REFLECTION

Creative Commons Introspective Chicken by Jonathan Lidbeck is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When I look in the mirror, I see
a much younger version of me–
not the face
that stares back from photographs,
so rudely honest
in their appraisals.

In truth, it’s not quite
the younger me I spy,
but the whole of myself–
the things a photo will never catch.

I see both youth and age,
twinkles and wrinkles;
I see emotion and belief,
passion and compassion;
I see history: life’s experience,
and expectation. Hope’s still there;
I see a life of love and, occasionally, hard knocks.

The whole of me
is much more interesting
than any Kodak moment
could ever be.

That’s not quite right;
the whole is what I see
each time my gaze lands
on anyone I love;

But in the mirror,
rather than a whole,
perhaps I see
just an edited me—
only what I want to see.

Mortality

January 27, 2011:

My cousin died today.

And so it begins. I’d already found myself wondering who among the twenty-two of us would be first. Figured it would be one us older ones. Hoped it wouldn’t be me.

Instead, it was one of the younger set—ten years my junior. Cancer’s what got him: unpredictable, ugly, indiscriminate disease. You never know about life’s twists and turns, how it will all end.  

Cousins 

 

March 20, 2016:

It’s happened again. This time on my mother’s side of the family. This time it was one of us older ones. Not oldest me but the next in line.

Life feels more precarious than it did yesterday. We’re all, we cousins, entering the danger zone, that time in life when a generation ago death was the norm at the age we are today. Now, we think we’re still too young. Clearly we’re not.

They say it’s when your last parent dies that you feel most vulnerable, when mortality becomes vividly real. But I’m not so sure. Cousins—we’re the same generation. We were toddlers together. We grew up together. We see ourselves in each other’s faces.

When it’s one of us, a different kind of light goes out.

Gender Bender (for Danielle)

What if humans . . .
were synchronous hermaphrodites
like earthworms
who, when two mate,
both become impregnated?

Now, that’s equality!

Or the banana slug,
able to mate with itself alone?
Uniparental reproduction
is what it’s called.

As much fun as with a partner?
More?
Simpler, for sure—
certain of being in the mood.

What if humans . . .
were parthenogenic
like the rock lizard?
Some turkeys do it, too—
going it alone
reproducing without fertilization,
making maleness irrelevant
for species survival,
making maleness obsolete?

If men were extraneous,
would we still
keep them around
just for the fun of it?

What if humans . . .
were like the blanket octopus,
she a hundred times his size
and he, wanting to mate,
breaks off his penis
and gives it to her
for keeps?

The ultimate romantic gesture?

What if humans . . .
were like seahorses
where the male
is the one
who gives birth?

Would we have any reproductive laws?

What if humans . . .
were like anemonefish
practicing dominance hierarchy?
Where the largest female rules
and upon her death
the favored male
gendermorphs to take her place,

where all develop
first as male; then mature
to female.

How would social conventions change?

What if humans . . .
were bidirectional
like hawkfish
able to change gender
at will
and back again
and again?

What would we learn
when we’ve lived both sides?
Where would we hang
our biases?

What if?

(First published in Branches Literary Journal in a slightly different form, 2017)

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

For Valentine’s Day

John Keats wrote it as the opening line in his poem, Endymion. If you’re like me, you read Keats, along with his fellow second-generation British poets, Shelley and Byron, in your senior high school English class. How I loved them.

At sixteen, I was primed for their romanticism—the imagery, the sensuousness, the idealism, the pensiveness. I remember spending rainy days under one of our massive pecan trees (in the midst of thunderstorms, no less) mulling over their poetry. Their young deaths (Byron at thirty-six, Shelley at twenty-nine, and Keats at the tragically youthful age of twenty-five) added an extra touch of melancholy to my teen moods.

Endymion’s opening lines go like this:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

This verse conjures up something uniquely mine, but I’ll bet it invokes something uniquely yours, too. What follows came to me one day when, as usual, I was first to wake. As I lay in the quiet of early morning, I took a long look at the Gnome‘s face, oblivious and peaceful in sleep.

* * *

At twenty, the only “wrinkles” on his face were the crinkly corners of his always smiling eyes. At twenty, he had a full head of dark blond hair. At twenty, his body was taut and tanned.

The skin is looser now, and the golden hair that covered the top of his head is gone, replaced by a full beard of gray on his face. The wrinkles have spread both upward and downward.

I try to see him dispassionately, as a stranger might. But I cannot. When I contemplate his sleeping form, I only see the whole of him across all the years of knowing him. What I see is the kindness, the love, the mischievous curve of his lips.

The crinkles are still there, too, framing the ever-present dancing smile that lives in his eyes.

And suddenly he is twenty again, but with the added dimensions of experience, of a  shared life together, of wisdom. A thing of beauty. A joy forever.

 

Real Family Values

Real Family Values

A few years back, my colleagues and I shared an offsite holiday potluck lunch and departmental meeting. The newest member of our team offered his home as our gathering spot. In addition to his work with us, he designed sustainable houses, his own among them, and he was as eager to show it off as we were to see it.

Clearly, our first order of business was to tour his lovely home. The last room we visited belonged to his pre-school-aged son. One of our group, the mother of a child just three years older, slowly looked around the room. She seemed puzzled, maybe even troubled.

We discovered the source of her distress when she said, “Where are his toys? Doesn’t he have any toys?” Indeed, the room was almost spartan. It held a few books, a clothes chest, and a junior bed complete with a large, lime-green, leaf shaped canopy that seemed to turn the bed into a sort of cocoon. Her entire house, on the other hand, was overflowing with toys from gift-happy aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Our host explained that their previous home had been cluttered with both toys and other belongings. When they moved, they made a conscious decision to rid themselves of as many “things” as possible. With an impressionable young child to raise, they wanted to model a new ethic—one of simplicity, one of sustainability, one where experiential activities trumped sedentary ones. No more television, no more oversized, nonbiodegradable toys to trip over and litter the place. Instead, they had chosen to live a life where doing replaced being.

Not long after that day, my colleague told me that as the weekend neared, his little boy had come to him and eagerly asked, “What adventure are we going on Saturday, Daddy?” That’s the way he saw his life. It’s the way his parents had presented it: a life of adventure. He knew he could look forward to one every weekend.

Their adventures consisted of simple things—watching the university’s new wind turbine go up, checking out a crane at work during the construction of a classroom building, ambling through a street festival, spending a morning at a you-pick blueberry farm.

Over the years I’ve watched this family with appreciation and admiration. In the early years, I was privy to tales of weekend activities as soon as they’d occurred. In fact, I’d encountered the boy and his mother even before the father came to work with us. The Gnome and I were on a walking trail and she was with another mother, their children in tow. The son was only two at the time, but he was on a balance bike, a two-wheeled pedal-less bicycle. He was getting started early.

Now from afar, I usually get my accounts via social media. There were pizza-making sleepovers. There were kid-friendly street festivals. As the boy grew, so did the adventures. Snowy days meant not only sledding and snowball fights, but igloo building. The family built mini-bike trails on the back of their property for the boy to ride. They put in a kid-size zip line. They went backpacking. They engaged in cosplay—Halloween’s an adventure extraordinaire.

When the boy was old enough, he joined the Cub Scouts—they’re all about adventure. It wasn’t long before Dad became the group’s leader.

The boy is ten now. These days father and son can be found mountain biking. Mom joins in on scouting activities and weekend camping trips. They visit state and national parks. They go to the beach where they build complex castles and bury each other in the sand. They fly kites. They canoe. Evenings at home may find the three of them playing strategy games with friends.

It’s kind of funny when you think about it. This family is doing something revolutionary in the world of giant, expensive (though often cheaply made and short-lived) toys and games: they’ve gone old school. They’re doing it the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did it—making do with what they have, turning everyday things into exciting experiences. Finding fun in simple things. In the process, they’re teaching values, building a rich childhood, creating a close-knit family life.

And the thing is, it isn’t hard; it doesn’t have to take money. It may take a little imagination. It may take a few hard discussions with the grown-ups, mostly grandparents, who want to shower the kiddies with love via tangible gifts. It certainly takes time. But isn’t it worth it?

The List, Part II: Priorities

THE LIST, Part II: Priorities

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up. You can find Part I here.)

Right up near the top of my “One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire” list was to make baskets. I had first learned how as a child from my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother: high school graduation photo

My grandparents, W. G. and Georgia Stillwell Dillard, on their fiftieth anniversary

Grandmother always had craft activities ready and waiting whenever we went for a visit, and she and I made baskets on more than one occasion. Basket making with Grandmother is one of my fondest memories.

An early basket weaving exercise under Grandmother’s tutelage

But I’d long since forgotten that skill. When I saw an ad for a basket-making class as part of Appalachian State University’s Craft Enrichment Program about three years before I retired, I jumped at it.

In those days I regularly worked until seven or eight o’clock at night and too often as late as ten or eleven. I took work home on the weekends. I dreamed about work. I woke up in a 3:00 a.m. work-related panic almost nightly. My job involved overnight travel, too, sometimes a couple of trips a week. I hadn’t had time for just-for-me activities for years. But I wasn’t about to let anything interfere with my basket-making sessions. In three years of classes, I missed only one because of work.

Making baskets was good for my spirit; it relaxed me; it gave my overworked mind a break from all the work-related issues that were swirling around in it. I really loved making those baskets, and I was eager to delve into my newfound hobby in a big way once I retired. In anticipation of that day, I bought my own basket-making supplies and four big boxes of reed and other materials.

Just a few of the many baskets I made in my basket-making workshops

A few things happened to change all that. No studio space for making baskets magically appeared. Nor did our small house with its open design lend itself to leaving materials all over the place between sessions. Just pulling out all those boxes and supplies, then putting them all away and sweeping up the debris after a basket-making session was time-consuming, so much so that it was only worth doing if I was going to make a day of it. But a full day of hand weaving, of pushing and pulling, of holding ornery pieces in place with one hand while forcing a reed through a too-small space with the other is hard on fingers, especially arthritic ones.

And I was running out of ways to use those baskets. Our house was overrun with them, and I’d given away more than people really wanted to receive. My skill hadn’t developed enough to sell my baskets and I wasn’t really interested in marketing them, anyway—too much like work.

Most of all, I began to realize that baskets had been my very important respite from the daily grind of my work life but now things were different. My needs had changed. Basket-making, it turned out, had served its purpose.

Besides, other interests had begun to take on more importance, like gardening and food preservation. Both of these activities had been on my list, too. At the time, my goal was simply to re-learn those skills from my childhood. I wanted to be competent at them, enough so that if, say, climate change challenged our food distribution system (as it has now begun to do), I’d be able to take care of my own food needs. In other words, I wanted to move towards more self-reliance.

But even I had no idea how these two activities would begin to take over my life. I didn’t expect to get so passionate about them. Why, last year the Gnome and I grew more than twelve hundred pounds of vegetables in our garden, far more than enough for the annual food needs of two people.

One day’s harvest from our garden

I looked back at my list recently and discovered I’d made a pretty good dent in it. What I hadn’t expected though, was to discover a few more items that had lost their importance as new interests—gardening and food preservation, for instance—emerged to take their place. Interests that sometimes have taken me by complete surprise. Like writing. Writing didn’t earn a single mention on my list. Yet, here I am with two books to my name (and hopefully more on the way), a couple of blogs, daily dedicated writing time, and participation in various writers’ groups. Who saw that coming? Not I! That’s the way it is with plans. Priorities change.

It’s one of my favorite things about retirement. I can be flexible. And I don’t need to make any more lists. Which was, as it happens, item 100 on my list.

(Won’t you come back next week for Part III of The List?)

The List (in Three Parts)

THE LIST (in three parts)   

When I announced my decision to retire from a thirty-five+ year career in public service a few years ago, I got lots of questions about my future plans. Curiosity about how I would spend my retirement was so boundless that I decided to make a list for my inquirers: One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire. For the most part my plans were simple: ditch the makeup and hairspray, make baskets, wear pj’s all day, donate about ninety percent of my clothing to Goodwill, take the back roads. So many things. I dashed off my list in a flash.

Part I: “What Will You Do?”

The question I was asked most often almost always came with its own answer attached: “What will you do in retirement—travel?” Most everyone, it seemed, assumed I’d become a full-time tourist. Apparently, that’s what people expect of retirees. Indeed, it’s what lots of Silvers do. I know folks who, in between their many domestic treks, make two, three, or more overseas trips each year.

But travel, outside of more frequent visits to our children and their families, was not on my agenda. My interests were much closer to home. Rather, they were at home.

Simplicity. In a world that was claiming too much of me, simple was all I wanted. I looked forward to not having an alarm clock blare me awake before daylight, to going barefoot all day, to reading in the hammock. I wanted to take things a bit more slowly and to live more simply. All these things were on my list, too.

When a long-distance friend asked the inevitable question and I answered that I wanted to get back to the simple life we’d begun here so many years ago, I could hear her almost choking on her coffee as she spluttered, “I’ve heard about that life of yours, and it’s anything but simple!” She was right, of course. Hand building our house while we lived without running water, toilet facilities, kitchen appliances, or heat had been anything but simple, at least in the sense of being easy or even uncomplicated. But it was straightforward; it was a return to the basics. That’s what I meant.

Building our house all by ourselves

I wanted to learn some of the old ways, to learn or relearn some fundamental life skills, to feel real. I wanted to live more intentionally, to lead a more conscious life, to be under the influence of nature, to tread lightly. I wanted to live more sustainably and move more towards self-reliance. I wanted to know, for instance, that if I lost power for  six months, I’d be able to cope. I wanted to eat real food, food I grow and prepare myself rather than something that comes in a box.

A day’s garden haul

I wanted to live in the present. I wanted to unclench my jaws.

Simple? Maybe not. Basic? Real? Most definitely. Have I succeeded? Well, like most things, finding my way to a new lifestyle is a process. I think I’m well on my way and I feel more content every day.

Maybe it really is about traveling. Getting back to basics is a journey, after all.

(Stay tuned for Part II of The List next week.)