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Archive for the ‘Writing’ 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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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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Celebrate Openly

I do not sufficiently show my gratitude for being alive. What an off chance it all seems to be, what a lucky coincidence.  

I haven’t yet  sufficiently expressed my appreciation for the beauty and wonderment of raw, wild nature.  


I need to celebrate more openly the pleasures of learning, of conducting research, of reading and writing, of painting a picture, of observing shapes, colors, designs and patterns of life.

Alain de Botton recently wrote about the importance of culture in helping us to develop traditions and rituals for celebrating life’s meaning.  

Even in the most dire circumstances, life can be filled with spirit and grace. It can be celebrated. I have witnessed this while living in desolate rural areas and in densely populated urban areas, in villages suffering food scarcity, in places of war, and political unrest.  I have seen life celebrated in many languages and in various ways, through learning in educational institutions, museums and libraries, and in simple community rituals, showing it in the way they line up in meaningful ways on the sides of hills and deep into valleys. sharing traditions of language and culture and song.  

I see ritual and celebration in the way animal herds gallop, the way birds fly in flocks, the way fishes move in the waters.  I see celebration and meaning in cloud formations, and in the many stars that shine in the black night of the sea.

Susan Gubar wrote about ways of seeking the gift of grace by being receptive to a sense of beneficence or loving kindness.  This might be acquired many different ways such as engaging in quiet meditation, through dance or breathing and body exercise, by taking long walks in nature, bike riding, running alongside a road, or while painting a picture, making a craft or playing music,  in the simple act of appreciating literature and the arts.  

It may be felt in the results of a magnificent piece of research, or in the development of a new technology or in the discovery of a new way to do something.  All offer the need for morality, appreciation of spirituality and community; a feeling of grace. 

It may even be felt simply through the execution of routine acts of love and friendship such as a ritual sharing a glass of wine at sunset, or a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise, or hugging a child, patting a dog on the head.

Leaving it at this.  I say, I wish to learn to be positive about all people who celebrate life and who seek to understand its meaning whether they do it through cultural expression, education and learning, scientific discovery and/or religious practices.  


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Remember that day?


A neighbor of mine for many years  gave me a copy of his memoirs, in bound and printed form. It was a book he had written by himself, with no idea of publication and sales in mind. He personally chose the title of the book, designed the cover and had the book copied and bound for further distribution to his family and friends, as he saw fit. 


I read the book with great interest and then shared it with another neighbor who asked to borrow it, and since then it has been loaned to another person who is supposed to return it to me when they are done reading it.  I am happy to share the book with others.  This book is not sold in any stores.  There are probably only 20 or 25 copies of the book in its entirety.  It is a book that is likely to be cherished for years to come owing to the fact that we all enjoy reading about the life of a friend or family member when it has been so carefully laid out and presented.

My neighbor is a retired architect who had a very successful career  in government who has authored numerous technical manuals and bureaucratic reports but never until now, a book he could call his own. The book he gave me as a gift is about his life, not his career.  It is about his childhood, not his life at the office.  It is a story about introspect and old friends, people who inspired him, people he loved, or who puzzled him.  In his book he tells funny stories and relays charming moments that changed his life forever.  I really enjoyed reading his stories.

He and I talked at great length about the value of writing such a book, a personal book to be shared with family and friends and not a book to be submitted for publication, reviewed, edited and the like. Its purpose houses no future career.  He doesn’t want to sell the book to make money.  He wants to share his ideas and perspectives in printed format, and he has done so, very successfully I might add.

Personal writing can become part of a larger story.  Professor Lillian Schlisser published an historical book based on the letters and diaries of a hundred women who took the trip across the continent to Oregon or California between 1840 and 1870 in covered wagons. Without access to their hand-written notes their stories, Professor Schlisser could never have written such a personal narrative that unfolded so beautifully into an historical perspective.

Personal writing often goes beyond straightforward documentation of what happened.  It may also open the mind to think more imaginatively and creatively.

Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times reviewed research showing personal writing may lead to behavioral change and improved happiness.  Through writing and rewriting our stories, we may change personal perceptions about ourselves and others ultimately leading to improved health.


One thing I wanted to do but never got around to doing until I retired, was writing a novel that exceeded the boundaries of my professional, scientific and technical world that I lived in for most of my adult life.  My desire was to write stories that  are free-wheeling, imaginative and footnote-free, largely based upon personal experience, but not limited to it.

Years later, my personal novel and a series of short stories are written and re-written numerous times.  Chapters have been added, deleted and merged with other chapters.  Dialogue has come and gone.  Characters have appeared and disappeared.

It only required me to take moments out to write and rewrite.  There were no travel costs, no public speaking engagements because of it, no stress over trying to sell it.  It just is.

These unpublished stories are slowly developing a life of their own.

I open up my computer and see them on the screen and always enjoy relating to them.  Sometimes I rewrite a paragraph, reformulate a dialogue, redo a paragraph, choose or delete a word.

It is one of the most enjoyable things I have done, on my own, for no one in particular.

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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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Just about everybody plans to move to Portland Oregon, so it seems.  But I must tell you something up front, from the beginning. Carefully think about this before you start packing.  Remember that it is always raining in Portland, Oregon.
We recently moved there ourselves, into our newly acquired 100 year old condo in North West Portland, walking distance to just about everything. We don’t own a car, but instead use public transportation or our bicycles. Because we are “Honored Citizens” meaning we are older than 65 it costs us $1.00 to take the Max train to the airport.  Streets are well marked for bicycles and we can safely use them to go shopping, to the library, the hardware store.  Buses are well managed and comfortable.  The streetcar runs around the downtown area and is very dependable.On those very unusual times when we want a car, we just rent.
People in Portland are young at heart, eclectic and tend to be environmentally sensitive. There is a lot of creativity and a great number of people who have chosen the entrepreneurial route, and who are designing and running very interesting small businesses.  They are easy to meet and tend to remember your name the next time that they see you.
I expected to have so many young people dismiss us from the conversation because of our age, but thus far, this is not what has happened.  We join conversations that are lively and interesting, and have made friends from the age of 30 and upward thus far into the 70s, with ease.  People see and greet you.  Cars stop for EVERYBODY to cross the street, and not just when there is a red light.  When we first arrived, we just stood there in disbelief at a street corner when cars stopped to let us cross even when there was no STOP sign.    My husband and I have decided that when we go back to the East Coast, our biggest danger is that we will forget that cars don’t stop for pedestrians and are likely to be hit.
Oregonians converse about many things with a calmness that just amazes me.  They have a habit of allowing people to finish their sentences before replying.  In indoor environments, they speak in relatively quiet voices.  I have a favorite coffee shop that I visit and enjoy sitting there listening to calm low toned voices speaking with each other, avoiding shouting and sharp, disruptive tones.   It reminds me of places like cafes in Paris and small shops in Sweden.  Stores and restaurants in Portland still have excellent service, much like the US had in the late 1950’s.  Clerks come up and ask us if we need any help, and actually provide assistance when asked for it.  Waiters check to ensure that we got what we ordered before taking off to the kitchen.  This is happening so consistently that we have finally decided that we are not confronting aberrations, but truly a different culture.
It is not without its problems, of course.  Homeless persons are found here, as they are across America.  Poverty is a problem especially in our newly formed 1% economy.  Food lines for hungry people can be long.  There are numerous opportunities to volunteer and help out.  Volunteerism is strong out here.
I hope that this delightful place where the trees are hundreds of years old and have enormous diversity of leafage, even on city streets, survives the ongoing transition we witness. We see cranes and new development everywhere.  Urban housing boards are arguing with developers over how high buildings can be, and how close to the road, how sustainable the building should be, debating building construction environmental definitions and classifications.   It is not clear to me how long Portland can survive this onslaught of construction and new development, but time will tell.
Some of the new developments that transitioned old industrial areas to new living and shopping arrangements are truly marvelous.  They are architecturally pretty and have used old structures to the max.  Newly designed buildings fit beautifully with the old, and blend well into very lovely neighborhoods with good character.  Excellent restaurants abound. The food is very fresh, organic and delicious.

By the way, did I tell you that it is always raining in Portland?

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