Saturday, December 25, 2010

peaceful me

It's been a month since my last post, and though much of my absence was due to that lingering blue, some I can honestly blame on the holiday hubbub, parties, presents, and a return of my passions. Historically, I've abhorred Christmastime, feeling Grinchy seems to come naturally to me. But this year the season's been a contrast. Rather than the blues, I've immersed myself in reds and oranges, flaming hot pinks and deep purples. Now I'm feeling really good, happy even, and very relaxed.

Today, Christmas day, our house is so quiet. Two of three boys are still sound asleep. Mark and I have already been out to the pasture to put the horses in their rain jackets (just in time, too, as it's now a deluge out there) and feed the critters. We woke up extra early to beat the storm which was predicted to begin at 7 am and then had a couple quiet hours until Toby arose. Our plans today are simple: hang out for the morning and head down to my sister's for Christmas dinner (she and her family celebrate the holiday) midafternoon.

As for right this minute: coffee, my knitting, a warm house and quiet. Peaceful me.

I think because Chanukah came so early this year I've had more time to relax, contrast my state of being with that of the rest of the US. Chanukah started on December 1st (it's the lunar calendar, leap month thing) and with Ben's birthday in late November and Harry's in early December we were inundated with festivities, but we handled that fine. By mid-December we were essentially done with all that, we'd collected and distributed the loot, and were happily using it all (our family went from a no-video-game-family to an XBox and Wii family in the space of 7 days! ah well, I couldn't hold out forever, I suppose).  And I set my mind to the healing arts: my crafts!

I spent a weekend or two organizing my craft space. What a luxury! To have the spaces in our office for me to set up jewelry, sewing, cutting, ironing and our computers without putting any of it away! We are so buried in our clutter usually, that I hadn't really utilized the space efficiently for the whole five years we've lived here. I felt the clouds lift when I opened up these areas to do my work.

After finishing some holiday items (a scarf for Mike Walsh, the General Manager of the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia, and some hand warmers and earrings for our 4H holiday craft sale/fundraiser), I turned to a few projects I've been waiting and waiting to get started on. First is a blanket out of thrifted and felted wool sweaters. Black and grey backgrounds with red, orange and pink squares on top. It is reminiscent of my favorite of Denyse Schmidt's quilts and should be very warm when finished. I'm about 1/3 of the way there!

Second is a pair of mittens for Harry who is about to head off to his third weeklong meditation retreat over New Year's. His hands have trouble keeping warm, so I've been working like a dog to finish these before he leaves on Monday. I think I'll be able to do it!

My grief process continues to be a learning experience. I'm surprised at the strength of my longing to contact my dad, to talk to him again, to share some of the news (Harry's straight A's in his first semester at the JC, Ben's report from the neurosurgeon: no more MRI's for 5 years!) and just to say hi. I can't believe he's really completely and totally gone. The finality of it is baffling, breath-taking, sometimes overwhelming. I'm overcome with great sadness now and then, but it's for shorter periods. It really is a process and as life has calmed down in other ways (those issues that plagued me at the start of the fall have all ALL resolved themselves...thank god!...) I've had more space to just be. That's been so peaceful.

Peaceful me. That's where I am. Thankfully.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

asleep at the wheel

This was a melancholy week. I am still feeling a tide of inertia sweep over me daily. I wake up in good spirits, but as the hours tick by I feel less inclined to move forward into the projects of the day and more like just zoning out, numbing my brain. The computer and the many, many amazing blogs out there in the internet twilight zone lull me into a strange sleeping wakefulness. I am drawn to the blogs and photostreams of some very creative and crafty people and can spend hours and hours gazing at them, being inspired in a way, but can't seem to light the fire in my own hands and eyes to create. I feel asleep at the wheel.

I don't want to cook. I don't want to clean. I don't want to read or knit or sew or paint. I just gaze, and simmer, and stare out the window.

It was difficult to even get up the energy for Thanksgiving at my loving cousin's house. Once there, surrounded by family, I was good. But that morning, that was an effort.

I am trying to be patient with myself. I am giving myself space. I am stunned at the time it is taking to gather myself together and get back to normal. And I wish that the time I spent in my quiet numbness would feel like a valuable expenditure of time. Unfortunately, the perfectionist in me, the overachiever in me feels a loss. At the end of the day I look at the clock, shake my head to clear it and take stock of the time I have wasted, with nothing accomplished, nothing to show for the passage of all those minutes. An emptiness is what is embracing me these days.

I had such anticipation for this period following the celebration of his life, thinking that I would feel lighter with the weight of that event off my shoulders. But I now realize that it will still take time, a march onward of the days and hours, until I begin to notice the sun peeking through the clouds, and a lightness returning to my step.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

my father's navy watch cap

It took my dad several months to figure out how to access my blog. I'm not exactly sure what was so elusive about it for him. But after sending him a link numerous times he finally got on it, and read it, this summer. He was pretty surprised, I think, that we both were writers and he loved the stories of my life that he found here. We had a lot in common. More than I realized for most of my life. Our looks, our love of photography and writing, our tempers. Our distractable minds, our cleft chins, and our love of family.

The poem below was my closing for the celebration of Dad's life we held on Sunday. I read it and then we followed it with a communal recitation of the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer.

My Father's Navy Watch Cap

I wear my father’s navy watch cap these days
when I go down to the pasture
on cold mornings

I knitted it for him early this year

He waited patiently for it
but I was otherwise engaged
-   a sweater for myself
-   a scarf for my sister in England
-   a neck warmer for my mother
taking precedence,
in line before his thick, navy watch cap

He waited patiently,
though I could hear his eyes glitter when we talked about it
a cozy hat
to cover his head
just like the one he had in the navy

When I finally finished it and
sent it down to him,
it was spring
and spring in Los Angeles is barely spring
in other regions
it is more like the long beginning of summer,
temperatures in the 70’s, as you know,
not much need for a thick, navy watch cap
knitted by your oldest daughter,
your biggest-tallest

And yet he wore it
proudly, I suppose,
when the moment required it
when the thermometer dipped
a bit low
and his balding pate felt a chill

He dug around in the basket of his scooter
and pulled out the hat
then tugged it snuggly over his head,
thinking, I hope,
of the love knit into each stitch

It was there waiting for me to take it home
when he died
in the basket of the lonely scooter
not even worn through one winter
his winter
an LA winter of sorts

These days when I don my mud-encrusted boots
and button up my flannel barn coat,
I also grab my father’s navy watch cap
and pull it on over my thick head of graying hair
like a hug
and the memory of our last conversation
and the words “I love you”

I want to tell you I have other hats
but this is the one that calls to me each morning

I open the door, pulling on my gloves
and think about the day’s list
-   what will occupy me
-   what I need to attend to
-   what takes precedence
and what will have to wait

And as winter approaches and fall fast becomes a memory
I tug my father’s navy watch cap down around my ears
and bring him with me to feed the animals
down in the pasture

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A celebration of a life

Yesterday was my father's 79th birthday. Today we held his memorial.

Over 70 people came. Family, friends, old and newer. Business associates from 40 years ago. Both of the original partners from his beloved firm Stonefield Josephson. Two of three ex-wives! The tables were full, the flowers beautiful, the food abundant and tasty (from Canter's deli on Fairfax Ave. in LA), and a strong mid-night storm scrubbed the air clean to showcase the LA skyline and mountains covered with snow.

I did my dad proud. And now I can take a deep breath, sit back in my chair and relax.

Here are the words I opened the event with:

I don't know if you knew this, but my dad was a photographer. He absolutely loved pictures and taking pictures and he lined his bedroom walls with photos of all his beloved people, a constant reminder, like a group hug every time he looked at them.

When he was in high school, Dad set up a dark room in his closet and soon became known as the go-to guy for party photos. He often told me how much he loved that. Basically, he attained a certain popularity by being a sought-after photographer and because he was behind the camera he didn't have to navigate the tricky social terrain of the teenager. He got to be at the party without really being at the party. Clever, eh? Not bad for a shy stutterer...And he developed quite the skill with the camera. All these years later some of our most cherished family photos are the ones Dad took.

I knew my dad through the lens of the oldest child. Who he was, or who I thought he was and what I knew about him had much to do with my own lens, my own view of him. He was the man who stood at my door early every morning singing silly made up songs meant to encourage me to rise, he was the man who smoked a stinky cigar, who had a temper that flared unexpectedly and hotly, who listened when I talked but not all that well, who loved to sit next to the keel of a sailboat and breathe the salt air.  He was the man who tagged along quite happily with my high school marching band and who walked me down the aisle on my wedding day.

I knew my father through the lens of his child, even as I moved deep into my own adulthood. I really only could see him through that lens.

As he aged, we aged, however, and our relationship deepened and grew. We did not have a fairytale relationship, it was not trouble-free. But, compassion and acceptance allowed me to appreciate that Dad loved me, us, with his whole heart. So, when he died our connection was whole and clear.

I cannot hope to encapsulate for you the highlights of his life all on my own. I cannot stand here and tell you about the man you knew, perhaps better in some ways and less in others than I.

And so I welcome you here today to share your stories and to hear some of his. For a brief time we can honor that avid photographer by overlapping all of our lenses to put together a picture of who Joel Stonefield was and to celebrate his life.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

suspension of disbelief

It occurred to me yesterday as I worked on my father's memorial service, that I can not believe he is dead. I CAN NOT wrap my mind around it. It is positively unbelievable to me. He is in the other room. He is in LA and I'm up here. He's at his computer, grousing about Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement. He's watching a movie on Netflix with Mildred, his loving caregiver and sweetheart, pictured above. He's not dead, he's not gone, he's not a pile of ashes in a box in my sister's apartment.

He's not. He's NOT, I tell you.

What did Elizabeth Kubler-Ross call this? Denial?

As I put together a program for the service my siblings and I are hosting this coming Sunday, I have looked at many photos of the man who gave me the dimple in my chin and 1/2 my DNA. I read all the stories he wrote for his memoirs. I cried a bunch. And every time I looked into his eyes I felt his presence, not his absence.

It's been almost 3 months and it still feels impossible. How will I talk about him as if he's gone, if I can't wrap my head around that fact? I asked myself. 

And then a thought floated to the surface of my brain. The suspension of disbelief: the willingness on the part of the reader to overlook the implausible or fantastic in order to believe...The suspension of judgment in order to accept the unbelievable (or just swallow it).

I need to do that now. It feels like time. And yet.

I should be packing. I have been attending to so many little details, big details too. The program. The number of people attending. The flowers (deligated). The food and drink (deligated). The paper goods (deligated). The obituary (mine).

I had a brilliant idea the other night to have family and friends read from my dad's stories at the event. I will also be posting some of them here, so that you too, dear reader, can get a sense of my dad's sense of humor. It feels wonderful to laugh with him, to hear his voice (it is so, so clear to me). The melancholy part feels so out of place right now. But as I said in my last post, I am missing him so very much.

So, here's the first one, one of my favorites, The Chaplain:

The Chaplain

by Joel Stonefield

In mid 1955, I was transferred to the USS Gainard, a sleek World War II destroyer, loaded with torpedoes, depth charges, 5 inch (diameter) guns…and me, an eager 23 year old supply officer with a weird sense of humor 

My time aboard the Gainard consisted of an uneventful year at the Naval Base at Newport Rhode Island, BUT THEN….In the Spring of 1956, President Nasser of Egypt took over the Suez Canal from Great Britain.  Gainard was immediately dispatched to the Persian Gulf to look after America’s oil.

First, a very brief story from the peacetime Navy.

While in the States, our squadron was assigned one chaplain for the entire eight-ship group.  He acted as a sort of circuit preacher, moving for brief stays – of two to four weeks -- from one ship to another.  When our ship’s turn came, we welcomed the young fellow to our fold.  He turned out to be rather humorless and over-serious – not a great formula for popularity in the tight quarters of the Destroyer Navy.

Our visit with the Padre included a two-week training exercise – straight time at sea.  Each night at “taps” the chaplain would gravely announce over the ship’s loudspeaker system:


The officers and crew were constantly grumbling about the Chaplain and his long-winded and boring nightly sermons.

Finally, the brief cruise ended.  What do sailors want as soon as they hit port?  Payday!!  That meant me.

Minutes before the payday was to start, I asked one of my watch-standing buddies to go to the bridge with me.  I asked him “How can I make an announcement to all hands?  After he showed me which lever to pull, I suggested that he “take off”.  Knowing I was up to no good, he did as I asked.

Next came the moment for which I had been waiting …….I pressed the lever and with my best official voice I solemnly intoned:


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tangled up in blue

Dad and Ben on our last visit in June.

It's been over two months since my dad died.

Lately, my heart has been racing a bit too much. Localized anxiety. Generalized chaos. I put my head on my pillow and my mind churns and my heart runs away. I write things down on lists and then forget to do them. I remember things I need to take care of while I'm down in the pasture or in the shower, and then forget to write them on the list.

I keep wondering when the clouds will break, when I will calm down, when my head will clear. Things are easing up, but before me still lies my father's memorial service, an event that will bring us closure of one sort while opening up my heart, as well. I am coordinating the event (which we're calling "A Celebration of His Life" and which we're holding the day after what would have been his 79th birthday). I have been feeling blocked about the plan, the design, of it all. The more concrete details are taken care of. But what I will say, what we will read, what pieces of poetry or music I want to include is all up to me and still undecided.

We will gather at Kingsley Manor, in the Sky Room, a lovely spot at the top of the building he lived in. When he was alive and I was visiting we had several wonderful family and friend gatherings up on the roof, my cousin Beth bringing in large salads and pizzas and platters of bbq chicken wings. Dad would sit in his motorized scooter, enjoying the kids buzzing around and the variety of folk who came to enjoy each others' company and the view of all Los Angeles from that rooftop patio. So it is appropriate that we celebrate him there one more time.

The last time I saw him, in June of this year, we had one of those parties. He was both thrilled that we were there and exhausted by what it required of him. I noticed that time that he was a bit befuddled, a bit more distracted, and much more tired than I'd ever seen him before. It worried me.

In the past, my dad held it together at each momentous juncture in his aging process. After a serious car accident in 1985 when he temporarily lost the vision in both of his eyes, he only told me about it months later. (I'd been living in Italy at the time.) After that he suffered from some neurological issues that were finally diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis in about 1990. He took it in stride over the many years the disease progressed, somewhat resigned to the weekly shots of interferon, enjoying the chance to flirt with the nurse. At my wedding in 1991, he proudly walked me down the aisle, dragging his bum leg along behind, tripping on the unfortunate white sheet marking the path in the grass, and almost falling down. I never heard him complain about that.

In fact, he never complained about his condition. He almost went the opposite direction. When it finally came to pass that he needed to move into an assisted living facility four years ago he argued fiercely that it wasn't necessary. After all, he was still young, in his 70's and those places are full of old fogeys. But, after a painfully difficult visit up to us it was obvious to me and Mark that there was no other option. He was living at the time in an apartment that was not wheelchair accessible, he could barely walk 10 feet, he needed a cane or two, and when he was feeling ill he had no way to care for himself.

I resorted to tough love.

I told him that if he didn't look for a place to live now when he was in relatively good shape, we would most certainly face a crisis situation when he took a fall, injured himself, was in the hospital incapacitated, and I would have to find the quickest, easiest solution, even if it wasn't the most desirable. I wasn't particularly nice about it, as I recall. But Mark was. I remember quite clearly Mark's gentleness at that moment. I'm not sure why I was so hard on Dad. Maybe because I'd been talking about it for a while with him and he'd been avoiding it, steering around it, denying how bad the situation actually was. I felt like I could see the future and I could feel him turning his face away.

I also knew I'd be left holding the bag, the one who would have to pick up the pieces, so I needed him to pay attention.

I need to say right here, I need to interject, that I never had a storybook, fairytale relationship with my dad. He was too distracted by work, his own pursuits, his needs, his second wife, his other family to really be there for me. He rarely picked up the pieces for me, and certainly never did after my parents divorced when I was 15. So when I think about that tough love speech, that was love tangled up with anger, anger about having to be a grown up for my own father. It had me in knots.

Ultimately, he heard me or maybe it was Mark, and a couple weeks later the family took a trip down to LA so that Dad and I could take care of it. We toured several retirement homes and found Kingsley. It was basically in the barrio, a section of LA near freeways, downtown and a very ethnic neighborhood full of Armenians, Salvadorans, Latinos, and Asians. The neighborhood has a fairly run down and scruffy feel, but Kingsley, formerly the Lutheran home, is a beautiful oasis in the midst of the city. The campus takes up several acres, has architecturally detailed old brick buildings, rose gardens, green lawns, and patios. The dining room was nice and bright and the people seemed happy. Dad signed up right away and moved in within a month.

I know he was feeling tentative, moving this direction is a one way ticket. (I've often said that it's like moving into the college dorms only people don't graduate, they die. And as awful as it sounds, it's the truth.) He was hesitant about giving up his independence, but as soon as he got there he was relieved. He called me within the first week to thank me, something I think he'd never done before in my whole life. He told me that he hadn't realized how lonely he was and how hard life had gotten for him. As soon as he moved in he was made to feel welcome. People greeted him every time he left his room. He called the ladies at his dining table "My Girl Scouts" and they were happy to have him there, it seemed. Soon he had a new girlfriend!

But the other side of that coin was that as soon as he moved in his condition worsened. While we'd told them he was still ambulatory, within a couple weeks he only used the motorized scooter to get around. Walking was so effortful, he endeavored to never have to.

Yet, life was good there. There was that slide, and then things evened out for quite a while.

But later that year he had a mild heart attack and again we saw a downhill turn. Less mobility, less energy. Several months later he had a bout of pneumonia which left him in the hospital for two weeks. Before he came home we arranged for a caregiver to come in the mornings to help him get up and dressed. He protested and we insisted. He agreed to it "for a few months" and we knew it was for good. A few weeks later he again thanked me, realizing after the fact how much energy and how many hours had been devoted to just the basic first steps of each day. It was a relief to have help with those tasks, to be able to conserve his energy.

Dad never complained. He never moaned about his lot in life. After the pneumonia I spent a full day trying to organize his medications, something he assured me he had a handle on. There were so many! At least 15 including vitamins! I was completely overwhelmed by his situation, I could only imagine how it affected him to have so many "conditions" (besides the MS there was also Chronic Lymphocitic Leukemia, high blood pressure, depression, prediabetes, obesity...maybe more). About his decreasing mobility he never whined. He just faced his life with a positive attitude.

When he had to give up his car he lost a lot of mobility. I was thankful he'd managed to avoid any dreadful mishaps, but he was depressed, his vehicle being not only a symbol of his independence, but the last actual vestige of it. He still managed to go out to eat, enjoying the multitude of tiny ethnic restaurants in his neighborhood, but it wasn't the same as having wheels.

However, towards the end I heard more and more a tinge of loneliness in the small print of our conversations. He told me how the space he lived in was between bed, desk and bathroom. And that the fact was he didn't have much desire to go out of his room and socialize. I worried about that, seeing his weight increase, his energy decrease, and his mobility evaporate. Soon, I felt, we were going to have to talk about the second level of care at Kingsley; Siberia, as he called it.

A few weeks before he died he took a fall while getting into bed. Ordinarily he got into bed at about 7 pm, when Mildred, his loving caregiver came in to help him with his compression boot and do his nighttime routines. But that night he wasn't ready to go to bed, so he sat at his computer watching Rachel Maddow on When he was ready he turned his chair, aimed himself, and launched to the bed. But for some reason he missed and fell on the floor. He was unable to get himself up due to his weight (he was close to 300 lbs at that point) and his limited flexibility. His cell phone was on the table far from where he was and no one was going to be coming by to check on him until Mildred returned at 7 am to get him up the next morning. For four hours he scooted himself closer and closer to where his cell phone sat in its cradle charging. Finally, after all that time he was able to knock it down to where he could grab it and he called the front desk to get someone in to help him up.

I received a call from the head nurse the next morning. I could see the writing on the wall. Dad was surprised I was concerned. He downplayed it all, and told me he was fine. He told me that, but I think he knew.

That slide, that decent, was happening. I think Dad knew it and I knew it. I turned my face away from it, I really did.

Two nights before my father passed away he dreamt that his mother had come to get him. She held him in her arms.

I spoke to him after this, but he didn't tell me. He told Mildred and he told his Girl Scouts. They told me about it. They told me he was scared, he was quiet. It affected him a great deal.

When I heard this story I felt the truth of it open up my heart. My grandmother had come to get my father. He knew it was time and so he went with her.

I miss my dad these days. I can't quite believe how much I miss him. When I look at the photos of him they are all full of his life, his laugh, his somewhat annoying banter. He has always been a part of my life and now...I just want the joke to be over, I want him back so I can give him another hug and tell him I appreciate his strength and his optimism. I know I didn't do that enough when he was here and I don't feel guilty, but I do feel regret.

I guess, though, that's alright.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Go ahead, laugh

That's right. You can laugh at my weak attempt to control my life.

So much for waking up early to write. So much for going to bed early. Once!

Over the past 12 days my life swirled chaotically around me. I can't even begin to describe the issues I'm faced with, they bother me so much. Suffice it to say, I am taking a lot of deep breaths around here.

There is no end in the foreseeable future. Maybe by the beginning of next month things will calm down. I will be past a couple big hurdles. And maybe I'll be able to talk about them then.

For now, I am taking pleasure in the little moments in my life. The donkeys' squeaky-creaky bray, the taste of fresh baked banana bread (when life gives you mushy bananas--make banana bread! isn't that the saying?), and the insights on life from my youngest child.

The weather's changing, bringing gorgeous sunsets and foggy, foggy mornings. It's cooling down (well, some days are) so I've taken out my knitting again and starting some new projects. I've also begun to organize my craft studio/office space and that feels like something extremely positive.

November: Seriously Autumn. I'm ready for a new season. Very, very ready.

Monday, October 25, 2010

making space for the words

I used to keep journals before I became a word processor. I used to process my words with a pencil or pen and a beautiful little book on my bedside table. I’d write long, self-reflective entries on my dreams or my boyfriends or my kids. And I put them on a shelf for posterity.

Now I write a blog and enjoy the way it seeps out into the world and then comes back to me. It’s not as private, true. There are topics I won’t go into here that could be written in a personal journal, tucked away in my nightstand. But, there’s a beauty in writing for an audience that motivates me. That even makes me think of myself as a writer. I mean, A Writer. Maybe it’s my exhibitionist side (you didn’t know that about me, did you?). Or maybe it’s leftover from girlhood when I hated keeping secrets. I know that at this point in my life writing is one of my true loves and a craft I intend to hone and delve into and savor.

[I heard today that every day 81,000 new blogs appear on the internet. Sheesh. I’m trying not to feel like a needle in a haystack. I’m trying not to feel like I’m in junior high again, hoping to be in the “in crowd.”]

Regardless, now I journal on my blog and you, Dear Reader, may choose to read or move on.

Finding time to write, in fact, finding time to do anything on my “me” list is a challenge. But part of the challenge these days is a general lack of schedule or the willpower to abide by such. Other than things I need to get the kids to (the JC, 4H meetings, Park Day, Science class, Hebrew school, etc.) there aren't a lot of things I need to get myself to. And few, if any, of these things are in the early hours of the day. So I awake with Mark (who has to be at work somewhere around 8 or 8:30) and mosey on over to the computer to check email or read one of the 30 trillion blogs I love to follow. And eventually, far too late in the morning, I get downstairs and down to the pasture to feed my equines. When I get back up to the house a half hour later I wake the boys up. It's usually about 9:30 but sometimes it's 10 and then we really have to hustle to do our 15 minute tidy of one room of the house, have breakfast, other chores, pack a lunch (as if), and get going for the day. Or, on the days when they have no specific plans away from the house...then we fritter the time away. We do? Oh yes. We Fritter.

Would that I had the self-discipline to arise in the wee hours of the morn to write. Would that I had the self-discipline to walk right by the door to the office and go down the stairs in the half-light to feed the animals out in the muddy (right now) or dusty (last week) pasture. Just this one bit of self-control (don’t touch the keyboard, don’t check to see what emails came in overnight, don't sit down to read other people's blogs) would give me hours to write, to contemplate, to meditate before the boys got up. So, the truth is that if I prioritized my daily chores, and reminded myself that throwing down hay in the cold morning air is a task I do for myself, not drudgery, if I convinced myself that I have a job that actually starts every morning at 6 am rather than 9, I might actually have more peace, more me for me and more words to share with you.

I like this idea immensely. But then when the alarm goes off (we haven’t used an alarm except sporadically since all three boys started homeschooling five years ago) at 6 o'clock try to motivate me to jump out of bed. Sure, the first time, ok. But daily? I just don’t know. That is a challenge. A sacrifice. With my perimenopause insomnia, my nightowlishness, my late hour time wasting, 7 am is a tough hour at which to arise let alone 6.

Excuses aside though, I’m willing to give it a go.

Tomorrow I will rise in the dark, don my muddy jeans, wool socks, thermal tee, navy blue watch cap I knitted for my dad last year (and inherited on August 26th, the day after he died), flannel barn jacket, rainboots, and nitrile gloves. I'll stumble right by the warm office and trudge downstairs to collect from the fridge the ground flax seed and iodized salt and vitamin E supplements already measured out for the critters. I will step carefully down the sodden hill to the hay barn and be greeted by the squeaks and wuffles of my donkeys and horses. And when I'm done I'll get to come back inside to a warm cup of tea, a piece of toast, and my words waiting for crafting.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

it's a journey, that's all i know

first view of tomales bay
taken with my iphone's awesome hipstamatic app

Sunday was drizzly as I returned, nourished, from our synagogue's Women's Retreat. Thirty hours with just us girls, singing, talking, praying, eating, laughing, and crying together. I gave and I received. And in the end enjoyed the journey so much.

The retreat is held bi-yearly at the Marconi Conference Center in Marshall, a small town known for its oysters on Tomales Bay. It's not far from where I live and I love that: getting away is so easy, just a 45 minute drive through the countryside and *poof* I'm in another world.

Well, ok, so the world isn't actually so terribly different from where I live, but there are no children to homeschool, no chores to do, no manure to pick up. A lot more estrogen and a lot less testosterone!

My life of late has been swirling around me, approaching a level of frenzy that I hadn't forseen. With Harry attending the JC, ballroom dancing, working at the synagogue, and practicing meditation at Spirit Rock in Marin, Mark and I barely see each other as we're driving him back and forth, picking him up or waiting for him in all those locations four nights a week. (He just got his driver's permit and began behind the wheel driving lessons this morning, but really, I'm not so excited about that anyways.) Add to that our blossoming homeschool group with weekly park days and teen and tween events. And then there's our new science class at Magi's house every couple weeks. And 4H get the picture.

I've been trying to plan my father's memorial as well. And there just hasn't been much time.

Time. Lack of time. It's a recurring theme for me, have you noticed? It's not that I don't want to take the time for myself, nor is it a lack on Mark's part of trying to give me some space to do the things I need and want to do. It's just that I have a lot on my plate...a lot to accomplish...a lot of "to do's" to do. And maybe I'm not the best at prioritizing.

So, this weekend I prioritized. I put me at the top of my list. I put me up front and center. And the result was wonderful.

I helped lead services with music. Jewish music is one of my passions and I've been a songleader for years. This was my second time leading the retreat services and it was the best. Singing with women's voices, sharing new beautiful and meaningful music, praying while singing, singing to pray...all of that moves me like nothing else.

The Torah portion for this week was Lech L' which God speaks to Avram (not yet Abraham) and tells him He will lead him forward on a journey to a land he does not yet know (basically, "Avram, bubbeleh, trust Me! I'm the One and Only. Enough with the idols!"). Hence the theme of the weekend was journeys.

Now that is something that really resonated with me. My father's recent death, Ben's medical trials, recent hubbub in one of my homeschool communities, being a mother, entering menopause...all of this is a journey. I am constantly looking within and trying to find the right path, the right words, what is true for me. I feel like I live authentically and my life is full of blessings, but of late it has been hard to find myself in all my life swirling around me.

So, during the workshop periods on Saturday I went off by myself. I gave myself permission to not be social and to just be with my number one priority: ME.

First, I walked the amazing labyrinth created by Margo and Marcia from our congregation. Margo spoke about the journey and the symbolism of the labyrith at the Friday night service.
 from ...a single-path (unicursal) labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.
I did a meditative walk through the labyrinth, breathing in and out consciously with each step, repeating to myself: Breathe in, breathe out, step, step, step. I meditated on each footfall, I meditated on my breath. And when I got to the center I realized a few powerful metaphors about the labyrinth, namely:
  • as you walk the path to the center you pass by all that you have already walked and all that you have yet to walk
  • you enter the same way you exit
  • from the center you can see the whole journey, beginning to end
  • going in my eyes were on the ground, the path, and going out my eyes went up, to the sky...I trusted that I could find my way more going out
It was a powerful experience. I loved the quiet there in the field, the simplicity of the path of pinecones, the sounds of ravens and the wind in the pines. I learned a lot and felt myself relaxing and opening up.

I also sat and sketched this scene through the trees, of the fishing boats on the quiet bay.

After lunch, I gathered several layers (it had gotten quiet cold, a real sense of winter approaching), my brand new watercolors, my watercolor paper, my pencil case, my iPhone for music, and a large and small jar of water for drinking and painting. I didn't know what I was going to do exactly, but I knew there was something that wanted to come forth. I wandered the hills of the conference center for a bit and found a quiet bench looking out over the bay, looking away from the activity buildings, so I knew I would not get distracted.

I set my materials up and bundled up myself, turned my iPhone onto a loop of Craig Taubman music and opened up my art supplies.

It didn't take long before I'd written "me" in the center and started to mind map, asking myself over and over: Who am I? Mind mapping is a great process, one I've used many times to find clarity. I have a book I love called Mapping Inner Space that has been an inspiration for this type of process. It's verbal and artistic, emotional, psychological and very creative. I used it years ago when I was struggling with the idea of bringing Toby and Ben home to homeschool them, too, and it really helped bring clarity to the situation.
So, when I began the process on that quiet, cold hillside, I knew it was just what I needed. But I kept getting caught up in the words. Mother, daughter, sister, friend, wife...all those words seemed to define me from the perspective of how I related to someone else. "Who am I at my CORE?" I kept asking myself. And then I started listing words, turned off the editor, and finally found them:

caregiver  leader  creator  sharer  partner 
do-er  teacher  giver  lover

These words started to make sense to me. For a long time I drew pictures, painted colors, and wrote more words to help the meaning surface. And then, near the end of my available time, I realized I needed to include my dark side...the side that worries and fears the worst. So I added "pessimist" under a dark cloud, and I felt that the work was more complete.

Here it is:

I have shown it to many friends, the women at the retreat, and my homeschool moms. Many people are loving it, but one thing they don't get is that it's not a work of art for me. It's a process. A piece, not a whole. Not even complete. Just like I am...a work in progress. I realized yesterday while talking to my friend Mindy at the park, that I'd left out a big piece: questioner, I might call it, but it will hold the ideas of faith, spirituality, Jew, God or no God, the universe and beyond. It amazes me that on the retreat I could have left out that part...but maybe I just didn't even have the space, the emotional space, to start looking deeper into that right then. Who knows?

It's all a journey. That's all I know.

A friend of mine, G, has posted a picture of her "self-portrait". I urge you to check it out and then go make your own!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

letting go

Today I, after feeding the equines, I sat on my deck in the cool of the morning and meditated.

My mind refused to be silenced. Though I repeated, "Breathe in. Breathe out," it would not quiet down. Thoughts of conflicts, of my to do list, of the rest of the day, judgments about myself and others, even what I would write about it eventually buzzed in my skull.

"Let it go," I suggested.

"BE QUIET," I ordered.

And still there was only noise.

I sent blessings of well being to my friends and my family. I blessed myself. I breathed in. I breathed out.

All through me ran a stream of unhappiness, of judgment and of inertia.

And then I decided that all of that, all that negativity was a choice I was making. (I've been reading Sylvia Bornstein's "Happiness is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.") And wasn't it the most self-indulgent kind of choice? So, instead I chose to let it all go, to enjoy what I have, to lighten my load.

After 20 minutes of struggle I finally felt at peace. I opened my eyes, breathed in deeply and hung some laundry on the line.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

it's about time

I've been hitting a wall of late in terms of word flow. Oh, I have ideas, and usually they come to me when I'm out in the pasture scooping up piles of manure. But when I've sat myself down with the intention of writing I find only that I have chosen avoidance and really gotten nowhere. It's been very hard to concentrate and it's been very hard to put my finger on the point I'd like to make.

The last time I posted was the last time I had a few hours alone...16 days ago. When I say alone I mean A.LONE. No one but me around. At my home. Alone is not, in my book at least, when I'm in the office and everyone else is down in their rooms watching tv or on the computer or playing a game. Alone is they're gone and I'm here. No interruptions.

Facing the fact that life is so full that in sixteen days I haven't had another period of alone time, except perhaps a car ride by myself, makes me stop and shudder...because a soul needs more time off, more private time, than a few hours every 16 days. And that being said, I don't really count the moment, this moment, as time off, since everyone is here with me and I expect to hear "Maahh-ahhm" called from downstairs at any moment, or the click of the bedside light as Mark gives up on me coming to bed at a reasonable hour and turns in himself.

But tonight I was reading about my friend Maya's adventures on her blog, Tales from the Tour, and it hit me that right now her life is as opposite to mine as possible. She is travelling across the country and back, sharing her poetry with others and teaching poetry workshops. She is driving, by herself, thousands of miles. She is meeting new friends and some old, sleeping in their guest rooms, eating at their kitchen tables. Sharing stories and smiles and favorite coffee bars.

And did I mention she's alone? All by herself? No one to talk to but little old Maya?

[Our house was her very first stop on her Tour de Word and it was a magical couple of days. She helped us feed the equines, she accompanied me to a friend's farm to pick up fresh eggs and raw milk. And then, she taught two writing workshops in our living room, one for teens and moms and one for younger kids in our homeschool community. All three of my boys participated with enthusiasm, Harry said afterwards that it was the first time he felt inspired to write in his life. (And boy, did he deliver!) Ben, who ran away from home (temporarily, you know, for a few minutes) several months ago when I insisted he write something, sat on the edge of his seat all night, gazing intently at Maya and then writing with furvor when given each assignment.]

I know Maya from the days when I attended Wild Writing workshops at my friend Laurie's home in Alameda. Those were lovely times when I spent hours on myself, crafting poetry or narrative, looking deep within myself and then letting it all pour forth from my fingertips and the ink of my pen.

And that's where I come back to my point. My life, rich and full, fast and furious, is missing a very key element. The element of time for me to draw or write or meditate or craft or walk or ride or pick through the racks at the thrift store. I need to carve out an hour or a day or a weekend for just me, regularly, repeatedly, before I evaporate before my very eyes. I have all sorts of dreams for me: time to improve my blog/writing/photography, time to draw and journal, time to learn to preserve food, time to craft, time to purge all the dust and clutter in my beautiful house, time to build a relationship with my horse.
Oh, and time to grieve. That has become something that happens on the edges of my days, sneaking up on me at night or waking up with me in the gray morning hours. I can spend afternoons accomplishing little, and I forget to even check my to do list, that I even have a to do list.

I've been told by several beloved friends to be good to myself. And so I'm trying. Don't be surprised if you don't hear from me again for a bit. And, then, don't be surprised if you hear from me again tomorrow. I don't know which way I may go, but I'll be taking care of me. I promise.

And now, I'm off to tuck a boy in. ("Maaaahhh-aaahm!!") And hopefully get to my own bed before Mark turns out the light.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

a lesson from my father

Who knew the universe had this for me to learn?

*    *    *    *    *    *


In the past couple years, after decades of struggling, I came to a peaceful place in my relationship with my dad. I stepped back and accepted it “as is.” 

My father was someone who could love deeply without having a deep relationship. This was something I had not fully grasped or understood before. How was that even possible? But, as his life was pared down—by circumstance, his limited mobility, his age, the end of his third marriage—he became less distracted by his own life and drew his attention to mine, and what I had created with my husband and sons, in a way he never had done when I was younger. That doesn’t mean we suddenly had long meaningful talks or that hurts of the past were erased from memory. But he loved us fully. He adored my boys. He was thrilled that I had found my soulmate. I was able to give to him, take care of him, and pay attention to him after years of resenting that kind of expenditure on my part. When I accepted him I realized that years of wishing it to be different had only created years of deep disappointment and that the change in my heart was very healing.

Acceptance has made the past week much easier to bear. No holes to fill. No arguments left unwon. No expectations unmet. I have no anger towards him. I am only feeling love, and a calm and an understanding that truly would have been unfathomable to me a few years ago.

A few days into the week with him gone, as this awareness of my own inner peace washed over me, I realized that this is my lesson to take forward into all my relationships. Why only accept my father? Why not my mother or my sister or an old friend? Why not just accept everyone for their strengths and weaknesses and let the negative stuff fly right by me?

So yesterday, when Mark and the boys went off to play at the river (they left me in our still, quiet house; the only hours I’ve had to myself in over a week) I meditated on that. I meditated and chanted to myself: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” I pictured all the people in my life. And I sent my open heart to them. And then my meditation changed. I kept repeating “I love you,” but suddenly I saw myself. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

I grew up judgmental and a perfectionist. I come from a long line of bitter grudge-bearers, folks who because of one angry event, or maybe a whole slew of them, cut ties with friends and relatives till the day they died. That’s something I’ve considered.

Acceptance. I have spent so much energy on anger over the years and anger is so debilitating. In the end, it’s my own self that is needing that acceptance and love.

I would not have believed this to be a lesson from my father. And yet, here I am today, stepping out of a lifelong mold.

Friday, September 3, 2010

my dad

My father died suddenly last week and I'm having trouble gathering my thoughts. Not that I haven't written pages and pages of them. But nothing's come together yet that I would like to share.

So please have patience. I'll be back soon.

Until then, these photos:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

summer garden expectations

I was so happy that we finished a project this year. I asked for a garden this spring and that's exactly what I got. I showed you pics of it back after I first planted in June and now it is in full festoon. We harvest the beans, nasturtiums, herbs and squash every other day and still more come. I get so much pleasure from the snaking vines, the scents, the 8 foot tall towers of sunflowers. But, I am not a perfectionist in the garden. I've read some books, looked over the seed packets, and still my garden has issues. I am trying to look at this in a philosophical way and I'm learning about expectations.

I almost gave up on the beans. I almost pulled them out at one point in early June. They looked so wilty, so weak. And then, finally, they took hold and VA-VA-VOOM! Holy Moly! My beans are insane producers. I love hunting for them, my hair falling in my eyes (ok, I hate that part), searching through the dense underbrush of bean foliage and nasturtium tangles. There are always a zillion hiding out deep in that forest. Every day I get a full bucket of beans and then I make a marinated bean salad that is perfect summer potluck fare. Garlic-Dijon-Champagne vinaigrette over green and yellow beans (recipe below). Marinate all day. No cooking necessary. Crunchy, garlicky goodness!

The Cinderella pumpkin plant, below, is immense, taking up a full 12 foot bed. One seed made that plant. One little seed. I am awed by that kind of power. There are so many shoots and new pumpkins that I'm constantly cutting it back, giving some hope and energy to the ones already developing. It's hard for me to prune my veggies. Must be something in that that I could psychoanalyze, but suffice it to say I hate to minimize potential harvests. What I've found though is that some plants need the sting of the pruning sheer to flourish. The tomatoes are covered with blossoms but no fruit has appeared. The tomatillos are covered with empty paper lanterns but are waiting for the juicy green fruits to fill them from the inside out. Now that I see the wasted opportunity, I actually appreciate the idea of gardening with some reserve, with some self-control. It's like having a good sense of boundaries with your kids. A little uncomfortable to have such hard edges sometimes, but it's what they need to feel safe and to ultimately flourish.

When I planted the garden I had a combination of anxiety and impatience. Anxiety that nothing would grow and no patience to wait the time necessary to fill the empty spaces in between the plants. (I used to be like that with boys too, hating to wait for them to call me back, anxious about the future and the past until I'd talked to them again. It's been a long time since I had to play those games, and luckily, the guy I eventually got didn't seem to mind at all when I called him back right after a date!) So I planted plants in those in between spaces and now there are corners of the garden that I believe are suffering from claustrophobia. The bush beans are starting to keel over and the squash has stopped producing new fruit.

Of course, it's late August and we've barely had a handful of long, warm days. The wind from the ocean blows every afternoon and often brings a heavy wave of fog with it. There are mushrooms sprouting in our brand new organic compost + soil mix. I water by hand, but I'm never sure which things need more and which less.

But I guess I'm feeling sort of Zen about it. I accept it as it is. No need to improve. Everyone's having issues with their tomato crop this year. You can see many of my tomato plants have keeled over, musty and skeletal. I am thinking about planting a winter garden soon. My palate down in the garden needs some cleaning out. Lettuce, winter squash, maybe some Brussel sprouts. Lots of possibilities.

Honestly, I'm just glad we got through our challenges this past spring and were able to put a garden together.

I think the garden is helping me to deal with dashed expectations. Or maybe I should say "altered". This is somewhat of a struggle for me, the perfectionist homeschooling mom. I hate to live with no expectations, and yet every time I make a to do list for the boys or pile up a stack of books and materials to share with them I find that their agenda is apparently different from mine.

This year I've been collecting books that seem to relate to this place, our land, Mother Earth, Northern California. I have a strong urge to get us up and out of the house and to focus our attention on the horizon as well as the minutae around us. On our table is An Everyday History of Somewhere and Keeping a Nature Journal, a stack of brand new spiral bound sketchbooks, and some watercolor pencils. I have dreams of hiking and spotting jackrabbits, sitting quietly and watching hawks and vultures soar overhead. Honestly, we could sit on our deck and do some of that, but I want us to venture out a bit as well. 

We homeschool year round, meaning we don't stop in June and start up in September, but we've been so out of kilter with Ben's surgeries, camp, camping trips and the like that we are not in a rhythm other than being in an unsatisfying one for me. I've started waking the boys up a bit earlier (9 am, not so early!) and writing a to do list of sorts on the white board the night before with things like: "Some things we may get to..." at the top. Maybe I'm not being forceful enough, but I've learned this much at least: If I force it they definitely don't show up!

I started reading An Everyday History to them yesterday. They were oh so resistant. For three days I'd written it on the white board and they'd avoided it in one fashion or another. But finally, I made them sit and listen yesterday. And guess what? They LOVED it. Toby has to figure out sitting quietly and focusing, but they all were intrigued by this lovely storyteller's history of the native peoples and animals of Northern California. Today I didn't need to coerce them at all and they even asked when we'd be reading it.

Tomorrow we head out to the annual California Homeschool Association conference in Sacramento. A weekend of fun, inspiration, and time in the pool with our friends. I haven't been looking forward to it nearly as much as in years past, but I'm starting to get excited. This year I'm volunteering in the exhibition hall rather than going to the lectures. This year I'll hang out more than soak up new information. I know more about what I want from our homeschooling life already six years into this life. But still, I'm trying not to have too many expectations, even low ones, of the weekend ahead, and yes, of the year ahead. I'm trying to let my garden teach me something. Having expectations often means having dashed ones.

That's such a negative, glass-half-empty kind of outlook, you know? Instead, I can choose to embrace the uncertainty, I can choose to wait with quiet patience and embrace the anxieties that go with not knowing what will come. I can also trust that if something fails, something else wonderful may fill the void left behind. I can do that, I'm sure.

Tomatoes are usually our favorite crop. But this year it's the beans.

Garlic-Dijon-Champagne Vinaigrette Beans

Bucket o' beans
Nasturtium flowers for garnish
Dijon mustard
Champagne vinegar
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Trim beans. Place in a large ziplock plastic bag. In a bowl mix 1 T mustard, 1/2 c olive oil, 4 T vinegar, and 2 chopped cloves of garlic. Mix till they are fully incorporated. Pour into bag. Squeeze out air, zip closed. Toss until beans are covered with marinade. If there doesn't appear to be enough marinade, add more olive oil and vinegar. Marinate several hours in the fridge. Turn a couple times throughout the day.
To serve: Place in a serving bowl, pour marinade over beans, salt and pepper to taste and decorate with clean nasturtium flowers (I soak these in water to make sure the ants have evacuated!).