Friday, December 28, 2007


Every year when I take down the tree decorations, I think about “Mrs. X," one of our former parishioners. Once on a visit to her home, Ed and I discovered that she loved Christmas ornaments. She told us that in fact she had every Hallmark Christmas ornament dating back years and years, all their special editions, and before I could express awe at this collection, wanting to ask whether she alternated various ornaments each year, or whether she used them all at once, or whether she had them displayed in a cabinet somewhere, she informed us with great satisfaction that she had every ornament in storage in its original box under her bed, never used. This increased the value, she assured us.

Mrs. X would probably be aghast at our motley collection of tree ornaments - things the kids made when they were little or inexpensive but meaningful ornaments given to us by friends. She would have been particularly disgusted by our poor little feather-bare birds, a few cardinals which have seen better days, and one seemingly drunk naked partridge who must think he’s a bat - he refuses to perch upright on the branch and maneuvers himself to hang upside down. I do have a few more expensive, fragile ornaments, such as a glass-blown head of Lincoln (with lipstick, it looks like), but I would never think of putting them in their boxes and never using them.

I believe things are made to be used for their intended purpose. I remember when I was a little girl that some women (maybe they still do) were given beautiful nightgowns as gifts, but put them away “in case I have to go to the hospital.” Some of those women died without ever even having tried on their pretty new gowns.

When I was a teenager, with several years of piano under my belt, my musical tastes were eclectic. I couldn’t afford much sheet music, but I enjoyed going to the library and borrowing everything from Chopin to Broadway to Strauss to Cole Porter. I would play anything. One day an older, wealthy, very genteel lady in our church named Mrs. Stacey gave me an large, old music book. I think it was from the 1800s, and I know it probably belonged in a museum somewhere, but she knew I enjoyed playing piano and she was generous enough to give it to me. It had that distinctive old-book smell. It never occurred to me that it might have been valuable.

It was an oversized book and as such was reluctant to sit upright on my piano, and it wouldn’t stay open on its own, so I was constantly having to stack heavy books on both sides as I played the music. The music was not easy, it was very challenging, but it was lovely and different, and best of all, it was mine. Soon the fragile pages started to tear. Some of them would crumble when I touched them. Other pages would just fall out of the binding, yet on and on I played. I played from that book until it was a crumbly, unidentifiable jumble of torn paper. I had played the very life out of it. Then I threw it away.

Every so often, I think about that old book, wishing that I had taken better care of it, wishing that I had not used it so much. It probably was valuable then, and 40 years later, I imagine even more valuable today. But do you know what? I used that book for the exact purpose for which it was published. I played its glorious music. Things that are well used don’t last forever.

As a quilter, I have frequently read that antique crib quilts are hard to find, because their very purpose ensured that they would be used - dragged, spit up on, washed, dragged some more - therefore, few antique crib quilts exist today, especially in good condition. It’s the same with toys. If you watch Antiques Roadshow or read about the antique toy market, you will soon learn that a toy that still has its original finish, no broken or missing parts, and - particularly - its original box, is one of the valuable ones. Every time I hear that, it saddens me. A toy that is in such pristine condition is usually one that hasn’t been deeply loved by a child, and that, after all, was its purpose, just as the crib quilts were meant to be used and loved. In their purpose lies their destruction, but in the process, the pleasure and joy they bestow upon their owner(s) is what determines their value, not how much they are worth monetarily.

My old music book, my Chatty Cathy doll without a string or her original clothes, our bedraggled Christmas ornaments - they are all testaments to a life of love, each broken piece or torn page evidence of the pleasure they gave. Oh sure, if I made a gorgeous quilt for my grandchild, a part of me would love to see it delicately preserved for generations to come. But on the other hand, if it’s dragged across the floor and spit up on and washed until the patches come undone, then spends the rest of its ragged life as a dog blanket, that’s fine by me. It was used completely and ultimately for its intended purpose.

Now if we could all discover what our purpose in life is (and we are each called to a life of love and service, I think) and steer our lives toward fulfilling that purpose, I think the world would be a happier place. The remarkable difference between humans and things is that the more love we give, the more we have to give, and though our bodies exhibit the wear and tear of lives well lived, our souls are still able to demonstrate purpose, generosity, and compassion. I want my quilts to be used, and I want my life to be used. That’s my prayer for 2008. I wish all my readers a Happy New Year, and thanks for being a part of my ongoing journey!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Chipping away

One of my favorite tasks involved with Christmas is unpacking my little Christmas village. It’s not one of those beautiful expensive ones (most of the shops were bought half price), but it is truly lovely, with each shop lit up from inside, the tiny Victorian people milling about, dogs and cats, horses, trees. I even have a boy skating on ice. The problem is, I’ve never found an object to use for the ice. I had a little square mirror, but it looked ridiculous.

Finally the other day, I opened a new roll of wrapping paper that I bought last year (at half price, of course!) and realized that it was unlike any other wrapping paper I was used to. It was like a thin foil, very silky - draping, not stiff - and I soon found out that it was very difficult to work with because it kept sliding around when I tried to cut it, fold it, and tape it. As I struggled with this paper, I noticed that the reverse side of it was reflective. It looked just like water. It was like a mirror in motion. I knew then that I had to cut a circular piece of that paper and use it for my “ice.”

Every time I laid the paper down with the mirror side up in order to wrap a present, I was required to look at my reflection. It made me smile, in spite of the older, lined, unfamiliar face peering back at me, because it reminded me that this is the time of year I reflect. Most of the year is filled with activities and pursuits and deadlines and mundane chores of paying bills and going to work, but in late December, I try to take some quiet time to think about the year that has passed. This reflective process is started when I write the annual Christmas letter, but that focuses mostly on outer things. Now it is time to focus on inner things. I’m actually taking next week off to do just that.

As a woman with a to-do list a mile long, my first impulse is to list my accomplishments. Yes, I got my CMT. Yes, I was honored to appear in a few magazines. Yes, I made a quilt square for organ donation in memory of my Dad. Yes, I made a few Christmas presents (with a few to go!). But these are not the things that weigh on my mind in late December.

I learned a lot about myself this year, and that’s a good thing. I learned how to work through deep grief. I learned how to appreciate simple things. I re-learned the value of family and friends, people over things. I reminisced about my own amazing grandfather (basically the only grandparent I knew who was in good mental and physical shape), and thought about my role as a grandparent and what I want to impart to Caroline and Charlotte. I thought about the friction with people where I work, and the lesson I learned when Ed kept telling me that the only person I could change was myself, so I did.

Organizations that specialize in goal direction and life coaching sooner or later get around to Michelangelo’s David, because the story of the great sculptor’s mindset has been repeated for generations. Here is one version:

The story has it that when Michelangelo was commissioned to do the sculpture of King David he looked at hundreds of blocks of marble before he decided on the "right" one. To most of us all those blocks shown to him would have looked more or less the same but for Michelangelo it needed to be a certain piece of marble - nothing else would do. Why was that?

It was because he knew exactly what he wanted his David to look like. He could see the end result in front of his eyes. When asked how he was going to create such a fine figure as King David out of such an enormous chunk of marble his answer was: "That's easy. All I have to do is chip away everything that isn't David."

The usual lesson these organizations glean from this story is that you have to know your goal before you start on your journey, and keep that goal at the forefront.

That’s fine, but the lesson I draw from it has a little different perspective. Instead of trying to discover who I want to be, I have to chip away to reveal “who I already know I am inside.” That’s what I’ve been trying to do this year.

I consider myself basically a good person. I know that deep inside me, I am honest, dependable, loving, compassionate, forgiving, patient, creative, nurturing, encouraging, accepting, grateful, intelligent, and generous. This is not a list of things to brag about - this is what my insight tells me is my true nature, the kind of person I not only want to be, but the kind of person God has already made me. Most of these attributes are probably in us all in different degrees, but we don’t realize it, so we don’t start chipping away to find them.

Many churches teach that humans are basically evil, owned by the devil, and accepted and tolerated by God because He sacrificed his son to pay their sin debt. We don’t believe that way. Ed and I believe that God loves us because we are the children of God, that most people are inherently good inside, but because of life circumstances or horrible treatment or even genetic problems, the good is squashed and the bad takes over and the person lives with hatred of self, hatred of others, and acts accordingly.

So at this time of reflection, I have to ask myself, looking back over various times of 2007: “If my true nature is kindness, why am I being unkind? If my true nature is generous, why I am being stingy? If my true nature is compassionate, why am I ignoring? If my true nature is forgiving, why am I holding a grudge? If my true nature is blessed with talents and gifts, why am I not making more use of them?” Then I review my priorities. "If my priority is family and friends, why am I wasting my time with things that don't matter? If my priority is simplicity, why am I buying more stuff? If my priority is health, why am I continuing bad health practices?"

As you can see, the list goes on. There’s a David in me somewhere, and all I have to do is chip away at everything that isn’t David. It’s a hard process, but it’s a necessary one. I believe we are most happy and fulfilled when our pattern of behavior and priorities match what we know is deep down inside of us. The best Christmas presents I can receive this year are a clear mirror and a good, sturdy chisel. Won’t you join me in your own sculpture of self-discovery? Who knows - in the process we might find a thing of beauty that was there all the time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Signs of the Season

Everyone knows by now that I get extremely frustrated when I see signs with spelling or punctuation errors. It’s one thing if an error is in print; I read it once, groan loudly, and that’s that. It’s one thing if I hear it on TV; I hear it once, shout my disgust, and that’s that.

It’s quite another thing altogether if I see a mistake on a sign. For one thing, it’s bigger than life. If I see a sign outside a business, an unnecessary apostrophe might be bigger than my whole head, and on top of that, it’s usually lit up to shine its misspelled word for a mile. And as the most exasperating thing of all, I have to pass a sign day in and day out, enough times to raise my blood pressure.

Sometimes I try to rectify the situation. Wendy’s in Ellsworth, for instance, has a big sign out front containing the word CHEDDER. After I had shuddered innumerable times and tried not to look the rest of the time, I finally got an opportunity to go in.
“Do you know the word “cheddar” is misspelled on your sign out front?” I ventured. “It is AR, not ER.”
The clerk just said, “Huh?”
I repeated my question.
“Oh,” was the response I got. This was a couple of weeks ago. The word CHEDDER is still there. Nobody cares.

My only consolation is that it’s winter. In the summer, millions of tourists make their way to neighboring Acadia National Park, and the only way they can get there by land is through Ellsworth, and the only road that leads to the park boasts a lit-up sign right by the street that says CHEDDER. How embarrassing!

So yesterday we were going to Bangor and, right on the road into Ellsworth, I saw another sign. “WINDSHIELD WIPERS INSTALED FREE.”
I snorted, and Ed said his usual, “What now?”
“That sign,” I said. “It’s missing a letter.”
I pointed. Ed looked and rolled his eyes.
“But,” I said cheerily, “at least it’s in keeping with the season. We ought to go in there and thank them for their Christmas message.”
Ed was perplexed. “What Christmas message?” he asked.
I smiled. “NO L.”

It’s an old joke, but hey, whatever gets me to laugh at a misspelled word has something going for it!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Short List

We had a girls’ day out yesterday. Our daughter, Rachel, and our daugher-in-law, Sarah, drove with me to Freeport in southern Maine for some outlet shopping. Since that popular area was crowded, we had to park in a distant lot which hadn’t been plowed well (Maine has just had up to 2 feet of snow in places), and we had to walk gingerly on slush and snow and ice up to the main street.

When we were in Gap, almost everything was on sale, so Rachel had her arms full. When she mentally added up the cost of her items, she was somewhat shocked and started to choose items to put back. I suggested to her that I pay for a few and call it part of her Christmas. She agreed, and I ended up with her pair of pants and shirt to add to my three purchases.

Everything went according to plan. We checked out, and then, deciding that we had spent enough for the day, walked back in the slush to the car. Since I had already sustained a bad fall once this week (which injured my tailbone), I tried to walk very carefully in the slippery parking lot. Back inside the car, Rachel asked me what the final price of the pants had been. She knew they had been on sale, but didn’t remember what the final discount was. I retrieved the receipt, intending to check the price of the pants, but was surprised to find that that particular item was not on the list.

“I don’t think they charged us for the pants,” I said. Rachel thought I might have missed it, so she took the receipt and checked it herself. We all agreed that the Gap cashier had put the pants in the bag, but had somehow failed to charge us for them.

A discussion ensued as to the next step. Ed and I have always been diligent when we have eaten out to make sure that the server had not omitted an item from the bill. In several cases, that indeed had happened, and we always called the server’s attention to the discrepancy, an act which always seemed to surprise them. Nobody wants to be ripped off by having to pay more than they should, but it seems fewer people mind ripping off the business. “Oh well, it’s their mistake, too bad for them,” is a common response.

But in this case, there were extenuating circumstances, or so the rationalization went. As we discussed it, we were making two distinct mental columns - should we go back and pay for the pants, or should we just forget it and accept their mistake in our favor?

The column of “Just Forget It” had a few key points.
1) I had already had a bad fall this week and was not enthralled with the idea of walking back out in the slush up the hill to the store. What if I fell again? If I broke a hand or arm, I might be out of work for weeks!
2) The store was extremely busy and I didn’t want to get back in a long line.
3) It was their mistake and not my fault.
4) It was already 1 p.m. and we had to find somewhere to eat lunch and head back before dark.

The second column of “Go back and pay” had only one key point.
1) It was the right thing to do.

Sigh. Sometimes the short list trumps the long list.

So Rachel drove the car back up to the shopping area and parked off the street in a “No Parking” zone, keeping the car running, while I went back into the store. I bypassed the long line and went straight to an employee who was folding clothes at the end of the counter. I explained the situation, showed her the pants, and she charged my credit card for it. She did say, “Thank you for coming back in. Not many people would do that.”

Of course, we didn’t get a reward for coming back. No coupons, no extra discounts - I paid the appropriate price for the pants and that was that.

Oh, wait - we did get a reward. It’s called Intact Integrity with a Clear Conscience. Sometimes it’s the only prize - but it’s the jackpot.

Friday, November 30, 2007

You've got mail

In most ways, the family I grew up in was a traditional post World War II family. Our dad worked as a bank teller, and our mom stayed home and took care of the house. We didn’t have a lot of possessions, but what we did have was appreciated, and we lived a life of true abundance in the areas that mattered.

There was one aspect to our life, however, that differed from other families we knew. Our dad was the one who chose, signed, and addressed the Christmas cards. In most families, this task usually fell to the woman of the household, but not in ours. This was not a chore to him; it was pure pleasure. It started with picking out the card he wanted. Now, this seems like it should be a relatively easy task. Most Christmas cards are functional, decorative, and suitable for the occasion. But Daddy had to have an extraordinary card. It had to be extra-special, because it had to have A MESSAGE. It just had to. No “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” for him - oh, no. His cards were more like little booklets, several pages long, with some sort of story reminding everyone of the true meaning of Christmas. He liked stories that gave the recipients pause in the busy holiday season, a story that they could read and meditate on. These cards, as you can image, usually had to be mail-ordered. You could not find these cards in Walgreen’s.

I always thought his choice was kind of strange. After all, what was wrong with regular Christmas cards? We got lots of regular type cards in the mail at our house, lovely cards with sparkles on them, or shiny foil, with pictures of heavily adorned Christmas trees and yummy candy canes and whimsical snowmen. Their messages were terse - “Happy Holidays From Our House to Yours,” for instance - and they were perfectly wonderful cards.

My sister and I were usually the first to get the mail if we were home, and we would always go through the Christmas cards with anticipation. It was the unspoken rule in our house that we could open cards addressed to our parents if it also had “and Family” or “and Girls,” or, sometimes, our actual names. If the envelope was just addressed to our parents, it waited until Daddy got home from work. As each card was opened and oohed and ahed over, we taped it up to a door to join the others. We had to hang all the cards at an angle so they would stay closed until we decided to open them again.

Fortunately, we hardly ever received a booklet card like the ones Daddy sent. They would have been very hard to tape to the door.

I never could understand why Daddy had to make a big fuss over sending a drab card without sparkles, without candy canes, and filled up with a lot of boring printing. Now that I am grown, however, I can appreciate his insistence. Sitting down with pen and cards and stamps, he himself found the time in his busy life to write to friends and relatives, sending his personal messages on his spiritually provocative booklet cards, and therein he knew lay the true Christmas spirit. He knew he was giving a great gift - an opportunity for the recipients to reflect on the birth of Jesus, not as a one-time historical event, but as a continual presence in their lives, offering its wisdom and tolerance and compassion.

I’m creating our Christmas letters and addressing envelopes and buying stamps this week. As I go through each name, I see them in my mind’s eye, wondering how they are doing, thinking of our shared memories, both joyful and sad, and as I enclose our current family Christmas picture, I feel I am sending some Christmas love their way. I don’t have a booklet card, and my envelopes are printed on the computer, but I’m sending out Christmas spirit and love in every envelope. After all, I learned from the master.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

From Dry to Sober

As most of you know, my husband, Ed, is a recovering alcoholic (sober since 1984). When I married him, I had no experience with alcoholics, and I just thought if he had a stable, happy home life, he wouldn’t need alcohol anymore. Well, the next 10 years taught me otherwise, and during that time I learned almost everything there was to know about alcoholism (and so did he). One of his favorite lessons to cite is the difference between being “dry” and being “sober.” “People mistakenly use these word interchangeably,” he notes. “Being dry,” he says, “is truly hell on earth. When you’re dry, you are abstinent from alcohol, but you wake up every morning wanting it. When you’re sober, you’re still not drinking, but you're at peace because you’ve totally lost the desire for alcohol.” His empathy is reserved most for those poor, unfortunate folks for whom every day without alcohol is a struggle.

When Ed was a few years into sobriety, Rachel would position herself in front of the TV whenever a beer commercial came on so her dad wouldn’t be tempted. Ed would just laugh. He tried to explain to her that there was no internal fight anymore - no temptation, no craving, no desire. He had learned that he had been using alcohol to numb emotional pain, and after he learned how to heal, he didn’t need it or want it anymore. He will be forever labeled as as a “recovering” alcoholic, not a “recovered” alcoholic; hence, his license plate says “HEALING,” not “HEALED.” But the hold alcohol had on him for all his adult life until 1984 had virtually and completely disappeared. He was not dry; he was truly sober.

That wisdom has lain heavily on my mind this week, the week of Black Friday, the first official week of the frantic Christmas-shopping season of 2007. I don’t even need to consult a calendar to know what week this is; the flyers in the newspaper and the mountain of catalogs in the mail serve as inescapable clues. Two Christmas-shopping seasons ago, we were desperately trying to sell our house. Last Christmas-shopping season, we were in the middle of building this house and living out of town with Rachel and her family. This is actually the first Christmas-shopping season that we have been unencumbered with house-selling anxiety or house-building anxiety. It is the first time we have been able to calmly reflect on where we are in our simplicity journey and where we want to be - and even how far we have come - in the midst of all the advertising, sales, priority topplers, and financial hazards inherent in this season.

We don’t watch much TV anymore, so we’re immune to those commercials, but we do get a daily newspaper and a few magazines, and, of course, that aforementioned mail avalanche of catalogs, and we do go to the mall occasionally and the grocery store every few days, so we know it’s Christmas-shopping season and we are aware of what’s out there, what’s new, what’s enticing, so we are not wholly unaffected. I have found myself drooling over the new digital cameras, amazed at how inexpensive they are (for many more megapixels than my current camera has), and there are a few DVDs I would enjoy owning, and quilt paraphernalia is always tempting, but even as I let these feelings pass over me, I note awareness of them and let them go. I then put the paper down and head back to my office/sewing room, where I am attempting to make most of my gifts this year - a time-consuming and frequently anxiety-ridden process for those of us who are both procrastinators and perfectionists - that deadly personality combination.

My conclusion is that it may be a long stretch of time for me to travel the simplicity journey from “dry” to “sober,” and that’s OK. It’s impossible to put blinders on with this surrounding consumerism furor, and it’s just the truth to acknowledge that certain things would be enjoyable to have or be useful in my work and hobbies.

Meditation techniques usually instruct the practitioner that, when thoughts intrude during the relaxation time, the best course of action is to silently acknowledge them, then let them go. In the simplicity journey, I am trying to acknowledge these tempting ways to spend money and let them go, looking forward to the time when I move from “dry” to “sober,” knowing that it’s a long trip with many stages. It is one thing to state your priorities, yet wake up every morning desperately wishing you could buy the latest gadget. It is another thing to state your priorities, and actually feel more content and happy without so much “stuff.” I’m sure that day will come.

In the meantime, back to my homemade gifts. Hey - no peeking!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pasta Buffet

My mother astounded me the other night. She said that in her 84 years of life, she had never heard of throwing spaghetti noodles on the wall to determine whether or not they were al dente. She almost didn’t believe that such a technique existed. Surely most of you have heard of it. You cook the noodles for a certain length of time, then to check if they are ready, you throw one onto the wall (or ceiling, in some cases!) and if it sticks, then all the noodles in the pot have reached the perfect texture. There are people who swear by this method and other people who scoff at it. I personally don’t care about its efficacy, but since Mom and I weren’t really talking about cooking techniques, it didn’t matter. We were discussing my looming Certified Medical Transcriptionist exam, and I was using the pasta as a metaphor.

I told my mother that after months of intensive studying, which got more concentrated as the date of the exam neared, I finally felt that my brain was no longer holding onto any more information. Especially the day before the test, I felt as if I were throwing spaghetti noodles on the wall in a desperate attempt to “learn” as much as I could as fast as I could, and even as I knew most of the noodles were falling immediately, I was hoping fervently that some of them would stick, at least for another 24 hours.

Well, my test is over, and I am happy to report that I passed. However, in retrospect, I was studying spaghetti and ended up being tested on macaroni. You may not think that would make much of a difference. After all, they are both pasta. Yes, that’s true, but they have different uses and go with different sauces. I found it quite intriguing that nothing I studied the day before the exam was on the test. None of it. Zip. I did indeed have some of the spaghetti adhere to the wall of my brain, but the meal was, alas, macaroni, very little of which I had prepared.

Nonetheless, I did pass, although I think that victory was due more to my 11 years of experience as a transcriptionist than my rigorous study. And I have reasserted my belief that, given the test’s authority to ask any question related to the medical field - in addition to grammar and medicolegal issues - I was lucky the test was just macaroni and not something from a separate food group altogether. It does give another meaning, though, to “using one’s noodle.”

Oh, well. I’m very excited with the result, and, with my time and energy now freed, my focus on the journey to simplicity can resume once again. By the way, I am now in the process of emptying all the information I temporarily stored. If anybody needs a great way to memorize medication suffixes, I’m your lady. Maybe you’ll get more use out of it than I did. Everyone pass your plate - there’s enough here for all of us!

Friday, November 09, 2007

From Cells to Stars

I have been acutely aware ever since the VIVmag article came out that one of my featured quotes was this: “I miss having an enclosed two-car garage, but I’ve learned to scrape ice and snow without too much complaining.” Of course, it’s November again and my quote is coming back to haunt me.

However, I will say that the times I have had to scrape the frost off the car are the very same times that the night sky is cloudless and clear, and the stars are not only visible but stunning. How can I complain about a little scraping and cold weather when the view is so extraordinary? (I would say “out of this world,” but miraculously it is indeed in this world.) The fact that we live in a rural-type area where there are no street lights to mar the scene just enhances the effect.

On my drive to work after one such morning this week, I reflected on my ironic situation. For the seemingly endless stretch of time that I have been preparing for my CMT test, I’ve been studying some of the smallest things in the universe - cells, nerves, tendons, blood particles - even some “invisible” things like x-rays and MRIs and disease processes and hormones - and in the midst of all this information reverberating in my brain, I have had opportunities to gaze upon some of the things on the other end of the size spectrum - the planets and stars and that huge expanse of space. The things on one end are just as wondrous to me as the things on the other end. And all these objects, for the majority of the time, seem to function well in their assigned roles day in and day out, with probably not a lot of attention from us concerning any of it. Most of us go through years of our heart beating over and over without giving it a second thought, and we assume the sun will come up tomorrow morning just as it has for millions of years.

Those who are trying to simplify their lives usually state a common goal - that of the ability to enjoy the present moment. These are the moments I cherish. Whether it’s watching a twinkle in the sky, or feeling a heartbeat, it’s all still miraculous to me.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A little publicity

I always get introspective this time of year. For one thing, it’s about time to write our annual Christmas letter to family and friends, and this requires me to sit down with a nice cup of hot tea and a heated blanket (yes, it’s winter in Maine) to ruminate on the year’s events. Halloween also marked a year since we moved out of our Victorian house and, at that time, temporarily into our daughter’s home until December 23, 2006, when we finally moved into our present small house. We have therefore had a year of great adjustment.

I have another reason for the introspection today, though. The article in VIVmag that features me along with three other women came out yesterday (“Inconspicuous Consumption, VIVmag Nov/Dec issue online only at, and I must say I am shocked. I had assumed the three other women would be as ordinary and average as I am, but instead they are three accomplished women, one who has started her own company and two who have recently published books! I don’t consider my personal achievements are worthy of inclusion, but I am honored to be mentioned in the same article.

“Celebrity” or not, I guess when it comes to trying to simplify, we’re all in the same boat. We make the same kinds of sacrifices for the same kinds of reasons, and we all try to emerge from the attempt with some increased assurance that we are making a difference in at least a small way.

Ed keeps telling me that I need to bring my blog back totally to posting about our struggle with simplicity and downsizing. He claims that I tend to go off on tangents about other subjects. In a way, this is true. However, in my defense, this “simplicity” movement encompasses our whole lives in myriad ways. It’s hard to isolate.

You may remember my mentioning that as I study for my Certified Medical Transcriptionist test, I am realizing that the body is an integrated unit - no organ stands alone, no system stands alone, and as much as I try to focus on definitive study to one area or organ, it is virtually impossible, for try as I might to isolate my study, another area or organ winds its way into the reading material.

The journey to simplicity has the same kind of map - it’s not a straight journey, but a circuitous one. As I state in my blog description, this journey encompasses and affects everything else in my life - from aging, grandparenting, how I spend my time, my money, my energy, what I eat, what I buy, identifying and maintaining priorities, my wishes and dreams - all this cannot be separated from the root of simplicity. It is as if a giant tree has grown after this seed took root in our minds, a seed which is basically a stated value that we have adopted as our life attitude. Either what we do pushes us closer to our goal of simplifying or it nudges us further away. Nevertheless, the goal is there, the root is there, the idea of enriching our lives by the crazy notion of debulking our lives remains always our intention. When you start out with a certain stated life principle, that principle should be visible in all other areas of your life, and it, like a bodily organ, cannot stand alone.

I hope that my blog, for the majority of the time, reflects that. Meanwhile, the aforementioned article is out on the Internet, and it gave me an exciting opportunity to have my picture professionally taken (thanks, Billy), and to give me yet another occasion for introspection in this wondrous year of the journey of our lives.

The journey becomes somewhat challening, however, with impending arrival of the holidays, which I would say is the most difficult part of the simplification process, as we are well aware that our society does not encourage frugality during the consumer-driven Christmas shopping season. I salute and take courage from the other featured women - Debra Amador, Judith Levine, Mary Carlomagno - as well as countless others who are becoming role models for what it means to simplify. We’re all on the journey, trying to walk in the same general direction, seeking joy and contentment, energized, and ready to talk about the trip to anyone who is willing to listen.

Godspeed to us all!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Here's to your health

My mother has always said, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.” Her miracle ingredient to ensure success of this goal was milk of magnesia. According to her, it prevented or cured everything that could go wrong with our bodies. I’m sure in her mind, every hospital had a medicine storage facility where, directly in front of the antibiotics and narcotics, a blue bottle of Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia was no doubt prominently positioned. That blue bottle of chalky white repulsive potion was the bane of our otherwise idyllic childhood. We quickly learned never to complain of any kind of problem - neither acne, sore throat, nor chapped lips - in order to avoid the dreadful liquid. Whatever we had wrong with us would always pass (no pun intended) eventually, and Mother would attribute this extraordinary cure to that wonderful milk of magnesia. I don’t think she ever considered the probability that our little nuisance of a health snag would have gone away on its own anyway.

The older I become, I understand Mother’s driving ambition of health maintenance, although I take issue with the aforementioned unorthodox method. (That blue bottle has never entered my threshold since I became an adult. ANYTHING but that!) As a kid, I thought I was invincible, but now I know better. When I send annual Christmas greetings, one of my most consistent wishes has been good health, so my friends and relatives will be able to enjoy everything else life offers.

It’s kind of ironic that at the very time we Baby Boomers are finally seriously concerned about the well-being of our bodies, said bodies start a rapid process of deterioration. Chronic illnesses come in and make themselves at home for extended visits. Acute injuries (like my sister’s current back problem) make getting through a normal day almost impossible for several hours or a few weeks. Ed lives with diabetes, and after the doctors changed his medications last month, he has had a very frustrating time trying to adjust to the new medicine’s way of working in his body.

Health is on my mind these days because, as most of you know, I’m in the middle of studying for my Certified Medical Transcriptionist (CMT) exam. Every time I think of complaining about my body’s deficiencies, I read another chapter of a body system and my only recurring comment (besides “how will I ever learn all this stuff?!”) is that I wonder how our bodies manage to function so well for so long a time.

I divided my 7-week study plan into 4 body systems (chapters) per week, but I have found that keeping strictly with this outline is hard to do. Why? Because the “Cardiovascular System,” for example, cannot stand on its own, as it is linked with the “Nervous System” and the “Respiratory System.” Add in the muscles and bones involved, falling under the “Orthopedic System,” and you can’t completely isolate any part of the body so that it can be studied on its own. Everything is intertwined and inseparable.

So much depends on all these systems and parts working together, doing their jobs, day in and day out. The details of how the heart beats, its web of impulses and chambers and the electrical component, is so dependent on perfect timing that it is a miracle this cardiac muscle works for as long as it does. Considering the world we live in, I think that is remarkable.

When humans design products, for example, those products have a very limited life. I remember buying an expensive exercise machine once that had a 1-year warranty. One year? Someone designed and built that piece of machinery so poorly that they only guarantee it will work for one year??

Contrast this with the design of our bodies. Of course, cancer and other insidious diseases take their toll, but if you think about it, on the whole, the human body has an ingenious way of functioning and healing itself. It is a miraculous, intricate machine that usually lasts longer (especially if we take care of it) than anything you can buy at Wal-Mart. Sometimes I think we just need the reminder.

Oh, and by the way, Mother is 84 and still going strong. My sister has never had to take her to the hospital, she hasn’t fallen and broken any bones, and her mind is still sharp. I dare say when she turns 100 and a reporter questions her about her longevity, she will bring out that disgusting Blue Bottle. Oh, well. I might have to lay down my arms against the ole milk of magnesia. If it has truly kept my mother alive and well all these years, I owe it my eternal gratitude.

I still refuse to touch it, though. It is truly disgusting.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Please rein it in!

I used to be a news junkie - in fact, for most of my life I kept abreast of the latest developments. While we still had cable, I was a regular viewer of the news. Now, however, with rabbit ears and 2 channels from which to choose, I watch the news about once or twice a week in the evening, and other than that, I am dependent on family and friends to let me know when something important is happening.

Five days a week, though, I go to bed at 7:30 p.m. or so, and with the national news finishing at 7:00 p.m., the time of the broadcast is so close to sleep time that it can leave me with nightmares. Oh, there’s plenty to be upset about in the news - with the war, the economy, Chinese import quality, congressional stalemates, the mortgage crisis, politics in general, the increase in poverty, the conditions in Africa, etc. I don’t want to denigrate all those important topics, but I want to add a subsection to the news reports that manage to increase my blood pressure.

On Tuesday night, ABC aired a segment honoring National Dictionary Day. As a word/language/spelling/punctuation/grammar lover, I prepared myself for something pleasurable in the news for a change. What I got was anything but pleasurable. It seems that the Oxford University Press has decided that, due to usage parameters, they will accept alternate spellings to some words in their new edition. “Free reign,” for instance, is now an acceptable alternative to “free rein.” Why? Because 46% of the time, people use the former spelling. “Vocal chords” is now acceptable, when the only proper spelling used to be “vocal cords.” That’s because 49% of the time, people use the “h” in spelling the word. The third example was “shoe-in” as a new acceptable alternative to “shoo-in,” because 35% of the time, that incorrect spelling is used. So now proper usage is a popularity contest?!

Talk about something to give one nightmares!!! (OK, not everyone. Certainly 46%, 49%, and 35% of the people will have been ushered into the Correct Club using a fake ticket, but I don’t imagine they are too excited about the honor or that they even care.)

You can see I’m bitter. All these years, I have taken great pains (not panes) to learn and maintain correct spelling and usage. When I get depressed about how little I can do well, I can always salve my feelings by reassuring myself that I can spell correctly. Now what little self-esteem I had is being eroded.

What’s Ed’s reaction? He feels vindicated, of course. In an ongoing argument for over 30 years, we have staunchly remained in our respective camps regarding language. I'm pretty much a purist. He insists that language is an evolving entity. He says that when usage changes, what is acceptable will change. He says a dictionary’s purpose is to reflect what society is doing, not to publish some arbitrary set of rules. He dares me to look at Shakespeare’s English and say that is the same style we use today. All I could do in return was sputter my indignation. At a time when our precious words were being bastardized, I was ironically speechless.

Since then, I’ve done some Internet research. The site I can find where this issue is best discussed is this one. I’m trying hard to understand, but it looks to me as if we are turning down a perilous road (not rode). What’s next? Effect and affect interchangeable? With chat rooms pulling in millions of word-users, will “R U hapy now?” be the next dictionary entry? After all, if 40% of the people write like that, the dictionaries shouldn’t be too far behind in their acquiescence.

Sigh. By the way, if you are hearing something that makes your blood boil, a spouse laughing nonstop in the same room is not good. For you or him. Especially him.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Not just the facts, ma'am!

I never know what to expect when I talk to my Mom. She is constantly surprising me. Then there are other times I can see it coming. Recently, one call went like this:
“Hey, Mom. Guess what? I just wrote my obituary!”
“Did you hear me? I just wrote my obituary!”
After another pause, Mom said in that voice of hers (the one in which I can sense an imminent maternal lecture), “Now, Carol...I think you should leave your brain to medical science.” In effect, she thought I was nuts.

Well, maybe I am. But writing my own obituary was an enlightening experience. I wanted to save my family the chore of creating one when the time comes and they are in fresh grief. So I did it myself.

A friend of mine, though, had another experience with obituaries. She said that when her father died, her mother and the immediate family sat down together to write his obituary, and the occasion was emotionally helpful for them, as fond memories brought them a measure of comfort. I thought that was sweet, and I can see her point.

However, I don’t think my family could reconstruct my life to my satisfaction even now, much less later, without some prompting. So I sat down a couple of weeks ago and reflected on my life thus far. (One always has to have that disclaimer, of course. My life is hopefully far from over. I am reminded of Matthew, when he first saw the movie “Hook.” As he exited the theater, he gushed, “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life so far!”) What do I want to be remembered for? What things would I prefer to omit? What things should be described that may seem inconsequential to others but are important to me? I don’t want just the facts...I want my story to be personal - something that validates my existence as a unique human being in a world of millions of other human beings.

Ed and I are reading a biography of John Adams, and we came across an interesting fact about Thomas Jefferson. This is from the Monticello web site:
It was Jefferson's wish that his tomb stone reflect the things that he had given the people, not the things that the people had given to him. It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson's epitaph reads:

BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826

No mention of his being the President of the United States, a glaring and deliberate omission. This was Jefferson's last chance to summarize the importance of his own accomplishments in his own opinion, and only his opinion. This was, in a way, his last act of control.

Of course, I’m not writing my epitaph; I’m writing my obituary. I am, however, fortunate to live in a small town in Maine, where obituaries are usually long and detailed, some even listing the deceased’s hobbies, pets, and favorite teams. I am not limited to a short list of my alma mater, church affiliation, occupation, and survivors. I can be lengthy and altogether boring, but I don’t care. It’s my obituary, after all. It’s my last chance to leave a written summary of my legacy, such as it is.

As I looked over my life, detailing the events that I deemed worthy of remembrance, I was shocked to discover how important music has always been to me. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I was the daughter of a choir director, took piano lessons and then organ lessons, planned to major in music in college, as an adult sang in several church choirs, then took up the Celtic harp after I moved to Maine. But somehow it was a poignant moment for me to realize its prominence, probably because music has fallen by the wayside in my life right now for various reasons. Writing your obituary is helpful in that way - you examine your life (so far!), and you make discoveries about the occasions and hobbies and people who have enriched your life, or at least given you a unique identity. The process will make you cry and laugh and wonder if you ever will live long enough to accomplish the things that are important to you. You can stand back and observe how you have evolved.

I’ll also tell you what writing your obituary won’t do. It won’t be bad luck, it won’t change the past, and it probably won’t make your Mom very happy. On the other hand, it will give you some important introspection, a feeling that your life did matter in many ways, and a feeling of gratitude that you ever got to go on the journey of life - your life so far, that is!

There is a lot more for me to experience, and I'm sure by the time I pass away, I'll have many edits and additions and rewrites. The story has yet to be finished. Oh, and regardless of my mother's comment, I really don't need to leave the world my brain. I'd rather leave it music, some silly poems, handmade quilts, pretty cross-stitch, amazing kids and grandkids - and a doozy of an obituary!

Thursday, October 04, 2007


I have always had a love/hate relationship with rules. I realize the world is not black and white; indeed, I tend to scoff at naive people who have that world view. The truth is, though, that sometimes I fight against rules and other times I welcome their restrictions.

Rules can make us feel safe, for instance. Ed once preached about a psychological experiment where they had kids on two different playgrounds. One playground had no fence, and the little children were generally afraid to venture out into what was to them a wide expanse of the unknown. They pretty much stayed huddled together in the center of the playground. The second playground was just as big, but had a fence. Can you guess where all the children headed? For the fence, of course, with some even trying to climb it.

Experts say that children (especially the young ones, but older ones as well) love to test boundaries. They do this because the boundaries of their lives are sometimes ambiguous (how I hate that word!), and other times because the rules may be clear, but they want to see if the fence will give way every once in a while. Rachel has had many a frustrating day as Caroline and Charlotte test the limits.

Some things in life give us a good mix of rules and freedom. My favorite quilt store, Keepsake Quilting, has a quilting contest several times a year. Called the Keepsake Quilting Challenge, it has just a few rules and a lot of leeway. The entry rules give the dimension measurements. The rules state that you have to buy a certain packet of fabrics from Keepsake Quilting, and your quilt has to incorporate most of those fabrics. You may get to choose one or two other fabrics to complete your design. It has to follow the theme for that specific contest, which varies, but which is usually a big enough umbrella to encompass whatever interpretation you might want to use. With these few rules, many quilts are made that on first glance seem to have little in common. They are marvels of workmanship and creativity.

Then there are the hard-and-fast rules versus implied rules. When she was a little girl, Rachel once entered a coloring contest at a restaurant. She was given a standard picture of an outdoor scene to color, and she did a good job, as did many other children. After she won the contest, the manager told her that she had impressed the judges because she had drawn and colored in a sun where there was no sun. They admired her creativity. I guess the rules did not specifically state you could not add anything, and her creative license saved the day.

I have usually been a dutiful follower of rules in my life, even as a teenager. I followed the school dress code, I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, usually got my homework in on time, and generally behaved myself. My one big irritation, though, was being told what to do in certain instances. I loved to read, but if a teacher demanded I read a certain book, I immediately developed a hatred for it, sight unseen. If I had picked up the same book on my own, I might have enjoyed it, but to be forced to read it sucked all the pleasure out of it for me.

When time came for our senior graduation picture, we were told to wear our graduation attire and to be sure to wear black shoes. Why that irritated me, I have no idea, but as a last defiant gesture to high school, I balked. If you look carefully at my class picture, I am in the front row wearing white shoes. It probably made me feel a semblance of control in what was a very, very anxious time. But I will say this - one has to know the rules in order to choose to break them.

In our simplicity journey, we make our own rules, and our journey is unlike any other. It’s a roller coaster, it’s a maze, it’s a walk in the dark, it’s serendipity, it’s adjustment, it’s regret and disappointment, wonder and delight.

I’m being featured soon in an online-only new women’s magazine (, where I will give highlights of my individual journey to simplicity, and three other women will give theirs. They will talk about their own rules and their own goals, and I am anxious to see the various quilts we are each making with our lives, using a few basic rules and a mountain of creativity. I’ll never be totally at peace with rules, but it certainly is nice when you’re old enough to make your own. I can live with that.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Simplicity's Theme

I was listening to the public ratio station this week, and I tuned in just in time to hear the introduction to a piece of music I had never heard of. The selection was Brahm's Academic Festival Overture. The PBS announcer gave the funny story behind the composition, and the story invited me to do a little Internet research. From Wikipedia:

Brahms composed the Academic Festival Overture during the summer of 1880 as a musical "thank you" to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate the previous year. Initially, Brahms had contented himself with sending a simple handwritten note of acknowledgment to the University, since he loathed the public fanfare of celebrity. However, the conductor who had nominated him for the degree convinced him that protocol required him to make a grander gesture of gratitude. The University expected nothing less than a musical offering from the composer. Brahms, who was known to be a curmudgeonly joker, filled his quota by creating a "very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs," entitled the Academic Festival Overture. The work sparkles with some of the finest virtues of Brahms's musical technique.

What an amusing day that would have been at this public debut of Brahm's new masterpiece! As the radio announcer said, the medley of songs he used were well-known student drinking songs about "carousing, partying, and wenching," and I can imagine the expressions on the professors and university administrators when they realized what Brahms had done! Nevertheless, I really enjoyed listening to the piece, hearing the various themes of the drinking songs as they danced in and out.

I think that's the way with the journey to simplicity. Simplicity is our stated theme, but it dances its way in and out of our lives. Just when we think we have progressed on the road to simple living, our lives get hectic again, and we can barely hear its simple tune in all the commotion. But then after a while we recommit to our attempt of a simple lifestyle, and once again, its music soars. Our lives are constantly reflecting this precarious rhythmic dance.

These next few months are promising to be hectic for us. We have several birthdays coming up - son-in-law, Charlotte (turning 2), and Ed. I am sewing a Halloween costume for Caroline. Most of all, I am studying for the Certified Medical Transcriptionist exam, scheduled for November 16. Add to that the looming holiday season, and I have to make a conscious effort to create enough quiet time so that I can still hear simplicity's gentle melody:

Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.


When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right

'Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
'Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we'll all live together and we'll all learn to say,


'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.

It certainly is beautiful music.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sweet Dreams, Mike

Everyone, they say, handles grief in his/her own way. After my cousin Mike’s death (see previous post), I cried for 3 days, and in the evening of the last day, I had no more tears. The crying stopped, the hysterical outbursts were gone, and I was just immobile with a powerful, heavy, numbing, overwhelming sadness. My mind certainly understood that life in its fullness would resume at some point, but to my heart, it seemed a distant and empty promise.

Then came the dream.

I learn a lot from my dreams. No matter how bizarre and uninterpretable they seem, I usually make at least a minimal effort to squeeze meaning from them. This dream, however, was self evident from the time I awoke in the morning.

I had dreamed that I was sitting in the house of the Wilsons, lifelong friends from my home church in Memphis, friends whom we fortunately were able to visit while we were down there in August. A child was beside me. We were looking at a plate glass window, the kind you see in department stores to display items. The only things in the window were many packages of M&Ms, which were floating here and there as if they were in water. The child beside me was unhappy. “All you can see are the backs of the packages,” he said sadly. “I want to see the front of the packages, the side where the colors are.” As I looked back at the window, I could see what the child meant. All the M&M packages were facing away from us, and all we could see was the brown side. No brightly colored candies were pictured there. The child then asked, “Can you fix them so we can see the pretty colored side?”

I said I would try. I took my index finger and touched the glass, and as I slid my finger around, as if by magic, each package followed my finger movements, and I was surprised to find that I could twist and maneuver them around until they all changed positions, until at last, the front of the packages with their brightly colored M&Ms were facing us.

That was the dream, and it was the turning point in my seemingly endless grief, for its meaning was clear to me. I had been in the Wilsons’ house because years ago they too had lost a son, who died in an accident when he was in his 20s. In the dream, I learned from the spirit child that I had been looking at the brown side - the loss, the pain, the sadness - and not only was it time to turn my attitude over to the color, the life, the warm memories of my dear cousin, but that I had the power to do it!

From that point on, I received the peace that had evaded me up until the dream. As my aunt said to me, “I have had my bad days, and I am sure I will have bad days in the future, but right now, I’m OK.” God is touching us, Mike is touching us, and we are touching each other with comfort.

The most intriguing thing about the whole thing was this: I was relating the details of the dream to my sister, and she murmured, “M&Ms. Mike McDonald.”

God and our brains both work in mysterious ways. Sometimes the message gets interpreted at exactly the right time. I hope now as the days turn into weeks and months and years, that we will gradually begin to remember Mike - the one who brought so much love and laughter to our lives - more with smiles than with tears. May it be so.

Monday, September 17, 2007

In Memoriam, Michael McDonald 1958-2007

Death has a lot of faces. Sometimes, in the case of a suffering cancer patient, it appears as a welcoming friend. Other times, it is an expected inevitable visitor to someone who has lived a long life and is ready for the next act.

Still other times, it strikes unexpectedly without reason or warning. Last week was one of those times.

Death and I have always had a strange relationship. I know Death is a necessary evil. I know Death has a job to do. I have no qualms with that. Once in an adult Sunday School class, Ed and I read a book by Leslie Weatherhead called The Will of God. In it, the author discusses the reasons for Death's existence, and asks if we truly would want to live in a world without Death. How precious would life be then, if it were unending? our class was asked. How precious would the sun be without the rain? How precious would good health be without sickness? Oh yes, he makes some good points for the necessity of Death.

The times when Death and I part ways are times when Death comes prematurely. In the normal scheme of things, the passing of one who has had a long, well-lived, happy life leaves me sad, but I am not angry.

This week and I am both sad and angry - because a few days ago, Death reached out and took a gentle soul a mite too early. We were not prepared to wake up to a world without cousin Mike. It just didn’t seem possible. He was only 49.

I’m getting angry these days with a plethora of lives taken under age 50. My best friend, Bernie, died before she turned 50. A woman who worked at my hospital died in a motorcycle wreck last week. She was 40. And all I can say over and over is my tired old mantra - “It’s not fair!”

And so I cry. I cry because I will miss Mike. I cry to think what his parents and brothers and partner and two sons will have to deal with every day. I cry because I am not able to attend the funeral in Arkansas. I cry because of the pain I hear in the voices of my relatives. I cry because I am totally helpless. I cry because I should be the one comforting my eldest cousin, and instead, he is comforting me. I cry because I wish I had been with Mike more. I cry because I know that other loved ones can be gone in the blink of an eye without warning. I cry because life is not fair.

For those of my readers who don’t know the story, it’s the tale of a brother (my uncle) and a sister (my mother) who married two wonderful people many years ago. My uncle and aunt had 3 sons. My mother and father had 2 daughters. And so were brought into this world 5 cousins who would be forever bonded in love. My sister and I, bereft of real brothers, looked upon these cousins as the brothers we never had. Most of our childhood and adult years, we lived in different states. But just the mention of an impending visit from the McDonald cousins, and our Saturday mornings would be totally immersed in glorious anticipation. A visit to Little Rock by us would awake the same excitement. Our cousins were a joy to be with. Our visits always came too infrequently and were over too quickly.

Mike was the youngest. He was quiet, shy, a little reserved, but had a delightful sense of humor. The camaraderie between the 3 boys was amazing. Of course, there was always that bit of competition and good-natured teasing, but their bond was unbreakable. They were always there for each other.

We 5 cousins all got together one last time during our trip to Tennessee, when we traveled to Little Rock to see everyone in August. We couldn’t resist an opportunity to get a rare picture of the 5 of us together. As you can see above, the picture speaks for itself. The smiles just show our happiness at being together. Life was sweet. Our dear Mike, on the far right, was relaxed and jovial, having just entertained me with stories about getting materials from his brother’s new house construction to build the most beautiful koi pond in his backyard. He had me laughing uncontrollably as he described the borrowed pickup truck getting lower and lower to the ground with each haul.

None of us knew that Mike would be gone in a few weeks. Oh, sure, in the back of our minds there is always the possibility of death, disease, accidents or some other catastrophe overtaking one in our family group. But that day, we banished bad thoughts and just basked in love. The world was ours!

I said that the bond between the brothers could not be broken. The bond between the 5 cousins cannot be broken, either. Their strength is carrying me through this horrible week. The bond is still very much alive. It stretches over distance and time and Death cannot sever it.

So after the tears and the remembering and the gratitude that we had Mike in our lives, in the silence as I sit here empty and drained, the words of this anthem come as a much-needed gift:
Open our eyes, open our eyes, O loving and compassionate Jesus that we may behold You, that we may be behold You, walking beside us, walking beside us in our sorrow.
You have made death glorious and triumphant. You have made death glorious and triumphant! For through its portals we enter, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the Living God, into the presence of the Living God. For through its portals we enter, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the Living God, into the presence of the Living God. Open our eyes, open our eyes, O loving and compassionate Jesus, that we may see to follow You, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus our Savior, Jesus our Savior and Redeemer. Open our eyes, open our eyes, oh Lord. Amen.

Friday, September 14, 2007


That he startled me is an understatement. We were in Christiansburg, Virginia, temporarily stranded on our trip to Memphis, the Jeep Liberty having been towed in to this dealership. And there he sat - cap on his head, legs crossed, with The Detroit News in his hands. As we were ushered into the waiting room, he was the first thing we noticed. The room was empty except for a few chairs, a TV, a coffee machine - and him.

I’m not sure why he was there. Maybe they put him there as a joke, to jolt unsuspecting customers. Maybe, on the other hand, he was placed there to keep customers company in the long hours of waiting for a car repair to be finished. Maybe he walked in one day, found a comfortable chair, and decided to stay. I never asked.

So there the three of us sat, Ed, me and this smiling "man," watching TV (which was surreal on its own to us, having had no TV to speak of since we moved in December), reading a very limiting collection of magazines (TV Guide and Popular Mechanics were the most common offerings), and trying to quell our mental cash registers ringing up the potential repair dollar signs. I kept seeing the “dummy” out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not talking about Ed. Nobody had mentioned his name, so I had to create one. I decided to call him Bill. Big Bill. Because that’s what we’ll have when we leave here, I thought grimly.

Big Bill never moved. He sat through our changing all the TV channels - weather updates on the record heat wave we would meet in Memphis, politics, the Disney channel morning kids’ shows, all the commercials - without a word of protest. Big Bill was easy to get along with. He didn’t complain about the volume or our channel choice or our bored conversation. He just sat there, with that satisfied grin on his face, and the whitest teeth I have ever observed in a mechanic.

We shortly thereafter welcomed more customers into our waiting room sanctuary. A young mother came in with two little girls, about 4 and 5 years old. She was getting her horn fixed. “My husband says,” she told me as she tried to entertain the girls, “that I’m the only one in the world who uses her horn so much that it breaks.” The girls were well behaved, armed with coloring books and crayons. For about an hour, we temporarily shared our world with these people, then would part and never see each other again.

When the three of them came in, I don’t know if the girls were actually frightened to see Bill there, or if the mother was worried that the girls might be frightened, or if the mother herself thought it was spooky, but she took a little pink raincoat from one of the girls and threw it over Bill’s head. “There!” she said briskly. “He can be kind of scary, so we will just cover him up.”

So there we sat - a mother, two little girls, and Big Bill with a pink raincoat over his head. I didn’t know about our new acquaintances, but to me, Bill was a lot more scary with his head hidden and his body sitting there than he was normally with his full head of hair and sparkling white smile.

Occasionally a mechanic would come in to get a cup of coffee and see if we needed anything. One mechanic seemed concerned about the raincoat and wanted to know if he should remove Bill while the girls were there. The mother said, oh no, he might have scared them at first, but the raincoat took care of everything. Yep - old decapitated Bill was not scary at all. Uh-huh.

When the mother and her little ones left, they forgot the raincoat. I had to grab it and run after them with it, catching them just as they were leaving the building. As I sat back down, I looked over at Bill. He seemed happy to be back to normal. I imagine it was hard to read The Detroit News in the dark.

I think in the end, Big Bill was there to reassure. Worried about a huge charge for your car repair? “Don’t worry. Be happy,” as the song goes. Your car will get fixed by cheerful mechanics who spend their free time reading up on the latest news from the car industry and brushing their gleaming teeth. Meanwhile, you will never be stuck in the waiting room all by yourself, as he will always be there to keep you company, pink raincoat notwithstanding.

The funny thing is that it was all true. Our car was repaired by cheerful mechanics who, although I did not inquire about their literacy or their dental hygiene, did keep us informed of their progress and even asked us to join them for their once-a-month cookout at lunchtime. Big Bill will always be in our hearts. And an even Bigger Bill on our credit card. Thanks, Bill, for the hospitality. You take care, now.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Playing the cards

The opera world lost two great voices this year. With everyone else, I mourn the passing of Luciano Pavarotti today, but my real sense of loss arises from the death of Beverly Sills in July. I had the pleasure of meeting her once in Memphis, where I had the foresight to bring along her autobiography, Bubbles, which she autographed, with a brief conversation and her trademark smile.

Tonight we watched a PBS broadcast featuring some of her performances. She was an amazing singer! I sat there in awe as she maneuvered her voice in the most intricate manner. Now, I’ve dabbled in opera myself, singing arias for my own pleasure, singing in a few church dinner theater performances, as well as enjoying couple of runs in the Opera Memphis Chorus, but I have never been able to sing like Beverly Sills, and never will.

When we get past the age of 50, we do feel as if we’re standing at the top of the hourglass with most of the sand on the bottom, and there’s a finality in admitting “I’ll never do this.” I’ll never sing at the Met, I’ll never climb a mountain, I’ll probably never get to Europe or go on a cruise or make a prize-winning quilt. I’ll never learn to play the cello or meet David Suchet or even completely learn PhotoShop. I'll never know what it's like to be really tan, I'll never know what it's like to have perfectly straight hair, I'll never know the feeling of being tall. I'll never be a world expert in anything. Some of this is because I don’t have the inclination, some because I don’t have the talent, some because I'm not blessed with certain features, and some just because I don’t have enough time left to really master anything. Some is just due to the fact that the odds are heavily against an occurrence.

But that’s OK.

Rachel taught me that lesson last year. She had given birth to Charlotte by C-section, her second. There is a renewed interest these days in VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean), and a local TV station was doing a special report on these two birth methods. They had first interviewed a lady who had chosen VBAC, and then they came to interview Rachel about having a second C-section. My job was to keep Caroline occupied and out of the range of the interview, but I managed to see most of it. Rachel was articulate in defending her decision for repeat C-section, and then the interviewer asked her if she ever felt like she had “missed out on something” by not ever giving birth naturally. Rachel replied that there were a lot of things she would miss out on life, but that’s just the way it goes.

That’s true for all of us. Even Beverly Sills missed out on having a “normal” family - she had two children, one deaf and the other mentally retarded. We take life as we are given it, and make the best of it.

So my vow is to not concentrate on the things I’ve missed or will miss in my life, and to focus on the wonderful things I have accomplished and been privileged to participate in. I’ve also learned never to say never. I told my friend Audrey that I would never go sea kayaking, and look what happened. I’ve got a few good years left. I may never make the Met, but I can try to make a few quilts. We play our cards, but remember - a lot of the cards are still face down. Life awaits, and I just love surprises!

Saturday, September 01, 2007


I first noticed it this morning. If I sat at my computer and looked out the window to my right into our woods, I saw a very bright, shiny object a couple of feet off the ground. I moved away a few inches and could still see it. It looked like a flashlight was pointed directly at my window. But with the sun out, I could see clearly there was no one standing there holding a flashlight. I called Ed in.

I call Ed in for a variety of things. When we get back from a visit to the grandchildren, I call him in to look at the pictures I took. He always balks. “I was there; I don’t need to see the pictures.” I make him look at them anyway. I call Ed in to kill bugs. I call him in to read him something funny on the Internet. I call him in if I have some sort of accident that immobilizes me, and he helps me get up off the floor. And I call him in for second opinions. This was a second opinion occasion.

“Look at that,” I said as I pointed my finger at the unidentified light. “What do you suppose it is?”

“It looks like maybe a can on the ground that the sun is shining on,” he said. Then he left.

I was determined to find out what it was, so Babe and I went out to the back porch, down the steps, and around the side of the house to look up close. At first I couldn’t find it. I had to keep checking my position against the left part of the office window to determine the object’s location. I turned back and forth, I bent over, kneeled, twisted myself into every imaginable contortion until I finally caught the light. I slowly made my way toward it.

It was some sort of spider web silk thread, very tiny, which had attached itself to a limb. It was a lot tinier than those shiny “icicles” you put on Christmas trees, just a thread, really, with a little sticky sap-like stuff, giving the thread just enough reflective material to shine when the sun reached it.

I couldn’t believe something that little could have made the shining light that caught my eye as I glanced out the window. Just to check, I removed it, then went back and sat at my computer and looked out again. The light was gone. I had solved the mystery.

I think Mother Nature was trying to tell me something today. I tend to take the tiniest, most superficial things and blow them up to gigantic proportions, exacerbating a lifelong tendency towards anxiety. The fact that something so little could reflect a light so big just fascinates me. Yet when I actually identified it up close, it was inconsequential.

I’m trying to get over my fear of flying, which was strong even before 9/11. Our latest trip to Tennessee made me wonder if we should actually consider flying instead of driving on our next trip down. After all, financially it makes sense, considering the 4 motels, road meal expenses, price of gasoline, and time off from work (and boarding Babe) to accommodate 7 days of driving round trip, not to mention wear and tear on the car (which did not cause, but certainly compounded, our recent repair bills). I know logically that flying is safer than road travel. Am I making a big shining can out of a gossamer thread? Perhaps.

Maybe this is one more thing to conquer. After all, I’ve kayaked in the Atlantic Ocean; maybe I’m more courageous than I think!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Maintenance: “The process of keeping something in good condition.” Maintenance has consumed my thoughts for the last 2 weeks, and on a trip consisting of more 7 days of driving (by the time it’s over with), that’s a lot of time to think.

One of the ideas behind the simplicity movement when it comes to material goods is this: Purchase price is only the beginning. What the object will cost to maintain is something else altogether.

Take bridges, for instance. As we have learned from recent news, bridges by their nature are high maintenance objects. When a community builds a bridge, it may spend several millions of dollars initially, but few people ever realistically calculate the maintenance. The maintenance line items built into every DOT budget do not begin to cover the necessary funds. It’s the maintenance that gets you.

Every time you buy a piece of clothing, you have to calculate cleaning (whether dry cleaning or laundry detergent, it all needs cleaning). Whenever you buy a computer (don’t we know, Matt?) you have to realize it won’t last forever and will require maintenance until the cost of maintenance outruns the cost of buying another new machine. Houses (don’t get me started) require endless maintenance, and the older and bigger the house, the more maintenance is needed.

So this leads me to our car, a 2002 Jeep Liberty. In the last couple of decades, we have been trading cars in on new ones before the old ones begin exhibiting signs of imminent mechanical difficulties. This year, I guess, we crossed over the line on holding onto a car, as the Jeep is now showing its age, and the 1500-mile trip to Tennessee didn’t help it, I’m sure. Some of you know we were stranded in Virginia after the transmission fluid line blew, and we spent over half a day sitting in a dealership waiting room, then shelling out $545 for the pleasure. I asked the mechanic to explain the origin of the problem, and he said it is just something that can happen because the car is aging. We assuaged our feelings by thinking things could have been worse - as things always can - and we paid the money (well, actually Mastercard paid the money) and with a mixture of anxiety and relief we continued on our journey.

We just mentally added that bill to the 4 new tires last month. Cars require lots of maintenance.

Turns out they sometimes require repairs even faster than you can take out your wallet and say, “Charge it.” Around the time we crossed the border back into Maine, the air conditioning started making funny noises; as Ed described it, it sounded like “a hair dryer on heroin.” We kept listening as it got louder and louder, and then after a couple of hours, the air conditioning was no longer cooling. We were planning to get it checked out once we got home.

Today we were at the Ellsworth post office and the car would not start. Thinking it might be the battery, Ed had a nearby mechanic try to jump it off, but that didn’t work. So, for the second time in 2 weeks, we had the Liberty towed to a Jeep dealership. This time it was not $545. It was over $800, because it needed a new compressor. I asked the mechanic if the record heat temps in Memphis had contributed to our compressor’s demise, but he assured me it was just one of those things that can happen as cars age. “They don’t last forever, you know.” Yeah, we know. Boy, do we know.

I’m upset about the money, of course. I’m also upset about losing time on our trip and having to find our accommodations in the dark that night. I’m really upset that we can spend more and more on just fixing things and don’t even have the enjoyment of having something new for all that money. If you replace a roof or foundation, for instance, after all that money you spend, you don’t have a new house - you just have a house with a roof and foundation that can perform their jobs adequately. You don’t really have anything exciting to show for it. In our case, we don’t have a new car - we just have an older car that will be functioning as it should in the first place. Maintenance again rears its ugly and expensive head.

But why should I be shocked? As Ed and I get older, our bodies require more costly ongoing maintenance as well. We never are presented with a new body - it just takes all the maintenance we can muster to preserve the adequate condition and functioning of the old. The more stress we put on our aging body, the more upkeep it demands.

That’s why 3 months ago I quit coloring my hair. That’s one maintenance expense I have control over. Now when you see me, you’ll recognize me instantly. I’m the gray-haired lady riding in the Jeep Liberty - the one with the brand-new compressor under the hood. We’ve both accumulated a lot of miles and show signs of wear and tear, but we’re still chugging along. We aging folks have to stick together.

Monday, August 20, 2007


I'm late on blogging because I'm on a vacation trip to Tennessee to see my family. It takes 3-1/2 days to drive from our part of Maine to Memphis, and, of course, 3-1/2 days to drive back, which makes for a very long (and sometimes boring) drive. To pass the time, I read aloud books of mutual interest to us between my naps. This is sufficient to get us through Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. By the time we get to Tennessee, we celebrate the last leg of the long trip with various family traditions, some started when Joy and I were young, others when our kids were young, and faithfully repeated by us to this day.

There is a chain of stores across the South called Stuckey's. Part gas station, part refreshment stand, part candy shop, part restroom facilities, and part tacky souvenir store, Stuckey's businesses have always littered the highways and byways of our travels. When I was a teenager, I made up a silly poem as a tribute to the Stuckey's chain sung to the tune of "Cabaret." My sister and I sang it incessantly on family vacations, as the lyrics begin "Stuckey's, we love you, we always will whenever we see your sign," and for decades their billboards were posted hundreds of times on the interstate. As each sign came into view, we would take a deep breath and burst out in our ditty, testing our parents' patience (and now, Ed's patience). I only saw a couple of signs on this trip, so I fear that Stuckey's has gone out of business, bringing a disappointing end to our familiar routine.

Fortunately, even without the Stuckey's song, we have other trip markers to fill our time. When we pass a place called Bucksnort, we buck and snort, which, I assure you, is hard to do when you're laughing. When we cross the Buffalo River, we sing "Home on the Range," because the first verse contains the words "where the buffalo roam." When we cross the Tennessee River, we hold our breath over the entire bridge span. (This latter tradition has no logical basis as a marker, but since the USA has recently realized the decaying condition of its bridges, it might not be a bad idea to hold one's breath when crossing one.)

The marker that is the most fun to do begins at the Duck River bridge. All the occupants of the car quack until we reach the other side, then we say, still in our duck voices, "That was Duck River - quack, quack." We actually have this on video. (OK, we have a lot of strange things on video.)

Our fun is increased on the trip home, where each marker is dutifully reenacted with the usual precision and flawless technique. We have had many years in which to perfect them.

Each of these markers gives us a breather, a rest, a pause, along with a distinct feeling that we are marking pages in some kind of long, complicated novel. Each marking event lasts a short time, but if we count the pre-marker hours of excited anticipation and the post-marker moments of pure satisfaction, that pleasure stretches in duration. In fulfilling these little rituals, we feel in continuity with those who came before us and those who will come after us. Tradition is a wonderful thing, and so are life markers.

Birthdays are probably the most celebrated life markers. My uncle in Arkansas turned 80 this month, and my two nieces turned 13 and 16 this year. Next year our oldest child will be having her 30th birthday - a fact which truly boggles my mind.

On this trip, we are certainly celebrating markers, little but frequent moments of reflection that tell us where we are, remind us of where we have been, and giving us an idea of where we are headed. We aren't here totally for special birthdays (although we are appropriately noting them), we aren't here just to take a 2-week vacation, and we certainly didn't drive 3-1/2 days one way just to quack our hearts out on a Tennessee bridge. We are here on the highest priority mission - to be with loved ones - family and friends - just to celebrate life and love and laughter and the tight connection we have with each other - one which distance and the passage of time cannot destroy.

When we decided to move and downsize, one of our goals was to remind ourselves on a daily basis of our priorities, and one of those priorities is "people over things." This is our "people" week. Our markers have names like Jean, Tom, June, Timmy, Boo, Mike, Joy, Scott, Amelia, Kate, John, Joanne, Audrey, Zuleika, Gerrie, Malcolm, Claudia, Ray, Jackie, Rose, and others who have made our lives sweeter by their presence. We will head back home on Saturday, but the spirits of these people will go with us. They are the best kind of markers - reminders of love. We are forever grateful.

Our reasons for making the trip will have been accomplished. Our trip home will be full of memories of life, love, and laughter. Quacking over Duck River will be just icing on the cake.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Guest Blogger Today

We had the pleasure of visiting with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren this afternoon. While we were eating dinner, I took the opportunity to ask our ever-precocious 4-year-old Caroline for help with my blog.

“I need to write in my blog tonight,” I said. Caroline nodded. She has a blog of her own, albeit one sorely neglected as of late. “So tell me - what should I write about?”

I was truly curious as to what she would say. Caroline has always had a tendency to be distracted by whatever is in her environment at the moment. When Caroline was younger, I used to talk with her on the telephone, and the conversation would invariably turn nonsensical, almost evolving into a story-telling mode, except for the fact that the things she was saying didn’t make sense. I finally discovered the reason when her dad took the phone and explained what was going on. Caroline had been watching TV while she was talking to me, taking the characters in a batch of commercials and weaving them into a whimsical tale that made no sense to anyone but her.

So tonight as we munched on our grilled chicken and vegetables, I asked my question and Caroline contemplated her answer. I knew she would draw from her extensive file of whatever she had been doing recently, the last thing she saw or heard, or whatever she noticed out the window while we were eating. One of those would undoubtedly serve as the basis for her answer.

Of course, she had an unlimited supply of material from which to formulate her response. After all, we had done a lot together already this afternoon. We had watched part of the Wizard of Oz. We had read a book about a broken powder box that was miraculously made whole again. She had played in the “bouncy house” in the basement. We had talked about our garden, and she had begged us to plant beets because “that’s Daddy’s favorite vegetable and my favorite vegetable!” When we arrived, she had coins all over the coffee table, as she had emptied her little bank and was sorting the coins into piles. We had even gone over a few pages in her “workbook,” where she drew lines to connect antonyms (100% correct, of course). So all these experiences, I knew, could be potential sources for whatever subject line Caroline was about to advise for my blog entry.

So you can see why I was rather surprised at what she said. “People’s skin and eyes.”
I pushed her hair out of her face (her hair is always falling in her face). “What about people’s skin and eyes?” I had to ask.

“That people who have different skin and eyes are regular people. They’re just regular people.” She looked up at me with a very serious expression. “And you shouldn’t make fun of them.”

Her father then elaborated a little, saying that she had just been to the fair this week and had heard a kid making fun of a black man that had been running a merry-go-round a few years ago, calling him “Gorilla Man.” Chris said it happened because the kid, young at the time, had never seen a black man before (Maine is a pretty white state).

So from her deep reservoir of images and sounds and thoughts, this is what Caroline offered for my blog entry tonight. So be it. Caroline, this is for you. I'm sure we all can use the reminder.

“People who have different skin and eyes are just regular people, and you shouldn’t make fun of them.” - Caroline Alice, age 4, August 9, 2007

Thursday, August 02, 2007

In Progress...

One of my favorite comic strips (thanks, Kelly, for the recommendation!) is Pearls Before Swine, written by Stephan Pastis. His characters exhibit a variety of traits; they are intelligent or endearing or gullible or stupid....and then there’s Rat. He is just plain evil. Stephan Pastis once said that he had given Rat his (Stephan’s) own worst characteristics. He took his personal faults and combined them to create the character of Rat, who is obnoxious, selfish, rude, arrogant, and greedy - and a liar and cheater to boot. As soon as I read that, I wondered, if I created a character with my worst faults, what would she/he be like? It wasn’t pleasant to think about.

Every time you get advice on how to prepare yourself for a job interview, it’s always the same suggestion, which goes something like this: “Your potential employers will usually ask you to describe your worst fault. The key is to use this to your advantage. Tell them something that could be categorized as a weakness, but in your description, make it sound like it’s really a strength.” Uh huh. The oldest trick in the book. Then they’ll offer an example, like “I’m a workaholic. That’s my weakness. I just work, work, work.” We all understandably want to play up our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. But gee, isn’t there room for a little honesty?

Some of my bad traits probably don’t bother me as much as they bother others. It’s all in the perspective. A habit that others might find highly annoying I might label as “eccentric.”

But other bad traits I know I possess are so glaring to me that they blind me, sometimes enough that I can’t even acknowledge my good qualities, which I know are in there somewhere. One of these such traits is my apparent inability to finish anything.

Now, anyone who knows me will nod and laugh at this analysis. Most of my family and friends would say that Carol is a great planner, Carol is a great starter, Carol is an idea machine. Sometimes I take months, even years, to plan a project or formalize a goal. Then when the race starts, I’m the first horse out of the gate. I’m excited, I have the adrenaline flowing, and I’m unstoppable.

But somewhere along the way, I get bored, or tired, or - as is usually the case - distracted by the next great idea that pops into my head. Quilters call this UFO syndrome (unfinished objects). Hence the quilt I started for Rachel’s marriage gift, which I am still trying to finish, and the poor girl just celebrated her 5th anniversary. How sad is that?

I was reading in my pregnancy diary (Matt) last night where I had written about a cross-stitched birth announcement I had started with plans to hang it in his nursery. It had little pastel ducks, rabbits, and blocks, with his name, birth date, weight, and height. I knew the date ahead of time (scheduled C-section) but I left the weight and height information for later stitching. I believe it was just a few years ago that I finally stitched that information in. The thing is still not framed. Matt is 24 years old. I’m sure it would be a wonderful whimsical addition to his bedroom now.

Other projects I have stored away in boxes, carefully labeled with their identification, maybe with drawings or patterns tucked inside. I’ve read about old ladies who die, and their survivors open these boxes and poignantly sigh, “Aw, Grandma never got to finish this...I think I can piece this quilt together/sew this placemat/cross-stitch this ornament (fill in the blank).” Then said relative lovingly finishes said project, and feels the bond of connection so strongly with their loved one, even through the veil of death.

Yeah, right. I see my kids and grandkids going through all this stuff and saying, “Oh crap! Here’s another half-finished project Grammy never did get done. What the heck are we supposed to do with it?! Hey, there, hand me that Goodwill bag, will ya?”

Of course, I have been known to finish a few projects. When that miraculous event occurs, I make sure I take a photograph, just as a souvenir to look back on one day and reflect on the fact that I actually completed something. But those moments are rare.

I don’t relegate this unfortunate trait of mine to my craft projects, no siree. I dropped out of piano lessons before my teacher and parents wanted me to. I went to college one year, then quit. It’s insidious. In any given moment, I am feeling guilty about innumerable things in my life so freely abandoned. Then I hear quite clearly the convicting phrase from the Book of Common Prayer, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done...” and I weep.

Then I dry my tears and start planning my next project.

Oh to be a Completer! Oh to be a Fulfiller! A Doer! A Concluder! A Terminator! (Ooh, I don’t like the sound of that last one.) Alas, my name is Carol Tiffin James, and I’m an Unfinisher. There’s got to be a good comic strip in there somewhere.