Sunday, November 29, 2020

ALL THE THINGS

It's always easier for me to see the negative, and I have to work at finding the positive. What could be better than Thanksgiving to focus on all the good that has been poured out over me? My frequent temptation in the last eight years had been to rage at the fate that took my beloved husband from me. However, as I look back I am grateful that we met in our senior year of high school and fell in love. We knew we were too young to make a permanent commitment then, and my family moved to Texas from New Jersey, but we kept writing to each other, and occasionally used student standby fares to travel to visit one another.  By the time I was a sophomore in college we knew that we were meant for each other.  We waited a year after I graduated from college, when he had completed two years of law school, to get married (he went through Harvard in three years which is how he surged ahead of me in school), but we were both only 22, which meant that we had celebrated 38 years of marriage before he died. While I would have rather have had many more, and we had been planning our 40th anniversary when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I had friends whose husbands had died after only a few years of marriage. As I told many people after he died, I would rather have been married to him for only 38 years than to anyone else for longer. Especially after we went on our World Wide Marriage Encounter Weekend, our time together was an experience of deepening intimacy and passion and unconditional love, and it seemed as if we lived twice as much in those years.

In addition, we were blessed with our six amazing children. After our oldest, Elizabeth was born, we tried for a year to get pregnant again, and we started wondering if we'd have only one child.  We had my father-in-law living with us, dying of cancer, and it was a very stressful set of circumstances.  That summer, my mother-in-law (who was separated from my husband's father), and the younger children stayed with him so that we could get some time away for a vacation, and the very first night I got pregnant. We had challenges with each of our pregnancies, and I lost the seventh in a miscarriage, but each of our children was a miracle, and I am so grateful for each one, even the tiny 11-week old baby who waits for us in heaven.

I am thankful for my five wonderful sons-in-law whom I love as if they were my own sons. They have all been big brothers to our son, the youngest of our six children. And with my daughters, they have given me 22 grandchildren, each unique and filled with special gifts. The year my husband died, we were presented with three granddaughters, and the joy we experienced in welcoming those new lives helped us as we were saying goodbye to my husband.

My home is another beautiful blessing; the mortgage is paid off and since I have to stay here so much of the time during Covid, I am glad that in the 35 years I have lived here, we were able to turn it from a depressing house painted a dark, dreary brown, into a bright blue home with white shutters and indigo trim. Each of the five floods we experienced gave us the opportunity to change something else on the inside, so that now every room expresses my personality in some way, especially my office with lilac and purple walls.

I am blessed that I discovered my passion for writing when I was in third grade and noticed that not all stories began with "Once upon a time," but more often than not, in medias res, right in the middle of things. I have been writing ever since, and all the time that I was raising my children with my husband, I was also writing, and ensuring that I would have time to write every week by getting a babysitter or becoming a member of a babysitting co-op.  Monday afternoons have been my writing time most of my adult life, although when I had an inspiration I would often sit down and scribble it on a random piece of paper so I wouldn't lose it.  Occasionally I would have longer periods of time to write, such as when we took a motor home trip from California to Oklahoma and Texas, and while we were driving through Oklahoma I was refreshing my memories of my childhood and editing my novel about growing up there. That was a scintillating as well as a hot and humid experience.

When I was in eighth grade our English teacher assigned a poem and it was my first venture into free verse, which carried me through high school and college, although I did write some formal poetry. But it was when I took a poetry workshop at what was then called the New School for Social Research in Manhattan from Colette Inez, primarily because I was getting ready to get married and didn't think I'd have time to write a novel. Poetry turned out to be my grand passion, and after the class had ended Colette invited me to write to her occasionally and she would critique any poems I sent. Our correspondence and friendship lasted over 40 years until her death, and I cherish all her comments written on my poems. Her own poems were almost an embarass de richesses; I have never known anyone so madly in love with words who juggled them together so astonishingly. What a gift it was to have had her kindness and incisive advice as my own poetry matured. I only saw her once after we moved to California. We went back to the East Coast for a World Wide Marriage Encounter Convention, and my dear husband arranged a three-week whirlwind tour for us, as we traveled with our son from Virginia to New England. Near the end of the trip, we stopped in Manhattan, and visited Colette, had wine and olives in her apartment, then took her to lunch at a Turkish restaurant on the upper West Side. It was a memorable time, followed by a stay at the Waldorf, a visit to the Apple Store which wasn't there when we lived there before, and (for our son) a harrowing drive out of the city since he wasn't used to traffic in Manhattan. We met up with the Pennsylvania branch of my husband's family for a lunch at King of Prussia Mall, and ended with a stay at the very rustic hotel where he had stayed every time he had business at the company headquarters.  After the Waldorf, it was a sad disappointment to me, but I am happy in remembering that he was so delighted to introduce me to the bartender and everyone else there who knew him, so I could imagine his surroundings when he was working away from home.  It is one more example of how much he yearned for us to be united even when he wasn't actually with me. It is a comfort to remember all the things that showed me his love.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

THE JOURNEY OF THE ZIGGURAT

 I think it began with the "Gate of Gratitude," the original title of what has become my chapbook "Portal of Light." For some reason, once I had a gate, I decided that the gate would lead to a ziggurat.  It sounded Biblical or at least ancient and somewhat poetical.  The next step was research, and when I look back at the early drafts of the chapbook, I find entries on the hanging gardens of Babylon and the ziggurat supposedly designed by Sennacherib for his favorite wife, that involved sluice gates and Archimedes screws and the importation of vast quantities of trees and plants to duplicate the geography of wherever she came from. Despite this, Sennacherib was a despicable leader given to acts of cruelty against his enemies.  There is actually no evidence that Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame ever built a ziggurat or the hanging gardens of Babylon, whereas the British museum has some bas reliefs that show the levels of a ziggurat apparently constructed under Sennacherib, with the amazing plants that he installed there. 

Somehow looking at all those colorful renderings of a variety of ziggurats, inspired me to create levels of trees, shrubs, and flowers in my chapbook, and as I planted them in my lines, the ziggurat rose in my poetry.  It became an entity unto itself, which I fiercely defended against what I judged were unjust attacks by my daughter.  However, as she patiently chipped away at the construction, I slowly began to see that it was misplaced, and not an integral part of the chapbook.  At first, I thought it was the structure that supported the whole chapbook, but as I looked at it through her eyes, I realized that it was more like the first preliminary drawing or even 3D replica that enabled me to start the actual building but was more of a jumping off place that enabled me to soar into a higher creativity.

I finally, after months of wrangling with my daughter-critic, removed the ziggurat from my chapbook and replaced it with a landscape more reminiscent of the hills around Jerusalem, but as I was re-reading the notes I made on constructing my ziggurat, I was lifted up with a sudden joy at remembering how I copied many beautiful pages of artists' creative imaginings of what a ziggurat might have looked like, with plants ascending through all the layers. I felt as if I were a lark piercing the sky and singing for the sheer joy of the beauty all around me, even if it is all imaginary. It will probably evolve into a separate poem, because I loved so many of the lines, and I am beginning to see the glimmerings of a different journey than the one I took in "Portal of Light."  It is exciting to realize that the poetic journey is never really finished, that what ends in one long journey can open into new paths and an ever-widening vision.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT'S GONNA HAPPEN!

Recently I called my dental insurance to ask a question about something on my bill. It was somewhat involved, but eventually I got it straightened out, although the woman who was helping me told me I should check back in a month to be sure that the correction had gone through because, as she said, with a strong Southern accent, "You just never know what's gonna happen!"

That has been the theme of 2020.  During the Christmas holiday of 2019, all my family except my youngest daughter and her family were here, which added up to 30 people.  And all of us got sick sequentially over the course of the time we were together.  It must have been some variant of influenza; we went through cases of tissues and took turns never moving from our beds or sofa beds. We still had a good time overall because family reunions are hard to coordinate since there are so many of us now.  In retrospect, we wondered if it had been an advance onslaught of Covid-19, but various family members have been tested since then, and all were negative. Maybe it was just a prediction of what was coming.

I remember starting to hear about the coronavirus in China after that, but it was on the other side of the world, so I didn't give it too much space in my worry compartment. But soon the contagion was spreading like a wildfire in California, with sparks being carried for miles, and slowly the whole world changed. 

Masks appeared, hand sanitizer was hard to get, and toilet paper hoarded.  Choirs were forbidden, which meant that I no longer had choir practice on Monday nights. It also meant that I no longer had to go to the 9:00 Mass on Sunday to play, because Masses were suspended. My Bible studies were canceled. Soon it seemed as if everything was canceled. The Beginning Experience retreats that had been scheduled for May and October at the Abbey were canceled, along with everything else at the Abbey except for the normal routine of the monks.

I couldn't get together with the daughter who lives the closest and her family, and the daughter in LA and her family couldn't come down for a visit. Life seemed emotionally empty without hugs. For the first time in my life, I spent Easter alone, without being able to go to Mass.  Streaming Masses helped, but the Urbi et Orbi blessing from Pope Francis on Good Friday that he delivered from an empty St. Peter's Square, in the rain, was a melancholy reminder of how much had radically changed and that at the beginning of March, we surely didn't know what was gonna happen.

My grandchildren came home from school and we all became adept at Zoom conferences,  Skype conversations, and horn lessons over Messenger (with an inevitable lag). When some things began to reopen, it was tentatively and the masks and social distancing made it seem as if we were in a foreign country.  Talking with a mask even makes it seem as if we are speaking different languages. We've adapted fairly well, but we are also learning to pivot quickly.  Our parish started with Masses in church where you had to get a reservation because of the limited numbers allowed. Then we were able to have outdoor Masses, and most of those were enjoyable until it got hot. Then we were allowed to move indoors with 100 people, and the overflow was accommodated outside. But just as the weather turned colder, the Covid numbers went up, and we're all back outside again. In case we didn't believe it beforehand and thought that we are in control of our lives, we should now have learned that you really never know what's gonna happen, in 2020 or any other year.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

THE ROGUE COMPUTER

 As the iMac computer I bought in 2013 became, according to Apple, "vintage," and this year transmogrified into "obsolete," it has become slower and more stubborn about following my commands.  To me, it still looks like the sleek, large-screen desktop I bought when I made the switch from a PC to Apple. Our old PC was so riddled with viruses that my son-in-law, who is a computer whiz, told me that it couldn't be saved.  So I made the switch. I signed up for the program that included three years of classes on all the ins and outs of my new computer, as well as some help with my iPhone.

Within a year of getting the computer, it began to duplicate some of my photos, then they appeared in triplicate, and after that in quadruplicate.  In addition, if I had a picture with 6 people in it (for instance, my children), it would make 6 additional photos of each of them. Then it made thumbnails which on the screen of photos looked exactly like full-size photos, until you clicked on it, so there was no way to differentiate between a regular photo and a thumbnail.  I asked one of my instructors at an Apple class if he could help me figure out what was going on. He couldn't and said he had never seen that happen before. Pretty soon every person who worked in the Apple store knew me well and my computer even better. But none of them could explain what had happened, or fix it.

One of the Apple teachers was able to help me delete a big group of pictures. I think he found a tag on pictures I didn't need and we were able to delete them all pretty quickly. But at the end of the class, he told me I should go ahead and empty the trash on the computer, and it took three hours, which is eloquent of how many pictures were in the trash.

Eventually, my three years of classes ended, and I called Apple directly. They sent me to Tier 2 advisors. I lost count of how many different ones I consulted, but none of them was able to explain how it happened or help to resolve it.  After a while, I just gave up and attempted to ignore the multitudinous photographs that were on my computer, only about a fourth of them actually pictures that I wanted. The storage space they required slowed the computer but I just kept plodding on. I think that perhaps the photos were like the furry beings in the original Star Trek episode, "Trouble with Tribbles." When I turned off the computer they multiplied indiscriminately, so that there always seemed to be more than I remembered. In addition, I'd moved the photos from an old laptop onto my new computer, so I now had three iPhoto libraries and 2 Photos libraries, all burgeoning and growing from what I could see, like the fabled kudzu plants in the South which apparently could cover a haphazardly parked car in a day.

As the months passed, the computer gained weight and began to move more slowly every day. Sometimes it took an unconscionably long time to open Mail or Chrome, and it began to freeze at inopportune moments. I'd have to shut it down and turn it back on again several times before it would behave.

I finally realized that it was time to buy a new computer.  While I am far less satisfied with Apple since Steve Jobs departed the planet, the alternatives seemed even worse. I decided just to purchase a new iMac 27.  However, I discovered that I could not just walk into an Apple store and bring home a new computer, as I had done with the original one. There were about 10 different options, from Nano-texture glass instead of the usual screen to what kind of processor you want, how much Turbo Boost, how much memory in two different areas, and how much storage (up to 8 TB). It took me a week to figure out which of all these options was best, with input from my Ninja Mac expert son-in-law and my business partner who designs 3D worlds.  Then I had to place my order, and take out an Apple card so I could pay over 12 months with no interest. Then they started to build my computer, so it was another several weeks before the computer appeared on my doorstep.

I was thrilled, and soon had it out of the box and set up like a twin next to the old computer on my desk.  I called Apple and we started the Migration Assistant.  We tried three different times, but I think the amount of files (i.e. photos) just caused gridlock.  Then I called the company that takes back the old computer to let them know that I couldn't get it back to them in the amount of time they gave me.  I explained the difficulty and the woman to whom I spoke said she had never heard of such a problem and said that she would guarantee my refund no matter how long it takes.  I then asked her if she was sure she wanted it, since it appeared to be a rogue computer and might infect all the other computers in their warehouse. We laughed at that, and it was the first time I had been able to see the absurdity of the whole issue.  My son-in-law thinks that he can resolve it when they are down for Thanksgiving, so I will try to keep it under restraint until then and see what happens.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

FEELINGS: BEACONS OF INTIMACY

Recently, I was awakened by a dream that wouldn't let me go back to sleep. A woman was speaking to me, and she said, "I made some cookies and now I can tell my husband I am exhausted."  When I got out of bed I kept thinking about what she had said which didn't seem to make a lot of sense. As I pondered it, I realized that we are often more willing to share our thoughts than our feelings, and yet our feelings are the keys to deeper, more intimate communication, particularly in marriage. The woman in my dream apparently thought that making cookies for her husband was the action that would open the door for her to be able to share her feelings with him.  Sharing our feelings and listening to another's feelings with our hearts is actually the passageway to tenderizing our relationships.

When my husband and I were part of a presenting team on a World Wide Marriage Encounter Weekend, we spent a good part of one of the early talks explaining the difference between thoughts and feelings--so much so that couples would ask us if we were teachers. Thoughts come from the head and feelings from the heart, but there is a very easy way to distinguish them.  (It will also give you a way to say "gotcha" when listening to someone pontificate on TV or news feeds.)  If you can say, "I feel ____," you're sharing a feeling. If you say "I feel that ____," it's a thought.  You can feel sad, happy, angry, joyful, and many other emotions. But if you say, "I feel that you should do the dishes/put the kids to bed/get up earlier in the morning/be nicer to my mother," you are expressing a thought. You should really say, "I believe or think that" whatever the phrase was that came after "that."  You can argue with thoughts, but feelings are spontaneous inner reactions that have no morality; they just are.  They are also windows into the soul, letting us see the inner life of the person who is sharing them. If that person is our husband or wife, we can journey together into our hearts and souls, into levels of intimacy that can be reached in no other way. My beloved husband and I wrote each other a love letter every day for the last 30 years of our marriage. We described our feelings in detail, and then chose one feeling to try to understand more fully. For instance, if I was describing a feeling of exhaustion, like the woman in my dream, I might say, "I feel exhausted as if I had run a marathon. I feel worn out, as if I had been chasing the children around all day and had gotten nothing else done.  I feel utterly flattened, as if a bulldozer had just rolled over me." We would then discuss our feelings until my husband would really understand what I had been sharing. We either took turns focusing on one of our feelings, or if there were a really strong feeling, we'd talk about that.  But over the years, we developed such an ever-deepening bond that our relationship grew more intimate as we fell more deeply in love. Getting to know another person in such a way is an adventure because every person has infinite depths. In the 38 years we were married, we were constantly discovering new facets of our love. And although I have lost him in this world, I know that I was deeply loved, and that we will be together again.  As a reminder of this, my oldest daughter Elizabeth sent me a text on the morning of the eighth anniversary of his death, "This fell out of a book at my house late last night--maybe you're getting a little message for today :)."  She included a picture she had taken of a 3 x 5 card with a heart sticker on it and a note from my dear husband, "I love being close to you."

And he still is.