"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, November 30, 2009


One minute I held the carving knife firmly in my left hand, scrubbing it vigorously with the brush in my right. The next minute it was somehow airborne and swooping across my index finger, just under the nail. As it clattered into the sink I looked in horror at the newly formed inch-long, too-deep-to-believe, gash.

I am generally a very careful person. Sometimes too careful. However, in the kitchen I tend to release all care. It's where I'm the most comfortable and confident. I don't always follow the rules because I know how far I can push things. Usually. That said, I've cut myself before and have a couple of decent scars on my hands to show for it. Potato peeler against thumb, glass breaking and slicing a knuckle with too much pressure applied in dishwater, knife piercing a hand used as a cutting board.

None of those wounds compared to this one. It scared me into considering a visit to the emergency room and stitches - my possible first ever. A consideration I pushed away in exchange for applied pressure, a couple of prayers, and a we'll-wait-and-see.

Much later in the day, when I got up the courage to really look at the cut, it was bad. No pain. Not a lot of bleeding. Just long and deep. When I finally let Walt look, after making him promise not to tell me I needed stitches, his face and silence scared me almost as much as the gash itself.

I decided to give it a day: gauzed and taped my finger; held it protectively away from whatever I was doing; cradled my hand gently when at rest. Even though I'm left-handed and the wound was to my right index finger, I actually use my right hand for a lot. Like brushing my teeth, peeling an orange, zipping my jeans. All activities nearly impossible to do with an extended index finger.

And so what I got from my decision to let my body take care of itself was a week of focused awareness. I helped her in every way possible - keeping the wound clean and dry and protected. I was careful with that hand - mindful without distraction.

The healing process was nothing short of miraculous. By the next morning the canyon was filled with tender red flesh. The skin around the cut was puffy but not inflamed. I could look at my finger without feeling too woozy. One more day saw the wound getting smaller as the ends of the cut began to close. Each successive day revealed more healing and allowed the return of more freedom.

Healing is a theme of my life. There has been much to heal, both from without and from within. But like my finger, the true healing had to start from the deepest place of the wound and work its way out. It couldn't happen without help. If I'd ignored my cut finger and not cared for it at all, the process would have taken much longer, with some possible bad detours into infection and pain.

Healing has its own timeline, even under the best of conditions. It won't be rushed. It also doesn't allow skipping around or avoiding the icky parts. Inside out, deepest first, or nothing sticks.

One small cut has a huge impact on the rest of the system. All those years of insisting the emotional wounds of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood weren't important did nothing to diminish their impact on my ability to be a whole human being. The toxicity of those untended wounds made everything harder, brought me to the edge of death more than once, kept me imprisoned in the very walls I built to keep them hidden.

Even healed, wounds remain tender for a long time and require gentle attention for much longer than seems should be necessary. My finger no longer needs bandaging, but it cannot endure much pressure before it hurts. There's an interesting dent and some bruising and the promise of an interesting scar to come.

It's amazing how one simple cut can be a metaphor for one complicated life. But it's all there. The major wounds of my life, after years of hard work under the skilled and loving tutelage of a gifted counselor, are healed. (I reread this sentence several times, testing it for truth, finding just that. Truth.)

What remains is tender, interesting, uniquely me. What remains is a new appreciation for the deep wisdom of my body, and gratitude for the gentle lessons she offers. What remains is a sense of wonder at the gifts born from pain and the hard work of mindful healing.

picture from Flickr

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I sit at my computer facing east, the direction of new beginnings. The pinks of sunrise absorbed into hungry night fog lying low over the ground. A cloudless sky begins to birth blue.

Grace, a Siamese friend to any potential lap, sits thrumming at the edge of my desk. Toby, a dog of unrestrained joy and simple pleasures, wanders in the back yard. Walt, a husband whose love and certainty of our soul-mate status never wavers (no matter the storm coming from me) sleeps at the other end of the house.

In this stillness I consider my wealth. Somewhere in the last space of time I've gone from being a survivor to being a woman who thrives on the gifts of each new day. I count as friends an enormous circle of men and women who are brave seekers of light, who inspire and who make me laugh. I spend my days as a writer and teacher and wife and friend and sister and student and explorer, but no longer define myself by any one of those labels.

I sit comfortably in my twirly desk chair, kept warm by pink polka-dotted flannel, allowing my heart to flow through my fingers into this amazing magical rectangle of technology. The peace lily in the corner offers its giants leaves over the edge of my desk, which is covered with my favorite red, yellow and turquoise antique cotton tablecloth. Coffee softened with cream sits at my right hand, a pile of work waiting for attention sits at my left. A small three-drawer wooden chest sits at the left-hand corner, a gift from my mother at high school graduation that reminds me she wanted to love me and did in fact do the best she could.

I feel well, rested, loved.

There is nothing else I need or want in this moment. I am full, fully present, overflowing with gratitude.

May you know that you are loved and valued and understood. May your eyes see nothing but beauty and your ears hear nothing but music. May you fill to overflowing with gratitude so the world is filled with its brilliant light.


Joyous Thanksgiving.

photo from Flickr

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Online Circle

As those of you who visit here regularly know, Carrie Link and I are offering a writing workshop in Portland starting in January. We are amazed and excited that so many of you have asked about the possibility of an online class. So it is with pleasure that we are announcing our online memoir writing class, to begin Monday, January 11. (We still have two more spots in the in-person class, if you live in the Portland area.)

Many of you are in situations where going to a class won’t work, but you’re hungry for a memoir writing community and for the accountability attending a class creates. If you’re looking for a safe place in which to tell your story and receive support and feedback, whether it’s your first effort or whether you’ve finished a book, this class will satisfy that need.

We will provide prompts, deadlines, teachings that will add to your craft tool kit, and detailed feedback for your writing. You will write, share your writing, and offer feedback and support to each other.

Please contact us for cost and additional information. We’re looking forward to learning and writing and moving closer to the light of truth together with you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fairy Tale Wedding

We were to get the year for this week's assignment (see previous post) by dividing our age in half and telling our story from that year. I actually turned twenty-nine in 1980, but since my birthday is so late in the year, I claimed 1981 as my halfway point. That year gave me a far different story than the one I intended to tell.

She glides down the cathedral aisle, twenty-five feet of lace trailing after, her shy smile blurred behind a simple veil held in place by an understated diamond-jeweled crown. Each step on the aisle brings her closer not only to her bridegroom but also to a genuine fairy tale life. This aisle is long, so long the prince waiting for her at the altar studies the floor as he waits for his princess to arrive.

I sit in my suburban Vancouver living room, alone but in the company of almost a billion other people, watching the fairy tale unfold with unwanted tears welling. I remember my own wedding, less than six years before, and I know exactly what Diana is feeling on this day. Hopeful. Afraid. Like her deepest dreams have become happily ever after.

I wonder if she’ll share my current feelings six years into her marriage: frustration, loneliness, resentment – happily ever after a dead distant dream.

We share more, the princess and I, than anyone might expect. I’m seven years younger than Marv. She’s twelve years younger than Charles. Our husbands share a certain look – a reserved, self-contained caution softened only by a rarely shared smile. Our marriages, while happening with our consent and desire, were arranged.

Diana was thoroughly vetted before Charles was even allowed to propose. She had to meet multiple critical criteria before being considered appropriate to enter the royal household. Love was not at the top of the Queen’s list, but they look like they love each other in all the pictures. He waited so long, surely he wouldn’t marry someone he didn’t love.

Marv proposed to me after the elders of The Body told him God wanted us to marry and after they asked me if I would obey God and say yes. We were given to each other as husband and wife because of our obedience to God and The Body. We loved each other as brother and sister in Christ. I believed if we obeyed God he would bring a more intimate love into our marriage.

An unseen couple, their voices husky with sensuality, discuss the virtues of Martini and Rossi Asti Spumanti. It would be so nice to celebrate this occasion with a cold glass of bubbly, but I gave up alcohol for God. It would be nice to talk to someone, to be talked to, the way they’re talking to each other. I gave up that fun, too, when I gave my life to Jesus and The Body. It would be nice not to want.

Back to the processional, I study the screen of our small hand-me-down television from the middle of my hand-me-down orange, green and brown floral polyester sofa, drinking Tab from a hand-me-down glass. I want to see Charles’ face the minute he sees his bride’s. What I see instead is Diana’s face break into a radiant smile toward the end of the walk. Charles is suddenly by her side, mostly obscured by the camera angle, which shows Diana’s father, then her cumulous dress, then Charles’ dark head bending toward her.

The next shot shows them from the front. What a contrast they are. He stiff in his formal gilded and beribboned military uniform, dark wavy hair slickly parted to one side, his angular face unreadable. She in her miles of lace and fluff and ruffle, light to his dark, her innocent face full of joyful wonder.

Marv and I looked nothing like this, except perhaps for his rigid sternness and my innocent wonder. Marv looked more like a Russian prince with his white tux and ruffled shirt, and much older than thirty-one with his receding hairline. I just looked impossibly young, face free from makeup, and overwhelmed by the borrowed veil billowing over my modest hand-sewn polyester dress; certainly not twenty-four and certainly not like the fairy tale bride I’d dreamed of being since I was a girl.

Another commercial comes on. Brooke Shields whistles “Clementine” wearing the tightest, sexiest jeans in the most provocative pose I’ve seen in a very long while. She says, “You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvin Klein jeans? Nothing.” I’m not sure which I feel strongest, my desire to be her or my indignation at such graphic sexuality on television.

When the network returns to the wedding, the camera, still focused on the couple’s faces, shows them smiling, laughing almost, – whispering sideways as the processional finishes. I see happiness and love – two people on display in a ceremony that has very little to do with them and very much to do with the people observing it, willing to endure, possibly even enjoying, to get to the part where they get to be alone together.

I remember Marv’s face while he watched me make my very short walk down the aisle of the historic log cabin that served as our wedding cathedral. He didn’t smile at all. I don’t even know if he blinked. It was hard to see his eyes behind the thick lenses of his glasses. I smiled – hard, hopefully, trying to get him to respond. I told myself he was nervous, shy, waiting until we were alone together to show me how much he really loved me.

Almost six years later, I’m still waiting. He doesn’t love me. To be fair, I don’t love him either. It has seemed at times over the years like we might love each other, I know I tried hard to love him, but feeling loved means such different things to us. I need to be held and touched and looked at with tenderness. He needs unquestioning obedience. Neither of us is getting what we need.

My favorite fantasy these days is widowhood. I wear the weeds of mourning with Godly grace – Marv died far too young. It’s so sad he didn’t take better care of himself. I will bear the burden of this grieving until God provides a new husband. One who will love me with passion and without reservation. I have no idea what or if he fantasizes, but I’d be willing to bet the bank that if he does Harold is his partner, not me.

Harold, our prophet and leader. The man I believed God put on my path to help me atone for my sins and to start my life over. The man who told me God was so pleased with my obedience that I was being allowed to marry. Harold who now spends all of our money on trucks and trailers and their maintenance. Harold whose words my husband uses whenever he tells me no to something. Harold whom Marv spends every spare minute with, and without whose permission will take no action at all.

I watch this fairy tale wedding day and consider other possible scenarios for mine. Would I do it differently, knowing what I now know? Would I say no to the elders? Could I tell them I didn’t love Marv? “I want to be obedient, but I can’t marry someone I don’t love. It doesn’t seem to me God would ask me to marry someone I don’t love. I’m pretty sure Marv doesn’t love me either. Can he and I talk and spend some time to get to know each other?”

I already know what the answer would have been. “If you start to question God now, before long you’ll be questioning everything. That’s not what truly committed servants do.”

That means to say no I would have had to leave The Body. There would have been no room for a disobedient servant. And how could I have done that? I promised God - I made a vow - to obey His prophet and follow His Word, to never rely on my own selfish Satan-influenced judgment again.

James Garner’s voice brings me back into my living room. He and Mariette Hartley are talking about the latest Polaroid camera in that funny back and forth way that I would give just about anything to have with Marv. I love these commercials. I wish they were married to each other in real life. Actually I wish I were married to James Garner.

Charles and Diana, now the Prince and Princess of Wales, stand side by side on a balcony, looking out over an adoring crowd. The wedding is over. They are really and truly married. A very British commentator wonders when they’ll kiss, the first official married kiss. As if in response, Charles takes Diana’s hand, her left in his right. He lifts it, his eyes dancing all over her beaming face, then presses his lips firmly on her tiny hand in a kiss that is equal parts chivalry, mischief, and promise of things to come.

The tears that have waited in the wings patiently for the last two hours tumble down my face. I try to chide them away. This is just silly. All that romantic nonsense. It’s all a show. Who knows whether they really love each other. Whether they’ll have a good marriage. God’s love is so much more important than the lust in that man’s eyes you’re equating with love. You’re ridiculous to keep trying to live in a fairy tale when God provides all your needs so abundantly.

Some small stubborn part of me refuses to believe that voice. She’s been getting louder lately, as Marv pulls farther and farther away. He doesn’t look at me, even when I talk to him. There is a large arctic barrier down the middle of our bed. The only scripture that gets shared, both at home by Marv and at meetings by Harold, is about wives submitting to their husbands.

Can one single act of not submitting really undo my marriage, my standing in The Body, my relationship with God? After all these years of giving up everything that mattered to me except my dream of having a baby? Can’t they understand that my choosing not to adopt a six-year-old boy with no capacity to attach was an act of survival, not an act of disobedience? Not for the first time, I wonder how I find myself in this particular place of desolation, just months short of my thirtieth birthday. When I joined The Body seven years ago, it was so I would never have to feel this way again.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mystery Year

For those of you who follow both Carrie's blog and mine, you know we're taking a class together. I'm inspired by her Monday post to offer my own challenge.

The assignment is to choose a particular year, and without telling the year, write about it using cultural references. Here are the references that stood out for me:

An actor is elected president.

Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first female justice of the Supreme Court.

Prince Charles and Lady Diana get married.

The first American test tube baby is born.

"Endless Love" by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie is a hit.

Mork and Mindy get married.

"Internet", "Post-its", and "AIDS" become part of the American lexicon.

Luke and Laura get married.

Princess Diana announces her first pregnancy, on my birthday.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pulling the Edge In

"But it hurts even when I do the beginning stretches." I'm talking to Susan, my extraordinary acupuncturist, about my still cranky hip.

"Show me."

So I stand, raise my hands above my head, clasp them with pointer fingers extended upward, arms glued to my ears. I bend my body to the left - not nearly as far as I think I should be able to - and say, "Here. It hurts here."

She directs me to come up from the bend until the pain stops. I'm barely bending at all, but don't have a chance to whine about it before Susan says, not for the first time, "I want you to pull your edge closer in."

I look at her with a raised eyebrow, a rueful smile, and an "aha" light bulb above my head. "You mean no pain at all?"

Susan's been telling me for weeks to pull my edge in. The first time she said it, the words struck me as soul-changing profound. I saw myself standing alone in a huge windswept field with a cliff's edge far far in the distance. That edge represented a part of myself I kept at the farthest possibility of perception so I wouldn't have to feel it or know it.

The thought of bringing the edge closer, something that would never have occurred to me on my own, felt comforting and healed and easier than keeping it so far away. I loved the idea of it.

In yoga the teachers say frequently, "Go to your edge and then just a bit beyond." And so I would. I'd go to where I felt pain, push through, keep going, and pray the pose would end soon.

And after over two months of practice, lots of things are getting slightly looser and some things are getting stronger, but my hip pain has not gone away. Even trying to pull my edge closer in, if the pain wasn't too bad, I'd breathe through it and keep going.

"No pain at all?"

And finally I get it. In a life full of emotional pain, I learned to push it far away so it didn't consume me. In a life where I couldn't look powerful and listen to my body at the same time, I learned to ignore physical pain until. . . . Well until last spring when my hip got so cranky and noisy I couldn't walk or sleep or sit without the pain settling over my brain like a black villain's cape.

Pulling my edge closer means listening to my body before it has to scream, or even do more than whisper. The pain isn't a punishment for being weak. It's a wise warning that a limit has been reached, and there will be a price to pay by going beyond. A price I no longer have the currency for.

On Friday, I held my edge close, like a loved child. Went to the pain and backed away from it. Sat in Child's Pose instead of doing Triangle, hearing Susan say, "If you have to sit in Child's Pose the whole time, you're getting benefit." And almost believing her.

Refused the bully voice in my head saying, "Really, that's all you can do after all this work? They're going to think you're slacking. Your lazy energy is going to slow the whole class down."

No instant cure. The pain persists. I remind myself to be patient. And so for now my edge and I will spend some time getting to know one another, long lost friends reunited at last.

Picture by alasis from Flicker

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Becoming My Mother

This week's homework was to start with the quick write prompt: I am still afraid to write about. . . . Whatever story emerged from that initial writing needed to include the elements of money, sex, a taboo, and a secret.

The picture haunts me. It always has. Even before I knew the secret of my paternity.

A young woman, my mother, kneels at the side of a maple spool bed with her newborn daughter, me, propped up on a pillow facing her. The mother looks at the bundled baby with such awestruck love, beaming from a smile I have no conscious memory of, the light streaming through the window is dimmed by the smile’s power. Barely tamed dark curls, a rounded nose and one thick eyebrow, her own mother’s features, create a profile of a new mother’s love that Mary Cassatt would have been proud to paint. The baby looks back at her mother, a cupid bow mouth forming an “o” of wonder. The love between them is so palpable my heart aches to see it.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to get that woman to look at me in that same exact way. With no success. She held me at a distance, held me responsible for behaviors impossible for a child, and held me to standards she didn’t follow herself. “God hates a liar,” she would always say. I lied constantly to protect myself from her silent shunning wrath and Daddy’s two-inch leather belt applied with enough energy to leave welts and occasional bruises. When I finally had proof that she was the biggest liar of all, the victory was bitter and left me feeling even more unloved.

I tried to follow rules that shifted like loose sand under bare feet, and when that didn’t work I broke her clearest rules by drinking and sleeping around and then becoming pregnant by a married, black, ex-con. I tried to be smart because she valued intelligence (she would have become a lawyer if her granddad hadn’t forbidden it), and when I couldn’t be smart enough, flunked out of college. We both wanted her offerings of money (to bail me out of hospital debt and college loans) to repair the huge rips in our relationship. When that wasn’t enough, when nothing was ever enough, I gave up. I dedicated my life to being nothing like her, only to discover that not-being someone is not living.

Time and the hard work of healing have brought acceptance of, and even gratitude for, the complicated relationship we had. Rather than needing to make her understand me and take responsibility for the harm she inflicted, I find myself wanting to understand the woman I called Mommy.

I study the picture and overlay the facts kept hidden in the secret for so many years. I consider the childhood she survived (a childhood not completely revealed to her children until after the secret was), and try to put myself in her skin.

I become my nineteen-year-old mother, just over a hundred pounds, still tender from giving birth. My smile is wide and open, in spite of the embarrassing ill-fitting dentures I’ve worn for just a year. I’m aware of Granny across the room taking this picture and ignore her – finally I have something she can’t take away from me.

I gaze at my daughter (the very beginnings of myself) holding her two tiny perfect hands in mine. Nothing else exists except for the two of us, the power of the love that binds us, and possibility. I pour my soul out to her.

You are so beautiful. It’s worth the loneliness and embarrassment of these last months to be able to hold you now. I can’t believe how real you are – so soft and alive with those bright bright eyes looking back at me. I’m sorry to bring you into a world with no daddy. Oh, you have one, but he’s not here, and he will never be. I will see to it that you never have to know what a monster your daddy is. You look so much like him. I hope you grow out of that.

I’m a little scared, Debbie. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. I don’t want to have to keep living with Granny and Granddaddy – actually they won’t let me stay here long. They’re already talking about when I can get out and get a job so I can support us until I get married again. I can’t imagine leaving you to go to work, but you’ll be in good hands. Granny can hardly keep her hands off you. I wonder if she loved me that way when I came to live with her.

I don’t remember Velma, my own mommy. I wish I did. I only had her for a year and a half before she died. I wish she were here now to see how gorgeous you are. I hope you grow up to look like her. I promise not to leave you like she left me. I know she couldn’t help dying, but I do wonder how different my life would have been if she had survived her illness.

Danny’s mom, your Grandma Dee, has already said she’ll take you as often as she can, even though she’s busy working as a teacher. I think she feels really bad that her son left his pregnant wife for another woman. Bad enough that she paid for our divorce.

I want you to know my sweet baby that I left him. I wasn’t going to live with a man who didn’t want you. He made me choose, him or you, and I chose you. And I’m so glad I did. How could a cheating, lying, drinking jerk come close to competing with you? There was no choice to be made. Truly. I wanted you from the moment my body told me you were here.

I promise to love you always little one. I won’t leave you. I won’t ever make you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. I won’t let anyone hurt you.

You will never know this, but I know a thing or two about being hurt. First not having my own mommy and having to share Granny with your Auntie Bea. Then being left behind by a daddy who starts another family, but doesn’t come back for me. I don’t have a daddy to give you right now, but you will always have your own mommy.

Granny and Granddaddy have a possible new daddy picked out for you already. I can’t stay single, they say. It’s bad enough that I’m divorced and it’s certainly not right for a woman to be raising a child by herself. I don’t want to get married again, ever.

Danny and I loved each other in the beginning. He was exciting and sweet; I felt like I really mattered to someone for the very first time. We were going to travel the world and have great adventures and then have tons of children. All that seemed to change the minute we got married – he drank and yelled and hit me. I couldn’t tell anyone. A wife has to please her husband, so it felt like my fault that he got so mad. I actually didn’t mind when he left me alone, even after I found out where he was going.

If I absolutely have to marry this new guy, there will be some clear ground rules set this time. If he wants me, he’s going to have to agree to never tomcat around, never get drunk, and never ever hit me.

I want you to grow up with a daddy who loves you. If marrying this new guy will make everyone happy, and give you a childhood I couldn’t have, then it might be worth it.

Mother and Child, by Mary Cassatt (1908), from Flickr

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Breathings of Your Heart

"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart."

William Wordsworth

Are you interested in memoir writing as a way to heal and to explore the truth and meaning of your life? Are you looking for a safe, warm, and nurturing environment in which you can begin to write your story? If you're ready to express the breathings of your heart, there is a writing class starting in January with a spot in the circle just for you. Please e-mail me at dshucka@teleport.com and I'll give you all the details.

Photo from Flickr

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Unexpected Gift

My birthday was earlier this week - Thursday. I love birthdays. Mine for certain, but mostly I just love the idea of celebrating the day someone came to be here and celebrating who that person is. I also love presents and cake and attention.

For a number of reasons, this year was not offering strong possibilities for any of those things.

We're on a tight budget. I'm on a sugar fast. I don't have a classroom or a workplace where attention is guaranteed.

This was also not a landmark birthday - two more years before the next one of those, thank God! Fifty-eight is not a number that excites me, although I do like the eight in it. And Thursday is not a day that speaks celebration necessarily.

I actually woke up Thursday and was in the kitchen before I remembered it was my birthday.

Here is how the day unfolded:

Walt honored the no-gift mandate, but made two cards of photographs - one of Toby and Emma and one taken of us on vacation this summer. And wrote sweet loving messages as he always does. And kissed me good morning in a way he hasn't for quite some time. And cheerfully sent me into a full day that didn't include him at all.

My middle brother Mark called as I was getting ready for class. We had a fun and satisfying chat at the end of which he told me he had written a blog post for me. The light of love in his words is so bright, I have to close my eyes from time to time to really be able to absorb it.

Carrie made sure everyone in class knew it was my birthday, led the singing, treated me to lunch and a sweet card and a gift. A lunch that was shared with a new friend who feels like a very old friend. During class an unexpected connection was made with a fellow student that has the potential to become much more.

For the first time in all our years together my time with my counselor fell on this day. It was a session full of celebration of all the gifts this year has brought already - gifts completely unconnected to my original goals. A stronger connection to Walt. A more peaceful home. A quiet but amazingly strong confidence and trust and faith in the face of lots of information suggesting I should be feeling otherwise.

From there it was coffee with a friend who started this path of seeking the light a little later than I did, and whose loving energy feels like a warm day out of season.

The day's grand finale was dinner and attending an author presentation with three friends - two of whom are brand new friends to me. We were an eclectic group, two attorneys, a doctor, and a writer. Laughing together about the fact that with all our collective education and ability we couldn't figure out the GPS on the loaner car we were in. Laughing at ourselves looking for row "G" and being told by a patient woman that the "G" stood for general seating. Laughing hysterically on our way home at our imitations of the author whose trademark "WooHoo!" and (to us) over-simplified recipe for achieving abundance were off-putting.

And finally home, to cards and phone messages and a husband happy to see me.

So, there were presents. There was even a cupcake from my counselor, which Walt enjoyed tremendously. I got lots of attention.

However, what I got this year that I've never felt before was the full experience of being loved. I know I've been loved, but growing up with love that always had a price attached made me wary. And the warier I got, the more I protected my heart from the pain of love withheld, the less I could feel. I felt loved every single minute of this amazing birthday. So loved in fact I was almost overwhelmed with it. I think, though, I will get used to this new feeling. It will become my new standard, as Carrie suggested. My heart likes her new freedom.

Who knows what magic and power will grow from the fertile ground of a heart finally fully loved?

photo from Flickr

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Homework Revision

This week's homework was to choose a previous piece and revise or expand it. We were also challenged to include the color red, a description of the weather, and a specific kind of bird. I've worked the story that begins my first meeting with Aunt Bea and Cousin Sal.

After more than a decade of unexplained silence, Mommy recently renewed her relationship with her aunt, Bea. As part of my twenty-first birthday present, we are driving from my home in Spokane to the home Bea shares with her daughter, Sal, just south of Seattle. Although my brothers drove to Portland last spring to meet Bea and the cousins for the first time, this visit to their new home is my chance to get to know these female relatives who until now have only been quirky characters in reluctantly-told stories. Catching Mommy in a talking mood is as hard as pleasing her.

Tension rides in the car between us like a bomb that could go off if the car hit a bump too hard. It’s always been there, as long as I can remember. Mommy says it’s because I’m so intense and refuse to just accept certain things. I think accepting things that hurt you is wrong. Mommy’s favorite saying, “If God intended for things to be different, they would be,” just makes me mad. But I want us to be friends now that I’m an adult, so I start asking questions.

“So, you grew up in the same house with Bea?” Even though I already know the answer, I can’t get enough of this story, and sometimes Mommy seems to really like telling it.

“Yes. Granny and Granddaddy took my brother and me in. They had three kids: Mahlon, my father, who dropped us off on his way to Texas with his new wife; your Uncle Joe who was in high school then; and your Aunt Bea who was twelve. Because I was only eighteen months old, Bea took care of me like a little mother. She used to tell me that she and Granny would fight over who got to feed and dress me.

Because her voice is friendly and sort of wistful, I allow my curiosity to override caution. “If you and Bea were so close, how come you didn’t talk all those years?"

Mommy doesn’t say anything for a minute, lights a Pall Mall, inhales deeply and exhales a sigh of smoke through pursed lips. As she picks a bit of tobacco off the tip of her tongue, I worry I’ve gone too far. Before I can divert her with a different question, she starts to talk. “I’m surprised you don’t remember when the whole Mayo family came to visit us in Sandpoint. Bea and her husband wanted Sal’s brother Bobby to come live with us so he wouldn’t have to go to juvie. Daddy said no. They were really embarrassed and mad because they believed he would get to stay. We just sort of drifted apart after that.”

“Really, I was there? I don’t remember it at all.” I actually remember very little of my childhood, but for some reason not remembering this bothers me a lot. Coldness grips my chest, making it hard for me to breathe, like it does when Mommy lets me know God is not happy with me. I frantically poke around in my brain searching for the memory, but it’s nowhere to be found.

“They were only there for a couple of hours. Didn’t even stay the night. Sal read to the four of you, though. I’m surprised you don’t remember that.” Mommy’s voice is mild, not accusing, so I swallow my feelings and laugh, hoping to extend this time of truce.

I can’t believe we’re actually having a real conversation. I wonder what information I might get from Mommy before her mood shifts and decide to ask about Sal. She fills miles of our trip with stories about my cousin, told in a voice full of love and humor and admiration. I find myself wondering if my mom sounded like that when she told Bea about me.

“Darling, look at you! You look so much like Velma. You’re so beautiful. Joycie, you didn’t tell me how gorgeous she is.”

Bea’s hug engulfs me with so much affection, energy, and fragrance I can hardly breathe. The fact that her perfume is the exact same Tabu that Mommy wears makes my head spin a bit. I hug her back hard, inhaling the scent – amber, nicotine and scotch - that will forever after put me right back in the center of Bea’s generous love.

She pushes me away, keeping a firm grip on my shoulders. “Let me really look at you. The last time I saw you you were a freckled little girl in braids and bangs and dirty clothes. Now you’re a stunning grown up young woman. You have your grandmother’s Cherokee looks. Don’t you think she looks just like the pictures of your mom, Joycie?”

I look uneasily at my mom. Bea calls her Joycie? And she talks about my dead Grandma Velma as though it were no big deal? Mommy hates that nickname and refuses to talk about her mother: the beautiful, mysterious Cherokee princess who died when Mommy was just a baby. I become very still, waiting for the inevitable flash of icy anger, curious to see Bea’s response when it comes. Mommy shocks me by laughing at Bea and agreeing with her.

Really ? I want to say and don’t. You always told me I look more like you, which is so not true. I’m not prune-skinned with poor fitting dentures, too dark drawn-on eyebrows and over-dyed, shellacked beauty shop curls. I don’t have ugly whiskers sprouting from my witch chin, and I never will.

Tall, chesty, thin-hipped – Bea is the most elegant and sophisticated woman I’ve ever met. It’s love at first sight. Her hair is a soft wavy silver, styled in a chic cap that frames a beaming carefully made-up face. Her eyebrows are perfectly arched and just a couple of shades darker than her hair. Dressed in black pencil-thin slacks and a bright fuchsia silk top that matches her lipstick, her feet bare, she exudes sensuality that matches perfectly the elegant Siamese cat twining around her ankles.

I am related to this woman. Finally I meet someone whose blood I’m thrilled to share. For the first time ever I have a relative I want to be like. I feel disloyal as this thought takes up residence in my brain, but exhilarated with the relief of it as well.

Mommy and Bea are giddy in each other’s presence. Chattering like magpies. Lighting each other’s cigarettes. Drinking more than I’ve ever seen old women drink before.

My mom, whom I’ve never seen drunk one time in all my twenty-one years, becomes red-faced giggly with Bea. Alcohol was never allowed in our home and I’ve only ever seen Mommy drink sherry with Grandma. I learned to escape into the magical comfort of beer and scotch at high school keggers. Since then I’ve come to prefer the smooth and gentle warmth of wine. More than anything, I love that moment when whatever I’m drinking takes me completely out of my self and my life. This time though, I’m more interested in watching the relationship between these two women reveal itself. I don’t want to miss a moment of it, and sip my wine with unusual restraint.

“Joycie, you’re so thin. Are you sure you’re taking care of yourself?” Bea and my mom have settled side by side on the couch. Bea takes Mommy’s hand and pats it tenderly.

“Oh, you know I never could keep any weight on. I only eat to live; I don’t live to eat.” I consider mentioning the diet we went on together when I was fourteen, but stay quiet.

“Well you know how much I love to eat, Darling. Food is one of those pleasures, like Scotch and sex, I see no reason to deprive myself of.” I can’t believe how matter-of-factly my aunt talks about things Mommy considers sins against God.

I especially can’t believe when Mommy giggles and says, “Well you know how Daddy is, so I guess one out of three for me is better than none.”

Their sisterhood excludes me, leaves me feeling confused, alone, and jealous. I was so sure Bea and I were kindred spirits, but how can that be if she feels the same way about this woman I hate at least as much as I love? I want to tell Bea some real truths about her niece Joycie (her weight issues would just be the beginning) but I’m not sure she would believe me.

I excuse myself to go for a walk in the biting gray mist of the late fall Puget Sound evening. Before the door clicks shut behind me I hear Bea ask Mommy if I’m okay, and my mom’s reply that I often go off by myself – that I’m a very private person and it might take me some time to warm up to her.

You don’t understand me at all. I’m not okay, and you should know that. Once I’m around the corner from Bea’s sweet little ranch house, I pull a pack of Salem Lights out of my jacket pocket, light one with shaking hands, and inhale the smoke as though it might save my life. I’ve only been smoking for a couple of weeks, so the first few drags make me so dizzy I have to stop walking until my body adjusts to the chemicals. Cool moisture from the saturated air collects on my hair and shoulders, providing an odd sort of comfort. I tip my face skyward, a few tears escaping to join the misty caress lying soft on my cheeks. I refuse the tears, chasing them back inside with Salem smoke.

No one in my family knows I smoke. I’m not ready yet to tell them, because they’d ask why I started. Telling them the truth, that I was trying to fit in with my heroin-shooting black boyfriend, will not help my standing in the family. I’ll also be compared one more time to Mommy. The fact that I will never be caught dead smoking unfiltered Pall Malls won’t matter to anyone (like my brothers) making the comparison. I briefly consider switching to the elegant Virginia Slims Bea smokes, but decide they fit her much better than they do me – at least for now.

I’m curious if or what my cousin Sal smokes. On the way over from Spokane my mom talked about Bea’s daughter as though she were the daughter Mommy was meant to have, so much more like her in personality than I am – tomboyish, serious, mechanically inclined, athletic, pragmatic. I hope Bea might return the favor and wish I were her daughter, the two of us sharing traits the exact opposite of Mommy’s list: feminine, happy, creative, sensual, romantic.

I wonder if, when we met for dinner later tonight, I will like my oldest girl cousin on my mom’s side of the family. Will Sal’s two-year age advantage, her famous refusal to follow social conventions like being polite if it doesn’t suit her, and our opposite personalities leave any room for us to like each other? Can I like someone so much like Mommy? Is it possible for her to like someone who has made such a mess of her life.

Photo by Stephen Mitchell from Flickr