Family Ties: Someone’s Favorite

I’ve been decorating my home for Christmas and I keep finding special things that remind me of my Aunt Polly: an engraved ornament, my blue porcelain angels, woodland birds. On Saturday evenings when my husband and I watch movies, I work on my crewel embroidery pillow and remember how she taught me the stitches when I was a senior in high school. Later she gave me the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Needlework and wrote in her artful script, “To Connie Riddle with lots, and lots of Love.”

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Polly in our farmhouse kitchen around 1966

While Polly never told me I was her favorite, as every child hopes they are, I always felt a connection to her because she ‘got me’ and I ‘got her.’ Her attention toward me made me feel special– a great thing when you’re growing up and going through the ups-and-downs of figuring out who you are. How reinforcing to feel that you have someone’s favor.

When I was a girl, Polly told me about visiting the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. I felt like I was there when she described the snow-capped mountains and the open space. I’d seen those vistas in Westerns and imagined myself as one of those cowgirls riding a horse. Years later, as a ‘girl’ of  fifty-six, I took my solo journey to Wyoming chasing that dream that had started with Polly. I rode a huge horse named Tequila on a trail ride in the Grand Teton National Park. How I felt Polly’s spirit with me in that place.

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Remembering Polly’s descripton of the Tetons and feeling her presence

My memories of Polly are strong, especially during the Christmas season. Last year, I was feeling the same way and wrote a post, Polly’s Gift. I’d love for you to read it and get to know more about her.  I’ll end this post early in hopes that you’ll read on about Polly and her painting that hangs on the wall in my kitchen every December.

Polly’s Gift

 

How About You?

Is there a family member or another person who has treated you as if you’re a favorite?

What were things they did that communicated that you had a special bond?

How did their favor on you impact your life?

Do you have that type of relationship with a  niece or nephew or some other person?

 

Celebrating a Life

Today I’m remembering a solo journey I took back in 2009 to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My desire was to visit the place that had been significant for my mother. She and her  cousin, Yvonne traveled there by train when they were both nineteen to prepare for work in WWII as civil servants.

Throughout my childhood, Mama told stories of their adventures in Harrisburg. It was the first time those two farm girls had been outside of North Carolina. They returned to work at Pope Air Base, living on site and enjoying the lively community that included handsome soldiers. It was quite a change from rural Harnett County.

Before I left on my trip to Harrisburg, I took Mama to see Yvonne. At that time, they were both still living in their homes. We sat at Yvonne’s dining table and shared a meal of chicken and biscuits and I told them about my plan.

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Yvonne Gilchrist Casto (sitting) and Mama, Mary Smith Rosser

While Yvonne had more physical problems than Mama, Yvonne was mentally sharp. Mama was in the early phase of dementia and understood that I was going to Harrisburg, but had a hard time recalling the specifics of living there. I felt an urgency to go then because I wanted her to be able to enjoy some of what I discovered while she could still savor those memories with Yvonne.

“We lived on McClay street. I hope you can find the house where we rented a room from the Flutes,” Yvonne told me.

Later, she shared one of their familiar stories. She was a clever prankster and often seemed to be the ‘set-up’ person while Mama took the bait. They were a real duo.

When I arrived in Harrisburg, I took pictures along the path by the Susquehanna River, remembering what an impression it made on Mama that frigid January day when they arrived. Mama would often say, “That river was frozen solid.” It would have been a real contrast to their partially-frozen farm pond in central North Carolina, which she would have be warned to stay away from when she was a girl.

While I walked along the streets abutting McClay and visited the Capitol where they’d had their photo taken, I imagined Mama and Yvonne, nineteen years old, the young women in the photo coming to life.

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(L to R) Yvonne, their new friend, Mary Willis, and Mama, Mary Rosser at PA Capitol 1943

I tried but couldn’t find the training site. When I returned with my pictures, they listened in rapt attention as I told them what I saw and ways the city had changed since 1943.

Mama and Yvonne remained close over the years. We often said they were more like sisters and best friends than merely cousins.

How they loved each other’s company, able to finish each other’s stories from their time together as young women starting out in the world. After the war ended and they finished working at Pope Field, they went to Kansas City, Missouri to work for the airlines. While there, Yvonne met her husband, Bill and eventually moved with him to California.

Years later, we received the tragic news that Bill had been diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea/Huntington’s Disease, a fatal genetic disorder (https://hdsa.org/what-is-hd/). He lost his job as a NASA contractor due to the  changes in his functioning caused by the break down of nerve cells in his brain. Yvonne and Bill, along with their six-year-old daughter, Kim moved back to North Carolina. Mama was heartbroken for Yvonne and was supportive of her through the eighteen years of Bill’s decline and eventual long-term care and then death. During that time, Yvonne was there for Mama when Daddy died suddenly from a heart attack.

As widows, they’d often visit each other and take trips to see friends and family that lived both nearby and faraway. They enjoyed each other’s company, often telling their stories from Harrisburg and Pope Field like a well-rehearsed tag team. We enjoyed watching them.

Eventually Yvonne’s diabetes and other physical problems, and Mama’s dementia led to both of them going to live in nursing centers. As long as they were able, we still tried to take them to see one another. When they were no longer able to visit, Yvonne would ask Kim about Mama, and Mama would smile when we’d tell her news of Yvonne. They were separated but we felt their spirits remained together.

Today I remember Yvonne because tomorrow I will attend her memorial service. She passed away last week in her nursing home thirty miles from Mama’s. Yvonne had just turned 95 on November 1st, catching up with her cousin who’d turned 95 in July.

For Mama and Yvonne, their strong cousin bond, shared adventures as young women, and support for one another, lasted a lifetime.

What a testament of  kinship, friendship, and loyalty pursurvering through the good and difficult times of life. What a priviledge to have learned from watching them.

Tomorrow we will celebrate Yvonne. Mama doesn’t know that her cousin is no longer living. She is spared from that grief by her dementia, so we daughters will go in Mama’s stead, supporting Kim, our cousin, as we honor the life of her incredible mother.

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How About You?

Have you ever made a journey to discover more about a person you loved?

What did you learn about that person?  What did you learn about yourself?

Unless You’re Famous

The Literary Agent from Denver sat at the opposite end of the sofa from me, both of us turned toward each other for my fifteen-minute session at the writers’ conference. In his hands was the proposal for my memoir that I’d painstakingly prepared over the past six months. The last fifty pages included the first three chapters of the book, work that started in its earliest form ten years before and had gone through several iterations. He asked me to tell him what I had for him and as I described my memoir, he thumbed through the first few pages, then closed the proposal.

He was quiet for a moment, then said, “Unless you’re famous, I can’t get a traditional publisher to take a memoir.” He went on to say that it didn’t matter how well-written it was, and he didn’t say it, but the implication was the same for the proposal—it meant nothing if the Literary Agent couldn’t go before traditional publishing houses with my memoir.

I sat there, not quite sure what to say, disappointed but also relieved that he was up front with me. That could have been the end of the conversation and we could have wrapped things up early, giving us more time before our next sessions. But then he continued.

“Let’s talk some more about your book,” he said. “Tell me what you were feeling when you went through that experience in Sedona?” At the time of our meeting, the title for my memoir was, Saved by Sedona: Finding a Path of Pilgrimage.

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I told him about the pivotal moment in the book that takes place when I’m alone with God in Sedona. That experience of being present during a serendipitous trip after cancer treatment and struggling with a toxic job, had impacted my life and later led to yearly solo journeys. I told him how the first three verses of Psalm 40 became my go-to scripture during that difficult time, and then I quoted the first verse.

“You have to change your title,” he said.

While I’d had some concerns, I’d become attached to it and could think of nothing else. The agent told me he was good at titles, and since he was a veteran of many years with the industry, had worked with many titles in the inspirational, faith-based genre, I believed him.

“How about, He Heard My Voice,” he said.

I listened to him, trying to take in what he was telling me, trying to absorb how my pitch had turned into a brainstorming session for a title of a book he couldn’t represent. I did like the sound of his title, the alliteration and the clear reference to the Psalm.

“And the subtitle needs to speak to your target audience and what they’ll experience reading your book,” he said. He asked me to tell him more about the journey for the reader through my memoir, what did I experience and how did I change. I remembered some of what I’d rehearsed for the pitch, but mostly answered him like we were just having a conversation.

“How about something like,” he said, and told me his idea, then changed some of it as I filled in the blanks. We came up with the subtitle, “A Midlife Mom’s Journey Through Cancer and Stress and Her Unexpected Arrival at Healing and Wholeness.” Later, when I had time to wrap my head around what we’d created in such a few minutes of working together, I liked that long and accurate subtitle.

Before the conference, I’d prayed for direction knowing I wanted clarity about how to move forward with the book I’d worked on for so long. It had been my dream to publish it and now, at sixty-three-years-old, I wasn’t willing to keep waiting to put it out there.

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Four years prior after successful pitch with an agent. Later saw this as a ‘False Start.’

 

“What do you think I should do with this memoir since I can’t go the traditional route,” I asked him, feeling that he’d been placed in my path and I could trust his advice.

“I think you should go the Indie route,” he said, and then gave me some suggestions for how to self-publish using contracted freelancers like editors and cover designers who’re also used by the publishing houses.

That evening I left the conference feeling relieved, scared, overwhelmed, and exhausted.

I’m not famous; Oprah has not shown up at my door; I’ve not been kidnapped and forced into a cult; I’ve not performed an unusual physical feat for a woman my age. But I do feel fortunate that the Literary Agent from Denver took the time with me to go beyond rejection and give my memoir new life. Now, I have a better title and have been set on the path for a new type of Solo Journey—the adventure of Indie Publishing. Just like other journeys, I’m traveling into the Unknown and each step is an act of faith.

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Morning view of Lake Champlain July ’15. Now wonder what journey through Indie publishing will be like.

How About You?

What dream do you have that is yet to be realized?

How can you step forward on a path toward achieving your dream?

Digging Up My Buried Shame

Our group of six women sat around the conference room table of Waverly Hematololgy and Oncology, the place where I’d received my chemo years before and now participated in the first Expressive Writing Group. Mary Barnard, Office Manager and poet, was our group leader and was certified in teaching the Write to Heal program created by James Pennebaker. Based on thirty-three years of research, the program had proven to transform the emotional lives of trauma survivors. We were provided the opportunity to participate in the group through the Waverly Survivors’ Community.

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Writing to Heal

We had an inital go-round of introducing ourselves and sharing some of our hopes for being in the group. Then Mary gave us an overview, discussed confidentiality, assigned a brief warm-up writing exercise, then led us to the first writing session.

“I want you to write about one of your most traumatic experiences,” she instructed us. Mary had set up the group, with the safety of boundaries and optional sharing that are essential for a trusting environment.

We had fifteen minutes and I had no problem writing continuously for the entire time. The traumatic event for me was my experience of working in that toxic research job at the same time as going through cancer treatment. While the breast cancer experience was difficult, the impact of the job that ended with being fired, had been much more damaging to my self-esteem and my professional confidence.

I wrote rapidly, with penmanship only legible to me, as I tapped into a deep reservoir of shame that had remained inside for fifteen years. Blaming the three people who made that work environment so pernicious, I recounted ways they’d misled me about the job, as well as their unprofessional behaviors at that ‘Mom and Pop’ clinical trials company. I’d written about that experience in the past, so it surprised me how much anger I still carred after so many years.

When our writing time was up, Mary asked, “How did it feel to write about the traumatic event?” Some of the participants shared about their emotions, their physical sensations, and pulling up forgotten memories. For most of the women, they had not written about their cancer experience but another trauma in their lives.

We completed a questionaire ranking to what degree we expressed our deepest thoughts and feelings, currently felt sad or upset, felt happy, found the writing exercise meaningful or valuable. Then we wrote reflections for five minutes about the experience of writing YOUR words in YOUR uninhibited language.

I’d signed up for the Expressive Writing Group, partly to support Mary’s efforts, since we were on the planning committee for the Survivors’ Clinic.  I thought because I’m a writer and have journaled most of my life, that I already knew the benefits of putting my feelings on the page.

Mary moved on to the second session.

“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic experience for fifteen minutes,” she told us.

I continued to put down my angry feelings about the company, but gradually I exhausted that well of resentment and transitioned to writing with more control, less intensity. Tired of my harsh judgements, I moved on with how that traumatic experience, simultaneous with my cancer, had forged a new courage inside me. I’d been more honest in that final confrontation with that company than I’d ever been in my life. That dysfunctional work family had fueled my writing and had allowed for that serendipitous trip to Sedona that was the seed that gave birth to my solo journeys.

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We completed the fifteen minute session as we had the first with answering the self-reflective questionniare and writing for five minutes.

While previous writings about that trauma had been solitary journal entries, the third session in this writing community, was about to move me forward from where I’d been stuck.

“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic event, but from a different person’s point of view,” Mary told us. “It can be anyone– for example your friend’s, God’s, or even an imaginary person.”

I wrote from what I imagined as God’s POV. In my scribble I said, “He loves me and knows my heart. I trust his omnipotent point of view in being fair.” Gradually, I brought up ways that I had contributed to the problems– something I couldn’t concede to before. Feeling the love of God who knows my weaknesses, allowed me to let go and acknowledge my part, to gain a more objective, less-victimized perspective.

I ended with, “God’s point of view is merciful. While he didn’t cause the trauma of being fired after I’d just been through cancer treatment, he is omnipotent and allowed what transpired. All of that became a ‘Refiner’s Fire’ that ultimately helped to make me who I am.”

That first group meeting ended with all of us feeling a sense of shared relief, walking out to our cars a bit lighter than when we arrived.

I didn’t realize then that those writing sessions would help prepare me for that year’s solo journey that was four days later. I traveled to Kentucky for a two-week stay at a writer’s residency. My goal was to rewrite my memoir.

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My kitchen table that became my writer’s desk.

During those days of reworking my memoir while sitting at that farmhouse table, I realized that my first time writing it I’d focused on my cancer. Now I had to go back and tell the whole truth– the simultaneous struggle with the research company that ended with me being fired. Now, I could admit to that buried shame, and be honest with my readers about all of my life.

How About You?

What buried shame do you have that needs to be dug up?

How can you examine it from a new perspective, a different point of view, so that you may heal and move forward in your life?

Resources

If you’d like to read about the Write to Heal program by James Pennebaker see this article in Survivors’ Review at http://www.survivorsreview.org/writenow.php?v=2

Mary Barnard may be reached for questions at mbarnard@waverlyhemeonc.com

 

 

 

Come Ride with Me

I’ve always been fascinated by trains. When I was a girl, there was a freight train that crossed through our farm. Sometimes it transported logs, and most of the time, we didn’t know what was carried in those boxcars. When I was in first grade, Mama and we three daughters boarded the train in our hometown of Sanford and rode an hour to Raleigh where Daddy met us. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the capitol city must have been festive with Christmas decorations. Our family ate at the S & W Cafeteria, taking the escalator up to the balcony, to look out over the place where Mama had once worked with her girlfriends.

Our parents wanted us to have the experience of riding on a train like they had. During WWII, Daddy would have ridden while in the army– in the U.S. and in Europe. Mama and her cousin, Yvonne joined other nineteen-year-old women, boarding their sleeper car in Fayetteville, North Carolina and traveling through the night to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That was where they learned skills to work as civil service employees at Pope Air Force Base.

After our trip to Raleigh, I was curious about the passengers when we waited at the crossing for a train. Where were they going ? Who awaited them at their destination? What adventures would they have there?  Seeing those travelers, forward-facing through the afternoon sun’s slant on the locomotive’s windows, I wanted to pack my suitcase and head out on a train.

Several years ago, I did that when I took my solo journey to Vermont by way of Amtrak. It would take about seventeen hours by train to travel the almost 750 miles from my home in North Carolina to my destination in Vermont. It was time to ride the rails.

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I was glad to let someone else do the driving after my long road trip the previous summer to Michigan. I didn’t have to pay attention to the route and I couldn’t get lost. On that Friday, I sat in the packed cabin with a little league team heading to D.C. for a Washington Nationals’ baseball game and families going there for a reunion–some of them wearing their t-shirts with their family name. It was a long ride and while I’d been north on I-95 to New York City and caught glimpses of communities and farmland, I hadn’t been by rail. From the train’s vantage point, I saw back alleyways with graffiti and the industries and lower income houses that were built along the tracks.

When the  Carolinian stopped at Penn Station in NYC, I got off to spend the weekend with my son, Ross. On Monday morning, I continued on by Amtrak to White River Junction, Vermont. Hostelling International had rooms in the historic Hotel Coolidge, built in 1879 as lodging for train travelers in the town that was a rail hub.

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While the trip on Amtrak gave me more of an appreciation for train travel, with the gentle rocking and muffled sound of the whistle giving warning as we approached, it was a bit of a let-down. I’d expected it to feel more like an adventure but most of the time the scenes outside my window were familiar and those forward-facing seats felt too tight and blocked my view of the cabin. I had some brief conversations with those sitting nearby, but most were sleeping or otherwise engaged on their phones or laptops. I knew I hadn’t booked a luxury train ride, but I thought it would have more of the allure that I’d felt when I was a girl.

Last September I had my first chance to ride trains in Europe. My husband and I took the Eurail from Paris to London. It was an enjoyable high speed ride at our table seat with interesting conversation with the travelers across the aisles. Because we were seeing the French and then the English countryside for the first time, it felt like that adventure I’d been yearning for when I took the Amtrak.

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After our days in London, we continued on to Edinburgh, Scotland– again by train but not with the luxury of a table and this time with a fussy child and inattentive parents sitting behind us.

After a days of touring, my husband and I parted in Edinburgh for him to return to the States and for me to go on my solo journey to Iona in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. I felt like I had as a girl; I was on a trip of discovery. How I’d looked forward to visiting Scotland, homeland of my ancestors, and how I felt the anticipation build for my week with the Iona Community at The Abbey. What would it be like in our international group exploring the theme, “The Pilgrimage of Life”?

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I sat at a table seat and was joined by a Scottish couple across from me. They were so friendly and the man was eager to help, telling me about towns as we passed, suggesting places I should visit. A passenger across the aisle joined in our conversation, and when he learned I was going on a spiritual pilgrimage to Iona, he told me he was an Elder in his Presbyterian church in Glasgow. He wished me well when he got off near his hiking site.

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I took a video through the train window, not knowing how it would turn out since I’m not that experienced at video. But now, when I look at it, I’m transported to the inside of that Scotrail car, watching with fascination as I try to take in all I can of beautiful Scotland.

Come ride with me. Feel the steady rocking of the train as we speed along the hillside through the fresh morning air. Catch glimpses of the amazing countryside from inside that lively cabin with friendly passengers.

May this ride on a train transport you back to something you longed for in childhood and have realized as an adult.

 

How About You?

Did you have a fascination for trains or some other mode of travel as a child?

What was your experience of that when you were young and over the years?

If you’ve never gotten to explore that fascination, how could you do that now?

 

The Stranger on the Bus

We stood at the West Tisbury shuttle bus stop on a Saturday afternoon in Martha’s Vineyard.  I’d been experiencing that island in Massachusetts for the first time, staying in a hostel for $27.00 a night—the only way I could afford that expensive place.  I’d enjoyed the morning at the Farmer’s Market at the Grange Hall and now I was ready to explore Oak Bluffs. Waiting with me, was a young woman standing off to herself and a man around mid-forties with salt-and-pepper hair, a bit scruffy with a two-day beard who stood alongside me.  Bored with the wait, I started a conversation with the man.

“The weather’s great today, isn’t it?”  I said of the mid-June morning that felt like a crisp fall football day in North Carolina.

“Yes, it really is quite pleasant, I think.  You’ve been shopping, eh?” he responded, and nodded at my bag.

His voice had a slight accent, maybe Scottish, somewhere in the U.K., I thought.

“Yes, it’s a nice market. I had no idea there’d be so much farming here.  I just thought it would be like the islands off our coast in North Carolina.”

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West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, Martha’s Vineyard

We talked about the variety of crops grown in the area.  I asked him where he was from.

“I’m originally from Glasgow, Scotland,” he said.  “I’ve been here sixteen years already, painting houses.  There’s a lot of work on the Vineyard with all the salt and wind on the clapboards.”

The bus came and we ended up sitting in adjacent seats.

We talked about the large immigration of Scottish people to North Carolina.  I told him about the Highland Games in our mountains and the popularity of music that had developed into what was now bluegrass.

“Yeah, the Scottish people have to come here if they want to hear their traditional music.  You can’t hear it in Scotland.  It’s like it came to the States in a time capsule.”

We continued talking about music and then moved on to the topic of Scottish Presbyterians.  I told him about my Grandma Smith who was strong in that tradition and he told me about his sister who lived on the Outer Hebrides in a community of Presbyterians.  He remarked that those islands had a stunning beauty but he wasn’t sure he could live in that remote area.

“They’re so strict they tie up the swings so the children can’t swing on Sunday.”  He chuckled then added, “their church is called ‘Wee Freedom,’ you know the Scottish word for little is w-e-e and that’s the truth about their freedom, they just have a little of it!”  We laughed and he pulled the bell cord and picked up his bag.

“This is my stop. Nice talking with you,” he said and turned to leave.

I couldn’t remember when I’d enjoyed a conversation so much.  I made a mental note to look at a map of Scotland and locate the Hebrides.

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And I did.  Off the western coast of Scotland, there was the inner and outer band of islands, the Inner and Outer Hebrides.  I looked up pictures and saw what he meant by their “stunning beauty.”

From that moment, a seed of desire was planted in me to go to those islands.  That was in 2007.  Eight years later, when preparing for a presentation on pilgrimages as a spiritual discipline, I came across a book about Iona.  I’d never heard of that island in the Inner Hebrides that had been an international pilgrimage site for hundreds of years. Slowly that seed grew and pushed through the ground and developed into a full-grown plant.  I took my pilgrimage to Iona in September of 2017—ten years after that conversation with the stranger on the bus.

I think of that morning in Martha’s Vineyard, how I started that day like every other when I’m on my pilgrimage—praying that God will bless me and the people in my path.  I had no idea, that the Scottish painter would be one of those people and that our conversation would lead me toward Iona.

Last September when I was standing on the shore of the South Beach, I was overwhelmed by the stunning beauty of that remote area, so many hues of blue, the pinkish sand, the strong winds and sudden rains, the sheep and Highland cows that seemed unaffected by the weather.  I marveled at how God had led me to that moment and honored the desire of my heart.

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South Beach, Iona Scotland

How about you?

What chance meeting has led you to a significant discovery in your life?

How could you allow yourself to be moved by God’s spirit so you can be open to the people and places in your path?

Depth of Despair

We sat in front of the television eating our barbeque sandwiches and watching Perry Mason reruns.  My cousin, Linda, had loved that show since she was a twenty-year-old when it was produced in 1961.  I remembered seeing it as a girl, and at the time, I didn’t appreciate how handsome Raymond Burr was—which I saw now.  Linda thanked me for coming to see her and for bringing the North Carolina style barbeque, saying several times, “It’s just not as good in Florida.”

We ate our savory sandwiches with deli coleslaw and kettle fries and a healthy serving of bread-and-butter pickles from a huge Sam’s jar.  It was early afternoon in the 55-and-Over neighborhood of her Gulf Coast community where some of the snowbirds were preparing to return to Canada and other northern destinations.  Linda was debating about continuing her pattern of living between North Carolina and Florida, the burden of maintaining two homes more difficult as she grows older and health problems increase.  A new Perry Mason episode started and I was reminded of how all shows were in black-and-white on our first television, feeling as if I’d slipped back into our family room in the sixties.

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We continued with the show and reminisced about childhood— her memories so different from mine since she’s fourteen years older.  She shared stories I’ve never heard.  I hadn’t realized how much caregiving she’d done in her lifetime—two husbands, her parents, and hardest of all, her younger child—a son, my cousin, Joe.  It had been less than two years since his death.  As a mother, a mother of sons, my heart had broken for Linda.

It was only in the last few years of Joe’s life that I’d gotten to know him.  He’d lived in Virginia until a serious injury at work led to a downward spiral of one complicated medical problem after another.  Eventually, he needed his mother’s care and in his early forties had to move in with her in North Carolina.  I’d see Joe when he came with Linda to visit.  Gradually I got to know him.  When he was finally well enough to attempt a new career, he completed a program to be a pharmacy tech.  He appreciated that as a nurse, I understood some of what he’d studied.  We started talking on the phone and I came to know some of the things he loved.  Like basketball.

The one thing Joe and I didn’t agree on was our favorite college team; he pulled for Duke and I’m a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna– arch rivals.   He was supposed to visit me and we were going to Duke’s campus for him to buy Blue Devils’ team wear.  But that trip had to be canceled twice.  I could hear the disappointment in his voice.  In an act of love, I went there and bought that jersey for him and threw in some Cameron Crazies’ Blue Hair.  I told him he had to wear it when he watched every game and scream like they do.  It was a poor substitute for him being well enough to make the trip, but it provided a bit of humor, a slight boost of hope.

During the weeks before Joe died, he’d been much stronger and was able to do two things he loved: attend a Nascar race and a Kiss Concert.  I knew he loved Nascar, but I didn’t know he was a Kiss Groupie until he texted me a picture, backstage with Gene Simmons and the rest of the band.  He called to tell me what an incredible time he had and how he and Linda were looking forward to visiting us the next weekend.

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But on the following Tuesday, my sister called to say that Joe had died.  I was shocked.  I could not imagine the depth of pain and despair Linda was experiencing.

Sitting in the quiet of Linda’s family room, now eighteen months after Joe’s death, we talked about that shock.  As hard as it was to relive that with her, I was glad that I’d developed a relationship with Joe and had shared some of his last days with him, and now could remember them with Linda.

Before each solo journey, I pray about where I should go and for the people and places in my path.  It was my first pilgrimage in March, and when I left on the 21st, the day before my birthday, a family member texted me to say that day would have been Joe’s birthday.  I didn’t know.

But God did, I thought.

Soon after I arrived, I went ahead and brought it up.

“You know, I don’t think Joe and I ever talked about our birthdays,” I told Linda.  “Guess with ours’ just a day apart, that’s why we understood each other.”

She nodded and said, “Probably so.”

I was glad we could talk openly about what I knew she must be thinking.  When we went out to dinner on my birthday, we toasted me and Joe, looking up to draw him into that meal, acknowledging our wish that he was there with us.

Now, I see Linda as strong in spite of being weak from health problems, resilient in spite of a mother’s worst fear being realized.  She has been to the depths of despair, and I thank God that somehow she is rising from those ashes.

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Happy Wanderer

I should have left an hour earlier.  That’s what I said to myself when I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic for almost an hour, just after leaving Jacksonville, Florida with a seven-hour drive ahead.  My rental car was due back at Raleigh-Durham airport by 8:00 p.m. and I didn’t want to add an extra day of fees.  Besides, it was the end of my trip and I just wanted to get home.  But first I’d have to spend hours on I-95.

There were more slow sections after Jacksonville, with roadwork and onlooker delays for fender-benders.  Funny how it seemed like that road had actually extended in the six days since I’d driven down.  I stopped briefly for bathroom breaks and to fill up on gas.  I’d switch from one radio station to the next, then turn it off and compose a cover letter for my book proposal—saying it aloud to see how it sounded, then listened to a podcast—anything I could do to distract me from looking at the mileage signs—reminding me just how much further I had to go, wanting to pick that car up and fly it.

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Bike ride at Coquina Beach

I filled the drive with thinking of each day of my trip; the cozy birthday dinner with my son, Brooks and his wife, Emily, talking about our grandson due May 5th; visiting with my cousin Linda and sharing family stories; riding my bike under the cover of Australian pines then cooling my feet while walking in the edge of the Gulf; meeting my virtual friend, Jann from Twitter at Starbucks in Orlando; a rainy day at Atlantic Beach working on my book proposal, forced to face it with nothing better to do; driving over the bridges and looking out at the expansive vistas on my way to Amelia Island where I rode my bike on the trail then walked along the Atlantic.

Finally, I pulled into my driveway just after 7:00.  My husband, David, helped me unload the car quickly, dropping the piles of stuff on the couch then we headed to the airport.  I looked like a haggard mess, like I hadn’t slept in days, circles from allergies and tiredness under my eyes, my clothes as if I’d worn them for a week.  We stopped for dinner on our way home.  I was too hungry to care about my appearance, glad to eat in a restaurant instead of my car.

“We’ll have some birthday cake when we get home—since we didn’t celebrate before you left,” David said, while we waited for our food.

I liked the idea of continuing my birthday, and cake would taste good after a spicy fish taco.

Once we were home, I started putting away my things while David prepared my surprise.  He’d bought me a bouquet of flowers with pink roses and snapdragons, and blue hydrangea—my favorite mix.  My yellow cake with strawberry icing and a lemon filling was decorated in an Easter theme with a small duck and cheerful pastels.

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But best of all was David’s card– he always picks great cards.  The colorful flowers were made with embroidered stems and blooms, some with shiny glass accents.  They popped against the black cloth background.

Inside, he wrote:

“Happy Birthday to my happy wanderer!”

Oh, I thought.  I must appear happy in spite of my tiredness.  He sees beyond my haggardness to the heart of me.

It’s true that even with the day of driving, I was happy.  I felt that familiar satisfaction of planning a journey and carrying through with that plan.  With each of the fifteen pilgrimages I’ve completed, my confidence has grown and I’ve experienced greater awareness of God’s grace.

Eating my sweet cake, I felt overwhelming gratitude for David’s support and for all the people and places in my path—even my very long path along I-95.

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card by PAPYRUS

How about You?

What are the things in your life that bring you deep satisfaction?

How do others’ view you when you emerge yourself in that activity?

 

 

Bridge St. Breakfast: People in Our Path

Saturday morning of my Florida pilgrimage began in the usual way; taking my morning walk and praying for God to bless me and the people in my path.  Starting with this intention fills me with curiosity about who I will encounter along the way.  While most of the day would be spent with my cousin, the early hours would be alone at Coquina Beach.  After my walk in the quiet along the shore, I was ready for breakfast, and most especially, ready for coffee.

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Wandering around the area of Bridge Street, I found a restaurant at the City Pier.  I was delighted that my table had a great view of Sarasota Bay and the boats docked at the nearby marina.  There were few other patrons and it would be perfect for a quiet meal and place to write.

My omelet was tasty with its spinach, mushrooms, cheddar cheese, and tomatoes.  How nice to eat a leisurely breakfast—made by someone else.  I watched as folks prepared to sail their vessels and others fished from the dock.  After a while, I pulled out my pen and paper to write my journal notes for the previous day.  If I don’t get things down on the page, I will soon forget.  When I look back at journals from previous pilgrimages, I’m always surprised and delighted by the little details I’ve written down that I’d forgotten, the things that make me feel I’m back in that place.  Sometimes it’s hard to stop and write but it’s a necessary discipline.

My waitress refilled my coffee.

“Thanks so much.  If you get a rush of customers, I’ll be on my way,” I told her.  “This is a great place to write.”

“What do you write?” she asked.

I explained how I’m working on journal notes for my pilgrimage and mentioned that I have a blog.

“Do you like to write?” I asked her, knowing that many who are curious either write or want to.

“No, couldn’t do that,” she responded.  “I paint.”

“And what do you paint?”

“Mostly landscapes and birds.  I sell them in a gallery down the street.”

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Acrylic Painting by Corin Finnie corinfinnie.com

We talked about the enjoyment of creating, how absorbed we become when working on our craft, and how bothersome the business side could be—especially in our current state of ‘personal branding.’  She checked to be sure she wasn’t neglecting her other customers, looking about the room at her tables.  I didn’t want to keep her, but I enjoyed talking to this fellow creative.

“I finally gave in and learned how to do Twitter—something I never thought I’d do,” I confessed to her.  “I’d much rather just write.”

“Well, I’m not as far along as you,” she said, then added, “I just don’t know when I’ll have time to do that.”

“You’re young.  You have plenty of time,” I told her, not quite sure of her age– maybe in her thirties.  Thinking of my recent birthday, turning sixty-three, I felt the press of time, not as many years ahead to accomplish the things I’d like.

We exchanged business cards and promised to follow each other’s work, artist supporting artist.

Sharing your passion dissolves differences, I thought.  It doesn’t matter what age you are when you speak the same language.

When I finished at the restaurant, I walked down the street to the Cove Gallery and Boutique.  I found her paintings and purchased one of a solitary gull.  The painting would always remind me of this person in my path and the conversation about our artistic passions, encouragement for the journey.

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How About You?

What intention/s do you set as you start your day?

What experiences have you had with people in your path?

 

 

Celebrate Your Life

In four days, I’m having another birthday.  My husband, David is just five months older than me and once we hit sixty, several years ago, he took on a particularly disenchanted attitude about having birthdays, saying he just wanted to “forget about it.”  But I came back at him with, “You should celebrate every year of life.”  I’m not sure if I was just trying to be superior by taking the high road, or if I truly have a more positive attitude about aging.  I believe the older you become, the longer you should celebrate.

In my younger years, I waited on others to honor me on My Day.  I was especially ‘sensitive’ around that time, watching to see if folks would remember, hoping they’d choose gifts and paper products for my celebration that I liked.  But sometimes, I’d be disappointed because I have such a strong ability to visualize what I want, that nothing could match the perfection of my imagination.  Once I saw this pattern in myself, I almost dreaded the disappointment of the build-up, then let down, of my birthday.

But when I turned fifty, I took control of my own birthday happiness.

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When David asked if I wanted a party, I quickly responded, “No.  I want a trip.  By myself.”  That was four years after my first Solo Journey to Sedona.  I’d forgotten how to slow down and be more intentional with my time—like I thought I learned when I went through breast cancer.  Instead, I’d gotten back into the over-busy, over-booked pre-cancer way of living.  When I turned fifty, I knew I needed to go away and try again to reset my life.

For that fiftieth birthday present, and five years since my cancer diagnosis—that point I’d been hoping to reach without a recurrence, I went to Jekyll Island, Georgia.  When I was there, I kept remembering that it was my birthday gift.  The entire trip was truly that as I relearned how to play— riding my bike, swimming in the hotel pool, and reading through a thunderstorm while sitting in a wicker rocker on the Vanderbilt cottage porch.  One morning before I headed out on my bike, I read Psalm 103:5 (NIV):

He satisfies my desires with good things,

                                         so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

 That seemed to be the perfect scripture for turning fifty, and perhaps it’s perfect for every year—no matter what age we’re turning.  Now I’m wise enough to see that I can go ahead and act on those unique desires of my heart—whether it’s for a certain design on birthday napkins, picking out my own cake, throwing my own party, or taking off on a journey.

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This year, David asked me how and when I want to celebrate—since I’ll be leaving on my pilgrimage to Florida the day before my birthday.  I’ve decided that today will be my designated birthday and I’ve made reservations for us to eat brunch at Dame’s Chicken and Waffles— a combination that I’ve never tried.  By the evening, I’ll be ready to Swing Dance and will request my birthday song by Van Morrison, “Precious Time.”  It’ll remind me that “precious time is slipping away” — which sounds sad, but because I love to dance to it and love the part about being “queen for a day,” I will feel happy and energized, ready to take on another year.

I’m glad for the chance to Celebrate My Life and I hope you’ll do the same next time you’re turning a year older.

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How about You?

How do you approach getting older?

What are the ways you like to Celebrate Your Life on your birthday?