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My Heroes Have Always Been Everywhere, As It Turns Out

Almost nineteen years ago, when I was going through chemo for breast cancer, I used to go shopping the day before each treatment.  Retail therapy, cancer survivors call it.

I laughed with the saleswomen and took some clothes to try on into the fitting room.  There, I watched myself carefully as I undressed.  I was seeing my “true” self, I thought, with the fresh red scars slashed across my chest.  Every night, when I pulled off my wig, I saw that person, too, the way she really looked — bald and pasty-faced: a typical cancer patient.

I spent a few seconds congratulating myself on how well I pulled it off — my semi-public persona, I mean.  The saleswomen had no idea what I really looked like or how scared I was.  They couldn’t see my new scars.  They couldn’t read my chaotic, troubled mind.

That was when it hit me, finally — that real moment of truth.  The rest of the world, I realized suddenly, was doing the same thing.   We all tried to keep our scars private, to compensate as mightily as we could by being upbeat, appearing untroubled, pasting on that wig, that grin, cracking those jokes.  Nobody could see us sweat.  God forbid.

I learned the same lesson of how little we know of others’ lives and struggles when I began to go to survivors’ support groups.  How many times did it have to happen to me before I learned it?  Almost invariably, the one woman in the group I’d picked out as fortunate and enviable — you know, the pretty one who was well-dressed and self-confident — turned out to be the sickest in the group, with a prognosis that would be fatal.  I knew nothing, saw only the unblemished surface.

These days, I look around at my friends and acquaintances and often think the same thing: I know so little of their lives — and  they surprise and shock me with the problems and concerns they bear privately.  The friend who struggles with depression — a young, beautiful, smart, successful woman you’d never dream has a care.  Another whose child is an unending cause for concern.  Another who’s struggling with the aftermath of cancer treatment, a time that can be enormously difficult, when all the world moves on, convinced you’re fortunate and whole when, in fact, you’re scared to death and shaken to the very depths of your being.

How many times do I have to learn and re-learn that same lesson I thought I’d mastered in the dressing room 19 years ago?

You say the world has no heroes?  I say they’re everywhere, living among us, bearing burdens we can’t fathom.  It’s just that the rest of us are too focused on our own scars, sure we’re the only ones who struggle, overlooking the heroes who surround us, quietly doing their best and persevering.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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How Old Are You?

When I started out as a journalist, which was about a zillion years ago, give or take a century, the question I always hated asking someone was how old he was.  It just seemed so personal, so prying, so impertinent.  I’d always apologize before I could even bring myself to ask the question.

As I say, that was a long time ago.  These days, I’m different.  How old are you?  I ask everybody that.  It’s terrible, shameless.  I don’t even have an excuse, since I’m usually not writing an article.  I just want to know.

“Tell me somebody’s age and where he grew up — and I already know a lot about him,” somebody told me recently.  Who?  I don’t know.  I’ve already forgotten.  Ask me tomorrow.  I’ll probably remember by then.  But it was somebody smart.

Ask someone’s age and you find out the music he grew up with, the presidency that shaped his early years, the politics, the wars, the economy, the culture, the fashions.  Where is she in her life?  Past college and early-career struggles?  At a point when, most likely, she still feels invulnerable?  Or have the casualties in his life — the illnesses and deaths, the physical slippages, the sheer randomness of the events and years that have passed — forced a certain kind of humility and fatalism?

Did you ever wear hot pants or leisure suits or — if you’re a male — a gold chain around your neck?  A pixie cut or sideburns?  Where were you when JFK was assassinated?   Can you hula hoop or do the twist?  Did you reallly believe the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking, or did you keep puffing so you could figure it out?

What do you remember and what formed you?  Where are you in your life?  That’s what I really want to know.  Maybe it’s the rudest question on earth.

But there’s a certain symmetry to it: The older you are, the freer you are to ask.  The older you are, the faster you forget.  So you ask again and again and after a while, it doesn’t even seem rude any longer.

Tell me who you are.  What could be possibly rude about wanting to know a thing like that?

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Meditations on Being the Kind of Woman Who Never Inspired a Rock’n’Roll Song

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This is What a Drought Will Do to You

[blogger's note: I came across this post from a few years back and had to re-publish it. It's my impassioned ode to Tropical Storm Edouard. Droughts, you see, make us all crazy.]

Oh — Edouard!

I watched you from a distance for days. You were big. You were strong. You were masterly. I had such great expectations for what you could do for me. I saw you grow.  I liked the way you moved — slowly, but powerfully.  Coming, inexorably, in this direction.  Promising relief from this dry, parched season that’s left us all desperate and thirsty.

Can I help it if a tropical storm — rumored to be on his way toward official hurricane status — has this effect on me? 

Of course not.  I’m from West Texas.  I worship clouds, rain, winds, lighting, thunder.  People in West Texas pray for rain, even when they’re agnostics, like me.  Have you ever heard the saying about how there are no atheists in a foxhole?  Well, the same is true about a drought.  Parched, we all turn pious.

I watched the weather reports, with their estimates of 90 percent chances of rain, their flood watches, their eager warnings of an imminent deluge.  I didn’t even feel as guilty about the crackling dryness of those withered little flowers I planted since, after all, Edouard was on his way.  He’d save us from this interminable summer of triple-digit temperatures, blazing skies, and threatening wildifres.

The skies darkened a little.  Clouds passed through.  I watched the Weather Channel, surfed to the Doppler radar, agonized over your not-quite-hurricane status.  “We don’t want the people on the coast to get hit with too big a hurricane,” the TV weatherpeople announced sanctimoniously.  “We just want some rain for Central Texas.”  Well, ha.  We’re all so desperate for rain — what did we care?  Bring it on!

But, no.  You disappointed, Edouard.  You left us all bitter and dry and untrusting.  You didn’t so much hit landfall as break apart and deflate and dissipate, your little rings of clouds shrinking into feathery marks.

We wanted something big, something massive, something powerful to cool our fevered faces and nourish our brown lawns.  And all we got is you.  Face it, Edouard.  In the end, you were nothing but an impotent drip.

 

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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Indifference and Beauty

There’s a scene in Three Days of the Condor that’s always haunted me. The world-weary hired assassin Joubert, who loves classical music and longs for the civilized ways of Europe, advises the hunted American, Joe Turner, that Turner’s time is short. As a CIA employee who knows too much, he will never be safe.

“Here is how it will happen,” Joubert says (and I’m paraphrasing, because my memory’s not that great). “It will be a beautiful spring day and you will be out walking. A car will pull up. Someone you know and trust will be in it.”

Joubert shakes his head sadly, because on that beautiful day, Turner will be betrayed and murdered because he has become an embarrassment to the agency.

But — the beautiful spring day, the leisurely walk, the lightheartedness of it all, the innocence, the betrayal, the ultimate indifference of the universe.  That’s how it can happen.

Here is how it happened to me: September 8, 1995, was a beautiful autumn afternoon, with a blazing sun and clear blue skies.  There was a breeze coming in through my office door.

The day had passed without my hearing from the doctor’s office about my recent biopsies. So I called the office myself. I was put on hold.  I waited and waited and sat and stared and drummed my fingers and felt sick to my stomach.  I hadn’t been able to work for two weeks, ever since a suspicious mammogram had come back.

The line clicked and I heard someone clear his throat. “Mrs. Pennebaker, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you,” he said. “The biopsy was positive.”

I can’t really describe what it’s like to hear that, except to say that a bomb goes off inside you and nothing seems real and it’s as if you’re a character in a bad movie who keeps mouthing lines that don’t make sense. Because, of course, this can’t be happening. You — that strong, healthy person — can’t possibly have been betrayed by her body.

The months pass quickly, crazily. Surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation and follow-up exams come and go.

Then years pass.  Planes fly into buildings and the buildings collapse. Children you thought you’d never see live to adulthood graduate from high school and college. Wonderful, brave friends sicken and get worse and die. You get spared for no particular reason – not because you’re a better, stronger person — but simply because you have been more fortunate than others.

This isn’t a matter of logic; it just happens. Remember, the universe is ultimately, heartbreakingly indifferent.

So many years pass — 19 now — that it takes you till mid-morning to realize what day it is.

Nineteen years!  You’re old enough now to realize a gift when you get it, whether you deserve it or not.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Are You Feeling Lucky Today?

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This Year, I’m not Falling For It

It’s September! It must be fall!

I know this because you can’t raise an eyebrow right now without hearing about football games or school starting or the latest fall fashions. September’s on the calendar, in the newscasts, planted firmly in the zeitgeist.

Thinking about it — this new, exciting season! — I get a little shiver. Isn’t that a nip in the air I just felt? No, it’s just the air-conditioning going full throttle.

You see, September is a highly confusing month if you live where I do, in the middle of Texas. September promises so much, but it delivers hot air.

At the end of the heinous, hellhole summer of 2000, if my fried brain cells recall correctly, September served up an endless furnace of triple-digit heat day after relentless day — 113, 115, 110, and so on. I’m pretty sure those were Fahrenheit temperatures, but come on, who knows and what difference does it make?

The triple digits were excruciating, but really, it was September itself that was the coup de grace. We expected better! We had been misled — by the calendar, the national media, the endless hype of autumn. Year after year, we learned the same bitter lesson that no, we weren’t all in it together.

You were basking in the gently slanted sunlight and breathing in the crisp, cool air; we were blinded by the merciless sun and shake-baking in the inferno. You were getting out your cashmere and longer sleeves and darker colors; we were staring disgustedly at our limp, sweat-soaked shorts and T-shirts (which, frankly, should have been incinerated and/or fumigated in July), wondering if we could bear to wear them again.

But, it’s always been like this. I should have learned. But, oh, no.

Growing up in West Texas, I was the overly bookish sort of kid who got her ideas about life and seasons at the library. I’d bring home piles of books that assured me that autumns were glorious, teeming with brisk days and cold nights that turned the trees fiery red and orange and amber. You could rake leaves and jump in them, you could shiver by the fireplace till it warmed you.

Sometimes, I looked up and out the window, sometimes I even opened the cranky venetian blinds. It was always a big mistake. I was usually eyeball-to-eyeball with whatever spindly tree had been planted close to our house. The tree was always staked to the ground so it wouldn’t blow away in the fierce winds.

(The wind — oh, the wind! It blew every season, spreading red dust under the doors and windows, smacking you in the face when you went outside and hitting you so hard it almost seemed personal. The wind, I should tell you, is why so many Texas women layer blast half a can of hair spray on their hair every morning; what other choice was there if you wanted a perky bouffant?)

But, anyway, nothing said fall like the West Texas wind, even though the wind also said winter, spring, and summer. And you know the rumor about leaves turning color? Well, ha. That’s all I have to say. Ha. The only trees that could make it in West Texas were mesquites — gnarled and low-lying and tenacious, which is kind of similar to West Texans themselves; that land molds you if you’re going to survive.

Yes, you're right. This is not beautiful.

Mesquites were unbeautiful, but by God, they were ours. I was 40 before I ever heard the term trash tree applied to mesquites. It shocked me so much, I almost took to my bed. I had spent my youth in the company of those maligned trees, marveling at their greenness, their existence, how they broke up the flat landscape and provided visual interest. Calling them trash trees was a sacrilege.

But, you know, mesquites just didn’t deliver when it came to foliage. I had to move to Central Texas to find leaves that turned lovely colors.

Not that they turn in September. Nope. We have to wait a couple of months. We do have September in Texas, but we call it November. It’s like I said: The land molds you if you want to survive.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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their seasons are not our seasons

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