Two

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This is what’s left of the tree that fell on me in my van two years ago today.

The flowers are the daylilies my daughter used to decorate the trunk for the little prayer service we held at the spot one year ago today.

It was once a beautiful old maple, more than four feet in diameter at the point that landed on me.   The tree that stood beside it also fell in the big storm last week, and although that one had the decency to fall away from traffic, it still shook me up to see it lying there.  As my friend put it, “Your sister-tree fell last night!”

It’s been a long two years.  I’ve learned that I’m tougher than I thought, that I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a lot of good people, and that I can survive just about anything as long as I keep my sense of humor intact.

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I wanted to write something moving and deeply meaningful today.  I found a bunch of gory, shocking pictures that I was going to include with my post, and I tried to think of the right spin to put on the story.  I planned on using real names and really digging into every tiny detail of that night.

And then I saw my daughter’s Facebook post today:

On this day 2 years ago, my entire family’s life changed. June 21, 2011 is a date that will always be sketched into our memories, but now is a time to let go. Now is a time to reflect on the positive, rather than dwell on the negative of this day. For everything that happens, there is a reason and God would never give us anything that we couldn’t handle. If anything, we are stronger now in both life and our faith and I am thankful for that. I love my family, and although sometimes we fight and have disagreements, I couldn’t imagine my life any different.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

So let me close here with a couple of pictures and a word of thanks to all of the people who saved my life that night, and to the people who have saved my sanity in the two years since.  They brought food and Diet Coke, cleaned my kitchen, drove my sorry butt to appointments and just listened to me piss and moan on the bad days.  Most of all, they reminded me of the strength in friendship and laughter.

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The Stitchin’ Zone

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I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know how to do needlework.  I embroidered my first set of stamped pot holders before I started Kindergarten, and I haven’t stopped since.  Growing up, I also learned to do cross-stitch, latch hook, crochet and more.

Spending time at my aunts’ house, I learned to always have a craft project close at hand.  Each of the four aunts had her specialty, and when a butt hit a chair, a craft basket hit the hands.  That’s just the way it was.  Marian made afghans,  Ida did cross-stitch and crochet, Noni did candlewick, and Verna quilted.

Verna’s quilts were works of art.  She did everything by hand, from the piecing to the quilting itself, to the hand-stitched binding.  She made Tumbling Blocks, Log Cabins, Nine-Patches and more; she made cross-stitched and appliqued tops, and she gave away every finished project.  Wedding quilts, baby quilts, lap quilts, she made them all.

She died before I had a chance to learn from her, but her sister Noni taught me the basics during my first pregnancy so I could make my baby’s quilt.  Noni hated quilting, but she knew just enough to get me started, and then she told me, “Don’t forget any of this, because I don’t love you enough to teach you again.”

Years later, I made her a quilt that took more than two years to complete; I spent two years cross-stitching the top and six weeks quilting it together, and I told her, “Don’t lose it, because I don’t love you enough to make you another one.”

I’ve lost count of how many quilts I’ve made over the years.  Each of my children has one, as does every baby born into our extended family.  I’ve given them to friends and donated them to fundraisers and silent auctions, and I’m finally making one just for myself.  It’s a king-sized quilt with cross-stitched yellow roses.

I tell people that quilting is my Prozac.  When I pick up one of Verna’s handmade wooden hoops and take the needle in hand, I lose track of everything else around me.   It’s automatic, a process.  Load the needle, pull it through, repeat.   Over and over, my hands doing the job with hardly any conscious thought on my part.

When I’m quilting, my mind can play.  I plot novels, rehash conversations that didn’t go well.  I mentally redecorate my living room or plan out my grocery list, or I re-live moments of my life.

It’s a slow process.  An afternoon spent quilting may result in only a few inches of a quilted pattern, but those hours can give me peace that no amount of therapy or antidepressants could provide.  When I’m quilting, the world slows down enough for me to think –or not think, if that’s what I need that day.

When I’m quilting, I’m spending time with Verna and Noni and the others, or I’m reaching out to the babies who have slept on one of my quilts.  I’m enclosing myself inside my own healing bubble where I can retreat, where I can lose myself and find myself at the same time.

When I give away a quilt, I love the ooohs and ahhhs.  But no matter how many I give away, my quilts give me far more.

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Jump Out or Garden, Craven Fool

Daily PromptTurn to your co-workers, kids, Facebook friends, family — anyone who’s accessible — and ask them to suggest an article, an adjective, and a noun. There’s your post title! Now write.

Since I am home alone most of the day, I had to ask for input for the Daily Prompt from my friends on Facebook, and I realized just how eclectic, smart and delightfully twisted my friends are.  Not only did I get words like “craven”, I also got what is perhaps the greatest Facebook comment ever made.  Ever:

I asked my staff to help. I said give me an adjective to describe yourself.  From them I got “Jittery” (Obviously too much coffee) “Bloated” (Didn’t ask) and “Flatulent”. I have since decided to leave early for court . . .

Bless your heart.  I had no idea lawyers were so funny.

Back to business.  The word craven immediately made me think of Lord Archibald Craven in “The Secret Garden”. But since it’s used here as an adjective and not a great character in literature, I had to look it up.

It means “cowardly”.

Good word.

It really does describe Lord Craven.  He is a coward, trapped by his own fears in a cold and lonely world of his own creation.  He is so afraid of having a crippled son that his fear turns the boy into an invalid; he is so afraid of losing another loved one that he won’t allow himself to love anyone at all.   He is distant and terribly alone, all because of his fears.

If you aren’t familiar with the book, it’s the story of Mary, a young orphaned girl who is forced to move from her luxurious home in India to her uncle’s lonely manor in England.  Like her uncle, Lord Craven, she is withdrawn and cold, starved for any kind of affection.  She “adopts” an old, abandoned garden and as the plants grow and blossom, so does Mary—and so does everyone around her.

It’s a story of growth and healing, of the strength of the human spirit if only it is properly tended.

Every year, when I planted my garden, I thought of Mary asking, “Please, sir, may I have a bit of Earth?” And I’d smile and tell myself that I read too much, and to shut up and water the damn plants.

Two years ago, I didn’t get my garden planted because of my car accident.  I was in the hospital when I should have been turning the soil, in a brace when I should have been weeding, feeling sorry for myself when I should have been harvesting.    I didn’t get it done last year, either;  the physical work was just too hard.  Too overwhelming.

Too scary.

I’ve been a craven fool, a coward, so afraid of pain that I’ve given up.  I stopped gardening, swimming, walking the KalHaven Trail, playing outside with my kids.  I let my fear of getting hurt again stop  my healing.  I’ve let my spirit die alongside my garden.

My little garden sits there, untended, overgrown, abandoned.  Just like Mary’s garden when she first discovered it.

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The Big Guy says we don’t need  to plant the garden this year.  We can buy our tomatoes and cucumbers and green beans without all of the back-breaking work.  He knows I’m scared, and he knows the work will be hard, and he wants to keep me safe.

But he never read “The Secret Garden.”

He doesn’t understand that gardening isn’t about the harvest.  It’s about the growth.

Shoulda Coulda Woulda

Tell us about something you know you should do . . . but don’t.

 

Hoo boy.  I could write a novel about all of the things on that list.  Oh, wait.  Writing my novel is on the list too.

Now that my kids are all in school, my house should be spotless and my novel should be in the last stages of its final edit.  I should be able to prepare delicious meals for my family, complete with tasty desserts.  I should exercise, write letters to The Big Guy’s Great-Aunt, finish the baby quilt I am working on, read a good book.  I should reach out to old friends and family members that I haven’t seen in a while.  I should do volunteer work with all of this free time.

But . . . I don’t.

I can only blame just so much of it on chronic pain.  There are people out there in much worse shape than I am who manage to function.

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to people who have never dealt with depression.  They ask me, “What do you do all day?” and I don’t know what to say.

“I sit here in this chair and think about all of the things I should be doing,” I should tell them.  “Most days, I cry a lot because I don’t know what to do or where to start.  I cry because I want to be a good wife and mother, a good person.  I want to do all of those things. . . but I don’t, and I don’t know why, and then I cry because I don’t want to be crying.”

I should explain to them that I spend my days making bargains with myself, trying to trick my will-power into getting back to work.  For every mindless half-hour of staring at the walls, I tell myself that I must do a chore.  Wash the dishes that never get completely done.  Fold the laundry that is wadded in the basket and should probably be re-washed.  Run the vacuum.  Go outside and go for a walk.  Write a chapter or a query letter or anything, for God’s sake.

Just get out of that chair and move.

And then it’s 3:00 and the kids will be home in a half-hour and I start to panic because nothing is done and I have to cook supper and make phone calls and scramble to cover up the evidence of my inactivity.  I have to dry the tears and get dressed and pretend that I remembered to shower.

I have to make up stories about my busy day to explain what they see as my being lazy.  I have to make excuses and try to act “normal” and then bow my head in shame in the face of the irritation and impatience and downright anger from the people who just don’t get it.

I should tell the world that I don’t want to live this way.  This isn’t my choice.

Depression is an illness, not a choice.    Who would choose to live like this?

I should be able to move on and stop dwelling on things.  Stop talking about and re-living the car accident that changed my life.  Stop grieving for the career that I lost—for everything that I lost –the night I broke my neck.  Stop feeling sorry for myself.  Stop missing Mom and Dad and Marian and Jennifer and Kristy and all of the people I loved who died too young, too soon.  Stop regretting  the way my life has turned out.

I should surround myself with positive people and read books that lift my soul.  I should pray harder and ask God for His help.

More than anything else, I should admit to myself and the world that I am suffering; I should accept that the time has come for me to ask for help.

I should step away from the computer and make a phone call.

Stroking It

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Jeff Daniels and listen to his presentation aimed at eager young Theater Majors at Central Michigan University.  He was friendly, gracious, and humble – an all-around nice guy.  Career-wise, he was somewhere between “Terms of Endearment” and “Speed”.

I was somewhere between youthful idealism and life’s first really hard bitchslap, but that’s not really relevant here.

The thing I remember most about his lecture that day was his use of the term emotional masturbation.  I don’t know if he coined the phrase or if he was quoting someone else, but he was referring to “method” acting.  He described the technique of reaching deep down into one’s psyche to pull out old hurts, past painful moments, hellish experiences.  Actors who do this don’t just feel the emotions of the scene; they re-live their agonies for the sake of giving a believable performance.

Emotional Masturbation.  Stroking one’s emotions for the sake of producing a satisfying result.

Believe it or not, I’ve used that phrase many times to describe different people in my life:  the co-workers who tell and re-tell a bad-boss-wronged-me tale, complete with tears; the clients who sit in my chair and work themselves into a breathless, red-faced tirade recalling the hairdresser who once cut off too much or permed too tightly or fried their ends;  the kids who sing a song of woe about the teacher who is supposedly out to get them.

All of them practicing the art of emotional masturbation.

Not to be confused with an Eddie Van Halen masturbatory guitar solo.  Not really relevant here, either, but I’ve waited years for a chance to use the phrase “Eddie VanHalen masturbatory guitar solo”.

I am writing a short story right now in which my main characters are trapped in a dark and terrifying maze.  It’s my attempt at writing mystery and adventure, two genres that are somewhat foreign to me.     In order to get the intense, heart-pounding feeling of being trapped, I’ve been digging down pretty deeply into my own psyche, exploring my claustrophobia.

It’s been exhausting..

I keep finding myself sitting here at the computer with my hands trembling while beads of sweat gather on my upper lip.  My heart pounds and I can’t catch my breath.   My words on the page are striking just the right mood, getting the perfect intensity I was reaching for

It’s good.

It’s emotional masturbation.  Stroking my emotions for the sake of producing a satisfying result.

Some of the best things I have ever written have been those things that came about because of a heck of a lot of that kind of stroking.   Stories for which I relived my mother’s death or my car accident, all for the sake of getting the feelings right on paper.

But . . . is it necessary?

Jeff Daniels dismissed emotional masturbation as unnecessary for producing a believable performance.  He made fun of actors who torture themselves in that manner when the audience really can’t tell the difference.  He described the happy audience leaving the theater to return home, while the poor emotionally-drained actor is left backstage in a puddle of his own self-inflicted misery.

As I devote more of my time to writing, I have to question whether or not I have what it takes to keep tearing into my soul in order to manipulate my readers’ feelings.  Where is the line between drawing from life’s experiences and immersing myself too deeply into those experiences?  I want to write believable, heart-wrenching fiction, but I don’t want to hurt myself to do so.

It’s the whole “write what you know” principle.   The heroine in my romance novel is recovering from a broken neck, and she falls in love with the hero while learning to believe that she is still a worthwhile person despite her new handicap.   She is, of course, far younger and prettier than I am, and the love of her life has a lot more hair than my husband has, but she is “what I know”.  My struggle with this character is to write about her doubts and fears and pain without going through all of it over and over again every time I sit down to write.

I’ve made her injuries less severe and her recovery more complete.  I skipped over the PTSD and depression and made the physical therapy much more sensuous but much less painful.  In the end, I think she’ll be a sympathetic character without being pathetic.  At least, that’s what I’m striving for.

Without emotional masturbation.

Tea

Do you have a favorite quote that you return to again and again? What is it, and why does it move you?

For Christmas this year, my mother-in-law gave me, among other gifts, a necklace. It is a small silver teapot with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt engraved on the back: “Women are like teabags; you never know how strong they are until they’re put in hot water.”

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Best gift, ever.

I first heard the quote after I was hurt in a car accident. During those first months, I spent many hours every day on Facebook, soaking up words of encouragement from my friends. One of them posted it on my page and since then, I have leaned on those words whenever I am feeling defeated.

I have never really thought of myself as being a very strong person, especially since I grew up surrounded by women who were all so much stronger than I could ever hope to be. My mother, who raised three children alone with little or no child support – in the 1970’s, it wasn’t easy to pursue a deadbeat dad across state lines. My Aunt Noni, who went against her father’s archaic beliefs to finish school and owned her own business at a time when single women just didn’t do that. Aunt Marian, who walked around with a non-union fracture in her leg for twelve years. My own sisters, who both went on to much larger successes in life than I ever achieved.

I felt that my own floundering process through life had shown anything but strength. I saw myself as someone who just got carried along by the current. Until June 21, 2011.

When the tree landed on my van, it crushed the roof in against the top of my head and left a deep gash in my scalp. It shattered my neck in two places and left hairline fractures up and down my spine. The impact blew out the windows and drove glass shards into my skin. The tree then plunged through the windshield and landed on my chest, pinning me in the vehicle; it was so massive that it spanned from just below my chin to my thighs, and the only thing I could move was my right hand.

But it did worse than that. It hurt my kids.

I will never forget my son’s wordless howls of terror or my daughter wailing “Oh, God! Mommy!” from behind me. The feeling of the pelting rain slapping me in the face while thunder and lightning battled overhead and the wind rocked my vehicle with violent gusts. I believed we were in the path of a tornado.

I think I understood even then just how badly I was hurt, even though I didn’t acknowledge it to myself or to the kids. It was necessity rather than personal strength that kept me calm. When a young man stopped and pulled the kids out of the wreckage, I begged him to put them in his own vehicle and get them to safety – to a hospital, to a storm cellar, to anywhere away from danger. I remember looking into his eyes and telling him, “the most important thing in my life is my kids. Please, leave me here.”

When the EMS workers arrived, no one would tell me where my kids were. During the entire 40-minute extrication my only thought was that I couldn’t let them hear me screaming or crying if they were still on scene. So I made jokes with the fire chief and to the policeman who climbed in and stabilized my head. I bit my lip when the tree shifted or when the Jaws moved crushed metal to a new position. When nothing else worked, I sang silly songs under my breath to keep from making any sound that my children might hear.

I wasn’t being strong. I was just being a mom.

I needed strength in the months after that, when I had to learn to accept help from others. When I had to understand that there were limits to my recovery. When I ached to lift my youngest child or play with him on the floor, and when I had to push myself through physical therapy and constant, soul-sucking pain.

Eleanor Roosevelt was right: we are stronger than we know, each of us in different ways. There are women in my life who have dealt with the loss of a child or husband; one friend is losing her vision because of her Diabetes while another struggles every day with blinding migraines. One dear, strong lady who always managed to lift my spirits with a kind word on my darkest days despite her own battle with breast cancer . . . well, Kristy lost her battle last September and left behind a daughter who is just as strong, just as kind, just as beautiful

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I wear my necklace every day to remind myself that I can be strong, because I am a woman and that’s what we do.

Music Woman

Put together a musical playlist of songs that describe your life, including what you hope your future entails.

Not as easy as it sounds.  I sat down and compiled a list of over twenty songs that trigger memories of different “firsts” in my life:  first album I bought, first kiss, first slow dance, and so on.  But I wanted to narrow it down to songs that represent turning points in my life.  They may not have been my favorites at the time, but they are special for different reasons.

1970 Something” puts me in a nostalgic mood that takes me back to childhood.  He sings about toys and events I remember – everything from Stretch Armstrong to a Rubik’s Cube, from the death of Elvis Presley to the day the Challenger exploded. It’s a fun, easy summary of the first twenty years of my life.

How Can I Help You Say Good-Bye?” makes me think about the first major turning point in my life:  My mother’s death.   Mom passed away just a few weeks after I turned twenty-one.   She didn’t go easily; it was a long, drawn-out struggle with breast cancer that turned a smart and vibrant woman into something I wish I could forget.  With her gone, I had no choice but to be a grown-up.

When I said good-bye to Mom, I said good-bye to childhood.  From that moment forward, I had no safety net, no home base to return to when things went bad in my life.  That was the day I became an adult.

Then there’s “This Song Remembers When”.  I was twenty-six the first time I fell in love.  Not infatuation, not a crush, but love.  The first time I actually gave my love away without fear, without reservation.   He was a good man; we didn’t end with anger or bitterness.  We were both smart enough to accept that the relationship had simply run its course.

The song is about hearing music and being transported back to a time in life when love was fresh and new and exciting.  When I hear it, I can’t help but wonder where he is and if he ever thinks about me.  It’s not about wanting to go back to him or to that point in life.  To me it’s about music helping me remember someone fondly while still being content in the present.

This is a very nice segway to the next song on my list.

“That Was a River” is the perfect soundtrack to the story of meeting my husband.  We had both been in love before and had issues with trust.   But like the song says, that was a river, this is the ocean.  Basically, yes, I loved someone else before you, but that wasn’t as strong as what I’m feeling now.

Just Another Day in Paradise“ is about day-to-day happenings of married life rather than the roses and love songs of early romance.  It covers the seventeen years I’ve been with The Big Guy – date nights have become delivery pizza, hand-holding turned into laughing at the funny faces he makes sometimes; cozy nights in our big bed are often interrupted by children with nightmares.

Then came the June night when a maple tree landed on the van I was driving.  In the hours that I lay strapped to a backboard fighting off waves of panic, I hung on to sanity by mentally reciting the lyrics to the longest song I could think of: “The Day The Music Died”    From the moment I knew the kids were safely out of the vehicle, through the extrication and two ambulance rides, through CT scans and a claustrophobic meltdown in the MRI, that song ran in an endless loop through my mind.

I know the song is really about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper.  But for me, it is now about the night another chapter of my life ended.  Every page after that is about life with a disability.  I have had to deal with depression, anxiety, self-pity and PTSD, and it’s just now, eighteen months later, that I am finally beginning to heal on the inside in ways I never can on the outside.

I guess the music didn’t really die for me; I just had to learn new songs.

Gloria Estefan wrote “Coming out of the Dark” after breaking her back in a bus crash.  For me, that song represents my hopes for the future.  I want to keep coming out of the very dark place that has held me prisoner for far too long.  I want to keep healing and growing stronger, inside and out.   I want to keep coming out of the dark.

And there it is:  the soundtrack of my life.  A bit darker, more maudlin than I expected it to be, but I like the fact that it’s ending on an upbeat note, full of hope.

Paperback Writer

Is it a bad thing to admit that I write romance novels?

I’ve read the classics.  I majored in English and have studied the works of everyone from Aristophanes to Baudelaire to Whitman and Tennyson.  I struggled through Hardy and Lawrence and earned a grudging respect for Hawthorne’s ability to fill multiple pages with one endless sentence that somehow remained grammatically correct (see how I did that?).  I can discuss Twain and Poe the way some people talk about this week’s bargains at Wal-Mart.

But sometimes . . .  I just want to feel good.

Romance novels are all about the guaranteed happy ending.  Real life can be a little short on those. Romance in the real world is less about roses and moonlit escapades, and more about figuring out whose turn it is to pick up the kids after school.  Real life marriages deal with adultery and abuse, debt and divorce.  Seriously, when was the last time anyone jetted off to Greece for a weekend of passionate sex on a warm sandy beach?

I don’t want to read about people like me.  I have enough of my own unsolvable problems without reading about someone else’s.  Sometimes I just want to escape into a tidy 50,000-word universe where everyone’s troubles are wrapped up by the power of true love.  I know it’s not realistic.  I also know it’s not realistic to think I’ll ever fit into size 14 jeans again, but that doesn’t stop me from keeping a pair in my drawer.

When I was hurt in 2011, I had months to do nothing but read.  I vowed to keep my mind alert by tackling some of the biggies I hadn’t attempted yet, like Tolstoy.  I also devoured modern classics by authors like Piccoult and Lehane.  I even read some of the oldies-but-goodies I had somehow missed:  Anne of Green GablesPollyannaSalmon of a Doubt.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed most of them.  I don’t regret the time spent reading them.

But as I sat there in a brace from stem to stern, realizing every day just how much of my life I was never going to get back, I lost my desire to read things that were good for me.  I just wanted to go somewhere else for a while.  Somewhere that could make me forget all of the things I will never do again.  Somewhere that constant pain becomes a nagging afterthought rather than a primary focus.   A place where people recover from car accidents and go on to lead a better, fuller life thanks to the perfect love of that one special person.

Sometimes real life drops a maple tree on your car and your romantic hero sits by your hospital bed or brings you stool softeners instead of flowers.  He reads warning labels on your prescriptions rather than love poems in your honor.  Instead of donning an elegant gown and flitting off to some gala ball, you wear a hospital gown and celebrate taking three steps with a walker.  You swallow Norco and Flexeril, not champagne and strawberries.  And you figure out ways to make love despite broken necks and exhaustion and fear and the sheer ugliness of real life.

I understand that romance novels don’t reflect real life, and that every escape into one must involve a return to reality.  But so what?  I could drink to escape; I could abuse my pain meds.  I could lose myself in a wallow of self pity and chocolate.  Instead, I choose to escape temporarily into a world where everyone gets what they want and the good guys always win.

What’s so bad about that?