Lean on Me

These are exceptional times. There is no doubt. The political is personal. Not being able to get to a polling booth to vote is personal. Not enough beds for a hospitalized loved one is personal. Feeling unsafe in public spaces is personal. Losing a job is personal. Protecting vulnerable loved ones from a debilitating, even deadly virus is personal. Watching police officers who we depend on for our safety being attacked during an insurrection at our nation’s capital is personal. Watching climate change occur in fast forward is personal.

WHY AREN’T YOU CRYING?

 Everything on the news seems to land right on our doorsteps. In the old days, it landed in the form of a newspaper; now it arrives as actual events happening to us all. We are not talking about a faraway war or disease and starvation in an unrelatable third world country (which is awful enough). No, gone are the days of first world entitlement. The pandemic is here. Racial strife is here (always has been, but why still?). We actually had an insurrection at the U.S capital; who could’ve imagined? Climate change is happening so fast we can’t keep up. Fires, floods, drought, extreme temperatures, hurricanes, melting polar caps, animals quickly becoming extinct.  If you haven’t cried lately while watching the news, then I have to ask: What is wrong with you?

CALL ME

Today one of my dearest friends, one of my most favorite human beings on the face of the Earth (she knows who she is) called me. As soon as I heard her voice, I sensed stress. Tears. I immediately “got” it. We both acknowledge all the zillions of blessings in our lives. However, the early 21st century is hard. Yes, it is way easier for us than it is for most people on the planet. Neither of us deny that; in fact, the recognition makes it all the more difficult. When did this start? The intensity?

YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND

What’s important here is that she called me. She reached out. I was able to be there for her, but in doing so she did something for me in return. She reminded me that I am worthy, that I am someone who can be depended on. Sometimes it is just as important to know that you can be depended on as it is to know there are people you can depend on. It’s a two-way street. It feels good to be needed. She is a person who has been there for me. I love that I can finally reciprocate no matter how small.

HEY SHITHEAD!

You know a friend is family when you go for a period of time without communicating but when you do get in touch it’s as if no time passed at all. It might be months or years or weeks or days. It doesn’t matter. We are always right where we left off. We can talk about today and refer to decades ago and it all makes sense. That is love. Who else can call you a “shithead” and you know it is a compliment! That’s better than family.

TOUGH TIMES

We are living in a time where we are touched by everything. Everything is connected. The insurrection of January 6, being laid off from a job, climate change, a divorce, a friend becoming widowed, the economy, the pandemic. Every single thing hits so very close to home. It’s knocking on your own effin front door. For this reason, we especially need to be reaching out to one another more than ever. Let’s be there for each other, even if it’s just to provide a smile.

GOOD TIMES

There are all the good things too; an impromptu trip to another state to visit a small-town bookshop, a wedding, college graduations, laughter, a phone call, an early morning run, watching your dog swim in the river, a job you like, a night out with your daughter. I promise, this list is much longer than the bad stuff. That’s the thing. A conversation that starts with tears and ends with laughing so hard you snort! No matter what happens, with some people life is just so beautiful. It’s always beautiful with beautiful human beings.

Hey Shithead, you are one of the most beautiful humans on the planet, and I love you.

The Unexpected Runner

Gruene5K

Not quite a mile into my first 5K in over twenty years, I began to doubt myself. My muscles felt strong, but breathing was beginning to be a struggle. I looked around at my fellow runners and determination overcame uncertainty. There was the woman around my age running barefooted, another woman was a good 8 months pregnant and running at a steady clip, and the 80-year-old man with the long white beard embodied possibility. I was running in a crowd of people that consisted of all ages, ability and we each had our own reasons to run. I fell behind a man who wore a t-shirt that read, “I am over 60 and diabetic; ask me how I am ahead of you.” Every single person in that race, as far as I am concerned, is an inspiration. We each have a story. Even me. I decided that I was perfectly capable of continuing and finishing this race.

I told myself to focus on form and breathing. “I can do this!” said the good little voice in my head. The little guy sitting on my other shoulder, the one with the horns, could go back where he came from; from here on out I would listen to the little angel voice instead. I made it to the water station, threw my paper cup on the ground and picked up the pace. Just before 3 miles, I wanted to stop and take a little break, but I did not. I slowed to a walk for about a half a city block and moved up to a jog again. When I saw Inferno’s Pizza, I knew I was almost home free, so I ran faster! That’s when I heard my name and saw my husband, who finished about 10 minutes ahead. He was cheering me on with my trainer from the gym who had come out to watch. I am so fortunate to have people who support and encourage me to achieve my goals. That is another blog post. I finished the race in 32 and a half minutes, in my age group, I was 2nd out of 26. Pretty good, I figure, considering my goal was simply to finish. Now I could recover with sausage wraps and Shiner beer; we were at Gruene Hall, after all, the oldest dance hall in Texas and rich in Texas-German history.

Years ago, in my thirties, jogging and the occasional Fun Run was a healthy outlet for me but then I quit. For many years, I was sedentary and had myself convinced that I was too old, too clumsy, too busy, too whatever to work out or run or do anything too active. And I was. But now I’m not. I am younger than I used to be (it’s true) and through training at the gym, paddle boarding and running, I have built up enough stamina and enough muscle so that I can live an active lifestyle. It feels good. My body feels better, and I feel better in the head. I am a better person all around.

I have registered for three more 5K runs in the next several months and I am so excited about it! I even believe now that I can work my way up to a 10K and that is my new goal! I am fully aware of the hard work, sweat and time it will require, and I am perfectly happy to accept that. It feels so good to believe in myself.

Workout Queen

My most athletic moment until now happened during the first week of junior high. Much to the frustration of the gym teacher and my teammates, I was the scrawny girl who ducked when the volleyball came my way. I was the last to be picked for a team and also the last to care.  So, imagine my reaction the day the school librarian came to the gym in search of a girl to volunteer to be the student library helper. Not only was this a chance to avoid the torture of PE class and the humiliation of the locker room, but to get to spend time in my favorite place at school! Ah! Such an opportunity. I stood up faster than you could say “foul ball.” I raised both hands and waved them about. I am sure some shouting was involved, maybe some pushing and shoving too. That year for the first and last time in my life, my report card showed straight A’s in PE since officially that is the class I was in.

After that, physical activity for me came and went in phases. In high school I bravely took ice skating lessons. I was the gangly string bean on the rink trying her best to look graceful. In college, I donned leg warmers and attended aerobics class on campus—always in the back row where my inability to keep a beat might not be noticed as Marvin Gaye belted out his song about dancing on the ceiling. After my daughter was born, I began to run and participated in 5K’s for a while. I really enjoyed that, but life got busy and I allowed my body to depreciate.

Finally, at 55 I wanted to get in shape. I wanted to get in shape because my husband gave me a paddle board for Christmas and I wanted to feel confident when I used it. To get in shape, I purchased a DVD for a “12-minute work-out.” For a while, every day I got up extra early and did my quicky workout that was supposed to be a miracle. “Get the body you want and your life back,” the DVD cover said. The trainer on the video instructed the viewer while three athletes of varying ability modeled the moves. However, I quickly became bored and resentful of the buff man telling me what to do. But more than that, I was never sure if I was holding a position correctly and I would sometimes hurt myself.

I had to try something different. My husband had recently joined the gym and gotten a trainer. He was not only losing weight but was becoming muscular and had more energy. I joined the gym and signed up with a trainer which is something I never imagined myself doing.  The cost for a trainer is absurdly high and far beyond my budget but I did it anyway.

All the time I was thinking that I would learn from the trainer for three or six months until I got the hang of it and then go it on my own. But then, I began to see dramatic changes, not only in my body, but in my confidence, my self-esteem. My posture improved. I became less clumsy and more coordinated (I have always been one of those people who trip over their own feet and break things). I lost no weight, but I was able to fit in clothes again that had become too snug. I was gaining muscle weight and loosing fat. I became aware of my body in new ways. I learned about diet and exercise and anatomy. I learned what to do for a pulled muscle or an injury. I learned to make mistakes and not care what I looked like at the gym.

That is when I realized that I was capable of being a truly active person and that I actually enjoy working out. By working out, I can do more every day. I am more focused, and I am happier. My trainer works me hard. She pushes me beyond anything I ever imagined, using kettle bells, ropes, machinery and doing things I thought was only for athletes. She also has a sense of humor which is so important to me. Sometimes it seems like laughter is intended as part of the workout! She smiles a lot and acts like she is proud of my progress. That makes me feel good and makes me want to work harder.

I committed to another 6 months. On any given day, you are likely to find me at the gym with my trainer, paddle-boarding or kayaking and jogging. My lifestyle has changed dramatically. I am eating healthier and drinking less. I am busy. When I workout now I feel like I am better at everything I do; I am a better me.

While I know I cannot go on forever paying for a trainer, I have changed the pattern of my life and exercise has become second nature for me; something I will always do now. Without one on one time with a trainer, none of this would have happened.  It really is possible to change your lifestyle. I highly recommend joining a gym and finding a trainer.  And, by the way, paddle boarding is great fun!

On Being Frail and Mowing Grass

March 4, 2012—I started the mower and mowed the grass today. I am empowered.

To mow the grass may not sound like much but it is. For me it is a physical and social triumph. I grew up with older brothers. They mowed the lawn, not me. When I was married to a rancher, I often assisted in heavy physical labor but I was never wholly responsible for it myself. I helped with building fence, or repairing a water gap. I drove the truck while others hauled hay (my petite daughter included).  I helped with the cattle sometimes. If I thought my husband was asking too much of me, I threw a fit and quit.

But the key word is “helped.” Now, it’s just me. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. It is my responsibility as a renter here to mow the grass. It’s one reason why the rent is so cheap. I’m not good at estimating such things, but I will tell you the yard is very large.  When the yard became tall and weedy, I went into the shed to get the lawn mower, a small and primitive lawn mower with dull blades. I made sure there was gasoline in the little tank and I pulled the cord. I pulled again. And again.  It would not start. I have very little upper arm strength and I’m left-handed. I did the Lucille-Ball-thing. I wrapped one leg around the handle and tried to pull across my body with my left hand. That did not work.  At this point I was dripping with perspiration, breathing heavily and determined not to give up. I cursed. I yelled at God. I begged God. I screamed, “with your help, I can doooooo ittttt!!!” I pulled. The motor began to run and I let out a rebel yell. I mowed.  When the motor stopped I coaxed it sweetly, “come on, baby, you can do it.” I got the job done.

Then it rained and the grass grew. It seemed like the grass was growing faster than I could mow it like a Dr. Seuss character. There is much irony in this considering that we have been suffering from the worst drought in Texas history.  A few weeks later, I pulled the mower out again. Again, it would not start. No matter how hard I tried or cursed or prayed it would not start.  I sat down, covered in dirt and perspiration, and cried. I cried a good cry. I cried loud, and ugly, and childishly. Snot ran down my nose.  I called Vanessa. Rodger asked me about spark plugs. He asked about, I don’t know, other things. He didn’t know and couldn’t fix it over the phone anyway!

A few days later, Maggie and Justin came over. Justin cleaned the spark plugs. He diagnosed the mower as being “a piece of shit.” He started it for me. I mowed the front, leaving the rest since it was a week night and I was tired from the day.

Saturday morning I tried again. It started on the first pull! Don’t ask! It just did. I mowed half of Texas that day (the other half being desert)! I mowed until gasoline started spewing out of the tank like a sprinkler.  Yesterday, Nathan, the landlord showed up with three buddies. Each took a turn trying to start the mower. It wouldn’t start, not even for these big, strong men.  It wasn’t just me being frail and helpless after all. Nathan took it home with him after declaring it a “piece of shit.” I am hoping he returns with a brand new mower so I can mow the world.

Ship Island

When I was a child I spent a great deal of time at the beach. We would sail in my grandfather’s boat, the “Dixie Flyer” or my parent’s boat, the “La Moette,” to the islands off the Mississippi coast.  Ship Island was where we would go most often. When I need a place to go, when I need to make a mental escape from the world, when I am trying so hard to sleep at night, that is where I go.

I can’t remember the last time I was actually, physically there but I often go there in my mind. And the Ship Island of my mind and heart may or may not be what it was then or what it is now. I only know my reality of it.

I remember playing on the white sand beach for hours on end. I was sun-kissed and happy. My brother and I would dig trenches and have hermit crab races. Of course we would build sandcastles and swim. The water was so clear in those days. We would dive for sand dollars! I remember that.

Sometimes we poured Mountain Dew over the stern of the boat and watch the swarms of catfish the sugary liquid would attract.

Ship Island is unique because in the very middle of the island there is an artesian well with an old pump. After a day of sun and salt, we would run through the sea oats, take turns pumping and allow the fresh, pure water to pour over us. Wonderful!

I recently  took a trip (a mental trip) to Ship Island to see the little girl who was me. I thought I might tell her some things. Instead, she told me.

She runs along the beach, bare feet pound the hard, wet sand. Wet hair slaps her tan shoulders. Her tongue licks the salt and sun from her lips. She runs. She wants to see how fast she can be. Her skinny legs will take her far.  Her skinny legs will move her forward to the future.

But now there is a woman who wants to see her, talk with her and hold her little hands. That woman is me.

“Be kind to yourself,” the little girl tells me. She smiles.  “Look,” she says, “I swam deep as my brother and got these sand dollars. It’s hard to go that deep,” she says, “but this is what you get for it.”

I love that little girl so much.

She’s not surprised or disturbed by my presence. She is quite accepting that I’m there. In fact, she acts like I am always there with her—a companion, of sorts. She is astounding. She flits here and there. Digs in the sand for a while. Runs through the sea oats stopping to watch a flock of seagulls.  She finds a stick to write her name in the sand. My name. She writes it big and proud then adds a heart at the end. Drags the stick. Drops it. Runs, then wades, then swims to the boat for lunch. Sandwiches, Barq’s root beer, cold watermelon. I stand on the beach alone. She looks up and waves.

I have nothing to tell her. Her life will be good and sweet. It will be bitter. She’ll have long stretches of sunny days. She’ll have sadness and anger that seems unending. But the sadness will end to be replaced by more sunshine and calm. Back and forth, her life will go. Like any life. Like everyone to different degrees. That’s ok. She’s telling me the same thing. Be kind to yourself. Smile a lot. Look at the sand dollars and seagulls. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. The rest will follow.

“Be kind to yourself,” she tells me.

Fraudulent Activity

“I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Meryl Streep

 This is a cold, wet Sunday morning in the hill country. As I lingered in bed reading, I came across a new term. While I tend to steer clear and roll my eyes about anything with the word “syndrome,” this one   got my attention.

 Imposter Syndrome

Po Bronson in What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question tells us that this is the “unqualified feeling of being an imposter at work.”  It is the feeling that you are fooling people into believing that you are qualified to do whatever it is that you do.  In other words, in spite of the fact that everyone around you has faith in what you are doing, you don’t believe in yourself. I know this feeling. I know it too well.

Years ago, I worked as a paralegal in a very large downtown Chicago law firm. I couldn’t believe they hired me. I couldn’t believe I went to work every day and fooled these smart people. I didn’t know what I was doing and they paid me pretty well.  I was just a little southern girl. I didn’t have much of an education (my grades weren’t great but I did graduate from the University of Texas which isn’t exactly “Podunk Community College!” HELLO!), and I did not consider myself to be a success. My perception of myself was not very positive.

Looking back, I see a very different person. I see a young woman just starting out in the world and trying her best in every way. She is quirky but smart. She is pretty and witty. She is determined and surprisingly strong for such a boney little thing. She never gives up. She burns to make a creative mark on the world.  This is a girl who wants a pat on the back of assurance but she never gets it from herself.  Today I give her the biggest hug! I like that girl. If I could travel back in time, I would tell her so.

Even as a mom I always felt like a fraud. I wanted to be the perfect mom. I wanted to get at least this right. I planned the birthday parties. I decorated the girlie bedroom. I took my daughter to church and to the beach, and the museum. I taught her how to sit properly at the dinner table. All the while I was looking over my shoulder wondering who could tell I was making it all up as I went along.

Well, let me tell you something about parenting: we all make it up as we go along. There is no other way to do it. And while my own life may look like a train wreck sometimes, my daughter is doing pretty damn well. She is amazing! I may have felt like an imposter sometimes but I am her mom and no one else in the world can ever be that.

As an educator, both classroom teacher and teacher-librarian, I feel like an imposter. I’m not good enough to be doing this, I often think. I don’t know enough. I’m not smart enough or patient enough.

It is one thing to suffer from this imposter syndrome in your work life or even as a parent, but when you think you are an imposter in your own life—well, that is pretty severe.

Living on my own and learning how to be by myself I often think, “This isn’t me. I’m not like this.”  I am not the kind of woman who mows the lawn, pays the bills, fixes the bathtub drain, remembers to get the car serviced, eats dinner alone, goes days without seeing another soul, depends on herself for everything, the list goes on and on. But I am that woman. I am. I am doing these things. I am independent and I am strong. I am even stronger than that young girl in Chicago.

I have always looked up to my dear friend, Therese. She is like a big sister to me. She personifies what it is to be a strong and independent woman. It always seemed to come so easy to her.  That’s who she was but I didn’t see myself that way at all. Thinking about it now, I not only see that I am, in fact, much like Therese, but she is much like me too. It is really, really hard to know yourself, to become yourself.  It isn’t easy for her either. She just makes it look easy! “Look Ma, no hands!” In the years I have known Therese, for the first time I am beginning to feel like her equal.

In my life I have accomplished some things. I have high hopes of doing so much more. I hope I can learn to play my new roles with confidence and with the knowledge that I am good at what I am doing, whatever that may be. No one should ever feel like a fraud in their own life story.

Staying Warm

How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

While I certainly don’t pretend to have ever experienced the magnitude of cold that Solzhenitsyn did, I know I really hate being cold.  When I’m cold, I can’t do anything. I can only think about the cold. From my icy toes to my wet and runny nose, it’s an excuse to do nothing. It could be that I’m just too skinny. I have not an ounce of fat to insulate my bones! But it’s much more than that. Warmth is oh so psychological. Good things warm us—like laughing, and love, and snuggling, and soft wool, and sunshine, and chocolate chip cookies, and holding babies and good wine. When we are wanted we are warm.  When we aren’t lonely, we are warm.

My physical state affects me greatly and I will go to great lengths to maintain a just-right environment. That’s easy to achieve when you live with central air conditioning and heat which I’ve had most of my life. The brief periods that I went without were just that—brief, or so I thought.  I don’t pretend that I have not been spoiled and pampered in many ways.  I’ve never been able to help that, right? It’s what I was born into? Something like that? Whatever.

The first night in my little cabin didn’t feel cold. It was New Year’s Eve and I had been warmed by a bit of champagne and probably exhaustion. Vanessa and Rodger were asleep in the next room providing the emotional warmth we all need. Even though we slept on the floor that night, cold was not an issue.

The second night I froze half to death. Ok, Solzhenitsyn is rolling his eyes now. This is Texas not Siberia, but isn’t it relative? Ok, so I’m spoiled for not living in Siberia. I was cold that night and the little window unit made a lot of noise without making things the least bit toasty. I kept wondering how much electricity it was using to spit cool air into the room.

I had my bed now and began piling on the blankets. For Christmas my brother and his wife had given me silly bunny socks that were thick and soft. My toes felt like popsicles inside them.  I put on my flannel jammies and found my silk long underwear leftover from camping long ago.  I lay under the covers and didn’t even read a book. I lay there. I thought about what a long winter this would be, coming home every night and hurrying to get under the covers. Somehow I survived the night.

The next day, my daughter and her boyfriend came bearing gifts.  They brought me the cutest little portable radiator. It’s electric and has oil running through it. It makes no sound except for an occasional thick, oily drip.  I can pull it by its cord like a toy horse. I wheel it into the bathroom every morning before my shower.  It’s perfect! I’m learning other little tricks too.  I keep cookie dough in the fridge so I can bake on really cold nights—an excuse to turn on the oven.  I close off the extra room so I don’t have to heat it. I’ve learned that I don’t need that room anyway. Funny how I thought this place was so small and now I’m not even using all of it! Sacrifices I once thought to be huge have turned out to be no big deal at all.

Anyway, today reached 83 degrees. What will I do come spring without central air conditioning? Solzhenitsyn knows nothing about Texas heat!

How I Came to be Here and Why it Matters

“Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

From the time I was a very young girl I had an ideal of living far away from any civilization where I could have solitude and think about things. I had other dreams too; I wanted lots of animals and lots of children. I wanted a man to love who loved me in return.  I wanted family and friends.  I wanted to live in the city and be anonymous. I wanted to live in a small town and be known and loved by everyone.  I wanted it all.

I read Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. I read everything and voraciously. I let the waves of life push me along the beach, sometimes gently, sometimes with more force until I was nearly drowning.

I have been so fortunate in my life to have many experiences. I have attended cocktail parties at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, I’ve traveled the locks in Amsterdam on my parents’ boat, I’ve hauled hay and mended fence line. I have inoculated pigs and cows.  I have given birth to a perfect child.  I’ve read the best books and speak several languages. I can sew and knit and can pickles.  I’ve danced the two-step (albeit not well); I’ve attended punk rock concerts in Austin and the symphony and opera in Chicago. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and I’ve walked the trails of the Texas Hill Country.

I’ve been beautiful and young. I’ve been ugly and I’ve said things I regretted. I’ve been happy to the point of elation and so sad that I had to be scraped from the very bottom of humanity and put back together. I have loved people and sometimes not loved them enough. I never loved myself enough.

I never stopped to take care of myself, to know myself. For a long time I have been busy trying to make other people happy.  I never really believed that I could have a “room of my own.” In the homes of my failed marriages, I tried to make a space for myself—a corner or room—but it never felt right. It was never truly mine. I realize now, it wasn’t about the physical space. The space in my heart was far too crowded to allow me the “room” to right down my words. I never imagined that it was really possible for me to have a little place all my own just to write, create, and think about things. I never imagined that I deserved it.

I came about having such a place quite by force. A big wave pushed me there and said, “there you are—you asked for it!” So now I am happy counting my pennies to make ends meet, using my little space heater when I must, going to the Laundromat, and heating my food on the stovetop (no microwave). I also watch the sun rise and set, observe the deer and quail, and listen to the funny birds. I am truly so incredibly happy.

I don’t worry so much about money but I am taking care of it.  I’ve given up the man who is my best friend, the love of my life and I miss him terribly but for the first time in my life I have myself.

When I am not at work or attending classes, I can write, I can heal my relationship with my daughter, I can heal myself, and I can make of this life what I was intended to make of it—something very good.

I have no apologies for sounding very selfish. I am being selfish. I also want other women to know that they don’t have to go through an entire life feeling insecure or insignificant. You can learn about yourself and take care of yourself. You can know that all the things you do hold tremendous value in this world.

This blog is intended to be the story of my time alone in my little cabin.