It’s been a little over a year since my mother died. Last year, I was mostly in shock and hadn’t really processed all that went on, but this year, I’m finding more opportunities to reflect on what I learned.
This spring, my daughter Miranda published her book, Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something.
Now, we are being bombarded by Black Friday ads, or even worse, Black Friday Eve. It all made me think, here I am in my mid fifties. My mother is dead, and I’m pouring over my childhood memories in my heart. What do I remember?
I remember getting those knitted socks that she didn’t have time to finish. They were in a shoebox with the knitting needles still in them. They were a couple different shades of red which almost matched. She had run out of yarn, and bought some more in a color as close as she could get to the original.
I remember the days leading up to the holidays, helping my mother bake. I remember one year, getting a broken alarm clock and a set of screwdrivers. I often talk about that is one of the best gifts I ever received. I remember the construction paper silhouette of my face pasted to a larger piece of white paper cut in the shape of a heart which I scrawled my name on. I must have given that to here as a gift when I was six or seven, and nearly half a century later, I took it down from my mother’s linen closet and brought it to my house.
It was a different time back then. We didn’t have a lot of money, there was probably a lot less plastic crap on the market and we certainly didn’t go to any Black Friday Eve sales. Yet the commercialization of the holidays had already started long before my childhood and I’m sure I got my share of plastic crap that made me happy for a day and a half before it broke.
So as you sit down at the Thanksgiving Day table, think about how you want to be remembered. Do you want to make a brief impression with the latest gadget bought on sale on Thursday evening, or do you want to be remembered for what you made, an incomplete set of socks or some other lasting memory made by warm hands held during grace over the dinner table.
Don’t let fears of your own inadequacies at making stuff stop you. That’s the message of Miranda’s book. By making something, anything, you are making important memories.
Don’t Buy Crap, Just Make Memories.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
It struck me last night, how difficult this is, as we enter day eight of the U.S. Government hostage crisis. Social media and the traditional news media remain focus on the crisis and negativity abounds. There are the spin-offs of mentally ill people acting out and getting killed and of others immolating themselves.
Yesterday, I read a blog post, Does Reading Popular Fiction Make You a Dunce?. It referred to an article in the Atlantic Wire Now We Have Proof Reading Literary Fiction Makes You a Better Person , which in turn refers to an article in Science, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind
The abstract for the Science article says,
Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.
Years ago, I spent a bit of time studying artificial neural networks, and this still shapes a bit of my thinking. The inputs we receive help shape the way our brains work. The old saying about computers applies, "Garbage in, Garbage out".
So what if we spent more of our time contemplating things of beauty, a masterful painting or a well turned phrase? What if we spent more time trying to comprehend fascinating complicated characters and multifaceted ambiguous plot lines instead of two dimensional characters facing simple, predictable outcomes?
What if we stopped and listened and looked at beauty, for half an hour, for fifteen minutes, or even just a few minutes a day?
I have returned to the article I started reading sometime ago, “The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Essayists and Poets” by Kathryn VanSpanckeren, (2008). I still have Blithedale Romance on my smartphone, and read sections of it from time to time, but it is slow going right now, so I added Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
I've thought more about Walden and Innisfree. How deliberately do we construct our lives? How much deliberation do we put into our lives? How do we balance deliberation and spontaneity? Can we live our lives as if they are an artistic creation we are working on?
Can we curate our social media feeds to assist us in this creation, spending more time on posts with a higher artistic value?
I was planning on review more of my Facebook feed, but that should wait for another day.
Summer's almost over, and I'm crying, but I don't know why…
For years, the most common lyric that I would start my writing with was the beginning of The Circle Game; thinking back on my own childhood as I dreamed about the future for my own children. But of late, Cheryl Wheeler's song, "Summer's Almost Over" seems to be my starting place.
It is noon in Woodbridge. Kim and Fiona are at the barn. I was going to get up and go to church. Then, I'd do some minor chores around the house and maybe go for a swim. Summer's almost over, but there are still opportunities for a good swim.
Last night, my mouth was a little sore. I'm not sure what it was, but it was something like having a blister from eating burning pizza, exempt it was in the back left part of my mouth next to the molars instead of up front where the incisors would first meet the hot pizza.
There have been times when I get cankers and half my mouth would be in pain, and it had a little bit of a feeling like that as well.
I read a little bit more of The Blithedale Romance. It is providing me a broader perspective on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zenobia and perhaps Margaret Fuller, as well as the whole transcendentalist milieu.
Last night The Saylor Foundation tweeted a link to my previous blog post about Blithedale, to which I asked, what role they could play in convening techno-transcendentalists and helping them find a Virtual Eldorado.
Then, I gargled and went to bed.
This morning, I felt worse. The pain in my mouth has spread and all my muscles, especially those in my back were sore and stiff. Some of that might have been from the time I spent yesterday cleaning the large jugs I will be using to make hard cider. The pets did not want me to sleep, at least not at the expense of them missing their normal breakfast time. I did manage to sleep a little later than usual, and after I fed them, I headed back to bed. I set the alarm for nine, figuring I could get up, take a quick shower, and head off to church. When the nine o'clock alarm sounded, I managed to make my way to the shower, but as I stood there, waiting for the water to warm, I was overcome by fatigue. Yes, I could power myself to church, perhaps fall asleep during the sermon and have difficulty muster more than a surly smile to friends at coffee hour. Or, I could make it a real day of rest and head back to bed.
Three hours later, when I finally got back up, I started reading through social media. I've been thinking a lot about how we use social media these days. Are the statuses we read brief headlines we forget? Do they reflect something bigger going on in our lives? How doe they all fit together? Is there some sort of collective unconsciousness tying them together?
I've been seeking to sew together social media interactions.
Yesterday, Kim posted pictures from the barn; dogs, sheep and horses. Big Fluffy Dogs posted pictures of dogs needing rescuing. Gentle Carousel posted pictures of their miniature therapy horses helping others.
Meanwhile, my sister had a big roast yesterday out in Pennsylvania. My wife and daughter, who were caring for several pigs at the barn couldn't make it, and it was too far for me to drive solo.
Umm Junaid Moebius has been posting, this Childhood Cancer Awareness month about the loss of her son to Neuroblastoma. She is a devout Muslim, grieving, praying, and going back to school. Meanwhile, Kate Audette is walking 26.2 miles today in the 25th Annual Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk in memory of her son Kaiden who died of Medulloblastoma.
All of this in a week when we remembered Kim's mother's death after a battle with cancer fourteen years ago.
For several years, I've been reading a blog called Momspective. Today, Julie put up an incredibly powerful blog post, Let Me Tell You A Story About A Girl I Once Knew, And The Woman She’s Become. It is the story of a mom dealing with being bipolar, struggling to become sober, being raped, yet celebrating successes like two years of sobriety. It is a must read.
Also, Deirdre, a friend from high school was written about her grief at the loss of a close friend. She talks about Burroughs, Kerouac and the 'For Rent' sign at her late friends Victorian apartment.
My friend is gone, and in her honor I want every fool I know to get over it, and do better at the things she was good at: kindness, sensitivity, and empathy.
I think of Kim, Nur, Kate, Julie, and Deirdre, and perhaps, before I head back to bed to try and sleep off whatever is ailing me, it is best to use one final quote from William Golding's, Lord of the Flies to tie it all together:
Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.
"I stand here ironing…"
Well, I wasn't ironing, I was making beach plum jelly as I reflected on my life. I remember taking a literature class in college, my senior year. Actually, I took a few. One was on Virginia Woolf. Another was something like a retrospective on feminist literature. It was from that class that I learned the work of Tillie Olsen. It was over three decades ago and I remember reading "I stand here ironing", but I'm not positive. Did Tillie Olsen come speak to my class, I think so, but I'm not sure.
My story is different from the mother in Tillie Olsen's story, but there are plenty of parallels. I've been through hard times and like the mother in the story, I wonder what I could have done differently as a parent when my first marriage fell apart.
It was the day after my wife's 47th birthday and the 14th anniversary of her mother's death. Kim, and our daughter Fiona were out at dinner with a friend, and I was home making jam.
I've been thinking a lot about societal constructs and gender roles. I was creating something special, yet transitory; another batch of beach jam. We will give it away as gifts, eat a little bit of it ourselves, and then, before another Labor Day roles around on Cape Cod, most of it will be gone.
The domestic arts. Throughout the ages, the fine arts and literary arts have been dominated by men while the domestic arts have been dominated by women. Should I submit my jam to a county fair? Maybe make a quilt some time? Challenge some of the old gender roles?
This year, my middle daughter wrote the book, "Don't' Make Art, Just Make Something". It is about not letting the word 'art' stop you from being creative. There is an art to making good beach plum jam. I'm not sure I've mastered that art yet, but I am making something, and that something, my friends tell me, is some really good jam.
Fourteen years ago, my wife's mother died, and the tears still reappear each year. My mother is more recently deceased. I'm coming up on the first year, and I find myself drifting more and more towards something between the dreams she had for me and my idealized memories of her.
As I stir the heating syrup, soon to be jam, I think of those days as a child when I would help her with jelly making and canning. It was part of my childhood, part of who I am now.
Seventeen jars of jam yesterday; sixteen more today. Another batch to be made. Then, I'll probably find some time to start a batch of hard cider.
And, in my spare time, I make space, here and there, to write. I feel no closer to my aspirations of literary grandeur than I did over three decades ago, studying in the shadows of some great writers.
But, at least I know I can make some good jam
Yesterday a child came out to wonder
The lightning bugs flashed in hot and humid early July evening as Wesley rolled and rolled in the tall grass of our unmowed lawn. His dash to the pond followed by this rolling was not enough to remove the smell of skunk from his fur. I sought a bucket as my wife gathered soap, baking soda, and vinegar to give him a bath.
Some of my earliest and dearest childhood memories were of lightning bugs, when our family would gather with some other family we were friends with and the adults would talk in the growing darkness as the kids chased brief flashes of light.
My fifty-third year has been filled with such reflections. I ran for State Representative and was a member of the 2013 Connecticut Health Foundations Health Leaders Fellowship program. Both of these adventures caused me to stop and spend time thinking about who I am and what really matters.
My mother died and I looked back over these fifty three trips around the sun. We sold the house I grew up in and sorted through the years of memories that had been stored there. I read through school assignments which reflected an angst about the world I lived in as a child.
In the middle of the night, Wesley barked. I woke up to see what it was and get him to quiet back down. He is now asleep, but I am not.
I look back over the past year. Miranda completed her Master's degree and published a book. Mairead completed her Bachelor's degree and is preparing to go spend a year in Japan. I never finished my degree and I hope that my daughters and I never stop learning.
It is quiet now. I hear the gentle whir of the refrigerator trying to keep the food cold, the ticking of the grandfather's clock as time creeps by, and in the distance, a bullfrog or two.
The circles continue to go round and round. I used to sing that song to my older daughters when I put them to bed at night. I used it as a framework for a piece I wrote about the birth of my youngest daughter.
My mother is now dead. The house I grew up in has been sold. Friends come and go and come again. This past weekend, I reconnected with a long time friend as we talked technology and trade. Yesterday, I hugged our Chief Medical Officer goodbye as she left CHC for the next great phase of her life.
Her friends, walking out of the health center with her, wiped away many a tear. Yet things will proceed at work and I have a strong sense that we will continue to cross paths.
John Donne wrote
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
Yet, to borrow from another poet, H.D., about 'perceiving the other-side of everything,', these connections, from childhood through our adult lives enrich us.
So the years spin by and now the boy is …
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There'll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through.
So, as I set out on my fifty-fourth circle round our solar system, I take a moment to try and perceive the other-side of the brief flashes that enrich us.