Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Paper in My Purse

There's this paper that I keep folded up and tucked away in my purse. It is a bit of treasure that I bring with me practically everywhere. I think I've gone through five purses in the last seven years, and that paper has found its place in each one. Today, I unfolded it for the first time in perhaps a year and read each beautiful word printed upon it.

The black ink is still clear on the paper, but the yellowing of its edges has begun. The creases are tearing. It felt a bit delicate in my fingers today. 


The lines that fill this page were written by my husband, long before he was my husband. I still remember my awe when he sent me the first two stanzas, a mere two weeks after our first date. If I've ever come close to swooning, that was the moment. Here I was, lingering in the dawn of our coupledom, wading in and testing the waters. Then, he offers this collection of words born in his heart and pulls me under.

Love requires taking chances. It requires wading into deeper waters and losing sight of your former shore. My husband more than anyone else has taught me this. Love also, for me, requires words. Words of beauty and truth. Every time I look at this worn page in the pocket of my purse, I'm thankful my husband understood that from the start.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Heart of Life is Good

This is one of my favorite photos. Sure, I have others that better capture my children's faces and smiles. This one, though, captures life.

Some things have me thinking hard on the matter of life. It started with the suicide bomber cruelly choosing the concert in Manchester as his target and killing twenty-two adults, teens, and children. It continued with the news of the twenty-eight adults and children violently martyred in Egypt when they refused to deny their belief in Christ. Numerous others were injured in these attacks. Countless more were directly affected and traumatized.

And so, I think about life. Life as it is now, in this world in which my husband and I are raising our little children. In the midst of this thinking, I came across that photo. It's a recent one, taken at my kids' first time at a major league baseball game. All I have to do is look at it and I relive that night. We bought the tickets on a whim when we saw a low cost deal for some upcoming games. I was excited, as I always am when I attend a baseball game, but I was also worried. Would the kids enjoy themselves or be overwhelmed by the size and the noise of the place? Would they get bored and whine? Would they complain about having to stay in their seats for too long? Would they be too tired the next day? Typical motherhood worries.

My worry was silenced by their wonder: the wonder on their small faces when we entered the stadium; when the crowd stood clapping for the first time; when the fireworks were lit to celebrate each home run; when my son kept his eyes on the pitcher and batter as I explained  a little of the game and he was rewarded with witnessing a hit to the outfield; when the racing sausages and the 7th inning stretch brought everyone to their feet in unity. The pair of them enjoyed every minute. They were thrilled at being part of something so much bigger than themselves.

So many things could have gone wrong. They didn't, but they could have. I think of the dozens of concerts my friends and I have attended from the time we were teenagers to the present without a doubt that we'd arrive back home safely. I think of the pilgrimages we've made to churches and retreats without the looming threat of being attacked for our beliefs. I think of the number of people in that baseball stadium with no thought of whether or not someone might make us a target. So many things could go wrong.

If the fears and worries win, we must withdraw from what is bigger than ourselves. That's what it comes down to, I suppose. Being part of what is bigger than ourselves is at the heart of life, and life cannot be sustained without the heart.

There's things you need to hear
So turn off your tears and listen
Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
No it won't all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good
John Mayer

Friday, May 26, 2017

On the Pier

Photo by Carrie Sue Barnes, Location: Rabbit Bay, Lake Superior
 
The old man only visited the pier at sunrise, when the lake's surface was smooth as a bed sheet and the sky was edged in tangerine. Later, the lake would be speckled with white caps. The din of the waves would crescendo with each tide. He used to love the noise, but now his tired ears treasured silence. So, he only came at sunrise.
 
Bare footed, he stood squinting at the ascending sun. Another day. The fibers of the wood were cool under the leathery soles of his feet. He wrapped his fingers around the rail, pressed his stomach against it, and inhaled the stillness. He willed it to stay stored in his chest. Peace.
 
"Do you come every morning?"
 
The bird like voice startled. He did not, at first, turn to see its bearer.
 
"Mamma says you do."
 
"Bit early for ya', isn't it?" Being his first words of the day, they rolled out full of gravel. He cleared his throat. "Why aren't ya' sleepin'?"
 
"Because I'm awake." The girl's answer was clipped with the childish annoyance at silly questions from adults who ought to know.
 
The old pier stood between his house and the girl's. He gazed down at the crown of honey blonde hair, feathery and uncombed. The wisps carried him through decades to his tiny daughter hugging his leg here on the pier, midday waves licking their toes. Affection stole through his wiry limbs and he reached out to smooth her hair. He stopped himself; placed his hand back on the rail.
 
"It's my birthday," she whispered. 
 
"Mine, too."
 
Brown eyes widened. "Ooooh," she breathed out the sound. Her pink lips remained in a tiny O, then, "How old are you?"
 
He stifled a chuckle at the reverent hush of her voice. "Old."
 
"But how old?"
 
He rubbed at the whiskers in the crevices of his weathered face. "Eighty-four."
 
"That's old." She bobbed her head at him. "I'm five today."
 
The sky was losing its accessory colors. Blue prevailed above the still sleepy lake. Pelicans conducted an aerial parade inches above the water; six in a straight line headed north, then a turn and back south.
 
"Are you having a party?" he asked.
 
"I am!" Her feet danced a two second jig. "Are you?"
 
"Oh, no party for me."
 
The kids would call, of course, sometime before night fell. He did not begrudge them anything more. Yesterday, he'd picked up roast beef and fresh cheddar from the deli for his favorite sandwich. It was enough.
 
"You can share mine."
 
"That's kind of you, but I don't need a party."
 
"Every birthday deserves a party," she said. She pushed her hair back from her cheeks. "That's what my daddy says."
 
He didn't argue, hoping she'd believe it for all her years.
 
In the afternoon, he watched cars pull up to the neighboring house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends; all come to celebrate the girl. Through open windows, the party carried its sounds to his home. Laughter, shouts, rumbles of conversation from the men on the back porch, and finally the traditional singing while they huddled around a lit cake. Hours later, the people returned to their vehicles after hugs in the driveway.
 
He sat on the red bench on his front porch, reading last Sunday's newspaper, when the last of the revelers departed. The sun he'd watched rise was leaving too, dipping below the tree line behind them. Ribbons of pink and yellow light wrapped around from there to the horizon over the water; another day.
 
The neighbor's back door creaked open and out trotted the girl. Her purple party dress swung about her knees. He lifted his hand in a wave at her parents, who watched from their kitchen window. The father waved back; the mother smiled while she continued to wipe dry a plate in her hands.
 
"I made them save this one," the girl called when she reached the steps of his porch. She waited there.
 
Hips stuck and knees creaked when he stood. He paused to let his joints settle into place, then walked. She'd brought him a piece of cake. It was two layers of chocolate with pink frosting. The scents of cocoa and sugar filled his nostrils. His mouth watered.
 
"Well, you're a sweet girl, I must say." There was a catch in his voice to go with the moisture in his eyes.
 
"Do you like chocolate?"
 
"It's my favorite."
 
"Mine, too."
 
He accepted the plate.
 
"Momma says I have to get back. I have to help clean up."
 
"You best go and do that." The old man nodded. "Thank you for the birthday cake. I'm sure it's delicious."
 
"You'll eat it?"
 
"Of course, I will."
 
"Can I watch the sun come up with you again?"
 
"If you're awake, you're welcome to join me."
 
She nodded, her features drawn together in thought. He waited while she formed her question. "And if I'm not awake tomorrow, can we watch the sun come up another day?"
 
"Yes," he smiled, "another day."
 
Her concern was gone. She skipped back to her house, already talking to her parents before she opened the door.
 
The old man walked to the pier. He leaned against the soft wood of the railing, listened to the song of low tide kissing the sand, ate his chocolate cake, and hoped for another day.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Normal - a Flash Fiction Piece

"I won't sleep in our bed."

"What was that, ma'am?"

I glance at the cab driver. "Nothing."

"It's alright, ma'am. I talk to myself plenty."

Do what's normal. It's what my aunt advised for after the funeral. After. Everything will be marked as before and after now.

Sliding the clasp of my necklace back behind my tired curls, I whisper at the empty seat beside me, "We'll talk about this at home."

Do what's normal.

Pay the driver.

Nod at the doorman.

Press the elevator button.

It dings its arrival. Is it always that loud? Two others board the elevator with me. Strange since the lobby echoes like a canyon yet I didn't hear them approach.

I grow impatient once the doors close. "I won't sleep in our bed, Ian. I can't."

My fellow passengers turn, chins over shoulders, then lower their eyes to the floor.

The doors open and I exit before speaking again. "The guest bed is comfortable. Don't worry about me." I stop, key in my fist. "Can you worry where you are?"

The breakdown starts in my knees. It will spread to my back and my arms, then my whole body will collapse to the floor. I picture myself curled on the green straw welcome mat in front of the Lancasters' door. "No." Digging the key into my palm, I walk.

"Fine. I'll sleep in the damn bed. Are you happy?"

The question does me in. I shove our door - my door - open and fall down in privacy. When the shaking and the tears pass, I roll to my back; knees up, feet planted. There's a tiny run in my tights that I pull at with my fingernail until it tears over my thigh. I stand and remove my black heels, ruined black tights, and black dress. When I drop the tights in the trash, I linger two seconds before adding the shoes and the dress.

Do what's normal.

"That's why I have to talk to you." Normal is talking to Ian about the day, the news, the basketball game he's watching that I don't care about and the book I'm reading that he doesn't care about.

In our bedroom - my bedroom - I pick up our wedding photo from the desk. "This won't do."

From the bookshelves, I dump a box of photographs on the carpet. With the pictures spread in a half moon, I survey them without seeing details. I can't endure the details. "Where is it?" I shout a second before my eyes land on it. "Oh, Ian."

My favorite one. I trace my fingertip over his cheek, his mouth. I ache for a kiss. I haven't ached like this since our first years together when we still made love more nights than not.

"We'll talk more tomorrow."

My black bra and panties go in the trash too. The photo goes on his pillow beside me. I fall asleep flat on my back, hands resting one over the other on my stomach, like him.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Seven Years Ago

Seven years ago on this day, I went to dinner with my sister, our mutual best friends, and the husband of one of those friends. We ate at one of our favorite restaurants, Good Company, in Appleton, WI. The hostess seated us around a large circular table in the front section of the first floor of the large, two-story restaurant. Later that evening we would attend a concert at a local church. Our conversations probably ran through a gamut of topics. I don't know. I only remember one.

I told them about a coworker who lately was offering frequent smiles and inquiries into how my day was faring. Occasionally he invited me to join a group of peers for lunch. Sometimes the flirtation was clear but more often he left the impression of straightforward, genuine friendliness. After encountering him each workday, I usually wondered two things: was I assuming too much about his interest and, if not, then why the hell was he interested in me? I'd sit in my chair behind the reception desk, running reports, handling mail, and finding ways to pass the slower hours. He'd walk by to reach our adjacent show room, on his way to fix whatever technical issue had cropped up on one of the machines. Eye contact, smile, small talk or a joke, then the day rolled along.

I consistently turned down the invitations to lunch. I kept the small talk brief. I silently questioned why this guy bothered to talk to me. My skepticism was not because I was clueless - which might have been excusable considering my lack of adult dating experience - but because I was afraid. Oh, how I was afraid. All the seeds for that fear were planted in earlier years, having nothing to do with this man and everything to do with me.

At dinner that night, as we waited for our entrees to arrive, my closest friends listened to me talk about this man. Eventually, one of them interrupted me with a single demand: the next time he invited me to lunch, I had to say yes. I laughed and she asserted the demand more vehemently while the others added their support. They did not relent until I agreed.

I spent the rest of that Saturday evening negotiating with the fears in my head. I spent the remainder of the weekend debating whether or not I hoped my coworker would invite me to lunch just one more time. The following Tuesday I shared a meal with my husband for the first time.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
Joseph Campbell

A couple months after that first lunch date.

And 6 1/2 years later.