Need To Know Basis
“Courage, dear heart.” C.S. Lewis
There is a saying that I’ve come to appreciate in the last couple of years: I don’t have to see the whole stair case to take the next step. This is pretty much the way I set my sails today. I stopped asking life the question, “Why?” a while ago. The answers, if there ever were any, were never satisfactory. There are no good reasons why I lose a job, a dear one dies, a child suffers, a country is in poverty, or a world is melting. I’ve come to realize that even if I did know the answers, I might not have the faculties to truly comprehend them. So I go back to my little staircase.
Often my toe has to feel for the next step. What if I trip? What if it hurts? What if it’s too big? What if I’m not enough? All questions that should be filed under the “Why” file, but I’m a sweet child, and I often forget. When I stopped asking, “Why?” I had to shift my perception to the idea that there was a purpose to my momentum forward. Asking, “What if?” only brings me up short. It’s inspiration that lifts my foot and leans me towards the next step. That’s another lesson recently learned: inspiration doesn’t show up until I put my hand on the knob, step out in my running shoes, sit down in front of the page… it hovers until there is action for it to flow through. Then it comes. So I I close my eyes and take the step.
Another saying, roughly: when I take the first step towards the universe, it rushes forward to meet me. Yes. This is my experience as well. It seems, again, that I’m given precisely, at that precious moment, what I need to move forward. And so, I know that my needs are met in increments, piecemeal, to the tiny step I take in understanding. It’s almost like a mystical treadmill. I take the step in faith that the moving belt will appear under my foot at the speed in which I need it to move in order to keep from falling. If I stop, for fear of falling or stumbling, the progress is halted. At least until I lean forward once more.
But what if I don’t have the strength to move forward? What if I’m weighed down by nasty expectations, profound depression, inconsolable grief, rancid resentment? What if lifting my hand takes every effort of heart and soul. There’s no shame in defeat. It’s the fallow ground of rebirth. The place I lie in wait for the soil within me to turn. And it does. It’s where the seeds of willingness…so tiny and fragile…begin to sow. And there is an ever so slight shift in the light and in my perception. I am able to ask for help. And the next step of the staircase become illuminated in time for me to step down.
I don’t know why or how. I only know that for me, it does. I’m on a need to know basis.
Today is the birthday of my dear, beloved Aunt Garnie. We have silver strings that hang loosely, but securely between our hearts. Her birthday is June 19th and my birthday misses her’s by 2 hours and 45 minutes on June 20th.
Her name is Mary Garland Tipps-Sumner, and mine is Kristi Garland Tipps-Deutsch. She’s a glorious Gemini, as am I. She’s a bright star, and I have mapped her all of my life. She is so much a part of who I am that it would be hard to separate those parts. She has poured so much of herself into me, and I carry her every day.
She taught me how to talk to animals and recognize that they are as true in nature as human beings. We talked to birds, cows, sheep, horses, dogs and, our favorite, cats. She helped me to see their personalities and boundless love.
In the saddest, most desolate part of my life, instead of coddling and bending to my will out of guilt, she gave me structural support. Created boundaries to live within. She built fences to keep me safe, from myself. She held me accountable for my behavior in the most loving, shame-less, forgiving way.
She introduced me to my life-long passion for Slurpees.
She’d walk behind me on the trails around our cabin, and never said, “No, don’t climb on that,” or “No, don’t go that way.” All she said was, “Be careful,” as I explored my own path.
But most importantly, she did for me the most important, most nurturing thing you can do for anyone, especially a child. She listened. She listened in long bouts of silence, leaning in, nodding, and giving her signature, “Ah hah”. She just listened. When there was a pause, she didn’t rush in to fill the silence, she’d just patiently look down the roadway as we drove, until I spoke again. If I had a question, she’d answer it, but only to create a platform for me to figure it out on my own. She didn’t treat me like an adult, but she sure as hell scaffolded my process of becoming one.
And now that I am an adult, I value everything she taught me, and I try to instill it all into Tessa. She is more a part of my daughter than anyone will ever know, simply through trickle down love.
I am the woman I am today, because of the woman she’s always been in my life. I love you, Garnie.
My Aunt Judy
Today is my Aunt Judy’s birthday. She’s an incredibly important part of my life, and I want to wish her the most wonderful birthday.
Her influence in my life is intricate and profound. She’s been like a Johnny Appleseed of sorts, dropping the seeds of beauty, love and compassion throughout my years. We have so much in common that I don’t always share with others. We’re both odd ducks, and it’s always been nice to have a kindred spirit in her. She has brought me countless blessings and gifts that it’s hard to see where my interests and ideas end and her’s start.
From as early as I can remember, she’s shared her love of bicycles, picnic lunches, show tunes (which she’d play in the house and the car), an appreciation for delicate treasures and art. She carried on her mother’s work in teaching me so much more about plants, flowers, birds, and sea shells. She introduced me to two of my most favorite places…Sanibel Island and North Redington Beach. We’ve spent hours talking about other cultures, color pallettes, design and decor, politics, recovery, healing and health.
She has been an example of how to stay married for a long time and not lose who she is in the process. She has been a grandmother to my daughter…never missed a beat. Picked up were my mother would’ve wanted to be…with love, humor, childlike mirth and understanding. She has been a mother to me.
But the thing about Judy that I want to celebrate today is her fierce independence and refusal to be held down. She and I have both survived difficult and painful childhoods. She has climbed the stairs faithfully towards being the woman she knew she was meant to be. And in her early adulthood, faced with more difficulty, she struck out on her own with her child in tow, and created a steady, reliable and loving home for them both.
In that process she faced a lot of discrimination as a woman and single mother. It was her experience that made her an activist for all genders, races and cultures to be respected equally. Because of women like her, the rest of us that follow have choices between working outside of the home and working within. Her worked paved the way for women to have vocational choices other than, teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Now women all over the world run successful businesses and lead countries. Because of women like her, women’s votes count and sway. Because of people like her, people of color and different cultures and genders can now dream about becoming president one day.
I say this because, as women, we don’t experience the kind of discrimintion that my Aunt Judy, and so many others experienced…to the extent that they’ve suffered. Women today forget that it hasn’t even been 100 years since we were unable to vote (1919). My great-grandmother was the first woman in my family who was able to vote as an adult…only four generations ago.
In honor of Judy, and her service to equal rights, I implore you to become involved in the upcoming presidential election. I don’t care who you vote for, but you better damn well vote. Things that go unused become devalued. We, as women, can’t afford for that to happen. Teach your daughters, that their freedom is still young. Encourage them to be fierce, independent, and just. That’s the priceless legacy my Aunt Judy leaves us all.
On the way to have coffee with a friend this morning, I was driving on a pretty busy street. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a doe walk quickly up the embankment, and stand at the edge of the road. This is not unusual in Colorado. Sometimes an entire herd of deer will come to a street and do one of three things: leap into the road, scaring the crap out of everyone, turn tail, and run in the other direction, or stand there and wait, as this lovely girl did.
I slowed to a stop with my hazards on, and the drivers around me did the same. Just as we all were beginning to feel a little impatient with our beautiful nuisance, four tiny, smooth fawns stepped out of the tall grass to stand nervously behind her, ears twitching and wet noses raised. They were the most perfect brown with white snow drops on their backs. They were so perfect that they looked almost unreal… like the way you remember a picture long after it’s taken.
In the far lane, someone came too fast, and we all, animals included, held our breath, for fear that one would spook in the wrong direction. Instead, mother’s unspoken decision was made. That was plenty for one day. They turned as one, to trot and stumble back down the embankment into the cool green neighborhood where cars are not so fast.
Soon enough engines began whirring, blinkers came on, and the world began moving again. For a moment, I almost slipped back into the mundane. But I too was shaken and thrilled by our small excursion together…trembling newness, unbroken innocence, mother’s love sense…all enough to make magic the whole day.
Oh Frances, My Frances
My grandmother’s birthday is today, May 14th. Frances Frater Tipps was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known. Quiet, graceful, delicate as a bird, her laugh was throaty and strong. Her smile warmed the room. She had a profound dignity about her. In spite of all of her life’s difficulties, she rarely complained. She spoke so softly that I’d have to ask her to speak up, but I was the one who should have listened better.
The most wonderful thing about her was that she’d make me feel like the most important person in the world when I spoke to her, nodding intently, saying mhh-hmm, her eyes sparkling. She wanted to know everything I had to say, and in a time that I felt invisible, I felt celebrated by her.
She introduced me to my lifetime love of reading; enthusiastically talked with me about literature and transcendentalism. We shared a love of poetry and sent poems back and forth to one another. When I spent my summers in New Mexico with her, I slept in her study, in a bed shoved up against her books shelves. I’d spend lazy mornings with the light cutting squarely into the dust of the room, running my fingers over the spines and reading the crisp names – Joyce, Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson – quietly in a whisper. I’d sit at her desk and write with her pens, pretending that I was that writer that she and I always talked about.
She selflessly handed over her cerulean love of blues and greens. She gave me away to Georgia, and married me to texture. She saw the austere beauty of wheat colored plains against storm ridden skies. She loved the church’s cross branded against the sun. I never would have tasted art deeply if it weren’t for her. Nor would I have loved the gray of photography and its inside out skeleton of light.
And as if these worlds weren’t enough for me to swim in, she let me come with her and sit while she taught her college English comp classes. There the world cracked open. I would watch her stir the minds of young people and enjoy their gratification at the success that came when she invited them to pour themselves out onto the page. Always beaming, always respectful, always making each and every one of them feel special and alone in her eye. She was a teacher, and now, so am I. I strive to have my students feel that way with me…my genuine curiosity and appreciation for them as individuals.
I remember the lilting sound of my grandmother’s voice. I see clearly her smile. Tessa and I talk in the car about Shakespeare on the way to school, and I think she must be smiling. I hear Copeland and my heart stirs, and I see those storm filled plains. She is as soft beside me as the cottonwood down in the early fall. With her so close, it’s hard to miss her at all.
I saw my heart on the road to Logan,
Spinning in a lopsided circle in whichever direction the wind blew,
Signaling out across the landscapes of my soul…the plains, the deserts, the blue-green mountains…in a life more sky than earth.
I saw my heart careening, my insides skipping behind, towards fences mending,
With ravens, mouths open, on wires barbed…
And white butterflies tumbling back into the mirage,
Past dark men on horses, tails swishing away.
I saw my heart as the sun tipped the Caprock, on the road to Logan…the long road home.
Those Damn Lights
This Christmas, my most stressful situation was by far the lights on my Christmas tree. High class problem. I know. Starving children in Africa and all that. But those lights were but a symptom of my dis-ease. See, I’d been saving these 2 boxes of lights to put on my tree this year because the box said that they “twinkle”. I imagined soft, occasional dots of light that would enhance the bulkier glow of the C7 lights I’ve loved since childhood. But they didn’t “twinkle”. They flashed…like tiny strobes…like the tree was beckoning from a stranded beach in the middle of the Pacific ocean. And there were 500 of them! The problem was that I didn’t really notice how strong it was until I had 250 ornaments crowded onto it. Well, probably not 250, but you get the idea.
So I mentally fussed over it for the next 2 days. At one point I sat in front of the tree at 3 AM weighing the options of living in peace or taking all of the ornaments off and removing the lights. There was some meek semblance of sanity that suggested I might want to wait until the next day. I did, and thankfully I was able to talk it through with some friends the next day. I endeavored to get through the holidays by focusing on the beauty of the tree instead of what I considered to be its defects. Therapists have said this very same thing about my focus on myself, but I digress.
It’s not unusual for me to have these bouts of true insanity during the holidays. In the quiet, hibernating days between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve thought a lot about this. I struggle with perfection in my everyday life. It immobilizes me. If I can’t do it well, I won’t do it at all. But Christmas seems to bring out the worst perfectionism in me. I know from many Christmases past that this has more to do with drawing my attention away from feelings that the holidays bring up. There’s a fine balance between happiness and melancholy. Indulging in perfectionist behavior helps me to avoid those feelings. It’s less painful to sit in the middle of the night contemplating a Christmas tree overhaul, than to admit that I miss my father and my brother…a lot. Putting 600 lights on a 5 foot tree (another Christmas past) strives to create the illusion that all is well. It’s a by-product of my childhood, really. Appearances are everything.
It’s only when I stop and get still, or sit in front of the mirrors that are my trusted friends, that I feel the pull of sadness or grief…that I allow the tears to come. The trees, the lights, the perfect present for my daughter, are all desperate escapes from the one thing that will truly bring me relief…feeling my feelings, regardless of how much I think they will hurt. The truth is, and truth that I always tend to forget, is that feeling the hurt, and moving past it, is less uncomfortable than trying to pretend it isn’t there, wrapped in the wires of dysfunctional lights.
I’m not going to say that the lights didn’t bother me after that. They did. But if I blurred my eyes (something I’ve done since I was a kid) I could see the colors run together and the twinkle that had once eluded me.
Flashing by my window in the desert,
Coming down first before the land rises up I see,
A dead, gnarled cottonwood bent over itself,
A white parched river bed, dreaming of water ghosts,
White cloud towers making the coming blades glisten,
Blue-black mesas dotted with sage,
And that uneven road behind me, curling back on itself,
As if going back for something it forgot.
In the past month or so we’ve had a new visitor to the bird feeder outside my window: black-eyed juncos by the dozens. I’m in love with them. I could watch them all day. I haven’t been able to find a picture that perfectly captures the steel-blue-gray feathers about the head and neck…how it flows softly into the fluffy chest that has two strokes of chestnut brown painted under the wings. Many of the women in my family love birds…they have always been a part of me. It reminds me of Emily Dickinson…”Hope is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all.” I always imagined that if I were a bird, I’d be a scrub jay with its roughness and gorgeous, resilient blue. These days I feel a little bit fragile – a lot like that steel-blue-gray tucked squarely around my shoulders. Lately I like the junco.