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?

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.


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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Just the other day, I wrote my friend Cindy that I really enjoy my job, but there are days I don’t want to go to work. At all. On those days, I think that if someone came running up to me, handed me a satchel of money, and ran off shouting “you don't ever have to work again and you will have no money or health insurance problems for the rest of your life!," I would turn right around and head back home.

Cindy emailed back: ‘Wouldn't that be nice!!!!  I think a lot about the fact that we spend SO much of our time doing things we don't particularly like to put a roof over our heads and have no time to enjoy that "roof!"  Does it really make sense?”

Cindy has made that roof comment before. Every time she does, I think she is onto something. There are days we all want to be under our own "roofs" (whatever and wherever they may be) doing what we want or need to be doing.

So here I am, Wednesday evening, thinking about our respective “roofs” and what it takes to be under them. Legal clinic was last night. Lots of clients, lots of hard times. Oatmeal cookies and fruit kuchen (thank you, Ashley, it was wonderful!) are not enough to keep the wolves away from these peoples’ doors (and roofs). We will see at least 250 clients this year, a record we don’t look forward to setting. If the economy turns steeply downward, we will see even more.

While I type this, I am making more oatmeal cookies (for another program I bake for). Bread (for us) is rising. I am trying to stare my checkbook into submission, looking at whether I can shave a little more off the stack of bills. Some of the “getting away” fund – the portion directly attributable to my rebates and mileage checks (as compared to loose change, which we both contribute) – “got away” into my checking account to pay bills, but I am resolved to replace that when I am able.

And I am STILL tired.

But my roof – literally and figuratively – is sturdily in place over my head, kept there by a wonderful husband, a solid marriage, a dependable job (which I really do enjoy), and blessings innumerable. Even if I don’t always recognize (or admit) it, the reality is I do have time to enjoy my roof, whether that means sharing breakfast with Warren, reading in the quiet of the evening, or daydreaming about strengthening the community through baking. That doesn’t mean I don’t want more time under my roof, no matter how I define “roof,” but I try to be mindful of just how much I already have in the face of so many who are faced with so much less.

In these uncertain times, many of us are struggling to keep the roofs of our lives from blowing away, trying to patch the holes in the roof before the drip becomes a deluge, trying to throw up a makeshift roof where one used to be before the storm breaks. My prayer for us all is simple.

May we all be under our own roofs, wherever and whatever they may be.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To the Peaky Mountain

Zora Neale Hurston, Drumming
Monday was one of those days. You know, the never quite get it into gear, really tired, where did the weekend go?, somewhat numb kind of day that all of us stub our toes on every now and then. Well, Monday was that day for me. (Still is, even though it is no longer Monday.)

The weekend was way, way full. Warren had rehearsals and a concert in a city about an hour from here. The concert was an all Rodgers & Hammerstein evening. Now, I like R & H. I mean, really like them. Sigh. This was an inconsistent performance. Some of it was excellent (a couple of the soloists were superb), some of it was good, and some of it was, well, never mind. I will only say I have never heard "Oklahoma" sung at quite that tempo. You could not only spell "Oklahoma" but could probably embroider it to boot before the song finished. Between the rehearsals (Thursday and Friday) and the concert (Saturday), there were a lot of late, late nights.

As a result, I don’t really remember the weekend. Was there one? I know I got to Monday morning and said to Warren "I need a weekend now." Boy, do I ever.

Monday was made longer by my rising earlier than usual to take Aunt Ginger to the hospital for some pre-surgical testing. She sailed through without a hitch, looking unusually bright-eyed and perky (anxiety brings out her coloring). I hope I look half that good in five years when I turn 60, let alone if I ever reach almost 82.

So by the time I reached Monday night, I was beat. Exhausted. Worn out. I made oatmeal cookies for Tuesday’s legal clinic, I finished reading an excellent biography about Zora Neale Hurston (Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd), I thought about but did not pick the tomatoes and beans. (It was evening. The mosquitoes were out. I hate mosquitoes.)

A day later, I am less physically tired, but my mood remains all over the floor. Limp. Worn out. I poke it around the edges. Sad? Depressed? Definitely on the numb side. I feel as if I have a lot on my mind, but nothing yet I can really catch up and deal with. (Or, perhaps more truthfully, nothing I am ready to catch up in my hands and deal with. Dealing with stuff is hard work.)

The biography I just finished started with a quote by Zora that I have long known: I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. What I didn’t know until I read this book is that there is more to the quote then that. 

I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands. [From Dust Tracks on the Road, 1942.]

As I emailed Warren this morning, right now I seem to be in Sorrow's kitchen, licking out all the pots. I need to move myself forward to the rest of that quote. I want to be wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in hand, standing on the peaky mountain.

Monday, August 8, 2011

All the Angels

He ordered his angels
to guard you wherever you go.
If you stumble, they'll catch you;
their job is to keep you from falling.
                          Psalm 91:11 (The Message)

Walking downtown in the humid, sultry air last week, I kept my eyes cast down. It was already hot. It was only 10:15 a.m. My mind was on the heat.

I don't do well in heat. I was definitely not in the moment.

When I walk along in that mood, I am absent. I miss the little threads that make up the tapestry of the world: a cardinal alighting on the tree branch, a spray of petunias blooming despite the heat. Small moments whisper by me and I don't even catch them.

All the same, I snapped out of my trance long enough to notice the battered concrete planter sitting cockeyed on the downtown sidewalk. It was full only of foxtail grasses and a weed or two. Clearly no one had tended it this summer. I couldn't even tell if it belonged to anyone.

Just a weedy, discarded, beat up and battered planter. But it had cherubs cast onto its surface.

A whole planter full of angels!

A lot of us could use a planter full of angels, never mind the weeds. I could use a planter full of angels.

In recent weeks, there has been a whole lot of taking care of others going on in our household. I am helping an elderly family member through some major medical appointments. Amy's already precarious living conditions imploded and there have been several crises. (We hope she will be joining our household soon.) Warren is shepherding Season 33 onto the main stage while tending to a myriad of other demands and needs, including two rehearsals and a concert this weekend with another group in a town an hour from here. Sam leaves this Wednesday morning and we are trying to cram in just a little more time together before I put him on an airplane back to Oregon. I have missed him deeply this past school year and will miss him again this coming one. I miss my older son, Ben, and my daughter-in-law, Alise, deeply; this weekend was their wedding anniversary. 2500 miles away, I am too far out of the fabric of all of their daily lives and am feeling that distance keenly.

I am feeling stretched thin. I am feeling worn down. The heat has finally broken, so I can't blame it today as I type, but it certainly has played a role.

I don't know. Like I said, I could use a bucketful of angels.

Composer Lukas Foss wrote a percussion concerto titled "All the Angels Have Big Feet." This line was taken from lines by Ezra Pound:

All the angels have big feet.
Hump, diddywim tum .... Hump, bump, stunt.

I'd never heard of Lukas Foss. My eye had caught the concerto title in an article Warren was reading and the image has stuck with me.

All the angels have big feet.

I could use some angels with big feet right about now. I want some big footed angels stomping around, shaking the ground, shaking up things right now. I need some angels leaving big footprints as they tread firmly through my life right now.

All the angels have big feet.

Saturday a week ago Sam spent the afternoon with me baking. (Yeah, yeah, I know. It was hot. Even with the air on. And we had the kitchen heated up for baking?) He made two pies, one apple, one key lime meringue. I introduced Sam to yeast dough and he made a deep dish pizza that was just excellent. Tomorrow when he comes over we plan on making mozzarella cheese and pasta. In the evening, I hope the three of us go to a favorite ice cream stand, about 20 miles from here, and sit on the steps of the nearby church with our sodas and our sundaes. Maybe we'll talk. Maybe we'll just watch the village life all around us.

Any time I spend with Sam is a gift to me. We have seen him only in spurts as he visits with this friend and that friend. All these weeks, we have been ready with a meal and a bed as he has come and gone. I have mended his clothes, done some of his laundry, and given him rides. Tomorrow we will cook and share a meal and maybe an ice cream cone.

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, 
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." 
Hebrews 13:2 (KJV)

Sam is no stranger, but his feet are good sized, in keeping with his 6'4" frame.

All the angels have big feet.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Books and Tomatoes

I have the day off today; when your schedule is only 24 hours a week, it is easier to slide one in every now and then. It promises to be a humid but cooler day than we have had for some time. All the same, I walked to the library first thing this morning before it got any warmer.

Going to the library is like walking into a garden this time of year. My garden (overgrown, wild green mass that it is this summer) is just starting to get serious about churning out tomatoes. I go out to pick the three ripe ones I saw earlier, but in bending over to pluck them, I see another! And another! And oh, look, that one is ready to pick too! So I come in with the bowl, which was big enough for the three tomatoes I had in mind originally, overflowing and one more tomato in my hand for good measure.

There is always another ripe tomato.

The library for me is the same way. I always set out with the thought of getting just one or two books; often I have a call number or two scribbled on a piece of paper. But only one or two. After all, I have to lug them the seven blocks back home. The fewer books to tote, the happier my arms are.

It rarely works out that way. It didn't today either.

I had meant (really, truly) only to get one book that another blogger, Darla at Bay Side to Mountain Side, had recommended. The library had it in the stacks.

But to get to the stacks in our library, you have to walk right past the new books.

I never just walk past the new books section. I didn't today. And therein lay my downfall.

Like newly ripened tomatoes, new books winked at me. I picked them up, I squeezed them, I weighed them in my hand - not for the physical weight but the emotional. Is this something I want to read now? Can this wait?

A few went back on the shelf, maybe not quite ripe, maybe not what I was looking for. Several more went into my arms. The book I had originally set out for was added to the stack, as were two videos. When all was said and done, the tote bag was packed tightly, and I still had seven blocks between me and our front door.

I used to read and walk at the same time. I probably hold the local record, dating back to my youth, for simultaneous reading and walking the greatest distances. I don't do that these days, thanks to aging eyesight. So while I walked home, I instead thought about the books I was carrying and how soon I would be back here, cooling off with lemonade and cracking open the first one.

As I finish this post mid-morning, I hear the cicadas starting their daylong chatter. The sun is in and out of clouds, so the heat is milder. I have a fan blowing on me as I sit here typing. The books are one room away, scattered on the kitchen table. There is lemonade in the refrigerator and ripe tomatoes on the window sill.

Books, tomatoes, and a summer day. Heaven in my household.