Chip on Their Shoulder

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Warm vanilla and sugar.  Those comforting scents permeate every room of my home right now, making the entire place smell like a bakery.  If I threw some ground coffee into the percolator, the resulting sense memory would take me straight to my grandmother’s kitchen, circa 1977, complete with the memory of a terribly patterned linoleum floor and avocado green appliances.  I feel, at these times, that she’s still with me, that I can almost hear her voice as I sift, mix, and stir the ingredients. Cooking, in general, makes me feel more connected to the women in the family who came before me and it is my paternal grandmother to whom I feel the closest in these moments.

Today’s baking session isn’t intended to be a journey through my family history, in spite of the memories it stirs.  I’m spending the day in my kitchen doing what I do best – stirring the proverbial pot. Rather than stirring up trouble, I’m baking chocolate chip cookies to give to someone who is in need of sweetening up. While not outright malicious, this individual (let’s call them Riley) does have quite a talent for driving wedges in other people’s relationships. I’ve known Riley long enough to see the pattern of behavior repeat itself  and well enough to know that the behavior stems from their own inability to cope with a traumatic event in their past.  Riley is not a bad person, but rather, a person behaving badly due to their own insecurities and a very large chip on their shoulder.

There are a hundred ways I could handle this situation. Trying to talk about the behavior with Riley has not helped because they cannot recognize how problematic their actions are. Reflecting Riley’s energy back would be catastrophic since that energy stems from a place of internal suffering and I do not want to cause them additional pain. Severing ties would likewise cause more harm than good.

I will not cause Riley additional hurt, but I also cannot remain passive as they allow their own pain to hurt others. So, into the bowl goes vanilla, butter, sugar, and flour, along with a healthy cup of intention and positive energy directed toward Riley.  May Riley sweeten toward others and act in ways that heal rather than harm, may they be filled with compassion and warmth instead of divisiveness and envy, and may the only chips in their lives be chocolate. I repeat these thoughts over and over as if they are a mantra as I mix the ingredients and scoop out ball after ball of dough onto a cookie sheet.

A few homemade cookies are not going to fix what’s broken in Riley, but treating them with kindness and warmth may help them to begin to heal. Cook with love and compassion to feed both stomach and soul –  that was a lesson learned from my grandmother in her kitchen all those years ago. It’s only taken me thirty years after her death to realize that, out of all that I’ve inherited from her, this lesson was the greatest and most valuable.

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To Do or Not to Do?

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The sense of time passing rapidly haunts me sometimes.  I have no fear of death, but I do worry that I am not living my life as fully as I might be and that there will not be enough days to accomplish all that I want to do.  And do I ever have things that I want to accomplish.

I’ve been keeping a bucket list longer than the term itself has existed, starting it in high school as a way of keeping track of things that I wanted to experience.  After mumble-something years of additions, the list is ridiculously long, with a word count that rivals War and Peace. Alright, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but at last check, there were over nine hundred items on the list. To keep it organized, my list has sub-lists and some of those sub-lists have their own sub-lists.

On a scale of 1 to 10, the likelihood of accomplishing everything on my list hoovers somewhere around negative three.  I’ve realized it’s time to apply the same set of questions that I usually use for other goal setting to this super-sized bucket list.  I turn to the list of questions below whenever I am struggling with too many options and need to decide where to direct my energy .

What goals are actually achievable? I generally don’t set goals that are impossible, but circumstances change over time, making some goals unobtainable.  A good example from my bucket list – attend a Space Shuttle launch.  Unless NASA resurrects the shuttle program, this one isn’t going to happen.

What am I reasonably capable of accomplishing based on my physical and mental health?  This is something that may change over time, but there are one or two things on my bucket list that no longer met this criteria. It’s unlikely that I will ever be physically able to run a marathon or hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety.  The likely outcome of attempting either of these things would be serious and permanent injury. Neither of these goals are that important to me.

What am I capable of doing based on my financial and material resources? Again, this is something that may change over time.  Still, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever get to drive a Bugatti Veyron. It’s a lovely dream, but given that these cars have seven-digit price tags, I’ll be lucky if I even lay eyes on one in person.

What goals still resonant and have meaning to me?  On my list is ‘celebrate my 50th wedding anniversary’.  Sigh. While this one meets the other criteria (barely), getting married is no longer something I aspire to do.  Staying married to someone for fifty years really doesn’t inspire the same emotions it did when my teenage self added this to the list.

What goals am I setting for myself that aren’t solely an attempt to appease  others?  There are times when I find myself doing something simply because it is what is expected of me or to please someone else.  Among my long bucket list of writing goals is to write a science fiction novel.  Looking back, I’ve realized that this was never a goal for myself, but one set with my father in mind. He loved the genre and made several failed attempts at writing science fiction during his lifetime. While I love reading the genre, I have very little desire to write a sci-fi novel.

Finally, what goals can I work on now that are going to make the most positive and lasting impact?  Even after paring my bucket list significantly, there is still far more there than I can hope to accomplish. I’m working on choosing one goal from each of my sub-lists that takes priority.  These must be things that I can begin now, complete in a reasonable time span, and will have the most positive impact if completed. As I finish the chosen goal from each area, I’ll pick another using the same criteria.

To do or not to do? That is the real question…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Unexpected Gift

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“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”Heraclitus

Sometimes the universe has plans for us other than the ones we make for ourselves.  I’d arranged to go on an overnight hike along the Appalachian Trail with a friend to celebrate the solstice.  For a multitude of reasons, we never made it to the trailhead much less out on the trail itself.

Just as my summer solstice plans were falling apart, an acquaintance sent a text with GPS coordinates and a short message “Went here last weekend. River, trees, lovely, peaceful. Go!” I don’t always do what my phone commands, but, suddenly free and wanting to shake off the stress of the last few weeks, I decided to check out the suggestion.  An hour and many miles of twisting mountain roads later,  I found a grassy pull-off at the coordinates.  A barely visible break in the vegetation at the roadside marked a path down to the river below.

The spot was as promised and more.  At the end of the short climb down the narrow tunnel through the wildly growing vegetation, the ground flattened out to a sandy shoal dotted with stones worn into smooth ovals by time and flowing water.  A slow moving river edged past the shoal, journeying around a rocky outcrop upriver, past the tree line bank opposite and meandering out of sight again a little further down stream.  Tiny flakes of muscovite dotted the river bed and shone out from the river rocks, creating a sparkling effect to the already beautiful water.  When the sunlight hit the smallest bits of mica just right, the riverbed gave the appearance of being dotted with tiny, shimmering rainbows.

It has been a long time since I’ve willingly plunged into a cold river, but the lazy current and warm day made it hard to resist.  I let myself drift easily downstream, walked back along the rock strewn shallows, and began again. I repeated this process a dozen or more times, recalling the liminality of such places – the shifting water renewing itself constantly over the thousands of years that the river has run this course and creating a fluid, flowing boundary with ever-changing thresholds to explore. In this place, the heartsong of the mountains can be heard as you immerse yourself in the very blood and bones of the land.

Such places can change us if we allow it.  At the end of the visit, I reclined back on the sun-kissed shoal feeling far calmer and more grounded than I have in a long time. I also came away with a fresh perspective on some old problems. The experience created a much needed reminder of the magic that exists in the natural world, if we’re willing to slow down and pay attention.  Who knew that a set of GPS coordinates could be such an unexpected gift?

 

If The Shoe Fits, Be A Heel

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It has been brought to my attention that I have a superpower that I didn’t know I possessed – the ability to offend people for the most ridiculous reasons.

Case in point:  I recently invited a friend to coffee so that we could catch up.  Because I was in a celebratory mood, I put on a pair of new shoes that have an inch-and-a-half heel.  These were a happy purchase: the first pair of heeled shoes I’ve been physically able to wear in over three years.  Putting them on makes me feel like I’ve made progress that I had been told was absolutely not possible by my doctors.

The first words out of my friend’s mouth were “I hate it when you wear heels.  You make me feel short and inferior.”  It was not said in jest or fun, but in the tone of someone who has been deeply offended.  It was said in a loud, pained voice that brought the cozy little cafe to a standstill.  Well now, what to do with that….

I’m certain that the expectation was that I would apologize and be contrite for stepping on her emotional toes (pun very much intended).  Or that I would say or do something to validate her indignation at my offensively tall self. Or possible that I would reply in such a way that I would act out the role that she’d tried to cast for me.

There are a thousand replies that I could have made but my mouth opened without filtering through my brain first. I replied in an equally loud voice, “Well, it’s a good thing that it is not my job to make sure you’re always in your comfort zone.   Now, if you want to talk about this, I’ll listen, but if not, you might want to find other friends who will dress with your comfort in mind.”

She could have made a thousand replies, but instead opted to flounce out of the cafe in a huff.  It was a rather spectacular flounce too – she dropped her phone twice and managed to turn over a chair in her rush to escape from the unsympathetic tallness that surrounded her.  In a moment of lovely irony, another patron, who had to be at least 6’4″, held the door for her as she left.  That gesture alone has probably left her scarred for life.

I’m being pretty-tongue-in-cheek about this, because this kind of self-created victim-hood is just a single instance in a growing pattern of behavior. Being kind and apologetic in these situations has only encouraged her. The experience was a good reminder that compassion cannot always be the feather-soft tenderness and soothing words.  Sometimes, compassion comes disguised as hard truths and tough love. And every now and then, compassion walks in on a pair of heels.

Remembering The Forgotten

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CW: PTSD, Suicide

A neighbor gave me a gift of a dozen ripe peaches today.  As I stood pondering what to do with them, a memory came back to me, unbidden, of the last conversation I had with my friend, Mike.  He’d just returned home from a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf and we were talking an upcoming pot luck holiday dinner that a mutual friend was hosting.  Mike suggested that I bring a peach pie to help everyone stick to their diets.  It was tongue-in-cheek joke, since Mike was the unfortunate taste tester of a peach pie I’d made in our high school home economics class, not realizing that some joker had switched out the sugar for salt.

Mike didn’t make it to the potluck for some reason or another and we just never seemed to be able to meet up.  Two years after he’d returned to his hometown, Mike drowned in the creek behind his parents house.  A letter to his family painted a terrible picture of a life  destroyed by PTSD and unexplained physical symptoms (what would later come to be know as Gulf War Syndrome).  Rather than endure the pain, he ended his life.

There are those who would say that a veteran who commits suicide does not deserve to be included in ceremonies for those who died in combat.  Bullshit I say.  Those who die as a result of their service to country should be honored and remembered, regardless of the manner of their death.  Whether by enemy fire, by their own hand or by the slow and terrible work of Agent Orange, our fallen vets should not be forgotten.

I do not want to mourn my friend again, but I do not want to forget him either. So I am doing what any good kitchen witch would do, pouring my heart and energy into the alchemy of baking.  In my oven are four rustic peach tarts made with rosemary laced crusts which will be delivered tomorrow to a shelter for homeless vets, because  while it’s important to honor the dead, we must never lose sight of those who still live.

 

 

The Temple of MSB: A Roadblock

 

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Photo Credit: Aisling Faa 2018

This morning I ventured out for what I refer to tongue-in-cheek at Sunday Services at the Temple of Mud, Sweat, and Blood, which is to say that I spent some time on a local trail trying to clear my head.  I have a favorite loop trail that is just the right length and difficulty to let me work through whatever happens to be on my mind.

After several days of torrential downpours and thunderstorms, the conditions on trail were pretty miserable – slippery rocks, shoe-eating mud bogs, and downed limbs.  Horrendous trail conditions force my focus to what’s physically in front of me and to make rapid gut-instinct decisions about each step.  If my mind wanders, there’s a fair certainty that I’m going to fall, which means a potential injury with the added bonus of a mud bath.  These are some of my favorite conditions when I want to forget about something that’s gnawing at me.

Today, there were several downed trees thanks to the well-soaked ground.  The first three were small and easily passed. About a quarter-mile into the mire and muck, two trees had fallen across the trail- the first low to the ground, the second just above waist height a few inches behind the first. This isn’t a huge barrier – the instinct is to step over the first, duck under the second, and you’re back on your way.  Except stepping over a fallen tree or log in this part of the world is a very bad idea and a very good way to step on a rattler or copperhead that you can’t see. If you take nothing else from this post, remember this: Step carefully onto the fallen tree and then scan the ground behind the tree before stepping down.

In this case, there was a Black Racer waiting there – not venomous, but still a large and potentially aggressive snake. Suddenly, the obstacle was not so easy to pass, particularly as going off trail meant wading through poison ivy and brambles.  As I stood contemplating whether to turn back, I realized that the situation mirrored  the thing that had been on my mind as I’d set out on trail – a friendship that has been holding me back and causing frustration. If the message from the universe were not clear enough, I recalled as I stared at the snake that the friend identifies the snake as her ‘spirit animal’. Sometimes, the Powers That Be (TM) leave little doubt about what you need to be doing.  So the question became – do I let a non-lethal nuisance block my way or do I find a way around it?  What amount of control over my life am I willing to give someone who would impede my forward movement as a way of asserting their own power?

In the end, I opted to sidle around the snake, rather than turning back and facing a quarter mile uphill hike back to where I’d started. A small tree at the side of the trail made for a good handhold while scrambling over both of the fallen trees.  A small drop to the ground and I was on my way again and didn’t encounter another downed tree (or snake) in the remaining mile and a half of trail.  Now, hopefully, my slithering friend can be dealt with so swiftly and painlessly.