Sunrise and Solitude

We are camping just off the beach, about 1100 miles from home. The husband has a cold, and is being a good sport about it, but needs all of the rest that he can get. My other companion for the week is a teenager whose natural tendency is to sleep until noon. He received the majority of his Christmas gifts early, so there was nothing driving him to awaken before dawn with me.

I began waking early in the morning when the children were still young. That hour between 5 and 6 am was often the only time that I had to myself. While I love to be around people, I also love my quiet time – time to reflect, read, write, or just sit quietly and perhaps scratch the dog’s ears.

I woke today around 6 am and made a cup of coffee, pulled on my hoodie and stuck my feet in a pair of flip flops and padded off in the darkness to the beach. Sunrise was “scheduled” for 7:10 a.m. When I made it to the water’s edge, there was another 40 minutes to wait. Although daylight had not yet arrived, a hint of rose-colored light brightened the night sky. The ocean glowed. The sand sparkled. Seagulls and sandpipers pecked away at specks washed in on the waves.

I thought that I was there all alone, but as the sky brightened, I saw us, the dozen or so people who were there to greet Christmas morning before it was truly morning. There we stood, each alone, but all together, watching the sky from the wet sand.

A man in a Santa hat walked along the water getting some exercise. We wished each other Merry Christmas resumed our silence. The water began lapping at my toes, and I moved back a few steps. I encountered my artwork engraved on the sand from the morning before. I found the short stick I had stowed in the rocks. I moved a few paces and scratched some words into the sand. In a moment the water rose up and washed them away completely, as if they had never been there in the first place.

I sometimes wonder what will happen to all of my words when I am gone. The blogs, posts and half-finished novels fill volumes of paper and unknown number is bits and bytes in cyberspace. They say that once something is on the web, it’s there forever. That doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that anyone will ever read it.

A heavy layer of clouds sat just at the horizon. The sun would not be peeking out just above the sea on this morning like the ball of fire that had appeared at precisely 7:09 am yesterday.

Eventually, we solitary sunrise observers were joined by couples and families. We were all there to welcome another day. I sang quietly to myself, “silent night, holy night,” believing that the waves and the gulls would mask my voice, but I heard a voice join mine, and then another. We sang our carol, and the clouds turned pink. It almost looked as if there were a city skyline just at the place where the ledge of cloud met the water.

We stood in silence then, watching as the light rose and the sky turned blue. Pink clouds streaked across the sky. Eventually the ball of fire emerged from its cloud blanket. My coffee was gone. My companions were leaving, one by one and two by two. We had witnessed the dawning of Christmas Day there on the beach, mostly alone and mostly in relative silence. I turned and made my way back “home,” where the menfolk were still sleeping.

I’d received my gift from my little family early, so there were no packages for me to unwrap. Instead, I watched as a brand new day was born. As they say, “every day is a gift – that’s why we call it the ‘present'”.

Joyous Christmas to each of you,and for those whose holiday has been dimmed by loss, may you find comfort with those who love you.

Always,

Be

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Good tidings of comfort (and joy)

Happy Christmas Eve from the beach. The husband, the man child and I decided to make the 1100 mile trek from Vermilion, Ohio to Cocoa Beach Florida for Christmas for the second year in a row. For them, it was merely a chance to catch some sunshine and play in the sand. For me, it was personal. I had an important visit to make.

Last year, the loss of my mother was very fresh. I spent more time in tears than enjoying the sunshine. I couldn’t bear to allow myself a peek of happiness. It just didn’t seem right. I got up before the sun every morning and sipped my coffee and watched the waves lap at the sand and wept.

I walked the beach and picked up seashells – but only the broken ones. I told myself that they were more interesting, but I think there was a part of me that believed at that moment that I didn’t deserve the perfect beautiful ones.

On our last morning at the beach, I found a spot just above the high tide line. I sat in the sand and imagined my mom beside me there, sitting in a low sand chair in her homemade red bathing dress with the white jacket with a beach blanket pulled up over her legs and her feet buried in the sand. I don’t think she was ever here at Cocoa Beach in her life, but I imagined her here in death – sitting in her chair and watching the waves, the gulls – the children with pails and shovels. Contented smile on her face. I went back at sunrise day after day and talked to her here on the the beach. I said all of the things that I couldn’t say in the last weeks of her illness when the very sight of me, for reasons I will never know, would make her angry. The angry old woman was gone, and Mom was back, sitting there beside me.

On our last morning, I had to say goodbye. I drew a heart in the sand and burned the location into my memory so that I could find it again, and there I set up her chair, in my mind, for the last time. She wanted the chair close enough to the water that the waves would wash over her feet sometimes. As I turned to walk back to our campsite, I saw her give me a little wave. “Go have fun,” she called. “I’ll be right here waiting. I’ll be just fine.” As I made my way up the stairs over the dunes, the hot tears spilled down my cheeks.

It’s been a year, today, since I left Mom’s memory there on the beach. I’ve pictured here there in the sun many times over the past year. The memory of that imaginary scene has given me great comfort. When it came time to plan this year’s vacation, I knew that I must return.

We arrived Saturday evening after dark. I woke up the following morning, planning to watch the sun came up, but I burrowed deeper into the covers instead. When I finally made it down to Mom’s spot later that morning, there was a family there, catching tiny crabs in the rocks. I didn’t talk to Mom. Instead I joined the hunt for tiny crabs, and then I walked along the beach and picked up the most beautiful sea shells I could find. Some were broken, but mostly they were intact – whole and beautiful – a far cry from my ‘haul” last year.

This morning I finally made it to the beach before the sun rose. It was magical. I ran 4 miles. I ran along the tide line. A wake surprised me and got my shoes soaking wet and I didn’t even care. I was having a wonderful time. I kept running in my squishy shoes, singing along to my music and telling every passerby “Good morning,” or “Merry Christmas.”

My favorite song came on my playlist and I danced a little. I made it back to “Mom’s spot.” I took a reed that I found in the rocks and drew a picture in the sand and took a photograph. I told myself that my year of grieving was over. I sat in “our” spot, ready to talk to Mom and tell her that I was okay and then, like the wave that had soaked my running shoes, a rogue wave of grief hit me. It was the knock you on your butt, throat-punch kind of grief that hits out of nowhere and it left me a little breathless for a moment. I sat on the big rock and just let the tears flow. I felt a tingling on my right hand, and I heard my mom tell me, “I told you I would be just fine.” I smiled through hot tears.

Just as the wave that soaked my running shoes receded back into the sea, the rogue wave of emotion slipped away. It ebbed and flowed as I sat there, listening to Mom. She told me, “I’m still Mary Christmas, and now Franny Claus is here too,” referencing nicknames that she and her sister, who just joined her in Heaven last month used during the holidays.

I know that Mom’s not on the beach in her chair anymore. This next year I imagine that I will think of her trying to roller skate on streets of gold and fishing in a beautiful lake in Heaven’s version of the Swiss Alps that she always wanted to visit and never had the chance.

I made my way back to the campground where husband and man child were waking up. Husband saw me and asked if I was okay. The answer was “I’m fine. I’m happy sad.” He knew what I meant.”

When I drew “Joy” in the sand, I set an intention to live more joyfully. I had no way to know that seconds later I would be weeping. I read somewhere that grief is a gift. In order to grieve, we must first have loved. Oh, how I loved.

Although I’ve cried intermittently since that episode this morning, my heart is not sad. I’m smiling through the tears. I got the distinct feeling that when I go back to the beach tomorrow, it’s going to be just me and the seagulls and the other “morning people.” I don’t have to drive 1100 miles next Christmas to talk to my mom.

To my friends who are hurting this Christmas, “you are not alone.” Honor your loved ones in the way that gives you the most comfort. There’s no right way to grieve or wrong way to grieve. Grief has no timeline.

I’m still intending to live the next year joyfully. Joy and grief can co-exist. They play together quite nicely. I still love Christmas at the beach. Maybe by next year, I’ll learn to do a cartwheel in the sand.

947 lives

I sat down to write a blog about something that happened yesterday.  I clicked on a different URL than I usual, and it took me to the “reader” side instead of the “writer” side of the portal.  There, I was invited to join 947 people who follow this little blog.  947.  That’s nearly 1,000.  It’s a pretty big number.

I know that some of those “follows” are people hoping that I will “follow” them back – and they’ve never read a word.  Other people may read a post when I link to it on Facebook or LinkedIn or twitter, but not “follow.”

I don’t know what I may have written that has helped someone else.  How would the world change if each of us could reach 947 people and give them some love, some hope or simply make them feel as if whatever emotion they are experiencing is normal – that they will get through it.

Some of these 947 people have reached this page because I tried and failed to run a half marathon at Walt Disney World (the FIRST time) and they, too, wanted to know what happened if the balloon ladies pass you (click here to find out).  That post has by far the most views.

Speaking of views, as of the writing of this little article, my posts have been viewsd 6,456 times.  It’s not a big, big number, but that number is larger than the number of people who I have interacted with in real life since 2014, when I found the courage to begin writing on the internet.

I’m reminded of the first time that I ran the 10K race at the Cleveland Rite-Aid marathon weekend.  As I crossed the finish line, a woman asked my name and said, “you’re the woman who lost all that weight, aren’t you?”  The connection I shared with her at that moment were more special than the shiny medal I received for finishing.

Another time, I wrote about finding painted rocks at the beach, and how happy they made me, and the woman who let them in secret saw me running and became my friend.

My third grade teacher has read my words and continued to make me feel as loved and supported as she did 43 years ago.

Years ago, I had a small circle of friend online with whom I shared poetry.  My profile said, “I am an artist.  I paint pictures with words.”

When I logged onto this site, I was given 947 gifts in an instant.

Write on.

love,

~Be~

 

 

Embracing the Dark

My “brand,” for want of a better term, has been “comfort and joy,” but the truth is that I have been doing my best to load heavy on the “joy” part.  I find joy in colors – in wild, bright, nearly-neon shades of pink, orange and green.  I have teacups in every color of the rainbow.  I wear eyeglasses that are splashed with many colors.  I love color.

I’m currently listening to “Learning to walk in the Dark:  Because Sometimes God Shows up at Night“, by Barbara Brown Taylor.   The author’s soothing voice is a reminder that life isn’t always colorful.  We have spent generations filling our world with light – chasing away the darkness.  We’ve lost the ability to take comfort in dark things – dark places. Her voice came at me through several podcasts in a short time.  On an impulse, I turned in an Audible credit and downloaded the recording.  I’m so glad that I did.

I’m the first one up in the house most mornings.  I flip on every light switch I pass, filling the house with the artificial sunlight emitted from all of those high-efficiency LED light bulbs.  The author asked questions, and I pondered, “When was the last time that I truly sat in the dark?  When did I last watch the night sky and watch for the stars to appear?”

It seems that August and September each lasted about 10 minutes. Here I sit, already part way through the month of October. My beautiful summer garden has begun to turn brown around the edges.  The petunias are bearing their last blooms; the herbs are going to seed.  Winter is Coming (sorry).  With Winter comes long nights.  With my windowless office, it is far too easy to arrive at work in the dark and leave in the dark.  I must be intentional, some days, to glimpse the sunlight at all.  The vibrant orange roses I purchased a week and a half ago have finally turned brown.  I rinsed the apple-green vase and stored it away.

Emotions can be dark, too.   We can confront dark emotions without being consumed by them.  I’m amazed by the videos of dangerous creatures – night creatures – like wolves and bears and foxes that make their way into backyards and play in the pool or on the trampoline.   I find delight in watching their apparent joy.  Had those homeowners been frightened by the beasts and turned on the security light, flooding the yard with artificial sun, the animals may have scurried away into the forest.  Instead, they sat back and allowed something magical to happen, and those videos have brought happiness to thousands, like me, who will never experience the sight.

In the wake of my mother’s death last year, I pursued joy like a drug.  I purchased yarn in bright colors, hoarded away in quantities it will take many months to deplete.  I asked for (and received – thank you, darling) a room painted a yellow (called “joyful,” no less) in which I could sit and do happy things while looking out the window at happy colors.  Honestly, the room hasn’t received much use.

No, I’m not currently depressed.  I’m just coming down off of an artificial high.  I’ve never used recreational drugs, but I’m told that some so completely deplete serotin – the happiness hormone – that it’s difficult to feel happy after coming down from the high. Those same substances, administered by a professional, can be used to combat serious issues like PTSD. Like those drugs, “Joy,” I think, is best in small doses.  It’s much more special that way.  Seeking out joy is hard work.  An item is only novel a time or two, then unless it is connected to a special memory, it begins to lose its magic.  It becomes another pretty thing to sit on a shelf and dust.

Instead of running from garden to lake seeking perfect sunrises and sunsets (filled with fuschia and orange), I’m going to take a look around at all of the perfect,ordinary, taken-for-granted blessings.  There is beauty in ritual – in the mundane.

I’m not swearing off of joy – I’m just trying to find a rhythm – to get back to appreciating the ordinary.  To enjoy comfort while at the same time allowing darkness  – sadness, melancholy and longing – to creep in where I can watch them from a safe distance.

My dear aunt and uncle in Arkansas recently sent me a gift – a video of my mother and her siblings in 2009.  One sister had already taken up residence in heaven – but the rest of them sat and told stories about growing up – about Christmas and toys and the poor family who stole milk from the cows because their children were hungry.

That DVD sat on the table in the foyer for more than a week.  I was afraid of it.  I don’t know if I was afraid of seeing my mother’s face and hearing her voice.  I don’t know if I was afraid that she might say something about me and my failures as a daughter.  I can’t truly describe the nature of my fear.  I just know that I felt it.

After moving the disc from one room to another, I finally popped it into the computer, sat back with a pot of tea, and watched it end to end.  I allowed the tears to come.  I allowed the grief to come into the yard and bounce on the trampoline.  I allowed myself to laugh at the funny parts, too.

Like the wild animals playing on the swingset, though, dark emotion is a wild creature that for those of us who have found our way back from depression must be respected for the wild thing that it is.  Like the woman filming the black bears, I can watch sadness from the safety of the kitchen window, but it would be foolish to invite it into the house and give it a place at the table.

I would never go out into the yard if a bear was there, but I might brave the night to see how close I could get to a fox or a raccoon.  I would face fear of the dark for the potential experience of seeing something special up close.

If you never go out into the dark, how will you ever see the stars?

 

 

 

 

 

My Life as a Plant

I just returned from a weekend camping in a place with absolutely no internet connectivity.  My cell phone did not work.  Zero bars.  Nada.  No Facebook.  No weather.  No checking my calendar or sharing pics on Instagram.  The only purposes my handy dandy pocket computer served were alarm clock, music player and e-reader.

Our 18-year-old son is old enough, now, to spend a weekend without Mom and Dad here to manage him.  He wasn’t alone, though.  It was closing weekend of the musical theater show he has been rehearsing for all summer long.  He’s a busy guy.

I had intended to ask my son to water my plants while I was gone, but I forgot, and by the time I arrived  home, a few were just beginning to droop.  I don’t generally keep indoor plants because I have a tendency to kill them, but for a few brief months every year, my back deck becomes a tropical paradise filled with a riot of colors.  I “visit” the plants nearly every day.  I pinch this one back here to encourage more blooms and I move that one a little to the left so that it gets more sunlight. Sometimes, though, I get busy and I forget a day of watering.  Earlier this summer, a combination of a badly-planned container and failure of a drip-watering system led to a “dead” planter.  I had my husband drill a bunch of holes in the bottom of an old aluminum tea kettle that was my mother’s, and I filled it with vines and flowers.  It was lovely.

I went out to the deck one night to commune with my flowering friends and found the kettle plants wilted and dead-looking.  The soil was crispy.  The leaves were crinkly.  The situation looked pretty hopeless.  I cried a little.  I had “built” that container as a tribute to Mom, who I lost in November, and in that moment, my irrational mind felt that I had let her down (again).

My husband said, “just throw the plants out and buy new ones.”  It was tempting.  Instead, though, I soaked the container thoroughly.  I used my garden shears to cut back the completely brown parts and I moved the kettle from the hook where it hung “crooked,” as if pouring a cup of tea to a shelf where it could sit flat (and was much easier to water).

I began watching the kettle planter each day.  On Day 2, it looked a little better.  The leaves that had still been green, but were wrinkled instead of full and lush had filled back out. The extremities on the vines though, continued to wilt and grow brown.  I pulled out the shears once again and cut back a little more.

By Day 3, the “core” of the planter was beginning to look healthy.  There were no flowers anywhere, but the greenery was looking healthier.

By Day 7, new runners were beginning to appear from the vining plants.  By Day 10, a few buds had appeared on the the plant with the tiny white flowers.

Now, two full weeks after the disaster, three of the four plants have made a brilliant recovery.  They almost look as if they had never been nearly killed. I say “almost,” because if you look closely, you can see the scarring on some leaves.  There are some brown parts, too – but if you view the kettle from a distance, you would never know that it was nearly a lost cause.  The fourth plant, with it’s delicate leaves and tiny fuschia blossoms, though, isn’t faring as well as its neighbors.  Perhaps it is the diminutive size of the leaves.  Perhaps this plant wouldn’t have thrived in the same container as the other three even without my unintentionally-caused drought.  It’s surviving, but it isn’t thriving.

While running on a narrow trail through the forest this weekend (without music), I began thinking about the plants in Mom’s kettle.  When you neglect a plant, or when it goes through a crisis, it begins to shut down.  It conserves precious resources for its core.  It keeps its center alive for as long as possible.  Humans do this, too.

It was just about a year ago when Mom told me that her cancer was “alive” again, and that she would need radiation treatments to knock it back down.  In the weeks leading up to that day, I had celebrated my 50th birthday.  I was joyful.  I was celebrating life.  If I were a plant, I would have been “blooming all over the place.”

As the illness progressed, it took her mind.   My own soul began to wilt a little.  My extremities began to wither – I stopped seeking out people and conversations.  A leaf began to die here and there.  She became sicker and died.  People soon stopped sending cards and notes.  The flowers people sent died. The houseplants that people sent to the funeral died, too.  I suppose the fact that I hadn’t watered them had something to do with it.  We entered the longest winter ever, and I had my own “dark night of the soul.”

With Spring came hope.  I waited impatiently for the last chance of frost to pass so that I could plant new life in the containers that still held the wilted remains of last year’s flower garden.  The trails called me, too.  I began running again on paths through woods and meadows.  I began smiling more.  As the pots and kettles and gutters filled with living, blooming things began to fill my life with color, my mood lifted.  I began reaching out.  I even invited people long gone from my life for coffee and conversation.  I, too, began to bloom again.

I recognize my plant-like nature.  When there is a “trauma” in my environment, the “extremities” are the first to go.  I stop doing the extra things that bring me into contact with others.  I stop “vining” – reaching out for new places to connect and grow.  I stop blooming – whether my blossoms are written words or photographs of pretty teacups.

My grief is not over.  Most days I am happy, but once in a while I will forget for a moment that Mom is dead.  I reach for the phone to call her, or spot something I would love to send her.  Those moments are no longer enough to ruin me for the day.

By late Winter, if I were a plant, I would have looked pretty sad.  I imagine I was there, with my long, flowing fronds, once lush and green, now hanging sad and brown.  Someone would come along and offer a word or encouragement and my “core” plant would lap it up.  At work, I would have an opportunity to help someone, and they showed their appreciation through kind words or referrals that brought me more and more to life.  Each act of kindness – each “touch,” whether physical or through the magic of the internet – was like a drop of rain to my parched soul.

Running through the Mohican State Forest this weekend, I was in awe of the resilience of plants – especially the trees.  In some spots, I was forced to climb tree roots as if they were a staircase.  In other places, I saw trees that had been blown over completely and started to grow again in a new direction.  Trees don’t give up and stop growing because there is a storm.

I don’t picture myself as a tree.  I’m far too fickle.  I’m more like a vining plant with long colorful fronds that blooms brightly once in a while.  As I heal, my fronds are filling out and buds forming.  as I hit “publish,” I will have put out my first blossom in a long while.

So, today I will be like a plant.  I will bloom where I’m planted while sending out vines, seeking new places to experience and erupting in an occasional flower that, when wilted, sends seeds out to land in someone else’s waiting, fertile soil of their imagination.

Color the Sky

Many years ago, I entered a coloring contest.  I carefully outlined each space before meticulously filling in the area with the selected color. I stayed within the lines.  I colored the whole page.  Not an inch of uncolored page remained.  I was as proud of the result as any 8-year-old could be.  It was my masterpiece.

I lost the contest.

This was no ordinary coloring contest –  one of my older cousins had organized it to keep the younger cousins busy during meal preparation for some celebration.   As I recall there was a panel of older-cousin judges, but I might be wrong on that aspect.  It was, after all, more than 40 years ago…

I lost the contest.  The winner colored outside the lines.  I remember asking the “head judge” why I didn’t win.  My picture was better.  My coloring was spot on.

His response?

“You colored the sky.  You’re not supposed to color the sky.”

For years and years, I left the skies in my coloring books a boring white.  The skies in Never Never Land and Cinderella’s Kingdom were always an overcast, unhealthy beige without a hint of blue. Occasionally I would get brave and draw a sliver of sun in the uppermost corner, but never again did I dare to color the sky.

I looked out my bathroom window this morning and saw the brightest blue sky.  My iPhone camera simply didn’t do it justice.   The sight brought the memories of my blank white coloring page skies back to me.

Life is short.  Less than 3 months before Mom died, she told me that she planned to live to see age 90.  Before she died, she wanted to go to the beach.  She wanted to sit on my back deck and look at the flowers.  I looked forward to days together where we might look up and watch the clouds together.  The skies in my daydreams about what might have been are always blue, with a puffy cloud or two and a sliver of golden sunshine.

There are rules in place to keep us safe, like “you must stop at stop signs.”  Other rules  were just someone’s idea that caught on.  We follow those rules because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Don’t eat dessert before dinner.  Follow the pattern as it is written.  Don’t wear white after Labor Day.  Cover the gray in your hair if you don’t want to look old.  Don’t put the good china in the dishwasher.  You get the idea.

I’ve spent more than 40 years believing you shouldn’t color the sky.  What a dumb rule.  Always color the sky.

Time to Give Thanks

November 2017 has marked some difficult changes for me.  When you’re adapting to big changes, it’s easy to lose track of time.  Weeks seem to have flown by without me having noticed.  Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.

I have a lot to be thankful for.  Some days those things are easier to see than on other days.  On those days – the days when the world seems to be against you and things seem like they may never be “right” again – on those days it helps to have a practice in place to focus on the good.  I recently began being “thankful” on purpose – every day.

For me, it starts with “clean water to drink.”  I get up in the morning and fill a clean glass with crystal clear water straight from the tap.  I don’t have to walk a mile (or more) to a well or a filter site to collect water and carry it home.  I can wash my morning pills down with a whole glass without even thinking about it.  I take the time to look at that crystal clear water in the clean glass before I consume it.  I take a moment to give thanks for clean water, and that prayer of thanksgiving is followed by gratefulness for a furnace to take the chill off the air, a soft rug under my feet, and a giant fluffy dog who greets me as if he hasn’t seen me in a year.

After I trot downstairs, I have the luxury of letting the tap run until the water is hot before filling my kettle to put it on to boil.  I can take a long, hot shower and not worry about whether that luxury will leave me without clean water to cook dinner with later in the day.

When I was in the Vermilion Rotary Club, the clean water problem came to my attention for the first time.   I was in my late 40s before I realized that something as basic as clean water is a barrier to basic hygiene, education, and economic growth in much of the world.

A Rotary colleague, John Hill, put together a clean water initiative through Clean Water for Haiti.  Clean Water for Haiti puts filters for safe water in schools.  The children can collect their household’s clean water while they receive an education.  The filters are assembled in Haiti, creating jobs.

Start your day off with an attitude of gratitude. If you can’t find something to be grateful for, pour yourself a glass of clean water and drink it.   If you are blessed, as I am, with money to pay the bills with some left at the end of the month, consider giving to Clean Water for Haiti or another charity providing clean water solutions in areas of need.

For the price of a $1.00 bottle of drinking water per day for just over 3 months, you can sponsor a clean water bio filter for an entire family.  I will be giving to Clean Water for Haiti on Giving Tuesday -help me to help them “Make Waves,” so that someone, somewhere, can start their day by giving thanks for a glass of clean water.

http://cleanwaterforhaiti.org/donate/make-waves/