In Praise of a Boring Life

My life isn’t what I’d call tumultuous.

I have old friends and new, and a day job I’m passionate about with retirement in sight. I pass few cars on my daily ten-minute commute through Midwest farmland. I’ve been happily married for a long time, a definite blessing during rough years. While I remember the elation of a new romance, breakups were hard. The comfort of a strong bond is more appealing than any added excitement. My kids are young adults now, but I remember the drama of their teenaged years. They survived and thrived, and I wish them the same calm I have.

Though I know many tales of grief, adventure and heartbreak, they are the stories of others. They are not mine to tell.

I’ve experienced less trauma than some but have suffered my share of tragedy. It rarely appears in my writing. I could dredge up a young heartbreak or magnify the anger I felt toward the doctor who told me that my father died, but I’ve made peace with the past. I don’t bleed much on the page.

During some difficult years, interspersed with wonderful ones, I developed a theory. When you are suffering, at some point it will get better. The reverse is also true. Life is a timeline of peaks and valleys. If things are tough, this too shall pass. If days are good, why not enjoy it? There is every indication that it will only last so long.

In All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum has an essay on problems and inconveniences. When Fulghum complains about the irritations of his job, an older man, an Auschwitz survivor, explains the difference. Issues like food scarcity and war outrank annoying coworkers and getting cut off in traffic.

Life-changing problems make for gripping fiction, but my personal essays are peppered with mere inconveniences. I live in the present, occasionally dwelling in small moments from the past, sending out ripples rather than crashing waves.

So, I write the ordinary, the odd encounter, and those moments that catch you by surprise. I have the leisure of a quiet existence to see connections between strands of time and weave them into story.  As I describe this blog, I write about the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life.

When I reach the top of the next hill and begin the inevitable slide back down, I’m sure that words on the page will follow. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in the everyday moments that make up my days.

The view outside my window may be flat, but the sky is often spectacular.

 

 

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Performance

It’s the night of the school music program. The kids are in their finest, bouncing in excitement, smoothing skirts, running fingers tentatively along spiked hair, grinning. Teachers shush them as they line up by height to strut onstage.

Like decades of programs before them, they sing and play simple instruments from tiered risers. Some try to go unnoticed while others show off for the crowd. This year’s bunch has great pitch and iffy rhythm, but after weeks of learning songs and four rehearsal sessions, tonight is their best performance yet. As they march back to the classroom past their artwork lining the walls in the hall, we tell them how wonderful they were. The younger they are, the more their mistakes will be forgiven as adorable.

The beauty of childhood is equal opportunity. Every child, no matter their talent or significant lack thereof, gets to shine tonight. Every child’s work gets equal space on the walls.

Later, parts will be given out according to a director’s criteria. Having been given the experience, some will self-select to opt out. Others will weep that another was chosen. Colors will fade. Words will be silenced.

As we grow older, we often stop those creative pursuits in favor of paid work and family life. Some, like my playwright sister-in-law, will persevere despite the day job and daily grind, and watch her words rise up on stage. For most of us, old dreams seem pie in the sky, or other goals are achieved. We may not regret the decisions we make, but one day we strum an old guitar, sketch quick strokes on a pad, or jot down story ideas in a notebook. We think of what we’ve missed. We wonder about the road not taken, the choice we didn’t risk. We take a chance or two, then return to normal life.

Some of us come back to our loves when our kids are grown, or jobs give way to retirement. In this safe position, it’s okay if our art doesn’t make waves or make a living. We can do it for love. My uncle painted a gallery of still life canvases after his second retirement. My sister took up the bass drum in a band. A friend used her camera to capture an eagle’s flight. I started pecking away at a keyboard to tell the stories that started buzzing again in my head.

This time around, the Internet has made the world small and my writer’s group encourages me from across the globe. This time around, the writer’s guidelines that used to be ordered through the mail are a click away. This time around, before I send my writing out to the ether, beta-reading writer friends give advice about the spots that need smoothing, the bland that needs spice. Like the kids at their concert, I have an audience of family and friends who read and respond, softening the rejection that inevitably comes.

But sometimes, even at this end of life, the spotlight shines and the crowd applauds.

Click here for a rare success, thanks to DeadHousekeeping.com

Cast Your Vote

When I turned eighteen, my friend David asked me what I’d do to celebrate. I can’t remember any of my plans. I’m sure they included celebrating with my family, maybe going out to dinner with my high school boyfriend. But I do remember telling David that the very next day I planned to register to vote. He just shook his head.

It wasn’t as if I were exceptionally political. If I’m honest, it was an expression of how stubborn and rebellious I was. I was tired of being ordered around and wanted a voice, both at home and in the world.

Eighteen meant I could control my own money, but socially acceptable adulthood wouldn’t happen until twenty-one. A few years earlier men would have had the dubious honor of registering for the draft. But having a voice in government was the one landmark available to a young woman in 1978 America.

The first time I would have cast my ballot would have been the midterm election in November. Jimmy Carter was the President, Congress stayed Democratic, and Jim Thompson remained the Republican governor of Illinois. Historically eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds have the lowest voter turnout of all demographic groups and that election was part of a downward slope with participation for that age group going from 50% to 39% between 1972 and 2016.

We Americans have a terrible voting record. We like to complain about the people in charge and claim helplessness to affect change. This apathy may have led us to a dangerous place. It would be fitting if, at this moment in history, our youngest voters would surprise everyone and rise up to show my generation how it’s done.

I have no idea which candidates I picked or what my reasoning was that year, only that it seemed important at the time.  I have cared about every vote I’ve cast, but I don’t believe any election has seemed as crucial as the current one. We are a divided society, but if you pay attention to history, you know we’ve been divided before. Think of the unrest in the ‘60s. We have immigration issues, but if you look at our record we have repeatedly failed in this area too. The forced deportation of Mexican-American U.S. citizens wasn’t invented by this administration. The economy is on the upswing, but it can flip at any time. I know all this, and still, the present makes me fear for the future.

Four decades ago, I was a new adult, surely holding little responsibility for the ills of the world. With the weight of years, I fear my own blindness and lack of action have added to the disfunction we call American society. My own social justice has gone by fits and starts. Ignorance of the world is no excuse. But there is one act that any of us can do to make a difference.

Yesterday, I cast my ballot early, recording my vote for governor, state and national representatives, and a local tax issue. I gave my opinion on whether judges should keep their benches. Forty years after my first vote, I do care deeply about politics. I believe my values matter and my single vote counts.

On November 6, take your convictions to your polling place. Punch your holes, click your buttons or fill in your dots. Make your voice heard for a better tomorrow.

Vote!

Holding It Together

Teaching is hard. Moments, even days, are joyful. Some weeks, lessons go as planned. But sometimes it all goes wrong. None of these days are easy. They all take invested emotional energy and commitment to our students, the children in our care.

Last Friday was not the joyful kind.

I spent a three-day weekend doing several hours of work to catch up on what had been a hectic week. And I rested, breathed, had school dreams, and made plans that included me. It isn’t enough to provide for the kids. I need to take care of myself.

Today my students came back. Today was joyful and tragic, hectic and measured. I listened, explained, and changed my plans on a dime when someone’s pain was more important than the lesson I had planned. I comforted, waited, and offered to carry the emotional baggage that a child of nine should not have to have. And inside I wilted.

The final bell rang, but my day continued. I consulted, collaborated, communicated, and prepared for the next day.

Before I was through, I stopped. I changed my shoes and put on my sunglasses. I pulled up the playlist on my Mp3 player and put in my earbuds. Anna Nalick fit the day.

As I walked down the block to the beat of The Citadel, I noticed the sun, the purple mums on a porch, the still-green grass of the yards. The weight of the day crumbled away bit by bit with each step. I looped around a mile. Feeling ten pounds lighter, I returned and packed up for the day.

Tomorrow I’ll be back for more.

 

 

 

 

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Date

After being married for 35 years, some days we’re more life partners than lovers, more roommate than romance. We have worked out a rhythm and trust I wouldn’t trade for anything, but it’s pretty predictable.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke early on a Saturday. Two hours later my husband came down.

I greeted him with “Good morning.”

Then I hit him with “I have a ton of work to do this weekend and I have that thing tomorrow, so I won’t be much fun. But we can go out to eat if you want.”

He rolled his eyes. “Why would I expect any fun. Is it wet out? I have to mow and it’s supposed to rain in a few hours.”

I’m married to a weather watcher.

We chatted logistics. I’d move my car. He’d put gas in the mower. I’d walk the dog.

Fifteen minutes later, I came around, walking the dog into the garage. He popped through the doorway, one hand behind his back.

“Happy anniversary, honey.” He whipped out a flower from our weigela bush.

Suddenly I was exactly 36 years in the past. I glimpsed the man who had picked me up for our first date: wavy blond hair, broad shoulders, and a bud vase with a single red rose in his hand.

“Sorry I didn’t have a rose,” he said.

“I love it,” I said, right before I kissed him.

I went inside to give my pink bloom some water.

My husband the romantic started up the mower.

 I shared this honor with an amazing essay by Amuse-Douche.

Honestly

My daughter once told me I was brutally honest. I think she’d stand by her assessment. I don’t believe she means I’m not kind or I go out of my way to make cutting remarks. It’s just that I mean what I say and say what I mean. I don’t sugar coat. If you ask me how your performance was, I’ll tell you and you won’t need to worry I’m just being nice.

This is not to say I never lie. I’m human. But when you lie as little as I do, people assume you are always truthful. More often, my infrequent untruths are lies of omission.

In my real life, I sometimes tell meandering stories, and may even add side stories, playing devil’s advocate with myself. Without hearing the whole story, how could you possibly understand the truth of my words?

But in writing, I tend toward concise. If you follow my blog, you know I share real events in my life in very short stories. The tales are essentially true, but those lies of omission protect the anonymity of others I mention.

So, overall, I consider myself an honest person. That is, I did until I read this.

Yuval Noah Harari explains that much of what we consider the truth is lies promoted to keep society functioning. We trade green paper or numbers on a screen and credit them with the value of the items we buy. Our leaders gather followers with simplistic homilies, rather than the complicated facts that might solve problems but won’t inspire loyalty. Our love of books and movies results from our ability to suspend our disbelief. We seem programmed to seek out fiction, whether it’s our loyalty to a sports team or a product, or a disregard for the beliefs of others, all the while smugly thinking we are the ones being honest about the state of the world.

Now I wonder, as I teach my students, is what I’m sharing accurate? Not that our number system can’t be proven or that the Pilgrims didn’t arrive in Plymouth Harbor in 1620. Rather, the year 1620 is an arbitrary number, loosely based on the Christian tradition. Some of the skills I tell them they will use as adults may be less important than future skills I can’t even imagine.

When I listen and read pundits, favoring one, disregarding another, is it because “my” side is better, or did their political handlers spin the yarn that is my siren call, that will get me to follow?

My doctor prescribes a medicine for me at the recommended dosage for my sex (if I’m lucky) and weight based on studies of hundreds of my peers. But as we head into this age of personalized medicine, is it really the right protocol for me?

The engineers and physicists in my life would chide me for suggesting science is subjective. Certainly greater harm has been done by denying the veracity of science than by following its precepts. True science, while not completely objective due the presence of humans, has its system of checks and balances. Other scientists will review the literature, then repeat or further the experiments. Given time, mistakes will be sussed out and corrected.

As Harari says, where it falls apart is when we try to use science for policy, when politicians lead us toward what they can make popular instead of what might be best for our world. Should money go toward renewable energy or cleaner coal? Is it economically feasible to clear our food supply of harmful chemicals and drugs? At what level can we claim it’s safe? Politically, we can’t even agree human activity is creating global warming when the evidence is everywhere.

Despite Harari’s assertion that social “truths” can last hundreds or thousands of years, I can’t help wondering if our society is resting on a house of cards. If you pull one out, does it come crashing down? But he reminds us we are wired to want this, that following leaders has fostered cooperation and helped us survive through the ages. Faith in the system is the only thing that keeps it going.

I am left with the knowledge that, on some level, we are all figments of our own imagination. When I share my thoughts with friends and family, they are honestly mine. But whether they are true appear to be a matter of opinion.

Sweet Notes

My mother liked to tell the story about five-year-old me at my first recital. I wore a shiny gold dress that someone had passed down to me after serving as a flower girl. Between my sissy socks, shiny black patent leather shoes and dimples, I was an adorable little lady, sauntering down for my turn at the piano. Until I reached the bench. Instead of gracefully sliding in from the side, I straddled it before swinging my other leg high and over.

This story sums up my instrumental career. On the surface, I seemed to have a certain amount of musical ability, but I couldn’t quite get up and over to doing well. To be fair, I seemed to have an allergy to practicing. Perched on our piano bench at home, I would wiggle and squirm, yank a hand from the keyboard to scratch an itch or wipe my nose, and whine. My mother was determined. She quizzed me with note flash cards and punctuated my playing with the tick of a metronome when her constant cry of “Count!” didn’t do the trick.

We took lessons at school during our lunch hour. At the end of every year our teacher, Mrs. K, held an awards assembly. My older sister won a piano pin for being best. I thought the only category I had a prayer of winning was “most improved.” In second grade, if I had made any progress, it was certainly more than in the past. I listened while all the awards were given and held my breath.

“And the award for most improved goes to – “

And she said my kindergarten brother’s name.

My eight-year-old heart sank. Even a five-year-old was better than me.

My nonmusical father was determined he would give all four of his kids a musical education. The four years of piano were nonnegotiable. After that we would choose a second instrument. My sister stuck with woodwinds, my brother with brass. My youngest brother wanted the drums. I think his plan was to be so annoying they’d let him quit. In the end, he got his way. I chose the violin. Finally, I had a chance to do something no one else in my family could do.

Mr. A, my longtime teacher, was a professional violinist who gave lessons on the side. Endlessly kind, he’d prompt and remind and demonstrate, and I did improve. When I hit a sour note, I wrinkled my nose. In a rare moment of impatience, he said, “I know you can hear it. Why don’t you play it?”

I quit violin for a six-week group guitar class my junior year. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t mind practicing. But with college looming, I was struck with an inexplicable urge to try out for my university’s general orchestra. Senior year I went back to Mr. A. The next August, I restarted the audition piece three times. They didn’t cut me, but I was the last chair. In retrospect, I realized they let anyone in this group, unlike the symphony which was by audition only. A month in, I quit. No one discouraged me.

Fast forward fifteen years. On a visit home with my kids, I told my mom about taking out my violin for the first time in ages. My baby daughter looked at me with adoration. Her three-year-old sister cried when I wouldn’t let her try it and the dog howled along. Mom and I laughed together.

“I looked through my old music,” I said. “I can’t believe I used to play that. I don’t remember being any good.”

My mother raised her eyebrows. “Of course you were good. Don’t you remember?”

I didn’t. I still don’t. She might have been biased. But the evidence of some quality is there in the music I played.

But here is what I’m left with. I have a friend who likes music and theatre as much as I do. We are each other’s culture buddy. Sometimes we go to student and faculty concerts at a nearby university. I marvel at the brass and woodwinds and picture my brother’s trombone and my sister’s flute. We go to see Time for Three and I admire the bow and fingering, hear the technique, recognize the harmonics. We attend an occasional symphony concert and I am immersed in the rich layers of sound.

Almost forty years later, all I’m left with is the love.

Racing the Rain

I look out the window when I wake and smile to see blue sky and fluffy clouds after last night’s storm. I check the radar on my phone. Red and yellow skitter across the map toward my location. If I leave soon, I should escape it going south.

All packed, I point my car toward home. Driving through lush tree-covered hills for the first hundred miles, the clouds multiply to a blanket of white.  I appreciate the loss of glare. The cruise control keeps a steady pace slightly over the speed limit.

The next hundred miles slip by uneventfully through ever flatter farm land. I pass semis, SUVs shoot past me, in a high-speed dance.

I am sixty miles from home when the first drops fall, spitting against the glass. I turn on my lights and use the wipers once and it’s over.

At forty miles out, I wipe away drizzle. Then the rain starts in earnest. The wipers set an even rhythm.

The skies open as I reach the city. Sheets of water obliterate my view. I slow to 55 and wonder how the vehicles speeding past me can see. With every swipe of the wiper blades I can barely make out passing lights and the white lines of my lane. I white-knuckle steer against gusts of wind, wondering if I should pull over. Narrowly missing a stalled vehicle to my right, I drive on, moments stretching like a taut thread.

Then suddenly it stops. I hear thunder booms behind me, but the world looks a little lighter. My foot on the gas goes a little heavier.

As I begin the twists and turns of the downtown highway, there is a bone-rattling boom and it starts again. I slow and lean forward, trying to glimpse my lane. A passing semi adds its spray and I coast for a moment in engulfed in gray. I plow through flooded low spots before I realize they are there.

I think, just let me get to the bridge. If I can cross the river the path will straighten and I will make it home. I tense as I approach the on ramp hoping no unseen car is coming my way, then hear the familiar whir of tires on steel. Up and over to the other side.

Cars and trucks whiz past me as I climb the hill. Another downpour, but this time with even rhythm and I can see. The steady rain lasts till I take my exit to the final two-mile stretch of highway. If I crane my neck I can still make out black clouds above me. But up ahead is clear cerulean sky. I smile to think I have outraced the rain, relax my fingers on the wheel.

Just when I think I have won, a long, jagged bolt of lightning comes literally out of the blue directly ahead.

Sobered, I cross the remaining mile to my country home, gratefully pull into my garage. Defeated but safe, I wait for the coming storm.

 

 

The Kindness of Strangers

The summer I got married, I decided to take a trip alone about a month before the wedding. It was one last spurt of independence for what I thought would be years of partnered travel.

These were the days before cell phones and GPS. I planned my journey with maps and wrote to the people I’d be visiting to get directions to their homes. My goal was a day at the beach. I planned my visits and route so that I could get to Atlantic City. I promised my mom I’d check in with my fiancé daily, although what he’d do if I disappeared I have no idea. I was a city girl and would be careful.

I set out on a sunny hot Midwest summer afternoon in my used Chevy Monza, with the windows down (no air) and the AM radio blasting. I drove until I was tired and stopped at a motel somewhere off the highway past Columbus, Ohio. The desk clerk checked me in and gave me the key to a room right off the lobby. In retrospect, I’m sure it was a gesture of chivalry, keeping the young single woman travelling alone out of harm’s way.

The following morning, I drove a few hours into Pennsylvania, taking side roads to visit the town where my grandmother lived when she first came to America, where her father had died in a coal mine accident. The modern shops and vehicles didn’t match my mental picture.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my father’s voice echoed in my head when the signs by the tunnels nagged me to turn on my headlights and take off my sunglasses. I did as a I was told, driving deep into the mountain, lights flashing on the tiled walls, finally exiting on the other side into the bright sunlight.

My first visit was in Philadelphia to a friend from college, with his wife and baby daughter. We spent the following day, a Sunday, walking the historic sites of downtown Philadelphia, and I watched the baby while they sailed a small boat in a park lagoon. When I told them my plans for Atlantic City the next day, they encouraged me to come back and stay another night.

I left bright and early as my friends went off to work. In Atlantic City, I carefully locked my Monza and pinned the key to the shoulder strap on the swimsuit I wore under my clothes. I carried a beach bag with a towel. My flip flops slapped the boardwalk as I strolled to the beach. I spread my towel in the hot sand a few feet away from kids building sand castles, men in speedos and women in bikinis baking in the sun.  Whenever the sun became too warm, I headed for the ocean, swimming out till I was neck-deep and floating at the whim of the waves.

After a final night in Philadelphia, I started the long drive to my next destination. The day was even hotter. As fast as I drank water, I sweated it out. Somewhere in Indiana, steam rose from the hood of my car and the temperature gauge needle surged past high. I parked on the shoulder and opened the hood. The radiator hissed. I knew enough not to open it to check the fluid level until it cooled. I grabbed a book and sat in the grass at the side of the road to wait.

Only a few minutes later, a semi pulled up. Two men got out and walked back to me. The driver puffed out his chest, hitched up his pants and said, “What do we have here? Need some help?”

“Oh,” I said, “I think it’s my radiator. I’m just waiting for it to cool so I can check the fluid level.”

The man put his hand on the cap and let go fast. He pulled a rag from his pocket and quickly twisted the cap off.

“Looks like you have a crack. Do you have any water?”

I handed him the cup from my car and he poured it in.

“You should be okay. Just make sure you keep filling it up.”

I thanked them and drove off as they strode back to their truck.

My next stop was an Illinois farm where another friend raised champion Cheviot sheep that had paid her way through college. I added water to the radiator that evening and more in the morning. After a night visiting, I went on to see my brother at the house he rented near his university campus. Again, I filled the radiator and packed more water for the trip home.

My car limped the final miles home, a new radiator in its future.

As I tell this story, I reflect on how much life has changed. My daughters taking a similar vacation would ask Siri for directions and listen to music on their smartphones on the ride. If their car broke down, I’m sure we would get a call and keep them company while they waited for AAA to come and help. I know they have close friends and family that would come to their aid the same way I did. I only hope they, and all of us, could still depend on the kindness of strangers.

My Privilege

I’m going to brag about my success for a minute. I’m not saying I’m financially well-off, but thanks to saving, scrimping and hard work through the years, we’re not in debt and my husband and I should be able to fund a modest retirement. Thanks to consistent parenting, we have two wonderful adult daughters. Our marriage is solid because we work hard to keep it that way.

Except, none of that is completely true. The good parts are real, and we did save, work hard, and try to parent consistently. We don’t struggle over our marriage. We just try to be nice to each other.

I think the truth is that we’re lucky. Not that we should play the lottery. Instead, I think we have the privileges that come with who we are in the world.

Our modest financial success did depend on our effort and living on less than we made. But sometimes people do both those things and still fall into poverty. Divorce, loss of a job, or a prolonged illness can all destroy someone’s finances, and by extension, their family’s as well. But there are things that can cushion that fall. If you have a financially stable extended family and other close-knit ties like we do, you can have support while you get back on your feet. If you are the first in your family to rise out of poverty, there is no safety net. It is way too easy to fall back in when disaster strikes.

We’re lucky because we’re American. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. Now, most of that wealth is concentrated among a few individuals, but my husband and I are fortunate to be among those who make a living wage. Worldwide, our modest income is in the top one percent.

I’m lucky to have a post-graduate degree, which I attained when college was still an affordable option. On average, college graduates earn consistently more than those with high school diplomas alone. They have lower rates of unemployment. Certainly, I earned the right with effort and good grades. But I also had undergraduate scholarships and graduate financial help from my employer. Enrolling at all was helped by having two parents with degrees. Students who are the first in their families to attend are far less likely to finish. If you are a parent of a prospective university student, you know about the visits, the financial forms, the application forms and fees. It helps to have a college education to help someone apply for one. Even when students finance their education themselves, it helps to have financially stable parents who won’t require their help.

Our daughters really are wonderful. We did try to parent consistently and I’m sure that helped. But no parent can be all things. Their friends, teachers, first jobs, coaches, what they read, what they watched, the trips we took, volunteering, their own choices all made them who they are today.

My husband and I both came from a middle-class background. We started jobs in high school and learned something early about managing money. If our parents had loan payments or a parking ticket, they were able to pay it and move on. In too many places around the country, too many people in poverty have been arrested for not being able to pay their debts. Extended time in prison and garnished wages don’t enable financial stability. Fortunately, that policy may finally be changing on a large scale.

We are privileged to be white. I don’t say this to say that being white is somehow better than other colors, just luckier.  As a white American, I am more likely to be financially stable, because my family’s wealth has had more generations to accrue. I am part of the majority, so most institutions cater to my culture and skin color. If someone believes a stereotype about me, it won’t be one that gets me shot or keeps me from getting a job. If we were really a country of equal opportunity, and effort was all it took to get ahead, there wouldn’t be the extreme disparities we have between people of different races today.

Like the majority of Americans, we’ve had our challenges, but like the lucky ones, we’ve had blessed supports as well. Our fate is as much the result of fortune as anything we’ve done to deserve it.