The myth of the ruby slippers

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors and a certified treasure to humanity, has some simple and direct advice when it comes to writing. It goes like this: “Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”

I’ve been writing – or pretending to write – this blog post for months and it’s high time I got my butt back in the chair, although it’s not always a bad thing to let a piece of writing sit for a bit. I’ve found it often marinates into something richer than it might have been. I guess it could also grow mold, but I’m hoping that’s not the case with this post.

My original piece was going to be a reflection on my summer sabbatical in California and the importance of place in my life. For some reason I stopped working on it in early November and well, somehow the daffodils are now in bloom. To be honest, I know the some reason was that the holiday season is a roller coaster of emotions for me (and a bazillion other people).

Me as soon as I see the first Lexus Christmas commercial.

A typical day for me during that time from Thanksgiving to Christmas is not unlike a NC weather forecast – sunny skies early, thunderstorms in the afternoon, some containing hail and heavy winds, followed by partial clearing. In short, I’m all over the place – which is where this post originated – place.

When I returned from my summer (a civilized no humidity summer) in California, I began thinking a lot about Dorothy – yeah, that young girl from Kansas. Or was it Missouri? How was she so very certain that there’s no place like home? Maybe it was those ruby slippers that fortified her resolve. Me? I’m more of an Allbirds kind of girl and when I bump my rubber heels together, well, there’s no magic.

Don’t get me wrong – I was delighted to be back with my dear wife, but it hit me when my return flight approached PTI that my connection to North Carolina becomes more tenuous each time I leave this state. It was dark as we made our descent and I could see the lights of familiar places, but I didn’t feel much different than when I landed in Atlanta on my layover. I realized that Winston Salem is a destination for me, but it doesn’t feel like home. It never has.

Home is not always in plane view.

I envied those passengers I heard talking about how good it was to be home and I tried to remember when I last had that feeling. It made me sad that I really had to think about it. I suppose I would have to go back several years ago to when my parents were still alive.

The truth is that I’ve always felt like an accidental tourist in North Carolina. I moved here in 1995 when my partner at the time was recruited for a good job opportunity. I was a Virginian for the first 39 years of my life, and I had always thought of myself as a southerner – until I arrived in the Old North State. I’ll never forget my first trip to the post office and after a brief conversation with the clerk behind the counter, he looked at me a bit suspiciously and said, “You’re not from around here.” Not a question. I felt like I was in one of those old Westerns and waited for him to say, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” He wasn’t unfriendly, but his statement surprised me and before I could respond, he asked if was from up north. I said, “Yes. Northern Virginia.” He nodded slowly and told me he thought I was from New York City. That’s exactly how he said – true story.

My first trip to a NC post office. He didn’t make my day.

That memory is harmlessly amusing and oddly affirming to me today as I ponder the nuances of home. NC is never going to be home to me no matter how long I live here. And that’s okay, because I figured out this summer that for some of us, home is more abstract than an address. Most often for me, it’s a state of mind – and heart.

I talked to Kelly, my hairdresser/therapist/dear friend about this recently. She’s married and has two young children and moved to this area in her late teens. I asked her what popped into her head when she thinks of the word home. She took her time answering and said, “Home is the place I feel most filled.” I think I startled her when I responded, quite enthusiastically, “Yes, yes, that’s it.” I’m so lucky that my hair stylist completes me.

For some of us, home is not an address or a house. It’s a space where we feel in harmony with the world. Maybe it’s not even a space – it can be a sound or a smell. The Episcopal church I grew up in had a musty woody smell when you entered the front door. I left the church for several decades as an adult and when I made my way back to a small church in Greensboro on Easter Sunday in 2007, that same smell engulfed me like a hug. I was home.

The red door of just about any Episcopal church feels like home to me. This one is All Saint’s in Greensboro, NC. Watercolor by Mike Tiddy.

And I suppose that my church here in Winston Salem is one of the physical spaces that feels most like home to me these days. And that was certainly the case this holiday season. Church was a sanctuary for me in all manner of ways.

My mother died almost twenty years ago, but I’m still stopped in my tracks when I smell Chanel No. 5. That was her perfume. The morning after she died, I walked into her closet just to breathe in that scent still lingering on some of her clothing. I felt comforted. I was home.

Tastes can feel like home, too. My father always made oyster stew for breakfast on Christmas morning. Hey, don’t judge, I’m from Virginia and we didn’t have Moravian sugar cake. The first Christmas without him, I steeled myself over the stove to try and replicate his no-recipe recipe. It must have been divine intervention, because I came pretty darn close. I remember taking a deep breath before that first taste and there it was – that familiar briny tang.

I spent some time in Charlottesville over New Year’s – a place I lived for over a decade. Several times during my stay, my heart felt full – most especially when I shared time with my friend of over three decades, Chris. She and her husband Ed live on a farm in Crozet, just outside of Charlottesville. The farm has long been the backdrop for all sorts of celebrations – including a memorable 4th of July when we almost burned the front yard down. Our bad – Ed did warn us that the grass was too dry for sparklers.

Friends since the first Reagan administration. Hoping to live long enough to see a Democrat in the White House again.

Chris and Ed were both so dear to my parents – in life and death – and it is an abiding comfort to me to have such a rich history with them. Their house feels like home. And hugging Ed reminds me of being in my father’s arms – he’s a strong but kind man like my dad and he’s okay with me crying into his warm flannel shirt. And just like my dad, he is always so happy to see me. He greeted me this time with perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. “Addy, you know we just sort of set our watches until the next time we see you.” I mean, who says that? Ed does. And then I cry.

Me after hugging Ed.

I often feel at home in nature and what a glorious gift that is. I’ve always enjoyed walking, but after the apocalypse of November 8, 2016, walking became a spiritual practice for me. Yes, it’s good exercise, but it also gets me away from the turmoil of our BREAKING NEWS world. There are just so many screaming words flying back and forth, and I for one would much rather hear the tweet of a bird over one from a president.

Budding blooms > Breaking news.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that for me, home will probably always be a moving target, a fleeting yet often visceral moment. On my best days, there are several moments when I feel at home and as Kelly said, I am filled in glorious ways.

Mary Oliver, the beloved goddess of poetry who passed away last year, exquisitely captures the feeling of home in the poem below. I read it at my best friend’s wedding several years ago outside on a warm day in May while her dog barked. It was perfect.

Coming Home

by Mary Oliver

When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place–
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

I’m glad Dorothy made it back to Kansas, but I’m going to just keep trying to enjoy the ride home wherever it takes me. You see, for some of us, there’s no home like place.

Chris and Ed make my heart feel home.
When a familiar view feels like home. Holidays up on the farm.

Lost at the maul

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I’ll date myself with this reference, but remember that time you couldn’t find your car in the mall parking lot a few days before Christmas? Yes, kids, there was a time in a suburb far, far away where humans drove to a large shopping complex to purchase things. Anyway, you older species know the feeling I’m talking about – wandering around helplessly certain that your car is in the next row. Only it’s not.

It’s maddening and frustrating and can even make you feel a bit panicky. You just want to find your damn car and go home. Well, that’s how I’ve felt since early Monday morning when I learned of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. I want to stop rambling around lost.

My dear wife and I turned on the Today show at 7 AM as we most often do on weekdays to see the ominous crawl on the screen – BREAKING NEWS. That term has become so overused – especially in the age of Trump where almost every cockamamie tweet is considered BREAKING NEWS. But this BREAKING NEWS was so big that they had to give it a name like a movie title – DEADLY LAS VEGAS SHOOTING – and a dramatic background score – as if the horrific news of someone mowing down innocent folks with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons at an outdoor concert would not get our attention.

Today show

Matt and Savannah had their game faces on – it was all grim news with no amusing repartee with Al about the weather or Hoda with a feel-good story. This was grisly – the largest modern-day mass shooting in the United States – surpassing last year’s largest modern-day mass shooting in the United States in Orlando.

I watched the first twenty minutes or so of the broadcast and then looked at my phone to check Facebook and Twitter. Before the sun had come up on the dead in Las Vegas, people were already posting rants about stricter gun laws. People always post those types of things after a mass shooting but Monday’s posts seemed different to me – they were angrier and many contained the phrase – “save your thoughts and prayers.” And this was all before I had even brushed my teeth.

Throughout the day I continued to see this sentiment expressed on social media – bag your thoughts and prayers and work for stricter gun control laws. The wrath felt personal to me because I felt like that’s all I had to offer – my own thoughts and prayers – which I pretty much kept to myself all day.

Midmorning, my church sent out an email letting members know that the sanctuary would be open all day if we needed a place to sit and pray and that there would be a Liturgy for the Violence in Las Vegas offered later in the evening. It comforted me to know that there was a place to go to mourn communally. I strongly felt the need to be with others – to be with the living – but then I kept seeing the barrage of posts on social media decrying over and over that “prayer doesn’t change things.”

It made me sad, and honestly, a little mad.

Well, no, prayer can’t change 59 dead and almost 500 wounded. Prayer isn’t a do-over – or a naïve pass on the horrors of this world. Prayer alone doesn’t have the power to change things. God knows, if it did, we’d need a lot more churches. I only know that prayer changes me. For starters – it makes me shut the fuck up – which is no small thing. It makes me be quiet and consider the absurd possibility that I might not know everything. Prayer makes me be still and listen – to myself and the world around me. Sometimes prayer makes me feel better – other times it leaves me empty and confused. I just know that it rarely leaves me unexamined.

I get it – this backlash against the rote sentiments of “thoughts and prayers” – especially when they are offered by the same elected officials who bank roll their campaigns with blood money from the NRA. But for me, there has to be a place for prayers in all of this babel. What is the alternative? The purgatory of never finding my car?

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Photo credit: Jayme Lemons

My friend Kevin is an Episcopal priest and I found a lot of comfort in his Facebook post on Monday. I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing it – I’ll ask for forgiveness if he does.

The moment we decry prayers and remembrances for the dead because those acts won’t change things is the moment the dead, wounded, and their families and friends stop being people and become political objects. Can we at least wait until tomorrow before we strip them of their humanity? Besides, sometimes, mourning and praying have to change us before we are ready to change the world.

Amen, Kevin. Amen.

I’ll no doubt soon return to ranting on Facebook – I find it to be therapeutic – like a cyber wailing wall. And I’ll work on changing the world, too, but today I’m tired and weary and feeling a little hopeless. And I think it’s okay to stay there for a bit.

I also think poetry can be a form of prayer and I often turn to it when I am grieving. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets and I ran across the poem below that says just about everything I wish I could say in a prayer. I offer it to you simply as nothing more than a map.

Lead

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

 

loon

 

 

 

26.2

Chicago-Marathon.jpg

Last month I was in the Windy City for the Chicago Marathon. I probably don’t need to tell you that I was not a participant. I’m on record noting that if you ever see me running, I’m probably being chased by someone with an ax. No, I was there as part of the cheer squad for my dear friend Lori, who was running her eighth marathon at the age of 56. Yes, eighth. I’m not sure she’s actually human but more on that later.

bean-photo

Lori (far right) and her cheer posse as seen in reflection in Chicago’s iconic Bean.

I did recently complete a marathon of sorts – a figurative one – and I’m here to tell you that marathons are hard as hell. Mine began in January when I was fired from a job – scratch, calling – that I loved. Yeah, Happy New Year to me. My departure was manipulated by a toxic subordinate who didn’t like me being the boss of him. He was able to intimidate just enough people into believing his fiction was fact and that was that – 11 years obliterated without any opportunity to share my truth.

Some courses are harder than others.

My friend Lori knows this. She was a long distance runner in high school and in her 20’s she decided to run a marathon to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials. That plan was upended by a knee injury and surgery. But that was nothing compared to a colon cancer diagnosis at the age of 36. She had surgery and chemo and was back running about a week after she completed her treatments. And she’s never stopped.

lori-marathon-running

Lori makes running look easy and fun. I still don’t want to do it.

I’m fascinated by the idea of someone choosing to do something so incredibly difficult so I recently “interviewed” Lori – peppering her with all of my questions about marathons in my search for understanding. Lori is a good sport in all manner of ways and I think she enjoyed the brief respite from her very big job as a controller at a local credit union. Oh yeah, Lori is really smart, too, in addition to being a very good runner.

Mostly, I just wanted to know why. As in why in the hell would you want to run a marathon? As much as I love sports, this is right up there with cricket and curling for one that I just do not get. The course is 26.2 miles – often including hills placed at truly sadistic locations – like really near the finish line. Sometimes you have to run in less than ideal conditions, too. Last year, Lori ran the Boston Marathon in a driving cold rain and 20 mph winds. Good times.

And let’s face it, humans really weren’t built to run that many miles and doing so can do some really nasty things to your body – cramping, bleeding and blisters to name a few – in places I never knew you could experience those things. Seriously, bleeding nipples is a thing for marathoners. I can’t even.

garmin-2

Just the stats, ma’am.

I certainly didn’t choose my marathon – most of us never do. I suppose if you live in this world long enough, you’re going to find yourself in at least a few major tests of endurance – divorce, illness and death to name a few. Having experienced all of the above, I can tell you that losing a job, while no walk in the park, is not in the same league as those beasts.

Lori told me it’s the challenge of pushing yourself, reaching your limit and then finding a way to go further that continues to inspire her to run. She explained that there’s a saying among marathoners that anyone can train to run the first 20 miles but it’s the last 6.2 that are really tough. I’ll have to take her word on that. She said that even on good days there are times when you don’t feel like you can make it and that’s when your mental toughness carries you. “Mentally you have to prepare yourself to run through the pain,” she said.

I get that. Several times in the past nine months, I felt like I had reached my limit. I couldn’t take “it” anymore – the anger, the disappointment, the unfairness of what happened to me. I felt overwhelmed with the idea of starting over. I wanted to just quit – again, not literally – but to wave the metaphorical white flag.

I can’t say that I ran through my pain. Some days I felt like a zombie just stumbling through my day. But eventually, I did start to breathe through my pain. I don’t meditate – I always mean to start – but I did make a conscious decision to not fight my pain anymore. I knew I needed to fully embrace it before I could move on.

I reread a lot of wisdom from the brilliant Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, teacher and author.  Chodron is all about using what seems like poison as medicine to discover our inner strength and transform ourselves. Yes, it’s a more Zen version of the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

pema

Pema Chodron. I feel calmer just looking at her.

Here’s a snippet of the Gospel according to Pema:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Lori told me that she breaks a marathon into four six-mile sections so that it’s more manageable. That leaves 2.2 miles remaining to navigate and then she breaks that down in terms of time instead of distance – i.e. 15 minutes to go, 5 minutes to go and so on. She said that’s when you start having conversations in your head. You tell yourself things like “keep your head up” and “relax” with the key being to keep your thoughts positive and encouraging. I smiled when she said, “If you can’t tell, running a marathon can be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one.” Those runners with the bleeding nipples would probably disagree.

I was beginning to feel like I was listening to Yoda, Marathon Master. And I was wishing I had had this conversation with Lori several months ago but marathons are solitary journeys for the most part. This I know for certain. yoda

Lori is a classic introvert (understatement) so you won’t find her chatting during a race but I asked her if the spectators affect her at all. She explained that while you might not always be conscious of everything going on around you, you do become aware of people cheering and that can really give you a lift during rough patches. This happened to her a few years ago during the New York Marathon when she was coming off the bridge from Queens and entering Manhattan on 1st Avenue. She recalled, “There is no noise on the bridge but the sound of your feet hitting the pavement and then you come off the bridge and there are thousands of people cheering. It’s pretty amazing.”

I know I was lifted on some tough days by the kindness of many folks who reached out to me in surprising ways – a text, an email, a phone call or the best – an old school card and note. And sometimes these “cheers” came from delightfully unexpected sources – like Jeri, an editor at my local newspaper who hired me to write a monthly column several years ago.

He sent me a silly card of a beagle riding a bike with tassels dangling from the handlebars, blowing in the wind. He told me I was like the beagle in the photo – with some wondrous ways to go in this world. He made me laugh and got me over a hill or two.

beagle

I believe I can fly.

My course didn’t have a finite ending so I had to navigate it day by day. Unlike Lori’s marathons, the first part was the hardest for me. I was so angry and disappointed in some people who I had respected and even loved. Those were wounds that did not heal quickly. The middle of my journey was about acceptance and slowly beginning to look forward instead of the rear view mirror. And this last stretch has been about fully embracing a unique opportunity to truly seek the creative life that I have longed for.

Lori says that when she gets near the end of a marathon, she just tries to relax and “stop all the chatter that is going on in your brain.” She tries to go further into herself and push through to the finish line.

I hear less and less of that chatter in my brain every day and on my best days I can hear the lovely Mary Oliver poem that my pal Jeri reminded me of in his note way back in that dark month of March. It’s called Phillip’s Birthday.

I gave,

to a friend that I care for deeply,

something that I loved.

It was only a small

extremely shapely bone

that came from the ear

of a whale.

It hurt a little

to give it away.

The next morning

I went out, as usual,

at sunrise,

and there, in the harbor,

was a swan.

I don’t know

what he or she was doing there,

but the beauty of it

was a gift.

Do you see what I mean?

You give and you are given. 

I may never understand marathons but I get this equation down to my bone marrow.

You give and you are given.

And as my inspiring friend Lori knows so well, you just keep going.

 

lori-medal

26.2 miles later and still smiling.

 

addy-still-smiling

Me, too.

 

marathon-sticker

It’s just a number. A big fat one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is our place

Every day the sea

blue gray green lavender

pulls away leaving the harbor’s

dark-cobbled undercoat

—from “Tides” by Mary Oliver

sunset

This morning I laid in bed and gazed out of the sliding glass doors that overlooked the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. Orange, blue and lavender layered the November sky. I laid tucked under the sheets, holding hands with Andrew and following the in and out of my breath. Good morning, sea.

I listened to the sound of the ocean, the waves crashing on the shore. When I need to feel grounded, I go to the mountains. When I need to feel free, I go to the beach. I think Andrew and I were both craving a sense of peace. We found it in the ebb and flow of the sea, in the endless walks we took along the shore several times each day, in watching our dog Molly chase sandpiper birds and plunge her black and white spotted chest into the sea’s salty waters. Free and unabandoned, she let her wild mild lead her. I think dogs were put on this earth to teach us humans how to let go.

molly

On our first night at the beach, Andrew and I walked behind Molly, hand-in-hand, our pants cuffed above our ankles. We walked toward the setting sun, a ball of orange thatslowly slipped below the horizon. Andrew always reaches out for my hand—on the couch while we’re watching TV, in the car on our way to our next adventure, in bed while we sleep. Our hands always seem to find each other. Hello, I’m here. I love you. Andrew is always there. Present. With me.

During these three days that seem to go by too quickly, I am in the present, living in the moment. I do not think about this past year or the future that will come. It’s as if it’s all been erased from my mind. Here, nothing matters. I read my book and hours slip by. We sip mimosas and stare at the ocean. We play a guessing game of time.

It feels like 8 o’clock.

No, it’s 6:30.

It’s always earlier than we think.

beach-book

When I’m here, I don’t wear makeup, even though I’ve brought my staples: mascara, concealer, lipstick. They sit in my bag untouched. I do not smear on concealer to cover the purple circles under my eyes. It’s just me. Raw. Uncovered. Natural. Authentic. No masks. No camouflage to hide my fatigue. No red lipstick to make me feel more put together than I sometimes feel. My hair is a mix of sand and sea and salty air. I do not waste time styling it. There are grains of sand between my toes. I wear yoga pants cuffed past my ankle and a hooded sweatshirt. Bras are optional.

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Atlantic Beach, this place, it’s special to me. The first time I came here was 2011, 10 months after I left my ex-husband. Back home, my world was falling apart. I came here to escape it. Three nights. Four days. Just me and my dog, Yoshi. My rock. My anchor. It was late April. We watched every sunrise and every sunset together. We explored seaside towns and drove with the windows down, taking in big gulps of sea air. I was inconsolably lonely. What I remember most about those days was how quiet it was in our hotel room. The silence was deafening. I didn’t speak to anyone for four days. I ate meals alone in my hotel room. Slept alone under the cold bleached sheets. Woke up alone to my room aglow in the morning’s sunrise.

bed

And yet, it was also one of the most nurturing times in my life. I came there to heal. I was taking care of me by allowing myself to toss aside all the rules I had written in my head about how I thought my life would have been or should have been. And I gave myself the freedom to wander, discover new places with Yoshi, get in the car and see where it leads me. What I found was so much beauty and peace. I vowed on that trip that I would never share this place with anyone else. It was mine and Yoshi’s sacred haven. Bringing someone here would create memories, and memories meant I’d carry them with me forever. I couldn’t endure another heartbreak. No, I couldn’t risk it. I was so afraid that the next man I allowed into my life would only bring me pain—just like all the others.

yoshi-beach

Me with my anchor. (2011)

yoshi-2

Pals.

I remember crying almost the entire four-hour drive home. What did I have to go back to? An empty house. An empty heart. I didn’t want to leave behind this peace I cultivated over the four days. I didn’t know how to take it with me. When I came home, I climbed into bed and turned on the TV. Oprah was interviewing Shania Twain about her failed marriage.

Four months later, Andrew and I went on our first date. Five more years pass and here I am, happily married, connected in mind, body and spirit with Andrew and grateful for every moment I have with him. Several times a day, he’ll say or do something to make me pause and think I love this man deeply. He loves me deeply. Yesterday it was when he put his hand on my thigh when we were driving to the coast. This morning it was when we were lying in bed, holding hands, with the sun’s morning rays illuminating our hotel room with white light. I told Andrew last year, when I first brought him and our dog Molly here, how special this place is to me. I shared with him all of my favorite places, and together, we discovered new ones. We ate in a new restaurant that’s now our go-to, wandered in different parts of town, explored the edges of the coast. We honored my old memories, but also made new ones. This is no longer my place; this is our place.

fam

My family.