On Ma’s porch swing…

Today was a busy day. But I couldn’t let it pass by without taking a moment to remember my “Ma.”

My paternal grandmother would have been 85 today. She left us almost eight years ago… the unexpected complication of a perforated ulcer. I had already been thinking about her birthday, four days before mine, for several days. This morning, my Facebook memories brought up a story I’d forgotten. 

A couple years back, the Munchkin and I were having a discussion about cicadas. He finds them creepy. I told him that, while I don’t like the way they sometimes divebomb one’s head, and I do agree that the empty shed skins are creepy, that I love the sound they make… 

Hearing the sound of cicadas takes me back to my childhood. When I was younger, every summer I would spend a week in Southern Indiana with my paternal grandparents, Ma and Pa. There was usually a trip to Holiday World, hitting golf balls into the back field with Pa, walks in Cox’s Woods, visiting great-aunts, and sometimes a drive down to Springs Valley and to the tiny hamlet about ten miles down the road where my grandfather grew up, to be spoiled with a trip to the old five-and-dime store. 

But in the evenings, we would sit on the front porch, eating ice cream, watching lightning bugs and listening to the cicadas. I remember one summer in particular when one of the 17-year cycles emerged… one evening the cicada song was so loud Ma and I couldn’t hear each other talking, though we were sitting next to each other on the porch swing. 
I got to know my father’s parents more in the last five years of their lives than I had in the previous twenty. You see, they did something remarkable for me. 

We live in the Bible Belt, and I grew up in two large families which both observe Christian faith. And although my parents, long divorced, were (and are) much more liberal in the ways of modern relationships, our extended families remain fairly conservative. So, when I became pregnant at age 23 with no husband, I thought for sure that my grandparents would disown me. I truly believed that I would lose them. I was so afraid, I couldn’t even tell them myself, leaning instead on my dad to break the news. 

A couple weeks later, I came home from work to find a bag on the front porch. Inside were groceries, gas money, and a sack full of baby onesies. And a note, scribbled on the back of a receipt: “Sorry we missed you. Ma and Pa” That was just the beginning. 

Throughout my pregnancy, the Munchkin’s early years, and through my divorce, my father’s parents were wonderful. They weren’t the emotionally distant old people I remembered growing up with. They were affectionate, warm, and doted on their only great-grandchild. They bought clothes and baby things. They helped with groceries when money was tight. They were never wealthy people, but they were generous. It was a surprising and wonderful gift they gave me, to be able to know them differently in their final years. 

This is one of my favorite pictures of my grandmother. Not because it’s wonderfully composed, but simply because this is how I remember her: sitting on the porch swing and caring for her family. I wish I, as well as my sister and cousins, had had more time with the woman she was in those last five years. But I will always treasure the time that we had, and how they didn’t turn their backs on me when I needed them. Whenever I hear cicadas, I remember them, and I smile. 

Happy birthday, Ma. Love you always. 

Up on the Roof

These days I find I have less patience for big crowds. If I’m being honest, I think it is related to my fibro, and being afraid of getting into a situation where I’m in pain and stuck… I should probably work on that. But it’s the Fourth of July, and I promised my Munchkin fireworks. 

Now, we live less than 3 miles from the local high school where tonight’s show was happening. We also live up on top of one of the highest hills in the area. So I suddenly had an idea: Can we see them from the house?! I wonder… 

I ran the idea past the Munchkin… who replied, “Can we watch them from the roof?” After a moment of thought, I said, “Why not?” 

Now, before you all think I’ve lost my mind… We have a split-level home, and the roof is actually just one step over the railing from the second-story deck in the back. And it’s not steep. So at five minutes before showtime, we doused ourselves in insect repellent, gathered an old blanket and a bag of chips, and headed upstairs. 

I should note here that about two steps onto the roof was when I remembered how terrified I am of heights. Specifically, FALLING from them. Which is why, even with an easily accessible roof, my gutters are sadly neglected. I can be in a plane, I can admire a gaze across the skyline from a 48th floor window, and I adore balconies. But in any situation where I feel like I could fall, I freeze up. The Munchkin wanted to go higher onto the very top level of the roof. It’s literally one step up, with only about a 5/12 pitch. I’d be nowhere near the edge of the house. And it was closer to the end of the house nearest the high school. It would be the best vantage point if we were going to see anything. 

But I couldn’t do it. 

Luckily, just then a neighbor sent up a shell a couple blocks away that could be seen perfectly from the end where we were. Thank you, sweet baby Jesus, for literal signs from heaven! I gulped down a lump in my throat, ventured to the apex, and said “Let’s just sit right here.” 

As it turns out, we were either too far away, or it was too hazy, to see any of the town fireworks from our roof. It had rained just a couple hours earlier, and everything was still damp. I could make out distant flashes and the low rumble of echoing explosions, but that was it. Fortunately, some neighbors due south of the house were setting off some pretty decent ones, so we sat up there watching for about 45 minutes. 

During that time in the dark, my son’s mind was going a million miles an hour. Commenting on every noise we heard, every shape he saw in the scattered clouds, every sparkling mortar shell that flew into the sky. He made up a song about sitting on the roof eating tortilla chips. We even FaceTimed my sister, using one phone to talk and another to light our faces in the night. 

Of course, the Munchkin wanted me to keep taking pictures. It’s what we do. But armed with only my iPhone? We weren’t gonna get much. My hair was a mess. But we had two phones for light, and a big moon, so why not? In between bursts of color in the sky down the street, I snapped a couple shots: 

As the fireworks started to slow down, my son snuggled up against me and said, “Isn’t this a lovely night?” 

Yes, baby… it’s perfect. I hope you remember it forever, because I’m certain I will. 

The Art – and Pain – of Compromise

An eloquent man of whom I’m a pretty big fan once said, “No democracy works without compromise.” When he said it, he was referring to American politics – a touchy subject that I’m not going to touch in this post with a 30-foot steel rod. But the idea of democracy, I think, can be applied to other situations in life, as can diplomacy. The life skill of “being diplomatic” was one which my grandmother prided herself on, and one she felt very important to pass on to her children and grandchildren… the art of getting along with others, even when you may not want to. Continue reading

“Hi. Welcome to our town. I’m glad you’re here.”

Tonight, Munchkin and I joined the “welcome line” at our student union.

This was the second time this week that the Office of International Services hosted informational meetings for our students, faculty, staff, and community who are affected by or concerned about the recent immigration ban. A group of people organized a team of volunteers to come line the halls before and after each info session to pass out snacks and hugs… to show these frightened “kids” that we are glad to have them as part of our university family and that we will stand up with and beside them.

I was SO proud of Munchkin tonight. He held his sign, shook hands, introduced himself, and spoke with confidence. Rather than being intimidated by those who looked or spoke differently, my Aspie was much more worried that he was making sure that he was showing his sign to the “right ones” (meaning the guests rather than the staff and volunteers).

Munchkin has been sad, worried, and maybe even a little angry since November 8th. I keep telling him that what we do now is to use our voices to stand up for people who need it. He seems scared. I won’t lie: I am, too. But I know that, if I want to teach him to be able to take a stand, to care for others just as much as we do ourselves, then he needs to see people (including Mom) who will look fear, hatred, and injustice in the face and say “Love wins.”

So far, we had just talked about the things going on around us. He knew I joined the Women’s March in Indianapolis. We’re talking about the March for Science (Munchkin LOVES science). But this was his first ‘official’ social activism event. I let him decide if he was ready and felt comfortable going, and he did great. I wish I could have captured the smiles on the faces of the students who stopped to talk to him, to thank him for being there tonight.

A while back, I did some sociological research into the failure of the “colorblind ideology” of the post-Civil Rights era… the well-intentioned philosophy that children should be taught to be “colorblind” to race. Unfortunately, more and more studies are beginning to show that this precept has backfired. It is but one reason we are finding our beloved republic in the state it’s in: fostering an undercurrent of racism that many of us believed – until November 9th, 2016 – to be a thing of the past.

But there is hope. Four generations ago, Munchkin’s ancestry included a “Grand Master” of the local Ku Klux Klan. Today, my child approached a dark-skinned young woman in hijab and, while carrying a sign that said “I’m glad you’re here”, confidently introduced himself, and asked if she would like a cookie.

This is how we change the world, folks. We don’t ignore race, color, or creed… we embrace it, and we teach our children to be “woke”.

A Christmas truce

It’s the wee hours of Christmas morning. 

A couple hours ago, I played Santa for the Munchkin. I snuck upstairs and retrieved the differently-wrapped gifts. I filled stockings. I emptied the milk glass, left a half-eaten cookie on the plate, opened the fireplace doors, and placed a note on the hearth. I photographed my late-night Yuletide caper, just as I have done for years so that my child’s morning excitement is unhampered by waiting for Mom to get the camera, turned out the lights, tucked the pug in with the bulldog and the kiddo, and came to bed. 

But here I sit… sipping a glass of Roscato and pondering life. This existential disquietude has become a mainstay of my Christmas Eves since leaving my home parish a dozen years ago. 

I’m thinking about the profoundly meaningful rituals that used to define my Advent seasons

I’m thinking about my grandmothers – both of them – and how good they were at making the holidays magical. 

I’m wondering if either of them ever felt as exhausted and disconnected from that magic as I have the last several years. 

I’m fretting over Munchkin’s stronger-than-ever belief in Santa Claus, wondering if it’s mentally healthy to let him believe just a tiny bit longer. 

I’m thinking about my bank account, worrying over how empty it is and yet chiding myself for feeling poor when I have so very much. 

I’m missing my pilot, in Miami, and my daddy and sister, in Denver, and wondering how people handle for years the emptiness of not being with those they love at the holidays. 

I’m trying very hard to not think about the political state of the world, and the fear and depression I’ve been fighting to choke back since November 9th. I know that in the weeks and months ahead, there will be plenty of time to stew over, be frustrated with, and rage against the hatred, bigotry, and violence permeating the nation. But that is not for tonight. 

Here in this quiet, in the midst of a world gone crazy, I recall the Christmas Truce of 1914… the amazing story of how, during World War I, opposing sides at the Western Front voluntarily put down their weapons and met each other in between their trenches to share a few moments of peace and fraternity on Christmas Day. 

My own personal story may not be one of armed conflict (thank goodness), but for a while now, it has felt like a bit of a battle zone. The consistent barrage of challenges to my peace of mind – from school/work and my “baby”‘s march toward adolescence, from finance juggling and fibro managing, from custody fights and adjusting to life as an “airline widow”, to trying to strike a balance between being informed and involved in what’s going on in the world and not letting the insanity of the world drive me mad – is enough to drive anyone to emotional exhaustion. 

However. 

I know, deep in my heart of hearts, how lucky I am. 

I may struggle with illness, but I have access to healthcare. It may not always be the best, because the system is so broken, but it is there. 

My child may have challenges, but he is happy and healthy, and is slowly maturing into a funny, creative, compassionate young man with his own thoughts and ideas and feelings… the core of what I believe most parents hope for their children. 

The world may be chaotic. But in those moments that threaten to overwhelm me, I pick up a tiny handheld computer and, with just a swipe of my finger, I command a signal to soar invisibily through the air to connect me with my mom across town, my friends down the road, my boyfriend wherever he may be that day, my dad and sister in Colorado, my cousin in Oklahoma, or friends who live in the farthest reaches of the globe. Friends and family who, like me, are open, loving people who I have to believe will stand up for what is right if and when the moment arises. I have people to whom I can turn when the darkness threatens to drown my hope… people who help me keep the fire within my heart burning, even if there are moments where it is more embers than flames. 

In that way, in this day, I see the sacred. I feel that connection to the Divine Something that is so much bigger than I. And in that, my heart, too, understands the immense power of the Christmas Truce. 

So today, dear friends, rest. Join me in a truce… a day to cease fretting over politics and war and the weight of the world. Let’s take a breather to connect with the sacred in whatever way is meaningful to you, be it through worship, family, friends, or relaxation. Let your souls rest. If you are reading this, you are among some of the wealthiest people on the planet, and that alone is reason to celebrate. Take joy in this moment. 

For tomorrow, we fight. 

What You Don’t Know…

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t written a blog post in months.

Not really a big deal, right? Life gets busy. Other things take priority. That’s not that remarkable.

Yes, I’m a working parent. Yes, I’m a special needs mom. A single mom. And I am a person living with a chronic illness. But none of these facts by themselves is truly extraordinary. There are thousands of people out there who are single parents, or working parents, or are raising special kids, or live with ongoing health challenges.

But there are some things you don’t know.

So, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

It’s something I’ve been trying to pretend wasn’t there. It’s something that I’ve tried to be okay with. It’s something that I feel guilty for admitting, because I have much to be grateful for, and so I have held this hand close to the vest. But there are some days when keeping the secret becomes a shrieking cacophony inside my soul, and I feel like it may drown me. So I’m going to take a leap of faith and just put it out there…

My life is incredibly lonely right now.

What you don’t know… is that, despite being around people, and feeling overwhelmed with What you don't know...busyness most of the time, I am so incredibly isolated that at times I think my chest may explode.

What you don’t know… is that I got really sick last semester. So sick that I had to withdraw from school temporarily about half-way through the semester. And not just because of the fibromyalgia.

What you don’t know… is that last March, I was diagnosed with Type 16 HPV, the form of the virus that is the most high-risk for cervical cancer, and that I had to have a biopsy. And that even while that biopsy came back mostly okay, I will remain at high risk for developing cervical cancer for some time… and there’s no way to tell if my body will fight off the virus like most people’s do or not.

What you don’t know… is that because of how sick and critically exhausted I had become, I was essentially put on “home rest” for four months. I spent my whole spring and summer at home, mostly alone. For the first time in years, I had all the time in the world to spend with friends and family… but I didn’t get to do hardly anything.

What you don’t know… is that – after I spent about a month doing not much more than sleeping – I still had a long hard road to walk to learn how to balance my days. I had to learn how to not steal energy from tomorrow for today. Or, if I do, I have to plan ahead, because borrowing an advance on the next day’s energy means a day of recovery afterward. And I’m still learning.

What you don’t know… is that, even with all that free time, I felt more isolated than ever. I was at home while the world moved on without me. And now I didn’t even have the social outlet of a job. On top of that, my FM/CFS and thyroid issues make me really intolerant of heat. So with no income and everyone I knew working, I spent the entire summer indoors with my 11-year-old, too tired to do much of anything and getting really depressed.

See, here’s the thing:

A thirty-something-year-old undergrad with a kid and a mortgage?
She doesn’t really make friends at school.
The people I meet that are my age are usually my professors, who can’t really be my friends right now. Other students my age are grad students – I know they exist (in theory) but I’m not on their level or in their classes.

And all my friends?

They’re raising their own families.
They’re spending their weekends at band tournaments and corn mazes and soccer games.
They’re NOT spending their weekends recovering with a body that doesn’t want to cooperate with life.
I don’t begrudge them that. I really don’t.
But I miss that life. I miss THEM.

And it’s not just missing them.

Because the other thing you don’t know?

It’s that NOBODY CALLS.

My phone rarely rings these days. No one texts me to ask how I’m doing. No one asks a single question about how treatment is going or how I’m managing my pain or how school is going or what’s new with the Munchkin’s therapies (and I don’t mention it, because I feel guilty). No one offers to make plans to get together anymore.

Look, I get it… I’d probably say I was busy.

Maybe I was busy one time too many.

But despite having lived in this town for a dozen years now, I have very few friends here.

Oh, I *know* people.
You don’t work at the big places I’ve worked or volunteer for the organizations for which I’ve volunteered without knowing people. Meeting people.

But I guess what I didn’t realize along the way was that I didn’t really make many new friends… not the kind of friends who call just to ask how things are going.

I have friends like that. Or, I did.
Back in my hometown.
It’s funny… I’ve long joked that I grew up “30 minutes and a whole world away” from here. I always meant it culturally. But now it seems to have taken on a new meaning.

The last time “The Gang” (the core group of people I’ve called my “extra family” for around 20 years) got together was over a year ago, and we weren’t even all there.
For some of them, it’s been more like two years.

I haven’t had a night with my girlfriends in over a year. The last time we had something planned, it got called off at the last minute due to someone’s significant other making other plans for her.
And yes – it was for a good reason. Really, it was.
But I was hurt.
And I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t say anything because not only was it really a good reason, but because ever since I was diagnosed with FM/CFS I feel like all I ever do is talk about my pain, and/or ask for help.
Ask and ask and ask, without being able to give back.

Combined FM/CFS is a selfish condition.
It takes. It takes from me, it takes from my son; it took away my old identity.
I’ve been working with a therapist for over a year now trying to rediscover who I am, after the identity and self-worth I had built on my professional abilities was ripped out of my hands.

I had to start over.

On the one hand, I’m proud of myself. I fought my way out of a bout with depression that hardly anyone even noticed. I’ve been learning a therapeutic technique to manage my conditions called pacing, which has given me back some semblance of normal. I took a class in mindfulness over the summer, where I began to learn how to meditate and incorporate mindfulness practices into my days, since stress has an intense physiological impact on my body. I’ve been learning to be self-compassionate for the days when my body can’t accomplish everything my mind sets out to do.

But I’m still lonely.

Part of me knows that I made this choice. That going back to school when the road forked was the right thing to do. For now, this is my life.

I just had no idea that I would be so emotionally isolated.

I didn’t know that I would miss all of my surrogate nieces and nephews growing up. I didn’t know that it would be so hard. I didn’t know that I would often feel like no one understands where I am right now. This life is busy, and it’s lonely. And while I know that every single day puts me one step closer to a degree and the return to a somewhat normal social life, I just can’t seem to bring myself to beg for company at the last minute on those rare days when I finally figure out I’ve got some spare time.

So listen…

I’m not putting this out here as a guilt trip. More than ever, I’ve been leaning on my parents, and my little sister (who has stepped up to the plate in a big way). I’m learning to feel less guilty about asking my family and my boyfriend for help. And just like always, I will figure things out and get through this.

What I want to put out there – not just for my people, but for everyone – is this:
There are people in your life who need you.
Friendships have to be reciprocated to be maintained.
Life will always get in the way if we let it… work, kids, spouses, houses… it can all make us too busy forever, until one day we look up and realize we aren’t really friends with our friends anymore.
I know, because I’m guilty, too.

But that is a choice.

One of these days, I won’t be an undergrad anymore. One day soon, I will graduate, and I can go back to doing the things I want and spending time with the people I love. One day, not so far from now, I can – and happily will – reclaim my role as Cruise Director, the one who makes things happen and seeks after those friendships no matter how long it takes or how distant we become.

Because those things matter.

Because I treasure being able to say that I have friends that I’ve had for twenty years or longer. Because in a time when the world is moving faster than the speed of light, I want to know that slow summer nights by the lake filled with the sounds of laughter and guitars is still possible.

Right now, the leaves are turning. The time for nights at the lake is coming to a close for the year, and we’re getting dangerously close to the holidays, which means the window of opportunity for friendly get-togethers is closing for 2016. We share memes on social media saying we need to get together and that we miss each other, but these days that’s usually as far as it goes.

I understand.

I do. We are all busy. Yes, I’m in school, but my friends have jobs and children and houses and obligations, too. I’m not the only one who hitched a ride on a Busy Boat and now can’t figure out how to drop the anchor and float a while. It’s hard.

So, I guess all I’m really saying here is:

I miss you all. And it would be really nice if you wanted to call… I promise I’ll try to answer.