Sunday, April 14, 2019

Inconvenient Truth

When I try to write, I feel like I am making myself do something, trying to manipulate me somehow. No matter how healthily I attempt to look at it, that several-foot distance between me and my keyboard is packed with dread.

I hate dread.

If I could bypass it, I would. Maybe I can. Maybe the answer is out there, the little previously unnoticed route around the dark valley.

It ought not be this way. I’ve been given a gift, to be received, delighted in, and shared. Instead I hang onto it like it’s a gift card, dreaming while I roam around Target trying to decide how to spend it. So. Many. Possibilities.

And what if I make the “wrong” choice? What if I spend it on toilet paper when I should have spent it on eyeliner? Hairspray? A new shirt? Batteries for my husband (he would be so happy)? I’m certain the giver of the gift intended that I find joy in it rather than angst. 

Meanwhile I gaze at others finding joy and freedom in expressing themselves, in first receiving then sharing what’s been given them. The cousin who can’t stop composing new music, her hands dancing across piano keys. The son who prolifically writes satire, word after clever word. The painters, the poets, the songwriters, the decorators, the choreographers, the gardeners—all producing something.

“Diane doesn’t DO anything.” I can’t even tell you whether this was ever spoken, but it’s a message from my childhood lingering way beneath the surface of me. To find its source seems like more digging than I’m up for. But then when one pulls a big weed from the ground, is it necessary to find out how it got there? Maybe not. Maybe let’s just get the weed out and plant something lovely in its place.

Diane dreamed. Diane thought. Diane danced and climbed trees. Diane observed. Diane giggled. Diane made up songs. Diane absorbed things in her heart. Diane sought and often found meaning in everything. Diane admired beauty. She pondered and played, her pondering being more her reality than her play. She swam. She enjoyed people. She loved. 

I suppose she couldn’t be put into a box. “This is our child who plays piano.”
“This is our child who enjoys animals.” “This is our child who reads incessantly.” 

No, there wasn’t one box to put me in. I was inconvenient in that way, perhaps.

How inconvenient that Diane is in drill team. That means we have to get her to the school early on Saturdays so she can march in parades. That means we have to buy her nylons at 7-eleven on the way (why were my parents always surprised I needed new nylons for every parade?). Frantic realization, followed by heavy sighs, followed by a rushed three-mile drive. 

My needs seemed a bit too much. I seemed a bit too much. And I wonder whether I now treat myself and my desires as an inconvenience. 

How inconvenient that I have ideas to write about some things, about many somethings, in fact. That means I have to step up and meet that need to express myself. That means I have to travel the dreaded “three miles” from where I sit to my computer. Frantic, followed by heavy sighs, followed by possibly dragging myself to where I need to be. A victim of my own gifts and desires? 

I don’t know. I know that my writer friend Ruth was seen and embraced by her parents. I wonder what I would be like now if I had been treated the same. Her dad, when she was eight years old, told her, “Write down the things God whispers to you.” He saw her and encouraged her to step into who she was.

I suppose I am angry I didn’t have encouragement to be who I am. I suppose I think it’s all rather unfair that my guiding factor was to see how little trouble I could be, to attempt to need as little as possible, to not overwhelm the already chaotic family (albeit fun) system in which I lived.

I needed to write this today.

It’s okay to need. And dream. And ponder. And be angry. And heal.

Diane Mann 2019

Saturday, February 9, 2019

I Think of Ray

It's been over half a decade now since I met him. I know only a handful of facts about him. And few pictures of that time we crossed paths remain in my mind.

My husband and I approached a camp area on a backpacking loop in the Sierras after our first day of hiking. We would spend four nights and five days making our way through the wilderness. "Welcome!" bellowed a happy, hairy, bare-bellied man who had just emerged from the river. As he dried himself off, he expressed how lucky we all were to be camping in such a beautiful area and pointed out places we could set up our tent. It was as though we were checking into a five-star resort and he was the check-in attendant. We shortly found out his name was Ray—Ray, the camp greeter, we dubbed him. Ray was jolly, grateful, and Ray adored this trail (coincidentally named Rae Lakes Loop).

I am an unlikely backpacker, the one people see, do a quick adjustment in their minds from what a typical backpacker looks like, then most often throw out a word of encouragement, "You can do it! You're almost there! Keep going!" Not super strong, not young, not REI-ad worthy. Ray looked even less like he belonged on the trail than I did. Health and fitness did not appear a priority for him, but hiking this trail was. He and his buddies, Lou and Brian, trekked the 42-mile-loop once a year.

Sometimes we would pass the threesome while they rested on the side of the trail, and sometimes they would pass us. Ray and Lou lost Brian one evening, and Brian carried their cooking equipment, so my husband heated up their food for them and they camped with us.

While Ray's Top Ramen was boiling, he told us about his grandfather, who used to lead a pack of mules over this same pass in the early 1900s. This trail held much meaning for Ray.

Glen Pass, 11,926 feet above sea level, 6,000 feet above where we started!
While we didn't hike with Ray and his buddies, per se, our trip did parallel theirs some, as we often ended up camping in the same area in the evenings. Each night Ray was the last to arrive to the campsite, while others wondered whether he would make it before nightfall. He always did.

On Day 3, we climbed Glen Pass, 11,926 feet above sea level, the most difficult part of the trail—steep, rocky, exhausting. Whatever strength one had, this ascent demanded it all and then some. Brent, Lou, and Brian were way ahead, followed by me then Ray. I didn't want to leave Ray behind so purposefully slowed my pace, once even hiking back down a ways to sit with him as he rested.

Perching ourselves on rocks alongside the trail, we sat to catch our breath. Ray reached into his left shirt pocket and pulled out a brightly colored package. "Have you ever tried these energy chews?" he asked. "They're really good," and handed me one. I savored the bright-orange chewy goodness he gave me. I don't know whether the treat had a placebo effect or the vitamins B-12 and C it contained really had their promised results, but I did receive energy to keep going after the rest and the tasty burst of deliciousness Ray shared with me.

Several breaks and refreshments later, we, with elation, reached the top of the pass, where we high-fived each other, drooled over the majestic views, and snapped photos of ourselves, each one rejoicing in the victorious moment.

It's been years since I've met Ray and his friends. Our promises to keep in touch through email fell flat. But when I'm exhausted while doing something difficult that seems beyond my own strength, I think of Ray, the value of rest and camaraderie, and that orange energy chew.

But mostly I think of Ray.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Intended Target

I've been texting a scammer.

It's not like I believe him or anything. But he has been scamming someone close to me. And ticking me off in the process.

He is in love. He cares for her heart. He will never do anything to tear her heart. "I prove to you I am real babe," he writes to me, in sentence patterns screaming this truth:  He is not from San Diego, California.

He is not in the armed forces and on deployment in Afghanistan.

He is not using those iTunes cards sent to him for watching video games because the Army won't allow him access to his money.

The five phones he ordered on his victim's Verizon account are not for an orphanage of 25 children who can't afford phones.

He is not quitting the Army (or is it Navy? It changes.) to come home to marry anyone at a destination wedding in Hawaii.

There is no promised three-carat diamond ring cut in a heart shape.

And the pictures. The obviously cut-and-pasted photographs of his fresh, smiling face, that touch of gray, the exact same in every scene but pasted onto a real soldier's body.

It would be funny if it weren't so awful.

He is a fisherman in a sense, trolling his line out in the sea of women to find vulnerable ones, who are grieving and broken—and just. can't. see.

He is livid that I don't believe he is who he says he is. After going back and forth with him a few times, I have that funny feeling I had when I would engage my two-year-olds in an argument. "Don't get on their same level," the experts warned. "You're sure to lose."

So I remove myself from his level, this person committing crimes right in front of my face, crimes that are hurting someone I love. (I liken what I am experiencing to watching a thug take my grandmother's purse from her hands while I stand a foot away.) I back up a bit and try to disengage. You're not going to win this, I say to myself. So I text scammer-man this truth (after telling him his grammar sucks; the court reporter in me had to defend the English language!), "God sees real you and loves you."

I'm not expecting repentance from him.

But it felt good to speak truth into the situation, truth that is bigger than our lies, light that is brighter than the darkest, most remote places of our hearts.

I don't know whether he heard me. He didn't respond after that. But I heard me.

God sees real me.
God's light reaches into my darkest places, those places where I, too, just. can't. see.
God sees who I pretend to be, who I wish I were versus who I really am.

I don't know whether the words I texted reached Nigeria (or the Navy ship where "Romeo" is serving our country).

But the words reached me. God sees real me.

And loves me.

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.