Saturday, August 24, 2013

The song is wrong

Any musical theater fans here?  Anybody remember "Carousel", and the song, "You'll never walk alone"?  (Yup, I'm dating myself... well, actually that's kinda where I'm going with this one, but more on that later.)

The coach this morning started us with some "ankeling", he called it, a kind of almost-running walk, with a lot of heel-to-toe movement, and then some backwards walking, some sideways skipping, some weird looking high-stepping movements straight out of "Springtime for Hitler", and then he and the half-dozen regulars with The Run Team took off running.  And I do mean "took off", as in a flight of well-synchronized eagles.

But I'm not an eagle, or even a seagull, ... I'm more of a penguin, actually. (If you're not familiar with the concept of a running "penguin", click here to read John Bingham's blogpost about runners who are penguins.) The flock of folks for whom an "easy jog" is a 6-minute mile were out ahead of me and gone in what felt like seconds.  So much for running with a group, which was my plan when I clicked "join this group" on Meet-Up.  I had been assured that there were going to be "runners of all abilities" on this run.  I guess the otherly-abled people decided to sleep in this morning.

 I ran alone,


...except for when the 70-something-year-old coach of The Run Team turned around from the 3-mile-point and ran BACK to me, asked if I had any injuries, and then, after giving me a few pointers about working on my speed by doing short intervals, turned around and ran ahead to catch-up with his group.

I ran the rest of my 4 miles alone.  The full run was an 8-mile out-and-back, and I'd been told there would be some other folks who would turn around early.  Again, I guess they slept in this morning.

Except for when the six-milers on their way back to the start point passed me in a cloud of dust, I ran alone.

And lately, I'm finally facing that that's my state; alone.  Yes, I have 4 kids, and some great, caring, selfless friends, friends who would drop everything and be with me in a crisis, friends who mentor my teens, friends who let me hide-out at their house; making jam and drinking wine, friends who move themselves and their entire family into my house to look after my kids so I can go away for a week...  And then there's another undeservedly large cloud of friends on Facebook who post encouraging words, who like my photos, who read these blogposts almost before I have them posted, so I'm not truly alone.

But, in some new way, I'm coming to grips with the fact that I'm a widow.  I'm alone.  (The Chorus of DUH has not been heard from in a couple of months, so it's time to let them warm up... go ahead, give us a melodious , "DUHHHHHH!!!")

After I congratulated myself this morning on 4 miles at a faster pace than I've done in many months, I got into my car, drove to a parking lot a few miles between the run venue and home, and had a full-throated, self-pitying, damn-it's-good-no-one-here-knows-me, no-holds-barred, cry-it-out session like I haven't had in quite a while. And it felt different this time.

As odd as it might seem, I have not truly allowed myself to come to terms with this layer of "alone" yet, ever since the police told me to "call someone" as they shoved past me, into my house and up the stairs on the night Andre died.  From that point on, I've leaned on friends, leaned on my therapist, my pastor, my neighbors... and eventually I found a... gosh, "boyfriend" sounds so silly... a man-companion to lean on, to hide from my growing horror at the thought of a life alone.

And he was a terrific distraction. There is nothing like a smart, funny, handsome guy to completely un-hinge me from reality. So while most widows would still have been wearing somber clothing and staying at home every night, I was distracted by balancing the rest of my life to include dating.  And then that relationship went bad, and it ended after a couple of months.  And a day later, (really, no kidding)  another incredibly attractive man walked into my life, and we had a terrific 3-month relationship.  And then it ended.  And the day after it was "over" with Man-Companion #2,  Man-Companion #1 briefly re-appeared on my Distraction Board and I was able to keep running from my sadness at the loss of MC#2,  my residual grief over Andre, and my completely unprocessed sadness at the ending of the first relationship with MC#1.  But now MC#1 is gone again and I'm left facing the fact that I really am alone, and it hurts like hell.

 (Are you feeling like you need a scorecard to keep this straight?)

But I'm studying to be a therapist.  I'm supposed to KNOW better.  "Physician, heal thyself", I guess... It's only dawning on me now that I'm not done with the park-the-car-somewhere-and-bawl-your-eyes-out stuff yet.  And it looks like I'm not the only one who is just turning the corner into a fresh field of grief.  My youngest child, who has been pretty much coasting along, doing well, is suddenly, daily, having tearful episodes of "I miss Daddy.  I want a Daddy."

Oh, crap.  (Don't worry.  That's a technical term.  I'm a trained professional... well, a professional in training..)

I can't do anything about either of those conditions, especially not now.

So, when he's sad, we talk about it, and I tell him that it's really Ok to feel sad, that he won't always feel this sad, and that he can tell me any time he's sad.  Sometimes we cry together, and then we brainstorm ways to feel better.  Sometimes a hug will do it.  Other times, it's tickle-session, or a ride-along on some errands that I need to do. Tonight, his solution seemed to be a bubble bath with ALL the floating toys: ducks, cars, fish, airplanes, trucks.  It can get a little crowded in that tub sometimes, but I guess that's better than being alone.

Not long ago, on a night when the plan to go out with one of the MC's was suddenly cancelled for "unfinished business", (yeah, that is as bad as it sounds),  I did something I haven't done in a while. I took myself out.  Yup, I dated myself, as it were.  I grabbed my notebook and a pen, found a table in a place that played good music, ordered a beer and some chili fries, and spent some time with myself, working on some writing for myself alone.  By the end of the evening, I'd heard some terrific music,  gotten some clarity, felt a little stronger, banished most of my self-pity, wrote a note that needed to be written, and went to bed and slept well that night.

So, maybe the song is right, in a way, "...walk on, walk on with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone."  (Here's the cheesiest, most clearly-learned-phonetically-by-people-unfamiliar-with-the-idiom performance of the song that I can find: The Three Tenors (I loved them) sing "You'll Never Walk Alone )

Ok, nope.  It's drivel.  I'm walking, and running, alone.  At least for a while.  And I'm pretty darned sad.

Now, let's see...where did I put those floating toys...?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Birthday Season

"Ack!  The poop deck is collapsing!
"Fondant! Quick!  Roll some up and stick it under there. We'll frost it blue and call it a wave"


" I can't get the woolly mammoth to fall over when it gets a direct hit, without making it so floppy that it won't stand up in a breeze.  Can you take a look at it?"


"So, do you think we should have the kids rob the tomb in the pyramid before or after the toilet-paper mummy race?"

Those were just a few of the conversations that took place during the preparation for kids' birthday parties in our house, in the good years, during times when Andre was stable and I was the uber-mom.

It's the Birthday Season again here, and I'm sort of surprised by the brick wall of "I can't do this" that I'm facing.  I've been thinking about the stark contrast between "then" and "now".

Back in the days when I not only cooked nearly everything from scratch, homeschooled my kids, and kept my house reasonably picked-up, I figured out that all we had to do for a great kids' party was pick a theme that appealed to them:  Pirates, Cave-people, Ancient Egypt (Ok, give us a break, we were homeschoolers--Egypt-o-mania comes with the territory), Space, Tigers, Swamp Creatures... and then follow the formula of projectiles, finger food, and some large props made from cardboard, and of course, THE CAKE.  Not just any old store-bought cake, but homemade cake sculptures:  a space shuttle, a head of a saber-toothed tiger, a pirate ship (yes, we did manage to shore-up the collapsing poop deck with a rolled-up piece of fondant), a tiger, an arctic scene with fondant penguins and polar bears cavorting around an icy pool made of blue jello,  the pyramids at Giza (complete with palm trees), Lightning McQueen from the movie, Cars...

 For entertainment, the kids shot rubber-band rockets at a huge cardboard moon, climbed up in the tree-house to hurl water balloons at a  British Man-o-War cruising in the grass of the backyard below, threw bean-bag "meat" to feed the hungry (paper-mache) alligator, slingshot bean-bag "rocks" at the cardboard woolly mammoth. ( See how theme-adaptable the formula is? )   They took turns unwrapping gift-studded aluminum foil asteroids, used sticks and leaves to paint the inside of a cardboard "cave", mummified their dads in toilet paper, and walked on two-by-fours through the "gator-infested-swamp" wearing huge rubber Wellingtons that engulfed their little legs and made them wobbly.  And they made memories.

Lightning McQueen from "Cars", Andre's last cake sculpture
In those days, I'd sit down with my notebook, the one where I kept all the sketches for holiday table designs, the recipe lists, the guest lists, the cake ideas... and I'd work out the theme, the games, the guest list, the ideas for homemade goodie bags, the menu, and after the first few of these, I figured out how to best tap into Andre's gift for engineering the props for the games and sculpting the cake. We'd stay up past midnight on the night before the party, working on those amazing cakes, and it was a genuine relief each time to hand off the final perfectionist details in buttercream and Betty Crocker to Andre somewhere around 1 a.m. and go to bed knowing that there would be another birthday masterpiece in the freezer by morning.

On the day of the party, I'd be busy setting up the "experience"--the bowling-for-tigers game, the posing-for-pictures-as-a-penguin area, the giant cardboard moon for rubber-band-rocket shooting. The feed-the-alligator bean-bag toss.

The guests, their parents and siblings would arrive (no "drop-off and pick-up" parties for me), and I would spend the next few hours in a blur of motion. I am so grateful that there were adults with cameras at these gatherings, or there would be no photos at all.

In those days, those parties didn't feel like work.  I felt like That Mom, the one who could pull of these amazing parties and make it look easy...before there were just too many plates spinning in our day-to-day lives and my energy began to flag.

Somewhere in the middle of every party, Andre could be found doing something he did extremely well.  When I need an image that helps soften my painful memories, it's an image like this that I turn to.
Andre and Mark, 2004

I've written a lot about Andre's darkness, and for most of the first year since his death, that's felt like the thing I needed most to do: to bring to the daylight the side of our life together that we colluded in hiding.  But our lives were not all darkness.  All of the Hedrick babies knew a Daddy with an almost untiring ability to cuddle sleepy children, a Daddy who could fix nearly anything that was broken, a Daddy who took great pleasure in the grand gesture of unveiling the special birthday creations that he spent so much careful time perfecting.

In fact, over the years of growing instability in our house, as my own energy to keep up the facade faded, and the parties got less and less ambitious, the tradition of the cake sculpture was the last to go, because it was something that I could hand-off to Andre.  I would make the sheet cake that would be frozen and sculpted into shapes, and the buttercream icing that would hold it all together, and my cake-engineer would take it from there.  One year, I couldn't even muster the energy to make the frosting, so I gave Andre the vague instructions to mix "some butter, some milk and some powdered sugar, until you get something the consistency of spackle".  His ratio of butter to sugar was inordinately high, and the coating on the outside of the Death Star, for Mark's 2009 birthday, was a bit shinier and greasier than usual.   But the piping of the black icing designs was precise, and thrilled the birthday boy.

Toward the middle of that party, too, there was another sleepy child who needed to be held (and needed his face wiped, too).  I'm so glad that photos like this exist.  In years to come, I hope that the kids will remember these moments were real, too. 
Rhys and Daddy, 2009

Last year, one of the great gifts that came from the thoughtful, selfless circle of my care-givers was the handling of The Birthday Season for me.  Three of my four kids have birthdays that fall in August, September and October, and there was no way that I could have managed any kind of a celebration then.  I wasn't even managing to get dinner on the table in those days.  In fact, the Birthday Season felt as challenging as the upcoming Holiday Season that year.  

And this year, it's time for me to handle the Birthday Season, which kicked off yesterday.  Try as I might, I just couldn't gather the courage to plan a party full of little kids, but I did manage to make a cake and bring it with us to another family's party on Friday night, where we sang and shared what Rhys dubbed, "The Zebra Butt Cake"  The plan was for a chocolate cake, iced in white buttercream, with Zebra stripes of chocolate ganache.  I was rushing, and tried to put warm ganache onto buttercream and the result was a sliding, muddy-looking mess.  Given that I had used a bundt pan (say that like a 7 year old, until it comes out "butt pan"), my 2013 creation became the Zebra Butt Cake.  It is, sadly, a far cry from the cakes of other years. 

But I was told that it was delicious, and it was homemade, from scratch (not even a box cake), and somehow, my kiddo felt celebrated.  (Going to the movies and getting to choose a restaurant for dinner out, followed by a bike ride together through the neighborhood also helped, perhaps.)  

And that, I think, is the best I can do this year.  With one birthday celebration behind me, two more ahead of me, plus the shadow of what would have been Andre's 47th birthday in September, I continue to hang onto the notion of "good enough", and hope somehow that it is, truly, "good enough".  

Belly up to a lovely slice of Zebra Butt anyone?    

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Older model with lots of quirky charm; needs work, but fabulous inside

On my morning walk yesterday, in a neighborhood I sometimes visit, I chuckled when I noticed the scaled-down, concrete fantasy mountain-scape in the front yard.  And then I saw another house where the garage door had been walled-in and something that looked like chapel-windows had been put into the wall that used to be the garage door... and then there was the ranch house with the windowed cupola, and the one with the 2-story yucca plant in the front yard, and the one with the Greek columns and elaborate stucco work over what was surely once just plain siding, and I got to thinking about remodeling and how many times I've tried to make-over myself to be somehow more "marketable."

This neighborhood of what was once uniform little 2 and 3 bedroom ranches is not exactly fashionable.  No marble foyers, no coffered-ceiling great rooms, no homeowner's association with 20 different "approved color schemes" for your exterior paint, or sending you letters about the dead grass near the mailbox or warning you that the Christmas lights MUST be taken down by February 1st. Nope.  In this neighborhood, what you start with is pretty plain, but you can do whatever you want with what you've got. And whether or not you've succeeded depends on whether you're looking at making it "home" or making it marketable. But like it or not, these formerly bland little boxes have a certain funky soul to them, and I have a feeling that their inhabitants call them "home".

Roger was 6 foot 4 inches tall; taller in his cowboy boots, which he wore often, had an impressive wavy mane of shoulder-length brown hair, and was often mistaken for a country music star (which, in Nashville, TN, was considered a good thing), particularly when he wore his cowboy hat in public (which he did often). Next to him, back in 1993, my 5'10", generously curvy self felt positively petite, or at least right-sized for the first time in my life.  We went to honky-tonks, I learned to eat fried squirrel (yeah, it's kinda gross) off his Mama's plastic plates, hung out with his cousins, went for drives down dusty country roads in his huge pick-up truck, and drank beer.  He had a high school diploma, worked on a printing press for a magazine printer and came over after 2nd shift with grease on his overalls, wearing a ballcap and smelling like ink.  His vocabulary was limited, his curiosity about life even more so.  He was 35 years old, and he lived with his Mama in a 3-room house, with a dog chained out front.

 He was completely wrong for me, but I was about to turn 29, and we'd dated for almost 2 years while I frantically tried to remodel myself so I'd escape the dreaded disease of being single at 30.  He got smart one night, and dumped me just two months before my birthday that year.  Since then, I've often thought of thanking him.  I was the one with the Master's degree, but he, apparently, had much more sense than I did and he saved me from completely transforming myself into Tammy Wynette.

A couple months after my first failed remodeling job, I somehow fell into the next one.  I met Andre exactly 20 years ago tonight, at a country/western dance club on the north side of Nashville.  He wasn't particularly tall, but he was handsome, in a rascally, brown-eyed way.  He had a near-genius IQ and was working on his Ph.D at Vanderbilt, while holding down a full-time job as a technical astronomer. He had a great sense of humor.  He was kind. He could fix anything.  He was a great kisser, and a pretty good dancer.  He had a hard time remembering anything I told him. He was a Rush Limbaugh fan.  He had a habit of working for 24 to 48 hours straight, thinking of nothing but his latest grand plan until exhaustion overcame him and he could become inert for the next 24 hours. He could be jealous and controlling and saw a conspiracy in every news item.  He kept a rack of loaded rifles on the living room wall of his apartment. He lived on junk food and guzzled Coca-Cola.  His startle reflex almost broke my nose, the first time I kissed him good morning while he was still asleep.

 And when, after two weeks of dating, he proposed, I thought, "I'm 29; I'm not going to get a better offer.  I'd better jump at this one, and then just work on making this work."    And thus began an 18-year soul-remodeling project that began with hope and the best of intentions, and welcomed 4 kids into the world,  but eventually crumbled into abuse, despair and a single gunshot that ended it all for a man who just couldn't defeat his inner demons, no matter what I tried to shore up, re-decorate, re-frame, or remodel in our lives.

I've always liked to do art, mostly with fabric (quilts, sometimes clothes), or yarn (I knit and have tried crochet a few times). Sometimes I paint.  I've been known to mess around with clay, and a few other crafting materials.  I'm not particularly skilled.  I can't draw, cut or sew a completely straight line without a straight edge.  I modify nearly every pattern I make.  I twist stitches and lose count of when I've perled and when I've knit. I make a lot of mistakes.  I rip a lot of stuff out.  (But sometimes I don't catch my mistake until the piece is finished and the result can be rather interesting. )

But the the thing that, if I do say so myself, makes my work beautiful in the end is that in the process of creating or re-creating, or modifying...I let the material speak to me.

As I work, I think about the person for whom I'm creating (my best work is always FOR someone), I sense the material in my hands, its essence, its "ruach" (I learned that word from an amazing pastor friend of mine who understands Biblical Hebrew). It tells me what it needs to be, and how that will fit with the person who will receive it.  And that "essence", that "ruach" is what gives a piece of art its soul.   Ruach is both "soul" and "breath" in Hebrew.  It's what makes something itself and it's the breath of life that animates a being.  In the beginning of Genesis, God adds ruach into the lump of clay, and behold! it's Adam, the human.  In the 23rd Psalm, the one that many people, even non-religious people know, the one that begins, "The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want..." , there is a line a few verses later that says, "He restores my soul," and "soul" here, in Hebrew, is ruach.  So, when I'm in that zone where creating is going exceptionally well, it's because the soul of the material is speaking to me, and maybe just had a conversation with my sense of the soul of the person for whom I'm crafting.  And maybe a bit of my soul gets all mixed in there with it, too... and something soulful, but definitely not standardized or marketable, is created and given away.

I've been realizing lately that I'm in another self-remodeling phase.  For the first time in a long time, my life is mine to re-make.  I feel like I'm starting with a bland little ranch house that's seen better days. It's been tempting to look at my soul's chipped paint, outdated fixtures and sagging floors and wish that I could somehow be a shiny, pristine, carefully-staged tract home with granite countertops, a two-story grand foyer, and track lighting (and grown kids).  But that would be ignoring the ruach, wouldn't it?  No work of art can come from that.
 Instead, the best I can do is freshen up the paint, (the department store make-up ladies love me)  shore-up what I can (run, walk, bike,eat right), and try to turned "dated" into "classic".   And most importantly, I have to find ways to make sure that the ruach is being listened to and allowed to shine through.

Another word for remodeling, particularly of an older home is "restoration".

"He leads me beside the still waters.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He restores my soul..."

Hmm... I guess I'm looking at a restoration job here; something soulful, rather than marketable, a good home for the right buyer someday, I hope.