Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A piece of work

I just got back from doing some research at the library before this afternoon's thunderstorm rolls through Toledo.  It's been a muggy week and I'm counting the days until less humid air breezes in so I can turn off the air conditioner and open the windows again.  I've been getting up early in the morning to water and weed the garden before the hot summer sun rises up from behind the rooftops.  For the past few evenings I escaped the house and went hiking in the woods even though mosquitoes think I'm tastier than an ice cream sundae.  I don't mind really, for swatting away an insect here and there is worth it to be able to walk beneath a canopy of lush and lovely trees while listening to the birds chattering to each other at sunset.  Soon enough the back porch will be cool enough to enjoy at favorite time of day. 
But until then, I'll take my comfort where I can.
Since The Lace Makers was released in May, I've been editing a memoir about a Polish woman's harrowing experiences during and after World War II.  For the past few weeks, my client and I have sat side by side going line by line through the manuscript.  It's not been an easy process, for much of what I've been revising takes me back to the research I did last fall and winter.  While I've been able to keep nightmares at bay, I'm overwhelmed with mixed emotions and have a hard time focusing on anything. 
Still, it's a familiar process.  With every novel or book I've written, I have to become a piece of work in order to get to the heart of the story. 

Recently I was asked, "How do you write a book?  I could never do that."
"I don't know how to do it," I replied.   "I just know what to do."
"What's that mean?"
"I set aside time in my planner and put myself in front of the computer, then watch and wait for whatever comes.  Typically I shoot for seven pages a day, but sometimes I'm satisfied with just one."
"How long do you write?" he asked.
I shrugged.  "Sometimes an hour.  Sometimes more.  Usually at the end of a project I can work for up to ten or twelve hours a day as I get closer to the finish line."
His eyes widened.
"I know that sounds like a lot," I smiled.  "But by then I'm almost done, so it's a relief to just keep going."  What I didn't tell him was that it's also a relief to purge whatever shadow and light has been finding shelter in the corners of my imagination.  
 Robert Frost once wrote:  No tears in the tears in the reader.  No surprise for the surprise for the reader.  With The Lace Makers, more often than not, I found myself in tears, and near the end of the first draft, more than one surprise wound its way into the story.  Many people have written to tell me about their own experience in reading the novel, some ending their emails with I wish there was more!
So today I began the research for the sequel entitled The Promised Land.  I figure by the time the book is in print, I'll have spent the better part of three years learning about and trying to embody one of the darkest parts of our world's history.  I often wonder why I've been led to delve into the Holocaust and its aftermath.  It's certainly not a topic I would have chosen on my own, nor would I recommend it.  And yet I remember something I learned during hospice training back in 2000.  One of the instructors said that those who are able to be with people during the most painful moments of their lives are the ones who have been able to fully embrace and move through their own grief and sorrow.  They know what it means to honor every difficult experience as a pathway to healing. 
In the past I'd often use work as a way to placate my pain.  Addicted to sugar and stress and caffeine, I hid myself and my emotions because I was too afraid of what it would mean to open that Pandora's Box.  Over time I've learned that to sit with myself when I'm most lonely or scared or angry or frustrated is the most compassionate thing that I can do.  Instead of contracting away from pain, I now know how to relax into let tears flow if they need to, to ask for help if necessary. 
Then I can go out into the world and help others do the same.

I've learned that any writer can only take you as far has he or she has been in their own journey or while walking with another person as they venture into theirs.  As for me, I intend to keep on hiking into the metaphoric woods where I know I'll find a host of shadows that might bring me to tears.  But if I'm blessed (and I always am), then I'll also discover the enchantment of nature that never ceases to surprise me.  Once more I'll understand how to honor the entirety of the forest of life all the while recognizing the individual tree of my own experience.   
The other morning while watering the lilac bush by the curb, one of my neighbors drove by and stopped for a moment.  Leaning out of her window she smiled, "Good morning, peaceful neighbor!"
What an incredible way to start my day. 
I'll remember her kind words as I venture back into research when summer gently melts into autumn.  Knowing that I embody tranquility for her has freed me from feeling like a piece of work so that in my home, in yoga classes, through everything I write...I can continue to work for peace.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Give it up

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
Joseph Campbell

My friend, Barb, recently retired after more than thirty years in the classroom.  In preparation for a mid-August garage sale, she's been spending an uncommon amount of time sifting and sorting an enormous amount of teaching materials, some of which I gave her during a serious "purge mode".
"I'm having a hard time knowing what to keep and what to sell," she admitted over the phone last week.  "Especially the calendar stuff."
"Oh, I know exactly what you mean," I laughed.  "It took me seven years to get rid of most of my things after I left Greenwood.  The calendar stuff was the very last to go...and YOU got that."
"Well, I'm getting it ready to give back," she replied.
"And it will go directly to my friend, Mary," I chuckled. 
We talked a bit about why calendar and daily weather activities were so enjoyable as they set the tone of the day and taught everything from reading to math to predictability and the phases of the moon.  My first graders loved that while we would talk about the calendar activities in English, eventually the weather was discussed in German.  I can still clearly remember the year when my kids learned the phrase, "Heute ist Dienstag und es gibt Regen...noch einmal!" Today is Tuesday and it's going to rain...again! For that year, it predictably rained on gym days and the kids were stuck inside instead of going out to play soccer or softball.
When my pal, Danta, was going into first grade, he was afraid to start the school year.
"Being a first grader can be scary," I told him.  "But you know, I was nervous every single first day, even when I was a teacher."
"You were?" he asked, his eyes widening.
"Yes!" I admitted.  "On the last first day of my teaching career I even threw up!"
"Uh-huh!" I nodded.  "To tell you the truth, every single day I got up and didn't want to go to school. for eleven years."
"The whole time you were a teacher?"
"Yep.  I loved to teach, but for some reason I didn't want to go to school."  I smiled and tousled Danta's hair.  "But after we started doing the calendar work, I was just fine and sailed through the rest of the day."
"School's hard sometimes," he sighed.
"Oh, I know is hard sometimes, too."

I've had time this weekend to journal and was up well past midnight writing about something that will be hard, but will eventually change my life for the better.  In order to embrace it, I have to give up a lot of what I've been holding onto for more than thirty years.  It can't be seen like all of the books and flash cards and bulletin board supplies Barb is selling in a couple of weeks.  And yet, it's cost me a lot of time and energy to keep it safely stored in the hope chest of what I thought my life was supposed to be. 
When I wrote my memoir in 2013, someone told me I was too young to write such a thing.  "Read it and then get back to me," I laughed.  For sometimes it feels as if I've lived three separate lives:  the one before I moved to California, the one while I was there, and the one I'm striving to create in the years since my return. 
Now in the process of taking a new step forward, I find I'm shuffling backwards just a bit to get a broader perspective of where I've been so that I can let go of that which no longer serves me.  I'm learning to speak up when before I've been silent, and to recognize once more that while any change can be scary, courage isn't the absence of fear, but the ability to face it without being paralyzed.  I know I'm the Queen of the Sideways Shuffle, so I'm also learning how to meet challenges head-on instead of subtly sneaking up on them from the side-line.  But it's not easy.
 Many times in the past I've asked myself, "If I give this up, who am I?" 
If I give up teaching, what's my social identity?
If I give up Esalen, where am I supposed to be?
If I give up the drama of family issues, with whom do I belong?
If I decide to take a risk and become someone's wife, do I have to let go of my independence?

I used to prefer things to be ordered and controlled.  Predictable and uncomplicated.  Perhaps this is why I loved to teach the calendar with its never-changing elements.  February always follows January.  Winter always melts into spring.   A full moon gives way to a new one...always.  The calendar was an anchor and a reflection of who I had become.  Still, I drew and colored my own whimsical headers for the months.  The patterns we used to count the days were always seasonally related (pumpkins and bats for October and snowmen and penguins for January).   Calendar time was always bright and lively and a great way to start the day.
Yet in the end, I had to give it up...and my time in the classroom as well.  For if I didn't, I knew that I'd stay frozen in what was logical and never move into the mystery and magic of the unknown.
 The other day Barb came over for lunch, bringing with her my calendar headers and the pop-up seasonal posters I had hung outside my classroom door.  It was like Christmas morning to pull them from the plastic bag and remember all of the years they had been teaching tools for my students.  
"Maybe I should keep these," I said to Barb.  "I might use them in a yoga studio someday if I teach kids' classes."
"Maybe," Barb shrugged.
Then I caught myself and laughed.  "NO!  Hurry up and put them back in the bag so I can set them aside for Mary.  They're not mine anymore and it's too much of a temptation to go backward."  November was missing, but that was no surprise, for the turkey I had drawn back in the early 90's had a flimsy neck to begin with and I'm sure that wear and tear sent him to the recycle bin.
But isn't that where all of our past should go?
While seeing my old teaching tools was a taste of nostalgia, I'm reminded that the word comes from the Greek roots "nostos" and "algos" which mean "returning home to pain."  And I'm not going to let myself walk back into bittersweet memories...not anymore.
There's a lot to be said for learning from the past.  For cleaning up old business.  For taking a personal inventory of how our history has made us who we are.  I've been there and done that more times than I can count.  Still, I chose Joseph Campbell's quote as an epigraph for my memoir and for this blog because it's a gentle invitation to continually step into the unpredictable, the mysterious, and the miraculous. 
Only then can we finally understand what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, What's past is prologue.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Be the change

I've had a hard day.   
Actually most of this week has been less than stellar.  Mid-July always brings a sense of irritation and frustration and while it's fairly uncomfortable, I'm used to it by now.  When late August arrives, I'll be back on my feet, but until then I often tell people, "My alone time is for your safety."
Summertime usually brings me respite and peace, but this year my street has been uncommonly noisy.  From the construction that started in May to Fourth of July fireworks that started in late June and continued well past the holiday, I've not been able to escape the incessant racket.   Cars drive by booming loud music.  I can hear folks in the next block yelling at each other until well after dark.  Even on the weekends, there's no respite as one of my neighbors often chooses to mow her lawn at seven o'clock in the morning.
So this evening while I was trying to write the introduction to a book I've been editing, I heard a group of kids out front yelling at each other.  Even though I had just taught a yoga class and spent some time meditating, I had had enough.  I went to the front door and shouted at the kids to stop riding their bikes up and down the asphalt and gravel piles that the city workers dumped on the curb. 
"I know I've asked you before to please stop doing that!" I said in my teacher voice.
"You only told us once," one of the girls replied.
"And this is the first time you've told me," the boy said.
There was a little sass in his voice, which only irritated me more.  "Well, I know you can hear me now, so I don't want to have to ask you again...please respect that property.  It's not safe for you to do that."
And with that I marched back into my office.
A few moments later I thought about the book I've been reading, Freedom Writer's Diary, about a group of high school kids in Long Beach, California.  I'm in awe of the awareness and incredible life circumstances some of the kids had to endure in their young lives and realized the trio outside my door might just be going through similar issues.  So I put on my gardening shoes and went outside thinking that if they were still out there, I'd talk to them in a more gentle way so they'd know that while I was serious about asking them to stay off of the construction worker's materials, I wasn't a mean old witch.  Sure enough, they were still outside, and the boy was hitting a trailer with a stick.
After calmly asking them to come into my driveway, I let them know that I care about my neighborhood and that they should as well.  "Feel free to ride your bikes on the street or the sidewalks," I said.  "But please don't mess with what doesn't belong to you.  It's not safe and it's disrespectful to others and really to yourself as well.  But if you're ever on my street and need help, you can always come knock on my door."
"Well, if we did, what should we call you?" one of the girls asked.
After we introduced ourselves, I told them, "I'm sorry for using my teacher voice...I don't like doing that anymore."
"You used to teach?" the boy asked.
"A while ago," I nodded.  "I taught fourth and sixth grade, but mostly first."
The boy told me he was going into sixth grade and the girls were going into third and fourth.  "What do you do now?" the boy asked.
"I'm a writer," I replied.  "And I was in my office working when I heard you all in the street."
"Oh...sorry," one of the girls said.  "What kind of books do you write?  I want to be a writer."
"Do you want to see them?"
They all smiled and nodded. 
"Does your mom know where you are?"
"Huh huh," the boy said.  "I have my phone."
I smiled.  "Come park your bikes in my yard so they'll be safe and have a seat on the front porch.  I'll go get some of my books."
Moments later they were all leafing through the children's yoga books and copies of The Lace Makers
"I can read that," the fourth grader said.  "My teacher says I'm on the eighth grade level."
"No kidding!"
"Yeah, and when I grow up I want to be a singer and a basketball player and a writer."  She looked at me wistfully.  "I wish I could write a book right now."
"Well, you can...when you get home, you can write whatever comes to mind."
Then the third grader regaled me on stories she had written in school and the sixth grader told me all about the four-step writing process he had learned that year.
"The writing's easy, but the editing's hard," he admitted.
"Yep...take a look at the red marks on that copy," I nodded.  "That's the one I edited before the final draft.  It was a lot of work."
"How long did it take to write?" he asked. 
"A year to research, four months to write and a month to edit."
The fourth grader's eyebrows shot up.  "That's a lot of work!"
"It's worth it when you love what you do."
One of the girls smiled.  "I'm going to go home and finish that book I wrote about how God made boys and girls."
"Yeah...and I'm going to write a book about some kids who get lost, but then find their way home," the other one beamed.
Then for about half an hour they told me stories about school, tales about their home lives, their parents, the animals they see at the park.  The boy told me about some kids in his class who can be mean.
"I can be, too," I admitted.  "You saw that tonight...and I'm glad I got to come out and let you know that I'm not really a mean old witch."
"I can be mean, too," one of the girls said.
"Oh, we all can sometimes," I replied.  "Especially when we've had a bad day.  But we can always make another choice...and I'm glad I did so we could hang out here and get to know each other."
Before they left, the trio enjoyed checking out my fairy garden, especially delighting in discovering Tinkerbell and the skunk my friend, Beth, tucked into a corner.
"If you see me outside gardening the next time you ride your bikes over here, stop by and say 'Hi' to me," I said, waving.  "I look forward to hearing about the stories you're going to write this weekend."
As the sun set and I walked back into the house, I thought of Ghandi's wise words, "We must be the change we want to see in the world."  In an often chaotic and confusing world, I'm often reminded of the things I cannot change.  I can't make the construction on my street go any faster.  I can't change the fact that summer is moving slower than a snail.  And I certainly can't change anyone's behavior or attitude or beliefs.
But I can change my own.

Even though it's been years since I left the classroom, I find that hanging out with elementary-aged kids is still a wonderful way to spend my time.  Once I changed my attitude about them being naughty children making my life miserable and saw them as a group of kids wanting to have some fun, but needing a little guidance, I was able to shift my annoyance into acceptance.  Only then could I reach out and connect with three little people who I'm certain will ride by sometime soon to sit on the porch swing and talk to their heart's content. 
And I'll be right next to them, eagerly listening, for the sound of children's voices, particularly when they're laughing or sharing their uncommon wisdom, is a healing balm that soothes my soul.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Welcome, Matt

One of my friends recently sent me an email in which he asked what's really been happening in my life this summer (outside of what he's been reading in my blogs).  I suppose Richard knows I keep many things to myself, and when there's too much time in-between Open Road posts, something's up that I'm not revealing to the public.  It's grand to have people in my life who read me very well, and even better to have them gently open the door so I can disclose things I wouldn't write about outside of my journal.  Gratitude does not begin to describe how lucky I feel to have a kindred spirit like Richard, who's also a creative writer.  I only wish he lived closer, but alas, the west coast is where he calls home while I'm still planted here in the Heartland.
Yet I'm blessed to know another fella right around the corner (well, five minutes away) who understands what it feels like to be an author all the while living within the boundaries of time, space, and numerous responsibilities.   I've known Matt for close to fifteen years.  I've known his wife, Cheri, for longer than that, and from the moment Matt joined my Saturday morning yoga class, it was as if the Universe said, "How 'bout I send you a great gift you'll get to discover over time?"  For time has proven to ripen our friendship into something better than fine wine. 
I imagine we all have friends like Matt...people you may not see as often as you'd like, but the minute you get together, it's as if no time has passed at all.  Someone who joyfully celebrates your light and fully embraces your shadow.  Matt and I are both teachers and I've been honored to be a guest speaker in his classroom, sharing my love of yoga with stressed-out teenagers who seem to magically open up the moment they're in Matt's presence.  That's no surprise, for I can't tell you how many times he's allowed me to peel back the prickly layers of who I pretend to be in order to embrace the softhearted center inside. 
We both bark our shins in trying to avoid the pitfalls of life and with our writing projects.  We struggle and fail.  We begin again and gain momentum.  We share our stories and find common ground.  Matt's lyrical and highly eloquent style is very different than mine, and yet we both write intuitively, tapping into our inner worlds with enthusiasm.  And when the well's dry, we'll meet for a walk or a cup of tea and talk about gardening, relationships, and most anything else. 
For Matt's more than a muse...he's become one of my favorite mirrors.

Last week he stopped over in the midst of the mayhem I've been living with since early May.  New gas lines are being installed in the neighborhood and I was told three months ago that the work would only take a couple of weeks.  Yet it's the middle of summer and my front yard is still torn up, the gardens are a bit jumbled, and more often than not, when it's not banging away at concrete sidewalks, a huge digger has been parked on the curb in front of my house.  Not exactly a peaceful setting for a yoga space...let alone one that allows for long stretches of silence so I can write. 
I'm fed up...but not with the work men.  They've been consistently kind and respectful.  They've tried to salvage my flower beds and have done their best to keep the destruction to a minimum.  They've been in and out of my basement so many times to check or move the gas meter, to scope out the sewer line, or to dink around doing God knows what, that I'm getting to know them by their faces, if not their names.  But I'm tired of being wakened by the sound of loud motors.  A thick layer of dirt coats every inch of my windows  and I feel trapped by the heavy machinery that trolls up and down the block.  I used to really enjoy summertime...but not this year.
So when Matt arrived on a sunny afternoon, it was heavenly to say, "Let's sit on the sun porch in the back of the house so we can watch the garden grow." 
We enjoyed an afternoon of jasmine tea and trail mix while a few of the utility workers moved my gas meter from the basement to the north side of the house.  While they buzzed and drilled and tore another hole in my yard, Matt and I talked about everything from which perennials are best to plant in the shade to the ins and outs of a natal astrology chart.  As always, time slipped by effortlessly, and before I knew it four o'clock had rolled around. 
"Thanks for sticking around while the guys were here," I smiled.
"No problem," Matt replied.
"Do you know this is the first time in nearly twenty-five years that I've had a man around the house while work was being done?"
"You want me to make sure they did their job right?"
"'s just nice having you here so I didn't have to listen to it all by myself."
Matt hugged me good-bye.  "Any time."
I imagine he knows me well enough by now that what I really wanted to say was, "Thanks for being the man of the house so I didn't have to...again."
For Matt knows all about my history and often asks questions that invite me to appreciate just how far I've come, especially in the past year.  He's kind and compassionate and earnestly aware of how his own life's journey is evolving as well.  Even though we're two very different people, Matt and I share a love of language and the joy that comes from spending time alone honing the perfect paragraph (if there is such a thing).  And it's always amazing to read what he's written and turn the kaleidoscope in my mind so that I can see something from his perspective. 
In the days following Matt's visit, I realize that it's more than the construction that's jostling my nervous system.  For when he was here I didn't have to be hyper-aware of the slow and steady changes my neighborhood has been experiencing in the past several years.  It's not that I don't feel safe living here on most days, but I've seen and heard enough to know that, although I love my little house dearly, it's time to get ready to move on. 
"Oh, you can't go, Kate," one of the fellas up the street said when I told him I'm planning to leave within the next year or so.  "You've been a great neighborhood watch dog."
I thought, Well, I'm dog tired after being vigilant and proactive for more than fifteen years.  Let someone else do it
To be honest, I'd now rather live in a place where I can wave to my nearest neighbor from half an acre away.  Unlike most people, the older I get, I'm less set in my ways.  But I'm also becoming more fiercely protective of my privacy...which is why I've been looking at properties in Berkey and Whitehouse and Waterville, places on the outskirts of town with modest-sized houses on larger plots of land.  In the past I've wanted to escape my hometown, yet now I find that northwest Ohio is the home of people I dearly love, so there's no reason to abandon a place which has given me strong roots and opportunities to grow my own wings. 
I love the change of seasons, the fresh water lakes, the farmers' endless golden fields in the fall.  So I don't need to run away...I just need to run toward something more peaceful and nurturing.  Spending time with friends this summer only reiterates my desire to do so...and has lit a fire deep inside that motivates me to make that yearning a reality.
I'm sure when I finally find a new place to call home, Matt will always be welcome to join me on the porch for glass of lavender lemonade and lovely conversation.  In fact, I imagine that when the time comes, he'll already be there with Cheri, helping me unpack my things as we celebrate a joyful harvest whose seeds were planted on the afternoon we shared some jasmine tea and talked about the hope of new beginnings.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Kitten for rent

          Kitten season is well upon us with hundreds of little ones needing forever homes in northwest Ohio.  A couple of summers ago I adopted a little sprite I named Aditi and let me tell you...if she were my first kitten, she would have been the last.  Her never-ending shenanigans were notorious for the first year and half, but she's turned out to be a most wonderful adult.  So hang in there new pet owners!  Kittenhood doesn't last for long.
          And if you're lucky, you'll end up with a cat who just might melt your heart...and can write a funny little blog, too!

Kitten for rent
Originally published on January 31, 2014

Hi, I'm Aditi!  My mom is beat after a long week of 18 hour days in her office so she asked me to write this week-end's blog.  I'm pretty young and can't get the hang of this keyboard, so let me be brief:

Kitten for Rent

Cute and feisty black, short hair kitten for rent.
For an hour.
For a day.
For a week.
Rates are variable, depending on length of stay.

Mom says to make sure you know the following guidelines:
1.  I like to jump into things like full laundry baskets, garbage cans, a sink.  I even tried to get into the oven once when she was baking cookies.
2.  I like to escape out of open doors, so you have to come and go quickly!  Who cares if it's minus seven degrees outside!  There were snow drifts to climb and I have a built-in fur coat.
3.  I can teach your other pets things like how to open the dryer door and climb on the precarious edges of cornices. 
4.  I eat like a horse and complain mightily if I don't get fed on time.  My specialty is chewing computer cords until Mom gives up and gets out the catnip so I'll take a nap.
5.  I am an insatiable playmate and will keep you up until all hours of the night as I gallop through your house.
6.  I don't sleep through the night.  Well...that's not entirely true.  Since Mom brought me home last July, I slept through the night FOUR times!  
7.  I am extremely curious.  Mom says I must be on my seventh life by now.
8.  I'm a real handful, but lots of fun.  I love to cuddle when I'm tired, but when I'm not, look out!
9.  Dog owners: I met my first dog this week and while I was startled at first, I wasn't too intimidated to corner him in the basement and wouldn't let him up the stairs.  He was six times bigger than me, but what does that matter?  I can hold my own...always.

Mom says that rates are variable, but she'll pay you whatever you want at this point.  All she wants is good night's sleep.  She thinks I'll grow out of it as I get bigger.  Tee hee!  Little does she know my biorhythms don't work that way.  I love the night life.
Oh she comes!  What's that, Mom?  Oh...sorry, but she says to scrap the whole thing 'cause she'd miss me too much.  I think she knows I'm "Kate in a Kitten Suit" and the result of her mother saying, "Oh, how I wish you'll have a daughter like you someday."
Isn't karma great?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Dear Aunt Kate

July 13, 2015

Dear Aunt Kate,

Mom says this letter is well over-due, so I spent the weekend learning how to use the keyboard on her computer.  My brother and sisters have already written blogs of their own, and I suppose it's my turn this summer.  It's hard to believe that over seven years have gone by since I stayed with you while Mom lived in Big Sur!  I was just a shy, little sprite back then.  I'm still shy, but I'm the oldest cat around here now...and that comes with some perks.

A new kitten, Aditi, arrived a couple of years ago and she's such a pest!  A cute one to be sure, but I still have to put her in her place, reminding her of who is top cat.  Even right now, she's hanging on out the computer table, making my job that much more difficult by swishing her tail onto the keyboard.  Still, she is very playful and has reminded me that anything and everything can be a plaything.  Even though I share my treats with her, she still bosses her way into my private apartment on the second floor of the linen closet and steals my food.  Oh well, that's the youngest child for you...always getting what she wants.  Even so, Mom makes sure to shut the door so I can have my privacy, especially when yoga students arrive.

This summer I spend most of my days watching the diggers and other heavy equipment outside on the front lawn.  It kind of reminds me of all the hours I sat in your apartment window, watching the cars go by.  Mom says the gas lines are being replaced in our neighborhood, so there's lots to see and hear from seven in the morning until well after five some days.  With all the rain we've been having, they work overtime, and so do I, silently supervising from the picture window and alerting Mom if someone's on the front porch about to ask to get into the basement for the umpteenth time. 

You'd be surprised at how much I've learned to talk, too.  I chatter.  I beg.  I whine.  I meow.  I've even learned how to say, "hello," thanks to my sister, Jhoti, who just started speaking English last year.  It still surprises us all when she hollers, "Hello!  Mom!"  And when we had to go to the vet for our annual check up last winter, all the way there she moaned, "No!  No!  NO!"  Jhoti won't speak on command (what cat will do anything on command?), so unless someone's here at an opportune moment, they miss Jhoti's verbal prowess.  But I can vouch for it myself.  She woke us up the other night howling for Mom when she knew darn well we were sleeping and that breakfast would not arrive until after sunrise.  

Mom says to tell you Carley's garden is growing beautifully this year.  And she says to thank you again for all the wonderful care you gave her while she was away.  If not for you and Dr. Barden, our amazing vet, Mom wouldn't have had time to share with her once she moved back from California.  I hear her tell the story about how you called on a sunny Sunday to let her know Carley was sick. She always says how compassionate you were when she felt helpless, being so far away and not knowing what to do.  Pet sitting can be fun, but it's often a challenge, and it was on that day you truly became Carley's surrogate mother.  

It's too bad that there's Mother's Day and Father's Day, but no Aunt's Day, so I've decided that when your August birthday rolls around, I'll be celebrating twice.  Once to be thankful you were born...and again because you kept me safe and sound while my mom was away.  Everyone should be so lucky to have such a kind and caring pet sitter and pal like you.  


Here's a recent picture of Jhoti and me.  I've learned that black cats make the best sisters!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sister Catherine kicks the habit

          While on a quick jaunt at the Home Depot to pick up some paint, the man behind the counter overheard a conversation I was having with a young girl.  She was giving her mother a hard time while we were waiting for our paint to mix, so I cajoled her into telling me all about the color she had just chosen that would soon grace the walls of her bedroom.
"I really want pink, but I have to get purple," the girl said glumly.
"Purple's more soothing," replied her mother.  "You'll calm down and sleep better."
I nodded.  "My bedroom was a cool green when I little."
"Green's my favorite color!" the girl piped up.
"Mine, too!"  After discovering she was heading into second grade, I winked at her.  "I used to teach first graders!"
"Yep," I nodded. "And my aunt was a teacher, too...she even had a purple bathtub in her classroom where the kids could curl up and read."            
The man behind the counter handed me my can of paint along with a couple of small stirring sticks.  "Good luck with your project," he said.  "And since I hear you're a teacher, take one of these."  He handed me a longer stick.  "Just in case you need to use it."
It took me a moment to realize what he meant, then I shook my head and frowned.  "Oh, I'd never use this on my kids!"
He grinned.  "Well, maybe for your husband then."
I just laughed and wished the girl and her mother good luck with her new room.
As I walked away I thought about all the challenging situations I've had to deal with this week, the businesses who have been less than professional, the neighbors who have shot off fireworks until my nerves were shot.  In another lifetime I might have channeled a nasty nun wielding a ruler like the ones in my friends' horror stories, but these days I'm finding there are better ways to express myself. 

When I was a Senior I was voted second most likely to become a nun...and I'm not even Catholic.  There were days when I couldn't walk down the halls of Bowsher High School without being called Sister Catherine at least once.  I was a square, a bookworm, and the person everyone wanted as their study partner the night before an English exam.  And even though I had friends who were boys, I never had a boyfriend.  Still, I did hide myself in loose clothes that resembled a habit:  tent dresses or jumpers or baggy Forenza sweaters...and I suppose nobody wanted to date a girl who wore stuff like that.
 As the resident goody-goody, I went to church every Sunday and taught Bible School in the summer.  I sang in the choir and attended Youth Group every week.  In private I could be a hellion in the first degree, but to the world at large I tried to live up to what most people thought of me and never raised my voice, never started an argument, was always agreeable, deferring to the needs and desires of others.
As a teacher I tried to set a good example for my kids.  I modulated my voice, modeled kind behavior, and always used good manners.  And yet, after eleven years in the classroom, it was getting increasingly more difficult to set the real Kate aside every time I stood up as Miss Ingersoll in front of my kids.  I never faked it, but I often pretended away who I really was out of the necessity of decorum or responsibility.  Once I started taking better care of myself, everything eventually changed.  It was time to hang up my denim jumpers (yes, I was still wearing them) and dive into an unknown existence as a writer and yoga instructor.
When I started teaching yoga in 1999, I was often introduced to people thus:  "This is Kate my guru" or "This is Kate...she does yoga!"  Yoga wasn't the hot commodity it is today and I was regularly considered to be a nut or a novelty by people who didn't know me very well.  But those who did lovingly said, "It's nice to know you do yoga, but also have problems like the rest of us."  
"Oh, yes," I'd reply.  "Yoga gave me a whole new way of being."
But as I've mentioned in other blogs, there are still those who think that because I've been practicing for so long, because I'm a vegan, or because I meditate, I should always be peaceful, always loving, always kind and gentle and forgiving.  I might not be called Sister Catherine anymore, but Yoga Kate can still carry the same connotation.
Well, if those folks lived with me for a week, they'd be in for a big surprise.

This summer I'm revisiting the wonderful BBC series "Call the Midwife."  Set in an Anglican nunnery in the late 1950's, this delightful show blends the lives of bright-eyed young women and seasoned sisters of the cloth who work side by side delivering babies all over the Poplar district in London.  While I admire Sister Julienne, the calm, cool, and collected mother superior, my favorite character is salty Sister Evangelina who tells it like it is and whose bawdy antics often make me laugh until my sides hurt.
She's seen enough to know how to relate to the poor in her district, but is never at a loss for words or kindness in the face of adversity.  I'm not so sure Sister Evangelina would slap someone with a ruler, but she's hit the mark with many of her acerbic comments that tell the truth yet also try to mask her tender heart.  No wonder I perk up every time she's in a scene, for I've finally figured out that's not the only thing we have in common. 
I may not wear a habit, but I've had a bad habit of keeping my deepest feelings hidden, particularly the ones that are the most vulnerable or uncomfortable.  It's only been in recent months that I can be honest with myself about how I really feel in the moment without trying to minimize or justify it...and sharing my feelings with others has certainly taken some practice.  Somehow it doesn't matter what's going on in my heart.   My head always wants to take over so it can analyze and proselytize and compromise by short-changing my emotions through intellect. 
These days it never works for long...and I'm infinitely thankful that I no longer wish to "yoga" or "meditate" my feelings away.  Those can be wonderful tools in helping me move through them, but I've learned that pushing something aside instead of really seeing it for what it is and how it can open me up is simply another form of denial.
And I've denied myself enough for a dozen lifetimes. 

A couple of weeks ago I dreamt that I was getting ready to go out to dinner with a man who was waiting in my living room.  It's not like me at all to be late for anything...or to be unprepared while someone else has to bide their time.  So as I hurriedly searched through my closet for something to match the denim jumper I was wearing, I hastily snatched a green fleece vest from its hanger.  It was much too large, so I walked out to give it to Mr. Dinner Date.
"Do you want this?" I asked.  "It's too big for me now."
He tried it on and it fit perfectly.  "It's summertime," he said.  "I don't know when I'd wear it."
"You could save for when you go running this winter," I suggested.
He smiled.  "Okay." 
I headed back to my bedroom and tried on a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, then caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  "Oh, man!" I sighed, looking down at my clothes.  "I look just like a nun!  I don't wear stuff like this anymore!"  Without hesitation I tossed the blouse and jumper on the floor and slipped on a pair of straight-leg jeans, a tank top, and a green and blue gauzy top.
When I woke up moments later, the dream wasn't lost on me at all.  I do tend to keep the best of my emotions close to the vest, and now they've grown too big for me to keep for just myself.  Perhaps by sharing them with another, I might just find the right fit.  Mr. Dinner Date may turn out to be the male version of Cinderella, but instead of donning a glass slipper, he might be running around this winter, warm and well-loved.
In any case, I find that all these years later, I'm still peeling off the layers of modest, yet outdated Sister Catherine, kicking the old habit of keeping my feelings hidden, and wondering where all of this might lead.  And yet, an endearing conversation from "Shakespeare in Love" keeps echoing in my head, one that reminds me of the often-bumpy road-less-traveled that I've traversed for more than fifteen years.
Theater owner Philip Henslowe tells his benefactor, "Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about theater business.  The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster."
Mr. Fennyman asks, "So what do we do?"
"Nothing," Henslowe replies.  "Strangely enough, it all turns out well."
"I don't's a mystery."       

Monday, July 6, 2015

This old house

What a lovely stretch of weather we've been having in my hometown this week.  After nearly two months of practically non-stop rainfall, I thought we had been magically transported to the Pacific northwest, but alas...five days in a row of sunshine and moderate temps finally gave me the chance to repair a leaky window frame on my sun porch.  So last Friday I pulled out my trusty caulk knife and got to work.  Unfortunately the job turned out to be a lot more work that I thought, for as I pulled back the old grout, a huge chunk of the wood frame came with it. In fact, the more I poked the rotten wood, the more it crumbled onto the sill like a stale brownie. 
My first thought was How long has this been rotting?
My second thought was  Where's Norm Abram when you need him?
But then I did what I always do and found a YouTube video that showed me how to repair dry rot and got to work.  Pronto.

When I was a kid, rainy Sunday afternoons were filled with PBS "how to" shows, and my favorite was This Old House.  Each week I marveled at how Norm and his crew could renovate and repair even the hairiest of horrors an ancient abode could dish up.  Mind you, I had no desire to learn how to do any of it myself.  It was just a heck of a lot of fun to watch the pros at work.  Maybe that's how people feel when they watch me knit a pair of socks and say, "I could never do that!"
Yet since I became a home owner, I've had the furnace and air conditioning replaced (after the old one caught on fire while I was hostessing a baby shower), put in new windows (as the old casements leaked cold air and rainwater), a new roof (the old one was rotting beyond repair), refinished the hardwood floors (which were hidden treasures beneath the carpeting I had laid that Labor Day weekend in 1991), and redecorated every single room in the house at least three times. 
It's been a heck of a lot of work, but I'm proud to say I've learned a lot in the process...and not just about home repair.
While I never imagined I would live here almost twenty-five years (and have tried to escape a time or two), my home has been a touchstone as I have traversed the precarious canyon from early adulthood to middle age.   For the initial decade, it was an anchor to the past and all the things I thought I should be.  I attended a church closer to my house and joined the choir, as well as various other committees.  When I watched most of my friends get married, I sank my roots deeply into creating a nest of my own.  When they started having babies, I volunteered as a nursery nanny at Toledo Hospital where I rocked newborns on Monday nights, fulfilling my need to love and nurture something outside of myself. 
In the second decade, the stability of the house provided a platform from which to jump into the unknown.  When I realized I would need to leave teaching if I were to ever create a healthy family, the house provided a sanctuary for me to build a yoga business.  Here I have written six novels, six children’s books, and countless blogs and articles.  Here I have painstakingly taken myself apart and meticulously put myself back together again.  And have done so more than once.
In 2008, when my heart was set on moving to Big Sur, I put the house on the market and left in April of that year, never anticipating the devastating financial crash that was soon to follow.  In the hopes of ridding myself of all ties to my past, I lowered the price on the house twice, then hit my limit.  At that time, I prayed for someone, anyone, to come along and relieve me of what I considered to be a tremendous albatross.  My friend, Yvonne, recently revealed that during the year I was gone, she earnestly prayed my house would not sell, that I didn't seem fully content and happy to be in California. 
I'm glad that she knows me so well, and even more so, overjoyed that Yvonne's prayers were answered instead of mine.

I imagine the many incarnations my home and gardens have encountered are actually reflections of my inner growth, the struggles I have encountered, the new colors I have learned to paint with, both internally and externally.  Each room has been gleaned of its excess and honed until it personifies a season.  My bedroom is winter into spring with its warm and cool colors blended effortlessly with undertones of green.  In my dining room, I painted the cornices with wildflowers and decorated it with things that represent the renewal of springtime.  The office and connected sun porch reflect summertime with their bright yellow walls and white curtains.  My favorite season, autumn, is echoed in the living room where earthy colors are anchored by a beautiful pine wood floor, a gift of the original owner.
Through all these years my home and surrounding gardens have been the constants in my life, the longest commitments I have ever made and kept.  They have been peaceful companions as I have made the slow, steady transition from school teacher to yoga instructor to novelist to writer.  They have witnessed every tear and triumph, every fit of anger and rage of fear.  As the house is sixty-five years old, it's caused me grief and pushed me to my financial limits, but it's also challenged me to be always mindful of my continual evolution. 
And always,  it has been both a respite and an incredibly peaceful sanctuary.

A few summers ago I walked up the stairs from the basement and when I reached the kitchen, I stood in awe, realizing that this home is truly mine.  Everything in it belongs to me.  Every room, every object, every memory.  This house and all the growth that surrounds it are touchstones and symbols of myself.  For it is within the safe haven of these walls that I continually learn to embrace the life I have been given. 
The longer I live here, the more beautiful the gardens, the more comforting the rooms.  Still, I have grown less attached to the tangible nature of my house.  Its structure is simply the foundation, but my spirit has been the transforming element, the gardener, the decorator, and the inherent nurturer.  And with this discovery has come the joyful awareness that I have the ability to create a home wherever I might live in the future.
One day this old house will belong to another, and when it does, I pray that whoever lives within these walls will feel safe enough, as I have, to tell their own story and to tell it well.

No...this isn't my old house, but it's just as charming!