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Things I hope my kids are learning from me

Yesterday was a special day to my parents. It was the anniversary of their first date. Maybe this is not an official holiday, but every year on that day, my dad would send my mom yellow roses, or they would have a special dinner or just spend some time together. This was the very first time in nearly 36 years that they didn’t spend this day together. 

No one can fix that. But I didn’t want him to be alone. So, I got some takeout and made plans to hang out with him. I sent Helen Keller a text to ask her what movie would be the best to watch, something that would be funny and not bring up any unpleasant memories. She says, “The Goonies.” Perfect. Target had the Blu-ray, so off to his condo I went with an 1980s classic in one hand and Italian food in the other. 

Some of the night was sad. But a lot of it was funny. There were laughs and times for him to share memories with me. It was the kind of night that you remember where nothing groundbreaking happens, but you know it will still go down in your memory as one of your favorites. 

Over the past few months I have been re-evaluating and changing and re-prioritizing. A lot of things and people and events and beliefs that I used to place such a high price tag on have been symbolically donated to Good Will, if you know what I mean. As I’m finding out more about who I am and what I need in my life, I’ve started to consider what it is that I want my kids to know beyond the shadow of a doubt. Seeing my dad continue to celebrate his first date anniversary with my mom inspired the first one, but after thinking about it a little more, the list kept coming: 

Marry someone who pays attention to the small things. I’m not good at this. I’m a big-picture kind of girl. But just like my dad remembered his first date with my mom every single year, I have a husband who does things like that for me. Thoughtfulness is highly underrated.

Don’t let the fact that something isn’t planned stop you from enjoying it. If you think dancing in the rain or swimming in your clothes will bring you joy, do it just for the sake of the joy. Not everything has to be planned or have great purpose. Seize every opportunity to make memories. There’s nothing like looking back on the memory of how it felt to throw caution to the wind and let yourself really live.

You don’t need a big circle, you need a small core. I have learned that 2 or 3 people who really understand you are more valuable than a room full of acquaintances. 

It’s OK to set boundaries. It’s OK to say, “No, I’m not doing that.” Mom used to say, “Well, if I don’t go they’ll talk about me.” You should know that if you’re worried they might talk about you if you make them unhappy, they’re probably already doing it. You matter too. Not just “them.” As mom would later say, “Stop casting your pearl before the swine.”

Make time to do things that make you smile. Art may not be practical, but if it feeds your soul, it’s worthwhile. I love literature. I love to write. I love how the perfect poem or song can capture a moment. And while these things will never make you rich, they will definitely make you a better person. 

Embrace the people who are different from you. Try to learn both sides. I have read books by both Samantha Power and Nikki Haley, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. I’ve read the Bible and I’ve listened to friends who are convinced God doesn’t exist. And I have decided that if I believe we are all made in God’s image, then I also believe we should all try to understand each other. Loving your neighbor does not know political or racial or religious boundaries. You either love or you don’t. Period.

Don’t just know what you believe, know why you believe it. My Friend has said to me that maybe some of the things I’ve accepted as the gospel truth came only from the opinions of those around me. My Friend was right. So I am taking the time to investigate both sides of many issues because no one on their death bed ever said, “I wish I hadn’t taken the time to understand.” When all the chips are down, you can’t stand firm on rhetoric. You have to stand firm on truth. God is big enough for our questions, and He’s strong enough to pursue us while we run, and to heal our wounds when we fall. 

Take pictures. Lots of them. No matter how bad your hair looks, or how fat you feel, or how tired everyone is. Some day it might be all you have left. And let people record your voice. It’s more important than you know for your people to be able to hear it after you’re gone. 

Let your leaves fall. If there are people or relationships or situations that are hellbent on letting go of you, let them fall. You are a tree. Your life is in your roots not your leaves. 

Choosing to wallow is a form of pride. Assuming that your pain is greater than anyone else’s is just your way of saying, “I’m the best at everything, even having bad things happen to me, and no one else matters.” Show the compassion you crave.

What other people think of you is none of your business. (Thanks Lexi Grey). There is such freedom to be found in letting go of your need for acceptance. 

Find a job that inspires you. I have had jobs that I worked because I needed money, and I have had jobs that were perfect for me on paper but left me longing for more. And then I found the place where my talents come together for good. Where I can bless others while still growing in my intellect and feeding my soul. I wish that for my children. We spend a lot of our hours on earth working, and they need not be wasted. 

Sometimes dandelions are better than roses. Roses are beautiful, but dandelions hold the promise of a thousand wishes. Don’t ignore them just because they’re not as beautiful as the roses. Beauty can take many forms. It’s not better, it’s just different.

Learn another language. Communicating with people who are different from you is a beautiful and valuable thing. It is an opportunity to go outside of your comfort zone and show other people that you know you aren’t the most important culture or language in the world. It shows you want to grow, that you want to challenge yourself, and that you have spent years preparing for the moment when you would meet them, just so the encounter would be a little more meaningful. 

Read. A lot. Often. Hundreds of authors with thousands of different view points. It’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to say, “Yes, I used to think that too, but now this is what I’ve learned.” Life is not about establishing a persona and living to fulfill it. It’s about living in such a way that you’re excited to discover more about who you really are. You are not chained to anything. Grow. Change. Evolve. And don’t let small-minded people put you back down in your box.

Enjoy naps. Daytime sleep when you’re supposed to be doing something more productive feels better than a full night. Don’t ask me why.

Small things matter. From a comfortable couch to a hot cup of dark coffee to a soft rug under bare feet. Take the time to savor every sensation because these simple pleasures can go a long way to change your attitude on bad days. 

Never underestimate what date night can do for your marriage. Even if you’re mad at each other, the food is better. It’s win-win.

Make your life look like you. I used to think I had to fit into a carefully curated box that I imagined other people in my circle had created for me. But now I know what makes me happy is a Jeep, and a bean bag chair, Frye booties and Chuck Taylors. Expensive purses and cheap t-shirts. Audiobooks and tobacco scented candles. Hot baths with aromatherapy salts with a glass of something in one hand and my Kindle in the other. I don’t need drama. I like solitude. 

And most of all, love your people. I’ve recently discovered about myself that many times I keep people at arm’s length out of fear. Why the two or three I have chosen to let in have broken through those walls I have no idea, but I am grateful for them and I’m trying to figure out how to love the others just as well.

I’m sure there will be more, but I’m off to a good start. My mom taught me to be me. So for better or worse, this is what I hope my kids are learning from me so far. And to be honest, some of it, I have learned from them. What else would you add?

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“I only need one thing in Target,” and other lies I tell myself

I did that thing you’re not supposed to do. I let myself believe the lie that I was going to Target for one thing: a birthday gift. OK, two things if I’m being honest. I was buying a gift card and I could have gotten that at Walgreens, but I wanted to get the new Rachel Hollis book too, so I went to Target. 

I’m one of those women who other people make fun of because I’m the cliche— the one who says she’s going in for one or two things and manages to spend $105 dollars on things I didn’t know I needed until Target told me I needed them. If you ever wondered, “Who would buy that?” It’s me. I am who. 

Anyway, within the first five minutes, I found the gift card. But I still needed to get the Rachel Hollis book. The problem was, that all of the aisles were chaotic because it was Saturday afternoon, and it looked like Black Friday in there. I guess there must have been some aggressive book club members who ransacked the place. So I had a little trouble finding the book. 

Since I had to look through so many places, I did manage to find what I like to call “Target Poetry.” In case you’re not aware, Target has excellent poetry selections. I mean, I’m not someone who goes to Amazon and browses the poetry section. As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I do like Rilke. I’ve also purchased “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. And I hold a special place in my heart for the scene in Dennis the Menace where Mrs. Wilson quotes “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” to get Dennis to go to sleep. That is the extent of my poetry knowledge. But these books suck me in, man. Target is how I discovered the wonder of Atticus and Tyler Knott Gregson and these gems led me to find Christopher Poindexter on the internet. 

So I found this book, “Confessions of Her” by Cindy Cherie. I was sucked in by the first page because I felt it in my soul, and I decided it was the Lord’s will for me to get this book. The problem is, that I usually only buy Target poetry when the mental stability is taking a little hit, so today when I had the book out my office, My Friend says, “What are you reading?” And I say “Target Poetry,” and My Friend says, “Why are you in a mood?” 

Just let me enjoy the beauty of the words Friend. That’s all I have to say.

Then, the next shelf over, there was the new TD Jakes book. Before my mom died, she read (probably multiple times) “The Crushing” by TD Jakes. I have no idea what this book is about. Presumably women who pray based on the title. But the truth is, I bought it because if my mom was alive, she would’ve bought it. 

So then me and my two new friends, Target Poetry and Bishop Jakes, rounded the corner, and there, on the end cap with all the other new releases, was Rachel Hollis. So I scooped her up too. 

At this point, I should get special points for avoiding the candy aisle, the Chip and Joanna Gaines experience, and the make up section. I was making a beeline for the greeting cards, determined not to waste anymore time or money. But, as some of you already know, I have this quirk where, if I’m having a rough day, I might go through all the cards until I find the ones that make me giggle, and then buy them for no other reason than that they bring me joy. And I definitely did that. And now, I share them with you. If you don’t think these are funny, probably we can’t be friends:

Corny? Yes. But didn’t you smile?

Because Bob Ross. That’s why. And he’s throwing shade which is hilarious.

Hee hee!

Saved the best for last!

And so, yes. I went to Target for 2 things. And I left having spent $101.11. And you know what? I’m not even sorry. It made me happy, even if only for a little while. And in a world with so much sad, I choose not to put a price on that. 

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From Enola Holmes to Finally:Happy

Spoiler Alert: If you read this one, I will have ruined the movie Enola Holmes for you. Don”t say I didn’t warn you.

Last night I was a couch potato. I got home from work, made some dinner, and then Other Half wanted to watch a movie. He’s pretty good about picking stuff he thinks I’ll like to watch. I always say, “Watch whatever, I’m just going to sit here and read.” And then he makes it his own personal challenge to choose a movie that I will watch from the corner of my eye for the first 20 minutes until I am forced to put down my Kindle and actually watch it with him. I don’t know why it matters if I’m reading when I sit 3 feet away from him on the couch vs. watching the same show with him, but for whatever reason it matters. Mamaw says it was the same for her with Papaw their whole married life.

So, this time, he picked “Enola Holmes” on Netflix. I tried to ignore it, but I was pulled into the plot and the accents and the Henry Cavill of it all. I didn’t mind that my reading was interrupted. Everything was going great. The movie was literally down to the last 5 minutes, and then I lost my junk. 

The movie, one of the most popular new movies on Netflix right now, is about the sister of Sherlock Holmes. It follows her as she searches for her missing mother while meeting new people along the way, and solving a mystery while simultaneously bringing the tumultuous issue of women’s suffrage to light. And, it was family appropriate. (Not that our kids watched it. One we couldn’t pry away from the video games, and the other officially believes that she’s a teenager and must live 90% of her life in her bedroom). 

I’m pretty cautious about which movies I watch lately. It doesn’t take much to make me emotional. I’ve never really been that type of person before, but since my mom died, if something reminds me of her I internalize it and then I become a sobbing mess. Something as simple as seeing a mom and daughter together at the nail salon or trying to eat at a restaurant we enjoyed together can really push me over the edge. 

I figured since the mom was not dying, she was only missing, that I’d be OK. But then the whole concept of a daughter searching everywhere for her mom wouldn’t let up. She’s trying to find messages her mom might have left her in gifts. She’s seeking out messages from her mom in the newspaper. She’s struggling with feelings of abandonment and anger and trying to find her own way in the world much sooner than she expected. 

The dialogue really hit home a few times for me too. In one scene, Enola visits her mother’s close friend Edith in London, and Edith can’t or won’t tell her where to find her mother, but says that if she chooses to stay in London she shouldn’t do it because she’s looking for someone else, she should do it because she’s looking for herself. 

And watching Enola try to do all these things for herself that she would normally share with her mother, and finding that her mother prepared her for everything she needed to do, that got to me a little bit too. 

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was in the last 5 minutes. Enola is finally reunited with her mother (Eudoria) and Eudoria says, “I thought I was going to be the one that was going to change the world. What a woman you’ve become.” And then this is followed by, “I am sorry. I wanted to tell you where I was going, but it wasn’t safe. I didn’t leave you because I didn’t love you. I left for you because I couldn’t bear to have this world be your future. So I had to fight. You have to make some noise if you want to be heard.”

I know it sounds crazy. My mother didn’t choose to leave me. She didn’t want to leave any of us. But sometimes I feel like she did. Sometimes I feel like she deserted me. And sometimes I dream that I’m doing everything I can to stop what I know is coming. In the dreams I am convinced that there must be some way for me to rewrite her ending. But the dream ends with me hugging her and crying and telling her how sorry I am that I couldn’t figure out how to change it. Watching this scene with Enola and her mother was like hearing my own mother tell me how sorry she was that she had to leave. My poor therapist. She really deserves a raise.

Other Half had stepped outside to let Scooby Doo chase rabbits and whatever else he has to do before bed, and by the time he walked back in the door, I had both hands covering my face, sobbing, eyes burning, unable to hold anything in. He immediately turned off the TV and got me settled in bed, knowing that there was no hope left for the evening. Once the dam breaks there’s no holding back the river. 

The funny thing is, I’ve been doing relatively fine. I mean, I miss her every day. But some days instead of feeling like there’s big hole in my chest, I feel more like I’m living in an acceptable but not quite as good as before alternate reality. And one Netflix original film sends me plummeting back to where I was before. 

I’ve been reading a collection of letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke on grief and loss, and one of my favorite passages so far says,“And while I am completely engulfed in why own sadness, I am happy to sense that you exist, beautiful one. I am happy to have flung myself without fear into your beauty just as a bird flings itself into space. I am happy, dear, to have walked with steady faith on the waters of our uncertainty all the way to that island which is your heart and where pain blossoms. Finally: happy.” 

I’m not there yet. Right now I’m still in the Enola Holmes phase, searching for my mother everywhere, in everything, as I find out exactly what I’m capable of and how well she prepared me for the things I would face in my life. But maybe one day I’ll see things in a different light. Finally: happy. 

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It feels like fall: Movie Edition

I love fall. I mean, of course I love the summer because I’m a Jeep owner who wishes she were a mermaid, and I love the winter because Christmas, and I love spring because back to Jeep owner, but I think fall is my solid favorite.

Especially days like today. Here in my little corner of North Carolina, the sky is overcast, the air feels a little misty, and it’s cool but not cold. I know that most basic white girls like myself rave about pumpkin spice and s’mores and hoodies and black leggings and Ugg boots, and I definitely check all those boxes. (Except for hoodies. They make me claustrophobic). But on days like today, the reason I love fall is movies. 

When I was in ninth grade, my parents decided I should homeschool. I was totally fine with it, because I had been begging to try it for basically my whole life. Anyway, every morning I had to get up at the same time as my brother who was still in public school at the time, take a shower, and get started on my work. My dad was adamant that homeschool would not equal lazy, so that was the deal.

Usually I would sit on the couch and start my work from a series of booklets that my parents probably paid an arm and a leg for, and then I would work for about 2 hours. That’s usually all the time I needed to get done with my assignments for the day. Then me and my mom would watch 2 hours of ER (the George Clooney one). Then we would eat chicken quesadillas (which mom pronounced quesa-deal-yas) or taco salads or something else my dad hated since he was at work and didn’t have to eat it. Then we would start laundry or whatever chores we had for the day, and then on the very best days, we would turn on movies in the afternoon and pile up on the couch with snacks and blankets.

So now, as soon as there’s a chill in the air, I get the urge to watch these movies:

1- The American President

This is the one I’m watching today. I told you already that I was a nerd, and I was reading the Madeleine Albright memoir, Madam Secretary. Also, just like the rest of you, I keep getting intrusive text messages on my phone and seeing huge banners on every social media platform reminding me to register to vote since, in case you haven’t heard, there’s a presidential election this year. So between the memoir, the text messages, and the chill in the air, I was compelled on a molecular level to watch this movie. Michael Douglas. Annette Benning, Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen. So many things to love.

I could probably quote everything in it nearly verbatim, only no one would know what I was talking about because I’m pretty sure my mom and I were the only ones who were obsessed with this movie. It’s the American equivalent of a fairy tale, only with a strong female lead instead of someone who feels the need to sing and clean all the time while waiting to be rescued. It’s also possible that the only things I know about politics are what I learned in this movie. Judge me if you must, but I like to avoid conflict, and lately politics=conflict. But this movie=joy. I love it desperately and it makes me feel like my mom is here. 

2- You’ve Got Mail

This one was a little later in my childhood, but it quickly became one of our top 5. One of the first e-mails between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks says, “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” I remember thinking that this perfectly captured how I felt about late August and early September. I love the idea of the adversaries becoming true love. And the idea of modern letter writing. I realize Nora Ephron isn’t the equivalent of Rainer Maria Rilke and e-mails in a chat room aren’t the same as handwritten letters, but there’s such romance in seeing people actually get to know each other before they meet and jump right in to some physical, shallow relationship. It just feels like fall. 

3- Clue

To this day, my husband loathes this movie. But I remember watching it from the time I was probably 6 years old with mom, dad, and my cousin, Queens, and we laughed the whole time, regardless of the fact that the movie was older than I was and we had watched it at least 5 times each year. Several months ago we got together at Queens house and watched it. My mom didn’t love this one because she thought some of the humor was stupid, but she watched it because we all loved it, and she routinely quoted Mrs. White. And if you are ever around me, my mom, my dad, my brother, or my sister, and you say “To make a long story short,” we may smile and nod politely, but in our minds we’re shouting, “Too late!”

There are many others. Plus TV shows and specials (Gilmore Girls and Charlie Brown were our two favorites), but these are the ones I remember best. So while you’re sitting at home in your leggings and hoodie, sipping your pumpkin spice latte while eating s’mores in front of a crackling fire, give one of these movies a try. And when you’re done, read Madam Secretary. It’s way more fun than watching these political ads. Trust me.

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Nerds Rule the World

I have a confession to make. I am a nerd. I know, I know. You never would have guessed, based on my witty insights on such topics as Rainer Maria Rilke and grief and couches that look like a cervix, but it’s definitely true. 

Other Half is more on the social side. He loves to talk to people and go places and do things. I, on the other hand, never go anywhere without my Kindle or a paperback book stuffed into my purse. As a matter of fact, I buy my purses based on whether or not they are big enough for books. My mom used to call me Rory because of that. (If you’re wondering, the Frye hobo is big enough for my book, my kindle, my planner, and my MacBook). 

Growing up, I don’t think I felt like a nerd. I was the smart girl, but I still had friends and fun and laughed a lot. But as I went to college and then started working, I discovered more about what I like. And what I like is knowing things and reading things and taking them apart to figure out how they tick. 

Working in healthcare, you interact with people all day long. You smile and you answer questions and you think about things and you try to put your best foot forward. And then, if you’re an introvert like me, you come home next level tired. Like, desperately in need of staring at the wall in a quiet room tired. Not physically, but mentally. 

Last night, I was looking forward to coming home from work so that I could sit in the hideous chair and read. That’s all I wanted out of life. Other Half made dinner, Mary Ann was out of town, and Benjamin Button had already run off to play video games. I sat down in my chair and had this huge wave of happiness at the thought of reading in the soft and the quiet. . 

Other Half sits down and says, “You want to watch a movie? We can turn off this show and you can pick something out.” This is a big deal— having control of the remote. All day long he has to fight the kids for 30 minutes of peace to watch one show, and he was giving me his quiet happy time. He even scrolled through movies he knew I would like, which he would hate (The Wedding Planner, Sex and the City 2, the new Jurassic Park cartoon on Netflix), but I just couldn’t do it. 

You know why? This is the part where I prove to you that I’m a nerd. 

All day long I had been looking forward to starting a new book. And that book was Madeleine Albright’s memoir. There, I said it. (Stop judging me. I don’t judge you for how you relax. And the beauty of reading on a Kindle is that you can’t judge me for what I read because you don’t know what it is unless I tell you). 

A few minutes later he says, “You enjoying your book?” 

“Yep,” I say.

Awkward silence while I keep reading..,,, “What are you reading?” 

“Madeleine Albright’s memoir of her time as Secretary of State.” 

More awkward silence. Then, “Oh…..why?”

“Because I think it’s interesting. It’s history. I was homeschooled so I didn’t take a good history class in high school like you did, and I’m going back to fill in the gaps in what I know.” 

More awkward silence, silent judgement, and I’m pretty sure silent introspection on how he ended up married to someone whose Idea of a good time is reading Madeleine Albright’s memoir on a Saturday night. Not even the newest one. The one from 2003. 

You know what? I love books. All the books. I love the ideas and the word choices. I have a love affair with words and with silence and with this hideous bean bag chair. Sometimes I read cardiology books and take notes on things I don’t know because I’m genuinely interested. And sometimes I read poetry. And sometimes I read about Hebrew words. And not a day goes by that I don’t listen to an audiobook in my Jeep. And when I was in college I made a character map just to be able to keep up with the relationships in Carry Me Like Water, which I would have done even if I wasn’t reading that book for a class because I just need to understand things. You know why?

Because I’m a nerd. And I’m OK with that. I like being a nerd. And the good news is, according to My Friend, nerds rule the world. 

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Soul Tired

There are multiple levels of tired. This is something I’m finding. There’s plain ol’ run of the mill body tired, where you’ve worked too much, or stayed up too late, or been in the sun too long. Then there’s mentally tired where you’re just overwhelmed again and again until you have such fatigue of learning things or analyzing things that you need some brain rest before burnout sets in. Then there is emotionally tired, which is when you’ve had to feel all the things and you just can’t feel anymore and the numb sets in. 

When you’re body-tired, you sleep. You rest. You do things you like to do. You recharge. When you’re mentally tired, you read trashy novels (like Janet Evanovich. Don’t judge me), or you binge on Netflix and cookie dough. When you’re emotionally tired, maybe you can unplug, cut out toxic people, do some yoga. You find solutions. 

But what happens when you’re soul tired? When the emotional has given way to the mental, and the mental has given way to the physical, and you’re just soul deep tired. No amount of sleeping, or shopping, or book reading, or movie watching can fix it. I’m pretty sure that’s where I am. 

I have always prided myself on being a strong person. Someone who can take care of herself and other people and never show when you’re scared or hurt or uncertain. Those feelings aren’t productive. I have always considered them signs of weakness. I think that is part of why I was drawn to medicine. I had this desire to be the healer rather than the victim. To understand why things happened rather than assume they were the result of some uncontrollable force. I wanted to take out the fear that comes along with loving the ill. I have centered my career and maybe even my life around this desire. 

What I didn’t anticipate was the emotional distance from people that this creates. How you automatically shift into data gathering and interpretation when the ones closest to you are sick. And how the fear doesn’t go away, it just disguises itself as problem solving, as if failing to give into your fear means that it’s not a ubiquitous presence in your mind, right next to the false sense of control you have cultivated. You condition yourself not to cry, not to hurt, not to hope. Just gather the facts and accept them as they are and move forward with wearing your poker face. If you display any evidence of the uncertainty you might feel, the people around you lose faith and crumble. And so you let the weights pile up, and you compartmentalize until your brain and your soul feel like a self-storage center. And you forget to just be a presence for them instead of trying to fix things.

That can only last so long. For me it lasted through 5 deaths and one on-going severe illness. But there is no one who can sustain, long-term, this robotic existence. It doesn’t account for the human side of things. It doesn’t take into account how you trade relationship for some semblance of control over fear. It doesn’t factor in that the only way to make sound decisions as a healthcare provider is to remain objective, and that the only way to remain objective when your family is on the line is to distance yourself. 

And so, you create the distance, mile by mile, until you are so far away from anyone and everyone that you can barely see them as a speck on the horizon, and you finally stop running long enough to catch your breath, bent over with your hands on your knees, wringing with sweat and desperate to feel something, anything, other than this tightness in your chest that comes from running and breath-holding and forgetting how to just be with your people.

This works for a while. Until you bottle up things for so long that you spew all the contents of your soul onto innocent bystanders like a 2 liter Dr. Pepper that fell off the tailgate when you were unloading the groceries. (Not that I have any experience with this). And just like you can’t put the Dr. Pepper back in the bottle, you can’t unsay the words or uncry the tears or un-slam the doors. 

So far the things that I have learned are that feeling all the things is more courageous than the numb. Accepting support from other people instead of being the strong one might make you feel pathetic, but it also makes you feel held. Staying when you want to run away might make you feel trapped, but it can also make you feel loyal. And being honest is harder than being nice but it might make you feel free. My soul is still tired, but I’m working on it. If I figure out the rest, you’ll be the first to know.

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What is your favorite memory?

Yesterday Benjamin Button asked me a question. “Mom,” he says, “What is your favorite memory?” I was, for once, at a loss for words. It was a big question. What would I pick? The day I got married? The birth of each child? The first time I ever tasted coffee? I was stumped. He doesn’t have a lot of patience with stumped, so he supplied for me, “I know! It’s the day you married daddy because that’s the day you were on the way to having us! We’re your favorite memory!” 

I thought about his question later, and I felt like I needed categories. Like the question was just too broad. There are so many beautiful memories I have from my childhood, and from being a teen, a newlywed, a new mom. Even now, simple pleasures like the wind in my hair as I drive the Jeep with the top down. The sound of ocean waves. How warm and consuming my mom’s hugs were. And then I started to wonder what kind of memories my kids have. 

Unfortunately, my kids have suffered a lot of big losses in their lives. And sometimes, if I’m being honest, I check out as a mom. Not because I want to, but because it’s a matter of survival. How can I manage my own grief or job or home or relationships and still be available to them for managing their own struggles? I wonder if, as they get older, they will have good memories like I do, or if they will look back on their childhood and see more shadows than light. 

So today, we decided to make some memories. On the spur of the moment, Other Half and I decided to take a day trip to Chimney Rock and Lake Lure. It’s only a 1.5-2 hour drive so we could still be back in time for my dad if the liver fairy came. (It didn’t, by the way. Stupid lazy fairy). 

When we got there, Benjamin Button said he wanted to find a creek. He has a best buddy from preschool that he still sees. The last time he went to his buddy’s house, they played in the creek and he said it was the most fun he had in forever. So we found him a spot to get in the creek. Y’all. If joy had a face, this would be it. He was utterly and completely content. 

Meanwhile, Mary Ann decided that the creek is an excellent place to have a photo shoot. Other Half and I mostly concentrated on not breaking anything important, like arms or legs, while we got in the creek with them. 

Mary Ann wanted to go gem mining. Basically this means you pay a fee for a bucket of sand, and then sift it in little troughs of water. They had so much fun with that. You would think they were pirates with buried treasure. By the end of the first bucket they were begging for another, so we got one more. 

We had lunch outside with a view of one of the creeks, and we played a game (which Benjamin Button came up with) where you pick a number from 1-10, and whoever guesses the number farthest away has to tell their most embarrassing moment. We played this for probably 30 minutes. I cannot tell you how many of these involved variations of pooping in ones pants or farting very loudly. This is the risk you taken when you play these kinds of games with a third grade boy. 

It was the best family day we’ve had in a while, and no one played on their cell phone, and there was no Fortnite in sight. So, for today Benjamin Button, these are my new favorite memories. And I’m one step closer to feeling like maybe my kids won’t look back and only see pain. Maybe they will remember some simple days that brought them joy when we ran away for a while and they got to be kids instead of tiny adults. What are some of yours? 

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The Best Seat in the House

I have a confession to make. I am in love with the most hideous chair I have ever seen. There, I said it. I feel better now. 

When I was a kid, I had this blue bean bag. Only I didn’t get to keep it for very long because my mom (or more realistically my Mamaw) heard that they were a suffocation hazard and a choking hazard and, I don’t know, probably flammable too. So that was the end of that. 

Flash forward to my mid-to-late 20s. Other Half and I are spending the day at my favorite mall and I see a store selling bean bag chairs. Not just any bean bag chairs, but the one that every bean bag chair aspires to be. Soft and fur covered and big enough for two people. And now, it’s not just that cheap ugly pillow that kids have in their rooms. It’s a sophisticated, expensive ugly pillow that adults cocoon themselves in. I wanted one desperately. But we agreed that it was not practical and too expensive, so I moved on with my life. 

After I decided I wasn’t going to buy a new couch, Other Half offered a compromise. The ugly bean bag chair of my dreams as a trade-off for keeping the cervix (cervixes? cervici? Not sure what the plural is. If you’re confused, here’s a link to the story about the cervix https://settingupstones.com/2020/08/12/couch-shopping/). 

It was a little bigger than I remembered. About 5 feet wide, and 80 pounds or so in weight. Getting it in the truck was super easy. (And yes, I realize it could have gone in the truck bed. But I didn’t want gross bugs and leaves and road debris to be stuck in the soft gray fur. Don’t you know me at all?)

When we got it home, Benjamin Button pushed from inside the truck while Other Half pulled from the outside of the truck. I swear it was like watching a Dodge Ram give birth. Finally, the chair popped out and we half carried, half rolled it through the front door. To give you an idea of size, the rug is an 8 foot round. 

The kids love the chair. They fought me for it. I still hadn’t even gotten to sit in it and they were already marking their territory. 

Finally, we got into the living room and I sat in it for the first time. I sank into it and felt like I was in a womb or something. It was like getting a hug from a piece of furniture. It is the best place in the history of the world to read a book. But not movies. Not in your 30s. The resultant back pain is not worth it. 

So, I’ve traded in the cervix for the womb. It’s not pretty, but in a world where there can sometimes be so much pain, I think we should find the happy wherever we can. My happy is in this chair with my book and my laptop. Judging by the looks of things, it might be Mary Ann’s happy too. It might not be pretty, but it’s the best seat in the house.

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Sister Act 2, Rilke, and Living the Questions

One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Aside from the comedy and how beautiful it was to hear Lauren Hill sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” in her pre-Fugees era, I loved the idea of someone so young having such a firm grasp on what they wanted, and trying to figure out how to overcome obstacles to get there. Even obstacles like Lauren Hill’s mom wanting her to reject her identity as a singer because of fear and past suffering.

There’s a scene where Whoopi Goldberg gives Lauren Hill’s character a book, “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke, and has her read it so she can figure out who she is and what she wants. I always wanted to read that book just because it was in the movie, but I never did.

Now, I’ve read “Begin Again” by Leeana Tankersley 3 times over the past month because it makes me feel like there is someone out there who gets me, and like maybe I’m not as crazy as I thought, maybe I’m just in the middle of Erikson’s intimacy vs. Isolation stage. In that book, she uses some quotes by Rilke. So I ordered it from Amazon this week, at the behest of Sister Act and Leeana Tankersley, and much to my husband’s disapproval. (There may or may not have been several packages this week and every week. I am who I am. There is nothing more to say about that).

Yesterday I finally started Letters to a Young Poet, and there is so much in it that I love. But one of the passages that I’m still sort of marinating over is in the fourth letter. 

It says, “You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

Now, I know some people think this level of introspection is useless, but I am not one of those people, and I have been on a journey of some heavy duty introspection this year. I have been trying to figure out who I am, what I believe, and most importantly, why I believe it. Being a person raised in the Bible belt and taught all my life about the sovereignty and kindness and majesty of God, you have to re-evaluate when so many bad things happen in a row. You just have to. And here, in a letter from 1903, a German poet has summed up the answers I have found so far. 

Live the questions. 

I have always been one to search for answers. To dissect something. To read about it, study it, make it fit the framework of my understanding so that I can connect it to the rest of my life and knowledge in a meaningful way. But what I am finding is that the universe has no inclination to bend to my will. My living cannot be done in the answers. My living must be done in the questions. 

And you know what? This journey, this finding of who I am and what I believe has been lonely and difficult at times. But it has also been and continues to be so much fun. I’m finding that I love my contradictions. I love that my mother was loud and irreverent and also called to such a holy life. That I love that my dad likes numbers and order but also Scooby Doo cartoons. And that maybe I am the best kind of combination of them both. That I love Jesus but somehow have the vocabulary and sense of humor of a 14 year old boy when his parents aren’t watching. 

I think all of the best people are walking contradictions, and that unraveling the layers of who we and our loved ones really are is one of life’s greatest gifts. I enjoy catching glimpses of myself and my husband in the day to day interactions of my children. And I love that I have a soft place to land every day when I’m exhausted from my mind racing until it hits a wall.

I am finding that I enjoy living in the questions, because that’s where all the meaningful stuff is. If you’re searching for answers, like me, I wonder if you could take a minute to enjoy the beautiful chaos that is living in the questions. It’s uncomfortable but oh so worth it. And read Rilke. You can pretend I didn’t get the suggestion from Sister Act 2 if it makes you feel smarter. You’re welcome. 

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Fairytales

People say things all the time like “fairytale romance,” or “life isn’t a fairytale.” Maybe not all people, but for sure the people who watch romantic comedies and Hallmark movies. People like me. But I’ve been thinking lately, maybe we’ve got it all wrong.

Last night I came home from work, and I was so exhausted. I don’t want to be that parent that just comes home and goes to bed, even though I really WANTED TO BE THAT PARENT WHO GOT TO COME HOME AND GO TO BED. You get what I’m saying? So I decide that, when Mary Ann asks me to watch a movie, it’s win-win. I’m still spending time with my family, but if I fall asleep they’ll be distracted, and the worst thing that will happen is Other Half recording me snoring and some potentially embarrassing photos. With everything I’ve been through this year, neither of those things were distressing to me.

The problem was, we couldn’t choose a movie. We went through Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Amazon Prime again. But then I’m scrolling through the movies in my Amazon library, and The Princess Bride is there. Mary Ann immediately says “Yes! The Princess Bride,” as Other Half simultaneously says, “I’m not watching this crap, you know I hate this movie.” 

So naturally, we watched The Princess Bride. He may be El Jefe when it comes to couches, but it was two against one for the movie. 

I’m thinking about how much I love this movie, and how it’s horrible that my mom never watched it before she died because everyone should watch it before they die, and I’m immediately sucked into the story just as much as I was the first time I watched it.

I get lost in the dialogue and how perfect the casting is and how young Robin Wright Penn looks. And I wonder if Fezzick was picked on as a child, and I silently berate all of the hypothetical bullies who picked on him for their lack of foresight into his potential. And oh by the way, who was the genius who suggested Lieutenant Columbo to be the narrator? He’s perfect. All of these things go on simultaneously because my head is basically the Nascar-O-Thoughts. But twenty minutes in, I finally relaxed.

Today I’m thinking how nice it was to relax with Mary Ann and Other Half (for the 45 minutes he tolerated), and it dawned on me that The Princess Bride is the perfect fairytale. There is true love, sword fights, a giant, bad guys, friendship, revenge, pirates, and yes, eventually a happy ending.

Think about other fairytales we all know. Cinderella who is basically imprisoned for the whole movie with only rats for friends. Sleeping Beauty whose parents live in fear for their daughter’s entire life until what they’re afraid of inevitably happens, and then she overcomes it, but not before she has to be in a coma for who knows how long. And Snow White. An orphan, forced away from the only house she’d ever known, living with strangers in the woods, until she finally gets a raging case of food poisoning and again with the coma.

Now all of these characters live happily ever after, right? That’s the fairytale ending. But the fairytale stories? They’re horrible! They are the stuff nightmares are made of. When people say they want the fairytale and they mean something perfect, I have the urge to say, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Princess Bride has murder plots and fire and quick sand and ROUS’s (rodents of unusual size). My life has 5 deaths in the past 18 months, a parent with end stage liver failure, working in healthcare while raising children during a pandemic, and a doberman pinscher who is allergic to literally everything. Fairytales aren’t happy. They are full of all the things that make life unfair and exciting and terrifying and beautiful. And yet here we all are longing for the fairytale.  Guess what? If your life is in chaos and turmoil and uncertainty, you are living the fairytale. You’re just living in the middle of it instead of at the end.

While you’re muddling through your middle, to help you survive the scary parts, here are my top ten favorite Princess Bride quotes. Some are from the book and some are from the movie, but if you don’t recognize every single one of them, you have some homework to do. You’re welcome.

10: “Life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

 9: Buttercup: “We’ll never survive.” Westley: “Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

8: “Look. I’m not about to tell you this has a tragic ending….but there’s a lot of bad stuff coming.”

7: Miracle Max: “Have fun storming the castle!”

6: Vizzini: “No more rhymes, I mean it!” Fezzick: “Anybody want a peanut?”

5: Westley: “We are men of action. Lies do not become us.”

4: Inigo: “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.” Westley: “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.” 

3: Vizzini: “Inconceivable!”

2: Inigo: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

And the only response to any of us longing for a fairytale: 

1: Westley: “As you wish.” 

Hang in there. Every fairytale feels like a horror story in the middle. But don’t rush the dialogue and the perfect casting just to get to the happy ending. Lieutenant Columbo would not approve.

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Couch Shopping

I’ve said before that I’ve learned about myself recently that I’m an emotional runner. This is still true, by the way. But I’ve also learned that I’m a master avoider. The two go hand in hand, really. I mean, why would I be running if I didn’t need to avoid things? You would be amazed the things I do to avoid dealing with the things that need to be addressed. Work too much. Sleep too much. Read an impressive number of Kindle books. Go for long drives. Sit at the lake. Social media. Endless screenshots of memes. Hone my EKG reading skills. Scribble in my nerd book.  The list is endless. 

Today, to my list of avoidant behaviors, I added a new one: couch shopping. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it was an avoidant behavior until I was pretty committed to it. And, like most other things I’ve learned about myself, there had to be a tantrum before I reached my epiphany. 

It all started yesterday. Other Half and I wanted to take the kids on a day trip to the mountains to ride around, be out of the house, take the Jeep tops off, and embrace the freedom. The only problem was, everything we planned to do in the mountains was closed— hiking Grandfather Mountain (I can hear my mom laughing from here at the thought of me hiking anything) was out because they were closing up early. Other places we didn’t get tickets, or we weren’t comfortable with the number of people who would be out. By the time we figure out we have nothing to do, we’re almost an hour from home. And there, like a sign from God, was Hickory Furniture Mart. 

Last year we remodeled our downstairs, and I desperately wanted a new couch. Other Half said there was nothing wrong with our old one and eventually I let it go. I think now though, I have reached the part of my life this year where he would do almost anything to make me happy, so he agreed to look at couches. There was almost no one else in the parking lot and four whole levels of furniture stores. 

I quickly learned that there is something Mary Ann hates more than antique shops— furniture shopping. It was pretty painful. Benjamin Button on the other hand, had a great time. I swear he’s a senior citizen trapped in a kid’s body. He wanted to sit on every chair, feel every fabric, comment on every color. His long-lost dream is apparently to have a red leather couch. Who knew? 

Anyway, we finally found it. The King of Couches. It’s completely perfect. Soft brown leather, big pillowy cushions. Two huge ottomans that open for storage. I was in heaven. The only problem is, the monster is 12 feet long and 7 feet in depth, not to mention the height which I didn’t measure because, who cares? Benjamin Button could fit his whole body in one of the ottomans. I sent a text to Christina Yang and said, “tell me I don’t need this couch,” to which she responded, “But you do.” This is why she’s my person. Then I texted Fairy Godmother. This is where I started to realize I might be avoiding things. She responds with, “Get whatever makes you happy, but what happened?” I thought maybe I missed something, “What do you mean?” I ask. And she says, “Usually you make a big purchase when something bad happens.” Hmm…I think. Nah, I don’t think so. 

When we got home we measured the den and concluded that the monster wouldn’t fit. So I decide the only real solution is to move. Other Half suggested the solution was to look at other furniture stores. 

So we did. We went to a bunch of them. This time the kids stayed with Uncle Jesse. And then I found the only couch in the whole world that can compete with the Monster. It was waiting for me in Haverty’s, cream colored canvas and feather pillows, sitting 33 inches off the ground and the perfect depth for me to curl my whole body up and read a book, which is all I have ever wanted from a piece of furniture. I decided I maybe even liked Desert Island better than the Monster. I was already picturing how peaceful my living room would look with the light colored paint, soft silver rug and dark floors, all just waiting for Desert Island to be delivered. Then Other Half catches up with me. 

“It’s huge,” he says. “And it’s barely 18 inches off the ground. How are we supposed to get on and off of it? And what about when your grandma comes over? Or your dad? And it’ll never stay clean. And how do we configure it? Sectionals are tricky. You really need to take detailed measurements and maybe put some tape out on the floor to outline it and make sure it looks ok. Plus there’s no way I’ll be able to keep my recliner. You know I’m not really a couch person. I sit in a chair.” 

“I know,” I say. “That’s why I don’t think you should get to help pick it out. You don’t even sit on it. You sit over there in your chair.” He blinks at me slowly. “But don’t you think this should be about more than what one person wants? My chair might not even fit if we put this big thing in that room. Not to mention the dog hair and the mess the kids will make.” 

This is where it all goes south. I’m not sure where the conversation took a wrong turn, but somehow I explode that Other Half always sees the negative and is a dream killer. And how I’m tired of sitting on the same style couch every single day for the past 13 years because we always buy the same couch over and over again. And how the tufts in the couch back looks like a multiparous cervix and oh by the way, I’ve had pap smears more pleasant than this shopping experience. And then I send Christina Yang a text message that says, “El Jefe says the couch is a bad idea.” She says he could always sit at the kitchen table instead. And again I say, this is why she’s my person. 

We leave the store and I have a few minutes to calm down and I think. “I don’t really want a new couch.” 

The thought startles me a little bit, because not ten minutes before I was willing to fight to the death for the privilege of bringing Desert Island home with me if I had to carry it on my back and tie the throw pillows to my ankles like the cans on the back of the bride’s car after a wedding. But 30 seconds after my meltdown, I think, “This is a waste of money. I don’t want a couch. I want my dad to get his liver transplant. I want my kids to be able to have a safe, fun, productive school year. I want my sister to not have to give birth with only one visitor in the room because of COVID. And since I cannot make any of these things happen by sheer force of will, I decided to buy a very big, very expensive couch.” Huh. Who knew? 

We drive home and I tell El Jefe— cough, cough, I mean Other Half— that I don’t want a couch. “I know,” he says. “But it seemed to make you happy for a little while.”……………..I really don’t deserve him. 

Score one for Fairy Godmother and Other Half. Zero for the master avoider. But, for the record, I still love Desert Island. And my current couch still looks like a cervix. Cervixes? Not sure what the plural is. Pictured here is one of the chairs. I didn’t take a photo of the couch, but it’s basically three in a row. And it’s OK. Because apparently a cervix is not the real problem here. My dad’s liver is. So I’ll keep the couch and take the rest of life one day at a time.

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Life, Death, and Cherry Lemon Sun Drop

The last ten days has been very strange. It’s a waiting game. It was about then that my dad sent a text message to Helen Keller, John Wayne, Uncle Jesse, and Mamaw that said he is number one on the transplant list for his blood type. You would think we would be happy to hear that news, after all these years of his being sick and now having such tough year. But when I got the news I cried like a baby.

There’s something strange about knowing that in order for your loved one to live, someone else must die. I told My Friend the other day that I feel like a circling vulture. I know what it’s like to lose someone. One of the closest people in my life. I would have done anything to save her. And now, somewhere, there is someone praying that their mom, dad, brother, sister, niece or nephew will live. At the same time I pray my dad can live. Both of our prayers can’t be answered at the same time. My friend told me I was looking at things the wrong way, that if someone were to die it’s noble and unselfish for them to be willing to give life to another. And he’s right. I absolutely know he is. And I’m incredibly thankful for people and their families who give the gift of life. But my heart also grieves for them because I know the loss they face. 

The other reason I was crying is that the only way to get a liver out of someone else and into my dad is a surgery. Not a revelation, right? But when your mom just died in February as a complication of surgery, you look at the risks of anesthesia and cutting and sewing a little differently. I know it’s neurotic but I just keep coming back to it. The last time my dad was admitted for an infection in his belly I wasn’t able to stay with him and I was terrified up until the moment he got back in the car. I want to protect him and control everything around him that could possibly impact his life, and I can’t. In reality I know that I have no control over anything, but when I’m able to hover I feel more secure. I can’t hover in an operating room. 

So what’s a family to do while we wait for a liver? 

We move my dad into his condo. And we have a social-distancing baby shower for Helen Keller. We go on date nights, and we watch Twilight movies, and we go swimming at Uncle Jesse’s house. We (OK I) read books that help me understand why I struggle so much with anger and fear and resentment lately. And other books that make me laugh, or gross me out, but ultimately keep me distracted. Pick up overtime at work to keep my mind busy.  I write letters to my mom, and I find joy in the little things like my kids and iced coffee and Christina Yang. And Other Half figures out how to calm the madness when it gets out of hand. I go to Krispy Kreme when the hot and now sign is on, and I try to figure out how in the world I’m supposed to be as good at getting my dad safely through all of this as my mom would have been. How any of us are supposed to make it through this at all without her. 

I snapped this photo of my dad at the baby shower. He’s holding his favorite drink. Cherry Lemon Sun Drop. I remember going to his first few transplant appointments with him and my mom. They were terrifying. Descriptions of ventilators and central lines and incisions as long as your forearm. After hearing all of this, my mom and I were nearly sick at the prospect of what was coming. My dad was fine. Not a single reaction. Until we met with the nurse, who is the transplant coordinator, and she told him that after transplant he has to permanently give up Sun Drop and any other drink that contains grapefruit juice because it interacts with his anti-rejection medications. That’s when he finally reacted. “Like never?” “Never,” she said. That elicited a deep breath, the only reaction any of us have seen. 

And so now, as I go to work in the mornings I wonder if today will be the day. As I lay down to sleep at night I wonder if the phone will ring in the middle of the night telling me it’s time to go. Before we make any plans I calculate how long it would take me to get back home, and make sure we would be within the 3 hour window of getting my dad to the hospital in time. It’s sort of like waiting on labor to start, or hoping that you’ll get accepted into NP school. You know the time is coming, but you don’t know when, and so you live your life somewhere between taking slow deep breaths and holding your breath. 

It’s exciting and terrifying and hopeful and scary. It’s the very definition of facing the unknown. It’s teaching me things about myself that I didn’t know, and it’s forcing me to live in the moment and not worry so much about things I can’t control. But I think to make everything less intimidating, I’m going to stop thinking of it as waiting for a transplant, and start thinking of it as the last time my dad can have Sun Drop. Apparently they are both equally life changing in his eyes. 

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Put on your man face

The other day I was having a moment— you know, when you just need to sit by yourself, take some deep breaths and organize your thoughts so that tight feeling in your chest will go away? And Mary Ann comes to check on me because she’s a little mommy, and she rubs my back and says, “Look on the bright side mom. At least you had a happy childhood. Mine has mostly been about character building.”   

……..

I didn’t know if I wanted to hug her or scream about how much worse that makes everything. Because the fact of the matter is that she’s right. I did have a happy childhood. Most of the southern stereotypes were fulfilled. 

There were cow pastures and treehouses. There was sweet tea and Sun Drop and meatloaf (only not made by my mom, always by Mamaw because my dad made the unfortunate mistake once of telling my mom hers wasn’t as good as his moms. It was a dark day). 

There were pool days and trips to Carowinds and trips to go tubing at Deep Creek. There were days of hiking in the Tennessee mountains and nights watching Andy Griffith and in high school yes, there were days when some of my friends drove their John Deere lawnmowers to school because they thought it was hilarious. 

There were nights spent catching lightning bugs (fireflies if you don’t speak Southern), and homemade ice cream. There were cookouts with charcoal instead of gas grills and long days of home improvement projects. There was church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night and even the occasional Tuesday night prayer meeting. 

But the thing that stuck out most to me after thinking about what Mary Ann said was the wonder of ordinary days. Days when we came home from school, did our homework, had dinner at 6, watched some TV, relaxed or played and went to bed at a decent time only to get up and do it all over again the next day. Errands to the grocery store where we usually got in trouble for fighting (John Wayne and me). Beach trips where we did nothing but watch the storms out the windows in late afternoons and read books on the beach in the evening, followed by walks on the pier at night. 

Now that I’m old enough to appreciate the absence of excitement, I keep trying to figure out if this island of peace in my head actually existed, or if my parents felt just as stressed and anxious as I do now, but did a better job of protecting us from their worries than I do for my own children.

My parenting style seems to feel most days like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Mostly because over the past few years I feel like life has happened to us, not the other way around. There has been so little that I can control that I have reacted, and I have damage-controlled and I have allowed my kids to see that sometimes being broken is unavoidable but we can’t give up and quit. But what Mary Ann said made me wonder if maybe in showing them my weak spots I have stolen their innocence, their peaceful summer days when they could live without thought of health scares or family stress or thoughts of the future. 

Yesterday, the sky was so very dark and cloudy, and we could hear thunder in the distance, and Benjamin Button had a solemn look on his face, almost stoic. And he wouldn’t leave my side. Eventually the sky cleared up and there wasn’t even a drop of rain where we were. Later we went to eat dinner before going home, and as we walked to the car I said, “Do you still feel stressed buddy?” And he said, “No. I’m ok now. It’s just sometimes you just have to put on your man face even when you feel like you might throw up.” 

I decided then that in spite of whatever parenting they’re getting, my kids are wise and amazing and strong and they get it. So today I’m going to give myself a break, take a deep breath, and trust that God has given us this particular life for a reason. And that even if my kids don’t feel as sheltered as I did when I was growing up, they are oh so strong. Maybe normal is overrated anyway. My lies might have made them happy, but I hope my honesty will make them resilient and kind and compassionate and strong. And what could be more important than that?

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“It’s Us 3 Against the World!”

This weekend Mary Ann, my dad, and I were in the mountains. We drove the Jeep up there with the top off, which is basically my favorite thing to do, so I was happy. We finally got checked into a hotel a little after 10 Friday night and got some rest, so on Saturday Mary Ann was ready for adventure and said it’s “the three of us against the world!”

This was my first trip with my dad since mom died. It’s a weird sort of new normal, but I’m glad to got to spend some time with him. We listened to old comedy recordings the whole way up there and were too tired to be sad by the time we got to bed.

The best part of the trip was hearing my dad laugh. He hasn’t had a lot of reasons to laugh lately, so I got some comedy albums I knew he would like. When we went on family vacations growing up, he usually played Mark Lowery, Chonda Pierce, Wendy Bagwell, or Sister Cantaloupe so we would be entertained while we were in the car. Since I was the one driving, I got the albums this time. We went with Michael Jr., Tim Hawkins, and Wendy Bagwell (because he’s classic). When the comedy ran out, I’m impressed to say my dad knew a lot more song lyrics than I gave him credit for. But Mary Ann swore us all to secrecy about what happened in the Jeep.

Bright and early Saturday morning— ok, fine, it was eleven o’clock, we set out for Starbucks, and I was horrified to learn that the Starbucks on the main drag through Pigeon Forge didn’t open until 12:30 (Do better Tennessee). After we tracked down another one, we started driving down a long curvy road. 

We found an antique store. My dad loves antique stores. I used to love them too, but it had been years since I’d been in one, so I’d forgotten how fun they could be. It’s kind of fascinating to me, the things people choose to take care of through the years, keeping in pristine enough condition for us to add to our homes later. Mary Ann was less fascinated and more shocked. She said antique stores felt like “the place where a serial killer hid all the stuff he kept.” Oh to see the world through a child’s eyes. 

It was also amazing to me that I’ve reached the part of my life where things I used to play with as a child are now considered antiques. Mary Ann had never laid eyes on an Etch-a-sketch until this weekend. As my mom would say, “I’m a failure.” What can I say? I save lives. There’s not always time to worry about an Etch-a-sketch. 

As I’ve said before, I have no respect for the dollar. Exhibit A: I bought Noah’s Ark. I wish I could play it off and say it was a gift for someone who was doing a Noah’s Ark themed nursery or something, but the truth is, I’m keeping it in my office because it brings me joy. I have this burning desire to name all of these animals—I’m considering Roland for one of the elephants, and maybe Chandler for one of the monkeys, and I desperately wish Noah could talk because he looks like he would be an interesting guy. 

Then I bought this kitchen towel. My kitchen is not red, nor is there any elephant decor, but I smiled and knew I had to bring this towel home. And if the other days of the week had been there, I’m positive I would’ve bought them too. 

And this gem. It didn’t actually come from the antique store. It came from Cracker Barrel. But it just fits with the mismatched pile of joy I’ve purchased recently. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel like I also have to confess I bought this card for myself (again) when I went to Target before the trip. Glad I got that off my chest.

We’re home now, safe and sound, and while this is definitely not the way I imagined having the opportunity to spend some one on one time with my dad, I’ll choose to see it as a gift. And now I’ll have Noah, Roland, and Chandler to help me remember the weekend my dad and I took Mary Ann to see a serial killer’s trophy closet. What more could you want from a weekend?

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Southern Weddings and Funerals

I’m listening to this audiobook by Sophie Hudson called “A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet” and it’s all about how she grew up in Mississippi, her experiences with her family, the spiritual things she learned along the way. But it’s so funny, and for me at least, so relatable. She talks about these southern etiquette rules, and how important they are to wedding planning and funeral planning. And that started me thinking about my own experiences with weddings and funerals.

I don’t know how it is in other parts of the country because I was born and raised in the south and have never had the desire to live anywhere else. The only other place I’ve even considered moving was to Charleston (South Carolina, not West Virginia), which is even more southern than where I am now, only with the smell of horses and seafood and ocean breezes. 

Anyway, down here in this part of the world, weddings and funerals are a big deal. Most recently I’ve had more funerals than weddings, unfortunately, but I’ve noticed a thing or two. First, the planning goes way faster. I mean, people spend months on wedding planning. My own took almost a year. Meanwhile, a funeral can be completely planned from start to finish in less than 2 days. Also, they cost almost the same thing. It is not cheap to have a loved one pass.

Second, the same people usually come to both weddings and funerals. It might be people you haven’t seen in years. Some of them are there because they love you and want to support you (you being the family member, not the deceased or the betrothed). Some are there because they knew the deceased or the betrothed and they want to say their goodbyes and pay their respects. Some are there because they are curious and want to see what kind of party you throw. Sad, but true and honest feedback here.. The photos above are from my mom’s funeral. So many people loved her. And I think very few were there for the wrong reasons and almost everyone there because of love for her and our family. It was amazing.

And third, they are both so incredibly stressful the sometimes you just want them to be over. By the time my wedding rehearsal came around, Other Half and I were arguing so bad I asked him to pull over on the side of the road on the way to the venue and let my parents pick me up because I didn’t want to be in that car another second. And it had nothing to do with our relationship and everything to do with the fact that the wedding itself is like the event equivalent of a stress test. Sometimes you have a heart issue sometimes you don’t, but either way you have chest pain. 

At my mom’s funeral it was so strange. We had been through so many losses recently that I felt like a pro at the funeral thing. But it was different because it was my mom. That layer of distance that sort of protected me from the other losses wasn’t there. I was trying to hold it together and be the oldest child who takes all the responsibility, and it was suffocating. I was lucky to have a huge supportive family, and one Aunt who knows what it’s like to be the oldest girl with another who has planned countless weddings and funerals, who was there with hugs at all the right times.

During the planning though, I got a text message from a friend at work. I got many— people were so supportive— but this one in particular said, “hoping for a few smiles today.”

Well, that happened to be the day we were meeting with the funeral director. He was trying to explain the components of the service with dignity and a somber respect. But, as I’ve mentioned, I live in the south. Down here it’s always some kind of hunting season. (Like on Bugs Bunny- “Rabbit season, duck season, rabbit season, duck season!)

Where I’m from, dove season, deer season, turkey season, and rabbit season are a big deal. So as we’re getting to the part where we discuss the graveside service, he says, “The only service we don’t offer at this time of the year is a dove release. We’ve done that in the past, and unfortunately, it being this time of year and all, the doves don’t always make it back.” 

And right there, I laughed for maybe the first time since my mom died, because I knew deep down he was right. And because it would be so appropriate if the doves we released to mark her soul’s journey to heaven ended up being shot from the sky by an overzealous hunter, because that’s basically what the past year had felt like anyway. Mary Ann described our year to a family friend as, “We’re just target practice for Jesus I think.”

So, I texted my friend and told him all about the laughs, and he said he could scare me up some chickens. I have a feeling no matter which part of the country you are from, chickens at a funeral would leave quite the impression. All this to say, find the joy where you can. Life might be terrible. But usually, there’s something to smile about. Hang in there. 

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Spaghetti Night

If you ever want to know how to torture a mom, all you really have to do is ask her one question: What’s for dinner?

This has been the question to cause more arguments in my marriage than almost anything else. More than how much I spend on Kindle books every month, more than how much I paid for the Dior makeup I love so much, and more than the time I accidentally dumped the rocks from the fish bowl into the garbage disposal. 

The problem is, I married someone with the palate of a ten year old. (Yes, Other Half, I know you eat broccoli and carrots. Doesn’t help me). And then, I had babies with him, and the pickiness increased exponentially. This means that our kids think that for dinner we should either have chicken, chicken, or chicken. Pizza if they’re feeling adventurous. Cereal if they’ve given up on life. 

Recently, we decided that we were going to try the top notch parenting game called “eat it or starve.” I believe in some homes this is known as spaghetti night. 

Anyway, we compromised with Mary Ann because she doesn’t eat beef. Like ever. One time we forced her to eat chili beans and after dinner I caught her crying in her closet, FaceTiming my mom saying, “It was so terrible Mamaw. It got like stuck in my throat and I almost puked everywhere.” We allowed her to eat only plain noodles. 

Benjamin Button though, has always eaten spaghetti. It might not be his favorite, but he usually muddles through. This night though, he starts with the weeping and wailing. “I hate spaghetti now! No one ever listens to what I want! You guys must hate me!” (Yes, this is a good place to roll your eyes). 

So, as per the rules of “Eat it or Starve”, we told him he was not getting up from the table until he ate his spaghetti. No snacks. No video games. No nothing. After a few minutes, he figured out that his cute little boy face was not going to change our minds, He took the tiniest bite, and then starts crying about how nasty it is. 

We ignore him and just say, “You can get up after you finish the food on your plate.” Meanwhile, we finished our meals and I went to clean the plates. Other Half whispers to me, “Watch this,” and gets an ice cream sandwich. I grab one of the bundt cakes (you know, the ones God brought me like church lady casseroles). We go sit down at the table to basically make Benjamin Button’s life miserable for taking 25 minutes to poke around at his spaghetti. 

There was some yelling. There was some attempting to steal the Sun Drop (for out of state readers, it’s a citrus flavored soda that has so much carbonation it makes your ears pop and I’m pretty sure causes kidney stones, and us Carolinians treat it with reverence usually reserved for preachers and grandmas). 

Eventually, he ate the spaghetti just so he could get back to his video games. But now, I’m trying to figure out if it was worth it or not. If I’m being honest, I don’t care what my kids eat for dinner. I mean, I don’t want them to get coronary disease or scurvy or anything, but I might be willing to risk it if I never have to suffer through another spaghetti night again. And if you’ve never had thoughts like these, are you even a real parent? How does it work at your house?

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Lord, please don’t take Willie Nelson

Disclaimer: If you are easily offended, just skip this one. I don’t have the mental fortitude to apologize. (In all seriousness, I am truly heartbroken for the families who have lost any loved ones during this time for any reason. I truly do understand how you feel, better than you know, and you are in my prayers). 

In my family, having a sense of humor about death is basically a survival skill. When I was born, I had 9 grandparents still living. That means that from birth until now, I have seen what it means to age gracefully and painfully, to die much too young and much too soon. I have cried countless tears, gone to sleep heavy-hearted, and yes, I have even laughed about it at times. It’s my defense mechanism. And my mom was maybe the absolute worst offender when it came to morbid jokes. She used to tell people, “You better lose some weight. You’re up to 8 pallbearers already.” One time a pastor told us we “Deal with loss through joy.” Yeah. We’ll go with that. The fact that it might be that we have all completely lost our minds is much less attractive than calling it joy. 

So, when this whole pandemic thing started, my siblings and I did what we always do. We joked about death. Occasionally my phone would ding and I’d see a message from Helen Keller that said something like, “Rona got Joe Diffie!” And while his passing was so sad and much too early, I thought it was funny the way she chose to word her announcement. I spent the rest of the day honoring Joe Diffie’s memory by singing John Deere Green or the Jason Aldean song 1994 (If you haven’t listened to it, do it. Joe Diffie would be proud).

The loss of Joe Diffie was followed yesterday by the loss of Nick Cordero. I know he was a famous broadway performer, but in my eyes, he will forever be Earl from the movie Waitress. Me and mom watched that movie over and over. When I got pregnant with Mary Ann, I was less than thrilled, mostly because I was 23 and selfish and knew that what is in must come out, and any way you sliced it, that was going to hurt. So we often referred back to this movie and how much Kerri Russell’s character struggled with her feelings about the baby coming. I will miss you, Earl.

Now today, I hear that Charlie Daniels is gone. It is almost more than my heart can bear. For as long as I can remember I have loved all things Charlie Daniels. And not just “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” either. I loved “Drinking My Baby Goodbye” and “Simple Man” and “The Legend of Wooly Swamp” and his cover of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” I even loved reading his own blog, “Charlie’s Soapbox” from time to time. He was a legend, an incredibly talented musician with a soft heart and easy smile. 

So, in keeping with the jokes about death, I sent a text to my siblings today to let them know about Charlie’s passing. John Wayne said, “Yeah, I just saw that too. What a crap year.” Helen Keller says, “I saw that. Better protect Willie Nelson.” My response: “Jesus be a fence.”

And so, together we pray. “Dear Lord, it has been a rough year. There’s a pandemic. My mom died. And before that everyone else died. There have been murder hornets, and flying snakes, and a dust storm from Africa. And now we have suffered the loss of Charlie Daniels, and Kanye says he might run for president. We need you Lord. Please protect Willie Nelson, Betty White, and Leslie Jordan. They’re all we have left. In Jesus name, Amen.” 

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Benjamin Button and the Fourth of July

This morning Uncle Jesse posted some photos from Independence Days past and they made me smile. My favorite is this gem of Benjamin Button holding a sparkler with a distrustful look on his face, convinced that this poor choice is going to cost him. I love looking back at pictures of my kids when they were younger because, who doesn’t? They change and they grow so fast but also at such a snail’s pace. The day to day feels like it takes forever, and then all at once you look back and realize that yesterday your child was 5 and today they are 10 and you don’t know what happened to the years in between. 

But this picture struck me not just because of how cute he is in his button up shirt and his flip-flops, but because the look on his face is how I have been approaching life lately. 

Ya’ll. Life is unpredictable right now, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Every day brings on some new thing that we’re supposed to be afraid or or worried about or might kill us. It feels like we’re stuck in some hybrid of the Hunger Games and the plagues of Egypt in the Bible. But we keep going about our business, surviving. And today we’re supposed to celebrate our independence and our freedom when mostly I feel trapped lately, by my emotions and the sickness surrounding me and bureaucracy that sometimes seem to matter more than actions, and worry. 

When I saw this picture of Benjamin Button I thought, this is a picture of me and life. I’m holding it by the tail, terrified but intrigued by the sparkles. And you know what? There are worse ways to approach life. 

Today, I choose to see the sparkles. The chance to spend some time with my family, read a book that makes me laugh, eat Nothing Bundt Cakes (which I am sure God has recently placed in my town to apologize for my mom dying this year, like when church ladies bring casseroles).

I might wear an inappropriate t-shirt because I think it’s funny and I’m tired of caring what people think and life is short and I know my mom would say, “Take that shirt off! You’re supposed to be a Christian!” And then she would laugh, and I like provoking her into being with me today. And I will go swimming in all my glorious obesity because it makes my kids happy and I want to make memories. I’m going to watch Leslie Jordan videos on Instagram because he makes me laugh so hard, and I love him. 

I am going to enjoy the sparkles and push way way way back in the back of my head all the things I’m supposed to be worried about because one day the sparkles will burn out, and I don’t want to waste another minute of the joy I could be experiencing waiting on trying to figure out if I’m going to get burned or not. 

Happy Fourth from me and Benjamin. Enjoy the sparkles. 

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Great things come from strange minds…

I laugh at inappropriate, horrible things. Things that other people might be offended by are generally hilarious to me. I have been accused, on more than one occasion, of having the sense of humor of a 14 year old boy. Phrases like, “That’s what she said,” frequently pop into my head. It’s just who I am as a person. I used to try to cover it up, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to embrace it. I’m pretty sure it’s inherited. My mom used to say, “We’re so warped,” but she never meant it as a bad thing. It was something that made us who we were, and we appreciated it.

This weekend, I was attempting to relax which is admittedly not easy for me since my mind is usually racing and I’m anxious by nature, but I’m trying to do better. I’m sitting outside, and I look up into the sky and see this cloud, or maybe one of those trails that airplanes leave behind, in the sky. I imagine most people look at clouds and see things like bunnies and Disney characters, or maybe even the face of Jesus. “Huh,” I thought, “That looks like vfib that deteriorated into asystole.” And then I thought, “That’s probably not normal.”

So I decide to send a picture of it to a few friends and see what they think. I get a couple of “ha ha’s” and even a heart reaction. But no one really commented beyond that, so I assume they think I’m nuts. Then, I send My Friend a picture of it, and I get the response, “Oh God. I hope it’s not an omen.” This is why we are friends. No judgment, no wow you’re weird. Just acceptance. It makes me smile. 

“See? This is why I can’t enjoy nature,” I say. “My mind is a strange place.”

My Friend says, “Great things come from strange minds.” 

So I’ve been thinking about this, about all the ways my mind is a weird place. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader, and I’ve wanted to be a writer. I’m fascinated by books and stories and movies. When I was in kindergarten and everyone else said they wanted to be a teacher or an astronaut, I wanted to be an author. But as I got older, I realized that my life had been going to smoothly. I didn’t have anything to write about. No one wants to read anything by someone normal who hasn’t been through any crap in their life. You know why? It’s too shallow. It’s not interesting. No one wants to read about happy fake fluff. You can’t get 80,000 words out of happy. Fortunately for me, life happens, and I now have plenty of material to work with. Turns out, my mind has been strange enough all this time that I probably could’ve been a writer without so much carnage. Here are a few of the reasons why: 

I go to cookouts and end up sitting up in a treehouse, and discover that I like it up there, hiding out and safe from the world. I spend several minutes wondering if Other Half would build a treehouse for me, and if the kids would be jealous if I had one and they didn’t. Or if they would try to kick me out when I was in the middle of re-enacting the s’mores scene from The Sandlot. 

If Mason Ramsey asks me to build Peppa Pig an apartment, I feel like I didn’t do a good job if it’s not decorated, so I add a houseplant. I also tried to put a grill on the roof so that Peppa would have some semblance of a kitchen, but Mason Ramsey lost interest and I had to pretend I like Legos instead. 

I find creepy baby dolls that Mary Ann leaves on the stairs and instead of picking it up and taking it to her room, I take a step back like it’s probably going to kill me, and then I think “let me take a picture.” As an aside, Christina Yang and I have always been convinced that dolls like this come alive at night and plan to murder us, At this point I don’t consider it a matter of if, just when. And frankly, if you don’t think this doll is creepy, I’m pretty sure you’re the one with the strange mind.

I people watch with an unnecessary level of interest. Like last week when we were eating dinner and I noticed an older couple who both brought books with them to dinner. Instead of having some epiphany about how I should be more present with Other Half so that when we’re empty nesters we still have things to talk about, I was mostly thinking, “Wonder how I get him to be OK with me reading books at dinner?”

About a year ago, my mom went to see a cardiologist (who also happens to be a friend of mine) because one of her brothers passed away unexpectedly at a young age from a genetic heart condition. When she was filling out family history, after writing what happened with her brother, she wrote, “Dad- heart attack. Mom- hot mess.” She was in the waiting room until her name was called. Then, when she was taken to the exam room, her blood pressure was mildly elevated. The cardiologist walks into the room and says, “So, your blood pressure is a little elevated today.” She responded with, “Well, your waiting room has Fergie singing the national anthem playing on TV. Your blood pressure would be up too if you just saw that.” After mom’s appointment I asked, “So do I make more sense now?” He just smiled and said, “Yep.” 

Yes, my mind is a strange place. I’m pretty sure it’s genetic (and I’m not the only one with the suspicion— my mom bought me that sign). And as My Friend says, “Great things come from strange minds.” 

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Running, Standing Still

Until recently, maybe within the past year, I never realized that I was a runner. Not the kind of Runner who is fit and wears running shoes and keeps a water bottle and ear buds with them all the time. No, I’m not athletic. I’m an emotional runner. When painful things happen to me, I run away from them as fast as I can. 

To some extent this is a normal reaction. Our bodies are designed to have two basic responses to stressors: fight or flight. Fighting is for people who face things head on, consequences be damned. They figure out how they feel about things, they grieve, and they move on. Not me. I see a problem coming and I approach it clinically. How can this be fixed? What are the logical next steps? Is there something I can do to help? And then I put on my brave face, the one reserved for work when I have to go in a see a patient who is probably not going to make it but if you panic then your patient panics so you suck it up. That’s the face I use to get through all of my own problems. 

Then I convince myself that I must be stronger than I thought because that problem wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. I go on about my day, or maybe my week, or maybe even a month. Until something else happens and I repeat the cycle. This is very effective until my ability to compartmentalize has become exhausted, my mind looking like a hoarder’s garage, or the back of my car after a trip to Hobby Lobby, and I have no more room for new compartments. It is at this point that the running begins. 

I don’t physically run because, obesity and sweat and inability to breathe if I do more than walk fast. Usually I jump in the Jeep. I wander nowhere and everywhere, top rolled back and windows down, music or audiobook loud enough to drown out my subconscious, until I reach a body of water to stare at and inevitably turn off the distractions and try to organize my thoughts.

Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I just sit. Almost always I end up taking pictures of something, like a bird perched on a handicap sign, or some stranger’s boat that looks almost poetic in its still waters. Sometimes I write. I don’t know what it is about running away to somewhere else that I think will make things better. The problem I started with is the same problem I’m dealing with later. 

Sure, I get the wind in my hair, and the sun on my face, and the music blasting all around me, but there’s still a problem. And there are still conversations to have, and plans to make, and emotions to feel. But somehow, if I’m running, I think I feel like I’m more in control. Maybe I can’t control whatever horrible thing is happening, but I can control when I get to face it. Does that make sense, or am I just crazy? Maybe both. 

After my grandpa got diagnosed with a brain tumor, all he wanted to do was ride around in the car all the time. For hours he would want to go down open roads in the country, and he would become frustrated when he had to stay at home. I used to think it was strange. But now, I think I get it. 

When I’m backed into a corner and forced to confront something I’m not ready to deal with, I end up yelling horrible things that maybe I mean, or maybe I don’t. And sometimes during these screaming fits I discover things about myself that even I didn’t know. Like when Other Half asked me why I couldn’t just let him help me and I yelled back, “Because no one can help me! Because everyone I love dies so I’m basically all alone, it’s only a matter of time!” There’s something for my therapist to unpack. And I didn’t even know I felt that way until I yelled it.

Or when I was told over and over again that I should let someone else stay at the hospital with a family member so I could get some rest and I blurted out, “I can’t leave! Last time I left mom died!” Maybe I’ll schedule an extended session. And maybe Papaw needed to be able to run too. Family members took turns driving him anywhere and everywhere, and he was happy. 

It’s sort of like going for a drive in the Low Country. I love driving over the bridges, looking at the streams and marshes everywhere. One of my favorite things about Isle of Palms is that to get there, we cross the Isle of Palms Connector Bridge, and there are twisting pathways of water everywhere. Sometimes the marsh looks just barely muddy, and sometimes there are streams prominent and powerful. There are patches of tall grass, and I can imagine that there are snakes and alligators and all sorts of scary things living there, and there are also beautiful birds and sunsets. And the water just runs wherever it will, as open and free and as unstoppable as I wish I was, refusing to face the alligators and snakes and instead rushing out into the open sea. 

After all the running is done, I come back home to a family who loves me, and whom I love more than anything. I feel a little more ready to take on whatever needs to be addressed, The problem is still there, and I have made no progress. I have been running, but I’ve also been standing still. And I’m learning maybe that’s OK, because I have somewhere to come back to. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to unpack all those boxes. But until then, I’m going to enjoy the ride. 

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Hibernation

I have a confession. Today, I got up early (because Scooby Doo had to poop mostly), and even though I wanted to go back to sleep, I decided to go for a drive instead and get some iced coffee. My morning drives are my favorite part of the weekend. Everyone else is still in bed, and I go out in my pajamas, usually with the Jeep top down, and I listen to my audiobooks, have some iced coffee, and get myself together for the day. I had high hopes for all the ways I would be productive— books I would read, chapters I would write, laundry I would ignore….the usual. 

When I got back home an hour and a half later though, I could barely keep my eyes open. Even after my Venti vanilla sweet cream cold brew. And two Krispy Kreme donuts. (Don’t judge me. I know my truth— also, I bet only John Wayne can tell me what movie that’s from). So I laid back down shortly before lunch time, and didn’t wake up until almost 2. When I got up, I felt like a new person. 

I wish I could say this was unusual for me, but it’s definitely not. I have always loved to nap. My mom used to worry about me because I would nap in my car when I was in college and she just knew something terrible was going to happen to me. When life gets to be too much, a nap usually fixes it. Sort of like how small children need to rest half way through the day so everyone doesn’t hate them. It’s better for everyone if I just take that time.

Other Half doesn’t understand it at all. He thinks it’s a waste of the day. The kids haven’t really said much about it before. But tonight, at dinner, we were talking about the day and how much time Benjamin Button had spent on his video games, and he said, “So. I play games and Mom hibernates.” I laughed because it was funny, and also it was true. But that got me thinking. Why do bears hibernate? 

I looked it up, and according to the National Forest Foundation, bears hibernate (or sometimes enter into a state called torpor which is similar to hibernation but lets them wake up faster and get up to eat) so that they can conserve energy, lower their heart rate, and it allows them to survive. The website said that the need to hibernate is triggered by shorter days, hormonal changes, or food scarcity. 

Basically, their world has changed and they need to protect themselves. And then, I realized that Benjamin Button is right. I’m basically a bear. I got up, went foraging for food (and coffee), and then went to sleep. Probably to protect myself from how much my world has changed, Although, my world was pretty good back in college and I did this then too. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s how I protect myself from too much stress. But I decided that if I have to be a bear, I choose Jasmine. She has a sweet wig, a tiara, and very memorable theme songs. 

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The Middle

When the original Sex and the City show came out, I couldn’t watch it. We didn’t have HBO, and it fell into the category of shows that my mom felt like would send me straight to you-know-where if my impressionable teenage mind watched it. So naturally, shortly after I got married, I watched the series to figure out what I’d been missing all those years. Then there came the movies. I have to say, I loved both of the movies. They are my go-to sick day movies now. What I love is this idea of a group of women who completely understand each other, support each other, and just show up in each other’s lives regardless of the need. There’s something beautiful about that kind of friendship. I also love Designing Women and Golden Girls for the same reason. 

Since all these shows came out well before my time, I have the benefit of watching them in whatever order I want. I already know how the seasons end, how the movies end….I have the benefit of knowing the outcome. Maybe that’s why watching the drama of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte is comforting to me rather than anxiety inducing. I know that ultimately their stories have mostly happy endings. But set aside the fact that these are fictional characters for a minute and imagine that they are your friends, you are living life alongside them in real time, and you have no idea what the future will bring for any of you. You have no comfort to offer aside from your presence and your love while you walk with them through their middles. That is where we can all see ourselves.

Lately I have felt very in the middle. There’s a line in a movie (Hope Floats) that says something like, “Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts.” It’s a good line, but sometimes it seems like a load of crap. Nothing feels good about the middle. The middle is where the fear, the anxiety, the waiting, and the doubt happen. It’s where you don’t know what’s coming next, and when you think you have it figured out, it changes. It’s the age where you are both the parent and the child, and you don’t feel well-prepared to be either. Sometimes the middle just sucks. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut there, and to feel like your middle is actually your ending. To think that nothing is ever going to get any better, or to (as a friend once put it) dig yourself into a hole so deep you can’t see your way out of it. I have done that twice in the last few months, and both times, Other Half called Christina Yang and said “fix it.” 

The most recent time was last week. Being at the beach was a little sadder than I expected it to be, and it put me into this funk of grief that I didn’t know how to escape. I exploded in tears after work one day—I don’t even remember why— and I couldn’t stop. Shortly after that is when Other Half excused himself to the bathroom which, by PURE COINCIDENCE, Christina Yang sends me.a text that says, “Want to get out of the house for a while?” 

Now, in our small town, there’s not all the glitz and glamour that Samantha Jones would have at her disposal to cheer up Carrie Bradshaw, so we made do with what we had. First stop was the book store. I am a die-hard e-reader fan, but one of the things I have missed during the lockdown was going to an actual bookstore and browsing. There’s a sort of book-scale related to my mental health that Christina Yang understands. If I’m reading non-fiction, I’m OK. I have the attention span and the compassion to keep up. If I’m reading novels, I’m escaping from life. If I cross over into YA fiction though, it’s a little sketchy. The Divergent Series means I just want to relax. The Hunger Games trilogy means I’m not doing as great, but still have a little fight left in me, and Twilight means I’ve given up on life, please send help. Christina Yang was aware that I had recently started book 3 in the Hunger Games series. 

As she’s driving, I say, “I think I identify with Katniss Everdeen lately.” This is where I get an eye-roll. “How do you identify with Katniss Everdeen?” She says. “Well, I keep getting beat down, but I’m too stubborn to give up so I keep fighting and trying to save my family from things we can’t save each other from.” I think it is at this point she realizes she wishes she had ignored Other Half’s text message. Unfortunately for her, it’s too late. 

We go in the bookstore, and right there at the front is a display full of a new Hunger Games book. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being lay down and die and 10 being run a marathon, this immediately takes my mood from a 2 to a 4. We walk around the store a while longer while I talk myself out of buying The Great Gatsby even though it was only three dollars, and I impulse-buy a political satire because it made me giggle a little. Then the annoying lady on the intercom kicks us out because it’s closing time. I vow to never buy retail again because Amazon is cheaper and makes it less likely that I will get COVID. She can’t take me home yet because my mood is still at a 4. Time for plan B.

In the first Sex and the City movie, Carrie Bradshaw’s girlfriends go with her to Mexico, but this is not New York. It’s small town North Carolina. We have kids, responsibilities, and limited options. And one of us has to go save lives at 630 the next morning. We decide to go for Mexican food. We end up at a restaurant we have been going to together since we were 15. The prices and decor have changed over the years, but the food has not. We are seated in a corner booth and place our order. We chat about friends from high school and what it’s like to see them as adults, less at the beginning of our collective stories and now more towards the middle. About how some of the people we grew up with are already gone, their stories seemingly cut short. There’s lots of deep introspection, occasionally sprinkled with snarky comments, and then our food is delivered to our table.

It’s the same food we always have, but the fact that it is served on Dixie plates, complete with decorative border, catches me by surprise. Even the drinks are served in solo cups. We look at each other, me trying to cut through my chimichanga with a plastic fork and knife, and giggle a little. “I don’t think this is how Carrie Bradshaw did it,” I say. Christina Yang sips her drink and smiles. The mood is at least a 6 now. The fried ice cream hasn’t even arrived yet, and my baseline is a 7. 

Christina Yang doesn’t know what the end of my story looks like. Neither does other half, or anyone else. But just like Mr. Big knew to call the girls at all the important parts, Other Half gets it too. It might be a little easier for me to cope with life if I knew what the ending looked like ahead of time, but I would miss out on so much. LIke finding out how amazing it feels to be understood so well by other people when most days I don’t even understand myself. It might not be how Carrie and Samantha would do it, but the way Christina Yang and I did it still made me feel better. Sometimes the middle just sucks. But it sucks less when you have the right people, even if all those people do is know when to call your best friend or take you out for tacos and overpriced books. I definitely have the right people. 

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Making Memories

Once upon a time, many years ago in the magical land of South Carolina, there must have lived an ambitious director of tourism or chamber of commerce member who decided to put together one of the most-beloved lies of all time. He convinced everyone of this: “Taking your children to the beach is the perfect way to spend your summer vacation.” 

I’m not sure if this man had children, or if he had even met a child before. Perhaps he just needed to make a profitable business venture and had bought an arcade on the boardwalk somewhere. Whatever his reasons, he was very, very good. For decades now, maybe even centuries, families have flocked to the beach where they had dreams that their sunscreen would be effective, their children would sit and build sandcastles for hours without complaining, parents could go fishing or read their novels, and no one ever needed to poop during the day. This man was the father of lies, and we all fell into his evil plot. 

Or maybe it’s just my kids who don’t do well with days at the beach. All over social media I see these photos of women with their infants who are smiling and happy, or their school-aged children building sandcastles and using their boogie boards. Either these people have children who are much better behaved than mine, or they showed off the best 5 minutes of their day. Even I am guilty of this. 

I go to the beach every year expecting a storybook type trip that could be narrated by Morgan Freeman, and I come back home convinced that now we would have to hire Samuel L. Jackson instead. I am finally coming to terms with the fact that my kids are not beach people. 

Now, first thing in the morning every morning, Mary Ann and I walk on the beach as I’ve told you before. This is the sacred and happy time of day. But later, when we go back as a family of 4, the drama begins. Things start out happy enough, with the excitement and anticipation of seeing the ocean and running down to the waves, walking in the sand and spreading out chairs and towels and drinks under an umbrella. We even rented the nice, overpriced chairs. Benjamin Button is happily splashing in the water, and Mary Ann is making sure he doesn’t walk farther than knee deep. Even I am with them, ignoring my irrational but deep-seated fear that I will be one of the unlucky beachgoers who is eaten by a shark, maybe even The Meg. 

But about the time I tell the kids I’m going to sit in my chair while they play, that’s when it falls apart. I bring a book every year, convinced that this might be the summer I actually get to finish a whole book outside (this year it was “On the Bright Side” by Melanie Shankle which I loved). I get maybe 3 pages in before both kids are right beside me. “I need a snack,” Benjamin says. “How long are we staying out here today?” Mary Ann asks, “It’s kind of hot, you know.”

I point out the sand buckets and shovels I got from Target. Mary Ann makes a half-hearted attempt to build a sandcastle. Benjamin Button remains in his chair, skeptical of what possible motivation anyone could have to build a sandcastle. “I’m bored,” he says. “Well go back down to the water,” I say. “Me and your dad are right here. We’re not going anywhere, we can see you, and Mary Ann can go with you.” 

“I don’t want to go unless you come down there with me,” he says. This is the point where I try to decide if it makes me a horrible mother that the first thing that popped into my head was, “But I want you to go away so I can relax and read this book in peace like the moms on Facebook.” Mary Ann refuses to go with him and asks again, “How long have we been out here? Like 4 hours?” It has been 23.5 minutes. 

I look around. The young couple along with their parents and their baby who appears to be less than 6 months old, who just spent 10 minutes setting up a tent and play pen, are already packing up, the mom walking towards the hotel with a fussy baby while the others pack up shop. There’s a 3 year old on the sand a few yards down who is laying on his back, screaming, because his mother wants him to reapply sunscreen. There are parents everywhere chasing kids of various ages, trying to make sure no one drowns, or eats sand, or eats anything else they find in the sand. There are dads giving their kids the evil eye as they once again have to reset their fishing line since the kid walked into it. Another family is making their way onto the beach with a wagon, cooler, sand toys, floats, and several children in tow, already looking exhausted before the day has begun.

I decide that it’s probably not just me and my kids. It really does suck to take them to the beach sometimes. Yes, it’s amazing to see their smiles and watch them splash and play, but after that 10 minutes is over, then what? We are all stuck with the consequences of the lie we have believed. 

I’ll give it one more shot, I think to myself. “Look Benjamin, there’s a couple smaller buckets in there so you can build all kinds of stuff.” By this point, he is exasperated, tired of the heat and the day and the lie his parents have believed. “Look mom, I’m not building a sand castle, OK?!? When you sit in the sand, it gets everywhere, and I’m not getting sand in my penis just to make a castle, OK?” He’s not yelling, but he’s definitely louder than what we’re used to hearing from him.

We go inside, and Benjamin and Mary Ann happily head off for the pool where they would be content to spend the entire day, which is fine, except that we could have hung out at a pool at home. Or to their rooms where they can play with their iPads and be happy. Then we load up later and go out to dinner in Charleston where the kids complain about how much they hate seafood restaurants but we none the less end up laughing and having a good time. I wouldn’t trade this time with my family for anything, but honestly, is there ever a vacation that is actually relaxing? My mom would say, “Aww, you’re making memories.” But I think maybe what I’m making is a plan to go to the mountains next time. 

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Mom never would’ve let this happen

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting in the beach condo awake, trying to let everyone else sleep, thinking about how my mom would have never let me get this sunburned. I put on sunscreen, I sat under an umbrella that we paid too much to rent (pretty sure not having the forethought to overcharge people for renting beach chairs and umbrellas will be one of my greatest financial regrets from here on out), and I made sure that 2 hours later I put on the sunscreen again, and I still look and feel like someone attacked me with fine grit sandpaper. 

When we used to come to the beach, we would bring mom. My dad doesn’t love it. He burns as easily as I do, and so it has never been his favorite. He much prefers the mountains. I never realized before how much she helped with the kids while she was down here. If they had to choose, they preferred time spent with her on the beach. She was way better at this vacation thing than me. Her motto was, “Well it’s their vacation too.” That’s how a 2 year old Benjamin Button ended up propped up in bed at 2 in the morning watching TV, eating snacks– Mom’s rule.

For one, she knew to bring a snack bag for the car trip. Other Half has this unspoken rule that we don’t stop unless not stopping means someone has peed themselves in the backseat. You don’t know me, DVT, you can’t scare me. We’re not getting out of this car until we get where we’re going. So snack bags are sort of a matter of survival. A good snack bag should have sweet, salty, chocolate, bubble gum, and Chico sticks. Our snack bag this trip was not as impressive— it was gold fish crackers. Benjamin Button ate 3 packs before we hit the South Carolina state line, I think. 

For two, she tried to make sure the kids had something to do to pass the time, or that we left early enough in the morning that we could sleep on the way down there. When I was a kid, we left for vacation at 6 in the morning. Mom and dad didn’t want to waste a day of our vacation on travel, so they tried to make sure we got to wherever we were going by lunch time and had the rest of the day to enjoy. Other Half and I aren’t what you would call morning people, so we usually leave in the evening the night before. I used to make sure the kids had portable DVD players so they wouldn’t drive me nuts all the way down to the beach. Now they’re old enough to plan ahead on their own. Mary Ann downloaded every episode of Outer Banks onto her laptop before we left and Benjamin Button charged up his Nintendo Switch, so they had that base covered. 

The beach rule with mom was that we had a big breakfast, went out on the beach for the morning, came in for lunch which we would eat at the beach house we rented, and then dinner we would either cook or go out. I got the breakfast part right. Every day this vacation we either went out to eat a decent breakfast or I hit up 3 drive-thrus— Starbucks (because my mental health needs it), McDonalds for Benjamin Button’s gravy biscuit, and Chick-Fil-A for the rest of us. Lunch I sort of goofed up.

Since we’re late sleepers and Mary Ann and I have to have our morning walks before breakfast, it was usually nearly 11 before we got on the beach anyway, so I would skip it. This meant that we would be on the beach for maybe 1 or 2 hours before kids were starving like they hadn’t eaten in days. We compromised and had ice cream for lunch. Then by the time we came in for dinner, we all thought we might die of hunger. Today, we were trying to find a place to eat and everywhere had a 2 hour wait, Between the COVID restrictions and peak summer vacation time, there were no easy answers. After trying 3 different places and coming up empty, we were at each other’s throats. We finally found a burger place, Thank God, because otherwise The Hunger Games was about to begin. 

By the time we got back from dinner yesterday, it was abundantly clear that I had underestimated the summer sun. You know how southern girls are always supposed to have this glow? That skipped me. I don’t tan. I go from nearly translucent to bright red, to peeling, to translucent again. The beach is always my favorite place, so I’m pretty sure we’re star-crossed lovers. I keep coming down here and the sun keeps punishing me for trying to pretend I belong. 

When Mary Ann and I made our Target run, I bought the kind of sunscreen she picked because “This was the one Mamaw Faye always bought and it worked good.” I sprayed all of us with it, ignoring Benjamin Button’s protestations that “the cream works better” because the cream is gross and gets stuck under my rings and I refuse to take them off like a normal person. We go play in the water a little as I mentally replay every shark attack movie I’ve ever seen, then we sit under the umbrella we overpaid for, we go get the ice cream that wanted to be lunch, and I re-spray us all with sunscreen. By 4 in the afternoon, the kids have had all the fun they can stand and we come back inside.

That’s when I notice the sharp demarcation of “tan line” which is not so much a tan line as a testament to my stupidity. Everything hurts and itches and when I get in the shower I’m pretty sure the fires of hell must pale in comparison to what this feels like. And then I see Mary Ann’s face which doesn’t look as bad as my shoulders but is still too red, and then Benjamin Button starts bemoaning his own shoulders. Thankfully Other Half brought aloe, Sunburn Relief Spray, and silvadene so we’re covered on remedies, but all I can think is, “If mom was here this never would have happened.” 

She always made me put on a shirt after an hour or two in the sun, even if I did have a tent or umbrella. When I was in my early teens it was because we were pentecostal and everyone knows mixed bathing sends you to hell, so you have to wear a shirt over your bathing suit like you’re trying to win a Church of God wet t-shirt contest. But as I got older, I eventually had to accept that, at least on beach trips, she made me wear the shirt because without it, I would roast. I looked at Mary Ann and thought, “She would be so mad if she knew Mary Ann was this burnt.” And I think maybe I’ll text her a photo. And then I remember that I can’t. I spent the rest of the night sulking and going to bed early. 

I know grief takes time, and supposedly life gets easier to manage after a while, but when has knowing those things ever helped any person who was grieving? Right now, all I know is I have a terrible sunburn, my mom never would have let it happen, and she should be here. Miss you mom. I’ll wear the shirt next time. 

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Am I raising her? Or is she raising me?

Mary Ann is not like most ten year olds. Sure, in some ways she’s similar. She loves to shop at Justice, stay up late, eat pizza and play Roblox. She watches Netflix and chats on FaceTime with her girlfriends and Uncle Jesse and Joey and anyone else who will listen, and she fights with her brother a lot. In other ways though, she was born an old soul, destined to forever be a middle-aged spirit in an adolescent body. 

Before we got packed for the beach, for instance, she started a list on a piece of notebook paper of all the things we needed to buy at Target so “you don’t forget the sunscreen like you did last time.” She tells me when my music is too depressing for my mood, when I’m spending too much time on my phone, when she feels like I’m spending too much money, and when she thinks Other Half and I are getting close to an argument. And she is FOREVER telling Other Half he “needs to calm down.” 

Maybe it’s because she and Benjamin Button were born 18 months apart, almost to the day and she doesn’t remember life as an only child, but she’s always been a little mama. She looks out for her brother—makes sure he has friends and snacks and no one is messing with him. Sometimes she tries to do the same thing for Renesmee and Mason Ramsey. 

After Mom died, one day she found me upstairs in my room crying in an armchair, listening to music on my phone, and she covered me up with a blanket and turned my music off. “Let’s get rid of this, I think it’s making things worse,” she said as she hit pause and moved my phone out of reach. She rubbed my back until she was satisfied that I was OK, and then left me to myself. 

She’s pretty insightful, generally speaking her mind without reservation and giving advice to people much older than herself as if she has many decades of life experience rather than just the one. So I guess I shouldn’t have been all that surprised by what she said this morning, but I was still impressed. 

When we come down to the be