Sunday, December 29, 2019

HOLY INNOCENTS

Every year at Christmastime, I recall what we remember as the worst Christmas ever.  It began with one of our older children shouting into the intercom, "Clare is throwing up in her crib," and went downhill from there. We opened our Christmas presents worrying about a repeat performance.  My husband opened his gift from my parents, a thoughtful collection of sausages and cheese, turned green, and said he would enjoy them later.  As the day went by, one by one, the rest of the family repaired to their beds or the bathroom until only our oldest daughter and I were able to eat the lavish feast, and soon after that we were also down for the count.
Over the next couple of days, family members gradually recovered except for Catherine, the 5 year old, who continued to complain about stomach pain. That night, she was so much worse that my husband and I took shifts staying up with her. He told me that he was going to lay her down on the sofa and pull on some clothes and would then take her to the Emergency Room. But when he came back out, she had finally fallen asleep, so we were able to catch a few hours of rest. 
In the morning, she seemed worse so my husband took her up to the pediatrician while I held down the fort at home.  He called to say that her white blood cell count was up and the doctor directed him to walk her across the parking lot to the hospital to admit her. When I got there, I learned that the pediatric surgeon was on Christmas vacation and the head trauma surgeon was treating her.  He thought it might be appendicitis although he told us that 5 was a little young for that, but he recommended surgery in any case.  We told him to go ahead and he said it would probably take about half an hour.  We sat in the waiting room, and the half hour turned to an hour and then an hour and a half.  Finally, the pediatrician came into the waiting room, shaking his head. He must have seen that our faces blanched, because he came over to us and told us that he was shaking his head because he had never seen a case like that in 35 years of practice.  He explained that what Catherine had was an omphalo-mesenteric duct cyst that had ruptured, probably Christmas day, when she was vomiting, and that had resulted in a terrible case of peritonitis. He told us that the omphalo-mesenteric duct connects the yolk sac to the unborn baby's intestines, through the umbilical cord. The duct normally disappears as the placenta replaces the yolk sac, but in Catherine's case it never did. The surgeon removed the remnants of the duct as well as her appendix and told us she was on three different antibiotics, had a nasogastric tube and was also in an oxygen tent because she had bronchitis.  He said the next 24 hours would tell.  I thought he meant how quickly she would recover, but my husband understood correctly that he meant whether she would make it.  She was moved to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and I stayed overnight, while my husband went home to relieve my parents, who were watching the other children.  I was shown to a room nearby with a sofa where I could catch a few hours of sleep but also check on her whenever I was awake.  I fell asleep quickly once Catherine was settled and apparently asleep or still under the effects of the anesthesia.  I woke up about 2 in the morning and went in to  her room.  She looked up at me and moved her hand toward her face. I was afraid she was going to try to pull the nasogastric tube out (after all, this was the child who was getting a shot at 18 months and pulled the needle out of her thigh so quickly the nurse couldn't stop her; she said that had never happened to her before). Instead, she blew me a kiss, and I remember thinking then that she was going to be all right. We realized the next day that Catherine had had her surgery on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children whom Herod ordered killed in an attempt to destroy the newborn "king of the Jews" whom the Magi were seeking.  We have always been grateful to those young saints for their intercession for our young daughter.
Catherine was in the hospital for a week, and learned to read while I read one Boxcar Children book after another to her to keep her occupied.  The only problem with the books was that they were very detailed about the food that the Boxcar Children were having, and at first Catherine couldn't eat anything, and eventually progressed to broth and jello, which was a far cry from the hot dog that Benny, the youngest of the Boxcar Children, had in one of his famous adventures. At one point, he slipped and nearly fell down a steep mountain, but his grandfather grabbed him just in time.  He told Benny that he needed to think very seriously about what to do with his life since he nearly lost it.  And I used that as an opportunity to impress upon Catherine the same lesson. She had nearly died, but her life had been saved by the truly kind trauma surgeon and the prayers of so many of our family and friends who came to the hospital, called or sent cards. She needed to think seriously about what God was eventually asking her to do with her life. Yesterday, as I was playing Michael Haydn's "Anima Nostra," written for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, for Catherine, I was feeling very thankful that she is now a wife and mother of three young children, whom she and her husband are working to teach, "Your ears shall hear a word behind you: 'This is the way; walk in it.' "

Sunday, December 22, 2019

CHALLENGES AT CHRISTMAS

This year, for the first time since I was a child, I have actually been looking forward to Christmas, trying to make Advent a time of spiritual preparation as well as getting ready for the arrival of 37 people at my home on Christmas Day for dinner. They won't all just descend on Christmas.  Two of my daughters, their husbands, and their 7 children arrive tomorrow.  Catherine and her family are scheduled to touch down from Canada at 6 PM tomorrow.  Unfortunately rain is also scheduled. To make matters more complex, the furnace in the part of the house where my office is, and where Elizabeth and her husband will be staying had an induction assembly go bad on Friday, and when the furnace specialist diagnosed it, he didn't have the parts, so it will be arriving tomorrow at noon, and then his company will schedule his arrival at my home, possibly about the time I need to leave for the pickup at the airport.  I have Mary, my second daughter, and a friend of my son's on standby to make the airport run or be here to let the repairman in depending on how he wants to be paid.  These sorts of indecisive arrangements leave me feeling nervous and EXTREMELY stressed. In the meantime, I'm operating in my office with space heaters, exercise, and leaving for the warmer side of the house when I get too cold.  Now I know we live in Southern California, but in the mornings it has been as low as 36 degrees, so I frequently keep a jacket or coat on while I'm working on the arctic side of the house.
Because we will need the dining room table with both leaves, as well as the kitchen table with table extenders, we have had to set up the Dickens Village, which was my husband's on the L-shaped counter in my office.  There is a faucet in the middle, so I turned off the water and put a plant in front of it, except we found the next day that a bit of water was still seeping out.  After 5 or 6 attempts at tightening the valves, the water was finally completely shut off, and today Mary came to set up the Dickens Village, which looks quite nice except that it took up the spot where the second space heater was keeping me a little warmer.
My daughter Elizabeth and her family will be coming in late tomorrow night (they are mostly night owls) and since they are coming from LA, driving down at night lessens the chance that they will be stuck in the usual traffic situations that are so abundant here.
I will be playing three solos at Midnight Mass. I open the caroling with 2 verses of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," followed by the choir entering for the rest.  At Communion, I'll be playing "The First Noel," and after the final triumphant sounds of "Joy to the World" at the end of Mass, I will follow with "In Dulci Jubilo" to usher everyone out. For the first time, I will be miked and standing, so I have to remember to practice these pieces standing as it is a bit more strenuous than playing seated . A number of the family members will be filling up a pew or two next to the choir, and it's possible that my brother-in-law and his family will also be there if they are not too jet-lagged from their flight from the East Coast.  
For Christmas dinner, Mary will be coming with her family from half an hour away, and when we are putting the final touches on the turkey and the brisket and the ham and all the side dishes, Elizabeth will take her turn at the airport run and pick up Theresa and her family, including the two youngest girls (who are 2 and 7 months) whom I haven't met yet and bring them home to fill in some spaces at the two tables.  There will also be the current and former boyfriends of my niece.  The former is still good friends with my niece, and since his mother joined a contemplative convent, he doesn't have a family to join at Christmas, so we are welcoming him here again (he was a delightful member of our table of 20 at Thanksgiving).  We sang an appropriate recessional at Mass today, "People, Look East," which advises, "The time is near Of the crowning of the year. Make your house fair as you are able, Trim the hearth and set the table. People, look east and sing today. Love, the guest, is on His way."  My friend and business partner, who runs a guest house on her property, also helped me get ready, buying new pillows and fluffy blankets, and loaning me her extensive sets of dishes and cutlery and even her oriental rug for the family room so the grandchildren would have a warm place to play.  Love, the guest, is on his way, both as the child born in Bethlehem, and in the presence of so much of our family gathering together in thankfulness for all we share.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

SILENT WITNESSES

When I had only half as many children as I do now (3 as opposed to 6), and we had moved from Northern to Southern California, I would try to get to Mass on our feast days, although it was often a challenge with three daughters who were 8, 5, and 2. I have no specific memory of most of those Masses, but on January 4, which is the feast of St. Elizabeth Seton, my oldest daughter's patron saint, our pastor gave a homily that I have never forgotten.  
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was a member of a prominent Episcopalian family in New York City, who married businessman William Seton. He had been sent for his health to Italy, and was quarantined and later died there, leaving Elizabeth a widow with five children. The Felicchi family, who were their friends in Italy, took them in while they were waiting to be able to return to America, and Elizabeth frequently went to church with them.  Our pastor pointed out that the Felicchis did nothing extraordinary; they simply lived their Catholic faith and sheltered the Setons in their loving home. But their example was so powerful that after Elizabeth returned to New York City, she converted to Catholicism and was then ostracized by those who had been her friends.  
Eventually she was offered a teaching position at St. Mary's College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she founded the first order of nuns in the United States, as well as orphanages and hospitals and began the parochial school system in this country.  
As I sat in the pew listening to this brief homily, I felt immeasurably encouraged.
I was a mother and homemaker, working with my husband to raise a good Catholic family, and the thought of that other Catholic family in Italy whose goodness so impressed Elizabeth Seton that the whole course of her life changed, as well as the early history of the Church in the United States, made me realize that what seemed like a humble domestic life could be a beacon for others searching for love and truth.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

LESSONS AND CAROLS

"Lessons and Carols" is the name of the concert our church has given for about 40 years, recently on the Second Sunday of Advent. At one time, it was connected to the hanging of the greens, when great swags of greenery and red bows are hung all about the church and evergreen trees are brought in although not decorated yet.  We have the choir from another church, a brass quintet and many other instruments, and the hymns are interspersed with readings from Scripture having to do with salvation history from creation to the birth of Jesus.
We started learning the new music months ago, and as we approached the concert date, we increased the rehearsals until the dress rehearsal with the instruments, which was yesterday.
When we first started learning some of the new hymns, I was resistant as I often am to new music, but as we improved and could hear the beauty of the music,
I began to appreciate them, and a version of "See, Amid the Winter's Snow," with rolling cymbals and a Mark tree, which sounds like celestial wind chimes, was intoxicatingly ethereal.
However, the dress rehearsal triggered all my old fears about playing in a concert with professionals, and partly as a result, I suspect, I did not play well. Every wrong note seemed magnified, and when one of the brass players (whom I have known for several years) asked me which part I was playing in "Joy to the World," I told her I was  playing from the choral score, and what I felt like telling her was that I would play any note I thought I could hit, because I haven't yet transposed that piece.  
When I went home, I wondered if I should just quit, went into a grand funk, and remembered all over again how easily I can slip into a depression and see everything through a glass darkly. 
I practiced twice today, once before Mass, and once before the concert, and got some of my confidence back.  
As I was setting up in the confined space in church for the brass instruments, a friend of mine whom I was not expecting to see appeared to say she was here for the concert, and then it turned out there were a dozen friends from my Beginning Experience community who had come.
Our choir director had told us this morning after Mass that we should look at this concert as a Christmas gift we are giving to the people who come, and I felt happy knowing that I had friends in the audience who would receive the gift.  Their presence encouraged me to play well and enjoy playing, especially when in "Three Festive Carols," I could hear the close harmony between my horn and the professional's. The concert was a spiritual experience for me, and my friends told me that it had been for them, too.  I felt appreciated that they had taken the time to come, and my spirits were soaring because of the loving hearts of these friends.  There were a number of "Lessons" I learned from all this, but the most important was how much of a difference kindness and love can make.

Monday, December 2, 2019

WATER

Water is a huge issue in California, particularly in Southern California. We get an average of about 11 inches of rain a year, and we're at the end of the Colorado River, and everyone north of us takes their water before it gets down to us. That's a simplification, but water rights are a big legal issue throughout California. I am going to interpolate much of an article my son wrote about water issues in California, prompted by a water emergency right here in my own little town, where we got so much rain over the Thanksgiving weekend (which meant that 10 of my grandchildren could not go outside and things got wild)! Apparently as a result of the unusually high rainfall, our covered reservoir was  affected in such a way that some residents reported brown or greenish water coming from their taps. The city issued the first ever boil water advisory and closed all eating establishments in town, and made cases of drinking water available to residents. I picked mine up yesterday afternoon since I had stockpiled enough gallons of water to hold me until I could get home from church. Our water appears to be clear, so we've been able to take showers, but we have to used the bottled water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth, and the boiled water for washing dishes. I'm just glad it happened after we had cleaned up most of the Thanksgiving dishes created by the 20 people who were here and all the food they prepared!
This was actually a small emergency compared to the very serious affair with which my son opened his article.
High water risin', the shacks are slidin' down 
Folks lose their possessions and folks are leaving town 
-Bob Dylan (High Water)
A scene reminiscent of the opening of an Avengers movie unfolded in Oroville, California, this February. Water from the record rains in California threatened to overflow the tallest dam in the nation. A hole in one of the emergency spillways, designed to prevent this from happening, meant that the torrents of water cascading down the spillways overflowed and poured down hillsides and into the Feather River below. The National Guard was ordered to be prepared to mobilize, and close to 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate the area, as people feared their town being obliterated by a giant flood. In some ways, California has hit the lottery in the past two months, a state ravaged by drought received large amounts of rain, prompting people to proclaim an end to the drought, and more importantly an end to the unseemly brown medians in Beverly Hills.  The surplus of water in California has suddenly forced people to address the threat of the decay of the massive amounts of infrastructure required to make California not only livable but farmable. The Oroville dam incident is not a random isolated incident; it is the first of many possible issues that face the state when it comes to water.
Take a stroll by the roaring banks of the LA River, and you’ll notice something strange. The roaring is from the freeway right next to it, as the LA River is mostly a (sometimes) wet concrete patch. Southern California relies mostly on other places for its water. The water that rushes out of your faucet in Los Angeles, has to navigate not only miles of piping, canals and aqueducts, but also a vast legal bureaucracy. This is due to the distance the water must travel. Welcome to the wild, weird and wonderful world of water in California, where a public agency almost caused war between California and Arizona in the 1920s, and where currently the state might build a four story high and 35 mile long tunnel, that would dwarf the Chunnel between Britain and France.
In Southern California the majority of our water comes from either the snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, or from the Colorado River. Your individual city purchases that water from the Metropolitan Water District(MWD). Think of the MWD as the Costco of water; they purchase the water in bulk from the State Water Project(SWP). In fact, according to Brad Jensen, from the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership, you could count up to ten agencies that your water goes through before reaching your tap. In short, water is not a simple process in California, because of the massive amount of infrastructure, energy, and money required to provide enough water for farms and cities. When this infrastructure, as in the case of the Oroville Dam, starts to fail, California has a major crisis both for its citizens and for the economy that relies on vast acres of farmland. The Don Pedro reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley, has filled more quickly than expected, and officials are trying to lower levels, before more storms hit. While both these would cause tremendous problems, it is nothing compared to the potential disaster facing the California Delta. 
It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every part of the state is affected by the California Delta. Start talking about it and you’re going to make someone angry. The California Delta is where the rivers carrying fresh water from the Sierras meet the salty ocean water. The Delta helps keep salty ocean waters from continually pushing inland. Originally the Delta was a giant marsh, and in the mid 19th century farmers began draining and reclaiming the land for farm use and building levees to keep the seawater at bay. Since then it has been incredibly lush farmland, with one slight problem. By draining the swamp the ground level has lowered considerably. This means that large parts of farmland now sit far below sea level. This means that if these levees were to break in an earthquake, the incredibly fertile farmland would be flooded and gone forever. It would also cause a large problem, as the California Delta is a hub for the water coming from the Sierras, before continuing on to Southern California faucets. For years the state government has been seeking a way to try and make the water delivery system to Southern California more reliable, and the most recent effort is the Twin Tunnels Project. This project aims to build two large thirty-five mile long tunnels, to more efficiently transport water from the Sierras to Southern California. This would avoid the threat of a levee collapse decimating fresh water supplies. The downside of this solution, is that large amounts of fresh water that currently flow to the Delta would now be rerouted. This means for farmers in the Delta that they would have less water for irrigation. The tunnels would benefit farmers along the route of the tunnels who would receive more water. Delta farmers argue that their water rights, which go back to the founding of the state, would be violated by the tunnels. Whether this is a good solution or not, one thing that can be agreed upon, is that something has to be done to keep California's water infrastructure from crumbling.
The way water moves from sources to our homes in Southern California, frankly bores people. It requires the use of words like water authority, special district, private wholesaler, and aquifer. These are not interesting, eye popping words, like knife fight, kablooie, or Kardashian, but if we do not understand how water reaches us, we risk major problems. We risk being like the younger sibling playing Monopoly, who sits in a daze, as his older brother glibly explains the rules at a rapid pace, while moving his piece around the board, telling us all the while he’s doing what’s best for us. The problems facing California water are numerous, but by raising our awareness of how we get this vital resource, we can help enact change and improvement in an ever changing world.
Because the Colorado River goes through five different states, the water rights had to be divided among the five states. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 outlined who got how much water from the river. The problem with this compact was that it was made during unusually high water levels in the river. This meant that when the river went back down, states who took water out after other states found themselves with less water than had been promised. So in 1934 when the MWD began construction on Parker Dam along the Colorado River, Arizona was vehemently opposed to the idea. It would mean California would have the ability to store more water, and since Arizona had to wait until California took water out of the river before they could, it meant Arizona would be left with even less water. According to Scott Harrison of the LA Times, Arizona then proceeded to dispatch a National Guard battalion to prevent construction from being completed on the Parker Dam. The 100 troops not only prevented the construction of the dam but also a trestle bridge as well. The Supreme Court then sided with Arizona and said the Governor had every right to use the National guard, and it wouldn’t be until 1938, and numerous compromises later that the dam would eventually be built. 

So although our mild excess of rain has caused some difficulties, it is only a small indication of some of the larger issues at stake. In the meantime, I've got to get back to folding the Christmas programs for our choir's concert this year, which will actually be finished before the dress rehearsal, something that has never happened since I took on the programs.  Kudos to our choir director who did not wait till the last minute to choose the music we will present!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

SUDDENLY QUESTIONING HOW I WRITE POETRY

I was hit by a lightning bolt this week.  Figuratively, not literally. Generally when people talk about making changes because they've been hit by a lightning bolt, they are usually speaking of a change for the better. But my lightning bolt seemed to strike all the way down to my roots, to the foundation of how I write poetry and what I have come to think of as my "voice." It is the process of years of work on poetry, since I wrote my first structured abab verses early in grade school. 
In eighth grade, I wrote a poem for our English class, "The Roaring Sea," which was a complete departure from my previous work, with no rhymes whatsoever. It did have a structure: each verse was five lines, with the first line being "The sea roars," and the last line "the roaring sea" with the previous line enjambed into the fifth.
I think this had been sparked by our teacher, a young man with whom I quickly became infatuated. His teaching style was far-ranging, as if he were constantly opening more and more doors into areas of learning that I had never imagined.  He taught science and history as well as English. I wish I could remember what poem it was that caused my volte-face at that young age. The only poem I remember studying in eighth grade was Emily Dickinson's "Train," which has plenty of enjambment as well as slant rhymes which became an important part of my poet's toolbox. But it does still have a four line mostly iambic structure with slant rhymes at lines 2 and 4.
In high school, I experimented with free verse, but still wrote some poems with iambic lines and rhymes. I wrote a few in Spanish, and when I spent an entire semester in college studying T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," I started sprinkling Spanish into my English poetry. When I took a poetry workshop from poet Colette Inez at the New School in New York City the year before I was married, I was introduced to so many new ways to write poetry that, like Casey who waltzed with the girl with the strawberry curls, my brain nearly exploded.  I did a great deal of experimenting that year, and at the end of the class, Colette told me I could send her a few poems from time to time and she would critique them.  I took her up on her offer, and for 40 years, until she died, our correspondence and friendship flourished and my poetry matured. I didn't take every suggestion she made about my writing, but I thought each one through, and her interest and comments made me realize that poetry was my forte, although as a young writer my goal was to write the Great American Novel. I remember an evening when I hosted a dinner for my employer (who was from Ireland), his wife, and his youngest brother, who was a writer. He had already had a book of short stories published. I was fascinated talking to him, but I wish now that I had asked him if Irish writers dream of writing the Great Irish Novel--or if they think that James Joyce has already written it.
Over those 40 years when Colette was cheering me on, I tried many forms of poetry, but seldom used formal verse. I wrote one sonnet (though I think I could call it a sonnet only because it had 14 lines) and one pantoum, which was not very successful. Yet, I believed Robert Frost's comment that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Though I am a rebel at heart, I did see that playing tennis without a net would be some other game.
I gradually realized that the poetry that for me sounded right was usually iambic pentameter, and that every line ended with a word that would rhyme (or be a slant rhyme) with a word at the end of another line somewhere else in the poem, but that it would seldom fit into the confines of a formal structure. The process of finding rhymes would open up new avenues of expressing myself, but I wouldn't feel fenced in. I was talking to my business partner about the work I'm doing on my chapbook, "Portal of Light," and she expressed concern that I have to work so hard at it. I tried to explain that I love the energy of the process, and she indicated that it seemed very convoluted to her, but that it did seem to emerge from the kind of person I am. Of course, she was a journalist who ran her own publishing company in Vienna before coming to the United States, and I said that was a very different sort of writing. She said she always told a story rather than just reporting on the bare facts. I wouldn't have been affected by what she said except that to show her how much better my poetry was after I worked on it, I read her a couple of lines from the chapbook as it is currently and then read the lines from the original poem. She told me that she prefers the original, that it is more straightforward and can be more easily understood. To be fair, the lines I read to her may not be the final version, but as I reflected on what she was saying over the next couple of days, I felt as if a thunderbolt were slowly electrifying my spine and sending charged pulses up to my brain.  I'd like to read her the original version of one of the poems that has been published and see what she says about the difference between the two, but it has been a very unnerving couple of days as I have been asking myself if I need to look more profoundly into how I write.  I feel almost as if I were questioning who I am, as if tectonic plates beneath my feet were suddenly starting to shift radically, leaving me off balance and deeply anxious.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

THE GARDEN OF THE ANGELS

This was a sad week in our family. Our fourth daughter, Catherine, miscarried her baby, the one we'd been praying for her to have for nearly five years.  She had found out she was pregnant on the anniversary of my husband's death, and lost the baby at about six or seven weeks. She told me,
We’ve decided to name our baby Julian. Julian of Norwich is a special figure for English Catholics/Anglicans especially, so we liked that connection. Her name probably wasn’t actually Julian - she was likely named for the church of St. Julian where she lived, which seems to make the name appropriate for a boy or girl. And then I keep thinking of her famous quote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” 
I asked her if she would like me to get a stone for the Garden of the Angels at our church, and she said she would.   Our previous pastor, who was consecrated a Bishop two years after coming to our parish, had worked with a small group of us who had lost children who were miscarried or stillborn or died young. He had chosen a place in the garden just outside the church and arranged to have it become our Garden of the Angels.  Two beautiful angel statues from inside the church office were moved there, and one of the gardeners clipped a plant into the shape of an angel. Anyone who would like a stone engraved with the name of a child whom they've lost can place it there. We have gotten quite a little collection for our family. It began with Scholastica, the name I chose for the baby we lost after our son was born, named for St. Benedict's twin sister, also a saint. Our second daughter has two stones, our third daughter has one, and our fifth daughter has one. And now we'll have one for little Julian. I seldom leave daily Mass without seeing someone praying in the Garden, and I think that those of us who have lost babies have a sense of solidarity with everyone whom we see there. I am so grateful for the kindness and empathy of our pastor, who listened to our stories of loss and immediately acted to find a place where we can remember those babies whom we didn't know but entrust to the loving arms of those who have gone before us.
I remember that some time after my beloved husband died, my oldest daughter's husband had a dream about my husband in which a child's voice was saying, "Don't worry; we're here and we're fine." We thought it was odd that it would be my son-in-law that would have this dream rather than one of my children, and Elizabeth asked if the child was a boy or girl (since we hadn't known the sex of the child we lost), but her husband said he didn't know, it was just a child's voice. I guess there are small mysteries that we have to wait to unravel as well as all the larger ones.  But although it was only a dream, it was as reassuring and comforting as a hug from heaven.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

CREATION AND LOSS

I went back and watched the recording of our coaching call from last week since for some reason Zoom had not let me in until about 10 minutes into the call, even though I had signed in 10 minutes before it started. It turned out that I hadn't missed very much but by rewatching the rest of the call, I picked up a lot more of the talk on limits and boundaries. These are things that perfectionists have trouble with so it was good to look at these concepts and ponder their more positive aspects.
What was most interesting to me was listening to the question I posed about how to approach a section of the chapbook I have been working on for months. I want it to be the poem that really makes my husband come alive at the beginning of the poem. Right now, it is three versions of the poem, tentatively called "Midsummer Night Fantasy." I started writing it at some point after we had been to a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" that was the result of 20 years of preparatory creation. It was the most magical theater I have ever seen, appealing to all five senses and often overloading them. You literally couldn't see and hear everything that was happening on or off or above the stage at any point in the play. I think even Shakespeare would have been stunned and fascinated and carried beyond himself. It was like living in several alternate universes at once. The fact that a musician I know played the French horn in this production--and that her playing is almost mystical--made it even more enrapturing. 
One of the opening scenes shows the human bride being fitted with a petticoat that is very like a cage. In the back of my mind I probably recognized some cultural critique of marriage in Shakespeare's time or currently, but as I sat there with my beloved husband I knew that for me marriage had unleashed me to be my best and most liberated self, that the love poured out on me enabled me to soar to heights I had never imagined I'd reach, to becoming a loving mother of six children (I had been a terrible babysitter) and a writer whose work was seen as valuable and beautiful, and the wife in a couple who became a true team who accepted each other's weaknesses, often with humor, and leaned into each other's strengths. 
I originally said that what I was afraid of losing if I attempted to bring these three versions into one poem was the whole experience of the play, but when I thought about it today, I realized that what I am really afraid of is losing my husband all over again, that by, in a sense, making him live again, I will also have to plunge into the grief that has been my companion the past seven years, seeing again the magnitude of my loss. 
However, even as I wrote those words, I know now that although his loss is always present, there is also another whose love is even greater and more profound, whose love has wrapped my beloved's love in his and who embraces me with both a finite and infinite passion that is healing and sustaining. 
So. I am no longer afraid.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

DIAMONDS IN MY BACK YARD

"Acres of Diamonds" is a story about an Indian farmer who sells his farm and searches the world for wealth, and after he dies penniless, the man who bought his farm finds diamonds there. I was reminded of this story when my second daughter came over to spend the afternoon with me on the seventh anniversary of my husband's death. I had given her a copy of the chapbook I've been working on which is now called "Portal of Light" after several earlier iterations, since she was an English and History major at UCSD and started working on a PhD in English at UCLA.  She frequently had asked me to edit some of her papers, and I was struck by how insightful her critiques were.  I expected her to make a few comments on word choice or perhaps the order in which I include poems that had already been published in what will probably be a 20 to 25 page chapbook.
Instead, when she offered to go over some of her comments, I discovered that she had filled two pages with an analysis of the structure of the whole and with suggestions for areas that needed to be expanded, things that could be taken out, sections that could be moved, and a place where she thought another poem should go. I was almost dumbstruck that she had taken so much time and effort with my work when she has six children, three of whom are taking horn lessons, five of whom are playing soccer, and the youngest is only two.  
I worked on the chapbook in the following week, and gave her a revised copy the next time she was over. I also asked her about some of her notes, which we hadn't had the chance to look at when she was here before.  We went over the whole poem, moving sections about and noting where I still need to add more, taking some of the poems out that I had thought of including, but adding another one and finding the right section for it. I had put a few lines in about the next youngest sister, Theresa, and how she brought about an amazing experience at the Grand Canyon, and she insisted that I needed to expand that so that the poem would really reveal Theresa's unique gifts.  
This daughter, Mary, was the one about whom my husband had said that he couldn't wait for her to go to college because when she was in high school she seemed to push my buttons, my mother's buttons, and often even my husband's buttons, creating stress and drama in our family. But now, the fact that she and I are so similar in some ways has brought us closer and made me very thankful that she lives close enough that I usually get together with her once or twice a week.
Also, because we were both English majors (although, as I said before, I was only an English major for one year), I had assumed that our gifts were similar. When I thanked her for taking so much time to go over my poem, she told me that this is what she loves to do, and it was obvious from her extended critique that it was a work of love.  I, on the other hand, was always more about creating and synthesis than analysis. Since the death of my mentor, I haven't really had anyone to comment on my poetry, but now I have found someone--a daughter who is not only knowledgeable as a critic but who also is part of the family about which I'm writing so that her deft touch with my poetry also shines with the light of love.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

THE DEVIL TO PLAY

I thought for several years that there was a book called The Devil to Play about French horn playing, but when I finally went to look it up, it was called A Devil to Play and it wasn't quite what I was thinking it was. I decided to order it anyway, along with two other books that should help me improve my horn playing.
Lately, every lesson I have had has resulted in some breakthrough, large or small, that has led to my ability to reach some of the higher notes with greater ease and fluidity.  It has been a combination of practicing on top of the refrigerator, which seems a strange approach, but the refrigerator in my office, which used to be my parents' is at exactly the right height so that I can set my horn on top and practice playing it entirely with my embouchure which means no hands, just open notes, and the work I have been doing with my teacher to strengthen my embouchure.
Two days ago during my lesson, I went higher more easily than ever before, and yesterday during my practice, I did it again and astonished myself. Hearing those high, clear notes reminds me why I first chose the French horn, and it also recalled a scene from two Christmases ago, when I was learning the solo part written for a soprano saxophone for "O Little Town of Bethlehem," arranged by Dan Forrest. It was an extremely challenging piece particularly in terms of timing, but I worked on it endlessly and gradually mastered it.  When we rehearsed it at choir practice, and I made it to the final note, the choir director held it much longer than it was written. When he finally cut it off, he told me that my tone was so beautiful he didn't want it to end!  To paraphrase Mark Twain, I could live a year on a compliment like that, especially since I was myself enraptured by the sound of that sustained note.
All the work and the lessons culminated today in playing at the Mass which was offered for my husband on the seventh anniversary of his death. I had a very productive practice session before I left for church, when the high notes again seemed to be easier to reach--and more buoyant, as my teacher says).  So I told myself that I won't get flustered any more when I'm playing pieces that I have practiced endlessly, and I didn't. When I was waiting for Mass to begin, the choir director went back to find out what the homily would be about so he could choose a hymn for Communion that will echo that theme, and he came back and told me we would do "One Faith, One Hope, One Lord." I practice that nearly every day but can still see it as my nemesis, and at first my heart sank. But then I realized that I had practiced it perfectly that morning and that there was no need to be perturbed. I then sailed into the high E in the Sanctus with great verve, and played the Communion anthem confidently. When we got to the final hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy," I play a trumpet solo which has a high B which is held for nearly two full beats, and we play three verses. I had no fear and enjoyed playing it, neither worrying about the different timing nor the notes nor the four sharps, and I am convinced that Wes was listening and probably liked my playing even better than the angels' (but then they were probably only playing harps)!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

"HOMESICK FOR A PLACE YOU'VE NEVER BEEN TO"

When I was following a thread in my Mission Accomplished coaching group, we ranged over pressure, comparisons, crustless sandwiches and hair.  Many of us struggle, fight, and at times are overcome by our hair.  When I was in college, the look was long and straight, and my best friend had it.  When she first met me (in the woods behind my house), it was a typical New Jersey high humidity day, and my waist length hair was twice its volume thanks to the frizz (neither waves nor curls) that caused her to tell me later that she thought I was the Wild Woman of the Woods--and she called me that till the day she died. To achieve some semblance of the correct look, I would put it in a pony tail on top of my head, roll it on four huge orange juice cans, and sit under the hair dryer (the big bouffant style) for a minimum of three hours.  If it rained, or the humidity skyrocketed, the effect would disappear and the Wild Woman of the Woods would reappear.  Eventually I discovered that if I had it permed, I could wash it and wear it, pick it out and have a head of curls with which I finally made my peace, although after 10 months I often put it up on electric rollers and get 4-5 days of a softer curl. I have some gray, but not enough that I have really thought about coloring it, unless I put a little cobalt blue in there. Any of my children that I have mentioned it to either haven't believed me or don't care.  
One of my daughters dyed her hair purple (she didn't bleach it and you could barely see the purple) and then realized she was meeting with the man who was in charge of her college scholarship the next day.  When she told my husband at their weekly lunch how worried she was at how she would be received, my husband told me later that he hadn't really noticed that she dyed it, and that the man she was to meet had undoubtedly seen every possible permutation of hair color and style in all his many years of dealing with college students. He probably didn't notice it either.
But my kids are used to the fact that I seldom fit inside the "norm." They had to start making their own school lunches when they were in second grade (and some of my friends made their daughters' lunches in high school). Crustless sandwiches were a waste of food, and they had to eat the whole crust. I figured it gave them stronger characters, and they all have pretty strong characters as adults. One of my daughters who now has six children of her own told me that she understands why I only took them to the beach once a year!
I often felt trapped by the school schedule and the doctors' and dentists' appointments and all the other things I judged I had to do.  It may have been one of the reasons I decided to homeschool the last two in grade school. I could set my schedule, decide on the curriculum and when we would do what.  I drove my husband crazy when I homeschooled my daughter, and I'd give her the assignments for the day and the we'd roll dice to see which one we'd do first, second, etc. Those were adventurous years!
I came across a quote yesterday that I had cut out of somewhere and put on the binder cover of one of my collections of my poetry, which expressed many of my feelings of wanting to be somewhere other than where I was. "Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you've never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground."--Judith Thurman, "The Hand of Distance." 
I bought a book on moving to the country when I was near despair over the struggles with my parents when they lived with us.  My dear husband finally said, "But I don't want to live in the country. I like the suburbs."  And I realized that I didn't really want to live in the country; at times I wanted to escape from the situation that I was in. And there were other times, when I would be coming back from taking the children to school, driving down our suburban street, and I would think, this is what my mother did when I was little, and I would experience an odd sense of contentment because for all our differences, we had chosen a similar kind of life, and I had a sense of a delicate balance that could be disrupted, but because of a husband who believed that my happiness was even more important than his, I had a great sense of the worth of our lives and an awareness of the small moments that stunned me with their beauty, like the day I turned the corner on the way home from the school run, and plunged into a whirlwind of Monarch butterflies passing through so that I slowed down and drove along with them as if I were surrounded by a glorious cloud of orange and black wings escorting my gold chariot of a Suburban back to my miraculous home.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

THE POVERTY OF DIVORCE

I can remember my husband saying that one of the greatest causes of women living in poverty in the United States was no-fault divorce. Although he was a litigator and corporate lawyer, he tended to be a compassionate father-confessor to many of the women who worked with him and saw them struggling with financial as well as emotional issues after being abandoned by their husbands.  
When he taught each of our six children to drive, he began by telling them that in the state of California, parents of children between the ages of sixteen and eighteen can have their teenager's driver's license taken away for any reason or no reason. And that is what can happen with marriages now: one spouse, usually the husband, can divorce the other for any reason or no reason. This necessarily leads to a deep instability in the institution of marriage where husbands and wives can feel as if they are walking on eggs because at any moment the person who promised to love them until death can break that vow and leave. If there are children in the marriage, the instability has deep repercussions for them: not only is their family split apart, but the fact that their parents don't love each other any more can easily lead them to doubt whether their parents love them. And in many cases the parent who walks out of their home also walks out of their lives.
I understand the mentality that drove the push for no fault divorce, where women were caught in abusive marriages and often seemed unable to escape.  But as my husband also used to say, hard cases make bad law and the resulting apparent revolving door approach to marriage has resulted in far more chaos and heartbreak. 
Since I began volunteering as a team presenter on Beginning Experience Weekend retreats for the widowed, separated and divorced, I see the devastation wreaked by separation and divorce in a landscape littered by broken promises and dreams, and abandoned spouses and children who are deeply wounded. Being involved in a ministry that reaches out to enable participants to begin healing has also made me thankful that I am a widow, since at least I know that I was faithfully and passionately loved. The law teaches as well as legislates, and what it is teaching now is that marriages are disposable; it is time to bring back some protections to those who are most at risk with this perception, the abandoned spouse and children.

Monday, October 7, 2019

FAREWELL TO DRAGON CITY! (ALAS!)

I realized about halfway through this week that I had missed posting a blog last week, and I would like to say that it is all the fault of Dragon City. Dragon City, the game introduced to me by one of my granddaughters who was going through a rough time, which I started playing because I could send her gifts through the game.  It seemed like such a simple thing, and pretty soon some of my other grandchildren were playing it and we could check and see which dragons we had and what level we were on, how many jewels, and how powerful our dragons were getting.  When I got the beautiful Crystal Dragon, I thought I had finally arrived. 
Now, some of the Dragons were truly hideous and fierce (although they were good for defeating other dragons), but my heart was with my beautiful dragons, and when the game introduced a K-Pop dragon, I asked two of my Korean grandchildren to name him.
But I also noticed that I had become addicted to playing, and actually had two Dragon Cities, one for each of my email addresses, which meant I was spending twice as much time playing, and not always getting to things that were far more important. In addition, I seldom had much interaction with my grandchildren in Dragon City--they had moved on to other things, and I was getting increasingly obsessed with it.
Then, last week, just as I was closing down my computer before I left for a business conference in Palm Desert, I found an email that said someone had one of my passwords and that unless I paid a ransom in some form of cryptocurrency (not Bitcoin), they would release all over the internet all the bad things I'd been doing in front of my computer.  Since all I do in front of my computer is work or play Dragon City I didn't feel impelled to pay any ransom (and I wouldn't have paid it anyway, even if I had heard of the cryptocurrency demanded), I shut down the computer and took it off the internet until I could deal with it when I returned.  In the meantime, I emailed my daughters, sons-in-law and son to see what they had heard about this RAT (remote access trojan) virus.  From what I read, the virus gets in when one clicks on something like an Adobe Flash update that is not from their website, and I realized I'd done this any number of times when I started playing Dragon City. I assumed that because I had originally downloaded it from their website, that it was all good, and I was very wrong.
It took me hours of work when I returned home to deal with the virus; hours on the phone with Cox, who supplies internet to me, and hours on the phone with Apple (10 AM till 6 PM one day) to dig into the inner workings of my iMac to track down every trace. We deleted reams of stuff that I didn't know I had, which helped speed up the computer, and it has given me the impetus to start deleting more things that I know I don't need.
I haven't been tempted to go on Dragon City since I learned about the virus. Today at Scripture study, when we were continuing to delve into the Gospel of Mark, we came to the passage where Jesus says if your hand or foot causes you to sin, to cut it off. As our Scripture scholar noted, the Catholic Church forbids self-mutilation, and what Jesus meant was to cut out of our lives anything that leads to sin. While I don't know that playing Dragon City was sinful, I do know that I have accomplished so much more just in the week since I stopped playing it. So today I deleted the game from both my Facebook accounts and my phone.  And I am preparing for blast off into the productivity zone!

Friday, September 20, 2019

PROGRESS IN QUIXOTIC QUARTERS

When I was at Bible study on Monday, and we were just starting a plunge into the Gospel of Mark, the priest leading the study, who has a PhD in Scripture, asked what the meaning of "irony" was. No hands were raised. Then he asked if any of us had been English majors. I was, for one year, so I tentatively raised my hand and opined that irony meant saying something sarcastic, or saying one thing and meaning another. He was looking for the literary meaning of irony, and I either couldn't remember it or had long since forgotten. When he said the literary or dramatic meaning was the idea that the audience or reader understood something in the literary work that the characters in the work didn't know, and that that applied to Mark's Gospel. It was written to Christian believers, but the people portrayed in the Gospel didn't know the central truth: that Jesus was the Son of God.
After going through the exercise of trying to retrieve information that I suppose an average English major should have known, I later thought about my unusual path through the world of the university.
I had always loved literature and was an inveterate reader and became a writer in third grade when I noticed that the Nancy Drew book I happened to be reading didn't begin "Once upon a time," but rather in medias res. Immediately I started a story that also began in the middle of things, I think with a horse neighing. 
However, by the time I finished high school I had decided there were more important things to do with my life; I wanted to go into politics and eventually saw myself becoming President, if my father didn't beat me to it. So when I went to the University, I chose Politics as my major (it was not called Political Science there as it was at most colleges). Then I discovered that their idea of Politics began with studying Aristotle's vision of the polis or city-state and moved forward philosophically from there. I was asked to take a graduate level course in Politics my sophomore year, and by then they had started offering a major in Humanities, which was basically a design your own major, perfectly suited to a student who never wanted to fit in a neat box. My father said professors would lurk around corners and entice me with, "Psst, want to take a course in ancient Coptic?" I did take two years of classical Greek and could recite the opening line of The Odyssey in that language.
By my junior year, however, I had veered off and become a Spanish major, enchanted with the head of the department who was English, married a Spaniard, and then became an actress in Spain until they moved to Texas. I had a whole year of studying Cantar de Mio Cid and another year of Don Quijote de la Mancha, both of which demanded more antique Spanish than I had previously encountered.
But I studied more recent works of Spanish literature as well, all of which contributed to an experience I had one day when one of the Mexican women who used to work for me told me when we were speaking Spanish, "You talk just like a book!"
Much as I loved Spanish, as I was about to start my senior year, I suddenly decided that I should become an English major.  This meant that I had to do my junior poet and senior thesis in one year, which was one reason why I picked Emily Dickinson rather than Gerard Manley Hopkins--he was so intricately convoluted that I knew I couldn't focus on his poetry while I was also writing my thesis. And since I picked the Puritan period for my thesis (and had access to early American novels in the Concord, Massachusetts, library the summer before my senior  year), Emily Dickinson was a good poet to work with, although I soon learned that I couldn't read her poetry and then set out to write my own without sounding like a very inferior imitation.  Despite my unorthodox procession through the University, I managed to graduate first in my class (or, as the medal I received from the Bishop, says "Frist Honors"), as the first student to graduate with a 4.0.
I was accepted at Columbia University to study Comparative Literature, but then learned that deconstruction held sway there, and I was much more a believer in synthesis.  I wasn't accepted into Columbia's MFA program, which the head of the Comp Lit department had suggested I apply to, and later heard from a former professor that Caroline Gordon, the Southern novelist who had read some of my poetry, told him that I would be ruined if I went to Columbia. 
Instead, the year before I got married when I was living Manhattan, I took a poetry workshop at the New School for Social Research because I didn't think I'd have time for a novel writing course (at that point I still thought I'd write the Great American Novel). It was taught by the brilliant poet, Colette Inez, who shone such a light on poetry that I was utterly captivated. She invited me to send her poems to critique after the course was over, and we corresponded until her death last year. My husband and son and I went back to the East Coast in 2010, and had a memorable lunch with her on the upper West Side.
I never wrote as much as I thought I should because after I got married I had six children, my husband and I got very involved in World Wide Marriage Encounter and other marriage and family ministries.  I always thought of the talks I wrote for Marriage Encounter as working documents, while my poetry was literature.
When I took up the French horn again 10 years ago, I also thought of it as a hobby, although I think if I'd known how challenging it would be I might not have gone into it so lightheartedly.  Although I am not a professional I work hard at it and each year at Christmas I can see the progress I've made in the past year.  Just recently, working on a new piece for our parish's 60th anniversary, I realized that I had learned most of it in a couple of weeks although it still needs some polishing.  Although I know my poetry is good, and have had enough prizes and publications to confirm that belief, when I realize that I have made great strides in how well I play the horn, or when I'm complimented on talks I've written for Beginning Experience weekend retreats, I realize that I'm not tilting at windmills even though they are not my primary passion.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

TIMERS AND TIME

One of the things I have been working on incorporating into my life is a regular use of timers, particularly to help me start something that seems difficult, overwhelming, or just plain unpleasant.
I notice that when I have something to do that I'm putting off, if I just tell myself that I will work on it for 20 minutes, I can often finish the task, or at least take a big chunk out of it.  It's how I've gotten most of the piles on my desk and surrounding areas down to one main pile and a list of the things that I still need to do.
Yesterday, when I needed to write the welcome letters to a retreat weekend that I am involved in, I was really dreading it.  We have a template, but each letter has to be personalized depending on the circumstances of the individual, whether they will have a single or double room, and a variety of other factors.  I told myself I would just work for 20 minutes, I set a timer, and I finished the first letter.  One of the coordinators called me to add a paragraph, but because I hadn't yet printed out the letter, I was able to add it and had it ready for all the other letters. I printed them all out, along with directions to the retreat center and an emergency medical form, and called a couple of the people who are interested, so all I have to do now is address the envelopes. I feel happy that I have done this--for the first time for this retreat--and I am reminding myself that I have gotten more organized as I have been working on this retreat.
Today I set a timer to start addressing the envelopes, since they have to be done by hand, another tedious job. I got the packets together, signed the letters, added the emergency form, and the directions, stuck on stamps and put my return address on the envelopes, and have a neat stack of letters to go in the mail tomorrow.
I'm going to a business conference soon and I hate packing, but I used the idea of breaking an onerous task into smaller objectives. Several days ago, I checked off everything that goes into my valet kit. 
Today I made sure that my makeup kit was complete, and I'll probably take care of my medicine kit first thing tomorrow. Then all I have to do is decide on the clothes to bring, and since I keep a list of combinations from other trips of various lengths, even that shouldn't be too difficult.  The friend I'm traveling with called me today to go over a few details, and that gave me a sense of anticipation as we get ready to go on our adventure together.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

SEEING PROGRESS IN HINDSIGHT

Looking at the downloads from my coaching program with Deborah Hurwitz (productivityforperfectionists.com) from a year ago, I am amazed at how far I have come. I knew I had accomplished some goals in my writing, but I also tackled the seemingly infinite piles on my desk. I am now down to one pile of financial papers, and I reduce that by a little each day.  Everything else that I hope to do is on a list except a few urgent things on sticky notes on my computer.  I have been so much more content since I whittled all these things down into one brain dump, and I am beginning to see myself as someone who can keep her desk clear for more than two weeks. That was usually the maximum when my husband was alive. He would help me clear off my desk, and it would stay fairly neat, but gradually things would creep back on it, and pretty soon it would look as if we had never done anything to it.  Once, I was bemoaning the fact that I was so disorganized, and he asked me why I didn't just embrace my disorganized nature and let him keep things on an even keel.  I can remember feeling so free after he said that, but a few years later when he got sick, I realized the fatal flaw in that reasoning.  Since I had been planning to go first, I didn't think there was a problem, but when it became apparent that that was not the way it was going to roll out, I realized that there were going to have to be some major changes.
I was helped by outside circumstances which seemed devastating at the time. A few months after he died, I came home to a water heater pouring gallons of water into what had been my husband's office. I called a plumber and it took him nearly half an hour to get here and shut off the water. I was so flustered that I had forgotten we had a shut off valve for the house. By the time the water was turned off, it had gotten into the bedroom off the office, the laundry room, half bath and family room. We had huge noisy fans in the house for a week, asbestos testing, dry wall damage, furniture piled up in supposedly dry areas, and a paper nightmare of files with not only my husband's legal work, but my parents' paperwork from the last 15 years they lived with us.
Fortunately, the woman who had been my interior decorator had also helped us with overseeing the reconstruction work in an earlier flood, and I called her to see if she could help me with this one.  Although she had recently been in the hospital, she came down, driving an hour and a half each way.  She knew exactly what to do and helped me deal with the reconstruction people and then started asking me what I wanted to do with the parts of the house that had been flooded.  She suggested I turn what had been my husband's office into my office, and then suggested that I turn my greeting card hobby into a business. Since my husband's office was the one place in my house where I felt sad after he died because all I could see was his empty desk, this seemed like a great place to start, and I now have a beautiful office with lilac and purple walls, no vertical blinds (she told me lawyers always like things like that), and a beautiful view of my yard and garden. She laid down wood laminate flooring in my new office and the family room, where the water had ruined the old carpet, tile in the entry to my office and the laundry room and half bath, painted the bedroom off my office a sunny yellow and installed a beautiful mural that reminds me of the place in Laguna Beach where my husband and I often spent our anniversaries. She helped me get rid of most of my husband's and parents' papers, either by recycling or shredding, brought the file cabinets all into my office and helped me set up my business and now helps me run it.  But the most important thing she did during the nine months when we were doing all that reconstruction and reorganizing was just being here, usually 5 days a week, and keeping me busy, so that at a time when I would have been sinking into a morass of loneliness, I had decisions to make, work to do, and a dear friend who has become so close we call each other twins.  The flood washed her up on the shore of my life at a time when I most needed her, and when I set decluttering goals I know she will be delighted, because she has an inner sense of order like Wes did and helps me not stray too far down the path of disorganization.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

CREATING CREATION

When I was pondering what to write in this blogpost, I encountered the entries from my coaching program when I was trying to submit the book proposal for my book, Spectacular Marriage: 10 Ways to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage.  It was just about a year ago, and I had found a publisher who looked like a good fit.  When I went on their website, I discovered that they had a four page submission form that would require a lot of work on my part. It seemed almost like an impossible quest.  However, I had learned that huge undertakings can be broken down into 20 minute segments that don't seem so daunting, so I began to do that.  In between these 20 minute sessions, I also thanked an editor who had accepted three of my poems for her journal, and sent a check for extra copies of the issue with my poems.  I had to finish a talk I would be giving in a few months at the next Beginning Experience Weekend, and I also did that in 20 minute increments. Since this talk deals with my loss of my husband, it was much more difficult to write emotionally than all the many talks I wrote for World Wide Marriage Encounter Weekends. But with breaks between the 20 minute writing periods, I finished the talk, and remembered that when I read the first talk I had written to one of the facilitators, she had told me it was a good talk and the right length.
Then I went back to the book submission, and started plodding along with 20 minute segments. Occasionally I would forget to set a timer and then would be amazed at how much I had done. When I got to the section on the resume or CV, I felt bogged down. I had stayed at home with my children and then started my own business, so I hadn't needed to concoct one of those  since early in my marriage. But then I realized that because the book is about marriage, all the work my husband and I did in World Wide Marriage Encounter and other marriage and family ministries is relevant, as well as our children, sons-in-law and grandchildren who are faith-filled and united in our big family "network." I also discovered that I had many more publication credits than I had thought. So I decided to do a different sort of resume/CV that will reflect the marriage and family emphasis I've had all my life. "It will probably be unique," I commented, "But then so am I." Two days later, the huge project was finished.
With the book proposal and the talk finished, I turned my attention to the poems I wanted to submit to a contest. Normally, I don't set a timer when I'm working on a poem because I get in the zone and accomplish a lot, but I had a very rough draft of a new poem and spent two 30 minute segments on revising it. It was bumpier than it often is when I am revising--or it could have been that it was later in the day and I was tired. I wrote, "It definitely helped that I worked in shorter increments today. The revision was more challenging than it was the last few times I worked on a poem, so I was glad I could stop each time the timer rang."
When I got back to the poem a few days later I noted that I spent most of my time revising one "which I had felt baffled by before."  I commented that "I had gotten over the hump on this one poem." I had gotten the idea from a comment my neighbor had made on one of our walks, and it was "finally taking shape--and going off in a direction I couldn't have foreseen, which is exciting." I then asked my daughter, who was an English major, for a critique, and she gave me some helpful suggestions.  In addition, I finished all three of the talks for the next Beginning Experience Weekend, and the next day, the Archbishop whom I'd asked for a Foreword to Spectacular Marriage sent it, and he said such beautiful things about my husband and me that it brought tears to my eyes. I worked on the poem the next day when I took my neighbor to the ophthalmologist, changed the title, and then made a few more changes to a line that both my daughter and I had a problem with.  I found a stray line that I needed to deal with, realized I needed to add another line to the poem, and finally whittled it down to the 32 lines I need to submit to the contest. The poem was ultimately called "The Smell of Space Suggests," and it wound up being about creation--so I suppose I could say that I was creating creation!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

REINVENTING MYSELF

Gretchen Rubin, in her book The Four Tendencies, discerns four different approaches to life through the lens of how we respond to expectations. The first category, to which she admits she belongs, is the Upholder, who responds to both outer and inner expectations.  The Questioner questions all expectations but will meet an expectation that makes sense to them. An Obliger will meet outer expectations, that come from someone else but struggles to meet self-imposed expectations like a New Year's Resolution. And the Rebel--ah, there's the real challenge--the Rebel resists all expectations from oneself as well as from anyone else.  Rebels are a puzzle to themselves as well as anyone else close to them; rebel children are like puzzles or problems to which there is no answer key.  Rebels love lawlessness, disruption, freedom and choice. One of Rubin's approaches to dealing with rebels is to appeal to their sense of self or who they see themselves to be. I was a bit perplexed by this since I am a Rebel, and I hate feeling hemmed in by an obligation, an appointment, or something I have to do.  In raising six children, I was constantly running up against requirements. I didn't mind doctor's appointments because I saw myself as the kind of mother who was dedicated to keeping her children healthy. But I hated almost 
every requirement about every school system our children were in. That might explain part of the reason why I homeschooled the last two.
When we got involved in World Wide Marriage Encounter, I reveled in the fact that it billed itself as a movement, not an organization and fought vigorously when someone attempted to create an organizational chart. It was a losing battle, but I refused to take part in it and let my husband, who loved charts, participate in whatever it is you do to create such a chart.
For years, I saw myself as disorganized and someone who couldn't write a talk for one of our Marriage Encounter Weekends without months of time to write. My husband came home one day when I had several hours to start a talk. He found me surrounded by crumpled up pieces of paper. When he asked me how much I had written, I burst into tears and said, "I'm still trying to write the first sentence." 
However, when we were in leadership and had to give an average of a talk every week, I learned that it was fine to write a crummy first draft, go back and improve it, and then give it (and it was ok for it not to be perfect as well). Over the 30 years we were involved in Marriage Encounter and other marriage and family ministries, we gave many talks and wrote many articles in addition to the writing I was doing on my own, my poetry and book reviews for the most part.
When I became involved in Beginning Experience, and we had a training weekend, we were asked to write a rough draft for the first talk we might give. We had about an hour, and I sat down with the outline and wrote.  When I was asked to read in what I wrote to the other team members, one of them said, "That's 8 minutes, which is how long it should be, and it sounds pretty good." The other trainees seemed to be surprised that I had managed to do that, but I reminded them that I had spent 30 years writing talks for Marriage Encounter so I had plenty of experience!
Each time I had a talk to write, I started doing it right away. I had read that Teddy Roosevelt started working on a speech the minute he was asked to give it, and I loved the idea of being like Teddy Roosevelt--as well as not having the pressure of doing things at the last minute. I realized I had started to see myself as someone who starts things early and finishes early.  When I had to revise the two talks I will be giving in October, I had them in two weeks before they were due. This is not a matter of meeting anyone's expectations because the facilitators still seem surprised that I can do this, but of realizing that I see myself as a different person, someone who easily writes talks even when they are emotionally challenging and sends them in to the facilitators who will critique them, which means they are not doing everything at the last minute either. Since I like to be helpful to friends, this is also part of my personality rather than meeting expectations.  At least, that's the way this rebel sees it, and it seems to be working, so I'm sticking by it!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

BREAKING OUT OF BOXES, CUBICLES, CYLINDERS, LISTS AND OTHER MANACLES

The coaching program I'm in began with listening to a series of podcasts on Productivity for Perfectionists, hosted by Deborah Hurwitz (productivityforperfectionists.com), and it continually offers techniques to sidestep or do an end run, tunnel under or spring over perfectionism which arises like a shape-shifting monster to distract, block, throw up a maze, suck down a rabbit hole or depress creatives who want to change the world, or at least the corner of it they live in or the imaginary universe they want to inhabit.
One of the things that has helped me get through many of the creative blocks I've encountered is setting a timer.  I've read about different amounts of time and different kinds of timers. My favorite is the tomato timer, which inspired Francesco Cirillo to invent the time management system called the Pomodoro Technique.  In this process, you work on a set task for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and after 4 work sessions, take a 10 minute break. I've seen suggestions for longer work sessions (e.g. 90 minutes) and break periods (30 minutes), but the key idea is to follow a period of focused work with a break where you do something that gives you pleasure, relaxes you or rewards you in some way for being productive or doing something you know you should do but that sets up blocks in your mind about how difficult and/or unpleasant it will be.
If it's something that seems overwhelming, I will set a timer for 20 minutes. I did this when I was trying to submit a book proposal that required a four page questionnaire.  Not only that, but it seemed to assume an author who had worked professionally for years as it requested a Curriculum Vitae. I hadn't written one of those for years, and I still had a bitter taste in my mouth from that one.  A former professor wanted to suggest me for a Phi Beta Kappa award after our University formed a chapter.  When I had been at the University, I graduated first in my class, the first student ever to graduate with a 4.0 cumulative average, and would easily have been elected to the honor society but the college didn't have a chapter then. 
After college, I was accepted for Columbia University's Comparative Literature PhD program, but when I learned that they were heavily into deconstructionism and I was leaning into synthesis (I had no desire to count how many times Emily Dickinson used the image of the bee in her poetry), I instead applied to the MFA program but was rejected.  Caroline Gordon was then teaching at my University, and she told my professor friend, after he showed her some of my poetry, that I was fortunate they had rejected me because, she said, it would have ruined me.
Instead, I got married and began having our first three children, and as my oldest daughter told me yesterday, poured much of my creativity and energy into raising them. I set aside Monday afternoons for writing my poetry, got babysitters and joined several babysitting coops so that I had one day in which I could focus on something that was crucial to me beyond my children (although they climbed into my poems more than once)!  
When my husband and I had been married 7 years, we made a World Wide Marriage Encounter Weekend, and our whole world changed. Not only did we learn to communicate in a more profound way and fall in love more deeply, but our outlook on life, our Church, and our community entered a new dimension.  We were no longer closed in like survivalists, but oriented outwards seeing the beauty in the people that surrounded us and falling in love with them.  
We moved from the East Coast to California (where I had said I'd never go even on vacation), became a presenting team couple for WWME and took on roles in leadership, had three more children, and became involved in Celebrate Love Weekends on spirituality and sexuality, Language of Love Weekends, sharing the insights from Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, and Natural Family Planning. None of these were professional roles; we saw them all as part of our ministry to married couples and their families.
I had had many poems published and became the first woman and lay person to write book reviews for a priests' magazine, but earned very little money for either.  I suppose I didn't fit the box that the University thought I should be in to become a Phi Beta Kappa at that point.  I later told my two oldest daughters that I never lived through my children or their accomplishments, except when they both became Phi Beta Kappa at their University.
So when I was looking at the book proposal and pondering what to do about the resume/CV, I realized that because the book is about marriage, everything we did in World Wide Marriage Encounter and other marriage and family ministries is relevant as well as our children, sons-in-law and 22 grandchildren, all of whom are united in our big family "network." In addition, I had more publication credits than I had thought. I decided to do a different sort of resume that will reflect the marriage and family emphasis I've had throughout my life. My final comment was "It will probably be unique, but then so am I."
As if in confirmation, I had a vivid dream that night, something which has almost never happened since my husband died.
In the dream my husband was alive, and we were visiting the Archbishop who said he would write the foreword for my book (he is a friend of ours). We were all laughing and talking and having a good time, and I wasn't playing second fiddle to my husband as I used to do. (I never minded it because he knew so much more about whatever we were talking about.) When we left the place where we had been visiting the Archbishop, we were walking in sunshine and saying to each other that the Archbishop was in a really good place. When I woke up and thought about the dream, I took it as a good sign that he would get the foreword written soon, and in fact he did. He told me when he saw me two months later that when he started to write, the Holy Spirit just gave him the words in one fell swoop!
While I didn't get the book proposal done in one fell swoop, I finished it in three days, working in 20 minute increments.
My pomodoro has long since rung--in fact I set two different timers and they both rang--so I shall set this aside until tomorrow when I do a final revision, and hit publish! This time I remembered on Sunday, so I will do it now!

Monday, August 12, 2019

COMING ALIVE AGAIN

On the most recent Beginning Experience Weekend I was on, I had a profound encounter that opened a portal into a new dimension of being a widow. It will take more than one blogpost to trace that journey, but it began when the Team Priest came over to me before one of the talks and told me that he had given a World Wide Marriage Encounter Weekend a few weeks earlier, in a different county, and that one of the Team Couples had talked about the positive impact that my husband and I had made on their marriage. I was touched to think that more than six years after my husband died, we as a couple were still helping other couples to make their good marriages even better. The kindness of this priest as he told me helped me realize that he saw me not just as a widow now but that I had also been part of a Team fiercely dedicated to our ministry to the married.  It was similar to how I felt when our former associate pastor who had been at our parish when my husband was dying, was sent to another parish, and then came back as our new pastor. The pastor we had had in the interim knew me only as a widow and probably never met most of our children, whereas our newest pastor knew all our children and had seen most of our grandchildren, our son had served many Masses for him, and he had given my husband the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick a few days before he died. When he returned, I felt as if I were surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, as St. Paul would have said.
When the widow who is one of the lead Team Members for the Beginning Experience Weekend I will be doing in October, came by to pick up the notebook she had left at my house, and I mentioned what had happened and how it seemed as if my husband was alive again in that experience, she said she had had a similar occurrence when someone had come to her office and commented on her last name and it turned out that this woman had been taught public speaking by my friend's husband at her high school.  My daughters had gone to the same school, and after I asked what he had taught and when, I realized that they had also had him as their public speaking teacher. I remembered meeting him at the back to school nights. My daughters had always spoken highly of him and never had a fear of public speaking.  I remembered that he charged the students a nickel each time any of them said "um,"  and that it cured most students of that habit.  Suddenly, I could imagine my friend with her husband vividly, and as we talked about him, he seemed to come alive in our conversation, as my husband had done in my talk with the priest.  How beautiful it is know that our loved ones have touched others' lives; it is a bit like seeing their faces smiling,  shimmering behind a veil. We know they are there, and waiting for us in the radiance of infinite Love.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

AN INTENSE TRIP THROUGH TIME

 After I heard the news about my Aunt Cecilia's death, my daughter Elizabeth and her husband told me that Elizabeth would be happy to fly out to Missouri with me for Aunt Cecilia's funeral.  They didn't want to pressure me into going, since I am still terrified of flying, but wanted me to know that if I wanted to go, she would be able to go with me. (I still haven't been able to fly alone.) I was very grateful for the offer, and decided I would go.  
I had to cancel or reschedule a bunch of doctor's appointments and my horn lesson, buy train tickets to and from LA and book the hotel in LA for both of the nights I'd be there.  My son-in-law took care of booking the flights and the hotel in Hannibal where Elizabeth and I would stay.  My second daughter dropped me off at the train station, and Elizabeth picked me up in LA, we had some time together with her family, and then she took me to my hotel.  In the morning, we were off to St. Louis.
There was some turbulence on the way to St. Louis, and although I took my medication, there were still some white knuckle moments.  Elizabeth told me that their 7 year old daughter Cecilia (who is named for my aunt) was also afraid of turbulence, and that when they were going to Asia, Cecilia announced that she would pray that there wouldn't be any turbulence. Elizabeth said there was quite a bit of turbulence as they were heading into Tokyo, but when they landed, Cecilia calmly announced that she had prayed for no turbulence, and her prayers had been answered.  When Elizabeth told her that in fact there had been some turbulence, Cecilia seemed surprised.  However, all the way through the tunnel from the plane to the airport, Cecilia raised both hands in the air and shouted, "Praise the Lord!"  We are not really a charismatic family, but when we landed in St. Louis safely, I felt like doing the same thing, except that I was juggling my French horn and my purse and didn't feel quite as light hearted as my granddaughter had.
We stayed overnight in Hannibal, and early the next morning drove out to the little country church where my aunt had spent her entire adult life.  I have 39 first cousins, and I spent a good deal of time before the funeral trying to guess which cousin was which (I could almost always guess which family they were from). Elizabeth was already in the pew when I finally made it into church, and several relatives told me later they were pretty sure she was my daughter.  They were far more complimentary than one of my visits as a child to my grandparents' church where my mother had grown up. 
I was about 10, and some woman whom I didn't know came up and asked if I was her daughter. When I said yes, she said, "Oh, I knew you must be because you have the same profile!" I was extremely sensitive about my nose at that time, and I knew she was really saying that my nose was too big.  It took my father a year when I was sixteen of coming home every day and telling me how much he liked my nose before I gave up wanting a nose job. I was convinced he was just saying that to make me feel better, but it recently occurred to me that since he loved my mother, profile and all, he was probably telling the truth!
The funeral was a beautiful celebration of my aunt, who had been married over 50 years, raised and loved 10 children, wrote two regular newspaper columns for over 25 years, was active in her church and in prison ministry, and wrote a card or an encouraging note to someone every day.  Many of the people who were there said they still had something she had written to them decades before.  
Afterwards the church hall was the scene of a dinner (this is the country, so it was at noon) where I reconnected with another aunt and many of my cousins, one of whom I hadn't seen since I had babysat him a long time ago. There was laughter as well as tears, and it was good to be back with so much of our family.  We stayed with one of my aunt's daughters and her husband, who now live near St. Louis, the last night, and it was good to decompress with them, as being plunged into a maelstrom of cousins at a very emotional time was ultimately exhausting for this introvert.
The flight back was not as turbulent and when I finally got home, I was wrung out.
It took me three days to finish unpacking, and although it has been over a week, I still feel drained emotionally.  I'm glad I went, but there's no place like home.