Hang around with enough artists, eventually you’ll hear the phrase ‘mark making’. It’s the bane of my existence.I know the words roll off the tongue. I know the alliteration hums. But as much as we want the term to describe some magical, mysterious portal to the creative process, the phrase ‘mark making’ describes nothing. Two words puffed up to mean something special, in reality the phrase is nothing more than empty air. Using the term to describe what it is we do as artists diminishes our work.
We paint. We draw. We sculpt. Along the way we scumble and scratch, we carve and stitch and scribble and brush. We etch and boil and glue and cut. We try to communicate in a way that moves beyond words. We blur edges. We skew and flatten perspective. We hope that what we pull from our own heart touches someone else’s. Are we making marks? Of course. But mark making is so much more than what’s left behind on a canvas.
And mark making isn’t restricted to fine art. We all make marks. All the time. And the marks we make don’t require a loaded paint brush, threaded needle or stick of charcoal.
Bump into the sharp edge of a coffee table with your shin and as the welt begins to form you might say, ‘oh, that’s gonna leave a mark’. Lean a dirty palm against a white wall? You left a mark.
In the same way that you don’t have to be an artist to make a mark, not all marks are seen. Sometimes an angry storm of words or a hardened glare will leave a mark on another person that is invisible to the eye. Those marks are like tiny paper cuts on the psyche.
When I’m creating I can erase, paint over, or cut away the marks I make. I can use a seam ripper to remove misplaced stitches. When I choose hurtful words or glances – those are marks that I can’t make disappear. So in the same way that I try to make considered choices when I create, I need to have the same consideration when I speak. What about you? Have you left any marks that you can’t erase?
The truth is I did not love the man who was about to become my husband. What I loved was the romantic notion I had in my head about being the wife of a man who, with his father and his younger brother, farmed the sixteen hundred acres of Red Willow County land thirteen miles outside of McCook, Nebraska that his grandfather farmed before him.
They grew acres of golden wheat that was harvested the first week of July. They grew corn and alfalfa that was gathered in the autumn as feed for the cattle. Not far from the main house was a barn and corral from which the hogs would sometimes escape. Next to that, I seem to remember, was the chicken coop.
There was a part of me for whom choosing that life – a life connected to the earth and one that I imagined felt purposeful and authentic – felt like a calling. But I was only eighteen and the story I was telling myself about a life on the windswept prairie was just that. A story. And my heart knew that it was a story because another part of me knew being a farmer’s wife would not be the whole of my life.
(To be honest, I didn’t need my heart to tell me. In one brief summer break from college I had a few minor misadventures – including being seconds away from having my head crushed in a bale catcher – that were proof enough I wasn’t cut out for farm life.)
We married on June 18th, 1977, next to the farmhouse, under an arbor built by cousin Tom and laced with fresh cut grape vines. Colleen, a friend from college, played ‘Come Saturday Morning’ on her mandolin as I walked down the grassy aisle in my beige off-the-rack Gunne Sax dress. Seventeen months later, on November 24th, 1978 my husband drove me to the bus station in McCook. I boarded the Greyhound mid-morning on an overcast day and rode Interstate 80 for four hours across Nebraska’s earnest landscape. Back to our one-bedroom apartment south of Lincoln and within walking distance of my college campus. I turned twenty years old the day I separated from my husband. It was the last time I would see the ranch. It was the last time I would call myself a married woman. A farmer’s wife. I would spend the rest of the winter, into early spring, with my bare necessities packed in black bin bags, sleeping on dorm room floors or the art building’s threadbare sofa and stealing meals from the campus cafeteria while the lunch ladies turned a blind eye. I wasn’t happy but I was stupid enough to never doubt that my life would turn around. I spent the next four decades living metaphorically out of a black bin bag but in the end – albeit a little late in the game – my life did turn around.
What does an eighteen year old girl know about romantic love? I’m not proud that I married a man I didn’t have feelings for. I’m not proud of the hurt that caused. He was a good man but he was also a means to an end. An escape route.
What I loved was the possibility of wide open spaces. It’s not that I’m a great outdoorswoman. You won’t find me camping in the wilderness or scaling mountain peaks. After decades in California I’ve never been to Yosemite.
It’s the small things I’m in love with. The dirt beneath my feet. The earth. Fog banks hovering over the mountains. The sky and the stream. Birdsong and flowers waking up in the spring. And that has never faltered. This morning, just outside my living room window, I’m in awe of the mist that rolled down from the Blue Ridge to drape a sparkling grey scrim over the trees – the same trees whose bare black branches will slice into the pink dawn tomorrow. Later today, when I take my walk, the dank perfume of decaying leaves and muck rising up with each step from the muddy trail will anchor and soothe me. I’ll hear the the red shouldered hawks calling back and forth and see the turkey vultures circle over the hill. Bright red cardinals will flit before me from branch to branch, as if showing me the path to take. In a few weeks time, as seasons change, I’ll wonder when the bears will wake from their winter slumber and if my hiking poles will be a reasonable defense.
And, as seasons change and the earth warms, Ben and I will embrace our first growing season in Virginia and the romantic notion we have in our heads about the joy we’ll find in the growing of our own food. The sprawling fourteen hundred acres I married into all those decades ago is now a fourteen square foot mirpeset at the back of our townhome plus a slim little balcony off the living room and a small shaded porch next to the front door. Just enough for a kitchen garden: herbs, radishes, tomatoes and lettuce. Maybe some short and stubby variety of carrot. I’ve read that a potted fig can do well in our hardening zone if we protect it during the coldest part of winter. Ben loves figs and I love Ben. And we both love our cat Bruce so we’ll have catnip growing, too.
I’m certain the soft-focused images Ben and I have in our heads about our lush, verdant paradise have no basis in reality. No matter. There’s something primal about driving our hands into a freshly opened bag of potting soil. A tenuous connection is made with the generations who plowed the land before us to feed their community. Plus, there are no bale catchers or combine harvesters or flatbeds full of irrigation pipe to threaten injury. The worse that can happen (knock on wood) is a strained muscle from too much lifting or maybe a splinter or two from my refusal to wear gardening gloves.
Of course, it’s still too cold to plant anything outside. Even though it was eighty degrees in Virginia last week (and snowing in Bay Area!!!) the threat of another frost has not passed. And so I’ve taken over half of our dining table, using re-purposed salad containers as mini-greenhouses for two varieties of radish and cut toilet paper rolls as compostable seed starters for cherry tomatoes. The bell pepper and poblano pepper seeds are resting comfortably in little egg cartons.
The anticipation that builds as we wait for that first bright green sprout to find its way through the moist dirt toward the sun, and then to see it burst from the compost of our little toy garden is worth a sore back or bandaged finger. It’s enough to make Ben verklempt as I shout at the top of my lungs, “It’s alive!”
Six weeks from now, when our first harvest arrives, we’ll pull a ruby throated radish from the soil, brush it clean, slice it in half and – with a sprinkling of salt and perhaps a bit of butter – take one small, spicy bite and declare that radish to be the best radish ever grown. Ever.
This week marked the start of our first Guided Autobiography session of 2023. Our first theme? Delicious.
It’s my grandmother’s kitchen that I remember.
My grandmother, Pauline Barber Roth, was a good grandmother. That being said, Pauline hated my grandfather, her husband Robert, with whom she bickered on a daily basis. One could also assume Pauline hated her only child Barbara, my mother, with whom she shared the burden of my grandfather’s protracted illness and death and on whom Pauline counted after her tender, overworked knees could no longer carry the weight of her very short, very rotund body. What might be closer to the truth, however, is that rather than hating her child, it was the circumstances of Barbara’s life that Pauline hated. Because once Barbara discovered that the curves of her body were her currency, she used her hips and breasts and thighs to purchase what she thought she wanted in a way that startled and embarrassed Pauline’s Christian sensibilities; that muffled Pauline’s compassion for her daughter like a too-long steamed Christmas pudding wrapped in tight swaths of wet, sticky cheesecloth and kitchen string.
My grandmother Pauline loved her church, which was the Trinity United Church of Christ on the corner of Linden Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The century old brick church had a steeple and real bells – not pre-recorded – and steps leading parishioners to two over-sized bright red doors that opened not to heaven but to a dark vestibule and then into the church’s dusty, Shalimar soaked sanctuary. Trinity United Church of Christ was one city block from Pauline’s narrow, two-story row home at 123 Poplar Street and it didn’t matter if her faith was real or imagined – Pauline waddled to the church in search of communion with God every Sunday morning. Quite often her youngest grandchild, whom Pauline also loved, skipped by her side. That grandchild was me.
There is no question as to how I came to have such an insatiable sweet tooth.
More than the sweets, however, my grandma prepared for me lunches and dinners that make my mouth water almost sixty years later.
After the walk home from church, opening the screen door from the back porch into the kitchen guaranteed being met by the steamy aroma of pork loin in the pressure cooker. Sunday dinner was almost always pork loin served with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and a side salad made of English cucumber sliced paper thin, white onion sliced the same and dressed in nothing more than vinegar and a shake of black pepper.
But it was Saturday lunch that I loved the most. That was when I asked for anything I wanted and I only ever wanted two things: either a minute steak sandwich or a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Minute steaks are very thin and lean and prone to being overcooked but with my grandma as chef that never happens. While I sit at her kitchen table reading Archie comics she begins by frying onions in her cast iron pan until they are brown and crisp around the edges. As they finish she pushes them aside with her spatula and adds the steaks. In the few minutes it takes for the meat to brown she pulls a bun from under the broiler that has been toasting open faced and dresses it with horseradish and ketchup that has been mixed together in a bowl. She layers one half of the onions, a thin slice of provolone cheese, the warm minute steaks, another slice of cheese and more onion then closes the sandwich, slices it on the diagonal and sets it on a plate in front of me with a small glass of 7-Up. The horseradish and ketchup make my mouth pucker. The cheese has melted and pulls away in strings when I take a bite. Juice from the steak and greasy onions runs between my fingers. There’s nothing better. Nothing.
On warm and humid summer days I lean toward tomato, bacon and lettuce sandwiches. Grandma makes hers with three slices of toasted white Wonder Bread, a slather of Miracle Whip on each one, crisp iceberg lettuce from the fridge, tomatoes that taste like the sun and strips of bacon fried so they are neither too soft and fatty nor too stiff and crackling. She cuts the sandwich into quarters and pierces each quarter with a toothpick to hold everything together. The dance of warm, salty bacon, acid from the tomato, tart mayonnaise and cool, sweet lettuce is a level of deliciousness that my young mind can’t comprehend or put into words.
If I had known that my last weekend at my grandma’s house was going to be my last, or that the last lace cookie in the tin was the very last lace cookie, or that I would never be able to master Grandma Pauline’s pork loin or corn pie or potato candy or BLT I might have paid more attention. But a child doesn’t know about paying attention, or that things end. Besides, it never feels final, those last times together in the kitchen. Looking back I can see it was more like a slow fading away.
It’s the cusp of 2023 and the algorithms know me too well. They know that this is the time of year when I demonstrate a personal weakness. The time of year when I will spend hours if not days searching for the journal and calendar that will change my life. The algorithms have logged my clicks and so now, as the year races towards its end, photo essays of the hike you took with your family or that tearful video of the little boy receiving a puppy for his birthday are being replaced by scrolls of ecstatic people thrilled that what they hold in their arms is the journal that will fuel their productivity and help them become the version of themselves that they see in their mind’s eye. Over the years these journals have seduced me with their assurance that in exchange for my hard-earned $39.95 plus shipping and handling they’ll send me the key to achieving all my goals. All I need is a few rolls of washi tape and a dozen fine point markers in rainbow colors.
I spent the first half of 2022 packing for our move and what I found in the dusty recesses of our storage locker were half-a-decade’s worth of Bullet*, Wellness, Productivity and Law of Attraction journals in various sizes, colors and bindings. Most began the year that I acquired them on solid footing but by late February were abandoned like a New Year’s Resolution that made little sense in the first place.
The lesson that I had to learn – that I finally learned – is that these pseudo-magical journals are nothing more than spiral-bound sheets of paper with calendar dates, faint horizontal lines and the occasional affirmation or Mary Oliver quote printed in pretty pastels and sandwiched between jewel-toned embossed vegan leather. They are nothing more than little naked emperors ruling kingdoms of dreamers.
It turns out that all the color-coding and tracking and planning and washi-taping takes too much time. I mean it really takes time. Time that might be better spent doing what we want to do rather than doodling about what we want to do.
This doesn’t mean writing down our dreams and goals and aspirations is a bad thing. It isn’t. Journaling is a contemplative act. With practice and commitment it becomes a ritual that supports our mental health by helping us to process our past, shift our perspective and plan for our future. Writing down the vision of the life we see for ourselves is like drawing the road map that will lead us to our destination. Even as the vision we have for ourselves morphs and changes. Even as we are blocked by obstacles and dead ends. Journaling is a way of discovering how to navigate through unexpected difficulties. Keeping track of the goals we aspire to and the steps that will take us to those goals holds us accountable. It also provides that clarity we need to determine when our set goals no longer have heart and meaning. Seeing the seven days of the week laid out before us reminds us to take time for self care. To make certain we’ve given thought to holding sacred the present moment and the relationships we have with others that mean so much.
But don’t let any slick online advertisement convince you that it’s their product that provides the one true way of journaling, increasing productivity or keeping track of what day of the week it is. If you believe that putting pen to paper will bring clarity to your intentions then what you need is simple. You need a pen, some paper and some time alone.
I pull out a notebook and my favorite ultra fine point pen and write ‘2023’ at the top of the first page. I begin to think about this new group of twelve months we launch in a few hours. I don’t want to write a list of resolutions. But I need to put down on paper a written sketch of sorts for my life in 2023. I decide a theme for the year will provide focus and without too much hesitation choose, ‘grounded wellness’. What that means is allowed to unfold as the new year progresses. What is your theme for this coming year?
I divide my life into four quarters: health, wealth, my creative heart and my loving heart. If you divided your life into four quarters what would that look like? In each quarter I take note of what is important to me…fitness…writing a will and health directive…committing to the art workshops I’ve enrolled in as an act of self-care…building and maintaining community…being open to love and friendship…remembering that I am a good person doing my best. What’s important to you?
When I finish I have a broad list of objectives to complete that need to be set in stone and ideas to embrace that are more fluid.
On the next page I write, ‘Practical Goals for 2023’ because I’m nothing if not practical. These goals are a list of ‘action items’ for the year. A breakdown of the objectives and ideas that I was able to determine for the four quarters of my life. This list is a cross between a guideline and a series of goal posts. If I want to create, if I want to write and if I want to continue to teach yoga with any small amount of success then the action items on this list need to happen. Do you have a list of ‘action items’ that you want to see complete?
But it’s all a bit overwhelming. So I break it down even further, until everything is bite-sized. Until everything feels doable. If there’s something you’re stuck on, what can you do to break it into bite sized chunks?
From here it’s easy to find order and clarity. I write the word ‘January’ at the top of the next page and ask myself, ‘what needs to be done?’.
What needs to be done? What do I need to do in order to move forward in my life in a way that is profound, life affirming, celebratory and self-actualizing? What do I need to do in order to be a positive force in the world?
And to think I did it all without spending $39.95 plus shipping and handling! With no washi tape! No color coordinating! Venting about algorithms in this post took WAY longer than creating my 2023 Journal. We’ll see how it’s all working for me in February but I have high hopes.
In the meantime, I’m wishing all of you a very happy 2023. May you find heart and meaning in all that you do.
*full disclosure: I actually appreciate and still employ some of the organizational tips learned during my ‘Bullet Journaling’ phase…
I spend my childhood in rural Pennsylvania. In the 1970’s we keep cool during the hot and sticky summer by catching minnows and crayfish in the creek that runs down from the Blue Ridge Mountains and past my house. In the fall we kick our feet through thick blankets of candy corn colored leaves while the blue mountains turn russet. With the first flurries my sister and I press our ears against transistor radios tuned to WAEB and with fingers crossed hope to hear the name of our school, Northwestern Lehigh Elementary, read aloud along with all the others closed by icy roads and blowing drifts of snow. In spring we trade long pants and boots for knee high socks and cotton culottes. The periwinkle in my mother’s rock garden begins to bloom. The snow melts, the frozen creek thaws and the Blue Ridge Mountains drop their coat of rich winter grey as the new leaves stretch for the sun. For a few weeks the air is perfumed by the lilac bushes outside my bedroom window, and then the school year ends and the hot and sticky dog days of summer return.
When Ben and I first arrived here, to Virginia, the early mornings were already warm and humid, the evenings tolerable. And now, five months later, we’re pulling out the woolly hats and thick coats that spent California winters crammed into the back of a dark closet.
I didn’t know until now how much I missed seasons.
Outside my window is an endless row of tall, bare limbed trees that grow along the Slabtown Branch of Linkinghole Creek. When we arrived in July they were lush and green. Towards the end of August the leaves of one began to shift from shimmering emerald to shades of deep ruby and dusky gold. I was certain it had died. But it was simply leading the way and within weeks all of the trees seemed to be competing with one another to see which might be the most autumnally resplendent.
But now the leaves have dropped. I can see through the trees’ crooked boughs and across the creek bed to the nest of family homes that wind their way up Bishopgate Lane. In the early evenings that we have in mid-November warm light glows from each window and I imagine the homes are filled with the scent of baking bread, home cooking and childish giggles. And as the folks who live there look out toward Old Trail Drive and see the light from Ben’s and my home I wonder if they imagine the same story? Not wanting to disappoint, I returned from my last trip to the local Harris Teeter with flour and baking powder and yeast. It’s definitely soup season and what better treat to enjoy with soup than warm bread with lashings of butter?
Today the temperature will be hard pressed to break forty-five degrees and it will be raining by this afternoon. How cold does it have to be to snow? It doesn’t have to be freezing but I’m certain the ground is not yet chilled enough to support a dusting of the white stuff. But will those trees outside my window be coated with white on Thanksgiving?
I’ve been told by new friends who’ve been here longer than Ben and I to not get my hopes up. There are, without a doubt, four wonderful, glorious seasons here in little Crozet. But winters, my neighbors tell me, lean a little too far toward the temperate to see snowball fights or a carrot-nosed Frosty in every garden.
I’m more likely to find puddles of slush. I’m ok with that.
Settling into the rhythm of changing seasons changes everything else: the food I eat, the clothes I wear, how I spend my downtime, how I commune with nature. It changes my yoga practice and the yoga I teach. It makes me aware of time and the passage of time in a way that the glorious, endless California sunshine never quite managed to do for me.
And while it’s true that at some point I’ll rue the moment that I step into a deep puddle of wintry slush I know that I will never not love watching the seasons change.
In late October dawn breaks in Crozet, Virginia a little past seven in the morning. It’s cold this week and I need gloves and a winter jacket for my walk. Two trail heads are a few breaths away from my door. This morning I choose the one that leads down for a bit, crosses a wood plank bridge and then climbs – not too far or too hard – and opens with a panoramic view of Beaver Creek and Bucks Elbow, two nearby peaks that are part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which in turn are part of the Appalachian Mountain range that run from Maine to Georgia. On a crisp morning filled with dawn light coming in low and sparkling, like this perfect morning, Beaver Creek and Bucks Elbow are russet, or maybe a sort of blood orange color with flecks of crimson, gold and deep umber.
I set a strong pace, walking purposefully, slowing only to say good morning to the three white tailed deer whose breakfast I have disturbed. Two of the deer look up to stare at me, their brown eyes showing no fear of this interloper. The third doe, younger than the other two and perhaps more nervous about me stomping through her forest so early in the morning, looks at me, then at her companions, then back to me before springing away. My eyes track her five swift leaps that defy gravity and carry her from open grass to the thick brush in which she disappears. Her more experienced sisters follow with a slow saunter and more than a little attitude that shows no concern about where I’m going or what I might do next.
I turn my attention back to the trail. My footfalls begin to syncopate with each breath and as they do my body falls into a bright rhythm that gives the sun a run for its money and gives my mind permission to wander. And once my mind shakes off the detritus of the day before, that’s exactly what it does.
This time of year the tree roots and small rocks obvious during summer walks are hidden by a mosaic of wet, sticky leaves. My pace slows. The trail takes me past a pond that only last week was a resting spot for the Canada Geese flying south. On that day the mirrored surface, broken by the landing wake of one lone goose that dawdled somewhere over Waynesboro town, reflected the sky and clouds and colors of the hills. The Canada Geese are gone now but maybe their cousins, the Cackling Geese, will visit during winter. On this frozen morning though, all that rests on the water is a cold white mist that the sun will soon burn away.
I’ll be sixty-four next month. This year my birthday falls on Thanksgiving Day. I know that sixty-four is old to some and young to others. Either way, on these mornings, with the damp and solid ground beneath my feet, I spend less time considering the road ahead, with all its joys and sorrows, and instead reflect on the joys and sorrows I found on the road I traveled. And I take the beauty surrounding me into my confidence. I open the jeweled reliquary that is my heart and tell these mountains all my secrets.
I confide in the dark winter berries, the crimson ones, too. I confide in the milkweed, bright green in spring but now dried and split to angel wings, their gossamer white threads glistening and weightless in the air. I confess my sins to the red shouldered hawk perched in judgment on the bare branches one hundred feet above me.
I trust the trail and the mountains, the deer and the geese. I trust the loam beneath my feet and the rising mist. I trust it all to hold my secrets. To listen in sacred silence. This earth, it’s ancient and knowing wisdom, will not try to fix a flailing human who isn’t broken.
Three miles later I exit the trail and follow the sidewalk past the blocks of shiny townhomes. Most are decorated for Halloween. The school bus stops so that I can jaywalk across Old Trail Drive. I pass a gaggle of kids with full backpacks and wearing shorts in stark contrast to my bundled body as they head toward the middle school around the corner on Rockfish Gap Turnpike. I am home. I am healed.
I enjoy Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside blog. Kelly is the author of Malled and Blown Away and, as a journalist, has written for the Financial Times, the New York Times and Forbes. And every Monday morning, without fail, I can count on finding Broadside in the dozen or so emails that have landed during the night.
What I enjoy about Broadside is Caitlin Kelly’s concise, sweet, simplicity. She has a way of taking quiet moments from her own life and writing about them in a way that makes her readers feel as if she’s writing each one a personal letter. Kelly is not maudlin nor does she over-romanticize stories from her life. She writes with touching economy and clarity that’s easy to read with my morning coffee. And more often than not what she chooses to share resonates because I either have been or am ready to go through a similar experience. I’m certain it’s because we are about the same age and life events tend to align, but sometimes I can’t help but say, ‘dang girl, you too?’.
For example, in a recent Broadside Kelly wrote about a small inheritance she received from her mother with whom she was estranged. The inheritance included a large pastel of Kelly’s great-grandmother and a small framed sampler – the embroidered alphabet grey with age. Having never received an inheritance, she found comfort and continuity in having these objects around her. And then she asked her readers, ‘what brings you comfort?’.
Many things, of course, bring comfort. A good meal. A loving partner. The purrs of your feline purr baby or the unconditional happiness of your canine best friend.
But other things – other circumstances – bring me comfort, too. I find comfort in surrounding myself with objects that have a history and the energetic imprint of the people from whom they were received. In fact, from where I sit this morning, I’m surrounded by things given to me by others: the painting on my wall, the brass lamp, the sofa and chairs, the tea chest and pillows, the porcelain box and the ceramic vase. Everywhere I look I’m reminded of friends that feel more like family and am I filled with love.
I wasn’t always so blessed. I’ve lived what I might describe as an IKEA-like existence. Easy to assemble, sometimes quick to fall apart, ready to go at a moment’s notice. No matter where life took me I managed to get there with as few boxes as possible. With as little excess weight as possible.
There are a few things, of course, that managed to stay with me through my many moves. I still have the capo I was given fifty years ago when I played 12-string guitar. I still have the little plastic box that held my guitar picks. I have a few of my picks from those days, too. But these things don’t speak to who I am. They speak to a time in my life when I borrowed my roommate Sissy’s Gunne Sax dresses, which were always a size too small. They speak to a time when I rode shotgun in Mike’s green Chevy Nova from our college campus in Crete, Nebraska to a shopping mall’s fern bar in Lincoln where we’d unpack our guitars and sing Dan Fogleberg songs.
I love that I have that old capo and those guitar picks even though I no longer have the guitar. It’s nice to have a few things that hold the memory of moments decades old. But what do I have that tells the story of who I am and why does knowing who I am – where I came from – bring comfort?
Over this past weekend I drove five hours north on Interstate 81 to clear out the books and tchotchkes and photographs and furniture that filled every square inch of storage locker 2011 at the East Penn Self Storage emporium in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. These things were the remnants of my mother’s life and had been collecting dust and bugs and spiders for four years. My mother was still alive when I sold her trailer; when I threw away her sofa and shoved her clothing into a collection locker I found in the parking lot of the Walmart off of Hamilton Avenue. She didn’t know that I needed to do that; that she wasn’t going home. And I didn’t tell her. Instead I saved what I thought was important. Furniture that had been in the family for a few generations. The dog tags she wore when she joined the Women’s Army Corp. Family photos, marriage certificates and divorce decrees. A complete set of the Harvard Classics. I saved a wooden 12-inch ruler advertising a long since closed life insurance company headquartered in Pittsburg. And her knitting needles. I really wanted her knitting needles.
What I saved has little monetary value. Not the ugly Edwardian pendulum clock that stopped working before I was born nor the yellowed newspaper clippings my mother taped onto lined binder pages, her perfect Palmer penmanship taking note of why and how and who. I saved them anyway.
I don’t need these things. And while friends who, like me, are approaching the middle of their seventh decade choose to downsize I’m choosing the opposite. I’m gathering. Surrounding myself with a collection that others might describe as junk but to me is a treasure that exists to remind me of a time long past and a place that no longer exists.
It’s important for me to do this because it connects me to a history and to people I never knew but who gave me my nose, my blue eyes and my propensity for weight gain. These strangers whose blood is in my veins also gave me a passion for art and music. A love of nature. Keeping my great-grandmother’s writing desk and my great-aunt’s crocheted doilies honors my history. It honors them. I know the fragile aperitif glasses, the shell shaped plate from Japan and the lustreware casserole dish in which my grandma made my favorite corn pie could be gone in an instant. And after the sorrow of loss passed my life would be the same. Every new day people move through the loss of the things that remind them of who they are and I know how lucky and how blessed I am and I understand the impermanence of this jumbled collection of artifacts that until Sunday were covered in grime in a storage locker five hours up the road. But having these things around me now helps me feel less lost in this world; less like an uncertain, aimless wanderer and more like a woman secure in who she is and how she came to be.
This morning I noticed that the color of the woods are slowly turning as the leaves offer their first hint that season’s change is coming soon. A few days ago a new fawn joined the family of deer that enjoy an evening snack outside our door. And last week I drove to the Lowe’s in Waynesboro all by myself.
That’s a bigger deal than you think.
Like any sixteen-year-old growing up in rural Pennsylvania I loved the freedom that having my drivers license represented. But I don’t know that I ever loved driving. It was a skill I needed if I wanted to get from home to Becky’s house, or choir rehearsal, or to Bake Oven Knob. I was never afraid of driving but it was less of a joy and more of a necessary chore. It always made me a little nervous.
I didn’t become afraid of driving until four years ago when my black Honda CRV, with me behind the wheel, was rammed from behind at a red light and totaled on Oregon Expressway just a minute away from my former home in Palo Alto. After that accident, an accident in which I was not injured, being in a car left me hyper-vigilant, white knuckled and close to panic. It was almost tolerable when I was behind the wheel but deepened when I was a passenger. Behind the wheel I had some control. As a passenger all control was relinquished.
This fear had a huge and controlling impact on my life. I missed art exhibits in San Francisco I was desperate to see. I turned down party invitations and gatherings with friends. I said ‘no’ to going to the movies. I avoided almost every event where driving was involved even when my heart wanted something different. But to go anywhere required time for me to prepare mentally.
There were exceptions, of course. A two-hour drive with a friend to attend an art workshop was doable because I had time to talk myself down from the edge. I had support from my friend who commiserated with my fear and who assured me that the SUV she was driving was an indestructible tank. And then there was the drive Ben and I made up the Pacific coast to Sea Ranch. The deep anxiety I experienced navigating the twisty, fog shrouded road on the final leg of our journey there was the price I paid for an exceptionally beautiful weekend on the sunlit ocean’s edge.
But this was no way to live. I was determined to leave my fear behind in California. I was not going to allow my fear of driving to control my life in Virginia.
About a month ago I made my first trip to the Harris Teeter Market two miles down Rockfish Gap from our new home. And even though when I leave Harris Teeter I have to make a left hand turn onto what can sometimes be a somewhat busy two-lane road, I survived. I’ve been going to Harris Teeter a few times a week ever since. Even when we don’t need anything. Just for the practice.
My next challenge arrived ten days ago when Ben needed to catch the train to DC. He offered to Uber to the station but I insisted we take the car. I wanted the challenge of navigating my way home. I could do that. Or I could shake off a little fear. I chose the latter and set Waze for the nearest Whole Foods. And again, I survived. I also survived two days ago when his train arrived back in Charlottesville and I was there to meet him. I can’t remember the last time I was there to meet Ben after a business trip. I didn’t know how much I missed doing that.
Remember when you were sixteen and you passed your drivers test? That’s how going to Whole Foods, doing the food shopping and then driving the twenty minutes home felt to me. That’s how finding my way to the train station felt. That’s how going to Dollar General and then all the way to Waynesboro felt. Such simple, ordinary things. Still, it was as if someone was handing me the literal car key to my freedom. That someone was me.
I still have some ways to go. I haven’t driven to Charlottesville ‘proper’ or navigated finding parking near the Pedestrian Mall. But I know that I will. There are too many things I want to do. Too many experiences I no longer want to put on hold.
Do you have a fear you’ve been trying to shake? What steps could you take to begin letting go of that fear?
Our experiences shape us. Define who we are. Our experiences influence our perspective on life. And the stories we keep of these experiences are important to share. Sharing stories from our life with others builds deep connections that otherwise may have never been made.
That’s what drew me to Guided Autobiography (GAB) and that’s why I lead 6-week Guided Autobiography workshops four times a year.
But there’s a problem with Guided Autobiography. The themes we are presented with more often than not lead us to explore in 800 words or less moments that are sad or heartbreaking. And while sharing our heartbreak helps us to process the event that caused our heartbreak, for our September session of Guided Autobiography I’ve decided we’re going to take a different approach.
We’re going to process our moments of joy. Because those moments, too, shape our perspective on life. Our next GAB workshop will offer themes that encourage us to recall experiences that made us happy. That brought us joy. Experiences that surprised us with a positive outcome.
There are a few spaces left in our Guided Autobiography: Lean into Joy workshop. The workshop begins on Thursday, September 15th from 2-3:30 PM PT/5-6:30 PM ET. Registration is as simple as an email. Tuition is on a sliding scale between $60-$120. Once I receive payment via check or PayPal you’ll receive GAB’s Zoom link.
Our past is filled with profound experiences that shaped us into the people we are today. Isn’t it time to remember the joyful ones?
There’s a wooded area across the street from our kitchen door. I like to stand on the patio while the coffee brews in the morning, or in the evening after dinner, to see if the deer have arrived. They like to eat the grass and weeds that surround a small pond and I love to watch. I hope I never stop being delighted when I see them.
One evening last week when I stepped outside to look for the mother deer and her fawn, the sound of cicadas and croaking frogs was so loud I called Ben to listen with me. It sounded like a symphony of bugs and amphibians tuning their instruments before a concert. I hope I never grow accustomed to their music.
There are bats where we live. On our first week here we saw dozens over our house. They were dining on flying insects and then dancing through the sky to find their next juicy mortal. We haven’t seen that many at once since, but now and again I’ll see one or two grabbing a snack. It surprises me every time. I hope seeing a bat in the sky above my house never stops surprising me.
These experiences create a sense of wonderment and awe in me. And for that I’m grateful because sometimes it feels like we’ve lost our ability to be awed. Sometimes it feels like we’re too distracted by the noise of the world or too jaded by the onslaught of constant information to find time for quiet moments of awe.
But these moments of awe are beneficial to our well being. The sense of awe we feel when we’re gazing at a star filled sky, for instance, or witnessing an eclipse, creates in us a sense of ‘small self’ and deepens our sense of connection with others.