Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

Like most people, I love new beginnings: new years, new journals, new books. All the fresh starts and possibilities! But as tempting as it is to say good riddance to 2011, it brought good things as well as bad, just like every year does. Some years we just need to look a little harder for the good than we do other years.  For me, getting a cancer diagnosis was bad. But the peace I have found and am still finding is so very good. It helps that this cancer may take so long to kill me that everyone will be completely bored by the time it finally does. Or I may be hit by a truck or a meteorite way before then.

In the meantime, I have a resolution for 2012:  I’ll be checking in here more often. I’ll be reading your blogs more often. It’ll be a good place to rest in between organizing all my photos, recording all my passwords, making a financial spreadsheet, purging and reorganizing the file cabinets, oh Lord have mercy.

You’d be surprised how many times I think about you, even you whom I’ve never met. As my She likes to say, “Tah dah!” Happy New Year, y’all. Peace be with you.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

I have leukemia. There’s just no way to sidle up to that one, foreshadow it, or drop hints, so there it is. I just found out about it, and I don’t have a lot (if any) specific information about my particular case. I do know that I can either live a long time or not. Pretty much just like everyone else, maybe only tireder and more bruised up. Unfortunately I do not have and knowing me I will not ever get “unexplained weight loss,” which can be a symptom for some people. I am actually happy to have a good reason for being so fatigued all the time. I was feeling like a bad, lazy person. Now I can truly nap without guilt.

Here’s what I do know a lot about after just a couple of days. People will say the darnedest things to someone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis. I’m making a list of what not to say or do, no matter how much you want to fix things for your friend or how much you need comfort yourself . (If I could get cancer, so could you. If I can die, so can you.)

Don’t tell them that they will be fine and that this could be so much worse. A few minutes ago, you couldn’t even pronounce what they have. You know nothing about their particular case, even if you have or have had cancer or Uncle Jim has “the same thing.” Don’t tell them to take a deep breath or not to worry until they have something to worry about. They’re breathing fine and with or without your reassurance, they’re actually impressed with how calm they are, and they’re still going to be thinking “cancer cancer cancer” just about every waking moment, kind of like a Greek chorus, while they empty the cat’s litter box or watch the news.

Unless your cancer-diagnosed friend lives in a forest up in the mountains with only weekly stagecoach service, or is technologically challenged as well as cancerous, don’t send them articles. They read everything in print on the first night after they heard the diagnosis. As a sub-category of this “don’t,” don’t send them inspirational poems or stories that appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul.

What about telling your friend that you’re praying for them? This is a sticky wicket. If your friend knows that you really are the praying sort and that you will actually spend a minute or so thinking about them every morning and wishing them well, go ahead and tell them. Unless he or she is a total sourpuss, your prayers will  probably be appreciated even by the non-religious. However, If your friend has good reason to doubt that you pray at all, you’re going to come off as a lying, cliché-mouthing hypocrite. Your choice. But please don’t take this opportunity to urge your friend to trust in God’s will, accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, or pray with you. This is not your big chance to save a soul.

So what can you say? It can be as little as “I’m so sorry!” It can be “I love you,” if you do. It can be a quiet hug. It can be an offer to kill anyone or anything who is mean to your friend. If in your shock you say something stupid or careless and you realize it, admit it on the spot or as soon as you can. It’s probably better not to say “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” If you want to do something, just tell yourself to be on the lookout for what the person might need. Maybe it’s just a card in the mail next week for starters. (This is the area where I’ve most often failed with friends. Never again.)

I bet that I’ll have more to say as time goes along. About everything! It’s almost heady, this feeling of liberation that’s come upon me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mary Margaret McDaniel Black Harvey (Peggy) 12/08/23 - 5/14/2000


Today I tried to sing all the songs my mother loved. Some kids got lullabies; I got The Tennessee Waltz, Melancholy Baby, and Embraceable You. I got The Eyes of Texas and Mairsie Doats. I got rafts of World Word II songs like I’ll Be Seeing You and Mamselle.  I got a ballad that I have never been able to remember after these lines:  “Oh listen boys listen to this story I gotta tell. This little epistle concerns our Nell.”

Eleven years ago my mother died, and I still cannot explain why it was that I was mean, impatient, critical, and completely without empathy when it came to her. I had a ball of anger inside that wouldn’t quit. And yet I loved her, though I wouldn’t admit it. I love her still, and now I am grateful for that love.

Peggy could suck all the air out of the room, literally, with her ever-present Marlboro; and figuratively, with her insistent ability to draw everyone’s attention to her. The expression “It’s all about me!” is supposed to be a joke delivered with a self-deprecating smile. With her, it was real, and it was so desperate. She would clap her hands together and shout “Oh, let’s have fun!” and the fun, if any, would come to a screeching halt. She could spoil a Christmas or vacation without even breathing hard by indicating her disappointment or hurt.

She would interrupt anyone’s most serious and urgent communication to ask them to fetch a Kleenex, bring an ashtray, or in my case, urge me after three sentences to “get to the point.” She “worried” about me all the time, but it was clear that it was what worry was doing to her that was important, and not whether or not the thing she worried about would actually happen. When my friends who had children were around, even when I was in my forties, she would trade stories with them about the trials of childbirth and motherhood before they even realized what was taking place. I’d be sitting or standing in the same room, silently, while my friend became a deer caught in the headlights.

My mother’s worst failure, in my mind, was that she loved me because she thought she possessed me, and for the daughter she imagined I was; not because she loved the real me and not because she wanted to give me permission to be a person, too. My secret revenge was that I wanted another mother, and my overt revenge was that I closed myself off  to her in every way that I thought I could, even when she was dying, to lessen her power over me. I couldn’t even give her the 1940’s black and white movie ending where everything is forgiven and made right at the deathbed. She would have loved that.

Eleven years later, I know that she was simply a woman who could annoy the daylights out of a saint. She had no negative power except what I stupidly gave her. I am painfully aware, especially when I annoy my own daughter, of how easy it is to let the wish to do and say the right thing drive me into doggedly doing and saying the wrong thing. My mother wanted to be loved. That is all. I finally get it. I wish it were not too late to be forgiven, because I’d like the movie ending, too.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cutting the Cord

It’s been a week today. We don’t have cable TV anymore.  And tonight is the Super Bowl.  We could (gasp) not watch the game and just catch the commercials later on YouTube.  We were prepared to accept that. Instead, we are sitting at the kitchen table with big mugs of tea, followed by a glass or two of Pinot Grigio, watching a perfectly clear picture of Super Bowl 2011 via the $10.00 set of rabbit ears I picked up at Radio Shack. The kitchen works best for reception, and the picture is clearer than cable because the digital signal is not compressed. Most of the time, however, we don’t need a TV at all.

We have not missed a single one of our favorite TV programs all week:  Grey’s Anatomy, Harry’s Law, The Good Wife, Detroit 187, CBS Sunday Morning.  We watch them whenever we want to, and we can hit “pause” on the laptop or the iPad for rest stops.  We can even watch the nightly NBC News with Brian Williams if we want to wait an hour for it to show up on Paddy.  In addition, our $8.99 a month subscription to Netflix allows us to watch movies like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo instantly online or via a DVD that arrives in the mail practically as soon as it’s been ordered.  We can watch all of this in any room in the house, or out on the screen porch when the weather gets warmer.

We are saving over $100.00 a month, and enjoying it.

Oh, and an hour into the Super Bowl, we’ve only had one second of signal interference, when we both screamed  “Yes!” and raised  four arms in victory.  Then we laughed. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Music Lesson

Forty old people, arranged around rectangular tables

in a rectangular room with black and white squares

on the floor.

Today's speaker has a microphone next to which he

stands so close that every “p” makes an unwanted

punctuation of amplified air.

He talks so fast that “program music” sounds like prora

music, something new and perhaps extraterrestial that

we are just now finding out about

in this angular room, early in the 21st century.

But no, we are learning about music in the mid-

nineteenth century, long before even the oldest old

person in this room was born,

long before our parents or even grandparents were born.

The speaker puffs into the microphone about piccolos and

preludes, and the old people are polite, their papery

faces inscrutable.

We listen to the river, beginning very quietly as two

streams, high in the mountains of Austria.

Some cannot hear the beginning at all, but they do better

when the two small streams become one big sound,

and white heads bob up and down,up and down.

The river leads us past a wedding party with dancers,

and into a night scene of dark currents and a moon and

perhaps some magic.


warns the speaker, his glasses glinting.

And sooner than we expected, but

we did know, he intones “The Rapids” and no one is


Forty old people, still attentive, still inscrutable, past the

rapids now,  sit in the rectangular room

and listen to the river disappear from sight.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Like A Prayer

All of my life, I have wanted to keep a journal.  I’ve started one at least 35 times.  When I was a pre-teenager, nothing would do but a diary with a key.  My mother had a 5-year diary.  It was dark green with gold lettering, and she wrote in it sporadically starting at the age of 11, from 1934-1936.  I still have it.

On June 16, 1934, she went to see “The Thin Man” with William Powell.  She noted “I spent most of the time to-day [sic] writing.  I am writing a jungle story.  I think I will call it ‘The Killer Camera Expedition.’”  Sounds like a promising title, but I doubt if she ever really wrote the story.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  I once thought I should try to publish a book full of all the  great titles and first lines I’ve thought of, and nothing else.

As life rolled on, I kept buying journals that I never kept up for more than a week.  Friends gave me beautiful blank books, covered in suede or tapestry, which I was afraid to write in.  When the word-processing age began, I typed journal entries with enthusiasm and a sense of fulfillment until the long vacation weekend ended, and then I was back to sleeping, eating, working, chores; sleeping eating, working, chores.  Sometimes I jotted quotes and tucked clippings into yet another lovely journal.  Cheaper, spiral-bound notebooks turned into pages of to-do lists and scrawled phone numbers.  Nothing became a steady practice. 

A year or so ago, I read Phyllis Theroux’s wonderful book The Journal Keeper, and Sheila and I even went to hear her talk at the Library of Virginia.  Ms. Theroux was incredibly inspiring, and I seriously thought about buying the same blank books she uses and the same Sharpie pens.  I didn’t, though.  And I didn’t begin another journal.

In September, I signed up for a small group at church called “The Seeker’s Path,” which I wrote a little about here.   One of the suggested spiritual exercises was journaling in the manner described in the book The Artist’s Way.  That journaling method sternly recommends writing first thing in the morning, without any coffee, for three pages every day.  No typing, either.  However, I’d tried that over a decade ago, and it didn’t work for me.  I was working ten-twelve hours every day, and I sure as hell didn’t have time to write three pages.  Three words, maybe.  Plus, no one is going to tell me I can’t have coffee if I want to, or order me to write three pages. 

But some of the questions we were asked to respond to in a journal intrigued me.  In Week One, we were asked to describe our most profound experience of God; and what one thing might we commit to pursue over the next nine weeks that might significantly enhance our spiritual lives.  I decided to commit to journaling.  It was just nine weeks, but even that would be beyond any regular writing I’d ever done. 

I went to the grocery store and bought a black and white cardboard-covered composition book with lined pages.  I decided that I would get a cup of coffee and drink from it while I journaled.  I would use a plain old ballpoint pen that moved smoothly over the pages.  I would not attempt to answer every single question or prompt posed by Sam, our group leader.  And I would definitely write only until I was done, whether that was one page or four pages.  I decided to sit in the wing chair in the office, with the afghan over my knees.  Miss T decided that she would sit with me, on my lap.  And we promised we would do it every day, come hell or high water, for nine weeks.

That was September, and this is the middle of January.  I’m on my second black and white composition book.  I’ve made an entry every single day, except for two of the days we were in Philadelphia.  I don’t grapple with theology or the concise issues of my “spiritual development” on a daily basis, although I think more of our lives than we realize are directly related to our spiritual paths.  I do write about what my place in the world in relation to others could be, what I do and do not understand about a person or a situation, what frightens or saddens or angers me, what I found beautiful or moving or important or funny the day before, and what that spark of the Divine inside me may be trying to tell me or show me if I will but listen.  Some days I have written only three quarters of a page.  Some days I have gone on for four or five.  I know when I am done.

Sheila has read a few things out loud to me from her book of the diaries of Dorothy Day, the great social activist and advocate for the poor and underprivileged.   Dorothy Day said that for her, writing was like a prayer.   Right on, Dorothy.  She said "The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart." Yes.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

How To Live Forever

A stack of books just crashed to the floor from my bedside table.  It was a sign.  Every year about this time, I anxiously await inspiration to strike so that I can write our  annual Christmas letter.  It hasn’t struck yet, and I’ve decided to keep procrastinating loosen up by describing the books on my bedside table, as I did almost a year and a half ago here.  Uh oh, I have changed bedside tables since that post—I now use the top of an old wooden trunk—and I have a lot more space.  Yeah.  That’s why one of the stacks just gave up and fell to the floor.  The books here can be divided into several categories:  re-reads, dip-in-tos, poetry (always a re-read), and new books waiting to be munched on.  You’d nod off long before I listed all of them, so here is just a sample.

My favorite re-read is almost always at my bedside:  Yearnings:  Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula.  Here’s what Mitch Albom had to say about it.  “This wonderful book…embrace[s] the magic of day-to-day living, the spirituality that can be found in our questions, our mistakes, and our doubts.  Life is indeed messy, but as Irwin Kula shows us, sorting through it is what transforms us to higher ground.”  Of course I would love someone who encourages me in my favorite activity:  sorting through things in my head.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a re-read from almost 40 years ago.  But for me, it’s a whole different book now.  Do you ever feel like even though you’re decades old, you just woke up last week?  I feel that way all the time.  What was I thinking 40 years ago?  I don’t think I had a glimmer of insight into this book.  When I read it then, I became fascinated by the idea of buying a motorcycle and traveling across the country.  And that’s about it.  I was a clueless dork, and I’m just a tiny bit less dorky now that I’ve been awake, alert, and alive for a week or so.

Right now, I’m reading these books for the first time:  No Death, No Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh; Farm City:  The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter; and The Nine:  Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin. 

A dip-int0-start-reading-anywhere book is Jack Smith’s LA, a collection of essays on the city of angels by the long-time and much-beloved columnist of the LA Times.  Jack Smith made me laugh out loud for years and still does.

Poetry books roam the trunk, because I usually grab one and read a poem before I go to sleep.  Right now there is one by Billy Collins:  Picnic, Lightning; a poetry anthology edited by Billy Collins:  180 More:  Extraordinary Poems for Everyday; and a collection of poems by Mary Oliver:  Thirst.  I love them all, as well as their brothers and sisters on the nearby shelf.

Having a big stack of books yet to be read is a hedge against dying, at least for me.  I admit it.  As long as all those unread pages are within arm’s reach, I get to keep living.  It’s like sleeping with the light on if you’re afraid of the dark.  Here are the latest still-to-be-reads:

Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle; Mattaponi Queen:  Stories, by Belle Boggs; No Death, No Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh; The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker; The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, and not because Oprah likes him; and Look at the Birdie:  unpublished short fiction, by Kurt Vonnegut.

I’ll live a long time yet.