Monday, February 8, 2016

Lodi, Jerusalem and The Land of Cotton


I don't know what my dad's last words were.  And that bothers me.

My dad was alone when he fell down the stairs on Thursday, December 17.  It took four to six hours before a neighbor came by and knocked on the door.  The neighbor called my mom, who was with me in Nashville, and asked if she had any idea why my dad wouldn't be answering the door.  She asked him to get the spare key and let himself in to check on Dad.  That's when he found my dad on the landing, underneath a University of Alabama football flag. 

Because I don't know what my dad's last words were, I keep trying to make them up in my head. 

We think my dad's last conversation was with the neighbor, Gary.  Gary had promised to bake a pizza that afternoon and bring a piece to Dad.  Dad had asked him to make it "juicy and spicy," which means a lot of sauce.  It was hard for my dad to eat pizza unless it had a lot of sauce and was soft.  He did have dentures but he didn't like wearing them, so instead he relegated himself to foods that were easy to chew.  Like juicy and spicy pizza. 

Not long ago we were having dinner together and I noticed my dad didn't have his dentures in.  "Dad, why aren't you wearing your dentures?" I asked him.  "Oh, I only need them when I'm eating!" he answered cheerfully. 

The beauty in that conversation is all that is unsaid.  But my dad I both knew exactly what was left out of that conversation.  Here's what was left out.

"But Dad, you are eating."

"I know Druse, but the truth is, I don't like wearing my dentures." 

And that thing about him not liking to wear his dentures?  That is probably the essence of my dad.  My dad did what he wanted.  All throughout his life, and especially in his later years, he did what he wanted.  He didn't care what society or good manners would dictate.  In fact, he frequently cautioned us girls not to allow ourselves to become "civilized into a stupor." 
 
"Civilized into a stupor" meant doing what society told you to do even if it made no sense or brought no real benefit.  Things like coming to a full stop at stop signs, and flossing, and taking your Christmas lights down in January. 
 
My dad had a strong urge to resist societal pressure.  In fact, the more that was applied, the more he would resist.  I don't fully understand this aspect of my dad, even though it seems I inherited it.

My mom is the opposite of my dad in this regard.  My mom does what she should most of the time.

Do you know what happens when two people like that raise children together?  The children turn out pretty balanced, I think.  My sisters and I do what we should most of the time, and we do what we want some of the time.  And for the most part, we do okay. 

When Gary said he would be back in the afternoon with a juicy and spicy pizza, he says my dad said, "Hoo wee!"  I can hear my dad saying that.  It was an expression of anticipation and joy.  My dad's later years were filled with joy and little things. 
 
He got a lot of joy out of doing the word jumble in the newspaper every morning.  When we got to the house the morning after my dad died, his body had already been taken away to the funeral home.  If you didn't look at the stairs, it looked like my dad had stepped out for a minute.  The newspaper was on the dining room table, opened up to the word jumble page.  He had scribbled words and letters in the margins of the paper as he tried to solve the jumbles that final morning.  He hadn't finished solving the puzzle just yet.  His reading glasses were just at the edge of the paper.  Like he had just stepped away.

I would love it if my dad's last words were, "Hoo wee!"  What a way to go out. 

It's also possible though that my dad's last words were words he sang out loud, to no one in particular.  That was a habit of his.  My dad would often sing a line from a song that happened to be running through his head.  It was just one line, a few words perhaps, but it was a very short insight into what was going through his mind in that moment.  One of his favorites was "Oh Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again!"  Another was, "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton!"  Then he would pause and say to himself, "Wait a minute!  We are in the land of cotton!" 

So maybe his last words were a line from a song that was running through his head at the moment.  One that he sang a lot in his later years was, "I want to be ready, I want to be ready Lord, I want to be ready Lord, walking in Jerusalem just like John."  I'd love it if those were his last words.  

Incidentally we sang that song at his funeral and I was annoyed that the words in the hymnal were different than the way Dad sang them.  The hymnal says, "I want to be ready to walk in Jerusalem just like John."  My dad had been singing the song wrong all these years. 
 
Well wait, he wasn't wrong. 
 
He was singing it the way he wanted to sing it. 
 
He was not civilized into a stupor. 

Pat Tillman had some of the best last words ever.  Pat was an NFL star who left his professional career and enlisted in the army after 9/11.  
 
 
 
 
He died in the mountains of Afghanistan at the age of 27, probably shot by U.S. troops.  On accident, of course.  They call that "friendly" fire but I cannot call it that, just like I cannot say that a homeowner came home and "surprised" a burglar. 
 
Anyway, Pat's last words were, "I'm Pat f*#ckingTillman!"  Apparently he knew he was being shot at by his own team.

I love everything about those last words.  There's self-worth.  There's courage.  There's dignity.  There's righteous anger. 

I would love it if those had been my dad's last words.  "I'm Joe f*#cking Parsons!"  That would make me so proud if my dad had gone out that way.

But honestly, I know he didn't.  That just is not my dad.  That kind of righteous anger would have been, frankly, too much work for him. 

The reality is, I need to accept that I will never know what my dad's last words were. 
 
I will never know exactly what time he fell down the stairs.
 
I will never know what caused him to stumble. 

I need to let all of those questions go.
 
I need to open my hand and take those questions one by one and toss them down the staircase, and let them rest with my dad, somewhere out there. 
 
Somewhere where there are no traffic stops and no cavities.  Where it is Christmas every day.  A place where my dad and John go for daily walks on the streets of Jerusalem, where they will engage in a lively debate about what the words to the song really are.
 
Maybe he'll meet Pat Tillman there.  Pat will be swaggering his handsome self down the street and when he sees my dad and John, he'll straighten up his already tall frame and he will howl at my dad, "I'm Pat F*#cking Tillman!" 
 
And my dad will give him a joyful high five and shout back, "Hoo wee!"  
 
 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Cinderella at my Dad's Graveside



2015 was going so well.  So many wonderful, monumental things happened.

And then the phone rang at 5:30pm on December 17. 



 And my dad was gone.  Just like that.  

I always thought there would be decisions to be made.  About skilled nursing or nursing homes.  
Or medication or treatments.  
Or plugs 
or switches.

But there was no decision to be made.  

I want to say thank you to all of you who sent cards, brought food, sent flowers, called, 
prayed for us, came to the funeral, kept us in your thoughts, messaged us, 
shared memories of my dad.  

I keep a pile of your cards next to my bed.  And before I go to sleep I hold them in my hands and think about how blessed I am.  

Blessed to count you all as my friends.

Blessed to have my sisters and my mother around me as we grieve my dad.

Blessed to have been Joe Parsons' daughter.  

Blessed that I didn't have to make choices on my dad's behalf.  
Because those choices?  
There's never a great one.  
You're just trying to find the least bad among a series of 
truly
awful
options.

Normally at a funeral the family accompanies the casket to the grave and the pastor says a few words and friends come by to give their condolences.  And then the funeral director gives a gentle nod and everyone gets in their cars and leaves, and the cemetery workers then lower the casket into the ground and cover it with dirt.  
The family isn't expected to be there for that part.  
It's painful.

But what I love about my sisters and my mom is that we all wanted to stay and watch as my dad's casket was lowered into his grave and buried.  

So after all the guests had left, we stayed by Dad's grave and waited for the cemetery workers to come and do their part.  

While we waited, my niece Bliss was playing with a sheet of Disney princess stickers.  
I asked Bliss if she would want to put some stickers on Popo's casket and she said yes.  
So we peeled stickers off the sheet and stuck them on the side of the casket.  
Bliss put a sticker of Belle and Cinderella on the casket.  
And several balloon stickers.  
I chose an Ariel sticker, and I spelled out his name "Popo" in silver and white sparkly letters.  
I put those at the end of his coffin where his head was.  

And I guess when I think about it, that was a choice.  
I chose Ariel for my dad.  
And I chose silver and white sparkly letters that spelled out his name.   

I chose what my dad would have chosen.  
Given the choice to have fun or not, my dad would always have fun.
My dad would have loved the idea of us putting stickers on his casket.
He would love that we found an opportunity, amidst all the sadness, to be playful.

But then, 
just when I'm feeling good about stickers on my dad's casket, 
my grief takes over again.  
It reminds me that when you're choosing stickers to put on your dad's casket, it doesn't matter 
if you pick Ariel or Belle or a million balloons.
  
It's still your dad's casket. 




Monday, November 16, 2015

How to get a job in four miracles or less

My name is Melanie.  I'm a corporate trainer and I travel for work.  Mostly to Silicon Valley. 

When I walk in a training room, that room is mine.  I'm responsible for what happens there and my job is to make sure everyone feels safe and heard and respected.  I do a lot of things to make sure all of that happens.  Some of it is conscious and I'm sure there is also subconscious stuff going on too.

But if I talk about it too much here on my blog, I'm afraid the magic that happens in my training room will disappear.  Like those tiny luminescent bubbles that foam up in the sink when you’re doing dishes, and then you touch them with your tip of your rubber glove and they disappear. 

Not only are they gone, it’s like they were never there in the first place.

So I won't tell you much about my job.  Except that I love it very much.  I love everything about my job.

Except the travel.

Well, actually I even love the travel.  What I hate is being away from my kids in Nashville.

And sadly, all of my professional connections are in Silicon Valley and Beijing, where I used to live.

When I tried to start a career as a free-lance trainer in Nashville, the only work I could get was in those cities where I had a professional reputation.  So I flew to San Francisco for work.  I flew to Asia for work.  I was grateful to have work and I accepted the fact that I had to travel for it.

My kids accepted it too.  I explained to them that my job was to go into those conference rooms and do the best job I possibly could.  Their job was to behave for the babysitter and do their homework and chores while I was away.  And I promised that I would always get back to them as quickly as I could, even if that meant getting on a red-eye flight just to get back to them a few hours sooner.

And they were troopers.  They did behave for the babysitter and their did their homework and their chores.

And I took the redeye flights.  And developed a close relationship with my chiropractor.

But a funny thing happened as my career gained traction.  I started to get more and more work, and more and more income.  And I had to travel more and more and more often.

I guess I really should have seen this coming.  Success was going to mean more work and more travel.  I didn't really have a plan or strategy for what I would do when all of that became too overwhelming.

About two years into this, the kids and I hit a breaking point.  There was one cold winter night when I was in San Francisco and they were in Nashville and they had a really important crucial conversation with me. 

It ended with me making a promise.  "I promise I will find a job that won't require me to travel."

As soon as I said those words, a dark wave of fear washed over me.  I had just promised something but I had no clue how I was going to deliver on it.  The next day I went into overdrive and put about 100 trains into motion, hoping that one of them was going to lead me to a job that didn’t require travel.  

As it turns out, all I was going to need was a series of four very specific miracles.

Miracle #1: Make a professional connection in Nashville.

This miracle had actually already taken place.

When we moved to Nashville in the summer of 2011 I didn't know anyone other than my sister.  She introduced me to her friends who were all lovely, and they quickly came to know me as Melanie, Amanda's sister.  Or Melanie, Grant and Audrey's mother.  But no one could vouch for me as Melanie, competent professional. 

In an effort to find a semi-professional connection, I decided to visit a few Toastmasters groups in Nashville.  One was at a company I’ll call Acme, which is a major healthcare provider and one of Nashville's largest and best employers.  At that Toastmaster's meeting I met a guy named Dave and we clicked right away.  He was friendly and kind and went out of his way to make me feel welcome at the meeting. 

Afterwards I sent him an invitation on LinkedIn and he accepted.

One miracle down, three to go.

Miracle #2: Develop training connections in Nashville.

This one was hard.  Sometimes I feel like the training world is sort of like those discos back in the '70s where people would line up along a red velvet rope outside, waiting to get in.  But the bouncer would only let people in as others were leaving, and if it was a hot club (sparkly disco balls, beautiful people in platform shoes) people weren't leaving very often.  And even when they did the bouncer picked who got to go in and it wasn't always obvious how he was choosing.

Granted, I say all of this without ever having stood in a line outside a disco, in the '70s or in any other decade. 

So anyway, connecting with trainers in Nashville felt daunting.  I didn't want to be the desperate starlet trying to attract the bouncer's attention by flipping my platinum wig in his face.  I didn't want to be the fading star who cursed and flicked her cigarette in the bouncer's face when he didn't let her in. 

I just wanted someone to give me a chance. 

Again I turned to LinkedIn and I entered the search terms "corporate trainers" and "Nashville". 

I got zero returns within my network. 

But I did have one second-degree connection.  Her name was Susan and we had a mutual connection - Dave. 

So I sent Dave a message, explaining that I was trying to develop my training network in Nashville and asking him if he would introduce me to Susan.

The next day he did exactly that. 

Two miracles down, two to go.

Miracle #3: Meet a corporate trainer in Nashville and make a good impression.

I quickly sent a message to Susan, and asked if she would be willing to have a networking meeting with me over coffee or lunch, my treat. 

And miraculously, she accepted.  We got together the next week and had a wonderful conversation, first about training in Nashville and in Silicon Valley, but then about her daughter and their upcoming trip to Europe, and how Susan intended to survive the Transatlantic flight. 

As we were wrapping up she said, "You really should meet Janice.  She hires trainers and certifies them on Crucial Conversations."  That's the class I was already certified on.  The one I was delivering 3-4 times a month on the West Coast. 

Susan was going to see Janice the next day and she promised to mention me and give her my resume.

Three miracles down, one to go.

Miracle #4: Get someone in Nashville to hire me as a corporate trainer. 

I sent Janice a LinkedIn invitation and explained that I had heard about her from Susan, and asked if we could do a networking meeting over coffee or lunch, my treat. 

I was hoping to come across as eager, and not like a stalker. 

She accepted my invite and asked if we could get together for coffee.  We had a great talk the following week at Panera and from that point things moved very quickly.

Janice sent me the req number for a training job she had just posted. 

I applied.

A recruiter emailed me to schedule an interview. 

When I walked into the conference room for the interview I immediately felt comfortable when I realized that my four interviewers and I were all wearing the same colors.  Maybe I’m being generous when I call black and white colors.  But somehow it gave me a sense of belonging in the room and in this team. 

Their questions were hard-hitting and serious, and yet we laughed so much throughout the process.  They were tough on me but also good-humored.  I have never enjoyed an interview as much as I enjoyed that one. 

I enjoyed an interview.  Did I really just write that?  It’s true.  I did enjoy it. 

When we were done I thanked them for their time and left Acme, hungry and happy.  I had been so busy preparing for the interview I hadn't had time for lunch and I was starving.  And I was deeply satisfied with the way the interview had gone.  Regardless of whether I got the job or not, I was happy to know Janice and her team.

As I was driving my phone rang.  It was the recruiter, Peter.  I told him right away how much I had enjoyed the interview and he said, "Well, it seems that was mutual.  Melanie.  We want you.  I've got an offer for you right now." 

The offer was beyond my expectations.  My hiring manager was sharp and awesome.  My colleagues were smart and funny.  The company was stable and ethical.  Its mission aligned with my values.  Everything felt right so I signed on the dotted line. 

Four miracles. 

Each one of them necessary for me to deliver on the promise I made to my kids back in January. 

Each one of them divinely provided. 

Each one of them deeply appreciated. 

My name is Melanie.  I'm a corporate trainer and I am blessed to have a job for a wonderful company right here in the town where I live.  Nashville, Tennessee.




Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sometimes peas and carrots are enough

Let me apologize in advance for what might be the worst blog post I have ever written.

I'm sort of in a bind here, though. 

My sister Christi was president of the White House Correspondents’ Association last year and when it was time for her to preside over the annual WHCA dinner in April, she invited all of us in her family to be there.

Among the A-list of invitees, we were the extras.  Our goal for the evening was to blend in.  Did you know that when extras are in the background of a coffee shop or a restaurant or a crowd scene, they look like they're talking but they're actually not saying anything?  They're usually mouthing the words "peas and carrots" over and over again.  It looks like real conversation, but doesn't draw attention away from the main focus of the scene.   

It was an incredible night and ever since then I’ve been trying to find words to describe it for you.  And every time I try to sit down and write about it I don’t even know where to begin. 

But now I’m on a plane and I’m heading back to D.C. for another formal dinner with my sister.  So before I attend this second gala, I am forcing myself to write about the first one.

We should start at the beginning - the night before the WHCA dinner itself.  That's when the excitement really started. 

That's when Christi told me that she had seated me next to Peter Greste.  Peter is an Al Jazeera journalist who, along with his two colleagues, had been imprisoned in Cairo for 400 days on false charges.  He had just been released in February, and now it was April. 

My heart was in my throat when I asked, “What should I talk to him about?”  Christi, in her ever-wise way, said, “Don’t worry.  I’ve met him.  He’s wonderful.  I’m sure you’ll have lots to talk about.” 

I wasn’t at all sure of that.  I had never talked to a political prisoner and I didn’t even know where to begin. 

The place I would want to start would be “Tell me about prison,” which would obviously be wrong for so many reasons.

The place I would probably start would be “How’s the steak?” - also wrong for so many reasons.

Anyway, let's flash forward to the next night, the night of the dinner.


At the pre-dinner reception we were elbow-to-elbow with influential celebrities and high-powered DC political figures.

Donald Trump was there too.

I was talking to my youngest sister Amanda when Eric Stonestreet brushed past me.  I was so starstruck that I suddenly lost all ability to talk.  I asked Amanda if it was okay if I just said “peas and carrots” for a few minutes while I tried to find my pre-frontal cortex.  Amanda, in her ever-laid-back way, laughed and began to talk about vegetables and fruits as well, and from a distance we probably looked like two normal people having a normal conversation.

Then this happened:



 
Michelle Obama said she thought my sisters and I were celebrities when she first saw us because we looked familiar, then she realized we all looked like different versions of Christi. 

Then the dinner started.


And the program listed who was sitting at the head table and it said the President was seated at Ms. Parsons’ right.  NOT that my sister was seated at the President’s left.  It said HE was sitting to HER right. 

And this happened:




And this happened:





Then Christi gave a speech.


And when I saw her up there giving a televised speech to an audience of 3,000, as the person her peers had elected to represent them and champion their cause, I started to cry.

All I could see was Christi and me in thin hand-me-down summer dresses in the sandbox behind our old farmhouse in Alabama in 1972, playing with sticks in the sand and pretending like they were a family of dinosaurs. 

I couldn’t even imagine how we got from that sandbox to this banquet hall.  When did our dresses go from scabby-knee length to ball gown length?  When did we put on shoes, and how did they become these sparkly, strappy high heels?  When did those oak trees that shaded us from the Alabama summer sun merge and fuse into this gilded banquet ceiling at the Washington Hilton?  I know it was a process that spanned the last forty years, and yet…

And yet, here we were. 

Then Peter took his seat next to me at the dinner table.  We shook hands and smiled.

And I froze.

I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know how to start a conversation.  Just when I was about to talk about peas and carrots, he said, “So what do you do, Melanie?”

I told him about Crucial Conversations and how I teach people how to have conversations even when they’re scared or angry or hurt.  The more I talked, the less nervous I felt.  Peter listened and nodded and smiled.  And then he broke the ice. 

“You know one thing I discovered in prison is that information wants to flow.”  He said that even when he was in solitary confinement, information was flowing. 

“Okay, thank you for mentioning prison,” I said, “because I wasn’t sure if it was okay to talk about that.”

“Oh, we can talk about anything,” he said.  “There’s nothing you can say or ask that will offend me.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Really,” he assured me. 

“Tell me about prison,” I said.

And he told me all sorts of things, but I think the thing that sticks with me most is his story about solitary confinement.  Peter had learned to meditate a few years before, and he said that when that door closed behind him in his single cell, he knew he had the tools he needed to get through this. 

“You mean meditation?” I asked.

Yes.  He had meditated his way through solitary confinement. 

And it makes me wonder - if I were locked in a room with nothing, what would be my sources of strength?  What would I be taking with me into that cell, even though I was taking nothing? 

One thing I know for sure.  I would be writing blog posts in my head.  I would be trying to find words to describe the indescribable.

#journalismisnotacrime

Isn’t it all sort of incredible?  That the President of the United States could be seated at my sister’s right?  That Peter could be such a warm and open person?  That my family and I could spend such a memorable evening together? 

I can’t figure out how to wrap this post up but we’re landing in a few minutes.  So I’ll leave you with this photo, which is just a selfie that Peter and I took that night, but I feel like it says a lot.

It says how far you can come, and how far you still have to go.  

It says that you can talk even when you’re angry, hurt or scared.  

It says that you can take a lot with you when you enter a period of solitary suffering,
and that you can bring
even more with you
when you come back out.  

And it says that when you don't have anything else, 
sometimes peas and carrots 
are 

enough. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Power




I ran across these two door knobs last week.  The one on my left caught my eye and my first thought was that the two knobs were different colors.  But then I realized they were the same color and same material, but one was used regularly and was touched every day by thousands of hands.  The other was locked into position, and if anyone ever did try to use it they quickly discovered that it was useless so they stopped touching it. 

I stopped for a second in front of those doorknobs to think.  Which wasn't long, because it was a Tuesday morning in Corporate America, and I was standing in the doorway to the cafeteria.

But in those few fleeting seconds I did manage to come up with this. 

There is a combined effect of millions and millions of small, seemingly meaningless actions.  No single action makes much of difference, but their combined effect is powerful.

And I thought about the people or objects in my life who I gave one chance and then decided they were useless, so I stopped touching them.

Before I walked back to my conference room I touched that shiny left doorknob and appreciated its brilliance.

And then I ran my fingers gently across the dull and stubborn right doorknob. 

Twice. 



Sunday, July 5, 2015

In those pink rays of sunrise light, you find yourself again


“I like hugging you because your meat is so squishy!” Grant says. 

“He has meat too but his is more hard,” he says, jabbing a finger into his father’s ribs. 

It’s 4:00am and we’re in the lobby of my hotel in Honolulu.  I flew in from San Francisco a few hours before and was sleeping soundly in my room until the phone calls and text messages started coming in.  After an eight-hour delay at the Beijing airport and a ten-hour flight across the Pacific, Buddy and the kids had arrived and they were coming to my hotel to say hello. 

The kids are spending their summer break with Buddy in Beijing and we are meeting in the middle of time and space for our friend Judy’s destination wedding in Honolulu. 

I take stock of this moment.  Buddy and I have been divorced for almost three years now.  We are all settling into a new normal, and we’re defining what normal is for us.  For a lot of divorced couples, that means that the friends you shared as a married couple now have to choose sides, and the kids spend their time with either their mom or their dad but never both together.

For us, normal means the four of us stand in a lobby of a hotel in Honolulu hugging at 4:00 in the morning.





And on Sunday night we will dance together at Judy’s wedding, just as we did at her sister Lisa’s wedding back in 2001.  Back when we were married and Audrey was a baby and Grant was merely a dream.

Judy's wedding, 2015

I can tell that Grant has been in China for a while because he’s referring to my body mass as “meat”, which is a direct translation from Chinese.  I hug him again and am relieved to see that his head still fits under my chin.  Of all the milestones my children have gone through - potty training, learning to ride a bike, first day of school - the one where they grow so tall that their head no longer fits under my chin has been the hardest for me.  I don’t know why.

Perhaps I worry about the day when they are no longer forced to look up to me.  And when they are tall enough to look at me eye-to-eye, I wonder if they will see enough good in me that they will continue to look up to me, even though they don’t have to. 

Buddy and Grant have a 6am appointment for a deep sea fishing excursion so they head off into the grey pre-dawn.  “Okay, we’re going to hunt down some food!” Buddy shouts as they leave.

I like the idea of being the nurturer who stays back to take care of the homestead (/hotel room) while the boys are out foraging for food, because that means I get to go back to bed.

But Audrey asks if she and I can go to the beach and sit on the sand and talk before all the people come out.  I hesitate and she adds, “Come on, you can get a coffee and drink it there.”  That's an offer I can't refuse, and so we venture out into the grey pre-dawn and hunt down an open convenience store. 



Sometimes the night is long and dark and even scary.  But then there is the dawn.  And in those pink rays of sunrise light, you find yourself again.

And on this summer morning in Hawaii, this is where we find ourselves.

Grant and Buddy are on a boat with the wind and salt in their hair.  And Audrey and I are sitting quietly on a beach, sipping iced Starbucks coffee and watching the sun rise. 

Here we are, three years into our new normal, and the sun is coming up.

And I wonder if maybe our new normal will be enough for our kids. 

Will my ex-husband and I be able to raise them well, even though we’re in different hemispheres? 

Is it possible that family really is forever, if we can allow our definition of family to change? 

Do you think maybe, just maybe, I, with my squishy meat, and he with his more firm meat, will be able to give them what they need…? 

This morning, as the sun edges over the horizon on Waikiki Beach, all of that feels possible.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Pine Cone Syndrome

I get Pine Cone Syndrome on Saturday mornings.

Which is to say, I'm difficult on Saturday mornings.

I don't even like me on Saturday mornings.

To understand Pine Cone Syndrome, and me, we need to go back about forty years, to a red brick ranch house in a neighborhood called Skyland Park.  And it's summertime in Alabama, so think about being in a really steamy sauna. 

Now imagine the sauna stretches for hundreds of miles and you can't get out.  You could try to run away but the steamy air would soon grab you by the lungs and knock you to the ground so it's better to conserve your energy and stay where you are. 

It was in that red brick ranch house that my mother conscripted her four daughters into a housekeeping army every Saturday morning at 7:00.  Since our cleaning duties started so early, we girls arose before dawn so that we could watch at least a few minutes of cartoons before our shift began.  The first sister to wake would go into the den and turn on the TV, keeping the volume as low as possible so as not to wake our mother any sooner than necessary.  Controlling the volume wasn't easy since the volume button had fallen off and we had to adjust the volume stub with a metal pincer from the kitchen, which was originally meant to pull the tops off of strawberries.  Once you got the volume right, you wanted to leave it alone. 

The faint sound of the cartoons was enough to rouse the rest of us and one by one we would stumble in to the den and take our place in front of the Magnavox.  I was usually the last sister to join the cartoon audience and since there were only three spots on the sofa I laid down on the honey oak parquet floor in front of the TV and propped my feet on the fireplace, giving my sister Amanda instructions to warn me if a cockroach crawled out of the fireplace and came my direction. 

It was the early 70s, before the advent of the Cartoon Network and 24/7 access to animation.  Back in our day those moving colors were only on the screen on Saturday mornings.  For a few unsupervised hours General Mills and Kellogg's mesmerized kids with images of artificially-flavored cereals while their parents slept in.

Sadly, the best cartoons were aired after 7:00.  The pre-dawn cartoons were deeply unsatisfying.  The colors were as faded as a hand-me-down bathing suit, the animation was jerky and the plot lines were stupid.  The smurfs made their network debut in the U.S. in 1981 but I never actually saw the show because it was in the prime time slot at 8:00.  When my friends at school made references to Gargamel and Papa Smurf I laughed as if I understood, and hoped they would never discover how naive I actually was.

At 7:00 we had to turn off the TV and move to the kitchen for breakfast.  At the breakfast table my mother would write a list of chores for each of us for the day.  And you might think, "Great, I'll get my chores done and then I'm free!"  Right?  No.  When you finished your list of chores you had to report to the front yard for pine cone duty.   

Our ranch house in Skyland Park had scores of  tall pine trees in the front yard.  Pinus Palustris, the Alabama State Tree.  Each of these conifers dropped dozens of pine cones into the yard every day.  This continued throughout the week and by Saturday, there was a thick scratchy brown blanket of pine cones covering the yard.  The Parsons girls criss-crossed the front yard again and again, sweating in the hot Alabama sun, picking up the pine cones and putting them in Winn-Dixie bags.

Something was born in me on those Saturday mornings in Skyland Park.  It is the compelling sense of responsibility that pushes me hard from the inside.  You might call it a sense of duty, or a work ethic.  It's the reason I showed up to lead that training class in San Francisco even though I was throwing up in the shower that morning.  It's the reason I cross-checked my spreadsheet one more time while my husband waited for me at a candlelit restaurant across town.  It's the reason I worked my shift at the Great American Cookie Co. in the mall on Christmas Eve until 6:00pm, although it was just a part-time minimum wage job. 

Looking back, I realize those might not have been great choices.  At the time they seemed like the only options. 

But something else was born on those Saturdays as I smashed one pine cone after another into those kraft brown bags.  It was an eternal sense of longing.  My sisters and I knew that we could break our backs picking up the pine cones and yet the next Saturday, that awful barky layer would be back.  And we would have to go out there and pick the cones up again, and put them in brown grocery bags, and clear space so that new ones could fall. 

But the worst part is - we expended so much energy picking up the cones and when it was all done, something still

wasn't

quite

right.

The moment of satisfaction when we looked at our work and felt pleased - that moment never came.

Contentment was something that hung far beyond our reach, on the highest branches of those tall Alabama pines.  And it never dropped down. 

Even as I write this I feel tense.  I wonder if you do too?  Is your jaw tight?  Is your breathing a little bit more shallow?

Do you feel like crushing something sharp in the palm of your hand? 

That, my friends, is a tiny bit of Pine Cone Syndrome, that you have caught from reading this post.

And here is something that, logically, I think should help alleviate the symptoms of Pinecone Syndrome.  Meditate on this thought for a moment.


Your Creator made you special, and loves you just the way you are.  


It's a beautiful sentiment, I know.  Let me know if it works for you.

It never has for me.


Friday, February 20, 2015

So many different colors of green



“I love how the leaves are so many different colors of green.  Look, there’s dark green and really light green and so many different colors of green.”

We’re sitting on the deck at sunset and Grant is admiring the foliage.  It really is beautiful.  

“They’re all the same color.  It’s just the sun that makes them look different,” Audrey argues.  

“No it’s not.  There are all different colors, even without the sun,” Grant snaps back.  

“It’s just the sun, Grant,” she retorts.

My children are 11 and 14.  They are oil and water.  They are candle and flame.  They are the stream 

and willow tree 

growing on its banks.  


They continue their quarrel over the role the sunlight might or might not be playing in the appearance of the leaves on our backyard trees, and as they do the sun sets behind said trees, rendering their argument 

quite irrelevant.  



Their debate has outlived the question, 

and indeed 

my interest in listening to it.  



In my mind I am fading away to a day when I am no longer of this earth and my yin and yang progeny are young adults on their own.  

Audrey is in the library and has been there for more hours than she can count.  Grant goes in and finds her, tucked away among the stacks.  He tells her that she needs a break.  He takes her by the hand and leads her out to the lawn.  There they lie under a tree and look up at the clouds.  

He tells her that she needs to take breaks more often.  

She nods and says that he’s right.

And he is.  

And she promises that she will.

And she will.  



“What do you see?”

“I see a sheep and a car.”

“Where’s the sheep?  Oh, yeah, there.  I see it.  Do you see that big heart?”  

“Oh yeah!”   



Audrey asks Grant if he paid his rent that month.

He shrugs and says he’s not sure.

And he isn’t.  

And he didn’t.

But he will.  



She reaches for his hand and says that she still misses me a lot and he says he does too.  

"I wish she could be with us now," he whispers.

And he blinks back tears.  

She checks her phone.

And I laugh.  My fire and ice babies are finally in agreement and yet in this particular instance they could not be more wrong.  

Because I am there.

Of course I am there.

They just don’t recognize me because in this moment I have chosen the form of a sheep 

and a car

and a heart.  

And a ray of sunshine shining through the leaves.


And dark green and really light green and so many different colors of green.  




Friday, December 5, 2014

We never exchanged names because that would have been weird

But I imagine their names were Chuck and Debbie.  

Lately I've noticed something.  When you're in a big city and you need help with directions, there are plenty of people around you but no one to ask.  Because they are all plugged in to their phones.  And no one - I do mean no one - is going to take those ear buds out of their ears to help you get oriented.  That NPR podcast will trump you every time.    

But if you're lucky you can find a smoker.

The smokers' ranks are also thinning, but they are some of the only people in our society who seem to be willing to stand still for a few minutes and take in their surroundings.  They stand there quietly in their filmy white cloud and ponder.  I'm not sure what they're thinking about but they seem calm and connected and sometimes I wonder if more of us shouldn't take up smoking.  

Just without the tobacco part.   

Last night I was lucky enough to find not one smoker but two in downtown San Francisco, where I needed help getting back to my hotel.

"Excuse me, can you help me get oriented here?" I asked.  I had Google maps loaded on my iPhone and held it up so Chuck and Debbie could see it, because nowadays when a stranger approaches you on the street most people tend to assume you're unstable and they ignore you, and I couldn't afford to be ignored by the only two people in the vicinity who were standing still and not listening to a device.  

And I think Google maps on an iPhone is a clear indicator to the other person that you are not crazy.  

Debbie started laughing.  "Oh no, we're not gonna be able to help you.  We're visitors here ourselves. We just got here last week.  We've been helping our son get settled in.  He's starting a new job in this building right here tomorrow.  We're from Indiana.  We've been staying in Dayton City..."

"Daly City," said Chuck.  Those two words were to be his only contribution to our conversation, but it occurred to me that without Chuck none of us would have been there that evening.  If he hadn't proposed to Debbie on the lake that day in the summer of 1992, they wouldn't have had their son together and the three of them wouldn't have been standing there when I walked out of that building in downtown San Francisco on the evening of December 3, 2014.  

We never talked about how Chuck and Debbie met and got engaged because that would have been weird.

But I imagine that it happened on a boat in the summer of 1992.

"...Daly City," Debbie continued, "But we're going home tomorrow.  We've got stuff we need to do at home, and we've done about all we can to get him settled."  

Their son walked over to us and nodded.  Somehow his frame seemed very very small compared to the giant steel and glass building he was standing in front of.  The rest of his life was about to begin in that building tomorrow.  

And he looked very small.

We talked a little bit about him and his new job and where his new apartment was.  And I asked him if he knew how lucky he was that his parents were there to help him get settled in and he smiled and nodded.  

"Well I'm sorry we weren't able to help you," Debbie said as I walked away.  "Hopefully you can find someone who lives here."  And as I rolled my laptop bag past the dark bars and candlelit restaurants and fluorescent convenience stores on Mission Street, I realized Debbie and Chuck had given me exactly what I had asked for.  Because when I approached them, I had asked, "Can you help me get oriented here?"

And they did.  

They showed me that to my left was the fact that big changes are as scary as they are important.  

And to my right was the knowledge that you don't have to do everything alone.  

And in front of me was the realization that not everyone cares more about their NPR podcast than the people around them.

And I hope that behind me was the possibility that that building is not quite as big as it once seemed, or perhaps that you are not as small as you once thought.  

Someone else pointed me to my hotel that evening, but Chuck and Debbie helped me get oriented.