I was reading an article in National Geographic about disappearing languages throughout the world and it made me think about the value of the past.  Of course, we all learn from history – the mistakes and triumphs of those who lived before we came along.  That’s a given.  We tend to repeat many of the mistakes others have made in the past – we as humans don’t seem to learn our lessons very well unless they are actually our very own – but if we pay attention and make some good choices, the past can point us toward wisdom.  There’s also a point at which being too concerned with it can be damaging.  Dwelling on your past mistakes, for example, only keeps you stuck in a loop of guilt and hopelessness.  Or as I have done before, looking back too fondly at days gone by can distract you from today and tomorrow and the loveliness of them.  
          I tend to see my young childhood through rose-colored glasses.  This clearly means I was provided a safe, fun environment in which to live, and is good.  I’m certainly glad I don’t see it otherwise.  But it’s a memory – appropriately soft edged and slightly blurry – simply to be enjoyed in the lobe of my brain that handles that sort of thing.  Not longed for as a lost golden age.
          Then there are the hard years of life I’ve lived.  When my mom was sick, or when marriage was rough, or when I moved to L.A. and was overwhelmed at the change, and so on.  I could relive again and again those difficult times, too.  But thankfully, over the last decade, I have begun to learn to let the past go.  It’s there to see from afar – to remember fondly and to learn from.  But I’ve released some of it’s grip on me, able to move on without the baggage of before.  Free to look ahead.
          I’ve mentioned before that I have what the Gallup Organization’s Strengthfinder test calls the “Past Theme.”  In contrast, my husband fits the description of the “Futuristic Theme”…
                    ▪ You love to look ahead and think wistfully, “Wouldn’t it be great if …?”
                    ▪ You are fascinated by the future and create detailed pictures to pull you forward.
                    ▪ You are sometimes called “a dreamer,” other times a “visionary.”
                    ▪ You serve as a source of hope for others when you speak vividly.
Yes, that is my husband.  I, by nature, am exactly the opposite.  I am not a dreamer.  In fact, I often squash my poor husband’s lofty ideas before they have a chance to live at all – something on which I am working.  But Marc’s forward-looking tendencies have impacted me.  In him, and in others, I’ve seen the freedom of putting the past behind and looking ahead.  I’ve certainly not morphed into a futurist – I still see the past as a useful tool, or a fun thing to watch from the window of your mind from time to time, but I’m learning to leave it back there.  It informs what I do now; It doesn’t cast a shadow.
          It occurs to me, though, that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.  Even better than looking back or looking ahead is sitting still long enough to see right now.  My sweet little toddler, with pink cheeks, one dimple and a toothy grin, wobbled in to the kitchen today and smiled.  Something about that moment, which was nothing out of the ordinary, made me stop and pay attention.  I hadn’t gotten much done in the morning, and I had a lot to do before I picked up my son from school, but right then I knew it didn’t matter one bit.  We needed to connect.  We needed to dance.  I turned on some Mat Kearney and we twirled, we swayed, we nuzzled noses, we did some non-descript partner hip hop, and then we sat on the floor and giggled, her warm cheek against mine.  We looked at each other and I ached with knowing she would grow up very soon.  But then I let that go, too, and enjoyed my ten minutes with Mae before life-in-fast-forward resumed, and it was enough.
          Something in the middle seems like the best way of viewing the world.  Paying attention to right now.  In-between past and future, making today count, no matter what has happened or will happen.
          In Tuva, one of the languages the National Geographic article mentions,
                    …the past is always spoken of as ahead of one and the future is behind one’s back. ‘We could
                    never say, I’m looking forward to doing something,’ a Tuvan told me.  Indeed, he might say, ‘I’m
                    looking forward to the day before yesterday.’  It makes total sense if you think of it in a Tuvan sort
                    of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn’t it be in plain view?
                                           (Rymer, R. Vanishing Voices (2012, July). National Geographic, Vol. 222 No. 1,  77)
It’s a different way of looking at things.  Probably opposite from a futurist’s perspective, and maybe the Tuvans mean it differently than I’m taking it, but it sounds like a nice balance to me.  I like the idea of moving away from the past even as you watch it go, facing it but leaving it behind.  You can see what’s happened before, but it’s not stopping you.  You don’t know what will happen next, and that’s ok.  I’m thankful for this new perspective; I’ll probably trip one day trying it for real.  But no matter how I view the past or the future, I want to live in the day I’m living (unless I have the flu – sorry, I’m not that mature) and let it be. To see the dimpled baby face in front of me for what it is: now.



          There were a thousand blackbirds outside my house this morning.  Chirping, pecking, tweeting, fluttering and flying amongst the maples and oaks lining the street.  It was a burst of life, instantly exhilarating, welcoming my son and me to the outdoors.  “Good morning!  Here we are!  Isn’t this wonderful?” they cheered.  Every fall this happens.  The birds come, they swarm the trees and yards, searching for seeds, swooping en masse from tree to ground, ground to tree.  The air crackles with electricity when they descend for a few days – a last flurry of activity before the lull of winter comes.  Like the excitement of crisp air before it begins to bite, the trees decked with painted leaves, the squirrels that race to bury their hoard of acorns and walnuts for the long days of cold and want.
          I love fall.  It ties with spring in my heart as the best season, because both are thrilling and relieving at the same time.  The air warms or cools and it’s a respite; no longer do you need to escape the temperature.  They invite you outside to take a walk, ride your bike, eat on a blanket.  Each fill the world with color and make you want to be in it.
          I actually like winter, too.  But I’m finding it harder to welcome each year.  Maybe it’s my bad circulation, or the dry skin I suffer from December to March.  I can’t help it – I enjoy feeling comfortable in my epidermis.  Or static electricity, sore throats, itchy wool coats, runny noses, finding the lost gloves every morning before school.  I’m loving winter less over time, but it does have its benefits.  It reminds me to be thankful.  In the dark days of February – my least favorite month when my kids are always sick, the air is frigid and the sky is gray-black – I learn to appreciate the glories of the first buds of tulips in my yard.  I yelp with excitement the day I see a daffodil, and I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t if I hadn’t been waiting for it so eagerly.  Longing for the descent of springThough I don’t enjoy it for as long as it lasts, winter is good for me, because when the flowers finally bloom I rejoice.  I’m extra glad for the blessing of pinks and yellows.  That’s got to be good for the soul.
          My daughter and I were remembering the kids’ book Frederick the other day, about a group of field mice preparing for winter.  His friends are complaining that he isn’t doing the work of rounding up nuts and straw for them to eat.  But Frederick explains that he is gathering sun rays, and colors, and words for the days ahead.  I suppose that is what I need to be doing right now as I prepare for the cold to come – the days of sick kids and gray skies.  As I look at the glowing trees and watch the blackbirds in my yard I can put the beauty of it into words and store them away to warm me later.  I can remember my kids jumping in leaves, and take pictures of us all in shorts to remind me that those days will come again.  I can try to cheer the others in my life during the dark months, as Frederick, the poet-mouse did.  And many months from now, when I notice the first tulip has broken through the thawing ground, I’ll check off one more season of learning to be thankful for even the smallest of thrills.

I Am a Rock

          I just read Winter’s Bone with my book club.  I watched the movie maybe two years ago and loved it.  It was depressing, bleak and made me never want to find myself in the Ozarks after dark, but it was so well-made that I didn’t mind.  And as usual, the book was even better.  From the first page I was fully engaged, wrapped up in the sad, dark world of backwoods poverty and danger that the book describes in such creative detail.  It made me want to write a great novel.  Maybe someday.  It also made me realize some things about my own life – things I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
          I went to hear the author, Daniel Woodrell, speak about his life and his writing.  During the interview he mentioned that he had been surprised at what a large part of the book’s audience turned out to be sixteen-year-old girls.  They clearly had identified with the main character, Ree Dolly, and the tough choices she faced with such bravery in the book.  As a 37-year-old woman I hadn’t noticed myself particularly identifying with Ree, but as the (awesome) ladies in my book club talked over wine and cocktails, I realized I clearly had.  In a significant way.  A friend posed a question to the group about one of the characters, and I caught my breath, realizing I’d missed a major connection between Ree Dolly and myself as an adolescent.
In the book Ree must take care of her brothers in the absence of her father, who is missing, and her mother, who is present but mentally gone.  My father certainly was never presumed to be killed by meth-cookers, and my mother is alive and well and mentally present in my life, so my connections with the text were not literal.  But there was a time when my mom was very sick, and to deal with the effects of that my dad was at work a lot.  I also had a little brother to “take care of” in certain ways.  Comparing my situation to Ree’s feels silly in light of the danger she faced, and that real girls in the hills of the Ozarks really do face daily.  But it hits a nerve in my soul.  One I didn’t know was still sore.
          When I was in ninth grade my mother was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  She knew something was wrong, having had fevers off and on for years, among a million other symptoms that doctors couldn’t decipher.  But by the time she was diagnosed, the sickness had come on in full force.  She slept most of the time, as I remember it, so was absent for a good deal of my high school years.  This fact hurts her immensely now, as she certainly didn’t want to miss that time, but it’s part of my story, and part of Ree’s, too.  Her mother was escaping the sadness and pain of her life, either by choice or because of her body’s physical reaction to it, by losing her mind.  She was in the house, had to be taken care of, but wasn’t there to mother her daughter.  My mom’s body was escaping it’s own pain, too, by sleeping.  The illness and medicine made her confused; she just wasn’t the same mom I had known as a child.  In Ree’s case, and in mine, the roles switched.  Mother cared for daughter, and missed being cared for herself.
          As a high-schooler I didn’t know how to deal with my mom’s sickness, so I decided to push it down, shut it up, make it go away in my heart.  I would drive around singing Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am A Rock to myself and the air.  “And a rock feels no pain.  And an island never cries.”  I was determined to be strong, not to feel, not to fall apart as my mom had.  But there was more strength inside her sleeping body than I knew.  Unlike the mom in Winter’s Bone, my mom wasn’t gone forever.  Just lying dormant for a time.  After a while, in her own Spring, she would emerge from the cave of her illness and begin living again.
          In the book, Ree takes her mother for a walk and tries to elicit her help in making some decisions that will impact the family and everything they have left, but her mom doesn’t come back to her.  She stays tucked inside the safety of her warped mind, away from decisions and heartache and responsibility.  Whether by choice or circumstance, she is gone.  My mom is not.  It took several years, which surely felt like decades to my mother, for her to come out of the fog and fatigue of her illness, but she did.  And she has slowly gotten better ever since.  Unlike Ree, I got my mother back.  It was rough time for both of us, but the happy ending is that I still have a mother, alive and active in my life, who I talk to nearly daily and who watches my kids for me all the time.  She is their favorite person in the universe.  It’s hard to believe she was ever “absent” at all.
          The other good news is that I don’t try to push down my feelings anymore.  I am not a rock.  Or an island.  I’m a mushy human being who is glad my mom came back to me.  Though it would have been a too-sweet ending to Winter’s Bone,  I wish Ree could say the same.

Not This Week

Dear readers,

Since my husband is out of town (boo), and my babysitter got married (yea!), and I can’t invent time, there will be no post this week.  Sorry folks.  Look for one next Monday!

I’ll miss you.


Contribute a Verse

          We had salmon for dinner last night, which reminded me of puking when I was pregnant the first time, which reminded me of our apartment in South Pasadena, which reminded me of the light rail station a few blocks away, which reminded me of taking the train into Chinatown when Luke was a baby and being asked if I was the nanny, which reminded me of getting a boba in Chinatown in San Francisco, which reminded me of my brother who goes to San Fran for work all the time, which reminded me of Portland, Oregon, where he lives, which reminded me of Josh Garrels, a musician who lives there and makes beautiful music, which reminded me that words can change the world.
          I recently saw a clip from Dead Poet’s Society (one of my favorite movies ever) – the scene where Mr. Keating tells his class to rip out the pages of the lame introduction to poetry in their textbook.  “Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language.  No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  Amen.  As a lover of language, I know that I’m biased toward this idea.  But I also know that words have changed my world, and they have altered human existence, for better or worse.  Hitler used language as a weapon, and it worked.  His vocabulary of hate and fear was powerfully convincing to those who wanted to agree, and acted as a veritable dagger against those he attacked.  Martin Luther King Jr. used his speeches to give a voice to those without one, to break down walls between cultures, to promote peace.  In each case, a single man created a movement that changed the direction of human kind.  With words.
          On a smaller scale, my dad told me he loved me every day as a child.  He called me “Pumpkin” and “Princess,” said I was smart, beautiful and worth loving.  From the beginning of my life he made me feel safe and valued with his words to me; he helped me know I deserved a good man someday.  My mom wrote poems and essays about my brother and me, and I learned to express myself that way, too.  I got my love for the rhythm of language from her.  Received from her pen and her books the gift of poetry.  Learned that you could invent vocabulary from E. E. Cummings, because his book was on our shelf, because my mom’s life was changed by words when she was young.  The language of my childhood mattered.  It made me who I am.
          And then of course there are those who have introduced beauty into the world, simply for beauty’s sake.  Professor Keating describes the importance of what may seem insignificant to some.
                    We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are
                    members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law,
                    business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty,
                    romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
When I need a reminder of love’s steadfast power, I read Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet.  When I look at the clouds or the stars in the sky, I think of Psalm 119 and my heart agrees.  When I want to feel – just feel – deeply, I listen to a Greg Laswell song and let out a sigh of relief.  And when I want to explain my own thoughts and feelings to myself and others, I write.  I gather words, put together phrases, think of synonyms and metaphors and mix them up to make something new in the world.  It’s my small contribution to the human race.  I may not make the dent of Shakespeare or King David, but I’ll continue to “contribute a verse” and let the words speak for themselves.