in flux

Category: Personal Essays

On to the next adventure

The last time I remember having a $50 bill, I got it from my Uncle John. He came to visit me at work when I was 15, showing up unannounced on a Saturday afternoon after years of no contact. I was beside myself with excitement; we always had a special bond and I was crazy about my dad’s oldest brother.

That money meant so much to me. For weeks I agonized over what to buy, not wanting to waste such a precious gift. It wasn’t just money – this money had meaning. I eventually spent it on jeans, and I wore them until they started to shred.

Two years later he killed himself, and when I think of him now I think of that afternoon, our last one forever, feeling like the most important girl in the world.

I have a $50 bill in my wallet now, from selling my almost-new tablet to a very polite gentleman on Craigslist. This Saturday, my husband is organizing a yard sale and packing our things. With any luck, we’ll have a couple more $50 bills by the end of that so he’ll have cash on hand for the 16 hour drive back to Texas, where we will start our lives over, all over again. Everything must go.

Welcome to life! You will be betrayed; marriages end, families divide and secrets come out; loved ones die, by choice or by chance. People grow old and fat, and tired of trying. Life is wonderful and full of joy, but it isn’t easy and there are no real breaks for you to stop and catch your breath. As my sister once told me, “Life happens, and you have to keep up. If you’re not keeping up, you’re falling behind.”

Not everyone is up for the chase, and some of us just aren’t built for fighting. I am.

Going on living

This morning, I sat with my client and talked about grief.

She was holding an iPad, which had been her late husband’s. She’d made an hour’s drive to learn how to use it, suddenly seized by a desire to know how it worked. That had been his thing, before he had died – knowing about computers and technology, so she’d never bothered. When the clerk at the store could not help her, as she had not properly signed up for a class, she was overcome with sadness. She turned away and stared out the window until she could control herself. “I had a big cry,” she told me, “Nobody knew it but me.”

He’s been gone just over a year. “I don’t know if you’ve ever known grief,” she said, “but it’s very unexpected. Everything’s fine, everything’s fine, and then…”

And then you smell something, or taste something, or hear a song on the radio, and then it’s all over.

From my perch on the corner of her desk, I watched her work through her story. When she was finished, and looking back at me, I told her that I understood. I lost my uncle, very suddenly. He was a Marine, long ago.

I will never forget that strange phone call, right in the middle of our morning rush at work. From the very first word my father spoke, his voice heavy and soft in a way I’d never heard before, I knew something was wrong. I did not tell her, My uncle robbed a bank; my Uncle shot himself; he died alone. I did not share how I’d spent the rest of the day reading the story, shaking and crying, over and over, hoping to learn something new.

All I said was, I lost my uncle very suddenly. “Oh! You must have been very close?”  I did not see him very much, but we were close, in a way. He was my favorite.  There was something, I can’t explain what, that made me very fond of him. It took me a year and a half before I could speak his name, and talk about him as something in my past. And then I told her about my buddy, serving in Afghanistan. He died there, fighting in our war, and three years later, the thought of him still makes me cry. I hadn’t seen him for several years before he was killed. But I remembered who he was to me, and the pain was there, hard and fresh.

It doesn’t matter how physically close you are, because they’ve always been there, living inside you. They exist in your memories, and then your memory of them is all that’s left. It hurts; it never stops hurting. But the sharp pain become a steady ache, and the steady ache gives way to a dull throbbing, when you run across their photo, or smell or taste something you shared. Then, suddenly, there they are again.

“And sometimes, you have a cry in the Apple store,” I told her, shrugging. “And that’s okay.” She smiled at me, and I smiled back. What can you do, but go on living?

People are shitty sometimes

I was scrabbling for a way out of my own head, and Fate handed me a $.99 ebook and a pat on the ass.

The pat on the ass may have been wishful thinking.

Things have not been great at home. Come to think of it, things haven’t been all that great outside of home, either. What’s important is, it’s getting better wherever you look. Attitude, I’ve discovered all over again, has a larger impact on life than everyone else in it combined. Easy to see that now, as I relax on the couch with the day off work and a drink in my hand. It’s all so simple, after the fact.

This book reminded me of my family, in the most unexpected ways. The collective sense of humor, the teasing, the pain and guilt over being yourself. I saw everyone I knew in this great little novel, alive and existing in yet another world that I cannot control. Cheating, swearing, hurting and laughing together, in a big nasty mess. A big nasty mess – that’s how it feels sometimes. You can get so worked up in the sticky details of living with someone, being someone’s child, sister and colleague that everything else goes grey as you deal with whatever Major Crisis is occurring today. Oh, please.

Anyway, Jessica Anya Blau: Please write more novels, because you are fantastic. Drinking Closer To Home was exactly what I needed to help wake me up from the telanovela (needs more Bumblebee Man) that has been my life lately.

Kiai like Lee

Fist of Fury is on TV! My Saturday is made.

My father loves two kinds of movies most: old war moves, and movies with kung fu. I remember hanging out on the couch with him as a kid, watching the old black and white beat ’em up flicks he couldn’t get enough of. As a result, we grew up soaking in a soundtrack of martial arts legends whacking it out onscreen, and I developed a massive girlhood crush on Bruce Lee that has not faded with time.

I didn’t much care for the movies themselves, but I was fascinated by Dad, who seemed to know everything about martial arts. I was particularly curious about the noises they’d make during a fight scene, so I finally asked him about it. I figured it was all for show, but he told me it had a purpose: to release air from the lungs, thus protecting them against a direct hit. Turns out, it also focuses the fighter’s ki, or life force, tightens and protects the torso, sounds cool as shit and intimidates foes.

The word for it is kiai. You may know it better as “HIII-YAAAAAH!

There is no kiai without ki. Ki is one of the most important elements of martial arts, and something not easily put into words. I won’t pretend to know much beyond that, as I do not practice martial arts and would rather not come off like a jackass. But, I know ki when I see it.

When I was learning how to drive, my Dad took me on the military base where he worked and let me loose in the outskirting streets. As I circled, white knuckled and terrified, he practiced Tai Chi on a median. I knew he knew kung fu, but I’d rarely witnessed him in action outside grainy old photos, the occasional sparring match with one of my brothers or his hapless, headless practice dummy.

Here was a man in the middle of a stressful situation: teenaged daughter? Check. In a car? Yep. Alone? Sure was, and to top it off, it was all his idea. Watching him in the grass, eyes closed in concentration, you’d never guess the kid narrowly missing fire hydrants and streetlights was his daughter, driving by herself for the very first time. Calm, focused and in the zone: that’s good ki.

Dad’s been doing karate for most of his life, so the Discipline of the Masters is strong with that one.

Perhaps if I weren’t so distracted by the bad voice dubbing, atrocious sound quality and disappearing storyline, I could think of a good final point to wrap this whole post up in a deep and meaningful way. Yeah, looks like I’m still not that into these kinds of movies, but Lee just did his cute little power wiggle (see 1:40 on this video) and smirked, so… what were we talking about again?


Jawas included

I work a lot, so I don’t have a hobby so much as an endless scavenger hunt-style list of goals to tackle in my spare time. For example, I’ve spent the last six months occasionally trying to find this graphic on Google:

“Vader poops” Google Image Search: far less porn than I’d expected.

Funny, right? I first came across it on Total Fark many years ago, although I can’t remember the conversation that lead to it. I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted it hanging in my bathroom. I saved it on my computer but never did get it printed out. Three computers later, it was nowhere to be found. We are now living in a house we plan on keeping for awhile, so I wanted to finally get it framed and hung. No luck, it was gone.

Fast forward half a year, and  I happen across some old DVDs. One was full of pictures, and just like that, there it was! Destiny! I showed my husband the picture and excitedly shared my plan to hang it on the bathroom wall.

He smiled at me, the sort of smile that screams, “I love you and wish to support your interests and ideas. But.” So, we’ll try it out for a few weeks and see how we feel after that.

Now that I’ve got the photo, all I need is the perfect frame. To the thrift store!

Fight for the right

This is going to be about another sort of independence, one I’ve been thinking about a lot the last few weeks. But first: let’s dance!

We’ve been slow at work this week, leaving plenty of time for me to sit, think and worry. Sick of stressing out about the future, I starting mulling over my past. Turns out, I’ve come a long way, baby.

I grew up poor, and as my siblings and I got older, our situation drastically improved. We were never well off or even lower-middle class, but we had food and a roof, and lots of little tricks to keep it all together.

A few months before graduating high school, my mother sat me down with an ultimatum: stay at home and get help with college, or move out and you’re on your own. Considering I was 17 years old and knew everything about everything (excuse me while I wipe up my tears of laughter) I decided to move in with my boyfriend and his sister in their trailer and be A Grown Up Person. Three months later, I left him and got my own apartment. It was a 525 sq. ft. studio – one big giant room with a teeny little kitchen, a joke of a bathroom and a walk-in closet. I was thrilled.

Keeping that apartment meant busting my ass at work. I was a payday loan office manager, making just over $7 an hour. Most weeks I clocked over 60 hours at that awful place, and still barely managed rent, nevermind food and other bills. I was 18 years old and scared to death of failing before I’d even left the gate.  I was on week two of eating only canned vegetables and soy sauce when my dad came down for a surprise visit. A few minutes after he arrived, having spent six hours in the car, he got right back in it and drove me to the grocery store. I was so concerned about how much it cost, he practically did the shopping for me. Rotisserie chicken never tasted so good.

I learned a lot that year. I learned how to talk to the credit card companies, so a few missed payments wouldn’t impact my credit. I learned how to make friends with the right people, so a late rent check would be “unnoticed” and car repairs were free. 99% of my furniture was used, given to me as a gift. Especially, I learned about sacrifice, doing without, and how to be humble.

One month near the end of my lease, I had no money.  It was summertime in Texas, my electricity bill was through the roof and I was broke. Literally, I was deciding between tampons or toilet paper, and there was zilch left over for rent. I had just been let go from my job and unemployment hardly covered my credit card payment, my parakeet needed seed and I felt I had nobody to turn to for help. My sympathetic landlord referred me to a Christian charity that ran a thrift store down the street and granted assistance on a case-by-case basis.

I met with a kindly older woman who shook my hand, quietly listened and then handed me a check for $600 dollars, no strings attached. I made it all the way to the sidewalk before I burst into tears. Yeah, I learned a lot about being a Grown Up Person, and my overly large britches shrunk accordingly. I had plenty of other hard times between 19 and 25, but that first year on my own seemed like the toughest by far.

These days, things are better. I never did make it to college, but I’m married to a man who is starting back to University in the fall. I live in a pretty nice place and together we make enough to get by with a little extra for a night out from time to time. I am very grateful.

Had I stayed home, I would have had it hard in other ways, but I would not have gained as much real world experience, and I believe my outlook on life would be completely different. I am proud to be (to quote my husband) ‘a strong independent woman of means’ but no matter how high I climb, I will always remember my father loading cans of soup into my pantry, and the understanding eyes looking back at me as I poured out my life story, overdue bills and overdrawn bank statements.

My independence is one of my proudest accomplishments, but I didn’t win it on my own. To the woman at the charity, the guy at Auto Zone, the manager of that little complex and, particularly, to my parents: Thank you for setting me free.

Yoga is good

We signed me up for the gym a few days ago, and I swore to myself I’d do the yoga group class on Sunday. I have been tentatively looking forward to it, sort of in the way you look forward to going to the dentist and fixing your toothache. I didn’t buy any new outfits or do anything special, but I was trying something new. I haven’t stepped outside my comfort zone  in a long time. I was so determined to do it right, I filled the water pitcher and the hot water pot before bed. I even started this post Saturday night, knowing I’d be unable to face the shame of deleting the draft if I chickened out. Preparedness is key.

My husband extols the virtues of working out in the mornings. His reasoning is, if you do it first thing, you won’t feel bad about spending the rest of the day in your underwear, playing video games. I see the wisdom in that, and underwear + video games was my afternoon plan until yoga was actually finished. I felt – and still feel – so good, ready and raring to go. I’d only been home an hour, and I’d already done the dishes, cleaned the bathroom and made myself lunch.

Then, I headed to the neighbors for a few glasses of champagne. Yesterday was definitely worth celebrating. Namaste, folks.

PS: I did the Eagle Pose for the first time and didn’t fall on my face:

From Yoga Cats calendar

It was very affirming.