Stealing My Neighbor’s Daffodils

IMG_3425When I was about five, my family moved from one subdivision to another in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Soon after we arrived, a woman came from next door to welcome us to the neighborhood. Mother told me to go out back and play while they visited. So I did. After roaming around for a bit with my Labrador sidekick, Sloopy, I found the longest row of daffodils, all yellow and good smelling, lining one side of the yard. I picked a bunch of them, delighting in my discovery, and took them in to Mother, my chubby fingers wrapped around the stems.

“Here,” I said, offering up my bounty. “These are for you.”

“Oh no,” said my mother. “Those don’t belong to us. You shouldn’t have done that.”

Somehow she knew what I didn’t, that the flowers bloomed on the property next to ours, owned by the nice woman sitting on the couch. She was lovely about it, this new friend, but my mother was not amused.

The neighbor, Mrs. Wise, and I laughed about it when I was older, with her telling me I could pick those flowers anytime, that she just wanted people to enjoy them.

The last time I saw her she brought a card to my father in the hospital after he collapsed in a restaurant while eating lunch. Once again Mrs. Wise and I spoke of the daffodils, although she was well into her eighties then and said she had no memory of my indiscretion. Why would she?

Why do I? Because of the shame of it, perhaps, one of those early scoldings we think we didn’t deserve. An early embarrassment. Or maybe it was my first meaningful encounter with a daffodil.

“But I wouldn’t have minded if you picked those flowers whenever you wanted,” she said as we visited in the lobby of Baptist Hospital on North State Street.

“This is for Earl,” she continued, handing me the card. “Get well soon,” it read.

Daddy died the next day, Mrs. Wise several years later.

Every spring when I pick daffodils in my own yard in Tennessee, I think of them both, a neighbor and a father who made lasting impressions on me.

Searching, Searching, Searching

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I’m like the child who can’t stop asking questions, although I try with all my might not to fidget.

“Why is the sky blue?” becomes, for me, “What shall I do with the rest of my life?”

“I want to be a fireman when I grow up,” sounds like “Should I have been a social worker? A priest?”

“Can dogs fly?” makes me wonder, “Can I get everything I want out of this life?”

“Give me more candy” translates as “Give me more: Time. Energy. Dreams.”

And, like the voracious child, I will have to learn to accept that sometimes the answer is “no,” and sometimes the answer is “maybe later,” and sometimes the answer is, “settle down.”

And every once in a while there is no response that will satisfy.

On Being 52: Trust Me, It’s More Than a Number

DSC_0326Please, I beg of you, don’t tell me that my age is “just a number” or “all a matter of attitude.” I get it, really I do, that you mean well, and that you think I’ve got a youthful spirit and that 52 is not 92. But I am here to tell you that being fiftysomething is more than a number. Regardless of one’s perky outlook, it is the startling—although it shouldn’t be a surprise seeing that I’ve had five decades to get used to the idea—realization that more than half my life is over. With that comes, if you’re paying attention at all, some kind of evaluation about where you are and where you want to go from here. 

Here’s what being 52 is: weakening eyesight, creaking knees, a need for naps, an ever-present countdown toward the rest of my life’s goals, missing my dead father, learning the language of Mother’s dementia, dreaming of going back to school yet again, wanting to make a difference, a longer list of books I haven’t read, grieving misplaced relationships and lost opportunities, wondering what will become of me. Thankfully, being middle-aged (humor me, please; I know I’m stretching the math here) also brings sharpened awareness of even the smallest joy, an appreciation for what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve avoided, a heightened curiosity, increased energy for what simply must get done and a gentle release of what won’t, discarding what no longer fits me—from old clothes to worn out grievances—without guilt, overflowing gratitude for steadfast friends and supportive relations, and trusting it will be okay in the end.

On this icy winter morning, as I consider my next steps, I raise my decaf latte to the fabulous Elaine Stritch, who bears witness to the “courage of age” with such blazing fortitude that I am made bolder simply by listening to her on National Public Radio.

Sing it, sister, I say. Shout it, growl it, live it.

Why I Don’t Hate Valentine’s Day

IMG_3362While I understand people pushing back against the over commercialization of Valentine’s Day—and certainly I don’t think today is the only day we should express appreciation to our loved ones—I’m not a hater. I’m going to revel in the heart shaped mug Precious used for my coffee this morning, the roses that were just delivered to my front door, and the candlelight dinner he and I will share tonight because I waited a long time to be loved like this.

I’m lucky that my parents didn’t raise me to think a prince was coming on a white horse. Frankly, they didn’t tell me anybody was coming and instead made sure I got enough education and sufficient professional chops to be able to support myself. By the time Precious presented me with his mother’s diamond when I was 40 years old, I had decided I would never marry and that, yes, that would be okay. I had a good life and I trusted I would continue to do so, even without a ring on it.

I was used to being alone by then, intimately familiar with being passed over for dates to proms, formals, and college fraternity parties. When I lived in DC in my late twenties, I think I went two years (it was probably longer but I don’t want you to pity me) without so much as a flirtatious glance from a man. Occasionally I’d get a little sad about my apparent lack of womanly skills, but I tried to make sure I had enough inner resources to be content, and enough outside interests to stay connected with the world.

I had single friends who made noise about being happy: “I’ve got a good job,” or “I love my apartment,” they’d say. But they didn’t seem happy to me, disengaging from society and rarely leaving their homes. How they planned to meet anyone that way I have no idea. Although I realize not everyone will—or even wants to—partner long term, I dare say your chances of meeting someone special increase exponentially if you get off the couch. I did the hard work, because I wanted to live the fullest life I could regardless of my love life. I went to a workshop for singles led by an Episcopal priest, based on imago therapy. I saw a psychiatrist, who helped me realize I was not the only woman in Davidson County questioning my self worth simply because I wasn’t married. I did online dating, mainly to make sure I didn’t forget how to powder my nose and engage in polite conversation with men.

“Weren’t you scared?” asked a friend when I told her I’d joined an online dating service. “No,” I responded. “I was never scared, although I was very nearly bored to death on more than one occasion.”

It all helped. It helped by reminding me I was not alone in my search for wholeness, and that such completion was my responsibility, not someone else’s, not even a handsome, smart man. It showed me how to reach out when I got so lonely I worried I might expire on a Friday night and have no one notice until the next Tuesday. It reassured me I was still connected to others, at least in the cosmic sense. Although at the time I was probably more interested in having a companion to go the movies with than I was in any spiritual union with humankind, I remain grateful that I confronted the depths of my loneliness in order to befriend myself.

So on this day so many have come to hate, I’m going with love.

Keeping My Balance at the Gym–And in My Life

IMG_2469An older man stops my trainer at the gym to ask if she is trying to teach me balance. I am struggling to stay upright atop what feels like to me is a mound of Jello. (It is, in reality, something called a Bosu ball.) It is so challenging for me that I must reach out for my trainer’s arms more than once to steady myself as I raise one leg, then the other, to her count.

“Yes,” she tells him. “This exercise strengthens your core and helps your balance.”

“That is good,” he says before walking away.

I talk to my trainer a lot about such issues that matter more and more as I age. I hear stories from my elderly friends about falling at the least provocation. These exercises are no guarantee, of course, that I will remain upright. But I want to do everything I can to be ready. And so it is with the rest of my life.

At 52, I find myself a bit unsteady about what to do next. Another degree? Open an arts studio? Take a part-time job? Finally see if I’ve got a novel in me? But instead of relying on my old habits of signing up for yet another workshop or scheduling an appointment with one sort of therapist or another or, my personal favorite, ordering books about living the creative/mindful/spiritual/healthy (insert your personal predilection here) life, I am trying, simply, to be. I’m resisting with all my might the desire to make sudden moves.

For most of my life I’ve felt that as long as I was moving, I must be living. (Can you say avoidance?) Now, though, I sense there is something to be gleaned from spending time with myself without an agenda, or a goal, or a to-do list. It’s harder than it sounds.

One of the best career breaks I ever got happened years ago when, although I was not happy with my employer, something told me to stay put instead of packing up my red pencils and my thesaurus and moving to another job, trying a different city. By sticking around, I enjoyed one of my most fulfilling creative assignments to date.

The voice that said “stay” was not loud or threatening. It did not belong to a friend, or, dare I say, even a divine entity. It was my own, and I’m just hoping I can recognize it now.

How Many Books on Writing Does a Writer Need?

In preparation for my upcoming stint as an adjunct professor and writer in residence at the Earlham School of Religion, I’m making my way through all my writing books, to see what I can glean that might be of interest and benefit to the students. I thought about counting how many books I had on the topic, but at about number thirty-eight I became embarrassed because  I know, like many of you, that there comes a time in a writer’s life when he has to put down the how-to books and resist the urge to plan yet another trip to a writing conference, and simply, well, write. But we also know it’s not simple. Anything I can to help another person learn to call herself “writer,” I want to do. So I’m starting with my vast library, and I plan to pick out what I think are the juiciest parts and share them with my students. For now, though, I’ll be posting some of them here, in the hopes that you might let me know which resources you rely on most for your work. In the end, I’ll pass along the books I no longer need. Sooner or later I’ll feel compelled to buy some more anyway…

From May Sarton, in A Self-Portrait (Norton, 1982):

“It’s thought and feeling together, this is what makes the poem for me, when you can think and feel at white heat.”

“You have to be willing, as Yeats says, ‘there’s more enterprise in going naked.’ You finally do have to give something terribly intimate and secret of yourself to the world and not care because you have to believe that what you have to say is important enough.”

Writing That Takes My Breath Away

Often when I am struck by a powerful gathering of words I feel compelled to share. Here is one such example:

“While we were in Midland, Mom painted dozens of variations and studies of the Joshua tree. We’d go with her and she’d give us art lessons. One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

“Mom frowned at me. ‘You’d be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. ‘It’s the Joshua’s tree struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005, 38).

Have you read anything lately that takes your breath away?

Interview with Cool People Care

The fine folks over at Cool People Care (CPC) were kind enough to interview me about the power of storytelling. CPC does great work, and they exist to make a difference. Check them out if you’re not familiar with this forward-thinking group.

CPC: You say that “it’s the telling of our stories that saves us.” What do you mean by that?
Wilson: The guiding principle for my work is my belief that it is the sharing of our stories that saves us. By this I mean that we need to be reminded we are not alone. Be it in good times or bad, commiseration or celebration. Humanity is best served when we are willing to unlock our hearts for one another, and one way we can do that is by offering up our individual stories to our families, friends, and communities, and, if appropriate, the world.

You can read more here: http://www.coolpeoplecare.org/its-time-to-share-our-stories/

On Being Southern in Seaside

I’m just back from a fabulous trip to Seaside, Florida, where I had the pleasure of hanging out with authors John T. Edge and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson. You might know Edge for his in-depth work on the sociological and historical aspects of food, and Tomlinson for her high-larious take on being a southern belle. If you don’t know these two writers, please check them out.
The weekend, sponsored by Escape2Create, was entitled “Voices of the South,” and it was all about the food, culture, and ethos of being Southern. I facilitated an Amherst Writers and Artists workshop around the topic of food, where I wrote with some amazing women. On a rainy Saturday morning, we gathered around a farmhouse table in a stunning home that reminded me of Martha’s Vineyard. We spoke of the challenges, and payoffs, of living a writing life, whatever that might look like for our individual lives. Some of us are called to write for the public, others for our families. Some craft in rhyme, others in long form essay. But I dare say the end result is the same: “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.” Repeat after me.
You don’t need Cape Cod when you’ve got the beaches of 30A, and celebrating the South in Seaside was a treat indeed. With its engaging architecture, good food, fun shops, breathtaking atmosphere–and delightfully friendly and helpful residents–it was hard to leave. Thank you, fine people of Seaside, for making my first trip to your oasis so memorable. It had been a goal of mine to sign at Sundog Books, and look at me, I made it. Thank you, Linda and Bob White, for a dream come true.
I encourage all artistic types to check out the residences and other programs offered by Escape2Create. It will do your work, and your soul, good.