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Self-care in This Chaotic Trump Era

Faye @ computer
photo by Marv

I have the privilege, twice a year, as an alumna of the Solstice Creative Writing MFA of Pine Manor program, to audit classes. This past Friday, I participated in an intimate community gathering in which Nicole Terez Dutton (poetry faculty) and Dr. Prabakar Thyaragajan (psychiatrist and poet) presented and led students, faculty and staff in a discussion of Writing as Balm, Armor and Resistance.

The Solstice group is diverse in gender, identity, age, and experience. United by the bond of writing, we are, as a group engaged, informed and sensitive to information and the world in which we live. To say that writers as a whole are more sensitive than most might be a stretch. Yet, I believe it to be true.

Writers read voraciously. Writers scan their universe, both wide and intimate, for the details of what is apparent and what is beneath the surface. Story, above all else draws us like a moth to flame. We watch on the subway, we listen at the train station, and in the coffee line at Peets. We observe couples, families, friends. Wired to story, we absorb and chronicle.

In this context, Nicole Terez Dutton set the stage to step back and identify all the variable assaults to our dignity as a nation, as a people of diversity, as a group of involved individuals struggling to live through and manage this wild, chaotic Trump era and its effects of what was once reliable and, for the most part, with precedence.

When she highlighted the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s 14 warning signs of Fascism and ticked them off, one by one, with incidents of this past year, we grasped the full sweep of the dangerous trajectory of leadership in our country.

We have to work against Fascism, we have to help each other to survive, she said.

In introducing Dr. Prabakar Thyaragajan, she said, we need strategies to be well, stay well, to be with each other.

In this spirit, I am grateful to share a brief account of Prabakar’s positivity philosophy of self- care.

  • All creatures deserve to be happy; should is a terrible word
  • Listen to the self; adopt gifting to the self; practice foregiveness of the self

I experienced delight when Prabakar said, the simplest way to listen to the self is to keep a journal (he keeps his on his phone, a novel idea to me). His directions to track sensations are simple and basic to the practice of mindfulness.

  • keep a close ear to the ground; give weight to the everyday experience
  • what does the first taste of morning coffee taste like? I am drinking my first cup as I write this: the taste is slightly bitter yet buttery sweet from the mix with coconut milk.
  • what does the walk in air feel like?
  • what does disgust feel like—i.e., I want to vomit when…
  • include mixed feelings—I often struggle with ambivalence and find it helpful to write them out and reflect on the pluses and minuses.
  • On foregiveness of the self :Not fair to judge thoughts and emotions which are not under our control. Okay to feel anger. Aggression is a choice.

Nicole ended with inviting the audience to respond and state how each of us are managing. Solstice writers stood and spoke out about their own struggle and efforts to bring self to the page, to speak to systems of oppression, to take on projects that are satisfying and not too demanding, to bring solace and sustained work to ourselves.

I shared how writing this gratitude blog sustains my creativity while trying to make a difference. I ask each of you reading today to add to the conversation. Please contribute your approach and point of view and write a comment!

My 2018 Challenge: To Maintain Gratitude

readying to write
photo by Marv

Two days into 2018, wrapped in a blanket and typing, the headlines blaring with hard-to-ignore news, I am aware that while I embrace the concept of gratitude, it does not always embrace me. Like all humans, I am not automatically wired to feel grateful.

You would think that after keeping a daily gratitude diary for a year and then writing this gratitude blog for two years, that today’s post would come more readily. I believe that in spite of the weather or news or state of mind, each of us has a story of gratitude to tell. Some are dramatic and compelling like my Mitzvah story of John fixing my flat tire. Others are hidden, less apparent and need to be teased out with intention to seek and mine what one experiences.

When I ignore or forget about intention, I slide right by the signposts of gratitude such as a quiver in the gut as I experience an empathic moment, a smile on my face as a clerk jokes about offering me a job, a moment of calm as I scan the hill laced with white snow outside my window.

Each of these moments holds a story. Each of these moments, were I to sit with pen in hand and describe the details—the what, where, and experience of the encounter— would result in opening and deepening a sense of gratitude.

Take for example, the job offer. The morning before the encounter, I called Whole Foods in search of a digestive product hard to come by. To my delight, I spoke with a person who informed me they had the product and would set it aside with my name on it. That afternoon, I followed an engaging man who opened a large drawer and began to rumble through, saying, “Likely it’s on the bottom; it always is.”

As he began to sort and sift, he moved a standard sized bottle wrapped with a paper note aside. I had the instinct that the bottle could be mine. “Check that bottle right there, please,” I said.

Sure enough, there was my name— “Faye” written on the note. “How would you like a job working here,” he joked. We both laughed. It was a moment of shared gratitude, a moment of levity I sorely needed. More, and here’s the reflection piece, I was grateful to feel and acknowledge my intuition.

In theory, gratitude is always present and available if one can focus and prime the intention. One of my main sources of learning and inspiration and one that I recommend is the https://www.mindful.org website to which I subscribe. They suggest a weekly writing practice two or three times a week. They unequivocally state:

elaborating in detail about a particular person or event for which you are grateful carries more benefits than a list of many things.

I find this to be true. When I take the time to write out a story, in effect to tell myself a gratitude story and spend time reflecting on its meaning, I deepen my sense of gratitude. I am grateful to you, my readers, who motivate me to show up and bring my intention to practice gratitude to the blog page.

 

 

 

 

Grateful for a Mitzvah

Faye
photo by Marv

Just recovering from a miserable cold, the day had not started well— 51 degrees inside, heating oil tank empty. Hours later, thanks to the tech providing 10 gallons of fuel, I left home at near sunset to shop for groceries. Ninety minutes later, while placing my bags in the cargo trunk, a man’s voice called out, “Did you know your tire is flat?”

I engage with a lean, dark haired young man pointing to my rear tire. It seemed unbelievable that the day would end like this—a flat tire, out in the cold.

“Do you have someone you can call to fix it?” he asks.

“Yes. I can call Triple A.”

The man’s wife, from the shadows, comments, “You’ll have to wait at least 45 minutes or longer.”

“I can fix it, if you would like,” the man continues.

“He likes to help,” she explains.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Mary and John,” she answers.

“What’s your name?” John asks.

“Faye.”

“Faye’s a beautiful name,” he says.

I step up closer, wanting to believe, but needing to check this stranger’s offering. “”Where’s your tire?” he says with a smile. His sincerity is undeniable.

“You’re sure? You really want to do this,” I ask as I push the bags of groceries toward the back. John lifts a panel to lift the tire.

“Oh, good,” I say, “It’s full sized and not a doughnut. Have you fixed many flats?”

“It’s been awhile. I think I can do it. Where’s the jack? Do you have a tool kit?”

I need to think fast, much too fast given how long it’s been since I’ve rummaged in the hidden cargo pockets. I hit gold and retrieve a bulky cloth packet.

John is quick, finds the jack, unties the packet’s ribbon and grabs the lug wrench. After raising the car, he fastens onto a bolt. It does not budge.

“You’re in good hands, not to worry,” Mary says. “I have a quick return,  and will be right back.”

“It’s cold,” John says. “Maybe you should go into the store. I can come get you. Or if you’d like, you can sit in my car.”

I’m in the moment, dressed for winter, needing to stay engaged and present. John doubles down. The wrench gives way. Within seconds, he twists all the lug nuts except the last. “Where’s your lug key? Mine’s in my front compartment.”

“Key?  I am clueless.

“It’s round. One lug is locked, for prevention. Otherwise, anyone can lift your tires with a common wrench.”

I search my glove compartment. No luck.

Undaunted, John returns to the packet and locates the lock key.Within minutes, he replaces the tire, stows the tool kit and damaged tire.

Mary, just back, says, “I knew he could help. He loves to pay it forward.”

“Yes,” John continues, ”I love to help. But most people say no. I’m so grateful you let me step up.”

His words touch me deeply. “In my faith, we call it a Mitzvah,” I say.

“What does Mitzvah mean?” John asks.

“A way of giving, of helping another in need.”

Mary says, “We are joining our friends soon. We’ll tell them John did a Mitzvah.” I assume their friends are Jewish; I’m grateful to deepen their connection. We hug.

John grins, comes towards me, arms open for an embrace. “I love you, Faye. Thank you for letting me help.”

I step into the arms of this generous man and without hesitation say, “ I love you, John.”

To say that John and Mary came into my life at just the right time is an understatement. Mary commented that because she had to return only an item, she had wanted to park close to the door, but John decided, in the moment, to pull in right beside me. Was the fact that I was an elder, on my own, tending to groceries, a fact that drew him to me? Mary had informed me his Mom had died when he was a teen. Their kids in college, I imagined they were close to my kid’s age. Whatever instinct drew him to me on that cold night, I was grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Kindness

 

Renah @ Wayne U.
Photo by Marv

When I think about kindness, I think about Renah and Jayne, both felled by polio and wheelchair bound, at a time when I most needed kindness. Twenty years old, a recent transfer from Simmons College, I arrived at Wayne University and made the impulsive decision to move off campus into an untenable roommate situation. Friendless, far from my New England family, I returned to the thirteen-floor, converted hotel dorm in need of a home.

Dressed in a skirt and sweater, knee socks and saddle shoes, I knocked on Renah and Jayne’s door and was greeted by Renah’s welcoming smile. The lilt in her voice, her innate curiosity at my “preppy” attire, tempered my anxiety as I explained that the housing director had suggested I check out their room.

“Sure, we have an extra bed, by the window,” she said, as she gripped the thick rubber wheels of her chair, nodding for me to follow.

“We have a new roomie,” she called out to Jayne, reading in bed, a hand pulley above to lift her to a wheelchair bedside.

I embraced them; they embraced me. The timing was perfect. That year was filled with lessons of gratitude; our day-to-day consideration of one another filled me with ease. We told stories, shared worries. My new friends taught me how laughter can face down hurt.

At least once a week, I would grab the handles of Renah’s chair to walk the block to a storefront restaurant where we joined our little gang for a “real” meal. The wait staff, customers, everyone knew Renah and as her new “preppy” friend from Boston; I was folded in.

Long before the passage of The American Disabilities Act of 1990, there were enormous challenges for the physically challenged student attending a university. Ramps were not a given, nor were elevators in multi-floor buildings.

At her core, Renah was an activist who could look you straight in the eye and compel you to deal straight with any demeaning innuendo or impediment involving her ability to navigate her life. I recall her persistence as she negotiated a third floor change in a classroom location from the third to the first floor so that she could attend an advanced sociology class.

What would she and Jayne make of the “what is” of now—our Trumpean president, a braggart who boasts how women cannot refuse his advances, his reckless leadership? What would they make of the cascade of women truth tellers sharing their stories of male sexual predators stalking and accosting them in the work place?

In my fantasy, Renah would have kicked Harvey Weinstein right where it hurts. A young woman in a hand-driven wheelchair, she learned to be tough to the core to face the unfair and unkind behaviors she encountered.

It is humbling and gratifying to realize all these years later how the lessons of living side by side with two kind and strong-willed women have infused my resolve to stand up and assert, to write and resist the tyranny of entitlement and abuse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Letter To My Mom at Thanksgiving

Mom Presents the Turkey
Circa: 1953
Photo by Marv

Dear Mom,

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us and with it, a memory of waking to the smell of roasting turkey and the sight of you at the kitchen counter, hands white with flour, rolling out dough for your cinnamon-spiced, two-crust apple pie.

All these years later, I write to tell you how much I appreciate the devotion and thoughtful attention you gave to every detail— the bread stuffing infused with sautéed onions and celery seasoned with sage, the crystalized sweet potatoes with melted marshmallow, the creamy potatoes mashed by hand, the cranberries, cooked down to a sweet confection, the steamed peas infused with fresh mint.

It was generous, how you included Dad’s widowed sister, Aunt Betty and cousins Caroline and Sylvia, to celebrate Dad’s November birthday on Thanksgiving. Always, you managed to bake a two-tier, chocolate frosted cake in advance.

What a quiet marvel of organization you were. In retrospect, I have come to appreciate the days of planning, shopping and cooking in that 1941 small and square kitchen with a compact refrigerator, single-oven and the one long counter. It helped that our kitchen table sat smack in the middle.

You were, of course, my model for Thanksgiving. Even in your eighties and widowed, you managed to continue to gather the family. You were fierce about your independence and cooking was your passion. That last Thanksgiving, in spite of waning energy, you took such pride in your turkey, still moist and delectable, and your single crust apple pie, the filling as always, a tart sweetness.

I recall your pleasure, from the few times you joined us in Newton—at how I experimented with new recipes—sweet potatoes, sans marshmallow, just a little nutmeg and maple syrup. I never did perfect a piecrust. With a full time job, I sought out shortcuts; freezer ready crust filled with my own sour cherry filling (Marv’s favorite) did the trick.

We have three generations following in your footsteps. When it was time for me to stop hosting, Beth stepped up and I became a helper.

My granddaughters, Genna and Shayna, were nine and six the first time they helped prepare your “Grandma Goldie Stuffing.” I toasted bread in the oven. Genna sliced the celery and soldiered through onion tears, to create perfect cuts for sautéing. Shayna zested the orange skin for the fresh cranberry sauce and helped snip the green beans. The three of us mixed the stuffing.

This Thanksgiving, the girls now grown, Genna has taken over the stuffing preparation while Shayna will join me the day before  to start a new tradition. We plan to bake pumpkin pies, a new recipe, and of course, trim the beans in preparation for my traditional sesame green beans.

All these years later, I am grateful for the nourishment to spirit and body you ignited. As always, I will miss your sweet smile of contentment at the table.

Much love, your daughter,

Faye

 

 

 

Piano Lessons Redux

Faye at piano; circa 1953
Photo by Marv

These days, my time-out is at the keyboard, stretching my fingers, practicing exercises, rag, and blues pieces. After 9 years of classical training, at age 16, I precipitously walked away from my year-end recital. Likely cause: adolescent angst, frustration over a Beethoven Sonata’s arpeggios, my teacher’s adamant distaste of Boogie Woogie and popular music.

Two years ago, at a music store, I noticed a beautiful Roland electric piano. When I opened it and sat down to play the full keyboard, I was delighted by the sound. The price was right—reasonable as the two lowest keys were irreparable and this being a professional keyboard, it was not selling. It was an impulse-buy, a balm against anxiety during the presidential election.

Did I immediately sit down to play? My memory muscle failed. I could no longer amble up and down the keyboard with Deep Purple or I’m in the Mood for Love, favorites I had played all during my young adulthood. Parenting and launching two musically talented children, a full time therapy practice, and marriage challenged all my resources; I drifted far away.

I felt regret at the sight of my silent piano. I knew well the difference between my adolescent skill-set and my flailing Octogenarian effort. I needed help: a teacher who could relate and guide me. All these months of gratitude practice had taught me the benefits of embracing the beginner’s mind. My hubris long dissipated, I needed to begin again.

In September, I returned to the place where my children had grown as musicians: The All Newton Music School, which, thankfully, is ten minutes by car from my home. The woman in charge of new enrollees interviewed me on the phone about my preferences. “I’d like a teacher who can relate to an Octogenarian, but who also teaches children,” I said.

The first day, Kim, her eyes dancing, greeted me as I walked through the front door. “Are you Faye?” she said. I was her first student, 12:30 for a half hour. I told her my story, how far away I was from proficiency, my trepidation. She taught children in a group, had students of all ages, and instantly began to talk goals, how to proceed.

Eight lessons later, I am grateful to be coming into my own. I started with a simple version of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer and now am challenged by an intermediate version. The goal—to follow the music , maintain the tempo, integrate the offbeat rhythms, and keep my hands in sink..

Last week, in frustration over my dogged rendition, Kim explained that I was approaching the piece as I had long ago— counting methodically as if I were playing Bach. Joplin’s pieces are dance pieces, alive, fast, and driven by varying rhythms. I needed to tackle small segments, practice each hand separately, each day setting the metronome a little faster. In time, the hands would come together.

Gratefully, I report progress. Sometimes, the past calls with a treasure: a gift of engagement, a lost passion, waiting like the sound of Joplin, deftly played and up beat.

On Boundaries & Me Too

Sally Brecher’s Olin Birches

A friend recently mused how she was unable to feel gratitude these past two weeks, especially in the face of the Harvey Weinstein story and the implosion of the “Me Too” response. Her comment gave me pause.

How was it, in spite of all the awfulness, I am able to come up for air, take deep breaths, seek and find moments of gratitude. It’s about belief. I believe in balance. I believe nature provides balance and in as much as human beings are part of the natural order, the striving for balance is dormant within us.

The challenge, as I try to describe through this blog, is in the seeking and recognition of meaning. For each of us, it is different. To my friend, a talented artist whose soft edged images of slices of white bark trunks invoke the impulse to touch, I am grateful. Her talent in seeing and transmitting what she sees invokes my connection to nature.

Is this not how as human beings, we are wired? Has not the Me Too outpouring of the experience of hurtful boundary violations given rise to the opportunity for hidden voices to be seen and heard?

In The Boston Globe, October 21st column, “Me Too? It Was Started By Her,”Christela Guerra interviews Tarana Burke, who “originated the idea a decade ago through her work, particularly with young women of color.” I was grateful to read about Burke’s original intentions.

In many regards Me Too is about survivors talking to survivors. It was never really about amplifying the number of people who are survivors of sexual violence. It was about survivors sharing empathy with each other. But when I talk to young people, I use pop culture to promote the idea of Me Too all the time. We have to have something that reaches the masses.

Empathy is key. As a therapist, I specialized in treating women who had been sexually abused as children. Many came to therapy because of symptoms, the source of which they had dismissed or forgotten. Me Too is a call to women to speak out on serious boundary violations, which require the empathy of others to bear witness for healing.

As a woman of 85, I have experienced sexualized verbal and physical assaults. My first incident, at five years old, I was chased around my dining room in the presence of close family who laughed as my father’s friend grabbed inside my dress and placed his hands far down my back to grab the “bugs” inside. I screamed; everyone laughed. Boundary violation, Yes. “Boys will be boys,” the unempathic and uninformed explanation.

“Me Too,” is about candor, a space where people can say, in their own words, what has caused them fear and hurt, bewilderment, shame and grief. What of the difference between harassment and assault? Burke, to her credit, does not discriminate. She states,

If your Me Too was about sexual harassment versus sexual assault but it’s traumatizing to you, then it’s important for you to be heard and seen.

 The memory of strange and icy hands on my back has never left me. It likely planted seeds of gratitude for empathy and the humanness in a response that says you are not alone.