The Train Station

My beautifully talented daughter asked me recently if I wanted to read an essay she had written for school. I said yes and she handed me a couple sheets of paper. I was soon breathless as I savored some of the most beautiful writing I had ever read. That is not maternal hyperbole, nor is it false modesty when I say it’s better than anything I could write. I prefer to write the meat of the story and rarely do I spend enough time creating such vivid imagery.

There are storytellers – I count myself as an amateur one. Brandon Sanderson is an extremely talented and successful one. But then there are people who write poetry in prose. Whose words are so beautifully selected and placed with each other that it feels like you are doing more than reading a story – you are actually viewing a painting or intricate tapestry. I love many authors but put few in this category. Patrick Rothfuss is the only one that comes readily to mind. This essay evoked a similar reaction from me.

I hope I haven’t now oversold her story. With her permission, I am posting it below:

 

I thanked the ticket master as I clutched my ticket and walked further into the train station, busy with throngs of people coming or going. The walls seemed alive with the echoes of laughter, arguments, and guitar playing, both long gone and currently reverberating. Its skin crawled with scribbled declarations of love and sprayed-on masterpieces, the tiles desperately in need of a good washing. The grimy fluorescent lights above seemed to flicker erratically in time with my heart, creating an effect almost like I was at a party. All around me, people hurried, their lives obviously much more important than mine; my body became a tiny rowboat, lost in the stormy bustle, jostled from side to side by the waves of people. Eager to gain a short reprieve, I stepped onto an empty platform, feeling weary. It was then I happened to glance up and across the tracks. Exactly opposite me stood a girl whose countenance appeared to mirror my own. It seemed as if she too felt a disconnect from the hordes of people passing by. The noise of the crowded station faded away as we stared at each other for a brief second that seemed to last an eternity. Her eyes looked like they understood my annoyance with and simultaneous longing for all the people constantly streaming through the area, so deep and wise I tried not to fall into them. Suddenly, I wanted to meet this girl, take her to coffee, and become her best friend; the one person who seemed to instantly know me to my core. Just as I raised my hand to give a small wave, she opened her mouth, as if about to say something. A train came roaring through. When it had passed, the girl was no longer there. My hand fell limply to my side, the magical moment gone. The lights returned to their dull flickering, and the noise of the crowd came rushing back with sudden ferocity. My heart burned as if branded by a cattle iron. I wasn’t sure quite why, but I was almost certain I had just missed something very important. All around me, mothers, brothers, and children continued to carry about their business like nothing had happened. In fact, nothing had actually happened. However, nobody except myself seemed to care about the importance of that missed interaction with the girl across the train station. As my train came roaring into the platform, I had to wonder if this other girl, seemingly great in her compassion, would miss that opportunity for interaction with me. As I wondered, my hand pulled my phone out of my pocket, slipping my earbuds into place, and my life became much more important than anyone else’s.

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Alexa

Our family might be getting a little bit obsessed with Alexa. We came to consider her part of the family when Jane received an Echo Dot as a school reward and offered to sell it to us cheap. We liked it enough that we bought a battery base so we could move it from room to room.

I quickly came to hate the battery base because people were not returning the Echo Dot to the kitchen, leaving me to wander the house calling for Alexa like a lovelorn fool, hoping for an answer. So when Prime Day rolled around, we bought a few more.

Now there’s a Dot in the bedroom named Betty (get it? Bed-ty?) and one in “the big room” named Bigelow. The one with the battery base is moving to my husband’s studio although right now it’s still in the Kitchen with the name Kitty, which will become the name of the one that will ultimately reside in the kitchen but still sits in its box right now. I guess I should let my husband name the one in his studio, but I’m partial to Stuart or Studebaker.

The names don’t mean much. It’s just more fun and instructive when accessing them via the Alexa app than “Your Echo Dot”, “Your Second Echo Dot” and so on. The wake words for all of them are still Alexa, although the one in the studio will answer to Computer, which really catches my husband’s fancy. I imagine he’ll speak to it in the stilted voice of Scotty from Star Trek.

Anyway, there was some discussion about whether the Echo Dots were far enough apart to allow them to all have the same wake word. I’m lazy enough that I want to just talk to Alexa whatever room I’m in and expect a response. I don’t want to remember that I need to call her Echo or Amazon or Computer in one room and something else in another. My children are quickly showing me the flaws in this desire.

The boys were recently participating in their Alexa song ritual where one of them tells her to play a song and soon after she starts playing it, the other one calls her name and requests a different song. Or she doesn’t know the song and so they start arguing over who can better construct the name of the song so she can find it. It tends to be very frenetic and loud.

Jane and her boyfriend were in the kitchen while this was going on and Jane soon banished the boys to their room. Their room is across from mine, where I stood folding clothes. I was perplexed at hearing Alexa’s name coming from their room but soon realized that they had taken Kitty with them and Hal was trying to get her to play a song.

Daryl felt he knew better how to do it so kept telling Hal to let him try. Hal got louder, trying to talk over him. Daryl would suggest they just look it up on YouTube on his phone. Hal kept trying.

Before long, Hal was running up and down the hallway loudly yelling “Alexa, play blahblahblah by the blahblahs” while his brother gave chase, triggering the other Echo Dots as they went.

Betty triggered on his request as he ran away so in the bedroom, Alexa announced, “Playing Hello by Adele.” Through Bigelow, she said she didn’t understand the request. And all the while, with Hello as background music, Hal continued his desperate attempts to get his song.

He had a wild look in his eyes as I grabbed him by both arms in the hallway. “You need to stop,” I said. “You’ve gotten Alexa all worked up. You can’t run from room to room calling out her name.” But once he was stationary, he was an easier target for his brother and the argument soon escalated to the point that I rescued Kitty and returned her to the kitchen.

All was then quiet on the Alexa front. Until…

A storm came in the night and knocked out our power. When it didn’t come back right away, my husband disconnected the wi-fi router hoping to spare it any damage from a storm-induced power surge. Three hours later, when the power came back on, Alexa felt it was necessary to loudly proclaim to me that she was sorry but she couldn’t connect to the internet. I had been asleep up until that point and after lay awake for hours.

At that moment, I was really not sure if Betty would be allowed to stay in the bedroom. She’s on probation right now.

The Karaoke Tribe

Hal had received some books from his grandmother for his ninth birthday. I hadn’t looked at them closely but they looked like biographies of less famous American historical figures geared toward younger children. I noticed him reading one of them one morning as he waited for me to be ready to take him to school.

“What book were you reading?” I asked as we headed down the driveway.

“The Journal of Jesse Smoke.”

“Smoke? S-M-O-K-E?”

“Yes.”

“How is it?”

“Good. It’s written like it’s his diary except he doesn’t share his feelings.”

“OK. I don’t know Jesse Smoke. Who was he? It’s a true story, isn’t it?”

“I think so but I don’t know he was. I haven’t read much of it yet.”

“Well, when you get further into it, please tell me about him. I’d like to learn.”

And with that, he absorbed himself in the book (which had to be tricky since he had just finished wrapping himself up as a pretzel inside his hoodie to protect against that oh-gosh-so-awfully-cold-Texas-October morning weather).

After a few minutes of silence from the backseat, he announced, “Mommy, I don’t think this is a true story. A bunch of people just turned themselves into bears to go down a hole. And – if you are a real human, you can’t just turn yourself into a bear.”

I was fairly certain this was an historical book, so I took a guess and said, “Well, there were Indian tribes who basically believed they could turn themselves into animals. Maybe he’s telling one of his people’s stories as if he believes it to be true.”

There was a slight pause.

“He’s a Karaoke boy.”

“A what?”

“A Karaoke boy.”

“Spell it.”

“C-H…. E…. R-O…. K-E-E.”

I was very careful not to laugh. “Cherokee, honey. The word is Cherokee. They are an Indian tribe, Native Americans.”

One of the most fun parts of being a parent has been listening to my young readers try to pronounce the words that they’ve only seen in print. To combine Hal’s mispronunciations with Daryl’s most famous from years ago, it sounds like Jesse Smoke comes from a family of Karaoke Madge-i-cans. (Magicians).

Selective Idiocy

The serial nature of the teenage mind never ceases to amaze me.

Sunday morning, as we prepped for church, I found my son sitting on his bed wearing shorts but no shirt or shoes and watching videos on his phone.

“Why don’t you put a shirt on?” I asked.

“It’s in the dryer.”

“Okay, well we need to leave in 15 minutes or daddy will be late to choir.”

“Okay.”

Fast forward 15 minutes.

“Come on! We need to go!” I called out.

“My shirt is still in the dryer. It has another minute on it.”

“It’ll be fine. It’s close enough. Go ahead and put it on. Let’s go.”

“But I still need to put my shoes on and brush my teeth.”

“And why didn’t you do that while you were waiting on your shirt?”

*Shrug*   (Seriously, no words. Just a shrug.)

It’s like his brain went: Must get dressed. Underwear on. Shorts on. Shirt wrinkled. Put in dryer. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait….

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Like it absolutely couldn’t proceed to any other step until the shirt was on. Even though they aren’t sequential steps. There’s absolutely no tooth-brushing dependency on wearing a shirt.

Encore performance – later that afternoon. He came into the house claiming to be done mowing and weed-eating. I dragged him back outside to point out all the places that I knew had not been touched. (He’s yet to get all the grass cut in a given outing. Or in two or three redo’s for that matter.)

Among other things, I pointed out the basketball goal.

“I weed-eated that,” he said.

“Where?” I asked, staring at the taller-than-the-other-grass-around it blades surrounding all four sides of the goal’s base.

“There,” he said, vaguely pointing in a circular motion around the base.

Exasperated, I retrieved the weed-eater and in my shorts and sandals, demonstrated a proper, albeit slightly unsafe, weed-eating job. “That’s how it is supposed to look,” I said.

He just stood there with the mad-at-the-world-you-are-so-incredibly-mean-and-unfair teenager look he has perfected in recent months.

Since the weed-eater ran out of gas as I finished, I told him to get it filled up while I moved the cars off the grass so he could mow. After an attempt to open the tricky gas cap failed, he moved to sit on a bench and wait it out.

“Go get your dad to help you fill it back up with gas,” I said.

As I finished moving the first vehicle, I saw him sitting on the bench.

“Where’s your dad?”

“I’m going to mow first.”

“Seriously, Daryl! Don’t just sit there. You can still get him to help you fill up the weed-eater while you wait for me to move the cars. Otherwise, it will all take longer because you’ll have to go get him after you mow instead of doing it now while you are waiting anyway.”

He went back in the house in a huff.

I think I’ll call this condition Selective Idiocy. When a capable person knows they must complete an undesirable task yet deliberately engages in steps to draw it out as long as possible, as if they are too dense to put together the most efficient way to complete the task. Add that to the general teenage conditions of moodiness and disconnect from the world around him, and you have the perfect recipe for Parental Frustration Overload.

Hello? It’s me. You know, your mom?

This is what I typically see when I look at my conversation history with my 13 year old son. Sometimes it feels really lonely. Like I’m talking to myself. I know he has a phone because his nose is in it much of the time we are together. So what happens to it while we are apart? Strange, I tell ya. Maybe I should ask him about it…

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Whistle While You Work

I’ve been really proud of my youngest child. He’s mastered a tremendous skill that I have never, ever been able to figure out.

He can whistle.

Don’t laugh. I’m truly very impressed.

My whole family can whistle except me. So why am I proud of him and not the others? Because they were born able to whistle. My husband was carrying a tune before we met. I can’t remember a time when Jane or Daryl couldn’t whistle.

They’ve always been able to and they’ve always been amused by my inability. I’ve tried over the years. Unless it happens accidentally while blowing air to cool off my soup or while saying something that starts with an S, it’s just air passing through my lips.

Hal was in the same boat this time last year. He spent the first part of his eighth year of life trying to whistle and sounding just like his mother. I felt a camaraderie with him on this front. Someone to stand next to me when the whistle abuse rained down. We were a team. We were united.

But Hal didn’t want to be on the Bad News Bears of whistling. I think he wanted to whistle more than his siblings ever did. Of course, they didn’t appreciate it because it has always come naturally. He tried and tried day and night. And he never gave up.

And one day…

One day, he whistled. One short brief note. And then he shrieked in delight. And kept working at it.

…air…air…air…whistle…YES!…air…air…air…air…air…whistle…YES!….air…air…air…whistle…air…air…whistle…whistle…air…air…whistle…air…whistle…air…whistle…whistle…whistle

Eventually, he could reliably whistle a note at will. Only one note and only of a short duration, but every time. And that’s when I got some revenge on the natural whistlers.

Because Hal, he loved his new-found skill. He whistled constantly, just a short toot-toot-toot stream. No melody, no variation, non-stop. And. it. drove. them. nuts.

He whistled in bed. He whistled at the dinner table. He whistled outside. He whistled in the car.

That last one is what really got to them and we soon had to declare the car interior a no-whistling zone. We had to restate the declaration every time we got in the car and usually multiple times on a typical in-town trip.

All the hard work and persistence paid off. Now, Hal can whistle multiple notes and carry a bit of a tune. He no longer feels the need to whistle during every waking moment as if he might forget how if he doesn’t keep practicing. In fact, I don’t hear it that much anymore.

But when I do hear it as he skips by me with his head in the clouds, I smile. A huge smile spreads across my face and an even larger one across my heart. He wanted it, he weathered ridicule, he practiced and practiced, and he overcame.

And now, my husband lovingly calls me Whistler’s Mother and I’m ok with that.

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This is an actual picture of me writing my blog. Ok, not really. Picture found on Pinterest and I couldn’t clearly determine copyright. If it’s yours and you want me to take it down, please let me know and I will. 

What A Wonderful World

The worship service took place in the shade, facing the lazy river and the multi-colored rock cliff behind it. The light breeze made the Texas evening heat bearable. So did the beautiful surroundings, both geographical and human.

We sat on the third of four rows. People we are very fond of but see only once a year filled the other seats. A group of them had just stood before us and delivered an energetic and moving reading of a portion of Genesis. They ranged from young children to the middle-aged to those long retired. We mix seamlessly here. It’s always magical.

To conclude the time together, the worship leader played a song to emphasize her message. As soon as the song began, the teens behind us began stirring.

“That’s from Shrek!” one said excitedly.

“No, it’s from Toy Story.”

“Madagascar.”

“No, I’m telling you – it’s Shrek.”

“Remember? It was playing while they floated in the boxes in the ocean.”

Their voices tumbled over each other, everyone talking at once but still hearing each other too. Jane and I looked at each other and smiled as the song continued on.

My husband turned his head to the side and stage whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “It’s from Louie Armstrong!” The kids all laughed and then settled down to listen. I closed my eyes to take it all in.

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

The teens behind me were giggling. Just ever so softly. Not irreverently or disrespectfully, but they were obviously enjoying something. I opened my eyes to see what they were seeing. I didn’t see it right away but when the view collided with the words of the song, it didn’t matter. The images around me were so much better than those in my head.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you

And that’s when I saw him. One of the youngest members of the conference – a boy not quite school aged. A boy we had watched grow a little bigger over the last several years. He was running in giant, lazy, looping circles in the grassy space between us and the river. As he looped closer to the front row where his parents sat, he’d lift his arms out to his sides and dip toward them like a plane banking on a turn.

And then he’d be off again. Not in a hurry, not making a scene, just moving to the music. And it was beautiful.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world

As the last notes faded away and the boy fell into his dad’s open arms, my husband summed up what had just happened.

“That was the most beautiful liturgical dance I’ve ever seen.”

And so it was.

The readers had practiced their lines several times and they did an outstanding job. But it was the carefree expression of the music delivered by a child that carried the day. Truly, you just need to leave room for the wonderful to happen and it will. The question is, will your eyes be open to see it?