Without Words

If I picked one thing to represent my mother, it would be the maroon patterned tote bag of library books she always had hanging from a doorknob. There were always several novels in it, because she’d need a number of books to get through three weeks between visits. It was conveniently placed to be visible from her chair in the living room and handy for grabbing as she went out the door.

My father was a collector of books. He owned far more than he ever read. We had rows of bookcases to house them. But Mom only collected volumes for reference, including an encyclopedia she won by submitting a word puzzle to a game show called You Don’t Say! back in the ‘60s. The ones she read for pleasure always came from the library.

My mother was a collector of words. She did crossword puzzles and was a whiz at Scrabble. We had an unabridged dictionary on top of one of the bookshelves and we learned to use it early and often.

Throughout my childhood, Mom read. She read to us when we were little and she read nonfiction to learn, but for herself, she read mysteries. She did six people’s laundry on an old machine where you had to move the clothes from the washer to the spinner. She cooked meat and potatoes for my father most nights, but experimented with quiche, boxed pasta, and even soybean burgers out of Diet for a Small Planet. She sewed and mended, did mountains of dishes, cleaned a bit, but through it all you might find her surrounded by folded piles of laundry with a book in her hand.

As we grew older and moved away, she had more time to read. By the time she was living alone, when we only came back to visit, she read so many mysteries, so quickly, that she sometimes found herself a chapter into a book she’d already read. So, she started a list of all the ones she had read and updated it regularly. Then she’d take the list to the library with her to check before she brought more home.

So, it was a surprise when we found the tote bag empty.

______________________

In the doctor’s office, she answered all the questions correctly. She knew where she was and why she was here. She told the date, the time and who the president was. She recognized all the people around her.

How could I explain my concerns without hurting my mother? Feeling disloyal, I started with the books.

“Mom used to read several books a week and now she reads none. She did crossword puzzles in pen. She’s the smartest person I know, and something is wrong.”

While the doctor answered in careful clinical-speak, I looked over at my mother to see how she was taking this, my betrayal.

I saw a familiar look on her face as she gazed at me, a half-smile of pride.

And I could see that she knew – she knew – what she was losing.

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Small Blessings (a listicle)

 

Two weeks past Thanksgiving, I’m still feeling thankful. Yes, I’m thankful that the larger parts of my life are going well, and no, I’m not happy about the events in my newsfeed. But the little things in life have been catching may attention lately, small blessings that can make my day, in the same way that frustrations can ruin it.

I’m thankful when the sun comes out after days of gray.

I’m thankful that living in the country means I don’t have to rake leaves.

I’m thankful that my little Prius still runs well, for the simple reason that it’s the only car that I’ve ever loved and I want to continue driving it.

I’m thankful that my commute is ten minutes long. (Jealous?)

I’m thankful for a keyboard that had power to run for two years and especially for the friend that lent me her charger as soon as I questioned, “How do I charge this thing?” Because after two years, I had forgotten what that black cable was for and who knows where I put it.

I’m thankful for canceled meetings, like gifts of time opening in my day.

I’m thankful to be vigorous and active, though getting up off the floor isn’t as quick as it used to be. (Do you sit on the floor? I find myself there often, not just working with students, but playing with the dog, getting things off low shelves, and looking under the bed to find my missing sock.)

I’m thankful that I work with children, because with kids there is always hope for the future.

I’m thankful for peanut butter, especially the crunchy kind. (If you’re allergic, that’s unfortunate. I’ll eat it somewhere else.)

I’m thankful for openings at the doctor’s office when I need to get in and a good stick when I give blood.

I’m thankful for a cup of hot tea on a cold day and for chocolate, because who wouldn’t be?

I’m thankful not only for my wonderful daughters, but that their chosen fields make them great sources of information for me. My life is richer and better informed for knowing them.

I’m thankful that my friends still want to see me after we’ve had busy months away from each other. (That seems to be a condition of my friendship. You have to wait to see me and then pick up exactly where we left off.)

I’m thankful for new adventures, even if they are only online ones, and for the new people I am meeting through writing. (You can never have too many friends.)

I’m thankful for those who read my blog and come back to read more. I’m especially thankful to the ones who stop to chat, offer words of encouragement, yes, but also just share their thoughts and experiences. It continually amazes me that my words reach people around the world.

I am thankful that I come home to a wagging dog and to eat a warm dinner that I didn’t cook. I’m thankful that I have a comfy spot on the couch and can spend time with my husband as I end my evening. Then to bed, where I’ll be grateful to sleep.

Different

The doctor said the red spot on my nose was an overgrown blood vessel left over from pregnancy.

“Unless you’re hiding a serious drinking problem.” Knowing me, he chuckled.

He referred me to a dermatologist to get it removed. I made the appointment on a school holiday, because that’s what teachers do with their days off. It’s too much work to be gone and we don’t like to leave our students to someone else.

I left the dermatologist’s office with a wad of gauze on my nose attached with surgical tape. It was so big I could see it and had to keep myself from staring at it as I drove.

I stopped at a Walmart to pick up painkillers to get through the rest of the day. The parking lot was crowded and I wove around looking for a spot, then walked toward the store, trying not to walk in front of cars or people.

By the time I got to the door, I realized I was attracting a lot of glances. I felt like turning around and heading for the car, but my nose was starting to throb and I wanted relief. I told myself that I didn’t need to see any of these people again and headed in.

I passed many more people on the way to the pharmacy, who all displayed their discomfort with my appearance in one way or another. It surprised me how they fit neatly into categories. Small kids gazed with open faces, no judgement. Adolescent boys gave me looks tinged with disgust or horror. Men stared as well but kept their faces neutral. Girls and women glanced at me, then quickly looked away.

My average looks and appearance generally attract little notice. I walk through life and Walmart anonymously. This visit was unsettling. I was in pain now in more ways than one, hovering on the edge of tears.

None of this is surprising. We are wired from birth to notice differences. What is remarkable is our ability to overcome our natural human instinct to shun those that are different. My guess is that that comes with practice. Those with experience with people who are in some ways different than themselves can learn to see the similarities. My physical difference was in place for only a short while. I can only imagine the bravery it would take to face those reactions day after day.

I turned a corner and came face-to-face with another woman. She was a little taller than me, with dark wavy hair framing her cheerful face. She looked me right in the eye and continued smiling, before side-stepping to go into the next aisle.

I have thought of that woman often over the years and I am grateful that we crossed paths that day. Her smile restored my humanity in that moment.

This Thanksgiving I choose to feel thankful for the kindness of strangers. I feel thankful that more majority voices are rising in solidarity with minority ones. I am encouraged when advertisers who keep their fingers on the pulse of the general population put kindness in their ads to appeal to the masses. I love that the number two movie box office totals for last weekend were for a kids’ movie based on a #1 best-selling novel that sends the message, “Choose kind.” I love that when our leaders display other qualities, many, many more of us are coming out in favor of decency and altruism.

This holiday I wish you hospitality, graciousness and goodness, but above all, I wish you the chance to choose kindness.

Getting It Right

Years ago, when we were a young family, my husband proposed putting our name on the mailbox to be like the others in the neighborhood. You’d see “The Smith’s” or “The Jones’s.” We decided that the possessive stood for their home, but I argued that if there were more of us than one, the apostrophe needed to be after the s. He finally bowed to my teacher judgement, but couldn’t stand the look of it once it was up. He decided to leave the apostrophe off. Imagine that. Plural, not possessive. Now every mailbox since has just displayed our house number.

It’s a curse really. In lots of occupations, blissful ignorance would be fine. Signs and ads purposefully make mistakes as plays on words, but some of them are so mangled it’s painful. I’m not so bold as to tell store owners to fix their signs, but I want to.

I think it’s because of the family I grew up in. When we’re together we have far reaching discussions about science, politics, theatre, family history and the news. Something invariably comes up that we either don’t know or disagree on and the automatic response is to look it up.

When I finally relented and got a smart phone, I transferred that habit. Now when anything comes up among friends, I say, “I’ll look it up.” I think I might be approaching eyeroll status.

I checked out a friend’s new website recently and praised its professional appearance, before pointing out the typo on the home page. Not sure if it was appreciated, but if it were me, I’d want to know.

This is not to say that I don’t make mistakes. Of course I do. I second guess my commas all the time. Microsoft Spelling Grammar Check wants another one in this paragraph, but I’m holding fast.

I try my best to proofread, but even then, something occasionally slips through. If you happen to see a typo, please point it out. Finding them much later is painful.

I’m most likely to misspell or misuse when I text message quickly. Between autocorrect and my clumsy fingers, some zingers come out. If it happens to be a homophone, as in “I here you,” my daughter will text-gasp, “Mom! Read what you just said!” The trouble with being right so often is the glee people express when you happen to be wrong.

I’m not the only one with this affliction. Just the other day I read a rant about the unnecessary apostrophes on Christmas cards. It was shared on Facebook by a retired teacher with the caption, “PLEASE READ.” It’s tough being right. I know she feels my pain.

The more creative among us try to reach out with humor, like the authors of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. In the end though, only the people who know the correct punctuation really understand the humor.

So if you are the kind of person who makes alot of mistakes and thinks its alright, say the kind of person who sees nothing wrong with this sentence, take pity on those of us who are afflicted. Look it up!

*Nope, can’t stand it. A lot is two words and all right should be even if some places find one word acceptable. Its is the possessive. It’s is short for it is. Phew! Now I feel better.

Time for a Rant

I open my eyes on Sunday at my usual 6:30AM, except it’s only 5:30. I pretend for another hour, but it isn’t the same. I give up when it reaches 6:30 because the dog doesn’t know about time changes.

While she eats her bowl of food, oblivious to my grumpiness, I change the time on the microwave with a few easy clicks. Then I drag a chair over to the counter so I can climb up and adjust the clock on the wall. On my knees, I take the clock down, fiddle with the wheel at the back and hang it back up, leveling it with the border on the wall, because the ceiling isn’t quite flat. It’s an old house.

Later, sitting on my couch, I stare with annoyance at a clock on the shelf. Sighing, I stand up to change that one too.

At least I’ll have time for a nap today.

On Monday I wake up at 4:32 and quickly do the math. I have two hours till my alarm and my body still thinks it’s 5:32. I convince myself to go back to sleep for a while.  I wake with a start at 5:48, a minor victory.

Then I head into school where bleary-eyed kids do not understand why they’re so tired. None of us will feel like working, but we’ll plod through the week.

I hate the time change.

It will take several days to adjust, at least a week for my students. When we spring forward, it will take twice as long. If you expand that to the general population, just think of the loss of productivity twice each year.

I get a cold every year about now. I always figured it was due to stress and kid germs and frosty days closed up inside. But it turns out, the seasonal loss of sleep is also associated with increases in illness and even heart disease.

So, who’s bright idea was this anyway? Ben Franklin suggested waking people up early, but the US didn’t jump on the bandwagon until 1918. Back then, the idea was that if people were awake more in daylight hours, we’d save on energy consumption. But it doesn’t work out quite that way in our gadget obsessed age.

Also, it turns out Daylight Savings Time costs us money. The increase in daylight hours apparently causes us to spend lots of money. Then the economy suffers when we switch back in the fall. Maybe that’s why they made it another couple of weeks longer?

I would argue that Daylight Savings Time is bad for the environment. All those extra awake hours of daylight mean more hours in the car, which automatically means more fossil fuels, which explains who was behind the extra hour of DST in 1986.

My husband likes Daylight Savings Time better than Standard Time. I just wish we’d pick one and stick to it.

It’s even affecting the quality of this essay.

It’s obviously a conspiracy.

But I have a plan. One day, when I finally retire, I’m going to dutifully change my clocks like I always have. But come spring, I will go to bed an official hour later than I do in the fall. The time will change, but I will not. So there, DST!

Expectations

My young friend is expecting her first child. She pats the hard bump, already missing her flat stomach.

I say, “Remember how A. stayed her usual tall and slim, with just a basketball sized baby bump?”

She does.

“Everyone is different. I played golf when I was pregnant and the only shorts I had with pockets were two pairs of bib overalls, one red, one blue. I had big babies in my short body. I looked like Tweedledum or Tweedledee.”

She laughs.

I stop myself from going on. She’ll hear enough about all the changes her body will go through. Her nausea and fatigue are lessening. Her bump won’t be the only thing growing bigger. Soon she’ll feel the fluttering of life inside.

Right now, her heart is beating stronger and harder, with increased blood flow. But nothing will prepare her heart for the intensity of the love she’ll feel when she meets her newborn. No love at first sight could be as strong.

Nothing will prepare her for her physical need for her baby, to inhale his scent and kiss his soft cheek. No one tells you that sensuality and intimacy need not be sexual.

Nothing will prepare her for the dread she’ll feel when she’s scheduled to go back to work at a job she once loved. Driving to her first day back she will cry, wracked with grief and guilt for not being with her child, unprepared for the physical loss she will feel at not holding him in her arms.

If she chooses, and is fortunate enough to choose, to stay home with her baby, nothing will prepare her for the mind-numbing isolation of spending your days with an infant. Sleep deprived, she may go all day without a shower, starting and stopping the household chores she was sure she would accomplish, at the mercy of a tiny wailing being that takes all her feelings of worth and accomplishment and rips them to shreds.

Whether at work or home, life will go on. As her infant grows and she finds a routine and gets a little more sleep, as her baby grows rounder and more alert, as he lights up at the sight of her when she comes in the room, nothing will prepare her for the unconditional love of her child. She will be the center of his world and he, hers.

Once living in a world of the mind, the schedule of importance will shift. Having laundry done and food in the house will be measures of success.

Once measuring her worth through work, nothing will prepare her for the delight she will feel at her son’s rolling over, sitting up, crawling. Nothing will prepare her for her joy at the sound of her baby’s laugh. When he takes his first steps, her arms will be open, her smile wide.

Nothing will prepare her for the emotions of her son’s first words. They may be dada or dog, but the day will come that he calls her mama. While she has several names in the world, in that moment, that will be her favorite name of all.

Nothing will prepare her for all the years to come. Nothing can. But so many mothers have been unprepared. Everything will be fine.


Positive

I feel powerful today. I can affect change in others at the cellular level. You can too.

I can’t actually alter DNA, but I can change the way people’s genes are expressed. (Just Google epigenetics.)

Have you heard of the ACE study? All it takes to hijack someone’s future health and well-being is to create chaos in their lives. Of course, if you add drug abuse, food scarcity, or domestic violence to the pot, that could accelerate the change. But it could be as simple as berating them daily or shoving them or breaking things around them when they least expect it, so that they think about it and anticipate it all the time. It could be any of the ten categories of risk. The more adverse events are layered on, the greater the chance their health will be impaired. And those epigenetic markers will help pass those health issues on to their offspring as well.

What does this mean for you? It could be you or someone you love. Two-thirds of the people surveyed had at least one risk factor. Most of that group had two or more. By the time you reach four risk factors, your chances of experiencing health impairments like heart disease, addiction and alcoholism, auto-immune disease, even divorce, rise dramatically.

Of course, children are the most vulnerable. But traumatic stress affects adults as well.

The good news is that we can also epigenetically improve a child’s life.

An earlier study was done with newborn rats. According to Moshe Szyf, they found that rats whose mothers groomed them more were better adjusted and calmer than rats whose mothers didn’t. But the best part is that when they put the baby rats from lesser groomers with foster calm mothers, the extra grooming enabled the baby rats to become well-adjusted calm adults. So, nurture, not nature.

 The ACE study found that a single caring adult can buffer a child from the effects of the stressors in her life. A loving parent or grandparent, a family friend or a committed teacher can be the support needed to keep the demons at bay.

Nadine Burke Harris developed ways to intervene and reverse the damage. We can improve a child’s future and, by extension, the future of their children. We have the power. Providing the resources to create a safe, stable home, with adults who love and care for them, with nourishing food and enriched education, much of the damage can be reversed.

And then, what if we could intervene in small ways? What if the smallest kindnesses are not just moral choices, but biochemical ones, like drops in a bucket that added together could affect a change for the better?

Extend that to us and we can combat the chaos by providing that consistent positivity to those in our lives. The next time your coworker becomes angry, wait for calm and then ask if everything is okay. When an exhausted parent with a screaming child is in line behind you at the grocery store, offer to let them go ahead. When you know someone is going through a tough time, offer specific assistance. When something is off, but you’re not quite sure what, keep watching and waiting. Offer to lend a hand even when you aren’t sure the help is needed. Trauma isn’t always visible to those around.

Give the small kindness of a smile. The small service of a listening ear. The small gift of a calm presence.

Why should we care?

Because adverse childhood experiences affect all of us.

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If you want to assess your own risk, click here.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

To have a good night’s sleep, follow a few simple steps. First practice a relaxing routine before bed.

Before beginning her soothing routine, she checks her email one last time so it doesn’t weigh on her mind. She clicks the link to contact her legislators to encourage them to vote yes/no on that bill that makes her blood boil, types a few extra lines to get that off her chest and hits send.

She glances at the clock and sees that bedtime is approaching.  A little reading should settle her thoughts before sleep. She likes paper-and-cover books, plus staring at blue screens is linked to insomnia. Unfortunately, the first chapter opens with a sudden blizzard, a snowmobile accident, and an ominous figure barely visible through the blowing snow.

A glance at the clock shows that bedtime has passed, she’s four chapters in, and wide awake. Maybe she’ll read a little more before trying to sleep.

As she stifles a yawn, she puts the book down after chapter seven.

She completes her nighttime routine with personal hygiene, including essential brushing and flossing, because nighttime brushing is the most important time of day.

You’ll need a dark, cool, quiet room with a comfortable bed. If you live with a snorer, consider a fan for white noise, or in extreme cases, earplugs.

Easing into bed, trying not to wake her husband who is already snoring, she puts in her earplugs.

She settles gratefully under the covers, still wondering who the main character’s attacker might have been. Wriggling a little, she tries to shift her thoughts. Her mind goes back to the emails she sent, which takes her to the other ridiculous things she’s seen in the news lately, which reminds her of the storms, flooding, fires and recent crimes and…

Manage your worries and stress.

She rolls over and sternly tells herself to move on something else. She thinks about work the next day and then about the recent decisions that she disagrees with and her frustrations with not being listened to and that her toothpaste is making her thirsty and maybe a drink of water will help her settle down.

When she settles back on her pillow, she considers reading a little more, but makes herself stay in bed. She simultaneously realizes that she is getting drowsy and that her back itches right between her shoulder blades. She reaches back to scratch it, wakes up completely, and checks the clock. Two hours closer to morning.

When her mind returns to work, she must distract herself. After all, worrying never solves anything. She decides to count blessings like sheep. After family, friends and health, she thinks of the privilege of owning her own home, then wonders when the roofer will finally come to replace the roof and whether she should call them again in the morning.

She rolls over again and tries to find the most boring thing that could occupy her mind.

Halfway through the multiplication tables, she finally passes out.

 Set a schedule of regular waking and sleeping.

She wakes at six thirty without an alarm, because it’s important to wake at the same time each day when she wants a good night’s sleep. Her husband is still snoring when she takes out her ear plugs.

Questions

On my way home, my gas gauge drops down to its last bar. My computer strongly suggests that I plug it in. My phone requests that I put it in low power mode. The world is conspiring to send me a message. Slow down? Fill your tank? I don’t know what metaphor it has in mind, but I’m definitely low on fuel.

My mind is whirring with work and deadlines, but what has me in a funk is my overwhelming confusion about my country and the world. Over and over I find myself asking why.

When you picture an American, what does that look like? If you are one of millions of Americans, the first thing you picture is someone white. Why? Why would the tired and poor, “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” come only from European countries? Where, by the way, many are not white anymore either.

What does that feel like, to think you are somehow more entitled, more worthy of being an American, simply because of the color of your skin?

How does it feel on the other side of that assumption? And if your family is white, but you are a person of color, do you still feel different?

Not so long ago, the lines were drawn finer, between WASPs and Catholics, between Italian-, German-, Irish-, and other immigrants, Jews from any country. My ancestors were here during the Revolutionary War and came through Ellis Island, similar to endless generations of immigrants since we wrested the land from the Native Americans. Why do we always draw lines?

Do you wonder why wealthy football players would kneel during the anthem? Or why it would be less patriotic to peacefully protest than to stand with hand on heart and remain silent? Or why the press missed the point? As protests go, this one inconveniences fewer people than any major protest in my memory. It costs taxpayers nothing. No blood is being shed. So why are so many people so angry?

I want to know why, when the majority of Americans believe politicians are dishonest, a large percent, many of them well-educated, are willing to believe them when it comes to corporate tax breaks creating jobs and global warming being a myth. When did science become suspect? When did rationality and bias become so intertwined that people can’t or won’t follow a chain of thought to a logical conclusion?

Why is it so hard to imagine that others are facing difficulties that we ourselves don’t? When can we have a national discussion about bias without finger pointing and flag waving?

Most of all I want to know, why has the discourse gotten so much worse over the last few years? Have opinions changed that much? Or has the current atmosphere simply bared the faces that were already staring out at us?