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28 May 2015


A new Brevity review discusses supporting a mother through dying and death over a period of seven years. I wish this book, Lisa Ohlen Harris’s The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving, had been around when my husband and I were caring for my mother. 

When I went looking for a story like mine, all I could find were heart-warning reconciliations in the last days or weeks of life. No one had managed years or could suggest to me how to do that. One book contained a list of twenty warning signs for caregivers. I checked off every box. 

My husband and I did the best we could. Mom had always cared for us and now we cared for her. 

Our journey with my mother's declining health began in the 90s, when I committed first weekly and then daily time to Mom's care. But it was in 2002 that this care overwhelmed everything else in the daily life of my husband and me. One morning in May, Mom drove two blocks to the post office and then could not get out of the car. Surgery was supposed to make her "good as new" but did not. She was sent to extended care and was never out of pain again. She moved home from the hospital, and for the first year after that clear decline we revised our daily visits to three-times-a-day visits. Or more. My mother was a very sweet and kind person, but she was contrary and stubborn too. Mom would not move to assisted living and she would not move in with us and she would not have anyone else in her house. She undid or ignored the work of her visiting care-givers, professional or family. My husband and I did not have cell phones and remaining in contact was critical throughout those years. We were not more than ten minutes from her side for months. 

After a fall, she moved "temporarily" into assisted living in 2003, and stayed long enough that my husband and I were able to attend a wedding in another state. When we returned a few days later, we moved her back into her home and within a week she'd broken her first hip. Over the next years she would move in and out of assisted living and a nursing facility and home. This went on until her death in 2007. 

Even today, I miss her but also recall those years as mostly lost—a mix of dream and nightmare. I earned my MFA in writing during those years. Our dog died. My brother stopped speaking to me because I was rude to ask him to visit more often. Events in the world beyond school, work, and my mother—films and books and important discoveres and world events—went almost completely unnoticed. In the early years I was suicidal and depressed, but functioning because so many people depended on me. We had two sons in college, we adjusted to less sleep, we managed to pay our bills, and both of us drank too much. Apparently our outward composure was convincing. Most people, including my students, did not see us struggle. 

The MFA might have saved my life. I was forced to focus someplace other than on my mother in order to complete the reading and writing required by the program. Both my husband and I tried to find time on the beach, another act of self-preservation. Humor was another essential savior. One night on our way home from taking Mom to the ER, a bull elk nearly hit our car, sailing immediately in front of us on highway 101, and we experienced that close call as comic relief, laughing all the rest of the way home. After her death, Gary left her wheelchair at the front entrance of the assisted living facility. We have a long list of ridiculous events that still strike us as hysterically funny, though I doubt anyone else would understand our humor. 

I do not believe the lie that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger or that we are not given burdens too heavy to bear. All of us suffer tragedy that smashes our anguished cheek against the hard floor. 


The world since has brightened considerably of late. I miss my mother, and I do not regret what we did, but I am grateful for every new day, every morning reading in bed, the friends who send me messages and the ones who take time to give me a hug, our family, and my husband who held my hand through all of it.

26 May 2015


As if you could waste time without injuring eternity.

We're funny about time. We want to know the time, we ask for the time, we keep time, stay in time, measure and judge on time. We label Indian time and lost time and time that's passed us by. Time us, give us time, waste time. 

A scientist argues that teenagers aren't ready to sleep until 11 at night, as if sleep were by the clock and not daylight. As if eleven were not two hours past dark in June and almost six hours past dark in December. Another brief study finds that human beings function on a 25-hour clock, as if we evolved on some other planet than Earth. 

People need to walk outside and look at the sky. They need a sky unencumbered by artificial light. 

Our kitchen clock died and so I brought my classroom clock home. I bought it at Costco several years ago after giving up on promises to replace the one hard-wired in on my classroom wall. The school clock never kept correct time and I painted it out. 

It took a while for them to notice, but my students are disconcerted. I don't allow them to use their cell phones in class except on rare occasions for research. They want to know when they will get out of class. 

The clock looks fine in my kitchen. 

25 May 2015


John Steell's Alexander taming Bucephalus. I was told it was a tradition, but apparently it is not true that soldiers who die in battle are depicted riding a rearing horse; those who die beyond the battlefield are depicted astride horses with all four feet on the ground. Many, many exceptions to this rule and I'm no longer even sure where I heard this, though I want to say it was Boston when we were there in 2003.

Today is Memorial Day, our day to recognize our fallen, but not all who fall are lost in battle. 

Feet Restless on the Earth

The ocean’s slow breath, heaving
lungs beyond remembering. 

My father survived despite what he saw:
the heavy foot of the German camp. 

My aunt survived too, finding 
housing in a new stateside life. 

My grandfather invented a story to cover
the truth: the army would not take him.

My great aunt’s husband walked far 
enough away to find death at home.

No one in my family died in battle. Each rode 
the horse without rearing from the earth. 

It was mostly uniformed men who went to war— 
their branches of family trees, leafless. 

Other soldiers survive, come home, finally
the flag folded into a triangle, closeted. 

There are the wounded who walked away
without ever leaving war behind.

Not all those lost are fallen, bloody
in battle—but march on for a time. 

22 May 2015


A friend has returned from a retreat/workshop in order to learn that if we do not like the story of our lives, we should rewrite the story into something that makes sense and works for us. A product in development allows users to have a phone that is only good for making calls and not for anything else. People point out that the shift to a not-so-smart phone isn't that easy. 

Change begins by recognizing the problem habit, whether it's wasted on technology or negative thoughts.

So how to give up the habit I don't like? Give it up. I have several habits I do not like and character flaws I wish I could abandon. It's not easy to make change, but it's often more a matter of wanting to do it. The truth is that if I really wanted to keep my home neat and tidy, I would do that. I think I just don't want that particular thing enough to follow through. 

Can I rewrite the story of my life and abandon character flaws like worry? Maybe not so much. 

I can choose to direct my energy to scrubbing the kitchen floor. In fact, it's on my list of things to do once I am retired. Did I really not have time to scrub the floor all these years (yeah, try not to be grossed, but it has been years since I got down on my knees and scrubbed the entire kitchen floor) or have I allowed other things I considered more important to get in the way of said scrubbing? 

Well, duh, wouldn't you rather read a book than scrub my kitchen floor? 

The worrying? I can do other things instead. I can meditate. I can walk it off. What I can and what I do are two very different animals. I am who I am. 

The workshop my friend attended sounds fascinating. As I understand it, the process involves reframing events in order to come up with a more productive story about personal experience. However, I do not have trouble considering multiple versions of my life. They assault me daily. The stories of my life are already so variable and numerous I do not know where to look. I am the villain in this version, the victim in another. If only there were just those two choices! There are dozens. The challenge is not finding a healthier version of my life story, but of choosing among the dozens of versions of my life story the one version I can rely on as true. 

Truth is a tricksy thing. (And that word "tricksy" is apparently a real word my computer knows, which is rather disturbing.) 

There are habits I have avoided or not pursued. For example, most of my life I did not drink alcohol at all. Now, I can stop for a month without cravings, but I do not want to stop drinking, which is why when the month was up, I had a glass of wine. True, there is plenty of evidence that drinking moderately might be healthy, but it also costs money, which I would rather spend on other things, such as yarn. I do not gamble. In Las Vegas for a nonprofit Board meeting many years ago, I did not even put a nickel in a slot, though someone handed me nickels. I do not play video games. I know myself. I cannot stop. (I will not want to stop.) 

For another example, though I generally eat very wellorganic and fresh, non-processed foodsI also want to lose some weight. I also wanted to eat the bag of honey-dijon Kettle chips Gary bought for me the other day. Turns out I wanted the chips more. No change is effortless, but sometimes there is more choice than we want to admit.

On the other hand, my friend was looking for a way to reframe events in her life that she needs to get into her past. She has unfinished business she wants to work through and set aside so that she can move on to more important concerns. Since I am struggling to do that myself, I should study her success. 

The question remains: How much do I want to move on? 

Sometimes there is less choice than we might want to admit, even to ourselves. 

Unlike drinking in moderation or spending an hour scrubbing the kitchen floor, or even losing weight, do I want to leave the family tragedies behind me, avoiding/rationalizing them permanently, or am I clinging to them out of some sort of need? 

It's a serious question. 

Sometimes the worst moments of life are also the ones we use to define ourselves. 

Letting go is not something I do very well. It is, in fact, another character flaw. On the other hand, it's not just me who struggles to move on. I know people who lost a parent or sibling as a child and that experience shaped all the rest of their lives. Do we expect them to let that go? Do we want to do that ourselves?

How much do we want to try dropping? The truth of our lives might include some bad stuff. I could erase my sorrows and guilts and grief or reframe it all into something other than the pain it now represents. And how true would that be for me? If I can set it aside, does that undo the experience or the truth of it? 

As Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us, age does not resolve our questions: "Our questions accrue." That much is true.

21 May 2015


Georgia O'Keeffe's Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur
My step-grandmother, Genevieve, wanted to be a pilot. She flew as a nurse during WWII and after the war she continued to fly, eventually as a pilot, achieving her goal. But then she married a man who made big promises, but who would suffer a series of incapacitating strokes. Instead of flying around the world, she wrote a book about rehabilitation. Care of the Patient with a Stroke is what she did while getting her severely damaged husband out of bed. She continued working as a nurse, was head nurse at a small local hospital that now houses the district office of the school district I will retire from in four weeks. That little hospital is where my grandfather eventually died. My grandmother died further south in another small local hospital. She was only a few years older than I am now. Maybe that's why I'm thinking a lot about the dreams I had myself when I was a girl. I have a friend, even older than I am, who finally has a horse. Maybe I will get to see Knosses. Maybe I will write a book people want to read.

Despite where we were born and how we started, we have many choices in our lives. My grandmother was an only child, born in Iowa at a time women were not expected to do much of anything. No one encouraged women to have dreams outside a domestic life. She did it anyway. 

Of course women even then were making a dent in the world, founding the Red Cross, creating rocket fuel, painting that took us in, writing that made us look far away, and launching the modern environmental movement (that's Clara Barton, Mary Sherman Morgan, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Rachel Carson). 

We don't have to change the whole world as these people did in order to be heroes to the ones we love best. We go about our days, doing the best we can and reminding ourselves that it is enough. 

It is enough to climb the hill, to dance with the music, to love the people we love, to notice now and again that others are climbing and dancing and loving and noticing too. There is heroism in that act of existence. 

Place one foot before another and rest sometimes, long enough to notice.

I’d like to stand on the slope of that hill, looking up and imagining I had done something heroic with my life.

Isn't that what we all want? To admire what others have done and know that our lives also made their own little dent in the path that others climb.

20 May 2015


I was trolling on eBay, which I have no business doing—but just in case and because you never know—and then I thought I'd found something special. A purple-pattened mesh bag, 1920s, deco, a Whiting & Davis it looked to be. (It didn't look nearly as bright as the ones left—they never do.) I knew what I was looking at because I collected bags at one time, starting with gusto in my teens but pretty much giving up on them in my twenties when I was priced out of the market. I have several nice Whiting and Davis bags from this period, though they are not the ones I like best. 

the eBay listing photo
Anyway, I found a purple mesh bag on eBay. I'd never seen a purple mesh bag before and it was lovely, with a zig-zag trim and blue stones in the clasp. I bid on it for a gift and I won. A few days later, the bag that arrived was nothing like the one I'd ordered: square frame instead of round, different fringe and chain, and patterned tan mesh instead of purple. It was the wrong bag. The man who sent it was quick to apologize and send the right one, but when it arrived, it was the right bag, only still the wrong color, orange pattern on beige where it should have been blue-violet on lavender.

first bag I received with packing
I figured it was an honest mistake, about 40% of men are color blind and he probably couldn't tell that what I was looking at was not an accurate representation of color—I looked at the bag on several monitors. The photo
second try—it was not this colorful
itself made the bag look purple and the frame silver. I sent messages to the seller who agreed to take the bags back or to allow me to keep them. Gary packed them up and mailed them both back to the seller yesterday.

In the mean time, I heard again from the seller. The bags are from the collection of his wife who just recently died. He wanted me to keep them both because "It will make me feel better and then I don't have to relist them." Too late. They were already on their way back.

My daughter-in-law will eventually receive another deco bag, but some sweet man on the other side of the country will have to re-list his wife's purses. For some reason that seems very sad. 

I've already been feeling sad lately. There are plenty of reasons for this. Some people will tell me I've no reason to feel sad, and they would be right. But even in a crowd people feel lonely, and there is little rhyme nor reason for sadness. 

Bao Tran brought her retiring former teachers flowers, which was charming. Chris Gilde stopped by and ate his lunch with me on Monday. Chris and I were hired at the same time and I was recalling one time when we went to a tavern together before a play and I had no idea what to order because even in my 30s I had never been in a tavern before. A couple of decades have swished by and I am not sure that even now I would know what to order in a tavern if they didn't serve fish & chips. 

I watched alcohol blur my father. He had RA, and for many years I feared contracting rheumatoid arthritis. By the time I decided I had escaped that terrible disease, I had the other sort of arthritis in my feet and hands. Even so I am knitting these days. But the drinking to dispel whatever pain we are feeling—from loneliness, grief, pain, or loss—never seems to accomplish its task. 

I know perfectly cheerful people who seem just fine, you know? And they are drinking a bottle of wine or too many beers, just to get through the end of their days. 

Gary and I took to drinking a glass of wine late at night, in the years my mom was ill, once we were sure Mom would not need us to come over one last time. Ten o'clock at night was usually safe. Only once did she call for us to come over after ten. It was a bad habit, that glass of wine before bed. 

We took April off from wine (and no beer for Gary) and that saved money. (We drink cheap wine but Gary likes expensive beer.) Gary lost ten pounds. Otherwise it wasn't different and it wasn't hard. 

Alcohol does not dispel sadness. It is a depressant, after all. And the man who lost his wife?—it won't help him either, though like plenty of other people who are not diseased, but sad because their lives are sad for the moment, he might try drinking. And I? I will try to stay off eBay for a time. 

19 May 2015


Last banquet in a familiar room. (I am not Alice. I am the dormouse.)

The phone tree about flooding and other school outages. I think I would rather show up to school when it had been canceled than keep those pages beside my bed another winter. 

Probably not the last time I will be left out of lunch plans or even the last time I will care, but the last time there. 

The last conference where a student's future is discussed with such euphemism that it's hard to recognize that what's being said is, No. No, you can't be an electrician because you haven't passed math since . . . ever, and the journeyman's license requires Algebra, a lot of Algebra. They told you that you can draw, that you are an artist but no, no you really do not understand what that means. They will only praise you and expect to find you serving them coffee. 

The last graduation where I must guard the teacher's chairs. 

Not the last time you might find me there.  

The last year I can ask a student to just "find me in my room after school." 

No more room. 

Last night I meant to say only thank you. I meant to hold up a little banner that said "everything!" because people keep asking me what I will do when I retire. But that's not true. I will not do everything. I only hope to do something. So my banner remained folded up in the back of my journal.

Instead, I told a story my husband shared with me on our way to the event. It was while he was working in Cannon Beach and had no car so he walked to work one day we could not get our acts together to manage anything better. Six miles and then he would have another eight hours on his feet. He was about halfway there when a neighbor passed him without stopping. Later she would say, "Yeah, I thought about stopping, but I didn't know if you needed a ride." I said last night that teachers are the ones who always stop. It's a metaphor, of course, not a literal truth. But teachers stop because we know our students all need a lift. We are the ones who do that. 

The great divide is not between the students who understand algebra and those who do not. It is not between those who do their homework and those who hope you will not look their way. It is not even between those squeezing homework in between more important social obligations and the ones who have a way with words. It is between those who missed class for a vacation and those who visit their aunt in the hospital. It is between those whose parents wish their children would go on to attend their alma mater and those whose parents work a second job. It is between those with parents who have the power to make things happen and those who know better than to ask. 

No more room. No more room. 

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