Reaction

When I hear someone tell a story about how he/she reacted in a particular situation then another person, who has never experienced that situation, says, “Well, I would have done this or that . . . ,” I have to look askance at such certainty. As for me, I know what I would like to do, but until I actually experience it, I am never sure what my reaction will be.

For example, many years ago when my middle daughter was still small, I was accosted by a strange man in our local K-Mart. Rach and I were looking for an item (I forget what, light bulbs, maybe) in the hardware aisle. A rather large, long-haired man of Native American descent interrupted our search when he told me there was a spider on my butt. Now, I am not afraid of spiders so he didn’t get the reaction he expected, which was a hysterical woman screaming for someone to “Get it off me!” At which point, he would have happily obliged.

I simply said something like, “It’s okay. I’m not afraid of spiders” and moved up the aisle away from him. He followed me and insisted on brushing the “spider” off my backside. I could have easily confronted him and probably scared him away, but my reaction still mystifies me today. I grabbed my daughter and almost ran out of the store. I sat in my car unable to get the key in the ignition, much less drive. To articulate what I felt would require an inarticulate howl. I felt violated in the most primitive way – a violation of trust.

I have always trusted that people will behave honorably toward one another, even if they have evil intentions. To betray that trust by inventing a threat (spider) so you can touch a woman’s butt is certainly not an honorable thing to do on so many levels. My reaction to that betrayal almost paralyzed me. I’m sure if he had directed his intentions toward my daughter I would have smacked him. Mother instinct is so much stronger than self-preservation.

In another incident, not too much removed in time from the preceding one, I had a near miss with a burglar in my home. I had just returned from selling pecans I had picked up earlier, and when I walked into the house, it took a few seconds for it to register that my microwave was not on the kitchen counter, and that I was not the one who had moved it. Then, the most obvious difference hit me:  the back door was open and there was my microwave sitting on the step.

It took what seemed liked ten minutes for me to process information that didn’t jive with my perception of my home, but it couldn’t have been more than a second because I was out that door in a flash. I saw him running toward the creek. I hesitated. There was a gun in the pickup, but by the time I retrieved it, he would be gone, hidden in the trees along the creek bank. So I used the only weapon I had handy. Words. Loud, unladylike words. I ran after him calling him everything I had ever heard my husband call a cow. I felt as though I could have torn him apart with my bare hands! Fortunately for him, he had a good head start.

I have often pondered my very different reactions to each of these situations. In the first, my life was not threatened, but I reacted as though it were. Fear shut down my ability to do anything but run. In the second, the burglar could easily have been carrying a gun, but the thought never entered my mind. My anger made me feel invincible.

Perhaps my reactions depend on the locale of the threat. Put me in territory unmarked by me, like a K-Mart store, and I am at the mercy of any villain, but attack me on my home ground or someone I love, and you’ll be facing She-Ra, defender of all she surveys!

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Running

I am a runner. Not in the athletic or running-away sense, but in a joyful, childlike sense . When I see a smooth, clear opening in front of me, whether it be a sidewalk, a hall, or a stretch of grass, I want to take off running. Of course, at my age I don’t. That’s pretty much frowned upon, so I restrain myself – at least in public.

As a little girl, I had plenty of opportunity to run:  from the house to the barn to the shop to the corral to the garden to the house; across pastures, pond dams, creeks, terraces. Terraces were fun. Running full tilt across a terraced strip of earth could send you tumbling. Back then a tumble was an added attraction and barely broke my stride. Today, it would break my hip!

Running was a way of life. When my dad said, “Run get me a crescent wrench from the shop,” he meant RUN. When he needed help driving cows to the lot, I ran. He often said, “You can’t outrun a cow. You have to out-think her.” Out-thinking a cow was something I never quite got the hang of. They all seemed smarter than I was, so I ran a lot.

Occasionally, I would achieve a runner’s high, although at the time I didn’t know there was a name for it. It just felt like pure joy. It was as close to flying as I will ever get.

I still run but only in short bursts and almost always in the house. I will suddenly think of something I need to do, and I will hop up and take off. I never really thought about it being odd until my husband mentioned that he thought it was funny when I would sprint down the hall. That put a bit of a damper on my running. What I thought was perfectly natural as long as I could still do it seems comical to other people; consequently, I am not as apt to run in situations where I can be observed.

The other morning, my husband noticed a bruise on my upper arm just below the shoulder. It was of the purple and green variety, a little larger than a fifty-cent piece. When he asked what happened, I explained that I had run into the bedroom and my house shoes slid when they hit the carpet, and I slid with them. The fall was insignificant except for the drawer pull I hit on the way down. Besides hurting almost to the point of tears, it left evidence of my imprudence.

His response was, “I saw on the news last night about how dangerous it is for elderly people to . . . .”

WHOA.

“Elderly people?”

“Well, people our age.”

“People our age?”

No response. Smart man. He already had both feet in his mouth.

Now, I know that I am no longer middle-aged. I would have to live to 120 plus for that to be true. But, I am not elderly. I don’t intend to ever be elderly. Elderly is for people who have forgotten the joy of running. Of course, there may come a time when I have to use a cane. That’s when I will learn the joy of hobbling, but I will NEVER be elderly.

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Funereal Observations

I am becoming a funeral connoisseur. It began with my father’s funeral in 1981. He was a 32nd degree Mason. My mother did not approve, but she relented and allowed the Masonic ritual to be performed at Daddy’s interment.

Having been raised in my mother’s very austere church, I found the ritual wondrous. Masonic brothers stood around my father’s casket and recited a comforting liturgy while folding a carpenter’s apron. Daddy would have been pleased.

I don’t remember attending a lot of funerals for the next twenty years, but suddenly I was spending a lot of time in funeral homes and churches. Most of the funerals were disappointing. They seemed irrelevant to the lives we were supposed to be celebrating. Occasionally, a funeral service would be a little less generic, like the service for a former black student of mine. It was very interactive. There were lots of “amens” and hats. I wish I had worn a hat. I felt out of place, not because I was white but because I was so inhibited and hatless, which was probably because I was white.

I attended the funeral of another student who would have been appalled at the somberness of the service. Granted it was heartbreaking that he was just in his thirties when he died, but he was one of the most talented, creative young men I had ever met. His funeral didn’t reflect that, and it made me sad that most of the people in attendance had no idea who he really was.

When my mother died at the age of ninety, I wanted to speak at her funeral and expressed my wishes to the preacher. He said that was his job. He was an awful speaker and didn’t do my mother justice. He didn’t know my mother when she was much younger and full of life. He didn’t know that I wanted to strangle him and put him out of my misery.

About a year-and-a-half later, I hosted my baby sister’s funeral in my home. My older sister read a poem that our sister had written about all of us cooking together. A little more tearfully than expected, I read the eulogy I had written. Then, according to her wishes, we traipsed out to the pasture behind my house and scattered her ashes. She would have loved it. She was the center of attention, and the people she loved most were there.

I have attended funerals at which the deceased was celebrated with anecdotes, both loving and humorous; funerals at which the preacher saw an opportunity to save souls (those are the worst!); and funerals so generic that I passed the time by planning my own funeral.

I don’t want a standard funeral. I want a party. It would be held in a community building of some sort. Everyone would bring his or her favorite dish and sit around eating and reminiscing. The formalities would include people getting up and telling their favorite memory about me, preferably something funny.

Then one of my children or grandchildren would read my poem:

Cradle

 I crawl into the lap of the Universe

And rest my head in the curve of her arm.

She sighs to have me back

And hums a melody filled with stars.

I breathe in her fragrance of whirling atoms

And exploding suns.

I close my eyes in sleep

Forever.

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Walmart Cart Pushers Auxiliary

I am a charter member of the Walmart Cart Pushers Auxiliary. We don’t have regular meetings – mostly because I am the only one in attendance. Once, I attended a “real” meeting, but it was still pretty irregular. It was just me and one other person. I didn’t catch his name, but he was very passionate about his membership. 

The meeting took place one Saturday afternoon in the Walmart parking lot. After I finished transferring my groceries from the cart into the trunk of my car, I pushed my cart toward the cart corral. That’s when the meeting began.

The first item on the agenda was “Straightening of the Carts.” Before I could place my cart in the corral properly, I had to rearrange the carts left there by non-members. If the corral contains only a few carts, the meeting is fairly short. On this day, carts were at all angles, inside and outside the corral. This was going to be a long meeting.

As I wrestled with tangled carts, Cart Man appeared of the blue. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I hadn’t sent out a memo about this meeting, but there he was, a young Native American with long hair, grabbing carts and yanking them apart with gusto, shoving them into the corral with a great deal of . . . um . . . strength. The meeting seemed to be progressing nicely, but I felt some discussion of the matter at hand would be appropriate since that’s what people do at meetings – discuss things.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if people would put their carts up?” I offered.

“@#4% people don’t care a *&$% about doing what’s right. They don’t give a %+#^@, the #$*@@&!”

Okay, then. This meeting had definitely been called to order.

He made a few more disparaging comments about human nature, which I can’t remember, nor would I have enough symbols on my keyboard to write. I must have mumbled a few words of agreement. That was the polite thing to do, and it helped me close my mouth which had dropped open in awe of his extensive vocabulary.

The meeting was adjourned as quickly as it had begun. Cart Man disappeared in a cloud of invective.

That was the last (and only) meeting of the Walmart Cart Pushers Auxiliary at which there was a quorum. Mostly, I straighten the carts alone, but I always look over my shoulder to see if anyone will join me. I like to think that young man has meetings of his own, cleaning up the world, one cart at a time.

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River Rush

When Aunt Opal died, she left Mary June very comfortable. Mary June inherited property, stock, oil royalties, and me. I had been Aunt Opal’s favorite niece, and Mary June figured if her mother liked me, there must be some undiscovered potential lurking under my farm girl guise. So I became her Project.
June had shed the Mary part of her name in the last half of her life, just as she had shed her submissive wife/homemaker image when she divorced her first husband for the second time. (She wasn’t one to give up easily.) She was a professor of consumer economics (home economics with a doctorate), and an accomplished artist. She had risen from an emotionally abusive marriage and created a Self that was awesome to behold. Now she wanted to re-create me, scrub the dirt out from under my fingernails, and give me some semblance of sophistication.
She took me to Greek restaurants where I tasted falafel for the first time and Indian restaurants that served up luscious lentil soup with yogurt. She hauled me to museums (gorgeous Chihuly glass and ancient Egyptian tombs), art shows (people paint some weird stuff), art parties (old ladies drinking ouzo), and an Oscar Wilde movie (his poor wife!). She gave me my first Whole Foods experience, and we shopped at Tuesday Mornings.
Her driving terrified me. (Who makes a U-turn on a four-lane street in downtown Ft. Worth?) She took a sort of close-your-eyes-and-jump-off-the-cliff approach when she got behind the wheel. I never said a word. Her wrath would be worse than wearing a body cast for six months.
June loved to travel, and she cajoled me out of my comfort zone and into a trip to Costa Rica. She had been once before and seen the volcanoes. Now she wanted to see the beach. Not on the resort-laden Caribbean side. Not June. She avoided anything that smelled remotely of popular culture. She searched out places that reeked of local flavor and hard beds. So we headed for San Juan, Costa Rica, without a single hotel reservation but not without a plan – June always had a plan.
We spent the first night in a hostel and breakfasted the next morning with a teacher from California who assured me that a state lottery would not improve funding for education in our state. (He was right.) June and I spent the morning going to the post office, changing money, and soaking up the culture. That afternoon we caught a bus headed for San Isidro.
San Isidro was a pleasant little town. We ate pizza on a balcony that evening and gave our leftovers to a trio of backpackers from Europe – strapping blond young men without a care in the world except how to get to the next rainforest. We boarded another bus the next morning, bound for Playa Dominical.
Riding with June had tempered my attitude about dying in a car crash, but it had not prepared me for the ride to Dominical. Costa Rica has one main highway that curves across the backs of mountains. It is not a four-lane highway. It’s not even a two-lane highway. Try one-and-a-half lanes. And we were riding in a bus that took up all of its lane and most of the other. It was full of Ticos and two white women. Ticos filled the aisles and the steps, and the bus driver seemed to know everyone by his first name. He talked and gestured during the entire three hour trip, oblivious to the 1,000 foot drop that was two feet from my side of the bus.
Did I mention that this was a local bus? We stopped at every little village and crossroads. We even stopped for entire families at places with no appearance of being inhabited. Finally, we arrived. The bus deposited us on the side of a dusty road. The fact that we had no clue where to go did not daunt June in the least. She took off in the most likely direction, and soon we were sipping watermelon frescas at an open air café. (Café is a euphemism for a kitchen and some tables under a roof.) Nothing has ever tasted so good since.
We stayed in Dominical for three days. Our base was a little room in a complex of cabinas owned by an American whose aim was to make just enough money to stay in Dominical. This was a surfing community and had quite a few expatriates from the U.S. who were seeking relief from a culture of wealth acquisition. June and I provided quite a contrast to the small, brown-skinned Ticos and the tall, tanned Americans.
One of those three mornings, I headed out on my own while June re-organized her multi-pocketed vest for the 39th time. I walked down the beach quite a ways, enjoying the sound of the surf. The ocean was endless. There were no boats to use as reference points. I was very small on a beautiful blue-green planet, but I felt very much at home.
I came to the edge of a small stream that ran out into the ocean. The water was about ten feet across and crystal clear. To continue my walk, I would have to cross it. I took off my sandals and stepped in. Ahh . . . delightful. A few more steps made me little more cautious. The bottom was not smooth. Pebbles of various sizes made walking difficult with bare feet. I picked my way across, slipping and almost falling once or twice. In the middle of stream, my awareness was redirected. The water was moving awfully fast. It was only up to my knees, but it was pushing hard. It would be tricky to get up if I should fall.
Suddenly, adrenalin poured through my veins. I was standing in the middle of a narrow stream with the wide Baru River on my right, pushing its water through this little funnel that led to the ocean on my left – about 25 feet away. If I fell, I would not have time to recover before the water carried me tumbling into that huge, pounding surf. No one would ever find my body.
Well, then. I would just have to be careful, wouldn’t I?
I was equidistant from both sides of the stream. I could turn around and go back. If I continued across, I would have to cross it again. I think I must have laughed out loud. I had not felt this alive since I was a child. Here I was, on the edge of the Earth, just one misstep from oblivion. I stepped forward toward the other side. I would savor this exquisite moment if it killed me.

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Regret

I am not a person to harbor regrets. What’s done is done, and what’s not done could still be done. That’s why I am developing my bucket list.

When I review my life, I find that there are things I haven’t done that I no longer really care about doing. Mostly because they involve long lines, airport security, and tiresome plane rides. If I travel anywhere, I want to stay long enough to get over the trip before getting on a plane to return home. The longer the plane ride, the longer stay needs to be. I’ve always wanted to go to Italy, but a plane ride that long would require that I live there for six months!

I would like to add a zip line ride through a rain forest in Costa Rica to my bucket list, but there’s that long plane ride preceding a short zip line ride. It doesn’t balance out for me at my age. Besides, I did get the experience of a zip line on Roatan Island. It was short but very sweet. Very, very sweet.

Most of the things I would put on my bucket list require a whole life change – not just for me but for everyone who depends on me to maintain a stability from which they can operate. Goodness knows, we went through enough instability when my youngest sister plunged into that river of no return. Of course, I’m not considering putting drug addiction on my list. No, a life change for me would involve a beach and the equator.

So far, there is only one thing on my bucket list that has a remote possibility of becoming a reality: learning algebra. Yes, algebra. I can’t get the idea out of my head. I am ashamed that I am not fluent in equations and proofs. (I don’t even know what a proof is.) There is something other worldly about using numbers to describe this world. I can’t stand not knowing, not understanding what any college-bound high school student knows – or should know. I didn’t “get” algebra in high school for a lot of reasons, but the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that my ignorance makes me feel, well, ignorant.

Besides, if I learn algebra, then I can learn trigonometry, and that can lead to calculus, and I hear that’s where all the fun is.

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Redemption

Recently, I went to visit my best friend, who lives half-way across the country on the East Coast.  She picked me up at Manchester airport on Thursday evening, took me to a Vietnamese restaurant in Lawrence (or was it Lowell?) for a bowl of pho. We went home early because she had to work the next day.

She lives in a pretty little town surrounded on three sides by the ocean. She and the town are the perfect de-stressers (de-stressors?)  so even though we would miss spending a day together, I knew the town would be calming, and I could unwind until she and I could head out on adventures. It would be just the two of us since her daughter was away at college and her boyfriend was busy.

Friday morning before she left, she gave me a house key and the keys to her daughter’s car. (As if I were going to drive where streets are based on ancient trails, intersections are circles, and parallel parking skills are mandatory!) I printed a map of the town, layered my clothes, and began my walking tour. The fall air was crisp, the colors were riotous, and I hadn’t gone a block before realizing I had forgotten my map. I don’t trust my navigational skills or my memory, so I went back for it and started out again.

Ah, how free and unencumbered I felt. My hair was down and enjoying rare freedom. My spirit sang. How nice of the city fathers to build sidewalks, and thank you, citizens, for decorating your trees with handkerchief ghosts. And look, there goes yet another runner and a couple walking their dogs. (These people love their dogs!) Downtown, I window-shopped, ate a turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich at Foodie’s Feast, and bought a pumpkin pie at a mini version of Whole Foods. I found an ice cream parlor and indulged in a scoop of apple pie ice cream. Could it get any better than this?

I planned to spend the rest of the afternoon reading, napping, and just being zen. I took a different route back, saw different handkerchief ghosts, and read name plates declaring the antiquity of houses built before the Revolutionary War.  A block from my friend’s apartment, I stuck my hand in my pocket for the door key. Wasn’t in that pocket. Not the other pocket either. Maybe I had put it in my purse. No, not there. Had I lost it? My pockets were too deep for it to have fallen out. Maybe I hadn’t locked the door. Wishful thinking. The door was locked, and the credit card trick only works on TV. My friend wouldn’t be home for another four hours.

I didn’t feel so zen any more. I felt vulnerable and old. I had forgotten to put the key back in my pocket when I went back for the map. My mind had betrayed me. The feeling washed over me like a bucket of cold water in slow motion. I was old. Soon, I would need a keeper, someone to look after me because I could no longer navigate the world. How was I going to get home if I couldn’t remember how to get around in an airport? Suddenly, my back was stooping, and I felt the need for a cane. I sat on the steps, nearly in tears, steeping in this new and unfamiliar feeling.

Gradually, I became of aware of a new feeling, more physical than metaphysical. I needed to go to the bathroom. Whatever it took, I had to get into the apartment. My bladder didn’t care that I was in the middle of an existential break down. It wanted relief. The sooner, the better.

Urgency kicked my brain out of  self-pity and into gear. My friend lives in a semi-basement apartment. The front part is almost all underground, but the back is at normal ground level. Maybe she had left the back door unlocked. No luck. The mind that had forgotten the door key was now in turbo drive. It scanned possibilities. (None of those possibilities included contacting another human, including my friend. That would have admitted defeat.)

The bedroom windows. She always slept with the window open. I didn’t remember her ever closing it. I walked around to the side of the house. The window was fairly close to the ground and open, but the screen was secure, and, thanks to airport security, I had no flat, rigid object with which to pry it off.

I moved down the side of the apartment to check the other windows. At her daughter’s bedroom, there was a window with no screen. I paused and took a deep breath. I pushed; the window slid up with ease. Yes! The window slid down with equal ease. A minor problem. The greater problem was the height of the window from the ground. Even though I was getting younger by the minute, I still couldn’t hoist myself up high enough to shinny through the window. Ah, a bucket, just waiting for such a moment as this. Bucket in place, window propped open, I pushed myself through head first, tumbling onto the bed, then the floor.

I closed the window and locked it. (After all, if I could get in, couldn’t a burglar?) I headed for the bathroom, all the while listening for sirens. I was sure that if anyone had seen my legs hanging out of the window, they had called the police. Let them come. I would have proudly told my story to a policeman. I would have left out the part about feeling old. He wouldn’t have believed me.

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