I have not written anything…N..E…thing…for weeks. Not even in my journal, where I WAS faithfully writing every morning, mostly junk, but you know, that greases the skids. That’s a phrase I use commonly to describe the concept of getting things moving. I say it, and then I feel the need to explain how it could be taken as a joke, a joke that I don’t mean by it, but the image comes to mind..well, not the image, exactly, but the image of the possible joke, because metaphor and I are good friends. And then I explain the joke that I didn’t mean, and people who are my friends laugh and get a little red in the face, and it’s just all awkward all around. Because my husband’s (potential) nickname, and the nickname of his father, was “skid.” So I’m imagining that you are getting the joke without me saying it…

Anyway, writing has been in neutral. Nothing even comes to mind. I don’t even say to myself, “Oh, that’s something to write about!” and forget.

So I have this writing class that I have been going to on Thursdays, the day I euphemistically call my “day off” –although after the first month, “off” is not a word to describe that day. I was writing, taking things to the group, listening to lovely stories and listening also to how people talk to each other about their writing, and how they critique another’s writing. It’s been interesting, not the least because most of the group is 20 years older than me, and they come from a background that is very different from mine. But I guess that’s another thing I could write about.

But I haven’t been interested in or called to write at all. One of the things I’ve pondered, on the rare occasions I even consider writing, is that I have been too thoughtful, maybe even dark. I’d like to be funny. But then I think, “I’m not really funny. Nothing funny happens to me. Even if it does, it doesn’t occur to me that it’s funny, so…” And that’s that.

Today, though, I’m wondering if I could be funny. I was sick; then I went to Florida to be with my family; then I came home and was sick…and am sick. It’s a weird combo package of weariness and queasiness. I don’t ever get sicker, and don’t eject anything that I eat, I just feel sort of bad all the time.

So here I am, on my day off (smirk) and I have two hours of class to listen to – it’s a class on Islam that my daughter bought for me, and it’s really interesting, but I’ve been, you know, sick, away and sick, so I’m behind. And I want to do a good job so my daughter is proud of me, so I’ve got some catch up to do.

But I also have a really smelly dog. She’s also had some intestinal thing for a little over a week, and there are places all over the house where she pooped or threw up. Not to mention her back side which is glued together with poop. And she’s a long haired, dread-covered dog, so all that poop hangs in dried hanks, like beef jerky drying in the sun, except not shiny or salty or in the least appetizing. My husband (Skid) had been handling the poop-in-the-night all over the bathroom floor. I was pretty pleased that I’d gotten away with none of the clean up. I even passed some in the basement, and thought, “I’ll just not say anything about that, and when he comes down to exercise, he’ll clean that up, too.” And felt pretty sneaky and proud of myself. But no. He went downstairs to exercise today, and when I went down for something, he crooked his finger, calling me over, and said, “See that? I’ve been doing all the clean up. I’d like you to do those. They are probably easy. Looks like they’ve been here a couple of days.” “SURE,” I say, brightly, and wear that frozen smile all the way upstairs.

So he leaves for work, and I do the classwork. Then I go around and spray the poop/vomit spots and let that sink in for a couple of hours. Finally I decide it’s time to behave, but when I’m back downstairs, I realize that the laundry room is really a mess, and I’d like to clean the whole thing. But before I do that, I should clean up the poop, and…wash the dog. That’s a pretty good mea culpa. So I start on the poop. It’s dried to the bone, if there was a bone in it. I take a scrub brush to it, and lay more wet paper towels on it. It’s awful. So I fill the sink up next to the washer with warm water and dog shampoo, and go to get the dog.

She knows something is up. She runs away from me if I even get within 5 feet of her. We walk and run around the house about 6 times. I then have the great idea that I will get the child gate and narrow her options down. When she sees the gate, she gives up and comes over to me. I take her downstairs and lower her gently into the water. She squeals a little, but I calm her down and gently rub the hair and her backside over and over, soothing her with my voice. I decide not to wash the whole dog, thinking that the offending part fits nicely into the sink and that’s really all that needs to happen.

I lift her out of the sink after rinsing her, and realize I’m standing in two inches of water. The washer and dryer are, too. This has never happened before. The sink drains into a hole in the floor. How does that clog up? It’s 20 years, and this has never happened before! So I dry the dog off a little and let her go. She runs upstairs immediately, like she’s chasing an ambulance, barking and spinning around when she stops moving. I feel like doing the same thing, but my feet are soaked and I don’t want to be electrocuted. I shut things off and stare. I don’t know what I imagine staring will accomplish, but here I go. After I realize it’s not accomplishing anything, and my feet are still standing in water, I move the sink a little and reach into the hole. The dark, wet hole in the ground. Who knows what’s down there? But I have a rubber glove on, so there’s at least something between me and it. I start pulling up disgusting black stuff. Is it dog hair? Hard to tell. I reach further. More stuff. But not too long, and there’s no more. The water has moved a little, but that just means I”m standing in 1 inch of water. I search the house for the plunger, and wedge myself between the sink and the wall, holding the sink on an angle so I can get the plunger over the hole. I don’t know what this will accomplish, since I don’t know what’s down that hole, but I squeeze it down a few times, and then wait. Nothing. Again, and wait. Maybe there’s some movement, but it turns out that’s just me moving the water around. I go get the last 2 ounces of drain cleaner and throw that in the hole.

Finally the water starts draining. Now I have a disgusting wet floor and all the mops and brooms were standing next to the sink and are now wet and dirty on the bottoms. I can’t use them to sweep, and I can’t use the vacuum. So I rinse them all off and hang them up this time (there was a hangar strip for them, but do we use it, no..) and go get spray bleach cleaner and wash the floor by hand, one square at a time. Finally I’ve washed my way out of that room, and decide to spray all the dog poop in the other room with the spray bleach, for good measure. (Take that!)

I come upstairs, and my dog is sitting in my seat on the couch. Luckily I’d put a blanket there, so if there’s any wet poop it’s not on the couch. I sit down next to her, and the poor little baby leans her head onto my chest and sighs. This is not typical behavior for her, so I know she’s been traumatized. So have I. I just sit with her,leaning back a little, and I sigh too.

Georgie

Growing up, Georgie was just always there, a normal part of our lives, though he was not “normal.” When I knew him, beginning in his early 30s, he was a tall man with a drunken gait and slurred speech, who wore a boxer’s training helmet all the time.

My grandmother Matilda had 10 children spanning 18 years. My mother Dorothy was second, in 1915. My grandmother’s last child, a son, arrived a year before my mother’s firstborn, and Dorothy had five more, spanning another 19 years. Georgie was the second to last of my grandmother’s ten; I was the last of my mother’s six. He was 20 years old when I was born.

When he was a young boy, going to school, he would faint a lot. This resulted in brain damage, and there seemed to be no cure for the fainting, so he was kept home from school, remaining uneducated for the rest of his life.  I never heard a diagnosis, and when I recently talked about Georgie, a friend thought that he must have had epilepsy. He may have, but as far as I know, the illness was never named. In his 30s, he still fainted from time to time, crashing like a tree to the floor, the boxer’s helmet protecting his head. A few moments later awakening and coming slowly back to the room, he would climb to his feet. It had been that way his whole life, so even after he’d become an adult, he continued to live at home with his mother as his caretaker.

He may have been uneducated, but he was not unintelligent. He may have had slurred speech, but he always made himself clear. He called me “Ceedy” instead of Ceily, and my sister “Dlodia” instead of Gloria.

He and I never had long conversations. His conversations were with his sisters and brothers and primarily dealt with the needs of daily life or a good card game. He smelled powerfully of Palmolive soap. It must have been the only soap my grandmother used, and he must have bathed with it. I remember that when he did not have his helmet on his hair was short and stood stiff – not a crew cut, really, but almost.

My first memory of him comes after a period of separation from my mother, a time she needed for surgery and recuperation. My family had been living in Italy for some 18 months. We had moved to Italy with my father, who worked for the U.S. Navy as a civil engineer, helping to rebuild Italy after the war. While in Italy, my mother had been diagnosed with an illness that needed surgery. The procedure was best performed in the Naval hospital in New York City, so we had returned to Connecticut, where our extended family lived. Originally placed with an older sister, my brothers and I were moved into the homes of other relatives after a short time. For me it was a time of fear and pain, living with people I had not remembered. No one in those days told children much of anything that was considered “adult” information, so I was not told where my mother was or when – or even if – she would return. We were reunited at the wedding of my uncle Dick, my mother’s brother. My memory of the wedding itself is simply my mother, and deep relief. There she was, at the top of the stairs into the church, and there we were, sitting together in the pew. Relief.

And then, after the wedding, we are at my grandmother’s home, filled with people, all standing or sitting around the grey laminate kitchen table. Standing in groups of two or three, leaning on the frame of the door to the basement, smoking, leaning back on the sink, sitting in chrome-framed chairs around the table, in my grandfather’s leather-seated chair by the back door, by my grandmother’s deep green rocker by the old fashioned stove. The smell and smoke of cigarettes and coffee permeate the air, making the memory a sensory dream. Laughter and the murmur of voices in small, separate conversations that swell and converge, and then recede again, like sea water in tide pools, settling into quiet, only to rise and swell again.

Someone thought it was a good idea to put me, the three year old– just reunited with my mother– the three year old who had not seen any of the these people in more than a year– not remembering any of them, onto the lap of Georgie, sitting in his mother’s rocking chair.

I screamed, shrill and piercing, over and over, arched my back so powerfully that in my memory all that holds me are my feet on one arm of the rocker and my head on the other. The memory ends there.

We returned to Italy a year or so after the wedding, and I did not see this extended family for another five or six years.

Not long after we returned that last time, my grandmother, who had been Georgie’s caretaker, died. I did not go to the funeral. I remember being at my house with my cousins, talking about the death of my grandmother.

The care of Georgie fell to my mother and my Aunt Mae, the two eldest family members. Georgie continued to live in my grandmother’s house. Aunt Mae was half-owner and lived upstairs in a small, cramped apartment; we lived five miles down the road in the next town.

If there was a holiday, Christmas or a birthday, and most often in the summer, the extended family, which now included Georgie’s adult nephews and nieces, would play poker at my grandmother’s dining room table, smoke and laughter filling the room. The younger nieces and nephews would hang out around the table and watch. Georgie could play a mean game of poker. My mother said that he had always been good at math.

But most of the time my Aunt Mae and my mother Dorothy would work together to provide for Georgie’s care. My mother, brother and I would go to his house, my grandmother’s house, on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Mae and Dorothy would clean the house and do the laundry. My brother and I would watch television in the living room: Lawrence Welk if it was Saturday: Ed Sullivan or Walt Disney on a Sunday. I might sit on one of her dining room chairs; my brother sat in the chair next to the humidor (though I did not know what it was at the time.) Mae and Mom would be in the kitchen with Georgie, talking, laughing, washing dishes, smoking and making his food for the week. He always ate sandwiches of white bread, cheese and bottled roasted peppers for dinner. Mae lived above him, but she worked second shift at Pratt & Whitney an aircraft factory, so she was gone during the evening. The sandwich would be put on a plate at the table, covered so it did not dry out.

Georgie loved ice cream. He would have four or five 1/2 gallons of various flavors in the freezer all the time. When we were up there on Saturday or Sunday, and we wanted ice cream, we would have some. For some reason I do not recall, though I’m sure it had to do with Georgie, my brother and I each would eat a whole 1/2 gallon. We would open the carton carefully; it would be placed on a dinner plate – and we would pull our spoons along the edge, filling them with ice cream, licking them clean and starting again until the whole container was gone.  Years later, when my extended family was there together, I was sad for my cousin, and a little perplexed, when she asked for some ice cream and got a small bowlful with a couple of scoops. It wouldn’t occur to me for some years that those few scoops constituted the appropriate amount of ice cream for one serving.

In the summers the whole extended family would come together at Georgie’s for a picnic on the 4th of July. My grandmother’s house had a good sized yard, big enough for the whole extended family that by then numbered in the high twenties. The centerpiece of the yard was a tall, strong tree, and from that tree hung a swing that we’d all play on. There would be a barbecue, hot dogs and hamburgers mostly, potato salad and macaroni salad, and watermelons. I loved those watermelons, and seeded watermelon remains my favorite fruit. Georgie would have prepared for the onslaught of his nephews and nieces. He loved a party, and loved children. He, during the days or week before, would have careened in his drunken gait down to the store a few blocks away bought whatever candy (canny, as he would say) he thought we would like. We each received a package of bubblegum cigars, or maybe candy cigarettes. I would fill my mouth with a whole cigar (or maybe two) and then later fall asleep. My mother would always wonder aloud why I could not seem to remember to take the gum from my mouth, as time after time she sat in a chair with me in front of her, cutting the gum out of my hair.

Georgie had a wonderful sense of humor and loved people. I have an image of him, laughing a toothless croak, body shaking, mouth agape, eyes wrinkled in pleasure. He had no teeth for the same reason that he wore a boxer’s helmet. If he fainted, he might bite his tongue, so his teeth were removed when he was a boy. Being toothless lessened the damage. His diet consisted of foods he could gum, rather than chew.

As time passed there were fewer of the large family gatherings, and just the three or four of us on Sunday evenings. Georgie was still generous, and would buy me small gifts. I have a Valentine handkerchief he gave me one year, a red chiffon center with a wide border of white lace. Another time he gave me two bells in the shape of 18th century women in long dresses. One has long been broken and thrown away; the other is in my attic.

When I got a little older, perhaps 14 or 15, he started to call me on the phone. We had never had long conversations before. This was new. He would be hesitant, as if he knew he was doing something he shouldn’t, but he kept talking. He began to ask me (and when I told my cousin, a year older, about it, he had been calling her, too) to come over and do things. The things that he asked for were not sexual, really, but the borders between them and sexual acts were thin. He did not expect to touch me, but would want to see what a female body looked like. I would tell him that I could not and would not do those things, and that he shouldn’t ask, and he would agree. But time would pass and the phone would ring again.

Even at that age, I was filled with sadness for him. He had had a life in which everyone around him found a life partner, even his nieces and nephews. They were all able to have sexual relationships. But in those days people with developmental disabilities – or whatever he had – were not expected to have love relationships. He was reaching out to the only people he could to have some pretense of a sexual life. At the same time, of course, I was unnerved. He was crossing a boundary and that would not allow us to continue in the same way. I could not be comfortable around him again.  I told my mother. My cousin told her mother. That was the last of the phone calls, and we never spoke about it again.

Not long after, Georgie became ill. There had been symptoms for a while that my mother and aunt had noticed. The brain damage he had suffered his whole life was taking its toll, which was why he had made those phone calls. He no longer had the ability to check his desires; though to be fair, he never acted on them. He had never been ill at all, as far as I knew, but it was clear this was serious, given how my mother and aunts acted. He was hospitalized, and then he was dying. My last memory of him is in a hospital bed, unconscious. I remember feeling broken hearted, pacing the hospital room and weeping angry tears. It seemed so unfair to me that he should die so young – that he should die at all. I did not want our life to change, and it would, without Georgie there. There must have been a funeral, but my memory stops at the hospital room.

After that, my mother and aunts cleaned out Gram’s house; everything was divided up. My Uncle Dick moved into the space where my grandmother and Georgie had lived, and we never went there again.

I told some of this story the other evening while out with friends. My husband pointedly said, “You have to write about this!” I was nonplussed. It hadn’t occurred to me to write about it; this was just part of my life. I did not see anything remarkable about it. He said, “Of course you don’t, and that is why. Many people would have looked at Georgie as someone odd, or in need of institutionalization at that time. That your family kept him and cared for him, not as someone different, or an invalid, but as an equal member of the family made you be the kind of person who could accept others who society deems outsiders.” He may be right. The perspective he takes still seems puzzling to me, but I accept it as possibly true. Today someone like Georgie would have access to medication – maybe for epilepsy – and therapy, and certainly education. He might have lived in a group home, or even on his own, and he may well have had a wife or girlfriend. What I think now is that my whole family and all the townspeople who came in contact with Georgie were given a gift. To be able to accept and love someone with such difference, who needed care, but also provided humor and affection; to have allowed someone with deficits to live up to his capabilities (to the degree that was possible then) and be a participant in life meant perhaps that we could accept with a little more grace the difficulties that might enter our lives. From a Buddhist perspective, he might be seen as a boddhisatva; someone who remains in the body when he could find peace in the afterlife, to be a lesson to the world. Georgie is not remembered as a burden. I do not remember him with discomfort, as a pedophilic uncle. I remember him with love and hope that wherever he is now, he is whole and happy.

tulips

I love tulips. I don’t know when I began this love affair with tulips in particular. And actually, I am omnivorous when it comes to flowers. But once they start showing up at the store, there are tulips all over my house. Last week they were lavender and pink. Today, fuchsia and orange. So in one vase are some fuchsia, in another orange, in a third a mix of the two. This particular combination reminds me of the 1970s when those two colors made a splash as a combination on our minidresses. Luckily there was the pink, because I look awful in orange.

Seeing those two colors always sends me back in time happily; it doesn’t seem to change, no matter how often I see them.

But tulips signal Spring, and hope, all the cliches that one might imagine for this time of year, coming out of a deep, cold winter. I told my husband the other night while we were walking that the one redeeming thing about winter is how hopeful and open I feel when the light changes and the cold is mixed with a brush of warmth, when there are puddles where there used to be sheets of ice, and the tulips arrive.  Of course another way of saying that is, “I hit my head against the wall because it feels so good when I stop….”  And there is some of that darkness in the coming into the Spring light.

I’m giving winter a bad reputation, if you’ve never experienced it, and it’s not deserved, entirely. Winter is beautiful. It’s cold, and white, soft and deep and quiet. Walking in a snowfall is delightful, and sitting in the house or in my office watching snow fall outside my (warm) window is peaceful and satisfying. A good blizzard is exciting, elemental. The whole season of Christmas is a lovely counterpoint to the stark whiteness of the season, and the return to white in January is refreshing. I always decorate with white lights in January, and white candles. I might say It’s a nod to my Christian beginnings, since it’s the liturgical season of Epiphany, but mostly white is simple and pure. We love to get up at 6 in the morning, light the fire and the candles and read until the sun begins to lighten the sky hours later.

But there has been a relentlessness to the past few winters, like a guest who just doesn’t know when to leave. Driving can be treacherous, and even walking is difficult. We have often, this year, ended up walking in the road. Even if people are shoveling, and they don’t seem to do that much anymore, there is often an unexpected layer of ice under the snow to remind me that winter isn’t all that lovely.

So. Tulips, more than the ground hog, and almost as important as the new slant of the light of the sun, let me know it’s almost over. Just hang on for a little while longer, and we can exhale.

I’m reading a book that I discovered from a post on Facebook. It’s called Iona Dreaming: The Healing Power of Place by Clare Cooper Marcus. The post on Facebook was about someone who would have to move her mother to an assisted living facility nearer to family. This would take the mother away from the home and friends she had known for 50 years. At the end of the article, the mother is asked if she will ever feel at home in the new place, and she admits, no, that will not happen; she will not be there long enough. While the article was interesting, it was the book that was quoted that really caught my interest. Clare Cooper Marcus was a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley for many years, and the book mentioned in the article is called House as a Mirror of Self. I became curious about that book, then the author, and then Iona Dreaming, since it was a memoir of Marcus’ stay on Iona. She was about my age when she went there, and her style of processing her life seems similar to mine, moving from present to past and returning to present again sort of organically.

There is a lot to say, but what is on my mind today is a small part of her story so far. She’s volunteering to work at a hotel on the remote island. There are two women who actually work there to whom Clare takes an intense and immediate dislike. One is the woman who works at the desk. This woman is immediately recognizable by her voice and use of language as a member of the upper class. The other woman is also immediately recognizable by her voice, since she speaks English with a German accent. Clare’s reaction to both comes from her experience during WWII as a child. She and her family were evacuated to the country, to the estate of the Rothschilds, for whom her father worked. But they were not allowed to set foot on the estate, and any contact between the Rothschild’s children and Clare’s school friends clarified the fact that the latter were beneath the former. This was not said in any explicit or condescending way, simply that this discrepancy was a fact of life.

The German woman’s only fault was her nationality, and Clare’s gut response in life to the people who had threatened her whole existence. Clare admits that she has never even been to Germany, afraid to set foot in the place where Hitler had formed his Nazis.

Not surprisingly, both women invite Clare out for the day at different times, and both times Clare agrees to go for different reasons. And not surprisingly, she discovers much common ground between both women and herself, and comes to like each one of them. In her memoir, she confronts her prejudices thoughtfully and with grace.

It’s easy to judge others for their personas, or their culture, or any number of external, surface qualities. I’ve been judged harshly for being quiet (stuck-up,) too tall (what!!???,) too intelligent, too creative,  too outspoken (wait! I thought I was stuck up?!,) for being Italian, for not looking Italian-enough, and those are just drops in the bucket.

But I’ve also judged, and harshly, lots of other people. Not usually for their looks, or their culture. Sometimes for their religion, if it seemed shallow, or their conservatism, if it seemed rigid and dogmatic, or their “girlyness” -no one could call me girly. A woman was hired at the agency for which I worked, and I was rigidly antagonistic toward her – not outwardly, but internally. And I was shocked at myself, since I’d received the same attitude from others when I had moved to a new place, and knew how toxic that was to me. I also didn’t like myself very much, so I decided to open my mind and heart to her. As we got to know each other, I learned that rather than being the girly girl with the conservative religious background, she was a subversive. She’d done a lot of work with a particular lesbian writer – had typed up the writer’s books as a grad student – and her girly girl behavior was just a cover – something her community would “get” so she could pass. But she was a strong, opinionated feminist behind the fluff.  What a revelation it was to me.

What I have done with this awareness – both the awareness that people are more than they seem, and we are more alike than we care to admit, but also (and more importantly, I think) the awareness that I can act like the kind of person I least respect – is to own it. I know that these are parts of my “dark side,” to use a Jungian concept. I have a choice to make when faced with my own dark side behaviors. I can reject them and pretend they do not exist – and they will continue to show up in my beliefs and behaviors until I turn into that person I do not respect. Or I can recognize them. I can respect them, using the deepest meaning of the word, to seem them as they are. I can acknowledge that they are a part of me. And then they lose their power over me and I can choose to be the person I want to be. A person I can respect.

 

Better Leader, Richer Life

I have been taking classes from Coursera.org. You can take them for credit; I don’t. I don’t need the credits and don’t want the pressure. But I am learning, and using what I am learning, so that’s a good thing. The first class was Learning How to Learn, and there was a lot to learn, including that I’d first heard these concepts in 7th grade. Now I’m taking a class called Better Leader, Richer Life. The class is taught at the Wharton School of Business and now on line. The idea behind it is that if you look at life as a whole, and as a system, then you can focus ON the whole rather than its parts. I’m guessing most Wharton MBA students are focusing on work and school and putting off or perhaps not even considering their personal, spiritual or physical lives, so it’s a great class for them. I’m discovering that it’s a great class for me as well. I am a person who thinks about and teaches – foremost as a therapist, but often as a teacher – about life balance, and relationship and self care. So it’s a little…what’s the word…sobering..to see what it is teaching me.

The class begins with reflecting on critical events in my life that have defined me. Of course I couldn’t think of any.It took me a week to write anything, and I’m still not certain that the question being asked is actually being answered. I may know a little more today, since I am writing these essays. I learn a little more about myself with each one. Originally I wrote that having children was a critical event, and of course it was. But well before that, through the events of my early life, the events that included a stay with some relatives that turned out to be very traumatic, and what was essentially the divorce of my parents constituted two very critical events that defined me. Both those events created a deep sense of loss – not just of people, but of memory. That is literal for the stay at the relatives’ home. There is a 6 week block of nothing for that time, though pretty clear memories leading up to and following it. The losses there included my mother, who was away, and perhaps my innocence, in the sense that I now knew that events outside my control could rip me away from the most important people to me.

This experience was reinforced by the long separation of my parents. They decided to separate, and my mother brought her children back to the United States from Italy. My father remained there for the next 20 years. They explained that the base school where we attended was closing and that we would have had to go to boarding school in England, so they decided a move back to the States was a better choice. It was not until I was much older that my mother told me the truth. She had left my father because he was having an affair. The school had not moved anywhere. So I did not see my father again for a decade, during a 3 week visit, and then when he came home to die when I was in my late 20s.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school to become a therapist that I understood that what followed for me was more than 20 years of a low-grade depression. What I thought, and no one argued, was that I was lazy and lacking in drive. In Italy, my brother and I had skipped grades, but in America I was lazy. I thought I was stupid as well. My brothers were so obviously more intelligent, and one was even accepted at Yale. I barely survived the local teaching college. It took me until my mid-30s to discover that I was very intelligent and entirely capable….and somewhat driven.

So those critical events taught me to hang on to people, to expect to lose people, and that people are not safe, even those closest to you.

Another critical event was meeting the woman who turned me on to my profession. She wondered if I’d ever considered counseling as a career, since I seemed to do it all the time. So with a little courage and some encouragement from her, I explored it and found a passion. I will often say that we go into this profession to heal ourselves, and that is often true. In my case it was to help understand where I came from, why people acted the way they did, and to see if this understanding could make things better. It’s been a mixed bag.

But this career has given me a tool (or many, really) with which to explore and understand relationships. I learned about grief, and the learning helped explain all the feelings and responses I’d had to those early events, and to my mother’s death. More recently, I’ve realized that the early loss of my mother and my stay at my relative’s constituted more than loss, but trauma, and can see how the layer of trauma response has settled over much of how I see and react to the world.

In a real way, my chosen profession was a way for me to protect myself against losses that had already happened, to imagine I could say, “Never again.”

But of course, that doesn’t work. Loss happens all the time, and people don’t always tell the truth, and we can’t always know why things happen the way they do.

So. Back to this class I’m taking. After the critical events essay, which was much different than this one, we were to list our core values. I had to chuckle, because the next step was to look at the areas of our life, work, friendships, family and self, and see how our core values were reflected in our behaviors in each of those areas. This is an exercise I use with clients often. (So these classes are, in part, reminding me of what I already know, right?) So I did the exercise, and one thing stood out..But I couldn’t think about that, so I waited until the next week’s work.

So we were asked to imagine who our core stakeholders were, choosing two from each area, and imagine what they might say if we were to ask them what they needed from us. This was to prepare us to have conversations with important people (usually a boss or coworker, family and friends) to see how our relationship could be made better. This was a two week project, but I thought I knew the answer, so I spoke to my children and two of my friends. The answer from all, and what I expected, was…nothing. There was nothing I needed to do; they were all satisfied.

So of course, I thought, “well, this class really must not be necessary for me…” But there are a few weeks left, and I will finish it. I still had a few days before the next exercise, which will be creating experiments in order to affect change in the areas that need it. So, thinking I’d wait, I THOUGHT I’d stop thinking about it. But of course, the mind doesn’t work that way, and one morning the thought came to me. The sobering awareness. The ONLY area in my life that needed work, the ONLY stakeholder that needed attention..was me. The part of the core values exercise that I struggled with was how I took care of myself.

Do I take time for myself? Do I exercise regularly? Do I have a spiritual life and practice? Do I eat as well as I could? Do I speak up for myself when I need to? Do I say no enough? What do I do for myself, alone? From these questions, and from others that will arise, I must build for myself experiments that will make this one relationship stronger and richer. The goal of the changes we make is to makes ones that will affect, directly and indirectly, all the four domains, work, family, friends and self, in the greatest way. I guess we’ll see.

belonging

The house I live in, have lived in for the past 20 years, is the place I’ve lived the longest in my life. I am having experiences with memory that have never happened before, simply because of that reality. Things I’ve done, people I’ve known and interacted with 20 years ago are not in my life anymore. I don’t even think of them or that time, unless something happens to remind me. And then it’s as if it’s a dream more than a memory. But the difference is that these memories, these relationships, these events took place here in this city, and not some other place in the world a lifetime ago. For me this can be unsettling. I think this is in part because 20 years in one place has the effect of aging me. I of course do not mean that it makes me older than I would be, but perhaps it makes me feel older. I have moved a few times, especially in my adult life, and moving can be like a reset button. Everything is fresh and new from the moment life begins in the new place. Being in one place for a long time means that I remember how things “used to be,” for good or ill.

I recently watched a series on PBS called “The Italians”. The series described the waves of immigrations of Italians into America from the late 1800’s, and their integration, over generations, into the fabric of American life. My father emigrated to America in 1923 at the age of 23, for the same reasons so many others did. There was deep poverty and famine in Southern Italy that drove many thousands of people to find a new life in other countries. My grandparents before him had emigrated to Argentina, but moved back to Calabria when my father was 14. It’s still not clear why, because their life wasn’t any better than before they moved, but they did, and my grandmother Cecilia died back in Calabria only a few years later.

I did not know this, but found out a few years ago, through a friend and then through Ancestry.com, that my father lived with two uncles who had emigrated to the United States before him. They lived and died in the next town over from the one in which I was born some 20 years later. Perhaps my mother knew, but she never said anything. The one family member I knew about was a cousin, Patsy, with his wife Vincenzina, who lived up the road from us on their farm. They grew fruits and vegetables and made their living from their farm market on the side of the road. Their house smelled different; not bad, just different, and later, when as a teenager I returned to Italy, that same smell permeated the apartments of my family members.

Many of those Italians who emigrated to the United States did not plan to stay, and did not. They earned money for their families and after a few years, returned. Some died here, because Italians were not considered fully human and were relegated to menial jobs and segregated to what amounted to ghettos. But some came to stay, and did. And the ghettos they lived in provided a community that mirrored the one they had left, so they felt a sense of belonging.

I think World War !! was what might have changed things for my father. Though he became a citizen in 1937 (his race was described on the naturalization papers as swarthy Southern Italian,) and despite the fact that he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 43 and served in Alaska and Guam, after the war work was difficult to find. The fact that Italians were part of the Axis may have had something to do with it, despite his fighting on the side of the Allies. He had married my mother in 1944, a divorced mother of 3, and together they bought an acre of land with a house and barn. He intended to make a life there, but it was only two years after I was born that we moved to Italy, and he never came home again for more than a month until he died. When my brother, in the 1990s traveled to Argentina on business, he looked up our Argentine relatives and visited the last one who remembered my father. This man also had a barn that looked and smelled remarkably like the one on our property. Perhaps my father was trying to find some way to belong, by recreating a piece from his childhood.

We moved to Italy. My mother and the children she had with my father moved back to America for a year, and then returned to Italy. My earliest memories are of living in Italy and going to school on the Naval bases near the cities in which we lived. Since my father was Italian and could speak the language, and worked as a civil engineer rather than military personnel, we did not live on the base. So our lives were always a combination of Italian and American. We had ongoing relationships with our Italian relatives and friends, and celebrated American holidays and went to American schools on the base. I remember this time as the happiest of my young life, with an intact family in a lovely environment.

My parents separated at the end of my time in elementary school, and my mother and siblings moved back to America. The loss for me of my father, our intact family, my mother to the job she needed to take, and all that was familiar left me unmoored for much of my life. There was an emptiness that I carried until 2003 when my husband and I returned to Italy and I reconnected with the woman who was essentially our maid and au pair, and returned to the apartment building in which we had lived, and saw the school and hospital that factor in my memories. Even tasting an odd fruit, called nespola, brought back memories – my favorite fruit when I was a child, long forgotten.

A trip 6 years later, with my daughter, to visit my cousin Cecilia helped continue that re-knitting of my life. Cecilia lives in the apartment her parents owned, and that I remembered. But we took my daughter to Venice, and as I walked into a courtyard, I was suddenly 4 or 5 years old, walking in this courtyard with my parents. This was a memory I would not have retrieved without being there, and it gave me a memory of my parents together, along with the sense of safety and belonging a child has when her life is intact.

When I moved to Grand Rapids and looked for work, I was told things like, “too bad you aren’t dutch,” “too bad you’re not blond,” “perhaps if you took your husband’s mother’s maiden name (a dutch name.)” It was clear that I did NOT belong here, and it took almost 17 years before I was able to find friends. Only one comes from West Michigan. When I go back to Connecticut I can see the people who might be considered mine, since the Italians and Jews are as dominant there as the Dutch are here. But I don’t belong there, either, since much of my life was spent straddling two continents and two sensibilities. When I spend time with my Italian American friends, the sense of community they feel comes from the depth and breadth of their experience in the local Italian-American community into which they were born, with all the traditions that are hybrids of what their great grandparents experienced in Italy and the American traditions adopted by their parents a generation later. But I am not an Italian American; I did not grow up in that community. I grew up in Italy. But I did not grow up in Italy as an Italian, I grew up in Italy as an American with an Italian father. So I do not belong there either, in the sense of having a deep attachment to Italian customs.

My parents are long dead, and my siblings are all over the country. We have family all over the world, and I keep in touch with them on Facebook. One, an English woman married to my Argentine cousin, sent me videos of the town in which they live, which is the town in which my father lived until he was 14. Another, Juan Carlos, who may be around my age, will send me birthday greetings and will acknowledge posts I put on Facebook about my travels or my family, though we have never met, and may never meet in person.

My eldest lives in Saudi Arabia, teaching English, and loves it. She feels at home there, a sense of belonging she has never felt here. My youngest lives in Florida, and has been recently creating a community with her immigrant Cuban husband, with other Cuban immigrants in Miami. She’s beginning to feel a sense of belonging there. For me this creates another dilemma of belonging. While I have lived here 20 years, and have friends now, and a flourishing business, I have no family here. The people who matter the most (save my husband and puppy) live far from me. So once again, I straddle two lives.

Facebook posts, December 2012, and the first, from November 2013. I just liked it.

So I had a dream last night. I was at a museum, in the cafeteria, and my friend Martha was there, eating lunch. I said, “Martha, I thought you were dead!” She replied, “I am! I thought that when I died there might be nothing afterward, but I was wrong. I get to be a docent. You just can’t eat as much.” Her friend, also dead, commented, “Yeah, no surf and turf.”

I think it must have been Christmas, 1960. We lived in Italy, and our apartment had two doors that opened, one into the dining room, one into the living room, Those two rooms were open to each other as well. On Christmas morning the doors were locked and we had to wake our parents to even see the tree. When they opened the doors, we were amazed to discover a puppet stage that we could stand behind, and puppets to make a play with. I don’t remember mine at all, but Vincent got an African puppet – a black man. We made plays, and he named his puppet Lamumba. At the time I did not think about it, but now I know that Patrice Lumumba had freed the Congo from Belgian rule that summer, so his name must have been in the news or our parents’ conversations.

Two years ago, as we were decorating the tree, it fell over. My last two ornaments from childhood broke. I was heartbroken, but we put the tree back up and kept on. Two days later, himself came home with an advent gift – two ornaments of spools of thread; the shape was the same as the ones I’d lost. The other day, at Shop Hop, I found an ornament just like the ones I’d lost, and decided to buy it. But as we walked around looking at all the things in Mike’s Antique store, I realized something. This ornament might look like the old ones, but it was not my mother’s ornament. It would not hold the same memory. There was a new story now, the story of the love of a husband for his wife’s soul.

We were married about 5 months. It was Christmas, and I was making photo calendars for my girls to give their father and grandmother. In order to do that (in those long-ago days, we still had to take photos to a print shop) I had to cull through photographs of my previous life. Every day I sat with pictures of my father-in-law, dead for 14 years by that time, my mother, gone for 10 years, and my little children, now teenagers. Remembering those happy years, and those special people made me very sad.
At the same time, my husband was a minister and I was the minister’s wife, and had been a storyteller in my last life. So for Christmas eve service, I read and told stories to the children of the church. I had dressed up like a gypsy, and put lots of jewelry on, including my wedding ring from my first marriage, and the wedding ring from this marriage.
When I got home, I told my husband that I could not bring myself to remove the first wedding ring; that the immersion into my past life through the photo project had made me still feel a part of that life.
He told me to keep it on. He said that it reflected more truly the reality of my life, and I could keep it on until I felt I could remove it.
I took it off in March, and have never felt the need to revisit it.

Something reminded me of how poor we were. My mother was a single mother, working at W.T.Grants for $1/hour. There was no child support. So my brothers would go out on Christmas eve to “lift” a tree from places that had finished selling trees that day. I remember my mother, one holiday season, showing my sister-in-law Sally a dress she’d gotten for Pam, a beautiful white dress with gold piping and design, for 50 cents – she would buy things on sale and with her discount. One of the first years we were back in the States, she needed the money from the bank account our school set up for us kids. (Any student could bring in a little change each week and the school set up bank accounts for us.) That Christmas, knowing I had no money to buy presents, although we kids never actually bought presents for anyone (my mother would buy things, and we would help wrap them for each other, keeping the secrets of what was in the package) I went around the house finding things – like a book on electrical engineering(?) to wrap and put under the tree. But I have no memory of feeling a lack of anything, and there was always more than enough food. She put three kids through school, and two through college on a department store job. When my father died in 1982 and she received his Navy pension, she felt like she was swimming in money.

This was after the killings in Newtown, and someone posted a sweatshirt that had a quote, speaking in God’s voice, that He “wasn’t allowed in school.” I’m sharing this, not because I believe it but because it is specious and irrelevant. God was in those kids, and in those teachers and principal. God was in all those who survived, and all those who lost a loved one. It’s an insult to all those parents, teachers, administrators, all who were involved in church and teaching their children. A 30 second prayer in the morning would not have stopped the shooter, any more than growing up with a 30 second prayer in the morning would have stopped him from shooting, especially if he is mentally ill.
And the idea that God needs to be in schools continues to be irrelevant, since God has been in the churches, mosques, temples and synagogues where people had entered and killed worshippers.

You can call me a leftist, and I can call you whatever leftists call people on the right (rightists?) and we can lob names and insults at each other, and we can turn to our fellow left or rightists, and beat our chests at how right and cool we are,
or we can see each other as people, with hopes and fears, and desires that are not that different from each other, we can wonder about each other, and put the issues we struggle with on the table and explore them together, and find solutions together.

Today starts the homecoming! One daughter arrives from the far west, another from the near south. On Saturday, the slew from Florida, and the gang’s all here. When I was a kid, my sister used to come home with her family, sometimes for Christmas, and often in the summer, but there was always excitement around it. I remember painting the floors and stairs, leaving squares unpainted to walk on and then covering the spots with paint later. Of course rooms needed to be readied, and the excitement of possibility and presents was wonderful. One year when Jess was about 18 months, Joe, Lee and boys came home from Michigan. Unbeknownst to anyone, including Joe, he brought a stomach flu..:( Gerret (my first husband,) Jess and I were sick all day Christmas. My inlaws brought our presents over in the toy box they were giving Jess, and left them on the front porch. The Christmas in 1986, I believe, the year after my mother died, my brother Vince came with Gill and Tristan and Dominic from Florida. It felt like a part of me came back together, seeing a face that looked like mine after being so far from family for a couple of years, and losing my mother. I believe we went there the following year. I just learned that my nephew Aaron is going to drive over and spend the night, a lovely surprise, since he lives in Boston, and my stepson Gerret, from my first marriage, with his wife Heather and their sons will come to visit on the 26th. So the family will be more than complete this year. If home is where the heart is, I am home.

Today is my sister Carolyn’s birthday. She’d be 78. She’s been gone since 1994. She’s the one that probably led the conga line in 1965 out the back door. She was funny, beautiful, adventurous, controlling, and a lot more. My father in law, from my first marriage, would be, I think, 91 tomorrow. He’s been gone since 1981. He was larger than life, loving, opinionated and kind. I spoke to someone today who had a recent death of a loved one, and at the same time a powerful reconciliation with another. She’s having to hold both of those experiences this holiday, with love for both people, and vulnerability. The reality is that we get older, and the people we love die, and our holidays (and lives) change around the losses. Some of that loss is “the way it’s always been,” the memories of how it used to be when we were children. Now we’re the parents and grandparents, and we and our children are the older ones the kids are looking up at. These days will be their memories of sweetness, and ours will include making sure the groceries are in, the presents bought and wrapped, the knowledge of who’s not speaking to whom, grudges, or the way it would have been, if only…That’s ok. There’s still plenty to love from this vantage point, as my friend is seeing. She has the loss on the one hand, and the amazing surprise that life can provide on the other. We all do.

Lola and I made cupcakes for Santa instead of cookies. They had to be white, with white cream cheese and white frosting, since white is Santa’s favorite color…

So it’s Christmas night. I have a photo of me 33 years ago (somewhere in a box, or I’d put it on here) in a bright pink dress with a stomach as huge as Texas, on Christmas eve at my mother-in-law’s house. The next morning was Jessica’s first sentient Christmas. Two and a half, she knew what was up with the gift and enjoyed every second of it, from the wrapping to the boxes to the gifts themselves. By 9 pm we were home and she was tucked in. I had a hunch something was up, though, and called the doctor to see if it was time. He confirmed my hunch and told me to go straight to the hospital, since the last labor lasted 2.5 hours and he wanted me to be safe. So I called my Mom, and asked her to come over, and we went to the hospital at 10 pm. We stayed there all night, because though the doc wanted me to be safe, he wasn’t necessarily going to lose any beauty sleep. My memories are blurry and dark, but happy. My husband sat in a chair by my bed and told me funny stories. I remember laughing a lot, and waiting. At 7ish-am the doctor came in, broke my water, and 1 hour and 15 minutes later, at 8:13 am to be exact, on December 26, Olivia Mae was born. She was a surprise because one didn’t know the sex of the baby then, and I’d been calling her Vincent Paul for 9 months…But she was a delightful surprise, all 9 lbs, 4 oz, 22.5 inches of her peaches and creaminess.

So downstairs the girls are playing a game, Ron, Olivia and I are making Olivia’s birthday dinner (roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, kale salad.) Ron’s brought her the single rose he has given her every birthday since he was part of the family; tomorrow he’ll do the same for Isabella. (Jess was almost never around and didn’t get too many, so one year a couple of years ago he gave her two dozen to make it up. He does the same for Chloe as well.) Gabriel is running around making lots of pronouncements, and the Charlie Brown Christmas album is playing, so I made my move upstairs where it’s quiet. My brother Joe made the birthday call he’s made since she could hold a phone this morning. And he’ll do it again tomorrow for Isa.

Thirteen years ago, my nephew Noah had come for a Christmas visit. He’s tall, handsome and laconic, and it had been years since we’d spent time with him, so it was a special visit. Charlie Brown’s Christmas made me think of him, because he said he liked it and didn’t have it, so we tried to buy it for him and couldn’t find it. But the day after Christmas, Jess and I drove Noah to the Detroit airport to fly home. It’s a 2.5 hour trip one way, but we had no where to be, so we stopped at the outlets on the way back. When we got home, Olivia told us she thought she was in labor…We went on high alert, but as with most first pregnancies, not much happened for a long time -until 4 am, as I recall, when she woke us up to say Isa’s dad was taking her to the hospital. Jess and I followed not long after, and we had a long night, morning and early afternoon waiting. Olivia tried to have the baby without an epidural, but the pain was too much, and the labor too long. After the epidural, she want from moaning to laughing, she was so tired. Finally, after 2 pm, Isa was sucked into the world, and since Dad went into a faint, Grandma got to cut the cord. That started, for me, about 18 months of Christmas, every morning, knowing Isa was there.