Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The making of a man...

A couple of weekends ago, I took the kids to Caddo Lake for a weekend with Grammy and Grampy, camping in an old farm house with a great view of the cypress trees and sunset on the water. It was a nice time to reconnect and allow the stress to melt away a bit. I was there for a few hours before I felt I was taking my first deep breath of the summer.

I forget exactly what happened to bring about this conversation, but anyone who knows my son, Harrisen, will understand. Mom and I began discussing how blessed I am and how special and sweet both children are. We talked of their spirits and budding souls, and the conversation wound around, as conversations tend to do, to Harrisen and his tenderness.

Since he was a tiny baby, he has been a gentle soul. There is something incredibly tender and achingly sweet about his nature and spirit that make you want to grab him up and protect him from a sometimes cruel and hateful world. He has an innocence that is not found in many children these days, that is not solely due to my refusal to have toy weapons or anything harsher than LPB on the television. His sister does not have it. Evangeline, though 2 years younger and not yet three, juts out her chin and dares the world to cross her. She has a toughness about her that leaves me shaking my head already. Evangeline sees danger as a challenge. Harrisen sees danger as a confusing darkness he does not understand.

Harrisen tries so hard to please and takes to heart lessons, advice and direction. He admonishes his sister's devil-may-care approach with a sweet concern that likely stems from his lifelong lesson on being a big brother that he could likely quote word for word: "Evangeline is your baby sister. Your job is to help take care of her, protect her and love her." This is a job he takes very seriously.

Harrisen takes pride in his accomplishments and comes, wide eyed to you for acknowledgment and acceptance. He is mannerly, gentle and easily upset. His boy-like roughness is not hard like a kick or sharp like a poke, but rather like a pile of warm, snuggly puppies rolling around in a wicker basket.

When Harrisen is corrected, his eyes get big and soft, and he tucks his chin. Sometimes he cries. Sometimes he gets mad...but he always comes back, and in a sincerity that outpaces his years, asks for forgiveness. He seems to sense the importance of relationship and closeness and nurtures it with all of us. In some ways it makes him seem like a baby, while in other ways, he seems to be as wise as an old man. In some ways it makes him seem vulnerable, and in another way, it makes him seem (sometimes) stronger than me.

These are all qualities I love and cherish in my son...my first-born....my long-awaited. These things I am proud of. These things make him different from many of the other boys I have known. I find joy in his very unique self.

But, rocking on the screen porch of the lake house, Mom and I wondered aloud to each other, "Is Harrisen tough enough? Is his tenderness going to stand in the way of his growing up to be the kind of man he needs to be?" As mothers do best, we worry. We concern ourselves with bullies and harsh realities and inevitable heartbreaks.

About this time, Grampy walks up with a styrofoam container of worms and a fishing pole. He announces to us in his typical spare way, "Boys are goin' fishin'." Harrisen puts on his green monster life vest that he isn't too grown up to be embarrassed of and practically flies down to the pier.

We rock. Back and forth.

A few minutes later we hear a commotion coming from down on the pier. Seems my sweet boy has caught his first fish!

Some time later, Harrisen and Grampy come bustling up the path with a small igloo cooler containing four fat bream. Harrisen beams. He opens the cooler and asks Grampy if he can hold his fish. Grampy shows him how to put his thumb in the fish's mouth and pinch it tight so we can take the requisite photographs. Evangeline reaches out with one girly finger to touch the slimy scales and runs away shrieking. Harrisen is totally unfazed. He is totally digging holding this flipping, flopping, slimy fish. I am impressed. My son is doing something seemingly effortlessly...something I would only be capable of under penalty of death or mortal embarrassment.

He spends a few more minutes picking the fish up, dropping them in the grass, putting them back in the cooler and generally pestering them half to death when Grampy says, "So, Harrisen...what are you gonna do with your fish? Do you want to clean them and eat them, or let them go?"

Harrisen says, "I want to clean them!"

Visions of Harrisen adding dishwashing liquid to the cooler and adding tub toys for their enjoyment swirl in my mind. I know he does not understand the concept of cleaning a fish.

I intervene.

K: Harrisen, do you understand what cleaning a fish means?
H: Ummmm...I think so.
K: It means you have to kill the fish, H.
H: Ok.
K: You will have to cut the head off and get the guts out. The fish is going to die. Are you ok with that, honey?
H: Yep. I want to eat em.
K: Ok. That's good. I just want to make sure you understand.
H: I understand. Come on, Grampy. Let's go clean my fish.

I sit down, woozy. The boys take off back down to the pier.

Mom and I resume our conversation...

M: Are you going to go take pictures of him cleaning his fish?
K: I'm not sure I can. It kinda skeeves me out. I don't like seeing them die.
M: You need to take a picture.
K: I still don't think he gets what is about to happen.
M: Kate, I think he does. You spelled it out. He knows, and he's ok with it.

I haul my queasy self down to the pier and watch (and record for posterity) Grampy whack each fish several times with the back of a big metal spoon before he cuts off their heads. Harrisen says "bye" to each fish as they meet the buck-knife guillotine. He uses his chubby little fingers to dig guts out of their bodies. He holds each fish down firmly as he saws the scales off with the big silver spoon. His blond curls glisten with fish scales. He smiles. He is proud. He seems taller.

I can only witness something I can't fully understand. The man is hiding in every little boy. Even my sweet, precious, innocent and vulnerable little boy. This is something he did not need me for. He did not need me to scale that fish. The desire and gumption to do that was born in him...drug along on that Y-chromosome from the moment he was created. I feel a satisfying distance grow between mother and son at that moment. He has stepped through a door. I watch my four year old son do something I am unable to do. He has connected with something lying dormant inside of him, brought out by love and trust for another man who showed him the way.

This is how men are made. I pray that, along with many loving and kind men and women in his life, I am helping make a good one.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What would YOU say?

I am taking a class this semester called "Death and Dying". Both appropriate and challenging, considering I have lost both grandfathers during the course of the semester. The major assignment of the course was to write our own eulogy. I struggled. I started. I deleted. I considered taking the easy way out and writing a short, sweet and vanilla homage to myself. I finally waited until I had something to say, and as they usually do, the words came.

Eulogy for Katie Hall Smith

Katie was a person who deeply valued family, friends, loyalty, and love. She admired those who were not afraid to stand up for their beliefs. She honored education and the Arts. She reveled in her children and dedicated herself to them. She held tightly to her faith, even when it was challenged. Most anyone who knew Katie at all, knew these things about her.

If you are here today, it stands to reason that you probably know the high points of Katie's life...her talents, accomplishments, strengths, and even weaknesses. Any of you likely could have given the first few lines of this eulogy.

Wouldn't it be interesting to not talk about the glowing things everyone already knows at a funeral? Wouldn't it be refreshing to learn, even at this time, some things you might not have known about Katie? Recently she was on a journey...a journey to understanding herself and her world. A quest to peel away the layers of obvious...to pare down the soul and spirit to the original, the organic...the truth. I believe we owe it to her today to do the same as we remember her.

Did you know that as a child, Katie spent an entire summer licking S&H Green Stamps with her Great Grandmother while watching Another World? She didn't particularly like soap operas (a preference that followed her to the end of her life) and she certainly didn't particularly enjoy licking hundreds of stamps and putting them in little books. What motivated her to ride her bike across Gilliam day after day was the reward of hours of time spent in the presence of two of the people she loved most, and who made her feel connected to something greater than herself, her Grandmere and MeMe. The french language, strong coffee in little cups and stories of people she only knew from photographs lit a fire at a young age; fueled a desire to connect and identify with the side of her that came over from Acadia on a boat so many generations ago. This fascination and identification led her, 15 years later , across the ocean to West Africa to learn the language of her grandmothers...of the LeBlancs and Pellissiers and Begnauds. Even though she heard the language in a different accent, on a different continent and among people far removed from the Acadians, she knew she was stitching up a hole in her history; she was closing a language barrier that began with her father and will hopefully not end with her children. Her connection to her history, through her love and admiration of her grandmothers, led her to read and re-read the story of her people and give her daughter a name to grow into: Evangeline.

Speaking of Africa....how on earth does a little white girl from a small, private, liberal arts college end up studying on the dark continent? Katie did not come from a long line of people who spent their Junior year abroad in exotic locales. She did not necessarily come from a family that spent a lot of time considering other cultures and ways of life. She did, however, come from a family who valued her...her spirit of adventure, her unpredictability and her courage. When Katie was given the opportunity to apply for a grant to study in Africa, her mother probably knew she would do it. She knew enough to know that Katie would likely accomplish what she set her mind to. She also knew that if Katie were to make it to Senegal, it would no be through any effort on her part! Carole remembers the day she learned of her daughter's desire to spend a year in Africa: “I told her I loved her, I supported her and I would be very proud of her. But I absolutely was not going to help her get there. I would not type a form...I would not mail it off. I would not finance this dream at all. I couldn't. It had to be her decision, her effort and her choice. I knew that if, God forbid, something happened to her over there, I wanted no responsibility in it. I knew she would do it. And she did.” Katie came home a year later transformed. She literally became a different, deeper, better version of herself that year. A little part of her heart always remained in West Africa. She never underestimated the evolution of her character that happened that year. It set the stage for the last 15 years of her life.

Did you know that Katie never passed a beggar, homeless person or panhandler without giving them something? A dollar, five dollars, a package of crackers, a taco out of her combo meal....She had seen poverty. She knew it up close. She never again took for granted the blessings of shelter, clothing and food. She became extremely frugal. She shopped at Goodwill and bought on sale. Before she went to Africa, she had credit cards to every major department store in the mall. In the last fifteen years of her life, she likely set foot in a mall 2-3 times per year instead of 2-3 times per week. This year, leaving the Festival Plaza in Shreveport, pulling her children in a wagon, they passed a homeless man in a doorway, leaned over his sack of collected aluminum cans. Katie stopped the wagon in front of this man and emptied her bag of every last snack and juice box she had packed for the kids. She gave him a blessing and the food and took two bewildered toddlers back to the car. Evangeline was crying for her juice box. Harrisen was asking questions about why the man was dirty and why Mommy had given their snacks to him. Her children have been deprived of so many lessons in the future by losing their mother so young, but when you see them today, ask them what you should do if you see a hungry, poor, dirty man on the street and you have a bag full of snacks. They know.

They also know about God. Katie had a prie dieu in her bedroom, with icons of the Blessed Virgin and Christ. Though she was devoutly Catholic, and knew by heart most of the prayers in her prayer book, she taught her children that God, Jesus and Mary were there to talk to in their words, in their time. The kids would stand on the kneeler, look up at the icons, and say, “Hi Jesus. Hi Mary. I love you. Amen.” They are well on their way to a spiritual life as deeply rooted in action as their mother's.

Did you know that Katie once took a $25,000-a-year pay cut to go to work for the Church? She did. She was working in sales for a major network television affiliate (a career that never suited her) and left it to pursue a career raising money for the Catholic Church in Northwest Louisiana. She was fond of saying, “I got sick of waking up each morning for the sole purpose of raising money for fat guys on a golf course in Alabama.” So, she devoted the next decade to raising money for things that mattered: the hungry, the poor, the unborn, the men who wanted to be priests...things she cared deeply about. Working for the church, she was known to say, was like, “pulling back the green velvet curtain and seeing the wizard pulling all the levers...” This intimate relationship with the Catholic Church led her into a deeper understanding of her faith and a mature relationship with God. It forced both an acceptance and a healthy criticism of something so close to her. It was a time in her life that she treasured and was extremely proud of.

Did you know that Katie was a handyman? She hated depending on anyone to hang, move, repair, paint, wire or plumb anything. She couldn't always do the job totally by herself, but she always tried. Her independent streak and self sufficiency were qualities in herself that she truly valued, and she was tireless in her work. She was goal-oriented and would not stop until she collapsed or finished. She helped her father lay a floor in her kitchen a week before she was due to deliver Harrisen. She rolled around like a bowling ball on that floor until it was complete. Nobody ever had as much energy as she did when there was a deadline to meet. A goal was a challenge and she never backed down.

It's no great secret that Katie Smith was smart. However, I'll bet not many of you knew that Katie was a geek. She was. The trendy clothes and put-together look, as well as her ability to truly work the room at a party, belied the fact that she was a book junkie, a constant learner, and a delver into the things of the mind. She visited the library more times that she liked to admit and called it alternately her “cave” and “sanctuary”. Katie read non-fiction for fun. She took senior-level Literary Criticism at Centenary as an elective. She valued her few friendships where she could open up that part of herself and share her thoughts and intellect with those who both understood it and appreciated it. It was a pretty private side of her life, and a quiet one...but it was extremely important to her. Any of you know about iTunes university? Katie did. Look it up.

On the outside, Katie was passionate, dramatic, and often emotional and impulsive. What her closest friends and family know is that Katie could also be extremely rational. She was an excellent listener and friends relied on her to tell them the truth...not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. Her advice was often sought, and was always tempered with love and compassion. Katie was known to the world as a talker: someone who always had a lot to say, lots of it funny, much of it over the top, and sometimes exaggerated for effect! But when her phone rang, as it often did, with friends or family in crisis, the performance stopped and the talk quieted. She listened...thought...and then chose words carefully and sparingly. In these times, she was able to say much with few words. Those closest to her will tell you that Katie was one to love despite people's shortcomings, trust despite being burned, and look for the good in people, sometimes to her own detriment. Her ability to be compassionate in the face of pain led just about everyone who knew her to agree she would have been uniquely successful in her latest endeavor, nursing. She liked to say, “It only took me 36 years to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up!” Many people who heard she had gone back to school to become a nurse had an immediate reaction of shock, which was quickly replaced by a knowing smile and nod...that, yes, it indeed made a world of sense.

In the last two years of her life, Katie was experiencing a Renaissance. She was shedding painful parts of herself and her world that had kept her from experiencing the fullness of life she desired and deserved. She was searching and working daily to achieve peace and truth in her life. She was setting goals and attacking them in her typical unrelenting fashion. Some may say she died at the most inopportune time... in the middle of her journey. However, I believe she died in a very appropriate time: a time of pruning...and we all know what happens after pruning. We flower and grow and bear fruit beyond all measure. May the memory of Katie continue to bear fruit in the lives of those who loved her.

I encourage all my friends to do this assignment. If not on paper, in your head. It was a very clarifying experience for me. I think I shall live better to truly live up to it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Letter to my 20 year old self...

So, I blatantly stole this from Kelly...but I thought it was a worthwhile exercise, especially in the midst of a time of major growth in my life and heart. If I would have been told at twenty that 16 years in the future I would be a single mom struggling through a divorce and nursing school...raising my kids and scraping by with the lowest paying job I have had since college...well, I would have laughed in the face of whatever fool was doing the telling. But life is quirky like that and reality is sometimes stranger than fiction. So, what follows is a note to a not-quite grown up Katie...theatre major at Centenary, top of the world, nothing-will-stop-her-girl. But you know what? Even if I could, I probably would not mail it. It's a fun exercise in theory, but would it really have changed anything I regret?

Dear Katie (version 2.0):

Hey, brat. Yeah, you. You with the big ego and creepy hippie clothes.

I've got some things to say to you, things you likely will neither completely believe or understand, but I'm going to give it a shot.

First of all, good for you for being brave. Your bravery will be a trait that you will rely on in tough times ahead. You will also curse it from time to time, as it sometimes masks a certain arrogance and pig-headed-ness that will get you into trouble. Best thing to do now is to learn the difference between the two. Brave is good. Arrogant and blind is not. Temper the bravery with reality. Please.

Speaking of reality, it's a good time in life to really get real. You are spending lots of time building a life around things that are, by necessity and definition, fake. Smoke and mirrors. Velvet drapes and blue gels. Blackout. Costume change. Strike the set and move on to the next character. It's exhilarating. It's fun. You are very good at it. It's also a really good way to avoid being real and knowing the person behind the character. If every day you play a character, where is the skill and talent of doing it on stage? You must have a reality to suspend to create art that is worthwhile. Spend some time and energy finding your authentic self. (and no, Dear. You have not already done that. Believe me.) As you do that, the characters you create will deepen. Don't hide behind them. Put them to bed after the curtain falls and go home with the truth. It will take a bit of that bravery I mentioned before.

Next, you need to learn to love. I DO NOT mean all those boys that smell of sawdust and steel grease, and Ben-Nye makeup. I mean yourself. You need to look in the mirror and love the girl with the flaming red hair, pale skin and green eyes. You need to go easy on her. She is the only friend you will have for the rest of your life. She will be your company when you are lonely; the one lying in bed with you each night. Almost twenty years from now, those same green eyes will stare back at you from the mirror, looking for acceptance. (The fire engine red hair will be, blessedly, a thing of the past.) Take care of her. Life will be challenging enough without scrutiny and criticism from within. Work hard but don't set the bar so high for things that don't matter. Be tough on yourself for not standing up for what you believe in...for being untrue to yourself...for falling short in kindness, tolerance, and patience...not for your pants size, your "B" in British Literature, or for not landing the lead in every single show this season. Come to think of it, that Brit Lit class will actually transfer as Fine Arts in nursing school, so spend a few more hours in the lobby of Hardin studying for that final...but, do go easy on the other stuff.

Katie, now is the time to get to know your family. For real. Not for what you think they are, or what you wish they were, but for the people they truly are. You are a big girl now. You can handle the truth. Don't wait five more years to learn who they are. Start learning it now, because the knowledge will help you through some dark days. This is another place in your life that calls for shedding the rose colored glasses of girlhood and giving in to the truth. It can be painful, but the truth is liberating. It will set you free. And while some relationships may change in ways you don't expect, others will be strong enough to flourish and bloom in full sun.

Seek direction with purpose. Your inclination is to impulsively head North, and when it begins to feel a bit chilly up there, turn around and set a course due South. But, truth be told, it's pretty hot down there. What you might be needing is a bit of Easterly winds...or Western sky. If you are headed in the wrong direction, it does not mean the right direction is the opposite direction.

People. People come and people go in life. There is an ever-evolving cast of characters that move fluidly in and out of the scenes you play. They all teach you something...eventually. Unfortunately, some lessons they have to teach will leave scars because they took so long to learn. Embrace people. Learn from them, but don't be hesitant to learn what they have to share early on. When someone shows you who they are...believe them. Right away. There is no substitute for kindness. There is no passion that is worth peace. Gentleness and goodness will nurture you and fill you up. Settle for no less in those you let get close to you. Kindness, peacefulness, gentleness and goodness. That is the bar for which you must reach. These are the qualities you should seek, in yourself and others.

So, as I draw this to a close, there is obviously a common theme. Truth. Honesty. Faithfulness to self. These are the things that you will struggle with developing when it's almost too late. Get a jump start on the lessons now. Listen to that little voice that whispers in the wings while the louder voices shout from the front row. Block out the loudmouths from time to time. Listen to and take direction. Don't be afraid to change the blocking in the middle of the scene. Improvise. Be brave. Be real. Love yourself.


Katie (version 3.6)