Saturday, January 30, 2010

More Sparkle!

When I was thinking about retiring, I was worried that my general exhaustion would make me nearly comatose without a job to go to. I got good advice from my dear friend Margaret who told me that when you make the changes your life needs, you are filled with new energy. I was skeptical, but had no evidence to the contrary. I wondered what would happen when I finally left the career I had loved for 35 years, but which had left me in a rut.

Margaret, you were right! Such interesting changes have happened. With no effort, my blood pressure is down to a very healthy range, some other annoying stress related physical symptoms have improved. This is so interesting, that stress has such an impact on us and can come for a variety of reasons. In my case, it was time to make a change and the stress of not doing so was intense. That's how I understand my need to leave my job. Yes, there were conditions in the workplace that really stressed me out, but not everyone felt it as strongly as I did. It was time for a change. And changes there have been.

I love the feeling of having the time to think and reflect, to read as long as I want to. My short term memory has improved (because of less junk cluttering up my mind's attic?) and I am really enjoying picking a variety of books to read. When I became a college professor, I imagined myself sitting in my office in a comfy chair sipping tea and reading. Occasionally a student would stop by for a discussion of some cool topic. Then I would go back to reading and sipping.

Finally I am able to do that. Heaven, pure heaven. My mind is so happy. And, oddly, I have less tolerance for empty mental noise. I have been a news and information addict since my twenties, but all of a sudden I have little tolerance for the posturing and silliness of most political conversation. The lack of truth gets to me - why spend time discussing something that is based on falsehoods, diversions, and out and out lies? So I have turned the car radio to classical WETA. I will stink at this week's "Wait, Wait, Don't tell me!"

I have been working on cleaning out the basement, ably assisted by my daughter, Anna. I do regard this as metaphorical, clearing out untended parts of my unconscious. I believe that is the theory of Feng Shue, that the condition of your surroundings mirrors (and influences) the condition of your mind. And, to my distress, one of my favorite earrings disappeared into the clean up. We went through the trash bags (using the newly uncovered latex gloves) and the boxes for charity, to no avail. I did a search of the areas I had worked in, floor, shelves, no luck. I was pretty cranky about this. Grumble, grumble. (Who said work on the unconscious is easy?)

The next morning I went back to the basement for another search, and spotted a pile of baskets I had made. Going through them I found the earring, happily nesting between layers. Happy, happy. And then I decided to commit to more sparkle. I wear silver, which gets tarnished. Why not stop and polish those favorite earrings before I put them on? Why not take the time to bring more shine and glitz to my life? It's working this week, anyway.

Here's to more sparkle!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Farewell to a friend

I haven't written for a couple of weeks. I decided that part of being off a regular schedule was to really be off a regular schedule and not force myself to sit down and write when I was otherwise engaged. I have been busy, traveling to see friends, reading, cooking, cleaning out the basement. And saying goodbye to a friend.

It was in some ways an unlikely friendship, but not surprising. Randy Edwards collected the trash in the office building I moved into 18 years ago. Randy never met a stranger and loved to talk over whatever was on his mind, usually early in the morning. Through the years we shared stories about our kids, our health, our lives in general.

One thing you learned about Randy very quickly was that he had not always been the responsible father, employee, and citizen that he was today. He never told me the details but he didn't have to. It was enough that he had spent more than 20 years in a twelve step program. His youth had not been ideal, and there were many things to make amends for, but he somehow made a change. I don't think it was easy. If you ask anyone who has achieved sobriety for a long period of time, there are ups and downs and disappointments and challenges. Somehow, Randy stayed with the program.

I told Randy more than once what an inspiration he was to me. My own father, James Hurst, had died of alcoholism long before his three score years and ten. My father never met Randy, but I wish he had. He might have turned his own life around. Randy knew he had a powerful story to tell and gave back by leading twelve step meetings at homeless shelters and other places. I looked at Randy and in some way my father was redeemed, because it was possible for others.

Randy gave me hope. Washington, D.C., my home city for the last nearly 30 years, has so many people debilitated by poverty, racism, drug addiction and alcoholism. Randy did not let himself become a statistic. And in so doing he showed what is possible, and what greatness lies under the surface of the most destitute and down and out of my fellow citizens.

Randy also gave me encouragement. He was insistent upon working with his own feelings and responses to what happened to him, with the goal of serenity ever in mind. When there were hard times for me, when serenity was hard to come by, Randy just talked like he always did but helped me see the bigger picture. No preaching, no "shoulds", just a trust in the process and a trust in God. In my own moments of self pity and frustration, he helped me to see that change is possible.

When my department had a farewell party for me in December, Randy came, all dressed up and having fun. In retrospect, it was wonderful to get to say goodbye to him. We talked about how we would miss our conversations and our shared spiritual search. Maybe the party was really for him! He died a month later of a heart attaqck at aged 55.

At the Celebration of his life yesterday, I was in awe of how many friends he had at his workplace and in his community. I finally met the family I had heard so much about. I heard the Pastor of Bethel Christian Fellowship, Ronald W. Miles, talk about how any obstacle can be overcome through faith if your goal is something more eternal than the immediate rewards of the material world. This amazing community is in the heart of one of America's worst ghettos, yet hope prevails. This was the community that Randy was a part of.

Randy Edwards did not die a wealthy man in terms of material possessions, though he did pay his bills and own a home and a car, all of which are true achievements considering where he started. But he lived every day challenging himself to be his best self, to live with serenity even when his first response might be anger or frustration.

Randy, you are a friend who will be missed, but who will always be an inspiration to me. And many, many others.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Cold outside, beautiful light streaming in the windows onto my bead table/sewing table. It's a lovely old thing with a wooden top and cast iron legs. It used to be a two person desk in a schoolroom. It has old carved and written words on it, and glue I've spilled on it, and my grandmother's pincushion, and a complicated mess of beads and potential projects and needles for almost any kind of beading or sewing project you can think of. Yesterday I sat down in this lovely spot to work on some mending.

Mending is very satisfying work for me. You take something that is basically good that needs some small (or large) repair and make it usable again. Yesterday I worked on my daughter's jeans (third time for this - I am now to the point of patching patches, but they are still going strong), a pocket area rip in my husband's suit pants, the hem on a bathmat I can't bear to part with, some socks with cats on them, some reusable grocery bags that just had little rips that I didn't want to see get bigger, and my old brown backpack that I bought in 1979 when I gave up my car and decided to carry everything myself.

The backpack used to have a label that said "Dolt" on it, which I thought was funny. Nice archaic word that as a teacher I thought I should endeavor to transcend, as in "I may be a dolt but I work hard to overcome it." With the hidden message, "and you can, too." And we are all dolts at some things. The backpack became the picnic basket, toy holder and diaper bag when the kids were young. It went on many adventures. And now, with its newly repaired seam and some trimming where the fiber was unraveling inside the bag, it is ready for more. Maybe a farewell visit to Tai Shan, the born in DC Zoo panda who is now 4 and who has to return to China soon.

Mending things is something I've done all my life. Now it seems either quaint (who knows how to hand sew now?) or incredibly hip (the green alternative to buying new stuff.) It can lead to a basement full of things to be repaired, but it can also reinforce the "use it up, wear it out, make do or do without" attitude, which requires a lot of "make do" to be successful.

Having had enough money to have some flexible funds for playing (buying yarn, music equipment, lunches out) I am now in the position of having to be more conservative with my spending. I don't anticipate it being difficult since I've lived on very little at various times in my life, and I'm confident that I can do it again. But being able to mend things should help the process. How wonderful to have the time to do it!

Of course, I am also mending myself. With age, you have to do more maintenance that you do when you are young. And working in a highly stressful environment, especially the last 3 1/2 years, was taking its toll. It made sense to stay working long enough to retire, but there were costs. The good news is that I am sleeping better than I have in years, and some other annoying health things are getting attention and improving.

If I apply "use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without" to myself, I guess I am working on the first three objectives. I want to use up every last bit of life experience that I can. When I am worn out, I will make do (for more experience, and hopefully more learning in the process). And when the time comes, I will let go of this life and "do without". I am not going to surrender to inertia and start dying while I am still alive. But anyone who knows me can tell you that - I'm pretty engaged in whatever comes along.

Right now, I am mending.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Standing Still

It's the new year, and I woke up this morning to unexpected snow. Not much, just enough to be beautiful and slow me down. It is the time of year for New Year's resolutions, and plans for what is ahead. It is the time of year to set your intentions for the next 12 months. I am not ready to do that. I am ready to stand still and see what happens. For every other year of my life there have been classes to either teach or take, and books to read, and goals, goals, goals. I like the idea that this time it is different.

Not that I don't have ideas, I do. But the sheer immensity of it all is too much to imagine right now. And this beautiful snow has me sitting and dreaming and feeling the deep roots that grow in the dead of winter. I want to make room for that, and if I move around too much or too hastily, I will lose those roots.

I heard a story on the radio today about a man who accidentally planted red Russian kale, a lot of it, instead of the turnips he had expected. Every year he grew prize winning turnips, but now it was too late. What to do? Change the care of the plants, know that they will last in freezing weather, learn to make kale soup. I am like this farmer. I don't know what seeds I have planted and I want to see what comes up. I am curious, but patient. Right now I want the unexpected, which I can only find by standing still and noticing what comes up in the spring.

I have read that in many cultures the new year begins in the spring. I like this idea. We have three more months of dreaming. No hurry.