Gratitude, Humility, and Lying on the Floor

Lindsay Crandall writer photographer

A few years ago, I took my kids to the Lamberton Conservatory on a Saturday afternoon in winter. It was cold and I was sick of being housebound. So, I grabbed my camera and the three of us headed to the conservatory to see some greenery and hopefully beat away some of the winter blahs. The conservatory is filled with tropical plants and lush greens in one room, and cacti and desert plants in another. The walls and ceilings are made of glass. Tiny quails scurry across the floor, and turtles and fish swim in the pond.

Lily was four and Josh was one, still small enough, both of them, to need hand holding and the occasional scooping up into my arms. We walked through the conservatory, making our observations and me snapping photos. Halfway through, I bent down to pick up Josh and felt something shift in my back. I gasped in pain, put him down, and told them both quietly, “We need to leave now. I just hurt myself.”

Adam was working that day, so I was on my own, fearful of getting the kids out to the car and driving them home. I was grateful that both kids could climb into their car seats and all I had to do was buckle them in. I plopped down in the driver’s seat and immediately felt better. But I drive a stick and every time I lifted my leg to shift, a tiny spike of pain shot through my back.

No matter. We made it home. I flipped on the TV for the kids and whispered a prayer of thanks that it was almost dinnertime and the day would be coming to a close soon. I called my husband and he said to lie on the floor with my legs up, so that’s just what I did.

Flash-forward to today, and I’m lying on the floor again, legs in the air, back in massive pain. Only this time, instead of picking up my child, I was standing on a chair in the kitchen trying to take a photo of some wildflowers I stole from the abandoned house down the street as they lay in the light on the counter. I bent over to fuss with the flowers, straightened up, and knew I was in trouble. Worse was that I was about to leave to pick Lily up after a sleepover last night. And, again, Adam was at work.

Thankfully, my friend was able to bring her home, so I could lie on the floor with Josh, reading him book after book, then listening to him play Yahtzee while I read a chapter out of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Option B. Sandberg’s option B was living without her husband after his unexpected death; my option B was lying on the floor and giving up my plans of stopping at Trader Joe’s and going to yoga at the Y later. Not exactly apples to apples, but it gave me pause.

Just two weeks ago, I pulled my quad muscle in a parent-child relay race at Lily’s school and spent a week resting. I didn’t realize resting was so hard. I’m used to moving around a lot and exercising hard a few times a week. Taking a break for a few days was hard on me. Having to rely on others for help was challenging. I knew rest would help me heal, and I was grateful for to give my body what it needed, but I wasn’t happy to take a break. Rest was more mentally demanding than I expected.

My quad healed, but now I’m lying on the floor with back pain.

Maybe there’s something to this. Or maybe I’m looking too deeply. Part of me thinks, Maybe I need to be humbled. Maybe something’s wrong and I’m doing too much, and this is God’s way of showing me I need to slow down and rely more on Him. But another part of me shrugs that off because right now I don’t want to deal with God.

Either way, I’m stuck here on the floor.

When this happened a few years ago, I didn’t read too deeply into it. It just happened, like any freak thing can happen. The next day, with my back still in serious pain, Adam and I drove to his visit his grandfather for the last time before he passed away. My in-laws kept the kids so we could have our visit, and I remember feeling flushed with gratitude despite the pain I was in.

We sat in the living room, making awkward small talk. Someone asked me about my back, and I felt funny talking about it. Should you talk about something so commonplace as a pulled back when someone in the room is dying? What’s the protocol for that? In Option B, Sandberg says we should talk about the commonplace and also the elephant in the room – in this case, the impending death. But what to say? I didn’t know.

We gave our hugs and said goodbye. All of it was strange, like walking through water, slow and deliberate. We drove the two hours home and I laid down to rest, thankful for the day and one last goodbye.

Gratitude, it seems, is part of this, a place of rest in the midst of pain. Perhaps (and I’m thinking deeply again), gratitude is tied to humility. We get brought down low and humbled, then fill with gratitude about what we have, things we might overlook if we were healthy or proud. When we’re hurting or low, we have our pain and we have whatever good we can find. We are thankful for what tends to itself, for helping hands, for time and space to heal. Whatever it is, we might not see it except by lying on the floor with our feet up on a chair.

Questions, Wonder, and Curiosity

rilke dillard kephart writing

Last week at an end-of-the-year class party, Lily received an award from her teacher for being most inquisitive in the class. She shook her teacher’s hand with a big smile on her face, then ran over to show me. A tiny clip art detective with a giant magnifying glass was smack in the middle of the page. “This is wonderful,” I told her.

I was having a moment of mommy pride. Other kids received awards for being fashionable or remembering every vacation they’ve ever been on. Some got awards for their big hearts or endless helpfulness. My kid got an award for asking questions, for being curious and probably annoyingly so. But she asks and wonders. She wants to know about what’s going on.

I can relate.

I have a clear memory of talking to my dad when I was about Lily’s age – maybe a little older – when he told me I asked too many questions. I didn’t realize that was a problem. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I just accepted things the way they were.”

I considered that, and thought maybe I should ask fewer question, at least of him. I tried, but I couldn’t stop. I wanted to understand things – how things worked, why people did what they did, myself. My curiosity only grew as I got older and now I have a daughter who’s either picked it up in her DNA or (more likely) picked it up from my behavior.

I mean, I want my kids to have critical thinking skills. I want them to think independently and ask why before they do things. I want them to be curious about life and other people and themselves. I hope that someday when they go out into the world as adults, people find them interesting. I hope that someday, when I spend time with them as adults, I find them interesting.

The day school got out, I sat on the couch while Lily read me all of the personal narratives she’s written this spring. There are dozens. She’s prolific. Last week, we listened to the #Amwriting podcast and she told me she loves writing personal narratives much more than fiction. She’s just like her mama. (In fact, she told me she wants to be a baseball coach and a writer when she grows up, in addition to being a mom, of course.)

Lily read me story after story about the things we’ve done – going to the pottery festival where she got to throw a pot on a wheel, getting lost in the woods when I took Josh and her to a park we’d never been to, a playdate with her friend where she admitted she didn’t know how to use a Slip-n-Slide, getting her ears pierced for her birthday. These are the stories that make up her life. And most of them are stories that also make up mine.

I smiled as she read each one, thinking of the writing exercise in Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth where she suggests writing about a pivotal event from childhood. First write in the present-tense viewpoint of yourself as a child, she says. Be present. Write as if the event is actually happening. Then write it again from the past-tense viewpoint of yourself as an adult, someone who’s gained some perspective over the years, someone who’s learned something. Notice the differences, she says, and not just because of the wisdom we acquire from hindsight. Children see so differently from adults. It’s refreshing.

I think of how far we’ve come this school year, all the challenges we’ve faced, what we’ve rejoiced over. Life is equal parts astonishing and dull. Annie Dillard said it best: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. We spend it huddled in the trenches together, going out and coming back, trying this and that to see what fits, and making sure there’s a safe place to land. We ask questions, we wonder, we explore. That’s all I ever wanted as a kid; it’s all I want now.

I was young when I read The Writing Life. I hadn’t considered what Dillard said so well – that there’s writing and there’s life, the things we do and the lives we’re living. We need to be mindful of both.

Later in the book, she writes:

“Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

It hit me in the gut. I wrote it in a notebook and later put it in the sidebar of my blog. This idea of using it all up, giving everything, and believing that there will always be more and the supply will replenish itself – it was absolutely novel to me. It was in direct contradiction to what I’d been told as a child. Maybe I didn’t have to hold back and hoard everything that was good. Maybe I could ask my questions and wonder and be endlessly curious. 

I am writing the story of my life. I am, as Rilke says, learning to love the questions.

So, yes, let’s spend it all, even when we don’t know what’s next, even when our questions are unending and annoying and bigger than us, even when everything is pressing down and we can’t find our way out. Let’s give it all and believe something better is coming.

The Last Day of May

lindsay crandall photographer

I am sitting outside of a local deli with my husband and son. It’s the last day of May, a sunny and warm day at the end of a rainy and cold month. The sky is blue and the breeze is slight enough to lift my hair every so often.

Josh complains that he’s too hot in the sun, and Adam and I look at each other and smile. It’s seventy degrees and sunny, but Josh is four-not-quiet-five and finicky in his own way. He sips his blue Gatorade and asks for us to open the umbrella at our table. Adam does but we came to sit in the sunshine, so he closes it back down and I tell Josh to take my chair. The umbrella’s shadow on my seat is enough shade for him.

Adam and I each have a pint of Sam Adam’s Summer Ale. We clink glasses and take a sip. “It’s always better on draft,” he says, and I nod and smile.

We used to do this a lot when we lived in Alabama – find a place to sit outside, a place that served cold beer and offered a bit of fresh air. One place in particular was our favorite – Wintzell’s, an oyster restaurant that served draft beers for a dollar each from four to seven each weekday. At last once a week, we’d drive downtown to Wintzell’s and have a few beers. We’d sit in the high-top tables on the sidewalk and talk for hours.

That was before we had kids, before going out to restaurants became a juggling act and the kids’ food started costing almost as much as ours. When Lily was first born, one of our first trips out as a family was to Callaghan’s, an Irish pub a few blocks from our house. We put our tiny baby in the stroller and walked to the restaurant while she slept. I had a giant burger and a beer. Adam sat Lily on his lap when she woke and I snapped a photo. She wore a floppy pink hat and yellow dress with a frog on it. That was eight years ago. 

There was just a sliver of time that is perfect for eating outside. In the Deep South, the temps rush from tolerable to unbearably hot and humid much too quickly. Not unlike the rush of temps in the opposite direction as winter descends on Upstate New York. We’ve learned to take advantage when we can.

Today we sit outside and eat our lunches in the sunshine in small town near the lake, a town so small it has only one restaurant, one park, a yacht club, and a tiny church. At noon, the church bells signal the time, then proceed to chime out a hymn we sang at our church a few weeks ago. I recognize the melody, but can’t think of the words.

“Where is that sound coming from?” Josh asks.

“The church around the corner,” I reply. “Isn’t it pretty?”

He nods. “Those cushions are pretty too,” he adds, looking at the chairs beside the restaurant door. “We could sit over there, if we want. There’s three chairs.”

I glance at them. The cushions are a tropical flower pattern, big red flowers with long, leafy stems. I laugh and say, “Maybe next time.”

We finish eating, then drive to the park to look at the lake. The water level is high on Lake Ontario, higher than its been in a hundred years, and it’s causing a fair share of problems. We check on it from time to time.

At this particular park, we like to scavenge for pretty rocks. The beach is full of them – pink ones, gray ones, some that are striped. Instead of fifteen feet of beach, today it’s about five. Josh brings a rock to me, one that’s half gray and half pink. “Take a picture of it,” he says, so I pull out my phone.

Then I walk to the edge of the water despite the signs saying not to go in. I step out on the wet stones and let the cold water splash up on my toes and feet and ankles and calves for the first time this year. “Eep,” I cry. “It’s cold.”

“Forty-five degrees,” Adam says. He sits on the bench looking out at the water. I look too. It’s mostly calm and the bluish-turquoise color that always amazes me, this place we return to, the lake. I step back, give my feet a break from the chill. 

I wonder if we’ll swim this year. The lake levels are so high one of our favorite beaches is washing away. Adam’s parents’ house on this same lake is a swamp of backed up water and their dock is underwater. We’re lake people, and we wonder what’s next.

But Josh collects more rocks and makes a pile of them on the grass. He wants to step into the water too, but he’s too scared. We’re not here to swim, just to breathe the cool lake air, and he takes my hand as we walk away. He could do this all day. I could too.