On Your Birthday

This morning, I woke up rather leisurely in a queen sized bed in a hotel with my daughter, her friend, and my friend. I knew what today was, but it still surprised me to open Facebook and see it there. Good Morning, Missy, today is Ann Dawson White’s Birthday. Let her know you are thinking of her.

Sigh.

Well, ok. I mean, it is her birthday. And she’s not here.

But it isn’t the first birthday we’ve done without her. And it isn’t the worst one, either. Her last one on Earth, almost a full year before she died, was the worst one for me.

On January 5, 2017, my mother was holed up in John Knox Village rehab, after a hospital stay next door. John Knox is probably a very nice place to live on the assisted side. But the rehab side is a dump. So I was already a little depressed that my mom had to be in that place. The floors and walls had a gray cast to them, like the color of germs. People lined the narrow hallway who seemed to be clinging to life in the harshest of ways. She shared a room with somebody in worse shape than she was.

My mom was in that place for well over a week. She was in there on her 74th birthday. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that she didn’t care. She didn’t care where she was. And she didn’t care that it was her birthday.

I came as early that day as I could get there. When I arrived, she looked at me slowly and spoke in response to me.

“Happy Birthday, Mom,” I said, sitting down on the edge of a chair near her bed. She didn’t smile or say thank you, so I kept talking. “You’ve been getting a ton of birthday messages on Facebook. You want me to read you some?”

“Yes,” she answered flatly. So I began.

“Happy Birthday, Ann! We have shared many birthdays as special friends. May the trend continue!”

“Happy, happy birthday, dear, sweet Ann! I hope you are feeling better quickly! Miss you.”

“Happy Birthday, dreadnaught friend!”

“Happy Birthday to a very sweet lady! I hope you have a wonderful day!”

“Happy, happy birthday to an amazing woman and such an inspiration to myself and my boys!”

I stopped every now and then and looked at her. She was looking off to the right, toward the curtain barrier between her bed and her neighbor’s. Was she listening? Could she hear me? She wasn’t digesting the messages. There were 80 of them.

“Mom, you got 80 messages for your birthday,” I said.

I wanted her to care. I needed her to still care. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. That was the hardest birthday for me. The following year, on what would have been her 75th, I was able to rejoice that her spirit was no longer trapped in the prison of her very sick mind and body. The same way I can rejoice today.

The last birthday I remember really celebrating was her 70th. 2013. The entire family came out to our farmhouse and ate with us around the dining room table. Mom wasn’t totally herself, as we’d already begun to notice her slipping bit by small bit. But she was mostly herself. Smiling. Laughing at the right moments. Poking fun at herself. We had made a pretty big deal out of her because it was a milestone birthday. When she walked out my front door that night to go home, I knew she was happy. I knew she was properly loved. And I knew that she knew it too.

Facebook told me to let her know I was thinking of her today. Of course I am. I’m thinking of her laughter, which almost always caused a total face collapse. I’m thinking of her fierceness and how many times she went to bat for me. I’m thinking of her pride in me… afro and bad outfits me… buck tooth me… tube socks and canvas sneakers me. And I’m thinking that she spent 74 birthdays getting herself ready to stand in front of God, and helping me get ready, too. There is no question that I’m thinking of her. Of the her she was before disease. The real her.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I’m thinking of you. And I didn’t need Facebook to tell me that. Silly Facebook.

The Showerhouse and the Reading Room

A strange thing happens in my mind when I begin writing about a topic. I hop a flying carpet like something straight out of Aladdin and am practically forced to ride until it dumps me off. I don’t feel like a writer at all. I feel like a reporter. I fly over the story, observe it in great detail, and then retell the story with as much color as I can muster.

I’m on that carpet tonight, flying past that gray block cottage overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a tad unfortunate, because it’s 12:47 a.m. and I’m just getting on. I don’t choose my carpet schedule. It just happens.

As I’ve already mentioned, and clearly bear scars from, I didn’t like to shower at the beach. I would do almost anything to avoid it. But there was no avoiding it ultimately. I mean, I was a kid. When a parent told me I had to shower, I had to shower. And sometimes, the salt gumming up in my arm hairs was motivation enough. The showers went okay when I remembered to take them before dark. In the daytime, I was still top of the food chain. Girl empowered with soap and towel. But once the sun slipped below the horizon, all bets were off. When the sun retired, the food chain took on a different appearance. It was the look of an Orkin commercial. Because after dark, the bugs came out. And this was Florida in the summertime. These bugs were gargantuan. And predatory. To this day I look away when exterminator commercials air.

This egregious, forgetful, after-dark mistake occurred on multiple occasions. I think of these memories as one collective trauma. On these occasions when I would realize I had played my last card and come up with a 2 of clubs, I would grab my shampoo, grab my towel, and the biggest flashlight I could find. I was gonna use that sucker as a weapon if I needed to. And I would. Need to.

The showerhouse was 18 steps from the bathroom side door where there was a perfectly good, perfectly well lit, perfectly indoor shower that imperfectly didn’t run water. Still I do not understand this. How much could it have cost to fix that shower? I mean, save up if you need to. YEARS went by. Anyway, I would click on the flashlight and tiptoe down the concrete path in the dark, my yellow flashlight beam laying like a golden thread in front of me. The light was deceptive. It wasn’t enough to eliminate my fear. It was just enough to play tricks on me in the blackness. When I arrived at the showerhouse, I would squeak open the wooden door, cracked and sticky from moisture and salt air. I always chose the first shower stall. Always the first one. Never the second. 5 more feet was just too much to ask. With the door open, I shined my beam into the stall to see what creatures had already come to the bar for a drink. Sometimes I was pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, I ended up running from a bug big enough to ride bareback. And sometimes running from one sent me into the arms of another. It was not always as traumatic as all that, but it was never pleasant. However, at the end of it, I was clean. So there’s that.

After cutting the water and drying off urgently in the battery operated beam that I had balanced on end in the corner, I would high tail it back to the bathroom with the unworking shower stall. At times I could hear it snicker as I went past, like a leftover hiss of water in the pipes from days gone by. Walking through the bathroom, I’d change into pajamas and emerge into the back room where everyone else was already settled. This was our indoor common room; the closest thing to a family room we had. Besides some weak overhead lighting, this room was lined with a collection of mismatched lamps. And in an L shape, like a makeshift sectional, sat the strangest couches I have ever seen. I’ve never seen one like it since. They were metal-framed and padded with foam cushions that were blue and black striped and kind of velvety textured. I think they were probably quite hideous in truth, but somehow they seemed to fit the space. And they were comfortable. Besides everything, the most interesting part of the couches was their ability to forecast the weather. If it was cold, they were cold. If it was raining, or going to rain, they were damp. The couches didn’t lie. They were anchored at each end and in the elbow of the L with end tables that were little storehouses for books and coffee cans full of crayons. On each table sat a lamp. On each couch sat at least two people. And someone was always in the raggedy blue chair in the corner of the room. When you got up from this chair, you had a fabric tattoo on some part of your body.

I loved this time of night. This space. Almost more than any other facet of coastal living. Because then and there, we were all gathered as a family, bathed in the warm orange glow of feeble lamplight. And we were reading. All of us. No one talked. But everyone communed through a love for words. When that house left the family, when our family left the area, when my grandmother left the earth, this left too. Never again have I had this with anyone at any time. We were all in different worlds, but in ways, never closer.

At times like these, I picked up my familiar Madeleine L’Engle books and devoured them. My grandmother read Catherine Cookson novels and then passed those to my mom. My brother read Tolkien. My dad read the paper and magazines and sailing books and sometimes real estate contracts and his Bible. I looked up every now and again to see if anyone was reading DIY books on how to fix a shower. But no one ever was.

But they should have been. Goodness.

Brick and Mortar

My granddaddy was a grocer. He owned White’s IGA on the corner of Tennessee Street across from Leon High School in Tallahassee. By the time I was old enough to be curious, that IGA had become a coin collector’s business and my granddaddy was long gone. He died when I was 2. I’m told that I walked around to every relative who would look my direction and asked “where’s Granddaddy?” when we were back in town for his funeral. Talk about salt in a wound. I never did know when to shut up. I still don’t.

Though I have no memory of ever being in his grocery store, I’m told it was a happening place and that he was a kind and funny man. I’ve heard that from a lot of people through the years. The one thing I never heard a single person say about him was that he was a gifted builder. And yet, the place I spent the most time in my childhood outside my home was a beach cottage built 100% by him.

Beach cottage sounds so exotic. I’m just going to shoot straight here. It was a shack. A shanty. It had concrete block walls, tile flooring from the 40s, an indoor shower that never worked a day in my life, two outdoor showers that still show up in my dreams sometimes, a kitchen so narrow you could almost bump your head and your butt on either side of it if your angle wasn’t just right, two bedrooms with a Tetris combo of beds that slept 7, and a front porch that opened to eternity.

I was a shallow kid. Sometimes all I could see was the shack part. I’d ask myself why a grocery man tried to build a beach house and was that the reason the shower never worked. No cable, no AC, no heat, no telephone. We were straight out of 1905 as far as technology went. Why did we have fancy, polished pine wood ceilings with fancy beams running across the length of them but the floors looked like the inside of a boys’ locker room from the turn of the century?

My granddaddy saw in that place something it took me years to see. He saw the eternity part. He saw the waterfront. The sea oats leaning in the wind like they were looking into the neighbor’s yard. The water curling up onto the sand only 30 feet from our swinging screen door on the front porch. The twisted branches of the live oak trees that were perfect for the bare toes of a grandchild to shimmy up.

I saw outhouse showers. He saw heaven.

Somewhere along the way as that cottage evolved, my grandparents figured out that the front porch needed a twin bed. It was a rare night that someone slept out there, because the temperature needed to be just right. But on those nights when the air hung between the perfection of warm and cool, my brother and I would argue over whose turn it was to sleep on the porch. And on the nights when I won the argument, I slept deeper and purer than I’ve ever slept again anywhere. The lapping gulf water mingled with a salt-laced breeze created a lullaby that was more like medication.

I go to the beach now with my kids, once or twice a year. We stay on the 3rd floor of a condo. To get to the water, we take an elevator. I never see the same person twice, except for the mean old guy who wanted to kick me out last summer for bringing my dog. He had a face like wrinkled papyrus and an expression of perpetual bad news. But at St. Teresa, where the floors weren’t fancy and the showers weren’t indoors, I stepped out in my front yard and became immediately part of the same community each summer. Same families, same kids, same dogs, same docks, same card games, same card game cheaters. The skies would change. The curl of the creek would change. Limbs tanned and stretched from summer to summer. But the community…the friendships…stayed constant. That was the eternity part.

My granddaddy, the grocer, knew this when he picked up his hammer. He knew he was building a launching pad for childhood magic and lifelong friendships. And though we sold our slice of eternity to our next door neighbor more than 20 years ago, I’m still connected to the friends I had there. And of all the places on Earth that have molded me from then to now, that little plot of land on St. Teresa is the closest to perfection I’ve ever found.

I’m glad nobody told my granddaddy he wasn’t a builder. I’m glad nobody told him not to try. Maybe the floors were nothing special. Maybe the showers were dark and shared with critters I won’t write about today. But the rocking chairs were always occupied and the conversations always warm. And when I stepped out into the yard at night and let the screen door slap loud against the wood, I could look up and see something pretty close to glory.

I think maybe he was a builder after all.

Controlled and Habitual

You know what’s a real sleep ruiner? 32 ounces of water imbibed at 10:30. I needed the water. But then I got to rethink that decision every hour for the rest of the night.

So I’ve been thinking about that whole discipline thing as it relates to the changes I’ve wanted to make for about 10 years now. Since Jenna. Oh, Jenna.

I figured out that, for me, the key is discipline. And the key to discipline is controlled and habitual. And the keys to controlled and habitual are–some other stuff.

I really don’t want to go all self-helpy, because I’m the farthest thing from a life coach and we’ve already established that it’s been more than a decade since I completed a New Year’s Resolution. I’m not qualified. You shouldn’t listen to me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep talking. Because I’m thinking it onto paper. If you keep reading, that’s your choice. Your time.

I’m going to split my goals into the following bite-sized pieces:

  1. I’m setting attainable goals for me, for now. I’m not going to set a goal of running a 10k. I dropped out of a 5k in November. Gretchen Rubin tells me to “lower the bar.” Be realistic. Don’t kill the goal before it even gets going good. Voltaire said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
  2. I’m setting measurable goals. How else can I know if I’ve met them? Saying I want to lose weight is worthless unless I can identify how much weight, per week, and by what method. Saying I wanted to write more didn’t work, until I decided that meant I would write Monday-Friday and post a blog per day. So far so good on that one.
  3. I’m making daily deposits into many different accounts. One load of laundry a day. 20 minutes of reading my Bible a day. 20 minutes of exercise a day. A blog post per day. No more Smarties (taking a moment to let my eyes fill with sugar-free tears…) on any day.
  4. I’m cutting what doesn’t fit (That originally came out ‘I’m cutting Wyatt Durant Fur’ on my phone). Currently the biggest time sucker I can cut completely is TV. I mean, I watch ALL the Hallmark Christmas movies and we all know if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen 24 others with an identical formula. There’s 48 hours I could get back right there. After Hallmark comes reading fiction. But let’s not talk crazy…

Controlled and Habitual needed some detail. I’ve got a few things in place. It’s attainable. It’s measurable. The rest is up to me.

I can only hope the rewards will be greater than the withdrawal I’ll be feeling when my Smarties and the Hallmark winter movies start singing their siren song, softly and sweetly in a strain only a hearing aid can hear…

The Slate

Everyone loves a clean slate.

A new year.

A brand new white board. A fresh sheet of paper. An empty journal soon to be filled with the brilliant ideas in your head. A new workout program. Resolutions.

New. Fresh. Clean. Shiny.

But then.

Not new things happen.

Not fresh things show up.

The unclean invites itself.

You misspell a word on page 2 of the journal. In INK.

You skip two days of the new workout because your thighs were screaming horrible things at you. But they scream more and louder when you go back.

You can see the last two weeks of white board markings and can’t get that shiny new finish back no matter how much spray you use.

It’s old now.

Spoiled.

Ruined.

Eh. It’s easier to quit than fail.

Pretend you never started.

I’ve done that. Been doing that for years, actually.

I’ve tried picking a word of the year. 2016 was “intentional.” I intentionally did not make it to February. 2017 was “change.” I wrote down in a journal, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” Wow. Deep. And nothing changed. Because nothing changed. 2018 was the hardest year of my life, with more conflict and change than I’ve ever experienced. As much as I didn’t work toward a New Year’s resolution or set specific goals this year, I did work and my regrets are fewer than usual. The hard stuff kept me on my knees, which is the safest and best place I could be.

But something hit me the day after Thanksgiving just a few short weeks ago. In the unlikely and uninspiring setting of a laundry room, I leaned over a dryer and read a Sean Dietrich blog post (www.seanofthesouth.com) from start to finish. It made me cry. It was simple, poignant, and powerful. The next day, I read another. And the day after that, another. I loved reading. He kept writing. That’s when it occurred to me that he writes every day. New material. From January 2018 until that moment in November, I had written 3 times. I wanted to write. I needed to write. But I wasn’t writing.

Inspired by the simple and consistent words of a man I’ve never met, I decided that if he could, so could I. At least on a Monday-Friday basis. Monday-Friday means 5 posts a week. That’s a specific goal that is 1,000,000 times more than I’ve been writing. How would I make that happen? What magic could I tap into to pull it off?

That’s when it hit me. Magic isn’t how things happen. Inspiration isn’t the source of great ideas and fancy words. It’s time. It’s effort. It’s determination.

It’s DISCIPLINE. Training myself to do something in a controlled and habitual way. (Thanks, internet.) Controlled and habitual. Ok then. I can develop the discipline to write daily. To do anything daily.

And out popped the word for 2019: discipline. In 2016, I tried to be intentional without any discipline. In 2017, I tried to change without applying discipline. In 2019, I’m going to develop discipline. To read. To write. To get healthy. To study. To whatever. Put in the time and the energy every day for whatever I’m working toward. 20 minutes here. An hour there. It’s a focus not so much on the outcome as it is on the process. For any goal I set, there has to be a controlled and habitual in place to accomplish it. In order to get something done, I must do. Well, then.

It is the simplest of all plans. So simple it’s almost guaranteed to fail. But let’s not talk about failure. That’s so negative.

So pessimistic.

So unnecessary.

So February.

Happy 2019, friends.

Life and Dreaming

I love New York City. I have never loved a city more. I grew up in Tallahassee and have a deep love for its rolling hills and canopied oaks and its sweet southern people. But given the choice, I’d move to New York. Tomorrow. I wouldn’t leave my family, obviously. And I wouldn’t do it against the wishes of those important to me. But a girl can dream. And my dream is to live in New York.

I grew up in the aisles of public libraries. And in those aisles, I once put my hands on a Madeleine L’Engle book. After that first one, I put my hands on all of her books. I’ve never read another author that punched my gut more, struck more chords, or created more relatable characters. She was the voice of my dreams. The words of my unfolding childhood. The Small Rain. Camilla. A Wrinkle in Time. The Moon By Night.

As I fly home from NYC, I have Becoming Madeleine in my lap. It is her story, written by her granddaughters. Her story unfolds like the dream I once had for myself. But sometimes goals and dreams don’t line up. I never want to miss my life for my dreams. I can’t risk looking away from what’s been entrusted to me–and from the One who entrusted–to gaze at the what-ifs. Maybe even the what-shouldn’t-bes. Dreams can relocate. Dreams can change. Dreams can be deferred. Life can’t. If I get to the end of my life and never get a single page published but my kids are gathered around me, I have succeeded exponentially. I would have no regrets. On the other hand, if I get to the end surrounded by a career but having missed the point of the beautiful people, my regret would be the final chapter, likely read by nobody special.

For now, I’ll continue walking the lighted path in front of me, reading anything L’Engle, satisfied that I managed to create in 4 young people a love and respect for the colors and energy of New York City on a trip I will never forget. For now, that is dream enough and far more than I deserve.

But if fortune plays a different hand someday and I up and disappear, you can find me on a rainy day in Times Square. I’ll be the one looking a little confused and carrying a cheap umbrella.

Let it Rain

“The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am sitting in the airport, delayed because the sky has settled into the ground like thick gauze. There’s zero visibility. It could be 3 p.m. It could be midnight. Nobody would know the difference. I’m fine to wait until someone can see something. I do hope I get home to my dog tonight.

We arranged our last few itinerary wishes around the forecast. Our forethought in doing so still wasn’t enough. You can’t know how hard the rain will be. You can’t know how many other people you’ll be dodging as you walk through it. And you can’t know how bad a $6.99 umbrella from Duane Read (Walgreens) will be.

Or can you?

I had some time to kill last night while four of my people went into Ripley’s Believe it or Not. I never go into a Ripley’s because I am in the Or Not category and I figure if I’m going to make fun of every exhibit, I can do that outside for free. So I did. I had a duplicate stocking stuffer to return with a receipt to Duane Read. I figured I’d just get on ahead of the forecast and buy my family some umbrellas for today.

After returning the items I had bought and not used in the kids’ stockings, I slapped 6 emergency ponchos and 6 generic black Duane Read umbrellas up on the counter. The man checking me out had long blue hair and looked like he used to be in Genesis. He stopped the process and looked at me.

“Is it raining right now?” he asked.

“No,” I answered. “But I saw that it was supposed to start by 3 a.m. and we have a lot on the schedule tomorrow, so I thought I would buy the umbrellas now.”

“Oh, ok,” he replied. “Just asking. Because we usually only sell this umbrella when it is raining right then.”

Hmm. I’m not sure I like your tone, sir.

“I only need the umbrella for one day,” I said. “We’ll trash it when we’re done. You think it’s got a day in it?”

“Hopefully,” he said. He had begun ringing me up. Even buying the worst umbrellas I could find, with emergency ponchos, I still rang up to $63.10. I wasn’t going to go higher in quality. That meant going higher in price.

I dropped those umbrellas into a brand new Pusheen backpack and walked across the street to Starbucks where I ordered myself a nice hot cocoa with an abundance of whipped cream. There was something about that whole experience that made me feel both very grown up and very childish. The backpack didn’t help my case. Walking to Bryant Park alone, did.

When I awakened this morning, I looked out at the Empire State building and it was lost in the drizzle and the clouds. A 90 story building that had boasted the colors of Christmas throughout our stay was no match for today’s gloom. We packed up and got out early, because our plan was to visit the 9-11 memorial and museum. A few other people made that same plan. So many that we changed our plan to stomping in disgust and getting back on the subway. Well, that’s not exactly how it went, but I personally was bitterly disappointed to skip that. We stood in the rain at the footprint of both the fallen towers and observed the memorial. Then we gave up on the museum.

We wandered the rest of the morning in a rainy Times Square and ate lunch in La Havana. The rain fell cold around us, but we had our $6.99 umbrellas, so we stayed not dry at all. One of the umbrellas only deployed by shaking it furiously, which becomes awkward in a crowd. Brady’s umbrella deployed forcefully at random, which at one point almost caused him a concussion. None of us asked him why he had it pointed at his own head, but it would have been a fair question to ask. The fact that none of us asked probably is its own answer. Jenna’s umbrella turned inside out three different times when the wind hit her wrong. And mine literally separated into two pieces. Other than that, I highly recommend the Duane Read $6.99 generic black umbrella.

The wet cold settled into us until we made it back to our hotel to gather our belongings. Our feet were soaked. Our clothes needed some time with a hotel hair dryer. But the colors. The colors. The colors in Times Square laid like mosaics in the wet streets. It was far more vivid than the dry days we walked it. Sometimes there are gifts in the rain. And colors in the rainy streets.

And sometimes the best thing one can do when it rains is to let it rain.

But there’s also something to be said for a quality umbrella.