Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘Everyday Life’ Category

Quiet Time

To my followers,

My blog is going to be silent for a while, maybe as long as a month.

Please don’t worry and please don’t think I’m disinterested in you, dear friends.

You are the folks who make me want to maintain a blog, after all.

There are personal issues I must take care of, and they need lots of time.

Stop thinking the worst – not a divorce, severe illness, or criminal acts. I haven’t joined the army, a nunnery, or the circus.

Also, not the excitement of a round the world vacation or an excursion on SpaceX – they begged, but I had to turn them down.

And sadly, not (yet) launching the publication of my book.

In other words, something I can’t discuss here.

I will not be able to regularly follow your blog posts either, though I’ll pop in once in a while.

I’ll return soon as I can, to writing my blog, to following yours.

Till then, be healthy, stay active, and be involved with the things that make you breathe deeply and exhale joyfully. (Yeah, I know, not supposed to use adverbs. Meh.)

Love to all,

Shari

 

 

Painting A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer, 1665

 

 

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Learning a Thing or Two about Language

 

The first year I taught high school art, I wasn’t a newbie. I’d been a commercial artist for years, and for years before and after that stint, I’d taught art through a city recreation program and in elementary schools.

Late in the last century, I was hired as the middle and high school art teacher in an elite, brand new K through 12 private school. The first year opened with inspiring fanfare but the founders weren’t as ready as they should have been. There weren’t enough classrooms to accommodate all the students, an itchy fact that would take several years to correct. Sharing space meant every classroom was in use full time. Accommodation for the art program became even more inventive. Not ideal but necessary.

That first year my high school students shared an art studio with the elementary art teacher and her students, a very bad marriage as you can imagine. There are the little ones, 6 or 7-year-olds, wiggly kids happily smearing paint all over the place, sometimes on their papers. There am I at the opposite end of the studio, trying to convince my 14 and 15-year-olds that art creation must be preceded by contemplation, inquiry, and attention to process. All they wanted to do was smear paint all over each other, and sometimes they did.

If you listen to children, you know their vernacular is different every week as they turn the meaning of language on its head, always with the provocative intent of making us, their parents and teachers, as miserably uncomfortable as they can. They steal words imaginatively used in songs and videos and apply them to their lives. Fat becomes “phat” and means something entirely different from its homophone. I hate being reminded I’m fat, but tell me I’m phat, and I’m pleased to be excellent.

As soon as we adults catch on, they’re off, leaving us in a language vacuum, using some other word or phrase in another secret code, enjoying the anonymity of their activity until we figure it out. They call me fat again and mean it as the insult. They chortle as we let the door slam on our way out. It always hits us in the butt. The proverbial butt, of course.

The freshman class remained the high school pioneers for four years. They were the freshmen when there were no sophomores, then the sophomores but not yet any juniors, etc. No one to temper them with the pranks that older high school kids play on younger ones, helping to keep them in check – a bit.

Four years in which indulged children demanded glory just for being present and rarely agreed to do anything we wanted them to do. Rarely agreed even to do what was fun and creative. I suffered as much testing in my art class as the beleaguered teachers who taught history and advanced math. Tripping teachers was much fun for them. We finally graduated the inaugural bunch of them and sent them off to college campuses where they discovered the world didn’t spin on the orbits they thought they created.

I have a thing with language. An English major, I speak and write a bit more formally than most.  Friends who read early drafts of my books tell me that no one talks like my characters. I revise to write contractions, choose ordinary words, and make common dialogue mistakes. “She and I went shopping,” becomes “Her and I went shopping.” Ugh, but fair enough if I want my stories to sound like they’re not peopled by English scholars of the 19th century. Even if my hand hurts writing such language indignities.

You would think someone who’d worked with kids for so many years wouldn’t make so many errors with language. You may know that a teen who “throws shade” just insulted someone. That one who says, “I’m weak,” is falling on the floor laughing. I only mention all this to set up what happened in my first high school art class.

The class was top loaded with gangly, energetic boys and flirty, imperious girls. Inquisitive, talented students I loved working with. Rich children who vacationed in Paris and Israel, skied at Aspen, surfed in Hawaii, sailed past icebergs in Alaska, and drove brand new cars at sixteen. (More expensive cars than mine.) After too many long moments where I tried to get them to stop talking and start their projects, I would finally say, “Get busy.” Which brought a round of hoots and promises to do exactly that. Sadly, it took me far too long to realize my mistake.

“Get busy” meant to have sex. And “being busy” meant the act was already in play – thankfully not in my class.

I taught art well. Our graduates came back from their first semester of college to tell me they finally understood why I taught the demanding art curriculum they’d mastered. In college art classes they were the stars. Talented, yes, and prepared to think, inquire, and apply skills.

They also taught me a thing or two. I may have majored in English, but I didn’t know everything about language until I taught my first high school students.

 

 

Photo courtesy Pixabay.com

 

For Those We Love

We begin by wailing and sobbing, harrowed with grief over our loss.

We pray for the one who is gone, for we who are left behind, for those who will acquaint only in story.

We beg answers to questions never resolved except in metaphor, thoughts that weigh more than the sum of their words.

We make fists, then open palms, hold hands, and grasp shoulders, swaying as a group so that none fall.

We share memories. One is spellbinding. One is provocative. One is a revelation. One is tender. One makes us laugh.

Our tears dry while the sorrow rises with our amens and we step forward. The first step hesitates, the next holds ground, then we lose count.

We will never forget but we move on but we will never forget.

There is an order to paying tribute to those who have passed. The order controls the bedlam that otherwise imprisons us.

It allows a semblance of freedom from unrelenting despair so we can return to order.

Today, though, I am harrowed with grief.

 

Just a thought 32

 

Photo of girl courtesy of CC0 Creative Commons

 

Hawaiian Baby Doll

We lived in Paradise. Tripler Army Hospital base housing for married officers in Honolulu, Hawaii, to be exact. Our home was an apartment in side by side units that had been converted from the original wooden hospital wards before the iconic pink hospital was built. Opposite our row of housing was a mirror image of the same, separated by a strip of lawn bisected by a row of palm trees. That lawn was my playground, mine and all the other kids who lived there with our physician and officer families.

Although Hawaii is famous for its cooling trade winds and daily tropical showers, I don’t remember either. I was four in the early 1950s, my day marked by playing outside. We were safe, we were free to play. After breakfast all the kids zipped around the lawn, back and forth between houses, going home only for lunch, then dinner as the orange orb of sun settled in for the night and cast Moanalua Ridge in balmy darkness.

I learned to ride a tricycle and to fly a kite, to string tiny koa seeds into leis, and to dance hula. I tasted both cotton candy and snow cones for the first time. Each was culinary magic, one a sugary pink cloud brought to earth on a paper cone, the other a paper cone of turquoise and pink sugared ice served on an island where it never snowed. Both are still favorite treats. Most days I wore a yellow or red hibiscus blossom in my hair, plucked from one of the nearby bushes, and carried lantana clusters, each a miniature pinwheel bouquet.

I didn’t have a baby doll. I wanted one desperately but we were poor, a concept I understood as meaning not enough money to buy a doll. A grotesque cloth clown and an ugly sock monkey, both discarded by other kids, substituted for the baby doll I wanted to rock in my arms.

I did have Pudd.

Pudd, pronounced like the first part of the word pudding, was the baby girl born to the couple who lived across the lawn from us. I visited her every day, politely knocking on the door until Pudd’s mother, Mrs. Dalton, welcomed me inside.

Renaissance beautiful with satiny pink skin and enormous blue eyes, Pudd remained smiley and sweet-natured. She rarely cried. She wriggled her hands and feet but never tried to turn over. She kept silent as if concentrating on music in her own heart. She grasped my hand, making it seem like a giant’s, and she grinned and bubbled when I sang “Twinkle Star” and “My Little Grass Shack.” If I got the words wrong, Pudd never complained.

Mrs. Dalton lifted Pudd gently, holding her head carefully. She spoke in dulcet tones to her daughter as loud voices startled Pudd and caused her to jerk in fright. Pudd and her mother were great training for big sisters-to-be, a good thing as my mom would soon present our family with a sibling for me. I was ready for the baby doll coming to our home.

I never stayed long when Pudd needed a nap or it was time for Mrs. Dalton to feed her, acts I wasn’t allowed to witness. Giving Pudd a kiss on her forehead but never on her lips or the top of her head on her fragile fontanel, I said good bye until the next day, and danced down the steps to the lawn.

One afternoon my mom told me I couldn’t visit Pudd, her tearful eyes warning me not to go over to the Dalton’s house. I pestered my mom about why I couldn’t visit until she said, “They’re giving Pudd her last bath.”

My brother was born only a week or so after I’d been forbidden to bother Mrs. Dalton on the afternoon of Pudd’s last bath. I didn’t see Pudd again as I had my own baby doll to watch over and sing to. We left Hawaii a few months after my brother was born, eventually settling in Trenton, New Jersey.

Seven years later we drove to the Midwest to visit the Daltons who now had three kids like us. Only they weren’t at all like us.

The last bath hadn’t been the last one after all. Pudd’s real name was Edwina, a fact my parents revealed on the drive. Her parents had to teach it to her before she started school. The Daltons had been planning to give up Pudd to an institution but changed their mind and moved to a state that had the best school in the country for children like Pudd. Children born with hydrocephalus – water on the brain. It’s a misnomer for a defect that allows excess spinal fluid to collect around the brain and spinal cord, causing the head to swell and a myriad of developmental problems. Though Pudd’s life had been saved shortly after birth with a shunt to drain the fluid, the damage had been done.

My parents tried to prepare me to meet the Pudd who was now almost eight years old. But nothing could have prepared me. She was still incredibly beautiful, with golden ringlets and satiny pink skin. She wore thick glasses and leg braces from ankle to thigh. She could neither sit nor stand without assistance though she had learned to take a few clumsy steps. I talked to her about school, art projects, and TV shows, as I would with any friend. Her speech was nearly impossible to understand and I realized she had limited mental abilities. She wasn’t the perfect baby I’d sung to in Hawaii, but she smiled with radiant warmth as if she remembered me.  I squelched my tears.

At bedtime her parents undertook an elaborate ritual to prop Pudd between half a dozen pillows to hold her body still so she could sleep without convulsions, without breaking one of her fragile legs or arms. They would wake to check on her twice during the night. We didn’t stay longer than that one day’s visit and I never saw nor heard about Pudd again. I don’t know if she is still alive though it’s unlikely.

Pudd suffered an unimaginable, freak injury that can be ameliorated today with advanced medical technology, but her life wasn’t a lesson for all the rest of us to digest. Her fate was unfair. Knowing Pudd helped me develop a sense of compassion for people with disabilities but it wasn’t why she was put on earth. She wasn’t born to be a model for research, though her life was an example to her doctors and teachers. I don’t know why there is a magnitude of injustice in the world. Paradise doesn’t exist if one person hurts. I do know I can make someone feel that they are loved.

I love you, Pudd, wherever you are. You will always be my sweet Hawaiian baby doll.

 

Photo of Sharon at four, Bonin-Pratt family photo

 

 

 

 

This is the Wrong Post

I planned to write about the majestic launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. I didn’t want to write this story.

I’m mad. Angry and insane with grief. I want to throw the computer across the room, tear out the plastic cartridges that hold the ink, drag the printer down the street till it shatters into a thousand pieces. Then I wouldn’t be able to tell this story.

This is a story of death. Four people died this past week. Four people I know and love. The doctor, the mother, the judge, and the animal rescuer.

The doctor was the father of my friend. I taught my friend’s children at our temple. She proved to be a parent on whom I could count to bring cookies, to call other parents, to compliment me on the lesson. She made sure her son and daughter were well prepared. We shared confidences. I looked up to her as someone whose low key demeanor belied her inner strength. We spoke often about our dads, each of us proud of these two men who were family physicians – heroes to us. I don’t know about her genetic inheritance but it is evident her father impressed on her a strong work and community ethic. He raised a good person who became a good friend to me. My hero has been gone nearly ten years. Now hers is gone also, a tragic catch-up of circumstances.

The mother lived at the memory care residence where my mother lives. Her daughter is my friend. My friend’s mother bequeathed her remarkable beauty to her daughter, also her grace and composure. My friend’s mother did not speak often but she always looked at me with a smile and sparkling eyes. She and my mom shared meals together, afternoons of music, discussions, or games, and casual walks around the gardens, happy to be in each other’s presence. I’m not certain my mom will realize she’s lost another friend. When you have Alzheimer’s, it’s the blessing of the disease that you cannot remember who your friends are or when they are gone. I’ve been holding my friend’s hand as she remembers her mother before the disease.

The judge was a family friend. Forty years ago, his mother- and father-in-law danced with my parents every week. Thirty years ago I drove his older daughter to Hebrew school with my son. Fifteen years ago he married my older son to the loving woman who bore our two older grandchildren. Ten years ago, his younger daughter became friends with my nephew at the party we threw for my parent’s sixtieth anniversary. Two years later my father, the doctor, died. The calendar marched in step with the moments that annotated our families’ lives. Important moments in three generations were shared as if we were family. In a few days we will bury the judge only a few yards from the doctor’s grave.

It is the final death, of the animal rescuer, K, that is killing me. She died last night after a nearly five year battle with very aggressive cancer. My younger son’s wife, our daughter-in-law, has lost her mother. She treated my son as her son. My younger grandchildren have lost the woman who watched them every Wednesday so my daughter-in-law could work. She got to know our shared grandson, now four, and our shared granddaughter, only two. She underwent surgeries, chemotherapy rounds, and traditional and experimental drug protocols, trying to find a cure, or at least gain more time.

When K was well she ran a wild creature rescue service. She was respected in her community as a fiercely independent spirit with an intellect as bright as lightning. She had many, many friends. She and her husband were active in their church, and lifelong advocates for social justice. I only got to meet her a half dozen times as they live more than a ten hour drive away from us. Not the kind of situation where you can drop in on someone frequently. But I enjoyed every moment I got to be with her.

She struggled. We prayed. I wish she’d had more time – for all of the family, more time. I grieve for my children and grandchildren whose grief is unbearable.

At the end of the evening, a few hours after hearing of the deaths of the judge and the animal rescuer, when I thought I’d shed all the tears my body could muster, we watched NBC’s  This Is Us. It was the episode about the funeral of the father. A TV show, reminding me of four actual upcoming funerals. From the launch of a rocket to the funeral of a television character, the day has collapsed from elation to sorrow. I really didn’t want to write this story. Please imagine something majestic.

 

A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I Could Aim Better

Even without a wayward draft to misdirect a bird in flight, a folded slip of paper aimed at a trashcan might yet miss its intended target and land on the floor, a dust collector for those with short brooms.

A baker en route to delivering fresh cookies to lucky children might trip on the upturned edge of the sidewalk, the treats toppling onto the concrete, landing in a crush of sweet crumble for alert mice.

Aiming for the concentric circle of chlorinated water at the community pool, a diver might wobble his torso, miss the mark, and land in a belly flop, water erupting as wildly as back flipping whales.

Stories do not begin in perfect landings but perfectly good stories begin in chaotic tumbles down all kinds of chutes. The struggle of climbing back up makes for great reading.

 

Just a thought 27

 

 

 

Image: The Dance of Cogul, Levantine rock art of the Iberian Peninsula

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving 2017

We live in the eucalyptus woods of Lake Forest in Orange County, California, solidly middle class and a place we could not afford at today’s prices. We locked in to this gracious neighborhood of family focus, great schools, varied public and private services, and healthy businesses more than 30 years ago. This past two months we cleaned the house, packed up anything worth donating, threw out barrels of useless stuff that we wondered why we’d saved. We fixed and painted, scrubbed and polished. Organized in its new beauty, showing off its books, photos, and knickknacks, the house glows. We’re ready for the holidays, for our out of town guests. This will be the first in about 15 years that both our sons and their families will be together for Thanksgiving along with extended family and friends. The bright and shining face of comfort, we’re ready to celebrate our bounty.

Nearly 200 homeless people, many of them family groups, live around the Plaza of the Flags in downtown Santa Ana, our county seat. The area bridges the Orange County Superior Court building and the public law library. Nearby is the main branch of the distinguished Santa Ana Public Library and Santa Ana City Hall. None of the campers really want to live here but they can’t afford the high county rent. The encampment is an embarrassment, a haven for filth and disease, used syringes and empty bottles and cans. For discarded and broken toys, torn sweatshirts and trash. For vermin. For excrement. It’s a dirty, scary place to walk past as I did last year on my way to serve jury duty. It’s a failure of individual responsibility and self control, of inability to delay gratification or accept consequences, of unwillingness to apply oneself to education and work ethic. It’s a total failure of parenting skills. And it’s  not the image of public pride we’d like to project but the face of policy failure we can’t seem to resolve.

Some but not all of the adults work for low paying wages at jobs with inconsistent schedules. And yes, some are drug addicts, alcoholics, lowlifes and criminals – but not the children. The children are innocent and active, yearning for play, hoping for education. Like our four grandchildren. Like yours. Orange County officials are trying to clean up the encampment but if they deal with this problem by forcing these people out with no place else to go, then they simply foist the problem onto some other community. Resolution is not barricading Civic Center. It’s building temporary safe houses and long term opportunity. It’s people remembering their childhood goals and deciding to change themselves.

My family is eating lots of healthy food over this week of Thanksgiving. Everything traditional you can think of (most homemade by our many family cooks and bakers,) also sushi, pizza, and a variety of ethnic foods (most from local restaurants.) We love it all and we pick at the leftovers whenever we want a snack. Every year as part of my temple’s outreach program we collect hundreds of cans and boxes of food items to donate, along with grocery gift certificates, to help 200 low income families. Thanksgiving is one of about a dozen times during the year that we mount a formal collection – school supplies in September, clothing, books, eyeglasses, personal hygiene items, toys. Throughout the year we donate food and more food, because a meal eaten today doesn’t feed a person tomorrow. We write checks to service organizations whose mission is to help those who are ill, hungry, without homes. These low income people don’t live a few counties over. They live here in Orange County. They’re my neighbors. And yours.

We aren’t rich. We do without vacations, expensive hair care, manicures, gardeners, maid service, updates on the house, sometimes even without needed repairs. Remodeling our house is a daydream. Tickets to live theater or sporting events are out of the question. Until two months ago I drove a nineteen-year-old car but when it became dangerous, we purchased a newer used one. I don’t have to get around on a bicycle or on public transportation, and if I walk, it’s to enhance my health, not because there’s no other way. We do without luxuries, things by their definition no one needs. Our personal situation was built of hard work and bonuses of good luck. We have everything necessary for a decent life. We are rich in family, friends, and opportunities.

On Thursday when we sit with our two sons and two daughters-in-law, with our four grandchildren, and our extended family around a table graced with candles and goblets, we will say thanks for this bounty. But I will remember those whose lives are less secure, whose meal was cooked over a camp stove or eaten from greasy paper sheets while they hunkered on a cement slab in Civic Center. The crime is not that I can’t fix the problem. It’s  a crime if I don’t recognize their humanity, if I call them “other,” “other” being a designation of less worth. Yesterday I donated food. Today I wrote a check. Tomorrow I will give clothing. Next month I will donate toys. What we have is not extravagant. What we have is immensely extravagant bounty. I am deeply grateful.

May you always celebrate in joy and health with your family and loved ones. One day may everyone.

 

 

 

 

Image of homeless girl courtesy of Pixabay.com