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MayBelle Gets More than She Ordered

It doesn’t take much for MayBelle to stop and think of her precious parents. The backdoor neighbor’s cigar smoke makes her hope, just for the tiniest moment, that her father has come for one of their long, rambling conversations that serpentined among politics, religion, books, and culture. He’s been gone for twenty years, and still she gleans from those chats. She enjoyed talking with him over anyone else in the world.

Taking some items to a local nonprofit last week channeled her mother, who seemed always to sense someone in need. Whatever you do, don’t ask MayBelle about the time she want looking for her favorite pair of jeans, the ones with the apple appliqués, only to be told they had been donated. Same goes for her middle sister, whose dolls were given away to some Methodist missionaries’ children without her permission.

“You have plenty,” their mother would say. And they did.

Just yesterday, this:

MayBelle was leaving one of her favorite Nashville lunch spots, The Picnic*, when she stopped for a car to pull into a spot. It was shiny, four-door Mercedes. Gleaming white. An older gentleman parked the car, got out, and walked around to the passenger side. He was smartly dressed, handsome. She’d swear she spotted a pocket square. He helped an older woman out of the car. Probably his wife? Also well dressed, everything matching. Sensible shoes. He placed his left hand on the small of her back and guided her toward the door. They were both elegant, slow movers. And then: A teenage boy opened the door to the restaurant and waited for them to make their way inside. Patient. Kind. In such a world as today’s where rudeness seems to prevail and manners seem almost obsolete, these tender gestures about broke MayBelle. (MayBelle apologizes if she seems a bit jaded today. A weekend trip to a crowded mall has her evaluating all of civilization.)

These two intimate interactions made MayBelle think of all the ways her parents cared for one another, with such concern and respect. And it made her think of how hard her oldest sister and brother-in-law have worked to raise their three lovely children to be thoughtful and courteous. And it especially made her want to find this picture, in which one of MayBelle’s nephews helped her mother to the car after a family lunch. MayBelle’s father was gone by this time, so a new escort was needed.

MayBelle stood for a minute or two after the couple and the boy were no longer in view, mesmerized. She’s not sure what rooted her to that spot, but what she had witnessed felt holy to her. Most days she tries to pay attention, MayBelle does, just in case a routine chicken salad run might turn into an extraordinary encounter with the Divine. In that one instance, MayBelle felt connected to her ancestors, experienced compassion for her elders, and was inspired by the next generation. Not bad for an ordinary afternoon in May.

*Best fruit tea in town.

MayBelle Goes Environmental

MayBelle likes to think she’s pretty conscious about the environment, although it’s unlikely any of her friends would label her a “tree hugger.” She has, in her later years, come to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors much more than she did when she was younger, and anytime she can head over to Radnor Lake in Nashville or the mountains of western North Carolina, she likes to hike and explore as much as the next middle-aged goober. Nature does her soul good.

She doesn’t litter, and she tries to donate, reuse, or recycle whenever possible. She’s trying to wean herself from single-use plastic, and she’s begun using small, washable towels instead of paper towels in the kitchen.

Seeing that she’s really an even-keeled sort of gal who, for the most part, believes in “live and let live,” she was a bit surprised at her visceral reaction to the recent “spring cleaning” in her neighborhood.

Word came round that there would an opportunity, one Saturday morning, to have old papers and documents shredded and to donate any appropriate items to Goodwill. Trucks would be on site for several hours just for these purposes. The neighborhood association would also order several dumpsters to be placed throughout the neighborhood for residents to use for a week. 

“Woot!” thought MayBelle. “This will be a great way to get rid of those tax documents from 2003 and to pass along the clothes my friend said make me look like an eighty-year-old widow.”

MayBelle thought that was a tad harsh, but she could see her friend’s point. MayBelle must admit she often talks as if she’s ready for a senior-living community. Thankfully, this particular friend has pretty good taste, and now MayBelle’s closet sports more purple and blue than grey and black.

That Saturday, MayBelle could hardly contain herself, she was so excited. As the days went on, though, she noticed a lot of items being placed in dumpsters that she thought still had some life left in them. She resisted the temptation at first, really she did, but soon she could no longer stand idly by. MayBelle is nothing if not a woman of conviction. So she started skimming, just a piece at a time. Such that you’d hardly notice, unless you were Precious, or her neighbor Marshall, who said, and MayBelle quotes him here: “Hanging on to the side of the dumpster like that is not really a good look for you.” So many critics….

Before you imagine MayBelle upside down (what a sight that would be!), let the record show she did not go “dumpster diving,” for what would have required her to actually get in the dumpster and thereby earn the tongue wagging of more neighbors and the disgust of Precious. So she limited herself to what she could easily take off the top. To wit:

Two large, planter urns that she gave to a friend who was delighted;

A brand-new cream-colored lampshade, still wrapped in plastic and not a ding on it;

A framed print that doesn’t suit MayBelle but will spruce up someone’s home quite nicely;

Three more outdoor planters, all in great condition;

An unopened box of felt chair pads and assorted hooks for hanging pictures;

Two plastic storage bins (clean! with lids!);

And, the biggest score of all, a small outdoor iron table with a beautiful mosaic tile top, which now graces her front porch. She had coffee out there this morning.

MayBelle also spied a piece of art, a sweet little floral oil painting, but she couldn’t wiggle it out from under the microwave on top of it. Later, while MayBelle was bemoaning her missed opportunity, Precious came in the house and said, “I think Baxter’s dog walker is getting your painting out of the dumpster.” She was, and MayBelle hopes she enjoys it.

Leaving the neighborhood yesterday, MayBelle thought she saw a small leather footstool teetering on top of a mattress in the dumpster closest to her house. 

“I’ll check that out when I get back from my errands,” she told herself, already imagining how perfect it would be back in the den, next to the bookshelf. Just the ticket. Alas, it was gone some forty-five minutes later when she returned. Same for the small mattress spring MayBelle was going to use for an art project. Apparently MayBelle is not the only one in the neighborhood with a discerning eye.

She gets it, really she does, that some material things simply have to go to the dump in the end.  That sometimes the fabric shoe rack that hung over your closet door for years is too ripped or saggy to be useful. That maybe your kid’s plywood art table simply can’t be put back together. What irks her, though, is the waste of perfectly good items, and adding unnecessarily to the landfills. So many things that folks tossed, to her mind at least, might have helped others. This afternoon, MayBelle stopped short of grabbing two area rugs, a floor lamp, and a big wicker basket, because the backseat and trunk of her car are already full of retrieved items she’s determined to find good homes for.

MayBelle’s not saying that your trash is someone else’s treasure, necessarily. But maybe it could be someone’s “make do” or “just what I need to get me by.” It’s the principle of the thing.

The dumpsters will be taken away tomorrow. MayBelle will make a final assessment tonight as she walks Norval, and she’ll do her best to leave well enough alone. She’ll circle around several times before making a move, and she’ll make sure Marshall isn’t watching. But if that perfectly good, green plastic lawn chair is still available, you might be sitting in it the next time you come over for tea. 

MayBelle Inches Ever Closer Toward Home

Back in 2009, when MayBelle was on a retreat in New England, she wrote this:

“I am not at home. I am far away from everything, and everyone, that I have worked so hard to mold into a representation of what home means.  In my youth, home was a ranch-style house painted blue-gray in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a mother and a father and two older sisters and a dog named Sloopy. It was jumping on the Robinsons’ trampoline, walking down to Shellie’s house, and swinging in the hammock in the backyard. Being scared of boys, learning to play the piano, and earning badges in Girl Scouts. Today home is a two-story number in Nashville, Tennessee, with a husband—the presence of whom still shocks me after seven years—a stepdaughter, and a dog named Quay. It is overstuffed bookshelves and grocery shopping and trying to be successful at self-employment. In between, home was an unremembered street name in Oxford, Mississippi; Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia, and Deane Hill Drive in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was graduate school and career and loneliness. Now, though, it is more than stucco chimneys and supper at six. It is where I draw the deepest, most satisfying breaths of my life. The kind of inhalations that can make you woozy with gratitude, and relief, and wonder. After so many years of not wanting to ‘settle down,’ it is, in the end, the only place I really want to be, surrounded by all that mundane glory. I am not quite as at home with my calling, however, although I feel I am tantalizingly close. It is, I suspect, a destination not to be reached as an endpoint but instead a beginning and returning, over and over again until some satisfaction and fulfillment are encountered. Like pornography, or finding your soulmate: you’ll just know. It is harder to describe than the physical structure of any house. It is grief and longing and joy. A bit of pride, maybe too much at times. Spirituality and semi-colons; silence and word counts. Story and regret. ‘Both and’ instead of ‘either or.’ It is syllables on paper and whispers in the dark. I trust that soon it will feel as familiar as the front door that sticks when it rains, the grandfather’s clock from my father’s office chiming the hours, the sound of the dog’s snoring through the air vent in my studio. Any day now, my vocation will feel like home, too.”

MayBelle is happy to report that on this particular day in March 2021, she does feel more and more at home with how she makes her way in the world and what she tries to offer back to her fellow pilgrims. She understands now, more fully than ever, what Frederick Buechner said about vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Now MayBelle’s not meaning to say she’s meeting some great need in the world by helping people tell their stories. Just that she’s trying, and she’s content. She is, for one of the first times in her life, able to say “it is enough” and mean it.

MayBelle Gets Her Hairs Done

MayBelle has confronted her thin hair for decades now, so it doesn’t really bother her—not too much at least—when she catches glimpses of her scalp on a sunny day when the wind is up. It’s worse when you loom over her and look down at the top of her head, so please try not to do that. According to the Harvard Health Blog, at least one-third of women have thinning hair. (Notice MayBelle does not use the phrase “suffer with.”) MayBelle’s mother (pictured here) did, and her maternal grandmother, Eunice Eula, did too.

Thankfully, MayBelle has a lovely, old-school hairdresser who is familiar with hair that is less than luxurious. And the salon itself is cozy, not intimidating. Even MayBelle feels comfortable there. You are not offered kale smoothies or wine spritzers when you arrive, although you can usually score a Diet Coke. It is not decorated with expensive chandeliers or modern art. There is a sofa, and the magazines are current. You do not have to use an app to make an appointment. Before Covid, MayBelle would often see cars from area retirement communities dropping off women for their cuts and curls.

MayBelle knew Liz was the one for her when she was not greeted with a cry of alarm, or worse, pity, at their first meeting. Liz has kept MayBelle’s hair short enough to look fuller, and worked with MayBelle to find a “magic shampoo.” And she’s even okay with MayBelle’s going gray. 

Last week MayBelle went in for a sprucing up. Just as she was getting out of the chair and putting her sensible shoes on the floor, she heard Liz say, “Stop. I need to get that hair.”

Not a strange thing to hear from your hairdresser, so MayBelle sat back down and waited for Liz to get her shears or her little neck brush. Instead, Liz came for MayBelle’s chin.

“Got it,” said Liz, smiling. “I’d noticed that earlier and wanted to get it taken care of for you.”

During her mother’s later years on this earth, MayBelle would sometimes drive her around their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, on Sunday afternoons. They would drink iced tea from McAlister’s and talk about the old days. 

“Isn’t that where what’s her name used to live?” her mother might ask.

“Yes,” MayBelle would say. More often than not, she knew exactly which what’s her name her mother meant.

On several such occasions, just before her mother would get out of the car to return to the senior living community, MayBelle would grab her tweezers (she prefers Tweezerman), which she always keeps handy, and pluck any stray white hairs on her mother’s chin.

“Thank you,” her mother would say. “I can’t seem to take care of things like that myself anymore.”

MayBelle will most surely have her mother’s white, sparse hair one day, for hers is not only thin, but also thinning further as she ages. Down the road, as MayBelle winds it into a small bun and secures it with bobby pins before dinner at the retirement home, or while she wraps a scarf around her head before her niece comes to take her shopping, she will be reminded of the women kinfolk who have come before her. It will most likely make her self-conscious on occasion, but she’ll be fine.

Liz and MayBelle laughed about how their husbands never seem to notice their chin hairs.

“Precious told me I was beautiful one day and sent me out in the world with an inch-long white whisker poking straight out,” said MayBelle. “I’m surprised it didn’t leave a mark when he kissed me goodbye that morning.”

“My husband, too! He never seems to notice.”

Surely this makes them lucky, Liz and MayBelle, to have partners who consider them attractive regardless of how their bodies surprise them as they get older. Of course, it could mean that their husbands are not really looking at them. Or maybe, just maybe, it means they’re being seen by people who know where real beauty lies.

MayBelle Monday: On the Changing Nature of Retail Therapy

This is not a photo of MayBelle. It’s one that popped when she searched for “contentment” themed photos. MayBelle thinks this woman does, indeed, seem content. And MayBelle, who loves a hat her own self, has always wanted red hair. (Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com)

MayBelle knows that retail therapy is not often advised by counselors or therapists. Friends sometimes suggest it, thankfully. With Covid, MayBelle has not gotten out to shop much, which is actually a good thing as MayBelle all too often has shopped (and eaten) her feelings instead of processing them. She is working on that. She has, of course, made use of online ordering during these trying times. As a matter of act, MayBelle should this very day receive a long, blue sweater–oh the richness of the color!–from Anrthopologie. (Please make note that MayBelle paid less than half of the original price.)

She’s tried to be good, though, ordering mostly only what she needs, and absolutely no more than three books and two candles a week. She’s vowed to be more conscious about where her clothing comes from and has actually found a couple of good resources for funky clothing that is sustainably sourced and appropriate for someone who is quirky and middle-aged. (Bless her calcifying heart, MayBelle still thinks she’s in midlife.)

A memory: Years after she graduated from college (MayBelle knows that line should be, technically, “after she was graduated from college,” but MayBelle thinks that sounds awfully stilted.), MayBelle ran into a friend from those days who said, “We used to gather in the cafeteria to wait for you to walk by on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings after French 101 just to see what you were wearing.” MayBelle does not know if she should be flattered or humiliated.

Anyway, MayBelle couldn’t take it any longer last week, so she hopped out for a couple of quick errands. While tooling around, a dear friend called and asked what she was up to:

“I’m out doing some retail therapy,” MayBelle said. She could taste the glee in her voice, so happy was she.

“Oh!” said the friend. “What fun places have you been to?”

MayBelle paused for a few moments, wondering if she should tell a fib and say “Victoria’s Secret and Nordstrom, with a quick stop at the Tesla dealership,” but MayBelle never has shopped at Victoria’s Secret (well, maybe that one time….) and she long ago gave up shopping for clothes at places like Nordstrom when she found herself, seemingly irreversibly, ensconced in the land of size twelve. She drives a Subaru. And, most importantly, MayBelle does not like to fib unnecessarily.

“Er,” said MayBelle. “Um…the Office Depot and the Hallmark Store.”

“Wow,” said her friend. MayBelle did not hear the glee in her friend’s voice.

“I know,” said MayBelle, “but I got this fabulous office chair on sale and they put it together for me in under an hour and it’s in the back of my car right now. Oh! And some Christmas wrapping paper at seventy-five percent off.” MayBelle was practically hyperventilating she was so excited.

“Wow,” said her friend again.

They laughed about it, MayBelle and her friend, who happens to be a tad older than MayBelle and much, much hipper. And they both, in the end, knew they would take this kind of contentment any day of the week.

“MayBelle Monday”: On Being Highly Sensitive During Covid 19

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Sometimes MayBelle gets overwhelmed by the world. Pretty often, actually, and fairly easily. Like last month, when she saw a woman on the corner, this one with a sign that read, “Lost job. Can’t feed family. Anything will help.” MayBelle worried about that woman for days.

Or that time in 2002 when she forgot to invite someone to her wedding. Since she was forty at the time, she thinks her shock about the whole thing even happening affected her memory. But still, she feels bad about it.

It’s just MayBelle’s nature. “Highly sensitive,” she’s called. People shamed her about it when she was younger, and tried to alter her nature with such phrases as “don’t worry” and “calm down” and “stop crying.” Most often their judgment was stated with such simplicity and sternness that it could have been an historical fact passed down through the ages: “You’re too sensitive.”

Back in the early 1990s, when MayBelle moved to Nashville, she spent a lot of time in bookstores as she got to know her new town. One Sunday afternoon—MayBelle remembers the day clearly—she found a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron. There a few books that MayBelle can say actually changed her life. This is one of them. Never before had a “label” felt so right to MayBelle, someone who has spent most of her life trying to avoid such. And several years ago, when she found out she’s a four on the Enneagram—MayBelle likes to think of herself as a “flaming four” so individual does she try to be—she felt seen, and known, and understood in way she never thought possible. What a gift in allowing yourself to be categorized, which MayBelle fervently differentiates from being pigeon-holed. (Her favorite Enneagram folks are Richard RohrSuzanne Stabile, and Hunter Mobley.)

At fifty-eight, now MayBelle just goes with it: her sensitivity, her wonderings, her longings. All of it.

Being highly sensitive makes you a good friend, she thinks, as you’re hyperaware of what the people around you are going through. And you’re not scared of sitting with folks during their hard times. You can take it. And it fuels your creative work, what with being able to make something out of scraps and bits you pick up along the way. Discarded beauty others might overlook.

As you might imagine, MayBelle has been affected mightily by the pandemic. She’s been on high alert, you might say. And she’s spent more than a few minutes wondering how she might help, trying to figure out how one middle-aged goober could make a difference.

So she’s going back to the basics. MayBelle was pretty much raised by volunteers. By that she doesn’t mean that strangers came to her house in the afternoons to help her with her homework, only that her parents were often so busy doing good in the community that she felt, well, abandoned.

“We knew you could take care of yourself,” said her mother one day decades after the fact when MayBelle had the gall to complain about it. “It’s not like we left you out in the street as a toddler,” said her father, ever the pragmatist.

In addition to checking on her family and close friends, MayBelle decided that because she can’t save the world, maybe she can assist one person. Her “who” is a former co-worker who has had recent job struggles and doesn’t have any family nearby. Her “what” is calling to see what her friend might need. Her “when” is right now. And her “why” is because she can. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because her mother would want her to. Because she’s highly sensitive.

MayBelle Gets Schooled During the Pandemic

MayBelle has already learned a lot during the first ten or so days of this whatever this is we’re going through. To wit:

  • You can freeze bananas! Just as she was noticing the bananas on the kitchen counter turning brown, and wondering aloud to herself, “I wonder if you can freeze bananas,” one of her friends posed that same question on Instagram. Voila!
  • Facebook is not all bad. In fact, MayBelle is learning, dare she say it, to like Facebook. She’s been a naysayer for a while—sometimes it takes MayBelle longer to catch on than others—mainly because she can’t stomach the political vitriol. (Or the cat memes. Pluto the talking dog, though, that’s something MayBelle can get behind. Seriously, that dog makes MayBelle’s day.) Poor MayBelle can’t handle confrontation of any kind very well, if the truth be known. It’s one of her weakest points. If you yell at her about something, she’ll have a great comeback between six and eleven hours later, but in the moment the most she’ll be able to do is clam up. Or cry. And maybe tell you off in her mind.
  • Even middle-aged goobers can learn how to use Zoom. What an amazing, technological world it is out there, boys and girls. Look for MayBelle to start hosting something or another on Zoom in the near future. 
  • Taking the time to connect with people you’ve meant to get to know better is worth every minute. Through extending her reach just a tad, MayBelle has found another soul-sister; met a neighbor she’d never seen before even though they’ve both lived in the subdivision for more than a decade; formed a bond with a former student from her divinity school days; and been exposed to this fabulous YouTube video from The Moth, “About to Eat Cake”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_969XrYeuw4

Just think what else MayBelle might encounter before this is all over.

What are you discovering?

Food as Memory: Meals That Sustain Me

 

Firefly Grille in Nashville, Tennessee
My favorite neighborhood restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, has closed. I had many great meals–and have just as many great memories–from this lovely, quirky place: work lunches to Valentine’s Day dinners, celebrating a book deal to honoring friends on their birthdays. Thank you, Firefly Grille, for all the years of hosting me and mine.

Oftentimes, food is about more than nutrition. It can be about holidays, like the Thanksgiving my middle sister, Ginny, volunteered to make the dressing. Why she did so is a question I don’t think will ever be answered satisfactorily. Continue reading “Food as Memory: Meals That Sustain Me”

Learning to Wait: Walking the Dog as Contemplative Practice

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Norval takes a rest.

This is pretty much how our outings go. I move, Norval doesn’t. If he’s not sniffing, relieving himself, eating sticks, or barking at Gus the Goldendoodle, he’s most likely defying me. He knows he gets rewarded for “good walking,” so when he loses the mood, and he doesn’t see me reaching for the treats in my pocket, he simply plants himself. Dog as immovable object.

“No peanut butter crunchies, no walkie-walkie, Lady Who Thinks She’s in Control,” he seems to say.

“Spoiled,” offers a friend.

“Stubborn,” declares Precious.

Just as with some other concerns in my life, I need to adjust my thinking about this daily routine. For if I continue to focus on my frustration, we’ll never make any headway, the dog or me. If I see only what’s going wrong—dog not training as fast as I would like—I won’t notice what’s going just fine—dog making some progress and spring on its way.

Lately I’ve been feeling put upon, what with Precious being sick, and my books not being published. Granted, I haven’t written them yet, but several authors just had readings in town and I’m hooked on the acclaim and the accomplishment, not the hard work and the hustle.

So this morning, while Norval splayed himself on the pavement, I listened to the birds and admired the trees about to burst. I gave thanks to God for the progress Precious is making with his cancer treatments, and for my writing that has been published. I waved at the new neighbor, and wandered down memory lane upon seeing the forsythia on the corner, as that particular yellow always takes me straight back to Grandmother Lyles’ house on South Ninth Street in Oxford, Mississippi.

These are simple things, and they may sound hokey to you. But such small shifts led to my looking heavenward and saying a prayer, instead of cursing under my breath. They reminded me how adorable Norval is most of the time, and what he means to Precious and me. They convinced me that pulling on the leash was not the answer. Waiting was the answer. And so I did.

Eventually, Norval deigned to move, and we made it back home at our own pace, one paw in front of the other, with our behavior, and our gratitude, intact.

My Husband Has Cancer: Does It Matter What Kind?

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In the waiting room.

When I tell people my husband has been receiving treatment for cancer, many ask—almost reflexively—“What kind?”

After thoughtful consideration, much of it conducted in waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, and pharmacy lines, I’ve decided this is not the most appropriate, or helpful, response.

At fifty-seven, I am sometimes fixated on causes of death for folks my age and younger. Hoping, I guess, that I might avoid their fates if I just have the facts. Take a different route, get a second opinion, stop the unhealthy habit.

So I get it, the curiosity. I just don’t like it.

If the answer to the question “What kind of cancer?” turns out to be one of the more aggressive types, will you label my husband a goner? If it’s categorized as “lifestyle related,” will you condemn him?

Each time I’m asked this question, I’m taken back to occasions when I’ve inquired, or wondered, upon hearing such announcements from others. All the times I made assumptions. I hope I never do that again.

From where I sit now, in a chair beside my husband as he receives chemotherapy infusions or next to him on the couch as he rests after radiation, the only real question is, “What can I do?”

 

 

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