Monthly Archives: April 2015

Not Me

The creeping green vines of jealousy sprout early in big families like mine.  Sharing a bedroom, bathroom counter space, a bag of candy, or anything else can either make you or break you.  There’s this insidious little concept of fairness that creeps into the vocabulary of even very young children.  Where does it come from?  Parents don’t teach it.  Now, Forrest, look, your piece of cake isn’t nearly as big as your sister’s.  Let mommy make it perfectly exactly measurably the same size.  Let’s just weigh it on this little scale to be sure it’s equal and exquisitely-in-all-ways fair.

Yeah, no.

Maybe it’s those little labels we stick on ourselves that come from a phrase or word that may have been spoken only once out loud in our earshot:  the smart one, the pretty one, the funny one, the athlete, the peacemaker.   From then on, we perversely focus on the opposite, the adjectives that didn’t make it onto our particular self-label.

Once that habit takes hold, it’s easy to drift into other areas, the thing she has that you don’t, the skill or talent he’s got that you never learned.   When I was about 10, a girl I knew owned the perfect storybook dappled pony that I coveted with all my being.  Worse, she barely paid attention to it, rubbing salt into my ugly desirous wound.  My want for that sweet pony quickly turned into open contempt for its owner.  She was obviously mean, spoiled, hateful, and likely the spawn of Satan.  None of that was true, of course, but pony-lust can be a burning coal of nasty.

In sixth grade it was my classmate Debbie’s boobs.  She was approaching a C-cup and apparently owned only outfits that proved it.   I was always a year younger than the kids in my class, which only exaggerated the differences.  My chest was practically concave in comparison to hers.  Nothing else about me appeared to be blooming except the thickening jealousy vines.  For several years, my brother called me “mosquito bite,” a nickname he dreamed up with all the sensitivity of a bulldozer.

The trickle from the jealousy faucet was just so hard to turn off.  It leaked into the fissures and crevices inside, those that were empty of all the things I wasn’t.  Instead of being happy for other people’s successes, even very good friends and family, inside I was that pouty child shouting, “It’s not FAIR!”  How come SHE gets to have a cool job and travel all over the world?  Why does HER house look so cute and magazine-ish?   SHE sits down and effortlessly writes beautiful resonating stories that get published immediately while I hunch over the keyboard chewing my fingernails to turn out spider puke.

It’s not a good place to be, that Planet Not Me.  This planet is an exercise in constant comparison where the answer to everything is “not me.”   Who’s skinny and perky and wears a size 6?  Not me!  Who’s got perfectly straight white teeth and no gray hair?  Not me!  Who can play a musical instrument and dance like J. Lo?  You guessed it, not me.  Being on this planet makes you feel low and bitter and makes you send wishes for small bad things to happen to these people you imagine lead magical, charmed lives.   Just small things.  I’m not a monster.

It turns you into an attention-craving comparison addict.  You’re forever comparing your beginnings to other people’s middles, your insides to other people’s outsides.  It’s apples and oranges, or more accurately, apples and chicken poop.  The Neverland of Wishful Thinking (a.k.a.,  filtered look-who-I’m with-when-you’re-not Instagram shots, look-how-clever-status updates, and the look-what-you’re-not-doing on Pinterest) only makes it worse.

The good news is that you can leave that planet any time.  Just hop right off and brush its dust from your feet.   Certainly, there are plenty of things we are not and even more things that we cannot perform with finesse and verve like others.  To dispel your inevitable idealized vision of myself, for instance, I’ll tell you that among other things, I do not eat kale, tofu, or sushi.  I do not drink smoothies with or without added protein.  I do not exercise thrice weekly, train for or run actual marathons, or use essential oils of any kind.  In addition, my heels are not buffed, I do not wear sexy underwear on a daily basis.  I sometimes let the laundry pile up, watch morning TV, and eat Girl Scout thin mints by the sleeve.

I do not know the difference between words like tulle and toile.  I plant container gardens with sincere intentions that by the end of summer look like victims of radiation sickness.  I occasionally make mac & cheese from a box–with powdered “cheese”–and serve it to my offspring.  I have been known to fall asleep at night without cleansing, toning, and moisturizing.

I have come to own all of the Mess That Is Me, even embrace it.  Instead of lamenting all of the “not me’s,” I have started hacking away at the vines (which over the decades have become Jack-and-the-Beanstalk worthy) and replanting little seeds of grace.  This is how you disembark from Planet Not Me and get rid of the urge you had last week to key that girl’s car in some misguided attempt at karmic revenge for her great hair and adorable dress.  My van sports a 0.0 sticker on its back window, revealing to the world my lack of half-marathon completion.  I’ve had more people stop me to laugh about that in solidarity than if I’d had five 13.1’s plastered all over the back.

My seeds of grace are compliments received, spontaneous hugs from people who know me and hug me anyway, encouragement and appreciation gathered from here and there.  Things that feed my soul and whisper you are enough.  Sisters and girlfriends who get me and can sprinkle laughter and doses of humility into my day.  It’s funny how we can go from judgy contempt in one moment to withered sniveling self-pity in the next.  The whiplash of comparison is brutal.

Jealousy’s opposite virtue is contentment.   And, sorry folks, but the only way to experience a virtue’s grace is to actually practice it.  It may not be fair, but it’s enough.

Oh, and that scratch down the side of your car?  It wasn’t me.


Turtle Crossing

It’s spring, which means you can hear the spring peepers singing in the April rain puddles, and turtles are on the move.  As if I needed more worry in my day, for some reason they often feel the need to cross a road like the proverbial chicken.   I’m that person who stops the van in the middle of the street to usher the little guys off the asphalt onto the safety of the grass.  Not a big fan of reptiles, but I make an exception for the turtles.

I’m always sad when I see a crushed shell on the road, some careless driver’s handiwork.  It’s not like they’re darting across like those schizophrenic squirrels on steroids:  Left!  No, right!  Fake to the left, then dash right!   You’d think the slow and careful turtles would be easy to avoid.

When the kids were smaller, I’d pull over, hop out and usually bring the turtle over to where they were strapped in so they could see its little clawed feet and its head, tucked tightly into the clamped shell.   Here, we have the Eastern box turtle, with a mottled orange and green shell, and the snapping turtle, with a pointed beak and spiky shell.

Yesterday, as I was lifting turtle #374 out of harm’s way, it occurred to me how rescuing turtles is a lot like raising kids.  We see our children blithely heading down a certain path, one that seems perfectly reasonable to them, but we can see a bigger picture from above, the potential for a crushed shell, so we lovingly reach down and redirect.

They tend to react in one of four ways, whether they’re toddlers or teens.  Do you recognize any of these?

The Clamp Down:  they see you coming and the force field goes up.  Tail and feet pull in, head disappears, and the soft underbelly is protected at all costs (think teenager).  Maybe if they ignore you, you won’t see them and you’ll just go away.  Nothing here to see, people.  Move along.  You’re not getting behind that barrier without some serious artillery.

The Squirm:  at your approach, they make a panicked dash for the nearest escape.  If you pick them up (think toddler tantrum), they suddenly appear to have five arms and six legs, all twirling madly in mid-air.  If I just move around enough, she’ll put me down and I am home free.   Freedom as the only goal, they dart in a hundred different directions, without reason.

The Bodily Function:  usually attempted after the Clamp Down or the Squirm have failed.  This is an attempt to so totally repulse you that you just let them do whatever it was they were planning.  I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to rescue a box turtle only to have it pee profusely on me (to the great amusement of my children).  I choose to see it as the only gesture of gratitude they’re capable of.   Peeing, burping, odors of various kinds–all are acceptable if they successfully ward you off.

The Come At Me, Bro:   undisguised aggression.  Leave me alone or I’ll take you down with me.  I once tried to help a small snapping turtle, and that little sucker kept turning to face me in the road as I circled it, actually lunging at me to get a bite.  I finally lowered myself to its level and said, Fine!  Stay there if you think you know so much, and see what happens!   Often this type is so determined to stay on its chosen path that you just have to cringe when the speeding truck tires straddle it and hope that it lives to get a better attitude.

When my brother was very small, my dad brought home a snapping turtle from a fishing trip.  He warned my brother that this sort of turtle was always in a bad mood.  My grandfather told him repeatedly that if a snapping turtle got a hold of you, it would not let go until it heard thunder.  It sat in a box in the kitchen while we ate lunch.  At some point, conversation halted as we all heard a crash from the kitchen.  When my mother ran in to investigate, my brother stood there beside the empty turtle’s box, his blue eyes wide and innocent.  “Where did the turtle go, Mike?”  A silent shrug.  Then a slight rustle from the trash can.  A dazed turtle was trying to climb its way out of the Hefty bag.

Turns out, the temptation of that creature in the box had been too much.  The moody turtle had of course bitten him when he’d tried to pick it up.  Startled by the pain and the refrain of my grandfather’s warning about thunder, he’d flung the turtle across the room where it had landed in the trash.

From truck tires to trash cans, this type of turtle will no doubt have the hardest life.   It seems determined to rack up as many hard knocks as possible in its refusal to accept help or do anything it doesn’t want to.

If we’re being honest, it’s not just parenting where we see these types of reactions to correction.  I recognize myself in at least two of these.  How often have I been the one in the middle of the road, facing an oncoming Mack truck that I don’t know is on its way, when God reaches down to lovingly redirect?  Instead of being grateful, how often have I kicked and screamed, sulked and turned away, certain that I know better, in a determined attempt to stay onturtle crossing my own path?

While I might eventually get where I am headed, how much easier and less perilous would it be to yield and be ushered there by one who has the bigger picture?   With each turtle I rescue, I feel an elbow’s nudge in my side:  see how easy that was?   Wasn’t such a big deal, was it?  It also gives me a little more empathy for my children.  I get it.  I know the struggle.   Just another turtle crossing.

The Right Consistency

I learned exactly zero domestic skills from my mother.   It wasn’t due to her lack of trying to impart them.  With a needle and thread, she crafted quilts, clothing, and toys.  With a few things from the pantry, she whipped up deliciousness nightly.   She could fold towels and fitted sheets with military precision.   Early on, I gave up on the sewing; I hadn’t the patience.  My “folded” fitted sheets still look like wrinkled irregular lumps in an otherwise neat stack of linens.

When I was a little older and had realized that it wasn’t just the magical Kitchen Elves who created the wonderful smells wafting into the living room where I sat, usually with my nose in a book, I did start to show some curiosity about how to make things besides pop tarts and cold cereal.

The problem was my mother was taught by her mother, a quintessential Southern cook.   When we’d visit my grandparents in Panama City, Mammaw would be bustling around in her frozen-in-the-1950’s-kitchen, making huge quantities of cheese grits, from-scratch biscuits with special “Mammaw butter” enhanced with buttermilk, and mounds of light and fluffy scrambled eggs.  Her cobblers were legendary, her fried chicken a lost art in this era of kale and protein smoothies.

I’d hover around the oven like a bee drawn by honey, waiting for those flaky biscuits to emerge.  Once or twice, when I got bored of climbing the trees in the yard or trapping blue crabs with my brother, she tried to show me how it was done.   Something about flour, milk, and salt, but I don’t remember the rest.  I tried to write it down.  Wait.  How much milk again?  “Oh, you know, about this much.”  Well, how much is that?  A tablespoon?  “Just til it looks right.”   How do I know when it looks right?   “Just add it until it’s the right consistency.”  She was getting frustrated, stirring with more vigor than necessary.   I gave up, content to just observe from afar.

My mother was the same way.  I’d call her and ask for a particular recipe for one of my favorites.  That special lasagna sauce?  Well, you have to add a little sugar.  Right.  How much is a little?  Which one of the measuring spoons in my drawer do I use for that?   Heavy sigh over the phone.   You just have to taste it to know.

No written directions!  Chaos!  Culinary anarchy!  Who could cook anything with this insanity?  Somehow, you’re just supposed to know how to go rogue with the cookie recipe printed on the Tollhouse packaging.   I know it says to add one cup (2 sticks) of butter, but really you should use only one stick and half a cup of shortening.   What?  Why?  My Type-A orderly brain would go into panic mode when given these types of suggestions.

And then there was cole slaw.  If you’re from the South, you’ve got to have a go-to cole slaw recipe for family gatherings and summer cookouts.  My mother had one. Hers was the only cole slaw I would ever eat for many years.  After she died, I lost the taste of cole slaw right along with her.  No one else’s could ever equal it; they were always too vinegar-y or too mayonnaise-y.

slaw shredderSome years ago, I was lolly-gagging (as my dad would say) at a yard sale and stumbled upon what looked like a medieval torture device.  But I knew it for what it really was:  an exact replica of my mother’s cole slaw shredder.  Eureka!   It was a steel tripod with a hand crank with interchangeable barrels for different grating settings.  You’d push a wedge of cabbage or carrot through the top while turning the crank and perfect shreds would come out the barrel right into my great grandmother’s green Homer Laughlin orange blossom bowl.  I already had the bowl.  My mother had painstakingly scoured antique stores for several of them to be sure each of us had at least one.   No kitchen was complete without a “Grandmother Bonnie bowl.”   She died before ebay was a thing; she could have done some serious damage with ebay.

Now, now after all these years I could make mom’s cole slaw and recreate that childhood pleasure!   On the way home from the yard sale, I stopped at the grocery store for bowlcabbage and carrots.  Having happily shredded both into the obligatory green bowl, I called one of my sisters for the next step.  “I’m making mom’s cole slaw,” I said, perhaps a tad manic in my excitement.  “What do I do after I’ve shredded everything?”   You have to add dill pickle juice.  “Great!” I said, grabbing a jar with one hand and wedging the phone between my shoulder and ear.  “I’ve got some right here!  How much?”

“Oh, y’know, til it tastes right.”   Seriously?  I felt like Charlie Brown having fallen for the football gag…again.   I finished making it, but it wasn’t exactly how I remembered.  I put the grating contraption up on the topmost shelf of my pantry, where it sits in shame gathering dust to this day.  I had such great hopes for it.

I will sometimes grudgingly eat cole slaw now, but every bite is a disappointment.  I limp along with my version of the lasagna sauce.   Every batch of my chocolate chip cookies is always made with half butter, half shortening, although I still do not know why.

I ain’t no Rachel Ray or Martha Stewart by any stretch.   But I’ve begun to get the “consistency” thing in other areas.  I hear people talk about trying to achieve balance in their lives, between work and family and all the rest.   News stories are popping up about “free range” parenting versus the prevalent “helicopter” type.  We struggle with purposeful self-improvement and spiritual depth versus binge watching Netflix for an entire weekend.

How do you know when you’ve got it right?  What do the media, the magazine quizzes, the current gurus say?   For me, it’s a matter of intuition.   A little of this, a little of that, not too much of any one thing.   It’s not a matter of the exact right bowl or accessory.  Taste frequently and when you’ve reached the right consistency, you’ll know.   More of those “ahh” moments of joy will pop up–with your spouse, your kids, your work.  Formulas and recipes, even for left-brained personalities like mine, usually aren’t the way true masterpieces are made.

The Bunny Trail

It’s time for more chocolate.  Valentine’s Day has begun to blur in distant memory, and Christmas stocking loot has long since been picked over.  With the long span of desolation before Halloween’s bounty, enter The Easter Basket.  Jelly beans, Peeps, plastic eggs filled with various delights, and the giant chocolate rabbit towering over it all—that should last at least a week.

dressed up for Easter Sunday
dressed up for Easter Sunday

Easter Sundays when I was a kid were made for dressing up and going to church.  We didn’t go so far as the traditional bonnets, but I remember the pinchy patent-leather shoes and starchy stiff dresses that I wore while squirming in the pew, heady with the incense the white-robed priest waved through the aisles.   Easter mass always ran longer than regular Sundays.  After weeks of Lenten fish-on-Fridays, I was eager to get home for the Basket of Joy, but it always seemed God&Jesus had other plans.

We had your basic straw baskets with a long handle.  364 days a year they lived on top of the china hutch in the dining room.  When we woke up Easter morning and they were no longer in their lofty perch, we couldn’t wait to find them.   The bunny, that human-sized, Santa-like creature, would hide our baskets and we’d have to search to see what he’d left us.  One very disappointing year, the big chocolate bunny was white chocolate–which is no chocolate at all, in my opinion.  I tried to trade with my brother, but he was no fool.  That year my bunny sat unwrapped, its strange blue candy eyes staring out from the cellophane.   I would never free him.  White chocolate, indeed.

How to eat that large bunny was a puzzle.   Did you bite his ears off first, so he couldn’t hear? Maybe a foot so he could no longer hop?  His stub of a tail seemed the most innocuous place to start.  The end was inevitable, but at least you could ease him into the idea.  I had a rampant imagination as a child, and every year consuming the rabbit was agonizing.  But he was chocolate, after all, and it was as unavoidable as Easter mass.

my sister, Terri, hunting eggs in what appears to be tennis shoes and a spring-ish ladies' nightie.
my sister, Terri, hunting eggs in what appears to be tennis shoes and a spring-ish ladies’ nightie.

After lunch, we’d hunt for eggs that my father would hide in the yard.   Days before, my mother had mixed up a concoction of vinegar and food coloring, and we’d eagerly dyed the hard-boiled eggs, dunking them repeatedly in every color until they were not so much the happy pastel colors she intended as they were a murky earthy brown.  Better for my father to hide them that way; they blended in with the bushes.  Even my older sisters, usually too cool for such things, would participate.  After that, I was done with the eggs.  They’d been handled and hunted, cracked and smushed, left under shrubs to be found in the heat of a Floridian afternoon.  I would never actually eat them.  Plus, there aren’t many things nastier than hard-boiled eggs.  Except maybe white chocolate.

I’d go to bed that night having eaten more candy than was wise, and throughout the week, I’d get to take some to school in my lunchbox to prolong the sweetness.  By the following Sunday, there wasn’t much left in the basket other than mismatched plastic eggs and a tangled mess of Easter grass that had moist jelly beans stuck in it.   Eventually my father would get sick of yelling at us to pick up the Easter grass that got trailed all over the house and the baskets would retire back up to the penthouse on the china hutch for another year.

Ben can’t smile big enough–he’s so happy to see the bunny

I don’t remember ever actually visiting the Easter Bunny, but for awhile, with my own children, we made the annual pilgrimage to the mall to see the cotton-tailed giant himself.  Strangely, they were not afraid of him, despite the fact that no real rabbit they’d ever seen had vacant unblinking eyes or stood six feet tall.  Unlike with Santa, they never sat in his lap screaming in terror.  Children usually have one of three responses to large characters like this:  (1) sheer, primeval terror;  (2) desperate, maniacal love;  or (3) a strange violent urge to whale on the poor creature like the padded-suit guy in self-defense classes.  Thankfully, my children were in the second classification and we never had startling bunny encounters at the mall.

The Bunny visited our house much the same way he did when I was a child.  The kids would always have to find their hidden baskets somewhere around the house on Easter morning.  They picked through the colored straw grass to find the treasures hidden inside, and then we’d head to church to reflect on why we even had Easter baskets in the first place.  It was about love, not candy.  In the afternoon, we’d hunt eggs all through the yard–plastic eggs, no smelly hard-boiled ones at my house.

For many years we hosted a party for our friends and their children.  We would easter groupround up baby bunnies or chicks for them to hold and pet.   Once we borrowed a lamb for the event, which we had to bottle feed every few hours throughout the night.  Why?  Because baby animals!  After a group meal, we’d line up all the kids to unleash them on the yard for a massive egg hunt.  Watching the youngest toddle around carefully picking up an egg here and there was so sweet.  The older ones ran pell-mell through the yard in full-on competition mode.   Afterwards, there was always a grand exchange of favorite candy and faces smeared in chocolate.

You can debate the merits of Peeps and jelly beans all day, but the faith, family and friends that are the focus of Easter are what make it one of my favorite holidays.   As long as there’s no white chocolate. 😉