The Juxtaposition of Life and Death

Another of winter’s intermittent episodes forced me to bundle up and brace for the cold as I set up on the front porch for a much-needed writing indulgence.  White puffs of breath remind me I’m alive.  The patio heater my parents gave me, Charming’s pilfered grad school hoodie, and Gram’s blanket can’t seem to warm past the skin to thaw out the numbness in my chest.

My grandmother passed in her sleep Thursday night.  My brothers and I were in Syracuse by Saturday night.  The wake was Sunday afternoon at the funeral home.  We held a church memorial service on Monday, concluding with her burial at the cemetery.  Charming and I started the drive south.  I finished this morning and was wobbly transitioning to teaching this afternoon, surprised that a half-day was such a struggle.

The one commonality in the way humanity handles grief is simply that each of us go through a process.  The sameness ends there.  We can follow along with the grief manual guide steps, a curiously constructed set of stages that help us explain, justify, and defend how we feel.  The reality is that no two of Grams’ eight grandchildren will mourn in the same way or grieve on the same timeline.  I don’t know what stage I’m in.  Maybe I’m hovering over the entire grieving process an alternate, existential cloud.  Absent clarity, questioning consciousness, reminded too often of the subtle space between life and death.

I prepared for Grammy’s final breaths by producing a memorial video to bring her back to life for all of us at the viewing.  Comprised of still and moving pictures arranged as a visual narrative of her life, it seemed fitting to accompany the photo story with a soundtrack of Gram’s favorite hymns. Thursday night, I’d finished converting files and editing the storyboard and transitions of stills.  Friday night, I should have been packed and asleep, but selecting compositions where the piano and violin highlights would do justice to the recreation of her life took over two hours.

I was still editing video footage after I’d picked up Charming Saturday afternoon and he drove us the rest of the way to my parents’ house.  I understood that I went home because Grammy was dead, but my brain was having a hard time to justifying the obvious truth and reality when the cumulative sum of daily hours lost in her memorial project flooded my subconscious with a steady stream of pictures and videos of her alive and well and dancing.  When I blogged last week, I spent enough time sitting still to accept what was going to come.  Complete devotion to creating a tribute that would honor her memory and comfort her loved ones allowed me to evade grieving Grams altogether.

After a tire blow-out on 81 N and quick spare switch out on the shoulder, Charming and I crawled in the door met by hugs and lots of people despite the hour, and all of them were gathered there to attend my grandmother’s funeral.  The sweet serenity of the memorial project had allowed me to suspend all rational conversations, but Mom told me just before bed that all of the grandchildren would be speaking on Monday at the funeral.  I tried to engage with my cousins’ fiancés a few times, but mostly, I was a mess… I wanted desperately to be alone where no one would notice I didn’t have the capacity to be a loving daughter, sister, niece, or cousin. With family gatherings before and after the wake and people dropping in with food and condolences, I’d have to wait until late that night to write my mini-eulogy.

The irony in this is that I’m not a procrastinator.  I hated to have to wait until the last minute to write something of such import for a woman with high expectations equal the standards for her own life. I saw Grams that afternoon lying in an open casket in her favorite dress, the purple one she wore to all her grandkids’ weddings.  Directly opposite, the video tribute of a smiling Grams played on repeat for three hours.  After everyone had gone and the video screen went black, I snuck back in to say goodbye, to squeeze her cold hand, to talk to her face to face one last time, even if it was through the one-way glass of heaven’s floor.  Maybe for some of us, even the Type A personalities, we’ll procrastinate when it comes to saying goodbye.

Mom had urged me to simply share my most recent blog post, but that was about me.  So, Sunday night, I had another writing night for Grams.  It took three hours to compose a five-minute speech, and I already had a head start with some bits from last week.  It pained me greatly to change words like “live” from present to past tense.  For an English teacher, that singular editing act of shifting tenses may have been even more convincing than touching Grammy’s hand in the casket.  She is dead.

I wrote once in college that you’re born, you live, and you die, and that somewhere in between you touch lives or don’t touch them or change the world or don’t change it.  The paraphrase is close enough to the original sentiment echoes again in my mind.  I can imagine more than a few of my family members felt snubbed by me this weekend. Whereas when we were children and I constantly vied unsuccessfully for my cousins’ attention, always the odd-woman out peering into the boys’ inner circle, these past few days have me wanting to disappear, to retreat, to regroup and find a new normal.  In every setting, in every gathering, I saw life juxtaposed against death, and just like the concept of infinity, I couldn’t wrap my mind around all of the “stuff” that we put between life and death.

It’s quite possible that there are others who, like me, when faced with a loved one’s death, find themselves hovering in a cloud above the stages of grief, unable to participate with those family members and friends who are progressing quite normally and naturally through the mourning process, grateful for these purposeful gatherings intended to comfort one another by coming together to honor the memory of a person who no longer exists inside this earthly body.

This blog isn’t another tribute to her; I turn thirty-five next week, and I’m numbed by all the numbers in between us.  Grammy will never sing another happy birthday chorus around our dining room table, but she was there for every important moment in my life four over three decades.  She’d always ask me to sing for her, and I relished the opportunity.  I don’t sing anymore, but I had promised Grams long ago that I would sing a hymn at her funeral, anything but “In the Garden”.  I suggested that I sing a verse and have the congregation join in and that the song be a cappella, absent piano because the accompanist is now in heaven, probably playing with a choir of angels by now.

At the wake, a former neighbor of mine stayed an extra moment with Charming and me after sharing her condolences to let me know how much she enjoyed my blog.  She’s the first person besides my gym mentor Chuck who I think ever went back to the beginning… nearly three years of blogging nights by now.  Not only had she been moved by the subtle transformations in my sphere, but it had comforted her in some personal way during a challenging season, and that’s why I am doing what I am doing right now.

I don’t know if there are other believers who watch a love one die, and simultaneously thank God that she’s with the Lord while fearing our own end?  Or is it that no one says it out loud?  My neighbor is an accomplished woman much older and wiser than I, and the only way to explain the ability for my words to affect her at any level are in my willingness to be authentic and real and say what nobody else is willing to say.  As each of us spoke and my cousin played a violin solo, the video track played on mute on the screen behind.  I tried to focus on the words of my speech on the platform but was distracted by her closed coffin directly before me and the contrasting footage of her kissing my Grandpa on the stage monitor in the back of the sanctuary.

I didn’t want to be a fraud, boasting in words I can’t live up to right now, so I sang one verse of “It is Well with My Soul” as if I were Grams who believed every word all her life, and as we sang the rest of the song, the pallbearers carried Gram’s coffin down the aisle and into the hearse.  The funeral procession brought us to a familiar place.  It was always easy to find Grandpa’s grave because it’s right by the statue of the Praying Hands.  When we left, I asked one of the drivers when they were putting her in the ground.  His answer was vague, but it wouldn’t be before Charming and I had to head back to DC.

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I think like Carl Sandburg’s poem, I need grass to grow over Grammy and Grandpa’s grave.  Then I need to see the reminder of what lies there, the gravestone which will now have a year of death added to Gram’s side.  I visited Grandpa’s grave countless times over these decades past, though always he was alone.  As a result, it has become a familiar and comforting place, peaceful and calm like Grandpa was in life.

I want to visit Grammy and Grandpa in the spring.  I’ll bring them flowers.  I’ll sit and talk to them like I used to do when his body was under the earth waiting for his bride to join him.  The spring and the flowers and the stones are all symbols that mark the great lives and legacy of a simple pastor and his wife.  Grammy said she felt closer to God in the garden than anywhere else.  Maybe the stone marking my grandparents’ remains has the same effect… especially if I bring her fresh cut roses.

Writing about my grandmother in past tense has become natural over the past few hours.  I still don’t know where I am in the grieving process, and I’m not sure that it matters.  I think I’m getting old, and to participate in Gram’s legacy, I need children to give those graceful genes to someday, and if I died tomorrow that branch for me on the family tree would just end.  And that doesn’t mean God won’t reclaim, restore, or renew all things, even this existential flirtation.

I write to grow, and I feel closer to God on my front porch than anywhere else.  It’s safe to question life and purpose and meaning while, at the same time, I watch my breath change color in the cold of night and believe firmly that I was fearfully and wonderfully made.  The juxtaposition of life and death is the new infinity for me.  Just give me time.

If Grammy’s Not in the Garden…

Indian style on my white wicker love seat contributing to the annals of my passionate three-year affair with “Writing Nights” as my Google Calendar reminds me each Tuesday, I’m sitting still on the outside. Still, on the inside I’m bouncing between competing obligations to prioritize deadlines, courting time in the hopes she’ll favor my attempts to stay afloat amidst January’s moody flirtations. The bitter cold conquered by a freak thaw has my magnolias confused and budding. Quite frankly, I can empathize.

It was warm and sunny when I dashed out during my planning block around noon to switch out the VHS tapes that I’m frantically converting to digital files. At Christmas, I’d lugged home two heavy cases of VHS tapes, 8mm cassettes, and Mini DV’s; it’s the Palma Family Archive… or at least all the tapes my mother was willing to let me transport by car back to Virginia to convert. Charming and I dreamed up a Christmas gift of providing all our home videos to family members on stylish portable hard drives. With my labor and his funding, we’ll be able to express our gratitude for everyone’s role in our summer wedding with a meaningful, sentimental gift for generations to cherish in the future.

I’ll keep my mind from wandering to the efforts my own not-yet-conceived daughter’s children trying to figure out how to convert MP4’s to their current, yet again more advanced technology that makes those originals outdated. Accompanied by a maximum ten year shelf life for technical support or reasonable repair, camcorders evolved as I did. They were clunky in my toddler years, providing a bulk of support for those VHS tapes, and my parents rented a camera as often as possible to catalogue our childhood. While meeting Charming at the Thanksgiving Welcome my parents hosted, Kaitie and I browsed my parents’ shelves of home movies, reminiscing when we glimpsed titles where we knew we shared the screen. They went back as far as our friendship to our pre-school dances at DeWitt Community Church where my mom always envisioned me getting married.

During our Hampton snow days, it was easy to work wedding planning in without feeling like I was compromising on other important tasks. Semester exams were cancelled, half days turned to full, and we’re in full force now administering Critical Skills assessments in their stead, adapting and adopting the pace post-blizzard. Unfortunately, yearbook deadlines don’t build in any days for inclement weather. I was grateful when we returned to school last Friday for the simple fact that I knew I had students with whom I could share the burden. They’ve stepped up, and in three school days, we have knocked out more than half our deadline. My Editors-in-Chief are fulfilling their titles, delegating and following through, putting in extra hours, reminding me why I loved yearbook to begin with: moments like our working lunch today when we’re no longer rounding thirty-five and eighteen, but made equals by our singular devotion to meeting this deadline, every deadline, and getting that perfection certificate from Herff Jones again!

I digress, and nevertheless, this bouncing blog capitulates clearly my adjustment to this temporary thaw. I wanted to soak in the sun and sneak off to walk at Fort Monroe beach when I sensed heat on my exposed arms afterschool, but having knocked out the last VHS tape related to my current project with an unexpected deadline prioritizing itself above all else in my mind, I’d have to get the 8mm camcorder hooked up and recording, again in real time, so I could make progress while I hit the gym with Chuck. I balanced my tasks: this morning was devoted to yearbook, stolen moments to swapping tapes, the early to review sessions on colons and drama and poetry. Post school, I was unsuccessful at coaxing that old 8mm camcorder to life, so post gym, I ventured across the street to Goodwill for a chance encounter with one solitary camera that just so happened to meet my needs… and it worked.

While I attempted to wait for tapes to rewind after the gym and before dinner with my brother’s family, I used the unedited moments to type up the menus Charming and I prepared this weekend, finally crossing off sending quotes to potential caterer’s from my ever-growing wedding-specific to do list. Yes, I have separate lists now: school, life, grocery, and wedding. The tiny sticky notes on my smart phone screen function well to give me that boost I need to get my head above water and be productive despite the sea of suitors courting my attention, from yearbook to wedding plans to assessment reviews to wellness and family time. Add to that squeezing in MRI’s and X-rays for the month-long spinal pain that plagues my sleep, the daily frustration in avoiding the typical uses of my right shoulder, and beginning the process of bio feedback in attempts to alter my brain such that I could sleep without medicine.

Last week, when the snow was here, everything was still and quiet and I could think. After accepting the astronomical cost of the dress I’d fallen in love with in snow days past, I traversed to Blush Bridal and back during another blizzard on Wednesday that would keep us out of school two days. Christy fitted me for my gown, and now it’s ordered. The snow melted, and now it seems everything’s alive at once. Well, almost everything.

At ninety-four, Grams has experienced more authentic spring thaws than I could ever hope to accumulate. The thaw meant time to plant, time to labor in her garden. All summer long she’d nurture it, and late in autumn she’d tame it, putting it to rest for a long New York winter. It’s been several years since her body could have tended a garden, and even longer since she’s lived in the home where she’ll always live in my memory with the red shutters on Westvale Road in Solvay where there are lots of Italians (and I’m sure Dad could explain that bit of trivia while I cannot). Given the choice, I would obviously prefer to picture her peeking out the kitchen window enjoying her morning glories with her cheerful, chirping canary than half-watching pet parrot Ruby in the community room at her nursing home.

Last week, the doctors alerted Grams’ kin the end was near. Uncle Paul, Dad’s older brother, flew up immediately. She has a strong ticker, though, and it seems that even in days you can live without water, she prefers to die as she lived, savoring the sweetness of meeting every challenge head on and overcoming. A child of the Great Depression, Grams has been the perfect model of how to live frugally, and she’s not wasting a single day of life on Earth awarded by God even as establishes a new H20 record at the nursing home. When we visited Grams at Thanksgiving, I told Charming it might be the last time. When we visited Christmas morning, I knew that it was the last time.

Uncle Paul flew home to regroup, and I’ve taken on a memorial project compiling stills and videos featuring the Grammy I grew up with, the one that as I type is fading comfortably. In heaven, she’ll see Grandpa, and freed from the trappings of dementia, she’ll know him as the love of her life. Until then, every day she fights is another day I watch her come alive for every season of my life from birth. It’s a bittersweet undertaking, savoring tastes of her feistiness and frugality, her strength of spirit and dedication to ministry… I watched simply captivated as she goaded the pitcher at a family softball game on the Fourth of July with my Florida cousins, jumping in the game with her stylish black shades only to whiff in a grand 360 pirouette, then nail the next one in a solid drive to second base.

Charming tried to distract me this weekend, as any good fiancé would do. To pull me out of the Grammy grief, he took my on a surprise date to an unknown location. At every turn, he played the ham, covering up signs that would give away our destination, leading me through a series of seemingly random elevators catapulting us higher and higher until, “Ding!” and we were in the Sky Dome. It has a 360 view of DC from the Arlington side, rising high above a sprawling city hotel. The view was breathtaking. As the waiter seated us, I asked if Charming would like to take the seat on the left so he could have a view of his work, The Pentagon now a formidable building across a string of entangling highway headlights, steady streams of cars leaving and entering the District.

“That’s okay,” Charming replied as he took a seat across me. “I’ll have that view in about a half an hour.” We’d been in the room for only a minute, so I hadn’t yet taken note of the subtle hint of motion, a notion only confirmed by kneeling down to examine where the platform beside the circular floor seemed to rotating counter-clockwise. In reality, the full length windows encompassing the whole of the room along with the entry and the bar were still, steady, and grounded. We were inching forward, courting time in a clockwise direction. This creative distraction earned an authentic smile from both of us.

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Charming noted that it was difficult to focus on the things that were nearer as the slight rotation made us feel slightly off-balanced and shaky. It was easier to stare at the Washington monument in the distance because the visual effect of the rotation was minimized. Charming took me up there Saturday night to offer me a new perspective, and I’ve found in the days since that it was providential.

Everything is alive right now: yearbook and testing demands, wedding planning, shoulder surgery, undetermined spine issue, continued efforts to defeat my lingering insomnia foe. It’s all up close and in my face, and right now, all I want to gaze upon are the images depicting my grandmother as the woman she really is under the sagging, sallow skin across the distance of space and time spanning nearly a century. Yes, the video I hope will recreate that woman for us all, but I recognize that this process is what I need to make peace with her anticipated passing. Like writing nights, it’s in the process that I grow. Grams is in the distance, like a monument across the twisting stream of never ending lights, and when I’m lost staring at a screen bearing her likeness, it comes through still and in focus.

Let the rest of the world swirl around me. Two hours later, and I’m as still as this love seat. My Grams, Esther, lived the way she’s dying, sucking the marrow out of life as the poet would decree. It’s not personal gain, however, that she aimed for. What I see reemphasized, most recently while viewing footage of the advice she gave me on my fourteenth birthday just before I made a quick stop over to see the family. It made me late for dinner and late for writing night, but I was mesmerized by the familiar candor of her personality, the canter of her speech patterns, defining mannerisms unique to Grams.

I didn’t remember her advice or that this exchange had taken place. Every member of my family took a turn, and Grams used hers to sit beside me and encourage me that all my gifts should be used to glorify God, and that it was in service to Him that life would mean something.

Grams practiced what she preached, and when that dreadful call comes in that she’s taken her final breath, I’ll be ready for the euphemism. It will land squarely under the protection of my Grams’ shared strength of spirit, the secret to that strong ticker: an unwavering dedication to labor all her days in service to her Lord and savior. Her body will be still, never to experience another thaw or planting season because her days of planting are over. My brothers and our families… we’re a part of that harvest. We’ll live on and make memories, raising up our children in the way that they should go, passing on Gram’s ministry gene.

And someday maybe, when my non-existent grandchild converts MP4 footage of his grandfather Charming and me to the latest digital format to prepare for my memorial project, he’ll see a similar theme in the story God writes with our story. That would be a life well lived. Grams told me so a half a lifetime ago.

Weddings, Weekends, Winners

It’s cold again.  The surrounding districts have all closed based on the forecast of snow and freezing temperatures.  Perched atop my wicker patio furniture, I can confirm the absence of one and presence of another.  If there’s no precipitation, there will be no ice, and my district opted to wait until morning to make the call on yet another snow day.  While we’ll all enjoy the peace at home, cancelling school will simply find us making up those days later on.  We already lost President’s Day.  Could Spring Break be next?

Wednesday last week was our final snow day, amounting to a full week off.   The sun returned, and he brought a heat wave so needed by Hampton roads that fifties felt like summer in January.  The time away from school had allowed me to pursue other projects and catch up on work, devoting the extra creative energy to things normally neglected until summertime.  Still, it wasn’t until Wednesday, the last day of our snowcation, that I got finally got excited about wedding planning.  Maybe it was the writing therapy the night before which set my heart in a position to hope.  Maybe it was the reprieve from the ice and snow. Regardless, I woke up thinking about the fact I am going to marry my Charming in six months, and I don’t have anything to wear.

Alright, that may seem silly, but wedding gowns take time to be ordered, shipped, and altered.  Our TheKnot.com account enjoys adding to my daily unattended worries by reminding me of wedding checklist deadlines upon login.    I’d spent some of the morning already getting inspired with ideas for decorations like forsaken pallet wood being redeemed in the form of signs fashioned to adorn the reception venue.  That checklist made me call my mother for her opinions and to see when she’d be able to visit Hampton again.

All the other planning is fine over the phone, but when it came to dresses, I had really been hoping to wait for my mother; however, when I called her to share wedding ideas, we realized our shopping would simply have to be done right then and there on the phone together.  In fact, Mom had surgery on her knee today, and though the procedure appears to have gone well, her recovery will take some time. With her procedure looming and full awareness we’d be returning to school, it was a refreshing afternoon for both of us, worries cast aside, navigating the web and directing one another to yet another dress or designer.

It wasn’t even fifteen minutes into our URL dress shopping that we fell in love with the same gown at the same time, and it just so happen to be sold in the shop where my friend Angel was fitted for her dress two years ago in January.  Angel was able to meet me there for an open four o’clock appointment after work and brought champagne that helped compensate for the absence of other family members.  My top two choices were the original I’d gone into see and another I wouldn’t have considered were not the managing staff at Blush Bridal so effective in assessing what will accentuate a bride and fit with her concept of the “right” dress.  Every quiz I take gives me words like romantic, whimsical, and traditional.  The final two dresses both fit the description, but they couldn’t be more different from one another.

As I stood atop the pedestal in the bridal shop, Angel Skyping my parents in for the final preview, I just really wanted one opinion, and it wasn’t my mother’s.

I desperately wanted to know which dress Charming would choose.  Which one looked like Mrs. Charming’s wedding gown?  When I walk down the aisle in Duck United Methodist Church, which dress will simply make him fall in love with his bride all over again?  That’s what the right dress does, you see, and why stores can charge more than a thousand dollars for fabric you’ll wear only once.   The paradox is that though Charming is the only one who can tell me which dress he’d choose, it wouldn’t make him fall in love with me all over again if he’d already seen the bride in her gown before the wedding day.  Everyone knows it’s bad luck, but that’s not why I have to wait until July 14th to know if I made the right choice.

Thursday, we were back in school and the cold settled back in just in time for our weekend in the Outer Banks attending their annual wedding expo, and with it my sullen mood.  Charming and I spent all morning navigating the exquisite displays with gourmet food samples, floral arrangements, photo booths, and vendors on all sides encouraging you of the need for their particular services.  It was overwhelming, and securing a caterer was my number one order of business.  Unfortunately, the pricing was always just convoluted enough to make us realize we’d have to wait until we’d secured requested quotes for our reception before being able to compare apples to oranges, or in this case, Swedish meatballs to country ham biscuits.

At two in the afternoon, the vendors left their booths to prepare for the tour to take place between three and seven Saturday night.  Our goal was to visit as many locations on the wedding tour.  We would be able to meet specific vendors we’d been impressed with at the show, check out restaurants, sample DJ’s in action, and most importantly, each location would give us a stamp on my VIP card, and each stamp would result in one ticket for the expo free giveaways.  Charming and I are competitors, after all, so regardless of the fact we were both drained from the morning’s missions, we endured traveling up and down the OBX mile markers, narrowing our choices down as we drove and reviewed before hitting the next stop.

We decided to sneak in a visit to our reception venue, Jennette’s Pier because the first location we visited was nearby and the person in charge hadn’t returned from the expo yet.  It was perfect timing; we arrived in time to witness the ceremony on the pier and had just enough time to poke around and take pictures and video inside before the wedding party would climb the stairs and pass us on the way.  Catering the event was the company of the woman we’d just missed down the street, and Metro Rentals was right about the 15×16 dance floor fitting flawlessly in the room’s setup.  That was my favorite moment on Saturday.  I wasn’t stressing about numbers or options.  For a simple stolen moment, I was able to picture our own reception held in this space in exactly six months.

As we fled the scene, Charming pointed out the pastor who had officiated the cold ceremony outside in January.  It was Pastor Grant, my pastor at Liberty Church at Hampton, whom I’ve never met before.  Our church has thousands of members, and I know he wouldn’t recognize me, but my feet didn’t care.  They walked me right over to him and introduced us.  In our brief exchange, he was able to meet Charming.  I told him that my parents’ pastor in New York was a friend of his who would be pleased to hear I made my membership official in Pastor Grant’s church.

And just like that, reality was back.  We returned through the blistery cold to the car and began collecting stamps and making choices.  There are choices to be made about everything, and I won’t be a member at Pastor Grant’s church for long.  The priceless opportunity we’d had at Jennette’s to both see our venue and meet my pastor was lost amidst the hustle and bustle that found us at 7:03 pm with nine stamps, stuffed with samples, and ready to not think about anything wedding related until the morning.

On January 14th, we visited the church where we’ll be married on July 14th, and after a lovely service and upbeat chat with our officiating Pastor, John Tyson, we returned to the final hours of the expo with a list of specific vendors to speak with again and initiate contracts with others.  The first task, however, was to turn in my VIP card at the giveaway desk.  There were two options: a wedding or a honeymoon package.  When we came to understood the wedding date was pre-set for October, we opted to put all nine tickets into the Honeymoon pot.  The expo ended at two pm, and all the hopeful brides and their companions piled into a school auditorium for the long-anticipated drawing.

I’d just finished telling Charming that I wasn’t sure why we’d stayed, that I’ve never won a drawing in my life, when the OBX Bridal Expo staff announced the winning ticket number for the Honeymoon Giveaway.  Charming was telling me it was us, and I was looking at the ticket triple-checking because he must be wrong… but we won!  Everyone cheered as we took center stage.  The package includes several exciting elements and accommodations, but I think my favorite will be Sunset Sailing with Kitty Hawk Kites.

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Planning a wedding isn’t always fun, but it certainly has its highlights.  If I could make a photo strip of memories from this expo, it would contain our stolen visit to Jennette’s Pier and unexpected meeting of my pastor and worship at Duck Methodist and holding that gift basket on that stage.  The planning, the details, the numbers – those aren’t fun.  Doing it with Charming is what makes it an adventure.

I think we both learned at the OBX Wedding Expo to expect the unexpected, hard work pays off in ways we don’t see, that veering from the traditional path results in cherished surprises reserved just for us, and that even when we’re not giggling about our wedding night, the result of the serious discussions and decisions made in the car driving to and fro in search of vendors and stickers is not about a day at all.

It’s all about us.  I’ve got Charming, and Charming’s got me.  Forever and always.  With or without the Honeymoon Giveaway, this weekend helped me understand that we are the winners, all the time, that the best award I can imagine is seeing Charming’s face rest on me walking toward him moments before I will vow to love and honor and respect him until death parts us.

It won’t be about the dress or the caterer or the size of the dance floor then.  I know everything else will fade, and the prize of our marriage will come into full focus.

Blessed Assurance – #ANewThing

It’s eerily quiet on my street tonight, the melting snow dripping from nearby gutters simulates a gentle rain.  The storm that began Wednesday night continues to keep schools closed even tomorrow, our neighborhood roads untreated, unplowed, and unsafe for student transportation.  Though the snowfall ended before noon the next day, its effects reach ever forward.  The fiscal losses accrue certainly, with school and business closures alike, and countless wrecks and stranded vehicles litter the iconic winter scenery, ironic symbols of loss after the cracked pavement had just been given a fresh, blank slate in downy flakes.

This is my fourth Hampton winter, and each year we seem to get one good snowstorm, good enough to close schools for at least two days… and that’s what’s built in to the school calendar for inclement weather.  After two, I know we’ll have to make up the days somewhere.  Semester exams, state mandated test administration, current and future quarter structure, extended school days or lost vacation days… it’s all going to change.  It affects every individual in a different way from the top administrator to the contracted cleaning service employee.  That first year, I revised my kids’ calendars as soon as the snow day was announced, proud of myself for being prepared so I could enjoy the day off.

I remember spending that first Hampton snow day with a teacher friend who could handle his car in the snow.  We took on the adventure of making it to the gym where I don’t recall seeing any other parishioners as I protected my beloved workout time even in the midst of a citywide shut down.  Then, we played Nintendo games like Super Mario on my Wii.    In synchrony, our cell phones notified us with  the automated call that school would be cancelled again the next day.  I was shocked… and humbled appropriately, knowing I’d have to redo the class schedule again.

Still, I was a New Yorker; I’m pretty sure we were waiting at the bus stop unless the wind chill was somewhere below negative fifteen degrees (absent hyperbole). They were trained to handle the snow, though, pre-treating roads and accessing storehouses of snow plows primed and pre-paid for the lake-effect events that speckle the late Fall, Winter, and even early Spring landscapes in Onondaga County.  Hampton Roads doesn’t have the same basic need, and yet were there potential flooding issues, that’s our geographical specialty on the peninsula.

By now, I understand not to bother planning ahead, but to wait until we get back to school and receive new directions, then adjust the original plan accordingly; forcing my pieces to fit into an undetermined new schedule was proactive but ultimately a waste of time.  While I waited for the snow to stop falling Thursday last week, I plowed through yearbook design templates until my Pokémon Go friend TruSlyder showed up to help me dig out my car and see if we could take advantage of the last hours of the game’s holiday event and hit the real gym while we were at it.  Planet Fitness had shut down, but Niantic game servers were showering Hampton Roads with snow type creatures begging us to test the limits of my little Honda.  We helped push a lot of cars on our afternoon adventures, and we got stuck ourselves at one point, resorting to enlisting Pokémon Go friend KapnKurch to get transmission fluid to replace that lost from a line that had come loose in some intersection sludge mountains.

I managed to log dozens of hours cementing our theme in our yearbook platform by late Friday morning, enjoying the freedom to work in the expected second snow day.  This time, TruSlyder and I made it to Planet Fitness for a much needed work out, and I tried to knock as many items off my to do list as possible before driving up to DC for a weekend with my Charming.  I didn’t leave until well after dark, but the white blanket of snow illuminated the journey until somewhere north of Richmond, then it was all but gone by the time I passed King Street and prepared to begin the unpacking routine.  The truth was, I would have loved to spend a few more slow snow days back home, but I was excited for what our Saturday plan contained.

It was just one thing, really: do some wedding planning.  With the wedding expo this coming weekend in the Outer Banks, we wanted to ensure we knew exactly what vendors we needed to secure at the event to make the most of our visit.  And to do that, we had to make a lot of other decisions that led to other ideas that grew and flourished or got lost under another shared thought.  Our first breakfast spot in Old Town closed when we returned from our New Year’s Cruise two years ago.  Our next breakfast spot closed when we returned from Christmas with my parents this year.  I found a Dunkin’ Donuts, put in an On the Go order with my app, and we picked up our coffee and breakfast sandwiches at the counter, seating ourselves to be comfortable for what would become a long afternoon of wedding discussion.

We were back in that other world I’m in every other weekend where Planet Fitness and my Pokémon Go buddies aren’t on the map.  By the time Charming’s coffee was at drinking temperature, schoolwork and games were forgotten, too.  The ensuing hours would involve multi-tabbed, laptop based browsing supplemented by both our smart phones, our wedding binder, and an incredibly helpful magazine guide to weddings in the Outer Banks that subtly guided our dialogue and offered easy transitions when a particular point had become, um, contentious might be the right word.

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Saturday afternoon at Dunkin’ at the wrong end of King’s Street in Old Town was a bit like the aftermath of a Hampton Snowstorm.  We have both had experiences planning a wedding, being married in a ceremony, living together as a couple, and ending the vows we committed to in the planning stage.  We have certain, determined expectations for the specifics of our wedding day because of the storm that came before, from songs or scriptures to avoid to how to find a way to use my original wedding dress in a way that supports the theme of our wedding like using the fabric to create the runner that I would walk down, so when my little nephew quotes the scripture, “Forget the former things, flee from the past.  See, I am doing a new thing in you,” the past would literally be behind me.  Maybe not that, I know, but I’m thinking that way now.

Charming and I struggled a bit as navigated wedding planning, but what can you expect from two Type A classic overachievers who went to Wheaton and wield our competitiveness in stealthy ways?  The first hour or two I was just wanting it to be fun and exciting instead of like we were checking off a list on our The Knot website… which is what we were doing at first.  Then, we landed on an article I almost dismissed about how to create a hashtag for your wedding.  Considering I don’t have Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest on my phone, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually used one before.  Charming, however, was intrigued, and within moments, I was inspired.

We’d changed the title of our wedding website from “Our Wedding” to “#ANewThing” because that’s what this union is.  That’s what Charming and my lives coming together symbolizes in so many ways, and despite minor disagreements in approach or methodology, our doxology is in synchrony.  With a snowstorm, it’s the effects that yield the most damage, and Charming and I have been trained in different regions on handling all of marriage’s most difficult, likely natural disasters.  I might not have been feeling a school girl’s joy while planning the wedding to the man of my dreams at my side, but when I relayed the exchange to my mother, she suggested that what Charming and I were doing together was much deeper.

I don’t need joy.  I need Charming.  I don’t need a snow day to remind me that God makes all things new.  I get to live in that reality every day that Charming is a part of the story, and that is a blessed assurance beyond a battle of wits.  Our analytical, systematic approach to planning our wedding day may take a little of the fun out of the process, but together, we make #ANewThing, which helps us optimize every detail in which we can highlight the way that God has redeemed, restored, and renewed us as individuals, as a couple, and as an expanded family unit reaching back decades.

I planned my first wedding on my own.  It was easier, and the result was a beautiful ceremony and reception.  July 14th will be something beyond that.  Mom would always tell me glorifying God didn’t mean making Him greater than He was, but rather, showing Him to be as great as He really is, and that’s what Charming and I get to do with this expensive day, really a week, in the Outer Banks.

Every detail matters, so having two shovels working together or another body to push the car out of a sludge mountain just seems like a logical response to finding a way through to our destination.  That’s not just a day that points to all God has made new with this union – I think it will be, as Charming suggested this weekend, the theme of our lives.

That is a sweet, blessed assurance.

חֲדָשָׁה֙ – A New Thing

I didn’t make any resolutions for 2018, so considering we’re already two days deep, I probably have already broken ones I might have made.  The traditional choices seemed superfluous.  How could I commit to kick my clove cigar focus stick dependency when I still haven’t discovered why I don’t sleep?  The true tragedy is that treating the root issue, finding a natural remedy, and resolving my insomnia have all been at the top of my To Do list for two thirds of 2017.  Shouldn’t resolutions be unique, and, well, new?

Seriously, they are called “New Year’s Resolutions” for a reason.  Some of us make them every year – reluctant to repeat prior annual failures.  A few of us do so with confidence in success like my future husband, Charming, encouraged by continued fanning of ambitions’ flame, while others boycott them intentionally to spite the date or its significance or lack therein.  It feels as cold as Syracuse did a week ago here on my own white wicker love seat, the chill only deepened by the realization that this will be my last winter in Downtown Hampton.  All the notes I’d jotted down this summer to yield a better harvest in the year to come are worth little more than the leftover seed packets; I marry Charming in July, and I’ll have moved out before the first bell peppers ripen.

There won’t be another vegetable garden at my little white bungalow with the red door.  Nor will there be another year inside CD23 leading the English department toward support in job sanity and success on the SOL, my efforts equally sowing seeds spanning three years to both secure teachers’ confidence, contentment, and continuing contracts while improving scores on Virginia’s end of course Reading and Writing tests… at Kecoughtan High School.  “Apply to schools in Northern Virginia” and “Secure reciprocal teaching license for Maryland” have been on my infamous To Do list since Charming’s proposal.  It seems rather dishonoring to simply transfer items to which I haven’t yet applied the oddly fulfilling strikethrough tool to a resolution that is supposed to be, by definition, new.

If I were asked to start a freewrite right now with the focus word “New”, the immediate penned words would inevitably be novel, fresh, clean, unique… all initial attempts to define the term before seeking out connections in my little world, comprised of three land masses somehow simultaneously floating along in a sea of synapses that has no trouble taking off in the Present and landing me in the Past or Present.  Most recently, Charming and I rang in the New Year with my brother’s family.  I kissed my fiancé, who was my boyfriend last year, who will be my husband next year, and we clinked champagne glasses and cider sippy cups, satisfied by the incredible spread of food and décor supplemented by movies, games, and even a photo booth.  My matron of honor reveled in the glow of hospitality shared with family.

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I tried not to think about the holidays I’d miss with them.  Like with the cold, I needed something else to focus on, so my frozen fingers return every moment or so to the captivating flames of my patio heater.  My problem is that if you were to take my three-continent world and convert it into a standard map projection, land o’ Future is uncharted territory, like our America was to Europe in the fifteenth century… a whole New World.  It’s fitting to focus on the future while my family celebrated the clock’s indicative transition from old to new.  But when there’s no landmarks, no photos on Google Maps to help me envision the life that comes after our wedding in the Outer Banks, it’s easier to navigate to the Past, complete with road maps, saved favorite locations, and caution signs.

Somewhere in the ocean near The Bahamas, Charming and I celebrated the New Year together for the first time two years ago on a cruise ship, and it was truly magical.  Before and since, we’ve painted much of the East Coast with more of our memories, mash-ups of road trips and vacations and experiences unique to us, bucket list strikethroughs, and everything else that led up to a fairy tale Cinderella proposal in my favorite place, Fort Monroe Beach.   Charming didn’t know my brother’s family would be there, just down the shore, so having the kids join us in our horse-drawn carriage coach alongside the Chesapeake only richened the proposal.

I can’t make “Marry Charming” a New Year’s Resolution, either, because the denotative meaning of making a resolution means firmly deciding to do or not do something, and I decided years ago that I would marry this man.  My lack of excitement over our future together should not reflect poorly on our rich present or rich past; there’s only one variable in my incomplete engagement scrapbook that remains constant in seven months, and that’s the one who got down on one knee, assuring me he was a thousand percent sure when he asked me to be his princess.

The Future is uncertain.  It’s unchartered territory.  I’m not even seventy percent sure where we’ll live or where I’ll continue my career.  But I’m not going there alone.  The year 2018 will mark the start of our new life together, and even in my uncertainty, Charming continues to find new and unexpected ways of assuring me that despite official documents, he’s already doing life with me.  Relaxing after a long night out, we had only one order of business for New Year’s day, and while I’d grudgingly approached the finances talk, there was comfort in understanding our big picture.

There was comfort in talking through various potential scenarios for life after marriage, all contingent upon Charming’s next career move as his three-year post at the Pentagon ends soon.   There was comfort in being given the freedom to fall apart while everything around me seemed to be breaking and having him hold me up as he promised I wasn’t alone anymore.  I don’t know what holiday photos in the Future will bear the faces of my brother’s children, so I’ll cherish these as landmarks soon to be the Past.

My mom says the difference between a favorite passage and your life verse is that the latter is the one you aspire to uphold in all aspects of your world your whole life through.  For me, that’s Isaiah 43:18-19: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The passage was given to me at age eighteen on High Road on the shores of Lake Superior weeks before I’d meet the man who would become my husband some fifteen years later.  The “new thing” in Hebrew is ḥă·ḏā·šāh (חֲדָשָׁה֙). The same word is used in connection with a new sword, covenant, and eventually, spirit.  It’s like the prophet’s singing a song of redemption in my ear, promising me of God’s sovereignty in all of the unknowns on the Future, a landmass just out of reach in my little world, but safe in His hands.

If there’s any resolution I could make tonight, a firm decision to do or not do something in 2018 and forever beyond, it would be to live as though God is doing a new thing in me, that I am His “New Thing”, that He continues to redeem, reclaim, and renew me.  It’s either generous of Charming or selfish of my, but my life verse is going to be the theme of our wedding, and as the theme of my life, it won’t stop when we leave the Outer Banks.

We always wish for a happy new year.  This time, I’ll take a pass on the resolutions and trust God for the new thing He’s going to make of me in 2018… safe at Charming’s right hand.