Spring Awakening

            I am often slow to come to an awareness of things about me. While my eyes are open as I go about my day, I keep personal feelings tucked safely away. Therefore, I miss the obvious.

            For example, I might be so focused on the menu that I fail to register that friends have ordered and what they have ordered. I might not like the appetizers that they’ve chosen, so my mind races ahead trying to figure out if I am going to be expected to share the cost even though I won’t take one bite.

            Did she just order a salad and that friend a complete entrée? Or was I mistaken? I don’t want to choose the chicken parmesan meal if everyone has soup. Or soup if they order the chicken.

            Today was a perfect example of how long it takes me to process where I am and what to do.

            I had a reservation at the gym to swim. It’s a three-lane pool, and since it reopened, we’ve only been using lanes one and three. My slot was lane one, my favorite.

            When I arrived, lane three was occupied with swim lessons! I almost turned around and left. Eighty pounds ago I would have been embarrassed to swim with parents hugging the walls. I knew, sensed, that they’d all be staring at this fat old lady slapping her way across the pool. My huge, baggy arms made a whomp, whomp sound when they hit the water, something so intriguing that no matter how hard those parents might try, they wouldn’t have been able to ignore. On top of that, the sight of my huge body waddling onto the deck might have repulsed them!

            As I stood at the check-in desk contemplating what to do, it dawned on me that I am no longer that fat old lady. The eighty pounds have been gone for two years and the cosmetic surgeries that I had last year removed the excess skin from my arms and waist. I had no reason to be embarrassed, no excuse for not swimming.

            I changed, and before walking out on the deck, stopped and looked in the full-length mirror. The image startled me. Am I really that thin? Is my stomach really that flat? Are my arms really that small?

            I nodded. Yes, yes and yes. I am all those things and more.

            With my head up I strode onto the deck. I put on my cap and rinsed off. I sat on the top step and slid my feet into my fins, then pulled the goggles over my head.

            I took off, counting one, two, three, four, my arms coming up and then plunging back in, no sound except the bubbles escaping my nose. Back and forth I swam, with newfound confidence.

            I was a swimmer. A real, actual swimmer. A woman who looks good in her new body. And it made me proud.

            Now if I can hold on to that awareness, my life will be so much better.

Fascination with Trees

I can’t recall a time when I was not drawn to trees. They amaze me. Day after day they change. Imagine something that grows taller and wider at such an incrementally slow pace that it is invisible to the eye.

They change with the seasons. Some burst into new life when the sun begins to shine in spring. Tiny green buds sprout forth, signaling the wonders that are to come. Those buds become leaves. All kinds of leaves, in all shapes and sizes and colors.

When I was young I collected leaves, especially the ones that from maple trees. Such broad leaves! So green in spring and summer, but when fall arrived, they morphed into shades from red to orange to brown. I loved them all.

I miss maple trees. They grew in the woods behind our house in Ohio, but not here in California. It was disappointed to discover that I would most likely never see them again.

It wasn’t just their leaves that I loved, but their seed pods. They were shaped like wings and if you tossed them as high above your head as you could manage, they would twirl down to the ground. I did this over and over, season after season, never growing tired of the display even well into my teen years when I should have moved on to other things.

In Ohio all trees shed their leaves in the fall and remain bare throughout the cold winters. Even when quite young I understood that winter was a time of rest, a time to store up energy to be ready to burst into action at the first sign of spring.

It was the same for me. In the winter I huddled inside where it was warm, venturing outside only when bundled from head to toe. Some days my breath froze on my eyebrows and hair, my teeth chattered and I thought my fingers and toes would crack and fall off.

We moved to California after my ninth grade year. The seasons here are not as differentiated as in Ohio. What we call winter is nothing to people who live in the Midwest, North or East, for there it snows and temps can drop well below freezing. Here I think it’s cold if it is below sixty.

Because our seasons are not as sharply delineated, not all trees go through the autumnal changes. Looking out my window right now, I some trees are just beginning to grow buds, some have sprouted their leaves, while many stay green throughout the year. Flowers have been blooming like crazy for weeks now and low-growing bushes are covered with leaves.

In time, all but the fir trees will lose their leaves. It is a good thing, as even in California trees need to rest, to be still so as to prepare for the wonderful gifts that are to come.

Trees that produce fruit amaze me. They are so generous, so thoughtful, even when their human caretakers are less then vigilant. Day after day apples and pears and oranges and other wonderful things ripen, all for us.

Some fruits require a little work to get inside. Some don’t. I tend to love fruit that you can bite into and have your mouth filled with sweetness, the juice spilling onto your chin. Every time I eat an apple or pear I am thankful that I am blessed with having such a marvelous thing to eat.

When I go walking around my neighborhood and see fruit growing on trees, I want to reach up, pull off just one and take a bite. But I don’t. I don’t know how needy the owners are. Perhaps that apple is their only sustenance of the day. Perhaps the orange is their only access to vitamin C. I would not want to steal that treasure from them. So I walk on.

In our neighborhood there are not as many trees as when we first moved in forty years ago. Some have died. Some have been taken down by their owners. Some removed by the city because their roots were growing into the pipes. I miss all the once grand, sprawling trees that hung out over the road creating a marvelous canopy! So beautiful. Now gone.

We get to drive through forests on our way north and east and south when we get into the mountains. I love to look at the trees, how magically they grow out of rock and cling to the sides of granite cliffs as if they were meant to be there. When the sun shines on them they are a wonderfully deep green.  They sing with life! And when you get close enough you can take in their rich aroma, like sticking your head in a cedar chest from long ago.

When they are covered with snow it is a picture straight from Christmas cards. I imagine myself riding on a horse-drawn sleigh under their boughs and having dollops of snow fall on my head as I lean back laughing. I have never done this, but nevertheless I can place myself in the scene.

When I was young I did not wear glasses. Trees frightened me because I thought each and every one would fall on my head, killing me. In fourth grade my teachers demanded that I get glasses. I remember the bus ride home, looking out the window and seeing that the leaning trees no longer leaned! It was a miracle.

These are the reasons that I love trees. Not only do they defy the passing of time, but they stand tall as a reminder of all that they offer us. Beautiful colors and tasty food. I hope that I will never lose my ability to appreciate the wonderful gift that each tree is.

The Teacher Who Changed My Life

            Academics did not come easy for me. The alphabet made no sense, so I couldn’t read or write. While math was easy, time and money stumped me. No one had ever read to me and there were few books in our house, so that was probably the main reason that everything was so hard.

            I did attend preschool for a while. I recall that the teachers were nice, but they only gave me assignments that involved coloring alone, at my desk. Kindergarten wasn’t much better.

            The one skill that I did master was being invisible. I was the student who disappeared into her desk. When my reading group was called to the front of the room, I scooted down so far that only my forehead was above the desk. If the teacher had been paying attention, she would have noticed that I was missing, but she seldom did.

            My returned papers had poor grades. When I realized how poorly I was doing, I decided to teach myself. My determination was what helped me succeed.

            I still struggled, so much so that at the end of each year, when the teacher called me to her desk and marked on my report card whether or not I had passed, I never knew what would happen. It could easily have gone either way. Repeating a grade might have been the best thing for me except for the punishment I’d have gotten at home.

            Along the way my academic skills improved, enough so that by the time I went to high school I was able to enroll in the more challenging courses. I was on was on the college-bound track. Even so, English was still difficult.

            My ninth grade English teacher seldom called on me, which was good, because most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about. He’d ask about theme, moral of the story and characterization. What I thought was the theme, was never what he thought. My interpretation of moral was always wrong. I confused characters and so didn’t “get” what one character intended or meant or said.

            There was one time when the teacher called on me to answer a question. I had thought I knew the answer, but I froze. Instead of saying what was on my mind, I replied, “I don’t know.” Not only did he laugh at me, but so did all of my classmates.

            When we moved to California, I had a chance to start over with new classmates, in a new school where none of the teachers knew my history. My Algebra teacher was Mr. Kjekegard, a short, squat, ruddy-faced, pleasant man. He was incredibly patient and explained things in a way that not only made sense, but allowed me to excel.

            Mr. K saw something in me that no previous teacher had seen: a person capable of becoming whatever she wanted to be. When the class was working independently, he often stopped by my desk to give words of encouragement. Sometimes when class ended, he called me to his desk and commented about how well I was doing.

            His demeanor and support encouraged me to work harder, to master complex problems and to push ahead of the class. When he asked for students to come to the board to solve problems, I frequently volunteered, something I had never done before.

            He didn’t teach Geometry, so I had a new teacher, one who was not patient or kind. I found Geometry complex and confusing. It didn’t follow any mathematical principles that made sense to me. No matter how hard I worked, I struggled. The teacher offered no help or encouragement.

            My senior year I was assigned to Mr. K’s class for Trigonometry. I rejoiced when I saw his name on my course schedule. Once again I was a stellar student, mastering complex problems with ease.

            The best part was that Mr. K encouraged me to think about college, something that I wanted to do, but felt I’d never have sufficient academic skills to even consider the possibility. I applied as a Math major, of all things! And, surprise of all surprises, I was accepted at every college.

            While I eventually changed my major because of a misogynistic Math Department Chair, I was always grateful for the confidence that Mr. K had given me. Under his tutelage I discovered that not only could I succeed in higher lever math, but that I could also excel in almost all academic areas.

            Mr. K changed my life. The child who was once invisible later became the teacher who stood at the front of the room, the teacher who made sure to recognize the good in all of her students.  

One Lucky Lady

They say that cats have nine lives.  Through some quirk of nature, I must have some “link” to those lives, for I’ve gone through four already.  That’s about as lucky as a person can get, I suppose. 

Sure, I’d love to win the lottery, but that requires buying a ticket.  I could go to Las Vegas, Nevada and throw money at the slot machines, or go to the horse races at Golden Gate Fields and bet on a long shot, but those things seem unnecessarily wasteful.

I don’t play Bingo, Scrabble, or cards, so you’ll never see me entered in a competition.  Pool is not my game either.  The only contests I enter are for authors who love to throw good money away on entrance fees.

 Some things are worth much more than money.  Family, love, satisfaction, shelter, food, friends, and employment rank right in the top ten.  Simply having the good fortune to still be walking on this earth is about the luckiest that anyone could possibly be.

It’s equivalent to finding the golden ticket in the chocolate bar, or watching the long-shot horse cross the finish line well ahead of the others.  Every morning that I arise is my lucky day.  Every evening when I’m able to climb under the covers is another opportunity to count my blessings.

Once you’ve faced Death and emerged victorious, nothing can compare.  Four times I’ve walked away, knowing that Death had called my name and I had had the fortitude to stare him in the face and say, “Heck, no.”

About ten years ago a common cold moved in to my lungs.  It had the nerve to take up residence, and stubbornly refused to leave.  The sniffles turned into a full-blown, fever-induced hallucinogenic excursion into the netherworld.  Weakened by its ravaging forces, I was unable to motivate my combat troops to erect a formidable defense. 

Night after night I coughed my way through the lonely hours.  Food refused to stay down, and fluids ran right through, stopping only long enough to gather random reinforcements along the way.  Awareness took a temporary vacation, leaving me in an imbecilic state.

Eventually the battle reached a critical point.  As I pretended to sleep, each gasp was like playing a “cat and mouse” game. That’s when something bizarre occurred.  I floated.  Yes, I literally floated above my reclining body.

Looking down, I knew that I was dead.  My chest did not rise and fall.  No fluttering of eyelids or twitching of fingers.  A coldness drifted upwards as a pallor overcame what I thought of as simply, “my body.”

My husband slept peacefully next to my corpse, unaware that I was no longer there.  My heart broke, thinking of the devastation that this would cause him, and I cried, “No!” 

I fought to break free from my insubstantial self, screaming silently that my time had not yet come.  I closed my eyes and literally willed myself back into my body, one part at a time.  Fingers.  Toes.  Legs.  Arms.  Chest.  Head.

My eyes opened, and I was back.  Joy flooded my thoughts, and I knew, then, that I was victorious.

Much later someone told me about out-of-body experiences, and that it was possible for someone to defy death.  That was life number one.

Life number two was taken five years ago when a chronic asthma attack landed me in the hospital for eight days.  Every breath was a fight.  My lungs gurgled, and the feeling was much like that of drowning.  The specialists gathered about my bedside throughout the day argued as to what to try next.  Nothing worked. I weakened by the hour.

Six days in, I begged my husband to call our children.  I wanted to hear their voices one last time before I died.  Yes, I said that, for I believed that my end had come. 

One by one the calls came.  I was so weak that all I was capable of doing was whispering, “I love you.”  That night, at peace, I readied myself to die.

When morning came and I was still there, I cried.  Another day of fighting for every breath, of coughing so hard that my ribs were sore, did not appeal to me in the least. 

When the crew of doctors gathered this time, one of them suggested antibiotics.  After the first injection, my fever broke.  Within hours air began to fill my lungs, the coughing subsided, and Optimism walked into my room. 

Two days later I went home, grateful to be alive. 

Within five months I returned to the hospital with another chronic asthma attack.  Because the specialists knew what was happening, they began the antibiotics immediately.  Once again, I cheated Death.

My fourth life disappeared when the car I was riding in slid off a snow-covered Interstate 80, thirty miles west of Salt Lake City.  Normally the road is crowded with huge semis traveling at seventy-five miles an hour.  For some bizarre reason, none were near us as the car swerved in and out of lanes. 

Time stood still as we drifted to the right, heading for a ditch.  The car seemed to float off the road, down the hill, and over the clumps of weeds.  When we stopped, we were right side up, perpendicular to the interstate.  My daughter, the driver, and my granddaughter, riding in the back seat, were unharmed.

Within minutes rescuers arrived.  One was so kind as to drive the car out of the ditch.  Shaken, we returned to the highway, knowing that we would exit at the first safe-looking ramp.

On our journey home, we passed two similar accidents.  Both vehicles had flipped over as they slid off the road.  Both had landed upside down in icy water.  Both had fatalities.

So, while I have never won a grand monetary prize, I have won my life four times.  For me, that is luck enough for any one person.

Opening My Eyes

When you have very little, even the smallest thing can change your life. It often doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the ownership that allows us to see ourselves in a different light.

For most of my growing up years living with my family I felt inferior to my siblings. My brother Bill, who was a little more that a year older, seemed to bask in my mother’s attention. I understood that my father didn’t often see the good in my brother, no matter how hard he tried to gain approval.

My dad was a natural athlete: my brother was not. Bill signed up for Little League. He wasn’t good enough to get on a team. My dad was so angry that he lashed out at league officials, but no matter how obnoxious my dad was, Bill didn’t get placed on a team. My dad found out that he could pick up all the boys (yes, only boys could play back then!) that had been rejected and set up practice times with them.

My dad got busy, spending night after night making calls. When he had called every boy and got enough to make a team, practices began. I was allowed to tag along. Every time a ball went wild, it was my responsibility to retrieve it. Because theses boys had terrible skills, I spent almost the entire practice time, day after day, wading through thigh-high weeds gathering all the stray balls.

 I ended up with a such a severe case of poison ivy that I couldn’t bend my legs without being in pain. It did not deter me.

After weeks of practice, my dad arranged preseason games with organized, uniformed teams. His boys did not lose every game. When they did lose, it was not by the huge margin that the other coaches expected.

My brother was not the best player nor the worst, but he had an unusual style for running the bases. He never slid, but always arrived bent over with his butt facing the crowd. People snickered. My mom and I laughed.  My dad was embarrassed. He tried to teach my brother how “normal” boys ran the bases, but it didn’t change a thing.

What was important was that my dad took a group of players that no one wanted and made them into something valuable. In fact, two of his players made it onto the all-star team at the end of the season.

About the same time doctor shows were popular on television. Every doctor appeared in the typical “doctor” shirt, a white, short-sleeved button-up the shoulder shirt.

On a shopping trip to the nearest five-and-dime, I saw a display of doctor-shirts on a rack just inside the door. To my surprise, they had one in my size. Something I did not expect due to being quite overweight. It was marked down, but still too expensive, so my mom wouldn’t buy it for me. When my mom registered my dismay, she agreed that I could earn the money to buy one.

I set to work pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, picking blackberries along the border between our house and the woods, which gave me an outbreak of poison ivy, and cleaning my brother’s room which meant picking up dirty underwear off the floor.

As the days passed, I kept my fingers crossed that the shirt would still be there.

When I finally had enough saved, on the next trip into town, I was allowed to accompany my mother. With money safely stored in a little pouch tucked in y shorts pocket, I prayed for the entire thirty-minute trip.

I was so anxious that I could hardly breathe as we opened the doors to the store and walked in. The rack was still there. The shirt in my size was still there, now marked down even more. With joy I pulled it off the rack and carried it through the store, cradled against my chest. I refused to put it in the cart no matter how much my mom insisted.

As soon as I got home, I tried on the shirt. It was perfect! It fit just right. It made me look like the television doctors. It was a tad thin. This was before I started wearing bras, so my nipples showed through.

After washing I hung the shirt in my closet and saved it for special occasions. I took it off it food was involved. When school began several weeks later it was the first thing I wore. Picture me getting out of our car and striding across the playground. See my squared shoulders and confident step. Watch me as I approach classmates, expecting glowing comments about my wonderful shirt.

Now erase all that from your mind. The shirt was so out-of-style that everyone laughed. It was an awakening to me. The shirts were on the clearance rack for a reason: no one wanted them. Add to that my humiliation when I was teased about not wearing a bra.

That was the last time I wore the shirt.

I share the two different stories for an important reason: growing up means not just physical growth. Our bodies change, yes, but so must we change our awareness of ourselves in the world.

My brother might not have been a great baseball player, but later in life he discovered a love of swimming. He enjoyed it so much that he put in a backyard pool so he could swim every day. He taught his daughters how to swim and supported them through lessons and team practices. Like Bill, they were all excellent swimmers. At one time the girls were featured on the cover of a magazine as Olympic potentials. None of them did make it on a Olympic team, but they did swim for their respective colleges.

My shirt did not win me the admiration and acceptance of my peers, but it did teach me that theme-related items have a shelf-life. As a parent I never made the mistake of dressing my kids in no-longer-popular cartoon characters or out-of-favor styled clothing. As a mother I couldn’t afford the latest styles for myself but I could sew something similar.

As a child my clothes were usually hand-me-downs that were often stained. My kids never wore stained or torn clothes. My teenage clothes were sometimes too tight or too long or made from the wrong fabrics or designs. While my kids’ clothes might have come from thrift stores, they dressed like everyone else their age.

We learn a lot of things growing up if we keep our eyes and ears open. Chasing baseballs taught me the element of the game, something I still appreciate today. Watching my dad coach taught me what it takes to teach a sport, something I carried with me when I became a soccer coach.

Listening to my teachers exposed me to the good and bad of education. I admired and respected the teachers who saw me as the awkward, insecure child that I was masking the intelligent capable student who could go on to college and excel. They showed me what good teachers do, skills that I took into my own classrooms.

Throughout my adult life I have tried to keep my eyes open. Each time I experienced something for the first time, I lodged it in my mind, sorted by what worked and what didn’t. Those things that worked, I tried to repeat; the ones that didn’t I put away.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone opened their eyes to what’s happening around them. Imagine the difference it would make in people’s lives.

Learning to Cook as a Metaphor for Life

            When I moved into an apartment complex for graduate students, I no longer had access to cafeteria food. I was on my own for all meals, a terrifying concept for someone whose repertoire consisted of canned soup, fried bologna sandwiches and fried eggs. I relied on things that came in cans and boxes, food that required little preparation, minimizing failure. There were times when I yearned for better food, but I was on full scholarship due to financial hardship, so there was no money for eating out.

            Marriage thrust me into new responsibilities, one of them being to cook dinner five nights a week. I relied on my old standbys even though I really wanted to do better.

            One time a soup can had a deal: for a certain numbers of labels I could get a cookbook for the cost of shipping. It didn’t take me long to save up the requisite number and send them off.  When the cookbook arrived, all the pictures looked inviting.

            One of the first things I decided to try was a squash stuffed with ground beef and rice. It required advanced preparation. The night before I gouged out the squash seeds and mixed together the rest of the ingredients. We had been given a set of dishes. I used a square one to arrange the stuffed squash, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.

            All the next day I dreamed of the meal I would present to my new husband. As soon as I got home, I turned on the oven. I changed clothes while waiting for it to reach the proper temperature. With excitement and anticipation, I removed the wrap and put the dish in the oven.

            Imagine my horror when the dish cracked! I didn’t know that the dish couldn’t go from the refrigerator to oven. It was an off-brand, not the advertised one. The meal was ruined.

            I dreaded telling my husband. After all, it was my responsibility to fix dinner and now there was nothing left. Tears streamed down my face as I waited anxiously for him to arrive.

            This was when I learned what an awesome man my husband is. He didn’t get angry. Not at the ruined meal or the broken dish. Instead he gave me a big hug, helped clean up the oven and then prepared a wonderful meal of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

            I relied on that cookbook for years. I leaned to make an awesome meatloaf with cream of mushroom soup as a base. I made a nice pot roast using onion soup, in the electric skillet. I experimented with baking chicken in cream of chicken soup and kept on trying new things. Our family always had a warm meal that was edible.

Because of that cookbook my confidence grew. The pages got stained and wrinkled, but I could still read the directions! Even today it still has a special place in the kitchen, even though I no longer do the cooking.

There were other disasters. My husband makes delicious fudge. It seemed easy enough, so I gave it a try. Mine ended up being chocolate sauce.

Then there was turkey soup. I had seen my husband take the carcass and turn it into broth. I seemed like something I should be able to do. I chopped the veggies and put it in the pot. I followed the steps carefully. My broth was horrible! It tasted more like dirty dish water than soup.

My husband likes lamb. My family never ate it, so I knew nothing about what cuts are the best, but I had a recipe. Once again I followed directions. It smelled okay. He ate it, but I couldn’t stand the taste and neither could any of our kids.

I learned to stick to the basics. Try nothing exotic or that had too many steps or ingredients. Roast beef, chicken and ground beef were my go-to meats.  As long as I could cook it in broth or soup or mix in something to keep it tender, I did fine. I discovered a range of things that came out good in a crock pot, such as a turkey leg or barbeque beef.

I bought boxes of pizza dough mix and painstakingly kneaded it. I mushed it out and then covered it with whatever ingredients we had on hand. It wasn’t as good as store-bought, but it was satisfying.

Cooking requires a certain degree of skill, but mostly an understanding of how food works together. What spices go with what meats and what sauces add flavor to tougher cuts. How to blend, chop and combine ingredients into palatable dishes. And patience. Lots and lots of patience, something which I don’t possess.

Cooking days are behind me, a true blessing. But when I look back on my earlier failures, it is not with despair, but with more of a sense of accomplishment. Thanks to my husband’s kind support, I tried again and again, learning along the way what I could do, not just what I couldn’t.

Isn’t that what life is all about? Learning not just from our successes, but also from our failures.

The History of a Struggle

            After being yelled at once again, I flew into my bedroom and collapsed upon my army-regulation-taut bed.  Tears coursed down my cheeks as my fists pounded my pillow, the only allowable outlet for the rage rushing through my body.

            The offense?  I can’t recall.  It most likely had something to do with my sister.  I was seven years older but couldn’t see what difference age made in the realm of discipline.  She was practically perfect in the eyes of my parents while I was the demon child.  Her hair should have been Goldilocks’ yellow and the purity of her heart should have matched Sleeping Beauty’s.  I was the Ugly Duckling, the orphan in Dickens’ novel, the Cinderella of the evil stepsisters. 

            At the ripe old age of thirteen I decided that life at home was unfair and I should run away.  At that time, we lived in the small rural community of Beavercreek, Ohio, several miles outside of Dayton.  There were more farms than people and the population of cattle exceeded that of the entire town.  No buses came near and the closest pay phone was over a mile away at a Chevron gas station.

            I had very little money.  When I shook out the coins from my piggy bank it totaled almost three dollars.  Not enough to go anywhere.  Not enough to buy much more than a couple of meals at a burger joint.

            As darkness fell, I contemplated my options.  Once my parents were asleep, I could sneak out of the house and walk into the woods at the end of our lot.  I was confidant that I could find my way out to the main road about a half a mile away.  From there I was unsure where I would go, but anywhere had to be better than home.

Stealth would be critical.  I pictured myself following the road, hidden from view in the darkened recesses of the woods.  If I made it that far there was a major intersection. From there I could go north or south.

            If I turned south and could walk that far, I’d end up in Dayton.  That would be the logical way to go, except for the fact that I knew little of the city.  This was the 1960s, a time of racial unrest all across America.  There were parts of town that would be too dangerous for a naïve white girl, and so I ruled out the city.

North would take me deeper into farm country.  The land was flat and unbroken by stands of trees, culverts or any other form of natural hideout.  I imagined myself sleeping in barns and sheds by day, traveling by dark of night in order to avoid detection.  However, I was terrified of horses, cows, sheep, and goats, and so knew I could never share a stall with any of them.

If I continued west following the road that paralleled the forest, I would end up in the town of Beavercreek.  There was no Post Office, bank, fast food restaurant, or bus station.  There was a police station, but I believed that the police would only return me home without listening to my concerns.

My high school was miles outside of town, deep in farm country. There were some houses along that route that could offer hiding places under porches and behind bushes, but I was terrified of spiders and bugs.  I pictured myself dashing from house to house, hiding until the coast was clear.  Stealth was my new middle name and cleverness clung to my shoulders.  Until I remembered that I had no money.

That left turning around and heading east, back past the woods and my housing development.  Eventually I would reach the main road that went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Along that stretch was a gas station, A & W, Kroger’s, and a five and dime store. If I got that far, I figured I could get a job at Kroger’s in the produce section, as I knew about fruits and vegetables since we grew all that we ate.  But no, that was too close to home.

All night long I planned scenarios that I believed would never work.  I was too young, too naïve, too scared of my own shadow, and too paralyzed to take action.  My only recourse was to stay in a house where I felt unloved and to make the best of my situation.

As the morning sky lightened to a silvery gray my tears had long since dried and my heart had sealed itself from additional hurt.  I made several resolutions that I was determined to keep: never speak to my sister, avoid my mother and father, speak only when commanded to do so, save every penny, seek an escape route, and stay numb.  These were perhaps not the best options, but they were all I had.

They stood me well.  By not speaking to my sister, I avoided painful spankings.  When I was blamed for something she did, a regular occurrence, I took the punishment as bravely as possible. I complied with any orders given without protest even when I knew they were unfair. 

By avoiding my parents, I was able to stay out of arguments about preferential treatment.  I answered when questioned, in as few words as possible.  I did as told, even when my parents increased my list of chores. 

I saved money, forgoing new clothes (which I had to buy for myself while my sister’s were provided), no records which I loved and no teen magazines.  Slowly my pennies turned into dollars, building into a tidy nest egg.

I kept my grades up, especially once I was told we were moving to California, the land of community colleges.  With surprisingly mature long-range vision, I saw that my only way out of the house was through a college education.  I set my sights set on earning a scholarship. I chose the hardest classes and spent hours every night rereading text and memorizing facts.

The most challenging promise I had made was to keep my heart numb.  I cry way to easily, and my feelings can jump from ecstatic to miserable with the slightest provocation.  To keep myself on track I wrote reminders on my calendar.  I filled my school bag with notes to myself.  I taped signs on the head of my bed, inside my closet door, and on the book covers of my textbooks. Even so I slipped.  Over and over I allowed my family to break my heart with their lies, their cruel comments, their physical abuses, and then hated myself for forgoing my pledge.

The struggle was never-ending.  At no time could I let down my protective walls, for when I did, a knife slid in and cut my heart.  The walls got thicker and taller as I sealed myself into a prison of my own making.  I became an expert at repair work, for with each failure on my part, I had to plaster the holes and toughen the exterior of my heart.

After years of doing this, there was no “me.”  I was a student with no personality.  A friend to none and a silent force without power.  An emotional wreck inside, but inhumanly serene on the outside.  A plastic face masking tear-filled eyes. 

Because of my excellent grades I won a scholarship from the state of California.  My parents would not let me leave home that first year, so I enrolled in the local community college. The work was easy. In fact, I was frequently told to transfer out of the easy class into the next level. In this way I prepared myself for my sophomore year when I would be permitted to follow my brother to the University of Southern California, my yearned-for haven. 

Off and on I made a friend or two.  We partied, talked long into the night, and even studied together, until I discovered that most of these so-called friends were only interested in my brain.  I dated a few boys and got serious with two.  Both of them walked away when I respectfully declined to participate in recreational activities that required my sacrifice to their enjoyment.  I was sexually abused by my brother’s best friend, but didn’t report it for fear of being accused of lying.

During the summer before my senior year I applied for a position as a residence hall advisor.  I interviewed and was turned down.  When I inquired as to why, I was told that it was too negative, too hard on myself. I got angry.  Very, very angry.  I walked around with a furrowed brow until I admitted to myself it was true.

I had worked so hard to seal myself off from pain that I had also closed doors to enjoyment.  So with the same level of determination that I had applied to keeping myself numb, I turned to joy. 

I removed all my self-imposed boundaries and became a party-girl. There were lots of, late-night frivolity which sometimes caused me to take potentially life-threatening chances.  Determined to forge a fun-loving personality out of a rock, I took the high road and plunged off a cliff.

After years of trespassing into the land of fun and games, I realized this was not the path to success and freedom from home. In order to get back on track, I resurrected my defenses and kept them in place for many years. 

Unless you’ve lived the life of an abused child, you cannot understand the day-to-day struggle to stay safe and sane.  As a teacher I’ve come across damaged children who did not build defenses and who were consequently seriously hurt. 

I wanted so badly to heal them, there was little I could do to glue together the broken pieces of their lives.

There were times when I felt as if I was down in a deep, dark well, trying to scale the walls into the light.  I would get close to the top, make what I considered a friend, have some good conversations, and then slowly sink back into the depths when the friend did not act as an equal partner.

I am sure now that I was deep in the throes of depression. I might have benefited from psychiatric care, but where would the money come from? Time healed me.  Through work in a fulltime job I began to see myself as a person of intelligence, a person who succeeded, a person who survived. My defenses disappeared and I found true friends and true love.

My life was a struggle, one that is now thankfully behind me, locked in the recesses of my heart. The struggle made me stronger, more able to confront the difficulties of life.

My history is one of challenges. While I couldn’t overcome them all, I did climb out of the well into the light.

Food Memories

            When I moved into the graduate student housing at USC, for the first time, I no longer had a meal plan. I was now on my own for all three meals, frightening for someone who didn’t know how to cook.

            I quickly figured out how to fry an egg, so fired egg sandwiches with American cheese and mustard became a staple along with cold cereal, toast and jam. Lunches were often bologna sandwiches with pickles, more American cheese, mustard and mayonnaise. On occasion I had the fried egg sandwich for lunch as well.

            Dinners usually came out of a can. Soups were the most prevalent choice.

            My brother also attended USC. He had a car and so would drive us to second-hand food stores where we could buy damaged goods for a fraction of the normal price. I learned to cook things out of boxes, greatly expanding my repertoire.

            I relied on these foods until I got married, when I felt an obligation to become the food provider. By saving and redeeming wrappers from Campbell’s Soup cans I was able to get a cookbook that used some flavor of soup in every meal. The recipes were easy to follow and required simple ingredients. My confidence grew with each recipe I tried.

            I bought more cookbooks, some of which are still in our cabinet today. Even with increased options, I tendered to stay with the tried and true.

            As a parent I tried to fix a hot breakfast almost every day, reserving cereal for rare occasions. I got good at pancakes and French toast, but I failed at oatmeal. Mine was always a lumpy mess.

            My mother canned fruits and vegetables and made jams that were quite delicious. I felt compelled to do the same. I poured through cookbooks until I’d find a recipe that looked doable.

My specialty became applesauce cooked in a crock pot. I’d add cinnamon because my kids liked it that way, and stop the cooking when there were still chunks. We went through lots and lots of applesauce.

I still relied on boxed and packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper and noodles. Lots and lots of noodles. Canned vegetables were preferable over frozen, probably because I’d turn frozen into mush.
            In time I attempted pork roasts, pot roasts, meatloaf and homemade soup. The soup tasted like dishwater, so no more of that. Using soup as an ingredient, I could make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat edible.

What I prepared provided sustenance, but was not creative or even things of beauty. Our family didn’t go hungry unless a child refused to eat.

Considering how my weight skyrocketed over these years, one would have thought that I was an amazing cook. I was not. My skills had improved since college, but I never added an ingredient that wasn’t in the recipe, never altered preparation or cook time. The basics got us by.

So, why did I become obese? I have a love affair with cookies and candy. I was pretty darn good at making cookies, plus they were often on sale, so there was almost always a package or two in the house. I failed at fudge-making: mine came out as soup. Fudge became a special treat, one that I could not resist.

I could make a moist cake from a box mix, so there were lots and lots of cakes. I didn’t need a special occasion such as a birthday: I made a cake because I wanted one.

My mom had made a tapioca pudding that I loved. I bought a box of tapioca and cooked it up. It came out pretty good, so now we had pudding. Jello as well.

A pattern emerged. I could make sweets better than I could provide healthy dinners.

About twenty years ago my husband took on the job of cooking dinner. Things improved greatly with one caveat: he loved sauces and gravies. Almost every meal he made contained at least one of those two. He was also not a fan of most vegetables, so they were often missing from our plates. We never went hungry, I was relived of cooking duty, and so I was happy.

My relationship with food is mixed. As a child I was often punished for not cleaning off my plate. I spent hours crammed into an old high chair in front of the stove, condemned to be there until I ate every last remnant of cold food.

I knew the old sayings about starving children, but I didn’t care. If I didn’t like something, I wasn’t going to eat it. Period.

My childhood diet was carb-heavy. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child and so she worked hard to keep me fat. I was doomed from the start. Years of putting on weight created a situation in which it would take years to get it off. Over and over and over again.

When I first decided to end the cycle I enrolled in a course at Kaiser. I learned about nutrition, about balance, about control. I lost thirty pounds over twelve months. When they told me I couldn’t repeat the course for a fourth time, I forgot what I had learned and the weight returned.

I joined a gym. I exercised almost every day, after work, and both days on weekends. I lost some weight. It came back when I had a knee replaced.

Walking in water was supposed to be good for my knee, so I found an indoor pool a twenty-minute drive away. Every morning I was there, bright and early at six in the morning. When I got the okay from my doctor I switched to lap swimming. I had put on weight after the surgery: I lost a bit of it.

After seeing commercials on television I turned to Weight Watchers. I returned to the practices I’d learned at Kaiser. I lost some weight, put it back on, over and over.

My obsession with food, with sweets, was powerful and pulled me down. I’d swear I wouldn’t eat a cookie and then I’d consume three or four. I wasn’t going to have ice cream, but then I’d have a bowlful.

As time passed health issues derailed efforts to lose weight. Another knee replacement kept me from the gym. Then I fell and broke my ankle. I chipped my elbow removing my laptop from the trunk. I fell going down steps and fractured the bone below my knee replacement. Another six months of limited exercise put on the pounds.

Mu love affair with sweets was hard to tamp down. I tried, really I did, but the call was too great and my willpower too weak. I loved food, loved to eat, loved the socialization around eating, loved sitting at a table waiting for food to arrive. Much of my childhood had been spent being hungry, so it was as if I was making up for it, over and over again. No amount of self-ridicule or negative self-talk curbed the appeal of food.

I am grateful that my husband learned to prepare low-calorie foods. He changed the way he cooked in order to help me. No more were serving dishes set on the table. No more were meats drowned in sauces.

Meals now included fruits and vegetables. Carbs were limited in frequency and size of serving. He grilled more, stewed less. He still prepares food that I don’t like, but less often.

I’d like to report that food no longer takes center stage: it doesn’t. I can be satisfied with a tiny bit of rice, a scoop of mashed potatoes or a half-cup of noodles. There are a lot of meats that I prefer not eating, but I make sure I have the correct portion anyway.

I discovered a love of fresh fruits and vegetables, two things we seldom had growing up. No longer do I drink hot chocolate or egg nog when it’s in season. Instead I consume water and other calorie-free drinks.

All the changes I’ve made, all the miles I’ve walked, all the obsessions I still struggle with, continue to be a burden. I understand that sweets will always call my name, so when I hear a cookie speaking, I reach for a banana. When I yearn for ice cream, I turn to grapes.

It’s interesting to me how child who hated eating as much as I did, managed to get as fat as I was. Because of this I understand that the same child is still here, still dreaming of sweets, still hearing their call. And if I succumb, that obese me will make a comeback.

Valentine’s Day Lessons

            I still remember my first Valentine’s Day party. I was five years old attending a private Kindergarten, not because my parents were wealthy, but because free Kinder programs didn’t yet exist. My parents enrolled me because I was painfully shy and well behind academically.

            My clothes were hand-me-downs or homemade while my classmates were well-dressed. Even at that age I knew there was a difference. I stood out because of appearance, sociability and academic struggles (I didn’t know my shapes, letter sounds and the basics of math).

            However, when my teachers spoke of there being a party on Valentine’s Day, I was quite excited. With wide-open eyes, I chose the cards that I thought my classmates might like and then dutifully addressed each one. I believed that I would receive an equal number of cards. After all, the teachers said one for each student in the class.

            The big day comes. We’ve had sweets made or purchased by parents. We’re given a lunch bag to put on the front of our desks. One by one we get up and walk about the room, dropping cards in each bag. As time passes, my eyes pool with tears: over and over I was being skipped. Not one student put a card in my bag.

            When my turn came to distribute cards, I hid them in my lap and pretended as if I had none. I understood that I was beneath consideration; my standing was such that I didn’t warrant a cheap paper card.

            Perhaps it was an anomaly, perhaps it was intentional. What was important was that my teachers did nothing to address the discrepancy.

            When Valentine’s neared the next school year, my mom insisted that I prepare cards. Once again I chose the ones that I thought were the best, addressed each, then brought them to school. I was now in a Catholic elementary, so I figured things would be different.

            My teacher told us to put the bag we’d brought on the front of our desks. I’d decorated mine in bright colors and happy symbols. I was proud of the effort I’d put in and hopeful that it would be filled with cards.

            As the rows of students were told to distribute cards, I leaned forward, excited to watch cards drop in my bag. But something went horribly wrong. Just like in Kindergarten, my bag remained empty.

            The same thing happened in second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth. Every year my mom insisted in buying cards, having me address them, and forcing me to bring them to school. Every year my bag remained empty. Every year my eyes filled with tears.

            By this time I hated the day and wished it had never been created. Obviously Valentine’s Day was for special people, not everyone. It was a happy day for kids who had friends, but for loners like myself it was just one more reminder of how isolated we were.

            Thankfully when I moved into middle school, the day took on less importance and was essentially ignored for the rest of my school years.

            When I became an elementary school teacher I distributed written instructions before the day. All students must give cards to all students. Period. Cards could be homemade or store-bought, but there must be one for each student in the class.

            To decrease the chance of embarrassment, students did not roam the class giving out their cards. Instead my instructional assistant collected the cards, sorted them, counted them, and filled in any gaps when the numbers were not equal. She was the one who carried the cards to the desks and placed them in the bags. All students got the same number of cards. No one was made to feel less-than.

            Lessons learned when we are small are quite powerful. I learned that it hurt to feel excluded and that when my teachers did nothing, I understood that I was truly alone. Not wanting my students to experience what I had drove me to be a better teacher.

            With Valentine’s approaching in this year of COVID-19, each of us needs to ensure that everyone feels cherished even if cards are distributed online or through drop-offs at school. Children who are different-than average must not experience a harsher exclusion or differentiation then they already know.

            Find ways to show love that encompass all those in your social circle. Be kind to even the most difficult person in the group. That’s a hard challenge: forcing yourself to put aside angry or hurt feelings in order to be inclusive.

            This is my Valentine’s Day lesson: how we treat others at a young age affects how they see themselves later in life. Children who are ignored or isolated grow up feeling ignored and isolated. Addressing cards to children who are not your children’s friends might make the lonely kid’s day. The smile on that child’s face might change her way of looking at herself, leading to a life of successes.

            Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be inclusive.  

Incomplete Information

            How many opinions have we formed based upon something we’ve heard? Unfortunately in this technological age when, with typing a few words, we can find resources that are trusted, based on researched facts, too many cement their beliefs in place, closing off polite discourse.

            The past four years serve as a good example of how anyone can throw out ideas that quickly become firm beliefs even though the person held no credentials, had done no research and was not a member of a reliable organization or college, yet spoke as if he was all those things and more. Divisiveness resulted, creating deeper caverns as time passed.

            I have to admit that I am sometimes quick to form opinions. Without evidence I would decide that a certain individual wouldn’t like me and so walked away. What if she could have been my new best friend? What if he could have helped me solve a problem? I will never know because I made my decision based on incomplete information.

            I’ve also chosen potential friends based on that same lack of  information. During my senior year of college two of my roommates seemed to be friendly. They greeted me politely and would stop and talk before heading off. I can’t recall ever doing anything with them outside of our shared suite which should have sent a message, but it didn’t.

            After graduation, since the three of us lived in the Bay Area, we thought we’d get together. One lived in Marin County. She had money and a car. I had neither. She invited me to her family home, which was nice, but it would have required me getting permission to borrow the family car and driving somewhere I knew nothing about. This was before GPS systems so paper maps were all we had. I was a fairly inexperienced driver, so the thought of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge was terrifying. I backed out, giving her a feeble excuse.

            She got married a few months later and sent an invitation. I had little money to buy a gift, but I chose the nicest thing I could afford, some soft, pretty towels. I intended to go to her wedding, but as it got closer to the date to respond and confirm, I backed out. When I called her to tell her, I suggested meeting somewhere in San Francisco so I could give her the gift. She refused.

            That’s when I realized that I had used incomplete information when deciding that she was my friend. I was not in her social class and so could never mingle in her circles. It made me terribly sad.

            After a disastrous event during my college years, I was terrified of men for quite some time. I assumed that all men were like the one who abused me. He had seemed like a friend, had acted like a friend, and was, in fact, my brother’s friend. I trusted him. When he invited me to the apartment he shared with his wife, I felt no fear. However, when he bolted the door behind me I questioned his intent, but didn’t ask.       

Allowing myself to be in that situation was a reliance on incomplete information. I had heard of women being attacked, but knew no one personally who had been a victim. I assumed that my university was a safe place. That no one there would take advantage of me. When it happened I was shaken. My trust was shattered.

I did not know how precarious of a position I had walked into until it happened. My ignorance caused me to form an opinion that all men would treat me in the same way. It was years before I could trust a man again.

            As a child of a dysfunctional family I assumed that all families were like mine. Because I had not been permitted to enter others’ homes, I had incomplete information. I thought that all families were like min, where insults and ridicule, threats and punishment were every day events.

My eyes were opened when my parents allowed me to spend a night at a classmate’s house. Until the visit, I did not know that a family could gather around the table for a meal and share jokes and stories without criticism. I didn’t know that families could sit in front of the television and laugh at the antics of characters without being ridiculed if I found something funny that they did not. I also discovered that children could be sent to bed with hugs and kisses as opposed to spankings and other threats of punishment.

My information base shifted. I now knew that something was wrong with the way I lived. There was nothing I could do to escape as I was too young and had no one I could turn to. The one thing that I did do was begin gathering information using my eyes and ears.

Several years later I fell ill when away at college. A friend’s family took me home and nursed me back to health. They were kind, gentle and patient. They were quiet people who never spoke loudly. There was no hate, no mean comments, no divisiveness. They didn’t monitor my activities but gave me space to heal.

I had never experienced such kindness before. This rattled my opinions about what constituted family and how families behaved toward one another. I was surprised at how they spoke to each other and listened to what each of them said. One evening when I was feeling better, they took me to a play. Their son had a lead role. He was a good actor for someone so young. What struck me was that after the play, no one teased him or made fun of him. Instead they congratulated him and praised his performance. I was pleasantly shocked.

My experience of family changed based on gathering information. There was nothing I could do to change my own family, but I could hold the lessons dear for future reference.

I could go on and on, but it isn’t necessary. Thanks to the Internet it’s now possible to conduct research by checking out a variety of sources. Some are to be trusted while others are not. A discerning individual can ferret out which are reliable and which are not. Through this process a person can gather sufficient information to make an opinion based on fact.

Relying on incomplete information is no longer acceptable. Look about, read, investigate, ask questions of yourself and others. Peruse a variety of articles. Figure out who the sources are and what their credentials are, whether or not they are qualified to be dispensing information.

Once you are convinced that a piece of information is accurate, then formulate an opinion, but be open to challenges from outside sources. As time passes often foundations are rattled. New evidence appears or the source goes off on an unsubstantiated rant, making you question whether or not that person is a reliable source anymore.

The important thing to remember is that incomplete information is misinformation, plain and simple.