My Space

Recently I spoke with a friend, Kate, who had just returned from a trip abroad, alone without her husband. She talked about how wonderful it was to travel and be responsible for everything without any assistance from her life partner. I sensed she didn’t know how to feel about that as she loves her husband and, of course, looked forward to being at home with him again.

I reminded her of the Virginia Woolf book A Room of One’s Own. It has been so many years since I read it, but I know I have thought of its basic premise often. Woolf recognized that women need a room to think and write. Well, what would she think of our needs now! Many of us have big houses with plenty of rooms, but we seldom are alone in those rooms: TV from the family room blaring, Smart phones in our pockets dinging the latest message, computers sleeping just waiting to be opened.

And our husbands want a room, too. That’s what the man cave is about. Occasionally over the years Bob has seen a neon sign or a funky poster and expressed how cool it is, but we don’t have the right place for it in our house. He doesn’t have a man cave. His mother didn’t allow certain items to interfere with her décor, and now his wife is probably doing the same.

Why is it that most of my blog entries are written in Illinois? Not some coincidence. Here I think of my past, and when visiting Mom’s assisted living home, I think of my future. I ride my bike on country roads, and there is little need to hurry back to the house. I don’t have laundry piling up or calls to make. My problems seem distant and more in perspective. My clothes, camera, and computer are my only belongings. I don’t have to clean much of anything. (Well, I did clean out the poop from my sister’s chicken coop. Oprah and Carol Burnett are doing a good job of laying eggs and messing up their space.)

Simplicity. Thoreau is our best American example; I don’t long for that sort of life. But I know that Woolf has a point: call it a room, an open road, a compartment in a cross- country train. It is the space that we all need, sometimes urgently need, to think and sort through the clutter in our minds.

Yoga and meditation classes have taken off. Churches are still in business. The need that I feel must be universal. We each have to find our space to be alone and rediscover every day just who we are and who we want to be. I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know.

I think I’m writing to remind myself that I shouldn’t have this space only when I travel to my old home ground. For this morning it is a green metal rocking chair on Marsha’s front porch. A half hour ago it was my bike on a gravel road. That may be it for today. But how fortunate I am to have this space and time for now. And a kayak on the lake waiting for me when I return home.

In closing my blog on this peaceful summer morning, my sincere wish for Kate and all of you is that you find your space often, every day, wherever you are.

 

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Christmas Lights & More

img_4172I like the familiar. Given the choice between Safeway and our City Market, I always choose CM—my lieblings grocery store. And often on the way to Denver we drive through McDonalds. This morning, early before dawn, I drove through for my routine Egg McMuffin, secure in this one fast food choice—after all, the egg is from one chicken and the bacon is from Canada. The predictable is safe and good.

As I sipped my weak McDonald’s tea and munched on my sandwich, the morning lights—the Golden Arches and Christmas lights—guided my way to the mountain pass. The colorful lights of the season: I think they say, “This is home.”

Every year the lights and traditions of the season are a constant. For all of my life a Christmas Eve church service has been our only Christmas outing. That will continue for all of my days, I think. Yet my life and all of our lives are filled with change that swirls around the steady norms that we like so much.

How many times have I said to friends, “I hate change.” But this week while reading The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander, I had an awakening:  My life has been filled with change and much of it has been wonderful. Why do I think I fear it.

When I started this blog in April 2013, I said this wouldn’t be about me. But tonight I am breaking my own rule and writing about myself. Yet I am thinking about many of us seniors who have experienced our children leaving home and wondering what will be next.

When our daughter moved to Portland, Oregon, oh, how I was so unsure of that. But I loved visiting Portland. Then she moved to Berkeley, and I enjoyed getting a taste of San Francisco.

Now she’s in Missouri with her husband. Wow! What a change. And how wonderful that has been for our family, especially for her 92 year-old grandmother.

And speaking of change:  when Mom’s move to an assisted living facility was impending, I could hardly allow myself to think of it. Now I see her healthy and happy. I’ve gotten to know her friends, enough that they ask me about the Colorado snow and what is new in our world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the calamities of change as opportunity for growth. I remember his essay from college reading, and when my father was ill during that time, I could not think of this calamitous change in my life as a positive, but Emerson was right. It just took time for me to know it.

Closer to home, last week I heard Erika talk about change through the metaphor of Tetris, a puzzle video game. Things in life build up, sometimes to near crises, and then suddenly the pieces reconfigure, fit together in new ways and provide relief. This is perhaps not exactly how she said it in her women’s book group, but I interpreted it in part as a new way of looking at change. Sometimes things are going along swimmingly, the new comes upon us, ready or not. At first it’s disorienting, sad, a breaking apart of the ways that we love. But oh, what joy can come from the new and unexpected.

I don’t know why Light of the World encouraged me to get back to my blog.  Something about Alexander’s prose spoke to me, the beauty and sadness of her life. Like many of you, I am often going through tough times. So I look for answers. I look for lines in books that will move me forward through the changes and the hurts.

I don’t know what will be next. There’s no way in the world I could make an educated guess, but finally, I am ready to think that I will like it, I will really like it. Christmas lights and church on Christmas Eve will always be my constant, but the rest of life, well, I’m ready and hoping for the joy and wonder of it all.

 

 

 

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A Driveway Moment: History Does Matter, Mr. Trump

IMG_1550This morning on my way home from church, I turned on our local NPR station, knowing that I had already missed much of The Moth. The Moth is a non-profit group that presents storytelling events across the U.S. and abroad. Today the locale was Dublin. Sometimes the stories are good, sometimes not so great in my opinion. Some are stories that NPR calls “driveway moments.” In other words you pull into your driveway, the story is not finished so you turn off the ignition, sit and listen, taking a wonderful story into your heart and mind.

The story that I had tuned into was being told by a man with an elder’s voice. At the end of the narrative, I learned a new name: Tomi Reichental, author and speaker on the Holocaust.

Mr. Reichental was born in 1935 and spent months in a concentration camp with his mother and brother. I don’t know the details of their detention: his book I Was a Boy in Belsen will be released soon.

His narrative today was of one memory from 1944 in Bergen-Belsen, Germany. One day he, his mother, and brother, along with many other women and children, were made to undress. They were marched into a large concrete room and handed bars of soap. The door was then closed and locked; the guards had walked away. The women looked up at the showerheads that lined the ceiling. Two or three minutes passed. The naked mothers held onto their children. There was no talking, just looks of anguish on the women’s faces. Reichental was pressed against his mother’s cold body. He could hear her heart pounding.

Then all of a sudden the hiss of the showers began and warm water sprayed down on all.

The women started laughing and crying. They were hugging each other, and this nine-year-old boy could not understand. It was just a shower after all. The only one he would have during his imprisonment at Belsen.

It was only later after their release, when he says his life began, that he understood why his mother and all of the other women had been so joyous when the water rained down on them. They all knew of the death chambers, thousands who had been handed bars of soap and then marched into gas chambers.

Mr. Reichental is eighty-one years old. He tells his story and writes his story, hoping that his Holocaust experience will be etched in our minds, as it is in his.

Recently Donald Trump said on television that he asks his supporters to raise their hands because they like it so much. They like to show their commitment. They are certain they will vote for Trump. It’s all in good fun. And I don’t believe that Mr. Trump is thinking of Hitler when his supporters raise their hands.

Many viewers are probably scoffing at the criticism that the Jewish community has heaped on Trump. But my immediate thought was maybe that’s how the German community began their support of Hitler. All in patriotic zeal. Excitement. A time to hope for change.

Whether it be a Trump, a Clinton, a Sanders, or a Cruz, we aren’t electing a dictator. We are electing a president who needs to know about the world and about history. We need a leader who isn’t all about him or herself, but about the commitment that all leaders must make to peace and justice and love for all. I don’t know if that man or woman is running for the office of President, but during this election season, I would hope that the candidates and all of us can remember the Holocaust and be sensitive to those who bear its scars. It is the very least that we can do.

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In the Woods, an Advent Moment

It was our first time to get a Christmas tree alone, as a couple, without one or both of the kids. The kids, after all, aren’t kids anymore. As we started out, parking the truck at the side of the road, venturing out into the deep snow of the Arapaho Forest, it seemed easier; only two opinions would be voiced as we looked for our perfect/imperfect tree.

Bob wasn’t satisfied to stay in the territory close to the road. He wanted to cross over the deep meadow to the other side, maybe a quarter of a mile from the truck. Evidently the trees always look better to him when a trek is involved. So he waded ahead through the snow, up past his knees. I said I would wait to see if it would be worth my effort.

I stood and in a short time he called to me, saying he might have found something. But I couldn’t see him across the expanse of snow. All I could see in the distance was trees, all of them much too grand for our living room. But then he would call to me again, and I knew that he was a man on a mission. He would find our tree, and I would brave my way across the snowfield to help him carry it back to the truck.

So I stood still, in the snow and waited. And waited. The wind blew gentle flakes over me. It was like dust gathering on my jacket. Minutes began to feel like a long time. I occasionally heard a snowmobile. A jet flew high overhead and shook the ground. But I waited. My black boots firmly planted in the snow. There was really no place to go and no need to go.

Then I thought about how alone I was. And how alone he was in the pine forest just across the way. The solitary wait seemed too long. I rather ridiculously thought of mountain lions. Though there was beauty in the stillness of the gray day, I felt too alone, a little vulnerable. I called to him, “Bob.” No answer. “Bob.” All was quiet, all was calm. Except I started to wonder where he was, if something had happened to him.

“Bob!” And this time I was yelling so loudly my throat scratched with just a note of panic. This time he answered, “I’m over here. I think I found a tree.”

In those minutes of waiting perfectly still in the knee-deep snow, I thought of what it would be to be alone, without him. What if he were gone, if something had taken him. As irrational as it seemed, and so unlikely, at that moment it felt like a possible truth.

He called for me to come look at the tree. I waded up to my thighs in snow before I saw him among a gathering of pines, and then found an easier sled trail that curved over to the little clearing where he came into sight. I trudged through more deep powder. He called to me, wondering aloud if the tree he had chosen would be okay, and even before I saw it I knew that it would. We would take this one no matter how much of a Charlie Brown tree it happened to be.

When I got to his spot, I said, “Yes, it’s fine.” He quickly cut it and we each took an end. We stopped occasionally to catch our breaths, not easy walking in deep snow with a nine-foot tree. Mission accomplished, we got to the road, placed it at the side and retrieved the truck. The tree fit into the bed perfectly.

As we drove away from the forest, just a mile from where we had found our tree, there was a herd of elk grazing at the side of the road. I took a few pictures from my window.  All was back to normal in my world, but for a few moments I had experienced aloneness. Peace. Quiet. But utter aloneness. I was glad to leave it behind.IMG_0728

Now I’m ready for Christmas, enough of Advent, enough waiting. Our tree will soon have its lights and ornaments. Ready for Christmas.

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Prayer and My Questions

At my church, and I assume churches all over the world, there is a time to present the prayers of the people. In my church parishioners raise their hands to ask that we pray for a friend who is having surgery, for a family that has just lost their mother, for a child who has cancer. I sit and wonder if I should raise my hand. But my concerns are too emotional to share, so I pray my silent prayer.

What does it mean to ask people to pray in public, aloud. Does it mean more to God if more than one person is praying for the same gift. Does it mean more if we mention a name. To whom or what or we praying.

Well, I’m not doing very well as a Christian, and yet it doesn’t bother me to admit this, because I am trying. Somewhere along the line I had pastors who led me to believe that it’s okay to always be questioning. It started with Pastor Knobloch and there’s been a long line of men and women in the church who have meant so much to me. Funny but I only recently realized this. If I count on my fingers the people who have made an impact on my life, those pastors would be there.

I have wonderful theological discussions with my pastor-to-be daughter and disturbing discussions with my atheist son. Both stretch me and make me question even more. I don’t often get that at church so why do I continue to go.

A young friend, a pastor who writes on-line about faith questions wrote this week, entitling her blog piece, “Why Church: Casseroles and Communion.” She has the gift. At the end of the essay she says, “Being together matters.” And that’s what I know about church and faith. It’s what I try to convey to my son. Church is a place of togetherness, caring people praying together, sharing a cup of coffee together, walking out of the doors together with a sense of communion.

I wish I had the answers to my questions. Well, maybe not. What if I did not like the answers. Perhaps it isn’t the completeness of answers that we seek but the sharing of questions that can give more comfort, knowing that we are all in this world of suffering and joy together.

As Mihee writes, casseroles and communion: Sharing the bread, sharing what we have, what we can give. These can be our prayers, I think. At least it’s all I really know for now. My questions will not end, and I think my prayers will also be without end. Doing together is probably the best answer I/we can have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Highly Recommended Reading: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

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The three siblings were stairsteps as children. Clyde’s birthday was yesterday; he’s 79. Middle sister Jane is 80, and Edie is 81. We had birthday cake in the gazebo that Clyde built this summer. I was on my neighborhood walk and needed to rest my sore foot. Just in time for carrot cake.

I wondered what I would talk about with these three as I saw the ladies carrying the cake tray out. Not that I’m young, but I wondered if we would find a common thread of conversation. Jane had made a small scrapbook for Clyde; looking at those pictures became the focus and offered a little talk and laughter.

They spoke about how the three of them hadn’t been alone like this since they were children. They live in different states, but here they are together celebrating a birthday with their children and grandchildren scattered and spouses having passed on. Each now lives alone, yet they seemed to be truly happy.

Being with them brought to life the book I had just finished reading:  Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande is about the final days, months, and years of life. When our bodies wear out but the desire to make our own life choices is still very much a part of who we are and who we want to be. I told them a little bit about the book, and that carried our conversation to a place that was rewarding for me and I think for them, too, as they were in accord with the author’s message.

Gewande is a surgeon, an award-winning writer, a thoughtful physician. His chapters are lessons in how we should approach aging and death. He has researched the way nursing homes and assisted living homes operate, why some fail and why some succeed. There is hope!

In the book he shares examples of his father’s aging and his patients’ terminal illnesses as well. He charts his own growth as a physician and surgeon. He is well aware of where colleagues are failing their patients by not being honest and realistic. He became aware of his own shortcomings in helping patients make end-of-life decisions. His journey is a part of the book’s story.

We are all mortal. Yet it may seem easier not to think about it. Gawande illustrates how it is much more difficult if we don’t approach our mortality with clear heads, clear instructions, and careful thought.

Bob asked me if the book was depressing. And my answer was not really. There was one chapter whose ending had me silently weeping. The terminally ill patient was so young. On a whole, however, it isn’t a depressing read because I believe as Gawande does: I want to be in control of my own life no matter what my age. I don’t want to approach the next decades of my life with my head buried in some mystical cloud of denial.

I strongly encourage you to buy the book and keep it to read and reread: that’s part of my plan. Gawande paraphrases the philosopher Ronald Dworkin in writing, “Whatever the limits and travails we face, we want to retain the autonomy—the freedom—to be the authors of our lives.” I like that idea and hope to also make it a part of my plan as I approach all of those happy birthdays to come.

 

 

 

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Sometimes It Is a Piece Of Thread

 

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What keeps us going when times are bad, when days are bleak.

I will always remember a sermon given by Rev. Cotter in Flanders. He spoke of that universal truth that things may be going very well, but then a bad day comes and everything seems to change. It is when our faith is tested.

So what keeps us going and looking with hope to the future for better days ahead. A prayer. A hug. A gesture from a neighbor that says I care so much about you.

Recently in a Bible study group, the speaker on the DVD said that we need to strive to show more kindness than is necessary. Wow. What if everyone followed that advice. Show more kindness than is necessary. Think how good our days would be.

In the meantime, until that day of kindness comes, what keeps us moving forward when all seems lost, when you are so sad and discouraged that all that seems to cleanse is a flood of tears.

Maybe it’s a call to that neighbor to ask how he is doing. Maybe it’s a call to Mom to see how her day is going. Maybe it’s a call to your child who has drifted away. Or maybe it’s a trip to the hairdresser—whatever works, that’s what does it.

For me, tomorrow, it will be a spool of thread. A trip to town to look for that perfect amber color that will be stitched into a top that will make its way in a package to Berkeley and be opened by my sweet girl.

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I love this poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens

It is reported that Williams, a physician, was watching over a patient, a sick child, who he wasn’t sure would make it through the night. He looked outside and saw the wheel barrow and the chickens. A splash of color, a bit of life. What would make the difference, what would make the little one live. He didn’t know, but he sought answers as we all do.

Is it a prayer or a hug or a new morning of hope, getting into the truck and driving to town to buy a spool of amber thread. We wake each morning with the new sun and know that the possibilities are there. In a quiet prayer we feel new hope and see new colors in the sky. And tonight that is my thought for all.

A good morning and good days of sunshine and hope.

 

 

 

 

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