Sunday Morning ~ White Christmas

Sunday Morning ~ White Christmas

December 16, 2018

Hi Everyone,

I live in a place that is mostly white: white skin, white snow, white lights on the houses at Christmas. We knew this before we moved here; there is little racial diversity in Maine, though since 1989 it’s slowly changing. There is plenty of socio-economic diversity, but racially, it’s quite white. On this island the racial diversity comes mostly from international scientists at the research lab. We took this into consideration before we moved here. We wanted our children to understand what it is like to be a minority, so after we bought our land but before building our house we went off to live and work in Samoa for two years. We wanted the kids to attend the local school a) because it was free and b) we thought it would be a good cross cultural experience. We were firm in this belief, though it became difficult when our oldest said he was scared and didn’t want to go to school. After being reassured he wasn’t being hurt (at least physically) we forced him to work it out, somehow believing he would have more compassion for kids who were being discriminated against. Who knows if this was the right thing to do, but it is the decision we made at the time. It was hard for our kids to fit in because they were small (Samoans are large people), white, and didn’t speak the language. I didn’t feel super welcome either when nurses would talk in Samoan, say my name, then all burst out laughing. The kids all managed to find their niche and did well, but years later we overheard them telling a guest who’d also lived in Samoa how difficult it was for them in school. They were threatened, hit, and mocked. They said they never told us about it because we were so sure it was a good experience for them. They didn’t want to burst our little bubbles. I wonder what decision I’d make now, knowing all this. Give up the vacation and send them to the private school? Can’t go back and do it over.

I grew up in a little mill town in Massachusetts, also mostly white: skin, snow, and first communion dresses. I think there was even less diversity there as almost everyone I knew was Catholic. There were protestants in town, of course, and I know of maybe three Jewish families. Only one family was African American. But I don’t remember any slurs or acts of discrimination. Were they present but I didn’t see it? Our neighbor, Bernie, was Jewish. I adored him. He was funny and generous and loved kids. We walked with him, we sat on his front step while he did card tricks and told stories. He taught us songs. His Jewishness was a curiosity to me, nothing else.

After writing last week about being afraid of my grandmother, I’ve been thinking about this. What was it I was afraid of? She didn’t speak English? My mother’s mother spoke French and she was totally senile with her clothes on backwards and rotting food in the refrigerator. But I wasn’t afraid of her! She smiled sort of idiotically as my mother changed her clothes and threw out all the rotten food, but that wasn’t a bad memory. Did I pick up on my mother’s casual attitude? 

I’m thinking of this now because a friend’s daughter had a bad experience this week because of the color of her skin. I think of the boy in my class who had polio and walked with heavy metal braces. He often sat alone at lunchtime. I never thought to go sit with him or to reach out in any way. I wonder what he told his mother about his day at school. I find myself wanting to find him and apologize. I wonder how all the rejection he endured shaped his life. I looked at everyone in church today to see what their skin looked like as they went to communion. There was a little diversity, Asian, and Jamaican. I wondered if they felt as welcome there as I do. I hope so, but I really don’t know. I wonder what a child in grade school has experienced that she would tell another they can’t participate because their skin is brown. What cascade of events do our actions trigger? 

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Angels

Sunday Morning ~ Angels

December 9, 2018

Hi Everyone,

My grandmother’s house was dark and cluttered. My father was the only one in the family who moved away and we‘d visit a few times each year. The house always spooked me. I only wanted to go to my cousin Janice’s, who had a bright new house on a sunny street across town, and we’d get there eventually, but when Nana was alive, hers was usually the first stop. My siblings and I would stand outside Nana’s house and argue about who would go in first. It smelled bad inside and I wanted to hold my nose the whole time. I remember pushing my brother and saying, “You go in. I went first last time!” My Nana didn’t speak English. She always wore (what I thought was) the same black dress. She wore a little hair net that made her head look like it was on an ancient doll, still in the packaging. We were afraid of her, or at least I was. If we moved anything in her house she’d yell at us in Italian. Maybe she wasn’t yelling, but I thought she was. We’d line up and she’d give us a hug and we’d go sit in the dark living room to look at Italian magazines. There was a section that had two identical-looking drawings, and the challenge was to find the twenty-one (or was it twelve?) differences between the two. It was the only thing I liked about going there. As we kids sat there looking for things that didn’t match, we’d hear all this Italian coming from the kitchen, animated and angry sounding to my little ears. My mother (who was not Italian) must have just sat there smiling. I never heard her speak. In summer months, we’d be given empty kleenex boxes and sent out back where there were huge raspberry patches beside a grape arbor. We’d fill the boxes with raspberries to eat on the way home. Beyond that was a river, but we never ventured there. I don’t remember being warned to stay away, but I don’t remember being tempted to go near it, either. GE was upstream; it smelled bad.

I haven’t been to Pittsfield in years, but a month ago, my first cousin Johnny died after a long and very unfair battle with dementia. My aunt Gene, his mother, had the same fate. Johnny, who’s  gone by “John” for many decades, lived four houses down from my Uncle Aldo and Aunt Gene’s house where he grew up. We didn’t make it to Johnny’s funeral. He was 73 years old––– my generation, but older than me. His dad was the oldest, my dad the youngest; seventeen years between them. It set us apart a bit. I revered Johnny and his brother Tom (my godfather). Tom was handsome, debonair, and might as well have been a movie star. Johnny was more in the cute category: impish, funny, and fun. He always made me laugh, always eager to help, always fixing things.  

Gone for a month now, we went to visit his widow and living saint, Bobbie. (What do you call the wife of your first cousin? Cousin in law?) We passed Uncle Aldo’s house and I was struck by how tiny it was. The backyard was smaller than my house! As a kid, I thought that yard was enormous! There was a huge (I thought) vegetable garden. The tomatoes were state-fair quality. It was lush and giving. I remember barbecues in that yard with about thirty people! As we looked at it yesterday I thought, how did we all fit? Maybe there weren’t that many people? But I’m sure there were! We had outside tables to sit on (I’m sure), and grills with charcoal briquettes, and I remember running around with my siblings and cousin Janice, whom I worshipped. She was only two years older than me, an only child, and to me, the older sister I always wanted. She was my mentor, heroine, and friend. We’d cry when we saw each other, and cry when we parted. The adults thought it was adorable. I thought it was tragic.  

Yesterday, we drove by Nana’s old house; it’s still in the family. We pulled into the driveway and I got a tinge of the old anxiety. I looked at the backyard and thought, “It can’t be this small! And it’s on a pond, not a river! I always thought that was a river! How did a grape arbor and raspberry field fit here? It’s tiny!” The house is red now, not the greenish yellow it used to be, but I recognize the asbestos shingles. The house is still a little tilted, which, I found somewhat comforting. At least that was how I remembered it. Tilted.  

As I ponder my inaccurate recollections, I wonder what else I’ve gotten wrong? Was Nana really that scary? Janice doesn’t think so. She loved her. She liked going to that house. I wonder if, on those long-ago visits, we’d gone to Janice’s house first, like I wanted to, and I went together with her to Nana’s, would I have had a totally different experience of that place? Would I have followed her lead? Learned a little Italian? I wonder now what I missed out on. My aunt, Janice’s mom, is still alive at 107 years old. She’s sharp as a tack, can remember everyone’s birthdate, and still surprises and amuses us with her poignant statements like: “It’s such a relief to have nice relatives.” It’s inspiring to be with her and part of her. We’re with her now in Vermont and both the company and setting are luscious. We never used to visit family at Christmas time. We stuck close to home and had the holiday with friends. It’s nice now to visit and see the season without frenzy and stress. Without frantic jobs and young children, it’s more reflective and peaceful. Discussing the topic of mortality today, Janice and I reminisced about when Nana died. We were still young, and when my father got the call, I remember feeling relief that we’d not have to go there again. Janice’s experience was very different. Her’s was more appropriately filled with grief for the loss of a loving matriarch who’d survived bringing her family across the ocean to a strange land, living in poverty and hardship, and loving her offspring in a way I never understood. 

I felt badly about missing Johnny’s funeral. I believe in those rituals and wanted to be there. But I’m grateful to have had this weekend as it was, connecting with those I love and admire in a quieter way. When someone passes, I imagine them as an angel, happily pain and anguish-free. And instead of seeing them once in awhile, I feel like they’re around whenever you need them. They understand. 

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ A Light in the Window

Sunday Morning ~ A Light in the Window

December 2, 2018

Hi Everyone,

Living with someone who has no history of religious tradition has been enlightening. It’s forced me to consider why my routines and traditions are important to me.

I’ll start with Christmas cards. I love making my cards. I love figuring out the design and the message. I love making each one and sending a personal note. It’s my annual creative challenge. I also love getting Christmas cards. It makes going to the mailbox fun!  That’s the gift. A nice message maintaining a long term connection. I anticipate the arrival of other home made cards, seeing what my creative friends have come up with. One year I made doves out of handmade paper and wrote a message on a little scroll, tied it with a bow and tied the ribbon around the neck of the dove. I thought people would know to take off the scroll and read the message. When I went to visit my mother, I saw she had the card hanging on her little tree with the scroll still in place. She asked me why I didn’t even sign the card? I told her I did! You were supposed to take the scroll off and the message is inside. Oh! She hadn’t realized that. I thought she was getting old and feeble. Never gave it another thought. Then this week a friend sent me a photo of that card as she was about to hang it on her tree as an ornament. The scroll was still attached. I wrote back, did you know to open the message? She said, “No! I thought it was an ornament! Should I do it now?” I told her to open it, and she sent the photo of the signed message written in 2001, the last Christmas we were an intact family. It was right after 9/11 and I wanted to send a message of peace. I wonder how many others didn’t open it? I feel bad about thinking my mother didn’t get it; she obviously wasn’t the only one. Poor design. Market research fail. 

Then I read about the history of Christmas cards, something I’d never thought about. I found it’s a fairly recent tradition, cleverly promoted around the time of the first post office in 1843 in England. Trying to boost business, Sir Henry Cole enlisted an artist friend to create a card to be mass produced and sent at Christmas. So much for my not wanting to promote the commercialism. But I am in favor of supporting the post office, which I still think is the best deal ever. That you can put this little stamp on something and it gets hand delivered to someone on the other side of the world. How can you complain about that?

Then there’s the advent wreath which I made yesterday. As George watched, he asked about the tradition. I couldn’t come up with a really good, articulate, historically accurate response. I thought about how many things we do just as a matter of routine, not knowing why. We never had advent wreaths in my house growing up, but there was always one at church. In 1988 my friend Betsy made us one as an early Christmas gift. Living in our tiny rental house in Connecticut with five little kids, we didn’t have many decorations around and it sweetly brightened our home for the month of December. Since then I’ve made one every year, but still never thought about where the tradition came from. So I looked it up. I’d always wondered why the candles were purple and pink instead of red, as would be more fitting with other decorations. It turns out the original candle colors were red and white. A Lutheran minister in Germany had made a wreath out of a cart wheel when he was working with poor children in Hamburgh. To count down the days until Christmas, they lit a red candle every day on the wheel, and a white one on Sundays. When the tradition caught on in the Catholic religion they made the candles coordinate with their advent vestments: purple for sacrifice and pink for joy. Fashion trend-setters that they were, that caught on. The circle represents infinite love. The evergreen, the hope of eternal life, and the candles represent the light of God coming through Jesus. The first of the four candles represents waiting in hope that the prophet’s words were true, that a savior was coming. The second candle represents faith as it was prophesied the birth would be in Bethlehem. The third (the pink one) represents joy and is lit on Gaudete Sunday the third week of advent (“gaudete” is “rejoice” in latin I just learned). This Joy comes from the shepherds who just heard from the angels that the savior is coming for them as well as the high and mighty. (I love this. I love the idea of angels actually speaking to the shepherds.) And the fourth candle is the peace candle, symbolizing the angels announcing that Jesus was coming to bring peace. I guess they didn’t specify exactly when that would happen. That would have helped in more realistic expectations as it’s going on three thousand years of waiting for that, but I still like to think of angels speaking when I light the candles, and I still pray for peace. I love what the wreath symbolizes and with all the discouragement about how we are behaving as humans, I’m happy to retreat into the darkening days holding on to this message. 

When I was in college, my friend Ron would have a Christmas mass at his house. Dear Fr. Casey would say the mass and we’d celebrate the season with one of the Chibaro’s fabulous parties afterward. One year Ron asked me to give a history of the Christmas tree as part of the mass. I was thrilled to have a major role, never one for the stage. I somehow researched where the Christmas Tree tradition came from. I must have gone to the library and looked it up in an encyclopedia. God, that seems so archaic. I probably opined about any information I couldn’t find, but I remember Fr. Casey afterward telling me how special my little presentation was. No one on earth could make you feel as loved and honored as that man. What a gift he was. So I was familiar with the story of the tree and evergreen swags, which started as a pagan tradition to keep away witches, evil spirits, and illness. Since the pagan rituals were at the solstice it coincided with the feast of Adam and Eve on December 24th when that story got popular, and trees were then adorned with apples. Those evolved into glass baubles as civilization prospered. Queen Victoria made the Christmas tree into the icon it is now in 1846 when she had a photo taken with her family around the tree in the palace. This was not all included in my original oration as wikipedia did not exist then, but the pagan ritual was in there. I recall saying something like “for me I find God in nature, so to bring nature inside enriches the season.” or something equally mawkish. 

And then the candles in the windows, which, I adore. It looks so warm and welcoming from the outside. This is another tradition we never did when I was growing up. I had terrible candle envy, as my best friend, Beth had candles in her windows. They were just so pretty. They looked so neat and tidy, orderly and clean. Welcoming. This is an Irish tradition emanating from the days when the British were doing their utmost to exterminate them. They were forbidden to practice Catholicism, but faithful as ever, went underground and persevered. The candles were signals for the priests to come on Christmas and give a blessing, or communion, or whatever he carried around at that time. Probably just the blessing was the safest since they were being executed for practicing at all. Wow, I understand now where the steadfastness comes from. The Irish immigrants brought the tradition here to America, for which I thank them. Would that it was still a message that all are welcome in this home; you’ll be safe here.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ Saying Grace

Sunday Morning ~ Saying Grace

November 25, 2018

Hi Everyone,

I can recall several incidents which evoke a deep and painful cringe. Decades go by and when the memory surfaces I still turn inside out with embarrassment. I tell myself that it’s unlikely anyone else remembers it at all, but the scar still throbs. A notable cringe-worthy event involves Thanksgiving grace.  When I was a senior in college I was working as a nurse’s aide on weekends and offered to work on Thanksgiving Day in order to avoid going home. Holidays at that point were intolerable at home and “working” was a valid excused absence. It was a relief to avoid the unhappiness and rampant criticism that overwhelmed my home life then. I felt remotely guilty for leaving my younger siblings to fend for themselves, (and heard about that later) but was in save-yourself mode by then. My boyfriend and future husband invited me to his house but they ate their dinner at noon and I didn’t get out of work until three. So I planned go there after dinner, eat leftovers, and visit. About a week before the holiday, Joe told me he had a surprise. He said his family was going to wait dinner for me and eat at 3:30. This was huge. I was mortified. It was a big family. They were accustomed to their routines and I thought it would be a huge responsibility to be the one who kept them waiting. But he really thought it was nice and wanted me to accept so I did. He borrowed his aunt’s car to pick me up from work and we got to his house to find the cozy scene I wanted to be part of. I’d brought clothes to change into: woolen pants and a sweater in fall colors, which, I look terrible in. It was the seventies; the fashions should be enough to make me cringe.

I loved going to his house where the fire was merrily burning and everyone seemed to like each other. His brothers and father were very funny. His parents liked me. I loved his sisters. I also loved his aunt (who everyone complained about) and I felt like she liked me, too. She was outspoken and, I thought, hilarious. There was music going (Frank Sinatra, as I recall) and after I’d changed my clothes, Bob, my future father in law, asked me to dance. I accepted, and had a rare grateful thought of my own father who’d taught me how to follow. This made me look good. Aunt Audrey made some snarky remark about how nice it was to see someone of the younger generation who actually knew the steps. I basked in the compliment, not realizing what a put-down it was to the Robinson children. We danced around the living room and I felt special. Joe looked happy and proud of me, and soon after that we were called to the table for the first course. Bob usually didn’t eat with the family not wanting to deal with kids being kids at the dinner table, but on Thanksgiving, he sat at the head and ran the show. We took our seats in front of individual fruit salads in stemmed glasses. “Lovely”, I thought. Bob then turned to me and said, “Linda, would you say grace?” I was not expecting this. I was not prepared. I knew the usual “Bless us Oh Lord and these thy gifts that we are about to receive, Amen.” but thought that wasn’t original enough. Why oh why didn’t I just go with that? I wanted to be creative! I wanted to say something memorable and pithy. Something with a touch of humor, but also poignant. Something that everyone would remember with positivity for years to come. I panicked and even though I’d kissed the Blarney Stone two years earlier, could not think of a single word. I blessed myself: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. Everyone followed suit. That was a good start. We were all Catholic. But my mind was completely blank. And I mean blank. Desperate, I said, “Thank you God…” and then, nothing else. Nothing. Everyone waited. There was a long awkward silence. I stared at the fruit salad looking for inspiration and finding none, remained silent. The silence became so long that I was really going to have to say something mind-blowing that would have been worth the wait, but nothing came out of my mouth. Finally, Joe said, “…for the food. Let’s eat.” Which should have been a save, and I should have just said, “Thanks.” But no, I protested! I said, “No! Let me finish!”  And then I went on to NOT SAY ANYTHING! I finally said, “For everyone being together” and incredibly relieved, everyone started eating. I wanted to crawl under the table, curl up, and die. My future was ruined. No one was talking. I was sure everyone thought I was an idiot. I’d disappointed his father! Oh, No! Then Audrey (who’d had three extra hours to drink because of me), took a bite of the fruit salad and screamed about how awful it tasted because someone didn’t take off the grapefruit pith. She spit it back on to her plate wiping her mouth with her napkin saying, “Oh, Caryl, that is really terrible. Ugh!”  This display was a relief to me, but the rest of the family was not amused. We ate the fruit salad mostly in silence and I noted to myself that she was actually right. The grapefruit pith did taste terrible but of course no one should have said anything!  After those glasses were awkwardly cleared, Bob and Caryl carried platters of food from the kitchen into the dining room. and the martinis started talking again. The turkey, carved in the kitchen, was brought to the table ready to serve. Audrey, who didn’t even have fruit salad to soak up some gin, went off on a rampage about how the turkey was supposed to be brought to the table intact and carved in front of everyone! An awkward silence ensued while everyone looked down at their plates, a few of them muttering, “Here we go”. This was definitely not happy family stuff, but still softball compared to my house, and  I was relieved we were building memories to smother the grace. Bob started in on her about how rude she was being then she pushed her chair away from the table and said, “I can’t eat anymore of this! I’m leaving!” The family was silent. I think they might have been there before. As she slammed the front door, one brother asked his mother quietly if he should go drive her home. His mother quietly shook her head “No.” (This was the 70’s and drunk driving was considered funny.) We heard her car start, she pealed out, and superficial conversation consumed the rest of the meal. I sat there, not concerned that she might kill someone or herself, but thankful that the attention was diverted from my humiliating performance. 

I think of this every Thanksgiving and still stress about saying the perfect grace. I want a short statement that doesn’t let the food get cold, is spiritual but not conventional, doesn’t make the atheists uncomfortable, doesn’t sound too schmaltzy, makes guest feel welcome, is sincere and poignant. This year I considered reading a poem that a friend sent, but it was a bit long and seemed a cop out. I actually considered, in my attempt for the perfect holiday, looking on the internet for the perfect grace suggestions, but got too busy and settled for a hybrid grace/ toast and called it good. There was hardly a pause.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Ephemera

Sunday Morning ~ Ephemera

November 18, 2018

The rains have started in Blantyre. I know that because a friend posted a photo of the rivulets running through her yard. She said the thunder was show-stopping. It made me a little homesick for Malawi. I loved the excitement of the first rains. It’s more dramatic than the first snow here, which we also got this week, because their lives depend on it. We can go a winter without snow. They can’t go a rainy season without rain. For many years I lamented the fact that I couldn’t just sit home and enjoy the snow. I love winter and winter sports. I love tucking in and doing crafts and cooking and a snowy day was the perfect backdrop. I wanted to stay home and cuddle up with the kids, but often I’d be panicked about finding childcare, getting the car cleared off, and leaving my nest. Having to go out during the night in a raging storm made the snow lose a bit of it’s charm. I worried about getting out of my driveway, about getting up McFarland’s Hill, about making it to the hospital in time. So this week, I reveled in the sweet circumstance of not having to go anywhere. I enjoyed the storm from a heated house with plenty of food. George split a load of firewood so we’ve got atmosphere, and knowing the rain arrived in Malawi and there’s the prospect of a decent crop, it’s all a bit sweeter. And to boot, the election results keep getting better and better. It’s been a good week.

I’ve been nesting, a gratifying exercise partly because it distracts me from making decisions about how I’ll support myself for the next decade. Procrastination. My bathrooms were never so clean as when I was writing my thesis. I’ve been clearing out clutter, donating stuff I haven’t used in years and tossing broken stuff that I laughingly told myself I’d fix. I came across the word “ephemera” written on waxed parchment paper. It was a gift from my friend Jack and I loved the paper, shape, and sentiment. I framed it. Ephemera, a Greek word, refers to things that are short lived, or last only one day. They aren’t meant to be preserved. As I decide what to give away and what to keep, I kept this as a reminder. The playbills I’ve uncovered along with tickets, christmas cards, notes, articles, and invitations to events long past are ephemera. They’ve gone into the fire that warmed the colder-than-normal nights, and while feeling virtuous in the letting go, I worried a little about what I’d use now to evoke those memories. I found a pile of photos of strange kids in my house throwing each other into the air. I didn’t see any contraband, but wondered how distracted was I that I didn’t even know this was happening? I probably wasn’t even home. I don’t even know who these kids are! I’m saving those to review when the kids get here for Thanksgiving. 

Which brings me to…holiday fantasies. I never tire of amusing myself with fantasies of how I want the holidays to be, which is the perfect recipe for endless disappointment and resentment. Use at your own risk.

I always loved the song Over the River and Through the Woods, from the minute I first heard it as a child. My grandmothers both died when I was little and we never had those rosy experiences of taking the fun and cheery ride to her house on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, we never went anywhere on Thanksgiving. It was football and my mother slaving away. But I always imagined myself living in an era (and a family) where we’d get in the sleigh and happily travel to loving, fun relatives. I still fantasize. Now I imagine my grandchildren singing this favorite as they travel here with holiday cheer and traffic-free roads trailing behind them. Hmm, I might have to find a recording of it with animation to capture their attention, which would make me upset. I don’t even know if they’ve heard the song (note to self: sing this to them many times when they arrive). When my kids were little we had a picture book with a line of this song on each page and I would study every illustration as if it were really my own family. I loved the coats they wore. I loved the muffs the kids had their hands stuffed into. I loved the smiles on their faces. I imagined the mother and father lovingly helping each other and having in-depth conversations about meaningful matters. I loved that they all dressed formally for dinner. I loved the bows in the little girls’ hair. I loved that the cousins all played together blissfully. Oh, there might have been a slight altercation over one of the wooden toys or handmade dolls, but it was swiftly resolved without resentment or lasting psychological trauma. The parents all agreed on everything. This was a child’s picture book. I was an adult. It makes me a little nervous now to recount how vivid this fantasy was. I read that book to them and was temporarily living there, moving over the snowy fields with healthy horses pulling the sleigh, bells ringing, with a handsome competent husband taking care of all the heavy work. I wore the gorgeous blue coat with the fur collar, cinched at the waist (which accentuated my perfect figure), and the matching fur hat was to die for. My kids were all tucked in to the back seat, no worries of anyone falling out as we merrily sped along. The adorable baby wrapped in a furry blanket on my lap was as happy as can be, and there was never a thought of frostbite on the cherub’s smiling face. Just rosy cheeks for my healthy kids!  And the welcome we received! Loving arms reaching out to take the baby, adoring smiles for the children, warm fire blazing, good cheer and camaraderie as we enter. Yes, and all it takes is a good watercolor artist for you to have this perfect holiday!  Oh, the fifteen minutes of reading that book to the kids was sweet. Then I probably threw a hot dog on their plate for lunch and fought to get them to take a nap so I could do the dishes from the night before, resentful that WE were the ones who had to travel because NO ONE came to OUR house. And then it would snow and we’d be late and everyone would look at us as if we’d ruined the day because someone had to leave for work, and why didn’t we make an effort to get there on time, and I vowed never to read that book again. But the next year I’d forget and play the fantasy again in my mind, and I realize I still do that. It’s just that now I’m the grandmother and it’s my house they come to. God! I just realized I’m the grandmother in that book! I look so much younger than her!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Be safe. Be careful with the fantasies.  

Sunday Morning ~ Ikebana

Sunday Morning ~ Ikebana

November 11, 2018

Ikebana is the ancient Japanese art form of flower arranging. My son made a reference to it and said that Japan’s most accomplished generals had mastered this art, finding it calmed their minds and helped make clear their decisions for field action. I’d never heard of this and looked it up. I didn’t find references to military action, but read that it is a melding of nature and humanity. Preserving life, creating a representation of the spirit of the situation, honoring nature, and respecting humanity are some of the principles. I read that it is believed to foster patience and tolerance. 

I think walking uptown last Sunday night was smart. George offered to hail a cab to spare me the mile or so trek up to 81st where we were staying, but my muscles were stiffening and I needed to move. I had Uggs on my feet, champagne in my queasy stomach, and something close to joy in my soul. I’m convinced exercise is the best treatment for depression, anxiety, and maybe even despair. I see how people get addicted to it. I’m reminded why I wanted to run another marathon, and though I was prepared to pay for it the next day, I think the late walk after the 26.2 mile run was why I felt so good (close to great) on Monday.  Feeling chipper, we had a morning visit with friends, searched for their missing cat, shopped at Zabars, then drove eight hours home to canvas for the election Tuesday. We’d voted early, just in case some calamity prevented us from getting home. I have to admit, each time I’d heard of someone passing away in the weeks before the election my first thought was, “Did they vote early”? 

Tuesday was rainy and dreary. Our team leader said, “This weather is only going to benefit us because our resolve is stronger than their illusion.” Loved that. Felt fired up. We were sent off the island to rural parts of the county. Many people weren’t home, most likely out at their minimum wage jobs, and I was a little worried about people feeling harassed. But most of the people we talked to were grateful we’d made the effort, eager to chat about their concerns for the future, and had already made a plan to get to the polls. One was frustrated that her absentee ballot hadn’t arrived and, being homebound, gave up on being able to vote. We tried to help her find a way to get to the polling place, but that required getting handicap transport which takes 48 hours notice, so we fell short there. We couldn’t get a motorized wheelchair into my mini. Our second shift was in a walkable neighborhood and that was fun until it started pouring rain. Most of the people there also thanked us, had already voted or were about to, and shared mutual hopeful thoughts. It was a good experience. 

The walk back to the car, by road construction, was muddy and wet. The car was steamy, the windows foggy and we were tired. I worried George didn’t think our efforts were worthwhile. He wondered aloud if we’d even garnered one extra vote out of the entire day we’d spent finding houses and knocking on doors. I said it didn’t matter to me. I just felt if I didn’t do this and the results weren’t good, I’d have blamed myself for not getting out there and doing SOMETHING. I thought it was worth it if only to make me feel better. 

We’d invited friends for dinner and to listen to the early returns. It felt important to be among like-minded souls in case the news wasn’t good. I’d prepared for disappointment before, but this time it would be like watching the country burn to the ground. We ate and talked. We drank wine. George hitched up his computer to stream live coverage. The talking heads were driving me crazy. The early results were not looking good. We disbanded early, myself heading into denial. I really did not want to look. I went to bed, turned off my phone, and in the morning, laid there pretending to sleep long after I’d ordinarily be up. I though about spending the day in my sewing room, avoiding the world. It’s where I instinctively go when I am upset. I take a pile of scraps and arrange them to make something useful. I mindlessly sew things together until it becomes something pretty. I was sure the news was bad.

George gave up on me and went to do errands. I finally got up and did mindless tasks in the silence normally occupied by NPR. I went to my cluttered desk to answer a few emails. It was nearly 10 a.m. and ordinarily I would have been listening to the news for almost five hours by then. I thought as long as I didn’t turn it on my world was still intact. Then a Move On email flashed across my computer screen that said, “We did it!” I thought,  “We did? I’ve been hiding for nothing?!”  And as I read the Maine results I got back some of that post-marathon glow. There is hope. When we gathered on the pier Thursday night to take a stand for justice, I thought again, there is hope. I’m glad to be part of this group of humans looking out for each other. I listened to the speakers and was grateful for intelligence and reason among us. I realize again, there are more of us. There is hope.

So time now to quiet the mind and be thoughtful about actions. Ikebana. I’m thinking about how to do this with minimal foliage and artful expression. It seems like good exercise.

Sunday Morning~ New York, New York

Sunday Morning ~ Twenty-six point two in New York

November 5, 2018

Hi Everyone!

This will be quick and unedited as I need to move the car from a gorgeous parking spot on 84th before street cleaning happens in an hour.

It’s Monday, not Sunday; I didn’t even try to do this yesterday. We were up before dawn to get the metro to the ferry to the bus to the starting line on Staten Island. One of the runners who’d done the Chicago marathon a few weeks before said it was easier to fly to Chicago, get a hotel room, and run that marathon than it was to get to the starting line in New York! But it was so worth it!  After all my anxiety about being too old to do this, just being at the starting line was fantastic and worth the entrance fee and effort. To see how it is all organized and how friendly and diverse everyone is, the helpfulness, the canon going off as runners start off across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as Frank Sinatra sings New York New York, was inspiring. The race starts in waves (I was in the last slow-poke wave) and watching thousands upon thousands of people move along with the structure looming against the skyline was fantastic. I didn’t even try to take a photo of it all, just wanting to take it all in. Plus, I didn’t want to carry my phone with me. The day was perfect, cool and sunny, and I felt like the universe was telling me we’d all be ok. That was a good feeling the Sunday before the most important election in our history.

People had told me how fun this marathon was to run, and they weren’t kidding. Just the signs people were holding were enough to entertain me for five hours. “You’re running better than our government”, “Run like a supreme court justice to an open bar”, “I’ve been training all week to hold this sign”, “Pain is just bread in French”, were a few of my favorites, but there were hundreds. Little kids held out their Halloween candy. Fabulous musicians played all along the way. Strangers cheering for strangers. It highlighted how good most humans are, how much we can endure when we think we can’t go any further, and how willing others are to get you to the finish line. Dear Ruth fed and cheered for us, opened up her home for showers and champagne, and made us feel like superheroes. And so many sent well wishes and cheered from afar and that was so loving and encouraging. Crossing that finish line in Central Park has been a longtime fantasy of mine and thank you to everyone who helped me get there. Hopefully we can ride this wave though Wednesday!

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Invisible Lines

Sunday Morning ~ Invisible Lines

October 28, 2018

The marathon is in one week and this morning I did my final long run. I’d been at a global nursing caucus for two days and was staying in Littleton, and decided to do the run before driving back to Maine. I ran to the next town, Harvard, where Rachael and Amelia met me to see the movie set where Little Women is being filmed. No sightings of Meryl Streep, unfortunately, but it was cool to see the set. They’d remade the center of the town to look like colonial Concord, which didn’t take much, actually. There was new signage on the general store that said “Concord” instead of “Harvard” and a set of buildings built to match. These were just shells of buildings set next to the general store. Gas lamps were piled in a section, ready to be placed along the sidewalk when the scene will be shot. I looked at one of the new buildings with a drape over the entrance that said, “Union Army Soldiers Fund”. I remembered that this story starts during the Civil War. I loved that book as a kid. I probably read it ten times as a young girl and then listened to it on tape about fifty times when my kids were little. I used to say to my kids, “See how they helped their mother who was out working? They got her supper ready for her! Their father was away at war. They were worried about him.” I loved all things old fashioned. I always felt like I was born in the wrong century. I wanted to be Jo. 

As we drove home, Amelia kept referring to the lines on the road. I said, “Yes, they mark where the cars are supposed to go. We have to stay on our side of the lines.”  I thought that was fairly straightforward. “No!” she insisted, “The invisible lines!”  This to me sounded like a silly attempt to control the conversation since Rachael and I weren’t including her in whatever we were talking about. I said, “You are just being silly. If the lines are invisible, how do you know they are there?” She said, “Because we were in Harvard and now we are in Littleton.” I thought about that for a second and then got it. I said, “Oh! You mean the boundary between towns? That invisible line?” She nodded with a big smile on her face as if she were proud of me for finally figuring it out.

She makes me think about communication and understanding, invisible boundaries, and where we are heading. I think of lines that divide towns, states, countries, and voting districts and how they have shaped our lives. What a bizarre species we are to divvy up land like this.

Invisible lines. How many wars have they caused? Who drew them? European men? Lines are drawn through groups of people sharing the same DNA who now must live in separate countries. They live with different government and regulation because somehow this invisible line appeared. How confusing. How does it get explained? There is an invisible line and the people on this side pay more taxes and have better schools. Their houses are worth more. The lines run through forests and farmlands, jungles and rivers. I ride in the car and think of how this all must appear to indigenous people who lived on this land belonging to no one and everyone.  

I want to hide all the ugliness of the world from this sweet girl smiling in the back seat. I wish she could grow up in a storybook where everything turns out ok. But it wasn’t ok. The war took it’s terrible toll, Marmee was distraught but held it together ( I always loved that), Father was injured, Beth died; it was hardly a cheery time. But the girls gave their presents away to the poor. They were good to the core though the world wasn’t. It never has been. 

Sunday Morning ~ Door to door

Sunday Morning ~ Door to Door

October 21, 2018

Hi Everyone,

I spent yesterday afternoon canvassing for the  democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in my district (Jared Golden, by the way. If you live in Maine’s second district, vote for him). I couldn’t believe I was doing it, having never imagined I’d have the guts. Going door to door intimidates me, or did. I guess I imagined people don’t want anyone stopping in and interrupting their day. I feared doors being slammed in my face, and after my experience last week, I was paranoid. This house race is important. It could mean taking over from the zombies and restoring some semblance of humanity to our government. We could flip a seat and if I could do anything at all to help, I wanted to. I needed to. If we don’t recover the house, I would never have forgiven myself for not knocking on doors and begging people to vote. I would have thought it was all my fault. 

So the experience was more fun than I’d expected. It’s a rural area and finding houses was a challenge, but generally, people were receptive and willing to talk. Of course, this is what we were told would happen, but I didn’t believe it. I’m reformed. Plus, it was neat to see all the hidden neighborhoods and landscaping. I loved that. I’ve gotta say, I’m intrigued by where people place their doors. I am very interested in doors. I find it curious that at some houses I had to search for the door! Like it wasn’t clear which way to go to get into the house. Many of the doors looked like they hadn’t been opened in decades. Some were obvious, as in, there was a path that led to an actual entrance as I always thought was standard, but really, nothing says “don’t come in” like not being able to find a door! Lots of people were out working in their gardens; they were happy to chat. Most agreed that change was needed and that gave me a shot of optimism, but I know I live in a bubble here. Much of the northern part of this state is conservative, intent on voting against their own best interests. I am praying the money being funneled into the dipshit we have now, is a waste. We need to win this. We have to.  

I went to church this morning for the first time since I’ve been home and arrived with twenty seconds to spare. I took my seat in the front pew on the left side of the center aisle. My family used to fill that pew, all seven of us, tumbling in just as mass was starting. It was usually empty; a lot of people don’t like to sit in the front, for reasons I don’t understand. We learned early on with little kids, if they only see the coats in front of them, they get bored more quickly than necessary. So we always sat in the front. It made for drama occasionally, like when Jake threw up, or when Jordan slipped and hit his chin, but most of the time, it worked well.

The church was sparsely populated today. My first time back, I was looking forward to seeing my friends. It’s a phenomenon here, making friends at church. That’s not really a Catholic thing. We don’t usually meet people to socialize with at church, even though we may see the same faces each week. Friendships that blossom outside the structure–– it always seemed that was a protestant thing. But here I have a real church community. I like it. 

I noticed right away that Joe, our deacon, was sitting alone and wondered if his wife had passed away. She hadn’t been well for a long time. The organist was playing familiar tunes, and I looked at her and tried to calculate her age. She has to be nearing a hundred years old. On Christmas Eve, many years ago, she and Matt played a duet: drums and violin. It was easier for her to bring her violin to our house than for Matt to move his whole drum set, so they practiced up in his grubby bedroom. She didn’t seem to even notice the chaos. I thought she was elderly then and it had to have been over twenty years ago. The music they made together was beautiful. It made me sad to think about it. I was so proud of the way he behaved and the respect he showed her. He was maybe fifteen and she maybe seventy (five?) but they were two musicians jamming together and enjoying it. We tape recorded it one day when they were practicing and sent it to Prairie Home Companion for their “Talent from Towns Under two-thousand” competition. It was really good. I personally thought they should have been chosen. I wonder how different Matt’s path would have been if they had. 

The priest today was recycled from years ago (in fact, it may have been the same one who was here that Christmas). Back then he was angry and disagreeable. We couldn’t wait until he was transferred. But he had a different tone today, softer and kinder. I spent a lot of mass remembering who we were back when he was here before, an intact family who went to church every Sunday. Our kids were altar servers, Matt was a lecturer. I loved who we were. 

Religious education was early in the morning, before mass. We carpooled with another family so we wouldn’t all have to go an hour early. On our Sundays to drive, we’d drop the kids and take our coffee to the beach a mile away. We’d read the paper and talk. It was such a wholesome existence. I was so happy with us. 

I didn’t recognize a lot of people in church today. There are still lots of visitors, stretching the tourist season out way longer than I remember. I felt a bit needy. I was worried no one would notice I was back. I was nostalgic and weepy. At the offertory I was getting money out of my wallet when the basket was suddenly under my nose. It’s passer leaned forward and whispered,  “Welcome Home”. I choked up. There was no sermon because the priest was sick with a cold. I was hoping he wouldn’t be the one on my side giving out communion, but he was. I had no choice, being in the front and first in line, but just decided to take an extra big swig of the wine to kill any germs. I went back to the pew and was kneeling with my head down and felt a firm hand on my shoulder. It was Joe, the deacon, walking up to communion, acknowledging me. I choked again. He was so good to my kids. He believed in all of them. 

The mass ended with one of my favorite songs, “Sing to the Mountains, Sing to the Sea”. It always seemed to fit well in this simple little church where the long windows surrounding us give nature the center stage. I looked out to the lilac tree covered in dead blossoms and thought, “I need to prune that.” I used to make that a priority on yard clean-up day, but it doesn’t look like it’s been done since I left. 

After mass, people gathered and chatted. Joe told me his wife had died a year ago. I choked, wishing I knew and could have sent some kind of condolence at the time, thinking how important that was to me when my mother died. I chatted with people I knew, happy they looked happy to see me. I thought of how we used to do that every Sunday and how the kids would get frustrated that we were taking so long to leave. I wondered how they remember that. A painful childhood memory, or one of those that bonds you to your siblings? In a good way? 

We walked to our cars, waving goodbye, mentioning the weather. It was so comforting and sweet. I drove home, feeling lonelier than I wanted, listening to the puzzler on NPR, thinking how I’d never have predicted this is where my life would be right now, and that somehow gave me some hope for the future. We just don’t know. 

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ White Privilege

Sunday Morning ~ White Privilege

October 14, 2018

White privilege. During my time living and working in various places around the world I have thought about this phenomenon. It’s so obvious when I am there. It’s easy to get swept up in the glaring problems and how one’s skills might help, but the end result or process isn’t so easy to evaluate. In Congo this was discussed a lot. Are we helping or hurting? Is saving someone’s life enough in the moment, or is it causing long term harm by perpetuating dependence? It’s one reason why I didn’t want to work with MSF again. When I found the SEED program, which would focus on educating medical professionals and build capacity for delivery of medical services in the local setting, it made much more sense to me. I believe in the program. I felt part of the team of Malawian colleagues who were working hard to improve midwifery education. I completely believe in the midwifery ward project and want to promote it any way I can. I also feel it is a model that could be used around the world, including in Maine, where the problems with delivering maternity care are similar, though not identical. 

All that was challenged this week. As I presented the midwifery ward project to a group on Friday, it was pointed out, very publicly, that I was full of white privilege and had no right to be presenting on this as I was not Malawian. Whoa. That was a show stopper. My slides were offensive and disrespectful I was told. This was nearly the same presentation we gave in Rotterdam, the major difference was that Ursula and I did it together there. I had never considered that I would be offending anyone. I believe this is a great project that could be duplicated in Maine, where women are also suffering in the system. This person took me down. I had to struggle to even continue, not sure if I should, or shut the projector off and walk away? Or open it up for discussion and bag the rest of the presentation? People had paid to attend this conference and I was madly trying to figure out what to do, standing in front of everyone, trying desperately not to faint as my vision got blurry and legs started giving out. But that’s all about me, of course.

White guilt, perpetuating colonialism, white privilege, white, white, white. 

In the late 80’s, we were deciding where to make our home and considered all we wanted out of a good life, including schools for our children, access to cultural events, proximity to natural beauty, affordability, etc. Maine was a good fit for us. The drawback was the lack of racial or cultural diversity as Maine is a very white state. We’d envisioned raising our kids amidst diversity. In lengthy discussions about it with friends, it was pointed out that Maine may not have much racial diversity, but it certainly has socioeconomic diversity. There is incredible wealth here and devastating poverty. I started looking at those parameters as another type of diversity. Working in the medical system, it is blatantly obvious. There are two standards of care. maybe more. So what is really helping those in dire poverty? Does our skin color matter when the poorest here are of the same tribe?

I get frustrated when some men I know deny or refuse to acknowledge male privilege. Do they really not see it? Do I know what they should do about it? Am I willing to make suggestions about how to be more cognizant of it, or should I plant my feet and tell them to figure it out themselves?  

In some ways I’m grateful for the public scolding because it has made me think a lot about the issue and how my actions feed into perpetuating white privilege. I also wonder if it was productive? Would it have made more sense to point it all out in the Q&A where we could have had a meaningful discussion and done some problem solving? It made the audience uncomfortable; it made me mortified; is that the most productive? As I did the eighteen mile training run today, I thought no discomfort I felt during that run could come close to what I felt during my presentation Friday. I’d been so focused on us being one group of midwives, working for the same cause, I hadn’t broken us down into black, white, hispanic, native american, or any other race. I just thought we were all midwives and who cares what color anyone is? I never could recover to make that point and I was too guarded about every subsequent word worrying I would set off another tirade. Watching the audience look at the floor for the remainder of the hour took some guts. I’ll give myself that much. Nothing is clear right now, but I still have the underlying conviction that we’ve got to come together for a common cause. It scares me to think of fractioning off like this, though I want to move forward with respect and intention. How that happens is unclear. I hope the fog lifts soon.