Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Luck Factor: I Won A John Geci Bowl at a Raffle!"

I won a door prize when I was twelve. My mother had insisted I take an eight-week class in ballroom dancing. For the last class they brought in a band, we all dressed up and there were ice cream sandwiches, lemonade and door prizes. When they called my name for a prize I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Then, with great fanfare they presented me with a rectangular wooden box full of pansy plants. Today I would be delighted with such a prize, but as a budding adolescent, I would have preferred a rhinestone tiara.

When I was thirty-three I won a cart full of groceries. I went to the grand opening of the first American-style supermarket near our home in Guatemala City and stocked up on all the specials. My children loved the little individual cans of Kern’s apricot juice available there and I had asked for a case, but they were sold out. As I was a checking out an alarm clock went off, and the clerk told me I did not have to pay for the groceries. The cash register showed over fifty dollars. That was a lot of money in 1965, and as the store manager’s face fell, I heard him say in Spanish, “Thank God we were out of apricot juice.”

Aside from a few awards and prizes—which I earned—that is the extent of my luck as far as beating the odds to win a raffle. That is, until last Saturday night. I buy tickets, never expecting to win. I do it because I am a friend of the person selling them, or because I am committed to the cause the proceeds will support. This time I was the person selling and the cause was a sound system for Polly and the Posse, the music performance group headed by my granddaughter-in-law. She and her cohorts have created their own version of “hickster jive.” Polly is also a glassblower, and her many craft-artist friends donated enough work that there were over fifty winners. They sold a lot of tickets.

So here’s the amazing part. I’m at the age in life where I have plenty of stuff including a modest art collection. I figured if I won something I would use it for a gift. But there was one particular blue glass bowl that caught my eye and I briefly thought, “now that I would really like to win.” The raffle was held as part of a big party with lots of Posse music before and afterwards plus plenty to drink and nibble on. I knew it would be energetic and entertaining, but also long, loud and late. Certain that I wouldn’t win anything, I decided to stay home, tune my Bose to the classical music station turned down low, and read my upcoming book club selection, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. The next morning when I got the glowing report from Tammy (my daughter-in-law) on the event—a smashing success—she added, “…and you won something, the John Geci bowl.”

Not only had I won a raffle, I had won the blue bowl! It is even lovelier than the picture. While it looks massive, it is lightweight and when the sun shines through the bowl, it dances a little on the way. I dance a little too when I walk past it.

I have been following the basketball March Madness a little more than usual this year because once again Butler is in the running; my granddaughter Lydia is a junior there. So I paid attention to an analyst on NPR who was giving a rundown on the assets of the final four. After lots of basketball detail that I didn’t understand, he said “Then, of course, there is always the luck factor.” He went on to explain that some teams just seem to have more good luck than others. Bathed in a feeling of being lucky, I paused to contemplate his commentary. I have lived my life as an optimist, expecting things to work out. I was certainly lucky in love and my adult life has been full of happy turns of fate; I tend to remember those things. I don’t dwell on the broken bones and weird illnesses I have endured or on the occasional mishaps with cars. When there are near misses or minor calamities in my life, I am apt to say to myself “Well, nothing really bad happened.” That means no one was killed, a house didn’t burn down or I can mend the tear in my favorite blouse.

In 1976 I went back to Guatemala in the wake of an earthquake in which 25,000 people were killed, and the devastation was greatest for the poorest people. We still owned a little vacation house near Lake Atitlan. It was badly damaged and I needed to tend to it. I also wanted to check on friends, including Lorenza, who had worked for me when we lived there a decade earlier. As I sat with her family in a makeshift lean-to constructed from the remnants of a tin roof found in the rubble, they told me all the earthquake jokes and laughed joyfully as they said, “No one in our family died.” In Japan today where both the known damage and the threat of a worse nuclear calamity are beyond easy comprehension, people are told to stay calm. Everyday in all parts of the world people are finding ways to cope with what seems like incredible bad luck.

“It’s not fair,” my children would say when they were little.
“Life’s not fair,” I would answer.

The truth is stuff just happens all the time: sometimes it is incomprehensible and leaves me aching with sadness, sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it has a little help along the way. So my thanks go to Polly and the Posse for bringing music and fun and a raffle into our lives here in the mountains; to John Geci for making and donating a bowl that sunlight can dance through; and to the person who pulled my ticket from the hat.

As for the Butler Bulldogs, I hope they have a very large luck factor.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Finding Life in the Balance, or Vice Versa

Almost every day I was on Tybee Island, I walked past this palm tree cum hula dancer in the next block down the road. Many houses there display bits of whimsy that bring a smile to my face, while others with graceful landscaping, give the gift of beauty. Young children, boisterous adolescents and gray-haired elders whiz by on bicycles and I meet the same range of ages out walking dogs. Either intentionally or in response to an unnoticed need, we all seek balance in our lives.

This winter I received news of three friends who had bad falls with major consequences to their long-term well-being. Each of them, for various reasons, lost their balance. I have gotten several updates on these brave women and their determined efforts to return to full mobility; all are making progress but recovery will take most of a year. Although I have been aware of the need to pay attention to balance as we age, after hearing about these disastrous accidents, I started noticing my little missteps or small foot quivers on uneven ground, or a lurch with hands jutting forward and up as I teetered on the edge of a step. Even though infrequent, these moments started me thinking that I should give more attention to improving my physical balance.

One morning in February I received an email  from Feldenkrais Resources (feldenkraisresources.com) advertising new products and some special prices. I looked to see what was on offer and there I found a 6 CD set of a workshop on balance held in Lucerne, Switzerland last year. “Balance -- or the lack of it describes how you are, both physically and emotionally,” said the blurb. I ordered the set and began to do the lessons. Each hour-long CD has a movement exercise and some discussion with the participants at the end. The teacher ended his short introduction on Disc One with the statement “We only attend to our balance when we lose it.”

Naturally I went to my dictionary and was astounded by how many inches are given to balance. A few things struck me in particular: equilibrium; stable mental, physical, psychological or emotional state; a harmonious arrangement; and equality of totals in the debt and credit sides. “When you talk about balance, it becomes a thing,” said the instructor in one lesson. Yet we can’t see it or even locate it although I believe we are well aware if we are in a balanced state or not. What I have been wondering about is to what extent one manifestation of balance affects another Are we more apt to trip and fall, if we are emotionally or psychologically out of balance, or conversely does an equilibrium of the soul make for a steadier gait?

After three months away at the beach, I traded the balance and beauty of sand and sea for the glory of mountains harmoniously surrounding a river valley. I am happy to be home but it was not without upheaval, and although I have not fallen, nor even lurched, I have felt off balance. As a matter of fact it is not so uncommon for things—especially if they are beyond my control—to affect my non-physical equilibrium. When my husband Bill was alive, he was the perfect counterbalance whenever my life was out of kilter and I was the same for him.

Part of learning to live alone is finding new ways to bring ourselves back into balance. Some of mine are walking, doing the garden chores I can still manage, listening to music, meditating, being with friends and family, playing with my dog Nigel, cooking an Indian meal, and reading a good book. As for the physical part I try both to reduce hazards and also practice Awareness through Movement. That's the term used for the Feldenkrais lessons, which are definitely having a good effect.  

But when I walk, I use my trusty Leki stick with its handsome rosewood top.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Coming Home: Roses and All My Stuff

When I arrived home from Tybee last night, I walked into my beloved little house and saw that Tammy had gotten a miniature yellow rose plant for me. The pot is wrapped in shiny paper the same shade as the flowers, making it look sunny . It is sitting in the middle of a small cherry side table. Today, every other surface is piled high with boxes, mail and all the stuff that came back with me from Tybee. The roses are keeping me steady and calm. Many years ago when I gave birth to my third child in four years, my mother gave me some advice. “Pick one room in your house and keep it clean and neat all the time. When life is bedlam, go sit in that room for a few minutes.” Several today I sat in the chair next to the roses for a few minutes of peace.

Last Friday I met with the Tybee book club, known as The Book Belles. It was a gracious evening with a perfect light supper—a spanakopita pie, green salad with nuts and dried fruit, a large glass bowl of fragrant sliced strawberries and blueberries and a feather-light cupcake for dessert. Beginning with the wine and hors d’ouvres, continuing throughout the meal and for a half hour afterward, we talked about Decrescendo, which they had all read. There were many questions and comments, with much of the focus on the first part of the book, which is called “Before Diagnosis.” The conversation was challenging for me in the best sense of that word. The women were sensitive, perceptive and engaged. I was honored and chose to count it as the perfect endpoint of my three-month retreat from winter.

For the next two days, I packed and cleaned and prepared myself for the trip home. Robin and Tammy arrived Saturday night. In the morning they feasted at the Breakfast Club, walked on the beach and loaded their little two-seater hybrid with some of my stuff (including the sewing machine, Bose radio and the computer) and Tammy left at noon. I had taken too much with me, back when three months seemed like a very long time. I celebrated Christmas and my birthday on Tybee, and on those occasions, an emersion blender, a memory foam for the bed in my beach cottage, books and other gifts were added to the pile. Nigel travels lighter than I do, but he had a travel crate, which he slept in, his dog dishes, basket of toys and a small bag with his toiletries, so to speak. I had tried to use up the food in the house, but I was entertained a couple of times in the last week and wound up with a box of staples and seasonings, a box of crackers, cereal, rice, jams and peanut butter plus a cooler full of things from the refrigerator.

I had brought bulky down comforters for my bed and the guest bed. Robin stuffed them in vacuum storage bags along with my down coat and bathrobe and reduced everything to two little wrinkled packages using the suction from the vac. I never thought he would get everything in the car, but he did as you can see in the picture he took when we arrived home. We went to bed early and made a farewell trip to the Breakfast Club in the morning, walked the dog and bid our farewell to Tvbee Island until next year. Now I have to put all the stuff away and unclutter the rest of the room to look like the table with the roses.

Last night, I found my nightgown (in a suitcase), slippers (in the shoe bag), tooth brush (in the tote bag) and released my down comforter and bathrobe from their suction prison and watched them slowly re-puff. I cleared a path to the bathroom so I wouldn’t trip in the night, advanced the clock (still on standard time) and climbed gratefully into my bed, leaving most of the work for today.

I’m going to digress and tell you about my bed. After Bill died, I decided to let go of the large queen-sized bed, which took up an entire corner of my 20” x 30” living space. I wanted to replace it with a single bed, thus making room for a writing desk. I went to the local hardware and furniture store, run by the father of an actress who had done several shows with Bill. I chose a bed and he said they would deliver it the next day. When he came, he did not bring the bed I had chosen. Instead there was a much better one, obviously more expensive, with a fourteen-inch mattress on top of generous box springs that makes the bed rather tall. He explained that he had made a special order for someone who then changed her mind; he decided that instead of shipping the bed back, he was going to give it to me for the price of the one I selected. “Bill did so much for this town with his music, the Parkway Playhouse and everything else he took part in. I know he never got paid much. I just decided that you should have this bed with my thanks for all Bill meant to us.” One of the best parts of coming home from anywhere is climbing back into my wonderful bed. I always whisper thanks to the donor and to Bill.

All the personal letters, tax information and bills to be paid had been sent to me in Georgia. But there was a mountain of catalogs, magazines and other mail awaiting my return. It took me an hour to go through it all this morning, most of it was thrown out unopened: surveys, pleas for money from political parties and charities of every kind, newsletters, annual reports and a dozen larger envelopes from one or another nonprofit with a gift of mailing labels bearing various versions of my name. I looked around the room to decide what to do next and said aloud, “Stuff and nonsense.”

Then, of course, I got curious about that funny expression and Googled it. The first time it appeared in writing was in The Times (London), June 1827 and attributed to Mr. Pitt when he declared in a parliamentary debate, “… all notions of concerting and of dictating to the King in the exercise of his prerogative, was mere stuff and nonsense.”

It is easy for me to conclude that it makes no sense to have taken so much stuff. I took more than I needed, even though I used everything I took, but I made work for my loved ones by transporting it to Tybee and back. I hope I won’t do that next year. After all, the important things that I brought home with me are my good health; the memory of visits with Celo friends and family from Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia; the casual chats with the owners at the dog park; the sunsets, sunrises, moonrises and play of light on the ocean and the beach; the quiet days of reading, writing, sewing, knitting, walking with Nigel and always contemplating life; and, at the end, the lovely faces of the book belles as they asked their searching questions.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why, Oh Why, Do I Love Tybee?

I just got home from the Tybee Dog Park. On the way, I stopped at the post office where I was greeted by the cheerful voice of the clerk saying, “Hello Mrs. Dreyer. How are you today?” From there I drove out to the Lighthouse on the north side of Tybee to scope out a restaurant where I’m having dinner with friends tonight. I‘ve never been there before, so I wanted to locate it by daylight. Then I stopped by the Park, which is nearby. Nigel played with five dogs and I chatted with four owners. Although a bit windy, it was another glorious blue-sky day.

This is the last time I’ll write a blog post from Tybee, and the first thing I’ve written about this appealing island, which in the winter feels to me like an ordinary low country town. I am often asked by friends and family, “Why Tybee?” The ones who come to visit me here quickly understand. But for the rest of you, I have made a little list.

There are 3,000 year-round residents and most of the people I’ve met have chosen to move here after a number of visits and seem totally contented. I’ve never encountered the same kind of enthusiastic friendly people as I have found here, not only at the Post Office but at the Tybee Food Market, all the little shops near the beach, restaurants, gas stations and, of course, the dog park. There is a great deal of civic involvement in keeping the town the way it has been for many years and at the same time promoting tourism with many funky events.

Savannah is just down the road and it is a beautiful city. Yesterday, Tybee inaugurated a shuttle service. For $ 3.00 each way, you can ride to the Visitor’s Center in Savannah in the morning and back home in the afternoon. Recently, a discontented waitress told me she was leaving Savannah because there was nothing to do but eat and shop. Actually there are many museums, galleries, historic buildings, houses and parks—both large and small—with walking paths and benches. There is a section along the river with a park, many restaurants and shops so that even eating and shopping can be done in beautiful surroundings.

The ecology and biodiversity of the island makes daily walks a thing of wonder. In the neighborhood where I live in the winter, I walk out the door and into the same kind of tree canopy that I first saw on Cumberland Island. Magnificent live oaks, palmettos southern pine trees, and flowering trees of many sorts. Some yards are veritable gardens and others have simple foundation plantings, but there is an abundance of camellias, azaleas and roses. A Rails-to-Trails walking path several miles down the road takes you through the marshes in the company of all kinds of waterfowl. I am three blocks from the ocean and about a ten-minute walk to the river. Tybee Island is on the Savannah River and separated from the mainland by a large expanse of saltwater marsh. The sunset view I like the best is one that overlooks a marshland just a mile from my house.

My cottage is just two blocks from The Breakfast Club, a restaurant which boasts a line for breakfast every weekend all year and many weekdays in season. In the winter it is also a local hangout where everyone knows the wait-staff and the cooks, and all the diners are treated like family. The breakfasts are amazing, and the beach is just one block away and invites a postprandial walk.

I mentioned the Tybee Dog Park already, but it makes my list twice: once for Nigel. who gets good exercise and makes it very clear when I park the car how excited he is to be there. The second time is for me because of the welcome, low-key social interaction I have with the random group of owners. There is a couple, who run a consulting business, which they say can be done anywhere; they just need a computer and a telephone. They have Max, a malamute, and Little Bit, a chalk white bichon poodle. I was talking with the wife about the easy conversation among the folks on the benches as dog owners chatted and basked in the warm sun. She told me they wouldn’t miss their afternoon break at the park. “It is our social life,” she said. I don’t know many human names although I know all the dog names, but it is a lovely group of all ages, diverse personalities and a wide range of professions and vocations. I think people who have dogs and care enough about them to go to dog parks are a very nice breed themselves.

The final, and primary thing on my list, is the ocean. If you’ve read my book you know how going to the shore (as we call it in New Jersey) or the beach has always been a solace and a pleasure for me. When I was growing up we made occasional off-season trips to the shore and I fell in love with the gray ocean and the empty beaches of winter. Tybee beaches with protected dunes and enforced regulations designed to keep them clean are quite beautiful. At the end of every street there is a boardwalk on to the beach and a bench-type swing close to each entry point. It’s never crowded during the months that I am here.

I’m ready to go back to my beloved mountain home. But you may be sure that I’ll be back on Tybee next year.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Wisdom of the Zigzag: Lesson from a Greek Grandma

I woke up this morning thinking about book marketing and what path I was trying to follow, when the thought popped in my head, “It is a zigzag path.” In seconds I was on the island of Serifos in Greece at sundown.

At an auction in support of the Arthur Morgan School, an alternative middle school in Celo, Bill and I bought the right to use a house on the highest point on the small Greek Island of Serifos. We offered $20 to start the bidding and no one else made another bid. A year later in 1986 we embarked on a European adventure: by train from London to Paris, Vienna, Zagreb and Split in Yugoslavia. From there we took a boat to Corfu, another one to Athens, and finally, the weekly boat to Serifos. We knew nothing about this house except how to get there and where the key was hidden. It turned out there was an occasional small bus that made the trip up to a village on the top of a very high hill. But most of the time we had to walk using alternating paths and stairs, about 30 minutes down to the town and beach and at least 45 minutes back home, where we were rewarded with a breath-taking 360-degree view. A level plaza was surround by a small Greek Orthodox chapel, a tiny store, a restaurant with three tables overlooking the valley below, and half dozen houses: one of them was ours.

We planned our days very carefully, but usually we made our way down to the town and on to the beach. One day we waved at a fisherman and he stopped scrubbing his boat and motioned us to come on board. With his few words of English, lots of pantomime and Bill’s incomparable nonverbal communication, we understood that he was inviting us to something on the other side of the island. There would be food and dancing, and he wanted us to be at the boat by 9:00 the next morning. When we arrived at the dock there were several other passengers from different countries and using Spanish we learned a little more. There was a church of particular importance to the fishing community, which had an annual celebration, some kind of blessing. It took us an hour to get there under sail and for another hour we wandered around and smiled at people. There was nothing there but the church with a patio and living quarters for a priest. Finally the outdoor service began with lots of incense and chanting. Then we were invited to sit at a long table and served a divine meal of some kind of yellow lentil soup, plates of olives, feta cheese, wine and bread. After that everyone unrolled blankets for a siesta. Some were produced for us and we had a welcome nap.

Music began and people started to dance and the sun moved lower in the sky. We found our fisherman and learned to our surprise that the boat would not return to town until the next morning; he pantomimed that they would sing and dance and drink wine all night. We also learned that many people had walked from Chora (the town) and we could walk back. It was five miles, but Bill’s daily cardiac walk was four miles and neither of us was daunted by the distance. I was worried that we had no flashlight. When there are no streetlights, darkness envelops the world soon after the sun goes down.

We started out at dusk and soon realized there was no path and the terrain was uneven as we climbed down into gullies and up the other side. There were sudden steep downhill grades and small hills to climb. An old grandmother—with two teen-aged grandchildren helping her—was one of the few who was walking as slowly and carefully as we were. At the first steep decline the trio had paused while there was a rapid argument in Greek punctuated by the word ziggy-zaggy, the only thing we understood. Grandma won and they started out not straight down the hill but in a slow weave forward while going first to the right and then to the left. Since they had a flashlight, we followed in their footsteps and discovered it really was less tiring. Each time we came to a substantial grade, either up or down, Grandma announced in a big voice, Ziggy-zaggy! and we followed the march. The night was moist and there was a chill in the air, but we were warm from the walking, and it felt like a blessing when a breeze touched out cheeks. It did not seem long until we saw the lights of town twinkling in the distance.

Knowing we had ahead of us another strenuous walk straight up the steep hill to our tiny village home, we opted for a leisurely dinner in Chora. It had been the most amazing day of the trip. We boarded the boat at nine AM and were home about eleven. During that time we had no idea where we were or what was going on and had to intuit most of the information we gathered. People had welcomed us with their eyes and gestures and had fed us well, providing bread for the walk home. At the end a Greek grandmother had taught us about using a zigzag maneuver to conserve our strength and be a little kinder to our hearts and knees.

In his last years until Bill could no longer walk at all, we wove our zigzag way up the steepest hill on our daily Grindstaff Road constitutional, sharing memories of Serifos.

It was when I began to observe my life in preparation for writing a memoir that I could see some of the same zigzag patterns in our decisions, especially in the later years when the daily agenda was of our own making. Each soft zig or zag crosses the center where we could, if needed pause and rest. For me it is a pattern that responds to the reality of aging. Straight ahead at full speed is no longer an option, but there are great blessings to be found in the zigzag, including a good look at both sides of the road, the path, or the daily activities. It puts more value in how one makes the journey and less in the destination.