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The teacher who saved my life

Beginning violin - Age 8

Betsy Lewis ~ Age 8

My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.

That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.

Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.

There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.

MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.

She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.

Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.

MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.

MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.

NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)

NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”

Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!

And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.

Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.

Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?

I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.

This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!

A team of one

12-4-2016

Today it is snowing outside my windows. I have a chicken roasting and my apartment smells delicious. I have a few work and household things to complete, but this is not overwhelming. Truth be told, I am still in my flannel nightgown at 11:00 in the morning and I am looking forward to reading a good novel today. I revel in the freedom to do exactly what I want, when I want.

I used to always be trying to achieve something — to arrive somewhere else more perfect. Lately, I think that I have “arrived” — as much as any human being can. I know there will always be changes and growth ahead, and I hope I will ride them out gracefully, but mostly I am living the life I want to live.

Yesterday morning, I smelled a gas leak. This new apartment is the first time I have had gas appliances in a few years. It was 7:30 am, but I called my landlords, who only live downstairs of me. They called the gas company and one of them came up. It was at that point I discovered that the oven nob was turned slightly on. I hadn’t used the oven that morning, but I did reach over it to an upper cabinet and had unknowingly nudged the knob “on”. It was embarrassing. Something I should have figured out myself, but my landlords are always gracious and kind and told me not to worry about it.

Just now, I realized that the clock isn’t right on the microwave. Most devices change automatically with the time change, but this one didn’t, and I hadn’t made it “fall back” as I should have.

When I was married, I had someone around who took up the slack and took care of the things I missed.

Now I do it all myself and have for several years. I am no longer part of a “team effort” and it made me feel a little afraid — all the things I have missed or am possibly missing, that another person might see. The things that need to be done — that I am not doing.

When my daughter is with me, she follows up on certain things for me. My son can always find, within seconds, things I have lost.

I have some moments of insecurity. Missed things? Little things, big things? I may never know if it was all for good or bad.

Maybe having a clock with the wrong time is better than having to compromise part of who I am for “the team.”

They say that isn’t the way it has to be, but I don’t believe it. That season of my life has passed. I make this choice to be a “team of one” (with lots of support waiting in the wings if I need it), doing exactly what I want, when I want, and living the life I hadn’t really dreamed of, but is the quirky, imperfect-perfect one I want right now.

If not now, when???

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I  am getting ready for a trip to New York City. It’s #1 on my travel bucket list.

This is not the most affordable trip I could take. Like all trips, there is the getting there (not cheap) and the lodging (REALLY not cheap) and the eating, the transportation etc. However, I’ve pulled it together as affordably as I can. I am going with my good friend Patty, who has traveled to many exotic places, but has never been to New York City.

I would put it off if I were younger. But, at 61 years old, my new favorite things to say to myself is: “If not now, when???”

I had this trip planned some 7 years ago, but my kid got into trouble, so I canceled. The ensuing years were filled with worry and sacrifice. I look at the pictures from 7 years ago and it shows in my face, beyond what would be normal aging.

Now this child’s life is not my life — to protect with MY life anymore. But, for a long time there, I felt I was finished. Like I was done with new and growth and a future — and moving backward in a long slow slide to my own demise.

Getting another chance, at what I was planning when it all fell apart, feels like a reboot.  Back to the “before” and still capable of something approximating the future I had imagined. I am still a work in progress.

New York will probably look different to me now than it would have 7 years ago. I will get different things out of this visit – find different meanings and be changed and inspired in different ways.

And, thanks to Facebook, I have discovered that a friend I haven’t seen in 20+ years will be at a theater just down the street from where I am staying — the night I arrive in NYC. Our babies – her boy and my girl – were friends in the Indiana neighborhood where we both lived. New mothers together, we shared a pivotal time in our lives! My baby grew up and is a mother now herself. And her son is getting married soon.

We will both be exhausted by then. I will have traveled all day and she will be flying out early the next morning, but there is a chance we can meet for a few minutes when the play lets out.

It’s funny to think that we would both land, once again, at the same time and at the same place in this whole wide world.

 

On Being Ordinary

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This seems harsh, but it gave me a kick in the pants that it is possible to change my attitude sometimes. And really there is not one thing wrong about my life right now that would lead me to feel miserable!

 

I intended, at the start of my walkabout several years ago, to write my story frequently. What I found is that writing is hard for me. I get too perfectionist about it. So starting now I am writing just for myself — and I forgive myself in advance for typos and nonsense. You are welcome to read along if you wish, but nothing is guaranteed!

Last year I read an article that reported that most of us have a better opinion of ourselves than the facts would appear to support. We think we are all around better people than we actually are.

Which got me thinking about self-esteem.

Growing up, I had very poor self-esteem. A few bad things interfered with what could have been a blissful childhood, and for a good while, the only sense I could make of it was that something was wrong with me. I felt that way in high school – less worthy, almost less human — than the other students.  Many were taking off for trips to Europe. I knew that would never happen for me. I wasn’t upset. I was resigned to my lot in life. I knew I would never see the Eiffel Tower (which felt like the epitome of achievement at the time).

Still, a small ember of self-esteem burned deep within me. I did not picture myself working behind the counter at Woolworths. I felt I should go to college. Although my family was poor, a disastrous mess and no one was encouraging me  – I did just that.

As I’ve gotten older, managed to survive many challenges, picked up life experience and been supported by many people — my self-esteem has soared. I feel good about myself — maybe too good – at least according to this article.

I know for a fact that, the only thing I am really better at than most, is hand-eye coordination (I’m in the top 1%). This has been verified by testing I put myself through during my divorce. (Don’t ask) It explained why I have always been really good at catching things!

Otherwise, I was average in all tested categories  – except that I failed solving mathematical word problems. But that was because, at this point in the testing, I crossed my arms and refused to participate. That probably brought my score down. They were not giving out points for having boundaries.

Both “Super Great Betsy” and “Completely Unworthy Betsy” are not the real story.

I am no better or worse than everyone else. Comparing myself to myself, I am perhaps wiser now, but my cognitive skills are clearly slipping.

I am ordinary.

Don’t knock ordinary. Where I come from, it’s an honor to be part of the club of ordinary human-beings. There is also a freedom in claiming my ordinariness. Mostly now, I am doing things just for myself – because they make me happy. Like this blog. (I do hope someday my children will read it and know me in a different way.)

I can relax. No need to keep proving myself. More and more any standards are changing into MY standards.

Simply getting to live to see another day – feels like quite an achievement – and perfectly ordinary.

 

No one likes an old angry woman

Screaming Woman By Betsy Lewis

Screaming Angry Woman: Mixed Media Collage 11″ x 14″ By Betsy Lewis

My 61st birthday approaches. So far, the “golden years” have been anything but peaceful. I have been angry, spitting angry, a lot this year. I’ve learned (again), that no one likes an angry woman. People wish angry women would just go away, suck it up and be demur and quiet. Probably even more so if you are an OLD angry woman. You’ve lost the bargaining chips of youth and beauty.

And if you are an old angry woman, there will be repercussions — and often repercussions that impact you financially.

I learned this year that you are never too old to be sexually harassed. I spoke up, justice was not done and I took a blow financially. I learned that, although I was being dangerously harassed by my next door mentally ill male neighbor, I would be the one told to leave by my landlord because I demanded (sometimes angrily) to be able to feel safe in my own home. I took another financial blow when I had to move.

I know we are all talking about anger, hatred, violence and war in light of recent national and global events. Many of my friends on Facebook are preaching love and peace. I know I am a privileged white woman, so my experience is not the same as a person of color. I also know there is no hierarchy of oppression. I am angry about it all. I would love to feel peace and love by just saying it, thinking it or wanting it, but honestly I just can’t jump there on a whim.

I need some sort of bridge for me to get there.

So, meanwhile, I am still an old angry woman, but thinking about how I can be a tiny part, with the time I have left, of making that bridge.

 

Brave little girls, big sisters and beach angels

Bandon Beach Labyrinth

Bandon Beach ~ May 2015

Walking on Bandon’s beach last week, I remembered another day at this same beach — some 20 years ago. There was the same ominous heavy moist grayness, the same biting wind and moaning fog horn, and the same super low tide – which left a wide sandy beach covered in a thin glassy sheen of water. Rock outcroppings, usually underwater, were left high and dry, revealing damp caves and passageways.

20 years ago my husband, myself and our two kids were here on a family vacation. Our daughter, Hailey, was six years old. At the beach, this high-spirited little girl turned into an exuberant water nymph, kicking and frolicking at the edge of the waves. She was in her element and I always breathed a sigh of relief because, finally, here was a wild energy that matched her own.

Our son, Kai, was a new walker — a sweet chubby toddler — who we had thoroughly bundled up against the elements. He was happily walking along, with stiff arms and legs, as best he could.

With so much space and a long view, we relaxed and gave the kids free rein to run around.

But when we turned around — Kai had disappeared.

We heard Hailey screaming from a short way down the beach. Next we saw our beautiful fearless daughter plunge into a deep moat circling a large rock and fish little Kai out by his coat collar, dragging him onto the sand. He had gone in over his head – and sunk like a rock.

We ran over, bundled up our two soggy kids in beach towels and carried them up to the car. For a moment, our eyes met — sharing a silent terror – the grim knowledge that, had Hailey not seen Kai, we might not have found him in time.

This is not one of those stories that you laugh about later on. This is the story that you don’t want to remember because it leaves you chilled to the bone with “what ifs?”

Hailey is now 26 years old, a mother herself, and Kai is 21. I had happily walked this beach many times since that family vacation, but on this day I felt weighed down and traumatized. Perhaps it was the similarity in the weather or the season — or maybe even the actual anniversary. They say the body remembers these things and you never know what your subconscious has in mind for you.

I thought about the people I have known who had lost a child. I thought about the premature dissolution of that little family we were back then. The losses and traumas just seemed to pile up. I wondered how any of us can go on.

At one point, I came upon a sand labyrinth, expertly drawn in the sand. The words “Enter Here” with an arrow invited me in, so I stood at the entrance, quieted myself and began slowly walking. By the end of my walk, my dismal mood had turned to sobbing.

I cried for that scary day 20 years ago. I also cried for an even more ancient time when I was a child – a new big sister too – and had been unable to save my little brother from suffering.

I cried for all the times I had been powerless to help those I loved. I cried for the collapse of our little family, and the many times since, that their father and I had let our kids down. I cried for the times we hadn’t been there or done the right thing – or even known what the right thing was. I cried for my lost dreams of how things should have been. I cried because when we failed, it had hurt the two people I care for most in the world.

And also I cried because I was tired of being strong and brave. I was tired of being the one who carried this burden alone – the one who was blamed for everything.

The labyrinth builders, two women and a man, – unknown and nameless, but angels just the same – came up to me. I told them the story of the near drowning of my baby, just the tip of the iceberg, and they took turns hugging me as I cried.

We cannot plan these things consciously – these steps along to healing our life. They come when they do – if we give them the attention and the opportunity. I no longer believe I am to be blamed for everything. I know I cried for the person I was who used to believe that.

I meant to take a simple walk on a beach. Now I recognized it as another step toward the freedom I had been seeking when I first set off on this walkabout.

A freedom I am just beginning to taste.

A little research led me to the website of Denny Dyke, who I believe is the labyrinth maker on Bandon Beach: http://onepath.us/

 

 

The heart and the not so lonely hunter

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I have been on the lookout for heart-shaped rocks on beach walks near my home. It was only a casual effort at first. I usually have an eye to the sand anyway, looking for interesting debris tossed up by the waves. Lately, I almost always find a single small rock with a tiny hole through it (for a necklace I am making) — but never a heart rock.

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Heart rocks are pretty common. If you Google “beach heart rock”, you will find hundreds, if not thousands of images. Last weekend I walked for two hours on a rock strewn beach and did not find a one.

My heart rock search has picked up notably as I have started searching for the next big thing with heart for my life. Normally skeptical about the power of signs and omens, these two searches have become entwined. And because my next big thing is still hazy and unknowable, the easier thing seems to be to rely on a magical rock.

While musing, walking and heart rock hunting last weekend, the song, “The Shape Of My Heart”, which Sting sings so hauntingly, looped over and over in my head –  one of those cryptic messages my subconscious doles out so sparingly.

Hearts, of course, are symbols of love. I knew my next big thing had to do with love, but that the question had changed from “When will my prince come?” to “What shape will my love take?”

The past great and grand loves of my life – romantic love and mother’s love – aren’t the right shape anymore. They feel too small, like a beloved sweater that has shrunk in the wash.

Beach walks are usually great for finding clarity. Yesterday I tried out all sorts of ideas for my future passion, but none took hold. As I walked, I began to compose in my head this piece I have written right here about my fruitless search for the heart rock and, low and behold, I saw something in the surf that looked kind of heart-ish. It went under a wave and then emerged again. I waded out into the water and picked it up. It was not quite perfect, but pretty close. I think it will do for now.

I know this is too happy and pat an ending for this post, but I really did finally find a heart rock yesterday. I wish I could say that my future was magically revealed in that moment also, but it wasn’t.

So, I will use this rock as a talisman – as a sign to me from the Goddess of Mystery that I am going in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying walks on the beach, magical thinking, playing games of hide and seek with my subconscious, the joy of the search, feeling my way through the mist with my own two hands and the glorious possibility of another iteration of love in my life.

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