Saturday, September 1, 2018

Fragrant Threads

"That's my favorite scent," my great Aunt Helen said every time she drove me past the orange groves on Monte Vista Avenue. I was nine and ten and eleven and twelve and so on. After some deep, slow inhaling, she would go on, "I just love the smell of orange blossoms!" Wow, she really does like that smell, I said to myself, since she tells me about it every single time we pass this way. I wondered whether she thought I forgot what her favorite smell was, if she were to question me about it, I might fail the test. I wondered whether she forgot she had passed that news on to me dozens of times before.

She was savoring and relishing something that gave her delight. Looking back forty years later, I believe she most likely spoke the same words aloud when she was driving alone. I just happened to overhear her gratitude for something that triggered joy in her. I just happened to be sitting on the sidelines of her worship.

I have other piecemeal memories of her. The way she sang, "Yoohoo," when me and my five siblings would enter her home. She sang the same tune when she and Aunt Bu would come over to my family's house. I knew that I knew that I was her favorite of the Carver Kids, and everyone else knew it too. She held the purse strings in her family (she and her two sisters lived together, none ever marrying), and she sometimes spent some of what was in that purse on me. I remember a red bathing suit that was purchased for me while all the Carver Kids were there. It really wasn't fair, but she did it anyway. She was at the hospital when I was born, the story is told, while my dad was at work. Maybe that is why Aunt Helen felt a special bond with me.

She was frugal and opinionated, principled, a horrible cook, sharp, and conservative.  A retired physical education teacher, she was slim and agile and measured under five feet tall. Aunt Bu, one of her older sisters, used to bellow, "Merry Christmas!" as we arrived to their home, no matter what month it was. We soon learned she wasn't joking. As dementia worsened, she babbled things that made no sense but babbled them with pleasant feeling and expression. When we drove to day outings, picnics and the like, Aunt Bu read the words on every billboard we drove by out loud. Aunt Helen, long before "Prevention" magazine was a thing, subscribed and tried vitamins and healthful foods that might help her sister. She was always on the lookout for a remedy, hoping the next thing, or the next thing, would bring healing.

When I was engaged to be married, she gave me a silk pouch filled with embroidered fabric handkerchiefs. A beautiful design was woven into each piece of fabric. One by one she unfolded them, telling me which special occasion they were attached to. She got to the last one, held it in her hands, and said, "This is the handkerchief I carried the night I met the only man I ever loved." Her eyes filled with tears, her voice quivered, her lips tightened, and she said no more. After she died, I learned the man's name was Phillip. They had fallen in love over a summer. When summer was over and they returned to college, she learned he had been engaged to be married to another. He wanted to break his engagement to marry Aunt Helen, but she felt that would be wrong. She never loved another.

She always promised me, but never delivered, a train ride wherein we would sit facing backwards. "Someday we will ride on a train, you and I. And we will sit in a rear-facing seat. You see more when you're facing backwards," she told me. "It's the most amazing thing."

My sister Susan, two and a half years older than I, warned me, "Watch out. Aunt Helen is going to give you 'the talk,' just like she did me and Paula. She's going to tell you all about how she started her period on a church picnic." I swore this would not happen to me, that I would avoid this awkward scenario at all costs. But one day when I was twelve, she was helping me clean out my room and  opened a small drawer that housed my underwear. A red felt pen for some unknown reason was in the underwear drawer. For another unknown reason its cap had been removed, and the red ink had soaked into the crotch of a pair of underwear.

You really can't make this stuff up.

She saw this as her chance to tell me about when she "became a young lady" and how I also would. Having been warned by my big sisters, I saw it coming and bolted to the bathroom, hiding out until she left my bedroom. She never did get to tell me the story.

Once my family borrowed Aunt Helen's car. She needed it the next morning and didn't want to be a bother to anyone so walked over to our home and drove her car to the store. Meanwhile we woke up and called the police to report a stolen vehicle. Aunt Helen exited Alpha Beta and went to her car, where police officers waited, ready to arrest her for stealing a vehicle. She was eighty. Then there was the time in the same parking lot she made a quick trip into the store, leaving Aunt Bu in the car for a bit. Aunt Helen returned to an empty car and went on a search for her sister. She finally called the police, who found Aunt Bu in the dressing room of a clothing store having a nice conversation with herself while looking in a full-length mirror.

So many stories, the kinds our family tells again and again—those stories that begin with, "Remember when," that change a bit every time and end in a chorus of laughter.

Once in a while I get a longing, a longing that aches for the people I knew and loved in my early years to be able to know the people I know now. I want my kids to know Aunt Helen, my grandma, their two sisters, Carrie and Bertha (Bu). I try to tell them what they were like. God gave me a dream once, shortly after my grandma died and my third child, Karis was born. He let me walk my grandma over to her cradle, where I said, "Grandma, this is my baby girl, Karis." They met and loved each other.

I woke up with a wet face.

My face is wet today as I sit in quiet prayer. My tears are potent with longing to share the people I loved, who are woven into the fabric of my heart, with the people I now love, who are also woven into the fabric my heart. They all make me who I am.

I sit on the loveseat in these early morning candlelit moments, relishing these tears of longing, allowing them to remain on my face awhile. The train moves forward. I hop onto a seat facing backwards, inhale deeply, and enjoy the fragrance of orange blossoms.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


That funny thing called fear
keeps us from taking one step
toward what we want
because we freeze up at the thought
of not having things turn out the way
we picture

Paralyzing fear guarantees we will never
get where we desire to go
(perhaps fear is not so funny a thing after all)

But taking one step,
breathing one breath,
performing one act
toward the intended destination,
the hoped-for dream

Makes fear dissipate

Fear fears courage
and shrivels at the sight of it
fear loathes love
and scurries away
in its presence
perhaps fear is itself
a coward?

Fear freezes me, but only temporarily
when I move,
fear stops dead
in its tracks
and I am free to live,
to be – and dream,

Diane Carver Mann 2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

But Goldfinches

A cousin—was it the one in Pittsburgh or the one in Germany? I've never met either but enjoy hearing from them through social media—woke up to a gray day.  Her eyes must have lit up when she noticed two yellow birds—goldfinches—perched in her garden. She snapped a picture of them with her phone and posted it to Instagram. “A gloomy day but goldfinches,” she wrote. No exclamation point or emojis, no explanation of what this meant to her.

I've carried this image in my mind for a couple of weeks now, and equally the words “but goldfinches.”

Wednesday morning I was assigned to a job in Pasadena. The commute was shorter somehow than expected, and I arrived early. I parked my car in front of the office building then did some shopping on my phone. I ordered a yellow beaded necklace and earrings from Amazon to go with some shoes I have.

I got out of my car, went to the side passenger door to retrieve my computer and steno machine. The place where I always put my equipment was empty. I looked again then checked the very back and the front of the car to see whether I might have put the equipment in a different place. But no. I arrived to my job without any way to report the legal proceedings. I've done this before, but only in my worst dreams.

This was real, though, and not a dream. Hands shaking, I called the agency I work for and spoke with Jenn. We brainstormed and came up with a plan for her to grab a court reporting machine she used in school that was stored at her home and drive it to me. Her ETA would be 10:45 a.m., forty-five minutes past when the deposition was scheduled to begin.

I didn't want to go into the attorney's office. I didn't want to face the people whom I'd inconvenienced by my forgetfulness. The girls at the court reporting office tried to calm me via nice texts, assuring me all would be well, and encouraged me to go in. Something in me alerted me to this: I can be sorry and say so but not grovel. I don't know what in me shifted with that thought. But that thought, the idea to apologize, leave it there, and do my best and go forward with my day, helped usher me into the office building (along with the fact that I needed to use their restroom; that helped too).

I met the receptionist and asked to borrow a legal pad. Upon entering the conference room, I met opposing counsel and his clients, a couple from Iran who had moved to America in 1962, the year I was born. They were kind to me and told me about things they had forgotten, times things have gone wrong for them. The attorney who hired me came in and met me, and I let him know we were waiting for delivery of a steno machine. I read a book that was in my car and visited some more with the deponent and his wife. Such gracious people they were.

Jenn arrived with her steno machine, and we had to fiddle with the cord to get the equipment to charge. On a break I visited with the deponent's wife, letting her know I had recently visited Israel. She had also been there. I told her I missed eating falafel and various things I enjoyed about the Middle East, and she shared what she loves about living in America. And when the job finished, I chatted with her and her husband in the parking lot, about their health, jobs, life, children, grandchildren.

If I had taken my normal behavioral route of groveling when I inconvenience someone else, my eyes would have been so entirely fixed on my own inadequacy that I would have missed the kind and interesting interactions with the people around me.

But I didn't miss it. I didn't necessarily walk into the office with my head held high, but it wasn't slung low either. It was just medium, where I could see the people neither above, nor below, but across from me, people who assuredly also had been the recipients of grace, who were able to extend some to me.

When I was almost home from my hour-long drive, I glanced down at the seat next to me. On it rested the brand-new yellow legal pad I “borrowed” from the receptionist. I had neglected to return it. The yellow paper stood out against the gray seat on which it sat. The gray, glum seat cover, the cheery yellow paper.

A perfect picture of my gloomy day— 

but goldfinches.

Saturday, May 5, 2018


My backyard has a path we designed. It is curvy, its edges are made of concrete, and within the path is decomposed granite. Those who walk in are led to a circle containing a firepit encircled by various uncoordinated chairs—the chair from the backyard of my childhood home that has been repainted several times, a wicker rocking chair, a child's white Adirondack chair I picked up at Goodwill for $4.99, a painted redwood bench. As I pictured the area ahead of time, I envisioned all of the chairs matching each other, cheerful red Adirondacks inviting people to ease into them, but I have come to appreciate the way the circle looks with chairs that shouldn't go together, but somehow do.

"You always say that, Mom," my daughter chuckles as again I explain my fascination with shoes. "Look how each designer had the same amount of space to work within," say, the length and width of a Size 7 shoe, "yet they each created something different with a similar amount of space and materials." I have the same thoughts at bakeries, ice cream shops, and while walking down the street in New York City noticing and enjoying all the different scarves women have chosen to drape over their outfits. Sometimes I wonder why a certain combination works when it shouldn't, wondering why a woman chose that scarf to go with that outfit. But she walks confidently as though the scarf was made to be worn with her clothing.

Within my sibling group, we have a phrase we use: "It's way important," we will often say, repeating something my nephew Christopher would say when he really, really wanted to play with a toy one of his cousins had. With much intensity and with every cell in his body involved in the expression of his feelings, he spit out to his mom after she explained he would have to wait his turn to drive the Little Tikes car, "But Mom, it's WAY important!"

Something became "way important" to me this week as well. Preparations had been made for my son's Kyle's book-launch party—who was bringing what, the time we would gather, food we would eat, games we would play. Balloons were filled with helium, inhabiting most of the space in my car. But something was missing. I had to bring a decorated cookie.

I called the cookie place where Brent purchased a cookie 34 years ago with writing on it that said, "Can I marry your daughter?" he presented to my dad. The same establishment had decorated a cookie for us bearing the image of a purple blow dryer as we celebrated my daughter-in-law Destiny's receiving her beautician's license. That fifteen-inch-in-diameter of goodness bore varied messages of celebration over the years. I learned, however, the company had gone out of business. I looked at Wal-Mart and Sams Club, but both places had pre-decorated cookies I would have to un-decorate in order to create the bumblebee-themed cookie I envisioned.

So I purchased a tub of chocolate chip cookie dough and some tubes of yellow and black frosting. I baked the cookie then pulled it out of the oven, and we drove to Kyle and Destiny's house while the cookie cooled. Destiny was wearing a shirt with the symbol of Kyle's website on it, a bee, so she sat as a model while I traced out the image with frosting onto the cookie, and she cheered me on while I worked.

The word that keeps visiting me as I write this is, "within." I tend to imagine that life would be richer if there weren't limits but am learning to value to what can happen within those limits. What is God inviting me to within this seemingly too short half hour I get to share conversation and coffee with my daughter? or the only one night away with my husband? What would God have me do with the paycheck that is smaller than I expected or with my energy and time that never seem quite enough? What will the designer draw in this limited space?

The Psalmist in scripture says this: "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places." If I live stepping into the path of this truth, I can also live believing what is meant to be will happen within those places, things that, like my odd set of chairs, maybe shouldn't even go together.

But somehow they do.