Thursday, October 28, 2010

Holding On

It’s that time of year.   The brilliant colors of autumn.  Circus-bright leaves, clinging, letting go.  Peak season slowly approaches.  Mountains beckon travelers.   

October is a good time to visit our son in Ashville.  Our trip is planned and bags are packed when the phone call comes.  Right in the middle of dinner.   I’m tempted to let the machine get it, but this time something deep down nudges me away from the table and from our meal and to the phone.  “Hello…”       

It’s a strange and urgent voice, summoning me to the Goldsboro emergency room. My mother has suffered a massive stroke and most likely won’t last the night.  I’d better hurry if I want to see her alive again.

But like those tenacious autumn leaves clinging to their familiar branches, she hangs around for half a moon cycle, waiting…   


Holding On

The nurses in the Hospice home swear
their dying patients see clear visions
toward the end: green meadows

and rolling hills, a stairway extending
skyward, a man with a beard resembling
Abe Lincoln, seated in a chair

at the very top.
Like my father before her, Mother
now lies at death’s door.  Earlier,

with the family here, an overhead TV
played nonstop, and I imagined her waking
from the coma long enough to watch

The Guiding Light once again.
But now they’ve all gone and the two of us
remain, alone.  Does she realize it’s me

by her side, her only girl, the one
who kept her up so much at night,
demanding to be held, forever crying, clinging,

restless for her touch?  And when the school
bus took off with me that first morning, I wept
all day, sucked my thumb and pretended

I was back in her womb to stay.
The room is silent now except for her shallow
breathing, and that one lonely bird outside

her window, singing in the dark.
Does she know it’s me, her child
with the wild imagination, now at a loss

for words, except to say, “Not to worry,
Mother, I’m here, and together we’ll make it
to the top of these stairs.  I’ll hold on until

God shows up to take your hand.”
And when at last he does, I know the final
ache of letting go.

“Holding On” was first published in Windhover
   University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Press 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Forgetting How to Skip

As children, we once skipped naturally.  It was second nature.  But then we grew into adults and forgot how to skip.  Somehow we lost touch with the spontaneity of childhood and with the wonders around us. 

Our society doesn't allow children to enjoy childhood for very long before pressuring them into becoming miniature adults.  Life becomes more about achievement and passing tests than living life and growing at a natural pace.  More about meeting state and national standards than about learning for the sake, and for the joy, of learning.

And that’s why we forget how to skip.  

After contemplative prayer one night, Judy, who was leading the small group, asked if anyone had something to share.  As though we were still students at our desks in school, Bill raised his hand.  “Does anyone in here remember how to skip?”  He asked.  None of us responded because, quite honestly, no one knew how to answer.  It had been so long since we’d felt that free and natural.  

Bill then challenged us all to skip back to our cars.  He led this strange adventure, skipping right out the door as though he’d never grown up at all (and here he is a grandfather). 

That’s when it first dawned on me that I could no longer skip.  What had once been my natural mode of moving was now awkward and contrived.   I called out to Bill. “Hey, could you please stop and show me how you do that?”

As we skipped through the parking lot back to our cars, we heard distant thunder. 
The applause of heaven.  

One day when my daughter, Abigail, was six years old the two of us were out taking a stroll in the neighborhood.  As we came upon a church playground she asked if we could stop and play on the swings and slide for awhile.  Unlike most of the playgrounds in town, the gate to this one was padlocked.  

 I explained to her that only the children who went to that school could play in there.  Did she want to be enrolled, by chance?  I knew it was an expensive private school, but still, if she really wanted to attend we’d make a way. The school did have an excellent reputation, unlike so many in our area.

Besides, I’d homeschooled my other kids forever and surely I deserved a break?   Wasn’t it about time for me now?   I daydreamed of having six hours to myself everyday to write and complete another manuscript.  And the school was only two blocks from our home, so in case I ever needed to rush right over...  Sounded like the perfect plan to me.

And so we finally bit the bullet and enrolled our third child in school.  There was only one problem: both Abi and I were miserable.  Every morning she was sick: nervous stomach.  And I became more frustrated by the day.  Why couldn’t we all just be normal?

Tears fell and nausea hit every morning like clockwork when her feet hit the floor and she was conscious of the day ahead.   Why was I putting her through this?  Who at that school could possibly love her the way I did?

When we walked into the building each day, parents would give me sympathetic looks, as if to say, “I’m glad that’s you and not me.”

She must not have noticed Mom the Spy in her canary-yellow Volvo cruising five miles per hour down Roundtree Street about the same time everyday when her class was out on the playground for morning break.  There she sat all by herself, playing with sticks while the other children ran and played with each other.

On Fridays the school attended morning mass.  One Thursday evening Abi brought a prayer home to practice reading for the following day.  I sat next to her and listened as she stumbled through the big words she’d never heard.  “Mom, what does purgatory mean?” She asked.  I wanted to say, “Well, it’s sort of like what you’re in every day when you go to school.  If you pass all the tests, you’re promoted, and if you don’t, well…”  But instead I explained it something like this.  “It’s a bit like time out.  You have to sit in purgatory until you realize what you’ve done wrong. Then you’re released.”

One Friday I sat in the sanctuary before the students arrived for morning mass.   During that time I had a sudden revelation that would drastically alter my plans.  The poem I wrote upon returning home that day explains it best. 

Morning Mass

Oh very young what will you leave us this time
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while...
- Cat Stevens

Sunlight pours in through these windows, pure
and stainless as the souls of saints.  Fourteen
Stations of the Cross line white walls.  Our Lady
of Humility looms forever holy over vigil candles.

At Friday morning mass frankincense fills the room,
invades my nostrils like a rich perfume.  I sit in this
sanctuary with a handful of moms and dads, awaiting
the arrival of our grade school “Angels” uniformed

in plaid.  Breaking our prayerful silence like a sudden
storm, comes the tap-tap-tapping of a toddler’s feet
on the floor of stone.  Bowed heads lift and turn
instinctively to see a frustrated mother struggling

uselessly to contain her daughter’s energy.  An
epiphany hits as I watch this child carted away in
Mom’s firm arms, while restless legs still kick to
a rhythm in her heart that only she can hear.

Now it’s clear what I must do, and soon – as clear
as if etched on tablets of stone.  With no regrets I
collect my own child and take her home lest she
forget how to laugh and play or skip across a room.

Morning Mass was first published in Windhover
   University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Press 

How to Lose a Sense of Wonder

We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter."                 - Mark Twain

The one year my son Jesse attended public school he was placed in the gifted and talented program, which just meant that he was deemed more capable of taking on extra work, as opposed to those who could only handle the basic essentials.
His GT teacher called me aside one day and informed me that Jesse’s IQ test had revealed “genius” status. But I wasn’t to mention this to him, as his ego would inflate.
During that (one and only) school year, his GT class researched various scientific subjects to write about.  A chosen topic of my son’s was: What makes a Cat Purr?
Among the most boring papers I’ve ever read in my life. Something about the vibration of the muscles of the larynx and diaphragm, the blood flow to the palate, nerves activated in the voice box… Contrary to popular belief, the paper stated, cats do not purr because they’re happy, but because the laryngeal muscles make the glottis open and close, which causes the vocal cords to vibrate.
Jesse displayed matter-of-factness about the A+ he received on his paper.  We never discussed (as far as I recall) what triggers the cat to purr.  But this much I know for sure: what makes my cats purr in ecstasy is the gentle stroke of my hands repeatedly across their fur.  Just the sight of me - or any family member who adores them - is enough to make their motors run.       
As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Love and you shall be loved.  All love is mathematically just, as much as two sides of an algebraic equation.” 
Of course, cause and effect would be reserved as a different topic at school, as everything must be so dichotomized that the forest can’t be seen for the trees. 

Society allows children a sense of wonder for only so long.  Before they are forced to learn, they are hungry to learn. But humdrum facts shoved down their throats (for the sole purpose of regurgitating them for a test) is the quickest way to kill a sense of wonder. 
On the other hand, when they are permitted to simply be children and explore the world to their heart’s content, they will continue to see life through a child’s eyes. They maintain their eagerness to learn and their days are filled with meaning and joy. 
Play is just as necessary for children as academic knowledge – even more so up to a certain age.  They need space to run, play, discover nature, and physically release the abundance of energy intrinsic in young children.  Take my two active grandsons, for instance.  
Today they are happy campers.   Samuel wears a white cowboy hat, a maroon towel draped over his shoulders and secured at the neck with a clip.  He brandishes a handmade sword fashioned by his papa.  The blade is made from a bamboo stick, the bell guard from a plastic cup lid, the pistol grip from compressed silver-gray duct tape.  “Call me Zorro,” he says.  He bends the blade back and says, “You see how flexible this thing is?”  
His younger brother, Seth, wields a lavender whip - a recycled jump rope that had been my daughter’s - an easier endeavor than the sword, with one of the handles simply cut off and the end frayed like a real whip.  “Call me Indiana Jones.”
They did not want to go home today.  Samuel sat on the back steps with his head in his hands, on the verge of tears when he heard that it was time to go.  I intuited what his sadness was all about.  He was leaving the place where he is free from pressure to grow up too soon.  Here, he and his brother are real heroes, and living in the world of make-believe is as natural as breathing. 
Tomorrow they will return to their desks and their busywork and they will continue learning how to lose their sense of wonder.   

Pondering the Big Picture

The dawn is striking.  I open the door and look out to sea.   Pale silver sky with patches of rose and blue streaks connecting like a jigsaw; sea oats lacing the horizon, air: a perfect balance of warm and cool.  
Like a lullaby, the sweet, rhythmic sound of ocean enchants me in my drowsy, half-awake, half-asleep state. For a moment, I think I must have died in my sleep and entered heaven. Then I remember:  I’m on vacation at the North Carolina Outer Banks.    
By midmorning, the picture parallels the dawn in beauty.  Sky is now deep blue with a few white clouds scattered about.  Millions of lights dance on water.
 In the yard are clusters of scarlet daisies with yellow-tipped petals.  From the corner of my doorway I notice a perfectly spun work of art, a silken hammock holding a garden spider.  Here even the insects appear amiable. 
I hear seagulls screeching, crickets chirping in the weeds, the roar and crash of waves against shore. A continuous breeze blows through open windows and doors.
The house smells of cedar wood. All the glories of nature encompass me.  Surely heaven can’t beat all this bliss.
Deciding to take a walk, I say goodbye to the plump garden spider at the entrance of Oyster Catcher Lane.  She seems to be hanging there in her web just to meet and greet passersby.  At least she makes me feel welcome.
With no idea how far it is, I head for a pier in the distance.  My husband and children are busy when I leave.  He is fishing; they are digging in the sand. 
I walk and walk, but never make it to that pier.  It must be farther away than it looks. 
Growing tired, I turn around and head back.  But where is our house? It’s in a remote area with no observable landmarks; that’s where it is.
Commercialism has not found its way to this place. No condos or hotels built.  As I walk, I notice that every staggered cottage looks the same.  How endless the stroll seems.
 I hunt for my family to no avail.  Did I pass our house already?  No other souls around on this deserted beach.  Which way to turn?  Have I passed our place or not?
 An imaginary sign with two arrows pointing in both directions. Left or right - take your pick.  You’re lost either way.   
Heaven turns into nightmare. Not only do I pray, I cry out to the only One who can rescue me.  Walk, pray, cry - walk, pray, cry.  No other choice. Keep walking…and walking. 
Finally I come upon some fishermen and ask where I am.  “Sanderling,” they say.
But where in Sanderling?  Then the early morning garden spider comes to mind.  Her web has been spun over the wooden sign, Oyster Catcher Lane.  I ask the fishermen if any of them know where Oyster Catcher Lane is.  One of them points right. 
So fatigued that I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it back, I feel like wallowing in self pity, like howling in the sand and letting the fierce waves wash me out to sea.  Angry and hurt that no one cares enough to come searching for me, I collapse at water’s edge, doubting I’ll ever make it back.   Maybe this is the Twilight Zone.  Or limbo.  Or worse.
I sit by the sea for a long time, scolding myself.   Finally the pity-party is over and I pull myself up and continue walking.
 After what seems like an eternity, I spot the children clam digging, and my husband out fishing again.
The lecture from my husband was worthwhile.  He’d learned in Boy Scouts to always, always look at the big picture.
 Look all around you and pay attention to the panorama: a faded purple flag fluttering over the porch, a twisted tree planted between a gray house and a peach house, two striped beach towels hanging on a rail to dry, a friendly garden spider suspended over the sign, Oyster Catcher Lane.

Theater Magic

As a young child, Abi was forever changing costumes.   One minute she was an angel with wings, the next she was a crowned princess, the next she was Snow White, then a ladybug, and on and on.   I should have known then that she was destined for the stage.   At four years old the child loved playing hostess in her gold gossamer dress and red headband with feathers (the headband with feathers went with the Indian costume her father made for her, but she liked to mix & match).

Abi’s life seemed to epitomize Shakespeare’s words, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…”

I didn’t become a “stage mom” until Abi was around eight, when she auditioned for and was cast in The Little Princess, performed by the theater troupe, ACT! For Youth.   As a former director once said, “AFY is not ‘youth theatre’ but professional theatre that happens to have children in it."  That was the beginning of many seasons of acting;  hours, weeks, and months of rehearsing for theater productions; a moment or two of catching the brunt of directors’ fury; of connecting and bonding with fellow actors; of living for the countless cast parties after shows.

                                                                     A Little Princess cast 

Productions are done entirely by the youth community, and involve actors and a technical crew.  They build the set, and a few are assigned to assist the costumer, make-up artist, and hair stylist.   Some have even designed costumes and illustrated posters and program covers.  They run the sound and lights, and set up the lobby displays.  Of course, they are supervised and instructed by full time paid professionals: a performing arts director, and a technical director.  For musicals, a choreographer and music director are also hired.  ACT! For Youth offers 4 shows each year at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center, a 1919 Vaudeville theater in downtown Wilson North Carolina.   Each show runs four days, musicals run for two weeks.    
Another theatre Abi has acted with is Missoula Children’s theater: a touring troupe. Her theater productions to date: A Little Princess; Seussical the Musical; The Mouse that Roared; Charlotte’s Web; Jane Eyre; High School Musical; Miracle on 34th Street; The Little Mermaid; and To the Castle 
She starred as Tot in Tot and the Grudge, a mini-musical performed at the Arts Council by a team of homeschoolers.  She’s also acted in church productions. 

Seussical the Musical

Jane Eyre 

cast & crew

Miracle on 34th Street

There is magic in the theater,
In the theater there is magic.
And truly blessed are those
who are able to share
their talents with others.
Break a leg! 

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