Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Part 1: a winter poem. Part 2: a snow day activity.

I remember the winter of 1966-67 for two reasons:

1.  The Lehigh Valley (my home in Pennsylvania) received more than 67 inches of snow that season, and one of the storms caused schools to close for an entire week.

2.  I learned that my mother was a writer.

To this day, I remember almost word for word, the poem she had published in the (former) Easton Express during that endless stretch of more snow / no school / damp kids:

All during last week, when the snow storm hit our town,
I secretly suspected that the schools would all shut down. 

On Monday the kids drove me crazy, Tuesday was even worse.
Wednesday was strictly impossible; here it's Thursday and I'm ready to burst.

Of lucky, lucky Daddy, he goes off to work each day.
Trudging through the snow drifts; why that's only child's play.

While poor, poor Mommy, she's worn out to the core.
Trying to dry out children can get to be quite a chore. 

Well, the day's finally over; the kids are tucked in for the night. 
The dryer hasn't stopped drying, and Mommy hasn't stopped crying.

 And I say a little prayer, without any sorrow:
Please God, let the schools open tomorrow.

The most amazing part of this whole memory for me is that with four children (ages 11, 8, 6 and 2), my mother found the time to capture her weary (but no doubt universal) thoughts and send them off to a newspaper.  I love the "strictly impossible" phrase about Wednesday and the contrast between a dryer that hasn't stopped drying and a mommy who hasn't stopped crying is perfect.

For me, writing is one of those things I never really feel comfortable doing.  I love it; I hate it.  Sometimes it's a mysterious miracle.  I spend hours trying to get a phrase or a sentence to work just right (and it never really comes out entirely right but still.)   Then:  that mysterious miracle.  An entire passage flows out like a symphony from an orchestra.  It's just that cohesive and sometimes it feels almost that beautiful.

But every symphony needs to play to an audience to make it really come alive. So do writers.  I once heard a quilter describe her passion for her craft like this:  "Quilters take large pieces of cloth and cut them into little pieces and then sew them back up into large pieces of cloth again."  Much too simple a description to capture the artistry that emerges in every quilt, but the essence of the activity truly is to make something larger and more beautiful out of something much smaller.

Writing feels like that.  You start with an idea, even the most inconsequential thought, and take some words - almost any to start - and somehow rearrange them and piece them together in such a way that you communicate something quite new to the reader, maybe even something beautiful or profound, in a way that no one has before.

Years ago, the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges officially launched a program to improve the writing skills of our nation's students.  Apparently, few students wrote with any regularity in schools and we're all the poorer for it.

This lack of written ability doesn't pertain only to students who end their formal education after high school. The commission's report stated that among college students, 50 percent of the freshman class were unable to produce papers relatively free of language errors or to analyze arguments or synthesize information.  Yikes!

Their report, titled "the Neglected 'R' ", recommended several programs, including the idea that "writing is everyone's business."  Teach, practice and celebrate writing in every classroom from history and social studies to math and science.

Here's # 2; that snow day activity:
The report didn't mention the role of parents in the campaign and that could be an enormous mistake.

Many parents take up the "read to your children" charge with great enthusiasm.  Why not a "write with your children" movement?  I can't imagine a more fulfilling memory than an adult reflecting on the time they spent sharing their written expressions with mom or dad.

With yet another day stretching out in front of us, and nothing but time, parents could try being a  child's appreciative audience while he or she conducts original "word music."  Parents can write and share their own compositions with their children.

You never know.  With enough practice, someone may compose a masterpiece.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The difference.

The following little story may make a bit more sense if you read this one, first.   But if you choose to read on without checking out the tiny back story, enjoy. 

Chicken breasts.  Soup.  Biscuits.  And chips to replace the bag of chips I opened and managed to make quite a dent in at about 1 a.m. Friday night, and then again yesterday while wrapping gifts.    Yes, I know they’re empty calories.   Boy, do I know.   But those couple of handfuls were exactly what I needed Friday as the clock struck 1, and I was – surprise! - not sleeping again.  They may not have been what I needed while wrapping gifts since scotch tape and chip crumbs don’t go together.  I can’t explain that one. 

Anyway, back to my chicken.  I pulled into Giant and noticed a couple – their backs were to me – standing at the edge of the parking area, holding up a sign.  “Great.  What are they looking for…..”  and I couldn’t read it – going the wrong direction.  I turned into a spot and made a mental note to find another way out of the lot so I wouldn’t have to pass them and their cause du jour again. 

Bought the chicken and soup.  Bought the biscuits.  Replaced the chips.  As I stood at the checkout, I contemplated paying with cash or using the credit card.  Me, to self: “We used up a lot of Best Buy points in the past month.  May as well start building that up again…” and I handed over my card.  

Back in the car, thinking that if I get home in about five minutes and get this chicken in the crock pot, we’ll have dinner at about 6 or 7.  Do-able.  Easy.   Then I can bake the pies and that batch of cookies; make the dough for the cut-outs and get that in refrigerator, polish the last couple pieces of silver I didn’t get to Friday night / Saturday morning and then finally create the outdoor greenery arrangements in our flower pots out front.  Yes, that all works.  I’m in good shape. We’ll decorate the tree tonight; and with one more run to Target tonight at about 9, I’m done.  Yahoo!

What the…darn it!   Fouled this up and took the same route out of the lot and now here’s that couple again.  He’s holding up a sign; she is simply looking pleasant and hopeful with every passing car.  This time, I can read it.  “Please help us at Christmas; we have two children.”  I think that’s all it said.  I found myself turning back into the lot, pulling over and tearing up.  

In less time than it took me to type this; in less time than it will take you to read it, I had every one of the following thoughts flash through my mind:  Do they need permission  to stand here?  Is this allowed?  Are they working?  Isn’t one of them working, for God’s sake?  Didn’t they save any money for Christmas..with two kids?  Are they even Christian?  They look middle eastern; maybe Indian…she’s wearing a sari of some kind….do they celebrate Christmas?  And who’s watching their kids today?  Answer me that.   They must have family or support of some kind if they’re both standing out in a grocery store parking lot, without their children, holding up a sign, announcing their needy situation to strangers who were filling their own pantries, basically asking us to fund their Christmas day. 

Thought all of that in a matter of seconds.  And then I pulled up near them, motioned to the woman, and handed her the money I had tucked back into my wallet when I used my credit card.  She smiled; the man turned to me and smiled.  She placed her hands in a position of prayer and made a slight bow as she said, “God bless you; thank you, thank you.”  The man said the same and I was off. 

I can’t explain why.  Maybe because while I was efficiently planning dinner and every lovely Christmas-y thing I would do for the rest of the day, and thinking about the beautiful tree that would stand next to our fireplace that night, with my three sons home, by my side, and filling up my heart with love, this couple was standing out in a grocery store parking lot, without their children, holding up a sign, announcing their situation to strangers who were filling their own pantries, basically asking us to fund their Christmas day.   

Maybe it was my way to pay the difference for the jacket.   

Saturday, October 05, 2013

My (impossible, overly-sentimental, ludicrous) run-dream

I can't say whether or not running inspires genius or if my mind is simply trying to distract me from the activity.  It's no doubt the latter but I have had some interesting thoughts occur to me on a run, including this one during today's 3-mile sojourn.  It felt magical at the time; admittedly less so now, but here we go:

Music re-inspires me to keep going every three or four minutes and today was no exception.  My playlist is an eclectic mix of my sons' solos over the years (my favorites), classical chorus, and rock, albeit mostly songs that are at least twenty years old.  It's also not the most heart-pumping music in the world but that's okay.  I'm not setting any pace records; let's just say it works for me.   

So when Peace Train started, I had this little movie play out in my head:

Scene:  Lincoln Memorial.

Just two miles away:  The Capitol Building. 

Imagine that this is the setting for shortest train ride on the planet.

Driving the train, Pennsylvania's own Charlie Dent, along with Wisconsin Representative Ron Kind.  Along with them, the car carries a few dozen representatives from both sides of the tracks, who see the train heading in the right direction and are making the trip.

As it moves along its very short route to the Capitol, everyone already riding the train reaches out a hand to the legislators lining the route, encouraging them to hop aboard.

Behind the senators and representatives, the rest of the country stands and cheers everytime one of them joins the train. 

Why must we go on hating?
Cause out on the edge of darkness, there rides a peace train
Oh peace train take this country, come take me home again.

I'd be there, cheering collaboration, cooperation and compromise, I swear I would be.  Unfortunately, I doubt there would be many officials just waiting for a chance to hop on board.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sometimes string may be all you need.

One of the annual rituals during our summer vacation is kite-flying on the beach.  We arrive just as dusk is on its way out and nightfall is on its way in.  For years, we guided the kites our boys held in anticipation.  Sometimes we found the perfect mix of wind, string and nylon that resulted in soaring specks of color in the night sky.  Other times, we couldn’t seem to catch the wind, or we pulled too tightly on the string and crashed the kite into the sand, or we somehow lost the string altogether and watched it drift away.  

We still carry on that tradition, mostly for my niece who is younger than her cousins and enjoys our mini-kite festival every year.  (Lately, my boys, their dad and their uncles toss around a football while my sister and I wrestle the kites into the air.)  The thing is, even when we’re successful, and one or more of our kites have reached a high point, we turn to each other and ask: now what?  Hold that thought. 

Last week, we moved our oldest child into college.  Because I can’t seem to relax about managing all the details surrounding situations like this, I spent a lot of time leading up to moving day checking off lists and times and logistics about the process.  I spent almost no time checking on myself and the new place I would move into once our son left home.    

So we packed and then unpacked.  Plugged in and wired up everything, made a bed, hung up clothes and found a new place for the bits and pieces of his life that he carried with him.  We met the young man - the stranger - who would share the dorm room and possibly share a lifelong friendship with him.  We met his parents, too, and tried to answer, in a matter of twenty minutes, these questions: who they were, what they believed, how they raised their son and whether or not they were people of character and principles.  (I told you I couldn’t relax about stuff like this.)  Thankfully, my first impressions told me the following:  friendly, approachable, bright people, who held the same values in terms of education and love of the arts.  They raised a polite young man, who was clearly dedicated to his studies, and they were committed to supporting him to help him succeed.  

As the moving in ended and the moving on began, my son and I hugged goodbye – and spent an extra couple of seconds hanging on while we did.  Then, just eighteen and half years after he arrived, my oldest son walked away in one direction and I in another.  

A few months ago, I received an email from a friend who read a column I wrote about my children growing up.  In it, Joanne artfully expressed the challenge we all face in raising our children.  She reminded me that raising children is kind of like flying a kite:  hold on too tightly, and a kite doesn’t get very far.  Give it too much slack too soon, before the wind has really caught hold so it can move freely without danger, and it comes crashing to the ground.  But when you can find that perfect ratio of give and take while holding the string that connects you and the kite, it soars effortlessly into the sky.  

I tried to calculate the “too much slack vs. too tight” ratio last week during the move into college.  It was tough; it almost felt like I’d dropped the string.  I’d given my son a generous amount of freedom.  He was ready for it; it was the right time to set him on his own.  He took off; maybe with a bit of shakiness at first, but he’s soaring now.

The kite is airborne.  Which brings the inevitable question: now what?  I don’t have that answer yet.  Maybe we’ll just enjoy the flight.  We’ll watch the kite flutter, even dive a bit from time to time, then help keep it moving ever higher, letting that string out even more; more than I would have believed is possible.  But never let it go.  

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Not everything was swept away.

“Broom swept.”

If you’ve sold a house, or bought a house, you attach a particular meaning to that phrase.  As a seller, usual contract terms require that on closing day, you deliver a "broom swept" house; no more, no less.  As a buyer, you can expect to take possession of a home free from dust – bunnies; no more, no less. 

Last week, I played the part of the seller, with broom in hand.  So why is it that when I started at the top of the hardwood stairs in my parents’ home, and swept my way to the bottom, I felt like I was doing so much more than just prepping for sale?   

Although I know an actual, definite number exists, it’s impossible to know how many times I climbed or descended those stairs over the years.  But I do know this:  some trips were more memorable than others.  Like this one:  When my sisters and I were young, my dad complained that we sounded like “a herd of elephants” as we ran up and down the stairs.  We were “young ladies.”  To help us learn what that meant, we had to walk up and down the stairs – quietly, almost noiselessly, mind you – for about an hour while he and my Mom sat in the kitchen listening to some very muffled footsteps.   

The good news for us was that the stairs turned a corner at the top and sometimes two of us took mini-breaks to sit down for a bit while one of us carried on the “lesson” for Dad.   I’m not sure we learned anything but this happened more than 40 years ago and I remember it very clearly.  Up and down a staircase?  For almost an hour?  On those little legs?  Isn’t that child abuse?  Nah.  Call off the social worker. Not one of us needed medical attention. It’s what people used to call raising children. 

Here's another staircase story, although I remember this one with much less bemusement than the “young lady” lesson.  One warm summer night, I was sitting on our front porch glider with a date, probably doing exactly what a young couple would do as they sat together on a warm summer night on a front porch glider.  No doubt we were in the throes of as much passion as we could muster on a front porch, albeit a dark front porch.  Then from inside the house, we heard a bit of mayhem, some bumps and thumps (like someone slamming into the wall at the bottom of the stairs, right inside the front door), muffled voices, and then silence.   

Later that night, I learned that my Dad, while drunk, mostly stumbled down the stairs, hit the wall, and was just about ready to confront me on the front porch with as much passionate outrage as he could muster given his state.  My mother stopped him cold, and the moment passed.  I remember my sister telling me, “Mom saved you.” 

Skip ahead about ten years.  I descended those steps as a bride.  A young lady in a satin gown with a long train, I posed for pictures with my parents in the living room.  No, I didn’t marry the guy from the front porch, and no, I didn’t have to confront my Dad’s alcoholism that day.  He gave me the gift of sobriety for my wedding weekend.  (A few years later, he made the choice daily to live the rest of his life sober, this time as an unspoken gift to his grandchildren.) 

Final staircase story.  The last night my mother spent in her home included a very labored, exhausting trip up those stairs.  One difficult step at a time, she made her way to her bedroom.  She left her house the very next day via an emergency squad gurney, so she never stepped foot on the stairs again. (For decades, every time we talked about downsizing out of this too-big-for-her house, she dismissed us:  “They’re going to carry me out of this house.”  She was right.) 

Despite the lesson we endured, I’m positive my sisters and I spent years stomping up or down the stairs as outraged teenagers, and my brother did his version of the same.  The wall at the bottom of the stairs (and the people in house) somehow held up against a number of drunken bumps over the years.  The staircase showcased a few brides, and new babies being carried up for naps, then older grandchildren (especially three little boys at once, sounding not unlike a herd of elephants) running up and down the stairs during visits and sleepovers.  This time, the din went unchallenged by Pop-Pop.  In the end, it posed a formidable challenge to my Mom, who never, ever stopped loving the house she and my Dad bought all those years ago, without even looking at the second floor. 

So there I stood at the bottom of the steps, next to a small pile of dust ready to be scooped up.  From my spot, I looked into the kitchen, then past the living room and the dining room to the doors of the sunroom. The silence felt overwhelming despite the fact that for me, the life of the house had been seeping away for months, leaving nothing more than a space, a shell, a structure to be “sold and settled” as the realtors say. 

Except for that day, except for that moment while I gathered the dust at the bottom of the stairs.  Right then, I gave myself permission to gaze; time to see just about every family moment we created in that house.  Then I checked the lock, and pulled the door closed behind me.  Walked past the glider – that same one! - and stepped off the front porch.  

I drove away.  I teared up a little bit.  And realized this: that broom swept exceedingly clean.  With my last look, I saw kinder, more joyful and more comforting scenes than I would have imagined.  Slammed doors went silent.  Shrill voices sounded soothing.  The only tears we shed were happy ones. The piano was always in tune; the cacophony of music and voices,  plus the television and noisy toys was inexplicably harmonious.  Even as I saw that very last morning at home with my Mom – so tired, so tired of everything her illness represented – the lens revealed only the love, not the despair and desperation that crowded my thoughts, and surely hers, that day.  Only the love. 

In this empty home, the people are gone.  The connections remain.  And those can never be swept away.