Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dining Solo

There have been times in my life that I've been called a loner. I don't think it's strictly true, mind you, but it's true here and there, in certain facets of who I am, and in particular chapters in my personal history. But it's not true in the main.

An event from my adolescence probably illustrates one of many origins of the 'loner' mystique. When I was growing up, my family liked to go to the local Bob's Big Boy, for the occasional meal on Sundays, after church. The five of us would be ushered into a booth, and we'd order under the watchful eye of our mother, who made sure we ordered what was nutritionally appropriate, given the menu choices. I loved Bob's Big Boy. But what I really wanted to do was have a meal there by myself. At the counter.

One day, sometime in the summer between the 7th and 8th grades, I asked permission to ride my bike to the restaurant to have lunch by myself. My mom checked to make sure that I had counted out enough of my allowance to buy a decent lunch, then made sure I understood that I needed to tip the waitress, and showed me how to calculate the tip.

And off I went. The restaurant was about a mile and a half from home, a fairly short ride on a bike. But even a short bike ride, in the summers of my hometown, can leave you red-faced and sweating -- which I was, when I arrived. I walked into the cool air of the restaurant, and felt almost chilled. The hostess looked a little uncertain about seating a 13 year-old kid all by herself, but stifled whatever misgivings she might have had, and asked me if I'd like to sit at a table or the counter. 'Oh, the counter,' I said, 'Please?' 

And there it was. A dream come true. I studied the menu, even though I already knew what I wanted, until the waitress arrived. I ordered a club sandwich, no mayo, with fries, and a glass of iced tea. The waitress took my order and whisked away my menu, and I pulled out my dog-eared copy of whichever Agatha Christie novel I was reading that week (I was obsessed with Agatha Christie murder mysteries at that age), found the page where I'd left off, and read my book until the food arrived. I'm sure the sandwich was no more special than before, but between the 'adult' experience of dining out alone, and my murder mystery, and cool, dark interior of the restaurant, it seemed like the best club sandwich ever made. 

35 years later, I still derive pleasure from dining alone. Don't get me wrong: I also love to connect with a friend over a meal. There's something lovely and intimate about having tête-à-tête over good food and a bottle of wine with a good friend, discussing the big questions of the universe or just the minutiae of your day. But sometimes, the best meals are solo, seated at the counter, or in a small banquette, allowing yourself to be fussed over slightly by the waitstaff, working your way through a few chapters of a good book, interspersed with discreet people-watching. I suppose, after all these years, my love of a good restaurant meal, sans companion, has bolstered the idea that I am somehow very solitary. It's still not true. I'm not that solitary. But it is true that I choose my companions wisely, even in breaking bread, and barring really good company, I'd prefer to dine solo. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jesus is My Child's Babysitter

I live in the Bible Belt, at present. During the summer months, you cannot drive a half mile without encountering a sign inviting you to sign your child up for a week of Vacation Bible School (a.k.a. 'VBS'). For a long while, I lived in the Northeast. There are a lot of Churches in Boston, but I don't recall seeing any VBS signs. And NYC? Too heathen for that sort of thing. But  here I am, in Blue Ridge country, and it's like VBS HQ 'round here.

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my siblings and I attended VBS at our church, every year, until we were too old to go. I'm sure it was supposed to be a kid-level deep spiritual experience, but do you know what sticks with me all these years? I'll tell you. It's the 5 foot tall chocolate candy bar. One year, our church had this contest. You had to bring as many friends as you could to church that week (with the ultimate goal of saving their souls), and for every kid you brought, you got a point. The child with the most points at the end of the VBS week would win the 5 foot tall, milk chocolate candy bar that was displayed on the sanctuary stage, just to the left of the pulpit and behind the piano. It was like the Catholic practice of granting indulgences, except Protestant-style. Save other kids' souls and get candy in return! Try as I might, I was only able to find one friend who would go to VBS with me, and so I did not win it. It was a bitter, bitter defeat, let me tell you. Bitter. Not because of the soul-saving (I am so not a saint), but because of the towering chocolatey goodness that would not be going home with me. 

Here in this town, apparently, there are mothers who will suss out all the VBS locations and dates, and then will sign their children up for a summer's worth of VBS, one week following upon another. And endless summer of flannel board Bible stories, sing-a-longs, and forgettable crafts. Apparently, it's cheaper than finding childcare. You might say 'Jesus is my Co-Pilot', but there are apparently some who believe that 'Jesus is My Child's Babysitter,' instead.

I don't know if I would have, as a child, found this prospect alluring or terrifying. I imagine weeks on end of stale cookies and tepid, artificially flavored punch, day after day of coloring in Bible story hand-outs with stubby crayons, the endless parade of games meant to both wear us out so we wouldn't misbehave and also prepare our souls for the kingdom of God. I ponder the sheer number of 'Jesus Loves You' bookmarks I might have accumulated in that space of time, and to what use I may have been able to put them. And then I think about that 5 foot tall chocolate candy bar, and I'm pretty sure that eleven or twelve straight weeks of that sort of cut-throat evangelistic competition would have turned me into an atheist before puberty hit.

(Note: not everyone who reads this blog (especially those who may find it by chance) know me well enough to know that I do not have children. The title of this post, actually refers to a sentence in the third paragraph.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Constellations By Which We Steer

The Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and Orion were the first constellations I learned to recognize in the night sky. Large and angular, Orion was always the easiest to locate, even through the smog of a Southern California summer night sky. Visiting my maternal grandparents, whose home was on the outskirts of the desert, I liked to stand outside and marvel at how many more stars you could see in the sky, without the interference of street lights and away from the worst of the smog. But before I could start picking out smaller constellations, I always had to get my bearings by locating Orion. 

For some reason, I latched onto that constellation as if it were a talisman. No matter where I happened to be, if I could find Orion, I knew where - and who -  I was in this world. I see myself as if in a series of snapshots, growing up: me, at age 9, pretending to sleep in the backseat of my parents' car, on the way home from some family gathering, and instead trying to keep Orion in view as long as possible. Me at 14, miserable at church camp, and stepping away from the stories and jokes told around the evening fire, melting away from the crowd to stare up at the night sky between two pines, and breathing a sigh of relief when I could see the Orion beginning to come into view. And at age 18, finishing up a night class at the local community college, and nearly tripping over a dip in the sidewalk as I tried to both walk to my car and find my favorite constellation, simultaneously. 

Later, age 24, tired of my then boyfriend waffling between 'I love you' and 'I'm not sure if I love you, maybe I don't know what love is,' for what seemed like the millionth time, I tuned him out and searched through his truck windshield for Orion who, insofar as I was aware, had never waffled. Still later, at age 29 and 34 and 45, moving to Hawaii and Massachusetts and New York, respectively, I would always try to find my favorite constellation, bringing at least some sense of familiarity to new and unfamiliar surroundings. For some reason, Orion came to seem, to me, to represent continuity and steadfastness, especially at times in my life when those were things I needed the very most. That angular constellation was but one way that I could navigate back to the familiar.

But we find constellations in other things, as well, I think, and learn to navigate by those, too. I think of all the many kindnesses of people I've known over the years. Sometimes, when things seem a bit dark, those kindnesses are like stars against a night sky, providing some illumination and pattern of compassion that I can follow back to some sense of restored equilibrium, some renewed understanding of who I am and what I'm meant to be. I think of the friends who saw a shy, awkward kid, and helped me to come out of my shell just a little, who loved me unreservedly for who I was, and who I think understood that under that awkward exterior was someone who wanted very much to connect with those around her. I think of the teachers who saw past the sullenness and sarcasm of my teenaged years and helped me to better understand my own strengths and talents, and did so kindly and gently, and, in a way, helped ease my transition into young adulthood. 

I think of the lovely neighbor I once had, who worried that I worked too much, and who took it upon herself to check on me and bring me food, and to mother me when I was far from the family and friends with whom I'd grown up. I think of the co-workers who, during an extended illness (and again during recovery from a major surgery) came not just to drop a casserole on my table and then scurry off, but to actually spend time with me, laughing and talking about everything in the world, and making my heart a little lighter. And I of course think of the friends who were fiercely protective of me when my heart, which had been slowly cracking, one betrayal at a time, suddenly broke into a million pieces after a particularly bad breakup. I think of all the people I've met in the course of moving to yet another city, whether they became friends, or whether I met them once and never saw them again, who found a way to make my day a little brighter and to stoke the fires of my faith in my fellow man. Most of these actions weren't enormous or stereotypically 'heroic'. But, collectively, they are a pattern of little lights, that became something like a constellation of kind and compassionate deeds. 

And, as with Orion, I look for that pattern when I am uncertain, or worried, or feeling alone or misunderstood. They, too, have become a talisman, in their own way. They help me to steer back to where I need to be, and once again, I'm more sure of my place in the world because of them.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Words of wisdom....

I follow Humans of New York on Facebook. I used to live in NYC, and I love this guy's perspective, which he shows through his posts and photos. He usually asks his subjects something along the lines of what advice they'd give, or what was their best moment, or their saddest, etc.

This morning, I saw his most recent photo, and here is what his subject said, and which he relayed with the post: 

“When I was younger, I thought listening was just about learning the contents of someone’s mind. I’d always try to finish their thoughts, just to show them that I knew what they were thinking. As I got older, I learned to listen better. I realized that by trying to anticipate their mind, I was ignoring their heart.”

That, right there, touched me. It's wise and it is compassionate. I could stand to learn to listen more like this.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Local Flavor


This morning, on my daily walk, I saw a fawn standing still as a statue on someone's front lawn. Seconds before, two grown deer had hightailed it across the street and into the woods beyond. I wonder if they ever came back to get that baby. Its spots were still new, it was that young. It never ran, but you could see it twitching just a little. 


'Well, bless your heart' is not always kindly meant down here. Sometimes it is. Context is everything with this phrase. But if you ever cross one of these southern ladies, and they look you right in face and declare, 'Well, now, bless your heart,' with unsmiling eyes (no matter what configuration their lips may be in at the time) you can pretty much bet that what they actually mean is, 'Bitch, I will CUT you if you keep that up.' I'm a-feared of those heart-blessin' southern women. As God is my witness, Miss Scahhhhlet, I will not cross 'em on purpose. 


I was recently at the post office. As is typical of bureaucratic offices, just as the rush of customers pours in during their lunch hour, to mail a package or buy stamps, all but one postal clerk leaves for their hour break. The line lengthens, as does the wait time. You can feel tempers in the room starting to unravel at the edges, almost as much as you can feel the humidity in the Virginia summer air. 

There are still 15 people in front of me, when the postal clerk calls, 'Next!', and a tiny, elderly woman with waist-length apricot-colored hair,  wearing high heels, a leopard print skirt, a sweater (I perspire just recalling this) and a beret, click-clacks her way to the counter, and hands over two packages the size of shoe boxes. Before the clerk can so much as glance at the address on the second package, the tiny woman practically launches herself over the counter and yells, 'THAT'S GOING TO FINLAND! DON'T YOU SEND IT NOWHERE ELSE!' 

The postal clerk blinks, takes a step backward, and drawls, 'Why thank you for pointing that out.' Unspoken at the end of that statement, clearly, was the obligatory 'Well bless your heart.' The tiny lady stands down, both literally and figuratively, but continues to look daggers at the clerk until her business is completed. 

A good 20 minutes later, I'm finally at the counter. My request is fairly simple, but it takes 4 trips to the back room for the clerk to sort things out. A man in a Harley-Davidson get-up, leaning on a cane, barks, 'Y'all, my tour in 'Nam didn't take this damned long.' The room erupts into laughter and one muttered, ‘Amen.’ I turn and apologize that it's my business that is holding up the line, and the woman behind me tells the veteran to hush, and then tells me to stop fussing, because I'd already done my time standing in line and have nothing to apologize for. The clerk returns, my business concludes, and I slink out of the post office trying not to laugh hysterically as I leave. 


I drove down to the local orchard to pick blueberries last week, only to arrive as an unexpected thunderstorm let loose. As I sheltered for a few minutes inside, the woman who works there told me the blueberries were pretty much over and done. It sounds like they didn't have a great crop this year. But she said blackberries are coming out gangbusters and would be ready later this week, as would peaches. I'll wait another week (at her suggestion -- she knows which variety of peach will be better for canning, and it's not quite ready to harvest), and then I'll pick enough blackberries to make 15 jars of jam, and I'll pick up my bushel and then some of gorgeous peaches, and I'll get down to the business of canning summer fruits for winter enjoyment. With a few saved by for immediate enjoyment, of course.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Twelve, perhaps thirteen years ago, when I was living in the Boston area, the radio station to which I awoke each morning suddenly changed their format. Instead of classic rock at 6am, there was now a talk radio show, hosted by two incredibly juvenile boy-men. 

That morning, I listened to their program while I readied myself for work, rolling my eyes and making very colorful editorial comments in the general direction of my clock radio. The thrust of that morning's show was that these guys were on the hunt for a 'hot chicks', who'd better not have any 'baggage', or they'd cut their losses and run like crazy. They spent an inordinate amount of time carrying on about baggage, and how no one they'd want to talk to would have (let alone admit to having) anything of the sort.

This was nothing new. I'd already heard this from any number of people I knew. I still hear people mindlessly invoke the embargo against emotional 'baggage' in anyone they'd choose to befriend or choose to romantically pursue. In my much younger years, I'd said as much myself, flippantly dismissing the possibility that the accumulated experience we shrug and call 'baggage' could have any real use to a person as they moved through life. 

The thing is, as I moved out of my twenties and into my thirties, as I accumulated a number of lessons from the school of hard knocks, I realized that I had been wrong, and that, yes, you do accumulate baggage in life, but it can be useful, rather than a burden, if you strive to understand what to hold onto and what to let go, and then hold on to only the amount of baggage that frees you to move purposefully through life, rather than that which only drags you down. 

I've traveled here and there throughout my life - sometimes for work, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes across a few states or across the country to live somewhere new, off to one state or another to spend a holiday or a wedding or a family reunion with those I care about. In all the times I've traveled, I've never traveled without some form of baggage. For each new trip, I've learned to assess what it is I will need to take with me, and what -- in order to lighten my load -- could be purchased on arrival or simply done without. My father, who traveled extensively for his job, told me more than once to pack lightly but to also pack efficiently, and to never check baggage if I could at all help it. I've taken that advice to heart over the years, and it's saved me a lot of time standing in lines, not to mention saving me unnecessary strain on my muscles and joints. Each time I travel, my prioritization of what I need for my journey is informed by all the travel experiences I've had up until that point, and I've become a very efficient packer indeed. 

And so it has been on this journey through life. At the beginning of my adult life, I simply didn't understand what to jettison and what to keep. And so I'd carry far more emotional baggage than was useful to me. It not only weighed me down, it made it near impossible to keep up with others who had learned to let go of what wasn't useful. It was a steep learning curve, but one I value. These days, as I continue along the path of my life, I periodically reassess which lessons or experiences I need to hold close, and which ones I can set down and leave behind me. I imagine holding up connections and disappointments and expectations and life lessons one by one, as though I were inspecting blouses and skirts to see if they are appropriate for the weather at my destination. Some I fold back into my 'baggage' and keep, as I know they will be useful. Some are too worn or too outdated, too heavy or too flimsy to be of use, and I set those experiences aside, grateful for the use they have been in the past, but acknowledging that they are not currently of use. As the years go along, my baggage has become lighter, yes, but also remarkably useful, helping me to navigate rough patches, and to accommodate new people and experiences into my life. 

I've yet to meet another person who travels through life without baggage, at least not after the age of 23 or so, but I've met people who travel more lightly or more heavily than I. And I've come to understand that the best thing is not to freak out about another person's emotional baggage, but to try to understand how they came by it and what lessons they've learned, who has made the best use of their inevitable baggage, and who understands how to mindfully prioritize which parts of their baggage will no longer be of use for the continued journey ahead. These are seasoned travelers among those I meet along the road, and I always have much to learn from them, even all these years later.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Elephants, Ice Cream, and Saris, Oh Best Beloved

In all but the very first of my blogs, I have had a little tradition of posting a story from an old blog into the new one. And I say, why stop now? So without further ado, a story about childhood and summer and memory:

Elephants, Ice Cream, and Saris, Oh Best Beloved

On the subway this morning, two Indian couples boarded the train a few stops after me, each with a toddler daughter in a stroller. The daughters were chattering away like magpies at each other, sharing raisins, and patting each other. They were incredibly cute. The mothers both had that long, thick, single braid in the way that some Indian women style their hair. When the daughters (who, by now, were out of their strollers and seated next to their mothers) weren't giggling with each other, one or the other of them would be trying to grasp one of the mothers' braids and tug on it. I remember feeling that way about braids when I was little. You just can't seem to help yourself.

When I finished first grade, in 1972, my entire classroom was invited to spend the last afternoon of school at the home of one of our classmates. We were allowed the run of the yard, we played games, we stuffed our faces full of treats, we took turns hand-cranking ice cream, and we sat mesmerized when our friend’s father (later one of my favorite college professors) read us selections from Just So Stories (oh best beloved!). It was quite the afternoon, for all of the aforementioned reasons, but also because our friend’s mother showed up in a sari.

She was a whip-smart woman with a serene bearing and the kindest of hearts, and she had recently been to India. She was in her 40's, ancient to a 7 year old, and was dressed in beautiful saffron sari, with her long, salt and pepper hair in one fat braid, hanging down her back to her waist. I followed her, mesmerized by that braid, for much of the afternoon.

Later, after achieving button-popping homemade ice cream satiation, someone teased me and hurt my feelings. Like many seven year olds, especially those high on sugar and in desperate need of a nap, I burst into tears and was inconsolable, until my classmate’s sari-clad mother took charge of the situation. She was sitting, on the bench beneath a shady elm in the middle of the back yard, with her braid thrown over her shoulder, her sari untouched by sweat or dust or little kid ice cream smudges, and with something clutched in her hand. She patted the seat next to her, and, hiccupping and sniffling with utter despair, I sat down next to her.

She unfurled her fingers to show a small, red seed in her palm. Shiny and red, with a small, ivory elephant on top. She leaned down and whispered to me: 'It's a magic seed of wishes. There are thousands of tiny elephants inside this tiny seed, and each elephant is worth one wish. And since you have stopped crying, I'll let you take three wishes for your very own.' And with that, she shook three teeny, tiny elephants out of the seed, and said, 'wish!'

At that moment, still so crystal clear, I truly believed that the seed held a thousand elephants, that each elephant had the power to grant me a wish, and that this mother was probably one of those angels I’d heard about in Sunday school, angels who masquerade as regular people, doing good in an understated way. An angel in a sari, with a graying braid and a seedpod full of tiny elephants.

I don't remember what I wished. Beyond that moment, of a kindness that sparked a little kid's already active imagination, I don't recall much of that afternoon. Later, when I was in college, I happened on one of those elephant-filled seeds in a funky little shop near the campus. I bought one, and, although I was an adult and now knew better, I was crushed to find that each seed held not a thousand but a dozen little carved elephants. I opted not to wish on them, but just to keep them for the memory. Somewhere in the past 11 or 12 moves, the elephants in their seed vanished.

I still think about them, though, sometimes. And about peach ice cream and saris and the far-reaching impact of gentle and kind woman, all in same, hot afternoon.

Edited from the original which was posted in my long defunct first blog, in the summer of 2002

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Over the years, I've had several blogs. Each has served a slightly different purpose, depending on where I was at the time, in this crazy journey we call life.

This is just the latest incarnation of what can basically be summed up as my need to have something of a creative outlet involving words about my thoughts and experiences.

I think I'll just see where this takes me, this time around...