Opening the New Year with Compassion

If you want the world to be happy: practice compassion. If you want to be happy: practice compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

I particularly love this time of year, the silent yet stirring segue of the final week of 2015 into the fresh new pages of 2016. As I pondered what I would say here today to open this new year, I found the answer when I prepared to do my morning mindful meditation. Its theme, which resonates deeply in my wishful heart, was: May all beings be well and happy.

This metta-meditation, a very old Buddha technique to cultivate compassion, with regular practice can recondition our minds and open our hearts to both ourselves and others. Metta-meditation tells us we must not decide who deserves our compassion and who does not, but rather that compassion is something all beings deserve, even those responsible for horrendous crimes against humanity.

The guided meditation method to wish happiness and wellness for all beings is to first sit comfortably and, if helpful, close your eyes. First, see yourself in your mind, and mindfully say:

• May I be well and happy. Repeat.
• May I have no fears or sorrows. Repeat.
• May I be healthy and free from illness. Repeat.
• May I live calmly and peacefully. Repeat.

Then repeat the same affirmations for all others in this list, adjusting it to apply to you; for example you may not have a child but someone else you’d like to include. These are examples:

• Parents
May my parents be well and happy. Repeat.
May my parents have no fears or sorrows. Repeat.
May I be healthy and free from illness. Repeat.
May I live calmly and peacefully. Repeat.

Then repeat the meditation for each person on your list:

• Spouse or partner
• Child
• Teachers and mentor
• Friend
• A neutral person with whom you share the simple bond of being a fellow human being
• A person you dislike, keeping in mind the truth that “he or she is just like you—with pains and frustrations, desires and hopes.”
• All humans in the world
• All living beings everywhere, from single cell organisms to the highest form of intelligence

Professor Muesse (see below) states that “medical studies have been conducted and support the claim that prayer has a tangible, empirical effect on the health of those prayed for.” And “whether or not you believe in the effects of this practice… consider the fact that relieving a little of the hostility of just one person—yourself—will make that world a little better for everyone.”

I have found over time this practice has brought a noticeable and welcomed softening to my heart.

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Source: The Great Courses Series – Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Professor Mark W. Muesse, PhD, Rhodes College – Lecture #17

 

Posted in Kindness | 4 Comments

Leaving the Farm, Part II – Hilary, 21 Years Later

As I drove up the mountain to have my car serviced early this morning, I noticed some yellow walnut leaves lightly fluttering to the ground. They reminded me that in a few months there will be, instead of dying leaves, large snowflakes gently falling in a hushed early winter snowfall.

I’d been thinking about my cat, Hilary, and her more than two decades of life thus far. At my vet’s office, she’s known as the poster child for wellness chec2010-06-03 22.08.20k-ups. Why, you might wonder? Well, four years ago I took her in, expecting the usual good checkup, and learned she had breast cancer. Stunned, I didn’t even know cats got breast cancer. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she also needed surgery for stones in her urinary tract. I asked the vet my questions: what was her prognosis with and without surgery? With surgery, if the cancer didn’t re-occur in six months, chances were it wouldn’t. Without surgery, her life could last a few months more. What was her general condition aside from her current problems? Her blood work showed she appeared otherwise in good general health for a seventeen year old cat. What was the cost? Both surgeries could be done the same day and would amount to roughly $1,000.00.

I asked for some time to consider. Alone, then, with Hilary, I looked into her eyes as she watched me, almost appearing to understand we were going to have a serious talk. A tabby, she has black lines near her eyes that also give her the appearance of a perpetual frown.

“Okay, little girl, we have a choice: surgery or not,” I said in a low voice, still not knowing the decision.

“Remember when Mom’s cat got so sick and the vet did more than a thousand dollars of testing to determine what was wrong, and then Buster died two days later?”

Hilary, feet tucked under her on the gray Formica exam table, watched me, seeming to get the drift of the conversation, if her eye expression was any indicator. I stared at her quietly then, weighing our options: aged cat, costly surgery, would it give her added life or would it put her through discomfort and she might die soon after?

Was I imagining it, or was Hilary staring at me with obvious trust in her eyes? The options silently swirled around in my head until finally the vet’s words stood at the front of the line of the other choices: she’s otherwise in good general health.

I had my answer and it felt exactly right. “Okay, Hilary. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
She listened attentively, her lime-green eyes fastened on mine. “Let’s do the surgery. What I hope you can do is survive the six months cancer-free, okay? Let’s hope that will happen because we’ll do the breast cancer surgery just this once.”

So that’s what we did. She came through the surgery beautifully, passed the six-month cancer-free marker, and we got to share two more healthy years. When I took her in for a check-up last year, she’d been noticeably losing weight and I braced myself. Her new diagnosis was renal failure, quite common in older cats, I learned. “How much time does she have?” I asked the vet.

“It’s hard to tell,” she said. “She’s lost a lot of weight, but she appears to be doing okay otherwise.” She prescribed some maintenance medications which have brought us to today. Hilary’s a little over five pounds now, tips and totters a lot when she walks, yet still seems comfortable as she maintains her usual patterns. She sticks to her routine of waiting by the door each morning for me to let her out on the front deck where she spends her Virginia retirement in warmth, she begins pacing when around 6pm when it’s time for her wet food, and, otherwise, is a bit snippy with my other cat, my son’s cat when she visits there, and my daughter’s dogs who really want to be her friend.

And so, as golden leaves gently spiral to the ground, I do the one thing I can: I treasure each day, aware that the bitter-cold day will come when she and I will have to say good-bye.

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A Mystical Birthday Gift

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In the early morning hours of my recent birth day, I woke embraced in total darkness and thought of my mother exactly 74 years earlier. I knew her labor was prolonged and so I knew now, at 3am, she and I still had seven hours and 21 minutes ahead in the birthing task before us. As in that time nearly three-quarters of a century ago, I was surrounded by this same darkness within her body. In addition, I would have been moist, too, enclosed in a water environment much like all my swims later in life in the ocean, the bay, and the sound off the shores of Long Island.

An unexpected fact rose into my thoughts: I’d always been a fearful swimmer and in that moment of astonishing, fragile connection between two worlds seventy-four years apart, I questioned: was I fearful then? Of course, an instant response said silently, you must have felt terrified by being slowly pushed and squeezed forward into an unknown world ahead.

My thoughts returned to the wonder of the moment, an experience unlike any I’d ever experienced. Gratitude to my mom for giving me life rose within and gently filled all the spaces of my heart. I thought of all her labor: my birth, and all the tasks that followed in raising her first child. I was not an easy child to raise and our relationship wasn’t always smooth although, eventually, we did work through many of our conflicts toward the end of her 89 years. Yet, when she died, although I’d worked before and in years after to remove it, sadly one relentlessly immovable brick remained in the inner wall I had carried through the years.

Nevertheless, in the still-dark and mystical early morning of my birth day, I knew that my 74th birthday had opened with a profound gift of grace. At the end of the day I realized unequivocally that grace had unsparingly filled each moment of the day.

The next day, as I wrote about those mysterious moments, I found the gratitude that filled and softened my heart the day before remained. Then I thought I’d search for that stubborn, persistent brick that had weighed me down for decades–and discovered with joy that I could find it; it had disappeared–for good, I believed.

I was intensely humbled by this gracious gift. My favorite word, shalom, slid into my thoughts, filling them with the rich, diverse affirmations the word gives: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, and tranquility. And to you, my reader, I say, “Shalom.”

Posted in Childhood, Gifts, Gratitude | 2 Comments

Sunshine and Shadow – Completed

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I completed the Sunshine and Shadow quilt square today, which will be the masthead of Chapter 17 in my memoir. I particularly love greens and yellows, and these added an extra dimension of mindful pleasure to the lengthy process of making the pattern grids and then constructing the quilt block.

Four squares are now completed of the thirty-five that make up the quilt grid I planned out last fall, so I have a long journey ahead with the pleasing-to-me array of patterns and squares that remain to be created. When I was much younger, I had little patience for the time that long-term projects required; I wanted to get it done quickly so I could hold the completed project in my hands. A generous gift of the passing decades has been one of learning to focus on one thing at a time and experience the deep pleasure such mindfulness gives.

Thus I have tagged this post under Gifts, Gratitude, as well as Quilts. And, now I look forward with pleasure to starting the next quilt square tomorrow.

 

Posted in Gifts, Gratitude, Quilts | 4 Comments

A Tiny Story About Compassion

No act of violence is as strong as an act of compassion.

I found the words recently on a slip of paper that had fallen between my driver and passenger seats. I didn’t recall writing them, so it must have quite awhile ago that, while driving, I pulled to the side of the road and wrote down words I had just heard either on a CD story I was listening to or an NPR radio show, words that had reached in and touched me so deeply I didn’t want to forget them.

Because I’m a writer, I always record where a quote came from. On this note to myself, I had written beneath the quote, “Co Springs.” The words make no sense to me today as a quote source. If you know whose words these are, I’d be pleased if you would kindly let me know so I can credit that wise person.

No act of violence is as strong as an act of compassion.

So powerful to ponder.

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Addendum: My friend, Lynn Foster, emailed me tonight to give me the link to this quote. It’s here: https://prh.org/physicians-statement-on-planned…/ This was a statement made by the physicians of Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs on 11-28-2015 following the vicious attack at the clinic that killed three people and wounded nine. The words are so powerful and poignant and true, I believe. The entire statement is so worth reading in full. Lynn, thank you so much.

Posted in Compassion, Kindness, Quotes | 2 Comments

Sunshine and Shadow – The Shadow Part

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When a person begins to research quilt patterns to any extent, it can be confusing, for you discover early on that many patterns have a number of different names. Much of the research I’ve done for my work-in-progress (WIP) story quilt began with lists of quilt names that seemed to me to symbolize respective chapters of my life. “Sunshine and Shadow” resonated immediately with me for one particular chapter, and may do so for most of us as we journey through our decades. I learned “Sunshine and Shadow” was a traditional 19th century Amish and Mennonite pattern. First I went to the online Metropolitan Museum and found what they call “the split-bars pattern,” shown here:

Very quickly I discovered the most popular Amish design of “Sunshine and Shadow” was much different: an abundantly colorful pattern I’d used decades ago to make a quilt for my son when he went to college. That pattern, named “Around the World” I’d found in a quilt magazine. My son and I had designed the color pattern ourselves and, in my recent research, I found this quilt with the identical color scheme we’d chosen.

Yet, because neither of the above linked patterns reflected the visual I was looking for, I continued my search, looking at literally hundreds of pattern variations quilters have created through the decades. At last, my eyes found one very unique pattern that resonated in an “Aha” moment.

The photo you see at the top of this post is the almost-assembled lower half of the square, the “Shadow” part. I hope to complete the “Sunshine” part this weekend and post the completed square early next week.

If you are a quilter, Happy Quilting!

Posted in Quilts | 2 Comments

A Peaceful Place

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Two decades ago, in my fifties, life brought a curve ball so profound that it took most of the decade to work through. My children were grown, I was single, and I ached for a place to find peace.

It took a long time to find it, that sweet, singular place where I could go at any time to release all my tension, stress, and anxiety and where a gentle peace washed over and renewed my spirit.

I used to think my best place was near water, for when I sat on the warm granules of ocean sand, my hand shielding my eyes from brilliant sun, watching waves ebb and flow, I felt deeply serene and part of a timeless process. The waves that either fiercely crashed or gently lapped onto shore reminded me of Mother Nature’s vast contrasts, her ferocious, crushing power that could also be both gentle and kind. Yet the salty, sandy seashore was frequently not available to me.

Then I thought my quiet place was in the mountains, where I have lived most of my adult life. Countless times I have gazed at majestic mountains, their swelling contours suggesting to me that profound symbol of nurturance, a woman’s breast, and heard these words silently arise within: I will lift mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.

Another time I thought I’d found my perfect place in a beautiful magazine picture:

A thirty-ish woman sits cross-legged, eyes closed with a radiant serene look on her perfect skin, her lovely face tilted upward. No wonder: she is surrounded by lavish, large-leafed greenery centering around a large boulder where a stream of water trickles down into a small pool. Nearby are objects sacred to her: a candle, a picture, and a few small shells.

“There must be a way to devise something like that in the corner of my bedroom,” I thought. Then I pondered finding a boulder and moving it, then creating a waterfall that would not spill water all over the rug, flood the entire first floor before it streamed out the door and into the yard. Well, it was a nice thought.

I tried body massages, long walks with Mother Nature, biking beneath sunshine and clouds of all seasons, quilting in a well-lit corner of my homey living room, kayaking alone on a still, tree-surrounded lake, the trees beautifully reflected in clear glistening water. I’d been in sacred church sanctuaries of many denominations and listened to stunning symphonies. All had refreshed and restored me, yet most were places where I needed to travel.

Then, quite unexpectedly, my quiet place came to me in the midst of my catastrophic fifties. I sat on a hard chair, one of a therapeutic circle of women. The facilitator placed a yards- long piece of soft fabric across all our laps.

I knit my eyebrows in puzzlement as she softly instructed, “Now place both hands, palm down, over the fabric and loosely grasp it.”

We did.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

With my eyes closed, I noticed the gentleness of her voice. “Now take a few deep breaths and then think only about the feel of the fabric you are holding.”

A shallow breather all my life, I always welcomed a reminder to breathe deeply. Within seconds of following her instructions, I began to experience a change within I’d never known before. My body’s constant internal churning began to subside and a new peacefulness, ever so slowly, flowed throughout my body.

I felt my forehead broaden as tension melted away over my eyes. My mouth softened and felt like it spread into a small smile. My head slowly drooped as my neck muscles relaxed, my shoulders dropped, my chest lightened, my abdomen relaxed, and my legs felt so loose I wasn’t sure they could support me if I stood up.

I had just had my first meditation experience. I’d discovered a peace-filled place I had with me always, within myself.

 

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Flying Geese Quilt Pattern

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I’ve happily returned to quilt-making, to the quilt that will, along with my memoir, represent much of the story of my life. The quilt is comprised of a variety of patterns ranging from the early 1800s, the 1900s, and also some of my own design.

Today I completed my Flying Geese square, known also as a Code Pattern, one of several designs used in the Civil War’s Underground Railroad Quilts that hung on clotheslines or lay on windowsills of Southern Abolitionists committed to helping slaves escape to the North. Because slaves were not taught to read or write, Abolitionists needed a secret system to communicate to slaves how they should travel north by following the geese. Code patterns became an important solution.

Flying Geese was just one of several code patterns. Others can be seen here. The large triangle with the darker color represents the goose; the two smaller side triangles, light in color, represent the sky. Quilts were arranged so that the “geese” direction pointed north to another safe house, which were reportedly about ten miles apart.

The Edwards History and Genealogy Center tells us in this link that “With this quilt the slaves learned they were to take their direction, timing, and behavior from the migrating geese. Since geese fly north in the spring, it was also the best time for slaves to escape. Geese have to stop at waterways along their journey in order to rest and eat. Especially since geese make loud honking noises it was easy for runaways to follow their flight pattern.”

Some patterns are arranged so the geese all flying in the same direction as shown in the lovely illustration here. Others are arranged as I chose to do mine: the geese arranged in four different directions. This varied-direction configuration reflected, for me, how I was tugged in several directions at that particular time in my life, unsure about which direction to travel next in my personal journey.

One of the finest rewards of my quilt work, aside from creating story squares richly meaningful to me, is that, as I work at piecing, I frequently think with gratitude about the Abolitionist women so committed to freeing people from slavery. Yet, more viscerally, I am keenly aware I follow in the footsteps of slave women and all women who made story quilts. I’m filled with a deep reverence and affinity for these amazing women with their profound desire to create and leave their story in fabric form for their families, future generations, historians, and those of us who are passionate about women’s stories.

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Posted in Gifts, Quilts | 1 Comment

The Meaning of Community – A Bovina Story

Bovina Center, NY was, and remains to this day, a tiny rural town in the Catskill Mountains, a “dry” town where you could not purchase alcohol beverages, a place where quilting never died, and where the singular church, a Presbyterian Church, was the heart of the community. In 1973, I was a city girl and single mother, with one son, who planned to never marry again. Passing years would show me that life had other plans though and after a three-year courtship, I married Don, a country boy, a farmer with a small dairy herd and we began to forge our 23- year partnership.

Four years later, in 1977, Polly was born and then Susan arrived in 1979. One evening in 1980, my son Chip was at basketball practice in the neighboring town of Delhi, and I needed to pick him up. The night was chilly, the ground slippery with a thin layer of ice, and I carefully traversed the slope down to the barn, where I would tell Don I was leaving to pick Chip up. Halfway down the slope I slipped, fell, and heard my ankle snap as I landed on my bottom. I sat stunned for a few minutes, then slowly crab-crawled to the milk house door, somehow got inside, and managed to get Don’s attention despite the strident noise of the compressor that ran the milking machines.

Don quickly finished milking, we packed the girls in the car, and left for the small emergency room in Delhi. Several hours later we returned home and I hobbled, with assistance, up to the house with my new crutches and a cast on my right leg, which would be my 10-week winter companion that year.

I soon learned what an impediment crutches and a cast were when caring for a 1 and 3-year-old in our family of five. Every task I needed to do slowed to a virtual turtle pace and I suddenly realized a very, very long winter lay ahead.

When the phone rang the next afternoon, I awkwardly thumped my way over to it and said, “Hello.” A friend told me she was sorry to hear about my broken ankle, then told me our church had organized an ongoing schedule to bring daily meals to our home. I could not take this in, at first, for I’d grown up in a small Long Island community where our family had a few neighborhood friendships, attended the Catholic Church and came home right afterward, and that was the extent of our community ties. Now the Bovina church community was reaching out to us in an unimaginable way, preparing food not only for their own busy families, but for ours as well.

Each day for weeks, a full and hearty main course arrived at my front door in the hands of a kind neighbor, friend, or church couple, accompanied by a pie, a cake, or cookies. After the first few days I became moved to tears, at times, with the most humble gratitude I’d ever experienced. I remember clearly the day when the mom of a large, financially struggling family arrived with a huge pot of spaghetti. Her blue eyes twinkled as she smiled and said, “Well, it’s not much, but it’s sustenance.”

Sustenance? Indeed. It was sustenance not only for our bodies but gave rich sustenance to our souls.

Today, in my seventh decade of life, I smile when I remember the multiple opportunities I’ve had to pass on that kindness to others. Most often, though, when I recall that winter, the same deep gratitude I felt then envelopes me like a prayer shawl in the present. I realize that my fall on the slippery slope—when people from all over my community arrived with food, or offers to care for my daughters, or to help with laundry or housework—transformed into the deepest sense of community I’d ever experienced, either before or since, in my lifetime.

Posted in Bovina Center, NY, Stories, Bovina Stories | 2 Comments

My 1950 Toni Home Perm

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I was eight years old in 1950 and Toni Home permanents were all the rage. Many of my third grade classmates were appearing in school looking so pretty with their curls. Now my Mom had just purchased a Toni home perm kit  and I, too, was going to have Shirley Temple curls. I couldn’t wait!

The big day was set for Saturday. My grandmother Davis arrived at our back door with a big smile. She was going to help my Mom, who soon washed my hair, then wrapped a big towel around it like a turban. She sat me on a bench Grandpa Davis had made, high so my Mom could stand behind me and work easily on my hair. Wrapping an old plastic tablecloth around me, Mom combed out my hair as Grandma Davis read the perm directions to her.

Soon Mom sectioned off slivers of hair, wrapped them in tissue paper, and tightly rolled my shoulder-length, naturally-wavy hair around very small rollers all over my head. Those rollers pinched and I didn’t like them, but that seemed mild when Mom started the next step, when she applied a horrible smelling-like-ammonia rinse all over my head that dripped down my neck and onto my back and made me choke when I breathed in. She set a timer and I sat miserably until it finally dinged.

It seemed like ages until she rinsed it off and then applied something called conditioner. She left it on awhile and though it dripped, too, it didn’t have the awful smell the other stuff did, so I wasn’t as cranky. Finally the big moment arrived: she removed the rollers and brushed my hair.

“This is a tight curl,” Mom remarked as she tugged to get a brush through my thick reddish-brown hair. Several minutes later, brushing completed, my mother walked around and stood in front of me, her eyes narrowing as she looked at my hair. The kitchen became so silent that I heard the clock tick softly. As I watched my mother’s eyes, I saw them slowly fill with tears. I looked over at my grandmother; her big brown eyes were huge as she silently puffed away on her cigarette and stared at me.
“It’s not very good, is it?” my mother said to Grandmother Davis.

My grandmother took a long puff, paused briefly, then exhaled; I always watched her smoking process with fascination. We all knew she didn’t inhale, so she must have swallowed the smoke because it soon emerged through her nose like a dragon’s fire. Today I wasn’t fascinated though as I waited for her words. Finally she said, “I think it looks awful, Audrey.” To this day, I remember her nasal Long Island twang as she said “awful.”

My mother’s tears increased. I jumped off the stool, ran to my room to look in my mirror, then started wailing, completely forgetting my recent vow to never cry again. My hair looked just like the kinky steel-wool pot scrubber my mother used to clean our pots and pans. My long hair had transformed into a tight Brillo pad!
I ran back to the kitchen, shouting, “I hate my hair! I’m not leaving the house until this horrible mess is gone.”

I didn’t get my way, of course, nor do I recall the growing-out process. But I do know I never had another perm until I was in my fifties, when I warned my hairdresser how easily my hair curled. My shoulder-length curls emerged soft and just right in the 1990s; I enjoyed my wash and wear style for several years.

– – – – – – – – – –

Recently, looking for information about those old home perms, I found this validation of my experience in a 2012 article at http://hubpages.com/style/Home-Perms. Titled The Return of the Curl, it opened with these words:

Ever been wiped out by a permanent wave…? When it comes to do-it-yourself, home perms are notoriously dodgy. Yet they have…apparently, come a long way from the burnt-out frizz producing chemical catastrophes of our mothers and grandmothers era and thank heavens for that.

Although the memory always makes me smile, I found the word “catastrophe” a perfect description for my 1950 home perm.

Posted in Childhood | 2 Comments

Carol’s Coats

Carol Tyree. We worked together for over a decade. We retired together on the last work day of 2011. She was more deeply devoted to her family and her church than anyone I had known. And we shared several seasons of a clothing ministry she expanded upon in one of the poorest parts of West Virginia.

In 2010, Carol attended a church gathering, as she did each summer that I knew her, in North Carolina, where she and her sister taught vacation bible school; there she also learned of a Coat Drive for children in West Virginia. As she told me one morning at work, after she’d returned, “The pastor said a lot of the kids don’t have coats for winter.” When she understood the vast extent of their poverty, she said to the pastor, “Why don’t we give them shoes and socks, and pants and shirts and along with their winter coats?”

The pastor replied, “If you want to do that, you go right ahead.”

And she did. She engaged not only her church in the ministry, she easily engaged me without even trying. “What if I knit hats for each child?” I asked, literally aching, as I always have, to help people living in poverty. In this situation they would be children that I’d, in all likelihood, never meet.

She enthusiastically said, “That would be great.”

As I watched television during those dark winter nights, I knit 30 small hats in every rainbow color for the children. I could complete one every other night or so. Now I wish I’d photographed them before I took them to Carol, for today they are a memory even more precious.

During two of the winters, we shopped during January sales for coats and other clothing for next year’s children. I clearly see Carol now in Rosa’s Department Store one winter afternoon a few years ago as we explored the children’s section. She was leafing through hangers on the coat rack, then pulled out a pink coat and said in her soft, gentle voice, “Oh, look at this one.” Her hazel eyes shone as she held the hangar above her shoulder so I could see the small coat. “Isn’t it adorable?”

I smiled, sharing her joy. She put the hooded coat in her cart and we moved on to another rack, where Carol pulled a small pink print pajama set, held it up, and ran her fingers tenderly over the fleece fabric as if the baby who would receive it was already surrounded in its soft embrace. She smiled. “It’s so soft. Feel it.” I stroked the soft fleece and marveled at the velvety feel.

Carol and David, her husband, had raised two wonderful sons, Matthew and Ben, whom they loved dearly. Yet, in Carol’s heart, for as long as I knew her, there remained a tiny space for a little girl, the girl I always hoped would come to her as a grandchild. Thus, while she enjoyed choosing clothes for both genders, she particularly adored choosing little girl clothing. Her delight was contagious.

We filled our carts to the brim with coats, jackets, and more for greatly reduced prices, neither of us paying attention to the amount we spent. Our delight was in visualizing the children who would receive these gifts from the heart, gifts given in the deepest spiritual sense of the holiday.

“You can’t imagine how much these kids appreciate any little thing,” Carol told me, describing a little boy whose coat was much too large. Yet he was unwilling to give it back to her, because he was so thrilled to have a new coat, even one way too large. She always returned with dozens of stories to share and some pictures showing the sheer joy the children experienced.

These memories are treasures I can never forget. Last Easter, I left VA for three months to help care for cousin Norma in Las Vegas, as she traversed the rocky road of Stage 4 brain cancer. When I returned home, I read a Facebook post by Carol saying she had a long road ahead of her. Taken aback, I wondered: had something happened while I was away? I called her and she told me of her stage 3 cancer. I was blown away. How had this happened so quietly, so quickly in such a short time?

I visited her twice. Carol was feeling better the second time I visited with friends Lynn Foster and Bobbie Cash. We shared a lovely two-hour visit, rich with conversation about past memories. Carol also told me that working at the Free Clinic for those ten years had been the best job in her life. When we hugged good bye, Carol was clearly tired. We talked about another visit soon, and in the future, going out for lunch again as we had so many times. The next day she was scheduled for a blood transfusion. The following day she was gone.

I miss Carol more than I can say. After someone I’ve loved or known well dies, I always have a profound ache to do something, anything to help. As I waited for an idea to come, I learned that Carol’s church is carrying on her quiet, wonderful ministry. They’ve established a fund named Carol’s Coats.

So this winter, again, I’m knitting hats during my quiet evenings, stitches filled with love as I think of young children in West Virginia whose lives Carol’s ministry will continue to touch.

Shalom, my friend. You made such a gentle, quiet difference in our world for all the days you were here with us.

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Posted in Gifts, Kindness, Knitting | 2 Comments

When Mental Illness Touches Your Life…

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“This is,” the author says, “the story of a family that was close and then came apart.”

Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia by Martha Graham-Waldon poses this question on the cover: What if you woke up one day with a family member who had changed into an entirely different person? The two young girls on the cover hold baby chicks in their small hands. The younger child holds one chick tenderly enclosed with both hands and looks at the camera with a sweet smile of happiness shadowed with a smudge of uncertainty. The older girl with darker hair holds one chick securely in each hand and looks down at them with confidence and obvious pleasure. It’s the kind of cover I love, one that gives me, before I even open the book, rich clues to what I’ll find within the pages.

“We had a magical childhood,” Graham-Waldon writes. There were four children: Martha, the youngest, Kathy two years older, and two big brothers, Charlie and John. “Although we lived in the city [in California], our parents fostered in us a love of nature through wilderness adventures from a very young age. Some summers we hiked in the High Sierras, carrying our gear on backpacks and on pack mules in the backcountry near Yosemite, Tuolome Meadows, Silver Dollar Lake…”

Graham-Waldon’s father made their comfortable lifestyle possible with his hard work and their leisure time creative and educational through his love of nature and classical guitar music. Graham-Waldon’s mother also worked equally hard but in a different way; she sought to be all things to all people, as did so many women of her era. As a result, she never achieved her own passions, one of which was to write a book about her research into human behavior.

In 1968, Kathy was on the cusp of adolescence when the family took a cross country trip to historical places in the U.S. and a sudden outburst marked a change in her usually happy personality. “She snapped,” Graham-Waldon writes. From that point forward, Kathy’s angry outbursts escalate as the family enters the terrifying world of schizophrenia. The long and convoluted journey of the next three decades is a powerful portrayal of the life of the family and, in particular, of a sister who deeply loves her bright, mentally ill big sister.

I was drawn to Graham-Waldon’s book, her first, because I have a younger sibling with the same disease, along with borderline intellectual delay. It profoundly affected our family’s functioning. As I read, I was deeply moved by the clear, yet sensitive exploration of the multitude of ways mental illness touches siblings’ lives. Despite my long experience with my younger sister, which continues to this day, I gained new insights through the author’s words.

The author’s wish is that her book “serve as a guide and touchstone for anyone experiencing similar turmoil in their lives. It is a voice for them—the voice that I wish I had had. It is a voice for all siblings and family members who have struggled with mental health issues, to encourage them to reclaim their own lives and inner joy. After all, surviving and thriving while going on with your own life is the best way to honor your sibling as well as yourself.”

I feel Graham-Waldon has well met her goal and highly recommend this well-written, important, and intimate memoir to those who have had mental illness connect with their lives, or others who have not, yet want to learn more about how schizophrenia affects the individuals in a family. I look forward to reading more of Graham-Waldon’s work.

Martha Graham-Waldron describes herself: “I am a writer, spiritual entrepreneur and armchair activist who happily resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California with my family and a menagerie of pets. My articles have been published locally in The Santa Cruz Sentinel, The Metro, and The Press Banner, and internationally in the Canadian Dance Connection as well as in several online journals. I am a winner of the Women’s Memoirs contest for a vignette that will appear in the forthcoming eBook Tales of Our Lives. A member of the National Association of Memoir Writers, I love travel, the outdoors, Jazzercise and music. I am thrilled to be debuting my first book, the memoir Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia with Black Opal Books in 2015.” Visit her website.

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