Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty-Three: Winnowing

How many more times, after all, am I likely to read Walden?

I recently posed that question, largely rhetorical, to my son Ben. I have just finished reading Walden as of this past weekend. This is perhaps my fourth time through it since I first read it back in the 1970s.

Walden came up because I am in the mood to winnow out more of the domestic flotsam and jetsam of my life. A Facebook friend and his wife recently sold the family home and downsized. He posted photos of stacks and stacks of boxes throughout the new space, commenting wryly that apparently they "didn't get" the concept. 

There but for the grace of God go I. 

Some of the impetus is feeling the (very faint) stirrings of Spring—some incipient sense of spring cleaning, perhaps? Some of it, as my close friend Cindy and I discussed earlier this week, is that we have all hit an age (our 60s) where we realize we all just have too much STUFF. 

Some of my mood, I am quite sure, is that I am applying for assisted living for my elderly aunt Ginger. I will be moving her from a one bedroom apartment with decades of accumulations to, in all likelihood, a small studio. Even if not a studio, a decidedly smaller space. This means I will be tasked with distributing and disposing of everything else, which ranges from a small dinette table to sacks full of papers. The papers include but are not limited to the 2013 Changes to Medicare Manual. Later editions may not be available because I have already intercepted and recycled them, but because Ginger has mixed quasi-important papers with the dross, and because some of the papers contain personal information (account numbers and the like), I will have to go through the sacks one by one by one.

It will be an Augean task.

On my own home front, I have been building a small wall of paper sacks in my study, all destined for Goodwill. One bag holds strings of large, incandescent Christmas bulbs, the old fashioned kind that look like glowing snowdrops on a snowy night. The last time we used them, our electric bill doubled. Another sack holds Boy Scout popcorn tins, the overpriced decorative ones that Cub Scouts with innocent faces sell. I've held on to several thinking they'd be perfect for holiday treats. The holiday treats, incidentally, that I do not make (other than biscotti). The cup cozies from conferences, the dress pants that were never comfortable, the jigsaw puzzles that have been worked—you get the picture. 

The bags will head to Goodwill soon enough. Having finished Walden, I walked it Sunday to a nearby Little Free Library. I'll still have a house and life full of stuff, but maybe just a little less stuff.

Thoreau, in writing Walden, exhorted the reader to "Simplify. Simplify." I'm trying, Henry. 


Monday, March 13, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty-Two: Friends

My friend Cindy's dad, Jim, died last last week.

Jim was 86, well on his way to 87. His physician had discovered end stage cancer several weeks earlier. His death was not unexpected.

Cindy and I go way back. She is a year older than I am; we grew up together. Her mom, Mary Lou, and my mom became friends in their girlhood and graduated from high school together. My dad and Jim knew each other from young adulthood on. My maternal grandparents knew Cindy's maternal grandparents. Our families have been linked in so many ways for so long.

Growing up, it was not unusual several times a month for my family to be at Cindy's house or her family to be at my house. The adults would play cards and drink pots of coffee all evening; we kids would play endlessly (when we were little) or talk nonstop (when we were older).

I always knew that my dad and Jim were close friends but I didn't realize the foundation and depth of that friendship until Jim's funeral.

My dad was asked to speak at the service. For me, it was a first to sit back and listen to my father speak in public. In keeping with his personality, Dad kept his observations short and plain. In talking about Jim, he told a story I had never heard before.

When Dad was a young adult, newly married with a baby on the way, he was trying to learn a trade. Because he was draft age, the local industries in this town did not want to spend time training him. So while he found work at low-level entry jobs, he was shut out of learning machining, which is where the money was.

When Dad finished his Army stint and came back home, he had the same dilemma. He needed a job with a future in it if he were to support his growing family. He had mechanical skills, but still few marketable trade skills.

Jim had those trade skills. Three years older than my dad, Jim had learned machining somewhere along the way. In addition to his shop job, Jim also owned a lathe and did piece work for his employer as a way to earn extra money. Jim used his lathe and machining equipment to teach Dad the basics on being a machinist.

My dad paused in speaking at this point.

"Because of Jim teaching me, I was able to get a job as a machinist, improve my skills, make better money, and work my way up. If it hadn't been for Jim, I would have gotten by, but not had the opportunities or the eventual good income that being a machinist gave me."

Several years before ever meeting Jim, Dad had been told by some stranger that he'd one day work with electrical things. When Dad retired as a master machinist after a lifetime of machine shops, he retired from General Electric.

"So you see," Dad said slowly. "It must have been predestined that I'd meet Jim."

Predestined? Who knows? The common thread more likely was Mom and Mary Lou being longtime friends and young wives and mothers. But put in the context of a lifetime friendship, of gratefulness for another man taking the time and effort to teach a valuable trade—well, maybe predestination does play a part.

It was a touching tribute and a fitting goodbye to a lifetime friend. We should all be so lucky to have a Jim in our lives. We all be so lucky to leave behind such a powerful impact.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty-One: My Reedie

I love Reedies.

Reedies are students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Twice a year I get a phone call from one of them as part of the fall or spring college fund drive

Tuesday night my Reedie called.

All Reedies follow a script; that's just the reality of fundraising. But what I love about Reedies is how they deviate from the script quickly. My Reedie, looking at my connection to Reed College, asked me about my son Ben (Reed, 2008). That lead to my commenting about my daughter-in-law Alise (also Reed, 2008). She then asked questions about whether they met at Reed (of course) and all but swooned when I said they got engaged on Commencement Day. "That's so romantic," she breathed.

My Reedie this time around is a linguistics major. She knows German and "some Chinese," but the language she is concentrating on presently is sign language. To me, that was a classic Reedie answer.

My Reedie asked me if I'd ever been to campus. Oh, yes, oh, yes. I explained that besides Ben's commencement, I was occasionally on campus during my Portland years (1977-1983). In fact, as I shared with her, when I transferred at the tail end of my junior year to a Portland college, the only reason I applied to Lewis & Clark instead of Reed was that L&C had a three-quarters residency requirement, whereas Reed required six quarters. Wanting to be done with my bachelor's degree, I chose efficacy over quality. It was the right decision for me at the time, but I always had a slight tinge of regret that I skipped Reed.

Maybe that's why I encouraged Ben to look at Reed closely when he started his college search. And when Ben said he was applying only to Reed, I backed him 100%.

Reed gave Ben a lot of thing, starting with acceptance. At Reed, he gained intellectual growth, being a part of a close community, and his wife, among other things. Because of our greatly reduced financial circumstances (Ben went to Reed during the years I was in dire financial straits), much of his education was free.

It is that last point—that Reed paid for much of my son's college—that explains why, when my Reedie asked me if I would give again, I said yes and pledged $25.00.

Under my current stringent financial controls, that small pledge will come out of my "spending money," which currently stands at $74.00, with another week until payday. That might make things a little tight, especially if I end up buying any groceries this coming week, but I can make it work.  It's for a college that set my older son on his path to adulthood.

And besides, my Reedie asked.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty: It

As I wrote last week, I was sick with some sort of short-lived respiratory virus. Short-lived, but intense. I was sick sick sick. Sick enough that I missed work, which almost never happens. Sick enough that I ran triple-digit fevers that should have sent me to the ER, only I gambled that acetaminophen and sleep would knock them down. (I won that bet.)

Sick enough that it took me until well into this week, as I eased back into work, before I could discern between the remnants of the mystery virus and the perpetual sickness I carry with me. That moment came Wednesday of this week, when in a quiet spot I felt and thought, "Oh yeah, there It is."

"It" is what I have come to call a sickness I carry in me. We—my two oncologists, personal physician, Warren, and I—don't know exactly what It is or why It is omnipresent in my body. The most popular theory, and one I agree with, is It is what twelve and a half years of myeloma and lots of treatment, more or less nonstop for almost five years, looks like. It is not nausea nor exhaustion (which I also deal with on a daily basis). It is a blend of malaise and ill-feeling, waxing and waning throughout the day and night.

Whatever It is, It sucks. And as I age, and the myeloma continues, It takes a bigger toll on my day to day life.

With very few exceptions, lunches with friends or my husband are out. They take too much out of me, especially if I am working that day. I've given up the Mansfield rehearsals (but not the concerts) for the same reason. I put off many coffee dates, missing the camaraderie, but not having the reserves to focus on them. Besides my job (which is simultaneously grueling and stimulating this time of year), my only outside activities are Legal Clinic one night a month and Poetry Night two nights a month. I worry that I may have to cut back on the former at some point; I leave the latter early and come home both exhilarated and exhausted from the talk and the poetry.

Travel, especially longer distances, is becoming harder, thanks to It. (Hell, some days a walk in the neighborhood is a stretch.) That's why my kids are coming here this summer for a week instead of me flying out there.

Well-meaning people, and by that I mean almost everyone, tell me I look "great." People, people. One, I know what I look like and "great" is not the word. I look passable, but give me a break. I know It is taking a toll on all of my body, not just my face.

So what does this all mean? Frankly, not a whole lot. It is not going away. Neither is the cancer. I have learned that if I am deep into something—a mediation, a good book, writing, for example—I can shove It aside for a blessed hour or two. When I am sharing time with a friend or Warren, I can relegate It to the back row. Although It tracks me all night long, I am able to sleep most nights without It taking up the bed space. (I am only aware of It when I wake up in the middle of the night, and with luck I am soon back asleep.)

And I go on, because that's what we all do.

The past several months have been hard on our community and on my circle of friends and family. Yet we all go on. I have come to appreciate that simple reality: we all go on.

Here's to those who simply go on. You know who you are. And I am right there with you.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Inch One Hundred Fifty-Nine: Friday Morning Thoughts About the Newest Newberry


It is Friday morning and I am sitting at the kitchen table, the sun bright on the table, on the floor, and on me. The sheets are in the washer downstairs while I sit here and pen my thoughts.

For anyone who knows me and my work well, you know that a Friday morning at home this time of year is unheard of. We are in the throes of attendance season when I am scheduling and attending multiple mediations at multiple schools all over Delaware County. (Indeed, I had three scheduled today. Thanks to a coworker taking over for me, I am home.) This is not the time of year that I lollygag at home.

I'm home because I'm sick. I'm home because in February alone I have been exposed, sometimes repeatedly, to pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, the flu, and every garden variety illness every school building harbors. I'm home because my body finally caved.

I think I have just a bad cold. Given my battered immune system, if that's all it is—a cold—I will be thrilled. I would love it if more serious possibilities glanced off me.

My being sick with a cold is not unlike my being sick with cancer, at least as far as my evenings go. Granted, it is a lot messier, what with the nose blowing, but otherwise I spent last evening as I spend most evening, curled up under a blanket reading.

Last night's reading was extra special because I held in my hands the brand new 2017 Newberry Award book. Once again, as they do more often than not, the committee members picked a wonderfully inventive, beautifully written work, The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

The Girl Who Drank The Moon is a fantasy novel, aimed at middle schoolers. It is light-filled, not dark. Yes, there are two villains; they are vanquished without gore or violence. Luna, the girl of the title,  is smart and funny and heartbreaking. She grows from infancy to age 13 over the course of the book, and Barnhill nails age-appropriate behavior and language at every stage. While the book is about growing up and coming of age, it is about love and family (and its many configurations) and loss and hope and love in the face of loss. Indeed, it is that hope and overpowering love that save everyone and lift the book to its glowing end.

As a further bonus, The Girl Who Drank The Moon has the most intriguing use of paper folding I have ever read, causing me to say out loud the ultimate compliment to a writer: "I wish I had written that."

So last night, as I sneezed and blew my nose and ran a small temperature, I disappeared deep into the Forest with Xan and Luna and the wise Swamp Monster (Gherk) and the Perfectly Tiny Dragon Fyrian who in the end grows and makes a Simply Enormous Decision. I loved every minute of it.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Inch One Hundred Fifty-Eight: Shabbat

It is Friday night.

Sabbath.

Shabbat.

I am sitting at the kitchen table writing this by longhand, that act (writing) being a violation of strict Sabbath observances. I lit candles after sunset, another violation, then turned on the oven (and another) and baked brownies (and another).

I am not an observant Jew.

Despite my lack of observation, I am deeply appreciative of the Sabbath and its spiritual importance. For Jews, it is 24 hours (sunset to sunset) in which we are to step out of the secular world and into a world of prayers, family, contemplation, study, community, and reflection.

It is our break from the everyday.

I am rarely removed from the secular world on the Sabbath, but I try hard to lace in bits and pieces of it when I am able.

Tonight, as the sun was setting and the Sabbath was arriving, I took a walk downtown to post some letters and enjoy the early evening. I had just enough time, I figured, to get home and light the candles before the sun set. (Note: I rarely light Sabbath candles, yet another indication of my persistent failure to remove myself from the secular world.)

As I walked home, I walked past Linda and Mark's house. Linda, a longtime dear friend, was on her porch. I hailed her and crossed the street.

We hugged.

Linda and I sat on her front step and talked. Talked of family, talked of aging, talked of community, talked of life. While we talked, the sun went down and the shadows grew deeper. The Sabbath was well upon me before I stood up and said I had to leave so I did not trip in the dark.

As I walked home, I thought of my long friendship with Linda. We have been through some life adventures together in the almost twenty years I have known her. I reflected on the pleasure of just sitting and talking and being in the moment of that long friendship. Indeed, for that fifteen or twenty minutes, I stepped out of the secular world into the world of community and friendship.

I may not have observed this Sabbath by the book, but I think I observed it in my heart.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Inch One Hundred Fifty-Seven: Bonds


"And what about Sam B____?" I asked.

"Oh, Sam retired a few years ago," said Dick.

Sam retired! There are photos of him holding Ben as a baby. Sam retired! But Ben is 31 now, so that is not improbable.

We—Dick, his wife Milly, Warren, and I—were sitting around a table in Chicago having this conversation. I have known Dick and Milly for almost 30 years; they are friends from long ago when I lived in Stockton, California.

Way back then, Dick worked in the county Public Defender office with my then husband. Milly and I both had law degrees and very young children.  Paths diverged. We moved to Ohio. Dick became a judge. Milly continued her solo practice. I practiced law, got divorced, became ill. Our boys grew up. Life went on.

The bonds of friendship held. I last saw Dick and Milly (and their sons, then in their late teens) in 2006 in Cleveland. When Warren and I got married two years later, they sent us a hassock of camel leather that Milly had brought back from Egypt or Morocco. (Dick and Milly are world travelers.)

Over the decades, we exchanged Christmas cards and an occasional phone call. [Note: A Christmas card from Dick and Milly is a mini-travelogue. Seriously.] We'd talk of getting together but they were in California and we were in Ohio. "Get to Chicago," I'd urge, "and we'll drive up to see you."

And that's what finally happened. Last weekend they flew in and we drove up for a much anticipated reunion.

We had a long weekend of food and talk, of storytelling and catching up, of comparing life notes and telling jokes that even Warren, who'd just met them, soon joined in. After one final breakfast together Monday morning, we all hugged hard and went our separate ways. It was wonderful.

In my past life, I was frequently criticized for "hanging on" to old friends. Anyone qualified: friends from my childhood, friends from my college days, friends from anywhere. My ex-husband would accuse me of "always dragging along" people from my past, implying that I had some deep, unhealthy motive for keeping these relationships.

As we sat at breakfast Saturday. laughing and talking, I saw a table full of those I'd hung onto from my past. (That includes Warren, incidentally.) I didn't drag any of these friends along into my life. Instead, it was the bonds we'd made over the years that brought us together: bonds of friendship, bonds of laughter, bonds of love. And here we all were, making new bonds, strengthening old bonds, and celebrating all of the bonds, past, present, and into the future.