Read Me a Story

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If you’re in need of a little TLC, why not have Tom Hanks tell you a story? With just a smart phone and a library card, you can listen to everyone’s favorite Bosom Buddy read an audiobook such as my current title, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.

Audiobooks are the ideal way to spend long hours driving or walking. In the past few  years, I’ve had occasion to make out-of-state trips by myself and decided to “read” a novel along the way. I listened to an Irishwoman voice the many characters in Maeve Binchey’s Minding Frankie. I loved Claire Danes’ dramatic rendering of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I’d read many years ago and wanted to revisit. I even managed to complete such must-read titles as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, all while clocking the miles.

I can listen to an audiobook while accomplishing other tasks. Chopping vegetables or folding laundry are mundane and repetitive activities that are much improved by listening to a good story. And audiobooks have even improved my fitness. If I’m listening to a gripping book such as Emma Donoghue’s Room while out walking, I am much more likely to want to walk farther and for longer periods of time. I also prefer listening to watching TV when I am on a treadmill. It’s hard to focus on a screen with my whole body in motion but easy to listen to a disembodied voice while learning about The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

The key to a good audiobook is, of course, a good reader. Sometimes authors read their own work successfully. Malcolm Gladwell has a great voice and reads all of his own books. But many authors are great at creating the written word but not so gifted at speaking it. A good reader – essentially a voice actor – can bring their work alive. Such is the case with Tom Hanks’s wonderful narration of The Dutch House.

I hadn’t been planning to read Ann Patchett’s newest novel. I’d read one of her books in the past and hadn’t loved it. But Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a piece on recommended reading, and Hanks’s audiobook was one of her suggestions. The Dutch House is a story of a family and the centrality of the house to their development, trials and tribulations. Hanks has that warm and folksy timbre to his voice with just enough sass to enliven the first person narration and the brother-sister dynamic in the book.

There is a reason that being read to is such a cherished childhood memory for so many people. The warmth of a story cascading over us, allowing our imagination to conjure worlds while safely tucked under the arm of a loved one. Currently my daughter is rereading the Harry Potter series by listening to a succession of actors and ordinary readers voice the likes of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape and the rest. I fondly remember reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to a couple of my kids when they were younger. I’m sure that listening to the series recaptures some of that childhood for my youngest.

So if you have no time to read or your eyes are just too tired at the end of the day, give an audiobook a try. In these troubled times, it can’t hurt to be lulled to sleep by the likes of Tom Hanks.

 

Mid-Summer Moods

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IMG_2411In Michigan, the corn has grown taller than me, and that means we are past the mid-summer mark here in the Midwest. I always have mixed feelings at this time of year.

On the one hand, I long to shake off the heat-induced lethargy of the “dog days.” As the temps and humidity hover in the 90s, I feel like an old-time Southern belle languishing on my settee. Yet it’s also bittersweet to know the days are growing shorter, and that can only mean the inexorable march toward the gloom of November.

Mixed in with these feelings is my excitement as the school year looms ahead, this year with plenty of angst and uncertainty, to be sure. But my daughter will be starting college, a new chapter in her young life, and I’m thrilled for all that means for her. It won’t be the freshman experience my three other children had. Only a quarter of the student body will be on campus, most classes will be online, and masks will be required everywhere. Yet my daughter will be meeting new people – hopefully lifelong friends – and learning new things, most especially a greater sense of independence and the joy of deep thinking.

By mid-summer, I have made great headway in my reading list but very little in my to-do list of projects I routinely put off. Because students are on vacation, I have the sense that I too have been given permission to loaf around, eat too many sweets, and drink wine with dinner every night. This feeling suits me just fine – until it doesn’t. I get restless and suddenly spring up from my couch, put on my sneakers, and head out for a little exercise.

Last week, my husband and I hosted our first social engagement since the coronavirus hit the United States. We had another couple come over, bringing their own wine and even wine glasses, and we sat six feet apart on our screened-in porch. It was so pleasant to catch up with our friends on a warm summer’s night.

Next up on the reading list is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. On TV, I’ve been watching a light confection called Sweet Magnolias. It has been a good counterbalance to the dystopian nightmare scenario of Brave New World, which my daughter and I recently binged on the new Peacock streaming service.

My husband has been cooking on the grill, and I have been baking in the early morning before the heat of the day sets in. Soon it will be time to purchase items for my daughter’s dorm room and make our plans to travel out of state to deposit her safely at school.

The sweet corn will soon be harvested and the fields laid bare. Watermelon will be on its way out and Honeycrisp apples on their way in. I plan to savor the remainder of summer in the Midwest and look forward to the glories of fall.

Thanks, But No Thank You Note

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I suspect that the writing of thank you notes is going the way of the mastodon.

Every time there has been a gift-giving holiday, I have had to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy haranguing my children to write small notes of thanks to relatives and friends who had generously given them a gift. Why such an easy and relatively painless task should be met with so much resistance is beyond me.

I grew up in an era when it was simply expected that if someone gave you a gift, you would respond in a timely fashion by writing a thank you note. In fact, I can distinctly remember visiting a stationery store to pick out an attractive pack of 8 thank you cards for that purpose. Ah, the stationery store. That is also a kind of dinosaur of the retail world, its fate sealed by the blinding light, not of a meteor, but of modern indifference to this social nicety.

The Emily Post Institute provides the following guidance on thank yous:

All gifts should be acknowledged with a note, unless the present was opened in front of the giver—then you have the chance to thank them in person. An important exception: Many of an older generation expect a hand-written note. Providing them with one is an appropriate gesture of respect and consideration. Also, send a hand-written note for gifts received at a shower, even if you said thank you in person at the time. (emilypost.com, emphasis added)

Despite these guidelines, the younger generation seems resistant to the idea of thank you notes. But to me, thank notes serve several functions. First of all, they assure the giver that the gift was, in fact, received. This is important when the gift is a monetary one sent through the mail or any gift that was shipped to the recipient. Sure, this notification could be accomplished by an email or phone call. But a handwritten note signifies a higher level of care and thoughtfulness in acknowledging the giver’s kindness and effort.

Modern methods of communication have been a boon to society. I love the ease of email, texting, or picking up the phone. Yet something has been lost in this era of e-cards and instant messaging. It is enjoyable to sift through the daily snail mail and find a handwritten note from a friend or loved one. One’s personality comes through in their handwriting, and it is pleasant to think of them sitting down and taking the time to think of you.

Emily Post suggests that writers make the thank you note chore more pleasant by carving out time, having a glass or wine or cup of tea, and listening to music. “Above all, try to enjoy yourself. Giving thanks shouldn’t be a chore—and doesn’t have to be if you make the effort to keep it interesting.”

Sincere gratitude is not only a gift we give others. It is a gift we give to ourselves because it makes us happier with our lives and with what we have. Writing thank you notes is a wonderfully concrete way to practice that gratitude and put a smile on the face of people we care about.

Evening Stroll

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On a hot summer day, the best times to go out for a walk are early in the morning or in the evening, just before dusk. Tonight after dinner, I ventured outside. A pleasant breeze was blowing as I made my way down familiar paths.

As I walked, I saw a shock of bright purple flowers rising from dense green foliage. A blur of red went by as a cardinal took wing in front of me. A teenage girl gave me a smile as she passed, AirPods playing a secret soundtrack in her ears. I could smell dinners being cooked on barbecue grills and hear the shrill cadence of cicadas high in the trees above me.

In midsummer, the hydrangeas are everywhere, huge white snowballs gaily swaying in the breeze. They looked especially apt in front of a huge old white frame house with a sparkling chandelier gleaming in the window. Its owners have spent years lovingly restoring the home with its stained glass windows and wrap-around front porch. Around the corner is brand new construction, not quite ready for the new life of the family that will soon move in. Across the street sits a vacant, shabby, forlorn structure that will no doubt soon have a date with a bulldozer.

The only constant in life is change, and we are borne on its cleansing tide.

As I made my way home, soft lamps in windows and on front porches lit my way, along with lazy fireflies flitting across lawns. Soon my town would be enveloped in darkness, the only sounds the rumbling of trains and the swish of car tires on asphalt.

I am home now, safe within strong walls, happy to be alive and to reflect on an evening stroll.

Vanity, Farewell

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Since Illinois’ stay at home order began in March, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn makeup or fussed with my hair. My wardrobe has consisted of the most casual and comfy of clothes. As the weeks and months stretch on and the gray creeps through my hair, I realize I’ve all but lost my sense of vanity.

When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to wear fancy dresses and high-heeled shoes. I’d wobble around my older sisters’ room in their pumps and smear my lips with their lipstick. As I became a teen, I was acutely aware of my plumpness, my unruly curls, and the many imperfections I found on my face when I looked in the mirror.

Dressing for school, and later work, became a lengthy ordeal that included many ablutions, including putting on a face-full of makeup and trying to tame my thick mane. When I became a mother, many of my vanities started to fade in importance. My body became first and foremost a nourishing and protective vessel for my infant daughter. Of course, I still had to appear out in the world, and I struggled with adult acne and the inevitable changes a woman’s body goes through when she gives birth.

Aging has its own way of humbling our vanities. No matter how fit I try to be, my skin is not as elastic as it used to be. My face has thinned and my body thickened. Dark circles shadow my deep-set eyes and show me the ghosts of my paternal aunts in the mirror. I used to think they were so ancient, and now I am they.

But the pandemic has given me at least one little gift. I see almost no one, and when I do go out, I am wearing a mask that covers most of my face. My inability to go to a hairdresser has made it almost inevitable that I would decide no longer to cover my gray. Most importantly, during a scary time when we are reminded of our own mortality, looks have faded in importance – at least in my mind.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. It’s fun to dress up for a night on the town, gratifying to be complimented or called pretty. But losing the anxiety I used to have around my looks has been a liberating thing. I have gotten used to my unadorned face in the mirror – when I bother to look at all. My husband and kids like the mysterious streams of white and gray running through my hair. They love my face because they love me. And that is as good a reason to forgo vanity as any I can think of.

Father Love

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“You are worth more than many sparrows.”
– Matthew 10:31

As my kids have grown older, they have become a lot more critical of their dear old parents, especially their father. My husband’s constant check-ins with them, stories and aphorisms they’ve heard dozens of times before, and (to them) fossilized views are often sources of irritation rather than edification. It sometimes falls to me to remind them of their father’s boundless love for them.

It’s Father’s Day, a holiday more about barbecues and beer than bouquets and breakfast in bed. For many, the best way to honor fathers is to let them watch unlimited amounts of TV and feed them delicious meals, even if they are often cajoled into being the grill meister. Fathers across the country today will ooh and aah over yet another tie and hold their children close, willing the years to freeze in place.

Today’s gospel speaks of a father love so great that we cannot contemplate it. The love of the Father makes our own attempts at loving others pale in comparison. As Jesus tells his disciples,

Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

If we are fortunate, our own fathers are earthly models of the heavenly one. Their care and protection help us feel safe and grounded. They may be harsh at times, disciplining their wayward children in order to keep them safe. In our culture, dads are often mocked and teased because we erroneously believe they are tough and can take it.

Today let’s treasure the fathers in our lives. They are the fixers, the bad joke tellers, the men most likely to wear “groutfits” unironically. And they cherish their children “more than many sparrows.”

 

Racial Tolerance Begins at Home

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In the course of discussing an essay she was writing on racial segregation, my daughter revealed to me some disturbing instances of racist remarks and gestures she has endured as an Asian American. When so-called friends reveal their casually racist feelings to you, the sting is even greater. As I reflected on our conversation, I realized that my daughter’s thesis – that racial segregation fosters racism – is not the entire story.

I grew up in a predominantly white, middle class suburb adjacent to the city of Chicago. While my personal exposure to blacks was minimal, I never had feelings of animosity toward them or any other minorities. I rightly found racist jokes and stereotypes offensive. Once in elementary school, I saw that someone had written the N word on a desk, and I was horrified.

It occurs to me that the reason I didn’t harbor these prejudices was that my parents never spoke in pejorative terms about blacks or other minorities. More importantly, they believed and taught that every human being has intrinsic value and is worthy of respect. I have carried these values with me my whole life and have tried to impart them to my own children.

My daughter theorized that it’s a lack of exposure to each other that makes for conflict between races. Ignorance, she feels, is behind much of our fear and dislike of others who are not like us. Certainly there is much to be gained by mingling people of various cultures, ethnicities, religions and so forth. Yet it’s not the only way to foster racial tolerance.

Whether we live in a diverse or homogenous community, we can impart a progressive worldview to our children: one that sees the beauty in all of humanity.  We can refuse to allow hate and fear to govern our outlook on people of different races and ethnicities.

The first step, though, is to talk openly about race. This is something that minority parents do early on as a matter of course. White parents, however, are reluctant to mention race for fear that they will create divisions where their children had previously seen none. Yet it’s important to educate our children about our history of racial discrimination and prejudice. It’s important to help them see how institutional racism has disadvantaged people of color for centuries. We may claim “I don’t see color,” but we are being dishonest and disingenuous. And our kids will encounter racism in society whether we prepare them or not.

Best to begin teaching racial tolerance and understanding at home when our children are young and still want to listen to us. Like many things, our attitudes and beliefs begin at home. Let’s make our homes ones of acceptance and love for all people.

The Fragility of Life

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IMG_2388My husband and I were unable to sleep in our bedroom the other night due to a minor infestation of flying pests. We are staying at a lake in Michigan, and I had stashed a couple of outdoor seat cushions in the closet while failing to inspect them for hitchhikers.

Every spring here, a certain type of fly hatches en masse only to mate, lay eggs, and die – all within a matter of a few days. They rise up in a frenzy when we stomp through their nesting grounds in the grass, and they cling to outdoor furniture, boats, docks, and yes, seat cushions. Their brief existence, along with daily news reports of coronavirus deaths, is reminding me of how fragile and finite life is.

My husband and I both have elderly mothers who are at extremely high risk of dying if they come into contact with the virus. We are both over 60 and thus considered in the high risk group ourselves. So we have been taking social distancing and other precautions very seriously, as have our children, I’m happy to say.

And yet, the fleeting nature of our lives should give us pause. We are not guaranteed the next hour, let alone the next year. It’s important to cherish the time we have, even if that time now seems circumscribed by events beyond our control.

With five of us sharing space here, nerves occasionally fray and sometimes snap. We are able to laugh and enjoy ourselves one day but feel gloom or discontent the next. In some ways, that situation is not unique to being quarantined. It’s part of the restlessness within the human soul.

I’m happy to say that my husband and I were able to enjoy a good night’s sleep in our own bed last night. Having spent the better (or worse!) part of the night before catching and squishing flies, I am grateful for the ability to sleep unmolested by flying or creeping things. Yet I feel for the little black critters and their oh-so-brief existences. And I appreciate their ability to remind me of the preciousness of my own.

 

 

No Pomp Under the Circumstances

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Tomorrow is my son’s official graduation day from college. We had planned a trip to sunny California to take in his walk across the stage while wearing sunglasses. Like many things that have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the rituals of graduation have been canceled or postponed. No cap and gown, no procession to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” no fanning ourselves with our programs while long-winded speakers drone on.

I know this loss is small in the grand scheme of life, but its absence brings to light for me the importance of rituals in our society. Whether it’s a child’s movement into the next phase of life, a celebration of two people joining in marriage, or the solemn passage from life into death, human beings have always needed ceremonies to mark the events in their lives. The entire Greek play Antigone, for example, is premised upon the need to bury our dead.

Humans being ingenious, we are finding socially distant ways to celebrate milestones. In my neighborhood, there are lots of signs and balloon sculptures to mark birthdays and graduations. People parade by in cars and honk their horns to wish their friends well. Families host parties by Zoom as a substitute for an in-person shindig. Our local paper will advertise your greeting for a loved one. And for the most part, immediate families have been able to hold services to memorialize and bury their loved ones.

Still, the psychic toll of missing out on these rites is not insignificant. Yesterday my teenage daughter had a serious case of the blues. School is over, and there is now no focus for her boundless energy. On Thursday, the high school will broadcast a virtual graduation ceremony. While there are some advantages – no worries about the weather, for instance -, watching the speeches and hearing her name called out through our computer is a pale substitute for the joy of seeing her walk across the football field in a red cap and gown.

My family will find small ways to celebrate the dual graduations of our children this spring. We will do our best to convey our love and our pride in their accomplishments. But the celebrations will be bittersweet without the pomp and circumstance.

Mother’s Day Apart

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It has been a number of years since I have had all my children around me on Mother’s Day. As they left for college, my kids were unable to come home for the holiday, landing as it did so close to final exams. Nowadays, I have a son residing in Texas and a daughter in New York. So it’s virtually impossible for us all to be together on the second Sunday in May.

This Mother’s Day many of us will be unable to be with our mothers or our children in person. Older mothers, in particular, are too vulnerable for their loved ones to take the chance of visiting with them in person. We can still send cards and flowers, make phone calls, and even have a virtual party with the more tech-savvy of moms. But we won’t be able to hold them in a warm embrace and thank them for their care and love.

Interestingly, the holiday of Mother’s Day was started by female activists around the time of the Civil War. These women fought for better living conditions for families, sanitation for treating the wounded during the war, and peace and healing of the divisions that created the conflict. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, one of their daughters, Anna M. Jarvis, pushed to commemorate the work of her mother and others by holding a remembrance day for all mothers. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared a national Mother’s Day. (Catherine Boeckmann and Heidi Stonehill, “The History of Mother’s Day in the United States, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, April 20, 2020)

Although we may not be able to celebrate with our mothers in person this Mother’s Day,  we can honor them with our commitment to helping see the U.S. through the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic. We can do our part by staying home as much as possible, practicing safe distancing when we are in public, contributing to those in need, and keeping our beloved mothers safe by being apart. On Mother’s Day we honor women for their sacrifices on behalf of their families and communities. Let our personal sacrifices this Mother’s Day be a testament to their love for us and ours for them.