Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Review of Memoir "Two More Years"


“What do you do?”

 

That’s the most common thing we ask—or so it seems to me—when first meeting someone. Generally, we mean, “What work do you do?” The answer helps us place the person in a category with others who do the same work. It gives us a starting point for discussion.

 

We could ask, “What’s your favorite movie?” Or, “What hobby do you enjoy?” Or, “What’s your best memory? Your worse?” The list goes on, depending on our own interests, our willingness to hear, “It’s none of your business,” or our ability to hear . . . and see . . . beyond the mask many of us wear. 

 

The questions, the answers for which I find myself most interested at this stage of my life, is “What do you ‘be’?” 

 

And “Do you be grateful for being?”

 

And “What have you learned in being?”

 

It is these three questions that are the main threads in the tapestry of events that make up the recently published memoir Two More Years by E. C. Stilson.

 

A memoir about living with Stage 4 melanoma of the bone may sound—and could be—a downer. A real deep down dark downer! However, Two More Years uplifts this reader, who is, admittedly, a friend of the author. 

 

At least that’s what happened when I read the memoir before bed during the last week. I read only a chapter or two at a time—not because of vision constraints but because my mind needed to consider, perhaps ponder, the story, the attitude, the experience, the philosophy of life, the gift the author was sharing with me.

 

Before reading her words, I knew first-hand that Elisa does not want to be defined by cancer. And yet, how can she not be for what she is experiencing is a defining moment in her life. A moment, which, like the 2020 Pandemic, halves our lives into “before” and “after.” 

 

In this defining moment that spans what? Weeks? Months? Years? Elisa has chosen to take the definition and flip it. Turn it on its head. She lets us know what cancer has done, is doing, may do to her body and to her sense of self. It is that she shares with us. That is, she lets us know what it has taken from her . . . and her family. 

 

Then, in almost each chapter, she shares with us what this insidious disease has given to her. It takes; it gives, just as any disease does. This memoir explores both the taking and the giving. As well, it reveals to us the possibilities of growth in the human spirit through the journey into the dark caverns of possibly a terminal illness. 

 

Yes, that journey, but also another: the journey into the glades of gratitude that await someone whose essence has been and continues to be that of joy.

 

My experience of Elisa is that she is like the sun. By that I mean that the sun lights up the day. When she comes into a room, she lights it up. She radiates joy and lifts our spirits—in life and in language.

 

 Throughout the memoir, she relates how the disease is progressing: when it retreats; when it advances; when it teases with expectations and when it disappoints with the advent of new tumors, new scans, new immunotherapy, new prognoses. 

 

It’s all there: the fear and the sorrow as well as the hope and the faith.

 

But what is also there—what is the main thrust of the story—is the realization on her part that she is One with everyone she meets. Twice before in these postings, I’ve quoted Philo of Alexandria who said, two millennia ago, “Be kind, for everyone we meet is fighting a great battle.” 

 

Elisa’s memoir uplifts instead of downloads. That is, she relates how again and again in the past months she has met someone who seemed to have a life much more “charming” than hers. Must less fragile. And, through conversation, listening, and opening her heart to possibilities, she finds that the person also is fighting “a great battle.” 

 

And aren’t we all? 

 

In some way, at some time in the span of our life, we fight a battle that can temper the steel of our being. What I find in her memoir—Two More Years (the prognosis given her in November 2020)—is that her tempering has led to great gratitude and a deep appreciation for the Oneness that connects us to all engaged in the battle to find, at the deep center of ourselves/the wellspring, the fortitude to embrace the moment, to live in the present, and to sing—yes, sing!—of the Holy Oneness of All Creation. 

 

That is, to understand that all of us are united in the quest to find the praise of gratitude. 

 

Peace.

 

PS: I’d give you a link for Elisa’s memoir on Amazon, but Google, to which I’m tied with this blog, seems to have done something that (1) doesn’t permit me to link and (2) doesn’t permit me to leave comments. I’m not sure whether you will be able to leave comments. But no worry, no sweat. Let’s just take wish the best to one another.




Monday, April 18, 2022

A Song for Youth & Age--Part 2

 

My previous posting detailed a few of my post-convent years. Accompanying that posting was a video of Judy Collins singing the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” for which Pete Seeger used eight biblical verses. Those verses have woven themselves into the fabric of my life.

Today, I’m returning to one line: “a time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing.” I want to share how that line impacted my life in 1967 and on my recent birthday. 

 

When I first heard Seeger sing those words, I’d just been released from the religious vows I’d taken in 1963. I’d taken them in good faith, trusting that in living them, I would more deeply abide in the community of Oneness. 

 

By November 1966, I was mentally ill, hallucinating, yet holding myself together so that I wouldn’t end up in an insane asylum. In a stupor, I walked away from my home of nearly nine years. I’d embraced that home, that life, those vows. Now it was time to cease from embracing them. But, oh, the feeling of failure, the disdain I felt for myself.

 

In that time of internal turmoil, Seeger’s song eased my mind. Trees embraced leaves in Spring; in Autumn, they let go of those leaves. Nature embraced; then refrained from embracing. 

 

Nature let go. Left the past behind.

 

“Turn. Turn. Turn.”

 

I, too, was part of nature. Given that, I began to think about the vows taken in marriage. For thirty years, I’d accepted the Roman Catholic’s teaching on divorce. If there was a season in which I could let go of my vows, then why not those who were married? Didn’t all people change with time? Weren’t they drawn inexorably to a fulfillment that they hadn’t even recognized at one time?

 

And that, of course, was the path to looking at all that I’d accepted as irrevocable. To look. To examine. To question. To let go of the rigidity of my certainity and to open myself to possibilities and alternatives. To see flip sides. To become, in a real way, a critical thinker willing to examine all my beliefs about everything and discover what, if anything, was immutable. 

 

That one verse on embracing led to the overturning of much I’d accepted as unalterable and helped me begin to let go of the judgmental attitude that there is only one way to be, to think, to act—and it’s my way! 

 

Flash forward to my recent birthday: A friend treated me to lunch. As we ate, we talked about aging. She expressed regret because she didn’t get more done each day. I found myself saying, “You know for everything there is a season. During this past winter, you made quilts for your daughter . . .”

 

“I haven’t quilted since Christmas,” she countered.

 

“Maybe,” I offered, “you’re in a new season, one of taking care of yourself. You’ve set a walking goal, and you’re accomplishing it!” 

 

Once home, I considered my own new season. As I’ve posted before, for decades, I believed I had to accomplish something every day to be worthwhile. While encouraging others to be gracious to themselves, I’ve demanded results of myself. What a masochist!

 

Ah, there it is: For decades, I’ve talked the talk; now has come the season to walk the walk . . . of letting go of always feeling that I am not enough. For me, now is a season of contentment in simply being; a season of delight in holding dear who I grew up to be.

 

At 10:30 PM on my birthday, content with where and who I am, I lay on my bed, put in my eyes the final drops of the day, and said to my mini-google, “Please play some music for me.” 

 

And guess what? 

 

The song Google chose, one I hadn’t heard in years, was Pete Seeger singing, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” 

 

Mystery and peace.


(PS: It's another mystery to me why white appears behind so many lines!)

Monday, April 4, 2022

A Song for Youth & Age (Part 1)


Fifty-six years ago, having left the convent just three months short of my thirty-first birthday, one of the songs I first heard was “Turn, Turn, Turn.” (Its title was also “For Everything There Is a Season.”) 

           For this song, the beloved folk singer Pete Seeger had composed music to accompany the first eight verses of Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The only lyrics he’d added were the refrain (turn, turn, turn) and the last verse on peace being possible even then . . . even now. 

During the escalation of the Vietnam War, I mostly listened to folk music. Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” became anti-war songs. Those two anthems radicalized me politically.

 Two other insightful songs, “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel and “All I Know” by Garfunkel, spoke to the recesses of my heart that I’d bolted and locked. The songs seemed to be the soundtrack for my life—emotionally, spiritually, politically. They charted my journey from where I’d been, to where I was then, to where I might be headed. 

At the time, three companions—three psychotic hallucinations whom I could both see and hear—accompanied me everywhere. Daily, the four of us imprisoned one another: one cheered me on, one cautioned me, one excoriated me. And I? I said nothing. I played a role that hid me from what I expected would be the loathing of others.

The two anti-war songs, plus the example of two friends whom I’d met in Dayton, Ohio, led me to protest the Vietnam War, which led to shotguns being aimed at me and guard dogs sicked on me. It also led to my meeting men who’d come back from the war, their hopes, dreams, and minds bruised and battered irrevocably by the war and by the reception they’d received on campus. 

In August 1971, after completing my studies for a graduate degree, I returned to Dayton only to learn—from a kind storeowner from whom I’d sought employment—that the FBI had a file on me and was encouraging those to whom I applied for work to disregard me. According to the bureau, I’d become both traitorous and unemployable. Fortunately, I was able to get a job in a factory beyond the city boundaries and later to teach at a drop-out center for Black students. 

In the late 1960s, while teaching at an inner-city school in Dayton, I’d taught students the history of slavery; taken them into the downtown area where many of them had never been; and written numerous letters to federal, state, and city government leaders about Civil Rights, racism, and segregation. I’d also written to department store owners who had no black mannequins in their window displays. I have no idea if that info was also in the file. And, if so, what it implied to the FBI.

I was not a true social activist for I was never arrested or jailed. I was in some season of my life that did not include imprisonment but did include gathering with others to right wrongs. 

The songs of the 1960s and early 1970s accompanied me from Minnesota to Ohio to New Hampshire to Missouri and back to Minnesota. They inspired me, helped me discover and name my loneliness and fears, and brought me ever closer to revealing to someone the three hallucinations who hounded me. 

As my life changed in those turbulent times that ultimately, for me, became years of settling down, finding a career, and discovering my passion for writing, Seeger’s song especially continued to speak to me: “For everything there is a season.” I found new meanings in it as my experiences evolved. 

That’s what his song did then when I was young in thought and hope. In my next posting, I hope to share with you what happened on my recent birthday that connects Seeger’s song with my aging. 

Peace.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Personal Observation on Aging

 

Reading "Le Figaro" by Mary Cassatt 1878

Besides my own experience of aging, I’ve read two books recently the themes of which have led me to reflect on the journey to Beyond that may include aging and aging some more and finally just being OLD!

That’s where I find myself now. In less than two weeks, I will celebrate my 86th birthday. I had such plans for my eighties. So many books I wanted to write and share with readers. So many friends here and there with whom I wanted to stay in touch—to know what was happening in their lives, how aging was going for them. Had they found contentment, fulfillment, the heartwish at the end of the rainbow of a long life?

 

For me, the decade of the eighties began well. I wrote daily, not with any idea of self-publishing but simply because to write was to be in the present and in Presence. Writing is quite simply a form of prayer for me in which I discover the Holy Oneness of All Creation. That is, I discover that, in truth, all has worked out for good throughout my life no matter what tragedy . . . sorrow . . . setback . . . loss has occurred.

 

This does not happen unless in Oneness others have supported or consoled me. Rejoiced with me. Grieved with me. Been there when my mind was muddled; my heart bruised; my spirit depleted. All who raised me; all who taught and educated me; all who have befriended me are with me still whether living or in the mystery and grace of Beyond. 

 

Yes, the eighties began well. The first two years, I worked on a memoir. Unable to interest an agent in representing my writing, I decided—with the help of two other women—to self-publish. My niece Linda took my words and made books; Sally, a long-time friend, created covers.  

 

So, in 2018, the three of us worked together to publish Prayer Wasn’t Enough: A Convent Memoir.That same year, we came out with new editions of A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story and A Cat’s Legacy: Dulcy’s Companion Book.

 

The Life book had been published twenty-five years before. For its anniversary, I wrote a reflection on how the book first got published. For the Legacy book, my niece did new formatting that made the book more appealing visually. 

 

Thus, 2018, when I was 82, was both busy and fulfilling.

 

In 2019, the three of us published the novel The Reluctant Spy, on which I’d worked, off and on, for twenty years. Also, that year we managed to produce another cat book—The Gift of Nine Lives—which I’d written in my late seventies.

 

Then . . . nothing. Not because I had nothing I wanted to write, but because I couldn’t find the motivation . . . commitment . . . energy to journey for months, or maybe years, with another book. 

 

What does this have to do with aging?

 

My observation: The furnace of accomplishment that had always flamed within me no longer warms the room in which I now reside at almost 86. For years as a free-lancer, I met numerous deadlines; worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for a month; rested, recouped, and then began the next project.




The Fisher Girl by Winslow Homer 1894


No more. I could say that my mental capacities have waned. Or that my energy has withered. Or that I no longer cherish what used to fill me with wonder.

 

And maybe some of that is true. However, what is also true is that I want less responsibility. I resist being tied down to a schedule—no matter how flexible it is. I want to sit on the screened-in porch and let my mind and heart embrace with gratitude the wonder of my life. Or, simply become absorbed in the story another writer has fashioned.

 

In two weeks, I hope to say more about aging. More in general, not the specifics of my life. 

 

Peace until then. 

 

Both paintings from Wikipedia articles on Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer

Monday, March 7, 2022

A Column, A Book, A Realization


The digital copy of the New York Times appears daily on my computer. Its headlines keep me abreast of the news. Since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020, I’ve seldom watched the national news or even the PBS NewsHour.

 

The truth I discovered back in 2020 is that the news distressed me, and if I let it, it plunged me into anger, confusion, and fear. 

 

Given that stress exacerbates most health concerns, I decided to sort of “cold turkey” listening/watching newscasts. However, I do read the NYTimes headlines—not the articles—so as to have some knowledge of what is occurring in the world beyond this room in which I find joy in writing.

 

For over a week, since Russia invaded the Ukraine, I have watched the PBS NewsHour. I was five when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and we entered World War II. Now, eighty years later, I’m eighty-five and find myself on tenterhooks about the possibility of a third world war.

 

But the NYT brings me more than news of the world beyond this small room. It offers me columns that stretch my mind, gentle my heart, and bring laughter to my belly. One of the columnists I’ve followed for several years is Frank Bruni. I delight in his phraseology and humanity. He always astounds me with the depth of his empathy and his ability to truly see that we are all united in whatever makes us human.

  

Bruni is now in his fifties. After a rare stroke compromised his vision several years ago, he accepted a teaching position at Duke University in North Carolina, however, he continues to write occasionally for the NYT.

 

During his distinguished career as a journalist, Bruni’s written four books, all of which have received accolades. His latest book, which I got from our library as an audio book read by the author, is The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found. 


In it, he shares the story of waking up to discover that his eyesight was not only diminished but erratic. Bruni announced the publication of this memoir in his column on 2-17-22, which he entitled “How Many of Us Just Fake Our Confidence and Calm?” That title led him into his own experience with vision lost and found.

 

In reading his column that February day, I thought of something Philo of Alexandria had said back in the final years BCE. I quoted him in my posting of July 13, 2021. This Jewish philosopher said then, “Be kind, for everyone we meet is engaged in a great battle.”

 

Bruni doesn’t quote Philo, but he is saying the same thing in his February posting—that we all live with, struggle with, suffer with, feel shame or despair for something that has brought us low . . . but may also raise us high. Because of that realization, life calls us to awareness and its gift of kindness.

 

His memoir so tenderly and gently shows us the path he’s taken to find “beauty in the dusk” of vision. And it shows us, too, that we do not need to hide the “great battle” in which we are “engaged.” Everyone we meet is struggling. So let us be aware. 

 

In being human, let us be One.

 

The URL for the column is as follows:


https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/opinion/happiness-confidence-struggle.html






Peace:

In today’s world can we live within ourselves and with others in peace?

Surely what is happening in the Ukraine and what is happening with those refugees from Central America who seek asylum in our country because of the violence and murders and gangs in their own country and what is happening in so many places throughout our world tells us that we must find a way to study peace, to embrace it, just as for centuries our leaders have studied war.