Planning for a Party, Praying for a Miracle

If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ve read the saga of my youngest daughter Brianna. She had a tumultuous adolescence and found herself on the wrong path too many times to count. Sadly, the police were involved a few times and more than once I escorted her to court. And one time—thank God it wasn’t more than once—I watched her get handcuffed and taken away after she had assaulted me.

 

None of my memories of those days are pleasant. In fact, when I walk through those memories I remember gray skies and everything in black and white. No color. No sunshine. I cannot begin to imagine how it feels for Brianna when she remembers.

 

About eighteen months ago, I started to see a change in Brianna. She had finally agreed to throw her abusive boyfriend out of her life. She started paying more attention to how she looked. She started eating healthy foods and started putting on some weight. (At age 18 she had weighed only 85 pounds.) And she made a plan to put closure on high school by taking the GED exam.

 

Of course, I did everything I could to encourage Brianna to take that exam. She bought a study book with practice tests and I promised to pay her back when she passed the tests. Our family tradition is to have a big open house to celebrate high school graduations, and Brianna asked if she could have a party to celebrate passing the GED. Yes! Of course! Two of Brianna’s uncles even chimed in and said they would come to her party with “bells on their toes.”

 

Shortly after that Brianna started seeing a new guy and I thought that would be the end of all the positive change. But to my surprise, the guy turned out to be a good guy and a positive influence. Brianna took the initiative and contacted the testing center. She set up a plan to take each of the five parts of the exam. And she studied.

 

Last August, she scheduled the first test date. When the day arrived, she was a wreck. She vomited several times and finally, sobbing, she called and canceled the appointment. I wrapped my arms around her and told her it would be okay. She was so disappointed in herself and so without hope. We talked several times in the following days and together we came up with some things she could do to keep her nerves from toppling her again. She scheduled another test date.

 

The day came and she was nervous, but in control. She took one of the tests and made an appointment to go back in two weeks to take two more of the tests. I could see the relief on her face that one test was behind her, but she couldn’t feel good about any of it until the phone call came about ten days later telling her she had passed the first test. She smiled. And color came back into our lives.

 

From September through to the middle of November, Brianna found the courage to take each of the tests. She dreaded math and science and saved those for last. She was so nervous that last day, but she did what she needed to do. In early December, the letter came in the mail. She had passed all of the tests. In fact, based on her test scores she was ranked in the top two percent in the nation. Who would have guessed that outcome?

 

The day she took the last test, I made a special dinner and bought a decorated cake to celebrate. Brianna reminded me that she wanted a party. I assured her we could do that, but we’d have to wait for the holidays to be over. It was just too hectic to plan that kind of party at that time of year.

 

Christmas came and went, and the new year dawned, followed by the long, cold, dark days of winter. Brianna never mentioned the party again and I thought perhaps she had changed her mind. Not so. This week the snow is gone and Brianna sees new life. She has plans to go to college in the fall and she wants her party. Okay, I promised a party and a party we’ll have.

 

But who will we invite? Or rather, who’s going to come? Brianna is going to be 21 in the fall. She hasn’t been part of a regular school setting since she was 16. All of the friends she had are long gone, and good riddance. But she has a vision in her mind of a big graduation party, just like the ones her sisters had. I’ll plan the party and it will be grand, but I’m scared that only five or six people will come.

 

I asked Brianna to write down a list of the people we can invite. She looked at me like a deer caught in headlights. “I don’t have any friends, Mom. You have to get your family to come!” Now I’m the nervous one. I thought about sending out a short letter with the invitations explaining how important this event is even though it’s well past the age to be having such a party. But that would be so humiliating and embarrassing for Brianna and probably not proper etiquette. Will my family understand how important this is, even though I can’t explain that to them? Will my two brothers remember the promise they made? Will it just be my husband and I and Brianna’s sisters?

 

I’m planning a party and praying for a miracle. I need a full house!

One Foot on the Floor

A couple of times now I’ve mentioned the word trapped when describing how I feel about life. Kidnapped would apply; so would held hostage. All these adjectives refer to the life-changing events that happened to me in the summer and fall of 2008. Several events unfolded that I could have handled if only one of them had happened, but the domino effect of them all knocked me down and I’m still trying to get up. Some days I feel like I might be making progress, that I’ve managed to get myself upright on my knees, that I maybe even have one foot on the floor and I’m about to propel myself up onto two feet. But then something will come along and I feel like I’m flat out on the floor again, holding on with my fingernails so I don’t fall into the basement.

I’m really wrestling with these words as I type them. Just the act of thinking these thoughts touches so many emotions, so many nerves. The feelings I carry about it all are as painful as having the dry heaves and then vomiting up bile. Making the thoughts come to life by putting them into black words on paper just exacerbates it all.

The real rub in all of this is that in the overall scheme of things, I have absolutely nothing about which to complain. I have a house (for now). I have a working car. I have a job. I have medical insurance. I have food in my pantry and my fridge. I have a husband who loves me and we are in a healthy relationship. Together we have six daughters and six grandchildren who are all healthy. We are blessed.

I will not worry about finding a warm place to sleep tonight. I will not go to bed hungry. I will not be without a warm coat and warm shoes when I venture outside this weekend. If I get sick, I can go to the doctor.

So everything rests on my perspective. That old adage comes to mind: Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes. Or, to put it another way, take the quote from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I am not a spoiled brat. I don’t have an entitlement attitude. And I don’t understand how I got here!

I know I am not alone in my feelings. Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even millions of people in our country, in our world, had similar life-changing moments in their lives in the summer of 2008 when our economy began its downward spiral. I was not the only one to lose my job. My husband is not the only one his age who may never land a job again for the rest of his life. We were not the only ones who lost their financial security in the market crash that September. We were not the only family who had teenagers maneuvering the rocky road of adolescence during that challenging time.

But the fact is, bad things happened to us that were not in our control. And even though we had contingency plans, those efforts were not strong enough to handle all the crushing blows we sustained. At the time, my husband said the downturn will last three years. I laughed at him, nervously, and said it will last five to eight years. Today, I feel like we’ll never recover.

And that’s the part that infuriates me. My whole life has been spent planning for goals, reaching goals, planning for higher goals, dreaming dreams. If I failed at something it was because I didn’t try hard enough or I didn’t have the right tools or enough knowledge. And so I tried harder or saved money to buy the right tool or acquired the knowledge I needed.

Today, it hurts to dream dreams and it’s depressing to imagine goals. Six years ago we had a responsible financial plan and we were living within our means. Overnight we became our worst nightmares—irresponsible spenders living beyond our means.

If I could find a better paying job, things would improve. I’ve been looking for six years and was incredibly fortunate to find the job I did. My husband has been looking just as long, but he’s discriminated against because of his age and his advanced education and experience. If we could sell our house and downsize, that would help but we don’t have the money to bring to the table in a short sale. We can’t afford to buy “healthy” food, so we’ve both put on weight, which created the additional problem of clothes not fitting and that only worsened our depression.

I’m whining. I’m complaining. I’m pathetic.

And I’m trapped. All the old methods I knew of to pick myself up and get back on the right path no longer work. The knowledge and skills I have are considered outdated but I cannot afford to go back to school, and at my age I’d never see the return on that investment. The confidence that once allowed me to give speeches to crowds of six hundred people is so lacking now that I have allowed myself to be bullied at work. I’ve been living with so much stress that two weeks ago I spent an evening in the emergency room with chest pain thinking I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t, but I’m thinking I will for certain when the bills come in the mail.

My parents and grandparents passed over many, many years ago. Yet nearly every day I wish they could impart their wisdom gained from having survived the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl Years, and two World Wars. They’d probably laugh at me and tell me what I’m going through is nothing and there’s no reason I can’t rebuild my life. “Why, when I was a kid, we didn’t have ….” I can hear my cranky German grandmother say.

So I am wandering, lost, in a desert of my own making. Much like Moses and his people, I keep praying to God to provide a path out. I try to make good choices and do the right thing, but I don’t see any progress and have no idea if I’m doing the right thing or not. Every day I remind myself that I still have control over my attitude, but at the end of some days I know I have failed in even that simple task.

For the last couple of months I’ve been thinking the secret is in changing my perspective. Instead of riding in a sinking boat, I need to jump into the water and find the oars to row to shore. If I only knew how to swim.

Seeking a Bridge to 2004

When my husband and I first started dating and getting to know each other, we had many conversations that sounded a lot like a game of Twenty Questions. What is your favorite movie? Who is your favorite author? If you could interview anyone, who would that be and what question would you ask? What was your favorite year in your life so far?

No one had ever asked me that last question before. I was actually stunned by the question and I had to think for a long time before I had my answer. And as it turned out, the answer was that year, 2004.

Even though I turned 42 that year, it was the first year that I felt truly grown up and in control of my life. In March of that year, after three years of legal maneuvers and more stress headaches than I could count, my first marriage was officially decreed done. My four girls and I had gotten out alive! I was the sole owner of my house and two-plus acres of land. I had negotiated a reasonable loan agreement on a new car. My oldest daughter was graduating from high school and soon going to college. In May, I ordered a dump truck with 10 yards of black dirt (trust me, that’s a lot of dirt!) and I spread it, one shovel at a time, across the front yard. The lawn never looked so good (and I’ve never had such strong arm muscles since). At the end of June, I picked up a lucrative freelance editing job that promised food on the table, at least for a few months. And in August I began to think there was a chance I might be able to love someone again. In September I interviewed for my “dream job” and in October I learned I got it! A week before I started my new job, I won an award that honored me as the outstanding elected official of the year for my state. I had the world by a string!

And so it was on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, when asked what had been my favorite year, I realized I was living it.

Fast forward to November, 2013, nine years later. I was feeling depressed and needed a way to focus on my blessings. I put up a blank poster on the door of our kitchen pantry asking everyone to write down something they were thankful for. And sadly, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write down. I stared at the blank poster for a minute, then walked away. I told myself that something would come to mind. I just needed to not think so hard about it.

That poster stayed blank for the rest of that day and evening. As I went to the pantry the next morning to get some cereal for breakfast, there it was. Stark and white. Surely others had seen it, but no one had written anything down. And that thought frightened me even more! What if everyone else in the house was just as depressed as me and not one of us could come up with something to be thankful for? Suddenly I felt the weight of the world on me. I had to put something down on that poster right then and there.

I grabbed a marker and I wrote, “someone emptying the dishwasher.” Ha! How lame is that? I asked myself. Worse, it was written in marker and I couldn’t erase it. Even worse, it was a lie! I was the only one who ever emptied the dishwasher. I knew I would be thankful if someone else emptied it but no one ever had. And now I had a boldfaced lie in black on white staring at me. What the hell… So I added another lie. Underneath my other words I wrote, “cleaning the kitchen” and “cooking a meal for all of us.” I figured I could see them as wishes. Wishes are blessings—when wishes come true. I threw the marker on the counter and took my cereal to the study to eat my breakfast without the poster to look at.

The rest of that day I was in a funk. I was mad at myself for taking something as pure as “counting your blessings” and filling it with sinful lies. I spiraled down into the dark depths and reached a point where I had to ask myself, “How did I get here?” And a little while later, “How do I get out of here?”

And so it was, I understood I felt trapped and needed to find a way back to 2004, back to those incredible feelings of being in control, of knowing the answers, and of visualizing my destiny.

It wasn’t that I wanted to go back in time, be 42 again, a single mom. It was none of that. What I wanted back were the feelings I had had then—confidence, hope, satisfaction, pride. There wasn’t an ounce of them left inside of me. And I had no clue how to create them again. The only feelings I knew were resentment, frustration, depression.

At night I would sink down into a hot bath and sob. Exhausted I would fall into bed and sleep, only to wake a few hours later. I’d throw myself out of bed and sneak through the house in the wee hours, reading a book or surfing the Web. After a few hours I’d finally be tired again, and I’d climb back into bed for one more hour before my alarm woke me up to get ready for work. And the next day I’d go through the pathetic cycle again.

The weekend before Thanksgiving weekend, there was a spontaneous gathering of all four of my daughters at our house. Truly, it just happened. No one had planned ahead. In fact, I don’t think they had communicated with each other to know that they were all coming home for the weekend. But each was brought home for a reason. And it turned out to be a massive dose of medicine for my soul. For varied reasons, each daughter was home solo, without her spouse or significant other. We sat around the kitchen table just as we had when I was a single mom in 2004. We laughed, we cried, we debated, we laughed some more. My very wise husband sat off to the side in the livingroom, one eye on the TV and all ears on our conversations.

I didn’t realize in that moment that I was being healed. It wasn’t until the weekend had passed and I returned to work. Halfway through that first morning I realized I had more energy than usual and more patience to deal with the strong and challenging personalities that pass by my desk every day. But the true awareness came that night when I returned home and stepped up to the kitchen pantry to grab some things to make supper. I saw that poster with all its white space and a handful of blessings flooded my head. Four beautiful daughters of mine. Healthy, each one. Two adorable grandchilden. A job. Health insurance. A loving husband. I grabbed that marker and started writing. The last entry I wrote was “Joy in my heart.”

As I write this, I cannot help but wonder if the saints and angels orchestrated that spontaneous gathering of my daughters. Indeed it was the foundation for building the bridge back to the person I want to be. Slowly I’ve added a board, then another, and another. It’s a long way over to the other side so I still have a lot more boards to lay down. But I’ve started the building. I’ve taken the first step. So long as I can dredge up the strength to get out of bed each morning and take a breath, then I can put one foot in front of the other. Some days laying down another board is easy; other days, no boards get layed. I’m learning to accept the fact that just making my way from my bed in the morning to cycle back to it at night is an achievement. Baby steps. Small boards. Building a bridge back to confidence, satisfaction, pride, hope.

Coffee Chat

“Why haven’t you been writing lately?” Heather asked me the other day.

“I’ve been writing,” I replied.

“Well, I haven’t seen any blogs.”

“I haven’t put any up.”

“Oh.” Heather paused for a minute, then added, “You must be working on your novel.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Nope.”

“Well, if you’re writing, what are you writing?”

“Mostly thoughts, wonderings, just thoughts, I guess.”

“Why aren’t you sharing them on your blog? I love reading your blog. It makes me feel—” she stopped short.

“What? It makes you feel what?”

“I dunno. I just like reading it.”

I got lost in my thoughts. Why does Heather like reading my blog? Is it a reminder that she has no drama in her life since she’s divorced and has no kids at home anymore? She can’t possibly find anything I write helpful or think it’s good advice.

“So if you’re writing, why aren’t you blogging?” she asked.

“Too deep. Too dark.”

“Your thoughts? That hasn’t stopped you before.”

I wanted to say “it’s stopped me now” but I didn’t.

“You write about everything,” she continued. “Why can’t you write now?”

“I am writing,” I replied. “I’m just not sharing.”

“Okay, why aren’t you sharing?”

“Because it’s too depressing.”

“What’s too depressing? Your thoughts?”

“Yeah.”

She remained quiet for a bit, and I had the feeling she was running through files in her brain of all my blog postings that she’s read.

“What are you depressed about?” she pushed me.

“Who said I was depressed?”

“You did.”

“No, I didn’t. I said my thoughts are depressing. There’s a difference.”

“Okay, give me one minute, stream of consciousness thoughts.”

I laughed. “You want me to tell you what I’m thinking right now?”

“No, not what you’re thinking right now! Tell me about your deep and dark thoughts.”

“Why would I do that?” I asked, then the words echoed in my head. Why would I do that?

What causes us as writers to put our most intimate thoughts into words that are shared (sometimes anonymously) with strangers across the world? Never knowing if they’ll be read or by whom, the words become a permanent record of our thoughts, an Instagram of sorts. Fifty years from now someone will pull up a blog post and read it, just as today we pull out those inch-thick encyclopedias of our youth or 35mm reels of film or photo slides stuck with age in a projector wheel.

For me, it’s a comfort to let the thoughts escape my skull. It frees up room for other, fresher thoughts. And it’s therapeutic, cathartic in fact. Writing has saved my life on more than one occasion. Even so, there are sometimes when silence is the wiser choice.

When an exile is over…

…what is the verb to describe it? Is it done? Completed? Lifted?

I’d be surprised if anyone noticed, but I’ve been silent on this blog for four months. In a moment of revelation, I realized I had become a whiner. I found my posts depressing and filled with the same entitlement attitude I found detestable in others. So I threw myself into exile. It was a self-imposed attitude adjustment. And it took a helluva lot longer to overcome than I had expected.

Technically, it was a sabbatical. I rested. I researched. I pondered. Unfortunately, I didn’t travel. But I did survive the winter of my (the nation’s) discontent. Again I proved to myself, I am a survivor. I hadn’t known I’d needed a reminder until I found it.

And so I find myself on the cusp of the Ides of March and St. Patrick’s Day. The moment seems as good as any to declare my exile lifted. I have a lot to share in the coming weeks and months with anyone who’s willing to read my words. My purpose has not changed—I still am trying to make sense of the daily nonsense in my life. But the characters in my life (well, some of them) have aged and matured, and the stories have become more interesting, more intriguing.

Check back soon, if you’re inclined.