Through the Window

            When I was quite small there was a solar eclipse. My mother was so terrified that my brother and I would be blinded, that she closed all curtains and forbade us from peeking through a window. It was if we were blind because the world outside had been removed.

            Since then, I have seized the opportunity to look through every single window that comes into my realm of existence.

            About forty-five years ago we treated ourselves to a trip to Hawaii, thinking that if we didn’t go right then, we’d never make it. Our room was on the twenty-sixth floor. My husband loved sitting on the balcony, enjoying the ocean breeze and listening to the sounds below. I tried to join him, but I couldn’t even get near. My fingers could graze the window frame, but neither of my feet could step out there.

            I missed whatever sights he enjoyed, but with the door open, I could hear the sounds and if I looked out far enough, I could catch a glimpse of the ocean.

            The window was open, but I couldn’t see any more than when my mother closed all the curtains.

            On our first trip to New York City our daughter-in-law recommended an eclectic hotel not too far off Broadway. It was an artist’s paradise from the moment you stepped through the creaky screen door.

            Every hallway featured a work by a different artist. So did the rooms. Ours was a replica speakeasy, complete with a scantily clothed mannequin embedded in the bathroom door. There was a bar that was not connected to water and a tiny twin-sized cradled bed. And one window.

            It was so hot and humid that we had to open the window. Our view was of a brick wall, but if we stuck our heads out as far as we could, we could see the traffic rushing past.

            While we were lucky enough to have a window, it offered little joy. Instead it gave us steam rising up from the Chinese restaurant below and the never-ending cacophony of horns blaring, even well into the night.

            Compare that to our window in Queenstown, New Zealand. We were treated with an unobstructed view of a large lake, snow-topped mountains and rolling green hills.  

            If you approach a window at night, you see yourself. It’s a spooky version, however, due to the poor lighting.  Eyes are hollow pits, cheeks have an eerie glow and the entire body seems to be floating in dark space. You appear as a ghost, one that would scare the bejeezus out of unsuspecting visitors.

            That doesn’t stop me from looking however. I might, if I’m lucky, see the glowing lights of a city in the distance, catch the slow-moving Ferris wheel, or see the reflected boat lights at sea.

            There is a saying about looking into the windows of a soul. It means that if you stare into the eyes of a person long enough, you can see the hidden emotions, attitudes and thoughts. I am not sure if I believe that to be so, but I am uncomfortable when anyone stares that intently at me and I don’t like staring at others as well.

            If the expression is true, that we can indeed see inside, then shouldn’t we? What if a good look reveals a sinister motive, and so rather than investing in the person’s business, we walk away? It would save us money and heartache. Possibly legal fees. Does that justify getting that close to someone?

            Let’s assume you’ve met the person of your dreams. You’re obviously attracted, but what if the person is troubled inside? Imagine staring into those eyes and what you see makes you realize that a relationship with this person would damage yourself. You would walk away before investing time, energy and emotions that would only be wasted.

            Windows are also for looking in. Every year at Christmas time Macy’s in San Francisco allows the local SPCA to place needy cats and dogs in the windows. Crowds hover outside, jostling for the best place to get a good view. Granted many come just to look, but adoptions soar or the event wouldn’t take place year after year.

            Picture yourself in front of a window with cute, fluffy puppies. Their eyes are huge and forlorn, calling out to you to come inside and hold them. Or the playful kittens batting toys about, climbing and jumping and occasionally looking out at the lookers-in.

            In a different scenario you’re invited to someone’s place for dinner, but when you arrive and knock on the door, no one answers. What do you do? Look in the nearest window. If the curtains are drawn, you see nothing, but if the light is just right, you can see the entire front room and into the kitchen. It’s like a sneaky glimpse into a friend’s life, almost like opening drawers in bedrooms and bathrooms while pretending to use the facilities.

            Looking inside a store window reveals the products they sell. If the display is intriguing, you’ll go inside. If not, you move on to the next store, going from window to window until something catches your interest.

            Whether you are peering out or in, windows offer something that solid walls cannot: pieces of a whole. And those pieces can scare you away or draw you closer, depending upon what you see.

            We need to stop and look, however, for if we don’t, then our world is confined to our narrow existence. We never see anything new, never experience anything different, never move beyond what is known.

            Windows open us to learning through our sense and our emotions. They are the gateways through which we become enlightened, through which our universe is expanded.

            Pull back the curtains and look. What you see might change your world.

Shopping for a Phone

            At first I was proud of not having a cell phone. It was like a badge of honor. Both my husband and I felt that if someone wanted to call us, they’d use our landline. It worked just fine and there was an answering machine attached to it.

            Then I went away to a writer’s conference. It was a long, five-hour drive south. Portions of the road were desolate: nothing out there for miles. Potions took me past cities and growing housing developments. I was only slightly worried about what I would do if something happened to my car.

            The next conference took me north into the redwoods along California’s coast. For the most part I was on a freeway that passed through cities where help could be found if needed. The last stretch was a winding, twisting narrow road toward the coast. It anything had happened there, I would have been dependent upon whoever took pity on me. It was a sobering thought.

            During the 2010 Census my husband got hired and had to spend hours in the field. He needed to be able to make and receive calls. We went to a provider and he bought a cheap phone (less than $20). It did the job so well that we went back and got one for me.

            While I seldom used that phone, it was, after all, for emergency use only, I soon discovered the joys of being able to call my husband whenever I was away.

            About two years ago we switched providers. A commercial appeared on television that said I could add a cell phone for $10 a month! I was overjoyed.

            I researched the various phones that the provider sold and settled on an iPhone SE. It was all I’d need.

            We went to the store, I held the phone and knew it would do. But…it was sold out. I panicked. I knew that if I didn’t get a phone then, I might never get one. So I chose the phone closest in price. It was not an iPhone.

            From the time I got it home I hated it. It was slow and awkward to use. It took forever to come on, it was hard to take pictures with it and it was slow when making phone calls. Texting was sheer torture. So I seldom turned it on.

            A few months ago I researched how to trade it in for an iPhone with our provider. It wouldn’t be all that hard and I’d get something in trade. But when I suggested to my husband that I wanted to do this, he said there was nothing wrong with my phone. (He had never tried to use it!)

            So I kept the thing in my purse but didn’t use it.

            Recently my daughter had an opportunity to check out my phone. She confirmed all of my complaints. It was slow and awkward. It jiggled when you took photos. It was hard to punch the right circle to make it do what you wanted it to do.

            She also told me that I could get an older iPhone for a little over $100.

            I was in agreement and after hearing my daughter’s complaints, my husband finally understood.

            While on vacation my daughter arranged for me to try out a phone that her Bishop was selling. I loved it! I am used to an iPad, so there was no learning curve as there had been with my current cell phone.

            There was one problem, however: you could only hear the person on the other end if the phone was on speaker. I hate speaker phone, so this was a huge problem.

            Thus began an online search.

            I discovered a trusted vendor sold phones that carried a 90-day warranty. My daughter and I perused the offerings. I’d find one, then it would be sold. She’d find one, then it too would be gone.

            This morning we finally found what I wanted! An iPhone 6s Plus is now on the way! I can hardly wait to for it to arrive.

            Way back when I panicked and bought my current phone, I should have taken the time to look at what iPhones they did have in stock. If I had, perhaps I would have been using my phone like other people do, as an extension of my arm instead of something stuck in my purse.

            It goes to show that panic buying is not the best choice.

            This is an apt metaphor for life.

            Anytime a person makes decisions on the fly, there’s a good possibility that she might later regret not taking the time to analyze, to be rational and careful.

Regret is a powerful emotion. Often times such decisions cannot be undone. They can cause irreparable harm, destroy relationships, cause a lost job or friendship.

It’s better to take time and make the right decision from the beginning.

I wish I had.

Mother

Gray hair that once was brown

Straight that used to curl

Not combing or brushing

Not washing or rinsing

Just tangling on her head.

Body so frail that once ran

Legs that can’t even stand

Not moving or twitching

Not lifting or stretching

Just resting in the bed.

Eyes that once so clearly saw

Every mistake, every flaw

Not blinking or closing

Not focusing or watching

Just staring straight ahead.

Mind that once measured

Each phrase, each meaning

Not thinking or dreaming

Not pitting or planning

Just forgetting all said.

Voice that once spoke

Of family and friends

Not whispering or shouting

Not bragging or lying

Just lost in a void.

Gone now.

Laid at rest.

Still.

Silent.

Peace at last.

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.  

The Shell

Walking along the beach

I found a shell,

An ordinary shell.

Perfectly formed.

Six rows of ridges

Ruffles

Completely round

Except for where it joined

Its twin when still whole.

It felt surprisingly cool

And light

As it its soul’s mate

Disappeared long ago.

As I stare out at the Pacific Ocean

I wonder where this clam

Might have lived

And how it got to this spot

On this day

In time for me to pick it up.

Years ago my family moved

To California

A long journey.

I felt the hollowness

Of forced abandonment.

Like the clam

I was not in charge of my destiny

That power lay in my parent’s hands.

I was an ordinary teen

No great beauty

Smart, but lacking common sense

Or so I had been told,

So I had no say in the decision-making.

My parents picked the city,

The house, even the school

All I did was move in

Confined by their overarching rules

Until I went away to college.

For years I drifted through life

Swept by the tides

Working at one job, then another

Until marriage grounded me.

Now I stand with feet deep in sand

Rejoicing in the gifts given me.

Much like this simple shell

Held in my hand.

Anything Goes

            The first time I heard this expression I didn’t think it applied to me. I was a follower of rules. Because of my home environment, I understood that straying resulted in physical punishment, ranging from being beaten with a belt, shaken, slapped and humiliated.

            The concept of anything goes was as foreign to me a Greek. There was nothing in my lexicon that allowed me to process the meaning.

            When I left home to attend college, for the first time in my life, no one hovered over me telling me what to do or ridiculing the decisions I made. It was terrifying and rejuvenating at the same time. If I wanted to skip a meal, I could. If I felt like sleeping in and not making my bed, my mother was not there to chastise.

            In essences, I could do whatever I wanted. The caveat was that I had to attend classes and earn grades good enough to graduate with a degree.

            When the Vietnam War protests began, I could march and carry signs expressing my opinion, knowing that my parents would be horrified. There was nothing they could do to stop me. It was only when smartly dressed me in tight fitting expensive suits with ear pieces arrived on campus, did I retreat from the movement. At that moment I couldn’t do whatever I wanted because I knew they were keeping track and most likely taking pictures.

            Once I was an adult, anything goes ceased to have meaning. I had to be present for my kids. I had to forsake my own wishes to teach in order to make sure the kids had food, opportunities to learn and explore, clean clothes and a responsible adult overseeing them. I did haul them to pottery classes, preschool, parks, parties, sports practices and games. I made sure they got to school on time with clean clothes.

            In other words, I was back to being a follower of rules.

            One advantage of getting old is that once again, rules disappear. Anything Goes is truly my motto. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can choose to not do something as well. My life is my own to monitor. I can go hiking with a friend or walk with my husband. I can write or read a book. I can send cards to family and friends or laze in front of the television. Laundry can stack up in the hamper until I feel like washing it.

            The only monitor I have is me.

            I hope that sometime during a person’s life they can fall under the umbrella of Anything Goes. It’s a powerfully liberating concept. Enjoy!

Thinking Back

Memory fails me, as I try to recall

those things that we did, both momentous and small

 

The many times that we laughed. Those that we cried.

The children born healthy, and old folks who died.

 

But as I grow older, my mind has begun

to forget the details, including the fun

 

things that we did, before our children were born.

When we were that young, was I ever forlorn?

 

Perhaps. As I part the mist that clouds my view,

I see a lonely place, before I met you.

 

My heart was heavy with worries, that’s true.

Sorrows befell my soul, until there was you.

 

With you the sun arose, brightening my way,

and so it continues, to this very day.

 

As I stroll through life, beauty I can now see:

blue sky, birds, butterflies, and the apple tree

 

under which we sat, and talked about our love.

And though it sounds corny, even the white dove

 

that flew high overhead as we pledged our vow

to love forever.  I remember it now!

 

Such a wonderful time!  A beautiful place!

The way we danced and the smile on your face.

 

A white picket fence.  The cookie-cutter house.

The cuddly kitten.  Yes, even a brown mouse.

 

Such an exciting time, those long-ago days.

Our children grew up, then went separate ways.

 

Those things that we did, both momentous and small

As memory tricks me, I sometimes recall.

What Could Have Been

I don’t spend time dwelling on

what could have been

if I’d done this or not done that.

 

I don’t lament those events

I missed or the wrong steps I took

As I floundered my way through life.

 

Instead I rejoice

In what I was fortunate enough to do,

and those things that I was a part of,

no matter how small or insignificant

it might have seemed to others.

 

I couldn’t always see

the sunshine due to tears that flooded my eyes,

sorrow that held my face to the ground,

and regrets that froze my feet in place.

 

Periodically the lenses of my eyes opened

and the black curtain parted

allowing a glimmer of light to break through

so that new horizons appeared.

 

Here I am in my twilight years

with dreams still appearing of things

I yearn to do, places I hope to visit,

without ever thinking

about what could have been.

Our Life Stories

 

all of life is a series of

nonstories

the might-have-beens

the almost becames

the things we dreamt of

doing

but never did

the wishes unfulfilled

presents never delivered

or received

places never visited

near-misses

chance occurrences

that developed into nothing

the left-behinds

and

soon-to-be forgottens

all stories untold

mysteries locked

romances closeted

things never experienced

foods never tasted

but secretly yearned for

nonstories frozen in place

and time

with no characters to lament

plots stagnant

themes dragging behind

do we obsess

over the lost stories

and live life in a

vacuum?

NO

we constantly create

our personal life stories

our dreams springing to

a life lived luxuriously

laughing joyously

over the endless

possibilities

Transformations

If you remove the normal transformations that we experience as we change from child to adult, I believe that I have been many different people.

I have always been shy. Put me in a crowd and I become a silent member of any group. However, when I am with trusted friends, I can find plenty to say. I love listening to my friends talk and then responding to whatever they bring up.

When I was a field officer for the IRS I had to knock on doors and enter businesses where I knew no one. It was terrifying. I knew that no one wanted to see me, but somehow I had to communicate how much they owed and establish a payment system. I learned a lot in that job.

First, I discovered that I had a voice. I had something important to say even if the message was not a pleasant one. This came in handy when I became a teacher. Conferences are tough. Parents show up hoping to hear that their child is a genius with hidden talents. Nice if that’s the truth, but not always the case. Imagine telling a parent that her child has a learning disability that will make reading/writing/math challenging? Imagine the looks on faces at that news. Then imagine yourself as the bearer of that news.

That’s what I did for 23 years. That’s who I was. The teacher who wanted to offer hope, to say that one day their child would wake up and the disability would be gone, but I couldn’t in good faith do that. So the person that I was at that time was the giver of negative gifts. It hurt.

Second, as a Revenue Officer I discovered that I could navigate myself around San Francisco, Walnut Creek, San Mateo, just about anywhere around the Bay Area. Not such a big deal now with all the technology we have, but it was then. I relied on a book of maps and directional instinct. This was a real confidence booster. Without my dad driving, I could get from point A to point B and then on to point C.

I used that planning skill when I began teaching. I read helpful books, but then I had to implement a curriculum that I had planned, from beginning to end. When finished, I evaluated the relative success of a lesson and then adjusted. I still got from point A to point B, but upon reflection often a divergent path was taken.

I relied on my IRS skills throughout my career, no matter the job title. While presenting at meetings still make me nervous, I knew I had the wherewithal to plan and execute.

As a wife and parent I used the same skills to run our household. Having never been much of a cook, now I was responsible for three meals a day for a growing family. Cookbooks became my new best friends. Some of those early recipes are still in use today, now prepared by my husband or kids for their families. I learned that I could follow directions and usually end up with something edible. That’s a real confidence booster.

For a while I was involved with our church’s women’s guild. At first I was an observer, but in time I was pressured to begin organizing things. At first it was Santa at a bake sale. Then it was as treasurer and eventually president. I didn’t like any of these roles, but because I knew how to plan, organize and implement, I pulled them off.

When we began traveling as a family I once again tested those skills. I created a checklist that included necessary camping gear that constantly had to be revamped when we discovered that key items had been left home. Like the time our tent poles were left in the garage or when we tailgated without the grill to the BBQ. But as organizer I learned how to make reservations, buy tickets and pay fees, all when the internet was a baby. It meant phone calls. Lots of phone calls.

All this organizational practice takes me to who I am today. I can do all kinds of things that my parents would have thought impossible. From the shy Kindergarten kid who never opened her mouth I have become a singer, a friend, a member of an extended family, a person who leads book talks and who reads stories in public. I do these things with much more grace than I did earlier in my life. I know how to ask questions that get people talking. I know how to respond with appropriate comments.

I treasure those fleeting moments when I realize how life has transformed me into the older woman I am now. Looking back, I would never have pictured me doing all the things that I now do; if I had stayed the course set all those years ago, I would be a lonely spinster with ten cats and five dogs clamoring for attention. They would have been my family, my companions.

Because I have been transformed, I am pleased with who I am.