Iron Sharpens Iron

Today I ate Grandpa’s Fried Breakfast at Cracker Barrel, took Cedar to the emergency vet (he is okay, just a deep gash on his leg), and finished a drawing while starting a watercolor. Pouring rain and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s newest album, Nashville Sound, has been the background noise for this afternoon’s creative outburst.

Can we just take a minute to appreciate the lyrics to the song Something to Love, which I have played on repeat for the last forty five minutes?

I hope you find something to love
Something to do when you feel like giving up
A song to sing or a tale to tell
Something to love, it’ll serve you well

I was born in a tiny southern town
I grew up with all my family around
We made music on the porch on Sunday nights
Old man with an old guitar smoking Winston Lights

Old women harmonizing with the wind
Singing softly to the savior like a friend
They taught me how to make the chords and sing the words
I’m still singing like that great speckled bird

I hope you find something to love
Something to do when you feel like giving up
A song to sing or a tale to tell
Something to love, it’ll serve you well

Tonight we’re lying on a blanket in the yard
The wind is cold the sky is dark and the ground is hard
But your momma loves to count the stars at night
So if I get a little chill that’s alright

I hope you find something to love
Something to do when you feel like giving up
A song to sing or a tale to tell
Something to love, it’ll serve you well

You were born on a hot late summer day
We turned you loose and tried to stay out of your way
Don’t quite recognize the world you call home
Just find what makes you happy girl and do it ’til you’re gone

 

Hot. Damn.

I think that is it. That is enough. May it serve you as well as it has for me today.

Nests.

I think I may go home in a week or two. That is, my mother’s home. It is about that time. Home is the necessary reset button. It is the nest, the womb, and the blanket you carried as a child.

 

We have a bird’s nest in the fake lilies outside of the front door that hang desperately hoping one will notice the attempt at beauty rather than the dust. Or the nest.

When I first noticed the nest, I shifted the bottom of the decor just to make sure nothing was in there. As I was stood on a chair and carefully moved it, Mama Bird came flying toward my head. I shrieked, jumped off the chair, and stumbled as my dogs laughed. Before I said a power word at her, I noticed her three little egg babes deep in the nest.

Every day, more wisely than the first attempt, I stand on the chair about three feet from the nest and look Mama Bird square in the eyes (with distance…in space and gaze). I want to hold her in my hand, as she is a quaint and plump little mama. Like Merryweather, the blue fairy from Sleeping Beauty. Any day now I expect her to change my outfit from pink to blue. Or at least my eyes.

Does everyone long for and protect the nest? I certainly protect the memory of my first nest while believing in my new nest. That it can even become one. But it is difficult.

Maybe it is because we are all ethereal, made of dust and experience and the good dark chocolate. Similar to chalk or jellyfish. I can’t help but think the restless longing for home will always exist. Even when we are here, it is not enough. Like John Mellencamp sang, Hey Jesus, can you give me a ride back home? I’ve been out here in this world too long on my own. I won’t bother you no more if you can just get me in the door. Hey Jesus, can you give me a ride back home?

Unlike John Cougar, I plan on continuing to bother Jesus about my fascination and desperation for it. I want Him to know I am committed to home. To mine, to my mama’s, and to His. You need someone to fluff the pillows and redecorate the guest bathroom in Heaven? I’m your girl.

I also blame Him, in some part, for the constant whirling in my head of: When can I go see Mama and Meme’? Let me look for a house on Zillow for two hours. Am I lying on the couch? I better get some laundry going. It is never quiet in this attic.

You see, being still is not in my skill set. Ability to memorize someone’s drink order from two months ago and who Ryan Reynold’s first wife was? Yep, I got that. But quiet? Meditative? Nope.

And I hate when God calls me out on it. (I think it was part of a secret intention when He matched me with my husband, who is a little too good at being still and doing nothing.)

This morning, after coffee and reading and bird snooping, I accidentally confessed something to God about my control issue. Although it came as no surprise to Him-in fact, I am sure he fist bumped an angel or one of my grandparents after I said it. During a prayer for Mondays, for coworkers, for patience toward unsweet tea drinkers, I caught myself admit aloud: God, I need You more than I need a plan.

I plan on going home one day. I plan on living in a different place one day. I cannot control how the plan will go; I may build my nest from wood or I may build my nest from gold.

 

Back to the Drawing Board

The, “We are sorry to inform you” rejection letter came on the same day as Papa’s funeral. I had been looking for it for weeks and I suppose the Enemy decided that day of all days would be the best for deepening disappointment. Kick me while I’m down sort of thing. Or maybe it is Divine Intervention instead. Too early to tell.

When the I pulled a thin rectangular envelope out of the mailbox instead of a heavy packet, I knew immediately. This was not my first rodeo. Yep, I am quite familiar with hearing no from this school since I had gotten the same response this time last year.

My phone started playing the melody that lets me know when my mom is calling. She was calling to see how the funeral went but because of this recent unfavorable reply, I really did not want to talk to her.

“Hello,” I caved. It is my mother after all. Easier to answer than to call back.

“Hey honey, just seeing how today went.”

She started out quiet as I gave her details from the service. Lots of people I didn’t know talking to me. Open casket. A Mason service. Got to wear that navy blue dress we bought in Virginia. Good to hear the stories about Papa. When there was nothing else left to say about it, I brought up the letter. By the time I got “it’s a no” out of my mouth, she had gone from somber listener to angry protester.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. They didn’t. Ali, are you seriousHow?? Why!?” When the sentences started becoming questions her tone got louder. This was not going well.

I calmly explained that my scores simply were not as good and, believe it or not Mom, there are people out there who are better than me, who scored better than me, and who got in to the program. It was no use. She’d stopped listening to me as soon as she realized I had nothing else to say about it, which gave her more time to debate like she was on CNN.

Then she did the thing I’d been fearing since middle school. She threatened to call the school. My adviser. The head of the program.

I am twenty nine.

It was not enough that I’d already explained how my low test score was what did it, she wanted to know why they chose to personally victimize and reject my very character and existence over the past two years. Me, Ali, daughter of Kelly. High Priestess of Failure.

“Mama, that’s enough. Do not do that.” I begged, growing agitated. I did not plan on ever seeing or speaking to anyone from the school again after this but just in case, I did not want to be known as the grown ass woman whose mother cussed out the admission faculty. I understood why she was upset, she’d seen me work hard toward this for so long that it felt like an injustice to be told no. But what good would it do to tell that to a group of faculty who’d already made their decision?

I finally calmed her down. Her silence was more frightening than her yelling because it did not assure me she wouldn’t make that phone call after we hung up. (She’d been googling the name of the program coordinator while we were on the phone.) Annoyed and disappointed that I felt, again, like I’d disappointed her, I curtly got off the phone.

A few hours later I received a text from her. I did not mean to upset you. You’ll understand one day. No matter how old your baby is, you want the best for her. You want her to have all the opportunities she deserves and it’s painful when things don’t happen like you want them too. I love you.

 

Oddly enough, you know where the next day led me? To buy a sketchbook. Something I have not wanted any part of for the past three years. You see, all my life I’d been known as an artist. But graduate school, three years ago, had killed something inside me. Even though I was in the program, it too, had been a rejection of sorts. And it did feel very personal.

But during that moment, the feeling from within that told me to go get the sketchbook was stronger than avoidance and anxiety and resentment and fear. This feeling did not come quietly. It came passionately, with purpose. It said not to be afraid. It said I could be absolutely free and absolutely futile with it. There was no pressure.

I am reminded of something the French writer and artist Andre’ Breton said: “Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.”

The Young and The Old

Every few hours in the hospital where my grandfather died, a lullaby sang throughout the hallway from the intercom in the corner. As I sat beside him blowing the bad, hot coffee in a small white styrofoam cup, the silence was interrupted by a twinkling melody. Replacing the reflection of death’s finality with the refreshing impression of a newborn putting stars in it’s mother’s eyes. Inside the room, an end. Outside the room, a beginning.

After the last breath was taken and the last goodbye said, I went home to look for photographs. I had taken some from their house a few years back when I did not know if I would ever be in that house again.

In the pictures they are young, my grandmother is tiny and my grandfather is tall and lanky. Not the same looking people I had known during these last few years. I am told that they were fun. That they belonged to a club called the “Wing Dings”, a group of married couples who got together and played golf and danced to records. At the funeral, one man told me, “Everyone loved your grandfather- you couldn’t help but love him and Betty!” Betty, my grandmother, was full of wit and sass. She called my grandfather an “old fool” and “her Georgia cracker”.

Since I do not have a child, I often wonder what my grandparents, the ones who have passed and the ones still living, would be like as great grandparents. Especially if the baby did not look like them.

What I mean is, my husband and I have thought a great deal about adopting a baby who is not white. Not because we want to be different or seek the attention, but because we believe that baby would change us and challenge us. That baby would be born in to a world that is certainly more accepting outwardly but not necessarily internally. That baby could soften the hearts of an entire family. It could break a generational cycle of judgment, help put an end to those quiet jokes, and even change the language spoken in our small, Southern town.

It is a lovely dream: the smell of babies as they press against you when they sleep. I even include their thick drool and thick poop in my dreams (remember we are talking about real life babies and not Late Baroque cherubs).

 

 

Further Introspection of Self Obsession

More time was been spent with my father yesterday than in the last few years. When you aren’t around someone for a long time you maintain an idea of what they are like. The same way you imagine a character in a book you read. With books, you are given words without a face. With memory, you are given a face without the words. The conversations you once had exist in your mind like the teacher from Charlie Brown. Only when you are around them do you realize which thoughts you had were true and which ones were not.

My need to expel irrelevant information is hereditary. It is a condition handed down to me by my father called the Kicking Condition. The one where you frequently get kicked under the table by a loved one discretely begging  you to shut up because what you are saying is making everyone else uncomfortable. I like to think, with help from God and husband, that my condition has lessened over the years. Only at a few family functions does my husband plant his shoe on my shin. This is better than at all of them.

One positive side of being self obsessed is that you rarely meet a stranger, as you’re dying to talk about yourself to anyone who will listen. Toddlers, fellow doctor office goers, ducks at the park. Isn’t everyone begging to know what’s going on in my head?

No, everyone is not. And more importantly to me, neither is my father.

Before I opened the door to ICU Room 2, I peeked through the window blinds. My chest raised with trepidation as I buzzed myself in. There sat my father who sat beside his father. One with a book in his hand, one with an oxygen mask over his mouth. Mine got up and hugged me. He has always done that. I see it more as having it done to me as I do not reciprocate the need for hugging (see my other post about that).

I sat down in the chair on the opposite side, with Papa in between us. Always the link and the bridge between us. The one my father tries to cross over to get to me. Luckily, it’s more of a drawbridge; I pull back one side when I feel the need to protect myself.

He is not so crazy that you cannot have a conversation with him. In fact, this is tactic for falling into the trap of dispelling everything about your life. Things not asked but pulled from you. From the protective place inside where I’ve always managed to dodge conversations about where I live or what I do. Maybe it also comes from the paranoia that lives in me and tells me to keep things private. Not to repress them, but not to parade them either.

You see, my father does not ask me what I’ve been up to. Like other fathers who have not talked to their child in years. Or in months or days. He does not know the names of my dogs, what kind of music I like, or my husband’s birthday. He does not know how fond I am of elderly people and Jesus.

He never asks of me but always offers every feeling and opinion about his own life because he, like me, wants me to know him. The only way we know how to get people to know us is to tell everything we’ve ever done in hopes that they will love us, forgive us, accept us. What my father does not realize is that I’m just another captured audience. I nod kindly and reply, “Oh, wow” to his stories and tall tales.

To borrow a line from Big Fish, “In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn’t always make sense and most of it never happened… but that’s what kind of story this is.”

 

Reading Seasons

The evening thunderstorms will soon turn in to heat lightning. The showers will turn in to thick, sticky humidity. Summer’s finest brew. Our utility bill will go up as more showers will be necessary. Our refrigerators and air conditioning units will run a bit more fiercely in the next couple months. It is hard to believe it is almost June.

So many years of schooling left me with a permanent belief that summer exists as a break for all people, not just students. Self-assigned vacations and early days off seem necessary during the months of June and July. Why should the young ones have all the fun?

One of the best parts about summer break in school was receiving the summer reading list on the last day of class. I know, most kids see it as homework during the summer. But I loved being told what books were good for me. It was much easier to have a list than to try figuring out the Dewey Decimal System at the local library. Every reader will scoff at this but thank God for search engines now because I still do not quite understand it. Maybe someone should write a book to explain it. Or a poster. Or a Venn Diagram.

I still keep a few of the books from the summer reading list in my library. Send No Blessings, Number the Stars, A Wrinkle in Time. I’d drift off into the hot nights through the inside of a book. Where new worlds introduced themselves to me. Where characters became friends and family.

Whenever we had to fill out a questionnaire in school that asked to state our favorite book, I’d always write “The Bible”. It is the obvious, pageant contestant answer. A winning reply nonetheless among Southern judges. Like teachers, church folk, and other people’s mamas and grandmamas.

In truth, I hated reading the Bible. It bored me to sleep. I’d do it out of obligation or guilt and sometimes hope I’d felt something out of it. I wanted to hear the call which would make me desire to read it. But a man named Abraham killing his son Isaac seemed way too brutal and far less interesting than who Stacey was dating in The Babysitter’s Club.

I’d even go so far as to write a particular verse on paper and hang it on the ceiling above my bed. Partly an attempt to keep face, partly a way to have something from the Bible memorized in case it came up at the next TIGER Club event (an organization of teenagers, which stood for Teens In God’s Eyes Roar- the roaring an homage to the Saluda Tiger football team as well as teenage angst and hormones. I think).

When I’d sneak open a Roald Dahl novel instead of the Good Book, I felt shame. A feeling, I learned later, that is not of God.

I still struggle having, to quote it as young church people so popularly do, “quiet time”. Maybe because even when I’m not speaking, I don’t feel quiet. And when it is quiet, I turn on background noise.

I realize quiet time is not necessarily to be taken in a literal sense. It is one-on-one time in the Bible, studying God’s word, and chatting with Him. It directs your path and focus for the day. I in You, You in me.

Just maybe, for some of us who are not good at quiet, there are other means of communication with the Big Man along with reading. Like running. Or coffee outside when the sun rises, glistening the dew on the grass. There’s still morning chatter going on then, birds chirping, school buses beginning their routes, and dogs chasing squirrels along the fence, but it is a fresh kind of quiet. The kind you can only get once in a day.

It is not difficult to commit a few minutes a day reading God’s word. But on the days when it doesn’t happen, I’ve stopped believing God is angry or disappointed about it. After all, He knows we are easily distracted by the gifts of His creation. Such as poetry or pets.

 

If you (two) have been following this whole month, I’d love to hear feedback. The only way I know to grow as a writer is to keep at it and take advice (or at least try to).

What was the most interesting to read? What needs improving? Anything you’d like to hear more about? Let me know either by comment or direct email at alihstigall@gmail.com

Thanks for following.