The Things We Carried

How does one prepare for a hurricane?

The first ten days of September were one achingly long crescendo of anxiety here in Florida. We watched Hurricane Irma churn from the African coast to the Leeward Islands, devastating Burbuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on to Puerto Rico and Cuba before crushing Miami and the Florida Keys, Marco Island, and Ft. Meyers.

Here in Tampa Bay, we waited.

Since we aren’t in an evacuation zone, Steve was comfortable in staying. He knew how to prepare for a hurricane, and I followed his lead. We were ready in every way possible with 40 gallons of drinking water, plenty of provisions, medical kits for various degrees of injury, and a secure house. On Saturday, Steve rode his bike two miles to check on his sons, his mother and sister, and his ex-wife. Everyone was well. We were all as prepared as we could be.

On the morning of September 10, we learned that instead of following the east coast of Florida as expected, the eye of Irma was to pass over our tiny home sometime around 2am the next morning. I’d lived through a direct tornado hit in 2012, and weirdly expected a hurricane to feel like a 12-hour tornado. Instead, it was an excruciating exercise in patience. For the entire day, I struggled to stamp down the panic rising from my gut. As the gentle and steady rain began falling, Steve and I  built over 50 sandbags by digging a hole in the backyard and filling plastic grocery bags with Florida sand-soil. We brought our plants inside: a hibiscus and two small papaya trees Steve had been nurturing since they were tiny shoots. We made afternoon espresso, which felt both satisfying and scary: as though it were the final coffee we’d ever share, as though “before Irma” and “after Irma” would be markedly different. As the details of Irma’s strength and trajectory were updated, we made tough decisions. If the roof were to blow off of our home, or if 140 mph winds blew out our windows, what were the most important things we wanted to protect?

We had a small safe and two large army-issued waterproof cases to fill. Passports, love letters we’d written each other, Steve’s fountain pens and his father’s pocket knife. My daughters’ shot records and social security cards. Small toys from his sons that they’d snuck into his rucksack before deployments. The wedding rings from our first marriages, still poignantly tender to both of us. A Bible, dated 1871, that a Park ancestor of mine had received as a teenager.

How do you measure your life in the weight of one small waterproof safe?

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Terror.
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The irreplaceables.
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“The rains. They are coming.”
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Florida plants safe from Florida weather.
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The most important place in the house.
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The calm before the storm.
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Which books are most important: the ones you’ve read and loved the most, or the ones yet to read? Also: don’t forget the tiny robot.
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Steve’s ocean god, purchased after he almost drowned while surfing in Hawaii decades ago. It was a comforting presence as Irma bore down on us. Not today, weather. Not today.
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Red wine vs. white wine.
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Reading aloud, waiting for Irma.
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This is not a good feeling, when you are the blue dot.

The army-issued waterproof cases, we decided, were for our favorite books (how to choose favorites?), our diplomas, and photographs of us and of our children when they were small. We tried not to be sentimental about our short courtship and six-month marriage, but holding our marriage certificate, a few photographs, and seeing the 20-years of history that came before our union felt significant. We are brand new at this marriage, this blended-family thing. I felt a moment of hopelessness, that our future wasn’t in our control, that one storm could erase us and everything we loved. Things are only things, mementos of living, small reminders of where we’d been. As we filled the boxes, all I wanted was to continue moving forward with this man that I love so dearly, and for a few moments, I was gripped with the terror of losing him. Things don’t matter, truly. They are only things.

As the evening progressed, the winds grew louder. Peyton sat quietly, engrossed by her phone, tracking the storm and reassuring friends and family in Texas and Kentucky that we were fine. We hadn’t lost power, so I made us a meal. Steve set up the chess board, thinking we might play, but by 10pm I was obsessed with following Irma online as she slammed into Ft. Meyers. After losing the wifi we agreed to turn off our devices, and so while Peyton took a shower, Steve and I sat together on the couch and read the T.C. Boyle story, “Peace of Mind” aloud to each other, alternating sections.

Soon we moved to the hallway to sleep. Pey was on one twin mattress and Steve and I shared the other one in a cramped tangle. Fitfully, we slept.

At 2am, I woke to silence.

I got up, walked through the house, confused. The power was on. No windows were broken. Our roof was exactly the way it was supposed to be. My dear Florida Cracker got up behind me and calmly said, “We must be in or near the eye now. Let’s get out of this hallway and go to bed.”

There was no tornado-moment of shrieking wind. Our dogs slept through most of the day and night like any other day and night. And thankfully, unlike 60% of Hillsborough County, we never even lost power. We’d slept through the worst of it. Bullet dodged.

The things we carried were totems of little value to anyone but us. What are a few books, a few documents, a scattering of photographs? Of everything we sealed in boxes, only the love letters, the fountain pens and pocket knife, and the 1871 Bible were irreplaceable. The things that matter were in that cramped hallway: my daughter, our pets, my new husband and his prepared, calm ways. We weathered Irma no worse for the wear. We’re thankful.

We have each other, today and always.

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A Return to the Center

In the hot, waning days of summer 2016, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani  in Trappist, Kentucky to walk the grounds with a friend. The world felt at peace, and my friend and I–both writers, both recently divorced, both mothers, both spiritual seekers–had some important catching up to do: after both of our decades-long marriages ended abruptly and painfully, we’d each found and been startled by new love.

It was a sweltering August day, not unlike my first visit to the abbey almost a decade prior. I wore a cotton tee shirt dress and she wore an old shirt and hiking pants. I had a stainless steel canteen of water and she carried a Diet Coke. We walked together and talked about our lives and our novels (hers, published, mine, not) and our failures and our joys.

We soon found ourselves at a place that historically has been forbidden to women at Gethsemani: Thomas Merton’s hermitage, a concrete block cottage with a wide expanse of porch. The front door was locked, and so we sat in the rocking chairs on the porch and kicked off our shoes. We forgot about rules for a few moments. Instead of worry, we talked about life and how messy it is. We talked about love and how glorious it can be, if we are brave enough to choose it. We talked about our own pain and about hurting others, about saving ourselves from drowning in our own sadness, and about starting over.

As we talked, a moth flew toward me and land on my calf. Then my shoulder. At one point, it landed on my hair. “Merton’s touch,” she said. I sat very still, imagining this brown moth’s beginnings as caterpillar, and thinking about the journey this small creature had taken to arrive at this moment, and the courage it took to fly freely, to land on the body of another creature, to flutter away, only to return.

We were surrounded by woods that hummed with cicadas and we could hear the rustle of the hot wind through the trees. We agreed that writing was hard work, that pain made us stronger, and that love was almost always worth whatever fire you had to walk through to find it. We gave each other the grace and permission to speak of things that are often left unsaid.

As we were leaving the Hermitage, I stood and stretched, and then leaned against the supporting beam for the porch. We kept talking and the moth returned and landed on my fingertip.

My friend grabbed my camera and said, “This is too much.” She stepped back to take in the Hermitage. “Hold still.” Then she snapped this pic of me and Merton’s moth, a creature determined to sit gently on the tip of my finger.

Barefoot Trespasser

Hold still.

Sometimes, if we just get quiet enough, and still enough, moments like this can happen. my Merton moth became a quiet champion for what it looks like to survive a brutal transformation. This photo symbolizes what rebirth looks like to me: a winged, delicate creature trusting the kindness of my hand. It’s also a photo of me–content, at peace, with the ability to marvel at the world and the love that I’ve found here. My friend has found it, too. Sometimes, a moth lands on your fingertip. A novel comes to fruition. New love arrives with surprise. These gifts seem to say: enjoy me. Embrace joy. I trust myself in your hands, and I trust you as my landing place. Let’s hold still together for a few moments.

I’m not sure I know anyone from any faith tradition who could say otherwise: to be human is to question existence, and to have faith is to believe blindly that the narratives we’ve known since childhood are true. That those stories are real. Then we relearn those narratives, and we add to them, and we question the givens in our lives. Along the way, we suspend our reason in order to embrace, revere, and worship an unknowable creator. We trust and we place hope that goodness will prevail. On this day last August, I stood on Thomas Merton’s porch and felt the rush of who I’d always been and who I was about to be melding together and finding solace in the same space. It was both a pinprick of realization and the infinite universe, in one. We all can be the moth, if we are strong enough to survive our own metamorphosis.  What’s waiting on the other side is glorious, you know. You just have to believe.

“Human”

I Write.

While applying for a marriage certificate in Lexington, Susan and I were asked to identify our race. We agreed we’re tired of that question on every government form everywhere, so we entered the word “Human.” The clerk was not having it and insisted that we properly categorize ourselves by skin color. We complied, yet it felt right to push back, just a bit, and peacefully, against an anachronistic regulation. If and when the government asks me to declare my religion, I’ll enter the word “Liberty.”Screenshot 2017-03-11 08.48.54.png

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A Letter to My Teenage Daughters

February 8, 2017

My dear girls,

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January 21, 2017, Women’s March, Lexington, Kentucky. I’m so proud these two young women are my daughters.

Last night in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Senator Elizabeth Warren to stop speaking as she was reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King. The letter, written in 1986, denounced Jeff Sessions, the senator currently nominated to be the Attorney General of the United States, as unfit for a federal judgeship. When Warren continued, McConnell pulled a move called “extraordinary” by the New York Times: he evoked a little-known rule to silence her. He said:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Shut up and sit down. How many times have I heard that in my life? Unfortunately, more times than I can count.

In my anger and frustration, I spent a good amount of time this morning feeling helpless. I wanted to share with you two some advice about how to react when people tell you to shut up and sit down. And so I’m writing this letter not only to encourage you to speak out and to stand up, but to give you guidelines for how and why to use your voices. I have high expectations for you, and I am holding myself to those expectations as well. Perhaps if we all structure our resistance with some good, old-fashioned “mom rules” we can accomplish more together.

My advice? Be kind, speak out, tell the truth, and to fight to win.

Choose kindness.

I still believe in kindness, even in this very unkind season. Be kind when you stand up. Be kind when you protest. Be kind when you disagree. Kindness doesn’t mean to be passive, or to be weak, or to be compliant. It doesn’t mean to speak softly. It is to pull from your deep empathy to attempt to understand others. It means that instead of name calling, you use language that constructs rather than demolishes. Your empathy is a light that shines in all that you do. It forms connections and builds bridges between different ideas. It it what makes you human. Active kindness is a choice. When you don’t know how else to react to something rude or unexpected or provoking, choose to be kind.

Speak out. Your voice is powerful.

Speak up for those without a voice. Stand up for those whose rights have been stripped. March for those who cannot march. Do not listen to those who may tell you that your voice doesn’t matter, that you don’t count. You are valuable beyond measure, and you were created with purpose. I’m not merely encouraging you to speak out: I am expecting it. Speak, even when you and I might disagree. Speak when you’re told to shut up. You cannot be silent when others are persecuted. This goes for both bullies in your school and bullies in the White House. Your voice is your birthright and your responsibility. And you have far more power than you may know.

Believe that truth matters.

We are living in a world swirling with propaganda. When the man in the highest office in the land not only lies every single day, he lies about his lies, supports the lies of his employees and followers, and spreads fake news with wild abandon in order to create fear and chaos, you must hold firm to what is true. You are smart young women with gifts for discernment. I’ve watched you both as you’ve stood up for truth. You’ve each demonstrated strength when you’ve followed your hearts, when you listen to your intuition. Back up your feelings with facts. Research. Find confidence and solace in what is true. When you’re unsure, go to the root of the problem and seek the truth. Then speak it.

When it’s time to fight, remember that winning matters.

When the times come in your lives when you are seeking a promotion, or running for public office, or building a case for what you believe, don’t listen if someone tells you “it’s not worth the fight.” Don’t back down when faced with challenges. Hold firm to your principles and to truth, but fight to win. Winning is important. Winning gives you a platform and a responsibility. Winning gives you power. (And there’s nothing–by the way–wrong with women who have power.) And with power, a platform, and responsibility, you become leaders who stand for good. That’s when the real work begins. Those who lose go home. Those who win get to work.

And when, in your fight for what you believe in, you are told to shut up and to sit down? Remember these words from me: Speak out. Stand up. Remember the women who’ve gone before you who’ve paved the way. “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I hope, at the end of my life, that you will count me as one of those women. And I hope that you will count yourselves.

I love you both more than you will ever know,

Mom

Queen of Pies & Puppies

Key Lime/Coconut Cream Pie with Bourbon Whipped Cream

Yesterday, Steve’s sister, Mary, called me Queen of Pies & Puppies. And I do make a killer Key Lime/Coconut Cream pie, which I made for Steve’s mom’s birthday. I made up this recipe when Steve couldn’t decide which was his favorite: Key Lime or Coconut Cream. Recipe below.

My puppies are in fact old, grumpy dogs, prone to barking at thunder and door knocks, but they go with me everywhere, including here, in Florida.

So it is: Queen of Pies & Puppies–I like it.

Lime Coco Pie

This is my first post on this blog, and it’s pretty benign. More to say, later. Just warming up with a recipe.

Susan’s Key Lime and Coconut Cream Pie with Bourbon Whipped Cream

(You Put The Lime in the Coconut…) 

1 extra deep dish pie crust (I’ve used several, but have found that Keebler’s extra deep dish graham cracker crust works the best. Not shown in photo.)

Key Lime Pie Ingredients:

One can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk

Juice of three limes and zest from one lime. Set one tablespoon of zest aside for topping pie later.

Two egg yolks

Blend all, including zest, and bake for 11 minutes at 320 degrees in deep dish pie crust. Crust should appear half full. Set aside.

 

Coconut Cream Filling Ingredients:

One cup sweetened coconut flakes

Three cups half and half

Two eggs, beaten

Three-fourths of a cup white sugar

Half cup all-purpose flour

Quarter teaspoon salt

One teaspoon vanilla

Spread coconut flakes on a foiled baking sheet, bake for five minutes at 350 degrees, or until at desired brownness. Set one-fourth of a cup of the flakes aside for topping pie later. Mix half and half, eggs, sugar, flour and salt in a medium sauce pan over medium heat, stirring CONSTANTLY. Bring to a boil, immediately lower temp to low, continue stirring for two more minutes. If you don’t stir it with a wisk the entire time it’s over heat, the bottom will burn. Trust me, I learned the hard way. Remove from heat, add vanilla and three-quarter cup of toasted coconut flakes and stir. Pour coconut cream filling over the lime pie base. Chill at least four hours, preferably overnight.

 

Bourbon Whipped Cream Topping

One-half pint heavy whipping cream

One-quarter cup white sugar

One tablespoon bourbon (or to taste. One tablespoon is very mild.)

Whip all ingredients with hand blender until smooth peaks. If it gets chunky, you’ve beaten it too much, so if it starts getting too stiff, stop! Spread over chilled pie. Top with lime zest and baked coconut flakes. Cut pie into 16 pieces. Remember: this is a DOUBLE PIE. A “normal-sized” pie slice is WAY too much.

Voila!