Things I Learned on Mother’s Knee (or some other joint)

Steve’s mom had knee replacement surgery yesterday.  He called his sister after work to see how the procedure went (all well), and then asked, “So, did you get the old knee?”  She laughed, of course, but I was thinking it would be a great addition to our museum cupboard in the dining room.  Then Steve asked if it was legal to keep human bones.  Huh?  Hmmm.   I’ve discovered that there are no federal laws prohibiting the ownership or sale of human bones.  Prior to 1987, most bones were imported from India, and until 2008, China also exported human bones.  No more.  There are some state laws restricting the import and export of human remains across state lines, and Native American material is very much protected under the Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.   So we have a right to bear arms and bare bones.

She had her hip replaced a few years ago.   I wonder what they did with that?

The Museum

Keeping Cool – Old Style

We haven’t had rain in a few weeks, and things at Old World Wisconsin (the outdoor living history museum where I work) are very hot and dry.  We closed down to a skeleton crew on Thursday because the heat index was over 100 degrees.  Only 25 visitors came the entire day.  I worked both yesterday and today, and now I have my swollen ankles propped up on the couch.  I don’t have air conditioning at home, either, but I do have a ceiling fan and a strategic plan to keep the house cool.  That plan involves making it as dark and cave-like as possible.  Here are some other tips for surviving the heat:

  • cheat on the number of petticoats you wear  (I went down to only one, but I don’t think anyone knew).

  • hide a wet dishcloth under your skirts or drape one around your neck.

  • plunge your hands and wrists into cold water from the pump.

  • skip the corset, if you dare (I haven’t tried this yet).

  • move as little as possible.  This means I opt for sewing over playing the pump organ.

  • drink lots of water and stay in the shade (well, that’s obvious).

  • take a cue from the oxen, Ted & Bear, and get a friend to lick your ears.  Strategic evaporation, you know.

Hmm.  That sounds rather interesting….I think I’ll go find out what Steve is up to.  ‘Bye!

I Promised My Mother-in-law

I promised to dedicate a post to my mother-in-law for her birthday, which was the 16th.  The last time I saw her alive was on her birthday in the year 2001.  She died sometime the following week, alone in her apartment, while we were traveling.  That fact is consistent with the mystique I associate with remembering her.  I’ll never be certain who she really was, although I have many theories.  I have been told that she was a concert pianist as a young woman and that she played for Rachmaninoff when she was 16.  I have seen the signed program portrait that he gave her.  I did hear her play as an accompanist for our community theater.  She was definitely capable, even with arthritis.  I wish I had known the passion of her younger years.  I saw in her such a mixture of joy and anxiety as a mature woman.  She had a playfulness and sense of humor that I found completely amusing, so much more casual than my own mother’s.  She was a grade school teacher with the ability to relate to people in a very natural way.  She was sentimental about cats and dogs and friendship and children. As I learned more about her relationship with her mother, though, a very painful history emerged, steeped in shame and punishment.   I’m sure that was the root of the depression that lingered throughout her life.  She carried scars and secrets with her to the grave.  We only learned about them when her sister-in-law spoke up after the funeral.  I imagine, though, that she would have liked to allow the sunniest parts of her personality to shine through unclouded.  It was her ability to laugh in the face of fear that I illustrated at her memorial service when I told this story:

In June of 1992, she came out to visit us from California.  We had only been living in Illinois since August, and  Jim had been through an emergency cardiac procedure that January.  She came out eager to see him recovering and to bask in the hugs of her four grandchildren.   He had a scheduled check-up during her stay, and learned that his arteries were even more clogged than in January.  He was advised to undergo double bypass surgery as soon as possible.  He was 31.  She decided to extend her stay indefinitely and see what happened next.  Her anxiety was tremendous, and so was mine.  Her sense of humor, however, surfaced much more readily.  It was her coping strategy, and it matched his perfectly.   The day of the surgery was stormy and dangerous.  A tornado touched down in the vicinity of the hospital and cut out power just as he was coming out of surgery and off the breathing machine.  A frantic nurse grabbed a mouth tube and bag to squeeze air into his lungs.  Marni and I were shaking all over and clutching hands as we watched.  Moments later, the generators kicked in and a calmer air prevailed.  Jim was breathing unassisted, and he was motioning me to come closer to tell me something.   I leaned in to hear him say in a hoarse whisper, “They found out what was wrong with my heart.”  “Yes, dear…”  “When they opened me up, they found this!”  His hand moved under the bedsheets by his side.  I looked down and discovered that he was clutching the broken figure off of one of his bowling trophies.  “The Bowler” was a running gag we had started the first year of our marriage.  He surfaced in Christmas stockings, random drawers, and even in the bouquet of roses Jim brought onstage after my senior voice recital.  How in the world did Jim manage to stage another practical joke on the day of his heart surgery?!!  Well, he had an accomplice, of course.  His mother, who smiled mildly and innocently at the end of the bed while I looked around in utter amazement.  Then we all tried to keep from laughing too hard, only because it was so painful for Jim when he tried to join in.

Recovering from heart surgery, smiles intact.

So, whatever troubles lay at the core of my mother-in-law’s psyche, I appreciate that she had the desire to live happily and tried to do that as much as possible.  She truly loved her children and grandchildren and enjoyed so many pleasures with them.  She shared what joy she found with a lot of kids during her lifetime as a teacher, and I’m sure many are grateful and remember her to this day.

Joy to the World

Gift of the Universe #22:  JOY!

I truly believe that joy is available to everyone.  No one is denied the opportunity to be joyful.  Many people on this planet will never have a full stomach or adequate shelter or enough material wealth to climb out of poverty, but believe it or not, some of those very people know joy.

“Joy is not in things; it is in us.”  – Richard Wagner

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”  – Joseph Campbell

My late husband was ill for many years.  He went under the knife for open heart surgery when he was just 31.  He suffered a host of medical problems stemming from diabetes, always believing that he would get the disease under control.  When he realized that was not going to happen, he said, “Okay, I’m sick.  I can be sick and miserable, or I can be sick and happy.  I choose happy.  Pain is inevitable, misery is optional.”  I really admire him for coming up with that maxim, and for embodying it.  The night before he died, he called me at work and asked if I’d like to go out to dinner.  Our daughters were out for the evening, and he took the opportunity to enjoy a ‘date’ with me.  We went to a local sports bar & grill and enjoyed veggie appetizers and sandwiches.  Our youngest called from rehearsal to say she was not feeling well and was coming home early, so we went home to be with her.   Jim was tired, so he took his medications, hooked up to his dialysis machine and CPAP and watched some TV.  When I came up to bed, he turned off the TV and the light.  We fell asleep holding hands.  He never woke up.  And he never complained.  Some people claim that “if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything”.  I don’t buy that.  Jim didn’t have health, but he had joy and love and he knew it.

Many people would foreswear food, health, housing, and money in order to find joy in an ascetic lifestyle.  Mendicants, yogis, monks, and priests of different faiths have adopted austere practices in order to experience the bliss of enlightenment.

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

“The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.”  – Julian of Norwich

This is a deep and serious topic, and much too heavy for me to write about today.  My brain is circling closer to Dr. Seuss and The Grinch who puzzles how the Whos could be singing without “ribbons and tags, packages, boxes and bags”.  Perhaps joy means a little bit more than the glee we feel when we get a shiny, new present.  Happiness is fleeting.  Joy is deeply felt.

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  – George Bernard Shaw

I’ve got to say that the way I have most felt this joy of being used for a mighty purpose and force of Nature is through mothering.  I know what it is to be thoroughly worn out and joyful.  I know what it is to feel like nobody is devoting himself to my happiness and not to complain because I am finding so much joy in devoting myself to someone else’s well-being.  Not that I didn’t complain occasionally (hey! I’m human!).  I always felt that mothering mattered.  That I was truly making a difference, a big one, to at least four people in the world.  I smiled at my babies even when I was not feeling joyful, and joy emerged.   Never underestimate the effect of a smile.  Check out this Still Face Experiment by Dr. Tronick on youtube.

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

My joyful (and crazy!) kids

Are you smiling every day?  I’m sure I am.  I even busted a belly laugh today as Steve was describing a Giotto fresco…of Mary and Joseph… kissing at the gates of Bethlehem…with Snoopy in the background.  He speaks like a nerd who knows everything, and then I realize he’s bullshitting me.  I fall for it all the time and then get to laugh at him and at myself.  Steve’s identity motto, which he came up with at a psychology school retreat, is “I am the joy in change and movement”.  I am really benefiting from his perspective because I am often afraid of change and movement.  I so don’t need to be.  There is freedom in allowing joy into your life.

Let Heaven and Nature sing…and see if you don’t find yourself singing along.  Rejoice, my friends.

To Sleep, Perchance To Dream

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.
~D.H. Lawrence

Now, blessings light on him that first invented sleep!  It covers a man all over, thoughts and all, like a cloak; it is meat for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, heat for the cold, and cold for the hot.  It is the current coin that purchases all the pleasures of the world cheap, and the balance that sets the king and the shepherd, the fool and the wise man, even.  ~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605

All men whilst they are awake are in one common world:  but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own.  ~Plutarch

I imagine that sleep is a gift for all, but some may disagree.  They might attribute sleep to the just, the innocent and the carefree and argue that it is refused to many who would try to attain it.  I propose, then, that it is meant for all, for health, rest, and restoration.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, “New evidence shows that sleep is essential to helping maintain mood, memory, and cognitive performance. It also plays a pivotal role in the normal function of the endocrine and immune systems. In fact, studies show a growing link between sleep duration and a variety of serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and depression.”  Two of my family members were diagnosed with sleep apnea, one with the addition of Periodic Limb Movement Disorder.  For each of them, a CPAP machine was prescribed.  That’s a Constant Positive Air Pressure mask which blows air into their nose and mouth all night long to keep their airways open.  How anyone could sleep with that thing on is a mystery to me. 

The CPAP seems like a very scientific approach to something that may be more of a spiritual process.  Sleep, relaxation, the natural cycle of repair and regeneration can be picked apart and studied, but will chasing it down and corralling its components help us to enter into its presence?  If we approach it calmly and reverently, will we be more likely to be invited into its sanctuary?  It seems like such a gentle grace, a benevolent angel of mercy.  I’d be afraid to scare it off. 

Steve in dreamland

Many people contend with sleep.  I do a bit.  I gave up my super-comfy, air-controlled, king-sized bed to my daughter, and now I sleep on a futon mattress with a sleeping bag and a suede comforter tucked under the sheet to make it a bit more yielding.  It’s not really the same, but I could do worse.  I’ve always been a light sleeper, a result of having 4 children, but I’ve always gone to bed pretty early.  I’m not good at sleeping late, and I do enjoy napping.  Sleep is not elusive for me, simply delicious.  And I dream.

I was thinking this morning that I live in two alternate universes, something like Plutarch mentions in the quote above.  In the world of my sleeping dreams, my dead husband keeps popping up.  He very calmly occupies a place beside me, and eventually in the course of the dream, I will mention that he’s supposed to be dead.  Last night, he was driving when I mentioned it, and then suggested that I take the wheel.  I have the feeling that he’s supposed to vanish when I say that word, but he didn’t.   He just slid into the passenger side and kept talking.  This is my brain working on “what’s right” and “what’s real” about death.  I still don’t have it figured out.  I have a lot of anxiety dreams that also have to do with this preoccupation of mine about “doing things right”.  Performance anxiety is a big theme.  I’m often onstage, backstage, in front of a classroom, or trying to get to a class.  When I was married to Jim, the worst nightmares I had were about the two of us being angry or false with each other.  I feared anything that would threaten our togetherness, and it was manifested in some social context.  I never had a big monster carrying me off or something adventurous like that.  I suppose you could call that a “girlie” nightmare.  My son has huge, plot-driven adventures in his dreams.  He’s got to fight, to battle and overcome in his dreams.  I just get upset and wake up.  

I did have a nightmare two nights ago.  I had indigestion when I went to sleep, and I dreamed a horrible dream that ended in watching someone eat their own limbs.  “Someone” in that weird way where you are everyone in your dream.  So I was eating myself.  It was unsettling for my brain.  My stomach was already unsettled.  Peculiar how the sleeping mind works.  I do have a favorite phrase to throw in when someone is describing a dream.  The disjointed narrative goes on and on, and then I interject, “Oh, I know that dream!  Yeah, that all happens, and the next thing you know, the pope comes in with a tray of enchiladas and…”   Yup.  Absurdity.  It’s pretty entertaining, really, this alternate universe. 

I feel lucky to be able to sleep when I am tired, to dream when I am perplexed, to regenerate every night and wake to a new day each morning.  Wagner describes it musically when Brunhilde wakes to Siegfried’s kiss.  Listening to it is like going through the resurrection weeping tears of joy and wonder.  Once again, music gives voice to life’s mysteries. 

Well, the sun is shining through the west window making puddles of warmth on my bed.  Think I’ll take a catnap.


So here’s my assignment for the week: write a description of one of the characters who will be in your memoir.  Here’s what I have written.

“When I met Jim, he was a warm, charismatic 17-year old. Everything about him was golden and good. He was an A student parented by professional educators, a member of the Mormon Church who spent an hour in seminary every day before school, an athlete competitive in tennis, a baritone soloist with the school choir, a blue-eyed blonde with thick, curly surfer locks and a regular California dream. And the crowning touch? His grandfather was an Italian immigrant. I was introduced to him at our high school’s International Talk-In, where locals were given the opportunity to mingle with exchange students. I was then the Vice President of the Italian Club, a thorough Anglo hopelessly enamored of all things italiano. My best friend at the time, the President of the Club, Lynn Panighetti, introduced us. Jim enclosed my right hand in a bear paw and then wouldn’t let go. His long lashes fluttered in befuddlement as he pretended our hands were magically glued together. He was a flirt, a funny one, and I was instantly flattered and powerfully attracted.

His right hand was broad with short, stubby fingers. He would later lament how often he “fat fingered” the keys of his computer. He had a scar on his fourth finger from a machine accident he had while working in a cannery at age 15. He told me after we’d been dating for a few years that I could have all of him except the thumb and two middle fingers of his right hand – he needed them for bowling. Eventually, he qualified for PBA membership; he always pushed himself to achieve the highest level possible in any of his pursuits. His hands matched the rest of his mesomorphic frame. At 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a massive barrel chest, he resembled a friendly teddy bear, especially to my 15-year old eyes. I nicknamed him Winnie the Pooh.

Thirty years later, that stocky body was swollen with toxins and dialysis solution as a result of his failing kidneys. His barrel chest sported a 6-inch scar where they had split his sternum to perform double bypass surgery on his 31-year old heart. A longer scar down his right calf marked the place where they had harvested a vein for the graft. The kids called his lower legs “cankles” because they looked like calves and ankles combined after neuropathy and edema developed. His polar bear feet with the sideways little toes were in pretty good shape for a diabetic. He had lost only one toenail to ulcerating infection. His hair was still thick, too short to be very curly, and just barely graying at the temples. His beautiful Italian mouth fringed by the ginger mustache looked about to smile, but it wouldn’t. His ears were blue with what our daughter identified as ‘circumaural cyanosis’. (“See, Daddy, I’m really smart,” she sobbed.) He was dead.”

I have become rather moody while taking this course.  Finished Joan Didion’s memoir about her husband’s death (The Year of Magical Thinking) last night and did a little research.  Her only child died at the age of 39 just a month before it was published.  Recent images of her are gaunt and haunted.  Interesting that she was an Episcopalian, like me.  Her New York life reminds me a little of Madeleine L’Engle’s (another Episcopalian), but she is more neurotic, less serenely spiritual.   L’Engle’s memoir of her marriage to actor Hugh Franklin was a favorite of mine about 20 years ago.  (Two-Part Invention)  I feel rather like I’m swimming in the shallow end of their private pool.

Living Heroically

Discipline without coercion.  Is it possible for individuals?  For communities?  Dare we believe that without obligation, people will make efforts to do their best and work toward the common good?  Are people who do that “heroes”?

We dangle punitive measures and capitalistic rewards in front of the masses and hope that will encourage us to be model citizens, and then we have to deal with the greedy monsters that evolve wondering “What’s in it for me?”  If I am of the 1% and super-wealthy, what incentive do I have to share?  And what is the percentage of the 99% who hope that one day, they will become super-wealthy also and so feel no inclination to put restrictions on the rich?  How many people are likely to come to a sense that they have “enough” all on their own and turn their surplus over to others?  And when will that sense of “enough” kick in?  What standard of living do we feel entitled to?  What would it feel like to say, “This is all I need.  I am not afraid to trust that I have enough”?  Would it feel like freedom?

How do you discipline yourself without feeling a sense of obligation?  Do you eat healthy foods because you want to?  Or because some outside influence is holding up a consequence or reward?  Do you make music because some authority is telling you to practice or for the sheer joy of it?  Do you do what you do out of passion or fear?

On our first date, Steve played a kind of “twenty questions” game with me.  I was trying to guess his three heroes in order to get to know him better.  He maintains that each of these inspirational figures have a passion for something and demonstrate it joyfully.  The first one is David Attenborough of the BBC Natural History Unit, groundbreaking writer and presenter of nature programs.  The second is Julia Child, The French Chef.  I was in total accord to this point, and also loved that they are easy to imitate in voice and mannerism to add levity to any undertaking (and we do this frequently).  The third one was rather tough to guess, mostly because he wasn’t human.  “An athlete” was about as close as I got.  Finally, Steve led me to thinking about equestrian athletes, and I immediately thought of Secretariat.  I found that rather a head-scratcher, though.  How could a horse be a hero?  And then he showed me the youtube clip of the final race in the1973 Triple Crown.  It still makes him cry.

A horse cannot be coerced by the promise of fame and fortune, can it?  There was no whipping, no carrot on a stick.  Secretariat ran for the pure joy of running, it would seem.  Feeling the power of his legs, the wind in his mane, the freedom of doing what he was born and bred and loved to do that day.  Did he have a reward afterward?  Did he develop a taste for winning?  I suppose you could debate the emotions of a horse forever and never learn anything conclusive.  You could also debate whether or not his race was something that created “good”.  Many people were undoubtedly uplifted; just listen to the audio on the tape.  His grace and beauty are captivating.  And maybe a bunch of people were making money off of it, but the horse wasn’t.  For that reason, it seems rather pure to me.

So what would it mean for you and me to be the heroes of our own lives?  To be the best we could be not out of obligation or fear of reprisal or for monetary gain, but just for the joy of living out our own passion and interest, for the love of it?  What would it be like to allow that to be our reward, our life work, and not ask fame or fortune from it?  Would we share any surplus of our efforts?  What if we all lived like that?  Would we be able to balance the table top, enjoy sustainability and equality, as a community and perhaps as a planet?  Is this a utopian ideal and totally unrealistic?

Probably.  But I would love to feel the wind in my hair, too… her. (My daughter, in France, living her passion.)