Friday, June 27, 2014

Attack of the Spider Woman

In the summer of 2008, I sat on my patio at dusk along with my visiting New Mexican friends, Georgia and Yvonne. Our conversation was soon distracted as we watched a very industrious (and creative) spider construct an elaborate web from the patio chair to the guttering on the house. With no wind and no obstacles to assist, this spider managed to spin a web of about sixteen feet on the diagonal. We watched in amazement as the web grew and grew during the evening of conversation. As the clock moved closer to midnight, we jokingly said that we would check her progress in the morning.

Early squints of daylight peeked through the clouds, and the dog woke me for a morning nature call. I stumbled outside with the dog and during my few minutes outside, I accidentally walked through the intricate spider web. I felt terrible. How was I going to tell Georgia and Yvonne that I walked through the web in a sleepy haze? I didn't mean to! But, alas, I confessed my wayward walking over breakfast, and we laughed. Little did I know who would have the last laugh.

From that day on, this spider began stalking me. She moved from weaving a web on the patio furniture, to weaving a strand or two of web over the opening to my sliding glass doors. Every morning as I took the dog outside (again in a sleepy haze) I was met abruptly with a spider web wrapping around my head and the subsequent "get this thing off my head" dance that followed. Every day. (Okay, yeah, I kept forgetting about it and walked into it each morning, but that's beside the point.)
        
The she-bitch spider did not stop there. She built webs over the door to the storage building to ensure every venture to get the lawnmower began with a spider web wrapped around my head. It was not pretty. I pictured the little she-devil perched on a nearby ledge, watching me, laughing. Laughing that evil spider-bitch laugh.  Oh, she knew what she was doing.

One night, though, she went too far. I exited my patio doors into a full-body-sized spider web like something from a Stephen King novel. It nearly rendered me motionless in its death-grip. Immediately, arms were flailing, legs were flying, squeals were squealing as I danced a jig to make Michael Flatley jealous, all in the attempt to get the web off of me. Then I saw her. She was perched on the end of the web still attached to the door. And she was moving fast toward me. During the next 60 seconds of crazy-dance, I lost sight of her. 

"Oh my God. She's in my hair!" I thought. I did not know that for sure, but she could have been. The dance grew more animated and likely much more entertaining for the neighbors. I spun around, shaking and shimmying, grasping at last remaining shreds of web and trying to throw them off of me. Have you ever tried to throw a spider web? Yeah, they don't throw; they stick. A mindless act, but I was obviously not in my mind at this point.

Then I spotted her again, sitting on the door jam. I decided to kill her. I picked up the closest thing to me -- a stick from a rustic "dried flower/stick arrangement" sitting by my patio door. 

"I'll hit her with the stick. That's a good plan," my mind raced. So I swung at her. Spiders live outdoors and are familiar with sticks, this I learned quickly. She must have jumped onto the stick with my first swing and glued herself to it because I could see her latched onto it with the subsequent swings. I figured I could knock her off the stick and then take the "death swing."

She must have sensed that. Rather than falling off the stick and onto the patio where I was hitting the stick, she instead flew off in the opposite direction. Yes, in my hair. With all the vigor of John Edwards on a campaign worker, I attacked that spider-bitch with all I could muster. This, of course, meant that I was attacking my own head at the same time, since the last I saw, she was flying toward my hair. Cussing, spinning, flailing, kicking (not sure why I was kicking, as she clearly was not at my feet) I had to get rid of that spider before she bit me and caused an appendage to rot off.

All the spinning and cussing sent the dog running to the back fence. (Remember, I came out here to walk the dog.) Not knowing whether the spider was hiding in my clothes, awaiting an opportunity to bite, I shed my T-shirt in a fit and began hitting it on the ground. Apparently, I was trying to dislodge any spiders that might be hanging onto the fabric in an elaborate plan to attack me. All of this happened in less than a minute --- from the initial walk into the web to the stripping off of my T-shirt and fervent beating of it on the ground. Oh, did I mention that I'm still on my patio? Oh, yes. In my backyard with neighbors in easy view, wearing only shorts and a bra as I beat my clothing on the ground while my confused dog looks on. This was not good. I had to get back in the house, but I was afraid the spider was on me and would travel in with me AND I was afraid the web itself was still covering some of the doorway and I'd have to penetrate the "fortress of the web" again.

I gathered my shirt, the dog and what was left of my dignity and went back into the house. I stripped off all remaining clothes in the kitchen and systematically beat them on the floor, again trying to dislodge any spider that might have hitched a ride. After a few minutes, I was reasonably sure the spider did not come inside. The dog was hiding under the bed, and I headed to the liquor cabinet. Lord knows, I needed a shot now.

I lifted my drink to my lips, and that was when I saw it. That spider-bitch was outside my patio door, rebuilding her web. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Gift of the Lopsided Tree

About once a year, I have to tame the area in and around my recipe box. The wooden box sits on the baker's rack, out of the way, and periodically becomes so stuffed with recipes torn from magazines and scrawled on papers, they spill out to stacks atop and beside the box that should house them. I take the recipe box to the kitchen table and spread out the jumble of papers, lining up my tools for the next hour of wrestling this mess into submission: index cards, glue sticks, scissors.

It's a quiet task and one I actually look forward to tackling. Time is the only reason it's not organized more often. I trim the shreds of paper, removing the jagged edges and replacing them with clean cuts, then glue the thin magazine paper to an index card, quickly making it fit uniformly into the wooden box under its corresponding tab. I finish the process by polishing the reddish wood with a fresh coat of pine oil, restoring the simple beauty of this little wooden treasure.

Where others see a plain recipe box, I see memories, and this year's recipe wrangling was no different as each was carefully tamed and placed in its proper home. My Dad and I built the box together (well, it was mostly him, but I was there) from wood that was rather close to home. Five feet from the back door, actually. When the cherry tree in the backyard died after a harsh winter, Dad had it cut and milled into lumber, from which my recipe box was built. He made several before -- for Mom and both my sisters -- but mine was made from wood with special meaning. I remember how he sketched it on paper as he asked me how I wanted it embellished. Curved base? Straight lines? Molding or applique? The time between those sketches on paper to a finished product always moved quickly in his workshop, his experience making it look so easy.

When I look at the box, I remember the cherry tree, growing much too close to the southeast corner of the house and rather unbalanced in appearance from a severe pruning given by the previous owners. It was the tree that shaded my father when he stood at the corner of the house, watching me mow the yard as a teenager. I can see him clearly: white t-shirt, khaki pants, and work boots. He held his pipe in his left hand and reached for his 'nail' from his right pants pocket. The nail was a piece of metal, flat on one end and spoon-like on the other, which he used to stir and tamp the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. Stir, stir, stir. tap, tap. Stir, stir, stir, tap, tap. The rhythm was consistent in his preparation to light the thing.

He must have watched me mow the yard hundreds of times. At the time, my teenage mind found it annoying, but when asked why he did it, he simply said he like to see the yard freshly cut. After hearing that, it didn't bother me so much. He was indeed watching me mow, from his spot under the cherry tree, when the mower threw a rod, instantly stopping it in its tracks. I can still see him drop his head, shaking it in amazement, as he knew I forgot to check the oil before I began. Hard lesson learned.

Even now, when I mow my yard at a house my father never saw, on occasion I glance to the southeast corner of my house and for a split second, expect to see him there. Only a downspout looks back, and I smile at how my old habit of looking for him at the corner of the house has never really left me. Twenty-five years since he last walked this earth, and a part of me still looks for him to watch me mow the grass. Of course, now I am sure to check the oil before I begin -- every time. Maybe I'm just looking for him to nod with a "yes, I know you checked" look in his eyes.

Though so many things have drifted in and out of my life, the recipe box remains. It serves as the one lasting tangible gift from that tree -- my custom designed, hand made cherry recipe box crafted from materials in our back yard which now houses all the recipes for every meal I need. Funny how the cherry tree that never produced an edible cherry in its life now holds instructions for every tasty morsel this household knows. And tucked between its individual cards stained with meals of many years, are more memories than the unfamiliar eye would ever see. But I see them. Each time I lift the lid and search for a familiar card, the memories reach out from within and take me by the hand, momentarily transporting me back to simple days in the backyard, fresh cut grass, and a lopsided cherry tree.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Make the Call

In 2012, I read a book that hit close to the bone. Off the Leash by Jean Ellen Whatley tells of one woman's cross-country journey to visit old haunts, old friends, and long-missed family. Her road trip with trusted canine companion, Libby, takes her along 8,000 miles of highway dotted with memories where she dives deep into the darkness and still emerges with a razor-sharp wit that made me laugh out loud. Still other parts made me cry as I pointed to the page and whispered, "Me, too." Then there's that mess of an ex-husband in jail and a brother she'd never met. 

I found the book (or did the book find me?) while planning my own road trip to visit family I had not seen in nearly 20 years. My nerves were shaky as I drove closer to my family's home, but the negative voices in my head were silenced at the sight of my aunt's vibrant smile and hugs that felt like home. Whatley's book, which I finished reading just before I set out on my cross-country journey, gave me the emotional boost to forget schedules and deadlines, forget old hurts and forgotten phone calls, forget all the reasons we tell ourselves that we don't have time or that we shouldn't call or visit or write. All of those reasons are meaningless, really. 

"To put off going to see someone you love is folly. Go today. Go this week. Book your ticket tonight. Go see them. Tell them they mattered." -- Jean Ellen Whatley

What was found on my journey was not only re-connection with family but also with who I used to be -- that good and happy girl, born of prime Midwestern stock who knows who she is. Or was. Or is again. And I waited for years to discover this because I was too afraid to call after not calling for so many years. Talk about your vicious cycles.

But maybe timing is everything.

I say this as I remember a great line from the movie Big Eden. The matriarchal figure, played by Louise Fletcher, explains to Henry (Arye Gross) how much the family missed him since he moved away and stayed away many years before. She reminds him that when a child is lost in the woods, they should stay where they are, not wander off, and wait for the family to find them. She continues, saying how she had been waiting for Henry (an adult) to stop running (figuratively) from his hometown so she could find him (emotionally). "We were waiting for you to be ready to be found," she said.

Timing may indeed be the deciding factor for any real growth in our lives. We have to be ready for the change or the change may wait until we are ready. Like the child lost in the woods, if we keep running, darting in every direction, we lessen our chance of finding the connection that will change us from lost to found. The running needs to stop. Stop it right now. 

Go today. What waits on the other side of fear is
worth all the effort it takes to get through it.
While on my road trip, I scribbled a few words that felt right at the time. They still do. I keep them posted over my desk so I remember how important it is to stop all the excuses and reach out to others. "Make the calls that are hard to make. Write the letters that are hard to write. Knock on the doors that are hard to approach. It will be worth it." Indeed it will. 

Earlier this week, I put an end to two-years of excuses for not writing a letter to someone who made a difference in my life. We have never met, but her work and example prompted me to change my life. After two years of saying to myself, "I need to write her a letter" I finally did it (yeah, way to take my own advice by waiting two years). I finally wrote it last week, sending it with a 'click' of the button and not expecting anything in return. A thank you, given from the heart, does not need a response. It is given as the gesture of gratitude and not as one of want. It's the give, not the get. It was a hard letter for me to write but the click of the computer mouse signaled the release of a long-unspoken 'thank you' that hung over my shoulder for far too long, begging to be spoken. 

I write these words directly to you, dear reader. If someone made a difference in your life, tell them. If someone has been long missing from your life, write them. If someone means something to you, call them. Do it now. Don't let time and excuses and fear stop you any longer. Go. Do it. Now. Speak from your heart. Odds are, they will be glad to hear from you. Possibly, they are just as afraid to make the call. On the slim chance it does not go well, at least you tried, and you can finally end years of "I need to call . . . " Either way, it will be worth it. It will be so worth it.

A few days after I sent the thank you letter, I received a reply, and the words contained within sent me soaring. You see, she wondered if her work would make a difference. My words of appreciation were not only words I needed to say but ones she needed to hear. Thankfully, all the second-guessing I did before I hit 'send' did not win. It was sent. It was said. It needed to be heard. It was worth it.

Had I stumbled upon Off the Leash at any other time in my life, it may not have had the same impact. The timing would have been off for me. Somehow, it found its way into my life at the exact moment I needed to read it, the moment I was ready to hear it. It was the summer I was ready to be found.

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If you would like to know more about Jean Ellen Whatley, her dog Libby, and her journey of reconciliation and rebirth, visit her webpage here and pick up a copy of Off the Leash

Friday, June 6, 2014

In Response to Arkansas Stereotypes

He should have kept his mouth shut.

Several years ago, I dated a guy from the west coast who had no real experience with living in the south. He was a transplant and frequently tried to imitate my Southern accent while ribbing me over some Southern colloquialism or cultural practice. Yeah, you can see this is not going to end well.

Most Southerners, myself included, have a sense of humor about our idiosyncrasies and a good-natured tolerance for the ineffectual attempts at mimicking our accent. Even a few of the oft-repeated stereotypes can bring a chuckle, but in measured doses. A few lighthearted comments are alright, but most folks from outside our region should stop there. Beyond that, it really gets annoying, and, speaking only for myself, my tolerance level on this is rather low.  I promise not to make incessant fun of your region or accent, and I expect the same in return. Deal? Deal. 

This brings me back to the West Coaster. I know he was not exemplary of all West Coasters -- believe me, I know -- but unless you are a performer adept at linguistic skills, those not from the South should just leave the accent to the pros, the born-and-bred, and the multi-decade residents. And go easy on talking smack about our customs (remember our deal?) because that equates to the adage, "I can make fun of my sister, but if you make fun of her, I'll kick your --- ." Call us territorial on the cultural thing.

So here West Coaster and I were, saying goodnight on the phone when he (for the hundredth nerve-wracking time) started ribbing me about my accent with the elongated 'a' and the dropped 'g's. I held my tongue and wrapped up the phone call.

But I wasn't finished.

It gnawed at me. For months I had put up with this while giving a gracious smile and changing the subject. At one point, I spoke (calmly) with him about how it was not as funny as he thought and asked if he would refrain. He responded with an exaggerated Southern accent so horrifically bad, it would make Paula Deen curse. After I hung up the phone, I sent him a little e-mail.

. . . And by the way, young man, we do wear shoes, we can read maps, we do use belts to hold up our pants and not just rope, most of us don’t have a still in the backyard, we can count higher than 10 without removing our socks, we do manage to graduate high school and college and graduate school, we can operate telephones and computers, we know the word “stereotype” does not refer to something we bought at Radio Shack, we don’t all carry shotguns, most of us don’t own hunting dogs, we brush our teeth regularly, many of us have our own teeth, we bathe regularly, we have indoor plumbing, we don’t date our siblings, we don’t date our pets, we do own cars newer than a 1952 Ford Pickup, we don’t sleep four to a bed, we don’t all chew tobacco, don’t all live in mobile homes, we do have paved roads, we haven’t all appeared on Jerry Springer, we don’t all watch Jerry Springer, most of us don’t watch wrestling or auto-racing, we aren't all Baptist, we aren't all members of the KKK, we didn't all vote for Clinton or Carter or Kennedy, we don’t all listen to country music, we don’t all like grits and okra, some of us have eaten Beef Wellington, some us can even prepare Beef Wellington, we do know where the state borders are and occasionally travel across them, we have produced some notable Americans, and although we do come in nearly last in every poll or survey in this nation, we do manage to beat out Mississippi and West Virginia occasionally and that’s just fine with us.

Click, send. Boom.

Let me say, I love Mississippi and West Virginia. Both are lovely states with fine people, and that last line was for effect. In all honesty, we three states often do fall to the bottom of any poll that ranks the U.S. States on a myriad of subjects, but that does not mean these states are uninhabitable. Some of the finest people I have known are Mississippian, and let me tell ya, that state has some of the best food and the biggest azaleas I have ever seen in my life. West Virginians are equally fine folks, and if you have not seen the vistas in this state's mountain ranges, you have missed a masterpiece. So what if we don't have an Ivy League college, we have barbecue, blues, and good winters. Remember, we're the place you spend your Spring Break vacations, in this Southern land of ours.

And we're happy to have you. Pull up a chair, we'll get you a glass of sweet tea. As long as you remember our deal, we're going to be alright.