Sisters


This is the story of how I went canoing with my family and almost died. No, I’m not kidding. I may be exaggerating a little bit, but I’m not kidding. Really.

See, my family went canoing together Sunday, and if you know my family already you’re thinking, “Oh, dear.” I mean, we’re known for many things (being way too smart and articulate for our own good, rampant eccentricity, having read too many books), but any sort of physical ability or sports aptitude is usually not included on the list. The one time we went canoing before was remarkable for how much time we spent out of our boats, not in them. This, coincidentally, was the cause of a lot of hilarity, giving us several stories we happily told in the years since then. And so, the weather being beautiful and Judy’s birthday coming up, and while we were all still in the same geographic location (an unusual event typically prevented by my family’s tendency to wander off when not watched), we decided to go canoing again.

Everything was going really well. Mom decided to paddle her own kayak instead of being a passenger in someone else’s canoe, which lasted just long enough for her to discover that she cannot steer and does not like paddling. After the second (maybe third?) time she ended up in the water she wisely let someone else trade places with her. Other family members also discovered that they could not steer. Michelle and Larry seemed to make their way downstream by heading horizontally bank to bank in zig zag fashion. I was doing very well, though, sharing a canoe first with Eddie, and then with Mikey when Eddie decided that he wanted a turn in the kayak. My canoe never seemed to run into difficulties, serenely avoiding sandbars, lightly getting through rough places. As I successfully navigated challenge after challenge, I started to think, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this.” And that’s where things went wrong.

We came to a kind of tricky place in the river. There was a large branch overhanging the water on the right side, the water underneath it running smooth and deep. If you cut to the left to avoid it, the water looked ripply and disturbed, the turbulence evidence of rocks beneath the surface. Close to the right bank the branch lifted up enough to make an arch you could paddle through if you steered precisely enough, but you would have to cut left immediately after you emerged to avoid a huge tree stump that jutted out of the water a little way further down. In my hubris I decided that I was up for this, and steered us towards the opening. And it went really well, until in our triumph at having navigated the arch, we didn’t cut hard enough and ran up against the tree. Mikey in the front was able to avoid it. I … couldn’t, and the whole canoe tipped over.

I came up under the canoe. There was still a little pocket of air under there, so I could take a breath and then duck back under to push it off of me, assisted by Mikey. (Mikey: “It was really scary when I came up and you didn’t, and I couldn’t see you.”) The next few minutes were very confused. Everything happened really fast. Judy and Heather were in the canoe right behind us which at first avoided the tree, and then tipped a little way past us. The current was very strong, sweeping us and the canoes downstream fast. We were trying to get our feet under us, hold onto the boats, and grab for paddles and life jackets (which, um, we weren’t wearing) that threatened to escape. The canoes were rapidly filling with water, which made them incredibly heavy and difficult to handle. Still, it looked like everything was ok. We were all above water, and working hard and fast to fix the situation.

And then it happened. I was on the downstream side of our canoe which was on its side in the water, trying to keep hold of it as the current pushed it down like the wind filling a sail. The river wasn’t very deep, so I was trying to get a foothold that would let me stop the thing so we could empty and right it. And then I got stuck on a submerged log. It was behind me and completely under water, so I never saw it. All I knew was that suddenly I was up against this big thing in the water with the canoe and the full force of the current crushing me against it. My right leg and ankle were trapped under water, snagged on something. I couldn’t get it free, and the force of the canoe was trying to make it bend in ways legs were never meant to bend. I couldn’t get out. The boat was getting heavier by the second, and I was up to my shoulders in rushing water.

Our family’s normal procedure when someone runs into difficulties while canoing is to hang around casually while they right themselves, pretty confident that they’re fine, but there just in case. So there I was, trapped near the right bank of the river, with Judy by me trying to hold on to the other canoe, now pressing up against my canoe. The rest of my family was fetched up on the left bank, unconcernedly waiting and unaware that I was in deep trouble. Larry was out of his canoe, watching us. “Do you need help?” he asked pleasantly. Judy started to say that we did, and I cried, “I need help NOW!” my voice rough with panic. I think the raw terror in my voice got their attention. Within moments I had Larry, Mikey, and Sean all over there trying to help. Their first attempt to pry the canoe away only forced it harder against my leg. Then they got Judy’s canoe away, which eased the pressure a little. But my canoe wasn’t moving, and my ankle was still securely caught. Mikey started feeling around under the water trying to see what was holding it. I started praying a Hail Mary out loud. And then somehow I came free. (Later I realized that the whole side of my Tevas, which was what had snagged my foot under the water, had ripped away, freeing me.) I was able lift my ankle up and over the log that had snagged it, and stumble away from the group holding on to the canoe. With me out of the way they could let it go a little further downstream to calmer waters where they could right it.

I stood away from the group for a long moment, almost unable to believe I was free. I suddenly felt a deep need to not be in the water at all. I haltingly made my way up onto the bank a few feet away. I turned and looked at my brothers in the water with the canoe, at the sunlight glistening on the water, at the people and boats drawn up on the rocky beach opposite, at the lush green trees framing everything in beauty. “I just almost broke my leg.” I thought, and I started to shake. “I could have died.” I thought, and right there had a small, quiet bout of hysterics. Larry noticed. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said as I hyperventilated, “I’m just having a reaction. Give me a minute.” Guy-like, he stood and waited for the tears to stop, then walked with me as, still jittery from the adrenaline rush, I crossed back over the river to the rest of my family.

And then we all got back in the boats and continued on our way.

I’m still amazed that I got off so easily. I think my Tevas must have been cushioning my foot under the water. My ankle is bruised some on the front, and there’s a huge scrape/bruise/contusion on the back of my calf that will be turning interesting colors for some time. Other places are sore to the touch, but there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. Nothing broke. I only have a few scratches. I think I aspirated a little water, which made my breathing rough for a little while, but that’s easing off. All in all, I’m fine. And I’m enormously lucky. If my brothers hadn’t been there, if they hadn’t been strong enough to get the canoe off me (in the end it took four of them to right it), if anything else had gone wrong… I don’t think I would have been typing this right now. Instead you could have been reading some newspaper story about the incredible tragedy on the river. But none of that happened, and I am typing this, and I’m so, so grateful to be alive.

I might even go canoing again some day.

Have you ever hit a point where you knew you had so many things to blog about, but you just didn’t know what to say? It’s not writer’s block, more like writer’s dam. There’s too many things jostling around in my brain getting mixed up with each other and sulkily refusing to come neatly out and be arranged in tidy rows of print. There’s my latest tangle with my sister Michelle, who irritates me more than I can say, probably since we’re so much alike. And then there’s my oldest brother, who’s been insisting that we Work On Our Relationship in this pushy manner that sets my back up. And then there’s Gabe, who has embarked on a cross-country motorcycle trip right when I’m fiending to see him the most.

Well, that’s the annoying stuff, anyway. There’s lots of not-annoying things too, like an upcoming visit from Ilse, part of her own cross-country trip, fun on family vacation that included playing Guitar Hero for the very first time (I only sucked for the first fifteen minutes – much better than I expected!) and a ten year old neighbor boy who decided that I was all things awesome. Then there’s my garden (always a source of joy and delight), plus all the crocheting I’ve been doing. And I can always blog about dancing, although I haven’t been out nearly as much as I’d like lately (see above: family vacation).

Yet for all these lovely ideas, nothing is standing out, coming together, or even beginning to approach coherency. Instead they’re staying stubbornly snarled in my subconscious, like an itch I can’t scratch, an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. Sooner or later they’ll come out – they always do. It just isn’t going to be terribly comfortable to be me until they do.

Whoever said writing was easy lied.

So I had a birthday last week.  In the swing dancing community it’s a tradition that when a dancer has a birthday you give them a Birthday Jam.  This is a kind of exhibition dance in which the birthday girl starts out dancing with one guy in the center of a large circle of the other dancers.  As the song plays, the other guys present take turns stealing her.  If it’s a birthday boy, then the girls take turns stealing him.  I, in particular, always seem to have very interesting birthday jams.  They’re good fun, and can be the source of a lot of hilarity and/or showing off.  Showy steals, flashy moves – who knows what will show up?

This year my family showed up.  Well, half of them (I am one of eleven siblings).  It was Dad, Larry, Michelle, Heather, Lisa, and Gabe.  Liv was the Mastermind who got everyone there.  This was a big deal.  My family has never come out to see me dance.  When I was in my first competition, Liv came to cheer me on, but my family didn’t even ask me how I’d done.  Just the week before I’d been whining about this.  Trey’s family came all the way from Maine to watch him dance.  My family couldn’t go across town?

And then they showed up at the regular Wednesday night dance.  I had no idea, not the shadow of a suspicion, nothing.  I had dropped the swing club kids off early for the lesson (it was Shim Sham, which I already know how to do), and gone to chill at Barnes & Noble until the dance would start.  Of course I got caught in a book, so I was late to the dance.  I walked in, and there they were.  I was utterly flabbergasted.  It was awesome.  What made it even more awesome is that both Dad and Gabe jumped in during my birthday jam.  Gabe did a little swing dancing a few years back, so he sortof knew what he was doing, but my Dad had absolutely no clue.  He was so cute.  His idea of dancing was bouncing very energetically opposite me.  I thought, “Well, ok.” and turned it into a kicky-Charleston sort of thing.  Then he ran out of breath (my Dad bears a striking resemblance to Santa Clause, complete with white beard and rosy cheeks) and called for someone to rescue him.  It was so much fun.

With all this love, I don’t mind being another year older.

This past Saturday I got invited to speak at a Catholic young adult retreat. They were talking about living your vocation, and they asked me to speak on living your vocation as a single person. One of the young women who invited me had heard me when I was one of the emergency speakers for Theology On Tap and was impressed with what she called my, “positive attitude.” I was startled by the invitation. I mean, I know I’m a good speaker. I have interesting things to say and I know how to state them in a way that engages and entertains an audience. I’ve done presentations for my Catholic young adult group many, many times. Still, I’m not officially an expert on anything. Of all the people that she heard at TOT (including my sister Michelle, who not only has spoken there, but MCs every series), she wanted me to come speak on being single? I was delighted to do it, just a little worried about her judgment.

It was a good talk. I talked about how I’ve come to understand my life as a single person as being a gift to the situations and people God puts me in contact with. The small group of young adults seemed to get a lot out of it. I even worked in dancing. At the end of the talk I used a basic Lead/Follow exercise from my first ever swing dancing lesson to help them feel what it’s like to follow God’s lead, and how you have to listen for it. They had a lot of good questions and comments at the end. One of the young women borrowed the reference book I brought with me to copy out a quote I’d used. It was pretty cool.

Then Saturday night I went to the regular monthly dance. About halfway through the dance somehow I ended up teaching an extended solo-Charleston lesson to some new dancers. I’m still not sure how that happened. I think I was showing Stella’s friend and Pierce something, and then this other girl started hovering on the edges trying to imitate what we were doing, and then her friends came over, and they kept asking me to teach them another move. We went through the Charleston basic, turns, fall off the log, Susie-Q’s, scarecrow, kick-overs (both with and without the repeat), boogie backs, Shorty George, boogie forwards (at which point I discovered that my main pupil was a belly dancer, which made her boogie forwards very cool – Her: “It’s like doing that figure 8 thing with your hips!” Me: “Well, that’s not standard, but if you can do it I can guarantee there will be someone watching.”), and maybe some other moves – I don’t remember anymore.

It was fun, though it did eat up a big chunk of the dance. It’s also rather ironic – I’ve worked on my solo Charleston at different points, but I’ve never been super serious about it. The serious one has always been Lucy, who actually looks cool doing the moves (rather than spastic, like, um, me), who can do the crazy moves my body can’t seem to figure out. At Boston I took a solo jazz class taught by Carla Heiney. 75% of it went directly (whoosh!) over my head. Lucy would have eaten it up and asked for more. If you want to learn solo Charleston, I would think she would be the one to ask. But no. They were asking me.

I’m happy to teach whatever I know, but… why do you want to learn from me?

First, the good news. Lisa is coming home from Kenya! Hurrah! She has officially booked her ticket, and should be safely back in Ohio on Thursday. I won’t completely feel the relief until I know her plane has touched down in our local airport, but already the tension has eased so much. So that’s good.

The other good news is that I finally was able to scan in my garden plans I’ve been sketching on scrap paper during classes. I reuse paper, so anything with a blank side (flyers, handouts from previous classes, papers that printed out incorrectly, etc.) is my note paper. Most of my doodles were done on what would have been part of the course packet for one of my classes, only the printer was running out of toner. This is why there’s fading lines of text on some of the sketches. I had originally planned to photoshop that out, but I kinda like the way it looks. So you get to see it in its original, unadulterated form. Enjoy!

back yard

This is my plan for the whole back yard. Some of this is already planted, and some of it is hopes for the future. The lavender, snapdragons, and the bulk of the herb garden are already established. The other flowers, most of the roses, the vegetables, and the rosemary and basil wings on the herb garden are what I hope to accomplish this year. This is a better diagram of the herb garden:

herb garden

The “x” were where I had rosemary this year. I pulled one out and tried to keep it alive in the kitchen over the winter. This has not been successful. Sigh. However, I did learn that my basil tends to turn into total monsters (mine was as high as my waist this year no matter how severely I cut it down), overshadowing the other plants. So this year I’m going to plant it on the other side of the herb garden where the only thing it will overshadow is the roots of a pine tree. The sage and oregano will happily fill in the place of the rosemary, and I’ll plant some parsley where the basil was. I love fresh parsley.

lavender bed

This is a view of the side flower garden. I have four varieties of lavender planted in a six foot bed centered on a picturesque crack in the cement wall that edges our property. I want to extend the flower beds out on each side, with hollyhocks and cosmos on the side extending towards the garage, and asters on the side towards the house. This should help cover the seedlings of first year money plant, since that won’t flower until the second year.

rose garden

This is how I hope the rose garden will look. The only rose there now is the one furthest on the right. It’s a tea rose I haven’t been able to identify, with magenta-y red blooms. I plan to balance it with mostly white roses, and perhaps a bi-colored miniature rose in front to anchor everything down. Please also note the bird feeder to the left of the rose garden. That’s already there, and is swiftly becoming the place where all the birds want to be.

front porch

This is what I want to do with the front of the house. Most of the front yard is in impenetrable shadow from a tree I haven’t been able to identify. However, the sides of the house receive enough sun tha tI think we’ll be able to do something interesting. There’s already another rose bush, perhaps a climbing rose, with magenta-red blooms similar to the bush in the back yard. I have no idea how long it’s been there, but I rather like it and the link I imagine it to be to some other woman who lived here and loved flowers.

So… that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.

You can tell you’re starting to recover from your ravaging bout with sinusitis when you start almost forgetting to take your antibiotics.  You can tell you still have a ways to go when what used to be normal activities leave you exhausted.  Sigh.  Yesterday and this morning I did what would have been a normal schedule for me back in the day.  Class, work, pit stop home for dinner, Ash Wednesday Mass, another pit stop to pick up some things I’d forgotten, dancing, home, sleep, wake up, classes.  My day is far from done (I have another class in about an hour, then an appointment, and then my Catholic young adult group in the evening), but right now I mostly want to crawl back into bed and call it done.  Still, this is progress!  A week ago I wouldn’t have made it to half those classes, or dancing, or Mass.  So we’re doing better here.

Lisa is currently still in Nairobi, hopefully making arrangements to come home in the next couple of days.  There are so many conflicting reports about whether things are getting better or getting worse, it’s been hard for her to decide whether she should come home or just wait things out so she can finish her teaching stint.  The US Embassy had a town hall meeting a few days ago for US citizens and their families, where they were sounding fairly upbeat, not at all encouraging people to leave.  So it’s been hard to know what to do.  However, recently the opposition leaders were threatening more rallies, which really means more rioting.  This stupidity irritated Lisa so much that at that point she had decided to leave as soon as possible.  Most of our communication with her is through text messages (phone calls are so exorbitantly expensive that they have to be carefully rationed, but we found out that Judy’s cell service plan lets her send texts to Kenya for $.25), so it’s a little hard to know what she’s thinking.  Personally, I want Lisa to come home.  She may not be in any danger at the moment, but the situation is completely unstable, and it doesn’t look likely to settle down any time soon.  Everything could change at any time.  Within half an hour a place that was perfectly safe could become a war zone.  I don’t want my sister to be caught in the middle of something like that.  Plus, the sad truth is that as a young, white, blond American woman traveling alone overseas, she is uniquely vulnerable.  So, yeah, I want her home. Now.

On the up side, the gardening catalogs have been coming in for a little while now.  I’ve taken to doodling garden plans and ideas on my scrap paper during class instead of taking notes.  I used to write letters instead of taking notes, but now it’s mostly drawing gardens.  When I get a little time and access to a scanner, I want to scan them in to show you guys.  I think the one of my proposed small rose garden for back by the garage is especially lovely.  Liv and I went to the garden center to buy seeds a few days ago.  She got peppers, tomatoes, and green beans for her buckets on the back deck.  I got asters, sunflowers, cosmos, and money plant for the flower garden, and carrots, radishes, zucchini, and lettuce mix for a small vegetable garden.  Plus I also got sweet peas to grow up over the deck railing.  I wish it were March already so I could start planting things!

Today I went to my Parish Credit Union to cash a check. It’s a tiny credit union, tucked away in a corner of the basement of what used to be my parish grade school (now the common grade school for three inner-city Catholic parishes, of which my parish is one). It’s only open three afternoons a week, and is accessed by going through an unmarked door at the bottom of a flight of concrete steps on the back of the school. There is no sign, no posted hours, no advertising. You only know that it is open because when you try the doorknob it is unlocked. I’ve been a member of this credit union since I was in third grade. The ladies who run it, a gang of almost-geriatric matriarchs who could run the world if they ever cared to try, have known me since my family moved to the area when I was five. When I went in, I didn’t bother to bring my bag or wallet in with me. I presented the check I wanted cashed, the woman behind the counter asked me my account number, had me sign on the dotted line, and handed over the money. Just like that, with inquiries after my family’s health, and telling me how good it is to see me again.

On the way out, I passed another Matriarch of the Parish, Mrs. Richardson. She smiled and asked how I was. I replied politely, and it seemed that was it. Then she stopped and asked me how was Lisa, where was she now? I said that she had made it safely to Nairobi, where hopefully she would be able to make arrangements to come home soon. She smiled and nodded, and said she was praying. We parted, but as I walked away, I was shaken. You see, Mrs. Richardson’s sister is Sr. Dorothy Stang, the Sister of Notre Dame who was martyred in Brazil in 2005. She was gunned down on a forest road by hired killers in the pay of rich landowners who didn’t like her work with poor farmers. Her death stunned her family, and our parish. Mrs. Richardson’s sister went into a dangerous situation and never came back. Now she was asking me about my sister, who is in a dangerous situation. Hopefully, however, my sister will come back.

Most of the time I take for granted the kind of community I live in. Even though I usually attend Mass elsewhere, I’m still part of the parish I grew up in. My family is embedded deep in the web of relationships. Because of the strength of that community, I can walk into the credit union and cash a check without ever having to produce any ID, a situation most people haven’t experienced since the 1950s. Every person I encountered knew who I was, knew who my family is, and cared about us. This is partly because we’re an unusual family, but it’s because they’re unusual too. We are a parish that gives birth to martyrs and missionaries and free spirits. We are a parish that cares about God and about each other. We are a parish that trusts and prays for one another.

This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.

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