A Random Cardinal

These days, there is always some random something lurking around every twist in the road that can flip the switch that allows grief to flood through me like a downpour.

Today, as I drove home from work, it was a cardinal that flew in front of my car as I navigated down the same street I drive every day. In fact, I was enjoying the routine of the drive. I was relishing the late afternoon light brought in by the weekend’s time change. I was enjoying the snow-less ground with its brown grass and scattered leaves left over from autumn, as it seemed it would be only hours before the landscape is once again buried under the heavy weight of winter’s last hurrah. (It’s almost spring, I have to remind myself. It won’t last long.)

But then it appeared—the cardinal. The vivid red bird flew across my path, dipping slightly as it crossed the road and disappeared into a row of bushes. My breath caught as I was simultaneously reminded that spring is near and that Dad is not. He would have noticed that bird before I did. “Look, at that cardinal!” he’d say, pointing. Sometimes it would be an oriole, or a bluebird, or a redwing blackbird. He always had a keen, birds-eye view that spotted them first.

It was that bird that brought the tears today—a random cardinal on a sunny Monday at the end of winter. While spring may bring the promise of new life and increased light, the newness will be intertwined with a million more random somethings just waiting to slip in and spark the grief anew.

{Image credit: FreeImages.com / Mike Munchel}

Snow Day Hyperbole

 

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Tuesday was a snow day for us. When I woke up in the morning, the radio mentioned school cancellations, but I was half asleep and didn’t believe it. Through my five a.m. fog, I reached for my iPad, pulled up the local television station website, and scrolled through the cancellations. Sure enough, our town had cancelled school. The town in which I work had also cancelled school, though there was nothing yet from the university.

I stumbled to the kids’ rooms in the dark to turn off their alarms, trying my best not to disturb them more than necessary. I went back to bed, armed with my phone to take the “alert” calls that would inevitably come. Nowadays, it is so easy to tap into the school cancellation list, and with multiple schools and school districts involved, that can be a good thing.

But later that morning, when I finally looked outside, we had about two inches of snow. Two inches. And a snow day? Clearly, this must have been an oversight on someone’s part. A day off means, the kids will have an extra day tacked on to the end of the school year. Sigh.

In a text to my sister, I told her I suspected the world had grown wimpier since we were kids. I remember schlepping through snow up to my thighs (though I will admit, I was a bit shorter then) to get to school. Occasionally, my boot would become lodged in a snow crater when I tried to step, and I would have to reach my arm all the way into my leg-long footprint to retrieve it. Once, a storm closed school for two consecutive days, but that was a memorable spring storm one April when winter was supposed to be over. That storm dumped three feet of snow, and I can still tap into the feeling of wonder and excitement I had walking through the labyrinth of shoveled pathways.

On days when the world seems wimpier than in years past, I tend to become one of those parents, just like my parents before me, and their parents before them. You know the ones I mean…. Back in my day when life was simpler, we trudged through three feet of snow every day to get to school. Maybe it was a two-mile walk to get there. And it was definitely uphill both ways. And maybe it was 10° below zero every day during the winter because back then, it was commonly believed we were entering the next Ice Age.

Or maybe—just maybe—I tell hyperbolic stories because here in northern New England, a snow day for two inches of snow feels ridiculous, and it’s not something responsible adults feel the need to encourage.

And even though my children roll their eyes at my stories, there is no doubt that 20 or 30 years from now, they will be telling their own hyperbolic childhood stories to their own children, their nieces and nephews, their students. Because this…. this is the way we express to the next generation that we think they are getting too soft around the edges and too wimpy in the middle. And this is the way we let them know that maybe, just maybe, things aren’t quite as bad as they like to believe.

Seeking Inspiration

I am trying to write. Something funny, something creative, something inspiring. but my mind is overworked, active day and night as it deals with life and loss and moving forward. I am looking for inspiration and something to sink my words into. And then there was this:

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Hardly an invitation to creativity.

This book appears to be as uninspiring as any book I have seen, despite the claim on its cover. I am wondering about the conversation in the design room the day this book was being completed. “Hey Boss, I need a cover for this textbook on creativity….”

“Yeah. It’s a textbook. Make it look like one.”

“But Boss, it’s a handbook. Of creativity. Shouldn’t it be fun? Creative, maybe?”

“Nah. It’s a textbook. Make it look like a textbook. Throw some color on it if you want.”

Hmm.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some much more appealing textbooks. I’ve seen some downright fun textbooks. Most even have pictures or designs on the front cover. Just because a book is designed for learning doesn’t mean it has to be boring. In fact, a splash of color on the cover might make the reader more excited to read this book. I know that for me, the appeal of the cover definitely affects my interest in a book, but apparently, this is a centuries old debate, as indicated by the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” You know, the whole first impression thing….

But then I have to wonder why it is that we are so quick to judge based on what’s on the outside. There is much information held within the pages of this book. The fact that the cover is dry and stilted and downright uncreative is of little import to the material contained within the book. It just seems to me that a handbook on creativity should be… well… CREATIVE.

But I am trying to creative-ize my mind and clear the fog that has been hovering there. Perhaps the words of this book might inspire me. Or maybe they’ll serve to distract me just enough that creativity can slip back in.

Changing views

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Yesterday, I was having coffee with my boyfriend, and we were planning a future day-trip to Boston. Because of my daughter’s art and her interest in art supplies, I suggested to my parents that they give her a gift card to Blick Art, a place where she has never been but I have (and love!). The main point of our trip will be to visit this amazing artists’ supply store, an awesome excursion for both my daughter and myself. And my boyfriend—he’s a trouper for coming along with us!

We looked at dates and other possible activities, and I pulled up the bus schedule. Sometimes, we take the train into the city, and other times, we drive part way and take the T in. However, because it’s winter, we decided this time, we will take the bus. That way, we won’t have to worry about navigating the narrow, snow-clogged streets. Or parking. And we can relax on the journey.

We chatted and planned, and I began to reminisce about the times I traveled into Boston with my sister when I was a teenager. My parents would take us to the “bus station” in our small town (really, it was just a glorified bus stop) early in the morning, so we could catch the first bus. From my hometown, it is a 2½ hour bus ride into Boston. My sister and I—and sometimes a friend or two—would spend the better part of the day in the city, sightseeing, shopping, and grabbing a bite to eat. Then, we would catch the last bus home, arriving close to 11:00 pm.

In those days, there were no cell phones, and no way to keep in touch or check in. It is possible that we made a quick collect call home from a payphone just to say we had made it to the city, but the specific memories are foggy. I just remember I was in high school, and this was a great adventure.

As I reminisced, I thought about putting my own children on a bus for such a day trip. Would I be content to let them go? Were we more “worldly” than the children of today? My children have cell phones and would be able to check in with me on such a trip.

I looked up from the bus schedule and said, “Is the world really that different—,” and my boyfriend opened his mouth to answer. But I continued….

“—or are we?”

He paused and closed his mouth. He looked at me, and didn’t say anything for a moment. “You know,” he said, “I really don’t know. That last part… I don’t know.”

Perhaps we have been jaded by what the world has become. The constant deluge of media focuses on what is wrong with the world. It plays and replays and replays the same stories of violence, death, and destruction with graphic images and videos until we believe that we are doomed. At the same time, we have become accustomed to constant contact, not only with our children, but with our spouses and partners, our families, our friends, and even our acquaintances.

Maybe the world really hasn’t changed as much as we like to think. Maybe… just maybe… we—along with our views and expectations—are the things that have changed the most.

The Things that are Missing…

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At that university where I work, I meet with student writers from all walks and backgrounds. I mainly meet with undergraduate writers, but I also work with students who are professionals in the midst of careers—returning to school for professional development or to get a degree. And then there are the graduate students who range in age from 22 to 92.

Recently, I met with a woman who was an acquaintance of mine in a former iteration of my life—years ago when I was single and worked a different job. She is in a demanding graduate program, she works full time, and she deals with the every day stresses and curve-balls of life that we all deal with.

She was struggling. Her professor had told her that her final essay could end her participation in the program; she was under more pressure than usual, and she was taking it out on herself. Briefly, she let me in on the frustrations she had with the class—the only class in which she had struggled in the program thus far. Now, she felt the need to put exactly the right words on the page, which is never good for the writing process; she was over-editing because she felt under-confident.

I asked her how many classes she had completed in the program. Seven. And then I reminded her that she had seen me two years earlier—when she had first started her program—feeling almost exactly the same way. And I reminded her that she hadn’t seen me since. “What is it about these two classes that stripped you of your confidence?” I asked her.

Her response had nothing to do with school. She mentioned the loss of a loved one several years earlier; the holiday season without that person; the stresses of her work; a birthday celebration that needed to happen in the midst of everything else. And the pressure to finish this one last paper.

Often at this time of the year, we are too able to focus on what’s missing. The longing for what is missing blurs the present and what we have. And sometimes, we don’t even consciously recognize that we are struggling with loss or stress or the need to be everything to everyone.

And so I say this: be gentle with yourself, not just at this time of year, but always. You are not alone. We are all in this together. Chances are, if you are willing to say, “You know what? I am struggling today,” someone will step in to offer support and to lift you up.

My Soundtrack

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Today’s blog prompt asks, what would be on a mix tape of my life? And so I thought about it. Long and hard, I thought.

I thought about my life: Single mother with three kids, two jobs, three cats. Running all the time just to keep up with everything that needs to be done, picking up everything that needs to be put back in place. Catching the things that fall before they land. Stocking the fridge so no one complains, there’s nothing to eat! Sweeping the dust, drying the tears, pulling the weight. Juggling all the balls that are in the air, even when someone tosses in a new one. Remembering the details before someone else forgets them. Always on my toes. Chaotic.

And then it dawned on me. Of course, my life soundtrack would be completely instrumental. Because there are no words to describe my life. Truly, there are no words.

The Best Gift

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My grandmother loved to laugh. She had a bit of a silly sense of humor, which we first began to notice as children, when she made us birthday cakes on which she placed “trick” candles—the kind that we couldn’t blow out.

As I grew older, she would give me gag gifts. These were usually things she came across as she was cleaning out her house. One of the most memorable (because it went back and forth several times) was a crocheted miniature chair that she boxed up, wrapped, and addressed to me from “Nobody.” We had some fun with that chair, including the time I reupholstered it (in the same material she had just used to cover a chair in her home) and gave it back.

In my mind, the best gift I ever gave my grandmother was the silliest and the simplest. It was her birthday, and if my math and memory are right, I believe she was turning 90.

Now, if you have any 90-year-olds in your life, you know they really don’t need much. So I thought long and hard about what I might do for her. And finally, I knew what I would do. I went out and bought a mylar balloon that said, “Happy Birthday!” I put it in a cardboard box, sealed it up, and addressed it to her. In the spot for the return address, I wrote, “Nobody.”

When the package arrived at her house, my aunt handed it to her to open. “There’s nothing in this box!” she chided. “It’s empty!” But (thankfully) she went through the motion of opening it, anyway.

When she pulled open the flaps of the box, the single balloon floated to the ceiling. According to my aunt, my grandmother laughed and laughed and laughed. As my aunt went about her business that day, she would hear my grandmother start laughing all over again.

That was truly the best gift I ever gave. It was also the simplest and probably one of the cheapest—a single balloon in a box. But what I really gave my grandmother that day was the gift of laughter. And in return, I received a memory that I will cherish forever.

[image credit: FreeImages.com/John evans]