Women

To the women who climb the corporate ladder, to the women who wish they could potty without an audience, to the women who show up when no one else does, to the women who birth babies, to the women who raise the babies of others, to the women who haven’t found their voice, to the women who live in suppression, to the women who are abused, to the women who are free, to the women who work behind the scenes, to the women who feel celebrated, to the women who feel forgotten, to the most educated of women, to the least educated of women, to the women who fill in the gaps, to the women who are weary, to the women who are refreshed, to the women who came before, and to the women who are yet to come: I am proud to stand by you. At the top of this list is my Momma, who showed me who I am, and what it means to be a woman.

And to the men who see us and celebrate us, who stand by us as equals, not above us or beneath us, thank you. You are a unique breed, and I’m also proud to stand by you. At the top of this list is the man who has championed me since birth, and the man with whom I’m raising three more. They have always seen who I am, even when I haven’t.

And to the woman who had to write this post on her phone in the bathtub because it’s the only quiet moment she’s had alone all day, be kind to yourself. You’re doing more than you think you are.

Happy International Women’s Day.

On Casseroles

There are two defining entities to which 90% of my idiosyncrasies can be attributed. (The remaining ten percent can be blamed squarely on my parents and their genetics.)

There are rules I follow, phrases that shoot through my mind, habits I hold that are irreversibly ingrained in my subconscious. No amount of therapy can fix them, no amount of distance can lessen their influence.

I grew up in the South, and I grew up in the Episcopal Church.

Of course even if you didn’t grow up in one of these subcultures, I’m sure you have idiosyncrasies of your own; they’re just probably a bit more normal than mine. But don’t feel sorry for me. I actually relish my cultural and liturgical quirks.

If you grew up in the South, there are certain rules you know and follow.

Alcohol: There are exactly two drinks that are socially acceptable before the five o’clock cocktail hour: mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. Anything else, and I s’wanee, you’d better make your way to the Episcopal Church at 4:00 on Sunday afternoons for the meeting of (whisper) alcoholics. The coffee will be hot. Exceptions to this rule: both men and women are allowed to drink beer in the afternoon if, and only if, you’re on a boat or fishing on a dock. You also don’t bat an eye when your dinner guests show up at your house with their Tervis Tumbler of bourbon half empty. “Open carry” refers to both sidearms and cocktails, but again, only after five o’clock.

Table Manners: All Southerners know how to properly set a table. For your entire life, if you go to someone’s home for dinner and find the fork, knife, and spoon on the same side of the plate, you shudder a little bit inside. If you’re a female guest of honor, you will instinctively know your place is at the right side of your male host. The male guest of honor is seated to the right of the hostess. Children and other guests are carefully scattered around the table at the discretion of your hostess, but ages and genders will be taken into account to have a balanced table. The beginning of the meal does not begin at the end of the blessing, but rather when your hostess lifts her fork. If you’re hungry, you hope your hostess isn’t extra chatty. You know you never pass the salt shaker hand-to-hand, but rather place it on the table beside the person who asked you to pass it. Should it fall over during transport, you’d better remember to throw a shake over your left shoulder. Elbows never belong on the table. Ever. Ever. Acceptable topics: The weather, your recent trips, and sharing “interesting information” about mutual friends. (Note: This means gossip, but only done tastefully. The understanding between tasteful and distasteful gossip will be acquired with age and experience.) Unacceptable conversation topics: Sex, bathroom humor, politics, and distasteful gossip. Exception: Politics may be discussed only if you know your host and hostess share the same party affiliation.

Thank-you Notes: When invited to someone’s house for any reason, you must call to thank your host within 24 hours if you want to avoid writing a thank-you note. If you miss the window, a hand written note is required. When you write the note, you know exactly which stationary to use. Your choices include formals, informals, casual (which is decidedly different than informals), and fun. It’s not uncommon to be told during baby showers that one of your gifts is being released from the expectation of thank-you notes, but you’d never actually take your hostess and her guests up on that offer; you write them anyway. That offer is never extended during bridal showers. The mother-to-be has six weeks to write her thank-you notes that “aren’t expected,” and the bride-to-be also has six weeks to write her notes for shower gifts. According to Southern etiquette, the new wife technically has twelve months to write notes for her wedding gifts, however notes sent past six months are inexcusable. Notes sent between three and six months are socially accepted, though frowned upon. The bride who has all of her thank you notes sent in under three months will be highly praised with I just don’t know how you found the time to send a note so quickly, I know you’ve been so busy setting up your home. Congratulations. You have passed the test and are now considered a Southern woman.

If you grew up in the Episcopal Church, there are also things you instinctively know.

Pew Etiquette: Never sit in the front pew. The front pew is reserved for two types of people: curmudgeons and single women who have a crush on the male priest. Exception: In the case of baptisms, the family and godparents of the baby being baptized will sit on the front row, that week only. Curmudgeons and single women will be found one of two places: on the front row of the dreaded other side or directly behind the family, usually on the third row. They will have been moved by the usher, as they have undoubtedly ignored the “Reserved” pew marker embroidered on red liturgical velvet. Certain pews are reserved for families who have been sitting in that exact pew for generations. These pews are not marked in any tangible way. You will know these reserved pews in one of two ways: regular attendance or when you’re told, Excuse me, you’re in my pew.

Titles: You know if you’re in a liturgically “high” church or “low” church based on the bulletin. If the male priest goes by Father First Name you’re in a low church. If he goes by Father Last Name, you’re in a high church. You’re in a rare subculture called Snake Belly Low if your priest goes by Mister Last Name. Female priests are almost always called Mother First Name. You don’t know if this is an insult to the gender or not. Something feels awkward about it, but you’re an Episcopalian, so you’re certainly not a misogynist. After all, “male and female he created them, male and female we ordain them.” Note: For your entire life, those in ordained ministry will be referred to as priests, because the word Pastor catches in your throat like cud. Also, if ordination doesn’t include vestments and a bishop, it’s not a real ordination. I’m looking at you, Baptists.

Incense: If you’re a true Episcopalian, you will know how to navigate a service with bells and smells even if your home church didn’t do it weekly. The smell of incense will always remind you of Easter and Christmas, and never covering up the smell of marijuana in your parents’ basement. Even if you used incense to cover up pot fumes, it will first and foremost remind you of High and Holy days, not high days.

Liturgical Jokes: At any given time you’ll be able to come up with at least ten You know you’re an Episcopalian if jokes. You’ll never be able to hear The Mamas and Papa’s sing Monday, Monday without automatically changing the lyrics to “Maundy Thursday, Bah-da bah-da-da-da.” You probably have scars from your mother pinching her fingernails into your thigh to make you and your brother stoplaughingrightthisinstant each year when the priest said, Remember that you are but(t) dust while imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday. You haven’t fully lived if you haven’t sung “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle” with a group of your friends during the hymn Lead on, O King Eternal. Episcopal bonus points if you’ve also sung the guitar version during summer camp, sweaty arms around your friends’ waists (with plenty of Holy Spirit room between the genders) while gathered around the campfire.

At 31, I’m in the sweet spot of my roots: I’m new enough that I’m not so stuck in my ways that I’m a pain in the ass (How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? Ten: One to screw it in, and nine to say how much they liked the old one), but old enough that I’ve earned my voice. I find I’m disgusted with nouveau liturgicals who post BCP quotes as their Facebook statuses and wear their collars everywhere from the movie theatre to the farmer’s market. Here’s a tip to you newbies: If you only know one version of the doxology, and if the pages of your BCP still crunch upon opening, refrain from pontificating as an authority. We know it’s new and exciting for you, but it’s also profoundly annoying and dates you…not in a good way. Similarly, there’s nothing more pitiful than a Yankee moving to the South and saying all y’all. Unless you know the difference between Dinner and Supper and have at least one gelatinized dish at your Easter brunch, you’re new and we know it.

As the old joke goes, if there’s anything the South and the Episcopal church do well, it’s Hatch, Match, and Dispatch. Pinterest displays page after page of Southern baby showers. Entire books are devoted to Southern weddings. The wedding committee at any Episcopal Church, particularly in the South, is more organized than the Chinese military. I can promise you that wedding will start on time, whether the bride is dressed or not, and the drunk groomsman will be sobered by fear alone when he comes face-to-face with the 83-year-old wedding coordinator whose quietly fierce temperament is topped with her never-leaves-home-without-it corsage. Now, you want to see something really special? There has never been a more organized tactical mission than a Southern funeral. After all, Being Dead is No Excuse. Within hours of a death announcement, the church silver has been polished, the surviving family members have at least three dozen country ham biscuits in their freezer, and meals have been lined up for a month. The majority of those meals will be casseroles, appropriately alternating between chicken, beef, and even the occasional seafood dish, allergies permitting.

All Southerners, and all Episcopalians, have condensed soups stock-piled in their pantries for such a time as this. It doesn’t matter how keto-paleo-whole30-natural-organic you are, if you have Southern and/or Episcopal roots, you keep condensed soups on hand. No casserole is complete without them, and casseroles run in our veins.

This week, we had a death in our church. I may live in the Midwest now, but old habits die hard, and I had a poppy seed chicken casserole* in the oven the next day. Jet, our oldest, helped me cook.

Momma, why are you making a casserole?

Because, hunny, when someone dies, you take their family a meal. It’s a way to show love and empathy.

But, why a casserole?

And then it hit me. To a Southerner, and to an Episcopalian, there is nothing more comforting for a scared family, a grieving widow, or new parents than a warm casserole. Nothing says love quite like high-fat condensed soups mixed with chicken. These cheap ingredients stretch and bake into bubbly concoctions that comfort our hearts and our bellies at times in life when we’re stretched as much as those cheap ingredients. Casseroles are easy. Life isn’t.

This week I got to share the importance of the casserole with my son, and during his life, I’ll get to share with him all of these other things. These rules and traditions that run through my veins might seem meaningless to outsiders, they might seem dated, or unimportant. But beneath the rules, behind the traditions, are people who went before me, who taught me these things. They taught me that the thank you note isn’t important just because it’s what you do, but because the person whom you’re thanking is a gift. Elbows on the table aren’t actually a big deal, but respect is. Ancient traditions aren’t just a cool new Facebook status, but holy moments that form and shape us. Casseroles aren’t just ingredients that stretch, they’re a symbol of people filling in the gaps that life creates.

*Poppy Seed Chicken Casserole

1 bag frozen chicken tenders (the bag I used was 40oz/2.5lbs)

1 can cream of chicken soup

16 ounces sour cream

3 tsp poppy seeds

1-2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce, depending on preference

Salt/pepper and garlic powder to taste

1 sleeve Ritz crackers, crushed

¼ cup butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350. Cook and shred the chicken tenders and mix with the next four ingredients. Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste, and put the mixture in a 9×13” baking dish. In a separate bowl, mix crushed crackers with melted butter. Top the casserole with the crackers, and bake until casserole is bubbly around the edges, around 30-35 minutes.

Disclaimer: I grew up in the Episcopal Church, but many of these traditions can also apply to Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and sometimes even Baptists, but never, ever, Calvinists.

 

It’s In A Pink Box

One of the joys of my life is making my husband feel awkward. I love it so much that I don’t even care that saying it aloud makes me sound like a nightmare of a wife. It’s just that fun.

My husband is profoundly innocent. What’s so beautifully ironic about this is that he’s a recovering alcoholic and attends meetings with people who are decidedly NOT innocent. He regularly comes home from meetings wide-eyed about things he heard.

There’s a purity in his heart that I love, and that I also love to pick on.

Imagine my delight when I discovered a new mascara called “Better Than Sex.”

This is my moment, I thought.

I sent him a text.

Me: Hey, could you drop by Ulta on your way home from work? I need a few things.

Husband: Sure. Just send me a list.

 Me: Nyx Butter Gloss in Crème Brulee, and a new mascara I want to try. It’s in a pink box. It’s called Better Than Sex. If you need help finding them, just ask; they’re always really helpful.

Instantly, my phone rang.

Rebecca. Is the name of the mascara a joke? 

I put on my best nonchalant voice. No, of course not. It’s in a pink box. Just ask if you can’t find it. 

Rebecca. (He likes to repeat my name when he starts getting that panicky, uncomfortable feeling.) I can’t ask for that.

I’m sure you’ll be able to find it. Pink box. Thanks so much!

I hung up before he could hear me laughing.

He called me a few hours later from the store. Got the lipgloss, but I can’t find the mascara.  

Oh ok, just ask. I’m sure they’ll know exactly where it is.

Rebecca, you don’t understand. A woman already asked if I needed help and I said no. I’m not going to ASK for something called…(he lowered his voice)…Better. Than. Sex.  

Hun, that’s ridiculous. Just ask her and be cool about it. Don’t act awkward.

Rebecca (again with the name), this is me. I can’t say the word sex and not be awkward. 

Oh, I know. That’s exactly why I sent you.

Through the phone I heard the saleswoman ask him again, Are you sure I can’t help you find something, sir? 

Well, I really didn’t want to have to ask for this. My wife wants a mascara called Better Than…(he lowered his voice to a near whisper)…Sex.

Perfect, I think. WHISPERING it won’t make you look awkward at all. This was too good to be true.

I heard her say something, but I couldn’t make out her words.

He came back on the phone. Apparently I was standing right in front of it. I have it. I’m on my way home.

He came in the door. You enjoyed that, didn’t you?

I erupted with laughter. You have no idea. 

As for the mascara: false advertising, but it is pretty damn good.

February 22nd

I just called Baby. I call her every year on February 22nd. It’s the day that her husband, my grandfather, chose to end his life.

She wasn’t at home which isn’t unusual. She has more of a social life than I could ever hope to have. I left her a message. Hey Baby, it’s February 22nd, and I’m calling to tell you that in an hour when it’s 5:00, I’ll be raising my glass of bubbles to you and my Granddaddy because I love and miss you both.

Baby and I are connected at the heart, not by blood. We’ve decided that in some ways that’s even better.

Her name isn’t actually Baby. Her name is Beverley. When I was young, she and my grandfather came to visit. It’s the first time I remember meeting her. I was old enough to feel awkwardness, but young enough that the grownups assumed I didn’t.

She gave me a white stuffed bear. Together, all the awkward grownups and I, decided to name the bear Beverley Bear, since it was from Beverley. My dad piped up, You could call it BB for short.

 I looked up at Beverley. Maybe I could call you BB too.

All the grownups seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. It was settled. The step-grandmother had a name, and it was tender enough to honor the position she had in my life, but not grandmother-ly enough to step on the toes of my mom’s mother, who was still alive at the time.

Visits increased, awkwardness decreased. Many of my childhood memories are in the home she and my grandfather shared during their marriage. They lived in an island town in South Carolina. We crabbed all day, danced to beach music in the evenings. The grownups sipped wine, the kids stuffed their faces with pimento cheese. The house echoed with the booming laugh of my grandfather. After supper, my brother and I loaded up into the back of his truck, and he’d sneak us away for a scoop of ice cream.

Last summer, we were back at that beach for a family vacation. BB, who now lives in the Upstate, came down to the beach for a few nights to see us. Awkwardness long gone, BB is a part of us, and we’re a part of her. As she gave my middle son a birthday present, he looked at her with his long eyelashes and curly hair and said, Oh thank you, Baby, I love it. BB had become Baby. The step-grandmother name had morphed into the name of a beloved great-grandmother, connected at the heart, not by blood.

Today when I left Baby the message, I teared up. I never cry on February 22nd, but today I realized that I’ve known Baby, my heart grandmother, longer than I knew my grandfather. He died when I was fifteen, seventeen years ago.

A long time ago, he gave our family a gift. He gave us Baby. Tonight, I raise my glass of to my Granddaddy and to Baby. How I love them both.

Olin

Most of my elementary school memories include two things: boys and sports. I remember the former because I loved them, the latter because I loathed them.

I spent my mornings slipping notes to one special boy, my first love, when the teacher wasn’t looking. Topics included: “Do you love me? Circle yes or no.” (Yes) and “Are you allowed to talk on the phone tonight?” (No) and “Want to sit with me at lunch? Circle yes or no.” (Yes). One Valentine’s Day we exchanged gifts. I bought him a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a box of Fruit Roll Ups, his favorite food. He bought me a heart shaped onion, my favorite food, and an angel pin which spent the next three years on my backpack. The romance was real, and the mornings good.

I spent my afternoons dreading gym.

I don’t remember the name of my P.E. teacher, but she struck fear in my heart. I used to hide in the bathroom when I saw her walking down the hall. It didn’t matter which sport we were learning, I was miserable. I was so bad at basketball that I had to learn to dribble with a beach ball. I retied my shoelaces so many times during soccer that the teacher told my parents they might need to buy me Velcro shoes. I “let” so many kids go ahead of me in kickball, altogether avoiding a turn, until one day she caught on and made me go first every day.

Monster.

It wasn’t all bad though. One week she was out sick and we had a very handsome substitute teacher. That was a good week.

Field Day was a special kind of hell, and after surviving the dreaded day in First and Second Grade, my parents finally let me skip the day each time it rolled around for the rest of elementary school.

Middle school wasn’t much better. My car rides to and from school were spent begging my parents to find a way to get me out of volleyball. Get a doctor’s note, I insisted. Unfortunately, hatred of sports isn’t considered an actual medical condition, so they resorted to prayer. From that day on, we spent the car rides begging God to help me get the ball over the net.

He didn’t.

Since hormones and heartbreaks and greasy hair and braces weren’t torture enough for Eighth Grade, we had to run a mile once a week. I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t come in dead last each week, rather second to last, only ahead of the girl who had debilitating asthma.

Asthma. Why didn’t I think of that?

By that age, we’d outgrown the torture of Field Day. In its place: the epic four day Eight Grade trip for camping and white-water rafting. While everyone in my class excitedly packed and prepared, I tried to research believable illnesses I could fake to skip the trip. It didn’t work, and I watched my mom pack the horrifying necessities listed on our school-provided packing list: bug spray, sleeping bags, a one-piece bathing suit, toothbrush, and jock itch cream. Before I knew it I was on a bus with the eighth grade class heading to a campsite where we were met by a stereotypical outdoorsy man in his sixties. He gave us the low down of the trip, announced our tent assignments, and quoted a book called How to Shit in the Woods. In his hand, a Ziploc bag and a shovel. I made a silent vow to myself: Hold it, whatever you do, just hold it. It’s only a few days.

Three days later we were back on the bus heading for our white-water rafting “adventure.” We put on wetsuits and walked in groups of five, raft overhead, down to the Chattooga River. Our raft guide (Are they called guides?) was a pretty cute guy in his twenties. At least if I was going to die, I’d have some eye candy in my final moments. Between my simultaneous flirty and panicked glances, he informed us that the Chattooga River is where the 1970’s horror film Deliverance was filmed. Death suddenly seemed like an actual possibility.

The last thing I remember hearing before climbing into the raft was the instruction to bring your legs up if you got flipped out. Something about toes getting stuck in rocks. Drowning. Death.

Fantastic.

We watched two groups ahead of us raft down the large 14-foot double drop called Bull Sluice. After the drop, they got out of their rafts to cheer on the next team from the large rocks. The next team was us. Remember, if you fall out, lift your feet.

I don’t remember the exact moment I felt my entire body flip out of the raft, then under the raft, into the freezing water, but I do remember lifting my feet. I was so focused on lifting my feet that I barely saw the guide (who had suddenly lost his appeal to me) standing on the rocks throwing a rope in my direction while I floated downstream, but dammit my feet were lifted. The rope hit my nose before I was able to grab it, leaving a large black bruise. Soon we were back at the lodge (Is it called a lodge?) and as I took off the wetsuit I realized why jock itch cream was on the packing list.

Eventually college came, clearly without an athletic scholarship, and I thought I’d escaped sports purgatory for good. I was wrong. I attended a small liberal arts school in the Upstate of South Carolina. One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is the ability to explore a variety of disciplines in addition to your major of choice. Basically, a liberal arts degree ensures that you’re good at your job and at cocktail parties.

Here’s the downside to a liberal arts degree: sports are considered part of the experience that creates well-rounded human beings. I wholeheartedly disagree. I avoided my sports requirements until my senior year. Finally, the time came to register for classes for my Senior year and my advisor reminded me that I hadn’t yet taken my physical education courses. I briefly considered dropping out, but I was engaged and my Dad often reminded me, No degree, no dress, so I bit the bullet and looked at my options.

We could choose from three sections: team sport, dance, and individual sport. I had visions of beach ball dribbling practice and I decided that one helping of that particular form of humiliation was enough for a lifetime. Clearly, team sports were out. That left dance and an individual sport.

I bought a leotard, tights, ballet shoes, and survived my semester-long ballet class with the grace of a drunk ox. I don’t remember my grade, but I can almost guarantee it wasn’t an A. I didn’t care. It was over.

My last semester of college was beginning and my roommate and I decided golf sounded like a pretty safe option for an individual sport. We came back from Christmas break, our parents’ credit cards in tow, and went to the sporting goods store where twenty years of heart-thumping humiliation flashed brighter than the fluorescent lights overhead. As I walked through the time warp of my childhood athletic traumas, I began to sweat. Basketballs here, kickballs there, a nice display of beach balls. Volleyball nets. Rafts. Wetsuits.

Lindsay, my roommate, saw the panic in my eyes came up with a brilliant plan to get us through the semester. The plan involved pink golf clubs and argyle socks; we’d just accessorize our way through the semester. It was kind of a “tan fat looks better than pale fat” situation, but the golf version. As long as you look like a golfer, it won’t matter that you have a striking lack of athletic ability.

A few days later we grabbed our new golf bags and walked to the athletics building, the only building on our campus I’d never visited. Apparently it was pretty state of the art, not that I would know. My walking into that building was about as pointless as a vegetarian visiting a butcher. But there I sat in a classroom (Who knew the athletics building had classrooms?) with about twenty other women waiting for our professor.

And then he came in.

Afternoon, ladies. I’m sorry I’m a few minutes late, but when you’re 80 you sometimes misplace your keys. My name is Olin Calicutt, and I’m here to teach you to love the great game of golf.

I was smitten.

I’m not sure if it was his deep southern drawl, his white hair, his silver rimmed glasses, or the fact that he truly believed he could teach someone like me to love the game of golf, but I decided the semester wouldn’t be so bad after all.

The first class only lasted a few minutes. He gave us some handouts and told us all materials would be provided, including golf clubs. He looked over at Lindsay and me, our matching pink bags and clubs. Of course, if you bring your own that’ll be just fine too. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a pink bag, ladies. I sure like them.

Smitten.

Our first real class was on a chilly day and we walked down to the practice field (We had a practice field?), where he lined us up. One by one, he showed us how to grip the club correctly and how to align our feet. Then we started swinging. I’m clearly no expert, but my first attempt was weak. Pitiful, really. But Olin was a gentleman.

Classes continued and surprisingly, Lindsay and I began to look forward to them. Our excitement had nothing to do with golf, but rather the opportunity to see Olin. Our golf skills improved slightly, and I mean very, very, very slightly, and we began visiting the par three course in town with our boyfriends on the weekends. Have argyle, will golf.

After our first visit to the par three course, we told Olin about our weekend adventure. He looked thrilled. The smile on his face faded slightly when one of us, and I’m not naming any names, pulled out our driver, swung, and knocked the head right off of the club. The head flew farther than the ball. Lindsay and I broke into hysterics. Olin, however, took his glasses off his face, wiped them with the corner of his shirt and said, Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like that before. That was really something.

Olin stopped Lindsay and me after class that day. I’m so glad you ladies are enjoying golf. If there’s ever anything I can do to help you with your game, all you have to do is ask.

We asked if he’d ever be willing to meet us at the driving range. I would just be delighted.

We made a plan to meet him at the driving range that weekend. I remember nothing about our time, but after we were finished he asked if we were hungry. Starving.

I know a great Chinese place. You ladies can follow me.

The three of us sat at the table, sipped our water, ordered. Lindsay and I still had on our golf shoes. He talked to us about his kids and grandkids, we talked about our other classes, our parents, our boyfriends. He told us about his wife who had died several years before, his face lit up when he spoke of her. I sure miss her.

The waitress came over and told us it was so sweet to see two granddaughters having lunch with their grandfather. Oh, he’s not actually our grandfather…

No, these are my friends, Olin interrupted.

She left the bill on the table which Lindsay and I tried to take. He grabbed it before we could. Friends, I’m 80 years old. I’ve never let a lady buy my lunch, and I’m not about to begin now.

The class ended, and on the last day we presented him with a plaque. I don’t remember what we had engraved on it, but I remember that he took his glasses off again, this time wiping his eyes. We hugged him goodbye.

I wish I could say we kept in touch, but life went on. We graduated, he got a new group of students, and I lost my golf swing quickly, although it wasn’t much to brag about at its peak.

olinphoto

I recently found out that Olin died two years ago. I wish I’d known at the time so I could have written his family and told him what he’d meant to me. We didn’t know each other well, but that semester I learned that sports don’t exclusively create miserable memories. Sometimes, they create a friend. Olin did exactly what he told us he’d do on the first day of class: he gave me the love of golf. I don’t play, and I probably never will. I never watch golf, and I still couldn’t tell you the rules, but I love the memory of golf because it gave me the memory of Olin, a true gentleman, and at one point, my friend.

Receipt

I began a yoga practice a little over six months ago at the suggestion of my therapist. I was a total novice to yoga, save a few maternity DVDs I did religiously for about three days during each of my pregnancies. As most writers are, I’m a diligent researcher, so before attending my first yoga class I tried to learn as much as I could about what to expect so I didn’t look like a complete idiot during my class. I Googled things like “yoga etiquette” and “yoga studio rules” and “what do expect during your first yoga class.” Of course on this side of yoga experience I realize that Googling these things would be akin to Googling “how to cook.” Yoga takes on many forms and each yogi has his or her own interpretation of the practice. Likewise, yoga studios develop their own vibe and ethos, which range from traditional Eastern-spiritual practices to Evangelical yoga-lite, and everything in between.  There are, however, a few rules that I would consider yoga-universal. If you’re not a yogi, here are some rules to know before you go:

  1. This is the way you turn off the outside world, the way you connect your body to your movements, and the way you focus on your practice and nothing else. It’s the hardest rule to follow.
  2. First, your focus doesn’t leave your mat. This means you are focused on your practice and yours alone. Modify when you need to, stretch yourself when it feels right. Yoga studios are judgment free zones. Keeping your focus on your mat means that you are not allowed to hope the woman in front of you with the perfect breasts, flat stomach, and rock-hard tush falls flat on her face mid Standing Bow. Perhaps this is actually the hardest rule to follow.
  3. Be gracious with yourself. Yoga is a practice, not a performance. Sometimes your practice brings progress, other times, not. But all practice is good.
  4. Bring water.
  5. Don’t pass gas.

A few weeks ago I went to one of my favorite yoga classes and I only followed two rules. Luckily, #5 was one of them. I also brought my water. Blame it on recovering from a cold, or the fact that I’d had a frustrating day, but I broke every other rule and my practice suffered. Instead of breathing, I was trying to remember if I’d brought a Kleenex with me. Instead of focusing on my mat, I was writing a story in my mind of the middle-age gentleman next to me. He’s lost a tremendous amount of weight in the 6 months we’ve both attended the studio. I don’t know his name, but I decided it was probably something sweet like Dave. In case you’re curious about my story, he was an investment banker whose marriage was in shambles. He embarked on a journey of self-discovery in which he found himself and reignited love with his wife. Now they spend their evenings cooking together, slow dancing in the kitchen after he gets home from yoga. Their first grandchild is due soon, poetically a boy to be named David after his grandfather. I find myself staring at him in the mirror and resist the urge to leave my mat and hug him. I remind myself that my story, though wonderful, is indeed made up.

Back to my practice. My body was tight, my stamina low, my form poor. Directly in front of me was a woman who somehow still looked elegant 30 minutes into our class. Her hair perfect, her body dripping with Lululemon and not a drop of sweat. I just know there wasn’t a single stretch mark on her body. Her form (like her blasted figure) was perfect, and just before I could wish her a pose-induced fall, our instructor called us to our mats for Savasana.

Savasana is a time to focus on nothing but your breath and is said to be the hardest of all yoga poses. Instead of taking this time to clear my mind and have a mental “do-over,” I became so distracted by the music that I could think of nothing else. I didn’t know the song, but I recognized the artist’s voice from the opening song to Suits, “Greenback Boogie.” Naturally, I started singing the song in my mind and wondering whatever happened to Mike. (We’re a few seasons behind.) I made a mental note to look up the artist’s name which, I am sorry to tell you, is Ima Robot.

Needless to say, I left my practice disgruntled and not the least bit zen. I walked outside and it was raining, of course, so I decided that what the night really needed was junk food. Calling to me like a beacon of hope, I spotted the neon green lights of Whole Foods just across the street. Dripping with yoga sweat and rain, I walked in the store and went to the queso section which, of course, was empty. My favorite salsa? Gone. My favorite chips? Only small bags. Of course.

I grabbed a bag of frozen tater tots and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and headed to the only open checkout aisle.

And that’s when the night really went down hill.

I found myself standing face to face with the cashier who was the embodiment of every reason Boomers hate Millennials.

I looked at him with his perfectly combed and organic gel-encrusted coif with the quintessential matching beard, both carefully raked with custom bamboo combs he undoubtedly bought on Etsy and had engraved with his name, which is probably Rain. He smelled like a walking Google search of “essential oils for men,” from the cedarwood, bergamot, and whiskey infused beard butter on his face for which he paid $58 per 2.5 ounce tin. The upcycled tin label surely reads Locally sourced and handmade with organic vegan ingredients and sprinkled with fairy tears. I couldn’t see his feet, but I’d be willing to put money on organic socks with hemp shoes. He finished scanning my gluten-ridden, non-sprouted, dairy infused, poisonous groceries, and took a superior sip of his chia seed kombucha which was sitting by the register.

He looked at me and saw me and my post-hot-yoga-meets-post-partum-fly-away hair. He saw my non-fair trade yoga pants purchased from Nordstrom, a store fraught with ethical violations. Where my organic socks should have been, a pair of Rainbows, which probably reminded him of every ocean in crisis. I’m the epitome of commercialism and everything this man stands against.

As though the fate of 1000 dying rain forests rested squarely on my shoulders, he looked at me in all of his smug hipster glory over his thick Warby Parker glasses and said, Do you want a receipt?

Yes, I hissed. Yes, I do.

The truth is, I didn’t actually need my receipt, but somewhere between his perfect beard and my saturated fat laden tater tots my mild huff was nearing rage level.  I walked away from the register feeling irrationally angry and unreasonably hungry. I got home and ranted to my husband, Porter, about my encounter with Rain. He said all of the right things, nodding sympathetically while I shoveled tots into my mouth. After my last bite, I think I said something along the lines of, “Seriously, he was such an ass. And the real irony in this situation is that I actually care about the oceans in crisis. I drink kombucha and eat fermented vegetables, I support fair trade and cottage industries, I use essential oils, and if I wore socks, I’m sure I’d want them to be organic. But you know what else? I like tater tots, and mac & cheese, and the thought of cauliflower pizza crust just makes me want to scream What’s the point?”

Just as quickly as my monologue began, it ended, and my husband uttered the most beautiful (and safest) words a husband could say to his ranting wife in a moment like this: Would you like some ice cream?

The next morning Porter told me, You should write about Rain. Seems like good material.

Ice cream offers and writing advice, just two of the reasons I’m so thankful I married him. So, I sat down to write. For several weeks I’ve thought about this story and tried to come up with my angle. I considered things like the ways in which yoga teaches us life lessons, or the fact that each of us is a walking contradiction of convictions, or judge not lest you be judged. I even considered the fact that Rain might actually be a pretty nice dude with a boring name like John, although I think we can all agree that it’s unlikely. Draft after draft after draft, all hackneyed and worthless. The blank page continued to taunt me.

As much as I wanted a good story with a point, the fact is, sometimes a story is just a story, utterly pointless.

Like my damn receipt.

Zits, Grace, and Healing

I don’t get zits.

I’m one of those annoying people to whom good genetics and unreasonably expensive skin care products can be credited with generally good skin. Even in high school when most of my friends were bleaching their faces and mothers’ towels with ProActiv, I rarely had a pimple.

But, as the saying goes, all God’s people got problems, and I didn’t escape my fair share of unfortunate genes. I have baggy eyes, crooked pinkies, and bunions.

My name is Rebecca, and I have the skin of a baby and the feet of an 80 year old.

Last week, as though the acne gods had been storing up their adolescent wrath against me and decided to curse me in one giant blow, I got the Zit of My Life. For days I studied this monstrosity in the mirror. Fortunately for all those around me, you couldn’t actually see it. It was a strange lump under my skin, painful, but invisible. I waited a few days and tried everything I could think of to make it go away.

Nothing worked.

I think my husband and mother got tired of my demands to Seriously, yall, feel this thing again and they suggested I call someone. I didn’t know which someone to call, so I contacted a local salon and described the utter ruin that was my chin.

I scheduled an appointment, swallowed my pride, swore at my new moisturizer, and headed to the salon. A woman named Nancy took me downstairs. I’d been to this salon before for a facial UPSTAIRS. I decided they send the pretty-skinned people upstairs, and the ugly-skinned people downstairs, the way valets park Bentleys and Aston Martins outside a fancy restaurant and take the cheap cars to the parking garage. My Hyundai face and I followed Nancy downstairs, down a long hallway to the very last room in the entire salon. Nancy took one quick look at my face, gave me the technical name of the growth on my chin which sounds far too repulsive to repeat here. She assured me that The Zapper would work. Before she got started, she offered a few name suggestions for my new facial frenemy. Eduardo, a little too steamy for something so unattractive, Herbert a little too dowdy. She said we really needed to find the right balance between European sex-appeal and you know, facing the facts. Luigi fit the bill.

Within seconds she was using some sort of torture device that felt like a mild form of electro-shock therapy. A few minutes later she Luigi with zit cream and sent me on my way. Luckily, I only owed her $15 for the complete crushing of my pride, and soon Luigi and I were on our way home.

I got home and looked in the mirror. Luigi was smaller, but now red. He looked a little unhappy. She shouldn’t have given him an Italian name, after all, Italians are known for their passion.

Years of pride in my good skin came to a crashing halt in one new moisturizer gone wrong, and it gave me an understanding of the great Zit of Life. I remember being fresh out of college, thinking the world was my oyster. I had a gift to offer the world, I was just sure of it. Of course I didn’t know what the gift was, but I. Was. Educated. And not educated like the old-folks who graduated eons ago. I was fresh from the educational womb, covered with the vernix of knowledge.

But here’s the thing about vernix. Eventually the protective barrier sheds and life kicks us straight in the ass. And that is the true beginning of our education. We find ourselves single much later than we thought we would. We find ourselves married, maybe with a child or two, our bank accounts more depleted than our energy. We find ourselves facing unemployment, or infertility, or approximately 120,000 loads of laundry, or addiction, or leaky pipes, or Calvinists, and it all makes us want to crawl back in our beds, curled in the fetal position to pretend it isn’t real. We want to go back to the safe protected world where our zits haven’t yet formed.

There are very few things I can say with utter certainty, but this is one: Top knots are the single worst fashion trend since jelly shoes.

Here’s another: Every single person in the world is in their own way profoundly and utterly screwed up. Grace is the promise that we don’t have to stay that way.

The Gospel of John tells a story of a man whose personal Luigi lasted for 38 years. We don’t know how he became paralyzed, but we find him sitting near the healing waters of the Pool of Bethesda. Of all the people seeking healing in the water, Jesus talks to him. He picks someone who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. Imagine the hopelessness this man must have felt.

So Jesus looks at him and asks, Do you want to get well?

Next, an excuse, as we would all give after 38 years of paralyzing sickness. He explains that no one will help him, everyone else is receiving their healing first. They rush to the healing waters, leaving him behind, curled up in his bed, begging for healing but unable to move.

Jesus looks him straight in his hopeless eyes and tells him to get up out of his bed and walk. And so he does.

And so can we.

Starshine

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I’ve started thinking about the past. Not just my past, but their past, for theirs is what made mine possible.

She was born in 1895 and named Isabel Hoy.

She was born in 1938 and named Pauline Dunlap.

She was born in 1958 and named Cynthia Patrick.

They all hail from the cotton-country of Fairfield County, South Carolina.

And then there’s me. I was born in the deep oil country of West Texas in 1986. Rebecca Brust.

As my mother and grandmother before me, I attended a small women’s college in the Upstate of South Carolina. During homesick college nights I’d walk across campus to the library, walk up the flights of stairs and scan the shelves for yearbooks. All gathered, I sat with five yearbooks before me, each named Y’s and Other Y’s. The years: 1981, 1980, 1979, 1978 and 1956. One by one I’d open them up, scanning the pages for the faces that could ease my homesick heart. My Momma, the same spark in her eyes I see today, seated in her high heels because at only five feet tall she thinks she needs the extra height for people to take her seriously. I see her face and wish I could tell her, You’re captivating, shoes or no shoes, and everyone around you sees it. You shine. My grandmother’s class photo, looking somewhat sad and wistful. There was only one yearbook with my grandmother who only completed the same semesters of college, deciding instead to follow her heart and marry. Her heart, like her husband, betrayed her. I see her face and wish I could tell her Don’t do it, but if she hadn’t, my mother and I wouldn’t be.

I’m positive if I were to open those yearbooks in Mickel Library today there would be tear stains on their pages. Ritualistically I’d wipe my eyes, close the yearbooks, put them back on the shelf, and leave. Back outside in the cool Carolina night air I’d see the front of campus. When my grandmother attended, you couldn’t be seen in the front of campus without a skirt and white gloves. I’d think about how times changed, as I was almost never seen without jeans, a ratty ponytail and my flip-flops. I’d walk past the dorm buildings where they used to sleep. I’d laugh to myself as I remembered the stories my Momma told of her classmates who would sunbathe topless on the roof of one of the buildings, cotton balls strategically placed. To this day she swears she wasn’t one of them, but I’ve never believed her.

There was something comforting about just knowing I was walking where they’d walked, being connected to a time and place bigger than any of the three of us. Since 1889, students walked those sidewalks, slept in those buildings, and learned on that ground.

Seventy miles away sits another library with an even dustier yearbook on a shelf. In it, the following:

Ella Isabel Hoy: “Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; Like twilight, too, her dusky hair.”*

“Isabel reminds us of starshine, and as a graceful, dignified Senior she has proved that she will fit in well with the role of “Goddess of the Evening Air.” She is quite a favorite with the teachers, as well as with the students, and is our own steady Isabel at all times.”**

My great-grandmother. I see her face and wish I could tell her Your grace steadied all of us. Your starshine flows in our veins.

At one point, all four of us lived at the same time. One of my most precious possessions, a photograph of us seated around a table, three women and a little girl. Four generations together, now two of them are gone. My mother and I still carry that starshine, passed from one generation to the next, a treasured gift.

I look into the faces of my three sons, and although the female line has ended, the starshine remains.

* The Tattler Yearbook, Winthrop College, 1917, originally quoting William Wordsworth’s poem, She Was a Phantom of Delight
*The Tattler Yearbook, Winthrop College, 1917 (Author unknown)

On Death, Owls, and Remembering

Today would have been my grandmother’s 79th birthday. She died when I was 11, 19 years ago. She was 60. The year was 1998.

Have you ever noticed that numbers are often the only fixed facts about death as time goes on? Dates and ages are easily rattled off, but the stories of death are often more difficult to tell with the passing years. It seems pathetic that I can tell you those facts so clearly, but I can’t tell you the name of the hospital where she died. I can’t tell you what her last words were. My mother was with her when she died, the memory probably etched so permanently in her mind that she could retell it as though it had just happened.

I’ve been trying to write the story of the women in my maternal line, perhaps as a memoir of sorts; perhaps as a novel, filling in the gaps time has created with fiction; perhaps just for my own growth and clarity. The endeavor has cursed me with the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced.

How do you write the story of a life you didn’t live? How do you write the story of a life you didn’t even witness in full? Time steals from us the details and often the very soul of the stories we try to remember. Things that feel unforgettable in our own lives will one day be forgotten by all. If we’re lucky we’ll be remembered for a few generations, but even then, our very personhood will probably be summed up in one phrase. “The one who…”

Take my great, great grandmother for example. In my family she’s simply known as the one who said she’d come back as an owl. Through a bit of family research I’ve learned that her name was Susannah Scott Hoy. She and her husband had eight children, 3 sons and five daughters. She was born in 1866 and died in 1961. (Here we are with the numbers again.) That’s all I know about her. Well, her name, the numbers, and the owl thing. I have no idea if it was a one-time or ongoing joke, or if (gasp) she actually believed she’d come back as nocturnal bird. What I do know is that she’s the reason my mother shudders every time she sees an owl. Susannah lived a whole life, and all I know her for is one sentence. When I die, I’ll come back as an owl.

But this isn’t limited to my family alone. Think of the unnamed biblical characters, people known simply as Noah’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, or the woman at the well. We also have several examples of nameless historical icons: the soldier and nurse kissing in Times Square, the “babushka lady” in the photos of JFK’s assassination, a tomb holding an unnamed soldier. All of these people summed up with one identifying fact, but the true facts of their lives forgotten within a few generations.

This is a haunting reality. More haunting still when I consider the fact that I have three sons and many of my daily sentences include the words stinks, booger, or penis. Should the majority of my life story be summed up in one sentence for coming generations, my entire life remembered by one small phrase, I don’t want it to include one of those words. Can I get an hallelujah?

Whether or not we know the details, we are formed by history. This is especially true of our families. The writer in me sees the beauty of the stories, even in the most mundane daily occurrences. And so I write. I force myself to push through the writer’s block because their stories deserve to be told, and so do mine.

Scare Tactics

My father has given me many things in my life. Of course he, along with my mother, taught me integrity, gratitude, empathy. They gave me food and shelter and protection, and you know, life. My dad also gave each of his kids some things which come from him alone. To my brother he gave a love of music and the annoying ability to carry a single word through about 15 puns. To me, crooked pinky fingers, bags under my eyes (which we’ve dubbed “Brust bags”), and rather unfortunately, a bunion. But by far, my favorite gift my father has given me is a deep abiding love of scaring people.

We have a gift, and we take this gift seriously. It might be cruel, and it might be slightly twisted, but you can’t squander a gift like ours.

The success of our scares is measured by three things: 1) how loudly we can make the victim person scream; 2) how long it takes them to recover; and 3) how long we, the scare-er, laughs.

His favorite person to scare is my brother. My favorite person to scare is my husband.

If you haven’t jumped out and made your 6’2” husband scream like a three-year-old on a playground, you haven’t fully lived.

When we’d been married for just over a year, Porter went to do his nightly chore of feeding the cats. He thought I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, but instead I was hiding in the kitchen waiting for my moment. I listened as he scooped the food in the laundry room, poured it into the bowl, and started walking back to the bathroom to deliver the food to the cats. Just as he passed the kitchen, I jumped out with my usual BOO, and the man jumped so high that the cat food flew across the apartment. We found the kernels for days. His scream traumatized the cats, and they hid under the bed for hours.

It was perfection.

Just a few months ago, I heard him say to the boys Where’s Momma? I took it as my cue. They were all in one of the bedrooms waiting for me to come join them. They called me, and they called me, and they called me. I pretended not to hear them and slowly and quietly crept through the house until I was at good jumping distance. When the time was right, I made my scare. Porter jumped into some sort of frenetic pose, his eyes wild and panicked, his scream a decibel so high it could have shattered glass.

It might have been my best scare to date.

As a parent, I consider it my duty to pass on gifts to my children. This morning I heard Case, our middle son, sneaking around a corner and jumping out to scare his brother. When Jet jumped (unfortunately, they don’t scream since they’re a little used to being scared), Case laughed hysterically.

Naturally, I sent a video to my dad of the third generation hard at work.

My work here is done, I said.

He responded simply, Good work, but he’ll need tactical and strategic work throughout the years.

It’s so good to know you’re needed.