Observations from the Invisibility Cloak

When I was 28 and writing poetry, I wrote a poem lamenting the feeling that I was invisible because I was no longer the youngest, cutest thing on the block --- and I had become a mother. Now I'm in my sixties and really invisible. And I like it!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Icebox Brigade

Right now, our refrigerator is full. I've been reading about food waste lately and while I grew up with the ironclad rule that food should never be wasted or thrown out, I know that these days I do contribute to the food waste stream. We have fresh produce delivered from a farm to the house every Wednesday and sometimes don't eat it all before it goes bad. Some weeks we even avail ourselves of one of those meal-prep delivery services which makes me feel like an actual cook but sometimes doesn't turn out to our liking.

So the fridge is full, and what a blessing that is. I've known this appliance by many names --- the icebox, the frigidaire, the fridge, the refrigerator. Over the years I've had quite a few. Remembering them today, as I contemplated where to stuff the leftovers from lunch, I realized that they trace the trajectory of my fluctuating economic circumstances.

Things started out ok. When I was 18 and newly married, we rented a furnished apartment specifically set up for servicemembers from the nearby Navy base. That was where I started learning my way around the kitchen, though my husband did most of the cooking. He had a talent for it.

When he got out of service and we started college, money was tight. All our furniture and appliances were second-hand,  as was our series of beater cars.  After a couple of years, I moved out on my own for awhile to live in a student boarding house, the first time I shared a kitchen with 6 other women. It was a never-ending effort to keep tabs on my own food. The fridge, with its limited space, was the hardest to control.

After Andrew was born and his dad and I separated for good, I went on welfare and food stamps to keep life together while I finished college and looked for a job. My upstairs apartment had a small fridge with an undependable thermostat and a freezer just big enough for ice cube trays. I learned to shop every couple of days and was very grateful that breast milk was always at the ready and at the perfect temperature.

Next, I threw resources in with my sister and we rented a small, tattered house together. Garage sales provided appliances, including a stove with 2 working burners and a refrigerator that had to be roped shut. Inconvenient, but at least it worked. Somehow, she forgave me for suddenly packing up to move to California, leaving her to unload all our fine furnishings. 

My second place in San Francisco was another shared space with 5 housemates. We instituted the use of small colored stickers to differentiate refrigerator food for each of the roomies. It sort of worked. Sometimes.

Zig-zagging back to Chicago for awhile, I had a garden apartment with no refrigerator at all, and no hope of affording one. Andrew and I slept on a single floor mattress and ate off of a round cocktail table with 2 metal chairs. That was all of our furniture. But the kitchen had hot water and a stove, so I stopped at the market every day to buy cold things for the styrofoam cooler and somehow we got by.

Moving in with my parents in the Azores gave me all the comforts of home: washer and dryer, a working stove and fridge, and a grandmotherly, Portugese, housekeeper/babysitter who took good care of things --- and of Andrew. 

It actually took until I was well into my forties for me to get a brand new refrigerator for the first time. Same thing with a car. Fifties before I owned a house. You would think, after all this history, that I would never take anything for granted, but that doesn't seem to be the way things go. We live in a country in which poor people having a refrigerator calls their legitimacy into question. It's complicated. What exactly is a luxury and what would be a necessity?  

Jill and I have a fifteen-year-old fridge that is still pumping away for the time being. It's ample for us, even without the bells and whistles I see in Home Depot on the new models. I hope it lasts awhile longer, but I also am pretty sure that when it gives up the ghost we'll be able to go pick out a new one, not shop the second-hand stores. We may not be rolling in dough, but we also don't have to tie the door shut with a rope to keep the cold in. 

And that's the lesson, isn't it? Not everyone is so fortunate.

I remember.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Carrying on, A.D.

Nancy and Lester Bundy

Fourteen years ago today, my father died of Alzheimer's Disease. He was an accomplished musician and I grew up in a swirl of classical music and jazz while playing underneath the baby grand piano with my sisters and brother. It was the soundtrack of my childhood.

It's now more than two years since my mother died of the same disease, a sad follow-up eleven years later.  Both were teachers and lovers of theater, music, art, and literature. All four of us apples did not fall far from the parental tree.

Now they're gone and it still surprises me. There is an enormous difference between the intellectual understanding that death is
inevitable and the reality of being an orphan. These two people live on dramatically in my memory and my own expression of life. My personal playlist still revolves around Chopin and Bach, Coltrane and Ellington, and every lyric of every Broadway recording I listened to on the old record player in the living room. Now I listen in my car to a CD of Dad playing Scott Joplin ragtime.

Lately, I've had several friends whose parents have passed into beyond. It is a truism that we are able to turn our own difficult experiences into a force for good with other people in need. That's happened repeatedly in the past couple of years. I am able to pass along what others gave to me and what I've gained from my own experience. 

It's also true that you don't know what it's like until it happens. I suppose that's true of most everything. Not everyone feels a profound loss at the death of a parent or parental figure. Most of my friends going through this are, as I am, veterans of caregiving. We're not kids anymore in need of regular meals or tuition money. Still, the loss of parents is the loss of generational knowledge and continuity.
At Grandma and Grandpa's house

I'm left with boxes of papers, photos, books, and recordings made or compiled by people who no longer exist. Because I had direct interactions with them, I carry sensory memories, intimate recollections that are still alive to me. Soon enough though, I'll be gone as well and fewer people will have any idea of who the people were who came before. We all, if we are remembered by anyone, become reduced to the few tangible mementos and artifacts that survive.

It doesn't seem like 14 years since my father died. My brother and I were at his bedside that day, holding his hands and talking to him. Mom was right here in the front room when her end came, surrounded by family, people who love her still. Alzheimer's had robbed them both of not just their vitality and expression, but any consciousness of self.  In each instance, at the very end of AD, only a shell remained.

Anyone who hangs around the planet long enough will lose someone to death. And it doesn't have to be a person; the death of a beloved animal companion can be devastating as well. As life continues after a death, it can feel incomplete, unnatural, as though the world has fundamentally altered. And while that acute sense of loss eventually diminishes, some of it seems to linger.

It's a new stage of life, I guess. I'm not sure where the memories live. And what do I do with the leftovers?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Everything you know --- right or wrong?

Once upon a time, I would lie on the floor with my head between the speakers listening to the Firesign Theater album "Everything You Know is Wrong" for hours. It seeped into my brain; some stray phrases still surface from time to time. Those were the good ol' days, when America was Great. 

Forty-five years later I have the feeling that everything I know is wrong, and getting wronger by the minute. Not only is the "phone" I carry in my pocket way too smart for me, the world I thought I knew is becoming unrecognizable.

Now I might be able to blame that on the fact that I was lied to. Earnestly and repeatedly lied to, by every authority figure in my small, sheltered world. That's what they did back then when America was Great. Some people called it child-rearing. Others, education.

#1  The guys in the white hats are good, the ones in black hats are bad, and girls are buxom and dumb. 
#2  The United States of America was, and always has been, savior of the world, ever since the noble Founding Fathers invented liberty and justice for all. 
#3  Good people are rewarded and bad people are punished because that's the way God wants it.
#4  Pity the poor, the sick, the old, and the infirm. They can't help it if they're not as healthy and happy as we are. And don't stare.
#5  Just be good and nothing bad will ever happen to you, and if it does that means you've done something wrong.

Now that America is not Great anymore and I'm waaaaaay older than I was back then, the scales fall from my eyes and WHOA! What happened to my pretty places? It's strange to think that even though I've now lived nearly 7 decades and have been through hard times and seen my fortunes ebb and flow, there are still illusions to be shattered. 

I have managed to hold on to a shred of belief that things do keep getting better for humanity. That's involved a lot of squinting, reframing, and sometimes plugging up my ears, but I have never quite lost hope that humans continue to evolve. When cynicism begins to overtake me, I look to history and see where we've been compared to now. It requires taking a very long view, but we have made progress, even in terms of overall warring and killing. Plus we have smart phones now.

Making America Great Again seems to mean a return to black and white thinking, in every sense of the phrase. There's no room for me in a black and white world.
#6  There's one soulmate (opposite sex, of course) for everyone and finding The One brings ultimate happiness.
#7  Don't you worry honey, I'll take care of you.

Did you know that gay people weren't even invented until 1969? And that the push for the ERA and Civil Rights broke America's Greatness forever? Until now in the 21st Century, when we can start getting it back again.

#8  War is terrible but absolutely necessary to preserve Democracy and Greatness.
#9  The Poor will be with us always.
#10  God helps those who help themselves. Hard work and ambition are the keys to the American Dream.

Of course, the hardest work gets the highest pay and if you do unpaid work, like "homemaking" it's not really work at all or you'd be getting paid. If you do manual labor it's honorable even if you can't afford to live on it, because work is redemptive in itself. And if you work even harder, the American Dream of Success will undoubtedly be yours. Just keep trying!

#11  Every American Citizen has the right and the sacred duty to vote. Free and open elections are the foundation of the American Democracy. That's what makes America Great and every other country should be like America.
#12  When you get old, you will be taken care of by your family and your community because we Americans respect and honor families and our elders. They fought in wars and worked hard to Make America Great, and deserve rest, relaxation, and good healthcare at the end of life.
#13  And everyone lived happily ever after.

P.S. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It's probably George Tirebiter.

Monday, January 30, 2017

What did you do during the coup, Grandma?

First of all, I don't have any actual grandchildren, a fact for which I am increasingly grateful these days. But if I did, I would want to have an answer for that question. So far, I carry signs and march, make phone calls to congress, send emails, talk to friends. What else will be required before it's over?

Coup? Is that what this is? Surely that's hyperbolic. Hysteria from a loser Democrat who refuses to get over a lost election. But I don't think so.

There is the "peaceful transition of power" that we've all heard so much about lately and then there's the concentration of power in so few hands that it becomes ----- what? Authoritarian? Dictatorship? Kleptocracy? Some new mash-up tailored for the 21st Century?

Whatever it is, I find myself becoming more alarmed every day. I've slogged through years of being in the political outlier swamp before. I've railed against what seemed obviously bad policy decisions and frankly inhumane treatment of citizens who dwell on the fringes. But this is not the same. This is not, to me, a disappointing political turn of events. 

The new administration is showing itself to be chaotic, unreasonable, woefully inept, and antithetical to the standards of public and private behavior that we expect of anyone over the age of five. But it's the undercurrent that has me waking up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, planning my escape.

Why does Trump have his own security force? The Secret Service is at his disposal. A private security force is one hallmark of authoritarianism.

Why is he deliberately installing people in sensitive, powerful positions who completely lack experience or expertise? Even worse, what is the possible rationale for naming cabinet members who are demonstrably opposed to the departments they are to head? 

Secrecy and deflection are the standard operating procedure for this group. Executive orders do not originate nor are they reviewed by people in government or legislature who have knowledge and experience pertaining to them. Unveiling sudden surprises is the word of the day.

What passes for "national security" appears to be more about political calculation and petulance than considered decision-making. The flagrant ignore-ance of geo-political realities and delicate balance of interests is breathtaking.

Most of all, who is in the shadows? Now that power has consolidated to the point of the Executive branch ignoring both the Legislative and being in contempt of courts in the Judiciary over the immigration/refugee/Muslim ban, who is the power behind the power? What are not just the next steps but the ultimate aims?

This is why it feels to me like a slow-motion coup. And really, considering the pace of the past two weeks, not so slow after all.

Am I succumbing to conspiracy theory-itis? How do you know when you're witnessing the end of a democracy, the final throes of a society? 

Anybody? Anybody?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Worlds in Collision

It's December. 
It's the month my mother died, two years ago tomorrow.
It's the month after the 2016 election.

I'm having trouble sleeping except when I have trouble waking up. I spend intense, loving hours with friends and family all the while desiring nothing so much as solitude and silence.

The house is decorated for the holidays. We are re-creating the traditions of the family Christmas. The familiarity of rituals and food brings continuity and soothes my psyche.

At the same time, I feel a jarring sense of impending doom, of urgent actions I should take in order to stave off Armageddon.

Welcome to my world.

Two years ago, while Mom was lying in her hospital bed in the front room, the Christmas tree dazzled, music played, the scents of the season wafted through the house. My world had shrunk to that room, that bed, the woman who no longer ate or drank or opened her eyes. The woman who had given me birth and life and without whom I couldn't imagine being in the world. But time does go on, just as they always say, and I am still here and she is not. There continue to be good times and difficulties and so many things I want to tell her about.

Now, two years later, I open my computer or the newspaper in the morning and everything I see and read shouts of imminent destruction, chaos, and loss. It doesn't read to me as if it's something far away and not connected. It hits like action that I must take or all will be lost. The entire election season felt that way, and since the election of Donald Trump it has heightened to enormous proportions. 

I have lost my perspective. I have allowed myself to be seduced by the very fear tactics I so decried over the past year and a half, no actually, for the past 8 years. 

Fear and Loathing in America. 

Maybe what is needed most is for everyone, including me, to chill out. Take a breath and then another and another. This constant fever-pitch opposition is not only exhausting but dispiriting. I feel my life force draining with every headline, every new outrage, every single threat. And where does that lead?

Right now, it's leading me, incrementally, to abandon what was once quaintly referred to as "current events". There is only so much I can take without destroying my own spirit and affecting the people I love. I can't let it go all at once, cold turkey. But I can certainly cut down and replace it with other activities: reading books (actual, physical books), walking dogs in the woods, meeting friends, meditating. If the lure of electronics gets too strong, I can even listen to/watch TED talks.

Regardless of what is happening in the outer world, I am still responsible for my own reactions and perspective. I learned a lot about that during the years of taking care of Mom. Now I need to recalibrate and use what I learned in order to contribute something positive to the world at large, rather than continuing to raise the anxiety level.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

My Post Nov 8 World

I feel like somebody died. It's happened before. Real people who I know and love have died. I'm in a similar state, unfocused, at a loss, trying to adjust to the uncertainty of a world with an essential piece missing.

I've been on the planet long enough, and studied enough history, to know that life does go on. Still, it seems surprising to me that it all looks so normal out there. From my window. I'm not ready to actually venture out very far yet. It feels too scary.

In the aftermath of this, as with any other shock, I must shift my focus. I'm a bit of a news junkie. OK, I admit it. I usually get every question right on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." It's one of the perks of being retired. I used to drive to work listening to NPR and hear the teasers and think "Damn, I wish I could listen to that show today." Now I can.

My immediate reaction to the election news, right after spending an hour looking at the possibility of moving to the Azores, was that I could NOT stand being on social media. I would shut down my accounts. I would stay off the computer completely! That lasted about four hours. Another admission. I'm addicted. Where's that twelve-step program when you need it?

So, as I must ultimately do in regards to the election results, I will compromise. Shift my gaze. Paying close attention to the news, reading all the opinion pieces, getting jazzed on caffeine and editorials is not good for my blood pressure. Really. I've been checking, and it's true. So it's time to take a breath and practice something very foreign to me --- self-control. Restraint of tongue and pen. 

When I drive in the car, I can listen to music. We have a terrific classical music station, WCPE, practically in my back yard. I can read books, even funny books, slim volumes of fluff and whimsy. That's why God invented libraries.

I can walk the dogs. Pick flowers from the yard and bring them inside. (My mind just flipped to global warming --- we have a yard full of spring flowers in November ---- I can't think about climate change deniers, not yet.) I can sit in the sunshine on the swing and smell the breeze, listen to the birds, soak in the deep blue of the sky. 

It's true. Not one of our two dogs and two cats has even mentioned the election. They're not scared that the world is going to end in a fiery series of mushroom clouds. They just want to be petted and talked to and sung to, as always. Actually, so do I.

And someday, when I've regained my equilibrium and expanded my perspective, I'll be ready to do what I've done before. Show up. Speak out. Raise my voice for justice as I have been doing for fifty years. The work is not over yet.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

News in Slow Time

This past summer I spent quite a bit of time recovering from a hip replacement that had a little extra glitch. In anticipation of the first surgery my wife, who knows me so well, subscribed to the newspaper. She remembered my wistful reminiscences about the real, tangible, printed paper and a cup of coffee, even though I had quit subscribing before we ever got together. This would be my treat during recovery.

Now I've been reading a daily paper for four months and I've noticed a few things. First of all, the newspaper with a cup (or two) of coffee has not lost its charm for me. Each morning I head for the stove where she leaves it, right beside the coffee pot. This woman is definitely a keeper.

I've been trying to remember when I stopped reading paper news, and I believe it was when I got a "real" job. As long as I was working for myself, I had enough mornings with extra time to make it worthwhile. Once I started teaching, I found that not only did they expect me to be there on time every single day, but I had to be prepared, as well. Teaching ate my life and spit out such trivialities as reading the newspaper, watching tv, reading for pleasure, and meeting friends for coffee. 

Without time to eat breakfast and read the paper, I started snatching news from NPR on the car radio and occasional clips on news sites when I should have been doing something else. By the time I reached retirement I had become accustomed to relying on the computer for instant news gratification. In fact, I preferred it because I could pick and choose what to read more precisely. 

And that is what I have been thinking about since I resumed the leisurely perusal of a morning paper. I read it differently. 

When I have an actual newspaper, I open it and take a look at the entire page --- or two pages, if it's spread all the way --- and move across the page from one article or picture to another. Headlines are important, but not as likely to dissuade me as are the headlines in a list on the computer. 

Confronted with a list on a news site, I'm dead certain I'm not going to read all of them. I'll run down the roster and pick one or two. When I open the newspaper, I'm willing to read at least the first paragraph of almost anything, just to see if it grabs me. Often, articles that I would have summarily dismissed on the computer wind up enticing me in. It's how I learn things I would never have chosen to look at.

It strikes me as similar to the difference between looking at a paper map and using the GPS on my phone. The GPS gives me a narrow, specific route with verbal directions so I can get where I'm going with the least amount of uncertainty. A map provides context, a more global view of where I am and where I want to go, along with everything in between, including places I never knew about. Both maps and GPS are useful but engage different parts of my brain. 

I've been in love with the printed word since kindergarten when I discovered that I could read on my own. I spend a lot of time reading and writing on the computer and thank goodness for the keyboard and screen. But I still love actual books and usually have both tangible and electronic books going at the same time. Now I have regained my affinity for unwieldy, smudgy, scattershot newspapers, and it adds to my enjoyment of life. There's nothing like sitting on the deck, the dogs playing in the yard, the cat trying to curl up on the pages before me, and a mug of hot coffee at the ready. 

Thank you, Jill, for reigniting my mornings.