Shit My Momma Says

Well folks, a lot has happened since we kidnapped momma in March. She has become the Queen and Dale and I have reluctantly accepted our roles as her loyal servants. She lets us do things like make her coffee, cook her meals, cut and coif her hair, wash her clothes, etc., etc. We are but meer chore whores in her Queendom.

Peppered amongst our daily routine are opportunities for the Queen to share her wisdom and general commentary on life. One evening following dinner in the grand dining hall, I was escorting momma from the dinner table to her pharmaceutical Pez dispenser. I was tired and exhaled a dramatic sigh. The Queen stopped in her tracks. “Uh huh,” she says. “Tell me what annoys you most about me, and then I’ll tell you what annoys me most about you.”

This was the genesis of an idea to write her quotes down on a sheet of paper titled, “Shit My Momma Says”. The next quote came the following evening as I was pouring my second glass of wine. Momma gets my attention with, “Oh, honey.” I’m like, “What now?” In her classic tone, which is an alchemy of condescension and judgement, she says “Remember: Alcoholism runs rampant in your family.” “Yes ma’am. I realize that, but I’m not an alcoholic…

yet.”

The shit kept streaming and I kept writing it down. Then one day, I had an epiphany: Wouldn’t these quotes make for fun tee shirts? That’s when the 86-year old queen and I decided to start a business– Shit My Momma Says. She kept saying things, that taken out of context, were hilarious, like “Would you rather shower me or fix my dinner?”

The quotes kept coming. So we put them on cocktail hankies, tee shirts and flour sack tea towels.

BIG NEWS: Our online store launches Friday, May 22, 2020.

Check us out at www.shitmymommasays.com and on IG @shitmymommasays.

I’m sure there will be more to come.

Kidnapping My Mom from the COVID

As soon as Dale and I heard that the Life Care nursing home in Kirkland, Washington was the epicenter of the COVID, we immediately made plans to kidnap my mom from her assisted living center here in Little Rock. Imagine not being able to get in to see her and her not being able to get out—a prisoner in her own tiny apartment. Dale and I decorated her place when she moved in a couple years ago, and she loves it.  It always smells like lavender because she sprays lavender in each room a few times a day.  Every time I walk in, I say, “Oh mom, your apartment always smells so good.”  

“That’s my lavender room freshener.”, she says proudly.  “I never want this place to smell like an old lady.  Have you smelled the hallways?  I stick my head out the door and spray lavender in all directions, but it doesn’t seem to help much.”

She was right.  The hallways always smell of stale Depends and burnt popcorn.  Every time I go in, I tell myself that Miss Wilma has overcooked her famous corned beef and cabbage again.  That’s how I tolerate it—with imaginative thinking.

On my way home from work, I gave mom a call to tell her what the plan was for her big escape.  It went something like this.

“Hey mom.  How are you feeling today?”

“Oh honey.  I’m having a bad day.”

“Did I wake you up?  You sound like you were sleeping.”

“Oh honey, I wasn’t asleep.  I was just resting my eyes.  I’m hurting too bad to sleep.  My hands and feet are hurting the worst.  And you know my back—my back always hurts.  My eyes are dry too.  I can’t even see the floor.  I thought I was picking up a piece of fuzz earlier, and it nearly scared me to death when it wound up being a beetle bug. But you know me, honey, I don’t complain.”

“Ummm.  Okay. Well, Dale and I are coming to get you tomorrow and bring you home to stay with us for a while.  I’m worried that your facility might get the COVID, and if their past behavior in a crisis is any indication of the future, you’re not safe there.”

“What do you mean?  They’ve always been really nice to me.  You didn’t say something to them did you?

I don’t want them to spit on my food because you said something that hurt their feelings.

“Mom. I didn’t say anything to them.  I’m talking about the time the elevator was broken for two days and several people like you who can’t take the stairs were trapped.  What if there had been a fire?”

“But there wasn’t a fire.  And besides, they said they would carry us down the stairs if there was a fire.”

“No.  They said, ‘Go to the stairs and wait for someone to come and get you.’  And in the meantime you could die of smoke inhalation.”

“I guess if smoke inhalation is the way I’m supposed to go, then that’s okay with me.  I wouldn’t be pleased about it, but I have to go one way or another.  What’s that noise?  Are you in your car?  Are you driving and talking on the phone?  I think you need to put your phone down and call me later.”

“Mom.  My car has a hands-free phone so I am not holding my phone.  Just driving and talking to you.”

“Well okay, Fancy.”

Getting her back on track, I said, “Let’s talk about the plan for tomorrow.”

“Well honey, remind me why you think the COVID is coming to my apartment? Have you heard something, because I’ve been watching the news and I haven’t heard a thing?”

“After the breakout of the COVID at the nursing home near Seattle, I didn’t want to take in chances.”

“What nursing home?”

“The one that has lots of old people infected with the virus. A few of them have died already.”

“I haven’t heard that.”

“Well, it’s true so…”

“What do I need to do before you get here?”

“Just get a list of things you need to bring with you, and remember this could be a long stay.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know how long. Maybe weeks.”

“Can you fit my recliner in your car?  That’s the most comfortable place for me to sit.  I even sleep in it sometimes.”

“Mom.  I’m pretty sure your Lazyboy recliner will not fit in either of our cars.”

“Well then, maybe I’ll just take my chances and stay here.”

“Really?  Take your chances?”

“Now don’t yell at me.”

“I’m not yelling.  I think this is one of those times when you just need to listen to me and do what I’m asking you to do.”

“Jim, you’re scaring me a little.  You’ve always wanted to boss people around, but you are not the boss of me.”

As promised, we kidnapped her the following afternoon.  She hadn’t made a written list—but when we arrived, she said she had her list in her mind, which she claims has no short-term memory after her self-diagnosed mini-stroke.  

Needless to say, nothing was packed.  Dale got there before I did.  By the time I arrived, he had already loaded the majority of her apartment into his car.  Mom is always commenting about how fast he gets things done while I just watch. “Why don’t you do more to help him?”, she’ll ask.  Taking a defensive tone, I say, “I do stuff.  I’m not as fast and strong and organized as him.  I have a clear understanding of my shortcomings, thank you.  I know my limits and pushing beyond them usually means something gets broken or burned or bruised. That’s why I stay in my lane.—the slow lane.”

My mom is 86 and grew up really poor.  The worry of running out of something is the one consistent thought she has…every day.  She’s not clinically a hoarder, but I’d say she has hoarding tendencies.  This means we were packing duplicates and triplicates of several items.  “Well,” she said, “I don’t want to run out of my tinted face cream.”  “Do you boys want to reach up there and get a few rolls of my good toilet paper?  I have to use the good kind.”

“Mom, we have good toilet paper at our house.”

“I just remember that one of you bought me some toilet paper when I first moved in here and it was awful.  I’m pretty sure it was you, Jim.  I had to use half a roll for one wipe.  Do you have the Charmin Ultrastrong?  Because that’s what I need.”

“Yes ma’am. That’s exactly the brand we have, so I think you’re good.”

Who knew that there would be a run on toilet paper and we’d be forced to purchase 2-ply.  Every time mom has a bowel movement, she has to remind us that there were six rolls of her preferred toilet paper at her apartment.  Lucky for us, at her age her bowels only move about every three days.

She’s settled in with us now, and she loves playing cards.  She’s an amazing Scrabble player.  Her mind is sharp when she’s fully awake and her pain medicine is wearing off.

It goes something like this:  “This is my off card.  This is “old”—o l d.  Jim, you look pretty good for an old man.  This is “za”—z a, which is another word for pizza.  And this is “raze”—r a z e—like when you raze a building.”  Then she sits back and waits for us to compliment her.  Dale usually leans her way so she can hear him, and with an awkward British accent says, “You, my Queen, did a splendid job.”  I roll my eyes.

So a few nights ago we were playing Quiddler after dinner.  Mom played first, but she interrupted her ritual with a special announcement.  “Now boys don’t get mad at me for going down so fast.  I got dealt some really good cards—thank you Dale.  And you shouldn’t get upset about me going down since both of you have gone down on me before.”  [insert a long thoughtful pause here].  With a smirk on her face and a tone in her voice that indicated she knew the answer already, she asked, “That didn’t sound right, did it?”

“No ma’am.”, we said in unison.  “That did not sound right at all.”

My OCD and This Crazy Ass Pandemic

This crazy ass pandemic is wreaking havoc on my OCD. Even working from home using my own keyboard, I sometimes panic and clean my own hands to protect me from myself. Good grief.

I have only left my house twice in about four weeks. My husband, Dale, was going to the nursery to pick up our new baby from the hospital. Not really. I’m way too old for that shit. He was going to the nursery to purchase some flowers to plant in our beds. It seemed like a low-risk adventure, so I decided I should join him.

The nursery is owned by a 70-something lady named Miss Betty. She has long, straight, gray hair, a slightly stooped posture, and a crooked, no nonsense smile. Several of her grandchildren work with her at the greenhouses in her backyard. Miss Betty seems sweet enough, but those grand kids remind me of a cross between children of the corn and Slingblade. I don’t know whether to feel sad or terrified.

While Dale and I were in the greenhouse, all I could think about was, “This is the perfect place for COVID-19 to blossom. It’s damp and warm, and not in a good way.” Then my mind starts to spin out of control. “What if I’m breathing COVID-19 right now?” “What if someone charges at me and I’m unable to stay 15 feet away?” “Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face.” I was frozen like a rabbit who spots some nearby danger.

Dale must have noticed the panic in my eyes. He came toward me and asked, “Are you okay? I mean, because you don’t look okay. Is everything alright?” I said, “Not really. I think I’m going to head out the back door now.” Dale said, “Um, there is no backdoor.” Seriously, this is a dialogue you’d hear in a horror movie. I was getting a bit dizzy when I realized I had been holding my breath for quite some time. Then, out of the fucking blue, Slingblade get ups and walks toward us. I started backing up, tugging on Dale’s arm to back up with me. There was literally nowhere to go. We were trapped in the greenhouse with vincas, the virus, and three feral grandchildren.

So what did I do? I awkwardly jogged away from Slingblade, while keeping one eye on him over my right shoulder. He yells after me, “Hey. Hey. The Gub’ner is on the radio talkin’ about da chrono virus.” I shooed him away with my hand, like an old southern lady using her handkerchief to shoo a fly off her glass of sweet tea. I was kind and genteel, considering I wanted to scream, “Stay the hell away from me!”

This trip to the nursery could not end soon enough. I made a bee line to the car with my head down and my tee shirt pulled over my nose. I sat down, locked the doors, and caught my breath. When I looked out the window, I convinced myself that everyone milling around looked like the kind of person that would be a carrier of COVID-19. I managed to release a guttural, Charlie Brown “aargh” that was apparently audible to the walking dead outside my car.

Dale paid for our flowers and brought them to the car. He took off his gloves and tapped on the window. “Where should I put these?”, he asked lifting his gloves up to eye level. I yelled, “Drop them! Drop them right there! I know it’s the wrong thing to do, but if you love me, you’ll drop ‘em right there!” And he did. I rolled down the window and gave him a hand wipe.

Later that same day, I realized we had no money at the house. Zero. A few coins, but other than that, nada. So after a quick meditation and breathing exercise, I mustered the courage to go to the ATM at our bank and withdraw some cash. Of course I wore gloves and put the money on the floor of the car. I wiped off my bank card and my hands before getting back in the car. Money is nasty. It’s likely one of the most popular places for the COVID to live. You can never be too careful.

When I got home, I was faced with a dilemma. How do I sterilize this cash? Dale had read that it could be spritzed with Lysol and microwaved for 10 seconds. That sounded very logical and scientific to me, but I couldn’t imagine this Godzilla of a virus dying in only 10 seconds. So, I thought to myself, if 10 seconds is recommended, then a minute and 10 seconds will surely kill those sons-o’-bitches.

I donned my gloves and prepared everything. I opened the microwave, sprayed Lysol on the cash, wrapped a wet paper towel around the bundle, placed the bundle in the microwave, closed the door, set the timer to 70 seconds, pressed start, and watched horrified as my cash started to burn after 30 seconds. I panicked. I opened the microwave. Smoke was billowing out and the smell was awful. I thought, “This is how I’m going to get infected. I’ve just warmed up the virus and now I’m breathing it in my lungs with the smoke.” So I blow onto the money. Some might say I fanned the flames. I realized I was making matters worse. I was doing that little dance you do on your toes when you have to pee really bad or when you are freaked out by a spider. I think I even twirled around once or twice. I finally regained my senses and put a plate on top of the burning pile of money.

Then the negative self-talk started immediately. “Jim. Who the hell puts $600 in the microwave?” “For God’s sake, who puts even $10 in the microwave?” “This is just like a 3rd grade science fair experiment gone bad—really bad.” “You are an idiot. You were supposed to nuke it for 10 seconds. What is wrong with you?” “What are you going to tell Dale?”

I thought on this a bit and decided to play the victim. I mean, why would money burn up? It’s cloth, right? There was a wet paper towel wrapped around the money and it didn’t burn. What’s going on here? I feel so bad. I don’t understand what happened.

My plan was baked so I walked outside to break the victimization story to Dale.

Dale said, I don’t understand it either. You spritzed the cash? Yes, I said. And you wrapped a wet paper towel around it? Yes, I said again in a tone that insinuated that I’m not stupid. And you microwaved it for 10 seconds? Yes. Well sort of. I microwaved it for 10 seconds plus. “How much ‘plus’?”, Dale asked. “Oh, 10 seconds plus 60 seconds.” Dale looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “You microwaved the money for 70 seconds?” I said, “no”. I had planned to do that but I thought 70 seconds was a very long time to microwave money.”

“So how long did you microwave it?” “Until it caught fire”, I said sheepishly. “Is any of it salvageable?”, Dale asked.

“Not really. Most of it is intact but heavily charred.” Then I started to pretend to weep. Dale Googled, “How to replace damaged money.” He quickly consoled me and said that my bank might replace it. I was so excited and relieved because I don’t have money to burn…figuratively or literally.

I put the charred money and some ashes in a Ziploc bag and took it to the bank the next day. I explained to the teller about my unfortunate sanitization miscalculation. She was so sweet. She said, “Well, let me see it.” I placed the Ziploc with the cremains of a few presidents into the tray beneath the window. The teller, her name was April I think, held up the bag and looked in disbelief—the disbelief that a grown ass man could be so stupid. I was beginning to feel like one of Miss Betty’s grandchildren.

April smiled at me in a sweet, yet condescending way. She said that she’d have to consult with her manager on this one. It felt like an eternity until she returned from the back. She was smiling…a better smile this time.

“My manager said we can replace the bills if we can verify the serial numbers.”, April explained. April spread the burnt bills on the counter and began masterfully reconstructing them, matching serial numbers and giving me a nod and a “This one can be saved, sir.” with each bill the bank could replace. I lost track, but April was making tics on a sheet of paper. When she finished, she asked if there were any other bills that I needed them to look at. I reluctantly gave her six pieces that I knew were beyond salvaging. Her eyes widened. “Oh, these are even worse than the others.” I thought to myself, “You’re sweet, April, and an astute observer but you’re making me feel really bad.”

Again, April exercised her magic puzzle-solving skills and like a surgeon bringing good news after testicular surgery, she looked at me sweetly and said, “These two can be saved, sir.” I was giddy. I did a little happy clap in front of the steering wheel and then turned it toward her so she would know how thrilled I was.

I think I made April’s day. She gleefully counted out my new bills, sprayed them with Lysol, put them in an envelope, and slid the envelope and a container of Purell through the drawer.

“I thought you might want to clean your hands…just to be safe. And next time instead of using the microwave, you might try not touching the cash for a couple days, the virus will die on its own. Or you could put your gloves on and gently wipe the cash down with a Clorox wipe—but not too aggressively. It might tear. Or…”

I vigorously interrupted her, “Okay.  Okay.  Thank you. I appreciate you, April. You take care now.” I drove away feeling very content with myself. I applied more hand sanitizer that I keep in the car regardless of whether there’s a pandemic or not, put both hands on the steering wheel, glanced over and winked at my new cash. “Up yours, COVID-19!”

My Ordinary World

A long time agoin a galaxy far, far

In 1980, during my first summer home from college, I worked at the Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center. The Research Center sat squarely in the Grand Prairie amidst thousands of acres of rice and soybeans. Stuttgart, the nearest town, had the distinction of being the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World”. Personally, I would include “Mosquito Capital of the World” as well, but that level of truth would butt heads with the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce.

The Grand Prairie is a flat expanse, boasting thousands of acres of dirt. This topography is perfect for growing rice, which requires millions of gallons of water. The water sits about eight inches deep in the rice fields. It stagnates between the levees, becoming a breeding ground for the largest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen. They are the size of hummingbirds with talons like an eagle and a proboscis the size of a 7-gauge needle. Acres of stagnant water are like Disney World for these mosquito birds. I can still hear the humming of their wings at night as they flew around my head while I was trying to sleep.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 10.42.46 PMDuring the summer the air was thick with dust, and the humidity was so high that, given the time of day, it was as if I was breathing mud. For July, August, and most of September the sun broiled every bit of exposed skin I had. Later in life, when I discovered what a convection oven was, I had a flashback to those days on the farm.

My job at the Research and Extension Center was loathsome. Three of us would sit on makeshift perches on the front of a tractor, riding back and forth across a field, spraying an array of toxic chemicals on plots of soybeans. The herbicides would inevitably coat our faces and make their way into our noses. I came home every afternoon smelling of experimental post-emergent herbicides. I wonder now what our boss at the Center referred to us as. We didn’t have a title, so I imagine we were “those boys on the front of the tractor”. Knowing what I do today, it might have been more appropriate to refer to us as “those poor unwitting boys on the front of the tractor taking a shower in carcinogens”.

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Breathing chemicals for ten hours a day and continuing to taste them during supper was the universe telling me to “Run! Run for your life!” But until Fall and a return to college, I was stuck wearing my badge of courage in the form of a Riceland Foods® cap—slaying weeds with a wand that spewed poisons. Other than work, rarely did I have an opportunity to leave our property.

My family owned 500 acres, many of which were wooded, so on the weekends my escape came in three forms. The first of my preoccupations was staying inside and pretending to read. This was especially nice during the summer months. If I was inside watching television, my parents would insist that I go outside and find something to do. But as long as I was reading (or pretending to read as it were), my parents didn’t disturb me. I think they left me alone because they were so pleased that they had a child who enjoyed reading as much as I pretended to. Another way I spent my free time was aimlessly trekking around our property acting as if I enjoyed hunting. As I recall I never killed anything. I just walked around the woods with a gun. Why did I carry a gun? Because my father would have thought it ridiculous for a grown man to walk around the woods for pleasure—unarmed. My favorite escape was sitting under a tree on the bank of our pond fishing. Although I had to be slathered in insect repellant, the solitude brought me great peace.

Regardless of what I was doing, leaving was something that was always on my mind.

Since the nearest theater was an hour away in Pine Bluff, getting to see a movie on the big screen was a rare treat. But that summer I made the journey to see Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. To say I’m a big fan of this movie is a colossal understatement. I think it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen—maybe one of the most powerful films ever made. I had been waiting almost three years to see it, since the release of A New Hope, the first Star Wars movie.

Luke Skywalker, the central protagonist of the Star Wars films, desires more than anything to become a Jedi Knight.  Jedi Knights serve and use a mystical power called the Force to help and protect those in need.  In a twist of fate, while Luke is cleaning one of his droids, he triggers a hologram of Princess Leia.  The hologram was a plea for help, meant to be seen by Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.  In desperation Leia begs, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi.  You’re my only hope.” Luke was so enamored by Leia, that her plea for help becomes his call to adventure.

In my favorite movie scene of all time, Luke has crash-landed his X-wing fighter in a murky swamp on the planet Dagobah. Luke is recklessly determined to find Master Yoda, a Jedi Master who can train him in the ways of the Jedi Knights. Luke’s weakness is his inability to see beyond his own cravings. He desperately needs Yoda to train him so he can fight for the Rebel Alliance and destroy the evil Galactic Empire before Emperor Palpatine completely extinguishes the Jedi Order.

The scene unfolds like this:

In a bluish swamp with fog lurking just above the ground, Luke is upside-down; standing on his hands with Yoda perched on his feet. His face is showing enormous strain. Opposite Luke and Yoda are two rocks the size of bowling balls. Luke stares at the rocks and concentrates. One of the rocks lifts from the ground and floats up to rest on the other.

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Yoda says (in a voice that sounds vaguely like Grover from Sesame Street if Grover was a 2-pack-a-day smoker), “Use the Force. Feel it.” Luke concentrates on trying to lift the top rock. It rises a few feet, but, distracted by his droid R2’s frantic beeping, Luke loses his balance and collapses. Yoda jumps clear.

Luke rushes to the edge of the swamp. His X-wing fighter has sunk into the murky waters of the swamp, and only the tip of its nose is showing above the water’s surface. Feeling hopeless, Luke’s voice is filled with disappointment and frustration. “We’ll never get it out now.”

Yoda stamps his foot in irritation and says, “So certain are you. Always with you what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

“Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.”

“No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

“Alright, I’ll give it a try.”

“No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”

This section of dialogue is so powerful. I heard it oh so many years ago, but didn’t internalize it until much later in my life.

You must unlearnwhat you have learned.

Luke closes his eyes and concentrates on willing his ship out of the swamp. Slowly, the X-wing’s nose begins to rise above the water. It hovers for a moment and then sinks back, disappearing once again.

Looking exhausted, Luke says, “I can’t. It’s too big.”

With furrowed brow, Yoda says, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do  you? Hmm? Mmm. As well you should not. For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings we are…not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between the land and the ship!”

“You want the impossible.”

Quietly Yoda turns toward the X-wing fighter. With his eyes closed and his head bowed, he raises his arm and points his gnarled hand at the ship. The X-wing slowly emerges from the swamp and glides majestically, surely, toward the shore. With his own theme song reaching a crescendo in the background, Yoda stands on the root of a tree and guides the fighter carefully down toward the shore.

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“No way.” Luke stares in astonishment as the fighter settles down onto the shore. He walks around the ship and reaches in disbelief to touch it. Bewildered, he approaches Yoda.

Luke: “I…I don’t believe it.”

Yoda: “That is why you fail.”

This message from Yoda resonated with me in the darkness of the theater. Thirty years of watching this scene over and over again has burned an afterimage onto my consciousness. Years later it edges its way to the front of my mind to shine light on how I approach many decisions. What would I do if I believed I couldn’t fail? If I had only been wise enough at 19 to understand the deep meaning of Yoda’s advice: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

As a teen and young man, I walked around our farm and wished I had a Yoda in my life. I thought to myself, “How do I get to Dagobah from here?” In the years since watching Luke’s story unfold, I’ve realized that the journey (not the destination) is the goal. I don’t have to be somewhere else to find what I need. All I need is around me every day. I have figured out that there are many Yodas in my life, and I am lucky that I can be Yoda for others too.

We are all on a quest to find our truest selves amidst the voices in our heads. We are all in search of wise mentors like Yoda—people who teach us to look up and around and to be amazed by what we see. And people who encourage us to reflect and search inwardly for ways to make our light brighter so we can light the paths of others. Each of us is a hero on a journey. There is something greater calling us. We are divine inspirations waiting to be born. We learn and unlearn and learn again. We fall apart and come together. We fail and try again. We wonder and imagine. We find sacred lessons in our darkness and in the joyous light of our living.

You must unlearnwhat you have learned.(1)

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie clip I’ve written about, you can watch it here: http://youtu.be/c1TlAma0JFM

Floating Works Better If You’re Face Up

A few years back, I was infatuated with the idea of songwriting.  I figured, “Hey, I play the piano.  I can sing.  I can rhyme, and I can write.  And there’s an added bonus:  I’m really good at creating ridiculous names for country songs.”  So I purchased a fancy keyboard and took to songwriting—ballads mostly.

One day early in the process, I let myself wane into a melancholy mood.  I thought Gloomyville must be the place where all great country songs are born.  While me and my two horses hung out in this one-horse town, I decided to write a song about the impacts of losing someone you love.  Suddenly.  Unexpectedly.

Let me set the stage…
It was July, 1966.  The Arkansas heat was like Satan gone mad, so my family drove to our cabin on the White river where we could hide from the sun’s stare.  There were several of us kids—cousins, friends, siblings—swimming just off a sandbar.  Swimming in the river was commonplace.  There’s always an element of danger when you play in a river, but no one in our neck-of-the-woods considered it any more perilous than, let’s say, riding in the back of a truck.  It was the 1960s, years before seatbelts and gun control and speed limits and low-fat diets.

My parents were sitting on the riverbank with some friends watching us play in the water.  My dad had a beer in his hand and a cast on his leg from ankle to hip.  His condition was a consequence of driving off of a bridge in his pickup truck while drunk.  My mom was eight months pregnant and didn’t know how to swim, but she went along with the let’s-take-the-kids-to-the-river plan because my dad was persuasive and loud.  And she knew my dad might need someone to rescue him from his inevitable drunken stupor.  She never imagined the worst thing that could happen that day.  Now, the only thing she can imagine is the worst thing that can happen.

Here’s a couple verses about my memory of that moment of loss from almost 50 years ago.  I was only five at the time—too young to recall the details of the day.  But I imagine what it must have been like for my parents.

In the river she played
on that hot July day,
as he sat on the bank looking on.
Muddy waters meant to harm her
as the current dragged her under.
I don’t know if it’s right or it’s wrong.

Well the years floated by
on a river of why’s.
His little Joy was forever gone.
He worsened the pain with vodka and blame.
I don’t know if it’s right or it’s wrong.

After my six-year old sister, Dana Joy, drowned that sweltering summer afternoon, my dad took to drinking more and more, and my mom took to loving me and my siblings in a way that didn’t always feel like love.  At times, my mom’s love felt overprotective, indulgent, and controlling.

Every summer my mom obsessed with providing us with swim lessons.  Of course.  That makes sense, right?  We each received private lessons from some local teenager whose only qualifications were that she had seen people swim in the summer Olympics and she could dive fearlessly and gracefully from the high board.  The daily lesson at the pool was:  hold your breath, put your face in the water, blow bubbles.  “Now see how much fun that is?”, she would say in an upward rising pitch.  I was six years old with water issues, but I was compliant and blew bubbles.  After a while, it wasn’t so bad, and I was like, “Yeah—gulp cough sputter—that’s really fun.”

After bubble blowing, the lessons moved to floating.  I was a skinny kid and was uptight even at six.  Floating was a very scary thing.  Floating felt like a night terror.  Floating battled with my trust issues and won most of the time.  I really hated floating.  If I had known that floating was the next important thing to learn after blowing bubbles, I would have never blown bubbles.  I would have kicked and screamed and cried.  I was already on the dramatic side so this would have been easy.  But no. What did I do?  I blew really good bubbles which meant I now got to learn how to float. Every atom of me shook.  This was full-on 11-on-the-dial shivering.

“Okay, Jim.  Just relax.  I’ve got you”, my know-it-all instructor would say while supporting me with one hand. She would pull her hand away slowly, and I would sink—cough, sputter, cry, shiver.
“You moved your hand!”, I would scream.
“Don’t move your hand!  Promise you won’t move your hand?”, I would plead.
“Okay, Jim.  Yes, I promise I won’t move my hand.  Just relax.”

Swimmy McSwimster was a liar and I was a pleaser.  So every time she said she wouldn’t move her hand, I believed her.  She always moved her hand and I always sank.  Floating sucked. Looking back on this now, I see how my inability to relax and float was foreshadowing.

I’m a great swimmer now.  I swam in college.  As an adult I love water, and floating is something I can do without fear.  But I’m still uptight and I still have trouble with the metaphorical “float”.  I frequently say to myself, “When you become exhausted from swimming upstream, surrender to the ‘float’.  It gives the river great joy to carry you.  Let me say it again…it gives the river great joy to carry you.”

I know on all levels that the river gets great joy from carrying me.  I’m allowing this to happen more and more in my life because it also gives me great joy to let the river carry me.  I stretch out my arms like wings, tilt my head toward the heavens, and float—no shivering, no coughing, eh, maybe a little crying.  So what’s changed?  The difference is that my swimming swim teacher of yore always took her hand from underneath me, even when she promised she wouldn’t.  The angels in my life now are different.  They patiently teach me how to be an Olympic floater.  They never take away their hands from beneath me.  They support me.  I trust them.  Their love and my courage give me float.

Today, through all my failures, lessons, brokenness and joy, I mostly surrender and allow the sweet light of my angels to shine on me, through me, and from me.  I ask my angels to lift me from the river—to rescue me.  I relax into their love.  I do the best I can with what I know.  Every day my soul finds at least one more courageous idea, one more loving thought, one more blessing to lift and carry me.

My enormous hope for you is that you will have the courage to surrender, spread your wings, tilt your head toward the heavens, and let the river carry you.  Floating works much better if you’re face up, chin back, and basking in the glory.

Outrageous love to you all!