Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rediscovering Reading and Celebrating a New Home for the County Library

“What have you been doing beside exercises and walking?” The spirited therapist had just finished our last in-home session and was making notes on my progress in recovering from knee surgery.

'It’s a funny thing,” I said in response to her question. “I have no desire to go anywhere or do anything. I am contented to stay home and read.”

She packed up her bag and stood up to go, but paused and said, “In the next few days, I think you should have an outing. If someone invites you to go somewhere, say yes.” I related this to my daughter-in-law Tammy and asked her to let me know if there was something interesting going on.

So it was that Sunday afternoon, she and my son Robin took me to the Grand Opening of the Yancey County Library. It had just moved into the newly renovated Yancey Collegiate Institute (YCI) building, which had once offered secondary education  before it was publicly provided.  A modern, state-of-the-art library, complete with an extensive computer lab and teleconferencing technology is now located in a designated historic district. Although the YCI building, now registered as historic, was donated for this new purpose, completing the renovations took ten years. The successful completion was achieved by the unrelenting optimism and vision of Theresa Coletta, the former regional librarian who headed the Library Expansion Project; the work of several sets of county commissioners of both parties; the sustained commitment of the library board and the project volunteers; and the combination of government, foundation and organization grants and individual donations.

It was a hot day, but there was a breeze and folding chairs under the shade of an ancient tree. A local soprano with an amazing voice touched my heart as she sang the National Anthem. Speeches were inspiring and folksy by turn and everyone who needed to be thanked, was. I saw many friends and enjoyed being there, especially since I have had a lifelong love affair with libraries.

 When I was eight I got my first library card, good only for children’s books. The Glenside Public Library was housed in the basement of the bank building. Wide marble steps led down to the cool room that smelled of a mixture of book paste, dust and a faint overlay of mold. By the age of ten, I was a volunteer and had learned to restack the books. I also earned a Girl Scout badge in bookbinding and spent long hours helping the librarian mend torn volumes.

After Bill and I were married, our first home was in Browns Mills, New Jersey. Bill had been sent to Fort Dix for twelve weeks of Band School and we were lucky enough to find a tiny attic apartment in this bucolic crossroads. As we were talking to our prospective landlord, I asked, “Is there a library?”  He assured me that there was. It was named for the man who had willed his book collection to the town and located in a small room on the side of a nearby building. It was only open a few hours a day, several days a week and was entirely run by volunteers. Everything had been coded to the Dewey Decimal System and many additional books had been donated. It was a treasure trove of arcane titles.

Bill left at 5:30 AM five days a week to get to the base in time for morning exercise and was there until suppertime. I made a few friends, took a free painting class, experimented with cooking, and read hour after hour, making frequent trips to the mini-library. When Bill graduated from Band School he was posted to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, where the library was larger and much more conventional, but equally important to my well-being. We moved nine times in the first five years we were married and getting a library card was always the first order of business once we found a place to live.

In the past few years, my eyes succumbed to cataracts and gradually reading became difficult as I waited for them to be ripe enough for eye surgery. I got out of the habit of reading although I kept up with the monthly selection of the Celo Book Group. I was spending much of my time writing my own book and replaced hours of reading with Netflix and audiobooks. Last year I had both eyes restored with lens implants and once again saw the beauty of our Technicolor world, which had turned brownish without my full awareness. Even though I gloried in my improved vision, I continued with my new habits and did not make a dent in the pile of books I planned to read someday.

That all changed with my knee surgery. I have rediscovered what fun it is to sit in the shade of a tree on a summer day and lose myself in Ondaaje’s Divisadero or curl up in my recliner during a thunderstorm and devour an intriguing new book on writing. Hence it was more than appropriate for me to make my first outing after my total knee replacement to the Yancey County Library, which similarly had just finished a total facility replacement, and to celebrate the fact that the YCI building is once again a center for learning.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sports: Women's World Cup Soccer and Personal Bests

My summer time neighbor Carol does not have a TV. She called me last week to ask if she could come and watch the Women’s World Cup soccer match at my house. She offered to bring something delicious for afternoon tea at the halftime. In general, I am not a sports fan and I had never seen a soccer game from start to finish. But I had been paying attention to the progress of the USA team as reported in the evening news and thought that perhaps it was high time I watched a match, so I said “Yes, indeed.”

For about 35 years, I have never missed watching the Olympics, both winter and summer, but I am really only interested in the individual sports: gymnastics, swimming and diving, track and field, skateboarding, ice skating, and skiing. I realize that the participants from one country are called a team, but it is the striving for a personal best that captivates me. I have always been fascinated by what people can perfect with their body through discipline, determination and single-minded hard work. Probably my fascination is because I have had so little success in the physical department. I have been a swimmer since childhood, but neither accomplished nor fast. I have walked for recreation and exercise all my life, but anybody can do that. I also have been faithful to Yoga, but the corpse pose is the only one I can do to perfection.

Team sports doubtless demand the same kind of intensity and discipline as individual sports, but it seems to me that games or matches become about winning with the focus on the competition. It has always bothered me that in order for your team to win, someone else’s team has to lose. Part of my outlook on life has been that for me the only worthy competition is me against my own potential. I worked hard to get good grades in school, but never minded the C that I always got in Physical Education. If I am knitting a sweater, I aim for perfection. If I set out to learn about something that interests me, I want to learn everything I can about it. Once it was Henry the Eighth who caught my attention and after six months of having to listen to my juicy stories about the randy king, my husband Bill banned the subject in his presence, and told me it was time to move on. It probably was.

But team sports just never made it on to my list of things I wanted to learn about, Fortunately, I do know quite a bit about soccer, mainly from books I’ve read where soccer was an element in a story, and from three years in Guatemala when it was always a topic at the dinner table in any home I visited.

When the day came, we watched the pre-game features and I was quickly captivated by the Japanese women, who made it to the finals in spite of an uneven record. There were many references to how much they had done for morale in their beleaguered homeland and how people all over Japan were getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the match. Several individual players were featured and there was also a story about the teams’ search for a tall goalkeeper.

There were also stories about individuals on the USA team, what they had accomplished, hurdles they had jumped, injuries that had suffered. And I soon realized that they were not just a team; they were also athletes trying for their own personal best.  I was torn before the game even started. I knew that if the Japanese team won, the nation would have something to celebrate and feel good about, but they would wake up the next morning and face the endless ramifications of a natural disaster followed by a nuclear nightmare. At least they would have had that moment of joy.

But I also wanted to see a win for the USA women who had done such a spectacular job of rising to the top to compete in the finals.

The game started and immediately my stereotypical idea of a team sport was upended. The scene on my TV was quite beautiful. A pristine green ground was marked with white lines and two white net goal areas. Tall, beautiful and mostly blonde or brown-haired American women in sleek white uniforms moved gracefully up and down the field. In bright blue, with uniformly black hair, the somewhat shorter but equally beautiful Japanese women moved with speed and determination. When I heard matches on the radio in Guatemala as my children listened, I imagine hot, sweaty, dirty players on a dusty brown field. This setting was aesthetically the opposite, except perhaps for the sweat.

We had our proper afternoon tea at the half time. Carol brought chopped fresh peaches and I had a tinned gluten-free chestnut cake that my daughter Melissa had brought me from London. I added some blueberries to the peaches and put them over the cake and topped it off with fragrant raspberry Kefir. As we ate the dessert and drank excellent black tea, we talked about the mixed feelings that came from rooting for both teams.

For the final moments of the game I was glued to the screen watching every nuance and facial expression, almost holding my breath. I wanted victory for both teams. In the end the USA was less than perfect with the penalty kicks and a Japanese player propelled one cleanly in the goal area and they won fair and square.

Several American athletes spoke to TV interviewers and all expressed admiration for the Japanese women and the game they had played. The handshakes and other interactions between the teams seemed more than just good sports manners.

As I work to rebuild the strength in a leg traumatized by major surgery and get a revised knee structure to bend and straighten, I have sets of exercises to do several times a day. Some of them can only be done by working through pain. That night I sat on the edge of my bed and thought about the years of training and commitment that are necessary to become a world-class athlete. I swung my legs up on the bed and gave it all I had and hit the marks set out for me. It was my own little personal best.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

X-Ray, Scars and Deep Emotions

After 27 days, first at the hospital and then in the rehab center, I came home last Saturday to the quiet beauty of my own little spot on this earth. My little house enveloped me in the peace and joy of 33 years of memories and love.

I am sporting a new working knee and a new scar. The bright white portions of the digital x-ray are the metal caps the surgeon attached to the two leg bones that meet at the knee. In the dark space between them there is a pad of a plastic material that does the work formerly done by my cartilage, which had worn out over time
The new external addition to my left leg is a very straight narrow pink line that bisects the knee from top to bottom. Along each side of the line is a row of evenly spaced dots where the staples were. It looks like a doodle drawn by someone with both fanciful and perfectionist inclinations.

I already had three scars on my left leg and each had a story. They were all acquired by the time I was eleven. That year in school we were given an outline diagram of the body to take home so our parents could use it to indicate the location of all scars and birthmarks to help identify our bodies in the event of an air raid. I lived only 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and Nazi U-boats had been sighted not far off the Jersey shore. Air raid drills and other preparations increased. I remember I was glad I had some scars so my body could be identified.

I was five when I fell out of a tree and landed on a broken milk bottle hidden in the dead leaves beneath and acquired a jagged line near my ankle, still visible today. A straight, neat scar in my groin reminds me of my first encounter with ether when an abscess in a lymph node required an incision so it could be drained and scraped clean.

But the third sort-of-scar on my left leg is one that I became very fond of. In fact after the recent knee surgery I  checked to make sure it was still there. It happened on a chilly day and I was wearing a gray cloth hand-me-down coat that came just below my knees. I was on my way to a violin lesson. I had walked a mile to the bus stop and was waiting for the hourly bus to nearby Jenkintown. The right pocket of the coat had a hole and a pencil had worked its way through it and fallen inside the lining to the hem. When the bus arrived and heaved to a stop with noisy brakes, I picked up my violin case and hurried to the steps. Suddenly I felt a jab and then pain at the inside edge of my left knee. I got on the bus, sat down and saw a puncture mark and a bit of blood, and some swelling was starting. The stern teacher washed and bandaged it when I got to her house, and then she proceeded with the lesson.

It turned out that the whole tip of the pencil had broken off in my knee as it got jammed between my legs when I stepped up onto the bus. My mother removed three pieces of wood and a small piece of graphite from the wound over the next few days. It had gotten infected, and I even missed a day of school. What is left on my knee is a small dot of gray from the graphite that has remained there for 68 years. I guess it is rather like a tattoo. From time to time doctors examining my legs for one reason or another have  asked about it, and it has tickled me to tell the story. Alas the mark has faded a little with time, but it is still there. The violin lessons, however, didn’t take very well, and the instrument finally found a home with a more worthy student.

My revised, improved and newly decorated knee is doing very well. While I don’t feel totally recovered from the surgery and I still have many weeks of physical therapy ahead of me, I adapted quickly to the increased weight of my leg and I am walking with ease.

I have often come home after absences of a month or more and I am always happy to be here. But this time the emotions were deeper at least in part because I had spent time in the rehab wing of a nursing home. The combination of a major surgery to fix a problem caused by aging, and the stark reminder that some of the problems that come in later life cannot be fixed, made home infinitely more precious to me. In addition I walked into a clean and beautiful space made safe by my son Robin and his wife Tammy. They took the checklist of potential hazards given to us by the hospital and made certain that everything was ready for me to come home to heal and grow stronger. Soon friends were calling with offers of help or meals and I was reminded that home is not just four walls, it is also the community in which I live.

Tomorrow morning another friend will bring my dog Nigel from the farm where he has been for the past month. My little world will again be complete. Yes, indeed, the emotions are deep.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A July 4 Meditation

 My husband, Bill, loved to tell the story of listening, as a small boy, while his grandfather talked with a prospective hired man for the family's Indiana dairy farm. "Mr. Dreyer, do you give any holidays off?" the man asked. "Oh, yes," Grandpa Dreyer answered, "Christmas and the Fourth of July."

Glenside, Pennsylvania, my home town, was divided by a township line. I lived in Abington Township, but some of my friends who lived only a mile away were in Cheltenham Township. We had no town government, but the two townships shared a post office, a train station, and a public library. We also shared the Fourth of July.

The July 4 parade formed in Abington Township and was (and still is) the largest Fourth parade in eastern Pennsylvania, except for Philadelphia. All the local fire departments displayed their equipment, and there were floats, bands, churches, local organizations, and scores of kids on decorated bicycles. For several years I marched with the Girl Scouts. The parade came to an end at the Glenside Park, where prizes were awarded in several categories to the bike riders, plus the best float and best band.

The park, with a swimming pool, ball fields, and a large open green space, was the site of the rest of the annual festivities. There were three legged races, sack races, tug o' wars, dashes of various lengths, and softball games for both genders. Families brought picnics and blankets and at dusk all the children were given ice cream sandwiches as the anticipation of fireworks mounted.

We all settled on our blankets and stretched out to see the rockets. I was afraid of the ones that just went BOOM, but I could hardly wait for the series of chrysanthemums, as the assembled crowd counted the sequence of bursts. At the end we all cheered for an American flag made of fireworks mounted on a frame.

I have loved the Fourth of July all my life, as did Bill, who was an ardent fan of fireworks--the louder the better--whenever, wherever. I tend to get teary at parades and feel a genuine love for the country of my birth.

July Fourth is also a family day and a community day. It is a time to celebrate whatever we love most about our lives in the little piece of America we call home. I am constantly amazed at the vision of our founding fathers, and I am an avid reader of history and biographies of American presidents. Many times in our 235 years, we as a nation have been able to expand or update our national vision in response to new realities--such as the abolition of slavery.

The problems  facing our country today have aggregated over many decades to a critical mass that is testing whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal can endure. With the massive changes wrought by technology and global economies, I believe that what is being tested is our electoral system and the ability of our elected representatives to legislate.

This year I am spending the holiday in the physical therapy rehab wing of a nursing home where many of the long-term residents don't know what day it is and are not able to take part in celebrations. Many of the staff came dressed in patriotic colors and there was a stream of family and friends coming to visit loved ones.

I was determined to mark the occasion as I have always done--not only in my heart but also in some tangible way. I asked my friend Nancy if she would make me a July Fourth picnic, which she did with flare. My neighbor Kathy delivered the beautifully-presented food along with two sparklers.

Kathy and I have a special bond because she also grew up in Glenside, although I am 20 years older and had a somewhat different childhood. I went to Abington High School and she went to Cheltenham, but we both went to the same Pizza place!

So the two of us found the perfect spot in the garden where a gazebo had kept a table and chairs dry during a heavy afternoon rain. Kathy lit the sparklers and then we ate and chatted and honored the spirit of the day as we paused to celebrate country, community, family, and friendship.