Saturday, July 6, 2013

Ruth's Passing

Ruth passed away peacefully this morning at 4:30.  Thank you for your thoughts and prayers.  Jennifer will send out a notice with the date and time of Ruth's memorial.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ruth's new book is published!

This is Jennifer Mackley writing to let you know that I have published Ruth's final book: The Peshtigo Greenhorn.  This is her fourth book, and is dedicated to Doug.

I say "I have published" to take responsibility for the editing.  The work is hers, any editing errors are mine ... so let me know if you notice something.

It is available for purchase, but if you want to wait until they remove the extra dot on the cover (to the right of Ruth's name) that should be corrected within 2 weeks.

The Peshtigo Greenhorn Authored by Ruth H. Maxwell
List Price: $9.95
6" x 9" (15.24 x 22.86 cm)
Black & White on White paper
182 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1490446844
ISBN-10: 1490446842
BISAC: Juvenile Fiction / Historical / United States / 19th Century
On October 8, 1871, two fires occurred, the famous Chicago Fire and the devastating but obscure Peshtigo Fire. The fire in Chicago destroyed just over 3 square miles of the city. The Peshtigo Fire consumed an estimated 1.5 million acres or 2,400 square miles in northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Thousands of men, women and children perished. The town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin – home to 1,700 – disappeared in the flames. No other fire in United States history has cost so many lives. 

To purchase go to CreateSpace eStore:

Friday, June 7, 2013

Library Books

I love the library. Free books! I merely have to go online and place my order. And within days or weeks, an email arrives telling me the book is there to be picked up at the location of my choice. Awesome.

While growing up, I frequented the library. “Always has a book in her hands,” Mother said. She worried I’d get too serious. In Chippewa Falls, the library was an Andrew Carnegie Free Public Library. My local library looks like it in that it has steps leading up to the bit double doors. It’s an old library and I like its warm charm. The books are often well worn; the pages soft and often smudged or dog eared. Others have read this book before me and some have left their trails littered.

Items found in library books

  • Old shopping list: butter, 2 AA batteries, Tims cookies, 1 green veg, tr snacks?
  • Brochure for Mariners
  • Movie ticket stub
  • Bookmark: United States GOV’T BOOKSTORE       
  • Hand-written note: copy stuff onto floppy disk
  • Library due date notice
  • Book hold: MAUR RIC xxxxx0529 3/8/2012
  • Business card: Painting contractor
  • Torn ToDo list: call MT, return (smudged), email to joy
  • Torn end of energy bar package

They are like cairns saying, “I’ve been here. It’s safe.”

This is my last blog. To all my loyal followers, and you come from all over the world—THANK YOU. I have loved your comments and emails. My very best wishes to all of you and good luck with all your ventures. I’ll miss you.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Boxed In

It was during the 60s and I was invited to a meeting of people interested in civil rights. The moderator asked us to sit in a large circle and then introduce ourselves. One after the other, I heard people say their names and then tell what they did. I saw myself categorizing them as they said their professions and wondered how they would categorize me. My career was as a wife and mother—housewife, and I knew how that looked on a resume. So when it came my turn, I said my name and turned to the individual beside me to allow him to introduce himself. There was a long pause and then he collected himself and said his name and profession. Later, during a break, people came up to me and asked what I did. I could see they needed more information so they knew what box I could fit in.
While working as an educational therapist, I saw the value of categories. You couldn’t get services for children without those labels, and so I don’t want to throw out the idea of categories, but the labels can be limiting as judgments are made. Determining intelligence is a complicated matter, and labeling can be a simple matter, too simple. We have no trouble with the label “left handed.” However, saying someone is “lower middle class” can be a different story.
Numerous studies have been made regarding labeling. Two graduate students, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, set out to show that the recipe for academic achievement requires more than raw intellect and lots of schooling. They kept the details of their plan a secret and told teachers that the test they administered was designed to identify which students would improve academically over the coming year. They called these students “academic bloomers.” The test was really an IQ measure with separate versions for each school grade and had nothing to do with academic blooming. Rosenthal and Jacobson recorded all the scores and then chose a random sampling of children and labeled them “academic bloomers.”
The “academic bloomers” in reality should not have had any more success than the other students. But the results at the end of the year showed that they did. They outperformed their peers by a 10 to 15 IQ points. Four of every five bloomers experienced at least a 10-point improvement, but only half the non-bloomers improved their score by 10 points or more. Teachers admitted that during the year, they praised the bloomers for their successes, over looked their failures, and devoted plenty of time and energy to ensuring they would fulfill that label of blooming.
There are some lessons in here, I’m sure. Are you allowing yourself to be a “bloomer”?


Friday, May 24, 2013

The Spider's Web

It was a typical early summer morning in West Seattle. A container ship foghorn woke me about 4:50 with its low bass “Who-o-o-o-.” I didn’t mind and waited for the Ferryboat’s able reply. Three short blasts. 

I thought about the movement that had originated the sound. How that action coursed through the air and was then received by my eardrums. We are amazing creatures!

It’s like the spider’s web on mute. That spider spins an intricate web (you could write a book—books—about the process) and waits for the message. She’s really smart for she can recognize who’s calling. The breeze jiggles the web. No response. But the moment a meal appears, she acts.

Our bodies are constantly bombarded with messages and we long ago learned to sort through them, ignoring most and paying attention to the important ones. At least I hope that’s what I’m doing. For I live in a web, fine invisible lines connected to every part of my life. I call them energy fields. (I have to call them something. Try not naming things. Just try!) As the spider’s web is necessary to survive, so is ours. And here I have to drop the analogy as it’s getting thin.

Friday, May 17, 2013

High School

I recently read an article in The Week (April 26, 2013) which suggested we’re still stuck in high school. When I think of traffic snarls and the TV news, I’m not surprised. When I think about high school, I’m convinced. High school does something to us, it’s our first real template for adult action.

Most studies of personal growth focus on the early years, zero to three. Those are the years when our sensory systems of seeing and hearing are developing and many believed that all functions developed in the same manner. But that’s not the way in which the more sophisticated functions work in executive function and emotional regulation. Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist, says if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in adolescent years. (And those of you with adolescents are saying, “Tell me about it…”) Steinberg says our self-image from those years is adhesive, so too our preferences. Why at 60, he wonders, is he still listening to the Allman Brothers?

It’s all about our brains, really. Just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—that part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—gets very busy. This activity allows young adults the intellectual capacity to identify a notion of a self. However, at the same time, that prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished developing. It’s still working, adding myelin (a substance that speeds up and improves neural connections), and until it completes that wiring—in our mid-twenties—the more primitive, emotional parts of the brain have the greater influence. That’s when we’re all in high school. Now we know why adolescents have problems self-regulating and are so dramatic. Everything is more intense. There is more dopamine activity going on at that time than at any other time in the human cycle.

If all of this is true, and the scientists would have us believe it is, Jennifer Senior, the author of the article, claims most American high schools are sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents. Robert Faris, a sociologist, says it’s like putting people in a large box without any clear predetermined way of sorting status. And status is what it’s all about. Who am I? Where do I fit? Do I belong? Kids create the hierarchies and too often from the crudest common denominator kind of stuff like looks, clothes, and sports abilities. Brene Brown of the University of Houston says most of us opt for one of three possible strategies for the pain. One, we move away and hide. Two, we move toward it and become “people pleasers.” Three, we move against it by using shame and aggression. She believes that whichever method you chose, it becomes your modus operandi for life.

In our adolescence, we were quite sure we knew what reality was. I know I did, but the truth is I didn’t have a clue, was blind and didn’t know I was. What I really had was a story I told myself.

Maybe we can be grateful for all that adolescent angst. We did learn to cope. And perhaps some of the worst of adult America looks like a replay of high school because it’s populated by people who formed their identities in American high schools. Makes it possible to have a little compassion for those so damaged by their experience they’ve not been able to leave it behind or to write a new story and move on. And by the way, have you gone to your high school reunions?

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Handyman

My handyman just finished his chores. I gave him his check and we stood in the doorway and chatted. He’s so sweet. I know little about him except that he’s married. I think they have a baby for I often hear one in the background when I call him. Makes me think that the news is (and has been) lying to me for years, or at least presenting a very prejudiced view of the world.

If it weren’t for the people who are actually IN my life, I’d have a twisted view of humankind that’s for sure. “Breaking news,” they gleefully tell me and then bring up obscure pictures of a crime happening somewhere. It’s often not even in my locality. There are probably any numbers of shootings or robberies, but this happens to be either the one that’s handy and the TV truck could get to before the broadcast, or it’s a very exciting one—who cares from where. That’s not news. That’s gossip as far as I’m concerned. I come away depressed at the condition of the world.

And then my handyman comes to make a repair. Or a stranger on the street catches my elbow as I stumble over a broken piece of sidewalk. What if the news broadcasters were required to present a fair picture of what is really happening in the world? At least one good report for every bad. That might get us closer to the truth. Only just closer, for I believe that for every “baddie” there are at least ten, maybe twenty “goodies” out there. I know my handyman is one of them.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Learning Curve

I have no idea where all those educators and OD people got the words “learning curve.” Curves I can handle. Got lots of those and learned long ago how to dress them. And in a car, I’m pretty good. I’ve done the Amalfi Coast in a rented VW, all those tunnels and winding roads. And Mexican mountains. No problem. But this learning business. You’d think at my ripe age I’d have some tricks, some ways to perhaps cheat or beat the system. No such luck. Seems like every time there’s something new, I’m stuck at step one without the proverbial paddle (my clichés may not work, but you get the point). No curves when it comes to learning. For me, it’s more like a treacherous rock climb up El Capitan without ropes.

I have a computer, cell phone (that I tell no one about and keep only for emergencies), and a television with the DVD stuff. I Skype, have a Facebook account and do LinkedIn. So I thought I was doing pretty good. My grandchildren are impressed, but then they love me. And then I decided I needed a new computer. This was not El Capitan. This was Everest. I’m waiting for the computer guru to come and help me as I am lost. If I ever surface, you’ll hear from me. In the meantime, please do what you can for me, light a candle, kill a chicken, pray, whatever, for I need all the help I can get.

I wouldn’t mind all the effort if I knew that from now on it would be clear sailing in the learning department for me. But there’s no guarantee. I’d better keep the ropes and carabineers handy. You never know.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Covert Action

I don’t remember ever doing what I did yesterday afternoon. I feel my face flush with embarrassment just thinking about it. I was in a dreadful hurry, the clock ticking away, when I remembered I had to get a birthday card and I needed it NOW. There was a Target store nearby so I parked and raced toward it. As soon as I entered, I saw her, a woman I did not want to see. She’s a lovely woman, a writer like me, an old hippie desperately clinging to her old hippie ways, but she talks, and talks, and talks, and half the time I’m not sure what she’s talking about. And I was in a hurry. 

I thought about the PBS series I had enjoyed watching, an English thing about spies. How did they go about not being seen? I raised my coat collar, turned my back, pulled my phone out and used it to hide my face. I sneaked further into the store and saw her ahead of me. I watched her back until she disappeared around a corner. Carefully, looking both ways, I made my way to the card section. I thought about buying a hat or scarf to hide my identity, but with the problem of time, gave it up. I scampered to the express lane, again sneaking glances, checked out, and made it to my car. Whew!

My relief was short-lived as I pulled out of the parking lot. I thought about this older woman, no husband, no lover, no family, desperate to make friends, still locked in an old hippie style of dress, her long grey locks hanging limply beside her pale cheeks. Her old tie-die blouse peeking out from the cardigan. I could have at least said hello. Maybe this time she’d have shut up. Maybe…


Friday, April 19, 2013

Fathers and Mothers

 I got an email recently from a friend. He wanted me to know his father had died. It was a blessing really, for his father had been ill a long time and his mind had been “iffy” for even longer. My friend said he hardly knew his father, had never  been close, but he was sad and shocked at his depth of grief.

My mother never got along with her mother. Throughout my childhood I knew that when mother got a letter from grandma, it meant several teary days. And yet, when grandma died, my mother grieved. When my father died I felt suddenly naked in the world, as if some protection I’d hardly known was there had disappeared. When my mother died I was surprised at my reaction. I’d always been her mother, her confidant, her support, and yet at her death I felt like an orphan.

I’m not surprised. My friend’s FATHER had died. My mother’s MOTHER had died. We live with more icons than we realize, those figures Jung wrote about. They seem to draw from history, from all the civilizations throughout time. Primal figures. Mother. Father. Regardless of what they were in living form, they were representative of the great iconic MOTHER and FATHER. Those images we hold as our nurturer and protector.

What strange creatures, we humans are. But how lovely that we are—human, for it certainly keeps life interesting.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Daddy’s School

My father (Daddy) loved telling stories about his family. And we loved hearing them. This was a favorite.
My father’s father, (Ludvig), was a Lutheran minister with country parishes in South Dakota. He’d immigrated from Hamar, Norway at age eighteen, as he wanted to be a minister. That wouldn’t have been a possibility in Norway for some reason I never figured out. The story of his arrival and early years here are inspiring, but that’s not where I’m heading with this today. Grandpa was also head of the local School Board in their county and responsible for the hiring and firing of teachers and he took this job seriously. He seemed to feel the need to be a leader in their community; owned the first automobile in the county. Was on all kinds of boards and committees. They owned a farm and Grandpa kept his boys busy. I think he took everything rather seriously. (Daddy thought so too.) 

Most of the teachers were young; many were recent high school graduates with little or no experience. South Dakota was not exactly an easy place to be living in those days. The family farm near Webster, South Dakota on a winter's day 1896.

 Parents took turns boarding the teachers in their homes, a month at a time. When Daddy was six years old and a first-grader, the teacher in their one-room school was a very pretty young woman. Daddy said he looked forward with a combination of excitement and dread for the time when his family was to board her. She would share the attic bedroom where Daddy slept. She’d be nearby, but she’d see him in his nightdress, a source of great embarrassment for him. I’m sure with Grandpa hiring the teachers, they all spoke Norwegian, for this was what Daddy called “Scandahoovian country.” English was spoken along with Norwegian in Daddy’s home for my Grandmother (Laura) had been here since age one and was fluent in both languages. Grandpa never got rid of his strong Norwegian accent. I don’t think he really tried, as he was proud of his heritage. I loved hearing him sing in Norwegian, and Daddy said he chanted the church liturgy as he had a nice singing voice.

Farmers were responsible for their children’s schooling and all donated materials and built a one-room schoolhouse. It had a pot-bellied stove and they supplied the wood for heat, as the winters were bitterly cold. The teacher had to come early to get the fire going and warm the building. Children not only had to be sure they did their schoolwork. They had to see that the schoolhouse was taken care of, cleaned and supplied with wood for heat. There was no janitor, no cleaning services. I’m sure they used slates for writing, as paper was probably “dear” and pens and ink as well. I wonder what books they used as early readers were not available in those days. I do know that when Daddy started first grade he was reading books from his parents’ library. Said he was working on The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. My grandparents bought the inexpensive library versions of the books and I have several on my bookshelves, all obviously have been heavily used. I love those old books. But back to my story.

Grandmother made sure all of her children learned to read before they entered their one-room school, and Daddy said he remembers helping older children with their lessons. Daddy’s first year, his teacher was a young woman, a pretty young woman. She was doing very well and had no serious problems until winter began. In the wintertime, the young men on the farms had little to do, and so they went back to school. So here was this pretty young woman, probably only twenty years old, with young male students who were that age and older. And the young men were all “sweet” on her. She was successful in rebuffing their advances, but one afternoon, she went to the outdoor “privy”, stepped inside and closed the door. The young men immediately tipped it over, door side down and all ran away. Pandemonium. Finally, a rescue was made, the young woman went to the house where she was boarding (my father’s home), packed her bags and left the very next day.

Grandpa quickly hired the next teacher, this time a man. Daddy said the man arrived and the first thing he did, after welcoming the children, was to tell the young men they had to leave. All went except for one, the oldest and largest. He told the teacher, “You’ll have to make me go.” The teacher, a much smaller man, knew this would be his most crucial test. He took a deep breath, took off his coat, and told the fellow to step outside. Daddy said the kids all rushed for the windows and watched the fight. The young man was larger and stronger than the teacher, but the teacher was very determined. His job was on the line. It didn’t take long. When the fight was over, the young man started for home. The teacher came inside, put on his coat, and called the classes to order. There were no further problems.

I think about the education those children received in that little one-room schoolhouse. It was probably cozy and smelly; little pot-bellied stove belching smoke, a cloakroom that smelled of wet wool and mucky galoshes, left over lunches, and warm little bodies. A one-room schoolhouse with limited supplies. No fancy science labs there. No gymnasium. Art and music only if the teacher was so inclined. Teachers with little training. It probably ended with grade six, maybe eight. For high school, Daddy and his siblings had to go to boarding school in a nearby town. Yet Daddy and all his brothers went on to college and all did well. They read books in those days, serious books, and talked about them. Everyone knew the importance of an education. In the evenings after dinner, Grandpa had the children do their schoolwork and then read stories out of the Bible. Daddy said they all hid magazines in their Bibles. I wonder if Grandpa knew about those magazines. Daddy said his father was a hard taskmaster when it came to raising boys. But I was sure Grandpa knew and allowed. I knew a Grandpa who was retired from preaching and raising boys. He was sweet, and permissive. After all, he’d been a boy once himself. When we lived with them for that short time, you could set your watch by the times that Grandpa came in for his coffee and “a bit of something sweet.” He’d give me a sugar cube to hold on my tongue, and then let me sip coffee through it. Delicious. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say. I never did.

I loved these tales. They were like out of storybooks for me, out of a time long past, a way of living I could only imagine. I wish my mother had told more of her stories. She did tell a few. But that’s a different post…

Dear friend Jennifer Mackley surprised me by putting together a book of my first year’s blogs. Then she peppered the pages with photos from my Mother’s old photo albums. Here is the link if anyone is interested. She titled the book Quilting Reflections:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Secret Codes

I was having a soy latte with my friends at Green Lake—Peg, Tom, Mary Mc, and Smokey. I was telling them of a wonderful NOVA program I’d seen about dogs. “There’s this woman in the Netherlands whose dog recognizes hundreds of names.” I looked at Smokey. “How many does he have?”

“Two,” Tom said. “His name and…” He leaned over and whispered, “Squirrel.”

Smokey jumped up, eyes alert, ears at attention, and barked.

When my husband was little his parents spelled out “ice cream.” Little Dick soon learned what that meant. So Vi started using b-e-a-n-s to represent a treat. Didn’t take long before little Dick let them know, “I like b-n-s.” Busted.

I’m thinking of all those codes we use when we speak. When my eldest son was a teenager, “It’s okay,” meant he really liked it. My daughter’s, “I’m fine,” meant leave me alone. Bill’s was “I’ll handle it.” Doug just raised his hand, “Butt out.” Didn’t take a lot of talking to get the message across. We were a rather quiet family and had few arguments. I wondered about those families that talked and talked. I hoped their arguing was a way to say I care, just as our silences spoke loudly of our respect and trust.

While reading Roddy Doyle’s book The Snapper, I constantly felt anger at how the father spoke to his daughter. Nothing but put-downs and insults. And then, in the very end of the book he made a tiny gesture and I burst into tears. He loved her! And she knew it. Their language was that of their working-class Irish, a hard way of speaking that had grown out of centuries of hardscrabble living. For me, it was like visiting a foreign country.

Then while reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, I came across this on page 296. “You are not the first man to miss a woman’s more subtle communications,” said the Major. “They think they are waving when we see only the calm sea, and pretty soon everybody drowns.” Ah yes, subtle communications.

I started out writing this blog hoping to find some way for us all to understand each other, have a kind of dictionary like those English/French ones. Eliminate all the misunderstandings. But then I thought of how boring and shallow our conversations would be. Better to let us all have our codes and spend our lives figuring them out. Does keep us busy and allows for all kinds of misunderstandings, which will lead to long conversations filled with all manner of explanations.  Let’s just keep talking.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Baby Sitters

Children didn’t travel when I was a girl. Our parents gleefully packed their bags and kissed us goodbye and we were left to the mercy of our baby sitters.

My worst memory is of a trip my parents made to Mexico early one summer. “We’ll bring you huaraches,” mother said. “Now be good.”

Somewhere, my parents had heard of the “W” family and had hired them to care for my sister and me for the two weeks that turned out to feel like two centuries.

The family moved in—a mother who cooked cabbage all day, a father who walked about in his smelly socks, a twelve-year old boy called Junior who kept finding snakes near the lake, and a grandmother who once had been huge, but now whose skin sagged horribly. She belched and farted with no apologies. I was horrified—prissy little snob that I was.

My mother left a well-stocked pantry and it looked as if the “W” family intended to clean it out. Mrs. W was impressed with our new kitchen. It had everything. Dishes all matched, pans matched as well. And there was even a brand new mixing machine. She refused to use it as it was “mechanical” and she feared those gadgets were bewitched.

I spent my days playing Robin Hood and Maid Marion with some of the summer kids. These were families who moved into their cottages for the summer season. The kids were boys my age and some older so water polo had a tendency to get rough. One of the rules was they could hold you under as long as the ball was hidden. The boys grabbed my braids, stuck the ball between their knees and held me under until I was near death. But I never complained. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. We also played mumblypeg. When explaining the rules to me, Burt said, “You place the knife like this (as he laid an open hunting knife flat on the palm of his hand). Then you toss it like this (as he tossed it in a way that had it flip and fall blade first into the ground). And if it doesn’t land right, the loser picks a matchstick out of the dirt with her teeth.” My teeth were gritty the entire summer.

My sister was younger and played with her friends. We’d meet at noon when we sneaked into the kitchen to get something to eat. However at dinner time there was no avoiding that family. Mrs. W was concerned about eating in the dining room, but we always ate in the dining room as mother was trying to raise her daughters to be ladies and have manners. And as that was an endless job we always ate in the dining room. Grandma W plunked her sagging body onto one of mother’s ladder-back chairs and proceeded to eat everything in sight. Mother would have loved serving Junior as he ate two and three helpings of everything.  Mother was a marvelous cook and my sister and I were “picky” eaters. What Mrs. W brought forth was amazingly tasty and her family thoroughly enjoyed their meals. They had loud voices, big laughs, and thought nothing of waving the silverware about in the air.

Mother’s laundry room in the basement was a marvel to them. Daddy had built all kinds of cupboards and storage areas. I couldn’t believe that they might not have a washing machine. Didn’t everyone have one? But they didn’t. They didn’t even have electricity. That helped explain the rumpled look they all had. So everyday they did laundry. One morning, the Grandma asked my sister and me to hang her clean laundry outside to dry. Her petticoats were like pup tents, her nightgown like that tent they put up for weddings. But best of all were her underpants. They were made of soft cotton and trimmed with worn lace. You could tell they were old for you could almost see through the fabric. The bottom was split open so she could sit on the toilet without pulling them down. Amazing! We invited all the kids to come and see. It was the hit of the season.

Mother and Daddy finally returned with huaraches. “How’d it go?” Mother asked Mrs. W.

“Them girls of yours is angels,” she said.

My sister and I smiled sweetly. We had survived. But I remember feeling a tinge of guilt. When I really looked at Mrs. W, I saw she meant it. They’d all had a wonderful time while I’d spent the two weeks making fun of them behind their backs.

I blush now when I think of what a little snob I was. This was a family doing the best they could in the worst depression the country had ever known. Mrs. W was being as creative as she could to make interesting meals with very little. Mr. W had lost his job and feared he lacked the skills to find another. The Grandma was bravely facing her illness and aging.

Mother’s pantry must have looked like manna from heaven to them. Who knows what they had been going through? My parents had seen the W family’s need, looked into their hearts at their purity and simplicity, and had found a way to help, a way that allowed the W family to maintain their dignity. My parents knew their daughters were sturdy and could use a few lessons in gratitude and humility, obviously lessons long past due.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Best Friends

It was 1935 and another new school for me. I was in the fifth grade, the youngest in the class. Big challenge for as much as I loved having friends, I was shy. The first day, the teacher introduced me to the class as one of the new girls. There was another.  She was tall, rather plump, and had frizzy red hair. Betty B.

“Let’s be friends,” she said and she took my hand. It was as simple as that. And we were. Best Friends Forever. She was different from any other girl I had ever known. Her father had been an officer in the navy and he was now retired and trying to sell insurance in our small town. Betty had grown up mostly in China. She’d had a Chinese amah (nanny) and had traveled the world. She’d even seen a real volcano. I was in awe.

The following week, I got a second-best friend. David. He came by every day to walk me to school. He insisted on carrying my books and protected me from all the other boys. During recess we played a game called “jail.” (A game my great granddaughter says she plays during recess.) It consists of the boys chasing the girls, catching them, putting them in jail, only to have the girls escape and be caught all over again. David always caught me, and I always escaped. I had mixed feelings about him, on the one hand, pleased that he liked me, on the other embarrassed that he fussed over me. Oh, the agony of growing up.

But Betty was my best friend and what interested me the most were her toys. Betty didn’t have dolls and dollhouses like I did. She had a set of Chinese torture methods, little bamboo carvings of the death of a thousand cuts, the blinding with burning rice (something done primarily to unfaithful women by their husbands, Betty told me), and one that was a tall cage where the man’s head stuck out the top but his feet couldn’t touch the floor. A long slow death. And this was considered fun? She had an Imperial Family set of dolls. You didn’t change their clothes, just their heads. One set of heads had beautiful crowns; another set was ordinary for every day. There was a little box that held a Japanese doll. In the box were seven little sections each holding a wig, one for each day of the week. She also had the surgical kit from the last ship her father had commanded. The scalpel was dull, but real. We spent hours playing hospital, bandaging my dolls’ arms and legs, pretending to give shots with needle-less syringes.

Betty’s parents (while they lived in China) saw their children only when they were ready for bed at night. Betty told about how she and her brother had supper in the nursery. After being bathed and put into a nightgown, Betty was paraded into the living room where her parents were dressed for the evening, her father in his navy whites, her mother in a long gown. Betty missed her mother, but she loved the freedom her parents gave her. Most days, the amah took Betty to her home and let her play with her children. Betty loved that.

But our favorite activity was to go into Betty’s brother’s room and check out his things. Phil was much older and gone most of the time, attending the local college. From his ceiling hung beautiful Chinese kites of silk and fine paper. He had two ship models, each about four feet in length. One was a Chinese junk, the other an American naval ship, a copy of the one his father had commanded. You could open the little doors and arrange furniture in the rooms. They were exquisite. But the most interesting was his photo album. Phil was an adolescent when they lived in China and knew all the ways to sneak out of the compound. His pictures were taken in the town square—the public executions. I still get chills when I think of one. The knife blade is a grey blur as it slices through the upper right corner of the photo. The man’s head is resting against his chest. Lots of nightmares for me.

We moved and I lost David was replaced by other boys. Betty and I corresponded by letter. Eventually Betty’s father was called back into service. Her mother died and in 1941, Betty was evacuated from Manila with nowhere to go. We had her come to us for the summer. I remember her talking about a war that was coming. “Oh,” I said. “We don’t want war.” She looked at me and said, “What do you know about the world in your smug little Wisconsin.” Obviously very little. Betty’s father ended up in Washington D.C. and was able to establish a home for her. Over the years I lost her, but in my memory she is as alive as ever, red hair, torture toys, and all.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Strange Ones

Granddaughters Chelsea and Sloane called her the “talking lady.” She was tall and slim and wore long flowing skirts, sometimes several, one over the other. She draped her shoulders with a scarf and wore another around her head, trying to keep her unruly gray hair in place. A canvas satchel hung over her shoulders and it bulged with strange lumps. And in her hand was an open book, one of those blank books you buy for journaling. As she walked she held the open book in front of her lips and spoke into it.

I saw her often in the California suburb I lived in. She seemed to walk everywhere. One early morning, I stopped in at the local McDonald’s to have their sausage egg muffin. I took a seat beside the window and noticed her in the booth opposite me. She had several open books on the table along with a number of pens–red, green, and black. She was writing and changed pens often. I could see the words covering the pages were closely spaced. Her coffee was black in a Styrofoam cup. At one point she looked up and saw me. I looked back, deep into her eyes. We connected, truly saw each other, then she dropped her pen, scrambled out of the booth, and raced out of the restaurant.

I called a young attendant over and asked him not to disturb her things.

“Oh,” he said. “We all know her. She’ll be back. Don’t worry, I won’t let nothing disturb her things.”

I thought of all the other strange people I’d seen—the angry man at the bus stop. He was there every day; dressed in a suit, clean shaven, and carrying a leather notebook. He stood quietly until the bus stopped. The moment the door opened he started. His arm lifted and with an accusing finger pointed directly at the driver, he began to shout. It sounded like gibberish with an occasional four-letter word thrown in. People disgorged from the bus and more people got on. No one seemed to notice him. The minute the doors closed he quieted, opened his notebook and wrote. 

It was like the fat boy on the street corner of Bridge Street when I was young. He always stood on the corner opposite the Post Office, rocking back and forth, sucking his thumb. Often, his pants were wet. I watched him from the safety of the back seat of the car. People walked about their business and no one noticed him, or seemed to. I asked my father about him and he explained that he was a boy who would never grow up, that he would remain a child always and we must be kind.

I think of the “talking lady” who doesn’t want to be noticed and of the others—all those who don’t fit within the norm. The thinking seems to be that if we don’t notice they won’t exist. But they do. They are in our world. They are our people, part of our family—the family of humankind. I have a feeling the “talking lady” knows that and is recording all that she sees in her book. The guy at the bus stop too. He’s making notes. I’ve been told that when one enters the Pearly Gates, St. Peter looks in a book to determine where we will go. I wonder who has been gathering the data for that book? Could it be the “talking lady,” or the guy at the bus stop, or my rocking boy? God’s spies?

Friday, March 8, 2013


            I have a birthday this month and I won’t tell you my age, but will give you a hint. It’s a number the Chinese consider very lucky and there are two of them, and if you put them on their side, you get infinity—and beyond.  Anyway, birthdays always remind me of gifts and so here are some.
When my eldest son John was eighteen months old, he was “gifted” with a new sister. She was adorable. And that’s not just my prejudice. My father claimed there was one beautiful baby born, and every mother had it. John had been that beautiful baby once, and now he had a sister. When I took the children out for a walk, people stopped us on the street to rave about the “beautiful baby.” John always stood politely by. One day, we went for a walk with my father. Later that day, he returned with gifts. He had a token gift for Mary, but a box for John. “Open it,” he said, and John did. There was a sheriff’s hat, a badge, and a red bandana. Now John always wore hats. We had no idea why, for his father never wore one. But John had a hat for every occasion. When Howdy Doody was on, John wore his Howdy Doody hat. Next was Cowboy Bob, and John raced into his bedroom to retrieve his cowboy hat. He had a mailman’s cap, fireman’s helmet, football helmet, baseball cap, a whole repertoire of hats.
            John was delighted with what was in the box and my father had him put on the hat, badge, and bandana. “Let’s take another walk,” he said. While I bundled up the baby, my father and John had a whispered conversation. Soon we were on the sidewalk and a woman came up to us. “What a beautiful baby,” she said. My father nudged John who shyly spoke up and pointed to his chest. “Sheriff’s badge,” he said. The woman immediately turned to him. “What a nice badge.” She then said nice things about his being the big brother to this beautiful baby. I realized. John would have no need of envy now, for my father had given him a priceless gift, one of personal value and belonging. John was no longer a beautiful baby. He was now the big brother,  a role he has played graciously.
That Mary, who grew up to be a beautiful person, gave me many gifts. One of my favorites was when she was grown and on her own, I loved going to visit her and take her to lunch and dinner. It was such a treat for me to pick up the tab. Several years after she was married, I visited. We went to lunch and when the check was delivered, I reached for it. But Mary got there first. “No, no,” I said. “My treat.”
            She smiled sweetly and said, “No, Mom. Let me have the blessing.”
            A precious gift to me.

Son Bill gave me many gifts, but my favorite was one about organizing, one of my weakest attributes. Bill was an expert. He had set me up with a new organizing system for my learning center, one he had used successfully on some work he’d done in New York. After several weeks on one of our calls, he asked how it was going. “It’s not,” I said. “The system doesn’t work.”
Bill laughed. “Oh, the system works. You don’t.”
Oh, he was so right.
My youngest son Doug is amazing. He is the most able at living in the present of anyone I know. I started learning from him when he was a teenager. He could see the writing on the wall and would tell me about it in no uncertain terms, calling my attention to truths and facts I had been ignoring (I am the Queen of that famous river Denial). One of the best gifts was when he was about nineteen. I had been asked to do a writing assignment, a rather important one, and didn’t know if I could do it. I called him and was commiserating about the project. “I’m not sure I’m good enough for this,” I whined. “Maybe I should decline.”
His response was quick. “Bullshit, Mom. You can. Just do it.”
I straightened up, thanked him, and began to work.
A gift from my mother, one reluctantly received, came when I was in high school. I was with Mother at the church one Sunday when they were asking for volunteers to set up the community room for a tea. “Oh, Ruth would love to do that.”
I groaned, and one of the women spoke up. “Do you think she can?”
My Mother smiled and patted my knee. “Oh, yes. Ruth can do anything.” And she believed that, lived her life as if that were so. More than once, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps to be that girl for my Mother. Truly, a gift to me.
My father’s gifts are too numerous to even recall. He raised me to be a warrior and I am truly grateful for his love and belief in me.
I am blessed with friends who constantly are gifting me with insightful conversations, tasty morsels for my dinner, and calls and emails just to be in touch. I am truly grateful
            Re-gifting is not a new practice. It’s what we did with the three extra silver gravy boats we got as wedding gifts. Many years ago, I found a re-gift that still brings tears to my eyes. I read this in a McCall’s magazine, probably in the 1950s. I cut it out and have saved it these many years. (Don’t know who to acknowledge and thank for the magazine article.)
“In late 1864 a mother wrote a letter to her sixteen-year-old son coming home from four years in the Confederate Army. Randolph Helm had a ‘dark bitterness’ in his soul, he had told his mother, having known war too young and too long. Fifty-five years later the letter was used again, when Randolph’s nephew returned from World War I. It was used a third time when a member of the family came back from Iwo Jima and Okinawa. ‘She put rivets in her tenderness,’ this boy said. The letter is as fresh today as it was when Grandmother Helm wrote it nearly 100 years ago.
            “A winter day, 1864. Dear son, I’m glad you’re coming home. You’ll make it in time for spring plowing. If General Lee offers you a mule, don’t be proud. You take it.
            “What makes you think I won’t remember you? If you’d been away fifty years I’d remember. I don’t reckon you eat your vittles any different when you’re hungry and still squirm when you say your prayers ‘sif you had fire in your pants.
            “You got a deal of bitterness stored up in you for sixteen years. Yes, people lied and cheated and sold each other out, but they’ve been doing it sence the days of Eden. Just you see that you don’t waste yourself hating em. You see, they never laid in ditches covered with water till they wondered if all the world was under water. They never froze till they wondered if all the fire in the world had burned out. They never waited in the dark of night till they wondered if all the light in the world had blown out. They never starved and thirsted and froze and hated and burned and willed to die for something they believed. These things they never done, and you must be easy with em.
            “Now, as I’ve told you before, God’s still up there where He’s always been, and He’ll have His way. You watch.
            “I’m standing now at the winder looking out at the stars. Just you and God and me. I’ve put your hand in His, and I’m saying a prayer. I’ll write it out so’s you’ll know. (He don’t need to have it writ.) God, here he is, and don’t be too easy on him. Because he’s fit a war and lost an arm he mustn’t get to thinking his work’s done. He’s young and don’t know that work heals and so does forgiving. His dark bitterness won’t get him nothing. Hold his hand, will You, till he finds the light.  Now good night, my son, good night. Your mother, Nancy Helm”
            If you’ve been reading my blog, just know that you are a wonderful gift to me. Thank you.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dangerous Neighborhoods

Growing up in small town America felt very safe. My friends and I strolled around Chippewa Falls with no fear. There were no dangerous neighborhoods there, only dangerous places. One tavern in particular was famous for its brawls. My father said it was not a place for ladies. All we had in those days was our reputation, once sullied, never again regained. And so my friends and I stayed clear of brawling taverns.

So you can imagine my shock when in college I was chased one evening while walking back to the sorority house. Our housemother had warned us that there was a rapist loose in the neighborhood and we were never to be out alone at night. We were to call her and she’d pick us up. But I’d left the library in a hurry and forgot about calling and here some guy in dark clothes was following me. I’d seen him lurking under the awning outside the Christian Fellowship Community Hall. I continued walking and soon heard footsteps behind me. I peeked. It was the guy. I started walking faster. He did too and soon I was racing with him chasing me. I ran into the middle of the street praying, hoping someone would see me. But no one did. Finally, I spotted the fraternity house of the fellow I was dating. I raced into the house and plunked down into a chair, my heart beating wildly. “Being chased,” I managed to blurt out, and the house emptied as the fellows ran into the street. They didn’t find anyone, but they walked me to the sorority house and then serenaded us for an hour. All’s well that ends well. But I had learned there are truly dangerous neighborhoods.

When I lived in Atlanta (1956), it felt in some ways that the entire city was a dangerous neighborhood. There were all these rules and regulations about what you could do where, when, and with whom. For instance, you couldn’t sit at a table with any, who in those days were called “colored.” However, you could stand with them, even in crowded elevators. “Colored” had to sit in the balcony at the theaters. When the movie Hamlet was showing, one of the “colored” professors borrowed her white friend’s children. With them in tow, she looked like a nanny and got to sit on the main floor. Such a crazy business. “Passing” was an interesting phenomenon. That meant that a light-colored person could “pass” as white. I had a neighbor who bragged about her southern blood. She would never use a bathroom that a “colored” person used. Never. In fact, she boasted that she and her mother had checked out of a hotel in San Francisco when they learned that “colored” people had rooms there. One evening, at a dinner party in a fancy Peachtree Street hotel in Buckhead (a white suburb), I happened to go into the ladies’ room and there was my neighbor. As I entered, a beautiful woman exited one of the stalls. I could tell she was “passing.”  When she left the room, I mentioned this to my neighbor and asked how she could explain her being in the same bathroom. She was flustered and waved her hands about. “Oh…oh…that’s just different.” As I said, the whole city was caught up in this crazy business, a truly dangerous neighborhood for all.

While still living in Atlanta, we took a trip to Milwaukee to see my parents. Dick decided to drive through Chicago to give the children an opportunity to see the city instead of the freeways that surrounded it. We were driving through south Chicago when someone threw a rock at the car. We were shocked. And then another rock came and another and someone shouted, “Go home, Georgia cracker!” We got away as quickly as possible, but it left us all stunned. Those people throwing the rocks didn’t know us, what we thought, how we lived, and yet they had formed an opinion about us. I had a tiny understanding (and so did my young children) of what it must be like to be dark skinned in a segregated city. If this nonsense was to continue, I despaired for mankind.

While living in Mount Lebanon , a suburb of Pittsburgh, in the early 1960s, I joined with five other women to do something about civil rights. We chose an interesting area of Pittsburgh, a mixed neighborhood with about 60% white, 40% “black” (the word we used then), and all poor. The neighborhood was filled with beautiful old Victorian town houses, all beginning to show their years. We talked the Presbyterian Synod into renting a storefront space for us. We named it The Meeting Place and it was truly that. There were activities all day long and well into the evening. Someone had organized a teen group and we took turns being there so the parents could relax and know that no “hanky-panky” was going on. One evening, as I herded the kids out and prepared to close up, I laid my purse and car keys on the table. One of the boys (a tall sixteen-year old) grabbed the keys. Two boys joined him and they began to tease me about taking me for a ride. I looked at these boys. Cute, full of life, ready for an adventure and I knew I was responsible for what would happen. I pulled up the “mother” inside of me—that female tiger that rises whenever her kids are in danger. I held out my hand and pointed to it. There was a moment, one of those times that seems to freeze. Then the boy laughed as he dropped the keys into my hand. We had escaped a truly “dangerous neighborhood.” From that day on, those boys became my protectors. I wanted to adopt them.

Los Angeles has its share of dangerous neighborhoods. One evening in the early 1980s, I finished leading one of the EST Seminars and met with my logistics team. We had gotten into the habit at the close of a seminar to allow people to ask for someone to walk them to their cars. But this evening, for some reason, I neglected to ask someone to walk with me. Soon everyone was gone and my car was parked in a very dangerous neighborhood. My friend Judy always said I carried “safe” around with me, and I hoped she was right. I was exhausted and all I could think about was getting home. All of a sudden a fellow staggered up beside me. “Lady, how about having a drink?” I turned to look at him. He was just a bit taller than me, but he was huge. His straight black hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, his face broad and ruddy colored. His thick neck disappeared into the broadest shoulders I’d ever seen. He looked like a brick wall. “Sorry,” I said and walked away. He raced up to me. “Oh, Jesus, lady, don’t be afraid of me.” I stopped and looked him in the eye. I was terrified and yet felt oddly compassionate. It was obvious his life was hard, but in some strange way I knew this scenario was up to me and I needed to keep us safe. “I am not afraid. I’m hungry and tired and I’m going home.” I clutched my purse to my chest and walked to my car. I got in, locked the doors, thanked God (literally), and started the car. Suddenly, the front of my car dipped. I looked up. There he was, his arms spread wide, pushing the front of my car to the ground. Again, for the sake of both of us, I felt I had to be in charge. I gunned the engine, put the car in gear, and released the clutch. He leaped out of the way and I drove home. I’d been lucky, but knew I needed to be more careful. Like a cat, that mother tiger has only so many lives.

I’ve been in other dangerous neighborhoods. I remember especially some corporate team meetings and a few cocktail parties in Los Angeles and New York City where careers and reputations were on the line. It seems those dangerous neighborhoods are all over the place.

I’m being careful, but there’s one neighborhood I can’t avoid. In Augusten Burrough’s book Dry, he writes about his experiences with alcohol and rehab. One of his counselors is a recovered alcoholic Ph.D. therapist named Rae. During one of their sessions, she advises him, “Think of your head as an unsafe neighborhood; don’t go there alone.” Good advice. Wish me luck.

Friday, February 22, 2013


I love boxes. Those tiny places to hold a stone, a shell, a secret, a precious little heart. And I have quite a collection. I never intended to be a collector. It just happened. One by one they arrived.

What is the fascination? The possibility that there is something inside, something out of sight, private. The excitement of opening it, perhaps to discover a prize, a gift, a memento, or even to find it empty—a world of possibilities. I simply cannot resist them.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Theater

I went to the theater recently with a group of writer friends. A mutual friend was performing in a new play at the Annex Theatre. As the lights dimmed, I gave myself over to that mystical experience and entered the land of make-believe.

There is something quite wonderful that happens in live theater. Movies are entertaining and safe. The makeup and costumes will be just right, every hair in place, each article of clothing just right, all frozen on the screen for all time. (It took a zillion “takes” to be sure that is so.) However, in the theater you never know. These are real people in a real setting and for me, a sense of adventure takes over as the lights dim. Maybe tonight something will happen, something beyond the control of the director or actors. Perhaps there will be some new insight, new interpretation. So when an actor speaks and moves the magic begins.

I did a lot of theater when I was young. In high school I got to play the ingénue, the sweet young thing. Not much talent required doing that for I was sweet and young. My first two years in college, I did theater as well.  Got to play some leads. My favorite was in the play Ladies in Retirement.  This was the role of an older woman. I got to wear a great wig and have lots of makeup. In one scene, I was required to scream. The problem was that I couldn’t. Scream, that is. I know, all women are expected to be able to make loud shrieking noises. I couldn’t, can't. Not exactly sure why (although I do have my theories: my quiet family upbringing, the need to completely let go, weird vocal chords, who knows). I was told I either screamed or the stand-in would take over. I wanted that role, and so I enlisted the help of Alberta. She was on the technical crew and had a scream that could wake the dead. I arranged with her that the lighting on me would be dim as I appeared on the landing, looked below, and raised my hands to my face. At that moment, Alberta let go with a hair-raising scream. It worked, and the director never learned the truth.

My junior year in college, my family moved to Minneapolis, and I was able to enroll in the University of Minnesota. Bit of a shock. In Eau Claire, I’d been a big frog in a little-bitty puddle. But here I was, a junior at this enormous University. No orientation for me, and no way to meet people as I lived at home. For two weeks I wandered about and spoke to no one and no one spoke to me. It was dreadful. Every morning, my father said, “Aren’t you the luckiest girl in the world!” I never told him how unhappy I was and every evening I cried myself to sleep. But I knew I had to do something. Sink or swim.

One evening as I crossed the Mall, I noticed the lights in the basement of the music building. That’s where the theater was. I walked inside and asked who was in charge. Someone directed me down the hall to an office. I opened the door and saw a bald man with the biggest, darkest, kindest eyes I’d ever seen; Doc Whiting, the head of the theater department. He invited me in. “What can I do for you?” he asked, and the next thing I knew I was babbling away, telling him all about it. He took my hand and walked me backstage. “Put her to work,” he said. They did. Saved my life. The theater wasn’t even a minor for me, and most of my professors did not approve of the time I spent doing plays. But I loved it. I was never given any leading parts—I wasn’t even in the same league as the people who were playing major roles –but I got walk-ons and minor roles and lots of technical jobs. One of my favorites was King Lear. I was a sound technician. My friend Helen was lights. By the time we were giving performances, we’d memorized the play. Some evenings, she’s say all the men’s roles, I’d do women’s. then we’d reverse. Another fun play was Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. I had a non-speaking part--a walk-on--and a marvelous costume. It was a pale rose color and had panniers –bustle-like pads at the hips. I was having a fun flirtation with a fellow who was doing lights, an added bonus. In one scene, I was seated on a big pouffy seat on the far right of the stage, my gown spread out at my feet. Suddenly, I had the eerie feeling that the audience was moving. I glanced over to the wings and there was my flirtatious friend with a grip on the hem of my gown, slowly pulling me offstage. I planted my feet firmly to grip the floor and leaned forward. It didn’t help and before I knew it, I was in the wings and in his arms. Fortunately, it was a high school student matinee and no one seemed to notice. Such is the fate of walk-ons.

My most momentous moment on stage was for a senior recital play. Theater majors were required to give a senior recital. This meant they were to pick a one-act play, produce and direct it. A woman I barely knew asked if I’d perform the lead in her senior recital. My ego leaped in and I accepted. A lead! For the male lead, she chose a handsome fellow she was dating. (I’ll call him Hal.) Hal had no theater experience, but he was handsome. We began rehearsals. It was a drama, and in one scene, Hal pulls out a pistol, threatens me, and then fires the gun. (He misses me, tosses the gun, and rushes off stage.) We used a toy gun during rehearsals with Hal promising he knew all about pistols. The evening of the performance arrived and we were ready. Everyone knew their lines and their places. Costumes were great, even makeup. Hal was provided with a pistol. He fitted it with blanks and fired several shots into a large barrel. We were ready.

The play was going well—no missed cues, the audience fully engaged and then we had the gun scene. Hal looked perfect, hair messed, face enraged when he pulled out the pistol. I felt the audience tense. He threatened me, raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. You could hear the click in the quiet room. Nothing happened. A look of panic filled Hal’s face. He pulled again. Another click and silelnce. The quiet of the room now had weight. Hal's hand shook as he again raised the pistol. He squeezed the trigger and a loud click reverberated through the silent room. Suddenly, a voice hollered, “Bang!” The audience roared with laughter. Hal ran off stage. I said my lines and ended the play.

I wanted to die I was so embarrassed. I raced down to the dressing room intending to hide until everyone had gone. But the door opened and Doc Whiting walked in. “You were good, Ruth. Congratuations.” he said.

“What idiot hollered ‘bang?'” I asked.

He smiled. “I did. The audience needed some relief. And you never got out of character. I mean it when I said you were good.” He patted my shoulder. “Now go out and greet your fans. Go on. You’ll survive.” And I did.

My happiest, most amazing experience was a tour. The Department of Arts and Lectures at the University wanted to try an experiment. (This was 1946.) The play was “Blythe Spirit” by Noel Coward. I played the role of the maid who happened to be a “familiar.” Got to sing “I’ll Be Loving You Always” with a Cockney accent. I was also in charge of properties—we all had dual roles. The sets were piled into a big truck, the six actors in one car, and off we went for our one-night stands, to small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. My per diem was $5/day. At the end of the tour I had to borrow money to get home. We were a success, so much so that they still do tours, only now they do the Mediterranean, Japan, and Europe. Born thirty years too soon, the story of my life.

My last theater adventure was Little Theater my first year out of college. I was teaching in a small town in Wisconsin and joined the theater to give me something to do with my evenings and to make friends. The play was "Claudia" and I played lead role of Claudia, a young bride. In the play, she smokes a cigarette and flirts with a fellow, even allows him to kiss her. The play went well and we received rave reviews in the local paper. The following week, I was called into the Superintendent's office. I could tell I was in trouble the minute I saw his face. He didn't even ask me to sit down, but shook the folded newspaper in my face. He was outraged. Here I was, a teacher, a role model to the children, a woman who should have been a paragon of virtue, and I had sullied my reputation by being in a play!

I could feel tears wanting desperately to fall, but I thought about my father and wondered what he'd do. He wouldn't lose his cool, of that I was sure, so I gritted my teeth. I asked if  the Superintendent was familiar with Shakespeare. He was. Did he think those plays were worth doing? He did. Even Edmund's soliloquey in "King Lear?" He agreed. I raised my fist. "Now, gods stand up for bastards!" His mouth dropped open. I turned and left his office. I cried all the way home, sure I'd lost my job. But the following day there was a phone call for me. It was the Superintendent. He apologized. It seems the gods can stand up for teachers as well.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The AID People

In my life they are everywhere and sometimes hard to spot for their disguises are so clever. They’re the AID people –you know, Angels In Disguise.

My darling friend Abbie could spot an angel no matter how clever the disguise. Abbie’s disease (a degenerative muscle problem) had gotten to the point where she was now in a wheelchair. We were best friends. She lived in Camarillo, I lived in South Pasadena  and Abbie loved to come visit. So her husband Peter drove her in to spend weekends with me. This one weekend, I didn’t think to ask about how she’d get back home. Finally, on Sunday I asked if I was to take her home. No, she said. She wanted to spend as much time with me as she could. I could take her to the bus in the morning. Are you sure? I asked. I had my doubts about this, but she insisted. And so early Monday morning I drove to the bus station in Los Angeles. I parked the car and then struggled with the wheelchair (it just barely fit in my little trunk). I finally got it out and opened. Then lifted Abbie into the chair (she was a tiny thing with long blonde hair) and crossed the street and entered the depot. It was a mess as they were rebuilding/redecorating. There was this black rubber moving floor that went up to the second floor where you bought tickets. No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t get the chair to go up on the ramp. I was sweating and muttering, when a very drunk man staggered up to us. “Having a little trouble?” he asked.

I turned away, disgusted with his appearance and smell. But not Abbie. She smiled and held out her arms. “Yes. Could you help?”

The man pushed me aside, grabbed the handles of the chair, turned around and stepped backwards onto the ramp. Up they went with me standing at the bottom open-mouthed. I finally joined them. Abbie thanked the man and he kissed her cheek. He ignored me and staggered away. We went up to the ticket window and Abbie bought her ticket. Then we went to wait for the bus. It arrived and the driver stepped out. He was a big man, with a head of curly blonde hair. I pushed Abbie forward and he reached for her ticket. Then he looked at me. “Your ticket,” he said.

“Oh, I’m not going.”

“Oh, but you have to. She needs to have someone with her.”

And thus began the argument. No matter what Abbie and I said, he was adamant. No handicapped person on his bus without an attendant. Finally, Abbie said, “If I can get on this bus by myself can I go?” He thought a moment and then agreed.

We stood and watched, tears streaming down our faces, as Abbie struggled to crawl up the steps onto the bus. Before she reached the very top, he leaped onto the steps and picked her up. He put her in the front seat by a window. Abbie was a master at spotting the AID people. Takes one to know one.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Swans, Geese, and Eagles

Swans, Geese, and Eagles

Last year when my friend Allison asked if I wanted to see swans, I readily agreed to spend the weekend with her. I’ve not seen many swans in my lifetime, had read about them long before I ever saw one. Not many swans in Wisconsin. As I packed for the weekend, I tried to remember my swan encounters. I remember walking a narrow footpath, pulling my suitcase, on my way to catch a bus to the village of Broadway. I had made reservations at a B&B and was anxious to get there. The footpath was bumpy and I was developing a pain in my upper back, for although I travel lightly, my suitcase was getting heavier by the minute. And then I saw them, four swans, three white and one black. It was like being hit, a wake-up call. Ruth, stop and smell the roses. There are four swans swimming in the River Avon. You’re in England and there’s a lovely pub across the way. All my aches disappeared.

My next memory of swans happened in Norway. I was on a train with my sister, going from Oslo to Bergen for the weekend. It was March and the snow was deep. The scenes were beautiful as we rode along. Suddenly, there was an opening in the forest and I looked down a long ravine to a river below. The trees were black against the pristine snow and at the bottom of the ravine were six swans gliding on the icy blue water. We quickly moved on, but the scene was forever etched in my memory.

And here I was now, in Allison’s car on our way to her home in Skagit County. We left the freeway and were on a county road when I saw some swans. Allison stopped so I could take a picture. These were Trumpeter swans (you know that because of their size, dark bill, and deep honking sound), the largest North American waterfowl, weighing about 28 pounds with a wingspan of six to eight feet. They can live more than 24 years and they mate for life. The male is called a cob (from the Middle English cobbe meaning leader of the pack). The female is a pen and she lays between three and eight eggs each summer. In 1940, the Alaskan bird watchers counted only 69. These birds were on their way to extinction. But people intervened and today the Alaskan birdwatchers claim nearly 13,000 swans nesting there in the summer.

I took my picture of the swans.

This was the first time I’d seen swans out of the water. They moved slowly, awkwardly, one webbed foot carefully placed one after the other. Water is their element. I noticed Allison had a sly smile as we drove away. Within a few minutes she stopped the car and pointed. “Ruth, look off to your right.” At first, I thought it was snow, and then I saw movement. Swans, hundreds of them. Made the hairs on the back of my neck move.

(The volunteer bird counters say there were about 8400 in the County.) They feed on the after-harvest crops, gleaning the fields of carrots, potatoes, corn, berries, etc. When they leave in March, the fields are fertilized and ready for plowing, a good arrangement for all concerned. And they need to fatten up for they will be going back to Siberia to mate and nurture their young, all to be ready to make the long flight again next winter. The whole business left me speechless. (If you want to know more about swans, check out Martha Jordan.) 

The swans would have made my weekend, and then Allison asked if I’d like to see the Snow Geese. I remember reading Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Beautiful story, very sad ending, haunted me for weeks. I had never seen a snow goose and so the chance to see some was enticing. There were books on the coffee table about birds, so I did a little research. These Snow Geese summer in Alaska on Wrangle Island, but they winter here, grazing much as the swans do on the after-harvest veggies. The birders on Wrangle Island recognize the geese who winter here for their heads are dyed a coppery red, due to the ferrous soil in the Skagit Flats. We drove to the Floyd Jones Reserve the next morning and there they were, over 100,000. It boggled my mind.

The geese are beautiful and noisy. Every once in a while, a group would rise and swirl over the crowd. And then a flock came in like a blizzard from the north, circled the group below, and gracefully land to join the others. How do they do it? They never bump into each other or cause any accidents. There were squabbles going on, but never about the flying. It was more over some tender morsel. I could have watched them all day. 

But we didn’t stay all day with the geese as Allison had one more treat in mind. Eagles. Seeing an eagle has always been an event in my life. I remember my father pointing one out when we camped in northern Wisconsin. Such majesty and power. I knew immediately why it was my country’s official bird. I knew about hawks: Rough-legged, Red Tailed, Northern Harriers, Peregrine falcons. But eagles always were special. Still are. I love to see them in flight. But to see them sitting upright in a tree is also magical for me. It’s as if they are some kind of messenger sent just for me, either to give me strength, or to remind me all is well. Lucky this farm family: (Those black dots are eagles--12 of them.)

I am still in awe of all that beauty. I hope the feeling never leaves. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.

Friday, January 25, 2013

String Theory Unraveled

Oh, I wish I’d written it—had the ability to put the thoughts into words and string them together so brilliantly. But I didn’t. I read them in a young Irishman’s novel, copied them out, and then savored them. The author is Paul Murray, a Dublin resident. The book Skippy Dies, page 654.

 “Maybe instead of strings it’s stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories: once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word…”

And in an almost magical kind of way, on the same day I came across Murray’s quote, I found a proposal I’d put together for a course at Antioch College. I called it “The Power of Language.” I know it’s a big segue, to go from superstory string theory to language, but I think language is the bridge between us, the “string” that connects us. In language we create our stories and then put them together. My course wasn’t about grammar, semantics, or the proper use of language. It was about examining language in a new context, that of creating a consensual domain of behavior. The word communicate means “to make common.” And isn’t that what we really want, to understand and be understood? Words in and of themselves have no meaning. They are merely triggers, much like the PLAY button on a tape recorder. Your finger does not start the recorder. If it did, when the recorder broke, you’d take your finger in for repair. It’s the button that triggers the player. It’s the same with words. The word triggers us into coming up with a meaning. Words are merely the symbols we use to carry on our social and business interactions. And we bring our unique interpretations to them.

Our ability to language—to speak, think, and make our thoughts known to others distinguishes us as human beings. We language. Amazing! Think a thought. How did you do that? No one really knows. Even the neurologists are in awe of our minds. Language is a function of being human. Babies do not imitate the sounds of the refrigerator. They take human sounds and forge language for themselves. Even children who are unable to hear will find ways to language. We all know the thrill that comes when the baby begins to speak. But something more profound than just speaking is occurring. A personality is being born. We reveal ourselves in language. We think in language, and organize our thoughts in ways that have been determined by our culture and personal history. Within that culture, that personal history, we each bring our backgrounds and experiences to every situation we find ourselves in. We are an amalgam made up of all of our experiences. We are like libraries of rare and wonderful manuscripts presenting ourselves to the world. We are a collection of stories and events, of opinions and ideas, being expressed in the world all of the time. That’s what makes the idea of the superstory so exciting. We are each of us truly unique—the only one of us in the universe—and that makes our story important. If you didn’t exist, that part of the story would be missing and I would suffer as a result.
Sounds to me like a good reason to look forward to each day. What today is going to come alive, will give me something to weave back into that superstory we are all a part of? So give yourself permission to be who you are, where you are, doing what you are doing. I need you. You’re a vital part of my story.