Friday, February 12, 2010
Jesus tells a parable - really, less than a parable. It's just a sentence. It's about the lengths a person would go to recover something precious that was lost. It's one of the stories leading up to the story of the Prodigal Son: "Who of you if you had a hundred sheep and lost one of them would not leave the 99 to go and find the one that was lost?" Until I got married, I had never even considered the idea that I was anything other than one of the 99 sheep Jesus, the shepherd, had left to go find the one lost sheep. I hadn't analyzed it or anything; I didn't even think about it. From the time I heard those verses, I just assumed I was one of the ones who stayed. And those were the ones he left. He said so himself, right there.
I became a Christian when I was two. I remember standing in the hallway at the door to the room I shared with my sister, and she was telling me, not for the first time, that I needed to ask Jesus into my heart. So I did. Needless to say, I didn't have a dramatic before and after salvation story. Maybe I started sharing my toys after that, I don't know. But I do know I never strayed. I did wrong things from time to time, I suppose, but I never left the faith. I never turned my back on God, probably partly because I wasn't sure He would come get me if I did. I do believe God heard my two-year-old prayer, and it was precious to him. But that's a conclusion I came to much later, when I started to know things about how lost I really was and how far he had come to find me.
When I first met my husband, I wasn't even attracted to him. He started coming to drama team meetings at church, where I was a leader, because he wanted to meet some friendly people, and he thought if anyone would be friendly, it would be drama people. It's true. We're a very accepting lot; we'd all be in trouble if we weren't. According to him, he kept coming because he saw me. I will say that I noticed him, maybe not the very first time I met him, but not too long after. One thing that stood out about him is that, coincidentally, the year before, I had worked for his older brother Park, who was always an enigma. Park would come into the bookstore while I was behind the register and walk straight back to his office, and that's pretty much all I saw of him. He had a manager under him who directed most of the store's affairs. The only time I interacted with Park on any real level was when Paul, one of the assistant managers, made me cry. I can't remember now what Paul said, but I vividly remember Park taking me outside the front doors of the store to ask me about it. I was mortified. I knew it was probably just hormones, but he wanted to know what happened. It reminded me of the time in high school when Anthony Carifedes reached around from his seat behind me and put an empty plastic wrapper right in my crotch. I entered my next class crying, told my friend why, and the next thing I knew I was outside in the hall with Mr. MacAuley, the guidance counselor, recounting the incident and feeling very stupid, like I was making a big deal out of nothing.
When I met Shep, he seemed grown-up to me, partly because he was Park's brother, and partly because he was grown up, six years more than me. He carried himself very straight, hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts, chest broad under his polo shirt, the weight of his body relaxed into the heels of those strappy velcro sandals he always wore, eyes just a little narrow, observing everyone, but his face completely open. He came across confident, like he knew he was somebody, but not cocky. At the same time, he was very available. He was...there. I don't know how to explain it, but it got my notice, enough to think, "I've never met anyone like him." And I hadn't. He had a chastened quality about him that said, "Here I am. Take me or leave me," like he was offering himself without requiring anything in return.
That probably had to do with where he was in life. He had gone his own way for awhile, and had just come back to the Lord, making a break with his old friends, haunts, and habits, even determining not to date anyone for the time being. He was taking some time to be lonely with God, and he was definitely lonely. He says he would leave drama team listening to Twila Paris' song "Love's Been Following You." When it was over, he would hit rewind and play it again: Some days your heart just couldn't be colder, but Love's been following you. All you have learned just makes you feel older, but Love's been following you. You think that no one cares; still Love is always there; He would go anywhere just to find you; Love's been following you. Something about me - my friendliness, the point I made of being kind to every single person - made Shep feel that that song was true. He imagined that if he went up and made himself known to me, he would be met with the same kindness. He even imagined I was the one singing the song. I suppose I was saving him, too.
He didn't ask me out until two years later. For one thing, I was 18, and that made his hands sweat because he was 24. Also, he had made that commitment not to date. But the biggest deterrent was a tiny little promise ring from my parents - if you looked close, you could just barely see the diamonds in it - that I wore on my left ring finger as a sign that I was keeping myself for my husband. He thought I was engaged, to Brian Jackson of all people. (Talk about oil and water! Get two such bull-headed people together, and we would have ripped each others' throats out.) It was two years before he knew any different.
He finally decided to make a move the day he saw me at church for the second time. It was a very large church with lots of services to choose from, so you could go quite awhile without seeing a person. The first time was around Christmas, about six months since he had last attended drama team meetings, and I called out to him, "Shep!" and hugged him when he came over to me. It's just the way I was. Overflowing with youthful exuberance and naivete, I would hug anyone I saw. Certainly I was glad to see him after so long: I liked him. But I liked everybody. For him, it meant a lot more.
The second time was the next August, just after my sister had gotten back from her honeymoon. I remember she was wearing a bright salmon-colored dress and she couldn't walk straight because she'd gotten the bends from scuba-diving in Cancun. When I saw Shep, I called him over. He felt bad for Lauri - he didn't know why her head was bobbing up and down like it was - but he was struck that I thought he was a nice enough person to introduce to my family. Something about me showing him that kindness, and probably something about how long it had been since he'd seen me and how long it could be before he saw me again, made him determined.
In September, he had a friend call me to ask if he could call me, and then he called me. We went to Books-A-Million for coffee. I remember sitting with him at one of those little tables in the cafe, listening to him talk and ask me questions with a slightly overwrought enthusiasm. I left with the impression that he had been nervous, but he was a nice person. I wasn't particularly attracted to him, but I wasn't repelled. Mostly I was surprised he was interested. Of all the people in the world to ask me out, I would never have predicted Shep Hendrickson. He had seemed so grown-up to me, even indifferent. Over the next three months, he asked me out only a handful of times - a few coffees and a dinner - but he wasn't indifferent. He could tell I was skittish as a deer, and he didn't want to scare me off. From the start, I asserted to my family and friends how very much I was not interested. But I didn't tell him to go away.
A few days before my 21st birthday in November, he had arranged to meet me at the theatre department after classes to take me to lunch. At Applebee's, I ate my food and then finished his crispy oriental chicken salad. I felt comfortable with him. We never talked about anything profound, but we talked without playing games. Afterward, in the parking lot, I hugged him good-bye, and I remember he said, "Oh! I get a hug!"
"Sure," I said. I didn't mean anything by it. I didn't want him to take it the wrong way, like I was hot for him or something, but I guess it showed I wasn't cold.
"Have a happy birthday," he said.
Two weeks went by. I started to wonder, just a little, if he was going to call again. When he finally did, he said he hadn't wanted to bother me while I was celebrating. This time he asked if he could take me to dinner. I said, "Sure." We went to Houston's Steakhouse. It's a very nice restaurant, and I had a terrible time. I sat across the white tablecloth from him, awkwardly receiving the napkin laid in my lap by the server. The steaks were delicious, I suppose. I'm not a big steak person. I'm not even a big nice restaurant person (though they can grow on you.) There's nothing that makes me feel more anxious than when a lot of money is being laid down; then I really better have a good time. Shep looked at me solicitously, the lines in his forehead showing, which I know now means he is not at his most relaxed. He asked me all the right questions you ask on a date to "get to know" a person. I tried to stay engaged, but I wanted out of there. Where was the light touch, the feeling that I was free to stay or go? Before this, I had never been on a second date with anyone. I had never even had a boyfriend, not that I didn't want one, and not that no one wanted me. I just had never given anyone much of a chance. After dinner, he took me to Park Avenue for a stroll, and after a turn or two, he asked what I'd like to do next. I said, "It's getting late. I should probably get home." It was 8:00. As soon as I walked in the door, I threw myself on the rug in the family room and wailed, "He's not the one!" Apparently, some part of me had considered that maybe he was.
Two days later, the phone rang with his number on the caller ID. I was too nervous to answer it, but my mother, attempting to quell her girlish amusement, was not. Taking the phone from her, I went into my room and lay on the floor.
Shep said, "That date didn't go the way I intended. I got nervous and told a whole bunch of stories to make you laugh. I hope I didn't offend you."
"No, you didn't offend me. I just don't like dates, and that felt like a date."
He said, "Oh, I'm sorry. It wasn't like that, not a date. It was just two friends getting to know each other."
I said, "I like the sound of that better."
He said, "I have to tell you the truth." And here he hemmed and hawed a bit. "When I saw you at church and you introduced me to your family, I was really touched."
I was surprised. "Oh, that was no big deal."
"I don't introduce just anyone to my family. It was sweet of you."
"Oh, good, I'm glad," I think I said.
He hesitated a little more, and then he said, "I think you're a neat person. After I saw you that day, I knew I didn't want to leave Florida without being able to say I got to know Mimi Shepherd."
He was making a profession, but I wasn't turned off. I knew he was saying he liked me, but with no strings attached. I was free not to like him back.
He said, "There's no pressure. I just wanted to get to know you better."
It was an ingenious approach, considering how deer-like I truly was, ready to run into the woods at any moment. But he really meant what he said. He didn't have to own me. He didn't need me to reassure him. It was probably the only way anyone could have won me, and nobody had ever tried it before. Only God knows how badly I needed it.
I felt the tension melt out of me. I was easy with him again, comfortable, but also something more. I was warm, like I had come in out of the storm to a quiet spot. I wasn't in love, but I knew he really cared about me, and so my heart was beginning to open to him. He could sense he'd made some headway. But it seemed to me he was even okay if he hadn't. And that's what got me in the end.
I didn't know how that was going to work out since Shep had left just that morning for a five-day ski trip to Colorado, and my parents were running around preparing to go on a cruise the next morning. (This timing was really just coincidence; my family is not always running off on luxury vacations.) Bless them, Mom and Dad dropped practically everything to take the girls off my hands for the rest of that day and overnight. I couldn't believe my good fortune - all day in bed with nothing to do but sleep, read, write, catch up on my Bible study, and who knows what else? I was going to get so much done!
But somehow it didn't really work out that way once I lay down. First I tried sleeping. After sleeping very restfully for about 20 minutes, I woke up and thought, "What next?" I thought about delving into my Bible Study Fellowship homework on John, chapter 13. Or maybe I could work on my blog; I'm always ravening to get more time to do that. Or I could start The Curate of Glaston by George MacDonald. I had possibilities just stacked up beside me on the bed - too many possibilities. I ended up watching a two-hour online episode of The Biggest Loser, then configuring my Netflix account (after first joining Netflix). Then I couldn't find a movie I was just dying to see on Netflix, so I looked into renting a movie through Amazon. After about two hours of deliberations, I finally decided on Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Five minutes into it, I realized it wasn't worth even the five minutes I'd already spent on it. By this time, I'd been in bed six or seven hours, it was already past my bedtime, and I was starting to get depressed because I'd wasted all my precious alone time trying to make up my mind what to do with it. I felt better when I got out of bed and did my toilette. I think it was just the routine of it that made me feel happy, sane, and productive again. I washed my face, going through all four cleansing steps, brushed and flossed my teeth, rinsed with Listerine, and took out my contacts. After that, I spent an hour reading recipes in Bon Appetit magazine and went to sleep a couple hours after I really should have.
In the morning, before leaving for the port, Dad came by to set up a pallet for me on Grace's floor and brought their tv/vcr with a bin full of kids' movies, and I settled in for a day of lying around turning our brains to mush. I anticipated a lot of fussing and discontent at being stuck inside and immobile all day (I mean, on the kids' part.) But it was amazing how happy they were. Maybe it was because I was so patient with them and so accommodating. Whatever Grace wanted to watch, I let her watch, and even at three years old, she could watch uninterrupted all day and be perfectly happy. I did impose a couple of intermissions, for lunch and dinner and maybe one more for a short period of mind-expanding creative play. Later in the day, I even suggested going outside, but Grace said, "No! I don't want to go outside! I want to watch!" And besides, as she pulled me to her window to show me, it was pouring rain.
Even Emma was contented. She's 18 months old, and can be quite energetic. But she spent almost the whole day with us in Grace's room. She watched a little, played with the dollhouse, played legos, climbed on me, laughed while I tickled her.
When we did leave our camp and venture into the rest of the house, I tried not to look at the dog hair clumping along the baseboards (I sent Max to the kennel for the weekend, but his hair had not yet been similarly banished), the lack of visibility in the kitchen sink, the dirty sock that was still lying outside the bathroom door from four days before, and all the countless other things that had been pulled out randomly by little hands and not yet picked up by these bigger hands. Cleaning was off my to-do list for the day, by doctor's orders (actually by licensed midwife's orders.) I felt bad for them to have to live in such a mess, but they didn't seem to feel bad about it. They were exceptionally compliant all day.
It made me think about what kids actually need. You think they need an orderly environment and a predictable schedule. But it turns out maybe they just need me, and a me that is more relaxed and not always rushing them out the door or on to the next task or putting them off while I do what I think I should be doing or what I think I want to be doing.
I didn't lift and carry them much today, so instead of changing Emma on the changing table, I sat with her on the floor to get her ready for bed. After I changed her diaper, I tickled her and tickled her, and she crawled away and I grabbed her and I hugged her and nuzzled her soft skin. I squeezed her squishy body in my arms and burrowed my face in her satiny neck, oh glorious satiny skin, and she giggled and squirmed. I smelled her clean hair. (I had felt up to giving them a bath.) I took my time.
Tomorrow I think I'll be ready to ease back into the swing of things. I haven't felt even a hint of cramping since this morning. We'll go to the Y, or better yet, the grocery store. The cupboard is dreadfully bare. But maybe we'll just get up first. Maybe in the morning I'll crawl back to my pallet and those little arms will cuddle me, that fat little body will scrabble over me, Grace's smile that is a light from the interior will shine out at me, Emma's grin with all those teeth yet to come will light up my day with its brilliance, and I'll bury my face in that soft soft skin. Maybe I'll just take another day camping out, rendering our brains on tv like fat over a flame. Maybe I'll just drown in the presence of my children, just for one more day, just one more morning even, staying at that snail's pace, forgetting the grimy state of the floors and toilets, letting loose all the busy checklist things that rule me like a military headmistress, just edging along, nudging, nuzzling along in the presence of my children, not hurrying on by just yet. And if I could only stay here forever. Why is it so easy to forget the joy of staying on the floor handling pieces of molded plastic just because it's what they like to do?
Sunday, January 17, 2010
If I could name anywhere on earth as my “happy place”, I mean the happy place of my childhood, it would be that acre and a half on Ravine Road where we lived in the buses and Dad built the house. When I think of that place, I see the dogwoods in bloom along the drive and the stand of pines where Lauri and I used to climb up, up, up, and even from tree to tree, getting sticky with sap and poked in the face by needles and twigs all the way. I see the honeysuckle growing along the neighbor’s fence and the lilacs hanging down in pastel clusters.
I see the tulip poplar like a friend standing tall and straight in the bend of the gravel driveway, dropping its flowers in summer, and the wineberries that we would eat one by one as we passed by. And I see the ravine descending down, down, down, a slope to my own enchanted world, where "lunch" could be served on a huge, flat tree stump and violets grew along the bank of a trickle of water we called a stream. I see moss and leaves and a steep climb out of the ravine to the road. I see a canopy of trees.
And standing there looking back from the road, I see through the trees a house built in the flat place cut out of a hill, a single-wide trailer parked on the hill above it, and two mismatched buses on the hill below. I see a massive army tent full of wood and saws and piles of sawdust. I see a man with a full brown beard balancing on a high beam, swinging a heavy hammer. I see a woman with a baby boy, and two girls playing in the dirt, running up the hill, sucking honeysuckle, “fishing” in the stream, doing everything together, constant companions not by any choice but by the fact of their existence, the other half of each other.
I've always been a writer. I brought my first poem out to my mother in the kitchen of the mobile home there on the hill: “Life. I wander haw in the world I aver got to have life. Life. Life. Life. It is grate to have life. It is terrible to have hell.” As far as existential musings go, it wasn't bad for a five-year-old. My dad says when he read it, his heart hurt a little with the feeling that life would not always be easy for me, because I think so much about things. It's true; I do.
I haven't had any great suffering. The things I've suffered are all on the level of my first loss: ordinary wrenchings of the heart, like the loss of a place I had, a place perched on the side of a ravine and covered with trees, not just a place I loved, but the place that made me know I was loved, where the sound of hammers falling and saws whining could soothe me to sleep, where the smell of sawdust was the fragrance of belovedness.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
For the shower, Dad had befriended the neighbor up the hill from us, who had allowed him to tap into his water supply. A series of hoses ran down the hill from the back of this neighbor's house to a 50-gallon drum on top of the buses. This was really ingenious as I think about it. The water must have heated up in the summer sun enough to provide a warm, albeit quick, shower. I never remember Mom in the shower; maybe she washed up at a friend's house once or twice a week. Mom bathed Lauri and I one at a time in a little round blue plastic tub with water she heated in the microwave. Dad might have been the only one to shower on the porch. The shower curtain hung on a wire half-circle, and Dad would pull it around him, the ends each touching a bus. Once, a lady from church who stopped by, probably out of charity as I think about it now, got quite a show. I'm sure Dad didn't realize she was there when he got in the shower, but it was a case of faulty construction. From inside the yellow bus, she could see him showering through the rear window.
In the bedroom bus, Mom and Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. My older sister Lauri and I had bunk beds, which were old doors my dad had covered with blue shag carpet. I seem to remember Lauri was scared of falling out of bed, so that's why I got the top bunk, which I loved. Paul was just a baby, so I'm sure he slept in a box or a drawer somewhere. In the mobile home we moved into that fall - when it started to get cold - he slept on top of the dresser.
The bathroom was right where it had always been in that bus, a tiny room by the rear exit, with a port-a-potty. I distinctly remember a sign above the toilet paper, printed neatly in my mother's hand: "Eight squares apiece." I think that had something to do with the capabilities of the tank, maybe a tendency to clog or how often it had to be emptied. (Now that I've watched my own young children use giant wads of toilet paper, I can see why she might have been worried about clogging.) But surely we used double-ply. Otherwise, it seems like a scanty allotment.
You're probably wondering the reason for our unique accommodations. Well, we weren't just camping. My father's ingenuity only began with the buses. What he was really about was just up the hill. He was working on building a house literally with his own two hands and with mostly "found" materials: glass from an old greenhouse, fieldstone a farmer gave him for digging it out of his field, oak trees my dad cut down himself and helped to plane at a friend's mill. The oak was for the beams. The fieldstone was for the fireplace - three stories high. The glass was made into windows that covered the front of the house. All the floors were pine. I remember when he sealed the downstairs floor with polyurethane, he suspended the piano from the ceiling to get it off the floor. When he sealed the stairs and we were waiting for them to dry, to get upstairs we climbed a ladder and then crawled across a plank. That was one thing my mother complained about, and overall I can't say she really complained that much, considering the unconventional nature of her life with my father. She protested all the way, but she did climb that ladder and crawl across the plank. At the time, she was eight months pregnant with my sister Susan.
As kids, we all thought mom was kind of a party pooper. She wasn't cheerful as she scrubbed panes of greenhouse glass with a bucket of hot water on the kitchen table in our mobile home (after feeding, bathing, and putting to bed three kids in a single-wide.) She seriously fussed when she had to crawl across that plank. And when she knocked herself out when we were leaving for church because she didn't duck coming out of the emergency exit of the bus, she was actually angry, maybe even livid. Looking back now as a wife and mother myself, I don't know how she did it, especially considering that as I am writing this, those are the only three examples I can come up with of her bad attitude. It makes me want to cry. It's sweet to think of her going wherever my dad took her, doing whatever crazy-sounding thing he came up with for them to do, maybe objecting at first but always giving in in the end.
Of course, Dad's plans might have sounded crazy, but for him they were more or less realistic, though they didn't always reach completion in exactly the time frame that was at first agreed upon. The house was supposed to take six months; it took five years. Still, he finished it, and pretty much single-handedly, with a little help from friends on things like pouring the foundation, erecting the beams, nailing the shingles. Someone else would have been crazy to try. Most people wouldn't have even thought to. My dad, as I used to say, "could do anything, just like Jesus." Mom was always quick to correct me and say "almost anything." Like, for example, Dad couldn't save my soul, I guess she was thinking. Maybe she was also thinking about one or two other things he couldn't do. Wives have that vantage point. (Mom, though, was usually too busy thinking about all the things she herself couldn't do, like keep herself from sometimes getting angry or keep her kids happy at all times.)
I think Mom just had a very sensitive conscience; she didn't want us making an idol of our Dad. I don't know if we made an idol of him, but he was definitely our hero. Life with him was a fabulous adventure. Time taken out of working on the house to stand on the ledge of the driveway and throw a weighted rope over and over until he hooked it over the branch of a tree twenty feet up so that he could make us a swing - and not just a swing, a thrill ride - was time well spent in his opinion. A house without a rope swing, after all, wouldn't be much of a house.
Of course, he wanted that rope swing as much if not more than we did, partly because he'd gotten it into his head, and he couldn't get it out of his head until he'd solved how to do it and accomplished it. I just know he lay in bed at night working it all out in his mind - inventing - and then what fun to get up in the morning and try. Nothing could stop him. He was single-minded. But it wasn't just the problem-solving, which has always been his main hobby in life, it was the dream he had and wanted to invite us into. He was creating a place that lived inside his heart and head, a place for his family to experience a thrill ride, even before we knew what one was. And I must say, we certainly did.
Friday, January 1, 2010
I've always loved eating junk food while watching The Biggest Loser, because it's so comforting to think I'll never be that fat, even if every night for the rest of my life I eat two servings of Chocolate Trinity ice cream after I put the kids to bed. I know I'm not what anyone would call fat right now, but it's this feeling of being out of control, this fear that I may never see 138 again, or at least not for a very long time. And I just don't like what I see when I look at my ass. Ugh. I usually don't like to use that word, but right now it is definitely an ass.
Was it like this with my other pregnancies? Did I gain this much this fast? I'll have to ask my midwife to check my chart. Tonight I tried to remember where I might have written down that information, because I really really really wanted a bowl of Chocolate Trinity ice cream, and if I knew that I've been here before and came out of it just fine, I would enjoy eating it so much more. I couldn't find it in my old journals. Actually, I gave up before I even opened one. I just looked at them all lined up on the shelf and, where before I would have been able to find the exact spot in less than thirty minutes, I knew that I could not kid myself into thinking my brain is currently operating at that level. (Case in point: on Sunday, Grace and Emma had the most killer cute little outfits to wear to church. I got them at Old Navy: white fluffy sweaters over pink ruffled tutus and furry tassled boots. But five minutes after setting aside Emma's sweater so she could eat breakfast, I couldn't find it. We were half an hour late because of looking for it and still not finding it, and I was trying not to be in a terrible mood, because really dressing them up like that was solely for my own benefit. Later I discovered that I had put Emma's sweater on her older sister. Grace's sweater was still in her dresser drawer.)
The other reason I gave up on the journals was that it wasn't worth five post-bedtime minutes, let alone thirty. I just had to enjoy my ice cream in spite of it. I enjoyed a bowl and a half. Some might call it two. Of course, I use a teacup, not an actual bowl. It is amazing, though, how much ice cream you can squeeze into a teacup.
What's even more amazing is that I'm writing about my weight right now. This isn't how I meant to start my blog. My blog is supposed to be soul-searching and inspiring. It's supposed to be about being an artist while in the middle of raising young children, about letting all parts of me live, even if it's just by not suppressing my longing for artistic expression, even when I'm not actually getting to do it very much.
Also, though, I have a story I've been wanting to tell, for almost a decade. Of course, it hasn't been ripe until recently, and now that I'm pregnant with it, I'm also quite literally pregnant, with my third child in four years (which I'm magnificently excited about, more so even than with both of my first pregnancies, probably because now I'm not quite so afraid.) Needless to say, I don't really have the time right now to sit down and write a book. So that's what this blog is for, to get the story out, and maybe through the process of blogging it, I can get it into some kind of organized form that I'll be happy with. And this really goes along with the theme of being a mother and artist simultaneously; it's an enactment of it. Some mothers seem to do this easily. They are mothers, but they're still themselves, creating things, selling things on etsy, blogging, even working outside the home. But I've always had the idea, probably because I had an extremely dedicated mother who gave up everything including some of her own God-given rights to be the best mother she could possibly be to us, that once you're a mother, you stop being anything else, for the sake of your children. I think I've taken it a little far. So, this blog can also be my therapy.
Now, to the story. I will give you a taste of it right now. I know what it's about. I just don't fully know how to go about telling it. Hopefully, I'll discover how as I tell it. It's about how I went from being hungry for love to being nurtured by love. It's about how I came out of a bad depression. But mostly it's just about me. No good way to sum it up, so I might as well just tell it.