Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tinsel Time Gives Way to My Tipping Point

Maya's tree beside Bill's piano
Two weeks ago during an interview with a singer named Tracey Thorn, NPR’s Scott Simon aired a portion of her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I have never liked that particular Christmas favorite because it seemed patronizing to me, like someone patting a child on the head. However her styling was lovely, and I stopped to listen, thinking to myself, “Yeah, that’s just what I want, a merry little Christmas.” I looked up the lyrics and was struck by this line:

Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

I immediately began to work on my planned holiday post, which would start with Tracey Thorn and then segue to my fifty Christmases with Bill. He was exuberantly devoted to the Yuletide celebration. It was a season of performances for him as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker, conducting or singing solos in Christmas oratorios, playing the piano for parties, and directing Christmas plays. At home he was eager to get the house decorated, make fruitcakes, plan great meals, and read Christmas stories or poems to the children.

This past week my friend Janey took me to nearby Burnsville to hear the Christmas concert of the Toe River Community Chorus and the Toe River Chamber Ensemble. The program featured Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” In my essay outline the concert readily became the subject of the next paragraph because Bill had in the past conducted both the ensemble and the chorus in some of their earliest performances. This concert started me thinking about celebrations in small towns all over America and the joy of being in a packed church, full of familiar faces, listening to the uplifting sound of the human voice. To conclude my holiday post I was planning to head back to the Merry Little Christmas and what it feels like to muddle through somehow, making new traditions without Bill.

Friday afternoon as I was driving to Burnsville to do a few errands, I switched on the radio and heard the news of the massacre in Newtown, and my eyes filled with tears as I thought of the murdered children. Then it immediately crossed my mind that for those parents, these tragic deaths would forever cast a shadow over the holiday season.

When I got home there was an e-mail waiting for me from my brother David, saying, “On my way across town in the car I was tuned to a news channel and was suddenly hearing about the killings in the elementary school in Connecticut. I literally burst into sobs in the car as I listened and waited for a light to change.” I imagined people like us all over the country letting our tears flow for children we have never met and never will.

When it came time to complete and polish my essay, preparing it for blog publication on Tuesday, I simply could not proceed with the work I had started. This election year had already made me long for the world of my childhood when there were fewer media outlets, there was no Internet, and we were accustomed to greater civility. The hardest part for me this past year was not just the unrelenting negativity, but also the sense that there were individuals and organizations that behaved as if the office of the President was for sale. I was equally distressed that an individual (Grover Norquist) could convince or cajole candidates into signing a pledge against taxes with the implied threat that if they did not live up to it they would face a well-financed primary challenge. Instead of being responsive to their constituents, they are hamstrung by a pledge that does not allow for responding to changing circumstances. Likewise the candidates knew that bucking the National Rifle Association would guarantee a challenge in the next election cycle, equally thwarting legislators who want to respond to societal problems that relate particularly to assault weapons.

In his initial public reflection on the Newtown tragedy, President Obama signaled the need for a serious response. During the Sunday night prayer vigil, he spoke directly about his commitment to action that could prevent such horrific acts in the future. Stating that he would take whatever steps he could as President, he concluded that, as a nation, “We can do better than this.”

I hope and pray that now is the moment when our nation can begin to change our approach to the balance of rights and safety. Personally I believe that the inclusion of assault weapons in the arming of America and the shameful fact that we have such a high murder rate are unintended consequences of the right to bear arms. I was deeply distressed by the most recent Supreme Court ruling on that troublesome Second Amendment. The massacre last Friday was my tipping point and I knew I had to write about it.

Sunday morning, I tuned in late to NPR’s On Being so I don’t know whether it was a repeat chosen for the occasion or a wonderful coincidence. (I heard no reference to the murdered children.) The guest was Kate Braestrup, a chaplain to game wardens. She is often called upon to go with search and rescue missions in Maine and says that she works “at hinges of human experience when lives alter unexpectedly.” Commenting on how kind people can be, she told the story of hunting for a woman with Alzheimer’s who was lost in the woods. When the word went out, hundreds of people joined the search party. Although the woman did not survive, her son said, “This is a miracle; all these people turned out to hunt for my mother.” Kate Braestrup concluded that people do come to help in potentially tragic circumstances, and that is often redemptive. Today I heard a short interview with a father whose daughter was in Sandy Hook School during the shooting but was unharmed. He echoed Braestrup’s conclusion when he said that “all of Newtown” had turned out to help, and people were coming from all over the state to offer counseling services or whatever was needed.

The massacre of twenty children and eight adults has been juxtaposed with the message of peace on earth, goodwill, and the new beginnings that Christmas brings, and the tolerance and respect for religious boundaries that Hannukah celebrates. Last year I wrote about December as the month of spiritually-based customs that light up the dark nights of winter, including the bonfires of Solstice when the earth turns and the days begin to lengthen. This year I hope all people of goodwill light a new fire under all those who have the power to enforce laws already on the books, make new laws, give greater attention to the needs of the mentally ill, and turn to our faith-based wisdom to find the way forward.

And whether it is big or little or in between, I wish you a merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has music by Ralph Blane and lyrics by Hugh Martin.

Schedule Change: I'm leaving for Tybee Island on New Year's Day so the posts in January will be The 8th and the 22nd.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Turbulent Sixties, Grad School, and a Radical Nun

Ever since Sarah Palin made her denigrating comments about community organizing, I’ve wanted to write about my own journey as an activist developing a congruent approach to human resources, communication, fundraising, and administration. Here’s the first in a short series to be continued in the New Year.

It was about ten in the morning on an ordinary day in the spring of 1968. My children were at school, sitting in the same classrooms where I sat twenty-plus years before. My father, who lived around the corner and abided in the fog of Alzheimer’s, had come by for his morning cup of coffee and chat. Every day he told me the same stories and then headed back home. Bill was off at work with the Quakers in Philadelphia. He was finishing up a year in a settlement house and would soon start a new job with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) as the director of the nationwide youth services program. At the same time he was increasing his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement by volunteering with Resistance, one of the many organizations opposing the War.

I sat in my sunny living room wondering what to do next. The house was clean, I didn’t feel like ironing, and it was too soon to start working on the evening meal. Suddenly I came face-to-face with my discontent and burst into tears. I was finally facing the fact that for the past three years I’d been deeply involved in the social change work we were doing in Guatemala and now I was just a housewife. I didn’t feel like I was important to anyone outside my family in the way I had been while we were co-directors of a Peace-Corps-type AFSC program. My responsibilities included running our large house where the volunteers ate and slept when they had business in the city. I also kept the accounts, paid attention to everyone’s health and well-being, carried on the necessary correspondence, and assisted Bill as needed.

That evening after the homework was done and the threesome was tucked in for the night, I poured out my unhappiness to Bill. He responded by saying it seemed like the right time for me to fulfill the promise I made to him when we got married—that at some point I would go to graduate school. Although a little uncertain about both finances and curriculum, I agreed that he was right and started to investigate what was available.

Temple University in Philadelphia was (and still is) dedicated to making it possible for working people and mothers with children at home to continue their education. In addition to the regular classes, they had late afternoon, early evening, and weekend programs and could tailor a schedule to almost anyone’s needs. The nearby University of Pennsylvania was prestigious and expensive while Temple was for the proletariat. In its relatively new School of Communication and Theater, they offered a fine program that suited my needs. So even though the campus was located in a dicey part of North Philadelphia, I matriculated there in the fall of 1968, majoring in Communication Theory with an emphasis on International Journalism.

For two years, I juggled household chores, mothering, and graduate studies on a campus that was a hotbed of every flourishing or incipient movement I’d ever heard of and a few (emanating from the Free Love climate of the 60s) that shocked me. On sunny days the main courtyard was jammed with booths, displays, and activist hawkers trying to get you to sign up for a cause, attend a rally, participate in civil disobedience, or listen to a soapbox speech. I was totally caught up in the vitality, vision, and vigor of that young world.

In my classes I lapped up every bit of learning I could, and I spent my breaks hanging out with a radical nun (in a short, chic habit) who was in the same program. Her goal was to develop communication skills in order to help stop the Vietnam War. It was heaven on earth for me, and it redirected my life in ways I could not have imagined. I found I couldn’t study at night so I had to get very efficient about housework and meal planning in order to spend the mornings studying. The children took note, and an unexpected benefit was that they became more responsible about their own schoolwork. My classes were all late afternoon or evening, and my mother was the backstop if I needed her. I can’t remember how I managed everything, but I do know that we became an activist family. Bill was the only one who ever got involved with civil disobedience, but the children and I went to rallies when we could, worked on a political campaign, and got involved with Earth Day. We also became vegetarians in solidarity with Dick Gregory.

In the spring of 1970, I sat for my written exams. The questions lent themselves to political examples, and I wrote the answers from my heart and my personal experiences. Two weeks later I had the immense joy and satisfaction of receiving a letter saying that not only had I passed the exams but my papers were the finest set of written exams they had ever had in the program (which was only a few years old). I had majored in psychology as an undergraduate and didn’t have any awareness that I had been changed by my education. The biggest result from college was marrying Bill, and that was certainly enough. But the two years at Temple changed me: the combination of the courses, the required research and writing, the field trips to the UN, the endless philosophical and political conversations with Sister Joan Marie, the break times in the courtyard, and conquering my fear of walking to the train station in North Philly after dark all made me more confident, more committed, more directed, and more determined.

Even the fact that I chose not to finish my thesis and thereby forfeited the degree was a political act. The dean who had approved my research plan resigned, and his replacement changed the rules. After I had already started the research, my advisor wrote me about the change, and said the dean would not accept my chosen project. By then we had moved to Winston-Salem, and I was working as the director of public relations for the North Carolina School of the Arts. (Bill was on the drama faculty.) I made my case in writing to the dean, suggesting a compromise position, and concluding with the request that if they ever changed their new rules to please let me know. Ten years later I was surprised by a letter from Temple (delivered to my mailbox in Celo) informing me that they had indeed changed the requirements, and if I was still interested they would allow me to submit a thesis based on the compromise I had suggested a decade earlier. I declined with thanks saying I had moved on, was doing just fine with the knowledge I had gained, and had never really needed the MA letters after my name.

During our years at the School of the Arts, the children finished high school and left for various colleges. My desire to work as an activist took a backseat to financial needs, and I had to be satisfied with serving on the Executive Committee of the AFSC Southeastern Regional Office (SERO). When the executive director of SERO resigned to take another job, I was asked to become the interim director for the seven-state region. For the next year I applied what I had learned both in the field and in the classroom to develop my own activist approach to the administrative tasks that make the work in communities and movements possible. It was the beginning of my recognition that facilitating the work of others on the front lines of organizing was very appealing. I had taken the next step in my journey.

Sidebar: Organizing for change can mean working in a neighborhood or with a community defined by a specific issue. Bill’s cousin Nancy Heinrich works in the field of public health and is currently concentrating on helping obese children through a program she developed called “Growing Healthy Kids”—which she implements in addition to her day job. She has just published Nourish and Flourish, a book of recipes and tips to curb obesity and prevent diabetes. It is now available on Amazon. Here is the link to her website, where you can find the other aspects of her outreach. She works directly with kids, engaging them in making better choices about their diet while having fun cooking together.

Next Post: 12/18/2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Re-centering After the Election Ruckus

“All in all, when push comes to shove, the American voters were not all scared or lacking in common sense. And the Obama voters consist overwhelmingly of non-white persons. Three cheers for diversity. I guess we can thank our parents for raising us to become ‘old white guys’ who know how to love everybody regardless of skin or ethnicity. Love, David” (From my brother’s post-election e-mail.)

David and I have ongoing, heartfelt political discussions by e-mail and on the phone. We’re very much in agreement about our beliefs and loyalties, but he is more active about trying to influence the public discourse. He writes opinion pieces and letters to the editor for Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI. He reads thoughtful political analysis constantly and has made a deep study of Reinhold Niebuhr and his spiritually-based political thinking. David has also published commentary and given talks on Niebuhr. His comment about thanking our parents set me thinking about my personal political heritage.

Mother and Daddy were patriotic in the same way they were Methodists and community volunteers. The duties of citizenship and church attendance seemed to be part of the same package. You loved God and you loved your country and served both to the best of your ability. I know they were interested in the Socialist party for a time in the late thirties and well remember square dances with potlucks and much discussion of the cooperative movement. My mother voted in several elections for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president. They both revered Eleanor Roosevelt, but I picked up the feeling that they disapproved of her husband. During WWII, Mother was active with two Pacifist organizations, but also assisted with the rationing program and rolled bandages for the war effort. My father was an Air Raid warden. As I grew up I loved celebrating all the patriotic holidays and was aware that both my parents viewed voting as a solemn obligation. They were registered as Republicans, and when I was in high school, I asked my father about that. He told me that the only way to have a voice in local politics was to be part of the majority party and vote in the primary elections. I know from dinner table conversation that in national elections they always voted for the candidate they liked, regardless of party.

David is right that we were definitely brought up to love everybody without regard to skin color and ethnicity, or for that matter, sexual orientation. However, it was clear to me that Mother shifted to the right politically after my father died in 1972; at the same time Bill and I were moving steadily further left as a result of our work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). We were exposed to major economic and civil rights issues as we directed eight-week youth work projects in southern Appalachia and on a Cheyenne reservation in Montana before spending two years in High Point, NC working in school desegregation. Then we observed firsthand the mixed impact of the United States in Central America during the three years we lived in Guatemala. But we also learned to appreciate the development work of AID, Peace Corps, and scores of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like AFSC. During our time there, a revolution was brewing that eventually erupted into a civil war. We returned home committed to working for social change both at home and abroad.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 felt like a dream come true. I think history may well affirm that among his important accomplishments was simply getting elected and then re-elected. I believe that changed the aspirational narrative for African-American parents as they talk to their children. As president, he has already accomplished some brave goals, and I hope that his second term will be even more productive. I’m thrilled and relieved by his 2012 win; at the same time I am fully aware that nearly half of the electorate is disappointed and probably fearful for the future. That troubles me.

This blog has evolved from a vehicle to promote my book about caregiving into a memoir-based examination of life in my ninth decade. I have placed the emphasis on exploring the daily experience of aging, tapping the wisdom borne of life experience and combining it with common sense problem solving. In the beginning, I decided not to write about partisan politics because old age brings the same set of problems to all, regardless of party affiliation. Now that the worst election cycle in my memory has ended, I decided to share some post-election thoughts about how this experience has affected me. For openers the most common complaint I felt (and heard from my peers) was weariness from the onslaught of the news, advertising, robot calls, and ugly junk mail. Conservative commentator David Brooks summed it up on the PBS News Hour when he dubbed this the worst election cycle ever and commented that on both sides “the level of tolerated dishonesty” was higher than any time in his memory. That aspect of the campaigns took its toll on my sense of well-being.

The Republican primary was disillusioning and scary to me. Based on my personal positions on immigration, income equality, civil rights for all people, healthcare, and the imperative for deficit reduction, I was afraid that if Governor Romney were to win we wouldn’t really know what we were getting. Although he was somewhat more forthcoming, Paul Ryan doesn’t represent the things I believe about the role of government. Once the negativity started full scale, I was saddened that the Obama campaign felt they had to join the fray. As the rhetoric grew more negative, particularly in swing states like North Carolina, my occasional conversations with David became more important. At that same time I deliberately reduced my exposure to news and the hateful advertising.

In the face of high unemployment with many Americans going to bed hungry, the expenditure of billions to win an election felt obscene. Underneath the cash flow, there are doubtless expectations of a quid pro quo, which may hamper common sense legislation. Governor Romney’s comments about the 47 percent were deeply offensive to me. His cynical opinions specifically and the pervasive racism in general made me feel the body politic was losing ground on issues where we had once seen progress.

The sum total of living through the just-completed election has been emotional and sometimes spiritual turmoil as I felt the erosion of integrity evident in the polarization of our country. Most of my friends are in the same political spectrum as I am, but I know and care about any number of people who are equally anxious about our country now that the Democrats have won. During the campaigns, election-oriented conversations within my age group seldom touched on substance but rather focused on the stress, anxiety, and disappointment caused by the process.

Now the election turbulence has been replaced by the aftermath of Sandy, the armed conflict in the Middle East, the looming fiscal cliff, and the nasty debate that has erupted from the tragedy of Benghazi. The consideration of that tragic event in Libya is further muddled by the sad story of General Patraeus et al. The onslaught of bad news and fearful outcomes cast a pall over the nation. This has a profound effect on my generation, precisely because (to quote the Mother Superior in Cradle Song by G. M. Sierra) “All we can do is watch and pray.”

Years ago, when I had three pre-school children and was complaining to my sister (mother of six) about my nonfunctional washing machine, she responded, “It has been my experience that when my life is in the greatest turmoil, inevitably the car or a major appliance breaks down.” In the fog of my personal pre-election angst, a determined repairman was trying to figure out why the washing machine wouldn’t spin, and a parade of people from the gas company were in and out trying to fix my oven. As the Florida votes were still being counted after Obama had been declared the winner, the mystery of the spin cycle was diagnosed and repaired, and my brand new Amana stove was installed.  With these three good outcomes, some peace of mind has been restored, and hope will no doubt soon follow. Meanwhile the Republicans who may still be frightened about the next four years remain in my thoughts as I watch and pray.

Next Post: 12/04/12

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Settling for Good Enough

“This is as good as it gets,” Judd said to me as we were saying good-bye. It was more than thirty years ago, and I was visiting one of the volunteers who had been with us in Guatemala. (From 1964–67 Bill and I directed a Peace Corps-type program of the American Friends Service Committee [AFSC] in Guatemala.) Judd’s assignment was in a poor section of Guatemala City; we saw him often during his two-year stay. We remained in touch after he returned home to California.

During the eighties when I was again working for AFSC, I spent many months as an interim administrator in Pasadena near Judd’s home, and we were able to get together several times. On this occasion we had just finished an excellent lunch in his spacious home where his grand piano dominated a well-decorated living area. In the twenty-some years since he returned from Central America, Judd had developed a bilingual arts curriculum for gifted and talented students in one of the Los Angeles public high schools. He had also raised substantial public and private funds for the program. In some ways it was a continuation of the work he had done in the Guatemalan barrio. Usually ebullient and funny, during that visit he was subdued and complained of feeling tired. Even so, we had a good conversation; he told me many amazing stories about his work and the transformation he often saw in his inner-city students. Obviously his enthusiasm was not dimmed by whatever was ailing him.

One of the views from Delphi, Greece
Phrases like “this is as good as it gets” or “it doesn’t get any better than this” were ones I often heard from my husband Bill, who might be talking about anything from an excellent cup of tea in the Ceylon Pavilion at Expo 67 to a magnificent view from Delphi, Greece. From Bill those exclamations were obviously intended to be the highest praise. By contrast, Judd’s tone of voice and cadence were ominous, and the words sounded like a prophecy. I gave him a goodbye hug, wished him well, and said that I’d see him next time I was in southern California. A few weeks later, when I was back home in North Carolina, Bill answered the phone one evening and it was Judd, calling to let us know he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Three months after that, his father called to tell us he had died. We grieved for our friend; it was especially painful because his time on earth had been cut short by the scourge of that disease. At the same time we celebrated his life that had indeed been good for many years. He found artistic fulfillment in his piano and organ keyboard achievements and satisfaction from his work with remarkably talented Latino young people. Judd had loving parents, scores of friends, a beautiful home, and a white Corvette convertible to tool down the L.A. freeways.

Since 2005 I have been striving to regain the stamina and enthusiasm of the person I was in 1996 when Bill and I stood together at Delphi admiring the view in each direction. In the past nine years I have fought my way back to health following a long illness, then again after three different knee surgeries, and more recently two respiratory infections. For most of my life I had high energy and an unquestioned expectation that I could do whatever I set my mind to. However, for a decade now I’ve had to settle for daily swings between a modest amount of activity, followed by fatigue and the need to sleep.

Last week I had appointments with two of the caring, optimistic specialists who help me stay as well as I can. The physiatrist, a recent addition to the roster, has been directing the treatment of my right leg. She seemed personally delighted with my progress and happy that I am now walking with no pain. When I asked her to explain why the episode occurred, she showed me a picture from my recent MRI, pointing out the substantial degradation of the knee joint. The physical therapist I saw for four weeks had told me that if I was not faithful with daily therapy exercises for the rest of my life, I would lose ground. I asked the doctor about that pronouncement. She concurred and went on to say that during your eighties you can still rebuild, recover, and even make progress, but in your nineties it is hard to avoid losing ground even with exercise: Valuable and necessary truth-telling.

The next day it was the turn of the cardiologist who monitors my heart arrhythmia, which is caused by chronic atrial fibrillation. He started off by quizzing me rather intently about my level of activity. Was I still walking every day? How much? What about exercises in the house: How much and how often? After stressing how important it is for me keep moving, he listened to my heart very carefully. Then he told me with enthusiasm how pleased he was with what he heard. “You still have arrhythmia but the rate is good and the sound is good.” He kept using the word stable as he talked about my heart, but in response to my question about energy and exhaustion, he responded that it was not surprising given the damage to my lungs and the medication I take for the atrial fibrillation. Then he underscored that those prescriptions are essential. As we chatted a little more, it became clear to me he thought that holding my own was just great: Also helpful truth-telling.

My daughter Melissa, who calls me every weekend, was eager to hear the reports of my two appointments, and when I finished, she said, “Well Mom, maybe for you this is as good as it gets.” I laughed and told her that I had been thinking the same thing.

Now here’s my truth-telling: Thanks to the Upton Tea Company, which imports tea from every part of the world, I can make an excellent cup of tea in my own little kitchen. Actually, I often say to myself, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” From time to time someone takes me for a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway (nine miles from my home) where the views from the overlooks rival the ones at Delphi. I sometimes think—perhaps a little wistfully—that I’d like to go see a show on Broadway or fly out to California to visit my good friend Claire, but I know such excursions are better in the abstract than in the real. Aided by my CPAP machine and the vibrating vest, supported by my loved ones, entertained by my dog Nigel, I thrive at home.

I’ve decided it’s time to quit striving to regain the energy I once took for granted, and concentrate on holding my own. I’m ready to rejoice in the knowledge that if this is as good as it’s going to get, it’s most certainly good enough.

Coincidentally, I was struck by this Rilke poem, read by the translator Joanna Macy during On Being last Sunday.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Book of Hours, I 2

Next Post: 11/20/2012

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Lady in the Dark: A Reverie

This post is a little bonus to celebrate a fifth October Tuesday. It's an exercise I wrote for my writer's group. The assignment was designed to explore different ways to describe yourself as if you were a character in a story.

After I finished my dinner and washed the dishes, I spent a few minutes straightening up my little living area, putting away my knitting project and the day’s mail before finding the book I wanted to read. My dog Nigel had huffed a couple of times as I moved around and when I neared the recliner, he began to bark with urgency. I turned my head and saw that his eyes were trained on one of the picture windows, which was black from the early dark of night. I followed his gaze and saw a diaphanous figure wearing the same blouse and jumper that I was. No wonder Nigel was scared, it looked larger than life. He quieted down as I stroked his head, but my interest was quickened by the reflection. I stood without moving to study the apparition in the window.

The first thing I noticed was that she had no wrinkles on her face, nor any odd age-related blotches of color. “I remember that face,” I thought. The barely visible hair receded into the blackness, giving an impression of the rich ebony mane of youth. Then I noticed how tall she seemed to be. I used to be five feet seven. But now the bone density machine, the dresses that have mysteriously gotten longer, and the fact that I now look straight into the eyes of some relatives who used to look up at me, are all confirming that I have lost at least two-and-a-half inches of height. The reflection in the window caused by the starless night seemed statuesque. My posture has been an abiding concern since I turned seventy—ten years ago—but my ghostly doppelganger was actually quite straight, a stance that was accentuated by the soft, flowing folds of the jumper. Her hands looked relaxed by her sides, and everything about the figure spoke of ease and contentment.

I gently bumped Nigel out of my chair and eased myself into it carefully to avoid any pain from my strained leg muscles that are slowly healing. My book lay ready within reach, but I folded my wrinkled, spotty hands in my lap and considered how we think of ourselves reflexively and don’t always integrate into our self-perception the changes we know have happened. Where did that heavily-freckled, appealing little girl of my childhood portraits disappear to; what happened to the self-conscious, shy, gawky teenager; or the bride, glowing with the happiness of dreams coming true? Where is the hard-working mother-of-three, dragged down by tiredness from the daily routine of climbing on life’s treadmill at six AM and staying there until climbing off sixteen hours later to fall into bed? What ever happened to the empty-nester who became the competent professional, rising to one challenge after another, all the while watching her weight creep up to some thirty pounds more than it is now? For that matter where is the weary caregiver? The grieving widow? The housebound semi-invalid struggling for breath as she fought atypical tuberculosis?

People who meet me today for the first time cannot know those other Donna Jeans. I wonder what they perceive as they look at this little old lady with gray hair who still wears jumpers, uses a walking stick, and yet tries to move with a good stride and a moderately quick step. The figure in the large windowpane had no substance, yet she still managed to convey a sense of peace. What am I, I wondered, if not the distillation of all those earlier iterations of me? Perhaps it is the work of aging to reconcile those different people we once were and come to abide in a peaceful state, like the one I experienced in the dark of that night.

Next Post: 11/06/2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Invention Grown from a Mother's Necessity

Danielle Cook Navidi published a book last month and therein hangs a tale.

Cook is my family name and a fitting appellation for my older brother Don’s son and six daughters—all of them are at home in the kitchen. Don had a forty-year career in Europe as a correspondent first for the New York Herald Tribune and then for the Los Angeles Times. His children were raised mostly in France with sojourns in Frankfurt and London. His wife Cherry absorbed both French cooking and the approach to food shopping, which entailed daily trips to the markets. Cooking in her home was a ritual, and the food was both critiqued and respected. I’m not aware that much thought was given to the healing properties of the meals, but the results for the family were good because the ingredients were excellent.

Danielle, Don’s sixth child, settled in Washington, DC and married Fariborz Navidi, an Iranian whom she first met in the American School in Paris. She soon mastered Iranian cuisine and continued to perfect the skills she had learned from her mother and her life in Europe. Just as she had done, Danielle’s three children were growing up in a home where excellent food was the norm.

Then came the fateful day when her eleven-year-old son Fabien was not feeling well. Danielle was worried about the tightness in his neck and chest and his complaint that he felt like he was breathing through a straw. She then discovered a large lump on his neck. After his pediatrician examined him and the X-ray of his chest, Fabien’s condition was diagnosed as Stage III Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a curable form of cancer. However, the treatment is rigorous. Fabien’s six-month protocol consisted of four twenty-eight day cycles of chemotherapy followed by eight weeks of radiation.

In a recent interview with CNN, Fabien, now eighteen and healthy, commented on the nausea he experienced with his treatment. In fact there are numerous side effects of chemotherapy and several of them challenge the process of eating and digesting food. These include mouth and intestinal tract sores, which interfere with chewing and swallowing, a metallic taste in the mouth, changes in appetite, and food preferences or aversions.

Certain that her son needed the best possible nutritional support during chemotherapy and recovery Danielle set out on a quest to find foods that would help rebuild his strength and tempting ways to present them. Fabien put it in the simplest terms when he said that you have choices, but in the end, “It still boils down to You Gotta Do It.” Then he added that fighting cancer is a family fight and it is all consuming. Fabien’s journey of recovery and Danielle’s parallel journey of discovery changed them both, and by happenstance, had a material affect on me.

In the same period that Fabien was receiving treatment and then entering the lengthy stage of rebuilding health, I was completing an eighteen-month treatment for MAI (a mycobacterial lung infection), which involved three drugs that are not nearly as toxic as chemotherapy but had many similar side effects. These included nausea, abdominal pain, the metallic taste, no appetite, and sudden aversions to particular foods that changed from week to week. I visited the Navidi family during my recovery. At that time Fabien was still quite sensitive not only to the taste of food but also the timing of eating it; that struck me particularly because it was definitely an issue for me as well. Danielle was deeply engaged in research and experimentation, and as I described some of my own issues, she made suggestions. Best of all, she introduced me to the cookbook that still guides my diet. Written by Rebecca Katz with Marsha Tomassi and Mat Edelson, it is called “One Bite at a Time: Nourishing recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends.”  When I leafed through the pages full of stunning photos of tempting and unusual dishes, I knew it would help me.

Fabien with His Mom
During Fabien’s treatment he had horrendous days when he was vomiting nonstop and suffering mouth sores, but from time to time he had days when he felt better. He began to visit children in the hospital who had just been diagnosed so he could offer encouragement.  Occasionally, he wrote an e-mail to the family and it was good to hear from him directly with what was always an upbeat message.

His courage sustained me in my own recovery and his optimism was an inspiration. The way he embraced his diagnosis and the research he did to be well informed were a model for me. Fabien never doubted that he would be cured. Once on the road to recovery, he became involved with some fundraising efforts for the pediatric oncology program at Georgetown University Hospital (now Medstar), where he had been treated successfully. During his high school years he took advantage of opportunities to simultaneously build up college credits that were accepted at Temple University when he began his studies there. (Coincidentally, I had done my graduate work in the School of Communication there more than forty years ago.) Fabien is interested in film, writing, and politics and hopes to graduate next year at age nineteen.

In September Danielle published her own book of recipes, stories, and nutritional information titled “Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids With Cancer.” I believe this colorful, heartwarming, appetite-teasing book will bring help and inspiration not just to the families of kids with cancer but to all of us. This book—which grew out of her own experience and research—is just one part of a new calling for Danielle. She will soon finish a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and has been working cooperatively with Medstar Georgetown Pediatric Cancer Center to develop a Cooking for Cancer project. Funded by a Hyundai Hope on Wheels grant, the program includes nutritional assessments and cooking demonstrations for young cancer survivors and their families. It has been successful and often changing the eating habits of entire families. “Happily Hungry,” which is available at Amazon.com, was funded by several grants and the proceeds help support the Pediatric Cancer Nutrition Program that is now a part of the hospital clinic where Fabien received his treatment.

Danielle and her sister Adrienne, the third of Don’s children, have been presenting cooking demonstrations in the Washington, DC area for several years. Their emphasis is on locally grown ingredients including the food that comes from Adrienne’s garden. Their website lists upcoming events and offers exciting recipes.

Stories of the way major illnesses have changed the course of the lives of both patient and family are popular and not uncommon. Danielle was just like any other mother who watched the extreme suffering of a child and wished she could take his place. Her response was to use the skills of a lifetime as the springboard to invent an approach to healing and recovery for her son. Then she had the vision to find a way to share it with other cancer kids and their families. In the Medstar Georgetown Pediatrics online newsletter, the director of the oncology program Dr. Aziza Shad wrote, “We are so fortunate that the Navidis brought Fabien to us for treatment. The nutrition program Danielle has brought to Medstar is invaluable.”

Brief Book Review: Although I had received an earlier mock-up of Danielle’s book, I had not seen the final version until it arrived in the mail today. I sat down with a cup of tea and read it from cover to cover. It is an energizing, upbeat book that supports a positive path to help sick children recover, but the cancer diagnoses included in the photo captions are a sobering reminder of the harrowing journey of each of these kids with cancer. The tips, nutritional information, and clear cross-references between recipes and the side effects they aid guide readers to appropriate choices. I’m eager to start trying the recipes for myself and will pass them on to the parents of my great-grandchildren. In her author’s statement, Danielle allows that Fabien said it best one night during a family dinner after he was finally in remission: “This is my new favorite soup, Mom. It tastes like someone is taking care of me.”  

Fifth Tuesday Bonus Post: 10/30/2012
Next Regular Post: 11/06/2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Some of My Best Friends Are In-Laws

The John Deere Gator
“Are you ready for a Gator ride?” my brother-in-law Wendell said to me as he got up from the table where five of us sat talking long after we finished our delicious meal. He’s married to Bill’s sister Jean, and their other sibling Stan, his wife Ellen, and I were visiting their Kansas farm. It’s the first time we’ve all been together since Bill’s funeral nine years ago. Wendell was about to go check on his cattle and was offering to take me along. The last time Bill and I had been there many years ago, he had given me a ride in the air-conditioned cab of his gigantic combine while he did some fieldwork. Now, I love an adventure and the older I get the less it takes to qualify in that category. I had no idea what a Gator ride entailed, but it sounded like something out of Disney World, so I said yes.

The Gator, which turned out to be an ATV, has well-placed handholds, seat belts, and a windshield, but it is certainly an open-air vehicle. Off we went down the lane, up a dirt road, and across the fields. My old body bounced about as I held on tight, while in my mind I was singing, “I’m just a kid again. Doin' what I did again…” Wendell and I chatted easily and I asked lots of questions about the farm. In his mid-seventies, he is semi-retired, cultivates as many acres as he can comfortably manage, and rents out some of his land. Once we saw that the cattle were contented and had plenty of water, we took off on a tour of their acreage, including the “big rock”—a pink granite boulder left by a melting glacier eons ago. It was a glorious day and a soft breeze ruffled my hair. I was much happier in those endless Kansas fields than I’d been in Disney World many years ago.

Wendell is taciturn unless he’s telling a story or stating his opinion, but he is also funny with a dry sense of humor. At an age when golf is the usual pastime, he goes rollerblading at a rink where most of the skaters are less than half his age, and takes his young adult grandchildren skiing on the steeper slopes of resorts in the West. He had a ski accident a couple of years ago and broke his shoulder, but with faithful adherence to a physical therapy program, he was back on the slopes the following winter. He still does a workout every morning. Ellen is trying to strengthen the shoulder she broke several months ago on a walking trip in Italy, and I am trying to rehabilitate my painful knee, so we both joined Wendell on the floor one morning; he taught us some new exercises to add to our therapy homework.

His wife Jean came into my life in 1952 when she was a freshman at DePauw University and I was assigned to be her college big sister. A little over a year later, I would marry her brother Bill, but at that point he and I were best friends who had not yet fallen in love. Jean and I have been friends ever since, and I know we are as close as if we were sisters by birth rather than by law. Jean came to help me get some rest in Bill’s final days, and as fate would have it, he died four days later. From the moment she arrived until the funeral, she quietly and competently did everything from answering the phone to cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and keeping the final watch in Bill’s hospital room while I took a short break. She sent Miles running down the hall to fetch me when the end was at hand. In the years between DePauw and Bill’s dying, we had shared the joys and sorrows of child rearing, caring for elderly parents, and making our way through the passages of life.  Now she and Wendell are in their golden years, working a little less and traveling a little more, and I am in my decrescendo years, when home is usually the best place to be. But I needed to be with Bill’s family for another one of those good times I had enjoyed during my fifty years of marriage.

My journey started when Robin and I dropped Nigel at the nearby farm that is his home when I go on long trips. We drove by way of Louisville to the home of Anna, my cousin-in-law and sister-in-spirit in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, near Bill’s hometown of Sellersburg. Stan and Ellen had driven in from Washington, DC, and I would continue my road trip with them. We spent three happy days at Anna’s, including dinner each evening. During the day Anna and I talked endlessly about everything while the other two visited various cousins near the Dreyer homeplace where Bill, Jean, and Stan grew up.

Thanks to Robin’s regular trips back to Indiana, where he went to college and still has good friends, I have been to see Anna several times. Like Jean and all the Dreyer women, Anna is tall and beautiful. She lives alone, as I do, and is trying to be expansive in mind and soul as her world is also contracting. Fortunately she can still drive, although she’s decided to stop traveling. Anna does all her own housework and gardening even though it takes much longer these days, as it does for me. We share recommendations for books and movies, laugh together, and have frank discussions about health and aging in addition to gardening and politics. When we embraced at the end of our visit, she said that we had to hang together and not let each other give up too soon.

Stan was still in high school when I first visited Sunset View Farm; he was witty, full of smart remarks and little jokes, and the only one willing to get down on the floor to play lummi (pronounced “lemmy”) sticks with me. I had made my own set a few years earlier when I was a Girl Scout camp counselor and took them with me everywhere. He’s been my friend ever since. Stan brought Ellen into my life, and she also quickly won a spot in my heart. Periodically the three of us get on the phone together to catch up—the conversations are usually long and lively. What a treat to travel with them to Kansas and have plenty of time to talk. Over the years of my marriage, Stan visited us in Guatemala and we spent time with him in Haiti when he was working for CARE. After several overseas assignments, he and Ellen settled in Washington, DC where we were able to see them more often. My memory bank is filled with many walks I have taken with Ellen in Silver Spring, Celo, Florida, and Kansas, always chattering away like schoolgirls. But alas, not this time. Her injured shoulder didn’t slow her down, but I wasn’t as lucky with my painful knee.

I feel as though part of Bill’s intangible legacy to me is the friendship of these five in-laws. They were a major part of my support system as I moved through the years of grief and illness that followed Bill’s death. The phone calls from all three households were frequent and generous, and occasional visits were helpful and healing. I knew I was in their thoughts and prayers. That didn’t stop as I slowly found happiness in my life as a single person living in a place I love. These five are permanent threads in the tapestry of my life.

I don’t tell in-law jokes, and I don’t laugh much when other people do, because Bill’s parents and the spouses of my own siblings, as well as those I’ve just spent time with, have all enriched my life. A few days before my wedding, my mother sat me down for a chat. Among other things she said, “When you marry a man, you marry into a family.”  She went on to say that I should try to build good relationships with the Dreyers right from the start. The few rough spots I had mostly came from being a city girl marrying into a farm family or because my British background was different from that of Bill’s forebears who emigrated from Germany. Bill’s parents embraced me with love, but gaining a smooth relationship took time and good will on both sides. I did indeed marry into the Dreyer family and, to this day, I feel lucky that I did. 

Next Post 10/16/2012

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Vacation Vista: Detail from My Garden

In my Pennsylvania childhood, school always started on the Wednesday after Labor Day. Generally speaking, I liked school and was happy to slip back into the routine. But first I had to get over the hurdle of the obligatory essay assigned on that opening day about “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” In both elementary and junior high school we had to read them aloud each year. My summers never measured up to those of the kids who went to camp, visited grandma in the country, or spent a month at the Jersey shore. In the wake of the Depression my father was only paid nine months a year for his job as a school principal. He worked all summer at other jobs to keep food on the table, first as a camp counselor and later as a member of the interior paint crew for the school system, painting classrooms. Most years my family got to spend a little time at the shore using houses belonging to friends, but that was often in September; my mother had no compunction about taking us out of school for a few days.

What was special about my childhood vacations was the freedom. Once our chores were done, we go could go anywhere and do what we wanted as long as we headed home when the firehouse whistle blew at five o’clock, signaling the end of the workday. They were pleasant times, but not very exciting to read about in front of my classmates. I’ve been thinking about those happy, healthy, carefree days, chuckling as I remembered the annual ritual of recounting them in labored paragraphs. This week the cool mornings and first color change in the leaves are preparing us for the beginning of fall on September 22. So in case you are wondering what I did on my summer vacation this year, I offer you my essay.

The summer of 2012 got off to a splendid start when my family gathered in early July to celebrate my eightieth year. It was summer camp compressed into a long weekend, complete with Fourth of July fireworks at Penland, fishing, swimming, hiking at Mt. Mitchell, a talent show, good food, and campfires with toasted marshmallows. I was the grandma in the country that my great-grandchildren came to visit. For the next two quiet, hot weeks after the family dispersed, I basked in the light and love generated by the celebration. I enjoyed my cool house and serene garden as I wrote, read, knit, and did the things that keep me healthy: fixing nutritious food, napping, and exercising.

Then one fateful Sunday, I woke up from a nap, swung my legs over the side of the bed to stand up, and was shocked when my right leg—not the one with the revised knee—wouldn’t take my weight and seemed to sear my whole body with burning pain. I spent the afternoon and early evening trying home remedies, eating cereal and other quick foods, and apologizing to Nigel for not taking him on a walk. When Robin and Tammy came up to watch Masterpiece Mystery with me that night, I told them what happened. Tammy gasped as she looked at me and said, “Your whole leg is swollen!” It has taken seven weeks to pin down the multiple causes of the pain and to tease apart the leg problem from my other ongoing medical issues (heart, lungs, shortness of breath, anemia).

During my summer vacation, I have been a major consumer of healthcare—funded by Medicare and my AARP supplement—including first an evening trip to the hospital for a diagnostic blood test, followed during several weeks by a CAT scan of my chest, a nuclear study of the blood and air flow in my lungs, an ultrasound of my legs, and an MRI of my right knee. It took so long because it involved several different physicians who were on their summer vacations just when I needed an appointment.

Meanwhile I developed some dental problems that worsened during the time my dentist was traveling down a river in the far reaches of a remote Canadian wilderness. A few days after the MRI put the final piece in the painful leg puzzle, I had the last of three dental appointments, in which the dentist filled the holes that had made chewing difficult for weeks. I also had a very informative evaluation by the physical therapist in Burnsville. I have started some strenuous and uncomfortable physical therapy designed to strengthen the muscles that move the knee. My new physician (a physiatrist) is optimistic that my problem can be resolved non-invasively.

Although I am delighted that I don’t need surgery, it was hard for me to accept that all those tests and procedures aimed at solving the mysteries of my problems were warranted. I have been assured that, given the symptoms I presented, all were appropriate. However, except for the MRI, the results were either negative or confirmed a diagnosis already in my chart. I believe that the concurrent heart and lung issues, together with the weakness that caused so much concern, were doubtless related to the stress of pain, decreased mobility, and uncertainty.

As I prepare to cross the threshold into autumn, my hemoglobin is finally where it should be, my medications have been adjusted so my heart and lungs are back to their new normal, and I am getting into the rhythm of different exercises joining the ongoing routines of walking, stretching, and maintaining my status quo strength. My personal philosophy of health care derives from the literal meaning of the term, which is the maintenance and improvement of physical and mental health. I believe I need to work in partnership with the practitioners I have chosen. However, I remain responsible for my health as long as I am physically and cognitively able to manage it.

The sense that I can do it or I can figure it out was always second nature to me. I didn’t question it; it was something I knew to be true. As my strength and energy began to wane in the past two decades, I had some hard times when I agreed to do more than I could accomplish and had to disengage. I learned the lesson and started weighing things more carefully before I said yes, and I finally learned to say no. But now when I need to do many things to care for my health, I no longer have the easy sense that I can do it. I often feel I have let myself down when I know what I need to do, but do not have the energy. This dilemma is not yet resolved for me, either physically or emotionally. It is part of my ongoing meditation on how to live expansively, when everything in your life is contracting.

Vacation Vista: Mountainous Machines
Bill and I used to discuss what it means to have a vacation when you are retired. We concluded that it continued to be important to change the pace, step away from obligations, and explore new vistas. My summer vacation this year did slow the pace, but it increased my obligation to my health, and the only new vistas I saw were the giant medical machines that searched for clues to explain the mysteries. This week I’m off on a real vacation and a chance to visit with Bill’s family. When I explained about my long-planned road trip, the physical therapist smiled and said, “That’s okay, we’ll send your homework with you.” Apparently my summer break is over, and school has started again.

Next Post: 10/02/2012

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Emerson Was Right: Lessons in Friendship

5th Grade. Middle Row, left: Gina then Esther. I'm in Lower Right  

It was the first day of school in 1939 and I was the new girl. My family had moved from our house in Roslyn to an apartment in Glenside, Pennsylvania, just a five-minute walk from the elementary school. Our new home was dark and crowded, especially when all six of us were there. It was located right in the middle of the village commercial area and there was no back yard to play in.

David and I walked slowly past all the shops and parted inside the front door of the grey stone building, where he climbed the stairs to fifth grade. I felt timid and uneasy because I knew the children in my new third grade class had been together for two years. Mrs. McConnell, who was to become my all-time favorite teacher, called me to her desk and welcomed me with a hug before introducing me to the other children. Then she called Esther Harrar and Gina Garrett to come up to the desk.  She explained to them that it’s hard to be the new girl in a class where everyone else already knows each other. She wanted them to be special friends to me and help me get acquainted.

Esther and Gina were eager to do well with their assignment. In addition to showing me around the school and playing with me at recess, they invited me to their homes to play and to their birthday parties. It was Esther who introduced me to Girl Scouts—her mother was the troop leader—and it was there that I had my first taste of belonging to something. Those two girls were friendly to me until we graduated from high school in 1949. Esther and I have stayed in touch through all our moves. She now lives in California, but our friendship remains current. Mrs. McConnell was paying attention to me, but I believe she was also teaching me (and all the third-graders) a lesson in caring and in the importance of making a particular effort when it’s apparent that someone needs a friend.

I was not born with the mind or the physical assets that make a person popular in school.  Eventually I came to understand that I didn’t want to be popular; I was a nonconformist and something of a loner—and I still am. When I was ten I had the epiphany that I was the only one of me in the whole world, and that was a thrilling idea. I wanted to devote myself to being me and to understanding what that meant. I was not interested in trimming my sails for social advantage, but I wistfully wanted to be chosen by at least a few other people and once in a while to be included in the latest plan.

From time to time I tried to talk to my mother about my desire to have some friends and to be invited to their parties. She inevitably quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, her hero, who wrote, “The only way to have a friend is to be a friend.” She urged me to try being a friend to a lonely child in our neighborhood, but I had it in my mind that being accepted by some of the popular girls might be enough to give me better status. Reluctantly, I bowed to Mother’s advice and invited Maura, the needy child, to come and play one afternoon in my wonderfully big yard. She was a dusky child, but not dark-skinned, although she had jet-black hair that hung heavy around her face. Rather she walked in darkness, head looking down with a concave posture and showing no sign of animation nor was there any light in her eyes.

She spent an afternoon with me and then promptly became my shadow and followed me everywhere at school and in the neighborhood. There were rumors of abuse in her family and evidence of poverty, and she was definitely anathema in the sixth grade. The more she tagged after me the more my meager status wilted. I remember how torn I was because I had come to care about her and sympathized with her profound sadness, but at the same time her constant presence was a burden. Eventually her family simply disappeared without even any rumors left in their wake. Perhaps they were evicted or maybe the abused mother took the children away in the middle of the night. It took nearly another year before some of the boys finally quit teasing me about that friendship.

Even so, I remember my childhood as a happy, albeit often solitary, time. Most of my free hours were spent biking, swimming, reading, and hanging out with my brother David. The shining exception was during the last two years of the War when Ann Wilson lived across the street from me while her father was stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Their house was somewhat hidden from view, and you walked to the front door through heavy landscaping. It felt enchanted to me. Inside she and her mother cared for her younger sister who was severely retarded with Down’s syndrome. At an early age, Ann had decided that when she grew up she would be a teacher working with children like her sister. We were best friends until the war ended in 1944 and her family moved back to New York. We corresponded for a while and I still have one of her letters, but we lost touch. I didn’t have another close friendship like that until college.

Mother’s insight about being a friend was clarified and fully realized for me when I was twenty-two, pregnant, and miserable in the steaming heat of an Alabama summer. Bill was posted to Fort McClellan and had traveled to Anniston in May 1954 several weeks before I did. He rented the only apartment he found that we could afford. It consisted of a bedroom, an everything-else room, and a tiny bathroom. It was dark with few windows, and just eighteen inches from the exterior wall of our bedroom there was a large coop full of chickens—noisy at dawn, smelly all day, and a twenty-four hour incubator for flies and mosquitoes.

We’d immediately started attending the lovely Grace Episcopal Church and became acquainted with the rector, Father Bill Stoney and Martha, his no-nonsense whirlwind of a wife. They stopped by one day for a pastoral call, and I could see in their eyes both shock and amazement at our incredibly scanty lifestyle. The apartment was clean, and we had hung pictures on the wall, and put up curtains, but it still proved the truth about not making a silk purse out of sow’s ear, or perhaps a castle out of a chicken coop. One Sunday afternoon near the end of July, Bill and I were lounging around in a state of considerable deshabille, sharing the cool air from our single fan, when we heard a car door close and Mrs. Stoney’s voice calling, “Bill, are you there?” Hastily, Bill grabbed a pair of khaki shorts, and I scrambled into a sundress and we hurried out to greet her as she came puffing up the hill to our apartment.

Breathlessly she told us that they were on the way out of town to go spend the month of August in their eventual retirement home, called Happy Hut, in Saluda, North Carolina. She told us they simply could not bear the thought of us in this terrible place while the rectory stood empty. She had brought us the keys and a note with some instructions and told us that their maid Pearlie would be by once a week to clean and her wages had already been paid. Ever the practical one, I asked what we would do when they got home. “You’ll stay with us until we find you a suitable apartment,” she declared.

Bill walked her to the car and as they were pulling away he called out to ask where we should sleep. As the Stoneys drove off, Father Bill drawled out the window, “You can sleep in a different bed every night!” It turned out that the rectory was a veritable mansion with many bedrooms and a beautiful garden. We lived there alone for a month and another month after they got back. They were as good as their word about finding us a suitable apartment. I don’t think they acted as they did because they wanted to make us their friends; it was a simple act of compassion. But even though we were younger than their grown children, Bill and Father Bill talked and laughed together for hours at a time while Martha became my friend, mentor, and confidante. Their example inspired the two of us to make a habit of opening our home, our dining table, and our hearts, and often those invitations resulted in making life-long friends.

In the eight years since my husband and best friend Bill died, I have been sustained by the development of nascent friendships I had made over the years. Work, traveling, and caregiving had made it difficult to spend the time it takes to get to know others well: to share joys, frustrations, laughs, or recommendations for good books and Netflix. Now that I am home most of the time, my habit of friendship is to respond when friends—close by or far away—come into my consciousness, first by holding them in my awareness with loving thoughts and later sending an e-mail or picking up the phone. If I sense during a conversation with a friend that something is amiss, I try to name the feeling: “You seem down. Are you all right?” Often I invite them for tea. If my friend’s pain seems private, I don’t pry, but if they have a need to talk, I’ve opened the door a crack. I learned to do that because others have done it for me, and I discovered what a blessing that crack in the door can be, especially during times when I have struggled with grief or illness.

At any age, I have found that different friends are best for different times. What matters is that we are there for each other. The special intimacy that rises to the level of close friends is a matter of grace. It may be recognized in an instant or it may grow slowly over years until it crystallizes into a friendship that each person recognizes as something wondrous. 

Next Post: 09/18/2012

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Curiosity and Satisfaction

My brother David walked around my garden noticing things with a camera in hand.
Weekends feel different to me even though it’s been fourteen years since I had a regular job and weekdays were workdays. Still I have an ingrained expectation that Saturdays are for leisure, fun, projects, and opera; Sundays are for honoring God, nurturing my spirit, and being with family. So it was that one recent Saturday morning I picked up a New York magazine and began to work the crossword puzzle. I was zipping through it until suddenly I hit an intersection of clues that I couldn’t navigate. I called Robin’s house to ask if they knew a five-letter word for fungi for fermenting. They’re into all kinds of cooking and beer making, so I thought I was going to the source. However, Tammy didn’t know and Robin was out walking. After ten or fifteen minutes of trying this and that, and filling in a few letters, I discovered the correct answer just as the phone was ringing. Robin was inviting me to come on down for a cup of tea. When I arrived I said to them both, “Oh, by the way, the fungi for fermenting is yeast.” Robin dove for his one-volume encyclopedia, which he keeps at hand, saying, “I thought yeast was bacteria.” In seconds he was reading aloud about yeast (which is indeed fungi) and when he finished we all had the satisfaction of knowing.

After tea, I took Nigel for a long, leisurely walk, letting him set the pace. When he stopped to sniff a particularly bushy weed, I didn’t give the leave it command, but waited until he was ready to move on. In the spirit of mindfulness, I studied Nigel as he continued his investigation, noting especially that his tail was still as he made a careful nasal examination of the leaves, and then it started slowly wagging as, with his head down, he followed the trail through a little opening in the foliage to a clearing just inside the edge of the woods. There he must have found the mother lode of scent. His tail wagged at full speed, his little body was on stiff-legged alert, his head moved rapidly back and forth, and, nose to the ground, he was sniffing out the interloper or at least gathering a full dossier. When he finished he turned to rejoin me with a quick step. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’ll admit that I thought his whole demeanor radiated satisfaction. Now he knew! My mind left the woods for a moment and raced down the hill to Robin and Tammy’s little house, and I smiled at the thought of Robin’s wonderful curiosity (defined as a strong desire to know or learn). Their house is full of reference books, and in addition, Robin makes good use of his ability to find on-line explanations for almost anything.

There is, I believe, a direct line from mindfulness to being aware to noticing and from there to curiosity. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is the foremost exponent of mindfulness, describes the process as “the ability to be aware of what is going on inside us and around us.”* I first knew of this wise monk from the Vietnam War protest movement and recognized his name when it came up during the meditation aspect of the Jon Kabat-Zinn stress reduction classes I took in 2005. (Kabat-Zinn built his program on the healing power of mindfulness.) I immediately bought several of Nhat Hanh’s books and studied them. Although they provided a clear description of the practice, I found it difficult to still the many thoughts that bounced around in my head like popping corn. After many months of trying to be mindful both during periods of meditation and in daily living, eventually it clicked into place and became a part of me.

Keeping yourself aware of right now reduces the stress of revisiting regrets from the past or anxieties about the future.  As you stay present to the moment you notice more, and the practice will then increase your compassion for others, for the Earth, and for your own surroundings. One of the psychological pitfalls of aging—especially if you live alone—is a preoccupation with your own health and wellbeing. I have discovered that practicing mindfulness counteracts the focus on my physical issues by providing ongoing information about my body, how it works and what it needs. Instead of worrying about that nagging pain the middle of my back, I am aware when it starts and consciously relax my shoulders.

Here’s an example of how this approach works. First thing each day—after I’ve stretched a bit and had a glass of water—Nigel and I go out for our early-morning constitutional. The progression of mindfulness begins by first bringing my awareness to my self in this moment, taking in personal information: how I’m walking, where I’m looking, what thoughts are clamoring for my attention. Then consciously letting go of that investigation, I turn my mind to right now. I am aware of Nigel’s presence and any debris on the road that might cause me to turn my ankle, but I’m also mindfully sensing the day: the coolness of first light, the smell of moist earth, foliage, cigarette smoke lingering in the air after a car passes with the window open, a whiff of skunk. I hear the sound of the river as it rushes over the rocks, and near the meadow I notice the raucous tattoo of the crows and the obbligato of the songbirds. Sometimes I hear the wind or a rooster waking up. Even with a conscious effort to stay in the moment, the mind can absorb an amazing amount of data. All those observations, fully noticed, keep me from focusing on the pain in my leg, my sadness over the recent death of a friend, the state of the economy, or the latest mass murder. There is a time and a place in my life for the contemplation of such issues, but not while I’m out walking or later eating my breakfast with awareness and appreciation for the food.

In my first years of retirement my schedule was just as full as it had been on the job and I kept right on multi-tasking. I’m not quite sure how one applies mindfulness in the workplace except perhaps task by task. I came to this discipline after I had given up externally-oriented busyness to take care of Bill. When he died I was plunged into my own long illness. It was during that lonely time that I discovered this new way of being.

Curiosity has always been part of who I am, and I too make good use of my dictionary, encyclopedia, and the speedy on-line services of Google. Now even though my weekdays are mostly filled with household chores and keeping myself healthy, exercised, and nourished I have plenty of time to look things up and still accomplish enough to make the weekends still feel special. One of the gifts of aging is having more Saturday-kind of leisure to learn and to know, and Sunday-kind of motivation to expand that curiosity to the spirit.

* Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being, Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press, 2008.