My Therapist at Ace Hardware

“Where can I find steel wool?” The Ace Hardware greeter directed me to Aisle 5, where I found it on the bottom shelf. I was looking for the coarsest kind to plug up the many holes in our house that led to the crawl space. I had done a quick survey and found at least three gaps where pipes went from the baseboard heating or from appliances down through the floor to the crawl space, a place where one hoped never to have to go.

And what is so repellent about our crawl space? It is home to mice, of course, which is nothing new and part of country life. But wait, as they say on late night TV, there’s more! Let me back track a couple of weeks.

Roberto and grandson take in the Grand Canyon, oblivious to what is happening at home

We took a short trip to Grand Canyon and while we were gone our cat-sitter Miranda called us to report that our cats were delighted with their new companion, a three-foot snake which she found on the rug in our bedroom. It was a good thing that I was in our hotel room and not near the canyon or I surely would have leapt in when I saw the photo of Miranda, clearly in our bedroom, beaming and holding the snake by the head while it wrapped around her arm. She likes snakes and took it to her house to live…outside I presume.

Miranda the Magnificent with the snake she found in our bedroom

If you saw my post about the giant pink snake in the tree you will understand how deep my fear of snakes runs. By the time we got home I was a wreck. I forced myself inside and walked from room to room, eyes glued to the floor, flinching at a computer cord, a snake-like cat toy, even shoe laces. Anything long and thin was a source for panic. Clearly we had to find every possible snake access and plug it up.

So there I was, sitting on the floor inspecting the bins of steel wool when a young woman in a red Ace Hardware polo shirt asked if I needed help. I looked up and saw a smiling 20-something, with short black hair and a piercing or two. On the verge of tears, I explained that just that morning I had found the second snake to invade our house. This one, much smaller than the first, (could there be a nest of baby snakes???!!!) had apparently been killed by our cats. I was so afraid of snakes, I explained, and I figured that the best way to keep them out was to plug all access, hence the steel wool.

She listened thoughtfully before speaking.

“Of course, you need to plug those holes — you can’t have snakes in your house. I would recommend this expanding spray foam. It will fill the holes and dry hard. Snakes can push steel wool out of the way if they want to. They are very strong, but this foam will stop them.”

She handed me a canister and I thanked her, but she went on, stooping down to my level.

“You know, I was very lucky. My uncle loved snakes. He had a boa constrictor.” I probably made a face but she went on. “I spent a lot of time at his house, and one day when my mom came to get me, that boa was wrapped around my body – I was about five and it wasn’t squeezing me at all, just gently hugging me. Every time I went over there, it came and wrapped around me. It loved me, and I loved it. In the summer I would walk outside with the snake around me. It always let me have my arms free, so sometimes I would hold a book and read stories to the snake as we walked. Those were great times. I was really lucky.”

I was waiting for the “so there’s nothing to be afraid of, snakes are kind, you should get over it, etc.”  Instead she said, “But you have a phobia and that’s a serious thing. We need to get those holes plugged up.” We examined the different foam canisters and chose one especially for pests. I thanked her, got to my feet and left for home.

I thought about her story and found that, rather than revolting me or freaking me out, it gave me real pleasure. The picture of her walking around the garden reading to her boa buddy made me smile. There are lots of ways of relating to snakes and I do not have to be locked in my version. I’m not saying that at this point I am able to free myself of the phobia, but it is very helpful to have a different version to draw on. My Ace Hardware therapist understood that and generously offered her story — an alternative narrative about snakes — rather than trying to talk me out of my phobia. She was respectful, sensitive and knew what I needed. What more can one ask from a therapist?

Note:  I realize I am on a roll with stories of strangers helping me deal with fears. See last month’s it just me, or have you been lucky in this way, too?

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I was on my way…

I was on my way to saying no thanks. In fact I had said “no thanks, I would rather just stay in the house.” I would really be perfectly fine if Roberto went by himself. He looked at me questioningly, hesitated, then picked up the phone and dialed.

“Yes. I’d like to make a reservation to go on your snorkeling trip – at night – the one with the manta rays.” Pause. “Um. How about tomorrow?” Pause  “Good. That’s great.” Pause “4:30? Yes, I know where that is. And do you provide wetsuits and gear and everything?” Pause  “Sounds good. Here’s the credit card number.” He read the card number, expiration date, etc. another pause, and then he said, “Just one – I just need one reservation.”

“Wait” I shouted across the room. “I want to go, too!” I realized that if he went without me and came back so excited about some adventure he’d had, I would feel bad. Worse, I would feel like a wimp. I am a happy, comfortable swimmer and love the ocean. I just don’t want to see what’s down there. It’s all too scary, and the thought of looking down there at night just multiplied the fear factor.

“Just a minute, please,” and Roberto covered the receiver with his hand. “You don’t have to, really. If you don’t want to it’s ok –“

“No! Get two tickets. I want to go.”

And so I did.

The boat was noisy and smelled of fuel, but I was encouraged by the crew who were young, jolly, and clearly used to handling all kinds of tourists, all shapes, sizes, and attitudes. It was late afternoon when we arrived at the manta ray feeding grounds and took our first dip. I was determined to be a good sport. I pushed off from the boat and peeked into the water. Nothing remarkable. Then in the distance, I saw a manta ray-shaped thing. I was excited, gurgled through the mask to Roberto to look in that direction and he confirmed it. I stayed out a few more minutes and clambered back onto the boat, well satisfied.

The main event, of course, was snorkeling at night, but I felt sure that I had seen enough, and so I munched on my box dinner relatively anxiety free. With the sun dropping into the sea behind us, a cheery crew member told us a bit about the remarkable manta ray and explained the drill. We –  there were about 8 of us – would get in the water and swim a hundred yards to a spot where our snorkeler wrangler would be waiting with a giant hula hoop floating on top of the water. We would grab onto the hula hoop with one hand and point our flashlights downward into the water. This would create a column of light, which would be matched by the scuba divers already on the bottom about 40 feet down, shining their flashlights up toward us. The column of light would attract the plankton and the mantas would come to dine. We were setting their dinner table for them.

I listened to all this with detached interest. When Jack, one of the crew, said it was time to go in, I said I would be staying on the boat. A grandmother and grandson had already made that decision and I thought they looked like good company.

“Why don’t you want to go?” Jack asked.

“I’m afraid”

“Of what?”

“Of the manta rays. They’re so big.”

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“One might touch me, hit me with his arm – his wing – whatever.”

“And then what would happen?”

“Well, it might flip me up in the air”

“And then what would happen?”

“I might die of a heart attack.”

“Lucy,” he said gently. “You are not going to die of a heart attack or anything else out there.”

I thought for a few seconds. OK, if I wasn’t going to die….how bad could it be? And if I did die, it would all be Jack’s fault. Anxiety rising, I jumped in the water before I could change my mind.

We swam out to the hula hoop and grabbed on. I was next to Roberto, who put his hand over mine reassuringly. I put my head down, let my body float out in back of me and looked down. There were manta rays! They were huge – 14 feet wing spans – they were wheeling and somersaulting under me, sucking up the billions of tiny plankton meals drawn to the light. Their wings were frilly at the edges,  and they glided and swooped from bottom to top in arcs and circles, their mouths like car grills, huge wide slits. They were so graceful, so beautiful, so grand and so natural, weaving in and out, avoiding each other and us, coming close – two feet sometimes, but never touching us.

I was so overwhelmed, I turned to Roberto whose eyes were bugging out of his mask, and got his attention. I gurgled and spluttered and squealed through my snorkel tube in my excitement, and he nodded violently. I stayed there clinging to the hula hoop for a half hour. I can’t explain the depth of the feeling, but I was moved to tears at times…. my own salty tears inside the mask…the ocean outside. They were so beautiful, like ballerinas, huge ballerinas of nature, ocean dwelling acrobats. I felt so lucky to be there, to see this wonder of the planet. I felt so small. It was inspiring, overwhelming. I swam back to the boat a different person.

I had been on my way to fear and dread, and I had found peace, a deep and awesome peace.

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Celebrating Ingenuity

I don’t know why this tickled me so much, so I thought I would share it with you and see if together we can figure out why.

My son Nathan lives in Manila and works throughout the Philippines for USAID (Agency for International Development). It is the arm of our government that tries to do good in the world, funding roads, water, health and human services projects in countries that are struggling. He worked in Palestine before being transferred to Manila for four years after which he will probably be sent to a hardship post like Afghanistan. But I digress.

He sent me these photos recently and this is the story. He went to evaluate a project in the city of Legazpi in the Bicol region of the island of Luzon. He and the local folks working on the project visited a nearby volcano called Mayon. There were a couple of guys there, Nathan said, who were available to take staged photos of tourists. There wasn’t any advertising, no hustling, they just made it known that they could take a photo with your own iPhone that would amaze and amuse friends and family. Nathan’s local colleagues told him that they hoped for a tip and that was all. Intrigued, Nathan agreed and they choreographed and snapped these three photos. (more…)

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Imagine You Are on a Plane…

Imagine you are on a plane waiting to take off for Louisville. It is 5:00 pm and as instructed you have your seat belt buckled. The plane should have taken off 20 minutes ago and you are getting irritated.

A woman in an airline uniform stands at the front of the plane and speaks into the loud speaker.

“Good evening everyone. I am Sonia the booking agent for this flight. You may have seen me at the counter when you boarded. I want to apologize for the delay and explain to you what is happening. As you can see, this flight is completely full. Every seat is taken. We want to get you to Louisville just as soon as we can, but we have a problem. There are four crew members who need to get to Louisville tonight. If they don’t get there two early morning flights tomorrow will have to be cancelled and there will be a lot of disappointed travelers. (more…)

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It’s hard to write…

I always try to write something more or less upbeat on this blog, but this month I had a terrible time. I had opened the paper to see that the administration was gutting EPA, where I have so many friends and colleagues doing such important work. Every story – local, national and global — was filled with despair and foretold the end of more than a healthy environment. I saw our moral fiber crumbling, our values in a shambles, our caring and empathy for each other in rapid decline.

The next morning in that half-sleep and half-awake state I had a vision of a postcard I received many years ago. I have found that these flashes from the elusive land between conscious and unconscious are worth paying to attention to. And this one came with a message. Here it is.

When my younger son was 7 he went to a music summer camp in the mountains a couple of hours from home. That’s young, but he went with his older brother who had filled him with exciting stories from the year before. Nathan was eager to have those adventures, spend time with all the big kids and learn to play the drums. Halfway through the two-week camp session every kid wrote a postcard home. It was required and we parents looked forward to that reassurance that our child was alive and having fun. (more…)

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“A First”

As we age there are inevitably fewer and fewer “firsts.” At some point we have done, at least once, pretty much everything we wanted or needed to do.

But I am proud to say that I just experienced a big one – my first Democratic Party Ward Meeting. Roberto and I decided in these times of “What can we do?” to start at the grass roots and see what this work-in-progress called democracy is all about.

We pulled into the community center parking lot early and were surprised at the number of cars. And inside there was a mob. We greeted friends, got in line to be certified and receive our ballots, and found seats.  In a few minutes there was standing room only and the current ward chair addressed the crowd.

Ward 4a meeting, Santa Fe County

“My name is Terry Rivera and I am the chair of Ward 4a. I have been the chair for 54 years…” At this point I was sure I had heard wrong but Roberto confirmed, 54 years. “My father was ward chair and then I took over. I want to welcome everyone but also I can’t believe what I’m seeing – so many people! Usually I have to bring my children and grandchildren to make a quorum of six!”  Her expression was a mixture of pleasure and shock, with a trace of apprehension.


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Always Was and Always Will Be

If you are lucky enough to be a New Mexican you will probably grasp this immediately. If you are from elsewhere and have never had the chance to spend a few hours at a Pueblo feast day, let me introduce you to something very special.

Pueblo culture and religion run deep. In New Mexico, each of the pueblos has certain days of the year they celebrate. It may be to honor a patron saint, a time of harvest, or something that we non-pueblos don’t need to know about. A feast day includes traditional dancing in the morning and afternoon with a break in the middle when the dancers and cultural leaders retreat to the kiva and observers retreat to someone’s house for one of the best meals you will ever have. I find myself reluctant to say more for fear that hordes from around the country will come flocking and ruin the experience.


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Listen and Start Again

Rice paddy outside Ubud, Bali

In 2010 Roberto and I spent a month in Bali with the Bali Art Project. We went with friends who founded this remarkable program that takes eight lucky high school students and eight adults to spend a month in Bali, studying music, dance, painting and puppet making. For everyone who goes, it is life-changing, and I was no exception.

The students with van and driver

That first hot and humid morning, we all piled into our van and crawled through the clogged traffic to our gamelan lesson. The classroom was more like a temple, beautiful, ornate, with high-ceilings. And our teacher, we had been told, was not a mere teacher, but a master; we were very fortunate that he was willing to take us on. He was dressed traditionally and welcomed us with a smile full of the most brilliant white teeth. There were four rows in the orchestra, with gamelans of different sizes and different numbers of xylophone-like bars. He invited us to sit where we liked. I chose a mid-size model and slid onto the low stool facing my gamelan. (more…)

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Troubled Waters: A Tale of Two Protests

Remember the occupation earlier this year of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge building in Oregon by the Bundy brothers and friends? They had come to the rescue (in their opinion) of locals who had been convicted of burning forest land and were protesting. They saw these rural Oregonians as fellow victims of the federal lands policies — policies that deny them free use of public lands. They were not welcomed by most locals who preferred to handle the situation in their own way and resented outside interference.

standing-rockNot long after Malheur, the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline project began at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Thousands of sympathizers, Indian and non-Indian, flocked to the encampment to ally with the Sioux. The Standing Rock Chairman expressed thanks to all who are raising their voices with the Sioux against the actions of the pipeline company and what they see as the complicity of the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for permitting the route under the Missouri River just upstream of the tribe.


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Strange Bedfellows: Me and Glenn Beck

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read Glenn Beck’s recent commentary in the New York Times.  “The only way for our society to work is for each of us to respect the views of others, and even try to understand and empathize with one another,” he wrote. He took the words right out of my mouth. I nodded vigorously again as I read on. Grassroots movements, including the Tea Party, Bernie Sanders’ followers, Occupy Wall Street and others, he said, share the same feelings of not being heard, of not belonging, of having no control over their future.

So where did this revelation come from, I wondered? He explains that following the shooting of the five police officers in Dallas, he saw the parents of the gunman interviewed and was struck with their grief “as parents, as Americans and as human beings.” He invited several Black Lives Matter activists on his radio show and got to know them on and off air, he says, and found them to be decent, hardworking, patriotic people. Although he disagrees with them on many things, including politics, he says, “are we not more than politics?” Good for Glenn. He took the initiative and reached out to listen and learn.

He goes on to say, “We are a country in trouble and we have only one way out: reconciliation. We must follow the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message and method and move away from a pursuit of ‘winning’ and toward reclaiming our shared humanity…cultivating empathy for one another, in our communities and in the news media, …and in our politics. [This] is the path we must choose as nation. If we don’t, what we have seen this year will be just the beginning of the hate we are about to unleash.”

I couldn’t agree more with my new strange bedfellow, and I am excited (perhaps a poor choice of words in this context) to hear my dearly held sentiments coming from such an unexpected place. But this in itself is interesting. I realize that I expect to hear what I believe from those like me. I expect those that aren’t like me to say something contradictory. I expect that only liberal, progressive, bleeding-heart, peace-seeking folk like myself will expound on empathy and reconciliation.

But Glenn shows me that this concept that we are all human beings and need to show each other respect and empathy is not exclusive to me and my kind. He and I are polar opposites on so many social, economic and political issues of the day, and yet there he is, standing with me, defending my most fundamental belief. This means that there be many more of these believers out there in places I never dreamed of exploring. And it means that I have been a real isolationist when I didn’t need to be. If people who disagree on all kinds of issues can at least commit to respect and empathy….wow, there may be hope!

And so, Glenn and I, together, urge our friends, neighbors, countrymen and leaders to reach across that aisle, that backyard fence, that workplace cubicle – whatever separates you from the other – and offer a little respect and empathy and see what happens.

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