A Proper Fear of Snow.

The thing about living in the south is that we’re kind of…afraid of snow. We don’t handle it well, as I’ve told you many times, and so it’s hard for us to imagine it as a risk-free endeavor. I mean, we LOVE snow, but if we have snow, it’s a “sit at home and enjoy it” event – not a “travel around and do normal stuff” and certainly not a “travel on roads that are already precarious except now they’re covered with snow and ice.” We equate that kind of behavior with such actions as running up to a bear and sticking your head in its mouth just to check out what a bear uvula looks like.

As I returned to North Macedonia in December – my second visit to the country in 2019, I was slightly terrified of snow and ice, but also laughing at myself for being so fully self-aware of the limitations to my southern imagination.

I tried to downplay it to Chris, who wasn’t traveling with me. “I think it’s just snowy in the villages in the mountains, not the cities. I’m sure it will be FINE. We might not even go into the villages. Who knows.”

But when I found out that we would indeed be visiting a village in the mountains on the day we arrived, immediately after a 24 hour flight, and I saw the video of what the village roads currently looked like, I began imagining how very terrifying a bear’s uvula actually was.

I traveled with my friend Christen, and we were headed to visit our friend Kelly, who was in-country for three months. Our flights were exhausting and had very little breathing room. We were not blessed with an extra seat or even half an inch of legroom on our transatlantic flight. We did not sleep a wink, and here we were, in Europe, 24 hours sans sleep, and now it’s morning – it’s gonna be a while until we get to bed. We were exhausted, but we were in EUROPE. One finds a way to trudge on.

We drove from the airport to our friend’s house, had fifteen minutes to turn it around and change out of our day-old Alabama-weather flying clothes and into the bizarrely innumerable garments that would be suitable for a European mountain village jaunt – more clothes than I wear in Alabama all winter long combined.

(One thing I did learn in 2019, from visiting Chicago in January and Macedonia in December, is how to dress when it’s *actually* cold outside. I now know that you can actually dress to stand to be outside if you know about the pieces of clothing we haven’t yet discovered in the south. (When it does get cold down here, we just assume there’s no way to be outdoors unless you’re running and therefore creating your own heat source. Who knew?! There are WAYS to endure the cold.) So I learned the definition of “Parka” this year and found out that you can get scarves warm enough that they serve a purpose other than annoying your neck and complimenting your outfit.)

So we put on our warmest clothes over the top of our long underwear, then came our parkas, our scarves, our hats, our boots, and then we did a few stretches so that we had the strength to lift our feet while wearing 150 pounds of clothing. A few minutes after arriving, we set out for the mountaintop in the large, safe van with our driver who was a resident of the country, thereby making us completely, totally safe.

The roads in Macedonia seem to have been engineered to be approximately 30% too narrow for single car to pass through, yet somehow they Knight Bus their cars skinny and can fit three cars side by side on the road – one going one way, one going the other way, and one stopped in the middle of the road while the driver runs into the hardware store for a minute.

tenor-21

(One takeaway I’ve had from my two visits to the country is to quit worrying so much about how close I am to other cars in America – based on their ability to get within a booger’s width of each other, I’ve got MILES between me and the rest of the cars.)

So the roads are narrow. They’re also winding, and, when going to a village in the mountains that rise up immediately from the city, are precisely cliff-side – with no barriers other than the skinny cows and horses that free-roam the mountainside.

190421 macedonia IMG_0379 sHere were some horses we passed on one of those narrow, winding, cliffside roads in April – back when there was no snow to complicate things. 

Our driver laughed at our fear as we climbed steeply up the mountain and first hit ice, then snow, then deeper snow. He assured us that the roads were perfectly safe and it could be much worse – when the roads get too bad, the village residents just park their cars in the road and walk into the village. Did we see any abandoned vehicles? No. The weather was fine.

We made it to the village safely,

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_3988 s

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_3954 s

enjoyed the spectacular views through our sleep-deprived, grainy eyes,

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_3896 s

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_3910 s

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_3940 s
We visited the village school and brought American treats and handmade gifts from our kids to give to the precious kids.

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_3816 s

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_3826 s
And then it was time to go.

We were STARVING.

We were zombies.

It was time for dinner.

And at some point we’d really like to attempt that thing called sleep again, would-you-please.

So we pulled out of the village, heading out again on the snowy roads. I looked out the windows and ached to call a “hold on a minute” so that I could jump out and get pictures of the sunset/dusky winter wonderland. But I was hungry and I knew everyone else was too and we were cliffside – I didn’t want to slip-slide away off the edge.

THEN we passed a small herd of cows, headed home for the night. (Our driver slowed down, letting the cows rub us with their udders as they scooted past us on the impossibly narrow road, and laughed as he commented “See? The cows DO come home.”)

But as the cows made their way around us and our driver attempted to bring the van back up to speed, the tires slid.

Then we started sliding to the right – of course we would slide toward the cliffside.

THIS WAS ONLY OUR FIRST DAY IN COUNTRY! It’s not time to die yet. We haven’t even gotten to eat a single meal!

The tires slid again.

We fishtailed sideways again.

Our driver was mumbling from the front seat, saying something about how this never happens.

Then he said “Time to get out and push!”

And he meant it.

The passengers all disembarked, carefully stepping between the car and the mountainside. He tried again now that he was free of all our weight – no luck.

So we literally got behind that big old van and we pushed. And we pushed and we pushed.

IMG_2157 2I swear the edge was edgier than it looked. Or at least it certainly felt like the uvula of a bear to my southern sensibilities.

And the van did nothing but slide closer to the edge.

The driver got out and said “We will need the chains!”

I got my camera out and decided it was time to at least get those snowy winter wonderland pictures I wanted. It’s not like know anything about helping with snow chains.

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4006 s

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4091 s

Just then, another herd of cows came by. It was as if they wanted me to take their picture.

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4063 s
They were drama cows if there ever were drama cows.

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4075 s

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4071 s
191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4076 s

The men had tire-shaped chains laid out on the snow by now, and were looking at them quizzically with their arms folded. Clearly there was nothing us womenfolk could or would add to the situation, so we began to walk.

Then we did some quick calculations, converting meters to miles, and realized that, if we didn’t mind trudging uphill in the snow, we could actually walk to the delicious dinner that was so loudly calling out our name.

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4031 s

And maybe, just maybe, our walking to dinner would really light a fire under the men to hurry up and get that van up the mountain – before we ate all the good cheese.

And so we began to walk. On one of those narrow, curving roads where we were now brushing our udders against the oncoming traffic. Somehow, inexplicably, the higher we got, the less snow there was. And the faster the cars careened toward us.

But we were on our way to dinner. And who doesn’t need a brisk hike after being on a plane for 24 hours?

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4112 s

Just as we walked into the parking lot of the dreamy restaurant, the men pulled up behind us in the van. They had done it – with a little help from their (village) friends.

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4157 s

And we lived happily ever after, eating all of the amazing cheese. And no southerners fell off the mountain that night due to snow. Even if we did stare into the uvula of a mountain moose.

191205 Day One Macedonia IMG_4131 s

 

Meant for Making.

A mind meant for making things never finds peace for long. The ache always comes back. But that’s nothing to worry about. The worry is that one day it will go for good. – “The Left-Handed Fate”, Kate Milford

2019 was a creatively quiet year for me. I started the year still mourning my Dad’s death, finding myself depressed and quiet. Happy and funny times and things made me sadder, because I was painfully aware of the happy and funny that I wasn’t actually feeling. I middled the year being with Chris’ Uncle as he passed away. From July on, I found myself withdrawn from art and from sharing. I stepped back from almost all creating and I dove deeply into finding satisfaction and consolation in my decade-ago former self – in numbers and accounting, spreadsheets and analysis. I shrunk away from who I am now – the person who has been creating through words and pictures, taking joy in nature and beauty, and connecting with other people through those creations.

Death is both easier and harder than I thought it would be. It is easier because life moves on and therefore so must you. It is harder because death doesn’t move on – it sits heavily on your stomach, and your heart, and your soul.

On the outside, I don’t appear as affected by death. I’m a quiet, introverted mourner. I don’t want to talk to hardly anyone face to face about the inner workings of my grief. Instead, it stays quietly in my heart and it eats at my desire to do and see and relate and create.

But, although retreating into numbers and spreadsheets has been temporarily soothing, it didn’t feed my soul, and I found myself longing to create.

Despite not creating, I didn’t quit recording. I’m a recordkeeper at heart and I can’t just lay that down. In July, after being inspired by Chris’ Grandmother’s diaries, of which I pored over her ten years of daily entries with fascination and adoration, I started my own daily journal. Grandma’s life between the years of 1937 and 1946 were infinitely more interesting than mine – but more about her diaries in another post. However, as I began writing, and then periodically thumbing back through my diary, I realized how great my life is, and how much I have to be thankful for. Although it seems less writable than when the kids were young, we still have adventures, random happenings, and ridiculously crazy occurrences.

I wanted to write online again, but after being away for so long, I wondered why exactly I was still doing it. It’s been months since I’ve seen anyone share someone else’s blog post. Are bloggers even a thing anymore? Is there a such thing as a blog anymore? Am I still carving into stone tablets when everyone else has moved on to telepathy? I mean seriously – where DID all the writers go? Where do they create and share? And where did all the readers go? The biggest part of sharing online for me was always the connecting – the feeling of someone else’s heart saying “me too!!” and knowing I wasn’t alone in my weird, quirky way of looking at the world.

But then I finally got the first of my blog books in – three out of the twelve years of posts. I’ve been working with my website manager for a year and a half to get my blog in a state to which it could be printed, so we all were pretty excited. I watched my children as they gleefully flipped through the books, laughing at stories they’d forgotten or never knew, looking at pictures of themselves at earlier ages, and reading back their own toddler quotes to me with hilarity.

blog books first reading s

It was beautiful. It was fulfilling to know that I had recorded our life in a way that they could access it, see it, read it, and know it. Since then, Noah has become obsessed with me reading the blog stories to him, and he’s so impatient to know them all that he has started reading them himself, then after laughing heartily and/or being amazed at WHAT AN ABSOLUTE HANDLE he was as a toddler, he’ll go find Ali and read her the story. “Ali. Wait till you hear this one about the time I pooped in the bathtub. Oh! And my potty training was awful!! And do you remember the time I stepped on the grasshopper and made Loulie cry??”

I’m enjoying them also – I’ve forgotten half the things I’ve written over the past 12 years. All of that life would have been lost had it not been for this blog – and for the readers that motivated me to share it. I was, and am, immensely grateful for all of your interaction, all of your words of affirmation and encouragement, all of your Christmas cards, all of your reaching out hands of friendship. I have a folder in my email account titled “Encouraging Blog Emails” where I have filed many of your emails and comments over the years, and occasionally when I’m feeling down or discouraged, I will go back and read them to remind myself of why I do this and the connections I’ve made because of it.

And so, as I start 2020, my main goal this year is to truly create again. I don’t know how often, but it must happen. It might be short snippets of life, or posts that read more like diary entries than well-crafted essays. I want to get back to writing, even if that writing isn’t perfectly polished. I need to create. For my soul, for my family’s history, and for healing.

191208 Village of Jance IMG_4595-H s“Wonder is great and important. And wonder at the visible – at what can be seen and shared, that requires no nationality or belief to experience – that is a special kind of phenomenon…A moment like this can be shared between strangers, as we share it now. It crosses all lines, makes them converge; turns enemies into wide-eyed children in the face of the miraculous. And for a moment, the battlefield stills. – “The Left-Handed Fate”, Kate Milford

Note about the quotes: I also read a lot over the past year, and my favorite author to dive deep with was Kate Milford. She has a series of books with different settings, genres, and time periods that all interact with one another beautifully and intricately. She has a LOT of ideas – sometimes overwhelmingly so, and it was a bit mind-blowing to try to keep up with the threads between the seemingly unrelated books, but I thrived on the challenge. I highly recommend all of her books, but I suggest you start with Greenglass House and go from there. In fact, if it’s cold or raining or snowy where you are, I find it to be the most cozy book I have ever read – it was meant to be read while curled into a quilt, in front of a fire, and/or with a hot beverage.

The Right Time for Words.

Today is my dad’s birthday.

He would have been 67. Way too young to not be here anymore.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, as I just had my second experience with the agony, exhaustion, and honor of end of life care…my second experience with a beloved man dying all too young…my second experience with cancer taking someone I love. Chris’ Uncle Leo, who you know best from his spectacular toenail art and crochet shorts, passed away on July 4, at the age of 65.

I am finding myself doing a lot of writing offline, processing things way too personal to share publicly right now. There’s a lot to sort through when life throws you topsy-turvy…death forces everything to be re-evaluated. And death twice in ten months makes everything look different.

But the following is a post I wrote ten months ago after my dad died. At the time, it too was entirely too personal to share, but I knew I wanted to share it one day.

It might be too spiritual for some. Too long for others. But to me it represents hope in the darkness, light when light is needed most, and not feeling alone when we are walking down the darkest and most desolate paths of our life.

I hope that for at least one person out there, it can encourage you when you need it most.


My Dad had cancer for six years before he died. I shared about his initial diagnosis, but I could never bring myself to share here about when that cancer spread two years ago. I just didn’t have the words.

I didn’t just not have the words for you, I didn’t have the words for him.

I remember vividly the day after mom and dad came over to tell us Dad’s cancer had spread, and that there was no cure, but that they were going to do everything they could to fight it. The next day was the first time I ever therapeutically “got lost in the woods.” I went trail running to clear my mind and process things, and actually did get a bit lost by accidentally going off trail, falling down a hill covered in pine straw, and in general letting the woods beat me up to make me feel better. I remember sitting in the car at Oak Mountain, and Jasmine Thompson’s version of “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” (by Meaghan Trainor) came on Spotify. That song broke me. I realized that day that the most painful part of this process for me was how very unable I was to talk about real feelings and emotions with my dad. We had a good relationship, but there had always been an impassible wall for genuine, real  communication – at least on my side. And it wasn’t just with Dad – I’m pretty much always better at telling funny stories than talking about the deep and real issues of my heart. But I saw no way around this – it was so impossible, I couldn’t even tell Chris about the painful realization for several days, and even that felt like ripping my soul out.

For two years, Dad had a series of ups and downs, miracle drugs, medications working then not working, scans that were good and scans that were bad. He had doctors dismiss him, telling him they had nothing else that would help him, and doctors tell him that they couldn’t believe how well he was doing. He even had a doctor tell him he could live for 20 more years. He was told that a month before he died. The roller coaster of treating an incurable cancer is intense, anxiety-filled, and requires real conversation.

Dad made huge efforts to open communication with me. He even tried to open communication with the entire church, teaching a Sunday School class on death and dying, sharing all he’d learned through his process. I’d gotten marginally better at talking to him about the cancer and even about dying, but never was I able to cross the impossible divide of telling him what he’s meant to me.

One of my prayer requests for the year in our small group was that I would be able to talk to my Dad. Even with all Dad’s efforts at helping me with that (unbeknownst to him that it was my prayer request), I still failed constantly. Even the idea of writing my thoughts was excruciating and impossible.

Last summer, Dad very suddenly started feeling worse and worse. It was determined within a couple of days that his liver had shut down. I knew this was terrible, awful, horrible news. My stomach stayed in knots for a week. Mom and Dad went to multiple doctors looking for answers, even driving to Philadelphia as a last ditch effort. The night that they met with the Philadelphia doctor, they called me. They told me the doctor had told Dad that he had days or weeks to live.

After my phone call with them, I had about an hour to myself. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do, how to pray, how to process. I asked the Holy Spirit to pray through me. To guide me. Anything. Because I had nothing.

I immediately felt the urge to write out how my dad had influenced my life and my personality. I started scribbling in my journal. The words flowed out and in just a few minutes, I had filled two pages with the feelings that I had been completely unable to think, speak, process, or write for the last two years. Then I felt an urge to type them up and email them to my Dad, which I did.

I went to bed that night feeling an unbelievable feeling: peace. Peace that I had heard from and felt the Holy Spirit’s direction. Peace that I had done exactly what He had directed me to do. Peace that He had done it through me, since I had been completely unsuccessful at doing the same thing for the past two years.

Dad read my email the next morning and sent me a simple email back – the last email I would ever receive from my father.

It said…

As you might imagine our emotions have been a roller coaster these last few weeks. Your email this morning was very humbling but helped answer some of my uncertainty if I had made any difference 

I love you

The Holy Spirit had enabled me to do what had been impossible for me at the exact time that my Father needed to hear it.

And in doing so, my confidence in prayer was renewed and strengthened when I needed it most.

I was still sad. Sad for me, sad for my Mom, sad for my children, sad for my brothers, sad for the world that we were all were losing my Dad. I was sad for the vast amount of stories and knowledge that was going to be leaving the world with my Dad. I am still sad about all these things, and I am certainly still struggling daily with the reality of my Dad’s death. But I know his eternal destiny is good, and I have been comforted by the One who Dad is now with. So I am not broken. I am not in despair. I am not angry or bitter with God. Because I trust in the One who loves me enough to comfort and speak to me when I needed Him most.

These are the words I wrote about my Dad and sent him that night in September.

My Dad….

– Taught me that the pursuit of money doesn’t have to be the end goal of your career or occupation. He showed me that you can do what you love and make (and live on) little and be worlds happier than doing what you hate and making lots.

– Gave me my ability to find humor in the absurd, the annoying, the bizarre, the cheesy. We used to sit and watch the local news together just to make fun of it. Without his teaching me these important skills, I could have never been a writer.

– Is the origination of my observation skills, my attention to detail, and my ability to read people and discern their emotions and sometimes thoughts. He knows what is going on in my mind and in everyone else’s, whether we want to admit it or not. (My Mom literally thought my Dad could read her mind when they first got married and she would desperately try not to think about things she didn’t want him knowing.)

– Can do ANYTHING, and never shies away from any project just because it is something he hasn’t done before. He can write, draw, rebuild cars, build a house, do amazing and intricate woodwork, navigate his way across Asia and Europe in an antique car he rebuilt and fitted for the journey, drive a massive truck and trailer on insanely scary mountain roads in Mexico that frighten normal humans just to see pictures of them, start a business, write a book or a short story, raise bees (and create custom tools to take care of those bees and steal their honey), build a bridge and irrigation system, put on a week-long Model T Tour for 500 guests to drive hundreds of miles through the state, design a better chicken house, and teach a class on death while facing death. I am fortunate enough to inherit my lack of fear in starting something new and grand and overly large from him, although I might have it in lesser quantities. Without witnessing the unwavering confidence and work ethic he demonstrated, I would have never started Picture Birmingham five years ago, or organized Alabama Bloggers many years ago, or organized a Kid’s Hiking Club last year. He taught me that I can learn and I can do anything, regardless of whether I’ve been trained to do it or not.

– Is a renegade. He does his own thing his own way. He doesn’t conform to society’s standards or expectations on things like having a 9 to 5 job, or buying a house (rather than building your own), or having a completed house to live in (rather than living in the house you’re building), or accepting the accepted ideas and opinions of society. He works on what he wants to work on, he creates what he wants to create, and he often doesn’t fit in the neat little boxes or participate in the expected rites of society. I am happy to have inherited his renegade spirit. I don’t like to fit my life into other people’s schedules or templates or frameworks. I create my own frameworks (like homeschooling), and if I see a need, I don’t look for an outside group to fill it – I create my own group (like my Dysautonomia Support Group, my Hiking Club, etc.)

– Has insane amounts of patience, and values things done right over things done quickly. The man has been building his house, by himself, his way, for 17 years. If he has a vision of how something should be done, he doesn’t cut corners.

– Took me and my future very seriously. He made Chris wait two weeks while he prayed about his request to marry me, but once Dad was certain that it was God’s will for me to marry Chris, he never wavered on that decision. Although I very much wanted to marry Chris, I began to struggle with fear and anxiety a couple of months into our engagement, overwhelmed as a 19 year old over this lifelong commitment and decision I was making. My anxiety got to the point where it was leaving me in tears daily. Finally, on New Year’s Day, I broke down and cried with Mom and Dad. I finished my explanation with “I just need to know that I know for SURE that it is God’s Will that I marry Chris. Dad looked me in the eye and said “You know how seriously I took his request, and how long I prayed for it. Do you really think that I would have said yes if I didn’t know that this was God’s will for you?” My fears left that very moment and I’ve never, in 18 years, doubted for a single minute that it was God’s will that I marry Chris.

– Illustrated day in, day out; year in, year out how to have a faithful, faith-filled walk with the Lord. How to keep going and trust God on the good days or bad, in sickness and in health, in life or while facing death.

– Has been a stunning example of how to walk toward death with your head held high, with absolute assurance of God’s goodness and his eternal destiny. Dad has sought God throughout without anger or bitterness, and has sought open communication with not only family (which is harder than it sounds when you’re dealing with people like me who are really great at sharing their surface-level feelings but keep their deep feelings in a vault in a cave in a hole in a dungeon locked behind three chains), but also by opening his heart with his Church family and sharing the wisdom that he’s learned from God through the process of facing death head-on. His thoughts and wisdom have been so insightful that they leave no doubt that they are from God. His confidence in this walk he has taken has not only helped me have comfort for him, but has also helped me not fear my own death.

– My Dad has given me the wisdom, the tools, and the freedom to believe the Word of God and to hopefully live it out.

Seeing God answer my prayer in allowing me to tell my Dad what he meant to me, and seeing that God gave that gift to me right when Dad needed me to give that gift to him, was a bright beacon of hope over the next few weeks as I walked through the darkest days of my life. It gave me the confidence to grieve but not be inconsolable, to weep but not despair.

190701 Sunflower Fields IMG_6920

And for that, I will forever be thankful.