The Joy of Small Stuff

Yesterday, my older son William taught his little brother Andrew how to play the classic game Uno.

Rain was starting to drizzle outside, and the kitchen was cozy. The boys plunked down at the kitchen table, while I made turkey sandwiches for lunch. William began to explain how to use a wild card, what the reverse card meant, and so on. Andrew listened gamely and studied the cards in front of him, although he insisted on leaving them all face-up in front of him, negating any suspense the game might have developed. They chattered cheerfully back and forth to each other as they flipped cards down.

There was no fighting or arguing. There was no tussling. There was no yelling, screaming, scratching, screeching, hollering, slapping, tripping, stomping, or smacking. It was one of those perfect soap-bubble kinds of brotherly love moments that I wanted to preserve forever. This quick photo that I snapped with my phone is about as close as I could get.

William and Andrew play Uno

Today in church, the Prayer of Thanksgiving included this series of lines:

“It is easy to be grateful for large things that shape our affairs and sway our lives, the looming miracles of grace that stop us cold in our tracks and shout the mercy of God. Let us know be thankful, too, for small graces that catch us unaware; that occur when we are too busy–or so we fancy–to pause and take notice; or are so subtle, and we so unfeeling, that we disregard them altogether; or so uncommon that we overlook them and miss the patch of heaven they possess.”

Small graces, like that game of Uno. Later that afternoon, there was, yes, some tussling and wrestling and screaming and screeching. There always has been, there always is, there always shall be. But those fleeting moments of harmony are just so delicious in their small perfection. While I sliced apples to put on the plates with the turkey sandwiches, my two children were happily enjoying each other’s company–and it was completely their own idea. I hadn’t asked them to play together. They just did. And I was lucky enough to be right there, seeing and listening. And being thankful. It didn’t matter that they fought later. There, at the kitchen table, there it was.

The Prayer of Thanksgiving noted that small blessings could be as simple as two friends meeting in the supermarket aisle or the smile from a child we don’t know. And then there was this line near the end:

“…[Because you came and lived among us, we know the magic of surprise blessings and the joy of small stuff.”

The Big Stuff matters, of course. It matters a lot. But ah, the small stuff. The Uno game. The perfect flavor of ice cream on a hot July night. Clean warm socks in January. The way that Andrew carefully kisses my nose when I ask him to give me hugs and kisses. The feeling of being completely immersed in a really good book. The soccer coach who gives a high-five to the kid on the other team when he scores a goal. The woman who hugged me when she ran into me at church and says, “I’m so glad to see you!” The heirloom tomatoes that my mom brought to my house a few nights ago.

The small stuff. It’s the stuff that you might miss if you blink. Or even if you do notice it, you might not remember it. It might seem insignificant when compared with larger events or situations. How can you stack up an Uno game against the loss of a job, or a loved one’s serious illness, or the pressures of work? Or even the big good stuff, like the marriage of two people who are so clearly thrilled to be legally hitched, or the birth of a long-awaited child, or a new job with a good paycheck and benefits?

I want to take more joy in the small stuff. I want to notice it and revel in it. I want it to become bigger than just “small stuff.” I want my memories to be chock-full of that small stuff, in fact. The Uno game. The moments that are so dear in their small perfection–or even their small joyful imperfection. I am grateful to have the opportunity to cherish the small stuff.

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A Writer Looks at 40

(With apologies to Jimmy Buffett.)

So I’m going to be 40. Not some day. In two days. On Friday. 40. The big 4-0.

I remember when my dad turned 40. I remember all the silly cards and black balloons emblazoned with “over the hill.” One of his friends gave him a cane. I was 12 at the time, and 40 seemed…maybe not old, exactly, but really far away. Like a country that I knew was on the map but never really expected to visit.

And now 40 is 48 hours away. Not an exotic country on the opposite side of the globe. It’s the Starbucks a block away.

I don’t feel quite as bad about my life–the life I’ve already lived or the life that I will live, going forward–as Jimmy Buffett did in his song. I don’t really think I’ve made any giant mistakes; in fact, I feel pretty good about a lot of the big decisions I’ve made. I went to a great college. I chose the right career path (and I had opportunities to follow other paths there, but managed not to get derailed. See: Jennifer’s law school acceptance, spring 1998). I followed the boyfriend to California after grad school. I stuck with writing. I married the boyfriend. I had two kids. We moved to Nashville.

Not to imply that I haven’t made any crummy decisions along the way. Bwahahahaha, no. But we won’t get into those now here, in public, on the Interwebs. Most of them aren’t really noteworthy anyway. Especially not anymore. Not even worth a tweet or a post on Facebook, and thank God that those social media outlets didn’t exist back then.

Yes, overall, things have turned out okay. Better than okay, really. And the things that really weren’t okay are still there, on the pages of the history of my life, and I haven’t forgotten them. They affected the person I became. I just try not to let them define my current life. So why do I still feel a little melancholy? Good question.

I moaned to my husband the other night that now that I’m going to be 40, I’m never going to be the lead singer of a rock band. I’m never going to medical school (he snorted at this). I’m never going to be in the Olympics.

But so what, right?

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed author Alice Randall for a magazine article. She had just written the (very fun) novel “Ada’s Rules” about a woman who decided to embark on major changes to her lifestyle to become healthier and happier. The book was terrific. Alice Randall was even better. After we’d talked for about an hour, and I’d started to put away my notebook and voice recorder, she asked me if I was ever going to write a book.

[Side note: people who write for a living get asked this question all. the. time. Some respond with despair because they really want to write a book but just can’t seem to make it happen. Others use this as an excuse to talk and talk and talk about the novel that they’ve been writing for an eon. Before you ask a writer this question, decide how much time you have to listen to his or her answer and proceed accordingly.]

I hesitated and decided to be honest. Usually, I tell people that my job as a journalist is to tell other people’s stories, not my own. But sitting there in her living room, I said, “Well. I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe….” Because maybe I do. And maybe my glib answer isn’t really completely true anymore. I admitted to her that I didn’t know exactly which story to follow yet, but that I thought that somewhere inside of me, there was a story or maybe many stories that I wanted to tell. Someday. I just wasn’t sure how yet.

And she said something that is so profound that I still think about it all the time. She nodded reassuringly and said, “God isn’t finished with you yet.”

That has become sort of an unofficial mantra for my life.

God hasn’t finished with me yet.

I may be (gulp) turning 40. But it is far from over. I am far from over.

It’s reassuring to think that maybe, just maybe, a lot of the living I’ve already done is a prelude to the rest of my life. A warm-up. Important, but not all there is. There’s much more to come. Yeah, I’m not as young as I used to be, and my kids are starting to give me gray hair, but it’s okay.

God hasn’t finished with me yet.

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Y’all, I made a hat!

Y'all, I made a hat!

The first hat I’ve ever made. Okay, the first hat I’ve ever made that didn’t involve paper plates and tissue paper. Now that I’ve knitted one hat, I’m pretty sure I can do it again. Thank goodness for simple patterns.

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Knit twice

About ten years ago, I tried to learn to knit.

I was working as a newspaper reporter in Palm Springs, and one of my editors suggested that a fun feature for the education beat would be a story about the newfound popularity of knitting among kids and young adults. That sounded kind of fun, so I reached out to a couple of local schools that started knitting clubs and dropped by a local yarn store to inquire about interviewing one of their knitting instructors. 

The knitting store woman was pleased that I wanted to write an article about knitting, and she was happy to talk to me about it. “But only under one condition,” she said. “You have to let me teach you how to do it yourself. You can’t write about it unless you can do it.”

Well, I’d written about lots of things without actually being able to do them–cancer surgery, anyone?–that’s a journalist’s job. But I knew what she meant. So I agreed. How hard could it be, I reasoned.

A couple of weeks later, as I struggled with a pair of unyielding knitting needles and a series of too-tight stitches, my husband remarked that he’d never heard anyone swear so much. You know, my husband, the doctor. In the Navy. 

“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled, as I tried awkwardly to stick one needle through a stitch. Backwards? No, wait, it was supposed to go the other way. Why won’t these stitches move? How am I supposed to get them off one needle and onto the other one? Who came up with this and thought it was a good idea?

I wrestled with that pair of size 8 needles and blue yarn for a few more days, then bailed. I still wrote the story, and it even turned out pretty well. Even if I never knitted more than about eight rows of tentative, uneven stitches.

Fast forward to…March of this year. William and I were wandering around Michael’s, looking for Rainbow Loom refills. William spotted a loom that supposedly made it easy to “knit” scarves. “Hey, we could do that!” he suggested brightly. He’s so optimistic, my elder child.

Hmmm. We were coming up on Spring Break…a very long two-week Spring Break, and it was going to be cold and wet. Maybe it’d be nice to have a project we could work on. I bought the loom (Knit Quick, in case you’re curious) and two skeins of charcoal gray yarn, and we headed home.

At home, I dumped everything onto the kitchen table and ostentatiously unfolded the set of directions. “William, we always read the directions when we are trying something new,” I pontificated. I’m trying to set a good example, see. And to make my point, I even read the entire set of directions before picking up the loom. This is progress for me, I might add. After a few failed starts, I started to get the hang of wrapping the yarn around the posts of the loom, then using a crochet hook to lift one set of loops over the pegs to create a row of “stitches.”

I had to stop at one point and start over, but I quickly got back into it. Wrap, wrap, wrap, loop, loop, loop. A few nights later, I had an actual scarf. That I made! With my own hands! William began agitating for me to make him one, so we dashed back to Michael’s, where he picked out some yarn. I worked on that one for a few days, and William even got into the act and did a few rows. And a couple of days later, we had yet another handmade scarf.

So this all led me to consider trying the real deal once again. One of my favorite Bible verses is from Isaiah 43:19: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” And why not try a new (or mostly new) thing? Maybe it will be easier this time. If I’m trying to live by that advice in my ecclesiastical life, I probably should at least give it a shot in my regular life, too.

Here’s the funny thing. It was.

It helped that I was able to find some good beginning-knitting videos on the Internet. I watched, watched and watched again, as I held a freshly purchased pair of size 8 bamboo needles (I’d long since lost that original pair) and some coral yarn. In this way, I figured out how to cast on. I casted on a dozen stitches, took them off, casted on 15, took them off, and kept doing it ’til I felt like I’d gotten the hang of it. Then I worked on the knit stitch. Same routine, more or less. Watch, attempt, watch, reattempt. But it worked. I even figured out how to bind off, using this method. God bless the Interwebs.

I’m now working on mastering the purl stitch. I also am nearly finished knitting a dark pink scarf. I started knitting it on a larger set of needles that I bought after I developed some confidence. It’s not fancy. But I’m making it, and I’m proud of that. I can hold it, touch it, loop it around my neck. As a writer, I work with words. And these days, I write so much for online publications that I rarely even have a printed version of my work to hold in my hands. Somehow, is so satisfying to make something tangible and tactile, to have something that I made that I can hold and touch.

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March forward…just write

My seven-year-old son recently announced that he wanted to write a story. 

My little writer! My proud writer-mother’s heart soared…for a few moments. I sat him down at the computer, made sure he named and saved the new Word file that he opened, and then stepped back to bask in the moment. 

Then the professional kicked in. 

“Just start writing,” I coached. “It doesn’t have to be good. You just want to get your thoughts down on the page. We can come back and fix things later.”

He nodded confidently and began tapping away at the keyboard. Peck, peck, peck. 

I reluctantly backed away and walked slowly out of the room. In fact, I went back to my own computer and resolutely pecked away myself at an article I was writing. 

“Mom? Mooo-ooom!” his voice echoed from the second floor. “How do you spell delicious? Mom! Mom, I need you right NOW!”

I pushed my chair away from my desk and climbed the stairs. When I got to him, I spelled the word for him and then counseled him to not worry too much about correct spelling at this point.

“Just do your best. Try to spell it the way you think it should be spelled, but don’t get too hung up on it if you don’t think it looks right,” I said. “Just keep writing.”

And with those exchanges, I have passed along some of the greatest writing advice I ever received. In fact, I remember my delight when a well-known journalist told me and the rest of a group of people attending a Poynter Institute seminar that we should just start writing already. Just get started. Don’t get paralyzed by the empty page. Just start writing. You can start writing in the middle, then come back and write the beginning later. Just start. 

I think Tom Hallman’s exact words were “Lower your standards. At first.” 

It sounds a little shocking at first. I know it sounded that way to me. But think about it. You get started. You don’t worry if your sentences are the best you’ve ever composed. You’re just getting started. You’re not letting the old writer’s block get the best of you. 

Now, those of us who’ve been newspaper reporters pretty much already know this. You don’t have the luxury of time when you’re on a daily deadline. And that’s even more true today for people writing for online publications, given the 24-hour news cycle. You’re not just filing copy for tomorrow morning’s paper. You’re writing copy to be posted in ten minutes. Or you’re tweeting or posting on Facebook or other social media platforms.

You have. to. start. writing. now. 

But even if you’re writing for a corporate client or a website, or even if you’re just writing for yourself, it’s good advice. Just start writing. You can come (and should) back and tweak it later. You can edit, copy-edit, move sentences around, delete redundancies, add information, correct spelling, and scrap entire paragraphs. You can even start over, if you like.

So I’ve become sort of a broken record on this topic (how’s that for a cliche that will show my age?). Just start writing. Lower your standards–at first–and just start writing. 

As for my son, he’s still at the age where he actually listens to me. So that night, he wrote and wrote and wrote, and then he called for me again. We fixed the spelling errors, and I inserted a few punctuation marks. He ended up with about four long paragraphs. It was a pretty good start to a story, too. But he wouldn’t have even that if he hadn’t just started writing. 

So, that’s my pep talk…are you going to start writing now?  

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The aftermath of the plane crash in Bellevue

Last Monday afternoon, a small plane crashed less than a half-mile from my house in the Nashville suburb of Bellevue. 

That’s my traditional news lede. 

But I wasn’t a reporter on duty that day. I wasn’t waiting to rush out, with my notebook in one hand, a camera in the other. 

I was sitting at home, in my office, working on a project, with my seven-year-old son in the next room. As I typed, I heard a funny noise, like an airplane flying very low overhead. Then…a beat…and a heavy THUD. The kind you feel in your sternum. 

I thought to myself, “Oh my God, that sounded like a plane crashing.” Except that I’d never actually heard a plane crash in real life, and I assumed that that couldn’t possibly be what I’d heard. Maybe it was a car accident. A transformer blowing. Something. Not a plane crash, though.

A few minutes later, our neighborhood email list began filling up with messages. “Did anyone hear that?” one person asked. “A small plane has crashed by the YMCA,” one reported. 

Indeed, a small plane crashed into what the Tennessean reporter Adam Tamburin called “a tiny sliver of grass amid a sea of subdivisions, grocery stores and restaurants.” That phrase “tiny sliver of grass” is not an exaggeration. There is a wedge of grass in between a parking lot and the western end of the Bellevue YMCA building, right next to the part of the building that houses the indoor pool where both of my children have taken swimming lessons. It’s not even big enough for a softball game.

But by some miracle, the plane’s pilot Glenn Mull, 62, managed to somehow land…well…his twin engine Gulfstream on that grass, avoiding the building that was just a few feet away. He managed to avoid the Kroger and the assisted living facility that are the Y’s neighbors. And he managed to avoid the houses in the neighborhood behind the Y. 

Mr. Mull died in that crash. His beloved wife Elaine and his daughter Amy Harter and his 16-year-old granddaughter Samantha died, too. The family was traveling from Kansas to Nashville to attend the National Cattlemen’s Beef Associate Trade Show at the Opryland Hotel. According to reports, Mr. Mull was unable to land the plane at John C. Tune airport on the first attempt, so he was circling back around to try again.

But on that second pass, something went wrong, terribly wrong, and we don’t know what. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and a preliminary report could be released by the end of this week. 

We don’t know how much the Mulls and Harters knew about what was happening in those final minutes. We don’t know if they knew they were going to die. It makes my heart ache to think of them being scared, so scared, and yet unable to do anything to change their fate.

But everyone who saw the plane go down has spoken about how the plane seemed to wrench to one side right before it crashed, sending it hurtling into the ground…and not into a building full of people. I’m not the only one who saw the miracle in that act–because surely it was a deliberate act on the part of Mr. Mull, his final act, which spared others.

This is how blogger Lindsay Ferrier described the scene:

“I want you all to know exactly what what that busy area must have looked like to Glenn Mull as he circled our neighborhood in the minutes before the crash. He had reached the most bustling section of our community at the busiest time of day. He would have seen hundreds of homes with cars in the driveway. A Kroger packed with shoppers. An assisted living community. And an enormous YMCA, where hundreds of families were streaming in and out to swim in the indoor pool, exercise, and take classes.”

And yet…he somehow saw that tiny sliver of grass.

The people who saw the wall of flames rise up from the ground from their spots by the indoor pool are alive to be grateful to him. The people in the Starbucks and the Kroger and the assisted living facility nearby…they’re alive to be grateful to him, too.  My neighbors are grateful to him. I am grateful to him. 

But oh, how I wish it had been a full-fledged near miss. When I went back to the YMCA on Saturday after it reopened, all I could see was that swath of burned land right next to an intact building. Right next to it. Quite literally, just a few feet away. It took my breath away all over again.

It is a weird thing to mourn people you’ve never met. You read about them, you nod along with the reports about how much they loved their family and friends, and you see pictures of them that make you smile. You identify with them. They were people who might have been your friends. They were people who were a lot like you. And yet you never really knew them. But you feel like you know them somehow anyway. You miss what could have been. 

We are grateful here in Bellevue, but we are mourning, too.  We are glad to be alive and sad, all at the same time. We feel like we owe a debt to Mr. Mull for giving us the chance to be grateful. He and his family will not be forgotten. We won’t forget. 

 

That tiny sliver of grass will always remind us.

 

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Five Miles. Seventeen Degrees.

I’m not a runner.

Really, I’m not. My husband is a runner–the kind who’s both naturally speedy and who also really loves running and mourns the lost days when he doesn’t get to run because work gets in the way. My brother-in-law is a runner–the kind who was really good when he competed as a kid. Even my dad is a runner, although his knees prevent him from doing much of it anymore. 

Me? I’m more of a brisk walker. Maybe a dancer. I can even sing while I dance (and I usually do–ask anyone who’s ever attended a Zumba class with me). Okay, or let’s be totally honest: I’m a talker. My older son got it from somewhere, after all. 

But a runner? Not so much. I had phases during my teens and 20s when I ran a few miles a few times here and there, but nothing really serious. I never really felt that much-hyped “runner’s high” that I suspected didn’t really exist but gave runners an excuse to sound all lofty and superior.  Then I hit my 30s, and all of a sudden, half my friends turned into runners. Or maybe they were always closet runners but suddenly decided to come out and fully embrace the habit. I suspect that it’s not completely unlikely that it was Facebook that played a major role in this–at least when it came to my awareness of it.

But over the last year or so, I’ve started running here and there again. Typically three or maybe four miles. I don’t do it every day. Not even every single week. But more than I used to. I’m in much better physical shape in general now than I used to be, thanks to a well-rounded exercise diet of Zumba, kickboxing, yoga, and yes, a little bit of running. Suddenly running doesn’t seem as much of a chore. Sometimes I take a yoga class, run a few miles afterward, then do it again later in the week. 

So I decided to register for the five-mile Boulevard Bolt, an annual tradition here in Nashville when people take on a five-mile course on Thanksgiving morning before going home to gorge on turkey and dressing. I decided I was just.going.to.do.it. Five miles. I can do a five mile race, I told myself. I can plod along, if I have to. I even started thinking, “Hey, could I do this race in 50 minutes or less? I bet I could.”  I emailed friends who are runners (the real kind) and asked what kind of layers I should be planning to wear for a winter race. 

Except this year, Thanksgiving morning dawned clear and cold–colder than anyone could remember. That’s right. I had chosen a year with Record Cold in which to run my first official five-mile race. The temperature at race time: 17 degrees. SEVENTEEN DEGREES. Y’all. That is unreasonably cold. When I checked the weather app on my phone and saw that number, I began to have second thoughts. “This is bat-&*#$ crazy,” I told myself as I pulled on my running tights. 

But I’d already registered, paid my money, picked up the T-shirt and pinned the race number with the chip to my pullover. I was All In. From the warmth of our bed, my husband the runner said, “Have fun, honey!” and stayed right where he was. I really do love him,  I reminded myself. Think of all the mornings he’s pulled himself from our warm cozy bed to go see patients in the hospital and serve humanity. 

My shuttle from the satellite parking lot to the starting line was late, so I had to push my way through the crowds to even get to the line. I was slightly in shock from the temperature. It was so crowded that I couldn’t really get up to speed, and the cold was just smacking right up against my face, making my lips and cheeks feel stiff and numb. I think I may have been slightly in shock. 

(Why didn’t anyone tell me to get a neck warmer that I could pull up over my face? Oh wait, I think my friend Natalie did, and I blew her off. Natalie, if you’re reading this, you were TOTALLY RIGHT and I should have listened to you, given the six thousand marathons that you’ve run and all. I bow in your general direction.)

 “Oh my God, what have I done?” I thought, as I grimly pushed past the line of ladies jogging cheerfully and v-e-r-y slowly with their Starbucks cups. The seventeen degrees were making the toes in my right foot feel stiff, too. Every time I landed on my right foot, I thought, “Could my toes break off? Surely not….could they?”

Indeed, the first mile felt slow, probably because it was. For one thing, it really was crowded. I dodged people, trying to get past enough people to be able to achieve a reasonable speed. I looked down at the stopwatch feature on my phone and noted that the first mile took me about 10.5 minutes. Then, I spotted a woman about my age with a curly blonde ponytail and a thick black headband covering her ears, and I followed her forward. 

Gradually I began to warm up. My limbs loosened up. My toes felt better. My breathing felt more regular. I was able to get past the slower runners and walkers. I was even amused by Santa and his eight reindeer in brown fleece jackets and antler headbands. I was less amused and more horrified by the college boys who were running bare chested so you could see all their Indian warpaint. Yes. They were really shirtless. If I’d been walking, I’d have had to put a hand over my mouth to keep from hollering, “Put some clothes on!” You can put the girl in a pair of running shoes and gloves and turn her out into the frigid cold, but you cannot completely suppress the bossy mommy in her. As it was, I just raised an eyebrow at them and pushed forward. (What do we think? Do we think they were maybe not entirely sober? Or was it more of a it-sounded-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time thing? Do we think any of them thought it was crazy, too?)

Natalie’s email ran through my brain, coaching me to remember that finishing strong is more important than a particular pace.  And what do you know, when only a half mile remained, I managed to summon something from somewhere and made myself finish strong. I was hoping I’d managed to hit a reasonable average pace, too, of course, but at the moment, I was just wanted to be done.

And I was done. I’d finished the run, and I’d done pretty well. For a non-runner, that is. My official time was 47:32, which put me at a 9:31 mile pace. I was thrilled. I really was. I walked around and found the water stations, then snagged a banana–the best banana I’ve ever eaten in my entire life–and a cinnamon bagel.

The only bummer at that point was that I didn’t have anyone to celebrate my accomplishment with in person. I know that a five-miler isn’t that big a deal for many folks, but it was for me, and I was, yes, a little euphoric about it. So I texted my husband. “Good job!” he wrote back. (He may have still been in bed. I didn’t ask.) 

Then I realized I was cooling off, and good Lord, it was even worse being sweaty in the cold. I think I felt the sweat freezing my knees into a slightly bent position, which was a little alarming. I ran for the shuttle while I still could.

No, it wasn’t a marathon. It wasn’t even a half-marathon. Not even a ten-mile run. But it was a big deal for me. And I’m really, really glad that I did it. Even in the cold. Perhaps especially in the cold. No one can take away my crazy “I ran five miles on Thanksgiving morning when it was seventeen degrees outside” experience. I ran it. I ran the whole thing. It was damned cold. And I felt pretty good about it. Still do. 

 

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