New Normal

The alarm goes off at the usual time. Time to make the donuts, she thinks. She chuckles, remembering that’s how they used to start every morning, with one of them quoting the old commercial from the 70s.

In the bathroom, she stares intently in the mirror, leaning close to examine her eyes. Red again. She thinks back on the previous night. Too much wine? Nope. Tears? No, thankfully. She’s past that stage, for the most part. Although this morning, she does feel a bit more fragile than usual, like there’s something simmering beneath the surface. She chalks up the bleary eyes to allergies and pops a Claritin.

In the kitchen, she brews a single cup of coffee in the Keurig she requested for Christmas. It proved difficult to make a single cup in the 8 – 10 cup Mr. Coffee machine. She grew tired of dumping out the leftovers every day once the morning caffeine consumption was cut in half.

She makes breakfast. Wakes the kids. Gathers uniforms. Dries her hair and puts on makeup, jockeying for a spot in the bathroom mirror. Her daughter insists on sharing the master bathroom with her these days, leaving the other bathroom to her 14-year-old son. The boy’s bathroom and the girls’ bathroom, her daughter quips.

Carpool. She knows she should engage the kids in conversation, but she’s just so tired. The kids seem tired, too. They ride in silence, content to have a few more minutes of solitude.

Traffic. Parking. Another cup of coffee at the office. Chit chat with coworkers before sitting down to check the day’s schedule.

She has a meeting at 10 a.m. with a jeweler. She’s decided it’s time for her to sell her rings. She’d asked his permission first, since the large one with the diamond had belonged to his mother – a gift from his father on the day she gave birth in 1969. He told her to go ahead and sell it.

She sits quietly at her desk for a moment, trying to identify the ache that’s starting to spread in her chest. She used to numb moments like these, staying busy in order to avoid feeling whatever she was feeling. Filling up her hours with work, volunteering, appointments, chores just so she wouldn’t have to face the sadness, worry, anxiety, fear.

These days though, she white-knuckles through the discomfort, asking herself questions until she gets at the root of the matter. Is she worried about the kids? Is it something at work? Is it money? Does she miss being married? Does she miss him? Is she just overwhelmed? Today, it’s none of those. Or maybe it’s all of those. She can’t figure it out.

Bad news, the jeweler says later that morning. It’s a nice size diamond but the color and clarity aren’t all that great. I’m afraid I can’t give you much for it after all. She figured. The rings are lovely and unique, but more sentimental than anything else. She thanks him and heads home for lunch.

She attends a meeting, her first with this group. She’s welcomed with open arms and hugs by the women there. She tries to stay focused, to listen and learn. Keep it simple! someone says. She has to laugh. Simple? Where on earth does that fit in to my life? she wonders. Nothing’s simple when you’re a single working mother of two teenagers.

She stops by another jewelry store on her way back to work. Again, she’s offered far less than she feels she should take for the symbol of the last 17 years of her life.

She can feel the ache spreading, rising in her throat. She calls her brother, who answers laughing about something unrelated. I’m not doing well, today, she says. There’s absolutely no reason for me to feel this way. Nothing’s different from yesterday. Nothing’s changed. 

The tears are coming. She chokes them back.

He listens to her. He says things like some days are just harder… take it one day at a time… you’re doing fine. He tells her a story that makes her laugh hysterically. The ache starts to fade.

More laughter with coworkers. Crossing things off the to-do list. It feels good to be productive. She texts back and forth with a friend, smiling at the utter silliness of the thread.

After work, she goes to the bank to sign paperwork for a loan extension. Only three more payments to go, her banker says cheerily. And you don’t have to make a payment this month. The tightness in her chest loosens a little more.

She gets a great report from her daughter’s voice coach and an unsolicited hug from the usually cranky preteen. Back home, she turns on Pandora and dances in the kitchen while she cooks. The fragile feeling is almost gone by the time her son walks through the door from baseball practice, saying Hey Mama! How was your day? in his deep voice.

Laundry. Dishwasher. Tidying up. She tucks her daughter into bed with a hug and kiss. She walks through the house, turning off lights, double checking the locks on the doors. She stops at her son’s room. Don’t say up too late, she says, kissing him on the top of his head.

She gets into bed, arranging all the pillows how she likes them simply because she can. The dog jumps up and settles into his spot at her feet. Her son comes in and flops on the bed next to her. She strokes his hair, marveling at how big he is now, feeling lucky that he still comes in every night to say ‘night Mama before heading off to his own bed.

She thinks back on the day, remembering how fragile she felt this morning, how she scoffed at the word simple, how she almost cried, how the laughter, the hugs, the smiles, the dancing in the kitchen brought her back to life.

I was vulnerable today, she thinks, but I’m grateful. I’m grateful for my family, for my job, for the roof over our heads, for the food in the fridge, for the gas in the car, for the dog at my feet.  

She turns out the light. One long breath in for four beats. Hold it for seven. Let it out for six. She sleeps.

 

Ghosts and Grace

“They are only a ghost if someone alive is still holding on to them.” –The Secret Garden

“The church and people can break your heart. God never will.” — Rev. Carey Stone

I really should have seen it coming. I’d been a getting little too big for my britches. On more than one occasion, when a concerned friend asked me how I was doing, I had smiled broadly and replied emphatically, “I’m great! I really am. I’m doing great.”

I wasn’t lying. I have felt more confident, more secure, genuinely happier over the last few months. But looking back, something was off last week. I was super busy at work. We had activities after school every night. There were no margins in my days. I just felt … meh.

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t have time to be still and listen. Instead, I put on my armor of busyness piece by piece, activity by activity, office hour by office hour. So, I really shouldn’t have been surprised when the armor cracked Sunday morning.

A few weeks ago, my dear friend asked if I would come to church with her to celebrate her installation as youth ministries leader. Sounds like an easy thing to do, right? Here’s the catch: four years ago, this church, and many of the people in it, broke my heart.

It had been my church home when we moved back to town. We chose it because it was attached to the parochial school where I attended K – 8 and where we enrolled both kids. I dove head first into volunteering, both for the church and for the school. Soon, my entire life and all my heart revolved around those few city blocks in downtown Little Rock.

All that came to a screeching halt when the Vestry and the Dean voted to close the school with two weeks left before graduation. I’ll spare you the ugly details. If you need the back story, you can read more here.

Needless to say, my heart was shattered. My faith took a beating, too. I carried around a mental list of all the people who’d been present at that closed-door meeting. I held grudges for every snide comment, every harsh word and every cold shoulder. I played the blame game … a lot.

Man, that was a heavy, heavy burden. Over the years, I laid it down bit by bit. I thought I’d made my peace entirely.

And yet.

Sunday morning marked the first time I’d attended a service there since the last school graduation in May 2011. Here’s what I had hoped would happen: I’d walk in the back of the church; inhale the familiar smell of furniture polish, candle wax and mustiness; see the gorgeous stained glass windows whose designs I’d memorized as a child; hear the organ music and the tower bells and my heart would soar.

That didn’t happen.

As I walked up the steps, I was tense. I tried to breathe deeply and relax. I entered the church and saw a woman I’ve known since I was in junior high. We chatted. She hugged me. Then another old friend was at my side … and another. So far, so good.

Just after the first hymn began, I started seeing the ghosts.

In place of the boy carrying the cross, I saw my son on the night he served as Crucifer in the Christmas pageant. I looked over at the hand bell table and saw figures of children — remnants of the school’s hand bell choir. I saw my daughter and her classmates flying down the center aisle in angel costumes. I heard my children’s voices — and mine own as a child — emanating from the choir stalls. I pictured the sanctuary with the dimmed lights on the eve of my own 8th grade graduation. Instead of listening to every word of the sermon, all I could see was my dear friend the school chaplain standing in the pulpit during that final graduation, imploring us to “stay on the vine.”

Although I was distracted, I wasn’t yet overcome. However, one of the chosen hymns during the service was “I Want to Walk as A Child of the Light.”  On a good day, at my own church, with no ghosts swirling around me, I have a hard time hearing that hymn. It was the traditional closing hymn at every Cathedral School graduation. As the proud parents, teachers and student body sang, all the recent graduates walked down the aisle carrying candles, symbolically sharing their light with the rest of the world as they moved on to new schools.

On this Sunday, the moment the organ started playing the familiar tune, my tears started flowing. I fled for the back door, running from the ghosts lurking in every corner. There, on the steps of the church, I broke down into heaving sobs. I was shocked. I didn’t know there was that much grief and sadness still left in me.

I thought I was “Great! Really great!” Apparently not.

After church, I went for a long walk to shake the ghosts. I thought about my friends who’d stayed at the church after the school closed. Their hearts were broken, too. Yet, they’d stuck it out. They hadn’t run away. They’d grieved at the appropriate time, so the memories didn’t turn into ghosts.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me: I was surrounded by ghosts in that sacred space for the simple reason that I was still holding on to them. When the school closed, I hadn’t given myself time or permission to confront my pain. I’d done what I had always done when things got really hard: I numbed. I got busy finding new schools for the kids. I got busy scheduling summer activities. I got busy at work. Anything I could do to stay in motion so I wouldn’t have to be still and know the pain.

Suddenly, I realized what had been tugging at me all week. It was that voice in my head that I’ve been trying so hard to listening to these days. The voice that says, “Slow down. Look around. Be present. Be grateful. Acknowledge your imperfections. Lean in. Let it hurt. Be you.”

Last week, I drifted. Instead of living intentionally, I’d allowed the hustle and bustle of life to overwhelm me. It took a big cosmic “ha!” in the form of a simple hymn to bring me back. It was as if God said, “Oh no you don’t! You’ve still got work to do, missy. Here. Let me show you.” 

I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in moments of grace. There was a reason I chose to witness my friend’s installation into a new church position on the exact same day that hymn was chosen. I needed to hear it. My heart needed to break wide open again, just for a moment, so I could face the pain head on this time. That, my friends, is my idea of grace.

During my walk, I processed a lot of grief. I’m sure there’s still more there. Only time — and more trips to that church — will tell.

By the time I returned home, I had a smile on my face and grace in my heart. There was no darkness, only light. The ghosts were gone. And these were the words I was singing in my head:

I want to walk as a child of the light
I want to follow Jesus …
In Him there is no darkness at all
The night and the day are both alike
The Lamb is the light of the city of God
Shine in my heart Lord Jesus

Peace be with you.

Taken at the final Cathedral School graduation in May 2011 by fellow classmate Nelson Chenault.

Taken at the final Cathedral School graduation in May 2011 by fellow classmate Nelson Chenault.


 

My Hometown (with thanks and apologies to The Boss)

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
To the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around … this is your hometown

I was born and raised in Little Rock. So was my Dad. I’ve always been proud to be a generational Little Rocker. My upbringing in my beloved hometown knit the fabric of the person I was, the person I lost sight of there for a while and the person I’m becoming again.

My early childhood was pretty idyllic. Our house was on a block full of children. We played Freeze Tag, Swing the Statue, Kick the Can and Piggy Wants a Motion (pretty sure we made that one up) late into the night during the summers.

I was on a first name basis with the pharmacist at the drugstore. He sold me ice cream and put it on my mother’s tab. My best friend and I met every Saturday and walked to Browning’s Mexican Restaurant for chips and dip. Then we squandered our allowance on video games at The Yellow Rocket. We saw movies at The Heights Theater and trespassed at St. John’s Seminary.

I learned politics and religion from my parents. My mother was the creator and sponsor of the Accept No Boundaries student organization at iconic Little Rock Central High. Her students wore t-shirts with a photo of a black child and white child hugging and a caption that read, “Nobody’s Born a Bigot.”

Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I had no idea there were denominations not accepting of anyone and everyone. I grew up under influence of strong female church leadership, including Mother Peggy, one of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. I remember attending an event with my mother where we walked from Christ the King Catholic Church on Rodney Parham to Temple B’Nai Israel to recognize the journey many Jews took during the Holocaust.

My children were born in Montgomery, Ala. My husband and I relocated there in 1997 for his job. I was pregnant with our son when his company closed. We entertained the idea of leaving at that point, but I had a great job. We had good friends. I loved my church. So we stayed.

Every time I’d visit Little Rock with my children, my heart would hurt. I’d spend the days driving the streets of my hometown, fondly recalling growing up in a small Southern town with lots of charm. I’d eat at all the delicious locally owned restaurants. I’d take long walks through the neighborhood, looking at houses and making up stories in my head about living in Little Rock again.

One summer, I sat at the pool with one of my best friends from high school. Our children frolicked in the kiddie pool. Coincidentally, it was the pool where my parents had been members when I was growing up. I learned to swim there. I had birthday parties there. I charged food at the snack bar there. I ogled the older boys. Again … idyllic.

As I sat there, completely content, I had what I have come to refer to as a full-on epiphany. A voice inside me said, “This is where I have to raise my children.” I’ve never believed anything so strongly. Within months, we sold our house, I found a job in Little Rock and we enrolled the kids in school and daycare.

I was home.

Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in Arkansas recently. You’ve seen the headlines, I’m sure. We now have a Religious Freedom Reformation Act on the books. It mirrors the Federal law, but many are still concerned – and rightly so — that it opens the door for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson is considering signing an executive order creating a protective class for LGBT individuals. I truly hope he does, because regardless of the RFRA’s stated intent, there are too many people in the state who will use it to discriminate against anyone they perceive as different.

It breaks my heart that the same state where I learned to be tolerant, loving and accepting is now once again garnering national headlines for its open hatred of those considered “other.” The same state where I steadfastly believed I needed to raise my children is fast becoming the last place I want them living when they grow up.

I told a friend that I am so angry I want to throw things. I don’t know at whom said things will be thrown, but sometimes nothing gets the mad out like pitching a fit and throwing things.

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more

And that’s another thing. When I made the argument for moving home to Little Rock, I told people that I wanted to live in a city my children could make their home after college. I dreamed of them and their spouses finding lucrative jobs and raising my grandchildren right around the corner from me.

But if Arkansas continues on this trajectory – and sadly I think we’re headed for many more years of crazy before it all dies down – there will be no lucrative jobs to be had. I am firmly convinced that no 21st-century companies will choose to set up shop in a state now known as one of the most anti-gay states in the nation. Plus, the businesses that are here now are going to have a hard time recruiting bright, talented, hard-working individuals to move here to work for them. I will have a hard time encouraging my children to stay.

Would the last forward-thinking, open-minded, whole-hearted individual to leave Arkansas please turn off the lights? Oh wait, never mind. We’re already living in the dark.

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around …
This is your hometown.

I asked my children a year or so ago, “Do you feel like this is your hometown even though you weren’t born here?” My son said, “Oh yeah. I don’t even remember Montgomery. This is where my friends are.  This is home.”

The other night, Emily and I were in the car driving east on Cantrell Road. We had just left my dad’s house and were heading to school to pick up Charles after his baseball game.  It was one of those spring nights where it’s just warm enough to roll the windows down.

As we cruised down Cantrell Hill from the Heights to Riverdale, I caught a glimpse of downtown and the Capitol. I looked over at my daughter, happy and content. I thought about how many times I’ve driven down that hill … first as a passenger with my parents, then behind the wheel as a teenager, now with my own kids.

Suddenly I heard that voice again, the same one I’d heard at the pool more than a decade ago: “This is where I have to raise my children.”

It’s not time to leave. There’s still too much good here and too much to be done to make this state better.

I smiled at Emily and turned the radio up. The wind whipped through our hair. We sang loudly to Taylor Swift, as we drove the streets of our hometown.