Retro-Fear

Retro-Fear

Retro-Fear.  I made that up, I think. Naiveté often looks like fearlessness. Or, “If I knew then what I know now, I might not have (insert act of fearlessness.)”

It all began with a lie, the decision to leave Atlantic City and move to New York City (NYC).

My boss sat on the other side of his desk and lied to my face. Unaware I knew the truth about the possibility of moving from the training department to the marketing department, he told me the job was a demotion and paid less money.

I’d met with the Vice-President of Merchandising beforehand to work out the details. Writing marketing copy seemed much more interesting than writing training manuals.

My boss lied to me.  I was sick to my stomach.  I pressed my lips together and took a deep breath.

Asking my boss to inquire about the job opening was a courtesy and the politically correct thing to do. Calling him on his lie would have been political suicide for me and put others in harm’s way. So I held my tongue.

Back at my desk, fuming on the inside, steam coming out my ears, I vowed to be gone in thirty days.

My college roommate lived in NYC. I called to find out if she knew anyone needing a roommate. She was looking for a new apartment and needed a roommate.  We hatched a plan.

I used vacation time and weekends to look for an apartment and look for a job. At the end of the month I had both. I borrowed the company van and moved my belongings to New York.

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Three important bits of self-knowledge came from that move.

  1. Personal integrity is important to me and a vital quality in the people I surround myself with.
  2. Like Frank Sinatra sang so eloquently, “If you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” New York offers a lot, but is not an easy place to live. After that, nothing scares me, much.
  3.  Big cities are not for me.  I am a small-town girl through and through.

I wouldn’t even consider moving to NYC today. Is it retro-fear or knowledge and experience?

Every decision takes us down one path instead of another. No telling where I might be today if I had stayed in my job and not taken the path to the Big Apple.

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A Room with a View

A Room with a View

Karen took in the view from her spot at the front of the room. Brighlty flowerd curtains, rows of chairs split by an aisle, dim lighting, and fresh flowers were scattered around.  The scent of roses and gardenias overpowered a hint of incense clinging to the walls.

Aunt Mini, matriarch of the family, was first to arrive. Cane in one hand and supported by her son’s arm, took her usual place in the first row.

Cousin Candace with her brood, ranging from three to thirteen, sat in the back. A quick exit might be necessary if one of her kids started acting up.

Friends arrived in two’s and three’s.  Some from work and others from her high school days.

More people arrived; the noise level rose.  Lots of hugging and hand-shaking among old friends and long-lost relatives warmed the room.

“I can’t believe how big you are.  So grown up!” out-of-town relatives exclaimed, seeing one another for the first time in years.

Karen counted 52 people in all:  34 relatives, 17 friends, and one stranger who wandered in.

* * *

Tim walked to the front of the room.  Conversations wrapped-up and all attention focused on him.

“Thank you for coming,” he said, looking out at the friendly faces.

After a glance at Karen in her place of honor, Tim looked down at the notes in his hand.

“As you know, we are here to celebrate Karen.”

Tim droned on about his sister.  He recalled childhood escapades, divulging which one of them came up with the idea of digging up their mother’s garden.

“What can I say?  We were looking for buried treasure.”

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Karen tuned out his words and surveyed the crowd.  She memorized the expressions on faces.  She took note of who laughed at Tim’s jokes, who dabbed tears from eyes welling up with emotion, and who yawned in boredom.

Tim gestured with both hands, palms up lifting them toward heaven. “Let’s stand and sing to Karen on this special occasion.”

Karen wanted to cover her ears. The well-intentioned singing reminded her of the choir in the old country church she attended when at her summer home.  No two people sang in the same key.  One enthusiastic singer rushed the words while another sang a beat behind, creating an echo.  It was all she could do to keep from giggling.

“Again, thank you everyone for coming.  After you share your personal thoughts with Karen, join us in the next room for refreshments.”

Tim escorted Karen to the reception. One thought ran through her mind.

I wonder where I will go from hereI hope whoever wins custody of my urn places me in a room with a good view of the outdoors.

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Sweet Space

Sweet Space

“Dying is nothing to fear. It can be the most wonderful experience of your life. It all depends on how you have lived.”  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Today’s “fearlessness” post is about death.  I had the privilege of being with both of my parents when they died.  Each passing was unique.  Each passing was a reflection of a life well-lived.

Sweet Space

There is a sweet space between waking and dreaming where time is suspended; my mind stops flitting from thought to thought, my breathing is steady and my heart is open.  I was in my sweet space when I heard my deceased father’s voice.

“I will be coming for your mother soon.  I miss her.  It’s time.  I need her more than you do.  You will be okay.  You always were.”

During the fifty-nine years of their marriage, my father’s whole purpose in life was to take care of my mother.  He created a bubble around her.  At the same time he was teaching her to be independent.  He cared for her when she was sick and he wanted to be sure she didn’t take herself too seriously.

In our last conversation, my dad asked me if my mother could still laugh at herself.  I assured him she could and told him a story about a recent event when she did something silly and made a joke out of it.

Later that day he slipped into a coma-like state.  His body could no longer keep fighting and he knew my brothers and I would make sure my mother would be well cared for.

To say my father had a strong spirit would be an understatement.  He survived thirty-four months in a Japanese prison camp and the Bataan Death March.  When dementia had nearly taken over his mind, he continued to look for my mother around every corner of the hospital.

When his spirit came to me twenty-one months after his death to let me know he missed my mother and would be coming for her soon, I took him seriously but protested.

“You can’t have her yet.  She’s not ready.  I am not ready.”

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My mother was in good health, active and not about to slow down any time soon.  She was getting ready for her second knee replacement in less than twelve months.  She didn’t want the surgery and put it off until winter when she wouldn’t mind being inside while a Michigan winter raged on outdoors.

* * *

Two weeks after my father’s spirit came to me and nine days after mom’s knee surgery, we were in the emergency room.  Mom’s nitro pills were not controlling her chest pains.

This was not our first time in the ER.  Before following the ambulance to the hospital, I grabbed her medications and medical power of attorney.  No matter how many times we had been to this hospital, they always wanted the paperwork.

Mom was having a conversation with the nurse when a traumatic event occurred.  The ER doctor asked the attendant at the desk to call “the team.”  I knew this meant a Code Blue.  A handful of nurses moved her to a trauma room to work on her.  The wheels were in motion and my father’s spirit was following the action.

I spoke with the doctor and asked him to stop any extraordinary measures.  I showed him mom’s advanced directives.

He confirmed my identity and asked me, “Is today the day?”

“This is what she wants.  So I guess today is the day,” I said. There was no time to think about what I wanted, only time enough to think about what my mother wanted.

Two nurses stood on one side of my mom while I sat on the other holding her hand, watching her struggle for breath, her body tensed from head to toe.  She was caught in that space between staying and leaving.  I could sense by father’s spirit hovering above her.

I stroked her brow and said, “It’s okay to let go mom.  Go be with dad.  He needs you and I will be okay.”

Her body relaxed and her breathing settled, becoming shallower and shallower.  My father reached out for her and she slipped away with him into sweet space.

Today was their day.

“Those who have the strength and the love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body.”  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

If you have made it this far, let’s end on a lighter note.

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If It Floats…

With tears in her eyes, Sasha said, “I could see it coming but I hoped you and dad would work it out.  Tell me one more time how the two of you got together.  I love that story.”

Sasha and I sat on Flagler Beach watching the sunrise.  I chose the ocean as the place to tell my twenty-year old daughter about the end of a love story that started on a California beach three decades earlier.   Life had come full-circle.

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After twelve months on the road sharing a VW bus with Victor, I thought I knew everything about him.  We were sitting on a bench in the ashram meditation garden, looking out at the ocean.  The sun was slipping out of sight, creating an orange glow, erasing the horizon.  Sky and water became one.

Out of the blue, Victor squeezed my hand and said, “I am going to become a monk and follow the Guru on his world tour.”

Jaw open, eyes wide, breath in my throat, I managed a confused, “What?”

The next day I moved out of the bus and into the ashram.  On the upside, after a year living a Buddhist life style I was drug-free, sober and healthy.  My thoughts were clear and my heart open.  On the downside, I was three thousand miles from home with no money or transportation.  I’d cut ties with my family five years ago.  Plus they would never understand my lifestyle choices.  There was no point in reaching out to them.  I would have to figure out on my own what to do next.

* * *

I attended as many lectures, yoga classes and evening sessions with the Guru as I could, hoping for some insight about the future.

It was impossible to avoid Victor.  When our paths crossed I held my head high, looked him in the eye and nodded silently.

Living in the ashram required thirty hours of service each week.  When possible I worked in the kitchen.  There was something meditative about preparing food for residents and guests.  I spent most of my kitchen time working side-by-side, laughing and flirting with Henry, another lost soul.

When not in the kitchen Henry and I explored the ashram grounds.  Nestled between the ocean and mountains on the California coast, we found lots of places to disappear from view, or so we thought.

Word got back to Victor that I had moved on and was seeing someone else.  Suddenly I was more interesting.  He would stop me in hallways to talk and he would sit next to me during morning meditation.

One day he asked, “Would you let me buy you dinner Friday?  There’s a new vegan restaurant in town.  I hear it’s pretty good.”

And so the courting began.

* * *

This was a very different Victor than the one I’d followed around the country.  He seemed focused, considerate and interested in something besides himself.  One night he prepared a picnic and took me to the beach to watch the sunset.

He popped open a bottle of champagne and popped the question, “Will you marry me and create our future as we live in the present, one day at a time?”

At a loss for words, I put the top back in the bottle and threw it in the ocean.

“If the bottle floats, my answer is yes.”

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Whoa Boy!

Whoa Boy!

“Get back on the horse.”  It’s a metaphor, or an adage or an idiom.  You pick.  It generally means if you get hurt doing something, try again as soon as possible or you will be afraid of it forever.  Since this post is about fearlessness, let’s just say, I’m no stranger to getting back on the horse.

I fell while racing my bike around the circle at the end of the street when I was young.  The entire left calf scraped and ripped up.  I was back on the bike right away.  I suspect there are many other similar incidents.  That one has stuck with me.

When it comes to jobs, I’ve been laid off, down-sized, right-sized, and eliminated.  I kept going back for more until I decided to take control of my fate and work for myself, so to speak.

When it comes to relationships, I’ve tried a stable of horses.  My lips are sealed on that topic.

In this story, there I was, flat on my back on the Alaskan tundra, arms out stretched, nothing but sky above me.  I took a few deep breaths, enjoying the view and getting my bearings.

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“Are you OK?  Like mother like daughter,” my brother quipped from his saddle.  Our mother was thrown from a horse on a summer trip to Yellowstone in 1960 something.  She landed on a rock and never did get on a horse again.

I wiggled my fingers, arms, toes and legs.  I felt my head and torso.  “Nothing hurts.  Am I bleeding?”

If it had been on film, it would have been in slow motion.  We were taking a break at the turn-around point of our ride.  My horse bolted for his place in line for the trip back to the barn.  Not expecting the sudden movement, I wasn’t hanging on and slowly slid to the left.  I became acutely aware that both feet were still in the stirrups.  I focused my attention on getting them loose or I would be dragged along like a stunt double in a movie.

The top layer of the tundra is spongey with plant life in the summer.  It was a soft landing.

Our guide rode over.  “Can you get back on your horse?”

“I guess so, but I’ll need a boost.  I can’t reach the stirrups from the ground.”

My options were to either climb on the large boulder that just happened to be nearby and get back on my horse or wait for the ATV to come fetch me.  I climbed on the boulder.

“I’ve been training for this my whole life.  See you at the barn.”

Papa’s Boots

Papa’s Boots

Trowel in hand, head tilted back, eyes looking up toward heaven, Terri took in a deep breath.  The smell of new-mowed grass turned up the corners of her mouth.  She glanced down at Adele, a miniature version of her.  Eyes closed, nose toward the clouds, Adele took a big whiff in, exhaling with a puff.

“What do we smell mama?”

“Take another whiff Adele and tell me what you see.”

Adele closed her eyes again, turned her head up to the right, took a deep breath and exhaled exclaiming, “Wow, I see Papa and me.  When I was little, he used to let me sit on his lap and we would cut the lawn together.”

“You remember that?”

“It’s one of my best memories.  Do you think Papa is riding his lawn mower in heaven?”

“He just might be; Papa loved being outside in his yard.”

* * *

“Ready to plant our spring flowers,” Terri asked Adele.

“Let’s do it,” Adele exclaimed, garden tools and gloves in hand.

“It might be a bit muddy, why don’t you put on your rubber boots.  I think they’re in the storage shed.”

Adele returned wearing her rubber boots, carrying an old pair of work boots.

“What have you got there?” her mother asked.

“Aren’t these Papa’s boots?”

“Why yes they are.  What do you want to do with them?”

“I think Papa would want us to put his boots in the garden.  He can be outside where he loves it and we can visit him anytime we want.”

“Let’s do it,” Terri uttered, a catch in her throat.garden tools 1

 

 

You are Not a Tree

You are Not a Tree

It is no secret that I have moved often since college.  I am frequently asked, and wonder myself, “Why?”  In the quest to address that question and what appears to be fearlessness when it comes to moving, here is what I have to say about that.

Initially – Fear of never finding my genuine and perfect self.  Who was I, veiled under the image fabricated by attending the same school for 13 years (K through 12) with virtually the same people?

Instinctively – Fear of being stuck in my home town, living the life that was expected of me rather than the life that was meant to be.

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Innately – Belief in myself and my ability to adapt and survive.  I’m pretty sure some of this was instilled in me by my parents and childhood experiences.

Intuitively – Knowledge that, for me, change would be a good thing.

Inherently – Faith that it would be better on the other side.

Indubitably – Acceptance and support on all levels from two incredible parents.

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To those readers raising children, I encourage you to instill in them the confidence to follow their dreams with fearlessness.  Then back it up with your infinite support no matter how fearful it makes you.  You may be amazed at how far they can go.fear 4

 

Morey and the Green Boxes

Morey and the Green Boxes

“It’s almost perfect. I like everything about the neighborhood and this house, the size, floor plan, even the upgrades.  The only thing I don’t like is that,” Jim said, pointing to the big green box in the front yard.

“That is the electric company’s transformer for your house and the houses on either side of you,” the realtor replied.

Jim asked his realtor Sandy, “Is there any way to hide it, landscape around it, decorate it or disguise it?”

As the words left his mouth, an older gentleman stopped and sat on the green box.  He looked winded.  A couple of minutes later, the stranger stood and walked up the street to the next green box.  Again, he sat for a couple of minutes before moving on, working his way to the end of the street, one green box at a time.  The man turned around and made his way back, revisiting every green box along the way.

Sandy put the lock-box back on the door and drove out of the cul-de-sac.  “Let’s look at the last house on your list before you make any decisions.”

* * *

Two days later Jim and Sandy were back for a second look at the house with the green box.  Jim stood in the front window surveying the front yard as the older man, out for his walk, sat on the green box to catch his breath.  Jim walked outside and introduced himself adding, “It looks like you’ve found a good use for these transformers.”

“I’m Morey, Stanley Morris Stevens the third actually.  I live around the corner.  If weren’t for the green boxes, I would have to carry a camp chair with me.  Between my heart and lungs, I’m not strong enough to walk more than a few yards at a time anymore.  I used to run in 5- and 10-K charity events.  Now I have to be content to make my way to the end of the block and back.”

“I’m thinking of buying this house.  What can you tell me about it and the neighborhood?”

“I was one of the first to build here.  I know the history of every house.  Yours was owned by two generations of the Williams family.  They moved across town to something smaller. It was a great place to raise a family.  Still is.”

“How about you Morey, did you raise a family here?”

“I did.  I live alone now.  My wife passed a couple of years ago.  I have two daughters who live in town.  Both have kids of their own.  They take turns checking on me every day.  If they had their way, I would be wearing one of those necklaces that alert someone if you fall.  But I’m not ready for that yet.”

* * *

Jim bought the house and painted the green box to jazz it up a little.  Whenever Jim saw Morey out for his daily walk he would meet him at the green box with a glass of water.  Morey shared the history of each house.  Jim loved hearing about kids playing kickball in the park and fishing in the stream running through the neighborhood.  It was before electronic games and computer tablets.  Parents felt it was safe for kids to be outside till dark.  Summer picnics and holiday parties were a tradition that had fallen to the wayside as new neighbors moved in.

One day Morey had a companion on his walk, his youngest daughter Meg.  Meg stayed back to talk to Jim while Morey continued on.  “I can’t believe dad will be ninety in a couple of months.”

“Ninety!  He’s out here two or three times a day.  I admire his dedication.  Are you doing anything special for his birthday?” Jim asked.

“We’ll get the family together for a party.  We’re making a DVD of the different generations doing something for him.  It involves, music, dancing, jokes and interviews.  I think we’re having as much fun making it as dad will have watching us being silly.”

“I have an idea but I need your help.  Your dad has been filling me in on the history of each house, the families who lived in them and where they are now.  Can you get me contact information, or at least the names of the families?”

“I’ll see if I can find my mom’s Christmas card address book.  That will be the best resource.”  They exchanged phone numbers as Morey walked up to sit for a minute.”

* * *

On Morey’s ninetieth birthday he started out on his morning walk.  When he reached the first green box he found a smaller green box with his name on it.  As he caught his breath, he opened the box to find notes from old neighbors, photos of backyard parties and pictures of the families then and now.  At each green box he found more birthday wishes and happy memories.

Morey’s walk took a lot longer than usual as he read the notes and inspected the pictures.  When he turned the key and opened his front door, Morey was greeted by his family and faces from the past.  Old neighbors hugged one another; they shared pictures and stories, catching up on their personal journeys after leaving the neighborhood.

Jim stood in the background enjoying the warmth and electricity in the room, grateful for the beautiful green box in his front yard.

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Milk Box Confession

Milk Box Confession

Bless me Father, for I have sinned.  I just skipped Mass.  But since we are only obligated to attend once a week, and I will be there Sunday, is it really a sin?  Have I broken any of the commandments?  Do I even have to mention this in my next confession? 

It started with a mad dash from the hallway in front of the church.  Every Friday, just before lunch, all fourth and eighth graders lined up, single-file, to march in for weekly Mass.  I looked around. 

 Is there a teacher in the hallway? No.

Can I get around the corner of the building before one comes back?  Probably.

Will someone ‘tell’ on me?  Maybe.

Is it worth the risk?  Yes, if it works.

A deep breath in, hold.  One last look to the end of hall then out the glass door and around the building.  Whew, exhale.  Time stood still.  Gasping for air, heart pounding in my ears, I waited for a shrill, nun-like voice to call me by my full name.  But the next sound I heard was the processional hymn as the priest followed the altar boys down the center aisle.

I’m pretty sure someone else tried it first; I was not an original thinker back then.  I would never have considered skipping an actual class like English, or Math or even Religion.  Aside from being obvious that you were missing, it would have been sacrilegious, pun intended.  My father was a school teacher; school was not optional.

Once I believed that Mass would go on without me, I started to walk home for lunch.  So many things could have gone wrong.  I walked as slowly as I could.  I not only took the long way home, I went around the block to approach the house from the other direction, avoiding the kitchen windows on the front.

I quietly opened the door to the garage.  I was still early.  If I waited too long, my younger brother would catch me in the garage and he would ‘tell’ on me.  If I didn’t wait long enough, there would be questions and I would probably make up a lie.  That would be a sin.  It’s not exactly in the top ten (commandments), but it would probably fall under number four:  honor your father and mother.

Decades later I would look back on this break from being a rules-following, goodie-two-shoes kid as an act of fearlessness.  It was the first indication that I would question my religious upbringing to become a recovering Catholic.

But on that particular day, I sat on the milk box, fidgeting, restless, rehearsing my next confession.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned…

Over the Top

Over the Top

(First appeared on 1:1000 on February 23, 2016)

Photograph by: Garrett Carroll 

“See you later,” Martha whispered over her shoulder as she skipped off to the park. Her mother was busy cleaning the cabin. Her aunt was doing dishes. Her brothers and cousins were playing cards. Her dad and uncle were at the fire pit talking about the annual horseshoe tournament next week. Martha wasn’t supposed to wander off on her own, but she figured no one would miss her for a while and they would know where to find her.

Today was Martha’s ninth birthday, so she didn’t have to do any chores, other than making her bed. She wished she could disappear and come back tomorrow. Every summer her family was on vacation during her birthday. They tried to make it special, but it was always the same. There would be a cake from the bakery in town, everyone would sing Happy Birthday around the campfire and she would have to make a wish with everyone teasing her about being the baby in the group. Martha dreamed of someday having a birthday party with her friends. No boys or adults allowed.

 

At least this year the family was staying in a cabin on a lake. There was a large park with swings, slides and a merry-go-round next to the beach. Swinging was just about Martha’s favorite thing to do in summer. She would pick a seat high enough so her toes just touched the ground. The swing closest to the lake was the best one. You could see the whole resort when sitting still and nothing but sky when flying through the air. Please be empty today, she thought, fingers crossed.

A few early risers were on the beach but no one was on the swings. Martha ran the last few yards and sat in her preferred spot. She always liked to start by winding the swing in one direction and letting it unwind, feet in the air, leaning back as far as she could. When the swing stopped spinning, Martha closed her eyes and imagined herself swinging high enough to go over the top and make a complete circle. That would be the best birthday present of all.

Martha’s brother Dale told her it wasn’t possible. She was too small to get enough momentum to go all the way around. “Have you ever done it?” she asked.

“Almost, but dad saw me get as high as the top and made me stop before I made it around,” Dale answered.

“What did it feel like?” Martha asked, eyes wide.

Dale leaned in close to Martha to say, “It was wonderful and scary at the same time.”

“Have you tried it again?” Martha asked.

“I’m too old to be playing on the swings,” Dale said before he turned and walked away.

Martha opened her eyes and began to pump her legs back and forth. The cool morning mist brushed across her face as she propelled forward, disturbing the still air. Gravity pulled her back down. Martha pumped her legs faster and faster, gaining speed, slicing the air, higher and higher until she was almost upside down. Blue sky and green earth become a blur as Martha’s legs pushed and pulled, taking her to new heights.

 

I’m almost over the top, Martha thought. Her heart was racing with exhilaration, her hands grasping tight to the chains holding the swing. Suddenly the swingset posts began to move up and down with a thump, thump, thump. She wasn’t scared at all. Freedom, she thought. This must be what it feels like to fly.

Martha caught a glimpse of her mother walking toward her. Martha stopped pumping and let the swing slow down. She was in enough trouble for wandering off; she didn’t want to hear what her mother had to say about how high she was going.

“Can I join you?” her mother asked.

“I guess so,” Martha said, expecting to get an earful about taking off and not telling anyone.

Martha’s mother sat in the swing next to her, twirling from side to side. “I always liked to swing,” she said.

“When you were little?”

“Even now.”

“When? I’ve never seen you swing.”

“Sometimes I like to sneak out at night and swing. I don’t know which I like better, swinging under blue skies or under the moon and stars. Maybe we can come back after dark and you can tell me which you like better. But right now we need to go to town–you’re old enough to pick out your own cake this year. What do you say?”

“Wind me up and let me twirl once more,” Martha pleaded.

“Alright, but then we have to scoot. Your brothers and cousins have planned a special day for you.” Martha’s mother wound the swing as tight as she could before letting go. As she walked back to the cabin, she turned and said, “No dawdling, Martha.”

Martha let the swing unwind and come to stillness. She heard her daughter-in-law calling her, “Martha, Martha, where were you? You looked like you were a million miles away.”

“Not so very far away. Just…remembering swinging under the stars with my mother.”

“Come inside Martha. After all, it is your party.”

The house was filled with her children and grandchildren plus all of her brothers, their wives, cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends who could make it. Martha was over the top with love, soaring with gratitude as she looked out at family and friends gathered around.

When it was time to make a wish and blow out the nine candles, one for each decade, Martha noticed the cake top. It looked like a starry night sky, her favorite time of day to fly.