Tuesday, November 15, 2011

'Tis the Season to Lose All Reason

“The holidays are all about misery and obligation.  
   If I didn’t have that every year I’d miss it.” 
                                  (Grace Adler to her mother on the TV show Will & Grace)

My default reaction to the realization that the holidays are around the corner for years has been dread.  I know it’s not just me.  For many of us, holidays are classic gray areas, annual occurrences with which we have a raw love-hate relationship.

We spend more time with our families, whether natal or extended, than at likely any other time of year, which is taxing regardless of where your family falls on the dysfunctionality continuum. Time is often compressed because of work and school obligations—how can such a short space of time contain all of our hopes and dreams for a storybook holiday?  We trek homeward by plane, train, and automobile, and the usually frenzied trip itself often delivers us to our loving families in a grumpy heap. 

Blending our increasingly nontraditional families can be a challenge. We are so far flung now, it’s complicated figuring out who goes where for which holiday and how to keep feelings from being hurt when we can’t be in two places at once (or two people we love can’t be in the same place at the same time, as the case may be).  The specters of divorce and death are particularly strongly at the holidays, too.  Maybe there just don’t seem to be the right number of people at the table anymore, and it can feel more like a time for mourning than celebrating. Me, I mourn not only the breakup of my own marriage 13 years ago but my parents’ divorce years earlier.  How I envy friends or neighbors who go home to their still-married parents’ homes, often still the home they grew up in. My frustration at not being able to provide my son with a Norman Rockwell holiday is combined, I realize, with my continued frustration at not getting one myself. 

Staging a holiday meal can be like planning a military campaign, only more political.  All that sharing of the responsibility of cooking, even cloaked in convivial conversation, is tricky. For certain family members who shall remain nameless, things have to be done just a very particular way or it’s a disaster. And then there’s the adage, “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” and it’s hard for overworked, sweaty mom, up to her armpit in a turkey’s butt, to stay happy while she slaves away and others kick back.  Food is such an important part of holiday traditions, which is why families battle over whether the stuffing served at Thanksgiving is the wife’s mother’s recipe or the husband’s aunt’s hallowed formulation, or why kids stubbornly rebel if Mom tries to substitute or add a new food into the meal for health or variety or just her own sanity.  It’s why for years I knocked myself out baking my late Nana’s sugar cookies and more recently I beat myself up for not having the time or energy to make them. 

I do love that Thanksgiving is a truly national holiday not owned by any one religion, available to all Americans (with or without papers), celebrating this difficult but blessed family togetherness.  It’s a good spiritual practice to sit down as one, say grace from whatever place of faith we hold, and then share what we’re thankful for. For those few moments, perhaps, everything shifts into perspective.

Ironically, the Thanksgivings that have been most stress free for me as an adult are the ones that were the least traditional, whether it was bringing Algerian foreign student friends home from college and them teaching my mom and me to make couscous, or when I was in Asia with expat friends cobbling together a traditional meal from the canned goods we’d brought with us, or with the air conditioning blasting in Dallas at a British home eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

More recently, after a series of particularly wretched holiday seasons which left me depressed and my relationships with my relatives prickly, the past few years have improved because, well, I just somehow simultaneously loosened up and took control. Thanksgiving I order some of from a local market, and supplement with some favorite sides.  Christmas a number of years back I told everyone I wanted to do the whole dinner myself, my way, and I took great joy in creating an Italian feast everyone loved.  Every year since we’ve done a meal from a different country, and best of all my now-adult son cooks with me.

I think the trick with all these holiday issues is, stop trying to satisfy everyone else and decide to satisfy yourself.  Kick Norman Rockwell and Martha Stewart to the curb, and invite imperfection and gratitude in.   

[an earlier version of this post appeared as an essay in Washington Woman magazine]

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés has made this available under a Creative Commons copyright. I love it so am sharing with you.  If this isn't Grace in the Gray Areas I don't know what is.  

 I've put on this piece a Creative Commons copyright, meaning you may distribute it with citation noncommercially, to whomever you would like. I would be made especially happy if you were to post it in places where those struggling in the streets across the world, might see it and be heartened. Thank you and with love,

"Mis estimados:
Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.
I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world right now. It is true, one has to have strong cojones and ovarios to withstand much of what passes for "good" in our culture today. Abject disregard of what the soul finds most precious and irreplaceable and the corruption of principled ideals have become, in some large societal arenas, "the new normal," the grotesquerie of the week.

It is hard to say which one of the current egregious matters has rocked people's worlds and beliefs more. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

…You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet ... I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is - we were made for these times.

Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.

…I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

I would like to take your hands for a moment and assure you that you are built well for these times. Despite your stints of doubt, your frustrations in arighting all that needs change right now, or even feeling you have lost the map entirely, you are not without resource, you are not alone. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. In your deepest bones, you have always known this is so.

Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

…We have been in training for a dark time such as this, since the day we assented to come to Earth. For many decades, worldwide, souls just like us have been felled and left for dead in so many ways over and over -- brought down by naiveté, by lack of love, by suddenly realizing one deadly thing or another, by not realizing something else soon enough, by being ambushed and assaulted by various cultural and personal shocks in the extreme.

We all have a heritage and history of being gutted, and yet remember this especially … we have also, of necessity, perfected the knack of resurrection.

Over and over again we have been the living proof that that which has been exiled, lost, or foundered - can be restored to life again. This is as true and sturdy a prognosis for the destroyed worlds around us as it was for our own once mortally wounded selves.

…Though we are not invulnerable, our risibility supports us to laugh in the face of cynics who say "fat chance," and "management before mercy," and other evidences of complete absence of soul sense. This, and our having been 'to Hell and back' on at least one momentous occasion, makes us seasoned vessels for certain. Even if you do not feel that you are, you are.

Even if your puny little ego wants to contest the enormity of your soul, that smaller self can never for long subordinate the larger Self. In matters of death and rebirth, you have surpassed the benchmarks many times. Believe the evidence of any one of your past testings and trials. Here it is: Are you still standing? The answer is, Yes! (And no adverbs like "barely" are allowed here). If you are still standing, ragged flags or no, you are able. Thus, you have passed the bar. And even raised it. You are seaworthy.

…In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm. There is a tendency too to fall into being weakened by perseverating on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn't you ask for grace? Don't you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the Voice greater? You have all the resource you need to ride any wave, to surface from any trough.

…In the language of aviators and sailors, ours is to sail forward now, all balls out. Understand the paradox: If you study the physics of a waterspout, you will see that the outer vortex whirls far more quickly than the inner one. To calm the storm means to quiet the outer layer, to cause it, by whatever countervailing means, to swirl much less, to more evenly match the velocity of the inner, far less volatile core - till whatever has been lifted into such a vicious funnel falls back to Earth, lays down, is peaceable again.

One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair - thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts - adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take "everyone on Earth" to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.

The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires ... causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these - to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both -- are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

…There will always be times in the midst of "success right around the corner, but as yet still unseen" when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it; I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.

In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But … that is not what great ships are built for.

…This comes with much love and prayer that you remember who you came from, and why you came to this beautiful, needful Earth."

Clarissa Pinkola Estés

“Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times,
Copyright ©2001, 2003, 2004 Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, All rights reserved. Creative Commons License by which author and publishers grant permission to copy, distribute and transmit this particular work under the conditions that use be non-commercial, that the work be used in its entirety word for work, and not altered, not added to, not subtracted from, and that it carry author's name and this full copyright notice, including email address as below. For other uses, Permissions: projectscreener@aol.com

The original title is Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times: with the subtitle, Do Not Lose Heart, We were Made for These Times

Sunday, October 9, 2011


 Inspiration can sometimes feel in short supply when all the news is bad and all the newsmakers are villains, “celebrities,” or obstinate politicians.

So when real inspiration comes along, I take note.  It can come from many directions, but most recently my participation in Leadership Montgomery’s Class of 2012 has been a rich source—and we’re less than one month into the program.

I’ve met Anthony Cohen, a historian who saw a need to bring a painful part of American history into the present, to shine under a light of education.  I had heard of Cohen back in the 1990s when Peerless Rockville, a historic preservation organization in my city, brought attention to his reenactment of a slave escaping on the Underground Railroad.  He has now done this on three arduous routes, the first 1,200 miles from Sandy Spring, Maryland to Ontario, Canada by foot, boat, and rail.  Cohen is now founder and president of the Menare Foundation, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Underground Railroad.   Here in Montgomery County, inside Seneca Creek State Park, the foundation headquarters is Button Farm, a living history center depicting 19th-century slave plantation life.  It brings people in for a two-day program called the Underground Railroad Immersion Experience as well as bringing a steady stream of schoolchildren in for one-day programs and tours.  Volunteers, both adult and youth, individuals and groups, come for hands-on farming that supports the site’s Community  Supported Agriculture (CSA), light grounds work, and other plantation-era chores.

The same day (an embarrassment of riches) I met Woody Woodroof, founder and executive director of Red Wiggler Community Farm in Clarksburg, Maryland.  More than food, the farm sows hope and pride and health.  It provides work for local adults with intellectual disabilities in an atmosphere of inclusion. It has a CSA that includes an intentional outreach to less affluent members of the community—25% of members are from low-income households, including low-income adults with developmental disabilities. And the farm reaches out to area youth to participate in the inclusive work of the farm, helping it to produce what the community needs, learning about organic farming, and practicing environmental stewardship.

I’d be remiss not to mention that my fellow members of Leadership Montgomery are a huge inspiration themselves.   Suffice it to say that the group includes many people who didn’t wait to be told how they could serve their community—they saw a need, and they stepped up.  I hope to tell you more about these visionaries in the future.

Two days after my Leadership Montgomery session, I was inspired through another media, The Ellen De Generes TV show which brings the good in humans daily to a national audience of millions.  Ellen’s guest was Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS.  In his travels in Argentina he saw that there were children who were being kept out of going to school just for want of a pair of shoes.  So he started a shoe company with a “One for One” model where for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair is given to a child in need.  Putting shoes on children who otherwise would have gone without prevents disease and injury, and even more awesomely helps educate the world’s children.   Started with a small project in Argentina, TOMS has given shoes to more than one million children in more than 20 countries.  Mycoskie told viewers he was looking at expanding the One for One model to other products.  Next up in a literally visionary move is sunglasses, the sale of which will benefit people who need eye care, giving them prescription glasses, medical treatment for sight threatening conditions, or sight-saving surgery.  Wow.

At the same time as watching that Ellen episode I’d DVR’d, I was reading Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.  Her inspiration is an Afghan woman, Kamila Sidiqi, who started a business to help support her family in the midst of Taliban-held Kabul.  She didn’t know how to sew but needed to create income from her living room, where she and the rest of the women of Kabul had been relegated.  At great personal risk she not only became a tailor herself and cautiously moved about the city creating a customer base from behind her chadri, but ended up creating opportunities for other women, including starting a school so others could learn to sew and support their families, too. 

One of my long-time sources of inspiration on a global level died recently—Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and activist who founded the Green Belt Movement that has planted millions of trees across Africa.  She was a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work.  So I was cheered to learn last week that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to three African women who are changing the world for the better by improving opportunities for women:  Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Tawakul Karman, and Leymah Gbowee, I will have to read more about these women and their work in the coming weeks and months, to add them to my arsenal of inspiration.

Whether it’s on a global level or a local level (and truly all transformations of society must happen at both, as well as an individual level), for me the awe in this is seeing the power of one person to make a difference in the world.  I am figuring out how I can best do this.  For now I’m focusing on lighting the spark, sharing inspiring stories through my writing, and asking, what will you do to inspire and make a difference?  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Light in the Dark

“For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth, truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.” 
                                                                      (Mohandas Gandhi) 

The sun is out today.  Still a startling rarity after dark days of nearly nonstop rain that made us forgot all complaints of a hot summer.  A crazy summer all over our country—fire, drought, heat waves, flooding, a mid-Atlantic earthquake.  Mother Nature is acting out our human woes on a grand scale. 

We are out of work. We are losing our homes.  We can’t get treated properly for our illnesses because we can’t afford it.  We are struggling to put food on the table for our children, if indeed we are lucky enough to have a table.  Teachers fight to give our children a good education in inadequate facilities with inadequate budgets even for books in some cities.  Crops are decimated, and precious animals are in danger of becoming extinct.  We work twice as hard and twice as many hours for the same or half the pay.  Americans are choosing between food and healthcare. 

And today we commemorate an unthinkable tragedy, an unprecedented assault on American soil, ten years ago but just a blink away in our memories.

In all this dark, where is the light?

In the pond out my window, adult geese and ducks glide across the surface with their goslings and ducklings.  A great blue heron soars to the very top of a tall tree.  I walk out of my house and a squirrel just outside who just nabbed a nut somewhere in the woods (and is bringing it to hide in one of the container plants I keep out front, to dig up in winter) freezes, thinking perhaps if he doesn’t move I won’t notice him.  I greet him, and the birds hopping nearby for seeds, and assure them I mean them no harm. This simple ritual, repeated day after day to squirrels, birds and chipmunks alike, makes me very happy.   

I drive out of my driveway and wave hello to one or the other of my neighbors out walking their dogs, and if I’m not rushing to an appointment, I slow and roll down the window for a more personal hello. If I’m very lucky before I even get into my car I run into my favorite beagle Penny (and her owner) and get some doggie love from this precocious canine. (If I somehow miss her, I still can revel in her antics on her “mom’s” Facebook page, with daily sharing of her pet’s mischief.)

I go to my town center, and cross the square where kids are scrambling up and down the boulders put out for that purpose, and people of every age and color stroll, and if I’m very lucky it’s a night with free music in the square.  I head into my neighborhood library, and, well, everyone knows what a land of enchantment a library is, don’t they?  I am like a kid in a candy store—or a kid in a library—in awe of all the choices, all the stories housed there that will transport me to another country, another time, another great author’s imagination or memory, for escape, deeper insight, or good laughs.

I go to a local swim center where for 45 minutes a day I am enveloped in the warm womb of the water. I jump around in my water exercise class and celebrate my body’s flexibility and agility where gravity is not my enemy.  I admire my much older classmates who are there celebrating their bodies too, in their 60s, 70s, 80s even, reassuring me that the water will always be my haven and exercise always available to me. 

Everywhere I go, despite their personal troubles, people still smile as they pass one another on the street, in the halls.  When I’m feeling really down, a smile from a stranger goes a long, long way.  I pay it forward as often as I can. We’re all putting one foot in front of the other, doing our best, navigating a confusing, changing way of life in a time where, the newspaper just informed me, one in three Americans my age are living in reduced economic circumstances from the previous generation.  It’s in stark contrast to the obscene wealth that somehow persists in some communities in our area.  But rich or poor, we all have our trials. 

And we all get up each morning to a new chance at life, a new hope of things improving, a new opportunity to be with the people we love, and a new urging to smile at strangers as we pass, or better still, stop and say hello and see how we might help one another. And remember a day of great sacrifice that, in so many ways then and since, called on us to bring out our best selves.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More Vamping about Camping

Writing my last post about going to day camp and sleep-away camp also got me thinking more broadly about camping.  When I was a kid that was the main thing we did on summer vacations, despite my desperate dislike of bugs, outdoor toilets, and getting my hands (much less my body) dirty.  Though I complained at the time, I have a rosy glow of a stream of summers driving in gorgeous New England mountains, swims in lakes in New Hampshire and Maine, and picking blueberries at our campsites to go into my mom’s pancakes made on the propane stove. Meals camping also included Hickory Farms beefstick, a summer sausage which my mom would fry up instead of bacon with eggs for breakfast, instead of bologna for lunch, and, well, I’m sure we had it for dinner, too, in lieu of something!

Perhaps the most Norman Rockwell camping trip was in 1969, when my dad and mom and younger brother and I sat amidst dozens of other families one night at our campground watching on a small T.V. screen as men walked on the moon for the first time. It was fitting that we were not isolated, each family in our own home, but out there under the stars, from all over the country, in community.

One of my last family camping memories, dragged along at 14 or 15, was to Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, Canada. There was a gorgeous park with a huge bowl of grassy lawn where I hung out with other similarly parentally-inconvenienced teenagers.  I developed a huge crush on a long-haired, guitar-playing, soulful older boy (I’ve always been a sucker for musicians) and created an elaborate fantasy of how we could see each other after summer was gone, since he, too, lived in Massachusetts.  Of course he was completely clueless and of course I never saw him again, but decades later I’m still unable to hear Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young do “Love the One You’re With” without thinking of him.     

When was the last time I went camping, anyway?  Perhaps it was in Taiwan in my early 20s.  I traveled with a friend Chen Chiung-ling from Taipei down to central Taiwan where she had friends in college. We hiked around some beautiful scenery but the most amazing thing about that trip was the amount of food they carried and the feasts they prepared just on campfires.

I didn’t take my son camping when he was growing up, though I gave him opportunities to do so with others.  He wasn’t a fan, though he has become very outdoorsy as a young man.  Good for him.  But he accepts the fact that as far as his mother goes, the closest I get to camping is staying in a motel instead of a hotel.  Because I’m just not a happy camper. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Camp Complains-a-Lot

Earlier this year when asked to recall memories of sending my son to camp,  I was amazed at the floodgate of memories that opened and washed right over that more recent time, flowing all the way back to my own childhood experiences of camp. 

I went to Camp Featherfin, which I liked fine, except for the fact it was outdoors and there were bugs and dirt.  My main memory was setting up the camp fire and making goulash which was pretty tasty.  Campers went swimming in Lake Winthrop (even when not in camp I took swim lessons there in the early morning in what felt like sub-zero temperatures)—as an adult I learned subsequently the lake was be contaminated with dioxin.  No point even beginning to ponder the implications of that for me or the thousands of kids and adults who spent their summers in those waters!

I also remember when I was around 8 years old, in one of my many young volunteer activities as apprentice to my uber-volunteer mom, packing lunches for a camp for underprivileged kids.  The most fun part was that the Hostess factory from a few towns over delivered packages of Hostess CupCakes to my house in big metal racks, stacks and stacks of them in our carport—but not for me, for the campers, but still there was something heady about it.

I did go to sleep-away camp on my own one time and all I remember is how much I hated it and complained about it. I never was big at going outside my comfort zone, physically at least, and that included having to put up with a scary environment over which I had no control, and kids who saw an insecure, unathletic, braces- and glasses-wearing girl who was developing early as prime bullying material.  I sent frantic postcards and letters home but was unable to convince my parents to come and take me home. 

Let’s see, other heartwarming camping memories…How about getting lost in the woods at night at a Girl Scout sleep-away camp (my mom was a troop leader) next to some kind of huge detention center/jail, which I discovered finally arriving at a barbed wire fence.  Or idealistically heading to New Hampshire one summer to be a camp counselor for troubled inner city youth, and freaking out, whether unable to hack the pressure or homesick or both, I’m not sure, and bailing out? 

Of course, camp is not what camp used to be.  If I was looking at camps now I could study newspaper writing or website design or yoga or learn Italian, I could stay in an air-conditioned cabin in the mountains, or on the beach in a yurt.  My delicate tush need never touch the rocky, buggy ground, I need never stumble in the scary dark to an outhouse, and my food need never come with pine needles in it.  For that matter, I could have stayed home. But then where would I have learned to make goulash, macramé a friendship bracelet or sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds? 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Nonfiction Notes for Summer

Summer reading doesn’t have to be all light mysteries, romance and other fiction. (Although they do have a special place in my beach bag!)  Two works of nonfiction in particular have enriched my summer so far.

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan (William Morrow, 2010).  The author, just 29 at the beginning of this tale, was traveling around the world and thought he should do some volunteer work so people didn’t think he was being self-indulgent dropping his responsibilities and taking to the road.  His time at Little Princes Children’s Home orphanage in Nepal during the civil war turns out to be more than he bargained for.  He discovers that in fact the children are not orphans: their parents have been conned by a child trafficker who told them that for exorbitant sums of money he would take their children away from their war-torn villages and to safety.  The trafficker would then abandon them when he got to the capital, Kathmandu, putting them on the streets and, if they were lucky, into the care of an orphanage. 

Grennan’s brief initial volunteer stint over, it isn’t long before he returns to Nepal. The story of his evolving relationship with these children and others is, well, what the word “heart-warming” was made for—you’ll laugh, you’ll cry.  The author is never self-aggrandizing and always honest even when it reveals his imperfections; he is quick to share when the joke’s on him.  But he becomes a man with a mission, to reunite these children with their parents, with the help of several other local and expat saviors.  Grennan founds a nonprofit organization called Next Generation Nepal (NGN), dedicated to the quest of reuniting families in postwar Nepal.  Don’t miss this beautiful story that will fill you with hope.  Can we ask anything more from a book? 

Reading The Foremost Good Fortune, a memoir by Susan Conley (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) was an affirmation of my own impressions of China and the challenges of picking up and relocating there with a young child.  The husband plugs into a job and “trailing spouse” is left to navigate the day to day, the oddities, the being different, the child’s sadness at missing home and her own… I could identify with so many of the moments especially the rocky transition for my son into a new group of kids, a new school.  (In our case devilishly complicated by an early epidemic of lice that further put some kids on the outs.)  The difference is that in the midst of it, Conley’s marriage stayed strong and her family came to love living in China.  

Oh, and it’s not a spoiler to tell you that Conley learns she has cancer.  Navigating that day to day with a young child is another matter all together.   Conley is honest and funny and vulnerable and her story reads like a really good novel.   For its insights about being a parent, being in a foreign place, battling a foreign enemy in one’s body, and just being a woman, it’s a wonderful representative of my favorite genre, the memoir. 

Tell me about your favorite summer reading this year, nonfiction or otherwise!  

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beached (A Love Story)

I am so happy, tucked safely in the shade of a big yellow umbrella while lulled by the crash of ocean waves against the endless sand.  Families are pouring onto the beach as the clouds clear, joining the rest of us intrepids who were out here under total cloud cover.  It’s clear that were the strong breeze to cease it would be suffocatingly hot out here, clouds or no clouds.

Some folks sit already bronzed, minimal cover, no umbrella, inviting tan or burn.  A mom and three girls are playing lacrosse.  I tense as their broad sweeping runs get very close, the sand kicking up, but they always veer off just as they’re in kicking distance to me.  Still their play gets more and more aggressive till finally their mom calls a halt. 

A gaggle of teenage girls arrives and sets themselves up before spraying each other with sunscreen, for what it’s worth, blowing away in the wind—I know because I did the same futile thing myself.  I am truly feeling my age as I watch them, thinking, oh my god, how can that girl walk around in public with her ass cheeks hanging out?  And I giggle as I see one of my fellow B&B guests, just a few feet behind the girls on the sand, and imagine how hard it must be for the man as the four girls flop face down on their towels, bums directly facing him all in a row.  Did I mention he’s sitting next to his wife?

Three teenage boys, gangly and self-conscious, arrive bearing a huge boom box.  I really tense up at this, anticipating the worst, and rehearse what I might say to them when rap and techno shatter the pleasant day as I implore them to move down the beach (“hey guys, I drove four hours and spend hundreds of dollars coming here to find a little peace…”).  But then they just lie down to sun quietly, and a few minutes later, to my relief, a mom and dad arrive on the scene.  They’re funny, moving in unison to set down their beach chairs just so, perfectly lined up, then doing the same with towels in front of the chairs, then lying upon the towels like a synchronized tan team. 

By this time it’s become clear to me that the occasional tensing I experience in the face of potential noise or flung sand or small children shrieking loudly is quite silly, and I settle more calmly into my day, reading, ironically, a very Buddhisty book about being, and finding God in everyone, and letting go of all tension and worry.  I see now in an epiphany (I am prone to epiphanies when my mind is free of everyday cares) that the beach is my practice of those teachings. 

The big yellow umbrella above me flaps loudly but the pole stays buried in the sand where a muscled gal from a rental company put it.  I know from experience that my own flimsy umbrella, which I left home, wouldn’t stand a chance in this wind.  I’ve put my book in the beach bag now and am in full fledged observation mode, people watching, wave watching.  The various pockets of teens, with or without parents, preen oh so casually for one another.  The sun-conscious young parents adjust the little pup tents sheltering napping babies and toddlers. I am so happy here, warm but not too warm, comfortably perched in my deck chair now watching sea gulls in that amazing hover maneuver they do. 

I decide suddenly to get up and hit the water.  Grateful that I can actually stand up with relative ease from the low slung chair, thanks to two knee replacements plus water exercise and yoga, and I walk toward the water.  There are a lot of people standing near the edge or into the water slightly, jumping as waves crash.  But most of us shift back as the intensity of the roughness becomes clearer and the tug of the tide nearly knocks me off my feet as I clumsily try to escape its strong hold. 

All overcastness is long gone now, the sky beach-day blue with just a few artful puffs of white clouds.  I am getting hungry. I missed the B in my B&B this morning in favor of the B, despite my best intentions—I’d gone to bed (for me) early, but then couldn’t get to sleep till after 2.  I bought a can of iced coffee onto the beach with me along with some granola, but hours later I am thinking wistfully of the amazing-smelling breakfast I missed.  I had joked to my friend that I got to enjoy the beckoning of the bacon as the odor floated up to our little attic room, with none of the calories.  I pick up my cell phone (I know, I know!) and call her as she goes up to our room, asking her to bring some snacks from my bag to tide me over till tea is served.  And I think what a great idea it would be if there were dune buggies that went up and down the beach delivering lunch.  Nothing fancy, or requiring refrigeration even, maybe PB&J, or hummus and veggies.  Like the food trucks so popular on Washington, DC streets now, or the bygone delivery of snacks to your seats at the movie theaters, I feel certain these would be a hit. 

I am fascinated by the language of the lifeguards on their high perches in a row down the beach.  They wave small red flags in careful patterns one station at a time, then another station mimics the message, and so it goes down the row. I vow to find out what all those different waving patterns mean. And what I swear used to be a red flag with a big 2 on it on each station has been replaced with a black flag with a 2 instead.  As the beach has filled more (though blessedly it’s not crowded) and the water’s become rougher, the lifeguards are no longer sitting but standing and scanning in hyper watchfulness.

Babies are so cute at the beach, like little bobble heads, rocking in the sand, some in the merest of suits, others decked out in full safety attire, safari hats protecting their heads and necks, swim shirts over their torsos, some with life vests on, too.  Slightly older kids test their parents’ nerves by running into the churlish waves then back again, just escaping the undertow.

Books are read, magazines paged through, naps taken, sand castles crafted, people-watching endlessly entertaining.  The sound of the waves, the warmth of the sand, the air blowing about—I never want to leave!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rolling Blackouts

My life just flashed before my eyes.

I’m not sure why I found myself carrying three Rolodex cases downstairs from my home office.  I’d been looking at the two old ones across the room from my desk for years and decided I could do a small decluttering/purging project while I watched TV.  I didn’t realize it was going to be a retrospective of my life.

So, how do you tell when it’s time to toss a Rolodex card?

  • Rolodex?  Are you kidding me? 
  • The card has a phone number with no area code on it. Because you didn’t use to have to dial area codes for local calls (remember?)
  • The person on the card has died, or you think they might have but you’re not sure.
  • It has information on your student loan.  Not your kid’s, yours.
  • It’s for a divine little French restaurant in Georgetown.  From the days of expense account lunches.  RIP (the expense account lunches, not the restaurant).
  • It’s a no-longer-in-service phone number for an old grad school classmate you last saw when she told you she’d gotten a job at “The State Department” (you have to picture the air quotes) and promptly went incognito, never to be found again.
  • It’s the number for the guy you went on your first date with after your divorce.  Well, you thought it was a date; he thought it was just coffee.
  • It’s for your master’s thesis advisor.  Whose specialty was the Cold War.  (Remember the Cold War? Me neither.)  And he’s been dead for years.
  • It’s for Compaq Tech support.  And it’s been 8 years at least since you’ve owned a Compaq.  (Are they even in business still?)
  • It’s for the new cupcake place that opened in town.  Back when you still thought (why?) it was worth three bucks for a cupcake, and still thought it was a good idea for you to eat cupcakes.
  • It’s for the airport shuttle, and quotes the price as $19 (it’s now $27) and says your child (now 23) could ride free.
  • It’s for a manicurist you used to see in your old office building, back when you could afford the time or money for a weekly manicure. 
  • It’s for a favorite store that shut down, a victim of the economic downturn.
  • It’s a list of hours various Northern Virginia public libraries are open.  And you haven’t lived in Northern Virginia since the 1980s.
  • It’s from a telecommunications industry job you used to hold, and is one of a half dozen you have for Ma Bell companies. You know, Illinois Bell, Southern Bell, all those Bells that haven’t rung for about 20 years since the monopoly got broken up, after which all the vigorous competition among the new telecom companies brought us lower prices and great service, right?
  • Likewise, a card with the number for your own phone company, C&P Telephone.
  • It’s for a grocery delivery business, about 20 years pre-Peapod.
  • In the Doctors section of Rolodex cards, cards not only dating back to the OB/GYN who delivered your (now 22-year-old) baby, but back to the student health center at your university.
  • It’s the name and address of the nice couple with a house in the country who adopted your dog when you had to give her up before moving into a condo after you got married.
  • It’s for a plumber who’s the husband of the office manager in one of your doctors’ offices-- against whom you are now filing a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office.
  • It lists all the bookstores you frequent(ed).  Including Common Concerns, The Globe, Crown Books, MysteryBooks and others, may they rest in peace.
  • It’s for the airlines you used most.  And the list includes Eastern Airlines and Braniff.
  • It’s the home phone for the wonderful young intern you had in one of your trade association VP positions.  And he now owns his own company and lives in China. 
  • It’s got the number for a dog walker and dog trainer for a doggie you haven’t had for years. 
Someday I’m sure I’m going to be going through the same process in my Gmail contact list.  For now, history in a box of Rolodex cards has transitioned mostly to history in the “cloud.”  I hope my memories, my history, will be safe there.   

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stories on the Train

A day-long train ride lay ahead of me to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was headed for a visit to an old friend.  I was prepared to enjoy lots of quiet time with my books and my journal, and I did, and more.  I’m always struck by how cordial everyone is in train travel, smiling, nodding, talking, with an ease absent from the stress-filled world of plane travel.  My first encounter reflected that, exchanging pleasantries with the woman next to me in the Union Station as she made preparations to board her severely epileptic daughter. 

Once on board, I plunked myself down in my assigned seat. Within 15 minutes my seatmate, Linda, and I had had that amazing instant connection and sharing of life stories that women often have, each subsequent layer of revealing changing our initial perceptions of one another.  She was safeguarding in the rack above us a huge bag of bagels from Zabar’s that she was bringing from her home, New York City, to her children living near Raleigh where she had grown up.  We talked about how we both love trees, about my growing up in Massachusetts, about her idyllic youthful vacations with a lover on Cape Cod.  She related how when she decided to leave Raleigh in her early 20s in the late 1960s, she’d gone to stay with her brother who lived in New York.  Her parents had hoped he would keep an eye on her, but it was futile.  “I had fun!” she laughed.  Pink-tipped curls against her chocolate brown face peeked from beneath a purple scarf, a purple pashmina in her lap over black jeans and tee. Her wrist was covered with silver bracelets her former husband got her because, she said, as if it were evident, “he knew I loved silver.”  We compared our tastes in books and magazines.  She talked about how she was weaning herself off TV, and we discussed needing a quiet space and time in our days to remember who we really are.  We companionably offered one another the bits of the food we’d brought in our carry-ons for our long rides.  Hours later, we were sad to say goodbye, and laughed as she carried so much stuff she had to disembark into the down-South heat wearing her up-North down jacket.

As Linda had slept, snoring quietly, for part of the ride, I enjoyed people-watching.  A few bored-looking teens sitting next to their parents listened to iPods and texted.   A ‘tween helped her considerably shorter mother get several bags down from the rack above with one hand , the other hand and her attention engaged elsewhere, on her cell phone inside her hoodie dispensing advice to a lovelorn girlfriend.  A middle-aged woman’s elegant attire contrasted with the grocery bag from which she periodically pulled out and knitted a never-ending ugly scarf.  A cute 30-something woman earnestly did paperwork, until her craving for chocolate derailed her and sent her to the café car for a bag of M&Ms, after which she never quite got back to work.

A friendly younger man and I chatted as we got off midday at one of the proclaimed smoke/stretch breaks offered.  Moving past the cluster of smokers we basked in the sun and I did stretches on the railings on the platform. 

After Linda left, an elderly woman from Wilson, N.C. sat down.  She was visiting family in Charlotte, carrying barbecue in a cooler that seemed heavier than she was.  When I asked incredulously if they didn’t have barbecue in Charlotte, she replied matter-of-factly, “yes, but they don’t make it like they do in Wilson.” (My friend later confirmed this.)  We discussed a mutual love of water aerobics and how much we were “not morning people.”  She was delighted when I shared my decadent mint truffles.   We reassured one another when the train was delayed with switch problems and to save fuel the lights were turned off.  One of the engineers broke the tension by joking, “I’m going to be lighting candles for you all in a minute here,” as he walked through our car.

No cards were exchanged or phone numbers keyed into BlackBerrys, but comforting connections were made among strangers on a train.

Finally disembarking close to 11 p.m., as we walked down ramps from two sides of the platform that merged into one entrance, I saw a vision before me.  A young woman with sky blue hair and ringlets around her face and a jaunty black bow, wearing a jazzy black and white print blouse with cap sleeves, over a very short, poufy, shimmery beaded black skirt, atop black and white fishnets and a pair of chunky, short black boots with heels, their black bows complementing the one atop her head.  She was perfect, totally at ease with herself.   I entered the station with an ear-to-ear grin.

[Author’s note:   This summer I’ll be mixing original posts with some reader favorites from my “Grace in the Gray Areas” column in Washington Woman magazine. This post originally appeared in that column.]

Monday, May 9, 2011

Word Play for Dinosaurs

I increasingly catch myself using expressions that I picked up as a kid from my elders.  This not only blatantly dates me, but also leaves people around me befuddled.  This happens most often with my son and others younger than me, of course, but also with people who didn’t grow up with their Nana living with them like I did.  So for those of you not blessed by advanced age and/or proximity of an older relative whose folksy lingo you picked up, I’ve come up with a lexicon of some of the finer examples.  I’ll admit I’m being creative with the spelling here, because these are words that tend to be spoken, not written. 

Persnickety.  This sounds more like the name of a cookie more than having a fussy manner or being overly worried about details.

Namby pamby.  This does indeed have an inherent sound of disdain one might feel toward someone overly sentimental or weak (also known as someone who wiffle waffles or is wishy washy).

Wisenheimer.  Smart German kid, you say?  No, wise guy!

Dilly dally.  Sounds Like: a children’s clapping or jump rope game accompanied by chanting.  Means: move slowly, fool around until you make other people late. 

Whoopdeedoo.  Big to-do, excitement, sometimes used sarcastically.  Shortened more current form—big whoop. (Usually accompanied by wisenheimer kid rolling eyes.)

Hullaballoo.  Isn’t that the name of an Elvis Presley movie?  Or was it Gidget?  Sorta sounds like what it is—raucousness or excitement.

Skeedaddle.  Another word that sounds like the name of a game.  Game that’s an alternative to shuffleboard?  Popular arcade name?  No, it means get lost.  But in a nice way.

Boondoggle.  “He ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…”  No wait, that’s not it.  It means a scheme or a scam.  No relation to T. Boone Pickens.  Tempting, though.

Gumption.  Courage, with overtones of good sense.

Being the crack investigative reporter that I am, I decided to explore the mysterious origins of a few of the more colorful and old-timey of these words and phrases.

Hanky panky. Sounds Like:  a magic trick performed with a handkerchief.  Really Means: trickery, with maybe a sexual overtone if adults are involved, not if you’re talking to a mischievous kid.   Why?  OK, how cool is this, there’s apparently a Romani expression “hakk'ni panki” that means "great trick"! 

Heebie jeebies.  Logically upon hearing this one would think of a 1980s girl group with really big teased hair, right?  Actually it means nervousness.  Extensive Googling tells me this was coined by American cartoonist W. DeBeck, but not why.  Was he a standup comedian?

Lolly gagging.   Sounds like a poor girl named Lolly suffering from reflux rather than a casual lazing about or slide into sloth.  The Online Etymology Dictionary says the origin of this may come from a dialect where “lolly” means tongue and gag means deceive or trick.  I’m not sure how seriously I should take this website as its home page is populated with ads for margaritas… 

Flibbertygibbit.  As  funnily as this rolls off the tongue (say it with me, “flibbertygibbit, flibbertygibbit”), it unfortunately is a patronizing sexist term meaning  foolish girl. 

Hootenany.  Precursor to karaoke?  Equally a hoot?

Upsy daisy .  Sounds Like: possible bad reaction from drinking too much.  Actual Meaning:  baby talk for “up.” 

Nifty.  Keen.  Cool. Groovy, even!

Bee’s knees.   See also cat’s pajama’s. 

There seems to be a requirement that these homespun phrases or words end in a vowel sound (especially “yi”).  Try saying these things out loud—aye, ah, ee, oo.  (Oo ee oo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang.)  I’m sure there’s some kind of linguistic reason for this.  Perhaps we just like to let silly slang slip across our tongues, jazzy jests jump from our mouths. 

Do you have any favorite nonsensical  terms?  New ones you’d like to introduce into our vocabulary?  Please share!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Casual Sundays

Anyone who knows me very well knows that I am normally loathe to make plans on a Sunday.  Sunday is my shut down, re-center, recharge day.   When I’m feeling contemplative, I call it Sabbath.  But mostly, I just call it like it is.  Pajama Day. 

 There are two key elements to Pajama Day.  No, make that three.

      No bra required.
      Sleeping in, not setting the alarm.
      Nothing planned, don’t have to be anyplace, 
            don’t have to do anything for anybody!

Having said that, yes, I may do laundry, and I definitely have to take out the trash and recycling (a task for which I wait for night to fall, then throw a coat over my PJs and skulk out under cover of darkness).  And there’s usually at least one article that needs to be written.

But I had this epiphany that the pajama (or, in summer, night shirt) aspect of Pajama Day isn’t just about being comfortable.

It’s also about not having to make any choices, even about something as simple as what to wear. (Contrary to common belief about people who work from home offices, I do get dressed in clothes every work day.) We have to use judgment when we get dressed, based on myriad criteria we don’t even realize we’re using. What’s the temperature outside? What’s the temperature inside? Which of my clothes are clean? Which are a little dirty but no one has to know? Which clothes do I have to save to be clean for an event later in the week?  Can I handle a tight waistline today or not?  

My life has become so paralyzed by choices I can’t make just one more. There is no discernment involved in reaching into my drawer—or onto the floor by my bed—for PJs.  Done, and done.

All week all I do is multitask, and make choices, and filter information coming at me from 60 directions. I juggle service to my clients and my employers.  I interact with my family and friends (hopefully in a loving and compassionate way); I help those around me who need help.  I decide not just about things that are a chore but things that are fun. What am I doing on Saturday? Are I going to eat out before that event or not? If so, where should we go? Where will we park? What time do we need to leave by to get where we’re going in time?  Can I afford it? Will they have something I can eat that’s both healthy and delicious?  (Relative weight given to each depending on what day you ask me.)  I triage problems from work on my car or house to scheduling doctor’s appointments.  At the grocery store I literally become dazed by all the choices around me, brands, packaging, health benefits real or perceived, label-reading, what things will I put together to make each meal, how long will these veggies last? Ay yay yay, day in and day out, my head is spinning!

But Sunday? Sunday?  No.  I refuse.  I figure if I pull my boundaries in tight around me, in this case the walls and windows of my living room, there will be less pulling at my attention, fewer choices to make. Maybe I can keep my wits about me. 

Of course, Washington D.C.’s notoriously mercurial spring is putting a bit of a glitch in my no-choices-on-Sunday resolve.  I came downstairs today having shifted to my “shoulder season” pajamas in a lighter fabric, having moved from winter flannels but not ready for a short cotton nightshirt.  One toe out the door to get the Post on my front walk, and I knew the TV meteorologists had lied; it was not that warm out.  I tromped back upstairs to grab my flannel PJs.  And  I chose--to take them out for one more spin.