Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Be'in Neighborly

Be kind to children and animals, for God gave them the beginnings of thought. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

During a long drive, Tony asks his close friend, "How do you get along with your neighbors?"

"Well," the friend laughs, "let me tell you. Years ago, one of my neighbors called the police when my car was parked in front of my own house."


"Yeah, one day a week, it's illegal to park on the street and he waited until that day to call and have my car towed. It cost $180 to get it back."

As for the neighbor on the other side, Tony's friend decided to be neighborly and roll his garbage cans off the street and into their place at the side of the garage. Seconds after he started the good deed, the neighbor came running out of the house, impaling him with swear words, demanding he take his hands off his garbage cans, and if he ever touched his cans again, he'd blank, blank him.

He never touched those garbage cans again, nor took him a plate of cookies, never waved a friendly hello.

Any neighborly camaraderie was spoiled by expectations of the worst. The grumpy neighbor didn't have it in him to think the rebuked action was only a friendly gesture. Those neighbor-needed reciprocations will never be realized: taking in the mail, watching for trespassers, borrowing an egg, sitting curbside to set off fireworks.

I'm thankful my parents instilled in me the need to be neighborly. When there was extra, we took it to Helen and Greg. When they adopted a baby girl, she became ours too. When my grandfather built the fence around our home, he lowered the wall to knee high where the backyards ended. He may have been directed by code, and if so, the city knew in order to be neighborly, one couldn't fence themselves off from their neighbors. Though not bound by familial relations, neighbors are in a unique way, family members by proximity.

When I look up the definition of family, I find a wide range of pockets into which family fits. First definition is the obvious--a group of individuals living under one roof and under one head, and usually of common ancestry. One's race is considered one's family. Certain shared convictions constitute a family. Even the mafia is listed as an example of family. I've always liked to think of my neighbors as a kind of family too.

Here I am, preaching about the importance of community family and I'm having a rough time with a new neighbor. It's a stray cat who's made its home under the deck. After incessant meowing, when I tried to  get close to assess its needs, it hissed and ran away. I don't want to get close or touch it for fear of worms or disease.

When Tony opened a can of tuna, the cat put his head in the bowl and didn't look up. He'd just wanted to be fed.

I'm tempted to call the pound. Tempted to resent it for bothering me in my morning office. Tempted to shoo it away, think poorly of it because it lacks manners or feline finesse. Its expectations, its abandonment, taught it to hiss first and expect the worse. Like our friend's neighbor, he'd never been shown neighborliness.

My already busy day includes yet another errand--pick up a bag of cat food.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Welcome to My Office

While staying on a Fijian island coconut plantation, I felt pleasantly envious of the caretakers whose kitchen was outdoors. It seemed to have the conveniences of a regular kitchen except without a roof or walls. The dahl and the curry that came from that kitchen were incredible, and absolute proof that one doesn't need a traditional kitchen to cook heavenly flavors and melt the hearts of men.

As we have now passed the mid-summer line, it is with great foreboding knowing I can't stop nature from taking her too early jaunt into frost covered mornings and sweatered shoulders, snow boots and dark late afternoons. My focus has become a race against the inevitable change of seasons, a fast-ditch, last-ditch effort to savor warm air and summer breezes.

So, my antidote for the foreboding of fall and winter is living out of doors as much as possible. Breakfast, lunch, and dinners outside if clouds are shading the western sunset. Studying, reading, thinking--all outside under the shade of a tree or the deck. When I sit down to write in my indoor office, it's as if the words to write are outside in the geranium potted planters, in the patio furniture, and carried on the wings of insects that find their way into my space.

Real life is outside in the treetops that flow and flutter like underwater coral.

My first neighbor when I was a brand new mother, was a hardy Canadian from the upper north of British Columbia. In the stairwell that magnified the sounds of comings and goings, in the hibernating months of December, January, and February, I heard her trek down the metal stairs with her bundled children--one in her arms and one shuffling in her snow boots.

Winter was not an excuse to stay inside. She later let me in on her secret to mothering success, "I take them outside everyday, no matter the weather. They are happier, sleep better, eat better." I tried to follow her example over the next 20 years of mothering. When I was in charge of the grandsons for a few days, we did everything outside. I even moved their high chairs outside. They were happy, ate well, and folded into their naps.

I was happy.

This afternoon the clouds are a display of cirrus, curly or fibrous, the kind that tell tales of ancient animals and knights striding on noble steeds; and a display of stratus-the kind of clouds that make you think of marshmallows and jumping from cloud to cloud as if they have the spring of trampolines. The sky is filled with cumulus too, big pumpkins ready to burst. I'm surrounded by wind rustled trees that sound like nature's white noise.

Welcome to my office.

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” –Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Two teachers. Both are on their computers viewing documents; both teachers push print.

The first teacher prints The Great Conversation by Robert M Hutchins, a treatise on the conversations of great thinkers and writers that build upon one another. According to Hutchins, it is imperative to read the great conversations of the world's great thinkers. There are official and unofficial lists of books-- an epoch list! It includes: Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Shakespeare, Homer, Hobbs, Smith, Marx, Chaucer, Milton, Kant, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Freud, Twain, Melville, Dante, Cervantes, Plutarch, Montaigne (all the essays), Machiavelli, Tocqueville, Aurelius, Swift, Voltaire, Tacitus, Euclid, Bacon, Galileo, Calvin, Orwell, Proust, Hardy, the Old and New Testaments, etc.; yes, I too am mentally exhausted pondering the investment of time, talent, and deeeeeep thinking. My brain is sending aftershocks from the 7.6 brainquake.

After the first teacher taps the print button, it doesn't appear to have connected, so he taps the print button a second time.
He leaves his class and walks to the office where the big printer sits like the refrigerator in a kitchen. The magnet, the most opened appliance, the place with all the good stuff.

He sees he's accidentally printed the document twice. Now, this would be an environmental tragedy for us folks who re-use paper and print only when necessary, but there is a bigger picture in the making.

He places the extra copy in the paper recycle box, face down.

Hours later or days later (it was never clarified), teacher number two walks into the printer-room to make a few copies. Her glance into the paper recycle box catches her interest. She turns the pile over and sees the gem she's just found. Hmmmm. She takes it home and reads. She is the ready and willing student, and the teacher has come. She's always felt the need to read the great works, but, well, almost everyone wants to read the classics of the western canon, but....there isn't enough time...or is there? For teacher number two, this mysterious book in the recycle box is a message just for her: the time to read the classics is NOW.

When she tells the story, she is already past Plato, Aristophanes, Plato again, Aristotle's Ethics, and currently reading Aristotle's Politics. She is invigorated and feeling sharp-minded!--and grateful to teacher number one who just happened to print twice.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"You Must Be..."

"You must be very athletic."

The voice comes from a man dressed in Tour de France biking clothes, who is perched on a sleek road bike beside me. His voice has a tone of admiration and awe.

We have stopped because every few miles the bike trail is interrupted by cross traffic.

Oh yeah, it's the guy I just passed, I think. I passed him on an incline too.

"Oh," I smile inward,  "I have a motor."

His friendly overture vanishes. He says nothing, and when the car passes, he hunkers down and distances himself from the pseudo biker who had him thinking otherwise.

On another day** I am biking up a hill that Tony named Rowley's revenge (named for the man whose house sits almost at the top). After a long bike ride, this hill is an unwelcome sight, more so than a pile of dung in front of your tent door the morning after the first night of camping. It's a soul breaker, as I've seen many a biker walk up this hill. It's the hill Tony accuses me of not pedaling on when I'm on the backseat of the tandem. It's the hill that makes me swear I'm putting my house up for sale, so I never have to ride it again!

No longer. I have renamed the hill Pat's revenge. I shift the battery power mode into the number 4 position and I work just enough to make the exertion pleasant. On this **another day, still working hard (ha ha), to reach the top, my neighbor's friend drives past. When I pull into my own driveway, she is just unloading her car.

"Hi Julie," I say.

"Hi," she replies as she studies the scenario. "It was you coming up the hill." Her voice has a tone of admiration and awe.

"Well, I have a motor that helps me up."

"Oh," She seems disappointed, "you didn't have to tell me."

The question surprises me. I didn't?

 I may appear to be a she-woman, princess of power biker, but I'm not.

The I'm not part would make me uncomfortable if I were to let other people assume I am.

Maybe people want to believe that an almost-past-middle-age woman could pass them on their road bikes, or could breeze up a steep hill. We are always looking for a Jesse Owens, a John Glenn, a firewoman emerging from a burning house with the missing child in her arms. We want ordinary people who defy the ordinary; people who push past the status quo, the couch, to become marathon runners and business innovators. We want heroes...but more than heroes, we want people who tell the truth.

Friday, July 21, 2017


Frederick Douglass is a name you may have to search for in your high-school memory.

A short tutorial in case you don't find him lurking behind your other must-remember files: kids birthdays, dry cleaning pick-up, dentist appointment re-schedule, conference paper submission, etc, ad nausuem-adult-responsibility-can't forgets.

As a young man, Douglass escaped slavery to become one of, if not the most eloquent, intelligent, spokesman against slavery. His use of language, both in his oratory and in his writings, led the people of the time to question if he really had been a slave. His abilities were proof against slaveholder beliefs clung to like a log in a raging river: all men were not created equal.

Douglass was a prolific writer most famous for his autobiography, but most of his writing focused on his logic and reason for emancipation; but for all his argument, his most enlightened angle is a universal truth that held weight not only in the 19th century and every hundred years before, but for every hundred years after.

I once wrote that I'd rather my child be bullied than my child be the bully--because the bully is far more injured than any injury he could inflict on a victim, and the taunting more injurious to the bully than the bullied.

Replete through Douglass' writings is this theme. Not only must slavery be stopped for slaves but for the salvation and mercy of slaveholders.

In Douglass' Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln (1876, eleven years after the Civil War), he writes,

"I refer to the past not in malice, for this is no day for malice; but simply to place more distinctly in front the gratifying and glorious change which has come both to our white fellow-citizens and ourselves, and to congratulate all upon the contrast between now and then; the new dispensation of freedom with its thousand blessings to both races, and the old dispensation of slavery with its ten thousand evils to both races--white and black."

The unjust treatment of anyone or anything cannot escape without impunity. One cannot look in the mirror without it looking back. Everything is a reflection of our actions and who we are. Douglass' writings are replete with this message: slavery hurts slaveholders and the nation, as much as it hurt slaves. Slavery is contrary to the law of nature. "The law of nature requires that we should endeavor to help one another to the utmost of our power in all cases where our assistance is necessary. It is our duty to endeavor always to promote the general good; to do to all as we would be willing to be done by were we in their circumstances; to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God" (Samuel West, 1776). Slavery disregarded the Golden Rule.

If we want to be happy, bring happiness to others. If we want to feel peace, let peace rain in your presence. If we want our souls to be nourished, nourish souls with love and kindness.

Actions are a boomerang. Always.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Treat Yourself Well

In the not-too-early morning, I decide to take a long bike ride-adventure. Not hungry yet, but knowing I'll be hungry soon,  I pack a bag of grapes, a bag of almonds. I have a destination in mind, but it's not definitive.

I head for the canyon trail with plans to stop at a certain park, but as I pedal through, I have the energy to go farther.  A few miles later I come to a favorite park with a meandering creek, and in the not-so-early morning, it's almost empty. I pedal down a dirt path until I come to a shaded grassy knoll, right above the creek.

 I lay the bike down, take my snacks, and nestle in. I am smiling!!!--- and if heaven happens to look downward, she too will smile. For in this simple, simple moment, I am genuinely content. I can hardly believe my good fortune: the sound of water dancing, the temperature that neither chills nor heats, the solitude that surrounds. The dappled sunshine is an intriguing study of light and shadow. The sweet grapes and the crunchy almonds, a seat at the throne of nature--it sounds so funny--but it almost seems to good to be real.

Refreshed, I'm ready to ride again. This time as I pedal down the trail, I'm struck by how friendly everyone is on this glorious summer morning. Almost every person I pass, smiles or waves, or even says hello.

Is it because I'm still smiling? Like a good case of chicken pox, is my happiness contagious? Is a true case of contentedness as visual as a red cape?

Or was it something else more sinister, like had I forgotten to put on a shirt or was it like the other day when I'd drunk a green milkshake and a big green dot was left on my nose; no one had the mercy to tell me to check my reflection--had it made them all smile too?

Ahhh, but I soon realize, it has nothing to do with me. The friendly walkers, the smiling bikers, are all people, out in the woods, taking care of themselves, treating themselves well. In so doing, they are compelled to treat others well too, even if it's just a friendly wave.

So here's the self-discovery bonus of the morning: as a believer in treating myself well, it makes me more aware of treating others well too. After I spend an afternoon studying by the pool, jumping in when it gets too hot, jumping in  when I cannot annotate one. more. paragraph., I wonder who else could benefit from such a lovely afternoon. Ahhhh, I know who. My lovely friend who will start her fourth round of chemotherapy next week. I send an email to put her reprieve in motion.

Contentedness and peace are like an excellent book, a delicious cake, a new song--we can't keep them to ourselves--but we only have the words, the tastes, the sounds to share when we first, experience them ourselves--or when we treat ourselves well--first.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Live Under A Rainbow

My mother sends her weekly letter to her children and grandchildren. How I look forward to my mother's thoughts. 

As a writing teacher, I believe when we write and share our fun experiences, we get to live them twice. When we write and share our sad experiences, we get to examine, sort out, write-therapy our way to solutions and understanding. 

When someone is willing to share their experiences, we benefit from their lessons-learned, from their joy, from the vicarious peek into their lives. I'm thankful Mom, at 79 years old has started writing.

In this week's email, Mom writes how she is driving with a woman who tells her about a favorite uncle. The woman speaks of him as having lived under a rainbow.  

He had lived a charmed life--everything seemed to go his way. Lady luck sat on his shoulder.

The said uncle was small for his age, but he ended up playing on the school basketball team that won the championship. He was part of the WWII wave of servicemen who came home to schooling on government grants. He earned a master's degree and was in the right place at the right time when he helped universities in Georgia work through their sports programs. This led to his help with the olympics all over the world. 

He lived under the rainbow.

I love the story, but I create my own interpretation: I don't think we just happen to live under the rainbow, but instead we make choices that place us under the beams of light with the proverbial pot 'o gold at the end; so why not choose to live life under the rainbow?

This choice is not necessarily the easy one. Life under the rainbow, is a recognition of wanting a better life. This quest may require sacrifice and hard work. Under the rainbow for one person might be the quest for education. For another it might be health choices. For another, under the rainbow might be a conscious choice to choose friends who are positive and motivating.

Life is a series of crossroads and questions: Should I do my homework? Stop and help a stranger? Stay on the diet and exercise program? Should I renew my passport?  Invite her to lunch? Should I apply for the advancement? Tell the truth or continue the lie? Blow the wad on a whim, or save it for a Broadway play?

Where is the rainbow? If you want to live under it, answer and act upon the question according to where it will take you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Worst Case Scenario

Tony and I hike to the top of a hill.

We take a moment to sit on a bench under a tree and enjoy the spectacular view.

"How's the numbness in your hand?" I ask.

He tightens his fist and says, "The same."

"We should check it out or it'll get gangrene and we'll have to chop it off."

The next day we have a conversation about his forthcoming trip to Montana with our daughter's family. "Watch the little boys close. Don't let anyone fall in the fire." Only a few breaths separate my next request, "Don't let Seb get lost. He could get eaten by a bear and you'll only find his remains."

My two sons-in-law of my two youngest daughters resent me for instilling in their wives what we have deemed as worst case scenario dysfunction.

It is my fault. I mightily regret passing it on, but I inherited it from my father, who I suspect inherited it from his mother.

Worst case scenario has its roots in real tragedy; it began not in the macabre, over imaginative originator's mind, but as a result of loss. For my grandmother, she lost her only sister and her family in a car accident on the snowy roads of Idaho. For my father, he drove with his father to pick up the bodies of his aunt, his uncle, and his cousins.

When I would make the 40 minute drive to Grandmother's house in her later years, she always insisted I call her when I arrived home safe. I often forgot, and she would be so angry with me. I hadn't made the connection yet to her sister's car accident decades earlier, and it was a burden to be in so much trouble for such a small infraction. She never mentioned that my inconsideration might have taken her back when she'd planned a funeral for four. My father insisted on the same courtesy, but if I forgot, he would immediately call to put his mind at rest.

Once I had my own family, I followed in my father's, my grandmother's footsteps. The story, the graves found quatre corner from my grandparents, my great grandmother, and my aunt, became a part of my conscious, and I could hardly travel by car without thinking how doomed we all might be. Our mode of travel was mostly by air.

Then came the weekend when we needed to car caravan to a niece's wedding. We made it safely in three different cars. When it was time to return, I was unsettled.

As we said our good-byes, I expressed my over-worry for the ride home, expecting sympathy from a woman who'd had more than her share of tragedy. I included the old family narrative to justify my fears.

With love in her eyes, she grasped my by the shoulders and said, "Stop it. Just stop it. Right now."

I couldn't argue.

Tears welled in my eyes. I had the weakness to worry; I had the power to overcome the disabling thoughts. It was a choice. My choice.

I chose not to live out the worst case scenario in my mind.

There is an additional part to this story I didn't include in the beginning.

While Tony and I were sitting on the bench on the hill, after I succumbed to my worst-case-scenario impulses, we laughed. He made fun of me; I made fun of myself.

Yes, I am inclined to imagine the worst, but I combat the impulse with humor. I have a propensity, but I have a strength, a power to wrestle that tiger into a chair at the comedy club.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Am I?

Today is an exciting day! Not only is it the day after Tony's birthday, it is a day of gathering with family for dinner.

If that wasn't enough, we will also be meeting the rest of our refugee family from Congo. Congo has been called the worst country in the world  to be a woman, based on violence targeted towards females. We met one member of our family last week while sitting in the director's office.

The director of this program spent seven years in refugee camps in Africa. When he came to the United States, he was overwhelmed by the contrast of having grown up in a small tribal village. He was susceptible to all the cultural problems of a refugee; but there was one thing that changed his life. When he hit rock bottom, he felt impressed to ask a couple who were walking away from the library--for help.

They became his family, his support, and the foundation he needed to become independent. Because of his gift, an older couple who provided him with work and valued his individual growth, he is now able to help other refugees gain education, jobs, and abilities to support themselves; but in the beginning, refugees need a family to guide the way.

We will become that family.

Tony and I watched a PBS Frontline documentary about terrorism in Europe. The perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attack were refugees. One of the refugees and his brother came to France as orphans.

"This wouldn't have happened if we'd been his refugee host family!" I blurt out to Tony.

My response is organic, a surprise even to myself; I hadn't given this a previous thought, but it seems obvious now. Assuming the boys didn't have a foster family, what if they had? We all want refugee families to have support and be successful in their new country- we want them to simulate, but they need someone to say, "I'm glad you're here," and "What can we do to help?" It does not require that a refugee live in our home--the goal is independence, but refugees need bandages until the wounds heal.

Coming to a strange world is difficult--without support, it is a misfortune. Unaccompanied minors are a challenge, as they are among the most vulnerable. Refugees are often sought out by "poachers," who know and exploit their vulnerability.

Yet, the need extends beyond the people who come from foreign lands. There is another group of vulnerable refugees who already live in America. I found them as I watched a NYTimes video op, a short documentary about inmates released from prison. According to the statistics--43% return to prison after the first year. When let out of prison, they return to the same circumstances, the same neighborhoods, the same people who supply them with heroin.

They too need a host family or a foster family; again, they don't need to live with their family as independence is the goal. Just a lifeline, a person to ask "What can I do to help?" Given the high cost of incarceration, could there be a stipend for people who are willing to help?--in the same way foster parents are paid to help care for needy children.

The world's challenges, the trodden upon, the vulnerable, have magnified my cognizance of the blessings I so easily take for granted.

For years, a biblical phrase haunted my conscious. Busy with my family, my students, I was able to beat the phrase into submission. I always knew I would help, I just had a good reason not to help. Most people do; the timing must be right. For Tony and I the timing is right.

The question, Am I my brother's keeper? has been answered.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What is the Purpose of Education?

"Wheras almighty God has created the mind free..."

With this line, Thomas Jefferson began the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom in 1786. His intention was to convince the people that churches shouldn't be supported by government taxes. He had some heavy-hitting contenders: the churches of the era and the man who stated possibly the most enduring phrase of the Revolutionary War: Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death."

Imagine Patrick Henry as a friend. As a dinner companion, or mentor, or teacher, he would have been supreme, but as an opponent of ideals, he'd put the squeeze on one's convictions.

Jefferson stood strong. His faith was greater in truth and its ability to stand on its own.

Jefferson valued that all human beings were blessed by their creator with a free mind or the ability to choose, and because ultimately all decisions, whether heavily influenced or persuaded, are made by the free will of man, we must ensure he has the tools to make the best decisions.

Hence, the purpose of education: to teach a child, a teenager, an adult to think for oneself, in order to take full advantage of the great Godly gift. In order to think, to know how to think, one has to be subjected to texts, ideas, and philosophies, that one may be weighed against the other. A child's mind must be given math problems, concepts,  difficult words to discern in context, philosophies to ponder, arguments with holes, sermons with truth. A person must learn the deeds of the mighty and the treachery of the small-minded that the consequences of both may be unwrapped, unfolded and exposed for righteousness or evil.

Education with the purpose of learning to think, is paramount to keeping synapses strong that enlarge the capacity to think, solve, and resolve.

The uneducated will follow. Will fear. Will choose ease.

The educated will lead, will believe, will choose difficulty when needed.

"Wheras almighty God has created the mind free..."

The purpose for education.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


I slip into a tank top and biking shorts. I grab a biking shirt  just in case the weather cools more than expected. Since we delayed our bike ride to stay out of the summer sun, it's after 7:00 p.m. when we hit the road.

But the weather is still sensationally, gloriously, warm. We are surrounded by little clouds breaking off from a dark mass in the distance. Lightning strikes send diabolical pitch forks through the sky.

At the end of our ride is our daughter's garden. She is on vacation, so we've come to pick the abundance her travels will provide for us. Tony wrestles a big cabbage from its roots. Kale is flourishing. Not knowing when we'll return, I pick a yellow crookneck before it takes over the world. Tomatoes are lovely but still green. I pick a handful of raspberries hoping most of them won't ripen until her return.

Before she left, our daughter and her children came for an afternoon swim. After the exuberance, they climbed out of the pool hungry and headed into the berry patches. Knowing they were coming, I hadn't picked for days so there would be plenty. She was joined by her sister who'd just finished a long day of school and was hungry too.

I sat on the stairs and watched the children bend, pluck, and indulge in the lusciousness of black, red, and golden raspberries, and boysenberries. Little Theo, so low to the ground, squatted and planted his mouth around a boysenberry. The sisters rushed to each plant with the same urgency and competitiveness that emerges at the annual Easter egg hunt.

"I LOVE SUMMER," I call out to Tony while riding our bikes home. We're unsure if we we'll dodge the summer storm. If we catch a downpour, at least I will be warm. I chide myself for bringing an extra shirt...I'm still stuck in spring.

When we peddle into the driveway, park the bikes, I suggest a swim. It's almost dark and I prepare myself for the cool water. But as I glide into the water, it's bathtub warm. The 100 degree weather that afternoon, has left the pool feeling like a hot tub. Ahhhh, the wonderful summer sun.

"School starts in a month," Tony reminds me. The spell is broken, and in my mind I feel the chill of fall, see the pool covered in snow, and shiver at the uncertainty of spring. I resent all the other seasons who overtake summer like a gang of rabid dogs.

I love summer, I love summer, I love summer.

It almost feels futile to love something so fleeting, sooooo much. Especially when summer is only one quarter of my life.

The ratio of things I absolutely love to the things I tolerate, endure, and disdain, is probably 1/4 too. At only 25%, that leaves 75% of my time outside the inner circle of happiness and bliss.

That's too much time to spend on the sidelines resenting that I'm not in the game bouncing the ball myself. How did I get here, how do I get out, and has it always been this way? How do I enjoy the 3/4 parts of my life that aren't in the water, on the trail, or in the garden? How do I change just-getting-through-the-winter into embracing the cold, the snow, the diverse beauty?

It's funny how the seasons mimic the cycles of life.

This is where I look for inspiration.

I am in the fall of life. Summer passed long ago. How have I gone from summer, motherhood and skiing-hard to middle-age fall?

I've adapted. Fall is grand-mothering, a quiet house, walking instead of running, and a bike with a motor. Winter will be great grand-mothering, hiking with poles, a stronger prescription for glasses. Less demands, and more demands in unexpected ways.

The seasons provide a way to practice the fine art of adaptation. Put on a sweater, a cap. Wrap the beehives in anticipation. Bring out the snow boots and put on the snow tires. Line the snow shovels against the garage. Wait 'til the ground softens to till. Plant the radishes and the peas. Patience, patience, to plant the tomatoes. Patience, patience, when Tony can't hear me, when I have to lean in a little closer and ask, "Can you speak a little louder?"--patience when I've forgotten where my phone is. Patience is essential to adaptation.

~I take a break from writing, from the questions I cannot answer, to pick raspberries for morning scones. As I squat in the early morning peace and cool, I'm struck by the beauty of a single raspberry. I'm sad when I realize there are less raspberries this morning; the season is almost over. I savor the moment even more.

I'm patiently working towards a 100%.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Graffiti vs Street Art

I returned to Paris in the fall of 2001 after a twenty year absence. I was most shocked by the graffiti which had taken over walls and fences seen from the train windows coming from Charles de Gaulle. 

More recently, I was surprised when walking through Athens with a student, when she diverted us to an alley so she could photograph and document its "beauty."

Two years later, it had encroached from back alleys to city front-and-center. It was difficult to find any building that hadn't been spray painted or etched. 

Most graffiti exudes a kind of anger and rebellion. It forces us to confront the apparent misery and discontent in society. Especially the 10 foot high letters screaming F--- the police. 

A Greek politician trying to understand in order to embrace a losing cause, took out his own can of spray paint to find an empty wall. His graffiti echoed his feelings and became a famous piece known to fellow citizens. He wrote: Why does it feel so good when I write this s---.

 Since fighting graffiti in some inner European cities is useless, it has been renamed: street art. Euphemisms are created to help us endure natural affronts to social sensibility. Euphemisms make the worms more palatable, more accepting, and a change of words can appease and change perceptions.

I am always relieved to return home and not have graffiti be part of the urban and suburban landscape. However, it does pop up; I was discouraged to see it on Bridal Veil Trail. I thought of the artist, who at some risk, made her mark. The graffiti had to have required a ladder on a rocky hill, or a daring stretch from a highway wall. I'll never forget when a young visitor to my house explained the tattoo on her leg. It was her brother's name--a young man with a penchant for graffiti on a California 405 freeway underpass. The fall, the hit, was so brutal, his body was never recovered. His dreams, his talent, were sacrificed for a space on a concrete necessity, a marginalized canvas.

But then...on two separate days, I rode my bike to a Law Review symposium. I was going to be way out of my league--surrounded by lawyers, noted humanitarians, professors; but I was determined to participate. At the beginning of my journey, I biked down a trail with a small section hidden from the road. A painted graffiti message awaited: I believe in magic. Seconds later, my tires rolled over another passage, Good luck today

My optimism was infused with the messages. I held my head high. I didn't think of my inadequacies--instead I basked in the learning potential that awaited. The next day, I was excited for my reminder and of and my wish for good luck.

I have thus made my own conclusions about street art vs graffiti. Graffiti is degrading; in its ugliness it reminds us of what is ugly. Street art inspires and lifts; in its beauty it reminds us of what is beautiful.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Se Souvenir

On a write-and-walk with colleagues, we pass a house that looks a hundred years old. One of our companions knows the owner who is renovating the place. He happens to walk out on the porch; there are waves, exchanges, and an invitation to see his work in progress.

On the nickel tour, the renovator explains the piece by piece work he's done to bring the house to its current glory. He doesn't hide the rooms and the grungy basement that still need work.

The idea of renovation is overwhelming: the decisions, the tossing out, the patience to bring an old house back to life. When we had to renovate the house we currently live in, I would walk in, see the gray walls, the gray and red carpeting, and I'd go into a stupor. I quit visiting the house. Fortunately, the paint colors, the carpeting, had been picked out and Tony saw the remodeling through.

When my colleagues and I walk out of the old house, Chris tells us when he inherited his parents old house, he too was daunted by the work it needed. He ended up hauling out 15,000 pounds of stuff--unneeded, unnecessary--junk.

Why do we live with junk?

When traveling with students, there is always a special stop or two for souvenirs. Over the years, I have silently giggled at some of their purchases. In my cynical mind of souvenir experience, I think how the bronze Roman soldier statue, or the indigenous knitted hat will disappear along with their youth.

On one such visit to a souvenir shop with students, I was once again amused by their purchases. One young man was overly concerned about purchasing a souvenir his mother would treasure. As I perused the shop with him, I found a bright blue clay pig, and I was taken back to a visit with my own father to Switzerland, where my father made several purchases of wood carvings whenever he visited the land of his parents' birth. He appreciated the art and skill needed to produce beautiful stories told in wood. I thought he had too many.

On one of our trips, I had meandered into a shop and found charming, miniature pigs made of rubber. Each pig had a whimsical expression and body position. They appealed to my silly side, and when I showed the purchase to Dad, he was incredulous.

I brought the pigs home and though they were still adorable, I felt awkward each time I pulled one out of a drawer. I'd smile, but remembering my father's reaction, they made me feel foolish. To this day, all the pigs have been lost. The memory of my father's disapproval was stronger than my desire to keep track of the little pigs.

So when I look at the students' purchases, I keep in mind that souvenir comes from the French word: to remember.

We all choose different ways to remember, and very often we don't want to let go of those memories.

When I think of the inevitable burden my daughters will one day carry out, the sorting through their parents' possessions, it impels me to take a practical approach now. I'm continually, sorting, giving away, tossing out, so they may only have to haul away 500 pounds of stuff, yet that stuff will have had meaning only to their father and me. In those 500 pounds will be the stories they never heard, the emotions and attachments they never understood or lived through--therefore, in their eyes, it will be junk--and safe to haul away~~only because we are gone.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


In just a few minutes I will leave for a bridal shower for a darling woman.

Yet, I can't just think about the ceremony, presents, or promises made.

The groom brought a precious child into this marriage, and my young friend, embraced this child with her whole mother soul.

I've watched many friends do the same.

A friend who discovered her stepson didn't read well, began reading with him.

Another friend whose stepson shared custody with his father and his distant mother's house, two cities away~~when he needed to attend only one school, she drove him every day during his visits.

They put the stepmother-stereotype to shame.

When I'm surrounded by their goodness, I feel small and can only hope I would be up to the tasks my friends have embraced with so much love; I'm happy with those moments when I feel small, for that is when I have to look up, climb a ladder, stretch to see eye to eye, to feel heart to heart with these loving, selfless women-stepmothers.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Forgotten Sausage

Years ago, Tony's parents walked out of the sunshine into a small store. They made their purchase, got back into the car and drove a only short distance when Tony's mom couldn't find her sunglasses. They made a u-turn, returned to the store, and approached the lone cashier to ask him if he'd seen a pair of sunglasses.

To their embarrassment and amusement, he pointed to the sunglasses perched on her head.

His parents had a good story, and we all had a good laugh. If you're laughing, keep laughing, because very soon, it will be your story. Sooner than you think. The inevitable loss.

At the end of our stay in Greece, Tony said to me after a delicious lunch at DaVinci's, "Make sure I remember my pizza."

In the minutes after he'd wrapped his leftover buffalo chicken pizza, I kept my eye on it. A lot could happen to distract me in the next ten minutes while we waited for the check. The tricky thing was the pizza was wrapped in a red paper napkin the same shade as the red table cloth. Betting odds were not in our favor.

Just a few days earlier, Tony had wrapped lefovers to take home for his dinner that night. On our walk home, the sausage was AWOL.

"Should we go back?"

"They cleared the table long ago. Your sausage made a good lunch for a street cat."

Only a few days within the paranoid pizza watch and the missing sausage, we'd stopped at a fruit market and bought cherries and peaches. We then made a-fatal-to-the-fruit mistake: we stopped at a small market for other sundries. The market sold fruit, so anticipating a double charge, Tony showed the fruit to a lady at the front counter. She motioned to a box where we could leave it.

Uh huh. You already know.

"Should we go back?" Tony asked when we were twenty minutes past the store.

"It's a long drive."

But our curiosity got the best of us, and the next day when we drove back to the area, we took a chance.

We walked into the grocery and inquired about our fruit.

No one had seen it.

With two strikes against us, what were we going to leave behind next time?

Each other?

Actually, one time...

while riding a tandem bike in Harlem Holland, Tony peddled slowly through a crowded alleyway. I hopped off to see if he would notice.

Eventually...he did, but....it was a few small cobbled streets later. I stood in the same place so he could eventually find me--and he did.

Supposedly this is one of many reasons why middle to older-aged women are past the child-bearing years.

I read a news story about a woman who had an oops baby in her late forties. She'd taken him to the grocery store, left him in his carseat in the cart, and drove off.  It only took a few shocking moments later to realize what she'd left behind.

I'm mildly worried for the future. It may not be that I forget Tony, but that I might lose him or become unaware of him disappearing...which brings me to the time when we'd just entered the wake speed zone after a skiing day at the lake. We came upon a man who was treading water, not a soul around him. How strange, we all thought, then  pulled him aboard. He couldn't speak or move. By the time we reached the dock, he'd regained enough strength to climb out of the boat and wander off.

By the time we'd brought the car and trailer around and loaded the boat, the man returned with his wife and two fellow-elderly friends.

We had saved his life. He'd been in the boat with his friends and had fallen out, but none of them noticed; when he called for their help, nobody heard. When they got to the shore, they realized he was missing, but were completely stumped as to where he might be.

By the end of our vacation, with more almost-forgets, forgets, and worries-that-we're-going-to-forgets, than we've ever experienced, I become super conscious of the canvas I purchased in Athens. The artist wrapped it so well for travel, it looks like a large baguette and when placed in the overhead bin of an airplane, it rolls to the back. It seems to end up behind doors in our apartment and hotel. It blends in. Betting odds are against the art ever hanging on a wall in America.

Tony has a solution. "If we're both aware and ask each other where it is, then we'll remember it." The obvious problem is that we both have to be aware.

Since two heads are better than one, we forge minds to remember the canvas. But given the recent empirical evidence of our combined forgetfulness,  I lack confidence in the mind-meld plan.

I take a black pen and write on my hand: Remember the canvas.

The canvas hangs in America.