In Like a Lion, Out Like a Squirrel

It was the scariest of times. It was the squirreliest of times. It was March 2020.

They say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, but I’m pretty sure the lamb doesn’t fit this year. Is there another animal that fits my experience better? Yes. Squirrels.

I did a quick search of “squirrely,” to make sure it means what I think it means. Turns out it means “mildly insane,” “unpredictable and jumpy,” or “nutty.” So, yeah—in like a lion, out like a squirrel.

***

My sister and I have been taking walks around the neighborhood. On Friday evening, we noticed a squirrel out in the street flat on its belly. It appeared hurt. Both Amanda and I started talking to it: “Oh, poor little squirrel! Are you okay?” Etc. Etc.

As we approached, it hopped to its feet and stared back, alert.

Relieved it wasn’t hurt, we felt compelled to keep up the convo. “Oh, look at you, little squirrel! I’m glad you’re not hurt. What are you doing out in the street? It’s not safe to sleep in the street.” Etc. Etc. We kept up the small talk with the little creature as we walked on.

As we walked away, the squirrel said, “Arf,” like the one-syllable bark of a seal. My sister and I looked at each other in disbelief and asked, “Did he just talk to us?” I’ve had my share of one-sided chats with animals, but I’ve never had a squirrel answer me.

We laughed like a couple of idiots who don’t get out much and are beyond thrilled that a squirrel wants to talk.

Three days later, we were out walking the same route as on Friday, the evening of our fabled squirrel-whispering incident. As we crossed the street where we’d met our little friend, I glanced up at the tree and saw the squirrel flat on its belly, just a bored squirrel chillin’ on a bare branch.

Of course, we chatted him up. “Well, fancy meetin’ you here! How’s our little friend? Can you say Arf? Is that your home? I love your fluffy tail!” Etc. Etc.

He looked mildly amused, but not enough to move. Mostly, we wanted him to speak again — as confirmation that we’re not crazy. And also to fuel our dreams of hand-feeding a squirrel BFF, dressing him up in a red gingham shirt and denim overalls. Etc. Etc.

We gave him plenty of time to respond, but he didn’t even lift his head. We walked on. At the next corner Amanda and I parted ways, and I turned around to go home. When I approached the corner with the squirrel tree, he was standing in the sidewalk staring me down with sweet, little, beady, rodent eyes. I felt sure he’d thought of something to say and tracked us down.

“What is it, buddy?” I asked. Silence.

As I stepped forward, he darted up a tree trunk. Even so, I haven’t given up on the dream of making him our pet and dressing him in gingham and overalls.

***

Without a doubt, these are scary days. I recognize the immense blessing that cabin fever (and delusional squirrel-whispering) is the worst of our problems; for us, these have been squirrely days. And if I must lose my mind, I’m grateful to do so in a comfortable place among the people I love with the faith that this, too, shall pass.

March 2020 came in like a lion and went out like a squirrel, but I trust that “mildly insane” and “unpredictable” are not forever.

Know that I pray for your good health, friends. Take time to laugh in the midst of washing hands and sheltering in place. And if you can, take in the beauty of nature, especially the fluffy-tail parts.

Love, Em

squirrel

Our Own Mister Rogers

I recently watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the movie with Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. The striking thing about it was how quickly the details – those garish blue-green curtains, the gentle ding ding of the trolley, the cardigan closet – took me right back to my view from the braided rug in our TV room. I vividly remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with my mom, whose love for Mister Rogers took root in me over the course of many episodes and is still going strong.

Strangely, until I’d seen the Tom Hanks movie and the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I had forgotten about the music. Not so much the songs with words about “many ways to say I love you,” but those faint, jazzy piano chords that serve as the show’s backdrop. I hadn’t realized how hungry my ears had been for that gentle musical commentary.

Like so many people of my generation, my heart has a trolley-shaped place reserved for Mister Rogers. He was unique in his sensitivity to the feelings of others, children especially. I have known just a handful like him, such as my friend Mary Ann, a former kindergarten teacher with a special gift for relating to children.

Watching the movie, I remembered another Mister Rogers-type of guy, Rev. Bernie. Bernie was a salt-of-the-earth, joyful, soft-spoken man. He wore a small wooden cross around his neck and smiled with an endearing gap between his front teeth.

Years ago, Rev. Bernie would occasionally give the children’s sermon at church. The moment he took the microphone, the congregation would grin collectively, anticipating the hand-puppet that would soon appear.

It was a little, white cat with a high-pitched voice named Casey the I-Care Cat. I never thought to ask Bernie if he was inspired by Mister Rogers’ Daniel Tiger, but the resemblance, for me, was real. Casey had a single message, one moral for every story – a message that is useful every single day.

He would set up the sermon by talking with Casey the cat, who had managed to do something selfish or impulsive. See, the cat didn’t always take others’ feelings or God’s commandments into account before acting. Casey’s lesson was always the Five T’s: Take the Time to Think.

Rev. Bernie, I mean Casey, would say these slowly, as Bernie counted on his fingers to show there were not six, not four, but five T’s.

I don’t know if Bernie originated Casey just for children’s sermons or if he used the cat-puppet in his career as an educator. Either way, the message works, whether in church or school or anywhere. I bet those kids sitting at his feet remember Casey’s Five T’s all these years later.

I know I won’t soon forget: Take the time to think.

There’s a picture of Mister Rogers on the bulletin board above my desk. In it, he’s holding one of his puppets, King Friday, and entertaining a group of kids. Underneath is a quote from Fred Rogers, “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” In Bernie’s unassuming, humble way, he was a hero of the faith to those who knew him. He was like our own Mister Rogers.

Rev. Bernie passed away last summer. My heart aches for his sweet wife Ann; how she must miss him.

Now he’s seen Jesus face to face. He doesn’t need to take the time to think. Now he knows.

Rev Bernie

More Than a Library Book

At the end of last year, I’d planned to make 2020 my year of reading books from the K-8 library where I work—to really understand what the kids like to read. Then came Christmas morning, when I unwrapped a nice stack of books from my husband, including A Month in Siena, Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, A Short Philosophy of Birds, and RisingTideFallingStar. Then, in January, two friends loaned me books I’d wanted to read—Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and Tara Westover’s Educated.

All of which is to say it’s late February, and I’ve read only five chapter books aimed at middle schoolers. Maybe my goal was too much like a New Year’s Resolution to succeed. (I’m terrible at keeping those.)

Also, life is too short to restrict your reading.

Of the chapter books I’ve read so far, I really enjoyed Fair Weather by Richard Peck, the sequel to A Year Down Yonder. As for the other books I read—one classic of YA lit, one current children’s horror novel, one award-winning historical nonfiction narrative, and the other two I barely remember—they prompted me to go back to reading whatever the heck I want and fill in the blanks with the occasional Wimpy Kid or Flat Stanley.

It’s not that I think children’s literature is somehow less important, but that this job doesn’t require literary expertise. Students don’t ask for my recommendations as much as they seek my attention.

Some jobs call for expertise; this job calls for love.

For some students in the library, the books are peripheral. Sure, they need to check out books so they can take comprehension quizzes and earn points toward their Language Arts grades. Yes, ideally students should find books that spark their interest. Reading should be fun, and I do my best to get the right books into the kids’ hands.

However, I’ve noticed that sometimes choosing a book is about much more than reading. At times the book is a symbol of something bigger, an emblem of something longed for. When you’re a young reader choosing a library book, often it’s about what the book says about you.

Back in the fall, very young students would ask when checking out a book, “Is this mine now?” I’d tell them the book was theirs to read for a couple weeks and then they must bring it back and choose another one. If they’d never borrowed a library book before, this arrangement blew their minds.

For older readers, the book’s value sometimes lies in the cover with the picture of a teen on her phone, the title in swoopy pink letters that signify how very grown up you are.

One day a boy checked out such a book marketed to girls, with a lavender and pink cover. When a girl snickered at his choice, I gave her the raised eyebrow. We don’t judge others’ book choices, whether by reading level or taste. Not on my watch, anyway.

Sometimes the kid chooses a classic they think Mom will like. They imagine pulling the book out of their backpack and taking turns reading to each other before bed. Maybe some reading with Mom before bed would be nice.

I saw actual stars in a fourth grader’s eyes as she told me how much her mom would love the book she’d chosen.

One little boy chose a Star Wars book because his dad loves Star Wars. He was certain his dad would be excited at his choice. I asked if he, the boy, was a Star Wars fan, and he answered with hope in his voice, “Sort of?”

I saw then that it wasn’t about reading. It was about the look on his dad’s face when he saw the Star Wars book casually placed on the kitchen counter.

A library book is about so much more than the content of its pages. Sometimes it’s about hopes or dreams or self-image or ownership, however temporary. It’s about learning to read and reading to learn—and along the way learning who you are in this big world.

-Em

Eleanor Roosevelt quote

Old Habits, New Assignments

For the past decade, I’ve kept a list of almost every book I’ve read. It grew out of the school-days habit of citing every source and became a fun way of remembering. It might seem excessive (or probably, obsessive), but I realized long ago that I can’t keep everything straight, and I didn’t want to lose any valuable ideas. Or insights. Or really great sentences.

I’m planning to change my reading habits in the upcoming year, so I was looking back at my decade of lists and notes. I’m so glad I saved this stuff.

In 2009, I read books about motherhood. The list contains only seven titles, possibly because I was busy being a new mom. In 2010, I was reading about creativity: Alain de Botton, Lewis Hyde, Twyla Tharp, and a weird biography of Emily Dickinson. It’s hard to remember those sleep-deprived months with a tiny Caroline, but I’m guessing it was at least comforting to read about creativity since I had no energy to create anything. Apparently, I also read Julie and Julia that year. Remember that movie? The book was better.

It appears I finally got around to Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood in 2011. Along with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life, it still sits on my bookshelf, having survived the great book purge of this past summer. That same year, I stepped into the inspirational vortex of the Christian literary industrial complex, reading books by Donald Miller, Ann Voskamp, and John Eldredge, among others. There are worse things to spend your money on, I suppose.

Wow, 2012 was a good reading-year: Marilynne Robinson, Martin Buber, Eugene Peterson, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer filled my free time. Also, I re-read two all-time favorites: The Life of Pi and Their Eyes Were Watching God. The high volume and quality of books here make me believe that 2012 is the year I got a library card.

The following year, 2013, I started blogging 1,200 words a week and, according to my list, found more time than ever to read. I also took a deep dive into nonfiction, with the poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss being the most impactful book I read that year. I plan to read that one again.

The remarkable thing about 2014 is the number of books I read and annotated, thirty-three in all. Many of these titles I remember as serendipitous finds at the public library—that is, books that found me. The star of 2014 was Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside, a book whose lyrical language mesmerized me and deepened my love of the ocean.

In 2015, I stumbled upon the writing of Avivah Zornberg, a Torah scholar. Mind blown. The next year, I loved reading Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Helen McDonald’s H Is for Hawk, books that opened up unfamiliar worlds to me.

My 2017 reading was a real hodge-podge of memoir and Bible history and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brené Brown. Ilana Kurshan’s If All the Seas Were Ink was the highlight. It’s not only a brilliant memoir of her reading life, but it confirmed that the kind of book I want to write can be done. My 2018 list doesn’t contain a single novel. By then it was clear that I’m a nonfiction nerd, and I’m okay with that. Notably in 2018, Walter Brueggeman’s brilliant books revealed new ways of looking at the Bible.

This year, the eleventh of obsessive reading and note-taking, I read a record forty-six books, mostly in the genres of memoir and history. The one exception is a novel written for tweens: Cylin Busby’s The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs. My daughter insisted that I read it, and with every other chapter I finished, she’d be standing nearby asking, “What part are you on now? Did the ship sink yet?” (Note to self: we should have a talk about the concept of the spoiler alert.) While I never would’ve chosen the book—a novel about a heroic seafaring cat—I really enjoyed it.

Even the part where the ship sank.   

Plus, the novel was a preview of what I’ll be reading in 2020. A few months ago I started working in the school’s libraries, which serve Pre-K through eighth graders. A few times a week, a child will ask for my recommendation — most recently, for “a book that’s kind of long but not too long.” My knowledge of kiddie lit is limited to what I can remember (not much) and very dated.

After all, it’s been thirty years since I was in fifth grade, and as much as I loved Beverly Cleary’s entire oeuvre, I need to brush up on what the kids are reading this century. (True, they don’t know what they’re missing when they skip over Beezus and Ramona.) And so I will bend to the demands of tiny people who might just find the perfect book with help from the old lady behind the circulation desk.

In the years I’ve been out of school, assigned reading has lost its luster. I like reading whatever I want. Even when I was in a book club, I often failed to read the chosen book. “Sorry, I didn’t get around to it this month,” I’d say, although it was clear I was there mainly for friendship and margaritas. This assigned reading is different: technically, I’ll be picking the titles in hopes of understanding what the kids enjoy and will, fingers crossed, strengthen their reading muscles.

Phil is skeptical, thinking I’ll make this venture into children’s literature as esoteric as possible. He says, “You’ll be persuading kids to read The Diaspora of Winnie the Pooh, or something like that.” As far as I know, that’s not a real book.

But the title is intriguing.

Stay tuned for my adventures in children’s lit circa 2020, the year of assigned reading.

annie dillard quote

What Happens in Vagus (the Remix)

Hi, there. This morning I fainted during an eye exam at the mall. The doctor feared I was having a seizure and called for an EMT. By the time they arrived – three EMTs and a police officer – I was fine. This fainting problem happens somewhat regularly at medical appointments. When it happened six years ago, I wrote a blog post about it. So, today I’ve dug out that golden oldie from 2013.  

***

“Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.” –Mahabharata

I like my eye doctor. She feeds me animal crackers and dabs my forehead with a damp cloth. She’s nice. And pretty, too.

This doesn’t sound like your typical optometrist, but I’m not your typical patient. I’m a fainter. A swooner. A savant of the smelling salts.

My daughter was with me during the eye exam. Knowing that she’ll need one before kindergarten, I brought her along to prove that it’s no big deal.

A few weeks ago, she tagged along when I got the pertussis booster vaccine. She buried her face in her hands and whimpered while the nurse gave me the injection. I tried to counteract her fears by bragging about my cool Band-Aid and, later, super-sore arm. Like most people over age two, she’s too smart for my tricks.

Long story short: playing it cool at the eye exam, I ended up out cold. When I came to—drenched in sweat, mortified—she was standing over me saying: “Mama! You took a nap!” She wasn’t even alarmed, just confused about my napping schedule.

The first time I fainted was in high school biology class. In college, I passed out during a women’s health event where the speaker was talking way too enthusiastically about cervical cancer. Over the years, I’ve become acquainted with the carpet at SLU library, the dermatologist’s office, the endocrinologist’s office, and now in the optometrist’s exam room. It had been five years since the last faint, and I thought I’d outgrown it.

The trigger is language: medical terms, procedures, mechanisms of disease, the words “catheter,” “intravenous,” and “retina.” In the latest case, the optometrist was analyzing my retinal scan, where you look through the peephole and the machine takes a quick photo of your eye—much easier than dilation. (Incidentally, if scientists could invent a similar scanning technique for pap smears, I and half the world’s population would be most grateful.) The doctor helpfully pointed out my retinal nerve and macula, and the more she used the word “retina,” the more squeamish I got. My ears were ringing, my eyes were blacking out, and consciousness slipped away.

I vaguely remember Dr. Oz talking about the vagus nerve on an episode of Oprah. He may have mentioned it in relation to fainting. I made a mental note of it then quickly forgot it—because I was planning to outgrow fainting.

The vagus nerve runs from the medulla down through the neck, chest, and abdomen, conveying “sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system” (according to Wikipedia). When your vagus nerve freaks out from stress, you suffer the most common type of fainting, vasovagal syncope. As I read Wikipedia’s list of triggers, my eyes alighted on the one closest to my heart, er, vagus nerve: “watching or experiencing medical procedures.”

Whoomp. There it is.

Willing myself to stay conscious doesn’t work. The more I tell myself, “snap out of it,” the quicker I’m out. Chances are, at darn near forty years old, I’m not going to outgrow it.

Maybe the reason for the trigger is that medical terminology reminds me that I’m a body, and bodies aren’t made to last. Practicing for death—it sounds so morbid. But that’s vaguely what my vagus nerve is up to.

Tempus fugit, memento mori, and carpe diem. This message was approved by my vagus nerve.

Thanks for reading! -Em

Sister’s Keeper: Coda

One day, Amanda woke up without pain. She didn’t quite trust the feeling, strange as it was. But then it came back the next day, and stayed the next. And she realized that, maybe, this is what wellness feels like. This is what it feels like when your body is your friend.

She took a risk, and the outcome is good. I could not be happier for her.

Wherever you go, there you are, and by “you” I mean your body. When the body hurts, you can’t just unzip it and come back to it later. You can’t just download yourself onto a hard drive and abandon your skin-and-bones bag. (Not yet, anyway.) Your body is you. At times, pain is the price we pay for living in bodies, without ever having asked for the privilege. While tending to my sister, I gained a great deal of compassion for people who feel betrayed by their bodies in one way or another.

Recently, I decided to read through the gospels. I noticed that Jesus taught many lessons and healed many people, but the emotion that often compelled him, according to the four writers, was compassion. Repeatedly, he was moved with compassion for the people who followed him, clamoring for attention, trapped in broken bodies.

By the time my sister went through with surgery, she’d been the beneficiary of many prayers, mine included. But, in all of those prayers, I never asked God to take her pain and give it to me instead. I wouldn’t have asked for diseased joints – gotta draw the line somewhere – but I could have asked to bear part of the burden of pain. I didn’t have the courage for it. Maybe I didn’t have enough compassion. These are the thoughts one thinks while lying on an air mattress waiting for the sun to come up.

***

In a broken world, we each will need healing many times, until that day of ultimate healing when our wholeness is finally sealed:

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

But for now, when we take care of someone, when we offer some tiny morsel of relief, we add one more patch to the repair of the world, tikkun olam.

***

I wrote earlier that our care-giving gig was easy because we were reasonably certain Amanda would recover and come out stronger on the other side. Far too many caregivers don’t have the luxury of such assurance. And so I end this series with a prayer for the caregiver:

God, source of all that is good, give comfort and strength to the caregivers of the world.

The mom of a newborn, deprived of sleep and wondering what she’s gotten herself into.

The daughter at the deathbed, all too aware of how this will end, but still offering her hand to steady the dying man on his way.

The dad of a child with needs so special they’re hard to explain, overwhelmed with contingencies and emergencies, with no rest or reprieve in sight.

The woman or man struggling to keep head above water, pulled under by a spouse drowning in despair.

The ones who tend those whose bodies have betrayed them.

The nurses, doctors, and helpers doing their best to repair the world one bandage at a time. Thank you for the revelation of medical science; how lucky we are to be alive right now.

And help us, God, to remember the best bandage is love. Amen.

PS: This is the final entry in a series. If you missed the previous one, find it here. To go back to the first one, click here.

dorothy day

Sister’s Keeper, ix (Well on Her Way)

Hi, Reader – This is Part 9 in a series. If you missed the beginning, hop back to Part 1. As always, thanks for reading!  ~Em

I helped Amanda out over the summer not so I could write about it, but in writing about it I remembered our bond. Over the years, I guess I’d forgotten how fortunate I am to have a sister.

“Having a sister or friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house,” writes Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping. “Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them.” She’s right, there’s something safe and insular about sisterhood. She’s my very first friend, and our shared forty-plus years mean that the roots run deep and tangled.

Strangers sometimes ask if we’re twins and appear mildly doubtful that we’re not. As I replied to a stranger late one night at Walgreens, “No, but we’re practically the same person.” He probably thought I was a few trombones short of a jazz band, but I was being truthful. There’s no one on the planet more like her than me, and vice versa.

When we were little, Mom had a parenting book called The Strong-Willed Child. I remember scanning the titles on the shelf and wondering, what’s that one about? At some point, I learned it was my mom’s survival guide for managing my sister. Amanda was always fearless and, I suppose, what Dr. Dobson might have called “strong willed.” She was a pistol. She was liable to get a knot jerked in her tail. (Do grandmas still make threats like that?) But it was that strong will that carried her through hard times, recent struggles included. God made her a strong-willed child, and that’s a blessing, because she had to be.

I was not a strong-willed child; I go along to get along. Some other time I’ll write about the basic dishonesty of my compliance. Maybe only siblings can be practically the same person and, at the same time, so dramatically different. In any case, this past summer the main difference was I had the chance to take care of her in the best way I could, and she had to endure it. Maybe she’ll have a chance to return the favor. If not, that’s okay, too.

***

Once, when we were little, we were playing at a friend’s house—four kids under age five running wild. At some point, Amanda decided to put a paper bag over her head and run wild, until she ran smack into the living room wall. I can still recall the spot where she hit, white paint, sunlit, twelve inches below the light switch. She ended up having to get her forehead stitched up.

For many years after, a half-inch scar marked the middle of her forehead. In the summer, it stood out white against suntanned skin. Eventually it faded, then disappeared altogether. Early this fall, on the flat landscape of that long-gone scar, I dabbed a cross of peppermint oil.

I had forgotten the faith-healing of my upbringing–mostly–the fierce quoting of scripture as if God was being held to the terms of a contract. It wasn’t deliberate, just pushed to the back corner of my mind with other cobwebby childhood memories. But do you ever completely outgrow the religious tradition you knew early on?

So it’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning in September, and I’m at Amanda’s house responding to a desperate text message. She’s home-bound with a cluster headache, and I’ve brought over an essential oil diffuser. When you’ve tried everything modern medicine and old-time religion can offer, might as well fill the room with a cloud of good smells.

As she gets settled under the covers, I plug in the diffuser. But before leaving her to rest, I’m compelled to do one more thing. I pour a small bead of peppermint oil on my thumb. I reach over and mark her forehead with a tiny, cross-shaped smear of oil and say a simple prayer for healing.

Did it work? She was better within a day, so either it ran its course or I should buy a sharp suit and white sweat hankie. God is good, regardless, and I’d argue that one way prayer works is that it makes us humble. It reminds us that some things—maybe most things—are out of our hands. It’s like standing at the edge of the ocean.

It seems, finally, that Amanda has made it to the shore. I admire her courage in confronting pain and doing something about it. I admire her patient endurance, when it would have been tempting to self-destruct or just give up. I respect the character she’s building by trusting deeply in God while working to strengthen her body and mind. And I can see the hope that’s growing in her: it gleams like a white scar, but it’s tougher than a diamond.

Wellness is a big step toward wholeness. And she is well on her way.

Amanda xray

Amanda’s new bionic jaws. Smile!