World Travelers

It took me a while to choose the artwork for my office. For several months, I stared at the blank, white wall, wondering what might belong in that place. There’s something appealing to me about the freshly painted walls, free from scuff marks, dings and imperfections. The open space invokes excitement and mystery. The wall calls out to be adorned. It is full of potential, but the process is also intimidating. And expensive. Art is risky. The piece should have an appropriate message and be the right colors. I’m going to spend a lot of hours sitting across the desk from this art. What if I don’t like it as much as I thought I would? I can’t just try it on for size, and I will not be allowed to return it. I cannot afford to change it out like fashion, assuming the latest trend in hemlines with each season. It’s a commitment. I dared not rush into this decision impulsively. I spent hours clicking on various paintings and photographs, some original art, some prints, trying to picture the small image on the screen taking up residence over several square feet of wall space. After some time, I found the perfect piece, but then it almost didn’t arrive.

My best friend from college lives in New York City. Louise grew up in Wichita, we met in Houston, and now we live on opposite coasts of the country. Occasionally, I feel the physical distance between the two of us like a vast Midwestern cornfield, but more often than not, I feel close and connected. I know what would make her laugh and what (or who) would irritate her. We occasionally speak live on the phone, but we exchange text messages almost daily. For the entire first year after Sam’s death, she sent me an encouraging email message every morning and every evening. Every single day. For an entire year. She never missed. She was going through a protracted, contentious and expensive divorce at the time, but she remained present with her support and her humor. When she met my Tim for the first time, she took me aside and warned me, That man’s in love with you.

A client mentioned a website that features artists from all over the world and suggested that I might find a suitable piece there. I did. I felt drawn to it almost immediately, an oil painting entitled “Riverside” by an artist from Ghana. It conveys a moment of peace in the midst of what surely must be a difficult journey. I shared the picture with Louise for her blessing, and she loved it, too, as I knew she would. Somewhere between West Africa and the west coast of California, the painting went missing. UPS lost track of it. It vanished. The representative from the art website offered to give me a significant discount on another piece. I clicked and clicked to find a suitable replacement, but nothing fit. The wall stayed blank, no longer inviting but rather disappointed, resigned to waiting for the second-best option.

I ran my first (and so far only) half-marathon with Louise at my side. We trained on opposite coasts, comparing progress and injuries along the way. We shared a training schedule and smoothie recipes, and we encouraged each other when illness, weather and teenaged-boy-related incidentals interrupted our flow. After a few months, race day arrived, Louise flew to the west coast, and I drove up the coast to meet her. Together, we ran the 13.1 miles from the foothills to the beach, all the while motivating each other with anecdotes, insights and ‘atta girls. Every step after the 10-mile marker was a personal best for me. I had never run farther.

“Riverside” is mostly green and yellow, a tangle of trees so thick that the path the two women travel is obscured from the viewer. The river flows in the foreground, including reflections of the women in the moving water. They have come to fetch water, a task that probably takes up the majority of their day. In the painting, they have turned from the river’s banks, and they are heading back home to their village, each balancing a large water container on her head. The women appear tall and strong, almost regal, one with a blue headscarf and the other with red.

I also ran that one-and-only half-marathon with my husband Tim at my side. Flanked by my best friend and the love of my life, I have never been stronger or happier.

“Riverside” arrived at my doorstep unexpectedly. The cylindrical package appeared travel-worn at the edges but otherwise intact. There were no unusual markings or labels to indicate where it might have been diverted or delayed along its path between Africa and North America. As I carefully unrolled the painted canvas, a small leaflet fell to the floor with a brief description of the piece, the name of the artist, and the tagline, “Every treasure has a story…”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And safe travels.

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Undefined

“Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, 

without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

We are sitting around the dining room table after dinner last week, and the boys are discussing a math question with my father. Sometimes it does take a rocket scientist, and fortunately, we have one local. The question on the table is whether the fraction zero over zero equals zero? or equals one? Stick with me here – I’m not a math guy either. It could be argued either way, which is when it’s convenient to have a lawyer available, and we happen to have one of those in residence as well.

On the one hand, zero over anything equals zero, which would make the answer zero. On the other hand, when the top and the bottom of the fraction are the same number, that answer equals one. These options are mutually exclusive. The solution? When the number zero is on the bottom of a fraction, the answer is by definition undefined. There isn’t a number to express the answer. Undefined. It cannot quite be explained, but then again… it is not constrained by a definition either.

I was widowed in 2007, and my husband Tim was also widowed the same year. In one of the blessings that is our marriage, we have all eight of our collective parents:

  • my parents,
  • my late husband Sam’s parents (my in-laws),
  • Tim’s parents (also my in-laws),
  • and his first wife’s parents (my in-laws?).

What exactly is the right word to express the relationship between me and the parents of my husband’s first wife? If I refer to them as my husband’s in-laws, doesn’t that mean my own parents?

For the moment, let me refer to the father of my husband’s late wife as “My Undefined Relative.” Or maybe instead I should just call him Jed. The Hebrew meaning of Jed is the Beloved of the Lord. My Undefined Relative will appreciate that. And he will undoubtedly expect special treatment when I see him next.

Jed didn’t know what to call me either, by the way. How exactly does one refer to the new girlfriend of one’s late daughter’s widower? He once introduced me as “my son-in-law’s very…very… very… very special friend.” Even if you like her, it’s awkward.

Jed may not have known how to refer to me, but he was consistently kind to me. He has been inclusive of me and my children from day one. Before Tim and I were married, or even engaged, I accompanied Tim to a Rotary event at which Jed was being honored. Tim’s sons attended the event, along with many of their kin, but we left my sons home with a favorite sitter so as not to overwhelm them with family.

As I was reading Jed’s profile, I noted that program said he had 3 daughters and 8 grandchildren. Eight? Each of his three daughters had two children. That’s six grandchildren. I’m the lawyer, not the physicist, but I can count heads, and there are only six. When I pointed out the typo to Tim, he said, “Jed wanted to make sure that you and your boys were included.” We were not yet related, but he had already embraced us.

We did not know the answers, but we were living the questions.

He is not my father, but Jed is like a father to me. The term “father-in-law” doesn’t quite convey the affection we now share. I don’t dare call him beloved, as he would be insufferable come Father’s Day.

Jed’s wife, my mother-in-law-ish/undefined relative comes from a large family. Beverly has 12 siblings, and as a result she is a woman with an open and flexible heart. I cannot imagine how painful it must be to have lost her daughter, and yet she treats me as one of her own. It is truly “humbling.” Every once in a while she refers to me with her own daughter’s name, and I take it as a compliment. The fact that she has become comfortable enough to throw me in the basket with the rest of her puppies gives me great joy.

Last weekend, Beverly received a lifetime award from Rotary, and the entire family rallied to her side to celebrate. She introduced her family, starting with her husband of 50 years, and then her daughters, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Beverly included all of my boys by name in the litany of her grandchildren. Five years ago, when Jed received this honor, my biological sons had not yet met most of this extended family; this time, they are comfortably flanked by uncles and cousins at a table across the garden, happily planning their next fishing trip.

Beverly has a way of simplifying things, and she did not attempt to describe the series of events that led to my sitting with the guest of honor. She simply introduced me as “my daughter Charlotte.” I would never have imagined feeling so at home with this big, boisterous, vibrant family. Yet here we are. We are living our way into the answers.

On the way home, our youngest boy – who, like Beverly, has a gift for seeing the heart of the matter – says, “Mom, I like the way grandma introduced you as her daughter.”

And I love that he simply calls her grandma.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the patience to live the questions.

Patience

I have given up running for Lent, and I am not happy about it. I twisted my ankle and fell on a run a couple weeks ago, spraining one ankle and both wrists, and I have been advised not to run for another month. It’s driving me crazy.

I might have preferred to give up teenagers. I currently live with three of them, and they seem to have outpaced my patience. Nothing makes me happier than having all four of our sons together with us at mass, but not today. Cell phones in church, pinching each other in the pews, I swear Jesus is still stuck between their teeth when the bickering resumes.

I could really use a short run, but instead I’m resigned to a long sit. I am not an excellent sitter. I am terrified of inertia.

On the day of Sam’s funeral, one of his clients – a woman I had never met – brought me a little bird in a wicker cage. With some urgency, she explained to me that when I got home, I was to release this bird, and as the bird flew off, he would take with him my troubles. Sparrow. Sorrow. Got it. It seemed a meaningful tradition, and I was touched that this woman (whose name I still don’t know) thought enough of Sam to share it with me.

And so, the little bird accompanied me in the limousine from the gravesite to the reception. I’m pretty sure that somebody took him to a safe place for the afternoon. I can’t remember. There’s a lot I don’t remember from that day. It was warm. I remember that. Lots of people wanted to help, so I’m certain somebody must have been delegated bird duty, because the bird came home with me later. I really was looking forward to this magic bird taking flight with all my worries, which seemed to be mounting by the minute. It was, however, only a very small bird.

The boys wanted to keep the bird. Not a chance. I had burdens enough already and this sorrow sparrow was here to lighten my load. We sat together on the front porch, expectantly – dare I say, optimistic, for the first time in a week – and reverently said our thank you’s and farewells. We opened the cage door.

The last time we participated in a bird release, the boys had been given a pair of homing pigeons during a week of summer science camp, and those pigeons darted out of their cage and took off so quickly we could barely snap a picture. If we had thought to bring out the camera on this occasion, we could have taken photographs and developed the film ourselves before the someday sparrow even stretched his wings. I mean, that fucking bird did not budge.

At first I thought maybe he was dead too. He blinked. I was flooded with relief that I hadn’t killed him. He blinked again. Now I was getting irritated. He had work to do, and if he didn’t start flapping I would have to end his little life myself. But my boys were still watching, so we sat. All four of us – two little boys, a disheartened mom, and a flightless bird. The boys soon lost interest and went into the house. The still bird sat there, torturing me with his misguided hope.

I put some water out. It was the least I could do for him since he was about to fly off into the sunset with the weight of my world on his avian shoulders. After a long while he hopped out of the cage and onto the grass. Eventually he opened his wings, and flew up, up, up … right into my crape myrtle, about 8 feet from my front door. Not the progress I anticipated. He perched there for an hour, the sun began to set, and I was getting cold. This business about flying off with my problems was slow going. I went inside. I imagine the little bird spent the night in my yard gathering his strength for our mourning.

Come daylight, the little bird was gone, and while he didn’t exactly fly off with all my troubles in tow as I had hoped, he did leave me with a lesson. I might just need to sit with my cares for a while. They will take flight eventually, if I am willing to let them go. A very small bird brought hope into my very dark world, after all.

And so I attempt to sit with my sprained ankle propped and iced. It occurs to me that I spent the first 40 years of my life not running; the 40-day hiatus will pass, and I will hit the trails again. I notice that all of the following are within arm’s reach: my calendar, a laptop, two novels, a neuropsychologist’s latest book on the teenage brain, three writing projects, a lesson I’ve prepared for a Junior Great Books session at our local elementary school, a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, a stack of folded laundry, a summer school application, a daily prayer book and my cell phone. I do not know why I’m so afraid. By all appearances, I am constitutionally incapable of inertia.

Every now and again my husband and I will sneak out to church early on a Sunday morning, and leave our boys sleeping at home. They love these mornings. With all their growing and studying and extra-curriculars, they need the rest. And without all their kinetic energy, we appreciate the quiet, peaceful mornings too. Sometimes, we just need to sit.

Maybe what I need for this healing is stillness, a little patience with the process, a dash of faith in my own ability to heal. And so, leaving the noise and accoutrements behind, I head for the bath and sit. Just soaking up warmth and silence and trust. Inhale, exhale, repeat. And I remember the promise of the someday sparrow.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And patience. And a hopeful little bird.