Turner Tales

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My friend Turner taught me two things: one, to never underestimate the power of a door and two, to never underestimate the power of God.

After a few minor scrapes with the law as a juvenile, Turner committed multiple armed robberies in his early adulthood. He paid gravely for his crimes, spending more time behind bars than on the outside. After his final incarceration, he participated in a number of rehabilitation programs, determined to keep himself on the straight and narrow. I met him in a support group two years after his final prison release, and he remained in my life for over twenty years until he died of cancer about five years ago.

Turner acquiesced wholeheartedly into society and became a respected, hardworking, tax-paying citizen, not to mention a mentor to many, including me. However, he functioned in a state of high alert in the free world and could not escape the tight grip of hypervigilance. Whenever he saw or heard a door in motion, he couldn’t help but flashback to the echo of heavy metal. It spilled over him like a slow-motion train slipping off the track.

Turner explained that in lockup, the opening and closing of the security doors follow the daily schedule of a prisoner and attentiveness to prison doors stands above clock-watching. Life seems as predictable as peeling a potato, but over the years, the deafening, resonant clang of the metal doors knifed Turner’s brain more than the constant bellow of insults and orders behind prison walls.

In fact, the first time Turner faced the dungeon gate, he tumbled backward. His one-time youthful hopes, dreams, plans dissolved. When you serve time, he said, no matter if they open or close, prison doors lead to nowhere. You begin where you end, like hopping into a prop car bolted onto a stage floor. Needless to say, ten years after his release, he bought a house and removed every single interior door.

Over the decades, Turner acquired a deep faith in the God of his understanding and never forgot to thank his higher power for his new life and the freedom to do such things as remove doors at will — at least in his home. He also never failed to express his gratitude to our group. As is our tradition, we encouraged Turner in the same way we did each other. Despite our empathy and understanding, we experienced a few occasions when the subject turned to God and His will for us. Typically, a few members plowed into a tangent and looped themselves into an esoteric, high-pitched dialogue about the nature of the supreme influence over the universe.

Rising like a three-hundred pound totem pole, Turner’s nearly seven feet of height would tower over us. His reddened face reared with bulging eyes, turning side to side above his vintage leather jacket that crackled like kernels changing to popcorn.

“God? God? You want to talk about God? Go ahead! I’m out of here, because who the hell am I to hear or talk about God and try and figure out what his or her plans are or aren’t? I’m nothing in the face of God, the divine, the almighty. Nothing. I have less significance than a roach racing around a prison cell compared to him. Her. It. And that’s a good thing because all I know is: I matter. You matter. We matter. And if we get all holed up and locked into trying to figure out things that aren’t to be figured out, we’ll lose sight of what really matters today. There’s no guarantee of tomorrow.”

Each and every time, Turner instantly deflated our egos, a sense of peace saturated the room into an unplanned moment of silence. An outsider could have felt the brotherly-sisterly connection of those thirty or so people in the group. We sure did. Fortunately, Turner never barged out of the room, and the meeting resumed in a calm, collective spirit. You see, this former Hell’s Angel was our angel of wisdom. He opened the door that led us to a spiritual space where the door shut tightly behind us. We were safe because self-seeking was left on the other side of the door. Our holy ground we secured under our feet among notorious sinners who, in our eyes, were on their way to sainthood. What I’ve learned from Turner and so many like him, is: if false pride is the deadliest of all sins, then humility is the greatest virtue.

To this day, every time I get into the war zone of my crazy, little, take-charge head of mine, I remember Turner. I inhale deeply, swing open the confinement of my mind’s door and run wild and free.

Faith Muscle

Faith in a Nutshell

Faith Muscle

Love 🤍 Lives Here

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Every time I see a lawn sign: “Love Lives Here,” I think of Geraldine. She was decades older than I was and has since relocated to another state, but was my support group mentor for two years when I was in my 20s. Geraldine was a budding artist married to a world renowned architect. The couple lived by the sound in an area known as the Gold Coast, an affluent part of western Connecticut.

We spent a good amount of time driving around the area, deep in conversation about the messy sides of love and life. Every now and then, I espied a particularly luxurious house and the green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head, leading me to ask with a sneer, “Why can’t I live in a house like that?”

Geraldine’s response was always the same. “Don’t make assumptions. Facades are built to impress. We forget they are not real. The people inside are real. We do not know them. They can be poor in spirit. Sick with cancer. The facade you are looking at right now could be a cover up for domestic violence or child abuse.”

Geraldine taught me not to accept things on face value, examine beneath the surface of what appears to be real and discern the truth. It only makes sense that whenever I drive by a lawn sign, “Love Lives Here” (or any of those other saccharine signs), I immediately wonder if the sign merely conceals what is really going on inside — disease, death, destruction, dread and despair — suburban hunger and poverty.

So, this brings me to last week’s Thanksgiving holiday. We were fortunate to spend another Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Anna and her family. The family consists of mostly well-educated, affluent medical doctors. They had invited their neighbor’s caretaker, Jose, to join us. He lives in the basement of his employers’ mega mansion. The family he works for were away for the holiday, and he was alone. In fact, this was the case last Thanksgiving when Anna and her husband also invited him to join them, taking proper precautions since it was during the pandemic’s mandatory quarantine.

It just goes to show, Anna doesn’t need to display signs of love on her lawn. You will find all the love you can imagine behind closed doors.

I had never met Jose before, but I knew he feared returning to the political and civil upheaval in his Latin country. When he arrived at the door, he wore a polyester beige top, chocolate-colored, loose-fitting trousers, with his head lowered. He grasped a burgundy wool knit hat. The skin on his hands resembled the surface of a cracked asphalt driveway. His indigo hair was sleek, straight as a piece of construction paper and held that just-brushed appearance. I would estimate he was around 50, but, maybe, the life lines covering his hardened face masked his true youth.

Realize, too, Jose does not speak a lick of English. Fortunately, Anna’s husband is fluent in Spanish, and he translated our conversations. Before our meal, Anna asked Jose to recite the prayers that he grew up with in Mexico. He willingly obliged. The words came easy like a well-worn, comfortable melody, softened with grace and elegance. I did not have a clue as to what he was saying, but I understood every word, because the language of love is universal. It tears down walls and barriers and connects us in all things good, pure and holy.

Rising above my own grief and sorrow, Jose’s eyes revealed secrets of his own sorrow as he prayed. Our connection of despair actually made me smile. We were unicorns that felt solidarity built upon a foundation of truth and faith. I realized how much I had to be thankful for, and I didn’t need a billboard to figure out that the meaning of Thanksgiving stretches to every day of the year when it is engineered with the grand and noble emotions of the human heart.

Faith Muscle

Blessed 🎂Birthday

Hurricane warnings canceled my birthday “celebration” plans this past Sunday. Honestly, I was happy as a clam, relieved that I didn’t have to venture too far. Although I didn’t hide under a clam shell as I wrote about in my last blog post, I did hide under a rain hat and enjoyed a light, enjoyable brunch at a restaurant in close proximity to our house.

The morning kicked off with flower deliveries, as well as thoughtful wishes from my blogging community, and I want to thank those who remembered, Alec, Prema, Judy and Kathy specifically! In fact, shortly before I turned on my computer that day, I thought of my “Karmic Sister” Prema. She not only provides assistance to me through this grief journey, but is instrumental in helping me keep the faith and not lose my footing. And wouldn’t you know it, as part of her birthday greeting, Prema wrote: “Let us show our faith in the divine by being cheerful, surrendering to Cosmic will. We are blessed as pain has a purifying effect on us.”

Blessed? What?

After surviving some harsh realities over three decades ago, in comparison to my old life, it was easy to count my blessings. Every moment was an abundance of gratitude. After our family tragedy 21 months ago, I certainly did not feel blessed and removed the word from my vocabulary since I no longer had a clue to its meaning. Now, thanks to Prema, I am beginning to comprehend that “blessings” are not necessarily people, places and/or things to tick off my personal agenda list.

One example that puts the word “blessed” back into my vocabulary is calling to mind the people like Prema who have been brought into my life. They are the brave ones who do not shy away from mortality and pain, but are less self-centered and, thus, confident and courageous enough to accept their own human vulnerabilities. Call them the chosen ones, or the lucky ones who walk into the dressing room of life with ease and without a desperate need to cram themselves into too-tight, ill-fitting “attire.” Instead, they accept what is appropriated to them and walk with their heads held high.

These are the people I am blessed to be around. They are the people who value me instead of judging me, because they manage to accept “what is” and not “what isn’t” and this peaceful state enables a channel of love to radiate and multiply. These are the people who are the ones that blaze a path for me to follow.

Transparency is natural above normal with them. As a matter of fact, I found myself this past week sharing secrets of the harrowing, graphic details involving my tragedy with another grief-stricken friend. After I took the risk of baring my soul, I looked into my friend’s eyes and knew I had reached a plateau of holiness; a sacred space where I no longer had to suffer in silence, but where I was heard and appreciated and allowed to cry out and feel that I really matter in the big world where it is so easy to get lost and flushed away. I mean, how many people are blessed to experience this type of intimacy that goes beyond reason?

Another blessing I thought of, thanks to Prema, is how the pain and suffering I have endured have washed away murky and meaningless priorities and people in my life. I now understand that phoniness carries no meaning. With meaning comes courage to speak personal truth.

I am finally heeding to 12-step advice I learned so long ago. “Say what you mean, but don’t be mean.”

As far as I am concerned, the art of true living is honesty. l am working hard on telling people how I really feel and, in turn, I hope they are comfortable enough with me to reciprocate. One recent test that I scored an “A” in was for confronting a neighbor about a charity pledge she promised, but did not deliver. Unfortunately, after our conversation, she skirted the entire issue. I did not get the intended result, but I did gain a new confidence in myself. In essence, I feel purer because I did not compromise myself by putting her needs above mine. In addition, I did not enable her to make a promise to me she did not intend to keep. No, we cannot control someone’s behavior, but we can control our words and behavior. Ultimately, if I am in the full spin cycle of purification in my life, one of the things that doesn’t serve me any longer is being nice for the sake of being nice and not hurting someone’s feelings, especially when he or she has wronged me.

I looked up the word “purification.” Among other things, it means, “the removal of contaminants from something.”

At this point of my life, I do not want to carry the burden and weight of heavy contaminants. I am overweight enough. So I’m purging. I’m uncluttering. I’m simplifying. I’m seeing truth for what it is and sharing my feelings. Feelings, after all, are not right or wrong, they are simply a part of what makes us who we are. If, however, they fester, build up inside me, they will eat me or explode in an inappropriate way and cause an unnecessary pain, a false representation of who I am.

What I am finding in the process is that most things like the political or religious affiliations that we carry really don’t matter. For the most part, our words and how they are carried out by our actions define us.

Carrying the grief, finding a sacred space for it, is among my many accumulated treasures in my long journey. It weaves a silver lining ribbon through this final chapter of my life in which the working title is “Blessed.”

Faith Muscle

Entering the Gates of 🌤️Heaven

While checking into the Hilton in Long Island, New York, this past weekend with my daughter to attend her former college roommate’s wedding celebration, across the lobby, we witnessed a platonic embrace between a man and a woman that stopped us in our tracks and, for a few seconds, so did our world.

Nineteen years ago, shortly after my brother Mike died suddenly from a stroke, someone gave me a wallet-sized, inspirational card with an illustration of a beaming Jesus hugging a young woman. On the card it said, “Entering the Gates of Heaven.”

Whether you are a Christian or not, the image represents the essence of universal love. In real life, if you are fortunate to experience the magnitude of this type of love, it would equate to living a thousand lifetimes onboard a peace train of which the grandest theme is acceptance and harmony so powerful, it reaches and washes out your deepest, darkest, ugliest, most shameful crevices and allows the sunshine to warm, caress and heal every wound, scar and trauma.

Watching this young couple across the way at the hotel, I saw the young man’s face in the face of Jesus pictured on the prayer card, along with the woman’s windblown hair whose silhouette also resembled the image on it.

The woman could barely catch a breath in between her tearful cries, because of the emotional exhilaration, and it felt like the hotel walls would pop open from the joy. For a moment, superimposed on the man was my now deceased son and on the woman was my daughter. Obviously, I don’t know what my daughter’s take on the sight was, but what I saw was a reunion between the living and the dead unfold on a white marble floor of a Hilton hotel.

After the dramatic embrace, it turned out that my daughter knew both of the people, and, in fact, they were all part of the bridal party. The man had just flown in from Los Angeles, California, and the woman had flown in from Richmond, Virginia. The two people, who had embraced, once shared a semester abroad, along with the bride, in Germany. The reunion between them was a telltale sign of how a connection grows through the passage of time and memories shared, painted in easy, carefree, lofty and heavy highlights.

This is how the wedding weekend began. It was a postponed wedding due to COVID-19. A wedding I dreaded attending, knowing the pain points it would touch. Fortunately, I was prepared; warned by a dear friend about the “Mother and the Groom” wedding song. My defense tool was advice from another dear friend Michelle: In essence, I was there to be happier for the bride and groom than sadder for myself. The advice worked! (Thank you, Michelle!)

The wedding began with love between friends reuniting and then moved to a couple sealing their vow of love. One of the readings at the church was from Corinthians 13, 4-7, a favorite among ceremonies and, in fact, one of the readings at my wedding over 30 years ago, a now dissolved marriage. The famous last line states, Love Never Fails.

The way I interpret the passage is that love failed in our family, because many falsehoods prevented it from forming a pure, genuine love and, ultimately, our unit failed. I’m okay with that for today, because if I do not work in truth, there is no hope for love.

Anyway, the wedding crowd was composed mostly of young, brilliant adults who are changing the world in positive ways. During the reception, I never dreamed I would dance without guilt, but I did! I saw it as long overdue exercise, and it worked. I was, however, overpowered by some flashbacks sitting at the table during the reception, remembering how at the last wedding I attended in 2018, my son kept me glued to my cellphone for a good part of the wedding, despairing about his agonizing love life. The last wedding he ever attended was when he was seven. Deep in my pained gut, I knew he would never have an opportunity as an adult to attend a wedding function, which included his own. By the end of that night, half the male bridal party was commiserating with him outside on the patio on my cell phone. I laughed at the situation, feeling we were all working in the solution mode and on that night, it was true.

At this past weekend’s wedding as the night rolled on, when the traditional wedding songs began, I darted into the restroom until they ended. I can participate in life, but also allow for human limitations by guarding myself.

Looking back, the weekend moved along smoothly, a few hiccups, but no hacking or fevers. I’m left meditating and pondering upon genuine, unconditional love and different types of love. When I first married my husband, in my heart of hearts I believed it would last forever. I believed we would retire, rent an RV and take a year to drive to Alaska, adopting as many old, unwanted shelter poodles as we could along the way. In his own words, he wanted the same ending, but midway through the book, I turned the page, and he disappeared. Though he verbalized what he thought I wanted to hear, he failed to verbalize the truth and allow me to accept it and risk my not responding with unconditional love. In this manner, love failed. Fake love always fails.

From that point, the three of us that were left behind tried to survive best as we could. I will always harbor a tremendous amount of guilt today knowing and realizing the mistakes I made as a mother. One thing I always put my faith into, though, was the greatest thing that mattered to me: seeing both my children grow up as happy, thriving adults. I had faith with fabrication. My son held back nothing from me. Incapable of meeting him on his level, because I believed that the solution that worked for me would work for him, I spoke to him as if he were my twin. It was only a matter of time, when everything backfired and my dream shattered in half, with only one-half remaining, my daughter. I never thought I could be more grateful to have her. She is brilliant and compassionate, much like my son was and also gregarious, positive and confident – in that respect, a total opposite of my son. I am over-the-top grateful these days for her existence.

Now, for damn sure there won’t be any earth-stopping reunions in this life between my daughter and her brother or me and my son. I might dance for the sake of exercise, but not for the sake of pure joy. Those days are done and useless to think about like disposed tattered socks.

Fortunately, I have the mental capacity to still love a little and feel a big happy heart for others while throwing off the pitiful feelings for myself. In this way, I did receive a surprise bonus during our wedding weekend. The groom – quiet, introverted, kind, a good listener, considerate and compassionate – reminded me so much of my son. His image comforted me to the point of giving me such a sense of fulfillment that it felt like a spiritual reunion akin to a group hug teeming with lace, glitter and a gown’s trail long enough to almost reach heaven.

Faith Muscle

Mary Days

“Remember that no one is better than you, but that you are better than no one.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Some days are Mary Days, and I spend a good part of the day reflecting on Mary, a woman whom I didn’t know well, but one who still intrigues me nonetheless. By the world’s standards, she wasn’t pretty and didn’t try to be. She never attempted to dab the excess oil off her Miss Piggy face. Her chocolate-colored, shoulder-length knotted mess of hair begged for a a hairbrush (a comb wouldn’t go through it) and at least a five-inch trim. You kept your distance walking behind her, because you didn’t want to get caught in an avalanche of her mountain slope of dandruff.

In middle school, where I met Mary, the kids bullied her for having a “pig’s nose” and outweighing a bulldozer. She never retaliated. Instead, she was a hidden, voiceless figure that roamed the school’s hallways like a ghost. She hid her obese form underneath solid, dark, below-the-knee tent dresses as if they were parachutes that, unlucky for her, she couldn’t dive farther under and take cover from the world. Mary did, however, wear an oversized brown-framed pair of eyeglasses. Conveniently, when kids slapped their remarks at her, she placed her index finger in the middle of the eyeglass frame, lowered her head and took shield under her eyeglasses.

Out of hundreds of mostly white, affluent kids, there was only a handful of over-sized youth in our suburban school system. I fell into that group. I had blown up like a soft decaying onion when I was around nine and had to contend with the same bullies, who switched out my first name for new names like “fat” and “fatso” and “tank.” Years later, I had heard that one of the “fat girls” in our group stole her father’s hunting gun and blew her thick chest to smithereens with it. She saw no other alternative to end the painful voices.

Anyway, it was Mary I gravitated to the most. Nonetheless, I never commiserated with her. In fact, I was relieved on the day she, or one of the other “rejects,” caught the bullies’ full venom. Mary and I survived those merciless years, only to greet each other in passing with quick salutations, our voiceless mouths on our wilted heads, dropped toward the school’s hallway floors that we trudged.

In my high school sophomore year, I fell head over heels with my first lover, a bottle of amphetamines. In fact, the illegal prescriptions not only brought me down to 98 pounds, but also leveled out my ADHD symptoms, an undiagnosed condition in the 70s that I would learn about and understand many years later.

Along with the weight loss came the tight jeans and halter tops, and I gained a fake voice and smile and indulged fully in my new fake cool girl role. Some of my best  “hallelujah” moments were when I challenged everyone during gym class to jump besides me on the trampoline. A few people took the challenge, but no one could compete with my frenzied, drug-induced moves.

Anyway, I am happy to report that I did not use my new cool to graduate to a seat on the bully-ship. Except, that is one time, when about a half dozen of the cool bullies tossed down one of the thin, quiet, Frida Kahlo-eyebrowed students on the football field. Soaring on adrenaline, I darted into the crowd and pulled her fat wool knee socks down to her ankles and fled laughing. Though that incident sounds innocuous, its dark shadow crept over me for days, weeks on end, and I felt so guilty that it motivated me never to break down the already broken.  

By the end of sophomore year, one day sitting in the school cafeteria eating a meager apple, my typical lunch, I spotted Mary from afar. She was hunched over in a burlap tank-like dress that appeared way too hot for early spring. I noticed, of all things, the napkin neatly place on her lap and her proper dining etiquette. She placed a tidily folded bag of her bagged lunch on the side and had laid out her sandwich and snacks in a symmetrical pattern on a hot lunch tray. Even though she positioned herself like a question mark, when she lifted her peachy toned head up, Mary chewed slowly with her mouth closed. Her expression was glazed over as she sat alone at the corner of a lunch table. I saw my old, broken self in her. I rose, and to my classmates disbelief, I left the cool clique and moved over to Mary, asking her if I could join her. At first she was reluctant, but then she happily agreed. That day started a regular lunch date for the rest of our high school years. Apart from having a lunch buddy, not much changed in Mary’s life and the bullying persisted. I, on the other hand, moved from the cool kids clique to the creative, theatrical kids’ clique.

During those Mary Lunch Days, as I came to call them in my mind, Mary talked about her beautiful, talented sisters who aced tests and won dance awards. She never spoke about herself. What would she talk about? How she spent weekends alone? How she did not go to the prom? How she likely would never date a man, or if the case was, a woman? How she would never get married and have a family? She did not need a crystal ball. She knew and accepted her fate from the start. She used her sisters as a catharsis, and it seemed her lot in life was okay, and she accepted it.

I don’t know if she had a spiritual belief, but I can understand how she did not have faith in the world that she was discarded into like a runt from the liter. Mary was not about to change her slipshod presence. Unlike me, she did not allow our peers to buy her and then program their people-pleasing buttons inside her.

Our connection derived from a deep appreciation of our differences. I did not pity her. I appreciated her bravery and resilience. I appreciated her subtle, petite voice and even tone. I appreciated how, when I was on a particular adrenalin rush, she gave her whole attention to me without trying to change me, because I mattered in Mary’s eyes and, in some uncanny way she was the first one on earth to show me how to flex my nearly destroyed faith muscle and show me that unconditional love really was possible.

After graduation, Mary went into the workforce as most of the high school classes did in those days. Perpetual bookworm, I continued my education. Distance did not separate us, and we still exchanged letters. By the time I got married and started a young family, I reconnected with Mary, who lived alone in a modest apartment, working a government job. We talked on the phone on a weekly basis. Most of the conversation centered around my young toddlers. Mary thirsted to hear about every little milestone, every little step and tooth in their lives. It felt as if she were taking notes, recording them in a future book to call her own.

Her life, on the other hand, was like one big blank that was part of the page of life. When she shared, it was obvious she was friendless and dateless, no sign of human connection anywhere. However, she was like a hummingbird, feeding on her three sisters’ good fortunes of careers, bustling households and all the things worldly beauty can own.

Once our family moved to a larger house in 2002, my life became busier, and our calls ceased, but our yearly Christmas cards did not stop. Around 2009, shortly before our household fell apart, I spotted Mary at the local supermarket. She had gained so much more weight since our high school days that that she was strapped in an electric mobility scooter, unable to carry it all. I immediately ducked. I did not want to cause her any embarrassment.

Now, looking back I think about how self-centered and assuming I had been. Why did I think I would have embarrassed her? It makes me sad to think how the world and it’s people-pleasing ways had wrapped me around it’s fickle finger of fate. Instead of putting my faith into substance, I put it into fake appearances. Why couldn’t I have just accepted her as she was? Made the stretch, widened my arms around that dang scooter, and exclaimed to her how beautiful she was in her own, unique way.

A few years after I avoided her in the supermarket, I found out Mary died in 2015 at 54 years old from what sounded like a medical condition. I regretted missing her funeral, but what I missed more was her deep sincere shamrock green eyes and how they looked at you as if you were the most precious soul on earth, because in Mary’s eyes anyone who could see through her layers was.

I spend many days in my Mary Days ruminating about the world’s inequalities. I think about the people who are bullied, like I was, like my son was, like Mary was, and how so many others are today. I think about those who, long after the fact, allow those bullies to invade their brain and live shamed, little and low, like walking silent question marks, like ghosts who will never spook anyone because they are more invisible than vapor. It’s interesting though, how vapor refers to “a gas phase at a temperature where the same substance can also exist in the liquid or solid state, below the critical temperature of the substance.”

And, yes, maybe, just maybe with a little faith, these victims can rise above and exist, despite the critical climate. And, sometimes if a friend, family member or intuitive stranger lends a helping hand to lend weight to the words of his or her belief system, a unicorn, let’s call her Mary, finds a holy ground to roam free. Sometimes sharing a lunchtime sandwich is the first brick that jump starts a path to holiness.

Faith Muscle

Dish of Creamy Beige, Please

Dish of Creamy Beige, Please

In the dictionary I discovered that one of the definitions for the noun “natural” is “a creamy beige color.”

I like creamy beige and do not, like some people, see it as a dull hue. On life’s color wheel, the color coordinates with almost everything. It’s a mellow, tame color. Creamy beige’s calming, soothing effect befits painting it on the walls of a psychiatric unit.

When I am in a natural state of being, I am calm. The state involves ego deflation, a process I started to learn over 36 years ago through consistent 12-step work. Now, in my new normal, I sign-off conversations, saying, “be calm.” In my past life, I used to say, “Hang in there.” After my trauma, the H-word kicks off a dangerous association that feels like it’s on a repeating loop that belts me into a sinkhole of anxiety.

Anyway, when I try to be “normal” and fit into norm, the tension compounds in the back of my neck and my heart feels like a tomato dried and shriveled.

Back in my late 20s, a Catholic priest, with whom I spent 12 years on an annual Women’s Lenten Retreat, reinforced the relevance of living “natural” and not “normal”. The priest, also a certified psychoanalysis, prompted me to substitute the word “natural” for “normal.”

One recent example of living in the natural realm was when my friend and I strolled along Long Island Sound. On our way, we stopped and conversed with an older woman who was scrubbing individual rocks from a pile of rocks until she reached a white smooth surface. Despite the fact that I found Geology 101 to be a daunting college course that I barely completed, I have a penchant for rocks. My son and I shared the same fascination. The last time I visited Kentucky when he was alive in 2018, we took a rock exploration road trip. I was raised on rock and roll, but I’ll take a natural rock formation over rock music any day. There’s a psychology behind it. Rocks give me solidity and help me feel balanced — metaphorically speaking, standing on solid ground.

So, I inquired what the woman on the beach was planning to do with her 50 some spic-and-span rocks. First, she explained that she only sourced one rock a day at her hometown beach about ten miles away. In contrast, she came to farm this area because of the booty: dozens of rocks in a day. It was interesting information. I never knew different beaches produce different rock harvests.

Second, answering my question, she said she gathered the rocks to lay on top of her father’s grave to prevent the grass from overgrowing. After conversing a tad longer, we bid the woman goodbye and continued our walk. On the way back, the woman was gone, but I noticed that she had left behind about three dozen rocks, all the color and texture of toothpaste.

“I’m going to get some rocks to bring home!” I  exclaimed.

“You don’t need rocks,” my friend replied.

I ignored her advice that I knew was well meaning since, who really “needs” rocks? I mean, to most people rocks are not a normal household acquisition. Fortunately, my “natural” inclination won out. I grabbed three rocks, and I brought them home without any specific purpose in mind.

Arriving home, I plopped the rocks on a table in the hallway and went about my household chores. I looked at the rocks all day and then, out of the blue, I realized the rocks’ purpose.

I grabbed a fat black marker and inscribed the rocks with my son’s name, “Mom” and “E,” our family’s, especially her brother’s, nickname for my daughter. Writing the names, I obsessed over the word “permanent” on the marker’s container. It was my son’s marker and it had outlived him. So far, it appeared that there really was one permanent item in the world of temporary things.

Afterwards, I made the dreaded trip to the cemetery and placed the rocks in front of my son’s plaque. (The plaque that the funeral director left marks his spot since I cannot bare to order a foot stone.) In turn, the rocks accomplished what they always do, they brought me a sense of balance and comfort.

When my daughter visited for the weekend, she accompanied me to the cemetery and saw the rocks. The site energized her and as she took photos, she announced, “It’s the most beautiful plot in the cemetery.”

As sad as the circumstances of a child’s death, the memory of that moment at my son’s grave with his light-footed sister is framed in a creamy beige, the color of our rock trio that fits naturally into the landscape and gives you the faith that some designs are divinely inspired.

Faith Muscle

Broken Shoelaces

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In my inner circle, sometimes the curmudgeons criticize others when they share about their feelings of pain, as well as sadness, and other emotions involving certain situations that they feel are trivial. For instance, if someone cries, saying, “I met someone who I thought was a keeper, and he | she stood me up after the first date.”

One of the curmudgeons’ favorite replies to a statement like this is, “Don’t cry over broken shoelaces.”

On the other hand, my usual response is, “If those broken shoelaces hurt that person, let him or her cry!”

I could never understand why we assign quantitative, numerical values on a person’s personal feelings and emotions. Feelings and emotions are as individual as a person’s fingerprints. Recently, I read that if fingerprints are burned off, duplicate ones grow back. This is like a metaphor for pain and/or emotions and if we alter them to fit another person’s morphsuit they don’t lessen. Instead, if you’ve read any of the research about blocked emotions, you know they cause a negative impact on mental and physical health.

I don’t need research. During my adolescent years until my mid-twenties, I battled insomnia and suffered from a gamut of gastrointestinal issues. Every remedy I tried, lied. What worked was to identify and learn how to get comfortable with the uncomfortable emotions like fear, sadness and anger without inflicting self-harm or harming others.

Pain and emotions are universal, but their intensity is different for everyone and, as such, shouldn’t be judged. To put it in context, a couple of weeks ago, I saw my neighbors constructing a handful of tents, about eight feet wide and high, in their backyard. I figured it was for a party, likely for their daughter.

Sure enough, the father surprised me at my front door when he handed me his cell number. He explained that they were hosting a prom night sleepover for his daughter and a group of her friends. He told me he wanted to be a respectful neighbor and that if the kids turned rowdy, not to hesitate to call him at any hour.

“Let them party!” I replied and meant it.

My response created a comfort zone for my neighbor. He removed his guard and revealed that it was a tough time for him and his wife with their only daughter moving on to “the next stage of life.”

Suddenly, as he unsuccessfully fought the tears, he said his daughter’s relocation to an out-of-state university was heartbreaking. There I stood, like a strong, sturdy pair of steel pliers while inside I crumbled. I realized the grief spilled over his situation could be dismissed as a “broken shoelace” emotion, especially in the eyes of a grieving mom who lost her handsome, brilliant 26-year-old son to suicide. Knowing each other only in passing, obviously he was not privy to our family’s tragedy.

The one and only time he encountered my son was in 2010 after my now ex-husband abandoned his family responsibilities and our neighbor and his daughter, who had recently moved in next door, were in our yard. We mistakenly thought they were helping themselves to our fireplace wood.

My son, daughter and I scooted out on the second floor deck. My son played the role of family protector and in his deep, distinct voice instructed our neighbor, “If you wanted wood, you could have just asked.”

In response, my neighbor laughed and explained they did not need wood, only their ball and thanked us before leaving the premises.

The man now in front of me believed my son, a genuinely good, sensitive and quiet guy, was alive and thriving, living away from home. I looked into his eyes and sometimes a familiar face transports me back to my old self in the days when I took faith for granted, when it was common and as plentiful as mosquitos in the summertime, when I was steadfast in believing only good prevailed.

Then and there, I knew that I had a choice with my grieving neighbor, this broken man in front of me. Stab him with the raw reality. Tell him to stop being a cry baby over a pair of broken shoelaces, especially in light of my tragedy. In this way, I would not only shut him up, but feel as if I’d won in the pain department and, likely, ruin his whole weekend as he would probably feel guilty over his broken shoelace grief.

The man, in fact, reminded me of my similar state of distress when I left my son behind in the classroom on his first day at preschool. I walked like a zombie to the car and immediately after I sat inside, I bawled uncontrollably because the feeling of letting go of my son was devastating, like having every single cell in my body forcefully removed with a sharp pair of tweezers.

“You know how it is. You’ve been through it,” my neighbor muttered through his tear-stained face.

Another scenario occurred to me. Nine years prior after her godmother and I dropped my daughter off for her first semester at college, I bawled during the entire six-hour ride home. Fortunately, my daughter’s godmother didn’t squelch my emotions and because I processed my grief over the separation, I felt better by the time we arrived home.

I nodded at my neighbor like one of my mentors, Cornelia, who, in fact, lost two sons had taught me through her example so long ago.

“It will be okay. Really,” I assured the grief-stricken man before he made a beeline home.

Afterwards, I forced myself to keep the painted smile on my face and conduct the motions of life, but, wow, I was drowning in my children’s bittersweet high school memories at the time when their father abandoned them. Through it all, somehow I managed to keep my head above water. Cornelia, who is now deceased, would have been proud.

Grief, like sadness, I reiterate, is not an emotion to assign a quantitative value to. My natural emotional state of being now encompasses grief. I lug my griefcase wherever I go, and somedays it is heavier than others. Louis, my therapist, who lost a child of his own, promises that the emotions and feelings will lessen in intensity. Of course, we both agree they will not go “poof” and disappear. I live as an amputee who not only has to get used to the new normal, but also learn how to manage the pain.

One of my friends attends a group for grieving parents who have lost children to death. She told me that one of the sessions revolved around the idea that, “There is nothing worse than losing a child.”

In light of this statement, the group members minimized all other types of grief, whether it resulted from losing a spouse or parent or friend and so on. And I told my friend that kind of group would not be a proper fit for me. I don’t want to wash out someone’s grief with my own. The man at my door is entitled to feel his grief from “losing his daughter” as much as I am entitled to my grief at losing a son to suicide.

K.L. Hale, a beautiful member of this blogging community, wrote a heartfelt comment to me after last week’s post. She said, “after 2 1/2 years of not seeing my sons (only because of their Air Force duties) I would think of you. Your loss put things into perspective for me. Your words leave me with tears running down my face. The beauty that you’re able to give us all is faith indeed. I’m so proud of all you have overcome to find that inner peace.”

My reply was: “Thanks to people like you, I am able to hold my head up, carry my griefcase bravely and keep the faith. What has helped me most is the hope that my pain will somehow help heal the world. You have brought this hope of mine to fruition, and I am deeply moved. So moved in fact that you’ve inspired my post’s topic for next week!”

What I also want to say to this beautiful, faith-filled woman is: “We walk these roads of sadness together, never alone as we think of one another and feel our human connection. Allow my loss to help you through this difficult time, but also validate your loss and embrace it. Your feelings of sadness are real and important, and they matter because you matter and through the process, if you have not yet found your inner peace, it will find you. Whether you choose to call it the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Goodness, it is deep within you. I promise, because I was fortunate to discover it so many years ago, and I have lived there ever since.”

Everyone is entitled to feel what they feel and experience their emotions when they want to and for however long they need to. In fact, if I can find my way out of my pain and sit with another person’s pain, more times than not, I feel better. The bottom line is, it alleviates my suffering to focus on yours and sometimes it gives me the reprieve I need. Life is hard but we’re in it together, at least for today. Tomorrow some of us that are here right at this moment will be missing, I guarantee it. So let’s hold on tight, keep the faith and allow ourselves to feel our vulnerabilities that are part of our humanness. In fact, if we practice at it, it should become as natural as tying a pair of shoelaces.

Faith Muscle

May 25th

Springtime is the Right Time

Today is May 25th. Every year for as long as she lived, my mom marked this date on the calendar as her death date.

Nothing, not anyone, intercepted her schedule and agenda, her oxygen sources. A total control freak, it was as if she grasped a snow globe world in her hands. Whenever she shook it, a blizzard erupted. Additionally, her ultimate weapons of control were superstition and religion.

In Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s short story, So What’s Your Name, Sandra? when the author describes Mama Sandra’s sense of control, he conjures up my mother’s exact image. He writes, “Suddenly she gasped—the realization hitting her that she’d forgotten to pray before her plane had taken off. If they had exploded in mid-air, thought Mama Sandra in horror, if hundreds of someones’ someones had died that day, it would have been all her fault.”

My mom created a cause-and-effect world and whether something good or bad happened, there was always a hard and fast reason. Some of her legacy she passed on to me. Long after my mom’s death, I still avoid stepping on a sidewalk’s cracks .…“Step on the crack, break your mother’s back” .… What daughter in her right mind would willingly do that to her mom, alive or dead?

Most of my mom’s control issues stemmed from being a World War II survivor. She placed her full faith into a built-in life script. Editing it was an impossible task.

One of my mom’s many idiosyncrasies was her desire to die in the month of May. May 25th to be exact. She longed to share the death date with her father, my grandfather. Though he had died long before I was born, my mom insisted that God loved him so much that apparently when he died, he was gifted with the nicest, sunniest day of the year. The sky was as clear as a wavelength of light from a prism, and you could see for miles without having to squint. My mom also said that my grandfather was a well-loved man in the community and hundreds of people attended his funeral and celebrated his life. That said, in her eyes, a May 25th death was not sad or solemn but happy. Plus, perhaps it was also part of the Byelorussian culture she was raised in, but my mom prayed for her specific death date as if she were praying for a future, festive wedding celebration. Year after year, she kneeled in front of her Jesus and Mother Mary statues in her bedroom and, along with her death date prayer request, she also prayed for a peaceful death in her own bed at home. At the very least, if the 25th was inconvenient, she implored God, to grant her a springtime death date.

I had faith that if there existed a compassionate God, he would grant my mother’s wish. Of course, God, my Christian friends remind me, is NOT a magical genie.

When the day arrived, a little more than two months after she celebrated her 90th birthday, instead of May 25th or during springtime, my mother died on December 29th in 2015 on a dark frigid winter’s day. My daughter and I were in another state, about two hours away, when we heard the news and could not immediately return home, because we were trapped in an ice storm. Additionally, my mom did not die, per her request, at home and in her bed. My mom died in a nursing facility, because she had suffered a stroke and required medical support. So, all her years of prayers amounted to nothing.

There’s a silver lining to this story though. First, my mother actually did die as she wanted, peacefully. Second, shortly before she died, I asked her, while she laid in the hospital bed, where she thought she was.

“Home,” she replied.

After her response, I remember that all that came to me was how God was just. If my mom realized the raw reality of the situation and that she would not die in her bed at home as she had always prayed, she would have been devastated. Obviously, too, she was not aware of the season at the time, so that fact also seemed just, but here’s the clincher. The first spring after her death, I found beautiful photos of my mom shot about a year prior on our back deck. There was no special occasion, but our dear family friend, Anne, was visiting from New Mexico, and we held an impromptu gathering. Although my daughter was away working as a camp counselor in upstate New York, my son attended and other family members and close friends. At the gathering, laughter filled the air, and it was the kind of gathering where you might forget eating and drinking altogether because of the abundance of delicious conversation. The sun was aglow, cupped inside a cloudless sky. You could see for miles without a telescope. Out of a lifetime of gatherings, it hit the top ten list.

Anyway, as I examined the pictures, I spotted the date: MAY 25th. In retrospect, I realize IT WAS the last time my mom was alive, at least in the way we knew her. It was the last time she was one hundred percent lucid and pain-free and, in fact, resonated with youth and life. After that day, she took a turn and, in almost every sense of the word, she died. In my mind, I always reflect on that date as symbolizing her last good day on earth until she gave into her symbolized death that night of May 25th. In addition, I see that wondrous May 25th day as the best “Goodbye Party” I’ve ever attended. I couldn’t have prayed for a better outcome.

I, of all people, know that as much as we would like to think we are in control of our destinies, we are utterly powerless. It’s a consequence of being human. But I also know that when things whirl out of control, I need to place my two feet into a composite of faith, trust, hope. At the moment, however, as I carry my griefcase, I only have quicksand to trudge in. Interestingly, I read that you can only sink as far as your waist into quicksand unless you dive head first or face first. Given this information, I keep my faith and allow myself to sink without drowning. Head up, I can’t miss the spring air, and I soak up the warmth and, without orchestrating a thing, allow the process of the natural healing powers to amaze me, especially in the darkest of days that feel like they are buried in a non-breathable acrylic shroud.

Faith Muscle