In the Year of the Flood…and Other Pearls of Wisdom

Whenever one of my mother’s tried and true sayings comes out of my mouth, my daughter laughs at me. She really enjoys hearing these antiquated expressions being applied to modern life. I think they are called aphorisms.

“An aphorism is an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic (concise) and memorable form. Aphorism literally means a “distinction” or “definition”. In modern usage an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise statement containing a subjective truth or observation cleverly and pithily written.”
http://www.aphorismlist.com/

For some time I have had a fantasy about making an art installation piece that would be the foam head of a mannequin, and from it somehow would be spewing all the words of wisdom that my Mom repeated whenever the need arose. This would have to be an auditory installation since part of the experience is hearing the actual words being spoken in a certain tone.

For the most part, I hated these expressions. To me they seem judgmental; they dismiss too summarily the nuances of any situation that can arise between human beings. Birds of a feather flock together. That one can be both positive and negative, but for the most part it was meant to be a criticism because that’s the way my mother was…totally judgmental.

She had one of these sayings for every occasion. Some children are raised according to words from the Bible or the Torah or the Koran. I was raised according to the Telegraphic Wisdom of Ida. Most of the time, when a situation arose that she felt compelled to comment upon, I could hear the words before she even began to say them.

I suspect that many of us Boomers had this same experience. I haven’t given it enough thought to figure out why these statements were so popular in the post-WWII years. Maybe it was because child psychology hadn’t yet taken hold, so parents needed some kind of moral compass to guide us through life. My husband just expressed his belief that our parents probably heard them from their parents and that they probably existed even back in the 18th century. Perhaps it was a kind of folk wisdom that grew as the nation began to come of age and needed a way to codify everyone’s experiences.

…As old as Methuselah; When it rains, it pours; There’s no fool like an old fool; Don’t count your chickens before they hatch…the list is endless. How many do you know, or were you subjected to in your childhood? I have always tried not to inflict them on my own children, but because my daughter is back home now, she gets to hear my occasional lapses..and then we laugh together. After all, “He who laughs last, laughs best!”

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A One-of-a-Kind Dinner Party

There were ten of us seated around the table in my favorite restaurant including two friends from high school, two from my college days, a mentor from my teaching career, two neighbors, a teaching colleague, myself and my daughter. This was a dinner party I never thought I’d be hosting. I had been thinking about it for a while as I sought a way to thank all these people for helping me get through my cancer ordeal which began last summer. I was finally in the post-treatment limbo of eight weeks of waiting until I could be retested to see how I fared. It was a challenging time which left me with altogether too much time to think about myself and my situation. I imagined a dinner party with caring friends would be the most positive thing I could do at this juncture in my life.

After weeks of ruminating on this idea, suddenly I had to swing into action. I learned that my favorite restaurant in Huntington, where I had hoped to have the dinner party, was closing down. The closing was going to happen within the two weeks following the announcement. This left me only about a week to pull my dinner party together but I wanted very badly to make it happen. I figured out a way to send e-vites to all the people who had been so caring and everyone responded within a day or two. Of the ten people I invited, only two could not attend. That left eight, plus my daughter and myself; I was both relieved and excited that it was really going to happen.

I arrived a bit early on the evening of the event to set up the table. Earlier in the day I had found some silver snowflake confetti, left over from my teaching days, to sprinkle around the table. This was during that gloomy period in January when we all needed some bling in our lives. Before leaving the house I grabbed three large white pillar candles with the thought that to end the party we would all make a wish for someone we know who is struggling with something serious in their lives. Lighting those three candles made such a difference at the table: they cast a warm, friendly glow on an otherwise dreary night. Then my guests began to arrive.

I greeted each of them with a joy I can still feel as I tell this story. I had imagined this would be a happy event, but I had no way of knowing how good it would make me feel to be surrounded by people who really cared about me. My motive for having the party had not been a selfish one; instead, my intention was to celebrate and thank them for their efforts on my behalf. I explained this to my guests at the outset of our dinner. The room where we were dining soon filled up with other restaurant patrons and suddenly was filled with chatter and happy faces. Many other patrons were there because they knew the restaurant was closing and had come to both mourn the news and celebrate its existence.

What my guests did not know and I had only learned a couple days earlier, after the invitations were sent out, is that I had just been proclaimed “cancer free” by my doctor according to the results of a recent PET scan. When I explained to them that we were also celebrating the amazing and unexpected news of my recovery, they were all astonished. We now had a double reason to celebrate.

The next two hours were filled with lively conversation as my guests got to know each other, trading stories about their lives and enjoying the energy that was palpable at the table. These women are a cross section of homemakers and career types, but everyone found something to share with their dinner partners. For me, the scene was nothing short of magical as I watched their animated faces and drank in the warmth and conviviality of the evening. I also enjoyed seeing how much my daughter, who is significantly younger than everyone else, basked in the attention she was given by those who knew her and those who were just getting to know her. We all knew she had played a significant role in my care.

As the evening drew to a close, I quietly realized that five of the people sitting at the table, including myself, had either survived cancer or were still in treatment for metastatic cancer. I was shocked at the realization that 50% of my guests were cancer survivors. These were terrible numbers that illustrate how prevalent cancer has become on LI. We all hear miraculous stories of recovery, with some sad exceptions, but there has not been much information on how the diagnosis of cancer has increased. I shared my realization with my friends and we all paused to take in this awareness. Next, in pairs or groups of three, we each made a wish for someone we know who is struggling and blew out our candles. It felt like the perfect ending to a magical evening.

This event happened about a month and a half ago. A week ago I learned that another guest at my table has just been diagnosed with a rare type of ovarian cancer. That makes the statistics even worse than they already were. Six out of ten women at a dinner party are struggling with cancer diagnoses. If I decide to repeat the dinner party next year, I hope all of us will still be able to attend.

Practicing Mindfulness: How SOL Writing Changed My Mood and My Life

Think about the things you do every day.  Most of them we do without thinking about them. We do them automatically such as brushing our teeth, washing dishes, making our beds, eating, sleeping…the list is endless.  Now think about the things you really pay attention to in your day.  For each of us it will be different.  For me these things include spending time with my daughter, taking a good walk, observing nature, reading before I go to sleep every night, and now…writing my daily slice.

I am not a participant in any organized religion.  The closest I come to spirituality is to believe in what I call The Church of Nature.  For me, this practice involves being out in the natural world, experiencing whatever phenomena are happening that day and deeply appreciating all the wonders of the world, big and small.  (I wrote about this in a previous blog.)  On my journey through life I have collected, consciously and sometimes unconsciously bits of wisdom from various sources that have helped me develop my own spiritual practice, the newest among them being the practice of “mindfulness.”

What is mindfulness?  I turned to a book on my shelf entitled, Awakening the Buddhist Heart,  for a definition to share with you.  I am not a  Buddhist, but I do find many of the Buddhist practices help me to see my life from a different perspective. Although I have known about mindfulness for some time since I first learned about the benefits of meditation, I think I have now arrived at a deeper understanding of it through the daily writing we have all been doing.

According to Lama Sura Das, the author of the above-mentioned book “The single greatest tool that we can all access to hep us connect to our true lives is paying attention, or the cultivation of conscious awareness, which Buddhists call ‘mindfulness.’ Mindfulness is how we connect to the reality of ‘what is.’ When we are fully mindful, we are better able to see the reality of any situation. This is called clear vision. When we are mindful, we have greater mastery over our own lives. When we are mindful, we find greater joy in the small moment-by-moment pleasures of life; we are more fully present, less absentminded. We can savor life and plumb deeper into its depths rather than merely wading in the shallows.”

I am not at all suggesting that everyone become Buddhist. But in the past 15 days I have realized that the daily practice of paying attention to something that is happening each day in one’s life is a kind of meditation, or mindfulness. It has helped me enormously by lifting me from the depression I was left with following cancer treatment and trying to reintegrate into a more joyful life. It has allowed me to focus on what is happening right now, today, rather than what has happened or might happen. Doing so has helped me to feel real happiness in my life again

So thank you, slicers, for being mindful by paying attention each day and writing about moments of your own life, and responding to others who are sharing their slices of life. Being part of this writing community has helped me to become more mindful and enjoy life again.

Clutter…A Family Affair

Several weeks ago I had a reason to go down to the finished basement for something I thought might be there. Our basement has been a receptacle for the many seasons of our individual lives for many years, so I knew that it was cluttered and in need of cleaning out. But I was not prepared for the sight that confronted me. On top of the usual mound of boxes and objects we no longer used were two chairs we had recently replaced. The “mound,” as my daughter affectionately calls it, now touched the ceiling of the basement. I recoiled in horror because this meant to me that we were now officially hoarders. I had read somewhere that hoarders like to stack things like towers, and our first tower was now staring back at me. I became panicky.

I confronted my husband with this experience (it was he who had stacked the chairs on top of the mound) and declared war. We could no longer delude ourselves…we must clean out our clutter! My daughter was enthusiastic about this because she had recently begun complaining that she was dismayed by the amount of “stuff” we had all acquired over the years. Eager to turn over a new leaf in her own life, she felt she could not make a fresh start until we did something collectively about “our problem.”

We are all world travelers, widely read, well informed and actively pursuing different threads in our lives. The problem is we are also sentimental and attach too much value to stages in our lives that we can no longer accommodate.
I have kept board games, select toys, art produced by the kids, boxes of photos…you get the picture, finding it difficult to part with their childhood and secretly hoping that one day there might be grandkids to share some of this with. My husband is a technology hoarder. We have come across boxes of outdated printers and stereo speakers. Old radios were a favorite. My daughter once found a tangle of headsets that looked like an exhibit from an artist’s installation of “Detritus from the 20th Century.” My son, for lack of space in his Brooklyn apartment, has left us with several bookcases of his books, such collectibles as legos, Star Wars figures, and boxes of baseball cards. We also house a collection of first editions that do have real value but now sit on a shelf in his former bedroom. Our daughter had a separate life in California for seven years, most of which is still in boxes in the basement. It is time…really it is…to confront this problem.

So yesterday, I resumed a project I had begun before I was hit with cancer last July. I had started to go through the boxes of books in the basement trying to weed out whatever I could. I resumed my project and felt very proud of myself at being able to consolidate three boxes of books into one we would keep (for now) and two that will go to the library for their book sale. My daughter cruised the basement for random items that clearly no longer served any purpose in our lives, and came up with a couple of bags that will go to the local thrift shop. My husband finally began to tackle the random collection of pieces of lumber he has been saving for years. For what? To build us a retirement shack? I don’t think so! My son is spared this enterprise for now because he no longer lives with us. But there will come a day when he, too, will have to confront his demons and shed some of his past.

It’s just a beginning, but spring is almost here and hope springs eternal. Wish us luck!

The Den Club

It’s become an evening ritual in our house. Almost every night that we are all at home, we begin to get ready for our favorite evening activity. Each of us goes through our evening routine separately…making the bed, or getting clothing ready for the next day, or cleaning up the kitchen, or all of the above. Then, magically, around 10 pm we all don our red bathrobes and descend to the den. As a young person I didn’t watch much tv, so never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d have a den. (Den is just an abbreviation for the room with the tv in it.)

I think it was my daughter who coined the phrase “the den club.” It took immediately (because it fit so well) and thereafter we were united in our goal: to relax by watching a tv series together that we choose together. This winter was devoted to the Sopranos. Christine had never seen it, and we had watched it about a decade ago, so it seemed ok to revisit it. I was curious as to how I would like it the second time around.

Well…little did I know then that watching the Sopranos during the dreadful winter months was just what we needed to preserve our sanity from looming cabin fever. I never thought I would find the series so funny. The first time around I was intrigued by the plot development and the charisma of so many of the characters. This time around, my husband and I were able to appreciate the nuances of the excellent writing that went into the script and, of course, the magical acting of Tony and Carmella Soprano. What really surprised us was how much Christine was enjoying the experience, too. Her belly laughs at the ridiculousness of certain characters and their antics got us all laughing together.

As the series drew to a close, we began to be apprehensive about watching the final episodes…my husband and I because we knew what was coming and Christine because she didn’t want the series to end. So we stretched out the final episodes a couple of days apart, and then took the final plunge watchng the final 2 episodes back to back.

Spring is just around the corner and our devotion to tv watching may very well wane as the weather gets nicer. But for now the den club is contemplating our next series rerun…. Stay tuned!

QiGong…Not for Sissies!

They come in all sizes, shapes and colors.  They wear stretch pants, sweatsuits, jeans and yoga pants.  It doesn’t matter if the parts or colors match as long as they are comfortable.  The socks are the funniest part of all…I have never seen such a variety of goofy socks! They tend to chatter too much before class begins, but they eventually do settle down as our teacher begins the session.

This is my QiGong class which I started attending about two months ago.  Because it is a late am class, it is filled completely with seniors like myself.  I had imagined it differently, but what was I thinking?  Of course…who else is available from 9:30 to 10:30 in the am on Fridays?  I thought it would be so cool to learn an ancient Chinese form of combined exercise, breathing and meditation. It never occurred to me that it would also appeal to other Baby Boomers, but it makes sense.  Boomers have led the curve in everything new that seniors only a generation ago would never have attempted.

Now, several months into the class, I am beginning to be more graceful and less exhausted by the practice session.  At first, I had to be so attentive to these intricate hand and body movements that are designed to flow easily from one to the other to channel the chi energy flowing through our bodies that all my energy was spent on concentrating and trying to maintain the flow.  Meanwhile, I am surrounded by those who are obviously in better shape than I am, but also others who are far worse off.  A man who usually stands in the spot right next to me is not flexible enugh to get down on the floor.  Others, like myself, struggle to get up from the floor. Some can use only one arm, because the other shoulder is locked in place.  Some have  knees that won’t allow them to bend or kneel in certain positions.  My particular weakness is balance.  I often seem to be one of the few who can’t maintain a one-leg standing position for more than 10-20 seconds before I awkwardly topple out of position.

For the most part, no one really watches anyone else because we are all too busy trying to assume the new position we are being taught, or trying to remember what comes next, or, like me, trying to keep from losing my balance.  I have chosen to be here, in fact, because of this nonjudgmental feeling.  We are all struggling with our own personal demons, physical and mental, and have come here to try to improve  our own weaknesses.   Today we began a new session, Part II, and the room had only half the number of people it had during session I.  Some may have dropped out, some may be vacationing in warmer places…but I worry about the man who stood next to me.  Is he ok?  Did he drop out because there were so many things he was unable to do in the class?  Or has he taken a turn for the worse?  These are the kinds of concerns  I have now.  It’s not about the clothing, or the perfection of my form…it’s more about believing that this very ancient practice will help me and the other participants to become stronger and less stressed and, most importantly, healthier. And, for me it’s also about the socks!

My Love-Hate Relationship with Feral Cats

The feral cats who spend a good deal of time in our backyard have been around for about five years.  After their first year of residency, my neighbor behind me and up the hill had them trapped and neutered.  Then they were returned to our neighborhood.  I believe this is the current practice for dealing with them…to stop their procreation.  At that time there were three of them, all obviously sired by the same parent since they had similar coloring but different markings.

I wasn’t thrilled that they were back but I was glad that they wouldn’t be able to produce more of their kind. You see…I am a bird lover and I look forward to seeing the birds who show up in my yard year-round. The arrival and constant presence of the feral cats has been a definite deterrent to the bird traffic.  In fact, the year after they arrived I noticed a significant decline in the number of birds showing up. This made me very upset, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any solution to this problem.

I confess to hoping that the harsh winter might have taken a toll on some of them. But, no…..instead, the same ones are back as well as a new one! And he is the worst of them all.  He is very large and furry, and  black with yellow eyes.  I know when he is around because I hear him first.  He has a blood curdling meow which is very loud that he uses to announce his arrival.  This meowing can go on for ten minutes or so, until he moves on. I run to the back door when I hear it, but most of the time I cannot see him. Occasionally I do catch a glimpse as he saunters through the yard territorially spraying everywhere he goes.

I am dreading spring when the birds become very active and the cats will all be hunting in my backyard. Shooing them away does nothing; they run a few feet and then stop looking back at me over the shoulder. They know they will come to no real harm. I especially dread the meowing of the black cat since we will want to have our windows open and there is no worse sound than a cat’s mating sounds in the middle of the night.

Yesterday, when I opened my back door I spotted the calico who darted away as soon as he saw me. But with my peripheral vision I spotted the big orange one, the Big Daddy, curled up under a bush catching the heat reflecting from the brick wall that lines our garden. He looked really weary and happy to have a safe place to warm his arthritic limbs. I, who hate these feral cats, didn’t have the heart to disturb him!