The Power of an Autumn Cold

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“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away

Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain”

 

I caught cold whilst riding horses two Fridays ago; lately, I have been going riding with a few other families on Family Night at the local riding club. One of the benefits of rural life is that people get together to ride horses and have potlucks with wine and beer in the dark of a Friday evening; it is beautiful to watch all the teenagers racing their horses around the arena, teaching littler ones to ride horses at all, and then to, occasionally, get up on a horse oneself and try to conquer that lifelong fear of horses that was borne from being thrown at a Girl Scout camp all those years ago. We have been taking the teenager, River, because he told us a while ago that he really enjoyed riding horses. Two Fridays ago, the origin point of today’s tale, he told me he had changed his mind.

Have you ever raised a teenager? I have not, but I do teach them each and everyday and have done for many years. Next year is Lucky 11 in public school, and 15 in total. Anyway, I digress. River told me in the car, after mopily being convinced to ride bareback on a paint named Zoomey, that he really didn’t like riding because he had nothing in common with the other kids there. I asked if it was because they are all girls? He responded that they don’t have a lot of brainpower, and that all of his friends use their brains a lot. I asked, are you talking about playing video games? Moving on to the kitchen in which I was trying to restrain myself from, what Maw Maw calls, braining him while he told me that everything that Cody and I take him to do and everyone we introduce him to makes him uncomfortable, but when he is at home with his mother, he is totally comfortable, not shy and talks constantly. In this moment of teenage darkness, I chose the high road and told him I thought he should get out of his comfort zone and that we just want to make him happy. Inwardly, I was consumed with anger.

This was the beginning of the Transformative Autumn Cold: one that, even today, Sunday, nine days after initial exposure, still holds on to my lungs and nasal passages. It has a lingering force that can only mean one thing; I am supposed to learn something from it. So here’s hoping.

{Please bear with this tangent-filled exploration of my human psyche today. It all makes sense in the end.}

When I was 18, I became very ill which was, at that time, a mystery illness. I was hospitalized and was out of school for almost an entire semester. I lost most of my hair, had congestive heart failure, and an incredibly low blood count. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later, when I lucked into an amazing hematologist/oncologist who did a genetic fact-finding mission of my entire extended family’s bloodwork, was it discovered that my cousin Jackie and I both have agammaglobulinemia, a genetic disease that usually only affects males, but in our case, impacted two females of the same generation on the Blythe (paternal) side of my family. It was a crazy experience that was definitely transformative and taught me to appreciate every day of my life, and that my life had a purpose, although at the age, I didn’t understand what that was or even what that meant.

As I got better, slowly, and with the help of traditional and non-traditional doctors, I left home and moved to Austin, Texas to go to college at UT. After attending debate camp several times during high school, I had fallen in love with Austin and thought it was the bees knees of cities, and, I think, it was. A lot of people still think it is, as seen by the 150 people who move to Austin each day now. I would disagree, but I am able to as I now live in the country and like the slow life much better than the hustle-and-bustle-avocado-toast-trend-of-the-moment that seems to be the lifeblood of Austin these days. Oh, and not to forget all the music festivals.

I digress, again. Since getting sick two Fridays ago, I have experienced a lot of frustration. I was frustrated with River, and with the concept of blended families in general. I am not even sure if I would call ours “blended” as sometimes I think that Cody is treated like an afterthought, or a necessary chore, rather than an equal member and a father to River. (There goes that anger again!!!).

Digression.

In addition to raising a teenager in a blended family, Cody and I also take care of his aging grandmother, Maw Maw, who is in some sort of “rapid decline” as the medical people call it, but who, herself is in some strange space of denial-bargaining. She seems to think one day this will all stop; we know that it will, but not in the way that she wants. It is crazy disorienting to take care of someone who you “know” (?) is dying who herself has not acknowledged it truthfully to herself, except when occasionally she asks us to shoot her, throw her in the river, leave her out with the garbage, etc. (yes, these are statements that have all been uttered). I don’t know how to react to Maw Maw or tell her what I think. I just try to listen, keep her comfortable, and get her to eat something.

A few weeks ago, I took advantage of the in-house teacher counseling service at my school and went to a session with our school’s counselor, Mrs Williams. I talked about the struggles I have with taking care of Maw Maw at home, teaching 8th graders at school, and having a teenager at the same time. She told me to trust the universe and remember that Maw Maw’s age is a blessing, that each day is a blessing, and that I am there solely to make her comfortable and try to keep her happy. Other than that, I cannot fix or change anything and that it is really up to God, whoever I conceive of them to be. I agreed and had a mental image of my garden in the spring: full of flowers and butterflies and bees, and I remembered how happy being in the garden makes me, so I, at that moment, tried to consciously remember to shift my perspective from helping to supporting. That shift is a difficult one that I have to concentrate on each day, especially on days when Maw Maw won’t eat, or she calls me “that woman I live with”, her heart rate goes above 130, or whatever.

The last aspect of this current experience of transformation-via-autumn-cold is that my oldest friend and I are in a spot of disagreement, or perhaps a better phrasing is uncertainty about our relationship. I went to see her in India in June, and during that trip, said a lot of things that hurt her feelings, but she didn’t tell me any of this until an email I got last week. She works for the government, and lives in different places around the world for chunks of time, and then gets zoomed back to the US before zooming off again. She planned an amazing trip for us, and everything we did was beautiful and inspiring. Of course we didn’t get along every moment, but I have never traveled with anyone that I got along with every moment. Perhaps, most definitely, this says more about me than any friend that I have traveled with, but nevertheless, I was hurt by the fact that she didn’t tell me any of this while we were in the same space together, during which time we could have talked about this and she could have told me she thought I was being a jerk, and I could have told her that I was super worried about her and it was coming out the wrong way, and we could have found a place of peace. But now, she is about to zoom off to another country and the likelihood of us being able to talk about this in a meaningful way is quite limited until I see her again. And my takeaway from the email is that she doesn’t want to see me again, at least not for a while.

In this specific situation, unlike my frustrations with River and Maw Maw, I feel adrift. I am 100% sure I make mistakes, because I often do with people: ask anyone who knows me well. I can be harsh, overly-emotional, tactless, too optimistic, too domineering with my opinions, etc. These are aspects of myself that I was unaware of until I went through years of therapy to find out who I really was under those onion layers. Despite me *mostly* keeping those tendencies in check these days, or at least being very aware of them when they pop up and being active at fixing them and reinforcing the relationships they impact, occasionally they pop up especially with older friends, who have known me since I was 10, and knew me better when those layers were under wraps than now, when they are unwrapped and under psyche-scrutiny each and every day. My friend wrote to me that we are in different places in our lives, which of course is true; this is something I have been thinking of in terms of all my friends as I approach 40 years old. Some of us are single, some are married, some have kids, some don’t. Some live in far off places, some very close. Some have professional jobs, some have no jobs (lucky ducks — I think). Some are consistently sad or anxious, some are happy at their core, some don’t know how to be, some question themselves (all), some are blinded by ideas, and some see clearly. Some think they see clearly and yet are still blinded (all, again). Some are all of these things in intermittent moments: aren’t we all? While we are all in different places at this juncture that I call 40, but some friends may call 42, or 35, or 32, we can all be great friends to each other because we love each other and accept each other as flawed human beings who experience all the iterations (and more) listed above. Right? In what perfect moment are friends at the same point in life? I find it to be impossible, but more significantly, not important. I love my friends very much, and that force is much stronger than any job or house or partner, etc.

So, I sit here, at noon on Sunday, still sniffling, and wondering about all of these ideas. Teenagers, dying grandmothers, oldest friends who can’t really talk with each other; it is a quagmire.

Unless……

Yesterday, I moved a lot of wood: giant chunks, small branches, and a lot of in between sizes. They all came from cutting down a 236-year old post oak tree in our front yard that died. It was an amazing tree and we have many giant stumps to play with for the rest of our lives. It was hard for me to believe that its first year of life was in 1783: I have no idea what was going on here in 1783. Who lived here? Did someone plant that tree or was it just one of those magic, random occurrences of nature? I love that someone built our house just behind that tree and one more, as if they were planted for this house, when of course it was the other way around. As I moved all those chunks of wood, back and forth to the woodpile using the wheelbarrow, lifting heavier pieces just to see if I could, dumping them in loads, over and over again, I felt better.

I think the reasons I felt better were a combination of exercise-created-endorphins and an understanding of how I have changed in the last few years. Five years ago was the beginning of my last winter in Maine, when I lived in a cabin on a lot of land next door to a lovely neighbor and pig farmer who looked out for me. I heated my house with wood and really experienced solitude. I wrote many entries here during that time, whilst sitting at a round, pine table with my woodstove to the left and my sweet kitchen off to the side. There was so much snow that winter, and I lived on a property that felt like the target point of the whistling wind that came between two mountains across the road. Sometimes I would go outside in the evening to get frozen wood and would just wonder what the hell was happening? How did everything get so hard? It wasn’t until deeper in that winter that I realized two things: it had become that hard because I made it so, and that it actually wasn’t hard. I just wasn’t seeing clearly and especially wasn’t seeing all the people around me who loved me.

When I moved back to Austin the next late-spring, I was in a relationship for the first time in over four years, and really struggled with the same struggle. I asked: why is this so hard? Why can’t I run away? I don’t want to be here – or do I? Do I want to teach again? All of that time, I had these wonderful friends around and a lovely boyfriend who just loved me and wanted me to be happy. Cody had his own growing to do, but he did it, but in terms of me, he was always loving and encouraging. I had this barrier up that said something like…you can’t be happy because if you do, they will find out all these bad things about you and then what will you do? It was something like that, and was couched in my experience of getting pregnant at 15 and living in an alcoholic family with a Vietnam vet for a father who never let his own bad experiences go and a mom who sought to control everything at everyone’s expense. It is fascinating to me how we can get locked in our own psyches without our knowledge, because some series of experiences can be so painful or frightening. I was lucky because I did discover the key to my own salvation: forgiving myself, grieving for that painful experience, and finally seeing all the people around me who just plain loved me. It was then that I could love them, too.

One of my takeaways from my last 5 years is an understanding that I have no control over anything (I still struggle with this: referencing that convo with River, my issues with wanting Maw Maw to get better when it is not up to me, or being hurt and bewildered by my friend’s email). This popped into my head yesterday whilst moving all those loads of wood.

Another is that I have changed over these interim years, thanks to my friends, myself and cognitive behavioral therapy. It took years of talk therapy to get to the discovery of the need for CBT. I think it saved my emotional life. I realized yesterday, whilst in the woods, walking back to the front yard, that I am so valued and appreciated by people at my school, and I have the power now to recognize that and build on it. I don’t think I could see that clearly before, because I couldn’t believe that people would see me that way. I got divorced back in 2009, and I realized that the last time I felt this valued was just before the divorce; it was a great discovery to me that the experience of divorce, in the moment, set me further back on this journey. But then again, that experience was what spurred this self-discovery of the last 10 years, so there you go. I also feel so appreciated and valued by my friends. I feel terrible that my oldest friend doesn’t feel that I feel that way about her, even though I do. I think that old habits die hard, and apparently I crossed a line for her and can only hope she forgives me.

My last takeaway here is that life just keeps moving forward each day. I have found the key to juggle all of the dishes spinning in my life right now is to remember this in every moment I possibly can. My coworker Nicole says that nothing phases me right now, and my other coworker Tori says I have such a “chill vibe”. I think they are sweet, and definitely wrong about this sometimes (the emotional swings still happen!), but I love those notes of appreciation and I look at them at lessons in remembering to stay present whenever I can, in remembering impermanence and the lesson of trying to be equanimous. It helps me find peace in this chaos.

The only power I have in this situation is to love my people: love River especially when he makes me crazy. Love Maw Maw and try to make her laugh a couple of times a day. Love Cody and thank him for loving me, too. Love my friends and try to make sure they know how much I care about them, but not in a way that offends them.

I think I appreciate this cold now, can bless it and send it off into the autumn wind that is blowing around my house. Is that rain?

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Fathers

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My Dad is dying, slowly, in a living room on an island in Maine. He dies slowly of an ebb and flow disease: diabetes. His version of the Big D is complicated by the Big A: alcoholism. It turns out that alcoholism can cause diabetes, and once your body has been hijacked by this syndrome, continuing to drink just turns the dial up on its destructiveness.

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My mother really wanted me to come to Christmas this year because, as she said, “he isn’t doing well and it won’t really get any better”. I stopped going home for Christmas three Christmases ago, when I went to Enchanted Rock with Cody, instead. I camped with lots of other families under a giant, cold full moon, and thought about what making new traditions might mean. Cody and I have spent Christmas together ever since. Christmas, to me, is a holiday fraught with expectations (mine and others), disaster (real and imaginary) and has never held the beauty of the holiday that I see displayed in films and songs.

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I think my mother really tried to create that Christmas magic, and she probably still does. I just remember the harshness of being told a plate was worth more than I was when I placed cookies on it one year. I remember one year receiving boxes and boxes and boxes of presents, including piles of strange clothes that I thought someone should know I would never wear, under an LL Bean Christmas tree that was delivered by the postman on my birthday. That same year, my mom bought a first edition of the Canterbury Tales illustrated by her favorite Arthur Rackham (she has told me the story of how she once could have bought a first edition of the Lord of the Rings from a bookstore in London for 5 pounds, but didn’t have the 5 pounds to spare), and set it on a table behind a sofa in the formal living room, specially curated by her friend Oona the interior decorator. I remember the room curved at the front, framed with beautiful, tall windows, perfect for that giant Christmas tree. The rub is that we only spent one Christmas in that house: the year after, my Dad lost his job in the oil crash of the early 1990s, had a nervous breakdown, and we had to sell the house, the cars, and that 1st edition of the Canterbury Tales. He never recovered from the fact that we had to move into a rental house: I remember him disappearing for awhile I think, and after that, never coming out of the large master bedroom in that dark 1970s house with a duck in stained glass on the door. I suppose he never really did emerge again.

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I have this memory of my dad and myself. I must have been very small: about 6 perhaps. I have a nephew-in-law now named Peter, who is 6, and it must have been when I was about his size. My dad and I were climbing on rocks on the beaches of Maine, over by The Ovens in Salisbury Cove. We climbed onto a big rock that slowly became engulfed by a rising tide; I don’t exactly know how that happened, because now, as an adult, I understand how long it takes for the water to rise. Nevertheless, the memory remains; stuck on the rock we were, and my father had to carry me to shore.

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My Dad is a big, barrel-chested man who used to be 6′-2″. He is a lone wolf and a person who doesn’t fit in: two ways that we are similar. I was chatting with a friend a while ago about how our self-identification as people who don’t belong, who are special or unique, reinforces some pretty unhealthy patterns that contribute to all sorts of ills: like codependency, seeking out bad boyfriends to “help” or “fix”, a lack of self-awareness, self-love and feeling like success is an option. My dad never spent time looking in Life’s mirror: perhaps it was too frightening. He ran away and into anger, reckless spending, and the bottoms of gin bottles.

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It took me a long time to let go of the anger I had toward him: I would ask for years: why isn’t he like other fathers? Why does he seem to love everything but his family? Why does he do these crazy things all the time? Why does he throw stuff? Why does he crash cars? Why does he spend money he doesn’t have? Doesn’t he understand how much it hurts all of us? It took me years, really until this past year, to realize that he is locked in a prison of his own making and it’s almost as if there is no one else in that prison: like a man locked in a cell on an island with nothing but his thoughts and a shovel, he just digs that cell deeper and deeper into the mountainside, when the choice to escape is his to make. Even last year, at the age of 77, he somehow managed to open a series of credit card accounts and spend $10,000. When we asked him what he had bought for that amount of money, he really didn’t know.

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I have been on holiday break from school for 2 weeks now and, honestly, haven’t done much except cooking and organizing, helping Cody clear our land for our wedding, and watch movies. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized that all the films have had one common thread: fathers. Fathers who are good, fathers who are bad: fathers who are confused and don’t know what to do. Fathers who are trying, and fathers who are useless at trying. Fathers who are drunk, and fathers who are teetotalers. None are perfect, although a few match what I would have liked to have had. But, in some ways, like I said to my brother earlier today, perhaps we are just here to listen to these two crazy people who are our parents. After all, do any of us truly actually make sense? Probably not: but I do like to think that I try to be happy, to think of others, and I am trying very hard to be a good partner to a very sweet man who, as I type this, is drilling holes in a concrete wall so that I can hang up a mirror. That sweet man lost his father almost 11 years ago to brain cancer. His father, just as imperfect as any of them, is gone and he doesn’t even have a way to talk to him and become frustrated at his inadequacies and nonsense. All he has is memories of an imperfect man: the same that I will, one day, have.

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Where Is Fancy Bred? In the Heart, or in the Head?

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I am a bad listener.

It’s true. My name is Patience and I am a bad listener. I am a bad listener to complaints. I think I might be an ok listener other times…my mom’s friend told me a while back that it is because I am so good at coming up with solutions to problems.

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As a problem-solver who grew up with an alcoholic parent, it’s inevitable (I think) that my problem solving ability gives way to codependent strategies like: “I can do this for you!” “Just listen to my idea!” which both eventually give way to frustration at the other person for not doing those two things, and then frustration becomes anger, and then you both are fighting with each other in the kitchen and no one is happy.

I find relationships, especially the one I am in with my fiance, to be challenging in the best ways. Cody shows me myself in harsh relief, and shows me himself in a clear light. Sometimes these views go together and our opinions are the same, and sometimes we are standing in the kitchen, him leaning against the sink and I against the refrigerator, aghast at what we are putting each other through.

One of the many things I am thankful about my relationship is that we always fight fair, and so far, come to a place where we can agree to take a breath, seek perspective, apologize where necessary, and assure the other person that we are not truly angry and that the other one is very loved.

Coming from an alcoholic family in which either nothing was discussed or someone was throwing a plate or crashing a car, this is my greatest space for growth: how to be a responsive and loving human, despite when, and maybe especially so, I am most uncomfortable by being shown my self in the mirror of the soul.

As I type this and think how grateful I am for all of it, despite its momentary pain, bewilderment and frustration, I am sitting with a small kitten, under a handmade quilt that I named “Find Your Heart”. Indeed.

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Heart Shapes

I have been being a snoop today. I like being a snoop, and am one of those people who is guilty of looking in peoples’ medicine cabinets and awkwardly moving around homes at parties gazing intently at curios and especially, photographs.

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“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Brené Brown

 

This is what I did today; in the somewhat vain attempt at unpacking, I found myself snooping in one of Cody’s boxes that is full of old photo albums. Two baby books filled with sweet notes from his mother and photos in that classic 1970s sienna tone. The photos are of a blonde baby who looks remarkably like two of his nephews, Paul and Dominic. There is also a scrapbook of his first three years, filled with more photos and birthday cards. Then there are a few more photo albums. Two are of old family photos that range from baby Cody to teenage Cody, photos of his parents and grandparents. His mom had brown hair then, blonde now, cut in that poofy 70s/80s style that I think all of our moms wore. There are photos of his father cradling him as a newborn, in the exact same way that he later cradled his own son when River was born in 2004. In those photos, you actually couldn’t tell but for the age of the photographs that the man in the frame is his father and not Cody, for when River was born, Cody cut his hair short and clean in the same style as his father’s when he was born. Little Cody peeks out of photos, holding fish on fishing lines, dressed up in terrible Halloween costumes, sitting next to his father and mother and grandmother, posing on the trunk of a very old, silver Honda Civic. His father so young, and Cody so small: the family resemblance between the two is so strong. They share brows and shoulders, height and lankiness. Later, Teenage Cody begins to look as he does now: very tall, thin, with long-lashed eyes. Those long lashes show up in one photo from when he must have been about two.

There are also photo albums from later life, from when he moved to Austin in 1998. Cody out with friends, on the road to Albuquerque and Amarillo, and photos of the highways in between. Photos of him in Amsterdam with an old girlfriend who looks very sweet and very 90s in her baggy pants and oversized t-shirts. There is a photo of Cody from when he was building his first tattoo shop, when he was 25, and he looks almost exactly as he does today: glasses, beard and mustache, t-shirt, jeans, tattoos from tip to tail.

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Living with someone versus dating them and spending nights at each other’s houses is so different: all the cards are out on the table. All of each other’s strange little behaviors are on full display for each other to eke out over time; learn to tolerate, appreciate, and love. Cody puts a paper towel under the french press every morning while he makes coffee and it makes me crazy because it makes no sense. He apologizes almost constantly, seemingly just for moving around. I keep telling him he doesn’t have to do that. I wonder what things he notices about me that bug him, but he appreciates because they are mine, all the same.

In a set of the photographs, I saw the houses he lived in a tpwn in rural Louisiana, when he was learning to tattoo. There are photos of his first tattoo on an orange. There are photos of his Uncle and Aunt’s house, surrounded by potted plants and 5 gallon buckets of soil. This photo shows me why he collects so many plants and 5-gallon buckets of soil. This behavior of his ties back to the past, gives him some sense of continuity of time, perhaps. There is a photo of him in front of the school bus he lived in during his time in Louisiana, dressed up in the same leather coat he wears when it is cold, in front of a cook-fire. Cody loves cooking on an open fire. There are photos of his grandparents camp house in Center, Texas: an old, white trailer with a deck in the front. There are photos of the back porch with his mom and dad and grandmother. Little did I know that by looking at those photos on a quiet, rainy day in July (thanks be for the rain!) that I would learn so much about the man who I thought I knew the most about: the man who has become my best friend and my companion in this life.

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A few years ago, during the time when I was at the beginning of my “nervy b”, as I like to call it, I culled through hundreds of photos, scanning some and throwing away the rest. I used to have two photo albums but I don’t know where they are anymore. In some ways, during that time, I chose, albeit with a frame of mind that had a distinct lack of clarity, to literally throw out much of my past evidence. Today, I realized the sadness in that is that not that the things are gone, and neither the memories, but the signposts are no longer. Perhaps we hold on to objects not just because they are precious but because they help us re-establish that continuity of time in our own lives. Perhaps if I still had those photographs, I could remember better the times in my young life when I was friends with a boy named Eric, son of my mom’s best friend Pat. We used to do things all the time, dress up, ride horses, be really silly. Eric now has schizophrenia and lives in Florida: I wonder if he remembers anything from that time, at all?

I got rid of almost everything I owned, sold it to strangers and left it on a street in Philadelphia to be combed over by neighbors from countries near and far. I used to have a bag of my great-grandmother’s hand-made lace. Where is it now? Not that it matters much, really. I suppose I am mulling over my own rejection of my continuity of time. At that moment, in the years between 2012-2014, I was so ashamed of myself and my decisions that I threw all evidence of it away. No wedding photos, and all evidence of Steve is gone except a box from China his father once gave to me. Even my wedding ring is gone, and I stuffed my wedding dress into a trash can on the back porch of that house in Philadelphia.

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Here I am, today, in 2016, going through boxes of my own and of Cody’s, as we piece together a new life in a funky house in Dripping Springs, Texas. I grew really sad during my perusal of photographs today, realizing that whatever I had that was like these objects before me, I had destroyed in mad, sad intention. It’s true that my parents have a treasure trove of photographs, so I need not really worry about that specifically, but it’s like I am looking back at these last few years and wondering about putting together the events in a chain that makes sense and represents my memories. I suppose that is what this writing project is all about: a memoir, the establishment of the story after many years have passed.

I love Cody for many reasons, but one of the main ones is his ability to recognize his own painful life events and hold on the positives. He has a very good sense of perspective and being present. He isn’t perfect, and neither am I. This morning I hung a bamboo shade of his on the window in the living room. It has a giant batik of butterflies on it, and it used to hang in the front window of his first tattoo shop on Burleson Road in south Austin. I remember staring at it during the hours of talking and tattooing that were the beginning of our long-standing friendship. And now it hangs in our house: the home we are building together, doing our best, muddling through, baring it all to each other, every day, and every night.

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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No More Leaving

No More Leaving
 
At
Some point
Your relationship
With God
Will
Become like this:
 
Next time you meet Him in the forest
Or on a crowded city street
 
There won’t be anymore
 
“Leaving.”
 
That is,
 
God will climb into
Your pocket.
 
You will simply just take
 
Yourself
 
Along!
– Hafiz

 

It has been a couple of weeks since my last post and since my discovery of what had been bothering me all these years. I feel as if some dark glasses or horse blinders were torn off my eyes and thrown across the street when that discovery hit me. It is so strange to me that we can tell ourselves these stories about ourselves for so many years without actually being forced, by our minds and hearts and new experiences, to reflect upon them in an active way.

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For the last several years, I have been looking into the effects of traumatic experiences on myself and on others. I have discovered that many of us, especially as we get older, in our mid-thirties for example, have developed elaborate defense mechanisms and intimate pitfalls. So many of these are not obvious to anyone, even ourselves, until, if we are lucky enough, our eyes are opened and we can re-open the Pandora’s box of emotions to see whether what is in there is serving us, anymore.

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When I think of the delicacy of the human heart, I like to think of the Egyptian mythology of, when one dies, that one’s heart is measured against the weight of a single feather. I do think that the human heart is just that light, just that easy to shatter. But, the other side of the coin is that we, too, are remarkably resilient, like the trees that I spend so much time gazing upon. Despite the myriad fractures and sometimes breaks in the surface of the heart, we keep on keepin’ on, living from day to day, month to month, year to year. Perhaps the scarification of those fractures are what the defense mechanisms are, the fears, the caginess, the aversion to risking one’s poor, suffering heart.

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It is like crystal, like the petals of a poppy: translucent, and easy to bruise.

I think the sadness of being out of touch with one’s emotional pitfalls comes from the realization that most people are genuinely good, and want to love and care and protect and enjoy one another’s company. It’s almost as if adults live in the center of a long, winding labyrinth with doors along the way. All the doors must open, eventually, and whatever obstacle that lays beyond them must be acknowledged and explored. For if not, I would imagine, you end up rather like someone whose fears have become her/himself, and the real person inside is just lost.

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An unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

 

The Gift(s) of the Magi

sunriseSunrise with silhouettes and magic lantern slides…

After much silence here on the blog, I promise to return, with intention and frequency, very soon! I am even buying a new computer that will surely reinspire my fingertips to transpose creative ideas and deep thoughts from my neurotic, swirling brain, to you, the reader.

In the meantime, here is a story quite apropos to my life at the moment, and maybe to yours. Sometimes, in moments, I have a hard time understanding why, sometimes, we choose to make this all so difficult. In those moments, I try to be more like Jim, and sit on the couch with my hands under my head, but most of the time, I am much more like Della.

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THE GIFT OF THE MAGI

by O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

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I’m Not Young Enough To Know Everything

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan


426299_3462935531267_2111031890_nMy brother and I at the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, London…in 1986…

My first tattoo is quite terrible, and in a terribly predictable spot on my body. My “Tramp Stamp” is of one of the faeries from the book “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” by J.M. Barrie. This specific faerie was drawn by Arthur Rackham, my favorite children’s book illustrator, and is a depiction of one of the faeries who carry lonely, orphaned and abandoned Peter to safety. The tattoo was made many years ago, when I was all of nineteen, at a tattoo shop on 6th Street in Austin, before I knew anything about getting tattoos. It fades with each passing year, and needs to be retouched very much. But, the sentiment of it remains.

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Today, I am reminded, from the advice of my wonderful friend Julie, to be grateful everyday for all the things that are happening. To keep the faith, so to speak. I wrote the following in my journal the other night. I typically don’t combine my journals with the blog, but will today…

“Always remember each lesson, each truth as it is revealed, and be grateful for each, even if in hindsight.

Always remember the power of being true to myself, and that boundaries don’t have to be walls.

Always remember the raw beauty of love, of being in love, even if I fall in love with not the right people…be able to love, and to really understand love as accepting the differences between myself and other people and being able to see the beauty of others through seeing the world through their eyes: to accept others, to really forgive.

To let people teach me, even if their way is confusing or difficult or different from the way I would like.

Remember to be grateful just to have this time to make these realizations. To understand unconditional love and do my best to let go of fear. To be peaceful and loving and happy. To accept people’s faults and my own. To believe people’s compliments.

For more on the Snow Moon, you can read Angel’s more detailed interpretation of the impact of February on the psyche here…..

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