Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"You're Walking Out on Me!"

You’re Walking Out on Me!”
Cars pull right up to the rooms at the motel. Only a sidewalk separates parking from the door to Room 3, where we stayed. It’s a small-town, South Georgia motel, maybe fifty years old, so the rooms also are small but have enough space for a coffeemaker, microwave, and mini-fridge. It was clean and comfortable, although the walls are thin—thin enough that we heard the couple in the room next door yelling for several hours the evening we were there.
“You’re walking out on me!” in the woman’s desperate voice is all I remember, having crushed my ears between pillows to stifle the sound of the couple arguing. I knew they were young because I spoke to the husband/father the night before. I couldn’t tell his exact age because the light was poor, but I could tell that he had no or few teeth and he used a cane that didn’t help his serious difficulty walking. As I spoke to him, his children, aged maybe four and two years old, played on the sidewalk. I told him about the wedding I’d attended in the tiny town near Moody Air Force Base, and that my granddaughter’s groom was in the Air Force, although not stationed there. He said he was from a military family and considered joining himself before his “accident.”
The motel is the only lodging for twenty miles and it was two days before Christmas, so I asked if he was traveling, and he said no, that they were local and had been staying with family, but were “taking a break.” His wife came out of the room and left the door open, so I saw two bottles of whiskey on the table next to the door. I also saw the tiny room had only one king-sized bed, not much space for two adults and two children. She didn’t say much and after getting what I needed from the car, I returned to our room.
Not long after I tucked myself into bed after a long day of driving from South Florida and attending a joyous wedding, the loud voices started. I spent far too much time growing up hearing voices similar to the ones coming through the wall, so I knew they were drunk. If I’d tried to listen, I might have a more interesting story to tell, but all I remember is the repeated refrain of, “You’re walking out on me!” After an hour or so, the voices got quiet, and I slept. Some time during the night, I heard the unmistakable sounds of someone throwing up.
When I woke the next morning, all was quiet. It was Christmas Eve and we had a six-hour drive ahead of us, so my sister and I wanted to leave early. The car was almost packed when the door to the room next to us opened and the young man came out. He looked awful—as one does when the preceding night involves drinking and loud voices.
I made another trip to the room and returned to the car. As I did, the woman came out of her door. She, too, looked awful. I said “Good morning,” almost at a whisper and placed the last of my things in the car. I went back to the room for a final check and then walked outside.
I wanted to say something to the couple. Something not very helpful, like: “What are you doing? It’s Christmas Eve and you’re staying in a tiny motel. You have two small children who heard your fight loud and clear last night. You were so drunk that one of you threw up. You’re young, you have the years to turn this around, to make changes, to stop drinking, to stop fighting, to see that life has much to offer each of you.”
I didn’t say those things or anything similar. Instead, in a quiet voice, I said, “Merry Christmas.” One of them mumbled “Thank you,” but neither looked in my direction. I got in the car and we drove away.
That couple stayed with me even though I’m probably no longer in their memory. And for the brief time they considered me, they may have thought I felt above them, they may have thought I had so much more than they, they may have thought that I had no idea what a life of problems looks like. They would be wrong. I know just what a life of problems looks like, so my heart felt for them. And now my heart feels bad because I did nothing for them.
I have a friend named Jim Trick. He talks to everyone. The true definition of a Christian, he’s not judgmental. He loves people. He’s kind. He makes friends wherever he goes. He makes a difference. People change because of what he says, how he says it, and what he does. He brings a kinder spirit to people and to the world. Jim would have shown that couple love. He would have said or done something so that a spark of that love would be obvious to them. I can’t say that their lives would have changed because of his love, but they would have changed for at least a short time. And it’s those short times of change that lead to longer times. They add up, they stretch out, and they can become a life that isn’t marked by fears of being abandoned two days before Christmas.
I wasn’t Jim Trick Christmas Eve morning because I’m Chris Clark. Part of being Chris Clark means that I don’t always speak when I should or could because for so many years I spoke out of turn or in anger and used the wrong words, hurting, cutting words. Those years are gone now, and I know I have words that aren’t cutting and angry and judgmental. I have some Jim Trick words and from now on, I intend to use them. My regret at saying nothing, at offering nothing to that couple who needed so much is huge. I don’t know if I could have made a difference, but I didn’t even try. It’s two days before New Year’s Day, and I don’t make resolutions, but I might make one this year: To speak when necessary and do so with kindness, empathy, compassion, and love. Perhaps by doing so, I can be change, positive change in a world where so many of us are afraid that someone will walk out on us.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Retrieve the Gift of Joy

Memory, Contemplation, and Maybe
Even Joy During the Holidays
Holiday—the word often conjures delight. To some people, holiday means vacation—a time free from obligations, a time to rest, relax, and celebrate.
When you’re suffering the heartbreak of loss, the mere mention of the word holiday often generates dread.
“I have nothing to celebrate,” you might think, or even say. You might not have the energy, desire, or inclination to even acknowledge such an alien concept as a holiday.
I understand. My seven-year-old daughter Alexa died from brain cancer on November 2, 1986. I have shadowy recollections of the holidays that followed a few weeks after she died. I was in a fog. I went through the motions, but my heart wasn’t keyed toward anything resembling a celebration.
I don’t remember Thanksgiving. I do remember that while unpacking Christmas ornaments, a former boss called to offer me a job. As part of my brain listened to him speak, I held a precious handmade star on which Alexa had written her name. Choked by sobs, I said a few words and hung up the phone.
I’m several years on in my grieving, but no matter how many days pass from that November 2, I continue to struggle with some aspects of holidays and other celebrations. Some anniversaries bring a cloud with them that hovers for days—or longer—and only after they pass do I feel relief. Throughout the years, though, I have healed enough that I can celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other occasions, even if many such events are bittersweet.
Beyond the pangs of loss and bittersweet moments, however, I also have progressed far enough in my journey to the point that I can even experience joy. And it’s joy that is often missing from our lives as bereaved families. I missed that joy after Alexa died. I hungered for it. I was afraid that joy would forever be the missing guest at any celebration table.
By some gift of healing and grace, I have been able to recapture—and even relive—some of that joy. A treasured photo of Alexa helps me. The photo was taken a month before her oncologist used tender, compassionate words to tell me additional chemo would be futile. But in the photo, we don’t know that and she doesn’t know that.
My treasured photo was taken at Alexa’s first—and only—dance recital. She has brain cancer. She’s thin, and because she has no hair, she’s wearing a wig. But she’s also wearing her costume for her class’s Scottish dance. Aside from the illness, the wig, and her thinness, however, her eyes shine like stars in my memory. Her head is tilted back and a smile lights up her face. She radiates pure joy. Some memories bring with them a twinge of sadness and sometimes even regret. But this photo holds no sadness for me or for anyone who sees it. When I look at it, all I see is joy. When I look at it, I feel that joy. I smile and once again, I experience the joy of Alexa, the joy she brought not only to my life but also to the lives of many others.
It’s joy—that spark—that we miss so dearly when our loved ones die. It’s joy that seems so elusive, especially in the early days, weeks, months, and even years of our grieving. It’s joy that seems like it will never ever return. The loss of joy further compounds our sadness. We yearn for it.
I wish I had a magic spell to bring back that joy. I don’t. However, I do know of a way to capture, even if for fleeting moments, some of the joy we crave after loss.
Like Alexa’s dance recital photo, I imagine that somewhere you have a memory of the joy your loved one brought to your life. I imagine you have a photo that captures that joy. Give yourself the gift of contemplating that photo or memory. As you do, reach into your heart and retrieve the gift of joy your loved one brought to your life. Relive the time captured in the photo or in your memory. Once again, feel that joy. Perhaps for a few precious moments, you can take a holiday from your sorrow, reach for, and hang onto that joy.
In this season of holidays and giving, remember to give yourself the gifts of compassion, patience, and contemplation. In giving yourself these gifts, also be receptive to joy. Remember to look for joy—you just might find it, and once again be able to live it and share it.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Too Many Conditions on Creativity

Conditional Creativity
The Litter Box Calls, But So Does Art
My Muses—the Three Graces—represent charm, beauty, and creativity.
Conditional Creativity. Do you put far too many conditions on when, where, and how you spend creative time? I do. In an effort to get things done, I listed everything I must do each morning. I want to stop wasting time, so my list shall be my guide. Most of the items I must do, but some could be optional: make bed, journal, yoga and spiritual study, clean the kitchen and bathroom, start laundry, scoop the cat litter. However, they are optional only because I can procrastinate only so long before they become must-do-right-now items. Even if I ignore them, they tap me on the shoulder, nagging me: “Isn’t it time to clean the cat litter? Phew! It stinks in the laundry room. Clean the gross bathrooms! Creak, creak, creak. Exercise if you don’t want to turn into the Tin Man without an oil can. Snakes are hiding in the front bushes and you haven’t trimmed them.”
Although I continue to procrastinate, I manage to check off most things on my list each day. Otherwise, that nagging voice saps my energy. But it also saps my creativity. I tell myself I cannot do X—X being something fun and creative—until I do Y—being something like scooping cat litter. X dangles in front of me like it’s a reward—a payoff for doing the dishes or cleaning out the fridge.
Toni Morrison stated my situation quite well: “We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I'm not sure we deserve such big A-pluses for all that.”
I give myself too many A-pluses when I accomplish the list. But that too often means I’m getting an F in what’s important to me—writing, gardening, painting.
Worse, after I do everything on the list and then do my daily work, all I want to do is crawl into bed and escape. I don’t have any more energy to anything, much less something creative.
Much as I wish on some levels that I could ignore the mundane dusting, mopping, and toilet scrubbing, I also believe what author Steven Pressfield says about having a clear space so the muse isn’t concerned about getting dirt on her hem. I don’t want her to back out the door if she smells eau de litter box.
What’s the answer? I don’t know that an easy answer exists. I do believe that there is a path to creativity and that path does not involve waiting until I get things done—that is, the list. I don’t feel energized after doing everything on the list. I feel stagnant, even when I know the dishes are done and the fridge has no plant matter competing for prime space on the compost pile.
I’m looking at my list: I have ten—ten!—things listed that I must do before allowing myself creative time. I don’t want to give up the prospect of getting things done. I don’t want the muse to battle shrubs blocking the walkway to the front door. But I’ve put far too many conditions on allowing myself the gift of time and space to be creative—to feed my soul by nurturing what is within it and answering what I believe is my calling.
It’s time to revise my list. I don’t want the muse to pass me by, but if I’m not sitting at my desk ready to write when she arrives, she might leave, even after navigating the bee- and butterfly-filled bushes overhanging the walkway to the door.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Heirloom or Future Cleaning Cloth? What Are You Making?

What Are You Making?
An Heirloom or Future Ragbag Contents?
Baby clothing sewed twenty-three years ago.    
Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!
Don’t fix that! Let it slide!
Unless it screams that it’s wrong, don’t correct anything! Leave it as it is.
Don’t reword that wishy-washy, passive sentence. You cannot change the author’s voice.
Yes, the material is outdated, but we’re using it anyway.
Don’t add a hyphen. Don’t add a comma. Don’t, don’t, don’t.
Your comments and suggestions could improve the text, but too many people have to read them, so stop.
I stopped and stopped and stopped. Most publications I edit and proofread aren’t particular enough for my druthers, but I follow their rules so I can pay the bills. Do I feel guilty about quality lapses? I do. I know the correct use of the English language is slipping and sliding, but at least I am still allowed to use the correct spelling of you’re, your, and yore and there, they’re, and their. Many clients are grateful when I point out faulty information or outdated content—as long as they don’t have to spend too much time or money correcting it.
On the other hand, the few professional, top-notch publications for which I work want the best quality and let me know if I make a mistake:
You missed this! You didn’t check this fact. This quote is wrong. This was not quoted. The em dash is in the wrong place. The punctuation is incorrect.
Do this! Do this! Do this! You didn’t . . .! The guilt I feel about my mistakes and subsequent self-chastisement are far worse than my regret at having to let things slide because I prefer the quality work and strive for it.
Two faces greet my editing and both of them shake their heads at me with a resounding, “No.” These faces trouble me because in the world of language, I often feel alone. Abbreviated spellings and the too-frequent at dangling at a question’s end (where r u at?) set me on edge, but I usually can ignore those in nonwork situations. My problem lies in when to flip the grammar and quality switch on or off when I am working.
It’s not easy to know when to flip that switch. Not long ago, a managing editor pointed out more than a few errors I made editing an article. I felt awful. I feel awful. I question whether I have the skills to do the high-quality work I prefer. I spent more than a few minutes agonizing over the disconnect between the two types of work I do.
As I agonized, I sorted some baby clothes I sewed twenty-three years ago when I was pregnant with my son. One of my daughters is pregnant with her first child—a boy—and I hope she will use some of the items I made. Most are simple—pants, hats, and infant shirts. Two garments, however, are intricate. They have long sleeves that gather at the ends with cuffs that button. They have pockets. In addition to buttons down the front, the pants legs have snaps for easy diaper changes. The facings, hems, and buttons are hand-stitched. The snaps were placed by hand. This clothing is tiny—it’s for a three-month-old—so detailed stitching in the limited amount of fabric required skill. Twenty-three years on, they are near-new appearing and I hope to pass down these treasures to more family babies.
I don’t sew much anymore, and when I do, it’s straight, uncomplicated stitching. I avoid cuffs, buttonholes, gathering, collars, yokes, and intricate details. I make cloth dinner napkins and pillow covers and I hem, mend tears, and replace buttons.
Clothing is so cheap that it is often more expensive to sew something than to buy it. Sewing clothing is a labor of creativity and love. It takes time. It takes intention. It takes a commitment to quality and detail to have a worthwhile garment or other item as a finished project.
Dinner napkin that now lives in the ragbag.
As I studied the outfit I made for my son, I knew the answer to my work dilemma. The clothing I made years ago that has survived wearing, washing, and being packed for two decades was made with a focus and intent on quality. The dinner napkins I whipped up on my sewing machine seven years ago were for utilitarian purposes. They were attractive when first made, but I didn’t make squared-off corners nor did I hand stitch. Now they are frayed at the edges, stained, and some have been moved to the ragbag. It’s time to make new dinner napkins. The baby clothes I made twenty-three years ago don’t have to be remade. After being washed, they will be ready to wear.
As I studied the craftsmanship of the baby clothes, I related sewing baby clothes versus sewing napkins to my work. I realized that when I start a project, I have to ask myself, “What am I making? Am I making long sleeves with cuffs that button or am I making dinner napkins?” Knowing that one will end up in the ragbag one day and one will last for decades and still have life will direct my efforts.
 Just as some garments will last for decades, some publications will be treasured and reread. Others, like the worn and frayed dinner napkins, will be tossed in the trash or recycled. Knowing this, I can continue to put in my best efforts at work, but within the constraints of the expectation of the finished product. Much as I prefer most of my efforts to go toward fine garments, I realize that there’s a place for everything and a level of quality that works—and doesn’t.
* * * * *

What are you making? How do you decide if you’re making napkins or heirloom infant clothes?
What is most important to you when you consider your choices?