Saturday, May 18, 2013
On a past post, I mentioned my high school years ushering at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, where I saw Broadway shows free as a thank-you for helping out. The show "I Do! I Do!" starring Robert Preston and Mary Martin was one of my favorites. Even to this day I have most of the songs memorized.
The interesting thing about this particular show is that the two characters carried the show by themselves - no other actors to help share the load. From Wikipedia:
The two-character story spans fifty years, from 1895 to 1945, as it focuses on the ups and downs experienced by Agnes and Michael Snow throughout their marriage. The set consists solely of their bedroom, dominated by the large fourposter bed in the center of the room.
As I was thinking of those extraordinary performances, I realized that only as I got older did I appreciate the magnitude of a 2-person play. The responsibility of singing the songs, getting the laughs, evoking the tears - just using the skills of two people - what a feat that was! Of course, these two were seasoned, magnificent performers and the audiences adored them.
Also as I got older, as I accumulated the wisdom one can pick up here and there, I realized that these two exceptional actors, of course, did not carry the play alone. In preparation to doing the play, they were helped by choreographers and voice instructors and directors. People had to sew their costumes. People had to print the scripts and the programs. When the two went on tour, people had to book their performances, make reservations for hotels, find transportation, generate publicity, and all other necessary planning steps. Then during each performance, there were other people in charge of costume changes, set, lighting, audio, musical accompaniment. Even before the touring group got to Memphis, people had to clean the auditorium and prepare all the details of what would be needed.
The audiences played an important part, because without an audience, there is no show. And that's where I come in. I helped seat the audience. I was a part of it all.
Just another reminder that we are all connected and it is impossible to be a self-made man or woman. We all had help, and continue to have help, along the way. Even today, a mechanic keeps our car running well so I can get to work, the Bangor Hydro folks keep the electricity going so we can maintain a household and I can type these words, the good people at John Edwards downtown worked to sell us the food we will have for supper, the doctor's office gave me the Rx for my daily thyroid pill I took this morning - and, of course, the list is never-ending because the chain is never-ending. Life is a group effort.
I love the idea of daily moments of gratitude, and part of that gratitude has to be a thanks to all the fellow humans who have helped me and continue to help me along the way. My life is not a one-person show. Bless you all.
Saturday, May 04, 2013
One of my favorite jokes:
A man is sent to prison for the first time. At night, the lights in the cell block are turned off, and his cellmate goes over to the bars and yells, "Number twelve!" The whole cell block breaks out laughing. A few minutes later, somebody else in the cell block yells, "Number four!" Again, the whole cell bloock breaks out laughing.
The new guy asks his cellmate what's going on. "Well," says the older prisoner, "we've all been in this here prison for so long, we all know the same jokes. So we just yell out the number instead of saying the whole joke."
So the new guy walks up to the bars and yells, "Number six!" There was dead silence in the cell block. He asks the older prisoner, "What's wrong? Why didn't I get any laughs?"
"Well," said the older man, "sometimes it's not the joke, but how you tell it."
It's true that some things don't need to be spoken. It's also true that this happens more and more as a couple stays together. Ed and I, married almost 39 years, can certainly finish each other's sentences and sometimes we will encounter a situation or hear or see something and I just know that we are remembering the exact same shared memory and we will laugh or tear up spontaneously in response to that without a word being spoken by either of us.
I've said and not said a lot in my life so far. Just like actions, some of the things I've said I'm happy I got to say them. Others, I cringe when I think about them. Then at other times, I should have spoken up when I stayed silent.
Communication is a strange thing. Language can hurt or heal and so much of it is so impulsive that we rarely take a prudent moment to realize the long-lasting effect of what we are about to say.
My niece Kate, like many others her age, is graduating from college today in Tennessee. At graduations all over the country, speakers (famous, infamous, and relatively unknown) are gearing up to give the new graduates the wisdom of the ages, or at least of the moment. I often wonder what I would say to Kate and her younger sister and our grandchildren and everyone else growing up in this wild world if I had only a limited time to impart advice. So I wrote her a short letter about my mantra, the Serenity Prayer, which I've quoted in this blog many times - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. That's a solid foundation on which to make decisions in life.
What I would also tell these young folks is this: Remember, life has no rewind button; speak carefully. I gave a children's sermon once about feathers from an old Jewish tale, and it went something like this: A rabbi took his students out into a large field. He asked his students to distribute a load of big rocks across the field, which they did. Then the rabbi asked them to gather up the rocks that they had just distributed. With effort and time, they managed to find every rock and bring it back. Then the rabbi produced bags of feathers and asked the students to scatter them over a great distance. The students did. Then the rabbi asked them to retrieve each and every feather. They tried, but had to return to the rabbi, saying that it was impossible because so many feathers had been carried off by the wind and could not be gathered back into the bags. The rabbi explained that words we say are like feathers - once said, they can never be unsaid and can never be placed back into the bag. So say them judiciously.
The things I most regret saying, of course, are hurtful ones - words said in the heat of an argument or in a moment of hopelessness or in an escalating time of pure frustration and impatience. Those words were heard and understood, and they will probably be remembered. Oh, we can apologize, for sure. We can try to make it up, which is an admirable step, but in the end, words were said that, like the feathers, are forever blowing around.
While I'm at it, I have to include advice from my mom: This too shall pass. That, as I've said before, can be comforting or scary - for as it is a relief to realize the bad stuff will pass, it is disconcerting to realize the good stuff will pass as well, so we need to appreciate it while it is here.
So today Kate graduates from college, and next week our oldest grandchild, Caroline, will turn 10 years old. I think they both realize what's important in this world, that learning is lifelong, and that they can improve the world by how they act and speak. You can't go wrong if you speak with love. And....that they are infused, covered, and permeated with encouragement and support and blessings from family and friends. Godspeed!
Tuesday, April 09, 2013
I've blogged about this before but I keep coming back to its wisdom and simplicity: Every curse is a gift and every gift is a curse.
I had the chance to watch a Monk marathon recently. Adrian Monk is a brilliant detective played by the equally brilliant Tony Shalhoub, and psychiatrically Monk is a mess. For those who have not had an opportunity to enjoy this excellent TV series, now in reruns, here is a synopsis of the character from Wikipedia:
Monk's compulsive habits are numerous, and a number of phobias compound his situation, such as his fear of germs. Monk has 312 fears, some of which are milk, ladybugs, harmonicas, heights, imperfection, claustrophia, driving, food touching on his plates, messes and risk...The OCD and plethora of phobias inevitably lead to very awkward situations and cause problems for Monk and anyone around him as he investigates cases.
Monk is cursed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). His strange habits drive everyone around him crazy. He himself wishes he were "normal." In one of the episodes in the marathon, Monk's psychiatrist again urges him to try some of the new medications on the market for OCD. Monk relents, takes the drugs at too high a dose, and becomes a laid-back, happy-go-lucky "normal" person. But guess what happens with the transformation? He can no longer solve cases! That sharp eye and mind are gone. He has lost his focus or even his desire to immerse himself in the details. Enough was enough, though, and all his coworkers and friends insisted he throw the pills away. Yes, the old Monk drove them up a wall, but the new Monk was worse - and in fact, he had lost his essence.
The very curse of OCD was what gave Monk the gift of solving crimes.
As I ruminated on the show for days afterwards, the movie Harvey came to mind. Harvey, with is a familiar movie to most of us, stars Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentrically placid, sweet, compassionate man who has the reputation of being nuts because he has a giant invisible rabbit (pooka named Harvey) for a friend. Like Monk, he drives his family, in this instance, crazy with his weird conversation and his insistence on including "Harvey" in daily aspects of life. The family finally decides to try to commit Elwood to a mental institution. From Wikipedia:
Dr. Sanderson convinces Elwood to come into his office where he will receive a serum called Formula 977 that will stop Dowd from "seeing the rabbit". As they are preparing for the injection, Elwood's sister is told by their cab driver about all the other people he has driven to the sanatorium to receive the same medicine, warning her that Elwood will become "just a normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are." Upset by the very thought of this, Veta halts the procedure by banging on the examining room door, at which point Elwood comforts her and explains her tears to others with, "Veta's all tired out, she's done a lot today".
Yes, Elwood's curse was his gift, too. He had the gift of being "pleasant," of making people feel good about themselves, of bringing tolerance and compassion into his world - but it came with a price of acting weird, being perceived as mentally ill, and everything that goes along with that. The serum would have ridded Elwood of the "hallucinations," but it would have also torn away the very essence of who Elwood was.
This all reminds me to keep an open mind when dealing with things in life, things even within myself, which I perceive to be curses in some way, certainly not welcome, annoying, irritating, maybe even disabling, because with every curse there is a gift waiting there to be discovered. It is a gift which probably wouldn't have been given without the curse, and without the curse, the gift is no more. The curses and gifts combine to make us who we are - our soul, our spirit, our essence. Sometimes it may be worth giving up the struggle with a "curse" to embrace it - and with that embrace, ferret out the gift that is always joined to it. It might bring an "aha" experience that broadens our lives.
Friday, March 15, 2013
I had a dream last week that quite unsettled me. In it, I was working for a 7-11 type convenience store, going around stocking shelves, when I came upon a bin of marshmallows. I absentmindedly picked one up and ate it, assuring myself that I would put the money in the cash register for the marshmallow by the end of my shift. But the unexpected happened - I woke up before I could do that. I remember as I came to consciousness thinking, I never paid for that marshmallow, and now I never can!
Most of my family and friends know that I am always hearing the clock of mortality ticking away and my list of things I want to accomplish is longer while the years available to me grow shorter. As I'm not a big fan of reincarnation, although I believe in life after death, and when this physical life is gone, I know my time on earth will have run out and leave me with things undone.
Much of my to-do list is creative - the quilts I want to make (or finish!), the sewing techniques I want to learn, the harp lessons I want to have someday. Also on my to-do list are life events I don't want to miss - graduations, weddings, watching my grandchildren mature. But the marshmallow dream did not address any of these important concerns. What unsettled me about the dream is the debt I couldn't repay, and, like in most dreams, I believe it's not financial debt that disquieted me.
I love the idea of passing it on - in fact, that is one of my favorite hymns.
It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That's how it is with God's Love,
Once you've experienced it,
You spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on.
Certainly, God's love - but also the debt I owe to countless people, living and dead. I have been the recipient of so much love, wisdom, knowledge, concern, compassion, patience, encouragement, sacrifice - and I'm so afraid I have not taken, nor will I get, the opportunity to pass it on, to pay my debt.
It's strange that we talk about convicted prisoners "paying their debts" to society, for we all have our accumulated debt to society. In a perfect world, the way to pay this debt is to pass it on - because I have been shown patience, I must show patience to others. Because I know what unconditional love and acceptance feels, I must show that to others. Because I have had the greatest parents and teachers in the world, I must pass on their knowledge and wisdom. Because I have had disappointing, even heartbreaking experiences in life, I must share the lessons I learned. Because I know what fear can do, I must help find peace for those who are afraid.
Somehow I must be able to balance my life between being too panicky about its ending before I'm ready, and being too blasé about my responsibilities and the fiendish ability to downplay the difference my individual life makes to the whole. This is the tightrope I hesitantly walk.
One of my greatest regrets in life would be to wake up from it and realize I had always planned to pay for the marshmallow - indeed, I had wanted to - but it was too late.
I will end with another favorite hymn that I started humming during the writing of this post:
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Of course, the information age being what it is, I learned why: The actor who played this character did not renew his contract, as he is involved in other projects and wanted to be free of this particular commitment.
I understand that completely, as I also understand I am watching basically a well-acted, well-produced soap opera - a fictional rendition. Yet, when I am in the process of watching, I am transported to that place and that story. I really forget these are actors and sets and scripts. The idea that this actor didn't renew his contract, and therefore the writer had to come up with a fatal accident, was just a sad reminder that these are, yes, just actors and sets and scripts. I hate bring brought down to earth. It was just a reminder of reality - reality that I already knew but could escape from for those few hours. What?! These people are really actors on a set? I could swear they are real!
I am reminded of Christopher Reeve, the actor who rose to fame playing Superman. After his tragic accident which left him paralyzed, he had dreams where he was running and jumping and moving, and then he would wake up and realize it was just a dream, that reality was very different. A very ugly reminder of reality.
I have dreams, too, where I am 18 again, young, firm muscles, long hair, no wrinkles, all possibilities lying ahead. Then I wake up - with thankfully not as much a downward crash as Mr. Reeve - in my 58-year-old body, time ticking away on my life, and feeling somewhat disappointed in the dramatic contrast in my dream and my present state, and I renew that sense of urgency on how to get accomplished what I want to do in the time I have left. Every creak, every huff and puff, every gray hair, every mirror, is just an annoying reminder of the reality of growing older every day.
Some reminders, of course, are heartwarming. I see a picture of my baby Emily on Facebook and talk to the older children on the phone and I am brought back to the miraculous reality that I have four amazing grandchildren from my own amazing kids. Every day I am reminded that I have a job that challenges me and makes me feel productive. I was reminded when I found a penny in an unlikely place with the year of my dad's death on it that I have had parents who have loved and supported me unconditionally. I was reminded when I got up and saw certain items arranged on the kitchen counter that before he went to bed last night, my sweet husband thought of what I needed to prepare my breakfast this morning. I am grateful for the reminders of family and friends and situations that make me smile, that make my heart sing.
So I'm not upset with the Downton Abbey writers and actors, as some fans have been. I will miss the character, but things happen in fiction and in real life and we go with the flow. The only thing that disturbs me is that the situation gave me an unwelcome dose of reality, took a little more of the magic of my losing myself in the show, and just reminded me that, hey, I'm actually watching a soap opera! So be it. It's a grand, majestic, splendid soap opera and I can't wait to see what happens next. My hope is that I can wake up here in this present 58-year-old body and hold aloft the same positive, expectant attitude towards my own personal journey... Here I go, still seeking and creating and mourning and celebrating in this, my very own reality show - and I can't wait to see what happens next!
Friday, February 15, 2013
I have approached aging in one way: Gradually. For instance, you will always see a current photo of me on Facebook and on this blog. Every Christmas we take a family picture and it's not just of the kids, either - Ed and I are in it every year. Why do I do this? Why do I have the guts, as someone once said, to put my aging self out there for all to see? Why not give people from my past the pleasure of remembering me as I once was?
Well, surprisingly, it's a selfish motive. I don't want someone who knew me years ago to come across me or a recent picture of me and think, OMG she's gotten so old! If they have had access to my aging self, it won't be such a shock.
Several observations back me up on this one. Take our kids. We see them every day as they are growing up, and their growing is so gradual that we hardly notice until they are ready for a new size of clothes or until we compare their school pictures from year to year. But what happens when relatives see them after a long absence? "Oh, how you've grown!" Parents and out-of-town relatives in this case are observing the same exact kids. But the delayed experience of watching them grow day by day is counterbalanced by the shock of someone else first seeing them after several years of not seeing them. I expect folks to be happy to see me (some, at least!), or maybe nervous about seeing me (some, probably!), or even just curious to see me - but I don't want them to be shocked. Not a good thing.
Think of the celebrities we have seen age gradually, and those we haven't. Consider Sally Field. If she had enjoyed her time in the limelight as Gidget or the Flying Nun back in her youth, then retired from the public scene, and years later PBS wanted to produce a documentary about TV shows from that period and grabbed her out of retirement to be interviewed - we would be disconcerted to see all of a sudden an old Sally Field, and it would be as if she had aged 48 years immediately. But Sally Field did not retire; she kept her face in front of the camera for other movies, for other TV shows, for commercials, and in fact I just enjoyed seeing her in Lincoln. We saw her age gradually and beautifully. Maggie Smith is another one who stayed in the public arena for decades.
Now to the first question: Why am I so easy to find online? I have had the occasion to try to find people from my past, such as my good friend Annie, and let me tell you, even with all the information out there, it is very difficult sometimes - especially if you are looking for a female who might have changed her name several times with marriages and/or divorces. I was fortunate to eventually find her, but I decided early on to just put myself out there and let the chips fall where they may. I would love, for instance, to see what some folks from my high school look like these days, but pictures are hard to find. I can even look on Facebook and still not be certain that that is the person I'm trying to locate. Probably the main reason we feel the need to look up people from our past is simple curiosity - but in addition, there are shared memories, of course. The older we get, the more important those memories are.
The only thing my graduating class and I have in common is that we went to the same high school - but that encompasses a lot. We shared the same teachers, were exposed to the same education, remember the same assemblies, the funny things, the sad things, the frustrating things that we encountered. Most of us lived within a certain radius of the school. We were all about the same age. Taken in a broader context, we shared the same society as we grew up - the things going on in politics, in movies and music, hairstyles and clothing. We share a common bond. I didn't have a particularly pleasant high school experience, but I grew up with a lot of intriguing classmates, many of whom are sadly now dead. Every year some more of those shared memories get lost as the survivors get fewer. I will always wonder what some of them did with their lives.
So that is why I'm "out there." If anyone wanted to find me, here I am. I'm easy to google. This is what I look like, if you're curious. These are my interests. These are my life experiences, my response to growing older, tales of my wonderful family, stories of being a minister's wife, packing up and moving from Tennessee to Maine - the whole caboodle. Now if I ever get to go to one of my high school reunions, maybe, just maybe, there will be someone there who is not shocked to see me. And that is a good thing.
Monday, January 28, 2013
The time has come. I wouldn’t call it a bittersweet moment, because it’s more powerful than that. It is kind of like having an overwhelming feeling of relief simultaneously with a panic attack. It’s what we hoped for, but some part of us hoped it would never happen. I’m talking about the sale of our childhood home.
I blogged about what this property meant to my family here. I posted that in May 2011, when we knew Mama would never go back to her house and live by herself and the only thing to do was to clean the old house up and put it on the market. That was an intellectual decision, made partly because it was logical and partly because it was the only alternative and we had no choice.
Now this week our beloved house will change hands. It will be official. That yard where we played softball would be someone else’s yard. They will not know of the mimosa tree that our cousins climbed when it was in the front yard. They will not know of Mrs. Ditto whose property was adjacent to ours out back, who would stand at the fence and share her fresh figs. They won’t know of the clothesline where we hung sheets and blankets to make tents. They won’t know of all the memories we collectively experienced in that house and in those yards from 1954 on.
Of course, I’ve lived in several other houses since then after I left there to get married in 1974. Our first house was a 1920s bungalow. It had a rich history, and people lived there before us and people came after us. It was our house for 12 years. From there, Ed went into the ministry and we moved from parsonage to parsonage. Obviously, they weren’t our houses - they were houses owned by the various churches where their pastor lived for the duration of their appointments.
When Ed retired from the ministry, we moved to Maine to our large Victorian in Ellsworth. Again, people had lived there before us, left their mark on the house, we lived there and left our mark, and then we sold it to people who will leave their mark.
This is one of many reasons why my childhood home is special. We are the only family who ever lived there. My parents bought it around the time they were expecting me. The house and I have grown up together - and we are showing the same signs of wear, believe me. In today’s mobile society, it sounds quaint to be born into one house and live there until you get married. (I went to one school 1st grade through 12th, too!) Such stability is almost unheard of nowadays. I wish we could have given our kids that same feeling of home in one place.
But of course, it’s the memories that give me a catch in my throat the most. It’s where I was loved unconditionally, and especially where I most remember Daddy (there and seeing him in church). It’s like giving up a piece of him to sell the house he was so proud of - the house where he established and nurtured the stable, happy family he never had when he was young.
Last week I was driving home from work and had to stop quite suddenly at a yellow light. Without thinking, I reflexively stretched out my right arm over in front of the passenger seat. Then I laughed. Daddy used to do that. Before the advent of seat belts, at any point when he had to brake suddenly, he always threw his arm across whoever was sitting beside him so they wouldn’t careen into the dashboard. After we got our first used car with newfangled seat belts, Daddy still did the same movement, as it was such an ingrained habit. Now, in 2013, alone in the car, here I was throwing out my right arm to protect...nobody.
Then I realized that our precious house is just a building - a special building, but bricks and wood and all the rest. The memories - the most important things - are in my heart. Selling the house doesn’t diminish our experiences there, especially of Daddy - because memories of Daddy and everyone else live in my heart where I can access them whenever I wish - whether in a photo in a scrapbook or at a red light in Ellsworth, Maine.
So, go your way, my beloved house. You’ll always be a part of our family, and a part of me. I won’t remember you with rotting wood and outdated electricity and peeling paint. I will remember you as a loving shelter, your yards with a mimosa tree and clothesline tent and open air “club house.” I’ll remember you with the shiny wood floors we helped Mama polish, the table set for 4, the birthday parties, the naps on lazy summer afternoons, the excitement of getting the Christmas decorations down the creaky attic stairs. I’ll remember your tastes of York apples, frozen bananas dipped in sugar, cornbread dressing, and half gallons of ice milk. I’ll remember your sounds of an upright piano, unending laughter, the movie projector, the dice and chatter at Mama’s bunco parties, the Monkees playing on a record player, our excited conversation for Daddy’s reel-to-reel recorder. I’ll remember your embrace as we watched home movies, saw Daddy engrossed in his stamp collection, had the extended family over at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I’ll remember you when I think of packing the car, leaving for vacation. I’ll remember the TSA meetings and the play we wrote and acted out, Thanksgiving services held in the den. I’ll remember Catland Caverns, Mike, the bluejay, the rooster, and all the rest of our pets you tolerated for our pleasure. Oh, no, house. Don’t worry. I won’t forget you. You’re in my heart and there you’ll stay. Thanks for the memories.
Saturday, January 19, 2013
Last week we had the joyous arrival of our fourth and final grandchild, Emily. The picture under her is her older brother, Joshua, and the next picture is her cousin Charlotte and then her oldest cousin, Caroline. Four sleeping sleeping angels in these pictures.
Each birth had its similarities and differences with the others. There were 4 C-sections, for instance. All babies were born in the same hospital. In two of the births, we knew the gender ahead of time; the other two were surprises at the time of delivery. Three babies were very heavy at birth, and Emily was the lightest of them all - well, if you can call 8 pounds 7 ounces light!
We now have four - three girls and one boy - and our grandchildren roll call is complete. It's definitely a bittersweet feeling. The last time in the hospital waiting room, anxiously awaiting the news. The last time to see the baby weighed in, the last time to see the proud parents as they hold their newborn with the family discussing which parent he/she resembles most.
Now we look to the future. I have been fortunate to have lived long enough to see my two kids grow to adulthood; now I want to live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up and establish their lives. I am so glad my almost 90-year-old mom has lived to see these 4 great grandchildren born. That is a blessing only some people get to experience.
There's nothing quite like being a grandmother. I did not really know three out of my four grandparents. My paternal grandfather I never met. My two grandmothers were elderly and ill as long as I can remember, so we never did much together. So that left my maternal grandfather - he had to fill the role that the others couldn't - and he did so with humor, energy, entertainment, and love, lots of love. Who else would give us chicks for Easter, one of which turned into a rooster in our midtown Memphis backyard and woke the neighborhood until being shuffled off to a farm? Who else would give us brand-name dolls that we actually had seen advertised on TV instead of the generic dolls our parents could afford? Who else made sure we had what was to us gigantic Easter baskets with pastel-colored plastic coverings which gave entrancing glimpses inside? Who else could play the piano by ear with gusto and did so every time he visited? Who else had a cat who played duets with him on the piano and organ? Who else could throw a cane up and catch it in the air? Who else kept two cans in the back floor of the car on family outings - one for bait and one for chewing tobacco? He was truly a legend.
So now it's left to me to build memories for these four beautiful grandkids. I'm still learning how to do this, as it's an ongoing effort as they grow. Their needs change, their interests change, the activities I can do with them change, but at the core is that important relationship of grandmother and grandchild.
It's a cliche to say that I see them as the future, but it's true. They carry my genes, they carry my legacy. They are part of my story and they will carry that as well. If you have grandchildren, you know what I mean. If you have grandchildren who aren't genetically related to you, you still know what I mean. If you are still awaiting that memorable event of having a grandchild born, you probably know what I mean. Our collective influence is powerful. We are the memory-makers.
I was in the post office the other day when a kid about 4 looked up at me. I smiled down at him. Then I realized, "That kid thinks I'm old!" The idea startled me. Then I though, of course he does! I would have at that age as well. 58 is ancient, right? I often wonder how my grandkids will remember me. I hope it is of a grandmother who took the time to listen, who could actually get down on the floor to play and get up again, who was there for their birthdays and other important life events, who was always taking pictures, who taught them about Lincoln and maybe some French, who sang "Pony Boy," who taught the power of forgiveness and patience, who passed on wisdom and guidance and, of course, love, love, love. If they don't wholly think of me as an old lady now, I'm sure in a few years they will, and one day I will actually step into those shoes of an "old lady" from even my subjective point of view. I pray that I will have enough good health and energy and intellect to be able to continue to make precious memories. In the end, that will really be their inheritance - those memories, all tangled in with love and hugs and laughter and some tears along the way.
In a way it seems selfish to me to be so concerned with if and how my grandkids remember me. But it's human nature to want to make a difference, to give meaning to our lives. In a way, I'm keeping up this blog in their honor, as a way to connect with me after I'm gone, to get a glimpse into my struggles and dreams and priorities, and yes, how fortunate I feel to be a part of their lives. I hope to be able to live as long as my mom, maybe even to see some great-grandchildren come my way. In the meantime, I'll concentrate on my role as memory-maker. It's one of the greatest honors of my life.
PS - For those of you who participated in Project Birthday Card to send cards from all over the world to my mom last May, the story is in the 2013 February edition of Reader's Digest at the bottom of pages 126-127. Thanks for being memory-makers in my mom's life!
Friday, January 11, 2013
I was reading a book on healthy eating last week when I came across an interesting observation. It said that one should never get more than 10% of the total joy in one's day from food.
Say we each have 100% of our total allotment of joy for the day. If we find maybe 40% of it dependent on the food we eat, we are giving food an inordinate amount of power to make us happy. And we all know that if you get the majority of your happiness from food, your life is kind of lacking and you probably are overweight. The way to handle that, says the author, is to deliberately find other sources of joy to enliven your life so food plays a lesser role.
I digested that, pardon the pun, and then I decided to expand the author's thesis. All the experts in stocks and investments say the same thing - diversify. Don't put all your eggs into one basket, because then if you drop the basket, you've lost everything.
How about we diversify in our sources of joy? Expand the food idea. What if you get 80% of your daily every day from your spouse? On the one hand, that sounds like a great idea. It is certainly better than getting half your joy from food. On the other hand, what if that relationship goes sour? Or what if that person dies? All of a sudden we are bereft because we've dropped the basket and have little else to fall back on. (This is why relationships thrive on shared experiences, as not only do comforting memories bring you joy in years to come, but you may even choose to keep those activities when you are on your own as a continued source of joy.)
Let's say you find 75% of your daily joy from knitting or playing an instrument. (Another good choice. I've always been a fan of creativity.) One day you may lose the dexterity in your fingers or your eyesight. You have little else to give you pleasure to compensate.
Diversifying our sources of pleasure, of which food is just one, makes us interesting people. It rounds us out, makes us balanced. I never really thought of it before in this way. Here's an experiment: Make a list of the things/people/experiences you have discovered bring you joy - major ones like your family, and small ones like bubble baths. Then scatter them around your life. I can see my precious new grandbaby born this week, experience unspeakable joy, then come back home and find joy in being with my husband, sewing an apron for my mom, blogging, reading, playing the harp, looking through some old photos that make me smile, doing the crossword puzzle, talking to a friend, watching the new season of Downton Abbey, interacting with my kids and three other grandkids, writing a check for a charity, and, yes, enjoying one of my favorite flavors of ice cream. The key to happiness in life, I'm beginning to believe, is joy in all its forms, liberally scattered throughout every day. That way if Downton Abbey is canceled (no! no!), I still have much joy in other places. This is not to say all joys are equal, by any means. I would never put Downton Abbey in the same category as my grandchildren. But our souls crave joy - the big joys and little joys and everything in between. And don't forget the joys of giving to others - joy is not all take and no give.
I have heard of people who had their joy tied up in their careers, then lost them. I've heard of others who had their joy encased in their houses or cars, then lost them. (I remember an elderly lady we met years ago whose husband had left her for a Sunday School teacher. All her joy in life was embedded in him, and when that happened, she never recovered. Every visit we had with her was spent listening to her bemoan her unhappy fate. She was depressing to be around and nothing we could ever say or do made her feel better.) Even healthy sources of joy such as sewing or gardening or playing an instrument or singing or hiking or swimming can be detrimental if we are so dependent on them as our only source of joy that if they were to disappear, all our happiness would evaporate with them.
This week I want to celebrate joy in all its varieties. Life has so much joy to offer; why limit ourselves? The key is finding our sources of joy, then incorporating them on a regular basis. It is not good to get more than 10% of our joy from food - and it is just as unwise to let other people or things or experiences define our joy. If we depend on outside sources for our happiness, things are bound to mess up. Look inside your soul, define your joys, and watch your life fill up with bliss!
Monday, December 31, 2012
It's New Year's Eve, and I'm lying on my right side on an black exercise mat in a dark room, wide awake, my eyes fixed on the empty space under a small cot about a foot off the floor, my left hand gently resting over a beating heart belonging to a 2-1/2-year-old in red footie Santa print flannel pajamas, As I lie silently in the quiet night, I'm filled with both overwhelming happiness and deep grief, pondering the meaning of life and birth and death and luck and injustice and awe, with never-ending questions and a troubled, conflicted mind.
Our grandson Joshua is spending the night with us - his very first time for an overnight visit. After he played with the dog, ate some supper, took a bath, cuddled with his grandpa ("Papa"), and read a book, I took him to his little cot. His parents told us to put a blanket off to one side on the floor, just in case he rolled off. I had just the thing - my cushioned exercise mat, and I rolled it out on the floor right next to the cot. Josh crawled into the cot, I covered him up, gave him his stuffed animal and blanket, turned to leave, and that is when he glanced over at the mat, asking me what it was. I told him that was something nice and comfy in case he rolled off the cot. He pointed at it, looked me straight in the eyes, and said firmly, "You sleep there." I told him I would stay there for awhile, not all night, but just to help him get to sleep. That satisfied him, and I lay down with my left hand over his chest to let him know I was nearby.
I had no fear that I would accidentally fall asleep there. In the first place, the mat is not that comfortable to sleep on, and in the second place, I was in emotional turmoil. Ed and I had just received a message this afternoon on our answering machine, a message which we listened to only when we arrived home later after having picked up Joshua. A neighbor, 59 years old, had been out shoveling snow the other day and had a heart attack and died. Bob had been president of the neighborhood road association, of which I am secretary, and we had enjoyed knowing him along with his wife. Bob was a year older than I am. Although I am not privy to his medical details, he seemed in perfect health. He was a kind gentleman. The fact that he was suddenly gone was shocking.
As a medical transcriptionist, I transcribe all kinds of medical reports on a daily basis - people trying to kill themselves, old people who want to live and sometimes who want to die, cancer survivors and others who have just been told they have cancer with little time left, teenagers who need appendectomies, women who give birth in planned, happy pregnancies and others who give birth in anxious, unwelcome pregnancies, kids with out-of-control asthma, folks with dementia, patients with strokes, fever or vomiting, people who are withdrawing from alcohol or drugs, and patients who are just normal people living their normal lives getting their mammograms and Pap smears and blood tests and physicals and just going about their earthly existence. Any MT will tell you that it is not an easy job to be a part of these patients' stories. We type, we laugh, we cry, we worry, we celebrate, we grieve with every report we transcribe. But the fact that all day long I hear these medical stories does not mean I get inured to them. A good MT, just like a good nurse or doctor or other provider, always keeps in mind that these are real people and their lives - not reports, numbers, codes, or folders.
Why is life good to me right now - blessedly, incredibly good to me - and others are so unfortunate? How does a man my age - a good man, decent man - suddenly die and I'm still here? I'm not only here; I'm holding onto my dear grandson who is calmly sleeping by my side - and next week, I will welcome my next and final grandchild, Emily, when she is delivered into the world.
It's not fair that I am cuddling my grandson while Bob's family is in mourning. I grieve with them, curse this unfair, unjust world of death and sorrow, even as my heart overflows with happiness in the presence of my sleeping toddler.
So this is how I find myself pondering life, looking into the darkness, weeping tears of gratitude and sorrow, anger and joy - all at the same time. I finally quietly get up, take one last glance at my sleeping Joshua, and with a heavy heart, tiptoe out of the room. My happiness tonight is tempered with grief. Life is never easy and it's never simple to understand. Loss is hard to bear, and sometimes the tears of happiness intermix with the tears of sorrow so much that there is no separating them. And life - for me, for Bob's family, for the patients whose records I transcribe, for those who are celebrating and those who are grieving, those about to give birth and those burying their loved one - goes on. I understand the circle of life - I just don't like part of it sometimes.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
A woman wrote to the advice columnist that her husband and she had had an argument one morning and didn't resolve it before he left for work. Later in the day, she was called by the emergency room and was told that her husband had had a heart attack and died. She was not only grief-stricken but her guilt was unbearable; if only she had had a chance to make up, she said. If only their last moments together on this earth had been loving ones. Now she had to live the rest of her life with "if only."
Mornings are especially difficult for most families with kids, even those without kids. Maybe someone didn't get a good night's sleep, maybe another had nightmares, maybe someone else was dreading a test at school or overslept or was still carrying a grudge from an argument the night before. Maybe a kid is dragging her heels about getting ready, maybe mom at the last minute realized there are no clean clothes, maybe someone can't find his keys or cell phone. There are countless reasons we tend to argue in the morning at the very time our loved ones are leaving, when our family separates for the day ahead until they are gathered back together in the evening. But sometimes they don't gather back together in the evening. Then comes the anguish of what had been last moments together - sometimes outright yelling, sometimes just stubborn silence, sometimes just irritated snapping, sometimes just in too much of a hurry to give a goodbye hug.
The letter mentioned above reminds me that there were adults involved in this school massacre, too - wives and girlfriends and parents. Each adult and each child had no reason to believe that, no matter if their mornings had in fact been hurried or tense or argumentative, there would be plenty of time to set things right when the family reconvened. We always assume there is plenty of time.
It doesn't have to be mornings. Any time our loved one departs and temporary separation exists, there is always the possibility the temporary situation might become permanent. It's rare that it would happen in this tragic way, but there are heart attacks, car wrecks, and numerous physical ailments and accidents that can snatch us in an instant. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Not next year, not tomorrow, not the rest of the present hour.
It is my hope that we all, in the midst of our overwhelming grief and sadness, make a promise to ourselves to take care in our daily separations, to part with love and forgiveness in every instance, realizing it is one more chance we have been given to bring peace to relationships and to leave our loved one with the knowledge that they are unconditionally loved. What better gift?
We as Americans make it a point to prepare for the just-in-case scenario: We buy all kinds of insurance we hope we will never have to use, we try to maintain our furnaces and cars and appliances in working order, we may even be successful at saving some money for emergencies. Yet, we live our lives day in and day out under the false assumption that nothing unusual will ever happen when it comes to relationships, that our loved ones will always be there after a temporary separation - even it's just our significant other running to the store for something - and we treat each other accordingly. We always assume we can make up another time, or ask forgiveness tomorrow, or give that hug when they get home from school or work, or even when they wake up in the morning. Sometimes they don't come home from school or work, and sometimes they don't wake up in the morning.
One of the most poignant parts of some church services is when the leader says, "The Lord be with you." And the response: "And also with you." What a kind greeting or parting! Or "I love you." Or a hug and kiss.
For years, Ed used to say, "Be careful!" as the last thing when one of the kids left the house to go somewhere. One year Rachel had a car accident, and she swears he forgot to say "Be careful" when she had departed. Whether he had done so or not, it was very important to her. It meant he loved her very much and was wishing she be spared any harm. It was the last thing she heard him say every time she went out and it comforted her.
If we take away anything from this horrible time, let it be that we try to treat each other better at all times, and to appreciate our invaluable relationships, but importantly to take special care and acknowledge our bond when we know we will be separated from our loved ones. There are no guarantees, and, in the event of the unspeakable, we would want each other to have the last words be ones of love and peace.
May the Lord be with you.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
When I first started typing in high school, I used an IBM Selectric and correction fluid which I smeared over mistakes. It was a mess. But I was used to it. Then they invented the correction strips, where I just retyped the wayward letter over the strip and it magically disappeared. This was such an improvement! I got used to it.
Then I moved up to a word processor. I remember the very first day I used one. I was working in the pathology lab at Methodist Hospital in Memphis, and we had just gotten these newfangled machines delivered. I volunteered to learn the system first. They set me up in a little room with a trainer from the company to learn this new way of typing. I typed my first sentence. By the second one, I somehow got the cursor in the middle of the sentence, expecting to type over what was on the page. Immediately I sensed something was wrong. I turned to the trainer. "The new letters aren't typing over and replacing the old letters," I said. "They're adding themselves into the middle and moving the others forward." He laughed and said, "That's what they're supposed to do!" What kind of weird system was that? But I got used to it and learned to enjoy it. Fast forward to 16 years ago when I started my medical transcription career. We had a transcription system with a word expander program, where we could actually make shortcuts and type a few letters and the words expanded! Wow! It was a clunker, though, and had many drawbacks. All the transcriptionists shared a database and if one made a change for what typing "cr" would expand to, then all the MTs would be affected. (That would be a shock if you always used "cr" to expand to "creatinine" and unbeknownst to you, an MT changed it to expand to "cardiopulmonary resuscitation.") We were also limited to how many of these shortcuts we could enter into the database. We reached the limit quickly, so every time we wanted to add a new one, we had to come to an agreement on which one to delete. But the whole system was an improvement on what I used to have, so I gladly got used to it.
Then a few years ago when, after years of this outmoded system, we got a new Windows-based platform and I discovered Instant Text, the creme de la creme of word expander software. I was in heaven. The features were extraordinary. It couldn't get any better. I got used to it. Then they improved it, and immediately I wondered how I was ever satisfied with the older version. This new version is unbelievable! I am so used to it - used to its perfect design, its comfort on my hands, its intuitiveness, and its production capabilities. Now I take it for granted that I can transcribe a great volume of work every day. It's a pleasure to go to work. I'm used to it.
I guess that's what the purpose of Thanksgiving is - taking the time to look at all the components of our lives that we have become "used to" and breathe a sigh of gratitude. I'm used to getting all the food I need (and more!). I'm used to a good job, I'm used to loving family members and faithful friends, I'm used to having enough to wear, a warm house, and a comfy bed at night. All these things I expect, just like a good production with my MT tools, and because I have had them for long enough I take them for granted.
But do you know what else I'm used to? Security. Freedom. Peace. I leave the house every day and I'm not searching in the sky for the next drone attack. I'm not running to the bomb shelter every half hour when a siren blasts. I'm not kissing my husband goodbye in the morning, wondering if the next time I see him will be in a coffin. I'm not coming home to a shattered house. I'm not getting on a bus wondering if there is an explosive hidden on it. I don't worry that my grandkids' schools will be bombed. I don't get up in the morning, wondering if this is the day I will lose my life because I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm used to a life of peace.
That's what's so hard about watching the news this week. Because for some folks in the world, fear is a daily occurrence. The sad part is - they're used to it. It breaks my heart. It should break all our hearts, no matter what "side" you take, no matter what country you think is the aggressor and what is the defender (for both sides in this conflict have blood on their hands), humanity is showing its ugly, violent side, the air has the smell of death, and tears are being shed in buckets. We have enough destruction in this world from weather catastrophes and accidents. We don't need to add to it by doing things that are preventable. Does anyone remember the movie War Games? If hateful revenge is the answer, it will be the final answer because there is no end in the game of retaliation until there is nobody left to retaliate on either side. Then who wins?
In our own country, there are people still being discriminated against, but they're "used to it" by now. There are families in abusive situations that are just "used to it." There are people who know nothing but depression, or pain, or addiction, or illness. It's gone on so long they're just "used to it" and can find no clear way out.
This Thanksgiving, there are some things we are used to, for which we lift up our hands in thanks. There are other things we are used to that we shouldn't have to be used to, and for these things we pray for strength, patience, enlightenment, wisdom, and a path to peace. Yeah, peace. Some folks could really get used to that.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
My remarkable dad, Ensley Tiffin, a man of many talents, had a grand time when he was younger in musical theater in Memphis as a part of Memphis Open Air Theater (MOAT). He especially held in his heart fondness for the Gilbert and Sullivan shows. My sister and I grew up with Dad singing from Pirates of Penzance, "A policeman's lot is not a happy one...." - then, as the song dictates at the end, Dad in a deep bass voice would sing the last 3 slow syllables "...happy one." (My niece Amelia is currently carrying on the family tradition of musical theater in her high school and college acting career.)
How I wish now that I could have paid more attention and appreciated all Dad's stories, but since he died when I was 26 years old, I guess I wasn't old enough and wise enough to appreciate the time I had to listen to this amazing man. I do remember this, though: He said in Pirates of Penzance, he had to play double duty. They didn't have enough people to have a separate cast for policemen and pirates, so the men in the chorus played both roles. They would do a scene, then have to go quickly change costumes and come out as the other characters, switching back and forth as the show continued.
I think about that story when I think of all the various characters Dad played in his own life - Son, husband, son-in-law, brother-in-law, father, uncle, father-in-law, grandfather, friend, Methodist Sunday School teacher, choir director, chairman of church committees, lay speaker, bank teller, conscientious objector who nevertheless served in the US Army, passionate Democrat, stamp collector, letter writer, reel-to-reel tape operator, home movie cameraman...not to mention the usual roles of a parent as chauffeur, teacher, homework helper, groundskeeper, grocery buyer, vacation planner, bill payer, etc. Some of these were simultaneous, and others were of a chronological nature as his life stages progressed.
Then I think of all the characters I have played in my life. I tend to focus on my failings but I try to concentrate on the successes - from my relationships with family and friends to my jobs and concerts and hobbies. And so do we all play our roles on this earth. Sometimes we might wish that the cast could be bigger so we could have more down time, but then when life demands it, we rush offstage and change from our policeman costume into our pirate costume for the next scene. As they say, life is not a dress rehearsal and sometimes we just have to make up the script as we go along. I guess that's what makes life adventurous - these tragedies and comedies in which we participate. We're on stage completely unprepared, sharing scenes with others who are likewise winging it, knowing that somehow it all comes together and miraculous things can happen. One minute we're doing one role and the next minute we assume a totally different one, and the change can happen at any moment.
At this Thanksgiving, besides the usual extraordinary people and circumstances I always have to be thankful for, I am realizing that my role is changing once again - as of January 8, I will be grandmother to 4 instead of 3 grandchildren when little Emily Jean is born. I will have to say out of all my roles on the stage of life, Grammy has to be one of my favorites! Am I ready for the next act? Bring it on!
Have a blessed Thanksgiving, everyone.
Saturday, November 03, 2012
I had automatic clown backup when our son Matt was young. Most kids know what will push their parents' buttons. Matt knew how to push my funny bone. He understood that if he could make me laugh, I couldn't be angry with him. Born with comedic talents anyway, Matt honed his skills so that he would be able to manage any maternal irritation.
He could assume one of his "characters" in an instant - Paw, the old, old man who spoke as if he had no teeth, who was married to The Old Hag and had a girlfriend named Trixie, was his standby. However, Matt didn't even need to assume one of his personas to make me laugh. It was always the horse that did it.
The horse involved total body/voice coordination. His foot would paw the ground while he whinnied and snorted. It was hilarious and just immediately made me crack up. It never got dated; it never got monotonous. It didn't matter how mad I was or where we were - the horse would make me laugh until tears came pouring out of my eyes. Sister Rachel was never pleased, as she had no similar strategy to fall back on in order to get out of trouble.
Of course, my life ambition now is to teach his son Joshua to find his own special way of making his parents laugh. He has to find out what funny bone stimulant will work on his own parents. The horse did it for me, but it might take a whole 'nuther approach for Joshua to use when he senses parental doom.
I know what you are thinking. After all these years, does Matt still do the horse for me? Aye, if I plead with him! Do I ever get tired of it? Neigh, my friends. Neigh.