Serenity

photo credit to Christian Hastings

photo credit to Christian Hastings

First off, this post is completely unedited; sometimes, you just gotta roll with it.

If you’ve been following along up to this point, you know we’ve relocated from the ‘burbs to the city. Not a high-rise block of flats overlooking busy streets choked with blaring horns and a mass of human-ants scurrying below as one might envision the view from a walk-up in Manhattan, but a third floor 110 year old historic building with an incredible view of the Confederate Memorial at Hollywood Cemetery out the front and the droning of an expressway to the right, banked by my school to the left. For a small city like Richmond, this is pretty peaceful a place to hang my hats. But I’ve been restless. Unsettled. At times, I feel as if the walls are closing in, attempting to squash me into some mold I’ll never fit. As I spill my thoughts onto the keyboard though, I’m not in there, even though its beautiful walls safely hold in slumber two of the many people in my life I cherish. I’m on the front porch, coffee and smokes (don’t judge) on the rail, bare feet up on the table, taking in the light breeze as I sit tucked in the cool nook of the brick and stone walls and rails that invite me to pull up a rocker, sit, and do nothing but watch life wander down the brick sidewalk in front of me.

So I do just that. I sit. I watch. I listen. I type.

I breathe.

More so that just about any other place I’ve lived in my adulthood, this neighborhood feeds my soul. There is such a diversity of life: college students just stretching their wings for the first time; young couples, perhaps beginning their forever journey together; sometimes, sharing the agony of a relationship whose time has come to an end too soon; laughter of friends gathered for no reason other than it is the end of a Tuesday; older residents who have spent their entire lives on the Hill here, and who will most likely rest eternally in one of the hills or bottoms that grace Hollywood. Then there are the homeless who live here, some choosing this life, others dumped into it rather tragically. There are stories here, all around, if I’m willing to open my eyes and ears to hear them. For a writer, this is potentially the mother-load of material passing by my windows and self, countless times a day and night. So why am I so restless?

This photo. This photo taken by my love’s son of his roommate, just this morning, as they made an early morning trip along the James just below them. The same James River that winds through boulders and fallen trees, crashes over the Fall Line, and lies still in pools along its shore. The same James that is a mere four blocks or so from where I sit now. The same James where Christopher Newport planted his cross on a small island below in 1604 in route to Jamestown to drop his weary passengers. The trees, light streaming through their summer greenery as the sun begins its daily march across the heavens. The birds, tiny sparrows sit on the rail not two feet away, heads twisting to see if I’ve brought them an easy catch for breakfast, or fighting for branch space in the overgrown boxwood blocking my view of the street.

It’s not enough to throw open my windows, sit on the sill with my laptop balanced precariously on my knees, although that has been a sanity saver. I need that ability to flow in and out of my spaces, surely as I need oxygen to breathe. When I’m flustered, or thinking, or bored, I need to step outside if only for a moment, to dig in the dirt, pick up sandpaper and a hunk of wood, or just sit on the steps with my eyes closed and feel sunlight. I can pray anywhere. But it is in the outside spaces that I can truly feel connected with my Father and at peace. The stresses of life dissipate, if only for a few moments, and allow me to recharge my own batteries. Don’t take me for an ungrateful brat, whining about what I don’t have. I don’t need acres of land and a huge home to avoid feeling compressed and squished. A studio apartment would be space enough if it had an outside deck or balcony. A place where I can watch my dog snuggle its bulky self against my leg and snore without feeling persecuted for daring to have a four-legged hairy companion is required. Noisy neighbors are even tolerable if I have “my space” (see prior posts about the home in Bon Air). But it’s that instant, brief moment of stepping outside the man-made into the God-created that gives me my peace.

Anyone have serenity to rent on the Hill in February?

Bright Side of Life

On Tuesday, June 7, 2015, I stood in front of gathered family and friends, and said “till we meet again” to my father, my Dad.  I can’t find the words again to express how I felt then, much less how I am still feeling.  Instead, I’ll share the “long version” of the eulogy I pared down, not trusting myself to make it through anything longer.

On Father’s Day, I spoke to Dad for what would turn out to be the last time. I was getting ready to go into church that Sunday morning. It felt a bit odd; none of the men in my life were going to be there. Dad was in South Carolina, David was at work, my boys were still asleep I’m sure, Ed was still at Conference. Kelly and Mike had even left after Sunday School. So it was just me. I don’t know why I chose to call him before walking in; normally, I would have called him after. But I didn’t. I sat on the steps and told him about stopping by the Bellwood Flea Market that morning. Again, I can’t explain why I stopped there that morning; it was hot as blazes and I always feel I need a shower after I leave that place. But there are so many fun memories tied to the blacktop and gravel converted drive-in theater; when Kelly and I were little, we used to go most weekends with Dad, stopping at Hardee’s to grab a sausage biscuit with grape jelly and a coffee to take to Grandpa, my Dad’s dad, as he manned his stall selling old tools, electronics he had meticulously restored, and old radio parts. As I told Dad about stopping there this morning, we laughed about how it had changed; not so many folks just unloading the overflow of basements and garages, but nearly half of it an amazing assortment of fresh produce. Seriously, cactus leaves alongside other fruits I can’t even identify, but am still tempted by, all the same. I did manage, for old time’s sake, to score a lovely coffee table and tin tray, just begging for a makeover. Guess that “thrill of the hunt” and the urge to renew something old, runs in the blood. Dad seemed excited to hear my plans for the items. David and I have started a side business “flipping” and creating home furnishings, and Dad wanted to know my plans for these pieces.  Just as he had done two days prior, he imparted his words of advice for getting our fledgling enterprise up and running.  He was pleased to hear David seemed to have caught my contagious love of looking at all things old with a new vision.  Or, as he remarked, at least David was humoring me.

As he always did, he asked about my boys and if they were behaving. Dad was amused to hear Lee had finally decided he could drive the full-sized F150 in the city without running over everyone and everything in his path. I drive that truck now.  See, it was Dad’s truck, and he had recently sent it up the coast to Lee, as his car had croaked.  Dad was no longer driving and didn’t want it to sit there.  I can feel Dad riding co-pilot everytime my short-legged self crawls into the cab.  Sorry, Lee. He wanted to know how Ryan’s most recent broken body part was, and told me to tell the boy, to “Quit breaking shit!” Dad wanted to know how Morgan was doing, and told me give Noah and Peyton a hug and a kiss from Big Grandpa. He has such a soft spot for his first grandchild, Morgan, and would always tell me make sure I give her a hug, and tell her I love her, even when I felt like choking her, as all mother’s and daughters tend to do at times. He asked about Martin (my ex) and said he commented on the Father’s Day post Martin had made: a great picture of my former father-in-law, drink in hand, in the tub. He said he missed Pete. I got choked up; those two were great friends and the source of much embarrassment to “the women folk” when we dared take the two of them out in public together.

We laughed about it being June 21st: Father’s Day, first day of summer, and David’s birthday all in one. Dad was laughing as he said something along the lines of “Good grief! Bet he thinks this weekend is all about him! Well, he’s a good man; let him have a day to do what he wants before he goes back to work.” Me: “Dad, he had to work today.” Dad: “Well, can’t have everything. Give him a hug from me and tell him happy birthday, Father’s Day, and all that happy crap.”

We talked briefly about the storms the night before and the oppressive heat. I was grasping at small talk, not wanting to get off the phone. That’s not usual for me; I hate talking on the phone normally. But that Sunday morning, I just seemed to bring up any little topic to keep the conversation going, even when it was clear that Dad was having a hard time talking. I kept talking. I told him about the furniture we were working on now, and once he again felt compelled to give me business advice, just as he had 10 minutes ago. I listened…again. I told him David’s kids were taking us to Jurassic World tonight for Father’s Day…he asked about them, again laughing at our modern-day Brady Bunch. I told him I wish he had been able to meet Christian especially; they could have quoted lines from Monty Python and shared highly inappropriate jokes, just as he did with Lee and Ryan, and I’m certain he would have eventually with Noah.

Which leads me to this; I learned compassion, forgiveness, humility, and passion for the written word from Mom. Dad, on the other hand, taught me to be curious, to be fearless when faced with the risk of failure, to spin a great story, to make use of the “flow chart of life” as he called it, and above all else, to laugh….a lot…and to not take life so seriously as to miss out on all the truly hysterical minutia that make up the every day. As a teacher, that particular piece of advice has turned out to be the single most important nugget of wisdom that wasn’t taught in a single one of my degree programs. As long as I was affiliated with VCU first as a student, and later as faculty, you think they might have mentioned that one. Dad’s advice to me at times of angst or confusion were always the same…Lay your burdens in God’s hands, pray about them, maybe have a good cry, apply the “flow chart” to it to make a plan, then find the humor in the situation and laugh your ass off.

As Kelly and I prepared for today, we grieved each in our own way. I came to understand that Dad had prepared us for this day, each in the manner that would bring us the most comfort. They were just quite different; it took me a few days, and venting to a few folks wiser than I to understand that. Many thanks go out to Keith and many, many others for keeping me sane these past two weeks.

But thanks to Dad, beyond the first initial gut-punch shock that had me doubled over in a parking lot outside of my car wailing, I’ve chosen to find the humor in the situation, and I’d like to share a small sample of those moments. Before I could even make it back home from the movies, I remarked that I was fairly certain the first thing Dad did after the initial check-in and hugs all around, was to meet up with his brother, Jon and my former father-in-law, Pete, and t.p. the Pearly Gates. After the gathering at Dad’s church in South Carolina with Johnnie, Lonnie & Susan, and Charles among others, we went back to Lonnie and Susan’s for lunch, as Lonnie had pleaded with us to help dispose of an extreme excess of Baptist women’s food. On the way up the walk, Johnnie turned to me, spied my hat, which was firmly on my head at the time, and informed me that she wanted my hat. She very matter of factly told me Dad had been after her to get a hat to protect her skin when she was out walking, and my hat was perfect and she wanted that hat. She wanted that hat. No discussion.  She.  Wanted.  That.  HAT!

Obviously, I handed over the hat.

Johnnie, thank you from the bottom of my heart; that moment was the best gift you could have given me that day…you made me smile. I will forever think of that second hand straw hat as Dad’s way of ensuring we stay connected over the miles. Wear it often; it looks beautiful on you. Then there was the “little brown jug” as an urn misunderstanding. You’ll have to catch me at Kelly’s if you want to hear that story. (I’ll share that story in a future post).

Let me leave you with a few final thoughts on Dad’s behalf as we draw to a close. Today is a respectful, dignified, and loving “till we see you again” to our Dad, Mickey Newell. We’ve had readings of favorite passages and the playing of hymns that moved him the most. We’ve been comforted by the Word of God and His promises in our time of grief. But I cannot return to my seat today without leaving you a nugget of take-home wisdom from Dad and thereby keeping a promise to him I made so many years ago. A promise to read at least a portion of the lyrics to a favorite song, which incidentally, is the 3rd most requested song at funerals in Great Britain…I’ll refrain from inflicting my singing on you, but feel free to sing along or whistle the tune if you know it. I’ve taken the liberty of rearranging ever so slightly, these words composed by the gifted lyricist, the late Eric Idle; if you don’t know his name…they have Google for that…

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best

And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of life

If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin
Give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow
And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of life