Thursday, November 23, 2017

Musings on Gratitude


It's become something of a family tradition, a five mile trek through our town Thanksgiving morning, the annual Columbus Turkey Trot race.

We don't race.

We walk at a leisurely pace, admiring the more serious runners, the couples pushing strollers, the people dressed in turkey costumes or wearing drumstick hats. If you complete the race, you win a pumpkin pie. Every year we get in line to collect our pies and then we get into the line to donate our pies to a food bank.

We walk home and make our feast.

The first Thanksgiving in this town, we'd only been living here for three weeks. I still needed a map to find my way to the grocery store. It was a lonely day. Most years I cooked the big feast and we'd have 15 or 20 people around the table. An assortment of family members, friends and neighbors. But this particular year it was just the four of us. I made the full blown meal, anyway, out of habit, the giant turkey and all of the casseroles and fixings.

The four of us ate the meal in fifteen minutes.

I was looking out the front window at the gray sky, the unfamiliar lawn. The huge oak tree was dropping leaves and it was cold outside and I knew we were going to have to rake later. The kids were bored and homesick for our old town. We thought about seeing a movie but we weren't sure where the nearest movie theater was.

And then we heard the sound of a lawn mower. A stranger chugged by on his riding mower and we watched in amazement and gratitude as he scooped up all of our leaves. I almost started crying.

Turns out he was our next door neighbor. The next year we invited him and his family for dinner. They've come every year now for the past ten years.

Over seven thousand people run or walk in the Turkey Trot race. This morning we walked at our usual leisurely pace. It was 37 degrees and we were bundled up, laughing already about another of our traditions, how my daughter and I run up to the mile marker signs and my husband takes a picture of us.

Before we left for the race course, I drank a cup of coffee and a smoothie. Not even a mile in and I was anticipating the Porta potty, usually found around Mile Marker Two...

But alas, someone at the Turkey Trot organization let me down big time this year because there was no Porta potty. The rest of the race I was consumed by thoughts of my full bladder, while my daughter and husband made jokes about how I could dart off behind a mile marker sign and do my business, and no one, probably, would even notice.

To keep from killing them, I planned my dinner menu in my head. I watched the people walking around us, the other leisurely-paced people, the bundled up babies in strollers and the sweater-wearing dogs. One girl in front of us walked the entire way on crutches. She was wearing shorts. She was not wearing a hat or gloves. She had one leg.

I was amazed by this girl. I wanted to give her my hat and gloves. She was busy moving along on her crutches and chatting with the people beside her. I couldn't bear it anymore. I asked her if she wanted my hat and gloves and she laughed and said no.

I realized I hadn't thought about my bladder for a while and I was filled with gratitude.

We walked to the next marker and took our silly pictures. We walked across the finish line. We walked home, (okay, I ran like a maniac and made a beeline toward the bathroom).

Now I am basting the turkey between paragraphs, musing on gratitude, thankful for warm houses with bathrooms, grateful for family and friends, the ones here and not here, the enormous meal soon to be eaten, the sunny lawn through my front window, this place, this now familiar town, our home.







Friday, November 17, 2017

Dispatches from a Broken World


The world was always broken, but I forgot.

Here is what I once knew: The people in charge are busy being in charge. When you tell them you need help, they don't listen. They look the other way. And you wonder: did they hear me? Did I speak?

If you're lucky, you learn: You are on your own.

But, as I said, I forgot.


The world is beautiful too, and I forget this daily.

Here is what I once knew: stories read to me at bedtime, songs played downstairs on a piano, the notes drifting into my dreams, a yard with a tree to climb, a friend I loved so much that when I pushed her away, I missed her laughter for years.


In June when I was in Venice, I walked one afternoon alone through the winding narrow streets.

A huge church rises up, how churches seem to do in this place, so that one moment there is an alleyway and the next, there is a large courtyard, a statue, a massive building.

Some of these churches you have to pay to enter. If you are a woman, and you have bare shoulders, you have to cover yourself. But you won't know until you open the door. I walk toward this particular church and freeze when I turn the corner and almost run into an old woman.

Old woman doesn't accurately describe her. This woman is shrunken and wrinkled, her face like the shriveled up face of an apple doll. She is dressed all in black. Her fingers, when she reaches out to me, are gnarled twigs. Honestly, she looks like a witch in a fairy tale.

I brush past her, anxiously, thinking what I always do when I am faced with broken-ness, with hunger, with poverty, with illness, with difference-- that I have to get away from it. And then there's the immediate next thought, the one that comes from the world-- the one that says: This is a scam. She's a thief. Pretend she's not here.

These are the thoughts that make me feel better about not helping her.

I go inside the church. These churches. Oh my God. The walls are covered in priceless paintings. Sculptures. Stained glass. Ornate fixtures and candles. They are monuments to human achievement and beauty. Symbols of brilliant engineering and architecture, art, music -- the very best of what we humans can create.

You have to pay in this church. I stand in a line waiting to step up to the cashier. I am looking around for the cost of the ticket. I am gawking at the massive paintings on the walls. A woman says sternly, "Senora. Senora!"

It takes me a minute to realize she is talking to me. The cashier, clerk, whatever you call the people who take your money when you want to look inside a church. She rolls her eyes and mutters something under her breath. I am the stupid tourist in line who doesn't know it is my turn next. The one who doesn't speak the language or know the rules.

Publicly shamed, I pay the entrance fee. Any joy I had being inside the church is gone. The art on the walls is just art on the walls. More paintings of Mary holding Jesus. Saints, many of their faces modeled after whoever paid the artist to paint the painting. I am thinking of the old lady outside begging in her black clothes in the heat and scaring the crap out of tourists. I am thinking of the woman who just yelled at me. I am arguing with her in my head. I mean, what kind of customer service is that, yelling at tourists. In a freaking church.

This church, like a lot of churches over here, has altars and candles. If you pay a coin, you can light a candle and say a prayer. Usually I like doing that, my old Catholic school upbringing coming back to me. People kneel at the kneelers and bless themselves. They leave pictures behind of sick and damaged loved ones. You can feel their desperation, their faith. I don't need to know the language to know what they are begging for.

Help.

Please God, hear me. Help me.

But now, in this church, my hands around the unfamiliar coins, I don't want to light a stupid candle. And why should I have to pay to say a prayer? Why should I give any of my coins to this church when right outside the door, the oldest human being I have ever seen, stands in need?

I pull every coin out of my pocket. I have no idea how much money it is. I never know what I am carrying over here. It could be two bucks. It could be twenty. Whatever. I walk past the paintings and statues and stained glass. I walk past the rolling-her-eyes-at-the-dumb-tourists clerk. I walk outside into the blazing sun.

I look the woman in the eyes when I give her my money. They're watery and white and I don't know if she can see me, but she says, Grazie.

I sit in the courtyard and watch tourists going into and out of the church. I watch the ones who freeze when they nearly run into the woman, the ones who brush past her, the few who reach for money.  A crumpled up newspaper rolls across the courtyard like a tumbleweed. A teenager reaches to grab it before it falls into the canal.

She misses, and an older woman nearby smirks as if to say, why did you bother? Who cares? A little girl shrieks and clutches her father's hand. "Did you see the witch?" she says.

"Shh, don't say that," says her father. He smiles apologetically at me.

The little girl laughs. She lets go of her father's hand and chases the pigeons around the courtyard. A gondola glides by the crumpled newspaper in the water. The church bells ring.


Here is what I know, what I have always known--

The world is broken

The world is beautiful







Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Confession: The other day I was a mean girl...

I was at a book festival, a place where I am typically not a mean girl,

there to hang out for the day with a writer friend, and while my friend and I were heading toward her book-signing table, she stopped abruptly and gasped because sitting on the floor was a cat--

alive, it seemed, from where we were standing, but on closer inspection,

dead.

I think the technical term is taxidermied?

Anyway, my friend snapped a picture and we laughed and speculated with some of the other writers nearby what the dead cat was there for. Swag for the book display, something eye-catching to draw customers over? (This is a thing, by the way, that writers do on the Book Festival Circuit with bookmarks, candy, fun stickers.)

Maybe the author signing at this table was promoting a book about cats? Or taxidermy? We didn't know, but the general impression was that it was sort of creepy. And funny.

Cut to:

We were all eating lunch and several writer friends came running into the lunchroom to ask if we had seen the dead cat, which got me talking animatedly about it, laughing and speculating and pulling other people at our table into the conversation,

until my friend nudged me and whispered under her breath that the author-owner of the dead cat had just sat down on the other side of me.

Mortified, I hung my head, wondering if there was a way to teleport out of the book festival and taxidermize myself.

There is a mean girl inside of me.

She tends to come out when I am feeling uncomfortable. When I am telling a story and find myself the center of attention. When I realize that I am making people laugh.

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a geology class --the "easy" lab science taken by non-science majors-- and not really all that easy. The hardest part of the class, we all agreed, was that we had to go on a weekend rock-hunting trip.

Probably the professor did not call it a rock-hunting trip, but whatever she called it, it was a road trip from the college in Memphis to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in a school van, with lots of little stops on the way to investigate rock formations.

None of the students wanted to go except for one guy-- we'll call him, John-- who intended to be a geologist and therefore took this trip seriously. The rest of us grumbled about having to leave campus for a weekend and sleep in tents and ride around in an increasingly sweaty smelly van with a bunch of people we didn't really know except through this irritating class.

Also, it was raining.

But there we were, making the best of it, riding in the van and trudging out into the rain every few hours to look at rocks on the side of the road. With the exception of John, who would leap out of the van to really really look at the rocks, and at one particular stop, John was leaping so excitedly, that he slipped in the wet leaves on the side of the road and did a flip in the air and landed upside down in a ditch.

I am not proud to say that I laughed.

Or that later, at our campsite, all of us warming our drenched frozen bodies around the campfire and chatting awkwardly, I began to tell the story of John leaping and flipping and everyone laughed and I kept going, enjoying myself for the first time on this dumb trip, and not noticing that everyone had stopped laughing and there was John, suddenly standing next to me.

I can still see the look on his face.

It was the same as the man's at the book festival.





Is it too late to say that I am sorry?