It is 1958. I am standing on the lawn of my home in Springfield, PA. It's late winter - one of those mornings where the grass feels brittle under your feet, but the air has a different, fresher feel and smell. The signs of spring are there, but you have to look really closely, listen really well, close to the ground. It's a morning that is not just about what it is, but what it will become. Poised. About. Ready.
A noise from a tree distracts me from inspecting ice crystals on the grass. I lay down on the earth, face up, feeling the miles of soil and stone and rock and lava and whatever else I can imagine is the center holding me up. Above me is an equal amount of sky and clouds and planets and stars. And for a moment, the last one I remember, I am the center of the universe.
Life happens after that. A series of events and admonishments and personalities and work that are designed to chip away at that feeling. Love and passion and need and all the elements of responsibilities and leading a productive life of service and maturity conspire to make sure I understand what my place is in the scheme of things. I am a knife on a whetstone, run by the ceaseless pounding of things going forward, goals being reached, agendas fleshing out. But always, always there is the memory of that morning, of that knowing what it is like at the center.
Good news. Good things happen. Happy times. Comfort, surprises, Wonderful tastes and warm blankets on cold nights. Hot showers. Babies. Kisses. Smiles and gifts. Just in the nick of time sometimes, sometimes greeted with gratitude, sometimes overlooked in the crush of bad things.
Bad news. Bad things happen. Hopes that are dashed, regardless of the amount of effort put in. Unfair things. Cruel things. Accidents. Loss. Long faces talk in whispers. Closed doors. Stones in shoes. Broken plumbing. Debts. Sometimes the phone rings, sometimes the certified letter arrives, sometimes Young Policemen show up at the door with news that is so unfathomable it is like they are speaking a language I don't understand. Bad things always leave their mark.
I am not unaware of the balance. Every year at New Years, I take stock. This involves cleaning out of my head, heart and house of things I do not want to take into the New Year and going to Beliefnet.com and taking the spirituality quiz. It's like taking my spiritual temperature. A series of questions designed to gauge your fit with hundreds of world religions, spiritual beliefs or theories, when you finish answering them it tallies up your answers and matches you up with some body of faith that most closely resembles your mindset.
I never even get close to Catholicism, Judaism or Muslim. Never. I remember the shock of not even registering within fifty points of Protestant although I attended Presbyterian Church much of my childhood. I was sort of relieved at not having to say "I am a Presbyterian" any more when asked, because it never seemed quite right, given my belief that there were ghosts and spirits in trees and that dreams had meaning, and tarot cards could help you figure out tough situations,that animals talk and showed up to help you, and that you did what you could but at some point there was just a force or entity beyond the understanding of a human brain or experience that sort of controlled things but chaotically, and that had no explanation. A mishmosh of goobledygook that can only be described as magic.
I took the test in the quiet moments of midnight, the New Years after Charles died. Something changed in my score. Something imperceptible to me, but showing up in my answers. I scored an organized religion. I no longer believed in magic.
I entered the darkest period of my life. I no longer cared about the balance of good things to bad things. Everything was a bad thing. My sunny personality was just something I put on, not something I believed. I said the same things, I offered the same encouragement, I don't think I am fooling myself when I tell you that I think I pretty much fooled everyone else - I think they believed I was just a little depressed, a little overwhelmed, a little beaten down. I would get over it.
Only I knew that I had stopped the struggle to stay in the center, to see the balance and was just accepting that it was all bad. That it had always been bad. That I was a fool who had never seen the whole picture. The memory of being the beloved center of the universe was just a childhood fantasy like the other ones of being Annie Oakley or Cinderella.
A friend at work noticed a chink in my happy armour one day and sent me a link to a fluffy, whimsical email newsletter that she said helped her through some bad times. I thought, what the hell. So I signed up. They started coming and I would read them first thing in the morning. Honestly, the happy, affectionate notes from the Universe initally got on my nerves. The depth of my sadness and loss of faith was so deep, they were like throwing snowballs at a bonfire.
Seriously. You can't stop crying when you are alone in the car, but you get "Baby steps spark miracles, Shirley.
Miracles do not spark baby steps. Ungawa, The Universe"
"When in doubt, Shirley, show up early. Think less. Feel more. Ask once. Give thanks often. Expect the best. Appreciate everything. Never give up. Make it fun. Lead. Invent. Regroup. Wink. Chill. Smile. And live as if your success was inevitable, and so it shall be. Happy global domination, The Universe"
Yeah, I needed that crap.
But I kept reading them, every morning.
I also kept doing things. Mechanically, but doing things. I like to respond to Haro Queries - if you haven't signed up, go do it now, it's over there in the sidebar under Help A Reporter - everyone is an expert at something, and it is fun to actually get some acknowledgement. I had extraordinary success at this, having every pitch I wrote accepted, getting quoted in The New York Times, USA today, Grands, Grandparents.com, Inflight Magazine, the list goes on and on. Just google me. Reporters were showing up at my house, photographers in tow, for articles in Ladies Home Journal and First For Women magazine. My son kept saying "What the hell, Mom?" I know - it's freaky! Especially considering that I didn't believe I was the darling daughter of the All Knowing any longer. God didn't have a plan for me, he was busy elsewhere. I was on my own.
Apparently, though I did not know it at the time, the battle over my soul was heating up.
A couple of weeks ago, a query shows up on Haro that goes like this:
33) Summary: Need Celebs/Ordinary People For TV Pilot
Name: YYYYYY YYYYYYYY
Media Outlet/Publication: XTRORD.com
Have you ever wanted to fly a jet or ride in a Float on Mardi Gras? Write us a paragraph and tell us why we should pick you.
This is how I responded:
Name: Shirley Landis Van Scoyk Age: 55 Hometown: Honey Brook, PA How To Reach You:XXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXX Your Story: (a paragraph about yourself and why you've always wanted to have this experience)
First of all, let me just say that if you are looking for ordinary, I am your girl. I am a short round outgoing cheerful grandmother/widow who lives on a farm in PA and works as a Realtor. But I have this one... little.... weakness..... Mardi Gras!
I have been to Mardi Gras four times. I have a dog named NOLA. I have a coconut from Zulu, but not a spear. I have thirty five pounds of beads in my bedroom closet, and three boas. I have a shoe from Endymion. I have dressed in my pajamas and screamed when the Rex King went by. I have begged, Throw me something, Mister! I have taken tons of pictures from the ground but I have always secretly wanted to throw beads to the crowd. I have always wanted to know what it is like to see the crowd from UP THERE - to decide who to throw beads to, what method works the best - there is a science to the begging, and I want to know it, see it, live it, from behind the masks. I wanted to send you some pictures, but I don't know if you would accept attachments.
I have friends who live in NOLA who can put me up and I will fly there myself. I can be ready to go at the end of Feb.
PICK ME< PICK ME< PICK ME, Life - throw me something Mister!!!!!!!!!!"
And they answered. Yes.
And then, I renigged.
Yes. Read this:
"Alan: I am so sorry, but I have to withdraw my pitch for Mardi Gras. After I sent you the email saying I have a place to stay, yady yady yady, I realized I do have a work conflict with the dates. I thought I better write you as soon as possible, and I hope that whomever gets this opportunity really appreciates it and that it works out for you. Shucks, I am bummed but it can't be helped.
Liar, liar pants on fire.
I told everyone - Lisa and her Dad who would put me up and put up with me graciously and actually like they were excited, my Daughter In Law and my friends, that yes, I wanted to go, but really I had to be an adult, I had things to do, dogs to feed, money to save, it was time I just started saying no to myself and these crazy, impractical notions of fun and different and cherry on the top experiences. The dark side won.
But the bright side was not ready to give up.
The guy called, we talked, I said NO NO, he said please please. He emailed. He upped the ante.
"Hi Shirley --
So I've been sick as a dog for the last week and consequently haven't gotten around to replacing you in our TV show's Mardi Gras segment. We've switched to the star-studded Orpheus (Harry Connick Jr.s krewe) parade on Monday night and we'll be attending the ball afterwards, which should make it just that much more fun!
Before I move to the next name on my list, I thought I'd check in with you one more time. For our purposes, you'd only need to be there by Saturday night, we'll shoot Sunday and Monday, and you could fly home Fat Tuesday to minimize the time you'd be away from work...
So, whatd'ya say? Lemme know ASAP!
Okay, I'm shallow. The name Harry Connick Jr. turned it all around for me.
Also I am also a complete sucker for a man who is begging - just ask my two husbands, my son, my grandsons and my old boyfriends.
On Friday I made a few phone calls about my animal care concerns, worked it out in minutes and guess what, called the guy and said yes. Happy Happy Happy. Mostly. And I also got a positive response from another query I wrote - I sent this wonderful woman Pam The Cremains Tour when she requested funeral/celebrant stories and she was so receptive and kind and appreciative that I was overwhelmed, but in a good way this time. A remarkable turn of events - later to be seen as a metaphor of historic proportions, sort of like.....The Battle of Midway or Gettysburg. I start looking at Ball Gowns on the internet, checking out the Orpheus site. You know - Orpheus, one of the handful of Greek heroes to visit the Underworld and return; even in Hades his song and lyre did not lose their power.
But the Universe does not like it when you minimize its work to a human scale. Once it gets started, you have got to stand there and wait for it to swallow you up and show you once again that you are the chocolate-y, chewy center of the Universal Tootsie Roll.
Monday morning. This am. First thing I do is roll over, grab my blackberry and read what emails have come in over night. There it is - the Universe Calling.
And this morning it says:
"I don't like to make predictions, but the way things are going, Shirley, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this year you have a ball, go to a ball... and put the pics up on Facebook. You are so poised for the time of your life - The Universe"
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“The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” William Faulkner