Answering Questions About Parenting and Midlife

Answering Questions About Parenting and Midlife

I am a member of a wonderful group of women who write about midlife. Under the umbrella, THE WOMEN OF MIDLIFE, we now have over 1,000 members and within the group are writers of novels and poetry, photographers and chefs, designers and members of the medical community–all experiencing midlife and helping one another as they share their experiences. Some members have created products or research and present products that make midlife even better. Many have published books.

A year ago, Melissa T. Shultz interviewed members for her recently published book: FROM MOM TO ME AGAIN How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented The Rest of My Life. 

Melissa interviewed me and my answers appear in sections of her book. But when I was looking for a topic today, I found both questions and answers and realized they underline some things I have been wanting to write about–and so here is the interview–unedited and honest. (Footnote: Life is often a search for another’s experience as we make important life decisions. I encourage you to read Melissa’s book, especially after reading this post–because the interview is only a glimpse into the material that she covers and that readers in similar situations can benefit from.)

1. As a mom, do you believe that children come first? That is, do their needs take precedence? When you bring children into the world, you have to care for them. If that means that you must give up certain material goods or blocks of time in your life to love, rear and help your children grow and adapt to living in the world—then yes! A child’s needs should take precedence over your own. Or don’t have children. But also, don’t create some imaginary world where you watch what others do and want to give, buy and push your child to be like someone else’s. Be sensible and reasonable in your rearing. Give them love. That’s what they want and need. Not stuff.

2. Do you think being sad or depressed when the kids leave for college is a sign that you were too involved in their lives? Everything works on a continuum. If you are deeply depressed and need medical help when your children leave for college—then again, yes, you need help. Women who live through their children and monitor their lives too closely lose themselves in the rearing. Then when the object of that attention no longer needs them—what is left? Possibly depression—or at the very least a long time adapting to the change.

3. If you have children still living at home, are you putting off a personal dream that you hope to accomplish when they’ve left for school or moved out? My children are all gone now, but looking back—no I did not put off a personal dream. While raising my two daughters who were 4 years apart, I got up early almost every day and wrote until they awoke. When my son was born, I even tried to publish a book on having children after the age of 35—I was 42 when I had him. Then I went to nursing school and became an RN working in labor and delivery. Later, when he was in grade school and high school, I wrote three novels. And I also worked at home proofreading for a publishing company and then taking a position outside the home as an educator at the health department, part time.

4. If you could go back and change one thing about how you prepared yourself (or didn’t prepare yourself) emotionally for your son/daughter’s departure to college (up to four years before he or she left), what would that be? Here’s the crux of that question—becoming an empty nester can be hard no matter how you prepare. I think by having another life, my writing, my nursing, I did prepare myself. But what is part of the empty nest syndrome is ultimately the fact that you are entering another stage of life. You are leaving that exhilarating time of the bonding family, and if it’s been a joyful experience, which it was for me and my husband, then it’s just sad to have to give it up. What I am saying is you can’t prepare for that. It’s life. You are now at another stage and you are aging.

5. If you’re an empty nester, are you in (or are you contemplating) a new career? If so, tell me a bit about how it came about/the reality vs. expectations, etc. I am an empty nester, but when I first became one, I might be a bit different in some ways. As my son moved off to college, my husband’s chronic illness worsened and my mother’s dementia increased. I started writing my blog, Boomer Highway, because my life was so busy with so many responsibilities, and I needed to figure out how to manage. Of course I did manage, and I wanted to help others who were in the same proverbial “boat” that I was in. My son graduated, then lost all his possessions in a fire. My husband retired, then almost died until he got into a clinical trial that is saving his life. My dearest mother did die and then we moved across the country. Life goes on and on. Sometimes you just hang on. My career? Then it was coping. Now it’s writing and working toward publishing my novels. I also enjoy reading and taking deep sighs of relief.

6. If you’re an empty nester, are you still as close to the women friends you had while your kids were growing up together? Please elaborate. Those friends I swear are in your bloodstream, your bones. They are the golden oldies. So yes! My Chicago friends who were there while raising my daughters and my Des Moines friends who were there while raising my son are still in my heart. We email. Some visit. My husband and I go to their children’s weddings when we can. It’s a process as everyone has busy lives. But certain ones are always there for me and they are the oldest and dearest, the ones from the very beginning.

7. If you’re an empty nester, have you made new women friends since your child/children left? If so, how did you meet and were you actively seeking new friends? Friends are precious. Since we moved, I only have a few in the new community where we live, and when you don’t have children to pull you into groups of people, it takes a lot longer. And I guess I’m more content to write and read, though I did join a book club. I confess, I miss my friends from Chicago and Iowa. That’s why social networking is nice. Not the same, but helpful.

8. Regarding your partnership or marriage, how has the empty nest changed/not changed the dynamic between you? Our marriage is great. We have been the best of friends for 45 years in marriage and for 51 years if you include dating. We still share the same faith, the same politics and of course our children and grandchildren are amazing familial bonds. He is my greatest supporter and our love, every aspect of it, is still present and giving our lives joy. Though my husband has been through a lot with his chronic illness, even after a day of chemo, he would get up the next morning and go to work. He is strong and forward thinking and that helped me to believe and be strong. Same with my mother. Her abiding love and belief in me all my life helped me to give back to her what I needed to give at a very tough time in my life.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Maybe some people don’t realize that every day of family life you are building toward the end of that family life. If you love and give and support, it most probably will come back to you when you need it. And believe me, we all will. Being a parent and parenting has been a gift in my life and it continues to see me through midlife and I am sure it will be there for me always.

 

We Are Not in Charge, But We Can Make a Difference

We Are Not in Charge, But We Can Make a Difference

I read newspapers and magazines and online articles. I’m constantly soaking up information and feel fortunate that I have the time to educate myself, to evaluate what I read and how I feel about what is happening in the world. Words are powerful. But it’s absolutely true: a picture is worth a thousand words. 

THOSE THOUSAND WORDS

Recently, I saw the above photo–two fathers carrying their infants in their arms. Compelling, love abounding in this TIME MAGAZINE photograph, despite the rubble, the destroyed street somewhere in Aleppo in Syria. The photo pulls me in. Photos do that. But after reading and looking, I turned the page. I could do that. I could look away. But this particular photo stayed with me. So I am writing about it–the thoughts it engenders.

ONE DAY YOU’RE UP, THE NEXT DAY YOU’RE DOWN

Autumn is coming, winter is coming. Here in the United States streets are not bombed into rubble, but there are floods and tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes that destroy.

I love living on this earth, but part of being here means struggle–for some it is all consuming, for others they are hardly touched. For some of you reading this right now: a loved one is ill, a friend recently died, an adult child is out of work or—-you just got a huge raise, purchased tickets to tour the world, bought a boat. I don’t know–these are random thoughts. But life is random. Like the song says, one day you’re up and the next day you’re down.

FAITH, LOVE, HOPE

So what are the constants: the earth turning on its axis, the change in seasons, birth, death, aging. They are always with us. AND SO IS WISDOM–the thoughts and ideas that are ours and others reaching out and providing us with BELIEF in what we can do, LOVE for what we have done and HOPE in the days to come.

I am certain, that if the fathers in the photo were asked what we could do to help them, outside of insuring peace in that warring country, they would have asked for food. Maybe they would have gone beyond that and asked for a small plot of land outside the terror of the bombs, a place to plant for food and maybe create a shelter so that they could maintain their families away from the chaos. That’s whittling down life to the bare essentials. That’s putting the seed in the ground to discover hope for the future. But that is what it means to be human.

So I come back again to the change of seasons, to the coming of autumn and winter–which ironically will not touch me as much as it did when I lived in the Midwest. Then I enjoyed putting the garden to bed, making sure the outside spigots wouldn’t freeze and that I had shovels for the snow and good tires on my car. Now I pray for winter rains in the drought that is California. But nature always gives you something. So we humans evaluate and try to prepare.

WISDOM: Frost reminds us that we’re not in charge, after all.  How do we let go?  Laugh at our failures, but don’t repeat them…Observe. Learn. Let go.

These are the words of Jane McKeon and she is writing about gardening, but her words mean more. We all experience life changes that affect our physical and spiritual health. Sometimes we are happy for these changes, other times we pray that they will soon end. In the latter case we can clench our teeth, let our back muscles grip in pain, lash out at those around us, or we can let go. It’s challenging, but such times call for examining our failures, discovering what might have contributed to them, and trying not to repeat them.

There will be frost—we are not in charge. And snow and drought and tornadoes etc. But we can live happier, better lives if we find something about change that strengthens us. A broken arm, painful and inconvenient, is not life threatening. It can create a lasting appreciation for that body part, and for the people who do the littlest thing to help us weather that cycle. Just as the relationships formed with strangers during a crisis changes how people feel about those very strangers.

On a different note, it’s totally challenging to find anything good in a job loss. That’s a change that requires we all remember: attitude is everything and stress can tear a family apart or ruin a person’s health. In such a time of struggle, for our own health and the health of our families, we have to let go and let others help us. And of course we have to help ourselves: observe, learn, not repeat our failures. That’s how we will weather such a season. It’s a cumulative process, one we will get better at as we live.

THERE WILL BE FROST AND SORROW AND JOY  

Jane’s words are words of wisdom. For your own spiritual and physical health, accept the flow of the seasons in your life. Weather the springs and autumns and you’ll be ready for the winters when they come. Let Go, Let God –or whatever god or spiritual practice you believe in. After frost and snow comes spring. And when you can: be grateful and reach out to others. Little by little we can draw closer to one another. We can make a difference.

Photo Credit: www.haaretz.com Photo taken by Ameer Alhalbi AFP/Getty Images

Using “STORY” To Support Facts

Using "STORY" To Support Facts

Story telling is powerful. Presenting an argument using a story is the first step to winning that argument and possibly getting others to follow our thinking. It’s basic psychology. It’s understanding how the brain works. Story is universal. WE LOVE STORY! But the story doesn’t always tell the truth.

Author Lisa Cron provides a succinct analysis in her Ted Talk, Wired for Story. She relates how we believe things over time because of the stories we have heard–her example: “women are responsible for a clean house.” She believed this story because every cleaning commercial she had ever seen showed women using the product.  Eventually she realized the story wasn’t true for many reasons–but it helped her understand its power. Story is emotion. We evaluate life and our choices through the emotion of story and we have to FEEL something in order to make choices: our spouse, our home, our clothing etc. Story is the reason our ancestors knew NOT to eat the red berries. Because someone died and the stories got passed along. Cron points out that story is often how we survive.

The message in THE LION KING? You either run from the past (the story) or you learn from it. How you think about a story is always related to how you feel about it.

In her Ted Talk, Cron mentions TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, by Harper Lee, underlining that the author used “story” to move us in a different direction so that as a people we could combat decades of racism in American culture. That novel, that story about Scout Finch, a young girl living in American’s South, changed many people’s hearts and cut into the formidable stain of racism. Cron says: “You aren’t reading about Scout, you are Scout. Story takes you there.”

Former First Lady, Laura Bush, said that Lee’s book was a prime example of how words can create strong ideas and impact the mindset of readers for decades. All the scholarly facts and figures about race might not have had as profound an effect as the words of Atticus Finch and Scout in that  story.

When you boldly think about it, racism is a learned pattern of thinking that humans become exposed to through story–while they are growing up. It’s like young Thomas or Claire deciding not to like Uncle Dennis, because of all the stories they’ve heard from their family: Dennis swears, always wears the same shirt, has been known to tell dirty jokes and once stayed with the family for a week and never offered to pay for a meal. But then Thomas and Claire meet Dennis and within an hour discover he’s kind, will play ball out in the yard and knows more about science exploration than anyone. He’s not a bad guy–he’s just not, for reasons the kids can’t figure out, a family favorite. Story is powerful and you might still not like certain people in your life because of a STORY you once heard about them.

Now think about someone you’ve met who is against vaccines, telling a story about a child she knew getting autism from being vaccinated. In the book, DENYING TO THE GRAVE, WHY WE IGNORE the FACTS THAT WILL SAVE US, Sara and Jack Gorman explore story as a means to understand and then counteract harmful lies. They relate that we should not dismiss and walk away from people who deny facts. Instead, we should be challenged to counteract their beliefs. (WOW. Just think about the present political climate, everything resting on it, and all the lies floating around. THAT’S a CHALLENGE.)

The writers of DENYING TO THE GRAVE have found that when it comes to believing in science, we humans are uncomfortable with an event that does not have a clear cause–like autism–so we tend to fill in the gaps ourselves. Being emphatic creatures who can learn human understanding from the story of Scout Finch, we might deny science after hearing the story “you get autism from vaccines.” And we might stay there. The story has power, creates images in the imagination that statistics cannot always overcome.

Story is power and that’s why writers in widely read publications like TIME MAGAZINE, begin a news article by zooming in on ONE PERSON that story has affected. We readers immediately find our brains connecting with that ONE PERSON and so the facts begin to stick with us–the smart writer leaving the statistics for later, after the empathetic part of your brain has already been hooked.

DENYING THE GRAVE concludes that instead of chastising folks for their belief in a story,  we should figure out why we are drawn to this story in the first place and work to change minds with compassion and understanding–not disdain.

I challenge all of us to do that every day. When we hear stories that fall on our ears as lies, we should attempt a kind response, one that draws empathy from our listener, one that might be part of our own personal story, one that helps build a STORY for the truth.

Photo Credit: www.mlparentcoach.com

Using "STORY" To Support Facts

When Fathering Girls: Love and Protection

When Fathering Girls: Love and Protection

When Fathering Girls: Love and Protection

We’ve heard it over and over, but it’s still a truism, having a father is good for a girl. Having a father provides a girl with love and protection, encouragement and a relationship that is just WELL different, from what moms provide. Yes, there are troubled relationships between girls and their mothers and they could also occur between girls and their fathers. But for a girl to grow up and navigate the world of love and sex, marriage and children, or having children with a man without benefit of marriage, that father figure if he is loving and understanding, supportive and open-minded, can truly give that girl a head start. And if he is not?

Maybe he has only one of the above qualities. I don’t meant to describe the perfect father that maybe doesn’t exist. But I do believe a girl’s presence in a man’s life can soften his edges, open his eyes to the future of all of his dealings with women in a way no one else can. His daughter is the FUTURE of womanhood–as he relates to it. And he wants the best for her. Yes, he wants that for his wife, but caught in the constraints of time–he now sees more for his daughter. He sees change and advancement stretching out into the future and he routes for her. He begins to believe that girls, just like boys, can thrive.

This all might sound dated. You’re thinking–things have changed–all men are aware of the importance of fathering their daughters. We don’t need songs about it, like Billy Bigelow singing in the musical comedy, Carousel.

You can have fun with a son, But you gotta be a father to a girl.
She mightn’t be so bad at that, A kid with ribbons in her hair!
…But my little girl Gets hungry ev’ry night and she comes home to me!

Both parents prepare for their children and want to do the best for them. But life gets in the way. Families are so different now–with step-fathers and absent fathers and fathers raising children with no mother. The ability to fly from coast to coast, take jobs in different places or work remotely via the internet has also affected the composition of the family. Sometimes the mother is the constant, but sometimes it’s the father. That’s great, as long as there is a constant.

My father died when I was three. But I had a mother who was so loving and understanding, who put her children first, always, that I turned out all right. There were uncles in my life, fathers of my friends. They helped me see how fatherhood worked. Once, my father took me to see his brother, my uncle. But the man had a new television and was more interested in talking about how it worked. My mother related this little story more than once–how my dad came home with me in his arms and said to my mother: THEY JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT WE HAVE HERE. That’s father-love. I felt it then and it  sustained me through the years at some level, because I turned out all right.

The protective role of the father is needed more than ever in a world of Face Book and photo sharing, pornography and the sexualization of young girls. Readers might remember  when five-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in the basement of her family’s Colorado home on December 26, 1996. JonBenet participated in child beauty pageants, because her mother had been a beauty queen and supposedly JonBenet wanted to echo what her mother did.

In an interview in 2012 her father, John Ramsey, reacting to the popularity of the reality television show TODDLERS AND TIARAS, said that letting his daughter compete in pageants is something he regrets. “Only because- that possibly might have drawn attention to us. I don’t know. But-  I think for- for advice to a parent is just recognize that- regardless of where you live, there- there could be evil around you. And- and don’t be naive about it. And keep your kids protected.” Even in death, that’s hard to do as a television series about JonBenet’s life and death will be airing soon.

Writer Naomi Schaefer Riley took a hard look at the reality show TODDLERS AND TIARAS. She wrote: One father, who had a rap sheet of drug and alcohol abuse, sued for custody of his daughter. The girl, now 6, was a regular on the pageant circuit, where she appeared dressed as Dolly Parton, complete with padded bra and enhancements for her rear end. Apparently, her father wasn’t happy about this.

Thousands of girls appear in these pageants, along with hundreds more on television shows glamorizing the whole culture of miniaturized sex objects. Last year, one of the 3-year-olds on the Toddlers & Tiaras reality show dressed up as Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, before Richard Gere sent her on a shopping spree. Another little girl appeared singing Sexy and I Know It at a nightclub.

(My milllennial son was so upset about this he wrote a song about it.) I can’t imagine this for my daughters and granddaughters. I didn’t even like them watching the film Pretty Woman when it came out in 1990 and they were sixteen and twelve. I recently watched the film again. It is still true fantasy that could never ever happen to a prostitute. And I am sure the film has been used by pimps as a device to lure innocent but desperate girls. But many will still say ah, it’s so light-hearted! Maybe, but crosses a line that’s hard to pinpoint.

In her article Riley stresses the importance of fathers being involved in their daughter’s lives. She states: A protective presence lets girls grow outside the sexualized pressure of our culture. She is so right!

Where once fathers might play ball with their male progeny, now they can pick a sport or an activity that their daughters want to pariticpate in. And if busy work and travel schedules make attending practices difficult (and this can be mothers too) it’s not hard to find time to sit and talk about what a daughter has achieved in gym class or dance, softball or piano. SOMETHING! Attention and time with DAD is what girls need and fathers too. You can’t always know your child while they are part of the larger family crowd. One to one is meaningful and necessary. A game of chess or checkers, a walk, and the always possible drive in the car provides a quiet time to find out what’s going on in your daughter’s head.

Let’s hear it for slowing down the push to grow up; for reaching a plateau of growth that can be celebrated and yet HELD ON TO for awhile. Blink and your daughter (or your son) is beyond your control and you are asking what you did wrong. STOP THE CLOCK. Talk to her. Put her on the pedestal of attention she deserves. Protect her from stupid choices that can bring her sorrow. Love and protection are key. And beauty pageants? She’s beautiful in your eyes. Others eyes can wait until she’s an adult and ready to walk in the wide world.

Thanks to shutterstock.com and storyhighlighto and pinterest.com

When Fathering Girls: Love and Protection

Sorry-but this is NOT Cute.

When You Don’t Get the Window Seat

When You Don't Get the Window Seat

Lately, when I fly, I never get a window seat–my husband is on the aisle, me in the middle. But I have memories of traveling alone from the Midwest to California to see my grandchildren, in the window seat, watching the land drop away, the green fields of Iowa and the mountains of the west below. Going to Chicago, I found the sight of Lake Michigan and the skyline thrilling. Beauty from the air.

This last trip? The young woman in the window seat kept the shade down EVEN DURING LANDING. Nothing to do, I tell myself. This is America where tolerance needs to apply in many situations. Let it go, even if travel might make me cranky and eager to say “Don’t you want to look out at Chicago, watch us glide over this amazing city and land?” I stay quiet. But on some issues, maybe I need to offer some words.

While flying from the west coast to Chicago–I did something.

I read a book. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME.

I will never be the same.

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms, And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me...taken from a Richard Wright poem

You all know Richard Wright! You read NATIVE SON in high school. In this poem, Wright comes upon the remains of a tar, feathering and burning, only to grasp that his future might be the same. But Coates, writing his book to his son, leaps from the scene to the present day. Some things are now outlawed. Some are not.

This is a book about Coates’ fear for his black body. For me, this book is a WINDOW on white privilege, on the impact of words that have come from my mouth over and over: bad neighborhood, ghetto, white flight, gangs with guns and drugs, working the system–.

Go ahead, stop and ask yourself what language you might unconsciously use to denigrate a group of people–and do it casually, like it’s really no big deal. Because it’s so a part of most of us we don’t hear it or see it.

As a child the rhyme, Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, Catch a–the object of which my mother changed to tiger. I don’t know when. But I said the original. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I SAID THAT while playing a game! Now it horrifies me.

It was part of the culture, inbred in daily living. Life without thought. Ignorance. Did I ever stop to ask myself why I said these things? No. Did my white body prevent me from digging through decades of pre-judgment–from seeing clearly that some of my choices smacked of fear? Yes. And then finally I asked myself why?

Because it was ingrained from my ancestors, forebears or the populace that came before me. They handed me a well-crafted picture–just handed it over and said:”Here, believe this, because this is how it is for you and how it will always be.” Were they good and loving people? Mostly, yes. Were they the product of the times, the whispered words, the judgments. Yes, definitely. And Christians also.

Separation. Fear. Build a wall–like don’t drive there after dark; don’t shop thereDon’t take the bus. 

My husband took the bus to college through those neighborhoods. NEVER had an incident.

Thank God for NOW because my grandchildren would ask WHY NOT TAKE THE BUS? And since reading BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, these phrases, these tossed off and accepted ideas that are so much a part of the nomenclature stand out in my mind like darts of poison–because I am part of this. So what can I do when my policeman relative tosses it off so casually? Try to understand and yet know I cannot change him; arguments take me nowhere. But my black brother-in-law from South Africa, he gets it. He and my sister-in-law have experience DWB–driving while black.

I taught in a school with a diverse population (one of the best things that ever happened to me). But even so, I brought with me some pre-conceived ideas. My friend Linda M. helped wake me up. Told me, WE NEED TO SHARE THE LAND. Yes.

And not just share a dying neighborhood or a crumbling public housing building. See how they trash everything? I cringe even typing those words, but this is what we hear, this is in the language. We need to wake up and challenge it, never make general assumptions. Or at least try to discern WHY some things happen as they do.

My older daughter’s master’s thesis in Urban Planning was on the rationale behind the housing projects in Chicago–many of which have been torn down, thank God, some of which remain. I read portions of her reference books and they pointed to a major fact: a human being needs to have a say, to identify with a dwelling, a doorway, a garden. That builds pride, leads to care. Pushed in one direction without agency in choice blocks attachment. Ever read RAISIN IN THE SUN? Ever think about living in a building 20 stories high with no sunlight in the stairwell, one or two windows lighting your abode and no ability to step outside on a deck or a patio to feel the sun on your face? Sounds a bit like a prison. It was.

We whites think we have struggled for safety. Here is Coates: To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned another language consisting of a basic complement of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks. I learned the smell and feel of fighting weather…I recall learning these laws clearer than I recall learning my colors and shapes, because these laws were essential to the security of my body.

Coates emphasizes his fear that someone will destroy his body because he is black–and for no other reason. Thus he references the firm and physical discipline of his parents.The LESSON that all black mothers and fathers teach their children: avoid the police when walking the streets. Be careful. Watch yourself. Your life depends on it.

What thoughts went through your mind, Dear Reader, when you saw a black mother scolding her child in a store, or pulling that child toward her? Negative right? Now read this from Coates as he addresses his son:

Now I understood it all…black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied,of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protective racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account…because my death would not be the fall of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race”…

Coates recounts his first trip to Paris, a joyful-sad experience for a man bursting from the historical bonds of American society. Sitting in a Parisian garden he writes: At that moment a strange loneliness took hold…It occurred to me that I really was in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America, I was part of an equation–even if it wasn’t a part I relished. I was the one the police stopped on 23rd Street in the middle of a workday…I was not just a father but the father of a black boy. I was not just a spouse but the husband of a black woman, a freighted symbol of black love. But sitting in the garden, for the first time I was an alien, a sailor–landless and disconnected. And I was sorry I had never felt this particular loneliness before–…far outside of someone else’s dream. 

Yes, we all have dreams. But they have to be ours. SHARE THE LAND, let others have their dreams without a catch. J Beckett says in his Goodreads Review of Coates’s book: The tears came because Coates, in a few pages, captured, exposed, unlocked and translated what so many people of color, so many frustrated and frightened parents, and so many disenfranchised and nomadic youth found so difficult to dictate and explain. For them, the feelings were there but the words simply would not come. I wept because Coates’ story was my story..

And part of Coates story is my story–it’s my inability to fully see and understand. I have a bigger window on that story now, even though what I saw was not my plane landing at Ohare in Chicago, but the words on the page bright and vivid calling out to me.

Read this book. Let me know if his words touch you also.

P.S. Next week, The Terra-cotta Warriors, on display at the Field Museum. If you are in Chicago, don’t miss it.

 

photo www.youtube.com

 

 

The Staying Power of Words

Maybe our words float up into the ether.

Maybe our words float up into the ether.

Do your fingers ever hover over the keyboard before you create a sentence or hit send? We might be able to assign a few more seconds of hesitation to the “writing, posting” process than the speed of which WORDS come out of our mouths. In either case, words have staying power. On the internet they are almost forever. Politicians and pundits have alerted us that tweets can be deleted–but not really. What was said is OUT THERE.

Maybe fifteen years ago, I started to believe that every word I said (and that lead me to believe the words of everyone who has lived on this earth) is floating around in the ether somewhere. My words of love were there; my questions. And so were my angry words, my vindictive words. So were the taunts I overcame and the angry words of others that I experienced.

But on an even higher level, my words of love or those of anyone–parents, scholars, writers–were struggling against the words of folks gone wrong–like Hitler and Mussolini–their words challenging those of Jesus and Buddha, thinkers and philosophers. There is not room on the page to create a list of humanity’s ideas that grapple with other ideas, words.

And I think this concept could be scientific fact–though that’s not my forte. The idea also smacks of some psychological fact. Ask a counselor or a psychologist, psychiatrist. People spend years aching, hurting, burning over words said to them by their parents,  other family members, friends or a person they bump into on the street.

Yesterday, while listening to a podcast, Brene Brown told the story of an artist who offered his mother a drawing at the tender age of eleven. She was about to hang it on the fridge (which all mothers know is the first place of honor) when the boy’s father walked in. “You’re not planning to become some faggot artist are you?” Did the picture get hung, did the boy go on to draw more? No–not until he was in his fifties. Words have staying power. They float around in the ether and become indelible memory. They do damage. They can’t be taken back. Amended? Maybe. But does that work?

You might not agree with my theory about the ether–but everyone who draws breath has a memory of a word or words that they either try to forget because of some hurt or long to remember because it sent them on a positive life-journey.

Take-aways:

  • might be a good idea to linger over the keyboard before hitting send
  • give yourself a time-out before responding to a text, email or voicemail that riles you up
  • sometimes the message can still be delivered but with the proper word choice (sorry I believe that PC has its positive effects)

How fascinating if in a story or a novel, a person walks into a room and encounters a barrage of words floating in the ether that uplift him and encourage him to fulfill a quest. How fascinating if the memory of one word (and not faggot but artist) propelled an eleven-year-old boy to take art classes in high school, only to go on to be able to sell his art and help take care of his mother and his father when their health was failing. (Love that change in the story.)

We, as people, are all about stories, all about words. Yesterday, while singing as loudly as I could during a church service, I pictured my “song words” lifting up through the high ceiling and blowing out into the ether and I hoped they would do some good, push away words of discouragement and anger, words that support the viciousness and debilitating partisanship that is so much of our current culture.

Words have staying power and I want mine to be remembered with “encouragement” and “hope” attached to them. So please have a great week and thanks to author Laura Drake who brought the words of author Madeleine Engle to me today:

The author and the reader “know” each other; they meet on the bridge of words.

Photos: Thanks to www.genesseecountyparks.org and www.transformhypothesis.co.uk

The Staying Power of Words

Words form a bridge between us.

Marilynne Robinson Talks to A Famous Person, Part One

Marilynne Robinson Talks to A Famous Person

Photo taken in the beautiful Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

When I lived in Des Moines, the capitol of Iowa, I met some amazing people–my forever friends, and some folks with recognizable names. Living in a small big town allowed contacts I would never have had in my hometown of Chicago. I shook hands and talked with Secretary Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Howard Dean, Gov. Tom Vilsack, Sen. Tom Harkin, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Terry Branstad–to name a few. I joined a series of talks where celebrated women shared their lives: Anne Lamott, Julie Andrews, Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Ann Richards and more. I heard Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman and even shook hands with Barack Obama. But I never met a writer that I admire and would feel honored to sit and talk to–Marilynne Robinson. She is currently a professor with the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Wow, if I could go to Prairie Lights and hear her read.

Background of Marilynne Robinson 

Robinson’s first best-selling novel, HOUSEKEEPING was published in 1980 and nominated for a Pulitzer. She didn’t publish another novel until GILEADin 2005, and it did win the Pulitzer. Because Robinson had fallen in love with the family of her creation, the Boughtons, she wrote two sequels, HOME and LILA, published in 2008 and 2014, respectfully. Readers like me were thrilled.

I will always remember driving back to Des Moines after visiting my mom who was slowly dying in a senior home. Listening to an audio version of HOME, I started to cry. Minister and widower Robert Boughton is also dying and wants his son Jack to stay in Gilead. “I can’t enjoy the thought of heaven like I should, leaving so much unattended to here. I was hoping I would be able to tell your mother that you had come home.” Jack sat pondering his father…finally he said, whispered, “I hope you will give her my love.”

POTUS Asks to Sit Down and Chat: Democracy 

Robinson’s works touch on the deep religious roots of our culture and President Barack Obama, like me, had read all of her novels and asked to speak to her about the broader cultural forces that shape and affect our democracy. You can listen here. Marilynne and POTUS met in an architectural jewel, the legal library in the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. And after listening to their hour podcast, I hope to capsule here and next week the main points that they covered.

They concurred that the basis of democracy is that people assume well of other people. That allows us to work together. Fear and conspiracy theories fight the function of democracy. Democracy (demos: Greek for people) indicates that WE ARE ALL FROM EVERYWHERE, and it is inappropriate to have an “in-group.” They agree that democracy is the consequence of humanism–being human and having a love of God is always implied in this. LOVE THY NEIGHBOR should be part of how we function and not arming ourselves constantly against the “imagined other.” THIS IS A CHALLENGE and IT IS DIFFICULT! Yes.

Homespun Values

In the discussion of Robinson’s work, that it features small town Iowa, Robinson and POTUS agreed about the importance of life on the local level, that it can instill the virtue of interacting with our neighbors through Little League and trips to the ER. We are being good to each other, caring for each other. Knowledge of one another fights against FEAR.

Then they discussed the GAP between this, our daily life, and political life. Robinson suggested that the restlessness that helped build this country is trying to unbuild it. She says: “People who don’t like government should go live where there is none–no roads, education, post office, electricity.” Suspicion of government can be paralyzing and so can someone building up fear of THE OTHER. An emphasis on CONFLICT creates a pessimism and drowns out the positive voices in our culture. POTUS: And that, too, is a running strain in our democracy. That’s sort of in our DNA. We’re suspicious of government as a tool of oppression. And that skepticism is healthy, but it can also be paralyzing when we’re trying to do big things together.

Reading Novels/Listening to Music

POTUS asked Robinson if we are still reading novels, still distilling ideas through the lives of characters who can offer some hope or analysis. They talked about Iowa small towns and how POTUS felt comfortable in 2004 when he began his presidential campaign and spent a great deal of time in Iowa being with families. I’d go into these towns and everybody felt really familiar to me, because they reminded me of my grandparents and my mom and that attitude that you talk about. You saw all through the state—and I saw this when I was traveling through southern Illinois when I was first campaigning for the United States Senate—and I actually see it everywhere across the country. Robinson concurs because she has traveled all through Iowa and set her novels in the state and sees it as a symbol of America and its people and their struggles and how religion and day to day living can bring people closer together and yet challenge their beliefs at the same time.

They then discussed HAMILTON, the brilliant musical currently on Broadway, seeing it as a symbol of the vibrancy of American democracy. The show and its song lyrics emphasize that our forefathers were brilliant, but at the same time flawed. Just as they are today. They agreed that HAMILTON is an excellent way to reach young people and teach them history.

How the United States Relates to History 

POTUS stated that in many ways America is ahistorical. He says: That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.

Education and Quarterly Earnings 

Robinson and POTUS also discussed the importance of education, agreeing that all of society needs to support education and often it does not. Success is defined not by how much you read and learn but by quarterly earnings. Robinson asks that folks think about what makes them feel optimistic. When she asks the question of others, she hears that people crave a society that supports them. Her solution to getting there? She says: And it’s only—really, if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote. 

What Would You Like to Add to the Conversation? 

Would love your thoughts. And more next week. Thanks to the New York Review of Books.

Marilynne Robinson Talks to A Famous Person, Part One

Saying Goodbye at the Des Moines Airport

Marilynne Robinson Talks to A Famous Person, Part One

The stacks in the legal library at the Iowa State Capitol. A place you wouldn’t want to leave.

Breaking Into The Conversation

Breaking Into The Conversation

You’re with a group of people. It could be family. It could be a gathering of friends. Or even your work buddies out to relax or maybe form a group to complain about something going on within the office walls. Then consider: you want to break into the conversation, but you can’t. Even with family gatherings this happens–no one is giving you an opening because someone is the leader, someone is choosing the topics and you find you are no longer listening but just waiting, waiting for a chance to break in. You lose the thread of the conversation. Or after a while you don’t even care.

CONVERSATION SHOULD BE AN EXCHANGE OF IDEAS 

  • We all anticipate being with people we care about and sharing conversation.
  • Often we are tired at the end of the day and eager for something fun.
  • And to add to our eagerness, we dressed up to be with friends for some meaningful exchanges.

This is part of being a member of society–the anticipation of TALKING to one another. You might even have some news you want to share and you’re just excited to be with this group and see their reactions and how they will support you. (Come on People, we still like the warmth of camaraderie and don’t have to open our minds and souls through Facebook all the time, but can wait for that gathering of hugs and smiles to give our news.)

We all crave that small spotlight when people will focus on us and listen to what we have to say. The KEY is the exchange. And friends and family can be so generous about our news or our opinions. From youth to old age–being able to steer the conversation is empowering and helps us grow no matter the topic:

a new job; the choice of a school or a career; the person we are dating or going to marry; the person we just broke up with; the death of a friend or someone being ill or someone injured or someone recovering. We made money; we lost money. We just met someone the group already knows; we have a new idea for our art work, writing project, music presentation. There are millions of topics. So enough–you get the idea.

But what if you’re having a bad time and you can’t break in or you suddenly don’t want to break in. There are a variety of reactions to this.

  • you give up and walk away
  • you try even harder to break in
  • you find yourself getting angry
  • you attempt to peel the person sitting next to you away from the group

I’ve been in situations with friends when the conversation was all about people I did not know. Everyone else was comfortable with remembering these folks, but since I didn’t know them, I sat quietly wondering when the conversation would take a turn into a topic where I could join in. Has that happened to any of you?

I think if you care about the group you are with you tend to be patient, maybe help yourself to another drink and wait for things to change. But if this happens to you a number of times, you tend to become sensitive to groups that do that. Your awareness of making a conversation COMFORTABLE for everyone in the room becomes one of your goals. When you are the host you are very aware of this. Conversation can be hurtful. Unfortunately it goes with bringing a variety of people together. Drinking can loosen tongues. You intended to have a fun party and maybe there are people leaving your gathering with hurt feelings and unless they tell you, you will never know.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO? WHAT WILL YOU DO?

There are going to be many situations in the next six plus months where the main topic of conversation will be politics. I think in some situations we will have to decide to preserve the friendship and so if the person is on the other side–better not to go there at all–or give it a try?

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Again, what will you do?

It’s a hard choice. Strong feelings about a candidate can make us want to get up on a bully pulpit and shout to the world. If only we could always stay on an intellectual plain of ideas. Tricky, tricky stuff.

FLOOD YOUR BRAIN WITH IDEAS 

I found this note in one of my notebooks: Each of us has a pool of stories, opinions that we offer in conversation when there is an opening, when we find the space to express our views. But what if this pool would become so narrowed down that we might be expressing 20-25 ideas. There is never an excuse for not reading and learning about possibilities. The world is wide open inviting us to read, consider and take new things in our minds and hearts. Maybe that will help us break into the conversation of living–and people will no longer ignore what we have to say. They will be eager to give us an opening–they will be looking to us to YES, guide the conversation.

AGAIN, WHAT DO YOU THINK?  WISHING US ALL GOOD LUCK WITH THIS ONE.

Photo: Merlot Marketing.comBreaking Into The Conversation

Breaking Into The Conversation

For Mother’s Day–An Invitation to Meet Some Moms!

For Mother's Day--An Invitation to Meet Some Moms!

In FACTS OF LIFE Cara knows about fireflies, mosquitoes and bats. But is there more for her to learn?

We all come into this world because of our moms, and often we define what a mother is from that first experience: we are all a child to a mother. Today I invite you to meet some moms–five of them. Some you might immediately identify with, some you might criticize, pity or weep for. But all of these women are moms and they all have a story to share with you.

Anne: She is in her thirties and divorced, a working mother with one child–twelve-year-old Cara. Her co-wroker Mark wants a relationship. But is she ready? Is Cara ready? When an attempted kidnapping occurs near Cara’s school, Anne has to ask herself if any of the decisions she is making are the right ones. How will Anne answer that question. Find out in my story FACTS OF LIFE.

Claire Emmerling: Unmarried and unsure, Claire is in her early forties and pregnant for the first time. The father is neurosurgeon Christian Farr who Claire has worked with for many years. She will not reveal the pregnancy to him. But when she finds Polaroid photos of her own mother pregnant with her–Claire realizes that baby was incidental to the sex, but the child that moves within her is everything–the sex incidental. How will Claire move forward? Read SOMEDAY IT WILL BE DECEMBER.

Hazel Enright: Hazel cannot eat hard-boiled eggs or stand the smell of scorched linen. These and other experiences plunge Hazel into the memory of being pregnant at sixteen and her parents forcing her to “go away”, have her baby and then give it up. Has this experience changed Hazel’s life? Read HAZEL’S CHILD.

Emily: She feels abandoned and lonely, her husband constantly on business trips, her children off to college and her doctor telling her she must have a hysterectomy. But when her old friend Veda calls and asks her to meet, Emily learns that maybe she is not in the autumn of her life. Because there is always change, Veda revealing her own life is not the fantasy Emily thought it was. No life is. The tables are turned in MAKING CHANGE.

Sunny: She’s a landscaper with a cheating husband, a daughter of her own and an adopted daughter, Colette who one day takes too many pills and is rushed to the hospital. Now Sunny’s life has one focus–to understand and help Colette. Can she find the right words to make Colette see that there are good things in life? Find out in YOU HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG.

Meet and read about these moms and eight others in A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE, a perfect gift for you or a mother you know for MOTHER’S DAY, May 8th. To purchase A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE from Amazon, B&N, kobo etc go here.  And don’t forget the dark chocolate–one piece to go with each story.

To read a story from A Mother’s Time Capsule go here.

COMMENTS ABOUT CAPSULE

What a wonderful book this is – filled with heart memories, a perfect gift for Mother’s Day for yourself or someone else! I love Elizabeth A. Havey’s writing! Carol Boyer

Beautifully written. Emotional, thought provoking tales which are the perfect length for dipping in and out of. Cathy L.

This author has a unique voice and writes with such profound emotion it’s as if she’s left a part of herself on every page. Susan Haught

The extraordinary imagery of these stories is evocative of the early years when I was raising my two sons. “A Mother’s Time Capsule” artfully describes the woes and wonder of being a mother. I will read it over many times. Kelly M.

 

For Mother's Day--An Invitation to Meet Some Moms!

A Mother’s Day Gift!

Conversations With My House

Conversations With My House

Maybe the walls can talk.

I may be a bit crazy, but whenever my husband and I would drive away for a long vacation, I would look back at our house and say, “Be good, House. ” And this, out loud. Funny, I didn’t really greet the house when I returned, but was always happy to have the garage door go up and find things the way I left them. Houses are the warm womb we like to get back to: the pillow on the bed that is just right, the views that are old but warm the heart with their familiarity. And the feel of the doorknobs and how the stove works–it’s smooth and easy, like the worn slippers that comfort the feet. And no matter how big or small, well decorated or pared down–it’s that place that is ours.

WALLS MIGHT TALK, BUT THEY ALSO ADAPT  

But consider this. Houses hold the conversations of families and as the famous saying goes IF THE WALLS COULD TALK… well, maybe they can. Did my big house in Iowa slump with sadness when I left it? No. But maybe it’s plaster walls started to experience infinitesimal cracks because three little girls moved in and I’m sure they’re a lot noisier than my husband and me–the house’s last occupants.

We called this house, the House in the Trees, because we had 17 oak trees on our property. They were lovely, but tons of work. I created a plaque with that name and when we drove away–I left it for the new owners with a note, saying I hoped they would love the house as much as I did. But this is my pattern. These are the conversations with my house and the people who live in them. But will the new owners feel like I do?

YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN

Our first house was a tract house, built on a piece of land with no trees. We had to put in a lawn and garden, attempt to create a “place” that was ours. It was wonderful to have our own walls, and this was the house where our first child began to walk and talk. But after awhile we left it, seeking a really old house that opened its arms to us and we lived there for seventeen years. Our two other children were born during that time.

There was a day when the doorbell rang and a young man stood on the porch. He told me he had been raised in the house, was back in town and just wanted to take a look. I warmly welcomed him. After he quietly walked around for a while, certainly trying to blot out our furniture and photographs so that the place he had loved would open its arms to him, he asked to see his bedroom. I took him up to see it. I think this was the end for him–the bright blue walls were now melon-colored and there were no trucks or trains or sports equipment–whatever had signified that this was his space. And so he thanked me and abruptly left. I understood. We had painted over the marks on the woodwork that traced his growth. Now our children’s names were there–for the while.

Something similar happened with the next home we bought and totally remodeled. The daughter came back and as she walked through–her mouth dropping open–she couldn’t believe the changes we had made. We had given the house the love that it needed, but I could not ask her which she preferred–the old shabby way or our new refreshed hardwood floors and remodeled kitchen. She probably liked it the old way–because that was what welcomed her home each night.

HAUNTED HOUSES 

In that remodeled house, my daughter whose bedroom was on the third floor, a room cut out of the attic, actually believed that a female ghost lived in the house. How the spirit dealt with the remodeling I don’t know, but one night my daughter was certain she saw the woman in a pink bathrobe standing outside her door. It’s possible. A woman had died in the house. The closest I have ever come to feeling a house is haunted is the sounds that it makes–the things you become familiar with like the top step of the basement stairs in the Iowa house–I can still hear it creak. Or the plumbing in the walls of that house that would clank when the water was heating up. This is how houses talk back, let owners know their personalties.

And they fight you. A remodel or a minor change gleams in your mind and when you or the people you have hired arrive to make it happen–the house resists. “Well, your plan won’t work because there isn’t a weight-bearing wall here…” “You electric will need a total upgrade..” etc etc. It ALWAYS HAPPENS.

HOUSES: An Ode to One’s Life 

When I miss some of the places where I have lived, I look at photographs and think about the joyous times–the births of our children, the Thanksgivings, summer barbecues with games on the lawn, the graduation parties, the visits from my family. And I think about the simple days: rising, breakfast, the newspaper on the front porch, the leaves to be raked in the back yard, the sun going down while we sit sharing our dinner with some flowers from my garden on the table. Houses are a gift. Though houses do need upkeep–I have often joked that the rather old and practical cars that we drive to help balance the budget should have a license plate that proclaims YOU SHOULD SEE MY NEW FURNACE!!

But it’s the warmth and safety that matters, that sticks. Virginia Woolf celebrates similar feelings in her short story THE HAUNTED HOUSE. Here is an excerpt, the ghosts (people like me who have left, though these are true dead spirits) coming back to remember what living there was, what memories pulse in the place. I think the walls are talking.

“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.

If you have to sweep a walkway or paint a room, remodel a kitchen or start a garden–rejoice. Your house will thank you for your tender care and your memories will linger even longer–because this is your domain, and as you work have that conversation. The walls might not talk, but they hear what you are saying. So even after struggling to install that new furnace–step back, enjoy the view and tell the house: THANK YOU.

Conversations With My House

Our House in the Trees. .