(Reblogging from 2012. Today would be Alice’s 61st birthday, but she will be forever 20 years old.)
Blue eyes. That was one thing that made her unique among 4 sisters. She had our father’s eyes. She was the shortest among us; I believe I grew to have at least a half an inch over her. But that took a while. Since she was 3 years older, I trailed behind her most of my life. I definitely didn’t mind following in her footsteps. I adored her. She was the sweet sister, the kind one, the one who loved children and animals and had friends. She somehow spanned the gap between being a nerd and being popular. Not that she wasn’t picked on early in grade school. We all were, and she was very sensitive to it. When she was 10, she ran away from a boy who was chasing her down the sidewalk. He caught up to her and managed to grab the back of her coat hood. He yanked her down hard, and she fell backwards onto the sidewalk, hitting her head and fracturing her skull. The boy was sent to military school, and Alice recovered amid cards and gifts and angels surrounding her bed.
She started dating first among us, though she wasn’t the oldest. I wanted to learn how this “boyfriend” business worked, so I watched her very closely, sometimes through the living room drapery while she was on the porch kissing her date goodnight.She modeled how to be affectionate in the midst of a distinctly cerebral family, shy about demonstrating emotion. She gave me my first pet name: Golden Girl or Goldie, and then the one that stuck in my family, PG or sometimes Peej. By the time I was 16, we were very close friends as well as sisters. She invited me to spend Spring Break with her at college, and enjoyed “showing me off”. She told me that the boys were noticing me and that she’d need to protect me. I was thrilled!
Alice and Mike in Los Gatos, summer 1979
We spent that summer at home together in California. I introduced her to my new boyfriend, who eventually became my husband. She begged our parents to allow me to be her passenger on a road trip back to campus at the end of the summer. She had just bought a car, and although I couldn’t drive, I could keep her company, sing with her along the way, and be her companion. The road trip wasa travel adventure flavored with freedom, sisterly love, and the sense of confidence and brand new responsibility. We flopped the first night in a fleabag motel in the same bed. She woke earlier than I and told me as I roused and stretched how sweet I looked cuddling the stuffed bunny my boyfriend had bought me. Then we stayed with her friends in Colorado. Our next day’s journey was to go through the heartland of the country and hopefully, if we made good time, get to Chicago for the night. We never made it.
Nebraska is flat and boring. We’d been driving for 6 hours. I was reclined and dozing when we began to drift off the fast lane, going 80 mph. Alice over-corrected, and we flipped. She had disconnected her shoulder strap, and flopped around, hitting her head on pavement through the open window. Her fragile, gentle head, with two blue eyes. She was dead by the time we came to rest in the ditch.
Life is an experience, a journey of unexpected and unimagined happening, a verb in motion, not a noun. Alice was in motion, at 20, and may be even now…somewhere, in some form. I still taste her sweetness floating near me from time to time.
On March 12, 1912, Juliette Low founded the Girl Scouts of America with a troop of 18 girls in Savannah, Georgia. I became a Brownie Girl Scout on Jan. 21, 1970. My mother was already a leader with one of my older sisters’ troops. I stayed in Scouting through my senior year of High School, and then became a Daisy and Brownie leader when my youngest girls were in kindergarten and first grade. Here is proof of my dedication to this fine organization: my fifth grade school picture.
School picture day just happened to be the same day that I had a meeting after school. We were encouraged to wear our uniforms to meetings. So, because I was an obedient child and followed the rules, I have this historic photo to prove that I was a bona fide Girl Scout at the age of 10. I found it pretty embarrassing at the time, though, to be the only child in uniform for the class composite photo. Ah well, there’s a nerd in every class. Oh, this photo also supports the story I told about visiting Hawaii and being mistaken for a boy. One could also have mistaken me for a chipmunk.
What was great about Girl Scouts? Camping. Singing silly songs. Downhill skiing. Climbing to the top of the Statue of Liberty in my uniform and platform shoes. Sneaking out of my tent in the full moonlight and posing as a statue along a State Park road. Skinny dipping. Roasting marshmallows. Learning a whole bunch of useful skills, like swimming and first aid. Meeting other girls from all over the country at a national event and feeling accepted. Gaining confidence in my capacity to learn and be responsible.
What will I always retain from Girl Scouts? My love of the outdoors. My ability to build a fire. My enthusiasm for hiking up a mountain in the hot sun. My desire to be helpful and do good deeds. Here’s proof from this decade:
Team Galasso at the Diabetes fund-raiser
So, Girl Scouts, how about a chorus of the old song:
Girl Scouts together that is our song
Winding the old trails, rocky and long
Learning our motto, living our creed
Girl Scouts together in every good deed.
This post is a feature article in this month’s Be Zine. To view the entire blogazine, clickHERE.
I had all but disqualified myself from writing about Friendship this month. “I have no friends,” I thought, envisioning ladies’ magazine coffee klatch groups, beer commercials and Facebook statistics. I don’t have the requisite exercise buddy, shopping buddy, or the Oprah-sanctioned “5 Friends Every Woman Should Have”. That little childhood rhyme started playing in my head: nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I guess I’ll go eat worms.
I’ve decided to re-frame the topic.
I do not have a lot of friends. I do not make a point to get together with acquaintances to socialize. I am an introvert and was raised by introverts. I didn’t have birthday parties or play dates as a kid. I had one good friend who lived two doors down, and we played together almost every day. He was a year younger than I and a boy. When I was in 5th grade, a girl joined my Sunday school class, bringing the class total to three – myself, the rector’s son, and this new best friend. She still sends me Christmas cards. When I moved from Illinois to California the summer before high school, I had to start all over. After a year, I had made a good friend who was a year older than I. She was a bit bossy, but she connected me to the Girl Scout troop, the school choir, the Italian club, and my husband. I was 15 when she introduced us. I was 45 when he died. Later that year, I met someone online – a bookseller who’d just finished a course in Spiritual Psychology. I’d found my new best friend. We’ve been together for almost 8 years.
photo credit: Carol Toepke
What I know about Friendship is not about quantity. It is about quality. I think I have enjoyed all the important health benefits that Friendship adds to life distilled into a few precious draughts. To feel that freedom that creates well-being, we have to be able to establish a trust that allows me to be completely myself; we have to create a safe vulnerability. Honesty, copious communication, time, and kindness are the key ingredients. For me, this doesn’t happen easily. It takes concerted effort. More often, I find myself in relationships with mentors or students. I feel quite comfortable as a student or a teacher. Those are roles I can hide in. To be in a true friendship, I have to come out of hiding and operate in an arena of wholeness and equality…which is far more risky. A tremendous accomplishment of my 24 year marriage is that I know that I can survive and thrive while being fully open to another human being. Still, I suppose it has to be the right human being. And those are rare.
The love of a true friend is extraordinary. It goes beyond the giddiness of fun, beyond the pleasantries of companionship, beyond the nobility of human kindness, beyond the affirmation of attraction. The love of a true friend is challenging. It asks you to be entirely forthcoming. It asks you to question your habits and assumptions. It asks you to change and react to change. It asks you to be the best you can be. And it asks you to challenge your friend in return. Because of this dynamic love, life is never boring and your relationship never goes stale. Because of the trust you build, you can enter into the most intense realities of life with some security and the sense of adventure. As my husband used to say after another trip to the hospital, “Never a dull moment!”
My calendar is not full of lunch dates or parties; my phone doesn’t ring for days at a time. Still, I have tasted the best of Friendship and grown braver, healthier, happier and wiser. And no worms were harmed.
This post was written for The Be Zine which is dedicating its April issue to International Poetry Month. As a Contributing Editor, I am honored to be able to join with truly accomplished poets in celebrating Poetry, but I am well aware that my skills do not match those of my colleagues! Treat yourself to some truly substantial fare by visiting the magazine here.
My favorite poetry is philosophy dressed in dreaming, not logic. It imagines a larger reality, a more expansive love. Rilke is the gold standard, I think. Oh, but that is the pièce de résistance, and there’s so much more besides that. I am a poem consumer, not a gourmet chef. I know very little of form or craft, but I love to taste and participate. So I’ve written a love poem to my late husband because, well, you might as well start with breakfast.
Thick, boyish lashes fringe Other eyes, perhaps as blue, Open, tender toward Beloved
Still smiling youths may offer Eager grins, warm confidence Gleaming ‘neath soft whiskered lips
Clear voices might ring Thrilling, gentle as yours when
You sang at daybreak just for me
Surely now first loves make vows, Grow mature together, devotion’s Friendly joy becoming solid strength
Fathers must bend heart and arm Wrap manhood’s grace boldly around Each golden, blessed child – like you
No doubt live sorrowing pairs With looming loss, still holding, Fingers trembling, to brave last words
I cannot boast an only, greatest grief; I know this storied world is vast. But still I weep in fond belief That you and I loved first and last.
…and feel that perhaps something is missing in your life…
…and you’ve done the same thing over and over, hoping something different might result…
imagine what might happen if you simply followed your bliss and did what you love.
A life may emerge that is not what you dreamed or expected or even what you may have been promised. Still, it is actual and dynamic…and there you are, being yourself and still doing what you love. That’s not a bad outcome, is it?
1984 – It’s my wedding day. The weather is chilly and foggy in Northern California. I am too excited to sleep late. I have a date with my fiance for a morning meeting. He comes to pick me up at my parents’ house. My grandmother is aghast that we are seeing each other before arriving at the church; it’s just not done. But we know what we want. We want to focus on each other, on the meaning the day has for us personally before being caught up in the ritual. We park the car under some oak trees in the foothills. We decide it’s too damp and cold to walk, so we sit in the car and talk. We are calm and happy. He drops me off at the house. The next time I see Jim, he is standing at the altar, grinning. I take his hand. I notice it’s cold and clammy, so unlike the warm bear paw I expect. I smile at him. He’s caught up in excitement. The wedding mass is a long event. We emerge from the church and see sunlight for the first time that day. It doesn’t last long. The reception in the Parish Hall is intimate and bustling. It’s dark when we leave. I get home and change. My mother takes care of the dress. The station wagon is packed with my belongings, gifts, and leftover bottles of champagne. We drive south to Pebble Beach. I’m hungry. I hope the restaurant at the inn is still open by the time we get there. We find we are able to get sandwiches at the bar. We retire to our room. I feel so incredibly grown up; in one day, I’ve suddenly matured. I’m married. I’m 21 years old.
January 7 – this morning
The sun comes in the southeast window, and I begin to stir. As my mind brightens, I remember the day. Steve is sleeping beside me. I pull out the battered photo album from the box in the corner and settle back on the bed. Was it really cloudy that day? I flip through the pages in front of me, my mind turning over more leaves than my fingers. My phone beeps. My daughter is texting me to let me know she’s thinking of me today. Her baby face smiles at me from a photograph. She will be turning 30 in a few weeks. Steve begins to stir. I look at his face as his eyes open. “What are you doing here?” he asks. That’s a good question! “It’s a long story,” I laugh. But that doesn’t really answer the question. I am living. I am aware now of the present moment. As I look around, I see the beauty of this day, this year. The air is cold and dry. The trees outside are bare, the branches dusted with snow. I look down at my left hand. It is lined by swollen veins and wrinkles. There’s a brown spot just there. I have a ring on my index finger with a blue topaz heart set in it. No other rings. My fingers press Steve’s arm. “I am waking up. And you?” “I am Steve-ing.”
This is the end — the last day of the year, the last installment of my mother’s birthday project, and the last entry on this blog for 2014. My mother is 80 years old today. Here is a list of 10 Inspirational Instructions that she has embodied throughout her life. They are also serving as my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. My mom is indeed an inspiration, and I hope she’ll keep breathing life in for many more years.
1) “TrustGod, but do your homework.” This quote she always attributed to her own mother. I think it’s a great motto to pass on from generation to generation. In essence, it acknowledges our humility but does not absolve us from responsibility. We are not in control of all things, but we are in control of some. When you’re able to dance on that line with grace, you’re living wisely.
2) Regularly make the effort to right-size and divest. This comes from her organizational practice, and it’s a great reminder at the end of every year. I’ve watched mom go through “weeding out” stages my whole life. She systematically keeps her possessions under control: clothes, books, papers, housewares, pantry stock, music, everything. Steve & I are furiously reducing inventory at the book business now. Part of the fun is putting those things you divest into the hands of someone who will use and appreciate them. Recycle generously!
3) Gather experiences, not things. I remember my mother answering all inquiries about what she wanted for a gift with some version of this philosophy. She wanted something to live, not something to dust. I hope she gets lots of what she wants for a long time.
photo by Josh
4) “Look wider still.” This is a Girl Scout challenge from International Thinking Day… “and when you think you’re looking wide, look wider still.” My mother loves this slogan. It applies so well to being broad-minded, tolerant, open and forever learning. It’s a big world. Even after 80 years, there’s a wider view to see.
5) “Only connect.” This phrase became the name of a BBC quiz show in 2008. It is derived from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, where a character says, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” The phrase has also been used to describe the liberal education, which celebrates and nurtures human freedom. I just learned these references from Google. From mom, I learned that rush of joy, that flush of understanding and the pure delight of living that shows in her face when she utters this phrase at the end of a stimulating discussion. That I learned years ago.
6) Don’t disown your own. “Only connect” applies to people, too, even and especially those near and dear who have a greater capacity to disappoint us. Looking wider than our expectations and our attachments allows us to see that we do not exist in isolation except by our own dogmatic choosing. Long after I learned this from watching mom, I heard it echoed in the writing of Thich Nhat Hahn. “We inter-are,” he says. The cosmos is held together in inter-being. Acting as though we’re separate and separating in judgment is an act of violence against the Universe. Peace is understanding there is no duality.
photo by Josh
7) Let go; let God. My mother has always had the capacity for anxiety. She likes to do things “the right way”, she pays attention to details, and she fears the usual things from failure to death. So do I. Face it, we live in a pretty neurotic culture. Mom showed me by her example how to recognize this in yourself and then to strive to be a “non-anxious presence”. That doesn’t mean she was good at it. It means she practiced. That’s inspiring.
8) “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This one comes straight out of the Bible (Ephesians), and it was a practice that she and my father adopted religiously. Every night, I’d hear them from behind their bedroom door, talking in low voices and then praying in unison. Taking responsibility for your emotions and communicating them is another inspiring example. Own your anger; it is about you. Talk about your anger to someone else. Then you are re-connected and at peace. It’s not magic; it’s useful.
9) “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.” This also comes straight out of the Bible (Deuteronomy), but in the very next line, those arms are thrusting out against enemies and doing violence. The everlasting arms that my mother referred to were supportive. They were secure and safe. If I am to grow out of my neuroses at all, I think I need to begin to trust that the World is a good place. I belong here. Even though I myself and everyone I know will die, we end up right here. That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong.
10) “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee. All things are passing; God never changeth. Patient endurance attaineth to all things. Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting. Alone God sufficeth. ” Teresa of Avila, translated by Longfellow. Mom had these words written up in her small hand and pasted on the inside of her desk cubbyhole door. It was like a secret she showed me when we were worried about something. All things are passing. This fear, this problem, this moment. Patience. Change and movement is how Life is, and it is well. I really believe that and strive to remember it. I think that all of Life is embraced in that dynamic, including God.
All things are passing, year into year, life into life, microscopically and macroscopically. We are so fortunate to be aware of our experience of it! I am ever grateful to my mother for sharing her life and her awareness and so many of her experiences with me. I look forward to more!
photo by Josh
May each of you be happy and at peace in this year’s ending and in the continuation of Life in the New Year!
For many of us, Mom is our first and best teacher. Celebrating my mother’s 80 years brings to mind crucial life skills that she patiently nurtured in me. Here’s a list of 10:
1) How to make a friend. My first friend was the boy who lived next door. He was a year younger than I, and I don’t remember much about him except that we called him “B” even though his name was Todd. I was only 4 when we moved. Our next house was much larger and our next door neighbors didn’t have children. I remember sitting on the front steps feeling lonely when a boy from up the street walked up our driveway. I ran inside to tell my mother that someone was in our yard. She came out with me, greeted him, and asked him his name. He rattled off 4 names so fast it made my head spin. She asked him to repeat it, slower. With her coaxing, we finally learned his name, that he lived 2 doors down, and that he was a year younger than I. I had my new friend!
2) How to take a break. My mother enforced nap time, even when we were on vacation. I was 10 when the family went to Hawaii. My 3 older sisters and I wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool as soon as we got settled, but Mom was pregnant and jet-lagged, so nap time was enforced. We squirmed around for an hour in our room but didn’t sleep, insisting we were too old for naps. By dinner time, I was face down in my coconut chicken. I have been an avid napper ever since.
3) How to join a community. My mom was my first Girl Scout leader. She eagerly got involved in meetings, field trips, camping, and promoting the Girl Scout way. I stayed with Girl Scouts through my senior year in High School, traveled to New England on a National Opportunity, learned to ski, and served as cookie chairman for my troop. I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of skills, and finally developed some self-confidence. It wasn’t always cool to be a Girl Scout, but it turned out to be a useful path to awesome for both of us.
4) How to make a pie. This is a skill that goes beyond simply following instructions. Pie crust is tricky. It crumbles and breaks a lot, but it’s supposed to. You must treat it delicately but not too tentatively. At first, my job in pie-making was to “pie pray”. That meant that my mother would tell me to pray as she was lifting the rolled dough up into the pan. She wasn’t ready to let me actually handle it. Eventually, I earned the right to do the whole process. Making a pie involves a lot of decisions. Making a pie with an apprentice involves a lot more. What and when do you delegate? When do you give up control? It’s as much about negotiating as it is about baking.
5) How to iron…or not iron. My father insisted on using cotton handkerchiefs his whole life. He did not use Kleenex. They were washed in hot water and ironed to sterilize them. He cycled through hundreds of handkerchiefs in a month, and my mother had all 4 of her daughters taking a share of the ironing. We also learned to iron our own clothing and were expected to keep our ironing pile under control. I ironed weekly throughout junior high and high school. When I got to college, the iron was stored on my top shelf and was only used on my choir uniform. My museum costume gets ironed, otherwise I’d probably not even own one now. Just because you have a skill doesn’t mean you have to use it.
6) How to study. My mother and I have similar learning styles. We retain organized information easily, and we never forget a song. The most detailed and peculiar stuff can be absorbed if we draw up a study chart and create a mnemonic device. This is how I got top grades and a B. A. in music. Write it down; make it up. Works for us!
7) How to interview for a job. The hardest thing for me to learn in this area was not to disqualify myself in the first place. I really wanted a job as a camp counselor when I came home from college my sophomore year, but I had a million excuses in my way. I didn’t want to be too far away from my boyfriend; I didn’t know how to drive very well; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have enough experience or a resume. My mother lit a fire under me. We found a camp just up the mountain listed in the Yellow Pages; she copied an article from Sierra Club News that had a picture of me playing the guitar to a bunch of kids to show the interviewer; she drove me to the interview and sparked up an enthusiastic conversation with the director. The rest is history. I worked there for two years and the director was a bridesmaid in my wedding. It’s still true that my biggest limitations are the ones I imagine in my own mind. I’m grateful that my mother doesn’t live in my head and can draw me out of it.
8) How to be appreciative. One of the greatest gifts we have to give the world is our appreciation. It’s a win-win activity. It makes others feel good that we’re feeling good about something. It’s easy to do, really, because there’s so much in this world to appreciate. The trick is not to be shy. Take a risk, show your appreciation, and be specific. When I first attempted to make bread in Home Ec class in junior high, I brought a slice home, wrapped in a napkin. I have a distinct picture of my mother sitting on the side of her bed, tenderly unwrapping it and remarking enthusiastically on its texture and its smell and then finally taking a small, leisurely bite. “Oh! It’s like Anadama bread!” She showed such pleasure that I was grinning all afternoon. She is not a bread-baker, but I find it one of the simplest, most rewarding things I do now.
9) How to be tolerant and open. It’s easy to throw judgments about other people around, habitually, casually or accidentally, and even easier to harbor them in your own wounded psyche. My grandmother and my father, though near and dear to my mom and me, were both guilty of rejecting others and treating them unkindly. It was very confusing to me to see these people whom I liked and admired showing such prejudice, but my mother was good at including and befriending others despite her mother’s or her husband’s disapproval. I don’t remember any big arguments or scenes, just that my mother kept up her associations loyally, somehow, nevertheless. My own sister was not welcomed by my father for 25 years, until Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to recognize her. She always had a place in Mom’s life, though, and we would visit together while my dad went out. I can only wonder how these differences were discussed between my parents.
10) How to keep learning. Stay open, stay interested, stay enthusiastic. I trust that my mother is delighted by something new each day. I hear about the new people she’s meeting at her senior living community and her discovery of the binder containing their biographies. She relates bits of fascination every time we talk. She is always making connections between people and stories and places and ideas like she’s weaving a great, joyful tapestry together. I hope I’m like her when I’m 80!