Big Brother Musings

Photo by Hernan Pauccara on Pexels.com

Last week, I wrote a blog about my big brother Mike. On his death anniversary, March 18, I was searching for a file and, wouldn’t you know it, I came across a journal entry I wrote on his 17th year death anniversary. It still bears truth today and tickles my faith fancy.

Below is an excerpt:

I won’t deny that when you were alive, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about a replacement brother. The kind of big brother who takes you places above ground and not underground. The kind of brother who views life as more than mere survival on desert terrain and, instead, unrolls an oversized blanket on a rich, varied and textured terrain generous with rose-smelling opportunities.

No doubt about it. We spent a lot of time in the mud hole: bickering, arguing and sometimes having a knock-down, drag-out fight. We landed in plenty of fox holes, too, where our prayers were “God Help!” Succinct ones, but as fervent as the long, formal prayers.

Seventeen years later, and I darn well know that if given the chance for a replacement brother or you, there is no doubt to the one I would choose. I attribute my choice to you. Buried under a mountain of hurt, you were one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. Not because you were handsome, strong, generous, compassionate, highly intuitive and intelligent and a war hero to boot, but because you knew that everything, no matter how utterly defective, stained, sinned or doomed, could root, grow and live under one condition: that it is planted in a bedrock of unconditional love.

Thank you for leaving me this bedrock of a legacy. To allow myself to be vulnerable, trust and carry the message tirelessly to those who suffer and those who need strength. Most of all, thanks for being my Angel Michael, right next to Archangel Michael, as I trudge this road of happy destiny.

Dear Big Brother, I hope I see you someday. Feel your arms around me again and see the twinkle in your eyes when you gently whisper, “Peace.”

Faith Muscle

Mundane Mondays

Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on Pexels.com

Twenty years ago on March 8th, the towering rustic pine did not diminish my brother’s six-foot tallness underneath it. Alongside Mike, the sunshine glistened on the natural cork color of his Labrador mix, KO. The initials stood for “knockout.” In boxing, “a knockout (KO) is when a boxer stays down for a count to 10 from the referee, at which point the boxer loses the match to his opponent.” My brother borrowed the initials to name his dog, but they stood for a different kind of “knockout” — extremely attractive, striking, beautiful.

The tree on my property that framed KO and my brother together for the last time before my brother was gone did not weather the harsh winters and was beyond repair. I delayed the inevitable yard work for five years. Last spring, I finally hired tree removal professionals. I avoided watching the process and sought refuge in the kitchen on the other side of the house.

“Crack! Thump!” The fierce sounds cut through my iPod’s blaring music. After the tree fell and pounded its finale into the good earth, I stopped the music and soaked in the silence. In the sunlight’s stream of dancing dust particles, stillness, sadness, the mundane morning movement of the kitchen intermingled with the refrigerator’s hum. The digital clock’s glow. The overhead light’s buzzing whisper.

Two decades earlier on that ordinary Friday, March 8th, I walked into my kitchen. KO greeted me with an electrified wagging tale and slobbering mouth. Mike, bent in the corner, tinkered with the electrical socket. It was my brother’s modus operandi to drop by and randomly “fix” things. Many of the things he fixed, in fact, didn’t need fixing. A natural-born engineer, he loved to repair, rewire and rework household gadgets.

This time, like a kid opening a bag of early Easter chocolate eggs, rainbow-colored jellybeans and marshmallow Peeps, he beamed when he revealed a handful of brand-new gadgets.

“Wireless phone jacks! They go right into the power outlets. You just plug them in and you can have phones in every room now!” he explained.

Mike sounded as if he had just discovered a new cluster of stars in the galaxy, and I did not have the heart to tell him we didn’t need phones in every room nor did we have the money to purchase them.

As the afternoon waned, we roamed through the rooms testing the wireless jacks one final time. He promised me he would return with additional ones. I followed him and KO outdoors.  

We were both raised Catholic. We never discussed religion, but for some strange reason I asked him if he had gone to confession during lent. Catholics are required to receive the sacrament of reconciliation or confession once a year and lent is “an especially penitential season.”

“No,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone as if he were reminding me that it was just another Friday afternoon. Suddenly, I realized he had not been a practicing Catholic for decades. He had escaped our Catholic upbringing without the slightest indication of guilt, remorse, regret or fret. He was who he was, an independent person who was not influenced by anyone or anything. I admired him for that, and that is when the pine tree framed him and KO permanently in my mind.

Two days later in my kitchen, poring over my Market Day order that I picked up at the children’s elementary school, Brother Paul called from my mother’s house. I heard her cries in the background. He broke the news calmly, “Mike’s in the hospital. He had a stroke.”

“Stroke? No way.”

We were about to enjoy a microwaved casserole with vegetables, a seamless dinner without guesswork or prep time that night. Counters clean. Floor washed. How could I have received this shocking news? Day after day, week after week, year after year, I made it a point to fold my family into the safety of complete calm of mundane Mondays.

I got off the phone while my emotions melted like the frozen dinner left on the spotless counter. In the children’s bathroom, I retrieved the TUMS bottle that Mike had left behind on his last visit. My brother suffered from acid reflux all his life and always carried TUMS.

“He’ll be back. He needs his TUMS.” I pep talked myself until March 18 in 2002, when I learned of his death at the veteran’s hospital. Sixteen months after losing our dad to emphysema, I intercepted my brother and mom at the hospital’s elevator, forced to break the unbearable news.

Since 2000, after my dad died, my family’s fate is a permanent eclipse season.

TUMS, phone jacks, easy-to-prepare frozen dinners, no matter how tidy things are, even on spring’s cusp, I cannot shake death’s dirt off my heels. The images of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine brings the reality front and center, an attempt to dissimilate mundane Monday’s electrical circuit.

Fortunately, it isn’t a total solar eclipse. In the remaining light, faith illuminates our path. We reckon with our fate, one that is without a clear sense of control or direction. We muster enough strength to limp along on unsteady feet, consume the quiet circumfluent air, dependable light bulbs overhead.

Faith Muscle

Holiday🎃Season Kick-Start

When my children were young, the first sharp breeze, autumn’s precursor, stirred my enthusiasm. It signaled for me to uncover a special jewelry box and open the top drawer gathering dust from the year before. Inside was a treasure of assorted inexpensive trinkets that I spent seasons past unearthing at flea markets and tag sales. To me, though, the pieces were priceless because they helped me amplify the excitement of holiday time. Halloween kicked off the tradition. Two weeks before October 31st, I reached for my favorite troll pumpkin earrings and cottony ghost pin.

Earrings dangling and pin attached to my top, I performed the annual traipse up the attic stairs and started to pull out the jack-o’-lantern and fall leaf wreath. Christmas carols played in the background simply because I lacked a repertoire of Halloween music.

As a first-generation American child, my parents, both Eastern European immigrants, were not accustomed to Halloween. When I trick-or-treated around the neighborhood, I either went alone or joined a family a few blocks away. Each holiday, I wore the same old sheet I had worn the year before. My favorite part was at the end of the night when I came home and uncovered the scarcely distributed Hershey Bars among the bag of loot. An hour later, the juicy crunch of a fresh apple lessened the overly sweetening taste in my mouth from my consuming endless tootsie rolls and candy corn pieces.

I’ll never forget the Halloween when the TV news broadcast warned about evildoers hiding razors in apples. Learning about the deplorable act marked my innocence with its first blemish and elicited a spooky creaking door effect on my world, my first experience in adult boot camp.

After Halloween passed, my parents were big on church during Christmas, but, apart from that, they both worked tirelessly and viewed Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as a burden. Looking back, my mother was completely bereft of organizational strategies, and her cooked meals turned out to be so late that my much older brothers had typically disappeared by dinnertime. She was exhausted and couldn’t eat. My father rushed through his meal, famished. I ended up eating my holiday meals in solitude.

It made sense that when I celebrated the holidays with my own family, I compensated for what lacked in the holiday memories of my youth. It all started with cracking open the dusty jewelry box and then pulling out the big decorations from the attic. A lot of the household décor I purchased the day after Christmas, long before frugal consumers understood the extent of the meaning behind “After-Holiday Sale!” savings. Christmas, in fact, got to a point where all the household décor was switched out for holiday ornamentation. Instead of one tree, we had two. We started with one fresh green pine and one white artificial that later transitioned into another artificial tree.

My then husband was not as keen on Thanksgiving and Christmas as I was. I feared I had recreated a familiar pattern, but I did appreciate how he loved escorting our kids trick-or-treating. Looking back, his crafted jack-o’-lantern  had to be the spiffiest looking one in our neighborhood.

There wasn’t a moment that I did not burst with gratitude during any of the holidays, always feeling as if I were given a second chance to experience the magical component in them, and it started with flipping the lid open on the one dusty jewelry box. Even when some of the mostly China-made jewelry broke, I kept the pieces. To dispose of them was like discarding joy.

Some women might, rightly so, feel privileged by wearing mega-sized diamonds. For me, nothing could replace the delight I felt from the colorful plastic holiday turkeys on my jacket’s lapel and Christmas light bulb earrings catching on the collars of my clothes.

I am sure, if tragedy had not struck, I would continue to keep the jewelry box in my over-protective hands while woolgathering about myself dressed as a real-life ornament, a walking signal of joy among my future tribe of grandchildren. Instead, my hands are robbed by grief. The first sign was last year when I discarded the broken jewelry, only to slam the box shut, unable do anything else.

This year, I sorted through the rest of my holiday jewelry and then cleaned and polished the box before donating everything to Goodwill. As I did, I pictured the young children out there and moms who are cozy and busy with their lives, so much the way I had been. I know someone will uncover the stash at Goodwill with new eyes and hope for the future. Someone, I anticipate, who felt the same blissful way at Goodwill when they unearthed my freshly cleaned wedding gown that finally I was able to part with three years ago.

Like seasons, holidays are the ebb and flow of life. I read recently something I never knew. “Ebb and flow” means that sometimes our life flows toward our hopes and dreams, and sometimes it flows away. I see it as the rising and falling ocean, a harmony that can only continue if we hold tight while learning to surf, because the raw truth is, at one point or another, we realize we are all novices and there is no mastery at life, especially when it shocks us into knowing how true this is, and we are left grappling with abstract ideas like the meaning of faith.

Faith Muscle

Dusty Trails

Photo by Mica Asato on Pexels.com

Nearly a month ago, my neighbors’ only child, I’ll call her Felicity (one of my favorite names!), about whom I’ve written a previous blog post, relocated to attend a college about four hours away from home. I’ve not seen her mom, but her dad, as I’ve written about prior, is having a difficult time dealing with her departure.

All grief, as far as I am concerned, as I’ve also written about before, is valid. Whether you mourn the lose of a pet turtle or death of a child or grieve a child who has catapulted into the next stage of life, there is an infinite roll-out of feelings and emotions associated with a sense of loss. Grief is a natural response to a painful or traumatic experience that is part of the human condition over which we have no control over. This time, hearing my neighbor share a part of his heartbreak involving his daughter, I was able to step completely outside my personal emotional pain and maneuver my way onto the bridge that connects us humans better than Crazy Glue: empathy.

His tone had an absorbing melancholy when he discussed the slow fade of time. In other words, in retrospect, although you’re going all out, have both feet planted on the pedals, it’s a losing race.

“The house has a different energy about it without her,” he vocalized as his head tilted downward.

Energy. Yes, I thought, life is energy. In this same vein, his daughter’s departure could be a song: Felicity is packed. Ready to go. Boxes and bags, belongings and energy flow. All her belongings, only to leave us longing.

Thinking deeper about this, Felicity disappeared from her house, but not completely. You see,  Biology 101 teaches us that the body’s cells and organs work together to keep the body going, to make it the energy field that it is. As a safeguard, the body is also equipped with many natural defenses to help it stay alive. For instance, in order to fight infections, we humans “lose 200,000,000 skin cells every hour. During a 24-hour period, a person loses almost five thousand million skin cells.” In one year, the total amount of dead skin loss per person is more than eight pounds, that’s about as big as a Labrador puppy.

The process is our human way of shedding. What falls off us collects as dust. All those fast-flying gossamer bunnies you find nesting in the corner of the radiator and on your tables and windowsills are amassed mostly of former bits of yourself, which, in turn, provide a gourmet haven for dust mites!

And, here’s the point I’m getting at. About 20 years ago, I heard a renowned historic preservation architect speak. If you don’t know already, a historic preservation architect helps preserve old buildings that have historical value. Anyway, he said that each time a building is demolished, not only do we witness an inanimate object disappear, but, along with it, is the annihilation of a trail in human history – thousands upon thousands of shredded cells from the lives that once laughed, loved and experienced the many highs and lows of life on the premises. The architect’s somber talk, which kept me on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears, changed my life forever.

In my own house, built in 1980, after hearing the talk, I thought about the “remains” of the two families that lived here prior to us. Even though I am a germophobe, I know that they have left their marks in secret places that are spared from my cleaning habits. Sadly, the boy in the second family died in a horrific accident when he was 13. My children went to school with him and they always felt creeped out to know he lived in our home. His bedroom was where I once housed my office. His shreds of long-ago life filled me with faith and reminds me that he matters.

In essence, Felicity and her energy are gone, but her shredded skin still coats her house like angel dust. And this goes for my departed son, mom (my dad passed away before he ever could see our house), brother and my relocated daughter, our pets, and even ex-husband who lives in a state 600 miles away, not to mention all the many friends, extended family and acquaintances who have crossed my house’s threshold to visit over this 20-year span. Yes, they are all here somewhere in places invisible to the naked eye, but still close, like a whisper in my ear. Their remains peeled off during ebbs and flows in the tide of their lives. They are all part of my household history like my own skin that sheds at this very moment as I stroke my creative muse.  We partner peacefully, drifting, weaving tapestries from everything repurposed, sustainable and with a thread of hope that they will last through the remainder of the century and, if possible, push farther into the next dusty trail that sometimes seems like a riverbend ahead.

Faith Muscle

For the love of the prized pistachio

“Valuable things in life are free – love, moral support and time,” my karmic sister Prema shared this wisdom in her feedback after she read one of my blog posts a few weeks ago.

The way I see it, it boils down to living not for the adrenaline chase or the state of “more-ism” to fool us into believing we are immortal, it boils down to appreciating the moment. One of the best pieces of advice I received after experiencing our personal tragedy was from my friend Tippy who said that looking backward brings remorse, looking forward brings anxiety. The only place where we can find peace and contentment is in the present.

How do you do this? One way that I learned the wonderful art of mindfulness was by eating pistachios.

What sparked my memory of why I appreciate pistachios was a few recent advertisements that I received via email. I realized that I had a huge grin on my face while perusing the sales copy for them. (Disclaimer: I have no financial connection to this company and/or brand and am not employed and have never been employed by this company and/or brand.)

Reading about and seeing the wonderful pistachios made me recall a string of wonderful times. When my children were growing up, thankfully, they did not have food or nut allergies, and always loved pistachios. We were on a tight budget, but occasionally I’d splurge and buy a bag or more of pistachios to surprise them. Each and every time I presented a bag to them, they screamed in delight. It was the “I-scream-for-ice cream” kind of delight, but, in this case, it was for a penchant for pistachios.

The moment I walked into the house with the booty in hand, whether they were working on homework assignments, playing video games or with our beloved poodle, our world stopped spinning long enough for us to hanker down and nosh on the tasty morsels. Not only chores, but concerns went wayside as we ate in a slow motion fashion. With the pistachio, of course, we didn’t just gobble them down like gluttonous renegades on the prowl, because the shells don’t allow it. Sometimes, though, I did become aggravated when I’d encountered the uncrackable shell, and I started feeling as if we were wasting our time snacking. This was when the dirty dishes, homework and chore list started to clamor in my mind. However, after a few moments, perhaps, because the salt had an ocean-like calming effect on me, I managed to erase the annoying interference.

I look back at these times as holy moments. Moments when we paused, in-sync, in harmony and, really, really grateful for something so small that possessed the uncanny power of providing us with an extraordinary amount of substance. Some people may have found comfort in possessions like horse stables, built-in swimming pools and spas and vacation homes around the world. We had banked on shared bags of pistachios. The investment never failed and, instead, bonded us with love, belonging and awakened every fiber of our authentic selves. We esoterically understood “valuable things in life are free” as we ate those “wonderful” treats in a kitchen accented in generous sunlight, laughter and spontaneous movement.

Who would have dreamed that during those “blessed” moments things were growing, changing, transforming, metamorphosing like our own body cells. Nothing, after all, is permanent.

In the classic novel, Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier writes, “I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day, and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched.”

Untouchable is the word to categorize that time of mindfulness with my children before time itself twisted and warped the outcome. I can’t look back for too long like Tippy advised, but I can take a quick peek and garner some positive inspiration from the past that fills me with faith today. I can take advantage of the Wonderful Pistachio sale and go shopping for a bag of wonderful pistachios. Returning home, booty in hand, I can take aim at my higher senses and taste the magic of the moment, because this moment, this very moment is like a farewell and will only leave a barren shell behind to look back at one day.

Faith Muscle

Hallmark’s Hallmark?

Photo by Michelle Leman on Pexels.com

(The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.)

Since 1986, I’ve harbored a secret resentment against Hallmark Cards. In that year, in my 20s, I though it was a slam dunk to apply for a job opening at the company that I saw advertised and was all psyched to move from New England to their Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters.

Growing up pre-internet days, while some kids played baseball, bowled and participated in other leisure activities, I bicycled to the drugstore downtown and browsed through greeting cards that I later personalized, writing about my life’s rather mundane updates. Just like an evening ritual glass of milk before bed, I had my trip to the mailbox at the end of the street where I would deposit a handful of Hallmark Cards addressed to friends and family.

Understandably, I had one hundred percent, unshakable faith that I would land the Hallmark Card writing job. Plus, I possessed the required education and background and enough creativity to grow old with the company. For a solid week after my day job, skipping dinner, I typed my application into the late-night hours, which included brainstorming and writing a variety of sample greeting card sentiments. Upon completion, I packaged the bundle and mailed the application. Afterwards, I even mentioned to a number of people my impending Kansas City move. I spent weeks elevated behind my rose-colored glasses, visualizing a future made for a sappy greeting card.

I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come
I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come.

That was my theme song that I sang to myself as the days rolled into weeks. By week six, I received a form rejection letter from the company that floored me. Like all form rejection letters, it basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

After receiving the bad news, I felt utterly dejected for weeks. My dreams of becoming a greeting card writer were strip cut and made undistinguishable as if they were forced through a paper shredder. Deep inside, decades later, I still feel a tad resentful over the missed opportunity that when I least expect it, kicks in the “What if’s.”

My failed career experience, however, did not stop me from being a loyal Hallmark customer. I still purchase Hallmark cards along, of course, with other brands, to send to family and friends. Though I’ve cut the volume down immensely, thanks to the internet, sending a few cards for special and “Just Because” occasions is still like a secret mission of mine that I like to keep up on.

Needless to say, I am part of the Hallmark Gold Crown rewards program, which means I receive monthly promotional coupons.

Here’s the dicey part. After our family tragedy, I felt like an out-of-control mechanical bull was bucking and spinning in my belly when I realized that every Hallmark Card coupon code started with four letters: “SUIC.”

Granted, to 99.9% of the population, those letters are an innocuous, random combination. To “survivors” such as myself, the manual control joystick on that mechanical rodeo bull in my belly malfunctions, gets stuck in “10,” the highest speed, and cannot be disabled.

Each and every time I wanted to reach out to the company, but between my PTSD and my age, I don’t stray too far from my safe bubble. So, month after month, I “let it go” and turned a blind eye to the coupon code.

Recently, I opened my Hallmark Gold Crown rewards email, and the bull straddled my belly, kicked and spun so hard that, without a second thought, I immediately sent Hallmark customer service a note. Part of it stated: “….As a loyal customer, every time I receive a Hallmark Gold Crown rewards certificate, I am distressed to see the following promo code at the beginning of all promo codes: ‘SUIC.'”

To me, I always fill in the rest of the blanks SUICide. Aren’t there any other letters you can start your promo codes with? Is it in anyway possible to change this letter combination considering the sensitive nature of suicide loss survivors?”

I hit the “Submit” button and didn’t expect much. This time, 24 hours later, Hallmark sent me much more than I expected. It might have been partially a form letter, but not completely.

“We are deeply sorry to know about your loss and appreciate the time you have taken to let us know your thoughts about the initial name of the promo codes. We understand your concern because we strive for great customer service. We hope you will accept our apologies for this inconvenience. As with all of our incidents, this will be sent up to our feedback department so it can be reviewed by them in their next discussion and take into consideration. We can assure you that your feedback will be heard, but we can not guarantee a change will occur.”

Rose-colored glasses removed, cynical me, I figured, “I’ll never hear from them again.” Surprise! Surprise!

So a few hours after the letter, I receive a new coupon in the mail:

$2 Reward

2021 August | EXPIRES: 10/31/2021

Use this PROMO CODE online: SUIA459890056

Notice the SUIA instead of SUIC

I don’t know if this is a result of my feedback, but, man, that helps gives me faith. Perhaps, during one of those rare moments in my life, I’ve been heard and influenced a tiny smidgen of life. My long-ago resentment is wiped clean, the mechanical rodeo bull disabled, and I’m taking my newest coupon to the Hallmark store to stock up. I’m fired up to restart my spreading-good-cheer mission initiative. Who knows, maybe while on a high note, writing notes, I’ll revisit my resume, research what greeting card writer opportunities are out there these days.

UPDATE:

So much for helping me keep the faith. I received a new code coupon with the SUIC code again. Bummer. I think I’ll write an old-fashioned letter to the corporate office. 😞 (I will keep my blogging community updated!)

Pondering Poodles & Other Toys

If I lived a storybook happy-ending life, today would have marked 30 years of marriage for my ex-husband and me. During our 19-year marriage, we shared a mutual dream. When we hit the retirement years, our goal was to rent an RV and rescue a group, seven was the lucky number, of abandoned old poodles in the local shelters. With our poodle family packed and ready, we planned to enjoy a year-long road trip from our east coast home to Alaska.

My ex-husband’s brainstorm of an idea was to co-author our own version of Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I was all for it and eager to chronicle our Alaskan adventure in the same fashion of the great American writer’s experience driving across America with Charley, his French poodle. Throughout each passing year, especially at night when I was tired and spent from a full day, my ex would smile and in a soft whisper say, Travels with Charley.

Those three words, our secret code, was the necessitated adrenaline that renewed my spark and carried me through the day’s remaining hours on a positive note.

Around 2007, our young family even toured the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, California, in the area were the author grew up. As I write this post and visit the website to retrace our memories, pure emotional pain veils, like a fetal membrane, my remembrances of our time that we enjoyed in the Golden State together. It is almost incomprehensible now how naïve and innocent I was and how I viewed life on a permanent mural and not on a temporary “Etch A Sketch” toy board.

Anyway, my ex-husband and I never rescued one poodle, apart from the rescue poodle Crouton, whom I already owned. When 2010 rolled around, we could not rescue ourselves. The bottom of our Titanic-fated house sliced open after ramming into a financial disaster iceberg. I went down with the ship. My ex-husband bolted to safety. In fact, I recall that the last time my ex held Crouton was shortly after I learned the raw truth of his departure, before he relocated to a state some 600 miles away. As I bawled my eyes out in the bedroom nesting in the bed, he entered, cradling the dog in his arms, and with a bitter tone he said, “Why don’t you sleep with Crouton tonight.”

Prior to this fateful night, what tripped me up was that I thought the “in sickness and in health; for richer for poorer … “ wedding vows shadowed us and stretched way past the final hours of our wedding day celebration. In other words, I put my life and faith in those vows. Certainly, when I promenaded down the church aisle on the seasonally perfect May day and relished in his face aglow and blast-of-white smile 30 years ago, nothing nor no one could erase the future promise I foresaw. It was as clear in my mind as the intense blue, cloudless sky. Every line of the manuscript in my mind — beginning, middle and end was underscored with “happy.”

As said earlier, I was naïve and innocent and viewed life on a permanent mural not on a temporary “Etch A Sketch” toy board. Unfortunately, what I learned decades later was that his life views paralleled the meaning behind that classic toy: “When you’re done, turn over and shake to erase — then, start the fun all over again.”

At the beginning of our marriage, much of his attention went to a new managerial career while I focused on an infant born with a heart defect. The situation kicked me into a dismal trajectory and the sad ending was that I became an archaic, displaced worker, which later added to our financial burdens. As decades passed, though, admittedly I gained my greatest worth from my role as a mother. My ex gained his worth by being away from home in places where he could garner the full attention that he necessitated as his mental state tore away. Our worlds existed in separate orbits and one day spun out of control and in the frenzy our dreams disappeared.

Sadly, we were required to cash in our retirement fund that helped pay for our divorce legal fees. At that point and time, we could not afford to pay our mortgage, never mind buy an RV. And the road map to Alaska that we so diligently planned was switched out with a map that took us not to a destination but to near destitution with a terribly messy and costly divorce.

I can’t turn time back to the Saturday of our wedding that draped us in its turquoise sky and stroked us in gentle warm breezes. Sometimes I think the pure white Calla Lillies that almost slipped out of the bouquet while I promenaded down the aisle symbolized an omen. Or maybe bad luck unfolded when my soon-to-be groom accidentally saw me that morning before we exchanged our vows later in the day. As a side note, it brought great solace to me when Mrs. B. confided to me that her soon-to-be-husband also saw her by pure accident on their wedding day and they marked 30 years of marriage the same year we married!

Luck or no luck. Good endings. Bad endings. Things happen out of our control. Raw reality is: we are out of control, because all things, including us, are temporary etchings in life. That’s the short and long of it. Life can trick you into believing that we are the authors of our life as surely as the left control on an Etch A Sketch moves the stylus horizontally, the right one moves it vertically. Shake, make it disappear. However, raw truth be told, the design for living has a deadline. When the ending, happy or sad, arrives, there’s no twisting the white knobs on the classic red board, because life magically disappears just like the miles in the review mirror that usher us forward to a great American road trip.

Faith Muscle

Prayer House

Photo by Bastian Riccardi on Pexels.com

Every night for four years, with few exceptions, my dearest friend Pat, a former religious sister, now layperson member of the Carmelite Order, and I prayed for ourselves as well as dozens of other people … Mark, Sarah, Rebecca. As the years passed, we squeezed in new names … Joey and Anthony …. We squinted to read the growing names and intentions on the list that was about the size of an index card.

Always topping the list were the names of my two children and ending the list were the names of those who had passed over.

For the first two years, we prayed on the telephone. The last two years after Pat moved in with me, we congregated at our kitchen table. We prayed for health, wealth, romance, reconciliation or safety for those near and dear. No one could have convinced me that our prayers were left unanswered. Jobless friends obtained job offers. Sick friends became well again … at our table, it was as if we ordered from an a la carte menu … two burgers and one large order of fries, no special sauce. Bottomless bounty was served!

In 2018, we witnessed a miracle. A man in his early 30s, whom we did not know, but heard about from our priest, was run over by a car at a busy intersection. He survived the crash, but he slipped into a coma. Odds of recovery, grim. Through the grapevine we also heard, he was the only son to a mother who had recently immigrated to America. At that time, I could not imagine if something that horrific happened in my cozy,  little life. I prayed, “Please God, help this young man. We ask a miracle … if it is your Holy Will.”

.… “If it is your Holy will.” We capped off each prayer this way, because it reconfirmed our humble servant status. It reminded us that we were not the creators of this world and powerless to perform God’s work. Looking back, I was only kidding myself. When that young man came to consciousness and recovered, everyone called it “a miracle.” My egotistic self knew it was through the specific prayers we prayed at the kitchen table night after night for a month that he was alive and well.

As I said earlier, my young adult children always topped off the prayer list. Year after year, our intentions for them were consistent: good physical and mental health, good jobs and good spouses. For my son, there was always one constant request: help him find a friend.

Week after week, month after month, I knew we were getting closer to our intentions being granted. After we concluded our 20- or 30-minute prayer sessions, Pat gently placed the list under a statue in the kitchen of St. Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of Jesus. In the Catholic Church, he is recognized as the patron saint of workers. The statue is about three and a half inches long, and the saint is depicted lying on his side, sleeping. The reason behind the supine pose is that it is believed that an angel spoke to St. Joseph in a dream on two occasions to give him much needed direction. We liked to believe that every night while we slept, he “worked hard” and assisted us with his powerful intercession, and obtained for us from the Divine Son all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. We recited specific St. Joseph prayers and they sealed my concrete-like faith.

On the night before our personal tragedy blew our little bubble world into smithereens leaving the hot shrapnel embedded into every crevice of my mind, heart and spirit, we recited our routine prayers. Less than 15 hours later, I laid on the floor like the St. Joseph statue. Of course I was orbits away from being in the state of placid rest. I pleaded, beseeched and begged the invisible air to change what had occurred, my body in a convulsion state. And, so it was. The unspeakable and unimaginable from that day forward was a hard blow and, for me living with grief means crawling, because I feel like I carry 900 pounds of hot shrapnel day after day, week after week, over 17 months later.

I was the one who did not have another prayer request left in me, and Pat and I haven’t prayed since that fateful night. Memories of the last time praying together, and I can still visualize the lit candle dancing around the kitchen, coating our faces within a warm glow, and our spirits free to cavort with the frolicking candlelight.

As my lips fall to silence, Pat, with her religious zeal, that I so admire, has not slackened one bit in her prayer life. If anything, her prayer time has accelerated. For me, right now, I am trying to reckon with my powerlessness and I just listen. Be and leave the BElieving alone, because I don’t want to spark my ego into thinking I have any control on the ways of the world. Just as I possessed no control over the young man who baffled science and fully recovered from a near-fatal car accident. In the same way, I possess no control over my son’s unspeakable set of circumstances.

As a trained journalist, I always wanted the know the answers. Now, I don’t even know the questions to ask. I just know that I don’t mind seeing the statue of St. Joseph asleep and allowing it to remain in our kitchen. He looks comfortable, but, strangely, lonely. Sometimes I have a hankering to say, “Pat! Where’s the list? Can we pray?”

Instead, I remain silent. I can’t fathom another disappointment or letdown. Now, I automatically take cover and duck and don’t stand in the way of life. Especially at night, I reckon with the feeling of loneliness and stark silence in the kitchen, even with the background music. I use what remaining energy I have to BElieve the sun will rise, and I don’t have to lift a finger to help that fireball to ignite.

Faith Muscle

Fear Mongrels

Photo by Mile Ribeiro on Pexels.com

Since childhood, the bullies in my garden of life are as plentiful as three-leaf clovers. Their job is to intimidate and control. Sling insults, impede success and flatten everyone who appears on their radar.

After a bully encounter with the one of the two bullies, who are like Velcro in my life in spite of my grief journey, I am left with an indifferent acceptance fueling a slow burn in the pit of my chest. Afterwards, I quell my uncomfortable feelings by sprinkling a pollyannish delish sweetener on my angst. Many times, however, the discomfort awakens me at 3 p.m. like a pulled muscle.  

My denial doesn’t trick me any longer into believing that the bullies are acceptable. In reality, bullying behavior under the best of circumstances has the same effect of a concoction of artificial chemicals in the body.

Now, in the final chapter of my life, I am removing toxins, starting a healthy diet and getting fitted for big girl panties. After all, how long can one survive on toxicity? Sometimes, though, finding voice, drawing the line and saying, “No More!” seems like an impossible conquest.

Uncharitable, unkind bullies seem “blessed” in my circle of family and friends. Their big ego magnets attract big things. One bully, for example, who is now an adult, but used to mercilessly insult my son in middle school, has not only survived, but, apparently thrived, having recently obtained a supervisory position. The job involves children, and I wonder if he has outgrown his bully behavior. I wonder what will he pass on?

Bullies come in all ages and from all backgrounds. Bullies rein with a rod of thunder that elicits fear. Their mission is to control the moves on life’s chessboard.

My mission is to stop perpetuating the cycle. If fear and faith are segregated roommates then I am at that point where I am friending faith. This does not mean fear magically disappears. This means, I have to look it in the eye and die … but not REALLY die, because that’s fear talking, lying and stripping me of my birthright dignity. The only path to victory is having the wherewithal to weld a faith shield. I can do that, because I, too, am blessed with courage to climb higher, above fear’s bondage and escape into freedom outside the prison of running scared.

Faith Muscle

B-Day Bashes, Messy Dryers &Other Musings

B-Day Bashes, Messy Dryers & Other Musings

One year ago yesterday we had a surprise birthday party for my dear friend Pat on her 85th birthday. In essence, it also symbolized a good-bye party. Little did any of the celebrants know that our world was about to change BIG TIME. I mean, I don’t think there was one single person at that party that could pronounce the word “Covid,” never mind define it.

Over this past year, I remember the party and feel it symbolized a halcyon day of rebellion. We happily huddled together. Shared endless trays of food. Who would have ever dreamed of covering our over-stretched smiles with a mask? No way.

Wow, we were fortunate to get in one last hurrah, before the world turned around like a load of laundry in the dryer, and you never knew what would tumble out at you first when the drying cycle finished.

To this day, none of us at that party, as far as I know, ever caught COVID-19. Of course, others in the world were not as fortunate as we were. This past year, though, most of us have faced a range of pandemic-related challenges and stresses like lost jobs and a rise in mental health illnesses.

No doubt, over this past year, faith tests were generously distributed. I know I nearly flunked a few, but mostly achieved some pretty impressive scores. How was this possible? Because as I’ve written about before, the pandemic was a good time for me to regroup. Grieve peacefully. Grieve fully. Do you know how much fire-ball energy I realized I saved by not having to put on a fake face forward?

For me, it’s been a recovery period in which I could truly just back up from the world and lean into what matters–an intimate circle of friends and family.

Pat, for instance, is part of that group. Never mind that she is, in my eyes, one of the few highly religious people that I’ve known who is not a hypocrite. As we say in the 12-step program, “she walks the walk.” Never mind that her faith, even in the eye of total injustice, never fails to see the goodness of love.

If I could ever choose anyone at anytime to be in my foxhole, it would be her. In fact, she was the one who peeled me off the hardwood floor after learning the tragic news about my son who died by suicide 16 months ago. And, in the days and months that followed, I felt like a marionette who dropped off the stage of life. Pat was the one who lifted the strings, gently, consistently until I could accomplish a bit of light lifting on my own.

Guaranteed, her score on her faith tests over this past year were straight As. When I was a child and struggled in school, my mom used to say, “Sit next to the smartest kid in class and see what they are doing.”

Yes, Pat has been my guide, inspiration and “study buddy,” especially these last 16 months since the tragedy and the pandemic and when the world started to whirl like an out-of-control dryer full of clothes. Let me tell you, I would have been a no-show for the first faith test presented, never persevering and enduring the series that followed.

When it comes to faith, she has made Mensa in her life. Maybe it takes 85 years to reach that status. Me, I have a ways to go!

HAPPY 86th birthday, Pat!

Faith Muscle