The Parting Glass – A Farewell Blog Post

The Parting Glass farewell toast

I have decided to discontinue this blog. Before I do, here is one final post to tie all the seemingly disparate posts together. I hope that in it, you will find inspiration for your own life’s journey. I hope it inspires you to seek out your own joy.

The last time I posted on this blog was August 12th, the anniversary of my first day and my mother’s last day on this earth. Today is her birthday. Happy birthday mom.

This entire blog was inspired by the events I relayed here about a huckleberry falling from the sky and changing the course of my life. In that ambiguous initial post, I said that one day I might tell the full story. It is a complicated one to tell, and it is tied to most of the other posts contained on this blog. I will try to link to each as the full story unfolds, so when you see an underlined colored term, click on it to jump to the corresponding blog post. Then you can opine for yourselves the presence in our lives of serendipity and grace, which this blog has been all about all along:

“This blog is dedicated to those moments we all have, when you see beyond–or is it through?–your present circumstances. When your soul whispers to your mind and you hear, however faintly, your own personal truth, that is a huckleberry moment.”

Part One – Huck

We met under unusual circumstances on the elementary school bus when we were 8 or 9. I’ll call him Huck. In the moments before our meeting, I had a disagreement with the school bully that resulted in a surprising black eye. Mine, not his unfortunately. He had just ordered a girl in the seat ahead of me to sit down. Cowering in fear, she obeyed. This infuriated me, so I met the bully’s gaze and purposefully stood up.

“Sit down,” he ordered me.

“No,” I refused.

Hence, my black eye and the ensuing tears of shock and anger that streamed down my face. As I walked up the bus aisle to exit at my stop, I saw him out of the corner of my eye, this boy I would later come to know as Huck. He was laughing at me.

Without conscious thought I reeled into his seat and grabbed a fistful of his shirt, pushing it against his chest. Glaring into his shocked blue-gray eyes, I spat through gritted teeth, “Don’t. You. Laugh. At. Me!”

In later years, the school bus incident would become our private joke. As it turned out, this was not our only connection. Huck had a twin brother who was in my elementary class at school. I had twin brothers, one of whom was also named ‘Huck.’ Moreover, Huck and his twin shared the same birthday as my twin brothers, though separated by some years. An odd coincidence in our small rural town. Huck and I shared secrets.

In high school we dated on and off. Mostly off. Toward the end of our senior year, however, our friendship faltered, and by the summer after graduation, we were not talking at all, avoiding each other as best we could.

And then, on the August night I turned 18, my mom died. Huck came to the funeral. When we were at the same gathering in the weeks afterwards, I thanked him, and we talked for the first time in months. We arranged to get together one last time before we both left for college, to say goodbye. I don’t remember the evening, probably not surprising given that I was still in shock over my mother’s death. But I wrote about the night in my journal. When he dropped me off at home, he kissed me and said he loved me.

For the next year, Huck and I had an on and off relationship. And for several years after that, we had an on and off friendship. Mostly off. This was in the days of paper letters mailed to street addresses and calls from landline phones to numbers that were disconnected with every move. I lost track of him countless times. When I was feeling lost in the world, I’d call his mom for his new number and the conversations with her and then with Huck would ground me. Huck went to grad school. I went to Europe. He got a PhD. I got a law degree. After email made communication easier, we’d meet up most Christmases while home visiting family and we’d go to the Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, catching each other up on our lives. Christmas of 1994 was our last Festival visit.

By 1996 we were both married, and by 1998 we stopped communicating completely. We lost touch and didn’t try to find each other. My husband entered into active military service after 9/11, and we began a relentless progression that followed his rising Army career. I longed to return home to the place I grew up and root my girls in the soil of their ancestors among grandparents and great-grandparents. The Army and my husband had other priorities.

When Huck occasionally crossed my mind during these years, the memories stung with a tinge of regret at how our relationship had ended. I hoped he had found happiness and was doing well, until a routine phone call with my step-mother. After the usual pleasantries, she remembered some news she had meant to pass along.

“Do you remember those twins you knew in high school? One of them passed away.” My heart stopped. “Not the one you dated. His brother.” My heart broke. I knew from terrible experience what my old friend and his family must be experiencing. I felt like I should reach out. But I didn’t know where, and I suspected my contact would be unwelcome anyway.

A few years and two more military moves later, I startled awake after one of those vivid dreams that seem more like visions. Huck. I sensed he was in trouble. I could feel it. I had a powerful urge to reach out to him. But I didn’t know where, and I had no reason to think he would want me to anyway.

More time passed. For me, my marriage felt like nothing more than its paper incarnation and corresponding obligations. I contemplated staying behind when my husband got new orders to another state. Maybe moving home with the girls to be near my dad. But as we were making the decision whether my husband would move on to his next duty station alone, the phone rang again. My father had died, leaving my severely Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother completely alone in a desolate nursing home. He had been her only constant, and now he was gone. I was guilt-ridden. I had not been there to help. In my absence from home, most everyone I had loved had died. Now, there seemed little point to moving back home. My long-time desire to raise my children alongside my extended family could now never be fulfilled. Against this backdrop, aching daughter and loving mother, I chose not to separate my girls from their dad. We moved to the new duty station together. My life was a drudgery of role playing the patriotic military wife and dutiful mother. I was dying inside, ever so slowly, one day at a time. And I was resigned to it.

Sitting among strangers in the parent viewing area at gymnastics in yet another new town, I got a LinkedIn notification of a new connection request on my smart phone. It was from Huck. Shock does not begin to describe the feeling. Surely he could not have intentionally sent the invitation. The inner workings of LinkedIn are baffling. Big Brother seems to have an eerie way of suggesting connections you actually do sort of know, but how in the world does LinkedIn know that? Anyway, I thought Huck’s mouse must have inadvertently clicked on my name, suggested by LinkedIn, and now that the invitation was sent, there was nothing he could do about it. After a few days, I clicked, “Accept.”

That’s it. No message of long lost greeting. No catch up. None of the “Where are you now?” and “How have you been?” chit chat that characterizes social media reunions. Just another year of silence, but now Huck and I were 1st level LinkedIn connections, however silent we might have been.

Another military move. Another year of slowly dying inside. Brand new neighbors and my oldest daughter noticed. Another military wife whose husband had served with mine 4 duty stations ago in Arizona and who was now assigned to our same post, noticed that something was wrong. I was not the same person I had been when she last knew me. I was no longer doing a very good job at role playing. It felt like I was just waiting to be 80 so that it would all be over soon. After 7 states and 6 moves in 10 years, I felt homeless, disconnected, and alone, a stranger in my own life.

Part 2 – Grandma

My grandma was an Orphan Train rider, and being a foster child left her with a deep lack of self-worth, something she would recover only late in life. After years of genealogical research revealed her past to her, she would comment with exuberance, “I found out that I am somebody!” But when she was a young woman, she did not yet feel it. When a young doctor she met at nursing school expressed long-term interest in her, she turned him away. I remember her telling me about him, saying that she didn’t think she was good enough to be a doctor’s wife. She returned home and married her high school sweetheart, my grandpa. They had two children, a girl and a boy. They named their son after my grandfather’s father, who had died of the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 when my grandfather was just 15 weeks old. That son, my father, would go on to give the name to one of his twin sons—the name shared by Huck.

My grandmother and I were always close. She used to take me swimming at her pool club, and I remember one day conquering the length of the pool without touching the side or bottom. My grandmother rewarded me with a new pair of shoes. Grit was something she understood well.

After my mother and I became estranged and more so after she died, my grandmother filled that void for me, as best she could. Consequently, as she lay dying of Alzheimer’s in the fall of 2013, my sense of loss was profound. Both my parents were gone, my grandpa had died while we were stationed in Arizona, and now grandma. Moreover, the family cottage my grandparents had hoped would be in the family for generations, and which I had considered the only stable home I had ever known, was being sold by my aunt. I had loved that place truly and saying goodbye to it had filled me with as much grief as my parents’ funerals.

In late September or early October 2013, a nurse called to say we might need to consider ‘comfort care’ for my grandma soon. The doctors were trying a new drug to get her to eat, but they didn’t know if it would work. I needed to get to New York to see her.

A crazy set of circumstances involving a rescheduled military school for my husband that conflicted with a reserved family vacation in Wisconsin, a federal government shut-down, my Arizona military spouse friend backing out of the trip at the last minute, and my husband’s gracious offer to make a trip to see grandma possible, had me plugging addresses into Google maps to find the best route from Wisconsin to Western New York. I would be making the trip alone.

The drive took me across Michigan, where I now knew from LinkedIn that Huck worked. I told my husband that I would like to stop and see him on my way through, and he agreed, not even questioning why I would want to visit an old friend I had not seen in nearly 19 years, nor even communicated with in more than 15. I don’t know that I understood it myself. Perhaps something in me sensed he would ground me again.

On the road to Michigan, I prayed. Well, I guess that’s what you would call it. I am not a religious person, but I believe there are forces of grace at work in the universe. Without getting too hokey, let me simply acknowledge that I have experienced signs from my mom and my dad to let me know they are around still. Had it been possible, I would definitely have sought their counsel directly rather than prayed for guidance. Oh, how very many times over the last quarter century I have wished I could just talk to my mom. But, you work with what you have, and I didn’t have any older, wiser relatives to ask in person. I have heard that we all have spirit guides, and I believe in some higher power that many people call God. And so, it was to any and all of these spiritual folks that I directed my heartfelt plea.

“Please, help me. I am lost, and I do not know what to do. Please, help me.” I had never prayed before for anything specific. Not once. Honestly, I had not prayed much at all about anything. But on occasion, like after passing a horrific car accident, I would ask vaguely in my head for comfort to those impacted. Or, I’d ask for peace for a friend who had lost a parent. My prayers were limited to that sort of general grace, directed at a nonspecific power.

This time, however, the consequences were too great for vague prayer. I was contemplating what to do about my marriage. I recognized that I was not doing well, and I began to wonder whether staying in the marriage was doing more harm to my girls than leaving would do. Since my own parents’ divorce and the devastating distance that caused from my family of origin, it had been a sacred personal rule of mine to never ever divorce the father of my children unless my life was in danger. I would often say that my husband had to be beating me before I would even consider divorce. And my husband wasn’t beating me. On the contrary, he was a very good man, whom I respected and admired. More importantly, he was a fantastic father.

So, for me to consider leaving, I thought I needed a clear sign. Like my grandmother, but for different reasons, I also had an appalling lack of self-worth, and I did not trust my own judgment. To leave my marriage, I wanted someone else to tell me it was the right thing to do. And so, foolishly, I prayed to hear a specific song during a specific time.

To understand why I prayed for what I did requires explanation. There were many private reasons for the trouble in my marriage, which I will not go into here. One of them, however, was a tension between my past and my present. In marrying my husband, I was rejecting everything I had once been and known. His was a foreign world, and I a tourist. As much as I wanted to be a part of that world, and as much as I wanted to be his wife, from the very first moments of our union, I yearned to return home to my roots. I wanted him to come with me. He didn’t. I wondered whether I had made a mistake. That nagging sense had sucked at our marriage for years. And here I was, about to see a man who symbolized everything I had left behind. If I had married a boy from home, it would have been Huck. Unlike my grandma who rejected the foreign doctor in favor of the hometown boy, I had done the opposite. My choice agonized me. Had it been the right one?

While on that vacation in Wisconsin a few days before this prayer, a song happened upon the local radio station that caught my attention. It was by a Buffalo band, oddly enough, and called Come to Me. The lyrics made me think of Huck. It’s a song about friends who apparently split, reunite to start again, and in the third verse, get married. Because of the specificity of this last verse, I chose it as my requested sign regarding my own marriage. I asked the Divine to show me what to do. If my path should take me out of my marriage, then please play me this song while I was with Huck. Some abstract love song open to interpretation would be insufficient. I wanted to hear the reference to marriage. I could not leave my marriage for anything less specific because too many lives would be affected by my decision. I needed a specific external validation of what I sensed in my soul to be true but which I lacked the courage to acknowledge.

Seeing Huck again was a breath of fresh air. It was as if the shell of my life cracked and I remembered I had once been a girl who conquered a pool and challenged a bully. Reflected in Huck’s blue-gray eyes, I glimpsed myself as he saw me on the school bus all those long years ago, raw and full of grit, with tears streaming down my face, standing up for myself. I did not hear Come to Me.

Driving away from Michigan on my way to see my grandma, I was relieved. Thankfully, I had not heard that song, because leaving my marriage would be nearly unthinkable. I didn’t want to have to think about it. I didn’t want to make my kids and husband unhappy. In retrospect, I see that what I didn’t want was to be responsible for my own life.

But as I drove to New York in a rainstorm on my 17th wedding anniversary, this self-awareness had not yet arrived. I was blissfully ignorant, actively giving thanks to the universe for not playing that song. Thank God. And at the same moment these thoughts sprang forth from my consciousness into the great unknown, a fat round blue balloon fell out of the sky and hit my car while Toby Keith’s Huckleberry played through my car’s speakers. (For those who don’t know, a huckleberry looks like a blueberry.) These three things occurred simultaneously–the relief, the Huckleberry song, and the blue balloon falling from the sky.

Apparently the universe has a sense of irony. Do you know the Toby Keith song? It’s about a boy and a girl who ride the elementary school bus together and date in high school. Sound familiar? Guess what happens in the third verse. Yep. They get married.

The universe doesn’t tell you what to do. It tells you to look within your own heart for the answers you seek.

I arrived at the nursing home a couple hours later to find my grandma seated in the dining hall for lunch. Gone were the days of her trying to eat the colorful packages of sweeteners at the table, paper and all. Those were the mid-stages of the disease when my dad could still take her out to restaurants. Now she never left this sorrowful building. She needed to be spoon fed her mush and encouraged to drink the fortified Ensure. For years her conversation had been limited to a few repetitive phrases. “Should we go downstairs now? I think my family is waiting for me.” And because her hearing was gone, she’d often just look at my mouth moving uncomprehendingly, shrug her shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” I had not heard her utter anything other than a variation of these few phrases in years. But this day, as I sat down beside her, smiled, and gave her a hug, she looked directly at me and uttered this surprising new statement without preamble, “He likes you. I don’t know if you like him, but he likes you.” Her head nodded wisely as I looked at her with surprise. Was she referring to Huck? No, how could she be? And then I proceeded to spoon feed her the mush on her tray, my heart overflowing with love and gratitude and sorrow for this beautiful woman, full of grit, who had once been my grandma.

Leaving the home a while later, a flock of starlings took flight from the side of the road, but rather than swoop away from me, they enveloped my car, causing me to hit the brakes for fear of smashing them. My dad. The last person my grandma recognized, even when she didn’t remember that he was her son. The man who would force a smile for his mother and then sit in his truck afterwards with tears soaking his beard. Sending me birds to let me know he had been with grandma and me in the dining hall. Just like he sent the robins when I decided to embrace the writing life.

Part 3 – The Family Curse

A few weeks later, I was back at the nursing home with the women of the family. My aunt, her daughter, and I had gathered by my grandma’s bedside so that she would not die alone. But for endless agonizing days, she simply would not die at all, this woman whose physical strength clung fiercely to the world. This is how we women had some time to catch up. While my aunt took smoking breaks outside, I slowly told my cousin about what was going on in my marriage. And of course we all reminisced about grandma and grandpa quite a lot. They had been happily married for over 60 years. Two peas in a pod. Betting each other quarters on the outcome of the Sunday football games. They are the ones who had built the cottage. I suppose like most grandparents, they were the bedrock of our family. It seems that grandma’s choice of her high school sweetheart had been a good one.

My aunt had not been privy to the smoking break conversations with my cousin, so it seemed oddly coincidental when she mentioned that my grandma had always wondered whether the women in our family were cursed to choose between two loves. There had been that doctor for her in nursing school, and my aunt had faced a similar choice. Like her mother, my aunt rejected her serious university boyfriend to marry her childhood sweetheart. The summer at the cottage when the college boy was sent home brokenhearted is a family legend.

I had heard these stories before, of course, but I had not heard that my grandma wondered whether my cousin or I would be plagued with this same choice. Pondering things like curses did not sound at all like something my grandma would do, but given my predicament at that very moment, upon hearing about it in the lobby of the nursing home, I swallowed hard. My cousin shot me an incredulous glance. At the next smoking break, she encouraged me to talk to my aunt. She had been suggesting I do this all along, but it had seemed callous to burden my aunt with my troubles as she watched her mother die. Now, it seemed like I should talk to her.

Grandma, meantime, was clinging valiantly. The nurses encouraged us to go out to lunch. Some people prefer to die alone. An aid agreed to sit with her, and we left. Over lunch, my aunt listened attentively as I told her about my life and my marriage. When I was done, she asked a few pointed questions and then proclaimed unequivocally, “You cannot stay.”

When we arrived back in my grandma’s room, the end was near. Tears spilled from closed eyes over smiling cheeks onto our clasped hands. I felt a wave of such profound love surrounding us all that it was hard to breathe. It lasted a few moments, and then grandma took her last breath. She was gone. Afterwards, my cousin commented that it was as if she hung on until after I had sought my aunt’s counsel. My aunt and I are not very close, as she lives in Canada, and so this was likely to be the only time I would ever speak to her about such personal matters. She was the only older woman in my life whose advice I could seek, and I needed it. After all, I had been reduced to praying for songs. My aunt’s concrete opinion was a godsend.

Part 4 – Joy be to you all

Sitting in a counselor’s chair some months later, I reluctantly spoke about most of the serendipitous events discussed here on this blog, including how I stood at the front of a church when I was 19 years, 8 months, and 10 days old and uttered sacred words my mother was meant to say, words that made me godmother to her namesake when I was exactly the age–to the day–that she was when she became mother to me. I was reluctant to do this. For one thing, even I am suspicious of these moments, despite the fact that I have experienced them. For another, I thought this professionally trained woman would think me a fool. Rational people do not accept such stories. I explained my reservations and then proceeded for the next hour to talk about the inexplicable coincidences in my life. In the middle of my session, she interrupted me, explaining with worry that her clock had stopped and if she didn’t get another one, she knew she would be distracted by thoughts of the time and her next client. Afterwards, as I was putting on my jacket, she explained that today was the anniversary of her former husband’s death and that the clock had stopped at the exact time he passed–to the minute. She smiled and said, “These things happen. And I am a rational, intelligent, professional person. They happen.”

Ultimately, after much professional counseling, talking with friends, and soul searching, my marriage did end. Not because a huckleberry fell from the sky. Not because of an adolescent love. Not because of my aunt’s advice. It didn’t even end for all of the reasons my marriage was unhappy. Plenty of unhappy marriages last until death after all. My marriage ended because I finally found the courage to hack my own path through life’s brambles. I am still on that path, and not much is clear. Precious little actually. The road ahead is fraught with uncertainty and not a little amount of loneliness. But that’s okay. I know uncertainty and loneliness already. They have been my longtime companions. Now, they are tempered by hope, and that makes all the difference.

How did I arrive at this decision? I decided that waiting to be 80 wasn’t doing my kids any good. By staying in an unhappy marriage so that I could always be physically present for them, I was actually depriving them of a good mom—because I wasn’t really there for them. They deserved better than the shell I had become. I decided that waiting to be 80 was dangerous, because the depression and despair would take its toll. When my father prematurely died of a heart attack at 64, brought on I suspect by depression and stress, I shivered to see my own fate. His death, my conversation with Huck, the huckleberry, my grandma, all of it kicked me in the gut. It changed my perspective. Consider this question. Which of us would not die for our children? We all would, without question and without hesitation. But you know what? Dying is the easy way out. And dying is exquisitely hard on those you leave behind. I know.

So, the question should not be whether you would die for your children. The question should be, will you live for them? Will you take responsibility for your own life and show them what the pursuit of joy looks like? Will you teach them by your example how to strive for it and how to pick yourself up off the ground when you fail–because you surely will fail–and strive again?

I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t know if God or astrophysics is the reason. Here is what I do know. I am here. Right now. And for however long I get to experience this human presence, it would be a shame to squander it. I can honor my parents and grandparents by living the life they wished for me. Although I can’t know exactly what they hoped, I have a pretty good idea that it was the same hope we all have for our children—for them to choose paths that lead them to joy and love. It’s what I am trying to do now with the hope that my own children will learn from my example.

Why end today? Well, this blog is about serendipity, is it not? I already mentioned that today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 64—the same age as my dad when he died. And today is more. Today is the day Huck lost his twin brother, the twins who share a birthday with my own twin brothers, born to the mom whose birthday is today.

Make of all these circular connections what you will, dear readers. They are indeed my Huckleberry Moments. Go listen for yours.

In keeping with the Scotch-Irish heritage that my grandma’s genealogical research uncovered and my love of history, I leave you with a 17th century Celtic verse. May joy be to you all.

The Parting Glass

Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

 So fill to me the parting glass
And drink to health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all

 And all the comrades that e’er I’ve had
Are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had
Would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all

 So fill to me the parting glass
And drink to health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all

On the Synchronicity of Motherhood, Wagers Lost, and Unlikely Blessings

Today I turn 44, and the double number intrigues me, like when you happen to look at the clock at exactly 11:11, ring up a purchase that totals exactly $7.77, or pay special attention to dates like 12/12/12. My life has been riddled with number synchronicities I cannot explain. I wonder sometimes what, if anything, they mean. Random chance? Probably.

Maybe.

Today, for example. I wonder, did my mom know that August 12th would be both the very first and, exactly 18 years later, the very last time she would speak to her firstborn child? She couldn’t have known intellectually that she would never reach her 38th birthday. But did she sense anything on that day, 44 years ago today? At just 19 years, 8 months, and 10 days old on the day she became my mom, did her soul know that her life was already more than half over?

We surely didn’t know, my mom and me, the grave significance my 18th birthday would have when I was 11 and she jokingly teased that I would probably try smoking cigarettes when I was a teenager. They disgusted me, and I assured her through the smoky haze at the kitchen table that I would not. Absolutely not. We made a bet, and I committed our wager to writing:

Smoking Contract

As the years passed and tensions between my dad, step-mother, and mother escalated, I became estranged from my mom. My teen years were…what? Coming of age is hard for everyone. Coming of age in a dysfunctional divorced family is harder. I justified our estrangement by wagering with myself that when I turned 18 and became an adult, when I got out from under my step-mother’s thumb, when the consequences wouldn’t reverberate with such devastation for me and my brothers, then we would reconnect.

And so when my mom called on that August 12th to wish me a happy 18th birthday, I still hadn’t smoked, and we made plans to meet before I left for college in two weeks. The time had finally come to reacquaint ourselves and begin to heal our relationship. As I hung up the phone that day, I had no idea, no sense at all, that the next time I spoke to her would be alone at her graveside. The conversation was bewilderingly one-sided, answered only by the wind and a single raindrop falling from the grey sky onto my upturned face. A tear from heaven perhaps, falling to join my own.

My mom had twin sisters. They were 10 years younger than her and 10 years older than me. One of them came to live with us for a while when I was little, and we shared a bedroom. Consequently, my aunt became something more like the sister I didn’t have. She grew up to have a daughter of her own and asked her twin to be godmother. She intended my mom to be godmother of her next child, if she had one.

But by the time my aunt had her second daughter, I had already visited my mom in the cemetery. My aunt named her baby girl after the woman who had been both sister and mother to her. And then she asked me to stand in my mother’s stead. So, on a balmy spring day of my college sophomore year, I took my mother’s place at the front of a church and uttered words she was meant to say. I became the godmother to my mother’s namesake. On the exact day, I realized later, that I was 19 years, 8 months, and 10 days old.

Serendipity. Chance. Sadistic fate. Cruel irony. Beautiful gift. Huckleberry moment.

Me and mom 8th birthday

Me and my mom on the August 12th I turned 8

Whatever you call it, today is both the anniversary of my birth and the anniversary of my mother’s last day on earth. I treasure life’s synchronicities because they remind me that there are forces of grace at work beyond my comprehension. They bind me and my mom, my aunt and my goddaughter. They fill me with love and wonder, and because of that, I am able to look upon today as the unlikely blessing it is.

The Gate

A debate has been raging within me these last months, and I’ve spent a lot of time in shadow. The debate is between head and heart. Reason and emotion. Thought and feeling. Memory and aspiration. It’s gotten so intense lately that I’ve been quiet, turning into myself to try to find balance. The words I’ve written during this time are not appropriate for a public blog, at least not my public blog. They go instead into my personal journal. Hence, the month-long lull here.

Moss covered gate

But I came across this scene today on a morning walk, and it revealed a metaphor that I am inspired to share. Perhaps you can relate, and if so, I’m sorry. I hope this post will inspire you to walk forward too.

* * *

Taking the photo, I am standing in shadow. Barring my path is a moss covered gate, its beams rotting with decay and its posts in danger of being strangled by parasitic vines. Beyond is a thicket of brambles, promising painful scratches and welts for anyone who proceeds. The fetid gate warns, “Be reasonable; turn back and continue as you were.”

But through the thicket you can see the golden glow of the rising sun, the morning sun that imbues every day with the promise of a new beginning. If you were to walk into that light, you would leave the shadows behind. But to get there, you’d have to hack a path through the brambles, likely bleeding along the way. It would not be pleasant. But would it be worth it?

* * *

I made an offhand comment recently that “I’m nothing if not rational.” Even I noticed the sardonic tone in my voice. The person to whom I was speaking responded, “Well, that’s quite a statement. Think about that for a second.” I did.

Here’s the thing. I am rational. Supremely so. Frustratingly maddeningly obstinately so. Just ask my husband. When we argue, I will often exclaim with exasperation, “But that’s not logical!” He gets it. We met in law school. He’s supremely, frustratingly, maddeningly, obstinately rational as well. Disagreements in our house sometimes follow Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s no way to have a satisfying fight, let me tell you.

But despite my best efforts over the last two decades to pretend otherwise, I have emotions too. Annoying things that they are. So my recent internal debate has been about whether and how to get my rational mind to stop blocking the escape path that my emotions need to take if I am to heal and find balance. When I first tried to explore that thicket, my rational mind said, “No, let’s not do that. Be reasonable; turn back and continue as you were.” But my heart, or something, would not relent. Not this time.

* * *

I’ve been walking a lot lately, both literally and figuratively. It feels good. After this morning’s walk, I asked myself what would happen if I stopped. Immediately a vision of parasitic vines ensnaring a woman’s feet came to mind. As the vines snaked their way up her legs, I could feel my own legs tingle. The woman became completely entombed inside those vines, which then grew spongy wet moss, and the whole mess rotted there, like the gate posts, with me trapped inside. By comparison, the thicket beyond the gate seemed welcoming.

I slipped on the moss and scraped my shin climbing over rational thought. But I’m hacking a path toward the sunlight.

Raise your social media voice: Rescue the Nigerian girls abducted from school

An unidentified mother cries out during a demonstration with others who have daughters among the kidnapped school girls of government secondary school Chibok, Tuesday April 29, 2014, in Abuja, Nigeria.  Two weeks after Islamic extremists stormed a remote boarding school in northeast Nigeria, more than 200 girls and young women remain missing despite a “hot pursuit” by security forces and desperate parents heading into a dangerous forest in search of their daughters. Some dozens have managed to escape their captors, jumping from the back of an open truck or escaping into the bush from a forest hideout, although the exact number of escapees is unclear. (AP Photo/ Gbemiga Olamikan)

An unidentified mother cries out during a demonstration with others who have daughters among the kidnapped school girls of government secondary school Chibok, Tuesday April 29, 2014, in Abuja, Nigeria. (AP Photo/ Gbemiga Olamikan)

I have three daughters. And they’re smart. They crave knowledge like I crave sugar. Your daughters are probably the same way. What if their desire to learn prompted grown men with guns to raid their school today and force them and over 200 of their classmates into the forest, perhaps to sell them off to be raped under the guise of marriage? Sitting safely in my suburban home as a landscaper’s mower hums in the background, I cannot fathom. What would I do? What wouldn’t I do? Who would help me get them back?

This is the question being asked by families of the over 200 teenagers abducted from their school in Nigeria. The students were taken more than two weeks ago. Since then, there has been an appalling lack of concerted action to rescue them. It is believed that the abductions were carried out by an Islamic extremist group called Boko Haram, whose name translates as “Western education is forbidden.”

bring back our girlsWhat can you and I do? For starters, speak up:

  • Sign this petition at Change.org right now and then share it on your social media networks, asking your friends to do the same.
  • Tweet about this travesty using the hashtags #BringBackOurDaughters#BringBackOurGirls, and #HelpTheGirls.
  • Share this post, or this one by Lisa Winter at iflscience.com. According to her twitter account, Lisa is a fellow military spouse. MilSpouses, we know a thing or two about how to galvanize grassroots support! (#KeepYourPromise anyone?)
  • Contact your elected officials, here, to put pressure on the international community to DO SOMETHING about this.

We cannot remain silent simply because we feel powerless to help, half a world away. As I type this, someone’s daughter is in harm’s way, right now. The image of a strong grimy hand gripping a tender forearm as a girl’s heart races with fear, makes me shudder. I might not be able to search the forest like the girls’ ill-armed families, but government leaders do have the power to take action. We must raise our voices and make them listen. Now.

If it were your daughter held captive in the forest at gunpoint, wouldn’t you beg someone to do the same for you?

Anam Ċara

Girlfriends
Huckleberry Friends
On Bees and Efs-The Daily Post

Have you ever heard of a huckleberry friend? Unlike the title of this blog, which was inspired by a moment of serendipity involving a huckleberry, I didn’t invent the phrase ‘huckleberry friend.’ It’s commonly used to refer to a dear friend who has been in your life since youth. You know the ones. They’re the friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation in just a few words because you know each other’s histories so well that no backstory explanations are necessary. Among my huckleberry friends, I am blessed to have two who are an Anam Ċara, Gaelic for soul friend.

According to ancient Celtic tradition, your Anam Ċara is a friend with whom you share a spiritual connection. It is the person who shares your deepest intimacies. The bond of an Anam Ċara transcends time and distance.

 

How I met my Anam Ċara involves a little bit of serendipity, of course. Like many inexplicable coincidences in my life, the story includes my mom.

Sometime in August 1988, an envelope arrived from Ithaca College. Inside was my freshman year Dorm Assignment Card. Typed onto cream-colored cardstock with perforated edges were two names and two addresses. I hoped the girls would be nice. The first address read Elmira, New York and the second was a town I had never heard of in New Jersey. I had never been to New Jersey. I had never been much of anywhere. We were assigned to Terrace 11, the card said. Room 307B. Aside from my own name and address, that was all the information available.

A few days later the telephone rang as I was walking out the door. I can still remember that it was a sky blue phone that matched the shag blue and brown carpeting in our family room, and it hung in the adjacent hallway. The cord was one of those extra long ones that allowed you to walk around as you talked. Over time its spirals had twisted and knotted, causing it to hang awkwardly. On this particular day, the phone ringing seemed an incredulity. I remember that the phone was blue, not from the thousands of times I must have walked by it, but because in my mind’s eye, I am staring, frozen, at the blue phone with its deformed cord as the words of a conversation echo through memory.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi!” came a perky young voice. “Is Christine there?” Christine?  No one called me that except for my parents when I was in trouble. Turns out, the voice belonged to the girl from New Jersey, calling to introduce herself as my new roommate and to work out the details of what we’d each be bringing with us to college. Oh, wow! But how did she get my phone number? Oh God, I can’t talk now.

“Hi!” I enthused, babbling something silly in a falsetto voice the way teenage girls do. I then excused myself from the conversation with all the social grace of Emily Post. “I’m sorry I can’t really talk right now. I’m on my way to my mother’s funeral.”

Silence.

“I’m so sorry,” came the much subdued reply.

Realizing somewhat belatedly that my explanation might have caused discomfort to the stranger girl who was to share a room with me for the next year, I quickly recovered my manners. To make the situation seem less awful, I offered, “It’s okay. I live with my dad and haven’t lived with her for a few years. We aren’t…weren’t…that close anymore.” Yep, that put her right at ease.

In my naïveté and shock, I had not known how to handle the situation. This improbable, impossible situation. How could telephones still ring when 37-year-old mothers died without warning two weeks before college?

To her credit, when we met ten days later on move-in day, my new roommate treated me like a normal human being, rather than the psychopath she must have feared I was. But then she has always been able to see through my social awkwardness and to sense the real me hiding inside. Thank goodness.

That first night we sat on the floor of our dorm hallway and introduced ourselves to our floormates. As my new roommate mentioned her New Jersey hometown, another girl popped her head out of line from the far end of the hallway. She had electric blue eye make-up and a scrunchie struggling to tame wild hair, with a spirit to match. We could not have been more outwardly different, or more inwardly alike. “You’re from Westwood? I’m from Oradell. Do you know so-and-so?” My roommate did.

From that night on, for the next four years, we three were inseparable. People blended our individual names together into one long name because to speak of one was to speak of us all, so rarely did you find one without the other two close by. We would sit and talk for endless hours. We came to know everything about each other, sharing secrets, fears, hopes, dreams, first loves, first times. We fought, we cried, we laughed. Oh did we laugh. We spent a semester in London where the two of them told me gently while on a trip to Denmark that they did not think I was capable of loving. Twenty-five years later, I wonder whether they were right. We watched each other’s backs in Amsterdam and in college bars full of fraternity boys. Joining them at the Jersey shore the summer after freshman year, I saw the ocean for the first time.

The years since college have been both hard and joyous, as life years often are, and we have shared it all. We have supported each other through disease, death, divorce, and deployment. We have celebrated births and blended families. We have struggled with balancing careers and motherhood. And always, we have laughed together. We have shown each other the contents of our hearts and minds and in so doing have glimpsed our very Selves. There have been many moments of inexplicable connection, when one has dreamed of another only to wake up the next day and have the subject of her dream call her out of the blue. When my huckleberry fell out of the sky and I was afraid, it was my Anam Ċara who listened without judgment. It was my Anam Ċara who held back respectful skepticism as I convinced myself I was happy and who said, “How can I help?” rather than “I told you so” when I confessed that I had not been happy at all. They knew all along, even when I did not.

Today, we spent more than three hours together on our smart phones, free from kinked spiral cords, catching up from three different states. It was not nearly long enough. Even after 25 years, it was just like those days in Terrace 11 when we’d sit and talk for hours that passed in seconds. Nowadays, our years seem to pass in seconds as well.

Ladies (you know who you are), I am so very grateful to have you in my life. It is your advice and counsel I seek now, in the absence of motherly guidance. In some ways, I have been hopelessly stuck as that 18-year-old girl talking on a sky blue phone tethered to the wall of my childhood home. Yet through it all, you have been patient, seeing in me strength I did not feel, challenging me to be true to myself, and helping me become the woman I am today. You are so much more than my very best huckleberry friends. You are my soul friends, my Anam Ċara.

Why I Write

After a decent start with blog posts at least once a week, I have been reluctant lately to post again, and so I’m sitting down at the keyboard to figure out why, prompted in part by a WordPress Weekly Challenge asking bloggers to write about why we write. I think I have the shape of my reluctance, but it’s this vague amorphous sense that I can’t quite articulate. Whenever that happens, I start writing to see what comes out. Here goes….

This little writing hiatus is not for lack of encouragement. Quite the contrary, actually. There’s been lots of encouragement, which I guess has been an eye opener. Hold up. People are actually reading my thoughts. Lawyers from my professional life. Fellow military spouses. People I don’t even know. But what did I expect, publishing a blog? It’s what a blogger wants, right? Riiiiight. Yeah, I didn’t really think about what that would actually feel like, probably because I didn’t really think anyone would actually read what I wrote.

And the hiatus is not for lack of material; there’s plenty of stuff scratching to get out. I suppose my hesitancy is due to lack of courage to open the door. What am I afraid of? Hubris perhaps. Scorn. Ridicule. Contempt even. I am afraid of being made to seem a simpleton, a dreamer, a narcissist. Who am I to speak when others remain silent? Are my experiences so unique? Of course not. Maybe that’s the point.

Why write publicly in the first place? To connect. To speak the thoughts others keep silent and in so doing, confirm to the reader that she is not alone, an anomaly. Someone else out there in this wide world thinks that way too. I write in a futile attempt to describe indescribable feelings using the meager symbols we call letters. And why share these thoughts and feelings? Why connect? To remember that we humans are all on the same journey, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or economic status. We all love, fear, hunger, seek, find. We are all born from a woman’s womb and we all die. In between, we all get to experience this fantastically complicated human life. Whatever our differences, we’re all here on this earth together, now.

I am afraid that some of what I write will cause a potential employer to not hire me. Law firms are not traditionally bastions of progressive thinking. Huckleberries falling from the sky and dead relatives sending messages? Really? We’re not hiring this chick. She’s a wackadoodle. I get that. It’s a risk I take. I attended a panel recently discussing the interplay between writers’ day jobs and their writing lives. I asked how a writer could keep her writing separate, if it could potentially harm her day job. “Use a pen name,” I was told. In this era of social media when Google wants to link all of my split personalities together, I cannot figure out how to keep it all separate. I’m not that tech savvy. How LinkedIn knows to recommend that I connect with my daughter’s classmate’s mother’s husband, whom I’ve never met, is beyond me. Keeping my pen name separate from my real name seems a lost cause. This point was driven home after my Serendipity in Seattle post was picked up on Facebook by a professional colleague and reposted within a national military spouse attorney group I’m involved with. Some members of this group hold senior level positions of influence in my professional world. And now they know, should they care to look, some of my thoughts on military life and serendipity. Fantastic. But I put it out there in the first place. Why?

Maybe because I cannot not. Maybe because I am a writer at heart and that’s what writers do. We bare our souls, consequences be damned. We put it all out there for readers to judge, with the hope that the symbols we string together will connect us as we journey together through this fantastically complicated human life.

I write to hear my soul.

Home

Lake Ontario Sunset

Northern Edge of Nowhere: the Lake Ontario canvas upon which I painted the dreams of my youth

Home. Profound dichotomy of emotion wrapped up in a single syllable. The place you felt the most trapped and the most free. The place you disdained in your youth and sentimentalize in your age. It’s the only place you can be made to feel like an errant child while in the midst of a menopausal hot flash.

It’s the place you will always be from, no matter where you go.

But what if you’re a military kid? When we’re on vacation somewhere and a friendly stranger asks innocently enough, “Where are you from?” my kids look to their father and me in a panic, embarrassed and confused. What do they say? They’ve never lived in any one place for more than three years. Is home where they were born? Where they lived the longest? Where their parents are from? We usually just say, “Uhhh… We live in               now.” And then with a shrug by way of apologetic explanation for our dodgy answer, “We’re military.”

“Oooohhhhh,” comes the understanding response, usually with a slow nod and a bittersweet glance at the children, born in three different states, who have no place to be from, poor dears. “Well, thank you for your service.”

What does one say to that? You’re welcome? In an effort to get the uncomfortable conversation back onto more familiar ground, I usually jump right in and offer helpfully that my husband and I are from New York. We’re not aberrant, really. We did have homes once. We don’t choose to move around so much—the Army orders us to.

I saw on Facebook yesterday that my rural hometown is in danger of losing its tiny community hospital. Apparently, there are too few patients in the area to make it profitable. Nestled along the shore of Lake Ontario, the economy has fallen out from under this town on the northern edge of nowhere. It would be nice to think the old folks back home are just so darn healthy they don’t need a hospital, but the reality is that the old folks back home are simply dying off with too few replacements.

Guilty. In some form of twisted retribution for abandoning the place, for the last decade, I have fantasized about moving back home and adding my little family’s leaves to the roots planted there by my great-great grandparents. My father, who would have liked nothing better, forbade me to come back. “There’s nothing here for you,” he’d said, referencing high taxes and few career opportunities for young professionals in the former Rust Belt. According to him, I had made the right decision to leave, his broken heart notwithstanding.

Over those same ten years spent fantasizing about rooting my family in one spot, while I packed and unpacked seven times, my husband enjoyed a fulfilling military career. He absolutely loves serving this country, and I am fiercely proud of him. But I’m tired of this endless series of beginning and ending and beginning againI’m exhausted and desperately crave a home to be from again.

Is that unpatriotic of me to admit? Perhaps it is. In the unlikely event his senior rater is reading this, I should clarify that my husband has no intention of retiring. He is a fantastic officer, passionate and dedicated. His sense of service is truly humbling, and even so, it is not unique among his peers. Nor, I suspect, is my dichotomy of emotion unique among mine.

Please forgive me, because I know you need my husband to do what he does. And for him to do what he does with his family by his side, he needs me to pack and unpack for more years to come. My children need it too. More than they need a stable address, they need their dad.

And so. We move. We say goodbye and we start over. We cannot tell our children where or when the next crossroad will be, only that there will be one. When they are asked by innocent strangers where they are from, we cannot answer for them. All we can do is make them a home wherever we find ourselves and hope they find their own answers.