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Renee Dubeau

Creative Nonfiction & Inspirational Shit

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Stories

Where did “You Are Important” come from?

I live in an affluent little bubble in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. The poverty and hunger here are well hidden, tucked away behind strip malls and subdivisions with cul-de-sacs and swimming pools. But, if you pay attention, you’ll see it. Panhandling is forbidden in suburbia, so you have to look beyond street corners and exit ramps to find our homeless and hungry. Or, sometimes, you don’t have to go looking. Sometimes, they jump right out at you. That’s what happened to me.

I was working for a large health care company as a claims adjuster. I was a single mom with two teenagers at home, and often started my work day before the sun came up. There was a Starbucks on my way to work, where I stopped frequently before my six o’clock shift started. I thought nothing of the five dollar coconut milk latte I enjoyed several days week— a necessary luxury to begin my long day of staring at spreadsheets and medical claims. That’s where I saw him.

I was sitting in the drive-through waiting to order my much needed cup of motivation when I noticed one lonely car in the strip mall parking lot. All of the stores were closed, and would be for hours. Maybe that’s why it looked so strange there, all alone, in the well-lit space between the Starbucks and the Bed Bath and Beyond. It wasn’t the typical car you see in that particular part of town. It was older, and showed more wear.

As I examined the little, red car in the early-morning-empty-lot, I found that the driver of the vehicle was reclined in the front seat, asleep. It was strange. Not something you see every day. But, certainly, he had chosen a safe place to rest. I assumed he was a traveler who had pulled off the nearby interstate for a nap. That is, until the next time I saw him there in the same spot, sleeping in the rain a few days later.

On the third occasion I saw this stranger sleeping in his little red car, he had the driver’s side door propped open, his bare foot extended out onto the ground below him. That was the morning I made an agreement with myself: If I was going to take my privileged ass through that drive through for another latte, I had to bring him breakfast.

I had an appointment one morning, and was driving to the office late when I remembered the stranger. This was the perfect day to make good on my agreement. I drove by to see if he was there, and my heart jumped at the sight of his little red car. I drove across the street to  McDonald’s and ordered a little bit of everything. I had no idea what this man might like for breakfast, or how he took his coffee, or if he drank coffee at all. When I returned with a bag of breakfast foods, coffee and juice he was awake, sitting up in the front seat. I pulled up next to him, gathered the items, and got out of my car.

I was suddenly nervous. I felt my heart speeding up with each step I took toward his driver side door. I quickly noticed that his car was full from floor board to ceiling with clothing, blankets, trash and all kinds of things. He was talking on a cell phone when I knocked on his window.

“Um, just a second,” he said, placing his phone on the pile of items in the passenger seat. He was a young man, maybe in his twenties. He had dark hair, dark features, kind eyes. 

“Good morning! I brought you some breakfast.” I said, extending the bag and cardboard cup holder toward him.

“Thank you so much!” He took the items from my now trembling hands. “You are so kind! I don’t know how to thank you. What made you want to do this today?”

The honest answer to his question was guilt. I felt guilty sitting in that drive through every day waiting for my coffee while he slept in his car. I felt guilty for having the luxury of my latte habit, and the comfort of the bed I had just left to go to my job that afforded me a life that did not necessitate things like sleeping in my car in a well-lit strip mall parking lot. Probably, this stemmed from my deeper guilt of leaving my family behind in rural Michigan to go make a better life for myself, and being mostly absent from their daily struggles. It was like survivor’s guilt. I could’ve been the one sleeping in my car, but by some miracle, I wasn’t. I had more than I needed, and felt compelled to share my good fortune with this young stranger.

When I opened my mouth to speak, guilt was not on the list of things that came out. The words that fell from my lips were as much a surprise to me as they were to him.

“I want you to know that you are important, and your life matters. People care about you— even some you’ve never met. So, you have to take good care of yourself. Ok?”

“I don’t know how to thank you…”

“You don’t need to thank me. Just pay it forward someday.”

“I will. I promise. Thank you so much for breakfast. This is really nice.”

“You’re very welcome. Have a great day,” I said, turning to get back in my car.

I felt the lump in my throat growing. Where did that come from? By the time I closed my car door tears were rolling down my cheeks.

“You are important. Your life matters. People care about you- even some you’ve never met. Take good care of yourself.” I repeated the message.

I was sure that something bigger than me had spoken those words. I was so shaken by it, I forgot one very important thing: I didn’t ask the kind stranger for his name- the one way for me to really acknowledge his existence, his humanity- and I forgot to ask. I made another agreement with myself- next time I would bring him a meal and ask his name.

I looked for my friend in the little red car every time I stopped for coffee after that day, but I never saw him again. I never had the opportunity to ask his name or bring him another hot breakfast, but our relationship was far from over.

On my way to the Starbucks, when I looked for the little red car each morning, I had to drive by a large construction site. At first, I thought it was going to be another strip mall. I watched all the trees vanish from the lot, which made me infinitely sad as I thought about all the little creatures who were pushed out of their homes. When the  building began to take shape it was massive- definitely not a strip mall. Then, a sign went up, advertising a new mega church. If there was anything we needed even less than another stupid strip mall, it was another stupid mega church.

I googled the church and found that it came with a price tag of twenty-two million dollars. Less than two miles away from the twenty-two million dollar mega church was the parking lot where the young man in the red car slept. The juxtaposition of these things infuriated me so much, I had to write about it.

I had been blogging for my own personal entertainment for several years. I had just started a little series on my blog called “Buddha Girl in Jesus Town” where I  talked about my personal spiritual journey, and how strange it was to live in the Bible Belt as someone who does not identify as Christian. I began writing a piece I thought I would add to the series, called, “Why Mega Churches are Mega Bullshit”.

As an existentialist, I am always looking for purpose and meaning. As I wrote about the new twenty-two million dollar mega church, I was filled with indignation. I could not fathom how an organization that was supposed to be based on the teachings of Jesus could justify building an arena to honor him— something he would not have wanted according to the teachings in the new testament— instead of feeding our hungry, and housing our homeless. It was a shining example of the kind of superficial, misguided, self-serving hypocrisy I had come to expect from modern Christianity- and the epitome of everything I hate about organized religion.

In the article, I broke down twenty-two million dollars into the number of meals our local homeless shelter could provide. I truly believe this would have pleased Jesus, who taught on hillsides and in the marketplaces, and did not need a temple to make himself look important. As I finished my little rant, I felt a nudge. It was a gentle, familiar push. I had been flirting  with the idea of sending my work out to actual publications for some time. Before clicking the “publish” button on my WordPress site, I went to Elephant Journal’s homepage to read their submission requirements, again.

The toned-down-a-bit version of my piece, “What Mega Churches are Missing” became my first published article on Elephant Journal. When the editor sent me my published link, she said, “This is great writing. I can’t wait to see more from you. Congratulations!”

I cried tears of joy for about three days after the article went live, as people read it, sent me notes, commented, and shared it all over social media. The article was read over five thousand times, and even people who identified as Christian reached out to tell me how much my words resonated with them.

This opened the door to my writing career.

 Over the next 3 years, I would go on to publish more than one hundred articles. My face was added to the Elephant Journal homepage as a Featured Author, and stayed there until I decided to branch out and send my work to other publications. I self published my first book on Amazon- a collection of short stories from my first little blog, Dysfunction Diaries.

That first article about the man in the red car and the bullshit church changed my life in ways I never imagined. It gave me the opportunity to share my personal story. I wrote about mental illness, sexual abuse, feminism, parenting, relationships, and all kinds of current events. I wrote about all the things you’re supposed to avoid in conversation- religion, politics, sex and death. I wrote little love notes to people I had never met, reminding them how perfectly wonderful they are.

I was amazed at the ripple effect that happened as I shared my story. Strangers reached out to tell me how much my words helped them. People who had carried their painful family secrets their whole lives shared those secrets with me. For the first time, I saw the purpose for my suffering, and how sharing my painful past could help other people. I watched as people I loved began to open and share their own stories, many of them even started blogs, and some began submitting their work to Elephant Journal. I felt incredibly humbled and grateful to be part of each journey that intersected mine.

Sometimes, I wonder if the man in a little red car was an angel, sent here to help me find my voice, purpose and power. Sometimes, I wish I could share with him how my life changed after meeting him. Sometimes, I wonder what became of him, and send love into the universe with wishes for his comfort, peace and prosperity.

That was four years ago, and the words are still with me. I still make bags to keep in my car for our local homeless population with hand warmers, toiletries, snacks and a note card with “YOU ARE IMPORTANT” written in big, bold letters. Sometimes, when handed a bag of treats with this message inside, grown men put a hand to their chest and ask, “Me?” It brings me to tears every time, and I say, “Yes. You.”

I thought I was delivering a gift to someone in need that fateful morning. As it turns out, I was the one receiving a gift. This work is my way of paying forward the incredible inspiration and healing that began that day. 

You Are Important is now the working title for my current work in progress. It’s a book about how to overcome our circumstances and create a life we love. It all begins with realizing that we are perfect just the way we are, and that we deserve to have all the things we might think are outside of our reach. But, it’s more than just a book- it’s a call to action. It’s a little push to get uncomfortable and look at the things we may be avoiding so we can resolve them once and for all. It’s a reminder that we get to choose who we will be in this life, and create our experiences through the things we do every day. It’s my challenge to everyone who’s ready; to live authentically, leave our excuses behind, and become who we were born to be.

Most of all, You Are Important is a message of hope and universal love. Our worth is not determined by our bank accounts, job titles, clothing, zip codes, or any other earthly measure. Our worth is inherient. We don’t need to earn, prove or beg for it. It’s woven into the fabric of who we are. We are important because we exist- all of us. When we begin to look at ourselves as worthy, we open up to new ideas and opportunities. When we recognize that all humans are worthy, we might begin to see people differently- we might even treat them differently.

As I work to complete this project, and seek publishing opportunities, I’ll be sharing some little nuggets here to get us thinking about how to make our lives, and the whole wide world around us, even more amazing. Please, join me.

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I Remember what I Wanted to be when I Grow up.

I believe it was in the third grade. My teacher passed out paper and crayons to the whole class and gave us one simple assignment. We were to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. It was likely an exercise we did at the beginning of every new school year.

It’s such a huge decision at 8 years old. There were so many possibilities- some I didn’t even know existed yet. At the bottom of the paper was the phrase, “When I grow up, I want to be a ___________.” I didn’t have to carve it in stone, I just had to choose something to write on that line.

I agonized over the decision until finally, I drew a lady behind a desk in a suit. On the line below, I wrote “journalist”. Back then, I thought a journalist was the lady who read the news on the TV, or maybe wrote a column in the news paper like Dear Abby.

This decision is memorable today for two reasons. First, because almost all the girls in my class filled in their line with the word, “cheerleader,” and most of the boys said, “football player”.

There was one little boy who drew a dinosaur skeleton. He said he wanted to be a scientist. I liked that boy. His dinosaur took up two sheets of paper. I could tell he was different, like me.

In a room full of cheerleaders, I was the only girl who chose journalism. It was basically the story of my life. I wasn’t athletic or popular in high school. I was a band geek, a literature nerd, and a social activist. I loved to read, write and create. I was passionate about the environment and animal rights.

Life took many twists and turns for me. I chose the wrong career for a season, and the wrong marriage. In my years as a bored housewife, I started writing again. I started a silly blog to share stories about my family. I never guessed in those early days of Dysfunction Diaries that I would actually become an author.

I recently remembered that drawing from third grade. Somehow my soul knew even then what its purpose is.

I’ve intentionally avoided writing about politics in the past. For some reason, I didn’t feel qualified to speak on such topics. I didn’t want the drama that could come with expressing my unpopular ideas. But, I dipped my toe into that world just before the election. Then, Trump won, and it seemed all I could do it write about it.

This gift that even my 8 year old soul could see. This voice I have been given- I will use it for good. I will channel that feisty teenager who spent her evenings banging out letters to companies about their environmental practices on an old typewriter. Together, we will rise up in the name of every single person who needs a voice right now.

Finally, thirty years later, I remember what I wanted to be when I grow up. Truly, it was the only thing I ever could be.

 

 

 

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

 

Why We Are No Longer Welcome At The Sherwin William’s Paint Store…

I inherited a French Bulldog last January.  While I am absolutely thrilled to have him, and love him to pieces just the way he is, I must say he is the least athletic dog I have ever seen.  Thankfully, what he lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in immortality, which is lucky for him because he is prone to accidents. One of these accidents, unfortunately, was my fault.

I woke early one morning this summer and decided to take Bo, the immortal French Bulldog, for a walk.  We live approximately four city blocks from my favorite Juice Bar.  I thought, surely, Bo could make the trip from our apartment to the Juice Bar and back safely.  It was early in the morning, it wasn’t even hot out, and it’s only four blocks away.

The trip there was a piece of cake.  We strolled leisurely along.  Bo stopped to smell every blade of grass and tinkle on every tree all the way there.  When we reached the Juice Bar, I tied Bo to a table on the porch and went inside to get a green smoothie for me, and an ice water for him.  We sat on the porch for a little while enjoying the beautiful day before beginning the journey back home.

It’s important to note that French Bulldogs are genetic anomalies.  They do not exist in nature, and for good reason.  Their cute, little, squishy faces make it impossible for them to breathe.  On a good day, Bo sounds like he could suffocate on his own jowls at any moment.  With physical exertion, like walking four blocks, he sounds like asthmatic Darth Vader with a smoker’s cough.

After about a half a block, Bo started huffing and puffing.  His little tongue flapping in the breeze as he slowed his pace gradually.  No problem, I thought.  We’ll take it slow.  There was plenty of shade, it wasn’t hot to begin with, and any healthy dog should be able to manage the easy trip.

As we neared the half way point, Bo stopped dead in his tracks.  He stood still as a stone on the side walk for a minute, then took a few clumsy little side steps into the grass.  He fell out in the grass, all spread out like a big, furry bullfrog.  Heaving for air, he stayed there in the shade.

After several minutes, Bo’s breathing was still labored.  Passersby stared at him with concern.  Certainly, it was the loud huff puff huff puff huff puff that caught their attention.  Some smiled a silent, “Bless your heart.” as they walked by.  I gently tugged on the leash to encourage Bo to stand up.

“B*tch, I’m dying!” he glared at me.

It was becoming apparent that Bo would not make the journey home.  I needed a plan.

Then, I realized that half a block away there was a Sherwin-Williams Paint Store.  It stood high on the hill at the end of the block.  Like a light house in the storm, I knew that if we could get to it, Bo would be safe.  They were sure to have air conditioning, a cold tile floor, and some cool water for him to drink.  I did the only thing I could do.  I scooped up all 30 pounds of panting bulldog and carried him up the hill.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief upon entering the paint store.  There was, in fact, a large empty area of tile for Bo to lay on.  He spread out in his bullfrog pose again, still breathing loudly.  I left him there, and went to the ladies’ room for some cold, wet paper towels.  When I returned, Bo was dragging himself around with his front legs to find another cold spot on the floor.  He had made a large pool of saliva all around himself, and continued to drool and pant loudly.  I bent down to squeeze the cold water from the towels onto his head.

“It can’t get any worse.” I thought, right before it got even worse.

Bo struggled to stand.  His stubby legs shaking under the weight of his stout little body.  The panting was interrupted by a new sound. His insides churning and pumping, churning and pumping, the horrible sound of “I’m fixing to puke.” A mountain of vomit erupted from my dog.  Bright yellow chunks of half chewed dog food in thick white foam spewed from him forcefully.  The vomit river flowed below him, growing larger and larger until I picked him up and ran out the door with him.

The little girl had come out from behind the register to walk a customer to his car.  She looked at us in disgusted, silent, horror.

I put Bo down in the grass while he collected himself. Come on, Bo.  Get it together.  Fear and guilt washed over me.  You can’t die like this, Bo.  Today’s not the day.

I took my pitiful dog back into the paint store.  Again, I left him on the cold tile floor and went to the rest room.  I returned with the trash can and an entire package of paper towel and began cleaning up the floor.

Bo gave me a side eye, “How’s your green smoothie, stupid?”

I sat down by my angry, disgusting, breathless dog.  As he lay dying on the floor, an old man approached us.  He bent over curiously to examine Bo, and with a raised brow asked, “What kind of dog is that?”

“He’s a French Bulldog.”

“Huh.  It’s too hot for him.” he said, turning on his heel to return to his shopping.

Thank you, sir.  You are a marvel among men.  Tell me, where did you get your detective training?  Your intuition surpasses all others…

“How are we going to get you home, Bo?” I whispered.

Bo used his front legs to spin himself around and turn his back to me.  I contemplated just leaving him there, the grumpy little sh*t.

The old man reappeared when his shopping was finished.  “Do you live close by?”

“Yes, sir.  Two blocks that way,” I pointed.

“Do you need a ride?”

“Are you sure you want this dog in your car?” I asked.  I don’t know that I would have put him in my car at that point.

“It’s my work truck, I don’t mind.”

I disobeyed mother’s number one rule, and accepted a ride home from a stranger.

“I hope he feels better.” said the bewildered little girl behind the counter as we walked out the door.

Please don’t be a serial killer,  I thought as I gave the old man directions and lead him right to my front door.  I thanked him sincerely, and admitted that he may have saved Bo’s life that day.

I put Bo in a cool bath and apologized profusely for nearly killing him for a trip to the Juice Bar to get a green smoothie.  He barely spoke to me the rest of the day, but eventually, he forgave me.

I learned a couple of things that day.  One, GMOs are bad- this applies to all genetically modified organisms- vegetables, flowers, dogs… Nature knows how to make things correctly, and humans can really only jack that up.  Two, there is no green smoothie delicious enough for me to risk the bulldog’s life.  In the future, he will just have to wait at home while I walk down there all by myself.  Three, there are kind strangers everywhere.  They show up just  in time to save the day when you need them.  And finally, just because stores have tile floors and air conditioning, doesn’t mean they want us to bring our dying pets in there for shelter.  The young girl working behind the counter was clearly traumatized by the dramatic scene, and for that I sincerely apologize.  I am certain that my money is no longer good there, and that we are definitely no longer welcome at the Sherwin-Williams Paint Store.

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