Tuesday, December 29, 2009

That Kind of Person

I believe we all look “our best” when we’re happy or when we’re doing something we love. Think about it . . . When do you look your best?

That Kind of Person

“I wouldn’t think you’re that kind of person,” said my classmate Erin*, as we walked to her pick-up truck in the college parking lot.

I just told her how I envied her truck, and how much I missed my Subaru Forester, which was perfect for hauling straw, plants, small trees, mulch, dirt, and bags of manure.

A gourmet blend of pig, cow, and horse manure was the gift she fetched me from the back of her truck. The plastic bag in which it was stored looked sturdy, albeit a tad messy. I thanked her and as I walked toward my brand new Hyundai Accent, I remembered with relief the sheet of plastic in the trunk. I pondered how to wrap the bag in that plastic, and disregarded the swinging heft of the bag at my side. It brushed my leg. I was horrified to see a two-inch brownish smear on my pants. “Oh, no!” I moaned. “I might not look like someone who loves dirt and other earthy things, but I’m sure going to smell like it.”

I stowed the manure in the trunk and left it open. Forty-five minutes remained until my next class and I usually spent my break studying in the car, so I opened the windows. I got the hand sanitizer from my purse and poured it on my pants leg. I used tissues to scrub the sanitizer onto the manure smear until only a wet spot remained. I tried to study, but the rapid onset of OCD required that I check my pants leg every two minutes. When I was certain the manure was gone, I went to my next class.

I approached my seat and right as I sat down, a young woman in the row behind me said, “There’s always such an odd odor in this room.” I felt the blood drain from my face and I scanned my pants leg for the ninety-eighth time. There was nothing. But did it smell? The two students who sat on either side of me didn’t recoil after taking their seats and treated me as they always had, so I figured the air was clear.

The air in my car, however, reeked when I was ready to leave campus. I opened the windows and kept them open. When I got home, I wrapped the manure bag in the sheet of plastic and carried it to the compost pile.

Moments after I walked inside, Rosie and Deek, my Black Lab-Coon hound mix dogs, raced to me and pressed their noses to my left leg. “If there’s manure on me, I’ll drop out of school,” I decided. Relief washed over me when I remembered the dogs know if I’ve even been near another animal. They could smell manure through the hand-sanitizer-cleaned spot, but that didn’t mean anyone else could, “odd odor” comment aside.

I reflected on what Erin said earlier. What did she mean by saying she wouldn’t think I was “that kind of person”? How would that kind of person look? Surely I must look a bit like someone who hauls gardening supplies in her car. Don’t I look like someone who is thrilled to receive a bag of gourmet poo? I admitted I don’t—at least to my classmates. While attending school, I tried to look not so much like a professional, but at least like an adult. I wore stylish jeans and blouses and make-up every day. I even put on jewelry, and although I didn’t fix my hair, it was always clean and tucked neatly into a clip.

I checked a recent photo, and, no, I don’t look much like a person who loves dirt and manure. When I play in the dirt (also known as gardening), I don’t resemble the woman who arrives for a 7:30 a.m. class wearing Gap jeans and Ann Taylor blouses.

When I dress to play in the dirt, my grown-up clothes stay in the closet, make-up stays in its case, and my favorite gold bracelet stays on the bathroom counter. I put on sunscreen, I clip my hair back, I slide Levi’s over my hips and a T-shirt over my head, and I slide functional socks and shoes over my feet.

After I’ve been outside playing for even a short time, I’m hot, tired, sweaty, and thirsty. There’s dirt in every pore of exposed skin and ground into my knees through the fabric of my jeans. But I feel bliss, and I feel blessed. And I bet I look like “that kind of person.”

During her senior year in high school, my daughter Chelsea took a 35 mm photography class. She crept up to me one day when I had been gardening for several hours. I was on my knees in a flowerbed, covered in dirt, and spreading manure and compost. Click, click, click, click went the shutter.

“Chelsea, why don’t you take pictures of me when I’m at my best?” I wailed.

She gave me a quick scan, smiled, and said, “You are at your best.”

* Name has been changed.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Cup of Joe Joy!

“Mom! You agreed to keep this cup in the cabinet, so it won’t get broken,” Chelsea said.

“Yes, I did,” I said. Nonetheless, in a small act of defiance, I put Chelsea’s cup on the counter next to another Christmas mug. It was early December and because I’m decorating (and shopping) challenged, I thought a few visible holiday items might remind me to acknowledge the season, and perhaps even prepare for it.

Chelsea’s cup has a rather ordinary Christmas snow scene of evergreens and two snowmen. It’s unremarkable except for one thing: Chelsea’s cherished friend Ina gave her the cup. Chelsea and Ina met when they attended a prospective member’s group at our church. Although forty years separated their ages, Chelsea and Ina became fast friends in only a few weeks. In time, they developed a close, loving relationship.

However, there wasn’t enough time. About eighteen months after Chelsea and Ina met, Ina lost her ten-year battle with ovarian cancer. Ina was loved by so many that the outpouring of grief was palpable. Chelsea and hundreds of others, myself included, were devastated that Ina would no longer celebrate life with them.

And how Ina celebrated life! Her motto was: “Don’t let anything steal your joy.” She lived, breathed, and laughed that motto. Ina was a beacon of joy to everyone. She also was hilarious. Ina’s memorial service featured dozens of photos of her picking her nose, wearing wigs and costumes, and being even more zany than Lucille Ball.

Because the two of them were so close, I know Chelsea has other gifts from Ina tucked away and she will keep and cherish them as she does the mug. Most gifts are inanimate objects, yet some almost become animated in our feelings toward them. Such treasured gifts represent so much more than the item’s shape, weight, design, and color. People visiting my home likely think the porcelain lemons on my bookcase are ugly but are too polite to point out what I already know: They are ugly. However, each person’s perception of my lemons changed after I told them the lemon story. A woman to whom I showed compassion when she was near an emotional breakdown gave me the lemons to express her appreciation. I look beyond the chunky porcelain arrangement of lemons and see her gratitude—as do others when they know the origin of my lemons.

Chelsea sees beyond the evergreen snow scene on the Christmas cup. She sees a beloved friend. She feels blessed by the friendship, for the too-short time in her life that Ina touched and shared.

I, too, have many such objects—the ones I hide away because I don’t want them broken or scratched or marred or torn. But the act of safekeeping often means I’m deprived of and forget each item’s intrinsic love. I’m reminded only when I pack or clean or declutter. I’ll spy something, that love springs to life, and I once again feel joy. Sometimes I feel sadness and loss. But the joy comes first. In many ways, I steal my own joy because I hide it away in a box or a bag or a drawer.

So, yes, I left the Chelsea/Ina Christmas cup on the counter. During this season, we won’t hide that cup’s love. Chelsea can drink coffee or cocoa or tea in her cup and feel more than the simple sweet liquid warmth, she can feel her joy—feel Ina’s joy.