Monday, April 28, 2014

Lessons I sometimes forget...

By: Guest blogger, Brandy Pruitt

A good friend once wrote me a note during a difficult time in my life that read, “Good people deserve to be happy, and you are good people.”  I received it sometime during 2005 (I believe) and I still have it tucked away in a box of special memories.  I go to this box on occasion and pull things out, reading over them and remembering; evoking feelings and tears that I am typically too busy for.    

I understand that life is full of both good and bad.  I am fully aware of the ‘God will not lead you to it without leading you through it’ phrase that should make me feel better.  I accept with my whole heart that yes, it CAN always be worse.  I know these things.  Every Debbie Downer and Negative Nancy I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet knows these things.  And yet, I still feel an obligation to say that an often cheery disposition can not disguise the ugly truth that life is a struggle.

There are days when my struggles are too much.  I’m simply too stressed, too anxious, or too emotional to continue with my daily life.  My chest feels heavy…my eyes burn and blink back tears; tears that are sometimes full of anger or disappointment, sadness or loneliness.  Sometimes, they are just signs of pure exhaustion and defeat: the only white flag I have the energy to wave.  Some days I allow my struggles to define me and they win.  

But there are other days that I win.  There are days that I allow my life, both the good and the bad combined, to define me.  I may feel stressed, sad, or defeated but I somehow overcome it.  I may still feel that heaviness in my chest but I choose to fight it.  On these days, I end up sitting on the attic steps of my home and reminiscing.  Sure, there are usually still tears; but they are the happy and therapeutic kind.

My special box lives on my attic steps, along with a lot of other not-so-special junk that has no where better to be.  Oddly enough, the entire time that I have lived in my home I have found solace in the attic.  Maybe it’s because it is the only part of the house that was built in 1956 that seems to remain unchanged.  Or maybe because it’s the only part of the house that my obsessive cleaning habits know they aren’t welcome.  Maybe it’s because all the keepsakes from my children’s lives are stored there or because you can hear everything going on in the entire house from those steps.  Whatever the reason, I enjoy it. I go to my favorite spot on the third-from-the-top step and just sit.  I sit and pilfer through notes that make me laugh, and cards that force me to realize I have people who care about me.  I read letters from my high school boyfriend and look at pictures my children have drawn.  These things may all fit into a box (although “fit” may be the wrong word when you see my box) but they are so much bigger than that box that encompasses them.  

Lessons I learn (over and over again) sitting in my attic:
-   Friendships can span years, miles, and even differences of opinion.  How corny is it that I am reminded of a song I used to sing in Girl Scouts? “Make new friends, but keep the old…one is silver and the other’s gold.”  But seriously, they are.
-   If you want to know something, ask.  But be prepared to hear the answer.  Know what you will do with it, even before you ask for it.  Make your decision and ‘own it’…hard as it might be.    
-   Family is forever.  They will love you and forgive you quicker than anyone.  But they can also hurt you quicker also.  And despite your best efforts, sometimes you will do the same to them. 
-   Write notes and send cards to people.  I honestly think taking the time to tell someone via ‘snail mail’ that you care about them is a special thing.  When my  ex-husband passed away, I received a hand written card from a stranger referencing a bible verse she thought might help ease my pain.  She lived in Richmond, KY and heard his obituary on the radio.  A little weird? Maybe.  More important than cards I received from close friends and neighbors? No.  But it made me smile at the time.  And this stranger has a spot in my special box because of it.   
-   Joys weigh more than sorrows.  Now that is a hard lesson to remember.  It’s easier sometimes to believe the opposite.  It’s almost effortless to just wallow in sadness and bask in the pity of others.  But don’t; it will be worth it, I promise.  Learn to refuse pity.  Either from yourself or others. 
-   Your life may be full of the very thing someone else fervently prays for; appreciate it.  I have been reminded so often of this.  Especially when I look around my attic: it is full of things my children have accumulated over the years.  They make me happy.  Also drive me crazy sometimes, but it’s a happy crazy. J It is hard to not sound cliché about one’s love for their children, but they are my soul mates. 
-   Forgive people. Even when they don’t ask, forgive them.  And also, yourself…forgive yourself. 

Every once in a while, there are some surprising truths and wonderful things that spring up exactly where you need them; exactly where you’d put them if life were a script you could write.  And for a fleeting moment…the world (or at least the tiny little part of the world you can call your own) is good.  Savor those moments.  Hold tight to those memories and visit them often.  Stuff them in a box if you must.    

Good people deserve to be happy, and you are good people.

My box runneth over. How lucky am I?
I was serious about that no cleaning up here rule. 
I have started a new box.:)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Lessons from...a (semi)-Reformed Perfectionist

By: Guest blogger, Mandy Higgins

When I volunteered to write a post for Liza’s lessons feature, it seemed appropriate to discuss my penchant for perfection and the lessons I learned in, trying at least, to let it go. But, because I don’t believe you ever truly get over being a perfectionist, I immediately began to panic as I wracked my brain for just the right anecdote to make my point, and how to structure the post to make the most effective statement, and where to write it, and for how long, and what would happen if I chose the wrong words and…  You see, the pursuit of perfection, like anxiety, is a rabbit hole of doom. It leads you in all kinds of directions you didn’t know were even available when you began.  Luckily, since I’m semi-reformed and all, I can pull back the throttle a bit, open the shades, and stories emerge. So, readers, friends, and fellow Pillow Book admirers, I present to you an anecdote and a few extra “lessons” on semi-reformed perfection.

           In December, on the same day my doctoral degree was conferred, my husband and I closed on our second (and potentially forever) home in Lexington. It’s a 1950s rambling ranch with a small yard and a ton of space. We live in a cute, transitioning neighborhood close to all the things and some of the people we love in the city. However, we bought our house in the midst of the worst winter in recent memory. Here’s my first piece of advice: don’t buy a home in the winter. Just, wait til March. Why, you ask? Well here’s the thing—yes, you’re likely to get a better deal, BUT, but, you have no idea what your yard looks like when it’s covered in snow and the trees are dormant, and there’s no blooming plants. Fast forward to March—winter’s ice and snow began to thaw, revealing our new yard full of leaves, moss, and ivy. Those trees that were bare when we bought the place four months ago have begun to bloom and the future raking is already occupying my mind. You’re probably wondering how all of this relates to perfection. Very simply, I’ll never have a perfect, manicured, green, leaf free yard. We could rake every day, meticulously mow, seed, sod, water, and weed eat, and still, our yard will have leaves. The magnolia that was the selling point for us—oh, it drops leaves on a regular basis.

And the ivy—dormant in the winter, but in full force these days, the ivy is proof that my perfectionist tendencies are under repair. I spent most of Sunday pulling up ivy in a small patch along the side of our driveway.  It’s not even my ivy! Instead, it has burrowed under a fence and taken up refuge from the neighbor’s yard.  Perfectionist Mandy would have not even begun the project of removing the ivy. I’ll never get rid of it all, I’d tell myself, so why even start? It’ll just keep coming back, you’ll never get it right, so why try? But instead of giving in to my base assumptions, I spent the afternoon pulling and pruning, cutting and cursing through the ivy. The bed is mostly free; a few shoots are still visible between the fence posts and the root system is still intact in a few places, which means in a month or so, I’ll be back at it—attacking the ivy and my desire for perfection at the same time.  

The ivy is a visible marker of my semi-reformed status. Some of it remains, but a lot of it is gone (at least from that particular part of the yard). It’s proof that even when not done perfectly, effort makes a difference.

A few other lessons for you from my semi-reformed world:
·         Being a perfectionist stops you from trying new things. When you’re so focused on doing something perfectly the first time, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to fail, and so you don’t give yourself the opportunity to do something different.
·         Being a perfectionist steals joy. When your life is dominated by a plan, by the desire to have everything just right, and by the need to make sure no one sees a mistake or a misstep, it’s almost impossible to be happy. Things aren’t always perfect. Sometimes the flies get in the punch, or the words come out of your mouth wrong, or the timing isn’t right. 
·         Perfection is the mask that keeps us from knowing ourselves and others. We use it to hide our insecurities and to control our fears. We use it to deny others access to our true, often vulnerable self, and to rewrite our identity in terms that are comfortable. 

I haven’t fully let go of my perfectionist tendencies, but I’ve learned that there is beauty, and love, and magic in imperfection. Life doesn’t usually unfold on the path and along the plan that us semi-reformed perfectionists seek, and I’m learning that plans and paths are meant to meander.  Thus, I am semi-reformed.  I still seek perfection but I am no longer defined by it. I embrace, reluctantly at times, the chance to fail and I relish in the imperfect ways we all try to get through the day.

But, the perfectionist in me is always sitting dormant, waiting for the perfect opportunity to rear its ugly little head—don’t tell her I’ve got a book proposal, anthology chapter, and conference paper to write…she’ll be relentless.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lessons I've learned from my mower...

By: Guest blogger, Terry Staley
Spring is here
I'm ready to go
Let's get this show started
I'm ready to mow

Bruce tuned up the motor
New belts and new blades
I'm ready to go
Get out of my way

Up and down the yard I go
Things are going smooth
All of a sudden something happens
My mower will not move

I can't be out of gas
That just can't be right
I can't be out of gas
I filled it up last night

Oh yeah, I'm out
I've filled it up
I'll start again
I won't give up

I start again and to my surprise
As I am going up and down the rise
Woah Woah is what I said
But in the ditch I went instead

That is it
You sit and pout
I'm going in
You're staying out

After a call
Up came my son
We pulled the mower out
And it's ready to run

Just as I was about to be done
I started up the bank
I was on a run
When suddenly...I was done

Done, not as in finished
Done, not as in through
I mean done as in
Call in the tow truck crew

Upside down My mower lay
I get up
And I'm OK

Another call
to my son
Another "Mother"
What have you done

To my rescue
My brother came
He took my mower
Will it ever be the same?

Spring is here
It came once more
My brother, the mechanic
Has fixed up my mower

I love it
It's camo and looking like new
And now when I mow
I'll be hidden from view

So what are the lessons
I've learned from my mowing?
No matter what happens
You have to keep going!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lessons from an artist...

By: Guest Blogger, Elise Kieffer
Just writing the title “Lessons from an Artist” makes me feel pretentious. So let’s agree to this instead: Lessons From THIS Artist. I am no Guru, but these are my observations based on my own experiences. I am an Artist so the journey is a meandering one. Follow me!

Lesson One: Don’t ever let anyone put you in a box. 
You are gloriously jagged and flawed and plump and full and there is no box on this earth that can hold you. If, perhaps, there is a box that fits you today, tomorrow it will no longer suit. You will grow slimmer in some areas as you learn to let go and say goodbye while other pieces of you will expand as you learn and grow.

More than one box has been offered to me through the years. Here is one: You are an Artist, therefore flakey, flighty, unintelligent, etc. “This box does not fit!” Says the Artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre Performance and a Masters degree in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management. A dichotomy? Probably. But nonetheless it is me and so I politely decline that box.

There are so many examples of boxes that we offer to one another. Perhaps the greatest victory of my journey was learning that I don’t have to accept any of them. I am too liberal for this box and too conservative for that one. I am too intelligent for this one and not nearly clever enough for that one. Aren’t we all just a little off? Too pretty. Too plain. Too funny. Too serious. Always too much or not enough.

You are better than any box that anyone will ever offer you. Realize that. Own it. Don’t apologize that you don’t fit in. Celebrate it. (Says the former sorority girl with the Star Trek costume hanging in her closet). We are all mosaics, stained-glass windows, infinite pieces and parts that together compose a fantastic creation. Don’t minimize it by squeezing into some tiny little cube that someone else says should hold you.
Lesson Two: Realize that you might never be content, and be OK with that.
I have been perpetually divided against myself. I long for the Theatre and everything about it. Makeup, costumes, sets, characters, intensity, the audience, the show. Oh how I love it! And I am a mother. I’m not just a mother. I am the particular variety of mother who wants to be there for everything! I want to be the one to put my babies to sleep at nap time and bedtime. I want to nurse them until they are old enough to ask for it in a full sentence. I want them to be able to climb into my bed and feel safe. I want to hang their laundry out to dry on the line because it is one little thing I can do to show I care. I cannot do that, and also be away at a show every night, rehearsing every day.

I had to choose. And I have to choose again and again and again as I continually ask myself. “What am I doing here again? How did my life become so much less glamorous than it once was?” I chose. And you know what? When I go back and make those choices again I end up right here, right now. That means that I have to make sacrifices for what I truly love. It means that I might have to continue to lay part of myself aside for the sake of the greater self I choose to cultivate. Life is made of seasons. In this season I am first and foremost a mother. When that season ends I will long for it and rue the moments I did not take the time to cherish. I will ever be longing for something I do not have and that is OK. That is what makes me the person I am and it is what makes me always strive for more. I am sure you have made sacrifices too. Accept them. And if you have to, keep accepting them every day. I have sometimes envied people who seem content with their lives just as they are but when I really stop to think about it I recognize how very much I have achieved in my life because of my discontentment. It is because I want something more or different that I continue to strive and grow and change.
Lesson Three: Be inspired. 
You probably expected this one from an Artist, didn’t you? Life drains us. It robs us of our individuality through the aforementioned boxes. It steals our dreams through the previously addressed sacrifices. Don’t let it steal the beauty around you. It is everywhere! Find what is beautiful to you and embrace it. C.S. Lewis talked of his first experience with what he called “joy.” It was Nordic mythology. I’m going to go ahead and tell you, that doesn’t do it for me. But Stephen Sondheim? Oh yeah. That’ll get me going every time! (If you don’t know who that is it’s OK. It might not be your inspiration!)

Lesson Four: Create SOMETHING! 
I am in no way an artistic snob. If you find fulfillment scrapbooking, then that is your art. Whether it is painting, dancing, model trains or even Legos that is your inspiration, your joy, take it and run with it. Just find time in your life to create something from nothing.

I have given birth to two amazing children and there is no feeling on earth like bringing forth new life. All men should envy the power and gift that women possess to usher tiny human beings into the world. However, I have also listened as actors brought MY words to life onstage. I have listened as MY songs were recorded by other Artists. Seeing, or hearing, your creation come to life, come into the world, is bringing new life, new beauty into the world. It is motherhood. It is fatherhood. You have a song. You have a story. You have something inside you that is uniquely yours, and the world needs it. I cannot sing your song and I cannot tell your story. Without your individual creation and artistry, the earth is not nearly as interesting.

Being an “Artist” is not a vocation. It is a way of life. It is an acceptance of oneself as you are with a continuing desire to evolve. I am liberated. I no longer feel the desire or need to conceal one part of my soul for the benefit of the other. I am who I was meant to be. Desires, Talents, Dreams, Passions, Hopes, and Flaws. I strive to grow, to evolve, to change daily. I am no one close to the woman I hope to become, but I will embrace who I am. I hope you will do the same. I am an Artist. Who are you?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lessons from Big Blue Nation

By: Guest blogger, Zach Edwards

To someone not blessed enough to spend their life here, the Commonwealth of Kentucky doesn't appear to have too much to offer.  If you look simply at the statistics (high poverty, low-performing schools, high rates of obesity, etc.), you'd probably be right.  Obviously, the whole picture is much broader than that, and without the opportunity to actually experience life in the Bluegrass, you don't realize how great it actually is.  Kentucky is a special place for a variety of reasons.

There's arguably no more beautiful and contrasting landscape in the entire country...Picturesque mountains in the east, low-lying river valleys in the west.  While unpredictable at times, the weather here is tolerable and we get to experience four legitimate seasons throughout the year.  There are no better thoroughbred horses anywhere on Earth, and we are the only place on the planet where real bourbon is made.  When asked where one is from, only those from Lexington and Louisville reply with anything except, "______ County."  And despite all the negative stereotypes of Kentuckians thrown around in pop culture, there is a certain sense of pride we take in calling this great state home, rarely found in folks from anywhere else in the country.

Even if those truly Kentucky examples don't impress an outsider, we can always hang our hat on one undeniable fact: We have the best damn college basketball program on the planet.
Whether or not you're a sports fan, or if you wholeheartedly disagree with my statement above, you'd have to admit there is something special about Kentucky Basketball and its fans.  It is a sentiment ingrained from the womb in millions of members of Big Blue Nation that is passed down through the generations.  And no matter how good or bad a particular season may end up, that sense of pride never fades.

During this time of year, virtually the entire country gets swept away with March Madness.  And, in Kentucky, when the Cats are rolling, it is essentially a 3-week holiday.  Kentucky Basketball fans discuss hoops all year long, no matter what the calendar says.  But March is a special time, and the most anticipated time of year for many Kentucky fans.  Vacation days and savings accounts are used to follow the team all over the country.  The "Blue Mist," a colloquial term attributed to the masses of Kentucky fans taking over entire cities where the Cats play, has been coined.  Atlanta, Georgia, the site of the SEC tournament many times, has been referred to as Catlanta for the same reason.  When the Kentucky Wildcats are in town, the local economy gets a big boost (see How Big Blue Nation Spends Its Green *disclaimer: includes some salty language).

John Calipari has, on numerous occasions, quipped "You people are crazy," in reference to Kentucky fans.  And he's right on the money.  We camp out for a week to get tickets to a practice.  We travel all over the country to watch a group of college kids play a game.  We talk about the players, dissect every word spoken by the coach, and truly engulf ourselves in trying to fix problems when the team isn't playing well.  We are crazy...Crazy about our team, and crazy about basketball.

Unfortunately, "crazy" isn't always a good thing.  Many Kentucky fans admittedly take things too far.  They harass 18 and 19-year old kids on Facebook and Twitter.  They call for the head coach to get fired after every loss (and even some close wins).  But after the next victory, they're right back on board.  I liken it to a drama-filled love affair between two teenagers.  When things are good, there's nothing better in the world.  When things are bad, it is utter despair.  There will be countless breakups, and reconciliations, but no matter what, they will be together forever.  The only difference is that the roller coaster love affair between Kentucky fans and the Wildcats truly is unending.

The roots of that love affair are deep, and come from a variety of directions...Most of which point back to Adolph Rupp, who coached the Cats from 1930-1972.  Rupp led Kentucky to unparalleled success in a time when college basketball was in its infancy.  He took his teams to New York City regularly to play at Madison Square Garden, giving his Wildcats national exposure.  He won 4 NCAA Championships, took the Cats to 6 Final Fours, coached Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, and did all of it using rosters compiled almost exclusively of players from Kentucky.  That early and sustained success, coupled with a lack of professional sports teams in the state, led to a rabid fan base unmatched, with the possible exception of Alabama football, anywhere in the sports world.

For me, though, Kentucky Basketball has always been more than winning percentages and championships.  Sure, those things bring a sense of pride in the world of college hoops, but it is much more than that.  Some of my earliest memories include sitting in the living room, watching the Cats play on TV with my dad screaming at the top of his lungs.  Or, sitting on the stairs in our garage while he tinkered with something at his work bench, a Kentucky broadcast blaring from the speakers in the corner, and he fluidly telling me about Kyle Macy's free throw routine, or how the loss to Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four still haunts him to this day.

The first game I remember watching was the famed classic in the regional final against Duke in 1992.  I was 7 years old, and I remember Dad mumbling about how he didn't even want to watch, because he knew Duke was going to blow us out.  So, we went to eat dinner at Bonanza in Draffenville, only to make it home in time to see the last few minutes of regulation.  The game went to overtime, and we watched the conclusion, but I'm sure I don't have to tell you how it ended.  I remember laying in the living room floor, watching as the final buzzer sounded, seeing the hurt and disbelief on my dad's face.  He slowly stood up from his recliner, and I watched him lumber past me on his way to bed, without speaking a word.  I knew, at that exact moment, I was forever hooked.

I remember the first time I stepped foot in Rupp Arena, and how awesome the place was for a wide-eyed kid who had ridiculous dreams of one day donning the blue and white and running out onto that floor.  I remember seeing the joy on my dad's face the first time he got to watch a game live, some 30 years after he first became a fan.  He went that long without ever seeing a game in person, and yet his allegiance never wavered.  Some people follow Kentucky religiously for a lifetime, and never get the opportunity to see a game other than on a television.  And yet, they still refer to the team as "us" or "we."

But, the most special memory I have of Dad and I in connection with UK basketball came much later, while I was still living in Lexington.  I had gotten us tickets for Kentucky vs. Miami (OH) in November of 2009.  It was John Calipari's first season as head coach,and future #1 NBA Draft pick, John Wall, was making his collegiate debut.  We ate a late dinner at O'Charley's, had our first beer together (yes, it was the first time we had drank a beer together) and made our way to Rupp.  The game didn't go so well for a while, as the Cats dug themselves into a 19-point hole.  But during the second half comeback (Kentucky ended up winning on a John Wall jumper with 2 seconds to go), I remember looking over at one point after a big play, and seeing my dad screaming and pumping both fists in the air.  He was like a kid on Christmas morning opening that one gift he had hoped against hope to receive.  At that moment, I realized the game itself didn't really matter...It was the second game of the season.  But having that beer at O'Charley's, seeing my dad that happy, and getting to spend time with him did matter.  For the first time in my life, I didn't really feel like it was father and son.  I felt like it was friend and friend.

And that is what makes Kentucky Basketball so special to the fans that follow the team with a religious fervor.  Of course, winning games and championships is hugely important, but it's the memories with friends and family connected to those games that leave the biggest impression.

One of the items you'll find on my bucket list is to attend a Final Four.  And while that hasn't happened yet (and given the skyrocketing prices of tickets, might not for a very, very long time), I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Midwest Regional Final in Indianapolis two weeks ago.  Not only did I get to personally witness one of the greatest games in the history of the NCAA Tournament, culminating in Kentucky's 16th trip to the Final Four, but I got to do it with my wife, Adrienne, and my best friend, DJ.  I'm sure when I look back on that day twenty years from now, the excitement of the game and seeing Aaron Harrison's game-winning shot will have faded somewhat.  But the memory of me letting out a guttural scream of pure joy, wrapping my arms tightly around two of the most important people in my life, will remain as vividly as if I were still there.

I can only relate to my own personal experiences, but that doesn't negate the feelings of thousands of other Kentucky fans across the globe.  After Kentucky lost to Connecticut in the title game Monday night, I was admittedly depressed.  It was arguably the best three-week run in the history of college basketball (with the exception of coming up short at the end), and I was more sad to see it end than I was sad about us losing the championship.  But, as I sat in my recliner listening to the post-game show on the radio, it helped me understand just how special (and important) Kentucky Basketball is to so many people in Big Blue Nation.

Towards the end of the show, a caller commented about how he had been going through some tough times in his personal life leading up to the SEC Tournament in Atlanta a few weeks ago.  He said the run the Cats made to reach the SEC Final, and the valiant effort they showed against Florida in that game, gave him a glimmer of hope for what they could do in the NCAA Tournament.  He went on to say, despite all the bad things going on for him personally, the joy and excitement he experienced as the Wildcats marched to the National Finals helped alleviate the pain he felt in his personal life.  And this team gave him a source of happiness, in a time when he didn't have it from anywhere else.  And, despite the loss, his life was better because of what this team had been able to accomplish.  That's what Kentucky Basketball truly means to millions of fans scatter all over the world.

Being a Kentucky fan has certainly brought plenty of happiness to my life.  The all-time winningest program in history, the most NCAA Tournament appearances and wins, the highest all-time regular season and NCAA Tournament winning percentage, 8 national titles and 16 Final Fours are all evidence to that.  But, the real joy (for me) comes in sharing that passion and excitement with loved ones.  I hope there comes a day when I'm piddling in my garage, my wide-eyed son sitting on the steps, listening to me ramble on about Cameron Mills' "Shot Heard Across the Bluegrass," or Keith Bogans spraining his ankle against Wisconsin in '03 and what might have been.  Maybe I'll tell him about the joy it was to watch the pure dominance of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrest, or the day I saw the 2014 team advance to the Final Four during their magical NCAA Tournament run.  I hope he shares in that passion, and I hope he takes me to a game someday, after sharing a beer at an O'Charley's.  I hope he looks back on those days like I look back on them with my dad.  And I hope he realizes...Sometimes, it isn't simply just a game.

Go Big Blue!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Confessions of a Reluctant Grave Digger

I am fortunate to have incredibly talented people in my life, artists who produce beautiful paintings and photographs, jack-of-all-trades who continually impress me with handy(wo)man/problem solving/crafting creativity, and friends far smarter than me who challenge me and simply make my life more interesting.  I also happen to know more than my fair share of amazing writers.  While all make a living doing something else and all are far too humble to admit their talent, I wanted to take a few weeks to spotlight their literary skills.  This month, I have six or seven friends who have agreed to continue the "Lessons in ...." series that I started last month.

First up is an old Centre College pal who I met in 1998 and have kept in touch with over the years.  Although he went to school in Metcalfe County, we didn't meet until college.  He was in a band. He drove a green El Camino. He was hilarious. In short, he was far cooler than me.  Shaun now lives in Tennessee with his wonderful wife and precious daughter and is a public school teacher.

Confessions of a Reluctant Grave Digger
by Shaun C. Smith
in loving memory of Loette Smith
                I was sitting in the backseat of my parents' car with my hand on the door handle. I knew when I opened the door I would once again be bombarded with the onrush of summerhot Texas air into the for-the-last-second-cool cabin of the car. We had driven into the dusty grave yard accompanied by a few other cars bearing assorted family members. I had been looking forward to Grandma's service for the chance we would all have at emotional release, but had started to dread it due to the finality it brought with it. It didn't help that the graveyard was quite a bit older, not one of those fancy new grave yards they have these days with well-manicured lawns, flower maintenance/management programs, and markers that have been kept neat and straight since day one. Many of the markers were care of Modern Woodmen of the World and gave the grounds the look and feel of a petrified forest (you may want to look that up if you haven't seen a field full of Modern Woodmen of the World markers, pretty impressive stuff). Either way, I knew the first thing I would do after catching my breath from the barrage of hot that would attack my face and person the moment I exited the vehicle would be to find the pastor or preacher in charge and follow his lead.
                Grandma was from Texas. She married Grandpa in Louisiana. They moved to the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Grandpa died out there in the 1980s. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered on the Bay. Toward the end of her life, Grandma moved to Kentucky so my Dad could help take care of her. It wasn't too long before she started having mini-strokes and started falling. It was a fairly quick decline and rather tragic. I got to tell her good-bye and rub her feet for her one more time, I hope she heard me and knew it was me. It happened in February or one of those months before or after. She was cremated. 
                Grandma loved her father and her step-mother. In fact, her wishes were to have her ashes interred alongside them. They are both buried in Eustace, Texas. Good luck finding that on a map, but I'm sure if you looked hard enough, you would find it eventually. Grandpa, at one point, ran his own newspaper there and my Dad was born there (at home, not in the hospital) and eventually, Grandma would return there indefinitely.
                When Grandma passed away, we knew she was going to be cremated, so there was no rush to have a funeral. Because her wishes involved interment in a different time zone, and because ashes don't decompose we decided to wait until we would be headed to Texas for our family reunion later that summer. Waiting for the family reunion made it convenient for everyone to be there. Considering the vast majority of mourners were also on the family reunion invitation list, it just made sense. I took a lot of comfort in waiting for summer, I also figured it gave my parents enough time to get the service planned and make all the necessary arrangements over the phone or by email. One of the things I was most excited about in regards to waiting for the reunion was the chance to spend some time with my cousin, who is really more like a sister. I knew I would be able to help comfort her as she had spent several years living with Grandma and had been incredibly close to her.
                My Mom, Dad, and I left from Bowling Green, Kentucky late one night in their car, along with a puppy (long story). We were leaving at night because I had always been able to drive through the night and figured it would be a great way to give my parents the chance to sleep in the car and arrive somewhat rested in the morning. Around about Jackson, Tennessee, I learned that a lot had changed in the past few years and night driving was no longer my friend. My Dad couldn't sleep because he wanted to make sure I was awake. When I realized that I had some "staying awake" concerns, he took over for me so I could sleep. I soon realized that I couldn't sleep because I wanted to stay awake to make sure my Dad could stay awake. It was a Catch 22 of sorts. I suppose the smart move would have been to get a hotel room, sleep, and then wake up early, but we had places to be in the morning. So, the rest of the night went on in endless, startled awakeness with all of the bleary eyed terror that accompanies one of those through-the-night-but-no-one-really-wants-to-be-awake-and-in-a-car rides.
                Upon our arrival, we became nomads in search of place to rest. We sought refuge first at our hotel, booked for the night, but were laughed at for our request for an early check in (at 7:00 am). We headed to my Dad's cousin's house. She said we could let ourselves in, but she was going to a doctor's appointment. It was another lengthy drive on top of the incredible sojourn we had just completed, but we had a breakfast in us and the sun was out. We made it, found our way in, and instinctively found the softest surfaces we could find, faceplanted and passed out.
                Upon awakening, the reuniting began as my Uncle and his family had also arrived. As he was my Dad's only brother, this was an "immediate" family reunion of sorts. From that point forward, the service was the farthest thing from the forefront of my mind. We eventually made it back to the hotel and got in our rooms. Some of us went to sleep; some of us went out to eat. The next morning found us all fairly well rested and happy to be together as a family. We ate breakfast before we left to go the "not-so-immediate" family reunion.
                It was hot; we reunited. At a certain point in the day, those that wished to pay their respects to Grandma started doing that thing where you have to do something and you don't really want to do it, but you know you have to do it, so you look at someone who must also do that thing you know you have to do, but don't really want to do and make that face that says, "I don't really want to do this, but I know I have to do it," and then actually physically speak the word, "well," which is understood by the second person as a sign that we now must collectively gather the others who have to go do the thing they don't really want to do, but have to do and then tell them that the time has arrived for doing the thing that we all have to do, but we don't really want to go do. Of course, not to say that nobody wanted to do it, it was just a somber occasion. Sure, if we'd all had our druthers, Grandma would have been at the reunion with us. The fact of the matter was that she wasn't with us and we had to get to the service.
                So we drove out there. It took about an hour to get there and I remember at some point, my Dad said, "This is Eustace." I looked up and saw a wide spot in the road with a police station on the left and a cemetery on the right. We turned right and pulled into the cemetery. I remember being somewhat surprised that no one was there to meet us. I made it a point to look immediately for the person in charge of the service when I got out of my parents' car.
                People were getting out of their cars and I figured I needed to join them. My Dad made his way to the trunk as I got adjusted to the blast furnace heat. I hoped for a nice breeze, but I hadn't felt one since we'd crossed the border the day before. My Dad called me over to the trunk and handed me something. It was a shovel.
"What's this for?" I asked.
"To dig the hole."
"What hole?"
"The hole for the ashes."
"Where are the ashes?"
"Here," he handed me a box.
I suddenly understood the definition of "aghast". All this time, we'd been driving state to state, through the night, reuniting with family, cousin’s house sleeping, bed crashing, breakfast eating, and puppy delivering (again, long story) all with the intent of holding a service for Grandma and all the while, her ashes (and the shovel that would dig the hole in which to place them) had been riding along with us in the trunk.
"Dad," I asked, aghast, "who's going to dig the hole?"
"You are," he answered matter of factly, as if I had stopped paying attention during that part of the conversation we had never had in which we discussed the plans for the service.
"Who's going to do the service?"
"We are," he answered matter of factly, as if I had stopped paying attention during that part of the conversation we (again) had never had in which we discussed the plans for the service.
"Dad, there's a police station right across the street! I think this is illegal!" I countered, once again, aghast.
"Well, we'll just form a wall between you and the police station. The hole doesn't have to be that big, you know." He did have a point there.
And so, as my immediate and not-so-immediate family formed a wall between me, my shovel, and my Grandma's ashes, some Bible verses were read, some prayers were prayed, some tears were shed, and then, I dug a small hole between the graves of my Great-Grandfather and Step-Great-Grandmother. When I was done, it was time to lay Grandma to rest. As I turned the bag of ashes over to return ash to dust, I got my breeze. Of course, my back was to my family, so no one noticed. My cousin brought me the small marker that had been made so I could put it into place. "What's on your shirt?" she asked through what had just been heavy tears.
"Grandma." I answered, with what should have been a stronger variation of aghastness. But oddly, I was no longer aghast. I was actually comforted by what I had just done and although I was a bit unsure of what to do with Grandma's ashes that covered the front of my shirt, my cousin and I leaned down and placed the marker over the ashes that had made it into the ground. When we stood back up, my cousin helped my brush off the front of my shirt. The not so immediate family slowly took off and the immediates stayed back to say good bye to each other and eventually, we left to drive back to Kentucky.

                I realized on the ride home, that I had been very fortunate to have the experience I had just had. Not many people get to literally bury someone they love these days with a day's worth of labor or heavy machinery. It was fast and simple, but a very tangible act of love that left me with a different view of death. Death is not just an end, but also an opportunity to quantify your feelings for someone. These days, people show their love in a time of death by pouring money into things that will be seen for hours at best, then buried forever. What an incredible honor it was to bury my Grandmother, by hand, in front of my family. The experience, although it caught me off guard, has been one of the most enlightening and spiritual I have ever had. It was an incredible chance to do just one more act of love for her. I can only hope that when my time comes, I'm surrounded by family and friends that would be willing to drive  700 or so miles only to form a human barricade between a graveyard and a police station just so they can lay me to rest. Of course, I hope that isn't necessary for a very long time.