Thursday, December 29, 2011

Counting Down

The ending days of this waning year have been piling up, one on top of the other. We are down to the dregs of 2011, and I for one am ready to put the year to rest. This has been an exhausting year at any level. Margo and I were discussing the year over coffee just yesterday, exclaiming at the fact that so much happened worldwide that has already faded from her and my daily consciousness: the Japanese tsunami, the Joplin tornado, the Arab spring. I wondered aloud whether they had faded because of the nature of news (in that we are always moving on to the "next" story), or whether they had faded because, on mental overload constantly, I let more and more slip through my fingers.

Back in the old days, when I first started practicing law in a small firm here in town, the last two weeks of the year were always a hectic time. Clients always rushed to get done in the last two weeks of the year what they should have done earlier, very often related to gift or charitable giving for tax purposes. Files would pile up precariously on the conference room table; staff members would be rushing to get copies made or documents corrected; lunches were discouraged. But in the midst of the rush and chaos, there was always that exquisite moment when the senior attorney would announce, "that's all we can do this year. We'll start again after New Year's. Close the doors."

I want to say that in my personal life. "That's all I can do for this year. Close the doors."

I worked this morning until early afternoon. Out of hours for the week, I then walked home. I am done at the office for the rest of this year, a luxurious sounding phrase if there ever was one. I just mailed off the Christmas boxes to Ben and Alise and Sam. I have nothing on my schedule, nothing of my calendar, nothing calling my name until 2012.

Close the doors.

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Two updates from 2011 blogs. (1) I have not yet found my grandmother's popcorn ball recipe. I didn't even make popcorn balls this year - not because of the loss, but because of time and being too rushed on too many fronts. (2) Back in August, I predicted that our local legal clinic would see over 250 clients for the first time in its eight years of existence. Indeed, the Andrews House/Delaware County Bar Interfaith Legal Clinic saw and provided services to 254 clients (including a Wills Clinic that served 16) in 2011. By comparison, we served 206 in 2010. That's a 23% increase in one year. While deeply sorry to see that record set in terms of the community difficulties, I am proud to be associated with the many volunteers who make the Clinic happen month after month.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Recipe

"I can't find the popcorn ball recipe."

Warren looked at me as we ate breakfast this morning. "I'm sure it's here."

You would think so. But no, I have searched through the recipe folder and checked a few other spots where I thought it might be, and come up empty-handed.

The recipe, which was the one my beloved Grandma Skatzes used every Christmas for years and years, was printed on a 4x6 index card. I have carried that card around with me for some 25 years.  Across the top, I had printed "Skatzes Popcorn Balls."

And it is not here. It is not in the folder where I tuck recipes, it is not stuck in a cookbook, it is not on a counter in the kitchen.

It is gone.

After Warren left for the holiday concert rehearsal, I came back home and googled "popcorn ball recipes." No, I don't want one with marshmallows in it. No, I don't use molasses. This was a water, sugar, and corn syrup concoction. After several minutes, I zeroed in on a few recipes that sound darn close. Until and unless the recipe card shows up, these will do.

The new recipes will do because when it comes right down to it, the magic of my grandmother's popcorn balls was not  in the eating, although they were pretty darn good. The magic was in the smiles on the faces of family members when it was popcorn ball time and they stopped in at Grandma's to pick up their sack of goodness. The magic was in the love Grandma put into every batch she made. The magic was in being allowed to spend the day by her side, burning our fingers from time to time, listening to her stories.

The magic is in the memories.

Monday, November 21, 2011

One Berry, Two Berry, Read Me a Newbery

Part 2 of 2

Okay, so much for my theories about the Newbery Medal. Here's why I really wrote this column: I want to talk about my experiences reading the Newbery Medal books and what I thought of the titles.

The Books That Have Failed My Test of Time

The Story of Mankind, Hendrik Willem van Loon, 1922. This was the first Newbery Medal book. Even if you can overlook its blatantly white, Euro-centric point of view, it is a tedious read at best. My heart aches for every boy or girl who found this under a Christmas tree that year.

Smoky, the Cowhorse, Will James, 1927. Imagine Black Beauty told not from the viewpoint of the horse, which is the magic of Black Beauty, but from the third person narrative. Now transpose Black Beauty to the American west, throw in some Mexican desperados and some manly rodeos, and for good measure write the entire book in a folksy, "cowboy" dialect. I made it to the end of this novel, but I got awfully tired of hearing about Smoky's "hankerin'" for grass, or oats, or rest, about how every horse in the book was "a-poundin'" when it ran, and how his "mammy's" ears twitched at the least sound.

Gay Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, Dhan Ghopal Mukerji, 1928. Words fail me. The book is indeed the story of a pigeon, named "Gay Neck" because of the bright feather band around his neck. Narrated largely by a young man (the author in fictional voice) and set primarily in India, the book's style is not merely stilted; it is painfully twisted and hard to read. The chapters from the pigeon's viewpoint are equally laborious to wade through. Mukerji lived most of his short life in exile for advocating for a free India. This is clearly a book written by someone who knows he will never see his homeland again. The most moving part of the book is the author's heartfelt and now heartbreaking description of the sanctity and symbolism of Mount Everest, concluding with the firm assertion that Everest would never be trod upon by man. Mukerji killed himself in 1936, mercifully never seeing the successful ascent of Everest in 1953.

Daniel Boone, James Daughtery, 1940. This book lost me when I realized one of its themes was "the only good Injun is a dead Injun." Indians are vastly underrepresented in the Newbery list, but this was the worst depiction of all. I contrasted it with Waterless Mountain (1932, set in Navajo Nation in the late teens or early 1920s), which made a largely successful attempt at portraying a young Navajo boy navigating the modern world while remaining true to his spiritual values. Consider also Caddie Woodlawn (1936), The Matchlock Gun (1942), and Rifles for Watie (1957), all of which have Indians making cameo or supporting appearances. While the Indians portrayed in The Matchlock Gun are clearly the enemy, they are the enemy because they have sided with the French in the French and Indian War and are attacking the family in the story, and not because they are "bad" Indians. I cannot get past the clear bigotry in the work about Boone.

Strawberry Girl, Lois Lenski, 1946. What can I say about this book? Lenski has drawn a curious and harsh picture of life in rural Florida in the early part of the twentieth century, using years of research to frame the story of Birdie Boyer and her family's struggles as they establish a strawberry farm. Contrasted sharply against the Boyers are Shoestring Slater and his family, graphically representing the "poor white trash" of the day. I never found sympathy for Birdie, her family, the Slaters, or anyone else in the community. The edition of the book I read contained a forward explaining Lenski's research techniques and her desire to write an entire series of regional stories representing modern children in America. Lenski won great praise for her many contributions to American children's literature, but this is not a book I would eagerly recommend.

Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, 1992. I know, I know. I am the only person who doesn't like this book. It is a coming of age story, it features a boy and a dog (a surefire winning combination), it is full of pathos (the dog is brutalized) and triumph (the boy rescues the dog honorably), and it fits the "Appalachian Poor" niche. I found the characters unrealistic, with the bad guy drawn so stereotypically narrow that the only way I made it through this book was reassuring myself it was short and I was almost done. I have not read either Honor Book for that year, but this is one where I am thinking "Really? This was  the selection? Really?"

A book which I am reluctant to consign to this list but must talk about is Rifles for Watie, the 1957 winner by Harold Keith. Set during the Civil War in the states and territories west of the Mississippi, this book is exemplary for several reasons, not the least of which is its fairly searing depiction of the realities of war (death, hunger, privation). It stands apart because an underlying story is a love story between Jeff, a young Union soldier, and Lucy, a young woman whose family supports the Southern cause. Romances come and go in any literary genre, but this one is unique because Lucy is the youngest daughter of a Cherokee family living in Talequah, today's capitol of the Cherokee nation. She gets to deliver the clearest explanation of why her family(and indeed many Cherokees) supports the Confederacy when she gives Jeff a strongly worded history lesson about Andrew Jackson and his violation of Indian treaties that resulted in the destruction of the Cherokee's community in the east. Lucy does not say the word "genocide," but in her description of the numbers who died on the trail, it is the unspoken word that hangs in the air.

So why am I struggling with this choice? Because despite his clear-eyed recounting of Cherokee history, the author cannot resist having his characters draws distinctions between the "preferred" Indians (those who conduct their lives like whites) and the "frontier" Indians who have backslid into "shiftless" ways, abandoning the white culture and businesses for subsistence farming and hunting. The frontier Indians even discard the white man's clothing, and while Harold Keith does not describe their undesirable dress, I strongly suspect the women would be wearing the tear dress that is now the national dress of the Cherokee nation.

There is another reason too that I hold back on Rifles for Watie. Someday, I may have a grandchild whose family heritage is an elaborately stitched quilt of many backgrounds, including the strong dose of Ojibwa (Chippewa) he or she will inherit from my daughter-in-law Alise. I wouldn't want to have to begin to explain to my grandchild the inherent bigotry behind the depictions of the good (white) Indians and the lazy (native) Indians. I couldn't do it.

Sigh.

Now, for the feel good part. These are the books that rose to the top of the list.

April's Cream of the Crop Newbery Medal Winners

The Book That Changed the Face of the Newbery Winners: Thimble Summer, Elizabeth Enright, 1939. Prior to this, the medal books were primarily either about children living in other eras (Caddie Woodlawn, Roller Skates), or other countries (Dobry, Yung Fu of the Upper Yangtze) or were the retelling of folk tales from various parts of the world. Thimble Summer was set in 1930s America, with the Great Depression as a backdrop. Real time, real children. The first of several Newbery Medal Books set in the Great Depression, it is the only one written, published, and honored during that era. 


Biggest Surprise Ending: Miss Hickory, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, 1947. Early on, the Newbery Medal went to Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (Rachel Field, 1930). Hitty is a wooden doll who pens her memoirs from her now secure home in an antique shop. When I began Miss Hickory, I wondered whether I was in for another Hitty. Ha, was I surprised! Miss Hickory is a narrow minded, selfish, and self-centered sentient twig being who comes to not one but two unusual endings. Her first is when her head (which is a hickory nut) is eaten by Squirrel, who is starving at the end of a long winter. No, she does not redeem herself by sacrificing her head; he pulls it off her body and eats it. Miss Hickory's stream of consciousness reflection on her life and all of her shortcomings as her head is consumed is riveting. The second ending is when her beheaded twig body (which continues to walk and move, thus causing Squirrel to swear off his dissolute ways in a most convincing AA manner) is compelled to climb an apple tree, feeling tugged upward by the rising sap of the spring, and then plant herself neck first into small opening in the tree, where Miss Hickory's body takes hold and becomes a scion (look it up as a grafting term). Miss Hickory is one of the least pleasant title characters in the Newbery Medal books and one that is memorable in large part because of her shortcomings.

Most Beautifully Written: Hands down, I, Juan de Pareja, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, 1966. There are lots of beautifully written Newbery Medal books, but this one leaps out. First runner up: Shadow of a Bull, Maia Wojciechowska, 1965.

Best Coming of Age: Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt, 1967. I've written about this book before. First runner up: Shadow of a Bull, Maia Wojciechowska, 1965.

Best Biography: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham, 1956. The Newbery Medal has been awarded five times for biography; this one was fascinating, lively, and left me with an appreciation of a significant American I had never heard of before. 

The Book I Started Out Disliking and Ended Up Loving: The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley, 1985. I labored through this book until midpoint, at which time I suddenly found myself caught up in the mystical fantasy world that McKinley created.


The Only Book That Made Me Laugh Out Loud: A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck, 2001. I defy you to read the snake scene without rolling on the floor. Just to check my reaction, the other day at the library, I pulled this book off the shelf and reread that chapter. Same reaction.

Best Poetry: A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, Kathy Willard, 1982. As with biographies, poetry books occasionally garner a Newbery. These poems are inspired by William Blake; you don't have to be familiar with his works to enjoy this fantastical exploration of an inn maintained by William Blake and full of wonders. The illustrations are the icing on the cake. I want to stay at William Blake's inn!


Book Destined to Become a Percussion Performance: Joyful Noise, Paul Fleischman, 1989. This is another poetry collection, made to be read aloud. Each poem is told by a different insect. I read the first two, then went to find Warren, exclaiming, "This has to be set to percussion and performed sometime!"

Best Book About Accepting Death: Missing May, Cynthia Rylant, 1993. Just read it.

Realize, too, that there are several Newbery Medal books that I have read dozens of time, did not reread this fall, and would immediately put on my All Time Gold Star Favorites list. They include: Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink, 1936; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg, 1968; A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, 1963; Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia McLachlan, 1986; The View From Saturday, E. L. Konigsburg, 1997; Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary, 1984; Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse, 1998. I cannot say enough about these books. But when all is said and done, there is one book that stands alone as the best of the best. Out of the 90 books, and I can get away with this because I have read all 90, one is the very best Newbery Medal book of all. It is well written, the story is clever beyond description (I didn't figure the ending out until almost the very end, at which point I said aloud, "WOW!"), and, perhaps best of all, it is a beautiful tribute to  A Wrinkle in Time, which itself won the Newbery.

Best Newberry Medal Book of Them All: When You Reach Me, Patricia Stead, 2010. Beautiful, stunning, and heartbreaking. Tears came to my eyes when I realized whose face was drawn on the underside of the mailbox. Even several weeks later, I am still analyzing the book and ready to reread it. Well done, Patricia Stead!


KJ Dell'Antonia recently summed up the importance of reading (she was writing about reading real books and not electronic ones): A book - a real book - is one choice, taken from a pile, opened and entered as its own singular, separate world.

I couldn't agree more. Reading the Newbery Medal books was a deliberate choice that I would make over again in a heartbeat. 90 singular, separate worlds, and I got to be in them all.

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Special thanks are due: to Cindy, who knows why I started this quest, to Margo, who never failed to listen as I ranted or raved about the books, and who read When You Reach Me immediately on my recommendation so we could talk about it, to Katrina, whose response to my reading the Newbery Medal books was to cull her own children's bookshelves and start reading the ones readily at hand, and to my longtime reading buddy Scott, who is always up for a book discussion and because of whom I will always think of the 1944 Newbery Medal book as Johnny Deformed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

One Berry, Two Berry, Read Me a Newbery


Part 1 of 2

Back in September, for a lot of reasons I won't go into right now, I decided to read the Newbery Medal winners, or at least all of the Newbery Medal winners that I had not read recently (as in the last decade).

The Newbery Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the "most distinctive contribution to American children's literature" for the prior year. One has been given every year since 1922. (The Newbery Committee also names "Newbery Honor Books" for the outstanding runners up for the year. No, I have not read all the honor books.)

Of the 90 Newbery books out there, I had previously read about 18-20 of them. That left all the rest.

I did not read them in any order, including chronologically. Our local library owns all but a scant handful of them, and houses many of them at the main branch here in Delaware. My selection method consisted of taking a printout of the list (found here) to the library, stand in the children's section (where most are typically found) and pluck a random bouquet. When the load grew heavy in my arms, I had enough. "Enough" usually meant that 15 books came home at one shot.

Over the 5 or 6 weeks it took me to read the Newbery Medal books, I heard some interesting comments from adults about my quest. One, a former school librarian, said he thought the list was put out by adults for adults, and that is why children don't read Newbery Medal books.(This theory has a number of vocal adherents, incidentally.) Another, a retired teacher, said he had rarely used Newbery books in his classrooms because the writing styles were too dated and the students wouldn't understand them (he taught primarily 5th and 6th grades). Another said she thought the Newbery had covered enough niches (homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse) and it was time to stop using "does this fill a niche?" as one of the selection criteria. A constant comment I heard was "but the process is so subjective."

Interesting theories all, and I now have my own thoughts on these points, as well as my own theory about the Newbery Medal books.

Is the Medal Book a book chosen by adults for adults? Other than a few winners in the earliest years, I would say they are not picked with adult readers in mind. I think we read the books differently as we get older, but I think almost all of them stand the test of time and interest to a young reader. (I'll write tomorrow about the ones that I think "fail" as selections.) In fact, my overwhelming response to many of them was to smack my forehead and say "dang, why didn't I ever put this book in my children's hands?" (Sorry, Ben and Sam, that we missed Lloyd Alexander, among others.) Watching my own children devour many of the Newbery Medal books of their generation (my copy of Holes came from Sam's insistence that we buy it) tells me a lot about the appeal of the books to children. I think we as adults either fail to put the books in children's hands or so sermonize about their value that reading a Newbery Medal book is seen as torture.

Are the styles of the older books dated? There are one or two books that I say time has not been kind to when it comes to style. I found myself reading all of them with a critical ear and eye for the style as well as the content. My test was whether I felt I could read the book out loud to a child. The vast majority passed. In fact, the very book that the retired teacher and I discussed (Rifles for Watie, 1958) is one that I would say still holds up when it comes to style, although I have other concerns about it. I don't think children are put off by style as much as adults are; we adults think something is tedious, and so we expect children to think so too. I think a child who is grabbed by a book will plow through it regardless of the style in which it is written provided the characters populating the story are engaging.

Are there too many niche choices? Hmmn, tougher question. There have certainly been some choices that could be considered niche selections. I look at the changing nature of the list as a reflection of the changes we as a country have gone through as we moved through the 20th century and into the 21st. (Although, surprisingly, the Newbery tackled mental illness as early as 1960.) I think ethnic and racial niches or selections point this change out the best. It took a long time for novels with believable African-American characters to crack the list, with Sounder finally doing so in 1970. True, a biography entitled Amos Fortune, Free Man, made the charts in 1951, and the beautifully written I, Juan de Pareja, about the Moorish slave of the painter Velasquez, made it in 1966, but Sounder was the first in which an African-American family living in America was featured. After that barrier was broken, others books featuring African-American characters followed.

What is glaringly absent from the list are books about modern day Latino, Asian-American, or Native American youth. I can make a convincing argument that a good book will captivate a reader of any age or ethnic background, because I believe that to be true. But I also firmly believe that, especially when you are young, it helps to be able to read a book in which the main character reflects your life experiences as someone of a different color or family origin. Louisa May Alcott established this beyond refute when she published Little Women and it became a runaway best seller on the strength of it being the first children's novel written about believable girls growing up in Civil War America.

I have my own little theory about the Newbery Medal books and why the older ones are not read more widely. I believe it is because we read, teach, and share those books with which we are most familiar. A 5th grade teacher in his or her thirties may be most familiar with the Newbery Medal books of the 1990s, when he or she was in 4th through 6th grades. They may have never been exposed to the works from the 1960s and earlier, unless they were either avid readers or had the good fortune to have had a teacher who knew the older winners and did not hesitate to make recommendations or read them aloud to the class. Otherwise, there is book after book on the list from every decade that I think stands up to the honor of being selected.

And finally, are the Newbery Medal Book selections subjective? Absolutely. They often reflect the times and the makeup of the selection committee. And the selection committee is only human. Look at the fact that neither Stuart Little nor Charlotte's Web, both of which are established classics, ever won a Newbery Medal. This is largely due to the fact that for a long time Anne Carroll Moore held sway over the committee, even when she wasn't a member of it. Moore, who all but created the concept of children's librarians and children's sections of public libraries, is remembered by many not for her significant contributions but by her intense and profound dislike of White's children's literature. In the end, although she won the battle and kept E. B. White from collecting a Newbery for either, there is little question as to who won that war. The 1946 winner (the year that White would have won for Stuart Little)? Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, a period piece that has not held up well. The 1953 winner (the year White would have won for Charlotte's Web) was Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. The 1953 winner is an oddly mystical, haunting fantasy that blends the ancient Incan past with the modern world, but it's no Charlotte's Web. I would have awarded the medal to White each time.

Sometimes I have to remind myself (while I am carping about subjectivity) that the Newbery is not the Nobel, in that the Newbery Medal is given to the most distinctive contribution published the previous year and not to an author for his or her body or literature. (More head smacking moments: what do you mean Beverly Cleary never won a Newbery for any of her Beeezus and Ramona books?)

In the end, the Newbery Medal selection is subjective. And so am I, as you will see in my free ranging critique of the Newbery Medal Books in part 2 of this post.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We Are the 99%

I recently held a mediation between two young parents. Although the mediation topic was parenting time, the two kept veering into arguments about money: jobs, housing, child support. I let it go on for a little while, then held up my hand to stop the rants. When they were both quiet, I made some observations.

"You [indicating one] are struggling to find work. You [looking at the other] just had to move home because you couldn't afford the rent when your roommate moved out. I'm not saying the financial issues aren't important, but we are here today to talk about your child. There's a recession going on. You could be the faces of it."

They are the 99%.

Earlier this week was our legal clinic. We sailed past our all time record of 214 clients (set last year) and finished November at 239, knowing we will top 250 this year. That statistic is both incredible (as a visible benchmark to the skills, passion, and dedication of our volunteers) and absolutely heartbreaking (as a visible benchmark of what the Great Recession has done to our community).

Our legal clinic clients are the 99%.

Earlier tonight I sat down and figured out where the next paycheck (which I get tomorrow) goes. I net $575 every two weeks. After the bills still owing this month, after my share of the groceries ($100 per month or $50 per check), I have $42 left. $42! I told Amy I am buying her an early Christmas present tomorrow. She desperately needs a humidifier for her bedroom because of her severe asthma. So unless I find a decent one at Goodwill, it will be a $30 basic one at Wal-Mart, so that leaves me…hmmn…$12 for two weeks. Now, I have $30 in my pocket (a rare occurrence made possible only because of a recent repayment of a gasoline loan), so I am, in fact, feeling plush with $42 at hand.

I am the 99%. And I am one of the blessedly lucky ones, given that I have food, shelter, medical insurance, and a safe community to live in, not to mention an amazingly wonderful husband who lives in similarly straitened conditions and makes the absolute best of it. We are both lucky, and we are both part of the 99%.

The phrase "we are the 99%" refers to the reality that 1% of our population controls almost a quarter of all of the income generated in this country. In short, they control this country. There's a whole lot of talk going on right now about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is closely aligned with the "we are the 99%" discussion. For me, the issue is whether we continue to pretend everything is "all right" where so much wealth and power is amassed in the hands of so few people.

It's not all right. Hunger, homelessness, foreclosures, lack of medical care, poor public education systems, a crumbling infrastructure, falling behind technologically, and all the other rampant accoutrements of this imbalance are not acceptable. Not to me and not to lots of others. Even some of those who make up that 1% are starting to speak out about the dangers the wealth inequities pose to our nation.

And while I am still standing on my soapbox, let me add that I firmly believe the First Amendment is in danger of being bludgeoned as mayors move to stop the Occupy movement. The last time I checked, We the People, regardless of our socio-economic credentials, have the right to free speech and the right to assemble peacefully. Our press has the right to freedom as well, which means allowing them to cover the whole story on both sides, as opposed to cordoning them off during the police sweep of Zuccotti Park. I have no problem with arresting occupiers when they become violent. I have a huge problem with directing law enforcement to silence them and the press simultaneously because the protests are inconvenient or embarrassing.

At wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, people of all ages and all backgrounds tell their stories. I haven't put mine up, but every day I am more and more tempted. I admire these people. It takes courage to say in a very public forum "I am broke." Or "I am sick." Or "No matter how hard I work I am still behind." It takes courage to say "this is wrong."

There is huge power in storytelling and I suspect those who post their story or join a protest realize that truth more and more each day. As Barry Lopez said, "sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive." We need these stories to know we are not alone. We need these stories to stay alive.

As time and the economy wear on, I am increasingly radicalized, which is not my usual political mode. My usual political mode is sort of a middle of the road, let me concentrate on the local issues stance. I can no longer pretend the national issues have not warped our local issues out of kilter. There is no positive way to spin the Great Recession. Whether it is the school levy that failed in my stepdaughter's district or the recent attempt in Ohio to destroy police, firefighters, and teachers unions (beaten back at the polls overwhelmingly), or the clients waiting patiently at the legal clinic every month, my local community has been turned upside down.

2100 years ago, Hillel the Elder wrote "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

The time is now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Remarkable Teacher

Note: Early last week, Jean Blakeslee died at the age of 85. Jean was an important person in our community and an important person in my life. I missed her memorial service because we were out of town, but this is what I imagine others besides me had to say about her.
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Jean Blakeslee was my fifth grade teacher at Conger Elementary from 1966-1967 and was one of those benchmark teachers you look back at later and say "I am so lucky I had her." I believe it was her first year teaching at Conger and those of us in her class were amazed that our teacher was also the principal's wife. Somehow that seemed too fantastical to believe. 

Fifth grade with Mrs. Blakeslee was a year of spelling bees (which she loved), of being read The Hobbit, which she also loved, and of science experiments sometimes gone fabulously awry (the praying mantis case that hatched in the dead of February, filling our classroom with hundreds of miniature mantises when we walked in that next morning, comes to mind). For our Halloween parade that year, Mrs. Blakeslee showed up as a witch with a tall pointy hat that added to her already impressive height. (Mr. Blakeslee showed up dressed as Mrs. Blakeslee, complete with hose, heels, and falsetto voice, stunning us all again.)

Our fifth grade classroom was full of singing. Mrs. Blakeslee had us sing a lot. Looking back, I suspect she used singing as a way to divert our energies and focus our attention. We sang lots of different songs, but the one we sang most enthusiastically was "Goober Peas," a Civil War song. How could a bunch of eleven year olds resist a chorus of "Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eating goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!"?

Mrs. Blakeslee figured out very early on that I was a voracious reader, and often steered me to books that she thought would challenge me. I remember her putting Irene Hunt's Up A Road Slowly in my hands, saying "I think this would be a good book for you to read, April." She was right. She fed my desire to write as well as my love of reading, and many years later turned over to me a story I had penned as a sixth grader and mailed to her to show her I was still writing. 

Mrs. Blakeslee let me know she believed in me, and her belief in me carried me into junior high school next year and beyond. You don't forget those kind of things about a teacher.

When I moved back to Delaware in 1990, our paths crossed at various places, including the soft-serve ice cream stand near her house. She was active with a passion in Delaware after retiring from teaching and sometimes we crossed paths at various community events. We always talked when we met and I always, always called her "Mrs. Blakeslee" until the day she looked at me and said, "I think we are both old enough now that you can call me Jean."

Jean Blakeslee was a remarkable woman and a great teacher. She left her imprint all over our community; I am blessed that she left it on me as well.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Fork in the Road


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra

The summer was a long road through concerts, through visits from Sam and trips with David, through Amy moving in. It wound through medical procedures sprinkled liberally on the older tier of the family. It rolled on through private times and public times.

The road rolled on into fall.  The medical matters are winding down. Symphony seasons have opened, first in Mansfield and then here in Delaware. Indianapolis and the percussion convention are just ahead, as is New York again for the orchestra conference. Halloween is just past, more holidays are in the offing.

The road indeed goes ever on, but we have come to a fork.

Over the last several months, my mother has been changing, slowly but surely. Her once frequent phone calls have now all but stopped. After a lifetime of dominating any conversation, she more often than not is quiet. When she pulls up short too many times in a conversation, stymied as to what comes next, she covers with “I’m brain dead” and makes a joke. She asks the same question within a few minutes of first asking it. And when those rare phone calls do come and she repeats the same story for the second time within minutes of the first telling, I afterwards hang up the phone quietly and just stand for a minute, gazing out into the backyard.

Some of us – “us” being me, my sister-in-law, and two of my three brothers – started comparing notes many months ago. Because Mom had major surgery earlier this summer, none of us said much more or raised the issue with Dad while they were preoccupied.

But we were watching all the same.

Recently, my youngest brother Mark and I, after weeks of comparing notes and concerns and fears, agreed it was time to say something to dad. With the backing of our spouses, we came up with a plan to meet at mom and dad’s when Mark and I could both be there.

Mark arrived first to work on his car; he phoned me to let me know he was en route. I arrived a little later to look for canning jars stored overhead in the garage. Dad, already out in the garage talking to Mark as we hoped he would be, climbed up with me to help get the jars down the stairs. After we both were back down the stairs, I asked, as casually as my suddenly uncertain voice would allow, about mom’s upcoming visit with her family physician. 

Mark shot me an appreciative look as dad answered. I then asked the hitherto unasked question.

“Dad, is mom all right?”

Mark stopped working. Dad looked at me. He hesitated in replying, and I took the pause to jump.

“I’m asking because we are noticing things.”

Dad cut right to the chase, which is his style. “You mean her memory? Yes, there are problems.”

The tension sagged out of the air. We all talked then, throwing our worries and notes one by one onto a growing stack. Dad listed the changes that he lives with now, both small and big changes of which we weren’t aware.  She has stopped reading books, which saddened me. She still works crossword puzzles, but more and more she asks my dad for help on the clues. Dad, a notoriously poor speller, barked a short, rueful laugh at this turn of events. 

The pile of worries and observations grew larger. It was painfully clear that mom is showing increasing signs of what the medical world calls “cognitive impairment.” It was painfully obvious that dad was relieved that he didn’t have to break the news to us.

Finally someone, Dad perhaps, said the word out loud.

Alzheimer’s.

Mom hates that word. Mom is terrified of that word. She much prefers “dementia,” which she thinks of as a different, less severe illness than Alzheimer’s.

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, senility.

The words all mean more or less the same thing: our family is at a fork in the road. And when you come to that particular fork, you take it. You have no choice. Mom has turned down a twisty fork that goes way over that way while the rest of us are still on the other path over here. We can still see each other and talk and laugh together, but looking up ahead, we know that at some point her path will diverge more steeply from ours and while we will always be able to see her on her path, she will no longer see us on ours.

In 1994, former President Ronald Reagan released a written statement that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He did so in the hope that others might be encouraged to seek early intervention and diagnosis, writing “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”

We are all journeying into the sunset of our lives. My dad does not pretend at 78 that his sunset is not most likely right around the corner. I know that my sunset will very likely come far earlier for me than if I had not been diagnosed with an incurable cancer.

And my mother? I fervently hope she is walking along, marveling at the brilliant golds and reds in the west, happily unaware of the gathering shadows of the oncoming night.


*************************
Postscript





I have had this piece written for several weeks, and delayed posting it until now. It has tugged at my conscience, it has pulled hard at my heart. My mother's cognitive impairment is a very difficult topic because it is so personal and so immediate. What finally made me decide to post it was my saying out loud, as I thought through the post for the nth time, "what is my motive?" 







My motive? To know that I am not alone. To know that we are not alone. 

I wrote this in mid-September and am posting it now in November. Some things are unchanged, especially mom’s continuing decline. What has changed is that we are now speaking aloud to each other about what is happening, at least to one another.  

No one mentions it to mom. (For those of you who know my mother, I would ask that you not feel you need to break the news to her.) I don’t know which of us will undertake that task. Dad recently tried to and she became so distraught that he quickly backtracked and calmed her down. 









It does not surprise me that he cannot bring himself to break her heart. My father has spent 59 years being protective of my mother. It seems that he is growing even more so as she slips away. He has spent his whole adult life calming her fears, giving her reassurance, being there for her. 




It does not surprise me that he will go along with her on the road for as long as possible. He will make the path as smooth as possible; he will stoop to clear away any debris.


Dad will hold mom's hand for as long as he is able.

My dear friend Katrina wrote me a long letter about what we are facing, having gone through it herself in her family. It was thoughtful and heartfelt, so much so that I copied the lines and sent them on to Mark so he and his wife could read them. She closed her comments with this: Finally, enjoy your Mom as much as you can for as long as you can. There will be glimmers of gains and lots of puddles. Only God knows the timing and we all have to live with that.

Enjoy your Mom as much as you can for as long as you can.   


We plan on it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Bridge of Contemplation




Spiderwort in the front yard


"The short fall season, therefore, is a blend of both fatigue and melancholy, of final consolidation of the summer's gains and of preparation for the severity of approaching weather. It is a bridge of contemplation, of taking stock."  Michael Dorris, The Broken Cord

I have carried that quote in my commonplace book since 1989.  I know that only because I read The Broken Cord when it was first published. These days I try to remember to date my additions to my book, much like Ann Dillard's writing about wanting to plant a flag in time and say "now."

I stepped out on the deck early this morning, shortly after the day started to lighten. It had rained off and on throughout the night, so the air carried a pungent, wet tang of downed leaves and dead garden. I stood several minutes, watching the clouds scud to the east, hugging myself against the sharp breeze.

We are in our fall season. All over town, the trees are giving up their leaves in showers of red and yellow. Out front, the spiderwort is still blooming, grateful for the cooler, wet weather. It is a patch of purple-blue in an ever deepening puddle of leaves from the ornamental cherry.

Autumn is my favorite season, for the color, for the preparation for the oncoming winter, for the enticing blend of melancholy, fatigue, and contemplation. Yesterday I made a thick chili for our supper tonight. I awoke during the night to hear the rain brushing the windows and smell the chili threading its way through the house. When I came back inside this morning, its scent wrapped itself around me, replacing the raw smells from outside.

A walk to work these days is a walk with my nerves and senses scrubbed raw and laid open to the world. The poet Edna  St. Vincent Millay wrote of what I am feeling. The poem is God's World, the form is a sonnet.

O WORLD, I cannot hold thee close enough!
      Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
      Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag         5
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
  
Long have I known a glory in it all,
      But never knew I this;
      Here such a passion is  10
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.


Like Millay, my soul is all but out of me. And there are many burning leaves yet to fall.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Beyond the Harvest


Sunday night, my mind was stuck on food. I was not hungry; supper was filling. But I thought of food all the same. I pulled a cookbook onto my lap and riffled through the pages.

I spent August, well into September in fact, canning and freezing food from our garden. I plugged the basement freezer back in (it was on summer break) and filled it with the sweet corn from Mrs. Hough, the beans from mom and dad, the apples from everywhere. Jars of green pepper relish and salsa filled the cabinet shelves. I pulled the onions: white, pearly globes; they are drying spread out on paper on the basement floor. Earlier in the summer, Kris had brought over bunches of garlic, now dried and stored in a mesh sack.

Food is plentiful and want is far from our door. All the same, my mind was stuck on food.

Sunday’s supper was excellent. We had bean soup that was a combination of the black bean soup from earlier in the week and some pinto bean soup from the freezer. I tossed in slivers of a red banana pepper I had just picked and one of our own onions, along with some of Kris’s garlic. There was a pan of fresh cornbread. As Warren and I ate, we marveled over the thick, savory concoction, spooning it up carefully to get every last bite. The smell of it hung into the air late into the evening.

I was not hungry Sunday night. All the same, I kept thinking of food. I kept looking at recipes.

Our garden has almost wound down for the year. There are still peppers. A few tomatoes still hang on the raggedy vines. They are all the more precious for being the last tomatoes. I will not taste their likes again until next July.

Our garden has been bountiful this season. But all the same, my mind was not quite at rest.

Sam recently emailed me from far away Oregon to ask me to send him certain recipes. He is working at a local farm market; his diet is changing. He wants to work on his baking, something we experimented with this summer. He is eager to see where his food interests take him. I miss Sam. I want him at our table. I want Ben and Alise there too. I am grateful for being able to eat with David and Elizabeth, not to mention Amy, but those opportunities are infrequent.  I miss sitting at the table with all my children, all our children, down one side and up the other.

Earlier in the day Sunday, I talked by phone with a longtime friend who is struggling with depression. Sometimes I am frustrated with my words as I offer them up, well aware of their inadequacy in touching the very real pain my friend is experiencing. It is like ladling air into a soup bowl. I would rather bring my friend to our table and pass to him our food – the thick soup, the humble cornbread – as we all eat together. I would like to serve my friend a slice of homemade apple pie and tell him to savor it slowly. There is community in coming together to eat; there is healing in sharing a meal. I believe that a week of sharing food at our table would feed my friend both body and soul.

I was not hungry in body Sunday night, but I was hungry in spirit. I was feeling the empty seats at the table, the emptiness my friend is trying to fill. I wanted to feed that emptiness: for family, for my friend struggling with depression, for myself.

It has taken me a few days to think through my food thoughts, days in which I have been sometimes hungry for something that is not food. I am rereading (for the 5th? - the 6th? - time) The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God by Leslie Leyland Fields and find myself moved, not for the first time, by the lines within. Sometimes I think I am being called - quietly, deliberately - to something involving food.

I don't know what that means or may mean. I only know that I am listening.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mending

Mending is on my mind these days.

I am talking about mending in its simplest terms, which is “to make something broken, worn, torn, or otherwise damaged whole, sound, or usable by repairing.”

Mending used to be a kind of old-fashioned idea. Ma Ingalls mended. Marmee mended. Grandmothers mended. Tinkers mended. During World War II, the slogan “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” became a watchword for making sure you didn’t waste valuable food and resources that were needed for the war effort. Mending was a way to support the troops. I still use a pot that was probably mended around that time; my grandfather reattached the handle with a big nut rather than throw it out.

But then we forgot about mending. We got accustomed to tossing the shirt or the pan when it was broken instead of trying to mend. Let’s face it: it was faster and more fun to buy a new one.

In these recession-battered times, however, mending has seen a revival as more and more of us try to get more and more use out of our belongings. The difficulty is remembering how to mend. Too many of us have lost the skill.

I thought of mending the other night as I sat and, well, mended. I had two umbrellas, each with a rib where the stitching had pulled, and a pair of pantyhose that I had poked a toe through. Ten minutes, a little thread, a little stitching, and the umbrellas were whole again and the hose wearable for several more weeks.

When I mend, I sit with a green sewing box that has always been in my life. It originally belonged to my mother. As a little girl, I thought it was the height of elegance, with its green quilted covering. Somewhere along the line, my mother bought a bigger and fancier sewing box, and I inherited the one from my childhood.

I never look at that sewing box without thinking of mending. And sometimes when I think of mending, I mean the simplest definition applied on a larger scale.

Tikkun olam is a Jewish concept of repairing the world to make it whole again. By practicing tikkun olam, we are mending the world. We are making whole something damaged.By practicing tikkun olam, we are also revealing godliness in the world. In Judaism, that is called Kiddush Hashem, or “sanctifying the Divine Name.”

 The Gospels speak to this duty as well:

Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:14-16, The Message)

Richard Stearns, the author of The Hole in Our Gospel makes this point with stunning accuracy: we cannot sit "smugly in our comfortable bubbles and claim no responsibility for the disadvantaged in our world. God did not leave us that option... Faith and work must be put back together again. We must move beyond an anemic view of our faith as something only personal and private, with no public dimension, and instead see it as the source of power that can change the world. Faith is the fuel that powers the light that shines in the darkness."

As with our everyday mending skills, we are too often out of practice with mending the world. We shrink from the task. It is too overwhelming. We forget that we are not charged with righting every wrong.

But mending is a small step. Mending is taking something close at hand, be it a damaged umbrella or a damaged spirit, and repairing the tear. Mending is strengthening a loose button or a shaky friend. Sometimes we use a needle and thread to mend something. Sometimes we use duct tape. Sometimes we use our hearts.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts tonight at sunset. Tonight also marks the start of the High Holidays, the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. The High Holidays are a time of reflection and repentance.

And they are a time of mending the world, one small stitch at a time.



 I'm linking up with Michelle over at Graceful today.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Banned Books


Both my favorite and least favorite national “week” of the year is fast approaching. Banned Books Week begins Saturday, September 24 and ends Saturday, October 1. As I have in the past, I cheer and praise the American Library Association for promoting this event. As always, I regret that Banned Books Week exists.

The ALA is clear as to why we need a Banned Books Week. It “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States. Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week.”

Isn’t that a great line? Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week.

Intellectual freedom. As far as I am concerned, that is right up there with freedom of religion, another right I tend to hold close to my heart.

As I have often noted, I love reading. As it was for Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird (a book frequently targeted for banning, incidentally), reading is like breathing for me. I love books. Like Thomas Jefferson, I cannot live without them.

This fall, I have made it a personal project to read every book awarded a Newbery Medal, the award given annually to the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” The Newbery was first given in 1922, and there are 90 of them out there. As of this posting, I am a third of the way through the list. Even Newbery Medal books are the target of banning attempts, some of them decades after being published. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the 1959 Newbery Medal book, was challenged as recently as 2002 on the grounds that it promotes witchcraft. (Ironically, two strong themes in the book are freedom of religion and the dangerous consequences of suppressing religious freedom. The “witch” is a Quaker living on the fringes of a Puritan colony.) In talking about a challenge to The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Award book, because it contained the word “scrotum” one time in one sentence, a former chairwoman of the Newbery Award committee called out what we are really talking about: censorship. She criticized schools and libraries banning the book on the basis of one word one time, pointing out “that’s what censors do — they pick out words and don’t look at the total merit of the book.”

There are lots of books out there, ranging from superb to a wretched waste of paper. Some contain ideas and thoughts that I do not endorse or even find repugnant and offensive. But that doesn’t mean I want to ban those books. It just means I cut a wide swath around them when I come across them, or speak out against the ideas they contain.

Last year for Banned Books Week I wrote about a favorite scene in the movie "Field of Dreams." The scene takes place during a school board hearing when a parent is trying to get a book banned. Annie Kinsella opposes her and challenges the audience:

Now, who's for the Bill of Rights? Who thinks freedom is a pretty darn good thing? Come on! Let’s see those hands! Who thinks we have to stand up to the kind of censorship they had under Stalin? [Hands go up all over the auditorium.] All right! There you go! America, I love you. I’m proud of you!

I too am for the Bill of Rights. I too think that freedom is a pretty good thing. And in preparing to celebrate my rights and my freedom, I’m making sure I am surrounded by books for Banned Books Week.

I hope you are too.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sharing the Sunrise

Lately there have been many clouds on the horizon. I am not yet ready to write about the clouds, but I can remind myself to share the sunrise.


This is the day which the Lord has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
                                                                          Psalm 118:24 (New American Standard Bible)




Linking up with Michelle over at Graceful today. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

One Decade

Even if we are not all writing about it today, we are thinking about it. Even if we claim we are not thinking about it, we are.

Those of us who experienced September 11, 2001, carry a psychic wound deep inside us. We know where we were when we first heard, where we were when it sank in this was not an accident.

My law partner Scott came to the office some 20 minutes after I did that day and told me he'd have been there sooner but there'd been a plane crash at the World Trade Center. He happened to have a radio in his office and so found a news station. Minutes later he yelled in disbelief as the second plane hit. Then they were saying something about the Pentagon.

By then, I was in Scott's office. We looked at each other. The Pentagon? What the ...?

The first tower came down as Scott and I were driving to my house to get in front of a television set. We both started yelling in disbelief and shock as the radio blared the news. The second tower came down just as we turned on the television, and we yelled again.

Flight 93 had already hit the ground.

Scott's friend, Bob, a New York firefighter, was already dead. His body would later be found in one of the tower stairwells. He died trying to save lives.

My boys were both in school that day. Ben, then a sophomore, spent the day in the same classroom as they suspended the schedule and kept everyone in front of televisions. Sam was at the 5th-6th middle school, and someone decided to keep the story from the students so as not to alarm them. Rumors leaked out all the same, and finally Sam and others learned the story from the gym teacher.

Sam was only 11.

Ben was only 15.

For the next 24 hours, everyone everywhere stayed in front of a television set. Even when I finally slept, I saw the towers peel down in my sleep. The next morning, I snapped the set back on and resumed watching.

Last Friday night I went online and looked at pictures and videos of that day. I was stunned at how much I had already forgotten in a decade.

Two memories I have carried close through this whole decade. The first is the members of Congress addressing the nation that evening from the steps of the Capitol, then singing "God Bless America." Raggedy at first, they finished strong. When I saw it ten years ago, I burst into tears. When I saw it again Friday night, I wept anew.

The other memory is that of Sam creeping into the television room early on the 12th while I watched international coverage. The story was delivered in French; the footage showed military boats racing across the water. Sam watched intently, then turned and asked "are they coming to bomb us too?" When I said no, that was a French story about the US military response, tears trickled down Sam's cheeks and I hugged him hard, my tears falling on his head.

My life has changed in innumerable ways, so very many of them for the better, since that terrible day. Our country has changed in innumerable ways, not all of them good, since that terrible day.

My boys are now grown, now 2500 miles away. If something of this magnitude happens again, I will send my swiftest prayers and hopes to their sides.

If something of this magnitude happens again, I will send my swiftest prayers and hopes to this country.

It has already been a decade.

It has already been a lifetime.

It has only been since yesterday.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Guest at Our Tables


"Hope is always a guest at our table."

That line is from Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston's fantasy novel set in Georgia and in Chicago in the early twentieth century. It was not my typical read; Sam is the one who put the book in my hands and suggested I would enjoy it. (I did, which is why I love it when my children (you too, Alise) give me book titles, as their interests range wider than what I typically read.)  In the book, those words were in the mouth of Clarissa, an African American woman living in Chicago in the early 1900s, speaking of the long road for racial equality. She says them quietly to Redwood, her sister-in-law, who is discouraged by the never ending racial violence that has followed her from backwoods Georgia to Chicago. When Redwood says she has no hope of anything ever improving, Clarissa chides her gently, saying "hope is always a guest at our table."

Hope is always a guest at our table.

I love that line. I love it so much I wrote it out and put it up on our refrigerator. I love to think of Hope, who I picture as a calm, graceful woman, joining us at supper every night.

I think Hope has been gracing a lot of tables lately.

As Amy heads into her fourth week here, she is calmer and less volatile. By her own admission, she is eating and sleeping better. She is starting to look at the bookshelf and pull interesting titles off to look through, perhaps to read. Bit by bit, she is settling in, interacting more, coming and going with the calm assurance that when she returns, she is still welcome and there is a stable roof over her head.

Hope is always a guest at our table.

Next door, Pete and Nancy, retired and just turning 80, have taken in their two teenage grandchildren who were suddenly in desperate need of a stable home. Pete and I talked yesterday and he expressed the hope that he and Nancy would stay healthy until both children graduated from high school. Chuckling, he talked about the changes in their household: the new schedules, the increased grocery bill, the homework spread across the dining room table. Bit by bit, their grandchildren have started to adjust: settling in, getting involved in school, coming and going with the calm assurance that when they return, they are still welcome and there is a stable roof over their heads. 

I bet Hope is always a guest at their table, too.

When the grandkids arrived, there were not enough bikes to go around. I offered Sam's old bike, which he has long outgrown, to the grandson, who has not yet hit his growth spurt and is at that in-between middle school size that some boys linger in for a long time. It fit him well. He sent me a thank you note: Thank you for the bike, I love it and always love riding it, I will always take care of it.

"I will always take care of it." I think Hope goes along for the ride when Pete and Nancy's grandson takes off to explore his new neighborhood.

The weather is changing, reminding us that autumn is almost upon us. I did a lot of household work this weekend, canning and freezing food for the winter yet to come. I baked a pie last night with apples from our local Farmers Market. The apples were described only as "the best bakers," so I am looking forward to the results since I didn't recognize the apple. The kitchen filled with the scent of apples and cinnamon; the sweet smells wrapped around us each time we walked into the house from the outside. 

                            Eat honey, dear child - it's good for you -
                            and delicacies that melt in your mouth.
                            Likewise knowledge,
                            and wisdom for your soul -
                            Get that and your future's secured,
                            your hope is on solid rock.
                                                                Proverbs 24: 13-14 (The Message)

Both Amy and the children next door are gaining the knowledge - the security - that their homes are now stable. When you take that worry off of the table, then it is easier to think beyond the immediacy of "where am I sleeping (or eating, or doing homework) tonight?" Perhaps they can now start to plan for a better future. Perhaps now their hopes are on solid rock. 

We will cut the pie tonight. It is a delicacy that will melt in our mouths. Hope will be right there with us when we take that first bite.

Hope is always a guest at our table.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Looking For Proof Rock

This post started as an email to my friend Cindy in which I wrote: I wish I could get more charged up about things. Feeling like there is never time for "anything" that isn't mandatory. I don't mind most of the weekends going to work/chores, but all of them? And all the evenings? No time to dream, think, write, contemplate. Maybe I am too self-indulgent!

But now I am taking a few steps back from being so critical. Maybe I am not too self-indulgent. Maybe this persistent sense of being dissatisfied and disjointed is just my inner self trying hard to be heard.

I have gone through long periods of time in my life where I have not taken the time to listen to my inner self. While that is advice I freely give to others, it is advice I have difficulty following myself. The truth is I am more careful and caring of my friends than of myself.

When advising friends to listen to their inner selves, I often send them the following paragraph from the novella I Heard the Owl Call My Name, which is a favorite of mine:

All day long, on his way back to Kingcome, because he was alone and receptive, the little questions, the observations he had pushed deep within him, began to rise slowly towards the door of the conscious mind which was almost ready to open, to receive them, and give them words...In front of the vicarage he anchored the boat and waded ashore. He trudged up the black sands to the path and stopped. From the dark spruce he heard an owl call—once, and again—and the questions that had been rising all day long reached the door of his mind and opened it.

I love that image of the observations and questions rising towards the door of the conscious mind and then a seemingly simple act, the call of the owl, being the catalyst to allow them to reach the door and open it.

(What is it about the act of opening a door?)

I haven’t wandered off to a quiet spot (preferably one by water) to let the observations and questions rise within me. I haven’t given myself the time or space in which to do that. Despite that, and perhaps because I have been so persistent in not granting myself the luxury of taking care of myself, those thoughts are rising to the surface all the same.

So, what do I want?

Time.
Writing time: blog, letters.
Feel as if I am on top of things: the house, the garden, the bills, cooking, food storage (canning and freezing).
Rekindle the connections with Warren beyond the dailies. We seem to have less and less time to dream or share things beyond the immediate day-to-day stuff that is always demanding our attention.
Go away for a day or two. Not a vacation (yet), but a break. Water would be nice. Away would be nicer. Somewhere that is not Delaware.
Brownbag lunch with Warren at the springs on campus.
Be somewhere where I am not expected or required to be my Delaware self with all the responsibilities and weight of the schedule and commitments.
More sleep.
More connections (personal) with my friends: coffee, walks, something.
Regularly swim and walk again (exercise).
Walk regularly with Warren again (relationship).
Read more poetry.
Rediscover Prufrock.
Not be Prufrock.
Watch more movies (I don’t mean go out to the movies, I mean watch more movies).
Watch more sunsets.

Those were all items I jotted down quickly, without thinking too hard and without censoring myself. (I haven’t rewritten the list for publication either, as I prepare this post.) So many of them are small things. Doable things. And so many keep pointing back to time and personal connections (with friends, with Warren).

So why am I not listening to myself and doing some of these?

I don’t know. Maybe it goes to back to my feeling that if I do the things I want to do, I am being self-indulgent. I think women more than men (but not exclusively) tend not to place enough value our wants and our needs. It is always easier to take care of others first. Maybe I don’t want the internal critic pointing her finger at me, accusing me of being selfish and thinking only of myself.

Or maybe I am afraid the list will become one more demand on my time, one more set of responsibilities and commitments I have to keep.

For awhile, lots of people were doing lists of “50 things you want to do before you die.” Then everyone talked abut their “bucket list.” Same idea, new name. Folks would meet and say “so, what’s on your bucket list?” or “Yep, I put that on my bucket list.” Some of those bucket lists are pretty staggering.

I have a “50 things” list on my computer, one I put together many, many years ago. I have not looked at it for a long time; I know I wrote it pre-cancer. Post cancer, I’m not sure it matters as much. I really am that different. Things that once seemed important to me have slid way down in priority.

The list I scrawled out is not a bucket list or a 50 things list. It’s a little list. It’s a “maybe could I just live a little more deliberately and not feel so harried and out of touch with my life?” list. 

Time will tell.

Postscript

As is so often the case when I am musing, Warren often brings me back to reality with one tug of the kite string. I shared the list with him last night and then commented this morning at breakfast that I was a little surprised that he didn’t say anything about it last night.

“I was thinking about it,” Warren replied. He then calmly ate his oatmeal while I explained the Prufrock entries on the list.

“Prufrock” is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot, and is probably my all time favorite poem out of a long list of favorites. It was on my mind because Monday evening my friend Jacob and I had kept up a running repartee about Prufrock on Facebook after he had posted a video of Michael Gough reading it.

Warren, as we famously know, is not into poetry. I lost him somewhere in the breakfast discussion. He confirmed that later this morning when he wrote: As for Prufrock, I was thinking Proof Rock and wondering where it is.

Like I said, a good sharp tug on the kite string does wonders.

I have a list, a little list, in hand. I have Warren beside me.

Now if we can only find the time to go looking for Proof Rock.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

One Really Special Moment

Last night Warren and I attended a talent show, an annual fundraiser put on to support our local developmental disabilities board. We did not realize until the show started that, except for three "guest" acts, all of the other acts, whether solo or group, were performed by individuals who were developmentally disabled. That made for some unexpected moments of both poignancy and hilarity, depending on the act and the performer.

The show theme was a World War II style USO show. The acts were unabashedly and enthusiastically patriotic. The audience clapped and cheered loudly for every singer, dancer, and actor. More than once I found myself swallowing around a large lump in my throat one moment, and then cheering loudly the next.

As we drove home, Warren and I discussed our favorite moments and I recounted several. Then I said, "no, there was one really special moment."

Partway through the first half, the next act listed was "God Bless America," to be performed by Mickey McNamara. Mickey, an older man of indeterminate age, came awkwardly onto the stage, a small accordion hanging from its strap around his neck. He smiled nervously, pumped the bellows once, and then played, not "God Bless America," but "O Beautiful."  Laboring over the notes, he made it to the end and grinned at the applause. The emcee thanked him and we all waited for Mickey to leave the stage. Instead, he leaned over and said something to the emcee, who announced Mickey was playing an encore. The audience quieted down.

Mickey studied his accordion. He tried one chord, then tried another. He made a false start and frowned. He tried a different chord and must have heard something he liked. Mickey then started playing his encore piece.

It was hard to recognize the music at first. The tune was broken, the rhythm was irregular. There were missed notes which Mickey went back and replayed. But all the same, a rustle started in the crowd and many of us started stirring in our seats.

A few of us stood up, then a few more stood. Soon the whole audience was on its feet, singing along to Mickey's tune.

He was playing "The Star Spangled Banner."

Mickey never looked up from his hard work. He concentrated fiercely on the chords and notes, drawing the bellows out and pressing them back in to make the breathy tones of the accordion. He had no idea we were all standing, singing along to his erratic beat.

When he finished and the accordion went silent, Mickey finally looked up to see us all standing and applauding. He smiled - a great, face-splitting smile - and then left the stage.

We all applauded hard as he walked away. We clapped for our country, for our national anthem, and for Mickey, who passionately and seriously, to his own rhythm and tune, gave us one really special moment in a night full of special moments.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Drifting Out of Summer

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—
Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
End poem, Lewis Carroll
   
We are coming down to the end days of summer. Schools started back in session today here in our town. Warren and I caught a ballgame last night in Columbus (the Indians’ Triple A farm team) and it grew cool enough during the evening that I slipped on a cotton sweater. The rudbeckia bed is going to seed; each day there are fewer and fewer bees and more and more finches.

The nights are cooler, the mornings are sharper, the day temperatures are softer. There are fewer cicadas during the day and fewer katydids at night. The crickets, however, have taken their place in the chorus.

Drifting out of summer. Substitute “August” for July in Carroll’s poem and that would capture the feel of the days.

Canning and freezing operations have started up on the weekends in the kitchen. Last Sunday I canned seven pints of salsa and eleven pints of tomatoes. It’s not August until you spend the whole day standing in your kitchen cannery with steam everywhere. There are still many, many tomatoes in the garden; the peppers are also finally starting to turn. 

The first high school football game is this Friday. We are just close enough to our local high school that you can hear the marching band, faintly, during practice. Come Friday night, the sky will be lit up to the west when they turn on the field lights.

Drifting out of summer.

On the home front, the summer has been squished and packed with many projects and events. Older family members have had medical issues needing attention; I’ve been accompanying my aunt Ginger to appointments. As she nears her 82nd birthday this fall, she looks more and more like her mother, my beloved Grandma Skatzes, so I am feeling perhaps even more strongly the already strong family bonds that connect us.

The “children” in the household have shifted all summer long. Sam headed back west earlier this month. He resumes school in September and just landed a job with a Portland area farm market. Sam has shown a lot of interest in local, sustainable food sources, so this may be an ideal fit for him. Elizabeth is back from her summer travels and work and will soon start the every other weekend routine with us as she heads into her final year of high school. We have even seen a fair amount of David, who went back to college this week.  

And Amy moved in with us last week.

Amy had been living on the edge of homelessness for a long time. Her father finally ordered her out of his apartment and she moved into an overcrowded house where she was sharing a room with two others and where the owner of the house made it clear Amy was not welcome. I kept saying, “We have a room for you,” and she kept resisting, trying to make things work out where she was. Then Warren and I came home after work one day last week and he said “that’s Amy’s car.”

There she was, parked in front of our house, curled up on the front seat sobbing. She was the one who made the decision to leave, as opposed to being tossed out, but it was a hard decision all the same. All of her worldly goods (except those she had moved out previously and were stored elsewhere with safe families) were in the back seat of her car.

We carried her clothes and her boxes into the house. Amy was teary and upset for the first hour, but slowly calmed down and starting putting her new room to rights. The first thing she did was hang her dream catcher over her bed. I hope it catches all of her bad dreams. She had brought a few stuffed animals with her – small, well-worn, well-loved ones – and later I saw them on the neatly made bed, tucked in by the pillows. I think that broke my heart more than anything else: at that moment she was just a little girl with no roof over her head.

But she has one now, just in time for the change in seasons. And I am grateful beyond words that we have a roof that we could share with her.

Drifting out of summer. It’s been a bittersweet time. I miss my three Oregon children, happy as I am that they are all stable and happy out there. Shepherding family members through the medical world is a poignant reminder of how short the time is growing that we have with one another. Watching Amy calming down and putting her life back together is bittersweet. She has been drifting long enough and could use some change.

Drifting out of summer. May all of our boats come back into the harbor for the winter, snug against the storms.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Downsized? Only in Compassion

During the monthly department meeting at work, someone spoke about the filing fee for opening a new case (custody or visitation, for example) and whether there should be indigent waivers for people who couldn't afford the fee, which is $100. That prompted someone else to say that if a person couldn't afford the fee, they shouldn't be asking for time with their children. This same individual went on to say, in a self-assured tone, "I mean, what's the problem? Any one of us could write a check for $100 right now."

I spoke up while those words were still hanging in the air. "I couldn't. And in this economy, there are a lot of people for whom $100 would be a stretch after paying bills and rent and gasoline."

Our department leader changed the topic quickly. Apparently, even though there was no heat in my words, we don't want the discussion to get personal. I didn't mind. I wasn't looking for a response, but it made me leave the office later that day wondering whatever happened to compassion.

A lot, apparently. In some corners, compassion has been downsized along with wages and benefits.

Lately the cable television show "Downsized" has been generating some comment in Blogville. Remember, we don't watch television in this household. We have no cable, and other than the new season of "This Old House" on PBS, it is unlikely we will turn on the television the rest of the year unless it is to watch a DVD or video. (Well, okay, we might watch some of the World Series. Just saying.) So any discussion about any television series, let alone a cable series, is usually not something I note. But after my good friend Sharon blogged about the show, and noted the opening episode was available online, I sat down and watched it.

What amazed me, now that I have seen the episode, is not the show itself. "Downsized" is "reality television," whatever that phrase has come to mean, and no matter how sanctimonious or critical we may be about "those people" and their choices, the true reality is that we the public enjoy being voyeurs in these peoples' lives and want to be titillated, offended, or appalled. The show hits its mark on that count.

No, what surprised me, and still does as I type this post, were some of the comments that Sharon's sympathy for the show's family (if not their economic choices) drew. She admitted that she had previously been harshly critical of them, but recent events in her own life had made her realize just how rapidly a family's financial stability can turn fragile these days. Sharon made a distinction between the individuals and their choices, and in doing so found a wellspring of compassion for the family.

It is too easy to throw rocks, and lots of them, at this family, but I found myself thinking that they're a lot like any of us. We all struggle with these issues - finances, family - in our own homes. We all make foolish choices from time to time. In all fairness, most of the comments on Sharon's post were sympathetic also. But some of them were harsh. Maybe this show irks us because it comes a little too close for comfort. And maybe because it's a little too close for comfort, it's easier to get shrill and dismissive about the individuals in the show rather than question why there is a market for watching a family's economic gaffes and blunders. As Sharon wisely noted: We are often quick to judge what other families do financially.  Especially in front of cameras.  But, we all make mistakes.  Thankfully for my family, we aren't doing a reality TV show and airing them for all the world to see.  I air all I want to air here on this blog!

We are often quick to judge. I'm not saying (and I doubt Sharon is too) that everyone, including the "Downsized" family, gets a permanent free pass on economic responsibility. But I do believe that times have been hard for too many for too long, no matter how wisely they budget their money or their lives. Can't pay a filing fee? Too bad, you might not get time with your children for a year or two. Made some foolish purchases and then your business tanked? Tough luck that you didn't see that coming.

To me, it's only a short step from that mindset to "Hungry? Homeless? You should have planned better."

I won't be watching "Downsized" because we don't watch television. Even if we did, I doubt I would watch it. But I really appreciate Sharon for sharing some sympathy for a family that, in the final analysis, looks more like most of us than we all want to acknowledge.