To Spring or Not to Spring

Flowering trees in the neighborhood next to the restaurant

Flowering trees in the neighborhood next to the restaurant

Returning to my home town for the first time in quite a few months, I was disappointed to discover it was still winter there when I arrived.  The temperatures dropped to the upper 30’s and the rain seemed never-ending.  I was regretting having left spring behind in Chattanooga.

Fortunately, the expression “if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes,” is as applicable in Columbus as it is anywhere else I’ve heard it uttered.  While it took more than 10 minutes to make a significant shift, the sun appeared, the rain dried, and the temperature started to rise.

I went from wishing I’d brought a winter coat to worrying about not having a raincoat or umbrella to wondering if I even needed a light sweater in just a few days.   I suppose it’s typical for spring–it comes in fits and starts.  One day it feels like August, the next we’re back to January and gradually the ratio changes and the high and low temperatures keep staying higher until most of the days feel like August.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember it’s a process.

Our friend on the patio while we wait for food

Our friend on the patio while we wait for food

By the time we met friends for dinner on Monday night, the weather was cooperative.  This was especially good because the restaurant we ate at had about 5 tables inside and 10 out.  Had it been bad weather, we would have been waiting for a table for a long time.  As it was, we were able to sit outside without a wait because the sky was gray enough to elicit looks of suspicion from patrons hovering around the bar with their food.  The weather may have been cooperative, but just barely.  By the time we finished eating, we were wrapping our jackets around us tight trying to stay warm.

Our other friend cooling off after walking to meet us and his wife

Our other friend cooling off after walking to meet us and his wife

One of the great things about eating in a new restaurant in our old neighborhood was that we actually ran into other friends while we were sitting there.  Friends we hadn’t seen in a really long, long time.  It made me think maybe we should try the approach one of my friends who moved to Seattle uses when she comes into town for a visit.  She schedules dinner at a place where people can easily come and go without throwing the staff for a loop.  Then, she invites all her friends to meet her there.  She gets to see many friends in a 2-3 hour window this way.  It does sound much easier to coordinate than trying to schedule 3 meals a day with different people.  However, I’m not sure I would get to actually talk with everyone that way.

In any case, it was cool to get to catch up with 4 friends at one meal.  Unfortunately, our surprise friends arrived after it was too dark to take photos with my iPhone.  I did manage to catch some blooming trees and the friends we’d scheduled our dinner with via Hipstamatic.  I should probably start experimenting with something other than tintype soon.

Tisen refusing to hold still after we returned to our host's house

Tisen refusing to hold still after we returned to our host’s house

A Little Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day.  And today, I am full of thanks.  I remember reading once that it’s easy to be grateful when things are going well, but the trick is to be grateful when they’re not.  Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, this is an easy year to be grateful.  I count my blessings as we make our way from Chattanooga to the Smokies, where we will spend the long weekend.

We arrive at the lodge right around 1PM.  The Thanksgiving buffet has just started.  We get checked in, drop a few things off in our room, and then head to the dining room.  We walk down the buffet table checking out each dish, trying to decide what to leave room for and what to skip.  The inn keeper tells us there’s a menu printed on the table that lists all the dishes.  I laugh and tell him that would be great if I’d brought my reading glasses.  He laughs and we continue to peek at the food.  In the end, the preview was a wasted effort on my part.  The only dish I skip is the salad.  I take at least a small spoonful of everything else.  I will try it all and be grateful for the chance to try something new.

At least, that was my intention.  My swelling gratitude trips a little when I take a mouthful of whipped sweet potatoes and discover pieces of celery hiding in the mix.  A personal favorite complicated by an unexpected flavor.  I have to pause and figure out what I’m eating.  When I realize there is celery in my potatoes, I am both shocked and relieved. After all, celery is edible and I like it, but it is a surprising ingredient in sweet potatoes.  I return to gratitude and enjoy selecting the next bite of food.

In the background, a large family eating their Thanksgiving dinner together joins hands and one of the men at the table says a long and loud prayer.  I suddenly feel like an eavesdropper overhearing a private conversation.  It somehow feels wrong to me to hear this family sharing their form of gratitude.

My own sense of gratitude is a bit strained.  I refocus on the food, which is wonderful if different.  I think about the fact that I didn’t have to cook, we didn’t have to drive very far, we have a comfortable place to stay, and, best of all, we’re in the middle of the Smokies with a spectacular view.  If we had family or friends with us now, that would be the only thing that would make it more perfect.  But part of me feels like we’re missing the most important thing.  Then, I decide that instead of missing them, I will think of each of them.  I hold each family member and each friend in my mind for a moment, feeling gratitude for their presence in my life.  It’s a centering experience, reminding me of what’s important to me and how much I have to be grateful for.

When we finish eating, we go outside to take in the view.  We take a slow stroll in our city clothes along a short path to the Sunrise Viewpoint.  We pause to sit in a porch swing hung along the way.  We sit and talk over a leaf blower, a workman approaches, clearing all the leaves off the path.  He turns off the blower when he sees us, but we tell him to go ahead and finish his work.  He removes the leaves from the entire length of this short trail.  Given that this is a dirt path through the woods, I’m a little surprised that they blow the leaves off of it.  I am wearing my favorite new boots and would prefer that they didn’t since the leaves would prevent my boots from getting muddy.  When we continue our walk, I step carefully, trying not to let my boots sink into the dirt.  I am reminded of someone recently commenting that they had a hard time imagining me roughing it.  This comment surprised me at the time, but as I imagine what I look like in my urban clothes gingerly stepping around the mud, I think to myself, “Oh what a difference a change of clothes can make!”

At the sunset point, there is a deck with adirondak chairs to sit and watch the sun come up.  There’s a lovely view of the lake and mountains below.  Even better, there’s a bell hanging from a post with a mallet to strike it with.  When I give the bell a tap, it rings out with a sound that makes you think, “Ahhh.”  If peace were a sound, this is what it would sound like.  It rings on and on in a growing sort of sigh.  I am amazed at how long it continues from one gentle tap.

We sit for a bit, but then head the opposite direction towards the sunset point.  The view is less open from the sunset point and I want to get back to the lodge so I can capture some of the end of sunset, so we hurry back, me still trying to keep my boots from getting muddy.  After shooting, we find a spot to sit and relax where there is still some sunlight that keeps us warm.  As we sit and absorb the last rays of light, a group gathers  on a deck above and starts singing hymns.  Unfortunately, while some individuals seem to have good voices, as a group, they are painful to listen to.  We decide to head inside.  We enter the warm lobby and, after dropping off my camera, head to the bar.  With a glass of wine, we sit in front of the fire and relax until it’s time for dinner.

As we sit and unwind, I think again of friends and family and how much fun it would be to have them all here now.  Well, maybe not all at once.  I have the overwhelming urge to tell them all I love them.  I end up posting on Facebook instead.  I’m sure there’s an expression for posting on Facebook when you are overly emotional and possibly a little tipsy.

After sandwiches and dessert, we retire to our room and decide we might as well go to bed.  It’s been an amazingly relaxing day.  In fact, I can’t recall having ever had such a low stress day.  Another thing to be grateful for.

But I lay in bed awake, feeling a little guilty for having this day.  I decide to call my parents, but discover I have no phone signal.  Since the lodge does have WiFi, I send them an email instead.  It’s still early enough where they are that they are probably just now eating Thanksgiving dinner anyway.  Pat sends his mom an email while I write to my dad.  I feel a little better now that we’ve at least made some contact.  Then I check my Facebook page and feel like I’ve stayed in touch with my friends all day.  i decide Facebook is another thing to be grateful for.  Then, I set aside my mobile devices, roll over, and do my best to fall asleep, feeling grateful for a warm bed.

Visiting

Saturday, our last day in Columbus.  We have a full agenda today.  First, a visit with the world’s best doctor for me.  Then we are taking lunch to some friends who just had a new baby.  We will wrap up the day with dinner with another set of friends.  I pop out of bed an hour earlier than my alarm, already preparing in my sleep for our day.

Seeing my doctor is always a treat.  The only thing that would make it better is if we were meeting over coffee instead of in her office.  But, this way I get to see her and get a minor issue addressed at the same time.  I suppose it’s somewhat odd to be friends with your doctor, but I’m not sure why.  Who better to trust with your health care than someone who genuinely cares about you?

After my appointment, Pat picks me up and we head to City Barbecue.  We are running ahead of schedule.  We decide to go to the grocery store first and pick up a few things for our hosts that we have been consuming.  Then, we go back towards City Barbecue, still ahead of schedule.  We decide it may take several minutes to get our order together, so we go ahead and go in.  We order a family pack, but can’t decide on only two sides, so we add two more.  When our order comes, each side is packed in a 1 quart container.  We have enough sides for about 32 people.   You can never have enough sides.

We arrive at our friends house, still a few minutes ahead of schedule.  It never fails that all the lights are green when you need to slough off time.  We even took the slower, back way to get there.  Sara is home with both children.  Geoff is not yet back from a grocery store run.

Sara greets us at the door with Lella cradled in her arms.  Her tiny pumpkin head perfectly round against her mother’s arm.  I am surprised to find myself pleased to see her.  While I’m never going to be one of those people who swoops in and snatches the baby out of mom’s arms and goos and gah’s over it, paying no attention to anything other than the baby for hours on end, I feel less afraid of appreciating the baby.  I think that in my younger years I felt like I had to reject babies entirely in order to avoid any regrets about not having any of my own.  That somehow there was a threat that I might suddenly wish for one and my biological clock would click on and my relationship with my now husband would be threatened as a result.

Having recognized that I would not be the world’s best mother and subsequently decided that the world would be better off if I didn’t reproduce, I have not, as of yet, regretted that decision.  While there are times I think my life would feel more purposeful if I had children, I have a hard time imagining giving up on so many of the life experiences I have been able to have because I don’t have kids.  Now nearly 45, there is little possibility that I will suddenly awake and want to have a baby.

Today, instead of feeling repulsed by this tiny life, I am intrigued.  She is beautiful, this tiny Lella.  I like to say her name, “Lel-la.”  It rolls on my tongue and feels like “lullaby.”  It is both a soothing baby name and a strong adult name.  I am amazed that no one ever thought of it before (well, that I know of)

As Lella awakens and looks out upon the wide world before her, her eyes open, big and bright.  She appears to watch things across the room and I wonder how far she can see.  I remember being told infants can only see the distance from the breast to the face, but she looks so fascinated that I have to ask out loud.  Sara also believes she can only see about 18 inches.  Lella makes a fist, twists her face, kicks her legs and farts loudly.  Henry, her 4-year old brother, is not the only one who is amused.  We take her upstairs for a tour of the nursery and a diaper change.  I rub Lella’s head and make sure she doesn’t roll off the changing table while Sara looks for something.

I am reminded of a terrifying event in my early teen years when an infant I was babysitting kicked his diaper off the changing table and I bent down to pick it up.  The screaming infant, probably suffering from colic, kicked so hard in the instant I bent to pick up the diaper that he flopped off the table and landed on the floor at my feet.  I believe this was the first nail in the coffin of my desire to have children.  Fortunately, the baby was not seriously injured, but I stopped babysitting infants after that.

Today, I stand next to the changing table with my hand cupped over Lella’s head rubbing her fuzzy hair, relaxed and happy to have this moment to experience baby-ness.  I can’t say that I really want to fuss over this tiny infant all afternoon.  In fact, I occasionally forget about her as we eat lunch and talk of adult things, but it’s nice to at least feel at home around this tiny, fragile life and not feel afraid that my mere presence might in someway break it.

After hanging out for a few hours, we head on back to our host’s house.  We are already exhausted and it is not even 3PM yet when we arrived.  Pat heads upstairs for an afternoon nap while I sit and talk with Georgia in between games of solitaire.  I keep thinking I will doze for a while, but in the end I never do.  It’s just as well–when Pat wakes up, he seems groggy and disoriented.  A long afternoon nap will do that to you.  I smile as I look at his rumpled hair when he comes back downstairs.  Back up we go, smoothing ourselves and making ourselves presentable for our evening out.

Special Ed

When Pat drops me off at the office, I head to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast.  I decide to stop by the gym to say hello to my former workout buddies.  The gym looks dark.  I swipe my badge anyway, but the door doesn’t unlock.  I stand there perplexed for a moment.  If I felt like a visitor yesterday, I feel doubly so today–I worked on this campus for 5 1/2 years and the only time my badge failed to open the fitness center door was when I broke it in half.  I’m a bit indignant about being locked out of the gym, but I remind myself that it’s lucky I decided not to show up un-showered and in my gym clothes only to discover I couldn’t get in.

After a full morning of back-to-back conference calls, I dash down a flight of stairs to meet up with a couple of my friends who are taking time out to have lunch with me.  I arrive still on the phone, but manage to get off the phone before we get into the car.  We decide on Chinese and head to a local favorite.

An interesting phenomena of having a blog in which you record much of your life is how conversations go with your friends when you see them again.  Many seem to feel obligated to read your blog and will apologize for not keeping up with it.  I am not offended by people not reading my blog.  While I like having an imaginary audience because it seems to keep me writing, which is my real goal, knowing that my real audience is busy and often doesn’t have time to read my blog takes away some of the anxiety about “what will people think?”

Vince, however, does not feel obligated or apologetic when it comes to reading my blog.  He simply says, “too many words.”  I am not offended by this either.  After all, I’ve made a personal choice to write my blog because I want to develop a habit of writing.  While I know I should be reading too, I’ve not made the choice to make time for reading.  I do not surf other people’s blogs except to take a quick look at people who leave an indication that they’ve read mine.  When someone who also has a blog clicks the “like” button on one of my blog entries, I take a quick look at what they are posting out of a curiosity to understand what they liked about mine.

Recently, a photographer and blogger “liked” several of my blog entries.  When I go to his blog, I see that he is an artist–someone with vision.  When I look at his work, I immediately see the difference in what I do and what he does; the stark contrast between “having fun with it” and creating actual art.  I ponder why he reads my blog at all and wonder what he likes about it.  I am too intimidated by his talent to give him a “like” in return.  I find myself hoping he reads this entry and than alternately worrying that he will.  My admiration makes me feel foolish.

The fact that my friends do not read every entry in my blog is actually helpful–otherwise, I really would have nothing new to say to them after not seeing them for 6 weeks.  I tell them about my realization that I suffer from a learning disability when it comes to hang gliding and the empathy that I have suddenly discovered for all the people whom I’ve known in my life whom I judged as stupid because they didn’t have a talent that I had.  If nothing else comes from hang gliding, I am at least reminded of the Zen lesson of allowing the ego to be diminished.

Humility is a difficult lesson in the end.  In my complete incompetence, I have realized that a lifetime of making humiliating experiences into funny stories is not the same thing as having humility.  It seems I have taken the approach of creating a good defense by taking the offense in the form of discovering and revealing my personal weaknesses before anyone else does.  As if me announcing I suck at something before anyone else does makes it all right.

What I learn now is that humility felt purely comes not from a fear of others finding you out before you do, but from compassion and empathy and the understanding that I am no better than anyone else.  I am reminded of a recording of Marianne Williamson a dear friend loaned me for 3 years until I finally listened to it out of guilt.  The quote I recall vividly from that multi-CD set is: “You are not special.”

This is what I do not explain to my friends:  What I get from hang gliding is the visceral realization that I am not special; I am as limited and inadequate as everyone else. I have intellectually feared and suspected this all along, but when I hang glide, I feel the truth of it physically.  The physical realization of this fact leads to the physical sense of humility.

Turns out that when I thought I was feeling humility before, I was really feeling shame.  The difference between the two is striking.  Humility sneaks over me gently, making me feel more connected to others, more part of the whole of life.  Shame strikes suddenly at my gut, causing me to shrink within myself, feeling alienated and alone.  When I am shameful, I am full of fear.  When I am humble, I feel remarkably safe.  I hold on to this fleeting feeling just long enough to understand that it’s a breakthrough moment.  But like all breakthroughs (at least for me), they appear suddenly and briefly, only to retreat to be learned all over again at a later date.

I shake away a sense of sudden vulnerability I feel and return to my social self.  I become effusive; I can’t stop talking.  It’s as if I shield the soft places with a torrent of words, distracting from what’s important but frightening.  Afterwards, I think about my friends and wonder why they even make time for me when all I do is babble at them.  I think about how lucky I am to have patient and caring people in my life.  Maybe my luck with friends makes me special?  No, no.  I am not special.

Sunday Morning

I wake up at 4AM feeling like I need to sleep about 2 more days, but unable to go back to sleep.  I lay in bed for another hour before I give up and tip toe out of the bedroom, trying not to wake my sister-in-law who, visiting for the weekend, sleeps on an air mattress in the living room.  My foot cracks with a sharp little “pop” with every step.  I do my best to silence it, but my bones seem determined to announce themselves.  Fortunately, my sister-in-law sleeps through the sound of my creaking feet and I manage to get a glass of water, scoop up my laptop, and go out onto the balcony without disturbing her.

The early hours on Sunday morning are quiet.  There is no traffic and even the birds are mostly still sleeping.  I appreciate this time in the morning.  I remember my mother telling me that even as a baby I was not a morning person–I like having time and space to wake up before I engage with people.  It’s as if each morning only part of me wakes up, leaving the extroverted part dozing until it begins to vibrate with the excitement of a new day and I am suddenly ready to be with others.

After sitting alone for an hour or so, I go inside to discover that Megan has awakened and started getting ready for her departure.  We decided last night that we would try to Longhorn for breakfast.  It’s a small little diner that Pat and I have walked by dozens of times, intrigued by its ’50s diner architecture.  We have been wanting to try it and they open for breakfast at 7AM on Sunday morning, so it works well for our purposes this morning–Megan wants to be on the road by 8AM.

Once we have all gotten ourselves ready, we take the short walk over to the diner, arriving just after 7.  Two women in Longhorn shirts sit at the counter.  When we try the door, it’s bolted, but one woman is already on her way over to let us in.  The restaurant consists of a row of 2-person booths lining the windows and a long, formica counter top with metal trim and short metal stools fixed to the floor in front of it with burgundy vinyl tops.  We pick 3 stools in the middle of the counter.  The coffee is made, the grill is covered in nearly done bacon, fresh biscuits are piled in a basket, and the hashbrowns sit prepped, waiting for their turn on the grill.  I wonder what time these women got started this morning.  They are both tiny, frail looking women who wear years of experience on their faces.  One could be my age or 10 years older than me; it’s impossible to tell.  The second could be old enough to be my mother.  Although they appear physically frail, there is something about both of them that makes me think they have strength that has seen them through a lot of hard times.

Pat orders decaf and is surprised that it, too, is already made.  The second woman, still sitting at the counter, asks how they get the caffeine out of coffee.  Pat smiles and says that they use chemicals that aren’t good for you and she laughs a big genuine laugh that lights up her face.  Her smile transforms her instantly and makes me smile with surprise at how beautiful she is.  She reminds me of one of my aunts who used to laugh the same way, dropping 20 years every time she showed her teeth.

The food comes quickly and hot.  There is nothing fancy here, just various combinations of eggs, meat, and potatoes, but it’s good and my eggs are done exactly as I wanted them with the whites still soft but not slimy and the yolk runny and bright yellow.  I appreciate a good over-medium egg.  We sit and talk of when we will next see Megan.  My youngest nephew is turning 18 in October; my sister-in-law assumes we will not come now that the drive is so much further, but I’ve never missed my nephews’ birthdays by more than a few days and I don’t intend to start now.  We talk about his pending graduation in May and I think all of us are struck by the impossibility of being old enough for both of my nephews to be out of high school.  Having no children of our own, Pat and I often measure the passage of time by the milestones of other people’s children.  It comes as a shock each time I realize that another child is no longer a child.

More people arrive and sit in booths as we continue to talk over our coffee, our food long gone.  I don’t want my sister-in-law to leave, but I know she must be looking forward to returning home after being gone much of the past 3 weeks.  I reflect for a moment on the friends in my life.  I am incredibly fortunate when it comes to friends.  They are an assortment of people who have come into my life through random circumstances and stuck in a way that makes me feel both honored and humbled.  Megan is one of those people.  I suppose I should thank my brother for bringing Megan into my life.  She is someone who makes me a better person even though we have always lived hundreds of miles apart.  I cannot imagine having gone through the loss of my mother without her–she also lost my mother and our shared grief got me through in ways I don’t understand and Megan probably doesn’t even know about.  As we leave the restaurant and walk her to the rented mini-van parked behind our building, I find myself missing her already.  The sense of being alone in Chattanooga without my support group rises in me and I suddenly find myself missing all of my friends in a sudden mass of self-pity.  Having just returned from Columbus a few days earlier, it’s as if the loss that I felt leaving my friends behind suddenly caught up with me.

We wave goodbye as she pulls out of the parking lot and return to the apartment.  I plop on the couch, deflated, much like the air mattress that now sits rolled in the corner.  I find myself wishing I were back in Columbus where I could get a hug from my best friend.  The thought of her intensifies my sadness to the point that I turn on the TV just to have a mindless distraction.  I have had many friends move to remote locations where I see them only once a year or less.  We stay in touch and when we talk, it’s like we just saw each other yesterday.  I know that this is how it will be now that I have moved.  I know that my best friend doesn’t care less about me and I hope that she knows that, if anything, I care more about her.  But for a few minutes I wallow in the sense of loss.  I ponder how I could have been looking forward to being back in my own bed when I was staying at my best friend’s house and, now that I am sleeping in my own bed, I long to be back with my best friend.  But the TV distracts me and I find my eyes drooping.  I set aside my sadness and give in to the pull of much needed sleep.