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Category Archives: Interviews and Conversations

I’m warning you, don’t warn me ahead of time about people!

Never liked to hear a lot of talk about people I had yet to meet; felt I had to shield the unknown person’s reputation in my own mind, so I’d not be biased and really see them when the time came. Or see them through my own two eyes, which of course is highly subjective, but at least they’re mine. As in the exchange that starts, “But that’s just YOUR opinion.” And ends “What opinion would you expect me to have?”

My parents discussing the obstructionism of curmudgeons from church or the neighborhood. Teachers leaving sub notes notes about a “difficult” or “helpful” student before I start a day of substituting. A fellow mom describing the quirks of a teacher my child is about to have. Or a colleague tipping me off with raised eyebrows about a parent they consider to be a little too much. As a teen, especially, I remember feeling drawn into negative bias unwillingly (I don’t mind the positive), and resisting, wanting to clean the slate and have a fresh, fair, objective (I thought it was possible, then) view of a person, not formed by others’ views. Now I also know that a person is not the same with different people, that even the “problems” are relational, even systemic. For example, a teacher that communicates a desire for control will have different troubles with different students than a teacher looking for participation, self advocacy and creativity.

So when my realtor warned me about the tendency of the recommended well service technician to “talk your ear off” and his advice that I “have an exit strategy,” I was, after initial gratitude (because time is money–ha!), a little miffed that I felt a little on guard and harboring a preconceived notion. His advice to mention that I was a friend of his (the realtor’s) or I might not get on his busy schedule was more useful.

I scheduled a time to drive out and see the well. Was it wise of me to suggest that I accompany him in his truck? Not much of an exit strategy. But, dammit, I would walk in the light of objectivity, open heartedness, and confidence that I could handle anything like that warned of.

The man was in his late sixties, and communicative, for sure. Within minutes I knew his exact age, that he needed a hip replacement, and that a good conversation, including attentive listening, was something he valued. In fact, while he was driving he would turn his head all the way to make eye contact, which I felt was inadvisable on the very curvy, cliff-side route. I also soon discovered that the family I’d married into went way back with his, to the same small town. He’d recognized the name I’d given, and knew some of my late husband’s uncles, cousins, and others, as well as some of their stories. The time he went nervously into the office of my husband’s great uncle Bob, head of the Port of Kelso, to ask for a job, got one, and found him tough but fair. How his friends got longshoreman jobs while he was still sweeping, having promised to finish out the summer, though at a fifth of the pay they were taking in.

I fleshed out the story as I had heard it, about the gas station run by the family, how Bob had been like a father to my husband’s dad Don, who had been basically kicked out by a step-mother only a few years his senior. How Don had married sweet young Marilyn, the initial first date being secured on the strength of his being the cousin of classmate Bruce, so couldn’t be too bad. Don worked as a mechanic and welder, raised three kids with Marilyn, teaching the boys foundry and welding as well as mechanical and general fix-it skills. He later worked as as a high school shop teacher, pouring out and training up young men, especially those not academically inclined, to work with their hands, and fought a losing battle for the survival of the shop program. Died young of esophageal cancer, having met only a few of his grandchildren, and before my husband and I married. How Bruce and Marilyn, a dozen or so years after cancer took their spouses,  in their seventies now, had married and were written up the the local newspaper as a story come full circle.

He reminded me of Bruce, and Bob, in a way. Same attention to the person, friendly, teasing contentiousness that made for dynamic interaction. Maybe something Scandinavian too, or immigrant third generation.

We argued about what was most important to teach young people, what was being lost, rediscovered, what mattered in the long run, the folly of always chasing the next thing instead of grounding the young in principles and foundational skills. I shared that one of the “newest” things was now shop class, and focus on projects that engaged student in real problem solving rather than a focus on cramming for the test.

Then we were at the property and it was all business–the well had been vandalized years before, and, hobbling a little because of his hip, he figured out but how badly, what questions still had to be answered, and what could be done. Then it was a windy drive back to drop me off, and we got into various other topics–more on education (his wife was a retired teacher), dependence on personal digital devices, water quality and rights, and cheerfully argued back and forth, agreed on a lot, disagreed on some. It was a lot of fun.

So as it turned out, his talkativeness made it a much more pleasant outing, and I in no way sensed that he didn’t know when to let someone go on their way. I’ve had that experience with a colleague in the past, and it’s tough–when you want to be a friend and a good listener, but it means you’ll have to delay getting that extra hour of work done. But the morning spent in conversion worked out well for me, and I could tell he was pleased as well. As he’d shared, valuing clients’ time meant spending the time, doing quality work, not charging for every question answered and not trying to line up new business on the cell phone.

I get why my realtor warned me. He wanted to recommend the person who had the skills I needed and could be trusted in a business interaction, but have me know that there might be a kind of “cost” to it, something to anticipate, and if need be, mitigate. I’m part of that slightly younger generation that might not easily make that investment of time that, in being given by the well service guy, would necessarily be hoped for in return. People that can “talk your ear off” like to be listened to. But I found, as I think he did as well, that it is in giving that we receive. Even in the case of that former colleague who seemed not to be aware of the cost for others of a monologue full of tangents, it was always my attitude toward her that determined whether I would feel irritated in the end or blessed. I could get impatient, and sometimes would actually do some work on my computer or with paperwork while she talked. But letting go, attending fully, and remembering how much and often I desire the same, brings joy and a sense of connection that is a foundation of a quality life.

In a youth mental health first aid training we heard the words of a bipolar man who, having decided to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, decided that if anyone, anyone, said to him on the way, “Are you okay,” or the equivalent, he would crack open and unburden himself, delivering him from evil, at least for that day. This gives me a heightened awareness of the importance of the significance of any personal interaction, and to think of it is to ground me in the universal vibration of the tenuous web of human life of which I am a synapse.

I’ve been known to prefer anonymity to connection. How much, on any given day, as I continue to meet and recognize, and know a little, more residents of this fine region, can be expressed by the size and location of cafe I choose, the distance among the tables, the ratio of looking thoughtfully around and perhaps meeting eyes, smiling, nodding my head, to string at my fingers as I type and the words as they appear on my screen. But even if I don’t feel like talking, I want to be with people, or I’d just write at my table at home. Let me, some days, fall into connection, intellectual, verbal, some days just be staring in tandem at the same soft glassy blue of the bay, or sparrows building nests. Let me some days glance brightly into the eyes of a runner or biker passing from the other direction, sharing a moment of delight in fresh air and exercise.  Let me some days smile at the dogs wagging at their owners, at the little girl laboring to choose what drink she want her mom to order for her, and say, “So many choices, huh? How will you know what’s the best?”

 

 

Polydactyly: why not let it be?

I was going on about something in to my Algebra 1 students, and mentioned that the gene for six fingers is dominant, and isn’t that something, because it means that if either parent has the gene, then there’s a good chance that children will have six fingers too, and it will turn up again and again. Darned if I can remember the context of that bit of information–there must have been one. I also can’t remember exactly what else I said, but now I wish I did, because I hope it was right, considering what occurred later. I know what it would have been, approximately: that the fact that the gene still existed in humans meant that there was no real disadvantage (except for finding footwear and gloves), and probably advantages in certain circumstances. That when parents have a child with “extra” digits, they often have them removed surgically. “Why?” one student asked. “That’s an interesting question. I wonder why.” I replied. “There’s no real problem wit having extra fingers or toes. But I guess that’s not really an algebra-type conversation.” And so we got back to work.

As often happens, a student came up to me later, I assumed to ask a question or hand me his work. He was holding his binder with the edge of one hand facing me. I saw that there was a curled scar, and he was gesturing quietly to it, but I stupidly did not make the connection. “Are you showing me?” I asked. He paused, and replied, “I had them removed.” Suddenly I realized, and  smiled back at him, told him how cool that was, thanked him, and as he went on his way, I called, “I wrote a poem about that!” I felt, and feel, tender toward this young fellow, sweet and somewhat socially awkward, being a year younger than the rest of the class, and humbled that he felt comfortable to share this with me.

I’m not sure if I should share the poem with him, but I’, thinking it would be all right. It’s here.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2019 in Interviews and Conversations

 

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They is us.

I didn’t get a tree this year, nor am I hanging up stockings. I am at peace, my remaining son at home is at peace. I’ve strung light over the living room windows and across the mantle, and that is enough. There’s a gas fire to sit by, for now, which, with the fatigue from a full day at a job I enjoy, is all the atmosphere I need in the evenings. Weekends I go for a long walk, run, or bike to the coffee shop and do a little reading and writing, enjoy my latte in a mug and the view of the water.

Last week as I was perusing the shrunken local paper, mostly devoid of local news, a man at the table next to me and I fell to talking, and by the end of the conversation, which came about because, as I see it, he had no wish to make an ongoing human connection, I had heard most of the story of his career and life history. I have no reason to be skeptical of it, other than that he told it so freely, which is unusual, as the only opening to the conversation was his jesting that he had to leave from  the table because he didn’t like to be so near a story about Trump.

He told me was the son of Japanese immigrants who had lost their farm to the war and internment, who had then brought up their son as a field worker alongside them, the only Asians among Latino migrant workers. His family moved to successively larger communities, and he came to be the only one of five who went on to college from his small high school in California. He studied agriculture, then switched to medicine, becoming eventually the head of a pulmonary care unit in a large hospital, bringing it into the top ranks of care and then going on to manage many other units and train others to do the same. He said he was semi-retired and had circumnavigated the Puget Sound area and found he enjoyed this town in which he found this particular coffee shop.

He still felt like an outsider, he said, being Asian in a mainly non-Asian community. I suggested that although there was a genetically derived predisposition in folks to distinguish “us” versus “them” by physical attributes, those distinctions could be largely forgotten as relationships developed on the human social plane. He was skeptical.

We spoke a little of my life history, of my early adult plan to be a an apologist and discipler for Christ among university students, then marrying, raising four children, homeschooling, and spending two and a half years living in Israel as a family. How we had raised our children with a pattern of critical thinking, questioning, always learning, and experiencing life in different cultures as we were able. He commended me for this, and highlighted the value in a continued relationship with my adult children as they made their way in the world and tried to discern what was good and meaningful and how to build a life. I tried to draw a connection between the way my adult sons, especially, enjoy a good debate, and the way “his “guys”, as he called them, would get together to debate and argue. he said it was in the [male] genes. That rang the usual off key jarring note for me. I have so often felt “other” as a woman who wants to engage with ideas, argue and debate from a position of emotional detachment. I said so, and explained that my late husband and I had found through the Meyers Briggs typing system that he, apparently, is a type that was 95% women, and I was a type that was 95% men. The coffee shop acquaintance was skeptical, and even took a slightly patronizing tone, as if I couldn’t understand such things, really. Which, though it irked me at the time, is no doubt true, as in the same way, he could never understand my things. All in the natural order/disorder, I suppose, one of the spices of life, like some women being able to beat some men in arm wrestling.

Yet I said my sons would enjoy talking with him. He was gone within minutes of that. By edging around the boundaries of a conversation that was intended as a random positive encounter between strangers, I was at risk of opening the possibility for connection and complication. I felt that, and my habit is usually to leave it that way, just enjoy the hit-and-run, no real responsibility, clean-cut moments that simply add interest to life–bloggable moments, if you will. But I have also felt an instinct to build bridges, especially where there are none of the usual kind, and one could only imagine, and guess and check, how they might proceed, and whether they may bring regrets. I will sometimes succeed.

My friend, when I texted a brief synopsis to her later, asked if he was handsome. I laughed, thinking, not unnaturally: definitely not–he was short, of slight build, and Japanese with a scraggly beard. My idea of Other. But that’s not how I put it into words, becasue I really didn’t want to package things up in that box.

Not an encounter of that type, I said, feeling guilty for my basic instincts, wondering how they may limit my options of happiness, and wondering if my idea of a mate might take new directions, based on something more lofty and soulful than it is now.

 

It’s all in the air, except for the chocolate

I’ve put my fall color quilt on the bed–the white with yellow and soft cherry and lime given to me by my mother appeared garish in the golden fall afternoons and rainy mornings, instead of light and cheerful.The rust, rose, and blue green one is sedate and classy, if somewhat Victorian. It was made by my mother-in-law. Our home is blessed with many quilts, several for each person to take when they move.

Also paintings. My father just sent two more, one for each daughter, Newfoundland seascapes. I have more artwork than walls, now. But I may change that, as I have designed some a remodel that would add a porch, a dining bump-out, and a two-story flex room/writing loft expansion. Each will have walls.

Perhaps this is a distraction from my grieving process, but the idea is a very old one in some form, at least fifteen years on hold, and revived because it’s about time, and I need not have anyone’s approval any more. I picture a comfortable chair, wood desk, a view of the garden, and prisms cutting the morning light into rainbows all over the walls. It has been a back burner sadness that I have not had the space to be materially creative and have had no upstairs room. I could take out my sewing machines, card designs, art supplies, even use the space as a place to refresh my guitar skills and repertoire.

That last idea has also been smoldering, now a little more warmly; this afternoon I went to the gig of a teacher colleague at a local tap house. He has been trying to get me to play more. My ukulele is under my desk, but my guitar is at home, happily now regularly played by my oldest daughter, who needed only a few basic lessons to get learning. When I hear performances, especially of someone on a small stage, it motivates me to get back singing and playing again, for a goal, say, of doing a small gig with a few friends in the same little local festival next year. Sharing something people enjoy, facing fear, getting attention, making my children proud, improving my skills, all good reasons. The main obstacle, it seems, is my shyness about playing at home–I feel it so deeply, when I sing and don’t want to be that vulnerable around my own family. Strange. I want to stretch out the berry season as long as possible, can hardly bear to have it end, though my freezer is well stocked.

My days are so full, long hours I work. Early every morning I grind and press coffee, dish up granola, my special recipe, and yogurt, with walnuts, dried fruit, and raspberries from the yard. If necessary I go with a flashlight and bucket in the dark to pick enough, even though I am aware that they contain a significant proportion of fruit fly eggs and larvae. If they don’t taste any different or have any negative health effects, I don’t care–they are a cheap protein source, is all.

I fill a canning jar with soy milk and espresso, grab a container of leftovers for lunch, load up my arms and tuck everything out into my Nissan Leaf, unplug and go, heating the steering wheel and my seat against the foggy chill. Exiting off the freeway and making my way across the north edge of town, I roll along the straight road at 53 mph, letting the V8 pickup trucks roar by me on the straightaways and whipping by them at the roundabouts. The pheromones of their young, male drivers bounced uselessly off my side windows as I pass. Mist rises up off the corn stubble, with the look of holy spirits, and the aroma of fermented cow manure.

I finished my second professional learning day training today, having made a good impression, I feel, on my colleagues in the district, in the discussions about improving student learning. I was aware that I was mainly aiming my efforts at the most interesting and intelligent men in the room. I am a little needy, wanting attention, I told my daughter on our night walk down to the grocery store to buy chocolate and wine. I added that it helped that she and her sister had assured me that I looked really good for my age. I know dating is not right for me now, I said, that it would just be a distraction, but it seemed to be enough to imagine that I was turning heads with my cuteness, astuteness, and, possibly, pheromones.

The wine we bought was awful, even mixed with lemon and soda. Good chocolate, though. “Down with Love,” I declared. We had watched the movie together, a favorite of my husband and mine, just the other week–the chocolate reference was not lost on her. She too is between satisfying romantic relationships, although she prefers a different brand of chocolate.

 

 

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The man inside the boy

I don’t know what happened with my youngest son, but it’s good. I have been urging, reminding, cajoling, conniving, and ganging up on his to either do more physical activity of the ordinary kind such as biking to school, running, or swimming at the local pool, or join a school or club sport or team, to please, please choose something, and I’d support him. But he only dabbled, while his newly developed height with doubled number of muscle cells puddled in a chair as he played computer games for hours a day. I got into it with him the other day–he could see from my intensity how heartfelt my concern was, how serious a thing I felt it was to neglect one’s health that way, how he would be giving up the good feeling of strength, balance, and sense of accomplishment, even while his brain was tricked into thinking that the levels or perks of his gaming were some kind of real achievement. It was a hijack of his innate evolved dopamine reaction that didn’t pay the same dividend as REAL challenges, REAL risk, REAL conflict, trouble, and overcoming, I said. And no, I said, when he told me he needed me to “make him” exercise, I just couldn’t, with a full work schedule and disciplines of my own to fit in. I said he had to make himself, or sign up for something where he would be made to do the work. I acknowledged the reality of the temptation to yield one’s time and attention to those clamoring for it–the games, or movies, or social media for some. I told him it was too much–I had been willing to make athletics mandatory, but there was supposed to be an eventual owning of it, and it was past time.

He wasn’t planning to swim again this year–said he’d had too many ear infections. Last year, with lots of encouragement from his parents and his siblings, he chose to swim on the high school team, after years of unenthusiastically participating in summer league and improving each year, though never enough in his own mind to pay more than grudging acknowledgment to his gradual drop in race times. He felt nowhere near as good a swimmer as his brother and sister before him, though she assured him that his times were about the same as hers when she started. His brother had started much younger and so had immediately made varsity in his freshman year, going on to be count Swimmer of the Year and then almost make college nationals (in Canada). We assured him it didn’t matter, that it was about fitness and fellowship, and that we loved watching him swim, along with his grandparents. Also, he was becoming a bit of a specialist in backstroke, unlike his Freestyle/Fly siblings. So much for an easy choice –excellent coach, good group of boys, great fitness, and fun to watch for us. But it seemed to be over. His sisters had invited him to go for climbing and to the gym, but nothing was happening.

Then today, he burst out of his garage bedroom and said, one, that he was really glad his drum teacher had got him listening to jazz it was so amazing (he never listened to music before this, despite several years of piano lessons and now a few months of drumming), and two, that he wanted me to sign him up for swimming.

So I guess the exhortation with tears got to him where the gentle reminders and reasoning didn’t. He’s a heart guy, like his dad. He’s owning it, too–he doesn’t do things just to be compliant, but he does have a desire to do what’s right. He’s manning up, I think. I’m so proud of him Dare I hope that he’ll also heed my pleas to say no to first person shooter games, to protect his imagination, or to do real live work with his hands, like helping me build a new compost bin, or splitting some firewood, instead of virtual digital building and tearing down?

 

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Temptations, Resolutions

I shall address this to you, DD, because I need to feel I am writing to a woman friend this time, and you have proved to be someone who allows our friendship to survive, even thrive, on truth telling. Like when I told you that I am filled with frivolous, selfish desires after the death of my husband, rather than weighty, somber pearls of wisdom won through suffering. How although I had been growing through the demands of loving service, now, with the whole horizon there open before me, and no one of whom to ask leave, I feel giddy, and eager to plunge into any number of endeavors. Such as choosing my home decor, expanding the garden, traveling, organizing my business and publication ideas, and hosting bonfires with strung lights and guitar playing.

I told you I want to keep growing, not descend into a second adolescence. So help me God, I said, I might need to suffer more, because other than mourning my husband, whom I loved, and mourning for our children, who will no longer have a father, I have it easy. He provided well for us, I have a meaningful job that suits me, a nice little house, good friends, family, and interesting prospects. I have lots of time, relatively, to write, could join a book or writer’s group, could do my Master’s degree, could try that business dream.

You told me I could do no wrong, because I am the grieving widow. Though I appreciated the grace extended, I objected on the basis that one’s duty is always to consider others, even in difficult circumstances. No excuses. I made the same argument to a friend who told my husband to disregard others’ needs and focus on his own as a man with a terminal diagnosis. I told him he still had to be nice, at least in order get better care. People have to feel appreciated. He accepted that, as it fit into his life-long drive to grow and become more like Christ. He had visitor after visitor, and nurses and physicians assistants, go away feeling appreciated and encouraged. They told me so. It was a pleasure and an privilege to be his caregiver in the last months, he was so tender and kind.

I want to honor Mark’s memory, spend time properly aware of the loss of his life with us, and the hope that he is continuing some kind of even more meaningful existence in another dimension. I sense he has been lingering in some way with the family he loves, and even checking on us. In my case, through visitations from hummingbirds, and in dreams. My daughter also dreams in that way.

I have been warned that grief takes many forms and happens on different time tables, and the fact that I feel peace, calm, and even happiness, not despair, depression, anger, or a sense of loss and loneliness, does not mean something more intense won’t arise in my emotions and/or body. I want to stay in tune, and allow the process to unfold, as well as be a support to my kids as they walk this road.

So I will do my best to resist these worldly temptations. I asked my kids to keep an eye on me in case I move to make any big decisions this year, as some kind of distraction, release, or suppression of feelings. Though I release myself to be creative with my hands and words on a small scale, to stay physically fit, to build my relationships, to have fun with my kids and extended family.

Early on, I researched houses I could buy and fix up, ways I could add on to my house, and car sales (I would trade in two for one to consolidate–maybe a small truck or VW Westfalia for the trips I wanted to take?). I bought a few new clothes. I started having a nightcap some evenings. I watched two to three episodes of Grand Hotel a night in bed. And I looked up my first love on FaceBook. He’s still the same handsome, smiling guy I fell in love with my second year of college.

I was surprised at myself—usually, in my own estimation, a level headed person. It’s not that I have felt needy; it’s been a rich time of connection with friends, and with my husband, albeit in a new way. He and I related more as friends, without the pressure of other duties. And it was a relief, not a disappointment, to not be pursued sexually by him for a while. A story related to that: He was in his wheelchair in preparation for going to the hospital for a procedure, and I was bent down putting his slippers on, and showing a lot of my cleavage (such as  it is). His cancer was advanced month, and his high potassium levels were beginning to cause some delirium and odd thought patterns. As he sat, He looked down my top, as he had always done, but this time said, “I don’t know what it was about breasts–why they were so popular…”. And we shared a laugh. He also said, “Women smell so nice.”

I’ll work, come home at a reasonable time, take it easy. See how things go, behave myself. I do feel the seasons changing, and that things will be getting stormy soon.

 

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Old friend, new friend

Early Runner introduced herself to me when I was a newlywed just moved in to the neighborhood, as she was a friend of the family too. My husband and I were starting our married life sharing the home of my newly widowed mother-in-law, who had known Early Runner way back, such a nice girl, and so devoted as she had cared for her mom while she suffered her last years with a terminal brain tumor.

I liked her right away, and was pleased to have a new friend, and as she was outgoing, approachable, and genuinely interested in a friendship, she made me feel very welcome in my new country, new life, new church (which she also attended).

We visited from time to time, I admired but was not able to follow her example of 6 a.m. runs, let her two daughters play with my first baby boy, and had coffee from time to time. My husband and I moved about a year after the birth of our boy to a town a half hour north and connected with a whole new community, and Early Runner and I would only hear each other’s news through the grape vine and occasionally visit. Her marriage was not well. I was absorbed in rearing several more children, and life went on without our connecting much.

Ten years ago we met again at the family cottage of a different mutual friend, this time another friend of the family, and a home town connection with Early Runner, with whom I’d connected over being neighbors in our new town, homeschoolers, and moms of four kids each about the same age. She had a new love, and a new son the same age as my youngest, but we didn’t have much time to visit. Then off we went overseas and lost touch.

A few weeks ago she heard from my family about my husband’s diagnosis (she’s known him since grade school), and reached out to see if she could drop by and give me a hug. We arranged to meet for a walk and visit, and I have just come back feeling that I have remade a new friend. Turns out we have more in common than we had realized, and not just the experience of caring for a terminally ill loved one. She is in town for a local writer’s conference, which I was planning to attend until our lives shifted this winter. She writes poetry and wants to blog to develop a more public expression, has no desire to go to Disneyland ever again and thinks it’s strange and fake, and finds evangelical Christians too simplistic and judgmental, yet retains some faith and desire to hear from God in a real way. She has written and shared about plans for her own funeral as I have, and has struggled with retaining a sense of independent identity in a committed marriage and with the Christian stereotypes about a woman’s place in marriage, as I have.

We drank wine, forgot about ordering and then eating our food while we caught up, shared dreams, and asked questions. She wants to go with me to the annual poetry retreat I’ve been hoping to attend for the third time, and we have a plan for main conversation topic next time we get together. I was hoping for just such a friend, so it’s been a good day.

 

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