once written off as expendable now receive therapy and IEP’s and attend classrooms where their needs are not only met, but their lives are expanded and they contribute to the world.  Cargo ships and airlifts of food, medication, and aid workers pour into areas devastated by natural disasters. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers dot the globe working to vaccinate and eradicate childhood diseases and mortality.

It doesn’t matter if this feels inadequate- to quote Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “What we do is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if we didn’t do it, the ocean would be one drop less than it is.” We are imperfect, and there is grace in our imperfection.

People care. People are willing to extend themselves perhaps more so and with better results than at any time in history. It wasn’t so long ago that the poor were considered expendable. Children were sent to work in coal mines or worse, women could be legally beaten by their spouses and couldn’t vote or get an education, and human beings could be bought and sold as property. These things are, of course, still happening in pockets of the globe- but human consciousness and concern is eroding those spaces, like water over stone. I submit that we are more aware of the plight and pain of our brothers and sisters, and willing to do something about it, than at any time in human history.

There is more to do. Ever so. The work will never be done- but I find awe and beauty in the actual actions of so many of my fellow humans, willing to leave their comfort zones and challenge their assumptions, and to roll up their sleeves and get to the real work of a life worth living.

Birthday Fairies and Other Magic

Abby came tumbling downstairs this morning, then visibly deflated when she walked into the dining room. “Mom!! The Birthday Fairy didn’t come!”  She spun around in her kitty-cat nightgown, hair all cattywhompus from bed, her face a creative mix of crestfallen and worried.

Poor sweetie. It’s my birthday… It never occurred to me to decorate for myself last night, the way I do for my kids on their birthdays. It’s a longstanding tradition in my family- the Birthday Fairy came to me even after I moved out of home, until I got married myself. My mom The Birthday Fairy would find a way to sneak into my house while I was at work and decorate with balloons and streamers. She even filled one of my brother’s room with multi-colored balloons to a depth of about four feet. The. Whole. Room. My mom The Birthday Fairy was Pinterest before Pinterest was a gleam in a coder’s eye.

I’ve always done the same for my kids. The boys are oblivious, and have not much noticed what happens for me- but Abby was apparently hoping the house would be celebrating Mom today. It’s really rather charming and sweet, and makes me think I ought to be more careful talking about Santa Claus, at least for another year.

So today is October 3. Just another day on the calendar, but it’s always been special to me. I think I’m officially at the mid-way point in life. Is this what I imagined? Never in a million years. It’s a million times better. It’s a good thing we don’t really control our lives- we wouldn’t be half the people we turn out to be if we got to write the story-lines.

There’s an odd comfort and certainty in that truth.

So thank you, to those of you who’ve helped me live my story, and thank you to those of you who’ve woven pieces of this tapestry alongside me, whether it was a bit part long ago, or a constant pattern emerging over the years. Thank you for sharing in the tiny glimpses we get of magic- be that magic the belief in fairies, or in people who love us and are willing to take a gamble, risk their hearts, to show it. Today…. today, life is good.

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For the record, I got my hair cut today, but I did NOT dye it red. So far, Tracy: 1, October Compulsion: 0. May it ever be so. I may look like a dork, but my hair is fabulous. Priorities, darling.

Writers Block

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As the house quieted and giggling children slowly settled into gently snoring children, Jon asked me why I wasn’t writing anymore. Curled in my vintage thrift store chair nestled in the corner, book folded in my lap, I idly fiddled with the velvety fraying threads on the edge of the arm. Sea-blue and leaf-green brocade, perfect in a 1940’s home, now raveling so many years later in my bedroom. But it’s the perfect reading chair, inviting with it’s sturdy frame and soft, worn cushions, bathed in a circle of golden light from an ivory silk-shaded reading lamp. The kids fight over it— all of them— at story time. It’s one of my favorite places. I looked out the open window into the velvety blackness. “I don’t know.”

I thought I had writer’s block. But I’m not sure that’s true. I think I may have Happy Block.

Writing about hard things is simple— I tap a vein and let it flow. But writing about happy? I withdraw, tighten inside, unconsciously hold my breath. Happy is… baffling, right? I don’t know. It’s not even so much that I don’t know how to write about it- I’m still working on processing the “life” part of it, and all the changes for me and my kids this year.

I’m still working on unpacking my faith in this weird happiness. Turns out it’s not as simple as unpacking my grandma’s china, though that was admittedly an important step. The patterns and rhythms of life are startling to unfold, unfurling into something, while continually changing, is consistently tinged with beauty, if I only pause long enough and peek through my fingers to see.

Jon says, “I think you have your challenge. You’re up to it. Just write.”

I grab my computer and head downstairs. There is a flickering candle on the entry table, casting dancing elfin shadows with the welcoming scent of apple cider, and I flop on the couch. We picked this camelback sofa up from a couple on Craigslist, and ended up making friends with them. They insisted on giving us an enormous gilt-edged antique mirror that now hangs over the fireplace, which one of men declared, with an eye roll towards his partner, “It’s too gay!” We both love it— it’s perfect in the family room, where apparently Too Gay Mirrors are a fine fit. It’s been part of the transition from this being Jon’s house to it becoming Our Home. It makes me happy.

There it is again. Happy.

Remind me to breathe. Remind me that happy is okay. Kind of like a few of you have reminded me already not to dye my hair red this fall. Thanks for that, by the way. You all make me happy. And not making a horrible hair color mistake makes the world happy.

Make Myself a Sandwich

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With five kids in four different schools, it’s been a hectic fall. Five back-to-school nights, two IEP meetings (so far) and a whole host of other things that could so easily crash into our homes and invade our time and space. Abby’s back-to-school night was last night, and Jon and I dutifully trekked off to sit in tiny chairs around small desks and hear what’s up in third grade. On her desk we found a writing sample which made everything in the whole universe awesome:

“If I were invisible, I would strap a giant bee to my back and crawl around the house all day. Then, I probably would make myself a sandwich.” ~Abigail, Age 8

I’m not sure what all the teacher talked about, because Jon and I were giggling with baffled delight at this daughter. We’ve been through third grade now a combined four times, and Abby is honestly the child I worry least about (maybe I should be worried about that?). She’s a stellar student, she tutors others, she’s in the gifted program, she is a precocious delight; sometimes she’s a little bit serious for a little girl. So to see her write something so utterly whimsical and absurd just made my world better.

In other news, Bean has chosen to play the cello in 5th grade orchestra. For anyone keeping track, that means we have, at practice time in our house: A baritone tuba, highland bagpipes, a bugle, a cello and a piano. Be envious.

The Alchemist

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“From the bedtime stories read to us as a child, to the books that changed our lives, all the way back to stories of the day’s hunt told around the campfire, stories shape who we are as a people. When you understand this idea, and you know that the Storyteller plays a powerful role in every culture, then ‘who gets to be our storytellers’ becomes a pivotal question.” Louise McKay

 The kids have spilled out the door and down the porch steps, walking towards school, colorful backpacks bouncing with each step. They disappear into the morning mist, and I step back inside. I can hear my sharp words and impatience echoing around the now-silent house. Why are mornings sometimes so hard? There’s a siren in the distance, muffled in the heavy, wet morning air, and the hum of cicadas and early birds chirp in the yard. The echoes fade, and I sit down with my steaming cup of peppermint tea, determined to find my center. I think I have an idea what happened, but like the March Hare, I need to chase it down, grasp the wispy elusive trails, and make it mine again.

I stopped telling my own story.

For nine years, I have been a story-teller. The stories I’ve told are mine, they belong to me, and they are how I pluck sense and meaning from the cacophony and chaos of life. When I was younger, smaller, less formed, I would lay in bed and imagine a cyclone in my mind- a constant, churning whirlwind of thoughts that would zip by, too fast and too furious for me to grab any single thread, and leaving me exhausted and confused. Who was I? What did it mean?

It wasn’t until I started to write that the storm stilled. There was a day, distinct in memory, where suddenly my internal life was still. It had been happening gradually, as the whirling worlds spilled onto the screens and pages, but I didn’t notice it until I was empty. Still. For the first time ever, I finally knew peace, standing alone in the center of my interior life. That space— a state of grace, really— allowed me to withstand the turmoil and chaos and upheaval of so many uncertain years. The mistake I made was thinking I didn’t need it anymore.

Much like the calm, in reverse, when I stopped writing regularly, the winds slowly picked up again. And much like when they stopped, I didn’t really notice until the circling breezes had stirred up into near gale-force gusts, leaving me wondering why I was suddenly having trouble standing or finding any peace. I’m not sure what that says about my own self-awareness, but I’m pretty sure it means I have some work to do.

Telling my story is how I calm the storm. Telling my story is how I pull ideas from the ether and coalesce them into something tangible, something valuable, and how I recognize and create a meaningful life. Writing is the alchemist pulling the base metals from the whirlwind and distilling raw materials into something fine, gleaming, and precious. We’re all stories in the end.

The Fall

11497878-largeUsually by August, I can feel the season tipping and see the light dipping on the edges of world. The seasons are different back east than they are in my beloved west. I try to remind myself they are different, not better… but it’s hard when I see photos of my family in Yosemite, where even drought-parched, bridal veil still falls and pillars of light pierce the clouds like God’s fingers.

In the east, rain falls in steady straight streams, leaving everything on the weathered ancient hills dense and green. I’ve never watered my yard here in Virginia, there is no need. The hotter the day, the more likely a downpour in the afternoon, and the sauna-like summer makes the plants lush and the flowers deliciously enormous. My heart and mind are at war over whether it’s okay to call the Shenandoahs mountains, when they appear as little more than foothills. Mountains… can be seen from the distance, and have snow all year long, the heart argues. The mind, ever swordlike, recalls the geologic map in a dusty class at Eastern where the Shenandoahs were weathered grandfathers when the Rockies were being fledged by the continental collision, and I sigh. Fine, they’re mountains.

I was hoping to make it out west this summer, but it just wasn’t possible. I held on, keeping my google alerts on flights until long after it was reasonable to buy tickets. I have a million things for which to be grateful, and other than a bit of personal sadness at missing some events with friends and family, I know I’m in a very good place, and I’m grateful.

Jon asked me the other day what I needed to be happy- He’s very concerned with my happiness, and it’s disarming that he cares so much. I’m still not used to it. I folded my book in my lap, and thought earnestly for a moment.

After a season upon season of uncertainty, upheaval and ridiculously hard work, I truly lack for nothing. The blessings are counted in private, within my heart, but the season has indeed tipped, and the mountains of my soul have weathered, the craggy peaks worn down just a enough, for now. The drought is over, and the tools of survival won’t serve as well this new season; it’s time to lay them down. I lack for nothing.

The challenge now is rising to the responsibility to cultivate this garden, which has been fed by the runoff and erosion of those hard, mountainous years, and to share the bounty that will grow in this rich, fertile soil. I don’t know what comes next, but I’m a quick study— I’ll learn. I’m not alone in the garden anymore. That’s everything.

I think that’s a pretty good answer.