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What I Noticed

IMG_5895The late afternoon sunlight spilled across the living room, filling the corners and turning everything to gold. The dark wooden surfaces glowed warmly. Dust floated in the air, settling on those surfaces like tiny, glittering confetti.

~~~

The center aisle of the drug store was oddly barren. In search of Endust, I felt the reprieve: the April-to-August hiatus that fills the shelves with multicolored plastic instead of candy.

~~~

Walking home, I tucked my chin into my collar, bracing against the cold morning. But the temperatures lacked conviction, as if already resigned to the afternoon being their undoing.

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I’ve Always Loved The Hunt

Easter

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote and submitted for the Harry C. Solomon Award in 1985. In the hubris of my 24 years, I crafted a reflective essay for what was almost certainly meant to be a scientific writing competition at the community mental health center where I worked. At the time, I was part of the 4:00 to midnight shift on a residential unit (“The Inn”), supporting about 50 adult “residents” who were living with serious mental illnesses.

I rediscovered this last year while clearing file cabinets. It’s not the essay I would write today, but more than 30 years out, it holds up. It still asks questions worth pondering. I wrote about people living on a psych ward, but I see lessons for all of us…

~~~

…At work I am often reminded of a refrain that marked my childhood: “If you change your point of view, you will see something new.” Tipped back on his heels, hands thrust in his pockets, and a playful look on his face, my father would tease us with his “clue” as we feverishly hunted for our Easter baskets.

Somewhere along the line I absorbed that modicum of folk wisdom. Last year I found myself thinking and saying the same thing to the Inn residents as they hunted for their Easter candy. The staff had bought colorfully wrapped candy (safe from the dirt and infestations of an old and much-used building), and made baskets out of paper cups wrapped in tissue paper. A modest affair, to be sure, but it seemed like fun and we hoped the residents would enjoy the diversion.

While the residents ate in the cafeteria, we hid the candy around, without making much of an attempt to hide things in the rather barren surroundings what offered few hiding places to begin with. I was quite pleased with the colored eggs nestled in the TV antennae, the malted milk ball masquerading as a ping pong ball, and the foil-wrapped bunnies squatting in every cabinet handle. I was more intrigued, however, by how the hunt began to take shape.

The residents were all very sporting about making sure that everyone got enough goodies to fill his or her cup. They cheerfully swapped tidbits to get the greatest possible stash of their favorite candies. There was even some friendly rivalry. But something was missing. The concept of The Hunt as I had known it as a child was simply not there. Only the most obvious goodies were located, and where I had established patterns, as with my bunny-lined cabinets, only one or two candies were taken. With some extra hints and good-natured “hot and cold,” the residents gradually located most of the treasures.

As I picked up the remainders I wondered what my father would have thought of the hunt. I was struck by the superficiality of the search. I wondered if the residents’ unwillingness or inability to find the small candies had something to do with their need to reduce the amounts of external stimuli to which they are subject. The Inn, and indeed the whole Center, is full of often disconcerting sights and sounds. Perhaps, the residents limit what they see and hear to help them cope with everything that goes on around them. So they exclude, simply not see, the bits of bright candy that to any casual observer would seem quite obvious. Certainly such a habit might be understandable if one were beleaguered with sights and sounds from within! As an institution we had done little, it seemed, to encourage the residents to look outside themselves, to move their primary focus from themselves to anything beyond that. Our participation in this very Western tradition of introspection and analysis fosters such single-mindedness. For all our social conscience, we had not provided the residents with many opportunities or incentives to explore, interact with, or challenge the world outside.

The lack of attention paid to the patterns posed other possibilities. Here and there a bunny was gone, but no one had gone down the length of the cabinets to get all ten of the candies. In an odd way it seemed consistent with the repeated questions staff members get about the dinner hour, where and when clean sheets can be found, and when Group Walk will leave. The residents cannot or do not assume predictability or patterns as an integral part of their lives. Perhaps the only patterns with which they are really familiar are the paths and recurrences of their own illnesses, hardly positive incentives for attention to repetitions generally.

The residents proved themselves remarkably inflexible that Easter. Old “patient” blinders, the narrow ways in which they had become accustomed to seeing their surroundings, were not discarded on the occasion of The Hunt. As a result, they saw little what was new…

 

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Balm for the Soul: Blossoms and Prose

Spring in our nation’s capital is a marvelous thing. Splendor busts forth from every quarter. You can’t even begrudge the gamillion or so tourists who come to partake.

Like so many others, I headed to the Tidal Basin for the cherry trees, choosing to go a few days before the weekend’s crush. Not quite at peek, the almost-there blossoms’ potential for even greater beauty is a little thrilling. I love the promise they hold. The flowers hang like pixies’ hoop skirts in delicate clusters of the faintest blush, their brighter centers laughing in the sunlight. It never gets old.

I knew to expect that. What I hadn’t accounted for this time was the effect of the crowd and the monuments that also encircle the Basin. Testy divisions melted away as wildly diverse groups mingled beneath the blooming boughs, happily conjoined by the moment and its frothy pinkness. Inflamed, divisive rhetoric seemed far removed — and all the more ridiculous — in the face of clarion calls from Jefferson, Roosevelt and King.

Spring breezes wafted by and buds teetered on their perch. The words, etched in stone, were solid, sustaining. Balm for the soul, pressed from pink blossoms and less purple prose.

Life Lessons

What’s Right With The World

I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed by the us/them negativity of our primary season, by the coarse shredding of our social fabric. It is good to be reminded what is right with the world…

I am grateful for my confidence in community.

I’d planned the Open House for our Little Free Library as a way to remind people we were there, to catch the kids before spring break. I had sent out a few emails inviting people to come and donate books, or not. I just hoped they would stop by. Response had been good and I was optimistic that the weather would hold.

The morning before the event, I was tidying the library when a young man tentatively approached. “Do you have any study guides?” he asked. I didn’t think so, nor did I believe I had any in my back-up bins of donated books, but I said I thought they would be a great addition, asked what he wanted, specifically, and promised to put out a special request.

bkzThe smile that burst across his face was its own reward.

But even its luminance was overshadowed by the generosity that followed. A neighbor emailed to say she had such a guide and, despite imminent plans to leave the country, would leave it on her porch for easy pick-up as I walked past. A friend who’s also a  librarian reminded me that the county library has loaners and produced a brand new study guide that had been donated there. Another friend stopped by just to show support — and then offered to run a study guide drive through his business, tapping the science and research constituency with which he works.

In the mid-March warmth, visitors and books came and went. Friends I hadn’t seen in years stopped by with books in hand. A troika of passing millennials browsed the piles, practically giddy with their finds. A local author biked over and added a signed copy of his latest book to the shelves. A mom from the bus stop marveled that our almost-urban Little Free Library has never been vandalized. We munched on fresh-baked cookies one loyal supporter brought with her books. I assured an enthusiastic first grader that yes, we’d do this again, soon.

We put ourselves out there and the universe responds. I am grateful.

Life Lesson #38: We put ourselves out there and the universe responds.

 

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My Slice of American Pi

piMonday was National Pi (π) Day. Maybe you noticed.

Mrs. B. (3rd grade) was probably the first teacher to really excite me about math; Mrs. R. (7th and 8th) was arguably the most influential; Dr. F. (12th) was certainly the last. Notably, all my math role models were women; all of a certain age, every one of them formidable, confident and encouraging.  I don’t remember π being a thing in those days. I’d like to be able to associate it with them, to link them to the wonderful, weird math porn of π, but they remain chaste, at least in my memory.

No, the first one to get fast and loose with π was Son1 who, at about 12 and in a fit of online bravado, rattled off π to about 10 digits. In the sheltered confines of AOL’s early youth chat rooms such nerdliness instantly resulted in the entire family being summarily cut from all email access because AOL’s algorithms tagged it as a phone number, evidence he had —willfully! dangerously! outrageously!— violated privacy rules. Headaches of re-establishing email service aside, the transgression forever cemented π as a personal favorite.

I carried my fetish into the workplace and made a point of doing something to commemorate Pi Day at the office each year. Co-workers were kind enough to tolerate my geekdom with good nature. This week, two years after I last celebrated the day with any of them, not one but two former colleagues thought of me on March 14 and emailed just to say π — I mean, Hi. 

There are worse ways to be remembered.

Son2, doing his level best to infect the next generation with an enthusiasm for math, hosted Pi Olympics in his special ed class on Monday. One student managed to memorize the number out more than 20 digits. I offered to pay for the prize pie. How could I not?

I’m not sure what it is about π that gets us all so excited. Perhaps its irrationality, its centrality to something as simple and elegant as a circle, its lack of finality speak to us.  A constant, that nonetheless remains mysterious, tantalizes. That, and who doesn’t like an excuse to eat pie?

Back Story

Honoring An Anniversary With Ladies Who Quilt

sketch L&momA little over a year into this reboot, and I’ve hit my first real anniversary.  With a houseful of guests, I missed the 2016 Plunge, clearing the house of 30 years of detritus doesn’t count and the blog’s launch isn’t quite a year old, so quilting was my first second annual anything.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I made a bunch of quilts. The first, when I was a young teen in the early ’70s, doing the hip thing with genuinely scrappy scraps. Then there was the bed cover I made from old Levi cords — very late ’70s. But most of my quilts were in the early ’90s, in my child rearing years — which, if you are doing the math, was quite some time ago.

I loved the sewing and playing with color and pattern, but I’m not nearly fussy enough about my seams to be a good quilter. So, over time, I just stopped doing it.  Years later, when she retired, my mom took up the craft and she loves it. When she and I were planning a weekend together last year in celebration of my new-found freedom, no surprise, she wanted to head for her favorite haunt in the far north to quilt.

Enter the elegant Strong House Inn and Quilting in Vermont.

Last year it was bitterly cold and snowy, but we were cozy in our B&B with its charming rooms, spacious sewing studio (spectacular Adirondack mountain views, gratis) and friendly chatter. This year it was bitterly cold, not snowy and similarly cozy. It was as if no time had passed at all.

Of all the considerable surrounding charms, the women are still the most delightful. Like the quilts they piece, they come in every imaginable shade and shape — a 30 year-old state penitentiary guard, a 40ish tatooed saleswomen, a couple of 50+ homemakers, the new retirees, the old retirees; another mother/daughter pair; the full political spectrum, politely quieted; and a cacophony of accents musing on loving husbands, lousy ex-spouses and the optimism of marriage. About the only things in common are a passion for quilting and grandchildren who must all hail from Lake Wobegone. They are Innkeeper Mary’s “girls” but I think of them as fabulous living quilts.

Despite my ancient history with quilts, I’m the novice in the crowd, happily puttering alongside masters. I love seeing and being with my mom, in this, her element. She does beautiful work. I’ve had fun watching her artistry emerge over time, bearing witness to her growing confidence, to her sense of color, and of play. She’s not one of the chattier quilters. She lets her handiwork do the talking. And you can bet that all of her above-average grandchildren have gorgeous covers in which to cuddle for years to come.

Life Lessons

Things That Make Me Smile

sunlight monringA most fabulous sun-shiny day. Too nice to spend crafting a post, no matter how eloquent I was hoping it might be.  Today is a day for smiles – and two little gems came over the transom to induce just that…

First, the incomparable Emma Pierson is at it again, this time with her Sunset Nerd algorithm, ensuring that even when we’re not outside in the wonderfulness of the weather, someone is looking out for those sunsets on our behalf.  She writes:

I need to apologize to my own algorithm:

When you told me there was a beautiful sunset outside, I laughed at you. “Stupid computer!” I thought. “It’s raining.” Before fixing you, I went outside to make sure you were wrong.

You were not wrong. The rain had cleared. The clouds were incandescent. You are only an algorithm, but today you were more attuned to beauty than I was. Thank you for sharing this moment with me. I’m not sure I’ve ever had my expectations so thoroughly upended by computer code before.

…er, and to any humans who might be reading this: if you’d like beautiful sunset notifications, you can:

1. Follow https://twitter.com/Sunset_Nerd on Twitter, or
2. Check the website: http://sunsetfinder.herokuapp.com/, or
3. Send a text (from your phone) to sunsetnerd@outlook.com containing the name of the city you would like to sign up in. Possible city names are Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, NYC, Palo Alto, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC.

Message me if you have any problems. Keep in mind that WHEN YOU GET THE NOTIFICATION YOU HAVE TO GO OUTSIDE QUICKLY. Sunsets, like human lives, are precious finite things.

I love it when beauty and geekdom gang up on us…

And speaking of precious finite things, albeit at the other end of the day: KarmaTube  delivered a lovely moment to my mailbox.  I know, I know: the whole musicians-in-public-spaces thing is a little tired, but I defy you to resist this morning salutation.  Listen, and smile.

Life Lesson #38: Look for the smiles. You’ll find them.