Friday, April 25, 2014

Reach for the stars

When I was eleven, I found nothing in my world nearly as beautiful as the full-color pictures of the Orion Nebula in the pages of Astronomy magazine.

Always a nerdy girl who couldn't decide between the Barbie Dream House and the Millennium Falcon, I became obsessed with the night sky and with the burning desire for my own telescope when I was in fifth grade. I don't know how it started, but I know that by Christmas of my 6th-grade year I was lobbying hard for a backyard telescope. It took my parents so off-guard that my mother began to ask her hair clients if they knew anything about amateur astronomy. It turns out one did, and before the telescope came I inherited five years' worth of back issues of Astronomy magazine, cast-offs from the college-departed son of one of Mom's ladies.

The magazines, it would turn out, were better than the telescope itself.

The telescope we could afford, purchased at Toys 'R' Us, was a huge disappointment. My dad and I could see the craters of the moon and, with a solar filter we probably shouldn't have trusted (I swear I haven't being seeing colors as brightly the past 29 years), some impressive sunspot activity. But stars were no starrier through the lens of our scope, and Jupiter and Saturn and Mars no more than small bright discs with no detail. The telescope sat in the corner of my bedroom collecting dust until I myself went off to college, when it became the problem of our local thrift store.

But no dust gathered on the Astronomy magazines.

I marveled at galaxies, nebulae, and clusters, and the amazing telescopes, trackers, and specialized cameras that made capturing their images in colorful, detailed glory possible. I wondered what sort of training one needed to have that job--sit at an observatory under a huge reflector telescope seeking and finding the marvels of our vast universe. Years later I found out that the training one needs to do this job actually requires a hell of a lot of advanced math, so I lost interest in it as a career. But I never lost interest in looking through a telescope and seeing the beautiful and amazing universe we live in.

So much so that I majored in astronomy in our state's Governor's Scholars program and lived for the Wednesday night viewings out in light-pollution-free rural central Kentucky, where I first looked through an amateur telescope large enough to allow me to see the rings of Saturn. Seeing that planet through a good eyepiece for the first time, at once both smaller and larger than I imagined, I gasped. It didn't look real; it had the pastel hue and crisp edges of a piece of penny candy someone had dangled at the end of my field of vision. But there it was--a celestial body I knew was so far away its light took five hours to reach my eye, but so close it seemed I could reach out and grab it.

Yet outside of viewing nights, my astronomy major was all math-y and physics-y and involved discussions of the big bang and photons and black holes and the space-time continuum. I was an arts-and-humanities-brained person trying to grasp quantum mechanics. I grew miserable and felt dumb on a daily basis and didn't look through a telescope again for years. But, oh--Saturn's rings. That's the stuff of poetry.

Flash-forward two decades. Two GSP astronomy majors have a daughter who likes to watch shows hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Jason, wanting a high-quality amateur scope without a high-quality pricetag, built a large reflector telescope so good that one of our friends used her iPhone to capture a picture of Saturn's rings through the eyepiece. Let me repeat that, so me at eleven can have her mind blown--I married someone who built a telescope powerful enough to show the rings of Saturn (and one of her moons) at a time when nearly all humans have a high-quality camera on a phone they carry with them all the time in their pockets.

In another plane of existence, in a parallel universe, 6th-grade me just got the shivers.

Last night, to make sure Ainsley's and Jason's spring break fun went out with a (big) bang, we took a family field trip to an observatory. Reservations were made before we knew it would be a cloudy night, but even on cloudy nights seeing a movable observation roof, a giant antique telescope, and getting a lecture on deep-space objects is good geeky family time. Luck, for a change, was on our side--shortly after dark, at the end of the lecture, the skies temporarily cleared. We took turns gazing at Mars, Jupiter with 4 of her moons, and a double star. The detail of these bodies was the best I've ever seen. I was giddy. It wasn't a page from one of those long-lost Astronomy magazines, but it was the stuff nerdy dreams are made of. And my own 11-year-old and my husband were just as in awe as I was.

I burned through a lot of dreams when I was kid. Like many, I dreamed of being rich, of being famous, or being a star. For a while, I dreamed simply of seeing stars. Not with my naked, nearsighted eyes, but in a way that makes this huge and overwhelming universe feel a tiny bit smaller. A tiny bit more accessible. A tiny bit more human.

On a suddenly clear night in April, my family beside me, I finally got to look through a huge professional telescope and see the details of another world. I reached for the stars and grasped them. And it was just as amazing as the Orion Nebula on the pages of a hand-me-down magazine.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Let me bring you a plate.

Food is love.

I've often heard it said but never really experienced it until the outpouring of food-love I received in the weeks following my shoulder surgery. My friends and co-workers, knowing that providing healthy food with one arm for a growing swimmer could be a challenge, kept a meal train going for me that included homemade specialties, our favorite carry-out dinners, and restaurant gift cards. I didn't have to prepare a dinner on my own on a weeknight until I started weaning from the sling. It was a gesture from those closest to me that on more than one occasion made me so grateful I could (and did) cry.

I come from a southern-slash-hill-people family, so I should have known that food isn't always just food. If I was sick, if I'd gotten my feelings hurt, if I was coming home on break during my difficult first two years of college--I got fed. My mother knew how to soothe my heart by way of my stomach better than anyone.

And when she had prepared for me one of my favorites, be it chicken and noodles, or fried spinach, or a cheeseburger, or even just a sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she always announced its readiness with the same verbal dinner bell:

Supper's ready. Come fix you a plate.

What a great colloquialism: Fix you a plate. Just that word "fix" implies healing and repair. For either your spirit or your body or perhaps both. It's not just putting food on a piece of ceramic--it's arranging it according to your own needs and personal aesthetics. It's art and medicine all at once.

My mother always said that the food she cooked for other people tasted better than the food she cooked just for herself. In her later years when she lived alone she rarely ate her own cooking, and swore that when she cooked for others, she cooked with joy and love. The proof for her was literally in the pudding. The banana pudding.

Because I am my mother's daughter, my first solo dinner following surgery was homemade chicken  noodle soup for my ailing daughter. She came home from school last Wednesday looking pitiful with a spring cold, and she needed love in the form of protein, veggies, and carbs.

She was on my mind as I cut carrots, cubed chicken, and simmered broth. I didn't just sprinkle poultry seasoning into the pot; I poured in a little of my heart as well.

And I'll be damned if that wasn't the best pot of chicken noodle soup I've ever made.

I'm determined to pay forward the kindness of my friends and colleagues. I've brought food to ailing friends and family before, but not as often as I should. I am in debt to those who helped me through a physically tough time, and the debt needs to be paid in chilies and casseroles.

So if you find yourself sick, or in spiritual turmoil, let me know. I'll stop be your house. And I'll bring you a plate.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Two Years

Hi, Mom.

I'll admit, I'm currently going through one of those phases where I'm pretty uncertain about where I stand on God/heaven/an afterlife/angels, so I don't know if these words will find you. And if they do, that first sentence is probably breaking your heart because your firm and unshakable belief has been confirmed and I'm down here doubting and debating you as usual. No matter. Because two years ago today I sat at your bedside in hospice and held your hand and said goodbye to you for the last time without knowing it would be for the last time, and I find myself missing the spirit that made you you, wherever that spirit and energy may now be. And I need to talk to you even if you can't listen.

I wrote the above paragraph yesterday after school in an attempt to express the heaviness and sorrow I felt knowing that today is my least favorite anniversary. I typed it while Ainsley did homework, then stared at it, had no more words, and went about the rest of my day.

I went down to our basement laundry room and began to take my daughter's clothes out of the dryer. As I stood there, I mulled words and phrases around in my head trying to figure out what I could possibly say to you, my readers, and to myself, that would give me comfort and strength and express what it's like to lose your mother too soon.

And then I saw something out of place on top of the lint filter. Something that I did not expect to find at all, especially not in my clothes dryer. I found a necklace. I found the necklace. And I've been trying to wrap my head around it ever since.

To tell you that story, I have to tell you this one.

In the months following Mom's death, Ainsley and I both clung to tangible items that had once belonged to her that made our healing hearts feel a little less empty. For me, it was one of her watches. It was too small for my wrist and more white and more large than I prefer my watches to be, but I wore it every day that first summer. For Ainsley, it was two things: the little stuffed lamb that had sat at Mom's bedside in the hospital and which she told me she wanted Ainsley to have when she knew she wasn't going to make it, and the silver palm tree necklace that Mom had brought back for Ains from vacation not long before she got sick.

Ainsley wore the necklace every day the first weeks of her summer vacation, only taking it off for swim practice. One day she got invited last-minute to go to the neighborhood swimming pool with our neighbors, and in our rush to get her out the door, we didn't secure the necklace first. When she came back from the pool it was no longer around her neck. Neither a frantic search of her swim bag nor violent shaking of her towel, swimsuit, and cover-up yielded the necklace. For a week I retraced her steps through the yard, called the pool, checked the lost-and-found, looked for something shiny on the pool bottom. With a heavy heart, I accepted the necklace's loss and mourned for it. It was the last gift she ever gave her granddaughter, and it was gone.

That was July of 2012. Since then, life has moved on. I had forgotten all about the lost necklace. Until it suddenly appeared in my dryer the day before the second anniversary of Mom's death.

I immediately ran upstairs to Ainsley, still doing homework in her room, and saw that she was as surprised as I was. She had not seen it since that day at the pool, either. But together we came up with the most logical explanation for its return.

Sunday night I washed her swim bag, which she had taken with her that day. Even though we turned that thing upside down and inside out looking for the necklace initially, and even though it's been emptied and washed several times since July of 2012, it must have been hidden deep inside a pocket. It finally emerged Sunday, and hid itself in the three other loads of clothes I did until, like the magic bullet or the one ring, it perched itself cleanly out in plain view.

That's the logical explanation.

But the timing of its discovery leads me to believe (bear with me, skeptics) that there is an unseen hand in this, and that it was a message of comfort to get me through a difficult day.

Do I believe in angels, or ghosts, or that the energy of the dead can somehow communicate with us from whatever is Beyond? I still don't know. It depends on the day, the slant of the moon, and how recently I've watched a horror movie. I've seen things that could lead me to believe that a bit of our souls, a bit of the energy and electric charges that make us us, sticks around a bit after we've breathed our last. Yet the older I get, and the more bitter and cynical I get, the less I believe in things I can't quantify. I doubt. Daily. And will probably spend the rest of my days in a cycle of belief/disbelief that colors my views on God, the afterlife, and the supernatural in various changing shades of gray.

Today, I lean toward belief. Mostly because it gives me comfort. Today, what was lost has been found. I feel my mother's presence in this whether it's there or not. Because of this, it's not a sad day. It's a happy day. My grieving heart has been made light.

So Mom, if you are indeed listening...thank you. Even if the necklace was not your doing...thank you. For everything. I love you, and I still miss you, but now I know: there's always a little piece of you in my heart. Like the necklace, there are times I've thought it was lost. But it's still there, just waiting for me to find it again.