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Posts from the ‘Relationships’ Category

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.

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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The Invisible Woman?

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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

Self-Portrait: Woman with a Key and Clocks

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What’s up for me in 2015?

Time. (And being in control of it.)

I’ll be turning 60 this year — and this fact is working powerful magic for me.

Up to now, I felt I had plenty of time — eternities of time. I didn’t ever think about how I used my time. I just went along, spending it haphazardly on things as they came up. This wasn’t all bad. My unconscious ruled, and it has been an interesting unfolding of a life. But now it is different.

I am aware of limitations in all areas of my life, and TIME is a big one.

That explains the clocks above my head. The big key is important too. I am taking charge. I will open and lock the doors for myself now. My hands are big, over-sized and strong. I want to make things. The E and L  are my initials. I use my given name, Elizabeth, when I mean business. (I love doing self-portraits. I never know exactly what will show up — but it is always revealing.)

I think the cowboy getup, (clipped from a Sundance catalog), is a little more shallow — a wish fulfillment. I dreamed of growing up to be a cowboy as a child, and as an adult would like to dress like a Sundance catalog model!

A woman in the apartment across from me just had her 2nd knee replacement surgery. After her first surgery, I drove her to a couple PT appointments, waited for her and drove her home. That’s the nice person I am, but I felt resentful — and that is key too. Ironically, I barely know this person, yet I felt obligated to BE THERE for her. This 2nd surgery I am refraining from offering. She has financial resources, there are cabs and she has friends and family who could help her. I don’t blame her – who wouldn’t want to save $ and get a ride from a neighbor. I was the one who OFFERED to drive her that first surgery! This second surgery, she seems to be getting along just fine without me. I don’t have to feel resentful and a true friendship between us has a chance of developing.

In many other ways, I am refraining: Not doing work that doesn’t inspire me, declining social invitations, limiting visitors, letting myself be the introvert that I am and the extrovert that I am — when it fits.

I find myself taking refuge in being almost 60. I am OLD for God’s sake – give me a break! But, I have never really needed an excuse.  I am well aware of how my past, my upbringing and my gender has led me to ignore myself — especially as a mother. As hard as it is, I am working on letting my children figure things out by themselves.

This doesn’t mean I won’t be there for others in the future. But, I will be discriminating and consider myself first (gasp . . . did I just write that?). I just have to see those clocks, me as the holder of the key and those big hands screaming, “Make something now!” — to remind myself. I think the kick-ass boots are a nice touch too.

There are things I want to do. I don’t want to die regretting not doing them. There is no guarantee that all those people, for whom I have sacrificed my own needs, will come to my funeral and say nice things. And who wants to spend their precious time securing glowing eulogies.

I am also thinking about buying those boots and taking myself off to a dude ranch for my 60th birthday!

Wallowing in the messiness of life

Betsy Refrigerator

One of my children returned to the nest to live with me for two months.

He came back angry. Angry about his past and how the adults in his life had failed him. Angry about his father and my divorce and the years following it, where we could not always be counted on to coexist and put him before our issues with each other.

He speaks the truth. We did a poor job at times.

Now he blames us.

I know how he feels. I felt the same way about my parents. I lost sight of their unwavering love, heaped all my anguish and fear upon them . . .  and blamed. It has taken decades for me to forgive them and the other adult betrayers in my life — years to take responsibility for my own life and not let the sins of my fathers drag me down, excuse my behavior or hold me back.

I came across this quote by G.K. Chesterton, “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

Ah, the lure of sweet ripe justice! It is forthright – swift and easy to pluck. Mercy not so much. Mercy is elusive — hard to get a grip on. It lives in the gray area where things are complex and murky. I can see that my child wants the easy justice and does not yet have the capacity for true mercy. All I can tell him is, “Learn from our example. Don’t make the mistakes we did.”

He also does not yet know that there is no end to the mistakes you can make in life and that he will make his share too. I do not ask him for mercy because true mercy takes time — sometimes a lifetime – of missteps, misadventures and often years of unproductive wallowing in the messiness of life.

I have no need to rush him – even if I could. He must take his own journey.

So, I witness. I commiserate. Inwardly l say, “Let it rip. Say it out loud at last!” I recognize that this is progress. The first step toward healing for a child who suffered for years, self-combusted internally and did not give a voice to his pain.

That said, the moral of this story has less to do with this child and more to do with my own growing up – my own long journey toward a preference of blessed wicked mercy over justice.

Now I give myself and others credit for managing to stay in the game, in what is a decidedly unjust and crazy-making world. I can take the slings and arrows of justice this child throws at me, gather them in my hands, and hold them with gratitude and compassionate mercy for the both of us. I have regrets, but am no longer haunted by oppressive parental guilt. Hard, intractable guilt goes hand and hand with justice and can only exist in a rigid universe with an immutable standard of perfection – a mythological standard I no longer struggle to meet.

In my world now, nearer to the end than to the beginning of my long adventure with life — “doing the best you can” has become an act of true heroism.

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