Resolutions and Renovations

I think back
and wonder
if I’ve made progress.

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Resolutions are for the end.

When I consider the word “resolution,” I see the prefix “re” and the root word “solve.”  This makes me think that I’m solving the problems of the past year again.  It’s like I’m taking an inventory of all of the events and trying to figure out what they meant.  Once a year passes and I internalize it, that’s my time for resolutions.  That’s when I come to terms to how I reacted, what I said, and even, who I was twelve months earlier.  Every January, I think back to where I was the year before and see if I’ve made any progress.

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing a year ago today, but I’m sure it involved a ladder, rollers, Robitussin, and few gallons of semi-gloss.  The details are sketchy.  I remember getting sick, really sick.  I caught a chill and kept it, shivering for days at a time.  I would describe it as “corpse cold,” and while I felt it, I thought about how the body gets cold after death and wondered if what I was feeling was literally the life leaving my body.  Fortunately, I went to the doctor, and I was wrong.  I had only caught last year’s edition of the flu, a virulent strand that terrorized the entire country for six months, but still, it was only the flu.  So in the middle of all of the sickness and snow, I decided that a change of scenery would help keep me from feeling so down.  Color affects mood. Psychology 101.  Remember? So I decided to paint my house in bright summery colors.  Maybe a teal, or a minty green to lighten the winter blahs?  Maybe I could liven it up enough to get a fair price if I decided to put it on the market?

After more than ten years, I was tired of where I was living.  My wife and I were driving forty minutes one way to get to work.  When I shared my plans with her, she was all for it.  But her plans were much more elaborate.  She explained them to me in detail: new flooring, painting the living room and kitchen, base boards, molding, painting cabinets, pressure washing the back porch, building a front porch… The list goes on.   I was not sure that I could do these things even if I was in tiptop shape. And I wasn’t.  I hadn’t taken on any projects like this since I was a teenager.  And even then, my experience was limited to working as an assistant carpet layer and helping my family hang wallpaper.   But either way, my mind was made up.  The change would either cure me or do me in.

move-3973175_1920 Still hacking and shivering when I climbed the ladder, I started by painting the living room.  We chose a light blue, and figured that would be a good starting point to build the rest of the renovation around.  I opened the blinds and drank in the Vitamin D.  Outside the air was below freezing, but the sunlight was yellow and warm like melted butter.  It was beacon to a brighter shore and about the only thing I had going for me at the time.  So I leaned in and let the work shape me.  After the painting, came the baseboards and the molding.  I measured and cut, and re-measured and cut again.  I kept cutting right corners when I needed a left and vice versa.  The miter saw is a mystery that I will never understand.  I’m just grateful to be sitting here now typing with all ten fingers.  Then, the cabinets, this involved taking the doors down, sanding, and painting in places only a contortionist could reach.  After that, I pulled up the old floors…

As I worked through the winter and into the spring, I realized that renovation is the process of making new again. In contrast, restoration is just the process of putting back what was lost. To renovate is to join creativity with dedication.  A true renovation has no nostalgia or regret.  When I renovate, I don’t consider any past glories.  I simply take what I have and make it new. A leaner version of myself emerged after a month of climbing ladders and lifting furniture.  As I did the flooring, muscle that I had not seen since my twenties reappeared, aching at first then solidifying my arms and shoulders.  In the late spring, the sun gave my complexion a touch of bronze.  And I slept the deep sleep of being physically exhausted.  The work kept me so busy that I spent less money and built up my savings.  I didn’t think about it.  It just accumulated.  Also, I watched less TV.  Although the work was monotonous, I was able to think without being constantly disturbed.  As I improved my home, the work was also renovating me.

Call it “deathbed religion” if you want, but I began reading the Bible when I was sick. As the flu ravaged my body and the snow fell, I found the Book of Job very relatable. I was not having it taught to me but actually thinking about what they meant for myself. The words, “He wounds, yet He binds up. He shatters, but His hands heal,” still carry a lot of weight with me.  I planned on reading the Bible through last year, but I had to reread many parts.  As of this writing, I’ve covered all of the New Testament and most the Old Testament except for Leviticus and several of the Minor Prophets.  I’m sure I’ll write more about this in future entries.  Reading the Bible has renovated me in ways that I can’t explain.  I’m not a priest or a preacher.  In all honesty, I believe the term “enlightened rogue” is my most apt description.  Suffice to say, I have faith that I act on.  I make mistakes, owning up to them and making amends as I go.  I “live and die daily.” In this way, I am being renovated.

Looking back, I resolve that the past year was a year of renovation. After overcoming sickness, it was time to set goals and ride them out. I have optimism when I am put in uncertain situations.  Last fall, we sold our home for a profit and upgraded to a nicer one that is closer to our jobs.  But there are still rooms to paint, plumbing to tweak, flowerbeds to weed, and that’s about it.  A year later, I am here again: a few gallons of antique white, brushes, rollers, and a ladder, minus the chills and Robitussin.   I’m still making renovations, but I am making less of them in a different place, a better place…progress.

 

Grief and Joy

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After Christmas, the days file past in a gray procession. The clouds sit swollen with threats of rain.  And sometimes, it comes down, brutal and freezing.  But others, it’s just another idle threat, another broken promise to consider as this heaviness settles in my bones.  I begin referring to summer in the past tense.  The melatonin builds up.  I try to pull myself out of sleep but never really manage.  Even when I brew my coffee motor-oil-thick, my eyes only half open.  I regard the sun the way I do an old friend whom I no longer really know but run across on Facebook.  When it manages an appearance, it’s cold, impersonal, and over by five o’clock. Ailments, both old and new, are at their peak.  The left knee that has bothered me since twenty is now augmented with arthritis, and at times, refuses to let me out of my chair. Instead of moving forward, I’m stuck with a week to analyze the past year, a few days to hold it up to the light, and look for the parts that shine

My mother passed away last October. And with her passing, I learned what it means to truly grieve. Grief hoovers like January clouds.  Half the time, it rains down suddenly, violently, knocking out the lights, knotting up in my stomach, sucking the oxygen from the room. The other half is just slow misery, a deep wordless ache.  Grief is the rainy season, but it does have some parts that shine.  People who I considered as acquaintances and coworkers proved themselves to be true friends, many of them sharing their own experiences, letting me know that I was not by myself.  My extended family, many of whom I had not seen in over a decade, were there beside me, sheltering me with their love and concern, giving me the help that my pride would never allow me to ask for.   A kind word, a hand on my shoulder, a coworker asking, “Are you really okay, or just saying it?”— these are the parts of the year that sparkle.  They are the flashes of light that let me know that I am not alone when I suffer.

But what else shines in a gray world?  What do I look for while I’m grieving?  I look for joy. Or I should say that I condition myself to identify and accept joy.  I have to direct my search away from the long line of cloudy days.  In others, I find support, care, happiness, even sympathy. I would like to say that I have joy inside myself—inside my mind, heart, soul, core.  Call it what you want, but I do not find anything inside myself when I am grieving. Trust me.  I’ve looked.  I find strength in the daily routine of teaching, working on my house, playing guitar—just doing what I do, but joy is not there.  The only place I find joy is from God.  Mostly it’s early in the morning when I surrender the day to Him that I feel the weight lift off of me.  But also, I feel joy interspersed throughout the day, in brief moments when I realize that I am still alive, that I still have a purpose, a world to experience, lives to change, words to write.   Just as he divides the light from the darkness and the land from the water, he divides joy from grief.  He understands and leads me toward healing.  I know that I’m getting close to becoming preachy here, but I’m not going to leave a tract on your windshield or show up at the door to discuss religious beliefs.  I’m just giving credit where it is due.  My healing is not from me.  It is from God.  I say that humbly yet apologetically.  In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra instructs the Children of Israel that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”   This story about regaining your freedom and trying to restore what was lost. Like the Children of Israel, I have been away in exile.  I have been kidnapped from my home and held captive by heavy emotions, and I look to God’s gift of joy to return and rebuild.

When I grieve, I am disconnected from what is really happening around me.  I am there, but detached.  When someone talks to me, I hear the words, but I can’t tie them into logical thoughts.  If I understand that, I can’t relate to it emotionally.  I speak quickly, harshly, without considering how other people will react to what I say.  This is not me.  Generally, I am more tactful because I know that words with all of their subliminal implications can be used to harm or heal.

For me, receiving joy can be hard even though God gives it away freely.  To get it, I not only have to release myself from grief, but I also have to free myself from the guilt of not grieving.  When my mom passed, I actually felt worse when the sorrow was less.  I felt obligated to mourn out of respect.  But when I remember her, I know that she never wished grief on me.  The times when the grief relented were my times to seize joy.  During these moments, I truly appreciated the things that were going right: my wife and I were in the process of buying a new house; I still found teaching to be a rewarding career; I still had good health and wasn’t crazy, other than grief-induced crazy.  That doesn’t count. Just as the land is divided from the water, I acknowledge that grief has its place.  When it’s here, it is all-consuming.  But as it recedes, it can be put into context.  Just like the day is divided from the night, the darkness is placed in submission by the light, and grief dissipates for a season. This is when I can see possibility in the future even though I feel hopeless inside myself.  It’s times like this that I can allow myself to receive joy.  By joy, I mean knowing that my life is still intact and has a purpose that I want to fulfill.  Joy is when I have the ability to be kind to myself and charitable to others, when I can accept love and friendship and offer the same. I am able to smile naturally even if it is brief.  The healing I need, the laughter I lost, the future I claim, joy is all of these things. It is the gift I pass on freely just as it was given to me.  Joy is what enables me to see this string of gray days come to an end.  With it, I look beyond the grief knowing that this heaviness will lift. This ache will heal.

 

Yard Work

 

Wishing the survivors of the storms in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico a speedy recovery, I’m posting a piece titled “Yard Work.” I wrote this a few years ago after cleaning up from Hurricane Gustav.

Yard Work

I woke when the flood waters rolled downhill. Feeling exhausted at 6 a.m., I shielded my Zippo with cupped hands. The flicker transitioned to flame, yellow to orange. I kindled the blaze on old headlines, adding pine needles and maple leaves, the smoke perfumed, nostalgic.

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The sky softened to slate gray. A wash of pink warmed the horizon. I shed my desk-job complexion, gathering limbs as the sun grew white and searing. The mist lifted as I raked the mulch that washed out of my flowerbeds. I draped my flannel shirt over a stump, making a mental note to get it later. My Case knife weighted it down. Stirring the embers, I gathered more leaves, dropping them on top, the pall woodsy and damp. I got the small branches first, crossing them on the center. The fallen pine was sap-filled and unmovable. I pulled with both hands. Its nubs dug into the ground. I found my axe, the handle still broke after two winters. The new one propped in the corner, wrapped in brown paper. Grabbing it, I took refuge in the shadow of the pines. Uncoiling the hose and turning on the water, I slowed the flow with my thumb. It tasted deep earth cool as it washed the grit from my mouth. I drank once more then retrieved my knife, bone-handled with three blades, and whittled down the handle to a snug fit. Placing it in the eye of the axe-head, I hammered it in place and became one with the work, tearing muscle, moving single-minded until I dismantled the limb. With a shovel, I plunged down into the dead roots, slashed their hold, and fed them to the fire.  They sputtered curses. Phoenix-shaped ashes ascended from the blaze.

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I broke the earth until the ground leveled, planted Sago palms and Confederate roses, arranged day lilies and azaleas, reds and whites, tiny roots watered and fed, new pages being written.

My shoulders ached.

I was humbled.

I was uplifted.