Friday, August 29, 2014

Throw 'Em a Curve

I was 17 when my father put me behind the wheel of our family car and directed me toward Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago. My drivers license was barely cool from the laminater after learning to navigate the rural roads near our home in north central Arkansas, but Dad used this family vacation as a learning moment for my driving career.

"If anything will teach a new driver how to stay in his lane, it's this road," he said. I nervously entered the stretch of urban street that skirted Lake Michigan, amid mid-day traffic and four very full lanes of moving vehicles, all cruising at least 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. The road curves right and left along the shoreline, prompting a new driver to be attentive and not encroach another's lane. 

"Speed up so you aren't run over," Dad added. I gradually accelerated to the flow of traffic, aware that I was speeding at my father's guidance. I could see the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in the distance and felt the charge of excitement that always accompanies the view of an iconic city skyline. My hands were tight around the steering wheel while I held the car's position centered between the lines of my lane. Please don't ask me to change lanes, I thought.

"You'll need to get over so you can exit soon," Dad said. Dammit. I am doing just fine in this lane and now you want me to merge?!? I must have checked my mirrors three times before tentatively easing into the right lane and exiting onto a downtown street. I am sure I let out an audible sigh of relief upon leaving that tense stretch of road in my rear view mirror, but that day has never left me. Since that moment, I have been very aware of the skills needed to drive consistently in the center of my lane, even in a curve. Immersion learning courtesy of Chicago traffic.

At the time, I thought I was learning good driving skills, something my father stressed as necessary before going out into the real world without the protective eyes of parents. I often heard him comment on other drivers during our many road trips, usually noting a driver's inability to maintain consistent speed or general lack of driving courtesy.

"You are not the only one out here," he would say while we were on one of my training drives. "Other drivers depend on you to be consistent and aware."

He said a mouthful.

Two years ago this month, I bore witness to two personal traumatic events which coincidentally occurred the same night but hundreds of miles away from each other. One was the end of a long-term marriage; the other was the suicide of a health care provider accused of misconduct. One was connected to my family; one was connected to a friend. Upon hearing the news of both of these events only hours apart, I was gob smacked to say the least. I was shocked and hurt, angry and sucker-punched. I was on the second-level of the storm, not the initial person affected, and still I felt as broken and depleted as if it had happened to me. When I looked to the two people first affected by these dual traumas that is when I saw what real pain looked like. These two people, each suffering from their separate blows, lay crumpled in heaps -- both physically and emotionally -- neither in any condition to navigate even one step before them. 

I had no idea how to help them, other than to just be there. After mopping up my emotional reaction to the dual events, I felt the only thing I could do was to stay in my lane and look out for the others. Remaining consistent -- reliable -- was the best thing I could do to help my family and my friend. Sometimes, it's all you have.

And it's not such a bad thing to offer. I may not have the right words to wash away a friend's pain; I may not have the answers to explain the unexpected occurrences of the world. I may not have much insight to that. But I can be a constant. I can be the consistent one who steers the day between the lines and watches out for the others on the road. I may not understand the pain another feels in these moments, but I can be the constant place on whom they can rely to get the normal stuff done while their worlds fall apart and come back together. It may not be much, but I can keep it between the lines and maintain a constant speed. 

Every evening on my drive home from work, I round a long curve on the highway where there are always several cars in each lane. It's no Lake Shore Drive, but it is two narrow southbound lanes of a U.S. highway that always weeds out the adept drivers from the fearful ones. Some cannot stay in their lane and cause a few tense moments as they slip into the next lane and near another vehicle. Some slow down in such fear of the curve that they impede the flow of traffic and soon have a bevy of frustrated drivers behind them, honking and swearing. Still others show a keen ability to navigate the curve at full speed, never budging from the middle of their assigned lane. They are the ones to watch. They are the constants. Throw them a curve and they plow right through it, focused and determined. They are aware of the others and compensate for the errors of those nearby. But they stay in the middle, centered between those two painted lines. Predictable, perhaps. Consistent, yes. But in the midst of a trauma, an upheaval, a tragedy, isn't it nice to have a place of refuge where you know what to expect? 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Say Yes

You could call it Flashback Friday, or depending on the day you read this, Memory Monday, Turnaround Tuesday, Wistful Wednesday, or Throwback Thursday. One year ago, I was shopping. Never has so much been yielded by retail therapy, but life has not been the same.

A simple online shopping venture at Etsy found me at a favorite online shop owned by Aimee Dolich of Artsyville. I had purchased some of her work before and found her colorful spirited prints both inspiring and visually appealing. A few clicks on the computer and I not only had a fresh purchase but received a copy of Aimee's newsletter, where she listed other creatives who offered online classes. I still do not know what made me read one class description, tucked into the lower right corner of that newsletter, but I did.

Before I could think twice, I had enrolled in Jennifer Belthoff's class Love Notes: Special Delivery, a writing course to encourage writing from the heart. I could not believe I hit the 'submit order' button before I talked myself out of it, like so many daring things I had wanted before. I had never taken a writing class before, much less an online class. My fingers said 'yes' before my mind could change their minds.

Within weeks, the course began with Jennifer guiding and inspiring the small group of virtual students to write from the heart. The class was not about critique or format, but was based in finding your voice -- however it may be -- and encouraging the release of words that were too shy to emerge on their own. Jennifer's class cracked me open like a coconut, and I still marvel at all the stuff inside I never knew before. My. Life. Cracked. Open.

I had to find another class. That one was so good for me. Back to Aimee's newsletter I go, where I selected Stephanie Levy's Creative Courage. The course purported to inspire exploration of whatever creative outlet lives inside you. Stephanie is a Tennessee gal -- like me -- who lives in Germany, where she lives her creative life everyday, not like so many who keep our creative side hidden at that dusty table in the basement only to visit when everything else in our life is given priority.

This is where I learned that creativity is not a hobby to be visited once in a while. Creativity should be in life everyday. If you can make a living at it, great, but more importantly, make a LIFE of it.

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life! . . . of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be? 
-- Robin Williams, as John Keating, in Dead Poets Society

This is where the snowball began rolling quickly, gathering more inspiring people along each path I explored. These are some of the folks I have found in the last year who continually remind me to live a life with laughter, with courage, and with creativity. 

Elizabeth Duvivier, Director of Squam Art Workshops. I've taken a few of the online offerings from Squam and plan (fingers crossed) to attend one of the retreats next year.

Harriet Goodall, weaver. Holy wow! This woman takes what many would see as the cast offs of nature and creates beautiful art. 

Kristina Dubuque Ortega, photographer. We were in a class together, and she has a beautiful photographer's eye.

Candace N'Daiye, artist. Another fellow classmate, Candace is a talented painter, but also made a comment in our class that was more healing to me than any therapy. 

Kerry Lemon, artist. Her story of paving your own way in the world is worth knowing.

Nicola Taylor, photographer. Her photographs are ethereal, haunting, and simply beautiful. Her story of jumping from the corporate world to her artistic world is inspiration to anyone who has a dream.

Flora Bowley, artist. What a breathe of fresh air! Through her work, Flora shows people that fear can be overcome and mistakes can be made beautiful.

Danielle LaPorte, author. One visit to her website and you know she's will serve you up the truth, with a side of sass.

One year ago, I was shopping online and only knew about the shop owner, Aimee. A random glance out of my comfort zone and an uncontrolled 'yes' uncapped a spring that has brought unimaginable results. It was one moment where I didn't let fear get the best of me, and the list of amazing people I've found because of it makes the initial fear seem so small.

Say 'yes' once in a while. If fear tries to tell you differently, tell fear to go sit in the corner and be quiet. Sometimes, the whole world is held within 'yes.'

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Good Night, Robin

This week, all my words are flowing as tears, in grief for the generous soul of a kind and gifted man who suffered from a disease so complex, so permeating, and so ravaging that it has yet to be understood by most.

Perhaps next week I can return with an assembly of uplifting words, but for now, those words are still forming somewhere deep within me. They need time to gestate, hopefully growing into some structure of understanding out of the hundreds of thoughts spinning in my mind at this moment. Until that time, I rely on those far wiser than me for comfort and, most of all, words.

Good night, Robin. May peace and comfort be your constant companions.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Friday, August 8, 2014

In Time

A few weeks ago, I heard of a young woman about to take some time away for her wedding and honeymoon. Humorously, those of us in the conversation tried to talk her out of it, reminding her that she can just date, and the need to make things permanent with a marriage license was just so, well, permanent. Each one of the experienced women offered advice to the new bride, but upon my turn, I simply smiled and waved a hand in a gesture to move on. 

I am really not one who should offer marriage advice. My marriage was more of a cautionary tale.

How much could four years of marriage really teach a person anyway, especially in comparison to those who have been married 10, 20, 30 years or more? My experience with the institution was limited, though, not without its lessons. Upon the divorce, I was angry. In no uncertain terms, I was angry and hurt, while lashing out at everyone and everything in a two mile radius. Hellbent on placing all the blame on my ex, I was blind to any part I played in our demise. He was at fault. He was to blame. I was the innocent one. Right?

I told myself those lines for years, but all the while what I was really doing was making a miserable effort to keep from looking at myself, and moreover, to keep from understanding his behaviors. My narrow view was not able to see anything more than two things: I was right and he was wrong.

Over a few years the heavy anger subsided, but the pain still lingered, and resolution was something I could not imagine in my future. In the summer of 2009, though, simple walks with a friend saw unfathomable results.

My friend Danye* and I began walking in the local park every morning in the summer of 2009. We met at 5 a.m. each day and trod along the walking trail beside a creek, covering about two miles of ground and 30 minutes of conversation. Those predawn chats touched some of the deepest subjects for us, when we offered each other advice when we could and a tissue when we couldn't. The soft babble of Crooked Creek became the soundtrack to our retelling of life stories.

One Wednesday morning in July, I spoke of my divorce and how the emotional aftermath still weighed heavy on my mind. Danye, who held a degree in Psychology and once worked as a counselor, spoke from the perspective of my ex. Never before had I considered his thoughts or feelings, but through this exercise with Danye, a new world opened to me. We turned a corner on the path that led away from the creek, and Danye's eyes focused on the walkway while I quickly wiped away tears so she didn't see.

At that instance, I felt a weight lift from me. I understood his behavior. My heart was lighter, and I finally understood every reason my marriage failed. It was like I had been struck by a light that filled me with every answer I had ever wanted. Far more than emotional, I had a physical reaction in this moment, nearly breaking into a run on our way back to our cars. I felt 20 pounds lighter.

At that moment, I forgave. I let go of all the residual anger, the questions, the blame, the hurt -- all of it -- and finally moved beyond what kept my feet mired in emotional muck. Even as I write this post, I still remember clearly how it felt to be free from the weight of the burden I willingly bore for too long. 

The next morning, I learned that he had died. Only hours after my emotional release in the park, my ex-husband passed away, never hearing me speak any words of forgiveness to him. It was the one last mistake I made in our relationship -- waiting too long to resolve my feelings and missing any opportunity to look him in the eyes, no longer as an enemy, but as a friend. We had been divorced nine years, but over the next several months, I grieved like a widow.

Earlier this year, I received a strange envelope at work with a simple note inside. It was attached to a U.S. Savings Bond, purchased by my ex and listing my name as beneficiary. His family found it when taking care of his affairs after his death. The note was short, but thoughtful. I know they could have easily tossed the bond in the trash, and I would have never been the wiser. Instead, they took the time to send it to me, after we had had no contact since the divorce. 

I never knew Charlie* had this bond, but he purchased it the week after we were engaged. Monetarily, it wasn't much, but the idea of it touched me deeply and reminded me that our marriage wasn't all bad. There were good moments, moments to remember. There were moments when we were good to each other, before our war began.

Today, I received a package in the mail containing a wrist watch. I purchased it, ceremoniously using the funds from the savings bond, because I wanted something tangible to remember the unexpected gift from someone in my life. And so, I purchased time.

When I look at the watch, I will remember  . . . 
  • the time of our shared history
  • the time we laughed
  • the time we learned
  • the time we grew
  • the time I let go
  • the time I forgave.

*Names changed.