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.

In Which I Ramble About Salt

Last weekend we were supposed to get a huge ice storm. Biggest in 10 years, they said. Churches cancelled services, schools closed, social media raged with photos of empty supermarket shelves. As a precaution, I joined the masses at the grocery store and did all the laundry just in case we lost power. Actually, that’s a lie. Porter went to the grocery store. And Target. And Home Depot.

But I really did do the laundry, so basically we’re even. (Marriage 101)

We were as prepared as we could be for the ice storm. A few hours before the dreaded storm was to begin, I said to Porter “Simply because we’re prepared it means that we’ll probably get a thin layer of ice, keep power, and the whole thing will be a big flop. If we didn’t prepare, it would be the worst ice storm in 50 years, loss of power for a week, blah blah.”

The blah, blah is a direct quote.

I’m a bit superstitious. Superstition and faith don’t really go together, but I live a life of contradictions. I trust Jesus, but I don’t pass salt hand to hand, you’re never going to see me walk under a ladder, I don’t pick up face-down pennies, I always get an extra portion of greens on New Years because who doesn’t want more money, and if the salt shaker drops I sprinkle some over my shoulder. (Why do so many superstitions involve salt?)

All evangelicals will now stop reading my post because I just confessed that I’m superstitious, but go with any of them to Target and see what happens if their total is $6.66. You’ll never see someone add a pack of gum to their ticket faster.

Back to the ice storm. The roads were salted numerous times and the whole city bunkered down for the storm. But it was a flop. We got approximately 13 icicles.

In true Millennial fashion, where the world revolves around me and my lunches comprise your Instagram feed, I told myself that it was all because I prepared. If I hadn’t prepared, well, we might still be without power. If the roads hadn’t been salted, how many inches of ice would we have gotten? It also begs the question, how much salt should I have thrown over my shoulder to prevent Trump from becoming President?

Humble Your Warrior

Once a month I walk into the large three-story suburban office building. I open the double doors; to the left the elevator, to the right the stairs.  Every month I tell myself Take the stairs, it’s better for you. Every month I turn left.

When the elevator door dings open, I walk down the hallway, passing a few dental offices and open another door. The hum of sound machines greets me, and my shoulders relax. Soon I’m greeted with a smile and walk into the office, plop myself down on her big plum-colored sofa and bear my soul.

Therapists are like house cleaners and take-out restaurants. When you find a good one, you never let them go.

I love my therapist. She’s a wonderful mix of gentleness, winsomeness, and wisdom. She’s also not afraid to tell it like she sees it. It’s something I value in her, even though sometimes truth is a hard pill to swallow.

Two months ago she told me I was an overfunctioner. (Overfunctioning is basically a politely clinical way of saying control freak and problem-fixer.) I resisted the urge to say, Oh yeah? Overfunction THIS! and storm out.

Instead, I was forced to sit there, facing the truth she saw in me.

As you do in a good therapy session, we eventually got to the core issue: anxiety. Circumstances I can’t control make me anxious. I’m an overfunctioner, remember? I like things to work. I like things to be easy. I like to know the outcome before I get in the game.

There’s just one slight problem, I say. Nothing over the last five years of life has been predictable. In fact, over the last five years we’ve had a baby, moved halfway across the country, been promoted twice, had another baby, finished a Master’s degree, received a raise, been let go, faced an 18-month-long unemployment, become a one car family, had another baby, been hit with a plumbing bill that was the equivalent cost to a very nice used car, began a PhD program, started a business, and a reality TV star was elected president.

She listened and nodded one of those therapist “I hear you and acknowledge you, but I want you to sit there on that sofa and soak in the uncomfortableness of what you just realized” nods.

Finally, she broke the silence and quoted Richard Rohr: These dark periods are good teachers.

Rebecca, I have some homework for you this week. I prepared myself for the regularly-suggested-and-always-ignored advice to journal.

Instead, I want you to begin a yoga practice. I want you to learn how to sit in discomfort without needing to try to control it. I think yoga can teach you that.

Done I assure her. I’ve always wanted to begin a yoga practice, but I’ve always had a hard time justifying the expense. Now that my therapist was telling me to go, it seemed like a perfect excuse. A few days later, I nervously walked into a yoga studio lobby. The owner greeted me and assured me that the class I was attending was good for beginners. She gave me a quick run down of the class, showed me where to put my shoes, and sent me into the studio like I knew what I was doing.

When I walked in, there were three other women lying on their backs. Oh good, I thought, just set up your mat and then lie down. Look relaxed. Look like you know what you’re doing.

I heard the door open a few more times, mats unroll, each person coming to their mat. I opened my eyes a few times to look around and make sure I will still doing what I was supposed to be doing. Over the next few minutes, the room gets warm. Really, really, really warm. Suddenly it occurs to me that I might be in a hot yoga class.

Soon the class begins. Good evening, yogis. My name is Kim and I’ll be guiding you through your practice today. As we begin with some collective breaths, I want you to focus on letting go of the control of your practice. Set your intentions, but accept that you can’t control this time.

Or the thermostat.

Within minutes, I’m drenched in sweat. I’m suddenly angry with my therapist. Maybe this was all a ploy to get me to stop overfunctioning. Afterall, if you die of a heat stroke there’s no longer a high risk of overfunctioning.

Great warm up yogis. Please join me in savasna. I look around and everyone is lying on the ground looking dead. No wonder they look dead, it’s 110 degrees in here.

Soon savasna is over and we begin four flows. More sweat. More cursing in my head. I’m never going to my therapist again. Why don’t these people look tired?

Kim guides us through one more flow. Toward the end she leads us in another pose and says humble your warrior. It suddenly makes sense to me. Humble your warrior. Stop overfunctioning. Surrender.

So I try. The pose hurts, but not as much as the concept.

I believe in therapy because I believe I don’t have life figured out. I believe that exploring my character defects, my fears, my hurts and my emotions is important. Therapy is a journey of self discovery and brutal honesty. It is also a journey of forgiveness, both inward and outward, grace, and healing. Therapy helps me navigate the ascents and descents of my life and heart. It helps me discover who I am at the core, and who I am called to be.

Yoga is a lot like life. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes you do well, sometimes you don’t. But the practice always teaches us.

Buying Skin

All children have moments when you think they might have arrived from another planet. Luckily, in those meltdowns, there’s a magic elixir: grandparents. I actually think that my parents might have some sort of natural addictive substance oozing out of their pores that draws my children to them, and no matter the cause of the meltdown it ends when they catch sight of them.

Can I get a hallelujah?

A few weeks ago all three boys were out of sorts, which obviously put me out of sorts. Maybe it was the other way around, but let’s not get caught up in the details.

Everyone was grumpy, so off to the magical land of grandparents we went.

Hugs were given, moods lifted, and we were sent outside to play on the deck while lunch was prepared. Another benefit of mid-week grandparental rescue operations is that they always come with good food. This time it was hamburgers cooked in butter with fresh sliced tomatoes and braised spinach, but don’t worry, the butter was grass fed so it wasn’t too indulgent.

Ahem.

While our lunch was being lovingly (and deliciously) prepared by my mom, I sat with the boys at the the patio table. For the first time that morning everyone was happy. We were enjoying the last few days of our Indian Summer and pointing out our favorite colors in the leaves, chit-chatting about nothing and everything all at once.

Jet, my four year old, rested his head on his arms and looked up at me and said Momma, I’m getting a little tired of my white skin. I think we should go to the store and buy some black skin. I think that would be fun.

When you’re pregnant, people love to tell you horror stories, from morning sickness to hemorrhoids to emergency c-sections, but here’s what people should tell you: when you’re a parent, it is possible for your heart to soar and break at the exact same time.

This was one of those moments.

Jet’s innocence and tender heart make my heart soar. It breaks because I know his innocence won’t last much longer.

Images become etched in our minds. The way the room looked when you had your first kiss; the moment you saw your spouse for the first time; the first time your baby looks you in the eyes; the tears falling from your child’s face when he skins his knee; the aged hands of your grandparents. These images tell your subconscious a story.

A drug addict being arrested; a Cuban child taken in the middle of the night to be deported; a Mexican man being picked up for day labor; a black man holding a gun; the “rough” side of town, consisting primarily of one race. These images tell our society a story.

Here’s the problem though: earthly images aren’t the full story. Our society’s subconscious becomes shaped by the visual equivalent of a sound byte. The image of one gang member forms the collective opinion of all people who look like him. The image of one African American being arrested forms the collective opinion that black people are dangerous. The image of a Latino being deported forms the collective opinion that they’re all illegals.

Stereotypes are formed, fear and hate spread, division continues.

What Jet doesn’t know is that the image of his skin will probably never cause him problems. It is highly unlikely that anyone will look at Jet as a grown man and wonder about his financial responsibility. No one will wonder if he got his job because of affirmative action. No one will assume he’s carrying a gun when he’s pulled over for speeding (although trust me, his mother will have a few things to say about his speeding). If Jet owns a business, no one will be surprised that someone with his skin color could do so. No one will ever look at him and assume he’s a terrorist. No one will look at him and question much of anything.

The image of his white skin will tell a story to the world: privilege.

But here’s what I want the real story to be. Behind his white skin, I want there to be a man who fights for civil rights the way he great-grandmother did; a man who fights the societal assumptions around him; a man who values all people, respects all people, loves all people; a man who understands that his white privilege is wrong, but who uses it for racial reconciliation, justice, healing and peace.

In the last few weeks we’ve begun having conversations with Jet about racism. He’s baffled, but challenged. But Momma, even though we look different we’re the same. What can we do to teach people to love everyone? People need to learn this.

People do need to learn this.

But people have a lot to unlearn too.

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man [humanity] as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear. (Orthodox Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas)

Earthly images tell stories, but we are created in the image of the one who wrote the Story. All people are living icons, image bearers of God. That’s what I want Jet to know, that is what we will teach him, and our prayer will be Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

Dribbling

I really like my husband. Good thing, right? But really. There are so many things I like about him, especially (and selfishly) if they benefit me. One of my very favorite things about him is that he requires very little sleep. That man can function on less sleep than anyone I know, and it’s a good thing because when God made me, he made my sleep tank extra large. It’s a very good thing because we breed children who don’t value sleep very much. Three of them. There are few things I value more in this life than sleep. Being married to a not-sleep-needer means that I do very little middle of the night duty with the boys. Thirsty? Daddy’s on it. Kicked off your covers? Daddy to the rescue. I used to feel guilty about it, but then I stopped for two reasons: 1. I’m a much nicer Mom during the day if I sleep at night. 2. I had to birth them.

Porter is also a very early riser. He wakes up at an hour in which I couldn’t even tell you my own name. This means he lets me sleep in a bit, and since I’m a very slow waker he also delivers coffee to me in bed every morning. This ritual has been ours for over eight years.

They say a baby changes everything, but one thing you can’t let them change is your coffee ritual. Momma doesn’t get out of bed until she’s had her first cup of coffee. It’s a deeply cherished rule in our house.

So, every morning I hear the slight clink of a coffee cup on my bedside table, followed by a good morning kiss on the forehead. It’s a lovely way to wake up because within 2 seconds there are two boys jumping on me with good morning kisses, hugs, and a few unintentional knee jabs to my ribs, a baby fussing to be nursed and yanking my top down to make his intentions known, and a very needy cat trying to get between me and whichever child is occupying most of my space.

But there’s coffee.

A few days ago my beloved ritual was broken. I heard a twist of the doorknob and then a face millimeters from mine. My eyes slowly opened to see Jet, our four year old, standing by my bed whispering Momma, guess WHAT! I can DRIBBLE!

Hunny, that’s wonderful! Show me!

He drops his basketball and begins dribbling. I see him there, so confident and proud, so full of joy in his accomplishment.

Suddenly I’m back in my elementary school gym, a place which could also be named Hell On Earth, and I’m learning how to dribble a basketball. Actually, I’m not learning how to dribble. In fact, I’m doing such a good job at not learning how to dribble that my P.E. teacher took the basketball away from me and replaced it with a very large beach ball.

A beach ball.

Maybe this will help you get the hang of it, my P.E. teacher says.

There I am in the corner of the gym slapping a beach ball two times my size up and down on the floor while all the other kids are perfectly dribbling their basketballs up and down the court.

I wish this story had a happy ending, maybe some kid coming over to lovingly dribble the beach ball with me, but it doesn’t. In fact, the next day and the next and the next and the next when I showed up to gym, right next to the basketball cart was the huge beach ball waiting for me. All the other kids lined up to get their basketballs while I walked over to my station in the corner with my beach ball.

I survived basketball season, and while I have enough embarrassing sports stories to write a full-length memoir, I’ll spare you for now.

But now, standing in front of me is my four year old son who whispered me awake, dribbling a basketball, and I see a moment of redemption.

Sometimes redemption comes with a loud clang. Sometimes it comes late. Sometimes it’s deferred. Sometimes it’s just a whisper.

The truth is, I never felt like this memory needed redemption. My beach ball dribbling wasn’t a defining moment of my childhood, it didn’t scar me. In fact, it’s much more traumatic for Porter to hear than it is for me to tell. When I see beach balls and retell the story, he gets kind of panicky and frantic and says things like you have to stop, I can’t hear it again, it’s too sad.

I actually think it’s kind of funny.

But as I watch Jet dribble, I accept the whisper of redemption anyway. This moment might not have needed redemption, but a lot of things do. Sometimes the whispers of redemption can shake us out of our ordinary routines and give us hope for the big things.

And while we wait, there’s always coffee.

On Regret and Crazy Jim

When one is born in Texas, she will always identify as a Texan. The first twelve years of my life were spent first in the West Texas desert and then in the hill country of East Texas. As with all good Texans, country music is in my bones, and I mean real country, not the majority of pathetic excuses you hear on the radio today. I’m looking at you Luke Bryan and Jason Aldeen.

Just a few days ago, a medley of three of country music’s greatest songs was released. The song is a collaboration of 30 country artists spanning generations, and with the exception of a few artists, (Luke, Jason, still looking at you) it’s an impressive list. The song has been on repeat in my house for the last few days. There’s something beautiful about history and collaboration; a group of people with a common thread thinking we’re in this together. Continue reading