Skills for Starting Over

It’s just the Third, this year.  Last year, I blogged on the Fourth of July, simply because it landed on a Tuesday.  I wasn’t engaged yet; I remember driving toward the water entangled in holiday traffic that kept us from seeing the fireworks at Fort Monroe in anything but the rear view mirror.  Priorities.  Expectations.  Responsibilities.  Compromises.  Relationships are full of these, but I remind myself I’m not engaged anymore.

There is another relationship, perhaps a more important relationship that I’ve neglected for some time, one cemented at birth with a familiar creature whose brunette roots are boasting the alpha gene as they creep up on sunny, beach waves that affirm me when I see my reflection in the mirror.  I started over. I started over at Wheaton College at eighteen – who needs to start over that young?  By eighteen, I’d already made enough beds that I had to lie in to need a clean slate.  I never noticed that before.

The cleanest slate is either birth or death, I can’t decide.  I’d factor in a wedding with the theme #ANewThing, but I’m not feeling particularly masochistic tonight. Grams passed nearly six months ago.  That stubborn will serves her well even from the grave, with her frugal, God-fearing advice and admonishments still alarming in my ears.  No, it’s not a whisper.  I miss her more today than other days.  Her declining battle with dementia in later years only further endeared her to me, and while I clung to lucid moments when I was certain she knew me, I was comforted by the simple fact that my presence warmed her heart.

My mother’s mother died long before I had the chance to benefit from her wise counsel.  Perhaps had she survived, the double teamed grandmother guidance might have found me married to Prince Charming in two week’s time.  Her younger sister stepped in to fill out the family portrait, and because it’s the Third of July and not the Fourth, it’s not just the birth of the next child in this generation of Palmas, but it’s the celebration of ninety years that Aunt Esther has walked a well-worn portion of the eastern coast.  Despite all her physical ailments, she took the time to write me an encouraging letter and remind me she is still praying for me.  Tonight when I called to share birthday wishes, she was overjoyed.

It had nothing to do with my call.  I could hear my excited parents in the background, keeping Aunt Esther company during her birthday dinner at the nursing home.  My youngest brother welcomed his second child into the world before the sun rose this morning, a girl this time, one who would share her birthday with Great, Great Aunt Esther, the two born exactly a decade shy of a century apart.  No matter how far removed, the greatness of connection in familial lineage doesn’t see degradation in strength or power.  At ninety, she probably sees the birth of this tiny new being differently than I do at thirty-five.

Can I start over again?  I have had too many second chances already.  After Wheaton, I hailed Nashville as home for ten years until priorities, expectations, responsibilities, and compromises broke me.  It’s been four Independence days since choosing to start over here after a year and a half pit stop in my hometown in Upstate New York.  In the past six weeks, I ended my engagement with the man of my dreams, cancelled my move to Germany, signed my contract too late to keep my job, and I assure you I beg no pity for any of those realities. Some beds we make are better than others.  I may be writing on this white wicker love seat with the blue cushions, but I’m sleeping on a straw cot of my choosing.  I’ve known the world as my great aunt knew it three decades ago, and I know it as my newest niece enters it.  So different now and then, but no less complicated.

I’ve lived long enough now to understand that cultural norms, political priorities, and even people are as diverse as the Virginian terrain.  Consider my favorite place, just ten minutes away where I can bathe in the warmth of the trapped bay waters by the sand bar.  Travel a half hour to Williamsburg, and historical nuts are irrevocably satisfied.  Three hours found me just south of Petersburg, weaving up and through the mountains tasting Friday’s sunset with a few friends.  We had plans to hike and cliff dive the next day, but I didn’t make it that far.  The rich shades of orange and pink that fractured the deepening blue sky as we traversed by car up the mountain would sooth the raw, red skin and black and blue bones I incurred early the next morning, if only in my memory.

It wasn’t so much a rock climbing incidence as it was a crash landing.  Some scans at a hospital a half hour assured me of no internal bleeding.  The damage was superficial, even the pain in my recovering shoulder the product of bruising and inflammation.  My shirt had torn in the tumble, and the mountain rocks took advantage.  When it heals, I imagine that rocky road somewhere near Petersburg will likely own about a third of my shoulders and back in scarring.  For now, I’m grateful to be around to celebrate ninetieth birthdays and new baby nieces.  It could have been much worse.

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I find myself reminding myself of the same words I quote to my students from the famous protagonist of Dead Poets Society, John Keating, “There is a time for daring and a time for caution, and the wise man knows which is called for.”  Summer might be the time for taking bucket list risks, but recklessness landed me in that particular hard-headed bind.  Some lessons, I suppose, we can afford to learn again, if we’re alive to learn them at all.   Fortunately, I’ve been given an abundance of mentors in the half-fulfillment of my own life expectancy.  And like Grams, physical proximity isn’t necessary.  Their lifetime contributions of tid-bits of advice permeated this hard head with more power than a Virginia mountain side.

Grams would have been delighted by the birth of yet another great-great-granddaughter, even in the confusion of her old age.  This newest Palma will never see Grams laboring in the garden, playing the piano at First Christian Assembly, or raking the Adirondacks because those pine needles needed taming.  Still, somehow, those lessons we learned as hardheaded children permeated the skull where it was most impressionable, and my little brother probably still turns off the water while brushing his teeth…. And his tiny baby daughter will pick that up along the way.  That’s the impact some people have.

This morning, outside the bathroom of the waiting room for a timely follow-up with my shoulder surgeon, my breath caught in my chest.  A New York accent asked if I was in line, and suddenly I was engaged in a conversation with a retired teacher who reminded me so much of my grandmother that I followed through on a meeting at a nearby coffee shop after my x-rays results indicated there had been no reinjury.  This tiny woman has a life full of stories, and I can’t wait to share a cup of coffee with her in days to come and find out how a New York Jew came to volunteer at Vacation Bible School at Catholic church in Virginia.

I went to the mountains for an adventure, and I left early with a wake-up call instead.   I was reminded of the reasons I love traversing this existence, like the little girl born this morning and the old lady celebrating her ninety years tonight.  My encounter with Gram’s twin at the doctor’s office was a gift, and a timely one, another great voice to permeate this hard head when I need sage counsel the most.

When I think about this holiday weekend, the picture I’ll store is of the sunset before the scrapes.  There is a peace in a mountain sunset away from the hustle and bustle of daily life that helps you hone in on the basic essentials.  We need food, water, and air, yes, and I have those in abundance.  But we also need relationships to connect us, and balancing priorities, expectations, responsibilities, and compromises are essential skills to link us to the life beyond that sunset.

It’s the Third, not the fourth.  Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate our great nation’s independence.  Today, I’ll celebrate life: my niece’s, my great aunt’s, and even my own.  Sometimes it takes getting knocked down to discover that you have what it takes to get back up again, after all.  That’s probably Gram’s genes… or her jeans.  They still fit me, after all.

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