Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Restoring Ourselves

It was that time of the evening when things grow both restless and weary.The sun has dipped below the horizon, just enough light remaining to make out the forms of a couple of bicycles strewn across a lawn down the street, abandoned by children called in to supper. Piled up in the corner by where I sit and read are Abby is the pile of Abby's "stuffies" laying as if napping, where they will remain this late afternoon until she gently carries them to her dog bed at night, to sleep by her side.

As I get ready to go out for a quick jaunt around the neighborhood before dark, it's not hard to see the houses that have big screen TV's in the living room as they are directly evident if the windows are open, or providing that tell tale glare of light through the curtains. For many people, the TV is on as soon as they walk in the door, People come home, turn on the television, turn on the video games, draw the blinds, their view of the world that which comes through on the TV, losing imperceptibly their sense of the outside, of the world beyond a news anchor.

If someone walked past our porch at night, they'd see no such light. For we don't have a big screen TV. We don't have a TV at all, but for a small one in the in basement where we can get the weather with an antenna on the roof if we're down there due to Mr. Tornado.  If we want to watch a favorite show we have boxed sets, (cheaper than cable) from which to pick, watching on the computer monitor that can be turned to face the cozy futon in the office. Even that is something we only do on some weekends.
The crash pad where I lived after I got married, but before I was able to transfer to our Chicago facility, had a nice TV from my old house, but it was given to the young couple in need who are got all of the furniture, which we really have neither need nor room for up here.  They had lost everything in a natural disaster, and on a waiting list to adopt a baby, were anxious to be able to provide a furnished home.  They rented a small house, I provided all of the contents of mine, and they were finally at ease, that baby coming along in two months time from an unwed mother loving enough to give her child up to a good home.  Some things just work themselves out.

I'm fine with my smaller, older home. But anyone curious or casing this place to rob it would see hardwood floors, restored antique furniture, lots of leaded and stained glass and a Victrola, my service revolver in the nightstand and a few vintage LEO pistols of generation's past carefully locked up in the safe.
As big and beautiful as it was, I don't miss my old house.  It was your typical McMansion, those huge suburban  houses that are less home than monopoly game house squares of plastic and cheap lumber and wasted spaced.  What wood is there is usually laminate, the walls not thick enough to withstand a really good storm or the thump of a neighbors bass played too loud. They look OK now, but I can't imagine what it will take to sustain them 100 years from now, if they're even still standing.  But they are big  and "new!" with three car garages full of a lot of things that aren't paid for yet, the neighbors house so close you can't swing a tax assessor without whacking your next door neighbor. Some didn't even have furniture - the people buying them not having enough money after buying the too big house to properly furnish it.
Our house is old, it's small and it's sturdy.  There is no big mortgage, there is no credit card debt for the furnishings.  But for a small table that was a family heirloom, everything in our view we bought with cash, or picked from curbside trash, restoring it as best we can, those items that another found to have little worth.  I think the only things well under 50  years old in the house are the computer, the mattress, the frame of a couch we restored and the two beloved souls I live with, both two and four legged.

I've had a couple casual acquaintances look at the sagging porch that needs to be redone, the antiquated kitchen and a sun porch that makes the Green Acres house look upscale and make a subtlety snarky comment about it. They're not invited back. It's a work in progress, the whole house being a restoration project, much of the work on things you won't see on the surface. I look at it differently, I guess.  I don't see what still needs to be done.  I see what HAS been done.
The little village within the big city we live in is small, with a train station, a small grocers, a mom and pop pizza place and a couple of pubs.  The houses themselves are grey, white, brown or brick, no trendy Victorian doll house colors, no urban renewal shades of  yuppie reclamation.  The houses and porches are the shades of time and shadow and quiet murmured voices gathered between columns, as if time and breath had made them all one quiet color, a hushed vestibule where all is forgiven.

Within a short drive is a trendy urban area where people live in half a million dollar apartments, taking the train into the city, some not even owning cars as every bit of millennial spender and excess is within walking distance. We do go there as that's where the big home improvement store is.  That's where we bought all the copper pipe and wood for the house and a nice runner for the hall at a good discount, because the young man with the trendy haircut couldn't multiply $12.97 times 6 on a piece of paper when the calculator went missing.

No, I'll pass on all the "hip" places unless they have tools.  I'm perfectly happy browsing in an antique book store or standing in line at the grocer with elderly Polish women.  Dressed as if they are going to church, many of them have survived more than one war, holding our numbers and waiting for the deli clerk to slice meat that was roasted in the store, not unwrapped from cellophane, shaving the meats and the cheese and carefully wrapping them up for me with a smile. There's homemade sausages, salads, and potato pancakes, foods known well to the immigrants that settled in this place. I'll pass on the toaster strudel, and buy one of the real thing, made by hand, breathing in the scent of sugar and yeast as I head home with my bounty, driving past an ancient church and a small park which knows know only the shades of those first children that played there.
Am I just getting old - looking at the past as simply stories of youth and bravery, doomed to forgetfulness as I eventually pass, as we all will, those points of affection and regret into a fog that quietly dims the lights? Or have I simply changed what parts of the world are important to me based on how I have touched the world, and it has touched me in return?

I think it is the latter.  Getting to middle age is is some way, like surviving a war.  There are false truces and negotiations, retreat and reconciliation, triumph and treachery. In the end, if you are lucky, there is peace, your warrior's medals and ribbons being internal, only recognized when you look into the mirror and see those first lines around your eyes and smile because you know that despite it all, your sustained breath is its own little victory.
It's a peace I enjoy and as some of my peers rush around getting Botox and fillers, putting on enough makeup to make Krusty the Klown jealous. I'm perfectly content to put on sweat pants and tactical lip gloss and just hit the road, face bare and long red ponytail trailing behind me like those red warning flags you see on timber hanging off the bed of a fast moving little pick up.

So tonight, I'll  take a jog down through the village across the railroad tracks and down past the old church.  In the small graveyard there stands upon a grave site, a  stone angel, her shadow painting a canvas of dimming light as I move past.  She is a melancholy spirit, crafted in another century, her eyes closed as if in prayer, her mouth open as if she turned to stone in the moment she uttered her life's final secret.  Around the grave there is a garland of living flowers, grown wild, even as the rest of the small graveyard fades to dust, flowers reaching for one last bit of sun, there amidst the silent stones, the histories that live on in this place.
I wonder how many people have walked past her, with earbuds on, or their head down with texting, not realizing the significance of a forgotten grave - that one small thing, that soul - at one time, the most important thing in the world to someone, held through sickness and health, and cherished even as they grew old and faded as flowers will.

How many now, truly possess that which holds weight and value, something that when viewed, when held, lights up the eyes with the triumphs of all risks and renunciations. Or have we become a society of the easy and disposable, be it a product, a relationship, or worse, even a life?

As the sky begins to spit snow again, I hurry home, but not before lifting my closed eyes up to heaven, mouth open, catching flakes of snow on my tongue, a self-communion of one, as I say a blessed thanks for a long safe travel through life.
As I approach our house, the light dimming, I see the glow of the television sets in other homes, an unearthly artificial glow, as canned laughter seeps out of an open window. As I arrive home, climbing up the tired stairs unto the large porch, there is light inside from the wall sconces, rewired but decades old, bright as a spark, significant of human shelter and repose. As the key rattles in the door, there is a soft woof of an old Rescue Lab, her grey muzzle snooting me happily as I enter the house

A burglar casing the place would look through the front window and shake their head, seeing little for which they would give value. I look inside and see the riches of a strong house that shelters me with vigilant accord. It has stood for a hundred years, with an air of history and invincible possession, which will remain, long after I am gone.

I set my keys near the Victrola and my husband's Fedora.  As he calls out a greeting from the kitchen, I pat Abby the Lab on the head, looking at the small precious things that have been rescued and now live here, grateful for eyes that finally learned to see.
 - L.B. Johnson

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Into the Night With Me

In Chicago this week, we lost a well-loved and respected police Commander, to a criminal's bullet.  His colleagues were helpless to stop it, but they are there now to honor him.  When going into battle soldiers know who has their back. In Law Enforcement, it is much the same. But in the day to day life, we often find out who is around us that would take that literal bullet for us.

Growing up my big brother was my protector. If you've read my first two books you know our story well. He was my best friend and guide despite the age difference.  I still thank him for when he sent the "live toad in a gift box" to the snooty girl down the block that made fun of me for wearing hand-me-downs and home sewed clothes because my Mom chose to be a full-time mom rather than return to the workforce as a Deputy Sheriff when they adopted the two of us late in life.

When Mom died, and Dad briefly checked out emotionally, my beloved brother off in Submarine Service, I left home young, starting college at age 14, fleeing not simply because I was fleeing, but that the absence was the only argument I had at 14 to employ against the losses in my life. I was alone until I was not, then a pregnancy in college and my daughter's subsequent adoption made me realize I needed family around me again, even if not related by blood. So there were friends, and there were toasts and tears and healing as I got past the sound that goodbyes made.
When I graduated and was accepted into flight training to become a pilot I had much the same support system. Our Crew Chief, who often looked at us like something on the bottom of his shoe, honestly was our biggest fan, but using Crew Chief etiquette wasn't allowed to show it. Crew Chiefs were like that, finding the occupation of keeping their emotion steeled against the worst so captivating, that they had no other emotion available. He wasn't scared, but thinking everyone under his charge was such an idiot that we would never see another sunrise, he remained firm in his resolve that what was to be was predestined.   The ground crew was won over by homemade chocolate chip cookies even if they weren't quite sure what to make of the first female Commander in the unit.  My copilots became family, even the one that used to spray the whole cockpit down with Lysol because he was a germaphobe which followed with me puking into his flight bag due to a late night out and a fighter pilot breakfast (you'll have to google that, this is a family-friendly blog).

We'd launch, whether we were ready or not, listening to the sounds of the ground crew (clear on 2) with that listening attention that meant we were ready to go out and confront whatever those words meant. In the distance, a knot of men, moving with deliberate movement, offering a wave as we taxied out, their roles unclear as the wind amped up a slow vibration in the air, but their support unwavering,

But later in life, when my flying was behind me except for the occasional inverted romp in an 8KCAB, my support system was not so structured. There were friends I thought I could rely on that disappeared like smoke when there were clouds on the horizon. There were those that wanted to be friends simply to build their fan base. And there were those that were like the walls of my house - quiet, not always saying anything, but always there to keep me warm and safe.

My team at work has always been a constant. I've worked with gruff curmudgeons who held evidence in their giant paws of hands like the most tender of playthings even as they busied themselves with matters of life and death that brooked no delay. And I've worked with the young probies, so bursting with ambition and testosterone that they always upheld a state of lively satisfaction no matter the amount of deeply questioned bloodshed.

I've been covered in gore, and I've been shot at, ending my day wet, tired, and stiff in every joint, with that momentary hallucination of vision that comes to the insanely exhausted, where like a drowning man reviews his life, I realized that not only did I not find the smoking gun, I left the coffee pot on this morning.
But I always had my support system.

Today, I'm management- more likely to be felled by a paper cut than a bullet. My team still visits, but in doing so I'm "Ma'am" not "Brigid" as I'm the director. Times change, time slows. But I do know that there are those around me I can count on, both personally and professionally, in that enlightened compression that dwells upon the approach of a storm.

Yet, on those nights I'm stuck in a hotel room, the bed linen cold and soundless under my hand, clinging softly to that hand in the quiet air as breathing vaporizes in the faint light as I wait for the phone to ring, I'm aware of something.
I still have those that watch my back, even if they are only friends and family, strong in my life, even if their numbers are as a shadow is larger than the object that casts it. They are there in those mornings where the red dawn crests in the sharp light as if beyond the horizon lay hell not heaven. They are there in those soft nights, where ice cubes tinkle and the air carries on it only the scent of mint and soft lemon verbena perfume as small children chase fireflies in the yard.

As I return from my travels, the taxi taking me from the airport, the old bungalows of Chicago pass by the window in grays and browns, lighter than dust and laid lightly upon the earth, as if one good hard rain would wash them away, I smile. I am simply another suit and a laptop, trying to make a little difference in an insane world, where those that work for me, risk their lives for what is right and good. This is not the life I planned, and it is not the life I imagined, but it is the only life I want, here with those who would walk into the night with me. - Brigid