Category Archives: Personal Stories

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.

Writer_01

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.

Tis the Season

IMG_1067The view from my window this December morning, just after first light, announces a foggy grey day. Streetlights and car headlights from across the river are the only signs of life in the stark landscape. The lawn and shrubbery are the clear winners as a steady rain swells the Allegheny River and thoroughly soaks the ground. The patter of the water hitting the roof and back deck seem to say, “stay where you are today if you can, inside by the fire.”

There is plenty to do inside this time of year, this season of completing 2014’s projects and preparing for the upcoming Christmas/New Year’s family celebrations. There’s the organizing and reorganizing, the putting away and throwing away of clutter accumulated during the way-too-busy fall. And whether it’s my dresser top or my closet’s shoe rack, my computer email box or my iphoto albums, finding a place for everything and putting everything in its place is my least favorite way to spend a day. clutter-affect-life-1

 

So I linger with my cup of green tea which is no longer warm, and think about the friend who gave me the holiday mug I’m drinking from. She is no longer able to take care of herself, according to a mutual friend who herself died this past year. Living in a memory care facility is one way to avoid the cumbersome, unpleasant tasks of keeping one’s life organized, and no longer living in this dimension is another. But I’m choosing today to clean up my own messes since I still have the capacity to do so, and to look for the beauty in each season’s landscape without comparisons to a more preferred one.

 

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.

Gifts That Endure

We were house guests at some friends’ lake house last weekend. Having never been there we decided that instead of bringing a house gift with us, we’d wait to see what they might need. After we got home, it was great fun selecting a couple of practical kitchen items to express our gratitude for a most enjoyable time.

plateThis morning I served my single fried egg and some greens on a colorful plate, which meant the food was encircled by yellow and blue rings, creating a most cheerful presentation. This appealing visual was especially appreciated since I’m on a special eating program these days, determined to discover at last which foods are good for my body, and which ones I should avoid. We always hear that “food is the best medicine” and I’ve decided to experiment with what that trite but true saying really means to my particular body.

The plate is one of four given to us as a gift many years ago from our friend Vickie, who now goes by the name Victoria. But when she was Vickie, she was as attractive, colorful and bright as these plates. And like her plates, she made me smile to just be around her. When she gifted the plates to us, they weren’t something we needed. They didn’t match any of our other dishes, which I didn’t understand at the time, was the point. They matched one another with different but coordinated colored rings surrounding a different singular fruit in each of their centers. Because they stood out they often held a place of honor in the china cupboard standing behind the stacked china. Now, through the magic of my memory, I can have breakfast most any morning with Vickie, just by getting out the colorful Pier One plates she gave us that Christmas, that time when we were as close as family, and totally in the dark about the challenges awaiting us in our futures.

lake

The soap dispenser we gave our friends for their lake house will most likely not endure as long as Vickie’s plates, but if it continues to work, (which is not guaranteed these days), I hope it continues to send the message of our gratitude that it was sent to represent.

The Summer Solstice

Today is the Summer Solstice. It is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, because the Earth tilts 23.5 degrees on its axis and causes this part of the Earth to face the sun directly. We’re not moving closer to the sun as people often think, it’s just a better direct angle. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year as the tilt changes their angle in the opposite direction. 

Summer-solsticeI don’t remember much mention or attention to this day in my family or in the Catholic schools where I was a student, but I somehow always knew it was a special day.

It must have been later research and actually visiting some sites in Mexico and Ireland where I learned the true importance of this day. Many ancient cultures around the globe; the Mayans, Druids, Celtics and others, oriented their sacred sites to highlight this day.  For them it symbolized the triumph of light over darkness. Stone structures or caves were crafted to allow the light to stream in to their altars announcing that the journey to enlightenment had reached its apex.  

I remember just after my son Kenneth died, looking up at the bright moonlight streaming into our living room, and realizing his death was on a particularly auspicious day, the summer solstice. This assured me that I would never forget the day, never allow it to go by unnoticed. My practice is to find something special to do to honor my son, and to express my gratitude for his life and the part I was allowed to play in it.

Ken, Sheila and Rich in CorpusThis year I’m participating in the Re-Source Gathering of Creation Spirituality here in Pittsburgh around the theme of Compassion.  The conference began last night with circle dancing and chants lead by master teachers from the Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions. We used InterPlay forms to connect with ourselves, each other, and those we love who are far away, on this plane and on another. This focus on compassion seems especially fitting for this occasion as Ken and I were compassionate companions, suffering together until, on that early morning of the Summer Solstice 1997, the suffering was no more.

Commencement

It’s a tremendous accomplishment, though I’ve often wondered, whose accomplishment is it? If it takes a village to raise a child, when the eldest child of my eldest child was scheduled to graduate from college a couple of weeks ago, our family determined it would take at least that many relatives and friends to help him celebrate.

 EthanGradThe graduation was to take place in the spring in the center of the country, in a city where none of us lived. Traversing the country from all directions, relatives drove south 10 hours from their home in Nebraska, Auntie Pat flew from Detroit, my husband and I from Pittsburgh, one granddad from Oregon and our grandson’s uncle, wife and 20 month old flew north and east from Palm Springs. His sister Vitoria had to stay home due to a rained out and rescheduled soccer game but she was able to participate via Facetime when her brother’s Iphone was passed around during the family’s celebration dinner.  

 Spring rainstorms across the country turned everyone’s travels into a most challenging saga, testing our stamina, flexibility, endurance, financial solvency, and group problem-solving skills. When flights are cancelled due to weather, airlines bear no responsibility and are held harmless, thus the need for all the above skills. When our nearly 20 month-old granddaughter and her parents were slated to spend the night at an airport on cots, this grandmother had to swing into action to find them real beds nearby.

MeEthanKelly Looking back now was it all worth it, all this effort to mark a family milestone? It wasn’t till I got home that I fully realized why it was all so important to me. I’d worked with my grandson to plan the events. I’d rented a house so everyone would have a place to stay.  His grandfather and I held a reception that included his friends and ours, and we sponsored the family dinner he wanted at one of his favorite restaurants near campus. Ethan’s mothers had died when he was 12, and as her mother, I had to be sure and do for him whatever she would have done, had she had the chance.