There Is Always an Otherwise

It’s early afternoon, and I write this propped up in my bed, listening to it rain…again…with my little dog Zuzu curled up at my side. Next to her is my tablet, in case I want to read or watch a show; my latest journal, which has some angry entries of late; my phone; and the strap I use to stretch my leg muscles, IT band, and hip flexors.

When I started writing this, I was reminded of a poem I saved from a teaching demonstration I gave in a grad class once, and I want to share it with you. It will help explain the rest of this post.

WHEN I COULD WALK

By Katherine M. Clarke

 After Edward Hirsch, “The Sweetness”

The times my failing body and I could walk 
come back to me now: strolls by the Charles River, 
ambles through Harvard Square…

Magnolias waved and buskers’ antics
delighted our summer nights, companions 
as we roamed and wandered.

Remember the bags of groceries muscled
from porch, to countertop, to cupboards? 
We made a dinner, we made a life.

Wasn’t that us sliding into a bath, slipping 
into fresh sheets, moving as we wanted, 
with whom we wanted, when we wanted?

They come back to me now, dear body of mine, 
the times when I could walk and loved you more.

I got about 90 minutes of sleep last night. Thanks to Dr. Google, at about 2 a.m. I learned I probably have a pinched nerve in my left hip. Twelve hours later, I fear sciatica has set in as well.

Surely we all know someone (yourself, perhaps) who suffers from no-turning-back physical pain or deficiency; the kind that will be around – in some form or other – the rest of their/our days. It is with all of us in mind that I write with empathy, sympathy, and – even – joy (or at the very least, acknowledgment) that we’re still breathing, one breath at a time.

When I turned 55 ten months ago, I was super OK with it, unlike when I turned 30, which I realize now, my response was ridiculous. I should have celebrated instead of getting drunk and getting a half-assed, unfinished tattoo of a dolphin because it reminded me of my high school boyfriend, who got a dolphin tattoo when he was in the Navy. What? But 30-year-old me, and most likely 30-year-old you, couldn’t possibly (thank god) know what life would be like at 55, and so we went with whatever flow was going on in our brains at the time, and my flow was having a bit of a meltdown. So be it.

These days, I’m less concerned with filling in that tattoo as I am putting my Humpty Dumpty body into some reasonable semblance of reliability. Last night, as waves of nerve pain snaked through my hip at 3- to 5-minute intervals, keeping me awake, I shifted from anxiety (thank you Ativan), to denial, to meditation. I concentrated on my breathing and told my thoughts that I’d think them later. For the most part that alleviated my fear, which was what dominated my monkey night mind. Can any of us claim to be rational in the middle of the night?

One of the more difficult things about grad school wasn’t the sometimes obscure reading, research, or writing papers. It was getting around campus on two bad knees, a bum hip, and a back in need of titanium rods and screws. Now, a year after graduating, and countless attempts at physical therapy, yoga, and trying to be “normal,” my body has slipped away from my control. A cane completes the leg that limps, 50 percent what it used to be. I sometimes let myself wish for my 48-year-old body. (I don’t think I’d know what to do with my 30-year-old body again!) When I was 48, I knew I wasn’t invincible. I sensed that my body and I were on the cusp of the inevitable, but still we had our adventures. I took advantage of my body because I knew it wouldn’t last long.

Last night, I wrote in my journal: “Do I want to live to 100? Meh…no. I’m OK dying ‘young’ish – sooner if pain will be constantly in the picture.” That neither alarmed or surprised me. I assure you I’m not suicidal. But the older I get, the more willing I am to face my fears. I don’t have to like them, and I don’t like how my body has betrayed me, but I want to live with them, live in this body, with as much peace as I can.

And so, from this perch on my bed, with my dog still beside me, I share another poem, one of my favorites, by Jane Kenyon, called “Otherwise.” In all of our lives, there is always an otherwise.

Otherwise

By Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

 

 

 

 

“Vietnam Coffee Cans” and Other Childhood Memories

I was born in Minneapolis in 1963, when the tallest building in Minnesota was still the Foshay Tower; Harmon Killebrew and the Twins, and Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings played ball at Metropolitan Stadium; the Guthrie Theater opened; and Hubert Humphrey was a senator.

Several famous people share my birth year: Johnny Depp, Tori Amos, John Stamos, Mike Meyers, Brad Pitt, Coolio, Quentin Tarantino, Larry the Cable Guy, and Charles Barkley. We were born at the apex of the Baby Boom and Gen X, in the age of Mad Men, “Duck and Cover,” and the space race. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech two weeks after I was born, and JFK was assassinated in November.

My family at the time – Dad, Mom, Marty, sister Debbie, and me – lived in the then-burgeoning suburb of Bloomington. In 1966, my brother Matthew was born.

We lived on the west side on a street of newly built houses with enough structural variety that they didn’t all look the same. We lived there until I was 8, so my memories are mostly of a Leave it to Beaver, homogenized neighborhood, where husbands went to work in the morning and wives stayed home to take care of the kids. Neighbors held Fourth of July parades, backyard carnivals, and picnics in the summers, and in the winter, there was ice skating and hockey at the rink near the grade school. Mom made us put bread bags over our socks so we could pull on our boots more easily.

I didn’t know until I was much older that a pedophile lived among us, as did a drug dealer and murderer. My only bad memory of Bloomington was when I nearly drowned in a neighbor’s pool when I was 5.

I had asked my mom if I could go swimming in “Tyler’s pool.” Tyler was a little boy about a year younger than me. She thought I meant his plastic wading pool and I didn’t correct her. My plan was to go in the big pool with the slide.

Tyler’s parents were at the same backyard picnic as my parents, so there was no supervision. I don’t know if I thought it just came naturally, but I had no idea how to swim. There were a few other kids there, swimming and playing Marco Polo. I stepped carefully down the ladder, but being less than four feet tall, I didn’t clear the shallow end by much. As I floated into the deep end, I struggled to stay afloat and started gasping for air. I don’t know if it was grace, luck, or a guardian angel directive, but when I was no longer able to keep my head above water, an arm reached down and pulled me out. It was Mr. Hoard and he saved my life. (Mr. Hoard, from Little Avenue, if you read this, thank you!) He wrapped me in a towel and brought me to my mom, who offered a little sympathy, but mostly a good tongue lashing.

I took swimming lessons a few years later, but I never conquered my fear of water. I still need to be able to touch the bottom whenever I’m in a pool, a lake, or the ocean.

In 1970-71, Vietnam was still abstruse to me, but not to the women in the neighborhood or my older sister. I recently asked my sister and mom (who will be 87 on Sunday) to fill me in on what I remember as “The Vietnam Coffee Cans” days.

Debbie: I do not recall whose idea it was to do this, but the women named the group “Little Avenue Neighbors.” Little Avenue was just a few blocks from our house. We got the names and addresses from neighbors, churches, etc. When dates were settled on when the cans would be filled, the families would start saving coffee cans of all sizes. The women would visit local businesses – usually drug stores – for donations of toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, mirrors, sweets, writing paper, pens, air mail envelopes, etc.  

Mom: A neighbor on Little Avenue had the idea of sending packages to our service men and women in Vietnam. I am not sure how she got the names and addresses, but she ended up with many of them. She would go to grocery stores, drug stores and any other stores she could and got them to donate products to be sent.

Debbie: I only recall this event being held at our house, but I could be wrong. The evening before or the morning of, Dad would move the furniture in the family room against the wall and put in a few saw horses and some plywood for our work space. We circled the tables with folding chairs.  

Mom: We met at her home to pack the coffee cans, also donated by businesses and
neighbors. She didn’t have much room at her house. We had added on the family room, so I
volunteered our house and that worked out well. All the products were brought to our house the night before, so our living room was quite full.

Debbie: I would help make simple sandwiches for everyone in the morning for our lunch. Probably also had some chips, coffee and iced tea. All the ladies brought their non-school kids, so it was quite chaotic! We wanted to get the whole job done by the time the school age kids got home and in time for the ladies to make dinner, I’m sure!  

Mom: Even the kids helped when they had a day off from school. Also, some women brought their little kids with them, so we made sure they had things to play with. The women would bring food for lunch and treats for coffee. Being I furnished the house, I just had the coffee and Kool-Aid for everyone.

Debbie: We filled the cans assembly-line style, so we put all of the goodies in piles and moved the cans down the line. Everyone would fill out a recipe card with their name and address in case the guys wanted to write to us. This would go at the very top of the can before closing it. The lid would be taped down with masking tape, then we would wrap the can in brown paper and label it. All the cans went into large boxes and one of the men would drive the cans to the post office. Everyone pitched in for the postage.

Mom: All the things we were sending had to be put into individual piles. We had bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, candy, peanuts, you name it. We were not to pack cookies or anything that would crumble in the cans. We would write notes to them and change off jobs packing, typing addresses, etc. We worked all day and then some would pack up the cans and take them to the post office. The postal workers did not like to see them come in with all of the cans!

Debbie: I think our dinner those nights were very simple or take out! The whole experience was exhausting, to say the least.

Mom: It was a lot of work and we were all tired at the end of the day, but it was a good tired. We had a good time. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. I do believe the families of all of the women knew they would have to take care of themselves for supper. We were all pooped! Your dad (now age 88) reminded me that we would have Chinese takeout with extra rice and extra noodles.

Debbie: I just looked at my letters. I have one from a guy from January 1971 and three from another guy in August, September, and October 1970.  I have two photos from the guy who wrote three times.  

Mom: Forgot one story. We found out that there was one woman we sent to. Her name sounded more for a man. Anyway, she wrote us thanking for everything, she used the shaving cream for hand lotion, said it worked great. The next can we packed for her we made sure she had all the right things.

Thanks for having me relive that time in my life.

I’ve been thinking more lately about my childhood, namely because all four of my grandchildren are old enough to remember things, and their kind, loving, grandmother (and my compatriot in grandparenting) Julia passed away in February. There are bits and pieces that 6-year-old Audrey will remember, and more than bits and pieces that 11-year-old Claire will remember from these days and beyond, and I hope I have the good fortune of being able to fill in any missing pieces of their childhoods, should they ask me when they are my age.

It’s their last day of school today. Audrey, Luca (10), Mae (8) and Claire.

gkids

“Will Garage Sale for Salmon”

Last weekend, my daughter and son-in-law held their annual/sometimes semi-annual garage sale. Several of us participate, friends and family alike, and at some point alcohol gets involved. We can never predict what will sell, and we’re pretty laid back (some might say lousy) hagglers. But we always have a good time, rain or shine, and never fail to meet the most interesting people.

Carlene and Ben live a 90- to 100-minute drive from me. For this sale, in addition to the usual garage sale stuff I’d packed in boxes, I had a porcelain stove and display tables to haul. I’m…meh…OK/comfortable driving Jim’s pickup on a good day, but the stove took up the back window, and I had to rely on the side mirrors to see around me, so I was a little nervous. Thank goodness I had on my big girl panties that day. It rained almost the entire trip, sometimes so hard I couldn’t see the end of the hood. It took two hours and change, but I got to their house, and in the end, it was worth the work and white knuckles for the experience.

I talked to a woman who’d recently lost her mother and bought a lion necklace in her memory, and a little boy who bought a scooter because his mother said he refused to ride a bike. A guy (wearing a political hat representing a person I oppose with all my being) and his wife stopped by, and when she spotted the jewelry, he didn’t once say an unkind word to her (not that I anticipated he would, just to be clear) about her taking 45 minutes to go through the unsorted costume jewelry. He just seemed happy that the sun was out, like we all were. He even brought her back the next day. Lesson learned: garage sales can bring people of opposing views together if both parties are willing to rise above the rift and difference. There was also the guy who my son-in-law is convinced was flirting with me as he bought my Moody Blues and Elton John CDs, but I think he was just enthusiastic about music and talking about JBL (or was it JVC?) speakers.

God knows the proceeds of a garage sale won’t make any of us rich. This weekend I netted about $50, $10 of which went to pay for a tuna sub on Friday and a calzone on Saturday. The rest I spent on the way home at the gas pump and at Willy’s Smokehouse in Harrisville, PA (population: not too many), home of the most amazing smoked salmon and, I’m told, ham salad. The salmon was my splurge from the booty; the ham salad was Jim’s.

I love smoked salmon, but it’s spendy. I’m not much into the thinly sliced stuff you get in a flat package that you pay $10 for 4 ounces for at the meat counter (although in a pinch…lox and bagels…). I prefer a filet-o-fish, one that looks like this:

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I forgot to take a photo before I dug into it for breakfast yesterday, but you get the idea.

I had in mind two specific purposes for this lovely filet: smoked salmon on an English muffin with a dippy egg (yesterday’s breakfast), and this no-fail, amazing recipe for quesadillas:

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Even though the recipe comes from one of the companies that sells the thinly sliced stuff you find at the meat counter, I can attest that it is best with the kind of smoked salmon you flake off a filet.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog about how tight $$ is (see Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels). And it still is, like it is for many millions of us sometimes or all the time. The $50-minus-gas profit would have paid for some groceries, part of the phone or electric bill, or more petro. And that’s what makes this salmon so special. For me it was like splurging on a pack of fancy-ish underwear or a pair of flip-flops. When you have an extra $20…money can buy a little happiness, even if it’s fleeting.

I will garage sale for salmon (and ham salad because I love Jim). The next sale is in August. If you’re in the area, stop by. We’ll get you a lawn chair and a plastic cup of something, and you can watch and talk to people with us. Bring something to sell. You just might make enough to buy a little something for yourself.