My dad loved Kate Smith. No, Kate Smith, was not my mom’s maiden name or the name of the girl that got away. For those of you too young to remember, she was a large round singer with a big voice who was popular during the 1940s and 1950s. She sang a rousing version of “God Bless America” which I adopted as my own and whenever we sang that song in grammar school I suspect my teachers never really understood why the normally quiet little girl sang “God Bless America” at the top of her lungs.
In the early 1950s our first TV arrived in my family’s living room. The TV frame was a large square box that stood about four feet tall. Inside the TV frame were large oblong bulbs and multi-colored wires. The TV screen was small and square with round corners and was probably no more than 15 inches by 15 inches. It was a red letter day for me when our TV was delivered and I remember running home from school in anticipation of watching the Kate Smith Show and not wanting to miss her singing the show’s opening number, “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.”
That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair between me and the TV. As I grew up, the programs I ran home from school to see grew up with me. The most popular was The Mickey Mouse Club … M I C … KEY … MOUSE … kids in the neighborhood began to wear “Mickey ears” and sport Tee and sweatshirts with the club’s logo. All my little girlfriends and I wanted to be Annette and we argued over who was cuter, Spin or Marty, the two teenage boy characters in a serial story on “The Club. “
The sun and I woke up about the same time on Saturday mornings. I would creep down the stairs, not wanting to wake anyone so that I could have the TV all to myself. Still creeping, I’d quietly open the back door and collect the coconut covered donuts left by the bakery deliveryman, creep back to the living room, turn on the TV knob trying to avoid the loud click it would make, sit down in front of the screen while quietly opening the box of donuts, and watch the TV pattern until programming began.
What followed were hours and hours of classic TV: The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Sky King, and Hopalong Cassidy, all in black and white.
On Sunday nights my siblings and I washed our hair, took a bath and jumped into fresh pjs just in time to watch the Ed Sullivan Show. My whole family would sit together in the living room and watch Ed Sullivan introduce such diverse entertainers as Eddie Fisher, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Elvis Presley, Mario Lanza and our favorite reoccurring entertainer, ventriloquist Senor Wences … It’s alright? It’s alright. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching Senor Wences perform, look him up on YouTube, you’ll find many of his classic skits there.
I have very vivid memories of mom and dad snuggled up on the couch and the four of us kids sprawled across the living floor as we watched Ozzie and Harriet, Lassie, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Perry Mason and Gunsmoke.
When Dick Clark’s American Bandstand first appeared on TV my friends and I were pre-teens and rushed home from school together to sit in a circle around the TV. We sang all the hit songs, whether we knew the words or not, and hopped up to do the stroll and copy dance steps when the spirit moved us. We had long, heated discussions about whether the blonde guy with the DA haircut was a better dancer than the dark haired guy wearing the loafers and which couples were really dating or just faking it for TV.
A few years later Dick Clark had a Saturday night TV show. Fabian, Bobby Darin, Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and many more of my teenage crushes performed. Many Saturday nights I stood at the kitchen sink drying dinner dishes (my family chore) with my neck stretched toward the doorway so I could catch a glimpse of my favorite heartthrob singing on that show.
At some point my family moved up to a color TV and as I grew through my teenage years the focus of my life changed from being at home with my family to being away from home with my friends and the time I spent watching TV dwindled down.
In rereading this story it sounds like I spent a lot of time in front of the TV when I was a kid, but not really. My friends and I loved to play outside and my Mom was always scooting us out the door if she felt we were spending too much time in front of the TV. I suppose the TV was to my generation what the radio was to the generation before us and the computer and video games are to today’s generation. Wonder what wonderful invention is waiting right there in the future to entertain generations to come.
The cabin was quiet when Mary Beth woke up the next day. It was well after lunch time but she wasn’t particularly hungry. She was glad Ann wasn’t there. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the gentle movement of the ship and wondered how her life had suddenly turned into a soap opera.
"I have to talk with her, set some boundaries, otherwise this trip will turn into a nightmare for me," she thought. “I don’t care if she wants to sleep with the whole damned crew, as long as she doesn’t do it in front of me.”
Mary Beth didn't want to get up. She pulled the warm quilt up to her chin and was tempted to just roll over onto the soft pillows and go back to sleep. Instead she forced herself out of bed and into the shower. She formulated some thoughts for the conversation with Ann and felt better knowing she was prepared.
Everything looked gray outside the porthole but it didn't appear to be raining. Too tired to run, she decided a walk in fresh air would clear her head. She dressed slowly, first pulling on a pair of black slacks and then fastening the pearl buttons on her white angora cardigan. Slipping into a pair of black flats she left the cabin feeling confident she could find the door to the Boat Deck without a problem.
The door was relatively easy to find, but not easy to open. Even pushing against the metal door with her shoulder didn’t budge it. Deciding it was locked she went looking for help and found a crew member just around the next corner. Very graciously, with a hint of a smile on his face, he explained the door was not locked, that the wind blowing across the ocean was keeping it closed. “Really?” she said to the guy. Walking away she didn’t know whether to be impressed by Mother Nature or terrified by her. “Definitely not going for a walk on the deck today,” she said to herself.
It was 2:30 in the afternoon and now she was starving. Lunch was no longer being served and dinner was 5 ½ hours away. She grabbed a candy bar at the store near the Midships Lobby, stopped by the library, borrowed a Jane Austin novel (what else would she read as she sailed toward England) and settled into her quiet little nook in the Queen’s Room. The room was empty except for a few couples playing Bridge on a folding table.
Although she couldn’t feel a discernible difference in the ship’s movement, looking out the large picture windows she saw the ocean waves appear in the window, then disappear, appear in the window, then disappear. Deciding to stop looking before her stomach flipped, she unwrapped the candy bar, then opened Mansfield Park and began to read.
She read only a few pages when she heard, “Are you OK?” Looking up she saw David standing over her, still dressed in his uniform with a towel flung over one shoulder. He looked tired. “I didn’t expect to see you at breakfast,” he said, “but when you didn’t come to lunch I got a little worried."
Smiling up at him she said, “You are such a sweet guy," and she wondered how she would have gotten through the last 24 hours without him. "I was exhausted David and just couldn't wake up." "I can probably get you a sandwich from the kitchen if you're hungry,' he offered. Looking down at his uniform he said “I just got off work.” “I could tell by that towel on your shoulder,” she teased. Smiling he flipped the towel onto the nearest chair. "Thank you, but I have this wonderful candy bar that I am eating for lunch." she joked. "That's not a proper meal," he replied.
“Here,” she said pointing to the chair next to her, “sit down for a few minutes.” Sheepishly he looked around, “the crew is supposed to leave the passenger decks when they’re done working” he said. Surprised, Mary Beth said “Oh? But I’ve seen crew members talking with passengers in the lounge after dinner.” “That’s the officers,” he said with a look of disdain, “me and the mates are crew.” Understanding the distinction, she told him she didn’t want to get him in trouble and thanked him for checking in on her. He glanced at his watch and to Mary Beth’s surprise, sat down anyway. She was beginning to notice that this young man had a very independent streak.
From the beginning they were very comfortable with each other, they had a connection of sorts, a mutual understanding, and their minds were in sync. Mary Beth would never describe it as chemistry because that had a romantic connotation and he was a 21 year old kid which left romance totally out of the question.
Unlike some of her other male friends who were guarded and distant, David was confident and forthcoming. He answered all of her questions without hesitation. As soon as he completed his mandatory education requirements, he left home at 16 and started working on ships. He had worked at sea ever since. He mentioned offhandedly that his second ship actually sank. At Mary Beth's insistence he gave her more details about the ordeal including that he and 17 other crew members were the last people taken off the ship and were standing in the lobby with water to their knees when they were rescued.
When he talked about his baby son he seemed awestruck. Still a bit surprised. She suspected because he traveled so much David had not spent a lot of time with his son. He described how he had been on a world cruise when his son was born and the cruise company flew him home from Hawaii. He talked about growing up with his son’s “mum,” and said he sends most of his paychecks home to her, keeping just a small amount in his own pocket.
David wanted to know everything about Mary Beth. He leaned forward when she spoke, as though he wanted to be sure to catch every word. He looked puzzled when she told him she lived alone, and he asked her the same question a few different times in a few different ways. He was curious about her friends, what she did for a living, if she liked her job.
He asked her to tell him again how she ended up traveling with Ann and he didn’t even try to hide how amused he was by the story. He told her he understood why she didn't want to stay in her cabin last night but also told her she shouldn't walk around the ship by herself at night. "I know," she agreed, "I'm going to deal with this," and then told him what she planned to say to Ann. "I'd be more forceful," he said, but she reminded him she was going to have to spend the next 2 1/2 weeks with that woman so they had to come to an understanding.
He asked why her marriage ended. Kicking her shoes off and curling her feet under her, she told him it wasn’t so much that she and her husband changed after they got married, the problem was they were so young when they married that it took a few years living together before they realized they didn’t have very much in common. He asked how old they were when they married and she felt awkward telling him they were both 21.
He seemed shocked when, in response to his question, she said she didn’t think she wanted to have children. “You don’t like children?” he said incredulously. “Love them,” she replied, “I have nieces and nephews I would give up my life for, I just don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to have one of my own.”
Casually he looked at his watch and stood up. “I’ve got to go, we've been talking for over an hour," he said. "I was hoping to take a nap and I have a few things to take care of before I go back to work. The mates are going to think I jumped overboard.” “I’m sorry,” Mary Beth said, “you must be exhausted, seems like I’m always imposing on you.” With a very sober expression on his face he looked in her eyes and said, “You’re not imposing on me, this is where I wanted to be." Sitting there looking up at that handsome, thoughtful, man, Mary Beth thought she heard the very wise woman who lives inside of her whisper, "be careful here."
Before he left he quickly explained that there were three crew pubs below. Mates in his pub were from the Liverpool/Manchester area. The other pubs were for crew members from other districts in England. Usually the pubs don't mix and sometimes when they do there are fights, and some of those fights could be dangerous. There was one place where everyone went and they were all on their best behavior. It was called the "disco." Female crew members went there too so there was dancing as well as singing. "Me and my mates are going to the disco tonight. Would you come with us? It will be fun. “And,” he added with a big grin, “your mate is going with William so you won’t be the only girl there.”
Feeling confident that David would watch out for her and confident that he could take care of himself and her if there was a problem, Mary Beth said, “Sure, sounds like fun.” “Me and my mates will come by and get you around 11.” “OK, see you then," she replied watching him walk away.
She lingered over the book and read a few chapters. She wasn't much for confrontation and recognized that she was stalling, not wanting to go back to the cabin and have that inevitable conversation with Ann. When high tea was served at 4 o'clock she looked for the Colorado couple but they weren't there and she ended up having a somewhat boring chat with an Englishman who made furniture.
Ann was waiting when she returned to the cabin. Before Mary Beth could speak, Ann apologized for her behavior. "I'm sorry to have put you in that position last night," she said. "David was very angry at me this morning at breakfast." Ignoring the last comment, Mary Beth told Ann if she was going to spend the night with a man she could not bring him back to their suite. "I don't know what it is," Ann said, "maybe it's being so far away from home, maybe it's being on this ship, or a combination of both. I never do this back home." Putting her hand up, Mary Beth said "Please Ann, you do not owe me an explanation, we're both adults. I just have to watch out for my safety and I cannot be walking around this ship all night." "You're absolutely right," Ann agreed. "I have plans to spend the night with William, but we won't be here." Mary Beth rolled her eyes and went to take another shower.
She wore her short, empire waisted, beige charmeuse dress with spaghetti straps and beige 2 inch pumps to dinner. She always felt great when she wore that dress and got lots of compliments. Roast Duck was their dinner of choice. The wine, the roast vegetables en croute and the milk chocolate moose were amazing, the duck not so much. Mary Beth had never had roast duck before and found she didn't care for it. It was too greasy for her taste.
At 10 o'clock Ann excused herself and went off to meet William. Peter, one of the dinner companions, suggested they all go to the casino for a nightcap. Mary Beth agreed since she had an hour before her friends came by to collect her but Alan and John begged off, saying they both had a long day and were tired.
Mary Beth and Peter decided to have that nightcap together. The casino was a long, narrow and rather dark room, smaller than she expected, with lots of recessed lighting, mirrors and loud throbbing music. It was crowded, but Peter found a small table near the bar where they sat and ordered cocktails.
Peter was a distinguished looking and attractive man in his 60s. He was always cordial and friendly and she knew from their dinner conversations that he was married and had grown children. Alan told her that Peter literally lived in a castle that had been handed down through generations. A half hour into their conversation Peter startled Mary Beth by invited her to join him in his suite. "I am so not cut out for this," Mary Beth thought. "Thank you for the invitation” was her polite response, "but I am meeting friends shortly." He smiled and said he understood. Five minutes later she thanked him for the drink and left him standing by their table.
Walking back to change into more casual clothes she wondered if she and Ann were the only single women on this ship. It was like the freakin Love Boat.
Yesterday I spent a considerable amount of time typing a blog. I was just about ready to publish it when I hit the cancel button instead and lost the whole thing. It was probably just as well because I’ve been suffering with a miserable head cold for the past 6 days and my head has felt like it has been stuffed with cotton balls.
The blog was about Gabrielle Giffords. I felt bad after reading in the news that she was resigning her congressional seat, at least for now. I suspect her resignation was inevitable considering what I’ve read about her medical issues. I don’t know much about her politics or if I would vote for her if she made it to the national political scene, but her personal strength is impressive as she struggles to keep her head above water.
Her husband, Mark Kelly, has impressed me also. Aside from being an astronaut, his dedication to, and support of, his wife has been noteworthy. It appears he has been at her side constantly, except for the time he spent circling the earth. His affection for her is so obvious and genuine it makes me think that even with everything that has happened to her, she is blessed.
When I read she was resigning, I went searching for a blog I wrote for another site the day after she was shot. When I found it, I was surprised at my focus in the blog. Here’s the blog entitled Arizona:
“We all have different degrees of emotional sensitivity. My mom used to tell me that I wore my heart on my sleeve, like that was a bad thing. I was the kid who cried when the family parakeet died. I was the kid that got her feelings hurt easily. It was always hard for me to rebound from the loss of someone I loved, whether it was family or a romance. I’m the still waters run deep gal.
For many years I imagined immaturity caused this “problem” of being “too sensitive” and actually tried to downplay that part of my personality believing someday I would “grow up” and stop being so damned sensitive. Well, guess what, that never happened. What did happen was I came to realize my sensitive nature is just a part of who I am.
Where am I going with this? The recent shootings in Arizona. Maybe it was seeing the beautiful, young face of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and hearing that a child was murdered, but I cried when I listened to the news.
I also felt really bad when I realized there have been a number of recent public shootings and this sensitive nature of mine was able to ignore them. That’s not how I want to be. I want to cry whenever there is senseless violence and innocent lives are taken. I never again want to not react to that type of violence. From now on I will read the names of the victims, give them a face. I never want to get used to the idea that violence is an expected part of this world.”
Well, at some point during the past year I stopped reading the names of the victims of senseless violence, I don’t know why, but I intend to start again because names make them real, real people like you and me. The next time Gabrielle Giffords is in the news, and I hope it’s because she is running for office again, I am going to read these blogs again and see how I’m doing.
As a small memoriam to those people who were murdered at the same time Gabrielle was shot, here are their names:
· Christina-Taylor Green, 9 years old. Christina was born on 9/11/01 and was one of the children who appear in the book “Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11.”
· Dorothy “Dot” Morris, 76 years old. Dot was a retired secretary and her husband, George, was wounded in the shooting
· John Roll, 63 years old. John was chief judge of the US District Court for Arizona, named to the bench by President George H. W. Bush in 1991.
· Phyllis Schneck, 79 years old. Phyllis was a homemaker.
· Dorwan Stoddard, 76 years old. Dorwan was a retired construction worker and died from a gunshot wound to the head. Dorwan’s wife, Mary, was wounded.
· Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, 30 years old. Gabe was the community outreach director for Rep. Giffords and has the dubious distinction of being the first Congressional staffer killed in the line of duty.
Thirteen other people were wounded by gunfire that day. Another person was injured also, but not by gunfire. Gabrielle and two other members of her staff were among the surviving gunshot victims.
How often during your lifetime have you heard the expression live in the moment, don’t look back or forward, live in this moment. I have heard it hundreds, if not thousands of times. Yet it wasn’t until this morning that I began to truly understand.
While driving to work I was thinking about a situation that happened a while back. It did not have a good ending and like a scab over a wound, I have been going back and picking at it for months, not allowing it to heal properly. This morning while driving down a pretty tree lined country road, the morning sun beaming down from the cloudless blue sky, I realized my thoughts were focused back on that issue again and that I was riding through a picture-perfect morning and missing the whole thing.
THAT’S when I finally understood. What happened a year ago or a minute ago is over, or as my son would say, it’s done. Which isn’t to say, pleasant memories shouldn’t be revisited, but there’s no reason to dwell on unpleasant, or embarrassing, or unsolvable situations from the past. Learn as much as possible from what happens to us, our experiences will be with us forever, but it’s better to just release them and let them be there, than to keep reliving them because while we’re doing that we are opting out of our life, missing the now by dwelling on the past.
As for the future, of course we all have to take care of the details of our lives, we all have dreams and plans but there comes a time when we have done all the planning and all the preparation and now we wait. It’s the while we are waiting part that is important. What we do while we are waiting. We have to be sure we live our lives while we are waiting. Not spend every waking moment anticipating.
John Lennon was right when he sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It’s not the getting from A to B; it’s all the steps along the way that are important.
So I will take my newly realized understanding and resist the urge to dwell on unpleasant events from the past. When I find myself slipping back, I will take a look around me and see what’s going on at that moment in my life.
Whatever time of the day or night you are reading this, I hope it's a good moment for you.
When I was writing the blog about Friday the 13th the other day, the Knights Templar showed up in my research. They played a big part in the Crusades which reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago about the Crusaders.
At the time I was working for a Jewish congregation in Albany. My boss was the Rabbi. A group of congregants were standing near my desk and talking about the Crusaders in a somewhat negative way. Well, I was always taught they were the good guys, even the sports teams at my high school were called the Crusaders, and so I spoke up and asked why they felt that way. My wonderful Rabbi happened to be walking by. He stopped and turned to me and in his most understanding way asked me who I thought the Crusaders were fighting in Jerusalem. I looked at him and repeated verbatim what I had been taught as a child … the Crusaders were fighting the Moors. He just lifted his eyebrows and smiled.
That night I went home and did some research to find out who the hell the Moors were. Turns out that term has been used to describe black Africans, Arabs and Muslims and some scholars believe that the term “Moors” has no real ethnic value.
Most of us were raised in a bubble. I was raised in a Catholic bubble: a Catholic household, a Catholic grammar school and a Catholic high school. It was almost culture shock for me when I started my first job and began working with people who were not white Catholics. I’m not suggesting that everything I learned in the first 18 years of my life was irrelevant, just that life has forced me to review much of what I was taught as a child and I have changed my thinking accordingly.
Yet while there are certainly major issues that I have reevaluated, I wonder how many smaller beliefs I carry with me from my childhood that I have never had a reason to rethink … like who the Crusaders were fighting.
Today is Friday the 13th. Many people have been raised to keep their heads down on this day, believing that the possibility of bad things happening in their lives increases on Friday the 13th. I was born on Friday the 13th so I’ve never bought into that notion, yet, I was curious about the idea and did some research.
There is a word that describes the fear of Friday the 13th, it’s friggatriskaidekaphobia. Broken down it goes like this: Frigga, the Norse goddess for whom Friday is named and triskaidekaphobia which means fear of the number 13. The first time this word appeared in print was in 1953. There is no written evidence of a Friday the 13th superstition before the 19th century and it was rarely mentioned before the 20th century, but there are theories about how Friday the 13th got such a bad reputation.
The number 12 is considered the number of completeness in numerology, for example, 12 months of the year, 12 hours of the clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles. This makes the number 13 irregular, defying that completeness.
Some believe the superstition comes from the Last Supper or a Norse myth that having 13 people at a table will result in the death of one of the diners.
As far back as the 14th century, Friday has been considered an unlucky day to start a journey or new project.
The Christian religions believe Jesus was crucified on a Friday.
The Knights Templar, the most famous western Christian military order for two centuries during the Middle Ages, an order that was so powerful that it was exempt from obedience to local laws and all authority except that of the Pope, were slaughtered by the church after they fell out of grace; slaughtered on Friday the 13th.
Perhaps the real origin of the superstition was a popular book entitled, “Friday the Thirteenth” that was published in 1907 about an investment broker that creates the superstition in order to cause a panic on Wall Street.
Who knows how the folklore started? I was surprised to learn there is no one deep-dark reason for the superstition. There seem to be a number of theories, many of them related to religion. There has always been a strong link between religion and superstition ... but that’s a blog for another day.
Yesterday I was going through the news feed on my Facebook page and came upon a comment made by a Facebook friend. I clicked on the story. When it opened there was a photo of a woman I did not know lying in a hospital bed. After reading a few of the posts beneath the photo, it became clear the woman was in labor. About a dozen posts down the list, the mom-to-be exclaimed that her water just broke. She had posted that just 41 minutes before I read it. A few thoughts struck me at the same time.
First, here I was looking at this woman who was a perfect stranger lying in a hospital bed in labor and she had just told me that her water broke. It seemed unreal, like I was watching a TV program, yet it was reality.
Which leads me to my second thought, which is how the social networks have not only changed our way of communicating with each other, but have affected the type of information we share with the world. People can choose to give a blow-by-blow description of experiences that would have been private not that long ago, simply by using a cell phone and uploading to Facebook where the information becomes available to the world, literally.
Shortly after I joined Facebook I began having long conversations on line with a Facebook friend. A lot of banter back and forth that went on for hours. One night during one of our “conversations” another person jumped in and made a comment on what we were talking about. It shocked me that someone would actually be sitting in their home reading our conversation. It’s so easy to forget when you’re chatting on Facebook that anyone could be reading what you’re typing.
It reminds me of the “party” phone lines we had when I was a kid. Families in a neighborhood shared a common phone line. If one was adept at picking up the receiver quietly, one could listen to another family’s phone conversations. Families guarded their privacy then and were vigilant about being sure no one was listening in.
Now, myself included, people are having all kinds of conversations and sharing all kinds of information on the social networks. I cannot imagine where this might lead, what’s next?
Angelina Jolie bought Brad Pitt a California waterfall for his recent 48th birthday. Not one of those people-made serenity garden waterfalls, but a bona-fide waterfall made by Mother Nature. I am not a fan of either Jolie or Pitt. When I heard about it, my first thought was what a waste of money. My second thought was she’s not much of a philanthropist wasting that kind of money on a foolish gift, all the people she could have fed with that money. Then I read the whole story.
Brad Pitt loves architecture. A few years ago he and Angelina visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a famous Wright home built over a waterfall in Pennsylvania in 1939, where he fell in love with the landscape and the architecture. That was her inspiration for the gift, thinking some day they will build a green home over “their” waterfall.
My perspective changed when I realized we all want to find the perfect present for the ones we love, something unique that they might not buy for themselves. I don’t know what she paid for the waterfall, but given the Grand Canyon-sized gap between her bank account and mine, perhaps it’s not excessive after all.
When I saw that Elin Nordegren, Tiger Wood’s ex, is having her $12 million, 17,000 square foot home in an exclusive section of Palm Beach, FL, demolished, a home she bought just one year ago, again I thought, EXCESS, tearing down a $12 million home on a whim. Then I read the whole story.
During the course of renovating the home, huge infestations of carpenter ants and termites were found. It was so bad that one could stick their hand through the walls in certain areas. Even the expensive window frames were so undermined by the infestations they had to be thrown out. I know she was under world-class stress when she purchased that home, but the ex-real estate agent in me has to wonder if she bothered having the house inspected by a good exterminator.
So, there’s a perfectly sound reason for demolition of the house rather than renovation. Yet, there’s something else that she did that has not been widely reported. Every fixture from that house that could be saved was donated to Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity is ecstatic about the donations. If the windows were salvageable just the windows alone would have brought in close to $30,000.
Again, my perspective changed. Regardless of how much money she had or has, Elin Nordegren was broadsided by her ex-husband’s behavior and found herself not only dealing with emotional disappointment and sadness, but having to work out the details of her children’s lives with the world watching. Like many people in similar situations, she made a quick choice that turned out badly. In her case, she has the financial resources to move forward.
As a world class jumper-to-conclusions, I learned a lesson here. What appears like excess to me may be a reasonable and necessary expense to someone else.
Have you ever heard the term, “locking season?” The first time I heard the term I was reading a book entitled, “October Light," by John Gardner. He was an excellent writer who died in a motorcycle accident in the early 1980s when he was just 49 years old.
"October Light" was a good book about an older brother and sister. He had stayed and worked the family farm his whole life, she married and left. When her husband died she was forced to move back to the farm and share the house with her brother. Most of the book is about how they struggled to find a comfortable living arrangement while dealing with unresolved issues from their childhood.
But it's not the book that I want to write about, but the term, "locking season." Locking season is that time of year when the ground freezes. As soon as I read the term I had an “ah-ha” moment because it described so well a phenomena I have been aware of my whole life. Who knew there was a name for it? It felt like I had been let in on a secret kept by those wonderful third generation farmers one often sees in rural areas, the quiet, gentle, farmers who always smile kindly as though they know all the secrets of life. They live so close to the earth and to life and death that I suspect they do know many more of life’s secrets than us city folk.
Perhaps I’m just easily amused, but late last night I went out into my backyard to let my dog outside one more time before we both went to sleep, and the ground was hard. Instantly I remembered being a kid and noticing the hard ground beneath my feet for the first time. As a child, I did not like it when the ground hardened; it meant spending more time indoors.
But last night when I stepped on the hard dirt I smiled to myself knowingly and whispered “locking season.” Knowing that simple little “secret” term made me feel somehow connected to all those wizened farmers and everyone else who notices and appreciates the change of seasons.
I have always liked Dolly Parton, even in my screaming feminist days back in the 1970s. And I use the term screaming feminist with great affection. That’s when I learned about the options that should have been easily available to women but simply were not. I learned to speak up, to point out the inequity, to insist that the powers-that-be make it right and in many ways, but not all, they did.
During that period of my life I also took a second look at what I had learned from the media and my Catholic upbringing about how and why a woman should look, act and dress a certain way. I was a young female in the 1950s and 1960s when most women saw a college education and a career as a “holding pattern” of sorts. We were taught surreptitiously, if not blatantly, that our real goal in life was to get married and raise a family. In order for that to happen, we had to stay slim, wear the right clothes and make-up, be seductive, but not overtly sexual, and be coy and not too “pushy.”
Then the women’s movement came along and suggested we had lots of options, including, but not limited to, getting married and raising children. That it wouldn’t be apocalyptic if we were 35 year old career women quite capable of supporting the lifestyle we had chosen for ourselves. That notion started to nudge the paradigm from conforming to what the media and society told us women should look like to a more personal reevaluation of our choices. Did we want to forgo the tight, short outfits and 3 inch heels that crushed our toes and made it awkward to move through our workday; did we want to take a half hour run in the morning before work rather than spend that time applying make-up, would we opt to eat more than 1000 calories a day because we enjoyed food and didn’t mind wearing clothes larger than the outfits worn by the pencil thin models on the fashion runways.
So, how does Dolly Parton fit into all this? Even though she was and still is, a walking canvas, if not a caricature of the Barbie doll version of the old notion of how a woman should look to attract a man, behind the bleach blonde hair, tight clothes, super high heels, long painted finger nails and makeup is a strong and savvy businesswoman. I learned from her that how a woman chooses to look doesn’t and shouldn’t define who she is; that all of us, women and men, have the freedom to choose the face we show to the world.
I have a friend I have known for 40 years. When he got out of college in the early 70s his dad wanted him to go to law school but he hit the road instead. For the next ten years he traveled the world jumping on fishing boats or whatever transportation he could find, carrying all his worldly belongings in a backpack. Whenever he was in town we would see each other and most of the time he looked like a derelict; shoulder length hair and a long scraggly beard.
He did go to law school eventually. I heard through the grapevine that he had gotten a job in a law firm in New York City. A few months later he called and we made plans to meet for dinner. As I sat at the bar in the upscale restaurant waiting for him, I couldn’t help but notice when one of the most handsome men I have ever seen walked through the door. He was wearing a beautifully tailored suit, shirt and tie $300 shoes and sporting a $100 haircut. He started looking around the room and waved and smiled in my direction. I assumed he was waving at someone behind me but he walked right over to me, gave me a kiss and a big hug. That handsome man that could have walked out of the pages of GQ Magazine was my scraggly friend.
When I told him I couldn’t believe how good he looked, he laughed and said, “Don’t let all of this fool you, it’s my costume that I wear to work.” It was very clear he was not invested in how he looked at all; he was still the same hippy, dippy traveler that I knew and loved. Whenever I think of the faces we choose to wear in public, I think of my friend and his “costume.”
Another year behind us, a new year begins tomorrow. What if we could wake up tomorrow morning and our life was brand new?
Would you want to start from scratch, a blank slate? Or would you choose to keep all of your current memories, a “wish I knew then what I know now” approach. Would you “unselect” your family and let the wheel of fortune spin and see what new family members the universe would toss in our direction. Would you like the opportunity to accept the life you’ve lived, but perhaps go back and stand at one or two of the crossroads you have come to in your life and take a different path? Would you oppose having to accept a brand new life?
One of my favorite features of life is the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. I think learning from our mistakes may be the closest we will ever come to a brand new life. I cannot tell you how many times I have reacted in the same way to similar situations and every time the results were the same and every time I promised myself I would not do that again. We all carry stuff with us from our life experience that is so embedded that it takes diligent insight to recognize it and monumental courage to say no, I’m not doing that this way, this time. Yet, when we do find the courage to feel uncomfortable, to step outside of our comfortable little box, we learn a bit more about who we really are and if we’re lucky, we change our lives.
So go out there and grab on to 2012 and be your wonderful unique self. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
I took a very long walk today. What a great day for a long walk, cold, but no wind. There was a fair dusting of snow on the road outside my house when I left, but all the snow was gone by the time I returned. This snowless winter is beginning to get me nervous, I’m afraid we’ll all get up one morning and we won’t be able to see out our windows for the snow piled up out there. Guess I’m waiting for the other snowshoe to drop … sorry, just could not resist.
I was half way through my walk when the clock struck noon and all hell broke loose. The sirens from two fire stations sounded, the bells of the local Methodist Church started to chime, then struck 12 times, and as I walked by one of the grammar schools on the local campus, the emergency alarm went off and continued to blare. I could still hear it when I had walked a half mile further down the road.
All of that got me thinking about bells and sirens; when and how we use them. For centuries bells have called congregants to worship, and have peeled in times of celebration and times of danger. There are few sounds more mournful than the ringing of bells at a funeral. Why, I wondered, why bells at funerals?
Turns out over the centuries they have been called “passing bells” and originally rang to ward off evil spirits that might be trying to possess the soul. Long ago the bells even designated the gender and age of the deceased; ringing three times for male, two for female, then after a short break striking for each year matching the age of the deceased. Over the centuries the tradition has continued and we still ring bells in minute intervals marking the arrival of the deceased at their funeral.
So why do those same bells peel out at a celebration? Why do they ring at a wedding? (OK all you cynics who are thinking because it’s the same as a funeral … knock it off.) A peel of bells as the bridal couple leaves the church is a tradition that began before the days of widespread literacy and newspapers, the bells let the local people know a wedding had taken place. While lack of communication is the least of our problems today when a ceremony can be broadcast from beginning to end via IPhone, the ringing of bells on a wedding day is still quite necessary because, in my opinion, the tradition is simply charming and romantic.
Oh, yes, I forgot to mention, centuries ago bells were rung on wedding days because …wait for it … the sound of bells was also said to drive out evil spirits.
There is an old Irish tradition that says every couple should receive a bell as a wedding gift. The bell is placed in the newlywed's home. When a disagreement takes place, one of the couple rings the bell to end the argument and declare a truce without an admission of fault. That makes perfect sense to me.
In today’s world, I sometimes wonder what would happen if there was a national emergency while I am sleeping. What if I had to evacuate my home in the middle of the night, how would I be warned? The community where I live has an emergency phone tree in place where every household would get a call with directions on how to proceed during an emergency. Well, I sometimes disconnect my phone when I want to sleep longer in the morning, what then?
Even with all of today’s technology, if I heard bells ringing at 3AM I would know there is a dire emergency. Hearing sirens at 3AM is not that unusual and I would roll over and go back to sleep, but bells, after all these centuries, bells ringing out in the middle of the night would definitely make me sit up and take notice.
The soldier was just beginning to sleep through the night again, although he had been home from the war for almost a year. The horrors he had seen no longer occupied his thoughts during his waking hours, but the images often returned with a vengeance while he slept, the sound of his own voice yelling into the darkness waking him before dawn.
The soldier’s wife lay next to him each night, her stomach swollen with the weight of their third child. Her husband’s night terrors no longer frightened her and she had learned how to calm him quickly so that their sleeping children would not wake up afraid. The child she was carrying, however, sensed the sudden surge of adrenaline in its mother’s veins and heard the muffled sound of its father’s anguish. How many millions of people began their existence like this unborn child, unlikely witnesses to the consequences of war?
Her husband did not have to go to war. He was almost 28 years old when he and a group of his friends enlisted. She was four months pregnant with their second child, their daughter was just two years old. She understood his desire to defend his country, and she could only imagine what he went through overseas, but she had also suffered, the two years he was away were the most difficult years of the young mother’s life.
On a crisp September morning shortly after midnight, their third child, a daughter, came into the world in the last delivery room on the right, on the second floor of a beautiful, Federal style building that housed the Leonard Hospital in the Lansingburgh section of Troy, New York. Mom and daughter spent ten days in the hospital before coming home, which was the custom at that time. During those ten days, they shared a large open room on the second floor, just down the hall from where the child was born, with eight other mothers and their newborns
The soldier’s daughter lived a happy life. A few years after she was born, her family moved away from Lansingburgh to the eastside of Troy. She returned to Lansingburgh most Saturdays during her childhood to visit her maternal grandmother. When she was a teenager, she traveled by bus to the Catholic high school in Lansingburgh which was a few short blocks from the hospital where she was born.
After high school, the soldier’s daughter took a job away from her hometown, married and began a family of her own. During the next 65 years she raised her two children, said goodbye to the soldier and his wife, sent her children off to college, watched them marry and have children of their own, said goodbye to her husband of 60 years and met her grandchildren’s children. When she was 84 her son, who had moved to Lansingburgh after a number of job promotions and transfers, found her an apartment in a newly renovated building dedicated to senior housing.
It was a small, but sunny apartment on the second floor of the lovely old building. Her great grandchildren were in high school at her old alma mater which was only a few short blocks away from her apartment and they would often stop by to say hello on their way home from school. She enjoyed spending time with her neighbors and felt particularly at home in the large community room a few doors down the hall from her apartment. She lived three happy years in that apartment until the morning of her 87th birthday when she simply did not wake up.
It was not until a year after the solder’s daughter passed away, that her son discovered that the beautiful building that housed the senior apartments where his mother spent the last three years of her life was originally the Leonard Hospital. He never found out that the bedroom where his mom passed away had been the last delivery room on the right, the room where she was born.
The wood stairway was steep. Fifty or more wood steps zigged and zagged down the side of the hill from Pawling Avenue to the dilapidated shack near the edge of the pond. If snow accumulated on the wood steps they became more treacherous than usual and, aside from the embarrassment of taking a header in front of your friends and injuring yourself, there was also a strong possibility that you would take down anyone who had the misfortune of walking ahead of you.
The wood shack at the bottom of the hill was old. There was no insulation, a small potbelly wood burning stove worked diligently, but ineffectually, at warming the small space. The constant opening and closing of the only door to the shack undermined the struggling stove’s best efforts. On really cold days snow covered the wood floor, on warmer days, snow was replaced by puddles of water. The hot chocolate sold at the small concession stand that was carved into one of the walls of the shack was mediocre at best, but the sweet smell of chocolate floating through the air always enticed us to give the hot drink one more try.
Even with the rickety stairway, the dilapidated shack and the pungent aroma of sulfur that would sometimes permeated the air; I had some of the best times of my youth ice skating at that place: Belden’s Pond, in Troy, NY. Although I skated at the pond in the winter of the late 1950s and early 1960s, construction on the 10 acre pond, which is located on the Poesten Kill River, was completed in 1912. Judging from its condition, I suspect that was the year the shack was built also.
The first time my parents allowed me to go anywhere outside of the Griswold Heights project where I grew up (without a member of my family) was a cold but sunny Saturday when I was 11 years old and my friend’s dad drove us to Belden’s Pond to ice skate for the afternoon. It was wonderful to skate as fast as I could around the rink, my knee length jacket unbuttoned and blowing in the wind behind me, rock and roll music from a local radio station blasting over the outside speakers, my first real taste of personal freedom.
It wasn’t until the next winter that I was allowed to walk the 2 or 3 miles from The Heights to Belden’s Pond with my friends. What fun we had, wondering if the cute boys from who-knows-where would be there and, if they were, would they ask us to skate with them? Laughing as we slid over patches of ice on the sidewalk then retracing our steps and doing it again.
Once we arrived at the pond, we sat inside the shack and tied on our skates, slid our guards over the blades, then walked to the edge of the pond where we took off the guards and pushed out onto the ice. What fun it was to hold hands and skate to the music, laughing as only 12 year old girls can. We would watch the girls who actually took figure skating lessons then we would skate to the center of the rink and try to recreate their moves. Defying the boys who had been designated as “skating guards,” we would hold hands and form a long line then skate as fast as we could and “whip” the person at the end of the line until she flew into the nearest snow bank. We all wanted to be the girl at the end of the line. Boys would skate by and grab our hats. We would pretend to be mad and skate after them.
There was a small waterfall where the Poesten Kill River fed the pond. To get to the waterfall we had to skate off the rink and around the back of the cemetery that runs next to the pond. Although it wasn’t allowed, we would skate as near to the falls as we dared. Icy water flowed out from underneath a foot of solid ice, tumbled six feet over the falls, and then disappeared under thick ice again as it continued its journey. Four foot high ice bubbles created by the waters continual splashing then freezing surrounded the waterfalls. It was all quite beautiful although I must admit the beauty escaped me at the time, I was more captivated by the thrill of doing something forbidden.
Occasionally, my parents would allow me to go to Belden’s at night with my friends. The pond looked different under the night sky. Bare light bulbs nailed to telephone poles strategically placed around the rink lit up the ice. The trees and shrubs surrounding the rink disappeared into the darkness until the skating rink was the only area visible in the 10 acre pond.
With the little kids at home, the rink took on a different vibe at night. Almost like a high school dance. The music over the loudspeaker slowed down, new groupings of people evolved as teenagers from one section of Troy, met teenagers from other areas. Couples broke away from larger groups and skated around the rink holding hands. At the end of the evening, when the lights dimmed, everyone took off their skates and headed home to their neighborhoods, looking forward to their next visit to Belden’s Pond.
Now that Christmas is over and the little ones are out of their normal routines, it can be hard to entertain them, even with brand new Christmas toys. Perhaps they would enjoy meeting Emily.
Emily is 6 years old. Emily has BIG hair. Way too BIG for her small face. Emily’s hair isn’t quite curly and it isn’t quite straight. Emily’s hair is BIG and THICK and WAVY and makes her look like she’s walking around with Celeste, her family’s big orange furry cat, sitting on her head. Emily likes her BIG orange hair; no one else has hair exactly like it. Celeste likes Emily’s hair too.
Emily lives in a big yellow house with her mom and dad and her 3 year old brother, Billy. She doesn’t like her brother too much; Billy is always crying and playing with her stuff. Emily’s mom and dad work every day until dinner time, so after first grade class when school is over for the day, Emily gets on the big yellow school bus and rides to her babysitter’s house. Her babysitter’s name is Penelope Patterson.
Penelope Patterson can be kind of grumpy and the other kids at Penelope’s place play poorly, so most days Emily plays by herself.
One day when Emily got off the school bus at Penelope’s place, Penelope asked Emily if she would mind getting the rake out of the garage and raking some of the leaves out of her back yard. Emily’s parents had never asked her to help with the yard work, so Emily was happy to help. There was a big red rake in the garage and a smaller silver one. Emily decided she would try the smaller silver one.
Emily took off her blue backpack and laid it on the back porch. It was windy outside so Emily zipped up her carrot colored coat and began catching the crunchy leaves with the corner of the rake and carrying them over toward the car where she started to make a small pile of leaves.
Emily walked away from her pile of leaves to the other side of the yard where she collected more leaves and brushed the bunch of them back toward her pile. “What!!” Emily yelled when she got back to her pile, or where her pile should be. The pile of leaves was gone! Emily looked around the yard but there was not a pile in sight.
Feeling angry, Emily began a new pile of leaves in the same spot and when the wind blew her BIG hair into her face she brushed it back. Then she walked back to the other side of the yard to collect even more leaves. While walking Emily wondered if she could make a pile of leaves up to the top of her BIG hair then she would jump into the pile when no one was looking. Thinking about the jumping part made Emily happy again.
This time Emily raked and raked until she had as many leaves as the small silver rake could hold. Using the small silver rake, Emily carefully pushed the leaves toward her pile, while thinking about how big the pile would be when these new leaves were added. When she got to where her pile should be, Emily screamed, “Who took my pile!!” The pile was gone again!! She looked around the yard, but no one was there.
“This will NOT happen again, “Emily yelled into the wind as she raked her new leaves into a new pile. Pretending to walk back to the other side of the yard, Emily got half way there then turned around as quickly as she could, hoping to catch the person who was stealing her leaves.
Emily stood still and watched what was happening. Then she laughed and she laughed as she watched the WIND blow her new pile apart, all the leaves twirling back across the yard until the pile was completely gone.
“Well,” Emily said, “I guess it’s not a good idea to try to rake leaves on a windy day.” Emily carried the small silver rake back to the garage, picked up her backpack off the back porch and couldn’t wait for dinner when she would tell her parents the story of her lost pile of leaves and see if they can guess what happened.
I was trying to think of something “Christmas-ie” to write about when it occurred to me that I had an experience that relates to the very first Christmas. Four years ago next month I stood on a hill outside of Jerusalem and saw the Town of Bethlehem a half mile away. The “little town” is tucked into a rolling landscape and is surrounded by sandy, barren land for as far as I could see. Overhead the sky stretched to the horizon in every direction, no mountains to obstruct the view. Small sandstone buildings stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind a gated entrance.
I remember feeling overwhelmed as pictures of the softly lit, hay strewn, stable with a chubby pink baby lying in the manger flashed through my mind. My next thought was that the Town of Bethlehem looked exactly as I thought it would. Although it was mid-afternoon and the sun was shining that day, I could imagine a full moon (or an especially bright star) illuminating the landscape while the night sky sparkled with millions of stars, and candles glowed in the windows of those tiny houses. I could imagine that stable, the breath from the animals fogging the air in the cold night.
The Christmas Story tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem from Nazareth in Judea. Judea is now northern Israel. A few days earlier I had walked the streets of Nazareth. Like most of Israel, Nazareth is a clean and modern city with cobblestone streets and an inordinate number of churches and synagogues. Nazareth is 16 miles west of the Sea of Galilee and 70 miles north of Bethlehem. Today it would take us an hour or less to make the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem by car, shooting down a modern highway. It took Mary and Joseph several days to walk to Bethlehem, a very pregnant Mary riding on a donkey.
The area near Nazareth is quite green and lush. The Sea of Galilee is a large lake, but smaller than Lake George in upstate New York. In northern Israel, the Jordan River is no more than a stream of water moving through a narrow valley toward the Sea of Galilee, Syria on one side and the Golan Heights, currently a part of Israel, on the other. It bore no resemblance to the “mighty” Jordan River I read about in grammar school. Nevertheless, the landscape surrounding Nazareth is strikingly different than the landscape surrounding Bethlehem.
It is hard to imagine what a nine-month pregnant Mary must have felt as she climbed on that donkey leaving her family and home behind to accompany Joseph to the arid, sandy land of his childhood. No highway for them, 70 miles of dirt paths, leading to stony walkways, leading to an open desert.
You may wonder why we stood on a hilltop and saw Bethlehem from a distance, why didn’t we just drive into the town? This is where reality raises its sometimes ugly head. I know people who have been inside Bethlehem, they were on Christian tours. I was in Israel on business, on a three week orientation tour with six colleagues from the travel company where I worked at the time, a travel company with strong Jewish ties. Our “tour guide” on that trip was a partner of the travel company. He was Jewish and grew up in Jerusalem. He has adult children who still live in Jerusalem. He knew it would be an unnecessary risk for us to enter Bethlehem, even if the Palestinians, who currently control Bethlehem, gave us permission, which was highly unlikely.
Of course you see the irony. Bethlehem, the birthplace of a way of life that encourages peace and love, smack dap in the middle of one of the most violent and volatile locations on the face of this earth. That sentence just brought to mind the day I was walking on scaffolding around the archeological dig immediately outside the wall that surrounds old Jerusalem, directly under the Dome of the Rock. I casually looked up at the Dome and saw two men armed with automatic rifles looking back at me … they were not smiling. The Dome of the Rock is THE most religious site in the Muslim religion and was turned over by Israel to a Muslim Trust in 1967 and is currently guarded by Muslims.
No matter what your spiritual and religious beliefs are this holiday season, I am wondering if the juxtaposition of peace and violence, in what happens to be the birthplace of all of our major religions, may be the universe’s way of smacking us on the head and telling us to look closer, we’re missing something here.
Merry Christmas to you and your family … peace on earth, good will toward all.
After all of the unseasonably warm and relatively dry weather we have been having here in the Northeast, the meteorologists are now suggesting that we may have a White Christmas after all. Not just a wimpy dusting-of-snow White Christmas, but a big in-your-face Nor’easter of a storm. Of course, in true weather forecasting tradition, the last I looked there were three scenarios.
Scenario number one predicts a storm will begin as rain down south and as it travels further north, will turn to snow from New York to Boston. Scenario number two suggests the storm will dump mounds of snow on major coastal cities but will avoid inland locations. Scenario number three simply predicts the opposite of scenario number two.
When I was a kid the more snow the better. Christmas vacations spent on the slopes were heaven. In this case the term “slopes” refers to the small six foot mounds created and left behind by construction vehicles clearing the fields across the street from the housing project where I grew up. I don’t think I even knew anyone who was a downhill skier until I was a young adult.
My friends and I would pull our round, metal flying saucers over to the field, drag them to the top of the nearest “slope,” climb on and push off. Since flying saucers have no steering mechanism we never had a preconceived destination, just a general direction in which we would hurl ourselves with high hopes that eventually we would land and come to a stop shortly thereafter.
If you can imagine a half dozen kids pushing off all at the same time, then it won’t be too hard for you to imagine the collisions that often occurred, changing our trajectory if we were lucky, bloodying a nose or bruising a limb if we were not, small, red bloodstained spots on the white snow often indicating which type of day we had.
The most challenging “slope” ended in a gully filled with water. The goal was to stay airborne long enough to clear the gully and land on the opposite side. It’s similar to trying to hit a golf ball over a water hazard, except in this case you would be sitting on the golf ball. Occasionally I would succeed, more often than not I would crash into the gully and end up sitting in water to my waist having been unceremoniously dumped from my flying saucer which, by the way, would continue on its journey.
In my family the rule was that we would come home for the day when the street lights went on. In the winter months that would be 4 or 4:30. Most of my friends had to do the same. We would see the lights go on and make a group decision to ignore them for a bit, eventually deciding it would be pushing the limit but we could get away with a few more “slides.” Reluctantly we would finally gather our saucers and walk home in our soggy, cold snow pants and jackets, our hats and gloves, which had frozen solid hours before, shoved into our pockets.
So what will I do THIS year when snow is piled high outside my windows? Probably take long walks on plowed roadways on sunny afternoons, maybe clip on my cross country skis and slip and slide down the groomed trails that run parallel to the Erie Canal a few miles from home. If I’m feeling particularly brave, I may even tie on my white figure skates and take a spin or two around the local rink. OR, I may just throw a few logs on the fire, find my favorite book, and put my feet up on the hearth and dream about those reckless childhood days of black and blues and flying saucers.
The small red building off Central Avenue in Albany, NY, was no larger than a big three-stall garage. There was just enough space for a small office, a tiny reception area with coat rack and a large open room with red carpeting covering the floor. At the far end of the carpeted room was a long make-shift table balancing a few small lit candles, two framed photos and a small vase holding two or three fresh flowers. The overhead lights were turned off and there was a mellow glow from the candles and the three table lamps scattered about. A spicy, exotic fragrance floated in the air.
The first time I walked into that building, which housed the Albany Kripalu Yoga Center, I was uneasy. I thought I was an atheist at the time and was determined to avoid any “spiritual influences” these people might attempt to sneak into the yoga classes. I was there simply for the stretching and exercise and was hoping the meditation class I had signed up for would teach me how to relieve some of the stress in my life. That was 25 years ago.
Turned out “these people” were no different than the rest of us. It also turned out that those meditation classes changed my life. In addition to the class once a week, I began sitting quietly at home at least once a day, either before or after work. I would set the kitchen timer for 5 minutes and sit on the floor on a small rolled up blanket and try to still my mind. The first minute seemed like a half hour, the next 4 minutes seemed like torture. During class we sat for 20 minutes and I thought I would crawl out of my skin but I kept coming back.
There was a larger Kripalu Center in Lenox, MA and I traveled there with a few friends a number of times. Yogi Desai, the founder of Kripalu Yoga, lived there and during one of his lectures he talked about ways to still an active mind while trying to meditate. He suggested that when a thought came into our heads that we imagine we were looking out a picture window, that we watch the thought as we would watch a person passing by, let it come into our attention, watch it cross in front of the window of our minds and let it disappear out of our vision. From that day on I was able to comfortably sit for longer periods of time.
Here’s the thing about meditation. If you stick with it eventually you become an observer of your thought processes. Meditation teaches us to observe our thoughts, not latch on to them or judge them. (Heaven knows, we judge ourselves often enough every day.) For all of us, every thought comes with an emotion that causes a feeling. It’s such an automatic process that we’re not conscious of it, we just know that all of a sudden we’re feeling a certain way and often we don’t know why. The beauty of meditation is as we become an observer of our thoughts rather than a critic; we stop the chatter and can begin to see how a particular feeling was caused by a random thought that popped into our heads. Most of us will then begin to wonder why that particular thought caused that feeling. That kind of non-judgmental inquiry can lead to identifying and sweeping away a whole bunch of outdated ideas that have been causing us discomfort, ideas we didn’t even know we were still carrying around.
Then there’s the light. Eastern religions are not alone in teaching that we all have a sacred light inside of us; whether it’s called a soul, a conscience, intuition, divine inspiration or something else. At the end of every meditation class I was taught to bow and honor the light inside my classmates, my teacher, and inside of myself. That focused my attention on our similarities, that no one is greater or lesser, we all have the same light. Granted it seems the light is almost extinguished in some, blinding in others, while most of us live somewhere in between.
It’s all so easy in theory, but difficult to keep in our line of vision as we go through our lives, our days filled with continuous ups and downs. That’s where meditation comes in, I suppose. Taking 10 or 20 minutes each day to sit quietly and let the chatter ease a bit allows us to reconnect with that wise voice inside each of us.
If you want to try sitting quietly, begin this way: set your kitchen timer for 5 minutes. Sit on the edge of a chair with you feet on the floor, let your hands rest on your knees and touch you thumbs to your index fingers. Sit as tall as you can comfortably. Close you eyes and take five deep breaths, inhaling through your nose with your mouth closed. Thank of filling up a glass ... start inhaling into your stomach, than to your abs and finally fill up you lungs. Hold your breath for a beat then exhale through your nose while feeling your muscles relax. (Exhale through your mouth if that feels better.) Repeat four more times (stop if you feel dizzy) then just sit, relax and breath normally. Allow any thoughts to come and go.
I’ve been thinking about Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Barbara Walter’s choice for Most Fascinating Person of the Year and Men’s Health Magazine’s choice for Sexiest Woman of All Time.
Time Magazine chose “The Protestor” as their Person of the Year. I understand the significance of the “Arab Spring,” and that hundreds of thousands of people put their lives on the line to stand up to oppressive governments and to demand a better world to live in. Every one of those people is brave in my book.
While certainly not as dangerous as the Arab Spring demonstrations, I marched in anti-war protests in the late 60s and early 70s. I know what it feels like when my government’s actions are so contrary to what I believe is right that I’m compelled to do “something.” A few years ago I marched in a very moving anti-Iraq war demonstration in Albany. We were each given a large poster to carry with the picture of a soldier who had died in Iraq. “My” soldier was a 21 year old young man from the Syracuse area whose parents immigrated to the US from China. “My” soldier was born in the states and enlisted in the army as soon as he graduated from college because he felt it was the right thing to do. He was an only child.
When the OWS demonstrations began (Occupy Wall Street) I was a bit uncertain about what they were doing. Honestly, I still am. While I can certainly get behind their right to demonstrate and agree the wealthiest people and corporations in the US have more influence on the direction this country moves in than I do, sitting in a park until that changes seems like a waste of time to me. I think orchestrated marches on Washington would be more effective in keeping the issue in the public eye.
I was at a luncheon yesterday and a woman at my table mentioned her daughter was actively involved in the OWS group currently occupying a park in downtown Albany. That intrigued me and I asked her how her daughter was holding up living at the park all these weeks. She told me very few of the protestors actually have stayed there since the beginning, they come and go. I was a little disappointed. The romantic in me liked the notion that these people were committed enough to put their lives on hold, which, evidently, is not the case.
Bottom line, I wish Time Magazine had chosen the same man for Person of the Year that Barbara Walters chose as the Most Fascinating Person of the Year, Steve Jobs. Here’s why: if any one person was representative of the elements that have impacted on the past few generations, it would be Steve Jobs. He was a geek, an entrepreneur, a pioneer of the personal computer, a desperado, an underdog, a druggie, a college drop-out, an inventor, a perfectionist, a romantic, a family man, and a millionaire-capitalist with a bent toward Buddhism. Steve Jobs is my Person of the Year.
As for Men’s Health Magazines choice for Sexiest Woman of All Time, deep down inside of me I was thrilled when I read it was Jennifer Aniston. She’s a beautiful woman who appears to strive to live a healthy and relatively normal life within the framework of her occupation and the constant world-wide attention that she receives. But what I felt when I heard the news, what I REALLY felt, was: IN YOUR FACE ANGELINA (who ended up in 10th place), YOU TOO BRAD … YOU GO, JEN!
Seven days later, on a sunny afternoon when the earth was starting to unlock from the cold winter, she saw the white car with the red cross painted on the side pull up to the curb across the street from her apartment house. Standing near the window, she continued to take the warm clothes out of the dryer in the kitchen as she watched the man and woman get out of the car and walk across Pawling Avenue. A few minutes later the doorbell rang.
Amanda was singing Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” when she opened the door expecting to see her mom. Instead two somber strangers stood there looking at her. That was the first inkling she had that something was horribly wrong. After checking to be sure they were speaking to Amanda Douglas, wife of Army Specialist Peter Joseph Douglas, the two Red Cross representatives simply told her Peter had been killed in Vietnam on March 15th and they were there to discuss arrangements for bringing him home.
A few minutes later Amanda woke up. She was lying on the couch in her living room and someone was waving smelling salts under her nose. As soon as her mind caught up with reality, she wanted to go back to sleep, go back to the blank world of nothingness where colors and feelings didn’t exist. But, those damned strangers wouldn’t let her, they kept calling her name and waving that fucking smelling salts under her nose. Amanda shot out her hand and knocked the bottle of smelling salts across the room and screamed at them to leave her the hell alone. But they would not.
These strangers did not know her, they did not know Peter, and they had no right to be in their apartment. Who the hell were they to insist that she pull herself together? They kept repeating that Peter’s parents had to be told of his death. Peter’s death??? Amanda simply could not comprehend those words. She jumped up from the couch and began pushing the strangers toward the door, screaming at them to get the fuck out of her house or she would call the police.
That’s when Amanda saw her mother standing in the doorway, watching. Her mom’s face was wet with tears and pale as a white glove. Stopping and standing still in the middle of the parlor Amanda began to pray, she wanted to die too, right then, right there.
Typically Amanda ripped her mind away from those days. Whenever her thoughts drifted back, she would simply open the next bottle of vodka, or gin, or wine, didn’t matter as long as there was plenty of it. But on this day the stress of worrying about Grace left her defenseless. She sat in the parking lot of Albany Medical Center for almost an hour watching those days of 15 years ago play out in her mind, the trumpet, the military uniforms, the flags, the grieving friends and family, the jarring almost unbearable roar of the rifles. She remembered wanting to run away, to just stand up in the cemetery during the service, take off her shoes and run away across the manicured lawns.
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