Author Archives: fayewriter

Gardening In Winter


Gardening in Winter

As of late, I have been remiss in my blog postings. Distracted, swept along by the sheer flood of news surrounding Trump, his family and associates, I struggle to clear the space to write about the importance of maintaining gratitude.

It’s not that I don’t think about it. I do. After 119 posts, I wonder what is new that I can offer on this subject. Subjects have varied; but the essence, that of mindful attention, is consistent. Sameness, order, a sense of reliability has its benefits.

It turns out I garden all year long— if not in reality, in fantasy. This time of year, when any day can be cloudy and damp, snowy or sunny I attend to my indoor garden of houseplants. For added fun, I pour over plant pictures in a gardening catalogue and plan my spring garden.

This year, I decided to experiment and bring a shaggy but still blooming petunia pot in for the winter. Five months later, to my surprise, as you can see from the picture above, the plant has filled out and continues to bloom. I check it every day. Every few weeks, I place the plant in my kitchen sink, spray it with water, and fertilize. Indoor plants, especially those that bloom, are subject to white fly. Once a month, I spray it with Neem, to hold off the bugs.

Today, I was rewarded with a full array of bright purple petunia blooms and two yellow brachcolla blooms. The process, mindful attention to the health of my plants, makes me smile. I poke my finger into the soil and test for moisture. I scan the leaves for changes or invaders. Green growth is soothing and calming. The surprise mauve African violet bud lifting its head is delightful. The connection to nature is obvious but the close at hand encounter is what is most meaningful to me.

The contrast of watching an African violet bud unfold in contrast to the chaos of our political structure feels profound. In my own home, I am able to create beauty and order as I attend to the needs of each plant.

But not everyone is a gardener or inclined to caring for houseplants. The challenge in maintaining a sense of gratitude is to notice. I believe that everyday, there are opportunities to feel uplifted by the experience of kindness and of beauty, as well as an appreciation of one’s own effort and/or the effort of others.

For myself, my roots to gardening go back to my Dad who dug the soil and planted tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, radishes and peppers during WW II in our fenced back yard. He was a creature of habit, very disciplined and taught me well about the importance of noticing and attending. As soon as I had a little tiny plot of earth in my first condo, I planted petunias next to the steps. I recall the joy of making a difference in the aesthetic  quality of entering my space. I felt a surge of gratitude then and after, again and again, as I maintain an effort at generativity such as with the seeds I scatter in this post.

Mental Health Is On My Mind

Courtesy of Ann Telnaes
Washington Post, 2.5.2019

Not a day goes by without my considering what effects Trump’s random, impulsive behaviors have on the mental health of our country. I’m not alone. On February 7th, The Boston Globe carried an opinion piece titled Institutional silence on Trump’s mental state in which Doctors Lee and Glass sound the alarm on “malignant normalcy.” They state,

Human beings are very adaptable, and there is almost no degree of pathology we could not grow accustomed to, unless those with clear knowledge of what was happening were to speak out. Based on the experience of physician compliance with Nazism, we now have the Declaration of Geneva, the universal physician’s pledge that recognizes either silence or active cooperation with a destructive regime as running counter to medicine’s humanitarian goals.

The authors take issue with the American Psychiatric Organization’s decision to enact a gag order on any member who speaks out about a public figure. They advocate the present need for public discourse by mental health professionals as a first step to having clarity and empowering the people.

Many of us, with or without mental health credentials, live through each day with the knowledge that our chief executive is a rogue president with a mental attitude that permits him to behave without accountability.

The past month has been bookmarked by two events.

  • The government shutdown during which 800,000 or more public service workers were cut off from their pay while expected to perform their jobs.
  • At no point in his 80 minute speech did Trump speak of, address, express regret, or hold himself or anyone in his administration accountable for the hardship caused by his decision.

It is telling that nowhere in his State of the Union speech did Trump express concern or reflect on the challenge to prevent a future shutdown as the next budget deadline looms.

For the past two years, we have suffered through Trump’s blasphemous, irrepressible ego trip, placing himself in front of adoring fans, holed up in the residency or at Mar-a-Largo, in commune with Fox news, texting his observations and pronouncements as if they were executive orders.

Is Trump unfit to serve? Do we need a psychiatric evaluation to decide? Until and unless there is adequate data that motivates a Cabinet member on the necessity of an evaluation, how we gain perspective, be it through reading, listening, and absorbing various viewpoints, is up to each individual.

In the meantime, each of us is accountable to ourselves and to the community we share.  Our own mental health is dependent on what each of us does each and every day to maintain our own well-being as well as to contribute to the well-being of our social and community networks.

For myself, I intend to address my worry about “malignant normality” by being mindful, calling my representatives, and sharing my opinion. As always, I am grateful to my readers who run alongside as I struggle to make sense out of what, these days, seems surreal.

 

 

 

Mary Oliver: My Mentor & Teacher

Mary Oliver, circa 1992
photo by Marv

The two summers I spent in Mary Oliver’s poetry writing workshop changed my life. A practicing psychotherapist for twenty-five years, lines of poetry had arrived in the middle of the night. At lunch with a friend one day, as I mused about the mystical quality of how lines arrive each morning, she asked how the revision process was going. “Revision,” I laughed, “I’m clueless.”  Poetry had seemed like a gift from the muse, not to be tampered with.

Tampering with grit and specificity is what Mary Oliver was all about. That first morning in July 1990, blond, lean, dressed in a yellow shirt, Mary was soft-spoken bordering on shy yet directive and clear about why we were there and what was to come. She said, “I teach what works for me.” We were there to learn language, technique, and process.

Session 1— a few highlights

  • “Sound selection is unconscious. The sense of the poem is carried by sound,” she began.
  • “You work with the equipment you get inside you.”
  • “The daylight part of the mind edits.”
  • “Any word is a help or a hindrance.”
  • “There is no such thing as a neutral sound.”
  • “Without this type of artistry, the use of sound, you don’t have a poem.”
  • “When art is right, the more bearable it is.”

I can attest to the truth of Mary’s words. I come from a line of music makers. My children are music makers as am I. Under Mary’s tutelage, I sung words to myself, tapped out rhythms, played with line breaks, varied stanzas, wrote multiple drafts of poems and rarely published. The creativity, the hope of artistry, the effort to shape the words and use the tools Mary gave me powered my effort and brought balance to my life.

After I retired from my practice, I shifted into the longer form of personal essay and memoir. The musicality of words, what I had learned about enjambment, the concept of the turning of the line, the difference between a slim poem such as Mary wrote or a long line, such as Whitman, whom she blessed for speaking to her, followed me.

In my Solstice MFA critical thesis, titled, Poetic Language and Musicality in Essays of E.B. White and Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders, I expanded on Mary’s specificity. I explored symbolism as well as elements of rhythm as depicted by beat, and melody as demonstrated by sound and physiological harmony in relationship to the particulars of imagery which evoke sight, sounds, tastes, smell and touch.

On the sad occasion of Mary’s death, I recall our private feedback meeting at Bennington in 1991. She affirmed my passion and work ethic as she offered, “Send me a few poems from time to time. I’ll run alongside you, to help lift your kite into the air.”

I am grateful for Mary’s generosity, respect and poetic commentary, which enabled me to express and trust the “equipment” I have inside. Like so many who mourn her today, I turn to her vast work of artistry, her ability to create “bearable art” and rejoice for her legacy.

On Slow Waking

 

Faye, circa 1950’s
photo by Marv

For the past week, I’ve been ensconced at Pine Manor’s Winter MFA Solstice residency in Chestnut Hill. I was one of the first alumni to graduate in January, 2009. Thanks to their generous policy of encouraging alumni to audit classes and attend alumni events, I return twice a year for inspiration, learning and collegiality.

Every year, I focus on a particular aspect of craft and writing. In years past, as a memoir and personal essay writer, I’ve selected classes in creative nonfiction. This past year, perhaps because of the swirling events of Trump’s presidency, I have returned to writing poetry. The form, succinct and compressed, forces me to hone in, shape words in a rhythmic form, and highlight the essence of my subject.

I write free verse, using narrative, craft particulars and associations to shape my words. As of late, I have struggled to find the “right” words to fit my subject and fill the page. I’ve begun to wonder: does the possibility of so much free form limit my imagination?

I am grateful to report that midweek, I attended a class taught by Dzvinia Orlowsky on the Villanelle and Pantoum forms. We read and dissected Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, Theodore Roethke’s The Waking and two more. Villanelle is a form that uses repetition of lines to highlight the poet’s themes and intention.

As an Octogenarian with far more years behind me than ahead, the experience of probing the contrast between Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and Roethke’s “I learn by going where I have to go”  tapped into my own personal dilemma about creative focus and time.

In aging, one can rail and narrow one’s options as Thomas so aptly reveals or in contrast, one can follow one’s instincts or intuition and expand as one lives as Roethke unveils. It was remarkable join my classroom peers, all decades younger, in exploring and articulating the options.

On his recent 91stbirthday, my brother joked, “I’ve never been this old.” There is such truth is that simple statement and with it, the question of how one proceeds facing the “sunset years.” For myself, I am grateful to have returned to poem making in order to try to harness the light, caste the mauves, blues and lavenders of topics that compel me to write.

At the same time, I am grateful to experience validation of the path I am on, the belief that experience is the best teacher— a mantra I followed in all my therapeutic work with others. My choice of poetry classes was intuitive. It now seems significant that Roethke wrote the poem In Waking in 1953, a turning point in my life. I was a junior in college, far from home, emotionally adrift from my family and learning life long lessons I continue to embrace.

In Roethke’s words—“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.” I am grateful.

On Reflections of the Winter Solstice

Happy Winter Solstice!
photo by Marv

On this day before the winter Solstice and the sun’s turn towards increased daylight, I am grateful to the many readers who have read and supported my Gratitude Blog.

My own turn towards the light of gratitude began when I turned eighty. Gratitude is about perspective; and at eighty, the lens widens in one direction and shortens in another. Looking back, I can catalogue years, events, people, trends, the richness of the life I have lived. Looking ahead, there is guesswork as to how long my body, my brain, my sense of purpose and meaning will continue.

Does my goal to live to 105 years make sense? Up to 85, I thought so. In the years between eighty and eighty-five, I have written two full journals on gratitude, read numerous books on the subject and published 115 blogs. I believe that if I continue to focus on gratitude— to search for what brings a sense of thankfulness with full appreciation even with the challenges of aging, I might make it to 100 years or longer.

In the past year, I am more aware of the importance of connection. As friends become ill and pass away, I am grateful for the memory of close and fine relationships. The missing is sometimes hard like this past Saturday when Marv and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of the youngest grandson of my best friend Flo who passed away over twenty years ago. I’ve stayed close to her husband and children and know her seven grandchildren. On every family occasion, her strong spirit is present and I am melancholy.

In the yawning sadness that lingered that evening and the day after, I was unable to focus on my Monday blog deadline and wondered was this the beginning of my winding down the blog? I let it drift until this morning when I began to write and the words poured forth. Writing takes focus and patience, as does aging.

For the coming year, I will be focusing on gratitude and often, on the aging process as I experience and learn about more about what brings good balance at this stage. My essentials?

  • Healthy and viable relationships with friends and family.
  • Knowledge about one’s body, what makes it tick well, how to manage vulnerabilities.
  • Good nutrition— I cook daily, am a reformed “health food nut”
  • Time for creativity— writing my blog, personal essays, poems
  • Time for learning— piano, particularly jazz, which challenges my mind, helps me create new brain cells.
  • Nature— gardening three season, house plants, visuals of green spaces
  • Time for reading— news, poems, books that grab, fiction or nonfiction
  • Engaging media– movies, television
  • Exercise— tai-chi, weights, cardio

I juggle a lot, suffer from over ambition and often, over exertion, lifelong habits I try to reign in. Moderation is a learned behavior and one I try to focus on daily. I am grateful that as I age, I am getting better at mindful pacing. Happy Winter Solstice!

On Appreciation and Gratitude

The more I ponder and focus on the subject of gratitude, the more aware I am of the complexity of articulating its meaning. Some days, it’s as simple as saying, “Thank you,” to a young woman bagger at the super market who asked, “Shall I pack your bags not too heavy, ma’am?”

She initiated the perfect question seconds before my usual instructions.  I thanked her profusely as she set the bags in my cart. In the parking lot, as I hoisted the four bags into my car without strain, I further appreciated how well she had balanced the weighty apples, potatoes and squashes with the kale and rainbow chard selections. Whereas I was thankful in the moment, the effects of her careful effort deepened my appreciation and had a lasting effect.

In this season between Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Christmas, much is written about gratitude and “giving” to show appreciation. We are bombarded by requests from charities and organizations. Budgets are reviewed. Lists of relatives and friends, people we love and care about, organizations, which focus on attending to issues and causes important to us, are made.  Every person or organization we choose to acknowledge, in some way, makes a difference in our lives.

Is not the act of making a gift list the same as making a gratitude list with a specific intention?

I enjoy list-making for the opportunity to review and reflect on people in my life who, in my mother’s words, “make my life easier.”

My mailbox is situated up the driveway by the side entrance. It requires the mail carrier to walk from the street to the mailbox every day, through every season. During warm months, I’m often in the garden and can greet him and sometimes, chat. In this season of chill, I see him little but will enjoy selecting a special card, writing a note of appreciation, and adding a gift to leave in the mailbox.

Appreciation, the practice of gratitude, takes time and effort. The person who best exemplifies this in my life is my daughter, Beth. Joined by her daughter, she has the ritual of making home made chocolate fudge and pretzels covered with chocolate and colorful sprinkles. The ritual began years ago as a way to raise funds for a school charity and since, has grown into a way to show appreciation for colleagues, friends and family. Her Dad is on the list. She makes him special turtles with caramel. I order fudge and pretzels, festive packages for special friends.

I plan to start my appreciation/gift-giving list tonight, at the onset of Chanukah. As I light candles on the eight nights, I am grateful for my home, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, my many helpers, my news outlets, the flow of information, my opportunity to be engaged and give back to all who help make my life better and safer.

 

 

Simple Toast

UNIVERSAL Toaster, Circa 1914

This simple, flip-side, manual toaster, patented in 1914, offered warm toast every morning of my childhood before and after World War II.

By nature of its two-sided panel design, Mom could grasp a black button, flip the panel down, insert a piece of bread on one or both sides, and plug the toaster in. It toasted one side at a time, necessitating patience and hovering to get the bread brown, but not too crisp, then manually turning it over to face the red coil for even crispness.

In contrast, I own a Breville, ten-setting, multi functional toaster oven where I press a button , choose # 6 degree of crispness and turn away to hand drip my coffee as the machine performs perfection morning after morning.

With gratitude, I marvel at the memory of my mother standing at the entry handing me a piece of hot buttered toast. Ever-patient, holding up her offering, Mom said, “Take it easy, Faye,” as I dashed out the front door to meet up with best friend Harriet’s Dad, motor running at the corner curb, waiting to drop us off at junior high on her dad’s way to work.

Recently, a young friend recently noticed the antique toaster on display on a kitchen shelf. Years ago, when my two siblings and I cleared out our parent’s belongings, I chose the Universal toaster as a reminder of my childhood. She was fascinated by the fact that the plug had to be manually inserted and removed at every usage.

In my memory, the toast I savored as I ran down the block was warm, oozing with fresh butter and perfect in its crispness. To achieve this, Mom would have stood close by the toaster, ready to grasp the tiny black button to flip the bread at just the right degree of browning, only to begin all over again.

Mother was quiet and even-tempered by nature. I was not. Slow and dreamy upon awakening, I was eternally late though I tried my hardest. I cannot recall how many times Mom must have called up the stairs to prompt me to move along; but by the time I was at the front door, I was wound up, ajitated and ready to skip breakfast. Most of all, I dreaded the possibility of disapproval and a raised eyebrow.

I am still slow to rise, and at this writing, grateful to appreciate the memory of a simple gesture, which made a difference in how I faced my day. As an adult, my breakfast rituals are specific and predictable. I grind fresh coffee beans, boil water, and drip coffee with a steady pouring hand. I choose and toast an Ezekial high protein, sprouted wheat bun for sustained energy, and slather it with nut butter. Sometimes, I add micro-greens or asparagus.

In this post mid-election Trumpian era where breaking news abounds at every moment, I am grateful for morning dreaming and the simple pleasures of a calming and nutritious breakfast before revving up to face whatever the day brings.

 

Fall Leaves & Mourning

Photo taken from the back patio window

There is something about fall with its bold colors, each leaf distinct, the explosion of red, orange, yellow pigments in artistic play, a cacophony of hues.

I am especially grateful for the turning of leaves this November,2018. Days before the midterm, I am fraught with anticipation and anxiety. Will there be a falling?

The cleansing sweep of leaves represents change, the falling away of what has been in preparation for what is to become. I am grateful for the wisdom of Mother Nature’s seasons.

To thrive, trees must rest. To rest, trees must give up their leaves, strip down, be prepared for the weight  of cold and the blanket of snow which will bed, protect and ultimately melt moisture into the roots and provide nourishment for spring’s resurgence and growth.

During my fall childhood, as I walked the mile route to and from school, I scanned the sidewalk for “special” leaves— the perfectly pointed fiery red maples, the curved yellow oaks, the russet chestnuts. Upon arriving home, I slid each leaf in between the pages of Mom’s discarded Woman’s Day magazines. At season’s end, the magazines bulging with stems peeking out, I tucked them away in my room under a heavy book.

Often, as it happens in childhood, I moved on to my next project, forgetting the beauty left behind until spring or even the start of the next fall, when I would begin again. All these years later, still drawn to the search for “special leaves” such as the floating oak leaf caught in the spider’s web framed in the patio glass door, shown in the picture above.

A week has passed since the awful human carnage of faithful Jews, several near my own age, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, daughter of a first generation Yankee father and Lithuanian immigrant mother, I watched television images of congregants in mourning and men in black hoisting caskets of their beloved ones. I read about and listened to  stories of the deceased—men and women in the throes of their lives including a married couple wed in 1954 at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the same year as Marv and I were wed.

As my heart wept for the fallen,

I gazed upward

to the bold red/orange/yellow

leaves in change,

leaves in color, leaves falling.

 

Each precious one

soon to transform

into paper thinness

likes bones to dust,

eleven spirits in flight.

May the beauty of fallen leaves bring comfort to those who mourn.

Finding Calm & Compassion

Junior Blue Jay
McCauley Library
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

My home, located across from the Charles River, surrounded by trees, is a choice nesting site for birds.

Yesterday, as I finished whisking off the frayed bed sheet I’d thrown over my lemon tree to prevent freezing, I took note of a tiny grey bird tucked into the corner of the top step. Its stillness compelled me to pause and take note.

Still and barely breathing, the flutter of feathers at the edges, she was clearly alive. I surmised she was a fledging Blue Jay from the truncated tail, striped blue/black, just the beginning of a familiar tail.

Imagine what that first effort of fluttering one’s wings and leaving the nest must feel like. How many poems and stories have transformed this common experience in metaphoric language to describe separation and gaining mastery?

Often, in the spring, fledgling robins hit the windows along the front of the house. In their efforts to fly, I hear the “thwack” on the glass and run to the garden to see if a bird has fallen. There were one or two who were quite stunned but in time, regained their wits to try again.

I worried about this young one. She seemed sturdy and well fed, her coat soft and thick, her breath steady. Would she muster the energy to fly again? And if not, if she stayed through dark, what would I do?

In the moment, there was nothing to do. By dusk, just as silently as she had come, she left, leaving no trace except in memory, where she nested still.

What was it about the presence of that gentle, calm creature on the back step? As I recall her image, I breath slowly and more deeply.  Given the horrifying story of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi this past week, the fledgling Jay’s calm was a gift.

Like so many of my friends and family, I struggle with reactivity to the day’s events— they pile up, build into crescendos of anxiety. The fact that she landed on the step in the window of time when I stepped out was fortuitous.

I was drawn to her soft presence. Softness— and by extension, compassion, being the operative word for what has been missing in the day-to-day world in our October, 2018, headlines. Be it compassion for the children in “temporary” detention centers longing for family or the caravan of refugees with visions of America “The Beautiful,” this tiny creature embodied both the freedom to fly and the risk of vulnerability.

When I decided to write this week’s blog on the encounter, I wondered why I hadn’t taken a picture of the bird and had to resort to the internet for a likeness?  Upon reflection, I worried that my attempt to get “the perfect shot” might startle her.

I am grateful I had the presence of mind to step away and provide safety. In so doing, I was able  to gain perspective, as well as to write and share the meaning of the experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truth Telling: Part Two

Christine Blaisey Ford taking oath
Thanks to Win McNamee/Pool

Is it because I am a woman, a therapist with a trained ear, who has listened to countless women with similar stories, that I believe Dr. Christine Blaisey Ford’s story?

There are so many ways in which Dr. Ford’s narrative felt compelling and believable. As television cameras rolled, her voice shaking with anxiety, I again bore witness to a sexual abuse survivor willing to walk through the trauma of truth telling—this time, to a national audience. I took note of how she paced the telling of painful details, and her deliberate effort to be even-handed in her story as she declared only what, as a highly trained psychologist and woman under sexual siege, could she ascertain.

The day we awaited the release of the FBI report to the Senate, I tuned into Rachel Martin’s NPR interview with Missy Bigelow Carr, a long-term friend of Judge Kavanaugh. She did not believe Dr. Ford’s account and could not consider any part of it as true.

  • At one point, after Ms. Carr asserted, there’s a lot of holes in the stories of Ford,Ms. Martin observed, it is common to have holes in one’s memory, that you can’t recount, necessarily, the address where it (the assault) happened.
  • Well, that there’s holes are one thing. But lies are other things.  I mean…fear of flying not true. The second door on the house —again, the data, the history shows that this—the second door was put on four years before the therapy session that apparently was about this incident.

Dr. Ford did state that she had a fear of flying and yet, acknowledged that she did fly. I understood that although the fear of flying limited her options, that in special circumstances such as trips across the country to visit her parents, work commitments, and testifying to Congress, she found a way to cope.

At one point in my life, when my children were young teens, I developed an intense fear of flying. For days before a necessary professional trip, I practiced specific coping imagery. On the day of the flight, I sat in an aisle seat to assure my mobility and during the trip, I often closed my eyes to envision safe landing and walking onto firm ground. Like Dr. Ford, I understood the power of specific strategies for coping.

Making no sense to her architect or her husband, Dr. Ford insisted on a second door years before her secret propelled the couple into therapy. The need for protection was so strong that even the embarrassment of double front doors for all to see did not prevent her from such an unusual and unaesthetic decision. The extra door meant safety and safety was all.

There is no turning back from the disregarding, vitriolic Senate Supreme Court election we have lived through this past week. Just as Dr. Ford feared, she was deemed a woman who “ruined a good man’s reputation.” She needed more than two front doors to keep her safe from President Trump’s egregious, inflammatory words in which he mocked her testimony to a cheering and raucous crowd in Mississippi. I was appalled and disgusted by his careless and hurtful rhetoric.

  • After all this, for what am I grateful? I am grateful to find the words for this blog.
  • I am grateful for Dr. Ford’s courage to stand before so many and lead the way for other silent survivors to step forth and participate in a dialogue about sexual abuse that is long overdue.
  • I am grateful to add my name to the many women and men who believe Dr. Ford’s truth and stand by her. May she stay safe.