Toilet Paper Is the Least of Our Worries

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The United States is late to the party. The nation’s top leadership is unreliable, and we’re spoiled. We’ve been force-fed a superiority complex for years, meaningless against an unknown, fast moving virus for which we have no immunity. I could stay away from social media and news sources and live in a cloud of denial. Or, I could question the ramifications of the privileged way of life I live.

At the beginning of the pandemic I laughed about the toilet paper rush. The Covid-19 virus attacks lungs, not intestines. Why are people panicking over a lack of toilet paper? But as days go by and the threat of isolation looms long, I’ve started questioning my own dependence on toilet paper. For one thing, I now pay attention to how much I use. Do I really need a handful? Am I that afraid of touching my own bodily waste, created from the food I eat for nourishment?

Then I read an article written by someone outside of the U.S. who said that Americans don’t use toilet paper correctly. He listed the toilet habits of other countries, and their use of water for a thorough rinsing. He even suggested one could use soap and water…with their own hands. You’re washing your hands anyway, he said. Americans walk around with “stinky butts,” he claimed. No amount of scraping with dry toilet paper was going to help with that.

A good friend shared a personal story on social media about her upbringing in the Ozarks of rural Missouri. Her family of thirteen siblings had no inside bathroom or running water. She grew up using an outhouse and drinking water from a stream. Her main point was that she and her family survived that, and we can survive this. An incredulous reader asked what they used for toilet paper? Her answer is just what you’d expect…the siblings all vied for the index pages from the Sears catalog because they were the softest, she explained. Her post was directed at those hoarding supplies. But the overall message is that for the most part, we’re strong, resilient and adaptable.

Another friend emailed a group I’m part of and mentioned she had stocked up on facial tissue which she could use for TP if necessary. Except, I once read an article about the things we should not flush down the toilet, and the most surprising item was facial tissue. It’s made using a stronger weave of fibers that’s not meant to dissolve like toilet paper and clogs up sewer pipes. Who among us has flushed facial tissues down the toilet? I don’t now but I didn’t know any better the previous 60+ years of my life.

When I heard that schools were closing for the rest of the semester, my thoughts went to a friend, a retired teacher, who lives 70 miles outside of Kansas City. She is also a minister, and volunteers at the local food pantry serving meals and interacting with the people who utilize this service. She once told me that that over 70% of school children in that community rely on subsidized food. There are many, many issues more important than toilet paper, which is way down the list of things we can live without. As we spend more time in social isolation, watching the number of deaths rise and the financial world break down, our priorities will surely change.

In the meantime, stay home and stay safe. Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Create home projects, read books, write your memoir, make phone calls to friends and family. Ration your use of toilet paper — and everything else — while we figure this out. Peace.

 

 

An Angel on Earth

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Photo by Tejas Prajapati on Pexels.com

          She reached out to me online, inviting me to join a women’s holiday singing group. We connected on social media; I think she may have posted that she was looking for women harmony singers and I responded. At that time MySpace was still popular for musicians, and she found my page and listened to some of my original songs, noticing our shared love of strong harmony vocals.

We met at her house in a sketchy part of town, but that was Emily*. She loves people and lives without fear, and her neighbors seemed to watch out for her. Her home was full of reclaimed furniture and eclectic décor, reflecting her bohemian nature. The group of women she gathered were from different parts of her life, including me, a stranger that she trustingly invited into her fold.

Emily and I became instant friends, bonding over singing, arranging music, and shared life experiences. The more we talked, the more I revealed about my unhappy marriage and desire to make a change. She offered observations, but mostly she offered a kind ear as she listened to me work through my situation and possible outcomes. One night she showed up at my house in a snowstorm with a bouquet of tulips she bought at a flower shop sale. She seemed to intuit when I needed support and encouragement.

Finally, I made the decision to leave my husband and start a new life. I rented an apartment nearby and gave him the news, which went horribly. My new place wasn’t available for two weeks, so we agreed that I would sleep in the guest room as we transitioned into a separation. But our problems escalated, now heightened to a new level by my decision to move out. Living in the same house together became volatile. I was in crisis and barely breathing.

A week into this arrangement, Emily called to check on me. I had a bad headache, and she could tell I was upset. Suddenly, she said, “Hang up the phone, get into your car and come to my house. You can stay with me until your apartment is ready.” I gathered up some work clothes and incidentals and was in my car within minutes.

When I parked in front of her house, I saw white twinkling lights strewn about on the porch. Upon entering, candles flickered in the dimmed light. She guided me to the guest room, where the bed was made up, surrounded by plants and more strings of lights. It felt like walking into a spa; warm, inviting and comforting.

The next morning, I awoke to coffee, warmed slices of challah bread and the sweet tones of Joni Mitchell. We sat together, chatting about our schedules and planned to meet back at the house that evening for dinner. The rest of the week went on like this as I rested, cleared my head and made plans for my future.

That was a little over ten years ago. I don’t see Emily as much these days, as both of our lives evolved and grew in different directions. She surfaces once in awhile to invite me to vocal concerts or to do something fun, usually spur-of-the-moment, as is her way. Once she called out of the blue to see if I could pick her up from the airport after a trip overseas. “Of course!” I said. Recently she texted, asking if I could meet her at a recording studio to record vocals for a song she wrote to be included in a Jewish anthology of music. I was there in an hour. I’m happy to do anything she asks. Emily is a true example of an angel on earth, and I’m forever thankful for her presence in my life.

*Emily also appears in my story, “Changing My Attitude.”

So You Want My Return Business? Try Great Customer Service

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Finding Balance Through Yoga

 

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Like A Fox

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The fox didn’t seem to notice me.

Leavenworth National Cemetery is a place of serene beauty. Uniform white marble headstones, equally spaced, lie silent amidst manicured green grass. Each stone lists the branch of service, rank, name, birth and death dates of the person eternally resting below. Many have an engraved cross, or an added message.

Some of the words etched on my son’s headstone are: 1st Lt. Benjamin Grant Davis, December 7, 1975 to July 25, 2004. Beloved husband and father. U.S. Army, Airborne. I can’t remember exactly, or the order of the words. You might think this would be seared into my brain, but it’s the opposite. I don’t want to remember it. Sometimes I still get lost on the 50-minute drive to the cemetery. Because at a distance the headstones all look identical, I stop at the visitor’s center and enter his name into the grave site locator. Section 57 Row 9 Site 11. It’s engraved on the back of the headstone as 57 9 11, making it easy to see on approach, if only I could remember.

I go to the cemetery maybe two or three times a year, usually on a day when I hope few other people will be there. I take a small item like a guitar pick or seashell, a stone or a penny, that I lodge in the dirt next to the marble slab. Sometimes I take fresh flowers, and sometimes I take a photo of him to tape next to his name, knowing it’s temporary, but that puts a face to the young man buried there.

I sit on the grass in front the headstone. I touch the cold stone, feeling the deep crevices of the letters. I tell Ben how much I miss him. I look up and talk to the open sky where I imagine his spirit floats in the unknown. It’s always sad, and each time different. Sometimes I sit quietly and remember him, or sometimes grief wells up from within and I cry.

At one visit I followed my routine, sat down in front of the headstone and suddenly began to wail. I sobbed with the deep emptiness of a mother with her child no longer within reach. I cried words of loss, of a longing for his presence. I cried into my hands, no longer wanting to read the words declaring my son dead. Finally, I stood up and walked back to my car, needing tissues and a drink of water. I sat there for a few minutes, calming myself for the drive home.

A movement caught my eye and I gasped as the red fox trotted along the the front row of headstones. His head was up, eyes directed forward, long, full tail flowing straight out behind. His coat was a deep burnt orange, like a gleaming copper penny – the color of my son’s hair – vivid against the creamy white marble. He stopped for a moment to survey his territory at the marker of Section 57. Then the fox resumed his journey and disappeared into the border of trees across the road.

While driving home I thought about the fox and the possible meaning, if any, of his unexpected appearance. Upon researching foxes, I learned they are considered cunning, adept, and loyal to its mate, with acute mental and physical awareness. Foxes are nocturnal, which made his daylight appearance even more stunning. But on a day when I needed comfort, the fox became a reminder of beauty, that nature flows on around us, and of a drive for basic survival. Like a fox, Ben was a critical thinker, smart, and a loyal family member and friend. He worked hard to be the best officer possible, caring for his troops and the serious nature of his job.

I like the idea of the fox as a cemetery guard, paroling the grounds holding so many loved ones. And I love the connection of the fox’s fur and my son’s striking copper hair.

 

An Unusual Christmas

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While listening to a friend describe travel plans with her family for the holidays, I’m reminded of the Christmas of 2000. In mid-December of that year, my son, Ben, an eager new Army officer stationed in Kitzingen, Germany, suddenly experienced grand mal seizures and was rushed to a neurological hospital in nearby Würzburg. Doctors there diagnosed Ben with a brain tumor. The Army immediately discharged him from his duties, and arranged to send him to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C., with surgery scheduled for December 26.

My son’s father, his wife and I traveled together from our homes in the greater Kansas City area to Germany to be with Ben and his young family. Still in shock, we had a surreal early Christmas party for our two little grandsons so they could open gifts. Within 48 hours we all flew to Washington, D.C. while the Army quickly packed up the family’s belongings. At that time, there were accommodations for families on the campus of Walter Reed Hospital, and we were given rooms in which to stay throughout Ben’s surgery and initial recovery.

Now, 18 years later, some of the details are becoming foggy. I remember that my younger son, Zac, also flew to D.C., along with his three stepsisters. My then husband joined us there as well. Coincidentally, my daughter-in-law’s parents live in Alexandria, where she grew up, only about 30 minutes from Walter Reed. She and my grandsons stayed with them.

There we were in small, motel-like rooms at a hospital on Christmas Eve. Ben’s stepmother bought Christmas stockings for everyone, the felt red and white kind from a discount store, and used glue and glitter to spell out our names. We all rushed out to shop for small gifts for each person, like freeze-dried ice cream from the Space and Air Museum at The Smithsonian, or from drugstores or shops we passed by. That night we crowded together in one room to eat snacks and open our stockings. We listened to Christmas music on a radio. The next morning, on Christmas day, we went to Ben’s in-laws’ house to feast at their amazing Christmas buffet, drinking homemade eggnog while dancing and playing instruments along with their traditional Puerto Rican music.

On December 26 we sat together in the hospital waiting room during Ben’s surgery, which went as well as could be expected. The surgeon told us he removed as much of the brain tumor as possible, but that it was a glioblastoma multiforme, which we learned would eventually return and is always terminal. After a round of radiation treatments, Ben, his wife and children moved back to the Kansas City area.

We celebrated three more Christmases with Ben before he died on July 25, 2004. This same extended family plus more grandchildren and spouses usually gathers for dinner on Ben’s birthday, December 7, to remember him and the profound impact he had on all of us. This time of year is always difficult for me, as it is for anyone who has lost a loved one. The memory of that unusual Christmas of 2000, which wasn’t fancy or traditional yet filled with love, makes me smile.

 

 

Busy Brain

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Random thoughts swirl around in my brain. The writer in me intends to organize these thoughts into meaningful pieces about life, relationships and the world we live in. But, while meditating this morning it came to me that maybe I just have a busy brain.

Meditating is new to me. I’ve attempted meditation a few times in the past, and participated in some guided meditations lead by a facilitator. My own efforts at self-guided meditation usually become a random thought circus. One thought sneaks in, flickers, and sparks more thoughts.

A few years ago I decided to try yoga. I love it! Yoga helps me stay strong, flexible, and focused. Through yoga I’ve learned to calm down my brain and put disruptive thoughts on hold. I’m more aware of my breathing, and how to use it to benefit the movements of my body. I’ve learned to slow my brain down enough so that my yoga practice has an aspect of meditation, too.

I’m easily bored and am compulsively busy. I can suddenly attack a closet or stack of papers or my basement and get lost in it. This is usually at the expense of what I set out to do, which is to write. Many drafts of poems, essays and songs need attention. While I’m busy doing these physical tasks my brain is spinning, formulating thoughts and sentences for later when (if) I sit down to write…and then it’s too late. Can’t remember any of it.

I’m reading a book, “Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics,” by Dan Harris. Harris details his own efforts to calm his busy brain and body by meditating. He advises to start with one minute of sitting still with a clear mind. He acknowledges that some people use a mantra to meditate, but thinks even that can be distracting. Find a comfortable place to sit still, slow your breathing, clear your brain. If your mind wanders, simply start over. Harris says that meditation makes anyone who does it regularly at least “10% Happier,” and he created an app to promote this idea. Establishing a meditation practice, even for just a few minutes a day, can set a tone of intention for the day and help focus the mind.

This appeals to me. For a few weeks now, after breakfast, I sit in the solarium of my house, cross-legged on a wicker love seat, a pillow behind my back. I rest my wrists on my knees, usually with hands facing up, close my eyes and start with a simple mantra like “Clear mind, open heart” that eventually drops off to nothing. My mind wanders but I let myself start over again until I notice that my breathing is rhythmic and slow. When ready, I open my eyes and welcome my day.

These days, I’ve found another way to calm myself through flower gardening. Now that it’s Spring in the Midwest, the weather encourages perennials to follow their instinctive course. I love to fill pots with brightly colored annuals. My garden is anchored by an Eastern Redbud tree surrounded by hostas, Solomon Seal, Impatiens and Lily of the Valley.  As I weed and nurture the plants, my brain cranks away but my heart feels zen.

I’m getting better at calming the rapid barrage of thoughts that burdens me except today, when this strain of busy thinking sneaked into my consciousness. Stream of consciousness writing, maybe that’s my angle…where am I going with this? What? Hey, is that a dust bunny in the corner?

 

Watching for Signs

Digging for keys, I felt around in my purse for the fob and yanked it out, with a frustrated force that usually accompanies this search. As the keys popped out, a loose penny escaped as well, hurling itself toward freedom. The penny remained airborne for at least a foot before landing on the concrete parking lot and rolling toward the curb. I stooped to pick it up but decided, instead, to leave it for someone to find, a little surprise luck for the day.

The newly sprung penny landed with its tail on top. Some folks only pick up a found penny if it lands heads up. I pick up every penny, heads or tails, believing it’s lucky just because I found it. If I find a dime or a quarter, even better; ten or twenty-five days of good luck! I love finding money lying in wait for me on the ground. Once I found a fifty dollar bill. That’s a lot of lucky days!

Some people believe finding a penny is a sign from a lost loved one in another dimension. In my song, “Shadow,” I wrote this lyric: “When I’m alone are you with me, dropping a penny for thought?” We miss our loved ones and want to feel a connection, even a symbol as small as a penny.

After my adult son died from a brain tumor, I felt lost in grief. Walking became a survival tactic, forcing me to get up, go outside, and keep moving. I would spend that time thinking, or not thinking at all, or crying. I randomly walked my neighborhood, turning a corner on a whim or because I saw another human I hoped to avoid. One time, very soon after my loss, I set out for a walk and within a few blocks of my house, a little boy ran up to me out of nowhere. He proudly handed me a slightly wilted flower picked from the yard. Whether it was a sign from my beloved son, or just an innocent little boy waiting for someone to happen by, who knows. But, the gesture touched me and meant so much in the context of my recent loss.

When my dad died at age 66 from heart failure, I felt relief. His alcoholism strained our relationship for over 30 years. I worried constantly that he would hurt someone, or himself. In the final years of his life, my dad’s favorite hobby became feeding birds in his backyard. After he died, I realized I thought of him every time I saw a bright red cardinal. Now when I see one, I say, “Hi, Dad!” Sometimes a cardinal sits in a bush outside my living room window, and I like to think my dad is checking in on me. This pretty bird has become a healing connection between us.

According to some spiritualists, if we pay attention and watch for them, signs are everywhere to help us navigate through life. Did you hit every red light on the way to wherever you’re going? Take a breath and slow down. Flat tire on the way to a date or job interview? Maybe it’s not the one for you.

A few years ago a new friend – and potential suitor – invited me over for dinner. That evening, as I drove to his house, a big truck sideswiped my car, ripping the driver’s side mirror clean off. Upon arrival I was a bit shaken, to which my spiritually minded dinner date said, “Do you think this is some kind of sign”? During dinner I learned that this man had the same birthday as my recent ex-husband. Later, he told me, “I think I should tell you that I like to date a lot of women.” Good to know. Three warning signs = no thanks.

As you travel on your daily journey, whatever the token or thing might be that prompts a memory, provides joy or comfort, or opens your eyes, I hope you see it. If you’re anywhere near the parking lot just east of the Fine Arts building at The University of Missouri-Kansas City, there’s a shiny penny waiting to be found!

 

P.S. You can read about animal symbolism and seeing things a different way in my recent essay, “Changing My Attitude.”

 

An Old/New Writer

I can’t seem to stop writing. As I navigate the “Third Act” of life, as Jane Fonda calls it for people age 60+, I find myself wanting to write all of the time. Not because I think I have anything important to say, but because it’s a way to make a deeper connection with people than by the flash of a social media post. I want to connect with others who also read, think and write. The journey is ongoing and learning never ends.

Today is my poetry-reading eve. Tomorrow night will be the first time I’ll present my poetry in a public setting. Although I wrote poetry in college, and graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, I directed most of my creative energy into music and songwriting. I didn’t read a book for a long time – reading and writing under the pressure of assignments took the joy out it of for me.

I went back to school in my mid-30s, and my music career didn’t take off until I was almost 40. For the next 25 years, I had a lot of fun playing live music and being part of the local scene. During this time I also became a grandparent. By the time I was almost 60, the unpleasant part of playing music – booking gigs, late nights, dirty bathrooms, drunks – overtook the pleasure I had previously enjoyed. It felt time to turn this over to the next generation.

That’s when I started writing again. I sought out workshops and retreats. I wrote poems and essays. I joined a writing group. I started my blog, Along the Way. I read books and blogs and poetry. I entered the literary world and began connecting with other writers. The more serious and intent I became about writing, the more I learned. I hired a writing coach to read my work and give me professional feedback and guidance. That investment continues to be invaluable.

I’m a seasoned musical performer, but standing up at a podium to read my poetry to serious writers and listeners is new, and a bit daunting. Today I’ll practice some opening banter and a couple of anecdotes to round out my allotted time. I’ll read each piece out loud with confidence and hope something resonates with the listeners. I’ve got an essay on standby in case I’m left with minutes to fill.

Hi! I’m Elaine McMilian. I’m a writer. Thank you for being here!

 

Changing My Attitude

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On Christmas Eve, Gaylon and I invited our friend, Joe, and his son, Ben,  who was visiting from California, over for dinner. They brought huge crab legs flown in from Alaska and cheesecake from André’s; we prepared a green salad, creamy scalloped potatoes, and warmed Italian bread to round out the meal. Later we relaxed by the fireplace with dessert, after dinner drinks and conversation.

One of our discussions came around to the new supermarket under construction just a few blocks away. As always, when the topic of grocery shopping comes up, I blurted out, “I hate going to the grocery store! It’s my most despised chore. I’d rather clean toilets.”

Ben laughed and replied, “Oh, really? I love going to the store. I make it a whole experience!” He went on to explain that he doesn’t cook much because of his work schedule and instead visits the local market almost daily. Upon arrival he buys a cup of coffee. Then he circles the aisles a few times while he sips, casually enjoying the atmosphere and looking at displays. He says hello to the butcher, who is a good conversationalist and usually offers up a sample of salami or something fresh. Finally he picks up a few items to eat that day and goes on his way.

Ben added, “I will say that the grocery stores in California are remarkably different than the ones here, full of colorful fresh produce and wide open aisles.” The two grocery stores I most often frequent are located within a mile of our house. I almost always go to the older, more accessible store with a diverse clientele. The other store has more exotic fare, like red lentils for a Moroccan soup, or the dark chocolate cocoa mix my husband prefers, but it’s always a quick run in and out. We live in the Midwest, and this time of year the produce is mostly imported and not always pretty. Both of these grocery stores are crowded with narrow aisles.

Later, I was still thinking about this. I live in a metropolitan area with a plethora of markets and stores from which to choose. What stops me, other than the convenient location, from trying out other grocery stores or supermarkets where I can enjoy a nice shopping experience? Or simply changing my attitude about the grocery store where I regularly shop? It doesn’t offer coffee, but there are two coffee shops nearby where I could easily grab a to-go cup for my shopping trip. Instead of hurrying to get in and out, I could thoughtfully consider my grocery needs and casually walk around, looking at what’s on sale and getting ideas for meals. Why the rush?

The next day, on Christmas morning, something happened that triggered a memory of another story about seeing things in a new way. Gaylon went outside to fill the bird feeder and scatter bird seed on a couple of benches near the back fence. After he came back inside, I gazed out the window into our backyard, covered in fresh, new snow and now filling with an array of colorful cardinals, mourning doves, wrens and sparrows. And a rat. I watched a few minutes to be sure it wasn’t my imagination. Maybe it was a squirrel with a wimpy tail. But when it jumped up on one of the benches to get more food, it was clearly a brown field rat. “Gaylon!” I yelled, “there’s a rat eating the bird seed!” As he quickly opened the back door the rat scurried behind our neighbor’s garage. A few minutes later, the allure of such an easy food source brought it back out again. This time Gaylon grabbed the Super Soaker squirt gun he usually reserves for squirrels and ran outside, spraying water as he headed toward the bench. He squirted water heavily behind the neighbor’s garage and soaked the area next to the birdfeeder. That seemed to scare the critter from coming back, at least while we were watching.

I hate rats! I love snakes, and I have a deep respect for spiders, but rats are my nightmare. In our neighborhood, called Brookside, people openly talk about the “Brookside rats.” Most of the houses and sewers are old, and we’re not far from a park with a large pond. The area is highly populated, and there are restaurants nearby. The neighborhood to the south of ours, Waldo, is now talking about its own “Waldo rats,” thanks to new restaurants and ongoing road construction. I understand that living in cities means we live among all kinds of vermin, but I don’t want to see them!

However – and I concede this is a big stretch – there is another way to look at rats. First of all, Gaylon likes to remind me that rats eat garbage. He sees them as an animal with a job to do. But I also remember another story about rats. A few years ago, I drove with my friend, Emily, to eat dinner at her favorite Mexican restaurant in a strip mall. We pulled into the shopping center parking lot and Emily suddenly exclaims, “Oh! There’s a rat!” It was running on the sidewalk next to the building.  I freaked out! This is not what I wanted to see, especially right before eating dinner.  But then Emily added, “Seeing a rat is good luck! It’s a sign of prosperity!” Later, I researched this idea and sure enough, in China, a rat is a symbol of industry and prosperity. As an animal totem, it means survivor. In Greek symbolism, a rat means wealth and abundance. To see a white rat is even more fortuitous.

I’ll always be horrified to see a rat. But if I do, I’ll also think of Emily’s positive way of looking at life and remind myself of my good fortune. I’m lucky and blessed despite times of loss and heartache. When we watch the evening news, Gaylon and I often remark that we have absolutely nothing to complain about. We have food, shelter and warmth; loving family, friends, and good health. Going to the grocery store is a small chore that I can make more appealing with a change in my own mind and a cup of coffee. Hey, I saw a Christmas rat! Best wishes to all for a prosperous and happy new year!