Keeping Boxes

January. The boxes sat on the front porch, dusted with snow. With each box we unpacked, I drew a sharp breath. This was the third time I had moved in two years—from apartment to apartment in Florida, from Florida to South Carolina, from South Carolina to Kentucky.

Six hundred dollars for the truck. Time off of work for my dad to drive the truck. Damaged items. Disorder. And now I had moved five hundred miles away from family to a job I wasn’t even sure was going to work out.

I hate the process of moving so much that I felt myself having mini anxiety attacks at the thought of possibly moving again. Still, Laura and I and my mom tossed box after empty box onto the porch into the winter weather, dumpster bound. Honestly, I wanted to rip off the tape, fold them up, and neatly store them in my already stuffed storage closet. Just in case.

Two days into my new job, the amount of information to learn and retain overwhelmed me enough to want to dumpster dive and retrieve all my precious boxes—to safely store my stuff in some storage unit or garage somewhere, to not risk the possibility of having to tear up roots again.

Of course over the next few weeks, as I became familiar with my tasks and realized that this job of adding commas and changing hyphens to N dashes was going to work, I forgot about the boxes. . . mostly.

But that fear crept up in other ways. In my decision to not put money in my 401k, in my dread of the potluck at work because I don’t want to get close to my co-workers, in my refusal to become endeared to the big old “Florence Y’all” water tower.*

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Last week, as I was driving home from work, I stared at the license plate on the car in front of me. My South Carolina license plate features a sunset with our navy blue Palmetto tree and moon silhouetted against the sky. But Kentucky’s plate is plain old light blue. Unbridled Spirit, it says—though clearly the designers did not have unbridled creativity.

Thursday, I trudged into the DMV and turned in my South Carolina drivers license. I’m officially a resident of Kentucky.

“Do you plan to stay a while?” the DMV clerk asked.

“I hope not,” I replied, perhaps too eagerly.

“Where are you headed?”

I had to pause because I have no idea. Don’t even know where I want to be.

Perhaps it’s a side-effect of being single, this feeling of restlessness and rootlessness. Like maybe every job, every house, every city will just feel like, rather than a stop, a step toward some nebulous destination. Will anywhere ever feel completely like home?

My friend told me it took her six years to feel at home in her new state. But who’s got time for that?

Laura says it’s because we don’t have husbands and children to force ourselves to be grounded. Maybe she’s right. Maybe wives and mothers are too busy wiping baby butts and packing school lunches and untangling teenage drama to feel displaced or rootless. But I hope that’s not the answer because there’s certainly no man on the horizon—which makes me wonder at my part in this emotional root-laying process.

As I look around at the apartment that we’ve decorated and settled into now, I find myself not wanting to think about dismantling it again, yet I find myself not wanting to get used to it.

But maybe feeling at home, at place, is as simple—if not as easy—as screwing on my Kentucky plates, not scowling at the old water tower, and just enjoying myself at the potluck.

In other words, maybe I just need to unpack my fear and throw away the boxes.

 

 

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* In the early 1970s, developers of the Florence Mall gave land to the city of Florence for a water tower, asking only that the city paint the words “Florence Mall” on the tower. However, because of the city’s sign height requirements, this “advertisement” caused legal concerns. To correct the issue, the city decided to change the M to a Y and add an apostrophe. The result: a Kentucky icon.

 

The Proof of My Existence

Though we never formally laid out the details of our agreement, it works for us: my roommate Laura cooks the meals and I wash the dishes. She serves us mounds of fluffy white rice and succulent meats; I scrape the slimy rice pot and scrub my finger nails into the baked bits of lamb or chicken stuck to the Pyrex pans. It works for us—an even trade.

One evening a few weeks ago while we sat playing on our iPads, I felt ornery. “What if I told you I don’t exist. That you cook these meals and set a place at the table for me, but I don’t exist. You live alone with an imaginary friend. I’m not real. You just created me out of your loneliness.”

She didn’t even look up from her screen. “But you have to be real. My dishes get washed.”
So there it was—the proof of my existence. Not that I touch lives through my writing or clarify an author’s message through my editing but that I’m faithful to wash the dishes.

“What if I told you I don’t exist?”

It makes sense. Mom looks forward to my visits home because she knows it means she’ll have a dish washer. After dinner or lunch at my parents’ home, sometimes even before everyone is finished eating, I collect the dishes, like setting the table in reverse.  I scrape, scrub, rinse, stack. While the rest of the family sits around the table discussing politics, religion, and the overall condition of the world, I stand with suds on my arms, warm water soaking my sleeves as I swipe a dishcloth over the mashed potato clumps and spaghetti sauce splotches and gravy smears. The patterns reappear on the center of the dishes, ready to be used at the next meal. I stack the dishes in the cupboard just to set them out again, wash them just to watch them get dirty. But it doesn’t get old to me, making dirty things clean, the service no one else wants to do.

And it didn’t get old to Brother Lawrence, a monk in the 1600s who was assigned to fix the monastery’s meals. He said, “Lord of all pots and pans and things, make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates! The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

We all have something God has given us to do, some small or large thing that depends upon us for historical record or family lore, world acclaim or little note, a mission for eternity. Do it well, whatever it may be—the proof of your existence.

The Good Part of Good-Bye

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Goodbye has always been a staple word in my vocabulary. During my childhood, I lived 500 miles from my grandparents; twice a year I never said the word goodbye more painfully than as I waved to them from the van window. Years later, I attended college in Florida, 400 miles from home in South Carolina. At the beginning of each semester, I said goodbye to my parents; at the end, I said goodbye to friends. After graduation, when I stayed in Florida, I continued making frequent use of the farewell as my friends moved on.

Lots of people struggle with saying the word. A classmate in my MFA program slipped off on the closing evening of our residencies without saying goodbye, unable to face the sadness of separation.

Each time my best friend Laura leaves me for vacation or for a visit with family, she mourns our coming separation for weeks, then squeezes me bug-eyed and wipes tears all the way to the airport terminal.

Even my seven-year-old nephew hides his face and ignores me when it’s time for me to leave him at the end of vacation. Once, my sister explained, “He just doesn’t want to say goodbye.”

What is good about goodbye?

Though I hated the separation that they represented, I dreaded goodbyes mostly because they never turned out right. Though I practiced them enough to be fluent, come performance time I sputtered, forgetting all my well-planned sentiments and failing to work up an acceptable display of drama. Unlike Hollywood’s well-scripted airport or bus station farewells, my departures lacked a certain memorableness. I had no screenwriter, no soundtrack, no acting coach to make them perfect. And usually, despite the touching script composed in my mind, I somehow forgot all the lines and settled for encapsulating my emotions in that one word, goodbye.

Goodbye—that overused, generic expression—always seemed an inadequate substitute for my wishes of well-being and hope for my loved ones’ happiness. Really, it’s no wonder that I disliked the word so much; in a double gut punch, goodbye not only represented the painful separation from my loved ones, but it also revealed my struggle at articulation. Several years ago I started wondering, what is good about goodbye?

I enjoy dissecting words to inspect their parts as I do a crayfish from the Chinese buffet. With no intention of eating the steamed crustacean, I set it on the side of my plate where it stares at me with shiny black eyes. After my rice and egg rolls, crab Rangoon and lo mein are gone, I split the creature down its middle, peeling back the shell to examine its yellow insides. In much the same way, I select a word, usually an unfamiliar one, and dismember it. Parsing it at the prefixes and suffixes, inspecting the roots, I cobble together a guess at its definition before consulting the dictionary to check my work.

I assumed that inspecting goodbye would be easy since it’s constructed of only two common words—good and bye. Good readily revealed its meaning, but bye clung to ambiguity. A bye, I guessed, was like a way, a trail, a direction. It seemed reasonable to think that goodbye was the equivalent of wishing someone “happy trails.” But the dictionary offered no definition of bye which adequately fit that piece of the farewell’s anatomy. Though baffled, I refused to look ahead at goodbye‘s definition, sure that one day I’d figure it out on my own.

A few months later, while plowing my finger down the rows of A words in the dictionary, I passed over the definition of adieu, the French farewell meaning “commend you to God.” A little further down the page, the Spanish farewell adiosappeared beside the almost identical definition “to God.” Positive that English wouldn’t be bested for some sort of spirituality in its farewell, I succumbed to my curiosity and turned to the etymology of goodbye. Sure enough, the meaning, compressed through centuries of dialect shifts and mispronunciations, lay there on the page: “God be with ye.”

Goodbye was easier for me to say after I realized it’s all there—all I needed to say in those parting moments when I feel the chafe of a loved one being torn away before I’m ready to release. All I wanted to express is encapsulated in that one word that isn’t really a farewell but a blessing, commending my loved ones into the care of God—the good part of goodbye.

 

Note: This blog post was published first on the blog Dry Bones Sing.

 

Working for Cookies

When I was nine, my first paying job was checking for bad guys in Mrs. Meyers’s house. Mrs. Meyers, a widow in her early sixties, lived beside us. Each Wednesday evening, after my family drove Mrs. Meyers home from church, my year-and-a-half older sister, Heather, and I ran inside to open closets and lift dust ruffles. I didn’t know why Mrs. Meyers was still scared of being alone; it had been years since she’d lost her husband, Johnny, whose portrait hung above a model ship and a pair of dutch wooden clogs on the mantel.

She tended her jungle-like back yard, fearless against snakes and bugs, fighting the battle of weeds and leaves under a thick canopy of trees and vines. So why was she scared of the dark? And what did she expect us—two little girls— to do against whatever she feared might be hiding in that house after dark?

Still, when she unlocked the door, we bolted in ahead of her like two bobby-socked body guards while Mrs. Meyers screeched, “If there’s anyone in here, you’d better git.”

“If there’s anyone in here, you’d better git.”

There were many rooms for someone to hide in, each room opening into the next like a labyrinth. In each room, I tensed a bit, afraid that I might actually find someone hiding, that arms would grab me before I could jump back from the closet door, that eyes would stare back when I peeked beneath the bed. The back room was the scariest, the room where Mama Kitty, Mrs. Meyers’s cat, perpetually produced kittens like some kind of back-room business. Her kitten production room was an added-on bedroom with furniture against every inch of wall. My surveillance consisted of poking my head in then running out, barely making enough movement to disturb Mama Kitty where she nursed a new litter in a corner box.

After inspecting each room, Heather and I rendezvoused in the kitchen where Mrs. Meyers distributed our payment of two Oreo-ish looking cookies that did not fool me: they were off-brand chocolate sandwich cookies.

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Years of attending Vacation Bible School snack times had turned me into a cheap-cookie connoisseur. VBS programs operate under a simple mantra: “Jesus loves you kids, but by golly, you’re getting Rose Art crayons and the cheapest cookies money can buy.” I knew the difference between store-brand, grainy chocolate chip cookies that scattered crumbs on my lap and the Soft Bake cookies that melted in my mouth and came in the red resealable bag. I scoffed at the flower shaped cookies (the ones I could wear like rings on my fingers) with brown smudges as the so-called chocolate chips. I could detect nuanced differences between real Nilla Wafers and the cardboard tasting off-brand discs. Animal crackers were the one cookie I could count on to always be the same, except for the pink-iced animal crackers, a level of decadence that I never once remember receiving in all my years of VBS-ing.

The Oreo knock-offs were the easiest to detect. Oreos had a proper ratio of chocolate wafer to creamy center, blending into the perfect pasty pair on my tongue. The off-brand sandwich cookies crumbled with too much dry cookie to the less-sweet sticky cream. The cookie and cream clashed, each vying for attention in my mouth, strangers rather than partner.
My childish self-importance was insulted that Mrs. Meyers thought it okay to place those off-brand tokens of thanks into the same hands that she placed her safety. One night, done with the cheap payment, I blurted, “Next time you go to the store, will you get those soft chocolate chip cookies in the red bag?” Another elderly lady we knew, Mrs. Burdette, served us Soft Bake cookies when we visited her.  Since my mom never bought them for us, I assumed they were expensive, the pièce de résistance of cookies. If I were going to ask for a raise, I might as well ask for the best.
Mrs. Meyers chuckled and held out the fake Oreos. The next Wednesday, she hobbled up her concrete walk alone, turning to wave after she’d flipped on the light. She never employed us again. Looking back now, I wonder if she didn’t need me at all. I wonder if, in addition to cheap cookies, she was simply giving me the chance to enjoy a sense of purpose and adventure every Wednesday night by putting aside my fear to give someone else peace of mind. Once she realized I was only in it for the cookies, maybe it wasn’t fun for her anymore.
That night, after Heather’s report of my ingratitude, my parents convinced me to curb my cookie snobbery. Today there’s hardly a cookie I’d turn away, brand name or not.
But, in an appropriate twist of punishment fitting the crime, sometimes Mrs. Meyers’s house is the setting of my most frightening dreams.

Like Geese Landing on a Frozen Pond

Oh, I know what you think about it. I used to think about it that way too.

Snow.

The Thomas Kinkade visions of wintery perfection, the fire glow casting warm squares of light on the white blanket outside the window. Lights turned down low, friends calling “Yoo Hoo,” one-horse open sleighs, Parson Brown, and two eyes made out of coal.

In my mom’s box of snapshots, few depict me as rosy-cheeked, bundled-up snow bunny, since we lived in South Carolina (although there is one photo of me bundled in a red coat and hunched over in a snow tunnel my parents dug during the blizzard of 1988.) Snow was a treat I could usually only hope for when my family visited my grandparents in Maryland every Christmas. But even whispers of snow in South Carolina sent me to the window like a child searching the skies for Santa.

For my first thirty years, though I usually invited it, at worst, I was ambivalent to wintery weather—until I moved to Northern Kentucky.

My first weekend here, the sky dumped several inches of the stuff, and I had to drive the twenty minutes to my first day of work, knuckles around the steering wheel as white as the snow piled on my car hood. No ice scraper, no snow boots, no snow-bird intuition—nothing but my fear of sliding off the road or of slipping on the ice and dying like Dr. Atkins.*

Whispers of bad weather send me checking the weather app for the little snowflake symbol, praying for clear skies and warm days, and dreading the moment Laura walks over to the patio doors and announces, “It’s snowing.”

Swiftly I’ve crossed that line in the snow from ambivalent admirer to Heat Miser.

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But Kentucky won’t choose a season. Last Thursday, I sat on the tarmac for thirty minutes while my plane waited to be de-iced before I flew to Maryland (where I woke the next morning to two inches of snow which politely melted by noon.) Less than a week later, I walked through the gardens at work in a sleeveless shirt, enjoying the 74-degree weather that I know won’t last through this week. And Kentuckians keep telling me about the years that they’ve seen snow in April.

I’m thrown off by the hope of the unseasonably warm days and the dread of the icy ones. “To everything there is a season. . .” But it just seems that winter used to be winter and summer, summer. These days the seasons keep me guessing. And I’m very tempted to be frustrated by the inconsistency, as if nature owes me an experience.

It makes me think about how that spirit of entitlement exhibits itself in other areas of life. I’m so happy here on Goose Hill with my best friend, Laura. But sometimes I want more—more stability, more adventure, more purpose, a love life. This isn’t what I expected my life to be like at thirty. It feels a lot like snow in July.

We are conditioned to believe that youth will be free from burdens, that our twenties will bring us marriage, that middle age will bring us the American dream, that old age will bring retirement. And so when, as children we are burdened with the failures of our parents and as thirty year olds we’re still not married and as middle aged and older people we are burdened with aging parents or raising our grandchildren, we tend to resent it—as if life owes us an experience.

The truth is that sometimes you sweat in December and shiver in July: our seasons of life are what we make of them. Sometimes the snow doesn’t fall, the trees don’t bloom, the sun doesn’t shine like we expect. It is expectations that get us in trouble instead of accepting the seasons as they come. As Gandalf said in Lord of the Rings, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

The geese remind me each morning, each evening, of how to spend these fluctuating days. They land on the ice just as they land on the water, hopeful for thaw and ready to paddle and dive when the ice melts from beneath their feet. But until then, they make the best by scavenging the banks, looking expectantly at passers-by for bread crumbs, meandering the parking lot—by living in spite of their frigid circumstances.

Today was warm enough to go without a jacket. I don’t know what tomorrow’s forecast will bring, but as for today, I’m just going to enjoy it.

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*Dr. Robert Atkins, of the famous Atkins Diet, slipped on an icy New York sidewalk and died of blunt impact injury of the head in 2003.

 

 

 

 

 

One Wild and Precious Day

Today—Leap Day—one of our friends had her baby. The lucky kid will have an automatic interesting fact about herself in those insufferable getting-to-know you events at college and office parties and speed dating sessions at which everyone else will be standing around with blank faces as they realize that they have nothing—absolutely nothing—interesting about themselves. Of course, she’ll also have to endure relentless teasing about being one on her fourth birthday and five on her twentieth or something like that.

I read tonight that babies born on Leap Day are known as “leaplings.” I can’t imagine the sheer confusion that a leapling might experience as his parents explain that he will only have a birthday once every four years and only in years divisible by four because of the length of time it takes the earth to orbit the sun and that if we didn’t have leap year, eventually we’d end up celebrating Christmas in July which would be almost as unusual as only celebrating his birthday once every four years.*

I hardly remembered that today was special, until I got the email with news of “casual Monday” in honor of Leap Day.

I thought about the gravity of the day—an extra day in which to accomplish one extra day’s worth of accomplishments, an extra day to do something momentous or particularly purposeful. And I tried, Lord knows, I tried to think of something Laura and I could do to set this day aside as special.

But wearing jeans to work—that was the best I could come up with. Around lunch time, I gave up trying to figure out in what special way I would celebrate. I settled for doing my job well, being kind to my co-workers, and calling my parents on the way home from work.

When I drove into the apartment complex parking lot, the geese were grazing in the front yard, paddling through the murky pond, and honking judgmentally at the mallards splashing in the tiny stream of water draining off the pond. Apparently the geese didn’t know it was a special day either.

When I walked up to the door, my pot of tulips gaped up at me, the brown anthers visible just inside the pink petals which had opened to capture cups full of warm sunlight.

After dinner, Laura and I watched the sky outside our sliding door turn all purple and orange, the sun lingering just a little longer than it did last week in its lengthening rehearsal for summer.

The insignificance of this bonus 24 hours made me think of every other ordinary day. And it made me think of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” in which she says

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I don’t mind that I couldn’t think of an exceptional way to commemorate this day—because every day is a day to celebrate by doing our best at our tasks, appreciating our blessings, living to the fullest, no matter how ordinary or unremarkable the fullest may be.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious day, tomorrow?

 

 

*Information taken from today’s Writer’s Almanac email.