Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ambivalent Meandering Toward Spring

Harbingers of Spring
“I love to write,” said the sixteen-year-old Iraqi girl after Scott Simon (host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday) asked her what she planned to study in college. She replied that she wanted to major in English, especially writing. As I listened to her carefully pronounced answers during the interview during the interview, I called up a memory of the sixteen-year-old girl that I had been and could picture myself saying with that same intensity “I love to write.”

However, I didn’t choose to major in English. My parents and siblings all wrote in one form or another, and I followed their example. Consequently, I never thought writing was something to study; it was something you did. My choice for an undergraduate major was Psychology (the study of the mind). I couldn’t have explained it at the time, but I eventually realized that I wanted to understand why people behave the way they do, starting with members of my own family. I also began to know that I was happy to write about anything—especially if someone was paying me—because the joy came from creating words on a blank page that precisely conveyed what was in my mind. This consciousness of motivation eventually led me to graduate study of Communication Theory (with an emphasis on journalism). For me, writing is the craft and communication is the art, and together they become my creative vehicle.

With the leisure of old age, I have returned to the study of the mind as something of a hobby. This happened because Robin and I share books from Audible.com, and his choices sometimes lead me down alleys I might not have explored on my own. It was through various audiobooks that I became aware of the explosion of research in brain science. Coincidentally I also discovered the studies of brain plasticity involving Buddhist monks during periods of meditation. Since then I’ve been reading or listening to books and articles that explore how monks and scientists are increasing the understanding of how the brain operates to enable the work of our conscious mind. I can grasp the conclusions but I’m a long way from understanding the process. However, in subtle ways this hobby-study has become a part of my joy in writing. When my brain makes a connection between two seemingly disparate bits of information, I say “Thank you, Brain,” because I have a small sense of how those smidgens of knowledge found each other. At my age, the brain functions are still there, but they work more slowly and sometimes hit dips in the road; that’s why I decided it is a good practice to take notice and express appreciation when it works well. I’m also mindful of my brain when I sit to meditate.

This week I will welcome spring with the vernal equinox on March 20. And any day now I will also be welcoming the newest member of our extended family; the first child of my grandson Miles and his wife Polly (my extraordinary copyeditor) is due on the 23rd These are two expansive events that embody new life, growth, and love. Spring is also a time of movement as warm days, daffodils, and blossoming trees will beckon us to put on our walking shoes and get out there! Against this blessed and welcome backdrop, I have started the process of waking up my sleeping shoulder with initially gentle physical therapy that—just as the days are lengthening—will become more intense as the muscle fibers stretch.

I came home from two months in Tybee on the first day of March, and the next fifteen days were mostly cold and windy. Granted I was tired from the aftermath of my shoulder trauma and the process of packing up at one end of the trip and unpacking at the other, but I was also experiencing a strange state of mind. As I tried to express my feelings to some family members, I made a large circle in front me with my arms saying, “I want to gather everything in and hold it close.” I was speaking of feelings, thoughts, dreams, desires—in short, all the intangibles that affect the quality of life. I was not ready for expansion. I was not even ready for shoulder therapy because I had no desire for exertion of any kind. When I discussed this with Tammy, we talked about similar feelings just before giving birth, and wondered if we might also have such feelings as we near death. For many days I continued with the image of gathering and holding close my sense of personhood.

One day last week the weather forecast suggested the temperature might drop into the teens overnight, and I went out and picked the only three daffodils that were open. I said a few words of encouragement to all the buds that I hoped would survive the night. Only a day later we had warm sunshine, and when I returned from physical therapy I looked out and saw the proverbial host of golden daffodils and paler jonquils that edge one of my garden beds. I stood on my deck and flung wide my arms—I let go of all that I had gathered in. I declared to the blue sky that I was ready for new life; ready to move my shoulder and my legs; ready for spring; and ready to write about it!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sources of Warmth: Emotional and Technical


From the time I was two until I turned seven my family lived in Roslyn, PA in a house that was heated by hot air coming through a large grate in the center of the first floor. The coal-fired furnace in the basement was faithfully stoked by my father. Although the grate was at the foot of the stairs, the second floor was cold, and we had an old kerosene heater in the bathroom where we all went to get dressed. My first memory of that heat source was doubtless reinforced by the number of times I heard mother tell this story: A few days after my third birthday, she called to me to get out of bed and run to the bathroom to get dressed. When I came I said, “I know what getting dressed is. That’s when I put my arms in the air and you put the dress over my head and I wiggle into it and when I open my eyes I see the heater.” Then Mother would explain to the listener that when I wiggled into my clothes I always spun myself halfway around.

As I got a little older, I used to watch my father clean the clinkers out of the furnace. The coal was delivered to an outside bin that had a chute into the cellar. The last thing Daddy did after he cleaned the pit and banked the fire was open the chute and replenish the inside bin. The living room in that house was also cold because it was furthest from the grate. However, it had a large hearth and fireplace where my father would tend a wood fire in the evenings and on weekends. Thus I grew up associating my father with warmth. We moved a lot and I remember other coal furnaces, sometimes heating water to circulate in radiators that needed periodic attention. There were other fireplaces and kerosene heaters and finally a house with oil heat, which was doubtless a luxury for Daddy.

After Bill and I were married, we also moved around a lot. But the apartments and houses we rented or bought were heated by electricity, oil, or natural gas.  We moved to Celo thirty-five years ago with the intention of returning to an earlier era and heating our home with wood stoves. Bill took complete charge of that aspect of our life, and he reveled in it. As he sawed up logs and then split them, he would belt out bits of a song about chopping our wood and making our garden grow. As he began to have more health issues, it was harder to do the work. We hired others to fill the woodshed, but he continued to tend the fire. He believed it was a beautiful, spiritual thing to keep our home warm. As he got weaker, he carried smaller and smaller loads of wood and had to make more trips outside in cold weather. He didn’t complain but rather expressed his satisfaction that he was still able to keep us warm.

In 2000, three years before Bill died, he suggested that we sell the two wood stoves and depend on our small floor furnace in the main room, basically the same technology as my family’s Roslyn house but much smaller—intended only as a backup—and fueled not by coal, but propane. It has never been adequate in really cold weather, and I have supplemented it with various small heaters. As I have aged and faced numerous physical challenges, I went back to dressing in the bathroom in front of a modern, electric space heater shaped just like the kerosene heater of my childhood.

 One year ago, I consulted with a friend whose work and passion is what he calls “deep green building.” He took a look at my house, made numerous suggestions about stopping air leaks, and touted heat pumps for their economy and energy efficiency. It took me many months to find my way to yes, mainly because it was a sizeable capital investment, and who knows how many years I’ll be around to use it. My son Robin clinched the decision for me when he made a little speech, “Keeping you warm and comfortable is part of the plan to keep you in your home and not in an assisted living facility. Three months in a place like that would pay for the pump.”

So we did the research, talked to the electrician and the recommended heat pump expert, and just before Christmas, I signed on the dotted line. So when I came home from Tybee, it was to a lovely warm house. Best of all there are registers in my closet, bathroom, and lower room (which I hadn’t been able to use in the coldest weather).

I took with me to Tybee a batch of archival letters that Bill or I had written to my mother when she was in the last decade of her life. I was researching a couple of events I hope to write about and was looking for details in primary sources. In the box I found a sweet, typed letter from Bill to my mother congratulating her on painting the porch, front door, and window trim on her brown-shingled house and putting in new carpeting. The darker colors she had chosen some thirty years earlier had become depressing when she was housebound and struggling with vision problems. I suddenly remembered how she worried over the same issue as I did: Should she spend all that money when she might not live much longer? Actually, she enjoyed her yellow front porch and cream-colored carpet for almost ten years before she died at ninety-four. Bill’s words written to my mother—with strikeover corrections of typos on paper yellowed with age—were speaking to me.

I made the trip home from Tybee Island to Celo last week, weary from packing with one arm still in a sling and the emotions of leaving the sweet Tybee beach cottage I’ve rented five times, knowing it might be my last stay (it’s been sold). It was very cold and snow was blowing in the wind, but as I stepped through my front door I felt caressed by soft warmth. I continued to feel it with each step I took in every part of my eight-hundred-square-foot house. My new heat source was paid for by money Bill had saved in his IRA, so I knew that he was still keeping me warm and—through his words written so many years before—was applauding my decision.

I’ve been musing about the ways that warmth means love: bundle up, stay warm, take a jacket, here’s an extra blanket. We use the word “warmth” about a loving personality or a friendly exchange and the word “heat” about passion. We offer a loved one a hot cup of tea when they are sad or have just come in from the cold. We check the children before we go to bed to be sure they are covered. For centuries, men and women, mothers and fathers, parlor maids, footmen, and school janitors faithfully kept warm those they loved or cared for. Now I have happily joined the ranks of those who control their environment with a thermostat and generate warmth with a heat pump. But it still feels like love on my cold cheek when I come in from walking the dog. By the way, I’ve kept the floor furnace; it doesn’t require electricity and will come in handy if the power goes out.

Next Post: 03/19/2013