Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Goodness of Life

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a favorite author whose every published word found its way into my hands and my heart. After reading one of her books for a college English class, I remember leaving my dorm and running, literally running, to the bookstore in my tiny college town to buy more of her books. An African-American female writer whose books are commonly assigned in high school and college classes, she became a mentor to me, a guide on the path towards understanding myself as a woman of color in the United States. She writes about black women's bodies and hair. She writes about our relationships with our own daughters as well as the men in our lives. She writes about travel and music and cooking and love and loss and flowers - and does so with a passion and expressiveness that enthrall me still.

I have never met her in person, but I dialogued with her books for years. I still do.
In those early years, when I closed the covers of her books, I sighed. Deep sighs of longing.
Longing to meet her. To sit under her teaching. To look into her eyes. To watch her cook.
To learn from her interactions with her friends, her neighbors, and her daughter.

Although I never met her, in the early 1990s, I met her daughter. Back in the days before computers. email, text messages, and Facebook were all the rage, her daughter and I became pen-pals after I wrote her a letter in response to a magazine article she had written. Letters and postcards flew between us. I drove to the college she attended and met her in person. Not long after that, I flew out to California to visit my then-boyfriend (now husband) who was working out west. My favorite author and her daughter lived in northern California at the time. The daughter invited me to drive up to the house and hang out for a day.

What? Me? Your house? Your mother's house?
I went. With great excitement and trepidation.
The house was beautiful, peaceful, joyful.
It smelled of incense and essential oil and spicy food.
She and I talked and laughed and ate our way through the day.
With great sadness, I said good-bye to her and drove the three hours back to San Francisco.

A few months later, much to my shock, amazement, and surprise, I received an engraved invitation from her and her mother. They were hosting an annual gathering of friends and other loved ones to celebrate "The Goodness of Life." And I was invited! I received the invitation two or three years in a row.

Looking back in shock, amazement, and surprise through my memories, I confess that I never went to the parties. Was I too cheap to buy the plane ticket and find a nearby hotel? Did I really forfeit the chance to meet her mother, one of my favorite authors, at her own house, surrounded by their friends, as one of her invited guests - all because I didn't want to spend a few hundred dollars? Yes and yes.

My friend, the prize-winning author's daughter, has since become quite famous in her own right. She is a widely read author, an internationally renowned speaker, a mother, a teacher, an actor, and more than all that, she is a woman of strength, courage, intelligence, and breath-taking beauty both inside and out. We have fallen out of contact. But I still google her and read her writing. I follow her on Instagram and marvel at just how fabulous a woman she is.

Even though I never attended their parties, the name stuck: "The Goodness of Life."

For years, that was the theme and subtitle of all my journals; even on the pages soaked in my tears, I kept a record of the goodness of life. Life isn't always good or easy or pleasant. But there is always goodness to be found if I look. There is always something worthy of gratitude and celebration - at least there has been for me. And anybody who has read this blog for more than five minutes knows that I have run into a few obstacles in my life - but through each challenge, through tears, through chemotherapy, through battles with mental illness in my family, through it all, I have been repeatedly reminded of the goodness of God and the goodness of people and the goodness of life. There is so much beauty. There are so many gifts.

I was reminded of the goodness of people and life early this morning. I went to Trader Joe's to pick up some goodies for a dear friend of mine whose final round of chemotherapy was this morning. I chose some of my favorite snacks and breakfast food and fruit and even some special soap. Cuz who doesn't like a goodie bag? I remember back in my kanswer days, perfect strangers sent me care packages after my story landed on the blog of another famous writer. I loved every single bar of soap, piece of licorice, card, note, sticker, pen, stick of incense, and tea bag they sent. It was magical, the effect of all that love and encouragement.

Anyway, this morning I told the woman at the cash register at Trader Joe's about my friend's last chemo treatment. She was appropriately happy for my friend and spoke kindly of my desire to drop off a gift bag. As I waited for the machine to read the chip on my debit card, she stepped away from the cash register. She returned with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and said, "Please give these flowers to your friend and say they are from the folks here at Trader Joe's. This is a big day and we want to honor that." I am glad I was wearing my sunglasses at the time - because the goodness of life that she showered on me and my friend welled up in my eyes.

Kanswer sucks.
Chemotherapy sucks.
Surgery sucks.
Each one of us has five or ten or a thousand things we can add to the list of things that suck.
Flooding in the south.
The earthquake in Italy.
The fact that one of my fabulous neighbors moved out of their house today.
The divisive presidential campaign.
The fear mongering that has gripped and divided our country.
I could go on.
So could you.

But there is goodness and beauty that emerges even during chemotherapy. There are kind, funny, and infinitely patient nurses in the oncology office. There are generous and thoughtful employees at local grocery stores who send flowers to people they don't even know as a random act of kindness.

I am determined to remember the joy of sitting with my friend back in the early 1990s and looking out onto the trees and flowers and zen garden and fields of flowers in her yard in Mendocino, CA.

I am determined to remember the wonder of standing at the base of the Cristo Redentor statue, the same one that I saw on television dozens of times during the recent Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, and gazing down onto the beaches and buildings below.

I am determined to remember the immediate and inexplicable feeling of peace, the sense of "finally being at home, my true home" on the day I arrived in Madrid the first time - back in August of 1986, thirty years ago. I barely spoke Spanish. I was hot and sweaty. I had been groped by the train conductor on the night train between Paris and Madrid. But when I arrived in Madrid that late summer day, backpack on my back, bus map in my hands, I looked around me I knew: I was finally at home. I still feel that way every single time I arrive at Madrid Barajas Airport - "I made it back home."

I remember the blessing of food in the fridge, the freezer, the pantry, and my not-so-secret stash of snacks. (My family knows exactly where it is, but they also know that they cannot ever, ever, ever dig into it or take anything out of it!)

I remember the gift of arriving home safely every night after all of our driving and walking and working and volunteering and spending time with friends. There are many people who leave home each morning, but do not return home at night. Safe passage is a miracle, every single day.

I could go on. Couldn't you?

I am determined to remember the goodness of life.

PS. I am enormously grateful to Alice Walker and her daughter, Rebecca Walker, for bringing so much goodness into my life through their words, their convictions, their womanism, their powerful wisdom, and simply for being who they are in a world that has often criticized them fiercely and attempted to silence their provocative voices. I don't always agree with everything they say and write, but everything they say and write makes me think deeply about what I say and write and how I live my life.

Monday, August 22, 2016

That New Baby Smell

On July 17, 1981, my brother, Glen, came home with the best news I had heard all year. He said that my older brother, Otis, and his wife, Joy, had had their baby. Kevin!!! As the words fell from Glen's mouth, I leapt into his arms with joy. Besides the fabulous news that the baby had arrived safely, we rejoiced over the fact that Glen and I had not tumbled down the stairs he was standing on at the time. The two of us could very well have ended up in the same hospital that Kevin had been born in if we had fallen down the brick stairs on the front of our house.

I would imagine that Otis and Joy got sick of my near-daily visits to their apartment to see and hold bathe and snuggle with their sweet baby boy. I spent hours with him in my arms, sniffing that new baby smell. Certainly there were moments when there were other smells as well, but the smell of his breath, the smell of the top of his head, the smell that lingered after I uncurled his tiny fingers and laid his hands on my face - that smell became an addiction that has yet to be broken.

Kevin's little brother, Matthew, was born during my freshman year in college, so I didn't see him for several weeks - but when I got home from college, I had another baby to snuggle with and sniff. I know that sounds a little weird, perhaps a little creepy, but that new baby smell is unrivaled in its miraculous bouquet.

Otis and Joy's third and final gift to me, I mean their final addition to their family, Raquel, was born when I was in England. Why I felt the need to be so far from home when they were bringing new life into the world is beyond me, but there I was. She was born in July, and I didn't get back to the States until December. Far too long to wait to meet my first niece, but not so long that I missed out on the wonder of holding her little body in my arms, closing my eyes, and taking my first hit of the splendorous scent of new baby girl curls.

Three more nieces were born to my two other brothers in the years that followed.
I changed their diapers. I bathed them. I fed them. I babysat them all for free.
And when nobody was looking, I lifted their arms and smelled their perfectly formed armpits.
I peeled off their socks and smelled their tiny toes.
I nuzzled them and sang to them and shook my head at the magnitude of their beauty.

If my memory has not failed me and my calculations are correct,
Kevin is now 35, Matthew is 32, and Raquel is 30. They are married.
And they all now have babies of their own.

On July 21 of this year, Kristiana and I were on the tail end of a two day visit with Raquel and Jay and their gorgeous little girl, Aurora. On the final day of our visit, we met up with Matthew's wife, Monisha, and their son, Myles, and Kevin's wife, Susan, and their daughter, Pem. Raquel's husband was in the room with us - but he hardly counted - no offense, Jay, but that visit was all about the babies! Matthew and Kevin were both out of town for work - we were sorry to miss them, but again, it was all about those babies.

Right - Kevin and baby Pem
Top left - Matthew and baby Myles
Bottom left - Jay and baby Aurora

That afternoon, I watched those three new moms care for their babies, feed them, nurse them, and change their diapers. I watched them love those babies and nurture them, speaking to them with tenderness, laughing with them, playing with them, mothering them as though no one else was present. Even as I type these words, tears well up in my eyes as I think of the love that filled that apartment, the adoration, the intimacy between mother and child, between husband and wife, between the three new mothers, as they helped each other resolve the issues and challenges that came up in the few hours we spent together. One by one, I took each of those children into my arms, held them close, silently prayed over them, and breathed in that new baby smell.

There are far too many families in which terms like "sister-in-law" and "niece by marriage" designate some level of separation or formality. There are far too many families in which the presence of a mother-in-law in the room - be it the birthing room or the living room or the baby's room - means there is tension in the air. There are families in which an aunt and a cousin who live six states away are not easily or quickly folded into the new life of a newly formed family. I am blessed to say that none of those things is true for or among those three siblings and their spouses and new babies.  My sister-in-law, Joy, is about as adoring, patient, generous, available, and encouraging a mother and mother-in-law as I have ever known. And those three new mothers are more like sisters than most "real" sisters I know. They all welcomed me and my daughter with open arms, generous hospitality, and complete trust in our love for them and their babies.

In this day and age where some people insinuate that immigrants need to be kicked out of our country, in this day and age in the world when some people insinuate that people of different backgrounds and cultures and languages cannot live together in peace, Kevin and Susan, Matthew and Monisha, and Raquel and Jay are proof that those insinuations are far off base.

My African-American brother, Otis, married Joy - whose family originated in Honduras.
Kevin married Susan - whose family originated in Cambodia and Laos.
Matthew married Monisha - whose family originated in Jamaica and Aruba.
Raquel married Jay - who is a first generation immigrant from Poland. He is the only member of his birth family living in the United States.
Truly a uniting of nations.

But back to the babies and that new baby smell.
Two days and two nights with Jay and Raquel provided me with many hours of bliss with Aurora.
How could I possibly be expected to resist this face???

Indeed I could not resist kissing her and holding her and taking in her sweetness.

 Pem is more serious than Aurora,
and her hard-earned smiles are dazzlingly beautiful.
Awake and asleep, she was comfortable in Auntie's arms.

 Myles, Myles, Myles. So handsome, so strong, so active.
Most of the photos I took of him are blurred because he is a little man on the move.

Monisha hanging out with Myles and Aurora
while Jay played with Pem.
One family. One love. 
One beautiful moment for Auntie.

The only thing I didn't like about my time with my nieces and nephew and their babies was the knowledge that I would soon have to leave them in NY and make my way back home to Charlotte. Truthfully, I try not to look at the pictures or reread my journal from those days too often - because I miss them so much. I am beyond sad when I think about all the days and weeks and months I will not share with them because of the distance between us. The milestones. The celebrations. Their first words and first steps.

If you scroll back up and look at the photos of these three little people in my arms, you will notice that my head is down in most of the photos. Do you want to know why? Because I am trying to draw in as many deep breaths of that new baby smell as possible.

Thirty five summers ago right now, I was most likely on my way home from Otis and Joy's house, after spending the day with Kevin... and his parents. I was most likely trying to figure out when I could get back there. Not much has changed. I am still trying to figure out when I can get back there and see Myles, Aurora, and Pem... and their parents.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sabbatical Over: "This is Now"

Last week, I went to hang out with my mom and watch the Olympics for a couple of hours. We watched television and talked and ate. That's our routine every time I visit her: watch tv, talk, and eat. She always has treats at her place that we don't have at our house. Things that I would consume in large quantities over brief periods of time. Nutter Butter cookies. Fresh roasted peanuts. Miniature Hershey's chocolate bars. Mixed nuts (without peanuts). Lance cheese crackers. Cheesecake. K-cup coffee and tea pods. Those butter cookies that come in huge dark blue cans.

Yes, my mother, who lives alone, is a member of BJs. Why? So she can buy huge quantities of food to feed her family and friends as often as possible. She is one of the most hospitable people I have ever known. I remember many parties and meals and gatherings at our home during my childhood, many of which would include several friends spending the night, sleeping on couches and on the floor in our Brooklyn duplex. True to form, she is hosting the family reunion for the family of her birth, the Elliotts, this coming weekend. She already has the chairs set up in her living room, and she has made one of several trips to BJs and other stores to buy all kinds of goodies.

Anyway, last week I was sitting with her in what she refers to as her "woman-cave" watching television and eating fresh roasted peanuts. Except they weren't too fresh. Actually, they were quite stale. She apologized for the status of the peanuts and followed her apology with an invitation to me to open the large jug of mixed nuts she had recently bought in anticipation of the family reunion. I thanked her for the offer, but said, "Don't you want to save those nuts for next weekend?"

She answered, "This is now. You don't know what's gonna happen between now and next weekend. One woman who was supposed to come to the family reunion recently had to have emergency surgery and she can't come. This is now, Gail. This is now."

Her response landed immediately in my journal.
I am the queen of postponing things I like,
things I like to eat, things I like to do,
things I like to read, things I like to experience -
the more I like to eat something, the more likely I am to postpone eating it for some future time.
For some special occasion.
I spend more time than I care to admit figuring out ways to do things I love -
next week, next month, next year.
Just not right now.
Gail, this is now.

A little more than fifteen years ago, after getting undressed after church, it occurred to me that I always felt my best when I was wearing a dress or a skirt. Getting ready for church, choosing my outfit, was one of the highlights of my week. As I stood there looking at my "church clothes," pondering what pair of baggy sweatpants or uncomfortable jeans I was going to don, it hit me: if I save these clothes I love, these comfortable dresses and clothes, for exclusive use on Sunday, then each item will be worn only three or four times each year. And the rest of the time, the other 300+ days of the year, days of homeschooling and driving my kids to their music lessons and athletic practices and trips to the supermarket, all of which composed the majority of my life, I would be wearing clothing I didn't like nearly as much and that didn't look nearly as good on me. Sooooo - I decided to start wearing my favorite clothes every day. I no longer own baggy sweatpants or uncomfortable jeans. And every day, I get to pick dresses and skirts and jeans and tunic tops that I love to wear.
This is now.

When one of my kids wants to have breakfast or lunch with me, when they come into my bedroom and plop down on the bed to watch television or talk or just hang out, I say a silent prayer of thanks, and turn up my emotional/relational/parental hearing aid and listen closely. My children will soon be 20 and 23 years of age; the fact that they still like hanging out with me, telling me their secrets and asking my advice is miraculous to me. I will go out for a mother-son breakfast date tomorrow morning. Sure, I could have offered to cook breakfast here at home for him and the rest of the family. But when my 19 year old son asked me to go out on a date with him two mornings before we take him and get him set up for his sophomore year in college, I said "YES" - and thought to myself, "This is now, Gail. Go out with your boy. This is now."

When friends write or text or call and ask to get together for tea or lunch or dinner or a walk, I try to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Life is short.
This is now.

Drive six hours one way to visit the incarcerated son of a dear friend?
Go with her, Gail.
This is now.

Tell someone my story about kanswer,
my family's story about mental illness,
about the challenges of marriage and parenting,
about how hard this faith journey, this life journey can be,
even when telling those stories moves me to tears?
Cry if you need to, Gail, but this is your story to tell.
This is the time to tell it.
This is now.

Speak up against racism and prejudice of other kinds, even when it feels uncomfortable?
When I feel uncomfortable and those who are listening are also uncomfortable?
People are dying now because of fear and misunderstanding.
Say something now, Gail.
This is now.

Don't keep postponing the good stuff.
Don't even postpone the challenging stuff.
Don't save your best dishes or dresses or smiles or compliments for some other time.
Don't save your hard-won wisdom or deepest convictions for some more convenient time,
for some more comfortable conversation.
Tell the truth now.
Stand up for justice and peace now.
Live with joy now.
Go for a walk and watch birds flitter from tree to tree now.
Eat the Nutter Butter cookie -
or better yet, make some vegan homemade chocolate chip cookies - now.
This is now.

Thanks, Mom, for challenging me to rethink how I live my life.
And all it took was an offer to eat some mixed nuts.

PS. Thank you all for your comments and encouragement during this month of blogging sabbatical. Thank you for coming back to read my ramblings.
Thank you for coming along for another leg of my life's journey.