Tears?

My bike ride starts with the same admonishment my mom had when I was growing up: “be home before dark!” I have left it late in the day to get started. I let the traffic lights determine if I go right or straight. The light is green, so I go straight – straight into a nearby hill: Communication Hill. At the top there are mysterious metal frames with small dishes and antennae pointed at all corners of San Jose. Underneath the towers KB Construction has built and is continuing to build a small town on the hill. Of course they forgot to build any amenities, so it’s street after street of condominiums piled on top of each other and piled on top of this hill.

It’s a good biking hill for me. I’m not great with anything over a 6% grade and this one is a comfortable 5%. My mind wanders. I start checking out the long lines of cars parked on the side of the road. Almost automatically, I check out which ones have been moved recently and which ones have leaves and debris collecting under their wheels. Then I remember. It’s been over a year. Over a year since we all parked our cars and the street sweeping stopped. A year since the cops no longer cared that you kept your car parked in the same place for over three days.

Our lives wrenched into a new gear. At first we all walked and avoided each other with distance. Later on the ones that hadn’t already done so added masks. I lived in a heavily Asian town at the time and masks were an easy transition for folks coming from areas that had more experience with pandemics. We non-Asians had so much to learn!

We gave up hugs, hand shakes, eating inside with friends. Heck, we gave up meeting most friends altogether and the few we risked it with we thought long and hard about their health safety protocols. Some people chose to close their doors and seal themselves away like modern day hermits and cloistered nuns. Food was delivered to a door. If it wasn’t their roof over their head, they just didn’t go. It’s how I discovered that so many people I know have dangerous health conditions they live with – but without fanfare.

Joe and I had no pressing health concerns other than age. We chose a middle ground and ventured to Safeway. There I broke social norms by chatting to other people in the line – yes, you can still chat through masks and separated by 6′. We made our acquaintances with the door guard who had a mask from Cape Verde. We have a few people over on our one year wedding anniversary. Lots of extra cutlery to avoid sharing – and held outside. That was it.

Eventually I ventured to the YMCA. Outside workouts were surprisingly enjoyable. And even socially distant and masked spin classes had a lovely camaraderie.

Outside Spin Class at the Y – One way to see the sunrise!

A few days ago, the state opened up vaccinations for people my age. I jumped online and got an appointment the very first day I could. I drove up to a huge stadium, parked where folks used to park for the nearby amusement park, now standing empty and silent. I joined the stream of people headed towards the stadium – and tears started rolling. I held back sobs. I hadn’t realized how much I missed my previous life. How important friends, family and hugs were. My responsible adult had been in charge for so long that the ‘should’ had taken over my life. Walking across the tarmac, through the socially distanced lines for bag checks, health checks, paperwork filling, registration checks, up escalators to the area where shots were being given and finally directed to seat 13 where the national guardsman in scrubs kept holding out tissue boxes for me, the tears were hard to keep back. I told anyone who would listen how moved I was by this huge government effort to get us all safe again. And most of all how I missed hugging my mom.

It’s hard to show smiles behind a mask.

If it’s been a hard year for me, for her it has been excruciating. She spends all her days in bed. To a certain extend she’s waiting to die. And I’m dreading the day she doesn’t call me 4 times telling me how bored she is and making up issues to worry about. Somehow the small sin of passing cups of hot tea to her under the plexiglass barrier is no replacement for a the human touch.

And I am not alone. On Sundays after Zoom service, we can join breakout rooms to chat. I share my vaccination story and a grandmother shares how she plans to go and visit a young grandchild all the way across the country. She was a powerful executive in tech and has been president of the church board – and she, too, pulls out tissues and wipes back tears. We are all holding it together with willpower and social responsibility. Seeing a glimmer of light at the end of this dark tunnel shows us how much we gave up – and what we so want to have back again.

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Italian Bread Recipe for Anna

A few years ago, Joe and I visited Italy and became fascinated with the frequency that we had amazing bread at each and every restaurant we ate at from Costiera Amalfitana to Florence. Since our trip, every restaurant visit is evaluated on the following criteria: “On the basis of bread alone, is the restaurant any good?” And so far, it’s proved to be a reliable scale. If the bread is good, so is the food. Stale or indifferent bread means that the quality of the restaurant is a crap shoot.

When I came home, I researched the reason that standard Italian bread was so lovely. And I found this amazing Italian bread recipe – which I have now lost the link to.

However, repetition means that enough of the process remains so that I thought I’d recreate it for Anna. Anna is married to an Italian and lives in Silicon Valley. I’m sure that he would like to have a quality crunchy crusted loaf of his homeland.

How I started making bread

My bread making journey started in earnest with a bread machine I bought when the children were young. Over time, I found that bread makers assumed that the ingredients and their interactions were standard. The reality is that bread making comes under the category of variable cooking. Is your flour dry? Is your yeast newly bought or, like mine, a warrior of my cupboard and long past it’s sell by date? What time of year is it? Bread develops more quickly in summer and languishes in winter.

When I moved to the farm in South Africa, time became more fluid. I no longer travelled as much. And my home was my work. I switched to the stand mixer to make bread. I had two mixers at the time. One had US electrical supply and one had European power supply. The US mixer worked through a two-pronged (non-earthed) transformer and, if you weren’t wearing the right shoes, you got a slight shock. You may ask why we actually put out two mixers. One was used for bread and the other one covered other tasks like making butter or whipped cream.  Farm kitchens are busy places, farmers sell each other vast quantities of ingredients like cram and feta cheese, and the kids were young and ate a lot.

A stand mixer allowed me to react to the bread in front of me as opposed to the rigidity of the bread machine. And I used bread dough’s inherent indifference to clock time to my advantage. It turns out the actual time I spent on making the bread was really short. The time that the bread was doing its thing could take hours and days, but my time involvement was low. But I digress. Italian bread.

The flour

Italian bread is, by and large, made from all-purpose flour. I have bread flour, but I save it for proper bread loaves. And I mix whole wheat and white flours approximately 50:50, but it varies.

Step 1: Biga

The first thing I learned is that Italian bread relies on something called ‘Biga.’ Think of it as sourdough starter only easier. The day before you want to bake your bread, you combine yeast, water and flour in the stand mixer. If you are using whole wheat flour, I use it at this stage because it’s better at feeding yeast. Using the normal mixing paddle, you combine the ingredients until it’s this gooey mess that lurks at the bottom of the bowl. At that point, I cover it with a plate and walk away. The original recipe says 8-16 hours. My kitchen is cold, so I regularly leave it for 24 hours. When is it done: when you can see bubbles on the top of the biga. Wait at least 8 hours no matter how many bubbles you see.

Step 2: Main dough stage

This is where the bread dough comes together. Switch to the dough hook and add in water, salt and more flour. If you didn’t add sugar before, add it in now. At this stage, wait before adding more water. In most cases, you will need a lot o=more flour than you think. Here’s a picture of an interim stage with floury bits at the bottom and a wet dough twisted around the dough hook. This dough took another cup of flour to be ready. Sometimes I stop the mixer and combine what’s in the bowl roughly by hand before I start it up again.

Keep the mixer going until the dough – looks like dough: In one piece and when you slap it it’s like a cold baby bottom (not my description. It’s taken from a bread cook book I long ago lost track of). The dough is stretchy; not too runny and not too stiff. By the way, there are Italian bread doughs that are quite runny. You can try to make bread with more water and the bread comes out surprisingly well. You can add other ingredients at this point, too. Olives, oregano, rosemary. Make something that you find tasty or that goes with other things you plan to eat the bread with.

Almost there

Oil the bread dough and leave in a warm place to rise. I use a plastic container, cover it with whatever is to hand to keep it from drying out and then put it on an oven glove/mitt and drape a dish towel on top. The dough now has a safe warm place to rise. You can leave it in the mixing bowl. I find that because the bowl is metal, it takes a LOONG time to rise. Timing: 2-8 hours.

Tucking up the dough
All wrapped up for warmth

Step 3: Final proofing

When the dough has ~doubled in size, turn it out onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. I form it into a raised round and cover with oil again. As if rises, the dough spreads out a bit. If I want it to be more compact or it’s a runny dough, I put a bottomless cake ring around it and that limits the diameter. I cover the top of the dough with plastic so it doesn’t dry out. Be careful not to seal the edges of the dough with the plastic or you constrain the growth of the bread. Then I put an oven glove/mitt under the metal tray and cover it with a dish cloth again. Timing: 2-8 hours.

Step 4: Baking

Turn the oven to 425°F or 220°C. Take a serrated knife and cross cut the bread: cut two cuts one direction and two cuts in the other over the center of the bread. I started by making shallow cuts. I now make them up to 1/3 the depth of the bread. This helps the bread rise better as it bakes. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon flour on top. When the oven is hot, bake the bread for ~30 minutes. Keep an eye on it. Before you take it out, knock on the bread to hear the hollow sound that it’s done. Yeah. It’s weird, but it works. If the bread turns brown quickly, then try a 400°F oven next time. This bread is pretty flexible. I’ve overcooked it bit a couple of times and it turned out fine.

Ready to go in the oven

Ingredients

Biga:

1 cup warm water (not hot or you kill the yeast)

1.5 tsp yeast or a yeast packet

1 ½ cups of white all-purpose flour. If you want to have more fiber, replace this with whole wheat flour

(Pam’s special geriatric yeast accommodation) add in 2 tsp sugar at this stage. If you don’t add it here, it’s an optional add in the next stage.

Rest of dough ingredients:

1 cup warm water

1 ½ tsp salt

2 cups white all-purpose flour.

Keep the flour around. I regularly have to add another cup of flour until the dough looks right.

1 tbsp flour to sprinkle on before it goes in the oven.

Just out of the oven. This one had a firm dough and kept it’s round shape very well.

There’s the lovely moment when the bread is just out of the oven. You’re supposed to let it cool off. I’m impatient and often cut off the end and smear it with butter so it melts into the bread. Yum!

Leave me your comments below on how this worked for you.

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How did I get to be Google?

In March 2020, my mother, then aged 83 entered an assisted living facility. Three days later, the lockdown of all assisted living places in California started. It’s been almost a year, and, in that time, I have not hugged her once. Full confession, I touched her hand as I passed her a paper cup of tepid tea under the plexiglass barrier – once.

We’ve developed a rhythm in this time of separation. She calls frequently – up to 6 times a day. On average it’s 4 times a day. And she calls my sister-in-law just as often. My brother has managed to scare her off, so he’s exempt. Maybe she calls him once a day or a couple of times a week. And more likely than not, he’ll ignore it. The phone system in the facility has been flaky. So flaky that they replaced their vendor. And so flaky, that if I don’t hear from her for a couple of days that I call the front office to find out what the current phone wiring situation is.

When she went into the facility, she was not the steadiest on her feet. Now she clings onto her carer’s arm as they escort her to her chair behind the plexiglass. When I leave, I call someone over and they escort her back down the hall and onto a small lift up to her room on the second floor.

The result is that she is more and more confined to her room – and to her bed. There she has abandoned her old habits. She no longer listens to books and magazines that arrive from the blind services. Her addiction to Jeopardy (7 pm every night) has waned. For a long time, she struggled to come to grips with the TV remote. Her blindness meant that managing the remote was an uphill battle. Now she can find the History Channel and news.

The upshot of her confinement is that when she needs information, she calls me. I have become Google for her.

“Honey, what day is it?” “What day of the week is it?”

“Dolly, what does ‘caisson’ mean?” Yes, she really calls me Dolly. Frequently enough so that my husband uses that term when he tries to mimic our conversations. This is worrying… And I had to look up caisson, too.

“Did we ever get a report about the tree in the back yard?” She’s worried about a tree in the back yard of her house with a slight lean to it.

Displaying IMG_6657.jpg

And yesterday: “Did you print the report about the tree” Her fear is that the Pacific Grove arborist will delete the report about the tree and swear that it was never sent. I don’t know where to start with that one. I am not printing anything if I can avoid it because I’ll lose the paper! I can find an email no matter where I am in the world. And my brother has the email, too. We’re covered. That discussion took 10 minutes.

“Who is the president?”

“Should I take the vaccine?”

I have finally worked out that she doesn’t want Google, she wants conversation.

The other day I took a different tack. I reminded her of all the big vacations that we took. Important vacations when I was in my mid-teens, one in my early 20s and finally late 20’s. Italy, Mexico and Egypt. Each time, they were to rescue me in some way. And they were all memorable: rich in sights, people, experiences. And personally important. They were each life pivots that helped me take a deep breath and move to the next stage of my life. She loved the reminder of happier days. And then, she stopped calling that evening.

Now when my brother complains about the calls, I tell him to have a real conversation with her. Remind her of good times. Remind her of the world outside of her blinds and walls. She can savor the memories … until the next time she has a question. “Dolly, what….”

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Bears – and Home

On Saturday morning, I put on knee warmers on under my biking shorts, added a short sleeved biking shirt and a longer warm one on top. Over it all, a bright yellow Forever 21 wind jacket which was a find a few years ago. I count on it to keep the wind at bay and make me visible to cars. So far, it has done the job.

We packed lightly and headed off. Over the next two days, we’d cross virtually all the freeways that crisscross south Silicon Valley – twice. We cross highway 101 at Menlo Park – and South San Jose. Highways 880/17 in Los Gatos and Fremont. And we cross the Dumbarton Bridge – a big first for me.

Earlier this fall, we ate at the Black Bear Diner in Sunnyvale and joked that we’d bike to the first one in Mount Shasta. Google says that’s 5 days biking! 12,000 ft (3600m) up and 8500 ft (2500m) down! I promptly forgot about it. Joe didn’t.

Joe has planned this trip around our first Black Bear Diner challenge – in Fremont. The look on the hostesses face when we said we’d biked from South San Jose to have dinner in the chilly outside tent in a parking lot was priceless! After our meal, we packed up the inevitable take home boxes and walked back to a nearby hotel.

Leaving Fremont. A last goodbye to the bears!

In the morning we bundled up and biked almost 36 miles home. We travel through east San Jose and I name our trip after a famous Spanish bike ride. Joe and I are completing the La Vuelta del Bahía del Sur – Tour of the South Bay.

If you take a horse out for a ride, they will inevitably go faster when they can tell they are headed home. The last few miles are like that for us. I’m sore and my muscles are complaining, but I’m almost home. I turn in a great time for the last run into the house. We fly out of the nearby park and onto the final streets. Our driveway appears like the gates of heaven. We are home!

Over the two days, we covered 84 miles. For the serious bikers out there, this distance is easy-peasy and can be done in one day. For me, a week later and I’m still not 100% recovered. The good news: I did it!

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Challenges

I can see the sky lighten on the horizon this morning. Dark blue fades light blue then into orange and yellow. I’ve been getting up early a couple of times a week for a while now. I throw on workout clothes that hang on a converted coat rack and drive 2 miles where I join the few souls that are crazy enough to believe that they can warm up fast enough on the spin bikes so that they won’t be wearing heavy clothes the entire 45 minutes of the class. It’s the pandemic and we are spin cycling outside at 6:45 am. After five minutes, we are warm and 20 minutes in, each person has a small and growing pile of discarded clothing next to their socially distanced bikes. At 45 minutes, I am through my small horde of tissues that I use to wipe the sweat from my face. Then I wobble home to breakfast.

This is not my usual behavior. I love to lie in bed for as long as I think I can get away with it. Typically 2 hours more than Joe who wakes up and heads to meetings or just hangs in his office consulting a spreadsheet or two. Yup. I don’t like getting out of a warm bed.

___________________________________________________________________________________

It was Joe’s birthday yesterday. I cooked up a storm of Italian inspired dishes and made a cake. As part of his birthday weekend, pandemic style, we are going to take a bike trip and spend the night in … Fremont … a small town in the east bay of Silicon Valley if you’re not from around here. Truth be told, I’m not sure I can do it. Over two days we’ll cover over 80 miles and the most I’ve ever done in one unplanned long bike ride was 40 miles. The training rides of 20-30 miles with any hills whatsoever have been very tough. My body now takes longer to recover, longer to train muscles and, while I exercise regularly with weights, walks and biking, I’m not that confident about this trip. And yet, I am still up early, getting myself ready.

Check out my bike and running inspired cake decorating!

We don’t need a lot of stuff. A change of clothes, toothbrush – enough to survive 24 hours. What is harder to pack – or unpack is confidence, certainty.” What ifs” litter the landscape of my brain. And I want to pack more things to stave off my uncertainty knowing that I can’t. And I really don’t want to carry any more weight than I have to.

What I do have is a long history of taking on challenges and figuring out a way through the landmines of the challenge in front of me. We have planned stops in local parks and food is available on the way if I don’t have it in my back pockets. In case of a physical emergency, I know that there are busses, trains and Ubers that can get me home. Joe is great with bikes and the random sprinkling of bike stores will help in a bike emergency.

And I’ve prepared physically as much as possible. All that is left is to pack a panier, attach it to my trusty bike – tell my mind to keep its uncertainties to itself – and head off.

Wish me luck!

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Hot Food at Thanksgiving

My mother LOVES Thanksgiving. For her, it’s the perfect holiday – lots of food and family – and, importantly for her, no religion. Every year that I have been within visiting radius, I’ve gathered around the table with her and the rest of the family. When my brother and I were in college, the occasional friend showed up because it was too far for them to go home – and according to family tradition – no one should be left on their own on Thanksgiving. As we got older, the folks around the table became to immediate family with kids.

My mother also has one sacrosanct tradition at that meal. Before we eat, we go around the table and share what we are thankful for. Her grandkids learned early that they needed to have an answer to the question – even if it was being thankful for egg eating snakes (Thank you, Adair, age 4, for this gem).

You should know that my mother is blind. She has retinitis pigmentosa. It’s a progressive eye disease which, for her, slowly stripped away her peripheral vision, then took out color as the cone cells in her eye died out. Now, she registers only the occasional high contrast black and white shadow. For us, we had to adjust to her change in vision at each visit over the years. First, she gave up driving, then she wrote with a thick sharpie and read with one eye closed, holding books right up close to one eye to read a word at a time. Later on she’d hold our arm (left elbow) as we walked and we gave increasing information flows about the street ahead: “bumpy sidewalk”, “slope down”, “no stairs.” Stairs and curbs were dangerous as they could easily lead to falls. Through it all she wanted independence. And until earlier this year, she had it. She rented rooms, ran her business, rode the bus to the store and cooked for herself.

A couple of times over the years, the California state disability folks showed up with specialized gear which magnified text and converted words on the computer screen to sound. My mom is so interested in the world around her that she never gave up her links to the outside world – even if magazines arrived from the services for the blind and she played them on her special tape recorder. Whenever she visited it was as though she had a secret visitor to keep her company. The soundtrack of her life was a soft voice reading a book while she crocheted, knitted, painted, cleaned and, as she got older, just lay in bed.

Losing your eyesight means losing context. In her own home, she could control where things were – and they didn’t move until she moved them. When she travelled to see us, life for became a lot less predictable and very disorienting. Thanksgiving over the years became less of a pleasure and more of an exercise in overlapping logistical perspectives: the sighted family and her. And while we know logically that blindness is difficult to cope with, the reality is that after a few decades of dealing with the practicalities of it, we accept it, laugh at the situations that arise, and still are there to make sure she is safe and well.

Delivering a Thanksgiving meal is in itself a challenge. With two families, sorting out who makes what, in what pan, in what order and with what flavorings would be hard enough. With my mom around, the meal preparation has always created another layer of chaos. My mom was raised that you never went anywhere without bringing food – and you should always help cook – regardless of the circumstances. One time she arrived to visit me at an unfurnished apartment with a raw chicken that eventually was thrown out uncooked. At Thanksgiving, her desire to participate translated into insisting on chopping vegetables, bringing desserts and paying for the Martinelli’s that one of us bought on her behalf. Yes, having a blind woman source 6-12 bottles of sparkling Martinelli’s through a couple of bus trips is a recipe for disaster, so walk talked her into paying for the bottles we bought.

On the vegetable chopping front, whoever was having her spend the night before the big meal learned to hand her a pile of vegetables, a small, not terribly sharp knife – and let her get on with chopping them slowly and methodically. It was a messy process that we avoiding watching closely, but at least she was happy.

Desserts have included Trader Joe’s apple pie and, on one memorable occasion, cheesecake. That year she bought 5 cheesecakes for 10 people – and worried that it wasn’t enough. This on top of my husband’s pumpkin pie and my brother’s Reese’s peanut butter pie. Throughout the entire meal preparation, every 10-20 minutes she would ask us how the cheesecakes were doing. Were they at the house? Were they being defrosted? Were they on the table? By the end of the evening, I was so fed up, that Joe had to walk her back to our car. My patience was long exhausted.

So, what does this have to do with a hot meal at Thanksgiving? For each meal, the people cooking the food planned the meal so that it arrived at the table hot. And what we forgot each and every year is that before we ate, we had to go around the table and share what we are thankful for. Yes, we could pass serving dishes, but no one really started eating until 10 of us or so each had our say. So, each year, the carefully prepared meal cooled in our plates until the gravy was the same temperature as the cranberry sauce. I accepted this as part of the ritual. And as I learned only this year, my brother had been annoyed about this for years!

Visiting during COVID – plexiglass and masks

And then, COVID-19 hit. My mother had been sick in January and February – and she could no longer live alone. She moved into as assisted living facility – and within three days they were in lockdown. And so it has been for over 8 months. I felt bad that she would miss family on the big day, so I visited her earlier in the week of Thanksgiving. We sat separated by plexiglass and I wore a mask. And we both cried as the traditional visit up to our houses would not be possible. Watching her eat her lunch on a tray was a poor substitute for sharing the big meal.

And while it’s been hard not to visit and chat and hug each other for the last few months, it had one small, unexpected benefit. As Thanksgiving came around, our family, having been in the same bubble for months, had the same negotiation about the items on the menu, planned to get all the food to the table when it was hot – and then my mom called for the traditional Thanksgiving ritual. We passed the serving dishes as we passed the phone set to speaker mode. We each had our turn to tell her what we were thankful for – while the rest of the table quietly and gratefully had the first hot Thanksgiving meal – ever.

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Knit one, Purl one

This is a post I wrote 3 years ago. My daughter is now starting her last year in university and I want this post to see the light of day before it’s too late.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one. Then a purl. Whoops. I forgot. Undo the knit and redo it as a purl. Is this a row where the braid is made? Is it 4 stiches then backwards or 4 stiches brought forward right away? The dark yellow scarf flows over my knees and bunches on the floor.

Months ago on one of our trips to a local fabric store, my then 17-year old daughter admired this fat one-pound of yarn and clutched it to her chest. She looked at me with puppy dog eyes and I yielded. Yes, I’d knit her a scarf. Last year, I’d crocheted a hat for her. But this is not like last year. This year she’s off to university – and it’s half way around the world to boot. This is my gift as she heads off in that inevitable journey of every child. Away – and always away. From the moment you hold them close as they are born, they are moving away from you. Your job is to launch them with as much love and confidence as possible. I’m not sure how much protection a scarf is on her journey, but if she believes in this talisman, then I’ll do it.

Oh so many years ago, her first few weeks of life were memorable as we left for Europe to watch over my father. He was dying of cancer in the south of France. At 6-weeks old, she didn’t want to leave my side. She demanded attention when I wasn’t sure what the next hour of life would bring my dad, her and my careful balancing act of their competing needs. It was only later that I realized how much I resented her unequivocal demands. I’ve never fully acknowledged to myself how abandoned I felt by her father and how worn down I was after birthing 3 children in 5 years. I didn’t know, but she must have. If I tried to create some space for myself, she protested. She never settled down unless I was right there holding her. She wouldn’t sleep unless it was next to me no matter how narrow a bed that was available for us that night. When my father was moved to a hospital in the Netherlands, the kind hospital folks found a place for me to stay in the trainee nurse’s dormitory. I’m not sure how they cope with ONE person in the narrow beds that the hospital made available for us. In that narrow space, I scooched over and slid her next to me as I lay on my side all night long. She, of course, slept like a baby.

As she grew older, she didn’t ask shyly like her older brothers. She demanded. And she got. But every demand hurt because for a long time there wasn’t much to go around. Every gift was given with a grain (or maybe a boulder) of resentment and flashes of anger on my part. Maybe because no one else in my life met my needs. And maybe because she was smaller and more vulnerable than anyone else in my life. This mother-daughter dynamic was not healthy.

It became horrendous when she was about 10 and just deteriorated from there. By 13 she and I shared a bedroom as we returned to the US. Daily life was clostrophobic and catastrophic. The hostility was visceral on both sides. Any attempt at modifying or controlling behavior was rejected out of hand. She knew that her dad would be on her side no matter what. She could play games night and day in the space between us all called ‘divorce’ – and win. Even as Colin and I both knew that her winning meant that she was losing in the end. We knew that she had to make hard choices, dive through her reluctance to face up to challenges. Letting her ‘get away with it’ delayed her growth.

After one too many arguments, my solution was to loosen up. Dare I say, almost give up. Once she was living with her dad, it was that or I’d lose touch with her completely. I focused on the spending time with her and dropped much of the the emphasis on scholastics. For once in our shared life, we’d have fun. Don’t get me wrong. I mixed in touches of reproach. Yes, teenagers need to know that there are boundaries of some sort. When it was serious I’d bring in outside help: counselling or special ed for her learning issues. When I did fight, she knew it was important – and most importantly that I did care enough to be unpopular. Her grades were terrible. Every year she’d swear that she’d do better and her GPA would still be awful at the end of the year. And still, I kept focusing on the bigger issues. Yes, there are bigger issues than high school GPAs.

Having two older boys had taught em a few things. One was that when they hit college, they find what they liked and then devote energy to it. The grades followed their interests. That isn’t to say that teenaagers and young adults avoid mistakes. Oh no. There are always expensive, time-losing, gut wrenching mistakes. Which, to be fair, I also made in my life. Like the boys, I’d have to let her find her own way. Learn her own lessons.

And then she was accepted in the college of her choice. In London, the city she wanted to be in. Far away. Responsible for herself and no one else to blame if it didn’t go well. And on the basis of her non-academic portfolio of drama productions.

This summer has brought her a trip through Europe and exposure to art and history and culture with a good dose of family and friends. It was more my way of growing up than her dad’s. Traditionally, a Schure’s high school education ended with a trip through Europe. And there she was headed off with her rolly bag instead of the backpack I’d used. For 6 weeks she thrived and tackled each issue as she travelled. More importantly, she brought both her friend and her through safely.

And while she was away, I took out my knitting needles, visited a friend who reminded me how to cast on and started. Knit one, purl one, knit one purl one. Darn, I missed the extra purl again. Time became shorter. The knitting went on a trip to Europe and back. Then to church, Indivisible meetings, and mostly the sofa watching slow moving British crime drama. It wasn’t interesting enough for me to make many knitting mistakes. On her last morning in the US, I was almost one foot short. 10 braids back and forth. The needles sped back and forth. I knit in the car as she drove at a hellish speed for the airport. I made 8 braids before I cast off. The last casting off stiches were finished in the parking lot.

Each stich holds our history together. The good, the bad, the careless, the careful. And buried in each stich is the love I felt from the day I knew she was in my tummy. The day I knew I had to watch over her even if she fought me doing it and even if I didn’t know how I could cope even one more day.

The scarf went over the back of her neck and then looped to come back down and meet just above the belt line. Perfect length with imperfections knitted into the fabric. I didn’t catch all the mistakes in time. We hug, we kiss, we cry and then she’s gone with her brother into security. And I’m left with a flat ball of dark yellow yarn in the back seat as I drive home.

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A decade

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I’m not sure what my neighbors expected of us when we moved to suburban San Jose about a month ago. They would have been surprised if they were the kind of people who rise before dawn and peek over their neighbor’s fences.

This morning, I crawled out of bed, dressed carefully in a lilac dress I bought almost 10 years ago. I fished out my black cloak that I usually only use at Halloween, grabbed a tea light, lantern and matches and headed for the back yard.

Today I was supposed to be in Cumbria, Northern England. I had a walk planned from Gosforth towards Seascale. I’d find the curve, the right tree and I’d put flowers right at the spot where Jamie died. I’d stay and contemplate his life right there where it ended.

A global pandemic had other ideas. So, I improvised. Found a book of Jedi prayers and clicked where it said funerals and memorials. Then by the light of the dawn, I read the words. In my cloak, over my dress that I bought for Jamie’s memorial service held later in 2010.

I always thought that 10 years would be enough. That after all that time, all the changes: kids grown up, marriage over, new marriage, new house – heck even new continent – that I could leave it all behind. Grief always has other ideas. I read, voice cracking, tears down my cheeks and know that this individual is with me for life – well – my life.

I try and imagine what it would be like if the jigsaw of life had made slight adjustments that day. Leave Seascale later. Not stop to make a phone call. There are a thousand ways not to die that day. But death did come calling: anonymous, brutal, unexpected and sudden. And those around him were thrown into the air like salad ingredients falling back into a bowl in an entirely different place and configuration.

This part of that salad is back in the states now. I have new people who share my life. It is calm, relaxed, and measured. Today I made it through Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. For people on the phone, I look fine, competent, professional. But I know that my makeup is disintegrating until I look like a ghoul with black eye sockets. The tears come and go. My sadness waxes and wanes. Amara manages to put flowers near where he died. I crumble. I talk about grammar rules for company documents and laugh. One big emotional roller coaster.

Early in the day I reach Leanne, his then fiancée. Her life is bursting with kids and home and her charity. She has grown a new life and yet, people still want to have her remember those sad days 10 years ago. She fights back. Says that there are other issues that we need to focus on right now. And she’s right.

For today, I don’t fight. I give in to pain and sadness and memories. The redwood tree, the squirrels and a few birds stand watch in incomprehension. The neighbors are safely in their beds.

Tomorrow the count begins again towards another year, another decade.

“May the Force bless you and keep you always.
May its light shine upon your face and be gracious unto you.
May its presence be with you now and for all the days of your lives,
And may It grant you peace and comfort, now and forever.”

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Full Steam Ahead!

One of the threads of my life is that I take too much on and promise too much. This is sad because I train people that they should say what they do. And most of the time, I do – at the last minute. I’ve become an expert at pulling off everything in a scrappy fashion. Not elegant – but it does the job.

Full steam ahead

 

That’s not to say that I don’t want to be better at how I lead my life, not just how much I cram into it. But at times, I hit a wall. I don’t want to do anything any more. I want to binge watch Netflix or maybe just nap. To get myself off the sofa takes a lot of effort – it takes willpower which, over the day, evaporates like a shallow puddle.

I recently read that there’s an easy way to increase your willpower. A blog I follow condensed the learning into three memorable terms which have resonated deeply with me.

The first word is Gratitude: Many of us beat ourselves up for wasting time watching TV or playing games instead of buckling down to work. With Gratitude, the idea is to keep a journal of what you are grateful for. Gratitude makes you feel better about your life, then it’s easier to approach your work with pleasure – not dread.

I thought I’d try a version of this  after an argument with Amara. While on a business trip I started writing vignettes about moments in her life. Instead of focusing on my irritation with her as she spread her wings growing up, I focused on the positive attribute that showed while she set her boundaries and achieved her goals starting at an astonishingly young age. When I next saw her, I felt an overwhelming positive love for her that had been hidden under my anger. Thank you, Gratitude!

I have also done this for myself. I recently documented my life’s changes – year by year – over the last 6 years and was astounded at how much I had accomplished. Time to appreciate myself – be grateful for myself – instead of thinking about the negative.

The second word is compassion

To increase willpower using compassion, you have to do a bit of time travel. Imagine yourself in the future, struggling to complete a task at the last minute. To show compassion to your future-self, what would you do now to help out? It’s amazing that this little twist of thinking about my future-self has hauled me out of bed or off the sofa to complete a task not wanting to have my future-self suffer. Yeah. It’s weird – but it seems to work – and quite painlessly at that.

The last word is Pride. Yeah. I know, it’s one of the seven sins. However, looking over what you have accomplished and recognizing that you have done well is important, too. So, a dose of Pride in the mix rounds out the three ways of refocusing what I pay attention to so that I accomplish more with less stress. And definitely a lot more happiness.

The last part of my puzzle came with recent sermon on one of Frank Ostaseski’s Five Invitations. The first one is “Don’t Wait.” While the focus is on not waiting to engage in a spiritual sense, for me this sermon struck a very deep nerve in a more down-to-earth way. I have had a task I have been avoiding for many years. It goes back into my time in the UK and my ex and my feelings about him are wrapped like an octopus’s tentacles – very tightly around this pretty cut and dry task. Yes, it’s about accounts.

Miraculously after the service, I found myself able to write a 5-minute email I’ve stalled on for months. And respond promptly when the answer came. Within two days, I’d roped in my local bookkeeper who is now working to complete the last year’s accounts. After no more than 1-2 hours work, the entire project is moving forward at a rapid clip. And the best part, I realize I’m working with people I like to resolve this issue and put it on a firm basis moving on. I’d love to say there are no twinges of angst, but I’d be lying. However, my focus is on making good my responsibilities to the nice folks I am working with.  Right now is my “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead” moment. And I’m using the willpower techniques and a don’t wait attitude to keep moving.

My life now isn’t about making wishes, hoping I’ll get better at tasks, or hoping life gets better. It’s become about taking what I have – which I am very happy with – and making it better. Making it easier, less stressful and ultimately more satisfying.

My only wish is that others can find a similar peace for themselves.

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Agnus Dei

100 years of armistice “Pie Jesu” In one of those miracles of life, the sun casts a rosy glow to the jet engine outside my window. It’s a magical moment of peace and movement that passes for stillness as the ethereal Pie Jesu plays in my ears. The sound is pure. The miracles of noise cancelling headphones grant me my own personal space in this incredibly noisy plane. In this space, I can watch the sun’s magic glow. And sadness washes over me.

I’ve crossed the country. Watched the parched land below for hours. When I left California, the cinders from a fire two hours away had turned the sky brown. It’s one of two or more which rage almost out of control. Friends with asthma were trapped at home with air purifiers set to max. Yesterday, I’d risked a quick, unavoidable bike ride to pick up a second car which left me with a runny nose. I’ve escaped the brown skies for a very long trip which will see me travel around the world – and more – in very few days.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice – the latest 11/11/18. Our president is in Europe but acting far from presidential. Our laws feel like they are being subverted – one after the other – in the name of keeping power. The airwaves and news feeds are full of harsh statements accusing the other side of lies or fraud or just plain incompetence. And some people are waking up. They have just started a wave of change to counteract the power and money grab. Many people have realized that if they don’t step up – they may be stepped upon. And just as strongly, other people claim that power makes right.

Some groups in the country now fear the knock on the door. Some folks can’t bring their wives and husbands home as they have done for decades. They have been declared “Other.” Our international agreements helping protect the most vulnerable among us are being twisted until they protect only the most powerful. And if you are hungry, tomorrow will probably only bring even more hunger – even if you work long hours. If you are powerful, tomorrow looks like it will bring you more power – and certainly more money.

And I know, as I have known for the last two years, that if I don’t make those groups declared “Other” feel safe that one day, the knock could come for me. The same as it once came for my grandfather just before his town was liberated. It’s a degrading process watching a beautiful, capable country heading for a crisis of conscience. It’s nasty and it’s cruel and it’s dangerous. I ask myself on this momentous day, after looking back 100 years, have we learned nothing?

If we cannot find our way to get along with each other, the earth will only become hotter, the stakes higher and the societal pain larger until we come to our collective senses. We are all human. We all have worth. Protecting the least powerful and creating shared resources that bring us all up is the goal of government. When it breaks down, then brutality becomes the order of the day. Your safety is the only one that you can create for yourself. Law and order will disappear.

This isn’t hyperbole. I lived in a broken society. One where the haves and have-nots were poles apart. It led to my ex-husband pointing a gun at a man by the side of a road to protect his children. He tried to help and became a victim. A surreal story to be told in another time.

A broken society has a real cost to the country and each and every person. Having looked at that way forward, can we please turn away? Turn toward each other? See each other’s humanity?

“Pie Jesu” The high notes resonate. And in this moment of beauty as the wheels hit the ground, I bow my atheist head and I these words come to me from long lost Catholic services my extended family took me to over many years:

Hand with poppy

 

Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Have mercy on us

Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Grant us Peace.

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