pain

Of Cautionary Tales

She shares the tale frequently. 

The one of a rebellious toddler with a shaggy hair cut – his red locks grazing the back of his neck as he turned his chin up to look at her with defiance in his big brown eyes.

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“Don’t touch that,” she said softly, “it’s hot and you

will get hurt.”

Always curious, you could watch him processing her words behind his crinkled forehead.

With defiance, he made his own decision, and leading with his balmy palm, stuck all five fingers straight to the coils and promptly started to scream.

I’ve been thinking of that little toddler and all the tales of caution we get served up.

Don’t put your hands on the burners, take your vitamins, avoid cigarettes, build up your 401k. For if we do all the right things, we’ll get out unscathed.

This week started with me calling 9-1-1 for a stranger in Macy’s. A pregnant woman had fainted. We were shopping for jeans. Dylan helped her partner lay her down on the worn green carpet in the department store. Undertrained staff frantically fumbled and we, just bystanders, made the decision to call for help.  While Dylan moved the tables stacked with denim, I leaned over and counted the woman’s breaths saying “Now. Now. Now” to the dispatch woman on the other end of the phone.  Another kind stranger fanned the woman with a crumpled flyer full of coupons waiting to be clipped.

I did something kind. We responded to a situation and when the emergency team walked in, I said good luck and we went on our way. I didn’t have it in me to stick around and see what happened next. Was it any of my business anyway?

The week ended with someone I love in the hospital and while she is ok, the tethers of vulnerability connecting us still brought me to tears. A friend was evacuated from her house due to forest fires.

All of these people take their vitamins, eat vegetables, and save money where they can. They tsk at diet soda and hug their loved ones and take deep breaths.

They’ve heard the tales, took caution, and still seem unable to escape the pain.

How do we witness and engage in others pain? How do I experience the heat of their experiences surging into the hot plates sitting in front of me?

Whether we know a diagnosis is coming, or show up and ride an elevator up to a sterile room full of beeping equipment, or call the adoption agency, or click send on the email with the hard to say feelings from years of resentment. We have choices with how much we want to touch the burning red. We can see it coming. The response is ours.

Is it really protecting ourselves to avoid the glow all together? Where can we lean in and feel the heat and not get scorched?

Or perhaps, we need to grab and hold and promptly let ourselves scream.

The choice is ours. What a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

Things We Try to Cover

The previous owners of our house loved color. A different one for each room.

When I got the phone call my dad died, I was working in my plum purple bedroom.

I passed tan stairs as I staggered down the stairs and leaned against mustard yellow basement walls to call my boss and spread the horrible news.

I kept working in my off-putting “home-office” for a few weeks more. I sat by myself, staring at the pillars, willing two contrasting colors to blend as my eyes glazed over with inability to concentrate.  Mustard yellow and sky blue will not blend. Their stark contrast refuses to budge and kept reminding me of the day he died.

And then I lost my job. And time kept moving.

I had to reclaim my bedroom and cover the purple with a lighter shade of wasabi green last summer.  The primary colors remained in the basement and I hated being down there.

I’ve been nagging about the walls in the basement for a few months. For some reason, after three years, I was ready to turn my attention to reclaiming my creative space. Dylan and my in-laws helped me rip down, paint, and repurpose the old cabinets. They hang on fresh drywall in our built-out laundry room.  I’ve picked up a roller and Dylan cut in, covering spaces where ceiling and wall and floor and carpet meet.

We need four gallons of “Veil White” Behr paint to cover up the hideous mustard yellow and sky blue. One coat will not cut it. Two may be insufficient as well. Despite primer and luxuriously plush roller sponges, the old is still infiltrating the new.

As we apply the silky liquid, I keep thinking no matter what we do, that gnarly yellow will still be there, underneath our applications of white.

With each arm extension and application of the brush I am not erasing the grief nor the trauma created as shock moved through my back and into the radiant walls.  The yellow remains under fresh layers, a muted witness to where I once stood, shaken and weeping. I cried as I rolled blue to white, wishing Dad was here to remind me to add more paint to my roller. More tears came for the beautiful truth that I’m capable of transforming this pain. Whispering to myself and my experience, ‘Take that – this grief need not be the top layer forever.’

As I painted, our garden sat ready and waiting for love and attention. Six months ago we filled our little plot with all kinds of leaves. We dragged in detritus and waited – hoping the simple act of covering would encourage nature to do its thing, turning the leaves into something useful.

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This morning, Dylan threw four bags of soil on top of the crunchy pile and set about to mix and mulch two forms of earth together. Our rototiller machine failed to break up the mounds which had not, like we’d hoped, decomposed in time. Our attempts to cover failed. Too much matter remained.

I got out the shovel and he the rake, and we moved mound after mound of material into the green trash toter. The more we removed, the less resistance we faced and the fresh soil was able to mix with the old organic material. Rake, sweat, stomp, mash, repeat- all to prepare the pile for its next life.

Dylan did the math. We still need more cubic feet of soil to sufficiently cover the leaves and turn the mixture into something capable of growth.

We can’t cover our pain. It has to move and mix and honor the layers it added to our lives. We can, however, transform it.

We can use handcrafted brushes, and cushy rollers, and salty tears from our hearts or crumbling earth and warm, wooden rakes and heavy-handled shovels to do the lifting. The chemical components of what you started with still remain. Traces of previous layers compound adding thickness and texture to your heart.

And clean slates and fresh plots of earth come together, eager and waiting for what you will create next from your new form. What a beautiful thing.