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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.

Soccer Grand Mom

Here I am sitting on the edge of a soccer field outside Dayton Ohio, on the canvas folding chair I brought in my car from Pittsburgh. Weather predictions were for rain but it’s sunny, hot and humid.  Unseen and unnamed bugs are having a good lunch on me, and I’m wishing I had a big umbrella as shelter from the sun like several of the more experienced soccer moms brought.

Soccer_players_chasing_ball_3I’m doing my best to keep up with what’s happening on the field. My granddaughter isn’t playing right now but I recognize several of the girls that have played with her since they were tiny tots, kicking soccer balls on the sidelines at their big brothers’ games. Like many Americans I wasn’t introduced to soccer until relatively recently. It took my grandkids getting involved for me to start taking notice of the sport the rest of the world calls “football.” At the all girls’ high school I attended in Louisville Kentucky we played field hockey, though as a dancer, I was less than enthusiastic about the big wooden sticks we swung at one another while running across the field. The school sponsored a basketball and volleyball team as well, but the notion of having spectators come to watch girls play any sport hadn’t occurred to many people yet.

Times have definitely changed. The World Cup is in progress in Brazil and the television audiences in the U.S. are breaking all records. Watching the U.S. game at a restaurant last night with the team and their parents and coaches, I caught the tremendous sense of excitement as fortunes change quickly and near misses decide fates. These “surprises” may help explain why most of the world’s people are enamored soccer spectators.

girls-soccerThe soccer I’m witnessing is my granddaughter and her team, competing in the national tournament for high school aged girls. They won the state of Nebraska to get here but they’ve run into stuff competition. They weren’t able to score in their first two games and this one’s the final game, so tension is building. Just when I’m thinking the eleven-hour ride home is not going to be pleasant for the team members, or the parents accompanying them, the girls find their grove, and the energy shifts. No longer struggling individually, they connect with one another.  The ball zigzags across the field, from one player to the next. The girls call to one another and respond quickly. They guard their opponents relentlessly, and doggedly move the ball down the field towards their net. I’m on my feet and the sun and heat and bugs are gone. Along with the parents and other spectators, I’m cheering as they score, and score, and score. The finish? 5-2.

Eggs

My focus on eggs started with the picture my daughter-in-law sent of my twenty month-old granddaughter, Kyra Joy. She’s outfitted in a pink princess-like dress and tiny white shoes.

kyraShe’s standing in a park in the high desert of California to participate in her first Easter Egg Hunt and she’s holding an empty basket. My daughter-in-law said the event started at 9 am and by 9:05 the older children had collected all the eggs in the field with help from some of the parents. The look on Kyra Joy’s face tells us she hasn’t yet figured out what the game is, let alone how to play it.

Now here is her grandmother in Pittsburgh, searching for eggs in my backyard, which contains the Allegheny River and its shoreline.  Having lived here for nearly ten years I noted this year the sea gulls were exceptionally numerous. They say it was due to the long winter freeze on Lake Erie. But they’re all gone now, except for one lone gull. We noticed him (or her) splashing in the water and swooping back and forth overhead, sometimes landing to perch on the pole at the entrance to the small harbor beside our home. I wondered what was keeping him here after all his buddies had flown home. gooseflight.images

Canadian Geese return each spring to the place of their birth to begin their new families and for a community of twenty-five or so, our waterfront is that home. Each spring we try to see if we can discern where some of the nests might be. Once we identified a nest in the rubble of an old dock, alerted to its presence by a male goose circling slowly in the water near the shoreline. This year a goose is stationed in an odd spot near the road, not necessary a place to hang out, so it’s clear he’s protecting some eggs nearby.  

egg imagesTwo day ago I went for a walk on the river trail just before dusk. I walked further than people usually do unless they’re intent on fishing. I followed the curving trail around to the harbor and was startled to see in plain sight, a large white egg. It sat not in a nest, but amidst twigs and brush, and seemed to be totally unprotected from predators. There were no papa or mama birds around, no geese or that single gull, though this could have been a reason for him to stay behind.

On line research ruled out the gull as the parent because their eggs are speckled. But the size and color of the egg is consistent with the photos I found of goose eggs. I learned the mother doesn’t sit on the eggs until she’s laid them all, usually one a day until she has five. I visited the spot again yesterday and the one egg was still there by itself.

goose-eggs-in nest-in-southern-wisconsinToday I found it again, still alone but this time a large goose circled over my head and landed in the water nearby. I got the message. He wanted to be sure my basket remained empty.

The Anatomy of Ecstasy

When my then five-year old nephew, Adam, who was an only child discovered that he had four cousins he said, “I feel so big. I’m bigger than a Giant!”

giantimage  Preparing to return from Atlanta after spending time with a group of amazing women and meeting many others in the larger community, I felt so full of excitement that I told a friend, “I feel like I could fly home without the airplane, though I do know that wouldn’t be a good idea.” 

 My friend and teacher, Cynthia Winton-Henry knows about this. She calls it “Flaps up, Flaps down.”  To demonstrate how to navigate between our Big self and our pedestrian, Little self, she directs her students to raise their arms high and out to the side as though they were a bird or a plane. This is “flaps up.” Then she instructs her students to put their arms down by their sides, “flaps down,” in order to return to their smaller individual selves.

womanspreadingwings Some activities require us to be in our Larger self. When I spoke with a numerologist friend of mine about what I needed to do to promote my book she said, “Last year was your completion year when you finished and published your book but this year is a number one year for you, a time of new beginnings. It isn’t a time to play small.”

  I knew what she meant. This isn’t a time to lead with my insecurities. When I experience that excited/scary feeling in the pit of my stomach just before I step onto a stage – that’s the call to step into my Bigger Self. When I am in this Larger Self, all that I know is available to me, and I am open to inspiration, which in theology is described as a “divine influence. ” I know that I’m likely to be there when I’m centered in myself from deep inside, standing tall without apologies, and fully present to the environment.

Some activities take us to our Larger Self. In Atlanta, when I was with a group of women who were each in their Larger Selves, it seemed easy to be all that I am and to appreciate the wonder and amazement of each of them. During our time together it seemed that magic happened and magic has continued to happen since as the universe seems to be cooperating with our shared goals.

Atlanta group-58 One of the women sent an email to the group members and told of an experience she had while driving home. She heard a voice that didn’t sound like her own. The voice said, “Prepare to be amazed,” and it seemed to her like the matter-of-fact sounding message delivered at Cape Canaveral – “Prepare for lift off.”  Later that same day when she got home she had a chance encounter with a woman who, when she told her a bit about our weekend, offered to partner with her to achieve our desired goals in their community.

In the days since, many of us have been experiencing similarly amazing chance happenings that are likely to help us achieve our individual pieces of the desired group goal. As I reflect on this experience of communal flaps up and its aftermath in my life, I remind myself to take special care of my Little Self. Our bodies aren’t built to live perpetually in flaps up and my bodyspirit need some flaps down time in order to be prepared for more amazement.

 

The Real Men Are Standing Up

My best friend and I were sitting at her kitchen table having coffee. The TV news was probably on in the background because Rose never wanted to be too far away from events in the larger world. It was 1977 and the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution, which guaranteed women equality of rights under the law, was still lacking the three states necessary for its ratification.

march

Feminists to the core, Rose and I had focused on “women’s issues.” She’d traveled by bus to various marches for the amendment while I had founded a Center for Co-Equal Education consulting with school districts across Nebraska as they implemented Title IX. Through an Educational Equity grant we worked with community colleges in rural areas, as they addressed the needs of women students. Back home in Lincoln NE, we frequently stood up to church and neighborhood organizations intent on turning back the clock to a simpler, more unequal time. 

But in this private moment we were talking about our sons. Mine was in junior high, and hers in high school. They seemed to be floundering.  We had raised them to be feminists; to respect women, to know how to cook a meal, to not be afraid to show love and tenderness toward younger children, and to not think it would challenge their manhood to do dishes or their own laundry. Despite our efforts, we saw our sons being raised by their peer group – the neighborhood boys.

David had gotten into alcohol and drugs and was exhibiting the irresponsible behavior that that life style brings about. My son Kevin was experimenting with smoking pot with his classmates on the school grounds. In spite of the large cloud of smoke wafting each morning from the low hanging branches of the largest tree in the schoolyard, I couldn’t get anyone in authority to take notice. In the standards of that day, they couldn’t be sure it wasn’t tobacco that the 12 to 14 year old kids were smoking, so they elected to look the other way.

Rose and I finally came to an uncomfortable but undeniable truth. She said it out loud. “We can teach our sons many things but we cannot teach them how to be men. Their fathers and other men have to do that.”

So here we are, some thirty years later, and I am thrilled to meet some grown men in the Pittsburgh community who are taking steps to do just that. Their organization is a chapter of one founded by African American men in Omaha NE in the early 80s. Its full name is Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder, but their short handle is Mad Dads. http://www.pittsburghmaddads.org/about-maddads.html.

maddads-groupTheir mission is to train and guide men to impact the issue of drugs, gangs and violence. They go unarmed on street patrols as surrogate parents, work with law enforcement and provide support to the women who are raising their children without a father or grandfather in the home. Their aim is to make their neighborhoods safer by becoming the force behind the change they want to see. 

And as often happens, when the time arrives for a truth to be accepted, whole communities begin to take action. This March several organizations in our community that have funded services to deal with domestic violence are calling on the good guys in our community for help. They’re sponsoring Man-Up: A Men’s Leadership Program March 14th at the University Club 9 am – 11:30 am. Call Sue at 412 456-5550 or sue@ficafoundation.org