🌊 Is that you, Beach Lady? 🌊

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Butterfly season is winding down. When I go outside to pick tomatoes in the garden, even on the high-temperature days, I feel a lack of warmth in the air, and it’s not only because we are headed into autumn. I search around the perimeter of the yard as if I am a grammar school kid waiting for my neighborhood buddy to meet up and play.

In my case, I await the “Painted Lady,” but she has disappeared. I suppose she already migrated south to Mexico, although I wish she stayed around just a little longer. I had become accustomed to my daily garden visitor. I’ve never really paid much attention to butterflies until I met this one. She was fearless. A few times when she orbited near my face, she startled me. Each time I went outside, I began to long for her peaceful presence. Her delicious tangerine-colored body made me yearn for a ripe summer fruit. The white spots and black markings on her wings drew me in further. It was as if I were stalled from my daily routine and, instead, standing inside an art gallery, meditating on a painting’s technique and imagery. Her appearance awakened my senses as if they were young and keen again.

One day in mid-July, I had a sudden feeling of recognition at the sight of her. “Is that you, Beach Lady?”

Could the Painted Lady possibly be a reincarnation of the Beach Lady, an extraordinary woman I met in the early 2000s during my travel writing days?

You see, I was working on a story about Amelia Island in Florida and was introduced to MaVynee Betsch. In the same year she was born, 1935, her great-grandfather, A.L. (Abraham Lincoln) Lewis, one of the seven co-founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and Florida’s first Black millionaire, bought the American Beach property on Amelia Island.

As racial segregation and oppression escalated across the United States, A.L. purchased what, thanks predominately to Mavynee’s influence, today is designated as a Florida Heritage Landmark. His vision was to create a beach resort to benefit his company’s executives and also use as a sales incentive for his employees. What’s more, he opened up American Beach to the Black population. In essence, it was a safe haven for the marginalized population to experience sun, respite and fun.

I only spent a weekend with A.L.’s great-granddaughter, but the environmental activist reinforced my views of the preservation of our natural resources. She, too, inspired me to believe that positive outcomes were possible. After all, she had spent a core of her life fighting to preserve and protect a historically African-American beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. She additionally provided me with enough food for thought to help fill my insatiable appetite for American history.

When I first met the Beach Lady, as she was lovingly called, she lived predominately in a trailer on the property where she was as much a fixture as the land she loved, a diamond by the sea. The most unique diamond that I can imagine. Actually, she preferred to wear shell and beach stone-themed jewelry, and when she walked, she rattled.

Whenever I picture her crease-less face with her hair packed on the top of her head like a solid soup tureen and free falling dreadlocks down past her ankles, I first remember her sandy, bare feet. Her dark toes were full of the contrasting light-colored American Beach sand. The little shells wrapped around her ankles were as distinct as the bold orangy colors that draped her body. Her statement was loud and clear in the many button pins, including political and pro-vegetarianism, attached to her hair and clothing. Her ageless-aging process was an example that builds me up as I now watch liver spots form near the palms of my hands. When, for example, I dare to go against convention and wear my rose tinted, lizard-patterned boots that shout “totally inappropriate for my age,” the Beach Lady’s legacy fuels every step in my soles.

Her six-foot height along with her over foot-long nails curling from her fingers on one hand matched her big, beautiful personality. Everything about her was as natural as the sun, sea and sky. For over 20 years, she allowed her hair to grow without touching up the grays or cutting any of it. Some of her tresses, in fact, measured over seven-feet long. Her stretched-to-the sky fingernails proved the point that things could have natural, healthy growth without any meat protein.

“All I want is to be reincarnated into a butterfly,” she announced to me on numerous occasions.

A few years later, I learned that the Beach Lady died from cancer at the age of 70 in 2005. She was posthumously honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama in the same year.

So nearly twenty years after meeting her in person, I suddenly see a bright and beautiful butterfly greeting me at every turn. Is it possibly her in a new form front and center in my backyard? Did she get her wish? If anyone should have been granted everything she wished for, it was MaVynee Betsch.

All summer long, every time I spotted the butterfly, I couldn’t help but inquire out load, “Is that you, Beach Lady?”

Whether it really was the Beach Lady reincarnated into a butterfly or my pure imagination or not, the Painted Lady gave me a little faith to realize that when we are beaten down to soil level proportions, sometimes all we need is a flutter of hope to defy gravity.

Faith Muscle

Hurrah Hosta

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When schedules and plans screw up, I owe my “it wasn’t meant to be” reaction to a former friend, Chris T. I met him over 30 years ago when black and white thinking, also known as a dichotomous thinking, caused me much disappointment when situations didn’t work out as planned.

You see, a few months after I met Chris, I was highly anticipating an upcoming out-of-town weekend away with a friend. Then she called me a week prior to our planned three-day excursion to inform me that she had to cancel our plans, because of family obligations.

Never mind black and white. All I saw was red. Even though she profusely apologized and the hotel agreed to refund our room deposits, I just couldn’t let the anger go. My emotions soared, as if I were commanding the wheel of a fire engine headed to a 24/7 wave of emergency blazes. Three days after reeling from disappointment, I ran into Chris and nearly hyperventilated as I conveyed my despair over my canceled trip.

When I finished explaining my situation, he simply stared at me and belted out, “So? So?”

I stood baffled at his response, waiting for an explanation.

“It’s a damn GOOD thing you’re not going!”

“What?” My bafflement was now more like shock.

“It wasn’t meant to be. Do you know you could have been involved in a car accident if you had gone? Maybe paralyzed for life — or maybe something worse. It’s a damn good thing you didn’t go. You should be grateful … ”

On and on he went. I felt as if I had accidentally landed on some remote island, met one of the natives and was trying with great difficulty to understand the language. I walked away without fully grasping the point he was making, but he planted a seed.

As my relationship with Chris grew, my perceptions about my life outlook slowly widened. I started comprehending the notion of gray thinking and, by doing so, I added a lot of interesting colors on my life palate. I mean, black and white aren’t even considered to be colors!

Below is an excellent explanation that I found on the internet of why:

“In physics, a color is visible light with a specific wavelength. Black and white are not colors because they do not have specific wavelengths. Instead, white light contains all wavelengths of visible light. Black, on the other hand, is the absence of visible light.”

As I consciously practiced this new, more flexible lifestyle, and learned to let go of unplanned outcomes, my trips to the gastroenterologist became less frequent. Over thirty years later, I cannot tell you how this conscious practice saves me each and every time when my black and white thinking returns, because it still does.

Take for instance, over a week ago. As much as I wanted to leave the house early and embark on a walk around the neighborhood, I left later than planned. By then, it was hot and humid, and it was making me feel crankier than usual. In fact, I almost turned around to return home. Those little critic critters in my mind kept beating my brain, saying, “You should have left earlier. You should have left earlier.”

Finally, I just shouted repeatedly to them: “Shut up!”

The strategy worked. It usually does. I made the rest of my walk in relative solitude. Looping back around, about 10 minutes away from home, I espied a sign, “FREE!” A kind, generous neighbor had plopped up the sign against a few dozen uprooted hosta plants that were for the taking. The plants had not been there when I had first started my walk. They were a gift to me, because it solved my dilemma as far as what type of flora I should plant around the house. I ended up picking the lot up later and putting them in my car’s trunk. A week later, they are growing nicely.

So, the moral of the story is: if I had left for my walk as planned, I would have missed the plant giveaway! Even though in my mind, the timing of the walk was off, it was, in actuality, exactly right! It illustrates exactly Chris’ point that changed my life so long ago.

Now, fast forward a few days later: thanks to the influence of Chris T. in my life and thanks to the hosta, I didn’t get too depressed about not being able to attend the Connecticut Press Club awards presentation last Wednesday.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to attend.

Instead of being recognized for winning FIRST prize for blogging and an honorable mention for travel writing at the awards ceremony and having an opportunity to meet the presenter, who is a pretty well-know author, I watered newly planted hosta that night.

As a “consolation prize,” I squirted the hose, watered down my sad emotions and lectured myself that there was a reason that it was better I did not attend the ceremony. ‘Who knows,’ I told myself, ‘maybe I would have tripped and twisted my ankle … or … ’ It simply wasn’t meant to be. Have a little faith and just say ‘thanks’ to the universe for blocking the whole shindig.

I dreaded looking at the event’s Facebook pic, but I forced myself to observe all the smiling faces, and I even offered my “Congrats!” to the winners. They really looked happy. Ego aside, I was happy for them.

Two days after the awards presentation, the good news is, I tested negative and I am Covid-free. Admittedly, still tired and a tad congested, but I have the best winner’s circle: a clean bill of health and one of the most empathetic and inspirational blogging communities I can imagine. In addition, I also have an assortment of hostas that lift their stalks up to the sun and remind me that roaring success is based on daily building blocks of achievements, such as making the bed first thing in the morning and watering the plants before nightfall.

Faith Muscle

Big Brother Musings

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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

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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

It will be

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Sometimes it seems as if certain people are granted an easier road to travel in life. My mother, though, always reminded me not to judge because, “You never know someone’s ending.”

What she meant by this lesson is that everyone has to face his or her final hour on earth, and we never know when, how or what the extent of that suffering will entail. The point of what my mother meant was not let it be but it will be.

After my personal tragedy, I fully appreciated my mom’s lesson in mortality. Take for example my former college roommate Susan, just a few years older than I. A recent retiree, she had led an extremely successful career in education. Susan brisked through a fairy tale life, with endless chapters of characters derived from a large, loving family and also a small, tight-knit community where she grew up.  I can tell you firsthand that she loved her roots. No matter where her life’s travels brought her, she toted her treasured family and small town pride everywhere.

One month before my tragedy, the doctors diagnosed 64-year-old Susan with cancer. I do not recall the exact kind of cancer that it was,  but it was the type that you have no doubt you will beat. After 18 months of surgeries and treatments, while she and others prayed dozens of prayers and never lost faith, it beat her down to a skeleton, and she died in the middle of savoring her ripe American Dream lifestyle. Bam! Just like that she disappeared right before the eyes of her loving, doting husband of 40 years, not to mention her healthy, successful children and their adorable offspring.

Sometimes even before our family tragedy, my eyes, bulging green with envy, inspected her Facebook pages full of the knitted scarfs, hats and mittens that she crafted for each of her grandchildren. I observed, too, how she toiled away on her month’s long project of converting her childhood Barbie and Ken playhouse into a revamped vintage toy dream house for her grandchildren.

When you have “it all,” or close to it, it’s so easy to believe life here on earth is eternal. In this way, the end is always a nasty surprise or, perhaps, a complete shock. There is no way around it.  Years ago, I watched a freaky movie. In it, a young boy could foresee the death of people that were alive in front of him. So often, this is the foresight I now have, carrying my mom’s interpretation of life. No one, not even people like Queen Elizabeth and Kim Kardashian, can escape our human fragility.  We can fool ourselves to think differently, but it will be.

I remind myself of it will be and, in the interim, let it be. Accept it. Embrace it. Just be. There’s a dark alternative and some choose that path of finality, but I’m not here to analyze, preach or judge. I’m here to hear my pain, your pain, the world’s pain and face the raw reality and, maybe, just maybe if we have a little faith in the universal language of human vulnerability, we can surrender our search for happiness, because we have made peace with ourselves.

And, when I am not in my own sorrow and mourning my own son and the consequences of his final act and what it means to us left behind, I can lift my thoughts to Susan and her family and the others she has left behind. I can remember my friend Mary. And I can think about how some of the pain people suffer behind the walls of their million dollar mansions is to the same degree as those of our homeless brothers and sisters in New York City. In this muck of feelings, failings and fallings, I can pull through a divine thread that is naked to the human eyes, but felt by the human hearts of those who surrender to the vision of how it will be and allow it to be because that’s how it is. 

Faith Muscle