Summers and Huckleberry Finn

1622398_origI have to admit that I have never much liked August for the same reason that I used to have an aversion to Sunday evenings. August meant that it was nearing the time when I would have to return to school, something I did both as a child and later as an adult. August seemed to be the dog days of the entire year, a month in which the heat had built to a climax and the fun and relaxation that I had enjoyed in the summer was in its waning days. When August came around I was generally filled with a sense of dread knowing that my vagabond adventures would soon be replaced by early rising each morning and working on school related projects until late in the evening. I seriously didn’t want to even think about all of the labors and restrictions on my time that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a devoted student as a child and once I became a working adult I threw myself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the teaching profession. I enjoyed being in school, but I had a love/hate relationship with the entire experience. On the one hand I felt a rush of excitement about the new challenges that I would most certainly encounter in each new year, but on the other hand I fully understood how much intensity I would surely throw into my labors. Thus each time August rolled around I longed to extend my freedom and relaxation just a bit longer.

When I was a child I had the luxury of enjoying all thirty one of the final days of my annual holiday. Not even once did we return to the classroom before Labor Day. The trend of beginning  the school year before the eighth month of the year had ended did not come about until I had been working for a time as a teacher, and so our family often planned a big vacation to cooler climes to take a break from the heat. Some of our best vacations to places like Montana and Wyoming happened during the first couple of weeks in August. I didn’t even think about school until the middle of the month, and even then the transition from vagabond days to almost total preoccupation with work were usually gradual enough to help me grow accustomed to a return to my labors.

All of that began to change over time. The old school year ended later and later and the new one began earlier and earlier. Expectations regarding professional development became more demanding, so much so that I often spent most of June attending classes designed to improve my teaching. By the first week in August I was already planning lessons and visiting the school to prepare my classroom. My summers became more and more constricted as did those of my daughters who had to attend practices and complete summer assignments.

When August rolled around we were no longer able to make family plans because everyone in the household was quite busy gearing up for the coming months. I adapted to the changes albeit a bit grudgingly. I knew that many of my friends had little sympathy for me because they worked all year long with only one or two weeks of vacation. It was difficult for them to understand just how much I needed the down time of a full three months when such an extended break was an unheard of luxury for them. What I knew is that very few of them would be grading papers and creating lessons at eleven in the evening and all weekend long just to stay afloat of the demands of their jobs. The extra work that I did at home every day of the school year was easily equivalent to the eight to ten hour days that they spent at their jobs all summer long. In other words our labors were equivalent, even though they were not performed in the same time frame.

Now I’m watching the demands of the school year begin as soon as August rolls around. A grandson who is in his middle school orchestra has already been practicing for several weeks for a performance that his group will give to returning teachers. Another grandson is working with his band from seven in the morning until five at night. Teacher friends are attending conferences and training sessions that will dovetail with requirements to be on duty beginning early in August. Many schools will open their doors to their students by the middle of the month, making the summer seem shorter and shorter. Soon the buses that stop at my corner will be rolling again and everyone will be in full swing.

Part of me feels quite sad about the abbreviated summer vacation for students and teachers even though it really doesn’t affect me anymore. In retrospect I think that as a youngster I learned as much during my time off as I did during the school year, maybe even more. By the age of fifteen I had a job as a receptionist for our family doctor from June through August. I learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. I became an expert at keeping books and running a small office. I developed people skills and found talents that I had no idea even existed. I also learned how to spend and save the money that I earned in a wise and reasonable manner. I would have been unable to go on my senior trip or purchase a class ring without the income that I generated during the three months that were mine to use in exploring the world.

Those three months also allowed me to read purely for pleasure. It was in my self selected forays into literature and nonfiction that I have the most wonderful memories and grew most fond of reading. I had time to learn how to dance and twirl a baton, how to paint and mold clay into sculptures. I enjoyed being creative with the other kids in the neighborhood and spent hours writing and performing in backyard plays or creating a neighborhood newspaper. I had bridge tournaments with friends and made my first attempts at cooking. I had time to do exciting things that I was too busy to tackle during the school year when my teachers filled my calendar with assignments of their choosing. Summers were glorious moments spent on my grandparents’ farm soaking in their folk wisdom. It was an opportunity for education of a different sort than the kind that is ruled by curriculum guidelines or a scope and sequence of learning. Summer was the frosting on the cake of my learning.

I suppose that today’s kids have little idea of what they are missing. They go with the flow and follow the new rules because it has always been that way for them. Everything in their lives is far more organized than my experiences were. I don’t see many children playing outside even on the hottest days. Summer jobs like the ones I had are hard to find. It’s a different world and I suppose that everyone takes the new ways for granted just like I did those glorious three months of freedom. Perhaps it is best to prepare students for the realities of a world that is far different from the one that existed when I was growing into an adult. With air conditioning there is little difference between August and November, so schools may as well be open for business. Still I find myself wondering which way really is the most effective. Somehow I think that I would not be nearly as interesting if I had not had those precious three months each year in which to develop myself just as I wished. Those were my Huckleberry Finn moments and I am all the richer for enjoying them.

  

A Born Again Health Nut

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My mother-in-law was born with a serious heart defect. As a result she lived her life far differently than most of us. When she was in Junior High she was told that she would probably only live to her mid twenties, and then only if she was very lucky. When she married she was cautioned not to have children because the stress of being pregnant and giving birth would surely kill her. Always the independent woman she nonetheless risked her own life to bring my husband into this world. She often recounted the lengths to which she committed herself to having him. The story was quite harrowing and demonstrated both her courage and love.

She was put into a state of sleep shortly before her baby was due. The doctors then brought her son into the world by way of Caesarian section. She was kept in a slumber until it was deemed safe to bring her back into consciousness. Since she lived on the same street as her mother she was able to rest each afternoon while her mom did much of the heavy lifting with the baby. Slowly but surely she recuperated and surprised her doctors with her resilience.

All of this happened in 1947, so the advances that have been made in the treatment of the heart had not yet been discovered. She was still at high risk of dying if she overexerted herself. In many ways her life and that of my husband were miracles that had a great deal to do with my mother-in-law’s determination to employ whatever means necessary to extend her life.  As a result she became an expert at pursuing a healthy lifestyle even before such an idea was popular.

I was admittedly bemused when I first saw my-mother-in-law’s kitchen. She always kept a scale for weighing foods at the ready and her cookbooks had exotic titles with recipes from nutritionists and doctors. She was conscientious in recording her intake of salt, calories, cholesterol and such. She was a student of nutrition and an advocate of proper exercise. Sometimes I grew a bit weary of her lectures on how to live, but in retrospect I realize that she was way ahead of her time. She outwitted death and made her doctors’ predictions of her early demise appear to be akin to voodoo. She lived all the way into her late seventies, far past the age that most thought she would attain, and she did so with a sparkle in her eyes and a zest for life that was incredible. She had done everything possible to defy the odds that were so heavily stacked against her, enriching everyone that she encountered in the process. Never once do I remember even an ounce of negativity or lack of faith in her approach to each day. She was truly a warrior.

Now I am doing my best to recall the many lessons that my mother-in-law so patiently taught me. That son that she risked her very life to bring into this world is now facing his own health problems, and as with her there is no miracle cure, but there are ways to help the situation. My goal is to support him as he adopts the very life style that worked so incredibly well for his mother. To that end he and I are both changing our ways, perhaps a bit belatedly, but in the hopes that our efforts will provide us with more time to enjoy this beautiful world together with our children and grandchildren.

Our kitchen now sports a scale for weighing our foods along with an array of cookbooks touting heart healthy recipes. Our larders are filled with fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats and fish. Our treadmill which had become dusty from disuse is churning away. We keep records of every morsel that goes into our mouths and have learned the joys of hydrating with water. We have become as serious about taking care of ourselves as my mother-in-law ever was, and I often feel her spirit guiding us on this new journey of ours.

I have to admit that I have at times been a bit irritated by people who spend so much of their time honoring their bodies with proper foods and exercise. I have rolled my eyes more than once at their focus on health just I as sometimes grew weary of hearing my mother-in-law describe the latest foods or techniques that she had discovered. Now in the moment of crisis I find myself wanting to walk around wearing a sandwich board that urges everyone to eschew their bad habits now. If I could, I would burn down every tobacco field on planet earth. Like Jesus with the money changers I would overturn the tables of candy and fatty foods that tempt shoppers in all of the grocery stores. I would insist that children do as well with physical activities as we ask them to do with mathematics and reading. I have become a fanatic overnight because I have seen what happens when we ignore the common sense notion that our bodies are as important as our minds.

My daughters are fearful that there may be a genetic tendency for stroke that they carry and may have passed on to their children. They worry about what they might do to prevent the kind of health emergency that we all recently endured when my husband had a stroke. I have told them that the solution is quite straightforward, and it was outlined magnificently by their Granny long ago. We must all do our very best to lead healthy lives from this day forward. That means that we are careful every single day of what we choose to eat or drink and how much activity we provide for our bodies.

There are so many wonderful resources in our world today that my mother-in-law never had. We now know much about how to best treat our bodies. I am finding that my husband and I are eating quite well and never feeling underfed or somehow beset upon. There are incredible recipes that use very little fat, salt, sugar or carbohydrates. Vegetables have become our staples and we prepare them in a variety of tasty ways. We are consistently losing the excess pounds that have been stressing our hearts. Our muscles and our stamina are growing stronger. Both of us are developing a kind of glow. It feels good to be on the right track and thankfully many of the people who once annoyed me with their crusades for health are helping me to launch my own odyssey. They are more than eager to help a fellow convert, no matter how late to the game I may be.

Perhaps I’ll do my part by sharing some of my favorite tasty recipes in the future. I’m trying different things and taking notes. The key appears to be in starting with a weekly menu plan, something that I used to laugh at my mother-in-law for doing. Now I understand that having good meals doesn’t just spontaneously happen. It takes a bit of effort that pays huge dividends in the end.

So here I am now, a born again health nut. Who knew that I would come to this? It’s a great feeling actually, and I’m not afraid to proclaim that we should all do ourselves a favor by mending our ways. There are no guarantees in this life, but it won’t hurt any of us to treat our bodies with the respect that proper care and feeding provides. My mother-in-law fought for her life. Now I will honor her by fighting for the lives of all of her descendants who are only here because of her courage and sacrifice. Mea culpa for the sins of gluttony and abuse that I have inflicted on myself and my family. From this day forward things will change.

Shall We Begin?

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There was a time when the world was a quieter place. There were fewer sounds, no cars, planes, trains, televisions, radios, telephones, complex machines. People heard each other, the calls of animals, the wind, the rustling of water. Life was stiller, slower and in most ways more difficult. The very things that so often annoy us, cause us to feel stressed and steal the silence that we often desire also make our lives easier than those of our ancestors. The conundrum that we face in the modern world is how to keep a balance between simplicity and over consumption. It is the tightrope that we walk in our pursuit of happiness and comfort.

I live in a southern climate. I might be happy to eschew using a great deal of energy in the winter because the days are mostly mild and even on an abnormally cold day a heavy coat and a pile of blankets make the chill go away. The summer presents me with a far greater challenge when temperatures linger in the mid nineties for weeks at a time. It is so hot that I take refuge in my air conditioned home and car during the middle of the day. The thought of being without the cool air is almost untenable and yet there was a time in the not so distant past when I lived through nineteen summers without air conditioning and never felt beset upon.

It was a normal and accepted way of life back then. We simply adjusted to our circumstances and carried on the way people had done for thousands of years before us. We led simpler lives that were still more modern than those that our grandparents had known. It never occurred to us that we may have been disadvantaged. We coped with what we had.

Somehow in spite of the multitude of improvements in American life our society seems to be more dissatisfied than ever. We tend to believe that we should all have more and more and more when just maybe we have reached a tipping point at which we should consider cutting back on some of the things that we do and take for granted. We often argue that each successive generation should do better than the last but what if that idea is flawed? What if our real goal should be to find ways to enjoy the best of our modern inventiveness without being so obsessed with accumulating wealth and things? Is it possible to live the good life while also being more frugal in our use of resources and capital? These are our modern day questions. Our dilemma is in finding the answers that will benefit the most people in the world, a gargantuan task at the very least.

I believe in the concept of liberty and as such I mostly disdain the idea of forcing a particular lifestyle on people. I prefer that we each decide on our own how to partake of the world’s benefits. Still I would like to encourage everyone to find their own personal ways of stepping back just a bit and considering how they might simplify and thereby save for the future. By that I mean in terms of both money and our precious resources. Small measures taken collectively often lead to great gains. Our ancestors knew this well and they pulled themselves out of a major depression and two world wars with determined effort and a great deal of patience.

When I describe the world of my youth it sounds absolutely antiquated. My family had one car, one phone, one television. Computers and cell phones were but dreams of inventive souls. Travel was by car for most people other than the wealthiest among us who had the means to fly from place to place. Eating out was a rare luxury. The books that we read mostly came from the library. I only knew one person who had a swimming pool in her backyard. The rest of us went to the city pool on hot afternoons. Air conditioning was a luxury that was only beginning to come into vogue and even then it was in the form of a unit set in a window. Homes usually had a single bathroom often shared by as many as six or seven people. Children bunked together in rooms. Most of us had two pairs of shoes, one for special occasions and the other to be worn for daily activities. We exercised by running and walking and riding our bicycles. It was a happy time and it never occurred to us that one day people would look back on how we lived and think it quaint and wonder how we were able to endure such seeming want.

The average household of old would appear to be more like a state of poverty today. We have improved things considerably but what have we lost in the process? Our desires seem almost insatiable. Our complaints would confound those who lived in another era. They would wonder at the luxuries of even an average person and ask why we still feel as though we need even more.

We argue over the state of our planet ad infinitum. Why would we risk being wrong? The simple answer is to always think about the consequences of our actions. Our golden rule should be to leave every place better than we found it. If that means recycling, planting trees, composting garbage, picking up trash, adjusting our thermostats, buying only what we really need, turning off lights, or finding our own ways of using less energy why would we complain? These are actions that our ancestors took for granted. It doesn’t matter who is wrong or right when it comes to climate change. We should all still want to be kinder to our world.

We probably will never receive the entire cake of benefits but we are certainly capable of sharing pieces of it with our fellow men and women. We will never be able to achieve perfection but surely we will find more contentment in working together just as our ancestors once did. They raised barns as a community and made certain that people experiencing hard times were cared for. My grandfather told countless stories of people coming together to insure that all members of the community were safe and secure and happy. It was understood that this was behavior expected of everyone. They had so much less than we have today but they willingly gave whatever they were able in times of need.

Sometimes it seems as though we have closed ourselves off inside our modern day castles. We have everything that we need inside and we may have anything that we want delivered to our front doors. We isolate and insulate ourselves from the problems outside our domains, often not even knowing the names of our neighbors or what challenges they are enduring. We come and go and rarely think of the difficulties that are ongoing all around us. We turn off bad news and idealize existence and quibble over issues that should have compromised solutions. We have lost our way on so many levels when we need look no farther than the examples of the past to know what to do.

Thoreau admonished us to simplify, simplify, simplify. Mother Theresa showed us how to share. Our grandparents demonstrated courage and a willingness to adapt to changing situations. Marshall rightly urged us to help our struggling European neighbors after World War II. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us how to open our hearts to differences. The lessons to be learned tell us how to live without the worry and strife that exists in so many corners of our world today. If each person were to change just one way of doing things for the better perhaps we might all wake up to brighter days. It’s time to cease all of the grumbling and work together. Shall we begin?

Choose Experiences

PossessionsI have accumulated lots of things over the years. Some of what I own was handed down to me from my elders, other items are treasured gifts from friends and family. I still possess many of the wedding presents that I received almost fifty years ago. Of course I have kept souvenirs from vacation trips and art work from my children and students. There are all of the usual household and clothing items, not to mention furniture and books. I own music and musical instruments, hobby supplies and gardening implements. I keep wrapping paper and greeting cards and decorations for virtually every occasion. I enjoy my collection of little pigs that are supposed to bring me good luck and smile at the thought of the china that my brothers purchased for me using all of their savings when they were still young boys. My possessions represent a lifetime of accumulation and most of the objects are actually somewhat sentimental to me. Still, I remind myself continuously that they are just things and of little value when compared to people and experiences.

When I think back on my life I hardly remember buying something, but I always vividly recall the special times that I have spent with the people that I love. Thinking of the Sundays that I spent on the banks of Clear Lake with my cousins back when I was a kid warms my heart. I am literally able to hear the humming of the motor boats that were pulling skiers over the water. I can taste the salty spray and feel the heat of the sun on my neck. I recall our antics as we jumped the waves and lowered chicken on strings into the water in hopes of catching crabs. I see my mom and her siblings and they are so young and beautiful and fun to be around. I’m not sure what I purchased in those years or even what I wore, but I am certain that those days we spent together were magical.

I can still see and hear every single detail of my first date with my husband Mike. It’s funny how I knew on that day that I had met my soulmate. I’ve never so instantly clicked with anyone else in my life. We started a conversation back then that we have never completed. He was so incredibly handsome as he arrived looking as though he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine. We saw The Flight of the Phoenix at a theater at Gulfgate. We ran into a couple of my high school classmates and I was proud to be in the company of someone as stunning as Mike. Later he took me on the first of the many adventures we would share. Our destination was to a downtown musical venue called The Cellar that was unlike any experience I had ever before enjoyed. I would later tell my friends that I thought I had met the young man that I was destined to marry.

I am able to outline every detail associated with the births of my children from the time that I learned that I was carrying them all the way through the pains of labor. Of course those wonderful child rearing years were most decidedly the best of my life. We really did have fun on Anacortes Street as they grew into lovely women. Best of all were our vacation trips that took us all over the United States in our different trucks. We slept under the stars in a canvas tent that resembled a circus big top. We laughed and shared stories and marveled at the wonders of our land. Summer after summer we traveled to all of the national landmarks making memories that have never been forgotten.

I can still feel the burning in my muscles as we trudged up the rocky path in the middle of the night on our way to the top of Long’s Peak. We watched the lights come on in the towns below and made it to the Boulder Field by dawn. We weren’t able to make it any farther because the girls were just not old enough and strong enough to climb over the huge rocks, but we felt such a sense of accomplishment and that hike became one of my all time favorite memories.

I still think back on my daughter’s milestones, their first steps and words, their school days and accomplishments. I am often reminded of their programs and performances and the glory of their graduations. Of course their weddings were wonderful even though I was so busy that I hardly had time enough to eat. Best of all were the births of my seven grandchildren who brought new and unparalleled joy into my life. Spending time with them and watching them grow has provided me a whole new set of joyful experiences.

I always loved my work and the educators and students that I met in that capacity. So many of those people are still numbered among my friends. We shared long days together, some of which were stressful at the time but always in the end we felt that incredible sense of having accomplished something very personal and important. I suspect that we are still as close to one another as we are because of the real significance of our work together.

I’ve had so much fun over the years with very special friends. I loved the times when my friend Pat and I spent weekends taking our children to movies and the 59 Diner. I still laugh at our visits with Linda and Bill and the way it took us hours to actually drive away whenever we had announced that it was time to leave. I treasure the trip to Austria that we shared with Monica and Franz as the new year dawned in 2005. I smile with pleasure at the memory of bridge games with Susan and Nancy. I love the dinners and lunches with friends and students that keep our relationships thriving and provide all of us with feelings of being loved. The concerts in which I saw the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney were sensational. Seeing The Phantom of the Opera  on Broadway was the culmination of a dream.

It may have taken me a bit too long to get here, but I now understand the critical importance of an undisputed truth, “We should all invest in experiences rather than things.” At the end of the day even if we lose every possession, nobody will ever be able to steal the joy that we have felt from the moments in which we have seen glorious places and been with people that we love. That is what we should seek. That is what is most important.

They Dance Alone

IMG_1914-e1373088974248For days now They Dance Alone, a song from Sting, has been playing in my head. It begins with the words, Why are these women dancing on their own? Why is there sadness in their eyes? It refers to those who were widowed by the war of revolution, but it might apply to anyone who has lost a spouse.

I’ve always imagined that I have enough empathy to truly understand what it is like to lose that person who has been one’s best friend, soulmate, lover. I thought I had the concept down pat until my own husband had a stroke. Just seeing him become so vulnerable nearly brought me to my knees, and even though he is still with me I find myself constantly looking for him and listening to him breathe at night. Having him gone forever is unimaginable. I now know that I did not ever truly understand what it has been like for friends and relatives whose spouses or partners are already gone. I now feel the raggedness of the hole that punctures the heart. I think of those who dance alone constantly.

I remember the devastation that my mother endured after my father died. Only now do I think that I am moving closer to understanding the extent of her emotional breakdown. I find myself wondering how she found the strength to pull herself together. I suspect that it was only her love for her children that pushed her to rise up from the despair that she must surely have felt.

Not long ago I attended the funeral of a young man who once lived next door to me. I still think of him as a cute and friendly teenager who was always eager to help. He was far too young to die and his widow was bereft. I have since followed her on Facebook and she struggles every single day to continue without him. Now more than ever I somewhat comprehend what she is experiencing.

And so it goes. There is the young widow whose husband left on a business trip and never returned, the neighbor whose husband was sick for years but somehow overcame each challenge to his health, our dear friend whose wife died of cancer. There is my cousin whose husband passed just before Thanksgiving after years of fighting to survive heart failure, the colleague whose spouse finally fell victim to heart disease. I suddenly have a far deeper kinship with them. I feel the visceral attack that such an incident engenders.

I’ve also been thinking of the people that I know who are caring for spouses who are very very sick. A long time friend literally devotes every hour of every day to her husband who had a major stroke that left him unable to do anything for himself and attacked his brain so violently that he suffers from early onset of dementia. I have been watching the courage and grace of my son-in-law’s mom who has spent months visiting one doctor after another with her husband. Her life has been upended and yet she keeps a smile on her face and demonstrates a level of optimism that inspires everyone. Still another friend has been caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s for many years now. She literally has to plan for someone to be with him each time she leaves home. I also have a cousin who has been watching over her husband who has Parkinson’s disease for longer than I can remember. These women are so remarkable and before now I underestimated the love and devotion that they so generously share with their husbands.  It’s so difficult to think of the fear that they have somehow managed to subdue as they watch their loved ones suffer through their illnesses.

The old saw that we sometimes see our lives flash in front of us is all too real. During the days since my husband’s stroke I have literally thought back on the first time that I met him when he was so handsome and enchanting and I got that tingle of love each time I saw him. I’ve had flashbacks of him holding our girls when they were babies. I’ve remembered the times when he helped me hold it together when my mother was very sick. I’ve relived every single trip that we ever took. It is as though the chronicles of our time together have played in my mind like a biographical movie. In my heart I have laughed and cried and always in the end I worry, which is sadly so much a part of my nature. I once again have been feeling that little tingle of unadulterated love just at the sight of him. I also find myself thinking of all of those people who dance alone.

I just attended a wedding in Cancun where two people began their lives together. They celebrated their love and I thought even then of how happy I was to be there with the love of my life. In just a little over a year we will have been married for fifty years. He has been the most important person in my world for so long now that it feels impossible to ever be without him.

I have great faith that his stroke was only a warning of what might be if we are not more careful. We will change our ways and do everything possible to help him to heal and become stronger. It will be a partnership as we work our way back to a healthy lifestyle. Our friends and family will be with us. Of this I am certain. We are surrounded by prayers and positive thoughts and love. Still I feel guilty that I never fully appreciated the gravity of loss until this moment. I was cavalier in believing that I was somehow so sensitive that I might comprehend what they were feeling. Now I know that I wasn’t even close. I need to send lots of love to the people whose hearts have been rent in two. I have to congratulate them on being so strong, often without the level of compassion that they really needed. Now I know why there has been sadness in their eyes. I feel how awful it must be to dance alone. I promise to remember them.