Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lessons not to be brushed off

Today at my watercolor lesson (a six-week course from the local community college) I learned to do something that—if I ever knew—I’d forgotten: How to almost start over with a watercolor painting you don’t like. Run it under water until the color has washed down the drain. The remaining picture is a faint color-patch of your first, less than successful, attempt. You can start all over again using its outline. That exercise got me to thinking about life.

If we’re lucky, we can wash away our mistakes so they fade to a faint memory. But the residue of them never completely disappears. Whether or not we still remember our booboos, they carpet each day’s overlay of activities. Hopefully, we benefit from that foundation and choose good and enduring actions because of them.

Another exercise in class today was painting upside down. First we drew the subject. Then we turned our drawings upside down and filled in colors using only shapes—not our pre-conceived notions of what the lemons, vase, pears, or flowers looked like. That got me to thinking about how helpful it could be to try doing a routine task “upside down.” I get in such a rut, always doing things the same way.

Take housecleaning, for instance. Last week I vacuumed the family room using a different electrical outlet from the one I usually select for the vacuum. I found myself thinking, Wow, after twenty-years of doing it one way, how come I never tried using this plug before? That experience made me look around for other fresh ways to do chores—or maybe not do them at all.

I don’t mean to suggest that “all I really need to know I learned in my watercolor class,” but I’m sure there are more life lessons to be had. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, try doing a routine task “upside down,” like brushing your teeth while holding your toothbrush with your 'other' hand. Shaking it up can be invigorating.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sweet Madonna, the bobble-head

Just thinking about downsizing (and we are—big time) makes me look with jaded eyes at every knickknack, every trinket, every little dust collector on every tabletop and shelf throughout the house. I can be heartless and toss out books I’ve never read (unless they’ve been inscribed by an ancestor), Sunday school lesson-plans (unless I wrote accompanying parent notes with anecdotes from my own children’s lives), treasured letters and cards (unless written by my parents or children), old spiral-bound journals (unless there’s something worth revising for a memoir)—well, you get the point. I’m not getting very far reducing my "stuff."

In the trinket department alone, I am thoroughly attached to any of them that conjure up the giver or the occasion. Take, for instance, this sweet bobble-head Madonna and child, given to me by Karen Gorini in 1962, the spring I was taking Catholic instruction—having fallen in love with a “nice catholic boy,” the man who became my husband. Karen said something like this when she gave it to me: “I saw this and thought of you. The devotion to Mary by Catholics has always been kind of intriguing. I hope you like it—kind of silly, but maybe useful.”

Our Lady, the bobble-head doll, is soiled and faded after 48 years of always being visible in my home. She’s never been out of my sight, never packed away in an old box or shoved into the back of a cupboard. Her sweet image delights me and always reminds me of Karen’s friendship and her acceptance of her Protestant friend’s intrigue and eventual passtionate love affair with Roman Catholicism. I will never get rid of this trinket, ever! It is far too precious.

Friday, January 15, 2010

January 16

If she had lived, Karen Gorini would have turned seventy tomorrow. For all of our fifty-seven years of friendship, turning over the calendar page to January 16 meant Karen had arrived at our next shared age.

When we were in junior high and high school, I was envious of her chronological step-up, which occurred seven whole weeks before mine. She reached all the youthful milestones first: teenager, sweet sixteen, eighteen and grown-up, twenty and no-longer-a-teenager, and finally, voting and legal drinking age. She wasn’t enough older to lord it over me; she was just enough older to make me proud—excited to catch up soon.

When she turned thirty and forty with dignity and pride, my envy changed to admiration. As we progressed through the mature milestones, my admiration looped around into relief. Fifty, sixty, sixty-five. Whew! If she could make it, so could I. She made my own aging feel safe. It was as if she jumped onto the next stone in the river (Look, Sallie, I didn’t even get my feet wet!) for the sole purpose of empowering me to make the same leap.

Now Karen is in a place I’m in no hurry to be. I’m perfectly content to trail behind indefinitely. I do not feel relief or admiration that she’s reached the final milestone of our shared chronology. Although I miss her terribly, I’d be glad not to catch up for twenty years. For the first time in nearly six decades, I won’t be feeling any excitement or delight contemplating my dear friend’s special day.

Yet she still lends me moral support almost on a daily basis. If I listen, I can hear her voice affirming the good things I’m trying to accomplish. It’s as if she’s cheerleading for me as I continue living. And remembering the way she lived her last two years on earth will continue to inspire me as long as I have one more breath to draw. She was a wonderful friend while she lived and an unwitting mentor even in death.

Rest in peace, dear heart.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


“For the rain it raineth every day.”

A ditty sung by Feste, the clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, keeps running through my head. It has been raining almost continuously for weeks. Oh, sure, we’ve had what the Seattle weatherman calls “sun breaks,” a term known only to the locals. Whoever heard of such a thing in other parts of the land?

When I was working, I arrived at my desk during the dreary months just in time for the sunrise and returned home in the dark. During the day I sat under fluorescent light that never varied. Sometimes I could hear rain on the roof of my three-story building (I was on the top floor), but usually I was blissfully unaware of the weather.

Now I’m retired, I am discovering that weather not only dictates what activities I do, but also how I am feeling. Rain does not cheer me up. When I lived in Wisconsin, winter rain was celebratory—no need for shoveling. But here in Washington state, rain is a dreary way of life from November though the end of April. Exceptions are notable, newsworthy. Oh, how the gray skies can drag you down.

Years ago I remember reading that Seattle had the highest suicide rate in the country, attributed to its incessantly overcast days weaving through the holidays and into the bleak beginnings of the new year. I think the city has relinquished that title, but it has to be up there somewhere in the top ten cities for having the highest number of depressed people. For me, anticipating Thanksgiving and Christmas, seeing old friends and renewing acquaintance with “once-a-year” people, decorating the house with fragrant boughs and glittery ornaments, baking, and generally just sprucing up gets me through year-end. But come January and February, everything changes.

When the new year floats in on its rainy pontoons, I almost wish for snow. (I would be reluctant to write this if I still worked for a living.) Snow in Seattle means the possibility of schools being closed, of sledding on any of her thousand city-street slopes, of rolling snowmen, and chatting with neighbors who have come outside under the guise of shoveling (but who end up talking and inviting each other over for hot chocolate or steaming tea). But it rarely happens; instead it rains. Drizzle, piddle, spitting, pouring, drenching, misting. Always gray—light gray, dark gray—sky.

When Hubby and I relocated our family to Wisconsin in 1972, the first snowfall fell in October. Eager to rejoice in its beauty, I hurried outside to try out our new snow shovel. Waving to neighbors, I expected a cheery response, but instead got back dour looks. Eventually I understood: snow turns into ice; ice becomes the enemy. Yes, I learned to dread snowfall during our fourteen years in Milwaukee. But oh, were the skies bright in winter. When it wasn’t snowing, it was sunny. Even the coldest days, when the snow squeaked under foot, sunshine drenched the landscape.

Here in Seattle, I am tempted to start marking my calendar with doodled droplets to track the relentless pattern. But the weatherman is doing that for me and reminding me on a daily basis how much rainfall we’ve had. There is actually steam rising from my trees, and the sky is what Microsoft Word would identify as gray-shading, about 12.5 percent. I’m getting good at estimating the color of cloud-cover.

Gray skies have a way of getting to you that there’s no escaping, so I’m putting on the teakettle and digging out a CD of Ella Fitzgerald’s saddest songs. If you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em. My blues are here to stay while skies are gray.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Which is not to say . . .

Just because I am weary with the adorable little knick knacks and sentimental d├ęcor of Christmas doesn’t mean I don’t love the Feast of the Epiphany. I do. A twelve day celebration at the onset of winter is just what we need to distract ourselves from the darkness—both physical and spiritual. Capping off the story of the Christ child’s birth—an event heralded by angels and plenty spectacular in and of itself—with gift bearing Magi, arriving long after the lowly shepherds have come and gone, makes a spectacular point for the faithful. This special child doesn’t just get the attention of nomadic shepherds: He’s captured the interest of the upper crust, as well.

I love imagining the three wise men wending their way through desert, presumably encountering all the difficulties typical of traveling long distances, arriving parched and dusty to fall on their knees to an untested ruler. I love the idea of those kings pledging fealty to an infant who may have cried or spit up as the kings murmured their adoration. I love the idea of precious but impractical gifts being presented to his mother. And I think I have it bad trying to select the right gift!

The spectrum of visitors and worshippers at that humble nativity scene exemplifies everything we Christians believe about our god. His appeal is broad, capturing the interest of the cynical and gullible, educated and ignorant, wealthy and destitute. He appeals to us both on a gut level and an intellectual level. Our god is wise to incarnate in the most lovable form humans can imagine: an infant. How could we not coo? How could we not worship him?

The church chooses the twelfth day after the Nativity to ritualize, formalize, the visit of the kings. It’s as if Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush all showed up with gifts on your birthday. You’d make the news and feel special! And the event, taking place twelve days later is better than if it happened, say, two days later. Spread out the joy, then cap off the whole event with royalty’s visit. It’s a masterful plan.

The Eastern churches have a great tradition of waiting for gift exchanges until January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. I have always admired that practice—even though I’m an impatient person by nature. Delaying gift-giving for twelve days after the Feast of the Nativity would be like holding my breath for several minutes and then expelling it with one big hallelujah—challenging to accomplish, but wonderful if I could pull it off. Which I can’t. Our gifts are already consumed or put away, and Hubby brought home a bouquet of orange, yellow and purple flowers yesterday. Lovely!

But . . . I’m trying very hard to keep the framework of Christmas in my head as long as possible. After all, it is a gentle mindset. Baby. Sweetness. Peace. Those little mouth tremors and the tiny ruffled sighs. Little grunts and snorts. The softest skin you’ll ever feel. That serene good fortune one experiences in the presence of new life. I can forget, maybe for a minute anyway, the hideous acts being committed in our world, some of which are done in the name of that very baby.