When you move to a new house, slather butter on all four paws of your cat. By the time she’s licked herself clean, she’s comfortable in her new environment and won’t wander back to the old house.
I don’t know where I picked up that bit of wisdom, and I certainly don’t know if it works for cats, but here’s how it works in my life:
As my energy level increases, and my anxiety level fluctuates, sitting still to meditate becomes problematic. (let’s not talk about the painful process of trying to quiet my bubbling brain). A couple of years ago, when the concept of self-care began to sink in, I discovered the pleasure of massaging my own feet.
Then, a delightful tiny epiphany. If I massage my feet with shea butter, cocoa butter, or some such, I am stuck sitting cross-legged on my bed until my feet are not too greasy to walk on my old wooden floors. If I get up and try to walk around with buttery feet, it leaves ugly footprints and there’s the very real prospect of busting my butt.
Sufficient incentive to stay still. If I breathe deeply, I reward myself further with the intoxicating scent of cocoa or the sweet, cotton-candy fragrance of shea butter.
I cannot muscle my way into good meditation practices, good health, emotional sobriety, happiness, joy or serenity. When I am open to the loving whisper of a power greater than myself, I can smell, touch, see and live these gifts, miracles of the commonplace.
I’m honored to be a part of a new magazine of the South, called Good Grit. If you’re not familiar with it, please check it out in print, or online. Buy a subscription. It’s beautiful. The Harvest issue has just been published and it’s a keeper too.
By Karyn Zweifel
My mother was born near the geographic center of the continent, oldest child of a teacher and a mail carrier, about as distant from the sea as it is possible to be. Surrounded by waves of golden grain as far as the eye could see, she dreamed of the ocean, endless ripples of blue fringed with white. When she finally made it to the seashore at age 22, it was in reality a homecoming; “I knew when I saw it that that’s where I came from,” she says. “I just cried, it was so beautiful.” To this day she feels more connected to the universe at water’s edge than anywhere else on earth.
I am no stranger to the disease of alcoholism. I have two aunts with many years in recovery and a brother still struggling. So when my husband and I visited our oldest son, Andrew, during his first semester of college out of state, I was very concerned about his behavior.
“…now I understand how the stigma of addiction and mental illness causes so much pain. Parents need to be more open, be willing to say ‘I’m really struggling,’ and get help for themselves and their children.”
He’d joined a fraternity, and during our visit, my mother’s intuition kicked in. I could tell it wasn’t just the normal college drinking experience. Andrew was secretive, and what we saw at the fraternity house was alarming. Andrew did not do well academically that first semester but convinced his dad to give him a second chance.
“Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot ‘manage,’ you will never find the True Manager. So God makes sure that several things will come your way that you cannot manage on your own.”
–Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water
These simple words are likely to strike a chord of recognition in almost every human being. Rohr, known world-wide for his focus on transformational and mystical traditions, has written more than twenty books about spirituality, recovery and relationships, and his writing style is straightforward and concrete.
I love my hometown. My family moved to Birmingham when I was ten, so I didn’t have much say in the decision, but I’ve made a conscious choice to stay here over and over through the years. I’ve only regretted it intermittently, usually in August or a hellish hot September.
I saw poverty at close range for the very first time on our journey south, and it struck me to the core. With the advantage of hindsight and more than forty years, I recognize the irony: coming from an affluent suburb in the Midwest, poverty was in fact all around me; I just never saw it, since I never left the elevated interstate highway on my journey from one enclave of privilege to the next.
Since then, traveling back and forth to the Midwest to see family (and satisfy my wanderlust) has given me lots of time to think. I am always happy to go north and west, and equally happy to leave. Overstuffed with family, memories and togetherness, driving east and south toward Alabama, I never feel quite at ease until I hit Memphis.
In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not. That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners.
It took me years to figure it out: the Midwest is fairly homogenous and mostly light-skinned. I see people of color going about their daily lives just like me when I get back to the South. It feels good, somehow, to exchange a smile or a joke with people who don’t look like me. Even though they don’t look like me, they are somehow familiar, even comforting. In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not.
That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners. (I hope you don’t mind, in my better moments I do consider myself a Southerner.) Black and white, we live in such close proximity we don’t have the luxury to pretend the “other” doesn’t exist. It’s easy enough to celebrate racial harmony when the nearest black person is in a different school district. In the decades since desegregation, living elbow-to-elbow naturally creates friction.
As ten-year-old me went swimming in the newly desegregated Birmingham City pool in Crestwood, I was astonished to observe the soles and palms of the boisterous black kids surrounding me. They were a vivid pink, just like mine. It quite simply blew my mind.
That was one of the first in a long series of tiny epiphanies about togetherness and otherness. Instead of only thinking about things which make me separate, without really knowing it, I also began to store up observations about what makes us alike.
My fourth-grade class at Comer Elementary School had a single black student. She and I both kept to ourselves, I noticed. I invited her to my birthday party, and she came with the rest of the girls, uncomfortably dressed in her Sunday best. That day I was introduced to the sweet-savage Southern nicety that “they” were often “happier” when left to “themselves.” I only gradually came to understand that my isolation was temporary and self-imposed, while hers was not.
This unceasing patter of seemingly insignificant observations has changed me. Often I feel certain they are a gift from God, a source of spiritual growth. Sometimes it’s inconvenient, like the realization that the lady who beat me to a prime parking spot deserves it just as much as I do. No matter what, seeing these commonalities makes my love for my hometown deeper, richer and at times, more difficult to reconcile with easy platitudes about race and racism.
Okay, I’m a middle aged white woman. I look like somebody’s mother because I AM somebody’s mother. I don’t look the least bit mean or intimidating. Friends and even complete strangers (delivery customers) worry about my safety. Justifiably so, it seems. When we were trained, the manager assured us casually we’d be robbed sooner or later.
But I am a sensible person. It’s hard to rob a person in a moving vehicle. I trust my instincts and believe me, if I think it’s not safe to get out of my car, I won’t. Some nights have spooky moments. My phone loses reception in all the worst places. One street started off okay, nice little ranch-style houses, a streetlight or two. But before the numbers counted down to my appointed destination, the road petered out into gravel. The last streetlight was busted. My headlights illuminated further down the road, where the gravel ended and the red clay rutted track led uphill and out of sight.
Next to me was an old one-story house, with boarded up windows, sitting crooked on the lot like it’d been dropped there by an absent-minded giant. Oh, the rest of that road looked so dark. You know in scary movies where the audience shouts “Don’t go down to the basement! DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!” — I had those kind of vibes. And unlike the pretty young heroine in the movies, I paid attention to those vibes and whipped my little car around and headed back to the store.
The map for delivery drivers posted on the wall of the store has great swathes marked off in bold black: “NDAD”. It didn’t take long to figure out that meant “no delivery after dark.” I drink lots of caffeine and stay alert.
Of course some (or most) of the fear for my safety is based on the race thing, whether people are willing to admit it or not. So it’s ironic that my first brush with trouble would happen in the nice mostly white suburb on the fringes of our delivery area. I was delivering to a business, with the word “shop” in its name. I got there and across the street I saw what was clearly a biker bar. This shop, then, must be where those leather-clad hooligans got their bikes tuned up and decked out.
The owner of the shop saw me headed in with a load of pizzas and wings, and graciously held the door open for me. With a bad feeling in my gut, I saw the repair shop had a pool table. And a bar. And it smelled like liquor, and it was cloudy with cigarette smoke. I set the food down on the bar and turned around to get paid. A man in black leather came towards me waving a fifty. He was a little the worse for drink. I later heard this place has a rep for pretty good home brew. He actually looked like he was about to fall down.
He handed me money and I said politely (as I’d been trained) drivers weren’t allowed to take fifty dollar bills. He waved the money again and said I’d better take it, the extra $10 was my tip. So I took it and turned to leave, holding the now empty thermal bag. Really bad vibes practically turned the air purple. “Hey,” the drunk biker said. “I want that bag to keep my beer in.” His buddies stopped playing pool to watch a more entertaining game.
“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t sell it to you.” I know I sounded prim. I wanted to sound like a Sunday school teacher. I was clawing behind my back for the door knob. He interrupted me. “Sell me your hat. I want your hat.” His buddies laughed. This was fun.
“You can buy one at the store, sir,” firmly, a “don’t bully your classmates” tone. I turned and put my hand on the door handle.
“But I want some sugar. What if I stole it?” From behind, he reached up and put his forearm across my throat. A classic choke hold. But notice I said, “reached up.” He was short. I mean, really short, like five or six inches shorter than I am. It was kind of like a five-year-old in black leather and whiskers taking on a tenth-grader.
In the weeks that followed, I have thought of so many ways I WISH I’d responded. People have (of course) told me how I should have reacted. If I’d only bent my leg at the knee and raised my foot up sharply, there would’ve been a connection. I could have screamed and then extorted money from all the biker dudes. I probably could’ve copied some lame karate move from a spy movie and thrown him. That would have been real entertaining.
But I did none of these. I twisted loose and jumped in my car and drove away as fast as I could. I stayed mad a couple days, until I told the story to some friends. One of them positively howled. “Sugar stealing midget bikers!” I told him I was stealing that. And I can’t wait to go back. I know what to do now.
My sister and I buried my father’s ashes on a cold gray day last spring. We were at Zion Cemetery in Blaine County, Oklahoma, not too far from the farm my family settled illegally and then claimed in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. You can see two sets of grain elevators from the graves of my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunts and now my dad. There’s not much else to see other than the ever-changing sky, a tiny abandoned church and an honest-to-God outhouse with a crescent moon carved into the rough wooden door.
It was really cold. Two days before, I had stared in amazement as snowflakes spiraled down outside the window. I had planned to camp out; it was the second week in April and who would expect snow right before Easter? On Palm Sunday, I sat in church and felt the earth tremble; an earthquake, my aunt told me brightly, a common occurrence in Oklahoma these days. A few hours later, the tornado sirens howled; a twister was tearing up the plains somewhere south of town. Oklahoma felt apocalyptic last April.
We scraped some dirt over the urn. A prayer would have felt pretentious. I’m not sure my dad even believed in God when he died. My sister and I held hands and sang a chorus of “Amazing Grace,” the wind snatching the notes off our lips.
It was too cold and I was out of kilter. We poked our heads inside the abandoned church; the windows were long gone, leaving only four walls of rough whitewashed brick and a rusty tin roof. Animal droppings littered the empty structure, huge, bigger than my thumb. The thought of an animal that size was frightening.
Two days later it was Good Friday, bright and warm. I was facing a sixteen-hour trip south, but Zion Cemetery called, and I obeyed my instincts.
On my way out of town, I heard bells. It was noon. My lovely little church in Birmingham has a most solemn Good Friday Service at noon; it begins with the church stripped bare of all its banners and fancy drapery and the clergy lying full-out face down on the floor around the altar.
Again an inner voice whispered, just as I passed a church. I pulled into the parking lot and crept inside, late for the noon service. They were reading the Passion Gospel and a lady in the back smiled at me when she handed me a bulletin. As we read the familiar story of Christ’s trial, persecution and crucifixion, my world and my heart began to settle into a rhythm: powerful, soothing and good.
My spirit was almost light as I left the church, and I stopped at a store to assemble a funeral feast. I got two pieces of cake, some bright ripe fruit, a little cheese, a styrofoam cup of macaroni and cheese. On an impulse I grabbed a handful of chunky, beaming sunflowers.
It took an hour to drive north of town, west down the highway past the grain elevators, then bump down the dirt road to the cemetery bounded by a rusty, sagging fence. It looked vastly different, which makes perfect sense: when the sky is nine-tenths of the display, a vivid blue infinity is a remarkable transformation from a lowering blustery gray.
I had a book with me, a funny one, by Terry Pratchett. I spread out a blanket under a splintery old cedar and read my book and laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh. My dad has a wicked sense of humor and he loved to read. I slowly ate half a piece of cake, savoring the joy of my dad’s sweet tooth and a family tradition of “dessert-first day.” I breathed, deeply: cedar, dirt, sky.
Now my heart was so light I was almost skipping. I scattered a few crumbs of cake a few feet away from the tree and invited the ants to my banquet. I laid the sunflowers in a row on the family graves and they smiled back at me: great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, aunt, father.
I remembered I had a kite tucked away in my camping gear, and that endless sky cried out for a kite. I couldn’t get it up in the air; I have no talent for aerodynamics. But I tethered the string to the gravestone and it kicked around on the ground, yearning for the wild blue yonder. I sang a song from my favorite movie; it felt so good I sang another song, a Bible-thumping camp song from my father’s youth. I remembered his eyes match the Oklahoma sky on a bright spring day.
I thought, for no particular reason, of things that frightened me and decided to look inside the old church one more time.
I remembered the warmth leaving my father’s hands as I wept and let him go.
I leaned into the empty window frame of the old Zion Methodist Church and heard a storm of wings and wind and watched, transfixed, as a Great White Owl burst from the rafters, paused, as if posing for a snapshot, and whirled out the opposite window, an angel of a different kind.
I laid my daddy’s ashes to rest on Good Friday last year. Today, as Lent begins, I wonder where my journey leads me now.
My youngest is off visiting college, hopefully one she’ll attend next fall. I feel funny and unsettled. I should be writing for money. But as acknowledgement of my feelings, here’s a poem I wrote in 2004:
Nobody told me
how dark it is at three am when the baby runs a fever
Nobody told me
how hard it is to keep saying “no” with love
Nobody told me, either,
about the blinding brilliance of my own child’s smile
We’re having homemade pizza for dinner. My kitchen is warm and filled with good smells. I am blessed.
I’ve not been very faithful to my plan to Write Now, but here’s a bit of something I wrote in 2010. My regular writing gigs dried up around 2008, so by then I was pretty desperate for work. Here’s how I wound up delivering pizzas and blogging under the pseudonym “Mama Marinara” on Janet Simpson-Templin’s great site Pavo:
Advertising on Craig’s List brought one response that sounded great. The company was “looking for honest people with a keen eye for detail to visit various adult sites online and write the things they like and dislike about each.” Now, I’m not squeamish. I’ve written some pretty racy limericks. I even modeled nude for an art class a long, long time ago. Adult magazines don’t automatically earn my moral outrage. The job paid $350 a week.