Timing

That’s a somebody else, 
god bless them, 
situation.

Thoughts and prayers
on repeat
for 24 hours.

An innocuous 
holiday trip
to the mall.

Thank you,
we’re just browsing
the belts.

Crowds of shoppers,
outside the store,
inside the mall — 

We’re all inside
these four walls
now screaming.

Clutching the browsed belts,
we crouch and cower
inside the counter square,

Where the young cashier
holds hands
with us.

Shots were firing,
people were screaming,
fleeing the scene.

We stayed contained
behind our counter,
safe by mere chance.

We chose the right store
at the wrong time
situation.

Smells of Summer

My young feral instincts

understood 

raindrops’ residue on hot pavement

(without being told or taught)

meant summertime,

In the same way 

cut grass goodness

dictated and begged

our nightly revelries — 

barefoot

(Ghost in the Graveyard

firefly chasing

front porch sleeping).

Working in the garden,

turned up dirt

lingering and clinging to

Daddy’s wrist and arm hairs

muddied the kitchen sink

spraying earth fumes, 

inhalation inevitable,

unavoidable,

welcomed.

The Waiting Game

“Waiting for . . . the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No. . . just waiting.” From Dr. Suess’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go

Terrifyingly, 
she lost consciousness 
in my arms and I
thank any and all 
gods attending us — 
for our Nurse Practitioner friend,
(now family) 
reviving her, and 
for Gigi
(also now family)
who had the presence of mind and 
free hands to 
call 911, and 
for the paramedics 
who arrived in minutes,
Amen.

They took her away 
for her second ambulance ride 
in as many weeks, and 
thus began the waiting, 
the longest day of my life.

Tears were cried,
hugs were given, and
received,
more prayers were prayed,
calls were made, 
and we waited. 
Six am until ten pm on that 
longest day’s ever night 
for a conversation
with the doctor — 
any doctor — 
for news on my girl.

She was 
so 
very 
very 
sick, 
the doctor said, and 
thank goodness 
they had her 
right where she needed to be, 
back in a hospital bed with 
tubes going in, and 
PICC lines coming out,
for the myriad medicines going in.

They said she would be 
staying 
for a long 
long while — 
for this infection 
consuming her lungs,
was waiting, too.

We can play 
(and win)
the waiting game,
we cried,
hunkered down
for a long 
winter’s month — 
warming up 
phone lines,
facetimes,
and bowls of soup
between us —
the distance always too far
for our waiting hearts.

Days and nights
became weeks
waiting
for the medicines 
to work,
for the chest tube 
to drain,
for the doctor’s calls
to be non-emergent,
for the hospital
to let me in,
for my tears
to stop,
for my fear 
to dissolve,
for our nightmare
to be a bad dream,
for permission
to go home.

The waiting
ended
(finally) and 
we drove away,
leaving the waiting,
(impossible to see)
behind us,
packed to the roof,
as we were,
with living.


Love More

My friend Margie died at 12:40 this morning. Thank you for indulging me and my broken heart by reading a little bit about this remarkable woman whose love for me, changed me. 

I met Margie when I was 21 years old and she was 63. We were roommates and missionary companions in Rostov, Russia, in 1994-1995. I was sent to Russia to preach the gospel, and Margie was sent to Russia because God knew I needed her. Also because she’s a registered nurse and healthcare workers were desperately needed. Margie volunteered her days in a nearby orphanage, where she held babies, talked to them, sang to them, and gave them (oftentimes the only) human touch we all need. 

Margie spoke not one word of Russian until she mastered the only words she ever learned: good, yes, thank you, and no. You’d be amazed at how far that handful of words, plus some well-timed non-verbal cues will take you in most interactions. 

How is your day? Good, thank you!
Would you like to sample this honey? Yes, oh it’s good!
Would you like to buy some? Yes, thank you!
Do you need a ride? No, thank you!
Do you speak Russian? No
I love you! Awwww, thank you! [hug]

Margie was tenacious and dedicated in her efforts to learn Russian. She never learned to speak more than the words and phrases I listed above, but her understanding of people surpassed language. Margie was fluent in loving. She never met a stranger, as the saying goes. And every single person who ever met Margie believed themselves to be her best friend.

She would come home every evening and regale me with stories of the ladies who worked with her at the orphanage. She knew the most intimate details of their lives, of their children’s lives, of their marriages, and of their husbands’ struggles with alcohol and employment. I regularly marveled out loud reminding Margie she doesn’t speak Russian, how can she possibly know these things? Yet she just knew. I had multiple opportunities to connect with and speak to her coworkers myself (in Russian) and Margie’s stories always checked off! She had understood every detail without skipping any nuance, either! And the ladies at work, just like everyone else, adored and loved Margie as a trusted friend.

I remember the day she came home bursting with excitement because she’d been invited to tea at her coworker’s home the following Saturday. “How are you going to get there?” I wondered out loud. “Oh, I have the address written right here,” and she handed me a scrap of paper with Svetlana’s name and address scribbled across it, but no phone number because most homes had no telephones at the time.

Like an anxious mother putting her five-year-old on the school bus for the very first time, I put Margie all by herself into a cab that Saturday morning, giving explicit instructions to the driver of where he was to take her. I wrote our address down in her notebook (plus our phone number just in case), trusting that Svetlana would give instruction to the cab driver on the return end of their luncheon. And that night when Margie was safely back home with me, I couldn’t stop beaming with pride at her adventurous achievements that day. 

Margie regularly went to the street market and purchased our daily food supplies. Grocery shopping in Russia in 1994 meant negotiating directly with the farmer on the product he/she was selling. She bartered (remember not in Russian) for our bread, honey, cabbage, tomatoes, butter, nuts, potatoes, and fresh-cut flowers (because gracing our table with beauty was a gift we got to give ourselves)! And then Margie would create the most amazing and delicious meals out of the simple ingredients she had found. I learned from her not only how to negotiate, but how to budget and stretch a dollar. Through her resourcefulness, Margie taught me how to cook and how to love feeding those you love, that food was simply a vehicle of expression, and ours was a table laden nightly with love.

I know I was a missionary and supposed to know all about love and compassion. In truth, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And only having the experience of living with Margie, of witnessing and watching her daily expressions of love — because that’s just how she lived her life — did I begin to comprehend the meaning of unconditional love, of generosity, and of kindness. Margie is the embodiment of loving out loud. She has been my greatest teacher.

Perhaps eight months into our time together, I became very sick and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Margie immediately quit her volunteer position at the orphanage in order to stay at home with me as my primary caretaker during my convalescence. She found the exact antibiotic I needed by calling every single young man in our mission, knowing at least one of them would have brought with him to Russia a two-year supply of the acne medication, Doxycycline.

Margie took me to every appointment, translated for me all the medical terms and procedures I didn’t understand, becoming my advocate in a medical world whose language I did not speak. She made me soups, monitored my temperature, listened to my lungs, administered my medications, and was the reason I was able to stay in Russia and complete my service as a missionary. 

Margie completed her time as a missionary with honor and it was my privilege to “send her home” with a hug and a promise that we would always stay in touch, that our friendship would be for forever. And we have kept that promise with each other. Margie attended my first wedding, met my young daughter when she and I were on our cross-country road trip after my divorce, shared countless phone conversations, commented on one another’s Facebook and Instagram posts, discussed our favorite books, swapped recipes, saw each other at her rehab center after she fell and broke something, and kept loving each other for always. Margie loved hearing all about and keeping up with my daughter as much as she loved keeping up with me. 

Two weeks ago I talked with Margie and told her that Dawna (another of our missionary companions) and I were coming to see her. I have never known Margie to be more happy and excited than in that moment on the phone. She kept crying/laughing, “I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it! Oh, I’m so happy! You’re coming to see me! Oh, won’t that be the most wonderful thing! I just can’t believe it!” And she spent the next week and a half telling every single person in her life (her nurses, her activities coordinator, her friends in the nursing home, her daughters, her doctor) that “her missionaries” were coming. 

Two days later a surprise infection and a pneumonia diagnosis got to her before I did, but I didn’t change my travel plans. Dawna and I got to her bedside Saturday morning where her daughters graciously gave me time to say goodbye. I know she waited for me and I know she knows I was there. I kept my promise, and so did Margie. She decided this morning would be the right time to go home, and she went carrying the hugs and kisses from all of her best friends. I’ll keep on keeping my promise, to love her for forever. 

Margie’s life is reminding me that what matters is only ever the way we love, the people we feed, and the language we speak. Being generous with our hearts is what expands our world. 

I love you. For forever. 

Peach Sap

Sunday afternoon I was sitting gratefully under the shade of a pecan tree, whose leaves are shaped like a peach tree’s leaves, in my estimation. We grew up with an old peach tree in our yard, but I think trees prefer to be called “mature,” instead of old. Our peach tree was perfectly situated behind the old carriage house, which had a low slanted roof from the back grading up toward the front of the building, which my parents used for lawnmower, tiller and large garden tool storage and a workshop for my Uncle Tom when he would visit in the summer. I could pretty easily get myself up into that peach tree and climb its super sticky branches onto the back roof of the carriage house. The tree’s branches were just tall enough to offer my tiny self and her book a modicum of shade over the just-right-sized spot on that scalding carriage house roof. The downside to being up there was, of course, the sap stuck to my fingers, which then smeared from page to every turned page.

There was also the day I discovered our cat’s — it was either Cupcake’s or Twinkie’s — collar wedged up in that peach tree, which he’d promptly gone and configured himself out of the moment Mom brought him back from a very embarrassing (for him) trip to the Vet. Being butt-less in the wilds of outdoor cat living was an ego-blow he had to face head-on, no collar to announce his coming. He may have lost the fight that landed him at the vet and cost him both his tail and his derriere, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to walk around with his head held in place for him. I am pretty sure the day I discovered and delivered that missing cone to my mother was the last time she ever paid for any pet’s veterinary needs again. We were always a menagerie; there were just too many of us not to be.

In the sixth grade our classroom moved outside for a week — it was called Camp Greentop — and (thank you, Google, I just learned that) from 1957 through 1996, every student in Frederick County, Maryland, “enjoyed the opportunity to make a national park their school.” Another fun fact just learned by me 30+ years after attending Camp Greentop is that it was the second of three camps designed and built in the Catoctin Mountains, with the third camp of that 1930’s construction era being Camp David. My time at that camp as an excessively skinny prepubescent girl predisposed to climbing sappy trees to enjoy quality alone time with her books (and none of her seven siblings), was both enlightening and embarrassing.

We went on actual nature hikes for class, looking at and learning every type of leaf associated with every type of tree that our precious slice of the Catoctin Mountain showcased. We were shepherded late at night onto a large open field, most certainly with a fairy ring in its center, for a class of star-gazing, learning and looking for the constellations visible on a late starry night in May. We scoured the woods for flowers and poison ivy, touching and picking none of them. Also I peed my pants during one of our day hikes because I was a new 12-year-old who didn’t know who to tell or who to ask or where there might be a tree behind which I could — no, I could not — hold it. And, no, I didn’t, couldn’t, tell anyone. I relocated myself to last in line and raced my way back to my cabin as soon as I was back in camp, surreptitiously swapping my under and outerwear before my high school senior counselor found me for mess hall responsibilities.

It turns out that I was in the stingingly painful throes of my first ever bladder infection, but I didn’t know that until I got home at the end of my week at Camp Greentop, bringing with me my wonder and my shame, racing to the laundry room to put my under and outerwear into the washer, an extra scoop of soap to be extra sure no one would know. I wanted to climb up the peach tree with my book du jour, get covered up in sap and sticky fingers, surrounded by leaves I now knew were: deciduous. Instead, our 60-year-old babysitter sent me with her husband to see our family doctor, also a man. So my longing to climb up the peach tree and pry loose my embarrassment to leave it behind was never realized. I got spotted immediately by our old babysitter, who was probably just matronly and mature and understood things I couldn’t see or say. Mrs. Perry was perfectly-situated to ask me where there might be a tree behind which I might be hiding. Cupcake or Twinkie, whichever brother it was who got his butt bit off in that late-night fight — turns out that he and I aren’t cone wearers after all.

Bees and Birds

Bumblebees spend their days banging into my window and into each other — it must be something to tumble through life because you’re just so happy to be in it — you touch everything in your flight path, albeit frenetic to the outside observer.

The mama hummingbird outside our kitchen window splits her time between nest sitting and food sourcing for the babies she’s sitting on top of. We keep a pair of binoculars on the counter next to the sink for 24-hour surveillance of the life flitting back and forth in front of us. The nest she built gets just as many views from us as she does; its craftsmanship at a mastery level my knitting only dreams of attaining in this lifetime of needles clicking. Curt’s Aunt Carol recently told me, casually of course, that I’d have to knit faster if I ever hoped to finish anything. She’s right, of course, but I do have a track record now of beginning projects being completed, begging the beginning of something new, which is where Aunt Carol was sitting next to me — at another beginning.

Our curiosity that our neighbors (whose house is the backdrop for the hummingbird’s nest) might — or must — wonder if we’re scrutinizing them with our round-the-clock laughter that tumbles and tangles together like two bumblebees on the back porch: the bounce effect of belly laughs only ever begs for more.

We spent the last four days in New York City, bumbling our way through the City That Never Sleeps. We took the stairs underneath 28th and Park and swiped $2.75 each (that’s the current rate to ride the MTA) to get on the 6, which would take us to the 7, which would take us to the B, all of which would take approximately 28 minutes. But this was the wrong 6, heading in the wrong direction, so we exited through the same turnstile we’d just paid $2.75 each to enter. We walked up the stairs to 28th and Park, did the Hokey-Pokey, turned ourselves around, went back underground, swiped another $2.75 each, and stared at the same wrong 6, heading in the wrong direction. Rinse, lather, repeat — back through the turnstile, but this time I asked the MTA attendant sitting in his box for help and when we walked topside to come subterranean and swipe another $2.75 each, I did it with confidence and verve. Start spreading that news. . . I’m looking at the same wrong 6 for the third time! and the MTA guy is looking at us shaking his head waiting for his moment in the subway break room to talk about the two bumpkins from Birmingham who spent $16.50 in a ten-minute swiping spree to figure out how to cross the street NYC-style: by actually physically crossing the street.

Bumbling, tumbling, and laughing our way through life is the lesson we keep learning from the bees and the birds who fill our windows and our hyper-focused lenses with reminders that through the lens of someone else’s window is the funniest and most fun way to be:  just so happy to be in it — you touch everything in your path, albeit frenetic to the outside observer.

Mama

I lean in to smooch her cheek, her skin is always so soft, for as long as I can remember back. And my memory plays like a record; I lift and move the needle to start at my earliest memory, which of course were her hands. I loved touching them, holding them, observing the backs of them, every detail seen under the microscope of my fingers’ touch. Smooth and soft. And her cheek as I kiss it depresses slightly because the needle has moved to another memory, not of my mother, but of a deliciously-chunky five-year-old sitting quietly in the circle of other young children, and one of those children leans into Delicious’ face, like I lean into my mother, but unlike me, that leaning child bites the five-year-old’s cheek instead of kissing it. “He mistook you for a doughnut,” I say soothingly to the five-year-old, seeing he’s not happy about being mistaken for a doughnut. Another groove found in the record: I don’t mistake my mother for a doughnut, but she and I do love going through the drive-through for the raspberry-filled ones.

The Dark Side of the Moon

Years ago, and for many years, my brother and I were partners in business. We always joked we stayed in business for years longer than we wanted to be in that particular line of work because we loved being together every single day. Work was merely our vehicle for relishing and growing our friendship as brother and sister.

I could write an entire book on the escapades we shared growing up, the jokes we coordinated and played on our favorite teacher (#sorrynotsorryMrsOsborne), the fact I was even in that class as a sophomore alongside my senior brother, the locker we shared at his insistence — and the love notes he would leave for me reminding me every day how important I was to him and how happy he was to be my brother — the open arms and heart way he completely took me in to his life, to his friends’ circle, to his love of soccer and the NFL, the late nights we spent discussing politics and SNL as a commentary in the late 1990s, and the way he picked up the phone and took my call all the way from North Carolina while he was in the middle of South Korea. My brother was my best friend.

We worked primarily with middle managers and taught them the soft skills of leadership, the things no one teaches yet expects you to know when you find yourself in a position of management. There’s also a pretty big distinction between management and leadership, but that’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down right now. I’m only talking about this because I wanted to give you some context for what it is I want to tell you.

So during these monthly training sessions, we would often play games to engage everyone together at their tables to work together, you know soft skills in action. And one of the games we used was an exercise in deductive reasoning. We showed a clip from the gripping movie, “Apollo 13,” starring Tom Hanks — you remember the scene in which they realize they need a square peg to fit into a round hole in order to make it back through Earth’s atmosphere without burning up like a brisket on the barbecue? It’s tense. And it’s all about cooperation and truly coming together to create the solution that saved those astronauts’ lives.

Anyway, we gave everyone a piece of paper that included a list of 15 supplies on the space ship. The assignment (designed and used by NASA) is this:

Scenario: You are a member of a space crew originally scheduled to rendezvous with a mother ship on the lighted surface of the moon. However, due to mechanical difficulties, your ship was forced to land at a spot some 200 miles from the rendezvous point. During reentry and landing, much of the equipment aboard was damaged and, since survival depends on reaching the mother ship, the most critical items available must be chosen for the 200-mile trip. Below are listed the 15 items left intact and undamaged after landing. Your task is to rank order them in terms of their importance for your crew in allowing them to reach the rendezvous point. Place the number 1 by the most important item, the number 2 by the second most important, and so on through number 15 for the least important.

I’ll go ahead and tell you — yes this is a spoiler — but your numbers 1, 2 and 3 must be #1: two 100 lb. tanks of oxygen (remember there’s no gravity on the moon, so these aren’t going to weigh much at all and will be easily carried), #2: 20 litres of water (apparently you lose a LOT of liquid on the light side, so you’ll need this to replace what you’ve lost), and #3: is a stellar map (because obviously the stars are your only navigational tools in that location).

Next time you’re given this test of your mental agility, you can impress everyone with your celestial knowledge. You’re welcome.

But anyway, that was a lot of back story to tell you that I’ve been thinking about the dark side of the moon as a place that actually exists, and that you and I can’t exist there, at least not for long and not without the right supplies. And I was thinking about my brother, who loved facilitating this exercise; he would always get so excited talking about the possibility of being on the moon in the first place, and then showing the movie clip, which he illegally spliced together, seamless blends between the chopped-up scenes and portions of dialogue — he was always so proud of that compilation and made sure to tell me after class had ended and we were left alone cleaning up our supplies and laughing, how proud of that illegal clip he was, not because it was illegal, but because he’d made something without seams. He was like that with his driving, too — from the moment I started driving he demonstrated on repeat the importance of pressing the clutch and shifting the gears without anyone knowing or feeling it had happened. I think I’m such a good driver because of him.

Ever since his accident, the seamless bond that always existed between us got ripped. It can’t ever be repaired and that’s only the fault of the driver who ran the stop sign on that clear morning five years ago. My helmeted and lighted brother on his bicycle both went down as court evidence. Even now, and since then, I do feel like one of us is on the dark side of the moon — separated from the other, and no amount of oxygen, water or stellar maps will ever bring us safely back together.

This heart of mine aches for and misses my brother who traveled to death and back again. He’s physically here still, but forever changed. If I could take a trip backwards, I’d just use it to make a quick phone call. But I don’t think space ships or mushrooms as modes of transportation travel backwards, either one. We’re only always moving ahead in time and I’ll keep using my right now moments to close my eyes and remember all those hours we spent together imagining which supplies we would need to have when he and I get stranded on the dark side of the moon: laughter was our favorite one, every single time, and it’s not even on NASA’s approved list.

The Summer of 1997

It was the summer of 1997: cash in-hand was money; the prolific use of debit cards didn’t exist; CDs were being ripped and sold on the black market (I definitely bought from that market); Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were still singing to us;  Bill Clinton was at the start of his second term; Princess Diana would die at the end of this summer; DVDs were brand-new technology; the internet existed, but only just — access to the World Wide Web was limited to your dial-up connection and google had yet to be coined a verb.

In June of this year I moved back to Russia for what would become a summer never to be forgotten. 

My US-based company had a teeny-tiny satellite office located in Moscow, Russia, employing two or three Russians max, plus one American expat and his wife, who were in their mid-20s like me and my husband. We all spoke fluent Russian. I was sent over to train the teeny-tiny office staff on some data entry work our US office wanted to delegate and we allowed three months in Moscow for that very purpose. The American expat would make arrangements for our housing while we were in-country and I just needed to show up, passport and work Visa in-hand, ready to work.

Having lived in Russia previously, although never in Moscow, I arrived with  my rose-tinted glasses of loving everyone firmly perched on my nose and completely oblivious to the harsh fear-based system of what life in Russia actually looks like. 

Newly-arrived in our rented for the summer apartment I was surprised to see the rooms literally bulging with the landlady’s belongings, as if we had a key to someone else’s home but I didn’t want permission to be there. Had they left in a hurry, carelessly cramming their personal effects underneath the mattress believing my lying on top of their pile wouldn’t disclose their secrets in full view? The lingering layer of grease atop every single surface in the flat belie their claims to cleanliness and order. Unpacking meant keeping my suitcases open and accessible because there was no space, nook or cranny available for my belonging or belongings. 

Where to place my computer monitor and the beast of a tower needed to operate it? Plugging in to the local landline in order to connect, patiently, with the office nine hours behind me now required planning and hope that the phone here would be connected, dependent on a real life operator deciding my worthiness of connection. 

And so it happened on a summer’s eve that we went for a walk, exploring our neighborhood, hoping to find a street vendor selling some of our favorite tasty treats and we realized we were walking distance from Gorky Park, known back in the heyday of the Soviet era as an amusement park and gathering place for families. 

Our excitement quickly turned to disappointment and then concern as we found ourselves in a desolate has-been space, not kept up or even safe for after-dark strolling. Deciding quickly we would rather be in the grease-filled apartment figuring out supper than here in the middle of Gorky Park uncertain as to who or what we might encounter, we retraced our steps back to the flat where all of our possessions were locked behind two doors and five keys. 

Placing the first of our five keys in door one, lock one, it was immediately apparent something was wrong. The door was locked, yes, but from the inside. Someone was inside the apartment and we couldn’t get in!

Knocking and banging on the door from the inside out to us we could discern the voice of our landlady and her husband — yelling at us that they would not let us in, they were calling the police, what was ours was now theirs and they knew what we were up to!

What in the actual HELL was happening?! 

Remember, 1997. I’m in the middle of Moscow, Russia, where the KGB and the Mafia are interchanged for one another as seamlessly as tit for tat. This is the land where an American goes missing and no one blinks because they don’t even notice. 

Heart pounding, I plead through the door for her to please open, please talk with me, please explain what happened, why is she upset? What is her concern? Can we discuss this? 

No! The operator at the phone company called her, told her how frequently I’m plugging into “that computer thing” and “I know what you’re doing here! I know what you’re trying to do.” 

Dear god, what is she talking about?! 

“I have already called the police! They are on their way. You will be arrested. I am confiscating your computer.”

No discussion. No earlier call. No indication that this was coming. What is she afraid of? Accusing me of doing? Having me arrested for what?! 

My heart is pounding louder than my thoughts.

Can I just have my stuff? My suitcase? Keep the damn computer; it doesn’t belong to me anyway. I swear I’m only working. I’m only connecting with my office in the US. Are you worried we won’t pay the phone bill? Is that what this is about?! Are the police really necessary? 

Where can I go? 

And then rushing up the stairs are my co-worker American expat and Sergei, the Russian who works with him. They received a tip-off phone call that something was going down at our apartment, that we were being used as pawns in the larger Mafia-played game of business in Moscow. 

Quickly, go down and get in Sergei’s car. Leave the premises. Don’t worry about your things. Remove yourself before the police arrive. The rest will be taken care of. Go. NOW!

And heart-pounding crouched down from the back seat of the dark car I watch the police storm the building, a long pause of time, and then Sergei carrying my suitcases out and quietly placed in the trunk, and with a tap on the roof of the car the driver takes me away, only turning on his headlights when we are three streets gone.

Is Big Brother still watching? He definitely was in 1997.