Teresa's vacationing in Hawaii. Snorkeling. Hiking. Having fun. Where did she learn how to do that?
I've got no training in fun. "Clean your room." "Wash the dishes." "You're failing. Get that C up to an A." Dad once caught my brother playing marbles instead of doing his homework. After the whipping, he was grounded for a month.
My husband and I are planning a vacation; my nerves are wound to the breaking point. I've got to fill a box for the Salvation Army. Dammit. Didn't I tell you to get this done six months ago? I need to plant annuals in all those empty pots on my patio. NOW. Don't make me come back out here. Which reminds me to mulch the perennial beds. Why the hell are those bags of mulch still stacked in the yard? What've you been doing all summer? I've got no time to pack. I have to clean the oven. It better be done before you leave this house. Move your lazy butt.
The drive to the airport will make me sick to my stomach (I'll give you something to be sick about.), but once we're on the plane, the engine's steady hum will slow my racing heart. I'll nestle in to my seat, lean against my husband's shoulder, and soothe the skittish little girl who shadows me.
- The bundle of brush and bag of yard waste Ben set out on the curb.
- The leaf that unfurled this morning on the dieffenbachia, shiny as a new dime.
- A new dime. How did all those groady coins end up in my change purse?
- The genius of dandelions. I plucked one that had a tap root at least two feet long.
- Any journalist who still works in the middle east.
- The spotless kitchen counter, when I got up this morning.
- The absence of gnats. If our current infestation ends, I will never forget. Really. I swear.
- Wednesday night's conversation with Scott, Cara, Kate, Teresa, and Ben.
- The driver who waved me across the street while I was walking.
- A freshly scrubbed toilet. Any time. Anywhere.
"Welcome to Victorious Life. Will you fill out a visitor's card?" A woman handed a form to me in the lobby of her church. She was hoarse, her question barely loud enough to hear.
"Well, sure, if you find my glasses for me." I searched through my bag, as she laughed, offering me her own specs. "Should you be at home in bed?" I asked. Something about her raspy voice triggered my maternal instincts.
"No I have a disc problem. C5 to C7 are so bad they affect my voice."
"Oh migosh. Were you in an accident? Do you still hurt?"
"Yeah. An accident. Hurt all the time. They were going to operate, but there was a risk of ending up a paraplegic. So I decided against surgery. Easier to handle whispering to people."
As soon as she said it, I felt the impact––metal slamming against metal. In a flash, I sensed the transformation of her ordinary day into a life forever complicated by hospitals, prescriptions, and pain.
I want to hold on to our conversation. I hope it makes me kind to the next person who wanders across my path, now that I'm reminded tragedy rests just beneath the skin. Struggle is the tie that binds us. It's a connection imperceptible to the eyes. You see it with your heart.
Another restless night, followed by a morning headache, which will no doubt compete with a cranky knee as soon as my leg wakes up. I could pop an aspirin for my head, then take my daily walk. But I'd probably walk too far over too many hills, because the aspirin will mask the knee pain and the caffeine in the pill will convince me I'm invincible. After considering the possibilities, I rolled over and slept another hour.
I'm not qualified to operate this body.
It's not the Dawn-mobile I originally learned to drive. That one went from zero to out-the-door in fifteen minutes. It was sleek. It cornered like nobody's business. The paint job was flawless: no puffy eyes or wrinkled thighs. The engine purred, getting along just fine on the cheapest fuel. This one demands gym memberships, yoga classes, chiropractors, and chemical-free, sugar-free, 100% whole wheat. It leaks oil (extra virgin olive). There are dings in the bumper. It makes embarrassing noises.
It's only natural time has transformed me from a hot rod to a rusty beater. However, for the safety of others on the road, the authorities ought to require a drivers license for the body I've ended up with. Then again, maybe not. I would definitely fail the vision test.
The African American celebrity looked skinnier on her magazine cover than she had on a recent television appearance. She'd photo-shopped away forty pounds, at least. Maybe it wasn't her at all, because that face was three shades lighter than hers. Wait. Had she lightened her skin? Impossible. Never. Damn. She lightened her skin.
Here was a woman who'd faced her body image struggles out loud and in public. She'd helped me accept my own insecurities. I felt like the victim of a bait and switch. That cover screamed she preferred a slender, light-complexioned body to its alternative. It screamed she'd bought into the phony ideal of beauty that she'd been preaching against for decades. Betrayer. Hypocrite. Sell-out. What lies did she tell herself to justify this trampling of her principles?
Then again, what lies did I tell … to justify my trampling of her character? In a single rant, I'd photo-shopped my values––shaved away forty pounds of empathy and at least three shades of kindness.
I woke up this morning, surprised.
Last night I fidgeted in bed, my arm throbbing from shoulder to fingertips in a cross between bee stings and tickling. Unable to sleep, I got up to worry.
I sat in the dark on the stairs. Maybe it's a heart attack. I should go to the emergency room, but what a hassle and so expensive. Probably pulled a muscle in yoga. Or it's another old-age pain. On the other hand, a throbbing right arm really is a female heart attack symptom. Isn't it?
As the edge of the step behind me pressed into my back, the mental clamor quieted into a simple question. Which was I willing to do: go to the emergency room or die in the bedroom?
The latter possibility became absolutely acceptable, because everything I'd known a second earlier fizzled into a stunningly calm No-thing. Devoid of the bedlam I'd labeled "concerns," "desires," "loves," and "fears." The preference for life melted away, since there was no knowledge that the thing-called-life had ever existed. Neither was there a preference for this unexpected hush. No-thing felt like ease.
How easy to die. How easy to go back to bed, which I did. Heads, I'll wake up. Tails, I won't.
I woke up this morning. Surprised by the toss of the coin.
"Kate, will you create a book blessing for me?"
"Yes! What fun. What's a book blessing?"
"I just made it up. We won't know what it is until after you create it."
As soon as UPS delivered three cases of books to the house, I morphed from inward-focused writer to outward-focused promoter. Where to sell. How much to charge. Tax deductions. Return on investment. Dollar signs and signs of failure. I needed Kate Guendling to redirect my world view back to why I write what I write.
Kate creates ceremonies. She'd convinced my analytical mind that ritual had the power to transform. I knew she'd infuse the book's promotion with love and generosity. That's her magic.
She organized everything. Inside a church sanctuary, she arranged twenty chairs in a circle. (Twenty chairs was a guess. We hadn't known how many to expect, but exactly twenty people attended.) One of the chairs was fancier than the others. For me! There was a table in the center of the circle, just big enough for two baskets of loose beads, and a copy of my book. On a stage behind my chair, a piano and a projection screen.
Kate held up my book, while explaining how the next hour would proceed. And then Annette Olsen sang to me. Have you ever had a hero? Someone whose talent makes you speechless and gushy? And your mouth hangs open in unflattering ways and you don't even care? Annette (who also composes, plays piano, guitar, and drums) is my hero. She sang to me. Twice.
I read a couple of essays.
"Now here's a message from a couple of people who couldn't be here," Kate said. Victor James Dougherty and Nhien Vuong appeared on the screen. They performed a freshly minted "Ode to Dawn." The two busiest people I know had taken time to write a song and make a video––for me. It was like getting the lifetime achievement award at the Oscars.
Kate walked to the table. She picked up a bead, threaded it onto a leather string, and told me what my writing meant to her. She invited the others to follow suit. They did. Spontaneously. Unrehearsed. Unprepared. One by one they walked to the center of the circle, selected a bead, and strung it onto the leather. The bead represented their blessing to me. "Your words struck a chord." "Your stories hit home." "Your story made my son and me talk about our relationship." "You're writing about my life." "I love you." "I'm choosing this green heart bead because you opened my heart." They mentioned favorite essays. They quoted me.
I was in awe of them. I listened, and thanked, and hugged, and grinned. But I tell you what, I can't find a new way to describe the feeling. Transcendence cannot be put into words. Even the word transcendent.
At the end, Kate handed me the gift they'd created bead by bead: a necklace made of blessings. The ritual marked my transition from inward-focused writer to other-focused woman filled with humility.
A piece of me died that night. The piece that's ruled by doubt. Church, candles, music, tributes, blessings. To everyone who attended, thank you for the best funeral ever.
I'm on the first-ever Dawn Downey Book Tour. I've been away from home, marveling at the generosity of my friends, who are coming up with brilliant promotional ideas and opening their homes to me. Watching them in the comfort and familiarity of their private spaces, I can't help longing for my own bed. So here's a post from last fall, to remind me of home.
At Home in Paradise:
I woke up at 2:00 a.m. with the blanket wrapped around my ankles in a serpentine tangle. My husband snored beside me, his arm heavy on my chest. I wriggled free to retrieve the covers and tuck them under my chin. The sweet scent of an apple core on the nightstand mingled with body odor from the long-past-laundry-day sheets. Outside the window, treetops swayed in the moonlight, and fallen leaves rustled as they skipped across our patio. An airplane roared above the night. At home in Paradise, I drifted back to sleep.
We who loved her are left to ask our pointless questions, until they trail off …
I stand mute at my bedroom window and press my forehead against the glass, as if I might catch a glimpse of her out by the birdbath.
Dad's pipe tobacco. He could not criticize while puffing.
Ivory soap. The bar that floated. After my bath, I was 99.44% pure. My impurities left a ring around the tub.
Pine-Sol. Somebody cared enough about me to mop the floor I walked on.
Chalk dust. It collected in the tray beneath the blackboard in high school Spanish class. It sifted into the air as I passed notes to the football star two seats over.
Newsprint ink. One summer in college I proofed the copy for want-ads, ferreted out typos from freshly printed pages. It was a solitary job in the basement of the News-Press. My hermit sanctuary.
Shalimar. A dab on my throat. I bought it often when I was single. A splurge. A gift from me to me.
Eucalyptus trees. At the Vedanta Society in Santa Barbara. My husband, brother, sister, and I meditated at vespers. The eucalyptus blessed our prayers.
The aromas--gone. The me who discerned them––gone as well. Molecule by molecule, she drifted into the atmosphere like smoke. Even though I could reclaim these scents right now, they wouldn't be the same. Had I been wiser, I might have performed a ritual farewell, but I failed to acknowledge my transient treasures and a hundred million others that passed away each hour.
From now on, I intend to say goodbye like I really mean it. Closure is a luxury.