Saturday, December 31, 2011


Lily, our border collie puppy, is as energetic as they come.  She shares the cute trait many other dogs have - loving to play fetch.  We throw her a toy, ball, or frisbee, and she runs like a bat out of hell to get it, then brings it back.  Then we usually have a problem.  She doesn't drop it.  She prances and dances and wants to play tug-of-war with it - anything but drop it.  Little does she know that we can't continue playing until she gives the toy back to us.  We've tried saying things like "Hand it over!" or "Drop it!" or "Put it Down!" and even "That'll Do!" and nothing works.  Trying to snatch it out of her hand just gets her excited and may even get us an accidental laceration.

After reading several books on border collies, the term we finally settled on was "Release."  So that's what we're teaching her as an instruction to drop the toy.

I've always liked the word "release."  I've heard at funerals that the deceased had suffered terribly from cancer or whatnot and had finally been "released" from his pain.  Release is the at the core of the AA mantra, "Let Go and Let God."  When I picture the word "release" in my mind, it's always accompanied by a big, deep sigh and a little smile, as if in releasing a heavy burden after walking with it for a long, long time.

But it's not just pain and guilt and heavy burdens we need to release.  It can be good memories, too, that we are carrying - memories that are so good, in fact, that we still live in the past, clinging to the good ol' days of when we were young or attractive or talented or popular, tightly gripping in our teeth the perspective that that time was so extraordinary that life ever since has somehow been deficient and will never ever bring us happiness again.   Sometimes it's something else - we might have a chokehold on our worldview, our paradigm for what we believe (segregation, anyone?), and no matter how wisdom has shown us otherwise, we refuse to change.

The thing that we can't get Lily to understand is that until she releases the toy, the play comes to a halt.  Her fun is in limbo because of her stubbornness.  But she will learn eventually.  She will come to comprehend that the very thing she is avoiding at all costs - putting the toy down - is the very thing which will bring her more excitement, joy, and companionship with her human family when the play resumes.  Once she lets go, she can open her mouth for the next catch - and as we do the same, we can open our hearts for the next blessing just around the corner.

My hope for 2012 is that we can all learn to release what is necessary to let go of - so we can receive again.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


One of my favorite Christmas movies is Christmas in Connecticut.  In it, Uncle Felix, a rotund Hungarian chef, steals the show.  He is part of the plot to make his friend, played by Barbara Stanwyck, appear to be a Martha Stewart type character to keep her job as a magazine columnist when in real life she can't cook or do anything even loosely connected with housekeeping.  When her wedding is about to take place, Felix, who is a good friend of the bride, is asked by the judge if he will give the bride away.  Felix, who is frequently confused by American/English idioms, replies, "I don't give nobody avay.  Alvays I keep my mouth shut."

Sometimes people ask me why I bother blogging.  I'm not specialized enough to have a bunch of people interested in what I say (e.g., don't write about sewing or cooking or specialized hobbies), yet I still write every week or two.  My answer is that I mainly write for introspection, because it is only when I put things down that I realize what my priorities are and what problems I need to work on.  The only other reason is my grandkids.  I won't be on this earth forever, and I certainly can't assume I will still be here when my grandchildren are grown with the their own families (a situation my Mom enjoys), so I hope this blog serves as a window for my grandkids into their Grammy's mind and heart.  Maybe they can learn some life lessons from my mistakes and successes.

So here's my life lesson for this Christmas Eve:  "Don't give nobody avay.  Alvays keep your mouth shut."

Knowing when to just keep your mouth shut has to be one of the hardest lessons in life to learn.  Kids today grow up with rewind buttons everywhere, and the sooner they realize there is no rewind button for life, the better.  You'd think folks my age, born in the '50s without rewind buttons, would have easily assimilated that fact, but no.  I can speak from personal experience.   I speak, then I think.  Unfortunately, that's backwards, but hey, sometimes I'm a stubborn student.

There's an old story about a spiritual teacher who had his students roll all sizes of stones around a big area.  Then he asked then to go gather every stone and bring each one back.  It took a little time, but they did this with no problem.  Then he gave them feathers, and asked them to scatter the feathers and bring them back.  As you can imagine, the wind carried those feathers miles and miles all over the place.  They came back to the teacher in frustration, saying, "Master - the feathers have dispersed over miles; there is no way we can gather every one of them and bring them back to you."  The wise teacher said, "And that is how it is with words.  Once you say them, they are scattered forever and you can never take them back."

Throughout my life, I've said hurtful things on purpose.  I've said hurtful things by accident.  I've talked about people in a negative way to others.  I've said things that should have been left unsaid.  When I felt  accused, I've talked back defensively by reminding others that they're as sloppy/hurtful/inept/forgetful as I am.  I've offended, wounded, and distressed both people I am only acquainted with and people I dearly love.  It breaks my heart at times and fills me with awful regret.

Of course, my husband Ed has this fault, too.  I'm constantly berating him, "Why did you SAY that?!!" and many times he will reply, "I know.  As soon as it left my mouth I asked myself the same question." Ed also has taught me that the bad habits/transgressions that irritate us about others are a mirror into what we hate about ourselves.  I know when I get upset with him that down deep I am just upset with myself for harboring the same problem.

It only takes a moment to filter words in your brain before they are said out loud.  One of my New Year's resolutions is to be careful with words - once they are gone, I can't bring them back.

I wish everyone the blessings of Christmas and the New Year.   Live life in 2012 with the assurance that you don't need a rewind button, and watch those feathers.  They're light and buoyant and can be gone in an instant.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pockets of insight

Due to the generosity of a co-worker who gave me a gift certificate as a belated birthday present, I bought a new purse last month.  It looks similar to the photo above.

Now, I've always had a difficult and frustrating time when I buy a purse.  I usually only have one purse at a time, so it has to be multifunctional.  That day, I stood around Penney's for a good hour examining purses.  In the first place, although it didn't have to be gorgeous, I certainly didn't want to wince when I looked at it every day.  It had to go with my wardrobe.  And as superficial as it sounds, it had to reflect a little bit of my personality, as a visible expression to the world of what kind of person I am (as most wardrobe items tend to do).   Most importantly, it had to hold the important things, and it had to have a few pockets that were necessary for me - specific pockets designated for specific things - a pocket for my keys, a pocket for my cell phone, and a pocket for my work ID badge.  These pockets had to be secure, because I throw my purse around a lot and don't want anything important falling out.  And then to top it off, the whole purse had to fasten securely so nothing could fall out the top.  It couldn't be too small or too big, and it couldn't be too heavy. There is only limited room in a purse, so one has to be picky about what goes inside and where everything goes.  If I decide to carry a calendar book, I might not have room for my bulky coupon holder.  I have to make choices, as I can't carry everything.  All this makes purse shopping a very frustrating and time-consuming experience for me.

As the year comes to a close, I thought about this in relation to my life.  I only have 24 hours in a day - my time is limited just like my purse space.  All the emotions that I carry, some justly, some out of habit, some for no discernible reason, have to be carried by me at once.  All the negative things that eat away at my psyche - guilt, shame, regret, anxiety, envy, feelings of revenge, anger - take up space where I could be carrying love, compassion, forgiveness and patience.  Every part of my brain that harbors the negative emotions just pushes out the positive emotions.  Every minute of the day I spend in worry is a minute I don't spend in contentment.

I've heard in simplicity circles that one of the best ways to embrace simplicity is to limit what you buy:  For everything you bring into the house (or closet, etc.), you should get rid of something you currently own.  I've also been told that the key to organizational contentment is "a place for everything, and everything in its place."

I think for 2012, my goal is to walk as many negative emotions out the door as I can and usher in the positive ones.   Just like how I get picky about choosing a purse, I want to be more selective about the feelings that I choose to carry with me day in and day out.  I do believe in a place for everything and everything in its place - and the place for those corrosive, energy-draining feelings is certainly not in my vision of what I want for my life. They are not how I would choose to represent myself to the world, and their presence crowds my mind and heart so that I lose sight of what makes life meaningful.

In the end, my purse is just a red pocketed container - a functional accessory to enable me to carry around other physical items in a convenient way.  I can find one I like, and use it until it no longer serves my needs, then I can replace it.  But this one life is all I've got, and I want to use it to carry ideals that are important to me, ideals that will sustain me, nourish me, and get me through the hard times.  If that means clearing some damaging things out to make room for some new healing ones, then so be it.  I think we all deserve no less.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Way We Were (Are)

Sometimes life is going so relatively smoothly that I want to take a snapshot of it and keep it unchanged.  I guess Thanksgiving has helped me concentrate on the blessings rather than the frustrations, but our lives are going well at this time.  Everyone in the family has a job, son Matt is putting the finishing touches on his software creation that will be offered for sale soon, Matt and wife Sarah just ran a 5K for the first time (pushing Joshua in a stroller), the grandkids are all healthy, Mom is doing great (her cholesterol level is actually better than mine....grrr...don’t go there!), Mom’s dog Jenny still hasn’t killed or maimed our new puppy, my older niece was elected president of her sorority, my other niece has been inducted into the National Honor Society, Caroline and Charlotte had an amazing violin recital and are doing well in school, my sister after years of hard work finally got our mom’s house on the market.... and you know, the list goes on and on.
But, of course, change does come.  On a description of this blog, I mention that my journey focuses on my response to aging, roadblocks to simplicity, grandparenting, acceptance and celebration of the past, etc., but basically here it is in a nutshell:  “’s changing roles.”  Change is everywhere, from my living situation to my aging body to all my family and friends.  Things cannot stay stagnant.  Even the seasons remind of that.  (Ed told me it is time for our annual call to our local newspaper to ask them to stop delivery until the spring thaw, as the carrier can’t get to the newspaper box because the snow plow drops it all in front, since we got our first real snow of the winter this week.)  Holiday commercials are everywhere, and Rachel calls us every day to remind us that her blender is being held together with duct tape and she really, really, REALLY wants a new top-of-the-line blender for Christmas.  
But can’t we keep things the same right now?  Mom is still with us, my aunt and uncle and Mom’s best friend, all in their 80s, are still with us.  I don’t want any more losses, any more deaths.  Everyone is healthy and happy and I want it to go on forever.
Change is scary because of the unknown factor, but just when I wish for the power to stop time just as it is now, then I wake to reality:  Joshua is a cuter-than-ever 16-month-old toddler, but I am curious to see what it will feel like to have him tell me about what he is doing in kindergarten a few years from now.  I wonder how Caroline will be excelling in violin as she grows and fine tunes her already incredible talent.  And Charlotte - now there’s a firecracker in training - I can hardly wait to see how she matures and changes!  What will the grandkids look like as they grow?  What will they be interested in?  What things can I help them with and teach them?
The cycle of life is so poignant.  Charlotte’s violin is very small, the size that Caroline started with, but awhile back Caroline upgraded to a bigger violin because she had grown.  When Joshua comes to visit, we pull out the plastic spoons and bibs that we used for the girls when they were little - and even a toy dog that I used when I was a baby!  Each object just shouts “CHANGE!”
Tomorrow our family will celebrate Thanksgiving here (after the kids go to their in-laws today).  Since Mom is here, we will have 4 generations together for the first time ever on Thanksgiving, so that will be a blessing.  We will gather in the living room to take our annual family Christmas photo, this year having Mom in the picture.  That photo freezes us in time, at our current ages, interests, skill levels, physical health - the snapshot of what our family looked like on November 25, 2011.  Nanoseconds after the photo is taken, though, things will be changing.  Cells in our body dying and replenishing, more life experiences to enter in our brains’ computers, more conversation, more learning - and yes, more pain, more sorrow, more anxiety.  
But for today, I close my eyes and picture our family as we are this second - healthy and content - and we all have warm houses, enough food, clothes, and money to live, friends who care about us, but most important, we have what you can’t see in the photo - oodles and oodles of love.  And that’s the thing that will support us through all the inevitable changes life will throw at us in the years to come.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 11, 2011

I-Witness to History

Maybe it's partly my career, but I have always been fascinated by medical things in the news.  One story that intrigued me the most was that of Jill Bolte Taylor, who wrote the book My Stroke of Insight:  A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey.  Amazon's description of her book reads in part:
Jill Taylor was a 37-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist when a blood vessel exploded in her brain. Through the eyes of a curious scientist, she watched her mind deteriorate whereby she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Because of her understanding of the brain, her respect for the cells in her body, and an amazing mother, Jill completely recovered. In My Stroke of Insight, she shares her recommendations for recovery and the insight she gained into the unique functions of the two halves of her brain.

Basically, she watched herself have a stroke, and, being the curious brain scientist she was, she remembered details as it was unfolding and during the aftermath, almost as a third person observing an outside incident.

Thankfully, I have never had a stroke, but as I grow older, it still intrigues me to see my body change.  It's an eyewitness account of the history of me. Certainly, having my 88-year-old mom living with me has strengthened the observation, because, of course, we don't exist in a vacuum, and as I am watching myself age, I have watched her age as well.   I have been in her life 57 of those 88 years and I have watched her deal with changes in life situations as well as changes in her body - now as a daily occurrence.

I've been sick with a bad cold this week which has now congested my chest.  I've had three nights of lack of sleep, missed half a day of work, used up two boxes of Puffs, and have sat here berating myself for not having the energy or desire to do things I need to do on my weekend.  I recalled the weekends where I still did not accomplish anything, but had no illness excuse, and how I wished I had those weekends back to be productive!  You forget to appreciate everyday health until you lose it - either temporarily or permanently.

I asked Mom last night if she remembers what it was like to just jump out of a chair and go on her way without bouncing up and down about 5 times to get some rebound, holding onto a walker, and every so slowly pushing herself up.  She has one useless hand now, permanently in a clawed position, and I wonder if she ever thinks about the time when she had two good hands.  I know she misses being able to do housework (washing dishes by hand was her favorite activity!).   She has told me all my life, "Your health is everything," and now I see what she means.  She is an eyewitness to what getting older (as well as sequelae of trauma) means.  Every movement, every attempt to do anything, makes her painfully aware of what time has done to her once young body.

As it has on me.  I'm not in that bad shape yet, but I look in the mirror with astonishment almost every day.  My face and body are records of my life, and I am, as Jill Bolte Taylor was, an ongoing eyewitness - or as I like to say, I-witness, to my life being lived on this physical earth.  Some of the changes are just natural changes of aging, some were avoidable but I made poor choices through the years, some are specifically hereditary in my family.  It is intriguing to watch this process.  One has to try to do it with an open mind, and an objective sense, a sense of watching another person age, because if one carries to the surface all the emotional baggage involved, the journey can be too traumatic.

It all reminds me of the saying, "Don't hate birthdays; consider the alternative," because my mom, even with her arthritis aches and pains and vision loss and neurological deficits and dental problems and everything else that an average 88-year-old woman has on her medical problem list, she has been, in a way, privileged to watch herself get old.  As a 30-year-old, maybe she wondered (probably she didn't) what it would be like to be old, to look old, to feel old.  Now she knows.  And it's still an ongoing process - her doctor said she'd live to be 100, the news of which, I think, made her rather pleased but exhausted just thinking about it.

And so the journey of life continues.  I am contained in this physical body for an unknown number of years, and I have been, yes, privileged to watch its changes as I age.  These changes sometimes anger me, frustrate me, and make me wish things were different.  On the other hand, I'm mostly in awe of the process.  The changes are natural, they are expected, and they still are miraculous to watch as they unfold.

I heard once that we start to die the day we are born, and I can understand that.  The researchers are learning every day more and more about DNA and cell death and cell turnover and the telomere lengths and all that other technical fascinating stuff about why and how our  bodies gradually just fall apart.  I enjoy reading all their latest findings.  But for me, it all comes down to me, doesn't it?  And the things I am honored to watch - to see - to actually experience - makes me kind of lucky in a way.  Many of my friends did not make it to the age of 57, so aging needs to be considered a gift as well as a curse.

I'm planning on splurging on an iPad next month.  I'm been researching apps I'd like to have, but there is one app I've already got - iWitness.  And what a remarkable, exciting, incredible app it is!!

Friday, November 04, 2011

In the Sweet Buy and Buy

There are many memories of the days following 9/11, for me, but one of the most memorable, oddly, is the president telling everyone to get back to business as usual:   "Get on board.  Do your business around the country.  Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."   I totally understand what he was trying to do and why, of course - to reassure the American people after fear had suddenly paralyzed everyone.  Even his brother, Jeb Bush, said, "We need to respond quickly so people regain confidence and consider it their patriotic duty to go shopping...."  The truth, though, sometimes hurts.  And what is the truth embedded in these quotes?  Our whole economy depends on consumerism.

It's that time of year again - Halloween is over and The Holidays are in full swing, with businesses flooding radio, TV, and other media with the message, "Go shopping!"  Of course, it's a catch-22:  Companies don't hire workers because there is not much demand for their products because people can't afford to buy; people can't afford to buy because they have lost their jobs because companies aren't hiring workers....and on and on.

Our local Lowe's, for instance, announced its closure last week, with many employees suddenly out of work.  It was apparently an "underperforming" store.  Now, Ed and I have shopped at Lowe's many times, but still there was the nagging guilt in my head:  Should we have shopped there more to save all those jobs?  Do I really have to spend beyond my means in order to be patriotic and help the economy?

In the next couple of months, consumerism will be paramount.  The messages are all similar:  Spending a lot on a gift shows you love someone.  Spending more than you can afford helps the economy and saves jobs.  Maxing out your credit card will enable you to have happy holidays when you don't have the cash; in fact, with some credit card offers, you even get a percentage of your expenditures back, so the more you spend, the more you "save."  It's much better to buy something you really don't need at half price for $50 than for full price at $100.  (The option of not buying it at all is never mentioned.)

We have to feel some sadness for the state of the world, our country, our economy, and our addiction to a lifestyle that is not sustainable in the long run.  Just as banks should not become too big to fail, an economy totally based on buying (and charging) more and more and more is doomed to falter.  Those who cannot afford to buy, or choose not to buy, or limit what they buy, should not be made to feel guilty for their lack of "appropriate participation" in bringing our economy back to life.

I'm so sorry for those folks at Lowe's and every other place whose jobs were lost or cut because I'm buying less than I used to, but for me, to live within my means and to live with personal integrity, that's the way it has to be.  We know in our hearts that "buy more stuff" is not the message of Christmas or Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or any of the other religious observances - but it comes through loud and clear anyway.  Sigh.  Happy Holidays.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Faces of our Lives

As one of my simplicity priorities, I am always seeking balance. Life is full of joys and sorrows - we can't get by without either one - and somehow we must learn to cope with what we see around us, with us, and in us.

When I was pregnant with Matt in January 1983, my maternal grandfather lay dying.  On that very same day, my cousin's wife was having a baby girl.  I remember the conversation going on long distance over the phone, with the family at Paw-Paw's bedside encouraging him to hold on, that he was getting a great-granddaughter any minute.  Paw-Paw died, and Hope was born into the world.  One went out, one came in.  Sorrow and Happiness holding hands.

Every time I am grieving, a part of me realizes that others are happy at the same time that I am sad.  I may be heading to a funeral while others are going to a wedding.  I may be struggling with despair while others just down the street are celebrating remission of cancer.  Conversely, I may be enjoying watching my grandson play while others are hearing the news that their son has died overseas.  

This yin and yang of life has always fascinated me - and one interpretation of yin and yang is that "their interaction is thought to maintain the harmony of the universe and to influence everything within it."  It brings to mind lyrics from that old song "Love and Marriage" - "Try, try, try to separate them, it's an illusion....You can't have one without the other."

We just got a new Border Collie puppy and named her Lily.  I took her to work on Tuesday to show her off.  She charmed everyone; who doesn't like a puppy?  On Wednesday morning, I found out that my supervisor's dog had been accidentally run over and killed the evening of that visit, and another co-worker had to take her beloved terminally ill pet in to be put down that very day.  A new pet coming in, two pets going out.  And life goes on.

I think my happiness and contentment will forever be a little tempered by the knowledge that others are simultaneously suffering, and too, in my times of tears and sadness, I need to remember that there is still joy and happiness in the world coexisting with my pain.  As humans, we are connected in that way.   We grieve with each other, and we celebrate with each other.  Sometimes that makes life hard.  Sometimes, though, it makes life bearable.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Supported by Strangers

I have always believed in the power of dreams to teach us lessons that we are meant to discover.  I had a dream last week that made me think about my life in a new way.

In the dream, Ed was driving Mom and me to the grocery.  When we got there, he parked in a place that I thought was too far from the store, even though it was on even ground for Mom to maneuver.  So while they went into the store, I decided to re-park the car.  The next part, of course, is strange, as most dreams have those moments which don't make sense - but I ended up parking the car in a big crowded room of people sitting in folding chairs.  The room was full of these people, leaving only a sliver of an aisle on one side, just enough for me to squeeze the car in and drive it all the way to the front, which put me right smack in front of the grocery building.  I was pleased with myself about finding a parking space so close, but it was then that I realized Ed was going to freak out when he saw what I had done.  I myself was panicking!  On my own poor judgment, I had gotten the car wedged into a tight space, so tight that Ed would never be able to back it out, and besides, I couldn't even open the doors for him and Mom to get in when they came back to the car.  I was so upset at what a stupid thing I had done.  How could I have been so idiotic?

It was that moment in the dream that I happened to look around, and everyone in those chairs had seen my predicament and had voluntarily gotten up, moved their chairs over, and sat back down again, leaving me ample room for the car.  They had done this without my asking.  They had done it as strangers.  They had supported me in my time of desperation and had done what they could to help.  They had done it without fanfare, without demanding my gratitude; indeed, they had done it so quietly, I hadn't even realized I was being helped until it was over.

Looking back on my life, I realize I have been supported hundreds of times by total strangers, as well as friends and family who openly encouraged me, and friends, family and acquaintances who worked anonymously behind the scenes.  I was given their gifts, for the most part, without my asking, and many times, when I didn't deserve it - because, after all, I know how to make my own messes, my own poor decisions, and it's my own fault, right?  Yet, they were there through it all, without blame, without punishment, without lectures.  They got up, moved their chairs, and sat back down again.  They inconvenienced themselves for my benefit when they saw the need.

So you can see how coincidental it was that after that dream, another stranger inconvenienced himself to brighten our lives.

Mom listens to WDEA radio in Maine, and her favorite disc jockey is a guy named Rick Foster.  She loves his signature sign-off, something about asking his wife to put on the coffee pot, "I'm comin' home."  She talked about him enough that I finally decided to find his picture online so she could see what he looked like.  I found a photo on the station's web site, but it was too small for her to see clearly, so on the spur of the moment, I e-mailed Mr. Foster, explained the situation, and asked if he could send her a larger picture of himself by e-mail or regular mail.   He wrote back, saying he would be happy to do that, but "would she be up for a visit?" Oh, what a surprise was in store for Mom!

So on Wednesday afternoon, Rick and his sweet wife, Becky, drove to Hancock to see my mother.  She was shocked and overjoyed.  We had a wonderful visit, and Rick did indeed present her with an 8 x 10 autographed photo which I told her I would frame and hang on her wall.   Mom has since told the story of that visit to a few family members and friends - and I love to hear her tell it, because she is still shocked and excited that it ever happened.  As my sister, Joy, remarked, "We try so hard to find something to buy for Mother that will bring her pleasure, never really succeeding, and here it is - an experience like this, a relationship, a memory, that overshadows anything we could have possibly bought."

Look at it this way:  We took Mother away from her close friends and other relatives, her familiar surroundings, her house. We moved her to a place where she doesn't know anybody but family.   Her accident took away her easy mobility to walk around or drive a car.  Macular degeneration is taking her eyesight, rheumatoid arthritis is taking her fine motor skills, and the radio becomes a constant companion.   Rick Foster, who has been entertaining her through the airwaves, was gracious enough to visit her and lift her spirits, in turn giving her a story she is excited to pass on to whoever will listen.  Mr. Foster did this of his own initiative, without being asked, once he saw how he could make a difference.

Rick Foster - one of the many people in that room of my life, who got up and moved their chairs, inconvenienced themselves for me and those I love.  I am truly blessed.

Friday, September 30, 2011


One of my favorite family Christmas stories is something that happened when our daughter, Rachel, was little. It was after Thanksgiving, the world was decorated for the holidays, and as we were driving one day, we passed a produce market with evergreen trees lined up, just like in the picture above, ready to sell.  I said, "Rachel, look at all the Christmas trees!"  She was dismissive.  "Those aren't Christmas trees," she said.  "Those are just trees."

Rachel in her limited wisdom of the world at that time couldn't fathom that what she was looking at were Christmas trees.   In her mind, Christmas trees weren't Christmas trees until they were illuminated with lights, decorated with tinsel and shiny, colorful ornaments, with angels on top.  She was pretty sure she could recognize a Christmas tree, and those didn't qualify.

Adults, however, have had many years' experience seeing the potential in bare evergreen trees.  We are aware of the destiny for which they were grown, and we have imagination to see them in their full glory.  Picking out a bare tree to adorn for the holidays can be a demanding process.  No detail is overlooked.  Is the tree fresh?  Is the height tall enough for that big room or small enough for those low ceilings?  Does it smell good?  Is it the type we want - cedar, cypress, fir, pine or spruce?  How about the cost - is it an amount we are willing to spend?  The perfect tree for one house may not be the perfect tree for next door.  The perfect tree when the kids were home may not be the perfect tree for empty-nesters.

We are experts in seeing the potential in bare evergreen trees, but as a society we seem to have a lot of trouble seeing potential in other places.  I was at Grandparents' Day yesterday at the school of Caroline and Charlotte, where a relatively small building was inundated with their regular students through 5th grade plus one, two, maybe three or four grandparents in tow for each child.  It was quite a scene!  As I watched all those kids, I was impressed with what I saw of the teachers.  It is always my hope that teachers will be able to see the potential in each individual child and be able to tap that.  Rachel, all grown up now, is teaching gifted and talented students this year, and one of her goals is to help teachers realize that gifted/talented kids are not always the stereotypical smart, well-behaved kids.  Sometimes they are the daydreamers who can't focus on their work.  Sometimes they are those who are problem students, who misbehave because they are bored.  Others don't even look like they could succeed anywhere (Charlie Brown tree, anyone?). There is a whole variety of gifted/talented kids who, to reach their full potential, could benefit from extra specialized learning and attention.

The same is true for all kids, whether gifted or not.  Just like a bare tree destined for glory, each child is unique.  Some can reach their education potential by going to college.  Others will fulfill their life's dreams by manning a lobster boat.  Others will thrive in trades such as electricians, carpenters, and plumbers.  Some will feel called to help society in different ways, such as being social works, ministers, firefighters or police officers.  Others will spread beauty and love in the world, through music, art, drama, and literature.  To look at an undeveloped child, full of raw unrecognized material that is waiting for someone to help mold it, is to look at a bare tree and trying to figure out exactly where it belongs and where it can develop its potential.  However, this is not one person picking out a tree and making the decision on where it should go.  This endeavor involves our whole society, and not only school teachers, but parents and other family members, friends, neighbors, medical providers, etc.  In real life, everyone is a role model and every person a teacher.  Everyone who comes in contact with that child has a beneficial or detrimental effect on encouraging learning, curiosity, discovering his/her passion, and helping the child find direction in life.

It won't be long before many of us will be heading to the market or the farm to pick out, as Rachel said, "just trees."  But we will see the potential of what they could look like, what environment will bring out their beauty, and where they could shine the brightest.  I hope society gets to a point where it is able to do as much with our precious children.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Letting Down My Hare

Have you ever been in an Asian restaurant and passed the time by looking at their zodiac signs on a placemat?  Ed and I love to do that occasionally.  Apparently he's a dog and I'm a horse.  I can't remember whether or not we are considered "compatible" or whether a relationship should be avoided at all costs, although I guess after 37 years of marriage, it really doesn't matter.  At any rate, I take it all with a grain of salt.  In the first place, how could a zodiac chart that only goes by birthday year presume to be correct?  It is basically claiming that most of my classmates in our high school graduating class constitute one personality type, which, when you think about it, is really ludicrous.

Aside from the birth year problems, there's one major reason why I don't subscribe to the truth of the Chinese zodiac.  It's because I have learned for certain that I'm not a horse and Ed is not a dog.  I am a HARE and Ed is a TORTOISE.

Anyone who knows us well is already aware of this.  Literally, our walking styles fit this picture.  I like to go out, walk fast, get it over with, and come back indoors to resume other activities that I find much more pleasurable.  Ed goes out and walks slowly, sometimes covering 6 miles a day.  He stops to light his pipe, he stops to blow his nose, he stops to talk to a neighbor.  He even (gasp!) tries to commune with nature!

Why am I so accident-prone?  Because I'm always in a hurry.  Heck, I've got things to do - important things!  And, like the famous hare in the fable, I end up underestimating the time involved on a project and end up resting under a tree when I should be gaining some ground in the race.

The funny thing is that I rarely win the race.  I end up setting myself on fire, getting head trauma from a cabbage (appropriate for a hare, n'est ce pas?), or suffering some other calamity of going too fast and not paying attention, the injuries of which take me out of the race for a good length of time.  Sometimes I'll look at how far the finish line it, and say, "To heck with it," because the whole thing is just too daunting to even start.

Enters Ed, the Tortoise King.  He is never in a hurry.  He says he has read that slower people who smoke tend toward pipe smoking because it is a slow process (loading, packing, lighting, relighting, cleaning the pipes), or, conversely, people who smoke pipes are automatically slower folks because of these steps.  Whether his nicotine habit has anything to do with it or not, I don't know.  All I know is it is impossible to get him to hurry up.  When I try to, he just gets nasty and upset and blames every subsequent mistake he makes on me.

In my ongoing attempt to improve myself and organize my life, I came upon a book Self Discipline in 10 Days which is short and to the point in breaking through the barriers that prevent us from living the productive, organized lives that we want.  In the process of reading the book and taking notes, I decided that I would make a contract with myself to quilt 15 minutes a day.  Now, the whole idea sounds pathetic.  What can one possibly accomplish in 15 minutes a day?  You might as well not do anything!  Yeah, that's what I thought.  To my surprise, I can get a lot of quilting steps done in only 15 minutes a day.  I find the timing of every day helpful, for instance, to remember where I am in the sequence.  This avoids the frustrating inner dialogue of  "Do I need 80 7 x 7-inch squares of the print, and 80 sets of 2 x 2-inch squares and 2 x 3-1/2-inch square of the cream? ...and where the heck am I, anyway?"  It has actually helped me to become more of a tortoise, slow but steady, making progress that is not so evident daily but after a week or so, is all laid out for me to see.

I will never stop trying to get everything done quickly and Ed will never stop ambling along enjoying the scenery.  That probably means I'll burn myself out and he'll win the race with energy to spare, smiling all the way.  Oh, well.  I get him to appointments on time and he makes me slow down enough to see an eagle's nest.  Come to think of it, I think it will really be a tie score and we'll hopefully end up crossing the finish line hand in hand - if I can slow up enough to be able to finish the race with all fingers intact!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A cappella

My dad, as I've noted before, was an awesome choir director for several decades.  He didn't wear a robe or hold a baton, but with his smile and facial expressions and his hands always in motion, he managed to extract beautiful music from our relatively small choir.  One of his favorite things to do was to direct the choir in an a cappella song (without accompaniment, just voices).  Now, this is not an easy thing.  It would be hard enough for a soloist to hear a starting note, sing a song without aid of accompaniment, and end on the correct pitch - but a whole choir?  Very, very difficult.   All it takes is a slide up here, a slide down there, and the ending pitch may be off a whole note or more.

When Dad was ready for the choir to practice a certain song a cappella, he would have the organist play for the choir the starting notes for all parts - soprano, alto, tenor, bass.  There would be a general soft humming as voices prepared with their specific notes.  Then he would raise his hands, make sure everyone was watching, and he would start to direct.  The song would evolve (and believe me, most songs suitable for a cappella were absolutely gorgeous if everyone sang correctly and with emotion), and then came the end.  Dad would lower his hands and then give a motion to the organist, who played the chord of what was supposed to be the ending pitch, and Dad would react accordingly - if we were off, with a slight wince and a quick smile and an "Oh well, better next time" attitude - or, if the choir had kept perfect pitch, a wide grin that just radiated a "We did it!!" response.

I thought of that this week, as around this time of year I always enforce upon myself the fearful task of retrieving my New Year's Resolution list and giving my objectives a thorough examination as I evaluate how close I have come to fulfilling my dreams and plans for 2011.  Actually, I don't call them resolutions (I hate that word), but I call them goals for the year.  They cover all sorts of categories - my health, my hobbies, my work, my relationships - and under each one I list what I consider are priorities to concentrate on during the coming year, and I even have sublist of things that I wouldn't consider a priority but I would love to accomplish if I had the time or other necessary resources.

First, though, I start the page off with a list of accomplishments from the previous year - just to give me a little encouragement that I can be productive and get these things done, at least part of the time.   Most of the time, though, I have a long to-do list and never get it done.

Oh, I manage to get birthday cards off in the mail and Christmas card family pictures taken and sent, and I manage to pay all the bills on time and balance the checkbook and all the other things that if they didn't get done, we would be in hot water, but when I look over my goals and objectives, I have fallen so short. The year is over half over, autumn is in the air, Christmas will be here before I know it, and I haven't done any CEUs for my recertification, I never did enter a sewing contest at Pattern Review, I didn't even get close to piecing the top for Matt and Sarah's quilt, I haven't learned any new sewing techniques, I haven't played the harp much at all, etc.   We've been in this house now for 5 years and every year I put down "Paint the inside of the house" and we're still living with the white walls that came with the modular home.

It seems very much to me that I start off the year with perfect pitch, but somewhere, somehow, along the way, I always end up on the wrong note.   Don't get me wrong - the song of 2011 has been wonderful and adventurous with a lot of surprising twists and turns that have altogether combined to make lovely music, but I fear - no, I know for sure - that I will end up sadly out of pitch.

Of course, there are many reasons for this, chiefly my ever-present tendency towards procrastination and biting off more than I can chew, my propensity for having endless creative ideas but not much follow-through, my paralyzed response to being overwhelmed where I just sit and do nothing, and last but not least, my perfectionism that makes me afraid of doing anything if I can't do it perfectly.  But I will admit that this year has been rather unusual and has brought many challenges, with moving my elderly, debilitated mom and her dog up here from Tennessee (constituting two trips and a lot of planning), making a room for her out of my former exercise room (making exercise an even more inconvenient thing to accomplish), and trying to eat healthy when mom likes her starches and sweets.

I realize that I will never have a perfect pitch year.  And that's OK.  I will still make my obligatory goal list for 2012, if for no other reason than to focus my attention on priorities, and on January 1, 2012, I will start a new a cappella song on the correct note and I will sing my heart out through the year, belting out the highs and the lows and everything in between.  Sometimes I'll be sharp, sometimes I'll be flat, sometimes I'll be right on the note, and sometimes I'll take a good rest between the notes.  Sometimes I'll be singing along with a group of others, sometimes just by myself.  Some of the song will be sad, I'm sure, and some will be gloriously ecstatic. Some parts of it will be so lovely, it will make me cry in pure joy.  Some parts of it will make me wince and want a do-over.  Sometimes I will follow the music exactly as it is supposed to be sung, and other times I'll just make it up as I go along.

But - in the end, it's my song, and my wish is that it will be authentic, loving, patient, grateful, and full of hope and possibilities - with some self-discipline and flexibility thrown in for good measure.  So what if I end a note or two from where I should be?  If I concentrate on the beauty of the song and not on its imperfections, I think I'll still make my Daddy proud.  All I have to do is what The Carpenters advised:

Sing, sing a song
Sing out loud, sing out strong
Sing of good things not bad
Sing of happy not sad

Sing, sing a song
Make it simple to last your whole life long
Don't worry that it's not good enough
For anyone else to hear
Just sing, sing a song

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Turning over a new leaf?

I saw a cute sign that would be perfect for my 8-year-old granddaughter, Caroline, a voracious reader.  It said, "Life is Short.  Read Fast."  Of course, "Hurry Up" is my mantra.  Ed is constantly berating me for doing everything too fast.  He says the reason I'm accident-prone does not evolve from some physiological impairment; it is just because I'm trying to move too quickly and I don't pay attention - with which I completely and sadly agree.

Of course, I was reminded of this at my annual physical this week.  Alas, I had to enumerate the many ways I had suffered injuries this year, including hitting my head on the corner of the bedside table which necessitated a trip to the doctor for a heavily bleeding scalp laceration; hitting my head on a bathroom drawer that was at hip level (long story); and, the most embarrassing of them all, how my head collided with a giant cabbage.  The latter happened when I had returned home from the grocery, was putting things on the counter in the kitchen (including the monstrous cabbage), leaned over to get more items out of a bag on the floor and the huge cabbage rolled right off and smacked me with great force on the back of the head.  (Well, at least I have an excuse for my senior moments.  My brain has been undoubtedly damaged.)  At least the cabbage story was a little funny.  We went at it head-to-head.

This is only a small sampling of my accidents through the years, the major one of which was burning my face with fire starter gel and in the process, setting fire to the curtains in the room and having to be taken by ambulance to the burn center in Portland.  They also include having a sewing machine needle break and pop in and out of my eye, years after having another sewing machine needle jam into my finger as if it were a piece of fabric, bending inside when it hit a bone.

In my defense, however, I must mention that my job demands speed.  I am a medical transcriptionist, sit and type all day transcribing dictation, and I get paid by production.  The more I transcribe, the more I get paid.  Once I start the work day, I'm at breakneck speed until I leave.  Even at lunch, I walk to the cafeteria too fast and eat my food too fast.  I'm on a roll.

And the toll all this speed takes on me is evident from all the above mishaps.   When I race through my 40 hours of work a week, it's hard to slow down for the rest of my off-work hours.   This tendency reveals itself to Ed and me, for instance, in our walking styles.  When I go out to walk/exercise, I like to walk at about 4 mph and get it over with.   Ed likes to stroll, and, gasp!, try to pay attention and enjoy nature.   I'm a hare and I married a turtle.

With all my sticky notes tacked up on every available surface, my to-do lists and calendar appointments, I think the Slow Down sign above should be probably be the top priority reminder for me.  My family already winces when they see me with a needle, knife, or scissors, as well they should.  They flinch when I'm around an open flame.   They even get nervous when I am negotiating around a sharp corner on a piece of furniture or an open drawer.   I think, though, I have hit rock bottom in my addiction to speed.  You know something has got to give when you have to relate to your doctor the story of a massive cruciferous vegetable inflicting head trauma.  I'm already not allowed in the cooking implements aisle, or the office supplies aisle, but I certainly don't want to be banned from the produce section.   Sigh.  Yeah, it's time to slow down.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Our Time Will Come

Role models are so important in our lives.  I have posted before about my being a grandmother, and what role models I had (or didn’t have) to fulfill the responsibilities of my new title.  Now I have a different role - taking care of the needs of my 88-year-old mother, now living with us.
What role model to I have for this position?  Who can inspire me and provide me with the perfect attitude to do this - a mix of patience, love, gentleness, forgiveness, sacrifice, and optimism? Oddly enough, it was my mother herself.  I thought back to how she interacted with her elderly family members, how she handled decisions, how she coped as a caregiver.   Yes, there are my cues.  There in her life is the text for the handbook, “All I Ever Learned about Caring for Old People I Learned From My Mother.”
In the first place, when she and Dad moved into their new small house after 11 years of marriage in the early 1950s, they weren’t alone.  My dad’s mother (Ma-maw to us) moved in with them, and she lived there until she died.  First I came along, and then my sister Joy two years later, and much of our mom’s life consisted of raising her two girls, and dealing with her increasingly debilitated mother-in-law, who eventually just lived in her dark bedroom, having her meals brought to her, arguing about taking her medicine, and needing her potty seat emptied, and all the other demands of infirmity.  It was simple back then; family just took care of you when you needed it.  My mom was a full-time homemaker, so she was home all day and could do it.
After Ma-Maw died, Mom and Dad’s lives were filled with taking care of my maternal grandparents - my grandmother, who had been diagnosed with anorexia and was living in the state mental hospital a couple of hours away, and my grandfather (Paw-Paw), who was in good health but needed help to go to the grocery, visit his wife, etc.  So there were my parents, their weekends already scheduled in, almost all day on Sundays at church, then on Saturdays, chauffeuring my grandfather around town, taking him to lunch, and then every other Saturday, driving to the hospital to visit my grandmother.  It was hard on both my parents to have the responsibilities of their growing daughters and their elderly family members.  I saw my parents worry, I saw them sad, I saw them frustrated, but I never, ever heard a complaint from either my dad, who would have loved to have kept Saturdays for his hobbies or to catch up on reading, or my mom, who would have loved to have relaxed at home with her husband and kids. 
I have to add Aunt Bessie to the mix, of course.  She was my mom’s maternal aunt, a widowed, childless, chain-smoking country woman with a brusque personality and heart of gold.  She had lived in Missouri, but after her husband died, moved to Memphis to be near her only family, which consisted of my mother in Memphis and my uncle in Arkansas.  She was Mom’s responsibility now.   It was Mom who had to help her find assisted housing, it was Mom who was called when Aunt Bessie was discovered giving a bunch of money to a scam artist resident of her apartment complex, and it was Mom who made sure she was picked up and brought to our house for Christmas and Thanksgiving.
First my paternal grandmother died, then my maternal grandmother died, then my dad died, then Paw-Paw died, then finally Aunt Bessie died.  After Dad died, Paw-Paw and Aunt Bessie were totally dependent on newly-widowed Mother to be there for them until they themselves passed.  
All her life Mother has been a caretaker.  She has done this with kindness and compassion and patience and, I’m sure, many sleepless and anxious nights.  She never complained, never questioned why.  She just did it. 
And now it’s her turn to be taken care of.  My sister and I have now each had Mom living in our respective homes, giving her showers, ordering and picking up prescriptions, taking her to the doctor, making sure she eats well, and the worst part - sitting through Lawrence Welk every week - and the whole thing has necessitated great changes in our lifestyle, privacy, marriages, time, and countless other adjustments.  It is not easy sometimes.  Thank goodness Mom, even though physically handicapped now, still has her mind and can do some daily self-care on her own.  I can’t even begin to imagine trying to care for her if she had dementia or if I still had young children in the house.  But I feel blessed that I have had the best caregiver role model I could have.  In all the frustration and busyness of my life now, I am also acutely aware that our kids are looking at Ed and me and absorbing how we are handling all this, for we will undoubtedly be in Mom’s position one day, and they will be caring for us.  I pray that we demonstrate humor, patience, and, yes, sacrifice, in a way to allow them to say, “We know how to be caretakers of those who need us because we watched our parents do it.”  You know the joke - “Be kind to your kids because they’ll choose your nursing home”?  
It all reminds me of an old story:
A highly skilled carpenter who had grown old was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house building business and live a more leisurely life with his family. He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire.
The employer was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter agreed to this proposal but made sure that this will be his last project. Being in a mood to retire, the carpenter was not paying much attention to building this house. His heart was not in his work. He resorted to poor workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.
When the job was done, the carpenter called his employer and showed him the house. The employer handed over some papers and the front door key to the carpenter and said "This is your house, my gift to you."
The carpenter was in a shock! What a shame! If he had only known that he was building his own house, he would have made it better than any other house that he ever built!
Everything we do, we do unto ourselves before it goes out to the world.  Be sure to put love into each of your actions!
We show others how we want to be treated.  Someone is always watching and learning.  You make the world better with your kindness and gentleness, and hopefully those who are watching will extend to you the same courtesy when you need it.  That’s what families are for.  We are all role models.  We will eventually have to live in the houses we build - for God’s sake, let’s make them sturdy. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

What's it worth to you?

The picture above is of my dad, Ensley Tiffin, in 1931 (about 16 years old) working on his stamp collection.  Philately was a hobby he continued to enjoy throughout his whole life.  I never could get interested in it, unfortunately, although I did benefit from his collection when he would let me use an appropriate stamp to supplement a school report (e.g., if I were writing a report on a historical figure, he let me attach one of his stamps honoring that person, which would always impress the teacher).  After a long day's work and after a good supper, Daddy liked few things better than to clear off the dining room table, set out his albums, hinges, and other accoutrements of his hobby, and pore over his stamps.

I remember one day his saying to Mother, "If I die first, don't just toss all this stuff; there might be some valuable stamps in here."  And so it was that after Mother's accident when we were cleaning out her house, my sister and I took Daddy's stamp collection to a local hobby store to get it appraised.   We had no idea if it was worth a lot of money or worth nothing, but we wanted to honor the man who had worked so hard on it all his life, whose eyes lit up at the thought of some free time to enjoy it before life's responsibilities claimed his limited hours, as they always did.

As we lifted the heavy albums from the trunk of the car and took them into the store, we reminisced about how precious these were to Daddy, how we can still picture him totally absorbed in using his tweezers to place the stamps in their appropriate places, how he would occasionally pick a stamp up and talk about it.  We were proud that we were finally following Daddy's wishes of getting a formal appraisal of his collection.  The appraisal visit was disappointing, though - not because the collection was worthless (which it basically was), but because the owner seemed bored, randomly glancing through the books, talking most of the time to another customer while doing it, and never seemed to appreciate the story behind the collection or what it meant to Daddy (who, my sister remembers, had bought a lot of his supplies from that very store through the years).  The owner basically told us that the collection only had sentimental value, and that if we didn't want it, we could try to sell it at a yard sale.  It was a cursory dismissal of one man's lifetime achievement, a hobby in which he invested countless hours and a good deal of money, and which was filled with memories in the minds of his two daughters.  The appraiser did not give enough respect to what we had brought him.  We weren't out for money; we were there to honor our Daddy's story.

So my question is - is the collection worthless or is it really priceless?

I was reminded of that day as I watched the stock market this week tumble, recoup, tumble, up and down and sideways after the debt ceiling fiasco.  It is amazing to me that one day a stock is worth a lot money, and the next day it isn't.  One day you can sell a "collectible" for hundreds of dollars because it is "popular" right now, and the next day you can't even donate it to a charity.  Your house is worth a certain amount and in the next minute, it has lost half its value.  Yet, it's the same stock, the same figurine, the same house.  What gives?

How do we determine what things are truly worth?  Value is so fleeting and unpredictable.  They say something is only worth what someone would pay for it; therefore, the whims of society, fashion, collectors, investors, determine the worth of anything.

But as with the stamp collection, that is just not true.  "Sentimental value" sounds so trite, but sometimes that's the most important value there is.   Have you ever watched Antiques Roadshow and seen the reaction of someone who has been told that his family heirloom is worth a fortune?  You hardly ever hear anyone yell, "Whoohoo!  I'm going to the auction house tomorrow so I can buy that boat I've always wanted!"  Most of the time, they give a big grin, eyes wide in surprise, because their "sentimentally valuable" family heirloom has just been validated in a way by society.  What they knew in their hearts was precious has been verified to have great financial worth.  No matter, they say - it will still remain in the family and passed proudly down from one generation to the next with its accompanying story.

It all makes us want to take the time to figure out what is truly worthy in our lives - not the most expensive thing we own, maybe nothing we can sell or would even want to sell, maybe something nobody else would care about but us.  That stamp collection is priceless because of the story that comes with it, the memories it holds in our hearts, a poignant physical reminder of the man who cherished it, and the fact that we cherish that man.  Physical things are just symbols of what we truly value.  And those values don't change on the whim of the American economy.  Thank goodness!  In the end, they can take away a lot of our material things in this world, they can reduce the value of our house, they can withhold more from my paycheck, but memories?  As the old song goes, "No, they can't take that away from me."

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Staying open

Ed once told me that his late grandmother taught him an valuable lesson and she didn't even realize it.  He observed that when she was younger, she held her faith and beliefs in her fists, tightly grasped with no way for them to be altered or released in any way.  As she got older, he noticed that she had opened her hands, figuratively speaking, becoming willing to accept new ideas, new ways of thinking, and surprises that life had to offer.

We have been told over and over the great truth that it is better to give.  But what we fail to realize is the importance of being able to receive as well.  Some folks find receiving demeaning and beneath them, because in their mind, it is humiliating to be needy in any way.  Ed used to work for a food bank, and ran across several volunteers who were eager to give but balked at receiving.  I was once a member of a church in Memphis (white) that wanted to pair up with a black church of the same denomination for social interaction and mutual enrichment.  Our church leaders brought forth the name of a black church that was equal to our church in finances and membership, but some people in our congregation were unhappy with that pairing.  They didn't want an equal church to be partnered with; they wanted a poor church, and it was obvious that it was not because of a desire to help as it was a desire to be placed in the the superior side of the relationship.  Sometimes it is hard to give and easy to receive; as surprising as it may seem, at other times, it is easy to give and hard to receive.  Anyone who has ever been addicted or financially devastated or depressed or in other ways has exhausted all resources realizes it is so hard to admit, "I could use some help."  It is so much more satisfying to be on the other end - the one who benevolently looks down and smiles, bestowing riches and blessings and feeling all warm and snuggly about it.

Yet, with a closed fist, we can't receive.  With a closed mind, we can't be open to all life has to offer.

I have mentioned before that, as a medical transcriptionist, I was privileged to be in a beta testing last year for some exceptional software called Instant Text.  The version was beyond expectation, and I use it every day for wonderful productivity and accuracy.  Even after the finished product had been put on the market, the company continued to make improvements and offer new powerful features.  Each one I would eagerly embrace and use in various ways.  Then along came one called a Pick List.  I won't go into detail here, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what good it was for.  I assumed other MTs might need it, but I certainly didn't.  I was doing fine without Pick List; I was productive before Pick List ever came along, and I would undoubtedly be fine without it.

What I soon learned astounded me.  After I asked for examples and some clarification of how Pick List would help me, it became an essential in my daily work and now I use it hundreds of times a day!  I thought I knew it all, but I had to open my mind to allow myself to receive - the new feature itself as well as help from other users and suggestions from the software developer.  Now I can't imagine transcribing without Pick List.

Not everyone is like Ed's grandmother.  As we age, a lot of us become rigid in our ideas and refuse to accept even the possibility that we aren't as smart or clever or omniscient as we imagine ourselves to be.  We think we know everything, can't possibly learn anything else, can't possibly need help from anyone, and have put a big fat period at the end of our philosophy of life.  We stay closed to serendipity.  We stay shut to possibilities and we remain locked to ever changing anything.  I get so frustrated with Americans describing politicians who change their minds as "wishy-washy" or "flip-flopping."  Sometimes it is true that elected officials will just change positions with every opinion poll that comes along.  But others may grow, evolve, examine their beliefs and mindsets, and actually change their position on issues because they understand it a different way today than they did yesterday.  It is not an evil thing to change one's mind, as long as one fully admits to doing so and doesn't try to pretend otherwise.

But oh, it can be so hard to be open!  An open hand is so much more vulnerable than a clenched fist, the latter which can make a pretty good weapon.  An open hand is ready to receive - blessings, ideas, assistance, forgiveness, love, and all other good things that we may not even realize we're missing until we see and feel them in our lives.  Sometimes the most surprising exclamation to find yourself saying is, "Wow!  I didn't even know I needed that - but I did!"  The possibilities are around every corner.  Just keep your eyes peeled, and your hands open.  You never know what could fall into them at any moment.

Monday, August 01, 2011

"Get Fit with Josh" - The infomercial

I got to do a new exercise workout Saturday.  It's great for the whole body, but especially for the back.  When I woke up Sunday, I was sore all over, and my lower back was aching.  That's how I knew how extremely effective the new total body workout called "Joshua" was.

The moves are simple but repetitive.  All it consists of is taking a 1-year-old toddler and picking him up and putting him down several hundred times.  For added conditioning, you can carry him around on one hip (that's an almost 57-year-old hip, thank you very much), while keeping your head turned in that direction to look at him.  In addition, you put your body through the paces of the special exercise called "Watch the toddler drop his [insert item here] from the high chair onto the floor and then pick it up for him so he can do it again."  The next move is chasing after him as he crawls around at the speed of light.  No, honey, that's the dog's water bowl.  That's the ash can for the wood stove.  Ewww, that's the dog's squeaky ball, wet and yucky.  Don't touch!  Thanks for finding those dirty places on the floor; I'm sure your parents will love us.

Oh, and I don't want to forget the ultimate back exercise - bending over, taking his little hands in yours, and helping him "walk."  That's a really good one. I can tell I am 8 years younger than Ed, because Ed's back hurt after one or two rounds of this exercise, whereas mine didn't hurt until the next morning.

Of course, I have a special move for this workout that involves lying down on the floor, bending my knees, putting Joshua on my shins, and raising my feet up and down, up and down while holding his hands.  I was so proud that I am still in shape enough to do this - and even prouder that at the end, I could get up from the floor at all.

Those of you who have baby-sat a toddler or, bless your little soul, are raising one or more, you know what I mean.  If you're a grandparent involved in the above fitness regimen, you really know what I mean.  In that case, it's the Senior Olympics.

Of course, it goes without saying that it is all worth it.  Every second of it!  And truly, as soon as can be arranged, we want him back!  Did I say back?  Ouch! wouldn't happen to have a couple of aspirin on you, would you?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ghost of the Future

I try to watch A Christmas Carol every year.  It intrigues me to see the possibilities of transformation that exist within Scrooge just as a result of getting to see the past (through present perpection), present (through extra pereception) and future (through present perception).  Now that Mother has been here over a week, I feel like Scrooge.  I look at her and see the future.  For me.

My prism is not Ghost of the Future, of course.  My prism is what is hereditary versus environmental, using my mantra, Serenity Prayer, as a regulator.  Ed once joked to me that he had read once upon a time a warning to prospective grooms that before you agree to marry a girl, look at her mother, because that is what she will become.  There are even current jokes in the catalogues:  "Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all!"  My sister and I have both had a few occasions where we discover some new little eccentricity or physical aberration of ours and say, "Oh, no!  That's just like Mother!"

I know what I want to inherit from my mom.  I want to inherit her sense that there is good in everyone at some level, her generosity, and her sense of humor.  I don't want to inherit tremors, arthritis, hypertension, macular degeneration, blepharospasm, dental problems, and having to use a walker.  The question I consistently have asked myself this week, using the Serenity Prayer, is how much of this is under my control?  Therein lies the necessity of dealing with the thing realistically and honestly, leaving fear at the door.

Everyone probably has ideas of what they want old age to be for them.  Our generation is certainly more mobile and fit and active than prior generations were in later life.  As Ed says, "My dad would not been able to saw and split wood at 64."  True.  And yet, I see myself in Mother and wonder what the next 30 or so years will do to me.  Will my fingers become misshapen enough that I can't transcribe  or play piano or harp anymore?  Will I too have to give up driving and reading and all the other things that make life convenient and fulfilling?  Will my hand start to tremble when I write my name or lift my fork to my mouth?  How long do I have to live fully and completely without having to park in a handicap spot or use a cane or walker, or, God forbid, wheelchair for mobility?  And more importantly, what changes can I make in my life today that would ameliorate or even eradicate these concerns?

We are all living longer lives, which, as Ed always says, is both a gift and a curse.  At a point, I guess, most of us just give up on the anti-aging creams and potions, dismiss physical appearance in a way, and just concentrate on good health, which is the main thing that will see us through our "golden years."  Mother told me ever since I was born, "If you have your health, you have everything."  I think she is seeing now the truth of her philosophy, and playing the cards life has dealt her in the best way she can (much of the time with humor).

Sometimes it is good to see the future.  Sometimes it is scary to see the future.  Of course, I'm not seeing the future at all; I'm just imaging the possibilities.  I've heard that 99% of what we worry about won't come true.  Yet, I have evidence every day now of many more things to worry about, and it's that 1% that troubles me.

Meanwhile, I have Mama here and I am truly enjoying her presence and laughing with her about old age.  We can both only strive to do the best we can.  I think attitude is the most precious tool we have to get us through.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Trip lessons

As I have mentioned earlier, Ed and I drove to Tennessee to pick up my 88-year-old mother and her dog, Jenny, and drove them and their belongings to Maine to live with us.  It was quite an adventure!  Our requirement of motels with handicap accessibility as well as willingness to let Jenny spend the night with us severely limited our options, but thanks to kindness of strangers and my sister's frantic Internet searches from Memphis, we had excellent accommodations for all three nights on the road.

This was my first experience, however, traveling with a handicapped person and seeing the world from their point of view.  Mom's handicap is due to the cumulative effects of her age, her macular degeneration and eyelid spasms inhibiting vision and making her extremely sensitive to light, her arthritis, the effects of her broken ankle and hip injuries and repairs from her car accident a few years ago, her dependence on a walker to stand and ambulate, and her recent apparent allergic reactions to two antibiotics.  In other words, it was slow going.

I've never had a broken bone or other injury which forced me to use crutches or to have inability to move around normally, and I rarely gave a thought to those who did.  Apparently, neither did a lot of businesses and states when they planned their facilities.  There was a gorgeous rest stop in Tennessee, for instance, full of trees and picnic tables and a nice cabin-like structure.  Oh yes, it had handicap access.  However, there was a long walk required from the handicap parking spaces to reach the building, all uphill, with cracks which tended to catch walker parts, and let me tell you, in near 100-degree weather under a blazing sun, it was unbearable.  I tried to maneuver Mom and her walker and at the same time, held an umbrella over her to protect her from the sun's intolerable heat, but then when we arrived at the door, which required manual opening, I had to leave her standing there, manually open the door, throw the umbrella down inside the building, keep the door open, and guide her through the door.   Fortunately, one of the state workers was kind enough to pick up the open umbrella, close it up, snap it shut, and hand it back to me.

The handicap stall, of course, was the one which required Mom to walk the farthest.  It was not big enough for 2 people, so I had to stand with the door open in order to help her.  Then, after having a little trouble getting her and the walker close enough to the soap dispenser and sink to wash up, we started the long walk back to the car in the sun.

There were variations of this along the trip.  At one McDonald's, the closest door meant Mom walking directly into a drive-thru lane.  The attached gift shop had a handicap ramp that was much too steep and seemed to be built as an afterthought, which required Mom to walk the length of the porch to enter the McDonald's.

On the other hand, there were wonderfully planned motel rooms with rails and shower seats - however, two rooms had beds too high for her to even sit on, much less climb in.  She spent one night in a recliner.

I'll bet if it were required for planners and architects and CEOs to maneuver around just one day in a wheelchair or walker, things would be different.  I tried to do that in our house here, before Mother's arrival.  I took a stool and pretended it was a walker, and "walked" around our house, sitting here, turning there, reaching here, passing there, trying to figure out what we could do to improve things.  Would this rug need to be moved?  Could she reach this shelf?  Would she be able to get out of that chair?  It was an eye-opening experience.  The trip certainly made me reconsider everything I've ever thought about building and access planning.  It's hard enough to be dependent on a walker or wheelchair and feel embarrassed about your shuffling gait or your halting movement; it just makes it worse to have facilities poorly prepared to handle your disability.

And yes, there were also restrictions traveling with a dog, of course.  Jenny, a border collie mix, was the perfect traveler, never whined, never barked, never made a mistake.  But you can't take a dog in a restaurant.  And you can't leave a dog in 98-degree heat parked in the sun.  And many motels will not accept dogs at all.  We had to continually make alternative plans.  Once, Mom and I went in a fast food place and sat in the air condition and ate, while Ed, after having taken Jenny for a short walk, stayed in the car with her and ate his hamburger after we returned to the car.  Another time, we all ate sitting in the car.  At one point, unable to find a motel to accept dogs, Ed was willing to spend the night in the car with her if it was the only way.

I just don't understand it.  More and more people are traveling with pets.  Sometimes it's because the pet is a family member and they don't want to leave it at home.  Other times it is pure necessity, such as, in our case, a move across several states in the summer.  I can understand why restaurants do not allow pets (except service dogs), but why can't there be an area of shade and maybe a water source for dogs somewhere outside the restaurant?  How much would it cost to build some roofs for parking in the shade for cars containing animals?  How about a few shade trees?  What are travelers supposed to do in the heat of summer when it's time to eat and no accommodation for their pet?

It was nice to see rest stops and motels with pet walk areas.  It was good to see handicap parking and ramps and handicap stalls in the bathrooms (even though some were not big enough).  But I can attest that what has been done by government and private industry is not enough to accommodate the disabled traveler and/or their pets.  Any reasonable person, if he/she put himself/herself in the place of someone using a wheelchair or walker or cane, or in the place of someone blind or deaf or missing a limb, or in the place of someone with crippling arthritis who can't turn knobs or switches, could identify areas of improvement.

Listen up, you people who are in charge of these things.  Don't assume that you yourselves will always have the capability to move at the speed to which you are accustomed.  Don't assume you will always be in good health, have good heart and lungs, and two capable legs and two capable arms and fingers and joints that still work.  Don't assume you will always be able to handle the noonday sun,  read a menu,  open a heavy door, or even be able to travel with a bladder that functions appropriately.  As for right now, the Baby Boomers are retiring, we are traveling, many with pets, and we are, yes, getting OLD.   Plan accordingly.  Next time, it may not be your parent or grandparent.  It may be you.

PS - It goes without saying, if you are not handicapped, please do not park in a handicap space...Thank you.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Voices from the Past

I have been immersed in the past.  The cassette tapes you see above are only a fraction of those from years past that I been recently trying to record into the computer for posterity.

I wonder sometimes how archeologists and historians stay focused in the present when so much of their life is dedicated to uncovering the past.  I'm having just as hard a time remembering that it's 2011, I'm 56 years old, with a 64-year-old husband, 2 kids, 3 grandchildren, working as a medical transcriptionist, living on a dirt road in the state of Maine.  It can't be!  Why, I'm really an adolescent talking about our vacation trip to, wait, I'm 15 months old being coached in words by my, sorry, I'm at a family Thanksgiving meal in 1973....  You see my predicament?

My dad, as well as being an ardent creator of home movies, was a fan of the reel-to-reel tapes, and later, cassettes.  He would record everything and anything.  He consistently recorded his beloved choir that he directed, and we have many, many recordings of church services at Easter and Christmas and everything in between.  In addition, after every family vacation trip, sister Joy and I would sit down with Dad in the den, recorder running, and reminisce about the trip from the minute we left Memphis to the minute we got home.  (Mom was usually cooking or washing dishes, but occasionally would stick her head in and contribute to the conversation).  Dad kept detailed records, noting the time we left home as 6:21 a.m., for instance.  Here's a sample conversation from a trip to Florida:

Dad:  "Friday morning we left Perry about 7:00 in the morning, had breakfast down at a truck stop on the way to Tallahassee, and we saw this grove of whatever it was, avocados (looked like green lemons), and...."
Joy:  "And Mama said 'avocados!'"
Dad:  "...It was the color of avocados."
Joy: "And we stopped and we picked up a couple and waved them in the air while we got our pictures taken.   Daddy was going to buy sone pecans, but the man said they weren't good..."
Dad: "...Yes, the man was honest and said if they were any good, he wouldn't be selling them!"
[at this point, extended period of hearty laughter from all present.]
Joy: "Well we tried to find the oranges, and Carol asked the man, 'What is that?' and he said, 'That's tung oil!  Better not get it in your mouth, it's poison!' so we threw it down and Mama said, 'Look!  Pecan trees and peach trees!'"
[again, laughter at the thought of Mama thinking tung oil nut was a pecan or peach]
Dad: "...OK, so Mama doesn't know much about growing things except flowers and grass, maybe..."

Ah, those were good times.  We always have the home movies from the trip, but there's nothing like hearing our young excited voices remembering how much fun we had, Dad with his details (he demanded we do this chronologically!) and, especially the sound of uncontrolled laughter at our antics.

The next tape is of me when I was a toddler.  Dad thought he'd record my vocabulary progress, and I apparently dutifully consented, in between playing with a doll and getting up and down from a chair.
Dad: "It's Thursday, January 19, 1956, Carol is almost 16 months old, and we'll see if she can go through a little of her repertoire for us.  [to me:] "Talk to us.  Can you say Mama? Let's hear you say Mama. "
[I sneeze twice, then say Mama.]
"That's good!  What else?  Can you say Daddy?"
I say Daddy.
"That good!  Can you say bird?"
How about...can you say apple?
We went through chair, ball, Paw-Paw, diaper, tea, water, bread.  Then:
"Is your name Carol Jeanette Tiffin and do you live at 435 Josephine?"
I replied, "Yes," and he said, "Yes! That's right!"
Dad always used his quiet, encouraging little voice. He didn't believe in baby talk.  He always talked to us as if we were older and as if we could understand everything he said.

Joy would later graciously transfer several of these reel-to-reel tapes onto cassette tapes, and now I am transferring them to digital recordings, just as we had taken the reel home movies and transferred them to VHS and then DVD.

Fast forward to 1973.  Reel-to-reel was archaic, and technology had changed to cassette tapes, so we would frequently just turn on the tape player while we were having a holiday meal.  The first thing you hear is Joy's voice, "Anybody else need anything?" - always the hostess.  Then various sounds of silverware on dishes, clanking, general noises of a meal, and then all of a sudden, you hear a xylophone.  Well, it sounds like a xylophone, but I'll let you in on a secret - It's Paw-Paw, my grandfather, hitting glasses with a spoon to play a tune.  He loved trying out his talent on glasses which were partially filled with liquid to varying levels.  Then my mom says to me, "I want you to play something for Paw-Paw.  He hasn't heard you play in so long, it's pitiful."  Paw-Paw says, "Sure!" so I know right after the meal I would head to the piano to perform for my Paw-Paw, who had mastered piano playing by ear and who was always so proud of Joy and me as we followed in his musical footsteps.

These are just a sample of what I am reliving this week.  It's a very cathartic experience, and a deeply satisfying one.  I sigh a lot.  I had such a wonderful childhood.  In a way, it disturbs Ed, though.  He thinks I may be trying to escape into the past because I prefer that life to my present one with him.  Of course, that's not the case, as I love my present life, but it made me think.  What is it about the past that I find so comforting?  When we're kids, those days are called "carefree" because they were - CARE-FREE.  We didn't worry about bills or income or taxes, we didn't worry about food prices or gas prices or if we had the capability of taking care of the older ones in the family.  We didn't worry about our kids or grandkids or how we could afford a new washing machine or any of that stuff.  We were young, naive, innocent, in a home filled with love where other people did all the worrying and fretting.  It was not a life preferable to my present one - but it was in its own way a time and place that deserves honor and remembering.

We once had a 104-year-old parishioner who couldn't remember what she had for breakfast that day but could recite with clarity and accuracy songs she learned when she was 5.  Sometimes it seems that the older we get, the more we tend to live in the past.  Well, if our lives were a pie chart, the past would represent most of it at this point, wouldn't it?  I listen and try to remember that little toddler learning her words, the adolescent on vacation, the 19-year-old at Thanksgiving (in less than a year I would be married).  I close my eyes and try to remember.

As we are getting ready next week to drive to Memphis and bring Mother and her dog up here to Maine to live with us, I am also reminded that these recordings are poignant not only because of who I was back then, but who everyone else was.  Dad died in 1980, Paw-Paw died in 1983, and Mother, who used to cook and clean, bustling around the kitchen to make sure everyone ate well, is now dependent on a walker and someone else cooks for her and makes sure she eats well.  Life is change, and change eventually comes full circle.

But still I remember.