This first winter back in the mid-Atlantic is gray and as my personal light continues to sputter, I’m second-guessing that word of the year.
I’ve gone through my photos and put sunshine where I can — on my phone, on my walls. And I’ve searched out words that will coax me through one more day of gray and coax the inner light to shine a little brighter
I know the light is banked right now because I can’t move the way I want. My walks outside are currently curtailed because of a bit of knee surgery next week. Right now my gait is uneven and I can feel my whole body list to the left to compensate for the right knee pain, so walks are a matter of getting from here to there instead of moving for the sake of moving.
I miss giving over to a familiar route on a regular basis, when muscles loosen as I settle into stride and pace and then finally my thoughts loosen too. Not being able to find my best route in this new place keeps me from feeling settled in.
I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show. Andrew Wyeth
Winter walks have that quiet anticipation. When I read that I remembered two walks last year. On the first, I admired the lacy branches of trees arching over the Neuse River. I loved how stark and still they were against the sullen sky.
On a sunny Saturday in June I decided to find that tree again. The other walkers/runners/cyclists and a trio of young brothers on skates were a little puzzled by the woman looking up and muttering to herself, but I was determined. When I found the tree, I was ridiculously thrilled that I’d won my personal game of Concentration.
How? Well, that winter walked etched the bones of the tree into my memory. All (ha!) I had to do was find the bare, broken branch on the left and follow the trunk to that smaller arch that bore the fanciful lace of branches. And while the June photo shows the full story, I keep going back to January.
I prefer winter walks as it’s much easier to dress comfortably when it’s cold. I prefer solitary paths with interesting, spare stories like the spindly black branches against a gray sky. A good portion of this winter will be done by the time I get the all clear to get back to my pace and stride so I’ll have to find that structure of this new place a little faster, but with just a little more light on my side.
Sometimes you have to tell stories about other people. In the Catholic Church, January 1 is The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. My story is about Mary, Mother of Courtney.
Six years ago, I attended the Romance Writers of America conference in San Francisco. During one of the down times, I sat with a group of friends in the lobby of the hotel, laughing, sharing, cross-chatting — the basics of friendship among women. I don’t know what I said or did, but suddenly my friend Anne Marie stared at me hard. Then she turned to another pal and said, “You know who Laura reminds me of? Mary Lenaburg!”
To which the other friend nodded emphatically and said, “Yes!!!” They listed all the things about this Mary that they thought we had in common — we tended to take care of people, we had kids around the same age, we had the maps of Ireland on our faces. On and on they went, praising the virtues of this Mythical Mary. It seemed she was a member of their local Washington DC chapter, while I lived in Arizona and only saw this group annually.
Anne Marie introduced Mary to me at a huge party that Friday night. (I think Miss Mary came into the introduction cold, while I was fully prepped about her.)
And from the moment we said hello, I knew my friends were right. Being Mary and Laura, we found ourselves at the table where everyone threw bags and shoes on the way to the dance floor, and stayed there to make sure nothing went astray. And as the party swirled around us, we found connections on many levels — we each had two kids with boys first; we were both part of large Catholic families, we’d done our share of moving and setting up new homes, we both knew the all the words to the songs in High School Musical. The sobering connection was we both had intimate knowledge of children with chronic illnesses and what that adds to your list of parenting.
At the time, I didn’t know how different were the levels of those chronic illnesses. Both of my children had episodes with theirs, requiring hospital time, surgery, ongoing medications, but through the ups and downs they went to school, played sports, lived their lives. Mary’s Courtney was a miraculous special needs child who wasn’t going to break out of her wheelchair and dance along with High School Musical — but she sure as heck was going to hum along.
And this is what we shared, Mary and I: we knew what it was to partner with a spouse and be a vanguard for our children in front of doctors, nurses, teachers and everyone else who had an opinion of how things could be done “better.” And while we were at it, we tried to create a normal routine for the child who was healthy at that time.
Since we first met in 2008, I think Mary and I have spent time with each other in person probably fewer than 10 times. But she’s been a daily presence in my life through Facebook and this blog and Instagram. No matter where she’s been at in terms of Courtney, I knew Mary would chime in with a postive word or thanks for giving her something to ponder. And I’d wonder where she’d make the time to say a word.
She lives her faith boldly for all to see. Mary is a not a prayer warrior, she’s a Prayer Amazon Queen. Her prayers, her faith, her honesty in that faith are what draw people to her and to her blog Passionate Perseverance. Courtney has been the center of that blog but Mary shares her thoughts on fashion, baking, sewing and for some reason, threw a video of her doing a cartwheel in there. For all to see.
Because Mary, she is not a hider. She’s a dig down and show the world the true ups and downs of parenting such a special young woman. She’s shared when her faith has hit rock bottom and it was all she could do to hang on, she’s shared the miracles that have abounded in their lives, she’s blogged without caffeine, running on fumes. Mary has shared without shadow, throwing light on corners of her life. It’s amazing and humbling to read her words.
This fall, she opened the window into a home preparing for a child entering her last days of life. Her honesty in her sorrow at letting Courtney go even as she knew that Courtney’s body could no longer bear the burdens of the flesh was sobering,yet uplifting. The week before Christmas, as the end drew nearer, social media was bombarded with #candlesforcourtney as people from all over the world, stranger and friend alike, winged prayers for a calm, quiet passing for Courtney. And strength for the family she would leave behind.
Mary ended 2014 with Courtney’s funeral. She would be the first to say the bravest one was Courtney, but I think that bravery was only possible because Courtney’s mama (father and brother too) fought for her every single day. And she’ll also be the first to say that a post like this isn’t necessary, but I think it’s important to honor people who bring a clarity into your life — for a moment, for years — however long that clarity is necessary.
When she’s ready, I know Mary will return to blogging and she’ll be as open about the new shape of her family’s life as she was with Life with Courtney. I fully expect to be humbled and uplifted all over again.
I knew it would be an adjustment going from a home with walls of windows to a 100-plus years old flat that runs front to back, north to south. Now we have windows in the front, back and along the west side of the flat overlooking an alley and facing the building next door. I knew that we’d have to raise and lower shades to protect from city lights instead of watching day fade to night and dark give way to light without any obstruction.
I knew that we’d have to purse light by heading out and about in our new city. In August, I was up for the challenge.
But the reality of pursing that goal is hard work made harder by a knee that protests any set of stairs and walking with any sort of pace. So instead of grabbing hold of the the light here, I’ve been watching it reflect on the buildings across the street and the spires that pierce the sky above this small city from inside that century-plus years old flat.
No movement added to the creeping tendrils of winter dark make for a somber, annoyed and frustrated end of the year.
I’m not good with starts of any sorts (the prime example of this would be consistently adding posts to this space after a “new” beginning). I usually just want to be the middle of something instead of anticipating a start. Why? Partly because I have a decent enough imagination to make bogie monsters out of the most benign happenings. Or maybe it’s just the fear of making a mistake and unraveling back to the error. Honestly, you’d think knitting would have cured me of this, but it just makes it worse.
I succeed when I ignore the Start and instead just begin. No matter where I am if I just give it a go without any strings on the action, so much the better.
This morning, at the start of the shortest day of the year, my writing focused on the dark outside and realizing that in 182 days there will be light in the world around me. How was I going to bring the light inside?
I set a goal of standing (or sitting in an outdoor cafe) in the light in 182 days. Being me, I actually started toward that goal yesterday with a hip opener yoga sequence in my living room. So the start is already behind me instead of looming large ahead.
That light doesn’t have to be from the sun as long as I feel lit from within. Right now it’s all I can do to keep the small flame — akin to the sputtering candles on a birthday cake — alive, but I’m ready to figure out how to make it a 3-wick 3-foot high pillar candle.
And look at me, I’m already at day two!
As an added bonus, I’ve put off the work of finding a word of the year for 2015. Instead, while writing this it found me. Simple and clear as day.
We are pub people, my darling husband and I. When we’re at the beach some of our best days end with pulling up a stool at the corner of our favorite bar, sipping the libation of choice and watching the choreography of the bartenders at work.
Conversation comes and goes, the crowd changes with the hours. Early on, the stools are taken by people unwinding on their way home from work, a little later it’s families eating on the dining room side of the taproom, even later it’s the crowd seeking the evening’s entertainment — sometimes staying put, sometimes looking to move on to the next exciting place.
On this particular evening, we finished up our own dinner at the bar and were thinking about winding up the evening. A couple moved into the empty space next to me and as the stools had been moved to a table, MDR offered the lone stool on his side.
The woman accepted quickly, then walked over to get it, but my husband gallantly moved it over for her. Her spouse watched and shrugged as if to say, he’s got it — no bother to me. Actually, he might have said it out loud. She thanked us kindly and they were served their drinks. Normally I’d have let them be, but his accent stopped me. It was southern, though not the US southern you normally hear around us. They were visiting from south England — Cornwall to be exact.
And because I just can’t resist asking the questions, we ended up with so many answers. They’d only just gotten to the US two days earlier and were at the start of a five-week jaunt. The primary purpose was to meet their three-month old grandson, but they had other things on their list: they would leave the beach and head to Raleigh to try the Red Oak brewery, then on to Nashville, then Rosine — the birthplace of bluegrass. Then they planned to stay with a friend in Hazard, Kentucky who may or not be constantly stoned, but who’s gotten rich and poor several times by always giving away his money when he was flush.
This wasn’t their first trip — or rodeo. They actually found a rodeo in west Texas purely by happenstance when the wife insisted they pull off in Graham as it’s her son’s name. A state trooper, a parade, some locals and a couple of turns later, they were the only Cornish at a very local rodeo.
They had strong opinions on US citizens when they visit the UK (not that nice) and when this couple visits here (amazingly friendly). They’ve driven from Seattle to San Diego. They’ve done a Segway tour in Philadelphia. They have not been to Boston because he still holds a grudge for the Tea Party (the 18th century one). They are open to unexpected stops and adventures along the way. She’s the navigator with fold up maps and atlases. He’s the driver and the storyteller. They were a lot of fun.
And they were a lesson. Or two.
The guideposts to their travel? Historic railroads, cemeteries, battlefields, music and beer. Not a bad way to spend your time.
We never got their names, but I know they showed up exactly when they were supposed to in order to show us that adventurers have many faces. And adventure is whatever you choose it to be.
The other lesson? Always take a photo of the interesting people you meet. You never know when the memory of them will be the next story.
I’m working on a longer story right now. But these are words that have propelled me for weeks.
There is no sure thing. I can only ask this: What are you ignoring? What are you resisting? What part of your life have you locked out and sealed shut? And I’m not talking about something invisible and unspeakable. Just take a look at what is right in front of you — the obvious and unavoidable — and step foot there. All that is ever required of us is that we lift one foot and place it in front of the other.
Karen Maezen Miller, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
The text came in just before noon on the last Sunday in March:
“Dear Laura, time for a new Laura Reeth blog post. Love The universe.”
I read it, smiled. Texted the friend serving as the embodiment of the universe:
Dear Universe, I know. I know. Need to push through and stop making excuses. Thank you.
And then I put the phone down, pushed the thoughts away and moved along. Except I did that moving pretty much standing in one place.
It’s not that I don’t want to write my stories in this place I’ve created. I do. But the words seem trapped behind a thick clear wall — I can see them but I can’t find the doorway to access them. In fact after writing the first two sentences here, I got up and walked away from the computer — for three days — because it was just so hard.
Of course it’s hard. It’s hard to come up with words, phrases, sentences that make sense. It’s hard to put the work out there. It’s hard to have faith that the stories will come if I show up.
But hard is not impossible. I just keep giving into a maze mind that throws up dead ends and detours and full-stops to keep me trapped behind that wall. Because it’s not the words that are trapped, it’s me inside that maze mind. The words are flitting about happily in their polysyllabic universe. Happy. Free. Untethered to any of my grand notions of gravitas.
I’ve friends who are fully invested in the hard part of telling their stories. They may love the words, the flow at certain points some days. They may detest them an hour later. But to a person, they show up every day and make those words appear on the screen.
Since I refuse to even give the words a chance, they remain beyond the screen, detached from me.
I’ve taken a few photos since that text, shared them on occasion, hoping that showing what I see at any given time would jump start me to those levels of determination and discipline to tell what I see. There is no magic, there are only steps. And the first step is ignoring the voice in my head that edits — usually unkindly — as each word appears on the screen. The sensible part of me says, stop it! Stop it now! The maze mind just says heh, heh, heh.
I could go on and on, bore myself silly with the reasons why I don’t show up when I know full well that the showing up is a good portion of the work. There are stories I need to tell, they are ones only I can tell and if I don’t do it, those stories leave this world with me without once being given life.
Last Sunday at the end of a quick, solo trip to the beach, I was up at 6:20 with a beautiful dawn straight in front of me. I had some new lenses for my camera phone that MDR gave me as a Mother’s Day gift and they were burning a hole in the small case I had — I needed to get out there and see the world in a new way. But there was departure looming a couple of hours ahead of me — how could I get out there and use them and get everything done?
I thought, “you know, if I had a perfect life I’d walk every morning on the beach.”
The Maze Mind was heh, heh, heh-ing all over again. But this time the sensible portion of my brain turned on me and said, “then get the hell out of here and walk. You always have the time. Now make some.”
And that was the step. Lace up the sneakers and go — 20 minutes, 30. Half mile, less, more. It didn’t really matter, it was stepping out the door and going. If I didn’t walk on the beach departure time would still come around, but I’d mourn the fact I had to leave and didn’t see the early morning beach.
So I walked. And I thought. About this space. About a million and one changes coming up in the next three months. About how even if I didn’t do any writing here I’d still turn 53 in two months.
What came through loud and clear was how are you going to spend those two months?
The answer, simply, was show up and tell some stories.
I find that when the universe doesn’t like my response to a message (see deer/spirit guide story) it likes to nudge me along. So when I stalled on my promise to myself to take action and be kinder to myself, the universe sent reinforcements:
Yes, a spirit guide party, right in my very own backyard.
Message received. Honestly, I’m afraid NOT to take some action because there could be 20 the next time I look.
I’ve notice that my photos pretty well capture my personal gravitational pull to cooler colors, especially the blues and the greens. While I’ve avoided grays and blacks recently, I’ve never been one to instinctively choose from the neutral/brown family of colors.
In this wicked, relentless winter of 2014, my photos seem to be a record of a constant search for warmth. As I’ve walked through properties with an eye to living in western PA, I’ve only taken photos of rooms that appeal the most. Most of the photos include wood that runs the gamut from caramel to molasses in color, warming my imagination in many, many ways.
Over the past six weeks, we’ve walked through houses older than the ages of our four previous homes combined. Thus the spaces are tighter, the ceilings are lower, reflecting the goal of conserving warmth in times when the fireplace or the radiator were the only source of heat. And as we’ve looked at homes that sheltered families for decades, our eyes, used to great rooms and fireplaces that start with the flip of the switch, can sometimes see those closer rooms as not just right.
Finding the just-right for a couple, after years of looking for spaces that fit a growing family, is an interesting exercise in getting reacquainted. City living? Small town living? Condo close to work? Longer weekday commute so we can just leave the cars parked for the weekend and walk wherever we wanted? They are questions we’ve asked over and over for months and are still puzzling through.
The last time it was just us was 26 years ago when we purchased a rehabbed duplex in Jersey City. It’s what we could afford and as we both worked in Newark it was an excellent reverse commute. It was a start. But even then we were not alone, we were buying with an eye to those children we planned to have. In the seven years we lived there, both kids came home from the hospital to the duplex, both kids learned to climb stairs on a 12 foot metal spiral staircase. Both kids had to adjust to the suburbs when we moved there in 1994. They may not remember that time in their lives as vividly as we do, but that duplex was the foundation for this family.
Those kids are grown, living in their own cities now. And while we’ll always make space for them, the next home reflects us as a couple and what we ultimately choose will please ourselves.
It’s harder than we thought. The fireplace above reminded me of that first home we made. MDR is thinking a little more space. And that brought on more reacquainting questions: Would we fit in quickly in a small town that focuses on schools and children or would a city offer more variety in terms of the people we’ll meet? Do we want to walk to a restaurant or are we willing to drive to find food we love? It’s the little questions, personal to us that keep us on our toes. Asking, always asking.
So we’ll keep looking and find the place that works. One with a little compromise from both sides built into the home we make next.
In the meantime, I took the fireplace photo, deepened the golds and browns and caramels I saw and tucked it away to remind me that first and foremost, we look for warmth.
This place has been silent for six long months. I can see the dust in the corners and on the edges of the photos I’ve posted and left here. The neglect was not purely intentional. It started out, as always, with a simple “I’ll get to it later.” But laters have a interesting, bold way of piling up until they teeter on the never, don’t they?
Excuses started piling up too — life is changing but I don’t want to discuss those changes in a public place or life is changing and I didn’t run that half-marathon and that’s a disappointment or simply, the dread, I just don’t wanna.
Really that last one wasn’t the case, I did wanna: but instead of taking the action, I spent time pushing away the need to write about my own life or loved ones’ lives and my feelings on all of it. That lead to a startled moment when I realized it wasn’t pushing away the need but instead I was boxing up that need, tamping down, using all my strength to make more room for what I was afraid to set free. Then that space became so crowded with the unexpressed that I had to be careful not to even touch the sides of the box for fear I’d puncture it because even pin dot would allow the contents to spill out and I’d need to feel that unexpressed pain or joy or the out and out confusion.
Mainly I was scared that the unexpressed would cover my days in grays and blacks and browns. And that as it wasn’t the way I saw my life therefore it wouldn’t be valid.
But in the tamping, in the tiptoeing, I forgot the important part of the colors in my world — you need those darker hues to shade things, give them nuance and a contrast.
Shading meant you had to dig a little below the surface, find the dimensions and explore them in order to make sense of them. That sometimes a haze of gray or sepia is there to help me settle into reflection so that when that haze parts I’d be ready for vivid color once again.
And how did I remember that? These days, my go-to way to re-embrace the world around me is snapping photos. Then taking the time to add in the color I thought they missed.
Part of the changes in my life has meant living in the Pittsburgh area for a good deal of January. From what I understand, Pittsburgh deals with grey clouds on a daily basis, but the first month of 2014 brought bitter cold along with the gray. The permafrost didn’t just pertain to the air and the roads, but a kind of inner freeze that kept me rooted in a place I didn’t know without the back up of the things I loved.
Last Wednesday, while the cold stayed put, the clouds parted and the sun shone for most of the day. I thought, the heck with it, just take a photo of winter, stepped out of my car and shot the photo above from the parking lot of our temporary home.
Back inside, I wanted the picture to reflect how I really saw the afternoon so I played with filters to pull the blue through, upped the contrasts and increase the coolness of the blue to come up with this:
It made me happy to translate what I saw into a vivid photo. It reminded me that a blog is a place to examine the events in my world and present them in ways that are vivid, vibrant and above all, valid.
Today was to be my first long run/walk in the OBX Half Marathon training and I was geared up for 3 miles. But for some reason, in the earliest hours of this day, I had the strong need to walk — left foot first — into a bureau and then a door jamb on the way to the bathroom.
By the time I’d consumed my third cup of coffee, I was leaning strongly toward calling it a rest day and giving my knee (right leg) and very bruised fourth toe (left foot) some time off. On second and third thoughts I realized I needed to be outside, even for a walk around the block. I set a 30-minute mental minimum, bid MDR and the Lovely Daughter a fond adieu and headed out.
Phone in hand, you know, in case that deer found me again.
I learn something new every single time I head out with my legs in charge and the rest of me going along for the ride. Today’s lesson was that when I speed up my walk, I tend to lock my knees to try to go faster. And then my knee hurts more.
“Hmmm” I thought. “Let’s slow this down a little and keep the knees flexed when I put my foot on the ground.” It felt better. Then I thought it might serve me well to keep the lower abs drawn in and let the movement come from my core.
It felt even better. So I kept on. Every time I got lost in my thoughts or became aware of how much time was passing, the knee would lock in an effort to speed up and my core would slide down. And every time I made the adjustments back into thoughtful movement staying in the moment and putting no limit on how far I walked, I felt no pain.
And that’s kind of how this writing goes. Think too long and too hard about word counts and I lock up, the flow disappears. But if I adjust my thinking, stay open to what comes to mind and only focus on just getting the words on the screen instead of judging each one’s merit (editing can come later, a wise writer once said) it flows.
I ended up walking over four miles, came home to stretch and use the foam roller on my legs and you know what? The right knee feels better than it did when I started out. And a blog post came to mind.
No deer on this outing, but I did see this distance marker which prompted this thought: