Friday, May 16, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

This post is being written as part of Finish the Sentence Fridays.  The prompt was "The nicest thing someone ever did for me..."

The first thing that popped into my head was the coffee shop owner who paid for my latte when I came into his cafe, dripping wet and counting change onto the counter.  I was dripping wet because I'd walked into town in the January rain without a raincoat.  I was counting change because all I'd brought into town was a pocketful of change, since my errand was to get the local newspapers to look for my mom's obituary.  He didn't know I was recently and deeply bereaved; he just knew I was damp, in need of caffeine, and flustered to be short on cash.  Many people were kind to me during that brutal winter; his act sticks with me because he didn't know how desperately I needed kindness right then, but he was kind anyway.

This reminds me of a more light-hearted kindness-of-strangers story.  In 1992, one of my best friends and I were volunteer English teachers in newly independent Latvia.  It was literally months after the Soviet Union had disbanded; Soviet troops were still in place and Soviet culture permeated society.  It was explained to us that the public surliness of the people was a result of state intrusion into every aspect of life--your personal boundary extended only as far as your own skin, so people guarded that boundary with scowls and gruffness.  We were both placed in small villages where we were able to make some great friends, but the first month was slow going.   Eager for company and conversation, we both made a weekend trip to the capital city so we could spend some time together.

Before she left home, Carla had been given the name and address of a young Latvian woman whose great-aunt she had met briefly in St. Louis.  The address was on a major street in Riga.  We tromped along one wintery day in search of the girl's apartment.  We'd walked about a mile, and were getting very close to the right address, when we came upon a fenced in construction site.  We were about to pass it by when Carla noticed there was a sort of large window cut into the fence, and someone was calmly climbing through it.  "I wonder if the apartment is back there!" she said, so we peeked through.  Yep, beyond the bumpy frozen mud of the fenced in lot was a five story apartment building, number 103, just like on the index card clutched between Carla's gloved fingers.  So we looked around, chuckled, and climbed through the fence.

After skirting the empty lot (nothing was ever built there; eventually the fence came down and grass grew back over the lumpy dirt), we discovered that the apartment building had two doors, both of which were locked.  We approached a woman who was leaving through one doorway and showed her the address.  She was startled to realize we spoke neither Russian nor Latvian, but indicated that the apartment we were seeking was behind the other set of doors.  She trudged across the snow with us and rang the bell.  No response.  We started to shrug and thank her, but she wasn't about to desert the helpless foreigners just yet.  She scooped up a snowball and chucked it at one of the 2nd story windows.  No response.  She tried again.  This time someone came to the window and groused down at her.  She called out an explanation of our situation, and the person buzzed us in to the building.  We scrambled in, trying to thank her before the doors locked again.  She smiled, waved, and clambered through the fence to the street beyond.  We walked up the stairs and knocked on the door of someone who would become a life long friend to both of us.  We never saw her neighbor again, but we spoke of her kindness often.
The pretty, renovated part of Riga.  Image from

But Riga of 1992 looked more like this (just imagine it with snow and frozen mud).  Image from

These stories are far from each other in time and space  One memory makes me chuckle; one makes me want to weep.  Still, they prove the same point.  When life yanks the rug out from under you--no more mom, no common language, no whatever it is you didn't realize you counted on until it was suddenly gone--that is when a simple act of kindness becomes an unforgettable gift. It is so hard to write about without sounding unbelievably corny, but there it is, so yes, pay it forward.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Just Clean Something

So I read this brilliant woman's blog last night.  And I decided that I, too, need to challenge myself to clean something each day for a month.  I know myself well enough to know that if I wait for June 1, I'll forget all about it, so I started last night.  Each day for a month, I will clean something.  Anything.  Just...clean something.  (You gotta love a project that names itself so clearly.)

Here are my rules:  washing dishes, doing laundry, and taking out the trash don't count.  If the kids have a job and I take over get suckered into helping facilitate, that doesn't count.  If I get on a roll (hey, it's happened) and clean MORE THAN ONE THING in one day, I don't get to give myself credit towards future days.  Organizing counts, but decorating doesn't. 

Last night I cleaned out the equivalent of the kitchen junk drawer that's in the hutch.  Tossed a few items, found a few things to donate, and amazed my kids with a box of slides.  "Wow, these are so cool!"  Also discovered that I have more blank cards, return address labels, and stamps than I knew.  So that's handy. 

It occurs to me that in the past couple of weeks, I've written a post based on #BanBusy, finished a sentence for #FTSF, and now here I am trying to #JustCleanSomething.  What's up with that?  Part of it is that having a topic, a writing assignment in a way, is helping me to focus on my writing.  Or--I just read Seth Godin's Tribes--maybe I'm looking for a Tribe. 

Okay, it's Mother's Day, and my kids seem to want my attention.  Off I go. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Every Day

Dear Mom,
Well.  This might be hard.  I've thought about you daily since you died just over 3 years ago, but unlike Daddy, I haven't talked directly to you.  He used to lay in bed and chat with you at the end of the day.  Peg once asked him, "Where is she when you're talking to her?" and he rather sheepishly replied, "Well, I usually look up towards that air vent in the ceiling."

And now he's gone too, and I try to convince myself that the pair of hummingbirds I saw outside my kitchen window, flitting around the winter-bare apple tree, was the universe's way of assuring me you are together again.

How often do I hear your words coming out of my mouth?  I can even feel my face and body arrange themselves into your patterns.  When Linden mastered riding her bike, I was laughing with delight, and I was rocketed back to memories of your face, filled with joy and pride, laughing your love for me.

I also do a lot of "My mom always said..."  I had no curfew in high school because my mom  always said, "They won't do anything after midnight they couldn't find a way of doing before midnight."  If someone says, "Trust me!" I reply, "My mom always told my dad, 'The last time you said that, we had twins.'"  Oak will take a deep breath when something is missing and say, "We know it didn't grow legs and walk off," and I am awed that this child who never met you has picked up on your phrases.  It makes me wonder how many generations back some of the words and gestures go.

We have no pictures of you in our home.  Your ferocious love for me left no room for my husband, and after one too many times of you exclaiming, "Wendy's here!" when the two of us walked through the door, he stopped wanting to come along.  You hurt some deeply vulnerable place inside of him.  I blame his mother, that last 2% of love she held back from him, but I refrain from saying so.  That's a relationship we both have to maintain.  Our relationship with you is more easily navigated, what with you being dead now.  So I have honored his wish to not be confronted by your face at every turn.  A silhouette of you rowing my big sister in a lake by Mt. Hood is the only photo on our walls.  But I have pictures of you in my classroom and tucked into my desk at home.  Even without those, mementos are everywhere.

In this room alone, there's the piano you and I picked out together after you sold the baby grand when you downsized, the rocking chair you salvaged and kept at the beach cabin, two of your fabric art pieces (one abstract in colors I love, one a 3D wall hanging of Multnomah Falls), your hutch, holding your mismatched china, your clock on the mantel next to the pottery candlestick you made in our backyard kiln...And in the same way my heart melts to hear my son using your sayings, I was moved to notice that when my daughter picked out the dishes for her birthday dinner, she decisively chose only the ones that had been yours, rather than a single one I'd received from my sister or chosen on my own.  They are not your biological grandchildren, but they come from your father's homeland, and they are like you in surprising ways.

I miss you.  Can you hear that, through my chatter?  I wish constantly to be able to talk to you again.  You were always so interested in what I had to say.  It's embarrassing to admit how much I enjoyed that about you.  But I also loved to hear what you had to say.  You were so reflective and wise.  You never apologized for your temper when we were growing up, but in later conversations, you told me about how frightened you were sometimes, how little you understood your own mood swings.  You told me about your own childhood, your own relationship with your parents, what it was like being a young wife and mother in the 1950s.  There are so many ways I am nothing like you.  There are so many ways I am just like you.  When my husband expresses humble awe at my ability to organize the car for a camping trip, I know this is something I learned from you without you even meaning to teach me.  Every plant I name along a hiking trail makes me think of you. 

Every time I let my kids lick out the bowl, which I purposely have left extra batter in, I think of you.

Every time I sew a little repair, I think of you.

Every time I pick a bouquet, put it in a vase, then say, "There.  I cleaned house." 

Every time I yell until my children cringe.

Every time I burst into laughter.

Every time I take a temperature.

Every time I make biscuits.

Every day.
Every day.

I love you.
love, Wendy

I wrote this as part of #FTSF (Finish the Sentence Friday.)  I have no idea what I'm doing, but I think I can figure out how to link up.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hello, I love you.

So here's this week's journal prompt from Alissa at Creative with Kids.

FOCUS: If  you could choose five things your children would say when they are grown, about you in their childhood, what would they be? If you could only make four of those statement happen, which one would you discard? If you could only ensure three of the statements…?  Do this until you have one statement – if you could choose one statement that you hope your children will make about their childhood, what would it be? What is one thing you can do this week to support that statement?

And here is my response.  

1.  Mom used to freak out and do shitty things when we first came home, but then she got some counseling, started taking anti depressants, learned how to control herself, and mellowed out a bunch, thus showing me that people can change, that she loved us enough to change, and that counseling might be a good thing to try if I feel like I'm messing up my life. 
2.  I always knew how much she loved me.
3.  She really listened to me.
4.  I learned so many good and useful things from her, even when she wasn’t trying to teach me directly.
5.  My life long love of both reading and the outdoors come from her. 

I didn’t have to go through the crossing out exercise—it was obvious which one is most important to me.  (Well, the first one is pretty important too, but it seems to be a subpoint of the main idea.) To know you are loved--isn't that what we all need from our parents?  It smooths over so much messiness and human error.  It sets you up to love others, and to differentiate between actual love and any false copies you are offered.  

And let's be honest--I'm hoping that if they can just understand that I love them, they will be able to forgive me for the rest of it.  The "being human" part, and the "things I'm ashamed of" part, and the "things I never even realized I was doing wrong" part and the "things I should have done instead" part.  The absolute certainty that my parents loved me sure helped me deal with the mistakes they made.  

So what can I do to make sure they know?  One thing I’d like to focus on this week is greetings.  Me coming home.  Them coming home.  When they walk into the room I'm in.  Whenever and however we come together after separation, I want them to see me light up.  I know what a gift it was for me as a grown woman, knowing that my parents still lit up whenever they saw me.  It's one of the sorrows of them dying.  Nobody, not even my husband, sisters, or kids, can ever respond to me in quite that way.  I want my kids to have that same sense that their very existence brings me joy.   

Don’t focus on getting my coat hung up first.   

Don’t focus on the dishes I’m working on.  

Don't wade into the management of the evening or scolding about the mess or getting out of these damn shoes.  

 Stop everything and let my delight in my children shine directly at them for a moment.  

It's tempting to add to this, to plan more bedtime snuggles, and focused attention when they tell me about things like Clash of Clans or 1st grade micropolitics,  and asking interesting questions about their day...but I'm still busy banning busy, so I'm not going to overthink  or overplan.  Just...greetings.  

I'm so glad to see you.

Let me give you a hug.

Oh, I've missed you today.

Hi, sweetie!  

Hey there honey, what can I help you with?  

Yay!  You're home!

Look who's here!

And running through all of it, like light shining on water:
I love you.  I love you.  I love you. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Two birds; one stone.

I am on to something here.

I was outside puttering around.  You can't really call it gardening.  I like flowers, but I like Monet and Annie Lamott too, and I'm neither an impressionist painter nor a hilarious philosopher/novelist.  Still, we have a yard, and I occasionally (usually about this time of year) feel moved to do a little something constructive in it.  It's not a strong enough urge to get all the grass and weeds pulled, and it's long gone by July, but in springtime I'll just pause to pull one dandelion, and the next thing you know, an hour has passed and whatever I happened to be wearing (usually something one wouldn't want stained with mud, since I wasn't actually planning on gardening) is stained with mud. 
An iris and a clover/moss yard.

The kids and the neighbor girl invented a game they could play with my while I faux-gardened.  They would sneak around the house and try to get close to me.  If I saw one of them, I called out, "I see Linden!" or whomever, and that kid had to freeze.  Another kid could unfreeze them, but if I saw all three kids at once (which happened about 98% of the time, because strategy is not their strong suit), I counted to 10 while they hid again.  Since my gardening pattern is to pull weeds until I get bored (about 52 seconds) and then wander off to another place until a different weedfest caught my eye, my movements were unpredictable enough to make it challenging.   They thought it was great fun, and basically all I had to do was yell out names from time to time.  They didn't even notice when I came inside, and kept chasing each other around the house for another ten minutes, shrieking every time they thought they saw me.

So basically, I got to faux-parent while I faux-gardened.  This is what is called a win-win, people. 

Win-win is an annoying piece of jargon, but if you think about it, the saying about killing two birds with one stone is rather disturbing.