If You See Something, Say Something

up on the High Line in New York City.  Beauty amidst the crush of a big city.

Up on the High Line in New York City. Beauty amidst the crush of a big, sometimes dark city.

It’s 6:30 on a hot and humid August morning. My dogs, Sam and Max, are anxious to get back home, where Bill has their breakfast mixed and waiting for them. They’ve taken care of their “business” and I’m now awake and sweaty after a brisk walk and just as happy that in a few minutes I’ll be back in my air-conditioned abode.

As I turn the corner toward home I notice an old car parked facing out into the street in a driveway to my left. I don’t know the people who live there, but I walk these streets every day and have never seen this aged, black Volvo station wagon before. As I get closer I see its dings and dents, and someone sitting in the drivers seat. The car isn’t parked next to the other cars much further up the driveway and close to the house. This one sits right at the edge of the road as if it’s ready to make a quick get-a-way.

I live in one of Charlottesville’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods. The streets are lined with stately tree and in the spring the yards are filled with a riot of color with azaleas, forsythia, Chinese magnolia, dogwood, redbuds, and cherry trees blooming one right after another. Most, if not everyone who lives here feels safe and loves our little community here in the gulch, tucked between several hills.

It’s a 1950’s kind of of a neighborhood. When they’re not in school kids of all ages are out playing together, riding bikes, or shooting baskets without being looked after by overly doting parents. Occasionally a police van drives slowly through the area and though we hear of an occasional nearby car break-in, we who live here, are trusting and don’t live in fear.

This morning there is no one else about except that person in the car. The sun is up and the birds are singing, but it seems that most people are still sacked out or sipping coffee as they read the morning paper. I wonder who that person is in that car and what his business is.

As I pass in front of the car, I notice what looks like the long barrel of a rifle pointing out into the street from the front passenger seat. But I think nothing of it … until I’m about to turn the next corner and begin to feel a rush of adrenalin coursing through my body. I run home, dragging the dogs behind me, who now if they had their way, would stop to sniff every blade of grass we pass.

I tell Bill about what I saw. He says we should call the police, but we look at each other and agree that there must be a rational explanation for the car, the man, and the “rifle.” We’re both thinking, Bad things just don’t happen here.

Brave and brazen, Bill decides to drive around the block to see what’s up. When he returns a few minutes later, he comes in smiling. He tells me that when he drove by the scene of what I now think was all my imagination, the man was out of his car, unloading tree trimming tools. The gun barrel I saw was a long pole he was about to use to trim the neighbors trees.

I was relieved but still distressed and shaken to my core. I’ve suddenly seen my own neighborhood in the shadow of the violence that seems to fill the headlines on a daily basis in this country. That we live in a time when we must be continuously reminded that if we see something suspicious, we must say something, is nothing short of discouraging and often depresses me.

Whether we know it or not, we live in two worlds; the world of home and community where we feel comfortable and safe, and the world we read about or view on tv, in which innocent children and every day good citizens, some whose jobs are to protect us, are shot down for no reason at all. And we can’t always be sure which world we’re in during any given moment.

Had we called the police about the tree trimmer, how would I have felt to learn that he was just an innocent man, getting ready to do his job, but first having a smoke and finishing the last drops of his morning coffee before unloading his tools? I would have felt like a jerk and been kicking myself in the butt.

But how would I have felt if someone in my neighborhood was shot and killed because I never reported what I saw to the police, refusing to believe that bad things could ever happen here?

I know horrific events can and do happen anywhere. And yes, we must say something if we see something that disturbs us and could be harmful to ourselves and other people. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

But constantly being on guard and ready to speak out about the things that frighten or anger us, can make our days darker and our anxiety levels sky rocket.

Perhaps we could grow our awareness, our sense of reality, and stem the tide of anxiety and depression if we also spoke out about the beautiful things we see around us.

Perhaps if the next time we witness an awe inspiring sunset or a person doing good deeds benefiting all creatures and point it out to everyone around us, we can spread the notion that indeed we live in a wonderful world. By sharing the goodness as well as the badness, we can all be happier and live more fulfilling lives. Reality is both frightfully horrible and outrageously wonderful.

We can soften the blow of the horrible by recognizing the beauty that surrounds us.

Writing Memoir Is A Mixed Bag


Check out my guest post on Madeline Sharples, blog, Choices.

It’s about the difficulties of writing the hard stuff and the final reward of being able to see life in a new way.

Renovating Life

IMG_0997It’s begun!  At 8 yesterday morning the crew arrived to start our much needed home renovations.  Bill and I spent the weekend, scurrying around getting the last of the kitchen items packed up and asking ourselves, “What the hell have we done? Couldn’t we have gotten along just fine with the way things were?”

The answer to the first question is that we’re trying to be practical and do some self-care by making our home more comfortable and safe for us to live in.  The answer to the second question is “yes” and “no.”  Sure we could have let it be and not go through having our house torn up.  As a kid I constantly lived in a construction zone, as my father was an architect and a home builder.  For me the sound of saws and hammers trigger old grumpiness and the victimhood I’ve worked on so hard to eliminate from my life.  Who would want to revisit that?

But on the other hand to do nothing about the hard stone floor in the kitchen would make my back problems worse than they currently are. It’s an uneven surface and both of us have tripped numerous times almost landing on our heads.  We’re having it torn out and are putting in a hardwood floor which will brighten things up and make going barefoot much more comfortable.

In our quest to simplify our lives and get organized we’re also adding built-ins to what we call the sunroom.  On this house built in 1935, it was at one time an outdoor patio just off the kitchen. It was closed in by a former owner. It’s been our mud room, a place to hang coats, and I’ve had odd pieces of furniture in there to house my collection of cookbooks and excess kitchen gadgetry.  But when we’re done it will all be one piece with everything hidden behind cabinet doors with a place for everything … and everything in its place.

We’re also moving the laundry room upstairs from the basement. It will be located in what is currently a small powder room and hallway, just outside of our first-floor bedroom.  I won’t have to lug baskets of laundry up and down stairs any more, which again increases the risk of falling. The stairs are steep and dark.

If it sounds like we’re a bit paranoid about falling, well, we are. Though we’re both in pretty good shape, we’re aging and more aware than ever that a fall could set us back in how we spend the rest of our lives. It was all brought home to us a week ago today when Bill fell in a bathtub/shower in the hotel we were staying in, while visiting Colonial Williamsburg. He got up early, wanting to be ready to hit the road and get back home.  I was just waking up. I heard the crash and found him on his back in the tub. He’d slipped on the sudsy floor.  He hit the faucet and it came off the wall.  He had scrapes and bruises but seemed fine as he got up.  It wasn’t until a few minutes later that pain began developing in his chest and we realized he had bruised or broken ribs.

Off to the emergency room we went for X-rays and meds for the growing pain. Fortunately nothing was broken … only some bad bruising. We both realized he could have been hurt more seriously or could have died.  So yes, we must do this renovation in order to take care of ourselves now. And it isn’t just us aging folks who fall. Since Bill’s unhappy event last week we’ve met other, much younger people who’ve fallen in bathtubs and showers …  dangerous places when you have soap in your eyes.

The midget tub.

The midget tub.

The final change will be adding a soaking tub to our master bathroom, which actually is leaving me trembling a bit.  We’ll need to use caution getting in and out. The tub we now have is an adorable claw foot tub built for a midget.  I love a good hot soak on very cold days and the midget tub is too small for me.  The floor in our new tub has a non-skid surface and we’ll have sturdy hand bars on the wall to hang onto as we get up and out of the bath.

I don’t quite understand why most of us are so averse to change. It is the only certain thing in life. For me the new technologies of the day are wondrous yet a pain in the backside to learn. But the seasons change, time marches on, and one day we find ourselves somewhere we never expected to be. We’re always searching for the place where the grass is greenest, where we are happiest, and life is easy.  Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we don’t.

Living a life is very much like renovating a house. In order to get what we want and need, we must take action, risk being wrong, and live uncomfortably while things are being rearranged. I find renovating a home much easier than renovating my mind. In the long run, however, they are both necessary and very much worth the struggle.

Shouldering My Shoulds

DSCF0623A few days ago as I was working on my memoir, I wrote, “Though he has broad shoulders, I should not lean on them as much as I do.”  Seeing the words “shoulder” and “should,” just one word apart from each other stopped me in my tracks. They are words with different meanings. Their spelling is alike, except for the “er” in shoulder.  And they are very much related, especially in the way we use them today.

I  looked up the meaning and origin of each word. According to the Merrriam-Webster Dictionary, the word should comes from “the middle English word, sholde and the Old English word sceolde.”  One of its many uses is “in auxiliary function to express obligation, propriety, or expediency.”

Shoulder on the other hand “in Middle English is sholder from Old English sculdor; akin to Old High German scultra.”  We of course know it to mean the part of the body between the neck and the tops of our arms. It can also mean to carry a burden or to push through.

I first heard the expression, “Don’t should on me,” years ago at one of the first Alanon meetings I went to.  Dealing with my mother’s alcoholism and another family member’s drug habits, I went to those meetings to find my way through the maze of how to live my own life while being a family member with concerns about my loved ones. My mother-in-law had also been an alcoholic when she was alive and I’d successfully made her into my worst enemy by telling her that if she really loved her son and her new grandson, she shouldn’t drink.

It was years before I learned that “should” doesn’t mean anything when it comes to addiction, whether it’s to alcohol, heroin, or food.  Addiction is a disease that is genetic and runs in families.  It is a biological urge that is difficult, if not impossible to overcome.

I have always been a “shoulder.” Should is a frequent part of my speech no matter who I’m talking to, and especially when it comes to myself. “I should go to the gym four times a week, I shouldn’t eat too much dessert, and I should be more patient,” are always on the tip of my tongue. It was a family pattern I grew up with. I was constantly being told I should or shouldn’t, as in “You shouldn’t be seeing that boy. You should be seeing someone closer to your own age.”

I’ve also been one big “shoulder.” I’ve carried a lot of stuff belonging to other people on my shoulders so that they would feel less pain. I’ve always hated watching people, especially my family and innocent creatures like dogs, cats, and horses suffer. So in order to keep those I love from painful predicaments I often try to carry their baggage for them. When it came to my parents, I was their go-between when they fought. I became the family “fixer” who knew just what to say to calm everyone else down, while I broke apart from the weight.

I’ve been known for taking the reins when someone falls off their horse and lies on the ground broken and in pain. I took my mother in during her last years, caring for her as best as I could, often at my own emotional expense. I know now that I shouldn’t be carrying anyone else’s baggage but my own. But it’s still a tendency and I’m working hard at being less prone to that way of life.  I’m being fairly successful, though now and then I find it particularly difficult to pass up taking in a stray dog or cat.

The pinched nerve in my neck/shoulder area is almost 100% better. I think it had something to do with a should.  The one in which I said I should have my first draft done by October first.  Well, it’s not going to happen and that’s fine by me. I’m learning to listen to my body when it tells me what I should and shouldn’t be doing.

Are you a “shoulder?”  If so, what makes you want to take on the weight of the world?

On Being Hit Over The Head With A Two-By-Four

Chippy and Mildred Blaming the dogs for my broken leg was never an option.

Chippy and Mildred
Blaming the dogs for my broken leg was never an option.

Every now and then when I’m moving through life at too fast a clip and I think I have all of my problems licked, the Universe sends me a BIG, HARD message.  I liken it to being hit over the head with a two-by-four.

It happens when I haven’t been paying attention to the many small hints I’m sent on a fairly regular basis. When I listen and act on what my “gut” is telling me I do okay. And for the most part, I pay attention and take the advice I’m sent seriously. When my head is drooping and I can’t keep my eyes on the screen, I know it’s time to turn the computer off and go for a walk … or take a nap … or pull a few weeds in the garden.  When “something” tells me I need to go in a different direction than the one I insist on, I need to listen.  If I take too long catching on to what is being suggested, the two-by-four comes out.  And it’s usually in the form of a health problem.

The first time it happened was a long time ago in the late 70’s, on a January first. I had been pissing and moaning about how I hated New Years and what a boring day it was.  I was glad the the old year was gone, but I was hoping for a year filled with all kinds of excitement. I hated looking back at what looked to me like an uninteresting life. I was hoping the big calendar shift would bring some exciting new thing to get me up and moving toward something big and bright that would peak my interest and the passion that I’d been missing for a while.

At the time, life was a mishmash of being a mother, a wife, a daughter and whatever else came my way.  What ever it was didn’t matter, as long as I was busy and time passed quickly. I was stuck, overextended, and not appreciating the small things in life that one day turn out to be big deals.

Just moments after bemoaning the dullness of the cold and sunless day, I heard my two dogs, Mildred and Chippy, having a knock-down-drag-out fight out in the field in front of my house.  I envisioned major injuries and blood loss.  Without thinking, I ran like hell down the driveway to break them up, forgetting that there was a cattle guard between me and the dogs.  By the time I realized what was ahead of me it was too late to stop.  One leg landed between concrete piers and I heard a snap.  There was no pain at first, but I knew I was in trouble.  Both bones in my lower right leg were broken and I was in a cast of one kind or another for four months.  If I thought life was boring before the event, it was really bad afterwards.

I got the excitement I wished for, but it was the wrong kind. Within the dark clouds over my head was that often spoken of and highly celebrated silver lining in the form of time. Time not only to heal a damaged leg, but also time to think about where I’d been and where I was going. I changed a whole lot things and became a better person.

The second time it happened was three and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer.  I had recently lost both my mother and brother to cancer. I was scared out of my mind. I’d been hoarding all sorts of raw, hateful feelings toward both my mother and my brother. I felt broken and unhappy, wondering what would happen next.  Surgery removed all of the cancer and brought the promising prognosis that in all likelihood it would not return.

Again, my gift was time. Over the days, I figured out that I needed a major make-over.  Not a new hair style, makeup and wardrobe kind of makeover, but a new way of looking at life and recognizing the lessons that keep coming my way. Since then I’ve worked hard learning about love, forgiveness, and my own ugly warts. And since I started writing about my my healing journey with my mother, I’m feeling like a new person.

That is until three and half weeks ago when the unimaginable pain of a pinched nerve set me back from the self-imposed deadline of having the first draft done by October first.  For a full week all I could do was stay in bed.  I felt as though I couldn’t hold my head up, and the excruciating pain radiated from my neck down into my left arm and into the palm of my hand.  Working at the computer was impossible.  During the second week the pain lessened but I was told that sitting all day in front of the computer screen, writing my book was the most likely cause of the problem.

In my rush to get that first draft done, I’d forgotten to take care of myself in other ways.  I’d decided not to travel over the summer, became a recluse, and kept on writing.  I wasn’t exercising enough and even my usually healthy diet took a hit. That’s all well and good for some I suppose, but for me those were the wrong decisions.  I was lonely and wanted to get out of here.

I need more socializing than I thought I did and the continual revisiting of dark days in the past wore me down. Something was going to give, one way or another. It seems more than a coincidence that this problem in my left shoulder and arm happened as I was writing chapters about my mother’s last few months of life, when she broke both her left shoulder and her left femur.  I considered them among the worst days of my life.  Is it so surprising that I was having these symptoms as I relived them?

So again, I’m being taught something and am surrendering to the lessons.  I continue to write a little bit every day, but it can only be for an hour or so. Within that hour I’m supposed to get up and move about every thirty minutes.  I’m seeing a physical therapist, doing lots of stretching, and there is an MRI in the works. But my pain in the neck, shoulder, and arm has given me plenty of time to read and get caught up on filing, and rethinking how this person needs to go about her work.

I am being given the gift of time once again. Time to work more slowly and deliberately, in order to get out the best story I can tell.  Before my pinched nerver,  I was rushing through the darkness so that I could get out from under the clouds.  Now I’m taking both the light and darkness together, slowing down and paying attention to where I am.  It feels so much better.