Why Aren’t We Using Our Eyes & Brains?

I was in Boston recently, navigating around the city with the Nav system on my  phone and doing well…until the time I was preparing to leave. My car was at a stoplight and I could see, just a half block away, the sign for entry on to the Mass Pike. Let me make this clear: I could see the sign. The entrance for the road home was a half block away. Clear. Easy. Drive 200 feet, make turn,head home. Except that the nav system directed me around the corner, down a side street, over two blocks, and then back to where I had been at first. I didn’t take that set of directions. Of course I didn’t. I have two eyes and when the information I’m being fed is in direct conflict with my brain and what I’m seeing, I’m going to listen to my brain.

But the whole experience reminded me of how difficult I’m finding it to make my way around my new town. I’ve lived in a lot of places and I tend to get familiar with roads and key buildings fairly quickly. EXCEPT… I didn’t have a phone with a nav system before, and we’ve never had one in our car. What was different this time was that I was patching in my proposed location rather than looking at a map in advance and making some sticki-notes to tell me where to turn, sticking it on my dashboard, and heading out. I used to look ahead, lock it in to my brain, note the navigational points for future reference (like the gas station, the weird green house, etc), and then find my way there. To go home I’d do it all backward.

lost sign

With a nav system, you might have eyes and a brain but you’re as blind as can be. You’re not looking around and taking in what you need for directions, you’re listening to a voice tell you where to go. You might as well be blind because you’re not taking in anything except that voice.

THAT’S why I can’t just get myself around a new place anymore. I’m not processing where I am and where I need to be. I’m relying on someone else to do that for me. So I’m turning it off unless I really need it. I’m getting older and I need to remind my brain how to work and let it get as much activity as it can, work things out on its own, and help me find my way home. No nav system is going to keep me young.

Finding the Comfort in Tradition

I have fought against doing things the traditional way my whole life.Sometimes I’ve been successful, most of the time it has been a hard-won struggle with my psyche. My own personal preference is to be surrounded by things that are simple and clean, no fuss, no muss, no collections. I liked having a few of the Christmas decorations my family had given me, but I wanted to be able to try something new every year. We end up doing a bit of  both each year. My husband is happy but I’m not sure I’m ever completely happy with the end result.

When we got married, we shopped for furniture and while my lovely husband was pulled to the big overstuffed chairs and sofas, I headed right for the streamlined, curlicue-free couches and coffee tables. I appreciated the furniture we inherited from his parents – I mean, c’mon, it’s beautiful wood! – but I struggled to find ways to make the pieces look modern, using them in non-traditional ways when I could. I’m still hoping to paint them, a bastardization that anyone who prefers wood “as it is” finds obscene.

And yet now, as my mother struggles with Alzheimers and her memories are floating away on the wind, the things that were important to her -and to us – growing up, are now becoming incredibly important. Traditional as they are – and they’re incredibly traditional – I’m pulled towards them because they bring my mother into my home in a way that keeps her close. Throughout my life, a large trunk contained the few things she’d kept from her own mother – piles of linens (tablecloths, sheets, pillowcases) that had been hand-embroidered by either my mother or hers. They are exactly what you think they would be – inches of hand-crocheted lace surrounding a sheet or tablecloth, sweet and whimsical embroidered designs on small tablecloths, crocheted corners of large, ornate cloths, all of it beautiful and all of it absolutely, completely, and wonderfully traditional.

Each time my mother pulled out the contents of the trunk, I was enraptured. While my siblings searched through her jewelry or sought out furniture, I wished only for the linens. They spoke to me in a way nothing else did. So, when my mother finally let go of her linens (they were always kept for “good” and that never really happened, I guess), I got most of them. I’m figuring out what to do with them now. Maybe take one cloth and have the ornate corners framed. Maybe lay a sheet over a guest bed. Or maybe, as I’ve just done, take my favorite small cloth and cut it down to a size that exactly fits a little wooden stool that we inherited from my husband’s mother. Fitting, somehow, that both of our mothers are captured in that little piece of useful, simple, and very traditional piece of furniture. Thanks, mom – both of you.


My mother-in-law’s stool with my own mother’s embroidered cloth on it.




Awakening My Brain – or Waking Up My Brain?

juno 1I started this blog to talk about how the impending storm is causing me, like many others, to think about filling the tub with water so I can flush the toilet if the power goes out. It’s caused me to fill jugs with water, pre-charge my cell phone, get out the candles and matches for light, and see what’s cooked and frozen in the fridge. I wanted to talk about how it was fun to consider a different way of doing things, that this reminded me of the science that says we need to discover new ways to do things as we get older so that our brains remain fresh and vibrant.

And then I realized that this is life for many people here in North America and in Third World countries. It’s not fun for them to do things by candlelight because the power was shut off months ago. They don’t look forward to hunkering down under mounds of blankets. Their children already have as many layers as they can find when they sleep. And I’m sure that cell phones, or phones of any kind, can be a luxury if you’re barely breaking even.

So I’m going to do all those things I need to do to stay warm and safe during this “epic” storm they’re saying will hit us this evening, but I’m going to remember that for many, the storm will simply add another level of grief to a night that was already unbearable. Tomorrow, or whenever the roads are clearer, I’m going to continue to give to the charities we already support. That’s not going to change. What might change is my impetus for giving, because it’s not generosity that awakens our desire to help, but recognition that help is needed. All the rest is gravy.

Sisters, Sisters…

SISTERSI envy my friends whose sisters are their best friends. They call them to chat, go on vacation with them, have them over for dinner every week. I see that and I wonder what happened with mine.

We grew up sleeping in not only the same bedroom but the same bed. We told stories late into the night, making up grand fairy tales where we took turns playing the pirate or the princess. We shared our clothes, although not always willingly, and we did a lot of things together.

And then we grew up. Our interests became astonishingly different, our taste in men eons apart (except for the one time in high school, but let’s not go there). Our expertise at school veered off in other directions – hers to science and math, mine to writing and theater. We hung in there through our marriages, appearing as maids of honor and feeling the kinship that came with that.

But with age came distance, and strong opinions, and decisions that impacted on profound belief systems we both held. With angry words came more and more distance, and now we might as well be strangers passing on the street.

I’m not inclined to place adult decisions on parents or circumstances. As I’ve said many times, we make decisions and we live with the consequences. Even if we hate those consequences, there were OUR decisions and made with the best information we had at the time.

I’m also not a fan of apologies in every circumstance. Sometimes the decisions we make hurt people, and sometimes you still have to make that decision. To say you’re sorry is to negate the reason for the decision in the first place. Everyone who decides to divorce someone has to face that particular music.

Sometimes we feel compelled to say what is deep in our heart, and sometimes the fallout from that can be devastating for everyone involved. An apology, even a heartfelt one, won’t wash away the hurt. However, time will. And that’s where I’m sitting right now – in the middle of the time between what was past and what’s ahead. Maybe it’s time to see if we can put the past behind us and really begin to talk again. Not about what happened, not about what was said or heard or felt or imagined, because that simply brings up where we were then and neither of us is that person anymore.

I’m not certain of the next step, or even if there will be one. We may be too different to ever find common ground again. Perhaps it’s enough to know that in my own heart, I’ve left it all behind. Life is too short – and it’s getting shorter- to stay in a place that passed us by many many years ago.

To Pre or not to Pre (Retire, that is)

money-happiness-scaleMy husband and I had one of those just-before-falling-asleep conversations a couple of nights ago. I love those conversations. There’s something about the time of day/night and the closeness of sleep that takes away the barriers to really honest communication (not that we have any – I’m pretty sure I’ve never talked with anyone so much in my life! If we look like those other been-together-forever couples in restaurants who aren’t talking it’s because we’re actually taking a break from that to eat!). There’s also a lovely level of light, the equivalent of outside dusk, to our bedroom at night because of the outside street lights, that lends itself to being able to talk in a kind of confessional.

Anyway…(I do go on at times)…we were talking about pre-retiring, mostly because neither of us feels anywhere close to retiring and let’s face it, my husband would work till his last breath if he could. Financial security is the highest priority for him and since he’s incredibly better/more interested than I am, I support that completely. Almost completely. Sort of.

Here’s the view I wanted him to understand. My father died two years after he retired. He never really had a chance to enjoy retirement, and my mother never really had time with him to do so.They never did “the big trip,” and while there’s a chance he would never have gone anyway, I fret about it.

As this road to sixty gets closer and closer, I am more and more convinced that I don’t want to be like my dad, working until I can’t move anymore, and then falling to illness almost immediately. I want time to enjoy this life and do things while my joints can still take it. I’m not as worried about having it all as having it while I’m healthy. For my husband, it’s critical that we have as much as we can, without worries.

So there’s the conundrum: How long do we wait until we retire? Or, can we pre-retire, working at jobs that allow us some life at the end of the day? Will half our salaries give us twice the joy? And, can we continue with enough of the things we enjoy to feel that we left it “all” at just the right time? Stay tuned for further details. There are plenty more bedtime chats to go yet.

The Drive to Prayer

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. I’m sure that some of that comes off of a Christmas season filled with hope and thanksgiving for all we have, heavily underscored with a Catholic upbringing and sensibility that grows stronger with age.

Still, I find myself lingering on some of those truisms about never feeling free unless you forgive those who have hurt you, or telling the truth-and-all-the-truth so help you God. I don’t know if I completely agree with all of that. Yes, I know that Catholic mothers have it all over Jewish moms for guilt (yes, we can trade war stories if you wish). There were few days growing up that didn’t include a healthy dose of “shoulda woulda coulda” in relation to perceived or real sins. Mostly, though, I like to live my life a bit more in-the-moment. Nothing comes from dwelling on what could have been. We make decisions, we take the consequences of our actions. Sometimes those consequences keep hurting (like the Sunday drop-offs when you’re divorced) and sometimes you gain a few pounds (like you need an example).

driverTonight, driving home, I felt something really strange – the desire to pray while I was driving. Okay, I’ve definitely done that in a snowstorm, or late at night while being followed by an aggressive driver. This was different. This felt like something I NEEDED to do for me, for my soul. It had nothing to do with guilt, I think. I hadn’t recently committed an egregious sin, hurt someone intentionally, or cheated on my husband. So why the strange timing? Is this what it means to grow older? Do we all end up reaching for spirituality more and more as we age? And what the hell did driving have to do with it?

The only conclusion I can come up with is that praying, like driving, happens more instinctively when the non-thinking side of our brain kicks in, when our mind is freed to be creative and open. We’ve all had that feeling of arriving somewhere and remembering nothing of the drive. Some of my best ideas have come upon me in a car. Still, for today, praying felt like an original kind of emotion, like the new song, art, or music that resides in our left brains. It came from the same place, and felt just as surprising. There was little original in the words, but a lot in the emotion. It was an original piece of soul. oh.

The Road to Sixty Meanders a Lot

It’s the silliest thing. You get this idea in your head, “the movie in my brain” as my friends know I call it, and you think it’s going to play out just like that. And the silly thing is that you’re surprised when it doesn’t. That’s when I feel as if I have to defer to the higher deities because someone is definitely pushing me in another direction at those times. Someone is looking down and laughing in delight at my chutzpah. How dare I decide where my life will take me?

I can hope and plan and make arrangements and pull the information and print the forms and fill out the documents and the DMV will STILL come up with something I’m missing so I have to go back again and again and again. I’m just sayin’.



It’s Time…

A few weeks ago I received a frantic call from my brother. He asked all of us, his siblings, to call our mother and give him our feedback. We did, and then she went in for an assessment. In just two weeks my mother had moved from someone with manageable dementia to someone with full-blown Alzheimer’s. We knew it was coming. Still, when the doctor says “it could change any time” and that it could be swift, you hear it but you don’t HEAR it. For most of us boomers, we’ve read and listened and watched numerous items of interest about Alzheimer’s, but it’s a bit like childbirth – until you do it (are you listening, men?) you have NO idea what it’s like. And what it’s like is devastating. For the person, for the family, for the grandchildren, for everyone.

I will carry with me forever the look on my mother’s face that weekend when I first saw her after the turnaround. She looked at me for the longest time, and then I moved closer and she said “Kathy?” So – she knew me. But just. In fact, hours later she looked at me and said, with all the articulateness that I’ve loved in her (and that she has perhaps fostered in me), she said “I don’t know your history.” Could it have been plainer or sadder? I don’t know if my heart actually stopped beating for a moment, but I’m sure it did. It might have been just a momentary thump. Still, the world stopped for a moment. My mother, the woman who kept our home running for years, who managed a floor of engineers, who could tell you everyone’s birthday and the names of the grandchildren’s children, could not remember anything about me. Even now, as I write this, I wonder if it really is time to start putting all of this down on “paper.” It’s too new, too hard, too raw. My mother can’t remember when I cut my bangs too short in grade school and didn’t want to go to school. She doesn’t have a picture in her mind of me in my First Communion dress, holding my flowers and looking too cute for words. She doesn’t remember seeing my first play or hugging her first grandchild or great-grandchildren, or even knowing that she has five children of her own. It’s too hard, Lord, and I feel the need to beseech someone, to plead for an end to this travesty. How dare our minds go while our bodies remain so intact? How do I live with that possibility in myself?

So… I’ll stop now. I will remember the most recent visit when she lit up on seeing me. I’ll try to forget that trying to remember anything about me made her anxious and fretful and “dizzy.” I’ll try to remember that she laughed once or twice, mostly at my silly husband with his winning ways with older people, but she laughed nonetheless. And I’ll be thankful that she knew when to end the visit. “I’m going back to my friends now,” she said. Best to be glad that she knows what friends are and has the words for them.

I’m her daughter. That’s a word that has slipped away.

Susur Lee Reigns

Ah, the wonder of dim sum. The wonder of dim sum done well, and served well. And then the wonder of eating dim sum in a restaurant in Toronto where your table neighbors make conversation and talk about theatre and ask you for your thoughts on what you’re eating, and where the table group next to you has made plans to eat breakfast with their table neighbors – all in the span of 90 minutes. We went in expecting good food – after all, it’s Susur Lee – and ended up not only enjoying every mouthful and anticipating with wonder the next food to arrive – but also found that eating in a new city with complete strangers nearby could feel friendlier than sitting with family sometimes.


Maybe it was the kind of clientele that the restaurant attracts, maybe it was the weekend (a national holiday) and the joy of a beautiful and early fall weekend, and perhaps it was nothing more than people seeing friendly faces nearby and venturing a question, knowing that it would be received politely and with good humor. Whatever it was, and for whatever reason, our dinner at Luckee in the Soho Metropolitan in Toronto reigns as one of the best meals, and maybe the best environment we’ve eaten in, in many months. And we eat out a lot. In very nice places. Just saying.

I Forgot to Eat

forgot to eatThere are a few sentences in my life that have never been uttered. “I forgot to eat.” is one of them. And when I look at my colleagues, many of whom are slender, I realize that might be the reason I continue to fight the Battle of the Bulge. When it’s time for lunch – something I’ve noted from early morning, by the way – I head to the fridge and haul out my salad, my pieces of cooked chicken and fruit, and happily sit down to eat, knowing that I have a healthy and fat-reducing meal to enjoy. When I finish that meal, I know that I will still be hungry a bit, but in order to lose weight I’m trying to cut out salt and stay with leaner meals. So far, that’s been working well. Until I looked at what my colleagues ate. Okay, they’re in their 20s and I passed those years a loooooooooong time ago. But when I asked them when they planned to have lunch, they said they already had. They “had a nutrition bar” in their desk, “grabbed a piece of fruit” on their way to a meeting, or told me they “forgot it was lunch time!”  Clearly that’s why I continue to be less than slender. My lunch, that I thought hit a new level of healthy for me, is still a meal. To be eternally thin, you have to munch or nosh, forget that there is anything with more than one course, and forget to eat now and then. I’ve got the snacking down pat. I am even familiar with noshing. But to forget to eat? Battle of the Bulge, you and I are destined to be life-long friends.