Sunday, December 9, 2012

Merry Christmas, mom

It wasn't anything I hadn't done before. Singing in a chorale for elderly residents of a local nursing home is something I did for over a year. Every month, we'd go and sing five-foot-two standards and other songs that folks in their 80s would remember and enjoy.

Today was different, though. Today I went with members of the First Parish youth groups who had never done that before. I wasn't sure how they'd feel about it once we were actually standing in front of elderly residents, some bound by wheelchairs and the ravages of dementia. I wasn't really thinking about how I'd feel about it because I was focused on the kids.

I hung out and sang at the back of the group letting the kids have the spotlight since this was their moment and a time of social outreach made more safe by being with each other.

At the end of our "performance" I went out to chat with the front row of residents, all of whom took my hand and thanked me. They told me how much they enjoyed having us and singing along. They loved having the kids there. 

One man in a wheelchair, whom I found out later was crying through some of the songs, told me that this was the best day he'd ever had. 

I moved to his right and took the hand of a woman who was also in a wheelchair. She looked in my eyes and was trying to get the words out but was having difficulty putting a sentence together. But the look in her eyes told me that she was grateful and was touched by the visit. 

I didn't want her to struggle any longer and I knew what she had in her heart. I  instinctively kissed her forehead and she rested her head on my shoulder for just a moment. It was then that I felt what I hadn't since my mother died 19 months ago today.

What I felt surprised me but felt so familiar at the same time. I can only describe it as a moment of complete spiritual connectivity. It wasn't a stranger in a wheelchair resting her head on my shoulder, it was my mother. It felt like I was physically with my mother in that instant. She was there, connecting through the touch of another in a moment of pure love.

When my mother visited my grandmother in the nursing home she always stopped to visit others, especially those who had no other visitors. I remembered the times I went with my mother. We'd walk in the front door of my grandmother's nursing home and there they were. All lined up, seemingly just waiting for my mom. 

She would always be beyond cheerful (in her usual upbeat, positive, I-love-people way) as she stopped and talked to each one. She remembered their stories and even their wardrobes. If anyone had a new pair of earrings on, a new sweater, or even a new hairdo mom would always notice. She would ask about their latest doctor's visit and knew them all by name.

I loved those moments with my mother. I was so proud and amazed at her big heart. They loved my mother and my mother's spirit. 

I had forgotten about mom's honest and sincere connection to these lonely people who probably had no other visitors until she came again. That was, until I kissed that woman's forehead today. 

I've been pushing Christmas to the back of my brain since my mother died last year. I don't look forward to writing cards, decorating the tree, or wrapping gifts. I just want it over with. Moving through the tasks as I do at my job. Meeting a deadline so I can move on to the next project.

That all stopped today. Maybe it was the meaning of Christmas that finally hit me. Doing something that brings me back to the true spirit of the season. Maybe I was just filled with joy and pride of the kids I mentor every Sunday morning. 

Or maybe my mother found me, in the corner of my heart that I share with her. Reaching out to someone who can't find the words but doesn't need to. Meeting at a place more important than spoken language. A place that is love, simple and pure. 

Thanks, mom, for teaching me a great lesson. If I ever end up needing to be in a nursing home, I know you will be there with me through the kindness of others. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Everybody hurts. But hold on.

"Abuse is abuse." That's what my shrink said 20 years ago when I was getting panic attacks so bad that I was afraid go to work or leave my house.

I was in my mid-30s. Everything was going great. My life was amazingly wonderful. Great marriage, great job, great friends, travelling and enjoying life. Why did this hit me now? What could possibly make me so afraid that I was unable to function?

Things got so bad that I had no choice but to go to a psychologist. I dreaded telling my story. I had pushed it down into my gut for so long. I feared telling someone about it for fear it would consume me.

And it did for a while. I remember getting into my car and playing REM's Everybody Hurts on the way home from the shrink. Sobbing into my steering wheel, barely able to see through the tears as I drove in rush hour traffic. But when I got to the end of the song where Michael Stipe sings, "Everybody hurts sometimes/So, hold on, hold on...", I felt better. I would hold on and get through this. 

Verbal and emotional abuse, though it doesn't leave a scar that you can point to as proof of your pain, is no less real or painful. That's the first thing I learned from Peggy, my psychologist who listened to my story and held my pain and fear with me for 50 minutes each week. 

I got through this emotionally exhausting three years of my life feeling stronger every day. I was worth more than the words that were spit out at me by the abuser in my life. I deserved to be treated with the respect I earned. 

I learned that love doesn't come with a jagged edge if it truly is love. 

Every year in the high school youth group I facilitate at my church, I spend a Sunday morning exploring the topic of bullying. It usually centers around school-related bullying but I think this year we'll talk about bullying by people who say they care about you.

It happens in families and with those who call themselves friends. People can tell you they love you while still treating you like you are the reason for their own vile souls. 

Abuse is abuse. All it takes to remove its power is for someone to name it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Ever since search engines were invented, I've searched (now "googled") every question I've ever had. "What does a poison ivy rash look like?" "Why did The Ohio Players break up?" "Who invented meringue?" 

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's not knowing the answer to a question. That kind of stuff used to keep me up at night as I searched the memory banks of my brain. And once I thought I had the answer, there was no way to verify it quickly. 

I used to go to libraries and search books there so I could get a missing factoid out of my head once and for all. Searching a library in the old days meant sifting through little cards, writing down questionable cross-referenced book titles and locations, then searching the stacks for what you hoped was the book that held the magic answer. Oftentimes, it did not. Or it was checked out. Or it was only a step in a long feather-strewn goose chase.

One of the reasons I turned into a decent business systems analyst years ago was this constant quest for answers. And not just the answers, but the quest for relevant, probing questions as well. Search engines, then, became my best cyber friends.

But there are some things that Google cannot answer. 

I'm at the point in my life where things are getting more complicated. Family members' health issues, uncertainty about retirement and my own aging, and complicated relationships are just a few of those things. I thought life would get simpler as I became solidly entrenched in mid-life but that doesn't seem to be happening. The wisdom I gained in the past 50ish years did not prepare me for some of life's current challenges.

There are nights when I can't get myself off the couch and into bed because I want a little space in my head to think things through. Oftentimes, I find myself reaching for the MacBook and turning my gaze to the empty Google search box.

My cursor goes there and blinks at me as if to taunt me. "Go ahead. Try to google that one!" And I try. Entering words and phrases that yield some information. Yet information is not the same as answers.

I want to put my hands and head around a solid, proven approach to whatever personal mess I'm tangled up in. I sometimes get frustrated with my lack of answers on the web, trying even more to find the right words that will yield breadcrumbs leading my way out of the mid-life woods. I found myself getting angry that Google couldn't tell me when the pancreatic cancer would finally take my mother from me.

One of the Kathyisms I've got stored in my repertoire is, "You can't know everything." I've said that to others who have searched in vain for answers to life's elusive spiritual questions. But I have a hard time following my own words of wisdom.

In a world that has turned answers into a billion-dollar product, the priceless answers are nowhere to be found.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Eddie Van Mozart

Music is a fairly common theme on this blog. It was huge to my mother and she passed that down to her kids. Old musicals, piano lessons, guitar lessons, stereo always on while she dusted. It is so huge to me now that no matter how loud it is in whatever venue I'm at or how wonderful the conversation is that I'm involved in, I always hear the music over anything else.

Ron and I have a zillion CDs, tapes and albums. We know all of the songs and most of the words. Music speaks to us in a way it does to countless others but not everyone is as connected to the meaning of music as we are.

This week, I brought up Van Halen to Ron and we reminisced about the band. Ron dug up the Greatest Hits CD for me and I've been listening to it all week in the car.

The first half of the CD is the Diamond Dave days and the second half is mostly Sammy. There's a constant dialogue among Van Halen fans about what version of the band was better. It seems the vast majority likes the cheeky days with David Lee Roth.

Dave was and is a bit of a musical and social clown. He wore the front man costume with great ease. He is very very bright and articulate during interviews but is a complete nut on stage and in the popular videos from the 1984 album that kept them in heavy rotation on MTV (when MTV actually played videos.)

Personally, I like both versions of Van Halen equally. The band changed when Dave left to start a solo career (which didn't last long) and Sammy Hagar came on board. I liked Hagar and thought he'd be a different but great addition to the band.

While listening to the band's greatest hits it became clear just how much better musically the band became when Sammy came on board. Lyrically the songs ditched the girl-chasing themes and started talking more about true love and other important things in life.

Musically Eddie's keyboard work became almost as important as his guitar god status. The melodies were more complex, the harmonies were richer, the mixing became more robust. 

I've always thought the song Right Now was the best song Van Halen ever wrote and produced. In fact, upon listening to it a few times this week, I would like to say it is one of the best songs ever written.

The video won all major awards at the MTV video awards that year. Watch it once because it's great stuff. Then "watch" it again with your eyes close. You cannot adequately hear the musical creation while watching the video.

I found it interesting that Eddie Van Halen and then-wife Valerie Bertinelli named their son Wolfgang. Eddie is a huge Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fan (as am I) and I often think that Mozart would have been blaring Right Now in 1991 - the year that Wolfgang Van Halen was born, Right Now was released, and the music world marked the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death.

The song's opening is a simple yet fast-moving piano solo that winds its way through the song at different points. My favorite work by Mozart is his piano concertos. They are often very light-hearted pieces with great "hooks" and playful melodies.

There are those who will disagree with me, but I believe that some of my generation's music is on the same level as Mozart's concertos. 

Eddie, in his heydey, was the Mozart of the rock world. I wonder while I'm listening to Van Halen's songs again if 200 years from now another Amadeus will break onto the music scene and name his son Eddie. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

An open letter to Market Basket

Dear Market Basket owners,

I hear that you're opening a new and larger store in Westford soon. I really like your lower prices and friendly employees but must that come at the price of a poor shopping experience? Given that you have the opportunity to have a fresh start, I would like to make some suggestions.
  • Can you please tell your grocery managers that the absolute worst time to pull large wooden dollies out into your incredibly narrow aisles is Thursday afternoons and Fridays? These are the busiest shopping times during the work week and shoppers can't get around the dollies and the stock personnel.
  • Speaking of aisles, is it possible to have wide enough ones that allow two shopping carriages to pass with more than an inch between them? How about allowing for a couple of feet so that shoppers don't have to move other shoppers' carriages if they happen to leave said carriages in the middle of the aisle as they look for something on the shelf?
  • Is there a reason for the orange stickers that you instruct your cashiers to put on everything that isn't in a bag? I've never had anyone stop me on the way out to look for these stickers. It is an incredible waste of everyone's time and energy, and a sad waste of natural resources. How about dropping the practice to gain efficiency and contribute towards a greener planet?
  • And while I'm on the subject of bags, if I give your bagger six reusable shopping bags and ask him to keep the bags light, can you tell him not to jam everything into four bags with the heaviest items in one bag and the lightest stuff in the other three? I have to stand at my car in all types of weather and re-bag everything so I can lift my groceries into my trunk and carry them into my house.
  • I've heard from several cashiers that they are not allowed to have bottled water at their stations. Really? Why? I'm not liking what that says about your HR policies. Let's keep the "human" in Human Resources, shall we? I'd hate to stop shopping at your store like I did at Walmart because of employee treatment issues.
  • Since every other supermarket gives up to $200 for cashback on debits, do you think your $50 limit needs a competitive reality check?
  • This is a pet peeve but I still feel compelled to share it: Your in-store music is great but the guy who voices the recorded ads that punctuate it needs a better script. The "Hey, folks" and "Listen to this" lines do not make me feel like I'm being spoken to by something other than a recording. Do you think your customers are fooled by that? 
Thanks for letting me take the time to offer a shopper's perspective. I look forward to your new store and hope that some of these questions can be discussed by your staff at all of your stores.

Oh, and hey, folks! Listen to this! If anyone would like to add their own comments to this blog post, be my guest!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Perfect is overrated

Being perfect is such a lot of work. I've been trying to be perfect all my life and this weekend I learned that perfect's really not all it's cracked up to be.

Take, for example, the definition of perfect. Webster's has a few:

a) being entirely without fault or defect;
b) satisfying all requirements;
c) corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept;
d) faithfully reproducing the original;
e) legally valid

As far as a) goes, I've got a few defects. And I'm rather attached to them. I have a birthmark on my right arm that kids (being kids) tormented me about when I was in grade school. My aunt Muriel told me to tell those kids that a birthmark meant I was kissed by an angel and that pretty much ended that discussion.

When it comes to satisfying requirements (b), I gotta tell ya that John Mellencamp wrote The Authority Song with me in mind. I will meet requirements all day long until I bump up against one that makes no sense. I can only do sense. I'm an ENTJ (Myers-Briggs type) and that's how I'm wired.

If c) could tell me whose ideal I must correspond to, I think I might have something to say about that as well. See b) above.

And d) makes absolutely no sense to me. If it's a reproduction it is therefore not an original and can't possibly be perfect. And who says the original is perfect to begin with?

Legally valid? If it's listed way down at the bottom of the list, I'm thinking it's just asking to be ignored.

Nope. Perfect is not something I want to be. Too restrictive, too dependent on other people's ideas of perfection. 

Now "colorful". That's something I could do.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

After Brittany

Brit with one of her many "bunnies"
I believe in an after-life. There, I said it. It's not anything traditional like a heaven in the clouds. It's a feeling more than anything else.

Sitting on my couch today surfing the net, my nose woke up as I sensed a dog in the room. It was unmistakable - the familiar doggie smell of a wet mouth that just lapped up the water in the bowl; a whiff of dog fur that is due for a bath.

My dog Brittany has been gone for a year and a half now. She was the best dog on the planet. And I told her that every day. 

She was my constant companion, even in the shower. She didn't like closed doors between us so I would leave the bathroom door partly open so she could come in when she wanted to as I showered.

I'd be in the shower lost in my to-do list for the day and I'd hear the familiar slamming of the door against the bathroom wall. Within seconds, I would look to the end of the shower and see a brown and white nose poking itself around the shower curtain. That was it. Just a nose.

That nose would disappear in a matter of seconds and I would finish my shower. Brit never needed to see me to know I was there. She connected with me using all of her senses.

It's lonely all day in my house without my forever pal. Sometimes I miss her more than I do my own mother. We had a great run, me and Brit. But like all great things, it ended too soon.

People ask me when Ron and I will get another dog. I often say that I'm not ready. That it's too much money and work and, ultimately, sadness. My life is focused on caring for an elderly parent now and I'm sort of caretaker-ed out.

The truth though, buried deep beneath the credit card statement and protestations, is that the only dog I want is Brit. She's here still and this is her home. 

Like Brit, I don't need to see her to know she is here. And I'd rather live with her spirit, full and strong, than diminish it with another's scent.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Our common experience

Once in a while I splurge on myself and get a spa pedicure. I only do this in the summer since I live in cowboy boots the rest of the year and no one sees my feet in public.

There's a place in nearby Chelmsford where I've been going for the past year. I like the nail technicians there and the owner is very customer-oriented.

Every time I go I get looks from other women who are having their nails done. At first I thought it was because I talk too loud while chatting with the nail tech over running water. Maybe people go there to relax and tune-out and I'm just a major disruption.

But there was something else that became more noticeable in my time there. No one but me (and my friend Jan who came with me once) spoke to the nail techs who were working on their feet and legs.

The nail techs and owner are Cambodian. Some speak better English than others. And although I don't think there is prejudice involved (though I am a bit of a Polyanna in that regard) I think people are uncomfortable communicating with those who don't speak English as their primary language.

The nail techs try to start conversations with their customers but the customers don't seem comfortable carrying on those conversations past the initial answer. 

The tech I had last week was a bright and ambitious young college student named Lin. We talked about school, learning English, her family, her dreams. We laughed a lot even though I had to ask her to repeat a sentence a few times because I wasn't understanding her. She was more than happy to speak again slowly and our conversation continued.

At one point, she spoke to her boss in their native language but immediately told me what they said and stated that she really doesn't like doing that in front of people who don't speak the language. It was incredibly insightful and respectful. I was so impressed with her and her desire to start her own business when she graduates.

The entire time I was there (40 minutes) I did not see one other customer even attempt to have a conversation with the person at the end of their feet. Noses were buried in magazines and cellphones.  

I wondered how you could have another human doing something so personal as nail techs do and not reach out in a human way. It was almost like the woman at the end of their feet was a non-being. 

Was it all about being uncomfortable as I suspected? If so, I hope that someday they make the effort to do the difficult thing and engage in conversation. 

I left Lin a great tip but that shouldn't be the only thing she goes home with. I hope others who were there stretch themselves next time and work through their inhibitions. 

How else are we to create a sense of dignity and commonality in the melting pot that is America?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My mother's garden

The last rose of summer in last year's garden
Tomorrow is the 4th of July. I've spent it at cookouts at family member's homes for 53 years straight. This year, Ron and I are claiming the day for ourselves and doing whatever the heck we want.

Chelmsford, MA (the next town over) has a big party on the Common the night before and the day of the 4th. Lots of vendors, bands, a parade, and friends to bump into. Every year we work the July 4th breakfast at our church which sits in the middle of the Common. This year, we're taking a break.

Ron and I just got home from the Common after talking to several folks at the non-profit booths including the champion of the Chelmsford High Alumni Association, George Simonian.

George was friends with my grandfather who taught and coached at CHS for many years. My grandfather is a bit of a legend 'round these parts and I'm proud of that. 

What makes me happy about talking to George is the connection to my past and the Nolan name in local lore. It's one of the reasons I include my maiden name in my signature. 

My husband and George are two peas in a pod. They both love to help youth (my husband is on the Nashoba Valley Technical School school committee) and are passionate about helping youth be the best they can be and preparing them for the future - because the kids are the future.

Standing there and watching the two of them speak with enthusiasm and affection is one thing I love about the 4th. My grandfather is there somewhere in that conversation with one hand on George's shoulder, and one hand on Ron's nodding his head in approval. I wish Ron and my grandfather had met. They would have been fast friends.

When Ron and I got home tonight, I headed outside to check on my flowers. I floated between garden areas with my watering can and an eye for deadheading flowers past their prime.

It struck me that my flower visits are a dichotomy. In one hand I hold the means by which flowers live and grow; in the other hand is the instrument by which the blooms past their time are laid to rest.

Out with the old, in with the new. That's what my mom used to say. She unceremoniously threw out obsolete items and welcomed all that was new and vibrant. And when someone she loved died, she spent a lot of energy focusing on only the good times.

As I walk in the dichotomy of my flower beds, I think of how all of nature prepares us for the inevitable flow of life. As one bloom fades, another readies itself to take its place. 

My grandfather passed this to George and George passed it to my husband. My mom's bloom faded into mine and I, in turn, will fade into the blossom of the next generation. 

But that's only if I do it right. If my George finds a Ron the way my mom found me. My mom prepared me for all of it. To be the bloom that replaces hers. To hold both the past and the present in the garden of my life. To spend my energy on what grows and let go of what dies. 

This is my mother's garden.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Our hands, our future

There's a simple, almost primal joy in creating something by hand. As technology takes our hands and applies them to a keyboard-only world, I feel that I am rebelling by doing more handwork. 

I've talked about my hand-piecing, hand-quilting craft before on this blog. But it's really much deeper than just the Zen quality I gain from putting needle and thread to fabric.

As you become more familiar with a task, you stop thinking. Your body - often your hands - take over. While piecing and quilting I find myself sometimes looking down at my hands in wonder. 

How did I get to the point where my hands work so quickly to thread a needle, move two pieces of fabric together almost without effort into the correct position, and even recover from a mis-stich so effortlessly?

I get that same feeling when I play guitar. A couple of weeks ago I was teaching a friend (with only two formal lessons under her belt) to play some basic chords. When did I become such an expert? How did my hands become so familiar with the neck of a guitar?

I know you'll say that it's just a matter of repetition but it seems more than that. I think intuition plays a big part. Creating things with our hands is as true to our nature as mammals as we can get. Yet, we are quick to delegate "manual labor" to others. Handwork is quickly becoming a blue-collar specialty.

When I was a kid, my dad and his friends used to get together on Saturday mornings and build dormers on each others' houses. Then they moved on to picture windows. No one ever hired a carpenter unless it was a job outside of their common-sense realm like building a house from scratch.

Where has that trust in our own sense and our own hands gone? 

When my friend Lynne was teaching me how to quilt a few years ago, I was (and still am) adamant that I would make my quilts entirely by hand. I wouldn't have it any other way. No machine ever touches my quilts.

There are people who look at me like I'm insane when I tell them that. But their looks of confusion quickly turn to wonder. My grandmother made quilts by hand but no one looked on in wonder then. It was a standard answer because most people didn't have the money to buy fancy sewing machines and certainly never considered outsourcing the final quilting to a quilt shop as is often done today.

So how do we capitalize on that sense of wonder and inspire others to get back to the basics? 

I don't know anyone under the age of 50 who quilts, knits or sews. Will texting replace the beautiful handwork skills we've inherited from our ancestors? Will we begin giving up life-sustaining and creative skills like cooking and baking and delegate them to a trained few? 

I worry about these things as I see computer skills become more and more important in school curriculum and social interactions. And then I think: Who can I pass this wonder down to?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Should vs. want

I've been working at finding some space for my writing. Not physical but mental. My world lately is consumed by thoughts and concerns about caring for an elderly parent. I've noticed that space in my brain for more ethereal ideas is easily taken over by the need to worry about things over which I have no control.

Nobody really wants to worry. It's compulsive behavior. And so often we feel trapped and ultimately defined by our compulsions. "If I'm not a worrier, than what am I?" 

For the last few days I've been contemplating the power of the spirit. To me, no brain - not even one as perfect as Einstein's - can hold a candle to our intuition and inner voice. I would use the term "soul" but so many people go straight to traditional religion when they hear it and that's not where I want to lead you.

My friend Tiffany said to me recently that we use the word "should" too often in our language. "I should really get my housework done." "I'd like to spend some time with friends but I should get to work on my volunteer responsibilities."

Tiffany suggests that a shift to the word "want" changes not just the sentence but our attitudes. I do want to have a clean house and give back with my volunteerism. So, why do I use the word "should" all the time?

When it comes to writing, which is how I get in touch with my inner voice, I don't want to get in the habit of using the S word. I truly enjoy finding the pearl that lies within a moment. And I enjoy thinking about the wisdom that each of us gains as we go through life. Mostly I love putting words around that wisdom and feel that this is the one true gift I have to offer during my time on this planet.

I'm finding space and, at the same time, finding me again. I should and will do a lot of things but I want to stop being a slave to my compulsions. Worrying about the next thing I will have to do. I will replace the worry space with the want space. 

What will you put in your want space?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Glads for mom

A lot of my family's time this week is being spent remembering my mom and also, I think, dreading tomorrow which marks one year since she passed. 

I believe that everyone's essence is in their personalities not their bodies. So for me, I feel like today is more of the anniversary I've been dreading since the day before she died was the last time we had a conversation.

Last week I was out shopping and came upon a bin filled with different colored gladiolus bulbs. I was struck by them since that was my mother's favorite perennial. My great aunt and uncle were really into glads (as mom always called them), so much so that they had huge gladiolus gardens around their house.

Mom just fell in love with the flowers and so they would invite her over to pick as many as she wanted to bring home. She loved all varieties of colors and would make a beautiful arrangement with them, admiring them as long as they lasted in their vase. Mom looked forward to gladiolus season every year and could never drive by them without commenting on their beauty.

As I stood in the store I reminded myself that I've never had luck with bulbs in my yard. I think the moles use them as late-night snacks since I lose more every year. But with glads you dig them up every fall and replant them in the spring. So maybe this would work.

I picked out a variety of colors and brought the bulbs home. This week I will find the perfect spot for them and plant them in my yard. 

I will honor her memory as I plant them, enjoy their beauty when their season comes, and return them to rest in the winter. I'll remind myself that a great love is always there. Sometimes it blossoms and sometimes it sleeps. But it never really dies.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I got the music in me

I had a follow-up appointment with the shoulder surgeon yesterday and he was trying to get a feel for whether I was returning to my previous activities. 

Doc: Do you play golf?
Me: No, I play guitar.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a folk star. Most kids probably dream of being rock stars, but not me. 

I wasn't inspired to play and sing because of the Beatles like a lot of people in my generation. I was inspired by John Denver and his acoustic guitar. He also sang in my key making it easy for me to sing along. 

When I was young, my mother insisted I take piano lessons. We all did, though none of us kept it up. The lessons helped me understand more about music and music composition and for that I was grateful.

But it was hard to play piano in the living room when everyone was watching tv. And when I got into my teens, I wanted to be in my room by myself more anyway. So the guitar was also a great solution to my music yearnings while still giving me the space I needed.

My folks gave me a "starter" guitar for Christmas when I was 16. Next to my engagement ring 12 years later, it was the best gift ever. I immediately signed up for guitar lessons at the Andover YMCA. 

We learned how to strum in different rhythms and finger pick. The instructor also taught us all the major chords we would find in most songs. I played and played until my finger tips bled. But once I got the callouses going, the pain went away and I was able to focus on switching quickly between chords and then switching without having to look at my fingers. 

I got a bunch of songbooks (John Denver's was, of course, first on the list) and played songs until I knew them without looking at the music. My guitar came with me to college where I would sit on "the quad" and play and sing for my friends. It also came with me to the beach in the summer when the gang would build a fire in the dunes at night and sing Beatles songs.

Because I was an English major, I started writing poetry and then putting the poetry to music. I wrote some pretty good songs and a friend asked me to record them in his basement studio. Friends added background harmony and instruments. They were pretty sappy songs but I still think they were quite good.

After I was married, I joined the church folk choir where the choir director liked my stuff and had me do quite a bit of playing and singing. She and I also did a St. Paddy's Day gig where I learned traditional Irish folk songs that I perform today.

For many years, I got too busy to take time at night to play - and sing. I actually like to play mostly so that I can sing along. Singing is a bigger love of mine than guitar. Strangely, I sing better while playing, probably because I'm so focused on playing the correct chords that I can relax and not over-think the vocals.

These days I play and sing in church at our circle worship services at night, often with my friend Will on piano and voice (see video above).

Music brings so much joy and, when needed, comfort to others that it's hard to imagine my life without it. When I was in a chorale that went to nursing homes on Saturdays, I saw just how much music lifts us up and takes us back to times of great emotion - happy or sad. No matter how long ago those times happened.

My guitar playing might not be Hendrix-like and my voice certainly isn't as good as Denver's but it brings me a lot of happiness. And when someone asks what I play, I still get a thrill out of answering, "Guitar."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Time for teens

Me and one of "my" kids
There are times in my life when I look at what I'm doing and think, "How in the hell did I get here?" Today was one of those times.

I've mentioned before on this blog that I lead the church youth group. Kids in the group are from grades 9 through 12. 

When I was in high school, I had zero sense of what "cool" was. When I thought I was doing something hip (something I worked at full-time) it was actually quite stupid and goofy. I was made fun of - or worse, ignored - by my peers for most of my teen years. It all changed in college, but high school was a living hell for me.

Ever since then I never knew how to talk to teens. I sort of reverted back to my old goofy self and stumbled over my words. Feeling again like I was that clueless teen trying not to be ignored or laughed at.

Leading this group has changed my perspective on what it is to be a teen. And I know now that I really was a typical teen. The only difference was I didn't wear the mask as well as the others. 

Spending Sunday mornings and some Sunday evenings mentoring teens has helped me resolve the anguish I had for all those earlier years. I finally feel like I can be myself around a group that, although no longer my peers, are the very age group with whom I struggled the most. 

Sounds crazy. Here I am in my early 50s and I'm just now feeling like I can put my teen angst behind me.

I look at the youth I work with - some of whom I have become very close to - and feel this huge burden lifted. Like it finally came full circle for me.

And when I sat with these amazing teens today, asking them some of the tough, soul-searching questions that no one asked me at that age, I feel like there was a reason for my square-peg status as a teen. 

How could I understand now just how hard it was to be a teen if it had been easy? How could I offer a knowing hug, an empathic ear, and a like war story if I had been one of those teens who wore their manufactured confidence like a shield? 

I tell the kids all the time that I get more out of my time with them than they do and that they will never know just now much sharing this time in their lives means to me.

Maybe they understand, maybe not. Maybe some of them will get to be 53, connect with teens in a meaningful way, say, "How in the hell did I get here?", and think of me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Well alright then

I attended the Tenebrae Service at my church on Thursday night. This service isn’t the cheeriest of services because it reflects on the death of Jesus which precedes the celebration of rebirth that is Easter. 
People have asked me why the service is so important to me when it is such a “downer.” The answer is not as simple as I’d like but I think it has something to do with my philosophy on life.
There’s a scene in the movie Oklahoma when the main characters’ wedding night is marred by a murder. Wise Aunt Eller tells her heartbroken newlywed niece that as you age you come to an understanding that you’ve got to look at life as a complete picture. To quote Aunt Eller: “You gotta look at the good on one side and the bad on the other and say, ‘Well alright then, to BOTH of them.’”

That quote has gotten me through some pretty serious heartache in my life. I accept that when things are going great, they won’t always stay that way. But when things are not going well, I remember THAT will change too. 
Easter seems like the perfect time to connect with that truth. When winter is over and spring has arrived. When the ground softens and reveals its treasures - hidden, just beneath the long-frozen surface.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Family and fences

Tonight I went out to dinner with my cousin on my mother's side. She lost her mom, my Aunt Peggy, not long before I lost my mom. 

Cousin Jackie was amazing to my mom when mom was dying. She sent her a card daily for a very long time. Her cards were funny and chatty and just what my mom needed.

Mom always commented that one of the greatest joys at the end of her life was her relationship with her niece. Because she didn't have one for most of her life.

The Powers Girls
My mom and her siblings had drifted into two sides early on. One side was closer to my grandmother; the other to my grandfather. Jackie's mom and my mom were on opposite sides of this game for most of their adult lives. Disagreements between the siblings—and later their spousesescalated hard feelings and the lines were drawn.

That affected not only the siblings relationships with each other, but their kids relationships with their cousins. Typical family stuff. But I remained loyal to the sides my parents had chosen and that was that.

My relationship with my aunt Peggy's kids started to open up more as we aged but was far from anything resembling friendship. Until recently.

My mom and Peggy (along with their sister, Muriel) started to find middle ground later in life. I was so happy for that since I didn't want my mom to end her life with regrets.

As the sisters passed away, their kids were left with the realization that we never had a chance to be friends. 

My cousin Jackie and I bonded as my mom failed. I found that I had a connection with her that was meaningful and helpful. She had lost her mom a couple of years before and knew what I was going through. I found a great comfort in our shared DNA even though we did not have shared childhoods. 

We met for dinner tonight. Something we swore we would do more often. We found ourselves sharing the good and the bad of our pasts, breaking down the walls of a family feud where negatives were hidden and only positives were played. 

I felt myself freed from the constraints of family secrets. I could be honest and not feel that I was obligated to keep up a facade created by years of defensive posturing. And to prove what? That one side of the family was right and the other wrong?

Right, wrong. Better, best. All to prove one is loved more than another. 

Tonight I felt that Jackie and I took decades worth of fences our parents built and continued the work our mothers started several years ago. Our moms mended those fences; their daughters ripped them out of the ground, threw them on a pile, and lit them on fire. 

These fences were never ours yet they kept us apart for so long. Tonight I learned that the only baggage I should carry is my own. 

As I drove away from the restaurant I felt like I had peeled off all the layers of side-choosing that my mom lived with for years. Layers that weighed me down and kept me from being honest. What a gift to find a friend who was there all along. A friend who had to carry the hurt of her parents for fear of being disloyal. Just like me.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What we carry with us

Today I finally went for the polarity therapy session that I've needed. While there, my mind started to wander (as always). I started thinking about everything I carry with me in my purse. It's quite heavy and I continually receive comments about what the heck could be in there. I always respond that I have my whole life with me.

But today as I mentally began to empty my purse and investigate its contents, I realized I really do carry my whole life. And what does that say about me?

My wallet makes up the majority of the weight of my purse. Besides money and bank cards (mine and my dad's), I have a lot of business cards. Not just from people I've met and professionals I work with, but also the cards of friends. I like to help my friends network so whenever I hear a need being voiced, I rifle through my stack of cards and hand one out along with a hefty endorsement.

Also in my wallet are remembrance cards from friends and family who have passed. And old ticket stubs from concerts I've enjoyed. There's a section for pictures there too. I carry wallet-sized school pictures of my nieces and nephews so I can have friends put names to faces when I brag about them.

Since you never know what sort of situation you could end up in outside of your home, I carry travel-sized emergency supplies that would make a girl scout or a Walgreens manager proud. Hand cream, floss, anti-bacterial lotion, lip balm, eye drops, lint brush (it's small, more like a brushette), tissues (the ones my friend Moira gave me that are red and say "Keep Calm and Carry On", more an inspirational item than something I use for my nose, but still....), tape measure (don't laugh, I use this a lot, and so do others when we're out), aspirin, mini hair brush, comb. 

The inside pocket of my purse has my own business cards, note paper, tiny address book, mirror, and rocks. Yes, rocks. Special rocks. The kind a sweetheart like my friend Chris would have given you 8 years ago when he returned from a vacation by the sea to let you know that he thought of you when he was there and wanted to bring a piece of it back for you.

When I went through my mental inventory, I realized that I do carry my entire life with me. Not just in my purse but in my person. I have a hard time letting go of things and moving unencumbered in the world. I say it's who I am. My personality; my character. 

My birthday was yesterday, the first one without my mom. I had a very happy, fun day but did take some time to think about what my birthday was like when she was here. 

Mom didn't carry much in her purse. It was light and open, just like her. She lived her life very much in the present. No baggage.

So what's to be lost by losing the mini-CVS in my purse? Lint on my clothes, dry hands, and a hair or two out of place. Not so bad.

Maybe it's time I start letting go of the tangible evidences of my life, worrying always that I'll need something that I don't have but could if I had only been prepared. 

Because the things you carry around that matter are not tangible. Those concert tickets and old business cards are not replacements for the memories stored in my head. 

And the rocks. Carried with me for 8 years because I fear that, by taking them out, I am dishonoring a gesture of true friendship. A friendship that is stronger than those rocks, and deeper than any ocean they could lie beside. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

When the corn chips scream

I've been overweight for 47 of my 52 years. I've been a faithful follower of Diet Workshop and Weight Watchers in the past (the 5 years I was not overweight was thanks to WW and my speedier metabolism 20 years ago). 

Like most women, I compare myself to women who are not overweight and feel even more overweight than I already am. Much has been written about women's self-image and the media's Photoshopped, airbrushed marketing schemes.

I have to tell you that those pictures don't make me feel bad at all. Even if they aren't modified, I figure that if I had a job where looks were all that mattered, I'd spend a ton of time making sure I looked as good as I could too. 

Mostly I compare myself to where I was at in my 30s - the 5-year time span when I turned heads. I was blessed with a Marilyn Monroe figure and I wonder now what Marilyn would have looked like in her 50s. She wasn't always a size 8. For quite a while, she was a size 14 and was still considered sexy. I wonder if she would be considered sexy by today's standards.

Because of my CFS, I do watch what I eat. Too many white carbs make me overly tired as does refined sugar. Since I'm a vegetarian, I eat pretty well. Whole grains, steamed veggies, organic olive oil, avocados, and fresh fruit yogurt smoothies comprise a big chunk of my daily diet. But that's when I'm home and cooking for myself.

Once I'm out in temptation land, however, it's another story. When the ice cream stands are open, I go once a week. At a church pot luck dinner, I load up with the bad carbs and desserts. Since I don't have those things at home, I feel I can "splurge." And splurge I do. 

This past Sunday, I talked to the high school group about balance. Yin and Yang. The discussion was more about balancing personalities and strengths in a group environment than the Taoist concept itself. A group needs leaders, but it also needs those who can take direction. Group members need to be flexible, but not so flexible that no decisions are ever made. 

I'm a big fan of middle ground. Maybe because I'm the middle child in my family. Maybe because, even though I don't shy away from conflict, I don't enjoy it when it gets too emotional.

I thought about that balance when I was out grocery shopping today. It always surprises me that I have the greatest ideas when I'm shopping for food. (Note to self: Need more analysis here.)

I stocked up my cart with fruits, veggies, yogurt, meat (for Ron), spring water, spaghetti sauce, and soup. On my way to the check out counters, I passed a strategically placed display of all kinds of snack-sized chips. I walk past it every week and tune out the call to buy crap. 

Today, I decided that balance would win and my unbalanced view of my own self-image would lose. For this one time when the barbeque corn chips screamed out my name, I listened.

Keeping perspective is something I've always worked at and I think, most of the time, I keep it pretty well. When it comes to my weight, I lose my perspective. Maybe those corn chips will serve as a reminder to stop beating myself up all the time and I will remember that there is a place for the occasional junk in my diet. 

Maybe I'll be Marilyn Monroe at size 14 and remember that it's not what you weigh that makes you beautiful, but how comfortable you are in your weight. 

And if that doesn't work, I'll go out for ice cream - in May.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Quilt again, quilt again, stitchety stitch

I tend to go through phases where I'm passionate about something but then get bored once I've mastered it and immediately start looking for a new challenge. I've done that with pastimes and careers. 

When I stopped quilting over a year ago, I figured that was it. I hadn't quilted since my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August of 2010. I started a quilt around that time and just lost interest with all of it when mom was sick.

My latest project
Last week, I picked up my quilting supplies again and have been hand-piecing. A job that most quilters do by machine these days since it's rather arduous and tedious. I also quilt the entire project by hand.

I refer to all this handwork as Zen quilting. It's amazing how much either deep thinking or lack of thinking I can do when sitting under my quilting lamp while making larger and larger callouses on my fingers.

A lot has been going on in my life that I am not ready to share here and it is in quilting that I'm finding an island in the storm. And all I need on that island is needle, thread, and fabric. Okay, and some pins and a straight chair, too.

I love to sit with Ron as he reads or watches a game. I look up from my quilt and ask the occasional Bruins question or give him an update of how many more blocks I have left to do (at the moment, tons. It's a queen-sized quilt.) It makes me think of Little House on the Prairie and how sewing and quilting was not just a pastime but a requirement. How lazy we've become. And so disconnected from the process of creating what we need.

Quilting has become a bit of a savior to me now. I look forward to my own personal nightly quilting bee. Choosing fabric, pinning, sewing. Letting my mind do whatever it wants to do while still focusing on the task at hand. 

It reminds me of wonderful memories of quilts past. The one I made for nephew Toby two years ago that he still talks about today. The quilt I made with a friend as both an outlet for the sadness from a mutual friend's cancer diagnosis, and the resulting product that now travels to comfort those in hospitals - my mother included.

This quilt will likely take me two years to complete. I won't give this one away. It will keep me and Ron warm while we sleep. It will hold me as I search for my mom in my dreams. It will remind me that you can make sense of things that seem random and disconnected, and create something that is whole.