Friday, December 31, 2010

Here's To Life

Holding fast to tradition Ray Taliaferro ended his talk show at 5am this morning, New Year’s Eve, with jazz singer Shirley Horn’s Here’s To Life. It always lifts me up.

I linger at some of the words: No complaints… And no regrets…To dreamers and their dreams…Give it all you’ve got. Some day I must buy the album, because just listening to her words stirs me from whatever cares and doldrums drag me down. Oblivious to the date, Kodi stands impatiently nearby, red bone bouncing on the hardwood floor, demanding his morning spoon of peanut butter. It takes so little to make him smile.

I listen with strained interest to the current news. Oprah is starting a new network; Governor Richardson of New Mexico failed to pardon Billie the Kid. I titter because on the annual list of words to banish I don’t even know what most of them mean, and the banned phrase “I’m just saying…” is not in my normal platter.

All day yesterday in self-talk I predicted that 2011 would be a more joyful year. Sure hope so. Dear friend Jan Hagan came up at dusk with her camera and tripod to capture a sunset, but the chilly atmosphere made it less than spectacular. This morning it was 35 on the patio with light frost, but Cheari writes of snow and chill in Granite Falls, and Nancy writes that in Denver today with the wind chill it is -9.

For me 2010 has been a trial of challenges with more low points than high. An auto accident, hearing aids, allergies, a tooth implant and many physical complaints, none life-threatening but irksome all the same. Such negatives defined the months, which for me seemed to drag by. I can’t wait for the new year.

Two days after Christmas, submerged in my beloved Kindle, (82 books read now) toes steered toward the glow of the gas fireplace, my burgundy Laz-y-Boy stuck in the up position so that to extract myself I had to crawl on my knees over the left arm, a task made more challenging by a painful right shoulder which I have been nursing for two months. Now I surely hope that is not an omen for the new year! I’m ready to kick up my heels, aren't you?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Buddy

With the stroke of his pen today Obama repealed the controversial “Don’t ask, Don’t tell". My thoughts are with so many friends, mostly deceased now, either forced out of service to their country because of discrimination, or destined to serve in a kind of silent exile, hiding their true identity. Many of my personal friends who led such a double life were nurses in the 2nd World War. Such a tragedy.

Propped on my seldom ever-used Hammond organ is the sheet music to My Buddy, published in 1922, with lyrics by Gus Kahn and music by Walter Donaldson. My dear friend Bill gave me the music. I’ve always loved the song and didn’t know until adulthood it had been attributed to the story of a soldier grieving his friend who was killed in the 1st World War, a war in which three of my family served (my maternal grandfather, in Canada's Princess Pat Regiment), and my father and his sister.

My 95 year old cousin Dollie in Vancouver tells me the whole family sang it---it was a favorite. Even as a child when my mother crooned it I presumed it was a love song. The instructions on my copy say it is to be sung tenderly. Indeed, that is how my mother sang it, as well as others, the likes of Al Jolson and Rosemary Clooney.

Sometimes at night (last night being the longest night of the year) when I am most missing Lee, I croak out the refrain, (thank goodness only Kodi can hear me) and it comforts me.

Of course I have known the words by heart since childhood, and I imagine I can actually hear my mother’s voice: Nights are long since you went away; I think about you all through the day; My Buddy, my Buddy, No Buddy quite so true. Miss your voice, the touch of your hand; Just long to know that you understand; My Buddy, my Buddy. Your Buddy misses you.

So today I pulled off the yellowing plastic sleeve and studied the words of the verse: Life is a book that we study. Some of its leaves bring a sigh; That we must part you and I. The second verse goes on to say: Buddies through all of the gay days; Buddies when something went wrong; I wait along through the gray days; Missing your smile and your song.

Such simple words, and kind of corny, but they pack a lot of emotion. I’m curious if they mean anything to any one else? Did many families sing it, or just mine? And am I the only one who sees the double meaning? Surely not. One of these days I must ask my friend Bonnie (senior) to sing it for me with full feeling, which it deserves.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Speaking of Transparency

Well, Wikileaks and all its implications dictates my sharing this week. My head is spinning with all the exposed secrets. Isn’t yours? Last week I wrote of a way in which government information and how it was withheld sculpted my father’s last years. And how family secrets molded my own confusing and often lonely childhood. Certainly I am not unique in this.

No secret that most psychotherapists, self-included, were drawn to the profession in order to smoke out their own conscious and unconscious threads of what makes them tick. In the process I believe some amount of good is done for others. I hope so.

By preference I have always been drawn to transparency in art and photography. Thick, opaque images do not stir me. That is why in my own painting I identify as a value painter, not a shape painter. In the days of color slides I recall how certain projections would give me shivers of excitement. I always yearn to know what is going on deep inside, and thrill when it is revealed..

A little over two weeks ago Catherine, my surrogate daughter, had a terrible fall. Her right arm dangling like a rag doll’s, the kind EMT’s in the ambulance administered sufficient drugs to contain her pain until a hospital x-ray revealed a seriously dislocated elbow. I gasped when I saw the x-ray. With anesthetic the arm was manipulated back into place. Splints were applied to immobilize the grossly swollen arm. A few days later, by plan, the doctors changed the splints, slightly repositioning the arm for healing. Terrible pain followed which resulted a few days later in another x-ray revealing the elbow once again dislocated. More anesthetic, re-setting, x-rays and splints. At this point she came to stay with me for two days. All went well until dawn’s early light yesterday when she woke with the same searing pain. Another trip to the ER and another x-ray revealed the joint still in place. What a relief. Nerve pain was the diagnosis, a pain feeling like a knitting needle being driven up her arm. A hard cast was applied to immobilize the joint until sufficient healing occurs to hold the bones in place. The transparency of the x-ray is the miracle that allowed the doctors in each case to make an accurate diagnosis.

When she studied in Cuba my former pilates teacher (and now surrogate granddaughter) Allejandra observed that the Cuban doctors had so perfected the science of the human touch that they could diagnose many diseases without the benefit of x-ray and special equipment. I tend to believe her. Though I do not cotton to psychics, I believe that the trained and focused mind of anyone can pick up things we normally miss. Sometimes I call this putting two and two together. Head often in the sand, it makes me shudder to think how much I miss. Can I improve? Of course. I think that being more aware will be one of my goals in 2011.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

December 7, 1941, A Child's Perspective

Although we were considered middle class, television, then tiny and black and white, was not one of our beongings. Neither was a car or a refrigerator, for that matter. Still we possessed a big lovely home, a Steinway baby grand, and a whole library of books, including a leather bound set of encyclopedia britannica. (We were destined to loose them all about a year later in some kind of foreclosure never explained to me.) I puzzled so often in childhood at the ways we didn't fit, because we certainly did not. I tried to hide my discomfort from both my mother and my father and my beloved big sister.

This was not as hard as it seems, for we were not a family that ever talked. Even at the dinner table, everyone read silently. Somewhere around this time my mother, who had always seemed like my big sister---so young and beautiful and talented, and seventeen years his junior---abandoned all of us for greener pastures. Though now 80, I remember the Sunday morning Pearl Harbor attack. Some of the details blur, but not the feelings.

Good ear twisted toward the large brown console radio, rocker unmoving, I watched with bewilderment and compassion as I saw the tears falling from my father's eyes, smearing the gold rimmed trifocals which had made such ugly big dents in the sides of his nose. The tears were wetting the one day prickly stubble of grey on his mustache and cheeks, for unlike the other days in which he dressed as a business man in vest and tie, he never shaved on Sundays.
It was the first time I had ever seen him cry.

He was fifty and I was eleven. I witnessed the silent tears many times in the four remaining years of his life, usually after work when he was plastered to the radio listening to the war news reporting the number of casualties of the previous day.

I was probably too old to sit on his lap as he rocked and read to me, though I sometimes still did. Usually it was the Seattle Times or Post Intelligencer, but sometimes it was Fortune magazine, or collections of favorite poems, or even the funnies. On that particular Sunday morning I sensed the depth of his sadness, but couldn't grasp all of the implications. I remember hearing the battleship Arizona had been sunk, but I hardly understood, and Hawaii seemed a million miles away.

It was more than a decade later, at least five years after his death at 54, that my sister revealed the whole story, or at least as she remembered it, and she was pretty savvy.

As the District Plant Superintendent of the telephone company, my father, though self taught, had developed incredible skills in telecommunication. These included the art of laying underwater cable. I can remember trips with him on the "telephone barge" as he supervised the crew in laying cable. He was also somehow in on the early development of radar, and at times the telephone company would loan him out to the Navy for special projects. Engineers building the first floating bridge on Lake Washington borrowed him for advice in securing the cables. Sometimes the engineers at Boeings, then small, would consult with him. All of this was over my head, of course. I distinctly remember one time, however, accompanying him to a secret underground military installation where we went through tunnels, and where I was actually blindfolded. Visions of Nancy Drew whirled in my head.

Here is the rest of the story. Approximately six months before the Pearl Harbor attack the phone rang one night at home, a call from Washington DC. My sister answered. It seemed that FDR was requesting that my father move, with his family, to Honolulu at once for a special mission. It was explained that the president was concerned about inadequate communications between Pearl Harbor and the White House, and the government wanted my father, considered such an expert, to move there and set up something better. Being a very patriotic person, he felt torn. In the end his colleagues convinced him it would be unfair to me to move me out of my school. I think I would have loved it, but no one ever asked me, of course. He declined the assignment. So on December 7, 1941, he felt that he alone was responsible for all the deaths and destruction. No wonder he cried.

Historians have revealed now, of course, that FDR knew all about the impending attack, and scripted it as a way to get us into the war. Sadly my father never knew the truth, and died, still carrying the giant guilt of turning down his country.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Reinventing Yourself, Over and Over

About four years ago my good friend and former intern, Mary, made a dramatic change in her life. Mary grew up in Oakland springing from a family of Italian heritage, and not great means. I wonder at what age she chose to rewrite the family script? Not that Mary's life hasn't always been one of taking sharp turns, for to me she seems fearless in plunging off in new directions. From being a hippie student in encounter groups at Cal in the early seventies to careers in house painting, legal secretary, home nursing assistant, psychotherapist, and a dozen other occupations, Mary always manages to emerge victorious except in long term relationships. In this venue she remains good friends with her former lovers, but a lifetime partner seems to elude her luck or her preference. Art and the spiritual quest have always been a force in her life so I guess it is not that shocking that in early retirement, on a limited income, she chose to move to San Miguel Allende, Mexico, a place she had only visited once except in active imagination. San Miguel is known as a refuge for North Americans with its large art colony, and picturesque cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. It is also known as a place of spiritual inquiry.
Sadly, I can no longer explore our southern neighbor except in books and memory, since the air pollution there makes it difficult for me to breathe. I think I have travelled there five or six times in my life, always loving it, but I've never visited San Miguel.
Mexico is a country which has long enchanted, fascinated, and lured me ever since as a child my father told me bedtime stories about it. Sometime around 1915, in his early twenties and very poor, he took a job installing telephone wires in the rural parts of Mexico, A skilled horseman, he would ride alone though the remote areas stringing telephone wires. He came upon a small village at dusk one evening.
Spooky, here was no sound except that of a small breeze. Then he noticed movement in the trees. Looking up he saw a couple of dozen dead bodies hanging from ropes: men, women, and children. Horrified, he rode on. Later he learned that the folk of this town had been rumored to be traitors to Pancho Villa, and they were murdered to set an example. How could anyone be so cruel he wondered. My father was a particularly gentle man, even though his own life had been one of struggling for survival. Yet most of the Mexicans he met on the trail revered Pancho Villa, which was beyond his understanding.
Weeks later, again alone, he saw a campfire ahead. His apprehension lessened as the men welcomed him to join their campfire, fed him, and invited him to throw down his bed roll. It turned out Pancho Villa was their leader, and Villa, himself, welcomed my Dad with kindness and affection.
It was clear how his men adored him, as did most of the residents in the countryside. Mary tells me Pancho Villa is revered to this day. This presented an existential dilemma for my father. He puzzled over it for all of his remaining years, and passed the angst on to me.
Mary faces some different challenges today in San Miguel. She purchased a darling house in a very Mexican neighborhood and rescued a Mexican cat, SonRio. She teaches English as a volunteer, but acquiring fluent Spanish and making a whole new network of friends at 64 is not a snap. She has acquired Mexican health insurance, and in another year she will become a dual citizen of both Mexico and the US, but she will be denied forever any kind of participation in Mexican government, including political rallies, for outsiders are not trusted. She has been studying myths and storytelling.
When she returns next week she's going to start a dream journal, illustrating each dream with a collage. I wonder if that will lead to her reinventing herself once again?