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Archive for the ‘Family/Friends’ Category

Letters of Endearment

A big brown office envelope arrived in the mail from an old friend and inside I found, much to my surprise, a bundle of letters written by me fifty years ago when my husband Joe and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in South Asia.

At that time, we were living and working in a deeply rural village that, one might say, rode tight against the earth’s surface.  We felt the tight ride while we experienced several years without electricity, running water or flush toilets, among other things. We encountered food scarcity along with our neighbors, witnessed the horrible power of famine and drought followed by flooding, malnourishment and disease.  We felt this tightness to the earth while simultaneously learning to appreciate our neighbors’ courage, affection, and strong community spirit which helped them to survive and sometimes even thrive, under such tough conditions.

These letters brought it all back, like a flood.

Joe and I felt guilty, knowing our situation was temporary and that we would leave our village after several years.  We worried about what would happen to the many friends and acquaintances we left behind, who did not have the freedom to walk away, as we did.  Our youthful hand-written letters confirmed our affection for our community, told stories of friends we had made, and also pointed out the many frustrations of residing in impoverished circumstances.

In those days, we wrote letters on pieces of paper and sent them via the postal mail.  From our village, roughly half of the letters we sent managed to arrive. We often waited months for a reply and our letters declared our frustration with having to wait so long.  At least half of the letters that family and friends wrote back to us were also somehow mislaid or lost by the postal system.

After several years in South Asia, Joe and I returned to the US, to more schooling, then returning again to Western Asia for several years, then back again to the US for more graduate training and new jobs and responsibilities.

When we returned to the US for the second time, Joe and I had started a family.  On top of our jobs, we had three children over a five-year period, taking up any extra time we might have used for writing letters, especially since during these same five years we moved back into the United States and then back out again, this time to Western Asia.

Once, during an emergency, we were evacuated with our two small children back to the US, due to heavy street fighting.  We were instructed not to return until things quieted down.  Our friend who shared the letters helped our family set up a temporary place to live.  She also helped us locate blankets, pots and pans and spoons and forks to use while we waited for word that we could return.

I owe her many letters of thanks, and I am about to write them.

Each time Joe and I have moved to new places we gathered more responsibilities, gained new friends and lost others.

Although we had the privilege of enjoying technically challenging and very interesting jobs, we confronted complicated administrations and large inter-related bureaucracies that sometimes held projects back, messed up plans and created stress.

During this period of heavy work responsibilities and young children, we wrote few personal letters.

These same complicated bureaucracies gave us the power and support we needed to our family to continue our work in the area of international development, an area we both wanted to work in.

I owe numerous people who worked in these administrations with me, letters of appreciation, too.

I have unfinished letters to write.

Letters of condolence.
Letters of love.
Letters of appreciation.
Letters of thanks.

Letters to my wonderful adult children, expressing gratitude and pride, telling them how much I love them;

Letters to my grandchildren, leaving word tracks for when I am no longer here, to make them smile and trust that life is good.

I owe thank you notes to people who changed my life.

A letter to my husband, thanking him for all the love and affection, fun and adventure, hilarity and frustration, devotion and friendship, for his mightiest protection, biggest debates, most delicious omelettes, ever.

By the way, dear, thank you as well for all those morning cups of coffee.

I owe a letter to myself.  It may be the most difficult one to write.

I owe letters to the people I thought I hated but really didn’t.  Letters to people who suffered unfairly.

Letters to those who reached out and received no thanks.

Letters to the privileged and seemingly spoiled who would not know why I wrote, even if I did.

In addition, I owe a note of appreciation to the small boy, wearing just simple cotton shorts who used a broken branch with leaves to sweep under the sacred banyan tree, making the dirt smooth;

I owe a letter of affection to that little girl who told me her stories of being married at the age of twelve, and the uproarious tales of how she outwitted her husband and got to come home to her widowed mother;

I will send a letter of sorrow to that dead body I saw lying in the streets waiting unceremoniously to be picked up by the early morning carts;

I have written numerous letters of thanks in my head to those men holding machine guns who stopped our bus and who read all correspondence we held in our purses and backpacks and left without killing us;

I owe a letter of amazement to the midwives who delivered village babies on rope-woven wooden beds with no running water and no clean towels;

A letter of love to the villagers who sang all night to us while we sat together on dirt floors and listened to a tiny wind-driven accordion wailing to the moon.

It is time to write a letter to my mother to tell her she is forgiven for not noticing;

A letter to my father saying that I view him with compassion and realize it might have been worse, he could have become President;

A letter to my brother, saying goodbye, sorry it did not work out;

Letters to my sisters reminding them of how much I cared.

A letter to my childhood dog whom I miss greatly, especially since he was my nanny.

Letters to my hair dresser saying thank you for getting me out of the sixties look.

Letters to the grasses and trees that welcomed me on mountain slopes and

A thank you letter to near clear blue lakes and to all bright stars of the night.

Letters of appreciation and awe to the unknown for all that it holds.

Thank you, my friend, for keeping those letters for fifty years and then sending them back to me as a gift.  They are provoking me to write what I had forgotten to write, until now.

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My Child


Have you ever met a child more beautiful than mine?
Look at those eyes,
Those cheeks, that big forehead, and silly smile.
It is mine, all mine.  Yours too, of course, And his and hers.
Already grown and gone to other places,
Held in my arms, for a second, so it seems,
Until this sweet little soft head and beaming cheeks became one of us.
And now I cannot imagine this child of mine,
Over there, with someone else and
Wondering,

Have I ever met a child more beautiful than theirs?


Poem and photo by MJC

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We have a guest in our house.  It is Pickles, our grand children’s family dog, who we are dog-sitting while the family is away on vacation.

Pickles
Lucky for us, Pickles is an exceptionally easy dog to take care of.  First, she is elderly and rarely barks; second she eats and sleeps a lot.  Her attention span is good, especially when it comes to watching us open the refrigerator or make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  

She loves to eat home cooked food, and will stare at us for hours if she thinks we smell like a hamburger, or a good piece of cheese.  

If I rub her head affectionately, she incessantly licks my hand to tell me to “keep going.” I have to order her to stop.   If we lean down to pet her, she rolls over and asks for a belly rub.  It actually isn’t very lady-like, but after all, she is a dog.

Lucky for us, Pickles prefers short walks with long breaks while she takes time out to sniff blades of grass and tree trunks.  One really doesn’t have to go very far, or very fast, to make her happy.  

Lucky for us, our eldest granddaughter wrote down the instructions for how to take care of pickles, and the notes aren’t that difficult or too demanding.  

Instructions

Not so lucky for us, we attend to everything on that list, even using good manners and picking up the dog’s droppings and taking them home with us to put into the waste container.  This is not my favorite task, but it is the law.

We do not have to put her to bed or read her a bedtime story.  At exactly 9pm every evening, she voluntarily hops into her indoor “dog house” and curls up and goes to sleep.  
  
When we first arrived, she was nervous and stared at us, wondering what’s next, I suppose. 

Dog Staring at Spouse
After a while, she relaxed and now spends her time sitting on the couch and lounging about, or lying on the rug and rolling around.  She will yip if she thinks we might step on her by mistake, but we never do.  But she yips, anyhow, just in case.

She might best be described as a fully, unkempt ball of white fur, with a mouth and long ears and significant eyes.  

When she curls up beside me, she kind of looks like a smurf.

What has Pickles taught us?  

Here goes:  
  1. Food tastes better when it is not served in a dog dish;
  2. Walking at a very slow pace soothes the nerves and makes one relaxed, unless one is in a rush or actually has somewhere to go;
  3. Loud sirens cause one to howl; and, last but not least,
  4. Sleep is everything.


Pickles the Smurf

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Recently, my sister sent me a small book of Japanese Haiku as a memory of my mother, who passed away several years ago.  

It is a small hard-cover book that my mother purchased as a gift for her beloved aunt, who had cared for her when she was a young girl and needed a place to stay.  The inscription is lovely, and says,

“To Aunt Edith at Torch Cottage – To one who has enriched my life beyond all means of explanation. With all my love for your love which has never failed me.  Janet, Spring, 1964”

It was titled, Japanese HAIKU, published by Peter Pauper Press out of Mount Vernon, in New York in 1955-56 and sold at that time for $1.00.  It offered two hundred twenty examples of seventeen-syllable Japanese poems by Basho, Buson, Issa and other Japanese poets, mostly of the 15th and 16th century.  It was translated by Peter Beilenson.  


The book explains that a haiku poem is comprised of seventeen syllables, looking something like this:
5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables.

The tanka has 14 more syllables added to the haiku, for 31 syllables total, looking like this:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

7 syllables
7 syllables

This is a grand total of 31 syllables.


Below, is an haiku and tanka that I prepared as an illustration.

5   NIGHT COMES BUT NOT YET
7   THE DIM SKY SPEAKS TO ME NOW
5   BLUE, WHITE, GOLD, ENDLESS.

7   DECLINE TO NEW BLOOMS OF GREY
7   ALL BECAUSE OF THE END GAME.
                                                                   MJC


Historically, I am told, several poets were involved in the writing of a tanka usually with the first poet preparing the haiku and the second poet completing the last two lines, thus becoming a tanka. Small drawings were often added, artistically, to the poem.  

Additional examples of poems and art based on the haiku and tanka are shown here.

Inspired by this little book, I wondered whether it might be possible to paraphrase my mother’s words using the rules of Japanese haiku and tanka poems and here is what I came up with.

TO MY LOVING AUNT
LIFE ENRICHED BEYOND ALL MEANS
BY TORCH LAKE COTTAGE

FOR YOUR LOVE THAT NEVER FAILED

GRIEF ENSNARED BUT NOT BY YOU
                                                               MJC


Although I have never really completely understood why poetry has so many rules and quite often rebelled against them when forced to use them, I find this simple way of playing with words and syllables intriguing.  

Thus inspired,  I think over the next few days, will try to come up with some personal versions of haiku and tanka, with personal drawings illustrating them, just for the fun of it.

Who knows, perhaps a tanka a day keeps the doctor away?

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We have no car on the mainland any more.
Life just got simpler
and we feel a whole lot better from the exercise.

Now that we live in a condo in a big city like Portland, the question keeps coming up.

Do we need to drive?  When we think about it, probably not.

We consider biking instead, or walking, depending on the distance we need to go.

We own bikes and are getting in the habit of using them for every day travel to nearby places.
Bikes are easy to use in a city like Portland, Oregon.

Portland and many other urban settings like New York City are planning to keep bikes as a major source of public transport. Entire lanes and off-road areas are dedicated for bikers, making it easier to avoid competition between bikes and cars and reducing potential, unnecessary, collisions.

We learn bike rules, however.  We are expected to know how to signal when changing lanes, where to position our bikes when we turn left or right at crossroads.  We stop at red lights and at stop signs.  We stop for pedestrians.

Roads here are designed and marked to clarify space between people who need to open their car doors and bikers who ride by on the road.  I still keep my eye on parked cars, just to be sure no one is about to open their door and get out.

Portland has entire bridges dedicated to pedestrians, bikers and rails.  Here is one we take almost every day, the Tililikum Bridge.  Walking, or riding the bike across this bridge is such a thrill and a bit of a challenge on the way up to the top.

Lines and signs clearly lay out where pedestrians and bikers are supposed to be, reducing the usual dance between them.

The views from the top of the bridge are spectacular as well and reward us for our work.  We often stop to admire the view and take a breather from the upward part of the bridge.  Although, going down on the other side gives us plenty of respite, as well.

The view
Top of the bridge

Not interested in owning a bike?  Then why not rent one?  Numerous cities are now experimenting with bike rentals and part of their public transport systems.

Here in Portland, they now have a program called Biketown that offers bike rentals on a daily, or annual basis.  I joined it recently and use it for getting around town and shopping, or going to appointments.  The bikes are ever so colorful and fun to ride.

But, remember, it is BYOH, or bring your own helmet.

Shopping at a nearby nursery.

Don’t want to bike somewhere?  Are you thinking that it is too far to go on a bike?  Don’t want to?  How about rent-a-car?

We figured out costs of renting or using short-term car rentals like Zipcar and there is no way we could make the costs of rentals for shopping and getting around town equal to the cost of owning one’s own car in the city, paying for parking.

In our case, we have Zipcar right around the corner. Other companies also offer short-term rentals. I’ll bet some people walk as far just to get to their garage as we do to get to a car rental.

In any case, life is but an adventure, and biking is certainly a lot of fun, and it is also a very practical way to get around town.

Try it!  You may get addicted to all that fresh air.

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Picking up a Romance Writers Report dated May 2015, I scanned through and saw an announcement on page 15 listing romance writers who had died between March 2014 and March 2015 and it included on the list, Gwynne Forster.

She was Gwendolyn Johnson Acsadi, a demographer who was formerly a chief of section in the United Nations Population Division.

In the mid-1990’s, we spoke when she retired from the United Nations.  At the time we were neighbors at Roosevelt Island, an island in the East River of New York City.

I asked, what were her plans?  

“This may surprise you, ” she said, “I am learning to write romance novels, writing under the pen name of Gwynne Forster. I would appreciate it if you would keep this a secret because I am trying to keep my publications as a demographer and romance writer separate.”  

Her decision to shift into such a different field intrigued me, and I could not help but follow her accomplishments over the years from successful demographer to accomplished writer of romance novels and  pioneer of African American romance fiction.  

She ended up merging these seemingly disparate experiences by using her research and demographic expertise to form stories. She took studies about birth and death, sex and reproduction, the consequences of unplanned pregnancies, issues of social class, economic poverty and brought them to life in the world of romance novels.  An illustrative example is shown here, in her book Fire Down Below.

At the bottom of the page of the Memoriam was a quote by Margaret Atwood saying,  “In the end, we’ll all become stories.”  
The question then becomes, who will write them?
In Gwen’s case she delivered her stories to us in a well planned package.

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A friend of mine told me he asked his brother if he had prepared a will and his brother replied, “What do I need that for?  I’m not dead yet!”

Kenny Rogers, when he sang “The Gambler” sang “You’ve got to know when to hold’em,  know when to fold ”em and know when to walk away and know when to run,” and this rings true not only for holding cards but also for furniture, clothing, old sports equipment and dishes, pots and pans and magazines.

A recent article by Elizabeth O’Brian called  The Power of Positive Purging Your Stuff says that “while a monetary gift is sure to please heirs, an overstuffed house presents a more complicated inheritance”.   

Imagine inheriting a house with a sign placed over the door saying it is  The Museum of Things We Forgot to Throw Away Just In Case We Might Need Them In The Future.

We spend so much time and money on  expensive gift wrapping and bright ribbons to wrap gift items, but don’t necessarily view our plans for inheritance in the same way and often leave it to be presented to the receiver unwrapped, or at least poorly wrapped in newspaper or heaped up in cardboard boxes and the like, complicated by weak instructions as to where all this stuff is supposed to go.

Giving someone a streamlined, well-prepared transfer of funds, furniture and funk, is not so hard.  It just takes a bit of energy and a slight change in perspective.

Not too long ago, I blogged an article on my own personal experience on becoming a minimalist and another on a strategy for getting rid of old things and another on simple steps toward  estate planning.
Yes, this did mean looking at the future and realizing I won’t always be in it.  That is not the happiest thought, perhaps.

But it is also not very pleasant to look ahead and see piles and piles of items left in heaps for others to sort through, and to imagine already exhausted adult children,  holding down jobs and taking care of their own children, trying to straighten out the mess of unexplained transfers, while in bereavement.

Setting up a gift package is turning out to be a happy, enjoyable activity, freeing me up in the process to do some of the things I always wanted to do, since I am no longer holding down the fort on so many “no longer necessary” things.

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