Duck* the Rules

Potty mouth. I am one. I own it. You’d think as much as I exercise my potty mouth via text messages and other forms of communication via my phone, even my ancient Samsung Galaxy S5 Autocorrect would’ve “learned” to stop correcting me, that no, I don’t actually use the word “duck” that often in conversation.

What makes a curse word anyway? Just because someone 1,000 years ago decided my favorite form of “duck” was a bad word I’m supposed to honor that designation in 2017? I don’t like that rule; it makes no sense.

I often say Duck* the Rules! When I was younger, in college say, I didn’t really think much about breaking rules. Sure, there were the rules you followed like you don’t cheat in school and you don’t hurt someone on purpose–those were ingrained principles of humanity and they made sense to me.

My college’s rule that I couldn’t have a boy in my room to watch TV or study, even though I was 20 years old, made no sense to me. Why follow it? I didn’t.

My college roommate and I, I’ll call her my CBFF, and I attended the Kentucky Womens Writers Conference, a wonderful annual event, last weekend where we participated in a playwriting workshop. Our homework on the first night was to write a monologue for one of the characters in our play. Our instructor told us to pick two opposing archetypes for our character, then write the monologue.   When CBFF and I got home to begin our assignment, she was stuck for a long time in trying to find the right archetypes for her monologue, while I went straight to writing the monologue, figuring I’d figure out the archetypes later. I knew what I wanted my character to say and I didn’t want to pick formal archetypes until she’d said it. I wanted to get the emotion out and worry about the labels later. At some point that night I actually said, “Duck* the rules!”

Do the thing. Go with your gut. Worry about how it fits into the rules later.

The next day in class, our New Jersey-aged instructor was providing guidance to another student and said, “You know what, if the rules aren’t working for you, duck* the rules!”

It was all I could do not to jump up and down and profess, “YES! DUCK* THE RULES!” I didn’t, but I did repeat it out loud and got an approving affirmation from our instructor.

In the end, CBFF and I both wrote pretty good monologues even though we approached the process of doing so differently.

I am now reading a book on playwriting that is providing me ALL THESE RULES I have to follow to write a good play. While I read books on subjects that interest me to seek direction in my endeavors, I’m having a hard time swallowing the “my way or the highway” orders on dramatic writing.

However, I am older now and trying to better understand all these rules that people make for themselves and freely offer as advice to others.

Recent events in my life have necessitated viewing rules a little bit differently than I have over the course of my life. When CBFF used to tell me in college that she was a rule follower and having these rules and following them was the only way she could make sense of life, I didn’t really get it. I heard her, but I was unable to truly internalize what she meant and how important those rules were to how she lived her life. As she told me recently, sure, she broke some rules, but she always paid a heavy guilt tax afterwards.

Luckily, I was unburdened with much guilt until I became much, much older. But I still don’t feel it like she does.

I’ve recently understood as best I can that when people grow up in a chaotic environment, rules are something they establish to make sense of their situation and to provide a framework for survival. It doesn’t matter if the rules are logical or even in the self-interest of those making them, but they’re there, whether other people know it or not, and to break them risks the fracture of the entire relationship between two people.

This is a tough lesson to learn, especially since I was always taught to be my own person and to go with my gut. In 46 years, my instincts haven’t been wrong.

Yes, I still believe in universal morals like you don’t betray a spouse and you don’t undermine other people to advance your social or financial status. But if I want to sit on the same side of the field as my son’s soccer team because it’s 9:30 in the morning and already 85 degrees and the sun would be directly in my face if I sat on the “approved side,” I’m going to do it.

Duck* the rules.

* An asterisk after the word duck, as in duck*, is my way of shielding those who are offended by the word that perhaps give me greater satisfaction than any other word in the English language, from my profane method of stress relief.

 

 

 

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Take The Country Road

This post was supposed to be about hiking. Supposed to be about how refreshing it is to be in the woods alone, how I do my best reflection there, how I become one with the forest and nature…

No.

Just like so many things in life, my solo hike this past weekend through a local nature preserve was not all what I’d hoped it would be. Instead of enjoying a perfect summer day with the birds, bobcats (someday please?!), and the Kentucky River Palisades, I spent the afternoon running into spider webs, wishing I’d worn pants because the trail was narrow and overgrown, and outrunning a hornet, middle-aged lady awkward-like down the trail. Any wildlife cameras out there…there’s some downright hysterical footage waiting for you from around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.

I’ve been solo day-hiking for about a year now and most of those hikes have been very gratifying experiences. I had no reason to suspect this hike would be any different, so as I was cruising down the highway with the windows down and singing Old Crowe Medicine Show at the top of my lungs, I was enthusiastic for what the day would bring.

After 3 hours and 2.8 miles, less than my usual mileage, I was done hiking for the day. I’d initially planned on hiking an additional 2.6 miles on an adjacent trail and possibly visiting another nearby preserve, but after I’d managed to outrun the Very Persistent Asshole Hornet and being quite convinced the Spider Gods would curse me for destroying all their webs Wonder-Woman-Sword-Swashbuckling-Style, I decided against it. After all, these hikes are about the experiences and exploration, not mileage. I’d had about all the experiences I could handle for the day.

Or so I thought.

Never being one to give up easily or waste the day, I decided even if I was done hiking, I could at least drive by the other nature preserve and take a peak at it.

I took the country road, and boy am I glad I did.

As I drove down that isolated road toward the preserve, I admired the rolling hills and greenery of my home state. I just can’t imagine living anywhere else. I am truly so lucky to have been born and raised in Kentucky and thank the gods (even the spider ones) that I get to see this beauty every day.

But then I spotted something up ahead near the brush…actually several small bodies waddling by the side of the road and one bigger body leading the way. I slowly approached the group and realized it was a mama turkey and her babies…turkeylings? As I got closer Mama was desperately trying to find a way to get deeper into the brush and the babies were sticking very close to her. Four of the eight babies got separated from her so I drove away as quickly but as safely as I could and as I passed the mama I could hear her frantically calling to the babies, just like any freaked-out mama would. I stopped a bit up the road and watched her dart out of the brush and gather them all around her and disappear once again into a wooded field.

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Holy cow! I’d never seen a mama turkey with her babies. Turns out turkey babies are called poults, thank you Google. I prefer turkeylings.

Eventually I figured I’d missed the preserve, so I turned around and headed back. Mama turkey had her babies safely away from the road by that time, so while I didn’t see them again, I did find that turn off to the nature preserve and it looked beautiful! I thought about hiking for a half second, but no, I was done with hiking for the day and I was OK with that.

I stopped at the parking area and admired the absolutely stunningly beautiful fields of coneflowers, one of my favorite flowers on the planet. Why I didn’t take a picture of them, well, I guess I was just too immersed in their beauty to worry about the camera.

All of the sudden, two little black cats come out of the coneflower field and starting meowing at me. True Cat Lady that I am, I had to get out of the car and pet them a bit. I didn’t have any food to give them, but since I hadn’t had any chance to eat my lunch in the Land of a Billion Spiders and The Asshole Hornet, I’d been chowing on peanut butter and jelly and cheetos while I was driving around. Let’s just say, kitties love cheeto fingers.

After my hands were cheeto-free again, I begrudgingly made my way out of the preserve and back to Turkeyling Road. At this point I figured it was time to head for home.

Thinking about mama turkeys and tiny kitties, I’m just driving along when all of the sudden I see two cows in the middle of the road. Cows. In the road. I know to some of you who have lived in the country this is probably no big deal, but for this city girl, having just seen a turkey family and now seeing cows just moseying about in the middle of the road, well, I was like, “Holy Cow! For real!”

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The cows didn’t pay much attention to me and eventually wandered off into what I hope was their owners’ yard. Well, I thought to myself, what an interesting country road this has been.

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And then I see it, in a field to the left, my last amazing sight for the day. A doe nursing her fawn. As I drove by and stopped for this picture, which isn’t very good, the doe seemed very anxious, just staring at me while her baby finished eating. I felt like I’d just been included in a very sweet, gentle, and private moment, just the deer and me. It makes me smile now just to think about it.

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If I’d hiked the second trail, I would likely have encountered more spider webs, maybe more hornets, maybe nothing, and maybe lots of things, but I wouldn’t have seen the turkey family, the cows, the cats, or the deer, and those are the experiences that made this trip memorable.

I relayed these stories to my family when I got home. The kiddos had just seen Despicable Me 3, the moral of which was, apparently, that just because things don’t go the way you planned, it doesn’t mean the way they do go is bad.

Thank you Gru and the Minions, for teaching all the 6 and 9-year olds out there what this 45-year old is still discovering.

Take the country road when you have the chance. You never know what you might experience that will stick with you for a lifetime.

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To Kim

To Kim

A girl develops a strange and somewhat bewildering relationship with her hairdresser. It’s not one where you become so close you’re hanging out every weekend, but it’s significant in that, if you click, you develop a unique bond of trust, reliability, and camaraderie that’s not likely to be duplicated with anyone else.

Kim has made my hair beautiful for a long time. Every 8-12 weeks for the last 10 years or so, maybe more, I’ve sought her out to magically erase the increasing number of gray hairs on my head and to straighten my naturally curly hair. She’d effortlessly wield the scissors and blow dryer to tame my mane and give me shiny, glamorous straight hair with oomph at the top and flips on the end. I always felt like a rock star leaving her salon.

But I got a lot more from my visits with her than awesome hair. I gained a friend. She was with me through my miscarriages, the births of my two kids, my separation, and never failed to remember precisely what we’d talked about during the previous visit and ask follow-up questions the next time I saw her.

She sensed when I needed to be chatty and respected when I needed silence. She was always inquisitive, but never intrusive. She sensed what I needed and indulged me.

I learned about her husband and his business and her sister in Florida. I learned early on how much she loves her two boys and enjoyed the updates on their marriages and children at every visit. She inspired me to keep running by sharing her experiences training for and competing in a half marathon.

Kim gave both of my children their first haircuts.

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Beth

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Will

And when at age 4, my long-haired daughter decided to cut her own hair down to the scalp, Kim fit me into her schedule the next day and gave my girl the best haircut a mom could ask for under the circumstances.

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She inspired me with her story of independence, of how she made her own difficult decisions for the sake of herself and her two young children, during a time in which I didn’t even know I needed inspiration. She was fierce and forthright and made me believe a little more that I could be that way too.

Did I mention she’s from Zimbabwe? She has this beautiful lilting and melodic accent that I could listen to for days. She uses “love” as a familiar, as in when I told her I was shocked to find that you get gray hair all over your body, not just on your head, and she replied with a knowing smile, “It’s a daunting thought, isn’t it love?” Or when I’d walk into her salon and she’d greet me, “How are you, Shelley, my love?”

I was so enamored with this endearment that I unconsciously began inserting into my conversations with my kids. My daughter in particular I refer to as “love” or “love love,” and probably always will. Because of Kim.

I know I am not the only client she made feel special, but that doesn’t matter. I looked forward to every visit as a special time for me to take care of me, to engage in a bit of pampering that most of us could use a lot more of. The head massage she’d give me while she washed my hair…such relaxation…as if all the stressors in my life were being washed down the drain along with the split ends and gray hairs. Or at least forgotten about for a little while.

Long hair, short hair, straight or curly, dark brown or red, Kim was always there, ready to make me beautiful.

I only saw Kim for two hours every three months or so, but sitting in that chair with her taking care of me, I felt a closeness and a familiarity that is much harder to come by out of her salon. I could be honest, expect honest feedback, and not worry about judgment.

Kim told me at my last visit she is moving to Florida to be closer to her sister and while I will desperately miss her, I’m happy for her as well. She’s already set me up with a new stylist who I’m sure will be fabulous. But she won’t be Kim.

But I promise, Kim, that if I ever do decide to go platinum blonde, I will come to Florida and look you up.

Life is an Adventure, Right?

I bet there are all kinds of scientific studies out there that sing the praises of resilience, at the ability to look upon each new unexpected twist in life as something positive, as an opportunity, an adventure.

I’m too lazy to look them up, but in my heart I know what they say is true. A person is happier if she can face the bumps in the road with an upbeat attitude. Turn lemons into lemonade. Turn that smile upside down.

But the fact is, a good number of us don’t like change, including myself, even if we know it opens up the potential for unimagined, and sometimes unwanted, personal growth. Change is a certainty, whether we like it or not. Control is an illusion.

I also know there are lots of great quotes from really smart and prolific thinkers and writers out there that deal with this subject. I’m too lazy to look up those too, but I’ve come across them from time to time.

Below is a quote that a very close friend shared with me about a year ago, when I was about as low as I could get because of unwanted change, and not feeling very resilient:

“When you start to crack open, don’t waste a moment gathering your old self up into something like you knew before. Let your new self splash like sunlight into every dark place and laugh and cry and make sounds you never made and thank all that is holy for the gift, because now you have no choice but to let all your love spill out into the world.” – Brian Andreas

Easier said than done, Brian.

This past Memorial Day I took the kiddos to Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, a 734-acre park about 15 minutes from our house that has one magnificently majestic overlook of the Kentucky River. It was a perfect late spring day and the only plan we had was to explore the trails. We saw deer and wild turkey. We saw wildflowers and waterfalls. We saw tons of butterflies! We put our hands in the cold water of the creek.   We saw rocks (fossils!), tracks in the mud (bears!), and a fair amount of other humans, although not too many to crowd out our enjoyment of the day’s nature.

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My daughter sketched rock walls. My son asked me repeatedly when he got to eat the Cheetos we’d packed in his lunch. Both of them tried to fib about the number of items they’d found on their scavenger hunt checklists. No, son, you haven’t seen a bobcat. It’s 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon.

We chatted and I pointed out the big, gnarly tree trunks for which I’ve lately developed a fascination.   We crossed bridges and took funny pictures by the “Danger: Cliffs Ahead” sign. We kept our eyes open for the dreaded Emerald Ash Borer and the parasitic wasps (yikes!) that hunt their larvae.

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It was a good day. We arrived at the Kentucky River overlook, marveled at that, and had our picnic. Just the three of us, on top of the palisades, surrounded by ancient rocks and really old trees. My daughter was happy to “finally” see the overlook. My son was happy to “finally” get to eat his ham sandwich and Cheetos. And even though we were “finally” achieving their goals for the day, there had been none of the everyday bickering and fighting that is a natural occurrence between siblings. We were all relaxed and enjoying each other’s company.

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Our hike back from the overlook took us through one of the meadow paths. Due to some trail maintenance to improve muddy conditions, we had to take a detour up one of the steeper (not very steep) paths. This change in plan drew a few complaints that the path was too hard, too sunny, and too rocky. I wasn’t ready for the real world yet, so I pointed out different plants and flowers and bugs to engage the tiring kiddos in exploring their new surroundings.

This was working fairly well (maybe), and then a brownish butterfly with spots started fluttering around my daughter. She was startled at first the way this insect darted around her, grazing her arm, flying behind her only to pop up again right in front of her face. She’d smile and giggle and remind me how totally in love I am with her big brown eyes and her laugh.

The butterfly landed on her arm and stayed there for several minutes while we all marveled at it (nature!).   My son came in for a closer look, in awe of his big sister as is frequently the case. The little creature didn’t seem to mind how close these three giant humans were to its tiny delicate body.

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While we observed it and discussed its coloring and behavior, it flew off my daughter’s arm, flitted around and between all three of us before landing on my daughter’s arm again and then her head. Each time it changed direction or chose to perch on my daughter, another round of amazed giggles would escape my children.

Perfection.

Eventually the butterfly flew away toward new adventures and we continued climbing our own path. In a not very subtle way, I espoused to the children how lucky we were that we’d been detoured along our journey because surely if we’d hiked the other trail, we wouldn’t have just experienced the amazing awesomeness that was that little butterfly finding a friend in my daughter.

See! Good and unexpected things can happen when events beyond our control force us to change our plans. See, kiddos? See, Mama?

As we got further up the trail and came into a grassy meadow filled with wildflowers and bugs and butterflies, my girl found a butterfly resting on a rock (an Eastern Comma maybe?).   A daisy was on the ground beside the butterfly (I swear we didn’t pick it), so my daughter picked it up and tried to coax the butterfly onto the daisy. It flew to her immediately, content to take her sweet offering. She got the butterfly to land on her daisy four times, and just like with the earlier butterfly, every time it chose to fly close to her, she giggled and laughed in appreciation of the awesomeness of the moment. And there it was, on the daisy and surrounded by humans, content to just be.

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That’s what we were all doing that day, just being. Being present with whatever presented itself to us, acknowledging the possibilities of each new moment, excited to see what happened.

Granted, it’s easier to be open to the unexpected when you are in the glorious and peaceful woods, a place where you are actively focused on the knock knock of the woodpecker or listening to the powerful yet soothing sound of the waterfall. Nature has the sublime power to lure us out of our controlled to-do list world where we aren’t thinking about the bills we have to pay or how dirty our house is or the jolting changes inflicted upon us by the rest of the world. In the woods, we just are. And that’s OK.

Our hike that day was good for my anxious mind and the one my daughter inherited from me. We are already planning (ha!) our next adventure into the woods, Cheetos in hand.

I have this poem, along with the quote by Brian Andreas, hanging on my desk at work, in the hopes eventually I won’t have to constantly remind myself to just be.

The Peace of Wild Things-Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

and fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds,

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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I’m Moving to Key West

I’m Moving to Key West.

OK, not really. But as far as escapism goes, it sounds pretty good right now.

I could sell all the crap I own, scoop up the kids, and head seaward.

For a year.

Of course, there are many reasons why I wouldn’t actually do this (family, job security, love of KY, fear of the unknown), but still…it’s exciting to think I actually could.

I could write a book proposal to secure some upfront funding:

“Middle-aged mother of two packs up from the only state she’s ever called home, moves to the Keys and begins a life of island adventure.  Along the way, and possibly because of the fearless spirit of their mother, the two children magically begin to speak nicely to each other and clean their rooms and flush the toilet 100% of the time. 

With an average annual temperature of 77, thus eliminating the need for the children to wear socks, the three Kentuckians in the Keys spend the time they used to spend doing laundry lazily strolling the beaches at sunset and making cherished memories.

Amidst saltwater breezes, the family acclimates to their new coastal home by buddying up to grandfatherly fishermen and making friends with Hemingway’s cats.  The fabulous mother makes ends meet by waitressing while she works on the next Great American Memoir.”

It could happen. As a wannabe writer, what location could be more inspirational than Papa Hemingway’s home turf? I can feel the creative juices flowing just thinking about palm trees and bungalows.

Sure, Key West is known for its nightclubs, famous residents (or ex-residents) and French Quarter culture, but none of that matters to me. In my fantasy I’m going to find a nice quiet beach house where the sounds and smells of the ocean will waft in through the open windows day and night and the kiddos will turn into beach bums, running in and out of the house all day long, hair long and wild and streaked by the sun.

Think of the experience!

We’d learn science by familiarizing ourselves with the sea birds and the fish of the ocean. We’d discover the butterflies, bugs, plants, and flowers that live in a tropical climate. Think of the vegetables we’d grow in our garden!

We’d become healthier by eating fish and fresh veggies every day. We’d bike or walk everywhere we went, so we’d stay in shape for sure.  What we didn’t catch or grow ourselves we’d purchase at the local Farmer’s Market and stash our goodies in the baskets we’d all have attached to our bicycles.

We’d learn about tropical weather and freshen up on our hurricane preparedness skills.  We’d listen to thunder and watch lightning illuminate the waves during evening storms.

We’d declutter our lives out of necessity by living in our small hut, perhaps with the kids even sharing a room. Of course, the salty air being good for everyone’s constitution, we would relish our close quarters and grow closer as a family.  We’d enjoy not being weighed down by our attachments to material goods for which we no longer have room. There’d be nary a thought of iPads or video games in their sweet little heads.

We’d absorb ourselves in the literary culture of Hemingway and Tennessee Williams and sing along to Jimmy Buffet in our bare feet while drinking margaritas.  Well, I’d have margaritas. I might indulge the children with a Sprite. I’d let us all indulge in the occasional cheeseburger.

We’d experience the wild, anything-goes culture of the Keys and chase the crazy chickens that roam the island.  We’d fall in love with Hemingway’s famous polydactyl cats and compare them to our own two felines who made the journey from Kentucky with us.  They’d adapt to their new sandy environment just fine, and hey, no inside litter boxes!

The school district is a small one, so the kids would undoubtedly get a first-rate education with almost individualized attention. I would find work during the day so that the kids and I could enjoy our evenings together. Of course, the island being one big family, I would rest assured that in giving my children free reign to roam and explore, someone somewhere would be keeping an eye on them.

I’d write about these mind-freeing island experiences at night after the kids were in bed, discovering more about myself and life in the process, sure that my new insight was conjured from the sound of the waves.

And hey, I’d live in a state where my vote for President might actually count!

Really, why wouldn’t I do it? Getting used to the idea that nothing lasts forever is really hard, so why not roll with it and take some big chances? Just think, that journey could begin after only 1,201 miles and 18 hours and 14 minutes.

Who needs reality anyway?

Questions I’d Ask My Mom

May 5, 2017

My mom would have been 71 years old today. Happy birthday, Mom. I miss you every day.

We always celebrated her birthday and Mother’s Day together, so early May was usually one big blur of laughter, family, and gardening. The two special events were celebrated as one. When she died twelve years ago, well, Mays haven’t been the same since.

It’s true what they say, that while the intense grief and pain subside, they never go away and you are never the same. I still miss her every day, but I’ve adjusted to living life without her.   When my own daughter came along 4 years after she died, and my son another 3 years later, Mother’s Day became a bittersweet holiday. In any given year since I’ve been a mother, early May has either been more bitter or more sweet, but lucky for me, the sweet side usually prevails.

This year, however, early May has me in one hell of a funky melancholy. I find myself despairing over all the questions I’d like to ask my mom but will never get the chance to. This isn’t a new experience for me as I often want to call her to ask about a recipe or for more information about an ancestor or dig for more details about her childhood.

This year, though, I find myself wanting to ask about her experiences as a single mother. The past year and a half has been challenging, to say the least, but I’ve learned to survive. I think. I have “mostly” healthy coping mechanisms and a large village that, while I find it difficult to ask them for help sometimes, will always be there for me when I need them.

Now that I can survive daily life for the most part, I’m realizing parenting isn’t as easy as it used to be. My 9-year old girl and 6-year old son continue to grow into themselves, encountering life and obstacles along their own paths. My heart aches with the need to ask my mom how she raised my brother and me by herself. How did she survive?

I would ask her how she got out of bed in the morning, but I already know the answer to that one. What choice did she have? People have often told me how strong I have been through all this mess and say they couldn’t do what I do every day. Nonsense. I know how Mom would answer this question because I would answer it the same way: you do what you have to. What am I going to do every morning–not get up and take the kids to school? Not go to work? What am I going to do in the evening? Leave the kids at home while I go out? Not go through their backpacks or make them dinner? Not bathe them or cuddle and read to them at bedtime? There is no choice here. I’m not going to abandon my kids and run away so what other choice is there? You do what you have to do. You survive because you must. It’s not always pretty. Or clean. But it gets done.

I would ask her how she got her self-esteem back after my dad left. Did she get her self-esteem back? How did she accept the blow fate dealt her (wait, I don’t believe in fate…let’s rephrase…). How did she accept the world is an unfair place where bad things happen to good people? How did she avoid becoming a bitter, hateful woman? I have to admit, sometimes the future self I see in the mirror is full of hatred and bitterness. It’s not pretty. How did she avoid that and spend so much of her life laughing? How? I need some guidance here.

How did she get any sleep when she went to bed worrying about where money for the next meal would come from? Or money for a doctor’s appointment? Or clothes for my brother and me? Or school trips? Or college tuition? Or rent? While money is an issue I worry about constantly, the depth of my concern is not nearly as deep as my mother’s was. She raised two kids in poverty. I am not, yet I still worry whether I’ll be able to provide what my kids need. And if I can’t provide it, how do I explain that to them?

How did she manage all these worries and not let my brother and I see her worrying? I mean, as we got older we obviously knew we weren’t wealthy and lived paycheck to paycheck, but Mom always seemed to take this in stride. Did she cry in secret? Did she go to the bathroom when her anxiety overcame her so she could get all her crying out when we weren’t looking? Not that I’ve ever done that, mind you.

Besides her own village of family and friends, I know one of the biggest sources of comfort and peace was her faith. The strength of her faith allowed her to persevere in the darkest times. How did she sustain that faith? How did she reconcile the shitty cards she’d been dealt and still believe and gain strength and courage from that belief?

I’d question her beliefs with the fervor of Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men if she were here today. I’d beg her to tell me how to handle the truth. How on Earth could she sustain that faith? I want that faith. I want that comfort. I want that knowledge that in the end it works out OK and that things happen for a reason. God and I have had a love-hate relationship for a while now. I want to ask my mom how she landed on Team Love. My natural state is Team Hate.

How did she muster the strength to say enough is enough and start the journey to single parenthood? Did she imagine the challenges she’d face? Were they better or worse than she thought they’d be? Was it worth it?

Did she lie awake at night wondering if the cheeseburger and fries she had for lunch was going to clog her arteries and lead to a premature death? I wonder if that’s just me.

Did she second guess every decision she made wondering if it was the right thing for my brother and me? Did she trust her gut?

Her answers might not be right for my situation, but it would be a start. She could have provided me a blueprint with how to navigate the mazes of choices and conversations that now confront me. Sure, I could find a blue billion recommendations on the internet or consult experts on the subject in books from my local library, but I don’t want them and their opinions. I want my mom.

And there you have it. I will always want my mom. If I’m lucky enough to be alive when I’m 95, I’m pretty sure I’ll still want my mom. I suppose we are never too old to wish for the safety and sweet comfort of a mother’s embrace. Never too old to relish in her acceptance and love that has no boundaries or judgment.

As each new challenge presents me with new choices to make, I’ll always wonder what she would have done.

For now, I’ll continue to look upon her as a role model. I’ll try to be my best self and make the right decisions for me and my family. I’ll try to fight when fighting is needed and let things go when I don’t have any fight in me that day. I’ll try to end up on Team Love, hoping for me and my babies that there’s honor in that fight.

Oh, and the kiddos and I will be digging in the dirt this Mother’s Day. And laughing.

My First Visit To A Mosque

A week ago I entered a mosque for the very first time.

My visit was part of an effort by a local organization made up of everyday activists, like me, to be the progressive change we want to see in the world. The meeting of folks from my group and the mosque was part of an ongoing program to “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor.” The mosque routinely opens its doors to the community for an afternoon of education, prayer service, and fellowship.

Can you imagine in your own house of faith, routinely opening your doors to explain to your community that everyone who practices your religion is not a terrorist?

Me neither.

Before my visit I knew very little about Islam or Muslims except that it was a peaceful religion (anyone can radicalize anything if they’re looking for a reason to do bad things), their faith was different than the one I grew up with in terms of culture, and they were the subject of a lot of hatred that I didn’t understand.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I’d never been a bit anxious sharing a plane with a man of Middle Eastern descent. I consciously chose to not let fear, stereotypes, and popular culture win the fight against reason in my brain. But still, I can’t deny I had those thoughts, as fleeting as they might have been.

Luckily, I have since then tried to educate myself about Muslim religion and culture. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a presentation on Islam by a local professor of Islamic Religious Traditions. From this brief presentation I learned the following:

  1. Muslims believe in only one God, the same God of Jewish and Christian faiths.
  1. They pray 5times a day.
  1. Sunni Muslims make up 85% of the faith. Shia Muslims make up 15%.
  1. Sunni Muslims are more like Protestants in that they rely on text for spiritual guidance.
  1. Shia Muslims are more like Catholics in that they believe in an Imam, a sort of Papal figure.
  1. They pay a charity tax of 2.5% of their income.
  1. Any Muslim culture that adheres to Sharia law for the faith community, does so acknowledging the country’s law supercedes it. In other words, the legal structure of the country in which a Muslim lives is the ultimate authority even if the religious community follows religious law within its faith.
  1. The head scarf worn by some Muslim women, the hijab, is usually a cultural choice made by the women who wear them. Not all women who wear the hijab are being forced to do so. In fact, many Muslim women wear it as an expression of femininity. Egyptian women wear it as a source of power.

That was the extent of my knowledge of Muslims before my visit to the mosque. That and the fact that several Muslim households live on my block. Since the election, I’ve often thought that I should reach out to them, let them know that they are welcome and all the hatred expressed toward them in many places is not representative of me and mine. I never acted on that urge to reach out to my neighbors out of fear that I would offend them somehow, me being fairly ignorant of their culture. What good would it do to reach out in peace and then be offensive or seem self-serving?

So I did nothing.

But I did go to the mosque.   I went for me, to learn, but also to support the Muslim members of my community who, yes, even in Lexington, are being targeted for harassment by ignorant idiots that are a waste of my Oxygen.

Ahem.

The mosque we visited is a new one, built in front of the old one on the same property. It’s not super-fancy on the outside, but it is brilliantly gold and round and shiny. Inside, though, while tastefully decorated, it was not fancy in any way. There were separate areas for men and women to store their shoes, as shoes do need to be removed before entering the prayer hall.

Why do Muslims remove their shoes upon entering a mosque? They do it to keep their prayer hall clean. When Muslims pray, they bow and then they kneel, or prostrate, on the ground.   They simply want the area where they come in contact with the ground to be clean.

I knew the mosque did not require visitors to wear the hijab. We ladies all brought a scarf just in case and while I did not intend to wear mine initially, I did have a friend help me with one before the educational presentation began. It just felt like the right thing to do.

Modesty in dress, for both men and women, is a key belief in Islam.

The prayer hall in the mosque was oriented toward Mecca, with windows all along the other walls, providing a very light and open worship space. Our educator for the day, a converted Muslim who is a professor of Islamic studies at another university in town, stood at the front of the room while visitors sat on the floor around him. He was very folksy and funny and honest about Islam.

I learned new things about Islam from him (and I apologize if I flub some terminology here):

  1. Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all religious descendants of Abraham, believing in one God.
  1. Muslims study Jesus as a prophet, just like Mohammed.
  1. Where Muslims believe Christianity erred is in elevating Jesus to the divine. They believe there is only one God, only one divinity, the one worshipped by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. They do not believe in the Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
  1. Islam puts an intense priority on how Muslims treat their neighbors. I’m paraphrasing here, but a lasting idiom in the faith goes something like, “better you die of hunger than to have food and not share it with your starving neighbor.”
  1. Muslims pray 5 times a day, scheduled to coincide with breaks in the day where you should stop and acknowledge God in your life. If Muslims can come to the mosque for prayer, that is encouraged, but they are taught to pray wherever they are.
  1. Prayers are recitations of the Quran, to be spoken melodiously, which is why sometimes they resemble songs or chants. If a Muslim is at a mosque, the prayers can be led by a faith leader. If a Muslim prays someplace else, the text spoken in the prayer is up to the individual.

Our educator was sure to tell us, though, that there are no prayer police that punish Muslims for not praying 5 times a day. They sort of go on the honor system, a concept I’m sure those of us in other faiths can understand and appreciate.

Just like in any religion, there are certain scriptures, certain texts, that can be taken out of context and twisted into whatever teachings madmen need to use to motivate extremists to do their bidding. Muslims don’t drink and believe in modest dress for both sexes. The 9-11 terrorists who got drunk in strip clubs and boasted about their 77 virgins…these were evil, misguided men who were not following the tenets of Islam.

Answering a question from the audience about the treatment and place of women in Islam, our educator answered that while Islam is a slow-evolving faith, most American women Muslims have the same rights as and are considered equal to men. American Muslims are intensely aware of women’s issues and are having conversations to further women within the faith. Disclaimer:   this is one of the areas in which I hope I am not butchering our educators words or intent.

As our educator enthusiastically answered our questions, I wondered how exhausting it must be to have to explain your faith over and over again, even if to such a well-intentioned audience as ours. No matter how excited he might have been to explain his beliefs, the context that he was doing so, at least in part, because some people believe all Muslims are terrorists, was inescapable.

As someone who grew up in a progressive Baptist Church, only realizing when I went away to college that all Baptist churches were NOWHERE NEAR as progressive as mine, I can’t fathom what it must be like to encounter those misconceptions on a daily basis. Even now, when I say I attend (sporadically) a very progressive Baptist Church, I must explain what that means because most people think of Baptists as extremely conservative Southern Baptists and that’s not remotely who we are.   The frustrations of our Muslim neighbors must be mine times infinity.

Our educator told us the story of how he and his wife can gauge what’s going on in the world by a trip to the grocery store. His wife wears the hijab and if she notices more dirty looks than usual while shopping, they can be guaranteed when they get home there has been a terrorist event somewhere in the world.

How sad is that?   These are people who live with this every day of their lives. These are peaceful people, faithful people, living in our community. People who give them dirty looks because they look Middle Eastern or wear hijabs is unacceptable to me.

Islam is the second largest community of faith in Lexington and while I am proud of my multicultural city in so many ways, it’s so apparently obvious we have a ways to go.

After the presentation was over, we were invited to observe prayer services. While it was interesting and beautiful to watch our new friends pray, I also felt like a gawker who was observing something private and sacred. I was happy they invited us, but when I attend again, and I will, I hope to be more participatory in some way and less someone staring at something I’d never seen before.

Our hosts invited us for food and fellowship after prayer. For someone who grew up with pot lucks in the Fellowship Hall basement, this was nothing new to me. Sure, I had the best falafel I’ve ever had IN MY LIFE, and you don’t get that often in Eastern KY, but the only thing different about socializing in the mosque was that we walked around in our sock feet.   The same laid-back, easy conversation talking about faith and culture and customs…while the subject matter was new, the act was not. The congregation was as welcoming, as funny, as real and true and personal as any church I’d ever been to. They even had to shoo us out of the reception area as they got ready for a congregational family night (we were invited to stay for that of course). I don’t know about you, but during my traditional Baptist family night gatherings, goodbyes took a looooong time and involved lots of shooing.

Later that afternoon, after my visit, I was thinking about the toll it must take on the health of the mosque members to be constantly on edge and wondering (they must be, I would) if they next time they open their mailbox or the door to the mosque that a bomb might go off. Being constantly on edge, constantly on alert, is not good for the human body. It raises our cortisol and inflammation levels and prolonged stress to the body can lead to an early death. I’m not exaggerating here…can you imagine having thoughts of hatred and bombs every time you enter your house of worship or simply because you look different than everyone else when you go out in public?

Me either.

And even later that night, I found out the mosque I had just visited, the congregants I’d just met, had received a bomb threat in the mail. A bomb threat received for no other reason than the misinterpretation of a faith.

I felt sickened. Literally, physically, sickened. I could not believe this magnificent day in which I learned so much, met so many wonderful people who were like me in so many ways, during which I’d hoped to provide a bit of support for my neighbors, ended with a cowardly, misinformed act of hatred.

I WAS FURIOUS. How dare these people? These idiots? These losers? I get riled up just thinking about harm coming to the people who had just opened their doors to me when they never know if the person they are letting in is intent on killing them. I’m reminded of Charleston, SC, where 9 people studying the Bible opened their doors to man full of anger and hatred and consequently lost their lives.

After learning of the bomb threat, those of us who visited the mosque sent letters and notes of support. Today in the mail I received a hand-written thank you note for my supportive card. The note said they’d received so many and were so appreciative.   The mosque has displayed them on a wall to remind them that they are loved and welcomed in this community.

So, one day this week or maybe next, my children and I will make some chocolate chip cookies and walk down to the end of the court and offer them to our Muslim neighbors. On the way, we will talk about how we are kind to everyone whether or not they look, dress, think, or talk like we do. We will talk about acceptance, and appreciation, and judgment. And we will begin a conversation.