May the Circle Be Unbroken

If I had a blog, today I would write about my quest to reclaim the treasures of my youth.

The Wonderful World of Christmas

The Wonderful World of Christmas

It began almost ten years ago on eBay. Christmas was coming and I was longing for the holiday music of my childhood. I had been able to reclaim some of the classics: Johnny Mathis Christmas, Percy Faith and His Orchestra, and the country Christmas albums by Alabama, Kenny & Dolly, The Oak Ridge Boys, and the Statler Brothers. As much as I enjoyed listening to my old friends, one set of voices was missing: The dulcet tones of an album called The Wonderful World of Christmas. This compilation of songs sung by 70s stars like Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Shore, Bobby Vinton, and Nat King Cole defined Christmas for me when I was young. In fact, I still have the original record, but it is so scratched and fuzzy from loving wear, that the music barely comes through. When eBay appeared on the scene, I searched the internet year after year, hoping to find a high quality version of my album, but my searches always came to naught. Then, one foggy Christmas Eve, it happened: I typed in my search on eBay and there it was – in the original cover and everything. Winning the lottery wouldn’t have made me happier! The joy I felt listening to my favorite record (now converted to MP3) inspired me to search for other childhood treasures that I had lost or worn out over the passing years.

My Little Paleo-World

My Little Paleo-World

Three years ago, I located the dinosaur play-set I had as a kindergartener. At the tender age of five, I was determined to be a paleontologist and I spent endless hours reenacting the life-and-death struggles of the brontosaurus, T-Rex, and others as they meandered through their plastic paleo-world. These toys, too, had been loved out of existence long ago and when, after forty years, I held those beloved dinosaurs once again, I was moved to tears as another hole in the fabric of my life was made whole.

Combat Nurses of WWII

Combat Nurses of WWII

This year I located a book I loved in middle-school: A collection of biographies of nurses who served in World War II. I latched onto this book because, at the time, I had just seen the mini-series Ike, and was fascinated with the Second World War. This particular book was also a milestone in my life as an aspiring writer: Because many of the stories did not have “Happily Ever After” endings, I realized, for the first time, that there is a poignant beauty in sadness, a sense of pathos that is deeply moving. The book inspired me to write more, write better, and write stories that touched people’s hearts.

My Little Elves

My Little Elves

The second treasure I reclaimed this Christmas is a set of five elves climbing a rope ladder with twinkle lights in their hands. These little pixies had been absent from my life since I was five or six years old – when the wires disintegrated with age and the lights went dark forever – or so I thought. Now the wee elves again climb merrily on our glistening tree. Their presence is reassuring. In a world that moves forward at a furious rate, I need to know the past is not lost; that I can still reach out and touch bits and pieces of a time when life was simple and pure. These totems from my early years transport me back to a place where I felt safe, secure and cared for in a way children know.

Life is so fleeting and so precious, I don’t want to forget a moment of my time here on planet Earth. I want to be able to reach back and grasp the hand of the child I was as well as reach forward to the woman I will become and let her, too, clasp hands with the child. Then the circle of my life will be complete; a seamless pattern without beginning or end. Perhaps it is this continuity that inspired Ebeneezer Scrooge when he said, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

We cannot be whole without embracing each phase of our lives, however imperfect they may be. If we are willing to take on this challenge, not only will we understand the magic of Christmas, but we will live that magic all year round.

The Best Bad Luck

If I had a blog, today I would write about my having the best bad luck in the world.

Halloween, the year I was ten.

Halloween, the year I was ten.

I used to think I was the unluckiest person in the world. There was some basis for my assumption, after all, my medical record read like (and looked like) a textbook on unusual medical conditions: At age ten I was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes, I had brain surgery when I was sixteen to remove a tumor that destroyed my pituitary gland, found out I have a rare blood-clotting disorder when I was thirty, discovered I have Asperger’s Syndrome in my early forties, and have suffered from migraine headaches for more than a decade. When it was all said and done, I had trouble finding a specialist to help me manage my kaleidoscope of conditions. I was a medical marvel. To say I was angry at God would be the understatement of the century.

Me and my horse, Jamil, just before my surgery

Me and my horse, Jamil, just before my surgery

I wore my anger like a badge for close to thirty years. Counseling helped a little, maturity balanced things here and there, abut I was nearly forty years old before I had my epiphany; before I realized I didn’t have common bad luck, I had the best bad luck of anyone I know.

My lightning flash of insight came one night while I was journaling. I was doing a retrospective of some sort when I saw a pattern emerge in the events which caused me so much angst: Yes, the events were unfortunate and unpleasant and maybe even unfair, but in every case, there were occurrences that were really pretty marvelous. For example, when I was diagnosed with diabetes I knew I would be giving shots of  insulin for the rest of my life, but if I’d been born even fifty years earlier, before insulin was discovered, my prognosis would have been grim. Today, Type 1 Diabetes is not a terminal illness. I could have been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, cancer, or worse. All in all, if I had to have a serious condition, diabetes wasn’t a bad way to go.

My epiphany expanded when I thought about my brain tumor. Not only was it benign and fully operable, my second cousin, Dr. Don Long, was chief-of-staff of neurosurgery at John’s Hopkins Medical Center, the place where the surgery I needed was developed. Don would perform the surgery alongside the specialist who invented the procedure. Talk about spectacularly good-bad luck!

My Girl Rain

My Girl Rain

These realizations began a change in perspective that is the center of my life today. Whatever happens, it is now second-nature for me to look for the good fortune in the bad. Yesterday was a case-in-point: My beloved horse, Rain, turned up lame yesterday morning. Her leg was swollen and hot and she couldn’t put any weight on it at all. My first instinct was panic. It could be blood poisoning, some kind of infection, a fractured bone, or even a snake bite. It was Saturday and although our vet will make weekend house-calls, he isn’t always the vet-on-call. The voices in my head told me I’d have to wait until Monday, then try to get an space in Dr. Berger’s very busy appointment schedule. It could be two or three days before Rain would be seen. At that point, I had a few moments of meltdown behind the barn. Once I’d composed myself, though, I decided to give fate a chance. I called the emergency phone number for the vet clinic and wonder of wonders, not only was Dr. Berger on call, he could come right out. Good Luck Number 1. After a thorough exam, Dr. B diagnosed Rain with a bruised hoof. He gave me a daily regimen of foot-baths, poultices, and bandaging, but he assured me my Rain would make a full recovery.

If I had a dime for every time my brain predicted gloom and doom, then was proved wrong, I would be in the Fortune 500. I don’t know what defense mechanism makes us think assuming the worst is helpful, but it seems to be hardwired into the human genome. The good news is: There seems to be a treatment. Like my diabetes, it is more management than a cure, but approaching the fearful things of life with the intent of finding the best of bad luck does work miracles.

I am a little nervous as I head to the barn this morning. Rain should be better, but the committee in my head say, “No, no, things could have gone downhill over night.” Nevertheless, I will take the high-road and dare to hope for the best, not expect the worst. After all, I want to maintain my title. I want to remain the human with The Best Bad Luck in the world.

Down By the Riverside

If I had a blog, today I would write about my life on The Little Piney.

The Little Piney

The Little Piney

Our Gravel Bar

Our Gravel Bar

Of all the rivers in Missouri I have known, and there are many, my life has intersected with The Piney in the most personal of ways. Technically, the Little Piney is a creek, not a river, but since she’s large enough to have deep swimming holes and offers sanctuary to bank beavers, river otters, and beautiful rainbow trout, the Little Piney will always be a river to me.

I first met the Piney when I was seven. Dad had a farm on the river after he and Mom got married, we spent our summer Saturday afternoons on her shores, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and and feeding Cheeto crumbs to the minnows. My brother and I learned to swim in the Piney where we perfected the frog-kick, backstroke, and sidestroke until we cruised the swimming hole as easily as did the minnows that nibbled at our toes. On those summer afternoons we learned to love the water; to respect the swift current and delight in the slow eddies. The Little Piney became part of us as we became part of her.

Baptism Day

Baptism Day

When I was nine, my brother, sister, and I were baptized in the Little Piney. We were members of the Episcopal church and invited the entire congregation to share in our big day. People brought every kind of picnic food imaginable and we feasted under the shade of the great sycamores and river birches that grew along the river banks. Our priest had just returned from the Holy Land and after he immersed us in our river, he sprinkled us with water from the river Jordan. I’m not sure which water I would consider the most mystical, water from the river where Jesus was baptized or that of the river that has run through my life, even when I was far from its banks.

Not long after our baptism, we moved from the farm to a little house in town, but we took some of The Piney with us. In our new kitchen was a large aquarium, stocked with wee friends from our river. In the weeks before the farm sold, Mom, Dad, David and I scoured the river for fish small enough to thrive in our self-designed “marine park.” We collected darters, crawley-bottoms (banded sculpins), hognose suckers, bleeding shiners, and even a few crawdads. One fine afternoon, we found a baby smallmouth bass and a slender madtom catfish. Both were rare finds and were the crowning glory of our collection.We spent many happy hours watching our little microcosm flourish and we spared no effort to keep our charges well fed. The little bass needed live food, so we raised Indiameal Moths in a dedicated bag of flour for “Bassy” to dine on and we cultivated native algae to keep the suckers and sculpins going strong. Memories of those aquatic friends stayed with me in the years that followed and telling stories about the crawdad who escaped and tried to “nest” behind the couch and of the night our house cat nearly got hold of our catfish always brought a laugh from my friends. It was an experience I will never forget.

Natural Sand Painting

Natural Sand Painting

After the time of the aquarium passed, I was away from the Piney for a long time. High school, college, and career took me far afield, but the Piney wasn’t done with me yet. In 1995, she called me home. I was living 100 miles from her shores by then, working in the business world, when Mom and Dad invited me to share their new home and work on their farm. They had purchased a piece of land just two miles downstream from the place of my baptism and they build their dream home a half-mile from the Piney. I said, “Yes,” to their offer and in 1996, I returned to the river of my childhood.

Down By the Riverside

Down By the Riverside

Since that time, I have spent countless hours at the river: I’ve gone alone, to revel in the music of the waters and bask in the warmth of the sun; I’ve been there as part of church gatherings where we built bonfires and had Eucharist at the water’s edge; and with family, sharing old memories and making new.

Today, my sister and her family are visiting and we spent the better part of the day at the Piney. We searched for fossils on the gravel bar, grilled hot dogs over an campfire, and my ten year-old niece, Anna, and I braved the icy water and plunged to the bottom, letting out a primal scream as we came back to the surface, our chests tight and teeth chattering with cold. Once we had acclimated to the temperature of the water, we swam a long time, another baptism of sorts for me, washing away my cares for the entire afternoon. When our fingers started to wrinkle, Anna and I went back to the shore and all of us basked in the late summer sun. It was the perfect day.

What does it mean that the Little Piney has been the river of my life? It is hard to say, but when I think of this little river and its ceaseless journey towards the sea, I take heart. If the waters of The Little Piney can find their way over rocks and roots, eddies and falls until they emerge in the vastness of the great oceans, then perhaps my one, little life makes a difference. Perhaps the hopes and dreams I have set free upon her shores will join with those of my fellow human beings, becoming a part of something greater than us all.