Monday, September 23, 2013

Kismet and the Square Dancing Trees

"I love those square dancing trees," I'd say each Sunday during the summers of 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1980, when my first husband and I would drive to the summer camp that he directed. I would point up into the mountains and comment on a pair of trees that looked exactly like they were square dancing and say with certainty, "One day, I am going to live there."

My first husband was not very communicative, usually ignoring my comments, but one time he said, "How would you ever find them? We'd never be able to afford it. You would hate living in the mountains." "No," I replied, "I will love it. It will be the happiest time of my life."

Fast forward to the summer of 1981. Gordon and I had been together a little more than six months. Once when we were going over the same highway that my first husband and I drove each summer, I showed Gordon the square dancing trees and told him that one day I was going to live there. He burst out laughing, a delighted laugh, but would not tell me why he was laughing.

Jumping ahead to 1983,  Gordon's ex-wife decided not to live in their mountain home, and she moved to the city with her boyfriend. That meant that Gordon and I were going to live in the mountain home because that is where Gordon's dad lived and where Gordon's former father-in-law lived, and we were now responsible for taking care of them along with our baby daughter Amy.

One day soon after we moved up on the mountain, a gloriously sunny fall day with the wind blowing, dramatic clouds scudding across the sky, and Amy giggling with delight from her seat on her daddy's shoulders, Gordon took me to the sheep's pasture for the first time and smiled. He gave me a big hug and then pointed. Right before my eyes were the square dancing trees. I was speechless, which made Gordon laugh out loud. He gave me a big hug and told me that he hadn't mentioned them before because he wasn't sure if we'd get to live on his mountain. When he knew we'd be living there, he wanted it to be a magical moment when he showed me the trees, and magical it most certainly was. 

When the children were young, I would show them the square dancing trees from the highway, and we were always thrilled and delighted to see our two trees dancing on our property.

This morning in the shower while fondly remembering my square dancing trees, I also remembered the day that Gordon had to cut one of the trees down because it was diseased. It was the tree that was the male partner, the one holding his hand up so the lady dancer could twirl her skirts. I had no presentiment about the future the day that tree was cut down, but, now, looking back, it seems to have been a harbinger of our future.

But one thing I know for certain--the words I said long ago to my first husband about living on the mountain: "I will love it. It will be the happiest time of my life" most definitely came true, only it came true with Gordon, my second husband, who just happened to own the square dancing trees. What were the odds? 'Twas kismet.

Take care,


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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why I Believe

I believe in God for two reasons. The first reason is simple--the world fairly bursts with the joy of creation. Everywhere I look in nature, I see evolution, yes, but I also see an effervescent delight and wonder at play. It feels to me as if someone or something had fun making the world, and I want to say "thank you." I felt this way as a child, and I still do. 

The other reason I believe in God keeps me believing when people confound me and the world no longer makes sense because I have no other explanation for what happened. It was a moment of clarity that still shines brightly in my mind.

In the summer of 1986, with one year left to complete my MA in English, Gordon came home one day, and he told me that I had to take the literature exam in November instead of waiting for April, as we had planned. He said he "knew" something was going to happen that would keep me from taking it in April. Whoa! How was I to cram all that studying into half the time originally planned while caring for two toddlers? Ah, inspiration struck. We wrote Uncle Bob, Gordon's brother, and asked him to come out for ten weeks. We told him we would pay him to play with and care for Amy and Gavin for eight hours a day so that I could study. He agreed. The only break I took during the day before Gordon got home from work was to read to Amy and Gavin before their naps. Reading to my children always took precedence. The rest of the time, I read, read, read for my exam.

Before the summer, I had spoken to my graduate advisor (now my friend), Elsie Leach, about what to study and how to study for the exam. She helped me write out a plan, emphasizing my strengths in dramatic literature. I felt confident until one night I woke up in a panic.

That night, I began to pray for guidance regarding what to study for my exams. I just knew something had changed from when Elsie and I had made my plan. She had retired, so I could not ask her. I just prayed.

One night, about two in the morning, I woke abruptly, as if someone had shaken me awake. I suddenly knew that I needed to read and study Chaucer, I needed to read other medieval texts, an area I had skipped entirely, except for "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" because I love all things about King Arthur. I also knew that I needed to read the Critical Edition of several Norton novels. I wrote it all down, lest I forget upon waking in the morning. 

In the morning, I told Gordon that my prayer had been answered, and I now knew what I NEEDED to read, and it differed from what Elsie and I had planned, except for Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama; I somehow knew there was going to be a question on that too. Gordon not only scoffed at the notion, he got angry and said he did not want me wasting my time reading anything other than what was on Elsie's and my list. He was not an atheist; he was an agnostic, and like most people, myself included, wondered why, if there was a God, he would answer my particular prayer while there was so much suffering in the world. I had no answer.

Then began the first and only time I ever hid something from Gordon. I secretly began studying Chaucer, Medieval texts, and novels in the middle of the night with a flashlight so as not to awaken Amy, Gavin, or Gordon.

One night, Gordon woke up to pee and caught me. Instead of getting angry, though, Gordon was somewhat in awe of my conviction that I HAD to study these topics, and he became supportive.

The day before the exam, Gordon told me to read something fun and relaxing in order to calm myself. After he left for work and Uncle Bob took Amy and Gavin for a walk, I went to the novels section of my bookshelves and asked quite simply, "God, what should I read? I feel I'm missing something." In a moment, my hand reached out for James Dickey's Deliverance. Without hesitating, I sat down and read the book and the critical commentary about the book. When I finished reading, I knew I was ready for the exam the next morning, but I was a nervous wreck. What if I'd paid attention to a phantom, and I was going to fail?

The next morning, bright and early, and all of you who know me, know I do not do bright and early well, I entered the room, and there were maybe eight of us taking the exam. The professor proctoring the exam handed out the questions. My heart seized as I gasped. The format for the test was ALL WRONG. In previous semesters, each student was allowed to pick three essay questions out of nine to answer, but this test had three sections, and you HAD to answer one question from EACH section. I was sure I was sunk. 

The first section was three questions regarding Medieval Literature. Two questions I had no clue about, having never read the works that I was asked to discuss. The third question was about Chaucer's works, and I knew it cold.

The second section was Elizabethan drama with a question about Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well along with a third play of your choice. I had written "A" papers on both plays, plus Measure for Measure is my favorite Shakespeare play, so I thought my friend Nils had written that question as a gift for me. Nope! I learned a few days later that a new professor, whom I did not know, had written that question.

Deep breath time--the third section was about novels. Two questions were on specific novels that I had never read. The third question asked me to write about three novels that used the the same form of a narrator in three different ways. I quickly wrote down the novels I had studied during the ten weeks, looking for three with the same form of narration. Only three novels fit, and Deliverance was the third one.

Tears rolled down my cheeks. A woman I did not know, who was sitting next to me, patted my shoulder and told me that I had next semester to take the exam. She, too, was shocked by the change in the exam format. I shook my head and said that wasn't why I was crying. I said that, for whatever reason, God had answered my prayer by letting me know what to study. I said I would never doubt his existence again. Understandably, the woman scooted her chair away from me and shot me fearful glances, no doubt believing I was a madwoman.

So, I wrote my three essays to the ONLY three questions I could answer. When the exam was over, I called Gordon and told him.  He was stunned and speechless. About a week later, a professor called to congratulate me. I had passed my literature exam for my masters with an "A".

So, that is why I believe. After such an experience, wouldn't you? How else to explain it? Oh, and that premonition Gordon had that something was going to happen? George, Gordon's 95 year old dad, who lived with us, fell and broke his hip in January, and from then until his death six months later in July, we had no time for anything but caring for George. Something to ponder, isn't it?

Take care,


P.S. I want to address two points that some people raise when you say you believe in God.

People often wonder why God allows human suffering in all its myriad forms, but I don't believe suffering is God's will. He gives us humans free will, and we use our free will to cause harm and suffering by thinking of and putting ourselves first and foremost. But if everyone--believers, atheists, agnostics--all of us lived by the words "love your neighbor as yourself," we would have nothing to blame God for because we would be fulfilling our basic, most important purpose for living, which is to take care of one another.

As for evolution, I think God and evolution go hand in hand. What's to quibble about?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Day in the Life

For my fellow dementia caregivers--a band of dedicated wives, husbands, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, and friends, who toil mostly behind the scenes with little credit or thanks, doing it out of a sense of rightness and, if truth be told, out of love. This blog post is for you. 

A day in the life of a dementia caregiver has three distinct components: you physically care for your loved one in whatever ways he or she needs, you anticipate, and you remember. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But it's really very challenging. 

Many people wonder what you do when you care for a loved one with dementia, and the answer will vary from caregiver to caregiver. Some of us are busy helping with bathing, feeding, and walking, but many of us, especially those of us dealing with behavior variant Frontotemporal Dementia (bvFTD), also spend time dealing with bizarre, unpleasant behaviors. Usually that means we are cleaning up messes after they have happened because your bvFTD loved one can think up things to do you cannot imagine. 

A few years back, my youngest son and I had to apologize to store employees because Gordon, my formerly courteous husband, would fly into a rage at helpful, unsuspecting employees and swear at them using the "F" word. Then, of course, there are the money problems. 

Families caring for a bvFTD loved one often have suffered devastating financial losses resulting from the loved one's poor executive function and choices, which means the caregiver has the added stress of figuring out how to keep a house over their heads and food on the table. Scary.

In addition to the physical caregiving, there's the anticipation factor. It's all about anticipating what's going to be needed next. It's about helping with minutiae, the hundreds of things you and I do each day without thinking about, on autopilot, but the person with dementia can no longer do without help. For instance, I loosen the jars and caps I think my husband might use that day to alleviate his frustration because his grip is now weak. I put items he might use in exactly the same spot so that he can find them. And I've recently begun to help him with dressing. He's tries to put shirts on upside down and gets all tangled up, and then sometimes he needs help with buttons. We caregivers never know what the next day will bring. We may have several calm days where we are lulled into a routine, and, then, bam, something new pops up. As you might suspect, we don't get much sleep, always half listening, waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

Oh, and then there are the doors being left open. Whenever Gordon goes outside, he leaves the door open, and he often leaves it open when he comes back inside, or he closes it with a beloved pet outside and doesn't hear it scratching or whimpering or meowing to get inside. I'm often searching for my very frightened cat or letting in my very puzzled dog, neither of whom understands what has happened. Dementia is hard on pets too.

Perhaps the most difficult job of a dementia caregiver is being the rememberer, the caretaker for the memories of the time before your loved one developed dementia. Somehow, in the midst of irritation, frustration, anger, loneliness, despair, resentment, pain, and confusion, an array of unwanted emotions that wash over us when least expected, we have to keep enough perspective to not let the spouse, parent, child, or friend that we once deeply loved and cherished be lost to us and to the world. We have to tell the first part of our loved ones' stories in addition to the last part. As Gwydion says in Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron, "so shall I honor Morgant for what he used to be." Replace Morgant's name with our loved ones' names and honer them for what they used to be. Our loved ones did not choose this dreadful disease, so we must find ways to remember and honor our loved ones' lives before they developed dementia.

Wow, all that in a dementia caregiver's day, and I didn't even touch on the driving issue and taking the keys away, or the fears and reality of abandonment by family and friends who choose to be in denial or are scared or don't want to be bothered. And how about getting reliable respite time for oneself? Ah, there's always more to write, isn't there?

Big hugs to all my fellow caregivers,


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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Why Are the Seeds on Top of the Dirt?"

"Katinka, why are the seeds on top of the dirt?' asked Gordon with a puzzled expression in June 1983. We had been together as a couple for almost three years, and I was seven months pregnant with Amy. We were at the mountain ranch that would be our family home for the next twenty-one years, and we were planting a vegetable garden. Gordon had handed me a packet of seeds and said to follow the directions. Well, I did just that, followed the directions, which said "place seeds 4 inches apart." The look on Gordon's face was priceless. Then, he smiled, laughed, and hugged me close, and said, "I forgot you've never planted anything before. The seeds have to go in the dirt." Whereupon, he knelt beside me on the ground and showed me how to plant seeds. This is one of my favorite memories of Gordon and me together because Gordon did not tease me, put me down, or ridicule me. Instead, he was patient, kind, loving, and made me feel cherished.

What prompted this memory? Recently, I read an article about dementia caregiving, and one of the suggestions is to "Spend time remembering who the person with FTD was." I haven't done this much because I find it very painful, but the point was a good one. If you remember your loved one before FTD (frontotemporal dementia), remember what you loved about him or her, it will help you to be more patient and understanding during the sad, lonely, frustrating days, weeks, and years of caregiving.

Soon after I met Gordon, I sensed he was special. The beginning, however, was not auspicious. He would chitchat, and I dislike chitchat because I find it pointless, plus I'm not very good at it. One Saturday at the office in 1976, three of us were talking about politics because it was an election year, and I asked Gordon a question. He replied with some cliched comment, and I looked at him and said, "If you cannot give me a thoughtful answer based on intelligent ideas, then don't bother talking to me about politics." He laughed uproariously and went back to his office. A few moments later, Gordon came back to where I was and answered my question thoughtfully and fully. 
From that moment on, Gordon only talked about real things with me--poetry, politics, saving the world, and so much more. Until FTD changed him, Gordon and I had many, many fun, spirited, deep, intellectual, thoughtful, sparkling conversations that went on for hours. One rainy day in January 1985, during our three day honeymoon, when I was seven months pregnant with Gavin, while it poured with no let up all day, we spent more than six hours engrossed in our discussion about the book A Passage to India by E.M. Forster and the film based upon the book. The hours flew by; it was pure heaven. At dinner that evening, we considered that afternoon to be one of our finest ever.

I think two happy memories are enough for this first remembering exercise the article recommended that we dementia caregivers do. More than two memories might be overwhelming because of the stark contrast between then and now.

I often wonder if there is any part of the Gordon I loved and married and had children with left, or is his essence all gone. Mostly, I think it is gone, but every once in a while, months or years apart, Gordon will say or do something that echoes the past.

This morning, Gordon said, "Katinka, good morning. How are you today?" This may not sound remarkable to most of you, but it was the first time that Gordon has said it to me, when no one else was around (with visitors in our home, basic courtesies sometimes kick in--it's a puzzlement), since August 2002, eleven long years ago. For a moment, it took my breath away, then brought a tear, then a smile, making me remember our mornings so long ago that often began with Gordon awakening me with a kiss and a bit of poetry. What do you know? A third memory. 

Take care,


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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Home Is Where You Belong

In his poem "Death of the Hired Man," Robert Frost says, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." But that makes home merely a place of obligation, and a home is SO much more than that. A home is a sanctuary where you are wanted and are cherished, a place where you belong.

Regular readers of my blog know that I did not have a home when I was a child. I lived in a house, but it was only a building, not a home. My grandparents' houses were places of sanctuary, where I felt safe, but they did not quite make it into the home category.

My first hint of a home came with my high school boyfriend's family. The Millers cared about me, and I cared about them. They even wanted me to talk at dinner, and I did not have to fear being hit or having my head slammed into the wall. That was a new experience for me, and I did not know how to speak freely. Jim, my boyfriend's dad, teasingly told me that I could not come to dinner again unless I talked, so I squeaked out something, enough to get invited many more times. During those dinners, I felt as if I belonged, and it was a heady experience.

My next taste of home came with Mom Woosley. Her son and I danced for awhile with a love that ultimately became a lifelong friendship, and Mom Woosley became the mother I never had. She loved me unconditionally, and I was always wanted and cherished in her home. I was the daughter she did not have, and while I knew that I belonged in her arms and her heart, I always knew I was a guest in her home, a welcome one, to be sure, but, nonetheless, a guest.

Another glimmer of home came with my roommates Cath and Irma. We three worked in a factory together in our early 20's, and somehow we found each other and became roommates. We lived together almost four years, and we formed a temporary family bond. We loved each other, and, for awhile, we belonged together in our homey apartment, but we were really just marking time until we each got married and went our separate ways, and we knew it.

My brief, first marriage was a mistake, but a mistake that I do not regret, for it led me to my life today. Sadly, my first husband and I did not have one moment when we felt at home with each other. But we figured this out quickly, realized we should not have married but just been friends, and parted amiably, so amiably that my future children called him Uncle Mitch.

Then in 1980, Gordon and I fell in love. The first weekend we went away together I felt something I had never felt before--I felt like I belonged with Gordon and he with me, felt like I had known him forever. Everything was easy; it was as if we were the missing puzzle piece in each other's life. Slowly but surely, we made a home together, a home where we could be ourselves at all times and feel we were wanted and cherished by each other, a home where we belonged.

Our love produced four very wanted and deeply cherished children, and our home was filled with love, joy, and laughter for many, many years. At long last, I had my home, we had our home, and I was grateful every minute for it; I never took it for granted. We six belonged together.

The fascinating thing about a home is that it can withstand the slings and arrows of the outside world because the love inside is armor for the home. It is when the slings and arrows come from the inside that a home can crumble because you cannot have armor on the inside to protect you because interior armor would stifle the vulnerability that is necessary for love to exist. We must be vulnerable to experience love in all its simplicity and glory. So, when a home is attacked from the inside and crumbles, it must be rebuilt on the back of broken dreams. That is what happened to our home when dementia and schizophrenia, both relentless and insidious foes, made their appearances. We four mentally well family members had to create a new kind of home, a home that had lost its trusting innocence in the power of love, but a home that still chose love as its core. We four made a new home, a good home, a home where we belonged, but a home tinged with memories of our lost home.

People say that home is where the heart is, but that's a bit too glib. What if your heart is in several places? Now that my children are grown and with partners, my heart is in different places (except for those joyous times when we are all together). Can I belong in three places, or will I always be a guest in their homes, as I was in Mom Woosley's home? Or worse, an interloper? And what of my missing son? Part of my heart is always with him. So where is my home now? Do I have one?

If home is where you belong, where is your home if you don't really belong anywhere anymore? When your spouse is gone, when your house that was your home is sold, when your children are grown and on their own, where is your home then? A question for the ages! It seems that I must broaden my perception of what a home is, or at least what mine shall be, and figure out a new way of belonging.

Take care,


Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Greater Love Hath No Man"

Easter is a special day. It celebrates the purist love known to man, the love of one human choosing to die for another. I know there's debate about whether the story of Jesus rising from the dead is true, but there is no debate that I can find about whether Jesus chose to die for us, in fact, there's much historical evidence to support this, so Jesus' choice is what I want to focus on in today's Easter blog.

Stories in books and movies celebrate the person who chooses to die for family, friends, or strangers. Why do we celebrate this? Because we all wish we would do the same thing, but we know deep down inside that we probably won't. Self-preservation is strong in most of us, but self-preservation is not held up as the human ideal; rather, it is often represented as cowardice, and we scorn the person who grabs the life preserver out of another's hands.

Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) and "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12:31). But the important point isn't that Jesus said the words, it is that he lived them. He did lay down his life for us, not knowing for sure that he would rise from the dead, and he loved us, his neighbors, more than he loved himself.

I find it telling that Jesus did not ask us to do as he did and love our neighbors more than ourselves. Perhaps it is because he knew that that is too much to ask from us; perhaps Jesus knew we would have a difficult enough time loving our neighbors at all, so asking us to love them as much as ourselves was the task he presented us with, what he wanted us to strive for, because he knew it was the one we could achieve.

Long ago, perhaps forty years ago or so, a friend and I were discussing Jesus' words and whether they had any value if Jesus was not, in fact, the son of God. I'll never forget my friends words, "Sure they do because how Jesus taught us to live is the best way to live. The world doesn't run well at all when people put themselves before others." Ah, a light bulb moment.

And so simple too. If we were all willing to die for one another, and we were to love others, friend or foe, acquaintance or stranger, similar or wildly different, as much as we love ourselves, the world would be, quite simply, a heaven on earth because no one would strive to be more than, to have more than another.

And maybe that's what Jesus was telling us before he died for us. The secret to making our world a heaven is in our own actions.  We act like Jesus, and we create a good world for everyone. We scorn his words, and we get the world we have today--war, poverty, greed, inequality, ugliness, despair, and hopelessness. 

Easter reminds us of our potential. It's not too late to change our ways; the choice is always ours. We just have to make the choice.

Happy Easter,


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Be Open and Rob Silence of Its Power

      Long ago and far away, though it seems like only yesterday, my mom wrapped herself in a cocoon of silence. My dad viciously beat her regularly, but she refused to tell her mother or her sister about it. Most nights from the time I was nine years old, I would lie in my bed, locked in my bedroom, listening to the pattern of abuse, hearing the swearing, hearing the flesh being whacked with a fist or open hand, hearing the insults, hearing my mother crying.
     One particularly bad night occurred around the time of my 8th grade graduation. My parents had gone out to dinner to celebrate their 15th anniversary. For some reason, probably because he was drunk, my dad had forgotten to lock my bedroom door. When the beating was in full swing, I went into my parent’s bedroom and saw my dad in his underwear, kicking my mom into the wall. I shouted at him to stop, but he told me my mother deserved it, and he spewed out vile, ugly words. Again, I shouted at him, and this time I threatened to call the police. He sneered at me and told me his "brother cops" would never do anything to him, which, sadly, in the days of the early 1960’s was probably true.
     My heart broke to see my tiny, nearly naked mom, huddled in a corner of her bedroom, curled into a ball in order to protect herself as well as absorb the beating better. I walked toward her and bent to pick her up. She looked so broken. My dad shouted obscenities and stormed out of the bedroom.
     The next morning when I got up to go to school, I saw my dad sleeping in the chair in the living room. He woke up when I passed his chair. I ignored him. He asked why I didn’t say “Good morning” to him, and I said that I had no respect for him anymore because he was a bully who beat my mom. As usual, he called me insulting names, but I stayed silent.
     When I got home from school, I discovered that my mother could barely walk. She was wearing pajamas and a robe, though it was very hot that June day, and we had no air conditioning. I pleaded with her to tell her mom, my grandma, about what dad had done to her. She told me that I didn’t understand, that my dad had apologized, that she loved my dad. I was disgusted and told her if that was love, then I hoped to never love anyone.
     The next day was my 8th grade graduation. My mom could not attend the ceremony, as she could still barely walk. My dad told everyone that she had the flu. When we got home, I pleaded with my mom to go into the living room and show everyone her bruises. I told her that I’d help her walk. She refused. I threatened to tell the whole family and bring them into her bedroom because it was the only way to stop dad from beating her. I turned to leave her bedroom. My mom got out of her bed, and with tottering steps came toward me. She touched my arm and told me she loved me and was sorry to miss my graduation. Then, she told me that if I told anyone in the family what had happened that she would tell them I was lying.
       I was shocked!
     I spent the rest of the evening in a surreal fog of bizarre comments about how everyone hoped my mom’s flu would be over soon. I will never forget the triumphant smile that my dad bestowed upon me. The bully knew he had me beat. He knew that I couldn’t bear the thought that my grandparents might think I was a liar (though how they would think that if they were staring at my mom's bruises, I have no idea). To this day, I feel shame that I did not speak up, that I was a coward.
     Fast forward five years, and I am startled awake at six in the morning by a strange sound. It was a gunshot. My mother had finally freed herself of her brute of a husband by ending her life.
     I decided, then and there, to break my silence, and I told everyone about the years my dad beat my mom. No one believed me. My dad told everyone that I was a liar and had started using drugs. This would have been funny if I could have made anyone believe me. I had never used anything stronger than aspirin! I was lectured by the police, who investigated my mother’s death; I was lectured by neighbors; I was lectured by family; but the most heart-breaking moment was after the funeral when my beloved paternal grandpa cupped my face in his hands and, with tears in his eyes, pleaded with me to stop using drugs and stop lying about my dad. Alice down her rabbit hole never felt crazier than I did at that moment.
     Soon after the funeral, I moved away to live with friends. Before my mother died, I had been my dad’s backup punching bag. After my mother’s death, I had been promoted to primary punching bag. I had not protected my mom, but I was determined to protect myself, and the only way to do that was to leave. If only my mom could have, would have left...
     I deeply regret my silence on the day of my 8th grade graduation, but regret is meaningless unless it translates into action. Consequently, I have spent my ensuing years talking openly about everything. Some might suggest that I am too open, but I don’t know if you can be too open. I know first hand that silence can kill, and, at the very least, silence causes unnecessary misery, and I am determined to lessen some of that misery.
     But being open isn't easy. Sometimes it hurts; sometimes it results in ridicule or misunderstanding; sometimes it is lonely. Being open requires the conviction that the risks of being open are worth taking in order to reveal the truth hidden by silence. 
     To that end, I am willing to talk openly with anyone. Talking frees you from the prison of silence, and talking results in change and understanding. After all, if people don’t know you need help, how can they help you? If they don’t know you are in pain, how can they comfort you? Being open is freeing. Being open is lifesaving. Being open leads you from the darkness to the light. And most importantly, being open robs silence of its destructive power.
     In loving memory of my mom, who died, smothered by silence, 43 years ago this March.

Take care,
"By naming and framing our stories in words, we can face the truths of our lives in little steps which allows growth to take place organically, without devastating crises." Gabriele Rico


Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Comfort of Constants

Every winter, I welcome Orion back into the night sky. I wave at him when nights are clear and blow him a kiss. His presence comforts me and puts life into perspective. Whether good things are happening or bad, Orion shows up faithfully each November when I turn the clocks back, and strides across the night sky until I turn the clocks forward.

My guess is that each of you has something outside your sphere of influence that is reliable and comforts you too. For some, it's the moon; for others, it's the waves. Usually it's in nature because nature seems the most immutable.

But other constants comfort us too. As a child in urgent need of escaping a nightmare home life, libraries became my constant source of comfort. No matter what was going on at home, I could find a new adventure story or mystery or biography or play or poem to help me make it through the days and nights, and even more than that, these stories showed me new worlds and new ideas and gave me something to look forward to and to hope for. The overflowing library shelves offered me, as a young girl and teen, dreams of a different life, a better life than the one I was currently inhabiting. The gems that a library contains, books, became so precious to me that I've built my own personal library full of thousands of books. Every room in my home has books,  and my bed is surrounded by bookshelves. No matter what my mood--light-hearted, pensive, or sad--there's a book to match. And on sleepless nights, the books surrounding me provide soothing balms to the desperation of insomnia.

Some constants do more than comfort us; some remind us of cherished memories. When my children were young and we lived atop a mountain, when the sky was clear and the moon full, we would dance in the moon shadows in our orchard. To this day, when I happen upon a moon shadow under trees, I'm instantly transported to those magical moments of delight and joy, and I can feel my children's small hands in mine and hear their laughter.

Perhaps the most powerful comforting constants of all, at least for me, are Christmas Eve and Easter. They are the two days each year that represent our hope that mankind can achieve it's highest potential of living together in love. Whether you believe that God and Jesus exist or don't believe, it's irrelevant to the topic because the story of Jesus' love and sacrifice for us, true or not, is the point. That a love like that exists in our collective unconscious and in our imagination shows that we are all hoping for, waiting for, and wanting that love to become our reality. So, when the hope of Christmas Eve becomes a Christmas day bringing a surfeit of store bought gifts, and the hope of Easter's sunrise becomes a hunt for plastic eggs, we hide our disappoint and remind ourselves that there is always next year's Christmas Eve and next year's Easter, and we feel a renewed, reassuring hope that the deep, abiding, universal, unconditional love we long for might then, finally, become reality.

Sigh, it's almost time to wave good-bye to Orion for another year. I will miss him, but I am comforted by knowing that regardless of whatever good or bad happens to me or to the world this year, Orion will stride across my night's sky again when it's time to turn the clocks back again in the fall. Orion, books, moon shadows, Christmas Eve, and Easter, these are some of my constant comforts, what are some of yours?

Take care,


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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Celebrating Gabriele

Gabriele Rico is a delight, pure and simple. To know her is to have your world brightened; to be her friend is to be loved. She is one of the kindest, sweetest, funniest, fiercest, most earnest, most loving, devoted, intellectually curious individuals I have ever known. Gabriele is fighting cancer again, and whether she beats this foe or succumbs to its relentless tentacles, she has won the larger war because her relentless will to fight and her incomparable grace in the face of unspeakable pain and sorrow has vanquished the fear of death and has taught us the importance of living and dying on our own terms.

I first met Gabriele Rico in the late 1970's. She taught a class that I took. She also taught clustering to anyone and everyone who was interested. It was her creation and was a new and exciting way to tap into our brains and free so much of what was hidden there. She encouraged us to go forth and teach clustering too, and soon it swept the nation. Now, clustering is taught as a viable alternative (and to my thinking, a preferable alternative) to outlining. I teach clustering in every class I teach, and I tell all my students about Gabriele and how clustering began.

When I was a graduate student, Gabriele and I became friends, and she worked with me on ways to possibly help those with extremely low IQ's communicate via their right brains, most especially with music. We also talked about our childhoods and marriages.

After my children were born, and I was away from academia, I lost touch with Gabriele. Then, when my daughter went to college, the same college I attended, I saw Gabriele was teaching Children's Literature, and I encouraged my daughter to take her class too. She did, and it was really cool knowing that both of us had had the same professor twenty or so years apart, and that the Gabriele my daughter described was the same Gabriele I had known and loved.

When my daughter graduated from college, Gabriele was the speaker, so I was able to go up and talk with her and catch up. Her irrepressible enthusiasm wrapped about me like a comfy, beloved sweater that I'd lost and just found again. She proudly told me of the special photo she'd had taken for her husband--she just beamed. I was in awe. If only we could all have Gabriele's joie de vivre! Then, she took me around to introduce me to professors I did not know and excitedly told them all that I had homeschooled my daughter from K-12. My daughter and I remember the look of horror on a couple of the faces, who looked like they want to take back her degree, but Gabriele was all enthusiastic support, which made me feel like I'd done something grand indeed.

Five more years went by, and in 2011, I was honored to speak at a tribute for my friend Nils Peterson. I mentioned Nils' first cluster, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Gabriele in the audience, laughing. What a great moment--it's as if we'd come full circle in a way. We talked at the dinner, and we have stayed in touch by email since that time. She is a star in my firmament.

Gabriele may live to be 100 or she may not live to see 76, but during the 75 years that Gabriele has lived on this earth so far, she has mattered a great deal to many individuals, she has made a difference in how we see the world, and she has made the world a better place in many big and small ways. And Gabriele still matters, still makes a difference, still makes the world a better place during each day she graces the world with her presence. As evidenced by her daughter's blog "Walking Papers," Gabriele soothes, comforts, and loves those around her with every glance, every touch, and every word. Gabriele is a class act if ever there was one, and I am blessed to be her friend.

Fab Four
Gabriele and her daughters a couple of days ago. Photo borrowed from Suzanne's blog "Walking Papers."

Take care,


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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Meandering Musings on Love

"Love makes the world go round;" "Love is all there is;" "All you need is love;" "Love actually;" "Love is a many-splendored thing;" "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways;" "Love, love, love;" we are bombarded by love wherever we look, and we long for it as we long for nothing else. But what is this thing we call love--this thing that poets, singers, philosophers, theologians, and comedians can never adequately or completely describe? I've been pondering this question lo these sixty-one years, and I've come up with some ideas based upon observation, discussion, and personal experience.

Here are some of my whimsical, random thoughts on love. Feel free to disagree with any or all, but if you do disagree, please respond below and share your views with me, as my understanding of love is a work in progress. Thanks much.

Basically, love is when you care more for another individual than you care for yourself. If that caring is not the foundation of your relationship, then what you are experiencing is not love; it is something else--infatuation, lust, possessiveness, power, pity, obligation, responsibility--but it is not love. And this holds true for every type of love--family, friend, lover, spouse, neighbor, pets, mankind, and God.

In addition, I believe that respect is paramount in a loving relationship. When you respect someone, you do NOT try to change that person or impose your belief system upon him/her. You don't think you "own" the person; you aren't possessive; you aren't insecure; you don't play games; you don't issue ultimatums. Rather, without guile or expectation, you encourage, understand, accept, promote, support, have patience, and believe in the person you love. And in a genuinely loving relationship, this respect goes both ways.

A HUGE thing to keep in mind is that true love makes your world bigger, never smaller. If someone wants to take you from your family or friends, run! If someone does not want you to try new things or change jobs or encourage your interests, run! If someone asks you to give up something you love, run. Always remember, love makes your world bigger, so stay away from people who want to make your life smaller.

You only get one trip through life, so you want to share the journey with those who will laugh, sing, dance, eat, drink, and be merry with you, as well as with those who will cry with you, hug you when there's nothing else to do because the pain is too great, tell you when you are being an idiot, help you without your asking, and listen for the umpteenth time without complaint because you just have to share something again. If you're lucky, you will have some family, friends, and lovers who will be in both camps. Pets are always in both camps.

Love is about blending lives and staying separate at the same time. I can't think of any clearer way to say this.

Compromise is necessary sometimes, but, overall, I think taking turns is better. There's something a bit flat about compromising. However, when you take turns and share one another's interests, you grow in understanding toward your loved ones, and sometimes you discover that you enjoy something you have never contemplated before. 

Don't apologize for your loved ones. You do not want people to apologize for you, so don't apologize for them. Remember, your loved ones are not a reflection of you but are individuals whom you love. There is a BIG distinction.

Love requires trust and honesty. A little lie here, a little lie there, and when you least expect it, the dam holding the trust in your relationship breaks, and you can never get it back, even if you decide to stay together. So, stick with the truth.

Sometimes, you think you love someone, but you discover that you are only in love, and the feeling is fading. This realization often happens when the "in love," exclusive, "magical" world the two of you have created bumps into the inclusive, real, everyday world, and one of you realizes that it is time to break-up. No one likes to break-up because we tend to think of it as a failure. This is the wrong way to think. Instead, each person should recognize that neither person was a bad person (unless the individual actually was bad in some way, but that's a different matter for another blog post); rather, one of you has realized that you are not best for each other for the long haul. That is a good, positive thing to realize, so celebrate the love you experienced, wish each other well, and go forth to love again. Of course, it would be lovely if both people realized the end of a relationship at the same time, but, sadly, that is seldom the situation. So, be kind to one another.

As an instructor of college age young people, I get to see lots of young lovers, and I like to share the following with my students. If someone says, "You are my whole world," run away as fast as you can. Being someone's whole world is a terrible burden to place on someone, and it is smothering. Plus, the person expressing that sentiment seems a bit lacking, don't you agree? Has the person lived in a vacuum his/her whole life? Better to say, "I love you more than anyone in the world" or something similar.

And I cannot stress this enough. If you are lovers of any age and think you want to get married or live together, spend a month without sex, no canoodling or cuddling of any kind. No naps together, no sleeping together. You may kiss hello and good-bye at each meeting, and that's it physically for one month. While you abstain from the physical aspects of your relationship, spend your time talking and doing things together. Take a class. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Visit the elderly. Babysit. Put yourself in lots of different situations so that you can see if you are compatible in other areas of life. If you are truly compatible, you will NEVER run out of things to talk about.

I can appreciate that you may think my above suggestion is a bit "out there," but I can assure you that there will be times when the physical isn't possible for any number of reasons, so if the physical is the sole foundation of your love, then your love is on a shaky foundation indeed.  

This is not to say that the physical isn't important--it is, but it is only a part of the whole of a loving relationship. I can honestly say that while I delighted in making love, kissing, hugging, and cuddling, what I miss most is not the physical, but the shared laughter and the shorthand language of those who love one another. I would give all my teeth, and gladly wear dentures, just to exchange meaningful glances again with my husband. Likewise, while I'd love to hug my "mom" again, I'd much rather hear her call me, "Honey" and have her sit talking with me again at the kitchen table.

So, there you have it--my meandering musings on love. As I stated above, my understanding is a work in progress, and I look forward to understanding more about love in the years ahead.

Take care,


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