4 dogs. 2 houses. 4 cars. 2 sewing machines. Births of 3 grandchildren. 1 son's wedding. Death of my mother, 1 cousin, an aunt and uncle, and several dear friends. 3 jobs. 3 foreign exchange students in the family. 12 wall quilts and several bed quilts and many homemade garments. That’s one way to interpret the past 13 years.
Since I started this blog in February 2005, it has been a great source of introspection and pleasure for me. I started it to keep a record of our journey to simplify and downsize. I took ordinary times and turned them into learning episodes. I experienced adventures, not in the exotic sense of extensive travel or fame, but in the everyday experiences of a human life - watching a loved one suffer, listening to my grandchildren's observations, dealing with frustration, fear, anger, and change. I learned so much about myself, about relationships, about response to changes, some welcome, some not so welcome.
The time has come for me to end the formal recording of this journey for several reasons. One is that in our current political situation and general conflict, our journey to simplicity, although still active, has taken a back burner to more pressing things, and I certainly did not want to turn this into another political blog. Also with my mother dying in January, I feel a new chapter has begun in my life and it is time to close this chapter.
The process of writing is always more illuminating for the writer than the reader. I have learned so much about myself - my faults as well as my strengths. I have watched my body age with frustration and alarm, mourning the things I’ve lost, but grateful for what I can still do.
During the time I have worked on this blog, I have had a professional photo shoot for an online magazine, left my medical transcription career after 22 years, lost and gained and lost and gained a few pounds, got over my fear of flying, worried about things that never happened, started a Facebook page for my childhood church members, and worked with my sister, Joy, to digitalize reel-to-reel recordings to preserve family home movies, church home movies, and audio recordings of family and church to include Joy and me when we were little girls, all priceless. One of the gifts that sprang from this is that our dad, who died in 1980, got to sing "How Great Thou Art" for our mom's funeral this year via crystal-clear tape-to-mp3 recording.
Next month I will turn 64, coincidentally the age my dad was when he died. I think of all he missed and how much I have witnessed so far. I wonder what our future holds. Losing my best friend Kathleen and my cousin Mike reminds me that, cliche as it is, every day is a gift. My former job of medical transcriptionist and my new job of working in a local medical office continually reminds me that there are many folks in poor health, some terminal, who would probably give anything for my daily aches and pains.
My husband and I will still strive to simplify as we move forward. Back in 2005, I believed the journey to simplicity was a single drawn-out process, but the ensuing years have shown me it is a never-ending task. We are still giving away books, we are still evaluating our needs and wants, and we are still unfortunately wasting time instead of appreciating the beauty and blessing of each moment. Life will always be a learning process.
Thank you to those who journeyed with me in this blogging experience so I did not feel as if I were speaking to the wind. May the world and our country finally experience the peace and stability that comes with integrity, courage, and appreciation of our diverse, and yes, flawed, system, so we can reach our true potential as individuals and as groups who value human dignity.
Tuesday, February 06, 2018
It was a very hot day in Memphis, and my sister Joy and I had a most unpleasant, sticky task...cleaning out our mom's attic. In the years following Mom's wreck in 2008, it gradually became apparent that she could not live in her house independently anymore. We had known there would come a time where we would have to sell her house. Before that happened, we had to clean it.
It was the attic we were most concerned about. Years of accumulation had taken its toll, and the area had become a breeding ground for mice and God knows what other kind of critters. We were just happy if when we pulled down those metal clanking stairs a bat didn't swoop down upon us. But it was a job we had to do, so I had flown down to Memphis to get together with Joy, don our white hazmat safety suits from Home Depot, and get to work.
We probably could have just pulled up a gigantic garbage sack and just dumped the whole lot, but we were looking for something very special in amidst the insignificant clutter. I had remembered our dad once sitting at the top of those stairs, as he was wont to do one some evenings, examining his "papers," which consisted of memorabilia, Sunday school lessons, choir anthems he was thinking about ordering, etc., when I went up to join him. While we were up there that night, he lifted up a magazine, pointed to the picture of an old man with a beard, and I thought he said, "This is the only picture I have of my father." As a teenager, that momentous fact was unfortunately lost on me. My interest in family lore would never really develop until I was an adult. So as I kind of heard what he was saying but didn't really focus on it, that was the last I thought of the episode until there Joy and I were on that hot summer day cleaning out the attic. I related the incident to the best of my memory. Joy, who is the family genealogist, got excited because she had never seen a photo of our paternal grandfather, so the search was on. The problem was, I couldn't remember the details. I thought it was some sort of magazine, and I knew the guy had a beard, but other than that, my mind was a blank. So we searched through stacks of old Life magazines, old church magazines, old newspapers. Our time in that hot stifling attic would have been shortened considerably had we not spent our time trying to find that darn picture.
Eureka! There it was, in a magazine of sorts - a trade magazine for printers, and the picture was not our dad's father, but his grandfather! A priceless treasure that had been uncovered with a lot of sweat, in this case, literally a lot of sweat.
In the subsequent years, we managed to sell the house, our mom grew more frail and unable to care for herself, living for a while with Joy, then living in an apartment with Joy bringing her food and being her caretaker in every way, and finally on January 6, 2018, Mom passed on at age 94. The last decade since her car wreck has been traumatic for us in many ways. We watched a strong parent become like a child. We watched how her health deteriorated. We looked into a mirror and saw ourselves one day getting old, wondering how that will be handled. A great deal of introspection ensued, for both Joy and me.
I have come to the realization that there are 3 priorities I must think about as I continue my own life journey, thinking ahead to the time my kids will have to deal with things.
1. For goodness' sake, get rid of the junk! This is something my husband and I fight every day, as somewhere deep down I know we have a minor hoarding tendency. My thoughts are always, "When I retire I will be able to work with this/fix this/do this/sew this." Ed's thoughts are usually, "The chair is broken. Stick it in the basement. Stick it in the attic. Just get it out of here so I don't have to deal with it." So from my perspective, when I die, the kids will have tons of clutter, sewing patterns they won't want, books, projects that I "intended" to finish. From Ed's perspective, there will be things they will have to trash that we just never had enough drive to trash ourselves. Sometimes I look around and think, "How sorry I will feel for our kids when they have to deal with all this stuff."
2. Our son Matt said to me one day, "Mom, I'm not looking for an inheritance; all I want to ask is that y'all not leave any debt." I never thought about it until then, but yes. If losing a parent is not enough, all one needs is to be saddled with debt.
3. Finally, it was our Mom's deteriorating health that because the hardest thing to deal with. Some of it was her fault, some wasn't. We often wonder what her remaining years would have been like if she hadn't had the accident, which broke a hip and ankle and set her on the road to disability. We'll never know, but I do know that it is up to Ed and me to take the best care of our health so we remain as independent as we can for as long as we can. This is not a selfish act; this is a gift to our children.
Life is all about learning. Sometimes the lessons come slowly, sometimes fast. I may not have developed an appreciation for old family photographs until I grew up, but since then, I have certainly developed an appreciation of what it means to lose a parent, the things one can control, the things one can't. And there are things you leave your kids with - yes, that includes money or lack thereof, but it also includes leaving them with major tasks that should have been done earlier (whether the broken chair in the attic or the financial/insurance/important papers unorganized and/or missing), and the all important gift of our health, so we can relieve them of the burden of trying to take care of us when we become old. Easy to say, hard to remember to focus on.
Rest in peace, Mama. You taught me many life lessons and are teaching me still. My main lesson? Live a life so that the things that will be said at my funeral are the same things that were said at Mom's - who is remembered for her kindness, her generosity, her unconditional love. Now that's a worthwhile resolution!
Saturday, August 19, 2017
Time for my second in a series of posts about aging, and as they say, “Enough about me.” Let’s talk about my husband!
My husband, Ed, is 70, almost 71 years old, so he is 8 years older than I am. Every time I chuckle at something he complains about in the aging process, he always says the same thing, “Just wait until 8 more years…you’ll see then!” Of course, he has been saying this for 30 years, so I never know quite when we’ll ever be off that schedule of teasing, because by the time 8 years rolls around, assuming I even retain the ability to remember what we talked about 8 years ago, he is another 8 years older and keeps repeating his warning, so I guess it’s the game that will never end until one of us dies.
Ed and I watch PBS a lot, and we sat down the other night to watch a couple of their fundraising specials. Both specials were both celebrating the music of our past - the first one hosted by Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits and Davy Jones from The Monkees. This was from my generation. I enjoyed the broadcast tremendously, as it brought back a lot of good memories. Then we watched the celebration of folk music, hosted by The Smothers Brothers and Judy Collins - and these were Ed’s generation. As a teenager, he adored Joan Baez and the rest of the folk music icons. So there we were, listening to music of our lifetime. Guess what struck me? Everyone was so OLD. The performers were OLD. The audience was OLD. I wonder how the performers themselves felt, as I'm sure they remembered originally performing looking out on a sea of young fresh excited faces, teenagers and adolescents who were applauding and dancing and excited to be watching, some swooning, all singing along because they knew all the lyrics. Now the audiences were full of gray hair (or no hair at all), grandmothers and grandpas, still excited, still happy to be there, still singing the songs along with their icons, but there had to be some kind of switch flipped in the brains of both the performers and the audiences - something along the lines of an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes and the songs are the same, the laughter (“I'm Henry the Eighth I Am”) and the sadness (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”). For a minute, you might forget you have gotten older. For just a few bars, you’re back in college or high school or driving around listening to the car radio, loving the music. For a little while, you don’t feel your muscles aching or your belly jiggling or your feet hurting. For the next wonderful verse, you aren’t thinking about your next doctor’s appointment or how you shouldn’t have eaten that junk food or hoping you remembered to pay your insurance bill. The music just takes the years away. But open your eyes, and there they were - old people singing and playing for old people.
One of my favorite things to do used to be playing piano in local nursing/retirement homes. I would take my collection of Big Band music from the ‘40s and ‘50s, some from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and go to town. I knew the songs those older people grew up with and loved, and those were the ones I played. They’d sing along, they’d turn to one another and laugh, they’d thank me and sometimes say, “You don’t look old enough to know these songs!” So ever since then, I imagine my generation in a nursing home in the near future. Some young pianist will walk in with music from the Beatles and Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Cowsills, and play those wonderful songs for the exact same reason I played the music I chose - to help the old folks reminisce and wash away the years for an hour or so. Except the old folks reminiscing will be us.
So after Ed and I enjoyed those PBS performances, shocked though I was at the age of the participants, I looked over at Ed. These days he is feeling his age. He had cataract replacement surgeries but unfortunately there were complications and now his eyes are even worse. He can still drive OK, but for how long? He can’t read regular print without a magnifying glass, so we keep one in every room. He has loved to read all his life, and has the collection of books as testament to that passion - books on spirituality, Celtic lore, history, fantasy books about dragons and other civilizations, cookbooks, Mark Twain stories, Lord of the Rings, CS Lewis. He now reads everything on Kindle because he can enlarge the print. He told me we might as well get rid of all his real books because he will never be able to read them again. So we packed up a bunch today and took them to the thrift store. That was so sad for me. It was an acknowledgment that something had forever changed for him. Some of these books I realized we have been moving with us from house to house, from town to town. Some of them he had when I met him in 1972. We moved them from our first apartment to our first house, then when we went into the ministry, from parsonage to parsonage, then finally from Tennessee to Maine. Some of them we researched to see if we could replace them in Kindle version, but most of them are not available. Some we saved for the grandchildren. But many, many of those stories of his life left the premises to be given the chance to go home with somebody else who will enjoy them.
Ed is also diabetic, and although he keeps it under good control, the damage has taken its toll through the years and he has lost feeling in some of his fingers, some just from neuropathy and some from having to prick his fingers to draw blood several times a day. He tends to drop things more than he used to, and this just frustrates him.
He told me one day he looked in the mirror and actually said out loud to his reflection, “Where did you get your Daddy’s legs?” His once muscular legs are now skinny and frail looking. He still can walk the dog a couple of miles a day, but he can’t do what he used to do 20 years ago. He doesn’t like what his body is getting to be, and that frustrates him.
So while I'm having to deal with aging myself, I’m watching him deal with his own aging. We have the shared memories of what we looked like when we got married, when I was just 19 and he was 27. Most young people first married don’t spend a lot of time wondering what it will be like to grow old together. And that is the way it should be. But - if you are LUCKY - the day will come when you don’t even recognize the person you married. Suddenly it hits you - you’re married to an old man or old woman. And not only are you dealing with your own aging and mortality, you’re watching a loved one go through the same thing.
Most people I know are very hesitant to talk about dying. Not me - maybe it’s because I've been in the medical world so long and I’ve transcribed reports of patients through all stages of their lives, including their time in the dying process. So Ed and I will sit around and wonder - who will go first, him or me? How does one handle that? One minute you’re married, the next minute you’re alone. I can’t imagine. I am at the age now where I have friends who have lost their spouses, and I ache for them in their grief. Life goes on and one has to adjust, but I imagine the longer you are a couple, the harder the parting is.
It’s difficult enough with the dog. Every time Ed gets another dog, he does the math of how long that dog is supposed to live, and he does the math about how long he himself might live, because he doesn’t want to die and leave a broken-hearted dog wondering where his Master went, and he also doesn’t want to experience another beloved pet cross that darn Rainbow Bridge. So he always tries to calculate it so “we will go out together.” Yeah, I know - an impossible task but he still goes through the calculations. The problem is, there is no “normal” in life. There is no normal that a man will live to whatever and a woman live to whatever or even a pet live out its expected years. On top of that, Ed has never been good at math anyway.
So the odds are, one day one of us will die and leave the other one bereft. With or without a dog. My best friend and my cousin died prematurely, so I know we should consider ourselves the lucky ones, at this moment in time, the moment that will never come again. The future? “Let It Be.” In the meantime, I sit here listening to “Daydream Believer” and every once in a while will glance over at my sweet aging husband, with his glasses and gray beard and balding head, his shaky hands, and he will glance at me, a woman who looks nothing like she did 43 years ago either. We see it all, and we laugh.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
The idea of aging has always fascinated me. A few months ago I accompanied my husband Ed to a medical appointment, and while he was getting examined, I tried to pass the time reading on my iPad. But eventually the book was less interesting than the scene playing out in front of me. This particular office specialized in ophthalmology, which means the majority of its patients were usually on the elderly side (whatever elderly means these days). The layout was such that each patient had to come in the door and cross the room (right in front of me) to the reception window to check in. There each patient was asked to state his/her name and date of birth as the receptionist confirmed the appointment. (I was highly suspicious that their being asked to vocalize this information in a way others could hear was an invasion of patient privacy laws, but I won’t get into that.) As I watched patient after patient come and check in, I found myself trying to guess their ages before they so loudly announced their date of birth. I carefully watched the patients as they entered, some walking independently, some with canes, some leaning on a relative or friend, some with walkers, some being pushed in wheelchairs. I looked at their hair, their faces, their bodies, their clothes. I mentally compared them with other people I am acquainted with whose ages I know. At the very second the patient arrived at the window, I guessed their age. Then when they stated their date of birth, I saw how close I was. You’d think it would be easy, but it wasn’t. I know I’m 62, and I know what I look like, and I’ve seen some people I graduated with and know what they look like today, and Ed is 70 and I know what he looks like, and Mom is 93 and I know what she looks like, so I have a pretty good base of comparison. The fascinating part? Someone could be hesitantly using a walker and be my age, and another one might briskly walk in unaided and be in her 90s. The main thing I learn when I play that game (which I also play if I’m standing in line at the pharmacy, as they do the same drill) is that everyone ages differently, there is no pattern, no recipe to follow, and some people seem to thrive with it and others seem to be just counting the days until it’s over.
Aging is a strange thing. It happens to all of us, at least the ones who are lucky. Aging usually brings with it more physical aches and pains, hopefully some wisdom and insights, some regrets, some physical changes that are jarring and sometimes debilitating, and worries specific to planning for the future. Those of us around my age have these things in common, I would bet. Many books have been written especially for the Baby Boomers, trying to help us age “gracefully.” I just finished “Keep Moving” by Dick Van Dyke. He has the upbeat attitude and humor about aging one would expect from him. But in the end, my journey into aging is all mine. I enjoy hearing other people talk about getting older, and sometimes I glean some good advice, but my experience will be unique, just as yours will.
I don’t ever mind talking about aging and its sibling, death. The subject is extremely interesting to me. Now, my mother, she is very uncomfortable talking about death, and that’s fine. But to me - aging and death make up the next great adventure! It’s the planning aspects that make me nuts.
So many decisions I have to make now are subject to my estimate on how long I will live. Which is, of course, something I just don’t know. Mother is still living at 93, but my dad died at 64. Hmm…do I add those up and divide by 2 to get an idea of my probable lifespan? Or did I inherit more genes from Dad and really only have 2 more years to get this already overdue quilt finished? Or did I inherit more of Mom’s genes and need to prepare financially for living to a ripe old age, requiring extensive help for self-care? How long should I work? When should I start receiving Social Security? People my age and older understand that there is now a lot more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than the top and the need to plan accordingly. But how much sand is in the hourglass to begin with? If I knew that, maybe I could make some viable decisions.
Also when I think about aging, I think how unfair everything is. They say eat healthy, get exercise, and regularly activate your mind in order to live a long time without dementia. Mom is, as I said, 93 years old, and never did nor does she do any of that stuff and although her body is wearing out, her mental status is fine. Dad, who never drank or smoked and who was a lover of theology and philosophy and reading never made it to 65. Go figure. My cousin Michael and my best friend Bernie died years ago, yet I’m still here. I frequently read news articles about people who die in car wrecks in their 20s and 30s. Surely we can assume they thought they would die of old age. Doesn’t everyone?
We aging people also have to deal with a lot of fears. Do I have enough money to live on for many more years? How bad will my health deteriorate? Will I ever be a burden to my kids? Will my spouse die and leave me alone or will I die first and leave him bereft? Even things as simple as writing a “starter obit,” making sure our kids know where to find my online passwords and a schedule of when bills are due and how they are paid, etc., are on my mind. (I handle all the money stuff and my husband does all the cooking. If I go first, the bills won’t get paid, and if he goes first, I will starve to death.) Will I even be able to work as long as I need to? As a medical transcriptionist, I need a focused brain, working nimble hands with no arthritis and no falls resulting in broken bones in my arm or fingers, clear vision, excellent hearing, and a back and neck that can withstand hour upon hour of sitting. I often joke that I wonder which part of me will go first, because if I lose any of these abilities, my job is toast. And then the biggest question of all…how long will Ed and I be able to safely drive? The last vestige of independence.
I even have mini-panic attacks when I think about my 4 grandchildren. If I died tomorrow, would I have successfully passed on whatever knowledge and wisdom I want to give them? Have I made enough memories? Years from now, will they view me as a vibrant (yes, older!) woman who could get down on the floor and play with them or an old lady who lost her sense of excitement and wonder and got so decrepit she had no stamina? In my childhood, I had 2 grandmothers. My maternal grandmother was anorexic and lived most of the years I knew her in a state mental institution. My paternal grandmother lived with us in a dark room in the back of the house. She never came out for anything and I remember her arguing and crying when my Dad made her take her medicine. She could be quite scary. I don't want to be a scary old lady. I want to be an interactive, energetic, fun old lady.
Alas, the future is unknowable.
Getting older is frightening, exhilarating, anxiety-provoking, and definitely challenging. Dick Van Dyke in his book wrote that he once got to meet Fred Astaire. He asked Fred if he still danced, if he still did the things he always used to do. Fred’s answer was, yeah, but now it hurt.
At that doctor’s office that day, I saw some hope. I saw some elderly people who seemed to be coping with their aging journey well. In my mind, I pointed to each of them and said, “You are my role model; you are who I want to be when I get old.”
In my job as a transcriptionist, I hear a lot of dictations where the provider gives an opinion of what age means to them. I’ve heard a 75-year-old patient referred to as “middle-aged” and a 60-year-old patient described as “elderly.” I guess it all depends on where you’re coming from. I remember when our son Matt was about 3, which would make me about 31, I was cuddling with him in a chair, and I whispered, “Matt, will you take care of me when I get old?” Matt replied, “But you ARE old!” I was taken aback, but pulled myself together and asked, “If I’m old, what is Granny?” He said, “She’s VERY old.” I then brought up good old Aunt Bessie, who would have been in her 80s, I guess, and asked, “If all that’s true, then what is Aunt Bessie?” and Matt said without missing a beat, “She’s ALL old.” So there.
In the near future, I would like to expand the aging discussion to what it feels like to watch my spouse age, watch my Mom age, and watch my kids age, but for now, I am just astonished at watching myself age. I guess I’ll just keep turning the pages on my life’s story without ever knowing how many pages are left in the book. Thank God I’m still interested in how the adventure unfolds and enjoying the story along the way!
Sunday, July 31, 2016
I’m in a quandary. At almost 62 years old, that is not the most comfortable place to be. I’ve recently finished a biography of Paul Newman. I was really interested in, however, the story of his son, Scott, who died of a drug overdose after years of trying to live up unsuccessfully to his role as the only son of Paul Newman. Who could, really? Everyone expected him to have the same looks, the same acting ability, the same charm. But Scott was a different person, of course. Even Paul’s daughters felt the burden of their dad’s fame. They said it was hard finding a boyfriend who was not intimidated by their father, and even their female friends found themselves flirting with the handsome Mr. Newman, even as he got older and older. It’s hard to be born into fame and fortune.
My sister Joy and I were not born into fame or fortune. We were born into a middle-class family in Tennessee. Our parents were not politicians or actors or people whose names you would read in the gossip column of the newspaper. However, our father made his mark on the world by writing letters during the Civil Rights movement to encourage those on the front lines championing justice who were the recipients of so much hate and animosity, and sometimes penning letters to businesses to every so kindly encourage them to change policies (as in, it’s time to let go of the separate white/Negro drinking fountains). Letter by letter, he wrote his words of love and tolerance, and letter by letter those recipients were warmed, inspired, and sometimes challenged by his witness as a white Christian Southern man who had ideals and wanted to make the world a better place. Dad saved most of these letters, and Joy recently wrote a play called “Letter Man” which brought everything together; the play was staged in Memphis this summer.
As she was working on compiling these letters into a play, Joy and I held many conversations over the phone on the impact these letters were having on us. Both of us are way past the age where our dad started his ministry of public service as a lone agent speaking in the wilderness for love and tolerance and social change. Re-reading the letters inevitably made us question ourselves as to what we have done with our own lives. When you grow up with a parent whose life embodied Jesus in so many ways, how do you deal with that? How can you live up to that legacy? Everything we have done seems so inadequate in the shadow of his accomplishments and sacrifices.
I recently read an excerpt from a book by David Brooks titled “The Road to Character.” Here is what he says: “In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, ‘At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?’”
This is the quandary. Dad served his life’s purpose during a great upheaval in this country. He felt in his soul he knew exactly what he was called to do. Indeed, he considered it his calling. No question about that.
But each generation has to respond to its own times. I was reminded of the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln started out with the famous “Fourscore and seven years ago,” recalling the birth of the nation, then goes on to say “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” In just a couple of sentences, he takes the listeners all the way up the road from the founding of the nation, from which by this time they were so removed, to their current situation. He was saying, yes, we can remember the past, we MUST remember the past, but we are called to act in the present.
So, using a phrase which used to be popular, “What would Jesus do?” - Joy and I ask, “What would our dad Ensley do?” Indeed - he lived in a different era. He typed his letters out on a typewriter, key by key, folded them up, inserted them into envelopes, addressed them, stamped them, and sent them on their way. He wrote on a one-to-one, from sender to recipient. The world has changed now. How would he have handled Facebook, where his passionate pleas may have been met with volatile response from friends and even strangers? What would have been his responses to the endless social media posts which would have saddened his heart? Would he have been overwhelmed with the job at hand? We know he would have responded with love, as that is the only way he could, but exactly how? As he was called to answer to his time in history, so are we called to answer to our time. We feel the urgency to bring attention and energy to injustice in the many ways our dad did. Racial tensions have escalated and his vision of a world of racial equality still has not materialized. And for our generation, there are additional battles to fight on other lines of social change as well. But how? When news goes around the world faster than lightning, and opinions are more numerous than stars in the heavens, when just watching the news makes your heart break, when the senseless killings just don’t seem to stop and violence and hate and fear seems to crown the days - what are we called to do? What are we called to say? How are we called to act? What is our “calling”?
It’s a world of questions waiting for answers. When you examine life in your 60s, the hourglass has lots more sand on the bottom than on the top. The urgency is clear. Time seems short. I am just one person. It all seems so overwhelming. Sometimes I call my friends because, instead of being an encourager, I seem to need the encouragement myself. Joy and I have said many times recently how we wished Dad were here to guide us, to show us the way that we can spread love and be active fighters for justice and tolerance in the here and now.
No, we didn’t have a famous father who was listed in Forbes or People magazine. But he was certainly a man hard to live up to. May we all find our “calling” in this life - and be faithful to it. So help us God.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
When my husband, Ed, was in seminary, he came home one day with something funny to relate. In his counseling class, the professor stressed the importance of listening. He instructed them in the art of listening to the clients, paying careful attention, then repeating back to the clients in their own words what had been discussed. It’s an empathy lesson, a session in careful listening as the counselor tries to discern what the client is really feeling, then in turn the counselor makes the client aware that everything they said had been accurately heard. The professor said one of his students came back to class one day and told him how it went. Here was the student’s story: My elderly patient was saying, “I can’t stand it anymore, I am in daily pain.” I responded, “What I hear you saying is you can’t stand it anymore, you are in daily pain.” The patient looked at me for a moment, then said, “I am in such a depression, can’t focus, don’t feel life has meaning.” I responded, “What I hear you saying is you are in such a depression, can’t focus, don’t feel life has meaning.” At this point the patient said, “Is there a damn echo in here?!”
As humorous as that story is, the point about listening and being heard is valid and so applicable to what is going on in our society. I just took a break from Facebook because the negativity and hate was wearing me down. We can’t stand still enough to listen to our brothers and sisters when they tell us how they feel. The Black Lives Matter folks are trying to tell us how scared they are around police officers, from their person experiences or seeing what it is happening to others. They say so often they are treated in a demeaning manner from society at large. The police officers are trying to tell us what it’s like to have their lives on the line every day, and how scary it is to stop a total stranger, who one day might be an old man who accidentally ran a red light to a wanted murderer who has nothing to lose when confronted and the officer may only have a few seconds to react to a threat. The white folks are telling us they are scared at the way society has changed, it’s too fast for them, and besides, they think since slavery has been fixed, and everything is integrated, and we have blacks in places of power, so what’s the big deal? They hear “Black Lives Matter” and add the words “more than other lives” and are offended, and the blacks hear the exact same phrase and add the words “just as much as other lives.” Everyone assumes if your pro-cop, you’re anti-black; if you’re pro-black, you’re anti-cop. The conversation deteriorates from there. Everyone talks, few really listen.
What are we supposed to hear? That the “other side” hurts, they have feelings, they are frustrated, they are scared. It is human nature to want to have a voice. We want somebody to hear us. Even kids. I’ve just read a book about the old TV show where Andy Griffith and Ron Howard played a sheriff and his son. One day on the set, little Ron, who played Opie, took the director aside and said, “I don’t believe a little kid would say those words just that way.” The director responded by saying, “Well, how would a kid say that, then?” Ron gave the sentence as he thought it should be played, and the director gave him the green light to change the script. Ron got a huge smile on his face and right before the scene was taped, Andy Griffith asked Ron what he was smiling about. He told him the director had LISTENED TO HIM and was taking his advice! Andy asked him why that was so great and Ron said that he had many times asked the director to change something and he never had…up until now. Andy replied that it was probably because this was the first idea he had that was any good!
I’ve read enough psychology to understand that if someone comes to you, whether friend or family member or whoever, and says, “I feel….,” you should never EVER respond by saying: “You shouldn’t feel that way.” “It’s your own fault.” “You don’t really feel like that.” “What do you expect me to do about it?” - or anything similar. Feelings are valid! If I feel hurt in a situation, it doesn’t matter if the hurt was intended or not, the very fact I feel hurt should be acknowledged.
Society is hurting. Society is scared. It’s not time to fan the flames of insults and demeaning, demoralizing arguments. It’s time to listen. Hear the pain from everyone. Hear the anguish, the frustration, and after we listen, REALLY listen, with an open mind, human to human, we can go from there.
One of the lasts posts I shared on Facebook before my “sabbatical” said that the phrases that matter most in the English language that we don’t say enough are “I love you.” I’m sorry.” “Please forgive me.” Thank you.” I will add one more to that….”I hear you.”
Friday, March 18, 2016
What time is it? If I turn my head I can just see the clock. 5 a.m.! Oh my goodness, I have got to get back to sleep so I can work tomorrow. Tomorrow? I guess it’s today now. Sheesh, I’m tired. After all, I didn't get to bed until 1 a.m. Ed is fast asleep, and so is Sam, our recently adopted dog. Sam loves to sleep in bed with us. That’s fine, except he loves to be curled up right next to me. I mean RIGHT next to me. I can barely move his 45 pounds of snoring canine body. We would have to get a dog who snores. I wonder if they make CPAP machine for dogs? Well, they make clothes and boots for them, don’t they? I saw where the pet store had dog coats and boots for sale this week. Ed won’t let me get Sam clothes. He says that is silly. Oh well.
I really have to switch positions. Oh man, I don’t want to wake Sam up but once I realize I need to move, that’s all I can think about. I give a little nudge. Sam won’t budge. He doesn’t get hints, especially when he is fast asleep. I can feel my nightgown scrunched up beneath me. I really need to turn over. I need to fix my nightgown. I need to go to the bathroom. I need to get this song out of my head. “Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail, hippity hoppity Easter’s on its way…” I stifle a laugh. We just got an animated toy for my mom who sings that song. I mean, the bunny sings the song, not my mom. Although she probably tries to sing with him. He actually hops around while he sings. And he wears bunny slippers. Sam would look cute in bunny slippers. But nooo, I can’t buy doggie clothes - stubborn Ed. Man, now I can’t get the song out of my mind. How am I supposed to sleep now? I’ve got to think of another song. The only way to clear one’s mind of one song is to get another one going….
Ah, yes. “Here I go again, I hear those trumpets blow again, all aglow again, taking a chance on love.” That’s what we’re doing - taking a chance on love. It’s the reason we didn’t want a dog for many months after our border collie Lily died of epilepsy. We bonded tight with her, and had to watch her seize day after day after day. She was only 3. Never again, I said. I can’t do it again. I can’t emotionally go through with loving fiercely and losing everything. What good is loving if it has to end? Is the pain and sadness really worth it? We’ll get along without a dog, I told Ed. He agreed. Our emotions were just too raw.
Sam starts jerking. For a split second, I think it is Lily having a seizure. Only this time it’s not a seizure. Sam is dreaming and running in his sleep. Thank God his back is to me. The other night he was on his side facing me and I got a back massage all night, and not the good kind, until I gave up and went to the couch to finish the night.
“Here I slide again, about to take that ride again, starry-eyed again, taking a chance on love…” Now I can’t get THAT song out of my mind. Yeah, we managed to live without a dog for over a year. Then I started perusing PetFinder and the local shelters’ web pages. It was all innocent. Just a way to pass the time. Yeah, right. Then I saw Sam and fell in love. We tried to talk ourselves out of it. Remember in the summer when it’s too hot to leave the dog in the car? Remember having the vet bills, having to buy heartworm pills and dog food? Remember the dog hair everywhere? Yeah, I remembered. But I also remembered the cuddling and soft fur on my hands. I remembered the joy in Lily’s eyes after we had been separated for a few minutes and were reunited. The tail wagging. The funny things she would do that made us laugh. I kept staring at Sam’s picture. He was in Arkansas, asking us to adopt him. I could feel it. But where was the guarantee that we would have him for many years and he would be healthy and would never get sick or injured? I want a guarantee before I make a commitment! I want a guaranteeeeeee!!! “Now I prove again, that I can make life move again, in the groove again, taking a chance on love…”
Oh my goodness, if I don’t change positions I’m going to scream. I barely have enough room before he pushes me out of bed. I slowly maneuver my fingers over to the edge to measure the distance. Three fingerbreadths and I fall off. I literally will fall out of bed. Fingerbreadths. What a stupid word. I type it all the time as a transcriptionist. Oh dear! If I don’t get some sleep, I’ll NEVER be able to focus at work tomorrow. I mean today.
I give Sam a little push. No response. He is so heavy. I could strain a muscle trying to move that hunk of animal flesh. Why does he have to sleep in bed with us? I will admit he is wonderfully warm, though.
Sigh. I’ve got to get up and rearrange my nightgown. What time now? Oh, 6 a.m. I’m exhausted but surprisingly content. I maneuver myself out of bed without disturbing Sam or Ed and come in here to the computer to collect my thoughts. And to try to get the song out of my head. “Things are mending now, I see a rainbow blending now, we’ll have a happy ending now, taking a chance on love.”
Saturday, November 14, 2015
The year was 1996, and we were just about to move from middle Tennessee to Maine. Packing was done, goodbyes had been tearfully exchanged, all necessary arrangements had been made, and the time had finally come. The plan was that I would drive son Matthew to Maine and about a week later, husband Ed and daughter Rachel would follow. There was just one thing left to do. A couple of days before Matt and I were to leave, I had to play for a wedding.
Ed had just finished 4 years of ministry assigned to a charge near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and in the course of that appointment, he had become acquainted with another minister, whose name was Carol (easy for us to remember!) and whose last name was also similar to ours with one letter difference, Janes, so people were forever getting confused and sometimes we would even get each other’s mail. Carol’s daughter was getting married, and Carol herself was going to officiate in the ceremony, but would I consent to play the organ? Even though it was a hectic time for us and our to-do list was a mile long, I readily agreed.
I have played the organ for a lot of weddings in my time, and I frankly don’t remember much of the ceremony, although I’m sure it was lovely and poignant. I do remember this, however: Ed and I made a short visit to the reception, and when it was time to go I wanted to say goodbye to the happy couple. I didn’t know them well, had just met them in my role as wedding organist, and I knew the probability was that we would never see each other again. Every version of “goodbye” in my mind seemed inadequate, and I vividly remember what I blurted out as we exited the hall: “Have a good life!” That would cover the next few decades, I guess.
I recall thinking how odd the situation was - here I was, an integral part of a major life-changing event in this couple’s lives - an organist at their wedding. I, a virtual stranger, had witnessed one of the most personal and private moments a human being can have. I had not seen them before, and would no doubt never see them again. Yet, there we were - our lives entwined for a brief hour or so, and then we would go our separate paths. So far, almost 20 years later, my prediction has come true, at least for now. Rev. Janes and Ed were not good friends - she was more of a colleague - and thus we have not kept in touch through the years. I often think about that couple and my wish to have a good life. I hope they have, and I hope they continue to live in happiness and peace. But I will probably never know.
The reason I think about them so many years later is that our encounter made me consider the journey of our lives and the many people we come across. Some of these people become lifelong friends. Some are on paths that intersects with ours just for a brief moment, then move away forever. Some weave in and out of our lives like a drunk trying to walk a straight line for a policeman. Some are close friends with whom we lose touch because of various life circumstances and with whom we delightfully reconnect many years later. Some are just strangers and will remain strangers, but we share individual moments in time - some momentous, others mundane. A smile and greeting exchange at a cash register. Someone in the audience complimenting me when I performed at a dinner theater. A former classmate with whom I shared a few years of adolescence. One of my kids’ teachers I met at open house (although - one of those teachers turned out to become my son-in-law - you never know about those chance encounters....). The friendly policeman who stopped me at a routine roadblock when I was driving home from work at midnight. The librarian who used to check out my books when I was a little girl. The flight attendant who knew I was scared to fly and who tried to reassure me. The hairdresser who made me look good for my daughter’s wedding. The nurse who made sure I had a chance to see my brand-new grandbaby, as I was alone in the hospital room watching over everyone’s belongings.
Then there are the churches we served. Just like military families, United Methodist ministers move around, appointed to one place, moving to another place, constantly saying hello and goodbye. Each congregation, each member, affected us in some way. Some showed us how to be a Christian, and others showed us how not to be. Every single one a teacher.
Ed had a seminary professor once who told him that two human beings cannot cross, even for the briefest of moments, without having an effect on the other. Each one of us is permanently changed by every encounter. We may not realize it, but we are.
I have even been changed and continue to be changed by total strangers. Facebook now puts things in my “newsfeed” when one of my friends “likes” a post. These posts originate from strangers, but I see them as they are shared and many of them make me think, which is always a good thing. Some of these posts remind me to appreciate life, or how it costs nothing to be kind. I inadvertently see pictures of complete strangers who have just gotten engaged, married, or had a baby. I see hopes and dreams and happiness in their eyes, and for a short moment, we connect, as one human being to another, and I join in their happiness. Then I see a post from a stranger who is grieving - a suicide, and auto accident, a pet who died. Again, I share a moment and grieve with them. These are people I have never met and will probably never meet. But we connect on a very human level, even for a few seconds.
That is what it boils down to - shared humanity. Every time I encounter another human being, I want to try to remember that this encounter will change us. And if I can remember that, maybe I can do all in my power to make the change a blessing for both of us.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
When I was diagnosed with depression last winter, I found a 7-step program to overcome it. One of the steps was to get out and commune with nature every day. So I’ve been parading around our yard, enjoying all the wildflowers and everything else popping up all around. We have everything from irises to lupines to a giant hosta, plus woods with maples, pines, oaks, and all manner of trees. Lots of stuff growing out there, varied and beautiful.
It occurred to me that my Facebook friends are another kind of garden, just as varied as the life brought forth from the earth on the property around our house. Variety? Heck, yes! Just perusing over my list of friends, I see all kinds of religions - Episcopal, Unitarian, United Methodist, Congregational, Church of Christ, Baptist, Catholic, and assorted other nondenominational Christians. Some of you are agnostics and atheists. My friends run the gamut of Republican, Democrat, Independents, and those who couldn’t care less about politics. Some of you hate Obama and some of you adore Obama. You may be vegans, vegetarians, or carnivores. I have fitness-oriented friends and couch potatoes. I have optimists and pessimists. I have friends in their 90s and friends that are still teenagers. I have gay friends, married and single. I have straight friends who are married and single, some widowed, some divorced. I have Southerners and Yankees and transplants. Some of you are teachers, medical field workers, musicians, animal activists, gay activists, a children’s chorus director, airplane pilots, landlords, a riverboat captain, a librarian, a hairdresser, farmers, some small business owners, and many more who represent assorted other careers. How do I know all these people? Some of you friends I met through quilting, through medical transcription, or through music. Some of you are or have been my co-workers. Some of you were classmates from high school, or friends from churches, both ones we attended and ones we pastored. Two of you are my former teachers. Some of you are neighbors from decades ago in Tennessee, others are neighbors from just a few years ago in Ellsworth, Maine, and some of you are neighbors living in our current neighborhood. Some of you I got to know because our kids grew up together, and some of you are friends of our kids who grew up to become our own friends! Some of you are people I have known all my life, and some of you I have actually never met in person. Of course, some of you are just members of my crazy, beloved family.
Now look again at that extensive list. What are the chances we all agree on everything? Nil. What are the chances I care deeply about each and every Facebook friend? 100%. I am so honored to share in your birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. I am so honored to grieve with you in your losses of loved ones, pets as well as humans. I am so honored to watch your kids and grandkids come into this world, grow up, and I cheer with you their successes in a variety of fields. I travel vicariously on your vacations. I sympathize with (or envy) your weather. I love your pet pictures and stories. I am awash in memories of how you people have contributed to my life. Some of you have taught me, some have challenged me. Some have inspired me, some have made me - yes - laugh out loud! Some have passions for ideas I do not share. Some of you are rejoicing over things happening in our country, and others of you are fearful and despondent about what is happening. Like my yard, my Facebook friend garden is full and varied. It is a garden of HUMAN BEINGS in all of their humanness, failures, triumphs, love, and fear. Certainly we don’t think alike. Certainly our experiences have led some of us to different conclusions and beliefs from others. Certainly we grew up in different environments and were taught different things. I have, I’m sure, something (if I wish to concentrate on the negative) to separate me from each of you. I also, however, have something in common with each of you - and that is what I choose to concentrate on. I care about you all. I care about what is going on in your lives, your struggles, your challenges. I want you to find the happiness you all deserve. The major thing we have in common? We want the best for each other, even if we disagree with how best to effect that.
I am not advocating we abandon our passions. I am not suggesting it would be better if we each gave up our beliefs and integrity to just blend in. I am suggesting we all treat each other with respect and dignity, not pass around unsubstantiated rumors, not demonize those “on the other side,” and to remember the complexity of that which we call life. We are required to live our own lives in accordance with our own personal beliefs, yet simultaneously respect those with whom we disagree.
I will end with my dad’s favorite poem by Edwin Markham:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!"
Saturday, May 09, 2015
Daddy, I can’t believe it’s been 35 years we have lived without you. It seems just like yesterday I got the phone call from Mama on Mother’s Day, and I remember my shock when she said, “We’re taking your Daddy to the hospital. I’ve called an ambulance,” and then in the background, the last words I ever heard from you, “I don’t need an ambulance!” Ed stayed with little Rachel as I drove to Methodist Hospital’s emergency room. I remember standing there, still in shock, watching the crew wheel you in on a gurney as fast as they could run. That glimpse was the last time I saw you alive. I remember waiting the awful time in the private waiting room with Mom, then Zuleika came to sit with us. I remember calling Joy, who was living in Washington, DC, to tell her and she said she would catch the next plane out. I don’t know how much time passed before Dr. Murdock walked in and said they had done everything they could, but you were gone. I remember calling Joy back and telling her it was too late to say goodbye. Shock was just not a strong enough word for what we were feeling. Our world had turned upside down in one afternoon and we have never been the same. After Mama agreed to donate your corneas, saying quietly, “I think he would want that,” we left to go to Paw-Paw’s to deliver the sad news. I remember how he cried uncontrollably, and as you were only 64 years old and he was, of course, your father-in-law, he kept saying over and over, “It should have been me, it should have been me.” I don’t remember much about the days that followed. I do remember walking around in your den, the room filled with your reel-to-reel tapes, your stamps, your movies, your choir music - everything that brought you pleasure. I saw a lifetime unfinished, less than 4 months from the retirement you so ardently anticipated.
In the midst of our grief, you did make me chuckle when Joy and I looked in the files for any information or planning you might have done. There was a folder marked “Ensley Death” which had what we needed. Of course, you, the great organizer and recorder, would have done so! Your funeral was standing room only. We sang “Lead On, O King Eternal,” and “God Be With You ‘Til we Meet Again.” I sang “Be Thou My Vision” and Zuleika sang “Eternal Life.” I remember an abundance of food being brought to us, but I also remember Mama didn’t eat for days.
When you died, you had one grandchild, Rachel, who would turn 2 years old in a few weeks. Thirty-five years later, you have 4 grandchildren, one who would take Ensley as a middle name, and 4 great-grandchildren! Since you died, Joy has gotten married and has two wonderful, talented daughters. I’m so sorry you didn’t get to see Ed attain sobriety in 1984, but, as Ed always says to me, “He knows.” Ed went into ministry and then in 1996 we moved to Maine, where our kids met the wonderful people they married. Mama is turning 92 this year, and Joy is taking care of her needs enough to enable her to live in an apartment on her own. I know Mama was always your “little girl” because you married her when she was 19 and you were 8 years older. You always took care of her and I know it would make you happy to realize she is still being lovingly cared for, as we are doing what you cannot do anymore. I know you would be so proud of Rachel, Matthew, Kate, and Amelia, as well as the great-grandchildren. We keep your name alive. I remember when Rachel was watching your family home movies in the last few years, it brought her to tears, and she said, “I realized how much love is in this family into which I was born!”
Since you left, the world has changed a lot too! I remember when videos were just coming on the scene, I asked you if you were interested in updating from the old silent home movies, and you laughed and said, “I’ll leave that for y’all.” Who would have imagined we’d all be carrying smart phones in our pockets - or ditched encyclopedias for Google? You left this world before the personal computer, before e-mail, before the Internet. I wish you could have hung around to be able to peruse, sample, and order choir music online, to research your stamp collection, and to share your interests with people all over the world. You were made for the Internet, Daddy! And guess what? We elected our first African-American President, and gay marriage is now allowed in many states! Times are moving fast.
Unfortunately, the world itself is still in turmoil. Wars are everywhere, even wars using the Internet. Injustice and inequality are still rampant. People are still using God’s name to kill everyone who doesn’t believe the same way they do. People still are straining in vain to hear the ideas of your favorite Bible verse: “What does the Lord require of thee? But to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
But guess what, Daddy? Your home movies are alive and on the Internet! You recordings are being painstakingly transferred by Joy to digital format where they can be shared with those who want to hear them. And I sat down tonight with your oldest great-granddaughter, Caroline, and together we listened to a recording you made of Joy and me when we were 4 and 2 years old. What a priceless gift - decades after their origination!
Yes, a lot of remarkable changes in 35 years, in your family and on Earth. But the true values you instilled in us - integrity, truth, justice, equality, service, faith - and your love of music, your curiosity, your passion for learning, your sense of humor - these are the values that never change. These are the things I give thanks for today, as I sit here, myself now 60 years old. Joy and I and our families are here because of you. Countless people have been affected by your love. The actions and stands you took in your lifetime have furthered the cause of justice and inspired many.
As a country, we just honored the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. I am taking the time here to honor just as great a man on the 35th anniversary of his death. Daddy, we miss you, we love you, and look forward to seeing you again. Thanks for everything!
Monday, April 13, 2015
We recently had the chance to watch our granddaughter, Caroline, tie for sixth in the Maine State Spelling Bee. It was an exciting experience in its own right, but I couldn't help think of our frustrating experience with a spelling bee years ago. When Rachel was in 5th grade, my husband Ed was a pastor in an impoverished area of Tennessee. We had chosen to send both kids to the public school, and it wasn’t long before we realized that the teachers unfortunately were rather uneducated themselves. This fact was highlighted in the school spelling bee. It may help to understand that we have a family tradition of spelling excellence - after all, I managed to place in the Shelby County (Memphis) bee in junior high, and my sister and our children have always been great spellers. So it was with great anticipation Ed and I attended Rachel’s bee. It wasn’t long before I realized that the teachers who were leading the bee did not know how to correctly pronounce the words. It seemed impossible that a bee could be attempted when student were given mispronounced words, but that is what happened. With every word, I was reaching the limits of my patience. The breaking point for me nearly came when a teacher gave the word “cherub.” She pronounced it chrub, like shrub. Now what child could spell that word correctly, given that pronunciation? The teacher put the accent on the wrong syllable! Come to think of it, I should have been forewarned, as a week before, Rachel told us her teacher was teaching the class about a country called “Gu’em” (accent on the first syllable) which turned out to be Guam.
It occurred to me that life itself, in a broader sense, is made up of syllables. Love, tolerance, hope, compassion, encouragement, gratitude, as well as hate, distrust, intolerance, anger, and especially, fear. I believe the syllable of fear underlines so much of our daily interactions, and it is the syllable we accent by default. Fear of not having enough money, fear of death, fear of losing our jobs, fear of failure, fear of not being accepted, fear of never finding a mate, fear of growing old, fear of losing independence, fear of crime, fear of flying - you name it - fear seems to be our accent of choice. How much of a difference would it make if we chose to accent love and all that entails? Where the accent goes makes a world of difference, and...I believe... can make a difference in the world.