Category Archives: Reflections

Thoughts, musings, memories

A Cornerstone No More

It has been a long time since I’ve posted anything. I’ve had serious writer’s block as the past nine months have been challenging, full of emotion, a time to recast and reset patterns that have become destructive, a time to pull up every plant and look at the roots to see if they’re healthy for replanting or need to be tossed away.

I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante’s incredible tome of four books about a friendship that has lasted 60 years. And it’s hitting close to home. My “best” friend and I nearly made it, except that she died last year at 59. And we had had a terrible falling out five years ago. I’ve had a lot to think about and look back upon. A lifetime, in fact.

At 60 now, I finally feel like I can let go of a lot of shit, to put it bluntly. And that includes people who have been toxic for me. I’ve always been a giver, but after giving my entire life, I now know that I’ve chosen takers all too often, and as a giver, it’s time to set some boundaries because the takers won’t. One of the roles I’ve played, and am giving up now, is that of a cornerstone for people.

The problem with being a cornerstone in peoples’ lives is that they come to expect that you’ll always be there, strong and whole without chips or broken pieces, securely in place with cement all around, never worn down smooth from constant use over the years.

I admit I wanted to be a cornerstone for a lot of people. It brought gratification, acceptance, approval, love even. To be there always for someone gave us both strength. But it held huge responsibilities and guilt at times. When we moved to Italy 16 years ago, this same friend sobbed on the phone and said, “How can you move so far away and leave me? You’re my cornerstone.” Talk about guilt.

And when the cornerstone crumbles just a bit, changes position and becomes jumbled among other stones and bits of brick, who’s there to pick up the pieces? Where’s the cornerstone for the cornerstone? Not from the people to whom I’ve been one, apparently.

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My original post as I wrote it was full of details about this person or that, those who had “wronged” me with their selfishness, those who never called me to ask how I’m doing, those who have gotten pissed off at me if I don’t call even when I’m in a difficult phase of my life. Ahem.

I realized that it sounded whiny and that I was feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. On the contrary, after the horrible break with my life-long friend who accused me of all sorts of terrible deeds that I had done to her, it was the kick in the ass I needed to let go and change my behavior. It was actually a gift, though a painful one.

I’ve learned a lot about life from building fires every night in our wood-buring stove. If you keep messing with it, trying to make it light more quickly by fussing and trying to control it, it won’t light. The best thing to do is let it catch by itself and then watch it glow and eventually brighten into a beautiful, roaring fire.

So, the cornerstone has been put away in a safe place where even I can’t get to it. It can crumble on its own, wear down, eventually slip away. And I won’t have to take responsibility any more for making sure it holds.

And I truly appreciate even more the other two wonderful friends I’ve had for over 40 years. One I met in junior high, the other when we worked together in our late teens. We’re always there for each other even if we don’t talk or write for months. I know now it’s because we’ve never considered the other to be a cornerstone, rather we’ve been more like gentle wild grasses that bend in the wind, grow and die with the changing seasons, then come back greener than ever, breathing with life, sometimes with surprising gifts, caressing each others’ hearts with brilliance, color, and love.

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“I Shall Always Be With You”

Our mothers didn’t die like this.

Today is the 65th anniversary of the death of a remarkable woman. Milada Horáková was arrested in Prague in 1949 and tried in the 1950 show trial that made the world stand still. She was condemned to death on trumped up charges of treason and being an enemy of the state.

The night before her execution, she was granted 30 minutes with her 16-year old daughter, Jana. After Jana left, Milada was allowed to write three letters: one to her husband, one to her sister, and one to Jana. The letter to Jana never reached her, but it survived. Jana first saw the letter in 1970 when it was published in some kind of underground paper. (I’ve quoted parts of the letter at the end of this blog along with a link to the entire letter.)

After spending the entire night writing her letters, Milada Horáková was brutally executed by hanging (the only woman to be hanged by the communists) in the early hours of June 27, 1950. She was 48 years old.

My connection to this historical figure—this incredibly brave woman, “mother, lawyer, social worker, humanitarian, enemy of dictatorship”—who sacrificed everything for her country, is through a book I’ve written about her colleague and friend who was also condemned to death in the show trials. His sentence was later reduced to 22 years hard labor in the Uranium mines, hence the reason I was able to meet him and write the book about him 50 years later. (The book will be published this fall in Prague, in Czech and English.)

But more important, my connection to her is through my husband’s father and through her only daughter, Jana Horáková Kansky, whom I have the privilege and honor of knowing. She spent many hours telling me the story of her parents, and her own story. The one thing she would not talk about was the content of the visit with her mother that fateful night.

My husband’s father and mother are buried in the Milada Horáková tomb in the National Cemetery in Prague, along with other brave souls who fought for a free Czechoslovakia. No one knows where Milada herself is buried. Jana told me that when she comes to Prague, she visits the tomb and three cemeteries with the hope that she’s visiting her mother.

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Having lost my own mother four years ago, this letter reaches more deeply into my soul than I ever imagined. I have no further words; the heartbreak is too profound. Here are some of Milada’s words to her only little girl Jana:

My only little girl Jana,

God blessed my life as a woman with you. As your father wrote in the poem from a German prison, God gave you to us because he loved us. Apart from your father’s magic, amazing love you were the greatest gift I received from fate. However, Providence planned my life in such a way that I could not give you nearly all that my mind and my heart had prepared for you. The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children.

But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. And therefore, we often had to be apart for a long time. It is now already for the second time that Fate has torn us apart. Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight. Have courage and clear goals and you will win over life. Much is still unclear to your young mind, and I don’t have time left to explain to you things you would still like to ask me.

…Go through the world with open eyes, and listen not only to your own pains and interests, but also to the pains, interests and longings of others. Don’t ever think of anything as none of your business. No, everything must interest you, and you should reflect about everything, compare, compose individual phenomena. Man doesn’t live in the world alone; in that there is great happiness, but also a tremendous responsibility.

…You have to put down your roots where fate determined for you to live. You have to find your own way. Look for it independently, don’t let anything turn you away from it, not even the memory of your mother and father. If you really love them, you won’t hurt them by seeing them critically—just don’t go on a road which is wrong, dishonest and does not harmonize with life. I have changed my mind many times, rearranged many values, but, what was left as an essential value, without which I cannot imagine my life, is the freedom of my conscience. I would like you, my little girl, to think about whether I was right.

…And don’t forget about love in your life. I am not only thinking of the red blossom which one day will bloom in your heart, and you, if fate favors you, will find a similar one in the heart of another person with whose road yours will merge. I am thinking of love without which one cannot live happily. And don’t ever crumble love—learn to give it whole and really. And learn to love precisely those who encourage love so little—then you won’t usually make a mistake. My little girl Jana, when you will be choosing for whom your maiden heart shall burn and to whom to really give yourself remember your father.

I don’t know if you will meet with such luck as I, I don’t know if you will meet such a beautiful human being, but choose your ideal close to him. Perhaps you, my little one, have already begun to understand, and now perhaps you understand to the point of pain what we have lost in him. What I find hardest to bear is that I am also guilty of that loss.

…Janinko, please take good care of Grandfather Kral and Grandmother Horakova. Their old hearts now need the most consolation. Visit them often and let them tell you about your father’s and mother’s youth, so that you can preserve it in your mind for your children. In that way an individual becomes immortal, and we shall continue in you and in the others of your blood.

…I kiss your hair, eyes and mouth, I stroke you and hold you in my arms (I really held you so little.) I shall always be with you. I am concluding by copying from memory the poem which your father composed for you in jail in 1940…

[There followed a poem written by her husband about the birth of their daughter, and a reading list.]

For the entire letter, here is a link:

http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/09/i-shall-always-be-with-you.html

For details of Milada Horáková’s incredible life, there are a number of websites. Here are two:

http://coldwarradios.blogspot.it/2010/11/i-leave-this-world-without-hatred.html

http://icv.vlada.cz/en/tema/27-june-1950-execution-of-milada-horakova-74600/tmplid-676/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing again

The greatest gift this birthday was the full moon, which brought my mother to me in its silvery light. I’m breathing again three years after her death; this is the first birthday I’ve wanted to celebrate since then. It’s just like her to know this and send the full moon to me.

P1010978Two years ago, I posted a piece about the gifts she had given to me on various birthdays (My birthday gift to you). This one tops the charts, for it’s the gift of getting my life back without the black hole that became my heart for too long. Life does go on with its pains and losses, joys and discoveries, and above all, with all the richness of color and living things that surround us if we take the time to look.

To breathe again is to take in the world and realize that this most precious thing we call life has been given to us…not to waste or rage against or try to obliterate. My birthday wish this year is the hope that the millions of people who don’t even come close to having what I have will be able to breathe one day and start to live.

Old notions

The moment I peer into the box, I’m in another time and place. I’m looking at old notions—old friends—that give me immediate comfort. They represent rituals that introduced girls to the world of sewing. Believe me, this seems like ancient history now, repleat with stereotypical roles, and I’m glad the world has changed in so many ways. But, for the moment I’m taken back to the way it was, and I indulge in the memories.

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In sewing class, you had to have a whole array of notions: red pin cushion, a tin box of Sucrets for bobbins, a seam ripper, a thimble, pinking shears and scissors, a button box, snaps, a can of very fine oil for your sewing machine, and of course the obligatory set of needles.

Good lord, I still have them all…from 1967. The Sucrets box has my signature on a piece of adhesive tape! They don’t make tape like that anymore. I take all of these notions for granted because I still use them.

I smile and shake my head at the three “Happy Home Rust Proof Needle Book” ladies!

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And you know what? They ARE rust proof! The needles, not the ladies.

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The buttons are my most precious notions. Who would have thought that so many memories could spill out of a button box? I rummage around the box, pull out a few, and this is what I see:

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M grandmother’s fur cape with the large blue, braided button.

The anchor button: my dad’s heavy knit sweater he always wore sailing.

The tortoise-shell bob button next to the anchor button: my brother’s P-coat.

The yellow button: my mom’s bathrobe that she wore into tatters. The light blue button of my sister’s formal dance dress. And so many others.

I think it’s good to hold onto some old notions, whether a belief, an understanding, an impulse or desire, or even…old sewing stuff.

Why?

Why not?

When I was younger and full of spunk, that was my answer.

But that was before society crashed into my psyche and started asking why I do nearly everything I do. Why do you do that? What were you thinking? What was your motive? What do you suppose happened? What will you do in the future to change?

I’ve apologized for so many things I’ve done, small and large, until I feel like I’m going to break. Self-esteem has hit rock bottom off and on for 50 years. And you know what? I don’t know why I do a lot of things. And I’m tired of explaining, justifying, apologizing.

I finally remembered something my mom said years ago, and it’s my mantra now. “Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

This is my philosophy from now on. Why not?

Upside down kitty(Downloaded from FB, photographer unknown but want to credit whoever made this wonderful photo!)

All sunshine makes a desert

My father died 10 years ago today. Losing a parent is huge. Even though it’s the natural course of events, you’re never fully prepared for the enormity of the event itself and the emptiness you feel inside. The emotions that flood into you consume every waking moment for whatever time it takes to grieve. You go through all the emotions of death reactions—disbelief, profound sadness, depression, more depression, emptiness, fear, anger, confusion, wonder, and finally acceptance.

21_oakWhen I buried my father’s ashes under an oak tree, the tree was only 3 or 4 years old and kind of spindly. Today, his oak tree is tall and mighty and will soon dominate our meadow with its huge branches. I like to think that his ashes have helped “his” tree grow into a gentle giant.

I wrote about my dad in my book, The Field Stones of Umbria. I look back on the chapter about him, “The Oak Tree”, and take comfort in the words I wrote. I’m hoping that these words will bring comfort to all of us who have lost our parents, and especially to a very special childhood friend who just lost her father; he was a second dad to me and such a wonderful man that I can scarcely put words to how I feel about him leaving our lives and this world. Here are some excerpts from my book:

“My father’s and my relationship was probably typical of most father-daughter relationships. It had its ups and downs, laughter and tears, great talks and terrible arguments. We had some estrangement and reuniting, some good heartfelt connections and some polar-opposite philosophies. But above all, he was my dad, I was his daughter, and those words alone imply a special relationship.

“My dad’s greatest strength was his humor. He said it got him through the roughest times of his life, especially during World War II in the South Pacific. He also had wonderful sayings that could wipe away the small tragedies in my life. I got stood up once for a date when I was 17 years old, and I was crushed. My dad held me and let me cry, then he told me all sorts of funny stories about how rotten guys are, and how my heart would be broken time and again. He told me that I had to find something in my life that would never let me down, something that I could always fall back on. It could be anything—painting, crocheting, writing—anything to call my own. He told me that was the only way to get through the rough times, like when people let you down.

“I was feeling so bad about crying, but then he said that the tears were good because “all sunshine makes a desert.” To this day when I cry, I’m convinced that I’m filling my life with rich forests and lush greenery.

P1000051“I look at the oak every day from my window and smile at him. I sit with him and tell him that there were good times and bad, laughter and tears, comfort and struggle. That we did our best with each other, and above all, that his memory lives inside of me, and I love him.”

I’ll go sit with my dad today under his mighty oak tree, 10 years later, and wish him a very special Father’s Day.

Wow – Penmanship!

I got to thinking about penmanship today. Remember that? On rainy days, we used to stay inside and practice our penmanship. Does anyone under the age of 30 even know what this is?

This was a big deal when I was growing up. We got graded on it in elementary school. Teachers in high school terrified us into believing they could see into our souls by the way we wrote.

Your penmanship told buckets about you. Were you introverted or outgoing? Were you an artist or a scientist? Were you organized or scattered? Were you humble or a show off? Did your writing slant up or down? And what did that mean? Were you angry, sad, happy, goofy?

Ah, here’s a good one–were you right-handed or left-handed?

And what of an entire industry that has probably gone by the wayside: the handwriting expert. Handwriting experts could describe personalities to a tee, or predict someone’s future, or diagnose a “criminal” for the courts. And they could spot a forger a mile away. And what about forgers? I suppose that’s a dying art as well.

There’s just not a whole lot to say about a bunch of abbreviations in a text message, except that maybe the sender is illiterate. In Italy, they say the young people don’t know how to spell correctly. They don’t know that “perché” is a whole word, for example. They think it’s “Xke” (the X is the symbol for “per” and “ke” is the phonetic sound of “ché”). There are countless other examples. Pity.

Don’t get me wrong, I love typing, especially on a great keyboard, and I’ve got speeds of up to 100 words a minute. But I still love writing in my journal or…gasp…handwriting a letter occasionally. I love the sensuousness of putting script down on paper with a beautiful pen, watching the letters form from my own hand, taking my time to think through what I’m writing (no cross-outs or deletes!), and marveling at the finished product on the page. And feeling proud of my penmanship.

Oh horrors! I look at the word penmanship itself and see that it’s way out of date in our politically correct world. If such an activity were still popular today, it would have to be called penpersonship or penhumanship, or worse yet, touchpadchallengedship.

The Silk Thread

The point is, so what if I fail? I mean, if Sylvia Plath could feel like a failure at times, so can I, right?

Motivation. Where is it? I sit down to write and the millions of thoughts I have don’t make it to the page. No, scratch that. That’s not what I want to say. Start over.

Feeling out of sorts. Big time. Dreams of cluttered houses, I can’t make it up the stairs, dirt everywhere, doors that don’t open, people invading my space. Creativity gets tangled up in the cobwebs. BEEP! Wrong again. I’m failing to say what I really want to say. Okay, one more time.

What I want to say is, simply, that I miss my mother more than I ever thought possible. I thought my heavy heart had lifted after the two-year anniversary of her death on New Year’s Day. Wrong. I need to put her life and death into perspective and get on with my life. How to do this.

Aha. It’s staring me in the face. Upstairs in my little study, I see it. On the desk stand four photos, four generations of women in my family.

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Looking at these photos, I realize that life passes from one generation to the next with memories that are like a silk thread—shimmering, resilient, supple, but also fragile and bound to disintegrate over time. As these women in my life went before me, so too shall I go one day. It’s inevitable. Okay. Accepted. In the mean time, live life to the fullest (oh how cliché!) and savor a few good memories (at least I got that part right).

mawThis is my great-grandmother at 75, the day she said her life began. Haha! She had a great sense of humor. She wrote a book about her life and the last chapter was entitled, “Life Begins at 75”. That was when Pa died (she and my great-grandfather were just known as Ma and Pa). They were Mormon. She had her 14 children without ever seeing the inside of a hospital. She used to say that she had a baby every other spring whether Pa was there or not! I look at the wonderful sepia-toned photographs in her book and marvel at one photo that shows the whole family stuffed into the covered wagon heading off to church. When Pa died, she sold the farm, and started to travel. She never wanted to see another cow or make soap or cook or beat dozens of sheets into dry submission again. She saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time and held me as a baby on the beach.

lolawThis is my grandmother, Lola, at 25 in 1925. She was the tall one of the children. No one knows where she got her height (5’9″), or her beauty, and it was the stuff of intense jealousy among her sisters. Lola was a contralto, with a honeyed voice that melted hearts. She was the first female soloist in the Tabernacle Choir from 1919-1921. But the grander life pulled at her, and she left Salt Lake City and Mormonism for New York to pursue her singing career. There, she met my grandfather, a banker from Chicago, in a hotel lounge where she was singing. She had known him from Salt Lake City but only from afar. When she saw him walk in and sit down, she sang one of the classics of 1924, “It Had to be You” and never took her eyes off him. The rest, as they say, is history.

jeanwThis is my mother, Jean, at 18, newly engaged to my father. She was a also a singer, a beautiful soprano. She was raised in Chicago in private girls’ schools, but she had a rebellious streak in her. Rather than going off to one of the elite colleges on the east coast, she chose the University of Chicago and was accepted into the Hutchins School there at the age of 16. My grandmother never forgave her…my grandfather was secretly thrilled. I’ve written about my mother on other posts, how she broke the mold and how she spent her last 25 years in San Miguel de Allende surrounded by her three dogs, five cats, and her two beloved horses. There was a full moon last night, she came to visit me.

ninawAnd yours truly at 21 (I will NOT say how long ago, thank you very much). I’m not sure how my life compares with these three women, but I do have some of each within me: my great-grandmother’s humor, my grandmother’s height, my mother’s rebelliousness and willingness to take chances (13 years ago, we left California to start a new life in Italy). I wish the four of us could sit down together and talk about our lives. It’ll just have to do to have the photos close to me, and when I feel a tug at my heart, I know it’s that old silk thread pulling at me with shimmering, resilient, supple memories that are bound to disintegrate over time.

I dunno. Maybe scratch all of this and start over. I’ll try to think of what I really want to say.

Menopause humor: don’t leave home without it

If you can’t find your menopause humor at home, try looking under the rug—you probably swept it there. If you do leave home without it, you’ll find yourself grinding your teeth at every stop light, freaking out in the dairy aisle because they don’t have the brand of milk you want, or seriously considering tripping the 20-something, infinitely perky secretary—with her clip-clapping high heels on the tile floor of the workplace cafeteria—and gleefully watching her cottage cheese and tomato salad go flying. What a great image. Except that I could never do this because it would be tripping up the last faint image of my former self oh so many years ago. I have to hang on to a tiny part of my past, of the vibrant young woman who was ready to take on the world. And who did in so many ways. Before this. Before menopause.

It’s National Menopause Awareness Day. Leave it to us baby boomers to create an awareness day of something that’s been happening to women since the dawn of people. Gosh how we love to talk about everything that’s happening to us, as if it’s the first time this has happened to anyone! But okay. It really is a good thing to raise awareness of this phase of a woman’s life. Especially if it helps women (and men) seek advice and get their hands on as much information as possible. More important, awareness programs let us know we’re not alone with horrible symptoms that are driving us and our loved ones stark raving mad.

When I went through the worst parts of menopause (and I’m still going through some rough patches of post-menopause), there were times when I truly thought I was going crazy. Confusion, anxiety, crying spells at the drop of a hat, and unbelievable anger dominated my life. I kept telling myself that all of this was normal, and I read everything I could get my hands on. I have an older sister who listened to me and described her symptoms, so I knew what to expect. I knew there would be hot flashes and night sweats, I knew I’d crave anything salted and vodka, I knew my sex drive would go down, I knew my memory might start failing. I was totally prepared to experience all these symptoms.

What I didn’t know was how strong the force and profundity of emotions, especially the anger, would be. This storm of rage took me completely by surprise. I’m no stranger to rage; as a child and teenager, I watched my mother’s generation spawn a lot of angry women fighting for equal rights. And there were the angry outbursts at family gatherings, which truly puzzled me at the time. I remember wondering why everybody was so mad. As Dee Adams says, “If you don’t get it, you ain’t there yet.” Well, now I get it.

So there I am, having had a fairly calm character most of my life, and all of a sudden, everything is pissing me off. Royally. You name it, I was getting mad. I started to understand why so many women around 50 have nervous breakdowns or give up on life. Even my sister, who inherited our dad’s humor genes, went through a couple of years of not laughing much; she was just pissed off at everyone and everything. Well, I said to myself, this won’t happen to me. Uh-uh. I’m calm, I’m a nice person, I’m trained as a psychologist—I can handle any emotion that comes up. Yeah, right. None of that mattered. I didn’t want to analyze my feelings, look at my motives, or talk anything through. I wanted to throw dishes. Lots of them.

One night when things got particularly bad between my husband and me, the delicious thought of a two-year old’s tantrums came to mind. I’d had enough of hot flashes, night sweats, confusion, a new-found clumsiness (I’m an ex-ballerina, for god’s sake, and I was bumping into walls). I’d also gotten scared to death when I realized I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t care about my husband’s feelings, I didn’t care about trying to have a good life, I didn’t give a damn. This was worse than anger, this was how suicides happen. I decided I’d better sit down and write about what I was going through.

I fantasized that I was doing family therapy again. I listened to the menopausal woman’s anger, frustration, lack of self-esteem, and depression. I listened to her husband wondering why he was doing everything wrong. I listened to the kids wondering where their loving mother had gone. I concentrated on the family members first for my fantasy advice. To help them with coping strategies, I started coming out with statements like learn to disappear,  learn to cook, humor her–listen to ’70s rock, think of menopause as your houseguest who has stayed way too long, and think of a two-year old’s tantrums.

Then suddenly, it all seemed so funny. A two-year old’s tantrums. Yes! That was me! So, before I killed my husband or he killed me, I found humor in this crazy situation and had to write a humorous book on menopause. It developed into a “guide” for the husbands, kids, and animals of the menopausal woman. My father always told us that his humor got him through the roughest times of his life. I listened to that nutty little voice inside of me and transformed a lot of insane thoughts and angry feelings into a 10-step guide for the family members to survive HER menopause.

Believe me, I know that menopause is serious. It’s bigger than most of us and proves that the Body Snatchers do exist. It’s important for everyone to be informed, to seek help, to stay healthy, exercise, meditate, to do whatever it takes to get through it. And once you’ve done all that, it’s even more important to find your inner menopause humor, and don’t leave home without it!

Her true love

Today would have been my mom’s 84th birthday. It’s the second birthday since her death, and some of the wind is still knocked out of my sails without her.

Thinking of her today, I remembered all that she loved, and there was a lot. Her family, her piano, her dancing, her ocean.

But most of all, her true love was her magnificent horse, Negro (the Spanish pronunciation “naygro” meaning black). She rode and jumped him with abandon, as she did life, up until she was about 74 years old.

These 3 photos were taken on her 70th birthday. Happy birthday, wherever you are, my sweet mamma.