Friday, May 29, 2009

Panzer-man, Panzer-man, Oh You

I was reading an essay yesterday that said when you are a writer, even in times of great, personal tragedy there is an awareness that whatever the event is will work its way into your writing someday. This particular article centered around the death of the author's father and how he explored the unknown portions of his father's life after his death, learning much about him, but ulitmately coming up with more questions than answers.
This reminded me of the David Sedaris story "Repeat After Me" in which his sister swears him to secrecy about a particularly embarassing personal story only to have him include it in a story later on. Whenever I am faced with difficulty, I try to remind myself that one day, this will only be a story I tell. To me, this is very encouraging. The stories I tell tell a lot about me and it is very therapeutic to put things in that context. I often try to console friends in that way, telling them that this too shall pass and be spoken of later, probably with laughter.
The more I write - some things to publish here and some things not - the more I find myself compelled to write about things that are uncomfortable. Not so much painful, but just strange. Somehow, I find the oddities of my life fascinating. I look back sometimes and think, "Wow. How the hell did I end up here?"
I did not come from a very together family. My grandparents (my father's parents when I was a child and my mother's parents as a young adult) positively informed much more of my life than either of my parents, especially my father. I have had no contact with my father for the past 18 years, at least. Before then, what interaction there was was spotty and weird. I'm pretty certain he didn't want to be a father. And that's okay. He was young - 16 -, most likely gay, and viewed me as more a rival than someone to love and take care of. I've often said that my life is much better not having had a father if he was the father I was going to get. I truly believe this to be true and it is something I realized at a very young age.
Needless to say, I don't give my father a great deal of thought. He lived in New York City. I knew that. My grandmother - his mother - loved him very much, but she was very honest about him. She used to tell me, "Jennifer, my father was a son-of-a-bitch and your father is a son-of-a-bitch, but he's my son and I love him." Her way of loving people without making excuses for them taught me how to love people unconditionally and honestly.
By and large, it is a remarkably good thing that I had very little to do with my father; that he wanted very little to do with me. Sometimes, when I watch my husband with our children, I am glad that they have a father that is so loving and devoted to them, but I rarely regret that I lacked that. Going along in my grown-up life, trying to take care of my family and myself, my house and garden, I don't spend too much time thinking about anyone in particular, certainly not my father. So, you can imagine my surprise when trying to find a cousin on Facebook, I came upon my father instead. Top of the page.
"Huh?" was my reaction, coupled with this very strange teetering feeling, like swinging back and forth in the seat perched highest on Ferris Wheel. I had very quick thoughts about a potential life with him in it, not as a father, but as an aquaintance and a friend. In his profile picture, I saw my own face. My freckles. My eyes.
I think it must have been something like finding one's birth parents after a lifetime of being adopted. I know who my family is. This man is not it, but still that spark of recognition is a powerful one.
Like, being a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge misplaced in a puzzle of some botanical gardens somewhere. It's not that that is a bad place to be, it's just that you don't fit. And even if by some random dye-cut miracle you find a spot that feels right, the architectural nature of your image is counter to the rest of the verdant landscape.I think your father makes your place in the world. I didn't have that. I made my own place, shoved myself in wherever I could manage to fit.
You see, I never really loved my father. I never really felt anything for him at all. He was just there or not there. Maybe like a fellow traveler on the bus you see every day, then you don't see them. You notice the absence, but don't really wonder why they aren't there. My parents divorced when I was two and I had a series of step-fathers that didn't really want to be my father either.
My grandfathers have always been more father to me than anyone else. My grandmothers more mother. My father's father always sought to protect me from his son. The last time I saw my father, I didn't know he was visiting. I came through the door into my grandparents' kitchen with David behind me and saw someone I didn't recognize. It
was my father, oddly enough as he never came home. My grandfather got up from his chair and inserted himself between my father and me. My father turned and went down the hallway out of sight, but my grandfather stayed there, between me and the empty spot where my father had been. Normally, we would have stayed for hours, but we left that day. It's the only time I ever left my grandparents' house without one of them saying, "Don't go." It was strange, but I can't say that I felt anything.
The next time I saw my father was not at either of my grandparent's funerals, though he did visit Virginia one other time before either of their deaths. No, the next time I saw his face, his picture fell from my grandmother's Bible, just last summer.
It was a school picture. He looked to be 8 or 9. Because he really didn't have anything to do with me, no one had ever taken me on a tour of who he was. I had never really seen pictures of him and still, I can't tell you the difference, most of the time, between a photograph oh him or my uncle as children. But this picture, it was
definitely my father. He looked exactly like my son. And in that moment, I loved him. I loved the bits in him that became bits in me and later, bits in my very own children. I loved him because my grandmother had fiercely guarded her love for him, although he tried his hardest to kill the roots of it in her heart. She loved him how
I love my children, I think. And I loved that I learned that from her through how horrible he was. It was a small price.
When I found his Facebook page, it was like standing at a doorway at the edge of an abyss. I could jump and fall and hope I landed somewhere better or I could step back, close the door and walk away. Even though I knew I should close the door, I couldn't help but linger. I got brave and did an Internet search for his name. I saw his address and telephone number, his MySpace page and even read an autobiography of himself posted somewhere. It didn't include me and painted a very different picture of his parents than the people I'd seen. That hurt my heart. And after listening to a few of his songs on MySpace, I closed the door and walked away. What could have been wasn't and never will be. The sooner I remind myself of that, the better.
It's just that every now and again I get nostalgic. And nostalgia is always made up of things that are nice. I want to walk a familiar landscape, know people that knew people I miss, be in a group that when we laugh, it all runs together because we all learned to smile from the same sets of lips. I was abandoned by my father and abandoned my mother. I am adrift. Or sometimes I feel like it.
Until I remember my husband, my two sons and my daughter and think to the future and my vision of my happiest moments to be, standing at the front door with cars filling my driveway, rubbing the flour from my hands, opening my arms to surrender more of the love that made life worth living, without thinking about everything I went without, only about all the abundance I have.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oh, what a terrible belly-ache when all we consume is plastic and fake...

We returned from Little Rock, Arkansas last night. My sister got married this past weekend. It was a beautiful thing. When people in love truly compliment one another, it is a pleasure to see them not only realize how well they fit together, but also to see them demonstrate that understanding by getting married - which is why everyone truly in love should be able to get married. But that's a post for another day when I'm feeling rancorous.
Today, I am feeling...yucky. It took two days to get to Arkansas and another two to get back. And I don't know if you know this about us, but we are not wealthy people. This means, we can't spend $100/day on food. So, the way home was spent cobbling together cold meals eaten straight from the Kroger bag. Don't get me wrong, today's still-digesting doughnuts (burf!) will be next week's fond memory, but today, they are still digesting.
We did have two splurge meals on the trip, though. One on the way down and one on the way home. Both were eaten at landmark eating establishments in Tennessee and both we had visited before - at least parts of us had. But one was a luxury and one was crap. Dualism, shall we ever escape your two-fisted grasp?
The Loveless Cafe in Nashville is a true treat. It's been there forever and is still a place well worth stopping. The biscuits are yummy. The people are sweet. And the atmosphere is eclectic enough to be interesting without stooping to country cliche. Yes, you may find an enamelware ladle on the wall, but it belongs there. It's not just tossed up with a candle and a cracker box to evoke a place that may have been, but never really was a la Cracker Barrel.
The Loveless Cafe has parlayed its stature as a well-known down-home eatery into all kinds interesting and worthwhile ventures. There's a thriving gift shop and on-line business as well as a great many shops surrounding the cafe in what was formerly the adjacent motel. There is even a new barn built to host events. All of these are examples of how the owners of the Loveless took what they had - a reputation for good food, an empty motel and an outparcel of land - and made the most of it. They didn't raze the building and build a big new, shiny structure and start making their biscuits from a mix straight off the Sysco truck. They took their uniqueness in the industry and branded it, making their identity in the quirk rather than eliminating it.
What started out as a family selling hot meals from their own kitchen to travelers has become a multi-generational business that still shines and becomes more of itself with every year.
Brooks Shaw's Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village in Jackson, however, yeah, they didn't do that.
I don't know what that place used to be. David went there once 20 years ago and remembers it fondly, but twenty is a lot of years and the shine's done gone off that apple...and it went about 19-and-a-half years ago. It just goes to show you can instruct your employees to answer the phone, "Hey, Y'all!" but it's kind of hollow if they follow it up by being asses.
Maybe it's just the nature of a buffet that brings out the worst in both people and food. When you can get all that you can conceivably carry back to your table, people tend to hover like vultures over a splattered opossum, snapping their serving tongs, grabbing up each piece of "Cracklin' Corn Bread"...not because they are hungry, but just because it's there and they can. No food - aside from Brunswick Stew and apple butter, both cooked outstide over a flame - tastes better out of a vat.
I grew up on country cooking. Some of my fondest memories are of my granmother's pinto beans steaming in a bowl flanked by a generous brick of her cornbread. I don't know which fat tasted better, what was floating in the pot liquor or what was soaking into the bread. It's not the milieu I object to, not at all.
I love fried green tomatoes.
I love fried okra.
In fact, I love just about anything that started off green and ended battered and deep-fried.
Mashed potatoes, all the better.
Did you say navy beans? I say, "Don't forget about me."
Turnip greens? Good Lord.
And I got to eat all of those things at the Old Country Store. At least, they rather resembled those things, but they didn't really taste like them and my gut was heavy with regret. Still is. And that banana pudding...well, it sounded good and that was about all the good that could be wrung out of it.
Brooks Shaw's Old Country Store is surrounded by a make-believe village built around the legend of a man that died a tragic death in a train wreck caused by the elevation of a timetable over the value of human life. And the buffet at the Old Country Store is a further manifestation of that misalignment in priorities. There, you can eat as much as you can waddle out with still in you. And you can buy as much faux-country-store paraphrenalia as you can hold, but when you stop and really think about it, did you ever really want all that? And did you enjoy it? Did it enrich your life? Or did it just fill you with regret and flatulence?
It's one thing when David and I, barely erect after a meal, say, "Never again." But when the children, 6 and 9, echo the setiment, then you know that was a dinner gone horribly, horribly wrong.
But then, the business itself was thriving. The parking lot was full and we even waited in line to get seated. (And doesn't that just burn you up? When you wait in line for something that's just bad.) And it wasn't cheap, either. And I may be a fat girl, but I am a fat girl who eats with the skinny people. I cannot for the life of me understand how any human person could return for seconds...or thirds...or fourths. Where I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food available on my one and only trip to the trough, David overheard a woman seated next to us complain to the waiter that there was "hardly anything on there" to eat.
When we left, our fellow diners, many of whom were surrounded by spent red buffet plates when we arrived, were still making the pilgrimage to the buffet and back again. And like I said, it is pretty clear to look at me that eating too much is something of which I am undeniably guilty, but damn. No one in the world needs to have five plates of "dinner" followed by every dessert.
To get to the eating area, you have to walk through the country store part of the Old Country Store. And I guess it's alright. It's full of stuff - a bunch of bulk candy and cookbooks and electrified lanterns that are made to look like they run on kerosene, children's plastic toy trains, pop guns and "hillbilly" crap.
There wasn't a thing in there that a person would actually need, which is what a real country store would have been full of. Unless you actually have a use of the bisected mug that reads, "Well, you said you only wanted a half a cup of coffee!"
It's like, in America, we've become an imitation of ourselves. We go to places with the word "Old" in the name and call it historical... as if that's how things ever were. Like the foods in the grocery store plastered with claims of the health to be aquired within, if they have to shout it so loud, that's probably because they are lying. The past was not rife with opportunities for gluttony or cheap, plastic crap from China. Food was hardwon from the soil and goods were dear, not disposable.
We fill ourselves up with bad food that should taste good if you look at all the calories, fat, salt and sugar involved, but it doesn't.We, however, are so duped we think it's tasty and end up with diabetes and heart disease. And what if we all just blew our minds a little bit and eschewed the white bread and baked our own from whole grains or made a commitment to authenticity in everything at home and abroad.
This is where Wal-Mart comes in, seductress that she is with her tantalizing prices and more-is-better philosophy. They've figured us Americans out and mass-produced a middle-class lifestyle of coordinating hand towels and soap dispensers that make those of us who are struggling financially look like we are doing alright, at least in the bathroom. And now, we're hooked on appearing wealthy with jack to back it up.
Hey, even though I didn't talk about gay marriage, it seems I got my rancor-on after all. Nice. I wrote through nap-time again and now need to vacuum around Willoughby. But that's alright. The dirt in my house is real dirt we came by honestly, the old fashioned way.
If you're out traveling Tennessee way on I40, do stop in at the Loveless Cafe. You won't regret it. The Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village? Do yourself a favor and just keep on driving. You've already been there a hundred times a hundred other places...and you didn't like it then, either.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The was that wasn't or how not to write a poingnant autobiographical essay on life.

I don't ever want to be pregnant again.
I'm sure that's not uncommon among women in their mid-30's with three children. But I really, really don't.
I just don't think I could handle another miscarriage. After the first, I thought that God wouldn't do that to me again. My theology was a little naive because He did, if He had anything to do with it all. A third time and I might just break apart, like a glacier into the sea. There'd be a great splash behind your head and you'd whip around at the sound, wherever you happened to be, but in time to see only bubbles and slosh or air where I used to be. And it'd be many moments later, after you'd continued on for a few blocks that you'd wonder, "Wait a minute? Where's Jenny?"
But I'd just be bits awash in the warming ocean, too small to recognize, too far away to see.
Aaaah, why am I writing about this? It's that damn Sufjan Stevens David got me for Mother's Day. I love the gift. I love things that make me think and smile and cry. I just don't want to open this box. I don't want to tip it over and let all that blood and all those tears and all that sorrow spill out.
What if I can't get the lid back on? And I spend the rest of my life in some disconnected, impenetrable bubble of despair? And even if you came to pull me out like a good friend should, my ear drums gone cotton, I'd hear you talking, but my brain wouldn't be able to figure your language out. And any attempts to pull at my person would be like grabbing at noodles, trying to get yourself somewhere.
Save yourselves, I say. It's a sticky, yucky subject. I may be strapped into this carnival ride through the Tunnel of Grief, but you don't have to be. Get out while you still can. Quick, before I throw the lever.

Too late? I'm sorry. Well, at least hold on. Keep your hands and feet inside the car and somebody hand me a Kleenex, will you?

Two years after Eli and eleven months before Schuyler, we lost a baby.
Fifteen months before Willoughby, we lost a baby.

And I cried and I cried and I cried. I still cry
With the first one, I can remember just being so devastated and sitting on the sofa saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." over and over again. David with his arm around me, traveling his own interior landscape on which I could not focus.
I had a little cardboard jewelry box that had belonged to my grandmother. It had a soft cotton liner. The kind I remember pulling apart as a child, pretending I was God separating the clouds to see down below. We put all that remained in the box and had a burial in the back yard of the house we rented.
People, when you have a miscarriage, most people don't know what to do. Some look for fault. Some try to comfort you with the prospects of other future children. Some are resigned that "this just happens sometimes" or "it wouldn't have survived anyway" or "God's will". But because the baby was largely intangible, it's not an actual occurrence for most people.
Who knows if there was an actual baby? Maybe it was an egg with more ideas than real romance. Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe there was nothing at all.
We knew there was an actual baby. I sat and looked at the tiny, tiny twist of umbilical cord, the deflated egg sack. And I put it all in a box. And David and I put it in the ground. Maybe that little heart never struck the first beat. Maybe no steps toward autonomy were ever made. Maybe that baby could never have survived, but it was our child. Our second child.
I was simultaneously honored at having been blessed with that good fortune, even if only for a moment, and then, so devastated at having it all just ripped away. And I apologized again and again. Oh, I was so sorry. Sorry for myself. Sorry for our child. Sorry for whatever I'd done wrong to make this happen. Sorry for every thought I had about how I wasn't ready for this next child. Sorry for the selfish blockade in my heart that filled me with one part dread for every two parts joy or vice versa, depending on the day.
How is it that such relatively short periods of time have such huge impacts on what remains of our lives? I know that if that baby had lived, Schuyler would never have been born. I would not change things as they are. But in that tiny window, that still smaller, budding flower informed more of my world than scarcely anything else I can
I thought so much about life. Eli and I found a baby robin, toppled from its nest, and rescued it, feeding it on the half hour until we could get it to a rescue volunteer. I was still bleeding from the baby I'd never hold or feed or know, digging other holes in ground looking for sustenance to pull out, rather than sorrow to put down.
And I realized then, though I've barely spoken about it since, that even though that baby wasn't with us for very long, that baby was also never hungry, never cold or alone. That baby was surrounded in love - my love - from the first divided cell to the last. And you can take your arguments about when life begins and have them at some other intellectual moment afar, because that little life we made, that I sheltered, for that brief blip in time most people don't even remember, barely a turn of the calendar, that tiny, inconsequential creation was alive. And I loved that baby and gave with everything I had. Until I was no longer relevant. And that's no different from any other child with me as a mother. I just hope next time, far in the future, it's me that goes.

And all that said, I'll take my welling eyes and my joy called Willoughby outside to put seeds in the ground. I'll watch melons swell in July and wear my regular clothes.
And another day, I'll try to sort out the rest of it. I'm not sure I'd manage more than a jumbled, keening wail. And that wouldn't make for much by reading.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I'm a liar. You?

(this film largely inappropriate for children and workplaces, but I adore it anyway.)

We have been waxing way Odysseus these days. Busy doesn't even begin to describe our lives. The regular Hallelujah-It-Is-Spring-Again! upswing of activity has been compounded (rather exponentially) by my sister's wedding and my eldest son's dental drama.
Really, all of that information is relevant.
Stay with me.

Last Monday, Eli, Willoughby and I visited the department of pediatric endodontics at the Medical College of Virginia a few hours away in Richmond. Last October, my normally cautious, rule-following 9-year-old, hoisted himself up by the arms between two desks in a moment of age-appropriate folly. All of this while the teacher wasn't looking, mind you. Of course, not being blessed with the Luck O' the Sorry, the desks came crashing down, bringing with them the aforementioned Eli, who landed squarely on his front two teeth.
They snapped.
He looked like an abandoned building when he smiled. He was miserable guilty. Bless him. We got him caps and the dentist who did the work told us that if he began having any pain, we should bring him back immediately.
'Round about March the pain began.
We got some antibiotics, some Tylenol 3 and a referral to MCV for further investigation.
So, last Monday, off we went.
MCV is a teaching hospital. Eli's dentist was a resident, about done with his schooling. Extremely nice, capable guy. Young and handsome and in to sharing secret handshakes with his patients.
Because the facility is set up for teaching and as a public health dental facility, the exam room had space for six patients. So, as our evaluation progressed, so did the evaluations of many other children all around us.
I am an auditory magpie. When I am in a conversation, that conversation is my world. But when I am waiting, I don't know how not to listen to what other people are saying.
So, all around me parents and kids were being asked the questions we'd already answered.
What is your favorite drink?
What snacks do you like to have?
Do you drink anything before you go to sleep? What's that?
Does anyone smoke in your home?
And all around me, I'm watching the faces of parents lying. You can tell the lie. The slight delay in response. The eye roll up and over. The stammer. That smile.
And they are doing this in front of their kids.
Of course, I come home to lament to David that what the world really needs is for people to admit when they have done something wrong and then, try to do better. And to do this in front of their children, rather than trying to avoid scrutiny by lying. Lying in front of your kids teaches your kids to lie.
If you give your kid a sippy cup of Mountain Dew at bedtime, just own up and stop it.
Jesus demands it.
If you're going to be a follower of that Way, then you have to weave it in to every action and interaction. It has to be inextricable from your life, even when it's your neck on the block.
Turns out Eli's mouth pain was perfectly normal and had nothing to do with his fall. We had it by the tail for about two months before it finally just disappeared with the appearance of a new tooth. Last Thursday, though, it kept him up most of the night.
I believe in school. But I think there's a whole lot to life that isn't school. This is why we get a truancy letter every year. If my children don't feel well or if we have something else important going on, they don't go. Friday, the school day saw Schuyler off to first grade and the sleepless Eli off with Willoughby and I to Roanoke to pick up a dress for my sister's wedding.
It wasn't what I normally would have done with a child home from school, but I had to get the dress. The wedding is insanely soon and as awful as I am, I don't want to let her down.
If I may insert another wrinkle, my car didn't pass inspection awhile ago and I haven't had the money or the time to get it fixed. Mostly it's the money part. The two weeks one gets to solve all vehicular issues and have the car re-inspected passed a long time ago. So, naturally, not having the Luck O' the Sorry myself, I got pulled over on the interstate a few miles from our destination.
The State Trooper asked me about my very faded rejection sticker. It started pink. By then it was quite anemic. I answered all her questions honestly....until...she asked if I'd resolved all the issues that got the car rejected.
She was trying to be nice. If I'd had it all fixed and not had a chance to get it re-inspected, I thought she'd probably just let me go without a ticket. So, I lied.
She asked me again and I lied again.
All with my two sons in the back seat. Willoughby wouldn't know a lie, but Eli? Eli's almost 10. He knows more of the deal than I do most of the time. And the funny thing is, I realized what I was doing and didn't stop it. I didn't just own up and say, "You know, my bad. I'm sorry. I will not make this mistake again."
Caught in the headlights, I took the easy way. Not the Jesus Way.
So, she takes my license and the sad, faded rejection sticker back to her cruiser and while we sat and waited, I started to cry.
I don't know that I've ever been so disappointed in myself. All of those parents from MCV floated, in succession, by my mind's eye. And I sunk down deep in my humiliation.
With my window down, the sound of the traffic going by was huge. Each car and truck passing left behind it a slap of air. That's right. I was being rebuked by the very atmosphere, so deep was my shame.
As the state trooper got out of her car to come back, a truck flew past, taking her hat off her head and flinging it down at the very edge of the road. She looked behind her, bent down to get it, and in that way the mind does, I saw a fast-forward version of a potential future. In that instant, I saw what would happen if by my avoiding my responsibilities of keeping my car inspected (pretty trivial on the responsibility scale) and my lying to her, she had gotten hit by a car going 70 mph.
And I thought about that as I watched that not happen and her approach my car, summons in hand. I though about her family. Did she have children? What hadn't she done in her life? Who did she love? Who loved her? Who was I to put her in that position. A nice lady, just doing her job.
So, I was really bawling by the time she got to my window.
And she was so nice about it.
And I was so not worthy of her kindness. Sitting there. Big old hypocrite liar. All teary eyed with my apologies; how I'd been watching the traffic and realized the risk I'd forced her to take to do her job. She told me it was okay, because that's what nice people do. I guess she thought I was upset at getting a ticket because she went on to tell me how I could just prove I'd gotten the car fixed and the judge would dismiss my case. I didn't even have to travel back there. I could just mail it in.
I drove away, my entry back on to the interstate made easier by the trooper making a way for me.
I thought she was a lot like Jesus in that moment. Looking at me, in my messy, rejected car and smiling anyway; still making it possible for me to have safe passage by risking herself, even though I was the one to be shunned.
And I wanted to be better than I am.
So, I apologized to Eli for lying. I told him it was wrong. I told him I wouldn't do it again. Because the really important stuff in life wasn't about avoiding fines and the scrutiny of dental technicians. It's about being honest and kind and sincere and of service. And I had been none of those things in that moment.
And I resolved to be more mindful. And more honest. Even when it seems like it doesn't matter, it always matters.
People who lie, who avoid, who steal, they are not the broken that I observe from high atop Mount Christian.
They are me.
I am them.
In Christ, we are all as one.
As a follower, it is to me be as Jesus. It is to me to look in kindness on those that struggle, knowing full well the struggle within myself.
It is to me to span the void. It is to me to remain humble; to never indulge in being self-righteous because there is very little righteousness in myself. Any indignation I feel is just a lie I'm telling myself.