Breakfast Cheesecake

“Momma,” my daughter, Polly, calls up the staircase, “Can Sue and I eat the cheesecake in the fridge for breakfast?”

I pause as I rinse my face with cool water. Hmm. I wonder: what kind of nutrition does cheesecake give seven- and nine-year-olds with a full day of school ahead?

“Mom?” she calls, a little louder.

“Wait. I’m thinking,” I reply squeezing moisturizer onto my palm, then gently apply the cream as I consider Polly’s question. Eggs are good protein; cream cheese is decent; cheesecake is low in sugar. I think that combination could sustain a whole morning of schoolwork. I walk to the top of the curved wooden staircase in our century-old farmhouse.

“Okay, go ahead,” I say, smiling at the wide, dark eyes that look hopefully up at me. I know she and Sue will be thrilled, though I still feel a bit doubtful.

“Yippee! We can have it, Sue!” Polly shouts happily.

Breakfast is a delight that morning and cheesecake is the main reason. Then, our morning routines complete, we walk down the hill, get into my car, and drive to town, where my daughters hop out to wait with neighbor children for the school bus. When they step up into the bus, I hold up my left hand in the universal sign-language sign for I love you. They grin and return the sign. I begin my twenty-mile drive to work.

Cheesecake for breakfast, I ponder, intrigued. Everyone loves cheesecake, after all; the real problem is fat and I don’t want my girls starting their day with just a lot of fat. Can I create a cheesecake food that would be nutritionally sound for breakfast? I wonder. The late-winter, quiet, Catskill mountain miles pass nearly unnoticed as I continue thinking. I can cut down the fat and still keep good protein but I need to add some healthy carbohydrates.

Hmm, what about granola? I make my own granola each week and quickly tick off the ingredients: old-fashioned oats, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, slivered almonds, and wheat germ, mixed lightly with a little honey and oil, then baked until golden.
Yes! My heart excitedly beats a little faster. I could sprinkle granola on top of the cheesecake mixture and bake it. Or I could make the granola into a crust and bake the cheesecake in it. This idea is starting to come together! I know I’m not quite there though and think of the food pyramid. Of course! It needs fruit… cheesecake with strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and, well, any fruit, when you think about it. Nothing’s in season now, but there are those dozens of Georgia peaches quarts on the sagging wooden shelves in the basement.IMG_20150729_084022377_HDR

Soon we try out an experimental recipe. My daughters watch and help with great interest. I swirl ingredients in the blender then pour the cheesecake batter into four oiled brown earthenware bowls. We arrange peach slices on top and liberally sprinkle granola over each.

Finally, taste time arrives. We love it! The following weekend we change things a little by patting granola into the bottom of the bowl, pouring batter over it, and placing peaches on top. We love that variation, too, and decide it really doesn’t matter if the granola and fruit are on top or bottom. The girls are delighted to eat cheesecake for breakfast and I’m happy because we’re eating a healthy breakfast.

A few months later our daily newspaper advertises their annual cooking contest. Shy though I am, I nevertheless send in my entry and am thrilled when Breakfast Cheesecake is selected a finalist.

On bake-off day Polly comes with me while Susan goes to her basketball game. As Polly unpacks supplies, three of the four bowls I pre-prepared so they can be tasted chilled, fall onto the pavement and shatter. Polly looks up at me with eyes flooded by tears.

“It’s okay, Polly. You are more precious than any bowl of Breakfast Cheesecake,” I say, hugging her. She smiles, wiping away tears with her forefinger knuckle, as I tell her the one remaining bowl will surely be enough.

At day’s end Breakfast Cheesecake places third of twelve places, with a lovely set of Noritake china for eight as my prize. Today, more than three decades later, its value has skyrocketed yet, in my heart, the true gift of the day is the nurturing moment that followed broken earthenware between my daughter and me.

Breakfast Cheesecake – updated 2015IMG_20150729_132333885

Ingredients: 1 pint plain Greek yogurt
2 eggs
1/3-1/2 cup sugar
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 – ½ cup fruit for each bowl
4 – ¼ cup granola for each bowl

Preparation:
o Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
o Place all ingredients except fruit and granola in blender. Swirl briefly to mix.
o Lightly oil 4 ovenproof cereal bowls or an 8×8-inch baking dish. Pour cheesecake mixture into bowls, then sprinkle ¼ cup granola over peaches.
o Bake for 25-30 minutes until set and golden. Serve with 1/2 cup of fruit.
o Serves 4.

(This story was published in the Kitchen Table Stories anthology, edited by M. Jane Ross and published by the Story Circle Network on their tenth anniversary in 2007. The original recipe used cottage cheese; here I’ve substituted Greek yogurt and like it even better.)

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The Bovina Quilt

In 1973 I married and moved to a tiny farming community tucked well off the two-lane Catskill Mountain highways in Delaware County, New York. There, in my late 20s, I joined a community of endearing, eclectic people, a mere few hundred of us ranging from dairy farmers to the US Ambassador to Russia. I made a stunning discovery in my cherished small town: time there had stood still in many ways and my rural neighbors had never ceased to quilt.

I met a dear and gentle life-long friend there, Marilyn Gallant, who delighted in crafts and creativity as much as I. She taught me how to make friendship quilts, a skill I dove into with relish. In our church, Marilyn and I were the two youngest members of the approximately dozen, mature Missionary Society members who had been lifelong members and always did things in a predictable manner. Marilyn and her family had arrived in town about the same time I did and we soon understood that if we lived to be very old, wrinkly, white-haired ladies, we would never become native Bovinians. Yet, after I’d been a church member for a few years, the Missionary Society surprisingly elected me president.

When Marilyn and I learned our church needed a fundraiser, we brainstormed and thought of an idea we were certain the Missionary Circle would love. Using the concept of a friendship quilt, we proposed at the next meeting, “We could make a town quilt. Everyone in town who wanted to could make a square for it…” we explained enthusiastically, then added finer details of the plan. “We could raffle it off. We’d raise a lot of money for the church.”

Several seconds of dead silence followed our words; my heart dropped lower with each passing second. Uh oh, we’ve said something wrong, I thought, wondering what it was.

Finally, one woman spoke, “Well, I think a town quilt is a good idea…”

“But…,” another began.

“We’ve never had a raffle in this church…,” a third woman cut in firmly.

“We’ve always felt a raffle is not the way a church should raise money,” another affirmed.

“And, just think, if we raffled off a Bovina Quilt, it might leave town on the arm of a complete stranger and we’d never see it again,” last year’s president said sadly.

The conversation was a death blow to the fundraiser idea, but everyone agreed we should make the quilt. Marilyn and I took on the project: we bought yards of muslin, pre-shrunk it, cut it into squares, and gave a square to any Bovinian or former Bovinian who wanted to participate.

The Bovina Quilt turned out to be the longest project either of us had ever been involved in. Cranky at times, I felt like we were pushing an elephant up a mountain. Marilyn’s sweet nature never allowed her once to become discouraged though and finally, more than a year later, we’d received all the squares. We moved the project into the tiny community center in the middle of town. There, on a large folding table, several residents planned where to place each square on the quilt; cut strips to join the squares; gave out a stacked row of squares to each woman who wanted to stitch one together. Soon the quilt top was assembled.

The final step arrived: setting up the quilting frame in the center of the Community Center’s floor. One of the ladies brought in her family’s aged frame, a huge contraption, I thought, and assembled it with others who had done this numerous times. Then I watched Missionary Circle members attach the pinned layered quilt (quilt top, batting, backing) to the frame.

In a timeless ancient custom, community members joined together at a number of quilting bees. With short needles we stitched tiny, neat rows with our white quilting thread to fasten the layers together. It seemed like an endless project when we started, but within weeks the quilt was completely hand-quilted. We bound the edges and it was done.

In later years I reflected on those afternoons when we—a small circle of unsMJQuiltophisticated yet skilled, rural women—sat around that quilting frame, talking with each other about all sorts of things. We shared stories of other quilting bees, we shared some of our own stories as they connected with other quilters’ stories, and sometimes we’d simply sit silently, deeply engrossed in the ancient craft of quilting. In those days and weeks I grew much closer to those women as we stitched in our place around the quilt frame, learning from and about them in a way I would never have otherwise. At the time I did not yet understand the deeper significance of our tender work. I can speak for myself only, of course, for the others may have already known what I did not yet perceive: we were creating a tactile, visceral portrait of our way of life in Bovina Center in the early 1970s.

I also came to understand that the wise elder women of our Missionary Circle were absolutely right in their firm belief that the quilt not be raffled. For the Bovina Quilt, through the decades, has silently hung in display in the tiny Bovina Museum, maintained by the town Historical Society. Still there today in the center of town, it is utterly unimaginable to think of the simple, precious story quilt leaving the town on a stranger’s arm.

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On the Kitchen Table – Posh Squash

Zucchini.

Does the word conjure up anything in particular for you?

For me, I always chuckle and slide back in time to 1974, the year I, city girl that I’d been, became a farm wife, the year I planted my first-ever garden. What great fun I had poring through the seed catalog, naively selecting seeds, and finally placing that order: winter squash, zucchini, lettuce, beets, onion sets, tomatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, beets, turnips, and potatoes. I was, I admit, perhaps a bit overenthusiastic.

By the end of that summer, I’d learned three vital gardening facts. The first two were, in order of importance: one must never plant an entire package of zucchini seeds, and the growing season in the Catskill Mountains was unusually short, so that early ripening tomato seeds were a garden must. My tomatoes ripened late and most tomatoes came into the house green just before the first frost.

I will never forget that zucchini crop. It seemed zucchinis that were about three inches long in the morning grew to the size of toy foam rubber baseball bats overnight. I cooked them, pickled them, froze them, and watched my neighbors hold out their hands in a stop gesture when they saw me approach with an armful.

The next summer and every subsequent summer, I planted no more than six seeds per garden. This has worked out very well.

One recipe, Posh Squash, has remained a favorite through the decades and is on my table tonight. The creamy custard, rich with Parmesan cheese, never fails to taste sumptuous.

Posh Squash

1 pound yellow and/or zucchini squash
2 beaten eggs
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup plain yogurt or sour cream
1 small onion, chopped
¼ green pepper, chopped
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook squash until just tender; drain well. While squash is cooking, beat eggs together, then add remaining ingredients. Lastly, mix in cooked squash and pour all into buttered baking dish. Dot with butter and crumbs, if desired.
Bake 30 minutes at 350. 6-8 servings.
Recipe from my friend, Deni Drennan

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And the third vital gardening fact I learned that long ago summer? A garden, in order to thrive, requires the basics of any healthy relationship: daily time, attention, and love. A heart filled with gratitude is one of the gifts in return.

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Home from the Desert – A Patchwork Story

I returned home last week after spending ten weeks caring for a friend in Las Vegas who was diagnosed last December with the deadly brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme IV.

It was early spring when I left my central Virginia home; my outdoor world was quietly bursting into more than a dozen shades of green as trees opened their leaves, grasses emerged from their winter rest, and a myriad of plants and bushes happily sprang to life beneath radiant warm sunshine. I confess it was hard to leave in the midst of such glorious re-birth. As I drove away on Easter Sunday, I gazed longingly at my fallow garden.

An un-traveled woman, I was transported up and away in my plane for several hours to Las Vegas, Nevada for my first visit. As we prepared to land, I gazed down at a desert world that was all shades of brown, even the mountains, and where I could see no green whatsoever. My senses felt bereft: I hadn’t considered until this moment that springtime was not luxuriantly green in every part of the world.

When I entered my friend’s home, I felt as bereft as when I’d seen my aerial view of the desert. She’d had a craniotomy, followed by several weeks of chemo and radiation, and was an exhausted shell of the woman I’d seen last Thanksgiving. Our future weeks got even worse, with life-threatening complications of low white blood counts and then multiple blood clots.

Yet slowly I adjusted to the desert, increasingly appreciating the unique beauty of the outdoor environment while seeking to be a positive part of the critical indoor landscape. As the weeks passed, my friend, still plagued with blood clots, slowly improved. Then, two weeks ago her MRI showed the tumor had not grown and swelling around her brain had decreased; she should return in two months for another MRI. We took time to celebrate this reprieve; I called them our golden days.

Her oncologist promised, however, that the pervasive cancer would return and encouraged my friend to think about her next treatment options.

Meanwhile, it was time for me to return home for much needed change and I boarded the plane again. Yet the seven hour journey, I quickly realized, didn’t just drop me off to pick up my life where I’d left off last Easter. I came home, in many ways, a stranger now to my life on this mountain.

I found myself, for example, aching for bright, colorful flowers. A trip to the garden center revealed my favorite brilliant red geraniums for the mailbox planter were sold out. I purchased others that would do, then remembered the last time my soul felt this depleted, how I’d turned to quilting.

Flowers, my heart pleaded. Grandmother’s flower garden pattern, I decided. I enlarged the tiny petal pattern because I wanted this project to come alive soon, not take months. I sorted out the brightest colors from my fabric stash and started cutting the pieces for what I could now see would be a flower-filled tablecloth for the heart of my kitchen: my table.

IMG_20150630_153245530-2                                             Playing around with flower placement

The project is moving along quickly. As my sewing machine and I create each flower, this activity feels almost sacrosanct as each flower grows into being. I am also, in some mysterious way, renewing as I wait for the desert part of my soul to help me understand other recent shifts in my inner landscape.

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Rising From Dark Places

Recently, a perfect storm of events collided in my life and, stunned, I slid into a dark place I’d not visited for more than fifteen years, when I’d been severely assaulted by a client in the residential program I then directed. That time, anxiety, flashbacks, and a long slide into some old, dark waters kept me home from work for two weeks. The wounds that re-opened this time swept me swiftly back into those murky waters that I thought had been cleared, and again I was on the couch for more days than I would have chosen.

I’m in the end stages of completing my memoir and taking steps toward marketing; have a small, productive garden; more than an acre of grounds, my small home, and my three cats to care for; as well as lots of wholesome cooking and preserving to do. Everything came to a grinding pause for three weeks. (Please know I did feed my pets.)  I resented this precious time stolen from me today by other people’s violent actions long ago.

I think of our military men and women daily: the violence so many encounter in horrific experiences in foreign lands, and the trauma so many have endured. I’m grateful our military hospitals are doing a better job with diagnosing and treating PTSD, yet also know there’s still a long journey ahead with the monumental numbers who need treatment in our overcrowded system. My heart goes out to anyone, particularly our veterans, with this diagnosis; I know good treatment makes an immeasurable difference.

As I slogged around the house in my own aftershocks, I looked for something to do to occupy my hands as my soul worked at healing. My eyes landed on a small pile of fabric pieces I’d purchased months ago to make a small quilt. Listlessly I cut out a few strips, then soon stopped, depleted. The next day I cut a few more, and the next day a few more than the day before. In a pace matched only by a sluggish turtle, all the quilt pieces were finally cut, and I sewed a few together. They looked so lovely; I could feel some energy returning. By the end of two weeks, the quilt top was complete and I was thrilled with the outcome.

I still need to sew a muslin border on the edges, and later this fall, I’ll layer the top with batting and backing. This winter, when I’m homebound on my mountain and it feels so cozy to have a quilt on my lap, I’ll quilt it. Meanwhile the quilt top graces the back of my kitchen loveseat in my tiny reading nook. Each time my eyes are drawn to those beautiful autumn colors, they bring deep appreciation for their soft beauty, and a wave of peace through my body. They also remind me that from dark places, it is possible to bring healing and silent splendor.

Autumn Quilt 001

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What Really Matters?

As you travel on this pathway we call life, have you considered what matters most to you? If you were to develop a terminal illness, do you think your life priorities might shift? Remain the same?

Although I have no life-threatening illness I am aware of, I have for several weeks now journeyed at the side of a friend with incurable brain cancer. I see this virulent, aggressive disease steal a little more of her life each week—loss of mobility, loss of the use of one arm, loss of speech, loss of the ability to live independently, loss of self care skills, loss of cherished leisure skills, and in time, the glioblastoma will pilfer her final possession: her life.

Sorrowed by a serious set-back a few days ago at a time when we were geared up to work at therapies that would help her walk again and use both her arms, I have been ruminating about what’s truly important in life, and about how we use our precious time here on earth together. When we arrive at the end of our days—as we all will one day—what are the things we’ll remember as the things that truly mattered? Will it be the size or elegance of our home? The kind of car or truck we drive? The brand name of furniture we place in our homes? The size of our bank accounts? Or something else? While i felt the above are all nice, I discarded each as not one that matters most.

I thought back to my young neighbor years ago, Louise, who developed colon cancer and soon died. After visiting with her one day at her home, Louise walked outside into the warm sunny Catskill day with me as I prepared to leave. I opened the car door to slide in, when she suddenly said, “Oh, look at the beautiful yellow bird,” and pointed to a young tree close to us, where the bird perched. I looked at the bright, lemon-colored bird and then looked at Louise’s face as she told me what kind it was. Her blue eyes glowed with pleasure from the bird’s presence, her smile was peace-filled and lovely, and her entire face radiated inner joy, a reflection of the gifts the yellow bird had given her.

After Louise died, I remembered that brief moment often and vividly, as I still do today, feeling the cloudless blue sky and sun envelop us all in that brief moment of warmth and profound pleasure. Small perfect moments like these matter so much, moments that can easily slip away unnoticed, yet moments to vigilantly watch for, in order to enter into them fully and deeply.

A colorful kaleidoscope of rich memories like these passed through my mind as I pondered: my children young, completely and happily absorbed into moments of deep pleasure: watching a tadpole swim, opening a birthday gift, swinging high in the park, engrossed in a book. These were interspersed with a slideshow of times with friends, with past clients and patients with whom I worked.

These are the events, to me, that matter most in life: our complete presence with each other. Our willingness to “hold space” with one another.

A Facebook friend recently shared an excellent article about holding space with each other that captures what I am describing. Although it centers on an end-of-life moment, I believe we can hold space with another at any time in life. If you’d like to read more, the link is: http://heatherplett.com/2015/03/hold-space/

As I hold space with my friend each day now, I can think of nothing that matters more in life.

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A Modest Proposal

With deference to Jonathan Swift for borrowing his book title, I have long thought about this proposal for every politician in America. The proposal would not go to the house or senate for a vote; it would go to our citizens and, if passed, would become a permanent law of the land, until or unless the people wanted a re-vote.

Like the title, my proposal is not new. It’s actually a spin-off concept, simply a very good idea, from a non-profit organization in rural upstate New York’s Delaware County where I worked for thirteen years. The agency was deeply dedicated to excellence in an area of human services—serving the mentally delayed and mentally ill—that often lacks quality. Here’s what we did:

When a new employee was hired, regardless of job title, he or she spent the first day of employment in a role play as a client receiving our organization’s services. Each was given a disability (eg., confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side of the body, blindness, inability to speak) and several other daily living goals to promote identified growth areas: eating skills, verbal skills, gross and fine motor skills, social skills, and often goals to improve maladaptive behaviors. The employee role-play goal: to increase empathy in a highly positive environment for those we served.

You may now sense where I’m heading: I submit that anyone who wishes to serve the people in our country be required to enter a minimum week-long, 24 hour-day role-play, stepping into the shoes of a huge segment of our population, those who live within or close to poverty guidelines.

This candidate would become a single parent of three children, 13, 9, and 6, employed as a stock/check-out person at a big box store, earn $18,700 per year gross income (40 hour week x 52 weeks x $9.00 per hour), have chronic asthma, requiring an inhaler that cost $100.00 per month, and have no medical benefits. Home would have two bedrooms, noisy neighbors, and be located in a moderately high crime rate area. The car would be ten years old, have worn tires, brakes, and an overdue inspection.

During the role-play week, the following would occur:

• The youngest child wakes up sick and must stay home. Parent choices: (1) call into work, say she/he is staying home with the child. With no personal time, the day is unpaid, or (2) have the oldest child stay home from school to care for the sick child. Child Protective Services has already investigated several of these “illegal” absences. Paying a babysitter is not possible.
• Driving to work, the parent is stopped for the expired inspection sticker. The parent gets a temporary inspection during lunch hour using food money to pay the fee; the tires and brakes must be fixed in a week for a fee of $174.00.
• In mid-week, the parent’s breathing inhaler empties; the parent must choose: buy another inhaler or tonight’s food from the dwindling food dollars.
• At home, a final disconnect letter waits from the electric company for $129.00. The parent puts this on a credit card which she/he pays $20.00 per month.

These problems are but sample barriers that our fellow low-income, uninsured citizens encounter daily, yet are problems so far from our politicians’ lifestyles.

I cannot stop imagining our country as one where everyone could earn a living wage….

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Pondering Oxymorons

This morning I sat outside on Nora’s peaceful patio here in Arizona,  practicing mindful meditation on this late-April morning. The day had not warmed yet the dry air comfortably surrounded my bare legs and arms. When my eyes opened, they serenely gazed at a plant in gorgeous bloom, then moved to the swimmer’s pool where water gently rippled toward the tree end of the pool, as three small trees cast stunning shadows onto the walkway, rocks, and water’s rhythm. IMG_20150428_084907429

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A mockingbird sang to me as, far away, I heard heavy equipment tell its raucous story of new construction in this desert place where, when Nora bought this home two decades ago, there were no other homes, just hers and the stunning desert mountains.

I felt surrounded and embraced by beauty, today unable to pair this natural beauty with Nora, fifteen minutes away in a hospital ward, quietly, gracefully, determinedly waging her silent battle against the disease named glioblastoma that seeks to steal her body.

The pale, balding, easily nauseated, seemingly gentle blue-eyed woman chooses to deal with her disease with unfathomable grace. She has never uttered a word of complaint. She moves through each moment of her day with all the poise she can manage: she reads the paper and magazines that arrive in the mail; she watches her favorite television programs; she checks her emails on her smart phone; she enjoys visitors.

My eyes lifted up and outward then to the breathtaking mountains so near. Nora mentioned yesterday there’s not one of these that she’s not climbed several times. She retired early at 60 and never ceased her love of hiking, this woman who has been so healthy and so fit all her life that it was utterly incongruous to accept the diagnosis of stage 4 brain cancer.

If I think of Nora’s body as the sparkling pool water, then imagine pouring gallons of black oil into it and watching the horrific assault of pollution slowly seep into every corner of the pool as that brain cancer did, that’s the level of incongruity I feel. We’re in a hard place right now, three weeks after chemo and radiation completed, her white blood count is dangerously low and she is hospitalized in isolation, at a high risk for infection. Visitors must wear masks, gloves, and gowns. Strong, broad spectrum antibiotics drip into her veins along with anti-nausea medication.

We view this time as another slide into the black holeIMG_20150428_092740368_HDR, and affirm that she’ll climb out again. She is working hard at physical therapy to regain use of her right leg and arm, part of her body–that tall, gentle lifetime companion to her soul who has become this recent stranger. In my mind, I picture her one day home again, sitting next to me here drinking in the peace, solitude, and beauty that she created long ago.

In this time of uncertainty, I do know one thing for certain: whatever course this disease travels, Nora has created an amazing space in our world. Just as her spirit is here with it now, the quiet stunning grace and gentleness such a profound reflection of her psyche, she will forever be a part of this landscape.

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Climb Every Mountain: a Quilt Story

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Have you ever felt you are exactly where you need to be in the universe? If so, you will understand how I feel when I look at the Climb Every Mountain quilt that hangs majestically on cousin Nora’s huge wall above her king-sized bed. Her sister, Lynne, made the quilt and though I’ve never asked Lynne, I feel certain she chose that pattern because Nora has climbed so many mountains in her lifetime.

She and Lynn grew up with their parents on a small family dairy farm in a small dairy community.

Life there was peaceful as Nora grew up and she became fascinated with the earth that surrounded her. I didn’t know Nora then (her father and my former mother-in-law were siblings) yet in my mind’s eye I easily see her endlessly exploring the hills and meadows on the farm with quiet fascination. After high school and college, she went to Alaska for an advanced degree and became a geologist, studying rocks all over the world that told her much about how our earth was created. The only continent she has not visited is Australia.

Nora’s work brought her to the desert a few decades ago and she settled here, then retired a few years ago. Her desert home is a living, breathing reflection of her love for the earth: outside, the house is surrounded with rocks and desert plants, landscaping that Nora has done over the years she’s been here. Inside her home, reside more rocks, many with fossils, quietly sitting in nooks and crannies, on shelves, window ledges, and some gathered in boxes on the floor. If you look closely at the headboard in the picture, you’ll see a pint Mason jar. It contains ashes from Mount Saint Helens.

After retirement, Nora continued her world travels, hiking into new places and climbing more mountains. Last Thanksgiving she flew to Virginia to spend the holiday with our small family. It was a memorable several days: making seven pies the night before Thanksgiving (for six people), hiking, catching up after many months, and simply enjoying each other’s company.

During her Virginia stay with us Nora mentioned experiencing numbness in her right arm and soon, after returning home, went to a doctor. Within a few days of testing, Nora learned she had glioblastoma, stage IV brain cancer. We were all stunned, not Nora, who had one of the best brains in the family, who had always led a super healthy lifestyle. It was irrational thinking in those first days; we simply couldn’t process it. Until everything changed very quickly: surgery that removed much but not all of the cancer, plans for treatment, a flight to Houston for a second opinion, a return home when they could offer no more than Las Vegas, chemo and radiation simultaneously that have been completed today, seizures that left her right side partially non-functional, and most recently, clots in her lungs, which are now dissipating.

My daughter, Susan, stayed with Nora during the past six weeks, then needed to return home. On Easter Sunday I flew in to stay indefinitely. I had known on a visceral level that I would share this journey with her.

Now, as Nora climbs the most difficult mountain of her life, we’re able to walk together for part of her journey. As she has done all her life when she quietly and determinedly reached for each of her goals, she is working very hard. We all affirm she will overcome this profoundly unwelcome stranger in our midst.

There is still that one more continent to explore.

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Some Thoughts on Kindness

If ever you feel a need for an infusion of kindness, I have a recommendation for you. For those who know me, you are aware that kindness is a high-priority personal value of mine. Recently, while searching my library for books about kindness, I discovered a tiny treasure. The cover, simple yet intriguing with cursive letters, announced: Congratulations, by the way: some thoughts on kindness by George Saunders. What I found inside the thin book, slightly larger than my Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was, surprisingly, a commencement address given by Professor of English George Saunders to the Syracuse University convocation ceremony in May, 2013. The pairing of a graduation address with the value of kindness seemed incongruous to me. Not for long though.

Saunders’ introductory words were:   

   Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is:

   Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).    

   And I intend to respect that tradition.

Saunders then described some common regrets he might have had, as some of his peers had, but did not. Instead, he recalled a girl, Ellen (pseudonym), who came to his school in the 7th grade. Ellen wore blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it. She became a target of teasing and/or silence by her peers. And then one day Ellen was gone as abruptly as she had appeared.

Saunders continued:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

His remaining words were deeply moving, and I wondered how they might have impacted me if spoken to my graduating class. Later, Saunders’ message was published on The New York Times webpage. Within days it had been re-posted more than a million times and led to book publication, which I discovered shortly thereafter.

I’ve re-read Congratulations… so many times. The address itself is easy to find online and takes just fifteen minutes to read. Each re-read fills my heart with the wish to be kinder and an impetus to do a kindness that day.

If you’ve not read the full commencement address, here is the heart of Saunders’ challenge:

Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you—and go after those things as if nothing else matters.

Because, actually, nothing else does.

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