Mom Lessons: How to Lead a Good Life

Mom Lessons: How to Lead a Good Life

When my mother would gaze out at the late afternoon light, the golden afternoon she often called it, (a reference to a song lyric), she often become sad. “Why?” I once asked, and she explained that she would see the fathers coming home to their families, and those moments in the day, more than any of the others, reminded her–she was doing this all alone.

My mother was widowed at the age of 34, my father dying too young, leaving her with three children under the age of six, and the possibility that she would pull into herself, wish for a vastly different situation and let sorrow and anger fuel her life.

She did not. My mother taught us responsibility, loyalty. 

Her complete love for us became her focus, her sadness more and more remote. With creativity and love, she took on every challenge, big and small. When I look back on how she raised us, loved us—there was no better role model, ever. My mother became one of the first working mothers in our neighborhood, and like everything she did, she excelled.   

She taught us the rewards of a consistent, well-organized routine—today we would say she was multi-tasking.

To pay the mortgage and feed us, she worked at home, typing insurance policies in our dining room. At night, after dinner, she did what she called “processing” of the work she had completed during the day. She would sit at a card table in our living room, pull the copies she had typed apart, sort them into neat piles. This required paper clips, staplers, pens, glue and often her signature. While doing this, she could monitor our television watching, help us with our homework, even comment on the books we were reading.

My mother taught us that all you really need for entertainment is books, art and music.

As we grew, our living room vibrated with classical music, jazz, opera, musical comedies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys…my mother encouraging my older brother to read the Schwann catalogue and order recordings from the local record store; (in college he had his own classical music program on the university’s radio station); she encouraged my younger brother to learn how to play the guitar; (after college he moved to LA and within a year was on his way to a career in recording and promoting pop and contemporary music.)   

From the moment we all could sit still, my mother read to us, shared storybooks, later colorful art books with glossy photos. When we learned to read, there were weekly trips to the library where we checked out stacks of books, my mother modeling the importance of reading for knowledge as well as enjoyment.

And there were chores. Each of us had an assignment to keep our home clean and efficient. We made up songs, created lyrics to get through doing the dishes, though sometimes those lyrics were created to tease our youngest brother. We got in trouble for it.

Our mother taught us that when feeling sad, you might try singing.

Our mother had a beautiful voice and whenever we traveled she would sing while she drove–another way for us to learn popular music and how it just made you feel good. Crayons, paper and water colors were always available in our home to encourage creativity and to celebrate birthdays, holidays or just to say thank you.   Mom loved receiving the tree and house drawing that were my staple–and the I LOVE YOU message with X’s and O’s.

Our mother taught us responsibility, and that it was wise to save money. 

All of our lives, we were witnesses to good mothering—our mother, grandmother and our wonderful aunts. They challenged us, helped us look to our futures so that we might learn to dig in, contribute to the pace and satisfaction of our shared lives. We put up storm windows, mowed the lawn, raked leaves and planted a garden. I always cleaned the house. There were days when we fell back into kid-like behavior and Mom wasn’t all that happy: found us laughing at cartoons on a Saturday morning (two of us in college) while she came stomping up the back steps loaded with groceries. She got over it. She was human too.

Our mother was frugal, always driving used cars and buying her clothes on sale. She saved money for those things that brought true meaning into our lives. Thus we had a piano, and eventually a good turntable and speakers, as well as hundreds of books and framed watercolors on our walls.

Mom, through her example, taught us how to be kind and generous.

We learned that acceptance leads to happiness, contentment, though our mother certainly felt anger and disbelief when my father died suddenly, when she had to realize that she could make her life about us, about helping anyone else who was experiencing sorrow. She replaced her sorrow with gratitude, and whenever a friend or acquaintance was ill or had died, my mother was there to provide comfort. Our mother could give—but she could also receive.

Our mother taught use to accept gifts graciously. 

The doorbell would ring and there was Gen and her daughter with a box of hand-me-down clothing for me. There was also a friend who actually worked in a toy store and once a year he’d arrive with very expensive toys in three huge boxes—one for each of us. We were thrilled.

When you accept the generosity of others, the upside is giving back. Mom always had a bag or box or envelope for the people who cleaned for us or did repairs. Thank you were two words often heard in our home. We took them with us, bestowing them on others throughout our lives.

Other gifts…

Our mother inspired our desire to travel, to experience the world. She took us on a train trip from Chicago to California. She drove us to Washington DC and back, widening our vision and future goals. She sang as she drove, love songs reminiscent of my father’s courtship days—The Man I Love, Someone to Watch Over Me, Night and Day. I watched the land flow and listened to her beautiful voice, realizing that the songs brought back comfort and the powerful memories she cherished. I will always be grateful she shared them with us.

Our mother’s gift of freedom….

Our mother never married again. When she wasn’t busy caring for us and then for her grandchildren, she continued to work as a secretary in downtown Chicago. She always loved to travel—her last trip flying to Prague in her late eighties. Everyone who knew my mother received a gift from her—a note, a letter of encouragement or a series of prayers said with her worn rosary beads. Mom’s gifts were endless and enduring and I was gifted when she allowed me to hold her weary hands as she took her last breath.

Her final gift: she taught us that we could go on living without her.

 

Why Biden’s New Ruling Dates Back to 1990’s

Why Biden's New Ruling Dates Back to 1990's

Barbara Fassbinder, one of the first health care professionals to be infected with the AIDS virus while on the job, died on Tuesday at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. She was 40 and had lived in Monona, Iowa. Barbara Fassbinder died in 1994. 

BUT WHY TELL ME THIS?  Because this was the headline in an Iowa newspaper that hospital staff at all levels will never forget. It was a headline that became national news and changed hospital practice. 

Because soon after Ms. Fassbinder’s death (and others that followed, a patient of a dentist in Florida etc) radical changes were made as to how doctors, nurses, nurses aids, and people who cleaned OR’s and patient rooms–anyone working near blood and body fluids would practice their skills.

Below is an excerpt from an article that eventually appeared in the NY TIMES. 

In 1986, Mrs. Fassbinder was infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, while helping treat a patient in the emergency room of Memorial Hospital in Prairie du Chien, Wis.

While pressing gauze on a needle puncture, the patient’s blood apparently mingled with her blood through small cuts on her hand from gardening, she said in 1990. The young man died, and an autopsy showed he had AIDS. But it was not until January 1987, when she tried to make a blood donation, that she discovered she had been infected.

She and her family kept the infection a secret until she decided to speak out in 1990. “My biggest fear was how the community would react to me and my kids and my husband,” she said at a news conference in Iowa City in which she told her story in the hope that it would warn other health-care workers. The 1,500 people of Monona, a farming community in northeastern Iowa, gave her family “nothing but support,” she said at the time.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an AIDS expert and epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health who became a friend of her family, said she “helped bridge the gap between the worlds of the health care provider and the AIDS patient in need of competent and compassionate care like no one else could.”

Mrs. Fassbinder traveled extensively, talking to people about AIDS and how to prevent infection by H.I.V.. She testified about AIDS before Congress, and in 1992 she was recognized by the Surgeon General and the Department of Health and Human Services for her work. A native of Marion, Ohio, she also served on the National Health Care Reform Committee set up by Hillary Rodham Clinton and was a member of the Iowa State Commission on AIDS, Dr. Osterholm said.

SO WE ALL KNOW ABOUT AIDS, WHY FOCUS ON THIS DEATH? 

MY ANSWER, OSHA, The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It was Mrs. Fassbinder’s death and the subsequent deaths and illnesses of other healthcare workers that revolutionized the practice of dealing with blood and body fluids in hospitals.

All of this was done to protect doctors, nurses and anyone working in a hospital from contacting AIDS. The stringent regulations offered other benefits to hospital personnel who for years treated patients with bare hands and were exposed to bacteria and viruses, which they could then pass on to other patients and their families.

THE BIG RED OSHA bags became standard use in hospitals as a way to bind up materials that carried viruses and bacteria.

When you are admitted to a hospital today, you take it for granted that anyone entering your room will be using hand sanitizer. That’s not because of Covid. That’s because of Mrs. Fassbinder contacting AIDS.

MORE DETAILS ON THE LATEST NEWS CONCERNING OSHA  (NY TIMES)

The Biden Administration, in its efforts to combat Covid 19 has tasked the United States Department of Labor with writing a regulation that will force tens of millions more workers to get vaccinated—or to produce weekly negative test results. This move will test the agency’s legal power and could draw a legal challenge. 

The Labor Department will issue a regulation requiring companies with 100 or more employees to follow the above directives….Although the agency’s ability to meet legal thresholds necessary for such a forceful intervention into the private sector remains unclear, some in the business community who’ve been wrestling with how to increase their employee vaccination rates without controversy are indicating support for the move.

Some of you reading this post will have worked in healthcare. And you know and many people who have been hospitalized and even visited an ER, know that people who work in healthcare believe in and must comply with certain health requirements.
Currently those include inoculations for: Hepatitis B, Annual Flu, MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) Varicella, Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) and Meningococcal. And all healthcare workers should be screened for Tuberculosis. 
Copies of the OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens standard are available from the OSHA website.
Why Biden's New Ruling Dates Back to 1990's

Why Biden’s New Ruling Dates Back to 1990’s

A Woman’s Biology: Risk and Guilt

A Woman’s Biology: Risk and Guilt

Because of their ability to conceive a child, give birth, perpetuate the species, women have for centuries been honored, sometimes considered saintly, but often buried too soon to live a full and creative life. But precisely because of this biological endowment, this ability to help perpetuate the species, women have also been treated cruelly, taken for granted, sometimes considered evil witches with powers that require control and abuse.

As a former Labor and Delivery nurse, I was fascinated by a recent article that appeared in the New York Times. It’s a personal recounting by writer Leslie Jamison of her C-Section experience, and the research she did concerning this medical procedure. (Posting this after the unethical decisions being made in Texas, only underlines the importance of healthcare for women in any situation related to their reproductive rights.)

JAMISON, A PERSONAL HISTORY  

Jamison starts her piece by recalling the words she used to discuss the birth of her daughter. “When they got her out…”

Jamison writes: “…the day after my daughter’s birth, I found myself emphasizing how much I held her, how I never wanted to put her down. It was as if I felt the need to compensate narratively for that first hour, when I wasn’t able to hold her at all—to insist that we bonded just as much anyway. I found myself exaggerating the part about the not caring if I was numb before they cut me open, when in fact I did care. I told the doctors that I would actually love some more anesthesia in my epidural…as if I were trying to make up for other kinds of pain I didn’t experience – unwittingly obeying the cultural script that insisted on suffering and sacrifice as the primary measure of maternal love.”

Jamison states that even now, 3 years later, when women describe pushing out their babies or having 40 hours of labor, she feels a pang of guilt, a kind of shame, as if her own birth story “wasn’t one that merited pride or celebration, but was instead a kind of blemish, a beginning from which my daughter and I must recover.” She then provides a fascinating history of the Caesarian section. A few excerpts: French obstetrician Jean Louis Baudelocque wrote: “That operation is called Caesarean by which any way is opened for the child other than that destined for it bye nature.”

JULIUS CAESAR–AH, THAT’S WHERE WE GET THE NAME? 

There is an apocryphal story that Julius Caesar was born by cesarean, as his mother survived the birth and went on to bear more children—at a time when it was impossible to survive a C-section. She tells us that in 1925 Herbert Spencer, a professor of obstetrics at the University College London, speculates that it “was called Caesarean as being too grand to have been first performed on ordinary mortals.” He also calls it: “the greatest of all operations, in that it affects two lives.”

But Jamison knows and we know, that for most of history, the procedure saved only one life. The mother did not routinely survive, until the 20th century, because before then, the procedure was usually deployed as a last-ditch effort to save the child, the mother dying, bleeding out, or already dead.

MACBETH, A FORETELLING  

Historically and in literature, the C-section was often associated with the imperial, with the divinity. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the cesarean-born Macduff experiences a birth that is an answer to a riddle: The witches have promised “that none of women born shall harm Macbeth” but in Shakespeare’s creativity, Macduff is exempt from such a foretelling as he “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.”

Jamison, a modern woman looking back on the history of a procedure she has experienced, makes the comment that Macduff’s exceptional birth might grant him some singular power, but such a birth also relates monstrosity. “Untimely ripped doesn’t exactly summon the epidural and the blue tarp.” Jamison knows, she’s been there.

COLONIAL AMERICA 

Of course, the early history of the Caesarean, a little used and experimental procedure, did not insure life for either the infant or the mother. But neither did natural childbirth. The baby was often fortunate if he or she survived. But in the graveyards of Boston and other parts of the New England states, where our early settlers are buried, you can often find a series of graves for a family. First is the grave of the husband, his dates, which always extend his time of life. Then alongside him are his wives—sometimes two or three. No, he wasn’t a bigamist, but when the first wife died in childbirth or from puerperal fever (see below), he married again, and if that wife died, he married again—eventually not for sex or more children, but for someone to raise his progeny, feed and clothe them, tend his garden.

THE SHAME FACTOR 

Jamison also discusses how the advent of the C-section has been used by some to shame mothers. In his book, Childbirth Without Fear, Grantly Dick-Reed inferred that pain during delivery was a lesson women needed to learn. “Children will always mean hard work and will always demand self-control.” Easy for him to say when he’s standing by the delivery table and not lying on it. 

FINAL THOUGHTS  

Jamison’s article is pivotal and for her, she worked through the angst of her fears and regrets. But the end of the article speaks truth for all mothers, no matter how we have brought our children into this world. Jamison writes: Why do we want so much from our birth stories? It’s tempting to understand life in terms of pivotal moments, when it is actually composed of ongoing processes:not the single day of birth but the daily care that follows…diapers and midnight crying, playground tears and homework, tantrums…If we are lucky, birth is just the beginning. The labor isn’t done. It’s has only just begun. 

For more information on Puerperal fever that caused the deaths of post-partum women, go here https://boomerhighway.org/living-in-the-body-part-2/

Bridget Reyes / A Little Muse Photography

Medical Dramas: They Can Educate

Medical Dramas: They Can Educate

I like reading and sharing pieces I find in the NYTimes, Chicago Tribune, WSJ. THIS IS ONE OF THEM… the title of the piece:

IN A TV SCRIPT, I CAN REWRITE A PATIENT’S FATE  by Daniela J. Lamas  

Dr. Lamas is a writer and co-producer for the television medical drama, The Resident, though her main employment is that of a pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham Women’s Hospital in Boston. 

MEDICAL DRAMAS AND REALITY 

In her piece in the NYT, Dr. Daniela J. Lamas is very aware that she straddles two worlds, finding the writing gig an uplift from the death and dying she sees in her hospital’s Covid unit. When she can retreat to her messy call room, she uses Zoom to join a group of writers struggling with a scene, another medical emergency for Conrad Hawkins (Matt Czurchry), the eponymous hero of the The Resident.

Lamas never works in a vacuum, taking with her the image of the older female patient who now has Covid, her pastor having insisted she not get the vaccine. Dr. Lamas presents this situation to her writing team, hoping they will change the story line. Example: the pastor visits, sees his parishioner suffering and begins to preach from the pulpit that all his people need to get vaccinated. (But like Dr. Lamas, this story line is my creation. Will the writers group accept it?)

Dr. Lamas writes her reality: …though her lungs are slowly improving, her kidneys are worsening, and she is profoundly delirious, not waking up. We stand at the bedside and call her name, her eyelids flutter.

Down the hall, we titrate drips and manage vent settings for a man whose stem cell transplant cured his leukemia but ravaged the rest of his organs. His wife would be at his bedside, but she is at her father’s funeral.

And though the article does not say, I imagine this elderly woman did die from Covid, an unnecessary death.

STORY LINES THE WRITER’S ROOM REJECTS

Dr. Lamas writes: I used to want to show the hospital as it truly exists, to reveal the humor and tragedy and grace that characterizes my world. (She explains with the following examples.)

  • The family that came to say goodbye to a dying woman, a misplaced ID card leading them to believe, wrongly, that she was their mother.
  • A patient’s brother, with skull tattoos on his shaved head, who told us he could not be in the room when we took his brother off the ventilator. So when he left, we thought we would never see him again, but were surprised when he returned, not to sit by his dead brother, but to collect the man’s prosthetic leg. Another nurse said he spent the rest of the day in the hospital chapel with the leg beside him.

Dr. Lamas writes that even producers and writers for The Resident say such stories are simply too grim. The public does not need or want to be reminded of how quickly things can go bad, how families fall apart, how doctors do their best but patients still die.

Especially now, viewers want to see their doctor as heroes, to follow a formula that has doctors saving lives more than losing them.

IN THE WORLD OF THE TV HOSPITAL

Dr. Lamas writes: “During my first experience on the set…I learned that when things went wrong (a medical word being mispronounced) I was assured, “Don’t worry. We can fix it in post.” She underlines that she loved that phrase, one she wanted to say to her patients over and over. “…to be able to have another chance, to treat the sepsis earlier, to stop the pastor form advising against vaccination, to fix it in the post.”

Dr. Lamas reminds us that during the pandemic, her roles as a critical care doctor and a television writer are often in conflict. Though she wants to honor and remember every patient who died, she also yearns to tell stories that are hopeful, where there is always the chance for recovery, no matter how dire the diagnosis.

“It’s a tension I am still learning to navigate. How do we tell stories that feel true while also keeping viewers engaged? What kind of cheats are acceptable, and which are irresponsible?”

Dr. Lamas then makes a particular reference to the struggle that often ensues when the team is trying to save a cardiac patient. She reminds us that TV characters survive cardiac arrests far more often than people in real life do.

“…and the nurse left alone to clean up after the death…” If our viewers could see that, “they would change the channel.” She is right. I still remember during my Cardiac rotation, watching a team try to save a patient, the family waiting in an adjoining room. The man died. And yes, the floor was littered with medical pads, bottles, wipes, tubing…

IN THE REAL WORLD

Dr. Lamas is right when she stresses that medical dramas are important, that they can provide escape, but also education.

“In the writer’s room, we have a change to …offer a different ending to the story. And in doing so, we can sneak in potentially lifesaving education—early warning signs of certain illnesses, the dangers of overtreatment or the impact of inequities in access to care…television dramas have an unparalleled opportunity to educate and even to change behavior…I have come to believe that it is worth glossing over the facts IF we can weave a story that encourages viewers to trust science, to get vaccinated, to look differently at disease. When I find myself fact-checking what I see on the television monitors, I remind myself of this more important goal.”

Dr. Lamas ends her piece, mentioning a patient that she met one morning on rounds, asking him to mute the TV show he was watching, a medical TV show, as she needed to listen to his heart. He seemed surprised that he had to miss something, explained that medical dramas had been his one constant. The plots reassured him, taught him what might be ahead in his own medical story, while helping him feel less alone on his own medical journey. Dr. Lamas smiled. She understood.

(I confess that one of the reasons I became a nurse after having my three children—was my propensity to be gripped not only by books and articles about medicine, but by watching television medical dramas. I’ve written about that before. I was an avid ER fan. Now it’s New Amsterdam, Chicago Med, and of course The Resident.)

A Gardener’s Beginnings: Another Chapter In My Story

A Gardener's Beginnings: Another Chapter In My Story

Some gardeners would say that a most enduring gift to offer a loved one would be a bouquet of blooms from their own patch of earth–red roses for passion, lilies for purity of heart, or some new cultivar that amazes with its scent and beauty.

But I say: what about dandelions? What about those crumpled bouquets of stringy stems and crushed flower? They are fervent, perfumed with a child’s love and devotion. They stretch across the years, becoming an eternal gift. But they could also be a gardener’s beginnings.

MY STORY

For me, it was the peony, those perfumed beauties bursting out in spring, to be picked and brought to my mother, who, to support her three children, because my father died early on, was typing insurance policies in our dining room.

Sometimes, she would take a break, and together we would sit on the front porch steps, drinking in the beauty of the eight bushes that lined our front walk. Spring was the perfume, the color–fuchsia, rose, white, their large yellow centers, truly cabbages of color that became pendulous in spring rains, heads drooping like my head on my mother’s shoulder. The best part? Getting a scissors and bringing them inside to fill jelly glasses, transforming our simple home with their color and scent.

BUT THIS, MY FIRST GARDEN

It happened when I was ten. My two generous aunts had this everlasting garden with stepping stones! They talked a language of bearded iris, delphinium, coreopsis, and rose scale. At our house, I watched the green grass turn brown, the bridal wreath bloom off, leaving only ragged masses of dusty leaves, while whiz, bang, I could hear my mother’s typewriter through the open, summer window.

But my mother listened to me, and with some money from her budget, we bought marigolds and petunias. She showed me how to plant them in a patch of soil by our gravel driveway–my first garden! She found time to help me pot some scarlet geraniums for the front porch, and she showed me how to hook up the sprinkler and water the lawn. IT WAS A START!

Then, as summer faded, magic happened. I gave her a bouquet of spicy marigolds, which we carefully arranged in my grandmother’s cut glass powder dish. (See the photo above, as I have recreated this moment.) A lovely present, but not as lovely as the look in her eyes when I presented them.

I WAS A GARDENER NOW…

I was like my generous aunts who came up the front walk on a chilly night heralding the arrival of autumn, bearing sheaves of chrysanthemums expertly cut and wrapped in waxed paper to protect their well-ironed dresses. Mom and I exclaimed over the amber ones, the maroon ones, the bright, fiery yellow ones. My brothers moaned. Autumn to them was heavy storm windows that had to be hung, the window washing that went with that chore, and expanses of leaf-covered grass.

For me, I was beginning to appreciate this part of a gardener’s cycle–the tidying up, the banking of the peony bushes with dried leaves, the getting ready for winter. It all had a purpose and finality that I didn’t mind–it held a promise.

That first winter, after I became a gardener, I would gaze at the snow-encrusted world, imagining an eventual thaw, the peonies parading the front walk–the re-creation. The spirit of gardening had taken hold of me, and I learned in time that it’s a firm hold, one you give yourself to over and over.

In my youth, the promise lived in the simple gifts I could give my mother. Yes, the flowers sang out to us, called to us with their colors and perfume, solidifying even more our love, now cultivated by our very living.

A Short Critique of Modern Love, Season Two…

Modern Love, short films based on stories sent to the New York Times, is back. Season Two. Minnie Driver kicks it of off with a charming story of a woman and the sleek sports car she loves to drive, though it requires many repairs to keep it alive. But slowly we discover the car is really something more, a symbol of the love this woman had for her first husband who has died. Watching her interactions with her daughter and second husband, we realize there is more to that aging auto than snatches of her memory. There is love and something else: a spiritual connection? Or something magical as Minnie drives the curving steep roads of the Irish countryside, always returning home safely.  

An Irish background is repeated in another story, where we meet two people traveling on a train from Galway to Dublin. Gradually they speak to one another, then sit with one another, hoping to have a real conversation when they are on the train, heading back to their respective careers after holiday. But why wouldn’t a tale of modern love include an exchange of at least an email address? But it’s a story and the very word story means a surprise is included. 

REVIEWS OF MODERN LOVE, SEASON TWO 

Critic Roxana Hadadi writes: “Modern Love was affected by COVID-era restrictions, with episodes that filmed in New York state and Dublin, Ireland. But the lack of technical creativity is a noticeable distraction. The green screen is eye-searingly conspicuous, imagined sequences are slightly embarrassing, and an over-reliance on flashbacks signals an awareness that the dialogue isn’t doing quite enough work to communicate the details or dynamics of these relationships in the present. “Modern Love” is easy to watch because it’s so non-challenging and because it asks so little of its viewers. But it’s even easier to forget.”  

But we will continue to watch, finding the story lines interesting, and the actors more than capable of awakening the plots. It’s always a combination: writer and actor. If the story doesn’t touch you, all the hard work from the actors might not touch you either.

LOOKING BACK TO SEASON ONE:  

The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes: Carried by its charming cast, Modern Love sweet and simple sensibilities are easy enough to enjoy, even if its quaint portrait of modern life in New York City doesn’t always ring true.

My favorites from Season One:    

  1. A single book critic bonds with her doorman following an unexpected pregnancy. 
  2. When a journalist asks a dating app’s CEO if he’s ever been in love, it sparks a conversation that will change the course of both of their lives.
  3. A gay couple hope to adopt a child.
FINAL THOUGHTS:  If you like short stories that shout out a New York City milieu, Modern Love Stories are for you. 

A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSORS

A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSORSSometimes you come across a novel that reminds you of your own personal proclivity (and to better explain: a tendency to choose or do something regularly; an inclination or predisposition toward a particular thing.)

Those who regularly read my posts, know that I am quirky in some ways, one of them being that I have an interest (a slight passion?) about all THINGS BRITISH. But especially the Royal Family, the Windsors.

And most of you know that this started because of my name, which led me to read British history as if I were preparing for a Master’s Thesis, all while being encouraged by close family members who visited England and brought me memorabilia; all while discovering it was meaningful to cut articles about the Windsors out of newspaper, or save magazines with photographs, ask for books about their lives and watch royal weddings on TV.

My family didn’t mind too much, because if they questioned me on this rather strange proclivity, I could always say it’s just another way of learning more about HISTORY. 

But then, along came…

A FELLOW ANGLOPHILE  

Because the Internet connects you to people you would otherwise never meet, and thus connected me to Kristin Contino, who when it comes to this particular proclivity, this love of the family of Windsor, certainly has me beat.

Kristin’s many trips to England have been recorded with numerous photos. And when a major royal event was about to take place, she and her family once again made the trip, finding a spot near Windsor Castle and able to be up close and personal observing the pageantry of the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. After that, I knew I’d found an even more ardent follower of the Windsors…but that event was only the beginning….

Kristin has a reproduction of a bright red British Phone Booth in her home, not to mention those items which all of us seek out when celebrating the royals: tea towels for weddings; tea cups and plates; photos and books. I have a few. (See some of mine below.) Kristin? She’s the QUEEN OF COLLECTIONS. 

And then the final example of her passion, the arrival of Contino’s novel: A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSOR, a delightful story whose main character, Debbie Windsor, falls in love with a member of the landed gentry, Alan Percy—and whether it’s being enthrall to London or Buckingham Palace or her love for Princess Diana and everything royal, Debbie collapses into the arms of this tinged with royalty but not so gentle man—and bloody hell, she gets pregnant. First with Sarah and soon after, with twins!

But later, we find her back in the good old US of A, her marriage over, yet her desire still for all things royal filling up her house. Debbie has become a hoarder. She lives in a house full of windsor. And because she now has trouble navigating her rooms because of the overflowing bins of British mementoes, her three children know that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

Will Debbie find a pathway through her living room? Will Sarah, who provides the reader throughout the novel with her Sarah Says tips, have the answer? Maybe so, as her first TIP encourages readers to be ready for company, but then immediately acknowledges that in her family, “dirty secrets are best swept under the rug.”

I’m sure Kristin Contino had fun writing this book. Her photos of her trips to England, her love of those red telephone booths are testament to that. The novel is light-hearted and from page one presages a happy ending. Her characters make predictable decisions so that everyone is jolly and red-cheeked with happiness in the end. And the novel is clever, the hoarding is real, because when you’ve fallen in love with the photos of the Windsors and Princess Diana, it’s understandable that you might go for cheeky Alan, that rotter, who chases birds (that’s British slang for girls)—but in the end decides that bloody hell, you better let your children help you out so that life is cracking again.

A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSORS

 

Memories and Their Power

Ann Patchett says: I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ from a sibling etc.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the …faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
Joan Didion, Blue Nights

That’s Joan Didion, her words veering toward the negative. Because loss is tragic, hard, challenging. She longs for her daughter. That loss shakes up the foundations she depended on, and I applaud her words as a search for strength.

But can we be nostalgic when we are young? Yes.

Anne Frank was, writing in her diary of days past, knowing those days were gone, that her world was imploding and that she might never again sit in a classroom, walk the streets of Amsterdam free and unhindered, look forward to love, marriage and children.

Anyone who looks back in longing–for a friend, a house, a parent, an experience, can feel and write about their longings–this is nostalgia. You want something back, that you don’t want to forget.

CREATIVITY AND REMEMBERING 

There was a time when I began to write, that nostalgia seemed to propel me. Why? I was young, and I saw that my experience was in some ways limited. Some changes in my life had already happened (loss of a parent, early responsibilities as a result). And I saw that I didn’t want to relive my childhood, but that it dwelled within me, making my losses and gains part of me, the engine of my creativity.

Because when you write, you are either pulling things out of your own experience or making shit up. Both land on the page, and wow, you’re a writer. (Though not necessarily a good one. It takes time, lots of time. Maybe forever.)

SO WHAT IS THE ENGINE OF CREATIVITY?  

When Author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House, Commonwealth) takes a memory and infuses it with meaning, she then uses it in one of her novels. She describes her process this way: “I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ…” Because we know that fiction comes from seeds of experience. IT COMES FROM LIFE, FROM LIVING. And what one person sees or hears or feels, can differ from another.

EVEN FICTIONAL CHARACTERS LIVE IN OUR MEMORIES 

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, discovered that her characters refused to stay within the pages of past books. Though Strout left her home in Maine for New York City, Maine stayed with her. So did the voice, the face, the life of Olive Kitterridge, the eponymous title of the collection of short stories that won Strout the Pulitzer for fiction.  But Olive wasn’t finished. She continued to speak to Strout, and thus Olive Again came to be, more stories that take us back to Maine, but also (and this is to amazing and clever) bring back characters from Strout’s other novels. It’s delightful for Olive to find herself living in the same senior facility as the mother from Amy and Isabel, that being only one example. After writing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout felt compelled to learn more about Lucy’s beginnings and sent her back to a small town in Illinois to reconnect with her siblings and other in a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible. We all do this: let our memories grow, fill out the stories of our lives, enhance them. At some level WE ARE ALL STORY TELLERS. 

WRITE IT DOWN 

Many of us kept or still keep a diary. It’s our lives on paper, our deepest thoughts and even our anger and our hurts. It’s not fiction, but it can fuel fiction and it always comes from the power of memory.

Talk to an old friend. Discover that the mention of a place, a high school crush, a certain teacher brings back a flood of memory. And though they aren’t always positive, they are part of our lives. Joan Didion wrote Blue Nights after losing her daughter. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband. Joan used the power of her memory, of her words to seek healing. Each and everyone of us is a vessel of stories. Write them down. They are part of you, and they have power. 

Writers and where they live…  Part One

Writers and where they live…  Part One

The Santa Ana Winds of California

 

I’ve written a memoir of my early years in Chicago. I’ve written about PLACE (the house, the streets, the vegetation, the traffic, the people on the streets) because it colors so much of who we are. (You can reread my first post about PLACE here.)

No one can write fiction, a memoir, a biography without PLACE becoming a major character. Think of the wonderful selection of memoirs that have become best-sellers: Black Boy, All Creatures Great and Small, Born a Crime, Becoming, When Breath Becomes Air, The Glass Castle….all are filled with references to the place the author has lived, the streets he or she has walked.

And if you have moved during your life (I’ve lived in three different states) or even if you have remained in the same place your entire life (New York City, Colorado Springs, Huntsville Alabama, only to name a few) HOW DIFFERENT your life has been from the lives of others and from mine.

ILLINOIS 

Illinois is flat, flat. Even as a child, I knew that was in some way a detriment, as if flatness could be the butt of jokes. Then, after fourth grade, my amazing mother took me and my brothers to California! My uncle and cousins lived there, so why not! We traveled on the California Zephyr that runs from Chicago to San Francisco. WOW! Our train revealed parts of the country I had never seen: the plains of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains (real mountains not hills), Salt Lake City (they washed our train there) and on to San Francisco: the trolley cars, the harbor, the steep streets.

Weeks later, after seeing the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, we headed home on another train, the El Caspitan that runs between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chicago. I met a girl my age on the train. I can’t remember where she lived, but it was a more glamorous place than what I was going home to. So when she asked me where I lived (flat flat Illinois) I said we lived near the “hills and the flats.” (a truly fourth grade answer) But it wasn’t a total lie. Beverly Hills, Chicago, is called “hills” for the following reason:

High bedrock under the retreating glaciers left the most prominent feature in the area, the Blue Island Ridge in South Chicago, a 6-mile-by-1-mile table of land that sits 25 to 50 feet above the adjacent flatland. Residents often identify their community as “Beverly Hills,” a reference to that glacial ridge just west of Longwood Drive, the highest point in Chicago. Wow, the highest point in Chicago …Even as a fourth grader, I knew that was something, and I lived two blocks from that RIDGE, which we called, “the hill.”

BEFORE AND BEYOND ILLINOIS

But after Illinois, there was Iowa (some hills) and then for the last seven years, California, I could see the bottom of a mountain out my window. But how does one, how does family gravitate to a place?

Again, the Uncle that moved there, his family, my cousins. We kept up the visits, weddings, touring. My brother moved there, and then one of my daughters did; grandchildren were born, and so yes, we did our California time and it was wonderful. I’ve written about California on this blog.

But I’m not alone, some of our most treasured authors have written about California, Joan Didion being one of them. Her works include: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The last two volumes are diary-like, Didion trying to come to grips with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and then the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

THINGS SO CALIFORNIA: The Santa Ana Winds 

If you have ever been in California when the Santa Anas blow, then you will feel them blowing in Didion’s passage:  

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

WIND, FIRES 

What did I love about California? Besides being near my grandchildren…sunshine is ever present. It lifts your spirits, though there is something called June gloom, but that is infrequent. The blue sky is full of dry soft winds, now and then a jet stream (at least where I lived). There are pepper trees and jacaranda trees, roses everywhere. Some people say they help hold back the fires.

Because yes, there are fires. (And earthquakes, though in the 7 years we lived there, we had only two experiences: one when my desk kinda rolled; the other hardly felt. But we bolted our TV to the wall, used museum glue behind art hangings. We also had two large emergency canisters in our garage which we never needed.

Wherever people live, they adjust. Joan Didion writes:

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.      

For instead of “fire and rain”, California has fire and wind–“It never rains in California, but Girl don’t they warn ya…

FINAL THOUGHT

As Edward Albee wrote: There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. 

Next Week: Part 2

Three Questions to Ask Yourself When Things Go Wrong

Three Questions to Ask Yourself When Things Go Wrong

Deepak Chopra is a spiritual man who has spent his life helping others discover their spiritual life, and to aid them in maintaining that life through meditation and a close understanding of one’s needs and human foibles.

In one of his articles, Chopra addresses how to deal with your life when things are not as you planned. He has created THREE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF WHEN THINGS GO WRONG.

He writes: a setback is one thing. So is a challenge. But sometimes so much comes upon us, that we find ourselves in crisis. Panic ensues and the hole we are digging for ourselves, or the hole we have fallen into, is getting bigger.

Wisdom is needed. Impulse must be pushed aside. Decision making sometimes requires that proverbial deep breath, a pause in the panic we are leaning toward, and a better decision- making process.

QUESTIONS TO AVOID:

  1. What is wrong with me? Stay calm. You are human. Don’t blame yourself.
  2. Whom can I blame? Again, think things through, look at both sides of the problem, the argument, the situation. Breathe.
  3. What’s the worst-case scenario? Don’t go there. Don’t imagine that things are only going in the wrong direction. Look for some light, find something positive you can focus on.

Here Deepak Chopra asks and answers some questions to help you when THINGS GO WRONG.

  1. Is this a problem I should fix, put up with or walk away from?

You need to answer this question clearly and rationally, or your vision will be clouded. Without even knowing it, you will be acting under the influence of negative emotions such as fear. You will give in to impulsiveness or fall back on old habits.

CLARIFY YOUR INNER CONFUSION. First step: consider after talking to those you trust, a course of action that begins with finding a fix. And if you can’t think of a fix, ask yourself why. Perhaps someone or something (a lack of money and time) is blocking you. It is always worthwhile to search for a fix and commit yourself to finding one. When you have finally exhausted your realistic options, only then will your begin to decide to put up with the situation (using patience, not passivity) or walk away.

  1. Who can I consult who has solved the same problem successfully?

You need help to solve a heavy problem. Isolation is not good as we become afraid and depressed; we draw into ourselves. There can also be shame and guilt which gives us even more reason to completely shut down.

Best to find someone who has gone through the same crisis you are facing. It gives you an example to follow and a confidant who understands your pain, keeps you from withdrawing into isolation. Victims feel alone and helpless. Reach out to someone who has not been victimized by the thing you are now facing.

And we aren’t talking about hand-holding or shared misery, or even therapy. There are no substitutes for talking to a person who has entered a dark place and come out successfully. But where do you find such a person? Ask people; seek support groups; find blogs and forums; don’t stop until you find true empathy from someone you trust.

  1. How can I reach deeper into myself for solutions?

This is always up to you. Though your crisis is all-consuming, the world OUT THERE won’t change until the world IN HERE does. Deepak says:

The level of the solution is never found at the level of the problem. Knowing this, you can escape many traps people fall into: repetitive thinking; applying yesterday’s outworn choices; obsessive thinking and worry; etc etc. You have more than one level of awareness, and at a deeper level there is untapped creativity and insight.

YOUR HIGHER SELF: whatever you call it, soul, Atman, Holly Spirit, muse, inspiration must experience the place within where the light dawns and brings hope. Peace is possible. There is certainty that you will find a path forward.

FINAL WORDS FROM CHOPRA: You will find this place. Even in the worst of crisis we experience flashes of it. Inhabit that level of awareness that brings solutions. Know that level exists. Make a plan to get there and use techniques available to you: meditation, reflection, contemplation, prayer.

Reduce your stress. Seek others who understand consciousness. Read books that inspire you and describe what it means to go on an inward journey.

The important thing is that you take the first steps inside. Find a path out of your present darkness, and don’t submit to fear and despair. Find those who lead the world into a future full of light.

art: a cairn in Aruba