One day this past summer I found myself alone with my thoughts in Galveston. From my beach chair near the shore, I soaked in the sun to the crashing cadence of the surf until I couldn’t take the heat. I stood up and walked into the waist-deep waves and said, “Take me down, Motherfuckers! You can’t fucking do it.” And I laughed out loud in the face of wave upon wave and walked in a little deeper.
Galveston saved me, and this week I return. This week’s writing retreat begins my new MFA program at a beach house nearby. Each morning through the sliding glass door of my condo bedroom—the golden orb rests for a moment on a blanket of orange and yellow and then rises into the blue. The waves advance on a new day and a new life. Each new dawn reaffirms my decision to be here. Each new chance to begin again—a gift.
I have a story to tell, and I have to tell it. For so many years, I thought the story was about my son Drew and his severe mental illness. I realize now it’s a story about me. It’s about my reactions and my coming to terms and what I’ve learned and how. It’s about my reality and my hope. It’s about sharing to help others and letting people know they are not alone.
So now I face the waves that crash into me. I stand my ground and let them hit, and I laugh out loud because I’m still standing tall with a smile on my face and a “fuck you” for anything that tries to take me down.
On an icy Oklahoma day fifty Decembers ago, I surprised my parents with my missing malehood. No one had seemed to consider that I might be a girl, and I would be named David like my dad with no contingency for a daughter. Following my birth and my mother’s subsequent emergency hysterectomy, the hospital window—obscured with crystals of glistening snow and a valance of shimmering icicles—captivated and inspired my parents. I would be the Crystal that melted their hearts.
I suppose I’ve been more reflective as I wind down my forty-ninth year. I was born December 30, 1969. Hard to believe that my time on this spinning blue ball spans seven different decades—the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, ‘10s, now into the ‘20s. Fifty years later, I ponder how many more? I consider my friends who have leveled up to the big five-oh before me with varying levels of acceptance. I remember my friends and their significant others who have passed on too young and too soon.
As for me, I still feel the same as that little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. Do you know her? When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid. The baby of my family AKA the baby princess. Spoiled. Pouty. Ornery—disguised as sweet and shy.
I still feel like that teenager I once was and the twenty-, the thirty-, the forty-something, just with more experience, more compassion, and a little more fat.
What’s not to like about another year of life? A new decade? A brand new era? So many bucket list items, so many things to do, people to see, places to go, and the blue ball spins on.
At fifty years, nothing surprises me anymore. Truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve learned you can’t predict the future or plan for everything, not without disappointments anyway. Life delivers cruel and unexpected blows, mistakes and heartbreaks and devastating losses with love and joy in the midst. Life delivers inevitable bad and sad—illness, death, and natural disasters with something good in every day. There might be someone living with you and unable to care for himself, someone who hears voices in his head and screams at them, someone who slams doors in your house and causes your dogs to run and hide. There will always be people who don’t meet your expectations, people who don’t do things the same way you would, and so many situations outside of your control. Necessary changes don’t come quick or easy. Some need professional help.
At fifty years, I’ve learned to focus on the good, on the love, on the joy. This focus doesn’t make the bad and sad go away, it just makes the bad and sad tolerable. I notice my sad and frustrated, hateful and angry thoughts spawn more of the same. And I notice that happy thoughts do, too. Beside me now, I have two little black dogs with waggity tails and so much love in their deep brown eyes. These are a few of my favorite things. *Cue Julie Andrews. You know what else I love? Deep thoughts…
Seven Beliefs for Seven Decades:
The ‘60s: “And though she be but little, she is fierce” (William Shakespeare).
The ‘70s: “Do the best you can. Then when you know better, do better” (Maya Angelou).
The ‘80s: “Crystal, you can choose your attitude” (Dad).
The ‘90s: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel” (Maya Angelou).
The ‘00s: “Above all, love each other deeply because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
The ‘10s: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
The ‘20s: “Stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it” (Frank McCourt).
Numbers are just numbers, and who knows when your number is up? And so I try—to live life with an abundance of love and adventure and joy. Carpe Diem, as they say, and Happy Birthday to me! I feel privileged and blessed, thankful and hopeful, and just really happy to be here.
When I stepped into the wind tunnel from the safety of the doorway, I had only two things on my mind: Carpe Diem and survival.* I said a little prayer with faith and gratitude for peace and hope. At home on my laptop, I had skimmed a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and acknowledged that indoor skydiving can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY/DEATH and signed the electronic copy. Then I hopped in my car and drove to Austin for some girl time and a sleepover with two of my elementary school besties.
Pamela, Denise, and I arrived at the iFly in leggings, t-shirts, and tennis shoes before receiving our flight suits, ear plugs, and helmets. During the safety debrief with our instructor Drew, we learned the basics of maintaining a stable flight position, sort of like assuming the airport security position, hands above your head, elbows bent, except with fingers spread strong, feet further than shoulder width, and pelvis forward with a slight arch to the back and a bend in the knee. Drew said, “Tilt your hands to the right to fly right,” while demonstrating with his hands. “Left to fly left.” He tilted his head back, “Chin up to fly up,” and then dropped his head toward his chest, “chin down to fly down.” He straightened his arms to Superman position and said, “Extend your arms to fly forward.” I forget what he said about flying backward, but it didn’t really matter. I was ready.
I stepped up to the doorway and gently leaned into the wind. There was no jumping or falling. Just a sense of peace, floating in the air with an instructor by my side and a second instructor observing, coaching, and manning the camera from outside the wind tunnel. I never once feared for my life. None of us crashed into the wall or fell to our doom. Once back on solid ground, Drew gave me a high five and an enthusiastic, “You’ve never done this before? You were amazing!”
And I felt amazing. Little kids were suited up and waiting to fly after the three of us, and I thought to myself, Sometimes you need childlike faith.
Even before iFly, Pamela and Denise concocted a 50th birthday plan to actually jump out of an airplane with a parachute. Skydiving wasn’t exactly on my bucket list…
Now I might just join them, and maybe one day I’ll finish this one…
When I stepped into the clear blue sky from the safety of the airplane, I had only two things on my mind: Carpe Diem and survival…*
Out of the clear blue, this message popped up on Instagram from Monique, my sophomore student eleven years ago. Eleven years ago I didn’t know that she had failed almost all of her freshman year classes in California, and I didn’t know she would only spend one year in Texas. All I knew was that she had an amazing gift in the written word and that we shared a love of English. Now she works as the Head of Community Relations for Get Lit Words Ignite in Los Angeles and empowers young people to use their authentic voices. Monique is a freelance writer and an agent for social change. She teaches writing workshops globally, speaks at conferences, and leads seminars. Her hustle landed her in Houston to close out the March for Our Lives summit.
Maybe you have heard of March for Our Lives?
In Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was the site of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. Seventeen students and teachers were killed and seventeen more were injured. In the aftermath, a group of students channeled their sadness, pain, and rage into action, and created one of the largest youth-led movements in history. Monique would be a guest speaker closing the summit. Her topic— “Dealing with Trauma in Healthy Ways.”
In 2018 Monique spoke to the California senate influencing their decision to pass Senate Bill 933, a $50M arts education bill. As her proud former teacher, I just happen to have a YouTube clip. Meet poetry-in-motion Monique Mitchell, or as I like to call her, the next Maya Angelou.
When I met up with Monique in the lobby of the Houston Airport Marriott at George Bush International, she embraced me with an energy of love and light.
We sat down in the hotel restaurant, perused the menu, and ordered a drink. “It’s been so long. Tell me. What’s going on with you?” she asked.
If you happen to have me in an intimate one-on-one setting and ask me how things are, I will tell you without the gloss. It just so happened when Monique said, “Tell me. What’s going on with you?” I laid out my truth—the current shit show of my life, Acts I-V with the grand finale of me quitting my job the week before. (That blog post remains unpublished and password protected).
And you know what? I believe in God’s perfect timing to bring people into your life when you need them. Monique counseled me with her radiant joy and the insight of a licensed professional, and she made me feel like the thousands of students I’ve taught over twenty years stood behind me cheering me on. “What are your Wildly Improbable Goals?” she asked.
Most people my age stop talking about goals, not that I don’t have any. I just keep them to myself, you know, in case I fall on my face. “Well,” I hesitated, “I have been accepted into graduate school. It’s an MFA program in Creative Writing. I have to figure out the money part. I don’t like the idea of student debt at my age, and the university is private.”
“That’s awesome! Don’t let the money stop you. You’ll find a way. So what will you do when you graduate?”
“Well, I hope to publish at least one book.”
“No,” she cut me off, shaking her head back and forth. “Don’t use those limiting words. Instead of ‘at least one,’ you should say ‘the first of many.’” The student had become the teacher. “And where do you see yourself ten years from now?”
“Well, with my masters, I could teach Creative Writing at the college level. Before we moved to Houston, I taught Creative Writing at my last high school, and those were my favorite classes ever.”
Monique sat for a moment processing all the words that had passed between us. “Tomorrow is the new moon,” she said. “A new moon represents the ending of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. For a while I’ve been writing out my intentions on each new moon. You can google the dates. I had been wanting to move to Africa and spend time writing a book, and I wrote down my goal on a new moon, and a path opened up for employment in Ghana.”
I stared at her halfway disbelieving, simultaneously knowing of her upcoming move and contemplating all of her success stories. “Are you serious? That’s amazing!”
She searched my eyes and found the connection. “When you set your new moon intentions tomorrow, open your journal entry with ‘I now declare all of this or something greater for my highest good and the highest good of all involved.’ Speak in the affirmative like ‘I now receive’ or ‘I am thriving in my master’s program.’”
Before we parted ways that July day, Monique hugged me one more time and said, “We are blessed to be here. The world needs your voice. I love you!”
And oh my gosh, I love that girl, too. On 12/12 she heads off on her next most excellent adventure to Ghana, which reminds me of a wildly inspirational memoir I just finished—The Heart of a Woman, by the wildly talented Maya Angelou, who had one wildly improbable goal after another. Her story begins in 1957 Los Angeles, hosting Billie Holiday in her home, and ends in 1962 Accra, Ghana. Coincidence? I’m telling you, Monique Mitchell is the next Maya Angelou.
And as for me, I received a little scholarship, applied for financial aid, and found my way. I’m now officially registered at Houston Baptist University for classes that begin with a retreat to Galveston on January 5, in the new year, the new decade, seven days after my 50th birthday. How wildly improbable!
Speaking of wildly improbable, you’ve reached the end of my 75th post. Thanks so much for reading, supporting me, and sharing in my formula: Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope
(If you have another few minutes, I happen to have one more short film produced by Lexus for the holidays starring the wildly talented Monique Mitchell. Grab a box of tissues.)
I’m on a two-week church streak. Since moving to Houston in 2016 and leaving behind my seemingly irreplaceable Chase Oaks in Dallas, well, let’s just say I sort of slipped off the church wagon. I visited here and there, and in a city the size of Houston, it’s weird that I couldn’t find a place that felt like home. Eventually, I gave up and just lived in sin.
(Ha Ha! I kid. We’re all sinners and by that I mean imperfect. But I keep trying to be a better human anyway.)
Two Sundays ago, I found myself at the Methodist church in my Oklahoma panhandle hometown. Olivia, my five-year-old great niece, was singing in the children’s choir, and well, I couldn’t miss that. Their song went something like this, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings for what the Lord has done.” And I did. While the kids sang, I counted my blessings.
Seeing my sweet mother again.
Hearing my mom say, “I love you,” to me one more time.
Seeing and hearing Olivia’s performance and gleaning a jewel of wisdom.
The opportunity for some time off of work to spend time with my family.
A safe solo trip to the panhandle.
My three-year-old niece Allyson, playing hide and seek with me in the next pew.
My last class of my 12-week, long-term sub job, where we had a round of Show and Tell, and Jennissa and Neicko brought down the house with their own rendition of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s duet “Shallow” from A Star Is Born.
I could’ve continued counting, but I zoned back into the service in time for the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” which led into the sermon and the backstory of the song writer Horatio Spafford. A lawyer from Chicago, in 1871 Spafford’s four-year-old son died of Scarlet fever and the Great Fire destroyed his real estate investment and ruined him financially. Two years later his wife and four daughters headed to Europe on vacation, where he planned to later join them, and their ship the S.S. Ville du Havre sank in the Atlantic Ocean. His wife’s telegram read, “Saved alone.” Their four daughters had drowned. He wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” on his journey to England to meet his wife while passing near the spot where the ship went down. In the face of more tragedy than the average person could bear, Spafford’s soul was well. Mid-blessing count, my soul is well, too.
Back in Houston last Sunday, I tried a new church, River Pointe, by recommendation of my friend Mary. Like my Chase Oaks back in Dallas, the music was outstanding, a mix of contemporary and traditional, and for the second time in a week, I sang “It Is Well With My Soul.” This time the minister referenced the songwriter Horatio Spafford and said, “You should Google him.” I remembered the story from last week’s service in Oklahoma (Thanksgiving Episode 1) and silently wondered if God was trying to tell me something. I mean, my soul still felt pretty darn good. As pastor Ryan Leak spoke, I heard the boom of God’s voice and a special Thanksgiving message crystal clear.
Regardless of what you think about Jesus, you have to admit he has a common sense approach to relationship restoration. And while some of us can’t wait to gather with our families at Thanksgiving and throughout the upcoming holidays, some of us have some relationship issues that strike discord and darken spirits.
As I typed up a few sermon notes to keep for myself, I decided to share with you if you so choose to read on. Let us now turn to the New Testament.
“Then Peter came to Him and asked, ‘Lord,
how many times will my brother sin against me and I forgive him and let
it go? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered him, ‘I say to you, not up to seven
times, but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Did you see the italicized and? It’s
not just about the forgiveness. We must also let it go.
“If your brother or sister sins against
you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against
you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’
you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4).
Before you sit down to the Thanksgiving table, remember the words. You see, faith allows you to do what sometimes seems impossible…like letting go and moving on. It is impossible that no offenses will come. We are human. None of us are perfect, but it’s so much easier to point the finger in blame rather than to let a wrongdoing go. Jesus says, “Let it go. 490 times. Let it go.” Did you notice the imperative statement, also known as a command (ment). Ask God to give you an opportunity to be honest (rebuke them), then be generous with your forgiveness and discerning with reconciliation. That is God’s message. The message I needed to hear.
As I left the sanctuary that day, the woman sitting next to me turned, looked me in the eye, and said in a lilting Nigerian accent, “And to think that God would give us the grace to forgive every family member.”
Dave would know a thing or two about trials, having undergone two kidney transplants. I wondered, but didn’t ask, if his group experiment happened as he waited for that second kidney earlier this year. I copied and pasted the scripture into my iPhone notes and replied:
And he responded once more:
Oh dang! So now I can’t keep the joy to myself, Dave? You mean, I have to seek it and share it with others and coerce them to do the same? I mean, that takes some vulnerability, Dave!
Of course, I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I took Dave’s challenge and texted my like-minded, elementary-school besties: Pamela, Starla, and Denise, my friends for forty-plus years, whom I voted most likely to play along. Their words in turn conveyed varying degrees of enthusiasm in no particular order:
“It’s going to be a hard month, but I will do it with you.”
“I thought that was why God made wine? To find joy in the struggles.”
“Count it all Joy! Oh boy…this is tough. I will write it on a sticky on my desk.”
And in the end with some arm twisting, I found my tribe…and strength…and JOY. Ya’ll, my life is not without problems. Am I seeking joy? Um, yeah. Do I intentionally surround myself with good energy? Absolutely.