🌊 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

Faith Forward

Baby steps climb mountains — and won’t cause shortness of breath.

Faith Muscle

Fear Not

Faith Muscle

Faith 101

Faith Muscle

Chances

And sometimes the “leap” doesn’t necessarily have to be anything more rigorous than a day basking inside the sunny side of the soul.

Faith Muscle

Be at Peace

My strongest walk of faith is when I listen to my inner voice that comes to me on the wings of my inner spirit and NOT society’s real-time GPS that “directs, tracks, routes and maintains the fleet.”

Be at peace today. Steal a moment of quiet for yourself in today’s bossy, noisy world. You may be astounded at what you hear!

Faith Muscle

Missing Tooth Fairy

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My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.

On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.

From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.

“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.

Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.

Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.

My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.

Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.

At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.

“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”

I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”

“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.

In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.

“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”

There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.

“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.

Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.

Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me.  My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.  

After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.

A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”

Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.

Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”

Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:

…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:

“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”

In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:

Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.

After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.

The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”

Faith Muscle

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

Pink Elephants

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.  The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King

Pink_Elephants

Over 20 years ago, as an “art in a cart” lesson volunteer, I tried to teach first-graders to draw pink elephants, but failed. By first grade, I realized these children couldn’t think beyond gray elephants and resisted coloring them in any other hue.

Don’t get me wrong, gray elephants have merit, but with an abundant palette, why not risk using an “unconventional” color?

As a writer and appreciator of art and culture, I have a penchant for asking the “Whys.” As a matter of fact, I was expelled for a day from sixth grade for “asking too many questions.”

Most people, myself included, are conformists who work in the framework of norms and respective boundaries. As I’ve grown older, I aim to find the courage to target the time when it is necessary to speak out, not freak out and act out disrespectfully and become the disciplined non-conformist.

Rep. John Robert Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader, who died last week is a prime example of a disciplined non-conformist. May he rest in peace and may we live up to his legacy.

My daughter illustrated another perfect example of a disciplined nonconformist. She was traveling in the Pennsylvania back roads and she spotted a sole white male holding a “Back Lives Matter” sign. He soldiered alone in his mission and, perhaps, in this particular area, risked his life doing so.

I put my faith in people with guts. People who are typically lone, unique voices.

This command not to conform comes not only from Paul but also from our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, the world’s most dedicated nonconformist, whose ethical nonconformity still challenges the conscience of mankind.

Everywhere and at all times, the love ethic of Jesus is a radiant light revealing the ugliness of our stale conformity.

In spite of this imperative demand to live differently, we have cultivated a mass mind and have moved from the extreme of rugged individualism to the even greater extreme of rugged collectivism.  We are not makers of history; we are made by history. ~

~ Excerpt from Rev. Dr. King from one of his sermons preached in November 1954 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Here is another one of my favorite quotes from that sermon: “Or to change the figure, most people, and Christians in particular, are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.

Everyday for nearly 36 years, I’ve been grateful to consistently aim to live my life on a spiritual plane. I work very actively for this ambition through tools I’ve learned in the 12-Step Community. Basically, the first nine steps are known are ego-deflation steps. After we work the first nine and begin to shed our egos, life in the spirit begins (Steps 10, 11 and 12).

Here’s the benefit of living life in the spirit. You don’t HAVE to look like a paper doll in the chain. You don’t have to buy anyone’s faulty bag of judgmental goods. You have your own timeline. And you get to be straight, gay, trans, polka-dotted, black, white or absolutely no gender, race or religion, if it feels as natural as the finger pads on your hands feel. You are free to be who YOU are because you are free from the bondage of self (and the bondage of society). You are free from the Ego. In other words, YOU are free to draw pink elephants and like them even when the herd poo-poos them.

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Better yet, toss a few purple elephants into the mix and as you are mocked and feel mortified, realize you are on the trailblazing journey of setting the world on fire, and that’s what having faith is all about.

 

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Faith Muscle

Window Angels *

Window Angels 3

Window Angels

Before the tragedy, I would swear to it that these two angels in the window protect our house. These days, putting my faith in the angels doesn’t feel like a sound investment.

I actually positioned the angels in my window yesterday, primarily because I think they are pretty. In fact, they are the first thing that catch my eyes when I walk by. Sometimes I think they symbolize my son and daughter standing side by side. My son is the way bigger angel, literally now. In secular terms, though, what is definite is that they are pretty wooden angels, and they make my eyes look up high.

Yesterday was also when my son’s cat Chervony (Ukrainian for red–though the cat is actually an orange tabby) went missing. The cat is 18 and has a heart condition. He stopped eating and drinking yesterday, and I knew what was happening.

Our plans of taking him to the vet went out the window, in the same way our plans for my son’s visit went out the window. The only thing I can be sure of is that I have wooden angels IN my window. The angels will not guide my son’s cat home nor do they give me a false sense of promise.

My mom used to say, “We make plans and God crosses them out.”

Investigating the dilemma with my son’s missing cat, I found the research below on the internet.

“Although it is not fully known why some cats go away to die, it’s likely that when our cats become very old and feel unwell, they prefer to be alone and rest. Unlike people, cats do not anticipate or know about death as we do, so they are not fearing what might happen.”

I have shed my grief-on-top-of-grief tears, but, strangely, I know our dear Chervony is at peace.

Maybe I sense this peace because peace is a regular part of my life. After all, I am in a 12-step community that promises me, “We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.”

I burst with gratitude when I say that promise has never been broken in over 35 years and even now serenity and peace do not leave my present grief-stricken life, and that’s what helps propel me to move forward and not give up faith.

It is ironic that my son chose to die in his own way on his own terms. And now it looks like his cat did the same thing. The realization provides some sort of skewed feeling of peace, and I correlate their endings like two bookends. Between the bookends, though, there were volumes of books brimming with love and memories. After all, a connection between a cat and its owner is special, angelic really.

*Chervony returned this morning! We talked to the vet and, for now, we are keeping an eye on him, because, he appears better. Maybe our window angels interceded in bringing him home or maybe my son’s Godmother’s prayer was answered when she asked my son to bring him home! Either way, what a test of faith. Will keep you updated!

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Faith Muscle