Huckleberry Friend

We're after the same…

college

You’ve finished arranging the toss pillows in your freshman’s dorm room, so you tell her one last time to eat her vegetables and not to wear white after Labor Day before you issue a lipstick-y kiss goodbye. Then you curl up in the backseat while your spouse drives in silence and you ache. What to do after that day, after you’ve arrived back home?

What’s to follow wandering empty rooms, sobbing and wailing like a toddler: “I want (insert your child’s name here)!”?

Not that I’ve done that.

Dumping (because that’s what it feels like) your kid for their first year at college, I’m here to report, is as heartbreaking as you imagined. One normally stoic mom I know cried for 24 hours straight; another lost it in the grocery store when she realized she didn’t need to buy her daughter’s favorite foods.

We’ve just endured a double whammy—dropping our twins at separate schools. (That’s two empty bedrooms—and two tuition bills.)

Here’s why the whole business sucks, and sucks hard:

That’s your baby. You’d have to be a masochist to pull out old photos right now, but you do. You need a minute, thank you. This feels a lot like grief. An era has officially ended. The days when your beloved peed the bed and sassed you and stuffed a Barbie down the toilet seemed to drag endlessly, but those exasperating older moms who warned you time would fly—they kind of nailed it. Damn them.

Are the best days behind you? You wonder, what’s next? Shopping for a mother-of-the-bride dress—something with sleeves to hide arm flab? Grandparenthood? You didn’t sign up for that. If you’re like me, you trick yourself into thinking it was you unpacking your dorm room Just The Other Day. But you notice a bald spot on your husband’s head. You look in the mirror: another day, another Oil of Olay fail.

What’s my purpose?
 No one’s asking for a ride to dance class or for you to proofread a term paper. There are no lunches to pack, no school forms to sign. What, exactly, did you do before you spent all your energy making sure the earth spun on its axis? And now—who needs you? Would anyone notice if you stayed home and ate ice cream out of the carton all day? Would anyone (besides your boss, if you work) care? Are you even a real parent anymore? You know what people say dismissively when you’re not around: Oh, their kids are grown—like they’re dead or something. Truth is, sometimes it feels like they are…

Depressed yet? Hang in: There are—there have to be—ways to get through, to soothe that punched-in-the-gut sensation that feels freakishly like your first high school sweetheart left you for a cheerleader.

  1. Your kid made it to college! What a smarty pants. Congratulate yourself for making such a bright, capable person. It’s a distinct possibility she’s about to have the best four years of her life. She’s going to find herself, come into her own. The world’s her oyster.
  2. More closet space. At first I couldn’t walk past my girls’ rooms, but now I’m finding it particularly healing to wash the bed linens, touch up the paint on the walls where the posters hung, bag up the last of the last for Goodwill. I put a big desk in one of the bedrooms for a make-shift office. A room of my own—at least until someone comes home with four sacks of dirty laundry.
  3. Dinner for two. It feels a little awkward at first, but, ready or not, a new chapter has begun for your marriage. You find you sort of have to be nice to each other—there’s no one else around to talk to. So you make an effort. Around here, night one sans children included cocktails and candles, fresh flowers and sautéed seafood. Admittedly, night two degenerated to a delivery pizza in our pajamas, but that too had its bright spot: leftovers. And—this is huge—the living room is ours again: we can Netflix out in the open, at any hour, no matter how many f-bombs they drop on Bloodline.
  4. Beware: good times ahead. The shift from a parent-child to friend-friend relationship is weird, but sweet. I remember eating up with a spoon any visit home, however imperfect, as a student and then as a young adult. I still like going to see my parents. What’s not to like? (Besides those occasionally heated political debates or the way your dad keeps the thermostat at 80 degrees in August.) There are familiar smells, home-cooked meals, silly traditions, folks who know you best and love you anyway. And—though you’ll have to pick your moments—you still have plenty of worldly wisdom to offer your college-aged offspring. I’m 45, and I still need my mommy. Sometimes.
  1. Schemes and plans.The best balm yet: I’ve made a list of goals, from professional to practical, spiritual to financial. The world’s your oyster, too. You could, I don’t know, decide to ask people in for supper on Saturday evenings. Maybe make a new friend or two. Finish that novel. Volunteer, or spend more time with aging relatives. There’s no time like now to write a great story with your life. I printed at the top of my goals my overall purpose: love God, love people. Them’s no small potatoes, if you think about it. Brainstorming my goals—thus shifting the focus forward—was the thing that kept me from the edge. You know, the one where you flop down on your child’s deserted bed and hug her pillow and moan with pain… Not that I’d do that.

So during my recovery days, I’ve unsubscribed from annoying emails (sorry, Forever 21); organized my CDs (classical, standards and a very small box marked “other”); and nearly abused my public library privileges. I’ve even pulled an Edith Wharton a few times, taking tea in bed and writing the morning away. (If I call tapping away on my laptop—with shameless bed-hair and my “Jesus Loves Me But I Drink A Little” t-shirt—pulling an EW, it feels better. Imagination, my friends.)

Edith Wharton bed

EW’s bed at The Mount

I get a little put out with my lack of stamina and my body’s need to be horizontal, but then someone knocks on the door with a homemade meal, and it’s all good. The spouse even scrubbed the bathtub this afternoon. (After I slathered it in Scrubbing Bubbles and handed him a brush. “This thing?” he said, holding the scrubber like he’d never seen such an object before.) But he muscled up on the job, and the tub is gleaming.

Not a bad life, huh? I don’t recommend surgery, but if you have to… savor the aftermath as much as you can.

Y’all, I even have a bell next to my bed.

Here are some of the good things that have happened at our house lately:

ensemble cest tout

I splurged and rented this for $2.99 on Amazon in the wee hours of the morning. I fell in love with this movie (not hard: Audrey Tautou, a handsome stranger who cooks, a grand Parisian apartment—note the Art Nouveau bathroom). The title translates, roughly, to “Together is all.” I’m such a sucker for stories of unlikely friendships. (In fact, I realized that my 2 2/3 novels are just that.) The next evening, the family watched the film. (Don’t judge—my girls are 18). The credits rolled and we decided to try our hands at crepes. (It’s a pity I was wearing sweats for our impromptu party, but I did dab on a little lipstick.) And so at 11 p.m. we had ourselves a feast of browned butter crepes, dressed with Grand Marnier-sweetened whipped cream, dark chocolate sauce and orange peel. We sauteed and whisked and caramelized listening to my “other” category CD, “Left Bank Groove,” a goofy collection of songs you might catch yourself tapping your foot to while sifting through the sale rack at Anthropologie.

Thinking ahead to the two weddings Luke and I will attend on the day of our twenty-second anniversary, I shopped Modcloth and came up not with a dress but with shoes that make me smile. (No, I’m not on pain meds.) I don’t know what I’ll be wearing, but it will have to go with blue sparklies… I’m already hearing “Dancing Queen.”

blue sparkly shoes

Am I too old for these? Wait, don’t answer that.

Just thinking about trading flip flops for these makes me feel all fancy-pantsy.

Well, that was a whole lot of fluff. I recommend the writing in bed and the movie—and most definitely the bell. But don’t you dare order the shoes. (I know you’re dying for some blue glitter in your life…)

 

 

 

 

Madeleine

Madeleine L’Engle

If you’ve poked around here, you know I like to write fan letters to authors. I’ve never written a note to one who has passed. But who knows? Maybe Madeleine’s listening. She was always listening.

Dear Madeleine L’Engle,

I never knew you, but I miss you. You’ve saved my skin more than once.

There was the chilly Connecticut afternoon my mom picked me up from school and took me to hear you speak at the local library. I was just a kid—you’d never say “just a kid”—and I’d never before been in a room with an author, not to mention one I’d read and admired. I decided on the spot that the whole funny business of thinking and writing and talking about ideas was for me.

The Newberry Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time chronicled the adventures of the Murry family, but I was always an Austin family girl. I grew up alongside that great, warm bunch and saw the pain and beauty of coming of age through Vicky’s eyes. I’m rereading the series now.

I take heart when I think of your long battle to get A Wrinkle in Time published. Twenty-six houses turned it down. I don’t claim to have a gem like yours on my hands, but I’m battling, too—I know you would understand. You’d been published before, but Is this a kids’ book or an adult book? muckety mucks in Manhattan, so in love with labels, wanted to know. Turns out Wrinkle was both, and it showed Them all when it sold gillions of copies.

Here’s what you said, and we’ll never forget it: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

And this, too: Before I grasped what the word introvert really meant, I read your Circle of Quiet, and you showed me a way. Permission was granted: I started go at my own pace, to breathe a little easier. You said yes to people with all your heart, but you needed your escapes to the brook. I don’t have a brook, but I manage with a hammock and the bathtub and solitary walks and a chair in the corner of my bedroom.

I revisit sections of Circle at least once each year.

As I approached middle age, I wondered why churchy church was starting to rattle me and why it seemed we’d tossed over mystery for an exaggerated (and sometimes smug) sense of certainty. Then I read “Bright Morning Star” and I knew I wasn’t alone.

When I started to write in earnest, I was surprised by the zen of the process. I threatened to squash it with structure and the cerebral, with outlines. The joy and the wonderful fear of not knowing what’s coming next would have, perhaps, flown, had someone not given me a small blue copy of Walking on Water.

The other day, you sent me another reminder. I’ve been flailing about with a young adult novel (oh those pesky labels, again) for a couple years now—too long. (I banged out my first book in six weeks, my second in a few months. You were crazy prolific, so you must have learned not to overly agonize.) I’ve been fretting that my third story is too quiet. (My stories are always “too quiet,” so say the encouraging but ultimately spirit-crushing rejection notes.)

And then I stuck Camilla Dickinson in my suitcase for a trip last week. All these years, I’ve remembered Camilla’s silvery green dress and her fancy dinner date with her father. But I needed to be prompted about the gorgeousness of a book in which what’s at stake is a girl’s soul. There’s no doubt, sensitive Camilla is going to come of age—we all have to—but hanging in the balance is how. Will she choose numbing every emotion like her father or being alive like Frank? Will she be fragile like her mother or strong? Will fear run her over and will she learn to reach for the nearest source of security, or will she accept change and uncertainty as part of the messy affair called life?

All this and more is wrestled with over New York (the city is one of the book’s beloved characters) walks and talks, over dinners in diners and drugstores, in apartment living rooms and inside Camilla’s own head. Every moment of grappling is, to me, more impactful than all the book world’s vampire battles and dystopian sagas.

Through it all, the novel’s dysfunctional parents and the manipulative best friend, it’s clear you loved the entire motley crew (well, maybe not Jacques). To love is to create, you’ve said. You gave your characters free will and let their flaws reap their havoc, but you loved them.

Would Camilla, elegantly written and published in 1951, be published today? Where would an introspective tale, sprinkled generously with adverbs, of a 15-year-old princess facing grownup problems like alcoholism and adultery and suicide and disability fit? Who, They would demand to know, is this book for, teens or adults?

The answer, of course, is both.

Most Un-Muffinly,

Laura

camilla

 

(A re-posting)

In these parts, there are a dozen or so gravel roads. They wind through canopies of trees, urging you on but not leading to anywhere in particular. The roads are dotted with horse farms and quirky little houses with yard art or big, handsome houses high on hills and everything in between—clapboard cottages with ramshackle barns out back or, my current favorite: a simple-as-pie log cabin, its unassuming porch adorned with hanging pots spilling over with old-fashioned flowers.

Sadie and I, we’re in the dog days of summer—we get sticky and hot and bored and, at times, awfully sad, so we slip on our shoes and go for a ride. The dust-covered car points to the rocky routes, where there’s no traffic and we can take our sweet time.

We’ve got nothing but time.

The car crackles along, and we count the tiny bridges over lazy creeks and watch for cows and butterflies and blackberries. Sadie can’t get enough of the blackberries and doesn’t mind the juice running down her chin, onto her shirt. I’m on the lookout for Queen Anne’s lace ripe for the cutting—I keep a pair of clippers in the glove box. Sometimes we find a driveway that begs to be trespassed—what’s down there?—but there’s a gate or a BEWARE OF DOG sign, so we don’t.

driveway two

There are always more questions than answers on gravel roads. Sadie and I could use some answers. There are voids to fill, but we don’t say so out loud. How will we occupy ourselves the rest of the evening? The warm, humid weeks ahead? The years to come?

Autism presents one riddle after another.

Like the rutted roads, our micro-adventures are uneven, varied—I squeal with delight when we discover the dollhouse-cabin with the deep purple petunias; another afternoon I grip the wheel and cry hot tears and stare ahead at the isolation and exhaustion of caretaking. I’m mad at everyone: friends who are at the pool or the movies with their kids; my husband sitting at his desk in his office; all the people everywhere doing normal.

But we’re okay, right this minute, because Sadie is quiet and still, sitting ladylike with her legs crossed. I belly-breathe and think long thoughts while Sadie looks contentedly out the window.

sadie stares two

I know my friends and family see it, maybe even whisper about it—how wrapped up my happiness is in hers. I’m cruising on quicksand. I know better, but I keep going. Is it not proof of my devotion?

It would be wiser to enjoy the journey—Sadie’s therapy and the prayers and the play, because we do get to play—or at least remember I’m only a passenger on the S-Train.We’re on an excursion, and I don’t get to pick the destination.

But I like maps, and better yet, my phone’s navigation system’s ability to predict arrival times. I love that.

But this is what the S-Train teaches: to stand in the middle and surf your way through the twists and turns, not holding onto the poles and trying to take child-like delight in the game of not falling on your rear, or, worse yet, flat on your face. My muscles and sense of balance have grown strong. Public transportation isn’t most folks’ first choice—it’s not glamorous and it smells like pee—but it has its perks.

The benefits of climbing aboard (or driving aimlessly on back roads), however, can only be had if one has learned to acquire a taste for moments. I’m a recovering fast forwarder—I always skipped the parts I didn’t like. I’ve worked long and hard to keep my finger off the controls and listen to the whole darn album. You could say I’ve become a connoisseur of moments, even B-side moments.

Moments are all I have. They’re all any of us have. But you’ve probably got to spend a lot of time with your life on the rocks to figure that out. And even when you’ve figured it out, you forget and reach for FF. Some of us need speed bumps, or gravel roads, to slow us down.

 

mailbox

I don’t know why it soothes me so

when the mail comes,

the sound of the metal door swinging open

then closing—satisfying—shut.

 

The post’s arrival marks mid-afternoon,

a quarter-note in the cadence of slow days.

I try to shed pajamas

and get the babies bathed by eleven

most mornings.

 

The mail-woman—she’s in her late sixties, I think,

dangles a cigarette from her mouth—

for months I thought it was a lollipop.

Now I know it’s newly lit—she must start to smoke at the box or two before,

16437 or 16345.

 

When there’s a package too big for our box

she lays on the horn,

hoping I’ll emerge so she won’t have to climb out of her truck

and clomp up the steps to the front porch,

but I duck behind the living room curtain.

 

Mostly she brings bills and flyers and coupon packs

for gutter cleaning, plumbers, Chinese lunch buffets,

yet their arrival tells me there’s a workaday world

still spinning,

with people showered and dressed early and getting and spending.

Once upon another time,

me with my master’s degree and pantyhose, hot coffee in a steel travel mug,

we were going places,

we were somebody.

 

A long while from now—but not so long, really—the box

will be stuffed with college come-ons

from Tech and perhaps even Vandy or Duke,

they’ll court my girls—I can see already how bright they are.

 

I set the mail on the counter for my better half,

he’ll sift through it later,

standing in his tie

while I stir what’s on the stove,

the hair around my face curling from the steam.

 

 

you've got mail (2)

Waiting for Mr. Darcy (and then not recognizing him when he walks in).

Disclaimer: You’ll notice I ask a lot of questions in this post. I do that in a lot of my essays. This is because a) I love playing devil’s advocate and b) I really have no idea what I’m talking about half the time. That being said…

I wonder about the book-lovers. Not the casual Amazon-order-ers or the Oprah list-ers, but the bona fide introvert-with-a-capital-I types, who need the muscle-action of eyes passing over words on pages every single day.

You know the type. But did you know this? If a book works its magic, we go around thinking in precocious Jane Eyre-speak or taking things apart like Tolstoy (watch out, we might read your minds!). We’re at once tickled and troubled that Willa Cather has changed us, for a week or so, into somber, hard-working Midwesterners—or that we’re suddenly turned scoundrel a la Tom Sawyer. Once, I was on the road listening to an audio version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I came over a hill to an enormous, early evening full moon—it looked like it was about to swallow the sky for supper—and I screamed. Talk about distracted driving.

It was delicious.

Will you judge me if I confess that since elementary school, I’ve put together outfits based on my heroine du jour? (In the fifth grade, the Laura Ingalls Wilder braids and checked dress phase lasted for the entire nine-volume Little House series and beyond. I even convinced a buddy to dress like Mary one day. I, of course, was always Laura.) Now in my forties, lately I’ve been inspired by Ellis Lacey of Brooklyn. Almost unthinkingly I’ve grabbed from my closet anything that reminds me of the early fifties—full skirts and colorful prints and Peter Pan collars. I swear, there’s nothing finer than a Peter Pan collar. (Unless you’re reading Dracula. Then you’ll want to opt for turtlenecks and heavy scarves.)

Brooklyn-the-movie

Saoirse Ronan as Ellis Lacey

Fashion fetishes aside, would it be an unjust generalization to say the readerly ones tend to be a broody, dissatisfied lot, at least some of the time?

While I set the table the other night with a new set of French-themed plates, I hummed Disney’s version of bookish Belle’s There must be more than this provincial life…

A cheery enough tune; nonetheless, the lyrics tend to hit a nerve. Especially if you live in the suburbs.

bonjour plates

The jar in the background is our family “trip jar” for a summer vacation. We have gathered exactly $1.59. We are dreamers, the whole lot of us.

Lots of folks enjoy a good yarn—for others, story, in a way, saves our lives. When well-told, story takes us on trips (and foots the bill) inside the city’s perimeter—or across the pond—or sweeps us of our feet or shows us hard and beautiful truths without being preachy. Story makes sense of things like nothing else.

There are lots of nice sayings about the dreamer and drifter types—just check the latest crop of tote bags, t-shirts and burlap toss pillows. Flights of fancy are having a moment. All who wander are not lost, they say.

not all who wander

But I’m here to tell you that if you’re a wanderer, you’re going to take some wrong turns.

Back in the seventies, when my family moved from Ohio to a small town in Connecticut, that first summer my mother in her blue Cutlass Supreme had a habit of pointing us in no direction in particular.

“I thought we were going to the library,” I’d whine. The library had tremendous appeal—for obvious reasons and because it was one of the only buildings in town with air conditioning.

“We are—but first we’re going to get lost.”

She said it like But first we’re going to get triple-scoop sundaes at Friendly’s—go ahead, order the works! At five-going-on-six, I wasn’t as charmed as Mom with crumbling stone walls and wildflower-sightings and curves so curvy you had to honk the horn to warn oncoming traffic. My brother and I fought like Sharks and Jets to ride shotgun; stuck our whole faces, like dogs, out the windows (this was before the child-proofing gods wreaked their havoc); and tattled on whoever wasn’t buckled in, hoping the law would come down on the side of harsh justice. (But more often than not, Mom said, “That’s okay—these aren’t busy roads.” I’m telling you, the seventies were a free-for-all.)

Sometimes the Cutlass got so off-course, we had a hard time recovering. That’s when Brother and I ducked down while Mom knocked on somebody’s door to ask directions. We were mortified, but Mom was having a big old time, exploring new territory and meeting the locals. She said the place made her heart sing.

Maybe she’d been in Cleveland too long.

Mom was onto something, though. She was teaching us to see. Those ventures, with their views of Revolutionary War-era churches, jersey cows with bells around their necks and buttercups at their feet, and big saltbox homes where George Washington allegedly slept, provided scope for the imagination—and set the stage for future travels, whether to Milwaukee or Munich—to do likewise.

So what to do when country drives and compelling novels begin to make you feel more restless than enriched? What to do when these things inform you that your life might be too small?

What to do when, after nine years, your parents move you back to Ohio?

Or maybe you, along with 11.59 million others, belong in Ohio. Itching-for-adventure George Bailey certainly belonged in Bedford Falls, my husband likes to point out.

Bedford Falls

Ah, the old Bedford Falls/you beautiful Building and Loan/bloom-where-you-are-planted trick. I’m familiar.

But what if, what if, what if my life is too small, I argue with the spouse. “I think there are two different things: wanting to be greater or wanting to be better,” he explains patiently. He says these days everyone is taught they’re so special it’s practically their moral duty to seek greatness: fame and notoriety and seeing the world and promotions and getting in line for lightening to strike. Move over, Mark Zuckerberg! But what, he asked, about “the importance of being a better father, a better husband, a better man?”

I sigh and agree with my better half. But I add that I think better can take forms other than try harder. Sometimes we need to add more authenticity or compassion or grace or perspective or, in a lot of cases, subtract being so busy or hard on ourselves. But yes, doing well at what we’ve been given—and certainly learning to love lavishly—has everything to be said for it. Along these lines, the final paragraph of George Eliot’s Victorian novel, Middlemarch, is achingly lovely:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Surely, heaven will be bursting with the stories of quiet lives. When all is made well, instead of searching everywhere for Mozart or Madonna, we’ll gather round to hear these tales and be spellbound by stunning acts of sacrifice and kindness.

But. Here is the question I’m getting at despite the wisdom of Eliot and It’s a Wonderful Life: How does one differentiate between self-inflicted discontent/boredom/a possible mood disorder vs. a genuine call to change things up? Bloom where you are planted vs. stir the pot?

A less weighty but nevertheless delightful quote to ponder:

“Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?” ~ Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail

How to guess whether or not your valuable (because it is) but perhaps small-ish life has an element of hiding in it? This is where instinct begs to be let out to run free—but we barely know how to listen to ourselves anymore. Inklings can be shy, sometimes only showing themselves as first thoughts in the morning or during walks or remembering who we were before we got so grown up. To be heard, hunches often demand silence or time gone by or the same idea circling back around, again and again. Scary as it seems, we’ve got to toss out all the other narratives—the rules, especially the ones about never saying no, that don’t seem to quite fit and the expectations and our parents’ notions instead of our own.

Lately, I’ve been listening close. And, as you might have guessed, I’m landing on the side of YOU BIG CHICKEN.

Not that I don’t display bravery: the very act of being alive in this crazy world requires some amount of courage. Being married is brave. Being a parent is medal-worthy. But there are the things left undone or procrastinated or performed half-heartedly, the stuff shoved away in a closet under the wok you got for your wedding but never used, not because you’re lazy (okay, that too) but because of fear.

Stir fry, anyone?

So I’ve made a list of a dozen ways this year that I can be brave and true and all-in, all of them way short of running off with a saxophone player. My list scares me and thrills me at the same time. Mostly I’m scared the list will go the way of a lot of my lists: bok, bok.

But I don’t think so.

 

EB White

E.B. White,  now thirty years gone, was a writer of the first order. He wrote endlessly for the New Yorker and penned beloved children’s books like Charlotte’s Web, Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little. White helped compose the writing style-book The Elements of Style (also called Strunk & White, or, at our house, the other good book).

Somebody (okay, it was a pastor in a pulpit) reminded me the other day to remember where I come from and who I am.

In short, he said remember Jesus.

The text: Paul chides young Timothy, who’s having a heckuva time finding his way at the church in Ephesus, to remember why he’s there and what he’s about. Paul went as far as to name-drop Timothy’s faithful grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice—were there ever two such matronly names?

Paul and the preacher, they were delivering a spiritual spanking (softened by lots of fine, encouraging words). Message from Lois and Eunice and the Lord: Straighten up and fly right! The admonition seems almost tribal or clan-like: Remember what you’re made of.

On Sunday, it was just what I needed to hear.

Two nights earlier, after a long, lackluster day marked (in my mind) only by one small trial after another, I couldn’t sleep, so I scoured the bookshelves for my love-worn copy of Charlotte’s Web.  Not since childhood have I been in the habit of rereading books over and over, but the barnyard was calling to me. In those pages I found not only Wilbur and Fern and Charlotte but little Laura, young and dreamy and easily enchanted by story—and the wise nuggets within. I remember those pearls in my bones, like I know coffee is bitter and sugar is sweet:

“Children almost always hold on to things tighter than their parents think they can.”

“Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch.” 

And the bit that eulogizes Charlotte, choking me with tears every time:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

I spent a lot of hot summer afternoons spread out on my itchy synthetic coverlet with cherished novels. Then I got big; went to school; married my true friend, a writer; and figured out E.B. White was a mad essayist. I left the Zuckerman animals on a shelf, save for a brief reunion when I read the book out loud to my now 17-year-old twins. Such is the way of things. (I can almost hear Charlotte saying so with one of her sighs.)

After a mixed-up, crazy year (farewell 2015—ha ha to the old year!) I’d lost my way a bit—don’t we all at one time or another? And so in January, I’ve instinctively turned to former favorites, perhaps in a subconscious search for the former, more idealistic me. How I need that girl!

January also brings projects. We’ve been cleaning the basement, which has unearthed tiny altars: a green Laura Ashley box of love letters* scrawled by Luke onto thick, ivory paper; a decade’s worth of Victoria magazines, organized by month; a forgotten stash of photos from special needs Sadie’s toddlerhood—pre-seizures when she had a certain spark. (She still does—it’s different, though.) I pore over the pictures and wonder: look at the four-layer cake I made for that birthday or check out the bursting perennial garden—where did I find the time or ambition?

Children grow and change. Unwelcome gluten allergies arrive (curtailing the baking), as well as weeds and exhausted, spent soil.

I think of the arachnid-philosopher, who tells Wilbur the pig,

After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” 

Here, here.

And I think of Charlotte’s creator, White, who said he found writing difficult and bad for one’s disposition.

Like most things worth doing, writing is a pain in the pork-butt—or the wrists (more so for White—he used a mechanical typewriter). But Not Writing is bad (very) for this scribbler’s disposition—ideally I need to write a little each day for optimum mental health.

I need to remember that.

And maybe it’s time to till up a flower bed or two and amend the depleted ground.

Other memos to self: You were enamored with how the husband’s ears kind of stuck out, like a Brit’s, and you taught your girls about poetry and proper tea like your nana showed you and they took it to heart, and your mom is kind, and your dad is bull-headed strong. (When I’m hemming and hawing about something, Luke says, “C’mon, aren’t you Ed’s daughter?”)

We get so busy, tangled in the here-and-now and our own tiny tragedies and triumphs—the car’s in the shop again or the kid’s college acceptance came (via email, not mail, which was vastly more dramatic). As adults we assume we’d left peer pressure shut in our last high school locker, but we immerse ourselves in what everyone else is doing, buying, Pin-ing, watching on Netflix. We forfiet any sense of what brings us joy, and even if we have a moment of remembrance, we don’t know how to trim the fat to get to the good stuff.

Mostly we’re afraid.

I am here to tell you, tidying the basement helps. And an admonition or two doesn’t hurt (too much).

What do you need to remember?

And to look forward to… happy January, friends.

 

Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you… For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. ~ 2 Timothy 1:7

 

*Excerpt from one of those aforementioned letters (I can’t help myself—sorry, honey) from the the prehistoric days (we’d been dating four months):

“Let me tell you again how I enjoyed my weekend in Louisville at the Laura Krainer residence. You were a delightful hostess—as usual—and I did have an enormous amount of fun and a good time of talking and smiling and flirting and talking some more. At all these activities (and others)** you thoroughly excelled… Trust that I think of you often—and fondly. I could scarcely do other were I to try—which I most certainly won’t.” 

**Not what you’re probably thinking, rascals!

p.s. (Will this blog post ever end?) Mom: the words in RED (including the word you just read) are links. You can click on them and see other cool things, like books and songs.

 

french ballerinaI’ve just inhaled my third Barbara Brown Taylor book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Her books are not new, but, for me, they couldn’t have come along at a better time. This is me processing some of the things I’m learning, both because of Learning to Walk—and strangely right before reading the first sentence, which is, incidentally, “Come inside now, it’s getting dark.”

(Really, shouldn’t we have coffee, BBT?)

The Valley Walk behind me, you’d think I’d have piled up a treasure of take-aways.

Don’t alert Oprah yet—I’ve got nothing. Other than it’s November, and I’m still dusting myself off.

I had a crappy summer. I mean, I was knee-deep in it.

In the aftermath, mostly my sum of sureties have suffered subtraction. Talk about a fresh start, a blank slate! But somewhere around September, I did glimpse the truth that God is there—somewhere—even when my sense of him is not. Other than that, there’s very little I know. I do know I’ve made it through, because I can write about it. That’s a harbinger, not a lesson.

But there’s this: I’m going to try to stop viewing the, um, darkness with such disdain. I’ve found there’s nothing worse than succumbing to sad or lonely or scared, except, perhaps, the dread of it. I don’t think my deep contempt for the uncomfortable is unique in our problem-solving, pleasure-seeking culture. Happiness is our most precious commodity, and there’s something shameful in not keeping up with those super-perky Joneses. I was raised on a trinity of high virtues: Strength, Stability and a Positive Attitude.

Tugging on those proverbial bootstraps got me far—it works under normal circumstances and perhaps for normal-ish folk—but it’s also partly what got me in a mess in the first place.

So what if you have a Dark Night of the Soul every now and then? If you’re brave enough, you probably will.

If you’re really brave, you’ll resist numbing yourself with Netflix to ease your insomnia, and you’ll pull your Wellies over your pajama pants and venture on a moonless night into your yard—all the way down the hill to the edge of the woods—the same woods that wake you with fox screams and owl hooting—and lift your eyes and beseech the still, black sky.

Not that I’ve done that.

Hoping no one inside the house notices you’re missing, you chide yourself for being such a ridiculous romantic; nonetheless, you wait for your mystic moment. It eludes you.

But you stood empty, enveloped in velvety darkness, and this sets you apart. You feel something shift. Even if you were only sending up a constellation of questions, or one big question—why?—you faced head-on whatever it is that keeps you awake and aired it out befittingly, in the dead of night. You went outdoors and asked God why he was bugging you when you should be sleeping.

He didn’t answer. You’re strangely okay with that.

So you start to experiment with not being so quick to chase away the shadows by flipping on a light. You’re an expert at living a one-hundred watt life, and you have lots of clever tricks—busyness, shopping, a second glass of Syrah. You got the dog to the vet and the kids to the orthodontist in one afternoon: Score!  But sooner or later, especially if you’re a bit touched in the head (i.e. an introvert), everything sounds like a dim hum. You remember there’s supposed to be magic. Tuesday, however, looks a lot like Monday, and so on—no fizzle, just flat. You know bunches of your suburban comrades walk around this wayyou see it in their bored eyesand you send them prayers of loving-kindness. Then you dare to ask one for yourself.

You begin making allowances for the uglier emotions and are surprised at how they come and go. Look Jane, look, see how they pass! And sure enough, the door is eventually thrown wide open for the other half: the heights.

You’ve been missing them, but they’d grown to almost frighten you. Your gut knows you can’t have the heights without the depths.

And vice-versa.

After a long, lukewarm bath of apathy, I’m quite keen. I see glimpses of what’s next. Leaves of Grass and all that.

Add to the keenness the season, this pregnant prelude of the promise of the breaking of God’s silence, the light in the darkness. But the light didn’t come to remove the darkness. The light made a point to arrive in the darkness.

Kinda makes you want to visit the ole’ backyard at 1 a.m., doesn’t it?

And when the light came, the light didn’t erase the depths. The light experienced them firsthand.

He wept.

(That’s my current favorite Bible verse, the glue that holds it all together.)

The air smelled of leaves all along, with or without me, and the sun warms me in the car. Now I hear the music,

The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord cause his face to shine upon you…

I am grateful down to my toes, but I promise myself to be okay with the next storm front, trusting heaven’s still there.

Poor Job instinctively knew it: God is God no matter what you happen to think about his methods at the time. God is God no matter what you happen to think about him. He’s the same, but he’s always redrawing that portrait in my mind, just when I think I’ve got him pegged—especially when I think I’ve got him pegged.

My theology these days, it’s written in pencil.

Hold still for just a second, will you, Lord? Because today I am fully alive, basking in your graciousness, and I’m thinking thank you for feet that carry me, hands that can cook and clean and take care of the littlest one. Oh, but there’s so much to do! I hadn’t noticed how dusty the baseboards are.

But should such health and well-being be spent on switching out the closets from summer to winter clothes? I ditch those best-laid plans, get dolled up and head for a cozy dinner with my husband. When has a Manhatten tasted so good? On my way to the ladies’ room, I spot a *well-known writer, work up the nerve to introduce myself to her, find myself astonished at her coolness: I am snubbed. Who snubs? I’m really quite charming. (No, said author is not shy. It was a clear rebuff, like in one of those Mean Girls genre movies.) I renew my resolve to make it to the New York Times Best Seller List, and when I do, to always, always reach out my hand and grab another (unless, maybe, it’s hers). There’s no mistaking hand-in-hand and locked eyes for go away.

As Luke and I leave, I toss a ten in the guitar case of the restaurant’s hired-for-the-night singer, perched near the front door. He’s good, but no one’s listening. A talented friend who writes and sings told me she has stopped lugging expensive equipment to bars and cafes—nobody pays one lick of attention.

Imagine crooning your heart out and blending in like wallpaper. (Or writing words no one reads. Hmm.)

These are the thoughts—the doomed artistic plight—washing over me as I watch the spouse simultaneously deposit a wad of cash. He is, as always, simpatico, but he tells me to forget about the snub. Still, I pull my pea-coat’s hood over my head and let a few hot tears fall while he drives. Why not get it over with?

We come home, build a fire and settle into the couch when we’re startled by a wrapping on the door. The neighbors, who also happen to be old friends, come in, merry and bright. As soon as we’ve gotten drinks in their hands (we’re adept at this), there’s a second knocking on the door: the other neighbors, also from the same school days friend group. Miraculously my den is warm and filled with laughter and familiar faces I love. The snubbing fades, worlds away. (Would it have so completely evaporated if I hadn’t permitted the brief pout on the ride home?) We talk until almost one. When they go, I’m barely tired.

Later the same weekend, a daughter confesses her loneliness. I know, I remember. What heartache! But what beauty in the confiding! I get to tell her I get it. I do not tell her to buck up, that loneliness is not becoming on her.

Sunday I go to the movie theatre to watch a filming of the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s “Jewels.” I melt at the opening notes of Faure as I hold my breath through the first piece, a tribute to the loveliness of Paris (I am watching two days after the horrific terrorist attacks on the city). The French homage is followed by “Rubies,” Balanchine’s playful nod to New York in the twenties, and then dancing to end all dancing: “Diamonds,” with ballerinas in white evoking Imperial Russia. It is Swan Lake on crack—Balanchine is ballet on crack. I’ve never seen anything so clever, so gorgeous, so fine.

At least not lately.

A daughter volunteers to cook dinner that night, butterflied pork with sautéed apples and herbs, smashed new potatoes with chives and parmesan, wilted kale with garlic, pumpkin dark chocolate chunk cookies. She prints out a “Dinner in Fall” menu and places it on our plates.

I like this girl. Even her twin sister does at this moment. I eat slowly, because the food is wonderful but also because I want the meal to go on and on, the four of us in a circle of candlelight. The kitchen smells like browned butter and sage.

Did you have a nice weekend? someone asks me Monday. Well, I laughed, I cried, I noticed things, my heart soared, I didn’t get a thing done. Yes, very nice, I answer. And you?

The keenness, it won’t last. It comes, it goes. But while it’s here, I’ll grab it. And I’ll rest in the knowing that it will come around again.

Everything always does.

*Not BBT. She would, I’m sure, never, snub.

BBT

Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of some rollicking good reads, especially if you enjoy elegant prose with an introspective, Episcopalian vibe. (Who doesn’t?) Check out the trilogy in this order: Leaving Church, An Altar in the World and, my favorite, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Taylor lives, I’m told, near Clarkesville, Georgia.

Dear Barbara Brown Taylor,

My mom and I, we went looking for you last week.

Truth be told, I was the one driving the search.

“Who?” a friend asked when I told her I was going on a self-guided BBT Tour. “Ugh. Can’t you be a fan of a normal celebrity, like Scott Eastwood?”

I don’t know who Scott Eastwood is, so no. Another friend, an aspiring author like me, was more supportive: “Someday, BBT will be going on the LKB Tour.”

You’re probably pretty nervous at this point, BBT. Let me explain:

I was reading your book, Leaving Church, on the porch one golden September afternoon, and it was one of those rare and delicious I-half-thought-it-but-you-said-it (and said it so beautifully) experiences. I followed my husband around the rest of the day with the dog-eared book, Let me just read you this one paragraph…

My mom phoned that night and said she’d figured out a place for us to meet between our two houses for a mother-daughter getaway: She’d heard about a cozy inn near Clarkesville. Had I heard of Clarkesville?

Maybe a little.

I hopped on Amazon and lickety-split ordered Mom a copy of Leaving Church. Read it and we’ll make a mini book club meeting of our trip, I told her. She was game. Better yet, Mom wound up really liking the book, especially the bit about thin places.

Glad you tossed that in there, BBT.

First things first, Mom and I met for a long lunch at the Copper Pot downtown. Lunch always comes first, even before literary sight-seeing. Then we headed straight over to Grace-Calvary, exploring the charming old church slowly, with due reverence. Oh, those enormous, wavy glass windows! The tiny balcony! And Mom and I, we’re suckers for a pew door. Outside, we walked the labyrinth, wondered about the age of the bending hemlocks, reminisced about Episcopal churches we’d met through the years.

grace calvary

Grace-Calvary behind us, Mom was ready to comb each and every antique shop, walk the woods in pursuit of a waterfall, take our wine in front of the inn’s lobby fireplace. But my appetite had only been whet—what better places are there than places read about in books (besides, perhaps, thin places)?

So, naturally, I turned to Google. And lo and behold Ed, Mr. BBT himself, sells organic vegetables and such. What does this mean? we marveled. Praying for a homey sign at the end of the drive announcing “Pick Your Own Apples” or “Taste and See: Local Honey” or maybe “Kale Sale,” we traveled the winding way to Indian Ridge Farm. Alas, the only sign we met with warned that trespassers would be prosecuted.

Law-abiding if nothing else, we took off and found yet another shop. Mom bought some yard art; I shuffled around the art supplies aisle. Oil paints hold an allure, but still. This was not a thin place.

That night, our last in Clarkesville, we went to Harvest Habersham and ordered farm-to-table foodie food, some of it sourced from Indian Ridge. We settled into a booth, Mom with a Malbec and me with a spiced concoction called an autumn Manhattan, which warmed me to my toes. I spotted a foursome at a table across the restaurant—a woman with BBT-ish hair sat with her back to me. (Do you know how many ladies have BBT-ish hair from the back? It’s exhausting.) Wouldn’t that be something? we whispered. Would we say hello? Confess all? Or put our heads down and giggle like middle schoolers over our fig leaf-wrapped blue cheese and pickled scuppernongs?

The woman started to stand to go. Before she turned around, I knew. The BBT I had a professional crush on would never, ever wear an oversized black sweatshirt splashed with giant pink flamingos. Not to dinner, anyway.

After a meal to end all meals, Mom and I bid the lovely restaurant owner, Laura, goodnight, and I worked up the nerve (of which I have no shortage, you are likely thinking) to ask if the Indian Ridge folk ever came in. Her face lit up when I mentioned you.

“You know, every now and then I get this feeling: this is an Ed and Barbara night,” Laura said. “I’m usually right. I had that feeling tonight, but it was not to be.”

Ah, well. I think Mom was laughing at me by this point. But she’s partly to blame—when I was a kid she took me to a Madeleine L’Engle talk at the local library. I was hooked: on books, on writers, on the idea of the creator of such magic standing in a room explaining how rabbits are pulled from hats.

BBT, I know you’re an introverted romantic with a touch of OCD (same here), so all this attention has the potential to be terribly uncomfortable. I tried to go through proper channels. Your lecture was sold out, booked solid, I tell you.

My only choice, I now see, is to write the book worthy of an LKB tour.

Sincerely,
Laura Boggs
p.s. My haunts: Mugs Coffee Shop in downtown Alpharetta (the table in the corner by the window), the city library or the garden outside, my house on Henderson Road, the white Cape Cod with blue shutters…

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