Inside the Ampersand

My mind is a cage for chaos lately. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. And my quiet, unclaimed moments are spent trying to make the chaos fall in line. Or join hands with another piece.

So that it all makes sense.

I need it to make sense.

When things aren’t connected and when they aren’t making sense, I need a connector that helps it make sense. This very thought was on my mind on Saturday morning when I went for a run in my neighborhood. I was only .3 into it when I passed a clean, organized pile at the end of a neighbor’s driveway. There was a box of Christmas ornaments, a couple of wreaths, and a sizable wooden ampersand.


I kept running, because if I even entertained the thought of stopping, I would never get started again. If it’s still there when I get back, I thought, I’ll take it home.

Of course it was still there when I came back around. People in my neighborhood are not looking for wall-mountable conjunctions before 10 a.m. on a Saturday. By this point in my run, I was walking. It’s easier to walk home with a large ampersand than it is to run with one.

Since then, I’ve been staring at that ampersand, answering my family’s questions about it, and thinking about what it all means.

The ampersand is an ancient symbol, which can be proven at least as far back as Pompeii. It was a flamboyant shorthand way of writing the Latin word, ‘et ‘. I don’t speak Latin, because I have a thing against dead languages, but research tells me that ‘et’ means ‘and.’ And until the 1800s, the ampersand was recited as the 27th letter of our alphabet. Maybe it was something like Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z and, per se, and. Say that last part fast, and you have ‘ampersand.’ We probably cut it from the alphabet to make way for a catchy ABC song.

But whatever. None of that matters. It’s just interesting information. What’s important is the functionality of the ampersand. It serves as a connector between two ideas, whether similar or contrasting. Or between two time periods. Or people or places or things. It is before & after. Cause & effect. You & me. This & that. Peas & Carrots. Grace & mercy. Math & migraines.

Sometimes, though, that second thing is slow to show up. Sometimes the before is there and the after gets delayed. Sometimes you are there and I am not. Sometimes the carrots leave the peas hanging. In those moments, I walk home, holding a trash pile ampersand and wondering what comes next. What comes next?

I’ve been waiting inside the ampersand for longer than feels natural. I’ve found myself here lately more than I want to be here.
I want to know what comes next.
I want to face what comes next.
And, if I’m being honest, I want to control what comes next.

My dearest friend from college is fighting Covid in an ICU room in Kentucky. She’s been in the hospital going on 2 weeks now. She’s been on a ventilator since Saturday. Her body is tired, but her soul has been running the show since at least 2008.  I’ve never seen tenacity like hers. She loves her people fiercely and will fight like a lion to provide what they need, whether it’s a bag of flavor-blasted goldfish, or a hug, or a text about why she loves them so much. Or just her presence. She seems to understand that simply by staying, she is serving. I understand why she continues to fight.  

Her people need her & she knows it.

Her people are still evolving & she wants to participate and witness.

Life is beautiful & she’s willing to endure the painful straightjacket she’s been wearing for decades.

I have thought about my friend, Jen, pretty much non-stop for weeks now. Non-stop since I read the text, “Well, I tested positive.” I have been praying for what’s on the other side of the ampersand. For what I want on the other side of the ampersand. I have been thinking about all of the things that go with Jen. That are on the other end of her ampersand. Her husband. Her kids. Her sister. Her mom. Her friends. Her sweetness. Her strength. Her perseverance. Her fight. Her faith. Her Savior. Her God.

Her absolute determination.

The only thing I don’t know, and what I so badly wish I knew, is what the after is to her before.

So I will continue to wait.

I will not know & be at peace.
I will lose my words & continue to pray.
I will remember the lessons I’ve learned from her & do my best to live them.
I will work here & walk home, where my city is.
Where nobody has pneumonia or back pain or cancer.
And where the ampersand is never needed. It’s just there for added flair.

The Inventory and the Time Machine

I hate clichés. I especially hate being one. But this is a cliché time of life, with Covid raging for what looks to be the third straight year. And it’s a cliché time of year, with the world taking stock of 2021 and making plans for 2022.

I’m no different. I’m taking stock and making plans, too. I have done this for at least the last 20 years. Every year has been the same. By February, I have given up and wished myself better luck next year.

In 2016, I went out for a walk on New Year’s Day and discovered a 5K that was finishing up in my neighborhood. I went home and wrote down the following:

Shortly into my mistake-free New Year’s walk with my Christmas present fitness tracker, I encountered a runner wearing a race bib. This person wasn’t exactly running. Nor were the stragglers behind him. It became clear to me within moments of my first racer sighting that this was the end of the race. The very end. These guys had been at it for awhile. They had been BEAT UP by this race. And as I climbed the only hill in my flat central FL tinytown, I saw the last place runner coming toward me. I know she was last place because she was being followed by a police car with his lights on. So either she was being arrested for running too slow, or he was the cop signaling the end of the race.

This woman was struggling. She was barely in it. I visually took her in, as much as I could, in the few moments we intersected. I somewhat unintentionally locked eyes with her briefly as she continued her woggle (jog + walk + wobble) down that hill, and she managed a weak, sheepish, almost apologetic smile at me. It was a smile that said she was embarrassed. She was sorry she wasn’t faster, thinner, nimbler, edgier. She seemed sorry it was her in front of that cop car. She seemed sorry I saw her. Sorry we made eye contact. She’d been caught in last place. But I wasn’t sorry at all. Because right then it hit me: A last place finish is still a finish. She was slow, sure. She was struggling, clearly. But she was IN THAT RACE. She had a bib on. She wore the sweat like a trophy. She had the cop car behind her. She was going to finish that race. And she did.

Me? I didn’t even know about the race until I turned off my street to take my January 1 Victory Walk. I wasn’t in the race at all. Last place was ahead of me. This year, I want in on the race. I want in. I want to be official. So I’ve picked a word I’ve been thinking about for years but never turned into a profit. This year I want to be intentional. I will do life intentionally.

You know what I did with 2016? Unintentionally nothing. I did not run that race.

But this year, I took a little detour. I turned 50 in the final days of 2020 and celebrated in the lame, lackluster way people celebrate while also running from a virus. And then I sat down and made a list. Not of New Year’s Resolutions, but of things I wanted to do before I turned 51. I spent 2 weeks typing out the list. Named it 51×51 and saved it as a word document. And then I set about trying to accomplish it all, one by one. In January, I ate an entire meal using only chopsticks, which was not one of the more challenging or noble goals. I also took the jon boat across the river and tied off to a branch so I could hop off and explore the woods. I found nothing of interest, but it satisfied my thirst for a Davy Crockett moment. In February, I ran a 5K at a pace faster than I had been training. I finished far ahead of people much younger, but they time you and award you by age brackets. In the 50-54 age bracket, I finished 3rd. Out of 6. That’s pretty darn mediocre, but I checked it off my list and kept running. In March, I spilled my guts and took a very large step forward that almost no one would see or notice. It didn’t matter that no one saw or noticed. Because it served its purpose and I checked another item off my list.

There were things on my list that I tried to check off multiple times, but failed to because of circumstances out of my control. Storms prevented my view of the virgin north Florida night sky and my attempt to ride a horse on a beach. My iron levels prevented my plasma donation three different times and I finally gave that item up. Jenna blames me for this. Says I should have eaten more broccoli. Eating broccoli was not on the list. I guess it should have been.

There were also things on my list that I gave up because they were stupid. Like walking the dog in stilettos or straightening my hair and immediately eating mexican food or reading all of the books in my room before buying new ones. Please to all of the above. Stilettos would cripple me for life. My head is too small with straight hair. And it’s time to simply accept that I have a problem where books are concerned. I’m never going to read them all and I’m never going to stop buying them.

And there were things on my list I eliminated because I didn’t care enough about them to make the investments or take the risks. Like skydiving and hang gliding. Those who know me and my run of luck know those things would kill me and leave a sizable mess. I decided I didn’t need that in 2021.
I did get a mammogram.
I did not make it to the podiatrist. If I can get there before sandal season, all is forgiven.

I opened my list periodically and looked at it. I checked some things off, shook my head at others, and closed it up long enough to live a little. No one ever asked to see the list. I never printed it out or showed it to anyone. That list was for me. And like no resolution I’ve ever made, the list led me to progress. Not total success or certified completion. But definite, measurable progress.
And that’s enough for me.
For now.

This year has been upon me for 3 days now. I’ve been sizing it up and hashing it out for quite a bit longer than 3 days. And a 52×52 list is swirling in my head. I’m hoping to have it on paper tomorrow. And if sometime in September, you see me playing Amazing Grace on harmonica like a boss, maybe at a wedding or a funeral or at a local school board meeting, throw me a $10 bill and call my agent. Because that’s definitely on the list.