Many months ago I began to celebrate and keep a Sabbath each and every week.  Since Roman Catholicism adapted the Jewish Tradition by moving The Sabbath Day to Sunday, I gratefully offer to our Creator God all that transpires from 5:30 PM on Saturday through 5:30PM on Sunday .  For me that means avoiding all activities that get in the way of mindfulness about my place in Creation, and welcoming (with good humor and wonder) whatever opportunities for Grace and Loving Service present themselves.  That is not to say that I always succeed at such noble goals because, I am, after all, a most foible-ridden older woman.  But I have been trying…

…which reminds me of a story:   Once when my kids’ stepdad and I were in the middle of a wrenching conversation, and I was quite literally at my wits’ end emotionally, crying and quite dramatically lamenting, “…but I’m trying so hard, I’m really trying,”  he leveled a ‘look’ at me and replied, “You are.  Very.”  It’s been a little over 30 years since  that exchange and, to be honest, I’ve thought it quite wry and witty for at least 25 of those years.  Truth be told, “Himself” really enjoyed a fine sense of humor.  I bring it up here because in light of  my Sabbath aspirations that I flub occasionally, I can’t help but think that my personal Guardian Angel says the same thing about me fairly regularly.  “Oh, look at the poor Dear–she’s trying again.  She is so trying.”

So, today whilst I tried to keep a mind-full and meaning-full Sabbath, I happened upon a meditation by Madeleine L’Engle that I feel compelled to share here.  In a world of ever-growing divisions and disturbing partisanships, she writes of ‘praying inclusively:’

“God be in my thoughts, and in my heart.  In my left hand and in my right hand.  Atone me.  At-one me with you and your love.  Help me to pray for those I fear as well as those I love, knowing that you can take my most ungracious prayers and give them grace.   Whenever we pray, we are tapping the power of creation, and that’s a mighty power.  There are a lot of battle lines to cross in order for us to pray with each other, and with the rest of the world, with those who do not agree with us, with those who worship God in ways we do not understand.  But that is all right.  We do not have to understand.  We do have to try to turn to love, to know that the Lord who created all, also loves all that which was made.”  (A Stone for a Pillow:  Journeys with Jacob, Madeleine L’Engle, 1986.)

May you be blessed with the inspiration to create for yourself a Sabbath–a day of peace, wonderment, some quiet, and if all else fails, a benevolent ruckus full of family, friends, laughter, and Love.  Always Love.

 

One of the coolest things during this time of Life is having a sibling close in age to you.  Ironically, one of the many frustrating things during this time of Life is having a sibling close in age to you.  On the one hand, there is the great blessing of the Shared Memory Thing, wherein you have someone else to affirm and confirm what  went on during the Way-Back-When.  On the other hand, there is the That is Not What Happened Thing, wherein you have someone else contradicting your version of what went on during the Way-Back-When—that ages-old conundrum that demonstrates how two human beings, existing in the exact same place, at the exact same time, with the exact same cast of supporting characters, witnessing the exact same event can recollect entirely different happenings.

Remember how I reflected upon the advent of my cursive career?  And how I mentioned in passing that the ballpoint pen had not been invented when we first began practicing and perfecting our penmanship?  Well, when my brother (who was born a year and eleven months after I was) heard what I had written,  he disagreed strongly with my perception of the order of our pencil-to-fountain-to-ballpoint pen experiences.  His memory informed him that the ballpoint came first. And so, what ensued was what you would expect:  we parried words  a bit until he gracefully backed off (this time).  But that got me thinking, even though I was convinced that I was remembering accurately.  So, I did what any self-respecting older sister in my shoes would do:  I ‘googled’ the timeline for the invention of the ballpoint pen.

Here’s what I learned:  First of all, I made a mistake when I said that the ballpoint had not been invented by my third grade tenure.  The ballpoint pen was actually first invented and marketed in the late 1800’s (by a couple of Hungarian brothers) although it was not commercially successful nor widely available until about the late 1940’s when the Papermate arrived on the scene.  A major design flaw had always been the inability to produce ink that would flow properly–it was always too thick or too thin and that made the ballpoints unreliable.  It wasn’t until the Bic came along in 1952 that the ballpoint pen made its way into the more mainstream markets-and within a few years of that, into our elementary school experiences.  Since the nuns tended to be purists and sticklers for aesthetics, they most likely held on to the fountain-pen-first model as long as possible until the ballpoint pens were perfected.  That might explain the timeline for our penmanship tools introduction(s)–as I recollect them.

I appreciate Michael’s wondering about the accuracy of my account because he lived those years right along with me, and I have come to rely on him more and more to either fill in some blanks in our childhood or to simply re-live with me lots of the most fun and edifying events in our shared adventures.  In addition, because of our individual relationships with our parents, we each have a very particular sense of who our parents were during not only those formative years but also later on.  Michael understood things about Dad and Mom that I never could because of how they each related to him;  the same could be said about my understanding of our parents.  Now that Michael and I are so much older, and our parents have been gone quite a while, and since we are ourselves aging parents and grandparents, we can fill in the blanks about Mom and Dad for one another.

I don’t know how it is for other siblings but that filling-in-of-the-blanks has helped me immensely in the past several years.  I have gained a much better understanding of my parents (and my relationships with them) by seeing them through not only Michael’s eyes and his memories, but also through the way he is as an older man, and the way he, himself parents his own kids.  I wonder if it works that way for him when it comes to being around me.  Maybe I should ask him.

I think I will.  Someday.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago when I first learned to write, and other times it seems like just yesterday.  I can recall  clearly not only the classroom in which Mother Anna Maria and Miss Gutierrez guided our third grade hands, but also the practice exercises courtesy of The Palmer Method (of handwriting).  We all used that  helpful wide-ruled horizontal paper with the dashed line running between two solid lines so that we could keep lower case letters where they belonged.  There were  regularly scheduled daily exercises that could be connected loops or parallel up-and-down lines that we practiced keeping between the two solid lines or between the dashed line and the bottom solid line.

In those days, we used pencils to print and to practice our cursive (and to do arithmetic);  good ol’ #2 Ticonderoga pencils–not #3s because they were too hard, too faint, and tore our school paper too easily.  Once we were well and truly introduced to cursive, tested, graded, and reasonably proficient, we ‘graduated’ to fountain pens and ‘big kid’ paper (still wide-ruled but no dashed lines).  I remember my brown Esterbrook fountain pen to this day, and I became quite adept at refilling it from a bottle of blue ink.  The points or nibs all had to be a certain number or a medium point.  No fine points.  The pen itself  had a small bladder in the barrel, and I dipped the point (nib) in a bottle of ink, pulled out and down  a thin metal piece on the side of the barrel, and then slowly brought the metal piece back up into the barrel.  This action would have refilled the bladder inside so that the ink could flow freely once more down into the nib or point.  Most of us ended up with blue smudged, slightly calloused areas on the inside of the first joint of our middle finger where the bottom of the pen barrel was pressed when we wrote.

Although there were a few desks in those early years that retained the inkwell carved into the upper left corners, they were all replaced by the end of second or third grade.  We also, in our pen and pencil cases,  all carried blotters–rectangles that I’m guessing were about 5 or 6 inches long by probably 3 and 1/2 or 4 inches wide.  These were on our desks whenever we were writing, so that we could, well, blot each line as we completed it.  I wonder it you can even buy blotters anymore, other than the large desktop ones that really don’t function as  blottable (is that even a word, I wonder?) surfaces.  I remember also marveling at how the very few left-handed kids could avoid smearing the ink considering the directions in which they canted their paper and angled their forearms.  Amazing.  And we were only in third grade!

On our report cards was a line for ‘Penmanship’ in the same general area as conscientiousness, neatness, appearance (as in personal appearance), and some other noble trait.  If you turned in a messy paper, with smears and inattention to neatness, you were graded down or lost points–even if your answers were 100% correct.  In case you’re wondering, ballpoint pens weren’t invented yet (egads! that sounds so weird!), so we used fountain pens for quite a few years.  And, of course, if your cursive was illegible and careless then the same rules applied.  Consequently, almost all of us learned to write with care and consideration of whomever might be reading our work–whether a teacher at school or a Grandma to whom we sent a thank you note.

People often comment on my handwriting, and I always give credit to the good nuns who trained me and encouraged all of their students in their handwriting efforts.    I consider the fact that I enjoy cursive a gift on many levels.  For me, and for many of my generation, handwriting is still something of a discipline, a courtesy, and an art.  It is a singularly unique way to express oneself.

There is a movement away from cursive for kids in our culture, and I believe that is a great shame.  I hope it doesn’t happen soon, for my Grandson’s sake, and for the sake of all of our children.  I sincerely hope that we can turn around such a trend, and  I think that maybe  this might be a conversation for another time.  Just maybe.

 

It is my great pleasure to teach Logic and Rhetoric to middle schoolers in a unique and wonder-filled private school.  And, yes, you just read that correctly: middle schoolers learning classical Logic and Rhetoric. Not only can they but they actually come to love it all. When they find out that it is entirely possible to argue with their parents (or other adults in authority) without being grounded, they are more than willing to buy into a magical mystery tour of the origins of common sense, critical thinking, philosophy and logic–as espoused by the likes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Democritus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and many other great thinkers.  Coolest job in the world, believe me.  And I’ll write more about my work in the days and weeks ahead.

This week, I’m in the middle of one of three times in our school year when we prepare progress reports for our students–like a report card, they note the student’s progress over an approximately 13 or 14 week span.  Although it can be tedious to prepare up to 60 or more progress reports, it is also something much more.

To my way of thinking, the writing of each report is akin to a kind of meditation: I’ve prepared the space and myself so that I can concentrate, and I’ve assembled what I need to evaluate each student’s work and write thoughtfully of his or her presence in my working life and the lives his or her peers in the class. I try to remember to breathe deliberately and evenly while my mind’s eye sees clearly each student as if we were face-to-face.  Many times, I’ll ‘see’ –or my memory will replay–a recent classroom experience that makes me laugh out loud or pause in wonderment at the often unexpected genius and generosity of spirit that this age group  exhibits day in and day out– toward one another, their world-at-large, and me.

My hope and prayer is that I not only write what is true about each student and his or her progress but also that I acknowledge and encourage the inherent wonder, goodness and dignity of each youngster.

My students: They amaze me.  They inspire me. They truly do. I can’t wait to see how they better our world because they’ve already bettered mine.

To inaugurate this year’s Writing Experience I offer this peculiar wee factoid:  On this day in 1307 it is held that William Tell took aim at the apple on his son’s head and let fly the arrow that made the telling of young Tell’s forbearance a more repeatable tale than it might have been.  Or, get this:  on this day in 1477 an Englishman named William Caxton created a foreshadow of Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations when he published his ‘Dictes & Sayengis (sic) of the Phylosophers.’  (For a complete word and quote nerd like myself, this is incredibly entertaining.)

Speaking of words and quotes and old books, my elder, widowed friend and I have been enjoying the early chapters of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time.  In fact, I’ve been reading to Maxine for the past few months and this is the second book in what may become a long and entertaining list.  Prior to Wrinkle we plowed right through (every pun intended) a favorite contemporary memoir, Little HeathensHard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.

(This is absolutely a must-read if you grew up in the Depression or if you knew someone who did and he or she told you stories or passed stories to others who then told you.  The book is worth every penny as a mighty-fine read-aloud or as a treasure trove of recipes for home remedies or simply wonderful foods.  Imagine my delight when I came upon Millie’s recipe for headcheese–including how to clean the pig’s head which was one of her chores with the other little kids in her family.  Please note that if that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to you, then there are many, many other lovely and more palatable adventures to enjoy.  Also,  Millie grew up to be a university English teacher and man, oh, man, can she ever spin a fine memoir.)

Back to reading A Wrinkle in Time to Max.  When my kids were in middle school and early high school I read L’Engle’s book(s) to them; I’m not quite sure why I commenced the reading-aloud of the books but it made for some powerful and lovely memories.  I went on to read at least one other series to them during those years.

So, here’s the Special Thing that happened today while I was reading to Max:  Garrett (No. 2 Child and No. 1 Son) was working in the big room in which we were sitting; he had been busy most of the day and was winding down and cleaning up.  I hadn’t paid much attention to what he was doing other than when he alerted me that he was about to drill and I would stop for a moment while he did.

As I was reading the story to Max, and she was enjoying the dialogue amongst the characters, I caught the sound of Garrett chuckling and laughing, too.  He was overhearing what I was reading and not minding it at all!  How I loved that!  His 40-year-old manly appreciation for the story not only took me by (most pleasant) surprise but also catapulted me back to a time when things were often tough,  but Mom-reading-to-the-Kiddos surely was a bright spot.

In addition, when G was under the weather recently, I read a couple of chapters to him from Little Heathens about some heirloom tomatoes and potatoes that Kalish’s family grew.  (We just might see about ordering some for G’s big garden next spring.)  When I finished reading to him, Garrett commented on how “that still does it for me, Ma–puts me right into relaxed.”  How nice to hear that what happened all those years ago still has to power to soothe, to relax–in spite of daily struggles, weekly challenges, and those pesky family issues that occasionally disturb.  And what a nice incentive to keep on reading aloud.

Tell you what:  Max and I are permanently building this into our time together, and when I get married, my Man and I will read to one another–as long as we can see.

The year that I was a sixth grader stands out because that was the year that I gave my first-ever public speech.  As I recall, the topic could be pretty much anything, or at least I don’t remember any particular restrictions on subject matter–a rather brave assignment by the teacher, really, considering we were 10- and 11-year olds.  In retrospect, it occurs to me that the speech was to be some sort of exposition–a story.

Since from all accounts–especially Mom’s–my Dad possessed ‘the Gift of Gab,’ I asked him to help me write my speech. After all, Dad was chock-full of stories about his growing-up years during the Depression in Council Bluffs, Iowa, about his years in the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps), and about his service as an enlisted Marine onboard the battleship U.S.S. California (BB44) in the Pacific during WWII.  Unlike some other combat veterans, Dad shared easily with us many stories of particular battles-at-sea,  and vivid accounts of life aboard a Navy vessel as a Marine.  My brother, Michael, and I had heard these stories over supper for our entire young lives .  In fact, Victory at Sea was a weekly TV staple for us because there were times that the battles in which Dad served were right there in black-and-white in our living room–and he served in almost all the major encounters-at-sea with the Japanese.

Now, about that speech that was looming over my sixth grade head…

Dad enlisted in the Marine Corps right after Pearl Harbor and would be assigned to BB44 as soon as she was put back together and declared ready to return to sea.  She’d been hauled up out of the mud, re-fitted, re-manned and sent back into the Pacific with a crew of Navy and Marine personnel.  Dad had talked his way into Gunnery School and ended up manning a 20-millimeter Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun with another young Marine corporal named Kenny McMillan.

It was about Kenny McMillan that my Dad would have me speak.  Here I was, a little girl of 10 or so, and Dad encouraged me to stand in front of my teacher and my classmates to tell them of this young kid who went to war and stood right next to my Dad (another young kid, truth-be-told) in the anti-aircraft gun turret.  I don’t remember where home was for Kenny McMillan but wherever it was–and whomever he claimed as Family–made an indelible impression on my impressionable young Dad.  Dad made it very clear that before anything else was said I needed to know that Kenny was his good friend.

Dad and Kenny were manning that Oerlikon–taking turns firing that huge gun and loading the ammo from the top into the magazine.  A big, noisy, risky job that invited the deadly attention of the Japanese fighter pilots and kamikaze pilots who were trained to take out those guns as soon as possible in any encounter.  Two very young men standing smack dab in Harm’s Way.  Time after time.  Battle after battle.  Only one of them destined to return to their home and waiting loved ones.  A kamikaze pilot finally made it through the gauntlet of anti-aircraft gun fire, took out the con tower and blew apart the turret in which Dad and Kenny stood.  Kenny was killed instantly (blown apart right next to Dad).  Dad was knocked out when flying red-hot shrapnel tore through his helmet and ripped open one side of his head.  Dad and The California were taken out of commission and eventually escorted back to Bremerton, Washington and Mare Island for recuperation and repair.  Once again, BB44 was dry-docked.  Dad was never able to connect with Kenny’s family.

As I recollect that day in my classroom,  I do remember wondering why everyone–including the teacher–was so very quiet and still.  Of course now I understand how very unusual it was for a little, shy, curly-haired Catholic school girl to lay out such a story in a speech assignment.   I was so intent on making that speech and earning an A that the significance of Kenny McMillan’s story escaped me completely for most of my life.

You see, I owe Kenny McMillan an immense debt of gratitude–and not only for the utter and complete and obvious Ultimate Sacrifice  for his Country that he made in that gun turret.  That is one issue, for sure.  The larger, more significant one for me is what the loss of his life meant for me and my Dad.  Dad and I rarely enjoyed any one-on-one time that would have helped me get to know who he was besides being my bigger-than-life, uber-strict, rarely-tender, immensely stoic Father.  Somehow I could read between the lines of Kenny McMillan’s story–I could look through a window of my Dad’s soul that was usually closed and shuttered, and realize that he was still processing how Kenny’s death (the loss of his comrade-in-arms, literally) affected him deeply and forever.  In his own way, in his own inimitable style, Dad was giving Kenny the eulogy he never got to give by making the story simple and eloquent–and making it possible for me, a small, less-than-eloquent girl-child to finally deliver that eulogy.

My Dad and I shared a love of words.  Written, spoken, engraved, you-name-it.  We didn’t share emotional words, though.  Or very many tender words.  But we both loved story.  A good yarn.  A helluva read.  Like Kenny McMillan’s short story.  And for that I wish to publicly thank Corporal Kenny McMillan, USMC.  Thank you for your Sacrifice, Kenny–thank you for being my Dad’s comrade-in-arms, his friend.  Thank you for your Service.  May you be resting in Peace, and may you and my Dad have re-connected in that Marvelous and Wonderful Beyond.

 

 

The steep hike up that hill was relatively and mercifully short although I found myself chanting silently, “Just climb, Woman, just climb–steep-but-short it is, so just climb!” Astonishingly, although I had not deployed my LaMaze breathing techniques in years, those old patterns helped propel me up this and several other of Howth’s hills. The rain was coming down by now in big, fat, shimmering globules and I was good and winded as I found myself walking out onto a beautiful grassy bluff. The narrow lane coming up from the Abbey had opened at the top to a perfect panorama of the West and East Piers in the harbor all the way around to the Cliff Walk that I had hiked yesterday over Balscadden Bay. Dozens of sailboats were literally bobbing at their moorings or racing across the white-capped waters between the harbor and Ireland’s Eye. And right in front of me, just across the last short expanse of grass, stood the Martello tower that had drawn me up here. A small sign stood like a miniature sentry at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the entry door; it read: “Ye-Olde Hurdy-Gurdy The Museum of Vintage Radio…Displaying over 100 years of Original Exhibits ‘From the Wireless to the Web.'”

[A Martello tower is a very short (by today’s standards) 3-story circular stone structure (tower). They stand near shorelines and were used as look-outs to watch for invaders; in Ireland they are scattered all around her coast and have been there since Napoleon’s time. In Corsica there is a Cape Martello where its tower was taken by the British forces in 1794; hence, the name. Some of these towers are crenellated, giving them the appearance of sawed-off and displaced castle battlements. This one in Howth is not crenellated–it resembles an upside down, ironstone flower pot without the tray.]

I climbed 17 steps up a white metal staircase affixed to the 2nd-story opening on the side that faced North (out toward the Irish Sea); there were only a couple narrow window-type openings at the 3rd-story level. Once inside, I stood positively transfixed by the amount of radios, phonographs, telephones and other electronic equipment and accoutrement arranged in there–two full floors, one of which is accessed by descending a claustrophobia-inducing circular staircase running inside between the 2nd and bottom floor. An Irishman had collected all the items over the past 50-plus years and struck a deal with Somebody Important to house his collections in the tower. A most interesting and entertaining former public servant named Michael had been hired a while back to manage the museum and provide hands-on demonstrations of as many of the items as visitors might request. Every single item in the museum was in absolutely mint condition and actually worked! Even the hurdy-gurdy.

I just watched a video that I took of Michael cranking and turning and dialing switches on the most unusual objects–some recognizable from old photographs and movies. I was astonished by the marvelous sound that emanated from old stereophones, gramaphones, radios, etc., and never more so than when I heard the recorded (on a was cylinder, no less!) voice of Eamon DeValera himself–national hero and long-ago former Irish Prime Minister. A courtly man–and an enthusiastic guide–Michael walked me through those collections, offering me glimpses of old, beautifully polished and preserved bits of Irish and other world history. He picked up a medium-sized wooden frame containing a tinted photograph of the and classic actress Rita Hayworth. It had hung on the wall in a French home during WWII and the Nazi occupation of France; on the back there were wires and dials of a radio which was a forbidden item in the occupied areas homes. The Nazis would come through the house and see a framed picture of an American movie actress and walk right by without ever suspecting that it housed a radio.

One of the funniest items was a green (plastic) chameleon standing on a brown, wooden log; the front side of the log was imbedded with the white push buttons of a phone. When the phone rang, the chameleon raised up on its hind legs, a light in its belly pulsated a sequence of red, yellow and then green lights, and the song ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club (Boy George) began to play. To make or receive calls, you lift up the back of the chameleon which is the handset for the phone. A lady from the north of England had sent the phone to the museum because of a design flaw: when you answer the phone, the song continues to play at the same volume until you hang up–making it impossible to carry on a conversation. In the background on the video you hear a man laughing his head off, making me laugh as I’m filming. That man was Michael’s older brother, Peter, who surprised Michael by dropping in the museum that afternoon.

Michael had lost his long-time public service job several months before and had experienced a tough time finding work until the museum gig came under his radar. Although part-time, the work suited Michael brilliantly and he loved introducing visitors to the remarkable collections; Peter had been worried about Michael and had not seen him nor had he any idea of what Michael was up to. Now, these are older men, mind you–Michael is probably pushing his late 50s and Peter probably late 60s, maybe 70. The love between them was obvious, deep, and warmly affectionate; it was apparent that Michael wanted older brother Peter to feel as good about Michael’s new endeavor as Michael did. Let me say right now that Peter was not only stunned by the depth of the collections and their integral places in Irish history but also he was absolutely fascinated and charmed. It was a great and rare privilege to watch the brothers interact so lovingly and easily, and to notice how much more relaxed they both became the longer they visited. Peter is a university professor and his obvious delight and deep interest in the collections were marvelous to behold as was Michael’s overt happiness in sharing something with Peter that Peter had never before seen, let alone heard or touched.

I’d been in the museum for over two hours when I convinced Michael that I needed finally to continue my amble up to The Old Village. I could have stayed there until closing, listening to those two reconnect and spend some unexpected quality time with one another, expressing themselves with their wonderful Irish voices and euphemisms. I could have.

But they needed their time without me hanging around. And I needed time to let all that I’d seen and heard settle in my heart and soul–it was that special.

And to think that I still had one more day here. With every panting breath up the hills to the Old Village I whispered, “Thank You, God.”

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