Category Archives: Family

Despair

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Last week, I looked at the next topic to write about, from the list I compiled from the table of contents of David Whyte’s book, Consolations: Despair. Oh, dear. What to say about despair? How could I relate to that?

Of course, I know what the word means. I have probably experienced it at one time or another, in my long life. I recall times of great upheaval, others of tremendous sadness and loss. Despair, though, was different somehow. Though it seemed like something I had a personal understanding of, I didn’t quite recall the feeling. I couldn’t get a handle on how to write about it.

Instead, I added another topic. “Deliriously Happy” was still roughly following the alphabetical order of the list, and was easier to expound on. It wasn’t the first time I’ve altered the format, and I’m still very close to the beginning of the alphabet! I wrote two essays on the topic of “Besieged.” I added “Christmas Past” and “Cancer” that were not a part of the subjects Whyte listed, and then I wrote two essays on “Crisis.” So, not feeling in the mood to write about despair, I did it again. It’s my blog and my list (complements of David Whyte), so I guess I can adjust it when the mood strikes.

It is easy to write about being happy, when happiness is all around, and I’m feeling it in my bones. I didn’t know exactly where it had come from; I noted several small and unrelated events that led up to it. I compared it to a great astronomical event, caused by all the stars and planets quietly and slowly converging into just the right formation. Well.

A few days later, I woke up at two o’clock in the morning. I noted the little dogs, snuggled in on either side of me, as usual. I looked out over the room, dimly illuminated by the moon. Nothing was out of the ordinary; nothing was wrong. And yet, like a damp and musty, heavy woolen blanket, a great feeling of sadness and isolation washed over me. Ah, yes. Despair.

I was smart enough to analyze, right then, how the feeling differed from sadness. In my life, even extraordinary sadness brought on by immeasurable loss was tempered by the knowledge that I was not alone in my misery. When my sister died unexpectedly just a week before my mother died of cancer, and less than two years after my little brother died, I had other siblings around me, sharing my grief. We shored each other up, and helped each other through. In despair, I think, you are all alone. Or, at least, you feel all alone.

Sometimes, circumstances or feelings of depression conspire to make you believe you’re isolated, whether that is actually true or not. I often feel like my frustrations are my own fault. Sharing them seems like a sign of weakness, and/or a cry for help. I’m rarely looking for help. It is keeping things to myself, though, that leads to feelings of despair.

So, what went wrong? How did I fall from “deliriously happy” to “despair?” I don’t know, really. Nothing big, certainly. Minor annoyances, small disappointments, little vexations. Much can likely be attributed to normal fluctuations in mood. When I’m laughing hysterically one day, I kind of know I’ll be crying uncontrollably before long.

How to fix it? First, I got out of bed and wrote a long rant. We won’t have a dentist here until spring. At least until spring. My tooth, that I’ve been trying to get repaired for almost two years, continues to crumble, leaving sharp edges that scratch the inside of my cheek. Getting it fixed before spring means an airplane trip to the mainland and the use of a car there, all adding to the cost of the necessary crown.

The new manager at the hardware store is young enough to be my granddaughter. She doesn’t have any idea how much I know, and she’s a little bossy. Beyond that, there’s the owner, who I’ve worked for for over 18 years, who should know my capabilities, who put her in the position of being my boss without a word to me beforehand.

The window estimate from the contractor came back high. Or, much higher than expected, anyway. Do I want new windows…or tooth repair? And on and on, in that fashion, about every little rotten thing.

Next, I went for a long walk. The dogs don’t care if it’s a good mood or a bad mood to credit for my desire to get out in the fresh air, they always enjoy a good energetic walk. Later, I made a couple phone calls. I spoke to my friend, Linda, and my sister, Brenda. They are both good and sympathetic listeners. Slowly, the feelings of despair faded. Luckily, not before I’d gleaned enough information to write this post!

Denial

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Denial takes many forms; I think I’m pretty good at most of them.

When I’m feeling sick, I tell myself and others, “I’m fine.” At other times, when there is nothing wrong with me, I am just as likely to deny my good health. I focus on and magnify any little ache or irregularity, until I’ve convinced myself that I’m mortally ill. Until someone asks; then I’ll say, “No, I’m fine.”

I almost always deny being “mad” when asked. “I’m not mad, I’m hurt,” was my usual response to my husband’s question. To that, he’d often wink at our young daughters and say, “Ooooh, Mommy’s really mad!” I will admit to being hurt, confused, upset, frustrated, embarrassed or discouraged, but deny being mad. Even though all of those other feelings generally manifest in feeling…exactly…MAD.

Sometimes…no, often…denial is just contrariness. When someone complains about the weather, I find it impossible to not present an opposing point of view. “Oh, but we really needed this rain,” I’ll say. Or, “But isn’t the snow so beautiful?” On the other side of this issue, when I am talking to my sister Brenda, who always looks for the blessings in any event, no matter how devastating or disastrous, I fight the urge to expound on just exactly how horrible it really is. When my friend Chris assures me, as she always does, that “it’s all going to work out just fine,” I always want to deny it. I imagine taking her by the shoulders, shaking her slightly, looking into her eyes and asking, “When, WHEN have things EVER worked out just fine??”

Today, though, I’m thinking more of self-denial. I’m not very good at it. As I set up my calendar for this year, and reviewed past years, it was clear that I’ve been a big failure at losing the twenty pounds that has been on my list of goals for at least the last five years. That’s because I am not very good at denying myself.

Low-carb? I can think of a hundred reasons why I can’t do a low-carb diet. It’s expensive! It takes too much planning! It eliminates all comfort and joy from every meal! And, no matter how weak my logic, clearly I have never succeeded in following through with a low-carb diet plan.

Smaller portions? I hate limiting portions. It reminds me of being poor. It puts me in a constant state of depravation and dissatisfaction. As a skinny kid growing up in a big family on a farm, there was plenty of food, but also lots of hungry people around the table. I never had a problem with weight, and could eat whatever I wanted, as long as no one else got to it first. Now, without competition, and having lost the ability to eat whatever I want without gaining weight, portion size is a problem. Still, I hate the idea.

No sugar? I thought cutting out sugar would be an easy form of self-denial. I prefer savory to sweet. I don’t sweeten my coffee or drink soda. I could pass on desserts. Possible. Until I started implementing that diet plan into my life…and started reading labels. If you’re avoiding sugar, labels are a big, shocking eye-opener. And, a piece of chocolate takes on the status of air…or water. I don’t remember how or why this particular plan failed, but I’m sure self-denial was at the root of it.

This year, I’m trying something new. Intermittent Fasting promises to regulate insulin, which offers many other benefits, including weight loss. On the program I’m on, I can eat every day, but only for an eight-hour window out of every 24-hour period. I fast, except for noon to eight PM. Knowing my spoiled self as I do, this one ticks a lot of boxes. During the “eating window,” I can eat what I want. No need to cut out potatoes or pasta, count calories, or eliminate dessert. Within reason, the quantity of food is not restricted. I was never a big “breakfast person” anyway.

The problem, and I knew I’d find a problem, is that during the fasting period I can only have black coffee, plain tea, or water. Which made me realize how very much I love love LOVE cream in my coffee. Which underlined the fact that morning coffee is a big, important and cherished part of my life. The other problem is this: intermittent fasting is not a “diet,” but rather a lifestyle change, So, that means this is long term. Forever. That took a little getting-used-to. I had to work up to it.

I toyed with giving up coffee altogether. No! I didn’t want to do that! I told myself I could never get used to black coffee. I experimented with it one day, then went back to morning coffee with cream. I chastised myself for being so self indulgent that I couldn’t make any sacrifices at all. Finally, I just dove in.

Today, day four of my new lifestyle, I can report that, for the most part, I don’t feel deprived. On the first day, I felt hungry at noon, so I made lunch. On the following days, a piece of fruit mid-afternoon was all I wanted until suppertime. I feel good. I don’t feel like I’m starving myself; I don’t feel that I’m over-eating at dinner to make up for meals lost. I have plenty of energy. I don’t wake up hungry. I’m hoping to, as time goes by, be able to report on more good outcomes of this lifestyle.

Meanwhile, I am sipping on a cup of black coffee. No delicious creamy flavor; a little bitter. Don’t worry. I’m FINE!

Crisis II

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I have three good dogs. They are wonderful companions, a good source of comfort and laughter. They each believe they are my favorite, best dog. They are each correct.

Rosa Parks knows that she has seniority over the other two dogs. She expects first place, and usually gets it. I put her food dish down first, only seconds before Blackie Chan’s and then Darla’s. She usually holds the prime position, closest to my pillow, next to my heart, in bed at night. Usually, though, she doesn’t take advantage of her exalted position. She lets Darla take the lead, and most of the credit, in their bird-chasing, barking-at-the-road-truck home-protection antics. When Blackie Chan decides he wants to sleep exactly where Rosa Parks is sleeping, he climbs right on top of her. Magnanimously, with a look on her face that says “Oh, brother…” Rosa Parks just rolls her eyes.

Darla is the biggest dog in my house, and she has the biggest heart. She watches over and worries over the other dogs. If Blackie Chan wanders down the neighbor’s driveway, Darla paces with furrowed brow at the road, waiting. If Rosa Parks falls behind on our walk, Darla circles back to see what the hold-up is. She waits patiently while the little dogs dance in place, excited to get their dinner, until I put her own dish down. Usually, the biggest danger Darla presents happens when I’m on the floor giving pats and scratches. For a good belly rub, the big dog would, without a second thought, crush any chihuahua that stood in her way!

Blackie Chan makes my heart ache with the earnest, intentional way he approaches life. A walk is serious business. I can almost hear his mind working, as he runs through the checklist: “I must walk straight and tall; keep a little smile on my face; keep my tail in the air, gently wagging; I must pee on every single clump of grass and pile of leaves.” Blackie Chan has a mild, imploring little whine that he directs at me when he wants his dinner, or some attention. His voice changes in an instant – like a scene from The Exorcist – from the humble mewling tone to a tooth-baring snarl if Rosa Parks gets involved.

Still, most of the time, my dogs get along. Until the rare instance when they don’t. Then, it’s a crisis! It all started when I gave Darla a beef bone. It had quite a bit of meat and gristle still on it. The small dogs were outside. I was right there to watch that she didn’t chomp down and splinter the bone. I took it away from her as soon as she’d cleaned the meat from it.

I thought nothing of it. Darla will, if I forget to put it up out of her reach, go through the garbage. She’ll gnaw on old dog food cans that were rinsed and flattened, for any slight flavor she night be able to still get out of them. She will lap up old hamburger grease and chew up the tin foil it was wrapped in. She has chewed into bits the styrofoam containers that once held sausage or chicken. Amazingly, it doesn’t make her sick.

That beef bone, though, did not sit well with Darla. For an entire day, she ate grass whenever she was outside. She declined treats when I offered them. When I got home from work, she had vomited a big mound of grass onto the entry rug. She rushed out the door, and dug right in to eating more grass. Clearly, Darla had an upset stomach!

By the time we got back from our walk, though, Darla seemed better. I fed the dogs on time, as usual. Darla was still working slowly through her meal when the other dogs finished. I gave each of them a “Greenie” that is their after dinner treat. I dropped Darla’s into her food dish. I turned back to the stove to finish preparing my own meal.

Suddenly, the room erupted in chaos! All three dogs were barking; Darla and Rosa Parks were tangled up in battle. Both were yelping and snarling, Darla on top of Rosa Parks, who was on her back on the floor. “No,” I shouted, as I slapped Darla (not hard!) on the flank. Immediately, the fight broke up.

Rosa Parks righted herself, and scurried to her “safe spot” under my desk. Blackie Chan, still anxiously trying to figure out what was going on, poked his head under the desk. Rosa Parks snapped at him, and he backed away, as if beaten, to cower on his corner pillow. Darla had gone, right away, to the rug in front of the kitchen door, where she huddled, ears down, tail between her legs, so miserable.

In a flash, my happy household was in crisis! It seems Darla had abandoned her food dish, with a few bits of kibble and one whole Greenie still in it. Rosa Parks had decided to take advantage of the situation. Darla wasn’t having it. Blackie Chan was just trying to understand. By the time it was over, my heart was pounding, and I had three sad dogs.

I gave them each some individual love and attention, in their own areas. I made sure Rosa Parks wasn’t hurt, let Darla know she wasn’t bad (and that I was sorry I’d smacked her), and explained the situation – as well as I could – to Blackie Chan, while rubbing his ears. By the time I sat down to my own dinner, the crisis was forgotten and all were forgiven.

Courage

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Where does courage come from? Is it real?

The few instances when I have acted with courage in my own life, there was no choice. A brave action was the only option available. And, I was quivering in fear. I am not a courageous person. That is absolutely true. And, yet, I have been brave.

There were times, not many, when I stood up to people who were bigger, stronger, more influential or more powerful than I. Sometimes to stick up for someone else. Now and again, to support a good or noble position. Sometimes just in defense of what I felt was a put-down. Mostly, these acts of bravery happen only after the fact, and only in my mind.

I have embarked on courageous challenges, sure. Often, foolishly naive, I didn’t realize what an act of bravery it was…to get married…to give birth…to become a parent. Almost everybody does it; their are no “badges of courage” offered to those who do, yet what a challenge to anyone who undertakes any of these things!

Is any marriage easy? It involves work, forbearance, and struggle, even when it’s going very smoothly. If we had any sense, when young and in love, we’d shake in fear at the prospect of the future we were walking so breezily toward. Even in the best marriages, it takes courage and commitment.

When I became pregnant, it was without a single thought to all the complications and difficulties that could arise. Every woman has their own unique stories of pregnancy, labor and delivery because, though pregnancy itself is something very common, it is also a very individual experience. No matter how many women have gone through it before, when it is happening to you, it takes courage!

Parenthood is something I walked eagerly toward. I had little brothers and sisters, after all. I’d been a babysitter. I’d had pets. I never imagined – maybe it’s impossible to imagine until the experience is there – how very enormous, would be the love I felt for my children. Attached to that big love is a huge sense of responsibility, and a heart-stopping fear of all the things that could happen. Though blessings and joys abound, being a parent takes courage.

There are other things that cause us to draw on our resources of courage. The more of a coward you are, the more even minor challenges take nerve. I have never been to war, but, by god, I’ve gone to the dentist! I’ve had surgery. I’ve gone through divorce. I went back to college in my thirties (which seemed so old, at the time, and so daring. Now I think, what was the big deal?). I have stood up to huge losses.

I am not a brave person. Life presents challenges; I keep going. Sometimes it’s easy; other times it’s really hard. I don’t feel courageous, but maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit. Courage might not be the same thing as heroism. Maybe, just to continue to stand up to the challenges that life presents is an act of courage. Maybe we all deserve a medal!

Cancer

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Cancer is not a part of my personal health history. Although I have, so far, been spared, cancer has touched my life more than once over the years. I’ve seen the pain it has caused, the struggle that has ensued, and the final results.

I’ve known those who have made it through to the other side of treatment, and who continue, blessedly, on with their lives. I’ve experienced the loss of dear friends and family members who have not survived it. Cancer is an awful word that comes loaded with fear, and knowledge of all the horrors it can produce. For as much that cancer takes, though, it also gives.

Cancer gives the sure knowledge that life is short, and unpredictable, and precious. These are lessons that we might come to on our own in other ways, but a cancer diagnosis is quick delivery.

A life span seems like a long, long time. I remember thinking that my Grandpa, then in his 50s, was a very old man. Anticipating the far-off turn of the century, I thought I’d certainly not be around for it. If I was, I’d be way too old (48!) to notice. The idea that people could live to seventy or more seemed like forever! A lifetime.

As we age, though, we push back that final door. At age sixteen, thirty seemed ancient, old age was unfathomable; we sang, “hope I die before I get old…” By age thirty, another whole outlook presented itself. Thirty was pretty darn young, while I was living it! That has continued to happen, through my life. Old-age is somewhere out there, vaguely in the distant future. Death is farther beyond that.

A diagnosis of cancer brings death’s door front and center. No matter what the prospect of survival, there it is, close and personal. And it’s always too soon. Facing death, we see the value of life. We realize what a transient gift it is, and how quickly it can disappear. This can happen whether the diagnosis is yours, or for someone you know.

Suddenly, the knowledge or insight a person has to offer becomes more important. When my mother knew she had three months to live, she regaled us with stories, most that we had never heard before. She told each one of her children how much we were loved. She reached out to old friends and distant family. She “held court” every day, in her pajamas, from her comfortable chair, as those that knew and loved her stopped in to let her know.

A person given a cancer diagnosis is recognized for the irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind, precious treasure that they are. The things they do are more greatly appreciated. Their contribution to the world we share is noted as both unique and priceless.

When cancer jostles our world, it opens our eyes. We see clearly, if we hadn’t before, the wonders that are here for us, for free, every day. Every morning a sunrise! The grass! That tree! The snow! It shows us the value of life.

Cancer helps to define quality of life. What’s the bottom line? What will we endure, to try to get rid of the disease? What is too much? What constitutes a good life? And what is a good death? These decisions have not touched my own life, but I’ve watched and listened as others that I love have weighed options, and made hard choices. Cancer gives clarity.

So, yes, in many ways, cancer gives.

Mostly, though, cancer takes away.

Christmas Past

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In my long life, there have been many good Christmases, and it has always been my favorite holiday. Too often, though, anticipation leads to disappointment, when the holiday falls short of my expectations. Or, there’s a big let-down when it’s over. One Christmas, though, lives in my memory as just about perfect.

That fall, my husband and I had sold our small, drafty, badly-in-need-of-repair house on Lake Pleasant, and moved in to a brand new townhouse just outside of the downtown area of Lapeer. We were in our early 20s, and had been married not quite four years. Our daughter, Jennifer, would turn three in January; our second child was due in December. Loving my beautiful new home, and experiencing the “nesting” instinct often associated with pregnancy, I embraced Christmas decorating.

Over the chair in the living room, I hung a bright green wreath my mother-in-law made for me, of painted and folded computer punch cards. Bells on ribbons were draped over every door knob. I had three ceramic angels, each dressed in gold and each holding a musical instrument, standing on the end of the counter that divided the kitchen from the dining room. On the wall above them, I hung a slab of old barn wood on which I’d fashioned a Christmas tree.

The tree was made of bits of green florist’s foam and scraps of torn tissue paper glued on to the surface. The “ornaments” were buttons, tiny beads, and earrings that had lost their mate. Chains from old jewelry formed the garland, and a folded tin foil star topped it off. I’d fastened everything in place, then given it several coats of shiny varnish.

Our Christmas stockings were hanging on the half wall that faced the entry door, including a small one for the baby, not yet arrived. Our Christmas tree waited outside on the patio, until the holiday got a little closer, but the music of the season played in my house all day long.

My daughter, Katherine, was born on the eleventh of December. She started off with a bit of jaundice, and had to stay longer in the hospital. When we brought her home, just a few days before Christmas, my heart was full, and the holiday spirit was strong.

My sister-in-law, Dena, came over with her new baby, and the two tiny infants napped on the sofa while Jennifer helped us bake cookies. That evening we brought in the tree, set it up and decorated it. The year before, Jennifer and I had made ornaments from baker’s clay: the characters from The Nutcracker, sweet angels, the three kings, and a few cute elves. Homemade Chicken and stars soup simmered on the stove; Christmas songs filled the air.

When my daughters were asleep, I got back to the on-going task of wrapping presents. That’s how the days went by: cooking, baking, making gifts, wrapping presents, and loving my little family.

Christmas Eve was when my husband’s parents celebrated the holiday, so we went to their house for dinner, and gift exchange. It was always a big feast, with lots of appetizers and lots of desserts. Because my in-laws both worked, they relished time off around the holidays. The family gathering was always fun. We then went home for our own preparations.

On Christmas Eve, Jennifer told us, “I know Santa Claus is getting me a train for Christmas! It’s what I want more than everything!” She had neglected to actually mention that train to anyone, even Santa Claus when she went to sit on his lap in the mall, or in the letter she dictated for him. So, her Dad set out late on Christmas Eve night, through a raging snowstorm, to find a train.

He found one, finally, at Perry Drug Store. It was smaller than we’d have liked, but the price was right. Mainly, it was available! Relieved, we set it up under the tree. Jennifer’s face reflected her joy when she saw it, “I knew he’d remember,” she announced happily. I don’t think she ever played with her train after Christmas morning!

On Christmas Eve, all the thoughtful gifts that had been purchased over the previous months were placed under the tree. The stockings were filled. The red-and-white striped “Santa’s wrapping paper” presents were added. The unwrapped balls, stuffed animals and the train were spread around. With a picture of the “ideal” Christmas tree embedded in my mind from my childhood, when gifts for nine children competed for space, I thought, “it’s not enough!”

So, with my baby sleeping in the bassinet beside me, and my little girl asleep in her cozy bed upstairs, with my husband dozing on the sofa while A Christmas Carol played on the TV, I crocheted through the night. A hat for Jennifer, dark blue, with double-thick earmuffs and a multi-color ruffled brim. A foot-long clown for baby Katey, and a bigger one for Jenny. Because I hadn’t planned for this, the only stuffing I had was old nylon stockings. Finally, long after midnight, I relented and got a few hours of sleep.

Christmas morning! I made coffee and baked sweet rolls first. With Katey in my arms, I watched as Jenny investigated the contents of her stocking. She found the unwrapped gifts and toys, and showed Katey the ones that were hers. When my in-laws stopped in, the rest of the presents. Then, there was time to relax for a bit.

Later, after baths and showers, dressed in our best Christmas finery we went to my parents house. There, I showed off my new baby, and helped finish the meal preparation, that my Mom had been working at for days. Dad grinned as he helped his guests to the bar, set up on the side table. We gathered around the long table, with another table in the back room for the overflow. We exchanged gifts, told stories, exchanged news and played games.

Maybe there was tension in the air, at my in-laws house, or at my family home. Sometimes that happened, over the holidays. Maybe my husband drank too much. It’s possible that the children – there were plenty of them – were grouchy or noisy. There could have been disappointments. If so, I don’t remember any of it. This Christmas lives in my memory as the perfect holiday, and that’s exactly how I want to remember it!

Beauty

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I love the topic of “beauty” for the opportunity to tell one of my favorite memories.

It happened a long time ago. I was not yet thirty years old, married, with two children. We were living at Corner #16, in North Branch, in the back apartment of a duplex, in a building that had once been the Deerfield Township Hall.

My husband was on his way home from work; I was getting dinner ready. My daughters, aged four and seven, were playing in the next room. They had their dolls spread out over the carpet, and were dressing them in one fancy gown after another.

Barbie dolls, when I was young, were the -very unrealistic and completely unattainable – ideal of feminine beauty. Though my daughters grew up in a more enlightened age, and were exposed to a much broader definition of what it meant to be a girl, Barbie, unfortunately, still held her place.

When I was a child, and well into my teen years, “playing with Barbie dolls” involved long, continuing, soap-opera style story-lines, and entire sections of the bedroom converted into Barbie doll homes, job sites and town. For my little girls, it was mostly just changing their clothes.

One stunning outfit after another would be put on and stripped off the dolls. Any imaginary dialogue was usually just commentary on the outfits. “Oh, Barbie, that looks really beautiful on you!” “Oh, Ken, thank you!”

I casually listened to the girls chattering back and forth as I diced vegetables and put a casserole together. Suddenly Jennifer, the seven-year-old, let out a big sigh. “Katey,” she addressed her little sister wistfully, “Don’t you wish our Mom was beautiful?”

Little Katey, barely four-years-old, and still unable to pronounce the letter V, was thrilled to be included in such a grown-up discussion. She sat up, and slowly nodded.

“Yeeaaah…” came her thoughtful reply, “eben if she’d wear her wedding dress around, it wouldn’t be sooooo bad!”

I imagined the scene: I, with a body that showed the wear of two pregnancies, and my choppy, DIY haircut, would stand at the kitchen door to call my family in to supper. Just for emphasis, I picture myself scratching, Ma Kettle style, at crotch or armpit.

I’d use the sing-song, stretched-out call that my mother taught us to call our brothers and sisters from the far reaches of the yard, garden, orchard or field: “Cooome and Eeeeeeeaaaaaat!!” My daughters would come around the corner of the house from the back yard. They’d stop in their tracks, mouths falling open in awe and admiration.

Because there I would be…with “the gown” on.

Over forty years have passed, and the image still makes me laugh!

Ambition

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For writing inspiration, I’ve turned to a book that I have not yet read: Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by Davis Whyte. It sounded like a book I would thoroughly enjoy. It was recommended by a friend who loves words at least as much as I do. It received excellent reviews.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who did not impress me with Eat, Pray, Love, but who won me over to her engaging writing style with Big Magic, said of Whyte’s book, “Beautiful, elegant, tiny essays on the consoling power of words, written by one of my favorite living poets…” She then suggested, “Keep this book by your bedside forever. I know that I will.” So, I purchased it, and added it to a short stack of similar books that are good for reading before sleep.

Bedside books should not be “page-turners” that will keep me awake and reading to figure out the twists of a heart-pounding plot. They should be thoughtful, but not overly thought-provoking. I try to avoid books, at bedtime, that will keep sleep at bay while I plot revenge, shake in fear, search for solutions, or even just mull things over for hours. What I am reading affects me deeply; I have to be careful. My stack of bedside books often includes art books, memoirs, and poetry.

For several months, now, David Whyte’s book has sat, unread, within the stack. For no reason, other than that my attention was pulled to another book. Last week, I picked it up again, and flipped it open to the table of contents. There, like a gift, was a list of words, in alphabetical order.

I’ve been struggling, lately, for topics to write about. In the nine years that I’ve been regularly writing for this blog, I have published more than eleven hundred essays. I have pulled ideas from books on writing, current events, my family history and my own life. To the point that I can hardly begin to relate a humorous personal anecdote without a hand going up to stop me. “Already know about it,” they’ll explain, “I read your blog!”

I’ve reported on the antics, health and demise of several pets. I have led readers through one household repair, painting project or organizational undertaking after another. I’m sorry (or maybe NOT sorry!) to report that my life is not so exciting as to provide a steady stream of writing material.

So, I was happy to find a whole list of new topics on the Table of Contents page of Whyte’s book. All the better that I have not read his essays. I wouldn’t be intimidated by his brilliance, nor accidentally plagiarize his interpretations. I decided to deliberately avoid reading what he’d written about each word, until I had completed my own writing.

Last week, I started with the first word: Alone. That worked out fine. The next word? Ambition. Ambition has proven to be an unreasonably difficult topic for me. I hear voices, always negative. “…Not showing much ambition,” I hear. And, on the other side of the spectrum, “That’s a little overly ambitious, don’t you think?”

Who spoke to me this way? I have wracked my brain to know. My laziness as a child was well-recognized within my family. I rarely wanted to be involved in household projects, and had to be forced to do my share of regular chores. I had a hundred different ways to get out of work. Still, my father would not use the word “ambition.” “Show a little gumption,” is how he’d put it. My mother would not hesitate to say “lazy.”

As an adult, I’d present elaborate ideas for house plans or home remodels to my husband or others who might be called upon to help. I was often told that my ideas were beyond reach, either because of time or money constraints. Likewise, when I approached professors and mentors with plans for research papers and art projects, I was often encouraged to narrow my scope a little. It’s easy, on paper, to push to extremes, and I often do. Still, I don’t recall being told I was “overly ambitious.”

Clearly, though I don’t know why, this word holds a negative connotation in my mind. I’ve struggled with it all week. I was tempted, but resisted the impulse, to read Whyte’s essay. I consulted the dictionary and the thesaurus. I considered just skipping over the word. Who would know? But, just two words in to my list of topics, that would be a bad precedent to set. I continued to puzzle over it. Ambition. It shouldn’t be so hard!

Yesterday, the election results were called. Like all of the world, I watched the process unfold, and I tuned in last evening to listen to what our newly elected leaders had to say. Within the inspirational, joyful and exuberant speech of Kamala Harris, our history-making, ground-breaking, brand-new vice-president-elect, came this advice: “Dream with Ambition.”

Dream with ambition! I wrote it down immediately! It feels exactly right! From now on, when unknown but persistent voices lead me to believe that ambition is a negative idea, always too little or too much, I’ll replace those thoughts with this concept. It’s always okay to dream big! Dream with ambition!

Alone

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I never planned to live all alone on Beaver Island. Honestly, having gone, as was expected, straight from the large family I grew up in right on to my own marriage and children, I hadn’t really ever imagined being alone at all. Other than a few hours here and there, solitude wasn’t anything I’d experienced in life.

When I first moved to this island, it was with my husband and two young daughters. We imagined a rural life that would include gardens and animals, art and handicrafts. I had been inspired, at a young age, by reading The Egg and I, an uproarious account of life on a chicken farm. I’d furthered my education as an adult, with Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and with E.B. White’s stories about life on a salt-water farm in Maine. As we settled into life on Beaver Island, the Little House on the Prairie books, one chapter, read to my daughters each evening before bed, continued to bolster our confidence.

We also imagined a life full of friends and family. We knew just a few people on Beaver Island: Topper, who had worked for my Dad downstate; Russell, the captain of the ferry boat; Stanley, who always met the ferry, joshed with the adults and teased the children; and Barb, who owned the Shamrock Bar, and had already hired me to be the morning server. We’d make friends, though. We were nice people; we had bright, adorable children. People would like us.

Others would come. Of course my family would still make their annual trip; friends would visit, as well. Having experienced this place only through family vacations, I saw it as charming, quaint and wonderful, and expected that everyone else would, too. In between rounds of company, we looked forward to family time. We planned activities with our daughters, and plotted occasional date nights at the bar, playing backgammon while enjoying a cocktail.

My Dad tried to open my eyes to the day-to-day realities of island living. “It’s not an easy life,” he said, “and it gets damn isolated there in the wintertime.” My Mom was the one that called it, though. “Of all my kids, Cindy could live on Beaver Island,” she predicted, “She has always been the most anti-social of all of my children!”

I believe she meant that in the kindest way possible. In fact, I think “asocial” would have been a more correct description. I have never needed to be around people the way some people seem to. Solitary activities, reading, writing, drawing and handicrafts, have always appealed to me. Growing up in a large, noisy family, I often went to great lengths to find a quiet spot, away from the fray.

That tendency has served me well because, despite the future I’d imagined and plotted out so carefully, my life on Beaver Island has been mostly spent alone. Some things proved true. I’ve made friends. The entire island community feels in many ways like a family. I have three dogs; I keep a vegetable garden; I devote a fair amount of time to making art. These things enrich my life tremendously.

Others things, I didn’t plan for. My marriage ended; my daughters grew up. The months stretch out between family visits. Many local friends have moved away; others have died. Amazingly, this place doesn’t have the broad appeal among other friends that I expected it would.

So, I live by myself, and am often alone. And, just as my mother suspected all those years ago, I do just fine with that!

This Girl…

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Tina

My niece, Tina, was born when my sister, Nita, was still in high school Nita’s friends would come over, and they’d all go upstairs to “play with the baby.” Tina had more ruffled dresses, frilly bonnets and darling pajamas than there were days in a month. Before she had time to grow from one size into the next, another entire wardrobe would show up, one outfit at a time, gifts from doting teen-aged girls. By the time she took her first steps, Tina had been the subject of hundreds of professional and amateur photographs.

In spite of the many high-school girls that adored her, several young aunts that dearly loved her, and her firm position as my mother’s favorite granddaughter, Tina was not a spoiled child. She had piercing, dark eyes and a toothy grin that gave her a look that combined thoughtful intelligence with clownish good humor. It suited her. She was a bright child, a fast learner, and an exceptional student. She never seemed to take herself, or the world, too seriously. She was quick to smile, and her giggle was contagious.

Because she was close in age to my daughter, Kate, they paired up as cousin-friends whenever the family gathered. Tina came to my house for birthday parties and overnight stays. As an adult, she often mentioned how kind I had been to her when she slept at my house, even though she wet the bed. Having been a bed-wetter myself until I was past eight years old, I always treated those occurrences like the accidents they were, no matter who the child was. Though I was glad she remembered that I was nice about it, I honestly have no memory of the incident.

Once, while drinking, my sister Nita was going on about how beautiful my daughters were. With Tina sitting beside her, I said, “Nita, all of us have beautiful children!” Nita waved her hand dismissively in her daughter’s direction, and said, “No, but your daughters…” I know what she meant: she was trying to give me a compliment about my girls; it wasn’t about all children, and it wasn’t about her daughter. Plus, she was tipsy.

Still, I saw Tina’s face fall. I wondered if I had ever inadvertently broken the hearts of my own daughters like that, without realizing it. Then, Tina waved her hand right back in her mother’s direction, shrugged her shoulders, and mouthed, “She’s drunk.” Then she grinned.

As the years went by, our family grew up and stretched out in all directions. The years – a distant memory – when we all got together for Sunday dinner gave way to years where many miles and many states separated us. We gathered, then, infrequently, and too often for funerals. Social media and occasional telephone calls helped us keep in touch.

In recent years, Tina had moved around the country, and then settled in Texas. She came back to Michigan for a visit when my Mom was ill, and then to stay when her own Mom was dying. Clearly, extensive alcohol and drug use had taken a toll. Even more evident was her rejection of any lifestyle other than the one she had chosen, or fallen into. She declined all offers of help.

Shortly after her mother’s funeral, Tina packed up her belongings and headed south, to New Orleans. From a distance, we watched her roller-coaster life from sporadic posts to social media. Photos often showed her with lidded eyes and a vague smile, dressed in one goofy costume after another. She got an apartment…but then the place was flooded during a hurricane. She sobered up, from time to time, but it was hard. And definitely “not fun.”

Tina sometimes put out vague requests for money, or complained that she got no help. Once, I sent her a private message, scolding her for saying she had no support, when she deliberately moved far away from people that loved her, and that could help her. “Sorry, Aunt Cindy,” she answered, “I didn’t mean to post that…still trying to figure out my phone.”

Often her posts were pleas for affection, and her aunts and cousins and friends would jump in to reassure her, “hang in there, Tina,” and “we love you!” Tina and Kate had long, rambling text-message conversations that would go on for days. “Wow, you got old,” Tina told her once, in response to Kate having to either go to work, or get some sleep.

Last weekend, while out walking, Tina was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. Suddenly, I live in a world without Tina in it. And even though she was far away, not a big presence in my life, and often aggravated me, this feels like a big loss. Maybe greater because she was so far away from all of my memories of her. Maybe because she died alone.

Tina, I hope you knew that your aunts and cousins and long-distance friends kept track of you as well as we could, that we missed you, and worried about you, and cheered your progress. I hope you knew that you were beautiful. I hope you always felt loved. Good-bye, sweet girl.