Poets & Sages Behind Closed Doors

Sunlight flashes across the nursing home lobby when I enter. By degrees the brightness dims as the door swings shut. My eyes adjust to a line of wheelchairs, their occupants so still they might be in deep meditation. One woman rouses, her brown eyes searching me out. “Feet don’t work a’tall,” she says politely. “Not a lick of good.”

I walk down the hall past living koans. A man is held in a chair with padded restraints resembling a life jacket. His arms extend forward as if he is about to swim, but he doesn’t move. He repeats over and over, “I, I, I, I.”

An aide explains in a loud, cheerful tones to a woman hunched over a walker, “There is no upstairs, Dorothy. See? No elevator. We only have one floor.”

Dorothy ignores her and pushes the walker ahead. “Let’s go upstairs now,” she says.

“Show me how to get there.”

When I get to the room where my husband’s grandmother lives, she says, “There you are!” She knows me even if she can’t remember my name. Today I get her talking about childhood memories. She recalls that as the youngest of an immigrant family she had to be tough even as a little girl. “They’d beat you like they wanted salt,” she says, “but I wouldn’t cry.”

“Who beat you Grandma?”

“I’m never hungry,” she answers. “Never.”

Her roommate, who leaves the television on all day, calls out over the noise of a game show, “Ned, come over here.”

There’s no one by that name in the room. Not that I can see.

This whole nursing home feels like a living poem. But I don’t want to write about the people here. I want to write with them.

When I graduated from college I found no openings in my field. Instead I eventually found a job as a nursing home activities director. There I read the newspaper aloud every morning to a lively group of elders, soliciting their opinions and making sure to find the articles they loved to cluck over — tales of human failings. I played songs on the piano like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for sing-alongs. I got a group of rabble-rousers together each month, named them the Residents’ Council, and helped them advocate for positive change with the administration. And I developed a local network of activity directors. We shared closely guarded secrets such as contact information for puppeteers, barbershop quartets, amateur magicians, and others willing to perform in nursing homes.

My fellow activity directors and I had the best jobs in these places. We had time to listen to the people who lived there. When I listened, really listened, I knew myself to be in the presence of poets and sages. I developed a writing program to let others hear them too. When I took the job, the facility’s monthly newsletter contained only a schedule of events, a list of birthdays, and generic health tips. But the building was home to 100 people with voices of their own. I needed to expand that publication.

I started with a column called “Tip of the Month.” Some residents didn’t know what day of the week it was or where they were, but if asked for suggestions on getting a child to behave or living within one’s means, they bubbled with advice. That column usually featured comments by dozens of residents. Many times their opinions contradicted each other, making for a livelier feature. Better yet, staff members and families implemented some of the suggestions in their own lives. When they came back and told the residents about ways they had benefited, it helped put these seniors back in their rightful position as elders with wisdom to offer.

For example:

Home Cold Remedies

“My mother used to put dry onions on my chest like a poultice. She browned them in a frying pan and put them on hot as I could take.” — Harry Pierce

“We took hot milk with ginger.” — Carmen Morales

  “My mother would rub goose grease and turpentine on our chests and put us to bed after a drink of whiskey, hot water, and sugar. Boy did we smell after that!” — Lillian Edwards

 Once I got beyond the typical “how are you feeling today?” conversational dead-end so common in nursing homes, I discovered residents whose suggestions were too long and complex to fit in Tip of the Month.” If asked to give advice for high school graduates their answers covered psychology, religion, and culture. If the question dealt with handling bullies, some people brought up international affairs, others disclosed wild personal incidents.

So I added another section to the periodical. This one centered on a different theme each month. Harvest time, first day of school, best friends, what made a good neighbor, lifelong dreams, a mother’s touch, fatherly advice, vacations. Some people brought up fragments of memories, others shared powerful insights. Nearly all of their answers illuminated a bygone era.

Preparing for Winter

“My grandfather from Hungary never drank water…Hungary had been at war and both sides poisoned the water. He never took up drinking the water again… Each year he bought a truckload of grapes and had them dumped through the basement window. We helped him make barrels of wine.” — Bill Dobscha

“Back in Ireland we’d dig up the potatoes, pick the apples, and store them away…Close to winter the pig was butchered and the meat smoked. The wheat was ground for bread and we made sure there was enough oatmeal to feed us 21 kids all winter.”  — Catherine Monally

“Only rich kids had skates, but you could slide on ice by smashing tin cans on your heels and use garbage can lids for sleds. We had fun in any weather.”  — Freda Tesar

Sometimes new staff members had difficulty telling residents apart, frustrated that stooped posture and thin white hair made the very old look alike. But stories in print gave unique perspectives on residents who spent day after day in nearly identical rooms. It also gave us more to talk about with them.

Although some people understandably found it difficult to adjust when they had to move to a nursing home, many adapted with astonishing ease to the losses represented by institutionalization—loss of identity, health, possessions, and freedom. Their contributions to the newsletter made it apparent they did so because they’d already endured great difficulty in their lives, hard lessons in impermanence.

Residents also blasted apart the sweet oldster stereotype. Some were eager to talk about their indulgences, shenanigans, even crimes. Oftentimes pain or dementia loosened the sense of propriety that had a greater lock on their generation, other times mischievousness seemed to linger right under the surface. Their willingness to reveal an edgier side accorded them new respect from the youngest people on staff.

As residents talked of the past I was struck by how dispassionate many of their accounts were. It seemed they no longer suffered over prejudice, judgment, and injustice imposed on them or that they had imposed on others. They talked with a distant tone, as if simply telling parables.

Soon I added a “Resident of the Month” feature. This gave me the luxury of listening to much lengthier oral histories. Some people told me details they didn’t want in print and we worked together to craft the material they did want published. I usually had to corroborate the facts with their files and was often surprised to find significant information they didn’t bother to mention, further evidence that stories aren’t in the data of where one lived and worked. They are in the details. Union busters coming to rough up a little girl’s coal-mining daddy and her pride in hiding his supper dishes that were on the table so no one would suspect he’d taken refuge under the front porch. A sibling dying in the night of diphtheria, and later honoring the lost child by giving one’s firstborn baby the same name. There were also tales of accomplishments, hardships, and sacrifices dismissed with the wave of a hand–“No, I never saw Mama again after I left the Old Country. That’s how it was.”

Then I started regular poetry workshops. I read poems aloud, passed around objects with relevant smells and textures, shared observations. (And served cookies. Sweets inspired many a reluctant participant.) Then I scribbled rapidly as they talked. Later I combined their words into a group poem crediting each author with his or her own line. Residents and their families seemed to prefer traditional verse so I encouraged workshop participants to work with rhyming phrases whenever possible. Some were diagnosed with dementia or suffered speech impairment due to a stroke. Though they couldn’t make coherent contributions to our other writing projects, their abilities shone in poetry.

Phrases from a resident who said the same thing over and over took on a new tenor when made into a refrain. The man who dryly commented on a topic with only three words in an hour had his contribution included. So did the woman who kept interrupting with more ideas. After our workshops I would visit other residents’ rooms to seek their input, searching out those who couldn’t attend the poetry sessions but whose impressions could make a difference. Occasionally I transcribed the words of a single resident to create an entire poem.

When residents’ words were invited, taken seriously, and written down, when I nodded and looked them in the eye, they had more to say. A lingering silence, in fact, seemed to bring ideas from a place of deep contemplation. Many times I watched someone’s gaze turn to the window, past the ubiquitous geranium. I waited. When it seemed that they’d forgotten completely they would speak gracefully, forcefully, in ways that juxtaposed symbols with objects, meaning with abstraction. Poetry.

“I’ll see you next week Grandma,” I say, leaning down to give her a hug. She seems present yet detached, like so many of my greatest teachers. I brush the hair away from her face, pat her hand, adjust her lap robe. She smiles distantly. I stand for a moment. She rouses briefly, looks at me. “Listen,” she says urgently, “the wind! The wind!”

There are no open windows, no breeze on the soundtrack of the blaring TV. So often she speaks from a place beyond logic. I want to know if it’s possible to trace her words back to meaning, but her eyes are already closed.

As I walk outside the sunlight is intense. I fumble for my sunglasses. Only then does my attention turn to my breath. The wind. The wind.

 

Originally published in The MOON Magazine.

Battered Blue Wheelbarrow

What It Carries, Still

Your father, whose voice scared me,
whose head loomed a full 14 inches over my mine,
bought us our only housewarming gift;
a bright blue, six cubic foot wheelbarrow.
We laughed at its size, laughed as you gave me
a bumpy ride over the first lawn
we giddily called our own.

He seemed to believe our future
would be one of Paul Bunyan-sized loads.
It was.

In it we hauled firewood, dirt, rocks,
crinkled leaves topped with squealing toddlers.
It held a big block Dodge engine.
It toted rolls of fencing, chicken feed, cow manure.
It carried trays of tender seedlings
out to the garden, waiting
as I blessed each one into soft earthen beds.

Today you mend the rusted body
of our battered blue wheelbarrow.
I wish your father lived to see
its wooden handles smoothed from use
and what it carries, still
on that one sure wheel.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in The Moon Magazine. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

The Land Remembers

There was a small forest behind our house when I was growing up. Stepping from lawn to woods felt like stepping into another world, one teeming with mystery. I couldn’t articulate, but fervently believed, that everything — plants, rocks, water, and creatures —spoke in a language just beyond my understanding. I liked to go alone to a special place, a small rise between two trees next to a tiny stream. I’d sit there silently, hoping creatures of the forest might get used to me, might even come to accept the wilted iceberg lettuce and carrot peelings I was allowed to bring. My offerings were always there the next day where I’d left them, like an answer to a question.

I liked to imagine living in those woods, although I didn’t know how to weave baskets from reeds, how to make a shelter, or what plants might ease illness. I certainly couldn’t imagine eating the creatures I hoped might be my friends. (I was also afraid of the dark and entirely unable to go a single day without library books…)

Of course I returned to the world of mowed lawns and  store-bought food. I’d walk back as if I were part of the forest, trying to keep my footfalls from making a sound despite twigs and dry leaves because I imagined that’s how Native people walked,  when they lived in the same place, when the largest trees might have been saplings.

Every place I stepped then and step now is a place walked by people before me. As Chelsey Luger writes in YES Magazine, “You cannot find a corner of this continent that does not hold ancient history, Indigenous value, and pre-colonial place names and stories. And every place we occupy was once the homeland for other people, most of whom didn’t leave willingly.”

Now, thanks to collaborative mapmaker Victor Temprano’s efforts we can easily find out more about who lived where we now call home. Mr. Temprano is mapping Indigenous languages, treaties, and territories across North America on the website and app Native Land. Simply enter the name of your town or its ZIP code. An interactive map will color-code your inquiry, showing hyperlinked data on the area’s Indigenous history, original language, and tribal ties.

According to the map, I currently live on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French, the League of Five Nations by the English) and the land of the Potawatomi Nation. These peoples were uprooted by Indian Land Cessions from 1784-1894, and beyond. (See a time lapse map of how 1.5 billion acres were taken from Native inhabitants.)

I don’t know much about the people whose land I occupy. I don’t understand the language of plants, rocks, water, and creatures. I am still trying to listen.

“I keep having these recurring dreams where I’m on a plane or train and all the people around me, Native and non-Native, are speaking different Indigenous languages. I hear Paiute, Lashootseed, Diné, Catawba, and they’re feeding their babies wild rice and smoked fish. I’m dreaming about a modern world that doesn’t erase its Indigenous intelligence, but rather embraces the rich complexity of Indigenous culture.

This can be actualized if we all bring our hearts and minds together. The land we walk on is Indian Land, whether it be suburban cul-de-sacs or city streets. Echoes of Indian existence are all around us. It’s up to us to listen.” Matika Wilbur

Superhero Plunge

My mother was born much too late to be a Victorian but she never once, in all the time I knew her, wore anything but a dress. No pants, no jeans, certainly no shorts. An earlier era’s propriety had its grip on her. (She was also affectionate, occasionally hilarious, and a wonderful storyteller.)

Because of my mother’s preoccupation with politeness, I was raised in a family where anything related to human elimination went unspoken. (For example, intestinal gas was neither heard nor discussed. Only once, when behind a closed door we heard my father’s gas amplified by the toilet bowl, did my mother acknowledge it, saying, “Poor Daddy doesn’t feel well.” We all hung our heads to acknowledge misery so great it could be heard.)

Still, the shadow wants to be known. Perhaps that’s why our bathroom rebelled. Faucets leaked and toilets gurgled in the night as if ghostly hands pulled on the handles. And far too often, the toilet seemed unwilling to swallow our refuse. A few wipes, a flush, and suddenly the angry toilet’s water would rise in an increasingly threatening manner to tremble at the top of the bowl. Sometimes, sheets of water cascaded onto the clean tile floor. I developed a terror of mutinous toilets pretty early in life.

The plunger was of no use to me because, as a child, I didn’t have enough arm strength to create the necessary suction. I learned to grab the toilet brush and clear the toilet’s unwilling throat any time it seemed to swirl a moment longer than usual.  If that didn’t work, I’d cry out in desperation, “Mom, the toilet is overflowing!”

Keep in mind, before I was in first grade, my mother taught me to set a proper table with salad fork, entrée fork, table knife, butter knife, and spoon. She taught me to “sit like a lady” when company visited. She taught me to write thank you notes; always say “please” and “thank you;” and when treated badly, to “kill them with kindness.”

But she was no cliché. My mother broke records in school with her high grades. She broke rules as an RN to better serve her patients. And when our toilet threatened to overflow, my mother morphed into some kind of superhero. No matter where in the house she was, she responded to my cry before I finished the first syllable. I swear she flew through the air, arriving in time to grab the plunger and heartily convince the toilet to behave itself.

(In her last years, she used a walker to get around. Even then, my children were amazed to witness their grandmother levitate to their sides at the mere hint of trouble and unclog the toilet before a single germ-laden drop of water touched her floor. )

I grew up and moved out into a world where my mother could not unclog threatening situations for me. This became obvious when I took my own precious two-year-old to the bathroom in someone’s home. It was a lovely home, with a bathroom far more precious than bathrooms I normally frequented. Everything was stark and shining. I wiped my toddler’s adorable bottom to find that he had, somehow, crapped out a substance thick and unwipeable as tar. I ruminated on what he’d eaten as I cleaned him up, lifted his adorableness from the toilet and flushed it, then pulled up his tiny underbritches and tiny pants.

The toilet rebelled in a slow, menacing way. Water swirled. It rose. It made no gurgling digestive noises as toilets do to let us know our digestion is being taken care of. I felt the hamster wheel of panic start twirling in my chest. I looked for a toilet brush or plunger, but of course this fashionable bathroom did not display such utilitarian tools. Water rose even higher. I could picture it trembling at the lip of the bowl, then pouring out onto the beautiful floor as I fled with my child — ruination flooding out the door behind us.

Every cell in my body wanted to cry out, “Mom, the toilet is overflowing!”

My mother was nowhere in sight.

I saw no other choice. In one rapid move, I pulled up my sleeve and plunged my arm into the icy depths. I grabbed the offending clog away from the opening. The water happily swirled down. With a gurgle, everything was gone.

I washed my arm ferociously as I assured my child that, no, he should never put his hand into a toilet. It was Mama’s job and only in an emergency. I did not tell him that he should never speak of it again, lest that might inspire him to announce it to everyone for months.

It has been a very long time since I was forced to commit this act. I still remember the icy plunge, but I don’t remember the horror. Instead I remember realizing that it was up to me.

I was the Mama. It was time to be the superhero.

Our Aural History

aural historyWhen two of my newborn babies spent time in the hospital due to serious medical problems, one of the many things that distressed me was all the noise surrounding them.  I wanted them to be introduced to the world differently. I wanted to wrap them in the sounds of home — voices of people who loved them, clatter of dishes at dinnertime, wind in the trees, lullabies sung, books read aloud. Instead there were loud beeping devices, intrusive announcements, squeaking wheels on equipment carts. They heard all sorts of strangers’ voices too, often while those strangers (for the very best reasons) imposed discomfort or pain. When they came home, both times, I noticed the sounds around them more than I normally would just because it was such a blessed relief.

My concern wasn’t overblown. In utero, a baby hears a symphony of prenatal sound that includes the mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and movement.  The baby’s auditory system is fully developed by the sixth month of pregnancy and what sounds it hears is a particularly big deal from that time until it reaches six months of age. Here’s what one medical journal has to say:

The period from 25 weeks’ gestation to 5 to 6 months of age is most critical to the development of the neurosensory part of the auditory system. This is the time when the hair cells of the cochlea, the axons of the auditory nerve, and the neurons of the temporal lobe auditory cortex are tuned to receive signals of specific frequencies and intensities. Unlike the visual system, the auditory system requires outside auditory stimulation. This needs to include speech, music, and meaningful sounds from the environment.

The preterm as well as the term infant cannot recognize or discriminate meaningful sounds with background noise levels greater than 60 dB. The more intense the background noise, especially low frequency, the fewer specific frequencies (pitch) can be heard and used to tune the hair cells of the cochlea. Continuous exposure to loud background noise in the NICU or home will interfere with auditory development and especially frequency discrimination. The initial stimulation of the auditory system (speech and music) needs to occur in utero or in the NICU to develop tonotopic columns in the auditory cortex and to have the critical tuning of the hair cells of the cochlea occur. The control of outside noise, the exposure to meaningful speech sounds and music, and the protection of sleep and sleep cycles, especially rapid eye movement sleep, are essential for healthy auditory development.

Hearing is also said to be the last sense to leave us at the end of life, as indicated by electroencephalograms of people in their last hours. (Oftentimes music can reach unconscious and dying people when other stimuli cannot.)

Sound has a way of sinking into us, linking with sensation and emotion to form lasting memories. When I read about refugees forced from their homes by war or famine or rising seas,  my sorrow for them (and my admiration for their courage) leads me to think about what sensory experiences they can never fully recapture from their homelands. Keeping one’s own language, foods, and faith alive is vital but I wonder if hunger for the unique sounds left behind ever goes away.

We carry aural memories with us forever. I suspect sounds from early childhood are rooted the most deeply. Here are some of the happiest I can remember. A summer of locusts, the sound cresting and falling like waves. The screen door’s awwaak as it opened and my mother’s voice from somewhere in the house calling “don’t slam it!” The shriek of a swing hung on chains as I swung on my belly watching ants scurry below.  My father whistling as he tinkered with some project. News on the radio my mother listened to for a few minutes each morning, all of it inane chatter to me except for ads that lodged in my memory like this one.  Planes taking off from nearby Cleveland Hopkins Airport,  curving overhead like toys even though adults insisted they were big enough to hold actual people inside (pffft!) Music my father listened to as he graded papers — classical, pop, big band. The creak of our old rocking chair. The indescribable security of lying in bed hearing my parent’s muffled voices. 

Imagine sounds from 100 years ago in the place you are now. Perhaps horses on stone-paved streets, vendors hawking their wares from open carts as they traveled through town, afternoon paperboys calling out the latest headlines, church bells tolling the hours, the whistle of steam engines passing in the distance, children playing outdoors everywhere.

Or maybe imagine sounds 100 years in the future, if you can.

What sounds surrounded you as a baby? Your children in infancy? What aural memories make up who you are today?

Rescuing a Desperate Creature

empath humor

Early mornings are dark and quiet in November. I put on my boots, coat, and hat to walk out with a bucket of kitchen scraps in hand. I pause to appreciate mist rising from the pond and autumn’s complex scents. Some mornings I chat quietly with birds and trees as I head back to the barn. Other mornings I sing.

This particular morning I’m wearing a heavier coat against the cold, a bright orange hat, and carrying a bigger pail than usual. As I walk I notice a muted squeaking sound. Immediately, I picture it coming from some small creature. I imagine its dark desperate eyes. Maybe it is trapped or injured.

I slow. Already the squeaks have become harder to hear.

I stop. The squeaks stop too.

Poor wary little thing, I must be close.

I walk slowly toward tall grasses lining the creek. A few distressed squeaks can be heard. I pause, hoping intuition might tell me where this little animal is hiding. There’s probably nothing I can do, but if it’s trapped I can free it. If it’s injured I might be able to move it to a place safer than the side of a flood-prone creek.

I stand still, listening.

Nothing.

Okay, I say to myself. It’s your imagination.

I head back toward the barn.

The squeaking starts up again, rhythmic and anguished.

Logic is late to this adventure, but it finally clicks in. I’m carrying a large bucket, one we left out on the cold porch overnight. The squeaking noise I hear is the frozen handle rubbing against the sides. I stop to confirm. The squeaking stops. I feel silly. I also feel, against all reason, enormously relieved for the imaginary creature that’s no longer in distress.

I take a deep breath and continue on toward the barn, ever more grateful for the peace of the day.

I hope your morning is less emotionally fraught.

Only imaginary animals were imperiled.

This post shared from our farm site, Bit of Earth Farm

Time Turns Back on Itself

 

A post from the wayback machine, although it feels like yesterday to me…

memoir, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

“He fit right into the palm of my hand,” my mother always says.  Her arm trembles now when she holds it out. “His head here,” she gestures to her fingertips, “his little bottom here, and his legs curled up at my wrist. They never gave poor patients the incubators. They said babies that small didn’t make it anyway.  But he looked right at me and I knew he would live. I held him every night in the nursery until he was discharged. I wish I knew what happened to him.”

My mother’s stories of her early years as a registered nurse are becoming more common topics. I settle back and listen, encouraging her with my questions. The house seems darker each time I visit, curtains drawn against the daylight although family photos on every surface still fade in their frames. The cluttered rooms are hard to recognize as the same ones from my childhood. Time seems to stretch and bend out of proportion on these long afternoons.

“I nearly died of a staph infection when I was in nurses’ training. It was all through my bloodstream. The doctors were amazed I pulled through.” She shakes her head.  “It was a miracle.”

My two teenaged sons come in from doing yard work. They wash their hands, eat the snack she loves to offer them, and politely chat with her. She has tales to tell them too, usually emphasizing the value of working hard and saving money. Today she asks them to retrieve a bit of laundry she can’t reach. Somehow it sailed over the washing machine lid to fall somewhere behind the washer. Tossing anything while hanging on to a walker is an accomplishment for someone whose movements are as uncertain as hers. I thought I’d heard all her stories, yet she tells the boys that her laundry throw probably stemmed from her teen years when she used to be quite the softball pitcher.

“I never was never much of a runner in gym, but I had a great throwing arm.”

I am surprised. “You never told me that, Mom!”

“There’s plenty I haven’t told you,” she says.  Her gaze seems to linger on a field of high school girls from 60 years ago.

My father doesn’t settle down for long conversations during these visits.  He likes to work in the yard with his grandchildren, making use of their youthful energy, while my mother and I talk. I go outside to spend ten or fifteen minutes with him, reveling in the quieter connection we share, fully aware that my mother waits for me to return through the full length of each minute I’m away from her.

I see my parents bridging the passage beyond old age in their own ways.  My father redesigns the garden and invents odd labor-saving devices, always thinking ahead. My mother goes back to revisit her stronger years.

I am greedy for time. I want decades more with my parents despite their poor health. Their tradition of waving goodbye at the door as I back the car out always brings tears to my eyes.

On the long drive home my son comes across an old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer tune on the radio. Time twists around itself again.  I recall listening to this record in the late 70’s, from the same house we just left, although the raspberry-hued carpet of my girlhood bedroom is now under a pile of boxes. I used to climb out the window of that bedroom to lie on the rough-textured roof, looking at the stars. I paid such close attention to the music of my teens that I felt wrapped inside the notes and the lyrics.

“You see it’s all clear. You were meant to be here.” While the song plays I remember being a wispy 14-year-old  who bought batik scarves from the forbidden head shop in town. I twisted them into halter tops which I wore under more demure shirts until I was safely out of the house. I’d tell my parents I was going to see a girlfriend when I was really meeting my boyfriend. He and I kissed so much I was surprised my mother didn’t notice I’d return with chapped and reddened lips.

When the song ends I’m almost startled to find myself driving a car—a woman in her forties accompanied by two nearly grown children, married to the boy she kissed so long ago.

As time turns back on itself in our memories it reshapes and teaches us. It occurs to me I loved Emerson, Lake, and Palmer because they honored the two sounds I couldn’t imagine converging. I had rejected my parent’s organized religion, and with it the evocative strains of organ music. Instead I spent my babysitting money on albums with sounds that stirred my soul.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer put hymns and rock back together for me. As I head south with my boys, I’m also lying on the roof with my back safely against my childhood home and my face lifted to the sky.

I try to say something to my kids about how odd time and memory can be. But they’re young and the radio dial needs flipping. I guess we’re bridging our own passages. I take a breath, choosing to hold on to the peace of this moment so this exact car ride with my sons will always feel as close to me as the palm of my own hand.

Originally published in the anthology,  Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between

Catalysts

Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.

 

Permission Slip

I’ve carried this piece of paper in my wallet for 7 years.  My father, an inveterate list maker, wrote it for me a few months before he died. On it, he suggested ways I might take care of myself, spend money on myself, and enjoy myself.

He’d spent his entire life denying himself and pushing himself to do more, but it troubled him to think his daughter might be doing the same thing. Late in life he gave in to new “extravagances,” mostly things he’d read about in health articles. This included grocery purchases more upscale than his usual canned vegetables and oatmeal, things like nuts, pomegranate juice, fish, berries, and fresh vegetables. These ideas topped his list of suggestions for me.

He’d always straightened nails to re-use and made do with worn out tools. He stapled scrap paper together to make daily planners for himself. But his list encouraged me to buy these things brand new. Even to buy myself an exercise bike!

He wore old clothes, even wore shoes he’d owned since college. He never bought new books. He skipped social engagements (whenever he could) in order to get more work done around the house or yard. He considered electronic gadgets unnecessary, although he was intrigued by new technology. Yet he wanted me to spend more time with friends, go to restaurants, buy books, invest in gadgets.

I’ve never been as starkly frugal or deeply self-critical as my father, but I understand what his list was trying to say —- to himself as much as to me. When we chronically push ourselves, judge ourselves harshly, or deny ourselves we are often unaware that we serve as examples to our children (as well as to our partners, co-workers, and friends).  We reinforce a social template that makes it normal to treat ourselves this way. Too late we realize we need treat ourselves as we’d like our loved ones to treat themselves.

Last Saturday would have been my dad’s birthday.  After a lovely stroll through the farmer’s market with my daughter where we bought grassfed cheeses, perfect tree-ripened peaches, and other delights I spent a few glorious hours listening to podcasts while cooking to prepare for our usual Sunday family get-together. Then, after a walk and some writing time, I sat on the porch with a book. It was another wonderful day in a life full of wonderful days. Thanks for the reminder, Dad.

The Queen’s Gift

beginning beekeeping

This is a throwback post, first published in the winter 2009 edition of Farming Magazine. 

It’s human nature to look for signs. Easy success appears to be a portent of even better things to come. Too much bad luck seems to tell us to change direction. Give up. Run away.

My husband, Mark, and I have had plenty of practice warding off naysayers who think we’re foolhardy to hang on to our small farm. A few years ago Mark’s neck was broken in a car accident and he’s still dealing with some chronic health problems. Then we lost our home business and were left with heavy debt.  After that, Mark was downsized from several jobs due to the floundering economy.

Although bills mount as we repair ancient tractors and pay vet bills, living here keeps our spirits up. Tending the land with our four children bonds our family together in ways we couldn’t have imagined before we moved here. Baling hay, stacking firewood, learning about animal husbandry —these are living memories for us all. And the beauty of living closer to nature provides spiritual depth beyond measure.

We enjoy simple pleasures,  all the while hoping the next farm venture will turn our fortunes around. Our newest project has been beekeeping.

Mark, and our 13-year-old, Sam, took beekeeping classes last winter.  After each session they came home excited about the intricate world of these insects.  Mark and the kids built hives together. I copied poems on the wooden boxes. We read about the science, mythology, and practical keeping of bees.

On the first warm day of spring we chose a clearing near wild blackberry bushes and clover-filled pastures to set the hives.  We hauled them there under the inquiring gaze of our cows. I couldn’t help think of our land as one flowing with milk and honey.

The project became expensive as costs for equipment and the price of bees exceeded our estimates. The week before the bees were due to arrive both our vehicles broke down.  A dozen chickens were killed by a marauding dog. The bridge over our creek washed out in a storm. The omens didn’t seem promising.

Finally boxes teeming with thousands of insects arrived. Prepared as any novices could be, we walked out back carrying these humming packages over the creek, past chickens and cows, blessed by blue skies.

There’s a careful procedure to follow when ‘hiving’ bees. Each queen, along with a few insect attendants, is enclosed in a tiny lightweight wooden box called a queen chamber. This is sealed two ways. Inside there’s an edible barrier called a candy plug and outside of that is a cork.  The beekeeper pulls the cork, puts the whole queen chamber into the new hive, shakes the bees loose around the queen chamber, then puts the hive lid on.  The bees become acquainted with the queen’s pheromones and accept her as their own.  In a few days’ time the attendants have eaten through the candy plug and the queen is loose in the hive but at home enough to stay.

There we were, ready at our lovingly constructed new beehives. We started on the first hive. Mark followed the procedure— easing out the cork plug on the queen chamber as planned and lowering it into the hive.

Without warning, the queen flew out.

Apparently the wooden chamber wasn’t sealed with a candy plug. Now we had several thousand bees for that hive but no queen. After months of preparation, our sparse funds pulled together for this project, our very first hiving had failed. Mark, Sam and I stood in silent disbelief.

Then we realized we could see the queen circling around us, a dot against the bright spring sun.  I talked aloud to her, saying we needed her to stay near her new home. Sam tried to gently trap her in some spare netting. All to no avail. What’s the chance an insect will do what we want her to? Characteristically, Mark started working on another hive, focusing on what needed to be done next.

Right then, unbelievably, the queen landed next to Mark’s hand. And there she stayed, offering her presence like a gift. He reached out and covered her with his other hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  I put the wooden chamber near his fingers and improbably the queen crawled back into the tiny opening. He placed the chamber in the hive, then Sam shook in the bees and closed the lid. All of us felt goodness and mercy descend on us in that clearing.

Later Mark asked several apiary experts about the likelihood of new beekeepers recapturing an escaped queen.  They all said there was no chance at all.  But we know better.  Hope is always within reach, even when you least expect it. On our farm we savor that sweetness every day.

This article is old, but we’re still here and it’s still sweet.