Happy Birthday! Today you would be 51. You didn’t make it to 51, but you did one better. You are whole. And you finished STRONG, friend. The emotions leading up to this day have been pretty difficult. I was dreading it. I started the day fighting tears. But I didn’t start the day without a plan. I had a whole plan. A crazy plan. A plan that included some of my people. And a plan that included some of your people. The beginning of my day would have left you shaking your head in confusion. But the end of my day was a celebratory dinner you would have loved.
Let me back up.
Last year on your birthday, you texted me when you woke up. You weren’t supposed to beat me to it. But knowing it was an hour earlier for you, I was letting you sleep. You texted and asked if I could FaceTime. I texted back that I could and wished you a happy birthday, ya stinker. We talked that morning and texted all day long. You had a good day. You were fully celebrated. Your texts were full of exclamation marks and emojis. I am certain you felt the love.
That makes me happy.
You told me there weren’t enough exclamation marks for your thank you. I told you there wasn’t a gift good enough for who you are.
You know how I know?
Because today I went and got a tattoo. I ran out of good gifts and ideas and landed in a dirty tattoo parlor on 7th Avenue in Ybor City where I let Beau dig into my wrist with a needle to HONOR YOU (not an honor to you, I know, I know) in a place you would never have set foot and probably would have scolded me for going.
And somehow I couldn’t be more excited that I did this.
(It wasn’t really that dirty. I just wanted to say dirty tattoo parlor for shock value.)
The tattoo came about slightly by accident when I was eating dinner before going to the Betty White movie on January 17. I had found an ampersand in my neighbor’s rather clean pile of discarded items. I had taken it home and written about it. And then I got a text from my friend, Lea, in Tallahassee that I should go with her to get an ampersand tattoo. Until that moment, I had NEVER ONCE considered such a violently compromising thing as a tattoo on my person. But the moment my friend suggested it, I decided I was doing it. It was almost past tense already.
And then, only 5 days later, I lost you. And we celebrated you. And boy have we celebrated you. There’s so much to celebrate.
I came back from celebrating you in your hometown and decided I had to find a way to get the tattoo on your birthday. It needed to be today. Ironically, my straightlaced husband was served by a very tattooed waiter in a restaurant and got the name of their tattoo artist. I made an appointment for today.
And that’s how I landed in Ybor City with two inches of ink on my arm.
To the ampersand portion of the tattoo, I added the tribe symbol, because the last gift you gave me was the tribe necklace. I haven’t taken it off since Christmas morning.
So Happy Birthday, Jen! For a gift, I got a tattoo you would think is insane, but that would likely not surprise you. It reminds me of an old episode of The Simpsons (which you also would think is crazy) where Homer bought Marge a bowling ball for her birthday inscribed with the name “Homer.”
I got me a tattoo for your birthday.
But it wasn’t for you after all. Because you don’t need anything for your birthday this year. The tattoo is for me. To remember. To never forget.
I can’t afford to forget the things you constantly taught me. You reminded me that everything that truly matters is on the other side of the ampersand. And you reminded me that I have a tribe. And though you are not holding us all together on this side, we are all now holding each other.
Which brings me to the other part of my Jennifer Day celebration. I talked to or texted with so many of your people today. Your mom, your sister, your daughter, your friends. And we all gushed over and about you. We all started out with mostly you in common. But I think I can confidently say that what we’ll end up with will be what you would have hoped for. I think we’ll end up with a fused connection that far outlasts the raw stages of our grief.
So in this, on your day, you gave US something. You gave us each other.
Tonight, on a dreary, unusually cold Florida night, Jennifer G. and I got together for dinner. Just the two of us. This has never happened outside you. We met at Chili’s, which hasn’t changed since we were all there in 1991. It was a great meal, with great conversation. The pictures we took weren’t so great, but you can’t have everything.
We made a plan to meet up once a month. I really think we will. I’m going to work on getting her tattooed before the next dinner. I’ll let you know how that goes.
It’s late, but I didn’t get to call you today, so I’m doing the next best thing. I’m writing. So. Happy Birthday to you, friend. Thanks for the inspiration. Thanks for the day in, day out gift of the best friendship. And thanks for the gift of your people. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.
(The tattoo is just a bonus.)
I miss you—you wouldn’t believe how much—but I’m doing okay. And I have no doubt you aren’t missing a thing.
Jennifer Elizabeth Smith Earnhart February 8, 1971 – January 22, 2021
Jennifer and I didn’t have a ton in common. She was Laura Ashley and I was borrowed gym shorts. I don’t know why she loved me, but I know she did. She never left you questioning how she felt about you. Nobody loves like Jennifer did and there will never be another Jennifer.
Jennifer passed through my home church in Tallahassee in 1989 while I was out of town. We were both seniors. She was going down to Tampa for a college visit to the school that brought us together. My mother met her and was taken with her. She did everything she could to get us together as roommates, since neither of us had one arranged. To me, my mother said, “I just met the most amazing girl, Missy! She’s going down to Florida College in the fall and she doesn’t have a roommate. You guys would hit it off great! You should write her.”
To Jennifer, my mother said, “Oh, I wish my daughter was here today. She’s going to Florida College in the fall and doesn’t have a roommate. She doesn’t want to go and we’re kind of making her. She’s not excited right now. I think she’d LOVE you!”
My mother shared all of this with me when I got back in town. Jennifer and I both remembered this and laughed about it later. I listened to my mom describe her and rolled my eyes, thinking, “Goodie-Two Shoes. No, thank you.” She listened to my mom describe me and cringed inwardly, thinking “Maladjusted Angry Hobo. No, thank you.”
The joke was on us, because as it turned out, my mom was right. We did hit it off. But I don’t know if she would have relished living with me, so maybe that part was a God thing.
My friendship with Jennifer was as good as it gets. And I’m so grateful it has a paper trail that’s as long as the friendship was. We have scrapbooks, a box full of letters with actual stamps sent in the actual mail. We have a year’s full of faxes (google “fax machine,” if you have no idea what this is) between us from our first real jobs that is a running daily log of our first year of marriage. And I have thousands of texts that go back over the last 5 years. I can’t describe how much I will miss her name jumping to the top of my text window. She never forgot an event or a date. Her mind was sharper than a meat cleaver. And no matter where she was or where I was or what was going on, she was right there supporting me. She never felt good. But she also never felt too bad to keep up with me and my people.
I look out on the horde of college students here primarily for Tyler and the young people here for Hallie, and I can’t help but think you guys are now what we were then. And we never drifted from that. I have 32 years of memories with Jennifer. I have been flooded with them over the past several weeks. Girls trips to St. Augustine and St. Pete. White water rafting in North Carolina. A poor man’s weekend vacation as newlyweds to Atlanta. I remember calling her when I had my oldest son in my arms, having just signed the paperwork to adopt him. And I remember calling her when my younger son was baptized just 6 weeks ago.
Jennifer had an open heart. Mine was locked up pretty tight in the beginning. I believe I learned friendship from her. She had an easy laugh and I hope I never forget the sound of that laugh. She was the type of friend who would laugh at your jokes even when they weren’t funny. She didn’t hug, she embraced. She didn’t say love ya. She said I love you. When you talked, she listened hard. And there is nothing in my adult life that she didn’t help me through. Not a single thing. Even this–even now–as I start 2022 without her, I am starting it with a devotional book that she gave me for my birthday. I’m a snotty, artsy type with strong opinions. I haven’t met many devotional books that I loved. This one, I adore. And every day so far, the message has been spot on. It’s like she knew. She had to have known. So even in this–even in losing her–Jennifer is still holding my hand.
The comforting thing about my talking here today is that I don’t have to tell you who Jennifer was. Everyone here knows. She was who she was in every circumstance. Every sickness. Every big event that any of us went through. She was focused on God. She was focused on her march to Heaven. She was focused on her people. She fully supported us. She LOVED deep and pure.
However, there are some things you may not know about Jennifer. I wasn’t lucky enough to know her in pre-Florida college days. When you see photos of those days, she and Natalie are always together. Their names were practically one word. JenniferandNatalie. NatalieandJennifer. Every person here knows how much Jennifer cherished Natalie. I’ve never seen another relationship like theirs. From the first moment I met Jennifer she gushed over her little sister. Natalie is in so many of our FC pictures. She was at our concerts and our sleepovers. And we never minded because she was everyone’s little sister. And when Jennifer started dating Tim and I was up visiting for a weekend, Natalie became my entertainment while Jennifer and Tim were off “complimenting each other’s hair” in some dark corner somewhere. I took advantage of that situation more than once. I took Natalie to the Warren County Jail where Joseph Kirkpatrick was a pretrial officer one night (we were AT the jail, not IN it). I talked her into swiping her mother’s most expensive French embroidery needle and piercing my ear using that and an ice cube. It may not surprise you that when we proudly marched up to Pat with the needle hanging out of my ear lobe, she was unimpressed with every part of this project. JenniferandNatalie were everything the rest of us aspired to be. And Natalie is still everyone’s little sister. I do hope she’ll remember that.
But back to the childhood photos, which is where this started.
In many of the old JenandNat photos, Jennifer looks like an innocent benefactor and Natalie looks like a stinker. But what not everyone realizes is that Jennifer had some stinker in her too. She was mostly sweet, with a little stink.
The following Jennifer nugget has been specifically requested and was not originally in my talk.
In my estimation, everyone gets at least one Mulligan to use on one Momentary Lapse of Reason. Most of us wear out this concept and need a Mulligan twice a week. And most people assume, with good reason, that Jennifer never had a reason to use hers. But she did. And I just happened to be there that day to witness it. The day after we graduated from Florida College, 10 of us took off for a week in St. Augustine. Looking back, our parents should never have supported this adventure. I was in a separate hotel with 2 other girls and Jennifer was in the first hotel, in a group of 7. We showed up separately to restaurants and tourist traps. Trying to coordinate 10 fickle, hormonal girls without GPSs and cell phones in 1991 was more than challenging. Some stuff happened that week. It left room for errors. It also left room for some pranks.
One afternoon, we had arranged to meet at the Fort and we were coming from our separate hotel rooms. Heather and Susan were in my car with me and we were running behind. When we finally got to the fort, we parked in the main lot and were rushing to catch up. We figured they would have already started touring without us. Much to our very great surprise, we came around the corner of the big front, stone wall and Jennifer’s group was there, with her in the mix of course—FRONT AND CENTER—and they were waiting for us. But with their backs turned. And with their pants down. They had collectively mooned us. It was practically choreographed. My Goodness, Missy! Eyes on the ground. Do not make eye contact!
People don’t believe me when I tell them this story. They 1st don’t believe I was a MOONEE. And they certainly don’t believe SHE was a MOONER. But I am telling the truth, 100%. To those with dropped jaws and great concern, please know that no one else was around but us. And accept this as proof that Jennifer had some zip in her and that clearly she’d do anything to support her friends. This could NOT have been her idea.
As you might imagine, Jennifer was horrified in her more mature years that she had participated in such debauchery. I didn’t struggle with the guilt, of course, since I was simply a victim. She cleaned up her act, as you all know. And she was the Jennifer we know and love and fully celebrate today.
She was mostly sweet with a little stink. The sweet came into play far more often. I want to share something we laughed about from our final time together. I was blessed to be able to go to LA when she had her last back surgery at Cedar Sinai this past June. I took my two girls with me, who were 13 and almost 15. When she wasn’t in therapies, we were with her. When she was, we were off looking for Kardashians. The first full day I was there, she texted and asked for her regular Starbucks order. I recently pulled up this text and it made me laugh.
She took one look at what was under the metal lid on her hospital breakfast and said no thanks. The highlight of that visit was the time we spent eating meals outside together in the courtyard of her rehab facility. The weather was PERFECT and she loved being outside. I hadn’t rented a car, so all of my food and rides were done through Uber. Most of the time, this went off without a hitch. But one night, there were some hitches. She had been craving a burger. So we ordered a meal from Shake Shack about a mile away. I met the Uber driver at the street while Jen and my girls waited at a table in the courtyard. When I got to the table and started unpacking our food, I had fries and chicken tenders and one missing item. Wouldn’t you know that the only thing missing was the only thing that mattered: Jennifer’s hamburger. I immediately texted the Uber driver and asked about the burger. His first response had a tone of too bad so sad. Shake Shack’s fault. I’m not allowed to open the bags before delivery. He told me to call the restaurant, which I did. I was on the phone with Shake Shack and trying to manage the Uber guy’s texts, all while trying to stay out of earshot of Jennifer and my girls, because I was getting a little bit hot over this whole thing. Shake Shack apologized and said they would be glad to refund my money. At this point, I said, probably too loudly, I don’t want a refund. I have money. We can’t eat your money. What I need is a hamburger sandwich for my friend who hasn’t had a lot of good food or fun lately. Jennifer—who never misses anything– was totally savvy to what was going on. As I’m talking, the sweet part of Jennifer was talking in my other ear. Things like Missy, let it go. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about this anymore. I can eat these fries. Or have a couple of tenders or something. She was trying so hard to call me off. Shake Shack was telling me I needed to open a new Uber order, which I was now doing in addition to texting the first guy, talking to Shake Shack, and swatting at Jennifer with my free hand. As all the ridiculousness was coming together in a perfect storm of stupid, I pulled the phone away from my ear, put out my free hand, and shushed Jennifer up like she was a naughty toddler. Shhhh. I got this. I’m gonna get you a dang hamburger if it kills all four of us.
When I hung up, I honestly had no idea what was going to happen, but I don’t even think Jen was hungry anymore. I was still standing shellshocked when up ran the original Uber driver, who had gone back to the restaurant and get Jen her missing burger. I tried to tip him big. But he wouldn’t take it. This part of the story went down like a reverse mugging. I was chasing him with a $20 bill, my girls were sitting with Jennifer with their mouths wide open, and Jennifer was holding the contraband as shocked as they were.
That was a strange meal. When we were finished, my girls said goodnight to Jen and walked together the half mile back to our hotel and I took Jen back up to her room. I stayed an hour that night and chatted as she settled into her bed. The PA system announced that visitors needed to leave when the door swung open to Jennifer’s room and a nurse stood there holding a bag.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s from Shake Shack. Looks like a burger.”
After we had a little chuckle, she said, “That’s gonna stink up my room. Throw it away in the lobby.”
Those days with her in Los Angeles were not fun ones for her, but they were sweet for me. And I will carry them with me for the rest of my life. I have been so lucky to be a part of her life, her family, her church family. Thank you all so much for allowing me to be. And for letting me talk about someone I love so much.
I have talked to and spent time with so many of Jen’s dear friends and family over the past week. We are all missing a huge piece of our hearts now. We all have a Jennifer shaped hole in us. She would want us to grab hands and walk home together. She would want us to fill that missing piece with each other and for each other.
I’m going to finish with something that is far too personal that I didn’t get to share with her, but I absolutely would have if I had had the chance. It’s from me to her, but I really do think it could have been from any of us. I wrote it at 2 a.m. the day she won her race. I knew she was approaching the finish line and I knew I needed to not hold her back but instead to cheer her on. .
The Long Goodbye
It’s been 7 days 176 hours 10,566 minutes Since you said goodbye to me. It was a good goodbye. Almost as good as our friendship has been. You know, right? And I know. We loved each other well.
Every song throws my mind to a car seat clothed in French fry grease and conversation, or a porch swing or a couch. Where you were. Where we were. Together.
I’ve always known I was going to lose you. You were going to leave me first. I’ve known. But sometimes I dart in front of a moving car or I paddle board alongside a gator, to see if I can make myself go first in a spectacular, newsworthy manner. Because knowing you’ll leave first does not filter the slate from the sky Or dull the ache of this long goodbye. The truth is, friend, I have been losing you since the moment I found you. But still I don’t know how to lose you.
I’ve been gripping my end of this tether so tightly That you haven’t been able to run home. We all have.
It’s been 7 days 176 hours 10,566 minutes Since you said goodbye to me. But I haven’t said goodbye to you. I didn’t want you to walk home if I couldn’t walk with you. I didn’t want you to win if it meant I had to lose. You’ve never once beaten me in a foot race, But it’s time you did. You know, right? And I know. We loved each other well. And we both win.
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.
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.
It is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. I’m enjoying Todd’s extended family. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. I’ve gone out in pursuit of pie crusts 12 hours before we needed them and actually found them in the well stocked HEB. I’ve jogged. I’ve hiked up hills. I’ve been in touch with my people in other places and at home. And I’ve prayed.
Last night, Todd’s dad did a devotional for the entire extended family on Thankfulness. That’s what got me crying. I was afraid I wouldn’t stop, but I had pie duty, so I pulled it together. We read a few verses, among which were Philippians 4:6 and Colossians 3:15.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”
It was mentioned that the opposites to thankfulness are worry (do not be anxious) and complaining. I have been guilty of both.
This has been a hard year for so many of my people. Some tables don’t look like they should this year, because they are missing important people. Some tables don’t have anyone sitting there at all. Life is hard. I saw a memory on Facebook of an old Thanksgiving post from 2015. I am pasting in an excerpt from it.
My family is moving into another phase of life with older, more active kids. I didn’t see it coming and I’m fighting this phase. I think a great deal of my own internal discord comes from my fighting the system instead of finding a way to thrive within it.
I read an article years ago about how to react if ever attacked by an alligator. Silly me, you may think. What a stupid waste of time to read articles about reacting to alligator attacks. Not really. I live on a river and I do stupid things. I think I have a reasonable chance of needing this advice at some point. If you are ever with me in a kayak, consider yourself covered. So I read the article. The point of it was that you can’t fight an alligator and win. He will win every time. The only way to deal with an attack is to roll with it. Literally. An alligator’s approach is to grab on and roll you over and under the water until you are dead by drowning. Then he stores you under a log and lets your meat rot and he’ll come back later and eat you. (You’re welcome. Now you know.) The best thing you can do in this situation is try to roll with the gator and come up to breathe and roll again. You try to keep rolling toward solid footing and give yourself time to be helped by someone else or get away. But you can’t go contrary to the gator. You can’t fight against it. You have to roll with it.
I’ve been fighting a system that is stronger than I am. A gator. I’m fighting something unchangeable. And I can’t. I have to roll with it. Come up for air. Work myself into the systems so that I can still be effective. Roll with it.
There are plenty of things right now that I have zero control over but wish I did. There are things I wish I could change. Things I wish I was less bothered by. Those things are the enemy of gratitude. I’m not thinking about them right now. Because what is right far outweighs what is wrong. And what is right is very clear to me today.
One of my favorite verses lately is I Samuel 2:9: It is not by strength that one prevails. If there’s a gator at your Thanksgiving table this year, deal with it carefully and you’ll prevail. Don’t feed it. Don’t fight it. Roll with it. And when you’ve made it out alive, look down river for someone else caught in the struggle. And help them roll.
I didn’t go to Savannah in pursuit of the perfect milkshake. But somehow, over the course of 4 days and as many failed attempts to find one, I ended up on the milkshake chase of a lifetime.
It became a whole thing.
But I want it known that it didn’t start out that way.
It all started on a sunny fall day in October, under skies so blue they made me achy for bottled Cokes and my grandmother. I was downtown with my 4 friends, one of whom was about to get into trouble with the law, but hadn’t yet. We were shopping. And eating. And planning to eat. And shop. And glancing at our watches to stay on track for a bus tour of the city we had booked for later that afternoon.
Since my grandmother has been gone since 1991 and bottled Cokes are hard to come by, my next Blue October Sky longing was a milkshake. A chocolate one.
My friends, all more seasoned shoppers than I am, wandered in and out of shops on Julian Street. I found myself standing in front of the Candy Kitchen, next door to River Street Sweets. I wasn’t shopping at the moment. It seemed like the right time to saunter in and order one. But something talked me out of it and I can’t for the life of me remember what that was. It was me talking to me inside my own head. I told myself to wait on it. For a better time. I think I had decided that evening would be better and I was falsely convinced we’d be back in this same spot that evening for our Ghost Tour. Whatever my reasons were, they led me away from my opportunities and I never ordered a shake that first day.
This was my first mistake. It wouldn’t be my last, or my biggest.
Friday night, after a day at the beach and the outlet mall, we were sitting around an elegant table eating some pretty expensive pork chops, when the other girls asked our waiter, Jackson, where I could find the best tasting milkshake on the planet. They knew I wasn’t going to let it go until I got one.
“Leopold’s,” he answered quickly. “Definitely.”
We had seen the place. We had heard about the place. We hadn’t gone into the place, because you couldn’t get within a square acre of it. There were always 50 people lined up out the door and down the sidewalk. It looked like a line to buy Bruno Mars tickets in Madison Square Garden. I don’t think I’ve ever met a milkshake good enough to justify that.
So we gave up on Leopold’s twice in one day.
But as we got closer to our townhouse on Lafayette Square, Parker’s Kitchen and General Store came into view. This store was like the Vegas strip in Savannah and had everything from crocheted rat figurines to candles to pints of Haagen Daz. They didn’t have fresh handspun milkshakes, but they did have a milkshake machine.
A milkshake vending machine. Done well, that’s a little slice of heaven. What could go wrong?
So I proceeded to fix myself a DIY gas station milkshake. I followed the process without reading any of the prompts. I skipped a couple of fairly important steps. Like picking a cup and placing it in under the spout where the liquid pours out.
I’d like to think this particular mistake was a result of being tired. The only other explanation is harder to swallow. I didn’t even notice I had skipped this step until the “milk” or whatever it was began to spew forcefully from a spout with no cup to catch it. But it amped up to a new level of upheaval when the stirring and shaking began.
Even then, I was still a little bit confused about my part in this fiasco.
“Missy! Did you put the cup in place?” Erin called out. Yeah. No. I didn’t do that. I didn’t know I needed to do that. At this point, I didn’t even know how much I should have known that I needed to do that. An employee was headed my direction in a panic, with a look on her face I couldn’t quite read. Oh man, I’m in trouble. What did I think was going to happen here? The next 2-3 minutes were fairly traumatic and I believe my psyche has blocked them out. There were processed fluids pouring out onto the floor. The mop bucket was brought out. People without higher education passed judgment. And I received a brief and somewhat terse tutorial from the employee about making myself another and what to say to the cashier as I checked out.
The milkshake thing was really going well.
At the end of my catastrophic romp through Parker’s, I walked out to the gas pump and took a sip of that bad boy. Ten seconds later, I threw it away.
I think they put me on a Do Not Serve list in that store and I tried to steer clear for the rest of the weekend. Truthfully, that wasn’t hard to do. I had already purchased a crocheted rat and a bad milkshake. There was nothing else there for me.
At 10:30 that night, in a moment of desperation, I ordered a chocolate shake from McDonalds on Uber Eats. I got made fun of for that, too, because it wasn’t deemed a worthy milkshake. But it was a heap better than the one I vended from a machine.
McDonalds didn’t count, though. And the hunt continued into Saturday.
Saturday was the last full day I had to get this done. In the late afternoon, after meandering all over historic Savannah, I had the good fortune to be facing the Candy Kitchen again on Julian Street. This time I was smart enough to go in.
“I’d like a medium chocolate shake, please,” I said, feeling like it was about to all be worth it. Everything I had suffered to this point would be brought into peaceful alignment with the universe.
“Oh, sorry. We are out of chocolate today,” a girl said through a cotton facemask.
Of course they were. If you’ve run out of chocolate and your name is Candy Kitchen, why are your doors even still open? Turn the light off and come back when you’ve made amends.
“Ok,” I said, hanging my head. “Thanks.”
One of my buddies walked out of a shop.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Out of chocolate,” I answered.
“Out of chocolate? Wow.”
I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t my shoulder popping, but I think I heard my spirit break. So I took a short walk down the block and settled on Ben and Jerry’s, which felt like the biggest sellout in the history of desserts.
They gave me a paper straw.
After several humiliating decisions and 4 days of hotly pursuing any milkshake at all, I was rewarded with a straw that disintegrated like moist toilet paper on my bottom lip.
I’ve written before about defining moments. We all have them. We all recognize them. Because they are few and infrequent, they are easily recognizable when they occur. Sometimed they even come in the mail.
I had one last night.
It was a doozie.
Honestly, last night may have been my finest hour. My crowning achievement. That one moment where everything comes together just right and a choir lines up and sings an anthem with your name in it.
None of this will matter to anyone else but me. I don’t care. I’m writing it down because I won.
But my achievement and the victory of my lifetime will mean nothing without a little background.
Recently I took a short trip to Savannah, GA with some of my favorite people—all locals. Without any masculine assistance, we hooked a hefty cargo basket to my trailer hitch (5 middle-aged women don’t pack light), arranged suitcases like a real world game of Tetris, figured out nets and straps, and drove off into the sunset. We drove my car, which seats 6 somewhat comfortably, depending on which seat you are in. I did much of the driving.
Me driving means a lot of things. It means getting places on time or early. It means spanky doodle playlists with 156 awesome tunes from the 80s and 90s.
And it means being willing to take criticism. Lots and lots and LOTS of criticism.
There were four other people in the vehicle. Passenger #1 never criticized my driving, not because she’s too noble, but because she refuses to do any driving herself, doesn’t drive any more impressively than I do, and doesn’t care to jump into most frays. She’d rather read a magazine and let the dumpster fires burn.
Passenger #2 never criticized my driving either, and probably is slightly more noble than the others. But though she was never overtly critical, she was voted to take over for me late that first night when I was deemed ‘unsafe’ by Passengers 3 and 4.
Passenger #3 wasn’t so much critical as she was amused by the criticism offered by anyone else. She was unwilling to lead a raid, but was running with the raiders. Passenger 3 is a pot stirrer. And she enjoyed the contents of the pot as often as possible.
Passenger #4 was the Informinator. The Knower of All Knowledge. The Finder of All Answers. The Chief of Police, Criticism and Complaints Branch. We’ll call her Elaine here, because her name is Elaine. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent.
There are no innocents to protect. Everyone is guilty.
And while we’re at it, Passenger 1 is Melissa, 2 is Becky, and 3 is Erin. And though I love them, they mostly all stink.
After a short drive, followed by a dinner, a longer drive, and then a stop at a gas station in East Georgia, I was voted out of the driver’s seat. Of my own car.
Walking back out to the car from the convenience store, I looked over at Becky who had a funny look on her face.
“What?” I asked. “You got a problem with me, too? Do you want to drive?” Becky chuckled and then said sheepishly.
“I don’t have a problem and I’m not dying to drive,” and then she paused. “But they want me to.” She nodded her head back toward Erin and Elaine.
“Of course they do,” I said. “Ok, fine. Whatever.” I wasn’t actually mad and truthfully, I was pretty tired by this point. “Have at it.” And I walked around to the passenger side of the front seat. “You two can shut your pie holes,” I added. But they didn’t. And they wouldn’t for the rest of the weekend.
All of that took place on a Wednesday night. Becky took us safely into Savannah where we stayed parked for the next 36 hours. On Thursday, we walked everywhere and drove nowhere.
On Friday, we had decided to hit the beach. That meant driving to Tybee Island, which was 40 minutes away. Still smarting from the flaming darts of Wednesday night, I handed the keys to Elaine.
“You’re driving to Tybee,” I announced. “I’m sure you’ll do better than I could do.” I didn’t really mean that. She wasn’t going to do better than I could have done. Elaine hemmed and hawed just a tad—enough to make it seem like she was putting up a fuss—and then conceded by getting behind the wheel.
We started the playlist up again and 4 of us sang at the top of our lungs to things like Livin’ on a Prayer and Ice Ice Baby and Wide Open Spaces. There were many places we could have stopped on the way to the beach to buy towels. We passed up a Target, for crying out loud. But for some reason we settled on a corner CVS, mistakenly thinking the seasonal aisle in Georgia in October would be a replica of the seasonal aisle in Florida in October. You know what Georgia sells on the seasonal aisle in late October? Mittens. Scarves. Hats. Chapstick.
Not beach towels.
So Elaine and I purchased a 2 pack of Bounty, the quicker picker upper, and called it a victory. That day was a magical combination of the stupid and the superb. It was laughing at the ones who I could fit into one of my pants legs but still couldn’t march up the lighthouse’s 174 steps without doubling over and gulping in air by the metric ton. It was introductions to strangers and ocean views that steal the words from your mouth. It was perfection.
But you know what? This post isn’t about any of that. It’s about the driving.
It was a great trip overall. Yeah. But it ended and we all came home, exchanged pictures, reminisced, and returned to the civilian living of jobs and carpools and early weekday alarms.
Then last week, I stood at the mailbox and peered into it. Sometimes if the mail looks bad enough, I’ll leave it in there for a day or two just to punish it. But on that day, I saw an official looking envelope addressed to me. So I opened it, hoping it was a rebate check or an invitation to run for office or something.
It was a ticket. A speeding ticket. A photographically enforced speeding ticket.
Dang it. Of all the things. After all the abuse I had endured from my friends, now I was receiving notice from the state of Georgia, by way of some law enforcement agency in Chatham County, Tennessee that the vehicle “pictured and described herein was photographed violating public safety in a school zone.” I was clocked going 58 in a 45. They apparently wouldn’t have enforced it if I’d been going 56. But of course.
I stewed on all of this for quite a while. I vented to Todd. I should have just paid the thing that afternoon and let it all go as Todd suggested. But that would have been way too emotionally healthy a choice to make. So I set the ticket aside for several days and thought about it constantly.
Finally, after too much time stewing, I picked the ticket back up from its spot on the game cabinet in the family room and decided I was going to take care of it. This was last night. I re-read the statement about how my driving was a hazard to southern school children everywhere, but most especially Georgia, and got angry all over again.
Then I decided to text Elaine as I was about to pay the ticket online.
“I go back and forth between ‘whatever’ and ‘NUH UH’ on the photo speeding ticket I just received from the state of GA by way of Chatham County, TN. It highlights that I was speeding in a school zone at improper times. $75 ticket plus $25 processing fee (oh brother!). I’m guessing I should just pay it and obviously I can. But the ridiculousness of the explanation makes me want to fight. Can’t fight GA, though. I’d have to go there to fight.” (I can be pretty verbose while texting.)
“Was that from our trip?!” Elaine typed back.
And then, she asked me a question. A question that in that moment would change my life.
“Was it me or Becky?”
Well, now. I hadn’t even considered that possibility. I was so quick to accept the anti-Missy propaganda I had been fed.
“Ha!” I responded. “I hadn’t even thought of that. It might have been you, lol. Friday at 10:29 a.m.”
“It me,” she typed back.
Ohhh man. I continued to text the following.
So at this point, there was a lot of back and forth about paying the ticket. Elaine insisted that she pay and DID pay. At the red arrow in the image above, less than 40 seconds from finding out she was the brazen lawbreaker, Elaine sent a Venmo payment for the entire amount. Following this payment, she insisted I inform the group about her crime and made statements like, “You need to bask in your superiority,” and “This is my journey,” and “I will sit in my shame.”
So here I am basking. As she sits in shame and takes the journey. How does it feel to walk the LOOOOONG plank of almost mowing down a Georgia 2nd grader while selfishly singing “I wear my sungleasses at night?” I wouldn’t know how that feels. Because I didn’t do it.
So, yeah. I’ve had some success in my life. I’ve had some good days and some really good days. But yesterday was the best day. The very best. This day–the day I shut Elaine’s mouth forever–is in my front pocket with my $100 bill, my rabbit’s foot, and a roll of Sweet Tarts that are heavy on the pinks and purples.
Somebody got a speeding ticket in Savannah for jeopardizing public safety and it wasn’t me.
My Friday began at 4:47 a.m. when my sciatic nerve woke me up. I didn’t even know where my sciatic was until 8 days ago. Now we are very well acquainted. Frenemies even. There was no more sleeping after I woke up this morning because there was no sleep position in which my sciatic wasn’t a major player. I got up and went to the gym. Before 8 a.m. I had exercised, washed and vacuumed my car, walked the dog, yelled at a couple of sleeping kids, and showered. At 9 I had breakfast with a friend that included a 2 hour conversation that was better than cheese grits. From 12-3, I did my errands and chores. At 3:30, I pulled back into my driveway as Andrew’s birth mother called my cellphone. I took the call and knew it had something to do with a plan in the works for tomorrow. Plans were made, but in the meantime, we actually talked about stuff. For 10 minutes. And it felt like a thing I needed to notice and treasure. With that in my head, I ran in and typed a strongly worded letter that’s been on the list for a week. The words weren’t that strong. Nothing will come of it. But I checked it off the list. Sometimes that’s all that really matters to me. I picked Jenna up from school at 4:20 (I know. It’s a ridiculously late end time for a school. Don’t get me started.) Once back at home, I ordered some food for the kids and Brady picked it up for me so that I could get ready to go to dinner with Todd and friends. The dinner was as good as my breakfast had been. So many of my local people in one room, laughing and telling stories with plates of food in front of us. During my dinner, Brady and Lucy texted that they were going together to Lucy’s friend’s house to carve a pumpkin. Three people, one pumpkin. In the shape of a rat. Two hours later, while they were still doing that, I returned home, grabbed Jenna, and took her to Wendy’s because she hadn’t eaten dinner. The rest of the evening was baking. I made 3 desserts with Jenna while Hamilton music played in the family room. One of those desserts was requested by Andrew, who ran through the kitchen several times with a headset over his ears. He was delighted to see people preparing food and to get in on the action. Brady and Lucy returned home and wanted to discuss the rat pumpkin and eat whatever I didn’t slap their hands away from. At points, my entire family was in one room with music going and the dog asleep on the couch.
It felt like something out of a dream. A superlative day. A Day in which almost everything felt exactly right. The Day Most Likely to Succeed. The Day I Will Remember as I am helping with college applications for a boy who carved a rat silhouette into a pumpkin with his younger sister and her friend. The Day Where I talked comfortably to the Woman who gifted me her son 20 years ago, about that son and about her own family. The Day I spent talking to friends about Heavy Things and Light Things. The Day Two Very Drunk Golfers tried to pick up my Friend at Dinner and we almost had to Rough Them Up. The Day I stayed up 21 hours without needing a rest. The Day I ended by baking. With my children. The Day I discovered there’s a Happy Days Channel on a free streaming service called Pluto.TV. (Sorry, kids. Mom doesn’t do laundry anymore. Happy Days is on.) A Day where there was Magic in the Mundane Minutia of an ordinary, unscheduled Friday in October.
It was a superlative day. And it felt like something out of a really good dream. But I know it wasn’t a dream. Cuz it’s been a long time since I slept.
I used to say that Fall was my favorite season. In truth, perhaps it is. But the older I get, the more I believe it is the change of the season that I appreciate, as much as the season itself. I have heard myself say this about all of the seasons. Summer brings long days and thunderstorms. More time with family or travel or sleep. Winter brings holidays and, for those of us who are heavy sweaters, less sweating. Spring brings new life. Baby ducks and gator sightings and a world that springs to life inside the bloom on the end of a stem.
But Fall. Fall is special. It represents surviving the heat. And the first of the school year. It ushers in long sleeve fashions and pumpkins and costumes made for tiny people. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. High school football. COLLEGE FOOTBALL. All the football. All of it. I can smell the hint of a backyard firepit when I walk the dog in the late afternoon shadows that reach longer in the shifting light. The days are shorter and people huddle on their couches together instead of finding things to do outside. The stale air of August becomes crisp and friendly, like a side hug from a friend in stead of a backslap from a linebacker.
Every season has a soundtrack. Summer’s is thunder and squealing children. In Spring it is the call of every bird I didn’t know existed. In Winter it is Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. And in Fall, the soundtrack is the absence of sound. There is a hush I never noticed before. Why have I never noticed the quiet? I can hear it from my porch. I can hear it inside my house. With the dying cadence of the cicadas comes the quiet I can’t ignore. And wouldn’t want to.
Maybe you have to be 50 to hear it. Maybe you just have to be listening. Either way, I’m in.
a forceful quiet
September carries in a dry swirl of waning light and forceful quiet
Overnight the air has shaken off summer and wears a different cloak, deep gold, like liquid butter that drips through cypress branches and lounges reflected in a river that holds its breath. Afternoon shadows yawn and stretch across the lawn as the hush leans in. A forceful quiet that I can hear from any place if I am listening.
As the kids have become teenagers, it has become easier to get out of the house for an evening. Our instructions are no longer rambling missives to the babysitter with phone numbers for poison control. Our instructions now are called over our shoulders to anyone downstairs within earshot.
Saturday night, that wasn’t quite enough. There was a clog in the communication that started with a drywall guy.
Starting Friday, we stepped knee-deep into the project of converting the upstairs, walk-in attic into a livable, climate-controlled bedroom. Our girls have always shared a room. Until a year ago, they always wanted to. When they decided they no longer wanted to share, they really decided it. Like, really. And we’re not easy to convince on making big, sweeping changes. We tried to ride this one out. But it became clear that it was time to give each of them their own space and the only way to do that was with some construction.
By the end of Saturday, all of the framing was done before we left for dinner. We had made a 6:45 reservation to celebrate our anniversary at the Melting Pot. We ordered pizza for the rapscallions remaining behind. And we called out some last minute advice over our shoulder as we left. Be safe, we shouted to the one going out on the town. Don’t burn the house down, we called out to the others.
We should have been more specific
I was relaxed and happy on the way to the restaurant. We talked about garage sale fiascos that spanned the entire decade of 2000-2010 before Todd finally put his foot down and said he’d rather set himself on fire than ever host another garage sale. When we finally got seated in our private booth, I was feeling a little cocky. It was going almost too well.
But there were some apron strings still tied to home. And the texts started coming in.
The first text came in before we were even seated. It was innocent enough. The youngest texted me to ask Todd if it was okay to use the power in the attic. Could she run a load of laundry? Our attic, while being mostly converted into her new bedroom, is also the laundry room.
Sure, I said. It’s all fine.
The next text I received came in while the server was explaining the courses and describing our menu options. It seemed like pertinent information for the rest of my meal, so I had set my phone aside. I didn’t see that it was blowing up with a second series of texts. This second batch came in from our older daughter, who was relaxing in the living room on the first floor. It said something to the effect of, “I’m just going to ignore the fact that it sounds like it is raining from the upstairs into the living room.”
Her text about ignoring this obvious disturbance was immediately followed by a much more urgent text that read simply, “OHHHHHHHHH NOOOOOOOOOO.”
I hadn’t seen either text when the phone I had set aside began buzzing at my hip. I flipped it over to see who was calling and it was Lucy. I was fairly certain that she wouldn’t call about nothing. As I was deciding what to do about answering, I saw her unread “OHHHHHHH NOOOOOOOO” text on my lock screen and eliminated the “should I answer’ question.
She began with, “I don’t want to ruin your anniversary, but….”
And so it began.
The drywall guys hadn’t hooked the drain hose back up to the washer when they left for the day. Apparently they told us not to use it. They said so in Spanish. While we speak enough Spanish to ask for a bathroom and announce that the burrito is hot, we don’t know what “Don’t use the washer tonight” sounds like. So, you know. She used the washer.
And at the end of the wash cycle, instead of all that dirty, soapy water draining where washers drain, it projectile shot out into a half-constructed attic bedroom, soaked into the floor, and down into the ceiling of the living room below.
The next 30 minutes were a blur of tactical information. Where the shop vac was located and how to use it. Go get your brother. Make sure you empty the shop vac if it fills all the way up. Line up buckets under the ceiling leaks in the living room. Your typical this and that.
Meanwhile, the poor server thought we must be on the brink of calling it quits after 28 years together. She couldn’t get a word in. And there was never a “ha ha, house is flooding, sorry about the phone calls” moment in our chit chat. So she had to dance around a crisis she knew nothing about and we had to let that go.
After the crisis came the apologies. We’re sorry we did laundry. How much is fixing this going to cost? Is your dinner ruined?How’s Dad? We paid our bill after I did some fairly significant damage to the dessert plates and the chocolate fondue and headed home.
On the way home, I could tell Todd was focused on what we would walk in on. They had done a pretty good job–and when I say they, I mean Jenna–but we knew there was a totally separate clean-up phase waiting for the adults with adult skills.
But really. What did I expect?
About halfway home, I looked at Todd and said, “I wonder what we would have talked about tonight if the washer hadn’t overflowed into the attic and down into the living room?”