Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Aesop, a Chipmunk and Thinking about Winter

"Why not come and sing with me, instead of toiling and moiling in that way?" said the Grasshopper to the Ant in Aesop’s Fable.
"I am helping to lay up food for the winter," said the Ant, "and recommend you to do the same."

About a month ago, the pink impatiens—that had bloomed profusely in a three-foot high flower box outside my front door—began to topple over. Curious, I picked one up and saw that all the roots had been cleanly bitten off. I was more amused than bothered because this time every year I clean out the less robust blooms and replace them with ornamental kale and cabbages surrounded by pansies. I was quite sure the culprit was a chipmunk, and a few days later in the warmth of a late afternoon I came out of the door just in time to see a little furry tail disappear over the side of the box. “There has to be a tunnel here somewhere”, I thought as I poked around, but I didn’t find it.

I cashed in my Bloomin’ Bucks coupons at Reems Creek Nursery buying purple kale. variegated green and cream cabbages, and pansies sporting purple and white faces. On the next sunny morning, I pulled up the rest of the nibbled-on impatiens and planted my hearty selections. With almost every trowel-full of dark loamy soil, I found an acorn or two. My furry flowerbox squatter had been laying up food for winter, no doubt sustained in his work by snacking on little roots.

“What do I lay up for the winter?” I wondered. “Do I have anything in common with Aesop’s ant or my neighbor, the chipmunk?”

I am one of those who love the change of seasons. During the years I lived in Guatemala with only the rainy season and eternal springtime the rest of the year, I really missed the seasonal cycles when each change brings its challenges and its joys. But as I have aged and accumulated some physical problems, I have found the winters daunting. So the first preparation I make is the regular monthly transfer of funds from my social security and pensions to a money market account to lay up treasure for my annual winter respite on Tybee Island (budgeted in the health maintenance column). Although daytime highs on the Georgia coast can be in the 40’s in January, I can get out every day and walk where there are no up and down grades to stress my knees and heart, and, at sea level, no altitude to worry my lungs. February may still have cold nights. but the days are pleasant.

Here at home late fall and early winter can bring very cold temperatures and some snow storms to our valley, and I often come home from Tybee to the late winter ice storms, so I don’t bypass winter weather entirely. I can’t go out to walk until the temperatures are above freezing, and that leaves me with many more hours indoors. So I lay up books to read that I can’t seem to get to when the weather favors outdoor activity, and projects to keep my hands busy if I listen to an audio book on my iPod. This year, I laid up the biography of Gertrude Bell, by Georgina Howell, which I’ve had in my pile for three years. I started it during my recuperation from knee surgery and got far enough to know it is on my must-read list for winter, either at home or on Tybee. If I get through learning about the woman who has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, then I’ll turn my attention to Antonia Fraser’s Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration. In case I want something a little lighter, I have laid up a mystery by Alan Bradley that features an 11-year old detective, named Flavia de Luce.

As for projects, I have a sweater that got difficult about two years ago, before my cataract surgeries. It has a pattern of navy blue, and forest green and I simply couldn’t see it well enough to rip back to the mistake I discovered, and fix it. Two lens implants later, I have a new lease on knitting, but instead of finishing the old project, I have been having fun making a sweater with mitered squares. I have laid up the green and blue sweater for this winter with a promise to myself that it will be the only project I work on until it is finished! I also have a half-completed dress in the project pile.

As for the necessities of life, once the Weather Channel begins to warn of impending snow storms and possible power outages, I will refresh my stash of gallon jugs of water, fill my pantry shelves with canned goods, and the freezer with entrees and bread. I am up-to-date with flashlights, batteries, candles, matches and oil for the lamp. Fortunately my floor furnace is not electric-dependent. I have a stability ball, a yoga mat, Feldenkrais and yoga CD’s, hand weights and other exercise paraphernalia to keep me busy when it is too cold to walk.

I have also laid up the happy anticipation I always feel about winter. I have this latent attraction to a hermit-sort of life which seems to wake up when the winds blow cold, the road threatens me with patches of black ice, and the weight of the down coat and winter accessories slows my step. The earth turns and we arrive at a season that encourages contemplation, rumination, journaling, meditating, and daydreaming without guilt and with few interruptions. It is a time for me to make pots of nourishing soups and eat a big bowl every day for lunch while a CD of ancient music by the Tallis scholars gets me in the mood to think about my life and other interesting subjects.

I left most of the acorns undisturbed for the chipmunk. After all, he worked hard to do his duty, to be prepared for winter and in the process reminded me to do the same.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Constitution, Competing Visions, and the People in Zuccotti Park

Currently, my mail is mostly requests for contributions to political, justice or wildlife organizations. They tempt me to open them with promises of mailing labels, greeting cards, or notepads inside, and one of them sends a nickel periodically. One day a blue envelope caught my eye with the words, “Enclosed is the Constitution”. A discreet return address on the back revealed the ACLU as the sender. It was a serendipitous moment because, the night before, two candidates for high office had urged debate watchers to read the Constitution. So I did, possibly for the first time since my eighth grade civics class. I was moved by the Preamble. “We the people of the United States, In Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I know that capitalizing nouns was the convention of the day in 1787, but the capitals do highlight the values—Justice, Tranquility, Welfare, Blessings of Liberty—that formed our nation and our continuing efforts toward a more perfect Union. (I noted that defence was not capitalized. It is a noun, but it's not a quality, rather it is an action.)

The first amendment of the Bill of Rights (adopted in 1791) includes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble. And to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” We have been hearing many references to that in recent weeks and it was on my mind as I read the Constitution.

There is within me the feeling that I want to make some expression of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Were I younger, I might be thinking of camping out with them for a few days. It has struck me that this particular action was slow to become part of the national conversation as comedians and talking heads focused on the bongo drums, sanitation, food and first aid, and not much on the motivations. On the talk shows, they seemed to be stuttering around in their effort to explain or analyze what was happening, and I heard a number of commentators and politicians make dismissive remarks. That began to change after similar (mostly) peaceful assemblies began gathering in our cities in the several states and around the globe.

As a veteran of the behind-the-scenes work of various civil rights, Anti-Vietnam War and other peace movements, I kept hoping to find the position papers that doubtless had been prepared in advance by the communication committee. But I have come to understand that this is not your mother’s kind of organizing. The nonviolent protests of the 50’s 60’s and 70’s, which sometimes included planned civil disobedience, involved long, careful preparation with training sessions for participants.  The strategy also included the intention to fill the jails. We did our organizing work with mimeographs and eventually copiers, mailings and phone banks.

The philosophy and the technology are very different for this current example of peaceful assembly for the redress of grievances. In this case they are naming the grievances, but are not offering a list of demands for redress. Neither are they intentionally committing civil disobedience or trying to fill the jails. Their organizing tools are social media, emails, talking, and texting, using cell phones, iPads and laptops.

Today there are 37,700 youtube videos as part of the wireless conversations about Occupy Wall Street. In one of these a former representative named Alan Grayson (D, FL) was part of a talk show panel with Bill Maher. He made supportive comments about the people in the park, including the statement that Wall Street had wrecked the economy and no one has been held accountable. P. J. O’Rourke, conservative satirist, immediately dubbed Grayson the spokesperson for the movement and suggested dismissively that he grab a bongo, forget about bathrooms, and head to the park. Whereupon the former representative responded that if O’Rourke was talking about the 24 million people without jobs, the 50 million without health care, the 47 million without enough to eat, and the 15 million whose mortgages were under water, then yes, he would be their spokesperson. For this impassioned outburst, he received a standing ovation from the HBO studio audience. 

In another video from a PBS interview, French Resistance Fighter Stephane Hessel (age 94) was talking about his book, Time for Outrage (Indignez-vous!).  He said that we should show our outrage when we see that the values spelled out in the UN Charter are threatened. (To which I would add the values embodied in our own Constitution.) I believe that the statistics shared by Alan Grayson do not reflect a successful current national commitment to justice, tranquility, and the promotion of welfare. However, I have trouble with the concept of outrage. It is hard to listen and try to find solutions if, at the same time, you are filled with such an intense kind of anger.

Although the people in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere around the country are demonstrating and advocating participatory democracy, they have still not set forth a position paper. One reporter, who spent time in the park interviewing participants, said on CNN,  “Their presence is their message and they are resisting party identification.” Clearly it is a populist movement, an adjective it has in common with the Tea Party. I respected the impulse of the Tea Party participants to gather (mostly) peacefully and to present their vision. I don’t agree with what they set forth, but I was grateful that because of their determination, the snowballing national debt became a part of the legislative conversation. I also believe the presence of Tea Party members in Congress helped to clarify that we are a nation divided by two opposing theories of how to chart the economic future of our Union. The only way to find common ground is through civil discourse in which each side listens to the other. Just as outrage can be a roadblock, so too is the determination to say no.

Meanwhile I am convinced that in any way I can, I need to bear witness to what I believe has been, and hope will again be, our national commitment as set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution. Will you join me?

My thanks to my friend Ellen Denker who has been helping me to understand what it’s all about by sending me links to Op-Ed pieces and youtube videos. She also found the quote attributed to Margaret Mead, although it turns out that attribution is in doubt and it is sometimes credited to different wise people.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Zen of Craft and Other Reasons to Knit

I learned to knit in Girl Scouts when I was ten. The affinity was immediate and has never dimmed. I was compulsive about my projects and took them to the movies on Saturday afternoons. My mother  warned me never to knit in public, because then no one would want to marry me. Her words didn’t slow me down. As it turned out my husband Bill was exceedingly proud of the sweaters I made him.

For the past twenty years I have been part of a group that knits together once a week.  Usually we meet at the home of the founder Nancy, unless she is away or another knitter has built a new house or remodeled an old one. The hostess will have tea, coffee and snacks, but this gathering is definitely not about refreshments; it is about knitting. There is just one rule: no gossip. Occasionally, when only a few people turn up, there is general conversation and often laughter. Subjects might include gardening, family news, bears, the nearby national forest, road construction and health care. But much of the chatter is about knitting.

Yesterday the room was full. Knitting bags ranging from nondescript to fancy sat on the floor and out came shawls, scarves, sweaters, baby blankets, and hats with colors from beige through the entire rainbow to gray angora. As I looked up from my knitting I saw heads tilted forward over the work of hands: short, medium and long haircuts, well brushed and simple. There was no group discussion, just twos and threes speaking together quietly. Often an experienced knitter would help someone fix a mistake. Lots of advice going on!

I’m working on a scarf, using yarn left over from a sweater. I knit for many reasons but it starts with the beauty and texture of wool, which I prefer over cotton or synthetics. Technology has infiltrated the yarn shops with blends, painted wool or silk, and colors that would have amazed Joseph’s coat maker. I stop occasionally and spread out my work just to feel it and study the neat rows of stitches and the cascade of color when I am using a blended yarn, as I am now.

Out of curiosity, I decided to ask the other knitters why they liked to knit. The first answer startled me. “I don’t like to knit,” said a friend sitting next to me on Nancy’s newly reupholstered white couch. “I mostly finish or fix other people’s projects or make things to order and it is the money that motivates me.” I’ve seen some of her work and it is beautiful. Briefly I thought about asking her to finish a problematic project of mine. As she turned to talk with another woman who did want to hire her, I got up to make myself a cup of tea while I considered that unexpected reply.

Nancy was bustling about so I asked her why she liked to knit. “Because it is so relaxing,” she said. Then she paused for moment before starting to describe the quality of the experience with whatever she was knitting.

I interjected, “Well, I think it’s meditative.”

She immediately agreed and said she wanted to lend me a book called, The Knitting Sutra and headed to her bookcase.  Nancy does the most perfect knitting I have ever seen. She makes gifts for her family and many of her friends in addition to sweaters for her own use. She also makes imaginative hats and scarves to be sold to support Habitat, as do many others in the group.

I quizzed every one there and found a diversity of answers. Two of the women had much the same reason: knitting is something for their hands to do in the evening while they chat with their spouses and eventually they’ll have a finished product. Along the same lines, another knitter said she has to attend lots of meetings, and knitting helps her focus. She can concentrate better on the discussions if she has something to do. Two women said the best part of knitting was buying the yarn—the excitement of the choices available, and the flow of ideas for projects as they studied colors and textures. “I like making things and I like fiber,” one added. “I do lots of things, not just knitting.”  I knew that because just a few weeks ago she taught most of the knitters to make bead bracelets, and I have seen lovely things she’s made from fabric.

Although most of the women said they found knitting to be relaxing, one said that it made her tense. She always needs someone to show her what to do because she has difficulty using the patterns. The shawl she was working on was gorgeous and her work looked perfect to me. At Nancy’s house, there is always someone ready to help and everyone is encouraging. I walked over to ask my question of one of my neighbors seated in a large, handsome chair that is high enough to make it easy for her to get up after sitting for a couple of hours. She looked up with a broad smile as she talked about liking the things she makes, and choosing colors she loves. She’s ready to try any new knitting idea that comes along.

I have other interests in common with the last person I asked and she answered me with candor.  Her pleasure comes from being with the group each week, and wanting to be a part of that community experience. She didn’t want to come with no project and say, “I don’t really knit much. I just want to be here with the group.”  She already knew how to knit, but her main motivation is to have something to work on so she can be comfortable as part of the gathering. I think all the knitters appreciate the time together, and once there, we are sometimes inspired to try something new or more complicated, knowing someone will help us out.

I brought The Knitting Sutra home and began to read it, picking chapters that got to the meat of what the author had to say. After noting that the purpose of meditation is to quiet the mind, she concludes that “in the quiet, repetitive, hypnotic rthythms of creating craft,” we allow our inner being to emerge. In conclusion she compares “the very rhythms of the knitting needles” to drums beats or chants. I can relate to that.

The Knitting Sutra by Susan Gordon Lydon, Harper/San Francisco, 1997 (available on Amazon)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

One-Year Anniversary and The Evolution of My Blog

One year ago today I launched the Decrescendo Memoir Blog and have now written 52 essays and average about 60 visitors a week. The conventional wisdom—found in books about self-publishing and heard from people experienced in Internet marketing—is that authors should have websites. That seemed too complicated for me, and my son Robin convinced me that I could accomplish the same goals with Blogspot.com. He set it up, designed it, and taught me what I needed to know to use it.

For the first two months, I wrote about writing, self-publishing, marketing, editing and launching my book. Then came a moment when a death in my family moved me to write an essay on the times when words fail. Gradually, I moved away from weekly posts that dealt with Decrescendo in some form and began to write about my life today, living alone for the first time ever. (Typical of my generation, I lived at home until I went to live in a dormitory at college, then back home briefly until I was married six months after graduation.) From time to time during the year, I explored a topic related to aging or to health, but mainly I shared with you what I was experiencing or thinking about, and sometimes that thought process has lead me to a story or two.

The number of people reading my posts steadily increased over the year, and the comments were encouraging, whether they came through the blog, Facebook, Email or running into people at the grocery store. Taken together I felt validated in allowing the blog to evolve. I do mention the book when it is appropriate and, as promised in my little description, I tell more stories about my childhood, marriage, travels and my life today.

I am often asked how I get the ideas, how long it takes, and what the process is. Since I declared that this anniversary is worth celebrating, I am answering those questions plus a few not asked. Since Bill’s death, my own two-year illness, and the long recovery period, I have been guided by the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed by Jon Cabot-Zinn in connection with Dean Ornish. Lucky for me, it was offered at the Women’s Center at Mission Hospital in Asheville and consisted of eight weekly two-hour classes plus one full day. The experience led me to a deeper exploration about mindfulness or awareness (as it is often called).

 I had first given thought to mindfulness when I was thirty-five and read a Pendle Hill pamphlet by Douglas Steere, which was called On Being Present where You Are. It captured my imagination and I often referred to it in conversations. However the wisdom faded somewhat from my awareness as my life was taken over by going to graduate school, raising children, moving to North Carolina, seeing those children off to college, entering the work force, then becoming the major wage-earner, and later a caregiver. In our world of constant connectivity and multi-tasking, true mindfulness is a difficult discipline, even when you are no longer in the workforce. But the events of my post-retirement life have forced me to understand the centrality of being present where you are as you age.

My ideas for my Tuesday post come largely from my effort to practice mindfulness, coupled with my fascination with synchronicity and connections between people or ideas. Usually by Sunday I have a a theme in mind which allows me to weave together disparate ideas or anecdotes. If that theme suggests a picture, I enlist Robin’s help. When I start writing, I do a non-stop draft just getting it all down. Typically I work on the computer, but if It isn’t coming together well, I might write by hand until it does. Then I let the draft sit and marinate for  a day or sometimes just a few hours. When I’m ready, I begin to edit, rewrite, fact-check, spell-check and read it aloud. Once it feels finished, it takes me about half an hour to do the posting. This will involve importing the text, the picture if there is one, and appropriate links. I then reread it in the formatted version where I often find a stray word or a typo. If I miss any errors, I’ll most likely hear about from one of my children and I’ll go back in and fix it.

The surprise for me has been how much I enjoy writing this weekly post for my friends out there, both those I know and those I perhaps will never meet. It is a creative outlet, which is so important at any age. Robin commented to me that it brings structure to my life, given that I committed myself to a weekly schedule. It also gives purpose to my daydreaming and an antidote to feeling alone, an inevitable aspect of losing your life partner.

A few people have asked if there could be an email reminder in addition to the banner on Facebook. Blogspot recently added an email feature that sends the full post to your computer. You can sign up for it here on the blog. So now you can meet me anytime after 6:00 PM Tuesday at my computer place or yours. If you want to be in touch, you can leave a comment at the bottom of the post, send an email, a like message from Facebook, or look for me at the grocery store. But even if we are not interactive, we’ll still be connected, and I’ll know that you know what I’m thinking about.