The Living Spaces #4 – College – Sophomore Year and Beyond – A Deep Dive

Prelude

I adore this photo of my husband. He loved diving. After he got certified and gained experience in different locales, the tropics, the Great Lakes, the Florida Keys and multiple caves, he realized that if he’d had more direction as a young man, he’d probably have chosen diving as a career. One time, I was wandering through our house looking for him, calling for him, finally assuming that he’d gone out without telling me. A short time later, I walked into the bathroom and was startled to see him under water in the bathtub, his snorkel and mask on, checked out of regular life for a bit. Made me laugh. I’m thinking that Michael’s deepest dives were on wrecks in Lake Superior. I know that he was certified to 100 feet plus, certainly my idea of a deep free dive. I was glad he enjoyed those experiences. A cold deep dive in full dry suit was his type of fun.

We had vastly different approaches to a “deep dive.” And Michael much preferred his choice to mine. My idea of a deep dive is always a journey into my interior landscape. The striations in the rocky landscape in the photo above are for me, a metaphor for the layers we pile up throughout the course of our lives. Of course we’re not aware of that piling on of layers. Nor are the mountains aware of their compressed deposits on display to those of us who ponder all the life in those colorful lines. I know we all have those layers. As time passes, many get papered over by our cumulative daily experiences. Some of mine are that way, inaccessible, despite my best efforts to explore them. I do have a prodigious memory but it’s far from perfect. What I do have is journals. They’re far from a complete record of my life. But they are certainly windows to the past. And the pages don’t lie. When I explore them I’m confronted by my young self, struggling to grow up. I see all my mistakes, my embarrassments, my shame. Looking back is instructive, enlightening, painful and beautiful. So far I haven’t ripped anything up. This raw journey and exposure I’m engaged in would not be a high priority on Michael’s list. He was always suggesting I get rid of private things I’d kept that he believed were no one else’s business. But I’m not him. One day, my kids and grandkids will be glad I told my truth.

SOPHOMORE YEAR

1969 – “I decided to change. It’s been too many years now, clinging to shreds…”

During the summer of 1969, I was evaluating myself and not liking what I found. I was eighteen. Freshman year of college was a bust. My grades were mediocre. I’d continued to break rules which in the end caused me problems. In my junior year of high school, I ditched 60 Physical Education classes. I have no idea how I managed to get the grownups to allow me to keep my positions as student council treasurer and member of the National Honor Society, but I did. They didn’t make it easy. As as senior, I had to make up every class I skipped, two for one. On swim days, I was constantly wet. So what did I do in college? I skipped two semesters of my PE requirement. When the time came for fall registration I would be encumbered and unable to participate in school until I fixed that little rebellion. I realized that I was creating my own problems but I didn’t seem to be able to stop myself. My high school boyfriend and I had finally broken up. We were still friends but I was determined to move on. When I went back to school, I intended to branch out and try lots of different things. I realized that I was a curious mixture of courage and insecurities. I developed an exterior that was quick-tongued and sarcastic, learning about social games and how to navigate them while being intensely lonely, feeling misunderstood and pining for love. I felt isolated and unable to fit in anywhere. When I returned to the university, I lived in the same dorm as I did before, but lucked into a room with no roommate. I appreciated the privacy while still being able to socialize with people on my floor. Again, those floors were segregated by sex so I lived in the company of other women.

I didn’t trust the appearances of anyone, perhaps because I knew that with me, what you saw was definitely not what you got. Alternative culture was alive and a definite presence. I wanted to test its substance and depth. Early in the fall, I conducted an experiment. In the basement of the student union, there was a gathering place called “The Commons.” When entering the building from the quadrangle, you would walk down a flight of stairs and through a long hallway to get to the The Commons. There you could grab coffee or a sandwich, study, or just have a break between classes. Lots of people sat on the floor or in chairs along that passageway, many of whom were the “freaks,” the people breaking away from the more traditional paths of their fellow students. They were the object of my experiment. On one day I’d dress in jeans, a t-shirt, my hair flowing loosely, moving with a definite strut, and I’d walk down that hall. The alternative folks would make eye contact and nod at me in recognition. The next day, I’d dress myself in a skirt and sweater, with color coordinated knee socks, my hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. I’d walk the same hall, see the same people sitting there and be completely ignored. Yes. I decided I couldn’t trust any behavior on its surface. I felt even more isolated.

I set out to try a variety of experiences I’d resisted during my freshman year. Many of my friends had already dabbled in drugs and alcohol, even back in high school, but I was still slow and careful. The first time I ever smoked marijuana, I got seven joints and practiced smoking alone in my room. I wanted to make sure I could manage myself with a modicum of control before indulging in front of anyone else. I did the same thing with a bottle of Wolfschmidt’s vodka, a dreadful experience and one of the two times in my life I felt the room spinning as I sat on the floor in terror, trying to clutch anything to make it stop. Drinking never was my thing, then or now. I joined a sensory relaxation group which met once a week. The leader put us through a series of exercises in which we first were partnered with whomever was closest to us, then eventually, put us in groups of seven where we performed exercises that were trustbuilders. We weren’t allowed to speak at all. I actually really enjoyed that challenge and wound up making friends with one person, ultimately developing a friendship that lasted decades.

That fall of 1969 was intense for me on multiple levels. My mother had surgery to remove a growth on her thyroid gland. I waited in my dorm room for a call from my dad to find out about the surgery. He told me that it was successful and that the tumor was benign. I knew he was lying. I remember standing in the dark, looking down at my palms held side by side, envisioning sand slipping through the small spaces between them, a metaphor for life and time. I’d been worried about my mother’s health for most of my eighteen years as she was always sick with something. I didn’t know then how subtly traumatized I was by that worry which laid the foundation for my endless quest for a partner who’d provide me security and shelter. I moved forward, an interesting mix of confidence and insecurities. I attended the anti-war moratorium on campus that fall, along with a variety of other political events as I thought my way into a cohesive ideology about what was happening in the great big world. Huge events which were having a major impact on me and my peers. Thinking always about the war, the draft, everyone’s numbers, who might get called up. School was a sideline for me compared to all these big issues.

I was having some casual, careful dates in those autumn months. One unseasonably warm day in early November I met Al on the steps of the Union where he sat strumming his guitar. I’d actually glimpsed him the year before at some freshman street dance. I thought his dancing resembled how a person would look with his hand stuck in an electrical outlet. I promptly forgot him. Not this time. We had a long conversation and soon were involved with each other. We went to see The Rolling Stones a few weeks after we met. After only recently getting an intellectual grip on my wildly fluctuating emotions, I was determined to proceed cautiously in the early weeks of this involvement. Initially I did well. I sensed his fear of attachment pretty fast. That was a pretty normal feeling for a nineteen year old guy. I wasn’t altogether sure I wanted to be deeply involved with anyone either. The times were so tumultuous and unsettling. I was discarding a whole set of ideas that were benchmarks of my young life and wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to put in their place. My friends were all setting aside the social mores of our young lives, and while I was good with the intellectual parts, I was not ready to let go of my personal dreams of one partner for life. After several months of seeing each other, Al was the first to make declarations of love which he quickly qualified as temporary. Meanwhile, my feelings were deepening despite my certainty that we were doomed.

We got through the winter, driving out to the countryside on weekends, doing lots of talking and exploring each other’s ideas. The campus was alive with dissent like most around the country. I made some passing attempts at keeping up with school and made a decision to switch from being a psychology major to an English major, having discovered that there were some serious statistics classes to complete the psych requirements. Numbers weren’t for me, at least back then. During that kinetic time, I read voraciously, consuming philosophy, literature and history as fast as I could. Always a music lover, I was listening to new sounds. I felt like my brain was constantly stretching. Life was exciting and confusing. I was willing to experiment with my mind, with drugs, with politics and new experiences. In the atmosphere of free love though, I was pretty sure I’d be the last virgin on the planet. But I wasn’t ready to move in that respect. I wrote in my journal that I never wanted to look back with regret on the big decisions in life. I held onto that. Second semester moved quickly, a new decade had begun and when I turned nineteen in May of ’70, the growing pains of the previous year and a half had devolved into me wondering how I’d managed to fall in love knowing that I’d jumped from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. When school ended, I went back to Chicago to my third year of my summer office job. That would be the last time in my life that I’d live in Chicago.

Winter Views

Ordinarily I don’t pay much attention to weather. I never saw the percentage in caring about it as what happens outside is completely beyond my control. I understand that some people have Seasonal Affective Disorder which makes the gray, dark months exceptionally hard. I have empathy for them, knowing that they have as little control over their response to the gray and the cold as any of us do to the whims of meteorological conditions.

For some reason though, this winter has felt long to me. The temperatures haven’t been unusually bitter nor has the amount of precipitation been extreme. Counting days, though, I’d have to give drab, neutral skies the numerical edge over sunny ones. Despite the desire for color and mucking around in the garden, I still think it’s possible to appreciate the beauty of nature in its stark state as opposed to its lush one. I give you some photos of life in the midwest during winter. This along with everything else, will eventually pass.

The Living Spaces #3 – College – Freshman Year

I turned 17 in May, 1968 and graduated from high school in June. During the following summer, I worked downtown in the Chicago Loop. Some of the money I made would go toward paying for college and the rest I was allowed to spend on my wardrobe for the first time in my life. In September, my parents drove me to Urbana, home of the University of Illinois where I was registered for the fall and hopefully, all four years of college life. Seemingly, I was ready to go. Despite my mediocre high school academic career, my unfair weighted honors classes, based on potential rather than performance, served me well. My grades were good enough to have fulfilled many of my core college requirements, and so, I had class choices available to me as a freshman. I had a small Illinois State scholarship. I was going to live with my best friend Fern in Allen Hall.

I was still involved with my boyfriend Rich who was living in Chicago, but I planned on dating. My parents helped me move my meager possessions into my dorm. I had a clock radio and a lamp along with clothes, toiletries, school supplies and posters for the walls. A minimalist life which was fine with me. After Fern’s parents unloaded her things, we went to the Town and Country restaurant at Five Points and had a final celebratory dinner with our families. Then they went back to Chicago and we began our new life.

In truth, I couldn’t have been more ill-prepared. I was young and essentially aimless. I had no aspirations for any type of career except for a vague interest in psychology. I’d grown up as an observer of people, always trying to understand interactions and to find a place where I fit in the world. Psychology seemed like a reasonable start to this part of my life. Mostly, I knew a lot more about what I didn’t want to do, rather than what I did want to do. No one had ever engaged me in conversation about my future plans, not even my school counselors.

I remember the first days of college. Back in those days, registration took place in person in the huge steaming Armory where I stood in line with everyone else, clutching papers and a course catalogue, hoping there’d be room for me in the class sections I’d chosen. If one was closed, you hurriedly got into another line. I pieced a schedule together. On the first day of classes I made it to Psychology 100 at 8 a.m., stood in front of Gregory Hall for a minute and turned my back and walked away. An inauspicious and telling start to my academic career. I was thinking of other things.

I didn’t have much guidance from anyone. I don’t think either of my parents asked me a single question about school. Ever. They intimated that education had value but never discussed its practical application. They were basically passive, responding to life’s crises rather than being proactive about anything. I knew that they thought I was smart and that meant something to them, but as far as exploring what my interests were and how they might help me? Not on their agenda. I’m not angry about it. I was a victim of benign neglect, nothing more. I spent a lot of my teenaged time trying not to give them reasons to worry about me. As the third kid in the family, with over 5 years and 8 years between me and my two older siblings, it took awhile for them to get down the line to me. My brother and sister were caught up in issues more complicated than my little kid ones. I knew my parents were stressed a lot of the time. Easygoing by nature, I mostly wanted to not be a source of anxiety for them. So I wasn’t. I simply glided along with a smile on my face, never giving them any indication that I had no clue about what I was doing. When my grades started slipping in high school, I would get a mild admonishment from them on occasion, but not much else. Somehow I still managed to be in the National Honor Society. I didn’t deserve it but they were easily mollified. My dad dropped out of high school as a sophomore and although my mom finished, she never believed she had more than a high school education in her future. They were so bright. But they were intimidated beyond their limited experiences. I was an adult before I figured out that I would’ve benefited from more input from them, from anyone. The proverbial spilt milk.

Left to my own devices, I decided that my first task in college was to shed all the societal rules that shaped my world in high school. Within a few weeks, I realized that meant getting away from Fern. What had worked for us since we were seven wasn’t going to any more, as we each were ready to fling off our past selves, to try on who we really felt we were. Her presence felt too confining for me. So after less than two months, I got myself out of Allen Hall and moved to Saunders Hall, room 324 where my new roommate was Penny Conrad, daughter of a Chicago television personality who played a kids’ show character named Elmer the elephant. Penny was a pretty blond girl who was a very nice person with a steady boyfriend and an urge to pledge a sorority. She moved into the Tri-Delt house by second semester. I was alone in a double dorm room which suited me. That was the first time in my life that I’d ever had my own room. Sorority rush was one of the roadblocks between Fern and me. I was in a sorority in high school which was ironic as I hated their clubbiness and the exclusion of others. Once I was finished with that life I was determined to never live it again. At the time, everyone I knew was going through the “rush” process. I’d stand on the street corner watching girls troop down along, all dressed up, getting ready to put themselves forward to get a pledge bid. The idea that anyone could vote on my worthiness for anything was repugnant to me. Stepping away from that was the beginning of growing into myself. Fortunately, my friendship with Fern was strong enough to survive our differences.

I was still quite friendly with lots of high school friends who had come to this big state school in a sizeable group. But I was looking outside them, trying to figure out what I really wanted. And I was confused. I spent a lot of time fumbling around, feeling listless and out of place. I went to the classes I liked and scraped along in the others. Grades were sent home to parents and when my midterm results, 2 C’s and 2 D’s, made their way into my dad’s hands, he called and threatened to make me come home if I didn’t do better. I put in a bit more time and lifted them each by one letter. Mostly, I was drifting. I was thinking a lot about social and political issues. There was the draft and the Viet Nam war and civil rights and women’s issues. As irrelevant as high school had felt, my tether to a mainstream life was getting increasingly more frayed. But I was afraid to move away from the familiar.

My high school boyfriend sent me flowers. We wrote each other letters. He was familiar and safe and absolutely not loyal. But he was always nice to me. One weekend he drove down for a visit. At that point in time, dormitories were segregated by sex. In the common space of the lobby, monitors trolled the couches, making sure that if a couple was embracing, there were at least three of their four legs always touching the floor. I was an innocent young woman, socially and politically progressive but personally, very conservative. I wanted to have only one real love in my life, the person I’d marry. I wasn’t ready for that step but we wanted to prove we’d left high school behind. We decided we’d try to have some privacy and rented a hotel room for the night.

I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable even though I knew that I had no intention of crossing any significant boundaries that night. Playing at being a grownup was what that experience felt like. I brought a blue and green checked sleep shirt with a Victorian collar trimmed in white lace and shared a bed for the first time with my boyfriend, who was actually more like a platonic friend than a lover. It was kind of familial in a scary way. After that, he went home and I went back to bumbling my way through school.

Probably the most significant thing that happened to me that first year of college actually happened when I went home for winter break. My father was working, my mother was out and my sister was at school. I was wakened from sleep by the telephone. My grandmother was screaming at me that something had happened to my grandfather. I hung up, called the emergency operator, flung on my clothes and ran the mile or so from my parents’ apartment to my grandparents’ place. I remember bounding down snowy sidewalks, wearing boots with no stockings, the skin of my feet scraping against leather as I ran. I beat the ambulance and leaped upstairs to find my grandfather lying on the kitchen floor, robe open,while my grandmother screamed and keened next to him. That was the first time I’d ever seen a naked man. I pulled his robe over him just as the EMT’s came in with their gurney. They gave my grandmother a sedative and we all piled into the ambulance which went tearing down Lake Shore Drive, siren blaring. I saw other drivers looking at me and was aware that I was having a lifetime experience, an eighteen year old kid in the odd position of being the adult, despite my grandmother’s presence, responsible for the health of another while everyone was watching. At least that’s what it felt like to me. I spent a long day in the hospital in that time of no cell phones and little technology. Eventually my parents came to pick me up and on the drive home, my dad looked at me in the rear view mirror and said, “you know you saved your grandfather’s life today.” I hadn’t really thought about that at all. In those days, there were two winter breaks, one for holidays and one after final exams. I returned to school and after completing the semester, I went home one more time.

My grandfather was frail the last time I saw him. I remember noting that his neck no longer filled out the collar of his shirt. He was seventy-five years old which seemed ancient to me. He died a few months later. I took a Greyhound bus home for the funeral, rolling along late at night. The bus stopped at all the small towns on its two lane highway route, which it followed until joining the interstate out of Chicago, which wasn’t completed for a number of years. The trip took twice as long as a regular car ride. I arrived in the city, bleary-eyed and contemplative. My grandfather wasn’t my first death but the event was a marker for my awareness that change was inexorable. As a seventeen year old college freshman, I was suspended between my childhood and my adult life. I was trying to hang on to some personal safety and security but life was going to do its thing whether I liked it or not.

The summer after my freshman year I went back home to work at the Cook County Credit Bureau which had relocated its offices from South Wabash Street to North Michigan Avenue near the Chicago River. I rode the Lincoln #11 bus a commute an hour and a half long each way. Sometimes I’d be reading but more often, daydreaming about how to move on, to stop clinging to what was safe and known, to venture into what was different, to stop letting fear and insecurity dictate my future. Sophomore year was going to be different. One way or another.

Levelled

I learned a long time ago that daily life can change in a flash. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ready when the flash happens to me. I’m not even talking about the really big changes either. Just one in which a common illness knocks you off your feet for the bulk of a week. Despite my having gotten a flu shot, some slippery version of it got past my immune barriers and leveled me within a couple of hours. What a strange week it’s been. I felt a little “off” Monday afternoon as I sat in my geology class, Life Makes Rock, 4 Billion Years of Biomineralization. I know, it sounds boring. But it is actually stimulating and exciting as our over-achieving professor with appointments in multiple disciplines, weaves together a fascinating story based on the intertwined relationship between water, minerals and life itself. Our first lecture introduced us to pioneering scientists through the centuries who worked to explain and refine the classifications of life. I was particularly dazzled by the illustrations of the Darwinian scientist Ernst Haeckel’s book called Art Forms in Nature.

I felt one of those tell-tale tickles at the back of my throat in that class, but shrugged it off as I had to babysit for my grandsons that night. I managed my little job, all the while wondering if I could beat back whatever was happening to me. Whenever I start wondering if I’m okay, I know that I’m teetering on the edge. But I just kept on going. The next day I was out and about, running errands like I would any other day, followed by hitting the pool for a midday swim. I started coughing there, and within an hour or so, I was transformed from okay to pathetic. I developed a deep painful cough and a fever very fast, and was suddenly a sick person. I felt too rotten to do anything. I missed the rest of the week’s classes. I had to bail out of a committee meeting on historic preservation which is one of my volunteer activities. I felt dreadful that the meeting was then cancelled because there would no longer be the quorum which is needed for decision-making. What an abrupt change. Because I’ve been truly fortunate with my health to date, I found that when I reached for some of the palliative medications that people often have in their homes, mine had all expired.

I felt stupid and illprepared in addition to feeling dreadful. The fact is, I’m a terrible patient. I’ve always looked at illness as my body’s way of betraying me. I am irrational, grouchy and far from a sympathetic person. I wouldn’t want to take care of me. In addition to the overall sense of physical misery, the timing of my illness couldn’t have been worse. Last year, I’d signed a contract to have my old house sided as its shingles were broken everywhere, paint had been worn away and water issues had caused a sickly mossy green color on its northern side. I’ve been avoiding such a big job for a long while, because in my previous experiences with contractors working on this challenging nineteenth century lady, complications have always arisen along with the requisite negotiations about those issues. Although fully able to work my way through these situations, I’ll admit that always being the go-to person for problems has lost some of its mystique. Yes, I can do it. But I sure am tired of it. Last week, after months of delay, I received a call from the company announcing that all the materials for the job were being dropped off in my driveway, soon to be followed by a work crew. Despite the fact that it was the end of January in the midwest, the team was ready to go. Zero to sixty, just like that – no warning, no preparation.

As anticipated, things got off to a bumpy start. The power tools brought to prepare the surface of the house weren’t strong enough to go through the thick ancient shingles. I was told to prepare for the hard banging of handheld hammers. One guy said, “if you have anything you value hanging on your walls, you might want to take them down.” I made a wild pass through the house, hauling things down as fast as I could. Forty two years worth of decorations to be dealt with in a few brief minutes. I missed a room. One of the commemorative records from Michael’s music store crashed down from a wall, broke and then took out one of the little statues I’d saved from my mom’s house. The break turned part of it to powder so it can’t be repaired. All from an external job.

My backyard is profoundly damaged. The quality control inspector from the contractor’s firm admitted it. With the weather alternating between cold, warmer, rain and snow, the ground out there needed at least a bit of protection from all the materials and equipment laid on it, even if only a few sheets of plywood. I’m not sure of how I’m going to manage all that when this is over. One step at a time.

The thuds of the hammers, the bass from the workers’ boom box, the clinks of falling debris and the guys’ chatter have been the background accompaniment to my aching, empty head, chills and rib-rattling heaves. I’ve read virtually nothing in the past week, at least nothing longer than a few paragraphs. I’ve got a pile of stuff next to me on the floor that I’ve intermittently moved to my lap before putting it aside again. I have a list of simple chores that need doing and I’ve simply spun from one to the next, acknowledging that I need to do them while doing none. Trying to muster the energy to do anything beyond basic maintenance has proven elusive this past week. Deadlines lost their power. I have nothing profound to say. I am remarkably indecisive and all things have equal importance which feel essentially like no importance at all. As each day of inactivity goes by, deconditioning occurs, both physical and mental. I’ve gone from active engagement in life to feeling somewhat like a gelatinous mass oozing between my living room recliner and my bed. All from some version of this little virus that packs a lot of power into its insidious structure.

A sobering state of affairs that makes me ponder the fragility that always lurks just this side of what we assume is reality. Getting flattened out so fast is a reminder that taking any part of life for granted is pretty shortsighted. The world is filled with people who got stunned by a rapid twist of fate that altered the trajectory of their lives with little or no warning. I suspect that trying to stay aware of every possible negative landmine that can knock us off our path, either temporarily or permanently, is probably not a sustainable attitude to cultivate. It’s too unnerving to feel that vulnerable on a regular basis. But many of us have no choice besides adapting to what seemed impossible only a flicker ago. I’m thinking I’ve turned the corner on this brief detour from my life but I’m aware that an unexpected price was exacted of me these past days. I have to gather myself back together and rejoin the world as opposed to just sitting here, waiting to get better. I’m one of the lucky ones with some autonomy regarding my existence. For so many others, whatever happened to them won’t allow for that option. Note to self- I’m going to remember that. Like I’m going to enjoy the end product of my siding job when all the annoying problems are behind me. Every day has a lesson, whether we like it or not.

Big and Little

I’m spending a lot of time watching the Trump impeachment hearings. I’m compelled to do it for a number of reasons. First it’s living history. These past few years I’ve been keenly aware that all around me, there are changes happening which are not simply new. They are weighty, imbued with enough depth to alter institutions, leaving rippling effects which will extend far beyond my lifetime. I feel somber but I can’t look away. I absorb the disappointment. I feel that I’m witnessing a cynical death of the norms of democracy. A challenging task I’ve given myself. Hours and hours of presentations and testimony, uninterrupted by commercials, is as unique as it can sometimes be both compelling and boring. I’m reminded about how the technological advancements of soundbites and short clips have become the norm, what is expected, and the method by which so many people get their information. I’m part of all that too – I get news alerts on my phone and I subscribe to my favorite papers online so I receive a daily deluge of short articles, wide-ranging in subject. Still, I’ve always been a compulsive news viewer, wanting to make sure I see everything, know everything I can before setting any big event aside.

I was doing this during Desert Storm, terrified as I watched scud missiles launched into Iraq, and fearful of the costs of war and its potential escalation into nuclear confrontation. I watched the Watergate hearings, utterly fascinated by the undoing of Richard Nixon and unlike now, seeing our two party system function as a more unified front in its Senate hearings. Before that, I think my being glued to the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath was the first time I can remember my compulsive need to know. I was only twelve but I can still see the images in front of me, from the assassination through the journey back to Washington, the shooting on live television of Lee Harvey Oswald and the funeral ceremony. These larger than life spectacles altered the direction of my world. I’ve watched countless political nominating conventions and their incumbent power struggles, which for the most part, left me dissatisfied. And so many election returns. From age 20 forward, Michael was my partner in obsession. Our interests were well-matched and I miss his camaraderie and discussion as I sit alone now, mulling things over in my head.

Most current events feel very big to me. I’m worried about the planet. I don’t understand how anyone can ignore what to me is the absolute reality of climate change. Hearing people confidently dismissing the ever-increasing extremes of fires, floods, drought and brutal storms, referring to them as isolated weather events which in their view, contradicts the broad evidence of advancing global crisis, drives me crazy. As I recycle my cans, my plastic and my paper, trying to reduce my carbon footprint, I feel somewhat ridiculous, knowing what a minuscule drop in the bucket my efforts really are. What am I next to polluting fossil fuel industries belching carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, or to logging corporations leveling rainforests, destroying habitat and carbon neutralizing powers? I am not even a grain of sand.

Last July, I finally made it to Glacier National Park, a place I’d been trying to see for almost three years. In my first two attempts, I was thwarted because of intense fires burning throughout the park. When I finally lucked out with the weather in 2019, weather which is dicey for most of the year, my happiness was dashed when I received the following information from the park guides: “It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, around the end of the Little Ice Age and most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2015, measurements of glacier area indicate that there were 26 remaining glaciers larger than 25 acres.” The remaining glaciers are expected to be gone by 2030. With my relentless awareness of the political schism in this country and many others around the world, along with constant anxiety about the natural world, I have created a storm of free-floating anxiety.

Big thoughts, big worries. Over the years, I’ve learned that when “big” gets out of hand, the best approach is to break things down into smaller manageable pieces. Tackling little slices which can then go away becomes its own reward. Easier to deal with a single slice rather than the whole thing.

That works when I can exercise control within the context of my little life. But these global anxieties are outside my pie-cutting wheelhouse so I need to turn to other coping skills within my grasp. One tack I’ve employed involves my engagement with my immediate small world. When using social media, I punctuate my pithy political articles with interruptions like nature photos, flowers, clouds, birds and sea life. I’m posting a painting almost every day, from multiple genres, to remind myself along with others that there’s still so much beauty to appreciate in this world.

I’m practicing my own version of meditation. Generally that involves closing my eyes, consciously relaxing the parts of my body that feel tight or crunched up and listening to slow rhythmic music or nature sounds that deepen my ability to detach from the overarching load of the big issues. I don’t have a mantra or whatever else classic meditation involves but I’ve achieved what for me is as close to a Zen state as I can manage. What’s most interesting is that when I move into a mental space that hovers somewhere between consciousness and sleep, I find myself doing an interior sort of time travel through the chambers of memory.

Sometimes I find myself with my grandparents, especially in their apartment on 78th and East End on the south side of Chicago. We lived around the corner from them and were frequent visitors to their house. When you entered the vestibule on the first floor, a glass door separated that small room from the stairway that we climbed to their third floor apartment. The smell of my grandmother’s cooking seeped into that room, wafting into the mailboxes or so I imagined. The smells were of chicken soup and rendered fat mixed with onions. Fragrant peppery aromas of heavily seasoned meats were there, along with the buttery scent of golden, eggy bread. I am in a chair at the table with my legs swinging, eating slices of rye bread slathered with apricot jam, a bowl of sweet cantaloupe chunks in a bowl on the side. My grandmother speaks loudly in a thick Eastern European accent, a somewhat harsh woman, but yet generous.

I can be in the butterfly house at the Indianapolis Zoo on a hot summer day years ago when my son and I took a day trip to spend a little time together. I was telling him that I was a butterfly whisperer as the clouds of exotic species fluttered around us. He was rolling his eyes at my absurdity when suddenly a blue morpho landed on my toe and lingered there for a long time, attracted by sweat, suntan lotion and my red nail polish. A unique moment in time.

I feel the hot sand under my feet, the ocean swirling around my legs, my arms cutting through lake water as I kick seaweed aside. I feel the quiet, random, disconnected thoughts and images that appear and disappear whenever I’m immersed in swimming, which perhaps is my most unconscious while conscious state of being anywhere. I wander through the corridors of motherhood. I smell the tops of my babies’ heads, with the faint aroma of baby shampoo and lotion mingled with whatever that sensory magic is that you miss when it’s gone. I run the reels of them leaping into the air or across a field, the gifts of speed and athletic talent genetically sprinkled into them and lined up so perfectly for me to admire.

There are the times when I wander through the powerful emotional visions of my life. I see my father struggling with his failed coronary bypass surgery, railing that he refuses to have one more intervention. Then I bring my seven month old baby girl to his bedside who screeches in recognition of his face which in turn, causes him to reverse his decision and gamble for more life. Years later, facing certain death from cancer, he bemoans the time he won’t have with my little boy, not yet three, whose entrance into my dad’s world gave him more time to nurture my baby than he’d had as a young man with his own children. I see the profound look my son and my mother exchanged so many years later when she lay in her bed the night before she died. She got the years my father never had.

And of course, there are the many moments of me with Michael from our decades together and these few years apart. I can feel the surge of heat that coursed through my body the first time that he accidentally kissed the corner of my mouth in the kitchen as we washed dishes together. I can be in the front seat of our car on one of many road trips when we rapidly switched from life’s daily tensions to the more languid mood of vacation in our perfect synchrony as travel partners. Or I am by his side in a movie theater where we spent countless hours, hands twined together as we watched anything from the mediocre to the sublime. Even with his corporeal absence during these last few years, I can feel his breath on my neck, the pressure of his thigh against me, the sense of inhaling his essence as I hear the music which evokes the intensity of us that still exists for me.

And so I restore myself and find the energy from my inner resources to turn back to the big issues and face them down again. Alternating between the big and little, big and little, which is essentially what life really is, all strung together, taking turns, making its demands on all of us. So far, I’m still able to make things work. More corners to turn…

A Good Son

I really don’t need to be reminded that doing it now, whatever it is, is the only way to live. I can’t say I’m thrilled to always be mindful of the thin divide between being vibrantly alive one minute and dead the next. I’ve been parrying with that knowledge for most of my life. Maybe I began knowing that when I was four and my mother disappeared into the hospital for the first time. Maybe it was shortly thereafter when I learned that grownups made up stories to tell their kids when they didn’t know what could really happen. Maybe the mental dance started when my baby cousin died the day I graduated from eighth grade. The solid ground beneath my feet definitely shifted that morning. No matter what the inception of the slightly morbid attitude I always seemed to have, there’s little doubt that no amount of eye-rolling and blowback I got about it, particularly from my family, had any effect on me. My kids can attest to the fact that when they were old enough to bear it, I’d usually leave the house calling out over my shoulder, “if I die and never come back, I really loved you.” Annoying as they said that was, they now say the same thing to me. After the impossibility of dealing with their rugged father’s death, they now look at the world differently too. They’ve both gotten pretty good at maximizing their lives, or at least trying to. No more unlimited time for them. Of course what that means for me is putting my money where mouth is – I need to understand why they make their choices and try not to let my maternal anxiety interfere with them. Unless I feel there is something inherently or potentially unhealthy for them, I need to be supportive, understanding that they are trying to live the fullest lives they can, whether I like it or not. That’s a challenge for me. I suspect I’ll always want to protect them no matter how old they are. What’s lucky is that the intimacy we share in our family lets me know what they do, even if what they do scares me. Mostly, they try to appease that anxious side of me, maybe because they like me enough to make sure that whatever it is they’re doing, I won’t have a coronary or a stroke because of it. Kids can put you to the test in so many ways. That’s just part of parenting. But what isn’t necessarily part of being the kids is their sensibility that the choices they make have impacts beyond themselves. I know I’m in the lucky parent group because I’m generally a consideration in those choices. I also know that isn’t always the case.

“Singer David Olney dies during performance in Florida”

I was reminded of all this because of two seemingly unrelated recent events. The other day, a beloved musician who was particularly close to dear friends of mine, died on stage in the middle of a performance. How unimaginable. One second he was playing and singing, the next, he apologized, dropped his head and was gone. What a shattering transition. I’ll admit, that after watching my husband die by inches, there was a part of me thinking, how lucky, to go out doing what you love, rather than watching yourself slowly disappear. But I know that the quick deaths are hard for the survivors. I think about what I’ve read about Native Americans and their opinions on what they thought amounted to a good death. I guess that everyone has to navigate loss in their own ways, which are complicated by individual ideas, religious beliefs and a whole myriad of factors which subtly influence how they adapt to the inevitability of death.

This incident occurs at a time when my son is away for a few weeks in Colombia. A biologist by trade, this trip is one for pleasure, although his idea of pleasure includes strenuous activity and time spent away from the beaten path. A specialist in bird physiology, and as someone whose interest in seeing as many species as possible in the wild is enormous, I knew that this trip would take him into places with no internet. I also know that there can be dangers when traveling abroad and that his being out of touch would make me nervous. His career has for years, taken him to many countries, far, far away. You’d think I’d be used to this by now. But I never really am. I’m usually worried about all that could possibly happen. Anxiety is the legacy of my own upbringing, try as I may to undo it. The twist in this instance is that the juxtaposition of the musician’s death with my son’s trip, made me remember how I could just keel over myself at any moment, while my kid was far away and unable to do anything about it. After all, I’m the one in the same age group as the musician. And I know that anything can happen at any time. It occurred to me that although my son and I are mindful about expressing love for each other, I haven’t made certain, at least for me, that he knows that I think he’s the embodiment of a “good son.” We bandy that term around a lot. He will frequently ask me if I think he’s a good son and invariably, I’ll teasingly laugh and say no. This banter usually follows an episode of his absentmindedness, a trait that reflects one of his dad’s most annoying habits. If I had the proverbial nickel for every time I heard, “have you seen my glasses, have you seen my wallet, have you seen my hat, have you seen my keys, have you seen my grade book?,” I’d be awash in riches. My son never lets me forget his dad by mimicking this behavior on a daily basis. I marvel at it and always did. But as with everyone we love, you accept a few irritating habits and move on for the sake of the bigger picture. And with both of these absentminded guys, I certainly could, and still can, do that.

So what exactly is a good son? I remember my mother once telling me a story about a friend of hers whose son was a doctor. She pronounced in a solemn but somehow smarmy tone that the doctor/son had bought his mother a home. At that moment I heard my mom’s message very clearly. A good son was one who honored his mother by buying her a house. In mom’s world that’s what resonated. Not so much with me.

I remember exactly how I felt when my son was born. I was a little nervous about what it would be like to raise a boy. My daughter was already over 5 when he came along. I was anxious about knowing what we’d need to do to raise a male child in our culture, a male who would reflect the values his dad and I shared about gender equity, fairness and social responsibility. Knowing what proclivities are just built into a person is often hard to perceive. But that wasn’t true with our kid whose inherent sweetness was blazingly and immediately apparent. Even as a small baby, that kind, gentle nature just oozed out of him. Within a few days, my husband noted that this boy seemed very attached to me. Our connection was immediate, obvious and one that grew exponentially over time.

Sweet doesn’t necessarily mean easy. This little guy was very specific. He refused all bottles and started eating solid food at only a few months old. He was a lousy sleeper, waking every few hours. When he was old enough to talk he explained that he didn’t think it was fair that he had to sleep by himself. He had a relentless disposition and would explore an issue until there was nothing left to find. He craved physical contact and was remarkably affectionate. I was glad that as he grew, he never went through a phase when he stopped saying I love you or gave up hugging us.

He learned to read early and when he discovered Caldecott award books, read them in order of publication date, five at one time, all in a row. We realized he was color blind before school started and he could read the names of his crayons instead of knowing what color they actually were. He befriended a wide range of kids and had weird birthday parties with kids so disparate in nature that they didn’t like anyone there but him. When he was 7, he became a peer mediator at his school, settling issues between kids years older than he was.

Memories easily come flooding back. Our little guy clearly had an embarrassment of riches. He was intellectually gifted as well as athletically talented. He loved learning, never meeting a subject he couldn’t manage, even if it wasn’t a favorite. He was a musician. He showed great facility with languages and twice represented our community in the National Spelling Bee. He had issues like any other kid, but for the most part, raising him was easy and joyful. Being around him felt good.

The list goes on and on. A successful academic career culminating in a doctorate and beyond. An appreciation for the value of friendships and putting in the work to keep them. A deep seated respect for the natural world and a commitment to conservation. An egalitarian approach to people. So what does enumerating all these traits and achievements really have to do with anything? We were lucky and so is he. What is really more the question is what makes a good son? Is it what he’s accomplished? Not for me. It’s about who he is and how that translates into our lives. That first blast of sweetness remains the essential core of him. We always knew that our family was intensely bonded and loving.

As time has passed, those feelings have gotten richer. I’ve watched the painful growth that’s come from loss and felt the deepening self-reflection in my son. Even when he’s far away, he’s found ways to let me know that he’s aware of how I’m feeling and he makes sure he attends to my emotional needs. He gives me his time, making sure we share experiences together. This past year when he’s actually been living stateside, we’ve traveled together on a jam packed road trip that covered twelve states in fifteen days. We barely tangled with each other on that adventure which I think is miraculous. A while back, he asked me if I had any regrets in my life. I told him I was sorry I passed on a Paul McCartney concert which I had tickets to many years ago, too close to the death of my father for decorum. Or so I thought back then. He rectified that regret this year, surprising me with tickets to see Paul at the beginning of our trip. When he’s traveling in a place where my favorite food is nearby, he brings me a meal. Recently he surprised me with a life-sized cutout of Roger Federer, my tennis hero, for my house. Utterly entertaining and hilarious.

When I had both my knees replaced, he was here for me. My kid is mindful. He’s spending a lot of time with me while we have it. Things aren’t always perfect. But given life’s challenges for both of us, we’ve done pretty well. I suspect that the world would be a considerably better place if everyone had a good son. Like the one I have. I needed to write this out. I’m grateful that I had time to do it.

Best Friends

Dear Michael,

When you died it would’ve been nice if you’d have found a way to leave my best friend behind. But you took him with you. Of course, since you and he were one and the same, I shouldn’t be the least bit surprised. And that is really unfortunate when I’ve had a few days when a best friend is exactly what I need.

You know, most of the time I’ve got my act together. My successful installation of the essence of us, into the core of me, generally suffices for the wear and tear of the daily grind. But every now and then there are one too many negative events. The cumulative effects of them feel too big and I feel frustrated, angry and overwhelmed. I want my best friend. If I can’t have you in the flesh, the habit of writing you letters that I developed almost immediately after you died will have to do. So here I go.

I started feeling rankled a few weeks ago, just before New Year’s. I bumped into that display of greeting cards you and I’d exchanged over the years, the one that was displayed at the museum exhibit of your life which passed for a memorial. I really think you would’ve liked how that experience was structured. Anyway, after that was over, I slept with that thing in our bed for about six months. Having some palpable evidence of us felt right and necessary to me. Eventually I moved it to your nightstand where it promptly got buried under an avalanche of photos, the ones I’d lifted from 45 years of albums and used to make the slideshow at your event.

I lost all control over chronology of those pictures when I assembled that slideshow, and for ages, I just let those photos sit there, too exhausted and lazy to refile them where they came from. Shortly after the two year anniversary of your death, I felt established in some of the new behaviors I’d developed for life without you. So I decided to attack the photo pile, several at a time and put them back in the albums, no matter how long it took. That’s when I unearthed the greeting card collection again and thought, huh. I hadn’t looked at it in awhile. So I opened it. I didn’t get past the first card.

You don’t get to know when you’ll be leveled by grief. At least I don’t. I was flooded by it, literally and figuratively. Not my normal. You know I’ve never been much of a crier. But I couldn’t stop and really, I didn’t think I should. I store a lot of anger and hostility by nature and these current times are feeding my rage on a daily basis. I’m furious at the governmental sideshow in this country, not to mention the blatant disregard for the need to address climate change. I spend too much time seething even as I try to make some sort of impact on my community, small though it may be. Holding in my sadness over how much I miss your company is not a viable alternative with all those emotions roiling around. The kids were worried about me when this round hit and wanted to help, but it’s hard for them when I can’t cope. It took me a couple of days to get myself back together. I thought of my mother and the twenty five years she spent without my dad. I’m telling you, I don’t want to replicate her experience. You and my dad, both gone at 67. Ugh. Sometimes telling myself how lucky I was to have had our relationship just doesn’t work. Yes, I’m sorry for people who weren’t and aren’t as fortunate as we were. But I’m also angry and jealous that some couples whose relationships I can’t respect, get to have the extra twenty years I thought we’d have. Not a pretty thing, but the truth.

So that’s one piece of this whine. For the most part I’m good at self-reliance and independence. I’ve always been that way, certainly when you were still here. I wouldn’t have wanted to be any other day. But sometimes it gets old, being the sole resource for everything all the time. We both know I’m not great at asking for help. After all the years of taking care of my mom at a time when she should have been a capable person, going down that road is not my first choice. But my competence is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it feels good to manage mostly everything on my own. Every now and then, though, it would be nice if someone would check in to see if I was alive. That hermit life I predicted for myself sometimes feels pretty real.

There are practical realities aside from emotional ones. Even though you taught me how to do a lot of things, there’s some stuff that’s beyond my skill level. I’ve done a lot to the house in the past two and a half years. I got a new roof and gutters. I also had the garage re-roofed in addition to siding it. Last summer, I signed a contract to have the house sided too. I’m still waiting for that contract to be fulfilled. The company which was supposed to do the job is family-owned and operated. The daughter of the owner had a medical emergency last summer which effectively stopped all work. When jobs resumed, mine was at the end of the line. First it was to be completed by November. That month came and went. A conversation with the contractor elicited an offer to take 10% off the price if the job wasn’t done by January 1st. That date also came and went. Two weeks ago, I started sending inquiries about dates by text and email which received no response. I finally called the office and was told l was still on the list and someone would get back to me with specifics. I’m still waiting. As you well know, a house built in 1893 has its issues. Our ancient kitchen drawers are getting ready to die. The middle one has caved in and won’t slide in and out any more. I emptied it and have an idea of how it might be repaired. I also know I’m not talented enough to do it. Same for a storm window in the blue room where a piece of wood has detached from the glass. The window is behind the large record rack you built. Lots of labor to get everything moved before making repairs. Groan. You could do all of this without blinking. Paying people to do these small jobs get too expensive which makes me very anxious. One thing after another. The garage door decided it didn’t want to stay closed. It kept going up and down, up and down, as if possessed. Fixed that problem after a process of trial and error. Then a carbon monoxide detector fritzed, over and over. I finally fixed that too. When a piece of the gear shift on my car fell off, I duct taped it but finally caved and brought it in to the mechanic for a legitimate repair. Endless chores. So wearing.

I know I need to push past the small stuff. After all, in the scope of things, what I’m moaning about isn’t much. My knees are so much better that I can walk for ages. You wouldn’t believe it if you saw me motoring along. I go to Meadowbrook for recreational strolls and take lots of photos. I’ve got projects. I’m knitting. I’m still gluing rocks onto paving bricks which I’ll place in the garden in the spring. I’m actually entering some pics in the park district’s amateur show. I remain in my book club and I’m starting three classes in a few weeks.

I even have a few trips planned. Even with all that, though, I’ve had lots of angst. Hideous cancer is happening around me to people I care about. That elicits confused behavior as I re-live our personal trauma and try to figure out what’s appropriate for me to do or not do. I’m anxious to help but I know I need boundaries. It’s tough for me to manage. So I decided to do some self-care in the midst of this mini-meltdown that kicked off this new decade. I found a forgotten gift certificate for a massage last week and quickly made an appointment for myself. Tuesday afternoon I headed there right after the pool for some welcome relaxation. I’d never been to this facility before. Instead of heading to a locker room to change clothes, that process took place in the same place as the massage. I’d never met the therapist who was asking questions as I removed my jewelry to expedite getting down to the treatment without wasting too much time. I put all the items in my pocket and stuffed my socks on top to keep my things secure. Then I had my massage which was really quite nice. When it was over the therapist left the room and I started getting dressed. I pulled my socks out of my pocket and all my personal items came with them. I instantly realized that my mother’s wedding ring, which I wear daily, in between the rings from our life, was gone. That was impossible. I started looking everywhere but I couldn’t find it.

The therapist came back into the room and helped me look around. There is a shag carpet, variegated gray, directly under the massage table. Each strand of the rug is about three inches long. The slim little band wouldn’t be easily visible in that sea of nubbed material. The therapist suggested that perhaps I hadn’t worn it that day which seemed really unlikely to me. Every night I take my rings off and put them in the same spot on my dresser. And every morning I go back to the dresser and put them back on. But I couldn’t absolutely say that it was impossible that I’d left it that day. So I raced home and checked the dresser, the floor, the drawers, my pants pocket and even my socks. No ring. I ran back to the facility again. I waited until the room was open and then the therapist, another worker there and I ran our hands through that rug for twenty minutes. I found a paper clip but no ring. I dejectedly went home and proceeded to disassemble my house, my car and my purse one more time. The ring had literally vanished. Since then I’ve texted the place twice and emailed them my one photo of the ring. They haven’t responded. I think they feel like they’ve done what they could. Somehow I’m supposed to get used to the fact that I’ve lost this ring forever. How did this happen? I went to get a relaxing massage to defuse my bumpy beginning to the year and I lose one of the few things that has meaning to me. I know you’d say that stuff is stuff and you know I’d agree. But sometimes a material item is more than that. The kids told me that one time when you were driving them to Indianapolis to fly to Florida to see your parents, you’d realized that you left your wedding ring at home and turned around and went home to get it. On one of our last trips, you took off your ring and left it in one of the little dishes at the security checkpoint. You were miserable. Miraculously, I found it at the airport on our return trip, deep in the bowels of the Transportation Security Administration’s lost and found.

So you know how I feel. Bereft. I know that I’ll get used to this eventually. I know worse things have happened and can happen. But I wish you were here. Having you around always made the rotten things more tolerable. How about a nice, cosmic visit tonight?