Chaos Theory

Chaos is my emotional enemy. Wild, stupid men with nuclear warheads make me nervous. Call me old school. Or snowflake-like. Or simply introverted. Rampant egos with guns in their hands, make me want to hide in the cellar and wait for the storm to pass. Except it doesn’t pass.

Every day this president we have acts like a spoiled kindergartener holding a hand gun, and firing wildly around the classroom. I keep hoping that a grown-up will step in, take the gun, and get him to the school psychologist for an evaluation. We all know what that evaluation will say. That he is a troubled kid, headed for years of incarceration. That if his daddy didn’t own the school, he would be in juvie now, surrounded by armed guards. Yes, even at his tender age. 

A friend of a friend posted this on Facebook yesterday:

“So – here’s the deal the way I see it. He makes chaos and darkness – every day, all day, in every way, wherever he is or has influence. That is the effect he has. And it can drive you nuts, make you cynical, cause despair. The truth does not stop him or his sycophants. They seem impervious to it. So, rather than always taking the bait, what I have found effective as a counter action is to create order whenever I feel his effect coming toward me. Even in small ways – straighten a book on a table; wipe off the counter tops; shift a ring or watch back into position. Be kinder, gentler to the people and things around you. Do anything that moves your world in the opposite direction.”

 I closed my eyes and absorbed the rightness of her comment.

Which led me, of course, to my t-shirt drawer.

It is a mess. It has always been a mess. I have too many shirts crammed in there, and I can never find the one I want to wear. About a year ago, I read about this Japanese way of creating order. It starts with folding things so that they occupy less space. So that you can actually see what you have, and so that you will feel a sense of order when you’re looking for something to wear to Rite-Aid.


I set aside my fears about global warming and withdrawing from the Paris Accord. I sat in my bright, porchy sun room and opened the windows to let in the breeze and the birdsong. I listened to redwing blackbirds, and the neighbor cows, and Roseanne Cash. I dumped all those t-shirts onto a red carpet and started folding. I breathed. 

I folded. I listened. I created a tiny piece of order. I moved on to my long-sleeved t-shirt drawer. And then my pajama drawer. I sat, listening and folding until all of my molecules seemed to be back where they belonged.

Based on the before-and-after results of this experiment, I am making myself a promise. Here it is: I will allow myself exactly twenty minutes of either horror or despair each day. I will consider the people who most suffer as a result of any given horrible and/or discouraging event.

Then I will create order somewhere in my life. I will fold clothes, or write an essay. I will be grateful for my abundant collection of socks, or my granddaughter’s dirty feet tracking over my white carpet. I will dedicate the rest of that day to sowing harmony where someone is creating discord. (Nod to St. Francis.) My weapon might be a vacuum cleaner, my computer keyboard, or my quiet presence in a chemotherapy suite.

Oh, I will still march for peace. I will still wear orange for gun violence prevention. I will continue to vote, and you can count on me to post irritating opinions on Facebook.

But I will sit quietly.

And breathe.

And try to leave my t-shirt drawer and my planet – or those on it – just a little better than I found them that morning.

I will be a rebel warrior.

And you won’t hear a thing.

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Words With Dad

I am on the train into Seattle, and it is pouring outside. Rain streaks down the window next to my head, and tears streak down my face as I stare at my cell phone. The woman next to me is sound asleep, slouched against her backpack, and the man across from me is reading on his tablet. The steady, rhythmic thrump, thrump, thrump of the train is loud, so they do not hear me when a sob escapes.

I am looking at the game app, Words with Friends. I am remembering when I installed it on my father’s iPad, and the delight on his face when he looked at it and could read all the letters. He was almost blind with macular degeneration, and the iPad enlarged his life. He could read on the Kindle app, making the font huge in order to see the letters. He could get the daily news or the score on the New York Giant’s game, and by spreading his fingers on the screen he could make the type or photos large enough to make out details. He could email his work buddies – those who were still alive – and receive pictures of the great grandchildren from his grandkids. It was a portal to the world.

And his favorite part of the portal was Words with Friends. He had always been a Scrabble guy, and loved crossword puzzles. He had jumped at the chance to be able to play a word game with the iPad.

And did he love to win! Whenever we played Scrabble, his rule was that whoever lost had to call the winner “Champ” until the next game. I considered getting him a hat with “Champ” embroidered on it so he could feel that way all the time. Knowing how much he loved an “inside edge,” I told him there were anagram apps that let you put in your letters to see what words could be made, his face lit up and he said, “Get me that one, too, would you?”

After I downloaded it, I said, “It’s cheating you know…” He nodded. “Okay, Kid. But I won’t cheat with you.” (We both knew he was lying.)

He lived with us for eight years in the converted garage that was the guest house. He helped Anne, my partner, with the gardens by overseeing the watering of the vegetables, calling himself the “Chief Hydro-Engineer.”

Dad, exercising his duties as “Chief Hydro-Engineer

Nearly deaf, he tuned into CNN and Mariner ball games on his television at high decibel — we could hear the games from our own living room, across the deck from his. And he played Words with Friends with everyone who sent him an invitation. His three daughters and two of my sons-in-law played with him, as well as several of their friends. I can still see him in that oversized La-z-boy recliner, his cat Fiona in his lap, his iPad on the soft arm of the chair. He would visit with me until he heard the Words with Friends ‘ding,’ then conversation stopped while he could look over their play, after which we would resume the exchange . In the summertime, when all the windows were up, whenever I played a high-scoring word, I would hear him yell, “Ouch!” from across the deck.

When he moved to northern New York to live with my brother, it was tough on all of us. Everything in me tensed up seeing him being wheeled toward the plane, the cat carrier on his lap with Fiona in it, and the small travel bag containing his medicine and his iPad wedged in against the carrier. Despite his six-foot-three frame, he looked thin and frail. He had the attendant stop for a moment, and motioned me over. “Thanks for everything, Kid,” he said, reaching up to hug me.

“You’re welcome, Dad,” I said, “Thank you for everything, too.”

“You’re welcome, too,” He’d said.

“Call me when you arrive in Syracuse. I love you,” I kissed him on the cheek, and stood trying unsuccessfully not to cry watching them wheel him onto the jet way. It was the last time I talked to him in person.

Once he was settled, I called him on his cell phone – always an exercise in shouting and patience. I asked him how he wanted to hear from me, and how often. I thought he might want me to call at a predictable time, like Sundays, as I had when Mom was alive.

“Can we talk through the game?” He had asked.

“Chat through the word game?” I shouted.

“Yeah. Would that work?” He yelled back.

“Will it be enough?” It seemed so impersonal.

“Yes. I would like that. We can call when we need to.”

And so it was that a couple of times a week, we would chat through Words with Friends. I learned that my brother had built a ramp into the little house so that Dad could use his scooter to go places. Ogdensburg was his home town, so he knew his way around very well. He would take a lunch that my brother had packed, and head out to the Oswegatchie River, where he had grown up. I could picture him bumping along on his red scooter to the path by the river, and stopping under a tree to eat his sandwich. The smells, the water, kids fishing. He was enjoying it all.

I had always wished for Dad that when his time came it would be painless. That it would not involve tubes and hospitals and doctors whispering to the family. A drawn out hospital stay would have been so hard for him. He had had a lot of physical pain in his life, and I’d always hoped that he wouldn’t have to have more at the end. I set that wish aside as I received little reports on his life, since right then he seemed to be scootering his way through one happy day after another.

From my brother I learned that people would report seeing Dad not only by the river, but out getting groceries, shopping at Kinney Drugs, and generally having the run of the town. I knew it was a measure of independence that he hadn’t had out here in Washington. My eighty-seven year old dad was being spotted all over the ‘burg in his blue fishing hat and white cotton jacket. I was happy for his freedom.

So I was shocked the day I answered the phone and my brother sobbed on the other end, “Dad passed away! He’s gone! He’s here in the chair… I don’t know what to do…”

It was a rare thing for my competent brother to be so beside himself that he couldn’t think. We talked about what should happen. I stayed on the line with him, asking questions. Keeping him company until the paramedics came. Until he could talk in sentences.

“Call me later,” I said as we hung up.

When he called the next day he was calmer. He explained that he had come home to find dad in his chair, slumped over. Already gone.

“It seems so impossible,” I said. “He had just played Words with me a couple of hours before. And he was winning! I can’t believe he would go when he was winning…”

“I know. I can’t believe it either.”

Which brings me back here to the train.

I am looking again at the chat that I had been having with my father a couple of days before he left us.  He was celebrating the final arrival of spring in that cold, northern town:

DocBracy: Free at last, free at last! I scootered for nearly 3 hours today! Yeah! Bob got my scooter working!

SeattleK8: Wow – You must feel like you are out of jail!

DocBracy: That’s a fact. Had lunch down by the river. I went grocery shopping this morning,
and will go again this aft. 

 SeattleK8: Busy boy!

 DocBracy: You bet! Weather like yours, 70s.

 SeattleK8: Wonderful!

In these last several days since he died I keep hearing his voice. It comes at unexpected moments, when I am busy with housework, or sitting and reading. It doesn’t seem like my imagination, it seems more like he is on my internal PA system. Loud. Clear as a bell.

I stare down at my phone again, and read his little message, “Free at last, free at last!”

Distractedly, I check the Words with Friends “Word of the Day.”

I begin to laugh, despite my tears.

Here is the screen shot:

Yes. “PFFT.” A rare word. Today of all days. How did he manage that?

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, so I am doing some of each. And I hear his voice again. The same phrase that has been interjected at odd moments over the past few days. It is unmistakably his voice. And I am grateful – for ‘PFFT’ and for him, and for his message now.

Yes, definitely his voice,  “You done good, Kid.”

A few last words with Dad.

Comments Heard While Getting Signatures:

I went to the Democratic caucus near my home today, where I had promised to get signatures for a statewide ballot initiative.  The initiative will set up a process where a family or law enforcement can keep guns away from people threatening violence against themselves or others. This is called an “Extreme Risk Protection Order.”*

I have worked in public health most of my career.  As a nurse, I am very clear about why prevention is so important  to reduce avoidable deaths.  This goes for gun deaths, car deaths, SIDS deaths, disease deaths.  We can prevent these things.  We have to try.

For thirty-five years it has been my job to try.

I thought I was prepared to ask people to sign this petition, although I was a little nervous.  I had never been one of those “petition people” you see on street corsigning1491-2ners, in the ferry lot, at the farmer’s market – holding out their clipboard, and asking you to sign as a voter to get something on the ballot. Begging people to sign on to a cause isn’t really my style.  But prevention is.  And preventing a homicidal man from murdering his family – and then himself – seemed like a worthy enough cause.  So I ignored my introvert-self’s pleas and approached people.

I WAS prepared for the ones who said, “absolutely not…” and turned away.  I was prepared for those who said, “I’ll look it up online.”  I was fine with those who heard the gist, and interrupted me mid-sentence to say, “I’m not signing anything like that.”

But I was not prepared for the signers.

Here is a sample of comments from people who took the clipboard and pen without a second thought:

“Hell, yes, I’ll sign this.  My ex held a gun to my son’s head when I said I wanted a divorce.  We had a protection order – what good is that when he’s pointing a rifle at your four-year-old?”

“I’m in a permanent ‘witness protection program’ so I can’t be found.” (When I asked her if she was safe now, she said, “I came all the way to Whidbey Island to be safe.  He can’t find me here.”)  I hope she is right.

“Isn’t this in place now?  Why is it taking so long?”

“I’m a paramedic.  We have to respond to these things…”  (I said, “You guys see so much…”  He said, “Too much. Too often.”)

“I’m gay, and I’m a victim of domestic violence…  It isn’t just straight people who have to worry.”

“Just give me the pen.”

“I’m an emergency medicine doc.  Guns keep us in business, but we’d like to have a lot less business.  Thanks for being out here.”

One woman looked over the summary, looked directly into my eyes, shut her eyes for a moment, looked at me again, and took the pen out of my hand.  She felt all the implications in her body.  No words necessary.

“I’m a nurse, and I work psych.  You have no idea how important this is.”

“I lived in a town where a four-year-old shot his father.  I know this isn’t the same, but I want to sign it anyway.”

“Been there.”

“I’m a mental health counselor.  It’s my job to interview these people.  We need this.”

“My son got a handgun when he turned eighteen.  He shot himself near our home.  His six-year-old brother found him.”

“My sister was killed and we knew he was dangerous.  I’ll sign.”

 

I found myself saying, “Oh, I can’t imagine.”

Or lightly touching an elbow and nodding.

Or agreeing, “The families know, don’t they?”

_Mom_Toddler

These are my neighbors.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really get that many signatures.  I was so busy listening…

But I did get a lot of reasons to keep trying.

 

 

*  Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) allow families and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence that an individual is threatening harm to themselves or others by way of dangerous mental illness or a high risk of violent behavior.

November Gratitude, 2015

Frosty Path

It’s Thanksgiving, the day we all remind ourselves of our many blessings, and all the ways we appreciate our lives and the people in them. Some of us use the entire month of November to reprogram our hearts to remember these things consciously. Every day.

I am grateful today to have been raised by grateful parents. They grew up in a time when they were not assured that there would be enough food, warm clothes, or even a place to sleep. This early deprivation did not make them bitter or scared, but it did make them supremely grateful. And mindful.

Mindful is not a word we used back then. Everyone was living their lives and raising their kids the best they could. “Mindfulness” would have been the foolish notion of some distant cousin who traveled after college. In a raucous Irish-Catholic family, it would have been easy to get overwhelmed by the chaos, or discouraged by the constant struggle, but my parents mostly stayed present. Mindful. Mindful that these kids would not always be under their roof. (Though they did try to keep us there…) Mindful that health is not a given, and that tomorrow was not promised to anyone.

My mom was a labor and delivery nurse. She delivered many babies in our small town hospital, waiting for the doctor to arrive. She used to say, “Every healthy baby is a miracle.” She understood all the ways a delivery could go wrong, and all the reasons to celebrate when it didn’t. She baptized sick babies on the sly, when no one was looking. No child was going to Limbo on her watch. She came home every night exhausted and full of purpose. We were not allowed to leave the table without thanking her for the dinner; we had to write thank-you notes to grandparents for gifts, even if we didn’t like the sweater; we said grace before every meal. Her children would be grateful.

When she had cancer surgery in her forties, the doctor told her to go home and “get her affairs in order.” She did come home. She gathered us up and said, “You are probably going to hear rumors about me, but don’t believe them. I’m sick right now, but I’m going to be fine.” After resting a couple of days to recover from the surgery, she got up one morning, did her hair, put on lipstick and went to the A&P grocery store. “Dinner wasn’t going to make itself,” she said. But she didn’t really buy many groceries. She walked up and down the aisles, greeting people, assuring them that she was fine now, making a public appearance to disprove the rumors that she was dying. She came home, collapsed on the couch and said, “That should hold them for awhile.”

She recovered from that cancer and lived thirty-three more years. Not a single day went by that she wasn’t grateful for that particular day, for the chance to be with her family, for the food on her table, and for the love of friends.

My dad was in a car accident at nineteen, tossed onto railroad tracks. The doctors said his spinal cord injury was serious. They had stabilized his spine with a metal rod . (We used to trace the scar on his back. He called it his “thermometer scar.”) They told him he wouldn’t walk again, he would never work, and forget about getting married or having kids. He would probably be bed ridden, if he lived very long.

My mother was one of the many student nurses who helped him recuperate. Dad’s brother, John, arranged a rotating schedule of these students to come over and “walk my brother back and forth” for months after the accident. When my mom graduated and moved to Michigan for a nursing job, Dad saved his money, bought a diamond ring (“I paid five dollars a month on it until it was paid off…”) and hitchhiked – on crutches — to Ypsilanti where he proposed. He worked as a taxi driver, which didn’t require walking. He learned to walk without crutches to surprise her when they got married, and a couple of years later my sister was born. They moved back to northern New York, and settled in Ogdensburg where his mother lived. Where Mom could work at the same hospital where she got her training, and where he could find work at the paper mill.

It never occurred to us to use words like “disabled” or “crippled,” and Dad never complained about the debilitating back pain he experienced all his life. He worked at that paper mill most of his career, and said only how much he loved it, not how hard the work was. He walked the length of that building – probably an acre of space – many times a shift, and worked every double they ever offered him, happy to be able to support his family. He was persistently grateful for the job, and it was a matter of pride that he “never took a dime of disability from the government.” He never failed to appreciate a good meal cooked for him, a Christmas gift (however off the mark), or the chance to hold a grandchild on his lap. He could have been a very bitter man, but he was overwhelmingly grateful for

Wedding Day, 1948 They held hands like this for all of their lives together.

Wedding Day, 1948
They held hands like this for all of their lives together.

the life he had and the many years he had to enjoy it. When we were kids he would come upstairs at night, go into the bedroom and close the door while he changed into pajamas, then open the door and kneel down to say his nightly prayers. He knew we could see him– a tall man at six-feet-four – and he wanted us to see him end the day grateful to God.

So today, on our national day set aside for such things, I am grateful to be born and raised by these two who so deeply understood the blessings of their lives. People ever mindful that each good thing is a tiny piece of grace, and every hard thing is a chance to persevere. People for whom every day was a gift, and every evening a Thanksgiving.

Meeting my Mother on the Drunkard’s Path

Meeting my Mother on the Drunkard’s Path
A Dozen Haiku

(On finding the squares for a “Drunkard’s Path” quilt in my mother’s belongings)

AroundWorld4#1
Hospital phone call,
Her voice happy. Eager. Clear.
“I feel like quilting!”

doves2#2 Two days later, gone…
We claimed pieces of her life –
I took squares of cloth.

FallingTimbers#3
“Drunkard’s Path”, they say,
Is the real test… Difficult
To piece together.

TumbleWeed#4
Fifteen neat, precise
Squares. Perfect, familiar script:
“Tumbleweed.” “Chain.” “Doves.”

Template#5
I add my own squares.
Use cardboard template she’d held.
The same earnest care.

Notes3#6
Blindsided sometimes
By a note to herself, or
The sheer perfection.

ScissorsPostIts#7
Laying out the quilt,
I marvel. Hours of her life
Unjoined before me.

Circle2#8
I take what she left
And border it with memory.
“Can you see this, Mom?”

CountryHusband#9
Asymmetrical
Symmetry – tidal, rhythmic
Grief on “Drunkard’s Trail”

Signature1#10
Carries me along.
Understanding. Legacy.
Daughter’s from mother’s.

RawSquare#11
What of my mother’s
Unfinished work is mine, then?
Any of it? None?

FullQuiltOutdoor

#12
Square by piece by row,
I make my way to the past.
Unwrap forgiveness.

OnTheBed5

Creativity and My Bra

bra_stacks-454x599There is a website called The FLYLady where you can get help to declutter and organize your house and life. While I am not a “FLYBaby,” as new members are called, a couple of friends had said how helpful the site is, so I went for a look.

Marla Cilley, the creator of the site, has a bunch of rules for neatnik wannabes. They are good, sound suggestions for simplifying life and not overwhelming yourself. One of her rules helped me realize that there is a direct correlation between creativity and my bra.

A mainstay rule is that you must “Get Dressed to Shoes” every day. Her point is that we behave differently with our outside-world clothes than we do in our pajamas. She is a teeny-tiny bit of a drill sergeant about this shoe rule. There are no exceptions, no excuses, no wiggle room for talented procrastinators. In her words, “I don’t want to hear, ‘Well I don’t wear shoes in my house.’ Well you do now, sister! Buy or clean up a pair just for that reason.” Yikes. Just reading that made me want to salute.

I looked at my shoes and thought about which ones I would clean up for indoor wear. Sneakers? (Sbootshe recommends lace-ups because they are harder to take off…) Clarks Mary Janes? Maybe my ruby slipper ballet flats? One look at the shoes next to my kitchen door, and I realized this might not work for me. There were the fluffy slippers I muddied running up to get the mail. The nice white cross trainers that were supposed to be “just for the treadmill,” and now were grass stained and dirty from the day I hopped off the treadmill to see where the grandkids were. No, any pair of shoes on my feet would not be “strictly indoor” for long.

But that get-dressed-and-get-going notion hit a chord. I began to observe myself. On my weekend days – my only time to write – I noticed that as long as I was in my jammies, certain entities held me in trance. Facebook, that sly siren, had magnetic appeal. As did Freecell Solitaire and Words with Friends. I would sit in my recliner on a Saturday morning, iPad in hand, and suddenly it was midafternoon. Wait, what?

I experimented with various middle ground solutions. Sweats? (Still in the recliner…) Business casual? (Made me feel like I needed to find a church…) Yoga Pants? (Caught myself passing a mirror. Um, no.)

So here is what I discovered after exhaustive scientific study of my own weekend dressing habits: If I get dressed as though I were waiting for a repair guy (minimally, bra and underwear, jeans, socks and a comfy shirt) I am ready to roll. My feet are often cold, so the socks are important. (Also, if I step barefoot on anything like a bread crumb or cat whisker, it feels like a boulder or a log. I know, I know. My mom read me “The Princess and the Pea” about eighty thousand times. I get it.) And wearing socks without shoes keeps me grounded, literally. I can walk around and be aware that I am in contact with the floor. With my home. With my writing. With life.

And the bra? Well, I do feel a responsibility to the poor repair guy. No need to traumatize, now is there? And it seems like a little bit of armor. Some support around my heart. Up with the girls, on with the day!

If I am dressed to answer the door, I am dressed to write. I can’t exactly say why it is. I know it’s a psychological trick I have to play on myself in order to sit down at the computer and actually write something. Like setting the time ahead five minutes. I know it’s a trick, but it still works.

I have found my middle ground for writing on the weekends: If I wake up without an alarm, give myself two cups of coffee, and then get dressed for the repair guy, I can write.

So far my bra and I have finished two health books, many blog entries, several scholarly articles, and a novel. We are currently working on a riveting best seller. I think the FLYLady would give me a pass on the shoe commandment. “FLY” stands for Finally Loving Yourself. And so I am. Warm socks, bra and all.

Bra_internet_computer_thumb800

What I Didn’t Say

HandsUpI wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper today. It supports an initiative on the ballot this year that would extend background checks on gun sales in Washington State. I wrote about what a sensible measure this is and how it would save lives. I wrote about how, as a public health professional, I was committed to vulnerable populations, and had spent my career trying to improve their health status. I pointed out that states with similar background check laws reduce the rate of murder-by-intimate-partner by 38 percent. I said I supported this bill and hoped my neighbors would, too.

What I didn’t say was that one night when I was in my twenties my sister stood in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, with a shotgun pointed at her head. I didn’t say how my mother, who lived across the street, heard the yelling and flew out her front door. She might have seemed comical in any other context – hair on end, flannel nightgown a little too short, flip flops on her feet. But she was not comical. She was fierce and unhesitating. I didn’t describe how she ran between my sister and her husband, who was holding the gun on her. I didn’t say how my mother pointed a finger at him and said, “Put that thing away!” and then, turning her back on the gun-holding son-in-law, embraced my sister. I didn’t tell how my mother guided my hysterical sister back into my parents’ house and closed the door quietly, leaving a man standing alone in the street with a shotgun in his hands.

I didn’t recount in that letter to the editor how I felt knowing I could have lost my mother and my sister in a single moment to a drunken man with a gun.

I did not point out that reducing the murder rate by 38 percent means that many more women who:
• live to raise their children,
• see another day,
• have a chance to leave their violent partners

Background checks seem a tiny price to pay for the lives of women who might otherwise have been murdered. It seems a supremely reasonable measure to keep guns out of the hands of people who would let their uncontrolled emotions rob children of their mothers, women of their sisters, grandmothers of their daughters. In the U.S. we lose three women every day to domestic violence deaths. If background checks saved one woman a day, it would seem a great bargain indeed.

Perhaps I should have said all that in my letter to the editor. For now, I am saying it here.