Back Here Again

15 Bean Soup at Strange Brew Coffee House

The tension is there but it’s obscured by menial tasks and busyness.  I finally sit down after months and months of avoiding it and making excuses.  Months ago, I shut the door to my creative mind, the part that strings words together for no one but me.  I stacked boxes in front of that door, boxes full of dusty phrases like, “I can’t,”  “I need to focus elsewhere,” and “first I need to take care of these things…then I will write.”  It seems noble to deny what makes me happy to take care of everything else first.  In fact, I start to believe that I don’t even want to write, that it’s too much work and I don’t have time to get into my own head right now.

I can press a 25 pound kettle bell over my head with one hand but sometimes the weight of a pen seems like too much trouble.

I got past it today, for today.  I had to leave my house and go to my favorite coffee shop and let Toni make me soup, but I got past it.  After about 300 words I felt something crack in my chest.  Something opened up that had been locked for a very long time.  I struggled not to let tears flow because I was in a public place and I would look crazy sitting there with my laptop crying in my soup.  But that’s how it felt to write again after all this time.

Road Block Ahead

Photo by Jacob Yager

Have you ever been cruising along on a pleasant little road trip with the top down, wind in your hair, enjoying the music on the radio when you crest a hill to find traffic at an abrupt stop?  You hit the brakes, put it in neutral and sit.  Eventually, the open top is an encumbrance, unfiltered access to the baking sun.  The former breeze is now still, tainted with heat radiating up from the pavement and laced with the scent of burning oil and diesel.  The radio plays nothing but white noise due to the gigantic cell tower off to the right and you’re pretty sure those three buzzards are doing a regular fly by over your car.  You’ve hit a roadblock and your pleasant day has turned sour.  That road trip is where I’ve been.

            In reality, my girlfriend and I just got back from a 1,500 mile round trip adventure to Iowa City for a graduation party.  The traffic was light, the weather was nice and except for stops at three separate fast-food joints, all at different exits, to placate the 5 kids in the back, it was a good trip.  The road block I experienced was in my mind.

            It’s happened before.  I skip a day of writing and then two days turn into three, four, and five.  Doubt sets in and I find a million convenient excuses for not picking up a pen.  Then, the bad voice starts talking.  The one who says,

“You’re kidding yourself.  You are not a writer.  You are just wasting time.  Give it up.  Your house would be cleaner and you could get the filing done.  Can you believe you were considering submitting that?  You have nothing interesting to say.  No one cares about your stupid stories.  There are people out there who are real artists.  You don’t belong with them.  Seriously, just give it up.”

And, I start to listen to that voice a little… a lot actually.  Doubt and Sadness take up residence in the back seat and they are needy.  They need a bathroom break and a snack and Sadness is thirsty but we are stuck on the road together with nowhere to go.  But then, out of the blue, the radio starts working and I hear a good song, one with a clever line of lyrics that gets my mind going.  Then, I find a new magazine while waiting in line at Tractor Supply to buy chicken feed and it might make a good market for that barn story I have on the back burner. 

Before you know it, the traffic starts to crawl.  Brake lights flicker and a breeze starts to stir.  We pass the roadblock for now.  There will be another one, up the road, but right now, it feels good to put my foot back on the gas.

Crossing the Street

Photo by Lisa Weartz

On Tuesday night, my husband and I went on a date.  The Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis was offering a preview of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.  Al spent the day riding a street scrubber in the parking garage at the new JW Marriott currently being built on Washington Street. I settled the kids in after school, put on my dress up clothes and high heels and met him there.  The sun was shining and it was still warm out so we walked the few blocks past the theatre.  It was too early to get discount tickets so we headed down another block to the Rock Bottom Brewery for dinner and drinks.

Anyone who has spent any time in downtown Indianapolis knows the cross walks at the corner of Washington and Illinois, under the floor of the beautiful 7-story glass Artsgarden.  This corner is the job site of resident panhandlers.  I don’t know where they go when they are not on the corner but their faces are familiar so I know most of them are regulars.  As Al and I walk toward Illinois street, I am faced with a dilemma.  Suddenly, I don’t know where to look.  We are about to walk past a man who is sitting on the corner, leaned back against the crossing light pole with a backpack and a sign that says, “Why lie, it’s for beer.”  In the moment, all I know is that as I walk past in my dress-up clothes and high heels, I feel uncomfortable.  I feel conflicted about this man sitting on the street corner.  As we approach, he says, “Hello,” with a nod to my husband who returns the greeting and I feel a stiff, polite but unfeeling tight-lipped smile on my face while my eyes stay focused on the ground.  We pass to cross the street and this man calls out, “Hey Nate!” to the corner dweller opposite him and I see him gesture something out of the corner of my eye.  We keep walking.  An hour and a half later, we cross that street again in the opposite direction, and the guys are gone.

That night in my warm bed, I thought about that guy on the corner.  A flurry of feelings was running through me.  I tried to define what made me uncomfortable in the brief moment our paths crossed that day.  I’m pretty sure that first and foremost, I resented the fact that he was there on my date night, on a sunny spring afternoon during time that my hard-working husband and I set aside for one another.  Recognizing that feeling made me angry at me.  Who I am to feel inconvenienced by a guy on the street corner? Poor me, forced to contemplate homelessness when I was supposed to be having fun…

 Then I thought about that feeling of disconnection between my head and my heart.  My heart almost always tells me to offer assistance, help where I can.  But my head tells me, “Be careful.  Don’t encourage the panhandler.  Giving out money is enabling not helping.”   So, I’m conflicted.  I’m pretty sure that’s what that tight-lipped look on my face was all about.

It makes me sad when I think about all that inner turmoil and conflict.  All that stuff is about me.  All that stuff holds me back and keeps me from connecting with another human being.  Why does it matter if this guy is professional panhandler or not?  He is still a person.  If he says hello, I should look him in the eye.

April 23, 2010

I made my kids go to school today.  They didn’t want to go, and that’s unusual.  Both my boys have discovered that it is easier to just go to school and keep up with the work than to miss a day and have to make it up.  I’ve had to put my foot down in the past to get them to take a sick day when they truly were sick.  They are also socially motivated to go to school, so when they balk it’s cause for concern.

It seems that last year, a high school student made a threat about shooting up the school on April 23, 2010 and a message to that extent was found written on a bathroom wall.  The school investigated and the author of the threat was never found.  Today is the threatened day.

When Jake asked if I would pick him up today at 11:30 so he wouldn’t have to walk from the middle school to the high school for Japanese class, I was surprised.  Jake loves his Japanese class and I couldn’t believe he wanted to miss it.  So, we talked about it and I found out that Jake was having anxiety about the shooting threat and felt he would be vulnerable walking across the street to the high school.  It hadn’t even crossed my mind how that would feel.

The high school is built up on a hill and looks over the property on which the middle school sits.  Of course, if there were a gunman anywhere on the north side of the building, anyone walking from the middle school over would be vulnerable.  This image makes me so sad.  I am sad that my fourteen year old was driven to calculate a point of vulnerability in his daily routine.  I’m sure his exposure to video games and movie footage gave him the knowledge to figure it out, but going to school just shouldn’t conjure those images.

Up until last night, Sean, my high-schooler, hadn’t mentioned the threat.  By late evening, kids were posting concerns and bantering about wrong and right choices for the day on Facebook, so I asked Sean how he felt about it.  He said he was scared to go to school but he hadn’t mentioned it because he figured I would tell him to go anyway.  Well, he was right and I think we will all have a talk after school today about why going to school was the right choice in my opinion, but he also described a jarring image at the root of his fear.  Sean said he was concerned about passing periods because the hallways are so packed full between classes that he feared turning a corner and coming face-to-face with a gun wielding student and having nowhere to run.  Again, I am disturbed that my child has thought this through to this degree.

I am angry that my kids had to summon courage to go to school today.  I am angry that a terrorist put me in the position in which I had to choose whether or not to send my kids to school.  But then I remember that the terrorist is a child.  The person who wrote the words on the wall that marked this day is someone who is hurting.  Even if the words were written as a misguided joke, the person who wrote them is in need. So, this morning when I asked God to give my kids courage and to protect the children of our community, I also made a request for that one.  I asked God to bring that child peace and a sense of belonging so that whatever feelings drove him or her to write those words will be relieved.  I firmly believe it’s wrong to let fear drive our decisions and so I made my kids go to school today.

http://www.fox59.com/news/wxin-center-grove-threats-042210,0,1990266.story

The Bonnaroo Experience – Part 3 (Do I hear dueling banjos?)

Lisa stepped up to the driver’s side door of what appeared to be the cab driver’s personal vehicle converted to a taxi via the logo magnet and dash-mounted fare box.  Through the open window, a deep-hills Tennessee drawl asked, “Y’all need a ride?”  Lisa relayed her conversation with dispatch and this guy wasn’t the car they sent but he was there now and willing to take us back to the hotel.  So, he radioed the hub and let them know we’d been picked up. 

Adam walked around to the passenger side front door with his pillow clutched to his chest.  Being chivalrous, without a word, he was volunteering to sit up front with the driver.  In mid-stride, he stopped and gave Lisa a perplexed look over the roof of the car. There in the passenger seat sat a middle-aged woman in her pajamas holding a partially unwrapped cellophane package containing what smelled like a baloney and mayo sandwich.

“Uh, are we going to fit?” Lisa asked the driver.

“Well, ma’am, three of you can ride in the back but since I got my girlfriend ridin’ shotgun to keep me from fallin’ asleep, one of you is gonna hafta wait for the next ride.”

Lisa looked at the three of us standing bleary eyed on the side of the road and shrugged.  Erin, with eyes wide shook her head indicating the negative.

“We’ll find a way to fit,” Lisa said to the open window.  And without waiting for a response, she opened the rear door.  Like a scene from a circus film, we piled into the back of the compact sedan, pillows and all.  Erin sat across Adam’s lap and the driver, clearly distressed at his extra large fair sputtered and moaned over his shoulder at us.

“Y’all are gonna have to hunker down when we pass the police car at the gate.  I’m not s’posed to transport this many people.”

Erin rolled her eyes and sighed then lay down across the three of us with her pillow over her head.  We finally made it past the gate and to the intersection at the highway.  To our surprise, the cab driver turned right instead of left driving in the opposite direction of the hotel.

“Uh, our hotel is the other way,” Lisa called over the seat.

“ I know, I’m takin’ ya the back roads,” he replied.

Lisa turned to Adam and I and in the darkness, mouthed the words, “We Are Gonna Die.”

Please check your humility at the door.

The pleasant surroundings disguise why we are here.  Walls covered in sand colored, cloud textured wallpaper meet the floor of tan, sculpted Berber carpet.   Lobby chairs with soft, muted geometric patterns line the walls trimmed in warm wood grain.  Quiet, upbeat Jazz plays over the ceiling speakers and the aroma of brewing coffee is a screen for what waits beyond the tall, curved wooden wall.

Men sit alone in the upholstered chairs wringing their hands and staring at the floor.  Women come and go through the art-glass windowed door: middle-aged women in suits and heels, teenage girls in brand name t-shirts accompanied by mothers, elderly women in pastel colored velour track suits with matching purses.  Some smile at the woman holding the door and some mumble to the floor as they pass through.

Beyond the door are dimly lit rooms filled with electronics and machines of plexiglass and steel.  The women on this side of the door are resolved.  This is humiliating and uncomfortable but it must be done.  Each woman disappears into her own closet-sized room.  The directions are simple.  Strip to the waist and put on the shoulder cape as a parody to modesty.  Step forward and while keeping feet flat on the floor stretch your spine so a stranger can stretch and manipulate one naked breast on a cold steel plate at the height of which your collarbone usually resides.  The stranger, who does this job many times a day, lowers a plexiglass plate trapping your body in an impossible pose.  “Hold your breath,” she commands and you comply though your instinct is hyperventilation.  The exercise is repeated with a different pose and then on the other side.  The stranger makes light conversation in an effort to mask the intimacy you are sharing. 

You dress and are released back to the world.  The men waiting in the lobby look up hopefully as you come through the door.  You’re not theirs and disappointed, they look back to the floor.  Relief at having the task complete makes you feel light.  A treat is in order so you drop by your favorite coffee shop to log on to the free Wi-Fi and remind your friends to schedule their annual routine mammograms today.

Being heard

 

Topsail Island, North Carolina

Good conversation is like a day at the beach, like the gentle ebb and flow of waves against the shore.  Participation should be a back and forth motion, equal parts talking and listening.  When I find myself in a group situation where everyone is open and not only willing to share but willing to consider other views, I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Fred says good conversation makes for good community.  I find this to be absolutely true.  Have you ever been in a group where conversation is effortless?  Each person contributing usually accompanied by laughter, because when things are going well topics are light.  In these moments we feel like we belong.  That’s community.

On the other hand, think of a situation where something of importance is at stake.  What’s it like to feel like no one is listening or information is being withheld?  It creates an uncomfortable atmosphere and causes suspicion.  It’s in these situations through a breakdown of communication that community starts to crumble.  As the back and forth exchange of information becomes broken, rumor springs forth and people start to feel isolated.  Then, people take sides in an effort to belong.  It seems its human nature to seek out community.

I witnessed this breakdown of community recently when our school district announced some dramatic budget cuts.  Members of certain groups within the school system, out of fear that their program might be cut, divided into opposing sides.  False information was layered within truth and lots of finger-pointing occurred.  Thankfully, I also witnessed a voice of reason reaching out to unite our community.  A third group formed with the intent of finding accurate information and posting it publicly so individuals could form new opinions based on fact instead of emotionally driven rhetoric. 

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon recently.  With the integration of the internet to a majority of American households, it seems individuals are reaching out to find like-minded souls not to form a majority in an effort to conquer but to open up dialogue.  Take a look at Facebook, people are forming groups to offer support, to keep connected, and to expand their community.  It’s refreshing.

So, if you find yourself part of a community: in your church, in your city, in your neighborhood or on the World Wide Web, remember its survival depends on open lines of communication.  Sharing our experiences and insights draws us together, so let your voice be heard, but also be willing to listen and consider.

The Progress Train has Left the Building

Printing Press

I see it all the time.  A new piece of technology comes along and the doom and gloom people start a ruckus.  The new thing will ruin culture as we know it and mourning for the end of an era ensues. 

 Remember when 8-tracks were replaced by cassette tapes?  I sure do.  I was a teenager asking for a stereo for Christmas.  “Please Mom,” I asked.  “Get me one that will drop at least 3 albums and I want one of those new cassette players because they are going to stop making 8-track tapes.”  My Mom, thinking it was ridiculous that the music people would even consider stopping production on the fabulous 8-track, found a great deal on really nice stereo system.  Fortunately, the price of an 8-track cartridge went down considerably; unfortunately, no new music was released on the device.  I listened to my one 8-track tape, Loverboy – Get Lucky, a lot. Thank goodness I could still play my old Journey, Styx, and Fleetwood Mac albums. 

It happened in the field of photography with the Instamatic camera and now the digital revolution is sending old school photographers screaming and pulling at their hair.  In the beginning when digital was still expensive, I heard friends say,” I’ll never give up film.”  But how can film compete with a camera that gives instant results and if the shot is blurry, you just hit delete and shoot again. 

Now it’s happening in the publishing world.  E-books and the birth of the Kindle and the unfortunately named IPad are sending old school publishers and writers into a tizzy.  Print media is going to disappear!  Anyone can post a blog!  It will be the death of true literature!  Come on people, it’s called progress.  Jump on the train or get left behind. 

I for one still love to hold a book in my hand but have taken to reading the news online. I still love to sit down on a Saturday with the big weekend edition and read the funny papers and I hope that doesn’t go away anytime soon.  But progress is as progress does.  Things change.

Check an example of the Gutenberg Bible in digital splendor at the following link:  http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/gutenberg/

Hard copy is on display at The Ransom Center, University of Texas

Superman had it easy

Superman probably hated those tights, but at least he didn’t have to grow wings every time a bad guy came around.  In comic books and in life, change often involves pain.  Superman was lucky, all he had to do was change clothes and boom – he could fly.  Others were not so lucky.  Wolverine had to project steel blades through his skin to go into battle, Spiderman got that venomous bite and I’m pretty sure David Banner was in pain every time he transformed into the Hulk. Transitions cause pain and it’s physical if you’re a superhero.  For us, mere mortals, the pain is often the emotional kind.

Change is hard.  I’m not the first to write that sentence but there’s no way around it.  Change is hard.  It’s human nature, it seems, to resist.  Some of us resist quietly, protesting in private while putting on a brave face.  Others take a stand and fight it every step of the way.  Superheroes channel their pain and direct it right back at the story’s villain.  Humans sometimes do that too; we find someone to blame.  Some villains are born for their roles.  They wreak havoc on our lives.  Others are forced into it out of sheer necessity.  But hearing someone say, “No pain, no gain,” doesn’t make it feel any better.

Time after time we all learn to adjust and move forward.  That’s the key.  Move forward.  Moving on just isn’t enough.  One can move on in defeat but moving forward means finding the positive and making the most of it.  Moving forward means growth has occurred and better days lie ahead.  It’s a choice we make, how we deal with change.  Buying into the fear that often accompanies change is a recipe for chaos and despair and there’s not always a hero to save the day.  When the time presents itself for me to deal with a change, no matter how much I want to resist, I hope if it’s inevitable, I find the grace and strength to accept it and move forward.