Tag Archives: family

Food for Thought

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“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?”  –Lin Yutang

Today Anderson Cooper spent his new show talking about (disordered) eating.  Food is such a base, simple need that is loaded with unbelievable baggage.  We need food from before we are out of our mothers’ wombs, and continue to need it until the day we die.  It is ever-present, both background and foreground for the most important and mundane moments of our lives.  Food is a matter of life and death.  While it seems so simple, such an afterthought, it really is a complex piece of our lives.

As someone lucky enough to live a life where my next meal is not a mystery, where I know that I can choose what I consume, food takes on much more symbolism.  It intricately ties itself to memories and people, to places and emotions.  Cooper admitted to being a surprisingly picky eater and other people talked about idiosyncrasies with respect to their dining rituals.  As a picky eater, I felt validated that there are others out there who share in my aversions, my fears, and my embarrassments.  As I prepare to make myself dinner, with this show on my mind, I’m thinking very seriously about food.

I go through phases when I will crave something and eat it almost exclusively, and then will lose my taste for it.  Right now my taste for spicy food is dominating my palate.  While I still fear new foods, my old standbys are getting a little punch with some chipotle or jalapeno.  And while there are foods that I try and gain a taste for, there are some things that I will never refuse, that I am always in the mood for.

With the absurd request of recently-executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, many are asking what their last meal would be.  I spent a long overnight shift answering this one for myself.  After one of the most fascinating stories I gleaned from This American Life (Poultry Slam 2007), the question stuck with me.  After hearing about the legendary last meal of forbidden ortolan (you really need to listen to, or at least read, the story), I wondered what I would eat.  During a silent night of work, the thought settled on my mind and I quietly realized what I would eat, with no reservations.

If I knew I had only one meal left to eat, I would want my mother’s chicken and dumplings, drink strawberry Quick, and enjoy my grandma’s chocolate balls (yep, laugh all you want) for dessert.  When I’m hot and craving something sweet, nothing quenches my thirst like Diet Coke.  There is no pizza like a hot Round Table pie.  I love the soft, gooey sweet bread my grandma makes each Christmas.  I have a sandwich place I would eat at every day to keep in business.  There are plenty of foods that I love and would eat any time, any place, but that would be my last meal.  I would savor the hot broth, tender chicken shredded in it, saving the heavy, chewy dumplings for last, sprinkled with salt and lemon pepper.  I would remember every cold night, warmed by the scoops out of the steaming pot.  I would remember my family, silently gathered around the table, burning our tongues on the hot broth because we cannot wait to eat the delicious tradition.  I would sip my pink milk, remembering my little mouse glass, the lunches of grilled cheese and crackers.  I would remember being young, as much as I could, and the special treat that strawberry Quick was.  The cool milk soothing my burnt tongue, I would eat until my stomach burst with warmth, heavy with winter.  Then, after the hot meal, I would enjoy the semi-frozen chocolate candy that my grandmother makes each Christmas.  Small, sweet balls of graham cracker, peanut butter and coconut, coated in dark chocolate, are a sure sign that the holidays have arrived.

My mouth waters as I think of the foods, able to recall the tastes as I imagine the glorious meal.  While delicious and satisfying, the meal would be made infinitely better because it is tied together with love.  My mom, leaning against the counter as she stirs the large, stainless steel pot of chicken never gets more thanks than on those nights.  My grandma, year after year baking, her tanned hands forming each ball and dipping them, freezing them and always keeping a few hidden until New Year’s for us.  My dad, stirring the gritty drink mix in as we kids climbed up to the table for lunch.  The last meal I would choose wouldn’t be some of the best food on earth, but it would be food that makes me feel indescribably loved.  It is food that links me to my family, food that brings me home.  There are plenty of other things I enjoy eating and restaurants I love, but this is the food that sustains me, the things that make eating life-giving.  What would your last meal be?

“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” –Mother Teresa

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A Dark Day

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“In the future, can’t wait to see/ If you open up the gates for me…It’s kinda hard with you not around/ Know you in Heaven smilin’ down/ Watchin’ us while we pray for you/ Every day we pray for you/ ‘Til the day we meet again/ In my heart I’ll keep you friend/ Memories give me the strength I need to proceed/ Strength I need to believe… I still can’t believe you’re gone/ Give anything to hear half your breath…”  –Puff Daddy, “I’ll be Missing You”

September 8th is a difficult day.  It marks the anniversary of my aunt’s death, which rocked my family.  My mom’s only sister, her death was incredibly painful and something that we just don’t talk about.  In fact, her name is only mentioned with the greatest caution.  While she crosses my mind throughout the year, the day we lost her always comes with an empty ache, a fog that makes everything else so much less important.

Terry was the first person I knew who died.  I had friends who lost parents and knew of some girls who had tragically died when we were in junior high school, but no one that I knew, that I loved, that I had a relationship with, had died before.  I remember the frustration and deep, novel sadness that overcame me.  As a freshman in high school, I was in a difficult middle place between wanting to be comforted and coddled and feeling compelled to comfort my mother.  It pains me that we do not talk about her.  I hate that she is taboo, too hard to remember because she was wonderful.  I know that we turn the dead into saints, and she had plenty of demons that she faced and conquered in her life, but she became a wonderful woman.  I actually spent very little time with her, but she was an inspiration.  On top of defeating addiction, she was the mom I hope to be–she led her daughter’s scout troop, shuttled her children to archery and AWANAS, loved her grandbaby fiercely, and met the neighbor kids at the front door to pray with and for them before they walked to school each morning.  Her family fell apart after her death and now, twelve years later, I still do not see the silver lining, the reason, the good that came of all this.

This unresolved anger, the senselessness of her passing, is perhaps why I feel so unsettled on the anniversary.  As I drove to work, I was incredibly stressed and tired.  I had (big shock!) computer complications that made me miss an important conference early in the morning and was running on just a couple of hours of sleep as I left for a long day of work.  For the last month and a half, the only thing that I have listened to in the car has been the Avenue Q soundtrack.  I closed at work the night before, so I had listened to the radio on the way home because Love Line is a super secret shame of mine.  As I started my car, the radio was still playing.  Before changing over to my cd, I scanned my presets just to see what I was missing.  In a moment that makes me think that “coincidences” are just a simplistic word for God at work, the song that opened this post, good old Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” was just starting.  My eyes flooded and throat closed, but I couldn’t turn it off.  A cheesy remnant of my adolescence, this song is so full of sorrow and strikes me as painfully sincere.  It was a reminder of Terry, of her day, that sadness and anger is okay, and that her memory and legacy live on.  I haven’t heard that song in years, but it made its way, in its entirety, into my drive.  Mourning with the radio made me feel a little less alone.

As the day dragged on and the city baked in an above-average heat, the day looked to be as bad as it could be.  And then everything went black.  From Mexico to Orange County, the Pacific to Arizona, electricity disappeared.  Of course.  Because when it rains, it pours on the day I forgot my umbrella.  Sitting in the darkness, unable to leave work, I thought about the fatigue overtaking my body.  I thought about my stressful morning, about how tired I am of having the worst-case scenario always play out, and then I thought about Terry.  The day was just overwhelming.  I felt small and helpless and very, very alone.

I finally got home and quickly rounded up candles and flashlights.  I called home quickly to tell my parents I was alive and, if something more sinister struck while we were without power, that I loved them.  I settled for the most edible of my food and finally gave into the darkness and went to bed.  Laying in the still, hot darkness, willing my open window to carry a breeze instead of the roar of freeway traffic, I drifted in and out of light sleep.  I woke up and hoped that when I checked the time on my phone that the night had passed, that dawn was near.  It was 10.  I lay in sweat, near tears, and resolved that it would be a sleepless, endless night.  No tv, no reading, no video games, and no phone.  I knew I would never make it.  And so did God.  As I lay there, feeling the hot darkness crush me and my spirit, it happened.  About ten minutes after I woke up and panicked at the long night ahead, the lights came on.  My fan kicked in and the air swirled over my hot skin.  He really wasn’t going to give me more than I could bear, but as Mother Teresa said, “I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” 

I do realize how insignificant a dying computer, mean customers, no lights and a hot night sound compared to my aunt, who no long can fight those little battles.  It was just a long day,  a hard day, a day that I was more than glad to see end.  But, as I fell asleep, with most things back in order, the words of my beloved Avenue Q ran through my overwhelmed mind:

“For now we’re healthy/ For now we’re employed/ For now we’re happy/ If not overjoyed/ And we’ll accept the things we cannot avoid, for now… Only for now!/ For now there’s life!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s love!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s work/ For now there’s happiness!/ But only for now!/ For now discomfort!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s friendship!/ Only for now!… Each time you smile/ It’ll only last a while/ Life may be scary/ But it’s only temporary/ Everything in life is only for now!”  —Avenue Q, “For Now”

Summer Solace

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“If a June night could talk, it would probably boast it invented romance.” –Bern Williams

I am not a summer girl.  I loved school and hated to see it end.  Yes, a little rest and freedom from homework was welcome, and the night owl in me embraced the late nights and sleeping through the morning, but in general, I do not love summer.  I hate the heat.  I miss school.  I get lonely and bored.  I get antsy.  I am not a swimmer, not a sunbather, not a traveler.  The months creep past with slow, oppressive heat and the stale smell of sweat and lethargy invades the house.

But my disdain for the sunny months does not dim the nostalgic ache I feel for childhood summers.  I hated them in the moment, but look back with longing for those small town heat waves.

Summers were hot.  I remember lying still on the living room carpet, fighting my brothers for position in front of the big metal fan that stood on our hearth.  At night, after darkness crept through the valley, we opened windows and amped up fans to blow what little cool air existed through the house.   I remember the little brown fan, oscillating on my dresser, and the welcome touch of its breeze as it swayed side to side in the darkness.  Mornings started with a welcome chill, clean bright sun stretching across the neighborhood.  The moments were brief before the sun began its cruel work.  We bathed in sunscreen before swimming, hid in the house during midday.  Summer nights came slow, late, and never as strong as we hoped.  The heat never left, but there is something magical about a starry night, barefoot on the warm cement and cool grass.

I remember splashing in our wading pool out on the cement.  My brothers and I would fill it with cold water from the hose, sliding through the cool stream that penetrated the heated water from the day before.  We wore swim masks and snorkels and would lay on our stomachs and “swim” circles around the pool, dragging our half-submerged bodies in circles to create a small current, and then let it push us as we sat still.  I played dress up in old bridesmaid dresses with my friend, pretending we were brides and princesses, and we picked questionable berries from the shrubs to use for “real” food to play house.  I watched Stick Stickley in my bedroom as I moved furniture and cleaned out drawers until I could no longer stand the afternoon sun baking my windows.  We painted pictures and wrote poems and tried new recipes for the fair.  It was frightening and thrilling to walk the halls and find our entries, some with ribbons, and find other names we recognized.  I can smell the 4H livestock and feel the straw beneath my feet as cotton candy melted on my tongue.

As I grew older, summers changed.  It meant summer school to get ahead and to get my driver’s permit.  It was my first regular job, working at the city’s summer camp.  That was when I got my first honest to goodness tan, spending afternoons watching kids swim in the public pool.  We were mobile and employed, so we spent the summer free.  We had barbecues and parties, spent late nights at the lake and in back yards.  We walked the empty streets and played running charades at the elementary school.

Then, just like Harry Potter’s owl, letters came each August containing our school supply lists.  I loved shopping for notebooks and pens, but secretly feared that first day back.  It was so scary to see everyone for the first time, see new faces, see how everyone had changed.  There was so much at stake when we returned, frantic phone calls comparing class lists and finding someone, anyone that was in our classes.  There were new uniforms to iron and new outfits to assemble.  There was so much anticipation in the end, such a far cry from the endless, lazy days before.

I remember shorts and swimsuits, popsicles and fireworks.  When I think of summer my skin grows feverish and the heat hugs its way around my body.  I can see my mom’s beautifully browned legs as I sat between them while she covered me in cool, creamy sun screen.  I can smell the metallic water, dribbling from the hose, as we made a “safe” path of wet cement, between our chalk artwork, to walk barefoot on.  The crickets and bicycle tires echo through the dark streets in the cool of late night, as the neighborhood comes to life.  I hate the sweat and the loneliness and stagnation.  I hate summer.  And as I remember those moments, the summers of childhood, tears fill my tired eyes and I know without a doubt that I would give anything to return to those blistering days.

“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”  –Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

“All was well.”

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“He’ll be famous–a legend–I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future–there will be books written about Harry–every child in our world will know his name!”  –Professor McGonagall, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

This weekend I will go see my very last Harry Potter film in the theater.  I will see the final new movie.  Ever.  As I wrote yesterday, this is exciting and incredibly sad for me.

These movies are so special to me, and the memories of watching them are sweet.  It is a bit surreal to see the book that I loved played out in front of me, see how the images match up with my own imagination.  I moan and whine when directors make choices that I would never have imagined (cough REMUS LUPIN cough) and swoon when things appear exactly as I had dreamed them.  But the movies are more than that.  They are connections, memories, a world I share with people I love.

The first film I saw in the theater was Azkaban.  I was returning from college and went with my friend A.  We went to a late night movie, sitting far in the back of the theater.  When we left, we saw many, many friends had filled the dark theater in front of us.  We sat wrapped in scarves–scarlet and gold striped, of course–that my mother knitted for us to wear to the movie.  It is one of the last memories I have of A before she moved across the country, but every time I see that scarf, I think of her and my mother’s love.  I remember being in a small town, in a dark room, enjoying being young.  It was love.

The only midnight show that I was able to go to was Goblet of FireE and bought our tickets ahead of time for a theater as far from our campus as we could find.  We waited in anticipation and the afternoon of the film, loaded our bags with books and notes and went to sit in line.  We sat on the sidewalk in front of the theater surrounded by middle schoolers and those special breeds that dressed up.  We intended to study, but the evening faded into darkness and we simply talked.  I’m sure we discussed the book and the films, but mostly we were just happy.  We laughed and shared a night that no one else has shared with me.  We smuggled hot Starbucks in with us and settled in for a late, long movie.  We found out the next day that plenty of our friends went to the theater about a mile from our school, but our secret adventure made the night all the more magical.

Order of the Phoenix was another beast altogether.  It came along at an odd time, was a bit more inconvenient–the summer after my graduation.  I actually saw that film twice.  I saw it first with my parents, sitting in the back of a theater while they visited me.  Then I saw it with a friend that I had classes with.  In our Modernism class, we discovered a shared goofiness, disregard for pretense, and love of Harry.  It was different, going with her and her friend, and not nearly as cozy as my other movies, but it was wonderful because it was yet another way that I connected, a friend of my geeky heart.

Half-blood Prince was the summer again.  I was alone in a big city, missing my movie buddy E.  I reconnected with an old college friend and we met up for an opening day matinée.  The line was surprisingly short and we watched the film further back than I would have chosen to sit.  As I rewatch this in my living room right now, as I write, I remember very little of the film.  I remember the book well, its heart-shattering end.  I remember being very dissatisfied, robbed of my beautiful grief.  And I remember talking with my friend after the film, enjoying when our criticism or kudos aligned.  It was delightful to have someone to talk about it with passion, who loved the books and world as much as I.  It was a wonderful recognition of a friend who is far more like myself than I realized.

Deathly Hallows was my last venture into cinematic Hogwarts.  This time, E was back from deployment and living in my city again.  We were reunited and it was as it should be.  A tiny twinge of guilt shadowed the night because we both had other people who we should have gone with, but we had to see it together.  We hadn’t been in the same city for long, and it was a special chance for us to embrace what makes our friendship wonderful.  As the film ended, we were determined to end the series together, but that was not to be.

So now I anticipate going to see the very last movie for the first time.  A sent me a message, reminding me to wear my scarf.  My mom will be visiting next week, and I have a hunch a movie is in our future.  My dad and I talked at length about the lead up, about what is to come.  E is deployed and we will have a movie night when she returns–she has already emailed me to ask how it is.  And I will go back with my excited Half-blood friend.  We are making an early day of it and enjoying a morning show.  I’m excited to talk with her about every word that strays from the book and sends a pain through my soul.  And we’ll enjoy the final reveal, the last moment of this adventure, and it will be another magical movie memory.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.  –Albus Dumbledor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“My mother, that’s who I mean…”

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“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.”  –Washington Irving

I love my mom. 

Writing about her proves a little harder than writing about my dad because I have always been a daddy’s girl.  On the other hand, I had quite a few years where, at best, I maintained a shallow truce with her and, at worst, was furious with her.  Perhaps that is every adolescent girl’s fate.  Perhaps it is the timeless Greek tragedy, the younger determined to tear down and defeat the older.  Perhaps these are just excuses.  The truth is, I said and did so many things that I now regret.  This shame is why it’s hard to write about my mom.  I didn’t have a life-long friendship, a close companionship.  I have guilt and deep, unquenching love.

I spent a lot of time angry at my mom.  I was angry because I had two little brothers.  I was mad that she babysat other children.  I hated that she was a dedicated teacher that loved her students.  I hated that (I thought) she had all the time in the world for every other child.  I wanted her to myself.  I can seen now how much I craved her affection and attention.  She was in no way distant or absent–it was just never enough for me.  No matter how present she was, I needed more.  To this day, I don’t know why.  I may have been a deeply unhappy child, lonely and unpopular, that just wanted someone to fill that emptiness.  Maybe my jealousies just got the better of me.  Whatever the reasons, I resented her.  I also burned with hatred for her rules.  She was so strict with me, lenient with my brothers.  She was unreasonable when I wanted to go out in high school, unwavering with her rules when it came to boys.  She wasn’t like the other moms who bent curfews and trusted their girls to make good choices.

Because she wasn’t like other moms.  She has lived a harder life than I will ever understand because she shielded me from it.  She struggled more through childhood than she let me.  Her family was unstable and fractured–she held ours together.  Her mom still works endlessly to support her children–she spent years at home so we were not alone.  She saw what drugs and violence do to people, and put up her iron walls to protect us from those evils.  She is a stronger woman than I ever knew.

As I’ve grown, I’ve understood her better.  My dad told me this time and again, but I now see how deeply she loved us, loved me.  She is not an overly affectionate woman, but I never went to school without a clean, ironed uniform.  My lunch was always full and fresh, my hair washed and combed.  Our home was clean and comfortable, our homework checked and complete.  Our birthdays were photographed and Christmases video taped.  She crocheted me afghans and sewed my bedspreads.  She stitched me Easter dresses.  And Christmas dresses.  And birthday dresses.  And Halloween costumes.  She found the perfect stocking stuffers and underwear.  She made dinner every night and birthday cakes, snacks for class and cookies for the fair.  We never went without. 

I would have prefered more cuddles and tender moments.  But I see as clearly as the keys beneath my finger tips that this was how my mom loves us.  This is how she knows to show her love.  She spent every last penny, every moment giving to us.  She gives things, does things, and makes things to show her love.  She doesn’t say it often and doesn’t talk endlessly about it, but she gives it. 

As I grow older, I see what this has done to me.  I send cards every holiday.  I send gifts every birthday.  I buy things that remind me of my friends when I see them.  I don’t regret spending money on others.  I am happy to run errands for them.  I bake for people.  I do for people.  I try to be better than she is about telling people how I feel, but without realizing it, I have taken on her generosity, the physical form her love takes.

Today, I love my mother just as much as I did when I was young, if not more.  I know more of her, have had more of her, and have been given more of her now.  I like to call her and talk about the television shows we both watch.  I like sending her websites to look at.  I like making her recipes myself.  But I also love making her laugh.  I like to make people laugh in general and want to be thought of as funny, but there is a pride that comes with making her laugh that no one else gives me.  I want to make her proud.  I know that there really isn’t a lot that is remarkable about my life right now, but there was a time I loved to call and tell her about tests or papers I aced, programs I coordinated, projects I completed.

I loved her so much more deeply when I was young than I realized.  My anger and pain eclipsed my devotion to her.  Now that age has tempered that angst, that love is clear and easy to find.  It courses through me, it crosses the miles, and it beats like the life blood she infused me with.  I wish there were no asterisk to our relationship, nothing that I want to forget, but the reality is that life and relationships are complicated.  I would rather not think about the monster that I was, the cruelty that she loved me through, and focus on the now, the true friendship that we have forged.  My mom may not be the easiest person on earth to love, but neither is her daughter, and we both overcome that.  I am so proud of her, so amazed by her strength and resilience, that “love” seems too small a word, my heart too weak to hold all that I feel for her. 

“All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That’s his.”  –Oscar Wilde

One Red Heart

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OR: A DEFENSE OF VALENTINE’S DAY AND THE POSTAL SERVICE

“And none will hear the postman’s knock/ Without a quickening of the heart./For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” —W.H. Auden

(It’s been much too long since I have written anything and there has been so much that I have thought about since July.  But internet was spotty and time was wasted and the longer I wait to write, the more daunting it becomes.  So I’m diving back in because I feel and think better when I write.  I write better when I write.)

I used to consider myself a romantic.  I was a sucker for any film starring Drew Barrymore or Freddy Prinze Jr.  I gushed over boy band lyrics and was convinced that Prince Charming was just waiting to make his move.  Now I fear that I am a garden-variety cynic.  Love stories are too neat and cliché.  Declarations of love are too optimistic and blind.  And I hate Valentine’s Day.  It’s a day to remind me that love remains elusive, romance a stranger, and affection distant.  That being said, deep inside, a small flicker of the optimist remains and fights to reclaim her territory.

I am a fan of the ease technology lends to communication.  Living far from my family and old friends, it’s nice and convenient to go online and send a message, to email when I have the time, to text when I can’t talk.  However, I embrace these only because the world has moved so fast that it leaves me no choice.  I highly prefer a phone conversation to the 160-character limit of a text message.  I like the nuances of voice much more than an emoticon.  I’d rather have lunch than repeatedly message that we should.  I will never, ever, EVER embrace the electronic reader.  I find photo prints far superior to clicking through a flickr file.  Going to college gave me a new appreciation for mail.  To get a care package or letter from home rivaled any e-Card forwarded to me. 

Loving the physicality of mail, the weight of a card, the feel of tearing into an envelope lingered after graduation.  I have continued to try hard to get cards in the mail for holidays, send home a little reminder that my family and friends are on my mind.  I spend time searching for the right card for each person, choosing humor or sincerity, addressing and decorating each envelope.  I love getting mail, but I have come to love sending it just as much.  Just before Valentine’s day I was waiting in line at the Post Office to buy stamps.  Losing precious minutes on my day off, I stood in line for what everyone knows is far too long.  As I neared the front of the line, I saw an older woman leaning over the counter addressing an envelope.  She then turned it over and with a red marker, drew a large red heart over the sealed tab and colored it in.  This is why I love mail.  I almost cried, overcome with emotion watching her.  I was filled with love for her, for whomever that letter was meant for, for my family and friends I was mailing. 

Mail is time.  It is money.  It is effort.  I have to pick out a card, or at least find paper.  I have to put my hand to the paper, write out my own thoughts, articulate my own feelings.  I leave a piece of me on the paper, my handwriting, my words.  I put the writing in an envelope.  I lick it, tasting the glue and feeling the rough paper on my tongue.  I line up an address label and stamp.  Mail is intentional: one card to one person.  No Cc or BCc.  No mass forwarding.  No Tweeting to the masses.  I then spend time putting stickers and colors all over the envelopes, making my letters special.  I want my people, my loves, to stand out and be unique.  I can be impatient, but I also appreciate that mail is not instant– it goes on a journey, taking time to arrive.  Mail is anticipated, delivered, discovered.  Junk mail is annoying and wasteful, but it’s worth wading through for the good stuff.

This incident at the Post Office reassured me that perhaps the hopeless romantic I bragged about being in Junior High isn’t gone.  She’s wounded and scared, but she’s in there.  Like Bukowski’s blue bird, my optimist survives quietly.  If she weren’t, I wouldn’t send Valentines.  If she weren’t, that woman and her heart-sealed letter would not have been on my mind for more than a month.  I wouldn’t be bitter and resent romantic holidays if I didn’t believe in romance, feel that I am missing something.  I go out of my way to show my love, even if it is a small gesture.  Watching that little old woman with her red marker, it was clear to me how much I value the written word, communication, and love.  True love, strong and simple, is not grand gestures and big romances.  It is small devotions, simple reminders, and hand-drawn Valentines.  You can see it, touch it, read it, and send it– it is very, very real. 

“Christian, you may see me only as a drunken, vice-ridden gnome whose friends are just pimps and girls from the brothels. But I know about art and love, if only because I long for it with every fiber of my being.” –Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge!

All dressed up and nowhere to go

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“A father is always making his baby into a little woman.  And when she is a woman he turns her back again.”  –Enid Bagnold

I’m sitting in my stuffy room after school.  As Nickelodeon cartoons flicker from the old tv in the corner, I riffle through my closet, squeezing between the Barbies and shoes, making my way to the back.  I pull my Easter dress off of the hanger, hopping back out onto the carpet.  I pull the dress on, fluffing the sleeves that my mother painstakingly sewed, and toss my uniform aside.  Peeking from my door, I race down the hallway to the bathroom to admire my gown.  I comb my hair and make sure the bow is tied perfectly at my waist, and then sneak back to my room.  I hide quietly, listening for the familiar crack of the front door opening.  For no particular reason, with no particular plans, I sit and wait for my dad to get home from work.  Maybe it is because I think this is what a princess does.  Maybe I just want to wear my dress more than one day that year.  Mostly it’s because he’s my dad and he’s coming home from work.

I sit with crumpled brown paper book covers making my legs itch.  Binders surround me and my eyes feel heavy.  Frantically trying to finish homework before Letterman’s Top Ten, I scribble on the couch across the room from my father.  He turns on Sports Center and I continue to work, procrastination becoming a familiar foe.  He turns the volume down and begins to tell me about whatever game is being recapped.  And about his day.  And that leads to stories about college, or childhood before cable, or the years when I was too young to be up this late.  Then it’s movies he loves, the books they remind him of, the art classes he once took.  Some stories are old, ones I’ve heard a dozen times.  Others are new, adding a new dimension to this man whose known me since I was an amorphous cell cluster.  Some are favorites I love each time and others I tune out as I continue work.  Only now do I realize what a sacrifice that was, staying up so late and getting up so early, working so hard and forgoing his rest to talk with me. 

I’m hot and tired and sore and hiking the longest trail I’ve ever seen.  I want to cry and shower and be anywhere but here.  He laughs along with the boys in my class, leading the hike with them while I lag behind with my friends, hating the camping adventure.  I hate them for being with him, hate him for wanting to be with them.  I hate this trip and the nettles that scratch legs and everything.  Then he drops back, slowing himself down, leaving the guys whose company he’s enjoying, and brings up the rear with us.  He’s a favorite chaperone, and enjoys the time with the class, and decides to lag behind.

I head out to visit him at a conference.  With no work, I have nothing tying me to the city so I head out.  He has sessions to attend, but we walk through the town and find a restaurant to enjoy dinner.  We talk about our weeks, what I like to drink, my brothers, the people around us.  We venture through a park, posing with the statues we find there, snapping pictures in the chilly drizzle.  We watch a marathon of Lock Up, laughing and riveted by the documentary of our prison system.  We go to dinner at a museum, he networking and me perusing the exhibits.  I put on a dress I bought a year before but never had reason to wear.  I want to look professional for the executives at the conference.  I want to look business-like, or fashionable, I’m not quite sure.  I just know that I’m still dressing up for my dad, simply because his work day is done.  I am always a daddy’s girl.

“Will you keep out all the sadness?”

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“Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” —Vincent Van Gogh

For a little more than a week I have felt like I’ve been walking around under a dark umbrella.  For one reason or another, internal or external, I have just been down.  A part of it is loneliness.  I miss seeing my family and as I get closer to visiting them, I realize how much I really do miss them.  Part of it is spending a holiday alone and at work.  Part of it is having friends cancel plans and be in funks too.  Most of it is just me.

I have always been an internal processor.  I like talking through things with people I trust, but I never get as deep, as analytical as I do in my own head.  I have also always been overly sensitive, always taken everything personally.  There is no other way that I take things.  An unreturned phone call indicates that a friend is tired of spending time with me.  The small things become huge. 

Spring has begun to emerge and with it comes unpredictable weather.  I love the rain, love cozy, cold weather.  Yesterday, as dark clouds hung over the city and the rain began to fall, I realized that I felt as cold and dark as the sky.  I felt down, falling, disconnected.  I enjoyed time inside, warm and lazy, but it was a rare occasion when the weather didn’t so much get me down, but it reflected and intensified the heaviness I was feeling.

I watched Where the Wild Things Are this weekend.  It is a beautiful movie, but much like the rain, it is dark.  The colors are bleak and muted.  There are instances of striking color and contrast, but it is mostly a shadowy, dim film.  It is visually really beautiful, but something about the story and look really made me deeply sad.  It is a lonely movie, filled with people aching to belong and be wanted.  It just hit the wrong, or right, spot.  One of the first things one of the massive Things asks their new king is, “Will you keep out all the sadness?”  It’s the question we all ask, every time we forge a relationship, every time we spend money, drink, eat, create, pray– will this keep out all the sadness? 

I spent some time talking with a good friend that same night.  We caught up on life a bit and one of the things that we commiserated on was our ability to assume the worst.  We talked about how quickly we jump to the worst case conclusion, specifically with respect to relationships.  I have done this a lot lately with friends in general.  I assume they judge, they tire, they despise, they regret.  I assume that I am a problem, a burden.  Part of this is the dark mood I’ve been in, but part of it is just the core of me.  It’s been a week with a lot of tears, a lot of exhaustion.  It’s tiring to feel sad.  The energy drains from you, leaving heavy fatigue. 

Then today I ran out to the post office.  It was sunny and breezy, with warmth just beginning to cut through the morning.  The radio started up with Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” the most upbeat song about exactly how I felt.  “They tell me your blue sky’s gone to gray/ They tell me your passion’s gone away.”  There was something uplifting about singing along with it as the song played on.  It was followed up with Jimmy Eat World’s “It Just Takes Some Time.”  As I sat at the stop light, feeling sun on my arms, the words just spoke deeply into me.  All of the sadness, the darkness, melted away as I listened to the song tell me to not do exactly what I had been doing: don’t write me off.  Hang in there.  Trust that it really is going to be fine.  Trust that time changes things.  Sometimes it takes something really small to change a person.  I had a nice, joyful day after that.  I enjoyed company, the sun, walking around a beautiful city, coming home and resting.  There are still plenty of things that I am worried about, insecure about, hurting because of, but it feels so much brighter, easier.  I just needed a little reminder to lighten up.   

“Hey, don’t write yourself off yet/ It’s only in your head you feel out or/ Looked down on/ Just do your best, do everything you can/ And don’t you worry what their bitter hearts are gonna say/ It just takes some time/ Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride/  Everything (everything) will be just fine/ Everything (everything) will be alright.” —Jimmy Eat World, “It Just Takes Some Time”

“You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life…”

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As I mentioned before, I am not a “music person.”  I am enjoying music more and more as I get older, and I am finding more value in it, but I’m still not that person.  A friend asked me this week to make a list of ten or fifteen songs that have made me who I am, that I couldn’t live without.  There are few songs that I would go crazy if I were deprived of, but there are more than I realized that have shaped and changed me.  At the very least, they make up a soundtrack, marking important times and moments in my life.  Interestingly, as I started thinking about them, a number are linked to movies that I love.  Picking movies that change me or that I couldn’t give up is much harder because I have a much stronger connection to some of them.  Go figure that their songs are on my list.

So here is some of my list.  This is not concrete and will undoubtedly change over time, if not immediately.  These are my songs:

*”Slip Sliding Away,” Paul Simon: My father sang this song to me as a child when he put me to bed.  There were others that he sang, others that I listened to on my cassette player, but this is my bedtime song.  I know it in no other context.  It will always be my dad’s song.  The lyrics are so sorrowful, so beautiful.  I wonder, looking back, if it was just a song that he loved, or one that epitomized those nights.  Was it just another song, or a reminder to savor the warm nights before homework, television, sleepovers and moving out?

*”Faith,” Limp Bizkit: I vividly remember this cover from my junior high days.  It was a time when my parents forbid MTV and VH1, when I snuck home with my best friend and watched TRL in my room.  It was harsh and slightly vulgar, it was nothing that I had ever listened to before and the first time I really understood music as rebellion. 

*”Fix You,” Coldplay: I gave a presentation in college about Jesus healing out biggest, most paralyzing wounds.  It was about complete healing and the invitation to be made whole.  It was a talk that was a profound learning experience for me and a revelation about God’s relationship with His children.  It touched a lot of people and really was an important message.  The talk concluded with this song, begging the question of allowing ourselves to be fixed.  It was so unexpected and so powerful that, no matter how many times I hear it or in what context, I’m brought back to that night and invitation to know wholeness. 

*”We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel: The song, in and of itself, is fascinating and full of energy.  Why this song really stays with me, and gives me chills, has more to do with seeing it live.  The first musical I saw was Movin’ Out, which sparked a love for broadway and musical theater.  This song comes near the midpoint of the play, but the theatrics of it were amazing.  The lights flashing and the representation of war on stage was like nothing I had seen.  It was a visceral example of the power of music, the story it tells. 

*”24,” Switchfoot: Without question, this is my favorite band.  There are so many of their songs that have touched me, challenged me, opened my eyes, and brought me joy.  I choose this one for its simplicity and beauty.  While it is not their most famous, it is one of the most personal. 

*”Part of Your World,” The Little Mermaid: I am not sure how many times I have watched this film.  I cannot even estimate how many times my parents watched me stand on our hearth and sing this at the top of my lungs.  I sometimes operate under the dillusion that I can sing.  I took voice lessons in junior high school that ended with me refusing to learn piano scales and quitting.  This song stands out as one that, as early as I can remember, instilled a love of singing.  Now it’s only in my car or shower, but singing brings out something joyful, something alive in me that I love. 

“The News,” Jack Johnson: Here is another beloved artist whose songs could fill this entire list.  I love his work and could choose any one, but this song sticks with me for a few reasons.  Aside from his lullaby voice and beautiful guitar, this song is haunting.  The images of death being ignored, of flippant disregard for the tragedy of everyday life are chilling.  I have heard the protest songs of the sixties, the music of social change.  I do not intend to take anything away from those, but they are too far removed from my time to really hit me hard.  This one, a song for my media-saturated generation, makes such a plea for empathy and humanity.

“The Luckiest,” Ben Folds: I first heard this song my freshman year in college.  My RA played it for me and I fell in love.  It is such a sweet, pure love song.  The music is beautiful and the images are unique.  While I am a sucker for love songs of almost any kind, this was refreshing.  It strayed from clichés and reached to find the words to describe a unique bond.  As a writer, I admire it.

*”Time of Your Life,” Green Day: As over-played as this song is come graduation, I will never tire of it.  Aside from being background music for the Seinfeld finale, which was and is my favorite show, it marked one of my hardest goodbyes.  The night before I left home for college, one my best friends came over to say goodbye.  We stood on my front porch talking for a minute and just as he was ready to leave, a car pulled up across the street and opened its door.  Blaring from the speaker was this song.  It was right out of a movie and made everything a little harder and a little easier.  It was meant to be, but it was meant to be special.

Because this is getting to be quite a long process, here are a few current favorites, simply for listening pleasure: “Konstantine,” Something Corporate, “Ungodly Hour,” The Fray, “Hey Soul Sister,” Train, and “Beautiful Mess,” Jason Mraz.  Even as I think about these songs, they seem incomplete.  There are so many others that I love, that bring up important memories.  I realize that a number of them are, as I said, songs tied to movies or other things, not songs standing on their own.  I don’t really think that lessens their importance.  I also realize that this list is very heavy on male artists.  This is a relatively recent development, and it does not mean that there aren’t songs by women that are important to me or that are enjoyable.  It just means that right now, in this moment, these are my list.  When I wake up tomorrow, I’m sure it will have changed.  It’s an interesting challenge, though, to make your own list.  It may prove that we’re all more “music people” than we may think. 

“All deep things are song.  It seems somehow the very central essence of us, song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls!”  –Thomas Carlyle

The Un-celebrated Birthday

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“There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents… and only one for birthday presents, you know.” –Lewis Caroll

I have found a perplexing phenomenon among my friends: they do all that they can to avoid celebrating their birthdays.  While we are entering our mid-twenties, which is a bit disheartening, it’s not that we are too old to want to talk about our age.  I miss being in college, wonder what happened to the past three years, but I am not avoiding my age.  I don’t know what it is that causes this problem with birthdays.  For that matter, I don’t even know what the problem is.  It could be the ambivalence we all feel about aging and facing our own mortality.  It could be embarrassment when people throw parties and have waiters sing.  It could be wanting to appear cool because no one else wants a big celebration, so they have to fit in.  I really can’t make sense of it.

I love birthdays!  There are few things more worthy of celebration.  I firmly believe that a birthday can, and should, be stretched for a full two weeks: the week prior to and the week following the actual day are fair to claim.  I had a friend in college who celebrated her birthday month, and I love her for it.  It’s a day that is yours, specifically and intimately.  You entered this world on your birthday.  After months of waiting and preparing, your parents welcomed you, literally labored to meet you.  You share the day with them, but it is yours.  It is a day to recognize what your life has been, what it will and can be.  Perhaps this is the depressing point that causes some to shirk the day, but I think it’s the hopeful, beautiful part.  It’s a time to revel in the love that others feel for you, the beautiful uniqueness that is only you.  Presents are always a plus, and who doesn’t love cake? We live in a world that does all that it can to bring us down, instill fear and blend us into faceless demographics.  We are reminded on a regular basis that, by and large, we are not special.  One day each year, that message is erased.  We are special.  We are something to celebrate, simply for being alive.  The act of living, to being who we are for another year, that is enough to warrant a party!

Today is my uncle’s birthday.  I hesitated for a moment and almost said “was” his birthday.  The reality is, despite the fact that he died, this will always be his day.  He won’t be blowing out candles or opening gifts.  I did not send him a card and my mom will not call him.  All of that is irrelevant.  This is still his day.  We are all still thinking about him, about who he was and the years that he lived.  We are celebrating all that he was, even if it is without him.  Your birthday does not stop being your birthday just because you also had a deathday.  He was born.  He was David, a part of the world, of my family, of me, and that will always be worth celebrating.   

“This is the start/ This is your heart/ This is the day you were born/ This is the sun/ These are your lungs/ This is the day you were born… These are the scars/ Deep in your heart/ This is the place you were born/ And this is the hole/ Where most of your soul/ Comes ripping out from the places you’ve been torn/ And it is always, always, always yours…” –Switchfoot, Always