"Tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs." –Andrew Lam

Category: travel


You know that people do things differently in the South. They even die differently. Still, love strikes you. You work in a floral shop up north where the names aren’t familiar and the addresses are foreign. But when you walk in the flower shop at home to pick out the casket spray, you watch your mama get a good forty-five second hug. Because she lost her mama.

You ruin your vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, clean-eating, low-carb diet because people bring you casseroles. And cupcakes. And coffeecake. Southern love is always shown through food.

You discretely throw away dirty underwear and wash the sheets she died in and cups she drank from. You find her eyeglasses on the table. You water flowers because you don’t want them to die, too. You clean the toilet. The washrags crusted with blood. “Bless her heart,” your mom says as her face crumples. “She was in more pain than she ever let on.”

And the collection agencies and bill collectors continue to call. The phone rings. It does not stop. The abrasive cadence to your cleaning as you scrub sinks, pull sheets tight.  Mom holds the telephone to her ear. Listens for five seconds. Throws the phone back onto the receiver. Mimics their fake professional voices, “No Ms. Fewkes is not available. Ms. Fewkes is dead.”

Her house, which used to have tiny walkways through trash she hoarded, is sterile clean. No pictures or Bible verses or notes on the refrigerator. No purses with mildewed receipts in the pockets. No clothes of all styles and sizes spilling out of closets. No termites, no spiders. A toilet that functions. A shower that’s sturdy. Shiny appliances. Attention to detail. A brand new foundation, un-sunk.  It’s nice. And clean. You’re in awe of the work and the cleanliness should be comforting, but it is not. The house is empty. Gone is every little scrap that frustrated and annoyed you and boiled your blood.

I do not cry during the funeral song. “Mama Liked the Roses” only reminded me of grandma impersonating Elvis. The way she bent her knees and posed, stunningly like Marilyn Monroe, grooved to bluesy melodies, called the king a ‘hunky hunk.’ And I heard floating memories of the song that was ours: “I love you. A bushel and a peck. A bushel and a peck and a hug around your neck.”

Silly, beautiful, loving woman. A barrel and a heap of crazy and kind and crazy-kind. And you are your mother’s mother’s granddaughter.

“You’re special,” she said two months ago on the last day you saw her. She tucked it between, “You look just like your mom” and “I like Ashley’s fiancé” and “I’m so glad Kaci didn’t get hurt in that wreck” and “You tell your sister to be careful goin’ to Evansville.” But you heard it—the thing you most needed to hear that day. And remember the rest of your life. You knew somewhere deep that those would be her last words to you. She validates you, still, just as she did after every awkward day of junior high school.

You do not cry until you feel the weight of her gray casket. Until the graveyard part of the service abruptly ends. The end? This wasn’t supposed to be the end. She was supposed to get more life to live. Better life. Better. You look back.  You glance back again, again. Gray casket. Red rose petals in your hand.

“Be careful,” you hear her voice. The tears roll. Finally. The relief. Because you realize she’s the one who is finally free from fear. She’s not merely pain-free.  She is worry-free.  She is safe. Safe and filled. With better life.

Quarter-life Crisis

I’m having a quarter-life crisis. You’re laughing, aren’t you? Teaching for only four years made me feel I’ve lived a lifetime already, so I’ve decided to retire a few months shy of twenty-six. I’m just kidding. I haven’t even started doing all I dream of accomplishing. Writing a book or three. Earning my MFA. Owning a café. Building a house. Teaching at the university level. Seeing more than a tiny speck of the world. Raising a kid or three with that man I love. Am I too late? Too early? Too old and too young. Cursed in-between. Where do I go from here? Which of those dreams are in God’s big-picture plan? On my back-and-forth Illinois road trips, I’ve noticed this quote on several church signs: “When life knocks you down {during your quarter-life or mid-life crises} and it’s too hard to stand—kneel.” Oh, bruised knees. Makes sense. ❤

Is a lack of passion and purpose worse than stress and busyness? It’s a question I ask often while on my bruised knees and can’t figure out if not teaching is a relief or not. I saw my students and friends at my Memorial when I went home. I hadn’t felt that kind of love, that fullness of joy since…my last day there in January. They just heard the laughter and endured my too-tight hugs—allowed me to indulge, saw me get caught up in the flourish of excitement and find my heart again that I had hidden in the halls. And reminded me how much I adore the sound of “Mama.”         

That door has been closed for you, people tell me again and again (and again).  But I wait at the door and ask, seek, knock. Maybe I don’t want to move on. Maybe I just want to keep that memory sacred. My students (should I stop saying “my”?) just saw the smiles. But my tears came later. In the quiet. After the crowd. (Ok, fine, I cried for five days—the whole visit, especially while holding my new baby niece). Tears slipped down my cheeks again at the University of Evansville when several students (and a dear education professor) gathered on campus to show me all they’ve become. I’ve never been so touched or so proud. So stricken by the beautiful full-circle of time and life and learning. Yes, those side-by-side homes of Memorial and UE harbored a lot of stress and a lot of busyness. But I had a whole world built right there on Lincoln Avenue.

I’ve been thinking about money a lot lately and if you know me, you know how uncomfortable money makes me. I know it would have made more sense to take a more practical, inexpensive educational route. Perhaps a debt-free educational route would make those other dreams of mine happen a little quicker. It would make more sense if I were doing something related to my degree. And perhaps I would feel less guilty in my marriage and more vibrant around a friend’s bachelorette party guests (mostly holders of doctorates) instead of pale and tired and old and sad and a little purpose-less. But.
I will defend college. A real college experience. Knowledge and lessons and inspiration and fun and support and incredible teaching and becoming. See, something happened to all of us in that place. We became us. So although I’m vice president or some officer of my high school class, I’d rather suffer cruel and unusual punishment than attend another ECHS reunion. Just kidding. There are actually about five of you from my class I’d love to see. But it’s the mention of the university’s Orientation Leader reunion that makes me vibrant again. Because they know the soul of me. They understand the whole of life, the leads to….leads to….leads to. The circle. Oh wait, the We Care circle.Makes sense. ❤ They know how attachment feels. About stepping stones. And adventures.  And helping whoever you can and loving as much as you can along the way. They know that BECOMING YOU was the biggest hurdle, and you can’t put a price tag on climbing over that kind of hurdle. The process involves a lot of falling, a lot of bruised knees. Victorious bruised knees that come with stories to tell. And I will tell the stories. Because in my quarter-life crisis, telling the truth of the stories is the only thing that feels passionate and purposeful enough to me. And when it comes to circles, what seems like the end is really only the beginning.    

89-105 "His presence is fullness of joy" Psalm 16:11

89. cards in the mail from grandma mabel and calls from grandpa earnie.
90. supportive family, friends, former students, and online friends who read my article and hopefully will continue to read, like, share, and comment (next one should come out Saturday on LA Family). I owe you, I need you, and I’m overwhelmed by love. thank you. (and writing for a magazine is another check for my bucket list!).
91. feeling calmer. when i’m more crazy/anxious/nervous than not…the calm days feel so good.
92. the way he always sits beside me instead of across from me in a booth. and orders tomatoes on the side so that i can have extra. and i take the lemon from his tea. and give him my croutons. little rituals. (that have gone on for a decade).
93. the way our house always smells like coffee.
94. not getting the job. yes, you read that correctly. because it wasn’t right for me. and God knew it. and i’m still a darn good teacher. and God knows that, too.
95. how he always tells me i’m pretty during moments when i’m not. during moments when i’m doing unpretty things like running. or running errands. or washing dishes or the tub. or waking up. maybe “pretty” is something else entirely from what women think it means.
96.  the way jovie stretches after a nap. like a yoga pose she holds for several seconds. and i can’t help but say, “strrrettttchhh”every time. and then i stretch because it looks like it feels awfully good.
97. morning walks.
98. hot cocoa in the cool evenings
99. little invitations from people in the most welcoming community i’ve ever known.
100. beautiful roadtrip to prairie du chien.

101. having our own fire pit, finally. ahhhhhh ❤ i promise we’ll get so much use out of it.
102. sun on my skin
103. comfort of knowing i’m his. he’s mine. we’re us.
104. the comfort of having a really, really good tell-it-all-to friend who always feels close though she’s four hundred miles away.
105. the way every breeze feels like refreshment. newness. it sings a new song.

F is for Fishing

Obviously, I’m skipping letters in this A-Z challenge. Oops.

Pinned Image
credit: (via pinterest) imgfave.com

F is for Fishing.

I love fishing trips—spontaneous and planned. The “let’s leave the dirty dishes piled high in the sink and not mow the unsightly lawn for one more day” brand of spontaneity. Because it’s more important right now that we go fishing. It cures boredom and restlessness and bad days. It connects boyfriend and girlfriend and now husband and wife. Because our best talks were in our boat. And outside of it—in the actual lake—because one balmy summer night while coyly dangling my feet in the water, he dared me to jump in.  
I catch fish. This southern girl can bait her own hook and finesse a fish and take the fish off and is not afraid of minnows and worms and slime and stink bait. But I enjoy more than the excitement of a bite. I bask in warmth of sun. I exhilarate in cool refreshment of evening. I am calmed by the cure and quench of water, rocked like a lullaby.  
“F” is for fishing with friends on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons, the guys cleaning and filleting while Lyss and I discussed, with flour on our noses and hands coated in Kentucky Kernal, about what it meant to be the women of these men. And we danced to the sizzle of bass and blue gill. And we all feasted on tomatoes and asparagus casserole and golden fried fish and corn on the cob. And then we left dishes to go on a jeep ride. The stars. The love, the lightning bugs. The not caring about anything. Else. But the fish. And the vibrant memory. And the family you find in friends and lovers. And that fullness of life.  
Dale Hollow Lake. Realfoot. Okeechobee. Fly fishing in Gatlinburg. The Shale Pit. Rivers and lakes I don’t remember names of. The farm ponds. The fun drinks and scent of sweet cigar. The old sweatshirts when the wind turns breezy. The freckles sprinkled across my nose and cheeks from sun. Picnic tables and dinner prayers in the dark, bowed thankful faces illuminated by citronella candles. The faces of favorite people.   
And when we feel far away, either from home and friends and family or from one another, we grab the dog and the rod and reels and tackle box, we leave behind the un-mowed lawn and dirty dishes, and we explore new places to go fishing, to demonstrate the perfect cast, to dangle toes in water, to find the peace in water and one another.

Pinned Image
credit: (via pinterest) middlechildcomplex.tumblr.com

Do you have any favorite fishing memories? What does fishing mean to you?

B is for Bucket List

Pinned Image
credit: via (pinterest) vi.sualize.us

My go-to first day of school activity as a teacher has always been to make my students create their bucket lists. I wanted them to do something meaningful. I wanted them to think. And I wanted them to keep it, to someday dig up what they doodled down in their Justin Bieber and Twilight notebooks and realize that what they penned as sophomores might have been their purest dreams from their truest selves before rationality and responsibility crept in and stole away from them. But I have a confession: I have never made my own bucket list. This tease of spring has me restless and overwhelms my desire to do it all, see it all, and learn it all during my one wild and precious life. I want to suck that marrow. I’ll probably “kick the bucket” by sucking so hard that I choke on the bone.  Perhaps I’ve been encouraged too much in my life. Am I delusional, punch-drunk on dreams and hope and “Yes, I Can”? Am I a failure if I don’t accomplish what the world thinks worthy? I panic as thoughts whirl wildly. While contemplating cereal choices in the grocery, I wonder if crossing items off a bucket list can be as simple as drawing a line through a shopping list. While researching random summer jobs to supplement income, I wonder if a retail job–hands on clothes–will fill me like hands on human hearts can. So many expectations, but what are mine? Some so big, some so simple, some so silly. But the purpose? To make me come alive again.

*Revised 1/1/13

-Be in a play again
-Speak in front of a huge audience
-Direct a play
-Go on a girls’ trip
-Go on a trip with our oldest, dearest friends and their beautiful families
Write for a magazine 
-Publish a book(s) of creative nonfiction
-See that book in bookstores
-Go to Italy, England, and Ireland
-Go to Greece
-Go to Hawaii
– Go to Australia
-Eat lobster in Maine
-See Vermont in the fall
-Fish in Canada
-Go back to Dale Hollow Lake
-Line dance in Texas
-Catch a really, really big fish
-Be a mama
-Own horses
Bottle feed a calf
Have lab puppies (a kennel, possibly)
-Sleep under stars
-Have a big wrap-around porch, a screened-in summer room, an old fashioned bear claw tub, a fireplace, a library nook
-Do a writing retreat with Natalie Goldberg
-Earn my MFA in Creative Writing
– Make a foundation for Meniere’s disease
-Make pottery on a wheel
-Fill my house with beautiful art
Write meaningful letters, give meaningful gifts
Bring others to Christ (it’s what life is all about, people)
-Baptize someone
-Start a library in my name in a poor foreign country
– Have my own brand of stationary or greeting cards
-Own beautiful quilts
-Go on a trip with my sister and cousin Elise (NC or SC, possibly–because that trip is long overdue)
-Someday own good furniture
-Teach college literature or writing
-Speak at the NCTE
-Start and host a book club
-Own a cool, quirky, cozy cafe (I have so many ideas for this)
-Own a real photographer’s camera. Learn photography.
-Have an amazing flower garden (learn to grow beauty like my grandma could)
-Have an outdoor dining area, host fall and summer dinners
-Read to nursing home residents
Take dance lessons again

I’ll let you know when I add or cross off. What’s on your bucket list? Share with me.

Pinned Image
credit: (via pinterest) mindlesskids.tumblr.com

Traveling Mercies

Pinned Image
credit: (via pinterest) google.com

 You are probably familiar with this quote by Hunter S. Thompson: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
A few Sundays ago, I heard what I believe is the spiritual version of that journey to the grave. I know hymns. I know “It is Well with my Soul” which makes me cry and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” which always reminds me of Wesley Fellowship and convicts my prone-to-wandering heart. But I did not know the hymn “Am I Soldier of the Cross”:
“Must I be carried to the skies in flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas. Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?”
 “Oh goodness, life is kind of swell,” I think, sitting here in my comfort, my husband-is-finally-home-now bliss. I don’t have a deadline. I don’t have a full time job. I don’t have hundreds of research papers to grade. I don’t have to drive an hour to work every day. Instead, I love sitting on the stoop with my dog and coffee and book while watching the cars drive Highway 20 on their way to work. But I don’t want that kind of ease every day. I realize that I want to fight. If we don’t endure—then what do we have to talk about? More importantly, what do I have to write about? Fluff. Sugar. Cotton candy. It’s the reason I can’t always write and must wait to feel the pain and the process. Because my faith is built on a rock and not the sand of grainy half-slobbered cotton candy fluff.
Sugar. The stuff that rots. The reason for cavities. I went to the dentist and did not have any (probably because one of my OCD tendencies is to brush my teeth five times a day). What my new dentist did find, however: huge tonsils that need to be removed and an under bite that not only has cosmetically always bothered me but also is believed to be the reason for some of my ear and head problems which will undoubtedly get worse. On our calendar? A trip to see a surgeon in Chicago and then perhaps another opinion at Mayo Clinic. I have a jaw that needs to be broken—slid back and rearranged. So fitting. What I need physically is what I need spiritually and what I can feel God beginning to do. I have two options. I can be upset like I usually am. I can distance myself. I can be mad about a long recovery. I can lament over another body part that does not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. Or I can say, as I’ve been reading in Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, “All is good; all is grace.” I can believe in His bizarre and perfect timing. And I do. I already know that God makes beauty out of ugly bruised knees and all the broken things.       
God also knew I needed a breaking-down of the complicated and chaotic mess I made of teaching. He knew I needed to re-learn what I lived backwards from the blessing of landing a teaching job before I had even graduated college and was thrown into delightful chaos. He knew this girl who would sit on the floor of her classroom until eight at night needed to be smacked in the head with some sense. She needed to learn how to be home-based instead of work-based. He knew I needed to be nudged along, taken by the hand and shown how to live, function, balance—needed to learn to see a day as an adventure and not an overwhelming lump of hours. I needed to learn how to be married, how to be an everyday wife whose heart is there even when she’s not necessarily home every day. I needed to find the strength and the joy that comes with the morning. He’s fixing my vision, too. He is slicing the cloudy cataracts of my perception until my eyes see light. And I know that this breaking and resetting and re-healing will make me into a healthier teacher, a more balanced being. If I’m ever a teacher again? I’ll be a better one by being rebuilt.
I am a substitute. Nothing is mine now. God knows I am so greedy–I can’t handle student hearts again. Not quite yet. I’m not allowed to take off the cast before the bone has fully mended. So I just trust. I trust the healing I can’t see going on beneath that hard encasement of plaster. The feeling is starting to come back, the numbness subsiding. I feel a hunger pang, strong after months of no appetite—this gnawing desire to go into every school and shake up learning. And it is all learning. Whether I substitute teach (and join in on) sixth grade pickle ball, high school Spanish, government, sociology, elementary music, sophomore health, or special education—it’s all learning. I find this simple joy in finally seeing what the human brain can do, something I so ironically had to leave behind in the beloved private Catholic 6.0 grade scale honor classes I taught in that Blue Ribbon school of absolute Excellence in order to see. I get to have an unbridled enthusiasm when four special needs kids understand fractions. Why? Because I finally understood fractions through helping them. Because I know what’s it like to be lost and then found. Because it’s a victory. Because we should celebrate fractions and synonyms and antonyms and homophones and the conjugation of Spanish verbs. I get to go back to my own ingrained, instinctive ideals of education before the years made me doubt myself. I have no planning to do and no control over where I go or what I teach, and it terrifies me. But with sweaty palms and uneven breath, I get to ask myself as I used to, “Did I put something good into this day? Did I help someone? Did I notice someone who might normally go unnoticed? Did they learn? Were they having fun? Was I? Did I let this lifesong sing?”    
Through subbing, I better understand my sixteen-year-old self, but I also look back at how ungrateful she could be. I find that most rural high school kids in Illinois feel that their schools suck. “Why would you move here? Why would you want to sub here?” they ask.  “We’re poor, can’t you see?” My favorite comments? “That’s just what it’s like here.” Sarcastically they say, “Welcome to (degradingly insert school name here).” But really? Their schools don’t suck. And I ashamedly look back and see that I was that girl too. I said those things. I thought those things. Subbing has taught me that I love minds. And hearts. And lives and souls. And waking up all of those. I love possibilities, hope. I am trying to open the cage in a place where they feel trapped. I even love people who are hard to love. Who am I? So different from whom I used to be. I am an educator who has become a better woman from quitting and leaving, from unclasping, unclenching. Palms open. Hands up. I am receiving the manna, the mystery, as daily bread and allowing it to nourish me.  
I found part of myself this weekend. We went home. We went home to Bradford pear trees, daffodils, pink dogwood, forsythia, bursting glory—uncontainable. Everything is memory. I sat up from my reclined position in the truck, suddenly awaked from my nap by the smell of home—air you want to drink. Josh had rolled down the windows. He was gazing at the strong, ancient southern Illinois trees and listening to the rhythm of oil wells and taking in the sight of a level landscape and all of that luscious green. And I knew the instant I woke up. I knew that three years ago in the middle of March in a field of green, beside a four-wheeler in the middle of a downpour of rain and grace and electric love, he asked me to turn around and was down on one knee. In northern Illinois, would I have remembered? Would I have tasted and savored that moment; would I have revisited ten years ago, too? Another rainstorm. Another springtime. Another green field. A love wild and new and daring and strong. 
Flashbacks. I grabbed for his hand more often while we were home this weekend. I stroked his hair, kissed his neck. Because that parking lot reminded me of us. And that road and that one. And that field, too. And that church. And that friend’s house. And that campfire. I felt the surprised relief of knowing that home actually does feel like home to me. Finally. Home does not change. But I had to. I laughed at the way he was always looking and looking, twisting his neck to look out the windows. Giddy, boyish, bright wide eyed, looking and looking. I looked, too, with new eyes at the familiar. And found the same kind of different beauty. He was more himself there, and I knew it. I cried later, back in the North, because I’m also attached to these hills. Can opposites—north and south—both house my heart? Can he find that same magnitude of joy with just me, the girl pulling the boat trailer and throwing miles between home and familiar and family and friends and us in the truck with a compass clearly pointing north? Yet his job is the reason we are here. Am I guilty for my good attitude or simply surprised by my peace in a new place? He’s more himself, but what am I? A woman who needs her husband to be himself more than she wants bookstores and coffee bars and art and sophistication. We went home to the bubbly enthusiasm of precious friends. Home to eager nephews with minnow buckets and fishing poles. We went home to Grandpa with a big so-glad-to-see-you grin and Grandma holding chocolate pie. Home to dreamsicle sunset. Home to late night kitchen talks with his mom about all of the important things. Home to his dad saying, “If you two ever have a daughter, she’ll be queen of my world. She’ll probably be queen of the whole world.” Family. Friends. Home.

We will be home for good someday in God’s bizarre and perfect time. I know this because I married a man who loves the South almost as much as he loves me. And although the world still feels bigger when I’m away from it and small when I’m back in it, God is working on my perception. Both here and there—I see light. Both here and there—God molds me, breaks me, and rearranges me. Both here and there—all is good, all is grace. And so is the journey in between.

Pinned Image
credit: (via pinterest) oficinadeestilo.tumblr.com
Pinned Image
credit: (via pinterest) caitidid-designs.blogspot.com

Pinned Image
credit: (via pinterest) cubiclerefugee.tumblr.com