DAVID RAE SMITH, OPERATIC BARITONE

I had barely put the final touches on my last book Blackberries and Biscuits, the story of my mother’s life and times, last fall when a writer friend asked me what was next. I told her I needed to take a break from writing for a while.

Well, that plan lasted for about a minute. I plunged right into developing a book from previously written anecdotes of a number of my ancestors. Seemed like a pretty easy topic since I’d already done most of the work. But before I got my writing feet wet with that book, I got distracted by one particular story, that of my dad’s first cousin, David Rae Smith. Rae, as he was known in the family, had no descendants to tell his story. Nor did any of his immediate family have any descendants. I found myself a mission–and a new passion.

I’ve been hard at work researching Rae’s story ever since. I’m sad to say it’s still a long way from completion, having been interrupted by all sorts of personal, family, and world issues (can you say COVID-19?) But I’m still hard at work on it.

I think maybe it’s time to share what may become the book’s opening scene. Perhaps sharing will give me a little extra incentive to keep at it.

David Rae Smith, baritone, New York City Opera

Look, Julius, I don’t care if he’s under contract with the Shreveport Civic Opera.. I want David Rae Smith!”

All right, all right, Bev. I’ll make it happen.”

Of course, I don’t know if this was the exact conversation between New York City Opera Impresario Julius Rudel and his resident star mezzo soprano Beverly Sills, but it may well have gone something like that. As the March 29, 1978 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported, “Smith was released from his contract at the request of Beverly Sills who wants Smith to join her in the cast of a New York City Opera production of The Merry Widow,” a show which would take place four days later.

Whether Rae needed that validation of of his talents or not, it must have felt good to the baritone to know how much the best-known diva of the era valued him. He had performed opposite Sills in San Diego the previous year, a production that was broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in late November and recorded for Angel Records. Sills must have appreciated the dynamic.

Newspapers all over the country publicized the 1977 event, usually beginning with words similar to those in New Mexico’s Deming Headlight: “Public television will present a new English-language production of Franz Lehar’s zesty operetta, The Merry Widow starring Beverly Sills Monday, November 28 on PBS as it was presented earlier this fall at the San Diego Civic Theater.

“Appearing with Miss Sills in this all-new San Diego Opera Company production will be Alan Titus, Nolan Van Way, Glenys Fowles, Ryan Allen and David Rae Smith.”

The company’s musical recording of Widow highlights was the 1978 (February 23) Grammy award winner for Best Opera Recording. (Other 1978 Grammy recipients included Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Martin, Donna Summer, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, the BeeGees (“Saturday Night Fever”), Orson Welles, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Ann Murray, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire.)

How did the son of an Asheville, North Carolina, letter carrier and a homemaker make his way to the Grammys and the opera and Broadway stages?

In truth, the multi-talented Rae had many career choices, and his path was the result of a multitude of happenstances—in addition, of course, to his great natural abilities.

Based on his early accomplishments, Rae could have been successful at almost any career: politics, acting, the law, concert pianist, vocalist, radio personality, scholar. It must have seemed as if the world was his pearl-studded oyster.

* * *

Rae as Professor Harold Hill in Brevard Music Center production of The Music Man, 1971, with co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center, Overture  magazine, 1972. Used with permission.

A Life Well Lived

My mom died a couple of weeks ago—about 5:20 pm, July 7, to be exact. I don’t write this to ask for sympathy. Yes, I’m sad, but I’m also filled with gladness. And, yes, I just feel a need to share. It’s part of saying goodbye, so thank you for sharing with me.

My mom, Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates, in her late 80s. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a smile like that?

Mother was three months and a couple of days shy of her ninety-seventh birthday. She lived not just a long life, but a full one, full of joy and wonder. But in the last year or so, it was clear her body was letting go. She had been losing weight, had little appetite, had more trouble getting around with her walker, didn’t have much to talk about. Still, the end came fairly unexpectedly.

And that, in my mind, is a good thing. She was an avid reader. She started early and never stopped. It was one of her very favorite activities. Her room was filled with books. In the last few years, she said to me numerous times that she was so glad she loved to read, was still able to read, couldn’t imagine life without reading, and that she felt sorry for all the people around her who didn’t seem to care that much about reading.

Mother couldn’t keep up with the number and names of her great-grandchildren—after all, some of them she had rarely seen—but she knew us children, and still recognized the sound of our phone voices, even before we announced ourselves.

Mother lived in a small assisted living facility for the last seven years. I wish that could have been different, but it wasn’t. Yet the folks who work there gave her a new lease on life. When she first arrived, her health, both physical and mental, were in rapid decline. Regular and healthy nourishment, keeping to a medication schedule (and the correct one), and socialization got her back on track within days. It was a miraculously quick transformation.

Because of the pandemic, I had not been able to visit Mother in person for the last five months. From the first days of the shutdown, I feared I would never get the chance to see her again. That has been the case with so many people these last few months, and my heart weeps for them.

But when Mother called out for help, she was rushed to the hospital, and the hospital allowed visitors—just one per day. My brother spent the first day with her and I got to be there the second day. Of course, our first words to each other were, “I love you,” as we grasped hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Those were close to the last coherent words she said. A few hours later she started receiving morphine and she was moved to a hospice facility the following day, where visitation was a little more relaxed. I got to spend the night in her room. My brother and I, our spouses, and a couple of friends all had a chance to touch her, to tell her what we needed to say whether she heard or not, to hold her in the light, and to say goodbye. Yes, it was sad. But it was beautiful, too.

For all these things, I am grateful. I’m grateful for much, much more, too—Mother’s love of nature, her happy outlook on life, her smile, her laugh, her guiding light, all the skills she taught me. I’m grateful that we had a happy, healthy family life where she and Dad showed us children how to adult, how to parent, how to maintain healthy relationships with our own spouses. I’m grateful she was an adventurer, always willing to try something new. I’m grateful she always supported us in our endeavors, both when we were children and as adults. I’m grateful that once we grew up and began living on our own, Mother continued to support us but that she knew better than to ever once criticize or interfere in our lives. I’m grateful for her warmth and her love.

The best l can do to honor her is to model the life she lived, and I will thank her every day of my life for giving me that.

The Story I Need to Tell

What story do I need to tell right now? The same story I needed to tell yesterday, last month, last year.

It’s the story of family. The stories that compel me most are of family members who have no one else to tell their story. I want to memorialize their lives.

A few generations’ worth of my forebears

I remember the day (about thirty years ago) I was driving to another county for a meeting. As usual, I tuned into NPR. A man was talking. It was the middle of something—I couldn’t tell what. But I was transfixed as he talked about sitting on the porch under the feet of his aunts and grandmother as they rocked and snapped beans and told and retold stories handed down to them, stories that ultimately led him to hard-to-find discoveries of his personal history.

The man was still talking when I reached my destination, so I didn’t get to find out who he was or exactly what he was talking about. But I was haunted by the bits of his story I heard. His voice stayed in my head. Only years later did I discover, when I heard a snippet of the story again, that I had been listening to a recorded talk given by Alex Haley about his genealogical discoveries that led to the writing of Roots.

My husband surprised me with this album–the haunting story I’d heard on the radio years before.

I will never write a story with the power of Roots. That is not the point. The point is that if a story isn’t preserved, it disappears. I believe our personal histories matter, and even a few random anecdotes about our ancestors can help us better understand who we are. They can give us a sense of self, of belonging, of profound truths.

If I know a story or can ferret one out, it feels like both an obligation and an honor to be the conduit between my past and future. If I can keep a story alive, I can keep the memory of cherished people alive, as well.

When I’m conscious of what my forebears lived through, how they lived through it, how they survived, I see life differently. When I study the history of their times, I feel them holding me up, and I want to do the same in my turn.

The story I need to tell right now is the one of my cousin (once removed) who sang with the New York City Opera for thirty years and left no descendants. And the story of his brother, a P-47 pilot in World War II. He was on a bombing mission to clear the way for Patton’s assault on Germany when he was killed just six weeks before the war in Europe ended. He left no one to tell his story, either.

              

Brothers Rae and Ed Smith, my cousins once removed

Sanctuary and Salvation

Again, my writing has taken me where I did not want to go. I fear we are all too bombarded by this theme, and I promise to leave it soon.

* * * * *

Home is my sanctuary. It’s where I feel safe, protected, loved. It’s where I am inspired—reborn. But seasonal depression traipses after me like a needy two-year-old, and demands constant vigilance. I know only one ‘cure’—to get Out, listen to bird trills, see the trees wave in the wind, smell the grasses and, when spring finally teases me, the flowers.

If Home is my sanctuary, Out is my salvation. But these days, Out is nearly my undoing. The intensity of it drains me. Out, I am a one-woman SWAT team, always on alert for snipers.

On a walking trail, I’m constantly checking all directions at once, zig-zagging to avoid fellow walkers who seem oblivious to the need for physical distance. Veering far off the path when I spy a jogger gaining on me or a gaggle of young roommates filling the pavement and headed my way. The responsibility for communal safety seems to be mine alone.

woman in face mask shopping in supermarket

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

In a grocery store, I turn into a one-way aisle only to see someone coming toward me. I stop dead, then wheel my cart around and drive it over two more aisles, down then back up the one between, finally returning to my starting point—only to find someone else illegally coming at me.

When I near the end of an aisle, I pause, then slowly ease my cart into the intersection, anxious that someone may be about to ambush me. I am reminded of the way my nervous Mother used to creep around a blind curve on our mountain road at two miles an hour, madly honking the horn all the way.

Sometimes, another shopper turns in my direction when another is not far behind me. Trapped, I twist and flatten myself against shelves of canned goods like a squirrel plastered to the ground to avoid the predatory hawk. I dare not breathe until the danger has passed and the air might, just might, be slightly clearer than it was a few moments ago.

It is exhausting. I return home—to calm and solace, not knowing when the grayness will again swoop down and envelop me. But knowing it will. And, inevitably, the answer is Out.

I am intoxicated by the thought of Out—just the idea of taking trash to the dump excites me, even though Out is fraught with danger and the perception of danger. While governments ease restrictions, the modified protocols are for others. We elders—‘the vulnerables’—are still expected to stay home. When we do hazard to venture out, we will be at greater risk than ever.

He is okay with that. He says we are warriors. Ready for battle, ready to die for ‘the greater good’ as he thrusts us into the fray. Yes,” he acknowledges, people will die.

People like me.

That’s what warriors do. But how can I be a warrior? Warriors have weapons. I don’t.

She* sees today’s world differently. She encourages us to be meditative and connected—our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Reaching out to each other, not with hands, but with hearts—because our lives are in one another’s hands in ways they have never before been. Our physical distance demands our connectedness to be stronger than ever.

I can live with her take, considering this respite from normal as a sacred time in a sacred place, a time to step away from the chaos of the world and into personal commitment, a time to, as she says, “Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.”

I might even be able to stay sane at home.

_ . _ . _ . _

*     She is poet Lynn Ungar. You can read the entirety of her touching poem here.

 

It’s Still Dark

Note: I have avoided writing about this subject like the plague that it is. But events have drawn me to it in spite of myself. Before reading, you should know that this was written a month ago. It was out of date by the time I finished it. But I have chosen not to change the numbers, so the piece can be an archival record.

water rainy rain raindrops

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

It’s still dark. The room feels stuffy. I leave my bed, open the window, and the sound of rain fills the room. It echoes the sound I hear in my brain.

It sounds as if I’m deep in the woods trying to tune into a low-signal radio station. Static of the worst kind. Angry, crackling dissonance. A constant hissing as terrifying as if all the voices in the world are speaking in my head simultaneously.

This is not the cadence of a gentle rain tickling our metal roof, a meditative thrum to sleep by. This is the sound of nightmares. Of madness. A discordant jumble of sound I cannot make sense of. The sound of nonsense numbers.

Numbers too big to contemplate clamor for attention I do not possess.

Ten is a number I can understand—the size of a family Thanksgiving gathering. Thirty—my grade- school classes. A hundred? Maybe my granddaughter’s high school soccer games.

But twenty thousand. What does that number mean? The population of my town. Have I ever seen all those people together in one place? If I drove to town one day and all 20,000 lay dead in the streets, could my brain take it in?

And yet, the numbers in my head are exponentially bigger than that. And they are real. They are human lives. The raindrops are their voices. I have no space to breathe.

Overnight, the number of deaths in the United States from a single virus passed the 50,000 mark. Overnight. By tomorrow, we will have exceeded a million documented cases. Before I can blink, cases worldwide will rise to 3 million with 200,000 deaths.  How am I supposed to understand those numbers?

I read a New York Magazine piece the other day. The reporter wrote that what we call “under control” is Americans dying in multiples of September 11 every week.” That kind of death toll is being normalized.

My stomach flips, but my mind is disengaged, my heart numbed. Too many numbers, too many voices—too little meaning. A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing,

But . . .  tonight I am told someone very dear to me has the thing whose name I dare not speak.

Simultaneously I learn that 40-somethings with barely any symptoms are dying of virus-induced strokes. My son’s age. My daughter’s age.

Now, I feel it.

The cold sweat of bone-chilling fear.

This Wild and Precious Life

My Wednesday Writing Group is now meeting via email since we are sheltering in place. Our fearless leader’s recent prompt forced me into some deep soul searching. I didn’t know where this piece was going when I picked up my pen, but it turned into something meaningful for me, so meaningful that I’m opening myself up to you now.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Naturalized daffodils in the woods

I remember when our children were young and complained about not having enough time to do the things that really mattered. My go-to response was to remind them that however they spent their time was a demonstration of what truly mattered the most to them (which was often watching TV). Sometimes the response was tears, sometimes an eye roll or two, but it never seemed to change behavior. Maybe that’s because I was better at preaching than practicing. I was chiding myself every bit as much as I was chiding them.

I live in constant awe and envy of many women whose orbit I circle: women who travel to far off places to do good, putting themselves in who-knows-how-much of harm’s way, risking their health and safety. They give their time, their creativity, and their financial resources to help others. They think of others before themselves.

Like theirs, my heart aches for the plight of so many in this world, but that is often as much as I allow. I’m filled with compassion more than passion. I am not moved to activism. A lifetime ago it was different, but I burned my candle down to a nub. I got burned and burned out, and the flame has never reignited.

Still, I find myself looking around me and wondering how I can help, how I can make a difference. I looked close to home—it’s not an easy place to find an answer. I’m surrounded by an enclave of family—theirs, not mine. Much of what they do, all four generations of them, they do together: farming, canning, eating, errands, playing. They are self-contained; they take care of each other. They do not seem to need others, even in times of need.

“Where am I needed? What can I do?”

That was the question I asked myself when one of the older generation among these neighbors received a devastating cancer diagnosis. They certainly didn’t need me to bring food or offer trips to the doctor. I had just recently retired from my far more than  full-time job when it came to me—the one thing I now had that family members did not.

Time. I could visit. While their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are off at work and school, I could give my time.

I had my answer.

At this stage in my own life, it seems the things I have to offer are the small things. A smile, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a compliment. They are indeed small things, but as I look around, they are things the world seems much in need of right now. These things I can do, and I have learned to be on the alert. Not always, not enough, but so much more than when I was so overworked and overwhelmed that I seemed only to live inside myself.

These days I actively watch for opportunities to smile, to make a small gesture. “Is there something I can get for you from that top shelf?” to the older gentleman in his electric shopping cart. “May I help with that?” to the woman struggling to get her arm into the coat sleeve.

I step out of my comfort zone to say something pleasant to a person who seems vulnerable. It’s an indirect way of saying, “You’re not alone. Here is a safe place.” Sometimes I just watch. How is this clerk from Pakistan being treated by her customers? How are those Latino customers being treated by that cashier? I’m ready to step in, though I have no idea how.

I’ve also learned that things I think and say and write can occasionally make a difference. It’s the main reason I continue to write—in hopes that I will sometimes find some combination of words that will touch someone.

In these ever more uncertain times, I believe it is more important than it ever has been—in my lifetime, at least—to look for the small ways I can help improve someone else’s day. Maybe it’s an extra large tip when my server is having a tough time. Maybe it’s a conversation with the overworked cashier at the big box store. Maybe it’s popping a check in the mail to make up for the appointments I’ll miss with my hairdresser for the current stage of the coronavirus shutdown—with a little something extra added in. Maybe it’s looking for a sliver of silver lining someone’s clouds.

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to plant a little ray of sunshine wherever I can. Carrie Newcomer sings, “Between here now and forever is so precious little time.” With my precious little time I will seek out tiny acts of kindness to perform, following Mother Teresa’s counsel to do small things with great love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

 

 

Random Thoughts in the Midst of a Pandemic

Foggy Sunday, March 15, 2020

I took a walk in the cool fog today.

I like walking the fog. Fog is quiet, coming in “on little cat feet,” as Sandburg wrote. A stroll in fog is conducive to introspection and reflection.

On this day, fog seems to mean more. Walking in the fog, I can only see what is immediately around me. It seems an apt metaphor in these days of self-isolation. But in a good way. The safest place I can be is here, alone. My being here, alone, is the safest thing I can do for the people I love and care about, too.

I can look at the fog and my isolation as annoyances, as gray and depressing, as confining. Or I can look for the opportunities it provides. Time to read, write, catch up on chores. (Closet-cleaning, anyone? That’s what a cousin is doing today.)

Me? I’m about to introduce myself to a new friend over the phone. What better time than this? We found each other on social media when we realized we were each the daughter of our own mother’s best friend. We’re going to gossip about our mothers. Imagine them as teenagers. Invent stories about them. And keep each other company. We’ll laugh. We may even shed some tears.

We will connect. Even in the fog.

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Tuesday Evening

I’ve had another thought. (Yes, sometimes that’s about how often they come to me.) It’s still foggy outdoors, and I’ve learned something. Fog looks better when I’m in its midst (or should I say mist?) than when I’m indoors looking out at it. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there worth exploring, but that’s not the thought playing in my mind just now.

What I’ve been thinking is that we just might see some real good coming from this coronavirus disaster. Now, I’m not equating potential benefits with actual devastating losses. But I remember once hearing something along the lines of, “There’s almost nothing, no matter how good for one person, that doesn’t have some bad in it for somebody else, and almost nothing, no matter how bad for someone, that doesn’t have some good in it for someone else.” It was an interesting observation and as I conjured up one situation after another, I could see how it works.

Again, I would never attempt to suggest equivalency, but the notion that most good contains bad and most bad contains some degree of good seems to hold true to some degree or other, no matter what scenario I throw at it. So I wonder . . . in this time of social distancing and self-isolation, what changes are we likely to see when we come out on the other side because some unexpected, even tangential, benefit has occurred.

Even in this highly technological and rapidly changing age, we often cling to archaic systems and structures. The coronavirus is changing all that. It’s been truly astonishing—and refreshing—to see how creative and generous individuals, businesses, and organizations have been in the face of this unknown. As stressful and challenging as these times are, people have risen to the occasion and proven their ability to adapt quickly and ingeniously.

I suspect we’re going to see some permanent restructuring after the urgent need for temporary solutions has run its course. Some of it may not be so hot. But . . . who is going to realize that some of the drastic and immediate responses to our current situation actually offer new, improved ways of doing things? How will our work change? How will schools change? How will you and I change?

I don’t know what and I certainly don’t know how, but I have this deep, deep feeling that we’re going to see some new ways of thinking and doing that will bode well for society as a whole.

That thought does me good. And I’m going to hold on to it.

Finding Moments of Joy

Last spring, I heard a writer friend mention the happiness journal—365 days of happiness. I was taken with the concept, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I landed on something similar, but in some ways dramatically different when I began recording one single event each day that I could claim as a personal Moment of Joy (MoJ). I mentioned my Moment of Joy journal here.

I wasn’t looking for things that simply gave me satisfaction or created an exhale of relief. Instead, I wanted to make note of those unexpected moments that take my breath away, that make me want to say to anyone who can hear, “Hey, look at that!” I vowed to exempt personal relationships and everyday happinesses when I recorded a Moment of Joy. Writing that I was happy to wake up next to the GNOME, for instance, could become a cop out and a crutch. Too easy. I’m always happy to wake up next to him. I wanted to become more aware of the little things that are too easy to miss.

I admit I’ve ended a few days scratching my head as I prepared to document an MoJ. Some days are like that. But I’m happy to report that for the most part, I have trouble narrowing down my MoJ experiences to just one or two to record. I’ve been surprised how easy it is to find them. The Gnome’s gotten in on the act, too. We see a rainbow and he says, “That could be your moment of joy today.”

A few months ago, I thought I’d stop keeping an MoJ list. I was practically stumbling over all the moments of joy around me (not a bad thing); maybe I didn’t need a list. But as fall slowly morphed into winter, I changed my mind. I’ve written before about the emotional challenge that the often overcast, always-short-day season can be for me. Of all times to be on intentional alert for moments of joy, this is it.

I’m glad I kept at it. Being attuned to joyful moments after day upon day of gray fog is so good for the soul. As I write this, I glance up every few moments to watch snowflakes lazily drift through the air. Yesterday, all it took was a look outside to notice the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery with snow on the ground and hoar frost adding its own touch of brilliance to the mountaintops and the tips of branches. The male cardinal wears an especially bright coat of scarlet on days like that.

Last week, we spotted the brightest, biggest, most distinctly colored rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. And when we looked more closely, we could spot an ever-so-faint second rainbow above it. What a WOW moment!

When the world is as naked as it is in winter, I look for subtleties: the patterns and hues of lichen on trees, the grain of tree bark. Winter is the time for noticing the delicate shades of dried grasses in fields and meadows, ranging from sand to bronze to deep burgundy.

My Moments of Joy have ranged from getting an unexpected phone call to listening to wind gusts, from spotting a dandelion puff in winter to discovering a tidbit of information to make an otherwise mundane essay sing, from a stranger’s kindness to seeing five deer standing just outside the window or catching the scent of winter-blooming narcissus.

Being on the lookout for each day’s Moment of Joy quickly became a habit, an almost unconscious one. And that’s the way it should be—being so in the moment and so intuitively aware of the world around me that I never have to be reminded of the many things to be thankful for, of the beauty and potential for joy that surrounds me. Besides, the very best Moments of Joy are those that come unbidden, catching me off guard, sweeping off my feet.

“Hey, look at that!”

 

Resolutions, Habits, and Intention

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Certainly not after young adulthood.

Before that, making a long list of things I would change about myself as each new year rolled in was an act I never questioned. But then it came to me. Resolutions rarely accomplish anything—unless it’s to make you feel bad about yourself. If you were like me, you tended to think of resolutions in terms of negatives, things you’d been doing wrong or at least were not doing right.

I made resolutions the wrong way, too: broad generalizations which couldn’t be quantified and which, even if they could, were usually impossible to live up to. New Year’s resolutions were downright disheartening. They emanated from guilt and were generally doomed to create even more.

So, no New Year’s resolutions for me.

But as we rang in 2020, I realized that 2019 had taught me something immensely important. Not about resolutions, but habits. Resolutions are so often built around breaking bad ones. Hard to do. What about building good habits instead? Practically by accident, I developed several new habits—all good—in 2019. Along the way, I discovered good habits are as easy to form as bad ones.

I feel like a genius!

A couple of my habits have taken the form of lists. I began 2019 by listing EACH BOOK I COMPLETED, mostly out of curiosity. How much was I actually reading?. Before I knew it, recording my reading became second nature. Keeping a log of one’s reading material may be kind of neutral as habits go, but I count this list-keeping as a positive, if only because I stuck to it. But there is more to it. My list gives me information to feed on. It helps me remember what I’ve read and reminds me what I want to follow up on. It helps me clarify what I like and why I like it so I can make more informed reading choices in the future. It’s a reference point for issues to develop in my writing, philosophy, and more.

About midway through the year, I began a Moment of Joy (MOJ) journal. I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that what began as a whim became a habit, almost overnight—to someone who with a lifelong ineptitude when it comes to keeping any sort of diary or journal. My MOJ journal became something bigger. Unintentionally, it became a practice in intention.

I formed another intentional habit quite unintentionally when I read Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. She wrote about a spiritual retreat where participants were instructed to chew each bite of food, even their breakfast porridge, thirty times. Was that even possible? I had to give it a try.

It felt a little silly at first, counting every time my teeth met. But as I learned it was possible to chew one type of food thirty times, I wanted to test another. And again, without realizing it, I had developed a new habit. I began to catch myself, just below my consciousness, counting. My mind was at work building an intention, slowly ticking off the chews: twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . . twenty-nine . . . thirty. And sometimes up to forty or more. I was no longer chewing for the counting. Counting became a means—a pleasant way to be more intentional about the process of eating.

Not only can thirty chews per bite be done (usually); it has tremendous emotional and physical benefits. I stopped choking on food, something that happens far too often, usually because I’m in a hurry or talking or trying to multitask as I eat. Other digestive problems began to lessen or disappear altogether. I found myself more tranquil, more aware of my surroundings. It turns out that chewing each bite thirty or so times is intensely calming and refreshing. What I took on as a one-time challenge became another intention, one with far-reaching results.

Well, the new year is here and I’ve begun yet another project. This gal never before succeeded in developing a journaling habit just gave herself a five-year, line-a-day journal. It’s really more like four or five lines a day. Three hundred and sixty-seven pages, each with space for five years’ worth of notes for every date on the calendar. I’m hopeful that the constraints of this journal will help me stay on track, especially since I’m incorporating my MOJs into each day’s notekeeping. In 2025 I can, at a mere glance, look back on five years’ worth of entries for any given date for the last half decade. I think the comparison will be fascinating.

Now that I think about it, it’s a huge statement of optimism for a septuagenarian to purchase a blank book in anticipation of adding to it for 1800 days. That’s a pretty hopeful intention itself.

I’ve even started a weather diary–another five-year project.

What I learned during the past year has changed me. I’m learning to think more intentionally about lots of things—to BE more intentional. That will surely lead to more good habits, easy to keep.

Who needs resolutions?

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(Originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.