A Ragamuffin Story

Vigilantes, I really hope you find this story as funny as I do. Some stories are just too good to keep to myself.

Last evening after our Night of Vigilante Kindness Stories, I walked to the help desk to turn in the form the library requires to ensure all is as it should be in the room they generously let us use for free. With all of my bags of Ugandan treasures weighing me down and the library closing in one minute, the sweet librarian mistook me for a homeless person and kindly let me know where the local nearby shelter is located.

Mind you, knowing that public speaking is not in my comfort zone, I’d put on an outfit I feel great in: tall boots, cute skirt, favorite color shirt, 2 paper bead necklaces and 7 paper bead bracelets because 8 is too many, obviously. I thought I was looking okay, but apparently after hanging with you guys for an hour and a half, I looked TORN UP. After sweating through my talk, I probably smelled torn up, too.

I handed the librarian my form and explained that I’d been speaking in the community room. Her face turned a quick shade of pink and before she could say anything else, I said, “Have a good night!” and hauled my bag-laden self out.

With my self-esteem skyrocketing, this afternoon I opened an email from a woman who attended our Night of Stories. In her e-mail this gentle soul felt free to confirm that I am indeed AWFUL at public speaking. I had to laugh at her list, yes-her list, of my inadequacies.

Now, Vigilantes, I thought I’d made it abundantly clear last night that public speaking is NOT my gift. I did say that out loud, right?

Here’s the thing, dear Email Woman, I warned you at the start of my talk that public speaking cripples me and that it wouldn’t be pretty. You decided not to heed my warning and instead you stayed through my whole talk and then some. So, in my mind, that’s on you.

I’ve thought about these two encounters a lot this evening and this is the good news. God delights in using people like me who have a little bit of a lisp and a paralyzing fear of public speaking. It’s that whole “in our weakness, He is strong” thing.

Paul, my favorite writer in the Bible, the guy who knocks my socks off every time I read Ephesians and Philippians, had a speech impediment and I imagine public speaking wasn’t his most favorite thing either.

As for looking a little torn up last night, John the Baptist looked torn up all the time, eating bugs and wandering the wilderness, stinking to high heaven I’m sure, oh and, by the way, preparing people for Jesus.

I’m not saying I’m a Paul or a John the Baptist, far from it. What I am saying is this: God doesn’t need perfect people. He’s already got perfection covered, thankyouverymuch. He needs imperfect, ragamuffin people who need Jesus like we need air or water.

People like me.

People like you.

Even on the days when we feel, and let’s be real maybe even smell, like a complete disaster.

It takes a lot for me work up the guts to speak in public. It’s hard to stand up in front of people and talk about this very personal and incredibly rewarding work you and I get to do together.

I used to wish I were more poised, that when I spoke, my pores wouldn’t all simultaneously decide to sweat out all the perspiration I’m allotted for the remainder of my life. I used to wish my voice flowed with smooth assurance.

I don’t wish that anymore.

I kind of love that when I get up to talk, my voice will shake and my pits will be extra pitty. As I stand up there swallowing bundles of nerves, I stand knowing that my most paralyzing weakness is on display for you.Microphone

I stand there also knowing those are the moments when God is bursting with fatherly pride.

One of my favorite things about God is that He doesn’t use us in spite of our weaknesses, He uses us because of our weaknesses. I don’t know about you, but that floods me with all kinds of relief.

I may have acute stage fright that leaves every layer of my clothing dank with sweat. Sometimes I may look and/or smell wrecked, but I’m still going to keep talking about this wild adventure in Vigilante Kindness we’re on together.

Some stories are just too good to keep to myself and ours is that kind of story.

 

The Great Turkey Chase

It was the perfect Monday morning.  Monday is college t-shirt day at my school, meaning I didn’t even have to play Closet Showdown with all my clothes that I currently don’t fit into.  I grabbed my jeans and tugged my red alma mater t-shirt over my head.  I didn’t even care about my hair because it was going under my bike helmet anyway.

It was such the perfect morning that just as Magnolia True and I were about to turn onto the street my school is on, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by The Darkness came up on my playlist.  If there’s a better song to ride to in the morning, I haven’t found it.  I push the pedals a little harder and may or may not play air guitar on my handlebars during the guitar solo.  I’m less embarrassed about that than I should be, especially since my school is in a suburban neighborhood and I pass scads of parents and students in their cars every morning.

The street my school is on is all downhill on my commute to work.  I love this because it means I arrive to work mostly unsweaty and on my way home I stomp the pedals all the way up the hill.

So there I was cruising downhill to school singing along.

“I believe in a thing called love.  Just listen to the rhythm of my heart.  I believe we can make it, love.  We’ll be rockin’ ’til the sun goes do-“

That’s when I saw it.

A turkey.

A giant, wild turkey strutting in a driveway to my right.  He was at least as tall as my bike wheels and he was all alone, which as you may have guessed isn’t a sign of a well-balanced turkey.

I believe I’ve mentioned my fear of birds before.  So upon seeing this terrifying bird, I let a string of profanity fly.  I’ll let you Mad Lib this one and insert your own avalanche of profanity on my behalf here:

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After I said a few choice words, I prayed the turkey wouldn’t see me because a 6 foot tall woman in a bright red shirt blasting The Darkness on a bicycle can be stealthy, right?

Right?

Wrong.

As I passed by the turkey, he looked right at me, a sinister look from the depths of Hades.

“I don’t want any trouble,” I told him as came to be even with driveway that was apparently HIS TERRITORY.

I was riding as far away from the driveway as I could without veering into oncoming traffic, which, in hindsight, may have been preferable to what was about to happen.

The turkey made a beeline for me.

I uttered some more choice words and kicked my pedaling into high gear.

I could hear the turkeys devil claws scrabbling on the asphalt behind me.

I looked back only once.

The bird was gaining on me.

I pedaled harder, sweat dripping down my face, and went into a tuck-which looks absolutely ridiculous on a cruiser bike.

I prayed that the turkey wouldn’t take flight because my bike helmet might stand up to those horrid talons, but surely my red t-shirt wouldn’t.

Did you know that red is known to incite fury in birds?  I didn’t find out that useful nugget of information until much later that day.

I ripped down the hill and careened into my school parking lot where I didn’t stop pedaling, not even across the playground, until I reached the safety of my classroom door.  My heart was playing a crazy game of Frogger in my chest and my hair, which wasn’t great to begin with, was now a sweaty, sopping mess.

To my great relief, I’d lost the turkey somewhere on the hill.  Of equal relief was that I had not peed my pants while he was in pursuit.  Small victories.

I haven’t seen the turkey since that day, but I did receive this card a few weeks later from one of my little ones.

The feathers are from a turkey she hunted with her dad.  Coincidence?  I think not.

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Take that, turkey.  You’d better think twice before you mess with me.  I may be terrified of you, but I know a six-year-old little girl who isn’t.  Consider yourself warned.

Letter #8: Do Over

Dear Gramma,

It’s been a year since you were diagnosed with cancer and almost a year since you died.  Today I was talking to my mom about how time is so elastic.  It feels like you’ve been gone such a long time, but in the next breath it feels like we talked yesterday.

Do you remember when I called you just after you found out it was cancer?  I asked you how you were feeling and you told me you were scared.  It was the only time you said that to me, maybe the only time you said it at all.  I told you I was scared, too, that cancer was an okay thing to be frightened by.

This week in Bible study, we’ve been talking about facing our fears, about how there are things in this world that are worthy of a shake in our shoes.  And I couldn’t help but remember the time in my own life when I was most afraid.  I visited you and you reminded me of the faithfulness of God, reminded me that He did not give me a spirit of fear.  And when I worked up the courage to tell you my most deep seeded fear, the one that was breaking me into pieces of myself, you hugged me and told me that you prayed for me every morning.

I still remember your short arms wrapped around me.  I remember the way your head rested in the crook of my shoulder, the pendant of your necklace pressing into my stomach.  I stood there, all six feet of me pressed into all five feet of you.  I kissed your head.  You told me I’d be okay and you said it with such conviction that I believed you.

A year has passed since you told me you were afraid and all this time later I have the luxury of hindsight.  So I’m telling you now what I wish I had known then.

It’s okay to be afraid.  But God is bigger than the cancer in your body.  You don’t have to be afraid of chemo or radiation or losing your hair or being in pain.  You will leave before any of that is even a possibility.  You will leave your body and you will go home to be with your Lord.  And until that day, you’ll be taken care of by the best doctors and nurses.  You won’t be in pain.  You won’t be alone.  You’ll be surrounded by family and friends who will love you every second of the rest of your life here on Earth.  Gramma, I will love you every second of the rest of my life, both here and beyond.

I learned this week that the word courage comes from the latin word cor, or heart.  If I had it to do all over again, I would tell you it’s okay to be afraid, but that you can also take heart in knowing that God has his arms wrapped around all five feet of you.  I’d tell you to rest your head in the crook of His shoulder.

Even though you’re gone, I feel you every day.  When I eat ice cream I think of that time on our trip when I caught you eating ice cream without me and you tried to tell me it was someone else’s dish.  The ice cream on your mouth gave you away and I promised not to show anyone the picture I took as proof.  When I watch The Amazing Race, my hand reaches for the phone to call you so we can watch it together.  When I read a good book, I write it down and think of your book list.  And when my mom laughs, it’s you who I hear.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing you.  You were the most courageous person I know.  Sometimes that dark fear of mine creeps up and threatens to drown me.  I’m learning to face it, to recognize that God is bigger than my most ferocious of fears.  And I’m taking heart in knowing that someday I will see you again.   You’ll wrap your short arms around me and I’ll kiss your head.  And we’ll be better than okay.

Love,

Alicia

Bird Therapy

Okay, it’s been long enough that I can write about this with a mix of humor and terror, instead of just sheer terror.

To begin with, I know nothing about babies.  It’s important that I state that for the record right up front.  I will probably always know nothing about babies because this area right here is a Baby-Free Zone.

Anyway, I have friends with babies and they read books about babies and stuff.  There is a book out that says if you swaddle, (gently) shake, and shush your baby when it cries, the baby will be happy.  In fact, the baby will be the happiest baby on the block, although I’m not entirely sure how that is determined.  Do they line up all the babies on the block and compare them to see which one smiles the widest?  That seems weird to me, but again, I know nothing about babies.

What I do know is that when I am upset, shaking (no matter how gently) does not make me feel better.  Also, shushing me when I’m crying is a mistake that is not going to end well for anyone involved.  As for swaddling, I haven’t tried that because Redding is just too hot to swaddle or be swaddled.  For the record Terry also does not like being shaken or shushed when he is upset.  Not that I tried it or anything.

At any rate the swaddle, shake and shush theory was fresh in my mind when we went to Mexico last month.  We went to the most lovely resort with so many swimming pools that I needed extra fingers to count them on.  It also had a private beach and it was on said beach that I found out parrots also do not care for being shushed.

Throughout our stay at the resort we saw photographers wandering around taking pictures of people with various animals.  One day there were incredible iguanas.  Another day there were cute little spider monkeys.  And then there were the parrots.  Hang on a sec, I just need to take a deep breath and go to my happy place.

Okay.

It is no secret that I am terrified of birds.  We have a history.  Birds like to poop on me, pull my hair and wreak havoc on me in general.  I won’t even talk about the birds who nest by my front door each spring and buzz the tower whenever I try to enter/exit my own house.  Or the turkey vultures that nearly made me pee my bike shorts.  Horrifying, absolutely horrifying.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yes, the beautiful private beach.  So there we were relaxing on the beach when I spotted the photographer and his assistant walking towards us with two giant parrots.  The blood drained from my face and sweat trickled out of my armpits.

“Let’s have our picture taken with the birds!” said Terry, who knows I am terrified of birds.

“No. Way. In. Hell.”  I shook my head as the photographer walked closer.

“Please, honey, do it for me.”  Terry begged.

“Senorita, would you like your picture with the parrots?” asked the photographer.  He might as well have asked if I’d like a pap smear.

“No.  Tengo miedo.” I replied.

Roughly translated, that means “No.  All birds are in a conspiracy against me and they’ve found me here to peck me to death starting with my eyes.”

Okay, maybe it just means “No.  I’m afraid.”

“Tienes miedo de los pajaros?” The photographer and his assistant started laughing so hard that I think they actually cried.  Terry may or may not have been laughing with them.  I’m not entirely sure because I was keeping my eye on the birds.

“C’mon, honey, do it for my birthday.” said Terry, who never asks for anything.  Terry had his picture taken with the birds perched on his shoulders.

“Senorita, c’mon.  Take your picture with the birds.” coaxed the photographer’s assistant.

“Come on, honey.  These are nice birds.” said Terry, holding one of the parrots in his arms like a baby.

I edged over next to Terry.  And then the assistant put one of the parrots on my shoulder.  My bare shoulder that only had a bathing suit strap around it.  The bird claws were touching my skin!  My actual skin!

My shoulders shot to my ears and my head shot backwards, giving me no less than 19 chins.  Very attractive, I’m sure.

“Relax your shoulders, senorita.” the photographer said trying to get a decent shot.

I could not relax my shoulders.  A giant parrot was on me.

“Saca la foto.”  I screeched from between the gritted teeth of my nervous smile.

The bird inched closer to my head and began to caw in my ear.  My happy place was nowhere to be found.

“Relax, senorita.”

The bird began to caw louder, more insistently.  Trying to remain calm and not think of how this bird was obviously seconds away from pecking through my skull down to my brain, I thought about that baby book.

“Shhhh, shhhhh, shhhhhhh.” I shushed the parrot while trying to smile at the camera.  The bird moved closer and put its beak into my hair.

“Saca la foto!!!  SACA LA FOTO!!!”  I shrieked as fear ran all prickly through my veins.  The bird cawed louder.

“Shh, shhh, shhhh,” I said trying to calm the bird and myself.

There may have been some shouting next.  Okay, there was definitely shouting.

“SACA LA FOTO!!!  SACA LA FOTO!!!!”  I implored the photographer, who was barely able to take the picture because he was shaking so hard from laughter.

Finally the photographer had the shots he wanted.  Okay, not the shots he wanted, but shots nonetheless.  The assistant removed the bird from my shoulder.

I walked over to where we’d previously been blissfully reading on the beach.  The assistant followed me with the parrot on his arm.

“Senorita, pet the bird.”  I shook my head.

“It will be like bird therapy.” He placed my hand on the bird and ran it up and down the parrot’s back a few times.  After the assistant was sufficiently convinced that I was no longer afraid, they took the parrots down the beach where other people were overjoyed to have their pictures taken with such majestic creatures.

I remain terrified of birds, possibly even more terrified than before.  But I have learned two important lessons:

1. Parrots do not like to be shushed.

2. The photographer’s assistant was right.  I need therapy.

Brave

Fearless is a word I don’t have much use for.  Being fearless is sometimes touted as this great character trait, but there are things to be afraid of, things worthy of a shake in my shoes, a shiver up my spine, and a sweaty nightmare or two.  I am not fearless, but I’ve got bravery in spades.  Or at least I used to.

These past few months I’ve taken care to follow doctor’s orders to rest my heart.  While spiders laced cobwebs through the spokes of my bike and my most favorite cycling season fell to the ground in a blush of yellows and reds, I waited for my heart to be sure and steady.

While I waited I pursued my love of words.  I wrote a novel.  I wrote poetry.  I wrote about teaching and life in general.  As the air whispered out of my tires, my fingers flew across the keys tapping out this life of a writer.  Writing can be a frightening affair and I faced some of my writerly fears head on.  When I reached a stuck point in my novel, I tucked my head down and pounded away at the keys until my characters moved my story along for me.  I’d heard of that happening, but I thought it was just something writers tell each other to get past the quicksand that secrets itself away in every newborn plot.  But no, it turned out to be true, even in my meager novel.  I dipped my toe into being published and faced my first rejection letter.  With bravado to spare, I tackled two fears at once: public speaking and reading a piece born of my own hand to a large group people I know.  It turned out to be one of the most rewarding days in my life as a writer.  So this idea of facing fears is one I’ve grabbed hold of with both hands in my life as a writer.

It’s puzzling to me then that this boldness in my writing life would come at a time when I was paralyzed by fear of riding my bike or doing anything else that might press my heart beyond its capacity.  The weight of the heart monitor was so much more than the half pound of space it occupied in the corner of my purse.  It sat in that dark corner, unwanted and untouched for almost a month.  My little heart beat away happily, normally as if my heart knew of the monitor’s presence and decided now was the time to play nice inside my chest.  For months I was careful not to strain my heart in the least.  Trust me, I’ve got the gelatinous thighs to prove it.

It was at the tail end of this time that a friend asked me “Is this the life you want to live?”  Well, not really, but the “live” part of that question was of more import than the quality of living I was doing.  On days when my heart was a sloppy quick step and my arm throbbed, living was enough all by itself.  Honest to God it was.  But is that a way to live a life?  No.  Definitely no.

Eventually the time came to turn in my heart monitor.  Enough days had passed without incident or pain that I was free to resume life.  And yet, I was afraid.  Quivering in my shoes, waking up in a pillow of sweat, eyes wide as moons kind of afraid.

What if my heart started to race in the middle of nowhere on my bike?

What if I lost feeling in my arm and crashed?

What if?  What if?  What if?

As I sat on my couch pounding out tales of my brave writing life, my fear of turning the cranks came to a head.  I could not stand the stagnation of my life a second longer.  It was time.  It was time to pump air into my tires, to pull on my gloves and brush the dust off of my saddle.

It feels appropriate that my reunion with my bike happened on Christmas Eve morning, a day full of anticipation.  On Christmas Eve Terry and I found ourselves in Sacramento, near my old friend the American River and it’s seemingly unending bike trail.

That morning I pulled on my tights and armwarmers, my nerves bouncing just inside my skin.  The what ifs rose to every surface of my being.  I forced them back down as I tightened my helmet strap and velcroed my shoes, breathing deeply before facing the morning air.

It was a frigid thirty degrees when I rolled the Rocket out to the street.  I said a prayer and watched my words float above me in bleached puffs against the blue sky.  I wanted to ride 25 miles.  25 miles is nothing on a bike.  Barely long enough to warrant filling a water bottle.

Three of us set out that morning.  My legs moved in unsure circles after so many months off.  I thought about the time I was cycling in a dream and sleep pedaled my sheets into a lump at the foot of my bed, but this was no dream.  We moved onto the American River Trail, the river rushing to the left of us.  My heart was steady.  Steady and happy.  It was a slow and beautiful ride.

After 26 miles I unclipped and rolled to a stop back at our starting point.  Steam rose from the vents in my helmet and the morning air was cold on my teeth as I smiled.  I packed my bike into the car and breathed a sigh of relief.  I patted my heart for a job well done.

A few minutes after our ride, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  These last few months, my increasingly chubby cheeks or my multiplying chins have been the first things to catch my attention when I look at my reflection, but not this time.  This time I was taken aback by the expression on my face.  It was familiar, but something I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was the expression of a girl who’d faced fear and found it wasn’t so terrifying after all.

Welcome back, brave girl, welcome back.