Wisdom of the Palm Tree

Blogger Friends, I lay no claim to being a poet. These are simply wise words I heard the palms whisper to me.      IMG_20150218_165535837_HDR-1 – Lake Worth, FL – 1.15.15

Wisdom of the Palm Tree

Graceful palms, you speak to me today
Beneath warm sunshine
And a gentle breeze that
Causes you to gently sway.

You willingly bend wherever
The breeze takes you and
With whatever comes your way
Just like a willow.

When hurricanes come, I watch
You bow beneath the whipping winds that force you,
Nearly breaking you at times, yet you remain
Always graceful despite the frantically snapping air.

You have no inner voice that rants,
“Why me? This is not fair!”
You bow and bend with whatever life brings,
Freely sharing your wisdom: what is, is.

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Unfinished Projects

During the past half-century (has it really been that long?) I have enjoyed creating so many kinds of craft projects: sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting, cross-stitch, candle-making, macramé, creating and selling children’s Quiet Time Books to teach fine motor skills such as buttoning, zippering, connecting Velcro, and more. Today, knitting and quilting are the two I still give much time to and, as with most crafters, you may not be surprised to hear that I have a few uncompleted projects tucked away. Last September I wrote about one of those projects in my Rising from Dark Places post.

Toward the end of last year, I knew I would not put up my artificial Christmas tree, so I pulled out a Christmas tree wall hanging I’d started more than five years ago. I’d found the pattern in a 1995 book by Debbie Munn: Quick Country Christmas Quilts. The tree was simple and, aside from the quilted hanging, it gave instructions for several small ornaments to hang on the buttons of the branches. Their creation was, for me, nothing short of a child’s delight in play.

Now, several days into this new year, the tree still hangs on the wall, swelling my heart with much pleasure whenever I look at it. Perhaps that’s, in part, because I’ve always loved the simplistic pattern. More, it’s also that I finally completed it. It’s so true, is it not? Good things often take more time than we might think.

That thought led me to ponder my memoir, a project I’ve worked at off and on for more than a decade. I completed the full draft and some revisions mid-last year, then sent it to an editor who gave me wonderful feedback (she liked it!) and revision suggestions. Just as I was digging in to revise, life intervened and I shelved the story again. For three months the large apricot colored binder with its thick manuscript quietly rested on my desk. It often reminded me of the bread dough that regularly and silently rises on my kitchen counter. After the right amount of time, the dough transforms beneath the towel that covers it and is ready to transform into its final product.

Within me, a similar process has been going on these recent months, as well. The story is nearly always present in my heart. During the months I have rested from it, the wonderful internal process of writing has brought an abundance of new ideas for content and structure, and I’ve jotted each down. I’m ready now to start what will be my final revision before I seek a publisher (or decide to self publish.) Today I will open the manuscript again to weave the new ideas into the present fabric of words.

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Good things can often take more time than we might think. And sometimes that’s perfectly okay.

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A Tale of Three Christmas Trees

 

This year our family was scattered for the holidays, so my son, Chip, and I planned to share a non-traditional meal on Christmas afternoon: I’d make creamed turkey with veggies, he’d make crepes, and we’d have cranberry sauce on the side. A few days before Christmas, he called to ask if I’d like to split the three large stacks of wood on my property on Christmas afternoon. A friend had loaned us his splitter.

“That’s great. Yes,” I replied, smiling with anticipation.

Aesthetically, I love to look at woodpiles, especially when they are neatly cut chunks tidily stacked. A year ago, we had made three stacks in the yard: one by the stream (a fallen tree), one by the woods I call The Glen, and a third (diseased by years of poison ivy rope strangulation), in a grassy space near the road. Whenever I went outside, my eyes fastened on the beauty of the wood walls, and I felt much pleasure in the beautiful symmetry of the stacked circles. Now, after months of providing serene splendor in the yard, it was time for their next life season: providing heat.

The day was surprisingly warm and sunny, about 60 degrees. Chip arrived, checked the splitter’s gas tank, and found it empty. He knew I always have an extra gas can handy, but today it was empty. Nearby gas stations were closed. Fortunately our next idea proved fruitful: we found some gas (maybe a gallon) in the riding mower, siphoned it out, filled the splitter, and got to work. Chip loaded the chunks on the platform (the hard work) and I ran the hydraulic wedge back and forth (the easy work.) Soon, we got into an easy rhythm and I was running the wedge back and forth non-stop. But moments of unease nagged at me as I wondered if we had enough gas. We hoped to split all the wood today; the splitter needed to be returned that night.

As we completed the oak tree in The Glen and moved to the cherry tree near the road, I again worried about the gas.

“Hey, we’ll split until we run out and finish another day, if we have to,” Chip said. We resumed our work. Time pleasantly passed as we worked through the oak wood wall, when a sudden small knowing inside me silently slipped out and spread through my body. Deeply spiritual but not connected with formal religion, I had just remembered the story of Jesus feeding a multitude with just a few fish and loaves of bread. Suddenly I knew we would have enough gas to complete our task.

The release of that deep knowing instantly transformed our moments into a sacrosanct place. I noticed more closely Chip’s woodsman garb and slid back in time to when we lived on our Catskill Mountain farm. I saw our much younger selves engaged in this same activity. I recalled Christmases on the farm. I remembered a gift from my ARC co-workers when I resigned to move to Virginia: Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. I thought of the unending generosity of that giving tree. Standing amidst pieces of split wood under clear sky and sweet winter sunshine, working with my wonderful son, I awoke fully to the day’s incredible abundance: majestic trees surrounding us, breezes whispering by us, mother earth beneath us, blue sky over us, the stream’s gentle trickle near us….

When we split the last chunk, Chip unscrewed the splitter’s gas cap. “We’ve got gas left over,” he reported, hazel eyes twinkling. “Merry Christmas, Mom.”

I hugged Chip tightly, as the full impact of both his and the day’s sacred gifts embraced me.

 

 

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In My Bones

Is there anyone who does not love homemade bread? If so, I have not met that person, have you?

As a young mother of two toddlers in the early 60s, I was gifted with a kind neighbor who taught me to make white bread, the only kind we ate back then. I loved my new skill for two reasons: my bread tasted so much better than Wonder Bread and, for as long as I was an at-home mom, I was proud to be able to make all our bread. Then life led me onto unexpected paths outside my home and I lost that precious time for several years.

In the late 70s, I remarried, a Catskill Mountain dairy farmer, a decision that brought two more toddlers and my unrelenting quest to learn how to make and preserve all our food from scratch. Microwaves had just hit the market but Cuisinart hadn’t invented bread machines yet, so the bread maker was—well—me. I thrived for more than a decade pursuing this lifestyle I loved until the farm economy nose-dived and I needed to return to work off the farm. Once again, I shelved my precious lifestyle mission.

Now, in retirement, I’ve embraced that wonderful quest again. I prefer, as much as possible, to be intimately acquainted with each ingredient I use and know where it came from. Recently I was kneading a batch of whole-grained bread for stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey and reflecting how many ways we can make delicious breads today. First, of course, are the bread-making machines on our kitchen counters. Mine is an unexpectedly acquired stainless rectangle that takes a lot of counter space bur does a decent job if I’m short on time.  Second is a recent quick way to make no-knead yeast dough: put all ingredients into a bowl, stir briskly until mixed, and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Whenever you want bread or pizza dough, you simply scoop out a ball of the dough and bake it.

Then there’s the old-fashioned way I learned five decades ago. As I kneaded the large stuffing dough ball, I decided this would always be my favorite method. I loved the feel of the gingerbread colored dough moving back and forth beneath my palms and of the many bits of cracked wheat that dimpled the ball. The sound of the dough sliding on the lightly floured breadboard beneath my hands also whispered promises of mouth-watering moments later on.

When just enough flour had been kneaded in, the dough lost all stickiness and felt cool, smooth, and pliable. Then I rolled it in my oiled bread bowl and covered it with a towel with these embroidered words, “Thank you for friends between us, food before us, Your presence among us.” As I began another task I smiled as I thought about the silent magical task that dough ball was about to begin to double its size in the dark beneath the towel.

My thoughts slid back to long-ago maple syrup seasons on the farm. On an unknown day in late winter, as the nights stayed cool, but the days began to warm, I’d step outside into a warm moistness in the air and know intuitively that sap had begun to run in the maple trees. The time had arrived to tap the trees and boil the sap into delectable maple syrup.  No one told me; the knowledge had, over the years, simply become stored in my bones.

Later, as my baking bread filled my small house with an aroma that no bread machine could duplicate, I understood that the act of making bread the old-fashioned way was for me as visceral as knowing when the sap had begun to flow. It was a silent, mysterious, and exquisite act of tapping into ancient wisdom.

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I Can’t Breathe

I grew up on the east end of Long Island, near the Hamptons, in a lower middle class family of five. When I started school, more than half my classmates were “colored,” as we called them in the 50s. They were children of Long Island’s large migrant population who worked on the duck and potato farms. The Long Island Railroad ran though our town and those tracks marked the divide between white and black residents’ homes. North of the tracks most homes were small, often unkempt shanties that usually had a shiny new car parked in the driveway. The “n” word was prevalent and we used to joke about those sparkling clean cars parked in weed-filled yards. The general attitude in my home and community was that black people were second-class citizens and I believed it.

Despite our financial difficulties, my mother was adamant that I attend college and I entered an upstate university to become an English teacher. Just a handful of black students attended and I vaguely wondered why. I didn’t yet tie that fact to another one:  by the time we graduated from high school in 1959, less than 25% of us were black.

As I was journeying into “happily ever after,” working at my degree, marrying my high school sweetheart, becoming the mother of two sons, the dream suddenly shattered when he disappeared with another woman. I, not yet degreed, was now a single mother of two small children, with a mortgage and without a car or income. I got a job I could walk to but quickly saw the minimum income would not be enough, so I did the unthinkable: I applied for public assistance for my children. In our town, people on public assistance were in the same boat as blacks: we were second class, society’s leaches, looking for a handout.

I could barely breathe the day I applied for “welfare.” I felt so shamed, helpless, and angry. In time I pulled our life back together, returned to college, finished my degree. Yet I never forgot those eighteen months on public assistance. To this day, I vividly remember standing in lines for government surplus food. Each time my check arrived, my face burned with humiliation.

I never became an English teacher either, for having fully experienced the predicament of my fellow “second-class” peers had changed my life. Suddenly I had a passion to help others move ahead in their difficult journeys, as I had been fortunate to do.

Four years ago I retired from a varied human services career, where I often met myself daily in each new client. The challenge to assist remains, yet now we have a new spotlight: police violence. Ferguson and Manhattan blasted to the forefront our crisis of the unnecessary killing of unarmed black men.

When Eric Garner cried out to the police that he couldn’t breathe, beyond the tragedy of his death, he also poignantly articulated the plight of all his peers. When will we all be able to breathe?

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Rising From Dark Places

  “In a time of destruction, create something.” ~ Maxine Hong Kingston

 

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.

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A Fascinating Story: The Quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama

When I was raising my children in the small, rural Catskill mountain town of Bovina Center, New York, I discovered the art of quilting had never died there. It was always an active, vibrant, and visceral part of the secluded agricultural town of a few hundred residents. There I learned the lovely art of quilting from farm women and subsequently made many quilts: for my three children, who designed what they liked; friendship quilts; and, with my talented quilting friend, Marilyn Gallant, coordinated a town quilt that, more than three decades later, still hangs on a wall in the Bovina Historical Museum.
Not long ago, at the Crozet Library, I was looking through the video collection and found two about quilting: The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend and another, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. The covers showed a very primitive black and white quilt with one red block. The lines were crooked and there appeared to be no plan or pattern. Puzzled and intrigued, I brought both videos home and over the next two evenings, watched a rich and fascinating quilting tradition of five generations of Arkansas women unfold before me.
These quilters also lived in a tiny rural town of 700 where quilting never faded as an art, and I felt an immediate kinship with them. Most were in my age group, seventh decade, and I felt particularly drawn to their history. For the quilters of Gee’s Bend were not the average southern women quilters; they were of African-American descent and traced their heritage directly back to slavery.
The town of Gee’s Bend came into the hands of Joseph Gee after the Creek Indians were “dispatched” by war in 1814. The narrow fifteen mile “quirky piece of geography” was comprised of thousands of secluded acres that were surrounded on three sides by the bridgeless Alabama River and its swamps. Gee established a cotton plantation and, following his death ten years later, the plantation passed through a succession of Gees, until eventually landing into the hands of Mark Pettway, a Gee relative to whom the plantation was indebted. With the property came with 101 slaves.
It was common for slaves to have their master’s surname and many of the quilters interviewed were named Pettway. “The Civil War brought ‘freedom,’ but little other change to the black residents of Gee’s Bend. They became tenant farmers, rather than chattel, and continued to farm the land.” The videos traced a long, difficult history that included the abject poverty of the Great Depression, a new white supremacist owner, who wanted to repopulate the town with white farmers, and so much more, until the quilters were discovered and came to prominence as national artists.
If you love quilting and have not heard of the Gee’s Bend quilters, I believe you will find this exceptional story a fascinating, beloved addition to your stash of quilting history.

NOTE: Quotes taken from “Gee’s Bend, The Architecture of the Quilt,” edited by Paul Arnett, Joanne Cubbs, Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr.

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May 11 – Mother’s Day 1994

May 11 – Mother's Day 1994.

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Vacation Time

I pour olive oil into my stainless fry pan and simmer sliced onions until they’re translucent, then add a thick homegrown pork chop, and brown it five minutes on each side. I add a cup of my homemade organic chicken broth and simmer the chop for another twenty-five minutes to fully tenderize it. As it simmers I wash and remove leaves from the organic collard greens I bought a few days ago. I pull some cooked, mashed acorn squash from the freezer, visitors from my compost in last summer’s garden. Next I cook the collards and instead of adding olive oil and a taste of balsamic vinegar, as I’d planned, I pour on some orange-garlic salad dressing I made last night.

So often I’ve heard people say, “I can’t be bothered cooking for just myself.” I find I wish they could experience the deep satisfaction that this half hour of food prep of home raised food gives me this evening. It’s a most delightful task in which I am mindful of every part of the preparation and cooking process, and in which my entire being is so peacefully and happily engaged. To have the time to prepare each step of a healthy, nurturing meal is a profound gift to me.

I retired a week ago, on the cusp of my seventieth birthday, and am in the process of re-creating my life yet once again. It is such a pleasure, these transition days. I have given myself a two-to-four week “vacation” during which I’m settling into my retirement home, going through all my possessions and letting go of those I no longer need, organizing my hobby areas—writing, editing, reading, sewing, quilting, and knitting into efficient work areas so they will be easily practical when I need one for the creative task I’ll do.

I wrote my retirement plan last August in a piece I titled “Two Years from Now: September 2013” and realize tonight that what I am so moved to write about at this moment is actually the first part of my plan. Here are the first two paragraphs I wrote then:

Two Years from Now – September 2013

I will retire at the end of this year and I envision the next chapter of my life as follows. I will well nurture each part of myself much better with increased time: my physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social, and professional aspects. I am and have been for quite some time out of balance with these parts and greater balance is my primary goal in the life that will soon arrive. Physical : My health is pivotal. I will exercise well at least three times a week, (instead of just once or twice on a weekend, as I do now) if not more to maintain the good health I fortunately possess. I control my Type II diabetes with diet and exercise, and medication controls my hypercholestremia and hypertension, all of which lurk heavily in both my parents’ heritages.

I will have a dog, Lucy, in addition to Hilary and Button, my cats, and we’ll keep each other well exercised outdoors. I will garden more to raise more of my own food and may have chickens again, as I did on the farm all those years ago. I’d consider raising a pig or vealer but I’m too close to vegetarianism to have all that meat. A few chickens will be enough.

In my younger life, I would have viewed this re-organizational time as chaotic, as I look around and see the gathered (like with like) materials waiting to be structured, but I’m experiencing it as joyful confusion as I ponder how I will assemble this small house for the tasks and activities I want to do in my retirement.

After my “vacation,” I’ll organize my time into some daily commitments to my highest priorities and that will bring healthy structure to this next chapter of my life. Meanwhile, having this time this evening to prepare this food with my fullest attention and enjoyment reaches deeply into my soul.

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Exactly Where I Need to Be…

– I sit on the couch in front of my woodstove this morning, warmed and peace-filled by its gentle flames and emanating heat, and reflect that this holiday brings the perfect backdrop theme of re-birth to my life this day. Button is curled next to me, his head resting on the arm like a pillow, feet curled in the precious ways that deeply endear him to me. Otherwise, I am alone, which is what I need for now, to begin to let in the enormity of the change in my life just two days ago when I retired from the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic, closing out the year with the conclusion of my eleven years there.

When I cleared my desk, finished the last pieces of work for my successor, said good-bye to my Executive Director as she was leaving, and then I was alone. I completed a few more small tasks, and the inevitable moment arrived. I began to turn off the lights in the dental area for the last time, softly touched Alexander’s fur—our bright green alligator puppet who possesses a beautiful set of teeth whom we use to teach oral hygiene to area school children—then looked around at it all one final time: the green, blue, yellow, and mauve operatories,  and suddenly memories flooded back as tears leaked into my eyes—all the planning lunches with Carol, choosing these wall colors, these chair colors, and the myriad other decisions over the years that gave birth to this dental program.

They are incredible memories in retrospect and I say a silent thanks for all the time and good that has transpired inside these walls that I’ve been so grateful to be part of. I slowly walk to the other end of the clinic where I key my code into the alarm system for the last time, close the keypad cover, push open the already locked door into the cool afternoon, push the door closed, then pull on it to be sure it is locked. It is. I tenderly place my palm on the door as if I were touching the shoulder of dear friend when I say good-bye. Just as my body houses my soul, so does this building silently surround the daily, incredible acts of care by our small staff and cadre of professional volunteers. This is the final closing, for I no longer have a key to this door. I am outside the walls now; I can no longer let myself inside. Tears return to my eyes as this realization affirms that I have truly left this circle of people who donate their medical, dental, eye, mental health, and women’s health care skills to the uninsured, low-income residents in our county.

A wonderful quote by Ellen Goodman has soothed my soul in the past during times of deep transition like this one and I let her words wash over me again: “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

Her perspective is perfect; the next chapter of my life waits and I know it’s going to be as good as these years here have been. I’ve long thought and planned, and my next career waits: more writing and editing and reading and cooking and gardening and knitting and sewing and quilting and…. not the least, more time with my family and John.

Yet I let my heart linger a little longer at the closed door, as the day moves toward late afternoon. What a journey this has been. I smile through tears as I think once again how graced I’ve been to have had a career that reflects the deepest desires and values I possess: to help others have a better life. Although I know this is exactly the right time for me to exit with grace, I have also known for a very long time that it would not be easy. I take a deep breath, exhale, then turn and walk toward my car, both of us alone in the large asphalt parking lot.

I drive to my Raphine home and pack the last few remnants of household goods into my car (Sunday was moving day) and contemplate that last night was the last night I’ll spend here. I’ve loved my decade in this sweet little Cape Cod. Starting tomorrow I’ll live full time in my retirement home, purchased more than a year ago, where I’ve been living on weekends. I won’t be driving 55 miles to work two counties away from the home that my heart has grown to know is my true home now, small and set on two quiet private acres with a stream, lots of trees, some open spaces where John and I created our first garden together last summer, and where I’ve got lots of other plans. I drive home, knowing I will go back to Rockbridge County. The house has not yet sold and my heart will draw me back for visits to the clinic. Our volunteer coordinator, Lynn, has sent me off with a volunteer application, after all.

Yet, now, in the solitude of this Christmas morning two days later, I gather together the gifts and cards I’ve not yet opened from my retirement party this past Monday night. Ever so slowly, as if I am handling sacred objects, I open each gift and card. I let the words and the physical gifts of caring into my heart. My emotions tumble around like a kaleidoscope: I cry, I smile, I feel the sadness of loss, I feel the gratitude of having shared these years with these amazing people. I reflect that the memories these tangibles will evoke each time I see or use one of them will gift me over and over with a panoramic slideshow of my time with the giver – this coffee mug, that tea cosy, the three beautifully hand-crochet-covered wooden clothes hangers, the Christmas cactus, the abundant cooking utensils for my now increased time for my beloved hobby, the embroidered bureau scarf, the wall plaque that tells the gifts of retirement, the mug and tea set—all this and there’s also so much more, when I begin to think of the unforgettable moments with our patients.

I break for a minute to make a cup of tea. While I’m waiting for the water to boil, I glance out my kitchen window into the silent yard and as I turn away, movement catches my eye. I turn back. A small parade of deer—one, two, three…—six in all pass by the bare trees at a leisurely pace ten feet from my window. Then one pauses and looks at the window as if she senses my nearness. We both remain still for several seconds and then I watch the line of deer as they continue on with their journey. I suddenly smile at them, for somewhere deep inside I feel reaffirmed that, at this moment, I am exactly where I need to be.

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