Great to Good

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Tim Curry  supposedly said that the dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity.

I try not to have too many regrets, but sometimes it’s harder than others to stay juicy.

I recently turned 59. And something about realizing it was my last year before turning 60 made me reflective. The sixties are the decade of retirement and endings…I mean, I know in my head that’s not true, but that little negative voice popped up and said I’d better take stock of what I’ve done in life.

Or maybe it was the drivers’ license.

I live in South Carolina. In its wisdom, my state refused to make its drivers get the kind of license that the rest of the country uses because it’s hard to counterfeit, which I guess we need in this post-9/11 world. But South Carolina thumbed its nose at the Feds until it realized that meant we couldn’t travel without passports. So now we need to get new driver’s licenses.

It took forever and about 300 pieces of paper to prove I was who I said I was. The woman at the photo counter said I could take my glasses off. And I could smile. I had some witty quip. Don’t know what it was, but while I said it, my mouth fell open into a wide laugh, my eyes squinted, and my chin tucked, making about five extra chins. And, click! There’s your photo!

I look like a pasty pumpkin with raisin eyes.

Think I’m exaggerating? My husband looked at it and visibly shuddered.

Try living with THAT for 9 years when the thing expires!

So, of course, I obsessed and stared at the photo all the way home.

But what if it did? Photos don’t lie, right?

And if I’m wrong about the way I look, what else am I wrong about?

And then, I thought about the (very) long list of things I may never achieve:

  • Be a great dancer
  • Be a star athlete
  • Play the piano
  • Start a nonprofit
  • Run for office
  • Get my novel published

 

I am realizing that I will never be great. At anything. That being good – or even average — is going to have to be good enough.

Business books tell you how to go from good to great. I’m learning how to go from great to good.

But ultimately, I think I’d rather keep falling on my ass after the leap than sitting on my ass refusing to even try.

And that driver’s license? I got it retaken. And I did smile, but not the full-on chortle that brought out the extra chins. It’s not going to be on any magazine covers, but it’s not going to scare the children, either.

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Sourdough Lessons

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Bread is considered one of the most humble of foods. Little did I know that humble bread would humble and humiliate me in a battle to doughy death.

A year or so ago, I thought it would be cool to have a sourdough starter. I kept it in the refrigerator in a glass mason jar with a hinged top that locked into place. I’d feed it every week or so if I remembered and the stuff would separate into a murky whitish putty underneath a cloudy liquid. Sometimes I would make bread, adding yeast because that’s what you do when you make bread, along with the sourdough starter. The bread was okay, nothing great and kind of dense. My husband went on the no-carb wagon and the bread-making got farther and father apart.

And then, one day I noticed that my sourdough starter had started growing green fuzz. Not in the starter itself, but up the sides of the jar and in and around the rubber sealing ring of the lid.

I joined a Facebook group of sourdough experts and asked around. I was right – green fuzz is no good. I dumped the whole thing. Didn’t even keep the pretty jar.

After a few weeks and lots of lurking on that Facebook page, I began to see the error of my ways. I had starved my starter. That cloudy liquid on the top was called hooch and it’s like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors – it’s your starter saying, “Feed me, Seymour!”

Without enough good bacteria, the mold had gotten a toehold in the jar.

Okay, I could do this.

I sent off to San Francisco – home of all things sourdough – for a new batch of starter. I ordered a new pretty jar. And I began again. I even named my starter this time, a sarcastic name, but still a name. She is Princess.

I fed Princess more consistently. When I was ready to make bread, I took some starter out, fed that, and let it rest and do its thing.

I followed the recipe to the letter. The dough was wet and not particularly springy. But I had faith. I baked. It took longer than the recipe said, but I knew I wanted a dark crust. So I baked longer.

The moment of truth: I cooled my bread and cut into it. A crusty, dense hockey puck, the middle still raw and the crust nearly impenetrable.

Over on the Facebook page, the group was posting photos. Golden loaves and boules with elaborate carvings of leaves and braids. I had a hockey puck and these people were practically making sourdough castles complete with moats and dragons.

I tossed my hockey puck – honestly, not even the birds would eat it. And I tried again.

The process takes days. You have to take Princess out and let her warm up, take out a little bit and feed that, do more adding, waiting and something called folding. If you start early Thursday morning, you should have bread by Sunday night.

But I did every step. Gave it extra rising time.

This time, a Frisbee. Edible and cooked through, but hardly lovely. Barely bread. More like a cakey focaccia.

I’m going to try again, of course. My persnickety princess of a starter is not going to win.

Vicki from the Facebook group told me what I’ve come to learn as the real truth:

She said:

“When I really put my mind to it, really pay attention and stay in the moment (i.e. I’m mindful), the bread is much, much better than when I dash through it thinking about other things. Sourdough really responds to thoughtful hands. Mindfulness isn’t what I had in mind when I started baking, but it’s what I discovered along the way.”

Fine. Mindfulness is a lesson I am still trying to learn and if sourdough is here to teach me, then I’ll try to learn that. Sourdough…it’s science, it’s art, it’s Zen. And it may be more than I can handle.

 

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Hurricane Lessons

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I live in Charleston, SC and we have been so lucky that Hurricane Florence took a detour on her way down the coast. We watch with grief and empathy as our neighbors to the north deal with cresting waters days after the hurricane.

This isn’t my first hurricane. I grew up in New Orleans. I lived through Betsy and Camille and, I confess, I was too young to understand what all the fuss was about until we drove back home and my favorite toys – the ones I’d left on the floor because I was kind of a sloppy kid – were floating in water. And the house at the end of our street was sheared in half by a tornado.

Later, I watched from afar as Katrina destroyed a lot of what was familiar about New Orleans.

So, I take hurricanes seriously and I have learned a lot of things about getting ready for hurricanes. Boarding up the windows. Buying lots of water and toilet paper and canned food. Making lots of pre-emptive hotel reservations out of the storm path because you’re never quite sure where that path will be. Have your important papers ready to go.

Those are some of the big lessons.

And the biggest lesson of all is what you take with you when you have to decide what’s important enough to save.

Lots has been written about that, and I’m not going to get into anything that profound.

I’m here to talk about the little lessons they don’t teach you. The ones you won’t hear from The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore.

Lesson One: You’re probably going to gain weight. Cat Five isn’t the hurricane level, it’s the number of pounds you can expect. If you evacuate, you’re eating bad food. And if you stay, there’s a moral obligation to empty your freezer in case the power goes out. Who knew your freezer had so much ice cream and pastry?

Lesson Two: Whatever chronic conditions you have will flare up during a hurricane. Bad back? Hefting all those hurricane supplies and suitcases and sitting for hours in a car is going to have you curved like an apostrophe. Migraines? Wait until the changes in barometric pressure get ahold of your sinuses! And let’s not forget depression and anxiety. Having an actual reason to be depressed and anxious is not as reassuring as you might think – so fill those prescriptions and keep them close.

Lesson Three: You’re going to find out what you’re made of. What I’m made of is apparently an addiction to email and social media and Shonda Rhimes dramas with a dash of Gilmore Girls thrown in. None of those are available when your power goes out. I love to read, but the guilt of using up flashlight batteries for something that isn’t going to save my life means I don’t read as much.

Lesson Four: You’ll find out what kind of a spouse you are and what kind of parent you are. Forget those Facebook quizzes about what color your aura is. It would be much more useful to find out if you’re the type to kill your husband after one day of hurricane stress, or whether you can wait until the second day to turn homicidal.

Lesson Five: You find out how dramatic and judgmental family and friends can be. Everyone had an opinion on evacuation and assumed that whether someone went or stayed had everything to do with choice and intellect and nothing to do with circumstances. I’ve been on both sides. I’ve had good reasons for both. But I’m amazed at how people feel free to judge me whichever I choose, and how they judge others. It’s the height of arrogance to think that you know what someone’s decision should be. Some people make the wrong decision, but few do it because they feel like they had a choice. I know enough now not to judge. Unless they’ve left their animals in a situation where the animal doesn’t stand a chance of surviving. Those people I judge.

Lesson Six is one that really stays with you: You learn how isolated you are, but you also learn how connected you are.

Isolation is how vulnerable you feel, whether you go or whether you stay. You aren’t in control. Nature is. Fate is. And sometimes, human nature is, because I read stories of looters breaking in to a couple of homes or cars left behind. Yeah, it’s just stuff. But if it’s YOUR stuff and you have no way of protecting it, it’s a pretty awful thing.

But, the connection is what helps with the isolation. It might be the most important lesson of all. You learn how really decent people can be. If you stayed, you stop and talk with the few other brave souls and you find yourself watching out for your neighbors in ways that you don’t in normal life. If you left, you find grace and mercy. A hotel clerk who slips you a couple of dog biscuits for your pets. First responders who come from surrounding areas to help your community before you can get back there.

So, next hurricane – because you know there’s going to be one – watch the hyped-up Weather Channel if you have to. But remember these lessons too.

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Guilt-Shaming for Charity

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Let’s talk social media. Not the Russian infiltration or the zombie screen-starers it has made of all of us. I want to talk torture by my friends, wonderful people who ought to know better.

First, I have a confession to make: I didn’t get you anything for your birthday. You and I don’t have that kind of relationship.

I do celebrate the day you were born – you wouldn’t be my friend if I didn’t feel that way. But we don’t have the kind of friendship where we get each other birthday gifts.

So, why, I have to ask you, did you think I would send money to your favorite charity in lieu of the gift I was never going to get you?

If you’re like me, your social media feeds are filling up with virtue. This friend and that friend are saying that, for their birthday, they are raising money for their favorite charity. Well, bully for them.

I have my own charities. They’re meaningful to me because of the things I’m passionate about. Animals. Children. The environment. And when I am feeling charitable, I give to them. But I’m not expecting my passions to be yours. You do you.

And, while I’m at it?

No, I won’t post photos of book covers or album covers. I know these people mean well too, but honestly, life’s too short for me to play these reindeer games of tag-you’re-it online.

And that goes double for prayer chains, angel chains, cut-and-paste-this-content posts and the WORST – the self-pitying “I’ll bet you won’t read to the end because you’re not a real friend.” No. Just stop.

You may believe in prayer. Cool. I believe in energy and sending good, loving energy and that’s probably pretty close to prayer. And I will send positive energy out for loved ones or even friends’ loved ones who are in trouble. But don’t blackmail me into it. Don’t guilt me into prayers, because that kind of thing? It’s bad energy, and it’s the opposite of prayers.

And, as long as I’m being cranky, here’s my final plea. No more photos of abused animals. I think people who abuse animals should be sent straight to hell, stopping only long enough for some in-kind torture along the way. But I can’t bear the photos. They don’t help the animals, and any monster who tortured an animal in the first place? They’re beyond the ability to be shamed on social media.

My birthday is in March. But you can give me my gift now. Do something nice for yourself. If that means giving money to charity because you enjoy the endorphin rush of helping others? Go for it. Just don’t tell me about it.

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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

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Before I tell you this story, I have to set ground rules. I’m not posting photos. Not gonna happen. You’ll get clip art and like it.

So.

I think I get what old age is going to be like: it will be making up heroic adventures to explain injuries sustained in the most mundane ways.

I think I cracked my rib.

And, for my readers, I’m going to be honest about the injury.

I was posing for my husband, a photographer who is always frustrated by the lack of cooperation his spouse exhibits whenever a camera lens is turned her way. I do not like the way I look in photos. I have an image of myself, one that props up my self esteem, and I do not care to see it contradicted in four-color glory.

But, finally, in a burst of what-the-hell, I agreed to let him take photographs of the boudoir nature. I had lost weight. I wasn’t getting any younger. He finally asked often enough. Whatever the reason, the date was set.

My husband set up a privacy cabana of hanging bedsheets on the upper porch to ensure privacy and capture the best daylight. And there we were.

I decided to try a pose on my stomach and then I remembered someone said that Kim Kardashian simultaneously arched a bit and sucked in her gut for the best photos. So I tried. Slowly. But even moving with caution on the hard wooden porch, I heard a crack from my left side.

The pain went all up my side for a second before settling beneath my left breast. No, not a heart attack. This tale is a comedy, not a tragedy.

Now, the day after, it hurts to press on my sternum, hurts to twist certain ways, and god help me if I sneeze. The rib is either cracked or bruised, neither of which can be treated with anything but time. But that story is just for you.

For anyone else who sees me wince, I’m going to expound on how I saved an entire city from a villain, super-hero style and got injured in the battle. Because, who would believe the truth?

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Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

Missing the Gold

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When I let my mind wander, I’m a crappy mom. Ask my daughter.

Now, to be fair, my daughter was a prattler. Driving along with her in the car seat in back was like being bathed in word vomit. She would tell herself stories, she would make up songs, she would report on every day’s events at the molecular level, and sometimes, she would ask questions that she already knew the answer to, just to make noise.

As a busy single mother, I learned to tune most out, my mind a sieve that sifted for only the nuggets of gold amidst all the verbiage. Sometimes, I would miss the gold.

Like the time she was sick and the nurse mentioned pneumonia as one possibility. It seemed a fairly remote possibility, so I immediately discounted it, which is why I wasn’t paying attention when she asked, “Mama, is pneumonia serious?”

“Oh yes,” I responded, probably thinking about what to make for dinner. “People used to die from it.”

It was the unaccustomed silence from the back seat that finally got my attention. A tiny little hiccupping sob. Oh.

“No, sweetie, you’ll be fine…”

But even that pales for my daughter in comparison to the time I told her she had an ugly smile.

For the second semester in a row, she had come home with a terrible school photo. My daughter was a cute little girl, but somehow she got it into her head that smiling for a photo meant grimacing and baring her teeth.

When she bemoaned her bad picture with the usual excess of words, I said absently, “You just have to stop smiling like that. It’s not cute at all.”

Again, silence. But I didn’t pick up on this one, didn’t pick up on what she needed me to say, and it wasn’t until later that I heard her crying in her room because her mother had told her she had an ugly smile. Not what I’d said exactly, and certainly not what I’d meant, but she brings it up to this day, and she’s 26.

And today, I still try to listen to what my very verbal daughter does not say…that’s where the gold is and that’s when I can redeem myself for the crappy mom times.

Panning for Gold