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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Still Bones Remind Me That I Am Alive

Copyright 2014, Amy Aves Challenger
I’ve got problems to solve (still…what school? What town? What house?) I’ve got laundry to fold, phone calls to make, a novel to write, a body to tone, a mind to perk up, goals to accomplish….you get the idea.

But this morning is one that I might not have, if I had passed on yesterday. I might not have had this day.

I hear a bird, reminding me that I am here, reminding me of the man I know from my past, a man who left his family yesterday for a place I do not know. He left, and did he know he was going? He left, and did he say goodbye? He didn’t know me well, but I'm sad he is gone. His smile is here, alive as I type, joking with teenagers whom he taught about God, a wink to my children, a smile to his children. A smile that is missed.

Because of him, I’m reminded today that I’m alive. Yes. So simple, really, this treasure. My life. A tremendous gift handed to me again and again, for one more morning, for one more second. A chance for my bones to rise, to move through doorways, leading to anywhere, leading to everywhere. 

This morning I have ears to hear calling spring birds, fingers to touch caterpillars tickling my child's hands, eyes to perceive my boy’s worried brow, breath to inhale the warmth of my home, the scent of hot buttery toast and lavender whiffs of clean young clothes.

I’m alive for my children, for my husband, for the strangers I pass today. Those strangers who could become strangers no more if I smile. I’m alive for new friends, for old ones, for my family, and for yours. I’m alive to love well, to comfort, to forgive, to apologize, to speak truly, to breathe when I can’t find breath anymore. I’m alive to cry when life hurts, when loss is heavy, when I need other lives around me. 

I’m alive, I’m a mother, I’m a woman, I’m a child. I’m alive for the words that I write on a page that might remind someone else that he or she is alive today, too.

And I'm alive to pray for the bones that lie still, for the bodies whom I can no longer touch, but whose souls are here for me to reach for. Maybe they are alive, in me, in you, around us and through us, speaking with us so that we can all be alive, together, one day. 

God bless.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Lines and Dots of My Body

“Do you wear dangly earrings?” asked Dr. Smith, the dermatologist, yesterday as she gave me my full body exam. I had skin cancer two years ago, so it was a necessary appointment for me.

What? I thought. Who knows? I know how many strawberries my kids ate this morning, what time I need to pick them up at school this afternoon. I know I’m making ravioli with roasted asparagus for dinner tonight. I know I have four hours left to get home, reply to my emails, complete my writing homework, fold the laundry and dash to the grocery store. But do I wear dangly earrings? Um, who cares?

“I guess so,” I replied. My mind was full. Annoyed.

She squinted through dark-rimmed glasses at the bumpy pink skin just below my ear. “This is probably caused by your jewelry”, she said, pressing her fingertips over the pattern of protrusions. “You’ll want to take care of it by switching to simple stud earrings for a while.”

But without my giant earrings, people will notice my face more (jewelry is a great distractor,) leading them to consider my wrinkles, I thought. I was fairly sure I’d ignore her advice. She could have been using the dangly earring tactic in an attempt to get me to think more about my face, thus influencing me to try the BOTOX that was bursting through the lips of the girl on the poster on the white wall beside me. She was a clown dressed as a human grinning and proud of her puffed flesh, flattened on shiny paper, for patients like me to dream about. No no. This sales pitch wouldn’t work on me. I felt the bumps on my neck. They did feel kind of gross…

Then her scrutinizing doctor-eyes examined the rest of my body, scanning my ridges for all imperfections. She swept her hands over the expanse of my back, inside my hands, through my hair, and along my limbs considering areas I barely realized were covered in skin. She called out funny words for the spots she found, so that her assistant could write them in the record book. (I have a lot of spots.) I was a human specimen whom she was checking for errors, like cancer, and eczema, and worst of all— unsightliness. I could have been a corpse. (Except that corpses don’t tell doctors whether they wear jewelry.)

My endless imperfections screamed at me. The wrinkles, pores, freckles, moles, bumps and curves. And that was just the outside. I felt weird. A few minutes earlier I had actually believed that I was going to get a break for five minutes, lying on a table. Even if I was in a white, soapy-smelling room, wearing a paper gown, it could have been restful. Damn it.

“Do you run?” she asked, her nose slightly scrunched as she rubbed the blood blister on my toe. I wondered if she was enjoying this. I told her I do run, adding that I wear “barefoot shoes” which was probably why my feet appeared to have been ground in a lawn mower before becoming freeze-dried and hard. They were ugly. “Here’s another one,” she said, prodding a flaming red bubble on my right, big toe. I hadn’t noticed that. Good point. It was a mess down there.

Then I remembered reading a blog post from an old elementary school friend, Marjorie. She had eloquently written that the marks of her body were signs of her history, like points on a map, telling part of her story (she didn’t quite say it in those words, but you get the jist.)

And lying there on the table, I jumped out of my body for a moment and looked down, realizing that my skin and bones and mind have a story, too. One I ignore. Maybe I have believed its curves and lines and dots aren’t good enough, its sadness is purposeless, its joy is too dramatic. I’ve felt pressured to smooth my skin, minimize my pours, starve my fat, suffocate my waist, puff my cheeks, and paint my skin. Paint it thick. Make me pretty. Happify me.

And what about my kids? Their curves, their dots, their unique little cells are waiting to be discovered.  Each one carefully created and worthy of existence. But I wrestle to see my children beneath the demands placed on them and on me. Sit still, follow directions, do homework, forget nothing, smile, brush your hair, scrub your teeth, be nice, work hard, play hard, win, lose well, be humble, be courageous, be yourself, listen, be quiet, sleep, wake, do it again.

Tomorrow I’m going to watch for the little surprises in me, in my kids, in my husband, in you, in the grey sky out my window, in the rain, in the tears of my child. Yes, they’re all imperfect— or maybe not. Maybe they are as they should be, and the imperfection is in the thing behind my eye, in my point of view. Maybe I miss the great textural strokes of life when I’m blind to the richness that is there for me—

Thank you God for this most amazing life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Seeing The Light Through The Clouds

I like to stare at the clouds sometimes. They try to bug me, following me around, but I have learned to smile at them and snap pics of them to spread across my computer screen. Those drip-drops coming from my clouds shout out as they fall, “HEY! Amy! What school, what town, what house, what people? Were in the HELL are you are going to live?” (My husband, the breadwinner, is seeking a job— somewhere. We have only lived in our current home for under a year, but our move here led us to a job that was not right (click if you're interested.) His next job could be in San Francisco, Boston, NYC or possibly, Timbuktu.)

The cloud’s lightening crashes into places like my SUV on the way to school. I’m trying to escape as I sing the lyrics, I don’t Even Know if I Believe,” by Mumford and Sons, but the rainy crescendo overpowers poor Marcus Mumford with, “Amy, how the HELL are you going to get your oversized house ready to sell when you’ve got two dogs, two cats, 2 geckos, a newt and a three crazy young kids (one with special needs) and a husband running around?”

Finally, a bucket of water splashes down from the cloud at night when I’m listening to my little girl cry out about the fear of leaving more friends. The moisture of our mess sputters all over the pretty pink walls, “Amy, how are you going to protect your babies from the pain of leaving more people? Leaving another home? How are you going to keep their joy inside? How?”

Then I think of the people I know. Most of them have clouds, too. Like my friend who has been fighting cancer. She also has a torment of threat above her, sitting there every day. Hers' makes mine look like some kind of mist, just a vapor in the wind.  I admire my friend. I hold her life up in the light, to turn and observe, like a fine specimen of a human being. I am strengthened by her words about pain. I’m emboldened by how she shares, how she walks fast through it all, feeling it, revealing it, then moving on. Admitting that the experience of fighting cancer is not glorious. It is scary. It is painful. It sucks. 

Then I think of my friend who mothers her special needs child and his sibling without any father at all.  She cares for her parents too, and she has health problems of her own. My friend can’t take a job because her family's needs don’t allow for any long period of time for her to be away, doing something ludicrous like working toward one thing, for money. No, she doesn’t get the satisfaction of simplicity like that. Her life is complicated beyond my comprehension. Yet her face lights up and her voice sings when we talk. She has incredible conversations with me (when we can find a minute,) and she reminds me that giggles and gratitude and love come from inside the most difficult of circumstances. 

Then I think of the homeless guys at the shelter where I serve lunch. I used to be scared of them, and sometimes I still am. When they stare at me a little too much, I’ll admit, my knees shake and I shift from leg to leg with discomfort. But when I connect with them, when I get past my jitters, then I get to see incredible stuff. Their storms are scary, and lonely, and tired, but they reveal treasures I cannot access in my shallower darkness. I get a glimpse of the power that these men have to grin, to say a kind word, to crack a joke, even when they are without a home, without money, without family. Their eyes grasp light-filled sparks of time that they share with me if I allow myself to look in their direction, and if I'm willing to listen.

And let’s not forget Moses. Even if you aren’t a “believer” you must know about him. Moses walked toward the cloud that held GOD. He was scared, but he did it! Moses knew, way, way, way back then, that the beauty of all of creation was inside the darkness, inside the fear. And he had to walk there to share it with all of us.

So today, I’m gonna keep looking inside the collision of precipitation that is raining over me. I’m not going to run away. But instead I’ll share it. I’ll keep on pulling out what I can find in there, and when this storm ends and the rainbow comes again, I have faith that there will be sweet, green and yellow and orange new life. I’ll drink it up, leaping and hollering over the fact that my rain turned to honey. That my storm led me to goodness again, as it always does. 

Thank you God for the strength of your light that sometimes can only be seen in the darkness. Thank you for the raindrops that patter above all else, for the storms that are strong enough to find us, and for the sweet flowers of new seasons that are forgiving enough to embrace even souls like mine, once again.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

My Mom, My Very First Gift

The voice of my mother soars through cellphone towers, taps into words on the internet, shines through lighted white dreams, or dances from upstairs in our guest bedroom on a golden spring morning.

Her voice is like no other sound in my universe.

It breaks through all concepts of time, old age, of youth even—clinging to me, wrapping my soul in the velvet truth that I am not just Amy, a forty-five-year-old tired mom. But I am more. I am the child of my mom. I came here through her, and long ago she carried me, and she looked at me with hope. She held my neck so that it wouldn’t break, she fed me, and she sang to me. I don’t get to hear her sing very often anymore, because we are busy maybe, but still her voice often sounds joyful, like a sweet song would— joyful to hear my voice.

My mom smells like violets, silk, a hint of mint sometimes, or maybe lilly-of-the-valley. When I was running yesterday, I saw a large patch of these white bell-covered flowers, and it was like my mom was there, cheering for me, “Way to go Amy. Way to go.” Those lovely white bells rang in the breeze, reminding me of picking them with her, of inhaling their sweet scent, and smiling my full-toothed smile while she baked a pie that mixed hot apples into the thick air of our well-used kitchen. My mother’s scent reminds me that she is near, that she is the same person whom I must have smelled before I knew how to put ink on the page, way back when I was a tiny infant, snuggling into her warm flesh.

I must confess that I haven’t always been nice to my mom. She wouldn’t tell you that, but it is true. I have expected everything of her. I have asked for the impossible. I have demanded perfection, like I do of myself. I have criticized her. I have been jealous of her attention. I was not (and maybe still am not) an easy daughter. I have often been outspoken, I have been a perfectionist, highly sensitive, taken myself too seriously, and at times I have been a rebel. I have been dramatic, depressed, emotional, and I have never stopped pushing boundaries. Probably, I never will. I’m that grown-up girl who some moms might dread “managing.” I have not always, or even close to always, been a “good” daughter.

But today I might call my mom when I’m driving to a class and words like “love” and “proud” and “miss you,” fill the space of my long vehicle, through a Bluetooth connection. It is like she is riding next to me, steadying my hands a little, reminding me that though I am only me, only imperfect me— I am part of another. I'm not just me. I'm my mom's child. Though my life isn’t easy, and there are challenges that she cannot solve, I know that there is one person out there who is holding a spot for me. That spot is bigger than the empty seat beside me. Immeasurable, I suppose. It is a place in her heart that will be there for eternity. It will wait for me whether I raise three happy children, I publish award winning novels, I paint a hundred famous paintings, or I become “nothing” at all.

Moms like mine will forever see the value in me. And thank you God for this gift. Moms like mine simply ignore the flaws. Sometimes I have (snidely) called that "motherhood denial." But now I see that thousands of days ago, I came from a place of hope, of sparkling, magical goodness. I came from a place that believed my seed was worthy of life. That it was worthy of rising above “nothing” and would be born into this world to share “something” with all of you. I came from my mother. She was my very first gift. And so I celebrate her. I came from a place where God wanted me to start. It was a very good place.

Thank you God, for my mom— that woman, that soul, who will always be in me, and who will always hold a place for me, in her.

Monday, May 4, 2015

I Lie When I Pretend I Don't Need You

I lie. A lot. 

I lie when I pretend that I don't need you.  I lie when I pretend that I don’t care whether you can connect to the words that I’m typing on the page right this second. Whether you’re smirking or you’re smiling or you’re clicking on to the next blog post because my words just don’t cut it today. I lie when I pretend that I don’t need to know what you think. I lie when I hang a painting on a wall, or when I post it on the internet, and I pretend to love it whether you see anything in it or not. I spread my insides thick with all kinds of brushes and knives covered with white acrylic mixed with burnt umber and cobalt blue— I spread my insides with words too. I create the world I see, the world I love, the world that keeps me going, on a page or on a canvas. Then I move it around, layer it, and tint it just so for everyone to see. I reveal myself.

And I’ve gotta tell you that I lie when I attempt to pretend that every single day I exchange space over the internet, on the sidewalk, or in a room with you and any other human out there— I lie when I say that I simply do not care whether you saw me, whether you heard me, whether your eyes met mine.

Do you lie too?

Here's what I think is the truth: I’m motivated to write and to paint and to talk for the purpose of finding something true. Isn't that ironic? (I've been lying in order to tell you something true!?) Something not just for me, but something to connect me to you. I’m motivated to dig out that thing about me that is worthy of you. That helps you, or changes your perspective, or inspires you, or makes you want to debate with me, hate me, love me, or maybe even makes you want to share too.

I just want to connect. And be liked? I suppose so. Sure. I like to be liked. Approved of? Yes. That feels really good. If I sell lots of books I'll be very happy. If I win contests and make lots of money, I'll certainly be more sure of myself as an artist. But more important that my being liked, I'm learning, is to be known as the true soul that sometimes hides far away from you. The soul that can easily get covered by lies.

And when I finish creating (and allowing that soul to reveal itself), I close my laptop or my tube of paint, and I tell myself that I’m not supposed to care. I say that a true FINE artist does not care. (To clarify, for many years I created graphic art and illustrations and in a world where I WAS “supposed to” care what you think. That was how I made people money.) I tell myself that a real artist, a true individual, can grab all that she has been given from her insides— the sweet stuff and the bitter— and she can scatter it out there, like colorful flower petals, for others to hold in their fingers and smell. Then she can simply walk away and do it again. Her flowers will get more powerful as she continues along her path, because they will become truer as she cultivates them. They’ll become more “her.” More unique. She can scatter herself without expectations. Without a comment, a “like,” an email, or a smile. Without hands clapping or dollars passing into bank accounts.

I say to the half of me that wants to reach out and cover-up the truth again— I say that a real artist lives simply to be true. And if no one picks up her petals, then they will fertilize the soil for something new to grow. Something miraculous.

And so I strive to uncover my truth from the bones and teeth that hold me upright. They allow me to smile at you. They give me permission to cry with honesty. They’re hard and rocky, and a little curvy in places. Brittle or strong I’m not sure, but my bones are unchangeable in many respects. I guess the framework of me was created by God for some good purpose, including the lies and the truths and the pain and the sweet stuff and the ugly too. All if it is there for a reason, I suppose.

A reason that I hope to reveal before the end of my time. A reason I pray is worthy of you.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Messy Is Beautiful

Air flowed in, and out, punctuating a second, and then another one, as I caught my breath at the end of an early morning Sunday beach run. I was staying in a rental cottage, and the sea sounds and saltiness brushing across my skin felt dreamy. My fingers clicked open the iron gate, leading back to the sidewalk where I headed home to my waking family. The sun was still low in the sky, rising hopeful with each bit of air that swirled in, and each time my rubber tread pushed off the pavement, I felt more excited for the day. Along with my feet, my limbs propelled me forward, while my lungs tried to slow me down. The sky sparkled cyan atop bright yellow and orange daffodils lining white picket fences, with green lawns that carpeted the foreground of Victorian cottages. It was like I had been dropped into a Beatrix Potter story and a bunny had just hopped by. If I followed him, the next page could take me anywhere.

Then I heard a loud bark that blasted the question into my head, “Did you remember to let the dogs in?” and that simple thought was like a snap above a zipper of items that zzzzzzzd down the crooked pathways in my brain. Each zip pierced me with all of the stupid things that I had done yesterday, all of the impossible things that I needed to do today, all of the undone things that I needed to get done for tomorrow, and the next day, and the year after that. It also reminded me how I would fail at all of it, and how I would get nothing much accomplished, even if I tried my hardest, but I had better run along anyway. I had better get going FAST. My heart pounded at the bone between my breasts, perspiration dripped from my temples, dropping to the landing of the porch where I had arrived with a THUD.

So what did I do? Well, I ran up the stairs to my room, past the sound of the TV, and I flopped on to my bed to write. Maybe the pen could help ease my mind….And here’s the gist of what I wrote:

What if I were to flick off the high-pitched cartoon yapping at my kids, and proclaim that today is like a cake that we can mix up. We can make it thick and heavy, or light and foamy. We can spread it around, lick it, inhale its aromas, and layer its luscious colors and flavors. We can make this day into one of kite flying, of running our toes into the cool ocean ripples, of tossing a neon Frisbee through the air, above the carmel-colored sand, and laughing when it spins perfectly into our outstretched hands. We can eat sweet red strawberries and make egg sandwiches with crispy, buttered toast. 

We can abandon our responsibilities and simply delight in this day. 

Today can be a day to put away our worries, our fears, our anger, our disappointment, our expectations, our embarrassments, our shame. I’m going to stuff all of that crap (that pretends life isn't supposed to be messy) under the big shoe bin in closet, where it can’t get away. I’m going to press the door shut with the force of my body. I’m going to lock it there TIGHT so that we can live like a family really CAN live… gripping and hugging and eating up every second of time together. Messy or not.


That’s sort of what I wrote (I admit, I edited.)

And guess what? It worked! I drifted out of my bedroom once again smiling. I emptied all of the crappy stuff in my brain into the closet and simply abandoned it. (Thank God the closets are big in this place.) And then I went on to have a day full of memorable moments at church, at this cottage, in the kitchen, and outdoors with my kids and my husband. 

The snapshots of my day weren't perfect. They were better, actually. Real life today was richer than words or pictures. It was like deep dark organic chocolate spilling all over and making a ridiculous mess, but tasting so darned good, anyway. It made me think, "Give me more chocolate. Now!" It’s flavors were satisfying because I didn't mind getting dirty. I could smile at the messiness of our day, I could clean it up with my fingers, sweep my tongue over it, and get it all over my lips.

I’m thankful for this minute, and the next one, and the next that I have to live a messy, beautiful and real life with my family—when I’m able to transcend the worries from the past, fly over the fears of the future, and simply eat up each delicious moment that we have. Together. Now.