A Sojourner’s Staff

When I stumbled upon Communal Table, a publication about recipes and sharing meals together, it was in start-up phase, being launched on kick-starter. I knew I wanted in.

I submitted an inquiry about contributing to the online journal one of the upcoming issues. I got my chance. And so, I wrote this.

It got published and I was over the moon.

Becoming a writer does not happen just because a piece of work is posted somewhere officially.

No, becoming a writer is more nuanced, hidden between the pages of coffee-stained journals and late nights of contemplation. It’s frustrating as hell and also, one of my deep, great loves.

Capturing life, it turns out, through word is no easy task. But my, I do think it’s noble.

When my words appeared back to me for the first time, I realized that someone else had found meaning and power in them. And that was invigorating. It was as though being a writer was no longer an isolating experience – at least for a moment.

Communal Table  is all about the conversation. On their website, they map out their purpose by answering the question below:

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Their editorial team issued a call for submissions on a recent issue with the theme of “staff.” It was described as:

The staff of life keeps us going, and so does the staff that makes it. We appreciate all those who work in the background to make our daily lives happen. Consider this our ode to them. This issue is all about the hidden inner workings of the seemingly ordinary day and the people who make it all occur.

I submitted a piece about my grandmother. It’s called “A Sojourner’s Staff.”

To my delight, their team agreed to work with me to edit, refine, and perfect it. Five drafts and two months later, it’s finished. And, it’s here.

It’s about aging, love, and the tension of embracing the seasons we enter. Enjoy. And, keep writing.

A Letter to You, Grandma.

Dear Grandma Genevra,

Sometimes, I imagine you were here still.

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I think about the walks we would take; the honest conversations we would have; the mere joy of the company we would keep. We became close even when I was so very young, but somehow, I think you saw the woman I would be, long before I have become that woman.

That makes me miss you more.

When I think of you, I think of home.

Your home – the one with stale smells of summer lining narrow, beige hallways. The one that was held together by the loose hinges of the faded black door. When opened, between the cluttered garage and crammed foyer, it never failed to screech, announcing our arrival haphazardly. The six floors of your duplex mesmerized my imagination; I could ride the elliptical in the basement; play Oregon Trail in the computer room; smell coffee in the dining area; watch Care Bears in the living room; and try on your array of shoes in your bedroom. You kept that hot pink-striped comforter for enough years on your bed that it began to smell of you; like freshly picked sunflowers with a hint of lavender.

Your home was aged, like a vintage wine. Chips, dings, and stonewashed colors signaled that the walls, wood floors, and pillars had all been well-worn. With life. Good life. Always, and even still, scruffy places with “character” are far more comforting than the sleek, untainted, modern, and untouched lines that are “cutting edge”. Maybe that’s why I like Goodwill so much.

You never needed to invite us in or cautiously encourage us to “make ourselves at home” – it was an understanding – we were home. With you, we were always in.

Without hesitation, we often bounced with our full backpacks to your retro pea-green refrigerator for a snack. Sometimes, in the corner, moldy cheese would be hardened from insufficient closing of the package. I’d bite into the cheddar anyway. You’d store your diet cokes here too, bringing one, two, or sometimes three for our visits to one of Aurora’s many libraries.

You know you taught me to love reading, right?

From Mia Hamm biographies, to stories on the Civil Rights, and re-readings of anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you spurred us to explore and to ask questions. You revealed to us the beauty of libraries, the glory of the Dewey decimal system, and the benefits of unlimited check-out privileges. Even if Lance and I came bearing ten books each, you hardly batted an eye.

Before Garry would return home from his work in the oil industry, we would nibble on ripe, red delicious apples and watch Oprah. She was our favorite. The round, mahogany kitchen table, adjacent to your numerous potted plants, held Oprah magazines stacked on TIME Magazines with bills to be paid chaotically scattered about. The caller ID box for incoming phone calls was buried somewhere here, too. By no means were you an organized woman. But, what you lacked in tidiness was made up for in gritty devotion. So for that, thanks.

Every Wednesday, you cooked us slightly burnt grilled cheese. Then, Lance, you, and I would scurry to your room to explore further our library treasures and bounty. As a young girl, merely five or six, I demanded that when sharing your bed, you were, “not to cross your line,” and stay on your “side” of the bed. I know you found this hilarious. Especially since I would often end up cuddling with you anyway.

You didn’t stop having us over to spend the night. Not when we entered middle school, and not when mom and dad divorced.

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The openness of your heart –and your space – propelled me to be a woman that continues to seek out safety in community and place. I recognize it, largely because you impressed upon me, at an early age, what it means to invest in safe places for people. Thank you for that, too. It took me a long time to realize what you and Garry did for Lance and I all those years.

Space. Breathing room. Curiosity.

You were my angel then, as my family split a part, as you are my angel now.

 *

How can this be? Angels can’t live here.

When you entered long-term “rehab” at the nursing facility, I stepped inside and instantly recoiled. A woman of tenacity and feistiness, I couldn’t imagine your confines to be so limiting. Residents roamed the halls idly, often so heavily medicated that reality had slipped far away from them.

I continued to note the same softness of your skin, the deep blue kindness of your eyes. Yet, your movements slowed, your voice stopped, and multiple sclerosis slowly took you away.

Eight long years of that hellish nightmare.

Occasionally, when I would visit the nursing home during my nights off from Dairy Queen, you would choke on your own spit from laughing too hard. Other times, you barely moved and stared at the wall without the slightest glance my way. I hated these times. I hated them because I knew you were inside your body, but your physical armor had worn away. It was frustrating, confusing, and painful. You didn’t deserve that kind of suffering, grandma. I don’t know why things happen the way they do, but I know that your life was no less important, valued, or meaningful because of the way you ended your years. If anything, your battle with M.S. exemplified the depth of sacrifice and power in what it means to be a woman.

I love being a woman because of you.

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You battled the illness valiantly and I swore that I would never forget the woman who taught me to feed the ducks, pursue kindness, and be myself. I would cast a wide net with my memories, holding them together like gold, honoring all of the ways in which you touched my life.

Now, if I close my eyes, I see you.

But –

More than that, I feel you. In my bones, in my soul, there is still you, cheering me on.

I read a quote the other day in a book that reminded me of you. It reminded me of how you lived out your life, boldly embracing exactly the woman you came to be – even after deep pain in your life.

“Growing up is an unbecoming. My healing has been a peeling away of costume after costume until here I am, still and naked and unashamed before God, stripped down to my real identity. I have unbecome. And now I stand: warrior.” – Glennon Doyle Melton, “Love Warrior

As the words came off the pages, I smiled. Tears poured out of me, without enough time to even attempt to stop them.

I vividly recall the authentic way you presented yourself to the world. I am your granddaughter, and so perhaps my perspective was flawed, but I knew then, as I know now, that your authenticity was genuine and powerful. It’s taken all of my 27 years and just now I feel I am beginning to tear away at the presentation of myself to the world and disclosing the real me inside.

Perhaps I’ve grown up, but you know her, the me that has always been.

You shaped her.

*

It’s been five years since you passed away and each year I reflect on you and your life, desperate to hold the roll of memories that play over and over again, like an old movie on a projector screen.

On the day of your death, I was sitting by kerosene lamp in my host family’s home in Rwanda. Dad called and gently told me, “she’s gone.”

From a small East African village, flashes of you at soccer games, birthdays, and Christmas filled my brain like a water-hose that could not be turned off. Strolls in downtown Denver, road-trips to Chicago, mountain summits, stories on trains…

I said very little to Mama and Papa. As their hands rubbed my back, I sobbed. I mourned. In that little green house, I grieved the loss of my warrior. What I’ve learned since then, in these five years, is that your presence has been unyielding.

You inspired Lance in his rock bottom.

You comforted me in deep heartache.

You remained steadfast proof of what love actually is. What it requires of us. And what it calls us to.

To love is to know.

And, you knew me deeply, even as a young girl. I think you would be proud, today.

I also think you would challenge me to commit to being a warrior, a bulldog, a whatever, never compromising my value as a human-being. I think you would love me for exactly who I am, and so, when it’s scary to be honest about myself, your comfort propels me forward.

Lance has a daughter now – with your name. She smiles, and smiles, and smiles. Her sassiness, sweetness, and amiability remind me, once again, that you are here.

I love you, and I miss you every day.

Always,

Heather

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The Truth About Reading Your Writing.

I recently listened to an inspiring NPR session about StoryCorps, an initiative started to compel social change through the power of storytelling. The idea is simple yet powerful: honor, create, and preserve the stories of humans for understanding and change. 

I promptly downloaded the app on my phone – useful for recording interviews – but then decided to move in a different direction. Oration is an important part of the storytelling process, absolutely – but so is the tangible documentation of those stories. In turn, documentation creates ownership of those stories, which allows a personal efficacy that as humans, we should all have access to.

Yet, try telling your story. It can be hard. It’s challenging. Capturing small, intimate, yet formative moments often requires a listening ear, and sometimes even, the right questions. And so, in the spirit of communal story-telling, I had the opportunity to sit down with my grandmother, Mary Lou, to hear her story. That’s right, her life story.

We sat with warm tea, sunshine, and my laptop on a Saturday afternoon on my patio. At first grandma wasn’t sure she would have much to share – three hours later, it was clear there was far more complexity and insight in her nearly 75 years than she may have originally thought.

She said wonderfully insightful things like,

“I’m just trying to make my world the best it can be.”

and also,

“…children are a joy…but grandchildren are like strawberries and cream.”

Currently, she’s looking through the initial notes (nearly 28 pages!) and adding any additional happenings, people, or anecdotes she wants to include. After, I’m going to help her draft a prose-form story of her life. It’s intimidating – how do you fully write someone’s story..? – but I’m absolutely excited and awed by this challenge. Grandma has lived a full life – with roots in Uppsala, Sweden, and a story filled with different kinds of work, relationship upheaval, children, life in a small town, and a commitment to friendship. I’m honored to be a part of that process.

The following week, I celebrated Peace Corps Week (celebrating 55 years since inception) by attending International Storytelling Night in Denver at the Deer Pile.

The concept was simple: bring your stories of Peace Corps adventures, travel, and cross-culture interactions and share them on stage. As I entered the red-painted room with odd hipster wall decorations, I put my name in the hat. I thought to myself, if my name is drawn, great, I’ll do it. If not, oh well. I tried.

“Heather” was the first name drawn. Of course. I grabbed a luke-warm PBR and hopped on the wooden-black stage. I read a story I wrote recently called “bird songs” based on the African proverb: Birds sing not because they have answers but because they have songs

I was nervous. Sweaty. Unsure if this was the right story to share. But it was. It was not only the right story, but the right time to share it as well. The story delves into the tensions of relationship – that much of what we experience in life is actually quite undefinable, which in turn, makes it beautiful. It was a story that extended well beyond the confines of the “Peace Corps Experience” and I believe that resonated with the audience listening.

Reading your writing is an act of vulnerability. Though I have been blogging for years, reading a story aloud (with others!) brings a presence and authenticity with a story that you couldn’t find otherwise. It reminded me what I had already been learning with my grandmother: storytelling is a creative process because it involves both the act of writing and the commitment of sharing what happened in the first place.

Keep sharing, y’all. It’s important.


 

march on, cowgirl

 

Pumps ain’t the knee high stilettos of

Cosmopolitan glamour,

Smack.

Click.                           

Slam.

They are boots not so much made for walkin’

But actually for talkin’, harpin’, and raisin’ hell.

A no-nonsense Kansas farm girl with an

Attitude to boot-

Literally.

The holy-

And I don’t mean Jesus-

Worn shoes were just that, though,

Hers.

The rawness was real,

The stubbornness like unchanging dusty leather

They offer protection, a force shield,

A firm blanket for the ideal of

Marchin’ around as she damn well would please.

Her body can’t wear those boots her legs don’t work she’s lost her mind

So I wear the boots instead

And with a

Smack.

Click.

Slam.

Her cowgirl spirit moves forward.

boots

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This piece was inspired from a recent writer’s workshop at Lighthouse in Denver, Colorado. The method employed in this exercise is known as “Ekphrastic Writing” which pulls sensory, emotion, and description from a tangible piece of art – a photo, picture, painting, you name it. The photo above features a postcard of cowboy boots. Expecting to right a fictional piece about a Texan, I was guided instead, to channel energy from the cowboy boots I wore for almost 4 years that belonged to my late grandmother, Jenny. 

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