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Posts from the ‘Family’ Category

Miracle at Walmart

My Baby Kai

I am embarrassed to say I shopped at Walmart the other day. I don’t support their policies toward the human beings in their employ, but there it was and I needed something in a hurry, so I stopped in.

I have stereotypes about Walmart shoppers. Facebook does a good job of reinforcing them. And sure enough, in the checkout line I was behind a large woman in too tight stretch pants and a spaghetti strap tank top (buying cheap stuff – just as I was.) She had the words “Baby Kai” tattooed on her shoulder blade. I have a son, Kai, now 20, and when he was a baby we called him “Baby Kai”. I normally wouldn’t comment on a tattoo, but I couldn’t help myself.

I told her about my Kai and asked her how old her Kai was. She hesitated and then said her baby Kai had never been born. I told her I was sorry and apologized for asking. Her cheeks got pink and then she rushed to say she had had two healthy children and another was on the way.

The line was slow and long. We began to talk. I told her about my losses. She said that there were things you never got over. I told her that was true, but that it seemed with time, it got easier to bear. She was sweet, thoughtful and soft spoken. She spoke with her eyes and had a beautiful smile. I have no idea how old she was, but we were two mothers, and in a very short time we had bonded — in the Walmart checkout line, no less. We exchanged a long soulful look when we parted.

What a wonderful thing to have happened to me in many ways.

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Girl Meets Boy

 

“We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jar of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.”

Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations

Girl Meets Boy (At a Disco)

For B.G.

Saturday night at a popular disco/bar in a small California college town a boy asks a girl to dance.

The next morning, the girl’s ears still ring from the deafening beat and volume of the music. She recalls the gyrating bodies on the cramped dance floor, the patterns of light racing around the walls as the disco ball spun overhead and the sharp sour taste of beer in the plastic cup she clutched in her hand.

She also thinks back to the tall lanky boy with a head of dark curls who appeared out of nowhere and asked her to dance.

The girl must have told the boy where she lives because, a couple of days later, he strolls down her tree-lined street and finds her reading quietly in the shade on her front porch. They talk, make a date and their love story unfolds from there.

They both will go on to live other love stories, but for the girl at least, this is her first one.

Over the next few years, the boy and the girl learn about love and share wild adventures – and some tragedies. During summer breaks, the boy makes heroic long-distance drives to see the girl. He is there to support her when her father dies. The girl always stands patiently by the side of the road while the boy grabs his collection of tools and disappears under the hood of his beloved Bugeye Sprite to make the mysterious repair that puts them back on the road again.

They get to know each other’s families and the girl often stays with the boy’s family during holidays. A few things she remembers from the boy’s house are the thick perfectly folded guest room towels she was afraid to use, sneaking into the boy’s room when the house was asleep, the boy showing her how his father folded the Land O’Lakes butter packaging so the Native American Indian girl’s knees looked like breasts, and the soft raspy sounds made by the three big white fluffy (debarked) dogs in the backyard.

The boy’s mother teaches the girl to put a dish towel in the bottom of the sink when washing crystal by hand, so the glasses won’t crack against the hard porcelain. She shows her how to make a pie crust using lard and how to pile that pie high with huge California strawberries which shrink while cooking.

There’s much much more, but this story does not end with the boy and the girl living happily-ever-after, however.

Over time, a divide grew between them about religion. They cling together for as long as they can until the girl meets another, leaves to make a life with him and resolutely locks away her memories and feelings for the boy from the disco. The boy felt love-lost for a while, but eventually made a happy life with another who shared his faith.

Girl Meets Boy (Again)

One day the girl, now a woman in her 60s, receives a surprising message. The boy, now a man also in his 60s, has sent her a text.

Four decades from their first meeting at the disco, the boy/man and the girl/woman connect again — this time through the magic of the internet. Suffice it to say, they are no longer shiny and new. The man is grieving the profound loss of his wife of 31 years. The woman is numb and exhausted from the effort of tying up the loose ends following her divorce.

Now, a few mornings after the surprising text message, the woman sits quietly sipping her morning coffee at her kitchen table. She looks up and reflects on the story she has been writing about a girl and a boy meeting at a disco. The ending is eluding her – shifting and changing like a cloud on a windy day. It is still being played out and she doesn’t know how she wants it to end.

She can’t remember the last time she cried, but now her tears start flowing like a river as she begins to unlock the feelings, stories and people she shut away so many years ago.

She cries because she desperately misses the boy she knew, so joyously and vividly alive. She cries because this boy has had to walk a difficult and challenging path through life as a man.

She grieves for their family members who have passed away – her father, his mother and father, his sister.  She even cries for the dogs, the house, the safe familiar rooms, the cars in the driveway; the trees, leaves, flowers, blades of grass in the lawn. And Bugeyes? Is Bugeyes gone too?

She grieves for the pretty girl she was, and for all that is now finished for her – romantic love, touch; being cherished and desired.

The girl who learned to never let anything in has become the woman freely welcoming all that arises.

Perhaps the boy/man and the girl/woman will meet again someday.  Perhaps they won’t. Still, for as long as they live, they hold within them the remembrance of their youthful love, the unique times in which they lived, and the people they loved who are now gone.

The woman now knows what she did not know as a girl when, 40 years ago, she so easily and innocently took the risk to love the boy:  That there is no love without grief and no grief without love. That grief and love are as intimately connected as lover’s hands entwined.

And that, although there is no end to grief in life ….. there is also no end to love.

 

 

Popeye and the illusions that save us

When I was a little girl, I loved the TV cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man. Popeye was a crusty old sailor who rose above his lot in life to fight for justice, rescue the girl and generally save the day. His secret power was spinach. He got a boost of heroic energy when he consumed a can of spinach – sometimes inhaling it in through the pipe, perennially hanging from his mouth.

Popeye had a theme song — a memorable nonsensical tune. (I’ve posted the lyrics below.)

The child (me) who loved Popeye was, unfortunately, often burdened by adult responsibilities — with no clue how to carry them out. Despite this, I was optimistic and resourceful — with an imperative to survive. Illusions of powerful super heroes are fortifying when one is as young and powerless as I was.

For example, I knew if I could just get my hands on one of those cans of spinach, I too could be able and strong and my problems (shame and confusion at my incompetence) would be forever over.

When I grew up and entered the work-a-day world, I felt called to the field of social justice. Back then, my illusion was the adult version of believing I could save the world. It amuses me now to think that it might have been Popeye the Sailor Man setting me on this path.

I do not remember my mom serving us spinach often, if at all. I do have a vague memory of being offered spinach once, but not in a can (like Popeye), and feeling angry and disappointed. It was obvious to me that the can was essential for the power, and the spinach by itself was yucky.

I do remember the exact moment when I realized Popeye wasn’t real. I was in a library arguing about it with a taller child  — who I could see was making a lot of sense, and as I walked away, the truth sunk in. It was bound to happen. It was like losing Santa Claus.

I have shed a lot of fantasies and illusions as the years have gone by. The romantic ones were the hardest. (Those are stories for another time and a bottle of wine.)

Today, at age 62, I am uncomfortably having to coexist with hard truths about our leaders, my fellow citizens and the humanity of the world in general.

It is in my dreams, however, where I experience the ultimate falling away of illusion and encounter the abject terror of being a soft small vulnerable mammal on a ravaged planet in an incomprehensible universe.

The truth can be cleansing and invigorating, but it can also be painful — like standing in an ice-cold shower.

I am harboring the illusion now – that it is this truth that will set me free.

 

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

I’m strong to the finich

Cause I eats me spinach.

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

I’m one tough Gazookus

Which hates all Palookas

Wot ain’t on the up and square.

I biffs ’em and buffs ’em

And always out roughs ’em

But none of ’em gets nowhere.

 

If anyone dares to risk my “Fisk”,

It’s “Boff” an’ it’s “Wham” un’erstan’?

So keep “Good Be-hav-or”

That’s your one life saver

With Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

I’m strong to the finich

Cause I eats me spinach.

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

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!

Lost at Sea

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I was molested by a relative when I was a preschooler.

Some of my memories of this are murky; others are surprisingly vivid. I remember blue-jeaned legs, a round red face, and not being able to breathe. The most disturbing emotion, which can send my heart racing even today, was fear for my baby brother in the next room. I was his big sister, entrusted with his care. I loved him with all my heart. His happiness and suffering I felt as my own.

I also remember what I was wearing at the time – a blue sailor dress with a red tie. I loved Popeye the Sailor Man and felt invincible in that dress. I remember standing on the couch in my dress with my arms out like Popeye – showing off my muscles. That dress and the big sister status — it had to be heady.

In one fell swoop, in that one miserable day, a terrorist entered our home and changed the course of my life forever.

When my parents reappeared to save me, I remember longing to sail off on a fairy boat with my mother.

That this occurred, is not a particularly unique thing. It is estimated that one in ten children are abused before the age of 18.

I believe my parents and other relatives knew what happened but, as was typical of the time, it wasn’t talked about. I am guessing they all assumed (hoped) I was too young to remember.

And I didn’t for a time, but eventually the clues kept appearing, memories returned, and certain mysteries about my life started to made sense.

A month or so before I moved to the Oregon Coast from Portland, I found an old photograph of a little girl at a thrift store I haunted for vintage art supplies. She cost a full $1.00, which was a steep price for where I was shopping. But, after I kept returning to look at her, I splurged and bought her. After I settled into my new coastal house, the first thing I did was pull the photograph out and begin a collage not knowing why or where I was going with it.

When I had finished, I saw a sepia toned phantom of my past – the Popeye girl in the sailor suit.

That little girl had gone away and I would never know her. I was consumed with grief. I call this collage “Lost at Sea”.

There is a memorial to lost sailors in the coastal town where I lived then. Their names are carved in stone and I think about the people they might have become had they lived.

If I could, I would carve the words “Betsy the Sailor Girl” into the stone. Instead, I made this collage memorial to the girl I was who was lost at sea – who didn’t become who she was meant to be, but lived to become another – no better or worse, but who, frankly, has had to swim through a tsunami to get this far.

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 Invisible Woman?

Invisible collage 002

Me and Invisible Me

 

Last week a sales clerk gave me the senior discount automatically — without me having to ask. Whoa! That was a first.

I had dressed up too. Made an effort. Had my makeup on. I’d also recently lost a few pounds. I thought I looked good, middle-aged perhaps, but certainly not a senior. Apparently it is time for a reality check.

Or quite possibly, the clerk hadn’t read these breaking news stories:

Middle age begins at 60, says researchers

Middle age now lasts until 74 as baby boomers refuse to grow old

God bless the baby boomers. We are not going down without a fight. If we don’t like the rules, we’ll change ‘em. You wait. We might just outlaw old age altogether.

I am still sorting through what old and senior will mean for my life. My memory slips now and then. I sometimes strain to remember the title of “that book.” “You know the one,” I say to my friends of a similar age. They nod. They DO know, but can’t find the words either. Apparently we can now communicate telepathically. This is good news.

On the other hand, I can no longer learn a new language (I’ve tried), knit an Icelandic sweater, or move a furniture item of any weight and bulk up a flight of stairs. I am having to face up to some new limitations. Sometimes I look in the mirror, stretch the skin on my face, and toy with the idea of surgical intervention.

There are the jokes about aging and there will be the optimists piping in with things like: “Age is just a number!”, ”Aging is mandatory, but growing old is optional!”, “Embrace your age!” etc. My favorite one is, “You are only young once, but you can be immature for a lifetime!”

I see other people are sailing through just fine. I came to parenting late, having spent the last 15 years using my dwindling energy to make sure my children survived to adulthood. I have emerged from that absorbing effort to find myself a senior. It is going to take some getting used to.

And why am I surprised I am old?

Because inside, as other seniors will tell you, it is a different story. Inside I am stunning, a force of nature, a blizzard, a tropical storm, an avalanche, a hurricane — for god’s sake. I have it going on. I know what’s what. I have big ideas, plans and dreams. All systems are go.

And finally I have a voice!

But will anyone listen to me – senior that I am? What are these words I hear whispered on the wind: “Irrrrrrelevant” . . . . . . “Invvvvvisible”

There is something familiar in this actually. It is my home turf in many ways. As a woman I have been grappling with some stage-of-life version of “invisible” my whole life. From petitioning for the right to wear pants instead of dresses to school, to the right to choose, to the right of equal pay for equal work – to name a few.

So now it looks like I must add ageism to sexism.

And how about love and the “invisible woman”? I would like to fall in love again. I thought I would be over this by now, but apparently it goes along with being a human of any age. I’d like a chance to do it better and make – ahem – better choices. But, as my neighbor lady says, “That’s a topic for another time and a bottle of wine.”

The advocates push old as bold and empowered. I am having trouble building up enthusiasm – but maybe I’ll get there. Obviously I need consciousness raising. But, there are the grand words and then there is the reality — which seems to me to need a total societal remodel — which I do not feel up to tackling at the present time.

Being old and getting even older is the unknown. I have few close models. My parents didn’t make it to 60, like I will – if my luck holds – this August 2015. I am a little scared. The end – MY END – is coming closer. Losses are multiplying faster. If I don’t go first, I will lose someone.

So I guess it is time to get busy making long awaited dreams come true – which I am doing as best I can.

Hopefully my body and my bandwidth can keep up the pace for a good long time.

Collage artist

The Collage Artist

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