Monday, August 30, 2010

Voices from the Gold Country

The Sonora Writers' Group has just published their first anthology, Second Saturday. I wrote the introduction to the book, and here it is.

You were expecting blissful accounts of life in the hills? Bliss may be the nuggets we hoped to mine from our conscious streams, but like the prospectors of old we came ill-equipped. Perhaps we weren’t as ready as we thought we were to let go of a job, a paycheck, daily involvement with our grandkids, Whole Foods, Trader Joe and Designer Shoe Warehouse. Perhaps our expectations were too high.

It’s not quiet here, it’s noisy! But, it’s different noise. These days, twittering birds wake us early. Twitters, blogs and emails still beckon, but our computers sulk darkly, no longer first to get our attention. We hear rocks spilling into a quarry below, dogs barking and voices drifting up from the cove. Live in the mountains and learn that sound rises.

Bliss is hard work! But we’ve found friends to adventure with, fellow writers to appreciate where we are on this journey, and good yoga teachers. And now, there are no more excuses. For most of us, age and place dictate that this is close to the last stop the train makes, and what a stop it is! No more waiting to retreat to a paradise where we can write; we live in paradise. No more waiting to retire; the economy grew tired of us. Like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, we can step out of the other side of the carriage that is rolling toward a destiny not of our desire. Instead of heading into “retirement,” we’ll explore a world without “work.”

With the exception of two of us still in tune to the work/life or school/life balancing act, finches are our alarm clock and seasons suggest the daily routine. There are no more paychecks to live between. Instead there are old relationships to nurture and new ones to cultivate. In this world without money, we’re told that five dollars will disappear from our wallets as easily as $100 used to; the difference is that now we must account for it in QuickBooks.

Happy are the hours we spend writing, encouraged by our time together the second Saturday of every month. We are the Sonora Writers Group.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Learning to Learn

This essay has been published on the AARP website.

Home ownership has always been the traditional American dream, dating back to the early settlers whose first actions were to form community and build shelter. Creating space where they were free to pursue their own endeavors fueled westward and immigration movements. Although I cherish the home that I own, my American dream is different. My dream was lit in my heart by my Kansas-born grandmother.

Opal Nellie Wolff left home at 16 to become a dancer in New York. A widow in her twenties with a young child to support she established a dance studio in Oregon, weathered depression and war, and fought poverty much of her life.

In her tiny cottage in Northern California she entertained me with stories of her life in New York, but always ended them with a caution. “The one thing I regret,” she said, “is that I did not get my education. There is so much to know in life. Promise me that no matter what you do, you will get your education.”

I grew up in the shadow of Stanford University and attended school with children whose parents were professors and founders of tech companies. It was assumed that they would go to college, but no one had that expectation of me, except Nana. When I told my father I planned to go to college, he told said, “That will ruin you for being a wife and a mother.” Then he got me a summer job in his office and helped me open a savings account. If I were going to college, I would need to pay for it on my own.

Two things made my days at U.C. Berkeley valuable. I realized that I was buying a degree, so I had to make the most of my time, but the thrill was getting an education. I didn’t know what I would do with my education, but that didn’t matter.

In college or university, you learn how to learn. Life-long learning helps you build on experience, figure things out for yourself and appreciate every stage of life. I have used everything I learned in my career in communications and my multiple roles as wife, mother, volunteer and grandmother.

The American part of this dream is that, despite dire headlines, education is available to all. A house can be repossessed but no one can take away your education. Nana told me that.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Letting Go

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

by Mary Oliver

My friend Sharon sent me this poem. I’m thinking about the process of letting my mother go. It’s time. My sister, husband and children, in the company of our pastor and his wife, buried my mother on Friday. Words of appreciation for her legacy were spoken. Strums on a guitar provided comfort, accompaniment for her journey.

The earthly tether of daughter to mother, mother to daughter, now is broken and we are both free. When the mortal coil is shuffled off, love doesn’t leave but the constraints of relationships – the responsibility of parent to child, child to parent, fall away. I do not believe that my mother any longer concerns herself with what I am thinking, nor is she privy to my thoughts. Maybe the biggest adjustment is that she is no longer “mom,” she is Shirley.

It comforts me to realize that she is no longer stuck at the end of a life she increasingly lost interest in because it was consumed by pain and loss. I believe she is now at the beginning of a new life that compels her entire focus. No looking back, and so I will live the rest of my mortal life without looking over my shoulder for her. That is, as soon as I can break the habit of reaching for phone to “call mom” to check in and keep her up to date.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Leaving the Stage

I’m feeling the truth of Shakespeare’s words –the world is a stage and we are the players.

Driving down the grade yesterday morning I had a vision of my mother’s final exit. Stoic until the end, fighting a lonely battle with life, she drew people in and pushed them away at the same time. She embodied all the mystery of life, fighting for autonomy while holding death like a secret within her. The feistiness that so often seemed to us to be misplaced endeared her to the staff that cared for her in her final days. Feisty woman, perhaps, was the role life assigned her.

Feistiness is a touchy and quarrelsome reaction but also a spirited one. Much of what my sister and I said to my mother ignited unintended, often shocking, responses. In retrospect, she cared deeply about things we didn’t pay much attention to. Things like politics, nutrition, privacy and family history.

Mom took her last breath early on the morning of August 1, 2010. In her final year, she grew more accepting of the love people offered her. Although we were by her bedside much of the time, I suppose it is fitting that we were not there when death finally came. By choice, she fought most of her battles alone.

In my vision, mom leaves the stage to join those behind the curtain – the producer, director, stage manager and technical crew who create the play. “Good job, Shirley,” they tell her, and they mean it. She has played the role she was cast in, interpreting her part to the best of her ability. She has served as a foil for others on the stage as they developed their parts, not an easy role but apparently critical to the success of a good play.

I look forward to the day when I can sit down with the real Shirley and we can share the good things in life everlasting. Will we reminisce about the life we lived in front of the dark glass? Who was the audience we couldn’t see? It is written in Psalm 8 that we are made a little lower than the angels. We know that they watch us. I think they surround us – a technical crew offering help and support and season ticket holders, appreciating the mystery God has wrought and the part we play in it.