Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Desperately Writing Always

Writing with my mother is among my earliest memories.

My three-year-old mind was fascinated by my mother's literal writing with all its loops. Hers was a round hand, bouncing wherever it landed on the paper. I was desperate to learn how to make a pencil say things.

I hovered over her arm as she wrote grocery lists, wondering how she knew the way to indicate we needed salt or celery or soap. She wrote frequent letters to her own mother, reading the passages about me aloud. I giggled as she showed me the rows of sticks and dots that were maps of my days.

How did she know what circles to connect?

What told her to leave a space after certain curls?

Why did some letters look like mountains?

She read a different looking writing from books. I stared at the page. I traced the lines of print with my finger. Sometimes I placed my thumb over a favorite word, thinking the magic of it would soak into my skin.  I ached to understand.

Using paper and pencils, I created what I thought was writing. More than anything, I wanted to be part of the book world, so I launched my career on our freshly painted living room wall. It was the perfect place for everyone to see my story, written in beautiful purple down the length of the pale blue expanse.

Let's just say my efforts did not receive high acclaim.

My crayons were put on a closet shelf for a week. But more than my sorrow over their loss, I was hurt that no one could read my story. In a way, it was my first editorial rejection.

Still, I did not give up.

I recently discovered a book that my mother had kept as a reminder of my determination to be published. I must have been four when I copied her words onto the cover of James Whitcomb Riley's poetry book. I imitated letters from her lists and address book stacked on the telephone stand. I've mastered Ohio. To Do obviously puzzled me because I've picked up an extra loop from the line of letters above it. We shopped for groceries each Friday at the A&P, which explains those letters. I know I looked away from her guide because the P is turned backwards.

In my little girl world, I was now published.

Looking back, it's easy to see my life's ambition surfaced early. All the years of missteps and false starts and falls make sense now. They were the necessary tickets to board the train always running beside me.

Somehow my mother knew.

She read to me constantly. Never interested in princess stories, she preferred Riley's poems about the chores of Midwestern life. She liked the work ethic of the little red hen who tackled every task or the third pig who chose bricks. Her favorite for me was Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could.

She never let me give up. Ever. About anything.

She was the ultimate ticket.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sudden Angels Part 1: When Nuns Run

I try to walk our dog Maria twice a day.  We found her through Animal Ark, a no-kill shelter association who rescued her from the Red Lake Reservation where she'd been left at a dump with her two puppies.

Hers is a difficult biography, and her soulful eyes indicate she's been through plenty.  She's learned to accept a lot, and I think that's made her neutral about life, believing everything comes and goes, I suppose.  She probably decided long ago that she couldn't be surprised by anything.

But on our walk one evening, I saw her be amazed at the corner of Exeter and Dayton.

Behind a wrought iron fence, Maria saw two rabbits.  She almost missed them but turned her head at the last critical second.  She froze.  They were close enough to touch.  Countless times we'd passed that way with nothing out of the ordinary appearing.  We'd seen our share of squirrels, birds, other dogs, an occasional cat, but never had we spotted two rabbits sitting side by side.

They seemed unremarkable to me.

She saw the unexpected.

In the life of a dog, it had to be a thrill.  She must have wanted to leap the fence, but some instinct told her that would have destroyed the moment.  Her mind must have calculated the possibilities, knowing those rabbits would run if she moved.  So she watched, slowly easing to sit.  It seemed so important to her that I waited.  Finally she accepted the full measure of delight and stood to walk away with me.

I know she remembers that day.  Given free reign, she heads for Exeter and Dayton like a house afire.  She searches the yard each time we pass now.

I doubt if she will ever disconnect from her two-rabbit memory. Instinct holds onto her surprise sighting.  I can't blame her.

The other day I found my surprise at another corner.

If we walk east, we pass the playing fields of a catholic university.  Depending on the season, we see baseball, lacrosse, or football players.  Because I'm not athletically inclined, I rarely notice the teams.  On this particular day, however, an unlikely flapping of fabric at ground level caught my eye, and I turned my head to see nuns playing soccer.  They wore traditional attire, completely covered from head to toe.

I had never imagined nuns running.  They moved in swift waves of back and white cloth, leaping like graceful exclamation marks against the sky.

I didn't know where to put this discovery in my mental file system.  They weren't praying or helping the poor or reading scripture.  They were falling and laughing and bouncing a ball off their foreheads.  My instinct was to take a picture, but the unexpected metaphor of their presence was never meant to live on a screen.  Maria waited patiently beside me, following their game up and down the field.

They seemed unremarkable to her.

I saw the unexpected.   

Even now the memory of those nuns running reminds me I have unexpected lessons waiting.  The things I think I know still hold possibilities to uncover.  They will be my great surprises.

Unimagined glories remain if I simply turn my head.  If I believe I can be amazed by the sudden angels in the world.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Volunteering: The Importance of Sitting Still

Because I’m a writer, I spend a lot of time alone. Too much time alone probably. When we lived in North Carolina, I decided to volunteer at a retirement village to get myself out of the house and to show Maggie, who was twelve, a way to get involved in communities.

I was assigned to the assisted living wing of the facility. I drove down an azalea-lined road each Wednesday. I was another set of hands--pouring coffee or cutting craft paper or cleaning paintbrushes. Mostly I stayed in the back of the room.

When the residents ran out of stories to offer one morning during Reminiscence Time, the activity director said, “Miss Karen, (Remember this is the South.) do you remember anything from your childhood?” A wallflower by nature, I panicked as all eyes turned toward me. I said I remembered singing with my grandmother on the front porch. “Well, come up here and sing something for us,” she said.

I wanted to cry.

Not only am I shy, I can’t carry a tune. Nevertheless, I belted out “A Bicycle Built for Two.” A few ladies joined in. I tried “School Days.” More joined in. I sang every song I remembered from Girl Scouts and Bible school. I added the hand motions, and they followed along until everyone was involved in our spontaneous show. No one cared how I sounded. As they left, they shook my hand or patted my arm or hugged me.

One day I found a resident alone in her room, sitting in her wheelchair. I asked if she’d like to help me take a few books back to the library. She reached for them, eager for something to do. On our return, we stopped by a window to watch the ducks in the pond. She rarely spoke to people, but that day she chatted about ducks and all kinds of birds.  She knew a lot about them. Before long she told me about her mother’s garden. She described furniture her father had made. She offered a funny story about her sister. She took my hand and fell asleep for a while.

For weeks I’d walked past a lobby poster with a slogan about helping hands and caring hearts.  Finally on this day, I understood the depth of the message. The residents needed me to be beside them, not behind them.

Yes, practical chores were involved in volunteering there. People in assisted living needed plenty of help, and the staff was busy beyond belief. 

But what was the merit of sitting still and holding a hand on a spring day? 


Because I really held her heart.