I Am Not a Soprano
I went to a Catholic grade school where the nuns ruled. When I was in 4th grade, I wanted to join the choir. At that time, I had no clue about my abilities as a singer or otherwise and was totally dependent on the nuns for guidance because that’s how we’d been taught. Tryouts for choir were right after school and when I walked into the classroom Sister told me to stand next to her desk — a heart-pounding experience in itself — and to sing, “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” a tough song for anyone who is not a soprano. It’s taken decades to figure out that while I’m a terrible soprano, I’m also a halfway decent tenor, but at that time my musical experience and vernacular were extremely limited — I had no idea what soprano and tenor even meant — so I did what I’d been taught to do and that was listen to the nuns.
I’m standing next to Sister, squeaking out a verse of My Country ’Tis of Thee, warbling and cracking the whole time, and when I finished she said, “Fine, you’re in.”
Did she even hear how I’d botched the song as I strained to reach those notes? Might she have suggested something more in keeping with my limited range? Or was it because church dirges, I mean hymns, were written one way and there was no messing with that way? Shouldn’t she have realized that I was not a soprano? She was the music teacher after all. Or was she, like everyone else, just doing her job and looking to get the day over with as soon as possible so she could have gone home and watched TV.
In 4th grade, I was very much in the mindset of a lemming, playing follow the leader. Decades later, I know better, but I can’t help but wonder, “What if anyone had been paying attention to my desires instead of their own? What would my life have looked like? How might it have changed if someone would have seen my gifts instead of trying to fit me inside their gift bag along with everyone else? Would I be New York Times bestselling author by now? A rocket scientist? A musician?
We’re a species that thinks linearly and in duality. Perhaps it’s the nature of the planet — black and white, night and day, summer and winter, minute follows minute, year follows year. Or maybe our brains are the cause, the Corpus Callosum which separates the right and left hemispheres of the brain, much like Pangea, the supercontinent that the world might have been before the receding flood waters, or earthquakes, or meteors, or God himself split Her apart. Is it possible that our two hemispheres were in the past one whole unit, that somewhere along the way we were severed into two mirror images? Could this explain why our very nature is divisive?
We strive to overcome our differences with an ever present hope of reconciling the two sides of everything, wanting to bring ourselves back into harmony and alignment, but why? What if we just made ourselves happy and left everyone else alone? What then? When you’re happy you tend to let the little things go, tend to overlook someone else’s negative or selfish behavior, tend to accentuate the positive. When you’re happy, that happiness spreads exponentially to your friends, your neighbors, the people with whom you come into contact. Could our overall happiness make room for more peace in the world? More harmony? More joy, without any of the hard work of trying to make it so? What if, instead of following everyone else’s guidance we followed our own? What if we allowed everyone to be exactly who and what they intended themselves to be?
I first posted this essay three years ago. I let it speak for itself. Happy Valentine’s Day!
In Defense of Love
What follows is not the story I set out to write. I wanted to write about how part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013. I wanted to talk about the struggle for gay rights, and the time it’s taken for an entire class of people to go from being the object of hate and ridicule to the darlings of the ongoing and age-old drama known as the human rights movement. I wanted to give facts and figures, visuals and statistics, and my take on why, now and finally, it all busted open, hearts and minds and opinions. Instead, this story came out — not the big picture story, but a smaller, more personal one, a blip on the radar of human evolution, and quite possibly a version of the millions of other stories which have congealed to create this fabulous moment in history. So I’m going with it, my little story. I want to tell you about my friend.
Stephen is not just any ordinary friend, but a lifelong friend, the kind you only get once every few lifetimes. My mom has a picture of Stephen and me, sitting on a small hill behind our house, both in diapers, not much more than a year old. We lived a few houses down from each other and went to kindergarten together. We had morning kindergarten and since his mom worked and mine was a stay-at-home mom, we’d go to my house for chicken soup and crackers. We ate lunch and laughed — a lot. We went to eight years of Catholic school together, walking the mile from our homes to the school, back in the day when kids still walked. As we walked, we talked of important issues of the day. We were curious. We wanted to be informed. We also sought adventures. After school, we’d ride bikes, swing on the swings, or run around one of our yards, doing cartwheels and flips. Sometimes we’d play football or badminton or basketball with other neighborhood kids. We made movies with my mom’s hand held video camera that must have weighed twenty pounds. We went to summer camp together, walking through the creepy cemetery to get there. I wouldn’t go if Stephen wasn’t going. Whether he knew it or not, he was my protector, the brother I didn’t have. As long as I can remember, he was the life of the party, the funniest guy in the room. He could always brighten a dull day for me. I hated sharing him, but a guy like that, well; everyone wanted a piece of him.
We went to four years of public high school together and both swam on the swim team. In our sophomore year, something happened that would completely change the trajectory of Stephen’s life: his parents got a divorce. He told me at school, in the middle of a crowded dance floor, perhaps by design so I couldn’t ask too many questions. The official story was that his parents’ irreconcilable differences involved his father’s overuse of alcohol and his mother’s inability to take the distance, the long silences, the total checked-out-ed-ness of their relationship anymore. I didn’t buy the story – Stephen’s dad an alcoholic? Something deeper was at work, yet it was plausible, and my friend was clearly in a great deal of pain so I didn’t push. We started to drift apart in high school while we pursued our niches, yet remained friends. High school ended – finally – and we were out in the world, looking for the dreams that were probably looking for us.
Fast forward a half dozen or so years. I’m living in Philadelphia and so is Stephen’s dad while Stephen is living in New York. Stephen comes to visit me and we go see his dad. I don’t remember when Stephen either: a) told me the truth, or b) I figured it out, but Dad wasn’t really an alcoholic, or if he had been, it was a symptom of a larger problem caused by a homophobic, fear-driven society. The big secret was that Stephen’s dad was gay. Maybe he hadn’t known. More likely he had, but rather than take the agonizing step of outing himself and risk being ostracized, he went for a “normal” life, one that would allow him access to “normal” society. He couldn’t keep up the ruse without dying a bit more every day and finally he chose self-love and self-esteem over whatever the damn neighbors might say. The casualties of his internal war were, besides Stephen, his mother and sister, both beautiful and amazing women who at the time didn’t understand why such heaping loads of pain and anguish were being foisted upon them, but who handled the transition with poise and grace. Stephen’s mom remarried; eventually, the pain and anguish pushed off to sea, although that heartache can never be understated. In a different time, the heartache could have been avoided altogether, but it was the 1970’s and just about everyone was still in the closet. The day we went to meet Stephen’s Dad and his lover in their beautiful brownstone home in Philadelphia, I saw what courage bought: acceptance, peace and the assurance that his son would never have to live the same lie. In the interim years, Stephen figured out that he was also gay, but because of his father’s choices, he didn’t need to wait for years, or until he’d already started a family to say it out loud, because his template had changed. In Stephen’s world, because of his father, Stephen’s sexual preference was accepted. That, my friends, is progress.
I only knew one kid in high school who was openly gay and while he seemed well-liked and even admired for his bravery, he seemed to dwell in loneliness on the other side of some invisible line. How times have changed. Today, another one of my besties is gay, and I’m pretty sure we would have dated if he wasn’t. You see, the element of love is always present, color blind, immune to gender, routinely changing shape to fit the situation.
If people realize that the bank teller, the grocer, the phone repair guy, or their neighbor, people they’d been dealing with for years, were gay, then they’d shelve their prejudices, lay down their arms and just get on with the business of living. It may seem improbable now that people ever had to hide who they really were, especially given the “overnight success” of the gay rights movement, but as any writer who’s been at it for 20 years and suddenly finds herself with a bestseller knows, those damn overnight successes can take a lifetime. It took almost 40 years since Harvey Milk organized the first gay rights marches in the Castro District in San Francisco, forty years for the federal protections now afforded same-sex unions, forty years for the overnight success. Before that, there were eons of inequity, but we’re not done yet.
Stephen and his partner, John got married soon after the Supreme Court decision. They were the first people to get married at City Hall. Stephen’s a nurse and for the first time, his employer, a local hospital, was offering health and other benefits to married same-sex couples, but in order to qualify, they had to be married by, ironically, Valentine’s Day. The couple traveled to New Jersey, Stephen’s home state, because Florida, where they were domiciled did not allow same-sex unions. It all happened so fast; there was no time to plan, but the family and friends not in attendance got to watch it all unfold via updates on Facebook. It was surreal–and very moving — getting updates via the internet of my oldest friend marrying his partner of 20 years, a man I’ve never even met in person, a man who Stephen has been in love with since their first days, a man of integrity and compassion, a man who volunteers at Hospice to be an end-of-life friend and guide to those about to transition, a man worthy of Stephen. The Facebook posts practically glowed; hundreds of friends got to virtually witness their nuptials.
This next generation of kids coming up will be the first to be color and gender blind with no preconceived notions of “normal.” Give it ten more years and we’ll have forgotten that being gay was ever an issue. These are strange and amazing days we live in, ones I think we’ll look back on as a time when consciousness shifted and people’s eyes were opened wide, not to the differences, but to the enormous similarities, and to how what effects one of us really does affect us all.
What I most look forward to is the day we’re all standing on the same side of the line, or better still, the day that line is gone.
The Art of Napping
A friend of mine who is a massage therapist says that symptoms that look and manifest as depression — a growing concern in our country — can generally be traced back to one of three things: bad diet, meaning eating too much sugar or processed food; lack of exercise, because the endorphins released during exercise are their own reward; and the final and perhaps most important, lack of sleep. I believe I’ve been guilty of all three at one time or another, but the one I most consistently abuse is lack of sleep, having unenthusiastically embraced that routine for the last three decades. It’s not that I don’t want more sleep. I crave more, am actually desperate for it, but in order to get it all done, it being all my many wants and desires outside the realm of my J.O.B., I just don’t seem to have enough time for sufficient sleep. This is not just my issue, but a chronic problem in our country, perhaps the world. Anyway, my friend says that if you can rule out those three things and you’re still sad, then it’s probably depression.
I had a boss who always said, “you’re only as good as your last one,” and to that theory I subscribe although not in the way that he meant it. To my boss it meant that you need to keep going, setting higher and higher bars lest you become irrelevant. To me, it means there’s always something else to learn and new to try. If I had to guess, I think that somewhere in the middle of those two interpretations lies the secret to happiness in a 3-D world, except where does that leave sleep?
There are an estimated 40 million people in the U.S. that suffer from chronic, longterm sleep disorders whether they are seeking treatment for this condition or not. In addition, 45% of Americans say they suffer from poor or insufficient sleep and that it effects their ADLs, activities of daily living. Think about it — 45% of Americans, walking around in a somnambulistic state, living off of coffee and sugary drinks, hoping to just get through the day. They could be your bus driver or your train conductor or your barista (actually, they probably suck down coffee all day long so no chance falling asleep while manning the espresso machine), your kid’s teacher, or approximately half the people behind the wheel of a car, taking the all-too-occasional micro-nap while doing routinized tasks. And it’s not just adults who live with chronic sleep deprivation, kids are suffering, too.
My 16-year old generally goes to school with big circles under her eyes, a result of staying up too late studying, and truth be told, being distracted by her modern, techie life. She gets somewhere between 6 and 7 hours sleep a night. Researchers say that kids her age need 8 to 10 hours. They also say that you can’t catch up on sleep so lounging in bed for 12 hours on weekend nights doesn’t cut it. Lack of sleep leads to impaired cognitive function, increases accidents, increases your risk of heart attack, of diabetes and depression, ruins your skin, causes weight gain, impairs judgment, and on the list goes. When you’re tired, the protein chains in your body don’t repair themselves adequately so what does that mean for your health? What small biological inconsistencies are being set in place today resulting from lack of sleep that may lead to more substantial problems twenty years from now, that is, if you don’t run your car off the road because you were dozing behind the wheel.
What’s the solution? It’s oh so simple. Remember in kindergarten when you had rest time after lunch? A bit of time to put your head down on your desk or even crawl under as one of the attorneys in my office used to do. Why not now? Close your eyes. Reconnect with your Higher Self. Forget the anti-depressants. The 3-D world can wait, but you can’t. Twenty minutes of sheer bliss. C’mon. You know you want to.
[Demitasse cups and pot to cook Greek coffee — my grandmother’s]
Dear Mr. President Elect
My Greek immigrant grandparents arrived in this country sometime in the early 1920’s from Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and while no one talks about it, I’m fairly sure they didn’t just leave, but escaped. Ethnic cleansing is nothing new across the globe: WWII Germany; Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s; Syria today. For my grandparents, it was the problem of the Armenian extinction. About 1 million Armenians and half a million Greeks were killed between 1915 and 1923, but the number is sketchy because to this day, Turkey denies it even happened. (For a great book on the topic, read “Black Dog of Fate, by Balakian.)
What was once the Ottoman Empire — the most culturally ambitious and religiously inclusive place the world had known, a stunning experiment of cooperation and trust — was losing ground as parts of it claimed independence, and with it, it’s religious diversity. When the Turks, who were Muslim, started killing the Christians, my grandparents split for America, the burgeoning City on a Hill that offered so much promise. They arrived before Lady Liberty who came from France in 1924, but way before then, everyone knew that America was the land of opportunity, the place to practice your religion and live your life as you saw fit, a place where working hard meant you could actually get ahead, the place to make a new start. Until they died, none of them could talk about the Turks without scowling or making the sign of the cross, and despite my peppering them with questions, no one would explain why. Sometimes it takes decades to solve a puzzle. (BTW, I visited Turkey when I was studying abroad and found the Turks to be a warm and gracious people.)
Some of my earliest memories revolve around political discourse, not just a couple people sitting around drinking a beer and talking genially about politics they way they talk about football, but yelling, screaming, fist-shaking, hand-wringing discussions. Being the homogenous people that Greeks are, they stuck together, and mostly every weekend we’d gather around my great aunt Thea’s dining room table for dinner or cake and coffee. (Thea means aunt. Greeks like to keep it simple.) My mother, who was not Greek, but the daughter of Italian immigrants from a small town south of Rome cringed a bit every time the party started. (BTW, my grandparents didn’t love the idea of my father marrying a non-Greek, but they got over it for the sake of family unity.)
My mother was by all measures a quiet woman, but she was no shrinking violet and while she had strong opinions, she chose to keep her own counsel. My father on the other hand was loud and boisterous and loved a good debate as much as he loved the coffee that accompanied it. So on any given weekend night, my grandmother, my aunt and uncle, and various cousins, friends, and relatives would gather around the table and talk about — what else? — politics. I was young, but I soaked it all in, so much so that there’s no denying this $#%!’s in my blood. After all, the Greeks have been arguing about politics since ancient times, Athens being the primary birthplace of modern democracy, and since we’ve not all gone on to paradise yet, or evolved to a state of utopia where we don’t need laws to govern us, the Greeks feel it is not only their God-given right, but their duty as human beings to have an opinion about things, and generally loud opinion. If you’d been sacked and attacked on your island shores and kicked out of others, you can damn well be sure you’ll always have your nose trained on the political winds. Unfortunately for my mother, she equated all that yelling with ill feelings so these evenings were not always pleasant for her. The “discourse” brought out the best and worst in my relatives and sometimes opinions would be swayed although not then and there because that would mean admitting defeat. You’d have to hit on a reason why you’d changed your mind and then argue as vociferously for the new opinion the next time. More often than not, people remained entrenched, and always there were fireworks of emotion.
Today, much of the world is in shock because of the election results and America feels a lot like Thea’s dining room table no matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on. Right now, both halves of the country think that America, that bastion of hope and freedom and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” has lost her way. How did this happen, you ask? It didn’t happen over night, but over decades: we just got greedy and stopped listening to each other.
There is a Cree Indian prophecy that says: “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.” I am reserving discussion of this ginormous topic for another blog post. In the interim, I’d like to say to the President-Elect, if you love this country, and you want it to be “great again,” then think before you act, consider the consequences of your actions on the larger whole, and understand that losing the popular vote while winning the electoral college does not give you a mandate. We all have to live here — together. Let all of our opinions be heard and considered. Remember you can’t eat money, and you’re not going to sleep well if everyone is hating on everyone else. You control both houses of Congress now, but you don’t control the hearts and minds and souls of the American people, and you don’t control how history will remember you. Hero or villain, it is up to you.
About the weekends of my childhood, I should add that after the coffee was drunk and the baklava all gone, the cups and dishes and silverware washed and put away, and the table wiped, and after all the yelling and fighting and the, “How could you believe that?”; “What are you crazy?”; “You just don’t understand what this means for the country, for the world.”; and my favorite, “That’s it. I just can’t talk to you. I’m not coming here anymore!”, after all that rancor and what seemed to my Italian mother to be more animosity than her 108 lb. frame could bear, all my relatives down to a man (and woman), put on their coats, grabbed their hats and bags, and hugged and kissed each other before going out the door, saying, “See you next week. Same time?” Okay, maybe not every single time. Sometimes it did get so heated that it seemed fisticuffs were imminent, but even then, they were back the next week. That’s love, of your family, of your country, of the world.
The Greeks have three words for love: Agape — love of mankind; Eros — passionate love; and Philia — friendship, or love between equals. We need all of them now, Mr. President-Elect, if we are going to make it through these times. And in the meantime, to borrow (and bastardize) a line from Sting, I hope our newly elected, and long-serving officials love their children, too.
[photo by Stacey Lazos]
Donald Trump Is Making Me Fat
Like most humans, I am a creature of habit. I get up, go to the gym, go to work, come home, eat dinner with the family, walk the dog, write, stay up way too late, go to bed and do it again. Even my gym time is riddled with routine. I mix it up between three or four different workouts — RPM (spin), the circuit room (the elliptical machine), yoga or bodyflow (does that count as one or two?), a nice long swim. Pretty boring, I know. I used to do things like Body Attack and Body Combat, but the older I get the less interested I am in adversity training, you know, punching, kicking, going in for the kill. I’ll take a mile in the pool with my own thoughts over combat any day. The RPM class is my favorite because it gets my heart rate up like running used to do before I had to quit (all too common story), followed by the elliptical because I can read while I work out.
You get to know the people around you at the gym when you occupy the same space every day and you soon move past “hi” to life stuff, especially when every machine has a TV (which I don’t use) and generally people are watching the news. After awhile, you figure out where someone stands on an issue and if it’s along the lines of where you stand, then you’ll probably grouse about it, having common ground and all. And since the entire country is grousing about the election this same scene is probably playing out at gyms all across America.
And so it went with Lou who works out on the elliptical next to me from time to time. He’s a retired teacher and before that he was retired from the Navy. He put in his 20 years at both places and now lives the life of an active, happily retired person. He works out upwards of two or more hours a day so he’s in terrific shape. He reads voraciously, referees various high school sports events most weekends and some evenings, and has strong opinions about life and what he perceives as the lack of a moral compass contributing to the decline of Western civilization.
So after a rather spirited discussion the other morning Lou says to me, “Donald Trump is making me fat. I’m up two pounds in the last two weeks. Every time they start with the debates it’s like Live Theater. I grab the chips, I grab the cookies. I can’t stop with the snacks. I don’t know if it’s entertainment or frustration. I just know I can’t stop.” Ditto for me, Lou, and probably for the rest of the America, but because of the voyeuristic nature of our culture, none of us can stop watching.
My friend Lena who came to the U.S. from Venezuela forty years ago and who has been watching the destabilization of her former homeland bit by harrowing bit is understandably broken-hearted and perhaps a bit prescient about where our country is heading if we don’t get our collective $%#@ together and check our hatred and distrust of each other at the door. She says that in 1940, during the Second World War to combat the heavy air raids that decimated London known as The Blitz, Major Wellesley Tudor Pole, with the support and blessing of Winston Churchill, among others, asked the people of London to devote one minute of prayer for peace each night when Big Ben tolled 9 o’clock. Pole said:
“There is no power on earth that can withstand the united cooperation on spiritual levels of men and women of goodwill everywhere. It is for this reason that the continued and widespread observance of the Silent Minute is of such vital importance in the interest of human welfare.”
Whether the Silent Minute was responsible for the allies winning the war is anyone’s guess, but postwar at least one Nazi said the people of London had a “secret weapon” for which there was “no countermeasure.”
There is plenty of information out there these days that proves the power of intention. Books like The Field, by Lynne McTaggert, The Isaiah Effect, by Greg Braden, The Biology of Belief, by Bruce Lipton, The Hidden Messages in Water, by Dr. Masuro Emoto, You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay, and movies like The Secret, and What the Bleep Do We Know? All you have to do is pick up a copy of any one of these books and try it out for yourself. Let thoughts of loving kindness, as the Buddhists say, flow like water to people who are totally the opposite of you. It may take thousands of years, but water always beats rock and love always beats indifference and hate.
We’re united for a reason, America. No matter who wins the election, the acrimonious nature of our communal dialogue will not disappear overnight, not without some positive actions on all of our parts. So why not start today? Send some love. Watch it grow. The reality of a new, promising, peaceful future is just a silent minute away.
[photo of my sister, Stacey Lazos, yogi extraordinaire, who also happens to have a Masters in education proving that women are a lot more than just eye candy.]
Author’s note: There’s a lot of woman-maligning these days attributable in large part, I think, to he-who-shall-remain-nameless (hint: it’s not Lord Voldemort, rather he’s a presidential candidate — and I swore I would never willingly mention his name again on this blog). Yet he-who-shall-remain-nameless is not alone in his woman-bashing, he just happens to be the most vocal of bashers. Three years ago, I posted the following essay on my old blog, Persephone’s Stepsisters. Not surprisingly, things haven’t changed much and women are still under siege, although this time, it’s because we have a shot at the big prize and it’s making some men a little dizzy. And so to all those men who would rather see a narcissistic, lying, (fill in adjective of your choice), (fill in noun of your choice), who thinks not paying taxes makes him smart and filing for bankruptcy is just good business, who bilks the little guy in order to make a buck even after receiving the work, who judges a woman by her face, her weight, and the way she eats, and who is such a control freak that he would start a war before suffering an insult, to those who would see that guy be president of the U.S. instead of a woman who has spent her lifetime preparing for the job I say, haters gotta hate. I mean, what do we gals have to do to get a break? Stand on our heads?
Feminist Slurs and Free Viagra
The summer after 9th grade, I wanted a lifeguard position at our local swim club in the worst way. I was on the varsity swim team at the high school, and my coach also coached the summer league and managed the pool. There were three lifeguard spots available and I was a shoe-in for one of them. I was wrong. Coach offered all three positions to the guys on the swim team, and told me the work was too physically demanding, a ludicrous reason given that I practiced side-by-side with those guys, lifting weights and swimming, upwards of four hours a day, six days a week. They may have been stronger, but there was nothing that job required that I couldn’t do and Coach knew it. It was the mid-70’s and all those lofty feminist ideals were still twinkling in some visionary women’s eyes. I was fourteen. A male authority figure in my life had spoken. There wasn’t much I could do.
Fast forward to the present. I’m a wife, a mother, a lawyer, and a writer — the order of importance varies, depending on what day it is — and I can’t remember a single instance of discrimination since the time I was fourteen. Is that even possible, or have I rewritten history? Most of the worlds I currently live in have equality at their base, an “all men and women are created equal so why waste time talking about it” feel to them. Perhaps it’s because I work for the federal government where an egalitarian aura permeates the halls; that writing is an equal opportunity employer; and that my husband and I believe in the prospects of equal partnership. As for the kids, they fear me more than their father because of my Mediterranean temperament, but that’s another discussion.
What puzzles me is why people are still ranting about the topic of women’s reproductive health. Weren’t these issues settled about three decades ago? Now Catholic institutions are aghast because Obama’s health care law will require them to provide birth control to their employees as part of their insurance coverage — Catholics don’t believe in birth control — yet Catholic institution’s insurance plans provide Viagra with nary a care. No to birth control; yes to Viagra! They say this comports with Catholic doctrine, and it does, but, really?! Is a guy old enough to need Viagra someone who should be siring more children?
After the Sandra Fluke debacle, it’s become increasingly clear that as a man, you can say what you want about a woman, no matter it’s veracity. That’s the strategy Rush Limbaugh employs: say it big, say it bold, don’t worry whether it’s true. By the time you have to redact, the proverbial cat will be impossible to even locate. It’s spin strategy, and it works. While I’ve never considered myself a feminist in the organizational sense, as I get older I realize the need. Today, forty percent of women earn more than their spouses, yet we hold only a fraction of the seats in Congress, and our daughters have no idea how hard that much was. Worse still, while our little darlings are held, transfixed by all those high heels in the store window (reminiscent of the days of foot-binding in 18th century China, if you ask me), white Christian men are hijacking their future.
If a woman is busy dealing with issues surrounding contraception — where to get it; how to pay for it; what to do about an unwanted pregnancy, or an ovarian cyst that could have been controlled with birth control pills, to name a few — then she has less time to compete with men doing men things. All a man has to do — or anyone, really, because women do this to other women — is insinuate promiscuity and the named target is guilty until proven innocent. In this way we’re not much better than the Taliban.
A few weeks ago, the tables turned a bit. I’m sure Rush didn’t expect his advertisers to abandon him simply because he called Sandra Fluke a bad name. In the shock jock world, controversy is good for business, but when no amount of apology can undo the malicious nature of the words, the sponsors are not going to stick around. We women have too much financial clout and how we spend our dollars matters. There’s no excuse for telling lies about people, especially when they are exercising their right to free speech. It’s called defamation, and there are laws which go to the very heart of how we human beings speak to and characterize each other. Despite these laws — as if civility should even have to be legislated — the level of animosity in our country has reached epic proportions: brother against brother; red state against blue state; a mean-spiritedness that hasn’t been seen since the days of the civil war, or George W. stole the election. Limbaugh and his ilk have had more than a little to do with that.
Perhaps in Sandra Fluke my daughters will see a modern day suffragette. Do we women realize how many of our sisters who came before were reviled, jailed and even beaten so we could shop at Victoria Secrets? I don’t think that’s what those women had in mind when they sat shivering in a dank prison cell. So why are we squandering of our political capitol? History has shown that if women are going to succeed at changing anything, they need to stick together.
Back to my lifeguarding job. I did say something to Coach — okay, I griped and moaned — and guess what? I got the job. It wasn’t my relentless scootching (my mother’s word for being a pest) that got the job for me, but dumb luck. The third guy got a better offer so I slipped in, and for the rest of the summer, I worked my proverbial butt off to prove I deserved it. I hauled hundred pound bags of soda ash down a creaky metal stairway to the floor of the pump room; I cut the 2-acre lawn with a push mower, moving gargantuan picnic tables to get at the grass underneath; I vacuumed the pool (as opposed to pretending to vacuum like my male colleagues), even the hard-to-get-at parts. I did more work than the guys collectively did, week after week, just to stay on equal footing, but in the end it was worth it. I can’t recall a single instance of discrimination since, as if by tackling the problem head-on, I exorcised it from my life forever.
When I was young, I knew for a fact that men were in charge, but I found a way around it. Today, I see women taking their place alongside men as equals. There should be more of us, but until women start supporting each other in ways that men cannot, men will always have the upper hand. We’re not looking for world domination, just an equal voice in how the world works. Translation: control of our hearts, minds, destinies, and need I say, our own bodies.
p.s. Gals, do your gender a favor. Get out the vote.
This has been a public service announcement.
The Boys on the Beach
On a recent beach vacation to Ocracoke with our dear friends, Bob and Meredith we had a houseful of six girls and one boy (my son couldn’t get a buddy to do go with him this year) and we were ready for relaxation and fun in the sun. Enter a group of boys, roughly the same age as our girls who were also on the same adventure. The purported leader of the group, we’ll call him A, a gregarious and effervescent 18-year old, introduced himself to me by coming up for air a few inches from my face following a large wave.
“Now that I’ve invaded your space, let me introduce myself,” A said.
Introductions were made and the next thing we know the group of boys had glommed onto our group of girls. In retrospect, it is now clear that the group of boys had been eyeing up our girls for awhile and simply put forth their best communicator and deal maker, a tactic they employed all week. An hour later, after the boys purportedly taught the girls to body surf (the girls already knew how), the boys left en masse, basically how they did everything. We would later find out why, but not before I invited them to meet up with us at the outdoor Community Square in downtown Ocracoke where the town was having a pre-4th of July celebration: square dancing to the wonderfully eclectic, local band, Molasses Creek, local “caller” included.
When evening arrived, Meredith and I and the girls set out, a long single file of bike riders weaving down the road like a kite’s tail. Our husbands and my son declined to join us. Many people were already busy learning the intricacies of square dancing when we pulled up so we jumped right in. The girls lasted about two songs, but the waltz proved fatal so they headed off to the dock to take pictures. Ten minutes later, the boys showed up, the girls returned, and the dancing began in earnest, kicking off a week of fun and laughter that our kids won’t soon forget. After the dancing, the boys wanted the girls to go with them to see the fireworks which was when we met their peer leader, Stas, and got the scoop on the boys: they were all in recovery. Upon admission, the first thing Stas said was, “I hope you don’t think less of us now.” The “us” included Stas who was also in recovery and almost two years clean.
Actually, I couldn’t think more of them. These boys were the most engaging, bright, forthright, self-aware, and in-touch young adults I’ve met. At the McShin Foundation which has started a recovery school in Richmond, Virginia, they conduct peer-to-peer group sessions. According to Stas, the school had a serious drug problem and a serious desire to solve it through peer-to-peer recovery, a progressive concept, one to be lauded and perhaps emulated.
From my limited vantage point, drugs in high school seems much more prevalent today than when I was a kid and the drugs are scarier. It’s not all about smoking weed anymore. These kids are serious about getting a buzz. So much so that my state, Pennsylvania, passed a law for paramedics to carry Naloxone to help prevent the ever more frequent heroine-related deaths. If the war on drugs did anything, it made drugs more prevalent and desirable, cartels stronger, drugs easier, to get, and more kids criminals for taking them. When you add to that the materialistic nature of America where as a society we believe nothing is ever enough, where family dysfunction is often the norm, and where we communicate more and more via text rather than face-to-face, it’s a wonder more kids don’t take drugs. The Richmond school is not unique; they’ve just chosen to be proactive.
Over the course of the week we heard story after story, some so sad it could bring an adult to their knees, yet these kids soldiered on. I won’t recount them here for privacy reasons because they weren’t all adults yet, and they’re not my stories to tell, but I will say that every day, these kids were in the process of working their way through the wreckage of what drove them to drink, smoke pot or (fill in the blank). It was almost never easy, depression could be a somewhat frequent visitor, and every day was a another attempt to fly or fall, but they kept at it. Because of their tenacity and faith in each other, they could actually teach the adults in the room a few things about self-love, acceptance, forgiveness, and the power of laughter, especially laughter, and how game-changing these things were in our complex world where life could be like navigating a minefield.
The peer-to-peer counseling, essential to the success of the program, involved a daily feelings check where you reported to the group several times a day on your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual state. So you’d say, for e.g., “Hi, I’m Pam,” and the group would say, “Hi, Pam,” and you would reply, perhaps, “Emotionally I’m feeling jazzed, physically strong, mentally I can’t stop thinking about how big of a bitch my coworker is, spiritually, I’m grateful to be at the beach and commune with nature,” whatever, then on to the next guy or girl (there was one girl in the group). They sort of follow the 12-step model, but the difference, I think, is the super strong group support and maybe not all those pithy sayings about letting go and letting God. Platitudes can be inspiring from an attitudinal standpoint, but there’s no substitute for a blueprint and a buddy to walk the path with you. God is simply not going to come down and sip cappuccino in your kitchen, but a friend will, and a friend who’s been through it — the peer-to-peer part — is like having a therapist who can read your mind. It’s where the alchemy occurs. Your peer is not that many steps ahead of you and he’s constantly turning around to make sure you’re coming. People working together. The very definition of community.
That week in Ocracoke flew by faster than usual. In addition to square dancing, the kids swam, rode jet skis, and took turns going to each other’s houses. At theirs, the girls were entertained with a freestyle rap where you make up a couple versus, usually about someone in the room, and then pass it off to the next person, and so on, like improv, but rapping, and it was hilarious (we had a demonstration). At ours, they made homemade ice cream and did a feelings check and hung out on the roof deck to look at the stars and laughed — always laughing. They rode their bikes around town and did a self-directed scavenger hunt and everything was without drink or drugs, a 21st century parent’s dream. Their joy at the little things was infectious and their ability to cut through the bullshit of life at such a young age admirable. We’re all broken in some way, struggling to fit in and find meaning in a vapid world. It’s amazing to me that more kids don’t fall given the temptations. I think it’s the tenacity I admired most about these guys, the desire to keep moving forward despite those odds.
The kids have already taken a couple trips to see each other since the beach. I think the gifts they traded — of compassion, understanding, of being present — are invaluable, and the energy of those gems will stick around for a while. Whether they stay in touch is anybody’s guess, but they’ll think of that week for years to come. And they’ll laugh. And maybe make up a rap song.
[Kayak on Canal, Ocracoke Island — photo by Ian Eberly]
It’s hard to believe last month we had our son’s graduation party and this weekend we’ll be taking him to college. At 6’3” he looks more like he should be graduating from college instead of starting out, and now that we’re down to the wire — painting, packing, switching bedrooms for the one kid left at home, getting ready for our Spanish exchange kid who arrives tomorrow, getting the oldest ready for her last year of college — I’m lamenting all the busyness of preparing that has kept me from enjoying those last bits of being together with my kids.
Sometimes I see the hand of God in everything around me and sometimes I just see my own hands flying over the field of whatever tasks I’m trying to accomplish, lately moving faster and faster just to keep up with the real and imagined deadlines, trying not to get blindsided in the process. This summer has been more hectic than usual so much so that I sometimes need to stop and force myself to breathe. I don’t ever remember life being this tough to navigate (with the exception of law school). There were things we wanted to do and places we wanted to go but “needs before the wants,” as Mimi, the kids’ grandmother says. We got the boat out on the water exactly once this summer. When they were young, we’d have gone half a dozen times or more by this time of year. Now with everyone going their different directions, I feel guilty about what we didn’t do because the possibilities are foreclosed. While preparation is important, we have a tendency to forget the motives behind the prep. Most of what we do has little to do with the goal which is almost always a connection: with yourself, your family, the world. I miss my father most at times like these. He could spend hours sitting around the kitchen table, dinner long done, just “shootin’ the shit,” as he’d say. Connecting was his specialty.
I’m not going to claim any gracefulness in circumnavigating the summer. Certainly I could have done a better job, been less frantic, perhaps raised my voice less. The world is not going to end if the bedroom didn’t get painted or they don’t yet have new jeans for the first day of school. I have enough emotional awareness to realize that my level of frenzy is directly proportional to my sense of loss, and perhaps to how much control I perceive my husband and I will have over our children’s lives as they move forward with their own. Next to none, I’d guess, although paying for college tuition at least affords us a say — a small but sturdy trump card.
[Photo montage created by Morgan Eberly for the top of Ian’s graduation cake – she used toothpicks to stand the pictures up (she’s so creative).]
So how do I keep them safe? I can only hope that I’ve repeated the lessons with enough consistency that something got through. My overused line, stolen from The Terminator — “Listen to me know and hear me later” — sums up this parent’s life. Whether they even hear me later is the part I’m stressing, the repercussions of having not been heard the part that every parent braces against.
And so it comes to this: another child launched, another achey heart, another reason to hold my breath and pray he makes good decisions, pray that the randomness of life does not overtake or derail him, that he has the luck to be in the right place at the right time, and that there is growth and joy and learning that comes from his next chapter. So, my son, listen to me now and hear me later. You life is the sum total of the choices you make. Do your parents, and yourself a favor. Make good ones.
Maybe I was just naive, but I can’t believe how much the world has changed in the last few decades. In the summer of 1988, I did a study abroad in Athens, Greece as a Temple Law student. W
ho wouldn’t choose to spend the summer in Greece? It’s the birthplace of democracy, the Socratic method, and some really cool ruins.
Athens experienced exceptionally high temperatures in the summer, not just because it’s a Mediterranean city, but because for years there was no requirement for catalytic converters on cars which meant many more pollutants in the air than here in the U.S. A catalytic converter reduces pollutants from a car’s emissions by speeding up the conversion process using heat from the engine to split off the harmful gasses, resulting in steam. Athens could have used a few catalytic converters in the late 80’s because the resultant inversion that trapped the pollution at ground level rivaled the smog in L.A. and added to our thermal misery. Today we have ozone alert days. Then it was just pollution.
The University of Athens recognized that soft American students used to air conditioning and swimming pools would not fare well in an academic environment that included floor fans to move the sweltering heat from one side of the room to the other so classes began early and were done by lunch. To that, they added a few Fridays off which accommodated weekend trips to the islands, and on a couple occasions we had a four-day weekend and one very special five-day weekend. Part of the beauty of Europe is its close proximity to all the places Americans long to see, but have to plan long in advance to make happen. Our Professor suggested we use the five-day weekend to go to Cairo, a 2-hour, $100 flight and quicker to get to than the Jersey shore from Philadelphia on a weekend. Exotic Egypt!
Egypt came with a “few” restrictions: don’t travel alone; don’t go anywhere without at least one male in the group; don’t show your legs, i.e., no shorts, and no pants either if you don’t want to offend anyone or maybe be attacked; cover your arms in the mosques and other holy places; don’t drink the water; don’t raise a ruckus because we may not be able to get you out; don’t stay out late at night; act like a lady, but really that meant like a lady from the 19th century; and on the list went, ending with don’t be afraid of the machine gun-toting guards at the airport. We got an up-close and personal look when we landed. Three guards stood holding guns at the ready. What they were ready for, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s proximity to the desert — the closer you get to the untamed, the more chaotic things become — although there seemed to be little chance of the airport being taken over by Beduins. Still I’d only just arrived and had no idea of what the Egyptians had to deal with on a daily basis. Perhaps additional armament was needed to live there. It was 1988 and Europe was experiencing occasional bouts of terrorism whereas in the U.S, it was simply something that happened “over there,” not in our shining city on the hill.
After 9/11, all that Camelot crap died. Now when I get off at the train station at 30th Street in Philadelphia, there are practically three police and a dog at every gate all carrying glocks (with the exception of the dog — but just wait!). In fact, there are so many guns in the train station now, it would take an hour just to count them. What I find most troubling is the normalcy of it all like, “Life During Wartime,” except we’re not in war time, at least not on American soil. Guns have proliferated to the point that states have begun to implement a “campus-carry” law making it cool to carry in the event you need to thwart one of the all too common madmen on the loose with a gun. Imagine walking to calc or bio and suddenly there’s a shoot out on the quad and you have a gun, so, well, why not? Get in there!
What defines normal? I submit it’s as mercurial as the weather in southeast Florida during hurricane season. That same summer, on a different weekend, this time to Mykonos, part of a group of islands in the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, we were causing a ruckus as tourists visiting Mykonos do. The island encourages it, in fact, with its eclectic night life and bars offering live music and cheap drinks. So it was that on August 8, 1988, my friends and I made our way to a bar offering both, the latter tequila slammers — tequila and ginger ale — for 100 drachma. That was about 80 cents. One of us (I’m looking at you, KK and KLP) got the idea to drink eight of them since, after all, the numbers had aligned and when was the next time that was going to happen? A couple centuries? And since the Greek islands are about sun, fun, and a sort of recklessness where you push the limits of your own definition of yourself, we, a group of half a dozen law students, found ourselves dancing on table tops of the cheap plastic variety. If memory serves, we had gone cliff-diving earlier that day or over that weekend so it wasn’t all alcohol-related madness, but simply madness. When the waitress saw us, she, as a concerned and conscientious worker, asked us to dance on the bar instead since it was much sturdier. Who were we to decline? Minutes later, we were dancing on the bar, shining the lights that hung from the ceiling on the patrons and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe.
Needless to say, I had a legendary hangover and have not been a fan of tequila since that night. I am also very grateful for a Facebook-free world back in 1988. It would be a different trip today. Guns are de rigueur and the guy dancing on the bar next to me may have a license to carry. A glass breaks or a door bangs shut. It sounds like a shot and suddenly, you’re smack in the middle of a shoot out, just like the Wild Wild West, but on a bar in the middle of the Aegean Sea.
Someone pass me the tequila.
One of my favorite ever lines, summing up the unhinged feeling that I have most days when my life spirals out in ways that I can’t control is from “The Rugrats Movie” (1998) spoken by the brave, kindhearted and adventurous Tommy Pickles, a one-year old Rugrat who despite his age has a knack for leadership: “Hang onto your diapies, babies, we’re going in.”
I’m on the train. I’m heading into Philadelphia on Day One of the Democratic National Convention and I’m dreading it. Some things you can’t avoid, like work on a Monday, or a scandal if your name is Clinton, so it’s not a shock that on the eve of the convention, the chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, stepped down as a result of her committee’s less than unbiased treatment of the then candidates, Hilz and Bernie Sanders, but only after some pressure from POTUS himself. (BTDubs, it was an allegation that Sanders has been making all along.)
Did Hillary know what her supporters were doing? Who knows, and at this point it’s a side-story because nothing blows the Republican GOP’s dresses up like a Clinton scandal. If not Benghazi, then her private email server (wait, didn’t Colin Powell use a private email server?), then Monica Lewinsky (wait, wasn’t that Bill?), then stealing furniture from the White House (poor record keeping, and no different, really, than Nancy Reagan and her ballgowns), then she’s not a natural blonde (I just made that one up), and on it goes because if you can’t beat someone fairly, deride and derail until you do, and that seems to be the strategy of the Republican party for the last sixteen years. During that time, our entire nation has sunk deeper and deeper into slander and viciousness, brother-against-brother, an incendiary pit of despair akin to the 9th circle of hell, a mob mentality led by such spurious and suspect haters as Rush Limbaugh (drug abuser), Roger Ailes (sexual harasser), and Sean Hannity (veterans charity scammer), to name a few. These men are fear mongers, bringing people together through hate of everything not like them, men who spin the story so adroitly that few of us can escape its centrifugal force.
Think for a moment what our nation would have been like if the mild-mannered and ever-inclusive Al Gore would rightfully have been handed the mantle of POTUS – had the Supremes not robbed him of it — rather than George W. and the back-biting, back-stabbing, war-crazy crowd he hung out with: no Iraq, no Haliburton, no race riots, yes to the environment, yes to a living wage, or even one that kept pace with inflation, and maybe “too big to fail” would have been just that. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and we’ve had 16 years of uber-Republicanism.
Perhaps this was a good thing? Perhaps we needed the pendulum to swing so hard and fast to the right that we all got whiplash watching it. In a balanced world, eventually everything finds its center, right? But guess what? We’re not balanced, and there are no signs of swinging to middle anytime soon. Meanwhile, the nominee of the Grand Old Party is a man who epitomizes greed and a what’s-in-it-for-me mentality that’s not afraid to show itself. The Donald has been involved in over 3,500 lawsuits. Who sues that many times? I’m a lawyer, and haven’t seen that much action. Does this guy sue in his sleep?
Oh America, things do not look good for us, not if The Donald wins, and maybe not even if Hilz wins, quite frankly, but having been robbed of my first choice, Bernie Sanders, what is left to me? The Donald, a divisive, subversive, anti-everything man that doesn’t like anyone or anything if it’s not like like him or his family, that violator of civil and human rights, that disparager of all women who aren’t models (how the freak did this man become the GOP’s candidate?!). Or do I vote for Hillary, a woman, a WOMAN, so an historic event, electing one of my own, but a woman with flaws: Senate votes that maybe weren’t on fleek (translation: on point) with where I would have liked her to be, and ties to Wall Street that I wish she didn’t have, and enough baggage to sink a steamer, but you try being in the public eye for decades and avoiding all those slings and arrows and see what your travel luggage looks like. The woman has had to become like teflon just to get up in the morning.
And not to belabor the point (pun intended) but she’s a woman, and a mom, and a grandmother who ostensibly cares about her children and wants to see them thrive — It Takes a Village — in a world where we don’t need to purify the air before we breathe it (yet), and the water is still drinkable (even if it does require a little filtration), but it may not be that way for long. If The Donald has his way, he’ll dismantle EPA because in his book, economics trumps (haha!) the environment any day, and if that happens, who will enforce the regulations that protect your air and water, eh?
What am I getting for my vote? I’m fully aware that I am rolling the dice here, but what I’m hoping, PRAYING for, is some constancy, some discipline, some fiscal conservancy, and a liberal social agenda that includes everyone as in “God bless the whole world, no exceptions.” It’s a lot to ask, I know, but times are tough, opinions are tougher, and Hilz has stared down her share of crappy ones and lived to fight another day. She knows the pain of childbirth and how important it is to forget it. (Honestly, if men had to give birth, they’d still be bitching about the pain when the kid was in college.) And if the Dalai Lama believes that Western women are going to save the world, who am I to say otherwise? Until we start putting a softer spin on a world that’s destroying itself with its hard, unforgiving edges, we’re going to keep drawing blood. Time to take a collective breath, people, reach across the aisle to your neighbor, especially if his skin color is different than yours, and remember what it is that makes us all the same rather than stare at the differences.
It’s also high time for collective leadership as in we are each responsible for our own realities. Until that happens, Jesus or Buddha, or Allah himself could come down and take over as POTUS and there’d still be gridlock on the House and Senate floors. Would you rather be right, or be at peace, as the Buddhists say? How about community, and compassion versus strife and racial conflict? A new warplane, or a robust educational system? What if you made a conscious effort to choose love instead of fear in every decision you made today, tomorrow, into the future. What would your decisions look like? What would your candidates look like? Remember, candidates are a reflection of the people. If reality is a mirror of your inner thoughts then the candidates are a reflection of the constituents they seek to serve. Time for us all to look at our thoughts because they are creating our collective reality.
“Hang on to your diapies, babies. We’re goin’ in.”
A Sense of Place
We all have a place, a favorite spot that gives us comfort and time for pause. Maybe it’s a country, a climate, or a spot in the sun on your back deck. We just returned from a family vacation in Ocracoke, North Carolina, one of my places, a veritable paradise. This will be the fourth time in the last five years that we’ve taken the exact same vacation to this remarkable site that boasts a grand total of 900 residents in the off-season. This time around I realized that what I love the most is the elemental nature of the island: nothing but sun (fire), sea (water), sand (earth), and sky (air).
Ocracoke is a barrier island, part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and a truly mysterious place. Ocracoke’s physical connection to the rest of the world is tenuous: the only way onto the island is by ferry, private boat, or private plane. Sure you can take your car, but fill the tank before you go because there’s only one gas station on the island. Once used for subsistence hunting and fishing by the Hatterask Indians, as well as a favorite haunt of Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard, most of the island is preserved and wild, a thin, undeveloped strip of land that barely manages to keep its head at five feet above sea level.
The Ocracoke Village, built at the Southern, wider tip of the island along Silver Lake, is home to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Built in 1870, it’s the world’s tallest brick lighthouse and a National Historic Landmark. There’s also parasailing, deep sea fishing, jet skiing, a great local music scene — check out Molasses Creek — and a beautiful, welcoming beach that is home to federally protected or endangered species such as the piping plover, the seabeach amaranth, and sea turtles. Once out of Ocracoke Village, you can walk for miles along the island’s shores without seeing a single building, nothing but dunes, sand and sea. There are amenities, yes: quirky hotels, restaurants, even a few fine dining establishments that serve the freshest caught seafood available, enchanting shops, a yoga studio, a small local theater, a public library, a high school that has graduated as few as three students in a given year. It’s not a town for everyone because the unlimited options just aren’t there, yet there’s so much more than all the usual beach town stuff that you can always find in the more popular, high-traffic places. If you need to pick up stuff for dinner, you go to Ocracoke Variety. That’s it. Utter the word franchise and it’s as if you’re speaking a foreign language. There’s no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no anything that’s found just about everywhere else.
Therein lies the island’s charm: for hundreds of years, Ocracoke has been an outpost run by generations of locals – some of whom are descended from pirates! – in their own eclectic way. And while nature is always redrawing the boundaries of this mostly untamed island, its essential, individualistic character and that of its inhabitants remains intact.
Each time we’ve gone with the same friends who have kids our kids’ ages — another layer of heaven for us parents because everyone has a buddy. While we’ve only spent a total of a month in Ocracoke over the years, we’ve watched each others’ kids grow and mature, and weathered some personal storms that have made the friendship indispensable despite the fact that, in addition to the vacation, we only see each other a couple times a year. Perhaps that’s part of the Ocracoke magic, that the friendships forged there are as indelible as the island itself. And while the island may one day give way to rising sea levels brought about by climate change, my money is on its survival in some form or other if for no other reason than that I wish it, albeit need it to be so.
By far, my favorite part of the Ocracoke experience is riding our bikes everywhere while the car sits parked in the driveway. We ride for exercise – roundtrip to the ferry and back is almost 30 miles, to the pony sanctuary about 15 — we ride to the beach, to dinner, to go shopping. We’re not alone either. Many people choose the eco-friendly alternatives of either a bike or a golf cart, the latter being the favored mode of transportation, or just plain old walking. I don’t think that people are consciously making these sustainable choices. Rather, it’s as if the place expects it of you, like you and the island made a pact the minute you got off the ferry: go slow, live fuller moments, slow down and breathe, leave the car.
And so we do.
[photo by Steve Miller]
The 20th Annual — Whales in Training
Nothing announces the passage of time more succinctly than the inexorable growth of your children. Well, any children really, but when it’s one’s own or those of your friends, it”s particularly poignant, especially if those friends happen to be your forever friends. This past Memorial Day, “The Whales” celebrated our 20th Annual camping trip at Shawnee State Park in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. We’ve been friends for several decades now, friendships sealed in the extraordinary times at Penn State’s Happy Valley and still going strong.
Thirty plus years ago, before the camping trips began, there was the beach house in Cape May Point, a place so dilapidated that it may as well have been bobby trapped. We held it for several summers running and when we finally let it go it was condemned and then razed. What can I say? The rent was cheap. The house was a block from the beach, could accommodate anywhere from a few to a couple dozen people if they didn’t care where they slept — couches, hammocks, porches, the roof — and it was loaded with whales. If memory serves, it was four bedrooms and one bath, but only one of the bedrooms had a lock on the door, and maybe also the bathroom. When you’re 20-something, you care less about such things.
[photo by Kevin D. Reilly]
As for the whales, they were everywhere: sculptures, at least one carved wooden one, pictures in every room, trinkets, even a whale weathervane. We never new if it was because Cape May Point was a favorite whale watching haunt or one of the former owners was into whales, but we happily adopted the name and “The Whales” were born. We made a flag made from an old bed sheet designed by a founding whale and stitched together by yours truly. We hoist it proudly when I remember to bring it which is hardly ever. Since the early days, our ranks have grown as new friends are subsumed into the group. There have also been “enterprises” such as Beagle Beer — borrowing the nickname from one of the “founders” — where for $20, a Whale could become a “full shareholder” and reap the benefits of ownership at the next party. Brewings were on a fluctuating schedule, anywhere from one to half a dozen or so a year, hence the motto — “great beer if you can get it.” No one ever leaves The Whales although some may be gone for years or even decades. Our kids who have been watching our antics at the camp fire and everywhere else are “Whales-in-Training” and eager to become the second generation of Whales, something we’re all terribly proud of.
[photo by Steve Miller]
In our salad days at PSU, it seems we took everything to the extreme: hikes up mountains, hikes deep into valleys, iron man competitions with a run around the lake followed by a swim back to home, hikes in snow-covered fields solely by the light of the moon, hikes into the sky with a fire by a mountain lake as the reward for getting there. If there was a dare in there we forced ourselves to rise to the challenge. When the kids were little, the camping trips, while never sedate, were more controlled — a somewhat strenuous hike in the woods with lots of trail mix and stops at nice overlooks with a reasonable degree of difficulty, always slightly beyond their current skill set so they had to push to meet the challenge. As they’ve grown, now mostly in their teens and twenties, the daring nature of the outings has grown with them. There was the time kayaking on the river — “the second time we almost died” — when we got caught in a thunder and lightning storm that rivaled any Ansel Adams photo you’ve ever seen; the time we lost the hiking trail on the mountain and ended up two towns over from where we started — with night setting in, all I could think of was who was going to raise my kids — and had to be retrieved by car because we ended up miles from our campground; the time the water was so cold you needed a wetsuit to kayak; and the time the river was so high and unforgiving that we didn’t go more than a few hundred yards without someone dumping the boat — on that trip I dumped my kayak the moment I stepped into the boat and a hilarious half a dozen times after that. And those events occurred just in the past five or six years.
[photo by Steve Miller]
“Well at least nobody died” has become a favorite catch phrase of these weekend trips which brings me to this year’s: a seven-hour hike with what felt like a mile-high vertical climb at the end, billy goat style, hand-over-hand, just to put the exclamation point on it. There’s always one in the group and ours is Callahan, the architect of our adventures, pushing us to places we’d never willingly go on our own by sheer force of will. Fifteen, twenty people saying “no way,” and somehow we relent. Everyone bitches and moans throughout the ordeal, but when it’s over we’re left with that amazing feeling of accomplishment. We started the walk in an abandoned tunnel that had an end-of-the-world, Mad Max feel, and ended with the climb, straight up through fields of poison ivy, that ubiquitous downer of a plant that half of our group was severely allergic to, but we made it, baby, as we always do.
[photo by Wade Bennett]
And just because it was the 20th Annual, the next day’s kayaking was rigorous and exhilarating, and the kids stuck together like Velcro. I’m told the low water levels and the need to portage every few hundred feet made it exhausting. Ian, and Wade, both 17-year olds who were graduated from high school this year had perfected the technique of “launching” the canoe over the logs. The person in the back would get out of the canoe while the front guy hunkered down and the back guy pushed the canoe forward, launching the front guy over the log with more speed than portaging afforded. There was also canoe rolling and other antics.
I had stayed behind along with a couple other Whales, opting for a ranger-led kayaking tour around the lake where we learned fun facts about Rachel Carson (one of my heroes) and the local flora and fauna.
We followed it up with a polite and enjoyable bike ride also around the lake and into town, ate a civilized lunch at our campsite, took a siesta in the afternoon and relaxed in an uncharacteristic manner. Sometimes The Annual calls for a bit of a time out.
It was all quite lovely until the torrents of rain arrived in the afternoon, and by the time the kids got back, I was ready to bail. My husband had stayed behind this year for health reasons, bagging 20 minutes before we got in the car to leave. The trailer had been packed with bikes, coolers, tents, even a kayak on top of the roof, tied on and ready to go. I almost canceled the trip, but the kids were excited to see their friends and I was too, so we pressed on. Camping without your spouse is a whole different experience — a lot more angst producing because you can’t be everywhere at once — but my kids pitched in and it worked out. After a few minutes of indecision, we decided to stay the night and I’m grateful we did.
[photo by Steve Miller]
We cooked an easy dinner of hot sausage and kale, spent hours that night around the campfire, sang, laughed, told stories, drank wine (adults), made s’mores (kids), and laughed some more. It’s those moments of connection, so few and far between in our normal, hectic, albeit frantic lives, that make these trips what they are. That we can pass this stuff along to our kids — not just the knowledge or love of the outdoors, but the heart connections — that makes it worth the doing. While the 20th didn’t have the death-defying rigor of one or two past trips, it had something more valuable — staying power, the comfort of old friends, a place of peace and security in an often insecure world. When my spirit needs a recharge, this is the well I drink from, a well I hope to return to again and again.
Judge Higginbotham and The Worst Client Ever
By William C. Smith
I don’t shed any tears for Donald Trump’s lawyers. I’m sure they’re very well paid, and – thanks to their client’s notorious litigiousness — the sky’s the limit on those billable hours. According to USA Today, Trump has been involved in least 3,500 federal and state lawsuits over the past three decades.
However, I do sympathize with the lawyers in the “Trump University” class action lawsuit, now awaiting trial in federal court in San Diego. Face it; it’s a hard case to defend. A group of sympathetic, financially unsophisticated plaintiffs allege that a cartoonishly rapacious billionaire defendant conned them into paying exorbitant “tuition” for hotel lounge classes in how-to-get-rich-quick in real estate.
Lawyers enjoy swapping stories of bad clients – who ignore good advice, default on their debts (including attorneys fees), lie to their counsel, perjure themselves, hide or destroy damning documents, and then, naturally, blame their lawyers for their resulting legal woes.
In The Worst Client Ever contest, though, Trump’s lawyers win hands down. Even the most lizard-brained bad clients understand instinctively they should not needlessly offend the person deciding their legal fate. Not Trump. No, he has managed to make a hard case even worse with his patently bigoted attacks against the federal judge presiding over the Trump U lawsuit.
By all accounts, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel is an all-American success story. The Indiana-born son of working-class Mexican-American immigrants, Curiel graduated from Indiana University’s law school and became a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of California. So tenacious was his prosecution of Mexican drug dealers that he was given U.S. Marshal protection after a gunman for a Tijuana-based cartel was recorded plotting to murder him.
Curiel’s stellar record as a lawyer has earned him broad, and rare, bipartisan support as a judge. Originally appointed to the California Superior Court by the Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Curiel was named to the federal bench by Obama in 2012. His nomination sailed through the Senate on an uncontested voice vote.
Of course, Curiel’s reputation and background is of no concern to Trump, who was outraged when the judge failed to throw the case out of court. He then became apoplectic when Curiel allowed the release of sales scripts showing that Trump U students were pressured to max out their credit cards.
In recent interviews, Trump has denigrated Curiel as a Trump “hater” with “absolute conflict of interest” due to his “Mexican heritage.” Asked to explain by CNN’s Jake Tapper why this attack was “not the definition of racism,” The Worst Client Ever explained, “He’s a Mexican.” Reminded that Curiel is a “legal citizen,” the presumptive Republican nominee sputtered: “This case should have ended years ago on summary judgment… This judge is giving us unfair rulings. Now I say why? Well, I want to build a wall, OK, and it’s a wall between Mexico, not another country.”
When Trump’s mainstream media frenemies gave him the chance to walk back these remarks, Trump doubled down, telling CBS “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson that he would also be “absolutely” concerned about bias from a Muslim judge, due to his call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. To Dickerson’s comment that America had a “tradition” against judging people based on their ethnic heritage, Trump responded bluntly, “I’m not talking about tradition, I’m talking about common sense, O.K.?”
In watching Trump’s rants against “Mexican” and “Muslim” judges, I could not help but recall a similar race-based attack on Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, a titan of the Philadelphia bar, and one of the nation’s first black federal district court judges. In his spare time, Judge Higginbotham was also a leading scholar on civil rights, writing several books and articles, and teaching at the law schools of Harvard and Penn. (I had the privilege of clerking for Judge Higginbotham in 1989-91, when he was Chief Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals).
In 1974, Judge Higginbotham presided over a race discrimination lawsuit against Philadelphia building contractors and a local of the nearly all-white operating engineers union. The defendants’ lawyers petitioned the judge to recuse himself, arguing that he was biased against the white litigants due to his race and scholarship on blacks and the law. Their motion highlighted Judge Higginbotham’s speech on racial justice before an association of black historians, and his status as “one of the country’s leading civil rights proponents.”
In a lengthy, well-footnoted opinion, Judge Higginbotham refused to recuse.
“I concede that I am black. I do not apologize for that obvious fact,” he wrote. “I take rational pride in my heritage, just as most other ethnics take pride in theirs. However, that one is black does not mean, ipso facto, that he is anti-white; no more than being Jewish implies being anti-Catholic, or being Catholic implies being anti-Protestant.”
He noted, though, that his race did not disqualify him from discrimination cases involving black plaintiffs, just as white judges were not considered inherently prejudiced in cases brought by whites. He also surveyed the extensive history of white judges speaking and writing on legal subjects, off the bench, without their impartiality in those subjects being questioned.
Like Judge Curiel today — Judge Higginbotham was a class act who did not lightly throw around accusations of racism. He therefore did not impugn the motives of those who sought his recusal from this civil right case, instead presuming that they acted “in good faith.”
Still, he was not prepared to let them off the hook for their “meritless” motion. With the insight gained from a legal career that began when blacks were unwelcome both in big firms and the federal bench, Judge Higginbotham speculated that “among some whites, there is an inherent disquietude when they see that occasionally blacks are adjudicating matters pertaining to race relations.”
He gently but firmly reminded the litigants about the color of courtroom justice for most of America’s history. Before William H. Hastie was appointed to the Third Circuit in 1949, “white litigants throughout America were able to argue before a judiciary from the United States District Courts to the Courts of Appeals to the United States Supreme Court without encountering a single black judge along the entire judicial route.”
It was not until 1961, three years before Judge Higginbotham’s own appointment to the district court, that white litigants facing federal trials “had to ponder the subtle issue which defendants now raise, because no President had ever appointed a black as a United States District Judge.”
He continued: “If blacks could accept the fact of their manifest absence from the federal judicial process for almost two centuries, the plain truth is that white litigants are now going to have to accept the new day where the judiciary will not be entirely white and where some black judges will adjudicate cases involving race relations.”
Higginbotham concluded by noting that his opinion on this ill-considered pretrial motion “may appear to be too long and prolix.”
Again, though, he refused to apologize:
[I]f defendants’ arguments are asserted in good faith and sincerity, they nevertheless represent an almost subconscious expression of their expectation of the deportment of blacks and, more specifically, of black judges. If America is going to have a total rendezvous with justice so that there can be full equality for blacks, other minorities, and women, it is essential that the “instinct” for double standards be completely exposed and hopefully, through analysis, those elements of irrationality can be ultimately eradicated.
It is regrettable that in this case I must take substantial time and effort to answer defendants’ meritless allegations, but in some respects the motions merely highlight the duality of burdens which blacks have in public life. Blacks must meet not only the normal obligations which confront their colleagues, but often they must spend extraordinary amounts of time in answering irrational positions and assertions before they can fulfill their primary public responsibilities.
Judge Higginbotham’s 1974 opinion speaks through the decades to Trump’s claim that Judge Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” somehow renders him unfit to adjudicate the Trump University case. As Higginbotham writes, the racial double standard on evaluating judges’ fitness must be exposed and eradicated.
Like all of his clerks and the judges who served with him, as well as the countless lawyers and litigants who appeared before him, I still miss Judge Higginbotham, who died in 1998. Fortunately, though, he left a legacy of civil rights scholarship and respect for the rule of law that will be remembered long after most of us (except his lawyers, of course) have forgotten The Worst Client Ever.
William C. Smith 6.7.16
[photo by Carl R. Smith, Jr.]
“Just a Couple of Old People Holding Hands”:
A Memoir of a Marriage in Alzheimer’s World
By Carl R. Smith, Jr.; Edited by William C. Smith
Post 7 – The End
Until his final illness, Carl Smith was an enthusiastic participant in the cultural and intellectual life of Cathedral Village. He regularly taught evening “Cathedral College” classes with topics ranging from Tolstoy’s, War and Peace and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, to the Protestant Reformation and weight loss. One of Carl’s most popular courses, entitled “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” covered often-avoided subjects like finances, sexuality among the aged, neglectful children, and death.
In January 2014, my 90-year-old father started a blog entitled “Gray Hair & Gray Matter,” which featured ruminations from Carl and his octo-and nonagenarian peers on the joys, challenges, and absurdities of senior citizenry.
The blog’s first edition included the following musings on the end of life:
Last August the Christian Century carried a whimsical comment from Richard Morgan, a Lutheran pastor, who moved into a retirement community with his spouse, “It struck him that they were entering something like the monastic life. They surrendered all ownership of property; they relinquished control over their own lives, giving control to the retirement corporation; and they now live by a fixed schedule. . . . As St Benedict admonished in his rule for monastic life, they regularly ponder the fact that they will die—for their neighbors die rather frequently.”
Speaking of pondering on the end of life, here is some wisdom from William Sloan Coffin (Yale chaplain, peace activist, pastor of Riverside Church): “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity and compassion and there’s no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night”
As a nursing home resident and the spouse of an Alzheimer’s patient, Carl had plenty of time to ponder end of life issues, and a lot of material to work with.
November 28, 2010: “this foreboding”
I’m sad. That’s the only word that fits. I think that MH is dying. I weep.
I don’t have any reason to think that anything final has happened. It’s just that this noon I fed MH and she ate almost everything on the tray. This evening I went to feed her and she was asleep. Had she slept the whole day? I asked an aide and she said she thought she had. I went to the dining room and the nurse there said that I shouldn’t give her food until she had checked on whether MH could swallow.
…I gave her some water, wiped her eyes of some gathered fluid, told her she was a beautiful blue-eyed Swede, kissed her and told her I loved her. As I left she smiled, as she always does.
I went back a couple hours later and found that MH was sleeping so I didn’t waken her but came back here to my apartment.
But I have this foreboding that she is near death. Why? I don’t know but I sat on the edge of my bed an hour ago weeping, which I have not done before. I have not faced that reality before. And now that I have written all this I wonder if what I have set down is really more my interior roiling or the external reality?
Maybe six months from now we will be sitting at the same place in the dining room, with me complaining that the service is too slow. We’ll see.
December 2, 2010: “I am attracted by silence”
I’m reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence — a memoir about trying to escape the noise of life. The central experience is six weeks when the author lived alone and in silence on the Isle of Skye, surviving a winter storm. Maitland is a good explorer of silence. She sees the calm and richness of silence but also the dark side: melancholy and acedia.
I am attracted by silence. At night, when I take off my hearing aids and silence descends, I have a sense of peace. I like silence.
While I cherish silence, I’m not sure it is something that enhances Mary Helen’s world. If I had to lose the sense of time and speech, I don’t think I would see that as a gift. That’s what MH has lost. She cannot remember so she has no sense of time and she has lost the ability to speak. Memory and speech — two senses that I use every hour, but which she does not have.
She has other senses like smell, sight, touch, but not memory and speech. What would it be like to live deprived of memory and speech? She doesn’t show signs of being deprived. When we are together and I ramble on she doesn’t show irritation and she doesn’t show frustration at not being able to respond. She just smiles. And when I leave her at the end of the day, by the time I get to the elevator she is looking at the TV and not at me as the door closes. She has come to terms living in a world where silence is the reality.
Last night, I saw a public television program about a US citizen, accompanied by his wife, who went to Zurich, Switzerland for a doctor-assisted suicide. The reasons he gave for taking the step included many losses that MH has faced: he couldn’t think ahead, couldn’t do most of the activities of daily living, and couldn’t talk, although he could hear and understand. So he had the facilities to make an independent decision and when he did the family tearfully agreed. The process was clearly designed so that at each step he made the decision even to biting down on a switch to start the flow of the final poison.
This is an option that MH and I don’t have. If we did, I don’t know what I would think. Now, the best part of the day is the time I spend with Mary Helen. Could I agree if she decided she wanted to end it all? I think the family would be inclined to follow her lead. I think I would too, but it would be painful. What would I do with the empty time? ….
October 12, 2013: the end of life and the care plan meeting
Last Wednesday, we had a care plan meeting. Ruth and I met in person with four staff members, Biz (from California) and Matt (from N.J.) were on the conference phone. I asked about a charge I had received for a mobile x-ray MH received a few weeks ago. The nurse told us that the doctor ordered it to check on whether MH had a blockage in her intestine. The tests showed that all signs were normal.
I asked what would have been the response if the pictures showed that there should be some procedure to unblock her colon. Maureen, the social worker, said that before any procedure was done they would consult with me. I asked why the x-ray was ordered since our goal is to keep MH comfortable but not to postpone death. We decided some time ago that we did not want to get into a struggle to find some treatment that would give MH a few more weeks. We wanted nature to take its course. The nurse asked if we prefer that the doctor refrain from future x-rays. We said yes. Ruth, Biz, Matt and I were in agreement.
The decision was a reflection of what we had decided months ago but it had the feel of arriving at a new place. Before, we decided that the goal is to not simply to postpone death but to see death as a part of life – really, the end of life. Now, we are saying no to a specific procedure.
As Ruth and I left the meeting I told her that while I thought our decisions were right, they felt heartless. Ruth agreed but said that it would have been more heartless not to make that decision. I think she meant that to struggle to keep MH alive was to deal with our potential guilt and not with MH’s well being.
Dying is not easy for anyone.
Carl Smith joined the church triumphant (as old timey Protestants call death) on June 4, 2015, after a six month battle with bladder cancer. Mary Helen, who was previously in good physical health, then went into a medical decline, and died three weeks later from complications of an intestinal blockage.
In his last decade, Dad developed a love of poetry — both as a reader and writer. He joined Cathedral Village’s poetry group, and contributed to the community’s annual anthology of poems. Suzanne Smith, Carl’s daughter and my sister, read his poem “Forecast for Winter” at the memorial service for Mary Helen. The service was held at Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Wilmington, Delaware, where Rev. Ruth Beresford, Mary Helen’s daughter, serves as priest.
The photo below, which I found on Dad’s computer, depicts a resident’s sculpture on the grounds of Cathedral Village.
Forecast for Winter
By Carl Smith (2009)
You know you are heading into the wintertime of life
When you don’t pivot when you turn
But take short, mincing steps
Like the second hand of your watch.
Winter is coming when colds hang on longer than they used to,
And when you read the obituaries before the comics
You’re nearing the end when you think you’re walking briskly
But a slip of a girl ambles past you texting on her iPhone.
You are into the final season
When you take in hand your pile of stuff and toss old mementos into the trash
And discover shedding stuff is a relief, not a pain.
The winter of life is a time of testing.
It shows whether our minds as well as our bones are getting brittle
Winter tells us whether we are capable of finding new friends,
Whether these old hands can bend to new skills
And whether these weakened eyes can take in new sights
Winter may also be a time of reversals:
When we find that silence can be soothing, uplifting and beautiful
When darkness is cherished because it is a time to dream.
And when going slow let’s us see what we missed in our running days.
“Just a Couple of Old People Holding Hands”:
A Memoir of a Marriage in Alzheimer’s World
By Carl R. Smith, Jr.
Edited by William C. Smith
For those of you who’ve just tuned in, what follows is an editorial preamble of my friend, Bill’s father’s journal. Carl’s journal chronicles the last years he spent with his beloved wife as Alzheimer’s ravaged her mind. Bill’s editorial sheds light on Carl and Mary Helen’s lives as only an intimate insider could. p.j.l 1.6.16
Post 6 – Presence and Absence
Carl spent a lot of time wrestling with the concepts of presence and absence — in his marriage to Mary Helen, and in their relationship with the family.
Throughout their retirement years in Maine, Carl and MH spent most hours of most days in each others’ company. To the family, they seemed virtually inseparable. They ate meals together, alternating cooking and dishwashing duties. In the afternoons, Dad would often nap while Mary Helen worked on one of her constant sewing or reupholstery projects. They spent their evenings together, reading books and trading sections of the New York Times. On Sundays, they shared a pew at St. Andrews, a small, rural Episcopal parish, and were both active in church and community activities.
Carl and MH travelled together to visit their children and growing brood of grandchildren in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Indiana, and California. They hosted their far-flung family at the lake during the summers. They worked together in home renovation projects at their house in Augusta and their summer cottage at nearby Echo Lake.
This wood frame bungalow was nicknamed “Shastave” ever since it was expanded from an old boathouse in the early 1950s by Carl and Chester Hewett, a local handyman. Jane Smith, Carl’s first wife (and my mother) supposedly coined this term when she told Carl and Chester about her “must have” requirements for the family;s vacation home: “Sh’ast’ave electricity. Sh’ast’ave hot and cold running water. Sh’ast’ave a shower….”
In the 1990s, after Carl and MH moved to Maine, they rescued Shastave from years of deferred maintenance. They did most of the work themselves, punctuating the quiet calm of the lake with their staccato hammering and the whine of a table saw.
All this togetherness did not always result in marital bliss. According to Dad’s journal, they had their share of marital bickering. The first entry on August 8, 2001, indicates that the couple had sought marriage counseling from Rev. Jim Gill, the priest at St. Andrews. Indeed, Carl started writing about their marriage at the Rev. Gill’s suggestion that they “keep a journal to document the ups and downs of our relationship.”
Dad’s first journal entries describe more downs than ups. Technical glitches forced Mary Helen to abandon her dream of developing and marketing a computerized “wellness” program. She found that the local Episcopal bishop was lukewarm on her plan to study for the priesthood. A lifelong singer and music lover, Mary Helen was turned down when she volunteered to join a local choral group. Carl lost his election to the Augusta City Council. More seriously, his daughter (and my sister) Suzanne Smith, a social worker in New York City, narrowly avoided the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, and was caught up in the ensuring chaos in Manhattan.
At the same time, Carl and Mary Helen’s marriage was facing its own calamity, with the couple sparring over finances, household chores, and even their future together. On September 13, 2001, a “trivial” argument over laundry caused Carl to get “snippy.” That night at Shastave, Carl “stewed about their relationship” while MH made dinner.
“At the end of dinner I said that I have come to believe that things are just not getting better with us. I thought we should come to terms with the fact that we aren’t doing very well and find some way to live with that fact,” he wrote.
“We talked about this for some time and neither of us was ready to say that our marriage is at an end. But we still don’t have any path that seems clear for getting to a better place.”
The next day, Mary Helen said that she wanted to leave Shastave and the lake. “I asked her if she meant that she would stay in Augusta for the winter,” Dad wrote. “She said yes. ‘I do not want to be with you.’”
Somehow, though, they pulled back from the brink and stayed together – for that day and all the days to follow. In the same journal entry, Dad wrote that “after some silences and comments, we got about the tasks of the day. We spent the day working, and painted the living room.”
Over the next months, Dad’s journal entries document a relationship that was improving in fits and starts. At the same time, though, Mary Helen’s mental state was worsening. The next June, MH had an unexplained car accident, skidding off a deserted country road into a ditch and totaling the car. She was badly shaken, but managed to get out of the car and wander up the road. A neighbor took her in, and called Carl and the sheriff.
Carl was relieved that Mary Helen escaped with relatively minor physical injuries, painful ribs and a tender back, but was alarmed that MH could not recall the events leading up to the accident, or the crash itself. She agreed that should not drive, acknowledging to Dad that “my brains are a little scrambled.”
In February 2003, MH was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease by her physician and a consulting psychologist. The next year, after unsuccessful experiments with home assistants, Carl realized that he would soon be unable to care for Mary Helen by himself. In November 2004, they moved to Cathedral Village in Philadelphia.
Carl hoped to continue living with his wife in a studio apartment. However, citing Mary Helen’s advancing Alzheimer’s symptoms, CV insisted that she live at Bishop White Lodge, the facility’s fulltime care unit.
Although they slept apart at night, for the first several months, Dad spent most of the day with MH — checking her out of “the Lodge” each morning and taking her back to his apartment. This arrangement soon became untenable, as Mary Helen began wandering while Dad napped, causing emergency alerts of CV’s security staff. At management’s strong urging, Carl agreed to visit MH at the Lodge, so the nursing staff could keep an eye on her.
He adjusted to this new arrangement, spending at least a couple hours each day with MH. He joined her every lunch and dinner at the Lodge’s dining hall, giving a gentle assist with the food and drinks as her dexterity declined. When a broken hip and advancing Alzheimer’s left her wheelchair-bound, Carl pushed her around the halls and grounds, or sat with her in the sun room.
As Carl tried to be as present as possible with Mary Helen, he also struggled with absences – his and their children’s – from her life. On the few days he was away from Cathedral Village, visiting family or spending a couple of weeks in Maine, he would call the nursing staff to check on his wife. As the years passed, and Mary Helen’s memory waned, he mused that these contacts were more for his benefit than hers. She lived in the present, he realized, and gave no visible sign of missing him when he was gone — whether for a day or a week.
He also worried about the family’s diminishing visits to Mary Helen. He had frequent visits or phone calls with the children, he wrote in January 2007, “but the frequency of the contact the kids have with MH has diminished.”
“I can only guess why. Maybe they didn’t think they have a conversation with MH,” he continued, “and they really don’t if a conversation means staying with a topic for a few sentences…. So visits with MH are not the same as a lunch downtown with Bill or a phone call with Ruth or Matt. In those cases we catch each other up on what’s been happening and make plans for the future. You don’t do that with Mary Helen. You spend a block of time with her and you don’t know really what has happened except that you have taken care of your guilt for not showing up for a few weeks.”
“Is there more than that? I think it would be something for the family to talk about. The topic might be: what is the purpose of spending time with MH? What happens to me? What do I think happens to her and what happens to the relationship?”
I can’t speak for my siblings, but to my recollection, the family never did get around to having this talk. Instead, we continued with our busy careers and family lives, calling Dad and occasionally to check in, and squeezing in a few visits to Cathedral Village as our schedules allowed.
Meanwhile, as described in the following journal entries, Carl and Mary Helen continued to be present in each others’ lives, until the end.
January 2, 2008: “Attention must be paid”
Why should the family and I visit MH? There is a reasonable certainty (where does that come from?) that she forgets us when we leave her room. Since there is no connection we can see from one visit to the next, what is the point in making a visit when every time we walk in the door it is de novo?
I think the first reason is that we feel a bond of love and memory to her. If that bond is ignored, we are diminished because we ignore something that is rooted in the foundation of life. It would be like ignoring a child because child cannot talk about the concerns of our existence.
The second reason is that we have an obligation to the ethic of community that we have fashioned all our lives. We do not abandon each other.
The third reason is the general notion that, as Arthur Miller said, “Attention must be paid.”
August 21, 2008: Maine memories
I just went through this journal again. It’s a trip down memory lane but with some pain and a reminder that I will miss a lot if I don’t write the daily events down.
The journal reminds me of the path MH and I have followed over the past few years — from strains in our relationship to the decision to go to Cathedral Village to the changes that have occurred since then.
I’m writing this in Shastave where I’m surrounded by many examples of Mary Helen’s skill. There is the divan she covered, the dining alcove she painted and spackled, the bedspread she made, the cushion and back cover of the rocking chair, the cover for the nap couch and much more. But the main tribute was the energy she threw into the renovation of this house.
When we first came to Shastave, she said she would not live in a place that was so tacky. That launched us into a renovation program, starting with a new roof and septic tank. Then there was painting the exterior, insulating, nailing in the interior siding, hanging the dry wall on the ceiling, painting the floors, tearing down walls, and installing windows. This was followed by a lot of shopping, hauling and bargaining.
We found sliding windows, insulation, siding for the interior walls and counters and drawers for the kitchen. Two bedrooms were made into a master bedroom and the bathroom was expanded. She wove rugs for each side of the bed, made curtains for the bedroom and bath. We cut and laid the counter tops in the kitchen.
MH was the driving force, as we installed a table saw on the picnic table, and worked on Shastave over five or six summers.
When I sit here in the living room, I’m conscious of the footprint MH has left here. I’m sitting in the rocking chair on which she made a back cushion and a seat pillow. Behind me is the day bed for which she made a polka dot cover and throw pillow. To my left is the sofa bed which she covered. Over there is the alcove with its white floor spackled with yellow, blue and red sponge splotches. Then there are the curtains she sewed and hung and the draw drapes in the alcove which she cut, sewed and hung.
But now here I am in this jewel of a place that would not be possible were it not for MH’s bossiness. So now the table saw, circular saw and scads of other tools sit in the shop.
What will happen to these artifacts? I don’t know.
Today is Mary Helen’s 80th birthday, which we marked and celebrated with helium birthday balloons. I spent the morning on trip to the Philadelphia Library, checking out the rare book collection. I made it back in time to feed lunch to MH. I noticed that the balloons were tethered in her room and not attached to her wheelchair. I will change that for dinner. It’s important that other people know that this is her 80th birthday, although I don’t think this is important for her.
[photo courtesy of Ann Crawford, author of Angels on Overtime]
My father is a liar. My father is an emotional cripple. My father is a worthless sack of shit. My father isn’t even my father, but he’s all I’ve got right now, so I’m trying, a bit desperately, to make things work.
My real father was a musician, classically trained as a violinist. He did a teaching gig at my mother’s college so he could spend a summer in the states, giving violin lessons to would-be prodigies, of which my mother was definitely not, but she needed to fill her elective. She described him as tall and handsome, with a small cleft in his squarish, strong chin. Classic, right? My mother was a biology major with no personal or familial musical abilities to draw upon. She said that when she met my father she was, to use her cliché, swept off her feet , but she was only twenty-one, just a baby-adult, barely legal to drink alcohol and so what could she possibly know about anything?
Anyway, my mom fell in love with the wimpy violin guy – I mean, at least play the cello bass or something with a little heft to it. They had a summer of love, and then he was gone, back on the road, playing in the orchestra in cities all over the world, gone before he even knew I was a probability. My mother could have tracked him down. He played for the Vancouver Symphony, and it’s not like they’re not in the phone book. Heck, she could have just called the office and left a message: “Baby on the way. Give me a call,” but she had some crazy notions about the lasting nature of love. She said that by letting it go she could preserve it in perpetuity, whatever that means. She said that the summer of love they had shared would always be there for her, unaffected by time or age or ennui, and I know that means boredom because I looked it up.
“That’s the only kind of love that lasts, Harley,” Mom said. “The kind that’s under glass.” She always added that she was only talking about romantic love. “Different than the love I have for you, Lee, which is unquantifiable and positively outside of time or space.”
She said stuff like that a lot. I’m not sure I understood what she was talking about at the time, but I do know now at least this much: for the first six years of my life I had the starring role in mom’s daytime soap, the undivided center of her universe. Then He came along and busted the whole thing up. What Mom didn’t understand was that you can’t just glue random parts together and expect it to form a perfect circle. She thought it would make our lives better, but the truth is, when he showed up, all the walks in the park and swinging on the swings, the bedtime stories and dancing around the living room until I thought I would puke, all those points of light in a near perfect bubble of light became tainted, and some even disappeared, leaving just their shadows behind, because he was always there, getting in the way and ruining it for me.
Imagine the sun at the end of the day just before dusk comes to walk it home. Imagine the color, the quality of light. The rays are deep and rich and filled with the memory of everything that happened during the day like the world could go on forever. There they are, all those memories, locked up in those few last moments of light. It’s not rocket science to see why people are always praying to the sun. It makes you feel warm and safe and loved all at the same time. That’s the bubble we lived in, me and Mom. Then Doc came along and Mom tried to attach him to our bubble, but instead of floating we sagged and hovered near the ground like helium balloons the day after the party. She tried to show him, to pull him in along the edges, but he ended up sitting right in the middle, taking up space, and, after that, it was never the same for me and Mom. Our bubble had sharp edges and squiggly lines sticking out in weird places. There was no smoothing it out, either. It’s hard to know how it would have turned out if Doc never came along. If it would have just been me and Mom, two single girls, living our lives, and Aunt Celia, too, of course. It would have been great, I think. But maybe that’s selfish and maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Mom would have turned sour from missing out. Who knows? No one can ever say what the path not taken looks like because they didn’t take it, right? We did do a lot of cool stuff with Doc. Fun stuff that me and Mom wouldn’t have done without him. Plus, he could make her laugh. But not like I could. Never like that.
“Just a Couple of Old People Holding Hands”:
A Memoir of a Marriage in Alzheimer’s World
By Carl R. Smith, Jr.
Edited by William C. Smith
Post Five – “old fashioned things like marriage vows and duty”
“Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”
~ “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage,”
Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979).
Carl Smith and Mary Helen Lawson were married in 1981 at Christ Church Cathedral, the massive Episcopal church in downtown Indianapolis. It was the Lawson family church, where Mary Helen’s first husband served many years as priest, where her children attended Sunday school and her sons sang in the choir, and where daughter Ruth set out on her own career in the Episcopal ministry.
Carl was raised in the Disciples of Christ church, and became a Presbyterian early in his ministry. However, I’m sure the Episcopal wedding vows came as easily to him as to Mary Helen — including the part about loving, comforting and honoring their spouse “in sickness and in health.”
When they wed, Carl and MH were both in good health, as is evident from a wedding photograph that always had a treasured place in their living room. They are leaving the church with their arms thrown around each other, almost skipping down the aisle to begin their new marriage.
And they filled those healthy years with a lifetime of experiences together, seemingly making up for lost time. Mary Helen sold her house, and they both threw themselves into Carl’s house their home — combining and shedding possessions, and building a new “family room” addition. They frequently hosted, visited, called and emailed their combined eight offspring – participating in their children’s weddings, and sharing the joys and travails of their growing families. After the birth of each grandchild, Mary Helen would move in with the family for a couple of weeks, taking care of the household so the new parents could concentrate on the infant. Her sewing machine kept humming year-round, making bibs and blankets and coats and clothes for the grandkids, which eventually numbered twenty.
In their very active retirement, Dad and MH toured Europe on “elder hostel” trips, visiting Anglican churches in England, and looking up Mary Helen’s ancestors in Sweden. They spent summers at our family’s camp in Readfield, Maine, completely renovating their bungalow, swimming, and becoming involved in the local Episcopal church. They sold their home in Indianapolis and moved to Augusta, Maine — apparently missing the memo about retiring to Florida. Dad served a term as president of the Echo Lake Association and he ran, unsuccessfully, for Augusta City Council (wisely eschewing my suggested campaign slogan: “Vote for Carl Smith. He’s from out-of-state; he knows better.”) MH enrolled in classes at the Bath Theological Seminary, wondering whether to follow her daughter into the priesthood. She also kept that sewing machine humming, reupholstering furniture for both their “city” and summer homes.
Then came the Alzheimer’s, which put the “in sickness and in health” vow to the test. Mary Helen’s growing dementia limited her daily activities, and radically changed their life together. Mary Helen relied on Dad to drive everywhere, after totaling her car in an unexplained daytime accident on a deserted road. Her well-used sewing machine now stood silent, as she lost the ability keep track of the steps of even simple projects. Always an avid reader, MH stopped reading books and leafing through newspapers after the paragraphs, and then the sentences, and finally the words stopped making sense to her.
It soon became apparent that Carl could not continue to care for his wife in Maine, which was a day’s drive from their closest children. In 2004, they sold their house in Augusta, and moved to Cathedral Village senior home in Philadelphia. They planned to live together, but after a pre-admission medical screening, the management insisted that Mary Helen stay at “Bishop White Lodge,” the facility’s full-time care facility.
So, for the first time in their marriage, they lived apart – Carl in a studio apartment with a kitchenette, and MH in a semi-private nursing home room. Dad visited her at least twice daily, to feed her lunch and dinner and to stroll around the building or outside gardens, weather permitting. This routine continued after a series of falls left Mary Helen wheelchair-bound, with the “walks” becoming “rolls” instead.
Carl accepted with grace and equanimity the changes that Alzheimer’s brought to their marriage. He never acted the part of the caregiving martyr, or voiced resentment or anger at his situation. In his words, he was “running on old fashioned things like marriage vows and duty.” But it was not just vows and duty. He still loved Mary Helen and enjoyed spending time with her.
I’ll let him explain why.
November 20, 2007: “then came the falls”
This week marks the end of our third year here. Looking back comes naturally on anniversaries. When we first came here we were shocked that we couldn’t share an apartment. MH would have to move into the Lodge and I would have to take a studio. We spent most of the days together, had meals in the dining room, went for walks along the Wissahickon River, visited the Woodmere Art Museum.
The staff pushed me to understand that MH would not be able to settle into the Lodge if I took her for breakfast and returned her after dinner. So we cut down on together time to afternoon and dinner. I began to find activities to occupy my time. MH, who lived on the unrestricted third floor, began to wander. After five episodes, she was transferred to the second (locked) floor.
Then came the falls. The first was a hip fracture that called for a hip replacement and the second was a hairline fracture of her femur but the result was that she had to start living in a wheelchair
About the time of the falls her ability to talk dropped off. She seldom puts words together now, so I talk so that she can answer “yes” or “no,” or just be non committal. One of the amazing things about these changes is that she had not become depressed, at least as far as I can see. But of course I cannot see into what she is thinking.
When I leave her at night, she characteristically turns in her wheelchair facing the door as I leave and looks at the floor.
Once in a while, though, she looks at me. Yesterday, she smiled and waved.
May 5, 2008: “Thank God for Tracey. Thank God for Karen”
A couple weeks ago I had an epiphany when I went to see MH, and I wrote this poem.
Ode for Two Aides
“Don’t go in yet. We have to clean her,” the aide said as she wheeled the lift into Mary Helen’s room.
I sat down the laundry bag, leaned against the wall and waited and waited and waited
While Tracey and Karen attended to MH.
After ten minutes or so, they emerged smiling, snapped off their gloves and thumbed me in.
There she sat in her wheelchair, wearing a crisp white shirt, fresh pants and a big smile.
She held out her hands to me and we rolled to the dining room.
I won’t forget Tracey and Karen.
They heard Mary Helen’s signals of distress and they responded.
They cleaned up a mess and left Mary Helen clean and pleased with herself.
And they left me admiring the care they extend many times a day.
They are ministering angels.
They have a high calling.
Thank God for Tracey.
Thank God for Karen.
August 26, 2008: “The past simply does not exist”
This afternoon I saw MH after being away three weeks. I came back with some feelings of anxiety because I had never been away that long. I wondered whether she had moved into a new stage of the disease and whether she would be depressed. When I got to the Lodge she was out with Carol, one of the recreation workers. When they returned after a few minutes and I moved toward her wheelchair, Carol said, “Look, Mary Helen, here’s Carl!” MH broke into a big smile and it was as if I hadn’t been away at all.
That was a relief for me and we took off to get a diet Coke and a walk around the grounds. We stopped a couple times and I held her hand and whenever she looked at me she smiled. She smiled through dinner and the bed time rituals and when I left she was listening to Yo Yo Ma.
But today’s experience is also the sad side of Alzheimer’s. She is cut off from the ability to process what has happened to her over the recent past and react to what she finds. The past simply does not exist. So she can’t have any feelings about how she has been treated in the past. I could get away with ignoring her and after some time come back and she would welcome me. A kind of divine forgiveness or is it forgetfulness?
It’s obvious I haven’t come to terms with the reality of Alzheimers. I’m still running on old fashioned things like marriage vows and duty. But also more. I realize that if MH were to disappear from my life I would be devastated and feel abandoned. Feel really alone.
I still have a lot to work through.
February 11, 2010: “We have to talk”
A couple days ago Debbie, the nurse at the Lodge, told me that MH had been on a crying jag that day. I thanked her for the warning and when I went to her room MH was in her wheelchair weeping. We stayed in her room until it was time to go to the dining room. I found that massaging the nape of her neck and shoulder comforted her, and by the time we went to dinner she was o.k.
A few years ago, when MH was upset she would say “We have to talk.” I never looked forward to the beginning of those talks but we were always in a better place when we finished. Now she can’t say “We have to talk,” So we sit and hold hands and I massage her back. It’s still communication. Both take time. Slowing down and sitting together is important in both cases. Not pushing is also important.
Last night was close to bedlam in the dining room. John was in high volume incoherence, Evelyn was asking “help me, help me” at the top of her lungs and Elva was asking for her mother and she wheeled back and forth behind me. It got to be too much so I took MH to the sunroom for dinner. After MH had her soup and I came back to the serving area to get the rest of her food, the chaos had abated! If I had only been patient we could have stayed in the dining room. O well.
November 27, 2010: “not a good day”
Yesterday was not a good day for MH. In the afternoon she started vomiting and had a bout of diarrhea. When I got to the Lodge at the dinner hour, the aides said I should not give her solid food so I just gave her some ginger ale. After a few sips she vomited again and so we left the table and went to the nursing station. She went to sleep and slept until ten when the nurse and aides took her to her room. I went back to see her about two o’clock and she was asleep so I came back to the apt and went to bed.
Later, I fed MH in her room and she ate almost the whole lunch. However, after lunch Ann Marie told me that MH had vomited and had more diarrhea in the morning. So this evening when I went to feed her the nurse checked her and thought that she should not have a whole meal, just some sherbet and later custard. So I fed MH half the container of sherbet. She was alert and smiling, I thought in a wistful way. I think she wants to say something but can’t so she smiles.
She is still a good kisser, though, I think I will go back later and check in.
Carl R. Smith/William C. Smith – 12.10.15
[Clip art courtesy Creative Commons]
When I was a kid, Black Friday was almost a holiday onto itself. My Italian, South Philadelphia-raised mother relocated to Jersey when she got married, but approximately once a season, she managed to take us kids to Philadelphia to shop even though she didn’t have a driver’s license. Growing up in Philly, driving was not a necessity. She got to work from her home in South Philadelphia to her job on Walnut Street in Center City via Trolley. For our seasonal shopping trip, my sister and I were not so lucky. We took the Greyhound bus and to this day I get nauseous thinking about it. Oh, but the end result was the reward!
The South Jersey town where I grew up was pretty much the antithesis of a cultural mecca so a day in Philadelphia after months of rural-ish living was fantastic. This was the heyday of Gimbels, Strawbridges, Wanamaker’s and Bonwit Teller, and the clothes, the glitz, the shoes, the glamour, the windows decorated for Christmas, the soft pretzels, lunch at Wanamaker’s (one of the first department stores in the country to have in-store dining in 1879), followed by the Annual Christmas Pageant of Lights, featuring the Wanamaker’s pipe organ (the world’s largest) and the story of the Sugar Plum Fairy told in thousands of twinkling lights (at one time close to 100,000, now about 34,000) with a voiceover, all this and more marked my Friday after Thanksgiving. We’d meet my aunt and cousins at the Wanamaker Eagle and then shop and eat, shop and eat. It was and wasn’t about the shopping. The event, of seeing my cousins, of spending time in Philly, of doing our traditional Black Friday, thing was equally as important.
Today, you couldn’t get me within a 1000 yards of a shopping mall even if you offered to pay my kid’s college tuition. (Okay, maybe I would do it for the tuition.) The trek into Center City Philadelphia means I’d have to pass by the King of Prussia mall so no going there. Now the stores open on Thanksgiving, unheard of in my childhood days, so I feel I must boycott in solidarity with those forced to work retail rather than be with their families. The whole process of consuming for consumption’s sake stinks, and we have blindly pledged allegiance to it, not even realizing we’re being hoodwinked. We don’t need that second blender simply because it’s also a juicer or that the third pair of skinny jeans. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a Scrooge, but in order to for all 7 billion of us to be able to live together on this planet, we’re going to need to make sustainability a reality as opposed to just a buzz word.
Yesterday, my girls and I volunteered to hand out pre-prepared Thanksgiving meals — turkey and all the fixings — for Power Packs, a local non-profit that follows families throughout the year, supplementing their needs with school supplies and a once-a-week meal that includes a recipe and all the ingredients to make that meal. Some of the people in Power Packs get public assistance, some do not, but the latter also don’t make enough money, even working more than one job, to provide for their family’s basic needs. We’ve handed out food for several Thanksgivings, but this year seemed to really hit home for my kids. Maybe it’s just that they’re older now, but the looks on their faces — especially when we ourselves were later going to a dinner where there would be no shortage of food and an abundance of leftovers — told me that I was right to bring them along. We don’t often realize what crushing poverty looks like, the cyclical nature of it, or how people who are all-consumed by paying their electric bill can possibly be living their highest, most creative version of their lives when their most basic needs aren’t being met. This holiday season, skip the extra sweater and maybe instead lend a hand to someone who would view your help as a gift. The season of giving will mean so much more than a wrapped package born of a harried shopping trip. It will mean a moment of connection with another human being which is something you can’t buy in a store.
[All photos courtesy estate of Carl Smith.]
Today is Carl R. Smith, Jr.’s birthday. I never met him in person, yet I have been inspired by his writings, proffered from time to time by his son, Bill, to a select group of readers over the last couple years. From these musings, it is apparent that Carl was a deep thinker with a large pool of spiritual resources and experiences that bestowed upon him a profound understanding of the human condition with nary a grudge or complaint to accompany it. He was truly a man who loved others, as Jesus said, just as we ourselves would want to be loved. I thank Bill for sharing the gift of his father’s writings, and offering them to all similarly situated. May the words of this wise and noble man assist you on your own journey. p.j.l. 11.22.15
“Just a Couple of Old People Holding Hands”:
A Memoir of a Marriage in Alzheimer’s World
By Carl R. Smith, Jr. — Edited by William C. Smith
Post Four – Love in the Time of Alzheimer’s
Carl Smith and Mary Helen Lawson were married in 1981. For both, it was a mid-life, second marriage. When they fell in love, they lived alone a few blocks apart in Indianapolis, having raised and launched a total of eight children.
Carl and Mary Helen were both refugees from the State of Matrimony. MH was divorced, and, to put it mildly, was not on good terms with her ex-husband. (l will leave it at that, respecting my step-siblings’ privacy and realizing that I have a one-sided view of their parents’ marriage).
Carl’s first wife, my mother Jane Smith, lost her battle with breast cancer in 1979. Through much of their marriage, Mom also struggled with manic depression, for which she was hospitalized twice — once after attempting suicide by overdose. In its last years, my parents’ marriage hit the rocks. They were separated for a time before Jane’s terminal illness brought them back together.
To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, love seemed lovelier the second time around for both Carl and Mary Helen. For the first time in a long while, they each actually enjoyed spending time with their spouse. After Carl retired from the ministry, and MH wound down her consulting career, they threw themselves into a whirlwind of travel, church and community projects, and tending their combined family, which eventually included 20 grandchildren. They also took on a seemingly endless series of renovation projects at their post-retirement home in Augusta, Maine, and their bungalow at my family’s nearby summer property.
It was at this lakeside camp that Mary Helen exhibited the first signs of Alzheimer’s, at a family celebration of her 70th birthday. For months, she had meticulously planned this reunion of the far-flung Smith and Lawson offspring. When we had all gathered, though, she was oddly withdrawn and disengaged.
As her symptoms worsened, Carl was at first confident that they could hold on to their independent life in Maine. However, Mary Helen’s increasing dementia ended their traveling days and shelved their home improvement plans, and eventually compelled their move to Cathedral Village in 2004.
By 2008, Mary Helen had lost the ability to speak, to walk, to feed herself, or to carry out other basic life skills. However, Carl noted in his journal, she never lost the ability to love and be loved.
July 20, 2008: “Yet she is not a child”
Reluctantly, I am beginning to realize that MH has retreated to very simple skills. She can brush her teeth, but only after we have a teasing play. She turns her head away, pushing away my hand holding the brush, or she clamps the brush between her teeth. Then she may take the brush and attack her teeth, getting to most of them.
The same is true for eating. Tonight she had a ham salad sandwich, dill pickle, chips, sweet potato fries and string beans. She handled the sandwich well, but I had to help with the fries and pickle. She ate the fries as finger food and took the chips from my hand. I fed her the peach halves and ice cream. So her meals are half self-serve and half assisted.
On the other side, she is great to be with. She laughed and smiled all through the meal. We held hands, I looked at her nails and decided that I have to get some nail polish remover to take off the polish remaining from a manicure she got from the aides a couple weeks ago. So I learned a new skill.
But the mystery of what she remembers remains. She always greets me with a smile. I ask her if she would like to go for a walk and she smiles. I say ok, we’ll go for a walk and we take off to get her Diet Coke at the dining room. We get back to her room after a stroll through the hallways on a hot day like this or around the grounds when the weather is more reasonable. There we go through the hand-washing exercise which she always enjoys — laughing as I lather her hands, and after she has wiped off the soap, rubbing her hands briskly between the folds of a towel. Then we take off for the dining room.
In this daily litany, there is no verbal communication. I speak but she smiles, laughs or just looks at me. Like a child would. Yet she is not a child. She is the mother of five children, a college graduate,…. a person with strong opinions, gabby, unwilling to let an argument just lie there, skillful at sewing or operating a table saw.
But her muscles and mind don’t recall those abilities. She has retreated to the state of a very young child. Is that the best way to describe her condition? Is it true that all she has forgotten all she has learned since learning to feed herself? I think so.
July 18, 2011: “the sing-song of life”
I wonder a lot about why these twice-daily visits, for lunch and dinner, are so important to me. I think it’s because they are a part of my rhythm of life. Being with her for meals is a way of remembering what our life has meant over the past 30 years and what she has meant to me. The confusion that would ensue if she were to die before me is a time of darkness that would be hard to navigate.
These twice-daily times of spiritual connecting mirror the rhythms of our life together before we came here. Our meal times were just assumed, as were our trips to the market and to church, all a part of the melody, or maybe the sing-song of life.
August 8, 2011: “we moor each other”
Another way if looking at the relation of MH and me is that we moor each other. When we are together there is a security that extends to the times we are not together. …
She is never far away. Every day, I touch ways in which our lives have intersected and supported each other. We do communicate, although we don’t have the normal ways to express the ways we live in each other.
I don’t believe that you can’t communicate with a person with Alzheimer’s. You do with the way you squeeze hands, the way you hold up your hand to her face when you see a sneeze coming on, the way you smile at each other when giving her a clumsy pedicure.
August 16, 2011: “What a con!”
When I am wheeling MH, people have different reactions to her.
Some act as if she understood them asking how she’s doing, or how she likes the weather. Others just wave. But they all assume there is some way they can communicate with her.
I don’t know if anything they say comes through but MH smiles!
What a con!
Another Language, Another World
By Carl Smith (2014)
(read at the Memorial Service for Mary Helen Lawson,
July 18, 2015, Christ Church Christiana Hundred, Wilmington, Delaware)
While Mary Helen cannot speak to me,
That does not mean we live under a dome of silence.
Muteness does not wipe out interchange
Because kinship does not require chatter.
But to be a partner in this speechless dialog
I have had to shift to another language
And pay attention to the context that provoked, say, a smile.
The beam may have come from seeing an aide who fed her breakfast
And wiped egg from her chin,
Or it might be the face of a beloved daughter
Coming into her field of vision,
Or it might be a spoonful of vanilla ice cream
I was lifting to her lips.
The context gives a cue
On what the response should be to move our dialog along.
But who knows? At least she seems at peace with what I say.
It’s an article of faith to believe we are in the same conversational world.
As the Good Book says, we live by faith, not by sight.
But for her the world has shifted and shrunk–
No more shopping lists,
No more trips to the laundry,
Gardening is in the past,
Holiday blasts are now on our childrens’ agendas,
And balancing the checkbook settles into my fallible hands
While much has changed in the last decade,
Important habits remain.
As in her former life, her no is still no
And her yes is a vigorous yes.
I offer her coffee but her taste has changed
So she closes her lips and turns away.
Later in the meal I bring the cup to her lips again,
Again she turns away thinking I am still a slow learner.
When I return the cup to the table she gives herself a smile.
Which says, “Don’t try to trick me.” Lesson learned.
Teasing is another skill she has developed.
At the nightly tooth brushing
After I give her teeth a swipe or two
She chomps down on the brush and looks up at me with a grin.
She won’t release the brush until after I relax.
Then the chore continues with only a couple more stoppages.
But when I offer her the drinking straw
She takes a few sips then bites down on the straw and smiles.
To her this is a contest between equals, not a duel of strength but of skill.
Eventually we get the job done, but on her time, not mine.
The time we spend around and during meals is when we collaborate and negotiate.
She settles into a pace that fits the taste and texture of the food,
And when the plates are empty she seems to give a verdict—
A sigh of contentment or just a glance at her table,
A sign she is ready to roll to her room.
I speculate that another skill she has learned
Is how to tolerate boredom.
Of course what appears boring to me may not be to her.
Her brain processes her world from her own angle of vision,
Certainly not from mine.
But there are times when we know we are in sync:
We wait at the table for food to be served.
Snippets of conversation arise from other diners
But the room is nearly quiet.
I hold her hand and she squeezes mine as if to say “Thank you.”
And for a moment we have whisked boredom away.
It is easy to list all the things Mary Helen cannot do.
She cannot perform any of the Activities of Daily Living Insurance companies tote up.
She needs help with all five.
All of us have to face lists of things we cannot do.
But we protest that we should be known for what we can do,
Not by what is beyond our reach.
Mary Helen makes the same plea.
“Just a Couple of Old People Holding Hands”:
A Memoir of a Marriage in Alzheimer’s World
By Carl R. Smith, Jr.
Edited by William C. Smith
Post Three – One of the Sad Sides of Alzheimer’s
Slowly but inexorably, Alzheimer’s Disease steals away the ability to speak. But emotions remain, even though no longer expressed in words. At the time of the following journal entries, Mary Helen’s speech was essentially gone — aside from an occasional, and often unreliable, “yes” or “no” response to a simple question.
Still, Mary Helen made her wordless feelings known to Carl. She smiled. She laughed. She sighed. She wept.
And Carl listened, and wrote.
February 28, 2007: “I’m sorry you feel sad.”
I wheeled Mary Helen to the sunroom, and she began to cry. I said the usual things: “I’m sorry you feel sad.” “Can you tell me why you are sad.” Of course, she couldn’t.
Weeping continued until it was time to go to the dining room, stopped when I wheeled her down the hall and started again when we went to her table. The weeping stopped after she finished her soup and started on the main meal. It was comfort food — meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, and apple-cranberry pie for dessert. She ate it all.
I don’t think there is any simple way to understand weeping. In a general way, you can say she is crying for all she has lost. While that is true, it is also a projection we make to make sense of MH’s behavior. She made some attempt to tell me what was wrong but I couldn’t understand. The only thing I could do is affirm she is sad, not try to correct her weeping, and just be with her.
I believe she is in touch with her feelings about where she is and with what she has lost. And in some inchoate way she is mourning.
May 12, 2007: “MH hit her!”
The past week MH had two physical encounters. In one, a resident intruded somehow into MH’s space. When MH asked her to leave and she didn’t, MH hit her! In the second case, an aide wanted to give MH some medicine in applesauce. MH didn’t want to take the meds, and when the aide persisted, MH hit her!
I appreciated the reaction of the staff to these episodes. In both cases, they called me and said they weren’t concerned because it was not MH willfully striking out, but acting in response to what she considered an invasion of her space.
February 2, 2009: “a beautiful blue-eyed Swede”
Tonight was a teary time with MH. It began as usual with our meeting on the second floor and wheeling to the main building to cadge a Diet Coke. But she was somber and when we got to the dining room she was in tears. I wasn’t able, of course, to understand what prompted the weeping because she tried (I think) to tell me but I couldn’t understand.
She cried and looked at me as we sat in the dining room but I responded with what I assumed was an uncomprehending face. So there was no communication but she did not stop trying to tell me what made her sad. She wept as I kept feeding her. I knew she tried to tell me something but I didn’t know what she was saying. Still, when I brought a soup dish to her she opened her lips to take it and when I brought salad she took it but still wept.
We had a fugue. She wept and I fed her and this continued through the meal. We held hands, I wiped tears from her eyes, lifted a fork to her lips and she opened her mouth to accept the food and then wept.
It’s one of the sad sides of Alzheimer’s. You have to guess at what is being said.
When we went back to her room I massaged her back, held her head and told her I loved her and that she was a beautiful blue-eyed Swede. Soon the massages and the smooth talk worked and she smiled and we went on to tooth brushing and the good night rituals.
But it was a tender, puzzling evening.
January 26, 2009: “the best time of the day”
I just finished reading through the journal from 2001 to the present. It was a reminder of what our journey has been over the past eight years. The enduring reality is that the time I spend with MH is the best time of the day and that we are finding ways of communicating even though we don’t use words.
An enduring part of life here is MH’s persistent joy, or at least smiling. I think this is a sign that she still has enthusiasm for life even though she can’t express how she feels. She seems to like life.
April 28, 2010: “the stand-offish noon meal”
When I went to see MH this noon, she was stoic. She didn’t recognize me until near the end of the meal. I don’t know what this means. She didn’t hold my hand, smile or open her mouth to receive soup or milk or juice. I had to tempt her. But we got through the meal and she ate everything. But it was still baffling. I wondered whether this was a significant change. We’ll see in the evening.
This evening things were back to where they had been. She smiled when I went to her, we had good communication when I gave her a pedicure, washed her hands and wheeled to the dining room. So I don’t know what the stand-offish noon meal meant.
11.15.15 Carl R. Smith/William C. Smith
“Just a Couple of Old People Holding Hands”:
A Memoir of a Marriage in Alzheimer’s World
By Carl R. Smith, Jr.
Edited and introduction by William C. Smith
For those who love and care for Alzheimer’s patients, communication is one of the most confounding aspects of the disease.
When symptoms of dementia first develop, family and friends become concerned, and sometimes frustrated, with our loved ones’ mental lapses, bouts of confusion, and choppy speech. We are quick — too quick sometimes — to fill in the perceived gaps in their memory. When they struggle for words, we make semi-informed guesses to complete their sentences. Naturally, they get agitated if we guess wrong, or become embarrassed when their bumbling tongues can no longer keep pace with their racing minds.
It’s OK, we reassure them, patting their arms and filling the air with our own fluent speech. If they become distressed in discussing emotion-laden topics like family, finances, or their mental frailty, we helpfully change the subject to banalities like the weather, or the view outside, or the next meal.
As the disease progresses, even these simple conversations become difficult to maintain. Our loved ones eventually give up the fight to find the right word, or the almost-right word. We do more of the talking, asking occasional yes-or-no questions — until even those are met with uncomprehending stares.
In some cases, dementia turns speech into a disjointed “word salad” of non-sequiturs and seemingly random words and phrases. This is especially hard for family to hear, as it ends all hope that they will ever again reminisce with us about the past or share dreams about the future.
Inevitably, the advance of Alzheimer’s sweeps away the ability to speak. That was my stepmother Mary Helen Lawson’s situation in 2007 and 2008, when my father Carl Smith wrote the following journal entries. Although they could no longer talk to each other, they still found ways to communicate.
January 31, 2007: “just a couple of old people holding hands”
When Mary Helen recognizes me, she holds out her hands and smiles, or sometimes she weeps. Usually I find her at the end of a hall where she has wheeled herself, after I take her hands and we kiss I ask if she would like to take a stroll. We go to the sunroom and sit by a window and take in the traffic on Ridge Avenue.
We’re just a couple of old people holding hands and looking out at our world.
February 26, 2007: “Still, we did reach each other”
…Though MH is in a wheelchair, she is still a “walker.” I never find her in her room. She is at the end of a hallway. Tonight she was in the sunroom facing the nursing station. She recognized me when I was some distance away and started wheeling toward me. She is glad to see me.
Dinner takes an hour. I get a bib and sugar for her coffee. Tonight when the tomato soup came she didn’t want to spoon it herself but pushed the bowl away back…. I asked her if she wanted me to help. She nodded yes. So I ladled the soup into her mouth and she finished it, as she always does. And so it was with the rest of the meal. I fed her and she ate and drank everything except for the coffee. She’s not great for coffee at dinner.
We ended our day in her room, I put on her slippers, watered the plants, fenced with her about brushing her teeth and then put on a Yo Yo Ma record before I left…
My leaving is, for me, a melancholy time. I have the feeling that she wishes I would not leave. I don’t have to leave at that moment but I do have to get dinner and attend to the routine of the evening…. Anyway, that’s how the day ended. And for all its subtle nuances, it was a balancing act that kept us both up tight. And we managed that without exchanging a single simple sentence. Well, I put together a few sentences about the weather and the quality of the soup but my contributions were primitive. Still, we did reach each other. We can talk.
May 31, 2008: “a guessing game”
Ruth came for a visit with MH yesterday afternoon. We sat with MH on the third floor sun porch. Ruth asked questions which MH could not understand but would smile back.
That’s one of the most painful symptoms of Alzheimer’s. There is no back and forth. It’s a guessing game trying to understand what is going on in MH’ s mind. In any relationship, we guess at what the other person is thinking. We are all mysteries to each other, but with MH there is an opacity that doesn’t give a purchase on how to guess.
Does her laughing mean that she is enjoying herself, or me, or the part of the world she sees, or is laughing just a noise she can produce that doesn’t have any emotional content? When I take laundry to her room and sort it into various drawers, she looks at me moving around and laughs and laughs. I like to hear her laugh, but I don’t know what she is laughing about. Maybe in her world putting away laundry is comic. I don’t know.
June 22, 2008: “Communication is not by words anymore”
In the past few visits, MH hasn’t recognized me until I was close to her wheelchair. I don’t know whether this is a function of decreased vision or eroding memory.
Communication is not by words anymore, but by holding hands, sitting together at the table or outside on a bench….When I leave her at the end of the evening and I ask her if she would like me to put on some music, she doesn’t say yes, but after I repeat the question a couple times, she will nod. When I show her a CD, and ask if she would like to hear Yo Yo Ma, she holds the CD a few seconds, smiles and nods. When I kiss her goodnight, she smiles again. I stand for a moment at the door, and she wheels her chair a foot or so and rubs her hand on the arm of the chair, looking ahead.
11.8.15 Carl R. Smith/William C. Smith
Picture a bright blue ball, just spinning, spinning free,
Dizzy with eternity.
Paint it with a skin of sky,
Brush in some clouds and sea,
Call it home for you and me.
A peaceful place or so it looks from space,
A closer look reveals the human race.
Full of hope, full of grace
Is the human face,
But afraid we may lay our home to waste.
There’s a fear down here we can’t forget.
Hasn’t got a name just yet.
Always awake, always around,
Singing ashes, ashes, all fall down.
Ashes, ashes, all fall down.
“Throwing Stones” by the Grateful Dead
I can’t say I was ever a Deadhead, maybe more of a Dead dilettante. I’ve always enjoyed their music, had some vinyl and some CDs, and when I get a Grateful Dead song stuck in my head I’ve got to listen to it or it will follow me around for days. Yet, I never became a member of the tribe as some of my friends did, you know, those people who followed the Dead around the country and who would likely follow them to Mars if given the chance. I’ve been to more than a few memorable shows, one at PSU when I was on the concert committee (so I got to see it really close up), and another in Philadelphia where I met Bob Weir afterwards at the now retired (and soon-to-be-reconstructed) Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. My friend and uber-lawyer, Bill, himself a staunch Deadhead, had done some legal work for the Dead — taking on Ticketron and what not — and one of the perks of such employment was hanging with the band. It was thrilling to shake Bob’s hand, but it pales in comparison to my friend Bonnie’s experiences. Bonnie, another Deadhead, has made friends spanning the continent simply because when you see the same people a few times a year, eventually they become like a second family. Ditto with some of the band members. Bonnie often has drinks with them before or after shows. The whole thing reminds me of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in “Almost Famous,” the somewhat fictionalized, but mostly true story of director Cameron Crowe’s (very) early years as a writer for Rolling Stone because musicians, even those with a tremendous following, are just people, too.
After 50 years of making music, the “Grateful Dead” retired this past summer. My good friend and colleague, Todd Lutte and his wife Beth (along with about a million other people I know) were in attendance. Literally a month later, I heard that the new, post-retirement version of the Grateful Dead, “Dead and Company”, was kicking off its North American tour on October 29th. John Mayer has joined the lineup. I was shocked for about ten seconds and then I realized that retirement or not, the Dead will always be with us. I guess you can’t keep a good band down.
Todd has generously shared his recollection of one of the July shows and what the Dead has meant to his life in general. In the spirit of community, and the Grateful Dead, I share it with you.
RAMBLINGS OF AN AGING HEAD By Todd Lutte
[photo courtesy of Todd Lutte]
If not for the Grateful Dead, I wouldn’t be an environmental scientist today so if you’re a bit curious as to how these worlds could collide, let me tell you why.
I went to my first Dead show in 1985. I was only 14 and in Junior high school, but Hershey park was a controlled venue and a good place to start out. My first live tape was also from that Hershey show, a soundboard Maxell XL-II-90, and I played that thing until it wore out. I wanted to live my life on tour with the Grateful Dead, but common sense, my family, and my own work ethic — I’d had a job since I was 11 — put the kibosh on that one so I juggled touring, school, and work, pretty much in that order for years, and when it came time to select a college major, I had the Grateful Dead to thank for “Throwing Stones” and my new major in environmental science. The song, about loss and degradation of our common resources became my personal anthem, inspiring me throughout my college career and even today. More on that later.
In college, my life goal was to have a career where my salary would be sufficient to allow me to tour with the Dead while also getting paid. Up until then, my jobs had been week-to-week paychecks, hourly, not salary, so this was a big goal for me.
Touring with the GD was analogous to the road trips of the 60’s I’d read about, criss-crossing the country, staying in campgrounds, and in state and national parks, at friends and relatives houses, wherever you had a place to rest your weary bones. We’d really see and experience the terrain. It was rarely a lavish downtown hotel, although that even happened once in a while. We were always searching for a different venue, a new town, another cool city, and by the last tour I had seen the Dead in 30 different venues, sometimes two or three shows a venue, a number I’m pretty proud of considering the methods I used to get there.
On the last tour before Jerry’s death in 1995, with all the original band members present, I clasped in my hands the last three shows of that sold out tour to be held at Soldier Field in Chicago. I had been to every single one of the shows on that tour and I wanted to finish what I’d started, but a few weeks prior, I had gotten the call to work in D.C. as an environmental regulator – my major in school was Environmental Science with a focus in biology, so this was a perfect fit — but for me to accept the job I would have had to give up my Soldier Field tickets. Time was running out and I needed to start my adult life. I took one last look at those tickets and traded them for some “swag” – GD gear — but only after I pledged that I would see the Dead at Soldier Field next time around. Then Jerry died and I never got to see that show at Soldier field… until this past summer. Fast forward 30 years to the last shows of the Grateful Dead reunion concert — at Soldier field. That was a show I wouldn’t miss.
The city of Chicago had greeted us “Deadheads” with open arms. Deadheads, followers of the Grateful Dead, are intrinsically connected to the band like acres of sage growing across a plain, and an integral part of the total experience of being at a Dead show. Unless you’ve experienced that, it’s hard to explain the kind of community that forms at a live Dead show. Chicago felt it and was alive with urban wall murals, Dead advertisements, and music blaring through the speakers in not only the grocery stores but shops, cafes, and downtown Chicago grocery stores that were plastered with Grateful Dead posters. The streets pulsed with the energy of the final Dead tour in a way I’d never seen before in any city. Museums featured live musical performances throughout the weekend celebrating the Dead’s music, stewardesses on the plane, the airport personnel, the rental car folks, the hotel staff and ordinary people on the street acknowledged and welcomed us. Everyone was feeling the synergy.
That’s the other phenomena; bootlegged music played everywhere. Unlike mainstream media, the Grateful Dead encouraged bootlegging as a way to share its culture and music with the world, commercialism be damned. By sharing freely, they created an empire, a good lesson for the world in my opinion, and since the Dead have over 400 songs in their repertoire which is pretty prolific, that’s a lot of bottlegging possibilities.
In the 50 years the Dead have played together, they never repeated a show. When they started the band fifty years ago in 1965, they promised to call it quits at the end of their fifth decade. They kept their promise and I was going to keep mine. On the second to last night, standing at Soldier Field, I felt as though I’d come full circle, completing what I’d started decades ago and finally getting a little closure. I was “Grateful” for my part in the Dead’s music and for how it had buoyed me along through all kinds of life events.
The next night, not only their last performance at Soldier Field, but their last performance ever, I was home, live-streaming the show, and singing at the top of my lungs into the wind, as my voice carried across the Pocono Mountains maybe all the way to Chicago. They sang with major conviction, focus and passion the way they always did, and so did I, crying out the lyrics to the song that set me on my path — “Throwing Stones.” As the show ended, tears fell from my eyes and I realized how that song was like a road sign for my adult life, as poignant now as the time I first heard it, a reassuring light at the end of a long and sometimes terrifying tunnel, reminding me to perform my own life’s work with focus and passion if I want to make a difference. “Picture a bright blue ball just spinning, spinning free, dizzy with eternity….”
and just in case you need a little more Dead to get you going. It is, after all, Monday morning…
[photos courtesy of the Estate of Carl Smith]
I’ve spent the last month posting about death and grief and dying probably because my mom died a year ago and I’m still in process. A few months ago, my good friend and colleague, Bill Smith joined the club that no one wants to be a part of — the Parentless Club. It’s a sucky club to be in, but there are some bits of grace that can come from it, like these beautiful journal entries by Bill’s father, Carl, a retired Presbyterian minister. Carl’s way with describing the most mundane in spiritual terms really stuck with me, and I thought it would be nice if Bill could share some of his father’s words, that maybe they’d be a healing balm to others similarly situated. I invite you to take a moment and read some of a wise man’s insight into love and life and getting old. Perhaps his words will help you get through some of your own stuff. After all, it’s just us riffraff in charge now, and we could use all the help we can get.
“Just a Couple of Old People Holding Hands”:
A Memoir of a Marriage in Alzheimer’s World
By Carl R. Smith, Jr.
Edited by William C. Smith
My father Carl Smith died on June 4, 2015. The last days of his 91 years were in a nursing home room that he shared with his wife, Mary Helen Lawson.
My father’s death certificate lists bladder cancer as the cause of death, but he really fell victim to ODTAAS: “One Damn Thing After Another Syndrome.” As aptly described by physician and writer Atul Gawande, ODTAAS is “what the closing phase of a modern life often looks like – a mounting series of crises from which medicine can offer only brief and temporary rescue.” Carl’s cancer diagnosis, six months before his death, presaged a debilitating cascade of medical setbacks – radiation therapy fatigue, sporadic urinary bleeding, incontinence, a nasty hospital fall, a blood infection and, finally, an unshakeable and ultimately lethal bout of pneumonia.
My stepmother Mary Helen died on June 27, 2015 – departing this life in the same month, in the same room, as Carl. Her immediate cause of death involved complications from a bowel obstruction, but that diagnosis also seems like inaccurate medical shorthand. For 15 years, Mary Helen was afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease – a thief that robbed this once energetic, creative, brilliant woman of her memory, then her speech, then her ability to feed or care for herself.
Whatever her death certificate says, Carl’s and Mary Helen’s eight children believe that she also died of what non-physician poets once called a “broken heart.” We witnessed her letting go of life after the death of her friend, companion, and husband for 34 years.
Carl and Mary Helen – MH, he called her – were married in Indianapolis in 1981. Dad was a newly widowed Presbyterian minister and church executive. MH was a recently divorced social worker and business consultant. After a few years, they retired to Maine, dividing their time between a house in the capital city of Augusta, and the family’s summer cabin on nearby Echo Lake. They busied themselves with home renovations, church and community projects.
Beginning in 2000, Mary Helen began having the first signs of dementia – occasional mental fuzziness, forgetfulness, transitory difficulties with household chores and her constant sewing and upholstery projects. The situation became more dire in June, 2002, when MH totaled her car in a single vehicle accident that she couldn’t explain, skidding off a deserted country road and crashing into a ditch.
Mary Helen was soon diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. As her condition slowly but inexorably worsened, it became obvious that Carl could not continue to care for MH by himself in Maine. Carl and MH reluctantly started looking into senior residences – “old folks homes” in Dad’s words — in the Philadelphia area, close to four offspring, including me.
In November 2004, Carl and Mary Helen moved to Cathedral Village, an Episcopal-affiliated senior residence in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood. The initial plan was for them to live together, but Mary Helen’s dementia had progressed to the point that she required full-time care.
Thus, MH was admitted into “Bishop White Lodge,” Cathedral Village’s skilled nursing facility. Dad moved into a studio apartment, where he lived independently, cooking meals in a tiny galley kitchen and sleeping in a fold-down Murphy bed, surrounded by shelves crammed with books and CDs. Until his final illness, Carl enjoyed remarkably good health. He swam daily, read voraciously (never missing the New York Times), regularly taught evening classes at “Cathedral College,” and continued to vacation in Maine and visit family and friends across the country. At age 90, he started a blog, which he called “Gray Hair & Gray Matter,” featuring ruminations by him and his friends about life, death, religion, food, politics, and the absurdities of old age.
And so Carl and Mary Helen lived apart and together for the next decade. They slept in separate rooms, but on most days they shared several hours together as Carl fed her at lunch and dinner, and wheeled her around Cathedral Village’s halls and grounds.
In Dad’s last month, they were finally reunited on a fulltime basis. Dad’s worsening ODTAAS finally required him to give up his apartment, and move into Mary Helen’s room at Bishop White Lodge.
After Dad’s death, it has fallen to me, as the executor of Carl’s estate, to wrap up his earthly affairs. Dealing with finances and property has been the easy part. As a retired Presbyterian minister, Carl was never rich, and his retirement savings, church pension, and Social Security have been largely consumed by nursing home and medical bills. His furniture, books, CDs, art, kitchenware, and other stuff – already pared down to fit a studio apartment – were amiably divided among the kids, or donated to charity.
Dealing with Dad’s memorabilia, including a lifetime of accumulated writing, has proven more daunting. As I was reviewing documents on Carl’s computer, I came across the journal that he started writing three years before they moved to Cathedral Village, soon after Carl and MH started marriage counseling with the priest of their rural Episcopal church. In his first entry, on August 8, 2001, Carl wrote that the priest suggested that they “keep a journal to document the ups and downs of our relationship. Sounds like a good idea to me and I think to MH.”
The first few entries are tough reading. Dad described a marriage that had definitely hit a rough patch in the Maine woods, with mutual bickering on finances, family, chores, and future plans. Unfortunately — or perhaps providentially for their children — there is a gap in Carl’s journal from mid-2002 though 2006, which he explained was due to a loss of data in a computer crash.
When he resumed writing in January 2007, much had changed in their lives and marriage. By that time, they had lived at Cathedral Village for over two years, and MH’s Alzheimer’s had continued its gradual, relentless progression. After several wandering episodes, she was moved to a “secure” (i.e., locked) floor at CV’s Bishop White Lodge.
By 2007, Mary Helen could no longer carry on even basic conversations, but she could still respond to yes-or-no questions. She was also wheelchair-bound, having fractured her hip in two falls.
During the “gap years” in Dad’s diary, something profound had also happened in the marriage. As Mary Helen’s memory slipped away, they both forgot their past grudges and arguments, and both learned to cherish their present together. As MH lost the ability to speak, they found ways to communicate without words. As Mary Helen’s dementia deepened, so did their love and gratitude for each other.
I have shared this journal with good friend and colleague Pamela Lazos. Pam encouraged me to share Dad’s writing with others who are facing – or perhaps fearing – a family life affected by Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Pam has graciously offered to publish passages from Dad’s journal in her awesome blog, “Green Life Blue Water.” https://greenlifebluewater.wordpress.com So, on an occasional basis over the next few weeks or months we will post excerpts of Carl’s memoir, illustrated with photos that I also found on Carl’s computer after his death. As appropriate, I will provide some context for these entries, but I will try to let Carl’s writing, and not his son’s editorializing, be the predominate voice.
In these first two excerpts, Carl notes his concern about the “diminishing frequency of visits from our children” (i.e., my seven siblings and stepsiblings….and me). The second entry is the text of a letter he sent to the family, gently guiding us to “Alzheimer’s world” and encouraging us, by his example, to spend more time with Mary Helen.
January 19, 2007: ‘Diminishing frequency of visits”
When I went to the Lodge this afternoon, I walked out of the elevator and saw MH across the hallway at the edge of the TV lounge. I don’t think she recognized me.
All the while MH was wringing her hands or rubbing the arms of her chair. We sat in the sunroom for 20 minutes, without talking. It wasn’t until we were half way through the meal that she became responsive. We ended the meal in a good relationship. She gave her teeth a good brushing tonight and we were together, it seemed to me, at the time for goodbye.
I have wondered lately about the change in the diminishing frequency of visits from our children. …I can only guess why. Maybe they don’t think they can have a conversation with MH. And they really can’t if a conversation means staying with a topic for a few sentences. And there is the assumption that MH won’t remember that they came, although when I mention a visit and say it was nice that someone came, she smiles and says “yes.”
So visits with MH are not the same as a lunch downtown with Bill or a phone call with Ruth or Matt. In those cases we catch each other up on what’s been happening and make plans for the future. You don’t do that with Mary Helen. You spend a block of time with her and you don’t know really what has happened except that you have taken care of your guilt for not showing up for a few weeks. Is there more than that?…
March 24, 2007: “trying to reach into Alzheimer’s world”
Here is a family letter I sent today:
Spring might be coming to the Delaware Valley. We foolishly think we have had the last snow and the daffodils agree…
While for me this is a time to look out at the terrain that lies beyond the city buses I take, for MH it is a time to live within a small world. … I’m coming to believe that this difference between the worlds we inhabit and the world MH inhabits may be the reason we don’t know how to talk Alzheimer’s. That is, we really think that anyone should be able to respond to our very rational questions or comments. We don’t stop to think that the world from which our comments and even our language come is a very idiosyncratic universe.
We get our images from the worlds we inhabit. The world I live in has open borders that will stretch next week to Gettysburg and two weeks later to Chicago. But MH’s world will continue to be the people and the hallways of the second floor of the Bishop White Lodge. And I have to confess that when I get back from these trips, I will have to bite my tongue to refrain from telling MH about the Gettysburg monuments we saw two years ago with Judith, Bill and the boys. And yet, I have to shut up because I would be talking from a world she no longer lives in.
There is our dilemma. How can we reach into Mary Helen’s world, which is simply the present (but with echoes from the past) and still talk to her about what we are thinking and experiencing from a world that is alien to her? I think we cannot give up and assume that the Alzheimer’s world is utterly alien and therefore beyond our reach.
But I have to admit that this is an article of faith. I don’t have proof that there are shards of a common language, except at the basic level. For instance, when I tell her at the end of the day that I love her, she smiles. She understands. When I ask her if she would like to listen to a music CD, she sometimes doesn’t respond, but sometimes on a second prompt, she does. And then I go through several CD titles until she agrees that the one I offer she would like to hear. In that interchange, I think she is aware that there are some CDs she would not like to hear and there is, finally, one she would like to hear. So communication isn’t simple. But it is a heady and strangely intimate experience for anyone trying to reach into the Alzheimer’s world.
W.C.Smith/Carl Smith 10.26.15
“What you must do to move yourself into the mental framework
for “miracle making” is to just let go.”
Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Everyday Wisdom
On Legacies and Real Magic
The other night, I dreamt that my kids had all moved out of the house, taking all the joy and even the dog and cats with them. My husband and I were left with an eerie quiet and an overwhelming feeling of sadness that we couldn’t fix with music or TV or even conversation. I dread that day, the one when the last kids pulls out of the driveway, waving a fond farewell as they embark on the next phase of what we all hope will be a fabulous, dream-fulfilling life. The dread I feel is not because I don’t want them to realize their dreams, but because they were part of my fabulous dream-filled life, and now they are leaving my story in order to write their own. I know the sadness will be temporary because life goes on, and it’s not like I don’t have a glut of projects to keep me busy. It’s just that one of the sweetest periods of my life with all the chaos and kisses intertwined will have gone from participatory to memory.
Same night, different dream. I was with my mother who’s been dead a year today, and as I work my way through the grieving process, she’s still very much on my mind, hence the dreams. She needed a ride somewhere so I took her, but when we arrived the people she went to see weren’t paying her any mind. This distressed her so much that I picked her up and held her like a baby and her panic subsided. Being the dream student that I am, and coming from a long line of Greeks who believed in omens and the clairvoyant nature of dreams, I took that as a sign that my mom was working through her earth-bound crap, that maybe she hadn’t made it all the way through yet, but that she was letting go of things in a way that she hadn’t been able to do while still parked in her body. So it’s not odd that the night’s dreams got me thinking about death and rebirth and what my own legacy will look like.
On August 20, 1974, Dr. Wayne Dyer went to the grave site of the father he never knew, the one who ran out on him and his mother and brother, causing so much inner turmoil in the young Wayne’s life he could have suffocated under the weight of it. Yet after years of carrying that angst, of allowing his inner demons to torment him, and he, in turn, those he loved, Dyer had a vision of his father, standing at his gravesite, a sad and lonely spirit, and in that split second, Dyer forgave his father. The experience was enlightening and freeing, and in the two weeks that followed, Dyer wrote,Your Erroneous Zones, the first of his New Age-era books.
Before that moment of forgiveness, it sounds like Dyer was sort of a dick. After that, wow, how he helped shift the world. Dyer’s books, videos, and lectures, all explored themes central to his core ideas: transmute the most toxic aspects of your life and find a way to make them your greatest teachers; figure out what makes you happy and go for it despite 3-D information to the contrary (i.e., You’ll See it When You Believe It (2001)); and what you get is what you think about all day long, to name a few. Forty-one years later, on August 20, 2015, the anniversary of what Dyer had previously described as the most important day of his life, he died.
Dyer loved to give things away: insights, advice, life secrets, tangible things like videos and books. I remember buying a Wayne Dyer book years ago, Real Magic, or The Power of Intention, maybe, and in addition, receiving another book, gratis, signed by the author, and containing maxims drawn from ancient wisdom, religion, and philosophy, but with Dyer’s own twist on those long-standing truths. I keep Everyday Wisdom on my desk at work and often flip open its pages for a consult. Dyer’s strength lay in mainstreaming the metaphysical, and while the man may be gone, his words will resonate for years. That’s staying power, the stuff of which legacies are made.
I know others with similar legacies: my high school swim coach, my college Spanish teacher, my daughter’s piano teacher, all individuals who have a burning desire to pass on their knowledge and expertise, to invest in the next generation of kids the way an Olympian invests in his training, all senses tuned toward the goal of being the fastest, the strongest, the brightest. The difference is, it’s not for their own accolades they do this, but for the student’s. Their dedication is unwavering despite little advancement or recognition. How many teachers are there like that left in the world? Dyer was one. My mother, an uber-mother who lived for her kids, another.
Yet despite the amazing things these individuals are doing for others in the world, they still experience disasters, struggle with insurmountable obstacles, deal with their own foibles. My mother, who taught me that the best prediction of success is preparation and a positive outlook, could never get past the death of my three-month old brother. Ever. When I was three, my parents had a baby who was born with something wrong with his intestines. Despite several operations and spending all but one week of his three months in the hospital, he died. Today, he probably would have lived, but it was the 1960’s and practically the Stone Age of medicine. Upon my father’s urging, my devastated parents got pregnant right away as a way to ward off their grief, and 10 months later, my sister was born. My mother stowed her sadness and focused on the two children left to her, but the baby she lost, Mark, was always there, looming on the periphery of her consciousness. She carried Mark’s spirit, unseen to the outside world, and wedged in the crook of her arm for the rest of her life, and surely into the next one. In similar circumstances, would I have had the fortitude of spirit to just let go? Who knows, but as a mother myself, I’m thinking that carrying his memory may have been the only thing she could have done.
I believe that the real magic of a well-lived life lies in letting go — of all preconceived notions, of limiting beliefs, of everything that brings you down. Was my mother successful in letting go of her grief? Not in a million years, but my mother’s success, her ultimate legacy to me and my sister was to never, ever stop seeking, and never stop trying: to heal, to dream, to love, to forgive. Up until the weeks before she died, she was searching for a way to beat her dis-ease — she had scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years, and living with those diseases for all that time was itself a heroic victory. She rarely complained, yet she could never really reconcile some of the events of her life nor forgive Fate for taking her child. Her ultimate weakness and the thing that took her out — that takes most of us out — was her inability to forgive: herself, the world, Fate. Still, I witnessed her strength of spirit on a daily basis, and I stored some of her bravery in my heart for future use. Someday I may need it.
And then last night, another dream. My mother is standing on the stairs of my old house, holding onto the grand wooden banister. She says she’s going to take a nap, but before she does I offer to give her Reiki (I’m a Reiki Master). I lay my hand on her heart and below the surface, I hear the sound of gurgling water, and sense the dynamic of a vibrant flowing river. A tremendous feeling of peace and power emanated. I know for sure now that she is making things right within her heart.
And with that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes about success and legacy from the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882):
“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betray of false friends; To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
How will you succeed? What will your legacy look like? The world waits for you to reveal yourself in all your fabulousness.
The Tools of my People
We all have our favorite tools, and sometimes the oldest tools are the best tools, eh? There’s a reason why the wheel is still around. And fire. They are useful, and they are indispensable. I still have the hammer my father sent me off to college with because, as he said, you never know when you’re going to need one. He was right, of course, and considering how many times I’ve moved over the years and had to hang and rehang pictures on my walls, my hammer was also indispensable. So now, I’d like to recognize another essential tool so lovingly employed by me in what is the season of the harvest here in Central Pennsylvania, one of my favorite appliances ever created in the history of man — the apple-peeler-corer-slicer.
Technically, these are not the tools of my people. My Italian mother didn’t do applesauce. Apple pie, yes, and brilliantly, I might add, but for some reason not applesauce. So it wasn’t until I married my husband, he of the Swiss-German ilk, that I even learned the art of applesauce making, a tedious, thankless, wearying job, unless, of course, you have the apple-peeler-corer-slicer. Lucky for me, we now have two. How did I come to be so blessed, you might ask? Well, let’s start at the beginning.
The recipe for applesauce is super easy. Apples, add a bit of water to the pot, a nice dollop of sugar, cook until it all boils down and presto — applesauce. It’s the prep, the peeling and coring and slicing that sucks, especially if you are doing any kind of volume. The first years were painstakingly slow. We were surrounded by bags of apples, a cutting board, the pot to cook them in, and three kids armed with potato peelers, eating more apples than they peeled and working as fast as elementary school kids could (i.e., sloooooow). It would take hours and often felt like days. After we’d eat the warm applesauce, sometimes over ice cream, always as soon as it cooled enough to do so, and like the memory of labor after the birth of the baby, all the pain of the experience was suddenly forgotten.
In our more lucid, applesauce-free moments, we remembered and knew we had to do something to fix the prep problem, something to make the whole operation faster and less painful. We were a few years into our fall ritual when, out of desperation, we bought an apple-peeler-corer-slicer from some high-end store which shall remain nameless. It turned out to be a brand-spanking-shiny-new major piece of crap — apples all mangled and half the skin wrapped around the metal corer every darn time, so we tossed it into the trash and returned to our horse and buggy ways.
A few more years passed. At a neighborhood yard sale one year, lightning struck and we found a hand-made apple-peeler-corer-slicer for $3. Dare we buy it given our history with the first one? Yet, this one was clearly different. One look and you could tell it had seen apples by the bushel and laughed in their little apple faces. We snapped it up, took it home, cleaned it up and got to work. Applesauce became as easy as microwaving popcorn. Not really, but it was a heck of a lot faster than before.
A couple more years passed and we’re feeling pretty good about the state of our applesauce making when the church behind our house had a yard sale. Could lightening strike twice? Frankly, we hadn’t even thought about the possibility until there it was, sitting all by its lonesome strapped to a block of wood, another hand-made beauty, not the thoroughbred we already owned, but one that you could mold any way you wanted. This one was $5, probably because it had fewer miles on it. Who cared that we already had one or that it was a bit pricey. We snatched up our second apple-peeler-corer-slicer (or three, if you’re paying attention), and got started right away on our next batch of apples.
Which brings me to the happy end of my tale — tonight my husband and I did five tote bags of apples — maybe 100, possibly 110 apples total — and with dueling apple-peeler-corer-slicers, we were done in 45 minutes! That’s record time, and it just proves that with the right tools, anything is possible.
Maybe I’m getting too old for this. It’s 9:45 p.m. and I’m sitting at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia with my 15, and 20-year old daughters, waiting for Madonna to come on stage for her “Rebel Heart” tour — my idea. (Don’t judge. It’s no worse than all the rap music today.) They aren’t really Madge fans, but they love going to concerts and will see almost anything, especially if I’m buying, and Lord knows I’ve escorted them to more than a few concerts of their choosing so they owe me.
Later, when I realized I had tickets for a Philadelphia venue a night before they were closing the Pennsylvania turnpike to accommodate the Pope, I thought about selling them. I had been on the Pennsylvania turnpike the day before, and there was no shortage of signs advising drivers to take alternate routes because of Pope traffic, but despite an admiration that spans the length of her career, I had never seen Madonna perform live, so I decided to keep calm and go see Madonna. We took back roads to the concert, the ones that have evolved from cart path to two-lane road, i.e., slow going.
The first thing we saw when we walked in the door was the ginormous Merch area — “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” “American Life,” and a zillion other tee’s from a zillion other tours, epically overpriced, but indicative of a wondrously prolific career. Madonna sang and danced her way into the public’s awareness a million years ago in the 80’s, and since then despite heaps of praise and criticism, often in equal measure, she’s stayed true to herself in a way that very few other musicians can compare. Just about every pop star out there today from Katy Perry to Britney Spears to Demi Lovato owe their careers to the path that Madonna’s blazed for them. It’s a cliché, but if it’s true of anyone, it’s true of Madonna. In a world of repetition, duplication, and imitation, she’s an artist with vision. Her music, her look, her persona will morph from album to album, decade to decade and the pop world shifts in her wake. Whether you like her or hate her, you have to admit, the Material Girl packs a punch whether she’s taking on the Catholic church, sex, or a woman’s status in society.
We suffered through forty-five minutes of the opening DJ act, a perfectly acceptable DJ by club standards except we weren’t in a club and there’s not much else to do around that kind of thumping bass. So we headed out to the vending area, making a pit stop at the loo where even there, the thick concrete walls reverberated with the bass line, and my heart threatened to pop out of my chest. By 8:45, the DJ was done and we’re feeling good, like things are about to happen. We chat and eat our crab/cheese fries and take goofy selfies and laugh so hard we can’t breathe, but an hour later I’m yawning, there’s still no sign of Madonna, and I’m asking myself whose idea was this anyway?
All that angst faded when Madonna suddenly appeared a few minutes later, sporting a multi-faceted, many-layered costume of sash and satin — so un-Madonna-like, but the layers didn’t last long — and accompanied by a bevy of the most flexible dancers I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what it takes to be a dancer on a Madonna tour, but it looks more rigorous than say, being a running back for the NFL. For the next two hours we watched a woman older than I am move across the stage in a way that most teens can’t mimic. There’s elegance in watching someone at the top of their game, as if Grace and Beauty, and all the Elements have conspired to bring them to the pinnacle of achievement. Lots of people do this, you say, and I agree, but it’s the staying power that interests me. Madonna, Mick Jagger, until his death, B.B. King, others, yes, so committed to their craft that they refuse to slip in any way. Eventually, age may catch up, but until it does, wow, what a ride. Listening to Madonna talk, one gets the sense that if she didn’t expose all of herself, her talents and foibles for all world to see, it may take her down in the end, especially the demons, but by putting it out there, she cleansed herself and the rest of us. With the exception of the time spent making a few costume changes, Madonna danced all night. Pretty good for a woman approaching 60.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a Madonna concert without a reference to catholicism, and what fuel? The Pope was in town! The opening song featured clergy-clad dancers with staffs fashioned as crosses at the top. Madonna’s clearly a fan of Pope Francis — she noted the Pope might have been stalking her what with them being in Philadelphia at the same time. To the uninitiated, her words appear heretical, but there is an underlying unmistakable reverence.
At 11:40 p.m., Madonna’s still singing, we’ve got at least an hour and a half ride home and that’s without traffic, my youngest has school tomorrow (I know, mom of the year, right?!), Temple U cancelled classes because of the rock star that is Pope Francis and the older one is looking forward to sleeping in, and I’m ready to go. The girls are not disappointed when I say this. They like Madonna’s music, but prefer The Weekend, or Taylor Swift, and I prefer to let them find their own way musically because they influence me and I get to evolve as well, except the 15-year old doesn’t want to leave until she hears Material Girl. She’s pulled up a play list from a NYC show a couple weeks ago, and she’s pretty sure the song’s due any minute. And then Madonna sings it, and we are happy we stayed, and we leave a couple songs shy of the end which, if you’ve read some of my earlier posts, we never do. Quite the opposite since the youngest likes to do groupie things like hang around the back door or at the tour bus, hoping for a glimpse of the band.
We’re in the car and on the highway within minutes of our decision to go, fastest time out of the parking lot ever, talking about the concert, playing Madonna songs, and flying down the road until I notice the temperature gauge on the car is way up and rapidly approaching the red zone. I think, thermostat issue? coolant hose?, but I’m not a car gal and I just don’t know. We pull over, give it a minute, the gauge goes down so we try again. Within a mile, same problem. We pull over, open the hood and there’s coolant everywhere, like something exploded. We call my husband who tells us to check this and that, and then Triple A because the coolant reservoir is empty, and Triple A won’t bring anything but fuel out so we begin the process of waiting: for the tow truck , for my husband, for a ride home. Lucky for me I have Triple A plus (free towing within a hundred miles or else it’s $4/mi!) and a husband who can jump in the car on a moment’s notice for a rescue mission. Had there only been two of us in the car, Scott could have stayed home, asleep on the couch, waiting for our return, but the tow truck wasn’t an extended cab and everyone needs to have a seat belt…
I’ll spare you all the details, but Steve, the tow truck driver was fabulous (and BTdubs, he would have driven us, squished as we were in the front seat, all the way to Lancaster). Because I’m curious, I peppered him questions, and since he had no where else to be, he was happy to provide answers. Fascinating guy, worked in repo (lots of stories), now in towing, dabbled in rehabbing shells in Philadelphia and flipping them for a profit, started his own construction company a year or so ago, couple small kids, a wife, clearly wished he would have listened to his dad and gone to college, but okay with where he is in life and his own rebel heart, and then, totally unsolicited, says to my girls: “Listen to your parents. They know more than you and they give good advice. I wish I would have listened to mine.” Madonna may be a super pop star, but Steve is a superstar tow truck driver with great Zen advice. The girls laugh, and I swear to them I didn’t pay him to say that. We meet my husband at a Wa-Wa and Steve says he doesn’t mind if we all get in the van with my husband even though the rules say someone should stay with the tow truck. He follows us all the way back to Lancaster, the yellow lights on his truck, winking the entire way. The girls are animated one minute and fast asleep the next. We pull in around 3 a.m., and Steve unloads our car. We are grateful for Steve, grateful that my husband heard the phone and came to get us, grateful to be home. The last thing Steve says before before he pulls away is: “You never know. One minute you’re going to a concert and the next you’re getting picked up by some bald guy, driving a tow truck.”
You never know.
A Lesson in Buyerarchy
Impacting Waste Reduction at the Source
by Janet Williams
[A Buyerarchy Lesson was originally published on Sustrana‘s blogsite in February 2015.]
Here’s an experience each of us has every day: we discover we “need” something. Some tangible thing in order to do our job or accomplish something. And we don’t have it. Nothing in the desk drawer. The supply closet is out. What’s our first response? Do you fill out a purchase order, drive to a store, or order it on Amazon? That’s true for so many of us, but buying something new should become a last resort, reached only after thought given to alternatives and creative options. It’s worth slowing down the purchase decision-making process and examining these other options because, let’s face it, the most “sustainable” purchase is no purchase at all!
Canadian designer Sarah Lazarovic creates wonderful drawings and charts about rampant consumerism and living with less. She recently produced a graphic she calls a “Buyerarchy of Needs.” It is a great reminder about finding alternatives to always buying something new.
The Buyerarchy of Needs
Source: Sarah Lazarovic, SarahL.com
Lazarovic’s graphic is based, tongue firmly in cheek, on Abraham Maslow’s famous 1943 “Hierarchy of Human Needs,” which graphically shows what motivates human behavior. But it is also based on a few well-known principles of demand management from the business world of procurement. For companies that carefully track their “spend,” an important cost control strategy is to reduce consumption in the first place, and carefully examine and challenge assumptions regarding a particular need. Search for alternatives to new spending. You not only save your company money, but you also contribute to a more sustainable world.
Reuse/Repurpose: Everything Old is New Again
Lazarovic lists the preferred order of responses to the discovery of a “Need”. The first and most important response is to determine if the Need can be satisfied with something you already have. Creativity figures prominently in this assessment. Many materials and items we already have can be adapted to a different use. It only requires a shift in the way we think about the items and their uses.
Just ask my grandmother. Although I’m certain that she never used the word, she knew all about re-purposing. Raising a family during the depression taught her to NEVER throw anything away. In her later years, when faced with an ever-accumulating pile of un-needed stuff, she refused to discard any of it. Instead, she filled shoeboxes (always saved, of course) with whatever she could not bear to discard. She mailed these boxes to her grandchildren, certain that we would “find a use” for the contents. While in college, I would receive these boxes, much to the delight of my roommates. Out poured rubber bands, paper clips, scraps of paper, bits of pencil, hunks of chalk, and best – and most mysterious – of all, nylon stockings carefully cut into quarter-inch strips. And indeed, my friends and I enjoyed finding creative uses for the stuff (well, almost all of it).
Other No-buy Alternatives
Beyond reuse are other alternatives to buying something new. These include borrowing (good for community building – as long as return protocol is followed!) and swapping (no return required!). If you have to buy, try a resale store (another new life for the item). Making something is a great option for the more creative types.
Did you notice that the very top of the Buyerarchy of Need pyramid is buying new stuff? It is limited to those situations where other approaches won’t work. Make it a last resort!
Try to anticipate Needs that will arise in your office. Stockpile materials that can be used for a new purpose. Items like old binders, file folders, paper clips, pens and pencils, rubber bands, and interoffice mail folders can all be used multiple times. You can also reuse shipping supplies like boxes, packing paper, and Styrofoam pellets. Better yet, shred old paper and use it for packing. Place these reclaimed items in a central location and encourage everyone to “shop” at your very own mini-reuse counter. Engage co-workers (and family!) in the fun of coming up with creative uses for existing things. We will all benefit from the effort.
Janet Williams, environmental lawyer extraordinaire, international world traveler, and my former colleague is a principal in the sustainability firm, Sustrana, “a sustainability management consulting and technology company” whose vision is to assist “1,000 organizations to build strategic sustainability programs by 2020.” She credits her grandmother with instilling in her the value of sustainability decades before it was even a cool concept. Thanks, Gran!
Check out Sustrana’s website.
The Little Free Library
On a recent trip to Lake Norman, North Carolina, we took a day trip down to NoDa, a popular arts district in Charlotte, North Carolina. On our way to Cabo Fish Taco (best. fish. tacos. ever.), we walked by a house that had a little box on the front lawn. And inside the little box there were books, easily a dozen and a half, of all types, genres, and sizes. At the top of the box were the words: Little Free Library. At the time, I thought it was just a great idea of a local homeowner, putting a bunch of books in a box for people to borrow and exchange. It wasn’t until I was driving around in my own little town that I saw a second box of books with a Little Free Library sign and I realized that this little free library thing was really a thing.
In 2009, the Little Free Library was started by Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin who wanted to do something nice for his mom, a bibliophile and former school teacher, so he created the Little Free Library and it immediately became a smash hit in his neighborhood. When Todd joined forces with Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a social enterprise was born. Their mission was to promote literacy and build a sense of community and their goal of having 2,509 Little Free Libraries by 2012 — the amount of libraries Andrew Carnegie supported at the turn of the last century (19th – 20th) — has been achieved and exceeded. By January 2015, there were an estimated 25,000 Little Free Libraries worldwide!
The Little Free Library people have a great website with recommendations on how to get started either by building your own box or ordering one from them for $250. Plus there are a couple videos and all kinds of cool facts to help you get started. All you need is a space and a few spare books to begin spreading the love of reading. Once started, who knows what kind of “outside the box” thinking it will sprout? The paths and possibilities, like the books that will grace the shelves of your Little Free Library, are limitless.
On Wills and Things
(Please and Thank You – Part Two)
When my father died after a protracted illness, we prepared a living will for my mother. We went to a lawyer who asked her the questions I couldn’t. It’s true that the repercussions of not having end-of-life discussions may be worse than the uncomfortable nature of them, but be warned. Simply having them is no guarantee of success. After the initial trip to the law office, my mom and I had the conversation a few times over the years, but apparently not enough. Despite the living will, and her slow, bumpy slide to the inevitable end, when she was admitted to the hospital the penultimate time, and they asked her if she had a medical directive (“yes”), and if she understood what it said (“yes), and did she still want nothing done in the event of a, b, or c — e.g., heart failure, inability to breathe on your own, inability to eat, etc. — my mother, who at that time was 90 pounds with all her clothes on, said that she “definitely” wanted them to use the paddles should her heart stop. No one was more shocked than I was, and the nurse and I just stared at each other in silence, trying not to smile at the incredulity of it.
Moments before the nurse came in, I was sitting on my mom’s hospital bed, my mom upright in a chair, while behind me I felt the presence of my father, dead almost 18 years, and my Nana, my mom’s mom, dead almost as long as I’d been alive. I knew they’d come come to help her make the transition. I’d never felt the presence of anyone who’d passed before yet here were my dad and grandmother, right next to me, speaking in low tones and me wide-eyed and trying to ease-drop on their conversation. Then my mom made her pronouncement and woosh, they were at the far end of the room and quiet as a church on Tuesday. By the time I left the hospital that night, they were gone.
I admire strong-willed people – those who come to a decision and stick to it. I have never been one of those. I analyze and readjust, change the lighting, ask for opinions, do more research, and after deciding a hundred different times, I act. Not my mom. She was swift and sure-footed in her decision-making, and right or wrong, she stuck by it. She lived two more years after that hospital admission, and while her health systematically declined, she had many wonderful dinners, movies and moments spent with her family, all on borrowed time, and died the way she lived, on her terms.
I believe that, in the end, every death is a suicide, even the random ones. The Soul knows what’s coming even when the body plays dumb. For my mom, it wasn’t the body she was concerned with, but the mind. Her body had been failing her for 30 years so at that point, it was just another day. She had told me repeatedly, “if my mind goes, you’ll have to do something. I don’t want to live like that.” Thankfully, I never had to make that decision. In the final days, we sat in the skilled care wing of the rehab facility, which turned out to be the final stop on her goodbye tour. The day she died, she was waiting for my sister to arrive from Florida. Seeing my sister one last time was the last thing she’d made up her mind to do. My sister arrived; mission accomplished. She died hours later.
We walk through most of our lives in an unconscious state. Perhaps the most grace people may ever feel is when they’re about to lose the very life they spent a lifetime taking for granted, even ignoring. And while these conversations about death and wishes and futures without our people should definitely occur, they are hard topics, ones that may be easier to leave unsaid, but also ones that will kick you in the ass later for not having had them.
My mom had said after much gentle prodding that she wanted to be cremated and buried in my yard under a flowering tree. My father had been cremated, his ashes spread across the finish line at the Atlantic City racetrack — another story— so there was no possibility of putting her next to him. My yard is a beautiful place with plenty of trees and flowering things, a great choice. Then a couple weeks before she died she said: “just take me with you wherever you go,” meaning, “if you sell the house, I’m coming,” and hopefully not, “please take me with you when you go to the grocery store,” which would have been kind of creepy.
So now we had a dilemma. Her earlier missive revoked, we solved it as best we could, attributing the last minute change of mind to the stress of dying, and called it her second dying wish. The majority of her ashes went into a big biodegradable Himalayan salt urn that we buried on the summer solstice under a crape myrtle purchased the week before on vacation in North Carolina. (My kids had originally bought me a Weeping Willow for Mother’s day, but we were afraid that the lack of proximity to water would have made it an impracticable choice.) In addition, my sister and I each picked out a little urn from the funeral home which now contains a bit of my mom’s ashes. My sister took hers back to Florida so my mom gets to travel, something she didn’t do enough of in her lifetime, and mine are staying here in Central, PA so my mom gets to go with me should we ever move. In the meantime, I’ll continue doing DIY projects while I wait for the sadness to lift, a bit more everyday, and look forward to the amazing fire red flowers that will bloom each year, dedicated to a well-loved life. And I’ll say please and thank you, and I’ll know when to talk and when to stay quiet, and in that way more than any other, I will take my mother with me wherever I go.
p.j. lazos 7.3.15
Please and Thank You
On the summer solstice, the longest, brightest, most sun-festy day of the year, I honored one of my mother’s dying wishes and planted her ashes beneath a flowering bush, a crape myrtle to be precise. My mom died last October and this past Mother’s Day, the first without her, found me trawling through some murky emotional waters. So I did what I always do when faced with emotional dishevelment: I worked on DIY projects. I weeded, planted flowers, made homemade dishwashing soap, and ice cream — actually, I watched my husband make ice cream, but I did help clean up the mess — and I cried more than little.
My mother epitomized dichotomies. She was 110 pounds of exceptionally unshakeable character and strong opinions which she often kept to herself, an ubermom in most all ways. She could also freeze you with a look, and as a kid, I learned to avoid that look by doing what she asked of me and when. While I turned out more like my Dad with his easy affability and spirit of compromise, I inherited my mom’s tenacity in all its definitions along with her strength, traits I’ve had to rely on many times over the years.
My mom grew up in South Philadelphia where public transport was always in vogue. As a result, she never learned to drive. When my parents married and moved to New Jersey she held firm, walking everywhere, that is, until I was 16 and she returned to work. Most people would have thought it too late or hard or scary to get their license at 43. So did she, but she did it anyway. When she was diagnosed with scleroderma at 50, her will is what kept her going two decades longer than any of the people who also suffered from a disease that attacked from the inside out. Even while her skin hardened, her opinions softened, and I watched her morph over time into a more flexible and open person in spite of, and maybe a little bit because of the scleroderma. Rather than pity her lot, she embraced the challenge and doggedly pursued alternative therapy treatments, keeping whatever worked, discarding the rest. I’m convinced this exercise gave her years more life than if she’d taken the prednisone the doctors were recommending from the outset. Instead she chose acupuncture, NAET, shiatsu, massage, vitamin B therapy, aroma therapy, hypnosis, reflexology, and on the list goes. Sometimes, I’d be the guinea pig, trying out a particular modality first, as I did with acupuncture to see if she could handle it. The experience changed the way I think about Eastern versus Western healing modalities forever.
Yet her sickness never stopped her from continuing her active role as my first teacher — the second most important job description on every mother’s resume — and still the best one I’ve had. Here’s a few things she taught me, not necessarily in order. It’s a list I relay on even more as I age and counsel my own kids:
and thank you;
always give your best;
use your words;
say what you mean and mean what you say;
if you don’t have anything to say, silence is a good thing – there’s already too much noise in the world;
take care of your sister;
respect your elders even when they’re wrong;
if you pay attention, you’ll always learn something;
It’s hard to say what I miss most about my mom. Her companionship? A given. The fact that my kids will continue to grow, but she won’t be there to celebrate their victories and hold their hearts through their disappointments? A tough one. Or that I no longer have her wisdom to draw on? Selfishly, it just may be that last one. Luckily, I took notes.
So what was the other wish? Come back next time and find out.
p.j. lazos 6.30.15
[photo by Steve Miller]
The 19th Annual
Man seeks permanence in an impermanent world through ritual and tradition. Birthdays, Christmas, the summer solstice, these are the yardsticks against which the passing years are measured. And for our little group who have called ourselves “The Whales” ever since we rented that dilapidated beach house in Cape May Point, New Jersey soon after college, the one with the whale sculptures, whale weather vanes, whale pictures and whale statuary everywhere, Memorial Day weekend has become one of those traditions.
This year, as with each of them, we packed up the tents, the food, the cook stoves and the kids and headed out for another camping weekend, this time at the Rivers Bend Campground in the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area, a primitive campsite (sigh) that got exceptionally high marks for location, space, charm, and proximity to the river. The locale changes every year, but the core group remains the same. Planning cannot be overrated, changing hands from year-to-year, but remaining solidly within those of the most seasoned campers among us who together have easily taken their boys-turned-Eagle Scouts on dozens of trips and themselves on dozens more that have nothing to do with Memorial Day. They are rugged without even knowing it, and earth-wise in ways that everyone should be, which is probably why I haven’t missed a trip in the last 12 or 13 years: this vacation is always an adventure.
Camping is hard. Not the physical act of camping which is tremendous fun — campfires, card games, hikes in the woods, kayaking on the river — but the getting there which is most decidedly not the stuff that dreams are made of. Yet our organizers persist, hauling enough extra kayaks and canoes so we can all participate, all thirty of us. As these trips go, it was a somewhat uneventful year. We didn’t almost die in an unexpected thunder and lightning storm on the Potomac River, or die from hypothermia after taking a wrong turn on a mountain trail. We had no poison ivy, no major spider or animal bites, no cuts or scrapes or bruises, no bad chicken, nothing but a great time and a small case of nostalgia. It started when we were blowing up the air mattresses — I refuse to sleep on the ground — and my husband pulled out a blow up crib mattress that had sneaked into our stuff. Our youngest was maybe three when we started these trips and we bought it so she wouldn’t roll under someone’s sleeping bag and suffocate. I’m sure we did less in those days, but I don’t have a clear recollection. Maybe 6 or 8 miles on the river instead of 12 or 16, and a slower, more meandering hike to accommodate the kids, but I’m hard pressed to remember it clearly and am glad to have the pictures (thanks, Steve!). I mean, the 19th Annual? Come on. How can we possibly keep them all straight? Time is making its intractable march across sands that have shifted so many times a beach now resides where once there was a meadow.
Two more of the kids just graduated from high school, bringing the total to five (my oldest daughter among them who drove all the way there for a single night of camping before heading back to work, such is the pull of these events). The kids have grown up together in a way, seeing each other a few times a year, enough to make them look forward to the trip and also to ignore the stressors that a day-to-day friendship might afford. This year they played Capture the Flag with a boy scout troop who happened to be camping at the next site over and who they’d met on the hike the day before. It seems they couldn’t resist our kids’ enthusiasm despite the few years age difference (the boy scouts totally outnumbered our guys so there was an inherent fairness to it all). It happens every time, this enthusiasm. The gestalt of us and our kids all being together becomes something more, like uncorking champagne. Who would have ever guessed all those bubbles could fit into one bottle?
There’s much to be said for such tenacious friendship. As the years tick by, these gatherings take on more meaning and when I think, “I don’t know if I’m up for it this year,” I go regardless because now I’m making history not just for myself, but my kids. The graduating seniors have already said they’ll be back and because next year is the 20th Annual, we’ve already decided to pull the kids out of school and take an extra day, maybe venture a bit farther which means more gear, more food, and more schlepping, but, and it’s a big BUT, I would not trade a single moment of any of these crazy, unpredictable, life-forming and life-altering trips for a dozen nights on a feather bed or dinner at a 5-star restaurant. So sign me up. I’ll complain the whole time I’m packing, but once I’m there, aaaaaoooooooowwwwww!
BTW, the whale house should have been condemned before we ever stayed there, but we rented it for three summers running. Like I said, tenacious.
[photo by Steve Miller]
p. j. lazos 5.30.15 (aaaaaaaaoooooooooowwwwwwww!)
Hey moms and dads! Want a fun-filled, rainy (or snowy, or sunny) day activity to do with your kids? One that will impart tidbits of knowledge, provide critical life skills, and have you and your child yucking it up at the same time? Well, Fun Foodie Friends, written by Elaine Callahan and Joyce Kesler, provides the template to do just that, and what’s even better, your kids get to run the show. Fun
Got a hankering for salsa? Well then, try Señor Sammy’s Salsa, and perhaps pair it with Señor Guac’s Guacamole. Fun Foodie Friends gives you all you need: a list of ingredients, step-by-step instructions for safe, supervised preparation, substitutions for dietary restrictions, and fun little foodie facts about things like garlic, pear wood, and blueberries, to name a few. Innovative, and uniquely designed, Fun Foodie Friends features narrators Food Head Fred, and Food Head Friuta, who provide healthful hints throughout a book chock full of alliteration which always works deliciously with kids. Creative illustrations accompany each recipe with names like Prince Peacock and QT Caterpillar. Every page provides a list of ingredients, directions on how to create the recipe, and the tools needed to do so. Best of all, the big helping hands symbols let parents know just how much supervision is needed for each dish. One big helping hand means there may be some cutting or stove-top cooking involved while two means there are multiple steps that require adults. No hands, like in Leo Lion Celery Sliders means it’s a totally kid-driven creation.
Fun Foodie Friends showcases 21 recipes and step-by-step instructions for creating them all as well as good information on recipe review, kitchen safety, kitchen prep, cooking, and clean up. Sure there are other kids’ cookbooks out there, but they aren’t half as fun or informative. With Fun Foodie Friends, the time spent cooking with your kids flies.
Remember when you were little, how much fun it was to make things in the kitchen with your mom or dad? With Fun Foodie Friends, you get to do it all over again, but this time, the kids are in charge! Fun Foodie Friends is available through Amazon.
Next up, an interview with Elaine Callahan and Joyce Kesler on the making of Fun Foodie Friends.
Hiking the Back Forty
back + forty, meaning “back side of a farm”. In the Homestead Acts (1860s–), farmers were granted a quarter section; a section was 640 acres, a quarter section was 160 acres, and the quarter section was itself subdivided into four quarter-quarter sections of 40 acres each: two front forty and two back forty.
-from Wiktionary, a multilingual free encyclopedia
Definition of BACK FORTY: a remote and uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land of indefinite size (as on a farm).
-from Merriam-Webster, an Encyclopedia Britannica company
It’s winter and crazy cold. The temperature has been in the single digits for so long that the snow never melts, and our dog, Apollo, a Border collie/Labrador mix runs on high octane, meaning his exercise needs are enormous. So what’s a multi-tasker to do? Cross-country ski with the dog at lunch is what.
February’s hike turned out to be close to home, actually right out my back door. We live in Amish country and the property behind our house is a series of interconnecting farms that provide a terrific backdrop for the cross-country skiing enthusiast. Luckily, my neighbors have not caught on to this so it’s just me and Apollo who seems to enjoy the freedom of the self-directed walk in ways that would never be possible on the trail where a leash and a pocketful of poop bags are a necessity. The beauty, the solitude, the energy of these wide-open fields, blanketed with snow and all to myself, is hard to match, and made all that more desirable because I don’t have to drive anywhere.
The farmer will be spreading manure here on the back forty in another month so Apollo’s contributions seems like works for the common good. Plus there are all kinds of treasures to discover. Last week he unearthed a deer leg bone and pranced all around me with it until I tried to take it away. He ran straight across the field then, about half a mile to home, and by the time I’d caught up, he’d already consumed most of it. It did result in more than a bit of regurgitation during the night, but he found another bone our next time out so apparently, vomiting is a small price to pay for the joy of the hunt and the glorious consumption of the spoils.
At six billion people and growing, the world gets more crowded all the time. At this rate, the farms in Central Pennsylvania, our country’s most fertile, unirrigated farmland will be plowed under for the next “four models to choose from” housing development before we’ve even named the next generation – this little oasis possibly gone in less than 20 years. Yes, we need houses, but we also need our wide-open spaces where our hearts can soar and we shouldn’t have to travel all the way to the the other side of the country to get them. My 45-minute lunch break left me rejuvenated in ways that a cup of coffee never could have.
Do this today, just for a minute. Stop and look at the sky, a tree, the snow, whatever aspect of nature you adore. Pull its beauty and grace into your body and notice what you feel like afterwards. Commune with the ecosystem that gives you breath. The restorative power of nature is unparalleled. Go hike the back forty. You won’t regret it.