Sunday, January 5, 2020

Angels in Our Midst

This story was prompted by a heart-warming posting of Arkansas Patti in November of 2019. In it, she encouraged her readers to share their own stories of unexpected generosity. Before sharing mine, I need to give you some background.

Between 1980 and 1984, I was the curriculum director for Winston Press in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For the position, which required traveling throughout the United States, I had to buy and wear professional clothing—suits, high heels, make-up. I never felt comfortable in those costumes. In truth, I felt like a painted mannequin. 

When I resigned and began to work in my home as a freelancer (1984-2001), I wore comfortable clothes: summer—shorts, T-shirts, sandals; winter—sweats, turtlenecks, loafers. And . . . no makeup. I always wore a size or two larger than necessary because I like my clothes to enfold me. 

Once, an acquaintance said, “Dee, you look like a bag lady. I know you don’t care how you look, but I’m embarrassed when I lunch with you.”

“Then don’t,” I said. And that was the end of that. 

Perhaps, in my oversized clothes, I do look like a bag lady. At least one experience shores up that possibility. It’s the story I’ll share with you today. (By the way, being a bag lady simply means that someone—it could be me—or you—is down on our luck.)

At 83, my hair is gray, my face lined. I’ve lost two inches in height, so I’m somewhat stooped. One winter afternoon, I went to Price Chopper to take advantage of a sale in the large grocery store. I was wearing sweats and a somewhat tattered and stained green winter jacket I’d bought from L. L. Bean in 1979. 

As I put my groceries on the check-out counter, I heard, “Mam?” 

I kept putting the cans on the counter. 

Then, a little louder, “Mam?” 

I looked beyond my cart. Next in line stood a young man, perhaps in his late twenties. He looked anxious.

“You mean me?” I asked.

“Yes, Mam. I want to fill up your cart. Anything in the store.”

Puzzled, I said, “Thanks so much, but I don’t need anything. Really.”

He glanced down at my cart. “Mam, I hate to think of you eating that.”

I looked at my items: 39 cans of Friskies cat food and 6 loaves of Cobblestone rye bread—both on sale that day. 

 “Mam, I can’t let you live on cat-food sandwiches. Please let me fill your cart. Please.”

The check-out clerk, overhearing the conversation, asked, “Mam, do you want to check out? Or shop some more?”

Bemused, I stretched a hand toward this benevolent stranger and said, “Thank you, but the cat food is for the three cats with whom I live—Ellie, Maggie, and Matthew. The bread’s for me. I have food at home. Truly. But you’re so wonderful to offer to do this. You’ve made my day.”

“Mam, please.”

“Truly, I’m fine,” I said. “But so many others need help.” 

He frowned, momentarily looked down at the floor, then raised his head, his eyes bright with a new idea. “Well, he said cheerfully, “could I give you some money?”

I broke into a wide smile. He was so dear. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m really okay. But maybe you could send a check to Harvesters or the City Union Mission for the hungry and homeless.”

He accepted my refusal with good grace, then, smiling, said, “I will, Mam. Really I will.”

 “I know you will,” I assured him. 

I checked out, thanked him again, and came home, my faith in the deep-down goodness of humanity reaffirmed. I hold that young man dear in my heart. 


Photograph of bread from Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

My Christmas Gift This Year

I’ve not blogged since November 3. The interval between then and now has schooled me in my own fragility. For several months before November, I’d dealt with the pain of bone on bone. Then on November 18, I had total left knee replacement. 

I’d had the same surgery—with the same orthopedic surgeon—nine years before on the right knee. All had gone well then. In fact, I looked back at the whole thing as almost “a walk in the park!”

However, from the 18thto about a week ago, nothing went as I thought it would. There were mishaps: two weeks of unexpected drainage; misinformation; much more pain than I’d anticipated—all because of the new protocol the surgeon now uses. One word describes these weeks: grueling.

Having no appetite, I’ve lost 8 pounds. For four weeks, I got no more than 2 hours of sleep a night because of knee and back pain caused by the new protocol. My spirits have been down. My family and friends have said, “We’ve never seen you this way before.” Normally, I ignore pain and look always for the best. I’ve been unable to do that this time.

But Tim, the outpatient therapist has been encouraging. Because of his suggestions and gentle prodding, I’ve left the despair of the first four weeks and entered a room lit by my hopes for full recovery. In the past week, I’ve become less self-absorbed, more aware of the wide world beyond my home. A plethora of wonderful human beings inhabit this world.

For me, this is the great gift of Christmas.

Nativity scene in Jerusalem in 2014 at the Church of the Assumption

Many of us may doubt whether the Bethlehem Christmas story every happened. We believe that Yeshua was born to Mary. But were there shepherds, kings, and angels? Did a star announce glad tidings? 

For myself, whether there were or not, doesn’t matter. The fact is I need this story each year to remind me that human beings are—by and large—wonderfully good.

I need to believe that I am freely given the gift of love without my having to deserve it. I’m given this gift daily from families and friends and from the unexpected stranger who journeys with me on the back-and-forth Uber/Lyft trips I take to therapy. During these trips, I’ve heard so many touching stories; been greeted by so much good will; been witness to the drivers’ hopes that all shall be well.

During this year, I’ve met kings—the famous and inspiring people whose words in books, songs, blogs, news stories inspired me. 

I’ve encountered shepherds—the homeless who live in cardboard boxes and who, in some ways, are the forgotten of society. They somehow hold on to life and look forward to good news—if not today, then tomorrow.

I’ve seen a star—a portent of the future and my hopes for it. I recognize its brilliance in the truth-filled lyrics of a song, the cadence of a poem, the compassion of a stranger, the pages of a book. All have encouraged me to hold on to my dream of writing until I can write no more. 

So you see, I need this Bethlehem story. It is a clarion call to me each year to embrace what life offers and to find the good in all. I forgot that during the weeks since the operation. I’m remembering it now. 

If it’s possible, let’s remember together.

May Bethlehem be the place where we all meet in good will and rejoice in the freely given gift of the good will of other human beings. 


Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Friend Who Mentored Me

On Christmas Eve, 1966, I left the convent after spending eight-and-a-half years there. One of the first persons I met after leaving was Robert Kraske. A publishing house in Ohio, had offered me work as an assistant editor of its weekly reader for the primary grades of Catholic schools. Robert was my boss.

On Sunday evening, January 22, 1967, Bob picked me up at the Dayton airport. I was sure he wondered how one talked to an ex-nun who still wore the pallor of the convent. Forging right ahead into unchartered territory, he asked a question that reflected a real interest in what I might reply. Then and there began the multitudinous conversations we had for the next 52 years. 

Rather quickly, I learned that Bob was, in general, always deliberate in speech, especially with regard to words. He was the first person to quote to me the famous line of Mark Twain. He did this while critiquing my first assignment under his tutelage.

"Dolores," Bob instructed, "Follow Mark Twain's advice: 'The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.'" I got his point and found a better word than the one he'd blue-penciled in the article.

Twain’s observation mattered to Bob who studied throughout his life the art of crafting words into books. He did this so successfully that twenty of his books for 10-to-14 year olds have been published. Often, during our long friendship, he’d stop me in mid-stream as I sounded off about writing, politics, aging. With genuine pleasure, he’d say, “That’s it, Dolores. That’s it. The right word.” He took delight in hearing or using the right word in any given sentence of composition or conversation. 

Bob became the mentor I needed so as to learn how to write for youngsters, how to delete excessive verbiage, how to hold fast to the thread that would guide the reader effortlessly through my writing.

In short, Bob taught me both to write and to edit. Thus, he gave me a career that lasted from 1967 to 2001 when I retired. During those years, he also taught me the art of writing longer books. It was Bob who gave me the advice that has kept me writing. 

Back in the 1990s, As I worked on a novel about Bronze-Age-Greece, he’d ask, whenever I visited him and his wife, Jan, “How’s the book coming?”

 “I’m still on Chapter 1. Polishing it.”

 “Dolores,” he’d say, “you’ve been on Chapter 1 for two months now. Start another chapter.”

“But, . . .”

“Keep going. Write each day and stop in the middle of a sentence. The next day, pick up from there. Do that until you get to the end of the first draft. Then. And Only Then. Will you know that you have a novel.”

“But, . . .”

“When you have the first draft, you have something to work with. You know you have a book in there somewhere. Then you rewrite. Edit. And finally, only after you know you’ve grabbed hold of the story, do you polish.”

“But, . . .”

“If you keep polishing Chapter 1, you’ll never get to the final chapter.” It was sound advice and I took it. Thus, Bob became the mentor of my writing to be published. 

Finally, Bob has been the mentor of my aging. I have watched him for years as he began to learn how to paint in acrylics, draw with charcoal sticks, and play jazz on a keyboard. Always and ever, he tried new avenues to explore. His curiosity about technique and process never faltered.

Always he read for new ideas and enjoyed nature during his daily walks around Stillwater, Minnesota. And always he embraced life: When Jan died, he learned to cook, collected recipes, paid bills, bought groceries, lived his life, adjusted to the new norm, welcomed his adult children home with meals he’d cooked for them, cherished their triumphs, helped them through the dark times, and remained steadfast. He was a man of great fortitude.

And always he was, for me, the living example of the following words by William Blake: “To see a World in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.”

I shall be missing Bob for the rest of my life. 

The photo, taken by one of his sons, is for Bob's 90th birthday. He died a few weeks short of his 93rd birthday in late November. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

My Bout of Loopiness

I’m not quite ready to write about my friend’s death. Instead, today I’ll share with you my recent trip to Emergency. 

I was born with asthma. As I grew older, Mom taught me to distract myself when I couldn’t breathe. “Dolores, if you think about breathing, you won’t be able to,” she said. “Distract yourself! Think about something else and breath will come.” She was right.

Later, I applied her advice to pain. If I dwelt on it, it got worse. So I distracted myself. Living alone, however, makes distracting oneself more difficult: there’s no one with whom to engage in conversation. 

Last Sunday, after 35 hours of a Meniere’s headache, I went to Emergency, with its many distractions. While my sister-in-law parked the car, I spoke with the receptionist. She asked for my social security; I didn’t understand. I opened my purse and gave her the first card I came to.

 “No, Mam,” she said, “This is Medicare. I need your social security number.” 

My mind dulled by pain, I kept pulling out cards. Finally, a glimmer came: oh, it’s the check each month. That’s social security. Stammering, I gave her the number. 

After that, I had an EKG, blood drawn, and a CT. Finally, a nurse—Danielle—led us to a cubicle. She was a gift from the Universe—so calm and so willing to distract me with information about her studying to become a nurse and what she was doing to help me. 

The first two meds she gave me had little effect on the pain. Then she prepared the morphine. While doing so, she said, “It might make you a little loopy.” 

I replied, “When I was in a small girl’s Catholic college back in 1954, we sang a song about morphine. We didn’t know what we were singing about, but we liked the beat!”

“Do you remember it?” 

When I told her I did, she asked me to sing it for her.

As Danielle began the intravenous morphine, I began to sing, normally at first and then, as the medicine went into my vein, with gusto: “Morphine Bill and Cocaine Sue—strolling down the avenue! Up from Broadway—down to Main—Just to buy some . . . . . . . Cocaine!!! Honey have a [sniff the nose], have a [sniff the nose] on me. Honey have a [sniff the nose] on me. Honey have a [sniff the nose], have a [sniff the nose] on me. Honey have a [sniff the nose] on me.” I ended the song on a resounding crescendo.

Danielle started laughing. Pulling aside the cubicle curtains, she hurried out into the hallway. Soon other nurses were laughing—an 83-year-old wrinkled-face woman singing about drugs back in the 1950s! Danielle came back in to tell me they thought it was a hoot!

I grinned at her and sang again—uninvited. The song took me back to hootenannies in 1954. To ukuleles. To be-bopping. 

When the headache had fled, a nurse came with a wheelchair. Danielle leaned down and whispered, “She wants you to sing for her too.”

As the nurse wheeled us down a long hall, I sang, shouting at the top of my lungs, about Morphine Bill and Cocaine Sue.  Passing nurses and doctors laughed and spurred me on.

At the end of the hall stood a couple with a six-or-seven-year old boy. The parents gaped. The boy’s eyes widened. The nurse leaned down, “Shhh! Shhh! The child! The child!” 

By then, we’d come to the foyer. Everyone grinned. The receptionist rose, leaned toward me, and whispered, “We’re feeling a little better now, aren’t we?”

“You bet!” I shouted and left the hospital—at my loopiest!


Friday, October 18, 2019

In the Interim

Several postings ago, I shared with you my decision to post every other Sunday for the foreseeable future. So this coming Sunday is my “regular” posting day. I hope that day to share with you a friendship of fifty-three years between me and Bob Kraske, my first boss after leaving the convent. He became my writing mentor; later, he became my mentor for aging. So I have a lot I’d like to share with you about Bob.

That’s for this coming Sunday.

Today, I simply want to express my regret for being unable to do any blogging for the past few weeks. I’ve visited a few blogs, but visiting has been erratic. I miss reading about what is happening in your lives, but Meniere’s headaches and joint pain have kept me lying low—mostly resting on the couch.

The headaches are like migraines in intensity. However, there is no extra sensitivity to light. Symptoms from Meniere’s can happen at any time, but are more evident when the barometer is bopping up and down—rising and falling precipitously. That especially happens when the seasons change: late March/early April and late September/early October are the most problematic times for me. 

This past Sunday, my sister-in-law drove me to Emergency because I’d had one of the headaches for 35 hours and it simply wouldn’t desist—no matter how much medication, prescription and otherwise, that I swallowed. It was, perhaps, the worse headache I’ve ever had. I had a vision of using a machete to cut off my head! Then I broke out laughing as I realized I’d have no way to reattach it!

After an EDG, blood draw, and Cat Scan in Emergency, I was given the first tier of medications. They didn’t do the trick, so I got the second tier—morphine.
Wow!  I’d never had morphine before. It’s quite a drug. I hope never to have it again.   

But the headache went away and something really amusing happened while I was in a loopy morphine state. I’ll share that with you in a couple of weeks. I hope I can make it as funny as it was. Arkansas Patti is able to not only tell but write stories that make me laugh out loud. I hope to follow her lead and do the same with this story. We’ll see if I can pull it off in early November.

The left-knee pain will soon be taken care of as I’m having replacement surgery on Monday, November 18. First it was scheduled for October 13 and then December 4, but it now seems that the 18thwill happen. I’ve been icing my knee twice daily and taking meds for discomfort. All is well. I’m just tired. I think pain does that—it tires us out.

So, all this is to say that I’m sorry I haven’t been visiting your blogs, reading them, and leaving comments. I hope that all is well with each of you and that you are able to live within the day and find the peace that dwells at the deep center of yourself.

Please be gracious to yourselves as you travel this journey we are all on.