Writing Prompts in Santa Monica

Last weekend, I took part in a one day, memoir writing workshop in Santa Monica, California. I was walking the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland with my sister, Susan, when I saw the email about the workshop. I read it, thought about it, mentally set it aside, then thought about it some more. I later mentioned it to Susan with the caveat that I most likely wouldn’t sign up because…well..you know… this and that and all the other things that I mentally began to stack up excuse by excuse, forming a wall.  Susan’s response was, “Why wouldn’t you?  You could stay with Grant and Katie (my son and daughter-in- law who live in LA) while you’re there.  Again, why not?”  
Her words echoed in my mind for the rest of the day while I quietly paced off the kilometers to our next stay. Later that evening, while seated at a pub in O’Connor’s Guesthouse in Cloghane, Ireland, I venmo’d the money to the facilitator and thanked my sister because she was right.  Why wouldn’t I?  

On the morning of the workshop, Grant drove me to the house in Santa Monica where the workshop was held. We arrived early, something Blackman’s are known for, so drove around the block a few times, something we are also known for, then sat out in front of the house until my watch said straight up 9:00, knowing that I’d likely still be the first one there, which of course I was.

On the way over, Grant had mentioned how cool it would be if there was someone from one of the Zoom UCLA writing classes I had taken. I agreed. It would be very cool and although I had taken four Zoom weekend intensive classes with two different teachers, it was highly unlikely. The UCLA Writer’s Extension Program is big and so is Los Angeles, but I liked that he was thinking about it.
“If that happened, and it won’t, I can guarantee you that I’d remember the writing but not the writer’s name,” I told him.

I turned around to wave goodbye and Grant gave me a “thumbs up, you can do it” gesture. It was wonderfully familiar, only I had been the one to say goodbye in my memories and he was the one leaving with the backpack slung over one shoulder.

We met in a small guest house in the back of one of the participant’s house. As we were finding our places, a woman seated across from me got my attention and said,
“I know you! I was in a writing class with you last February on Zoom.”
I instantly knew who she was. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered what she wrote.
“You wrote about your dad dying, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name,” I said.
She told me her name and remembered some of the work I had shared, but also not my name.

Once the facilitator began, giving us an overview on the day’s events, the woman seated next to me said something and I was so struck by the familiarity of her voice that I looked at her and mentally cropped her from the shoulders up — the size of the Zoom screen I looked at for eight hours a day, for four consecutive days, and realized I knew her. And just like the other woman who I had made a connection with, I also didn’t remember her name, but I remembered what she had written because it was so memorable. I was dying to say something to her but the workshop had began and I realized I’d have to wait until our first break. I thought about sending her a note, but thankfully set that idea aside. To be called out in a memoir workshop for note writing would not be something I’d want share with my son when he picked me up and asked how my day went.

When we had a break, I blurted out to her that I remembered her from a class on Zoom over a year ago (a different class and a different teacher from the other woman I had connected with). It felt like a secret I had been holding and couldn’t wait to share. I told her I remembered her writing, but not her name. Her eyes widened and she started laughing and grabbed my arm in a gesture of friendship and connection then told me she never thought what she wrote would surface again and here we were. I reassured her that what happened in the Zoom room stayed in the Zoom room, but she had left the whole class in suspense as we never got to hear how her story ended. Her story was unique and explicit in the way she wrote it and due to privacy, even though I’ve not given her name, I’ll have to leave it at that. We’re close in age (or kind of, I think) and connected as easily in person as we had in the Zoom classroom almost two years ago. I felt like I had formed a true friendship with her by the time the workshop was over. Out of the eleven people in the workshop, including the teacher, I knew two people and was the only one who had traveled outside of the LA area. Maybe LA wasn’t as big as I thought? Grant was right about the Zoom connections and I was right about remembering their writing but not their names.

There was also a Ukrainian woman in the workshop whose family had been on vacation when the war broke out and flew to Mexico instead of going home. She and her husband and their two children ages 4 and 6, walked across Mexico and crossed into the United States at the border in Tijuana. A family in Santa Monica sponsored them and she learned about the workshop because the facilitator’s children went to the same school as her’s. She wrote her prompts in Ukrainian and when we read our writing aloud to the group, she read her pieces in Ukrainian. I was awed by the fact that none of us could understand a word of what she was saying, yet still leaned in and wanted to hear more. The content of her writing was revealed in her emotions as she read her words, none of them familiar, but the tone of her voice and her pauses were. She translated a few of her pieces that she had written, but I found I got just as much out of them hearing them in her native tongue. When asked if she would return to Ukraine, she said she didn’t know and wasn’t sure there would even be the Ukraine she knew to return to.

The first five minute prompt we were given was to write about something that we had brought with us to the workshop, metaphorically or literally. I thought for a minute then chose my backpack that carried my supplies for the day. I wrote about how the backpack that had held water, snacks and rain jacket while I walked the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland a few weeks ago, now held my lap top, a notebook, pens and a jacket. I also wrote about getting out of my son’s car, with the same backpack slung around one shoulder and seeing his thumbs up gesture as I crossed the street to the house where the workshop was being held. The reversal of roles did not go unnoticed for the both of us. I had experienced it before, many times, but I was the one driving the car and he was the one with the backpack. Remembering my writing prompt, one woman asked when the workshop was over if my son would be picking me up and told me she loved thinking about him asking his mom how her day went and if I learned anything. I told her yes, he would and I’d have the benefit of his wife, my daughter-in-law, joining him. As predicted, he asked me how my day went and if I learned anything and rather than get the answer of “it was ok…” that I got so often from him and his two siblings, I had a much better answer for him.
“You were right, Grant. I not only knew one person from my Zoom classes, I knew TWO! And I was also right. I didn’t remember their names, but I remembered what they wrote.”

I’m a participant who takes notes and follows prompts then closes my notebook or shuts down my lap top and moves back into my life as a person who writes daily and signs up for workshops, but who doesn’t call herself a writer. I call myself a gardener and amateur landscaper who gives up every August, a baker (who has logged far more failures than successes), a painter, who has worked out countless emotions with paints on a canvas and has painted over just as many, and knitter whose stacks of unfinished projects continues to grow, but never a writer. I just can’t seem to add the r and turn the verb into a noun. I’m not sure why that is. One of my Zoom connections that day came into the room empty handed — no notebook, no iPad or laptop, but only had her phone. When the writing prompts began, I noticed she wrote everything on her phone and with only her right thumb. Thinking she may have forgotten to bring a notebook, I offered her paper and a pen. She explained to me that she always writes on her phone and had written 250 pages of a memoir, all on her phone, that she transfers daily to a word document.
“But wouldn’t it be faster to write in a notebook or on a computer and a lot easier on your thumb?” I asked her.
Her response was that she didn’t consider herself a “real writer” and opening a notebook to write felt like a “real writer” to her. Opening her phone on the other hand, and sending an email to herself, rather than going the more traditional route, got her off the hook of calling herself a “real writer.” Something she wasn’t ready to claim.

“I’m just sending emails to myself. It’s not real writing in a “writerly sense,” so there are no expectations,” was her explanation to me.

Her writing, by the way, is beautiful and memorable and deserved every page in a notebook. After all, I had remembered the writing of this writer who didn’t really “write” in a traditional sense, but not her name. At the same time, I understood her logic as I never have called myself a writer, even though it is something I do daily and with the tools of a writer — pen, paper, laptop and not my phone.

When I closed my notebook at the end of the workshop, for the first time, I felt like a writer — a writer who is beginning to form a community and ready to claim the title. Also a writer whose son was waiting for me in the car and was anxious to hear about my day.

Hands – close up and personal

My sister recently asked me if I would be able to recognize my children’s hands in a group of several. Would I be able to recognize hers? She had come from a yoga class where the teacher had centered the class around hands, and said she was intrigued by the questions. My first reaction was, “of course I would!”, but then I had to wonder…. this coming from the mom who proudly showed off her firstborn in the hospital nursery to a visitor, only to be corrected by the nursery nurse. I had the wrong baby.

Could I look at my hands so deeply that they almost seemed separate from my body and think about what they had done in my lifetime? Having never thought about this before, I became obsessed with my hands — the hands that have created, destroyed, cradled, protected and applauded their way through my life. My hands are my outward representation of my spirit and in their lined palms, they have held all that I’ve loved, lost, hated, feared, created and comforted.

My sister telling me she’d recognize my hands gave me a deep sense of
comfort. She said they were hardworking hands. She’s right. My hands have always felt more at home digging in the dirt than sitting in the manicurist’s chair.
I thought back to a few years ago and the volunteer work I did in Peru at a center for the elderly in one of the poorest districts of Lima. I wanted to find an activity that would single out the women in the group, because I wanted to get to know them on a more intimate level. The following week I set up a small manicure station, with hopes that a couple of the women would want to take part. Much to my surprise, almost all of them did, creating a bit of a frenzy at the small “station” I had set up. I had danced with these women, chatted with them in their homes, played games with them, done simple crafts with them, but my favorite, hands down (pun intended), were the manicures. There was intimacy in holding their hand, while painting their nails and like little girls, they were in awe of the process, as they watched intently, boldly pointing out when my little brush painted outside of the nail line.

These hands made my hands look pampered and delicate. THESE were working hands and just like Madge on the Palmolive commercial from the 70’s, I had all the waiting hands soaking in soapy water. I told them it was to soften the nail so I could cut them, but in reality it was to clean them. Again, these were working hands.
One of my favorites, Maria Rivera, waited patiently in line and finally took her spot as my last customer. Her hands needed the most work. Her fingers were bent with arthritis and her nails thick, dirty and terribly ignored. She had definite ideas how she wanted them to look — cut short, painted bright pink and made to look pretty.

“Bonita y rosada, por favor.”

I did my best to make them not only bright pink, but well manicured and far cleaner than what she started with. She seemed pleased. As I held her hand in mine and tried to file the nails down to a respectable length because they were far too hard to cut, I couldn’t help but think about what my sister had told me about hands. As I worked my way across the nail of each of her short, thick fingers, I thought about the history I had been told about her, specifically how her own son had tried to strangle her. Were these hands I was holding the same ones that pulled her own son’s hands off of her neck while trying to save her life? What else had these powerful hands done to protect the body that they were attached to? I wanted to sit back and hear all of her stories while holding her fight, her strength and her integrity in my own hands. These hands, that were her protectors, still honored her vanity and drew perfectly arched brows over sad brown eyes, and placed a gold hat that looked like a half-popped jiffy pop container on top of her neatly coiffed hair every morning before coming to the elder center.

I felt honored to share such intimacy with these women while working on their nails and making them pretty and pink. The task at hand was the manicure, but I felt like I gained far more than what I gave. The simple pleasure of being with these beautiful, hard-working women who had experienced so much hardship in their lives, while holding their hands and letting their energy mingle with my own, was truly a gift.
Besides the fact that the polish was old and sticky, the women insisted on sitting right next to me rather than across from me, making for an awkward angle. There was also the frustration of working amidst swarms of flies. I later discovered that on the other side of the wall we were sitting, was a garbage dump. Struggles aside, it became one of my most treasured memories of my time in Peru.

My own hands, the same that so often had been told to put it down, leave it alone and stop picking at it, followed the rest of myself into a nail salon for a manicure the day before my oldest son’s wedding a few years ago. After the nail tech brought out the third wrong shade of pale pink, I had to leave because I started crying. No, that’s not a typo, crying. When I got home, my other son asked me if I got my hands all fixed up (boy speak for manicure). I told him no, that I had to leave because I started crying. He gave me an understanding look, held the gaze for a few seconds, then responded,

“You’re not ready for him to get married, are you?”
I shrugged.
“Not really. I keep forgetting that he’s not 12 years old.”
Clearly this was not about the wedding, but rather was about my having to face, full on, the passage of time, which felt a lot faster than was comfortable.

It’s easier for me to be more accepting of my stubby fingers with rough cuticles and often less than perfectly manicured nails when I think of what these hands have done for me. The small hands they’ve held while crossing the street; the plants they’ve placed with hope into the dirt and the weeds they’ve pulled out in frustration; the family dog that they held while he was being put to sleep and the tears they wiped away for so many days that followed; the babies they’ve held through long sleepless nights; the wedding papers they signed and the divorce papers that followed 20 years later and the countless stories they’ve typed. I love them in all of their flawed imperfection as they represent my history, my life and my spirit in full view. How can that not evoke a crazy sense of pride and ownership? Dirty nails and all?

3/13/2020. Two years later…

While hiking with friends today, I took out my phone to get a photo and before I could get to the camera app, I noticed the date.  3/13/2022.  What an auspicious anniversary today is – 2 years ago today, was when I was told to prepare as Colorado was in a state of emergency.  Two weeks later, the stay at home order began.   When I got home from the hike, my FB memory from one year ago popped up.

3/13/2021

One year ago today, I was sitting in the parking lot of the grocery store talking to my sister, Susan, on the phone.  She told me that I needed to make sure I had at least TWO weeks of food because of the coronavirus and a possible quarantine.  She lives in MA and they were about a week or two ahead of where we were regarding the virus in CO.  I remember asking her, “TWO weeks???  Are you sure?  That’s a long time!”  

“Oh, and they’re saying we should stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer…. and make sure the food isn’t perishable… things like beans and rice.”

The first thing I noticed was we were still calling it Coronavirus… We had no idea the variants Delta and Omicron were on deck.  I mentioned the date to the three friends I was hiking with and each one remembered the date clearly and had a story of how and when they heard about the shut down and what it meant to them.  It’s an easy date for me to remember as it was Friday the 13th.  I am a bit superstitious, avoiding walking under ladders, reluctancy to cross a black cat’s path and then of course, Friday the 13th, which I can’t say is either lucky or unlucky for me, but I do take note.  I had no idea at the time that this would be the Friday the 13th that I’d never forget.  This would be the date that had me running from store to store to shore up supplies for two weeks.  Buy enough food for two weeks, I was told.  A week later, I’d enter a period of time that would last six weeks. Six weeks of not getting close enough to anyone, including my family, to give them a hug.  Six weeks of me alone in my house, staying busy with closet and drawer clean outs like everyone else, digging out canvases and paints and trying my hand at something I used to do daily many years ago but had set it aside and writing.  Lots of writing.  I look back at those 6 weeks with a sense of fondness and pride.  It was hard, especially for someone who needs and thrives in the company of others, but it also felt like a very healthy reset for me.  I became tight with my introverted self – the self that until the 6 week isolation, I had no idea existed.   It would become the most inspiring, lonely, introspective, creative, sad and heart opening time of my life. 

When I look back on who I was and what I was doing two years ago, for lack of a better word, I’m flabbergasted (does that word make me sound old?).  There have been so many changes I’ve gone though yet it was all so gradual that I really couldn’t comprehend it until now with two years of prospective and enough distance to fine tune my focus.

 Two years ago I knew my neighbors, but only through the exchange of pleasantries with each other while shoveling snow or mowing grass.  One neighbor I had a few more conversations with because she invited me to their New Year’s Eve party in the afternoon on the 31st, Scottish time, their annual tradition to honor her husband’s Scottish heritage.  After coming away from their house that early evening on 12/31/2019, I felt hopeful.  I met a handful of people at the party.  Maybe people I could hike with.  Maybe people who I’d be able to call friends someday.  That didn’t happen but the neighbor who hosted the party did invite me over for a socially distanced dinner on their patio.  This meant she and her husband at one table and me at my own table for one on the opposite side of the patio. Conversation was a bit difficult as we had to shout to be heard, and of course we had masks on when we weren’t eating, but we felt safe and I had an invite.  Yes, things were looking up.  And then they moved.  

It took me until January of 2021 to decide it was time to mask up and get out and hike.  Still without friends or anyone to hike with, I laced up my boots, gathered up my nerve and went on a Meet-Up hike.  I’m not including my Boulder family in the friends category, by the way, because although my kids are my friends, they can’t be the sole members in category. Or so I think.

It’s hard to be the only one in the group that no one knows.  It’s hard to be vulnerable.  I sat in my car and watched the group gather at the trail head, leaving the engine running as the conversation I was having with myself and meeting people and putting myself out there wasn’t going well.  Going home and walking around my neighborhood instead was winning.  Then I remembered what my sister, Susan, had told me when she first went to a Meet-Up hiking group in the Berkshires where she had moved and it started a whole chain of friendships for her.  I could feel her nudge while I sat there, my hands on the wheel, ready to put the car in reverse and leave.  She told me I could make all sorts of excuses as to why I shouldn’t get out of the car to join the group, all of them pretty flimsy, by the way, but until I put myself out there, I wouldn’t meet anyone.  Plus,  you’ll be doing what you love. Her words were louder than the NPR voices coming out of my radio.  How could I ignore that sage advice?  I got out of the car, walked over to the group, introduced myself and headed up for what I now realize still holds the record for the hardest hike I’ve done in Boulder since moving here.  8 miles and 1,400 feet of elevation gains.  I came home tired, but happy.  I met two women that day, both who texted me the following day to make plans.  I’ve gone on many hikes with both women, and have seen one of them for regular hikes and social outings.

The three women I hiked with today I also met on hikes and now, 15 months and hundreds of miles of hiking later, I’ve found my tribe and it’s a good one because we’re all doing what we love.  I think it was the push of the pandemic after so much time alone, that gave me the courage and the “what the hell and why not?” attitude, because seriously, after what we’ve been through, how can one not feel that way?

Two years ago I wouldn’t have had any idea that the journey we were starting to embark upon would still be present two years later.  I’ve been vaccinated, boosted and even got Covid a month ago.  I’ve worn masks for most of the past two years due to mandates, have been thoughtful about where I will dine, preferring outside,  have sacrificed movies and theatre and live music and have only made a few trips on airplanes.  I missed Christmas with my parents and siblings and one of my sons and his wife, for the first time ever.   I missed hugging.  So much. I know I wasn’t alone in any of it, which gave me a collective strength, making it much easier.  The two years of sacrifice and priorities, growth and discovery, creation and contemplation have been above all else, a gift.  There was a whole lot of missing that went on and I know I share that with most of the world, but today, while traversing the muddy Mesa Trail, I realized that all that missing has made me a lot more grateful for what I have now.  

Close to a year after we shut down,  I finally saw two of my friend’s faces  who I had been hiking with for several months.  The three of us participated in a memorial walk to honor the ten people killed in the King Sooper shooting.  It was such an emotional afternoon that afterwards, we decided to walk over to a nearby restaurant for an early dinner. The restaurant had large garage-type doors opened in the front for fresh air and was operating at 1/3 capacity.  It felt safe and necessary. When our food arrived and our masks came off to eat,  I realized that I had never seen the smiles of these two women who I had become so close to through the countless stories shared through the cloth of  our masks.  Those smiles were just as bright as their eyes,  that had been doing all of the communicating when the masks were on.  

The word that continued to circle through my thoughts today while on the trail was gratitude.  It’s been a long, difficult road of Covid that for me came on the heels of my move to Boulder.  I think Covid helped me assimilate into this town and onto the trails and if I had to find the silver lining to the last 2 years, that would be it.  The other silver lining was my son and his girlfriend, got married on 12/21/2020. A bride, a groom, a marriage officiant and a photographer. Done. What could be more romantic or more true to the intention of the union than that? And I got another daughter in law in the process. Truly, a highlight for 2020.

I’m hoping if I post a blog a year from today, it will be about a child or a grandchild or an incredibly exotic trip or maybe how pretty my garden looks in the late afternoon sun and that Covid won’t even get a mention.

Two years ago this town felt a whole lot different to me than it does today….

Coronavirus Day 67. From coats and boots to sleeveless and sandals.

I’m tired. Not the kind of tired from not having enough sleep or the being bored kind of tired, but the heavy cloaked tired that comes with not knowing mixed with fear and anxiety and topped off with the new realities that even after over 2 months, I’m still having a hard time with. I heard a name for this today – coronavirus fatigue. The symptoms for coronavirus fatigue didn’t present themselves immediately for me, but rather were gradual in their onset, but now seem to be present daily. Walking, nature, painting and writing seem to offer temporary relief.

A hundred years ago…. I’m surprised that masks haven’t changed more!
However strong it is, I don’t think mine is strong enough right now.

Things in Boulder are starting to change and last Saturday was the “soft” opening of retail shops. The doors opened to new rules of spacing and mandatory masks, but still, the doors opened and customers entered. I walked down Pearl Street, the Main Street downtown where the majority of the shops and restaurants are, out of curiosity. It was the eeriest walk down Pearl I’ve ever experienced in my short 9 months of living here. People were walking around wide-eyed and curious, as if seeing everything for the first time. It reminded me of when people exit their homes during the quiet after a big storm to assess the damage, with a vulnerability that made it seem like we had just gotten up and were still in our pajamas. Wider than normal swaths of gray roots and hair that looked long overdue for a trim were the norm. Something about that felt reassuring to me. My own hair is about 3 inches past its haircut due date, so no judgement there, just observation. Some of the shops had music playing and doors wide open, giving a sense of celebration to the area but even so, something didn’t feel right or normal or as it had been before. I realized that I hadn’t seen that many people in one place in a very long time and even with distancing and probably less than 1/4 of the population that would normally be there on a beautiful Saturday, it seemed like a lot of people to me. The other odd thing was seeing everyone with a mask on. It still looks like a science fiction movie to me, but at the same time, I was grateful to see so many people following the rules.

Empty sign boards…not much going on in Boulder these days…

I went into one of the shops, simply because I could I guess, but had no intentions of buying anything as I didn’t have my wallet with me. I had passed by the shop window many times on my walks during the past 2 months and had seen something in the window that caught my eye, so wanted a closer look. The thing, an old wooden vessel of sorts, was just as intriguing in person as it had been through the shop window but I’ve got to say, I had no desire whatsoever to go home, get my money and return for the purchase. In fact, I had no desire to buy anything. I know the small businesses need all the help they can get, but spending money on myself for things totally unnecessary didn’t feel right to me and being in a store, regardless of the distancing didn’t feel right either. At least not yet. Having adhered closely to the “quarantine rules,” my re-entry will be slow. And I’m nervous, but I am getting out. I’m going to the grocery store and made a few trips to a local nursery for flowers. This, to me, is the scary part. I’m afraid that with each venture out to a new public venue, I will get more and more casual about touching things and physical distancing. I know it’s odd, but I’m afraid I’ll be so distracted by the plants, the flowers, the produce, the shoes, the books, that I’ll forget about the virus, even while donning a mask. Again, my re-entry will be cautious and slow.

My way of dealing with difficult situations is to only take on what I can handle, a gradual easing in process. It’s nothing I do consciously but rather seems to be the mechanism my psyche has set up as a matter of protection. I’m guessing I’m not alone in that. Had I been told 2 months ago to prepare for a solo quarantine for 2 plus months then a gradual return to a very different reality, I’m not sure what I would have done. After hearing about the 2 week “self-isolation,” daunting as it was, I prepared both physically and emotionally and was ready for the challenge. And now, a month and a half later from that “challenge” when I hear things like “mid to late summer for large gatherings… maybe, airline travel will come with risk or stock up on masks as we will be wearing them for a very long time,” my reaction is a flat, dull, sure, OK… hardly what it was when I heard 2 weeks isolation. I’ve become desensitized but know my psyche has a hand in that. What I can manage right now is today. Just today. I’m living the lesson I’ve always tried to put into play – living in the moment – and that lesson has become a matter of emotional survival for me.

I love my walks. Still. I love getting to know my neighborhood and beyond and have to wonder how “deep” I would have gotten on my walks had it not become a very important 2 hours of my day simply for my sanity as well as my physical well-being. I drove to a small garden center a few days ago as I was told they practice very strict and safe distancing measures. I had to think about how to get there from my house, given one way streets that don’t matter when walking. Driving felt strange. I can’t say that I loved it. The last time I filled my car with gas was on my return trip from KC the first of March. I still have 3/4 of a tank. Once we’re back to our “new normal,” I hope to spend more time on foot or on my bike doing my errands, which I’m still wondering exactly what those errands that had me in and out of my car several times a day even were? Yes, things will look different, be different, feel different and for much of that, I’m thankful.

Dumpsters at my nearby middle school… budding artists everywhere!
Could not have said it better!
Clever advertising for a room for rent. These guys seem to like living here…oh, and that’s a chicken living on the lower level of the “room for rent” display….
One of my more “curious” finds…
Take the answer that applies…

I walked past the Catholic Church down the street from me on Mother’s Day and couldn’t help but notice that the parking lot was relatively full, something that looks out of place these days. My curiosity got the best of me and I stopped to try and figure out what was going on. When I saw the sign that gave the radio station to tune into, I realized that it was Mother’s Day mass in drive-in form. The priest was on a small covered “stage” at the front of the parking lot and the congregation were in their cars listening from their radios. Once it was over and the cars started leaving, I saw a couple of men stationed at the exit who were handing out flowers to the mothers in the cars. They’ve figured it out. Mass while maintaining social distancing. Maybe I’m just nosey or maybe I’m curious or maybe I crave conversations with others, but I did cobble together a conversation in Spanish with a woman who was leaving the mass to confirm what I thought. Yes, Mother’s Day Mass in cars. Honoring their religion, their mothers and the social distancing.

Yes, I’m nosey and curious and am stopping people more and more often these days simply to ask questions and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how friendly most have been. A couple of the restaurants with large plate glass windows in front have put large pieces of plywood over the windows during the temporary shut down, I’m guessing to stave off possible looting. It was sad and rather forbidding to see. A few days ago I walked past the same windows only to see they had been painted over with a beautiful landscape. I was lucky enough to be there as the artists were working on one of the window paintings and had a nice conversation with them. It was suggested that maybe the paintings could be auctioned off once the restaurants re-opened and the money given to the restaurant association to help those who have suffered so much during the quarantine. Maybe one of the restaurants would want the painting on an interior wall? I asked them if they’d mind if I just watched them paint for a bit and they said absolutely not and so I did. There are a lot of stories out there. I’m happy to hear some of them

Before…
After….

Observations: 6 feet. We all know exactly what it looks like now with tape X’s and lines on the floors of the stores. The lines to get into stores often seem incredibly long, with the monitoring of one in one out rule, until I realized that there is 6 feet between every person and in reality, it’s only a handful of people who are making the line stretch out so long. It is the measurement of my life these days and I know by heart what it looks and feels like. How odd it will feel when we can all bunch together again, with ” excuse me” and “so sorry,”, when body parts accidentally touch. The thought seems very foreign to me right now.

I’ll let my photos tell the rest… always the most interesting part of my days…

“Help our rock garden…drop a rock of inspiration”. And it looks like many have! I may need to paint a rock and drop it off on my next walk…
I’m beyond blessed to have this trail a short 20 minute walk down the street from me….it’s become my retreat.

Stay safe. Stay hopeful.

Mother’s Day, 2020 Switching roles.

My favorite Mother’s Day photo, also possibly one of the only ones with everyone in the same shot as I was usually the one behind the camera.

I’ve always loved writing my Mother’s Day post more than any other as they seem to write themselves – the words flow effortlessly because it is a subject that I know well and hold close to my heart. This year is no different. Actually, it feels good to write about something else besides the coronavirus (59 days, by the way, which I’ve already rounded up to 2 months), but enough of that. Onto motherhood…

I was blessed with the title of Mom on April 30, 1986, when my son, Thomas, entered the world, followed by Grant in 1987 and rounding off our newly formed family of 5 with Emery in 1990. I look back on those early days of mothering, filled with exhaustion, adoration, frustration, devotion and lots of other words that end in “tion,” with such tenderness and nostalgia, but day to day, while in the throes of it, I’m not sure I would have used those words. The edges of life’s memories really do soften over time and although I was sleep-deprived and frustrated with babies who wouldn’t stop crying, while ignoring my own needs, those early baby days are some of my fondest, and as cliche as it is, the time really did fly by – days were long but the years were fast. I never thought I’d be that mom who tells her ‘new to their parenting role’ children, “It feels like only yesterday that YOU were that age and I was trying to get YOU to sleep, stop crying, eat, smile for the camera and so on.” But lo and behold, I am that mom. I’m also that mom who continues to tell any mom who is bemoaning the fact that their babies are growing up too quickly that EVERY age was my favorite ( small lie, middle school excluded…) and that includes the age they are today. Those silly, joyful, stubborn, curious beings are still there whether at 2 years or 32 years and getting the occasional glimpses or the gestures that take me back are my constant reminder of that. The gift continues even with my very young grandchildren, (ages 3, 1 and 6 months), when I see their parents in their facial expressions, gestures and sense of humor. It’s only now, that my children are grown and flew the nest over a decade ago, that I feel like I’ve gotten the distance necessary to see the 3 distinct phases that my journey into motherhood has taken me, each one, naturally, my favorite.

Phase One was infancy to leaving home for college – the exhausting and memorable years that filled photo albums and journals. It was my life and who I became and I’m darn proud of those years. I’m touched with my kid’s memories of the small gestures I made for reasons that varied from total enthusiasm to it will help us (me) get through the day. The fact that they remember the small things mean a whole lot more to me than the vacations, the Christmas’s or the gestures far grander than laying on a blanket in the front yard with our eyes to the sky while we looked for animals in the clouds, or midnight runs to the store for snacks in slippers and “loungewear” because we were watching World Cup soccer in a European time zone or having a campout in a closet that was far too small for much more than tiny clothes. Those years, while forming the adults my children are today, also played a very big role in my own self-development and my journey back to my own inner child – the creative, often dirty, probably too loud, happy little girl who tested boundaries and pushed edges. Because those years became such a part of who I am today, Phase Two, the empty nest phase, was a difficult one for me. That, coupled with divorce and finding my way through a newly emptied house on my own, was a difficult time for me. As much as I thought I was ready for each one of the kids exits to college, I wasn’t. While unloading over-filled cars, to undersized dorm rooms, always on the hottest day of the year, I held back tears as I watched my kids feather their new nests while leaving their old ones behind. But it turned out OK because the kids eventually did return and slept in their old beds and stayed out too late and left dirty dishes in the sink and trails of clothes on the floor and I still worried and nagged and asked too many questions and felt deliriously happy in the chaos of their brief returns and my return to “normal”.

What I didn’t realize at my time of empty nests and roots and wings metaphors was that there would be another phase – Phase Three, when my basement would be cleared of all my kid’s boxes and belongings because this time, I was the one moving. No longer would the kids be coming back to their own rooms, still holding glimpses of themselves on their walls, to stay during holidays or the occasional just because weekends. This time, the baby birds weren’t the only ones to leave the nest but the mama was also leaving. Not only did our nest change, but our roles have changed as well. The same children who used to hear the words so often that I think scar tissue formed in their ears:

“When will you be home? Who are you going with? Who’s driving? Did you finish your homework/project/room cleaning/assignment etc.? How are you going to get there? Did you remember your books/soccer gear/ ballet shoes/homework/project??? And no, for the 100th time, you can’t…”

Are the same kids who are now asking,

“Are you OK, Mom? Have you met your neighbors? Need me to tune up your bike, mow your lawn, sort out your blog website, get you groceries? Help you move that (insert anything heavy here…)?”

Granted, the quarantine has strengthened this concern and offers of helping out, but it didn’t create them as they were there long before I was in my solo-quarantine.

Less than a week into my quarantine, I went to bed, thinking all was OK and was quietly “congratulating” myself on making it through another day when out of nowhere, I began to sob – a chest heaving kind of sob. It didn’t matter how many times I told myself that it was going to be OK and that I was going to be OK, I clearly wasn’t. I was scared. I was alone. Without hesitation, I picked up my phone and called my son, Grant, whose time zone is an hour earlier than mine and I knew he’d still be up. My son became the voice of reason, insuring me that everything was going to be fine and I was going to be fine and just think, when we are on the other side of this, the stories we will all be able to tell of living through a pandemic.

“You’ll be ok, Mom. I love you, Mom.”

We talked for about an hour, he talking me off the quarantine wall while I listened to the sage advice and reassurance from the son who gave me so many sleepless nights and whose behavior my own parents had to tell me was strangely familiar as they had seen it before with me. That son. That same son that this parent was now calling for reassurance and simply because I was afraid.

“You’ll be OK, Mom.”

“Thank you, Grant.”

About a month after that call, my son, Thomas, texted that he was going to ride his bike over and would I like to go bike riding with him, keeping masks on and distancing, of course. And so we did, but only after he gave my bike a front to back tune up, something I had been quite remiss in keeping up with. After wandering around empty streets, me showing him some of my walking discoveries while he gave me riding tips (it had been a while since I had ridden on city streets, even though they were empty…), we sat in the yard and talked – about the quarantine, his daughter, Lilah, Boulder, life. That time together was exactly what I needed and I’m sure Thomas knew that. There’s an unspoken communication that parents develop with their kids which no doubt is where the saying “eyes in the back of our heads” originated. You know when your child is not telling you something or is lying or stretching a truth that they are “fine” when you know they aren’t, simply because you are the mom and moms know. I’ve got to think that the kids of those moms develop the same kind of intuition over time. Thomas knew I was having a rough few days even though I had said nothing to him and did what any caring child would do and invited me to go bike riding. After he left, I stayed outside, sat on my front porch and absorbed it all. Although we can’t hug, that time spent pedaling around the neighborhood was just about as close to a hug as I could get. This experience of quarantining is teaching me that there are many ways to hug, without physically touching, and for that, I’m continually grateful.

And finally, last week was my grandson, Arlo’s, 3rd birthday and although I hadn’t planned on seeing the kids that day due to coronavirus, Emery called me a few days before and insisted I come over. I had developed a pretty severe rash on my arms that was only getting worse and Emery thought that breaking social distancing rules at this point and going in for the hugs was more important for my health than staying away. I followed her suggestions and spent a few hours celebrating Arlo’s 3rd birthday with lots of hugs and family time. And the rash? The itching subsided that night and now, a week later, after having it for almost 3 weeks, it’s completely gone. Emery’s maternal nature and concern for me has come through with supplements and teas for my immune system, runs to the store, drive by’s with Arlo in the back seat, simply so I can get a quick “in person” look and FaceTimes almost daily to connect. A few days into the quarantine, when we were all thinking it would be 2 weeks and weren’t really sure of what was next, a package of goodies from a small local store was delivered to me from Emery. She knew. She’s developed the maternal eyes in the back of her head and I’m the lucky recipient. We are all taking care of each other in our words and our gestures and seem to know intuitively when to jump in and offer a virtual shoulder. Hugging from a distance.

Not only did the kid’s belongings leave the basement and the mama fly the nest in Phase Three, but the children become the parents. I have no intention of surrendering my parental role (is that even possible???), but have certainly loosened my grip and am happy to let my kids step in and offer to help or a listening ear. Those gestures of love mean as much to me as the stack of pop tarts and glass of orange juice, brought to me on a tray, with kids arguing about who got to hold it, while serving me “breakfast” in bed.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. Whether a late night reassurance call, an impromptu bike ride, a morning of hugs or stacks of pop tarts on a plate, they all say the same thing…

” I love you, Mom.”

” I love you, too.”

In the midst of mothering, Phase One….
Mothering, Phase Three. Thomas, Grant and Emery (pregnant with her 2nd) at Griffith Park in LA.

Trees and birds with a healthy side of patience and understanding…

I finished the making the book for my friend from Ecuador yesterday.  Well almost and not quite.  Upon what I thought was the  completion, I ordered just one copy to check for mistakes then took it over for Marta to check it as well before ordering the 12 books that she wanted.  I was very pleased with the end result but given the history thus far on the project, knew not to relax just yet, a hunch that was totally correct.

Marta was standing at her front window waiting for me when I arrived, a gesture that I’ve become quite fond of, and has me on my punctual toes each time I visit.  Her living room looked like she was expecting company as she had moved all of her kitchen chairs into the room, and each chair held one of her original paintings as well as stacked, and paper clipped papers of text.  There was a system here and I knew not to question although I was somewhat  surprised as I had already reassured her multiple times that I had the paintings and the text pages in the proper order.  I thought we had already jumped that hurdle.

Inhale.  Exhale.  Patience.  Or paciencia, in Español.

She loved my “sample” hard copy book, much to my delight, yet still walked around the living room checking my page order with the stacks of paper on each chair.   She did find a couple of small mistakes, errors in her spelling on some of the Spanish text and I agreed that I would keep the book with the mistakes as my own, would make the necessary corrections then would order the 12 books she wanted.  She wanted to pay me right then and there,  but I insisted we wait until she had all 12 books in her hands and was pleased with them. We agreed to meet for lunch once she received the books and she could pay me then.  So last week, as agreed, we met at a neighborhood restaurant that she liked that ironically happened to be French and enjoyed  the lovely French cuisine while conversing in Spanish the entire time.   The language section of my brain, opened up then got confused, as I was “merci-ing”  in the middle of a totally Spanish conversation.  I felt very European.

That was last week.  Since then, my friend has found things in the book she wants to change, which means another order and unfortunately, a big expense for her.  I tried to talk her out of it as the books are not cheap, but she insists that they be perfect and said she will only publish one book in her lifetime and this was it so it just had to be perfect.  She apologized for having pushed me to get them done so quickly but said she was nervous she wouldn’t make it to her 80th birthday, a comment that I have argued more than once with her.  When the book was finished she told me she was relieved and will not worry about dying before December.  I don’t know how to say “stop over thinking the dying stuff” in Spanish but gave her a smile that communicated my thoughts and she smiled back.  I’m starting to understand her humor and she mine.

That was a few weeks ago and the same process of ordering, proofreading, correcting and re-ordering has now happened, twice.  Last week, I think we finally reached a point where we’re both satisfied, but my fingers remain crossed and my breath held.

This has been far more of an ordeal than I ever thought it would be when I signed on, but it has been about so much more than a book of paintings and text.  Last week I spent 2 hours conversing in Spanish with my new friend and felt so comfortable with it that at one point I actually forgot that I was slogging through a language that wasn’t my mother tongue.  

As I was driving home from that last visit,  I realized that the many trips to her house to do and re-do were far less about the book that we were jointly creating and far more about the friendship that was developing.  I think about Marta and I smile.  It’s been a synchronistic connection that I think we both needed and the timing was impeccable.

The book, by the way, is a lovely story which showcases Marta’s love for her children as well as her love for trees.  She represents each of her 6 children as golondrinas, a bird that is common to Ecuador, who one by one leave the nest and find their tree to begin their lives as adults.  Many different trees are represented, including a saguaro cactus, which represents her son who lives in Arizona.  One of the paintings shows one of the birds returning to the mother with the text “trata otra vez” (he tried again).  I was that kid.  I get it.  No doubt her children will be very touched by the paintings and the story that accompanies them, especially given that they haven’t yet learned that she know how to paint! 

Sometimes getting to the prize at the end of the proverbial tunnel isn’t what you thought it would be.  I’ve got a new book to add to my growing collection of books I’ve made, but the gain here is not in the pages of that book but rather was the added gift of an unexpected friendship. There is always a purpose behind our chance meetings with people and some of those  relationships continue as they are needed in one way or another, while others fall away.  I’m hopeful that the friendship I’ve found with Marta will continue far beyond the pages of a book. 

Finding my gift in the process, not the product, and saying “gracias”…

Quito, Ecuador and my friend, Marta’s home town

Last night,  over a pizza with extra mushrooms and pepperoni, I carefully listened to the life stories told to me in Spanish by a woman from Ecuador, who at the tender age of 20, moved to Kansas City with her Ecuadorian, soon to be doctor, husband.  After having 7 children with him,  she divorced and raised the children as a single mom, remaining in Kansas City.   She’d only interject with English when she’d see my head tilt and brows knit in confusion over a word or a phrase, then seamlessly, would fall right back into her native tongue.  When the waitress came over to our table to see if we needed anything and I quickly responded in Spanish, my immediate reality hit me and I had to marvel at the beauty of sharing these moments, with this women, in Spanish, in Leawood,  KS and over a pizza.

I met this lovely women a few years ago as she was my teacher at an evening Spanish class I was taking. After the 3rd class, she called me at home and told me she thought I was too advanced for the class and would I rather come to her house and just converse once a week?  Of course I would! I’d much rather speak Spanish while sitting on someone’s couch than at a desk with a notebook in front of me! And that’s how I got to know Marta.  After a few months of weekly Spanish at her house, I ended up taking a trip to her native Ecuador with her and 3 other students.   It was interesting  getting to see the country through her native eyes and frustrating at the same time as they were 78 year-old eyes and we didn’t exactly share the same philosophies on travel and adventure and how many more museums to we have to, I mean get to go to today??  But that’s another story.

I didn’t hear from her after the trip until a month ago when she emailed me and asked for my help with a project she was working on.  Her children are throwing her an 80th birthday party in December and to thank them, she was in the process of putting together a  short story of her life told in paintings and brief text that she wanted to make into books and could I please offer up the tiniest bit of help with the project?  I hesitated, and with good cause, but hung onto the words tiny or “muy pequito” more specifically.  I really didn’t know Marta well as she was fiercely private so was both surprised and flattered with her request.  Flattery won.

I agreed to meet her at her house, a short 10 minutes from mine, where she would show me what she was working on and how I could help.  In my mind, I thought it would be a giving an opinion on fonts or text placement kind of thing,  which I was more than happy to help with.  I’ve got to add that when I returned from Ecuador, I made a book of photos from the trip with some text and gave a copy to Marta, so any hopes of saying I didn’t know how were lost on that piece of history.   When I got there, she took me to her spare bedroom/office where she had 20 8 1/2 by 11 sized paintings carefully laid out on the sofa bed, all of them with the similar theme of trees, birds and a lot of blue sky.  They were quite lovely and all hand painted by Marta, who told me she taught herself to paint on the heels of this project.  Inhale.  Exhale.  It was far more than an opinion she wanted and I was in too deep to walk away.  She begged, she pleaded, she insisted on paying me for the work, which at that point, seeing the size of the project, I already had a number in my mind to charge her.  I looked at her standing proudly in front of the 20 paintings that depicted her life, carefully placed on the bed as a display for me and wondered how in the world I could say anything but yes.  Yes, of course I will help you.

She was so excited that I said yes and  began to explain how she wanted the book by showing me her handwritten copies of stapled and stacked papers, far more confusing than it needed to be, then explained how she learned to paint, again, far more explanation that I needed, but I was committed at that point,  so let go of my need to grab the explanation and be on my way, and  allowed myself to be present in a moment that was not just about me making a book.  There was something else in the makings here, and although not quite sure what that something was, I was willing to stay the course and find out.

I knew I’d be there until next Tuesday if I didn’t tell her I had to be somewhere else, so with the paintings and the papers, all organized into two folders,  we said our goodbyes and I almost made my exit when Marta came running out the front door and stopped me and handed me a lucite in-box from her desk, insisting that I put the paintings, the paintings that were safely tucked into a folder, into the box for the drive to my house.  She said they’d be safer that way.

While driving home, I glanced over at the clear lucite box that contained a 79 year-old woman from Ecuador’s life story, told in paintings and brief text, that was riding shot gun in my car and knew I had made the right decision.  This gift, created for her children and to be given to them on her 80th birthday celebration,  no doubt was going to be a gift for me as well, and to that, both out loud and to myself, I said gracias.

My first task at hand was to photograph the paintings, which had given me the most angst about the project as I didn’t want to lose one brushstroke in the copying process, but they turned out beautifully and I began the process of digitally putting them into the book format, along with her pages of text.  The ease of the project ended quickly when I got an email from Marta saying she wanted all of the paintings back because she wanted to make the birds darker, which were in every painting and represented important pieces of her life.  I knew there was no arguing with her so told her I’d be over “around noon” on the following day.  I pulled into her driveway at 12:10 and noticed her standing at the front window waiting.  My irritation with her request that seemed unfounded, melted at the sight of her anxiously waiting for me.  It made me think of my grandparents who would drive an hour to see me dance in a 10 minute half-time performance in my high school gym.  They always looked little and vulnerable and more excited than anyone else in the room to see me.  I found myself more than willing to hear Marta’s explanations of the small changes she wanted to make and how she was going to make the birds darker in all 20 of the paintings.  I’m finding my Spanish again with each visit and she’s finding someone to use her Spanish with and I think in the process, we’re both unexpectedly finding a friendship. 

After about a week of working on the book,  and two more trips to her house with worries and suggestions, I brought over the final copy via my computer for her to look at before ordering.  She was thrilled!  Well… mostly.  There was one painting that she wanted to tweak just a little bit and then I could come back the next day and get it.  Or, I suggested, the tweaks could be done as I waited then I could carry the wet painting home in my car, oh so carefully.  She hesitated and said she’d do it now and I could take it home with me and in the meantime, would I like to go eat pizza with her tonite at a pizza place nearby that she liked?  My first thought was to say no, I have to go, but then thoughts of her sitting by herself at a trendy and likely busy pizza parlor came to mind and I graciously said yes, of course yes.  It was over pizza that I heard about Marta and her seven children and both her happiness with being here and the longing for her Ecuador.  I am both blessed and honored to be a very small part of the celebration of this dear woman’s 80th birthday.

The warmth of such an interesting and delightful evening quickly faded when Marta emailed me later that night and said she wanted all of the text size changed as larger text is just nicer to read.  She didn’t seem to understand that the actual book would be larger than my computer screen but that didn’t matter.  She wanted it changed and needed me to come by her house, at my convenience, of course, ASAP,  so she could explain.  She ended the email telling me that because she had shared her history and her family’s history with me, “we are now friends.”

Marta (on the right) with her childhood friend and me in Cuenca, Ecuador

 And so, with my new friend directing me, I continue to work on this project, that in reality was completed a while ago, while realizing that this is less about the book and far more about what is going on between Marta and I during the process of making this book.  These really are the moments,  wrapped up in a package so cleverly disguised that it hardly seemed like a gift, let alone one I’d want to unwrap.  It has been the unexpected treasure of friendship inside wrappings of frustration and annoyance,  that I never saw coming.  For that, I am grateful and say gracias,  muchas gracias mi amiga, Marta.

To be continued…

My 365 day project…

Everyday, since January 1, 2014, I have been taking a photo and digitally putting it into a self-publish book.  Some days I’ve had a plethora of photos to choose from and other days I’ve struggled to come up with the one photo that will represent the day, more or less.   I’ve given each photo a date, the number of days into the year it represents and a caption.  By the way, today is day #146…

It’s been an interesting journey that has brought on challenges that I had not expected, which surprisingly has NOT been to remember to take a photo and digitally upload it into the book on a daily basis.  Initially, I tried to outdo myself daily, each photo upping the last, most of them scenic, none of them boring, but 146 days into the project, I know now that the days that I think I’ve got nothing, are the days that I find myself slowing down, listening and simply observing and I’m always surprised with what I end up with.  They are usually the days with the photos I’m most proud of.

The process has given me a different lens to view my day through (pun intended)… and through that lens, I’m finding the beauty in places and situations that I never noticed before….
Unexpected bonuses.
Open eyes.

Here are a few of my favorites…

Day #1

 

Day #36

 

Day #37
Day #71

 

Day #77
Day #91
Day #114
Day #146