The voice may be tenor or soprano. The music may be folk, modern or classical. Whatever your choice, it now begins—Christmas music reemerges as we celebrate the season in sound. We hum, sing along. My husband and I move from Diana Krall and Bill Evans, to the Robert Shaw Choral, Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas, James Taylor’s Christmas songs. Everywhere, there’s wonderful variety, music becoming the focus of family get-togethers, school celebrations and church events. Music is tradition. Music is memory.
REPETITION AND REMEMBRANCE or “GET UP ON YOUR FEET”
What song do you look forward to singing? Do you play old records or click on Spotify? Some of you might be part of a church choir—but with Covid, you might be forced to abandon practices. But you can always sing to your Christmas tree, remember the songs that make you joyful for your beliefs.
Music captivated my younger brother in his teens, became his lifelong career and passion, so at Christmas, his Christmas Dreams collection is a favorite. He and my son will grab guitars, play, sing, fill the house with sounds of the season—and they’re always open to requests–grandchildren, cousins, everyone dancing. Be joyful, move your body—that’s all that’s required.Got a new move? Share it, for the holidays are always about health and new life, about blotting out the darkness that pervaded much of the world, about lighting candles, fires, and gathering people together to share food, drink and love. ( But honor your host regarding what you can bring to a celebration and do make sure you are vaccinated.)
DECEMBER: A TIME FOR EVERYONE
The very existence of the Christmas season will always be connected to new life, the birth of Jesus Christ. It is also about memories, the cranberry bread you make every year. The lights you hang on shrubbery, trees and doorways to light up your surrounding world. The warm room, maybe a fireplace burning and always a hug or words of caring for those who come through your door. Just think: even though Australia and countries on the other side of the equator are unpacking their summer clothes—it’s still “coming on Christmas.”
And yet there are shadows that even a brightly lit world cannot dispel. Maybe this is your first Christmas without a parent, a spouse, your closest friend. This is a Christmas where your time will be spent visiting your son in rehab or remembering to take medication for a recently developed condition. Some of you will travel to rejoice with family and friends, or to mourn with them. But we humans keep going, healthy, struggling, joyful or sorrowful, we keep on…
Chris Erskine, in his column a few years back, reminded his daughter: “Everybody is someone.” That statement is always true, but during this season when emotions are heightened, memories can hang over one’s day like a dark cloud–instead of mistletoe. It’s best to remember to care for or smile at those you meet. And you could ask yourself, do I really need “another ornament” for the overloaded tree? I know I don’t, remembering that my mailbox has been full of organizations asking for help. Write that check, mail it today.
So whatever your December brings you, I hope you will experience contentedness, the desire to reach out to others. After all, the season is only beginning, plenty of time to be grateful, to make Santa Claus come alive and for a child. Thanks for reading.
Artwork: thanks to Nancy Haley nancyhaleyfineart.com
Writer and physician Atul Gawande, reminds us in his book, BETTER, that much of modern medicine did not just happen—it came to be through trial and error, through the deaths of others, the mistakes and triumphs that IS the history of medicine. In BETTER, a surgeon’s notes on performance, we meet Elizabeth Rourke in the chapter, THE SCORE.
OUR PREGNANT PATIENT
Rourke is forty-one weeks pregnant, having contractions. She’s an internist, on staff at Mass General. Her contractions are 7 minutes part. She reports this to her obstetrician at 8:30 am. She is told not to go to the hospital until her contractions are 5 minutes apart. Standard protocol. (this book was published in 2007). In medical school, Rourke has seen fifty births, delivered 4, and watched one in a hospital parking lot. It was winter, the baby was blue, crying. They covered the infant, raced back into the hospital. With that memory, Rourke finished packing her bag and her husband drives her to the hospital.
Gawande then relates some history of pregnancy and birth that has been recorded. He writes of 21-year-old Princess Charlotte of Wales, in 1817, four days in labor, struggling to deliver a nine-pound boy in a sideways position, his head too large for her pelvis. When he finally emerges, he is stillborn. Charlotte dies six hours later from hemorrhagic shock. Gawande relates that her physician was reviled for not using forceps. In remorse for her death, he shot himself.
Gawande relates other statistical history of births—that in 1933, the New York Academy of Medicine published a shocking study of 2,041 maternal deaths in childbirth in New York City. At least two-thirds of those deaths investigators found to be preventable, that many physicians simply did not know what they were doing. They missed signs, symptoms, incorrectly used forceps and spread infection. Midwives did better.
UPDATE ON OUR PATIENT, ROURKE
Her pain has increased, thinks she must be 7-8 centimeters. She is at 2. Her labor has stalled. Then at 2:43 AM she is at four centimeters. It’s been twenty-two hours. They give Rourke an epidural. This is not a simple procedure. Gawande goes through the steps, explaining the risks, one being the mother’s heart rate dropping and the necessity for a bolus of fluid injections and ephedrine to increase and stabilize hers and the baby’s blood pressure. The baby’s heart rate is being monitored constantly, showing decelerations during contractions and then recovering. When necessary, Rourke (and thus the baby) are given extra oxygen by a nasal prong.
At 6 AM Rourke is a 4 centimeters. At 7:30 Dr. Alessandra Peccei comes on duty. Rourke is 6 centimeters dilated and 100% effaced. Baby is seven centimeters from crowning, head becoming visible at the opening to the vagina. As the hours progress, Dr. Peccei punctures the membrane of Rourke’s amniotic sac. Waters flow, contractions pick up, the baby does not move and the heart rate begins to drop. 120, 100, 80. When the doctor stimulates the baby’s scalp, the heart rate responds.
SEGWAY to: VIRGINA APGAR, the APGAR SCORE
Virginia Apgar was a doctor working in New York, a doctor who had an idea, one that Gawande states is “ridiculously simple.” It transformed childbirth and the care of newborns. And as Gawande states, she was an unlikely revolutionary for obstetrics, had never delivered a baby, not as a doctor, not even as a mother. But she would often sit down with someone having trouble and say, “Tell Momma all about it.” She was a surgeon, but joined Columbia’s faculty as an anesthesiologist. She became the second woman in the country to be board certified in anesthesiology, helping the practice to have its own division, on equal footing with surgery. Gawande writes that Apgar was appalled by the care many newborns received.
“Babies who were born malformed or too small or just blue and not breathing well were listed as stillborn, placed out of sight, and left to die. They were believed to be too sick to live. Apgar believed otherwise. She had not authority….She was not an obstetrician. She was a female in a male world. Gawande: “So she took a less direct but ultimately more powerful approach: she devised a score.”
The Apgar score—as it is now universally known, allowed nurses to rate the constitution of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if the heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.
Throughout the world, virtually every child born in a hospital came to have an Apgar score at one minute after birth and then again at five minutes after birth. It became clear that a baby with a bad Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated, with doctors, nurses providing warmth, physical touch and oxygen, to help the baby gain an excellent score at five minutes.
The results: neo-natal units! The score also affected the management of childbirth. Spinal and epidural anesthesia were found to birth babies with better scores than general anesthesia.
Prenatal ultrasound became a regular process used to detect problems for delivery in advance.
Fetal heart monitors became standard. All these changes, these procedures have produced amazing results. Gawande writes: “In the US today, a full-term baby dies in just one childbirth out of 500, and a mother dies in less than one in 10,000.”
FINAL THOUGHTS How did Dr. Apgar’s work make doctors BETTER?
The Apgar Score changed everything, being a practical way to calculate and give doctors an immediate feedback as to how effective their care had been.
The Score also changed the choices that doctors made concerning how to do better! They poured over the Apgar results, wanting to encourage results that would make every doctor, nurse, from the most experienced to the novice, a better practitioner.
And our patient, Elizabeth Rourke? She had almost 40 hours of labor and finally a Cesarean section. Katherine Anne was born at seven pounds, fifteen ounces, brown hair, blue-gray eyes, and soft purple welts where her head had been wedged sideway deep inside her mother’s pelvis. Her Apgars: 8 at one minutes, 9 at five minutes—nearly perfect.
MORE TO READ: Find more wonderful information about Health Care in Gawande’s books: BETTER: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, COMPLICATIONS: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, BEING MORTAL: Medicine and What Matters in the End, THE CHECKLIST MANIFESTO: How to Get Things Right
In her latest novel, OH WILLIAM!–Lucy Barton, the main character and voice in the novel, tells us that when she learns William had been having an affair with her friend, “a tulip stem inside me snapped. It has stayed snapped, it never grew back.”
Elizabeth Strout hated being a lawyer: “I couldn’t stand up for anybody, even when I believed in their case.” After six months, she left to do the adjunct professor thing in Manhattan, teaching literature—writing. Strout has admitted that there’s nothing romantic about being rejected, but she never gave up. “I often had only two hours every three days to work; I had to make the most of it.”
She succeeded, using her early life in Maine to create Amy and Isabel, Abide with Me and then Olive Kitteridge, her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories about a cantankerous wife, mother and former teacher. Example: Olive’s only child, Christopher, has just married Suzanne. Olive leaves the party, goes into the married couple’s bedroom…she crosses the pine floor, gleaming in the sunshine, and lies down on Christopher’s (and Suzanne’s) queen-size bed. …It pleases her to think of the piece of blueberry cake she managed to slip into her big leather handbag—how she can go home soon and eat it in peace, take off this panty girdle, get things back to normal.
…Then later, Olive sees the bride’s favorite pair of loafers. She takes one, smashing it into her purse with the blueberry cake. That’s Olive.
In Olive Again, 2019, Strout deals with Olive’s second marriage, her son’s divorce, her need to move to the Maple Tree Apartments. There she meets characters who have appeared in Strout’s work: Amy and Isabelle, The Burgess Boys. This expansion of the lives of former characters reinforces Strout’s oeuvre and the world she’s created. Toward the end of Olive Again….her mind twirling around, Olive suddenly remembered catching grasshoppers as a child, putting them in a jar with the top on, her father had said, ‘Let them out, Ollie, they’ll die.’
Her next, My Name Is Lucy Barton, allowed Strout to explore new artistic territory by creating Lucy, a writer with a background, a life experience worth exploring, exposing. Strout followed with a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible and now with Oh William! — Strout the writer, Lucy Barton her muse.
In MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Lucy is hospitalized for complications from appendicitis. Away from her children and husband, she awakens to find her mother sitting in the hospital room. There is little positive history to connect these two, but the mother has traveled from Amgash, Illinois, a fictional small town Strout created where people cling to the land, seeking comfort in the narrowness of what they know. The mother’s arrival gives rise to Lucy’s childhood pain: her father locking Lucy in a truck with a snake; the tiny cold house; Lucy staying late at school where she could study, be warm, meet the gentle teacher who believes in Lucy, helps her escape Amgash, attend college where she begins to write about her life, where she meets and falls in love with William!
As she wrote the story collection, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, I envision Strout with piles of notes (her process, see previous post) while laboring over themes and visual details to create characters that might have walked the streets of poorer towns, maybe even those in her beloved Maine. In her story SISTER, Lucy has finally returned to Amgash to visit her sister and brother.
Lucy moved close to her sister, she rubbed her knee. “Oh, that’s disgusting. You are not icky, Vicky, you’re–” “I am so icky, Lucy. Just look at me.” Tears keep coming from Vicky’s eyes. They rolled down over her mouth, with its lipstick. “You know what?” Lucy said. She stopped rubbing Vicky’s knee and started patting it instead. “Cry away. Honey, just cry your eyes out, it’s okay. My God, do you remember how we were never supposed to cry?”
Strout left a thread in MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Lucy’s father, a WWII vet, won’t accept Lucy’s marriage to William, whose heritage is German. Now in OH WILLIAM! Strout explores that thread.
Lucy married William, they lived in New York City, had two daughters, then later divorced. In Oh, William! Lucy’s second husband, David, has recently died, her daughters are grown. William has had women, but finds himself lonely. When he asks Lucy to go on a trip with him, help him search for a half-sister he has newly discovered on an ancestry website, Lucy questions her current role, but then agrees. The book is a trip of remembrance, of adaptation that all couples experience. Memories of their lives, their daughters lives past and present are shared. They talk about Catherine, William’s deceased mother, questioning how this step-sister might exist. The trip revives memories, Catherine putting William in a nursery school. “I’d cry every day at that place…Lucy, I would cry–the kids would circle around me at recess and they’d sing, ‘Crybaby, crybaby.'”
Lucy listens, silently questions how William will react if they actually find this woman, this half-sister.
With MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and now OH WILLIAM! Strout has mastered a clipped, direct style, scenes that flow into one another, revealing a character’s thoughts, ordinary, maybe even simple, but always revelatory….he was wearing the khakis that were too short and I had the same reaction I’d had when I first saw him wearing them at the airport the day before, but I was tired from my night and I did not feel it as strongly.
…so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for breadcrumbs that could lead us home. …that the only home I ever had was with William…I’m not sure why this is true, but it is. …being with Hansel–even if we were lost in the woods–made me feel safe. I wrote in the margin, YES! Strout relates a character’s thoughts, questions, pains, and the questioning we all have about our closest relationships.
I was in rural Maine and what had just come to me was an understanding, I think that is the only way I can put it, of these people in their houses, these houses we passed by. It was an odd thing, but it was real, for a few moments I felt this: that I understood where I was…that I loved the people we did not see who inhabited the few houses and who had their trucks in front of these houses. This is what I almost felt. This is what I felt.
Again, we check in on our feelings as they flow through us, pinning them down as we question and then say YES.
Every reader comes to a novel with their own past, their own anxieties, beliefs and a view of the world. Getting lost in story can be pleasing, but it can also arouse questions. Reading Elizabeth Strout is a journey. It provides a look at the reality of lives, not always pleasant, not always redeeming. Her characters are flawed, as we all are. But people change and grow. Strout has penetrated those changes in her work. Maybe that is why she again finds her characters gathered on her table of messy notes, waving conjoling, encouraging her to write more about them. I hope she does.
An author from Maine, now living and working in New York City, Elizabeth Strout published her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, in 1998. The basic storyline echoed some unfortunate headlines, examining, “the close relationship between Isabelle and her teenage daughter Amy, how their relationship comes to be strained after Amy is groomed by her much older math teacher.”
A reviewer in the New York Times summarized the new writer’s talent: “…the story’s true drama lies in the palpable, intricate way it examines the ‘scrape of longing’ that drives these characters toward human contact, leaving them raw and bleeding yet also more fully alive.”
I read her debut, then her second novel, Abide with Me, (2006) summarized as: a religious leader, struggling with the death of his wife, in a small New England town, in the 1950s. Still New England, but Strout flexing her writing muscle, wowing some of the reviewers while finding her way. She would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature on March 25, 2008, for creating the amazing character who appears in a collection of short fiction: OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Now with no place to go but up, Strout published THE BURGESS BOYS in 2013, a novel with Maine roots that takes place in New York City.
I GET TO MEET HER
In the summer of 2006, I did what had become a delightful summer habit, I would attend a writing workshop at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. The catalogue listed Elizabeth Strout, offering a weekend course on writing THE NOVEL. I signed up.
What kind of a teacher was this future Pulitzer Prize winner that auspicious weekend? Well, nervous, apologizing that this was a new experience for her—but talking about her passion, which of course is writing.
She spent the first day explaining how she’d come to be a fiction writer. I don’t think attendees, myself included, found this very helpful or exciting—but looking back, Elizabeth was truly sharing the nuts and bolts of her writing process, encouraging those of us who might also be experiencing an unusual start, a bumpy start.
Married to her first husband at the time, Strout mentioned that her in-laws didn’t understand why her dining room and a room in her basement were littered with scarps of paper, quick ideas that she jotted down, pages and pages, most-often written in long-hand and not always placed in organized piles. (Strout later taught herself how to compose at the computer) but I understood that moments of creation often come through the fingers, and at the time, longhand was her process. Though I don’t want to bore you with these details, as a struggling writer, I found it all fascinating.
MY LITTLE GIFT & HER ANALYSIS
Before that weekend, I’d found a furniture advertisement in a women’s magazine, the usual, except that the table had a neat pile of books and Strout’s AMY & ISABEL was prominently displayed. I brought the page with me, clipped it to my homework assignment.
Elizabeth had asked us to provide one chapter from our work-in-progress. I was working on my second novel, THE MOON DOCTOR, (still unpublished) about a burn victim who finds his traumatic experience has given him the power to heal others–without the need for medical school.
Strout read ten pages from a chapter in the middle of the book. Her final comment:
There’s a lot going on here, and it’s very intriguing. It seems you have quite an interesting plot at work here, and some very good details. I think you might work on making sure every sentence is direct and ‘true.’ We will talk more about this in workshop and conference. (Thanks for enclosing the cover of the brochure displaying my book. That was very thoughtful of you.) Elizabeth Strout.
For interested fellow writers, she underlined phrases, stating that they WEAKENED my presentation. Her message: these sentences were not true to my voice.
Example: All of these thoughts skittered around the encumbrance of his physical body. YES, I agree, a truly horrible sentence.
He slowly removed the IV catheter from Jolene’s arm. He’d forgotten a 4by4 and instead watched a snake of dark blood pool down onto the bed linen. Strout wrote: good use of detail.
Was Strout a great teacher? No. I know she’d be so much better now, as I have listened to her interviews, she being more assured, eager to share her writing process, because she has succeeded, truly succeeded. And her life has radically changed, her fourth novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, performed on Broadway, the dialogue spoken by Laura Linney.
A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT ELIZABETH STROUT…so next week, I will review Strout’s recent novel, OH, WILLIAM! when Strout is once again in the world of Lucy Barton, the main character of MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and her collection of short stories, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
How do you let go of stress? Do you walk, run, indulge in a hobby?
I’m a gardener, but I do love autumn, appreciate the end of things, the respite. I could say I just need a break, but because of the many things & duties we take on in our lives, it’s good to anticipate some letting go, to be creative with how we use that freed up time.
LOOK TO THE SEASONS
After our wild fertile spring blasts her seeds, creates weeding headaches, I truly don’t mind a halt to that growth, to the gradual letting go as the earth grows cold and the sun’s angle changes. Autumn is when flowers stand out against the returned vigor of green grass, the shouting changing colors of the trees. Being outside on a warm day becomes a gift. I soak up the sun, become even more aware of the beauty of the earth, as I rake, pick the last flowers in the garden, put away flowerpots. Because I am preparing my garden and myself for the onslaught of winter. As folks like to say, IT’S ALL GOOD. But it is major change.
CHANGE: SOMETHING WE CAN’T ESCAPE
The cycle of the seasons affects many things in our lives: school ends in one season, begins in another. Jobs and job responsibilities cycle throughout the year. Our very existence can change from the height of abundance to the depth of loss. But change is inevitable, and in these past seasons dealing with COVID, loss and gain have been the primary struggle. So are you okay? Have you lost anyone?
SOME SIMPLE PHILOSOPHY
To stay healthy in mind and body, we all have to try to avoid the stresses related to expected and unexpected changes–even those as basic and expected as the change of seasons. Jane McKeon, of Better Homes and Gardens, wrote in one of her gardening articles: 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.
On one level, Jane is talking about gardening, but on another her words mean much 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 never happened or that they will end. In the latter case, we might clench our teeth, tense up our body muscles, even lash out at those around us, the people we love. Or…we can let go. It’s challenging, but there are times that call for examining or admitting our struggles and our failures, discovering what might have contributed to them, trying not to repeat them. Bottom line, we are allowing a change in our own personal seasons.
There will be frost—for we are not in charge. But we can live happier, better lives if we find something about change that strengthens us. A broken bone, a pulled tendon, 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.
On a different note, it’s totally challenging to find anything good in a job loss. That’s a change that requires strength, positive thinking, the belief that attitude is everything. That kind of stress can hurt family relations, ruin a person’s health. In times of struggle, we have to let go, accept the help of others while we are doing everything we can to help ourselves: observing, learning, planting those new seeds. Then we will weather such a season–have hope for new growth; it’s a process we perfect one day, one week, one year at a time.
Jane McKeon may have intended her words just for gardening, but they are words of true wisdom. For spiritual and physical health, it’s best to accept the flow of the seasons in life, to weather the springs and the autumns. Then you’ll be ready for the winters when they come. Because after frost and snow, spring always returns.
When Will All the Leaves Fall Primitive art by Debbie Criswell
History: I am no sociologist, but for many years, riding the train from the suburbs into Chicago, I remember being uplifted and then discouraged by what I saw from the train’s windows. I became unconsciously aware that my spirits could rise and fall, just looking out a window. Why? Environment.
I always exited those rides either entering the canyon of tall Chicago buildings, or the quiet neighborhoods where I lived, places of green lawns and tidy homes. But I could not forget the buildings, the tracts of land in between that made me sorrowful for the people who lived there. I was looking at struggle, at the disadvantaged. In some cases, I was looking at real poverty. But then the train kept going, taking me away.
A CRITICAL EYE
Actually, back in the day, I could tell you who in my town, my neighborhood, was lax in keeping up their houses, their yards. When you live in a place of order, the disorder stands out. And when two or three homes in a row begin to slip, gradually the entire block can fall into a pattern where upkeep is ignored for one reason or another.
Deterioration can quickly occur in small towns, suburbs, but also in our PUBLIC SPACES if we are not alert to preventing a downward spiral. Research that proves this is always welcome, especially when it is backed by people like Eugenia C. South, Charles Branas and John MacDonald who decided to do some investigating of the subject, because they wanted to make a difference.
In the city of Philadelphia, they randomly chose places to receive an intervention. Partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, they transformed vacant lots by cleaning up abandoned mattresses and furniture, condoms, needles and other trash. They then planted new grass and trees, installed wood post and rail fences around the area and made sure that regular maintenance occurred. The grass was cut, weeds pulled and trash picked up.
Gun violence went down significantly. Quoting the article: “The steepest drop in crime, up to 29 percent, was in the several blocks surrounding vacant lots in neighborhoods whose residents live below the poverty line…Over 18 months, we analyzed for and did not find any evidence of crime simply being pushed to other parts of the city.”
STEP TWO: ABANDONED HOUSING
The group then studied abandoned houses with broken windows, crumbling facades and interiors riddled with trash. They randomly selected houses to 1. receive new doors and windows, full interior remediation (adding new doors and windows, cleaning the outside of the house and yard); or 2. only a trash cleanup intervention, or–no intervention at all. Their findings, which will be published, demonstrated a clear reduction in weapons violations, gun assaults and shootings as a result of the full remediation.
Similar interventions have strong evidence toward violence protection efforts. An interesting example: in Cincinnati, a loss of trees from pests was associated with a rise in crime. In Chicago, people living in housing that was surrounded by more trees reported less mental fatigue and aggression than counterparts who lived in barren buildings.
Thus I think back to my train ride–and though I always was blessed with a destination that included trees, grass and in warm weather bird song–compare that to garbage strewn streets and buildings barren of greenery.
The team of researchers also discovered that structural repairs to heating, plumbing, electricity and roofing to homes of low-income owners were associated with a drop in crime, including homicide. The more homes that were repaired in a certain area, the higher the impact in preventing crime.
The author, Eugenia C. South, who is an MD working in the trauma bay, leaves us with this thought: …after I care for shooting victims in the trauma bay of the ER, I ask myself–what if we, as a country, make intentional decisions to invest in people and their neighborhoods? Instead of dying, would they flourish?
I am grateful to GREEN STREETS CAN REDUCE VIOLENCE Eugenia C. South, which appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES.
Autumn is approaching…with winds and light rains, leaves beginning to fall, crops being harvested, trees becoming barren. Ah, the cycle. These weather patterns contrast with the drought and dryness in other parts of America and the world. What does nature know that we do not about the length of our days? Why do some regions have bounty and others experience loss? Is there something we need to atone for?
Probably. But though despite the shadow fo global warming, I’m determined to enjoy autumn once again. I have a large planter of yellow and burnt ocher mums nestling by pumpkins on my front porch. My autumn welcome sign is hung and a wreath of yellow leaves blazes in in my living room. This is my time. For me autumn is always a beginning.
A CLEARER PICTURE
When things fall back toward the earth, the outlines of garden and lawn, of walkway and road become more apparent. This precise definition creates a sense of order and organization. In fall there are memories of wild vines and riotous summer flower color. But now it’s best to be more satisfied with quieter denser things like clipped boxwood and evergreens, like bare tree trunks of grey and soft brown. The air is cool. The skies seem swept up too, presenting swathes of crystal color. Cold air outlines things so definitely, you can almost see each leaf and branch.
ORDER BRINGS TIME FOR CONTEMPLATION
Definition and order soothes the soul. I lean toward putting things away in their proper place. I lean toward knowing that everything sleeps quietly waiting for a reawakening. This is a time to store energy, to store knowledge. It can be a time to read great books and contemplate, make decisions.
If you seek solace and quiet, this is your time. For as we move inside to do our living, placing things we love like a bright pumpkin or a sheaf of leaves on table surfaces, or brightening a room with a flowered pillow or candlelight, it can also become a time to move inward in our thinking–to meditate and determine more and more exactly who we are.
Autumn decorations can remind us of endings, yet good endings that are resolute and leave us feeling blessed, not sorrowful. Autumn is the time of atonement for the Jewish people and how appropriate to tidy up one’s soul as the earth is preparing for sleep and hibernation, as winter winds are soon to come and humans are stocking up on food energy and light energy, hoping they will provide the ability to survive.
But no matter what the season, we should atone for the hurts we have caused; we should try to mediate our expressions of anger. And certainly if we have hurt someone we need to ask for forgiveness, hoping that if someone has hurt us, we can find a way to forgive that person, lighten the loads we often carry. And of course, we must try to forgive ourselves.
It’s a little early, but there will come a time as the days get shorter that we will want to settle back into our brains and examine who we are, where we are going, and how we might improve. Life cannot be lived like the riot of spring where nature blows her wad and lets everything grow and rush about. We enjoyed that fertility. But now it’s time to be more judicious in our use of harvest fruits; we need to carefully use and share our bounty.
Certainly in the spring, when life comes back, we have no fears of the future. But in the autumn, we need to count the jars in the cellar, the apples in the basket, the sins on the soul. We need to tidy our lives and draw within to discover how we will survive, how we will make it through the dark times of our life. And how we can help others through their darker, harder times.
In each of us is a light deep within. Sharing that light draws bounty, brings good things to us whether the world is hard-packed snow or dry desert. Autumn can provide a time for atonement. Winter and beyond can be full of the light of love as the grace of forgiving someone brings the warmth of reclaiming love. If you are feeling like all the days of your life are hard, cold winter, then it’s time to open up to those around you, to share the light within you. IT WILL BRING YOU HAPPINESS. As a wise woman once said to me: “Feeling sad today? Then go out and help someone else.” She was so right.
(this is a rewriting of an older post, but it always feels just right…)
Sometimes there are rewards when one goes into EVERNOTE and finds things. This was a response to a question that came in my email, but McSweeneys never responded. Oh well, dissed again…so I’ll share it with you…
Dear McSweeney’s, Here is my answer to: WHAT SHOULD THE CITIZENS OF THE US KNOW ABOUT YOU AND YOUR PLACE IN SOCIETY?
It is always better to approach a fearful time with knowledge and understanding. We can downplay fear if every individual focuses on personal worth, yet believes in specific goals going forward.
Partisans who fight against a conqueror display a deep love and belief in the country they fight for. In this time of Coronavirus, our goals must be to save lives, but also to preserve positive elements of our culture.
STAY WELL; PRESERVE OUR CULTURE
I value what the generations before me and my generation have brought to the foundation and advancement of our country. Turning against a particular group of people in a time of upheaval and fear is always misguided and can get out of control in the hands of overly frightened people. That’s called hysteria, and though we are not there yet, it would be so wrong to see older generations, people of color and newly arrived immigrants as sacrificial lambs. (rereading this maybe we are there now…at least in the minds of some.)
Now is a time for each of us, regardless of age, background and status to view life on a continuum.
GENERATIVITY: WHAT IS IT? DO I LIVE, BELIEVING IN THIS?
Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote about generativity, stating that in the middle years of adult life we come to realize: I am what survives me.
Though giving birth is the ultimate act of generativity, it is a parent’s follow-through, his and her commitment to nurturing and growing this person, that truly matters. People of all ages experience generativity by creating: a business, song, piece of sculpture, the resolution of a problem, a scientific theory, recipe, article, novel, hybrid-rose.
Generativity means creating the very future itself through teaching, volunteering, voting, forming and helping social institutions—and by currently working to save lives in hospitals, community centers, churches and health centers. In each of these actions resides a part of us and the good in us—because what we generate moves into the future and provides for those coming after.
I am what survives me.
YOUR KEYS TO A HEALTHY LONG LIFE…
Psychologists confirm, that people who want to generate and create, do experience feelings of well-being and low levels of depression. And it is always true that if you are feeling sad or lonely, the best cure is reaching out to help someone else. (In our age of communication, many of us can do this without worrying about exposure to the virus.) And yes, there is some ego or need for power in our acts of creation, but when we generate for future generations, we cover over the power with love.
TAKE THE TEST BELOW
Erikson reminds us that our acts of having children and building societies indicates our “belief in the species.” Even though we know that horrific things can happen on our planet, like this virus, daily we forge ahead believing in our own generative powers and the goodness that can still exist on our earth. Let’s not forget that in these contentious times, if there is to be sacrifice—it should be the giving of time and energy, or of funding hospitals and health centers. This is not a time to distain a generation who has brought our people through other traumas and still have energy, knowledge and hindsight to give to all generations.
P.S. Below is a self-test that each of you can take to see if you believe in generativity. The test if from the Loyola Generativity Scale (LGS).
Read the following six items and mark:
O if the statement never applies to you;
1 if the statement sometimes applies to you;
2 if the statement often applies to you;
3 if the statement always applies to you;
Then add up your score. Men, women in their 30s, 40s and 50s usually score 11. Younger adults and adults in their 60s and older usually score slightly lower.
___ I try to pass along knowledge I have gained through my experience.
____I have made and created things that have had an impact on other people.
____I have important skills that I try to teach others.
____If I were unable to have children of my own, I would adopt children.
____I have a responsibility to improve the neighborhood in which I live.
____I feel that my contribution will exist after I die.
Thanks to Dan P. McAdams for the inspiration from his article GENERATIVITY:The New Definition of Success
P.P.S. McSweeney’s is a nonprofit publishing company based in San Francisco. McSweeney’s exists to champion ambitious and inspired new writing, and to challenge conventional expectations about where it’s found, how it looks, and who participates.
After 9-11 life was totally altered, for all of us. As a writer, I sat and stared at my manuscript wondering if anyone would ever read a novel again. My husband had been traveling—not to New York, but to Connecticut. When he finally got home late on Friday, there was relief. But normality escaped us. It escaped everyone.
Then in those next few days, a friend offered me some insight. It came in the words of Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest whose teaching is like that of the first St. Francis: empty yourself, be compassionate of others, especially those that are socially marginalized. Okay. How do I do that when I am angry and confused.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
And though time has passed, many of the same questions circle around us. So today, let me offer this…because the words that Father Rohr used to explain liminal space, will always be relevant and helpful when we find ourselves full of questions.
Liminal Space is: a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else… It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…or do anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. - Richard Rohr
HOW WE REACT: COVID 19 and LIMINAL SPACE
Many of us once again feel this terrible cloud of unknowing. Some of us are angry that our lives have suddenly changed, that we are struggling with loss, death, an alteration in social habits like wearing a mask, avoiding closeness to strangers, having to prove we are vaccinated…the list is long.
Families have been pulled apart, because some refuse to be vaccinated. Why? There are many excuses, some of which I find hard to accept when my generation and the generations of my children began with a series of vaccinations to protect them from illnesses that were not only inconvenient (chicken pox) but could also lead to blindness and deafness in their future children, German measles (rubella), and sterility in males (mumps). So it makes no sense to risk death, damage to one’s lungs, having to be intubated etc etc when many of the refuse-nicks started out their lives being vaccinated. And all they have to do now is WEAR A MASK.
SO ARE WE AGAIN LIVING IN LIMINAL SPACE?
Let’s look at that definition again. “You have left the tried and true, the familiar, but have not been able to replace it with anything else. Being under a terrible cloud of unknowing.”
Having been a healthcare worker, the first thing I would suggest is to work against that vacuum, that feeling of unknowing. Examine questions–can we go out; will we be safe; will my children be safe and still get a good education; can I go back to work instead of working from home? will life ever be normal again? YES TO ALL THESE QUESTIONS. IF YOU ACCEPT THIS NEW REALITY AND GET VACCINATED–and during this interim time, WEAR A MASK.
THOUGH LIMINAL SPACE IS ONGOING… we must accept it. The feelings that are part of liminal space are common to daily living. We are always waiting for something: a job, a pregnancy, a graduation, a diagnosis, an acceptance letter, even a death; or a yes from someone whose yes might change our lives, and until we get that yes, we feel like someone else is holding the rest of our lives in his or her hands. IT’S NOT EASY. Liminal space brings frustration, depression. We hate living under that cloud of unknowing.
Thus we must look for the good news. It was true post-9-11, that we saw, heard and felt the warmth, love, understanding and giving of many Americans who did whatever they could to help those who had lost someone. Later it was young men and women who joined our volunteer army, feeling that was the best way to give.
Certainly liminal space always challenges us. We are rarely free of the unknowing—because we are mortal and have no knowledge of the date of our demise. That’s a given. But it can be used to power our love of self (taking care of our bodies) and love of those we live and work with (getting vaccinated so that we don’t get sick and infect others.) For how much better to offer understanding, honesty and friendship on a daily basis—because who really knows what the next hour will bring.
You’ll find examples every day of folks who have conquered the awful questioning of liminal space:
the cancer patient who goes into remission and dedicates her time to helping other patients; the teacher who takes extra time to work with the very student who upsets his classroom; the doctor or nurse who enters the clinic every day, even when Covid death stats are rising; the cop who does all he can to make certain-sure before using deadly force; the mother, father, neighbor, citizen who listens and evaluates any situation before making a judgment or rising to anger.
THE CITIZEN WHO FINALLY REALIZES THAT GETTING VACCINATED IS GOOD FOR HIM/HER BUT IS ALSO A WAY TO GIVE BACK TO THIS GREAT COUNTRY.
After 9-11 Richard Rohr reminded us that both Christian and Muslim mystics preferred the language of darkness. That is: they were most at home in the realm of not-knowing. In such darkness, Rohr writes, things are more spacious and open to creative response. We are more open to letting in God or blessed, positive thoughts–just like the cancer patient who is grateful for every day and turns darkness into light.
This from the Persian mystic Hafiz:
Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight has made my eyes so soft.
My voice so tender, my need of God, absolutely clear.
In this time of questioning, where we find ourselves often divided, even from friends and loved ones who feel and think differently than we do, try to accept and live in the cloud of unknowing. Try to move a bit closer to the other side or try to find something they share with you. It can be very challenging and just downright hard. But remember, you are both in liminal space, not truly knowing all. And if you have time: watch the film The Hundred-Foot Journey which underlines that people and cultures that are vastly different can cross the threshold and come to a place were there is not only knowing, but sharing and love.
Truly, we have no choice but to live on the threshold, uncertain of which path to take. We exist in this liminal space, a new normal that we must accept and work with so the cloud of unknowing will be transformed into one of understanding.
Thanks always to Father Richard Rohr and the art of Charlie Bowater