Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What do kittens, 6 year olds and Irish dancing have in common?

Part II: Six Year Olds

I returned 15 years ago to my childhood home. The one I thought I was leaving behind forever when I got married at the ripe young age of 18. I took Mary Englebriet's advice and didn't look back. Well, that's not really true. When my naval-officer-husband would go on cruise for months at a time, I'd pack up children, and usually a cat and dog, and head for home. The distraction was good for all of us. But then we got stationed in Southern California, it became more and more difficult to spend time in Florida.

As luck would have it, after I'd been divorced for a few years, my higher power, guardian angel or the fickle finger of fate, lined up my astrological stars and pointed me right back home. At that time in my life, it was an easy decision to make. Although I was in essence "going home" I felt in my heart I was moving forward not taking the proverbial step backwards. I didn't know at the time what was in store for me, but I did know, that whatever happenend, I would be okay.

Due to a variety of illnesses combined with the fact that my parents were getting older, I moved home to help care for my mother. She had some brain damage from a stroke-like disorder so I became her voice of sorts. We were still mother and daughter, but we became companions and, at times, a solid block of female persuasion in a house dominated by my father's left-brain dogmatism.

During those years, I not only cared for things around the house, I worked as a Nanny, participated in several church activities, made quilts and, for the most part, acted like a grown up. That's what responsible women do, right? I was a grown up and enjoyed acting like one - most of the time.

However, my inner child has never been very far from the surface of my psyche. My therapist told me recently, that when I have a "gut reaction" to something, I need to pay attention. This is undoubtedly a sucker punch from the little girl, whom I call Carolyn, who is screaming, "Hey, did you forget about me? Let's have some fun. You wanna blow some bubbles? Dance? Walk in the rain? Splash in some puddles? Wear pajamas all day? Eat ice cream for dinner? Sleep in late, then take a long nap?"

When Carolyn talks, I've learned to listen as well as embrace my childish need for letting go of adult rules and regulation for awhile. I may reside just this side of Senior Citizenry, but I've got some adolescent rebel left in me nonetheless.

After my mother passed away, I moved out - again. Only to move back in - again. This time I share the house with my 90 year old dad, my 62 year old sweetie, a dog that is close to 75 in dog years, and an older cat who suffers from a thyroid problem. Picture a scrawny old lion lying around on the Serengetti for most of the day, except when he wakes up, stretches, yawns big enough to show he's missing a few teeth, and lets out a mighty roar, that isn't quite as mighty as he'd like to believe, but still gruff enough to clear a path to the food bowl. Yeah, that might be the cat, but could just as easily be either one of the men. The dog's given up roaring!

Now I'm no spring chicken. I have my own age-related challenges (handicaps ?). Clearly I suffer from the "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was" syndrome. Recently, I embarrassed myself, and my son, by losing my car in the airport parking garage. ("Mom, are you ready for the home?" he asked partly in jest, partly with the seriousness of a heart attack. I know because it's a question I've asked myself more than once.) So, I'm including myself when I say OLD is the adjective that best describes not just the occupants of the house but the house itself. Most days this isn't a problem. But on the days when Miss Carolyn wants to play, I contemplate adding some spice to our lives by bringing home something - anything - under the age of 30, but preferably someone/thing who has not yet reached puberty and developed a vocabulary that includes the word "no". Thus the kittens (see part I).

Let's face it, you can't feel old when there is a kid around to play with. Perhaps this is why God created grandparents. In His infinite wisdom, God must have known that old people need young people to help them stay young at heart, if not in body. And young people need someone besides their parents to hang out with, to help shape their lives and to make them feel special as only grandparents can do.

In a recent Good Housekeeping article the author writes, "Obviously, life gets stickier and more complicated as we age. And for many of us, the childhood wellsprings of joy shrink to a trickle." As I read, I found myself nodding my head in agreement, and I pictured a certain inner child with her hands resting firmly on her hips and a stern look on her face,(again, kind of Mary Engelbreit-ish) seemingly asking me, "now are you going to listen to me?"

"Okay, okay," I shushed the little demon and read on.

"Happiness and an appreciation for the small stuff are related," according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and head of its Positive Psychology Laboratory. Small stuff, I thought to myself, it really is the small stuff that brings me joy.
So picture the smile on my face when my nephew surprised us by bringing his 6 year old daughter, not his wife, to my Dad's recent birthday party. Not that I wouldn't have totally enjoyed having Brenda, one of my all time favorite women, around for the visit. But with all the stress of preparing for a party, making sure the toilets were clean, the floors mopped, the canapes made, and 90 candles were all lit at the same time, I knew I needed a stress reliever. Like an answer to a prayer, or an inner child's pleadings, in walked Gabrielle.

Gabby, (or Abby, as I continued to call her for no reason other than I couldn't seem to remember the "G" ... Go figure!), was a little shy at first. We'd all met before, but still we were strangers in a strange land. She needed to get her bearings. She needed to make sure her Dad wasn't going to leave her in the company of the "old" people. We needed to lower our line of vision and turn up our hearing aids. For all her quiet, hanging back, this little girl never stopped smiling. She politely answered every question we put to her, even when repeated by each successive relative, and posed patiently for every photograph.
Needless to say my inner child was chomping at the bit to do something out of the ordinary. When the opportunity presented itself Gabrielle, her Dad, the dog and I piled in the car for a trip to the beach. When in Florida ....
While the ocean was not exactly what I'd call warm, its May temperature was vastly different from what Gabby was used to in Michigan from whence she had come. In her mind, as in most snow birds', Florida means sun and sun means swimmable beaches. I have to admit, it was a glorious day - as if just made for us. As we called home to report in to Mom, the first waves nipped at our ankles. Then as we ventured further into the surf, it soon hit our knees, which, on someone who is maybe 4 feet tall, isn't that far to go. The dog chased birds, we looked for shells but the sandbar just beyond the breakers beckoned us.

Finally, I threw all semblance of grown-up caution to the wind and suggested that Gabby and I hold hands and see if we couldn't make it to the shallower water without getting totally soaked. "Good thing my mom packed an extra pair of clothes," Gabby told me. I agreed this was as good as an excuse as we could possibly as for to chance a possible rogue wave knocking us down and breaking the "stay dry" rule -even though I knew those clean dry clothes were back at home in the suitcase not in the car where they would perhaps do us some good. So we walked gingerly through the waves toward what might have been Bali Hai.

"I just love the sea!" Gabrielle, the delightful water nymph exclaimed. At that moment, I think my heart cracked open. The joy I'd been searching for came tumbling out. I could only express what my inner child had been trying to tell me for weeks by saying, "Abby, I love the sea too!" The glorious, glimmering, shimmering, salty sea! Yum!
Then we looked up and saw dolphins. I am not kidding! A pod of 3 or 4 dolphins were frolicking in the waves just beyond us. Oh sure, I had a moment's adult panic when I wondered if the fin coming towards us was that of a shark I'd have to throw myself into to save little Gabrielle's life, but in the second it took to tell myself I'd seen one too many reruns of Jaws, the fear was gone. We stood there watching in wonder.

Even Black Beauty, who usually doesn't like to get her feet wet, seemed to know this was a special event. She paced back and forth on the beach, seriously considering joining us - or so it looked. As quickly as the dolphins appeared, they swam off to other ocean playgrounds and we headed back towards shore. The wind began to make our teeth shiver.
The moment was over, but the memory lasts. "Lyubomirsky recommends consciously savoring the moment - pausing to appreciate the positive components, large and small, of your life." In a mind that has trouble finding my car or remembering my "G's", I have imprinted a picture of what joy looks like. It's no surprise it has the look and feel of a special six year old girl.

P.S. If you look closely at picture #3 you might see the very tip top of a dolphin dorsel fin. Then again, you might not see it because the photographer was pretty far away, but trust me, the fish was there!

"Everything I Know About Happiness I Learned from a Child - A Refresher Course in Joy" by Jessica Baumgardner, Good Housekeping, June 2007, pg, 123

Monday, May 21, 2007

What do kittens, 6 year olds and Irish dancing have in common?

Not much, except that in the last few days, each has brought a special kind of joy to my ordinary, some might call ho-hum days.

Part I:
Recently I got two kittens. Well, not actually baby kittens, more like adolescent cats. The vet guesses that the frisky felines have just passed their first birthday, and in cat years that probably makes them the human equilvalent of 16 year olds who like to sleep all day and get into mischief in the wee hours of the morning.

Long, sleek, black, and panther-like, it's easy to see these rescued-minutes-from-drowning-in-a-well cats have some Siamese in them. If you've seen the movie Lady and the Tramp, my two are every bit as troublesome as Si and Am. Sometimes, I even think I can hear them singing, "we are Si-am-ese if you ple-eese." A little shy and skittish at first, they are each coming into his/her own persona.

Not yet given names that exactly fit their personality, their veterinary records have them labled as "Him" and "Her." So far the only way tell them apart is by the blue or pink collar each wears without much fuss.

I'd forgotten what it's like to have young ones in the house. I'd forgotten that two small cats can sound like a herd of buffalo when streaking from one end of the house at full speed, chasing something as miniscule as a tsetse fly or as large as the dust bunnies under my bed. I'd forgotten that babies can go full tilt one minute and be sacked out the next. I'd forgotten that when you have two kids in the house, there's always the possibility that the one caught red-handed (or pawed as the case might be) doing something naughty (like swinging from the bird cage with the greatest of ease) will, without hesitation, try to blame it all on his sister, the innocent one sleeping on the chair beneath the bird cage.

I'd forgetten how it feels to think you've lost a child, even though you can't really remember leaving the door open but you find it standing a tiny bit ajar when you walked through the kitchen, and there is no sight (or sound) of the child in question, thus creating a major panic attack and all out search of the surrounding area. It had to have been 30 years ago when my toddling son disappeared but I can remember the tightness in my gut like it was yesterday. I recall walking around the edge of the neighborhood pond searching not only for a body floating in the water, but for the words I was going to have to telegram my away-in-the-military husband. I remember the mixed emotions of joy and frustration when I found him blissfully unaware of my concern but totally safe.

Surprisingly those feelings had the same intensity as I drove around the neighborhood last week, crying "Kitty, kitty, kitty" for a blue-collared cat who I wasn't even sure knew he was supposed to come to this command. I did the only thing I knew to do, I threw up pleading prayers not only to St. Anthony, finder of lost things, but I asked St. Francis if he'd join in the search since, after all the thing missing was one of his favorite things.

"Please, St. Anthony/Francis, if you bring this little cat home, I promise never again to open the back door. I won't feed him anything but solid white albacore tuna, and I'll never fuss at him again for using the edge of the couch as a scratching post," I implored (stopping short of vowing not to squirt the little demon when he attacks the birds - I don't much like lying to saints.)

The cat didn't show up right away, but I had an almost immediate encounter with a whistling cockatiel, which to my understanding was a sign that my prayers had been heard, they just needed a little re-direction. Even in my state of panic, seeing a bird walking across the street, whistling a happy tune, then stop when the car approached, as if waiting for a "Walk" sign to appear in front of both of us, cracked me up. For the moment, I gave up my search for the lost feline, stopped the car, walked up to the bird, put my finger down to him, and lo and behold, the bird walked right up my arm, propped himself on my shoulder and let go a perfectly tuned wolf whistle in my ear. Damn, if I hadn't been worried about my lost cat, I think I would have kissed that bird!

Rescuer that I am, I took the bird to the nearest house, knocked on the door and handed the bird over to the surprised girl who opened it. Seems a rather strong breeze had blown the flightless bird out the window and he decided to take one of those "grass is greener on the other side of the window" strolls to see what he could see.

That rescue complete, I went back to my prayers and combing the neighborhood. Spying a turtle, my recently determined animal manitou, plodding right foot -left foot through the tall grass along the side of the road, I believed I was on the right track. If this kitten is alive, I told myself, he's used up the second of his nine lives and I hoped he was having a good time because if I found him, I was contemplating caticide. Funny how one's mind can go from panic to laughter, back to panice, to thoughts of murder, all in just a few fleeting moments.
Okay, I've dragged this story out long enough. After what seemed like an eternity, I got a call on my cell phone that the cat in question had just appeared from under something in my Dad's room. UNDER SOMETHING?????? I thought I'd checked everything. Oh well, there was a happy ending and I learned a valuable lesson about the power of prayer. Ask and ye shall have .... if not exactly what you're asking for, at least something that whistles at you like you are an Atlantic City beach beauty!


Three Cups of Tea

“I’m no military expert. And these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we’ve launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that would provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced non-extremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?” Greg Mortenson

Try as I might, in my fifty-five years of living, I’ve never been much good at breaking the rules. I always studied for spelling tests, wait to be seated by a hostess even if there is an available table right in front of me and no other people in line, and bypass parking spaces that are reserved for the “Handicapped,” “an employee of the month,” or “expectant mothers.” Admittedly, my law abidingness is not always about having a super active conscience. Ever since being exposed to the idea that there might be candid cameras lurking about, I just can't take the risk that I might throw caution to the wind only to have my moment's wild and crazy decision caught on video. (Okay, sometimes I taste a grape before buying a whole bunch, but that’s just good shopping!)

I do, however, often break one of the cardinal rules of book buying. Even though it’s common knowledge that you can’t judge a book by its cover, I do so on a regular basis. I’m a sucker for a pretty picture, a romantic drawing or a customer review on Amazon. Sometimes, this particular way of choosing reading material doesn’t work very well, but just as often it does.

Take for example, the cover photo of Three Cups of Tea. The three, head-covered, young girls are so busy reading that they seem not to even be aware of the camera taking their picture. You can’t see their undoubtedly big, brown eyes, but you get the sense that they are Middle Eastern beauties about to embark on a journey that will change not only their lives, but those of their community and nation, and perhaps even the world.

Well, maybe you have to read the title of the book to get that much out of the picture, but still it's captivating. Three Cups of Tea – One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, is, hands-down, the best book I’ve read in awhile. In a world where Republicans are sending American men and women into harm’s way, and Democrats are threatening to cut off funding for their mission and safety; where suicide bombers don’t seem to care who they take with them to meet Allah; and where mothers and fathers of several nations cry as they bury their children, Greg Mortenson has not only conceived of a possible way towards peace, he has put his ideas to the test – and begun to make a difference in small Middle Eastern villages.

Mortenson was raised in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro by Lutheran missionaries. He climbed his first “serious” mountain at the age of eleven and was “hooked forever on climbing.” Fast forward several years to the point in Mortenson’s life where a failed attempt to summit Pakistan’s 28,267 foot K2, a chance encounter with the inhabitants of the mountain village of Korphe, and, let’s face it, the almighty hand of God merged together to re-direct one climber’s and several children's future.

Three Cups of Tea is a fascinating read. Co-author and journalist David Oliver Relin, combines several literary elements - adventure, biography, history, geography, romance, and hair-raising suspense - to tell Mortenson’s story of keeping a promise to the village elder to return to Korphe one day to build a school. It tells of Mortenson's capture by people so fierce that even Alexander the Great decided to leave them alone, as well as his ability to eat, drink and sleep in some pretty raunchy (by my standards) places. It tells of Mortenson's respect for and delight in people who have a different religion and way of life, but who believe in the power of a text book to change lives.

It’s impossible to succinctly re-tell even a part of the story, but I can tell you that Mortenson miraculously returns to Pakistan time and time again, to construct bridges, schools and friendships. When he is not traveling half way around the world, Mortenson manages to forge a relationship with a new bride (who never whines, as I am sure I would have, “what about ME???”), raise a family, and stay in constant motion while trying to raise funds for his school building crusade. Suffice it to say, the man rarely sleeps.

In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson and Relin offer a very real possibility of peace, even in a world where children are as familiar with IED’s as they are pencils. Education, especially for the young girls, is the means they’ve found to combat the Taliban’s influence in some of the world’s remotest areas. “It only costs $1.00 per month for one child’s education in Pakistan or Afghanistan.”

I encourage you to set aside some time to read and enjoy the book. If you don't trust the cover, or my recommendation check out some of the reviews on Amazon. After reading the book, process its message of hope, then follow your heart and one of Mortenson’s suggestions at the end of the book. Visit the website for more information; suggest Three Cups of Tea to others; donate a copy to your local library; encourage local bookstores to carry the book; write your own review; contribute to Pennies for Peace of the Central Asia Institute.

Happy Reading,

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Dear Mom,

It's funny that I remember clearly what the room looked like, and how time stood still when you drew your last breath, but I can't remember the year it happened. Some days it seems like it was just yesterday and sometimes I'm sure it happened eons ago. I remember that morning in the hospital, knowing the breaths you were taking were your last. I remember holding your hand and assuring you Dad would be okay; that I'd take care of him for you. I remember not wanting you to go; but praying that your trip across the abyss from this world to the next would not be long or hard. You were so brave, I wanted to be brave too. It's not easy to be brave when your heart is breaking.

Dad and I have had some struggles since I made you that promise. Without you here to mediate we've butted heads a few times. I fell in love with a man that I feel sure you'd like. And now, after some time together, even Dad has grown fond of him. Since you've been gone, I've moved out and moved back in. Some things are very different; while some things have stayed just as you left them. I think you know that, though. I believe your spirit hovers around - watching, listening, comforting, knowing.

We gave Dad a party for his 90th birthday over the weekend. I did my normal, get all hyper and nervous act, but Linda was here to help and everything came together nicely. The day we were to go shopping for supplies, Dad suggested in his inimitable way, "your mother would have had a tenderloin." So when we went to Sam's I bought the biggest piece of meat I've ever bought in my life. Between Dad, the Joy of Cooking, Jack's taking the bull by the horns to "just do it" and Linda watching the meat thermometer, it turned out better than I expected. As I put the platter on the table, it occurred to me that in the cooking and serving of the beef, we recalled your presence, not to be sacrilegious, in a Eucharistic way.

I heard a radio preacher say today that God gave us more than the ability to remember things. The power of memories is such that humans can almost relieve special moments in their lives. We can actually smell the smells, hear the voices, and be in another place and time that touched our hearts.

The beef tenderloin and clam dip on the table reminded me that you were with us as we celebrated. I realized Grandmother showed up too, when a beautiful red bird sat on the bird feeder enjoying a morning snack. Dad had cards and letters and gifts from family members and old friends. I think being surrounded by love made him feel good. He smiled a lot.

To say I wish you'd been here would be a selfish request. Knowing you are in heaven is knowing you are in the best place you can be. Having your spirit with us is almost as good as seeing your smile and hearing your voice. There's not much I can tell you that I don't believe you already know.

Life goes on, the world continues to make it's revolution around the sun. The days often seem long, but the years pass. I didn't know it the day you died, but I've come to realize that hearts can still beat even with a giant crack in them; that memories are the bandages that hold them together until some kind of healing takes place. And when all else fails, the next best thing to shouting, "I want my Mommy" is to comfort myself with a tried and true Mom recipe.

We miss you, Mama, but we're doing okay.


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Words! Words! Words!

For as long as I can remember I've lived my life in a state of semi-fear. You name it, at one time or another I've probably been afraid of it. Even though I've out-grown most of my childhood fears like daddy long spiders (as long as I'm on the other side of the road) and not being able to get under my desk fast enough in the case of a Cuban missile strike,as an adult I carry around more than my share of chickenheartedness. Fear of failure or success; fear of being loved or not being loved; fear of attachment or fear of abandonment; etc, etc, etc. Fear isn't a new thing for me, but as I move through the second half of my life, I wonder if it isn't time to unlock the shackles of fmy fears and see how far I might soar.

I had an "ah ha" moment not long ago. The light bulb went off and I heard myself say, "I'm afraid of words." I agree, my epiphany was a strange one, even for me, but that's what happens in therapy. Just when I think I'm going to get out of the room without a handful of snotty tissues and a tear-stained face, the memories come flooding back and my inner child grabs onto my gut, saying, "Pay Attention" in her "this is really important voice." I've learned over the years that when this happens, something significant is going to happen, even if it is going to be a little painful. So I hang on, and listen.

In this case, my fear appears to come from both words said and those left unsaid. A child's perception of adult conversations can wound as deeply as a knife. Even though my grown up persona tells the scared little girl that "sticks and stones can break my bones but names [words] will never hurt me," I realize how shallow that really sounds. At the age of 55 I realized, if not for the first time at least at a gut level, that my instincts were right, that words can hurt, and often did or do.

The irony of this realization is the knowing that even when words are withheld, the stoney silence of sylables left unspoken can also cause damage to a child's psyche and play into her fears for a lifetime. Hopefully now that I am aware, I'll be able to put up an invisible word shield when I feel damaging verbal weapons heading my way. Maybe I'll be able to consider the source and let the words roll off my back like water from a duck's back. Or, maybe I'll just stick my fingers in my ears and sing my "la la" song. What I've got to remember is to trust my gut and use MY words to make a difference.

Having said that, even though I'm no Don Imus, I've been known to throw a verbal javelin or two in my lifetime. The good news is I'm sorry for it. But, the trouble with saying something I immediately regret is that often the "I'm sorry" falls flat and doesn't hold the same potency as the mean thing that just came rolling off my tongue. Especially if one happens to be talking on the radio.

Perhaps having this blog is my radio format. Last month in my post entitled "Nannyisms" I got a comment (one of only a few so I give them great credibility) that said, "Nerds are people too -- a very important life lesson! " Well, I immediately took that as a dig; that my labeling people as nerds, even if it was a more of a description than a moniker, sort of nullified any possible goodness of my advice.

I'm not sure what the commenter meant, but it made me think, and I'm still thinking. I've decided that in this world there are all kinds of people. Big, little, fat, thin, funny, sad, athletic, mathematically challenged and rocket scientist brilliant, and so on. Somewhere in a list like that the word "nerd" is bound to pop up. And I feel like I can say this, because, like most kids at some time during their adolescence, I've been a nerd - perhaps even queen of the nerds - and I probably have pictures to prove it. It doesn't make it any more right to call people names even if you are wearing a nerdy crown and ribbon across your pocket protector, so, to all you people out there that feel a little bit on the outside, I apologize for my lack of sensitivity.

As I've been turning all this over in my head, waiting for an apology to come together in some meaningful way, I happened across a newpaper article about Tampa Poet Laureate - James E. Tokely, Sr. Here's what caught my eye:

“ ... something positively traumatic happened to me.” [said Tokely] He became part of the second class to integrate a junior high school. There, he says, he met children who were more into chess, reading, drama and classical music. In other words, all the things he loved.

“They helped me to be human,"Tokely says. “They were nerds in their own nerddom. They were happy with themselves.”

Is that another way of saying "nerds are people too"?

I also enjoyed reading this: "… at three, he fell in love with words when his grandmother read him a book about kittens and puppies and he heard the words “rapscallion” and “cantankerous.”
“Those words stuck in my ear like a roach at night, he says. “They began my love affair with words.

Imagine having a love affair with words and not a foreboding! (Imagine having a roach stuck in your ear at night? Now that's a nightmare waiting to happen!)

I have to agree, rapscallion is kind of a fun word to say. After reading about Tokely, I began to make a list of words that have the same kind of appeal for me. With no rhyme or reason for their order, here are a few I've run across lately: salmagundi; lammergeier; vertiginous; crenulate; Sisyphean; judder; and prelapsarian.

Most of them came from the book I am currently reading. Obviously that author has spent some time with a dictionary, thesaurus or both. If his junior high peers made fun of him for his lexicographic affection, he's the one having the last laugh - a NY Times best seller.

I close this treatise on words with the lyrics from a BeeGee's tune that keeps running through my head. "It's only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away" which actually doesn't have anything at all to do with what I've just written, it's just one of those spritely little tunes that won't stop.