Saturday, April 23, 2011

Many Small Things; 1001:9

Walking into the kitchen this morning, followed by a cat and preceded by a cat, we all stopped short at a small sauce dish broken on the floor. Somecat had, we think, been up on the table and knocked it off, but no one confessed. The dish was formerly 4 inches across with a depth of ¾ inch. It had a small eggplant, nasubi, painted in the well, and a thin painted blue line around the circumference. It had broken into smaller pieces. The dish was part of an inexpensive set of 4 bought in Osaka, Japan, 10 years ago. One dish was broken a few years ago, not by a cat.

The little broken bones of the nasubi dish were gathered up and put on the counter. They will go out to the garden soon, and become pottery-mulch. The pieces will go somewhere special, maybe around the lemon sorrel plants. Every time the sorrel is clipped this summer, the shards will be little pieces of a nice memory.

I visited Japan 10 years ago, as part of a Japanese Language Program, held at the Kobe, Japan, YMCA. The fee for the one-month session included a homestay; I stayed with a woman (Miyako), her daughter, and her mother in Kita Ku, a nice suburb of Kobe/ Osaka. My Japanese did improve, a little bit. But more important, this was my first time in Asia, and I was on my own. It was a wonderful visit.

My hostess was, I like to think, a former geisha. A Japanese friend suggested that idea a few years after the visit, when I showed him pictures of my hostess: her formal kimono collection, her playing the traditional stringed koto, her arranging ikebana, and some other details of her life. Her English improved more than my Japanese throughout my visit, but I gained things to think about.

One day Miyako and I went through a Buddhist graveyard while walking somewhere. We walked everywhere, because she had no car. Most people I knew there didn’t have a car. I lost 10 lbs during the visit, which was great. Passing the cemetery, I was interested in the stone statuaries, and saw a woman sweeping, around a large central statue of Buddha. In broken Japanese and English, I asked if there were Shinto cemeteries, too. A few days earlier we had passed a Shinto shrine, which was a simple torii gate and a rustic wooden altar in a park area. Shintoism is a paganistic religion, with many small deities, none of them major. Another day I had seen many small pieces of white paper tied onto a little bush on the walk to my school. Miyako explained that the bush was a sacred place; someone had tied the paper on it for some special purpose, and thereby made it a little temporary home to Shinto deities. Its entirely possible that I have a unique view of Japanese religion due to the language learning gap when it was explained to me, but it was all interesting. She told me that Japanese are born in the Buddhist religion and die Buddhist, but are married in the Shinto religion. She also told me with a smile, when we visited a Buddhist temple and I was surprised by an altar surrounded by kegs of sake, that “Buddha likes sake.” My general impression was that Japanese religion is a little of this deity, a little of that deity, mixed together successfully.

One day we walked down to the oceanfront, to watch fireworks. It was some national holiday, and all the young women were dressed in traditional holiday kimonos, with decorative fans thrust through the back of their belts. We walked underneath tall street lamps, from which thousands of small bells hung. The sound they made was like tinkling rain drops, and I said Oh, they sound so beautiful. My hostess smiled and said, “Many small things, make a beautiful sound, all together.”

With that phrase she gave me a gift. Now, I always think of Japan as a place of many small things. It was my experience that at meals, many small dishes of food were served, or many small pieces in a large pot were shared. In ikebana, the traditional flower-arranging art, each flower and stem are individually arranged, for overall visual impact. Japanese culture puts emphasis on the unity of many small individuals working together, rather than American ideals of the cowboy individual working alone. Both ideas work fine in their way, just like chopsticks and forks both work fine. In their way.

My broken nasubi dish is now smaller parts of itself. Like the stones and bones in the Buddhist cemetery, the imperishable pieces which represent in all cultures the immortal part of what is human, my several small ceramic shards will arrange themselves over time in their new place. They will become a small part of a small garden in a small house in a small city in Michigan.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Old Age and Grooming II; 1001:8

At a recent event, everyone was forced to contribute to the general fun and say “something about themselves.” I came up with: “Going Gray.” The 30ish man who read this out loud to a group of 20 some people of all ages and genders looked at me expectantly, waiting for further information. As he paused, a 50ish woman in the crowd came out with an elevated fist and an “Alright!” It was one of those moments when time stands still, you're caught between two worlds, and you realize you are a member of a smaller socio-cultural group than you used to be.

I told the guy, in an informative aside, “Letting my hair go gray.” He still looked bemused, so I let it drop. He’ll figure it out one of these days. He had a baseball cap on, so maybe he has his own hair issues.

A friend and I discussed Going Gray over sushi one night last week. Its imperative to have friends who are getting older with you, so you can check each other out for fashion faux pas’es. For example, most women’s jeans over the last few years are styled to rest below the Molson Muscle, and thereby mandate less form-fitting shirts, blouses, and T’s. When we were younger, there were actually similar jeans: “hip-huggers;” but these were bell-bottomed, which tended to even-out some figure irregularities. When we were younger, we also had fewer figure irregularities. But that was then and this is now.  Now, one must chuck memories and live in the real world: most older figures need more maintenance and kinder dressage. It takes some transition time to re-think this, though. A decade or so. Sometimes you’re apt to walk out of your house wearing that funky old skirt you used to love, with a snug day-glo knit top, in a time-warp-state-of-mind, forgetting that black is your best color and funky turns into eccentric after 50. To nip these kinds of moments in the bud, try to live close to friends who can catch you on the way out the door, and snap you out of it.

But the hardest issue to deal with--penance due to Sins Of Our Youth--is “Going Gray.” This is an issue if you have ever been weak enough to dye your hair.  My Name is Tricia and I Dye My Hair.  Now, how do I get out of it and come clean?

At 48, I dated a younger man, and decided to cover the few silver hairs that were shining through my heretofore-virgin-brown hair. The relationship died, but the dye job stayed. Once you dye, it’s hard to go back. The color stays in your hair, even if you decide to stop dyeing. If you cold-turkey quit all reparative contributory dyeing, and if the old stuff is not similar to your own hair, you wind up with the variegated look so popular on teens with pink-and-blue hair, but which is one of those fashion faux pas thingys I mentioned earlier on mature women.

I recently mentioned to  my 20-something daughter that I was, yet again, going to Go Gray. I plan to accomplish this as painlessly as possible by doing my own, foiled, lowlights out of a drugstore box (inside talk for "streak thick wet chemicals randomly through hair with the divisionary aid of aluminum foil in hopes of acheiving a naturally fake hair effect).  She asked, in her youth and innocence, “Why don’t you just let all the gray grow out?” I replied, “Haven’t you seen women my age going around with a demarcation line of one-half-upper silver hair, and one-half-lower brassy red hair?” She said, with instant recognition: “Oh, yeah.”

My daughter, on the other hand, is like a lot of younger women who dyed their hair just because it was there. She’s been having it dyed in shops for years, and is likely to keep doing it for a while. Once you dye, you create an image which you need to maintain. If you face your own hair, you lose a kind of mask which you’ve assumed. It’s a culturally recognized kind of look, the “dyed hair” look. Its an acquired comfort to those of us who do it.

Take my mom. She is 89, and I write about her all the time, and she won’t read what I write, but I tell her usually, anyway. Until 4 years ago, approximately, she dyed her hair. For many years before that, I encouraged her to Go Gray. However, her husband/ my father encouraged her strong Natural Vanity by making it clear he preferred it dyed.  He actually mouthed the words, in my presence, that "gray hair makes you look like an old woman."  I had to mull over these words, trying to define "old" in my parents world view.  It was a scary thought.  Not to mention that his comment made it seem like a BAD thing to look like an old woman. Ho Boy. Thanks, parents, for instilling that value in me. But its okay, as an adult I've fought off some of your other Instilled Values, and sifted through your Important Values.

And Mom's hair would have been none of my business, except when Mom dyed her silver hair, it turned orange. I thought it looked most unnatural, and hoped to defend her from looking like a vain person who wouldn’t face the idea that dye is not always a better alternative. I have no idea which colors she chose to dye with, but they all turned out the same: orange.

Now, I can understand this turning orange thing. Dyeing hair out of a box is, unfortunately, a quicker way to strip your hair of natural oil and shine than going to a salon and paying an unholy amount of monthly disposable income for a professional to dye it. And, if you are like Mom and me, our hair will always always turn red, no matter what color we put on it, or who puts it on.

Finally, a few years ago, Mom gave up on the whole tangled web of dyeing, and now her hair looks great. Although she doesn’t want to hear it, she looks like a beautiful old woman. She does not think she is an old woman, and the wrinkles of 89 years are, I think, something she still thinks she can get rid of. She has a pair of tooled leather high heels that my dad bought for her in their wild youth, which she keeps because “I might want to wear these sometime.” Her various foot issues will never let that happen, but she doesn’t see it that way. In her head, she’s still that hot young woman that my dad loved. He died a year ago, and I know it’s a little harder for her to feel hot now. But she still does a pretty good job of it.

I always feel like I am in a place between my beautiful mom and my beautiful daughter, whether its their values or their dye jobs. I love my silver hair, and realize its much more suited to my wrinkling and fading features than a harsh dark color. I don’t want to hang on to superficial vanity til I’m in my 80s. I want to set aside the “mask” of fun and playfulness that is better suited to a young woman. In a world where all kinds of creams and things are purported to help me fool myself, I am basically a hard-assed person. I know I am old. It’s the transitioning that has me stumped for the moment.

Over our sushi dinner, my friend commented on a friend of hers who ‘went gray.’

“She just let the dye grow out, until she had a few inches of pure silver showing above her dyed color. Then, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she just cut off all the dyed hair! It was really short. But she looks great. She still wears it that way.” We shared a moment of silence over that image, our eyes widening in consternation. Then she added, sotto voce: “It made her look really old.”

Well, there you have it. That “looking really old” part. Mom didn’t deal with it til a few years ago, my daughter has a long way to go to even think about dye as an anti-age factor. Here I am, in the middle, trying to look “not old” while paying for the vanity sins of my last decade of dyeing hair.  I have already decided to Go Gray, though, because it is a heck of a lot of time and money to keep fooling myself with dye jobs. 

I'll just have to spend more time on physical and mental agility.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How to Face Certain Death 1001: 7

Nothing is certain but death and taxes, as they say. Or as Walter Breuning, the recent late Oldest Person in the World advised sometime before he died in Montana at 114 years of age: "We're going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you're born to die.”(6). Point taken. Or as a paraplegic friend, who died 4 years ago, said: “I know I will never get better. I’ll just get worse until I die.” Or as the Indian chief famously commented in the movie Little Big Man: “It’s a good day to die.”

So the subject today is: We’re All Going to Die. Not cheerful, but there you have it. I like to go to literature for some words of wisdom on this one, since it makes use of that nice degree I hold in English Literature. And one of my favorite books on facing death is Young Men and Fire, by Norman MacLean. It is a non-fiction account of the deaths of young men in a famous forest fire in Montana, in 1949. Some people call it a really boring tale. I don’t think it’s boring, but I think it’s dense. I’ve never read the entirety of Young Men and Fire. I keep trying, but it overwhelms me. MacLean’s storytelling style is unique. The message of his minute research into this incident lies, I believe, beneath the metaphor of the factual event he researches. I think the book is his search for the answer to facing death, as he reviews decisions and faults and factors in the death of the firefighters, in a meandering kind of way. A synopsis of the Mann Gulch fire can be found at:

MacLean notes in his book that it is an unnatural act to jump from the sky into flames, because both of those things can kill you. Jumping into this fire killed 13 of the 15 firefighters who jumped from a plane into the scene to fight it, back when the idea of firefighting was still new. MacLean was an observer of the Mann Gulch incident at the time it happened, and for the rest of his life researched the circumstances of the tragedy. It obsessed him. His book/ philosophizing introduced to me the idea of the Failed Hero as young men who face certain death, even when they know it is a lost cause. Like the defenders of the Alamo, or like WW2 kamikaze pilots (1). We romanticize Failed Heroes, because dying is a hard enough thing to do without having to know about it ahead of time. And then, alongside the idea of Failed Heroes who knowingly face death while trying to fight it, he mentions his wife. She was dying of cancer when he wrote the book. She knew her death was coming, a long way off but certain. Because he writes around and about all of these ideas, I see the story as his attempt to answer a question: how do we live when we know we are going to die? MacLean’s answer to the question is, in a way, more questions: How did the firefighters fight their way through their last minutes, with flames and fear and heat driving them? What kinds of decisions did they make? What were they thinking? How were they like his wife, dying at home in old age of cancer? What kinds of decisions and thoughts did she have? How were they like soldiers facing battle? How are they like us all, whatever the time or circumstance of our dying?

MacLean’s book is, to me, a story about fighting to live, until the last breath is taken from your body, when we know it’s a futile effort. Whether he writes about men who die in battle, men who die fighting the elements—and therefore in a sense God himself—or his wife struggling with terminal disease, he is I think researching how an individual faces death. Whether it’s sudden or slow, death is always certain. This is not a comforting book. It says to me that living is a horrible and doomed effort. But it also says, I think, that living is courageous. We all try to keep on living ‘til we die. I see his message as one of endurance to the end. I think his purpose in what some call a plodding story is, in his own words:

Excerpt from Young Men and Fire: "after the bodies had fallen, most of them had risen again, taken a few steps, and fallen again, this time like pilgrims in prayer, facing the top of the hill...The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky."

Dad faced certain death in WW2 as a Marine in the Central Pacific theater. He faced the possibility of it many times in his long life, and probably felt he had cheated Death a few times. He ultimately died in his home, after 89 years, 5 grown kids, 11 grandchildren, several great grandchildren, in the company of his life partner and his son, in full possession of his faculties, and attempting to take steps towards the door. He knew he was dying as he took them, but he took them anyway because someone asked him too, and really what else do you do with the last minutes of your life? He did what I guess he did with all the other minutes of his life: just kept putting one foot in front of another until his heart gave out and he fell down dead. That is a fighting spirit. We all know them. And they are us.

I’ll keep trying to finish the book.

1. For those of you younger than me, Japanese kamikaze pilots infamously flew suicide missions to sink enemy ships in WW2. Additionally, Requiem for Battleship Yamato is a Japanese seaman’s non-fictional first-hand account of a Japanese battleship’s suicide mission. It’s a detailed account of the battleship’s mission, but its also a story about the conflict between following orders for certain death, and questioning the orders.

3. Young Men and Fire:


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Grooming and Age 1001:6

I wrestled with the Exercise Devil this morning, after checking my email, Facebook, cell phone, and cats. All of those diversons except the cats entailed sitting down, and as we all know spending more than 50% of the day sitting down is an independent risk factor of heart attacks. (Didn’t know? Get wired, baby, it’s a breaking claim…) So I beat down the Devil, yet again, and prepared to walk.

I prepare for walks as quickly as possible, because I am easily distracted by the callings of a thousand small voices as I head towards a goal. This applies to all aspects of my life. I am random and abstract, and carry the torch for all of us who defy linear and concrete.  A little concrete is good.

I was distracted from my goal of leaving the house by the prerequisite act of dressing for 50 degree weather. The transition to above-freezing weather has been recent and my wardrobe is still in flux. It has been in flux for years. I rummaged around my tiny unkempt coat closet and found an ugly knit earband, which serves to keep my ears warm, and deflects the need to fix my hair by substituting a windblown and efficient look. I wrestled (love wrestling) with the urge to tuck my jammyshirt into the knit exercise pants I had slept in, thereby eliminating unnecessary other risk-taking excursions through the house for regular clothes that would look much better if I opted to get a coffee and do some more internet at the publicly public Bean Coffee House. This decision was worked out with the compromise to pull over the jammy shirt a crocheted brown vest, which I invented a few months ago sans pattern, and do not wear out into public, but which is nice and long and very warm. If it showed through my jacket, it would look like regular clothes.

The vest was lying in the basket where I keep potential crochet projects. The nice earwarmer I had started in crocheted ribbing a few months ago was also lying there and looking up at me, so I picked it up. It only needed another 20 rows to go to be a much nicer earwarmer than the one I was wearing, so I gave it a good 5 minutes before admitting I’d be longer finishing it than taking a walk in the ugly earwarmer.

I returned the fine but unfinished earwarmer to the basket, and as I turned to go opened the blinds covering one of the cats’ favorite viewing windows, which faces an active bird feeder and the unfriendly neighbors, both of which provide amusement for mes chattes. Completing my 360, my view fell upon my guitar, Betsy, who never complains and has a beautiful voice. I wanted to hold her and stroke her and sing just one song before I took off on my journey to the end of time and the known world. Twenty minutes later, I fished out my cleanest looking of 2 pairs of tennis shoes and put them on. At last, the door was before me and the dirty dishes behind me. Wait, teeth—I brushed them in case I got run over in the street. I don’t expect my underwear to get knocked off in the event of a pedestrian/car faux pas, but my teeth are out there.

Then I walked. I walked and walked and my soul was lifted and I avoided the coffee house and the whole ugly fashionista disasta thing. But the effort to not frighten the residents on the street led me to speculate on walker fashion.

A few days earlier on a walk, as I was skirting the edge of the business district on my way back home, I had walked up behind a woman. I ventured to categorize her a Little Old Lady as I approached, for two reasons. One, she was wearing a simple Gumball Pink carcoat which fell straight and solid from her short shoulders to mid-thigh, no fuss. I haven’t seen what I would classify ‘carcoats’ for a long long while, and the general cut is not current fashion, although I consider it classic. “Classic” means “as old as me but still highly functional.” She looked comfortably warm as she walked slowly but steadily down the walk ahead of me.

My second reason for categorizing the woman Little Old Lady was that her thinning, short gray hair, no traces of a vanity dye job marring it, had a bald patch dead center back. I dread someday developing a bald spot. We define good grooming and sex appeal by hair, although of course sexuality is a conglomerate of health, vigor, and disposable income as well as hair. At least men who lose their hair can claim a testosterone overload, since hair loss is associated with testosterone rather than estrogen. Or, so it was strongly suggested in the TV series starring a bald Telly Savalas as Kojak.

I passed my new Best Distracting Thought on the right, and said gently towards her ear, “Nice day for a walk, huh?” to avoid frightening her as my younger, longer legs overtook her. She jumped only a little, and responded with a strong--nay resounding-- “Yes it is.” And as I passed her, I loved her for her Gumball Pink carcoat, her honest bald spot, and her strong voice. She goes on my list of Future Me Models.

Today, overcoming the Devil on numerous levels and being a creature of habit, I was walking along the same stretch of homeward-bound sidewalk. I heard the whisper of footsteps behind me, and felt a rush of wind on my right. A woman who looked about 15 years younger than me was jogging by, and didn’t give up so much as a glance. She looked serious. She had on a nice French Blue stretch exercise jacket, no cuffs, straight and uncomplicated to her hip. She wore black knit jogging pants, a black knit cap with hair neatly tucked under, and clean white tennis shoes with, I thought, a patch of French Blue in their design. I noted that she was pear-shaped, with a butt too big for her knit pants. 

Being personally given to signs and symbols and interpretation, I was struck with a sense of the Random Abstract Universe in this incident. Just a few days earlier, there I was condescending about a Little Old Lady on the hoof.  Then voila a few days later I get passed on the same right side, at the same place, by a younger woman in the height of jogger fashion, who undoubtedly noted my Molson Muscle and my ageing sweatsuit hoodie. Whoa.  But these are the kinds of visions I have; I don't get the dream-picture kind. My signal moments are all a waking snapshot, with patterns ringing bells in a continuous non-verbal loop. My belief is that visions are available to all of us if we care to see them. I care.

I cannot say in words what the vision meant. I followed and passed an older woman, noting especially her hair and coat. A few days later, a younger woman passed me, and I noted her hair and coat. I often feel sandwiched in time and thought between my mother and my daughter: somewhere in the middle, observing the coming and going of womanhood and life. It is not a bad thing, nor a good thing. It just is. 

I expect to meet me on the street anyday now. Its random and abstract, and I love it dearly.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Practical Ageing Experience in the Young 1001:5

In the 50’s, both the Cold War and my Education were in the making. And the Cold War, I feel sure, contributed to my learning of How to Grow Old, in a small way.

Until I was in Third Grade, I didn’t know I was near-sighted. I thought the world looked fuzzy to everybody. Then Mrs. Spitz, my Third Grade teacher who was not particularly nice, told my Mom that since I couldn’t see the blackboard, I should get my eyes checked. I did and got my very first pair of ice-blue-frame glasses, which the optometrist assured me matched my blue eyes and which traumatized me for eyeglass fashion ever after.

However that may be, having glasses made me aware that without glasses, life was unclear and slightly dangerous. Now that I had found them, how would I find my way in the world without them? At around the same time, or maybe before or after, it became popular for optimistic people with the means and with over-worked imagination to build bomb shelters. The bomb shelters were the survival ace-in-the-hole over Communists planning to wipe-Americans off the planet, stealing our idea from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. According to news articles and my brother, a good deep basement that was sealed off with its own air circulation, a pantry full of canned goods, and we’d last until the radiation thinned down enough for him to send me out and test breathe the air. This was the same brother who told me that the cat digging in the sandbox was trying to get to China, and I believed him then, too.

The bomb shelters back in my youth were not so different from the duct-taped air-tight rooms recommended shortly after the attack on the Trade Towers on 9/11, to have "safe rooms" which the impending nerve gas follow-up attacks would surely require. Neither of these defense plans were realistically effective to meet the challenges set forth for them, it has since been determined. In the 60’s, I remember getting to visit one of the shelters that a distant relative had built. It was like a smallish basement, set off on one side of his property, and pretty unimpressive. He never got to try it out, but he kept lots of bottled water in it in case. He was not very nice, either, and wouldn't let kids play in it.

We did, however, practice tornado drills at school to stymie The Bomb. In our grades 1-8 gradeschool, we ducked under our desks with enthusiasm and sincerity for tornado drills, and the teachers requisitioned this same move to drill for bombs.  However, we mere students couldn't really see how this would save us from The Bomb, and mentioned it to our intellectual superiors.  Our teachers put their heads together and came up with the comforting untruth that the desks would save us from falling debris from the aftershock of a nuclear attack, and we were too far from any likely strike epicenters to catch the radiation, anyway. We bought it.   Life was so easy then.

Even with Mrs. Spitz and Co.'s insincere comforting lies, I felt that more was needed in case The Worst happened.  Without my eyeglasses, I was on the absolute Bottom Rung of Darwins Survival of the Fittest ladder.  How could I hope to find my way home by the North Star, much less scavenge for food or shelter, with my handicapped vision?  Surely, I would be one of the first to succumb to the complete devastation of my environment. Since my family had neither means nor imagination, we had no bomb shelter. Mom and Dad wouldn't even consider it. Apparently, I realized with a sinking heart, they had no sense of imminent disaster. It was up to me to save myself.

So I trained myself to see in the dark. I became adept at counting steps to and from important places, like the bathroom.  I used my feet in the yard at night, to identify my path in the dark. God forbid my feet found a stick, because if it was a snake I would never be able to tell.  I would just have to assume the worst, and act accordingly, I resolved.  I learned to navigate the cupboards by touch, eyes closed.  At the same time, I was influenced by reading some highly simplified tracts on life in Ancient Greece/ Sparta, and developed a passion for living like a Spartan.  Those of you who have seen the movie, The 300, will know whereof I speak when I say that Spartans were trained to survive physical ordeals and deprivation.  What better way to survive Armagedon than living by my highly trained senses and with only minimal requirements? I had a plan, and plans make us feel like we have control.  Life went on.

Decades later, I found Lasik eye surgery, and couldn't believe my luck. Finally, a way to beat my Darwinian handicap!  I had the surgery, and indeed for a decade I was free, free! I could handle any kind of invasion, subterfuge, wilderness survival trek with just me and my wits; the vision would carry me home, and no one could take it away from me!

Alas.  Just like misplaced blind trust in my brother, there was a catch in the plan. Lasik surgery did not over-rule the natural ageing process of vision.  I lost my distance vision, then my middle vision, over the course of a few years.  Right now, I'm about back to 3rd grade level.  But the old training has stayed with me.  I can still feel my way around the kitchen, the neighborhood sidewalks of my little burg, the knobs and dials on the radio, count the steps up and down to my abode's ins and outs. I Will Survive, thanks to my long-ago training.  Old Age is in fact a more worthy opponent than the Commies, any day.

As a bonus, I have learned to not take too seriously national threats, and have gained a lot more insight into eyeglass fashion.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Windows and Gumballs 1001:4

Walking is good.  It expands my universe, and gives me things to think about.  Exercise, fresh air, checking out the neighborhood.  Collecting signs.  Looking in windows.

One of the things I think about as I walk is other people's homes.  I look in windows of the houses I pass while I'm walking in my friendly little town, but only at night when the lights are on and the interior is clearly visible.  It doesn't count as voyuerism if the curtains are open, the lights are on, and I can see from the sidewalk while moving at a normal pace. I'm sure this is not an invasion of private space because I visited Boston a few times in my youth.  In my friend's apartment, there was a big bay window in the dining area, which faced across a 4 foot distance to the apartment building next door. In the apartment building next door, there was a big bay window in their dining area, which faced ours.  No curtains were put up by either tenant, and during the course of the day we could observe each other continually.  No one undressed while I was there.  It was an interesting kind of living space for someone like me, who grew up a few fields' length away from other houses. In farming communities, it would be a lot more like voyeurism to check out lighted rooms, because no way could it be construed casual to leave the road, hike up a lane, and peer in a window. 

I've moved around different states a lot, and have sociological theories about each place I've lived.  Ever since Boston I've believed that, wherever the locale, curtainless windows left open to the view of any passersby give tacit consent to observation.  Plus it is very cozy to walk along at night and check out the variety of interior deocration.  Dark colors are popular here on walls, now.   Usually in these front well-lighted rooms, there aren't any people.  Once in a while, you'll see a family finishing up a meal or sitting around reading, or having visitors.  Mostly, its a friendly shared space, which I find comforting.  If someone was self-conscious about strangers passing by and looking in, I feel sure they would close their curtains. I know I do.

When walking in the daytime, however, its not really possible to take in the warm glow of someone else's living room, so I occupy myself with other thoughts.  After a while, walking becomes an almost automatic function; your body takes over a designated pace, and the verbal part of the brain has opportunity to roam the landscape.  Almost always when I'm walking I find interesting natural artifacts.  A nice rock, a wasp's nest, interesting sticks or weeds or bird's nests. 

The other day I walked by a gumball tree, whose fallen gumballs had survived the winter in good form.  They were scattered on the ground and I collected a handful. I love gumballs.  Some people think they are messy trees, because they drop the spiny little round balls.  I think they're wonderful.  They are excellent firestarters, with nice popping and sparking effects.  At Fort Du Chartres (a historical French fort in the southern part of Illinois) I saw them raked up in mounds around the trees in the fort, and used as mulch.  Very nice looking mulch, too.  And gumballs look pretty as wreaths, or strung as natural dried decoration.  I brought my handful home with me, to look at for a while.  Maybe I'll draw a picture of them, or add them to mulch around a favorite indoor or outdoor plant

My mom used to collect trash from the ditches when she walked along the roads near our home farm.  She liked to walk down the road because it was usually free of snakes, and for good fast solid walking it beat climbing over sticks, muddy ruts, corn stubble, and such.  But she needed some occupation while walking, and because its a long lonely stretch of road, lots of people used to toss their bottles and cans and sometimes other things out their windows as they breezed through without benefit of any traffic controls.  Mom did a really good job for several years of picking up cans and bottles, and taking them to the recycle for refunds.  It made her happy to clean up AND make a few bucks.

Of course I could go on and on about my other walking side-lines: the trash-picker fun on trash day, the ideas I get for paintings as the seasons change, the woman I've seen walking in my neighborhood almost every day for 8 years, and other interesting things.  But I have 996 stories left to go, so I'll save those for another day. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Joy: You are What You Do And if You Don't Then You Ain't. 1001:3

I shuffled up my Tarot deck the other day, with a general question--what is my current situation?—and turned up three cards from the bottom of the deck: The Fool, the Two of Swords, and a reversed 3 of Cups. I meditated on the meanings as they apply to my life. (Tarot is Jungian. A terrific site: use the Morgan-Greer Deck because I like the pictures.)

The Fool's card is a symbol of the beginning of something. He represents Joy in discovery, starting a Journey, Beginnings, Hope. He doesn't know all the bad things that can happen on his journey, because he's only beginning. The suit of Swords represents intellect. The Two of Swords, with a blindfolded woman holding two crossed swords before her, tells me I am blocking some knowledge, that there is or has been recently some knowledge I don’t want to face. The suits of Cups represents emotions. The 3 of Cups is an image of joy, self-indulgence, community, friends. Its reversed meaning is that the energy it represents is low in my life, and needs a shot in the arm.

My personal Tarot story of the day, then, reads that my Fool energy has been blocked by intellectual denial, and the solution is to get out and indulge myself a bit. It fits. I am a logical and intellectual thinker, and tend to leave emotions behind when dealing with problems. I need to stoke some emotional fires, get out with friends, get a manicure today.

Meantime, I will noodle with intellectually analyzing Joy.

Yoga stretches this morning were a hit of Joy: the happiness of rising early (early for me, that is), waking muscles, and facing the sunrise while two cats try to share the yoga mat. I am by no means an early riser, since way back in my misspent youth on a dirt farm. Back then, I’d wake up with the sun coming in the window (note on the sun: this was southern Illinois, not southeast Michigan) and just naturally roll out of bed to go outside. The whole world was calling, and there was nothing between me and it. Nothing like: near neighbors, TV, internet, schedules, obligations. I always knew that there was something out there waiting for me. The Thing Waiting might have been a snake in the yard. Or one of the dogs waiting with wagging tail. Or deer in the field, or a jet flying overhead. Lots of things that made me happy.

With passing years, different expectations of Joy were shaped by the expanding universe. A biological drive for Home and Family required the acquisition of joy-boggling traits, like competitive sexuality, Keeping Up with Neighbors, Searching the Jigsaw of Life for my puzzle piece, etc. I’m sure many people face these things with joy and confidence, but it created a long-term panic in me which has only recently begun to settle. I reflect back on my paternal grandmother, who spent half of her life in a psychiatric institution between the 30's and 50's; back then, women with depression had the best scenario option of being put in such a place.  Grandma Callie had 7 boys in a row, and lost 2 before the oldest was 11.  I commemorate Callie by acknowledging that some of my panic could be inherited. Fertility can be a burden (Disclaimer: fertility was never a burden to me, kids). 

Fortunately, one of the skills honed with ageing is a type of joy called Living in the Moment. I’ve outlived a lot of people I’ve known, but doubt that I will top out the longevity herd in my age group. Recognizing that every dawn means one less of my numbered days leads to appreciating what is in front of me. It’s not a bad or scary feeling. It’s pragmatic and comforting, really. I claim what is in my possession, and don’t reach so far for what is not.

My mom is a good example of LIM joy. Ever since memory began, at least for me, Mom has been a consumer of chocolate. An avid and single-minded consumer of chocolate. Any kind of chocolate. She actually used to hide various manifestations of chocolate where none of her five kids could find it, which is a nefarious breach of trust between mother and child.  But sometimes when we were slaving away, putting away dishes, we’d find her stash, and she’d share—with finders, only. At 89, her chocolate drive hasn’t diminished one whit. Her favorite saying: I’m going to eat my dessert first, because I might not make it through the meal. And she does eat it first. And it’s chocolate. Just watch this tiny matriarch load her plate at Reid’s Best Western Buffet dessert bar: brownies, chocolate ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, pie, chocolate pudding can all fit on one plate, as she has demonstrated time after time. I can only hope I inherited her sugar-and-calorie-tolerance. Thus she casts to the wind all of our childhood training to eat dinner and THEN we could have dessert. She does this without any concerns about hypocrisy, the effect on her children of her whimsical philosophy reversals, or her general blood sugar level. She has no guilt, knowing that if she drops on the spot, she had her fun first, the rest of us be damned.

I try to be like her.

Ah, the many faces of Joy. Joys I Have Been Intimate With: many small things. Not to forget the Joy of Noodling. I have been a lifetime Noodler, capable of wandering from task to distraction to loss of purpose in a heartbeat, in most any setting. And forget not the Joy of Buying Pretty Things. I harsh this joy a lot these days, in lieu of Taking Up the Cross of Non Acquisition. BPT is a borderline addiction kind of joy, like staying at the bar for more than two modestly sized beers. And pulling winter debris from the garden to find the miracle of tiny little green things that survived the death of winter—whether bulbs or weeds—is certainly a Joy.  Watching my 2 1/2 month granddaughter work through gas is a joy. Shes in great working order.

My response to my Tarot reading will encompass my known Joy resources, and some not yet known. The nice thing about my meditation is that it made me aware of noticing the Joy, that is everywhere and in me. I'm noodling with that right now.

Note:  the title "You are What You Do and if You Don't Then You Ain't" is from Paulette Carlson, classic country western diva.  I can't find that song on Youtube, but here's another one of her great classic country hits, with the group Highway 101:  Honestly, I think she influenced Sheryl Crow in her gin-soaked numbers.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On Spring and Tulips 1001:2

Gardening is in my DNA. I love digging in the dirt. Love to plant, weed, harvest. But for some reason, I don’t like to plant in the fall. I have never had good luck with spring flowers because of this. No tulips, daffodils, alium, or for me, unless they were planted by previous inhabitants and survived my neglect in separating the overgrown bulbs.

Last fall I tried again to overcome my block. I wrestled with my conscience over the beautiful bright red tulip bulbs calling to me at Home Depot. I lusted after the alium bulbs, which are my idea of a hot statement in the yard. I gave in and bought them, knowing in my heart they were probably doomed.

I brought them home and laid them in their final resting place—still in their plastic netting bag—in my front yard. And I left them there. Through a month of potential planting season, they lay. Squirrels evidently couldn’t breach the plastic netting, which is a good thing to know.

Through the first freezes, they still lay there, like an accusing body of evidence. Still, I kept walking by like a heartless lout, saying “I can do that tomorrow.” Ha. The snow fell, the bulbs were buried. Relief! I didn’t have to look at their sad little accusing bulby forms, huddled together. Snow and snow and snow happened.  Winter came and stayed and did the winter thing: bury life.

Then, a few weeks ago, the snow finally went away, exposing the yard once more. And sure enough, the bulbs had not spontaneously planted themselves. The squirrels had not breached their netting. And God in heaven send me a sign, there were shoots coming out of them, and roots. Could this be????
Feeling like I had a second chance, I finally did The Right Thing. I got my shovel and dug up a nice soft place and planted the bulbs. I put just a little dirt on top of them, not to discourage their new relationship with the sun. I figure any bulbs that refuse to lay down and die over an above-ground winter will have extreme hardiness, and superb will to live. The kind of garden that will speak to me every time I look at it and remember its beginning.

There is a line in the movie Jurassic Park that I love to quote: Life will find a way.” Jeff Goldblum’s scientific character is making this solemn pronouncement about the sterile dinosaur community, which has been carefully vetted of male chromosomes so there will be no reproduction, and the dangerous dinosaur population can be controlled. However, as fans know, life did find a way, and they did reproduce, and it was a great movie all around.

The line fits the determined pack of Home Depot red tulip bulbs, too. Their life is inspiringly tenacious.  Maybe they were too dumb to die, maybe they'd never heard of the specific instructions planted on their little bag.  Maybe they were too full of life to quit.  Maybe they had been lucky to be raised in a good home, or had Super DNA.  Whatever "force that drives the green fuse", as Dylan Thomas wrote, they have it in buckets.  Bless their little tough hearts.

If they survive where I planted them, these bulbs will add their special meaning to my yard and garden memories. Scattered around my small portion of the earth are starts of my mom’s red peonies, my grandmother’s yellow irises, thriving white hyacinths from a friend (given in a pot, and planted in spring. Not fall.), a pussy willow tree which I have kept starts from since my son was born 33 years ago.  Many more memories live with me in my garden. When the garden comes to life in spring and summer, my heart comes alive in many ways. All gardeners know this, of course. That’s what gardeners grow: love.  We witness the will to live every spring, when "April is the cruelest month" coming after the death of winter, and small things awaken from the dead to face the hard work of living again--and the garden does, it does.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

On Being Alone and Old: Part 1 of 1,001

I live alone. A lot of people do. The I have recently adapted Scherhezade as a new archetype. To do her justice, I need to tell a story a day, for 1001 days, to inspire and encourage and entertain, even. Up front, I doubt I’ll manage it as well as she did—her life was on the line, it’s just my emotional expression on the line, etc.—but its an interesting hobby. So here goes:

The world is not full of Leave It To Beaver families, as has been irrevocably determined years after the iconic family sitcom left the airways. Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke, among other TV couples back in the day, did Baby Boomers a great disservice by projecting the ideal of plastic-coated-Teflon relationships: Mom, Dad, kids, Grandparent optional = Happy. Personally, if my relationships aren’t nicely creased and carefully hung, I get upset. It’s a hard idyll to shake.

Growing old alone can devolve into a pity party, though, if I stick with the common wisdom. Heck, if I stick to my Mom’s wisdom, I’d hang myself. She has noted piously many times over the years that she has “lived with one man my whole life” and therefore in unspoken parlay: why aren’t you living up to MY standards? I was slow on the response to that subtle criticism, but decades later have come up with some comebacks. Hey, look at your sister, her first husband died, her third one died, and she divorced the second one. Since her sisters are next to God--they are all related--this sometimes mellows my mom out to a less nettlesome attack on my singlehood.

But she has another approach, too: why can’t you get along with anyone? I have really bit my tongue on this one, because I’m convinced after many years of growing up, leaving the nest, and observing from as great a distance as possible my siblings, that Mom would not like my answer on this one. It’s too close to home for her tastes.

Sure, if I fall down the steps no one but my two cats will notice until I decompose, and the cats will be worried about their morning treats for quite some time if that happens. Sure, I spend way too much time with my friend, the Internet. And sure, I waver between avoiding the home premises and spending 24/7 on the home premises with the door locked. And well, that little thing about someone to snuggle with at night is always in the back of my mind. But surely Andy Griffith managed, and the dad in My Three Sons, and the divorced mom in One Day at a Time. There IS a long and distinguished TV sitcom history of Teflon-coated single parents to fall back on. Not a lot of single divorced older women that I can recall, but I’m going to research that.

On the other hand. Living alone has its benefits. I try to count them frequently.

1. I can have two cats.

2. I can paint my living room turquoise and put a 50’s retro-green secondhand leather sofa in it, no objections.

3. I can invite a variety of bed warmers to audition. (Don’t look, Mom)

4. I can eat healthy all the time and no one complains.

5. I can eat unhealthy all the time and no one complains.

6. I don’t have to get dressed or brush my teeth till I go back to bed.

7. I can tell the Church of Baby Boomer Teflon Icons to go to hell, and adapt my own archetypes. Hard to shake, but I do have Mythology, Jung, and a huge pool of literature to draw on. Goodbye, MTM, Hello, Artemis with Arrows.

8. It doesn’t matter if I’m losing my vision and can’t tell if the bathroom floor is clean, because who is gonna look?

Some of this list is not up to my usual thoughtful and serious self. However, a sense of humor is important when your next trip up or down the steps might be your last. If I can’t poke fun at my Mom, who’s left? I’m sure sometime I’ll be posting a very serious look at ageing alone, if only to bolster the courage of all my friends who are ageing alone. One of my friends made me swear I’d share a room at the YMCA when we were both old and homeless, but he reneged. After a very short courtship, he took the ticket out of Old and Alone Land by getting engaged. I don’t’ fault him, although I don’t envy him at all. I’ve chucked the childhood dream I had of courtship, engagement, and HappyEverAfter. A quick catch would give me indigestion, since I’ve nibbled my own cooking for a long time.

So, embrace the independence. I’ll go get a new microwave and install it back where the old one just conked out. I’ll go plant the tulips that stayed in their bag above ground all winter, and just MIGHT still grow if I bury them.  I'll walk down to the friendly local coffeehouse with my laptop, and enjoy the company of other people who seek herd situations. I’ll wander over to the City and pay my water bill and look up last years property tax so my trusty tax guy can get me tucked in metaphorically speaking before April 15th. No, I’m not retired, I just have plenty of time to do Whats Right. Logically, this means that my life should be in great order. Well, maybe its getting there, One Day at a Time.

They never had cats in those LITB sitcoms, either.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Stories and Dreams

Heres the story on one of the things I love best in the world: Story.

I love stories. I read like an addict.  I tell stories and I listen to them. If I were standing next to you now, I'd be learning your story.  Maybe you would tell me that you went to the store this morning.  Maybe that your Mom died last night. That you were sad. Because.

Stories are dreams in verbal context.   Stories and dreams form our reality.  There are three kinds of stories in our life: the stories we learn for future use, the stories we are living now, and the stories we leave behind, or tell.

There are 7 (or 9 or 11 or 13, depending on who is telling the story) original stories in the world. They are archetypes, original patterns for how to be human. They are known everywhere, throughout human history.  For example, Romeo and Juliet is the same as Psyche and Cupid, which is the same as Titanic, which is Tristan and Isolde, which is West Side Story, and so on. Holy books, like the Bible, are full of stories to teach good/bad, useful/ harmful,  holy /evil, right/ wrong. Most stories are about Heroes, who encourage us to do more than we think we can.

When I was a kid, my father told us stories about his life. Now, I tell my kids stories. I memorialize them, and encourage them: this has happened before, and it was survived. This is something to look forward to for yourself. This is something to beware of. Stories are big scale, or as small as the neighbor and a local event. They are truth as we know it, or truth as we dream it. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien is an awesome story of death and memory, and what story is for. His book Going after Cacciato is one long dream, that might be reality..

To keep our spirits up, we adopt stories. Lately I've had a couple stories in my head that keep coming back, so they must have something to say to me. As a lover of mythology and Jung, I try to decode them.  One is Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. The other is The Light Princess by George MacDonald.
How ‘bout that GTTW? The Civil War and a tough broad.

GTTW is one of those 7/9/11/13 stories. It's the told-and-told-again story of someone who survives constant losses. At the end, she has lost just about everything she can lose. Except her health, which Heroes need to hang on to in order to be Heroes.  To be a hero, it is not a pre-requisite that one must be a nice person. The criteria is: "survive, in order to encourage your closely (or loosely) related DNA to keep heading towards certain death". King Ulysses, e.g., survived 20 yrs of the Trojan War /wandering around on side adventures, before getting back to Ithaca, wife, son, and ostensibly a wiser kingliness. I don't think Penelope thought too highly of his husbandly qualities, but he wowed Ithaca.

Like GTTW, The Light Princess is a story about losing something. She, and the story’s obligatory Prince, lose themselves to find themselves. Here’s the heart of it: The solution to the dilemma [of the princess] in [the story] is death. But in the strange juxtaposition of things in MacDonald's fairy tales, to be dead is to be truly alive. And the dreamlike vision of life presented to us through his fantasy is a reflection of that eternal reality. For, to paraphrase MacDonald's favorite quote from Novalis; life is, or should be, a dream of a greater reality. 

I’ve loved these two different stories for years. But they are on my mind now for their endings. Scarlett loses something, once again,something that she felt was real and not a "dream." Will she continue to do battle, and rise again? We don’t know, because her story ends for us. We hope she kicks butt, as always, and gets Rhett to see the light. But when her story ends, we keep her in our heart, and imagine that she will, forever and ever, continue to do battle and win. So will the Man from La Mancha. The Light Princess, having faced a great loss and "died" in a sense, will as compensation forever after have her gravity--and her prince. Jesus will forever have accepted the inevitability of  his death, and inspire us all to do the same.. So will Billy Budd.  Gilgamesh.  Bambi. 

But if your story ends, you need another. As I get older--hopefully older still for awhile--my stories change along with my outlook.  Maybe like Scarlett, I finally see what is real and valuable. Maybe like the Light Princess, I recognize loss as an ultimate gain.  As an old woman, my plots and characters are shifting.

What to do when your story ends?  Find another.
So if love and passion and adventure are not in my plotline, what to do?

Ah, Scheherazade. 

1. Scherherzade

2. MacDonald, George.  The Light Princess.

3. Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. gone+with+the+wind&ei=UTF-8&fr=hp-pvdt