I had a vivid dream last night. It was Christmas, and we had a tree decorated, but after a couple of days, the limbs starting falling off, along with their ornaments. We ended up with half the tree missing. Next, a neighbor came in and asked me to look across the street at their new yard decorations. I went over to the window. At first, the decorations were just shadows through the glass, but if I looked, oddly enough, directly through the curtain, I could see them. They were life-sized carolers, holding their hymnbooks, mouths in song.
This was one of those dreams I could easily interpret on my own.
The high school which I attended had a chorus group whose members were close to each other. (I'm sure other chorus groups and band groups can relate; musicians are a tight-knit group.) Through the years, we have seen many of those classmates pass on, many of them my good friends. This past week, Peter Russell, a talented guy who was liked by all, died in Memphis.
As we age, we will lose more and more branches off our personal trees of relationships. And with those branches go their decorations - the smiles, laughter, talents, compassion - everything that made those individual branches bright and special and unique. The tree is now half empty, and it makes me sad. I try to concentrate on the intact part, but I can't help missing the empty part, the friends and relatives who brought joy to my life.
But, just across the way, I see them, as if through a veil, still singing.
It reminded me so much of the I Corinthians verse: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.
I think one of the very first posts of this blog was about trying to deal with my visible accumulation of memories as we started downsizing. All those memories involved people, who, when they go, take with them a piece of my life. Especially in chorus, our experiences in that group are shared by us and us alone. The Broadway shows we put on, the assemblies at which we sang, the concerts we gave, the fun we had hanging around our chorus room, and our exceptional teacher, Miss Rose Gillespie - our generation will be the last to know what that was like. One by one, the list of the departed grows, and the list of those who are left on earth shortens. This does not invalidate the memories; indeed, it makes them even more precious.
Outside my room as I write this, there are more leaves on the ground than are on the trees. But their brilliant colors will be remembered, and I know I will see them again next autumn.
RIP, Peter. You are with a talented group of carolers. Give Miss Gillespie and all the others a hug from me.
Monday, September 02, 2013
Whenever people ask me what my favorite season is, I generally say autumn. Who doesn't like fall? (Except maybe kids who are returning to school...) Autumn has it all - colorful scenery, hot chocolate, football, York apples, pumpkins, wood-burning stoves, and culminating in Thanksgiving! I love the season so much that one year I honored it in a quilt (below). On the back, I quilted all the things I loved about this upcoming time of year (including a silhouette of Santa in one corner - because, as we know, when fall ends, Christmas is right around the corner....).
The sign to me that fall is on its way is the ripening of the blackberry bushes.
We have a few in our yard and several in our neighborhood. It's good vision practice to zero in on a few ripe black ones in a sea of unripe red ones. I love to pick blackberries and I love to eat them!
Blackberry season is over, I'm afraid. I think I picked about 5 quarts in all. Every seasonal change is a curse tied up with a blessing - for as much as I hate to see one season go, the next season has its own splendor and celebrations. I had a lot of time to think as I was berry picking last month, and the more I pondered on things, the more I realized that blackberry picking is a lot like life.
1. Everyone matures at his/her own unique rate. Not all the berries on one street, one yard, one bush, or even one branch ripen at the same time. It always amazes me that one branch, which gets the same amount of sun and the same amount of water and temperature will have some berries ripe on Tuesday, more on Wednesday, more on Thursday, and so on. The very same bush I checked yesterday, from which I gathered every ripe berry until none was left, today is loaded with the juiciest, blackest berries you ever saw. Just yesterday they were red. Go figure.
It's the same with people you run across in life. Sometimes just in the same family, children will be totally different in their physical, mental, and emotional maturity. Yet they were raised in the same environment by the same parents. So too are all the folks we encounter in our lives. It's difficult not to judge immaturity in people, but you never know - that same person might be one day away from an insight of wisdom. We encounter people traveling our road, but not necessarily at our speed, and there are always people ahead of us and behind us. It doesn't mean they are better or worse than we are - it just means they are on a different maturity growth schedule. (Unfortunately, some, like the shriveled red berries that never ripened, never make it all the way to maturity; witness the police reports.)
2. Evaluate the risks. Ah, yes, those pesky thorns - and mud - and a dog on a leash and a basket in one hand. There is a spectacular set of blackberry bushes on the road in front of a house that a Pennsylvania family uses as a vacation home right now. A family member saw my husband one day who commented on their plethora of bushes and they said they wouldn't even be around for blackberry season and to tell his wife that she is welcome to their bushes. Very nice! However, just like a castle with a forbidding moat, those bushes are on the other side of a shallow ditch-like area, which in blackberry season is usually filled with mud. Wise or not, I always walk the dog when I am berry picking. So one day the temptation of those plump berries calling my name was too great, and with the leash over my left wrist, and the basket in my right hand, I stood sideways and took a giant step with my left leg over the muddy water and stood like that while my left hand snatched what berries it could. However, the hill where I had one foot propped was a mudslide waiting to happen - and of course, it happened, and as I panicked I grabbed the bush to stop the slide, which, of course, showered me with countless thorns. Not a pretty picture. The next trip, the bush still tempted me, but as I evaluated the risks of falling in mud and cutting up my arms, I decided it wasn't worth it.
One thing I transcribe every day is this: "The risks and benefits of the treatment were explained to the patient." Everything we do in life consists of a risk/benefit judgment. Every day you drive you are saying the risk of a wreck is worth the reason for the trip. Whenever you take pain medicine, which always has some risks, you are saying it is worth it to feel better. When the benefits outweigh the risks of our choices, decisions are easy. The hard part comes when the risks are great and it might be better to cut our losses or keep the status quo and turn away.
3. Look at everything from different angle. It never failed - on my walk down the road, I picked the blackberries until I could find no more ripe ones. Then as I walked back to the house up the road, I noticed that, from a different angle, I could see all the ones I missed on those same bushes. I think I'm so smart and so thorough - yet I always found more berries on my way back from the exact bushes I picked "clean" on the way down.
In life it can't hurt to take a look from a different perspective. From the other side, or from another set of eyes, or from hearing another person's opinion - you may just find something you missed.
4. Savor the pleasures in life, for some are short. Blackberry season is only a couple of weeks. It's something I look forward to and hate to see go. Time is of the essence. You pick and pick and then one day there aren't any more black berries, and the red ones that never turned are withered and you realize blackberry season is over for this year.
In life, the child-rearing experience for parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, is fleeting - babies start crawling, kids get potty trained, children start the first day of school - and on and on. What may seem like an eternity in the present slips away before you know it, leaving you looking back with sighs and a few tears.
So those are the lessons I learned from the blackberry bushes. I'm a survivor of blackberry season - and I have the scars to prove it! Sometimes I won, sometimes the bushes won, but gee, the muffins were delicious! So goodbye to summer, and just around the corner is pumpkin time, then Christmas, then another year will have passed. The special thing about life, I find, is that I know (unless we annihilate the human race or our damage to the environment makes the earth uninhabitable) that blackberry season will come again next year. It's a comforting thought. When we say goodbye to a season, it's always a temporary au revoir because there's a great chance we will be welcoming it back next year. Some of us, of course, never make it. So if you live to see another returning season filled with its special beauty and memories, consider it a wonderful blessing to be appreciated.
Friday, August 09, 2013
I'd like to think I'm an expert in something. I've spent the last day trying to figure out what that might be. I can quilt, but I'm not an expert. I can sew, but a tailor I'm not. (I'm still too afraid to try the invisible zipper installation.) I know medical terminology and medical knowledge, but I'm certainly not an expert in that or I would be a doctor by now. I know a lot about nutrition but wouldn't consider myself an expert. I can play the piano, organ, and Celtic harp, sing and even direct choirs, but I'm no expert musician. I know a lot about Abraham Lincoln, but I'm no match for the people who have written books about him. I'm a great speller, but I'd lose in the first round of the National Spelling Bee (have you ever seen those obscure words they use??). I'd like to consider myself an expert in my chosen expander software program, Instant Text, but there are features in there that I've never had to use and thus have never learned.
You see, when I really have an opportunity to see or hear an expert in action, I am awed. I know just enough about a lot of things to enable me to really value expertise when I see it. I realize, however, that for those areas in which I am lacking experience, my mind can never fully appreciate these artistic endeavors. For instance, I really enjoy looking at pretty flowers and love to eat delicious food. But alas, I have never been a gardener and I have never been a chef, and thus I know I really have no idea how much toil, learning, setbacks, etc., that went into producing those masterpieces. My friend Sally knits. It looks very difficult to me, and when I see one of her intricate sweaters, after I deeply admire it, I know that I will never be able to appreciate it as much as one of her fellow knitters would, because I have no idea how much time it took to make and how much time it took to learn the patterns. Maybe one day if I ever learn to knit, I could revisit all those beautiful pieces and be blown away at an even greater level by her handiwork. But I do have experience in some things, and I believe that has given me a better understanding of the work involved.
I remember seeing the late Van Cliburn perform when I was a teenager. The general audience members were entranced with the performance, of course. But I'll bet you that we pianists, young and old, in that same audience had a deeper appreciation of what was happening before our eyes, because we knew what it was like to practice (in a small way), we knew what it felt like to give a recital (in a small way), we knew how frustrating it was to learn something new and master it - again, in a small way. He was doing the same thing we had done - only on a much grander scale. He was our inspiration. Forget super heroes - he was the young pianist's awe-inspiring moment. He made it look easy - but we knew better.
This is why when I see beautiful quilts, I am wonderstruck by the work that I know went into it. I can admire the spellers in the bee, the seamstresses on Pattern Review, the Maine harpist Julia Lane, and the authors who write about Lincoln after countless hours of research. I feel that a tiny piece of me is present in them, because we share the same desire to learn - only they became the expert and took it to the limit, while I am content with coasting along in my learning, basking in their well-earned glory and marveling at their talent.
They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. That's a lot of time to dedicate to one magnificent thing. If I practiced piano for 10,000 hours, that's a lot of hours I wouldn't be sewing or quilting or transcribing. Every hour to perfect one skill takes away an hour of enjoying another.
I decided years ago that I would give up chasing the expert label. I had to ask myself if I would rather be fairly good at a number of things or a bonafide expert in one thing - and the answer for me was the former. Van Cliburn dedicated his life to the piano and the world is better for it, but he worked hard and long to perfect his talent. I'll bet you he didn't make a single quilt the whole time!
Of course, the world always has the "Renaissance person" - the Leonardo Da Vinci type - the one who is an expert in many things. But those people are rare. Most people who are experts in one thing can only handle expertise in a couple of other things before they just run out of time.
I'm writing this post on National Book Lovers Day - in honor of all those authors who dreamed big and worked hard to master writing and illustrating, for which I am so grateful. At the same time, I honor the artists, musicians, crafters, growers, knitters, spellers, and everyone else who was hungry to learn, worked hard to get better and better, and by that, have added beauty to our world. (Yes, I believe a correctly spelled word or an appropriate apostrophe is a beautiful thing!) I will never be an expert, but neither will I be complacent when the experts shine. Thank goodness we don't all have to have experience in something to have at least a tiny inkling of the work involved when we see what others have produced. We are co-creators, and I am honored to share the world with you!
Saturday, June 22, 2013
Here's the thing - I'm 58 and I still lie to my mother. The lies one usually tells parents are the childhood ones - "No, I didn't take that cookie." "Yes, I finished my homework." "She hit me first!" Those are just silly kid things. Then when I became an adult, I started telling lies to her because she just wouldn't understand - "This dress caused $25" when it really cost $75, because Mom, bless her heart, hadn't shopped for clothes for years except at Goodwill, and she has no idea what clothes cost these days. It's easier just to deflate the price in the conversation. Those kinds of things - well, they don't bother me so much.
Now, however, my sister and I are reaching a crossroads. At some point in our lives, lying to Mom (or keeping important information from her, which is the same thing) has become an ethical dilemma. We used to lie for selfish reasons, to stay out of trouble, etc. Now we lie for compassionate reasons - so she won't worry.
Our mother has great anxiety, and it has gotten worse through the years, and now at 90, if you tell her ahead of time about an appointment or an outing or other worrisome thing, she will ruminate on it and start shaking and worrying until she's driven herself crazy. My sister Joy and I don't want to contribute to her anxiety. So we keep information from her.
These lies consist mainly of health issues of other people. For instance, I've had some medical issues lately and am going in for a CT scan next week. Do I tell Mom? Certainly not! She's down in Tennessee, and I'm up in Maine, and I couldn't even hug her to reassure her that I'm OK. I'll worry on my own, thank you.
This has become the new norm. On our frequent phone calls to each other, Joy and I usually have to insert the reminder caveat of, "Of course, don't tell Mother."
This week, however, we reached a conundrum. Mom's only sibling, a slightly younger brother, has been urgently hospitalized for a colon blockage and was scheduled to have surgery for what could be a cancerous tumor. Mom doesn't talk to him every day, so we could easily get by with keeping the information from her, as he lives in another state. My sister and I agreed - she would worry herself sick. We'll have to tell her at some point, but maybe we'll wait until after the surgery when we know everything's OK. We'll tell her after the fact. Meanwhile, our cousins are updating Joy and me on his condition. As I updated my own kids on Uncle Tommy, I repeated my mantra: "Now we're keeping this from Granny so she won't worry - but DON'T YOU EVER DO THIS TO ME WHEN I GET OLD, UNDERSTAND? I don't want to be kept in the dark about anything! Don't treat me like a child!" Each time my son just laughs in my face. "I will keep things from you, and Josh (his almost 3-year-old) will keep things from me one day and his kids will keep things from him. That's just how it is." Kids. Sheesh.
As the evening before surgery progressed, however, Joy and I had a change of heart. We came to this conclusion separately after discussing it with our spouses. Joy is my only sibling. We are very close and love each other very much. What if when we get older she had to have surgery for what might be cancer? How would I feel if that information was kept from me so I wouldn't worry? I would be devastated! How dare others, even family members, even from a sense of compassion, pick and choose what I have a right to know?
So by the next morning with a change in plan, Joy told Mother the details, saying her brother had a blockage and they had admitted him and later that morning were going to do surgery to take out a tumor that was blocking his colon, omitting the word "cancer" because that wasn't a given anyway, at least not yet. Mother handled it well and said she appreciated Joy's telling her. Now at least Mom's brother was in her thoughts and prayers. Mother can deal with things better than we think, sometimes.
I have concluded that we now have veered from all-out lying, all-out omitting information, to a selective communication with Mom. If I receive a bad diagnosis from my CT scan and other tests, I will tell her, but there's no need in telling her what might happen ahead of time. That's a good compromise. I hate giving bad news to Mom. I was with her in the ER in 1980 when the doctor came in and said her beloved husband had just died. When I know she has been emotionally hammered, I just want to take it all away and hold her until she's better.
But life is full of bad things and most of them she deserves to know about. There's something about respect and dignity in this, too. As she tried to protect us from worry all these years, now the paradigm has switched and we are trying to reassure her. Sometimes we make good decisions on that score; sometimes we miss the mark. I hope the proper decisions outnumber the poor ones. But even the poor decisions are done out of love and what we think, rightly or wrongly, is best. It's a difficult and confusing journey and one that requires endless wisdom.
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.