The Red Toolbox: Lessons on Living

Red ToolboxThe Red Toolbox is now mine. An open wooden rectangle, cobbled together from leftover scraps of previous projects, it’s not too big. Made for use, it has a round dowel handle, easy to grab and go.

That old box has been a part of my world for so long that I have no idea when my dad made it. The red paint’s worn a bit chippy from decades of projects and repairs, a disconcerting number of those at our house. “Go get my hammer out of the toolbox.” “Put the toolbox in the truck.” “Leave that tape measure in the toolbox.” The thing was ever present. I grew up and grew older with it.
Oh, sure, there was a bigger toolbox, also handmade, but The Red Toolbox was the go-to box with the dependable basics: Daddy’s favorite hammer, nails and screws, heavy duty tape measure, a couple of crescent wrenches, several screwdrivers, nail set, small chisel, pliers, scissors, those flat carpenters’ pencils that intrigued me as a child, and a couple of last-minute items that got tossed in.
Daddy always kept a few tools in his vehicles, a set of wrenches and a screwdriver. But if he was going out of town, The Red Toolbox rode in the back. Just in case….
His toolbox and his workshop were basic to my image of him and the foundation of how I knew the man. I called on him to fix everything because I thought he could. As a son of the Depression and sharecropping parents, keeping tools and machinery in repair was a way of life that stayed with him.
Giving care to what he had was a ritual of appreciation for the use of what God had given Daddy. He attended to what he used. Keeping things in good shape was his giving back; fixing what was broken was his creativity. Leaving things in better shape than he found them was his “Thank you.” He was a simple man and it was simply the right thing to do.
In my own life, attending to brokenness took a different form. I became a counselor, an attendant to the pain of being human.
Caring for brokenness calls upon a common wisdom, whether it’s a human spirit grown dry or a hinge, un-oiled and rusting. Both creak for attention, habitually and loudly. Wisdom doesn’t rush the process of caring.
Daddy brought to his projects what he brought to his life: practicality, confidence that he could figure out a solution to whatever was awry, and a worrisome stubbornness that left me thinking he was determined to get hurt rather than get help. The man would look at a problem inside out and upside down with a dogged determination that could my impatience threadbare.
It was exactly that tenacity that had him putting a motor in a car when he was eighty-one because he’d never done that before but he thought he could, if he took his time.
Clearly, when it comes to a model for dealing with whatever is broken in this experience of being human, I don’t have to look far.
Daddy never jotted down a list of rules. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t need to.

These tenets were simply how he lived:
1. Be sure your foundation is solid. Fix it if it’s not.
2. Get familiar with the problem you’re tackling. Look closely. Look at problems from every angle. Get down on your hands and knees
3. If small repairs need to be done before the big job, DO them. There are no shortcuts. It’s time well spent.
4. In painting or staining, do the prep work. Prepare the surface to be receptive. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
5. Keep The Red Toolbox handy. You never know which tools you might need. Put the tools back in it when finished.
6. Buy the best quality materials you can afford.
7. Seeing a job as a puzzle of small pieces makes it manageable. Oh, and lay the pieces out in the order you removed them so you know where they go. Every piece has its place.
8. When a job isn’t coming together, take a break. Go work on something else awhile, even a little task. It’s good to accomplish something, even if it’s not what you intended.
9. If that still doesn’t help, do the best thing you can come up with at the moment. If it doesn’t work, you can rule one thing out.
10. Have good resources: make friends of the guys at the local hardware store and garage. The folks at Biggers’s Hardware and the Gilmore boys are your friends.
11. Good tools make the job easier. Keep them sharp and dry. Never put tools away dirty. Absolutely never!
12. Fixing one board saves a whole wall later. Do the job while it’s small.
13. There are times, when in spite of your best efforts, repairs won’t hold. The original is simply too worn to work with. That’s when it’s time to let it go and start fresh.
And
14. ALWAYS clean up after yourself. The job’s not finished until the floor is swept.

No, Daddy, you had no need to jot them down. You were living them.
I was watching.

Happy Father’s Day,
J.C. McCrary
July 11, 1923—May 9, 2009

This column was published in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, Sunday, June 15. 2014. I am happy to share it with you here.

Peace,

Jaylene

THE Dollhouse

dollhouse

Atop the bookcase in my blue room sit two metal dollhouses, circa 1950s. They are sentinels over the gathering space of my studio/office, high enough above the mix of chairs and throw pillows that they call no attention to themselves. I suspect some visitors hardly notice them.

The one on the left is the dollhouse I thought I found; the one on the right is the one I did.

When I was young, older than a toddler but not yet school-aged, our next door neighbors were Gladys and Elbert Jobe and their two daughters, girls edging into their teen years. The family doted on me. Martha, Alice, and their parents were a constant presence, keeping an eye on the tot I was, especially when my mother was ordered to strict bed rest while she was pregnant with my younger brother. The almost adolescent Martha was my playmate. I adored her.

My best guess is that I was about two and a half the Christmas that they gave it to me: THE dollhouse.

All I have to do for the memories of my dollhouse to surface is close my eyes and be still. In the quiet, I am there, back in our old living room. The chill of the uninsulated linoleum floor rolls under me, stretched out, stomach down before the open backside of the dollhouse. The chill penetrates my cotton camisole and red corduroy shirt with a shiver, while an insistent hiss from the gas heater is background noise. Warmth and chill coexist as I arrange and rearrange the tiny furnishings and determine the movements of a plastic family that I can control.

Bright lithograph colors on thin sheets of metal, all right angles and structured together with deftly folded tabs, it was sturdy. And that’s a good thing, because it was magic; and a sturdy kind of magic was needed by the child that I was, playing my way through the changes my family was experiencing.

Between the years when I was three and five, my mother buried a brother and her grandmother, both deaths shocking, with the abrupt cruelty of accidents. There was loss on my father’s side of the family too, not so cruel, but change producing, nonetheless.
The adults around me were juggling, emotionally and physically. This wasn’t an era when the impact of death on children was supper table conversation. We were fed, clothed, kept warm, and taken to church.

And we played. My imaginary friend, Mattie, and I held power in the magic realm of the dollhouse.

Somewhere along the years, I suppose my mother gave my dollhouse to another little girl, though I can’t say when that happened. Thinking I’d outgrown it, probably by second or third grade, I imagine her passing it along to a friend’s daughter, maybe a three year old who fit perfectly in front of its tiny rooms.

I hardly let myself miss it.

Until I started tapping this keyboard, pecking around for words that have taken me down a forgotten path, I wasn’t aware that my dollhouse mattered so greatly to me. Nevertheless, I’ve grown curious, fifty-five years after the fact, why the memory of it sent me out, years ago, to find its vintage twin.

One of my earliest forays into the world of eBay was the mission to find a replica of my dollhouse. I saved my search, kept up with new postings, and compared them against the image in my mind. Nope, not that one. Maybe this one…. but no. Oh, this one looks like it. Yep, that’s it!

I didn’t have a clear memory of the facade, since most of my time was spent at eye level with the interior, and I was sure that the one I’d bought was the exact same style as mine, red roof and all. There was no doubt I’d found it.

There was no doubt, that is, until ten years later when I found IT.

A red-roofed image, unexpectedly familiar, caught my eye and a gulp of recognition stuck in my throat. Displayed in a local shop window, I recognized the printed stone design on the exterior of a fifties era dollhouse. The tiny stones were amazingly similar in color to the faux stonework I’d painted during my mural painting years.

At gut level, I knew that I was looking at the origins of my own pink-green-blue-gray rocks. This was imagery that had become hard-wired into me. I cannot paint stone without those tones mixed in. I don’t even want to.

Here in front of me was evidence of how my childhood attempts to make sense of an uncontrollable world had become instinctive, part of who I am at the core. The comfort of my dollhouse with its dependable design, the setting where I could direct the action, the impact in my later life of what I was doing as a three-four-five year old, had been hidden away beneath events that I saw as more significant than my being Mistress of the Dollhouse.
It was all hidden until I began to write this essay about neighbors and loss and finding a dollhouse. Tapping away at the keyboard, gently rapping at the door to poignant and dusty places that want to see the light of day, it began to come together: I still love colored stone and arranging houses and scene setting and red roofs.

I found my old neighbors, still living in my heart.

And I still believe in the power of play.

Now, excuse me, while I dust off my dollhouses.

She rests.

beyond the deep blue velvet curtain
of making breakfast
folding towels
sweeping garage
checking homework
unloading dishwasher
paying bills
scrubbing earsgrace extended
hangs a gossamer sheer
a fine and fragile barely there veil
thin as a breath
every night she pulls it aside
crawls through to her life beyond
and
she rests.

Jaylene Whitehurst
Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Unheard Story: The HeartStory

Good Morning, Fellow Travellers,

You know that saying about being kinder than necessary because everybody is fighting some kind of battle? It sets me to remembering too that everybody has a STORY, the story of his or her Life that contains experiences I don’t have a clue about. Everybody has a HeartStory.

To have the privilege of hearing a bit of another person’s story is holy to me. It’s a trust. Yes, it’s part of my profession, but it’s more: it’s something we can offer each other anytime. “Tell me about when___? What was it like when____?  Who was there when____?”

I’ve been married thirty-eight years to the same man. You can probably imagine how well I think I know this fellow. Thirty-eight years and just the other day he shared an event from his childhood that, for whatever reasons, I didn’t know about.

It was such a stunning, intense event that I had to question myself: How could I have not known that? Had it been mentioned, maybe as a matter-of-fact, and I was so caught up in my own drama that I completely missed it? If he hadn’t mentioned it, was there something about our relationship that he didn’t entrust the story to me til now? Was it something he assumed I knew because he did?

Or maybe it just came up exactly when it needed to come up…..nothing more complex that perfect timing!

However it came to be part of not just his story but now part of our family story, I am grateful that I now hold it with him.

And I realized one more time how little I know and how ignorant I am to think I know….

Today I will listen to someone I think I know well.

And I’ll hear an unheard bit of the story.

And we’ll be changed by it.

 

Travel lightly,

Jaylene

 

It’s your JOB to be on your own side

Good Morning, Fellow Travellers,

If you aren’t on your own side, tell me who’s going to be? It’s not simply okay to be on your own side; it’s your JOB to be on your own side.

It’s a responsibility to shape our Lives, each of us, into Lives that are meaningful to us. That’s not one-size-fits-all. It may be trial and error. It’s probably going to change from one phase of Life to another. And, it’s going to be messy! That’s all natural. It’s how we know more about ourselves.

When we do the job of living our own Lives, others may not understand, but it seems to be human nature to want the important ones in our world to understand — to GET us, please.  For years, I wore myself out trying to explain where I was in my journey, why I was there, where I wanted to be, until I finally realized “they” were still looking at me with puzzled faces and nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing. All of my well-thought-out chatter was futile and took energy I could use actually Living, thank you very much. Finally I stopped. Insert big sigh of relief here!

When we begin living our Lives, others may not like it. They may call us wasteful, frivolous, and oooooh, worst of all, SELFISH! The dirtiest word of all! That one word has the power to shut many of us down and keep us in line.  There was no thought that what they called selfish was more about self-knowing, self-actualizing, self-moving beyond the visible to what could be.

We get this Life and then, because of these shaming messages, we deny ourselves the very living of it.

Some (many, actually) of us were given jobs as children to be sure everybody else was okay.  When we pay attention to our own lives and let them be in their own lives, they no longer know what to expect of us.

The powers around us taught us to always to attend to others, and that would make us happy and keep us safe. They never asked us what made us happy, so how could we learn to ask ourselves? If we did ask, we were shamed for it.

Result: many of us have no clue what makes us not only okay, but we have no clue that we are truly wonderful and can risk failure and success and thrive emotionally in the midst of questions.

And that is not shameful. It’s called going after one’s own Life!

What wonderful, wasteful, frivolous, “self-moving beyond” gift will you give yourself today?

Travel lightly,

Jaylene

Mothers on My Heart

Mothers are much on my heart this weekend: young mothers holding their babies for the first time; mothers of children with chronic care issues; mothers of children who feel different, who feel lost; mothers who are watching their children struggle; mothers who are rejoicing in their children’s successes; elder mothers who are less active and still a presence to their family; mothers who nurture the differing natures of each of their children.

I have been privileged to work with mothers who look deeply into the Big Picture of family, saints and skeletons; mothers who are letting their children be exactly where they are, though it breaks their hearts.

I know mothers who are dying; mothers in the sandwich years, pressed between care of older parents and the desire to be there for their children and grandchildren; mothers who are burying children; mothers who are caring for grandchildren; mothers who mother whatever is available, plants, animals, abandoned whatevers, because nurture is their nature.

Opening to all the ways that mothering can look, I am touched to the heart. I am in awe.

Blessing on all who mother.

And travel lightly,

Jaylene

Stay with me/Set me free

Fellow Travellers,

My dad’s been dead three years ago today. I recall clearly thinking as I knew he was dying, that I could be there with him for as long as it took, but I could not ask him to try to hang on.

The thought that kept repeating in my heart was “we live our own Life, we die our own Death.” Over and over, those words echoed. I hear them still.

Part of me is still in that hospital room where the most intense experience of Life took place. It’s imprinted in my memory, the way the room was arranged, the silenced tv, the monitors, his profile that I knew so well, the knowing that his Spirit was separating from his body with each exhalation….and everything in his Life and our family’s was soon going to change in ways I couldn’t forsee.

It’s a sacred thing to see a beloved, anyone really, to the last breath, the last heartbeat. There is nothing more intimate.  Nothing more holy.

It’s enough to hope for the paradox that someone dear will stay with me and at the same time set me free in peace….

Travel lightly,

Jaylene

“NO” with no angst…

Many of us grew up with little or no modeling for what a lively and healthy relationship looks like. As a result, because we didn’t have that model in our younger lives, we’ve been unconsciously drawn to what was familiar as we got older.  Yucky, but yet familiar!  Automatically, we still found ourselves around people whose ways of relating to others replicated what we experienced in our youth. That’s natural.

Even when it’s uncomfortable, we find ourselves in repeating patterns in relationships until our awareness of the bigger picture supports our developing new roles to play in relationships.

I’ve found, in my own life and in working with clients, that it helps to develop a few key indicators, a baseline founded on personal experience, to signal our boundaries to ourselves.  This can be particularly helpful when we’re working our way out of the old patterns and new ways of relating aren’t yet comfortable.  I call the itchy-scratchy phase!

One of my key indicators, in any kind of personal relationship, is the freedom to say NO to the other person without experiencing fear. If we have pangs about the consequences if we say NO to a person we are in any kind of intimate relationship with, it bears exploring.

It could be there’s nothing about the other person that’s threatening and it’s our own hard-wired fear that goes back to something that happened in the past that creates a knot in the throat when NO needs to come out. The past has come into the present moment with us and cuts us off from being there with the other person.

It could be something about the relationship itself that makes NO an unsafe word.  The past may have come into the present moment with us and need to be unlocked so we can allow ourselves to have new kinds of experiences. The past (where we saw parents and other influential people interact in limiting ways) may need to be cleared up, so we can let go of the automatic draw we feel toward domineering, or perhaps passive aggressive partners, or those who simply cannot see (and honor!) us as human beings with our own desires and priorities.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to the complexity of relationship …that’s all for us to each look at for ourselves, our own explorations. A competent therapist can help with this.

Here’s what is true for me now: When we co-create relationships where NO is a word we can say without angst, relationships where what we want/need is honored by the other person, then we’re developing mindful boundaries and have the potential for a lively, invigorating, respectful relationship.

Travel lightly,

Jaylene

P.S. I must add, and this goes for all I post here, these comments are no substitute for therapy. They do not constitute professional services. They simply are my observations and experiences, which I offer in the hope they might jog a bit of personal questioning and awareness on the part of the reader and enrich my own Life experience too.

It’s all a What-ness.

Dear Fellow Travellers,

The scent of honeysuckle and coffee whirl around me this morning. Seems a tad early in the season for honeysuckle in my corner of Mississippi, but there it is, unexpected and a bit out of time, and undeniably real, nonetheless, evidence of our mild winter.

My heart is full of …of….of…..I don’t have any words for what all is in there. Yet.

And my head is full of unformed sentences that haven’t gelled yet either. Threads hanging free on one end, yet on the other end they’re attached to a “something” that matters to me. They flutter loosely —questions and wonderings and ponderings about grief, complexity of relationships, gray areas, brokenness, co-creating, legacy, addiction,grand-parenting, death, intimacy, breaking rules, the outsider/rebel role, shadows, attachment to what doesn’t work (and to what does….hmmmm, what’s that about?), sorrow, bliss, the ineffable…..all those open ends flutter on the honeysuckle-scented breeze.

Yet, all those flapping threads come from the same place and, I am pretty sure, are intertwined into a whole. I hear my grandmother’s voice speak in my own voice: It’s all a “what-ness” she’d say, with that pragmatic shake of her head, and a barely there wry grin.

A What-ness. A What-ness???? It seemed to be an entity, the way she said it. My younger self always meant to ask her, “Mama Hazel, what in the world is a ‘what-ness’?”

But, if I’d asked, I couldn’t have understood then. Even if she’d wrapped up a “what-ness” up in gift paper and tied a bow on it, it was beyond me.

This NOW is a WHAT-NESS. Reality. The whole paradoxical agony/bliss of Life that defies explaining and asks simply to be Lived into.

And Living into it, the mere act of writing this blog this morning, fills in the blank:
My heart is full of …of….of…..A What-ness. It’s a reality as real as the lightness of honeysuckle and the depth of death coming out of their expected season.

Thanks for the wisdom, Mama Hazel. It’s all a What-ness.

There it is.

Travel lightly,

Jaylene

Nesting in Barbed Wire

Fellow Travellers, this is my experience: LIFE IS.

There’s no blank to fill in after the “IS.” That’s it. Period. It is.

My Life’s less about being in the moment than it is being the moment.

A fair percentage of my moments are messy, and often enough, they’re glorious. And most often, they are quietly glorious in their messiness. 😉

And that’s not a bad thing.  As itchy-scratchy as it may be, to be honest with myself, I’ve never had any kind of emotional growth spurt when Life was all pristene and serene.

I’m a bit amazed (but not totally) to find myself nesting in barbed wire.