The Blood Behind the Pink Cellophane

Easter synchroblog

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

They were Easter to me as a child.

Aunt Millie and Uncle Roy walked into our living room, childless but carrying two Easter baskets wrapped in pink and purple cellophane, the kind of baskets you bought at the store, not the ones you made yourself out of strawberry cartons.

Aunt Millie, bundled in a red dress coat with a mink collar, would kiss us on the lips with a big “mwah.” Uncle Roy, small and kind and with his good hat atop his Sunday-slicked hair, would hug us and cry “How’s my Pooper?”

My younger brother and I would tear down the cellophane to find jelly beans and wooden paddle ball games and “Easter”-themed coloring books with happy line drawings of the Easter bunny and decorated eggs.

One year there were no bright baskets. My uncle handed my brother a nearly life-sized (for a four-year old) brown stuffed rabbit. Into my arms, Aunt Millie laid a stuffed lamb.

photo-2

My selfish little heart mourned the loss of fake green grass and hollow chocolate bunnies.

But the lamb was soft and white, with a pink ribbon around its neck, and I hugged it close, a bit sorry for its limp legs that wouldn’t allow it to stand on its own.

As a child, I didn’t realize the significance of that stuffed animal in relation to Easter–to the Lamb of God, the Lamb that was slain, the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. Easter was simply pretty to me. Weirdly-colored eggs and pink cellophane and glowing, risen Jesus Sunday School lessons.

There were no coloring books with a man-god dying on a cross that I would have to color red.

No mourning Peter on his guilty knees.

No grieving mother of Jesus with her heart cried out onto the dirt floor of her “child”less house.

That lamb remained one of my favorite things throughout my childhood until life changed and toys were packed into boxes to make room for Fleetwood Mac albums and 70s unicorn collections.

Life changed, too, because I became old enough to see.

To see the grime of the industrial wire mills on the way to my aunt and uncle’s tiny bungalow on the East Side of Chicago.

To see my Aunt Millie feed everyone else’s children and families, always exclaiming “Mangia! Why you no eat?”

To see my Uncle Roy weeping in the kitchen, as my grandmother tried to convince him that if he didn’t stop drinking he would lose his job at the mill.

To see our desperate need to take the lamb into our arms.

To see the blood behind the pink cellophane.

The wisdom of Nike–and God–for writers and everyone else

festival of faith and writing

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

“Why are you here instead of writing?”

Author Brett Lott opened his session with this deeply disturbing question at the Festival of Faith and Writing last week. In preparation for the three-day event, I had asked God to speak to me through one of the conference keynotes–to clarify his will for my writing life, to simply part traffic on the Grand Rapids Beltline and deliver me to the promised land of authorship.

My new bright blue festival tote was over my shoulder. My session schedule was check-marked and starred. I sat beside my friend, fellow writer and author. I was surrounded by hundreds of writers and poets.

Surely my favorite author Anne Lamott would prove the conduit for the voice of God on Friday night. But Lott’s question was a pencil behind my ear all day.

Why will I dedicate nearly three straight days to sitting and listening to published authors, but giving an hour each week to crafting my own novel feels like donating a vital organ during an intense game of Farmville?

Because attending a conference is doing something “writerly”.

Yes, there’s great value in a writer’s conference; I’ve attended this one three times. The sessions inspire, teach, and motivate me.

But I’m also aware there is a bit of self-deception in doing things that “look” like writing.

Instead of writing–or whatever it is we know we should be doing–we busy ourselves instead with the periphery.

We drink Diet Coke and wear jogging pants instead of drinking water and actually jogging.

Thus inspired, I took out my notebook and scribbled between sessions, many of which God used to feed me what I needed to hear…through Lott, other presenters, and conversations with my friend.

festival of faith and writing

Then he wrapped it all up with Anne Lamott. During her honest, poignant and funny talk to the masses, the Almighty’s words came through loud and clear, albeit in Lamott’s “I’m tired-when did these pants shrink-are we there yet?” voice.

The words were a weird mix of my favorite writer, my favorite deity, and Nike.

“Put your backside in the chair, and just do it.”

Just write.

I pictured God as a young mom, and myself–a wayward teen–standing in front of the open refrigerator waiting for lunch to jump out on a plate.

What do you mean there’s nothing to eat? You have everything you need to feed yourself and your friends. There’s the bread. There’s the bologna. There’s the mustard. Look, there are even dill pickle chips. Just make a damn sandwich.

What do you mean you’re waiting for a sign?

You have everything you need to write this book…[start this business...plan that trip.] There’s your notebook. There’s your new pen. There’s the book on how to write personal essays. Look, there are even free blog templates.

Just write the story.

Life, Death; Sun, Snow; Hello, Goodbye

ma flo and papa pete

by Amanda Cleary Eastep

February 8, 2014

My grandmother died this morning as I awoke.

People share their sympathies with me via Facebook, “Liking” my post that announces my grandmother’s passing and requests prayer. On social media, we can broadly share our grief, reach out to friends and family and instantly receive condolences, assurances of prayer, even thumbs’ up. My proclamation of loss rolls through the news feed between the sponsored Do You Have Psoriasis? post and the National Hate Florida Day weather map meme.

I appreciate contrast. Total opposites separated by a hair’s breadth.

The spinach shoots growing on the warm side of my snowy windowsill. A dark-eyed sparrow’s flight of joy against the frigid white.

Sympathies on Social. Tears as I sort socks.

Sadness over the natural conclusion to 93 years.

My grandmother and my step-grandfather left Chicago when I was 5 years old. A vague memory of their house on 116th and Princeton has me at a formica table in the kitchen, everything is golden and close. Bodies like shadows move in and out of this scene, laughing and saying goodbye as Ma Flo and Papa Pete prepare to retire to sunny Florida.

Florida is not like Chicago. When I spend Christmas at their house when I am 11, I am convinced Christmas cannot be real without snow and the bite of cold on the parts of my cheeks that redden over the edge of my damp scarf. They have a yard of pebbles instead of grass. How do they know it’s summer without the smell of the first mowed lawn?

That is the second visit to Florida I recall. Once again, we have driven over three days from Chicago, stopping at Ruby Falls because, swayed by the billboard, I have begged my father for a roadside adventure; and because we are on a tight budget, sleeping in the cheapest hotels, the ones that open directly to the outside and have carpets we are not allowed to set socked-foot upon for fear of typhoid. On the first visit, my grandparents drive us another two hours to Disney World where I dive 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a pretend submarine.

I am in junior high. I have made the decision to begin calling her grandma, not Ma Flo. It is not the same decision I made about my maternal grandmother. Calling her grandmother rather than MaMo was born more out of the necessity to “grow up.” Calling Ma Flo “grandma” came with the intention to make her feel more loved. I have no idea if she noticed.

I am at their house again, this time with my college roommate. A spring break road trip. My grandmother welcomes us warmly and surprises me that evening by pulling out Jacks. I wonder why we never played when I was a child. Now I am laboring to hide a hickey. There are no turtlenecks in Florida. We stand at the kitchen table, bouncing the small rubber ball and swiping at Jacks that scatter instead. We laugh.

My relationship with my grandmother (and my sweet and hearty grandfather who passed away last year) is a photo album of these types of moments. I have over my lifetime longed for more. But as I reached my adult years, I didn’t make great efforts to change that.

My mourning is only one perspective of this death. So different from my youngest aunt’s, the year-after-year caregiver, whose emptiness and relief and resentment and thankfulness I only imagine. Different from my father’s, the first child and only son of the dark years with my grandmother and her first husband. Different than my mother’s, watching the varied suffering of her husband, who for his own quiet reasons cannot long endure the final deathbed scene.

My father doesn’t know if his mother heard him say “I love you” over her labored breathing, the sound of the oxygen, his own strangled goodbye.

“I’m sure she did, Papa,” my teenage daughter assures her grandfather. “You have a loud heart.”

Those moments now, too, have been added to my experience. Death isn’t so much loss as the culmination of every relationship it has formed and regretted and cherished and says goodbye to and waits to one day renew.

While sweet people offer their sincere and appreciated “sorries,” I acutely feel the lack of meeting expectations–not enough tears, no need for comforting arms. I mourn more so for what may, and maybe should, have been.

I mourn lost time but celebrate the few snapshots of it. I mourn over the sadness of others as she slipped away from the hands that could let go and the ones that grasped on desperately. Two sides of the same love, both beautiful and terrible. Both more passionate than my own.

But she is my Grandmother. She is part of who I am. She is every on-time birthday card, “honey,” and impromptu game of Jacks I remember and cherish. She is the mother of aunts who have bestowed gifts of humor and art and poetry upon me. And she is the mother of my first great “love,” my father, the boy she raised amid poverty and fear and into the light.

Like the kind you are supposed to see at the end.

Why in the night sky are the lights hung?

Why in the night sky are the lights hung?
Why is the earth moving ’round the sun?
Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one.
Why in the night sky are the lights hung?
Why is life made only for to end?
Why do I do all this waiting then?
Why this frightened part of me that’s fated to pretend?
Why is life made only for to end?

“Blue Spotted Tail” by Fleet Foxes

Constellation_Fornax,_EXtreme_Deep_Field

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

These are the lyrics of the lullaby-like melody I am singing to myself as I walk between the gravestones of Holy Sepulcher Cemetery on the south side of Chicago.

I have turned away from the last sight of my sister-in-law’s mother, her white casket covered in single roses and carnations, yellow and pink against January’s pallor.

My parents stand beside me. My mother seems smaller but is a block of rosy granite in her pink wool coat. My father is grayer but straight as a flagpole, steady and ready to lean on.

That was a year ago this month, and I have spent the past year contemplating the germinating changes in our lives…

…children growing up and making decisions that don’t include us

…losses that we carry on the inside, because we can only divide the weight between so many

…dreams of yanking roots from the miry clay of Illinois and transplanting ourselves on a North Carolina hillside.

I have thought also about the inevitability of dying. It’s a practical horror. And an unappreciated gift.

Songs that ask the common questions about the meaning of life, or lack thereof, remind me of Ecclesiastes and the writer’s lament that “all is vanity.” The writer of the book observes our lives and the seeming futility of our daily toil, our pleasure, and our gain, which all ends in death anyway.

Throughout our lives, we each stand beside a place like this, a grave site, a sick bed. We wonder if we could have been kinder. Spent more time talking about what matters. We wonder when our time will come. If we are living in a way that will someday close with a contented sigh.

At the end of Ecclesiastes, “the conclusion of the whole matter,” the writer says that what is most important, or rather what makes life meaningful, is to fear God and keep his commandments.

Where some may find a message of meaningless in our existence in the lyrics of the song quoted above, I see a final answer similar to Ecclesiastes within the question: Why in the night sky are the lights hung?

Because someone has placed them there.

When my kids were little, I stuck glow-in-the-dark stars on their bedroom ceiling.

For what purpose?

Did I use these plastic decorations to teach them about the scientific and mathematical complexities of the universe? No. I did so mostly to bring them comfort in the dark and to inspire them to imagine.

Last January, as I said goodbye to Anita before sharing a meal with mourners who would all return to their living, the song played over and over in my head, ironic in its lullaby sweetness.

Why in the night sky are the lights hung?

Not as evidence of our deservingness but as testament to a creator who cares about our sorrow and hope…

…who wants us to gaze up and contemplate and dream and wish…

…who loves us enough to decorate infinity for us.

Planting spinach in a snowstorm

It’s only January 5.

And day two of another snow storm in Chicago.indoor gardening

Not one to be thwarted from anticipating planting season by a foot of snow, I remembered that I have these two lovely empty tea tins from Trader Joe’s just begging to be filled with dirt.

planting containers

While shopping for storm supplies, i.e. toilet paper and milk, I found one of the last bags of potting soil on a shelf far opposite the 75% off Christmas lights.

I am a person intrigued by contrasts. Potting soil among Christmas clearance, germinating seeds against a backdrop of snow…

indoor gardening

I punched a couple drain holes in the bottom of the tins and snipped a few holes in the plastic bags I thought might keep the tins from rusting too quickly.

indoor gardening

indoor gardening

I filled each with potting soil, and planted a few of the spinach seeds left over from spring and summer.

indoor gardeningI’m also a person who enjoys anticipation and having something to nurture. This will bring me a certain peace and possibly a salad despite the cruel cold outside.

Spinach germinates quickly, although I’ve never planted indoors except to start seeds for spring planting. We’ll see what happens around mid-February.

The silence of Christmas

I chose moments this Christmastime to be silent.

(Right now my husband is saying, Where was I?)

By that I don’t mean I wasn’t DOING something, but they were intentional acts that bring me a feeling of peace. Wrapping gifts while listening to Christmas music, baking my grandmother’s butter cookies. I was longing for some traditional holiday worship, too. And since we have been church gypsies for the past three years, we had no where we called home.

Then I remembered the tiny Wayside Chapel in the woods and its non-denominational vespers service. The trees, black against the white snow, reminded me life and its choices are not always as gray as we would like them to be. You either love God or you don’t. You are either a sinner in need of redemption or you are not. You either live a faith fully, every day or you embrace your disbelief.

christmas tradition

Inside, about 20 people, still bundled in coats and scarves, squeezed into the short pews. The place smelled of old polished wood and pine. Candles reflected in the windows and flickered on the altar. We sang “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night” in the quiet of evening and of unfamiliarity with those around us.

Christmas tradition

The Wayside Chapel

And the minister, a fragile lady who spoke gently as if to children, recalled the journey of the Magi, astrologers from the East, bearing priceless gifts for a baby.

What gifts would we bring him today, if we could? Not what talents or skills or material possessions, she said, but what of ourselves? Wouldn’t it be to live with compassion and hope and kindness and love every single day?

What a gift that would be to so many.

photo (3)

The work of her hands

As a child, my grandmother worked in the truck patches of vegetables her family grew on their rented farm in Southern Illinois. Whether from planting or harvesting or picking off bugs to drop into buckets of kerosene, the calluses that lined her palms like small pebbles were a source of pride.

She taught me to appreciate the earth, not necessarily as a planet in danger but as that small patch for which I am personally responsible.

“Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” Proverbs 31:31 (King James Version)

When my daughter decided to take photos of my hands engaging in some activity representative of who I am, the first thought was my hands over the keyboard or holding a pen and notebook. But I happened to be in the garden that day, and having my hands in dirt is one of my greatest joys. (Photos by Megan, taken on an old Olympus OM-10)

gardening, photography

gardening, photography

gardening, photography

gardening, photography