Lavender Blues

Sometimes I hear Martha Stewart whispering in my ear. Then I hear Robin Williams in the other. Robin’s yelling, “Carpe Diem!”

Martha’s whispering insider-trading secrets to me. Or she’s reminding me that it’s time to clean and trim all holiday candlewicks to 1/4 inch lengths and individually wrap them (in silk bags?) for storage to ensure smokeless flames and longevity during future candlelight vigils.

(I suppose I should go see someone about these voices in my head, but I’m kind of enjoying the company.)

It’s easy to be derisive about Martha, but I need to come clean and admit that last year I signed up for a Pottery Barn decorating class. They emailed me about their free seminar on bedroom decorating tips, so I politely responded and brought along my friend Debbie.

There we were—more than 30 women—gathered around a fluffy bed in the pre-opening hours of the store. The key to those lovely display beds? The bedding is doubled over to enhance the heaping highness of the comforters in a short-sheeted bed. You can’t actually crawl into them.

Pottery Barn employees spent 20 minutes demonstrating proper bed-making techniques and debating with our assembled group whether military folds versus hospital-bed folds made for more perfect corners.

I whispered to Debbie that I hoped no one ever came over to my home and flipped up my comforter to check out my bed-making skills. I must have been a poor geometry student, because 90-degree angles mean little to me. Instead, a bed inspector would likely find a wadded-up pair of socks I kicked off in the middle of the night; possibly some dust bunnies reproducing beneath my bed.

Here we are, four decades past the women’s movement of the ‘60s, and the Sisterhood was gathered to discuss—not women suffering under Taliban rule; not the plight of young girls in Thailand or Russia—but the various lavender-scented oils that could be added into each laundry load of bed sheets?!

So that’s my confession. I spent my morning listening to discussions on thread count and Egyptian cotton and short-sheeted beds. I wondered what I was doing there the whole time. I happen to love beautifully packaged presents and lavish bows, and lovely, graceful homes. And hey, someone can scent my sheets with lavender any day! But fast forward to the ebbing days of my life, and I suspect I might look back and wonder why I spent even 20 minutes of my time contemplating hospital-bed corners.

Tonight, though, sleep eludes me, and I am thinking about hospital beds. Specifically, my thoughts are with my 97-year-old Grandpa who is occupying one. Grandpa who was admitted to the hospital a few days ago with severe pneumonia and other complications. Although he’s resting calmly this evening, one of his lungs is entirely collapsed; the other is functioning at 20 percent capacity.

His heart is tired from years of life and the present effort to move blood and oxygen through his body now. We’re expecting him to pass from us sometime tonight or on the ‘morrow.

On his 96th birthday last year, I wrote a bit about Grandpa with his strict adherence to the rules of English grammar, and the application of his red editing pen on my vacation postcards.

This weekend, so many other random memories of my Grandpa surfaced:

At least twice when I was young, Grandpa pulled his money out of one bank and opened a savings account in another to get me a stuffed toy: Crocker Bank’s Cocker Spaniel or Security Pacific’s circus animals. I remember delightedly showing my animals off to my dad (who promptly phoned Grandpa to lecture him about the losses he was incurring by moving his money around). Grandpa, famously frugal with his funds, seemed unperturbed by any losses. He just enjoyed watching me play with those stuffed toys.

A few days before my wedding, Grandpa came over to my parent’s house to ask how he and Grandma could help me. I thought a moment and then realized that in the frenzy of preparations, I hadn’t purchased cedar shavings for my hamster’s cage. I’d leave on my honeymoon, and Sebastian would be sitting in soiled sawdust! Grandpa climbed into his car and went in search of cage filler for my rodent.

Grandpa never won an Olympic medal or any trophies. He didn’t publish a best-selling novel. He didn’t distinguish himself by finding a cure for a dreaded disease. He didn’t paint a masterpiece or launch a multi-national, trillion-dollar company.

Instead, he took the time to double-knot my shoelaces and button my sweaters. My sister and I, sometimes our cousins, too, had sleepovers at our grandparents’ home. Grandpa fixed us hot cocoa at bedtime and added blankets to our beds in case we were cold in the night. Grandpa called chocolates “chocs,” and made root beer floats with 7-Up. We indulged in these treats with abandon when we were with Grandpa.

Maybe it’s the nature of being a grandparent and retired, but if Grandpa was parsimonious with his money, he was generous with his time. He’d shuttle us to the library when our parents were too busy. He’d swim with us when we couldn’t be in the pool alone and no other adult wanted to sit outside with us.

In the end, I can hardly conjure up with last night’s Grammy winners in each category. I definitely can’t name award winners from last year. But I vividly recall Grandpa helping me make hammocks for my stuffed animals on his backyard clothes lines.

The long rows of white sheets flapped in the breeze. Wooden clothespins held up our pillowcase hammocks. None of the laundry smelled of lavender. But when I remember Grandpa lifting me up to put my teddy bears to sleep in the pillowcases, the memories smell like love.


The Write Stuff

We all have our thing. Some women appreciate men in military uniforms. Others fawn over firemen, sports heroes, movie stars, or go crazy at rock concerts. I develop crushes on men with keyboard-calloused fingers. Not music keyboards. Computer keyboards.

Wit and intellect, a way with words, and I get weak in the knees. It’s no surprise, really, that I think Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, should be voted “Sexiest Man Alive.” In my mind, best-selling author Don Miller could easily be a first runner-up to wear the SMA satin sash. Or maybe the “Sexiest Man Alive” title is etched on a leather tool belt. I don’t know.

For my birthday, my girlfriend Debbie bought tickets for us to hear Don Miller talk about his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I felt like a recipient of the Make a Wish Foundation except I wasn’t going to Disneyland. And I’m not terminally ill that I know of.

I had to promise Debbie that I wasn’t going to rush the platform and throw underwear on the stage. Don was, after all, speaking at the Eastside Foursquare Church. Worshipful conduct was in order. Maybe an alabaster jar and some perfume…

Don spent an hour talking about the components of great stories: the narrative arc, the protagonist and antagonist, conflict, climax and denouement. Well, maybe Don didn’t say “denouement,” but there was a great section on story arcs. Story arcs may not sound humorous, but when Don’s narrating it, characters and conflict are seriously funny.

Turns out the upcoming film version of Don’s New York Times bestseller, Blue Like Jazz strays a bit from reality because Don’s actual life writ large is too boring for the big screen. (That’s not my opinion. I think men in front of computer monitors are studs.) The filmmakers decided Don’s life needed some gentle embellishment.

As Don explains it, great stories–in movies or in real life–are all about a series of events. It’s what someone is actually doing more than what a character thinks or feels. That’s not to say that a good film has to be an action movie—car chases and cool stunts—or that what a character thinks and feels is irrelevant. But no one can see what someone thinks unless it’s demonstrated through actions. You don’t know what someone feels unless he shows you.

To make a movie interesting, you have to a string together a series of events with a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. More than that, what he wants has to matter.

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers…Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful,” Don writes. “The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”

Don went on to talk about how assiduously we avoid pain and conflict in our lives. Yet grand stories are about the transformation of a character; and pain and conflict are the main tools that produce change in our lives.

Nobody changes because they have something happy happen to them, Don says. We change through hardship and pain and through the pressure of difficult experiences.

That’s a concept. Embrace challenges. Welcome pain as an element that’s going to produce a grand story in your life. I’m conflicted over the concept of conflict in my life, but when I’m thinking of lifelong wishes, it occurs to me that ultimately, we really are all terminally ill. Some of us just know the timing a bit better than others.

When the credits roll, it would be nice to have lived a grand narrative. It would be great to invest my time and energy into actions that make a difference in the end.

My life? It’s the stuff that movies are made of. I’ll tell you all about it while I’m folding the laundry…

Something That Doesn’t Love a Wall

“Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost wrote in his poem, Mending Wall. It’s a line that has always resonated with me. I love parties and social events and filling my home with crowds of people, but I also appreciate those physical as well as metaphorical fences that establish the boundaries and protect my privacy. I love to have close friends, but I sometimes struggle with letting people get too close where they could get a good look at my flaws and imperfections (somehow oblivious to the fact that my flaws are just as apparent at the 100 yard line!); and I’m zealous about guarding my own time.

It’s silly and selfish, I know. More than that, it’s my pride. Last weekend, my neighbors rang my doorbell at 10 on Sunday morning. My kids were with their dad for the weekend, and I was enjoying the freedom of staying out late and sleeping in. So when the doorbell rang, I was semi-awake but certainly not showered or dressed. I ignored the doorbell and hoped they’d go away. I didn’t want to admit that I was this lazy person who wasn’t even out of bed at 10 a.m. I didn’t want to greet my neighbors in my pajamas with disheveled hair and sans makeup. And I didn’t feel like talking. Just let me get up, browse the Sunday news via the internet, and leave me alone.

My neighbors finally gave up and left. Then they called me later to check if everything was all right and asked if I wanted some fruits and vegetables from their garden. I felt incredibly sheepish for ignoring them at my door.

Slowly, slowly, I’m trying to figure out how to worry less about what people think, open up more to the “inconvenience” of building relationships, and invite people into the woof and warp of my life. It comes naturally to some people. It’s not always natural for me.

It’s hard for me to trade freedom and autonomy and my need for perfection, for the messy, demanding requirements of becoming deeply involved and close to other people. Amazing thing is, there is so much to gain when you finally let people in. Literally.

Last summer, I was faced with the huge task of moving homes. For all kinds of reasons, my move was daunting and emotional and just plain overwhelming. Friends kept saying, “Let us know if we can help.” I kept responding, “Oh, thanks, but I can manage.” It’s uncomfortable to admit that you need help. And it’s a little daunting to allow people to go through your home/your life. Finally I realized, Hell, I really need the help. I swallowed my pride and sent out an email asking everyone to come over for a packing party.

Neighbors, co-workers, family, friends—even parents of my children’s friends—showed up. A group of people assembled boxes in my garage while others fanned out to rooms in my house wrapping dishes and glasses, packing clothes and toys, disassembling beds and furniture. In 5 hours, 35+ friends packed up my entire 3-story house into 247 boxes—all captured by a girlfriend who entered the contents of each numbered box into a computer spreadsheet, a packing manifest! If you’re thinking about the body of Christ, these friends were his hands and feet to someone in need. A year later, I’m still in awe thinking of what an amazing gift of time and energy my friends lavished on me. And I’m inspired to figure out ways to get past my selfishness so I can pass it forward to others.

Sure, I still desire a good fence that delineates my space from yours. That might not change soon. But I’m growing more appreciative of the gates that swing open to invite people in as well as draw me out of my own backyard and into the neighborhood.

“…Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out

And to whom I was like to give offence

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

That wants it down…”

Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

An Age-Old Story

Next month, I turn 40. Well, technically, I turn 39 in September, but thirty-ten is so close, I can feel it. I think I might just take the plunge and declare myself 40 right now instead of having that number hang over me for an entire year.

I’m already out of that prime target audience for marketers (18 – 35 year olds who have purchasing power and, supposedly, disposable incomes, or at least high tolerance levels for credit card debt). Yeah, they’re still selling to me. But the advertisers have got my number now, and they’re pitching me anti-aging products and weight loss supplements. I’m not sure I can tolerate another asinine Acai berry ad!

I’m trying to take this all in stride. I’ve never been a huge numbers person—I took “Math for Poets” in college, for Pete’s sake! So arguably, I’m not even comprehending how old 40 really is. Is it a prime number? An imaginary number? A negative factor of some multi-variable equation?

What unnerves me are the endless reassurances to women everywhere about aging. There are those overzealous comments to the birthday girl: You’re still a “babe”; You’re waaaay hot; Don’t worry, 40 is the new 30. The sentiments sound suspiciously like mom saying, “It’s okay, honey. The perm’s not so bad.” Or, “You look cute in glasses.”

So even though I’m kinda nonplussed by another occasion to celebrate me, eat cake, and receive gifts, I’m starting to think it is a big deal. The kind of big deal you should be paying attention to. Like a Japanese person in Hiroshima in 1945 watching a plane with the name “Enola Gay” flying overhead. It’s not the moment to be thinking about the ingredients you need to make California Rolls…

I’m trying to figure out what I need to be prepared. I’m about 15 pounds heavier than my perfect weight, so a South Beach diet and a personal trainer are probably in order. Not sure I can afford a personal trainer right now, what with all the Acai products I’m going to be ordering, so I may have to depend on chasing the dog as my cardio routine and lifting those huge paper towel rolls I buy at Costco as a weight-lifting regimen. (Unfortunately, I went south and ate a lot while sitting on the beach, so that diet isn’t working.)

Then there are those stretch marks and the loose skin around my belly button from my pregnancies, notably my twin pregnancy. It’s terribly hard to work for an organization that’s all about saving lives and bringing healthcare, clean water and food to starving children in the world. Just try to justify to yourself thousands of dollars worth of cosmetic surgery for some wrinkles and lines around your navel. I wish I could. I really do want to have my pre-pregnancy tummy back. But we have this darn alternative gift catalog that tells me how many goats or chickens a family could have for the cost of a smooth tummy. Turns out I could probably buy guinea pigs for the whole country of Peru to remove the wear and tear signs of carrying my fearsome foursome. I’m just wearing long shirts and trying not to think about the alien crop circles around my navel.

When my birthday comes around next month, I am planning to celebrate with my family and some of my favorite friends. My favorite older friends. Strange thing is, I rarely notice or think about what they look like; how much they weigh, how old they are, or much of the stuff that crosses my mind about me on the month before my 39th/40th birthday.

My best-est friends are wise and witty and fun. They are authentic and indomitable and loyal. My favorite people have celebrated the births of their stretch-mark-inducing children; managed to persevere through all kinds of life’s challenges, and they’ve learned invaluable lessons of faith and grace by living through the high moments and low moments.

I hope none of my girlfriends (or guy friends) will be disappointed if I don’t call them “hotties” and name them by name here. I know many of them qualify for the title. One thing, for sure, most of the best people I know bear stretch marks all over their souls. Maybe their stomachs too. I just haven’t noticed.