Tag Archives: grandparents

Forgiving the Dead

My paternal grandmother died in 2009, and I struggled less with the fact of her death than I did with the way her death was treated in my family. I loved my grandma, had a good relationship with her, and was certainly sad over her passing. However, she had been hospitalized for six months before her death, so it had been rather a long time since I’d really had my grandma anyway. For me, her death provided relief. I was relieved to be free of the emotionally difficult and physically tiresome nights of hospital duty we all shared (though, admittedly, I’d been doing it for only one month of the last six because, before that, I had lived in Oklahoma, five hours away from the entire situation). But, more than that, I was relieved that she could no longer feel the pain she had been plagued by for the last half a year. One of the more difficult things I’ve ever done in my life is stand helpless in a hospital room while my grandmother cries out for someone to stop the pain, or for more meds, or for the nurse to be called for the fifteenth time in an hour; and then to watch her become completely crestfallen as the nurse tells her for the thirteenth time in an hour that, legally, she is not allowed to administer any more medication just yet. So yes. Her death, her release from her pain and suffering, was a relief to us all.

I knew – I think we all knew, in fact – that my grandmother was not a perfect, flawless angel. But her death elevated her to a level of sainthood in my family that no one else has ever attained. I wanted to remember my grandmother fondly, and I wanted to miss her, but the way some others in my family spoke about her as if she had been the most unerring, completely sinless human being they’d ever known was a difficult untruth for me to swallow.

I know reverence for and special pedestal placement of the dead is not uncommon. I know it’s the norm, in fact. Long has it been tradition not to “speak ill of the dead,” a precept likely based on the idea that people who cannot defend themselves should not be badmouthed. But my grandma is the closest person to me whose death I’ve experienced, and rather than mourn her with happy memories the way the rest of my family seemed to be doing, I chose to focus on her flaws, the things she got wrong in life, the ways she failed. I think this was a psychological attempt on my behalf to bring balance to what I viewed as sentimental, inauthentic blathering from my family members about what a wonderful person my grandma had been. I have never thought my grandma was not a good person, but it bothered me endlessly that many flaws we all knew about were suddenly brushed under the rug upon her death. I was angry and irritated by actions I perceived to be dishonest and fake. “DEATH DOES NOT A PERFECT PERSON MAKE,” I would write angrily in my journal, or shout to my empty house.

I did not understand why we couldn’t mourn her as she was – a loving wife who often kept her husband’s erratic behavior in sharp check; a meticulous keeper of house whose home was always clean but sometimes felt like a museum for all the breakables you weren’t supposed to touch; a fun grandmother who loved to laugh but also a stern disciplinarian of any of her grandchildren who behaved in ways she didn’t deem decorous; a devoted member of a pastor’s family who never gave up on her loved ones but sometimes did lose her temper with them; a woman who could appreciate a good practical joke but not an irreverent one; someone who loved to play games but stuck to a rigid and legalistic understanding of what the “sin of gambling” was (no playing cards allowed, but all dice games were, for some reason, allowed).

My intent here is not to paint an unbecoming picture of my grandmother. My intent is to depict a human being who was complex and flawed. Basically good? Yes, I believe so. But imperfect? Yes, certainly, if only by default of her species label.

But, after her death, my family appeared to have a tacit agreement that her shortcomings and flaws not be discussed. We must all pretend they didn’t exist, and that was not something that came easily to me. Yes, I loved my grandmother. Yes, I missed her. Yes, I would have her back on this earth and alive and healthy today were such a thing possible. But she had faults, and in the wake of nobody else acknowledging this truth anymore, I began to over-acknowledge it whenever I thought of my grandmother. Any time someone spoke of her in an overly sentimental way, I felt the need to combat the inauthentic-feeling emotion by remembering (to myself, not out loud) one of her mistakes. Over time, this unhealthy practice began to have the unsurprising effect of building resentment and bitterness in my heart toward my dead grandmother, mostly over tensions that lay between us while she lived but that I either never addressed with her or never forgave her for.

One such incident occurred when I was only nine years old. At that time I was the youngest of three grandchildren in the family, and the only girl. My family often joked that I was “the favorite granddaughter,” and even though I knew this was only by technicality of me being the only granddaughter (age-old joke that it is), I still took pride in being the favorite something, even if we all knew it was a jest.

The year that I turned ten, though, a new grandchild was born. Nobody knew the sex of this grandchild until the delivery day, on which my family received a phone call to let us know the news. My grandma was the one calling, and she asked whoever answered the phone (one of my parents, I presume), if she could speak to me. I, excited at the prospect of a new baby in the family, eagerly took the phone and said, “What is it?!”

My grandma’s voice came clearly over the phone, “Audra? Guess what?”

“What!” I could hardly contain my excitement.

“You’re not our favorite granddaughter anymore.”

I don’t remember what happened after that; I only remember the pervading emotion I felt.

What my grandma should’ve said, and what she meant, was, “We can no longer claim that we have a favorite granddaughter anymore because now we have two we love equally.”

But what an emotionally underdeveloped, nine-year-old, favorite-by-default granddaughter heard was, “You’ve been usurped. The new baby is now our favorite granddaughter, and you aren’t.”

Now, as I approach the age of thirty, I know that my grandmother meant no ill by her statement. I know she didn’t mean for me to be hurt, to take it the wrong way, to cry privately about it and build resentment toward both her and my poor, innocent baby cousin over the fact that I had been – as I felt, anyway – replaced. I also know that in her excitement over the birth of a new baby, and her desire to share with me the celebration of gaining another girl in a male-majority family, she did not take adequate time to ponder exactly how to word what she meant to communicate. Or maybe she did, and got too flustered to remember it correctly, who knows.

But I was nine, and I didn’t know any of that (at least, not for sure for sure) back then. And so the hurt festered, and the resentment and bitterness toward both my grandma and my only female cousin grew. My instinct now is to feel ashamed that it happened that way, but again, I was nine. I had no tools by which to process my hurt, or to articulate it. And thus was planted what may have been my first experience of my grandmother as imperfect.

There were other experiences along the way, and I wasn’t the only one to notice them. It’s not like there was a long list, and we certainly didn’t have grandma-bashing sessions; I’m just saying, I’m not the only person in my family who had tension or conflict with her over the course of our lives. My grandmother was a matriarch in every sense of the word. We all at intervals adored, respected, and sometimes feared her.

When I was between the ages of twelve and fourteen I had another experience that later cast my grandmother in a negative light. She was a pastor’s wife for almost the entirety of her life with my grandpa. And she was a very good one for her generation. She kept an immaculate house, she played the piano during services, she stood around greeting parish members after church until the sanctuary had all but emptied out, she was friendly and kind and remembered small details about the lives of the parishioners, her clothes were always pressed and clean, and she regularly entertained guests of all kinds in her home. She was truly the picture of a perfect pastor’s wife, adroitly executing her half of the “Pastor and Mrs. Marvin” career package.

But she didn’t always do it without complaining. Once, during a summer visit I was making to their home, I was following her around like a puppy after a Sunday morning service. I was ready to go back to the parsonage to sit around and do nothing (and get out of Sunday church clothes, of course), and I wanted to be sure I was by Grandma’s side when she decided we could go. I remember she ushered me out of the church building more quickly than usual that particular Sunday, not sticking around until every last person had been greeted, not running around cleaning up abandoned Sunday school rooms or dumping half-full pots of coffee in the kitchen sink, not bustling around and turning off lights as she exited each room.

I don’t remember if I asked for an explanation of her hurried behavior or if she offered it unprompted, but I remember what the whispered explanation was: “Let’s get out of here, quickly. If [church parish member’s name] sees me, she’ll want to talk, and then we’ll never get out of here, and I’ll have to invite her to dinner, and I don’t want to do that today.”

At the time, I remember feeling I had been given a reprieve. For the first (and last) time I could remember, I didn’t have to idle around the church building, waiting for one or both of my grandparents to wrap things up. We were going straight home, like normal people did after church! I had won a small but important victory, for I was on summer vacation as a young teenager. Wandering around church buildings waiting for my elders was not on my summer vacation agenda. Sitting around watching TV or movies at their house, though, was.

But I’ve never forgotten my grandma’s words or attitude from that day. They were distinctly inhospitable, and I’ve thought of that moment often over the years, most usually when internally searching for those negative ways to balance out the excessive sentimentality that followed her death, which I mentioned before. Never, I’m ashamed to say, did I also consider the fact that her behavior that day, inhospitable though it may have been, was also supremely uncharacteristic. Never have I considered why she might not want to get drawn into a conversation with a particular parish member, but as an adult who has been drawn into numerous conversations that I did not wish to be part of with fellow churchgoers, Twitter users, or coworkers, I can certainly understand the involuntary cringe that occurs when a person who is long-winded, or difficult to be patient with, or particularly rude, or socially awkward, initiates a conversation.

As a pastor’s wife, my grandma probably had few to zero outlets for her tiredness or inability to handle certain situations on a given day. Perhaps that Sunday she was extra weary. Perhaps she was thinking of the fact that her teenage granddaughter, whom she only saw a couple times a year, was in town, without parents or brother, and that she wanted to maximize the quality time we could have instead of spending it entertaining someone she knew would probably drive me to another part of the house in boredom. Who knows. As I admitted, I’ve never until recently considered what might have been her motivation. I’ve only taken what was most likely a weak, uncharacteristic moment on her part, and have mentally used it against her in the days and weeks and years following her death.

All of my built-up, unresolved resentment toward and frustration with my grandma reached a climax a few weeks ago when a few of us were cleaning out some of her things one Saturday at the house she shared with my grandpa. (We’ve cleaned her things out slowly over the years, it being both too painful and too much volume to do it all at once.) One of the things we found this time was an article she had written for and gotten published in a now-defunct publication called Nazarene Preacher. None of us in the party (made up of my parents, my grandpa, and myself) even knew she’d had anything printed in that publication. We’d never seen these articles before. My grandma was known by everyone in the family as an excellent writer, but it occurred to me when we found these articles that I’d never really read anything she’d written.

I sat down on the bed my grandparents used to share, opened the publication to the page where my grandma’s name was printed, and began to read. To be perfectly honest with you, the publication being called what it was, and my grandma being featured in a column specifically for pastors’ wives, I did not have high hopes for the article. But I was quickly captured by a voice that felt familiar, intrigued by a personal life story I’d never heard. This article, published in 1970, related the personal struggles of a young pastor’s wife, who worked outside the home to supplement the family income, and was also raising four boys, the eldest two of whom were teenagers in 1970. The article, in a very short space, contained a raw and honest account of my grandma’s assessment of her own shortcomings, her misgivings about her duties as a pastor’s wife, her self-doubt about her ability to meet the expectations of that particular and demanding life role. The farther I read, the more familiar the article felt. Even though I’ve never raised children and have never been a pastor’s wife (or even a regular wife, for that matter), I recognized the genuine reflection and introspection I saw unfolding before my eyes. It was the kind of honesty I usually only see…where?

…In my own writing, I realized.

The article ended on a hopeful note; one of encouragement to herself that also served as encouragement to any other wife or mother who might find herself in the same predicament of doubt on a given day.

When I reached the end, tears having welled up in my eyes, I was struck by the overwhelming realization of how alike my grandma and I are, both as writers and as people. Her familiar, inviting voice was my writer’s voice. Her honest, informal, good-naturedly self-deprecating, lay-everything-bare style was my style. And yet, I’ve not been externally influenced by her as a writer because that was the first time I’d ever read anything of hers. I’ve developed those traits naturally over the years. They’ve always been in me. I didn’t know until that day that they were in her too.

I took that article home with me, and I tear up every time I think about it or look at it. I forgave my grandma that day, for all her shortcomings, flaws, and general stains of character. And I gained a new understanding of why we don’t discuss them anymore. It’s not that we’re ignoring them. Nobody thinks my grandma was perfect. But she was part of us, and pieces of her are in all of us, and maybe the best and most faithful way to honor her memory is to cultivate those best parts of her that we find in ourselves.

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Filed under bloggy, sentimental

49 Down: I would like to cancel my _______ subscription.

My paternal grandmother was obsessed with crossword puzzles—to the extent that a book of crosswords was always a good gift for her in a pinch. I remember one time giving her a book of 365 crosswords, one for each day of the year. I opened it up before I gave it to her and did my best work on the puzzle for August 5, hoping it would remind her to think of me that day, my birthday (as if grandmothers need reminding of their grandchildren’s birthdays).

The point is, she was always doing crossword puzzles. When she wasn’t reading or doing housework, she could be found with a crossword. I’ve heard people say it keeps your mind sharp and active and helps prevent Alzheimer’s (how they could possibly know that, I don’t know). And my grandma’s mind was certainly sharp and active, right up until she died. The year after she died (2010), I took up running. It was partly related to my fear of mortality, which I confronted when she died. In 2011, I aspired to read more intelligent books. This was not directly inspired by my grandma, but she did read a lot, and she read super-smart-people books, which I always admired.

This year, in 2012, I made it my resolution to “do more crosswords.” I realize that’s a vague resolution and one that’s extremely easy to keep. Even if I only manage one crossword the entire year, I’m pretty sure it would be more than I did in 2011. Or 2010, for that matter. Luckily, I’ve already done a whole bunch of crosswords this year, so I win! Gee, I feel so fulfilled and accomplished.

Anyway, since I don’t get a newspaper, I needed to find a way to obtain crosswords. I soon learned that a coworker of mine gets the Kansas City Star every morning and, when he’s finished, hands off the sports section to another coworker. This second coworker then began handing off the crossword section (which I guess is located inside the sports section?) to me. It wasn’t long before I realized that I am really good at crosswords. In fact, completing crossword puzzles may just be what I was made to do. And then LF brought me a New York Times crossword. And I soon realized that I am terrible, horrible, no good, very bad at crosswords.

In an attempt to reconcile these polar-opposite experiences, I finally concluded that maybe I’m an average-skill-level crossworder, and perhaps the Kansas City Star crossword is too easy while something like the New York Times (especially past Tuesday) is legitimately difficult.

So LF suggested that I get a book of crossword puzzles that starts easy (so I could feel confident) and gets harder (so I could be challenged) the farther along you get. I brushed off that idea, wisely assuming something like that did not exist—naturally, since I couldn’t find one at that very moment in the Dollar Tree store we happened to be occupying.

Then I kinda forgot about it and just kept doing the KC Star crosswords. And I kept alternating between frustration that those puzzles weren’t more of a challenge and feeling like a crossword master. On Monday night this week, after I successfully completed three KC Star crosswords in a row without even a hint of trouble, I threw all three and the remaining two that I hadn’t started into the recycling bin and told LF I had been considering getting a New York Times subscription. He nodded and said, “Hmm,” and then we talked no more about it that night.

The next day, fresh from my disappointment, I went to nytimes.com and looked up subscription fees. Without really thinking longer than five minutes about it, I got out my debit card and signed up for an old-fashioned home delivery of the New York Times Monday through Friday. My order was confirmed, and I was scheduled to get my first paper Friday, March 23.

After the order was complete, I decided to poke around and see just exactly what I had actually ordered and how much it was going to cost me and how often. The only numbers I had seen prior to providing my credit card information were “$3.85/week” and “first 12 weeks at 50% off,” and this information had been persuasive enough.

Digging around the site for more information turned up nothing about the subscription I had just purchased, but I did find an option for a Premium Digital Crossword package, which cost $40 for the year and gave me access to each NYT crossword daily, plus access to all their archived crosswords. And, I could get the program on my personal computer, smartphone, and iPad. (Never mind that I don’t own a smartphone or iPad. Clearly this was a better deal.) I’ve been rash, I thought. Maybe I should cancel.

My alter ego argued, No, don’t cancel. That’s rude. You got them all excited about getting some money and a new subscriber in an economy and society with a rapidly declining print-newspaper consumer base. You cannot order something and then change your mind only a few minutes later. At least give it a trial run.

Dominant ego almost caved to this argument but rallied at the last second. That’s ridiculous! If I don’t want to buy something, I have absolutely no obligation to buy it! It’s my choice how and where to spend my money, and the financial situation of the New York Times is not going to soar or crumble because of my subscription choice.

So, dominant ego won, and I looked through the FAQs for instructions on how to cancel a subscription. Of course, these instructions were not easy to find, nor were they entirely simple to execute. I was annoyed (but not surprised) when the only thing provided was a telephone number. So I fished my new account number out of my twenty-minutes-old confirmation email and called to cancel.

After pushing four buttons to follow the automated instructions, a live voice came on the line, and this is how my conversation went:

“Umm, yes, hello, I would like to cancel my, uh, subscription.”

“Okay, give me your phone number.”

“Four-zero-five—”

“Area code first!”

“Okay. Umm, Four-zero-five… Six-two-seven…” (You get the idea; no, I will not give you my phone number in a blog post. Nice try, creepers.)

“Okay, and give me your first and last name and your street address, including zip code.”

I gave all this information.

She said, “It looks like you just subscribed only a few minutes ago. You haven’t even received your first paper yet. Why do you want to cancel?”

“Uh, yeah, well… I really just wanted the crossword, and I found out after subscribing that I can just subscribe to the Premium Digital Crossword package instead, so I’d rather do that.”

“But the Premium Digital Crossword package is included at no extra charge in the subscription you have just signed up for.”

“Okay, but—”

“The Premium Digital Crossword package is actually an annual fee, but you’ll pay monthly for the home delivery service, with access to the Premium Digital Crossword.”

“Okay, but I don’t really see how an annual payment is worse.”

“You’re getting less.”
“But I want less. I only signed up so I could get the crossword.”

“But you’re getting so much more.”

“But I won’t use so much more. I just want the crossword.”

“Well, you’re getting the crossword. And the Premium Digital Crossword package. For free.”

“Yes, I understand that. Okay, let me ask you this. I am not really sure exactly how much I am going to be charged for this, or when I will be charged for it. The website said something about 12 weeks, but I don’t understand if that means I’m paying right now for 12 weeks all at once, or if I pay monthly, and will I have to renew my subscription after 12 weeks?”

“Okay, let me look up your account… Oh. Well.”

“What?”

“It won’t show me the payment details because the account is so new.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Since you just signed up, it won’t let me look at all the details yet.”

“Hmm. Well, can we just cancel it then?”

“I don’t think you want to do that. Do you understand what a better deal this is?”

“Yes, but—”

“Ma’am, you are getting the Premium Digital Crossword package for free. And home delivery.”

“I understand that, but doesn’t that mean I’ll just be doing the same puzzle twice? If I do it in the morning at work, using the premium package, and then go home and pick up my paper, won’t that be the same crossword I just did that morning?”

“But you also have access to the entire archive. Why don’t you just try it out and see? You haven’t even gotten your first paper yet.”

“Well, fine. I guess I will just try it and see if I like it.”

“And if you want to cancel or make changes to your account at any time, it’s very easy to do so.”

“Clearly.”

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No thanks.”

“Have a nice day, and thank you for subscribing to the New York Times!”

I went back to work and mostly forgot about the situation for the time being. Then I went to lunch and got into a conversation about it with a coworker. He listened to my story and affirmed my frustrations and even reminded me that “the customer is always right.” He ended the conversation by wishing me luck next time I tried to cancel and said he hoped I didn’t get the same lady.

I went back to my desk feeling like I could handle a three-month trial of home delivery and making a mental plan to call again after the three months were up and cancel without backing down. I even logged on to my new account and completed a couple of the crosswords that were part of the Premium Digital Crossword package. But all this did was remind me that digital crosswords are just not the same.

Then, later that afternoon, I talked to a friend on Gchat about the whole thing, and she listened politely then asked one simple question: “Why don’t you just buy a book of New York Times crosswords?”

Incredulous, I asked, “Those exist?”

She then linked me to an Amazon page with uncounted listings of NYT crossword books. The one I instantly chose advertised 200 puzzles that progress from easy to difficult. Sold! Also, it was about $5 cheaper and would give me 140 more crosswords than my three-month 50%-off subscription to the NYT home delivery. Double sold! Before I could change my mind, I bought the book, confident this would strengthen my resolve to cancel my delivery subscription even in the face of the most tenacious and determined salesperson.

I called, went through the automated process again, and was connected to Bonnie, who asked how she could help me today.

“Um, yes, hello, I would like to cancel my subscription.”

“Okay, I can certainly help you do that today. Would you please give me your phone number?”

I gave it.

“Would you please verify your name and address?”

I verified.

“Hmm. I see that you have already tried once today to cancel your account?”

“Err, yes, that’s true.”

“And yet you decided not to. But you’ve changed your mind again. Could I ask why?”

“Well, the truth is that I didn’t actually change my mind. I just got tired of arguing with the other lady because she wouldn’t listen to me, so it was easier to give up and not cancel.”

“I see. Well, I do apologize, and I can assure you that you will not have that experience with me. I’ve already started your cancellation process, but can I ask why you would like to cancel today?”

“Well, it’s kind of a long story, but basically I just wanted to get the crosswords, and then someone told me that I can buy a book of New York Times crosswords, so I’d rather just do that because then I wouldn’t have the whole bulky paper, and I wouldn’t feel like I was getting behind if I couldn’t do one every day. And I can stay in the easy section for a while until I feel ready to graduate to something more difficult, rather than be forced to move the very next day to a more difficult puzzle. And I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping all the old newspapers around to check the answers because, well, you know, they’d just be right there in the back of the book.”

“Okay then.”

“You’re still going to let me cancel, right?”

“Certainly. But let me just make sure—did my colleague this morning make you aware of the Digital Premium Crossword package?”

“Yes, she did. Please, let’s not go through that again.”

“Certainly. I do apologize. Please understand I’m just asking questions I’m required to ask. We have a script, you know.”

“I understand. But all my answers are no, and I just want to get to the part where you tell me my subscription is canceled.”

“Certainly. Okay, let me just push a few buttons here, and you’ll be on your way.”

“Great, thank you.”

“Okay, Audra, you’re all set. Your subscription is now canceled, and you will not be receiving your first delivery, which was scheduled for Friday, March 23.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“Nope, just the cancellation.”

“Okay then. Thank you for calling, and thank you for subscribing to the New York Times. Have a nice day now.”

Thank goodness I was able, with only two phone calls, to get it canceled. I really felt like shouting, “I wanna quit the newspaper!” I am relieved it didn’t get that far. (If you recognized that Friends reference, we can probably be friends for life.) Now I’m just waiting for the book to come. Coincidentally, it’s scheduled to arrive the same day my first paper was scheduled to deliver. But now, instead of just one puzzle on Friday, I’ll have 200!

Grandma, I hope to make you proud with my crossword prowess. And if I ever manage to get my hands on a puzzle-a-day book, I’ll make sure the first puzzle I complete is February 1.

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Filed under bloggy, goals, the industry

Token Year-End Recap: 2011

Last year I wrote a list of 10 things I wanted to remember about 2010, which fit nicely because of the whole parallelism thing. So this year I was going to do 11 things I want to remember about 2011, but I don’t know how many years I’m planning to do this annual post, and it seemed like I could easily get myself into a pickle once we got up to the year 2050 (and possibly before that). So I think I’m going to stick with 10 because 10 is a nice, round number.

And so, I give you: 10 Things I Want to Remember about 2011 (in chronological order):

1) Getting my First Housemate
Before January 2011, the only time I lived with someone outside my parents’ house was in college, when I had the same roommate for four years. That relationship had its complications and faults, as any roommate situation will, but overall, the fact that we were able to live together for four years, especially in the midst of some of our friends changing roommates every semester, indicated that we had figured out something pretty good. When she decided to have a husband instead of a roommate, I decided to live alone, and I did so from May 2006 until January 2011 – almost five full years – in four different places (two apartments and two houses, the last [and current] house being the one I bought). After about eight months of solo home ownership, some different factors combined to make me wonder whether a co-habitation situation might be more cost efficient and might do a service to someone needing a place to live. Acting on these inklings, I set out to find someone to share my living space and pay me rent, and through the connection of a mutual friend, I was introduced by email to Jordan, who now occupies the master bedroom in my house.

The first time I met Jordan in person was the afternoon he pulled up to my curb with his Jeep and an attached trailer full of all his stuff that I helped him move in. I didn’t know yet how things would pan out, and a wiser person than I would probably have been apprehensive about the fact that all I had was an email exchange agreeing on the rent rate to serve as the guidelines that would govern our living situation. But, without a lease or contract, without setting any rules, and without really discussing our habits with each other, we embarked on the adventure of co-ed, non-domestic-partnership occupation of a two-bedroom house, and I have to say, I don’t know if it could have worked out better if I’d handpicked someone myself (say, my old college roommate, for instance). Perhaps I got lucky, or perhaps the mutual friend who suggested the arrangement knew us better than we thought, or perhaps God has blessed the situation. Whatever it is, Jordan and I are just a few days away from one full year of living in the same house, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it has turned out. I don’t know when he plans to move out, and I have no plans to ask him to move out, so I think things are still going well.

2) Cross-Country Road Trip with Grandpa
Hands down, this is probably my favorite memory from 2011. The last time I went on a vacation with my grandpa, I was 10 years old, and my grandma was with us too. So a two-week road trip without my grandma and as an adult was, to say the least, a recipe for a memorable adventure. We spent 14 days driving as far north as Madison, Wisconsin, and as far east as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then back home to Kansas City. We did and saw a lot and had only a few hiccups along the way. I would for sure do something like this again, but I think I will urge Grandpa to get his car’s air conditioning double checked before we leave next time. It broke halfway through the trip, and we spent the next seven days without cool air. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t horrible until the day we drove from West Virginia to Indianapolis. That day was long, hot, and sticky. The air conditioning debacle was the only major thing that went wrong. We had a good time and got some great pictures, and I kept the Twitter world up to date as we went, tweeting such gems as these along the way:

Road trip rule #1: driver controls radio. We`re listening to jazz across iowa.

Unscheduled stop #1: National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, IA.
I was wrong. Driver does NOT control radio. In grandpa`s car, grandpa controls radio. Gospel choir across ohio.
Me: goodnight, see you in the morning! Gpa: Thanks for the warning!
A 2 1/2-mile hike with a swim in the middle fork river in the middle. All at Audra State Park. Now that`s a good day!
Eating at “the most visited restaurant” in this town. They fail to mention that`s bc it`s the ONLY one.
My alarm went off at 5 this am. Gpa wasn’t awake yet. His groggy response: “You play music in the middle of the night?”

3) Running my 2nd Half Marathon
I think we all remember how excited and proud I was when I ran my first half marathon. In April 2011 I surprised myself again by completing my second one. My time was slower, and my training hadn’t been as rigorous, and I was admittedly less ecstatic about this one (due to other extenuating factors surrounding and leading up to the event itself), but in the end, I had another medal and another proud notch on the bedpost of my athletic accomplishments. And a hankering to train again for another…

4) Celebrating a Friendship’s 10-Year Anniversary
That college roommate I mentioned in #1 plays a key role in the significance of this one. We met in the summer of 2001, a year and a half before we would live together for four consecutive years (excluding one semester that she spent in Russia). Since then, we have been through a lot, both together and separately. The friendship itself even went through a tough period that required an emotional reconciliation, which happened, coincidentally, last summer – just in time to acknowledge the fact that we had been friends for 10 years. We have had a few rough patches, but we’ve mostly had laughter and joy, and we’ve racked up an impressive list of inside jokes (half of which one of us can’t even remember). There are people in my life I’ve known longer than Adrianne, and there are people I’ve known the same amount of time. But there is no one else unrelated by blood whom I’ve kept in such consistent contact with for 10 full years. Here’s to another ten years of inside jokes we can’t properly explain. 

5) Becoming a Church Board Member
I have been part of my church in Kansas City now for just over two years, which I don’t consider a long time. So it surprised me when my pastor informed me last June that I had been nominated to serve on our church board, and it was with humble hesitation that I eventually accepted the nomination. I had no idea what it would be like, but after six months of service, I have learned to see the church (local and global) in a whole new light. Serving on the church board has helped me see how the body of Christ really does need to be a body, with many different parts. I have truly found a family in my church, and my service on the board, though occasionally time consuming and sometimes even inconvenient, has been rewarding beyond expectation. I have seen fellow members of my church family in new ways and have learned to feel compassion and empathy in ways I didn’t know were possible. And, above all, I have been reminded, time and again, that nothing in this life is about us.

6) Riding my First Motorcycle
Everyone who gets to have this experience considers it a memorable one, right? Well, if they don’t, they’re a lump of lard. However, I have extra reasons not to forget my first motorcycle experience because it coincides with my first large-scale, full-blown tick infestation. Last summer I made a new friend, and he owns a motorcycle and offered to give me a ride when he found out I’d never been on one. Obviously, I took him up on the offer, and one beautiful Saturday morning in August, he came and picked me up, and we rode all over Kansas City. We rode on interstates, on surface roads, on two-lane roads, on gravel roads, and on country highways. We went everywhere.

At one point, we stopped for an intermission and tromped through some very high grass on an exploration mission of some kind. Unfortunately, that high grass was where I apparently picked up a small colony of ticks. I felt kind of itchy several minutes after we left the wooded and high-grass area, and later, when I got home and peeled off my pants, shoes, and socks, I discovered that my legs, ankles, and feet were completely covered in ticks (and therefore tick bites). I scraped them all off, did a thorough inspection of the rest of my body (having horrible flashbacks of the scrubbings I used to get after coming home from romps in my grandparents’ wooded farm property), and took a scalding-hot shower just to be safe. And then I spent the next three weeks with red, splotchy legs and feet and dark surface scars I was sure would never disappear. Six months later, there is no trace of the markings, and I don’t have Lyme disease, thank goodness. But, even though we have no pictures from the legendary three-hour motorcycle ride, I don’t think I will ever forget it, thanks to the nice insects that decided to host their family reunion on my body.

7) My 27th Birthday
I have had a lot of memorable birthdays in my life (mainly because birthdays are very important to me, and my friends and family know that and do a good job of making them memorable), and 27 was no exception. My wonderful friends J.R. and Jenny Caines (who also happen to be the parents of two of my favorite boys in the whole world, Jack and Cason) hospitably opened their home to me (even though Jenny was 8 months pregnant and it was the hottest week of the year) on the momentous occasion of August 5, 2011, and I threw a party and celebrated turning 27 with 20 of my closest friends in Kansas City. We talked, laughed, ate, drank (cream soda only, no alochol, I promise – even though there are some pictures up on Facebook that make it look like I’m drinking alcohol), played games, and generally just celebrated me. Which, coincidentally, is pretty much my favorite thing to do on my birthday. And then, the next day, LF came back in town, and I got to celebrate all over again with him. We had been dating all of two weeks by then, but we had a blast having a book-burning party on my porch. And so 27 became a birthday milestone I hope I don’t forget.

8) Running my 3rd Half Marathon
Would you believe it, I ran yet another half marathon. That makes three overall. It was quite a year for me athletically. Not to mention the 5, 10, and 15k races I did in June, August, and September leading up to the half. I still sometimes have trouble believing that I have done three half marathons. It’s just such an absurd thought. But the third one was the Kansas City Half, and my dear friend Reese came up from Oklahoma City to run it with me. Half marathons are so much more enjoyable (even if, like me, you hate running) when you run them with friends, and so far I have been lucky enough to run all three of mine with very good friends. This half was my favorite. The course was delightful, and (as I discovered at the half I did in April), I very much enjoy running through my own city. Of course, I haven’t put on my running attire since October, but oh well. I trust I’ll get back to it soon enough.

9) Learning to Love Scrabble
One of the biggest things I am ashamed of in my life is how bad I am at word games, Scrabble especially. As an editor, a writer, a wordsmith, and a general lover of language, linguistics, and all things word related, people assume I am an expert at word games. It has been a point of embarrassment when people have chosen me to be on their teams for word game challenges and then been disappointed to find that I am actually their least valuable player. They say, “But how can you not be good at word games?” and all I can do is shrug my shameful shoulders. Because of this, my attempts at Scrabble have been limited, and I have mostly avoided the game. It depresses me to play it because of how horrible I am at it.

For my birthday this year, some wonderful friends (who weren’t aware of my hate-hate relationship with this game) gave me Scrabble, thinking (sensibly) that I would love it. I smiled and said thank you, knowing I should love it and understanding the reasoning behind their thinking. But I went home and put the game away and did not expect to play it, except maybe once, just to be able to tell them I had. But then LF found out that I had received it, and he urged me to play with him. To humor him (because the relationship was still quite new at that point), I relented, and we played. On our first game, I lost by a humiliating margin. I didn’t really enjoy myself, and I didn’t want to play again. But LF kept asking me to play periodically, again and again, and I began to notice that my technique was improving and that the difference in our scores at the end wasn’t nearly as vast.

I realized that Scrabble is not all about being really good with words. It’s also about strategizing your tile placement for maximum point scoring. Besides that, LF took pity on me in my despair and has been an encouraging, kind, helpful, and – most importantly – lenient Scrabble opponent. He has helped me learn to enjoy Scrabble, and he has even been open to rule modifications so that, twice now, we have played Themed Scrabble, where we only put down words that fit an established theme. And now, I am usually the one who suggests a game of Scrabble, and except for that first game, I cannot think of a time that I have not enjoyed playing.

10) Officially Deciding to Pursue a Master’s Degree
This is arguably the most significant event that occurred in 2011, at least with regard to my future, even though technically a decision isn’t really an event. It felt big for me, though. After I finished undergrad, I declared that graduate school was not in the cards for me. I claimed I was sick of school and was ready to experience a part of life that didn’t center around studying, writing papers, and sitting in classrooms. And I was, and I think that was fair. I had spent my whole life in school. But lately I have been missing the classroom. I have been itching to be challenged and pushed and evaluated.

I haven’t thought a lot about the degree I would pursue because I thought I didn’t have much of a choice. I’m not interested in a literature degree, but English is the only thing I can do, so the only other option seemed to be writing. Having a master’s degree in writing sounds impressive, I thought. And besides that, it certainly wouldn’t hurt my editorial career. And then one day, as I thought about how much I love language – the study of all languages, not just English – I realized that linguistics might be a wiser choice for a degree.

I have been stewing about all of this for a year now, and for a year I’ve been waffling and dragging my feet about committing. But near the end of 2011, I made a firm decision, and I am now enrolled in back-to-back GRE prep courses for the duration of the spring semester, after which I hope to take the general GRE and then enroll in a graduate program. I still don’t have all the details worked out, but these are my goals.

***

I don’t have a lot of complaints about 2011. It was a good year. There are things I am happy to leave behind, though – emotions I’m relieved to have finally shed and unhealthy mindsets I’ve made a conscious effort to change. Just like everyone else, I don’t know what 2012 will hold, but I am looking forward to finding out.

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The Crippling Burden of Fear: Reflections on Japan’s Tragedy

As you will see if you are not Google Reading (or email subscribing), I’ve added a new feature on my sidebar, one I’ll update on a regular basis depending on what I’m currently reading. Because I tend to keep a bookmark in multiple books at a time (I’ve never been the girl who packs too many clothes for vacation because she doesn’t know what “mood” she’ll be in each day; I’ve always been the girl who packs too many books.), some of the books on this list will stay there a lot longer than others. For instance, you’ll notice that two of the books are classics, and they are indeed numbers 2 and 3 in my 12 Classics project. So they will likely stay there longer than the other three, one of which I actually did already finish last night.

Tonight’s reading pleasure drew me into what has so far been a fantastic novel, told from the perspective of a dog. I absolutely promise it’s not cheesy at all. (And by the way, why nobody recommends these kinds of novels to me, I will never know – come on, people. You know I love dogs.)

The book in question is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. This is one of those books on the cover of which it is necessary to include the words A Novel in lieu of a subtitle, lest potential readers mistake it for a memoir or some other nonfiction book that would be impossibly boring (like a how-to manual explaining the particulars of actually racing in the rain). Given that it is a novel, though, the title is rather clever, and the book itself is certainly engaging. I was tipped off to its existence by the NPR Books Facebook page, which has been a book-recommendation enlightenment, to say the least.

So this afternoon I was thinking about a specific issue I wanted to flesh out in writing. I decided to put it on the back burner for a few hours, but when the substance of this very issue presented itself in the pages of the book I picked up tonight, I decided it was time to get the thought out.

Here is the quote from The Art of Racing in the Rain that goes so well with the thoughts I was chewing on earlier today:

The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles…in order to triumph. A hero without a flaw is of no interest to the audience or the universe…

So this afternoon I was thinking (as everyone has been the past three days) of Japan. I watched a really horrifying video of the tsunami waters rising to unbelievable depths in a matter of minutes.

We’ve all heard of floodwaters so strong they engulf everything in their path as they rage along their fated course, right? But I bet not as many of us have witnessed such a terrible event in person, and I bet even fewer of us have stopped to comprehend what this really means.

For instance, when I have heard statements like this in the past, I’ve merely imagined something akin (but perhaps on a lesser scale) to what I figure the biblical flood would’ve been like – a basic submerging and washing out of everything (or most things) visible. Houses submerged. Cars submerged. Multiple-storied buildings perhaps half or partially submerged. The usual flooded basements and underground dwellings and, in especially tragic circumstances, some truly ruinous above-ground damage.

But, whether consciously or unconsciously, and maybe as a result of my lack of experience with or exposure to truly disastrous natural occurrences, my mind has always imagined scenarios in which everything stays where it is. Everything gets sort of swallowed up by these raging waters, and yes, things get ruined, but everything stays put.

But that is not at all what unfolded before my eyes during this horrific, six-minute video of the tsunami in Japan. The obvious things were swept along with the waters – anything untethered or freestanding fell victim. But so did bigger, heavier things, like giant trucks and 15-passenger vans. This tsunami water was a different animal entirely, with a current so strong it was not only engulfing and sweeping away these less than rooted things – it was quite literally having its way with the town through which it surged.

I watched as the perspective of the camera turned toward a shop with some displays still hanging in its windows. The camera held steady on the spectacle as the water effortlessly opened the doors of this shop and swirled inside, effectively destroying everything in those front windows, of course, along with any other inventory that would’ve been in there.

Fittingly, the most disconcerting and climactic event happened during the last 30 seconds of this film, during which an entire building – think, community center, rec center, some sort of public place of gathering or business of some kind, this huge building – suddenly detached itself from the ground – intact, foundation and all – and floated on top of the floodwaters like nothing more trivial than a child’s dollhouse. I watched for a few more seconds as the tide carried it in the same path as everything else, and I thought, What happens when it reaches a tight spot it can’t fit through? It’s just going to crash into something – forcefully!

The camera, for the briefest of seconds before shutting off, then trained its eye on a group of spectators on the other side of these torrential waters, standing and staring as their entire lives were literally uprooted and carried away before their very eyes. That is when the video ended, and I was left with the indelible memory of a) this enormous building floating along purposefully and swiftly – someone’s livelihood, most likely – sure to meet a crashing doom with someone else’s livelihood not far down the road; and b) this group of stranded, desolate people who must be wondering what the hell they’re supposed to do now.

And I uttered a prayer for them and for everyone in Japan (and everyone worldwide) who has been affected by this horrible, awful catastrophe, this “natural” disaster that is at once everything that defines natural but also completely and incredibly and terrifyingly unnatural at the exact same time. And then the next prayer I uttered, before my conscience could keep me from it, was, selfishly, for myself.

And then a very interesting (and revealing) conversation with the Holy Spirit (or God, or Jesus, or whichever member of the Trinity you’re most comfortable imagining conversations with) ensued (my thoughts in italics; divine response in parentheses):

God, please keep me from encounters of such disaster in my life.
(My word, what a selfish prayer. You’d better amend that, Audra.)
Okay. God, I apologize for my fear. But in the last five years of my life, it seems like the number of “natural” disasters has increased dramatically over anything I can ever remember happening at any other time in my life, and I guess I just feel like there’s nowhere to run; there’s nowhere to hide, and eventually, if they keep up at this rate, I’m going to end up being personally affected in a very deep and scarring and hurtful way. And I’d like to avoid that.

(Wow. Well, nice job staying self-involved. But consider this: When you moved into your neighborhood and people asked you if you feared for your life or your personal safety, you often flippantly answered, “If God deems it my time to leave this earth, he’ll take me whether I’m in the suburbs or the desert or the heart of the city.”)
Yes. What’s your point?
(Well, you have arrogantly boasted of your trust in the Father when it comes to the matter of your death.)
Yes. Again, your point?

(Well, what of your trust in the Father when it comes to your life?)

It was at this point that I realized that my fear is not death. In the middle of the United States, here in Kansas City or down in Oklahoma City, where I spent seven years of my post-high-school life, the climate-related disasters are usually of the cyclonic variety. I realized that I have no fear of being killed by a tornado. If that’s the way I’m going to go, so be it. Death holds no power over me.

My fear, however, is of living through a natural disaster. My fear is of survival. My fear is of rebuilding. Of things not being the same. Of financial uncertainty and insurance nightmares and the loss of material objects that seem crucial to my existence – my car, the shelter over my head, my tax papers, my means of identification – of proving that I am who I say I am. Worse than this, my fears are of surviving alone – losing my family, my friends, my place of employment – heck, even my dog.

I guess what I was really praying for when I pleaded, Don’t let disaster come to me was, Don’t test my strength of character. I like to believe that I have a strong and independent personality. But I don’t want to be put in a situation where I have to find out for sure. Because what I’m really afraid of? Is that I have no reserves. No tough to “get going” when the going gets tough. No resourcefulness, no deeply buried strength or independence or integrity. No tenacity.

So, in the hours since I had this revelation, my prayer has changed once again to something more earnest and more frightening (for how much trust it requires): Take my fear, my weakness, my instability. Help me be not afraid.

During one of my family’s many hospital vigils near the end of my grandmother’s life, my aunt Leigh and I were taking our turn sitting with my grandma by her bed. My grandma squeezed my hand and whispered so softly that we  both had to lean in to hear her, “I’m afraid.”

And my aunt Leigh, without missing a beat, squeezed her other hand in return and said gently, “Do not be afraid. Do you know how many times the Bible tells us not to be afraid?” Slight pause while my grandma shook her head. Leigh continued, “365 times. That’s one for every day of the year.”

Easier said than done, that’s for sure. But part of my Lenten commitment this year is to learn to be present; to empathize; to help shoulder some of the very heavy burdens that others less fortunate than I are being forced to bear.

Because, as my friend Danielle said the other day, “That’s what we’re all here for anyway, isn’t it? To help each other.”

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Tree Stars and Wooden Spoons: The Value of a Memory

Today my paternal grandmother would’ve been 76. It’s been one year and just over two months since she died. This is the second time my family has celebrated her birthday without her there.

My grandma is never far from my mind. Lots of things remind me of her. Lots of things make me wish she were still around. And a select few things make me think, I’m glad Grandma’s not here to see this.

But I’ve especially been thinking about her lately and, more specifically, why certain material items have more value now that she is gone. It pains me a little bit to think that certain things I’ve touched, owned, used, put my mark on, etc., won’t be valuable to anyone until after I’ve died – and that the only reason they will be valuable will be because I’m dead. And this isn’t specific to me. It’s a common trend. It is the reason Emily Dickinson is famous. (And anybody who knows me knows that I hate Emily Dickinson, partly because of this.) It is the reason anything used or owned or touched by Michael Jackson (or any other dead celebrity) is worth so much money.

As this relates to me specifically (and my grandma), my most prized possession since she died has been a wooden spoon that she left to me.

When I was 12 years old, I was baking brownies with my grandma in her kitchen. We were making them from a box, not from scratch. (For shame! My mother taught me always to make brownies and chocolate chip cookies from scratch.) Anyway, I had all the ingredients poured into the bowl, and they were ready to be mixed. I asked my grandma for a mixer, and she clucked her tongue at me like I’d asked for something inappropriate. “You think your grandmother uses a mixer?!” she said with offense I was unable to identify as feigned or legitimate. I remember thinking, You use box brownies but not a mixer?

Anyway, as I stood there perplexed, she went to a drawer and pulled out a wooden spoon. She held it out for me to take, but when I reached for it, she yanked it back and said, “Now this isn’t just any wooden spoon. This is the best wooden spoon you will ever use in your whole life. Are you ready?”

Then she let me take it, and we counted together as I stirred the 540 strokes the box recommended. As I stirred, I told her, “Wow, Grandma, this is the best wooden spoon ever!” Then, like the impertinent 12-year-old that I was, I asked her if I could have the spoon when she died.

Luckily, instead of being offended, she laughed and said, “Of course!” Then she took a knife and lightly carved my initials into handle on the back of the spoon, just in case anyone tried to deny me my inheritance.

Fourteen years later, a few days before she died, she heartbreakingly told my parents, “Tell Audra to go get her spoon.”

I did get that spoon, and I’ve used it a few times since then. I’ve carried on her legacy the best I can by telling everyone it’s the best wooden spoon in the world. But nobody else gets it. And, even for me, the magic of using the best wooden spoon ever has evaporated. The allure that spoon held for me was not in its superior wooden-spoon properties. Instead, the joy I got from using it came from the bond it formed between my grandmother and me – a bond that is broken, now that she isn’t here to count with me when I mix up brownies or cookies.

Last summer, I threw a birthday party for a friend and began to make some cookies while everyone was there. My friend Wes volunteered to do the mixing, and he was using that spoon. The dough got thick and tough to stir by hand, and he mentioned that the spoon might break. I said, “It better not. That spoon was my grandma’s, and she left it to me when she died.”

He joked, “What if it did break? What would you do?”

I said, “I would cry. That’s not funny.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the spoon snapped in his hand, and I stood there in disbelief for a couple of seconds before I actually did start crying.

Poor Wes. He felt horrible. And I felt bad for making him feel horrible. But I had so many emotions tied to that spoon, and the tears came before I could think about it.

Everyone else at the party tried to console me, saying the spoon could be glued back together, etc., etc. And they took it home with the intent to do just that. Four months later, I got the spoon back, glued together and a little worse for the wear but still functional. A week ago, I was using it to stir something on the stove, and it broke in my own hand.

I didn’t cry that time. I simply rinsed off the pieces and put them on the back of the sink. And that’s where the two pieces have been sitting ever since. And every time I see them I think of her.

I’ve decided not to glue them back together this time. The spoon is not what’s important anyway. My memory of using the spoon with my grandma is what’s important. Using it without her hasn’t been half as fun. And, now that it sits on the sink, in plain sight all the time, I remember her more often than I did when it merely sat in a drawer, hidden from view, waiting to be used.

I was watching one of my favorite movies from childhood last week, The Land Before Time. I watched this movie so often as a kid that I can quote it pretty well even to this day. I absolutely loved that movie, and I still love it, probably just as much. In the movie, Littlefoot’s mother gives him what she calls a “tree star” and says it is very special. Littlefoot holds onto it but does not come to revere it until after his mother dies. Only after her death does the tree star become Littlefoot’s most valuable possession.

What I didn’t understand when I was a kid – and only realized a week ago, after watching this movie again for the first time in however many years – is that the tree star is nothing more than a leaf. Food, to a brontosaurus (what Littlefoot is). When Littlefoot’s mother gives it to him, it is special only because food in the land is scarce. But in the Great Valley, where all the dinosaurs are headed, there are more tree stars than anyone can count, and they will not be viewed by anyone as anything other than nourishment – certainly not as a special gift to be guarded and cared for and not torn, as Littlefoot treats it.

But Littlefoot’s tree star is special because it is the last thing his mother gives him before she dies. And from said principle I derived the value of my grandmother’s wooden spoon.

I understand this logic. But it’s also sad to me that material possessions become so valuable to us after someone dies. Materialism is frowned upon in many circles, except when it has to do with someone who has died. Then, by all means, be as materialistic as you want, is the general message.

But I have found that there truly is no value in these physical objects. I don’t need that spoon, and Littlefoot doesn’t need the tree star (as we find out when Sharptooth finds the ragtag gang of dinos and stomps the tree star into tiny pieces in a scene near the end). The true value is in our memories, and while some material objects may serve to remind us of certain and precious memories from time to time, we really need to look no further than our hearts in order to remember fondly.

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