Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June Notes

June is drawing to an end. Let me make a few notes before it slips away entirely:
  • With the exception of a few hot days, June has been unusually and wonderfully mild this year. The day lingers in the low 80s, then drops into the 50s at night. That is about as close to ideal summer weather as it gets in central Ohio. 
  • We have an abundance of fireflies. Perhaps it is the wet spring we had. Perhaps it is the cool weather. Whatever the reasons, the nightly displays in the backyard are staggering.
  • The rudbeckia at the end of the deck is starting to bud. Once the flowers open, our backyard becomes Bee Central to such an extent that you can sit on the deck and hear the hum.
  • My 2011 garden is going great guns, despite its pathetic start. It is as impressive as it is because of the kindness of my friends Kermit and Donna, who shared with open hands and hearts their starter plants. The tomatoes are flowering. The beans are up. We have been eating fresh zucchini for weeks. (Yes, I know, there's the weeding to do.)
  • Walking downtown yesterday, I passed a hopscotch pattern chalked on the sidewalk. No rock on it, or I might have been tempted to go a round or two.
  • The hopscotch game was  in front of the house which has a rocking horse on the porch. The horse's body is white, its mane and tail are fuchsia and "real" (not molded), and it appears to have lavender eye shadow and gold glitter around its eyes. Trust me, we are not talking about a plain old circus pony. We are talking about a just-jumped-off-a-merry-go-round prancer. It's the rocking horse I would have wanted as a kid.
  • Last night, the Symphony rehearsed for its holiday concerts. I arrived after it was underway, walking through the campus after stopping first at the library. The windows to the performance hall were open and "Phantom of the Opera" spilled out into the warm summer evening. I stood outside for an extra long moment letting the music wash over me. 
For the next few days, our lives will whirl around holiday concerts at three different locations: one tomorrow night in Mansfield, one Saturday in Put-In-Bay up on Lake Erie, and the final one the night of the Fourth here in Delaware. Late Sunday afternoon, in the midst of the hoopla, Sam arrives home for a summer stay. I have not seen him since I said goodbye in Montana last August and I am eager to see my boy once again.

Not all fireworks burst over our heads in the night sky. Some explode right in our hearts.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bread Upon the Waters

Cast your bread upon the waters,
For you will find it after many days.
Ecclesiastes 11:1; New King James Version

Grandma and Grandpa Nelson lived on a farm about 12 miles away when I was growing up. We spent many Sunday afternoons there having a traditional Sunday dinner. In the summers when I was very young, my older brother Dale and I would spend several days at the farm "on vacation." Looking back, I realize the vacations were more for the benefit of my parents, but I remember the excitement of going to the farm with my little overnight suitcase.  

Farm vacations! That meant gathering eggs, playing in the barn and fields, helping slop the hogs, running up and down the lane, snapping and stringing beans, husking corn, picking tomatoes, and eating my grandma's delicious cooking (hands down, she was the best cook I knew growing up).

Usually at least once during our vacation, Dale and I would "go fishing." Even though a small creek (the "crick") ran through the fields, we did not fish there as the water was too shallow. Rather, we would trudge down the dusty lane to the main road (melodiously named "Hogback") and then walk a very short distance to where the creek ran under the road. The culvert had old concrete abutments on either side of the road, and the little bridge (as we called it) marked our fishing hole. From there, perhaps all of six or seven feet above the water, we would let down our lines in the vain hopes of catching a fish. In retrospect, it was something only young children would do, as only a child would believe in the impossibility of there being anything bigger than a minnow in the brackish, shallow water underneath the little bridge.

Our fishing lines were baling twine and safety pins. We occasionally made "poles" out of old sticks, but only to extend the reach of the baling twine, which had a maddening habit of floating on the water's surface. For bait, we used what was popularly called a "dough ball." Dough balls were wadded up pieces of bread, preferably the white, spongy stuff (and let's face it, we all ate the white spongy stuff back then), moistened with water until the bread could be kneaded and shaped around the open safety pin. Once we had the lines suitable baited, we would lower them over the side into the scummy, green water (no small feat given the nature of baling twine) and wait.

I don't remember how long the fishing expeditions lasted. 20 minutes? 30? Hogback was a quiet gravel road in those days, so two young children could sit along the roadside undisturbed for a whole morning. I doubt we lasted that long. The heat and the dust, let alone the boredom of no fish, probably drove us back down the lane to the cool dimness of the house before too much time elapsed.

In Ecclesiastes 11, we are admonished to cast our bread upon the waters and wait for the return. We cast our bread constantly on the waters in those days with little tangible return. We never caught a fish. In looking back, I wonder whether we even ever got a minnow nibble.

A number of translations and interpretations analyze Ecclesiastes 11 in trade and financial terms. The New International Bible is blunt:

Put your money into trade across the ocean.
      After a while you will earn something from it.
 Give shares of what you earn to a lot of people.
      After all, you don't know what great trouble 

might come on the land.

More than one writer has used that or a similar translation to say that Solomon (the presumed writer of Ecclesiastes) was giving us financial advice to invest broadly and diversify our holdings.

I'm not so convinced. Perhaps Solomon was thinking of economics. But he could have been thinking about fishing. My brother and I cast our bread upon the waters, watching our dough balls get stickier and slimier with each successive cast. As I noted, we never caught a fish, so our measurable returns were non-existent. But there were intangible returns beyond measure: water striders skating across the water, a tadpole or two, birds singing in the bushes. If we were really lucky, a dragonfly, all shimmer and elegance, would hover for a second or two before zipping away. 

My grandparents sold the farm in 1970 and moved to a "modern" ranch style home on the outskirts of a small village. The old farmhouse is long gone; the lane is now an access road to houses built back on what used to be the farm. It has all changed.

But the memories remain. Without even being aware of it, as a child I invested broadly in storing up the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations, and the flavors of my days. Even though Grandma Nelson has been dead for almost 30 years and it has been even longer since I sat at a table full of her cooking, I can still remember what her fried chicken and her homemade sweet pickles tasted like. In writing this post, I can feel again the heavy dust of the lane between my toes as we walked, the curiously smooth feel of a tadpole in my hands, the sun beating down on my shoulders as I tried to straighten the prickly baling twine enough that it would reach the water.

We cast our bread upon the waters in those days, wildly and improbably, hoping for just one fish. Half a century later, my bread has come back to me.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


My friend Cindy and I have been exchanging emails about her upcoming yard sale. Cindy, who lives alone (not counting the horses, dogs, cats, and other assorted animals) in a small space, is focused on purging her life of unwanted articles (and hopes to make some money while she's at it).

When her marriage ended a few years ago, Cindy moved from a larger house (and barn and outbuildings) to the place where she is at now. Many of her possessions got packed away and stored under tarps or in a shed. Cindy is ready to get rid of items she has held onto but not used or even seen for years.

Not surprisingly, our emails all come down to talking about "stuff." Because that's what a wholesale purge of unwanted items is really about: it's about getting rid of stuff. Cindy wrote:

Realized i have A LOT of crap to sell! And i haven't even started thru boxes yet!!!  Found a NICE flat seat saddle in the mow i had forgot about.  It cleaned up really nicely! Have a set of harness to clean yet...

Cindy's house is on a country lot next door to her parents' house. Her parents have lots of stuff. Her mom loves stuff so much that she started giving Cindy a hard time about the yard sale:

Mom is already giving me grief about some of the stuff i want to get rid of.  DUH....can't imagine where i got my hoardingness!!!!  You think i have a lot of crap???  You should see her basement.  This is a full basement TOTALLY full top to bottom with crap!  A lot is food and supply storage (which has come in very handy) but a lot is just STUFF!!!  All nice but STUFF!!!  And WHY an i even talking about someone else's crap!!!!

Cindy's complaint struck me as humorous:

HA! First thought, it's YOUR stuff. You can toss it if you want. Second thought--she could buy it from you and then put it in HER basement!!!  HA! That'll solve the whole problem. I'm with you - it's all just STUFF. I am getting so tired of STUFF! 

(And this whole discussion so reminds me of George Carlin's classic routine on stuff. A gentle reminder to sensitive readers: this is George Carlin.)

As Cindy dug deeper into her stored goods, her comments kept coming back to stuff:

Found major more Yard Sale stuff and still haven't opened the boxes!  Shed is FULL of stuff that can go. IT will take some time to pull everything out and go thru.  Haven't gotten into that shed in......months. Maybe even a year!

I know that feeling. I have moved twice in the last five years. Each time, I have ended up making large donations of stuff to our local Goodwill. One of my criteria was whether I had used the item in the last year. If the answer was no, into the pile it went.

Quite often, I look at what remains and feel the urge to get rid of more of it. I wrote Cindy that her emails make "me want to go home and get rid of stuff - of course, some of the stuff I would get rid of is not mine to discard, so just my stuff, I guess." As I look at what remains, I have a feeling the next major purge will be to a dumpster and not Goodwill.

Warren, who is a collector and keeper of many things, cringes when I refer to the trash dumpster. He knows I am talking about my elementary school grade cards, old papers, and thank you notes. He knows I am talking about the flotsam and jetsam that we all accumulate as we move through life - precious to the recipient (in this case, me) but fairly meaningless to the world at large. More than once, he has gently suggested that I consider my sons' feelings and whether they will someday want these things.

My response tends to be a little blunt. I am pretty sure Ben and Sam aren't going to want my miscellaneous stuff (but I will check with them just to be sure). Given that Warren will probably outlive me, he will be left with the rest of my stuff after my sons take those items they want. Given his genetic predisposition not to be able to get rid of stuff, Warren will not part with my leftover stuff, so it will still be around when he dies. Frankly, as much as I love my stepchildren, I don't want them to be the ones to throw out my stuff.

Warren grew up in a family that did not put a high premium on shopping for or acquiring material goods, and I am grateful he inherited that tendency from his parents. Most of the stuff Warren owns now either is related to his profession (percussion equipment, music, and his machine shop, and therefore not stuff as far as I am concerned) or is items he inherited from his parents, much of which in turn was inherited from their parents.

All the same, it is a lot of stuff. Especially by my standards. While Warren knew before we became a couple that I didn't live a materialistic life, he recently said even he was surprised by how "sparse" my lifestyle and attitude towards materialism were. (I remember looking at him and saying "Sparse?" That was a new label even for me.)

My reaction to living with all of Warren's stuff is to cull my stuff even more. Don't get me wrong. I don't live in a bare building with only one pan to cook in and one chair on which to sit. I live in the modern world and have many of the accoutrements that we consider part of everyday life, including the computer on which to type these words and the internet access through which to post it. I like living in the twenty-first century! I just like living in it with less stuff cluttering my life. And much of what I want now to cast off is merely the accumulated detritus of my fifty-five years on this earth.

As Cindy nears her yard sale, she has grown reflective, as we often do when we sort through our stuff:

This Yard Sale is letting me see things that are going on with me i'm not sure i would have  otherwise seen.  SO many things i was keeping.....because i might need them someday.  Someday is here, kinda sad in a way, and i DON'T and WILL NOT ever need them!!  But also very freeing!  Yes, that can go!!!!  Storing that stuff is a huge pain, the emotional baggage is a huge pain too.  The emotional is gone, good feeling!!!

I know that feeling. I wrote her back:

I like your observations about the yard sale showing you stuff about yourself you may not otherwise have seen. It is always really fascinating to "let go" of stuff - because you get a point in your life where you realize "you know, I'm never going to do that, or do that again, or learn that, or I'm not that person anymore, or I'm never going to be that person."

Getting rid of stuff is freeing. Letting go of tangible items - the mirror you never hung, the boots that never fit quite right - frees up your living space and allows you to see your environment in very different ways. Letting go of intangible items - the old relationship, the hobby that defined "you" thirty years ago but no longer interests you - frees up your emotional space and allows you to see yourself in very different ways. Letting go of the tangible evidence of the intangible - the thank you note from the class you student taught 23 years ago when you were working on the teaching certification that you then set aside - is the most freeing of all.

The novelist and poet Herman Hesse wrote "some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go." I need to let go of some stuff. I'm ready.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Springboarding into Books

I just finished reading The Pilgrim's Progress, the 1678 work by John Bunyan. The book is a Christian allegory, probably the most famous in English literature. It has never been out of print since first being published.

Reading Bunyan was slow going. At first, I didn't understand why it was so slow. The narrative is not smooth; the transitions are awkward. As a result, about a third of the way through Part One I had to step outside (figuratively, not literally) and put the work in its historical context. That is when I realized that this is not a novel. While there is an ongoing debate in the academic world as to when the first English novel was published, many scholars agree that it is later than Bunyan. (Leading contenders, for all you geeks like me out there who just want to know, are Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson's Pamela, both appearing in the 1700s.) So context number one was "this is not a novel, or certainly not a novel in the sense that we understand a novel to be." So I needed to stop expecting it to be a novel.

The second contextual issue for me as I waded through the dense writing was "how did anyone have the patience to read this?" I am used to faster paced reading (see context number one: this is not a novel). Then it hit me: it's the 1670s, April. (Sometimes, despite being a geek, I am slow on the uptake.) There were no telephones, no televisions, no internet. There were no magazines to speak of and newspapers were in their infancy. There were no trains, planes, or automobiles. If you were outside a major city, such as London, entertainment was limited and local. The literacy rate in England at the time was less than 50%, so even having a reader in the household was a major asset. So context number two was "Bunyan's readers didn't mind a long, densely written book because they weren't bombarded with a thousand other things all calling for their time or attention, and a book, any book, was a treat." A work like The Pilgrim's Progress could be read in the evening over the course of a long winter. Foolish me, trying to read it in quick doses while juggling the other demands and interruptions on my time, and then wondering why it was taking "so long." 

The third contextual issue was putting Bunyan into the religious landscape of his time. Religious freedom and religious inquiry were current and vital topics in England in the 1600s. England was in the middle of the Restoration. The Stuart kings were Catholic; Parliament, on the heels of the Commonwealth, was holding the line at maintaining the supremacy of the Church of England. Any other religious expression, including the burgeoning number of Protestant reformers, was forbidden. Bunyan was jailed as "a non-conformist" minister more than once between 1658 and 1672; he may have written much of The Pilgrim's Progress while in jail. Even with limited knowledge of the religious issues, I could pick out characters who reflected the societal turmoil and Bunyan's views of that turmoil. So historical context number three was that this book was written during a time of great religious upheaval, in which Bunyan was deeply involved and for which he was jailed, and that the societal issues, as well as Bunyan's religious beliefs, are part of the narrative. 

I'm not sure these three contextual realizations made reading Bunyan any easier or smoother, but they did allow me a framework in which to place myself as I worked my way through this work over three hundred years after it was written.

Next up is Vanity Fair, written 150 years later and taking its title and theme from a locale in The Pilgrim's Progress. From there, I will jump forward another almost half century and reread Little Women.

Why Little Women? Louisa May Alcott was intimately familiar with The Pilgrim's Progress and references to it are laced throughout her great work. Alcott was writing two centuries later, but she was clearly well-versed in the book and made ample use of Bunyan's work to advance her own story. I have a feeling that I may read and understand Little Women differently after having read Bunyan. While reading Bunyan, I had several moments of "ah, so that's what Alcott was talking about."

So many times one book is a springboard leading to another or to a whole line of books. I got interested in reading Bunyan from reading Payback - Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a 2008 nonfiction work by Margaret Atwood. Reading backwards to 1678, I am now springing forward to the 1800s. From there, it is anyone's guess, including my own, which direction I will turn.

As I recently noted, for me reading is like floating down a river. Judging by the books on the table, I'm going to be in the water for some time to come.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Over the Rainbow

Like so many others, I keep a mental list of my favorite movies. "Hoosiers" is on that list. So is "Singing in the Rain" and "The King's Speech." "Field of Dreams" is on that list too, as is "What Dreams May Come." But my all time, absolutely favorite movie - the one that I will watch at any opportunity - is "The Wizard of Oz."

Yep, 1939, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton, the Munchkins, Oz, the flying monkeys, the whole nine yards. "The Wizard of Oz" is always number one on any list of mine. I probably have seen it at least once for every year of my life (55) and probably another dozen to two dozen times beyond that, so maybe I've seen it 75-80 times.

Friday night Warren and I went down to the Ohio Theatre for the start of the summer movie series and watched "The Wizard of Oz" on the big screen. (Be still my heart. While the movie suits me in any format, it really pops when seen on a big screen.)

We were running a bit late getting out of town. As we debated grabbing supper on the fly, I announced, as calmly as I could in light of the ticking clock, that I didn't want to be late for the movie as I had to (had to) see Dorothy sing "Over the Rainbow." If I missed that scene, which occurs very early in the movie, then we might as well bag the whole evening.

A short silence ensued while Warren pondered the enormity (or insanity) of what I had just said. After determining I was probably competent, he said "we'll make it work." And we did, ending up in our seats with ten or fifteen minutes to spare.

I wasn't disappointed. The movie is still magical. For the next two hours (with intermission), I was caught up in the story, enjoying the oh-so-familiar lines and scenes. I bounced in my seat when Glinda (My favorite! My favorite!) made her first appearance; I swallowed hard when Dorothy hugged the scarecrow and whispered "I think I'll miss you most of all." When the house thumped back down at the end of the movie and we were all back in Kansas, I sighed a little.

Emerging into the warm night in downtown Columbus, I felt a little disoriented. "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." No, nor in Oz either.

If you asked me why I love "The Wizard of Oz" so much, I could probably spin off several reasons. I love the books, and while the movie is not faithful to the text (what do you mean, Louis Mayer, that Dorothy was just dreaming?), it's close enough that I am satisfied. Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, the lyricist and composer of the songs? Love them. I love watching Judy Garland sing their signature work, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (although it is heartbreaking watching it from the vantage point of now knowing how Garland's life would turn out). I love seeing Frank Morgan (the wizard) pop up in various roles, five in all. I even love the flying monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West, the two components of the film that frighten most children. (I was fine with them when I was little, but that tornado haunted my dreams well into my thirties. Watching the twister scene the other night on the big screen, I found myself still tensing up as it came closer and closer to the farmhouse.)

I love the actors, I love the costumes, I love the sets. I'd love to be Glinda, no matter which character the Facebook quiz said I was most like.

Let's face it: I love the film.

When I outfitted myself for my new job, I found a skirt at Goodwill that I call my Frida Kahlo/Wizard of Oz skirt. (Katrina, if you are reading this, you are probably rolling your eyes and wondering what on earth I look like.) The Oz reference came about because the skirt is so color splashed that it looks like what Dorothy must have seen when she first opened the door after the farmhouse landed in the Munchkin city.

And maybe that is what I love best about "The Wizard of Oz" - the wonder of Dorothy opening the door into Oz. There is something in that simple scene that has always resonated with me, no matter what my age. Friday night I could barely sit still, knowing that Dorothy was about to open the farmhouse door and step out into enchantment.

In the book, The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy "gave a cry of amazement and looked about her, her eyes growing bigger and bigger at the wonderful sights she saw." In my very first blog post, I wrote about the magic of opening doors. This movie is where I first learned that to open the door is to set off on an adventure.

Big doors, little doors, real doors, dream doors: no matter what kind of door you may have, there is always that moment when your hand is on the knob and you are about to open it. May you always give cries of amazement at what is on the other side.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My Stones

I don't often write about books, which is odd given that I read constantly, as in "all the time." I tend to see my reading as a broad river in which I am floating, enjoying the sunshine on the water and the sound of the ripples. Sometimes I am lazing around in the water, sometimes I am on an old inner tube letting the current tug me gently downstream, but I am always in the river when I read. 

I love that river. I have floated on that river for a half century.

Sometimes, though, a book comes along that narrows the river channel, driving the water through a rock walled canyon. The water sweeps along and there is a rush of whitewater. During those times, I hold tight to the book, knowing I will emerge back into the sunlight and lazy current when I am done.

I just finished reading one such book, The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Subtitled A Biography of Cancer, the book is exactly that. Written for laypeople as well as for doctors, it takes the reader from the earliest indications of cancer in the human record up to 2010 and where we are now in the treatment of cancer.

Mukherjee makes clear, with no mincing of words, that we are nowhere near "conquering" cancer. The reality is humans will likely never "conquer" cancer in the sense of eradicating the disease. Certain types of cancer are now highly treatable and indeed curable. Cures for others are within reach. But cancer as such will always be with (and in) us. In speaking about the climbing cancer rates in certain cancers or in certain countries, the author notes that at the point that cancer is affecting one in three or one in two people, "the question then will not be if we will encounter the immortal illness in our lifetime, but when." (Author's emphasis.)

I finished the book last night after an intense several days of reading. When I set it down with a thud (the book is not small), Warren asked me if I were "okay."

How would I know, so soon? I was just climbing out of the water after a wild rush through the narrow channel. I needed to stand on the shore, towel off, get into some dry clothes.

This book resonated deeply with me, citizen of Cancerland that I am. (I was delighted to see Mukherjee  use that term one time in the book.)  But, as I noted, this is not a gentle read or a soft sell about cancer. Mukherjee reminded me bluntly on page 444 that not only do I live in Cancerland, but I will never leave it. Nothing "cures myeloma outright; myeloma is still a fatal disease."

This morning Warren called me after he left the house to mention a possible demolition in the downtown area. I emailed him in response: This is going to sound like a weird comment, but after reading the cancer book, I feel more detached. I hate to see the house come down. On the other hand, I'm in this "long view" frame of mind right now. I think the cancer book just reminded me of how much is guesswork with cancer and how much my still being alive is due to unusually good fortune. I am vastly blessed that my myeloma has stayed quiet for so long (unusually long, truth be known).

Warren replied in his usual thoughtful way: I know things are in the back of your mind. I try not to disturb them in you because they are yours. (What a gentle, loving husband I have.)

Mukherjee writes about the impact of his medical rotation in oncology on him and his colleagues: "our encounter with cancer has rounded us off; it has smoothed and polished us like river rocks." Like Mukherjee's experience in his oncology rotation, I too have been shaped by living with cancer.

In copying that quote into my commonplace book, I without thinking substituted "stones" for "rocks" before catching my mistake. Stones are smaller than rocks, smoother, rounder. They can be held in the hand. Since getting cancer, I have collected many stones along the way: stones of memories, stones of experiences, stones of feelings.

Those stones are mine.

When I read Warren's beautiful line, I saw myself at the river again, picking up small stones, each of them rounded by the cancer. They are my stones. Warren and others can look at them, hold them, marvel at them, but they remain my stones. Sooner or later, whoever is looking at them has to hand them back to me.

One of those stone is gratitude. Another is uncertainty. One is love. One of those stones is hope. Yet another is purpose. One, polished particularly smooth, is death.

Yes, death is one of my stones too.

Cancer has shaped and rounded who I am and what my life is. Reading The Emperor of All Maladies reminded me anew of what a gift I have been given. I am still here. This morning, as I walked Warren out to the car, I bent down to pluck a stray weed (one of many) from the front flower bed. My head was near a clump of spiderwort, which the honeybees have been plumbing for weeks now, and I heard the sharp buzz of one of them in the clump of flowers. I straightened up and looked until I spotted the bee furiously working over a stamen.

So full of life, so full of purpose.

I am still here. It is up to me to decide what to do with those stones every day of the rest of my life.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Class of '74

37 years ago, we all graduated from our local high school and then went our separate ways, many of us never to see one another again, or so we thought. Like so many other self-absorbed young people, we had just finished four years of high school together, but, in so many, many ways, apart.

We were jocks, geeks, pretty girls, majorettes. We were band kids, writers, loners, pariahs. We were thespians and debaters. We were bad kids, quiet kids, kids who blended into the wallpaper. We were girls who were fast and boys who were weird. 

And we had nothing in common with each other, beyond the tight little circle of friends that each of us moved in. In fact, we had so little in common with one another that many of us went through four years in the same building, sometimes in the same classes or even the same homeroom, without saying a word to each other.

About each other, yes. But to each other? Absurd.

Until recently.

We have coalesced as a class, as friends, thanks to the wonder of Facebook and the persistence of one classmate in bringing us together. In addition to maintaining a class website, Bob (geek, loner) also maintains a Facebook page through which a number of us have met for the first time or reconnected again for the first time in many years.

Like many other high school groups, our class meets every five years for a formal reunion. But thanks to FB and Bob's nudges, our class meets more often at a local eatery for what someone (probably Bob again) dubbed a "mini reunion." There is a flow and ease to these events. They are little things. A few drinks, some eats, some talk, and everyone disperses.


I made it to my first mini reunion last night along with Warren, who graduated two years ahead of me (and who so patiently sat through the evening). In addition to the locals (and we are many), Friday night's mini reunion featured out-of-staters Tonya (majorette) coming in from New Jersey (a not infrequent occurrence) and Kate (thespian, literary magazine, dancer) coming all the way from California back to Delaware, Ohio for the first time in a quarter century.

I was there for the first hour or so, listening to the talk, chiming in occasionally. What I mostly did was watch and marvel. Some of us were poring over old yearbooks. Others were catching up on "what have you done since" the last time they last saw one another. Kate opened her bag and pulled out "the German dolls," small, now well-worn figures she and her girlfriends had played with for countless hours in grade school. Judy (rebel) breathed out reverently, "I remember these."

The last classmate I talked to before leaving last night was Mark (jock), who was sitting on the other side of the table. I can guarantee that Mark and I (band kid, geek, writer) never exchanged one word in four years of high school. Mark surprised me by asking me how my health was and listened very carefully to my reply. He then told me his father died several years ago of multiple myeloma, which is the same cancer I have.

Little connections. Big connections.  

Warren and I left early on, as we knew today held community work. The mini reunion went on long into the night, with some going home and others joining the mix as it rotated to different venues. Tonya and Kate were two of the last standing. I know that because I met them for coffee this morning before hugging them goodbye.

In 37 years, our class of 1974 has gone so many different ways. Some of us are teachers, some of us are small business owners, some of us work in government jobs. Some of us are retired already; some of us are hoping just to hang on in this shaky economy until we can retire. Some of us have had multiple careers. Some of us are parents, some of us are grandparents, and some of us are the happy owners of cats. Some of us have been married more than once, some of us are still with the one we said "I do" to many years ago, some of us never married at all.

We are so different, and yet we are so alike. All of us have a common thread that we didn't realize for the longest time. We share a common past that connects us in ways we would have laughed uproariously over 37 years ago. 

When I look back on those long ago years, I sometimes flinch, I sometimes laugh, I sometimes shrug. My high school years were goofy, horrifying, wonderful, or just plain weird, depending on what hour or day or week you pick. And you know what? So was everyone else's.

I know. I heard it last night.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pennies Under The Rug

Last night I had a short, intense exchange with Sam on the issue of finances. Mine, not his. The dialogue was prompted by my asking him his financial status, as Sam's dad had just asked me to contribute more to Sam's monthly expenses. Sam immediately asked why we were even having that discussion without his involvement.

Good point, Sam. And thank you for making it.

Emails about money from my ex-spouse, no matter how well meant, always cause my stress level to jump way into the red. Because of the long and often difficult history between us, including major struggles on financial issues, I cannot read any inquiry from him as neutral. This one was no exception.

To reply to his email required much agonizing over words. As I labored through a draft, I cried out "I can hear Doug [my brilliant therapist of yore] talking to me!" Warren, who was providing moral support and a listening ear, asked me what Doug was saying.

"Stop thinking that telling your story means it is heard."

Doug was right. My long, labored explanation added nothing to the discussion and only made me feel worse. I trimmed my reply considerably, reined in my feelings, wrote that I was already doing all I could do, and would stretch more when I could. Then I hit "send."

But not before Sam and I had our quick exchange. And not before I assured Sam that he was not the source of financial stress in my life.

I grew up in a hardworking, blue collar family where my parents made it clear from grade school on that they would support and provide for my brothers and me until we graduated from high school. After that, we were on our own and either had to join the military, get a job, or go to college. If you chose college, good for you, but it was on your own dime. After my parents drove me to Chicago in the fall of 1974 and unloaded my suitcases, their obligation ended. It was my scholarships, my loans, and my meager savings that got me through that first year and the years to follow.

Having gone to college on the sink or swim financial plan, I have always felt strongly about helping my children through college. What I hadn't planned on was Life, in the form of a major illness and an extreme and permanent reduction in income, messing up my plans.

I struggled my way through the responses and the guilt last night. I did not want to turn my back on Sam, and while I "knew" I wasn't doing that, I didn't accept that I was not. I "know" I am doing what I can to help him achieve his education. Is it all I want or hoped it would be? No. But I have to accept that my means are far more limited than in "the old days" and I am doing what I can. I can only shave pennies so thin, no matter what my desires for my children. And at this point, all my pennies are pretty thinly shaved. (Confession: I did just start a "getting away" account, but with my opening deposit being a whopping $96.33 and a third of that being spare change and another half being rebates and coupon savings, I don't think I am being selfish at the expense of a college education.)

For me, the big issue is changing my mindset that spending money equals love and that the only way I can prove myself as a good and loving parent is to overextend myself financially. As I told Warren, I could move this amount from here to there (because I also pay some other bills for Sam), but I was really just playing a shell game. Spread the dollars as I might over my budget, there are still only a given number of dollars.  Like resolving to buy the gift I can afford versus the splashier, pricier gift I can't, I have to work through my feelings and accept that it is okay to say "I can't do that amount, but I can do this amount."

I have to accept that about myself: that I am doing all I can. I have to give myself permission that "all I can" is a loving response.  

My friend Arlene recently shared her memory of her mother helping her with her college education: How well I remember my mother's jar of dimes. I still have tears when I think of the morning she rolled back the worn rug and removed enough nickels, dimes, and pennies to pay my first quarter tuition at OSU.

It is a beautiful story and one I thought about last night as I struggled with my desire and my inability to provide everything I would like for my children.

Sam will be home in four weeks for a visit and a brief respite from school. He'll have a chance to talk; I'll have a chance to listen. We are both looking forward to cooking together and recently talked about some of the dishes we want to try. And perhaps we'll have a chance to roll back the rug and find treasures underneath.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Loose Change

Back in April, while I was posting poetry, my friend Sharon over at Musings From a Midlife Mom was posting about her continued odyssey through her year of spending less and living more. Pounded by several Life events - a broken water heater, a family emergency - she noted ruefully how the month so far had been a lot about "spending more" because she had to, and added that she needed to also plan on and budget some "living more" items into her life. Sharon then noted that her personal "living more" list required some major funding to come true.

Sharon hit on something critical: it is important to take into account your wants as well as your needs as you thread your way through life. We sometimes forget that, either thinking we may only consider our needs or else only taking into account our wants. Either path will ultimately prove discouraging at best and disastrous at worst.

I liked how Sharon identified items that represented "living more" for her and recognized they all have a price tag. I suggested in a comment that she think about opening (with a very modest deposit) a "living more" bank account that the odd change and odd savings go into so she could see progress, even a little, toward her dreams. I wrote "if you can save one auto trip a week maybe there is $5 saved in gas and you throw $5 or close to it in a jar."

I have always found it impossible to read Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and not be moved by the story of the Nolan family saving pennies in a homemade bank nailed to the floor of the closet. The goal was five cents a day. "It seems a little. But where is it to come from? We haven't enough now and with another mouth to feed…" It is the grandmother who gives advice on how to scrimp even harder to come up with the precious pennies. I had the Nolans in mind when I suggested throwing the extra savings into the jar that would eventually be deposited into the "living more" account.

Sharon is still working on solving her money issues by taking a long, hard look at her family budget and aligning the needs and wants into the budget. Like all of us, she struggles with the needs versus the wants, the goals (saving, budgeting) versus the reality (what stopped working now?).

This was a very stressful spring for us due to external factors over which we had had very little control. Our peaceful home life was very hard hit and is still recovering, some major issues in our larger families have cropped up that we have to deal with, our finances were thrown into total chaos by outside events, and at many points both Warren and I felt beleaguered, to put it mildly. It is a blessing our relationship is so strong, because I am not sure a shaky one could have survived. At one low point, when I got done ranting to the point of tears about some of those external factors, I announced loudly "And you know what? Next year we are going on vacation for a week and GETTING AWAY from all of this!"

Saying those words was like letting the genie out of the bottle. The moment I spoke them aloud, they started taking on form and shape.

I want to go to the ocean. I love the ocean. I miss the ocean. I want to go east and eat blue crab and other seafood wonderfulness. I want to sit on an almost empty beach (we're not talking Virginia Beach here) somewhere and stare out to sea. I want to walk along the shoreline holding hands with Warren. And I want to watch and listen to the waves rolling in until I feel whole again.

(Note: I wrote a draft of this post in late April. Since then I have added an alternative destination: north to a lakefront cottage with a screen door and maybe, maybe the Northern lights. We'll see what next year brings.)

Sharon has blogged before about putting spare five-dollar bills in a special drawer, jar, or box, and watching how fast they build up. I do the same thing with loose change and one dollar bills, spare five-dollar bills being a rare commodity around here. Don't laugh: loose change is what helped us get to Montana last summer. Well, the only way to accomplish GETTING AWAY on our modest incomes is to follow my advice to Sharon: open a "living more" bank account and throw all the loose change and extra dollars into it. Which is exactly what I did earlier today. True to my advice, I opened it with a very modest deposit, but open it I did. Into it will go all the loose change, coupon savings (I don't use coupons very much but when I do, I will write a check to the "living more" account for that amount), rebates, and other odd amounts that come my way for the next year. If I write a check for $43.57 for the electric, I will enter it as $44.00 in the checkbook and count the extra 43¢ towards the account, moving it over each month as I balance my account. Loose change, it all adds up.

Thank you, Sharon, for inspiring me! I can hear the surf (or the slap of the screen door) already.