Friday, December 28, 2012

Pandora's Box

I use Pandora Radio’s program while working at my computer. Having music while I work is wonderful. And my program is diverse. My “radio stations” range from: Anonymous Four, Cantus, Santana, Josh Groban, Umphries McGee, Deva Premal, Antonio Carolos Jobim, Michael Buble, Adele, Joe Bonamassa, James Taylor, Grateful Dead, Mary Youngblood, Seals and Crofts, Paul Simon, Loreena McKennitt and music that resembles any and all of the above. And I have them scrambled so I’m liable to hear a religious chant by Cantus followed by Santana (my favorite). Music truly is magical.

Pandora, an interesting choice of name for this program. In the original story, Pandora opens a forbidden box and lets loose wild and evil spirits. There is no evil in any of the music I’ve ever heard—even those “bad” boys who try so hard to be shocking. I rarely understood what they were saying and just enjoyed the music. When watching artists perform it is evident to me they are visiting some wonderful place of inspiration and beauty. Those that make it deserve to, for they’ve invested hours of time and passion to their craft.

I love to watch fans at performances. Their singing along, swaying their bodies, waving their hands, all their expressions of joy and admiration move me. They too are adding their energy to the universe, the other half of the equation.

My friend Dennis plays the ukulele. He was first exposed to it when he lived in Hawaii. And he understands the dynamics of performing live for an audience. Singing in the shower is one thing. Singing on a stage is a whole other dynamic. And making music with others is joyful and deeply satisfying. My friend Carter decided he wanted to play a musical instrument other than the harmonica (at which he is very good). So he bought a bass fiddle. Why not! I introduced him to Dennis and they now perform together.

Years ago, I had a friend who had received an unusual wedding gift. (Her husband was a church organist). Someone sent them a harpsichord kit. They came home from their honeymoon and put the thing together. The problem was that my friend played the flute, so she asked me to play the harpsichord. Another friend who played cello joined us and we met weekly to practice. Margaret (the flutist) played the violin part. The cello and I joined in and we had a wonderful time struggling our way through Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven. We always finished our playing time together doing Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song” for we did it rather well. Otherwise, we feared we’d all give up.

I also spent about 20 years singing in a large chorale (about 150 voices). We performed with the symphony orchestra, were on TV, and gave concerts throughout the year. I remember once during a concert I had the feeling we were all connected to one another in a subtle network and the director had us all like fish caught on his hook. As he moved his arms, we all responded. Magical moments and all great fun, but it was the rehearsals I looked forward to. Making music with all those people kept me high for an entire week!

I’m impressed with all that is required to become proficient. Not as easy as it looks. The Beatles spent years playing in bars to noisy drunken crowds before they made it. The idea of overnight sensation is a myth. (Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours.) I appreciate them all—professional or amateur. For all of you who are making music, I say thanks. I think the universe is better off as a result. Maybe if we required all the politicians to sing their policies (even if off-key) there’d be more harmony in the world.

I remind myself of that when I’m writing. There are good days and bad. Paragraphs that give me goose pimples and others that are tossed into the recycler. But each moment that I sit here and work is of value. When I open my Pandora box, I get to listen to music written and performed by masters. Magic.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Post 52: One Year

When I began writing this blog, I promised myself I would post every Friday for a year. Well, it is now a year. I did it! Writing this blog has been a source of joy for me and the responses I’ve gotten have truly warmed my heart. (I apologize for the difficulty trying to post a comment. Most people send me an email: .) So Post #52 will be a reprise of my first post. Here it is:

I’ve been writing a private family blog for a while. My family likes it. But I’ve decided to come out of the closet and go public. Most of you know me and for those who don’t: I’m a mother, a grandmother, and a great grandmother. I’ve been a daughter, student, wife, homemaker, teacher, visiting professor, seminar leader, educational therapist, course designer, consultant, coach, and a facilitator, but always I’ve been a writer.

You’re my guinea pigs. I hope you like this and will comment and let me know what you are thinking. The writing will not be done in a chronological order as I will be pulling things out of my past. Some of these items go back a long way, as do I. My life spans many generations and the writings will reflect that. It’s a bit like the quilts my grandma Montgomery made.  Her bedroom and dining room were filled with piles of colorful fabrics all cut out in small pieces.  It was like a country garden with no obvious plan of design. Rarely did she buy any fabric, for her family and friends kept her supplied.  There was a piece from Aunt Nita’s last sewing, and Aunt Nelda’s apron scraps were there.  My mother was always looking through the pile of remnants at Samuelson’s Dry Goods Store for a pretty piece for “mama.”  A quarter of a yard was all it took to guarantee a good representation in grandma’s latest artistic endeavor.

My writing is like grandma’s quilt making.  My mind is a veritable garden of ideas, all colorfully stacked all over the place, waiting to be cut into an appropriate shape.  And there are scraps from friends and family, from books read, movies seen, and experiences. Alone the scraps won’t mean much, however, when sewed together, a pattern may be revealed. Just like life.

You may share these. I plan to put up a new post once a week. If you want to be taken from the mailing list, please let me know. (No one has made that request as yet.)

So here’s a sample: My sister had asthma when we were growing up, and as sorry as I felt for her, and as glad as I was that I didn’t have it, I sometimes longed to be ill.  My illness was very rare, not disfiguring, painful, nor fatal.  It was mysterious and I lay bravely on my bed, covered with silk comforters. The doctors stood nearby, consoling my parents. “There, there,” they said, “she’s nearing the crisis point now.”

My mother wept softly and my father clenched his jaw to contain himself.  My sister regretted all the things she’d done to anger and hurt me. 

My temperature began to rise, the room hushed, and all waited expectantly as I went through the crisis.

I always recovered and the only evidence of my brave adventure was that I was left with big boobs and long eyelashes.

Day dreams anyone?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Being A Girl

My family had moved (again) and I was the new girl in a new school in a new town. I was twelve years old, skinny, with braids tied with gingham ribbons, entering the seventh grade in the Junior High School. And I was shy! Everyone was a stranger. I now had to change rooms and have several teachers. Would I ever be able to find my way around the building, make friends? I felt overwhelmed and lost.

And then my Social Studies teacher, Miss Jones, came to my rescue. One afternoon, in my second week at school, she took me by the hand and marched me down the hall to a room with a hand-labeled sign: “Speech.”

“Put her to work,” she said, and left.

Saved my life.

I was assigned a reading in dramatic declamation, a scene from the play “Dark Victory.” That first year I made it to the County finales. My mother had bought a remnant of fabric and made me a new dress with a bolero. I remember standing on a stage that felt as if it were 50 feet above the audience. Mother had bought new gingham ribbons for my braids. (The ribbon was about 4 inches wide, brightly colored.) One of the braids had slipped to the front of my body, and I was suddenly concerned about finding a way to toss it back. I never did, and the ribbon hung like a 50-pound weight against my chest.  I still managed to get a third place for my efforts.

By the time I was in the ninth grade, I had added oratory and was tapped for debate. Quite an honor, really, as I was the only girl chosen. The debate team met in the high school, which housed grades 10-12. Every afternoon, I made the mile-long hike up to the high school for practice. I was on the B team and I loved it. Being so young and a girl, I was treated a bit like a little sister, coddled and protected. Of course, the boys on the team got to tease me, but no one else could.

Chippewa Falls was a small town of about 13,000, and we were placed in the league with much larger towns. As a result, we were a washout in sports except for one glorious year when we won the state championship in basketball. The entire town turned out to celebrate—we even had a parade. However, we had a speech coach who was a terror. Grace Walsh. She trained/coached us relentlessly, always seeing our strengths and abilities. She was a marvelous mixture of love and strength. And her methods worked. We all had nicknames: Grace was “Bonnie da Boss,” Johnny Dahl was “Big John.” Jim McClellan, “Bad Mac,” and I was “Rudy da Rat.”

In my junior year, we were at the State finals and my team had just been given our assignment. We were to debate a team from a bigger college town. As we entered the room, I overheard one of our opponents speak. He sounded terrified. “Oh my God! It’s Chippewa Falls.” We won and were state champions.

I was then doing extemporaneous oratory. Each year, four to six national issues were chosen. I spent the months before the contests began, frantically studying the subjects, making notes on my 3x5 cards, practicing. I made it through County and went on to State. Another new dress, but sans the braids. There were finally six finalists, and I the only girl. I was to follow a boy named Jerry. I knew him. He was from our bitter rival, Eau Claire, a city of about 60,000. Jerry was a fiery orator, a dynamic speaker who pounded hard and had won first place the year before. I knew his bedroom was probably filled with the numerous medals and trophies he’d won over the years. I was terrified.

I drew a card with the subject I was to talk about and was given twenty minutes to prepare. By this time, my 3x5s were badly dog-eared, but I got them out and nervously prepared, seriously wishing that I hadn’t played so much, regretting I hadn’t worked harder to prepare. There was a tap at the door. “You’re on.”

I dropped my cards and followed the man into the room. Someone had lowered the shades against the afternoon sun and the light in the room was dim. The desks and chairs had been pushed to the rear of the room to create a stage-like space. I looked about to orient myself and saw about ten men seated in the center of the room, surrounding my dear coach Grace Walsh. She smiled at me and nodded. A man spoke, “You’ll have twenty minutes. I’ll warn you at ten and five. At one minute, I’ll ring a bell and you may finish your sentence. You may begin.”

I have no recollection of what I said. I do recall one vivid moment when it felt as if I held the room in the palm of my hand, a feeling of such power that it startled me.

At the end, the contestants were all called back into the room and the awards were handed out.  There was a third place winner. And then the judge approached me. As he handed me the second-place silver medal, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You were really the best, but you are a girl.” Jerry was given first place.

I never told anyone what the judge said and never complained. It never occurred to me it could be otherwise. After all, I had been playing in an arena where historically men had always had the upper hand. But times change and one of the most exciting issues has been that of women. We’ve come a long way and there’s still way to go.

War (WWII) was declared the following year and Jerry joined the Merchant Marine. His ship, an oil tanker, went down in the North Sea. All hands lost. I thought of his parents sitting in his bedroom in their grief. Now all they had were his medals and awards. Small comfort.

Friday, December 7, 2012


In the realm of clichés, I am the queen. I’m not a cliché snob. I like them. They trip lightly on the tongue, come easy as pie, and are as clear as a bell. When they were first printed or spoken, they were right on or they never would have become clichés. It’s their overuse that does them in. I don’t know the exact number, but when they hit it, they become hackneyed and are demoted from expressive language to cliché.

It’s really not fair, for they are so handy. They fit the bill, are the bee’s knees, hit the nail right on the head. Truth is they’re often right as rain, fit as a fiddle, and sometimes even cute as a button. I like the ones that are tough as nails, or that make people mad as wet hens. For describing individuals they can’t be beat. Women are thin as rails, mysterious as Mona Lisa, beautiful as Venus, as big as a minute, and sometimes cuddly kittens. Men are lucky for they get to be Greek gods, tough as nails, slick dudes, and sometimes drunk as skunks.

Parenting is a rich domain for cliché. There’s tough love, helicopter parents, empty nesters, gender-neuter parenting. Weather is wonderful for it can rain cats and dogs and the driveway become slick as a whistle. And writing is loaded with clichés, especially my stuff. I think they’re here to stay.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Country Girl

We were living in Atlanta when my husband was transferred to New York. “Oh, you poor dear,” the little old ladies at church whispered. “Taking those darling little children up to that cold northern place.” They were horrified. We were thrilled.

I’d only been to New York once, when Dick was interviewed for his job with RCA. We’d been treated royally, lovely hotel, dinner at Sardis’s, and excellent seats to see Paint Your Wagon.

But with four young children, my husband’s suburban upbringing, and my country background, we knew we couldn’t live in a Manhattan apartment. My father had always warned me, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” And so we bought a big Tudor house in Tenafly, New Jersey. The lot was large and had a brook. Perfect for our little brood.

Tenafly was like a lovely English village with a small shopping area within walking distance. Wonderful bakery, deli, library, gift shops, coffee shops, beauty salon. I loved it. And I loved going into the city. Dick liked having me come in and join him in the evenings. I never complained.

My first trip in was an afternoon. Dick gave me precise instructions. I was to park the car at the end of the George Washington Bridge and walk the short distance to the subway. As he was telling me which staircase to take, I interrupted him. “I’m a grown woman who can read. I’m sure I’ll manage.”

I parked the car. Found the subway and took the first stairway and hopped on the subway car. Piece of cake! The only problem was that after a short while, the car stopped. “End of the line,” the conductor said.

“Oh no! I’m to meet my husband. How do I get back?”

The conductor laughed. “No problem. We’re headed back.” He pointed to the lone drunk across the aisle. “Don’t worry about him. He’s asleep.”

When I finally arrived, my husband was pale, his hands clutching the bars at the entrance. He was terrified. I was cool, as if this was something I did every day, but inside, I was just as scared. This was a whole new game for me.

I wasn’t much better when it came to driving in the city. I did, for I didn’t want to miss out on all the fun—opening nights, cocktail parties, fancy dinners. Dick carpooled with his boss. It was nearly impossible to get a taxi to drive you to New Jersey, and so I drove so we’d have a car to get home. Going out in the evening was a great change from my daily chores of being wife and mother. I had a wonderful baby sitter, an elderly woman who arrived with her little hat with a veil, an apron, and her arm full of books. I thought I’d be okay, for I’d been driving since I was thirteen. It couldn’t be that bad. But it was. On my first trip in, I was to pick Dick up at 6:30pm as we had reservations somewhere. His office was in Rockefeller Center. So I drove up 5th Avenue, approached the Center and turned left. It was a one-way going the other way. So at Rockefeller Plaza, I turned right. Another one-way—the wrong way. A group of chauffeurs were gathered at the curb, smoking and chatting. They all waved and bowed formally to me. I waved back. At the corner, I turned right and there was Dick talking with his boss. I read his lips. “Oh…my…God…That’s my wife.”

I parked the car and quickly slid into the passenger seat. Dick took over. The evening was lovely and nothing was said about my driving. As we drove home that evening across the George Washington Bridge, I looked out the back window. The skyline was magnificent. I never got over the awe of seeing it. Big city. Country girl. I never got very good at the driving in Manhattan business, but I never got a ticket, never had an accident. John Denver liked being a country boy. I like being a country girl, wouldn’t change a thing.

Friday, November 23, 2012


One of the requirements for my masters degree was an internship. My advisor knew I was on my way to becoming an educational therapist. There was no such designation, no program at the time (that came several years later) but I let her know I was very clear that I was one. Although I had enjoyed teaching, I kept seeing smart kids slide through the cracks. The word “dyslexia” was still fairly new, and I was reading everything I could get my hands on, learning more and more about this mysterious process called learning. And so she assigned me to a new pilot program at Pasadena City College where I could work one-on-one with individuals.

I showed up for work, and the head of the department greeted me and then wished me good luck. There was no curricula, no syllabus. I was on my own. But I wasn’t concerned. This being out on the skinny branches treading water in new territory was familiar to me. I was good at doing that (even though I’m lousy at creating metaphors).

My first client was a man in his fifties. He told me he had a successful business, was a freelance big rig trucker. And he was illiterate, had never learned how to read. But now he had children and he didn’t want them to know, so he had signed himself up to the program.

“How have you managed?” I asked.

His wife ran the office. When he was given a contract, he always took it home and his wife read it to him. When he drove into a new city, he picked up a hitchhiker and told him he’d buy lunch or dinner if the hiker would navigate for him. “Just read all the signs.” No one, other than his wife, knew he couldn’t read. I was impressed. This was one smart fellow.

I warned him we’d be doing things that were very child-like and I didn’t want him to feel insulted. He laughed and said I should “bring it on.”

It didn’t take long. He never got truly proficient, but was good enough to get by. “Besides,” he said. “I’m not going to be reading my wife’s novels. The sports page will be good enough for me.” And all the while he was learning, I was too. I had to give up some judgments and beliefs I had about smart people and being literate.

My next client was a young man of nineteen. Tall and handsome, he’d been offered a number of football scholarships at the Big Ten Universities, but his mother had told him he couldn’t accept any until he learned to read. Here was one of the kids I was so concerned about—one who had slipped through the cracks. I told him we were in this together and asked if he was willing to work with me. He desperately wanted to play football and told me he was willing to try anything. I asked him to read and he broke out in a sweat. I let him suffer for only a few minutes. Something was terribly wrong and I had to get to the bottom of it. I gathered a stack of flash cards of 3-letter words and sat across from him. I explained what I was going to do and he nodded to go ahead. I held the cards at my eye level so I could watch his eyes. I raised the first card (pop). His eyes rolled up to the right, he looked at the “o”, then the first “p”, then the second “p.” Finally he said,” …p…ah…p…pop.” I tried several more cards and each time, he rolled his eyes.

I told him what I’d observed. “No I don’t,” he said.

“Oh, but you do. You’re just not conscious of it. Now, I’m going to show you more cards and I want you to notice what you do with your eyes. It might take a while, don’t worry, we’ve plenty of time.”

After the sixth card he stopped. “I do! Roll my eyes. Why do I do that?”

I told him that I suspected he’d done it when he first started learning to read and it had looked like it worked. And so he repeated doing it and soon it was a well-traveled neural pathway. I said we were going to try to make some new neural pathways—ones that were more efficient. Was he willing to try? He was. I warned him that it would not be a quick fix. I explained that I’d show him cards and he was to try not to roll his eyes. Again, I warned that it might take a while before he was conscious of what he was doing or could control it, but we had time. When I held up the seventh card, he read it without rolling his eyes and his whole body shuddered. He leaped up from his chair. “What was that!”

I didn’t have a clue. I had him read more cards and he read them quickly. I was stunned. From that day on, he began to read and weekly his grade levels rose. It was like watching a kid on Christmas morning. He was thrilled. “I always thought I was smart,” he told me. “I just couldn’t figure out the reading business and that made me feel stupid.”

But now he could read. The last time I saw him, he was reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure he went on to make his name at the game he so loved.

There were other clients, just as mysterious and interesting. And each one was handled in a new way. My time working in that program was fruitful and I continued learning more about this business of learning. Can’t say I’ve mastered it, but I had a glorious time helping people learn. Eventually I bought my learning center (Educational Resources). Helping people learn is a most satisfying experience.

I think of all the teachers I had in my school years. I know I owe them a big THANK YOU. Thanks for putting up with me, along with the bureaucracy, endless reports, kids acting out, demanding parents, long hours, and lack of supplies. I am truly grateful. And my hat is off to those who are still engaged in the process of teaching. Keep hanging in there!

Friday, November 16, 2012

And More Scraps


Life had not been going well for me and I decided I needed to get God’s attention. “Look, Buster,” I said. “Life is not going well for me and…”

I suddenly had this vision of God roaring with laughter. “Look at her. Get her! Isn’t she cute!” I then saw what God was seeing, this little gnat on the tail of a dragon shouting into the void.

I quickly changed my tone.


Just a boy
            in the back of the police car.
Pale sideburns on a
            boy’s cheeks
               behind the wires
                        that are bars.

What have you done?

Your mask is a face
     my heart aches to reach out to.
but the light changes,
and the cars move on.

Split Second

The young man had been waiting to cross the street for some time. I could tell by the expression on his face. But the stream of cars hurried on, each one filled with people busy going somewhere.

I stopped and waved him on, and the car beside me slowed guiltily and then stopped. The young man glanced at me, frowned, and then smiled. He waved. I returned the wave and smiled back. For just an instant our eyes met. Then he ran on and I continued my drive.

Such a brief encounter, but it changed my day and I know it affected him as well. A split second of time, but a whole world hangs in the balance. In a moment new human beings are conceived or die, lives are changed irrevocably, nations rise or fall, wars are begun or ended.

Our lives, like the patchwork quilt, are made up of such split seconds, woven uniquely together to create that drama called living.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Monkey Business

I’ve been looking for my muse today. I think I lost her. Or she might have just packed her bags and left. I wouldn’t blame her. I too would get tired of sharing my space with all the idle chatter that goes on in my mind. Wouldn’t be too bad if it was friendly palaver. The trouble is, it’s not. There are at least a dozen voices up there waiting for their chance, and each one is an expert. I call it the “tape,” for it’s like a looped recording. It’s on all of the time and has no off button.

It seems we all have one, a tape. When did it start? When my granddaughter Sloane was four, she was tested for a pre-kindergarten class. I asked her how it went. “Well,” she said. “I don’t know all my colors. Big deal!” No negative demons there. Her big sister Chelsea was six and already in kindergarten. She loved it and had no trouble telling me, “I like school. I’m good at everything.” Still no negative tape. However, the following year she entered first grade. After several months had gone by, I asked her how it was going. She hesitated, then spoke, her voice low. “I’m not very good at math.” Oh no! I thought. The tape was beginning to record.

The problem is that we remember those events that have strong emotions, especially negative emotions, connected to them. It takes only one negative thought to wipe out ten positive thoughts. So guess what the tape is loaded with—negative thoughts. And to make matters worse, I read in Fast Company (October 2012, page 18) that the human brain processes 40 thoughts every second. And most of them negative. Good grief! No respite!

So what to do about all that negative commentary without having to be unconscious, inebriated, or stoned? I had a dream some time ago. In it, I’m watching a mechanized assembly line loaded with laundry bags. Each bag was a single thought. I watched several go by, and then grabbed one and heard someone laugh. “Now you’re stuck with it,” a voice said. I woke and got out of bed. The tape was already running, thoughts going by one after the other. A particularly juicy one came by and I began to argue with it. “Now you’re stuck with it,” echoed in my mind. I was, for to argue with the thought reinforces its neural pathway. It’s like being caught on the end of a rotor blade. Round and round with no conclusion in sight. There’s no win in that activity. Better to ignore the thought. My friend Cheryl, who is a therapist, says your mind is lying to you when it gives you those negative thoughts. My friend Dennis says we can’t trust our assessment of ourselves. He recommends using another’s assessment, especially if it’s a good one. A writer I know just yells, “SHUT UP!” Great advice.

So, when my negative critic starts up questioning my ability to write, I remind myself that I can write. Have written. Sold books. Get royalty checks. And I’m willing to do the BIC thing (butt in chair). I want my muse back! The amazing thing is she’s there—always has been, waiting for me to recognize the chatter for what it really is—monkey mind. I merely have to begin, cast aside all fears, ignore the chatter, and write.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Arguing With the Road

I just finished reading Stephen Tobolowsky's book The Dangerous Animals Club. Steve is an actor, a good one for he works all the time. And he’s a wonderful storyteller. (You can hear his stories on NPR.) But as I read his book, I realized he’s also a philosopher.

In his book, Tobolowsky referred to the story in the Bible of how Joseph, the youngest and favorite son was taken by his brothers and sold into slavery. (If you haven’t read it in the book of Genesis, think of the musical “Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors.”) Many years later, after Joseph had become the right-hand man to Pharaoh, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, desperate to find food for their people. They were taken before Joseph. They didn’t recognize him, but he knew them. Of course, he gave them food, forgave them all, and sent them back home. The story tells that as they were leaving, Joseph tossed out a bit of advice, “Go, and don’t fight on the road.” There are several interpretations of what that meant. Rashi, a great French rabbi and commentator from the eleventh century, said that the word “fight” really meant “be agitated” or “be fearful.” Good advice to stay cool on their way home. Perhaps if they were to act nervous, robbers, figuring they had riches, might attack them. Another rabbi suggested that Joseph wanted them to not continue blaming one another for their treatment of him. And then a Chasidic rabbi in the late eighteenth century argued that the line was mistranslated.

I’m not surprised as translating Hebrew is difficult because the reader gets to add the vowels in the words. Not only that, letters added to the beginning and end of a word changes the meaning of the word. In Hebrew, the word for road is derech. If you add bet (Hebrew for B) in front of it, you have something that can be translated as “on the road.” But sometimes a bet at the beginning of a word can also mean “with.” Then the sentence reads, “don’t fight with the road.” That doesn’t make much sense. One further change is that derech can also mean “path” or “way.” Now instead of reading, “don’t fight on the road,” we have “don’t argue with the path.”

That really resonated with me. What a waste of time to argue with “what’s so.” I thought about my life, all the strange twists and turns it has taken. Often, I’ve stopped and looked in the mirror and asked myself, “How have you managed to get here safely?” I’m not really sure. I know all about setting goals and the importance of taking the action required to accomplish them. But most of my life has consisted of just showing up each morning and dealing with whatever is there. (Think raising four children.) Too often, I’ve been at the mercy of Kismet (the fates), like my husband’s job. If the company said, “Move,” we asked, “How far?”

Friends tell me the angels take care of me. Perhaps they do, for I feel fortunate. I’m surrounded by a wonderful family and loads of friends. The energy field they create must look to the world as if the angels are at work. I think of all the energy Joseph’s brothers could have wasted as they argued with the past and with the “what’s so” of their lives. “Why…?” “If only…?” Useless conversations. Better to take the lessons as best we can and write the past off as just that—past. I notice I showed up today. Did you? Welcome to the Universe. Might as well enjoy the ride!  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Making Do

Making do. I have no idea where that phrase came from, but it was my favorite game to play when I was young. My mother loved dolls and saw to it that my sister and I had many. I even had a boy doll. I called him Donald Eugene. I don’t think my mother ever was able to play with dolls. You see, she was the eldest girl and instead of playing with “doll” dolls, she got to play with the babies that followed. And her family was poor. Interesting, for her ancestors on her father’s side (both paternal and maternal) came to this country long before the Revolutionary War and they were all wealthy landowners. Nicholas Gassaway who arrived in 1764, ended up being the Provisional Governor of Maryland in the 1770s.  His will declared that at his death all but one of his slaves were to be freed. That one was to spend the year teaching Nicolas’s sons how to manage the plantations and then was to be freed. But by the time my mother was born, the money and land had long ago disappeared. And so my mother made up for her lack of dolls as a girl by indulging my sister and me.

Mother was an amazing seamstress and as a result, we were not only the best-dressed girls in school, but we had dolls that were “dolled” up royally. Mother even made Halloween costumes for our dolls. She knit little mittens on toothpicks (if you can imagine!) and they even had thumbs! And she got Daddy in on the act. He made small steamer trunks for us, with drawers, and tiny hangers. He even found labels from other countries that he pasted on the black fake-leather sides. One of the costumes for my dolls had a hoop skirt. Daddy made the tiny wire circle that Mother pulled through the hem. Oh, my dolls were indeed fancy.

I loved the dolls and played with them until I was ten. But I had read “Huckleberry Finn” and fallen in love with the idea of “making do.” That meant that you took what little you had, and you made it do. So I would take my dolls, and a few pieces of clothes for them, pile onto my bed and float on the raft down the Mississippi. I don’t know if Mother knew what I was doing. She left my sister and me to our own devices. But now I hope that she didn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the clothes and the trouble. I think I did. But I also was somewhat embarrassed by my beautiful clothes and my dolls. Most of my friends were wearing hand-me-downs. Once one of my friends, Marion, make a comment, complimenting me on a dress, and I said, “This old rag.” She turned on me and said, “Don’t you ever talk like that again!” Marion deserved nice clothes for she was the prettiest girl in school and the boys all had crushes on her. It was a good lesson for me. I never referred to my clothes again. I also never said anything to my mother about her making my clothes. It became like the war fields that were mined during the war. I walked carefully.

And now I’m watching a show about Alaska on TV. I love it. They are constantly having to “make do.” Throughout my life, I’ve found ways to re-use and re-cycle things. My grandmother taught me how to unravel old knitted pieces, wash, dry, and rewind the yarn. I made mittens and scarves for my little ones. Made me feel frugal, like a pioneer. I have a friend who carries that to the extreme. I don’t.  But I hold in highest esteem those who have to seriously “make do” in life. I’m impressed by their courage and resourcefulness. I think we need more of that. A little “hardship” isn’t such a bad thing if it makes us pay closer attention and appreciate more what we have. But I must be honest here, like with my dolls of old, I have a closet full of clothes, a pantry that is filled, and a warm and cozy home. Making do? Who am I kidding?

Friday, October 19, 2012


People didn’t travel a lot when I was young. They had little reason. Most had their families nearby. There was no Disneyland. No Branson, Missouri. Vacations were usually spent at home, fixing up the house, taking day trips to the beach, or just lying around in the shade. But we had a new house that needed little fixing, lived at the lake, and Daddy was never one to “lay about.” So we did road trips and camped.
            My sister Mary Ann and I had the backseat. Mother and Daddy in front. About an hour into a trip (before the “are we almost there” began), Mary Ann and I started the sibling thing. “She’s got her foot on my side.” “She’s looking out my window.” Daddy once tried piling the luggage between us. Didn’t help. And so we sang and the squabbling ended. I don’t recall if Mother sang. She might have, but Daddy was the star.
            In his high quavering tenor he always began (in a German accent): “Oh, Dunderbach, oh Dunderbach, how could you be so mean. To ever haf invented that wonderful machine. Where dogs and cats and mice and rats would never more be seen. They’d all be ground to sausage meat in Dunderbach’s machine. One day there something happened, and the machine she would not go. So Dunderbach, he climbed inside the reason for to know. His wife was having nightmares and was walking in her sleep. She gave the crank an awful yank, and Dunderbach was meat!”
            I’m sure Mother shuddered. Not Mary Ann, nor I. We begged for another and Daddy always had more. College songs, drawing-room melodies, songs he ‘d learned as a boy. One of his favorites was: “One evening when the sun went down and the jungle fires were burning. Down the tracks came a hobo hiking and he said, ‘Boys, I am yearning. I’m heading for a land that’s far away beside the crystal fountains, so come with me and we’ll all go see the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there’s a land that’s fair and bright. Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night. Where the boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day, on the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees, on the lemonade springs where the blue birds sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
            Second verse, worse than the first: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs. The bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs. Where the brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind. Oh, I want to go where there ain’t no snow, where the rain don’t rainy, and the wind don’t blow in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
            And can you believe it? Another verse: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks. And little streams of alcohol come atrickling down the rocks. Where the farmers’ trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay. There’s a lake of stew and a gin lake too, you can paddle all around it in a big canoe in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.” A true song for the Great Depression.
Another favorite was Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. Thirteen verses! He sang them all. It began: “The sons of the prophet were brave men and bold and quite unaccustomed to fear. But the bravest by far in the ranks of the shah was Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. The heroes were plenty and well known to fame in the troops that were led by the Czar. But the bravest of these was a man by the name of Ivan Skavinski Skivar.”
The last verses: “A tomb rises up where the blue Danube rolls engraved there in characters clear. Oh, Stranger, in passing, please pray for the soul of Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. And a Muscovite maiden, her lone vigil keeps ‘neath the light of a pale Polar Star and the name that she murmurs so soft as she weeps is Ivan Skavinski Skivar.” Always brought tears to my eye.
When daddy was a boy, his family sang. They gathered in the living room, Grandma played the piano, and they sang songs of the Victorian era: “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Bicycle Built for Two,” and “After the Ball was Over.” Of course, the boys weren’t content to sing the proper words. When alone they sang, “After the ball was over, Katie took out her glass eye, hung her peg leg in the corner, hung out her wig to dry, put her false teeth on the mantel, took off her bustle and all. Not much was left of Katie after the ball.”
A singing game my sister and I played was to count to three and then start a song. Our challenge was to sing our song all the way through in time and on key (in the style of Charles Ives). However, we often started with the same song and then dissolved in giggles. Long trips were boring so Mary Ann and I invited other ways to sing. One rainy trip, we sang “Bicycle Built for Two,” by singing one word each time the windshield wiper hit the dashboard. “Daisy…Daisy…give…me…your…answer…do…” Drove our parents crazy. We finally told the secret, and then Daddy joined in.
Mary Ann and I sang while we did the dishes. (You can’t argue while you’re singing.) We took turns doing the alto parts. One of my favorites (one sung years later by granddaughter Sarah when she was in high school): “I heard a bird at break of day, sing from the autumn trees, a song so mystical and calm, so full of certainties. No man I think could listen long, except upon his knees. Yet, this was but a simple bird, alone among dead trees.” Still brings tears to my eyes.
With Daddy, we sang love songs (Bendemeer Stream, Danny Boy), sentimental songs (My Ole Kentucky Home, Beautiful Ohio), and crazy songs (My Old Shanghai Rooster, St. Olaf fight songs). Our most vigorous singing was on a return trip one summer from camping at Rice Lake, Wisconsin. A fire had started deep in the woods and by the time we packed and left, it was blazing. Our escape route was a narrow rutted dirt road through the forest. I remember my father’s back hunched over the steering wheel, my mother’s handkerchief clenched in her fist. At one point I looked out the back window and saw a tall pine flare up in seconds. Daddy had us sing every song we knew, all the verses. Our car was covered in ashes, our faces too, but we were safe. I smile when I think of how I knew that Daddy would never let anything bad happen to us.
Often, when Daddy heard my sister and me arguing, he made us face each other and sing. Didn’t take long before the giggles started. I think everyone should sing. If countries got together and sang, there would be no wars.
I’m sure you have your own songs. So, with your loved ones, find any excuse and sing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Esteeming Scott

 One of my favorite careers, second only to being a mom, was as an educational therapist. I had bought a successful learning center (Educational Resources) in San Marino, California. (I sold it after ten years and it still flourishes.) In the summers I had only six tutors, but winters had about a dozen. They were retired teachers and master/PhD students from Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology) and Fuller Seminary. “No analyzing, no psychology,” I told them. “Just straight tutoring.” They enjoyed the work as it gave them an opportunity to work one-on-one with a real live child.
I did the testing, conferencing, and wrote the prescriptive course, but the tutors and kids did the rest, and they were inventive. I worked with the more difficult cases. I loved it for I was constantly challenged.
Scott was one of those challenges. Referred by his teacher, he was a puzzle. His learning disability was not severe. He was an intelligent, strong, handsome nine-year-old who was successful on the sports field. And yet, he was failing in school. I decided I would be his tutor.
When he arrived for our first session, Scott could have slid under the door his self-esteem was so low.
“Scott,” I said. “Why do you think you’re coming here?” (I always asked that question and usually got frank answers. The kids were actually relieved to find someone who might help.)
“I’m a failure in life,” was his answer.
I was stunned. “But, Scott, you’re good at sports.”
He shrugged.
“And your parents love you.”
He sighed. “They have to.”
“And you believe you’re a failure?”
He nodded.
Here is a boy who is drowning and I’ve got to rescue him, but how? I gave him something to work on while I frantically thought about what to do. A failure in life. How do you deal with that? And then I got an idea. I took a piece of paper and laid it lengthwise on the table between us. I started on the left side and drew a line from top to bottom. I wrote the word "soccer" in the space. “Are you a failure in soccer?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I scribbled over the area. One by one I drew a line and labeled the spaces: at home, recess, lunch time, walking to and from school, math, social studies, and at each he said "no." Finally there’s only a slice of space left and I wrote in “language arts.” He sighed and said, “Yes.”
I sat back and studied the paper. Then I looked him squarely in the eye. “You’ve been lying to me,” I said.
He looked surprised.
“You told me you’re a failure in life. Well,” I held up the paper. “Here’s your life and you’re only a failure in this one tiny place. That’s not your whole life. You’ve come to the right place, for I’m the Olympic coach of language arts. Do you think I’ll be easy on you?”
He shook his head. “No-o-o.”
“You’re right about that. Now let’s begin.”
And so we began.
            Scott’s parents and teachers had been generous in their praise, so much so that I saw he no longer trusted the happy faces or “good work” I put on the work pages. We had to restore his esteem of himself and only he could do that. Scott needed to learn how to honestly evaluate his own work. I designed a graph, dates on the bottom, percentages on the left side from 0 to 100. Every piece of work was given a numerical grade in percentage. (Ten problems with five wrong was a score of 50%, etc.) I stopped making comments about his work or making happy faces. I had him record every percentage on the graph.
            After several weeks, I asked if he thought he was getting better. He shrugged. So I put the graphed chart on the table between us and laid a ruler along the tops of the lines. Then I drew a line along the ruler. I asked Scott what he saw. He studied the chart and then looked at me, his eyes wide.
“It’s going up.
            “Yes and you did that.”
The very next session he added a GOOD at the top of the page and eventually happy faces showed up. I knew we had been successful on the day when he did a difficult page and got only a 60%. He looked at me seriously. “That’s not too bad. That was a hard page.”
I knew my work was done. We had two more sessions and then said our goodbyes. At the end of the school year, I got a note. “I did good and got good grades. Cood I come on summer as next year we are doing hard gramer. Your friend, Scott.”
We welcomed him and added spelling to his prescription.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Teaching 101

Well, I’d made it. Gotten my degree, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Batchelor of Science in Child Welfare and a minor in History. And now what?

My dreams had been vivid those last weeks before graduating. I’m standing at the edge of a precipice and need to get to the other side. The chasm below me is so deep I cannot see the bottom and yet I know I have to get across. I always woke in a cold sweat. And so after the ceremonies, I went home with my parents. They had moved while I was a senior to a town where I knew not one soul. I spent my days reading want ads and lolling about. One day, my mother rushed up to me and said she’d heard that a number of small town superintendents were hiring teachers. They were meeting at the local high school. I dressed and made my way to the school.

I have absolutely no memory of any interviews. I only recall coming home with a contract to teach first grade at an elementary school in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. My entire salary for the nine months was $1700 (this was 1946). The following Sunday, I packed my bags, took a bus to Fond du Lac, and rented a room from the local butcher. The rent was to include breakfast, which usually consisted of toast, jam, stale cake, crackers, and coffee, which I didn’t drink. The butcher was on a diet.

The school was over a mile away and I had to walk, as there was no bus service. And my walk fronted Lake Winnebago, one of the largest inland lakes in the country. So along with the (often) below zero temperature, there was wind. And so I dressed for it. I wore wool slacks under my skirt (yes, we had to wear dresses), a wool ski cap, two pairs of mittens, and air corps boots over my shoes. The boots were warmer than galoshes as they were lined with sheepskin. I also covered my face with baby oil so it wouldn’t freeze.

My school was the oldest school building and was in the poorest part of town. One of my favorite professors had always warned us to save pictures, poems, stories, anything that might be of interest to children. I had taken her advice and when I walked into my classroom sent up a prayer of thanks. My classroom was bare, the walls dire, dark. It would take a small miracle to illumine that space. I spent the morning doing what I could to brighten the grim walls.

Our reading books were the Dick and Jane series. They were stacked neatly in the corner, their pages covered with little grubby prints. I remember feeling a sense of awe as I realized I was going to help the children learn to read, to open up the world of books. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility and the privilege and I was terrified that I might fail them. An inventory of my room listed boldly: 23 library books. There were no library books on the shelves. I looked everywhere. I finally opened a low cupboard and there found 23 little pamphlets of Mother Goose, printed as an advertisement from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

I was furious. These were the poorest children in town. How dare someone claim these tiny pamphlets were library books. I had to do something. And luck was with me. The janitor. I wish I could remember his name. I can see him in my mind’s eye as clear as anything. He was old, ancient, wore bibbed overalls over a flannel shirt. He always wore his hat and smoked a smelly pipe. Raised and cured his own tobacco, he boasted. He called me “Missy” and invited me down to see the furnace room. It was cozy, foggy with smoke. A handmade rag rug covered the floor. An old rocking chair with a worn pad and a crooked wooden chair were separated by a turned over box. His ashtray was large and overflowing. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling lighted the room. On the table was a violin. He played the fiddle. And I was a ready audience. I sat and drank tepid tea and listened while he performed. I felt I’d made a friend.

But back to the 23 library books. As I said, I had to do something. These little first graders needed to have books, lots of them. And so I found an empty box, tossed the little pamphlets inside, and sealed the box. I took it down to the furnace room and handed it over to my friend. “If you’re smart,” I said, “you won’t look inside.”

He smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “Just some trash you need to get rid of, I take it?’ I nodded. He opened the furnace door and tossed the box inside.

The following day, I approached my principal. My heart ached for her, for you see she was very worried about her position. Women were not principals in those days. Only men had that privilege. However, there had been a Second World War and many men had not returned. Marie had been given the position of temporary principal until a man could be hired. So she was not about to do anything to upset anyone. Ever.

I explained that I’d looked everywhere for the 23 library books I was supposed to have and couldn’t find them. She rushed into my room and spent an hour searching. I was right. There were no books. Reluctantly, she filled in an order and sent it off to the library. It took two weeks, but we got books, colorful, exciting, and fun. And I learned there was more to being a good teacher than I had ever dreamed. According to the definitions, education’s history began with the classical Greek philosophers and sophists, and today it is spoken of in terms of reflective theorizing about pedagogy, andragogy, curriculum, learning, and education policies, organization and leadership. Educational thought is informed by various strands of history, philosophy, sociology, critical theory, and psychology among other disciplines (I copied this out of several heavy books.)

Where are the words for hope, using your smarts, being savvy, and love?

Friday, September 28, 2012


I woke up groggy-eyed this morning. There is a subversive activity going on that I think the public needs to be warned about. Maybe I should contact Homeland Security for this action is a true saboteur. I should be taking long walks, getting eight hours of sleep each night, doing FaceBook, answering emails, doing my exercises. Instead, what am I doing ? Reading.

The books are seductive. I think I’ll just peek into one, an innocent thing to do. And there they are neatly lined up. “Come in,” the words seem to say. “I’ve only a few minutes,” I reply. “Not a problem. You can stop at any time,” they coo. But I can’t stop. Just one more page, one more chapter, just these few last pages, and hours—days slip away.

I’ve tried to make hard, fast rules: No reading before 1:00 in the afternoon. (My mornings are set aside for writing.) No starting a new book after 10:00p.m. If there are more than 10 pages, and it’s after 11:00pm, I must close the book and turn off the light. But I’m a weak taskmaster. If I can’t get to sleep within 5 minutes, I’m allowed to turn on the light and finish the book. I can always find an excuse to read.

My LIST OF BOOKS TO READ is a mess. Can’t really call it a list for it’s a collection of Post-it notes and scraps of paper all stuck into a plastic file. Periodically I go through, putting titles on my “hold” list at the Public Library, but it never diminishes the mess. The “list” has a life of its own. I’ve kept track of books read that goes back to the 1960s. Don’t know why I have it, but it gives me comfort to write the title and author down. Then at the end of the year, I have a total of books read. Useless information, but I continue with the list.

I have vivid memories of reading certain books. I can see in my mind’s eye the illustrations for Mary Poppins. I loved that book. When I finished it, I couldn’t part with it, and carried it around for days. My mother sometimes worried that I always had my nose in a book. “You’ll ruin your eyes,” she said. But she never stopped me. (When I was pregnant with my second child, Mother came to visit me. I had a stack of books to return to the library: Headhunters in the Solomon Islands among them. Mother was horrified. “You shouldn’t read these books,” she said. “You’ll mark the baby!) My father was delighted by my reading for he had always been a reader. He was working his way through The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire when he toddled off to his first day of school.

At twelve, my grandmother sent me her copy of Tale of Two Cities. She seemed to know I was a reader and often sent me books from their library. They were always cheap editions, well worn, and I treasured them. Oliver Twist opened the world of Dickens for me. I often had the feeling, as I read, that something profound was happening. I couldn’t explain it, didn’t even try to fully understand it, I merely reveled in the experience.

I lived in the country, at a lake when I was in high school, which meant I was driven to school each day. The driver, Sonny, was a young man my parents hired to drive my sister and me to and from school, along with Bruce who lived at Painter’s Creek. Sonny always picked Mary and Bruce up right after school, but I always had after school activities: debate, speech, a play, friends, and so had to find other ways to get home. My neighbors, Mr. R who owned an automotive shop and Dr. B a dentist, were more than willing to give me a ride, but I had to find some place to wait until they were ready to make the trip home. The library. It was a Carnegie Free Library, built in the traditional style, with pillars and steps leading to the large double door. Two librarians, Minnie and Mattie, ran the library. I will never forget them. Two grey haired spinster ladies who loved books and delighted in helping people find good books. Often, Mattie would call out a “Psst,” then wiggle her finger, enticing me to follow her into the stacks. She’d pull out a book and hand it to me. “I think you’ll like this one,” she’d say. She was never wrong.

I love it when someone makes a good recommendation. Daughter Mary sent me The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society book. I never would have found it on my own. One of the student acupuncturists at Bastyr University recommended Scandinavian mystery writers. I felt like I’d found the mother lode.

I’m always sad when I finish an author’s most recent book. I then start waiting for the next book. It felt like centuries passed while waiting for another Tony Hillerman, and when I read of his death my heart broke. No more Sgt. Jim Chee. Oh no!

Recently, I saw the book Far From the Madding Crowd on my bookshelf. I had loved it as a girl, but couldn’t remember why. I reread it and in the last chapter had that thrill go through me again, the one that feels profound and mysterious.

Up until a few years ago, I read every Robert B. Parker book. (I’ve done that with a lot of old mystery writers—read each book from the earliest right up to the last.) Learned how to write dialogue reading those books. Cormac McCarthy taught me about “voice” in his All the Pretty Horses. I not only read it twice, but also listened to the audiotapes. And I’ll read it again. I so loved Alison McGhee’s first novel “Shadow Baby” that I had to own it. Thank heavens for Pegasus—my used bookstore. 

I’ve got mixed feelings about reviews and always check to see if the writer is male or female. We are so acculturated that we are never truly objective, and yet I’m curious about what they (who are professional readers) have to say. And then I remember one Sunday morning. My husband and I were reading the Sunday New York Times when Dick put down his paper and said wearily, “Too much is written about what is written.”

Nancy Pearl, Seattle’s former Librarian, has written a wonderful book titled Book Lust I know just how she feels.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Being Sixteen

I was just sixteen, sitting in a back booth at Bartel’s Café in Chippew Falls, Wisconsin, sharing a cigarette and a coke with my best friend Joyce. We were dressed in the latest fashion; wool skirt, cardigan on backwards and buttoned, strand of pearls, and dirty saddleshoes. She’d swiped the cigarette from her father, something she did on a regular basis. I think he knew, but always pretended he didn’t. I didn’t really like smoking, always choked, but it was the thing to do when you were sixteen.

Joyce and I were talking about life. “I don’t like those ups and downs,” Joyce said. She’d just had her heart broken by a senior who didn’t even know she existed. I knew all about those ups and downs, had a crush on a different boy each week. Dating was something you did, never seriously. That was too dangerous. We went out in a bunch, boys and girls together. It was the depression and none of the boys had cars. I lived out at the lake, and so my dates’ fathers drove them to pick me up and then drove me home again. Talk about chaperons! I was well protected from sixteen year old grubby pawing.

But back to talking about life. Joyce carefully drew a straight line on a cocktail napkin. “That’s the way life should be. Safe and smooth.”

“But, Joyce,” I said. “If you don’t have the valleys, you can’t have mountains.” Now how did I know that at sixteen? But I did. That moment is etched in my memory. I remember it well, can vividly see the wooden paneling in the booth, see Joyce sitting across from me, her dark eyes so serious and sad. I was filled with feelings I could hardly explain, for I think I could foretell how some of those valleys would be. I was scared, but excited. Life was going to be some adventure, I was sure of that, and perhaps I’d better not think too much about it before hand. Just jump in and live.

I wish I’d have had the wisdom, the savvy to be able to say it the way David Mitchell has his teenage protagonist speak in his book blackswangreen (or Black Swan Green). I remind myself this was written by an adult, but he captured the voice of the boy perfectly. “The world’s a headmaster who works on your faults. I don’t mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you’ll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step! Everything that’s wrong with us, is we’re too selfish or too Yessir, Nosir, Three bags full sir or anything, that’s a hidden step. Either you suffer the consequences of not noticing your fault forever, or, one day, you do notice it, and fix it. Joke is, once you get it into your brain about that hidden step and think, Hey, life isn’t such a shithouse after all again, then BUMP! Down you go, a whole new flight of hidden steps. There are always more.” 

But David Mitchell hadn’t written his book when we were young. And so, just like his protagonist, we lived our lives bump after bump after  bump. Joyce was true to her plan. Her life was one that was flat, predictable, smooth, safe. She died too young, an alcoholic, an unpublished writer, a bitter woman. I visited her the year before her death. She met me at the Eau Claire airport where I'd flown in to meet her. We sat in a paneled booth and talked about our lives. Mine had definitely gone up and down. She sipped her rye whiskey. “I sometimes wonder if I did it right,” she said.

“We can all wonder that,” I said. How magical is this business of being alive. And who ever truly figures it all out. I think Mitchell’s teenage protagonist is closest.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Deer Stones

I think I first wanted to go to Mongolia when I was in the fourth grade. I distinctly remember the pictures in the “National Geographic” magazine. Even in black and white photos, I could tell that those gentle rolling hills were green in the summertime. I loved the funny hats and the boots with curved up toes. And I was caught up in the magic of Genghis Khan and his empire. So when I finally made arrangements to go to Mongolia, it was a dream that had been long in the making.

I flew into Beijing and made my way to the Mongolia Air desk. No one was there. Him-m-m, I thought, that’s strange. I had a connection in a few hours. I noticed four young people nearby seated on a pile of hiking gear. They had been there all day for they too had connections. I finally went to the nearby China Air desk. “Oh,” the clerk said, “they often don’t fly. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

The young people and I decided, in typical American fashion, to be proactive. We piled into a taxi and went to Mongolia Air headquarters. The receptionist was kind. Perhaps they would fly tomorrow. So the young hikers and I went out to dinner. They were on their way to the western part of Mongolia to join a climbing group. That is they would if they could ever get there.

I decided to take advantage of my forced stay and found a charming old hotel in a nearby village. The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport. Mongolia Air was open and ready for business. There was no explanation for the previous day. It was enough that they would operate today.

I flew into Delangadgad Airport and there met my guide and four women to make up our party.

There’s much to tell, but the Deer Stones were a high point for me as they captured the magic and mystery I had always felt about Mongolia.

The stones are located in a broad, short-grass valley rimmed by the mountains of north-central Mongolia called Ushkin Uver, Lung Mountain, for the peaks resemble a sheep’s lung. There, in the middle of nowhere stand a group of monoliths, the Deer Stones. They’re about eight feet tall, probably 3,000 years old, erected by unknown people, and no one knows what they mean. They’re covered with strange hybrid hoofed mammals with antlers and duck-bill snouts. Each stone also has many circles, probably representing the sun. They’re “fenced” in by a ring of small stones that surround the area. (I saw a lot of these stone “fences” and wondered at the psychological power they seemed to hold, for I never crossed one.)

As far as the eye could see was nothing but sand, rock and sky.

And then two boys came riding up on ponies.
They rode over to Baatar (our guide). “What are you doing with our stones?” they asked. Baatar promised we would not damage anything. The boys waited until we were finished with our picture taking. Only as we got back into our jeep, did they ride away.

Where had they come from? How had they known we were there? Over and over I was presented with this mystery. We often passed a gathering of people. I know some had cell phones, but they’ve been doing this for centuries, gathering at some barren spot to exchange gossip, barter, refresh friendships.

Whenever we stopped, kids rode up on ponies and camels. I asked Baatar what they said. He smiled. It was a Mongolian version of “what’s up?”

I hope no one ever figures out what the Deer Stones are. I love the idea that in the middle of the Gobi desert, are some beautiful stones tying a mysterious past to our today. I’m so grateful that I was able to stand in their midst, in awe and wonder of a people who had lived here long ago and who’d left a calling card for me. We passed this way they seem to say. Welcome and good travels.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Learning and Knowing

           Learning. It’s all about making new distinctions.
           When my grandson Dallas was three, everything with four legs and a tail was a cow. He was very clear about that. I was visiting and had brought a picture book about a dog named Spot. On every page, with great confidence, he pointed to the dog and said, “Cow.”
“No,” I’d say. “That’s a dog.”
He’d look at me patiently. “It’s a cow.” He knew.
On the last page of the book was a picture of a big black dog. “Woof, woof,” I said.
He smiled. “It’s a cow.”
Later that afternoon, I took him for a walk. Suddenly, a big black dog off leash lumbered up and stood nose to nose with Dallas. The dog barked, "Woof!”  Dallas’s whole body trembled. He looked up at me and said, “Dog.” A new distinction.
Learning is about our perceptions as well. We take our perceptions and make sense out of them. We know what we know. When granddaughter Megan was four, she knew all about factories. “That’s where they make the horses,” she told me. I had not a clue where that had come from and try as I did, I couldn’t change her mind. Later that day, her father took us all for a ride. And there, out in the country, was a tall smokestack, an abandoned factory building, and all around it were horses. Megan gave me a knowing look. “See, Grammy. The horses.”
I loved my years of working one on one with students. Miracles happened every day. And some times I had to be the bearer of bad news. Laura was a first grader and refused to learn her number facts. I finally asked her straight out if she was every going to learn them. She leaned toward me, smiled, and whispered. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Maxwell. Next year I’ll be in the second grade and I won’t have to do this anymore.” I felt like the wicked witch of the West.
And there was Evan. He knew right from left. No big deal. Right was the side where the windows were.
Carrie was a mystery when she came to my learning center. Her problem was comprehension, and her performance was all over the map. One afternoon, I read a paragraph to her and then asked a question. (The answer was a brown puppy.) She screwed up her pretty little face, then made another facial contortion. She held her chin in her hands and frowned ferociously. 
“Carrie,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m thinking.”
Oh no. Some adult had no doubt told her to “think.” Carrie had no clue what that meant, but she knew what it looked like.
“Carrie,” I said. “Don’t think. When I asked you that question, did you see something in your mind’s eye?” I pointed to her head.
She nodded. “A little brown dog.”
I now knew what to do about Carrie’s “comprehension” problem.
I have dozens of these stories, and some are very strange, but I’ve made my point. My ten years experience one on one with students was a goldmine. I learned so much. And I had to toss out most of the notions I had about teaching. I think my biggest lesson was the realization that when we get all grown up, we think we know, and we forget that it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Fatma's Story

It’s great fun to travel with a guide when he’s scouting the country for new sites. And when that country is Turkey, it’s an amazing adventure. Almost overwhelming. So we (my guide Aydin and I) had stumbled into the village Cambazli. (If you’re looking at a map of Turkey this is in the area that is the southernmost tip of Turkey near Silifke Aydin had found an ancient church, not listed in the Blue Guide Book. Probably built in the late 400 or early 500 AD and the most complete Aydin had ever seen. This was rich country for ancient things and so he drove further and found an old Roman tomb. As we were leaving, an old woman called from her second floor porch to come for chai. We hesitated, but she insisted and so we climbed the stairs to her home. Her name was Fatma. She kissed my hand then put my hand to her forehead, a gesture of respect, one I should have given her for she was older than I. A tiny thing, her fingers twisted from years of hard work, tufts of hennaed hair under her scarf, and eyes blue as the sky.

The living room was small, banquettes lined the walls and a fire burned in the fireplace. To the right was a closed door. Off the kitchen were the bedrooms. Kilims covered the floor and a folded stack sat near the fireplace, ready for use when family or friends came to visit. Goats and chickens were housed beneath. Everything was clean. The house was cheery and smelled of herbs and wool. I felt right at home.

Fatma disappeared and returned with chai and iran, a drink made of yogurt, water, and salt that is oddly refreshing. Fatma showed me how she made yarn from black goat hair. She had a simple wooden device that came apart, which made it easy to travel. She said she could spin yarn and walk at the same time. She was proud of her work and showed me an old kilim she had made when just a girl. It was soiled and patched with brightly colored pieces of fabric. It was obvious it had been heavily used. I admired it, and she immediately wanted to give it to me. “No, no,” I said. In my heart I wanted it, but had no idea how to arrange to buy it.

While we were having our third cup of chai, Fatma’s granddaughter Haci (Hachee)  (aged 12) arrived. Fatma’s son had brought her home from school. She was limping and obviously in pain. Only then did we learn that Haci’s parents were dead and Haci needed to have an operation on her hip. The uncle explained they had been saving money for a long time and would soon have enough for the operation. Aydin prodded gently and found out how much more was needed. Now I knew what the kilim I wanted was worth. Fatma insisted “no,” but Aydin insisted more firmly. She finally relented. Then she gave us a packet of eggs, onions, and a plastic with 6 apples. Many kisses later Aydin and I floated down to the jeep buoyed up by all that gentle love.

We drove then to Olba, a place I like as it feels so familiar to me. The area was completely occupied during ancient times. Houses today in these villages often have ancient building stones in their construction. At one temple site a young boy of eleven explained in English about the columns and capitals. Beautiful carvings of animal heads and garlands were carved into the stone. He was obviously proud of his village and his English.

It was soon two o’clock and I was hungry. We stopped in a village where the ancient theater columns are in the middle of the main street. Mehmet, owner of the only restaurant in town, spread his arms. It was all finished, he said, even the bread (ekmek). But we had food! Eggs, onions, and apples. Mehmet said if we could find bread, he would make lunch. Aydin knocked at the first door he came to, explained our situation, and we were given bread. “How much?” I asked. The woman just smiled, gave us her blessing, and waved us on.

Mehmet placed a tiny table under a tree, fresh flowers in a jelly glass. Lunch was marvelous. Scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, a plate of sliced apples covered in honey and cinnamon, a dish of hot peppers and tomatoes. He cut the fresh bread loaves in half and filled them with a marvelous mixture of goat, onions, tomatoes, and spices. He ran across the street and brought back warm cans of cola. The meal was superb. Cok güzel (very beautiful). And then Mehmet insisted we come to his home for dinner. But that’s a different story.