Category Archives: Art & Life

U S Air Travel circa 2015

We’re in line at the Tucson airport waiting for the gate agent to rebook us for a second time. Earlier in the day a broken fuel pump had sent us back to the gate and now, six hours later, storms around Dallas have grounded the new plane sent to rescue us. During the first hour in line I was forced to overhear one side of the cell phone conversation between a 30’s something man in a grey work out tee shirt apparently mentoring a less experienced friend. His subject – the relationship between performance reviews and annual salary increases. In between his descriptions of his own experience, he consistently repeated the phrase, “you see what I mean?” As his conversation progressed my irritation mounted at each “you see what I mean?” and I became fully occupied inhibiting my strong impulse to turn around and reassure him that I understood what he means.

Airport

This second time in line we’re behind two men, Presbyterian ministers, discussing mutual friends and the political issues of their chosen careers. Overhearing their conversation I learn they both live in Tucson and are trying to get to a two-day conference in Atlanta. In the best-case rerouting scenario they will already have missed the first day. “If God doesn’t want us to go, we’ll listen to that,” one man reassures the other, “and go home to our wives.” A woman in front of them who I had earlier overheard tell the woman next to her she was returning from a health coaching conference, chimes in, “I too am a minister and I like to say, “God has a plan and it isn’t always our plan.” At this point under the increasing weight of my stylish back pack, I’m holding on to a faint sense of gratitude that we are not air born and having to experience first hand the reported wind shears and tornado force winds taking place between here and our destination. By 9:30 pm, after retrieving our two suitcases and my husband’s golf clubs from baggage claim, we make it to the hotel to stand in their check-in line. We learn we’ll have to use our airline breakfast vouchers at the airport since the hotel’s food service won’t begin early enough for us to make our 7 am flight.

Somewhat refreshed after five hours of sleep in a real bed and a hot shower we make it back to the airport to learn that the kitchen that services all the airport restaurants is out of eggs. As I’m attempting to deal with my disappointment two slender women, perhaps refugees from the health coaching conference, distract me. One takes out a small plastic container from her purse filled with a small amount of what looks like peanut butter. She begins spreading it on a slender slice of dark bread. The other woman asks a restaurant staff person for something I can’t decipher but I laugh with the women as he presents a package of Reese’s peanut butter cups, “It’s on me if this will do,” he says with a broad smile and I wonder whether he gets the joke. Now my gratitude switches to the fact that I have brought some of my own provisions, sharing the health coach’s lack of confidence in any airport’s food offerings. As I crunch into the crisp slices of sweet red pepper, sugar snap peas, and spinach leaves I brought from Pittsburgh, I’m especially grateful that they travel better than we do.

What’s Involved In A Writing Life?

Writers write, or so they say. And though I write most every day, it hasn’t been the type of writing I believe that wisdom refers to. In the last two weeks I’ve written a writer’s statement for an article being published in an anthology in May, and three proposals for speeches I hope to give. Inspired by a woman who writes regularly for a business magazine I’ve filled several pages with practice headline titles for future workshops and articles. She said she spends half her writing time on the headlines because if they’re not engaging and provocative, what you write in the article doesn’t matter. No one will open or read it.

I’m still kept busy tending to the needs of the book Warrior Mother that I’ve already written: writing thank you notes to the people who helped me with last week’s Seattle workshops and book performance, sending emails to workshop participants so they’ll fill out the survey monkey evaluation forms, and organizing my notes from an online course I’m taking on book promotion. A couple of days ago I posted information on Facebook about a radio show I’ll be engaged in.

WritingLife_bookLooking over my list of recent duty filled writing inspired me to re-visit Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I was hoping for some inspiration, remembering what can happen when we writers respond less to external demands and more to what is trying to emerge from inside. Visiting her website, which I was surprised to learn she manages herself, http://www.anniedillard.com/ I find the following, “I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books…Here is some information for scholars. (I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.)”

What I learned from Annie Dillard, a most prolific and accomplished writer who was born in Pittsburgh – The life of a writer, whether experienced or neophyte is nowhere close to our romantic notions of that profession. It takes a great deal of determination to pursue it.

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A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Like most Americans, my ancestry is a bit of the mutt variety. Dad’s people came to this country from Protestant England and Northern Ireland and were established on farms in southern Illinois well before this country’s Civil War. Mother’s family were redheaded Catholics from Scotland on her father’s side, most likely from northeast of Edinburgh. Her grandparents on her mother’s side were born in Ireland in the midst of the potato famine, and shortly after they married, they boarded a ship to America, settling in Springfield Ohio just after the Civil War.

Irish-Blessing-St-Patricks-Day-Free-Printable-by-Five-Heart-Home_700px_Print-1When my children look back on their ancestry they must include the great- grandparents on their father’s side who left Scotland after their highlander Great Grandmother, who lived in the Lightbody Castle, married their Great Grandfather, a lowlander, and the gatekeepers’ son. Upward mobility for their offspring meant moving to a country with a less rigid class system. On their other Great-Grandfather’s side, there is the mystery of where he came from before he boarded a ship in Liverpool England to seek his fortune in America in the early twentieth century. And to complete their pedigree, they must include the woman he married who was from the Netherlands.

By the time my grandchildren get the St. Patrick’s Day card I send to them each year, I’m sure they are shaking their heads wondering what St. Patrick’s Day has to do with them. They are surrounded by relatives on their father’s side, all descendents from the same ethnic group, Germans from Russia. These people immigrated to Russia from Germany at the invitation of Catherine the Great to bring their farming skills to Russia. They agreed to come as long as they could keep their own language and religion, and be free from the duty of military service. After 130 years, the Russian government cancelled the agreement and my grandchildren’s ancestors were among the million or so Germans from Russia who settled in the Americas after the Russian Revolution. The center for Germans from Russia is in Lincoln Nebraska where my grandchildren live.

Getting back to my insistence on sending St. Patrick’s Day cards to my relatives, I’ve always wondered why my mother’s Irish heritage seemed to stand out from the array of other ethnic influences in my background. Leprechauns_SingingPerhaps it was the fact that her Irish Grandmother raised my mother and that influence never left her. Perhaps my close relationship with my auntie, my great-grandmother’s daughter, grafted me to that branch of the family tree. Or maybe it’s something to do with the spirit of the Irish in general. Wherever they are, in whatever community they live, on St. Patrick’s Day, they lift their glasses and invite everyone to join them in being Irish, just for that day.

Memory 2.0

My husband and I shiver as we stand with our friend Randall at the front door of the Memory Care Center waiting for someone to let us in. “How long has Jyoti been in this facility?” Rich asks. Randall briefly details the 10-year history of his advocacy for his wife in a string of facilities of this type and, blowing my breath on my gloveless hands,  I wonder if it might be time to move her again. “This company pays its staff a bit more so their turnover is lower,” Randall says. Through the glass door I catch a glimpse of a cleaning cart and knock more vigorously on the door. A maid responds and lets us in.

We walk into the main living room and find Jyoti, one of our best friends of 30 years, asleep in a recliner in front of a dark television screen, the same spot I left her on my last visit nine months ago. She’s dressed in comfortable, warm looking grey slipper boots as Randall approaches her chair from behind and gently calls her name. Coming around to the front of her seat, he offers his hands to pull her from the chair and lead her to a more private area for our visit. My husband Rich and Randall walk on either side of her, each holding a hand, and I walk behind. When we arrive in the new space she and I look at each other and I imagine I see a spark of recognition on her face.

IMG_1162The men and I slow way down in order to be in communion with her rhythm. She and I sit close together on a love seat and she lets me put my arm around her. As we hug she murmurs and mumbles a sound that sounds like “Mama.” Randall sits in a chair across from her and teases her about looking so intently at him. Rich sits in a chair on her other side while she creates sounds a young child might make, occasionally saying expressions like, “Oh, my,” with an inflection of surprise or delight. She breaks out in a song, and I respond by singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” I tell her that’s what her song reminded me of. She says some syllables in a rhythmic manner like reciting a poem and we remind each other and her of what a good poet she was. Randall invites Jyoti to dance with him and she seems delighted to do that. She’s a bit more reserved when Rich and I join the two of them in a circle dance, but though shaky on her feet she allows it. 

We take pictures of us together and Randall leaves the room and bringing back a framed picture of several women and us in our spirituality group from her room. I comment, “We’re all dressed up and at a wedding but I can’t remember whose wedding it was.“ As we study the picture together I say, “I look pregnant in that picture, but that couldn’t have been the case. I was way too old by that time.” Jyoti begins making a cooing sound and pointing to my stomach. As we sit together in the silence she rubs my tummy while making cooing sounds and I get the message that she’s teasing me about there being a child inside.

Returning home to Pittsburgh I’m disoriented, having trouble picking up the threads of my usual life, as though I’ve traveled to another place beyond space and time, another place we are all headed toward, one way or another. 

Memories

“My memory is perfect,” our 98 year-old former dance teacher, Eddie Deems said, as we gathered in Fort Worth in the living room of mutual friends. My husband and I hadn’t seen Eddie for at least 10 years, and on this recent visit to our former hometown I’d been delighted to learn that he was still alive and able to meet with us. The original plan was to have dinner together but Eddie called that morning to tell our hostess he wasn’t having a good day, so he’d not make dinner. But he was determined to come to see us, so he instructed us to go ahead and eat without him. He told me later, there are no more good days due to his emphysema. Breathing problems make it hard to eat and talk at the same time, and he’d decided he’d rather talk.

IMG_1165Before he began reminiscing with exquisite detail about experiences with famous customers of the dance studio he and his wife ran for over 50 years, he prefaced his remarks. “Now I’m going to name drop, in order to tell you this, so forgive me. This is something my son holds against me. I’m a namedropper.” Getting well into a story he would sometimes interrupt himself and ask, “Now why was I telling you that?” The people in the room, our friends, and Eddie’s present wife of 17 years, would then reconstruct the threads of the conversation and he would remember how the particular incident he was relaying fit with the point he was trying to make. He would then pick up the story where he’d left off.

Eddie remembered some things I ‘d forgotten until he reminded me. He still seemed grateful that I had visited the hospice hospital room of his first wife, Lavonia, who had also been our dancing teacher, when she lay dying twenty years earlier. This reminded me of attending her funeral and a visit I’d made to Eddie’s hospital room several years later, when he had seemed surprised that anyone he knew would make such a visit.

We hadn’t been able to get our dinner in before Eddie arrived so we were quite hungry by the time he got up to leave. “I’m amazed I’ve been able to talk this long,” he said, “I’ve said more tonight then I’ve said all week.” After posing for some pictures we would treasure as mementos of the occasion, Eddie left and we sat down to dinner, grateful to have the time with it and glad he had elected to talk rather than eat.

Trouble in Paradise

It’s raining in paradise. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise since the paradise I’ve been living in for the past week is a tropical rainforest in Jamaica.  Palm tree leaves blow sideways in the wind, and water splashes upward from the pool into the air as the grey clouds forcefully empty their load of moisture onto the ground.  Members of my husband’s family and I, who have gathered from various points around the U.S. for a family reunion, have been spoiled, – not only by the villa staff who have seen to our every need, but by the weather. Except for a couple of short flurries, like some that happened last night to interrupt our group’s stargazing on the beach, it has been continuously sunny and mild.

Jamaica
Jamaica

As thunder rolls across the hills, there’s still plenty to do at the villa. We’ve teased about needing to get the scissors, sparkle glue, and craft paper out to keep us fellow “campers” occupied, but between books, I pads, smart phones, cards and Monopoly games, we’ll never run out of rainy day things to do.

Truth is, I haven’t done much since arriving except relax. I’ve taken a walk most mornings, a yoga class the last two, lounged by the pool reading a book, intermittently jumping in to cool off, taking breaks for afternoon naps or a chance to chat with a particular relative. We’ve focused a lot on pictures, both taking them and reviewing past videos and stills. We’ve shared significant handwritten letters from a time when that was the preferred mode of long distance communication.  Someone in the younger generation instituted a system for sharing photos on our smart phones, though mine isn’t smart enough, apparently to get in on that system. It’s definitely time for an upgrade.

Eating is a major vacation activity, and the chef and his staff has prepared delicious meals, but my diet isn’t quite like everyone else’s, and the timing isn’t what my tummy is used to. This of course, is what Rich would call, “a first world problem,” and hardly something to complain about. I was able to bring greens from home and replenish them from the resort commissary because I had the determination and the money to do that. Not sure the staff always appreciated my interruptions of their usual routine, but then, I’m not used to having servants wait on me, so the discomfort is probably mostly mine.

And there is discomfort that outside the resort I know the streets are filled with people experiencing poverty and its effects, people who are in a state of want for basic needs like food, shelter, and education. I hope that the money my family brings in and spends here helps the economy and the people who do the work to make our vacation the luxurious, delightful experience it has been.

Hallow’s Eve

The pumpkins are prominently displayed at the grocers, along with the colorful pots of the season’s most celebrated flower, chrysanthemums. Front yards in my urban neighborhood sport dried corn stocks while the nearest farmland is at least a twenty- minute drive away. Homes with resident young children exhibit walkways and front doors decorated with spiders, cobwebs, and life-size white-sheeted ghosts.

Halloween-Home-Decor-Ideas-Cobwebs When visiting the homes of older children you may likely be greeted by a life-size black outfitted, gory, fanged, blood dripping, skeleton. As the costumed trick or treat crowd make their way from house to house on Hallow’s Eve, no one mentions that these playful, sometimes scary provocations of horror, are actually a contemporary version of ancient end-of-harvest ritual that celebrated the spirits of the dead. It was believed that in this transition time between fall and the hibernation of winter, the veil between the worlds was lifted, and spirits who had once walked this earth, might return on this one night.

 For my children Halloween was their favorite holiday, and before the Halloween candy had been sorted, let along eaten, they would begin planning for what they wanted “to be” for the following year. The dressing up as someone or something that they were not, or the opportunity to express a part of themselves in an artistic creative way seems especially satisfy, way beyond other holidays where gifts are exchanged or the turnover of the calendar is marked.

I still remember my youngest son, Ken dressed as a three year old devil, carrying a pitchfork made of cardboard, seven year old Corinne, dressed as a fanged tooth witch, her blond hair hidden by a black wig, and handsome five year old Kevin, outfitted as a swashbuckling pirate, (his dagger was also hand crafted by his parents out of cardboard.)big-scary-halloween-props

During this period of time in my life, my then husband was a radio news broadcaster assigned to the 6 pm and 11 pm news, so for all practical purposes, I was a single Mom on Halloween night. Fortunately I had a sister who came to help dress the children and who stayed at the house to give out the candy while I took the kids on their walk around the neighborhood. The evening  really was a two adult person operation.

One particular year, the scary costumes didn’t keep the evil spirits away from our house. While my sister and I were at our agreed upon posts, someone came around the back of our house and through an open window took our purses that were sitting on the kitchen table. In the aftermath of the celebration, not only were we both out of the money that was in our purses, but it was impossible to get a check cashed or have access to a bank account without our stolen identification.

Now all three of my children are grown and two of them are “on the other side,” as first nation peoples refer to death. As I light a Jack-a Lantern in my front window, I hope the spirits of my relations know that I would welcome a visit from them, in whatever state of dress or undress they might be.

On Receiving a Book Award

The email to inform me that I had won a book award last week went to my spam folder. A voice mail message on my home phone delivered the news that Warrior Mother had won a silver in the category of “Inspirational Memoir – female” for the 2014 Independent Publishers’ Living Now Book Awards.

LNsilverMy first reaction was a feeling of not being sure how I felt. I sent my husband and best friend a note saying, “I think this is a good thing.” In spite of the ambivalence I’ve always felt about contests in the world of art-making and performance, the powerful role that individual taste and opinion play in the final judgments, and that at some point, the differences in quality between offerings are often miniscule – I’ve decided to decide this is a good thing. 

I got into this contest because last summer as my book was coming came out, my publicist suggested I do so. She warned it would take a year or so to get results, but if I won, that would be good timing to re-energize the sales of a book that would no longer be “hot off the press.”

This particular contest satisfies my social work heart in that it honors books that have the ability to change lives. “The Living Now Book Awards celebrate the innovation and creativity of newly published books that enhance the quality of our lives, from cooking and fitness to relationships and mature living.”http://www.independentpublisher.com/article.php?page=1861

And, I’m at the place in my life that I don’t want to pass up any opportunity to celebrate – my own achievements, and the accomplishments of people who contributed to Warrior Mother through the years; those that helped me live through the events I wrote about, the community of supporters such as my writers’ group who helped in the process of writing, the She Writes Press team that produced the book, and those of you who have been willing to read it, tell your friends about it, write reviews and help me perform it around the country. Please join me in this celebration. I’m sending each of you a high five and a gigantic thank you.

Music for Whiling Away the Miles

Finally  a rainy morning where I can lounge a bit in my version of the universal writer’s uniform, my pajamas. The past ten days have been relentlessly busy with mostly all good things, but going the speed of the body means at this point, some stationary down time. In the past ten days I’ve driven to Youngstown to Perform the Book with guest artist, Soyinka Rahim and Atlanta InterPlay leader Jennifer Denning at her family’s home church. I’ve driven to Racine Wisconsin for the Body Wisdom National Board Meeting and Leaders’ Gathering, capped off by performing a solo drive home to Pittsburgh. Last night I headed to WV with two members of the Wing and A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and was especially grateful to friend Amy for her willingness to drive us home.

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Driving in my especially comfortable car is, for the most part, a delight. A sing-a- along with InterPlay musician James Schattauer kept me alert through miles and miles of monotonous turnpike terrain. James’s simple rhythmic tunes inspired me to try my hand at composing my own verses, and a likely theme that emerged was finding suitable food to eat at the roadside oasis. Here are the words to the song I came up with – “My body likes spinach, my body likes greens, My body likes spinach, my body likes greens, Like Popeye the Sailor Man, I too am a fan, But I must admit, I don’t like them out of a can.”

In defense of my “poetry” the purposes of this exercise, which I accomplished, were to amuse myself and to keep myself alert through a long day of driving. To get the full effect, you really have to hear the tune.