New Hat



"Can you … do you think … could you … pick one out for me?' I fingered a beret in a booth at the Maple Festival. Mary and Nicki sifted through their piles of autumn-colored knit caps. "Too small, Nicki said. "Try this one." Mary plopped a floppy number on my head. She patted and tugged and fluffed; my face was the center of her attention.

Her fingertip grazed my temple. I leaned ever so slightly into the spot where skin pressed against skin. The sensation raised a memory: another woman's hands––from long ago––that had failed to pat my cheek, failed to braid my hair, failed to articulate my essential prettiness.

"Beautiful," Mary said. She held up a mirror. I peeked. She was right.

I saw very few maple trees at the Maple Festival. They shied away, their scarlets and oranges dulled in comparison with the blazing cuteness of me in my new hat. Touring other craft booths, I pretended to savor cinnamon-roasted almonds, plucked one at a time from out of a paper cone––but really, I was enthralled with how the soft yarn was caressing my ears, warding off the chill of past neglect.

I snuggled into bed that night, still wearing my new hat.

The glass walls of an outdoor labyrinth imprisoned me within narrow corridors, while giving the illusion there were no barriers. Unlike other labyrinths I'd walked before, this one was triangular, its interior not graceful curves, but all straight lines and angles.

I was timid, because although the whole thing was transparent, I couldn't see which way, or when, to turn. (Forehead-shaped smudges on the walls announced where some who'd entered earlier had misjudged the design.) What lay just ahead? Would the path angle off to the left or right? Or would my next footfall smack me into the glass?

queasiness in my stomach intensified with every step, as a familiar hunger for safety gnawed at my gut.

The partitions opened at unpredictable moments, in unexpected directions, but I recognized a rhythm in my body––a slow build of anxiety, followed by relief. Lungs tightened around the breath and then set it free. I began to trust that rhythm. Fear marked a turning point; relief marked another. Rewarding my faith, the glass passageway guided me to the center and eventually spilled me back out onto the lawn.

I'm still waiting to learn such faith in life. To trust that fear evaporates and openings appear.

Read about another contemplative walk.

Days before the social event of the year, I discovered the occasion was formal. What a disaster: I've got nothing to wear … I have to buy something … I can't afford to buy something … I need more time … I need more money. While my husband and I ran errands, I explained how this unacceptable situation ought to be different and indeed would be different if only events had unfolded differently. So there. My rant continued into the parking lot of Sam's Club, where it petered out in all that fresh air and open space. (I was a little disappointed.)

By bedtime, I was calm, although the problem still remained. Just before we went to sleep, my husband said in the kindest most loving voice, "Sweetheart, there will be other women at the wedding who don't own formals. Wear the nicest dress you have. It'll be fine." And it WAS fine. Peaceful. Why hadn't I thought of that?

The next night, he compounded his genius by saying,
"If you'll be more comfortable with a new dress, it's okay to buy one." And THAT was fine, because he really meant it.

So now, two thoughts about the wedding are floating around in peaceful coexistence.
1) I have to buy a dress. 2) I'll wear a dress I already own. It's the damnedest thing––these two opposing thoughts don't seem contradictory. They're equally plausible. The situation feels different in all the fresh air and open space of my formerly disaster-crowded mind.

The question is no longer what will I do. The question is this: which thought will I believe?

We paid our admission fee at the Santa Barbara botanical gardens, and strolled down a manicured pathway through tableaus of native plants. We gawked at a stand of redwoods, squeezed into its square footage of natural habitat like a tower of giraffes at the zoo.

Later we pulled off Pacific Coast Highway to worship in the shade of another grove of the California giants.
Massive trunks loomed skyward, blocking out all but a pinpoint of blue. A stream gurgled past our feet, the sound a hymn that barely broke the sacred quiet.

In Napa Valley, a tour guide informed us the
Korbel brothers cleared redwood forest and planted  grape vines. Stumps clung to the ground for decades, impossible to remove. When the television show Combat requested use of the vineyard for a location shoot––to film explosions, the Korbels answered "sure," as long as they blew up those darn redwood stumps.

I wanted to make the redwood something mystical, but now I wonder how best to describe it.

Zoo animal?
Temple god?
Canon fodder?

Or simply tree?

"The ocean's just around the next bend. I can smell it." We were driving north on Highway 1, just past San Luis Obispo, climbing through foothills that were parched brown from drought. The last time I'd been on this legendary road, I was in my twenties, just out of college. Memories pushed my anticipation of that first glimpse of ocean to the point of explosion. I strained against my seat belt to peer around Ben, as he navigated the winding ribbon of highway. One more curve and the landscape opened like parting curtains. On with the show! The Pacific was a grey-green shimmer of glass under the afternoon sun. "It's so beautiful!" Take another curve and white caps crashed against cliffs. "Oh my gosh." Another curve revealed a lighthouse perched on a spit in a fantasy tableau. "Wow." A whale lolled and dove like a ballerina solo. "Wow." Hour after hour, the scenery unfolded, too beautiful for photos, too beautiful for words. I yawned. I sank into my seat and stared at the glove box. The hills closed around us again, dry and boring. Miles of monochromatic tan and beige. Without warning the beach reappeared. Seals dotted sun-bleached white rocks. Waves crashed. Pelicans dived. "Look at that!"

Good thing God stuck some ugly in there so I'd appreciate the beautiful.
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.

  1. The bundle of brush and bag of yard waste Ben set out on the curb.
  2. The leaf that unfurled this morning on the dieffenbachia, shiny as a new dime.
  3. A new dime. How did all those groady coins end up in my change purse?  
  4. The genius of dandelions. I plucked one that had a tap root at least two feet long.
  5. Any journalist who still works in the middle east.
  6. The spotless kitchen counter, when I got up this morning.
  7. The absence of gnats. If our current infestation ends, I will never forget. Really. I swear.
  8. Wednesday night's conversation with Scott, Cara, Kate, Teresa, and Ben.
  9. The driver who waved me across the street while I was walking.
  10. 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.