The Strangest Fascination

If you’re really going to know me, I suppose I must confess my strange fascination. I love being honest with you because what else do I have to offer?

I can prove the strange fascination’s significance in my life: When I first went to therapy because of a kind of depression that left me lost inside–like a wandering in the dark everyday, a pointless despair where death seemed pleasurable–the psychologist, as a way of discovering me, asked me to share a single good memory. 
I think he wanted to get serotonin moving in my brain. You know, think good thoughts and your brain chemistry changes kind of therapy. What could I say? Asking a depressed woman to offer something good from the shadowy depths of her mind is like asking a paralyzed man to walk. What could my mind offer up? What would yours? 
It wasn’t inaugural balls, a wedding day, having children, having tea at the White House, dances, vacations, letters of acceptance to prestigious schools. No. Nothing like this. 
It was turtles. I told the doctor stories of finding turtles. That’s what my depths offered up like sunken treasure full of gold and pearls. 
Now, like any good therapy session, I could think about what that means
So for years, I’ve thought about this. I love turtles. I’ve written many times about the resonance my whole self somehow feels with a turtle’s suspicious, pokey, ancient self, their home they keep with them no matter where they are (instant refuge and protection), but it doesn’t ever offer a satisfying why. I noticed, over the years, that a caged turtle offers no joy. No, I have to find it. 
This morning, I think I discovered the why. I walked on the lake with my daughter in search of turtles, and our hearts sang together as we discovered a turtle. He was eating a minnow. Nothing special, really, if you think about it. I’ll do it again tomorrow and the next day. 
Ah, but we discovered it. The wonder! We were so happy that we were silenced into joy. You can’t think about yourself and your problems and the turtle at the same time. The turtle discovery takes up all the room and frees you from yourself. It’s so freeing, that this morning I wondered if part of those years of depression were when I somehow stopped discovering. Something shut down in me–the wonder, the curiosity, the seeking. So when the doctor asked for a single memory, I went straight to the one where I walked in the mud only to have it shatter beneath my seven-year-old bare feet into a nest of a dozen tiny turtle hatchlings. This single memory sends a cascade of neurotransmitter joy all across the landscape of my brain.

The turtle brings me back to what I’m made for: discovery. The whole ripe earth is waiting for me to discover its secrets, and each person I meet is a hidden thing I might discover. Discovery! Finding the rare thing–the thing that’s there, waiting for me to find! You know how everyone talks about gratitude as the key to happiness? Well, what about discovery? That’s my joy.

I take the turtle joy and let it poke its way into my whole life:

My marriage is a daily kind of discovery because I met someone who says things like, “Tell me what you’re thinking about today,” or “Can I show you what I’m discovering?” Friendship? Lessons in discovery. Parenting? Discovery every day. Live with Flair? It’s all daily discovery, my own serotonin boost. Even depression? A journey of discovering the darkest, most remote, dangerous, and unruly places of me. I’m an explorer here, not a victim. I’m a pirate stealing booty from my own stash of forbidden treasure.

Discovery! I tell my husband that there’s nothing like discovery, and we talk about this discovery for a minute. We talk about being made in the image of God, but I say, “God really doesn’t get to discover because He knows everything.”

He says, “Yeah, but there’s something one step up from discovery, something better, that God does.”

“What? What is it?” I have to know. I have to discover it. And I’m seriously about to burst with the idea that there’s something even better, even more satisfying than discovery.

“It’s invention. He invents.”

Yes.

Invention!

This, then, is why I discover and then write about it, inventing it all over again in words. Discovery blooms, if you let it, into a creative act.

This is how to live a life. This is how to love. This is how to heal. This is how to worship. 

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Thou Shalt Fry Okra (and Four Things that Happen to You in the South)

I’m writing here from North Carolina with my Southern In-Laws. I confess I am not a Southerner. I was born in Kansas into a military family and grew up mainly on the West Coast (Fort Ord, Fort Lewis) and then in Northern Virginia (which my UVA and Greystone friends remind me is not the South). And some of you, those from Mississippi, might actually claim that North Carolina is not the real South. But for the purposes of this particular post, let’s believe the best about one another.

Now I live in Pennsylvania, so I suppose I am a Yankee.

But I married into a Southern Family and have been a Southerner-in-Training for the past 15 years.

This means several things:

1. I know how to make real sweet tea (you do it on the stove, in a pot, but don’t ever let it boil. You let it steep forever and then add a gazillion cups of sugar. Done.).

2. I know how to fry okra. And I know that at the Farmer’s Market, you want to buy Silver Queen corn (it has to be Silver Queen for those creamy white kernels!). I know to fry chicken and make strawberry pies. I also know how to make chicken-n-dumplin’s, grits (the acronym is G.irls R.aised. I.n T.he S.outh: grits), pimento cheese sandwiches, and the right kind of vinegary barbecue. It’s a Southern thing.

3. I know what the following expressions mean:

“On the short rows” means one is nearly finished with one’s work (from the old days of tobacco farming when the short rows were at the end of the field where the tractor turned around).

“The devil’s beatin’ his wife” means it’s raining while the sun is shining (what? huh?).

“She showed herself” means she was overly emotional in public (I’m doomed).

Add in these gems: You might be fit to be tied or in hog heaven, depending on the afternoon.

4. A Southern woman lives in the kitchen, and this isn’t a bad thing. You will cook 2 pounds of bacon in the morning and fry your eggs in the bacon grease. You will grill sandwiches for lunch with all sorts of fillings like egg salad, chicken salad, ham salad, and pimento cheese. There’s lots of mayo and butter involved. You will fry things at dinner. But the whole time, you’ll be talkin’ and lovin’ each other.

So, my friends, I want you to know that although I am only a Southerner by marriage, I have learned my lessons well. Grandpa has asked both for my buttermilk fried chicken and the strawberry pie recipes. This is like winning the Nobel Prize. I’ll go celebrate with some sweet tea.

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If You Have a Child Who Talks Too Much

First of all, I was a child who talked too much.

My older sister and parents don’t laugh about these memories; they agonize over them. If you ask them about how much I talked as a child, they’ll close their eyes and step back as if they are trying to distance themselves from the terrible memory of my talking, like people shielding their eyes from the glare of the fiery sun. My mom will say, “You have no idea. You have no idea how much she talked.”

It was all this as a child: Heather, stop talking. Heather, please, please be quiet. Heather, let someone else talk. Heather, will you please just stop talking? Please? If you don’t stop talking, I’m going to go crazy. 

My talking single-handedly caused more migraine headaches in my house than any other trigger.

I had such serious articulation needs (isn’t that a nicer and more medical way to say it, like it wasn’t something I chose?) that talking wasn’t actually enough. Not at all. I wrote in journals, voiced stories inside my head to myself, and maintained an ongoing glitzy parade of words all day long. I remember walking around my backyard, reciting the Gettysburg Address or a speech I wrote of my own, just to hear the rhythm of the words.

Everything I learned, I had to teach someone because I loved them that much. Besides, everything I thought, I had to export somehow or it corrupted inside of me, festering.

As an adult, this need never waned. I’ve written a thesis, a dissertation, six novels, thousands of blogs, and twenty journals full of words. And I talk. Oh, Lord, I talk. And then I talk some more. And more. I talk to God most of all. He’s the best listener.

Words, words, words. I can’t stop. The words are just so sweet and juicy and must be shared. The thoughts fill up my head and have to escape or else I go crazy inside, like steam screaming on the kettle.

So I both talk and write too much. I generally am too much.

My oldest daughter inherited my too-muchness. So at dinner a few nights ago, she asks the table guests, “Am I talking too much?”

We gently, gently suggest that she might want to let others talk, too. Just like her teacher gently, gently told her she might want to let other students answer in class. Just like her youth pastor gently, gently reminded her that other people have thoughts to share, too.

So we’re doing all that gentle training. It’s good. She needs to learn, like her wise father says, that there’s a time and place for things–like fire in a fireplace is good, but fire outside the fireplace harms people. She has to control the fire a bit to right times and right places. Who doesn’t?

But something overcame me this morning. I called out to my daughter to come to me immediately, in a voice like something was on fire or that I was on fire and needed rescue (it felt like I was).

“What, Mom? I’m here.”

“Do you know when you asked if you were talking too much last night? Well, listen to me right now. Listen as hard as you can: You are absolutely perfect. You are absolutely amazing.You have things to say.” I think of her thoughts bubbling over like the caramel you melt for candied apples in autumn. “You just keep being you, all the time.”

I said this because I have found people who love me and who let me talk and write because I must. They don’t silence me or shame me. They fold their hands under their chins, refill their coffee mugs, and let me talk and talk and talk. I suppose I could have stopped talking because it was so annoying (and it often is), but it’s also part of who I am.

A man fell in love with this talker and thanks the good Lord that for every introverted, quiet man, there’s a boisterous, extroverted woman bushwhacking her way into social settings and paving an easy path for him to follow. (One neighbor said it’s more like I’m a Marine storming new territory, and my husband is like the Army coming in after, quietly maintaining peace and order.)

The point is that my husband has been listening to and reading my words for 15 years.

And, to give you hope, dear parent of a talker, I’ve learned to meet all of these articulation needs in more unselfish ways that don’t require people to just sit and listen, but I’ve never stopped getting the words out.

It’s because at just the right time–when I was exactly my daughter’s age–a teacher told me to write speeches and compete in oratory contests because I just had so much to say and people needed to hear it. I didn’t lose one word during those years. I wrote them all down and spoke them on stage. In high school, I went straight from oratory to Policy Debate where the goal was to speak as many words as possible in the shortest amount of time.

As many words as possible! There were prizes given for this sort of bliss. I was home. I found myself. While other girls were riding horses or shopping at the mall in the summers, I went to debate camp with all the other talkers who were so happy together we were like young wizards finally using their wands at Hogwarts. My sister and parents fully supported this competitive speaking, and they drove me all over the United States to debate things I can’t even remember now.

It could have gone differently. I could have listened and stopped talking like all the precious, orderly, appropriate, silent daughters of the world who speak only when spoken to. These children, I fear, turn in on themselves, closing tightly shut like sea anemones who open for no one.

But I didn’t.

I just don’t want my daughter’s words lost because she’s been shamed one too many times or made to feel like she’s too much, exhausting, selfish, or annoying.

I don’t want to silence children; I want to fan the flame of all their glorious word seeds and let the whole thing rage on.

Someone wants to listen. There’s a stage waiting for her like there was for me.

So when she asks again, “Am I talking too much?” with those wide, tearful, insecure eyes, I’m going to say, “No! In fact, tell me more. Tell me so much more.”

I’ll sit back and watch that blaze of glory.

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As You Are, Where You Are

I read about the concept of being “self-possessed” today. A self-possessed person is one who remains calm, confident, and in control of her emotions no matter where she is or what is happening to her. A self-possessed person maintains clear thinking under stress and knows exactly who she is and what her role is in every situation. She is a mature adult.

Bah! Bah ha ha!

I burst out laughing at this.

I’m the exact opposite of self-possessed. I’m the woman the self-possessed woman drapes her arm around (in perfectly controlled and well-timed empathy) to help her remember herself. I’m the woman whose whole life is about corralling her wild horses of emotions. I’m the woman who couldn’t remain calm because calm isn’t part of her brain structure. She doesn’t think clearly because she’s too busy making metaphors or strange allegorical blog posts.

Today, I actually asked myself, “Who are you again? What are you about?” And I’m nearly 40.

I also did something completely age-inappropriate today; I asked my mother-in-law to buy me a net at the dollar store in town so I could catch turtles at the lake. I do not know other adults who do things like this.

And I never quite know what my role is. Am I the teacher here? Am I the writer or the reader? Am I the mom or the one needing a mom? Am I the girl or the woman? Am I the urbanite or the berry farmer?

Who am I, people? What am I about anyway?

This. This.

This painful and wonderful collection of unruly and bizarre reactions, moods, roles, and thoughts is me.

I have not an ounce of self-possession. This, of course (ironically, beautifully) makes me a different, but not worse, kind of self-possessed.

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A Book I’m Loving: Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

I grabbed it from a Little Free Library down the road because I liked the row of rain boots on the cover.  I fell in love with it on the second page when the author describes a character, Cornelia, who loves the city. She puts it like this:

Image Barnes&Noble

     “I loved the noise, opening my window to let a confetti of sound fly in. I loved how leaving my apartment, in pursuit of newspapers or bags of apricots or bagels so perfect they were not so much bagels as odes to gloss and chewiness, never just felt like going out, but like setting out, adrenaline singing in my veins, the unexpected glancing off storefronts, simmering in grates and ledges, pooling in stairwells, awaiting me around every corner, down every alleyway.
     Imagine an enormous strutting peacock with the whole jeweled city for a tail.”

Belong to Me, by Marisa de los Santos, has so far shaped a world I love. This book, found by chance on the side of the road, makes it all the more wonderful. Or, in the words of my oldest daughter, “Awesical”–the combination of awesome and magical.

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Am I Fond of Them?

In Titus 2:4, we learn that older women are supposed to encourage the younger women to love their children. Isn’t that weird? Why wouldn’t they love their children?

I learn this morning that the admonition in this verse to love your children is about being fond of them, delighting in being with them, and enjoying them.

What does it mean to be “fond” of your children? I learn that it means to have a great affection and liking for them. It means to have a passion for and an inclination towards them.

Yes, it means to actually enjoy them. The etymology of fond means to be foolishly infatuated. It does! It really does!

Do you ever feel like this enjoyment gets lost somewhere in dishes and laundry, bills and scrubbing? Do you ever feel like you don’t enjoy your own children because you have forgotten how?

I prayed that God would fill my heart with fondness for my children and that they would feel my fondness toward them. Why would I need to pray this? Well, my heart veers towards selfishness on the summer days when I’d rather drink coffee, write, and read a novel alone. Sometimes, I’d rather escape because I’ve spent so much time in meal preparation, cleaning, and housekeeping.

So I ask God to do this fondness thing in my heart.

Guess what? I found myself playing again. I found myself putting goggles on and exploring the depths with them. I found myself hiding and seeking and imagining I’d come upon foundling children who urgently needed strawberry pie and tickling.

And when I was alone reading my novel later, I threw it down and called out down the hall, “Where are you two? I want to be with you! What are we doing next?”

Oh, dear. I’m foolishly infatuated.

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After the Fact and Not Before or During

We just went to a little blueberry farm and ate blueberries right off the bush. It was a sweet moment of simplicity and deliciousness.

While standing there amid the enormous blueberry bushes, I briefly wondered about taking a picture, but then I was so thankful I forgot my phone.

I remember the mental discipline that we live life first and post about it later for friends to enjoy. We don’t craft experiences, set up the perfect shots, or imagine what might look good online. More importantly, we don’t need cameras or words to legitimize whether our experience was good or even happening at all. There’s a great risk with posting on the internet (and living your life there) that your actual experience is always mediated through a lens of how it will appear online. The experience of interacting about your experience on social media becomes the experience instead of the real experience.

What?? Yes.

What can we do to keep our lives immediate and authentic? I like thinking about what was great about the day after the fact and not beforehand or during. You have to stay present and unlayered about it; you aren’t viewing it through a lens or narrating it by a tweet or status update.

I remember the perfectly ripe, nearly bursting blueberry. The time to enjoy it was right then, standing in the dusty field, hidden among the bushes, gobbling up the gift. I could think about what it meant later, after I had my fill with my family.

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The Only Thing I’m Allowed to Fear

A wise friend of mine recently shared all the things she was learning about God as she endured an extremely difficult season in her life. She told me the most important thing.

“God’s been teaching me that I’m only allowed to fear one thing. I’m only allowed to fear God. I’m not allowed to fear the future, what other people think about me, or anything else. Just fear God.”

Since God is good and takes care of her at all times, deeply loving her, she only needs to worry about His opinion. She can focus exclusively on regarding God and not her circumstances.

I’m only allowed to fear God (and He loves me), and not this thing in front of me.

I remember Proverbs 9:10: The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. 

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More Like a Cat

After all these years of having cats, I sometimes just sit back and watch the way they’ve become great companions to us all. This one, Louie, our oldest and most serious alpha cat, shadows my daughters. He sleeps with one of them every night, greets them after school, and finds them wherever they are in the house.

It’s peaceful and comforting. It’s protective and devoted. He requires nothing from us in these moments.

I should be more like a cat.

I wonder if my presence could feel that way in a room. You know that kind of happy and warm feeling you get when a cat chooses you, curls up, and begins purring? I could learn something from the behavior of cats who seem, when they sit by you, to comfort, protect, and simply enjoy being with you.

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