A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Elimination Diet

Halloween night, a three year-old Batman Ninja and his twelve year-old chaperone irked me. First the chaperone came to the door, Ninja at the sidewalk ten yards away. I opened the door, my bowl of Snickers in hand, and he mumbled trick or treat. I looked him up and down "What's your costume?" He answered, "I don't have a costume. I'm the chaperone," and he nodded with his head to the kid on the sidewalk. "Well, send him up here.That's how trick or treating works." He wanted to know if he got a Snickers bar. "Not without a costume." I can be a grinch on Halloween. No costume needed.

Batman Ninja ascended the stairs and held out his bag. He was cute. I dropped a Snickers in the bag, and he stood there, bag still open, with his pointer finger up. "Only one?" he asked, clearly disappointed. "Yes," I said. "Only one. And share with your chaperone."

Batman Ninja went down the stairs, and I turned off the light. It was only 6 p.m., but I was clearly too irritable for this job.

That afternoon, I had talked with the representative in charge of overseeing my application for disability. He told me that they had "closed my case" because paperwork from the hospital hadn't arrived. I told him that this was my fifth phone call, and that he hadn't returned other calls asking about the paperwork. He said that I had only called once. I felt like I was talking to a crazy person who was in charge of my destiny.

Fatigue has been rough since the car accident five months ago, and I'm starting to get grumpy. My dad asked if maybe I was still doing too much, pointing out that this habit runs in my genes. He has a point, so I'm going on an elimination diet.

Friends with food allergies have gone on elimination diets to learn what they're allergic to. They start out eating something pitiful, like white rice and water, and gradually add in other foods.

I'm cutting back on my activities to the bare minimum, and then I'll add in new activities gradually as I learn how much I can do, how much is too much.

So I'll be taking a few months off from blogging. I'll see you again in the New Year, probably February. In the meantime, happy holidays to you and yours.


Thursday, October 27, 2011


"What great for the heart is great for the brain." -- the poet Kabir

"How old is old?" my mother asked my ten year-old self. I stood in the middle of our 1970s kitchen--white floor with an indented squiggle design, black and white cabinets, red countertops. After some thought, I answered with confidence, "Sixteen."

My oldest niece Isabella turned old this week: she's sweet sixteen, and since she's aging, I'm dedicating this entry on self-care to her. She's gonna love it.

Yesterday, I attended my in-person brain tumor support group (I also belong to an online ependymoma support group. I need a lot of support.) A Virginia Mason hospital neurologist, Dr. Nancy Isenburg, gave a talk called, "Healthy Aging with Cancer" to open the meeting.

Though the title was about cancer and the talk focused specifically on brain cancer, much of the talk was really about healthy living and healthy aging (which I guess is really the same thing.)

Dr. Isenburg not only quoted a couple of poets (which wins her great credibility points in my book), but also shared some helpful information about living well, focusing especially on diet and exercise.

Though her talk was quite good, she didn't recommend ice-cream. She did recommend walnuts, which I figure is a recommendation for an ice-cream sundae as long as it has walnuts on it. It's better that way anyway. I think the cherry does not have a lot of vitamins anymore and is therefore optional. Chocolate syrup is must. So is whipped cream. But I digress...

In addition to walnuts, Dr. Isenburg recommended other elements of a Mediterranean diet: olives (yuck), olive oil, red wine (I think she said lots of it...oh no, that was "a little"), fish, and fruits (so I guess you should eat that cherry on your ice-cream sundae after all) and veggies.

These foods stimulate growth of the hypocampus, which is in charge of memory and shrinks with age. (Yes, your brain is shrinking.) The bigget benefit of exercise, she said, is metacognition. Not becoming depressed, or addressing depression, is also a big bene.

Though your brain does shrink with age, recent studies show that the brain does continue to produce new brain cells throughout our lives. This is good news.

For exercise, Dr. Isenburg recommended walking at least three times each week for at least 45 minutes each time. Dancing to music (no, Mom, watching "Dancing with the Stars" does not count) and juggling are especially good for you.

Brother Matt, get off of your bike from time to time and juggle. You'll be an excellent old man before you know it.

No, Sister Jen. Sorry. Juggling four kids' schedules does not count. Especially since one's a boarding school. Juggling bon-bons only counts if you throw them in their air.

A healthy heart, Dr. Isenburg said, reduces the risk of dementia, reducing the risk of Alzheiner's by half if you exercise 30 minutes a day. (2000 international units of vitamin D each day help this, too.) Fish, she said, is good, too (and it's good for lowering cholesterol and managing ADHD. It should therefore be on every school lunch tray, but I don't think those fried strips will count.)

Fat, Dr. Isenburg emphasized, is good for the brain. I brightened, thinking about my ice-cream sundae, and then she clarified that it needed to be certain kinds of fat: coconut oil and avacado oil are really good. Use peanut oil or coconut oil for stir fry.

All in all, it's pretty good news and follows common sense. Eat well and exercise. And drink a little red wine. And dance.

I heard recently from a blogger who's a veteran with cancer, and he thinks a lot about health issues with cancer. You can access his site at http://www.mesothelioma.com/blog/

Monday, October 24, 2011

Temporarily Abled Toilet Stalls

There are lots of advantages to having disabilities. For example, I get to have a special stall in public restrooms. I love that.

My special stall has shiny bars that I can hold onto so that I don't fall down, and the door swings away from the toilet instead of towards it so that I don't get knocked into the toilet. Sometimes, I even get a special sign on the outside that's blue with a thin person sitting in a wheelchair.

With every bit of sunshine, however, a little rain must fall. The stall for me and my peeps is so luxurious that often a person who is "temporarily abled" (to borrow a term from a Grand Canyon guide in the lovely film, Right to Risk--a documentary about a group of adults with disabilities and their guides rafting down the river)...anyway, a person who is temporarily abled loves the luxury of the stall with the skinny person in a wheelchair sign so much that, despite there being multiple other options, this temporarily abled person chooses the stall for people with disabilities.

If I arrive in the rest room, and several stalls are available, but none of them has the shiny bars and swing out door, I must stand and wait. There's not much to do other than listen and stare. It's awkward.

It's not that I insist on luxury. It's that I insist on not falling in the toilet.

I have asked temporarily abled people about why they think people who do not have disabilities use the special stall when others are available. The most common responses have been that they don't think about it or that they like the extra room.

I have a favor to ask. If you are temporarily abled, and you arrive in the rest room with a choice of stalls, please choose the tighter stalls. I'd appreciate it, and that way I won't be listening to you do your business while I wait.

Thanks. Mary

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Total Experience

Today at our little church, Pastor Patrinell Wright sang Alice Parker and Robert Shaw's "Sometimes I Feel Like a Moanin Dove," with our church choir.

How did she get here? I don't know. Wait, yes I do. It was grace.

In 1964, the year of my birth, she traveled from her Texas home to make a home in Seattle, WA, just so that she could sing to me today. I'm not sure where today's lyrics came from, her own rendition or an older rendition that I can't find.

This morning, she lifted her arms and sang with a soulfulness that took my breath away. She sang of sadness, "Sometimes, I feel like a moanin dove," and "Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child," and she sang of beauty's power, "Sometimes, I feel like an eagle in the air."

The sadness and the beauty lifted me. Her presence lifts me, too. She's given her gift of song and of spirit to the world in a way that has often brought her onto stage with famous folk and into public awards and recognition for all that she has given.

In my little church, however, she faced the congregation and, before she sang, she folded her hands in namaste, a greeting that I learned in yoga that means, "I honor you." She put her fingers to her mouth and blew us a kiss. I learned this signal, "I love you," long ago.

And then she sang. I sat in my pew and believed that she sang to my cross-eyed and somewhat crippled self. I felt honored. I felt loved.

At the end of the service, I wanted to say thank you, but she was already gone. I didn't hear the boards creek when she left. It seems that she left more quietly, as angels do.

Living Backwards

"Now ordinary people are born forwards in time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live. . . . But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people who live forwards from behind."
- Merlyn in T.H. White's Once and Future King

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, 60
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 65
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 70
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended; 75
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
--Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"

Like Merlyn, I seem to be living backwards in time. It seems that many others believe, like the poet William Wordsworth, that their youth was the time when they were most connected to a divine spirit, to the center of their true selves.

That was the message of Pastor Jim's sermon today, a message that echoed Wordsworth's mullings in his "Ode: Intimimations of Immortality."

As Jim talked about having felt more whole, more connected to our dreams in our youth, heads nodded, indicating that for some of those with greying hairs in our community, life has moved them away from their true selves. There seems to be a melancholy about this loss.

Though I like Jim a  lot and like to encourage him in his preaching, today I could not nod my head. Life for me has gotten better, not worse, through the years.

"Children," he said, "seem closer to God." Heads nodded. I think I heard a sigh.

I was happy as a child (at least until middle school.) I had fun. I loved the swings, and I discovered with awe that bricks, when rubbed together, make sand.

I do not believe that as a child I had a clear vision of who I might be, so there was no vision to shatter. I did have a vision of a lovely life, but I did not necessarily envision that that lovely life would be mine. I bit my lower lip and wondered what life I might have.

Now I know. In my life, there has been some loss, especially through these tumors. I can no longer run after a soccer ball or read a passing billboard sign. I can no longer make it through the day without at least a couple of naps.

More abundant for me, however, has been the grace in living a lovely life. I got to be a high school teacher and witness genius and kindness and hope. I have visited places like Lalibella, Ethiopia, and Guarjila, El Salvador, places I could not have imagined from the cul-de-sac of my suburban youth.

I get to live my life with a woman who loves me and with whom I feel whole. I get to wonder at fall colors, spring roses, and frozen berries in the early snow fall. I get to read poetry and nod my head, "Yes."

In living backwards, I grow into my naivete, a wonder in the world, a joy in every day living. I grow into my Yes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Even Steven

For Christmas one year long ago, Mom gave me a color consultation, but when I called to schedule an appointment, the woman I was supposed to meet with said that she had been hearing voices recently, so we should schedule our time together in the future. Figuring that she had more important things to do than tell me what colors to wear, I didn't call back. Besides, I'm sure I'm a fall as I look really good in the fall.

Which is now. So Ann and I took a driving tour down by Mt. Rainier for a weekend of golds and autumn reds. We went on a loop, climbing over Chinook Pass and White pass as recommended by the Seattle journalist Brian Cantwell.

Friday we took a leisurely drive, stopping a couple of times for short hikes, to Whistling Jack Lodge just over Chinook Pass. Our bay window opened onto golden leaves and a rumbling river. On the lawn, just between us and the river, a carved bear looked really happy about the whole scene. The bear faced the river, so we looked at his bare bear butt. I laughed about the golden mushrooms clustered around his feet, making it look like he had just taken a dump and was awful cheery about it.

Friday night, Ann slapped an intruder in her dreams. In the real world, in my own sleep, the thud of her flat hand across my chest woke me up. She says the slap wasn't in revenge for my act of slumber violence after brain surgery, when I walloped a cowpoke in my dreams and walloped Ann beside me. Still, it's even Steven at last.

The next morning, we thought we'd get away around 10 a.m., but we had breakfast at the lodge's restaurant, and it took an hour for our food to arrive. Ann practically tackled our waitress to ask for some water for me and some hot water for her. I would stay there again, but I'd bring my own breakfast.

When we finally got on our way, we drove to Naches to buy from the last of the summer harvest. Ann reminded me of my favorite Limerick, a limerick that features Naches as Texans say it:

There was an old woman from Natches,
Whose clothes were in tatters and patches.
When asked to compose
On the state of her clothes,
She said, "When ah itchez, Ah scratchez."

In this part of the country, however, they pronounce Naches, "Nah-cheez" so I had to write a new version:

There was an old woman from Natches,
Whose clothes were in tatters and pahcheez,
When asked to compose
On the state of  her clothes,
She said, "When ah itcheez, Ah scrahcheez."

I thought it up on the spot. Really. I should call it "Variations."

Saturday night we stayed in the historic Hotel Packwood, in room 6, where Teddy Roosevelt once stayed. It hasn't changed much since he was there, and fortunately, there were no animal heads jutting from the wall. You had to go down the staircase to see the mountain goat jumping through the wall. I'm not sure what happened to his hind parts.

On the drive back to Seattle today, we stopped for two short and lovely hikes, one to Silver Falls and another to the Grove of the Patriarchs. I can't hike like I used to, but it's nice to remember that there are still places where I can get away from roads and gift shops and ooh and ahh at the beauty of the fall.

Sheila, our GPS, guided us home, and tonight we have a new beer from Kiki to try with our tofu and garbanzo beans. Yum.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My North Carolina Accent

Today Teshon, our school's technology guru, noticed my accent and recognized it as North Carolinian--not Southern, which anyone can hear--but North Carolinian.

Twenty years ago, when I lived in Dallas, my car battery died and I went into a local bar to ask if anyone had jumper cables. I hollered out, and a guy at the bar said, "You must be from North Carolina's triangle area." Why yes, I am. We seem to have a very specific accent.

Teshon visited the Charlotte area to watch his two younger brothers, who played basketball at Climson, play in the ACC Tournament. He may not be schooled in the peculiarities of North Carolinian accents, but he hears the poetry.

"That accent doesn't slam you like accents in the deeper South," he said. " It's not aggressive like a New York accent. It's like a gentlemanly accent."

That's me. Gentlemanly.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rationing M&Ms

It's hard to explain fatigue, but I read an article last week that did a good job of explaining it through analogy. The writer, Christine Miserandino, created an analogy for a friend who wanted to understand Miserandino's fatigue (www.butyoudontlooksick.com ).

Miserandino compared the amount of energy that one has in a day to a set of twelve spoons. You get twelve spoons in the morning, and each time you do something that requires energy, like eating breakfast or getting dressed, you give up a spoon. When you're out of spoons, there are no more.

I've started thinking of my energy like peanut M&Ms. Every time I need a shot of energy, I eat an M&M. Once they're gone, they're gone.

I get a different number of M&Ms each morning, and I don't know until I've started eating them how many I may have that day. I need one M&M to rise from the bed, one to shower, one to get dressed, one to eat breakfast, and one to go to the sidewalk to wait for my morning ride. I need to plan carefully for using each M&M, so that I don't get caught short in an awkward situation.

If I'm at work that day, I'll need one M&M to get from the parking lot to my office, one to get to a teacher's classroom, and one to be in the classroom. Debriefing with the teacher will require two M&Ms. Because the bathroom and the microwave are both in different buildings than my office, I'll need an M&M to go to the bathroom and another one to heat up my lunch.

When I get home, I can take a nap, which means that I usually get another one or two M&Ms. I'll need them. It will take me one to watch Ann fix dinner, one to eat dinner, and one to lie down on the pillowss in front of the gas fireplace, close my eyes, and listen to Ann read to me. I save one so that I can get upstairs to go to bed round 7:30. Hopefully, I'll still have one to brush my teeth and floss.

If I've been very good, I may get an adequate number of M&Ms tomorrow, but if I've borrowed against my store by pushing myself to do more than I really have M&Ms for, then tomorrow I'll be short on M&Ms. Hopefully, it's not a work day.

On good days, I wake with 16 M&Ms, and I get two more M&Ms for my afternoon nap. On these days, I have to be careful about using my M&Ms too early, but I should have enough for my day.

Some days, I think I start with 16 M&Ms, but by noon it's obvious that I only had ten.

Other days, like today, I may wake to 7 M&Ms, and I have to figure out what to leave out or how to conserve. Writing this blog takes a couple of M&Ms, but it's worth it. Today I was going to go to Group Health for my flu shot, but I'm short on M&Ms, so I hope I'll wake with enough energy to get my flu shot tomorrow. For now, I'll take a nap.

I'm sure you're wondering what color the M&Ms are. On good days, they're a rainbow of reds, oranges, greens, yellows and blues. On days like today, they're all brown.

Off to nap. Mary

Monday, October 3, 2011


Saturday, our friends Rose and Karen came to our house for lunch and an art summit, so that Karen could share ideas with the rest of us about art that we might do with Rose's daugher, Nora. We are going to make paper and books together with Karen's granddaugher, Rose, and the rest of us. I hope Nora will be excited. I am.

Rose is a good cook and a good baker, and she brought challah bread to share. Yum. I love challah. When I saw that there were raisins in the challah, however, I was disappointed. I don't like raisins in my bread, but I ate it anyway to be polite. I thought to myself, "This is the best raisin bread I've ever had. I wonder what Rose does to her raisins to make them so tasty."  

Later, Ann told me that the raisins were chocolate chips. Yesterday I had some more challah for lunch. Yum. if you ever make raisin challah, I'd recommend chocolate instead of raisins.

Rose shares the kindness in her spirit when she shares her food. We  have a winter solstice dinner each year to celebrate light in the darkest time. Everyone brings food to share, and Rose always brings a warm, hearty soup, so we share warmth in the cold, too.

When I was in the hospital, Rose brought me the first homemade food that I had eaten for weeks. I opened the container of chicken and rice, and ate with my hands. I had no patience for a knife and fork.

Just writing about it is making me hungry.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Face of a Bulldog

Our neighbor and my colleague Kiki gives me a ride to work three days a week. Even if Kiki were snarly, I'd love her for the rides, but I love how dang cheerful she is. When she picks me up in the Seattle dark, I ask her how she is. She always says, "Great."

Her five year old son Luke is in the backseat with his action figures. He's always great, too. This week he was especially great because he won the family football pool. He's a sharp one, that Luke.

At the end of the school day, I ask Kiki, "How was your day?" (I'll bet you've guessed this already, since you recognize patterns as well as any freshman in Ann's high school Algebra class.) She says, "Great." Every day when I say, "How was your day?" she says, "Great."

Every day, she also tells me an affectionate and amusing story about her students. Friday she told me about David (not his real name). David's in Kiki's Spanish for Spanish Speakers class.

At the beginning of the year, she thought he'd be tough, a hard kid. He's tough-looking, wears gangster-like clothes (but a little classier). Mostly, though, he has the "face of a bulldog" (meaning tough, not ugly).

As it turns out, he's not hard. As she's getting to know him, she's learing that he's thoughtful and insightful, a real delight to teach.

As she told me the story, she said, "I saw him in the library at lunch today. He was on a computer, and I thought he might be doing his Spanish homework. I stopped to say hi and glanced at his computer screen. He wasn't doing his homework. (He had already done it.) Into the google search engine, he had typed, 'Love poems for my girlfriend.'"

I love it that Kiki's a teacher who is so captivated by this tough-looking guy's sweetness.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Enduring Friendships

In the past week, I've been lucky to reconnect with a number of long-time friends, all people I knew before my brain tumors. All, I now realize, are teachers.

Last Wednesday I lunched with Brett, who was a sophomore in my English class twenty-one years ago. Brett and his wife Vera are in Seattle for two years as Brett studies in the university's Masters in Teaching ELL program. They are in town from Austria, so I am grateful for the opportunity to reconnect before they return to Austria.

When I asked Brett to tell me about his teaching, he said, "Well, I'm not one of those passionate teachers." "What are you passionate about?" I pressed. "I'm passionate about Vera, and I used teaching to stay close to her." I love it that he's passionate about his wife, and as a person who went through a divorce and now has many friends going through divorces, I wonder if he realizes how lucky he is in this love.

Brett has always been passionate about music. He plays guitar, and when he was in high school he introduced me to Tom Petty's Wildflowers and Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing." He would share a song with me by playing on--a walkman, maybe?--and as I listened he would close his very blue eyes as if he were listening, too. He would nod his head like blind musicians do, and though he could not hear the music I was listening to, he would imagine it and would say, "Isn't that amazing?"

Brett often seems disappointed in his life. He did when he was fourteen and thought he'd never have a steady girlfriend who loves him, and now at the age of thirty-five, he shakes his head and sighs because he hasn't been able to earn a living as a musician. (Yet, I would add.)

How lucky, though, to have such passion. When he asked me what I'm passionate about, I was surprised by the question. I thought it was obvious: "Teaching." I'm also passionate about Ann, my family, my faith, writing, poetry, wildflowers...For this passionate way of living, I'm glad to be reminded how lucky I am.

Saturday morning, we brunched at our long-time friend Marion's home with our friends Declan and Laura, who have moved from the area in suburban Washington where Declan, Ann, Marion and I taught high school students together. Declan and Laura moved a long drive away, clear on the other side of the state, to Pullman, Washington,  where Declan teaches in another school and Laura works as a nurse and a teacher with mothers who are breast-feeding. (I have no idea how one would teach that. Seems awkward.)

Declan and Laura are a charming couple, both with dimples and sparkly eyes. One of my favorite moments in our work together was when Declan, having been a pain about something the day before, came to my office with his head hanging low. He knocked on the door and without making eye contact, he said to me, "My wife said I should apologize to you."

Declan and Laura have four children, ages four to seventeen. Their children seem to have as much personality as they do. Their oldest children call their youngest, "the red-headed monster," and Declan and Laura clearly love this. The nickname, it seems, rings of truth.

Marion, who hosted the brunch, brought us all together for a brunch feast. (There was no chocolate. I couldn't believe it. Still, it was tasty.) Marion and Ann had already been carpooling for more than a decade when I joined their carpool, and we got to be good friends as we shared our lives, always facing forward, for eight years. It's hard to describe Marion's friendship. She's the master of self-deprecation, but really she's a good and solid and amusing friend who always cooks a tasty feast.

Then, out of the blue it seemed to me, I received an email from Sue, who was a history teacher in the Texas private school where I first taught, in the eighties when big hair was big. She and Christine, who was English department chair, will call Thursday to catch up. Sue has been on my blog, so she has some idea of what has been going on with me. I have no idea what she's been up to, but she referred to Christine as "the general," so I gather that she's still got some spunk about her.

This weekend, Ann and I went to see our long-time friends Marie and Colleen at their home on a nearby island. We call their home our favorite "B and B." It's always good to see them and they always fix a tasty breakfast.

This time, we went for the "Tour de Whidbey," a bike ride that Marie was helping to organize. On the ride, you could go ten miles or fifty miles or a hundred miles. Ann, Colleen and I opted for the ten-mile ride, which was designed especially for riders with disabilities and their families.

At the end of the day, the four of us went out for dinner at a local Italian restaurant. We laughed belly laughs the whole night. Colleen told the story about when she was in sixth grade and played softball with the older girls. She had seen Bill Murray in the movie Caddy Shack and thought it was hilarious. She kept moving her upper lip to the left and her lower lip to the right (she did this as a sixth-grader and she did it again now) as she said, "I smell some gopher poontang." As a sixth grade student, Colleen thought that poontang, sounding much like "poo," must mean doo-doo, and she ignored the warning looks of her friends whose fathers were the coaches. "I smell some gopher poontang," she said again with her lips all funky, and we roared.

When we got home from the island, my friend Rose, who has been a friend since I first moved to Seattle thirty years ago, called. She is going through a difficult time right now, and we talked about how grateful each of us has been for the steadiness of the other through all of these years, all of these ups and downs.

How lucky I am. And I feel lucky that you, too, are here. Mary

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gang aft a-gley

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft a-gley,

--Robert Burns, "To a Mouse"

Odysseus planned to go to war, win, and come home a war hero. Instead, he took ten years to wander his way home. He was blown about the seas by Poseidon's wrath and ended up between a classical rock and a hard place. He had to outwit a one-eyed man eating monster, and tear himself away from the island where a beautiful sorceress held him love-slave for eight years.

Before heading home at last, he and his hungry fellas landed on an island where the beef mooed mournfully on the barbeque. I don't know if he went home a vegetarian, but he probably did.

Today, like Odysseus, I planned a simple trip that turned into an odyssey. I went to lunch with my previous student Brett (who was fourteen years old when I met him and is now thirty years old). After lunch, Brett would drop me off at my masseus on his way home. After a healing massage, I would walk a short distance to catch a bus to Virginia Mason Hospital for a Brain Tumor Support Group. I planned to catch the bus home right out front.

My massage was on 12th Avenue, and I needed to catch the bus on 10th Avenue. I had a good fifteen minutes to walk the two blocks it took to get there. Unfortunately, however, there are about six blocks with names instead of numbers between 10th Avenue and 12th Avenue. Still, it looked like I would make it in time.

I hobbled my way to Broadway Avenue, also known as 10th Avenue. Oh, wait, no. Tenth Avenue does seem to merge with Broadway, but this far north, Tenth Avenue is its own street. I watched the bus go by as I made my way to Broadway.

I still had forty minutes, and I remembered that the hospital was on 9th Avenue--just one more block--so I headed down to 9th. Only 9th Avenue didn't exist this far north, so I wanded my way through the streets until, now too late for this support group, I found a bus that would take me home.

I was exhausted. I have blisters on my feet from walking so far and a blister on my hand from gripping my cane as I traversed those broken sidewalks. I boarded the bus and sat in the front seat for people with disabilities.

When we stopped near Group Health Hospital, the driver hollered to a blind woman on the sidewalk, "Ma'am,  do you want the 8?" A guy standing at the stop yelled up, "No, she doesn't want the 8," and the driver yelled back, "Yes, she does."

This woman boarded the bus, and I slipped to the next seat barely in time not to be sat upon. This woman could not see, and her speech sounded more like moans than words. She was clearly anxious that this was not the right bus, and rocked and shouted, "The eight?" Each time, the driver affirmed, "Yes. This is the eight."

As we turned right to go around the hospital, she stood up and shouted. She was clearly upset. A delivery truck was parked illegally in front of the hospital, making it tricky for the bus driver to make it by. As we squeezed by, the woman yelled very clearly, "Baaaad."

When at last we turned onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, she nodded with her whole body. This turn she recognized. It was going to be okay. We both relaxed.

When I got home, there were no suitors trying to win Ann's hand in marriage. Usually there would be, but Ann is on a camping trip, so I didn't have to shoot arrows at an obnoxious mob. I just took a nap.

Homer doesn't mention the inevitable truth that Odysseus took a nap at the end of his journey. Homer really should have mentioned that part.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


"Remembering the ATLAS Site Developers' Retreat in Boston on this fateful day. So much has happened in our lives in these 10 years! So glad we are both still here."--Sue Gee

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in Boston at the John Hancock Center to meet my new colleagues and to learn about my new job with ATLAS, a national education reform organization. During our first morning break, I stepped into the hall to call my friends Jack and Sandy, whom I planned to visit after my week of training.

Jack answered the phone.
"Hey Jack. It's Mary. I just wanted to check in with you about this weekend."
"Mary! Oh my God! The world is ending!"
Thinking that their son Ben might be in some sort of trouble, I asked about him. Jack said, "No! Turn on the T.V.!" Then, I think he hung up on me.

Confused, I returned to the room where we were meeting. Someone had turned the television news on, and I watched planes fly into the twin towers. Security swept in with their holsters and their computers, telling us we'd need to leave the room because they needed it for a national emergency. Not knowing what news was breaking, Sue tried to convene us again. There was lots of confusion. Finally, we went next door, and the men in blue took over the room.

In the next room, my new colleagues and I watched as images of the planes flying into the twin towers played over and over.

Just that weekend, my brother, his wife, and their young child Hayden and I had walked to the towers from their home. It was pouring, and so I left my camera in Hayden's stroller. I'd get a picture another day.

As I watched those planes fly in the towers over and over, I sobbed. I knew that my sister-in-law and nephew often went there in the mornings for breakfast, and I feared that my little brother, whose job I've never understood except that it has something to do with the stock market, had been in the towers.

I looked at my new colleagues, strangers, around me. "No one could have survived that," I said. "I'm afraid my brother might have been there."

When I finally went to my room, I tried to call my family but couldn't reach anyone. I continued watching the news, hoping that I might learn something about my family. On the news, I saw a picture of my hotel. Supects of the attacks, the news reported, may be holed up in the hotel across the street. Blue-suited men sporting holsters and walkie-talkies were everywhere.

We were evacuated from the hotel. Then cordoned and required to stay inside. Then evacuated. Then cordoned. And so on. Late that day, I walked around town in the cold grey rain.  Groups of people with opinions shouted their nationalistic slogans--some pro-U.S. and others not.

I worried about what my country would do.

I went to a colleague's home with two other out-of-towners, glad to be away from the television images. We sat on the back porch, listening to the odd silence in the skies. Dad called to say that everyone in our family was safe. Now I could think about other peoples' grief. Back at the hotel that night, again we were cordoned and evacuated.

And then I went to Rhode Island to stay with my friends Jack and Sandy, hoping that flights to the west coast might resume from there. The trains were all full, and the cars were all rented. No flights would be leaving New York or Boston any time soon. Seattle was a long way away.

When I talked with Ann that night, I realized how different were our experiences of that day since I was on the east coast, and she was on the west coast. In Boston, my colleagues and I had been cordoned and evacuated over and over. I had wept. Ann's group was worried, but the day's evets were far away, and her meetings had resumed.

A few days later, I flew first class from Providence to D.C. to Portland to Seattle on one of the first flights to go cross country. I sat with a cabin full of pilots who whispered tensely in small knots in the aisles. Next to me, a pilot inked black angular lines on the back of his napkin. He exhaled heavily from time to time, running his hand through his dark hair.

When I arrived in the Seattle airport, the terminals were earily empty. I heard a shout and saw two flight attendants run to one another and grip one another in a tight embrace. After a long moment, they both started talking at once: "You're okay. What about..."

Ten years later, I sit in my Seattle church, listening to a trumpet play taps outside, feeling the sadness again, and remembering.

Friday, September 9, 2011


"Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars."--Danaan Parry, Warriors of the Heart 

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about...
Pablo Neruda, "Keeping Quiet"

"If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change." --Buddha

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of my life as a journey, like Odysseus's journey from war to home or Luke Skywalker's journey from clod to Jedi-knight. In this paradigm, my tumors and other troubles are like the one-eyed, man-eating Cyclops or the menacing Storm Troopers. In this paradigm, I must overcome these antagonists in order to continue my journey. If I defeat them, I too will be a hero. In this paradigm, I know the way.

Now, however, I am wondering if my life is more like the still moment in a poem than like the journeys of an epic hero. In this paradigm shift, I wonder if I should sit still and watch closely rather than trying to defeat my anti-heroes. I wonder if I must sit still and breathe and look around.

Sitting and watching. Just being. It's hard work. I don't know the way.

For sure, I need to begin by learning to breathe again, learning to breathe in order to be instead of breathing to run somewhere.

I feel like there's some truth in this, but it's hard for me to get my mind around it.

It seems like there's so much to do. I do believe that this world needs to be a kinder place, and I have committed my life to justice for more through my work in education and my connections with poor communities.

If I am just being, how do I work for justice? That's a conundrum. I am swinging on that trapeze, preparing to let go of the bar that I have held so safely through so many hard times, and now I think it's time to let go. I vaguely perceive a new bar swinging towards me, but I don't know if I'll catch hold and if I do, I don't know where it will take me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yoga Month

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." --Marianne Williamson

September is yoga month. To celebrate, I'm returning to yoga instruction for the first time since brain surgery. I'm working with Cyndi, an instructor at Samarya Yoga Studio who specializes in working with people with chronic conditions.

I feel good about the studio. Samarya is Sanskrit for "community" and the studio is a non-profit organization committed to serving underserved populations. They count people with brain injury as underserved.

Today was my first session, where Cyndi and I introduced ourselves and did a little stretching and balance work. No homework yet. That comes next week.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Maybe Not

When I called to talk to my parents last weekend, as I have every weekend in the four years since surgery, Dad went to wake Mom from a nap. I heard him ask, “Do you want to speak to Mary?” and she asked, “Who’s Mary?” (By the time she answered the phone, she remembered me.)

I have always believed that I am the favorite. Maybe not.

Riding the Bus

When I was in sixth grade, I loved riding the school bus to our sixth center, where all of Raleigh's thirteen year olds, went to school. My friends Cybil and Susan and our boyfriends Jeff, David and John, liked to ride at the back of the bus. When the bus driver turned a corner, we all yelled, "Bad turn!" and leapt into a seat on the side of the bus that leaned with the turn.

In high school, I hated riding the school bus, but Dad had seen all of those cars parked beside buses in the school parking lot and declared the waste. I would not squander the opportunity the ride the bus. I was shy, tall, awkward and cautious. The bus made me feel my loneliness and made me feel afraid.

Other kids  smoked pot to and from school, so even though I didn't smoke, my thick red hair always smelled like pot. Our bus drivers were high school kids themselves. My last bus driver had curly brown hair, a face covered in acne, and a very pretty girlfirend. She sat in the front seat, and he twisted around for much of the ride so that the two could make-out much of the way home. Usually, they waited until we were at a stoplight. Once, to impress his pretty girlfriend, the driver sped up and raced towards a parked car, swerving just in time.

Now I love riding the public bus--in any country. I get to be a witness to unfamiliar cultures as I listen to the conversations and watch the interactions.

When Ann and I took the six-hour ride from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to Awasa, a university town further south, an elderly woman nodded and smiled at us from her seat just in front of us. "Gwabez!" she commended us. "Gwabez" was on the short list of my Amharic vocabulary. She was lauding us as clever and brave.

A Guatemalan bus dumped me and the rest of the passengers onto the side of a dusty roadway when it started breaking down. When the next bus came, I was pushed aside as travellers forced their way onto the bus. When the second bus came, I was again polite, but when the third bus slowed down (I'm not sure it stopped), I forced my gigantic American self onto the bus with my backpack. I don't think I knocked anyone down. I didn't want to be pushy. I was just following the rules of this place, and I didn't want to spend the night by the road.

On another Ethiopian bus, this one in Nazret, we took a bus down a long street of red dust from a small town that reminded me of movie towns in the Wild West: men drank beers in the morning sun. Teenagers played ping pong on public tables. Two men got into a fight, one wielding a machete and the other a pistol. With lots of ruckus,  peacemakers, drunk themselves, separted the two fighters and wrested the pistol from the one.

We  had help getting onto the bus, which was overfull with hot, sweaty passengers. On the way down the road, one man who had paid full fare complained loudly that another man was in his space. A lively argument among many of the passengers broke out. When we saw policemen on the side of the road, the bus driver pulled over, and everyone except Ann and me got off the bus. The group formed a circle around the fighting men and the policeman. The policeman seemed to facilitate, hearing everyone's complaint. Since I don't speak Amharic, I don't know what they were saying, but at the end, the policeman had the two men hug and everyone got happily back on the bus.

I like riding the bus in my neighborhood, too. Before I had disabilities, I rode the bus when riding my bike was impractical. Now, riding my bike is always impractical, so I often ride the bus to get around town. Today, returning home from my massage on the number eight, I sat up front with three friends who seemed to be in the early twenties. One, an African-American woman named Tanisha with two small children, rode across from me. Next to me sat another African-American woman, Sondra, with her child, and a hispanic-looking man, Gerardo, with the stroller.

Tanisha and her children were on their way to pick up Tanisha's older daughter from her first day of school, and Sondra and Gerardo were accompanying her. Tanisha's youngest son started to cry, and she threatened him with the whip. The three adults talked about their beatings as children. Tanisha said, "I had to kneel in dry beans and rice. When I stood up, the indentations hurt." Sonda said her dad had used a whip.

Gerardo said, "My dad used electrical cords and wires."
"Oooo," said Tanisha, "You had a mean daddy. My daddy hardly ever used the cords."
By way of explanation, Sondra said, "His daddy was white."
Tanisha, "I didn't know that."
Gerardo, "He was a red neck."

Then they all piled off the bus and I rode home, thinking of how different our lives can be.

Friday, August 26, 2011


For Emily Dickenson, "Hope is the thing with feathers." For Woody Allen, "The thing with feathers is my nephew." For me, hope wears a stethoscope and is featherless.

These past few weeks, I've been pursuing part time disability in the school district where I work as a Literacy Specialist. Because I feel ambivalent about the change, the pursuit has been hard.

I am aware that fatigue and other disabilities are making full-time work impossible, so the possibility of a part time job causes me shoulders to relax and my breath to travel to my abdomen instead of catching like a hiccough in my upper chest.

I feel sad, though. I've  committed my adult life to teaching high school students, and I have at last landed in a district wiht a tremendous diversity of ethnicities and language that commits to making real the pledge to teach every student. Since neurosurgery in 2007, I've been working as a Literacy Specialist in the Highline School District in Burien, Washington. I've spent my days helping passionate teachers plan to meet the needs of their students and working with these teachers and their students. It's a great job, and it's taken me twenty-five years to prepare for it and to find it. It's hard to leave it even a little.

I've felt sad, too, because I have worked hard not to give up a life of meaning in response to these brain tumors. Continuing full-time work in education has seemed central to continuing to live meaningfully.

Yesterday, my doctors at Group Health helped me to see this move differently. Dr. Herstein encouraged me to understand that in order to live fully, I need to find a way to live with these disabilities, not just to power through the fatigue and other challenges. My Nurse Practitioner Amy Lynes, always one with the human touch, hugged me as I left her office. My primary care physician, Dr. McCandless, described me as a person who puts positive energy into the world, and commented on how lucky Ann and I are to have found each other. I don't even know if she was aware of how much doubt she was addressing, but I felt eager to live my life anew when I left her office.

In the paper this morning, I read about another woman, the legendary women's basketball coach, Pat Summit, who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. The Seattle columnist Steve Kelley applauded her courage and lauded the way that in continuing to coach, she will teach the rest of us how to persevere in difficult times.

Kelley's interpretation of Pat Summit's lesson is not the lesson for me right now. I am trying to learn to let go of the details of an old life and to live a full life in my new life. I have been doggedly persistent, perhaps excessively so, my whole life. Now I'm trying to learn what to change and what to maintain as I learn to live with changes that I cannot control.

I guess in the oft quoted serenity prayer, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference," I seek the wisdom and the courage to know the difference.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Talker and The Reader Growing Up

This summer when we saw our nephews Willie and Hayden at the beach, we were especially surprised by how much they've grown up since last year. Though they've just moved one year, from ten year old to eleven, they seem to have aged out of childhood and into early adolescence.
They were constant companions this summer. It's fun to see their friendship developing.
“What are birds' wings made of?” That's my sister's youngest son, Willie, when he was three years old. He's always asked the most amusing questions. He's a talker.

He's always been a fun one to watch. When he was small, he would crawl into my lap when we played board games with his older siblings. I lost significant years with him when I had my tumors, which is hard, but he's too old to climb into my lap anymore anyway.

Last year, on the way to our wedding, Willie lost his favorite quarter, so Ann and I sent him a new Canadian quarter when he and his family left. He wrote us the first thank you note we've ever received from any of our nieces and nephews: “Thank you for giving me what I really wanted.”
On the drive from New York to the North Carolina beach last year, Willie said he didn't like carrots, and--bored with the drive--his mother, my Sister Jen, told him she had been putting carrots in his cereal. When he doubted her, she said that she had been bleaching them and cutting them into cereal shapes for years. He was flummoxed. “That seems weird, but I know my mom wouldn't lie to me.” Such trust, even after the tooth fairy betrayal.

This summer when I played Scrabble with Willie and his older brother Jack, Willie decided that it would be better if we didn't keep score for him, so that he could just learn to play. He talked aloud to himself the whole time: "OMG is a word now!" and "I could do 'BIG E' (my dad's nickname.)

Like his siblings and his father, Willie loves tennis. Sister Jen says that when Willie plays tennis, he talks to himself the whole time. She quoted him: "Okay, Willie, I'm going to say this one time and one time only. No double faults!"

I wonder if he listens to himself.

Willie's cousin Hayden is my brother's oldest. He is blond, blue-eyed and beautiful. He is a big fan. Last summer, even though all of his cousins love the Red Sox, Hayden wore his NY Yankees hat the whole time he was at the beach with all of us in North Carolina. For the World Cup, he bravely cheered on the Netherlands while the rest of us cheered for Spain. That takes spunk.

When Hayden and his younger sister Lucie were looking at old pictures a few years ago, they saw one of the two of them together when they were younger. In the photograph, Hayden’s young arm was wrapped affectionately around little Lucie. Hayden said to Lucie, “See, Lucie. I used to like you.”
Hayden’s always got his nose in a book, a characteristic of his mother and his aunts and now of his father.

I suppose he'll Scrabble royalty before long.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Own Private Idaho

I was sceptical about Ann's idea that we go biking (well, her on a bike and me on my trike) in the Coeur d'Alene area of Idaho. When I think of Idaho, I think of potatoes and neo-nazi groups, but I was as wrong about Idaho as so many people are about the American South. It was beautiful, and the bike trails are fabulous.

We consulted Sheila (full name Georgietta Patricia Sheila), our GPS, about how to get to Harrison, Idaho, but the dealer told Sheila that we'd want to know the fuel efficient route instead of the fastest route. Sheila took us on a series of short cuts that my Granddaddy Matthews would have appreciated.

We started in Harrison, with our friends Susan and Rod, staying at the Lakeview Lodge and biking both ways on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes. The trail is over 71 miles of paved railroad right of way, but we just did a little piece each day. One day we biked on a tressle over Lake Coeur d'Alene and the next day we went the other way, along a river and a series of chain lakes. The trail is almost entirely flat, and every inch is lovely.

We stayed at the beautiful, somewhat funky, Lakeview Lodge, and our rooms had decks overlooking the lake. I'd recommend them.

There was a little tension one morning. A woman with a one year-old German Sherpherd and a man who was angry because the dog bore his teeth at him when he was doing the laundry and also because the dog barked during the night (I found this irritating, too) got into an altercation. Dog Lady was calm, but somewhat patronizing as Mad Man yelled more and more aggressively at her. When he yelled, "This is Idaho, Lady, it's not Mexico" (I'm still mulling over exactly what he meant by that), and he moved towards her, the very nice owner (a guy who might have been an inn keeper on the t.v. show "Northern Exposure")...anyway, the very nice owner intervened and said, "This has got to stop."

We left on our bike ride, and when we returned Dog Lady and her puppy had checked out. I don't know about Mad Man, but we didn't hear him again. We were glad that our hotel was not taped off as a crime scene.

We all love dogs and had our own dog stories. I loved Rod's story about Smokey the Dog, a dog on his newspaper route one summer when he was an adolescent. The dog terrorized Rod all summer, and one morning at the end of the summer, the owner was in the yard and told Rod, "He won't hurt you." Rod turned around to face the owner, and the dog bit him in the butt. The owner seemed non-plussed and said, "Oh, well. He's never bitten anyone else."

(Everyone but me had been bitten at least once. If you own a dog, please respect others' nervousness. Thanks.)

We tried fifty percent (two) of the restaurants and were underwhelmed, but we had great Huckleberry Ice-Cream at the creamery where "one scoop" is really about five scoops.

Farkle friends (oh yeah, they're church friends, pub friends, auction friends, El Salvador friends, and just plain friend friends, too) John and Jerry joined us Thursday night. I won the first game of Farkle  (I have to tell you that), and then I went to bed while the others played a half game (to 5000 points instead of 10,000 points). Susan, I see in John's scoring notes, was the "half winner." I love it that Susan's a "half winner."

Friday morning, we drove to the other end of the trail and rode a piece of that trail and all of the Hiawatha Trail. We went downhil all day, not a good thing for hospital patients but an excellent thing for a tired triker.

The Hiawatha Trail travels on an old railroad bed high in the Bitterroot mountains. It winds through ten very dark tunnels and seven high tressles. The first tunnel is in the trail's first ten feet and runs 1.67 miles in utter darkness with water falling into gutters that bikers want to avoid along the sides. If you go, take a bike with mountain bike treads and several good lights. Jerry dubbed our lights, "Artificial Sun," and we were very popular through each tunnel.

On the drive  back to Seattle, Ann and I listened to the Indigo Girls song, "Bitterroot." Below are the lyrics so that you can sing along if you want to. You take the lead and I'll sing harmony:

Tonight I'll be sleeping on the mountain top,
I got a billion stars for my witness.
In the morning I'll go down and the sun comes up,
I'll take a drink from the Bitter Root River.

Have you been lonely?
Yes I've been lonely.
I've been lonely too.

Tonight I'll be sleeping on the mountain top,
I got a billion stars for my witness.
In the morning I'll go down and the sun comes up,
I'll take a drink from the Bitter Root River.

Have you been travelin?
Yes I've been travelin.
I've been travelin too.

Tonight I'll be sleeping on the mountain top,
I got a billion stars for my witness.
In the morning I'll go down and the sun comes up,
I'll take a drink from the Bitter Root River.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Don't cliticize me!

Cliticize doesn't mean what you think it means. It means to use only a part of a word and to substitute an apostrophe for the rest. In "I'm," for example, 'm is a clitic.

I learned this from Roy Blount, Jr's, book, Alphabet Fruit. Reading the book is more like reading a narrative Oxford English Dictionary, where etymology is especially interesting and amusing. (If you listen to public radio, you may know Roy Blount, Jr. as the cowboy poet.)
I'm learning other good words, too. "Oology" means just what it looks like: the study of eggs. "Ugly" was an old Icelandic word meaning fear.
I also learned from the cowboy poet that google was named for the term "googol." A googol is a large number equal to 10^(10^2)=10^(100) (i.e., a 1 with 100 zeros following it). Written out explicitly,
The term was coined in 1938 by 9-year-old Milton Sirotta, nephew of Edward Kasner (Kasner 1989, pp. 20-27; Bialik 2004). Kasner then extended the term to the larger "googolplex." It should be noted that "googol" is indeed the correct spelling of the term, so the spelling "Google" refers to the internet search engine, not one with 100 zeros.(http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Googol.html). The Cowboy Poet comments that "Google" is friendlier than "googol." He's a poet because he thinks of things like that.
"You" is, according to the Cowboy Poet, the most common word in English, and "I" is the second most common. He doesn't say what the least common word in English is, but he does point out that English is the only only language in which "I" is capitalized. (unless, of course, you're quoting ee cummings.)
I get irritated with sporscasters, and so does the Cowboy poet. Recently, I've noticed that sportscasters say, "All of a sudden" all the time, even in contexts where that's clearly not true, as in this basketball sportscaster's comment: "All of a sudden, your team is behind by twenty."
The Cowboy Poet criticizes sportscasters (and I would add others) who misuse, "hopefully," and put it any ol' place in the sentence. My poet man says, "Maybe that doesn't bug you, but it bugs me."
The best thing about this comment is his Southern accent, which extends the "u," sort of like, "It buuugs me." Or maybe a googol of u's.
It buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugs me, too, Roy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Good Reads

Have I told you that I'm writing a memoir?

In order to write this memoir, I have studied other memoirs and am grateful for the opportunity to learn from so many fine voices
One early memoir, Thoreau’s Walden, tells of Thoreau’s reflections on his experiences in a little cabin by a little pond. As a teenager and young adult, I was inspired by Thoreau’s passion for seeking the truth. That passion inspires me still.
Another early memoir, Elie Wiesel’s powerfully slim volume Night, invited me into the young Wiesel’s central question: Can there be a God of goodness when pain and cruelty hold such sway in this world?

Both texts integrated storytelling with reflection on larger questions, both were about both the circumstance and the thinking about that circumstance. I hope my book combines storytelling with existential questions. I hope my book is about fear and courage. I hope that it is about doubt and faith.
With my freshmen students in my last year of teaching high school English, I read and studied Luis Rodriguez’s excellent memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA. Rodriguez began writing the story of his involvement in gangs and then his separation from gangs when he was a teenager. He finished the memoir as adult when his son began getting involved in gangs, but the story was not powerful enough to keep his son, who is now serving a life sentence for manslaughter, out of prison. A colleague told me of a freshman in her remedial reading class who was reading Always Running, though it was significantly above his reading level. When she asked why, his eyes swelled with tears, “I want to learn how he got out.” Though Rodriguez’s son did not learn this lesson from his father’s story, other children do.
Though I’ve never been involved with gang life, I learned about a life and struggles different than mine when I read Rodriguez’s book. I hope that my memoir will be helpful for other who have had my struggles and will help those who have not connect with a story different than their own.

In my twenties, I loved Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, especially her reminiscence of a simple moment, patting a puppy, and being present. Dillard’s call to be present has guided many of my adult moments, and I have tried to integrate this call in my life and in my writing.
More recently, Patti Smith's Just Kids, her portrait of the young adult relationship between her and Robert Maplethorpe, the relationship of soulmates, made me cry out of my right eye, an eye that hasn’t otherwise teared in the four years since surgery.

I also loved Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black, Kerman’s story of a year in federal prison, and I hope that in my memoir I am able to tell stories that connect others to my experience and my vision in the way that she has connected with me.
I probably seemed a little crazy as I laughed my way through David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day on a cross-country plane ride. Lots of people make me chuckle, but only David Sedaris makes me hee haw. When I was visiting a colleague’s Language Arts classroom one day, the students were reading a Sedaris essay, and I told them that David Sedaris and I had gone to first grade together (We went to E.C. Brooks Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, but I don’t remember him and I doubt he remembers me.) I asked the knot of students that I was talking to, “Do you ever wonder who in your class might turn out to be famous?” One girl opened her eyes wide and whispered, “I think about that all the time.”

From teaching English, I believe that the best writing teachers are the writers who inspire us, and for these mentors I am thankful.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

For Partners and Caregivers

My partner Ann has been a tremendous support for me. Her life has changed, as mine has, so I wondered what supports have been important to her. It was interesting to me to interview her about this because, though we have discussed these questions along the way, in the interview we both focused on her needs for a more extended time than we usually did, so I learned new things about her experiences. My interview with her follows:

What advice would you give partners of people with life-changing conditions like brain tumors?

Realize that you aren't the one with the brain tumor, that your part is to be supportive. The person with the health issue has to figure out how to deal with it. Just be supportive but know that you are not in charge.

Go to doctors' appointments with your partner. I went so that I could hear the news myself and so that I wouldn't have to ask you a lot of questions. I also went so that we would have two people listening and getting the information. And I went to be supportive. I wanted to hear the news first hand from the doctors and to meet the doctors.
Look for the good things you and your partner can share, instead of just trying to do things like you did before, even if it's really different from how you spent time before.

Give yourself time and permission to grieve what you've lostor really how your life has changed. For me it was important to talk with a therapist I trusted.
It is a challenge for me to allow myself to do some things that my partner can't do anymore. That's hard for me. It's still hard for me to do things I know you would like to do and you can't do.

What's helped?
The thing that's been most helpful has been you because you've taken your tumors and disabilities on and decided to make the best of it, and you have encouraged me to go for a hike with someone or do other things you'd like to do.

Friends who have checked in with how you're doing also ask how I'm doing.

Working helps me. It's something I'm really interested in that takes me away from home responsibilities and gives me a different focus. That's always been good for me.

What's been hardest?
My partner moving from a full-time playmate to a part-time playmate and the fact that we can't do things together that we used to be able to do [have been hard.]"

The hardest thing is figuring out how to stay in the present, especially with the second tumor, and not get sunk by wondering what will happen in the future. But I think we've gotten closer going through this.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Heather's Book

Ann and I spent last week at Emerald Isle, a beach in North Carolina, with my parents, Sister Jen and her family, and Brother Matt and his family.

This place is as beautiful as any place I've been, with long white sandy stretches that are flat enough for walking, water that is grey or brown or green or blue--or all of those--depending on its mood. Waves crash with that rhythmical regularity that's mesmerizing. Sea oats wave in the dunes' breezes.

It's the one week each year that we gather together as we have since my parents' children were Gretchen's age, five, and skiing on the sound whenever we could. It's a time when we relax together. Someone's always reading; someone's napping; someone's eating; someone's on the beach. We're together.

It's our annual pilgrimage when we gather to remind each other that we are family, and we are here for each other.

This year, Sister Jen read aloud to me the novel, Under the Mercy Trees, by my childhood friend Heather. Heather's Owensby family, a dysfunctional lot living in the North Carolina mountains, became part of our family this year. They're dysfunctional, but they're endearing, and I'm glad they came along with us.

The novel's beautifully written. Here are a few snippets:
In describing a copse of bent trees, a young woman records, "Some trees had rotted and laid down tired in the undergrowth, but some still sat....eight ladies murmuring a welcome.... She wondered if the ladies minded the kinks in their trunks as they remembered the trauma that bent them, or had they gotten on with things....Maybe we'd grow crooked, too, if we got hit in the middle by a storm" (19).

Later in the story, another character remarks, "Bacon is a gift from God." Heather attributes this thought to the character Hodge, but I know it's really Heather.

The book's a gift, as is the beach. I recommend both the beach and the book to you. The book is cheaper.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fish Tacos and Chichis

This is a g-rated blog, so if you speak Spanish and are worried that this entry won't be appropriate, fear not. I am writing about the tasty meal we had in Hawaii in December and the dinner party for church auction folk we had at our home last night.

The fish tacos were made with true cod, jalepenos, garlic, cole slow, tomatoes, mango salsa, and melted cheddar on a soft taco shell; and the chichis are a blended drink made with pineapple juice, coconut cream, vodka, and macademia nut liquer. Those chichis might be the only thing in the world that's tastier than a milkshake. In fact, they're a lot like a milkshake with vodka, so you see what I mean.

Eleven people who signed up at the church auction came to this dinner. It was a fun night with people from lots of different pews. We believe in diversity.

Michael recounted some of his favorite marquee signs on the now closed, peep show establishment, "Lusty Lady." On the inauguration on the Seattle Art Museum's "Hammering Man," the Lusty Lady sign read, "Hammer away, big guy" and during the Mariners' winning streak in 2001 - "Randy Johnson?". Then the Lusty Lady had a respectfully  blank marquee for about two weeks after 9/11.

I remember the Lusty Lady signs, so I did a little historical research into previous signs. There are several top ten lists. I like the Seattle Weekly's favorites:
An hour after the Ash Wednesday quake...
We're Still Shaking -- Come Feel the Earth Move
During the W.T.O. riots...
W. T. Oohhhhhhhh! -- The Nude World Order
On Oscar Sunday...
We'd Like To Spank The Academy
On St. Patrick's Day...
No Body's Wearing Green and Erin Go Braugh-less
We're here for yule and Dancers, Prancers and Vixens
And Thanksgiving...
Happy Spanksgiving!
When SAM first moved in across the street...
Welcome SAM! Once you've seen their nudes, come in and see ours.
When Hammering Man was first installed...
Hammer Away Big Guy.
When SAM reopened after an expansion...
We Made Sam Grow
And when Chuck Close came to town...
Chuck Clothes
And finally, in 2006, after the Lusty refused to sell to ex-Mayor Paul Schell and the other investors trying to tear it down and build a Four Seasons...
We're Open, Not Clothed.
Just not for long.*
*All marquee titles come from memory, History Link, Rick Anderson's story on the failed Four Seasons sale and Robert Jamieson's 2001 column in the P-I.

Pat, a Metro bus driver, recalled seeing one of those "Jesus is _______." billboard signs on her route one day. The blank had been filled, in excellent billboard scrift, with "a taco." On the return trip, the sign had already been cleaned of its humor.

Pat also recalled a large man, not fat but barrel-shaped, who collected cans and crushed them in his hands. She referred to him as the "Can Man." One day, a lady with some sort of disabilities who talked very loudly got on the bus and announced that there are three ways to get into heaven, so the bus did not need to pray for her. Pat described  her this way: "She was very special.....really, I knew she was very special. She had these kind but very intense blue eyes...like a wizard would have, or the sage lady living in the hollow of a tree in the fairy tale....and her mission was to tell people how to get to heaven. There are three ways: ONE: You give birth. TWO: You save someone's life, and THREE: You give blood. Notably all are about sustaining life. She was precious beyond precious. I knew God was present when she was." As the Can Man got off the bus at a later stop, he said plaintively to Pat, "You can pray for me."

Another day, a different woman who voiced her thoughts was sitting towards the front of the bus when two perfumed women boarded. "I smell a candle," the woman at the front of the bus said. Then she pointed to the two women making their way down the aisle and said, "It went that way."

Yet another time, this same woman sat near two women on break from their jobs at Nordstrom's Department store. When they departed, the woman said, "They have man problems."

The conversation was at times hilarious and at times serious. Pat recounted a day when a man, apparently homeless, got on the bus. He was whistiling beautifully, and as he boarded he whistled the tune to Ella Fitzgerald's "Someone to Watch Over Me."

There's a saying old
Says that love is blind -
Still we're often told,
"Seek and ye shalI find."
So I'm going to seek
A certain lad I've had in mind.
Looking everywhere,
Haven't found him yet;
He's the big affair
I cannot forget.
Only man I ever
Think of with regret.
I'd like to add his initials to my monogram.
Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost
There's a somebody I'm longing to see
I hope that he
Turns out to be
Someone who'll watch over me.
I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood.
I know I could
Always be good
To one who'll watch over me.
Although he may not be the man some
Girls think of as handsome
To my heart he carries the key.
Won't you telI him please to put on some
speed -
Follow my lead -
Oh! How I need
Someone to watch over me.
Someone to watch over me.

The raucous bus quieted to his song, and our conversation took a more serious tone. "What is our responsibility to those who are in pain, to those who are homeless?"

Individuals shared how they respond to homeless people. Whenever Doug and Mary get in their car, they take Power Bars to share with anyone they see who is hungry. Ann buys the homeless newspaper "Real Change." Others shared their strategies.

Terry takes $1 bills when he drives, but he takes the bus to work, and talks with people on the bus who seek his company. One Sunday, when the church was having a brunch, he invited a homeless man he met on the way, and the man came to church for a couple of months and sat on a back pew. We wondered together how open and affirming we as a congregation are to those who are homeless. Terry shared the disturbing statistic from a Food Bank study that showed that over 60 percent of the women who use Seattle's Food Banks are women with small children whose husbands have abandoned the family.

It might sound like the party ended on a downer, but it was a communal celebration where we shared moral struggles and left feel connected and reflective.

Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something. " -- Henry David Thoreau