“Do you think you could make this? I need them for my science project at school.” Alex stood beside me with an origami book opened to a page showing a diagram of an airplane. I was finishing dinner at a gathering of Circles, an organization with a goal of moving families out of the cycle of poverty. I and some college aged women (I gladly take the role of grandmother to the grade school aged kids) do childcare while their parents attend meetings on Tuesday evenings.
I was more than a little flattered that he’s asked me over those college girls (Who wouldn’t be?) and quickly agreed that I would try. I can’t see an origami book without thinking of my dad and the hours we used to spend together when I was young. Once I wrote a children’s story based on those times with him:
Some People Call Me Daddy’s Girl.
On Saturday mornings my daddy and me go to the bakery where they sell day old bread but my mommy and my brother call it used bread. I wear overalls and my daddy wears his brown jacket that’s too tight when he zips it up. The man there always gives me something free, like cupcakes. Daddy says it’s because I smile at him. He says I could get anything with that smile. He says it like I do that way on purpose but I just smile at that man when he smiles at me.
Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons we walk to the drugstore. We’re supposed to be on “errands” but we like to sit at the counter and have root beers. When we’re walking home my daddy says, “Now if your mother asks if you had something, you tell her, but you don’t have to tell her if she doesn’t ask.” He always says that but my mommy never asks.
I got an origami paper folding set for my birthday and my daddy and me sit at the kitchen table and try to make something. I read the directions and we do what it says. Sometimes it makes you fold up the paper and then unfold it. It says, “Now return to your basic shape.” My daddy always acts mad when it says that, like the book is silly. We’ve made a basket and a bird, and the polar bear up to step four.
Sometimes we paint with my watercolors. I painted three horses while my daddy did one giraffe. He had to paint it with hundreds of tiny brown and yellow dots– for “shading” he said. He still hasn’t finished it and keeps saying, “Where is that giraffe? I’m going to finish it one day.”
When a new catalog comes in the mail, me and my daddy look at it, page by page. We have a game that on each page you get to pick out one thing you want. Even if it’s just towels, you get to pick out the color. My favorite is the flower catalog because sometimes we really order things. We never order the towels.
When I make doll clothes I take them to my Daddy. I say, “What grade does this get?” Then he looks at my doll clothes real careful, first on the outside and then on the inside. If there’s a loose string hanging, he points to it and looks at me with his mouth turned down. Then I say, “Oh, Daddy, that’s just a little string.” And then he gives me an A minus and says, “Pretty good,” and I sigh like I wish I would get a plain A, just once.
Three times my daddy and me went to the dog pound to get a dog. We didn’t see any dogs in the cages that were right but I was sad about all of them anyway. On the third time the lady there said she had a special dog and she had it at her house. She said she was waiting for just the right people to get it. We went to her house and the dog whined and shivered when I petted him, but the lady said he was just happy. We named him Sandy. The first day he wet on the carpet but then he never did again so maybe he was nervous. My mommy says she doesn’t know who loves that dog more, my daddy or me.
Every night at bedtime my daddy and me plan our farm. My daddy wants a big garden and I want a horse. Sometimes we talk about how big the pasture will be. Sometimes we talk about if we want any cats or only Sandy and one other dog, to keep him company when I’m at school. Sometimes we talk about how we have to trick my mommy and my brother to go out there cause they say they don’t like farms. We whisper when we talk about that part.
In the summer I help my daddy water the plants. I put my finger over the hose nozzle so it sprays like rain. My mommy says why don’t we buy a sprayer attachment cause they’re cheap and her friend Vera says they work real good. My daddy says this works better. When his begonia puts out little buds he says she’s pregnant and then in a few days he says, “The mother and babies are doing find but I’ve put them in the intensive care unit.” That means he’s put them near the house where they won’t get too much wind or rain.
When it gets cold again we play games at night. My daddy is smart but he’s not very quick at games. When I win he says he owes me a candy bar and do I want to play for double or nothing. Now he owes me 256 candy bars but I don’t think I’m going to get them.
Once in a while my brother and I do get candy bars at the grocery store. He eats his right away but I save mine. I take it out later and eat it real slow. If my daddy sees me he says, “Now I know this is hard to believe, but once there was a little girl who was so selfish she wouldn’t share her candy bar with her nice daddy.” My mommy says, “Ignore him,” but I give him a little bit anyway. Every time I do that.
Sometimes my daddy says when he gets old I’ll trade him in for a new model, like you do with a car. I don’t like it when he says that, but he says it all the time, anyway. I tell him not to say such things, but then I kiss him and tell him never.
Never will I trade my daddy in for a new model.
He died on this day, sixteen years ago. He gave me his time and attention and a model of what it is to be a good father. But more than that, he gave me something that seems rare in this world: I can’t remember a single time when he wasn’t glad to see me or hear my voice or when he acted like he’d rather be somewhere else. And although I felt this way about him as a little girl, later I was often impatient to be finished with his company, eager to be somewhere else.
Alex and I sat on the floor and made airplanes. The only paper we could find was thick and bulky and we had trouble figuring out the directions (Though it never said “Now return to your basic shape.”). My knees hurt and other boys kept interrupting. But we managed two planes that stayed aloft and seemed to please Alex. From what I know, he has no father at home.
With ten minutes left before the session was over, he asked if he could go out in the hall and test his science project. Halfway to the door he turned back and looked at me. “Can you come too?” I just hope, as we stood at the two ends of the hallway, with him sending the airplanes off and me marking the landing sites, that he could tell there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
“So what was the day you adopted me,” Helen asked me recently. Not unlike many things children ask their parents, or indeed parents ask their children, it was a trick question. She thought I’d forgotten the day she officially became my daughter. And I sort of had, which sounds terrible. February, 1998, and the 26th—no wait, maybe the 22nd or the 24th? Luckily for me, she asked this over the phone and I happened to have my calendar handy, where I’ve penciled in all important dates. “It’s February 24,” I replied with that tone of why-would-you-ever-doubt-me and I couldn’t tell if she was happy I’d remembered or sorry she hadn’t once again caught me out.
It’s very common for American adoptive parents to have a yearly celebration for their children’s adoption days. It’s certainly a nice tradition and when Helen was young we would go out to dinner, sharing a grownup meal between the two of us, then maybe a trip to the park or to get ice cream. But after Rose came along, four years later, it was harder to manage the birthday parties and holidays and two adoption day celebrations and so this nice tradition somehow got lost along the way.
But there’s something else going on here. I don’t think a lot about the exact date when those papers were signed. It all began so much sooner, as it does with all parents who have gone on this journey to find their sons and daughters. My journey started in the spring of 1996, when I first researched overseas adoption. In the late summer of that year, very soon after Helen was born as it turned out, I knew that China was my destination. And with each passing day, the good ones and those not so good as well, my child’s presence grew stronger.
August 14, 1996
Dear Camille, I’m out weeding and mowing—have a garden group coming over for a potluck tonight. With all the recent rain my flowers look pretty darn good, if I do say so. My best success story is a small bed of wildflowers, grown from seed—I think watering them twice a day at first made the difference. Also my goldfish in the backyard pond had babies and I’ve trained them all to come when I slap the water. Perhaps if teaching ESL at K-State gets too much I’ll get a job at Sea World!
I’ve been trying to sort out adoption papers and what I need to do next in this process….still have doubts and it doesn’t help when I hear negative things about adoption—from people who don’t know I’m thinking of doing it. Makes me want to mention the high rate of divorce and DOES THAT STOP ANYONE FROM GETTING MARRIED? Anyway, sometimes I think maybe these bad stories are a sign that I shouldn’t go ahead….then I think, but maybe by having to climb over obstacles, my resolve is just getting stronger.
Yes, I too wish we could be neighbors. Then we could share plantings—remember the “monster plants” I brought back on the plane from Chicago? They’re about ready to bloom. Hope to see you again soon. Ann
October 12, 1996
This morning I was reading something about a side trip. Side trip made me think of side car and suddenly I had an image. I was on a big motorcycle, buzzing down a country road, and in a little red seat beside me sat Helen. Her black, straight hair was streaming out from behind. And we were both screaming with joy.
January 3, 1997
Seems like I can wake up and breathe easier once it’s the first of the year. I had recorded the documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and watched it late into the night. I can’t seem to look at a picture of the Viet Nam War Memorial without getting teary eyed. I didn’t know anyone who died there, and very few men who served, yet it seems so much a part of who I am, that terrible war. I remember, as a teenager, trying to cover my ears, walking past the living room TV, filled with shots of bombings and bodies returning, of demonstrations with the old against the young, like a civil war. But here was a 21 year old Chinese American woman who had a remarkable design for healing. And she stood up in her hat, like a young Eleanor Roosevelt with a round face, and spoke to those who hated her idea, who hated the fact that she was a woman, and Asian descent at that. I believe Helen knows what courage is. And I thought about my little Chinese girl as I watched this other strong young woman.
February 9, 1997
It’s about time to have some lunch. At 2:00 some of the teachers are coming over for a “garden sharing tea” but really I want them to come over here so I can demonstrate my Taiwanese tea and so I can show them Helen’s little Chinese outfit with the red dragon shoes. And the blue, green, and white sweater that I just finished. And the bookshelf filled with things supposedly for her but as much for me—to make it all seem more real. Sometimes there’s the panic. But other times, now, there’s a feeling that’s similar to being in love. It gives me a happy feeling, deep inside, knowing there’s something to look forward to. Something that’s beyond the ordinary kind of thing to look forward to. And, like being in love, I feel open to share others’ happiness. Without so much envy, without wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t have what they have. But I think now in preparation for the garden get together I’ll lay out the Chinese tea things. And I think I’ll lay out all of Helen’s things on my bed. They’ll be easier to see that way.
August 25, 1997
Tonight I came home and watched Mr. Rogers. I always found him insipid but today I saw Helen watching him and she liked him. I saw her turn to me and laugh, while I read the paper and my mail. I think Mr. Rogers might be O.K. Then I ate my corn on the cob and homegrown tomatoes and tofu pups fried in a little olive oil and salsa sauce (from Costa Rica via Carlo and his wife). And I thought about Helen and how she shouldn’t be a picky eater and I would get her started out right. Then I imagined her plate of food, with the tofu pups cut up small so she wouldn’t choke.
I keep thinking I’m not ready, that I never can be ready. But maybe I’m getting about as ready as I can get.
December 31, 1997
I am looking at a colored printout, downloaded from email, first viewed on a computer screen. She is a child of the 21st century, my little Ying. “Ying” meaning clever or bright, “Helen” meaning the bright one. She is Bright Bright. Did I mention she is beautiful?
I came back from my visit with Marsha and Tony and saw the blinking light on the answering machine. “Maybe this is it,” I thought. But I’ve thought that so many times. But it was, a message from Linda, that congratulations were in order, that she is gorgeous and that she is a little younger than I wanted.
She is 18 months, 30 pounds. I thought I must have heard wrong. That must be big for an American child of that age. 18 months? I listened again. I crouched by the phone and cried, from shock and joy. This was my child. I knew that.
How funny things are. I have spent months worrying that she would be older than I had asked for. And here she is, hardly older than the infants coming out. Her birthday is July 2, 1996. She was abandoned at seven months. She is a little Chinese warrior staring out of the picture, boyish with her short hair. When I first saw her on the screen, I said, “Her hair is black!” and then realized what a silly thing that was to say.
I practice saying her name with a touch of sternness. “Helen Ying, that’s enough.” And what I have of her is a piece of paper from an email:
Date: Mon, 29 Dec 1997
Subject: Ann Carter’s baby.
January 3, 1998
Another quote from Journey of the Heart by Melody Beattie:
Remember the words you were told when this last adventure began, the words
whispered quietly to your heart: Let the journey unfold. Let it be magical.
The way has been prepared. People will be expecting you.
Friends are planning showers. I don’t like showers of any kind but I must admit it’s more exciting and fun to be on the receiving end. Is it possible that I’m almost 46 and this will be my first?
I got a phone message from Linda wanting me to fax my acceptance of Ying (I just wrote her name without thinking.) When I heard the message and couldn’t reach my agent, I thought maybe my fax wouldn’t get there in time, maybe they would give her to someone else. But finally I convinced myself to calm down. Why would they give away my child? She just didn’t belong to anyone else. She never has.
Helen Ying Carter will be expecting me.
February 22, 1998
I’ve thought of some things Helen and I can do. We can walk down to the lobby and look at the whirling ball in the water. And surely we can take a walk outside. And she can look out the window. And play with balloons in the room. I can give her a bath and try on her clothes. Maybe I’m not ready because I see her as some wild angry child, out of my control, kicking the door and maybe me. But when she calms down I wash her little face. I can change her diaper. I can keep her hands away from dangerous things. I can hold her on my lap and comb her hair. And after I comb her hair, she can comb mine. When I looked in the mirror tonight, my hair seemed ugly and thin, but maybe Helen won’t think so. Maybe she will find my hair beautiful. Maybe she will even like me.
February 23, 1998
I sit here in the hotel room waiting, sipping green tea made from a bag I brought, thinking I should stop worrying about how expensive this place is. I went out wandering, looking for a place to buy cheap snacks and juice. I didn’t find a juice place, but instead a department store with wonderful little shoes and so inexpensive—felt like buying five pairs. Maybe I can buy one (or two) for now and several she will grow into.
This seems like a very lonely thing to go through alone—like being in the delivery room without anyone else there. No one to yell at, no one to pat me. No one to say, “You know, it’s normal to feel this way.” But hey, whiners aren’t really very likable people. I’ll have to remember to tell Helen that.
Sitting here reminds me a little of waiting for a blind date or first date to appear—the nervousness about the unknown. It seems strange to compare the two, except when I think that I often held to the idea that “this guy” could be “the one,” therefore changing my life forever. Poor Helen has no choice in this, however, and I guess I don’t either—not at this point. We’re going to have to get along. But God, let this turn out better than those blind dates.
February 23, 1998
Well, Helen isn’t combing my hair—yet. I guess she’s too young for that. When they brought her in (the director and assistant director and driver from the orphanage) I can’t say that I felt an instant bond. She looked so big and so boyish. I continued to think she was indeed very fat until I began to take off layers—four tops and four pants in all, many padded. I haven’t weighed her yet, maybe tomorrow, but I’m betting about 26 pounds. Now she is calmly sitting in her crib, eating a cracker. Before that she fell asleep in my arms, looking out at the lights of Nanjing. But let me say this, no matter how much you can intellectualize about a toddler’s reaction, it just doesn’t bond you to someone when they reject you. You like someone because they like and need you. Well, that doesn’t sound like a good mother’s view. She stayed calm about five minutes after they left (people who obviously loved children) but then there was a look on her face that I will never forget. It was a look of someone happy who suddenly realizes a terrible thing is happening to them. And she cried, her face screwing up and big tears rolling down two of the roundest cheeks I’ve ever seen. She let me wipe her hot face with a cool cloth and almost seemed to welcome it, but then just cried harder. Then she fell asleep, standing up, leaning against the bed, where I lifted her and where she slept an hour. “That wasn’t so bad,” I told myself. But when she woke up she started again, standing by the door, great howling cries, enough to make me wonder if the neighbors would complain. And I did feel helpless, not knowing what she’d eat and one look at me making her cry even harder.
But I must say this, in all her grief and outrage, she never kicked or struck out at me and somehow, through the worst moments, I sensed she knew I had her best interest at heart. There was a sweetness and yes, even appreciation, behind the outrage. Once when she was a little calmer she let me feed her Cheerios, one by one, and the soft feel of her little lips reminded me of how I feel when Turtle, my cat, eats grass out of my hand.
And I just went over and did the mother thing. I checked to see if my baby was breathing. And yes, thank you God, for I believe Helen has what I wanted most in a child, in my daughter. I believe that little Ying Ying has a good heart. And indeed, she has courage. And tonight, as we sat looking out at the lights of Nanjing, I told her that.
February 28, 1998
Was I a little bored at times in the company of a more demanding but happier child today? Sometimes. Do I want to go back home and pretend this was all an interesting trial? That life as a single parent is going to be too much? I can’t imagine thinking that. There is no choice now. Because strange and unknown little lives have joined forces, never to be the same again. Did getting Turtle and adjusting to her help? Very much, for it takes experience to know that only rarely and perhaps never does it not take time to love others and to not be afraid of them, of what they might be. When Helen is restless or loud or gives me a funny look, I catch myself thinking, “What if she really is a monster child in hiding?” I know she is not. But it’s also O.K. to think that sometimes. It is the way I am. Maybe it is some need in me to imagine the worst and get through it in my mind, only to come out on the other side to face the lesser evils of reality. For if orphanages can produce these beautiful children, maybe there is hope for this world. And today, day six of knowing Helen, I had fun dressing her up (she’s very proud of her new shoes). And we went down to the lobby and admired the water fountain. And once, when sitting in my lap, she stroked my hair, and I swear she thought it was beautiful.
You see, Helen, I do remember, but not so much the date I signed the stack of papers. That was just a formality. It all started when I set out to find you. But for the record, it’s February 24th. We should go out to dinner. Maybe get some ice cream later. And not just on adoption day.
Note: Excerpts taken from the book “Spiders from Heaven”. To learn more, visit annlcarter.com and www.facebook.com/AnnLCarterAuthor
The mice have returned and it’s no surprise after Thanksgiving’s ice storm. Who wouldn’t want to seek shelter from that? These mice don’t likely remember the terrible ice storm of 2007, but I do. I remember the chill down in the bones that wouldn’t go away, the dirty dishes that got set out in the snow as there was no water to wash them, the horse tank frozen solid. What seemed like the kind of adventure a pioneer gal should experience became a reminder of how little I know of what it takes to be a real pioneer. In fact, I don’t expect to ever know that. These days, in this country, we assume the utility companies will restore the light and warmth and water—hot water, of course. The dishes will be brought in and washed, the thermostat will climb up to a comfortable level, and I will go back to being able to do all those things that require light, even after the sun goes down. During that great ice storm of 2007, my not-so-fun-adventure had an end in sight.
And speaking of ends and in this case not so pleasant ones, the cats got two of the mice, leaving one on the kitchen floor for me to nearly step on first thing in the morning, and the other under the couch where it was causing quite a stink before I figured out where it was. Another especially clever one got in my live trap, ate the glob of peanut butter, left plenty of those little black dropping they are known for, and went his merry way. I had already decided that I didn’t really want to catch any of these sweet creatures (I do find them sweet) until the ice was gone, until the temperatures had warmed a bit. When I would feel better about releasing them into a field. I want them to have a chance to find a good winter home.
Let Them Come In
The new snow so white,
white as the down on the Canadian geese
searching for an uncovered field,
white as the pompom on the stocking cap
worn by my daughter.
The snowman finished,
damp mittens spread out on newspaper
alongside boots and soaked pants,
the soup simmering on the stove.
I want to have a room for the birds,
the cardinals and sparrows and crows—
yes, the crows.
I would invite them in
to roost in small trees grown in red clay pots,
to eat from feeders
painted flower yellow and sky blue
and hung from the branches,
newspaper underneath to catch the droppings,
for droppings there would be.
They would eat their fill
then go back out
into that bright white
in search of those still needing
to be brought in.
The ice and cold have been replaced with a stretch of almost spring-like weather with thunderstorms due tonight. But winter will return. I thought the mice had left, perhaps after seeing what the cats had in mind for them, but yesterday I found Bella staring under a bookshelf with that look of patient anticipation—so no, I don’t think they’re gone. I know they belong outside, as do the birds. But there are others out there who are not meant to survive in the wild. Who would love a place where their children’s damp clothes can dry. Where they can cook soup for dinner. Where they can watch the birds outside their windows. Where someone says to them, “Welcome home.”
December is here. The shortest day is drawing near. The bright white of winter’s sun won’t linger for anyone. It is time to let them come in.
# Kansas writer #refugees
There are a number of ways to look at Halloween from an adult point of view. One is to be worried that our young children will be demonic on that day, but thinking how my daughters sometimes behaved at four or five, who could tell? Another way is to solve the issue of too much sugar, and not just with the kids. My mother thought she had a solution when she put the candy treats in the very top kitchen cupboard. Of course that meant climbing on a step stool (she was still doing this in her 90’s) to “hide” them around the 22nd of October and then climbing up again on the 23th, 24th, 25th, 26th…………sometimes it meant another trip to the store on the 31st. I’d like to suggest a third way, which is a chance to get out of a stuck role. It’s a night of mini improv for young and old where anything goes, with the only rehearsed line of “Trick or Treat”. I did some theater years ago and had different parts to play: an owl, a ditsy secretary, a gypsy, and a sergeant nurse at an army recruiting station (that one was a stretch for me, I’ll admit). These roles were fun partly because they were very different from the character I played in real life.
My parents saw me as an easy child—quiet, obedient, happy most of the time, and not demanding. And as an easy child, I decided that meant I shouldn’t say no. When I first heard the story of the Little Red Hen who didn’t give her bread to those who hadn’t helped, I was both shocked and excited. Could you really refuse and still be a good person? It seemed so and yet I couldn’t quite figure out how to make that work for me. Later, I assumed my own children would have at least some of my qualities, even when they came by way of adoption: soft spoken, eager to please, not prone to causing any trouble…..I had quite a list. But as the case so often is, I didn’t get what I thought I wanted but instead what I needed—more lessons that there are things to consider besides pleasing others. I first saw this clearly when Helen was almost three. She stood in the middle of the park, in the middle of a mud puddle, and jumped up and down. My first reaction was anger at the way she’d likely ruined her clothes and cost me the time to try and clean them and her. And I took it personally as well—here she was acting out against me—ME—the person who took her to that park many evenings and built endless bridges and horse stables with Doplo blocks and let her bring her potty chair into the living room and…..again, the list goes on. But as I watched the look on her face my feelings changed. This was not the action of a child wanting to make work for me or show her power over me. She was jumping for the pure fun of it. And what I felt then was envy, envy that I couldn’t have done that at her age, at any age, for fear of causing others to be displeased with me.
I was an Angel on Halloween
from a sheet,
covered in gold foil
and almost as big as me,
a halo bobby pinned
At six and a half
I didn’t mind.
“Costumes that take that much time
should be worn more than once,”
my mother’s words,
“And besides, you look so sweet.”
And so at seven and a half
I was still an angel,
unable to say
that I did mind,
wanting instead to be
a witch or ghost
or anything of
But I’m sure I even managed to smile
for a second fitting.
“As perfect as any child could me,”
my teacher’s words,
written on a note to my mother.
And part of perfect meant quiet
with few no’s,
at least not spoken.
with Helen an owl
and Rose a cowgirl,
I put on tight black pants
over middle aged thighs,
a favorite orange printed vest,
boots and hat.
Wanting to wear nothing
to suggest an angel,
hooting and yipping
with the owl and cowgirl,
trying out my
less than perfect
Helen is long past trick or treating and Rose claims she is now also too old. It makes me sad and not just because there won’t be mini Snickers and Reese’s peanut butter cups to guilt them out of. I will miss marching up and down the streets of our former in-town neighborhood, the leaves crunching underfoot, pumpkins glowing, chatting with the other parents as we remind our ghosts and princesses and whatever that kid is to say thank you. And I will miss the opportunity to give myself a different role to play as well. I’m not sure what I was trying to be that night twelve years ago, but I know it was a lot more fun than being an angel. And there, that’s possibly the best way of looking at Halloween. It’s a day when our children remind us that sometimes they do things with no hidden agenda—they do things just to have fun. And now I’m thinking I need to find my own mud puddle and start jumping.
#Halloween, roles, children, adoption, Kansas writer, Spiders from Heaven
I just came in from dodging a spider web. I’d already accidentally knocked this particular one down twice and if I am to go by the most famous spider of all times, Charlotte herself, building these things is no easy job and therefore should not be taken lightly. Which is why I really didn’t want to make this spideress build for a forth time. It makes you wonder why something necessary for the survival of the species is so vulnerable. Rather like us, come to think of it, and certainly in the area of insecurities. And although I’m sure I could find examples in all of us to clearly show this, I guess I had just better use my own story.
After receiving a lovely rejection email (I’m rather fond of these now) to my application to attend the AROHO women writers’ retreat, I later got another email telling me a space had opened up and the group would be honored to have me. YES, I replied within minutes, and the honor was certainly mine to be able to join 120 other participants on the high desert of New Mexico this past August.
I was amazed that I didn’t have my usual trip anxiety when packing for this trip—layers of clothing for the hot days and cool nights, a couple of skirts and blouses for evening events and a possible day trip to Santa Fe (I picked bright colors with a bit of ex-hippie character), seven copies of Spiders from Heaven to put out on the for-sale book tables, my computer and, last but not least, 2 copies of what I planned to read aloud to the entire group.
Yes, everyone had the opportunity to read aloud something they had written, a maximum of three minutes in front of all 120 women, some of them well known writers and others big in the publishing industry. Three minutes turn out to be a very short time, especially if you allow for a few dramatic pauses, and I ended up picking one of my shorter but favorite blogs, “Sitting with the Dog vs. Going to the Dogs” (posted June 16, 2013). I arrived feeling pretty good about this selection, a short essay about how sitting with my lovely dog Jack on the back steps gave me a clearer and more positive perspective on the world.
Although I can’t say I was completely comfortable the first evening and following day, I started the retreat with an acceptance that I had enough to contribute and was worthy of being there. (I did, however, show early signs of overall insecurity when I met my roommate. I found it rather ironic that AROHO stands for “A Room of Her Own” and yet all the participants had a roommate. Mine was young, pretty, obviously very bright and witty, and my first worry was what she must be thinking—paired up with a much older woman and why couldn’t she have someone her own age, someone she surely had more in common with, maybe even someone who could stay out late with her and not complain about aching knees. I actually was thinking something along the same lines, as an older roommate and I could use the time together to figure out how to turn off roaming on our smart phones, in case Verizon tried to charge us extra. But more on roommates later.)
There were four nights of readings, over two hours each night with a wine and snack break in the middle. I was scheduled to read the last half of the last night, which seemed O.K. as that gave me plenty of time to get comfortable (silly me). I went the first night, sat down by yet another woman I’d never met before, and settled in to listen. And that’s when those carefully woven strands of web began to break apart and any anxiety I’d lacked pre-trip started up in full force.
Apart from a few very funny readings (how could my couple of witticisms possibly compare?) the main themes I was hearing had to do with very serious topics—rape, domestic abuse, slavery, the struggle of women in a man’s world, suicide. And I was going to reading about sitting with my dog???? What was I thinking?
As I went through the week, I had experiences that only get more valuable as I think back. A class that mapped the heroine’s journey taught by a woman whose richness of knowledge and experience astounds me and has led to a greater desire to finish my children’s story about a little girl on her own heroine’s journey. The beginning of friendships with women I wish could be my neighbors, as the time with them was far too short. A private consultation about promotion with a woman whose caring for others shone forth whenever I saw her (though my eyes still glaze over at the thought of updating websites and tweeting, which I have now done once). An atmosphere where the commonality of our femaleness seemed to break down other barriers. But as I had these wonderful experiences, I also became more and more obsessed with my reading. In the midst of all the good things, I was hanging by a slender thread.
In the end, when my turn came up, I felt O.K. about reading my piece about sitting with the dog. It helped that I had just had a glass of wine and it helped that somehow during that day I had lost my obsession. The retreat would soon be over, I could only read what I had brought to read, and that was that. As I sat down, I looked up to see faces smiling at me. And the next night, the last night of the retreat, a woman who I never noticed before approached me. “Are you the woman with the dog”, she asked. Thinking she meant the woman with the service dog, I pointed across the room. “Funny,” she replied, “because you look like that woman.” And then, when I realized she was talking about my reading, I heard how she had sat by herself that morning, doing nothing, and had noticed the birds around her. And she had made the effort to seek me out, to tell me about her own experience “sitting with the dog”.
That was the night when chairs were stacked against the walls, the room was darkened, and we danced. A night when I drank more than one glass of wine and when my knees didn’t ache. A night when lots of photos were taken, some with me and my “roomie” making funny faces. As it turned out, she and I quickly bonded and it wasn’t long before we were sitting on our single beds at night (she didn’t want to stay out late either) talking about ex-boyfriends and jobs and writing, children and travel, all sorts of things women of all ages talk about, at times even sharing confidences not easily or often told to others.
My short reading ended by saying that all we ever need at any given moment is something to appreciate and something to contribute (I think this came from Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years but google isn’t helping to confirm this). At the retreat, I had much to appreciate, including the trust these other women gave to me, believing I would really listen to their stories. What I had to contribute was very simple, but also worthwhile. It was my own story, told in my own voice, told in an attempt to be honest and authentic, the story I had to tell.
The women who read their stories of things much beyond my own experience had woven webs that had been knocked down innumerable times and in ways I cannot imagine. But they had rebuilt and rebuilt and the fact that they stood there before us showed the endurance they had. I don’t know if all that rebuilding made their webs stronger but I do know that we should be able to learn the techniques of rebuilding from each other, whatever we have to offer, whatever our differences may be.
The spiders seem to be extra busy right now, so take care where you walk. Remember how much effort is put into their webs. And don’t forget to take a moment to stop and look at them, to really see them. They are a reminder of how fragile we all are, and yet how strong and persistent we have the ability to be. And I do believe that somehow or other, more sitting with the dog will help as well.
#Women Writers, #AROHO, #Ghost Ranch
I have my very own crop circle, which is a mound of sand where we are NOT putting up the pool this year. Someone, not so politely, called it a very large litter box and indeed I have seen it being used for that. I am thinking about turning it into a Zen herb garden. I got this idea while visiting a friend whose husband made one. It is quite charming with white pebbles surrounding small round areas of herbs contained by black rubber tubing. My friend said it’s not so charming to her as she has a vivid memory of looking out her window and seeing her husband pull up what was her herb garden, the kind I tend to have, which means no white pebbles and certainly not properly contained. I suppose she could practice Zen by standing in the middle of this new garden while chanting, “Let it go…just let it go.”
I have to say I’m quite proud of my tree stump flower garden. With the cool spring and lots of rain, it has come close to what I lust for—an English cottage style garden. I suppose it’s a lust for lushness. You will find me there every morning and evening, along with several cats and several hundred mosquitoes. I have come to realize that whatever hasn’t appeared yet is my favorite, as in “But where are the cosmos? They are my favorites!” Or else what has just appeared, as in “Oh, the nasturtiums are blooming. They are my favorites!” This resembles my feelings for the cats, as the one that is missing is suddenly my favorite, or else the one sitting on me is, but only if the claws are nicely tucked in. It’s rather like a dog: WALKS, my favorite! FOOD, my favorite! YOU, my favorite!
Helen would love for me to be non-dog-like in this area and say that she is my favorite daughter. This came up again on Facebook when she turned 19:
Happy Birthday, my lovely Helen.
Am I your favorite yet?
Really? That question again?
I can’t seem to get her to stop this badgering and even asked her friend, “Surely your parents never name a favorite, do they?” to which she replied, “Oh, yes, they tell me all the time that I’m their favorite. But my brother is usually in jail.”
I know my father had many favorite flowers that he grew in our small Topeka back yard. I know because he tended each one so carefully, putting the ones who weren’t doing well in an area that he called his “intensive care unit”. But he did have one special favorite that I never understood until much later in life.
My Father Loved Asters Best
He grew them from seed
ordered from a Burpee’s catalog
in early spring.
Late summer was when they bloomed
and as a child I anticipated with him,
then felt disappointment at their smallness,
the faintness of their colors.
Hoping to prove the wisdom of
a father gone from earth
seven years now,
I ordered aster seeds
from a Pinetree catalog
in not so early spring.
It seemed they’d never bloom
and I grew tired of waiting,
as we among the living do.
But then I saw some buds,
and just this week the blooming has begun,
in front of bachelor buttons
long past their prime,
behind browning yellow annuals
I bought but never learned the names of.
At this moment I love asters best,
their delicate petals
of pinks and lavenders,
their blossoms like the upturned skirts
of ballerinas on a heavenly stage,
as though from the faint breath of those
still bound to earth.
(August 28, 2007)
Yes, Helen, you are my favorite. Just as Rose is my favorite too. And yes, at times you may be the current most favorite because you’re in front of me or, at other times, because you’re not in front of me (readers, feel free to take that one of several ways). I count on you both for the joys that favorites bring. How could I chose between my two daughters when I can’t choose between the humble daisy or the glorious iris, between the blue flax that line my roadsides or the larkspur with their likeness of a bunny’s head? Why would I limit myself in such a needless way?
I don’t know if my crop circle will go back to grass before it ever becomes a Zen herb garden or something more my style, but I did notice a delicate white flower growing there in early spring that I’d never seen before and it certainly could become a favorite. As for now, the Black-eyed Susans are my favorite. I love their bright yellow petals and their willingness to shine in the mid-summer heat. But soon another will take center stage. Each one in turn will lift my spirits, reminding me that heaven and earth are more closely bound than we ever imagine.
“How are you?” asked the grocery clerk as she took my Dillon’s card, cloth bags, then came around to scan two bags of cat food and a bag of litter.
“I’m fine. How are you?” I answered, trying to dislodge a bottle of generic aspirin from under some organic oranges that were on sale. .
As I continued stacking up the items on the moving belt, wondering why I gave in to my just-home-from-college-for-the-summer-daughter’s demand for flavored water, something a friend recently told me came to mind. Her cousin’s wife was checking out when she realized that the woman behind the counter, asking her how she was, had no idea that her husband had just committed suicide. And then it suddenly struck her that she also had no idea what this other woman might be going through.
Everyone has a story to tell. And those stories often go untold (unlike mine, which I seem compelled to make public). My mother recognized this. I recently submitted an essay for a Mother’s Day contest “What My Mother Taught Me About____________.” (No, it didn’t get accepted but I got a nice personal rejection email instead of a form one and, yes, I now can tell the difference.) Here’s the essay:
What My Mother Taught Me about the Difference One Friend Can Make
My mother was a friend to all our neighbors. Everyone knew Louise and could see her many a morning walking briskly to a garage sale. She liked to sit on the porch in the afternoon and watch the school children at recess across the street from our house. In the evening, she’d be out again, this time welcoming anyone who came along to join her for a chat. She was easy to like and liked everyone in return, even those neighbors who were not so likeable.
One such person was Florence who lived next door. She tended to keep her blinds closed, even during the day, and seldom was seen outside except to get in or out of her car. When the school children hit a ball into her yard, they weren’t sure they wanted to retrieve it from “that cranky old lady’s place”.
But my mother believed there weren’t any people alive who didn’t have some good in them and the trick was to find it. She made a point to say hello whenever Florence ventured out and then began giving her applesauce bread or a piece of homemade pie.
Gradually Florence began to change. I’d hear a hesitant knock on the door and she’d be standing there, a plate of peanut butter cookies in her hand. And she’d surprise me by waving from her backyard, where she was planting vegetables. As her garden grew, she started to walk across the driveway to discuss with my dad the progress of their tomatoes.
Florence gradually confided in my mother about her life. How her father beat her with a horse whip. How her mother told her she had never wanted another child after the favored older sister was born. How she always felt unattractive and unwanted. How she never made close friends, had never married. She had accepted a life with few pleasures, spent alone, from an early age. Knowing this, my mother made a point to tell her she looked nice in the color blue or that she must have a green thumb by the way her okra was already so tall.
Florence didn’t completely get over her difficult ways, but she started to talk with other neighbors and even sat out on her front porch on summer evenings. Sometimes her old habit of being cold and harsh came out and my mother would distance herself for a short time. But in a couple of days, Florence appeared back at our door, with a plate of fudge or a bag of ripe peppers. No apologies or explanations were ever given or needed. “She’s had a hard life,” my mother would say. “I think she’s doing the best she can.” And I came to understand that the best she could do seemed to be a lot better with the help of a neighbor who had the understanding and willingness to see beyond the surface.
When she died, she left my mother $3,000. Although there were plenty of things my mother could have enjoyed doing with that money, she gave it all to my brother and me. “I got my gift,” she told us. “On the will, it said: To my friend Louise.”
We don’t know what’s behind the face of that Dillon’s clerk. Maybe she is waiting for the results of a scan for a just discovered tumor. Or maybe she just found out that her husband wants a divorce. That she may have to take out a third job. As my mother would tell me, you just don’t know. All you do know is that there is someone behind those eyes, behind the mandatory “How are you?” with a story to tell.
It’s a rare time when a mother gets to say “I told you so!” to her daughter within minutes of giving some much needed advice. And perhaps ever rarer for that mother to only say it silently, which I did, and am still rather proud about that.
Helen, Rose and I were coming back from New Mexico after a spring break family trip. We were in one of those so-flat-you-can-see-forever (or at least the driver thought she could see forever) strips in the Oklahoma panhandle. I had just told Helen for the 7th time (I was counting, also silently) to slow down and she had then suggested that I take another nap when…..yes, a highway patrol pulled out of nowhere. He was polite, we were polite, and I have to admit when this kind of thing happens I’m glad I’m older, white, and a woman. But Helen still ended up with a $235 ticket and who knows what kind of increase on her car insurance.
Family Vacations aren’t known for bringing out the best behavior in anyone and this trip was no exception. Rose seemed more than usually skilled at finding ways to irritate Helen. For her part, Helen had a knee jerk reaction to anything her sister said, which was, “Shut up, Rose!” And I….well, let’s just say I didn’t get especially high marks either. At one point Helen purposely tripped Rose who then fell into a trash can, followed by accusations and threats from all sides, followed by the “Can’t you two get along for even a few minutes?” It didn’t help that one night at dinner we were seated next to a table with a mother and her two daughters who were having this lovely and loving conversation throughout their meal without any snide remarks and certainly no shut ups. What was wrong with us?
I found myself feeling more and more down by this when I heard Rose and Helen talking about the tripping and falling into the trash can incident and they were laughing—both of them, getting the biggest kick out of that story. It made me think of a time when my mother said to my older brother and me, “Why can’t you kids stop bickering?” I was so surprised at her lack of understanding. Didn’t she realize that was the way we found to connect with each other—even to somehow enjoy each other? When we watched TV together and a commercial came on, my brother would get up, grab the arm of my chair and shake it as hard as he could. Every commercial, he’d do that. And every time, I yelled, “Stop that!” which just made him laugh harder. And then there was the head thumping whenever he passed me, not to mention bargaining me out of all the good Halloween candy and never letting me win even ONE game of ping pong and…..the list is too long.
But as that little sister, I much preferred the chair arm shaking until my teeth rattled and the oh so irritating head thumping to no attention from him. And I also knew, as sure as I knew anything, that this older brother of mine would protect me in a heartbeat if need be. In today’s language, he had my back.
After the speeding ticket, I decided that a nap might indeed be a good idea and moved to the back seat while Rose joined Helen up front. I drifted in and out to loud music and bits of conversation. One was this:
“Do you like this song, Rose?”
“Yea, how do you get all those on your phone? And, Helen, can you show me how to curl my hair? And how do you get to be cool? I want to be cool like you.”
“Well, first off, you’d have to be Helen to be cool like me……………You know, Rose, if something happened to you, I’d be there in a minute.”
It took a family vacation for Helen to learn that sometimes she should take my advice. And it took five days in close company with her and Rose for me to be reminded of some very important things. That if you step back and let your kids work things out, then generally they will. That any time together, any time, is what makes a family. That sometimes what seems like the worst part of a journey turns out to be the best (not to mention all that material for good stories). That knowing your brother or sister has your back makes up for a lot of crappy behavior. That you should never, ever, compare your family with the one at the next table. And, most of all, that really, I think my kids are doing just fine.
I just googled the history of Daylight Savings Time and see that there’s good reason to be confused, what with all the starts and stops and changes—even Ben Franklin got involved in the idea. Our dear family friend, Avis, back in the 1960’s, said she didn’t like it at all because “that extra hour of sunlight will fade my living room drapes.” So I have my own recent story about it, and though I have been known to exaggerate ever so slightly from time to time, I swear that the following account is true and unadorned and I have Rose Carter as my witness. And she was as confused as I was—bless you, my child!
It was Sunday morning and I was feeling quite virtuous from all I’d done by 9:15—fed the animals, had a cup of tea, checked email, had another cup of tea, made out three new lists: things to do today, things to do this week, things to do the rest of the month (which included making a list of things to do for the rest of the year). It was while reaching for my third cup of tea that I glanced at my cell phone. Huh….10:15. I looked again at my watch. The battery must be dying and it wasn’t that long ago that I replaced it. But, wait, now this was odd. It was exactly one hour behind…..well, odd things do sometimes happen. I added getting a new battery to the things-to-do-this-week-list and reset the time.
My next clue should have been early evening when I noticed the time on the stove clock was also behind and, you guessed it, exactly one hour. I will blame distraction here, as no doubt I heard the beginning of a cat fight or else Rose was wanting me to help her with a new hairstyle and asking why I couldn’t work the curling iron as well as her no-longer-living-at-home sister. And besides, the day was so beautiful and warm and I needed to get out and check to see what plants were breaking through the too dry soil. I had to make big decisions such as whether I should reconnect the hoses. Carrying watering cans was not the best option anymore, as my darn knees seemed to have developed arthritis overnight. Weren’t the knees the first thing to go? I was feeling cheered by the tops of crocuses and hyacinths peeking up when I looked at my watch, looked up at the sky, and said to myself, “Wow, if it’s this light at 7 o’clock now, imagine how light it will be when Daylight Savings starts!” O.K., so perhaps the knees aren’t the first to go after all.
I woke up Monday morning with Rose standing over me in the dark–were her incoming molars bothering her again? No,it turned out her cell phone alarm went off and did I realize it was already 6:29 and why was it so dark? Huh, now my ancient bedside clock was wacko too and I’d been meaning to get another one for months. But I needed to hurry if I was going to get in at least one cup of tea. As I was feeding the outdoor cats (putting eight piles of dry food down in a row while trying not to trip over eight rather greedy cats), I did notice how dark it was. Actually, now that I thought about it, quite a bit darker than this time Friday, the last time I had to rise at such an uncivilized hour of the day. Maybe clouds over the moon? Maybe it was really foggy? Maybe…and then I remembered the Nova show I had recently watched when I’d run out of The Middle reruns. It was about volcanoes and the “catastrophic” results if there was a really big eruption. Things like whole towns wiped out and long term climate change (as if we don’t have enough of that) and the sun blocked out…..uh oh…..somewhere during the night there had been a massive eruption and now the sun was blocked and why hadn’t I heard, but how could I have, although someone could have called me, surely. As I hurried back inside to get to the computer to check out this disaster, an odd feeling came over me. The clocks, the evening lightness, the morning darkness….what if….and then I saw my calendar on the table, open to March. And March was the month of…..but surely not this early in March and if so, someone or something would have reminded me. I looked down at the square that marked off the day before and there it was—Daylight Savings had started.
Although I certainly felt a big relief regarding the volcano eruption or lack thereof, I naturally also felt a concern about my mind or lack thereof. Still, there must be many others out there with similar experiences–well, maybe not about the sun being blocked out, unless they’d also watched Nova. And if I may bring it up here, what about all the cows? How do they know they get milked at a different time? And if they’re out in the pasture, how do they know when to come home? I at least can set my watch forward, along with the answering machine on my home phone and the alarm clock and the stove clock, but not my computer or the car or my cell phone…is it any wonder???
I need to get my calendar and make a big red circle for the time change this fall—it’s mid October or maybe late October—but no, it was changed to early November a couple of years ago, I think. It’s “spring forward, fall back” so I will set the clocks back which means that in the morning, when it’s 5:45 a.m. and my alarm clock goes off (I hope I have a new one by then), it’s actually 4:45. Though not really, as 5:45 is back to the real time again, better known as standard time and that sounds more real…..sort of. Anyway, at least if Daylight Savings Time is over, I don’t have to worry about those drapes fading.
Several days ago Rose asked how soon before Valentine’s Day. “I guess we’ll spend it alone,” she sighed, looking at me with the same half serious/half joking way she uses when she says she likes to touch my wrinkles. I sat there thinking that she still had a few days to find someone in those hormone-filled halls of seventh grade, but I doubted that the free website Plenty of Fish was going to offer up much for me. My romantic experiences for this day in mid-February peaked at 16 and have been downhill since then.
I had two boyfriends at the same time that year, not that I admitted it, even to myself, and definitely not to them. My justification was that one was a boyfriend and the other just a friend and if the boy who was a friend didn’t realize that, then who was I to have to say it in so many words? It was all going well, the boyfriend taking me to football games and school dances, while the friend was driving me (dare I say here that he was older and had his own car?) to Sunday evening youth group while taking lots and lots of photos of me, telling me how beautiful and great I was….. I can see that you’re starting to think less of me now, but I was sixteen—sixteen!
And then Valentine’s Day came along. My boyfriend, a box of chocolates in hand, got a friend to drive us to my house. My mother opened the door and smiled like a prince had arrived (I seldom had a boyfriend that she didn’t like more than I did) but seemed oddly flustered. Come to find out, she had rushed to hide the dozen red and pink rose buds that my just-a-friend had sent. I spent the evening finding excuses to walk back and forth in front of the table where these two offerings were proudly displayed. Although the chocolates were from my “real” boyfriend, what I remember most clearly is how beautiful those rosebuds were, how lovely that combination of pink and red and green. And, no, in terms of romance for February 14th, it never again got as good as that.
Recently I was sorting through the boxes brought back from my mother’s house after her passing, now just over two years. Some were filled with things I had kept. I found a grade school valentine “mailbag”, the construction paper yellow and faded, my name written in cursive on part of a paper doily. Among the cards inside was one that had this:
DEAR ANN Yor are my girlfriend. I think you look good in those red pants that you war on Monday but I am not sure. Art liks you too. Love DOUGLAS
I guess maybe there was an earlier time that I managed to have two guys at once, but I have no memory of Douglas or Art, just a memory of carefully cutting out those red hearts to glue onto that extra-large paper envelope, a memory of that wonderfully innocent anticipation of what I would later find inside.
My mother had kept almost every card she ever received, as I discovered while digging through more boxes. There were Valentines from sisters, nieces and nephews, my brother and me, my father who loved to pick the ones that might be called sappy, yet I know he meant every word. In those many cards one caught my eye. It was an especially beautiful one, full of pink roses, some in full bloom, some still small buds. Then I remembered how my mother gave it to Rose, telling her to send it to someone special, but I had forgotten who she finally mailed it to. Inside, under a big lopsided heart, was written:
Dear grandma thank you
for the card did you
have a grat New Year?
I have made a display of some of these cards, and as I did all those years ago, I take great pleasure in looking at the offering in pinks and reds and greens. And I will not be alone on Valentines’ Day. I will send out my own cards, designed from an encaustic painting I did, a bird sitting on a branch among bright berries. I expect to receive some as well—from three friends who never fail to remember how much I like this day, my daughters (I’d better start dropping those necessary not-so-subtle hints), a cousin who always calls me Annie, perhaps even an e-card from an old boyfriend.
“Be My Valentine” may be a trite expression for an over commercialized day with a card designed for everyone. But there’s something of real value underneath those words, and the idea that it can be said to anyone holds a great truth. Love is not limited to some romantic idea. In fact, it’s not meant to be limited at all.