This week’s photo challenge, A Day in My Life, is a great opportunity for me to tell my readers about my New JOB! I have completed two days of training at Discovery World in Milwaukee, and although I haven’t taken any of my own pictures, you can see some on their website. In addition to my job in Guest Services at this museum, I will also begin working two days a week at Old World Wisconsin at the end of next month as a Costumed Historic Interpreter. This means that I get to do weekly time travel, from the 19th Century into the Future, and talk to folks of all ages about how things work, how we work, what we do with what we know, and what wonderful things are all around us! I think it’s pretty cool that someone’s willing to pay me to do that. And when I get home, I photograph, describe, list and sell all kinds of old and new stuff on eBay.
Favorite elements of my new job: hearing the screech of seagulls on the Lake, matching my breathing to the pace of fish in the aquarium (ever notice how flying ducks are always in a hurry and fish rarely seem to be?), watching a 5-yr-old stroke a Pencil Urchin with 2 small fingers, and seeing a kid’s face light up when he lands his plane in the Flight Simulator. I am looking forward to getting a deck tour and cruise on the SV Denis Sullivan when the ship returns from the Caribbean and taking in a film at the outside amphitheater at dusk during the summer.
Our first Valentine’s Day together, Steve and I attended a presentation on raptors at the Volo Bog Nature Center. We got to hear about and see up close some beautiful birds of prey and learn more about their habits and how they differ from what the presenter called “sissy birds” – birds who migrate to avoid our Northern winters. Then we went and had sushi at a nearby restaurant. The next Valentine’s Day, we went to a presentation on animal mating habits at the McHenry County Conservation District education center. They provided some great chocolate snacks, warm drinks, a slide show on various courtship behaviors, and a candlelit ski trail hike. They played a recording of coyote calls to try to entice some real responses, but there were none. Still, the eerie, cold hillside was suitably mysterious and romantic for those of us who are simply in love with nature. This morning, we took off from Milwaukee to Madison for our weekly Naturalist Enrichment course at the Arboretum of UW Madison. We heard a professor from the zoology department give a presentation entitled “Why Do Birds Sing?” One of the main purposes for bird song is, of course, to attract a mate. Thus, the Valentine’s Day connection was made again. Steve asked a question of the presenter to try to find some explanation for the early morning activity of birds in our neighborhood. “What’s the best time of day to sing a love song?” Several audible chuckles and giggles were heard in the audience, which is predominantly silver-haired and female. The presenter talked about the morning chorus and the ability for sound to be carried further in the chilly predawn air. I smiled down at my notes and pressed my knee against his leg. After the talk was over, a nice lady with short, white hair and a thickly knit sweater came over and leaned across me. To Steve, she said, “You can sing your love song ANY TIME you want!”
I love hanging out with retired professors! And I love that my daughter lives just a few blocks away from the Arboretum and invited us over for “breakfish” afterwards. Valentine’s hugs all around and more conversation about her upcoming wedding. Very satisfying way to spend the day, indeed.
Nerd love and natural love to everyone! What a wonderful world!
“What’s in a love letter, anyway?” he asked.
I was in a mood. A little pouty and weepy, my inner 4-year-old whining, “I just don’t feel special!” God, why does this keep happening every month? It’s so ridiculous. Okay, rather than stuff it and wait for it to go away, I will wrap that little girl in my own arms and listen to her. She wants to feel loved. She doubts her self-worth every once in awhile and wants someone to show a preference for her and please her. “Little One, you are precious,” I tell her. I am taking responsibility for caring for this vulnerable one. Me. Passing that burden on to anyone else is manipulative and fosters a kind of co-dependency. I don’t want that any more. Oh, but I used to rely on it pretty routinely. I had a husband who, for 24 years, lavished me with gifts and compliments and love letters. I have been with Steve now for 4 years. He has never even bought me a greeting card. I do not want him to be other than he is, and I believe he loves me profoundly. So, what is the love letter game about? “What’s in a love letter, anyway?” Steve asked.
Six parts flattery to one part youth…or is that a martini? So I began to make a list of the elements of a love letter, Cat Stevens’ song “Two Fine People” running through my brain. In one column, I put the parts that I know Steve would never embrace. In the other column, I put the bits that I think he does communicate, albeit in person and not in writing. The list began to resemble another amusing song: “Title of the Song” (by DaVinci’s Notebook), which you really must click on and listen to if you never have before. …Now, wasn’t that fun?
So I showed Steve the little orange Post-It note that carried this weighty list. On the left, I’d written “flattery; promises: to rescue, for future, to provide; declaration of desire”. On the right I’d written “honesty, appreciation, gratitude, description of how I love”. I told him that his description of how he loves is unique and authentic to him and doesn’t resemble Cat Stevens’ (“…though Time may fade and mountains turn to sand…’til the very same come back to the land”). He walked to one of his bookshelves and took down his “Bible”, a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “How’s this for a love letter?” he asked and read from “Song of Myself”:
The smoke of my own breath;
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine;
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs;
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn;
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice, words loos’d to the eddies of the wind;
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag;
The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides;
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
The little girl opens her wet eyes and looks wide. Wondering, feeling alive, an equal to the sun and the trees and the birds in the sky and every playmate in the Universe. Is this not Love, this embrace? I reckon that it is.
My grandfather’s little tax deduction for the year 1934 arrived on New Year’s Eve. Anne Louise McFarland, my mother, grew up believing that all the fireworks and shouting every year on this day was in honor of her birthday. I grew up believing something very similar. My parents didn’t dress up and go out on New Year’s Eve…they dined at home on champagne and escargot and caviar and other delectable treats while listening to “The Midnight Special” on WFMT or to “Die Fledermaus” on TV or video. When I was old enough to stay up with them, we would sometimes catch the Times Square celebration and then declare East Coast midnight and go to bed an hour early. But the reason for the season was my mother, not the march of time. In my late teens, I didn’t go to other people’s parties, I still stayed home…and my boyfriend (soon to be husband) joined us. We enjoyed the best food and champagne and music and silliness and company without ever having to contend with drunk drivers on the roads. My mom lives 2,205 miles away from me now, but I am still planning to stay home and drink champagne and eat salmon and listen to wonderful music and think of her. She is still reason enough for all the joy and love and delight you might see tonight. I’ll show you why:
This is my mom and dad at her college graduation. That’s right, she graduated from Radcliffe, the female component to Harvard, at the age of 20. The woman has brains. With her late birthday and having skipped a year in elementary school, that means she went to college at age 16, all naive and nerdy with bad teeth and a lazy eye and glasses, but with a curiosity and charm that matured and eventually proved irresistible to my father, who, with money and pedigree and a Harvard degree, was “quite a catch”.
So, by 1965, she’s a mother of 4 little girls (that’s me, the baby, blonde, aged 3), running a household, volunteering with Eastern Star and the church and a host of other things. So stylish, so Jackie! This was Massachusetts, you know.
And she’s not afraid to go camping, either. This was a picnic picture taken by her mother-in-law. That would explain the handbags and the dress. My grandmother was never seen anywhere without a handbag and make-up. My mother was…often!
Fast forward 13 years. My mother gave birth to a boy when she was 38. She had 4 willing babysitters surrounding her and a handsome husband now sporting a beard. She’d also picked up a Masters degree in Church Music. We moved from Chicago to California where she became more adventurous in cuisine and hiking and music and new volunteer opportunities. This photo was taken the last Christmas that all her children were alive. My sister Alice (far left) died the next August.
A month after she’d turned 50, my mother became a grandmother for the first time. She’d also survived breast cancer by electing to have major surgery, something her own mother had done 10 years earlier. She was housing and caring for her barely mobile mother and raising a pre-teen son at this time as well. Do you see a grey hair? No? Neither do I. My mother is amazing.
Mom turns 55. She has 4 grandchildren, a 16-yr old son, and her mother has just died. She’s volunteering as a docent at the San Jose Historical Museum, a position she will hold for more than 20 years, specializing in their music department.
Here, she’s 60. My husband and I are traveling in Europe for our 10th anniversary, and she and Dad take our kids to the beach cottage for a few weeks. My husband survived double bypass surgery on his heart two years earlier. Yeah, Mom came out then, too, to take care of the kids…and me. Who has the energy to be with 4 kids (aged 3, 5, 7, & 9) at the beach for two weeks at the age of 30, let alone twice that? My mother. Although she did let me know (graciously) that it wasn’t easy.
In 2007, Mom came out with my sister and brother to see my daughter graduate from college. We all went to the cottage together again. This was my husband’s last trip: he died the following February. My father is not with us on this vacation. He is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition he had for 7 years before his death. My mother visited him several times a week while he needed skilled care and played the piano for all the residents, jogging memories with old popular tunes and supporting the hymns during chapel services.
My father died in March of 2010. I had been widowed for 2 years. My kids and I flew back to California for his memorial service, and Dad’s ashes were buried next to my sister’s and my husband’s. My mother invited the family back to her house and we gathered around the piano again. She played and sang and laughed and cried, and I did, too, right by her side. My mother and I are alike in many ways, and I am so glad, proud and grateful to be a woman like her. I see her smile, I hear her voice, I taste her cooking and her tears, and feel her spirit flowing around and through me all the time. We’re going to party tonight, Mom. Miles be damned! Happy Birthday! I love you!
A song from “Miss Saigon” is running through my head… ‘a song, played on a solo saxophone…so hold me tight and dance like it’s the last night of the world’. Not that I seriously think the world will end tomorrow. Aside from the darkness and the rain (instead of snow) here in Milwaukee, all seems fairly normal.
But it raises a good question. What would you do on the last night of the world? What would you want to be doing any or every night of the world?
My husband sang that song from Miss Saigon on a recital one February, a snowy scene visible through the plate glass window behind him. The tune was a tad high for him; his sweet tenor voice seemed a little strained. He lived only another 7 years after that day.
I would want to dance with him and Steve and my children and my mother, to hold them tight and look into their eyes until there was nothing else to see.
Yup, today is Steve’s birthday. He is beginning to get comfortable saying that he is “in his late 40s”. We are still working on being transparent with ourselves and each other, genuine, authentic. This morning we talked about how difficult that is for parents to do with their children. We want to be better people, better role models, especially in front of them. But we miss the opportunity to be fully present, fully alive, and fully responsive when we hide behind those roles. That can hurt. The child may feel like they are not worthy to receive the person they love the most. I remember how honored I felt when my father asked me to help him with something. I was the mother of 4 children by then. He had broken his back and was lying flat in traction in the hospital. He asked me to help him brush his teeth by catching his spit in a pan when he spouted it straight up. It was the first time I truly felt that he was volunteering his vulnerability. I left the hospital in tears, not because I pitied him, but because I was so happy to feel connected to this man I adored for so long.
A man who had been my spiritual director for years sent me a TED video this week about Vulnerability. I highly recommend it. See if you don’t recognize something about yourself here. It may be a surprise. Then see if you can find someone to talk to about it. It may be a pivotal point in your life.
Today is All Saints’ Day as well. Here’s to all the truly good friends, the saints in our lives, who allow themselves to be seen, to be vulnerable, to be genuinely available and thereby, help us to find the courage to join them in that important place. “And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”
(Steve, dressed up to see the musical “Hair” with me.)
Out of the technological complications of internet networking come some of the simplest expressions of human compassion, a wish for another person’s well-being, even if that person is a virtual stranger. And it makes the sleek, glib, electric world a bit softer and warmer. I’ve made some sweet connections this week with a few of my favorite bloggers, all of whom live at least a couple thousand miles away. I’d like to share them with the rest of you.
Mistress of Monsters is like another daughter to me, in a way. She is getting married next week. Here’s an exchange we had. She turned it into a blog post.
Naomi Baltuck is an amazing blogger and professional storyteller. She’s also a mom. I see a kindred spirit in her…although she’s much more adventurous and accomplished than I am, yet. I echo her wish in this post for the Weekly Photo Challenge prompt: Mine.
And then there’s that rascal, Stuart. He’s a gritty city photographer who travels to exotic places like Brazil and Spain and has just taken up residence at a farm for the winter. We inspire each other to keep open to possibilities. Here’s his post. Our exchange is in the comments section.
I’ll be taking about 3 weeks off from the blogosphere beginning next week, but I will be thinking of all of you. May All Beings Be Happy.
I have been reading a book called The Barn at the End of the World: the Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O’Reilley. It has been my companion for months now. I am reading very slowly, savoring each chapter as a separate essay, which it lends itself to very well. The author writes about her time with Thich Nhat Hahn at Plum Village as well as her time working with sheep in a barn. My birthday reading included this passage of notes she took on one of Thay’s dharma talks:
“Koans are buried deep in the unconscious, watered carefully like flowers. They do not respond to intellectual reasoning. Mind has not enough power to break the koan. It should not be answered, but absorbed and waited for in right mindfulness until it explodes and wakens again in the conscious mind as a flower. What did you look like before your mother gave you birth? …
“At Plum Village, our basic koan is What are you doing? The answer is Breathing and smiling. Often I ask a student, What are you doing? Often the student responds, Cutting carrots. I say, Good luck. Now, you don’t need luck to cut a carrot, but you need luck if you are going to get your practice back on track.”
My life is a koan. My life with Steve is a koan on live chat. Our relationship doesn’t always respond to intellectual reasoning. We want to be able to express our irrational emotions and learn about each other from them. We want to move through adventures and experiences and be aware of ourselves and each other in the moment. We want to be present, to “show up” with a genuine answer to the question, What are you doing? And we want to look up. We’re working on it, and we are truly glad to be doing so. And sometimes, I realize that it’s easier simply to cut carrots. And that’s a mystery, too. “How wonderful. How mysterious. I draw water. I carry wood.”
My birthday evening was beautiful. I came home to find flowers delivered — two arrangements! I opened a bottle of champagne, cooked dinner, listened to music, and let myself loose until I was sobbing all over Steve. I felt very alive.
And today, I want to check things off my “To Do” list, eat bad food quickly and hide from my partner. Is there a reason?
Steve and I have been together just shy of 4 years, now. Lately, I’ve been noticing how my thinking about ‘Us’ has evolved. I keep my late husband’s last name, always, to retain that common bond with my children. I have internalized Jim in many ways, as my sister pointed out in a recent comment. I am adding a sense of past, present and future with Steve. I wrote last about celebrating birthdays with his sister and brother-in-law. I do feel like I’ve joined his family throughout a year’s worth of life events now: holiday dinners, post-surgery visits, weekly breakfasts, etc. Now I’m feeling the reflected perspective of work colleagues who met us as a couple. We’ve been invited to our first party! Totally un-family, totally unofficial (although with friends from work), like a real social engagement based on what we do as partners. That’s a new thing for us.
A visitor to the museum met us while my daughter was touring the facility for the first time. I took Emily into the wagon shop to surprise Steve (neither of us knew she was coming). The visitor thought we made such a happy little family reuniting, that she asked if she could take photos. After her visit, she sent this photo to the Historic Society and asked if they’d forward it to us. She included some very nice comments about how delightful and kind we were. I look at it and think of Emily behind her, making me crack up.
We are eager to go off on our next adventure – a 3-week road trip to “Metaphorical Montreal & Maine”. Where we actually end up is immaterial. The adventure is continuing to forge our partnership, responding to new situations like dancers in tango. We are becoming more graceful, more complementary, even though we have many more decisions to make.