Monday, June 26, 2017

Everybody Will Be Happy

My church friend Mr. Ransone had COPD and cancer in his bones, but he was one of the most joyful people I've ever known. By the time I met him, he was already outliving a prognosis, so I tried to listen, really listen, to everything he said. I never heard him pray a closing prayer that I didn't cry. Once, he and Mrs. Ransone slipped me $60 cash after their family had eaten in my section at the restaurant. Another time, they fed my kids Girl Scout cookies from the very boxes my girls had just delivered.

My most precious time with Mr. Ransone, though, was when I visited him and Mrs. Ransone by myself. I'd been feeling for some time as though I were supposed to have a conversation with Mr. Ransone about joy: a fruit of the Spirit I find particularly elusive at times. The feeling had become increasingly urgent, and--fearing I would lose Mr. Ransone before allowing him to speak into my life--I arranged to visit.

The three of us settled into the Ransones' living room, and Mr. Ransone almost immediately offered the bit of wisdom I had been seeking. It wasn't anything close to what I had expected, but I knew in my spirit it was what I was meant to hear. I'm not sure I could've received it from anyone else, but because Mr. Ransone--in all of his Jesus-y sunshine--spoke it, I tucked it into my heart.

Mr. Ransone, the Day of My Visit


Early Saturday morning, the girls and I were tent camping with the Girl Scouts in wind with a speed as high as twenty miles per hour and gusts as high as thirty. At the time I had no idea, but Mr. Ransone was drawing his last breaths as the girls' and my tent collapsed. We moved to the minivan to sleep, making plans to participate fully in the day's events but, after dark, return home.

Around lunchtime, I received both my pastor's message about Mr. Ransone's passing and a message from one of my first cousins. She lives in Maryland but was in the area; would I like to get together, Sunday? In the end, she and her family (a party of nine!) not only attended our church but also spent the rest of the day at our house, eating two meals with us. They had never before visited either our church or our house. It wasn't lost on me: the last time I had been surrounded by her bunch had been at my grandma's (not her grandma's) funeral. It wasn't lost on me: had the girls' and my tent not collapsed, I wouldn't have been home to connect with my cousins. I had, in fact, announced to my pastor and choir leader that I would not be at church; yet, there I was, with thirteen family members to include Cade, who had evidently forgotten about the girls' and my camping trip and driven to church from his dad's.


I am, when mentally taxed, susceptible to magical thinking. I know this about myself and try to guard against it but have to wonder, nonetheless: is the timing of Mr. Ransone's death linked to the collapse of the tent, which led to my being available for my cousins' rare and precious visit? What, if anything, does it mean that--as I sat grieving in the pew, Sunday morning, inexplicably surrounded by out-of-state family--my pastor preached out of I John, identifying it as a letter written that our "joy may be full." Did I not, chasing joy, enter conversation with Mr. Ransone? Is it a coincidence that I'm available to sing with the choir the night of Mr. Ransone's funeral when, until last week, I had expected to teach? I don't know the answers. What I do know is that I feel like a small bird held gently in a great, warm- and dry-palmed hand. I feel comforted and very loved, even as this song from my childhood plays over and over in my head:

Friday, May 19, 2017

Triggers, Weaknesses, and When It's Not about What It Seems

Here I am, on a Friday morning, eight minutes from missing my daughters' hair appointments. Last night, I missed my older son's high-school-band performance because I was giving a final exam and issuing final grades. This was more complicated than one might imagine because, at the school where I teach (blessed school), I record my grades in a green book; thus, I do the calculations. Nothing is automatic.

These students and I spent forty-five hours together over the course of five weeks. I spent another forty-five hours with a morning class: equally delightful but much smaller and without a student like the one who organized a feast for us so that--last night, as I was making calculations--I was eating undone empanadas, fried chicken tenders, and little squares of Cojack on a sturdy paper plate.

I start teaching again, Tuesday night. Between now and then, I'll wait tables three times, write a eulogy, write a research paper, and edit as many photos as I can. If you're astute, you'll have noticed no mention of my children, and trust me: they need my attention, too. I want to cry for having missed my daughters' hair appointments; each girl looks as though a mouse has slept in her hair and needs to lose the bottom eight inches. Homeschooling has been in the toilet since Christmas. Jim and I promised a trip to Chuck E. Cheese's as soon as he got a job, and he got a job, and my four-year-old is dismayed that it's looking like Monday at best.

But as of next week, my responsibilities will start to shift. I won't teach morning classes or wait tables. I'll catch up on photo editing (the events have been completely beyond me), reconnect with my children, homeschool, clean. I don't have words to express how excited this non-nester is to clean. 

I regret not having written more, over the past few months, about all the ways in which God has provided and even delighted. There wasn't time. There isn't time, now, but I feel the need to pause and reflect. I am stronger, faster, more capable of multitasking than I thought. I am more inclined to stand up for myself than I used to be, and in a more effective way. I bear a million stories. I become increasingly less afraid to tell them. 

Mostly, I enjoyed my work--all of it--except when I worked with strep throat, a cold, or a bladder infection. I could hardly generate a feeling when each of my sons underwent surgery. Jim spent a day in the ER with chest pains; I was glad for the excuse to call off work and vacuum under our couches. My dad spent a couple days in the hospital with some sort of mysterious blood loss; I was detached enough from the situation that he might have been a friend's dad, or no one's dad. A stranger. I could've almost had a feeling about not having a feeling, but there was no energy for such like. I just kept swimming.

Then, this week, I finally lost my shit. At the time, it was the strangest, most inexplicable thing. I was out-of-the-blue enraged. Jim was baffled. I've learned, finally, to pay attention to when he thinks I make no sense: not that he always makes sense, but overall, he's a pragmatic sort. I knew he was onto something, also that I wasn't prepared to talk about it; in fact, I kept hissing at him not to talk to me about anything, to just. leave. me. alone. I felt downright dangerous, murderous.

Yesterday, the call with the offer came, and I went from enraged to mildly pissed, a state in which I can have (as the song goes) just a little talk with Jesus. It's less talking, really, than listening: than prying my soul open like the shell of an oyster. In this state, I could see almost right away that my rage had been less about anything in the moment than a trigger. This is progress. 

Jim had been informed Friday that he would receive an offer in his range early this week. We were confident enough (and desperate enough for our apple cart to be righted) that I put in notices everywhere. Then the offer didn't come when promised. Without realizing it, I was cast back into the hell of my miscarriage. Mostly, I don't want to talk about this (and refuse to argue or defend it) but feel compelled to tell you: I read a book I cannot recommend that held a message I cherish, which is that healing is a tv word, that we move through life as people with holes. We do not heal so much as we learn to accept and even use our holes. 

Even very recently, I thought God wanted to heal me; now, I think Him far more interested in using me. His strength is made perfect in weakness, amen. Maybe the goal is to see weakness clearly and for what it is. Maybe the goal is not to overcome it but to push through it, by the grace and with the help of God, over and over again. Watch me put one foot in front of the other, perhaps with a tray on my shoulder. I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I'm not in pain. I'm going to tell you I love Jesus, anyway...and my husband, and my life.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Clementine Turns Eight

Dear Clementine:

I started this blog because I was losing my grandma to Alzheimer's; the first time she didn't recognize me, in fact, I was pregnant with you. She had always been such a safe person for me. I was in pain; I wanted her back; I wanted access to all her memories, again, and it was too late.

I was filled with an indescribable longing to write myself down for you children against the day that you lose me. So here we are. I would tell you I've changed so much over these six years of blogging, but I suspect it's closer to the truth to say I haven't changed much at all but that, instead, I've come to understand myself so much better.

I've come to understand that a big part of me has been stuck at age eight: your brand-new age. I started to figure this out after experiencing your baptism, which filled me with a dread I hadn't anticipated. It would've been convenient to chalk my emotional state up to "weeping with joy," but I recognized that as a lie. I was frustrated: why did your accepting Christ feel heavy to me in a way that your older brother's profession of faith had not? I turned the question over and over in my mind. It took a long time for me to know, but when I knew, I knew for certain.

I accepted Christ within the same year of my first sexual interactions, also the same year of two great-grandmothers' deaths. I was eight years old. I wasn't baptized until I was about twelve, but your baptism was triggering for me, and thank goodness, as I was granted some time to prepare for your turning eight.

Now, you are. Eight. Sometimes we are eye-to-eye eight. We were selling Girl Scout cookies in front of Walmart the other day, and you ran over to the other table for a piece of pizza. After you returned, I asked you to fetch me a piece. "No," you said. "You didn't get me a piece, so I'm not going to get you one."

Just like that, I was bested. "Fair enough," I muttered, and went after my own piece of pizza. Later, I was, like: what was that? I'd been helping you sell cookies since 9am, and I let you get away with refusing to get me a piece of pizza? You're not unkind as a rule; I watch you with animals and much younger children. But I think you smell the eight-year-old on me as surely as a dog smells fear. We go around and around and always have. You have your daddy's stink eye and, at times, a ferocious bark.

You are creative and strong, so strong. I think you could in time lead an army or a country, but you must continue to grow in body and spirit. You must refine your leadership skills. I'm here to make sure you don't get stuck. I'm learning to parent both of us; forgive me for my failings. I love you, and I love no one more than I love you. I am devoted to you; you have, after all, been one of my greatest teachers.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Last Week

We kicked off last week by hosting a Super Bowl party. It was a fairly last-minute decision, which made it extra brave. The truth is: there reaches a point in your crap storm at which you're very nearly overcome with insecurity. This is especially true when your crap storm is just the latest of multiple crap storms. You start to wonder what people are thinking. Are they thinking you're bringing it upon yourself in some way? That you're being punished? Are they sick and tired of your suffering self? And honestly, even if you're able to answer no-no-no, you feel guilty that your friends (such good people) have sat with you through so much crap. You don't want to ask for help; you don't even want to ask for company.

We were extra brave, asking friends over for the Super Bowl at the last minute, so we felt very glad and relieved (also a little bit guilty) when they came, bearing tons of amazing food to include some apple cake that made my eyes well up when I bit into it.

I started my new teaching job on Tuesday. When I first visited this school just before Christmas, I thought it felt like a perfect fit, and eighteen teaching hours later, it still does. It's the smallest, warmest place. There's a mural on one wall, decorated bulletin boards, a little free library. I write my grades in an actual book. After years of teaching composition, I'm teaching literature to adults for the first time, and my students have been so receptive, so respectful. I can hardly believe it's real.

Friday night, I photographed a ladies' event. A friend had recommended me for the job on facebook, and I messaged the person who'd placed the ad. She asked me about my rates and if I'd be interested in trading photography for gym membership. My first thought was: no. Immediately afterward, though, I thought: Jesus? Because the truth is: I need more exercise, but in this season of Jim's unemployment, any cash payment wouldn't have gone toward a gym membership. The event was held at the gym; I had an amazing time and made some new friends; and we now have a family gym membership for the next five months! Jim and I have our initial consultations on Monday.

Last week was both the third anniversary of my friend Jason Hatfield's death and Grandma B.'s 99th birthday. I miss them both so much, but ask me if I think it's a coincidence that Mr. Edwards came back to me, last week. (I'm reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter to the girls and had completely forgotten about the Ingalls family's reconnecting with Mr. Edwards.) I cried so hard I could hardly read. Ask me if I think it's a coincidence that one of my favorite co-workers from ITT will likely soon be joining me at my new school. Until Thursday, I hadn't seen him for eight years or so. I also heard, last week, from a friend from grad school with whom I'd lost touch. There were other things that happened: tickets to a marriage retreat from an anonymous friend, for example.

He gives and takes away. I really do believe that. And I guess the very best thing about a crap storm is watching the incredible ways in which God provides in the middle of it: whom He sends, and what. I believe He's for me, still; I do.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Make-up and Perfume

A couple weeks ago at choir practice, our pianist Mrs. Carol gave me an orange symphony ticket for Cade. "The school may give him a ticket," I said.

"Then you use it," Mrs. Carol said, and in fact, Cade didn't end up needing a ticket because the clarinet choir in which he performs opened for the symphony. I would've liked to have gone but--upon learning of the symphony's plans to perform Disney music--decided I wanted Clementine to go even more. Since Cade wouldn't be available for Clementine the whole time, I arranged for her to sit with my friend Karen and her family.

I helped Clementine pick out clothes, scrubbed her head in the shower, and even put make-up on her. (Possibly the only bug flying around our yard, mid-January, had eaten Clementine alive to include her face. Of course.)

Charleigh was a bit pouty, but I promised her a special adventure, just the two of us. She and I walked Clementine to Karen just inside the high school and headed into town. Charleigh was quiet as a church mouse behind me in the minivan. Finally, I asked: "Are you okay back there, Charleigh?"

"Yeah," she said, "I'm just wondering when I'll get to see Clementine, again." She hesitated for a few seconds, then added: "But I'm glad to have special time alone with you, Mama." And I thought to myself: what in the world am I going to do with this child for almost two hours given that I can't really spend any money?

But I had six dollars and some change on a Dunkin' Donuts card, also a little more than a dollar in my wallet, which got us a box of Munchkins and a sweet tea from McDonald's. I considered going into Target after some laundry detergent but, on a whim, said: "I have an idea, Charleigh! Let's go to Ulta and smell the perfume!"

"What's Ulta?" she asked, then: "Is it far away? Can we smell all of it? All the perfume?" Inside the store, she admired the perfume bottles cautiously, her eyes wide as fifty-cent pieces. I showed her how to spray test strips at a little distance, then wave and sniff them. "How do you know how to do all this, Mama?" she asked, and I answered something about how I've been around for a good little while.

From the perfume section, Charleigh and I moved to the make-up section, where we tried all manner of products. We both left Ulta wearing foundation and lipstick. She was wearing bright purple eye shadow, to boot; I was sporting some mascara that froze my lashes, coal black, a full inch from my lids. "I want to tell Clementine everything," Charleigh said, waving a disposable mascara wand, "but will she think I'm bragging?"

"Probably not," I said. "She got to go to the symphony."

"I just wish we could've ridden an escalator," Charleigh sighed.

"We still have time to ride an escalator," I said and drove around to Sears, where we rode the escalator up to the bathroom. I noticed that Charleigh had six or seven perfumed test strips fanning out of a studded back pocket in her jeans. We rode the escalator back down and went to the high school to pick up the older kids.

"Oh Brandee," Karen texted. "Clementine loved it, her face was precious to watch."

A bit later, Charleigh asked: "Mama, can we do that again, the next time we have a special adventure, just the two of us?"

And who am I? Who is this person trapped in a fluffy body and pinched times? The perfume I liked best, tonight, smells like soap: like old-woman perfume, Cade said. There was no meanness in his words.

I am a woman who remembers buying expensive make-up and pricey, exotic-smelling perfume. A woman who remembers shopping at the mall. I am a woman who remembers turning heads. All of that is fading so quickly, though. Fading like the trace amounts of perfume on the test strips in Charleigh's back pocket. I would tell you that I'm sad, but mostly, I'm just tired.

I am a woman with friends. I am a woman with daughters, and the skin of their faces is taut, their pores nearly invisible.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

To Cade, the Week of Your 17th Birthday

Hello, Son. I can hardly believe that, in one year, you'll be considered grown, although I'll admit: your face looked different to me, again, today. It wasn't just the way your chin's been reshaped by orthodontics, either; it was some of the other bones in your face, also the matter of facial hair. I wish there were no need to replace your glasses because your eyes are lovely. They look like my eyes and especially as my eyes did twenty-five years ago (I've always liked my eyes), only with more generous lashes: your dad's. Why do the boys always get the good ones. It's not a question, really; I'm just writing.

I'm frustrated because I feel like I'm just starting to figure things out, and you're practically grown, and I'm sure I've screwed up sixteen million things. I am somewhat comforted because we can really talk and because I seem to be the person you want when your heart is broken. That thing I do where I enter your pain: no one taught me that, at least not the easy way, so I do feel inclined to take credit for it, to pat myself on the back for that one small thing. I think it's nice how sometimes we can count on getting right the things our parents screwed up most. You'll probably be clean and faithful; I'm glad, relieved.

I'm glad we share so many interests: that we have an honest-to-goodness plan to read 100 classics together in five years, that we're both serious as a heart attack about it. I'm glad we have music in common to the extent we do. I loved our Christmas together more than ever I have: our mutual awe over the Mighty Wurlitzer and every second we put into our own performance. I was proud that my son was the one playing and singing, and especially that you were proud to be playing and singing with me.

Thank you for never being embarrassed of me, or at least, for never letting your embarrassment show. If ever you were to shrug me off in public, I would cry for a million years. Thank you for knowing that and choosing not to do it. I know you make concessions to protect my mental health. (I really am aware, Cade.) Thank you for calling if you know you'll be late. Thank you for never even dreaming of joining the military or police, even if just to keep me out of Tucker. I'm grateful.

I know the church thing wears you out, at points. You may look back on it with resentment, but Son. You have to know I'm all in: that I'm just clinging to Jesus. And if that's true--at the very worst and even if I'm dead wrong--I am all the time just trying to make sure you know where to find me.

Last point. Even though, in my weakness (which is at points extreme, I will admit), I bye felicia-ed you as you were getting out of the minivan, yesterday, there's no one in all the world whom I love more than I love you. You are my treasure and will always be.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

To Chip at Four

Mama's Baby,

You turned four right around the corner from halloween. Our celebration was quiet, but I took photos, thinking I'd write a post after our trip to Great Wolf Lodge (your big birthday present) in mid-November. Then, somehow, I didn't...but remembered the other day--after you announced that you want to marry me--that I should.

At four, you play such a significant role in my life. We want to make one another happy; we do make one another happy; it's easy between us. I am your parent, yes, but I am also your friend, and you know it. It makes no nevermind to me what other, more parenty parents have to think about this; I am pleased to make friends of my children when I can.

You, Chip, are a friendly sort, the most grateful child I've ever known. You are the leader of thank-yous in our family. You are mischievous but always very contrite after crossing the line. You are the only person in the house with any concept of how to wake me up, and it's the loveliest thing; they all send you in to do it, and truth be told, I suspect they think of you as a bear whisperer, a caver.

You are these things. I see you seeing me, assessing my every exposed nerve ending and accepting me, anyway. More than that, choosing my body as the safest place you know. Your wordless message (and it plays on a loop) is that I am okay; we are okay; there is nothing to see here.

You follow directions. You open your mouth wide for the dentist and hold your head still for Mrs. Brooke, who cuts your hair. You like hats and hoods, not so much socks and shoes. You are a hopeless sugar hound. You love knights, dragons, pirates, swords, Mickey Mouse, super heroes, water play, and baked beans. I am your favorite, and you are a gift to me. Every day, I think it's impossible to love you more; I am always wrong.

With utter devotion,
Your BFF