Empty Spaces

One of the most joyful things about the holidays is that it brings us together with those we love. Family traditions and celebrations are shared, old memories remembered and new ones created. We send cards, attend parties, prepare special meals.

There’s another side of the season that brings intense sadness to many of us. There are those with whom we cannot celebrate, either because they’ve died or because they’re no longer a part of our lives.

There’s an old saying about finding out who your true friends are when you’ve been down and out. I’ve been surprised at who has been there thru my toughest transitions. It wasn’t always the people who I would have guessed.

While it’s nice to realize that someone supports you, it can be equally hurtful to discover that someone who you thought cared about you actually does not have your back.

It’s not a simple trade off. People who are important to us cannot be replaced. They leave a painful space in our lives – and in our hearts. We might try to re-engage them, each unsuccessful attempt rubbing the edges of that empty space until it’s raw. Eventually, we might stop including them in order to avoid the disappointment we feel with each rejection.

But what about that space that is created by their absence? How do we reconcile that? It’s no good to walk around pretending to be complete when there is a gaping hole in your heart where someone used to be.

If someone we love has died, we are left alone to deal with the loss and to acclimate ourselves. Grief is a very personal journey. I try to live the fullest life possible, as though I am living it for my mother and for my friend, Carol. I do it for them because they are not here. In my mother’s honor, I carry out the traditions she taught me, passing them on to my children and my grandson. I still miss her, of course. But the hollow place she left is somewhat filled with things I know would please her.

When one of Carol’s children or grandchildren celebrate a milestone, such as a marriage, I am there to witness it and to celebrate. I experience it for her, because she cannot. I know that my presence shines a spotlight on her absence that must, at times, be a painful reminder. I am grateful that they include me and I feel close to her by remaining a part of her family.

But what of the space left by those who abandon us? Their intentional non-presence in our lives can be difficult because it is complicated. We might be left without a true understanding of why things turned out this way. We might be  hurt that they weren’t there when we needed them or feel guilt at our own assumed misdeeds. It’s a harder loss to mourn because it is less final.

Suppose we use that empty, inner space to grow? Fill it with energy that creates something that expands us and fulfills us. Learn or create something new. Cultivate our awareness of  the love of those who have stuck with us thru the bad times. There will always be those who stayed near when we were messy and unlovable. Later, there are people who will love us despite the scars left by our suffering. These are the people who value and respect us.

Give the gift of your presence to the ones who stayed, those who appreciate you in all your imperfect chaos.  Give the gift of your absence to those who do not see you as valuable and worthwhile. Create your best life in the space they’ve left. Honor those who have lost their lives by living yours. Be there and do the things they cannot. Honor death by defying it.

Maybe we cannot fill the space, but we can replenish it. In the smaller space that remains, we can harbor hope that our loved ones will grant us grace. Fill that space with acceptance and peace. Fill that space with love.

The Gift

A relationship is like a piece of fine English China. Imagine a delicate tea cup. You might accidentally drop it to the floor one day. Although it bears no visible signs of damage, it’s structure might be weakened. Later, you might set it down too roughly, banging it against it’s saucer: A tiny crack, not visible to the naked eye, now forms. But, it still works well and it still brings you joy.

Time passes and you forget about the fragility of it because the tea cup has become such a part of your daily life. When you allow it to slip from your hand and it falls against the sink, you pay little mind. Then, one day, you pour hot water into your cup and it leaks. The tiny crack that you ignored has deepened with every knock. The handle has loosened. It is beyond repair. Even if you carefully mend it with super glue, it will never be as strong or lovely as it once was.

The Universe has given me the gift of a new tea cup. Every day, I will be aware of my own clumsiness, my unintended harshness. I will be vigilant and not let small chips and cracks go unnoticed or unrepaired. I will cherish it, protect it and not take it for granted. I will love it as best I can, savoring each moment of warmth that it brings me. If I’m lucky, it will last and, going forward, will be the only tea cup I ever need.

I did it my way

I have always done things the hard way. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps, at an early age, it was conveyed to me that I wasn’t worthy of ease. Maybe a more difficult path was somehow placed before me and I came to understand that that was the only way. Somehow, it became second nature – familiar and comfortable.

As a young student, I chose challenging classes beyond what was required. In college, I pursued leadership roles that took up so much time and energy that I often completed independent study courses – that normally needed an entire semester of preparation – in a single night. I wasn’t happy being a reporter, but became the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper. Planning committees were not enough, so I became president of the dorm and secretary of my class.

When it came time to deliver my babies, I set my unwavering sights on natural childbirth, accepting no pain medication. Sleepless nights and colic did not derail my intentions to successfully breastfeed babies who would not receive formula or cereal before six months. When I divorced, there was no thought of alimony and little child support. I willingly gave up my stay-at-home mom status and, later, my retirement, to return to the workforce – and a career that was demanding, both physically and emotionally, and didn’t pay well.

After childbearing, my friends were taking aerobics classes. I did, too, and I became an instructor. But, I also studied Tae Kwon Do at the same time.

Even my choice in a car isn’t easy. I drive a manual transmission (always have) and have no automatic locks – I still crank my windows up and down.

When I turn my attention to leisure, I am consistent. While everyone else was taking up the ukulele, the musical instrument I decided to learn in my short-lived retirement was the violin. When I grew tired of reading books, I wrote one of my own. When the offering of local Meet-up groups didn’t suit me, I organized one myself. I truly believe that I was given the confidence to do these things by the experiences I had previously. When you’re not afraid of trying, nothing is out of reach.

Sometimes, I reflect and think about how things might have been different. When my marriages ended, I could have fought harder to stay in my home. But I needed to find my independence and buying – and later selling – my own house was cathartic. I have no regrets. Taking the difficult road has resulted in my being more fully engaged in my life. It has given me skills with which to deal with tough times and loss. I have a strong sense of self reliance. I do not fracture easily under the weight of everyday trials and tribulations. Or, if I do, the comeback is stronger than the setback. I am practical, realistic and honest (some would say, to a fault).

It helps that I have been incredibly blessed: Good health, hard working parents, loving children, supportive friends and a functioning mind.

Now that I am growing older, I have made some concessions that were initially uncomfortable, but have turned out to be good decisions. I no longer have the pressures, nor the responsibilities, of owning property. I have weekly ‘lawn cowboys’ to keep things looking nice in the yard and central air conditioning to make me comfy inside.

I’m learning that taking the easy road has its advantages, like more time for learning new things or seeking new adventures. Instead of household chores, I am more available for new creative pursuits. Just last week, for example, Amazon delivered a brand new pair of adult-sized tap shoes!

I’ll never be the next Fred Astaire. But, who knows? Maybe my next car will have power windows!

“I planned each charted course

Each careful step along the byway

And more, much more than this

I did it my way”

Will the circle be unbroken?

If you’re at least as old as me, you might remember wearing a POW/MIA bracelet back in the early 1970s.I remember sending $3 and receiving mine thru the mail a couple of weeks later. His name was Fredric Mellor and he was from Rhode Island. I lived in Massachusetts at the time and was pleased that I had been assigned the task of holding hope for a fellow New Englander.

The years passed and the bracelet was lost, probably somewhere between moving to college, back again, then moving out when I got married. The Vietnam War ended. I was busy raising a family. The bracelet was gone. But, I always remembered his name and occasionally wondered if he had ever returned home.

Fast forward twenty years: In 1996, I met a man who was also a veteran of that awful war. His job was driving the traveling Moving Wall monument around the country. When he brought the Wall to Massachusetts, we spent time together. He educated me and reignited my passion for those who had been lost – especially those who had never been accounted for. Seeing Mellor’s name on that Wall touched me deeply. Ordering a replacement bracelet was easy and, with the click of my mouse, I soon had a brand new one bearing Mellor’s name. Modern convenience also led me to explore further. I learned that he remained MIA, among those men who never returned home to their families.

This time, I made sure the bracelet followed me during two subsequent moves, giving it a safe spot in my jewelry box. I didn’t wear it after my visits to the Moving Wall, but I’d see it whenever I went into the small, oak drawer and I’d say a little prayer for Mellor. He had started to feel like family and the fact that I had never known him mattered little. We were both Rhode Islanders now, which made me feel even more connected.

Now, another twenty years have passed. Thursday, I was waiting for my turn at the hairdresser’s. I picked up the latest edition of the local weekly paper that had been left on the empty seat next to me. Thumbing thru to pass the time, my eyes were drawn to an obituary that bore a familiar name. The headline read “Colonel Fredric M. Mellor.”

I was stunned. There was a photograph, finally putting a face to a name I had held close for nearly five decades. He was young, serious and handsome in his US Air Force uniform. His eyes were filled with pride, ambition and determination. Mellor was the first Rhode Island casualty of the war in Vietnam. He was a pilot. He was killed in action in 1965, about six years before I first wore his bracelet.

And he was finally coming home.

The article documented an impressive career. Mellor served his country well, enlisting as a radio operator but quickly applying for pilot training because he had always loved airplanes. He had earned a Bachelor’s degree in Military Science. On August 13, 1965, he was flying the lead aircraft on a mission to conduct photo reconnaissance of a suspected missile site in the Republic of Vietnam. He crashed due to hostile ground fire and he survived ejection from the plane, establishing radio contact as he tried to escape the enemy. But, contact was lost. Despite a two-day search, neither Mellor nor his aircraft were found.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Valor and the Purple Heart medal, among others. But the fact that struck me hardest was that he had married and had a daughter before being deployed for active duty in Vietnam. She would probably have been a toddler when her father disappeared. She’d be in her fifties today. I wondered if she could even remember him. His parents and a brother were no longer living. Somehow, he felt even more like family now.

Mellor’s remains were recovered and identified on July 13, 2018, exactly one month shy of the 53rd anniversary of his death. He is expected to be received in Rhode Island September 26th with military honors. I’m planning to be there to welcome him home.

————

*As of June 20, 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel, US Military and Civilian personnel still unaccounted for totalled 1,597.

Blessed

I sat looking around the table, gazing at these ten women who are my friends. Conversation ebbed and flowed, mostly including the entire group but occasionally breaking off into more intimate exchanges between two or three. I thought to myself, “How did I get so lucky?” I was surrounded by fierce, amazing women who are loving and caring and genuine. They have known me since we were 18 years old – another lifetime, really – Before cable television, VCRs, cell phones or the Internet. More importantly, before marriages, divorces, children, grandchildren. Before our parents became old and died, before our spouses got sick or died suddenly or left us to fight wars. Before careers that fulfilled, disappointed, ended. The ties that bind us have survived all of that, in addition to our own personal growing pains and an often unforgiving aging process.

Life moves forward and people change. Yet, we are as close as we have ever been. We meet a few times during the year but only once as a full group, without significant others or the pressure of time. For three days, we talk and share and laugh and, sometimes, cry. I learn so much from them. This pool of information, experience and wisdom is better than Google, encyclopedia Britannica and PBS combined.

I sat in awe.

Then, it was Saturday night. We put aside the heavy stuff and the board games. After a full day of feeding each other breakfast, packing a picnic lunch, hanging at the beach and making dinner, we set up a makeshift stage on the back deck. These smart, hard working, caring (and often exhausted) women entertained one another. With a three-day notice, each had put together a routine that included an original character, costume, dialog and song. We had props, music, giveaways and singalong lyrics. I laughed until I cried and I might have peed myself a little. It was a no-holes barred uproarious time, thanks to our prior agreement of no cameras. We returned to a pre-Facebook time when we could let ourselves be inappropriately raunchy, politically incorrect and, well, downright sacreligious.

It was amazing.

On Sunday, we said our goodbyes, commenting how quickly the time went and making promises to do it again, perhaps before another year escapes us. We returned to caring for our grandchildren, our aging parents, our homes and our jobs. We are teachers, nurses, social workers, fundraisers, coaches, caregivers. We are wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters. And, in the midst of all of that, we are friends. It’s a role that often falls by the wayside as our lives go in different directions and we juggle to balance all of those things. Despite ourselves, our bond grows stronger with time. They have been part of my life for 44 years. We are unique. We are incredible. We are phenomenal.

And, I am blessed.

Summertime

Pink skin, freckled noses

Ponytails and blooming roses

Wet towels on the porch rail

Seashells in a sandy pail

Bare feet, shady trees

Bee stings and skinned knees

Scent of woodsmoke and charcoal

Lazy days, good for my soul

Sparklers and ice cream

Fireflies and moonbeams

Picnic blanket in the grass

Cottony clouds that slowly pass

Bike rides and baseball caps

Lemonade and mid-day naps

Stay out late because we can

Then sleep beneath a ceiling fan

Popsicles and swimming pools

Sprinklers for keeping cool

Thunderstorms, another reason

Summer is my favorite season

Babs, unplugged

My neighbors must shake their heads at my comings and goings lately. Seems all I do is load and unload my car: Props, costumes, cases of water, bottles of wine, snacks, chairs, tables, posters, tents….. and, although I live alone, the grocery bags are pretty much a daily thing. They must wonder, “How much can one woman consume?!”

I feel like an event planner at party central, between work affairs, book events, music commitments and my personal, social life. This juggler has too many balls in the air and one of them is bound to drop, unless I make some difficult (but necessary) changes.

I need to find a way to slow down within the confines of a very fast life.

Recently, it dawned on me that I am so harried preparing to run to the next thing that I am not fully enjoying what I am presently doing. As much as I love everything I do, it is humanly impossible to fully engage when your plate is this full.

God, give me the strength to endure my blessings.

Over the past couple of years, I have downsized the ‘stuff’ in my life drastically. Purging was a positive experience and left me feeling lighter and more connected to that which remains. But what about things that are not physical in nature? We cannot throw them into a dumpster or donate them, yet they weigh us down and drain our energy. I need to purge things unseen.

I am staging an intervention. For myself.

When there are two opportunities in the same day, my solution is to split the time between the two, so as not to miss anything. This past weekend, for example, I had two important invitations on Saturday. I attended the first for a few hours in the late afternoon before dashing off to the second for the rest of the evening. Sunday, the same thing. I had a book signing that ended at 1:00pm, which was the start time for a party that was happening an hour’s drive away. I did it all. No regrets. I learned an important lesson. The Monday morning tiredness I felt was different that the usual exhaustion. Instead of bone-weary, adrenaline-driven fatigue that I have been feeling, I was contentedly depleted. Instead of feeling lethargic, I felt slightly energized.

The heart that gives, gathers.

Maybe it’s not only about how much, but what, I do with my time. In addition to cutting back my obligations, perhaps I need to be more discerning about which ones I accept. After all, I like being active. Even those occasions when I swear I am going to sit on the beach or the couch for a day, I never make it past an hour or so. Then I’m desperately looking for something to do.

Sleep is an ongoing problem for me. I average 3.5 hours a night. I wonder if maybe my brain is unable to slow down after a typical day of social roulette. Being this booked means poor nutrition, too. I am far too busy to prepare healthy meals, which is why last summer’s clothes are mostly too tight. Exercise? Ha! You know how that goes… It always seems to be the first commitment to fall off the list.

So, I have a plan. Well, sort of.

It’s not reasonable to disband my responsibilities. Instead, I’ve decided to build in some short periods of time that will allow me to disconnect and refresh. For example:

  1. A quiet hour in the morning with a cup of coffee. Not television, no music, no phone. Not every morning, but when possible.
  2. One hour in nature, preferably by myself. A swim at the beach, a hike in the woods, relaxing under the big maple tree in the yard, a walk along the waterfront during lunchtime.

Along those lines, I’m going to make time for the things that I love to do but from which I have fallen away.

  1. I’m going to start reading again. I always had two books – what I was currently reading and one on deck, for when I finished the first. I lost the ability to concentrate two summers ago and stopped. Reading is a great way to escape without going anywhere.
  2. I’m dusting off my camera equipment. The convenience and improved technology of iPhone capabilities has rendered me lazy. It’s time to put in the effort. Because it was personally satisfying for me to take photographs. And photo shoots tend to be peaceful, since I prefer landscapes.

More is less?

How are additional tasks going to make me feel less harried? I’m hoping that my commitment to these events will result in my saying ‘no’ to some other ones. Before accepting new responsibilities, I am going to ask myself, “How will this feed me?” If it’s all drain and no return, I’m going to do my best to politely decline. I’ll be sitting in the shade, reading a book, instead.