Friday, September 28, 2012

A duet for one

Take a deep, deep breath, Donna, and just do it. I just might hyperventilate. Crying is a real possibility. But I have to do it. He’d be really disappointed with me if I let those banjos sit in the corner gathering dust. So I printed the song lists that Mike and I used to play and I listened to digital recordings of some of our duets. I tuned one of the banjos and I started to play with the recorded version of him. I’m rusty, can’t play up to speed, but I’m starting to remember. I can almost hear him saying, “Okay, can you slide there, maybe add some more D noise?”
Last night I went to the Birchmere to see Stephen Wade, one of my absolute favorite banjo players. Our affection for Stephen Wade was just one of the things that Mike and I shared. If Mike were still alive, he would have been there with me. He would have ordered iced tea and pulled pork and he would have had that intense look that he got on his face when he got swept up in the music. I listened to Stephen Wade play, once again entranced with his crazy passion for the music, and thought about what music means to me, what music meant to Mike. I have to find a way to reclaim the music in my life. I have to play. And now I have to find a way to play without Mike playing with me. It’s going to be different without him, but tonight I started to figure it out, playing by myself, loving the music so much, trying not to cry.

And, yes, that's a photo of us playing on the 4th of July 2010. We were busking at the farmers market. Just look at all that cash in the banjo case. The crowd loved us. (Ha!)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mama Said: Everyone needs brown sling-backs

A couple of years ago our family did the grab-bag swap thing for Christmas gifts. Everyone was supposed to bring a gift that would be appropriate for anyone in the family. "Anyone" includes men, women, boys, girls, young and old. We've got big people and little people and a variety of tastes and interests. Other family members brought food and gag gifts and stationery. Except my mother. She brought a pair of ladies brown sling-back pumps, size 7. I'm still speechless.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mama Said: At Chick and Ruth's

This one I just remembered. How could I have forgotten?

We’re were at Chick and Ruth’s, a diner in Annapolis known for being the gathering spot for all the state legislators, the movers and shakers in Maryland government. I love Chick and Ruth’s—where else can you find a restaurant where everyone rises out of their chairs every day at a designated time, and they all recite together the pledge of allegiance? So we’re there for breakfast. Our waitress is wearing a very obvious patch on her eye. My mother can’t decide what to order, then she looks at the waitress and says, “I’ll have one egg. Over easy. And I’m not saying that just because of your eye.”

Monday, September 24, 2012

So much worldy stuff

Turn my eyes from worthless things, and give me life through your word.
Psalm 119:37

I’m convicted and I don’t know what to do about it. Christians talk a lot about loving God and living godly lives. But in their zeal to study the Bible, they forget to really live the Bible. Why do Christians build flashy churches with parking garages and state-of-the-art media centers? Why do some pastors become celebrities, living like rock stars, espousing the prosperity Gospel? Did they ever actually read what Jesus said? Did they pay attention to His simple, humble life? Did they notice that He spent time sitting in the dirt with lowly sinners? That He didn’t care about pretense and possessions? What part of the Gospel don’t they understand?

Salvation isn’t for the fabulous people, for those who already have everything. Salvation is for the rest of us—the losers who can’t get it together, the ugly people. It’s all grace. It’s all Jesus pointing His finger at us and saying, “Follow me.” I’m walking with the losers, asking Jesus to pick me, pick me!

But what about living a simple Christian life on a personal level? I may criticize the fancy churches and the flashy preachers but on a personal level I have trouble giving up the quest for worldly comfort. I really like stuff. I like a nice house. I think about things like what color my walls should be, and beautiful fabrics, and vintage china, and French cookware, and on and on. It’s all beautiful to my worldly eyes, but I should know it’s irrelevant. Lord, forgive me. In my heart I know these things aren’t important, but my greedy human heart keeps glomming on to such meaningless stuff. I realize that I spend the bulk of my time managing this meaningless stuff. I’m perfecting my garden and moving my furniture and clearing out clutter—all management of my stuff.  Is this really what I should be doing? Did Jesus organize his closet according to color? Did Jesus alphabetize his spices? Am I just studying the Bible or am I living it?

Oh, Lord, I feel sick. I’m not proud of this, but how do I get out of it? How do I make sense of this world, be a good steward of my worldly possessions and still be the kind of Christian I want to be? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pantload of humiliation

I threw in the towel today. Actually, it wasn't a towel, it was a pile of jeans that I've been saving for when I lose weight. I gave up. If a miracle occurs and I ever get back into single-digit size pants, I'll celebrate by buying new ones. But the ones in the storage bin in the bottom of my closet were just clutter.  Instead of taking them to Goodwill, I took them to Share, a local church-run organization that simply gives clothes and food to people who need things just to live a decent life. I didn't want anyone exchanging money over my failure.
However, I wanted to kick the Share volunteer in her skinny derriere. She took the piles of pants that represented my failure and I mumbled something about how humiliating it was to have to give away perfectly good clothes because I can't fit in them. She said, smugly, "Well, you do know there's something you can do about that, don't you?"
I could have feigned ignorance and said, "What? There's really something I can do? I never knew. Please share your brilliant insights with me." I could have said, "Excuse me, I didn't really hear what you said because I was so distracted by that combination of peroxide and home perm kit that you seem to have applied to your hair." I could have flashed her my Weight Watchers lifetime card and said, "See this, you arrogant beeoootch? I know exactly what to do. I've done it and I've done it again. I fell off the wagon. So what? At least I have the decency to be kind to other people, unlike a certain prune-faced woman in polyester being all superior while working in the church basement making a plump donor feel like a moral failure and a moron."
I said nothing. Of course I said nothing. Why are the retorts always best when it's way too late to deliver them?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mama Said: Millie's Agony

My son was here for a visit a few weeks ago and he mentioned to me that I really should write down all the crazy things I can remember my mother saying and doing. She is legend. Honestly, you can't make up this stuff. So I started writing. And I thought maybe I'll start a feature about her here on my blog. If that guy can become wildly successful writing "Shit My Dad Says" about his outrageous father, then I can write "Mama Said" about my outrageous mother. So this is the introduction to my mother. This is a piece I wrote about her a few years ago, before my father died. She's older now, but the stories just keep coming. And I'll post continuing slices of Millie-isms here from time to time.

Millie’s Agony

Millie is like a rabid butterfly, bumming cigarettes from her grandchildren in backless plastic purple shoes, sequined daisies wrapped around her big toes. Her hair color changes from day to day, varying from magenta to blonde, sometimes permed, sometimes in a spiky punk style. She may be wearing one of those dime store hair attachments that has no relationship to the hair color de jour. Millie is my mother; she is 76 years old, trying to stay current.

It’s not just her appearance that changes—she redecorates weekly. It’s hard to imagine that when we were growing up we had a comfortable Early American décor rambler with braided rugs and a pine hutch in the dining room. My parents now have an elegant two-bedroom condo. “Elegant” is my mother’s favorite word. The condo is very clean with white upholstery and white wall-to-wall carpeting. It’s like a builder’s show house except it has the accessories of four show houses crammed into one. Silk flowers, gilded angels, porcelain dolls, beaded throw pillows, a nearly life-size brass greyhound, a marble Venus in the corner. There’s a picture frame containing a photo of a young woman. It’s the photograph that came with the frame, but it is signed, “with love from Jenny.” Millie signed it herself. Jenny is my daughter—Millie says that Jenny could look like the model in the photograph if she worked on it. Maybe she could loan Jenny one of her hairpieces.

My father, a living saint, is legally blind now, but when he still could see, Millie had him repaint the walls every month. She changes her mind a lot. Now she just changes pictures. The pictures still have price tags on the back so she can return them when she changes her mind. She uses the discount home furnishing store like a public library. Pictures everywhere—walls, doors, even in the bathroom. The bathroom doesn’t sound that unusual, does it? She has an “original” Monet hanging over the bathtub in the guest bathroom, hole drilled through the tile. The lily-of-the-valley-theme guest bathroom is for display purposes only. Incidentally, she claims that all of her little finds are original works of art and were very expensive. I can’t figure out how she can afford this art on a modest retirement income. Last year she gave me a Picasso in a plastic frame. It’s an original Picasso, of course. Priceless. So is Millie.

Every year on my birthday she has to recount for me in gory detail the events of my birth, the full recitation of what she calls “the agony story.” The opening line never varies, except to accommodate my current age,  “Fifty-five years ago today I was in agony,” she whined last month on my birthday. The story usually continues with, “They tore me up. Your head was huge and it had two enormous lumps, almost like three heads.” Details I never want to hear about hours of labor and forceps and stitches. She usually includes the bit about how her mother shopped all over town with a grapefruit in her purse to find a bonnet to fit a newborn. When my grandmother brought the bonnet to the hospital it fit only one of my three heads. This year Millie threw in a new twist. She called a week before my birthday to tell me that 55 years ago she was simply miserable because it was hot and she was very pregnant. I was the first of five children—she doesn’t have an agony story of the same magnitude for the others.

I can’t recall when she started the agony story tradition, but I know for certain it was at least 20 years ago. At this point I can recite it with her. Sometimes she will find a reason to hit the play button on occasions other than my birthday. For example, a mere reference to my birthday could prompt a full recitation, which seems strangely out of place at Christmas.

It never worked to try humor to divert her from the story. “Mother, give it a rest, I know the story now better than you do,” I would say, followed by a recitation of the first few lines. She continued. So I tried understanding, empathy, “Mom, I know that it must have been really hard for you, I apologize for being such a difficult birth. I was just a baby, I didn’t know better.” That didn’t work either.

Last year I finally made progress. On my birthday I sent her flowers. In the morning, before she had a chance to call me, the florist arrived at her apartment with a bouquet of irises and roses, her favorite flowers. The note said simply, “Thanks for having me. I love you.” That worked. She called me, crying, unable to recite the agony story. When I reminded her that she had to go through the ritual or my birthday wouldn’t be complete, she started, “Well, okay, 54 years ago today I was in agony.” But then she started to cry again.

I am past all the Freudian psychoanalytic pap; I am tired of examining my childhood and blaming my mother for her frailties. It’s her humanity, her goofy, loving, flawed existence that I am learning to celebrate and appreciate. She is outrageous, but she can be hilarious. She can be frighteningly shallow yet staggeringly profound. She drives me crazy yet I truly love her and she has an unfaltering love for me, despite the agony.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Pouring rain outside, chicken soup simmering on the stove, iTunes having its way with me.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of one song against another can be so poignant. Marc Cohn singing “True Companion”—a song that rips all the fragile sinews in my heart. Such a love song, a man singing to a woman, a woman he loves and wants to marry. Oh, to be a woman who has a man feel that way about her. It hurts, this loneliness. It hurts to think I don’t have that kind of love and the chances of ever having it are remote. And I say aloud to God, “Is this really what you wanted for me? Is this it?”

Was God really answering me? The next song comes up on the iTunes rotation—“Came to My Rescue”—a song by a contemporary Christian group. The lyrics: “I called, you answered, and you came to my rescue, and I want to be where you are.”

Can God really be enough? Can His supernatural presence really overcome the longing for a “true companion” in the earthly sense? I want the presence of God in my life to be so strong that I no longer feel the absence of the one who isn’t there. And I am reminded once again of a poem that deeply affected me many years ago.

Yet I wonder as I lie with him tonight
And mumble praise into the vacant pillow,
If it is not the same
And he another, who, being what he is, has excuse for absence.
I see his form pass through the dark forest
And as I lie in terror and desire
Feel his breath upon my face
And my humanness.

(Lynne Lawner, Wedding Night of a Nun: Poems. Little, Brown and Company. 1964.)

Robots calling

I probably shouldn’t even have answered the phone. I usually don’t when it’s an unfamiliar out-of-area number. The robo voice said, “If you are a senior suffering with diabetes or low back pain, please press 1. We have free help for you. If you are not a senior with diabetes or low back pain, please press 2 to be removed from our list.”

I pressed 2 and got another message: “Please hold on and you will be connected with an agent who will remove you from our list.” It rang and rang until I heard some curious babbling, then a person who said, “Hello, hello . . . “ It was not an agent but a lovely woman with a Spanish accent who was not a senior with diabetes or low back pain. She also had pressed 2 to be removed from the list. We had a brief civilized chat about our good health and the insanity of the communications system and said goodbye.

But it got me to thinking. These people who do the robo-calling don’t want to remove you from the list so they’ve figured out a way to connect you with another person who shares some of the same wants and needs you have. You have a pleasant conversation with that anonymous person who becomes almost like a new friend and you both hang up no longer annoyed with the robo-caller.

And during this intense pre-election period, there’s yet another angle to this. The candidate’s robo-caller could call and the message would say, “If you are suffering from occasional headaches (substitute: painful joints, nasal congestion, insomnia, anxiety, depression, constipation, PMS, erectile dysfunction, job-related stress . . .) we have free help for you. Please press 1 to be connected with an agent. If you have none of these conditions, please press 2 to be connected with an agent who will give you free help to maintain your wonderful life.”

The agent on the other end of the line could then tailor a message to garner your support for their candidate. For the example, if you pressed 1, the Romney people would tell you that Obamacare is a travesty that will only create havoc in the American health care system and your erectile dysfunction won’t be treated properly if President Obama gets another four years in office. If you pressed 2 because life if good, the Romney agent will tell you that your lifestyle is in great jeopardy unless you elect Romney president. The advice is free. There’s nothing you need to do other than show up at your local polling place and vote for their man.

If you are a robo-caller and you want to use this new system of mine, you’re going to have to pay me big bucks for this wonderful idea.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Okay, okay. I've now received my fourth request to post my current furniture items here on the blog. When it's for sale it's usually on the Washington, DC, Craig's List but I'm on hiatus for a few days.

I paint furniture. Some people call it "refreshing" vintage furniture or "repurposing" or "shabby chic." I have one friend who refers to it as "Sloaning" because we use Annie Sloan Chalk Paint. I paint, I wax. I distress, I reupholster and rebuild. Whatever it takes to resurrect an old unloved piece to something with new-found charm and years of function. I've done over 100 pieces in the past year. Most have gone to new homes and a few have stayed with mama. Here are a few of the newer pieces I've done that are still available.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Juanita in the shadows

I don't remember ever hearing Mike sing this song before. But I hear his voice coming through my iPod, singing something about Juanita in the shadows. Before that he sang a Stan Rogers song, "I want to see your smiling face 45 years from now." He used to sing that song to me and when he played it in public I had that little secret, knowing that he was singing it to me. But he didn't last for 45 years to see my smiling face. I know he didn't expect to die. I certainly never considered he would leave me that way. It just plain sucks.

I suppose I'm inflicting some sort of intentional torture on myself, sitting here at 2 o'clock in the morning listening to my dead boyfriend sing songs to me. Maybe, with enough time I'll be able to harden my heart to his music. Maybe, with enough time it won't make me cry. I don't want to let it go, don't want to forget his incredible guitar playing, the funny way he sang/half sang, sometimes taking the melody into unfamilar territory. I don't want to forget his face. Sometimes I picture his hands or the way the back of neck looked or his walk and I try to sear the details into my memory. I put on his fingerpicks that are way too big for my fingers, trying to feel some sort of connection with him.

No, I haven't had one of those moments people claim they have when a loved one dies. I haven't felt he was sending me any kind of message. I haven't found a hidden note from him. But I promised him that as long as I live, that part of him will continue. And here I am at 2 o'clock in the morning, my bed a battleground that gives me no peace, sitting here listening to his voice, missing him, keeping him alive in my heart like I promised him I would do. He would tell me it's plum pitiful.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Who are you?

Who are you? I just looked at the stats on this blog. Probably within a week or so I’ll have 15,000 hits. I’ve had 1,000 hits in just the past month. It is both humbling and a tad intimidating to know that so many people, some of you complete strangers, are reading this nonsense. Humbling because you actually read something I wrote, you care enough to spend a minute or so of your precious time with me. Intimidating because I feel naked.  I write some of these things just to clear my head, to rant, to praise God, to try to figure out the insanity of my life, never focusing on the fact that people are actually going to read it. It’s not hard to post on the blog, just hit publish and it’s out there for the entire world to see.

But it doesn’t feel so public when I’m sitting in my office in my paint-splattered sweats, staring at the computer screen, typing. (Luckily you can’t see me now—Junior Walker is playing Shotgun on my iPod and I’m dancing in my chair. Don’t tell anyone.) It may feel personal, private, but it’s not when I'm posting it on the Internet. I often question the wisdom of this blog thing. The other option is that I just write and write and write and do nothing with it. Maybe that would be the sensible thing to do. But not writing is not an option.

I write because writing is what I do. I used to make a living as a writer. Mostly I wrote health communications materials. For example, a number of years ago I wrote a whole series of health information pieces for WebMD—articles for the website about hepatitis and arthritis and gingivitis and testicular torsion. Yes, testicular torsion—you don’t really want to know what that is, do you? I wrote a lot of things about fetal alcohol syndrome and substance abuse prevention. I’m drinking a beer as I write this, but I’m not pregnant so it’s okay.

But things were tough in the health communications contracting world and I got laid off, along with every other writer I know. The others keep struggling to find new work; I just got tired of the insanity and decided to define myself as retired. It wasn't planned; it just happened.

So I paint furniture and sell it. I work in my garden and I cook and I take photographs of my feet. And I write this blog. Apparently people read it. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Raging insomniac

The insipid rage of an insomniac. If I weren’t so doggone tired I’d be on a real rant. But I don’t have the energy. It’s 3:30 a-flippin’-m. It’s so late in the early morning that some people are already getting up to start their day. I’ve been trying to sleep for over four hours. I took melatonin. Per my doctor’s orders I should not be taking Ambien. I’m doing all the “good sleep hygiene” things they recommend. Warm bath, not too hot. Gentle reading (a Lincoln biography), turn out the lights. Light blanket, ceiling fan, the cat in her proper place . . . one hour passes. Nothing. So I got up and looked at Indian jewelry on eBay. Back to bed. Another hour passes. I got up and gave myself a pedicure, drank warm milk with honey, heated up my special corn husk comfort wrap. I’m too tired to read—my eyes don’t focus at this hour. But I’m going to try again to go to bed, perchance to sleep, already knowing that I’m going to be a zombie when the day comes, no matter what. If it doesn’t work this time, I’m going to go outside and work in the garden. It’s almost light anyway.

Monday, September 3, 2012


It’s Labor Day. Or Labour Day if you’re in Canada. I prefer the Canadian spelling—it just has a little more flourish. Probably because Canadians themselves have more flourish than Americans. And supposedly a better health care system.

But that’s not the point. My unease today is that I wonder if I need a handler, someone who can tell me to stop, keep me from doing some of the crazy things I do. Today’s event really was due to the fact that I didn’t do what I was going to do on Saturday. On Saturday I had been invited to a special, by invitation only, 4-hour only, cash only, leftover junk sale sponsored by the American Rescue Mission at a warehouse in Capitol Heights. Nothing held back, nothing over $35. It was miles away from home, in an area I am unfamiliar with. I chickened out. I just pictured myself lost in the rain, driving around the beltway with an antique chifforobe tied to the roof of my car. The chifforobe would start slipping off the back of the car just as I realized I was heading toward Front Royal with no way to turn around. The chifforobe would fall off in a thousand pieces just as the state trooper turned on his siren to pull me over. That was my idea of an adventure and I really wanted to do it on Saturday, but as I said, I chickened out.

So today I was headed for the nursery to buy a flat of mondo grass. That was innocent enough—for that I didn’t need the handler. But on the way to the nursery I decided to stop at Unique, an enormous thrift store in a sorry old strip mall near the Asian supermarket. I did not know that Unique has a 50 percent off everything sale on Labor Day. Everyone else knows about it. The insane situation in the parking lot did not deter me. The fact that I couldn’t find a shopping cart did not deter me. The jumble of things on the floors—hangers and discarded clothing and frying pans with scratched Teflon surfaces and figurines of ducks carrying umbrellas—did not deter me. A bearded woman wearing a sequined skirt looked at me, chuckled, and threw up her hands in mock horror. Did I mention I could not understand a single language being spoken in the store? At least half of the people shopping were speaking to someone else on a cell phone. I’m not exaggerating. I loved it for the sheer insanity of the moment.

Just as I walked into the furniture “department” (it seems so pretentious to call it a “department”) an employee was wheeling a large wooden chest onto the floor. The price sticker said $12.99, but it was half-price day. I couldn’t leave it in the store. I figured the men at the loading dock could help me get it into the car but what was I going to do after that? It will be good to have extra weight in the back of my car this winter.

There were long, long lines at the check-out counters. The woman in front of me had her entire right arm wrapped in assorted elastic bandages. The bandages were tied in knots that did not appear to have been assembled by a medical professional. This bandaged woman had a huge basket of whatever—t-shirts, stereo speakers, plastic Easter lilies, a pink chenille bedspread with pompons, and a carton of maxipads. The cashier totaled the items but the bandaged woman protested and ended up spending 10 minutes haggling with the cashier. By the way, the air conditioning in the building was not working. I paid for the chest, got it loaded into the car, and now what? I really need a handler.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

This kind of love

Today in worship service Pastor Mark was preaching from John 20, when Jesus comes to the disciples after His resurrection. The disciples had all disappeared during Jesus’s trial and execution. And after His death, they were consumed with fear, huddled together, hiding in a locked room. Jesus came into the room and all He said was, “Peace be with you.” He had died a horrific death and these men, His closest friends, had betrayed and deserted Him. He didn’t blame them, He wasn’t disappointed in them, He just forgave them. Likewise He forgives me, even when I don’t ask for forgiveness. This kind of love is overwhelming.

I cried thinking about this kind of love. I had one of those moments of clear thinking, when everything came together. God has blessed me so abundantly. The sorrows I have experienced have only brought me to a deeper need for and an understanding of the Gospel. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through this life without faith. Sorrow would just be sorrow without the Gospel as a roadmap. Without God, it would have no meaning.

And likewise, I wouldn’t “get” the Gospel the same way if I hadn’t walked through the hard stuff with God to lean on. The Gospel is so real to me, so much comfort. As I study and learn, my understanding deepens. The meaning of the Gospel would not be so profound without what I have experienced in life.

Again, I thought about Mike, how I prayed and prayed that the Lord would spare his life and that the Lord would bring him to faith. Mike lost his life, but not his soul. He became a believer in the final weeks of his life. My heart hurts because I miss Mike. But my belief in God soars because He did something much more important than sparing Mike’s life. This kind of love is overwhelming.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Not what it seems

I'm learning a lot about color and I'm continually fascinated by it. How a color can change dramatically in different light. How a color can take on a different caste in proximity to another color. How one color over another color completely changes both of the original colors.

Those of you who know me know that I'm a huge fan of Annie Sloan Chalk Paint. I've probably painted 100 pieces in the past year or more. Some of the pieces I've kept, some I've sold on Craig's List, some have gone to friends and family members. A couple of pieces went to a benefit auction and a couple of klunkers went back to the thrift store.

This little table was a non-descript reddish dark wood with water ring stains. If you look really, really closely you can still see the rings. I first painted it olive green. Then I did a second coat in a beigy neutral color. I did more of a color wash on the beige coat--dabbed it on with the brush and then rubbed it off with a soft cloth. I distressed the edges slightly with a sanding block and finished with one coat of clear wax. I love how the color changed. Is it olive green? No. Is it beige? No. The alchemy created something new and made the carved detail on the sides pop out into something that was hardly noticeable in the unpainted original piece.

I've got another piece--a little cabinet--in my basement now that I'm going to start soon, perhaps tonight. I'm sure it will surprise me too.