January 20, 1970

Just married….off to Kansas City to stay in a real hotel for one whole night!!

The cake mixes were 4 for a dollar and that was a good thing.  I wasn’t sure how many it would take to make our wedding cake.  I was new at this, starting to teach myself how to make food for people I loved.  Some folks have fond recollections of making meat loaf with Mom, or learning the secrets of perfect pastry in a farmhouse kitchen somewhere in the blissful past with a Grandma old and wrinkled and warm.  I’d had none of that – food was important in our family, but it was an afterthought, not an offering.

I was in college – a girl of the first generation in my family to have such a gift and privilege.  As far as food was concerned, I’d been trained to set and clear the table (my brother had no such duties – he was confined to the lawn mower) – but I was never invited into the steam, sputtering oil, and billowing clouds of flour that made up the mysterious world of cooking.  It must have been regarded as beneath me.  My job was to study, get good grades, practice the piano, and marry well.  “Make something better of yourself!” seemed to be the message.  Don’t make sandwiches!

But here I was – 20 years old, preparing to get married against my father’s wishes, living with a girlfriend in a firetrap apartment in a rickety old house – about to declare my independence and launch my life into a trajectory that would forever after be out of kilter with “what we expected.”  But I was elated.  I was going to be me.

Steve and I had been crazy in love since high school.  We were old enough now, nearly adults, and so eager to find our own way.  We had around $300 between us – money left over from summer jobs – so we bought Steve a new set of clothes, got a case of Andre’s pink champagne and a box of kitchen dixie cups, scored 5 dozen daisies from a confused florist, and with what was left over, an off-the-rack wedding dress for me from a fancy department store in Kansas City.  I didn’t know you had to order the dress ahead of time, but the lady took pity on me and sold me one of the ones you try on – a floor model, not too badly defiled with other girls’ makeup and BO.  We wrote some vows (mostly lifted from Gibran’s The Prophet) and found a campus minister willing to preside.  Danforth Chapel was free at 5pm on January 20th – Steve’s 21st birthday.  We were set.

JPEG of a DVD of a VHS tape of a Super 8 movie…from a galaxy far, far away.

The cake mix and a dozen eggs set me back about $3.  I didn’t have any cake pans but by asking around my apartment house I came up with 4 frying pans of different sizes.  It was deep January and so cold there wasn’t enough gas in the old house to bring my oven over 200 degrees, so progress was slow but steady.  When the four larger layers of something like white cake were done I baked a small top layer in a saucepan.  I remembered seeing my mother make frosting out of milk and butter and powdered sugar so I blended them as best as I could and slathered the cake together.  I had a small figurine of Winnie the Pooh so I put him on top.  Since it was Steve’s birthday 21 candles seemed appropriate – and we could sing!  And just for extra dazzle, I scattered a package of small paper American flags on toothpicks up and down the sides.   After all, we’d recently watched the Vietnam Draft Lottery on TV and it felt important to express our patriotism.  Our country was at war.  Steve got a high number – 275, I think – but friends who would attend our wedding were not so lucky.  One already had enlisted in the National Guard.  The other was talking about Canada.  But on this day, at that moment, the war, our lives, and all our “ever afters” were still ahead.  And we weren’t afraid of any of it.

I spent an awfully long time – too many years – being ashamed of that cake.  Not ashamed of its appearance, but sad that our wedding had made my father so unhappy he refused to attend.  I had defied him and was told I had broken his heart.  That beat went on.  Years later, when my mom lived with us, she’d sometimes speak wistfully of the fact that they’d just bought a lovely new home and she’d hoped to have our wedding reception there.  Too bad, she’d say, too bad you couldn’t wait.  It would have been a lovely party.

It took me 30 years to one day suddenly become giddily proud of that cake – I made it myself, I marveled to me. I MADE MY OWN WEDDING CAKE!  That cake was the first meal Steve and I shared as husband and wife.  It was the start of our 51-year banquet we called “our life together,” a jolly run at making something out of nothing.  We liked to do that.  And we were pretty good at it.

The cake must have tasted okay.  There wasn’t any left, and there was no wine left over either.  That January day, those who attended wished us well, and we returned the same good wishes to them.  Looking back, I can see it was our Last Supper as students, as children, as friends.  It was a communion of sorts.  The sacred elements were wonky white cake and cheap pink wine in dixie cups. Soon we would all “go forth” to new lives, personal challenges, and uncertain futures.  But just think: my cake fueled us all for the journey. I am so grateful.

Notes on Being 70

I recently read about the Piraha, a small tribe of hunter gatherers who live on a remote tributary of the Amazon in northwestern Brazil. Their language is one of the simplest known, consisting of 3 vowels and 8 consonant sounds. Their counting system is just as uncomplicated:  one, two, many.  It is further said they speak and live only in the present tense, this present time.  Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it?  It made me think of a few of my first grade math students.  They must have been cut from the same rainforest water lily pads.  When I asked them to count to 100, a very important benchmark on their very important permanent record, a clever few would grin and look up with their sweet, bright eyes and say, “One, two, skip a few, 99, 100!”  We all got a big charge out of that.  But then I made them count anyway.  I was on the payroll, after all….

Alas, I find I live in a world filled with numbers.  An infinite number of them, I am told. And I just had a big number change.   On June 1st my life odometer rolled over to 70.  I love the poetry of saying “I am many years old” but that just doesn’t seem to cut it.  Any 6-year-old knows there are an awful lot of numbers between 1 and 70 and it takes a long time to say them.  Victor Hugo wrote, “40 is the old age of youth. 50 is the youth of old age.” Looks like I’m certifiably old. Yep — I’m and old lady now and definitely heading for the barn. It has taken me an awful long time to reach this number. It feels and seems like such a serious and solemn number I thought it would be right and proper to mark it with a written testimony of sorts.  A “what I’ve learned” kind of list.

So here goes:

1. This world is more wonderful and more terrible than anyone could ever know, imagine, or understand.  Love will always win, though.  In the meantime, try to nap when you can.

2. As a species we are hard wired to fight back, get even, have the last word, and feel better about ourselves at all costs.  Whatever situation you find yourself in, please try to think of something better to do.

3. Sadly, at 70 one’s décolletage resembles foccacia bread sprinked with roasted garlic and too many poppy seeds.  It’s not your fault. It’s just what happens when you live this long and have spent too much time working in the sun. But no matter WHAT the salesgirl says about that lowcut cocktail dress you just tried on,  keep shopping.

Slather away!

4. Coconut oil is your very best friend.  Eat it.  Cook with it.  Rub it in your hair.  Cover your body with it after a hot bath. You will look like a Japanese sumo wrestler but sleep like a baby.  Your husband will remark it’s like sleeping with an Almond Joy.  There are worse things.

5. It’s said one of the strange things about humans is that we know we are going to die, but we don’t believe it! So true. You will not live forever — at least, not in your present form.  So notice and savor each moment and each relationship. Your loved ones and your very best friend won’t live forever either, and as Nora Ephron so succinctly pointed out, these people are irreplaceable. When they leave you, you will never get over it. But with time, you will get used to it.

Steve made me a Valentine in the snow each year — sub zero weather, his last Valentine’s Day.

6. There is “having sex” and there is “making love.”  Choose love.  And sometimes you can make love with a simple look, a loving touch, folding the laundry, or refilling your darling’s coffee cup without even being asked.

7. When you’re 70 your toes get wonky and crooked from holding onto the earth for so long.  Get a pedicure and show them off to the world.  Thank them, too.  They have served you well!

8. The worst 4 letter word in the world is FEAR.  Frisk your thoughts and you’ll always find the horrid ones that keep you up at night or make you feel just awful about yourself always have FEAR at their nasty nougat center. Don’t chew on that stuff. Spit it out.   

9. There is ALWAYS something to celebrate. Wearing a party hat can really add to the celebration — even a “celebration of life.”

10. Warm oatmeal topped with heavy cream, real maple syrup, and fresh blueberries is love in a bowl.  Serve often.  While eating making yummy noises is entirely appropriate.

11. Listen to children.  Listen hard.  Love them unconditionally.

12. It’s okay to cry at weddings, funerals, the opera, at church, upon reading an especially moving piece of writing, when you eat a particularly wonderful meal, when a loved one leaves, and again when he or she returns.  Tears come when you run out of words.  With tears you are speaking from your heart and soul — the ultimate eloquence.

13. My mother always told me, “It hurts to be beautiful.” And she was right! Those tweezers, perms, overnight curlers, pointy-toed high heels, cinched waists, girdles, and garter belts were a misery to endure! Life has taught me, however, it hurts more to be beautiful inside. It’s an endless work of the heart. But it will give you true beauty.

14. Everyone would like to get a long, loving letter.  Write one. 

15. At this age I find I have time to sit still and have a conversation with a flower.  Give it a try.

16. You know, someone else can cook the Thanksgiving turkey and that will be just fine.

17. My body was never perfect and I spent far too many years being ashamed of it.  Mea culpa!  How faithful it has been.  It has taken me on so many wonderful adventures.  It has given me so much pleasure. My wrinkles, scars, bulges, and spider veins tell such beautiful life stories.  I am grateful.

18. Babies really are complete and utter miracles.

19. If you want to know what real love looks like, get a dog. 

20. Spiders, snakes, and possums are just trying to make a living.  Be kind.  Catch and release, if necessary.

21. Difficult, lazy, self centered people are a gift.  There are also everywhere.  But rejoice!  They give us a chance to learn and practice patience, perseverance, and forgiveness.  Where would we be without them?  They make US better.

22. We come from love and we are going back to love.  The world is just illusion with a very loud and disturbing soundtrack.  Amid the tumult, listen hard for your own real voice and the silent loving voice of God. You are her special favorite, you know.

23. Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  One writer pointed out most of us are doing just that — most of us pretty much hate ourselves.  Knock that shit off.

24. Love love love!  You’ll never go wrong.  Start with yourself.

25. Time will INDEED tell.

26. God/Spirit/Love always answers your prayer.  It may be YES, NO, or CALL WAITING. Therefore, pray often and all ways.  It may not change the outcome or the situation, but it will change you.  And THAT will change the world.

27. Some people have a bucket list.  My husband Steve jokes he has a Fuck It list.  I don’t have any list at all.  I just want to finish well, whatever that looks like.  I have a feeling it looks like love.

Happy birthday my dears! See you at the barn!

Who Cares?

Hold my hand

  One evening 35 years ago, when I was a baby Christian, I was on my way to prayer group, supper dishes just done, bustling around my kitchen looking for Bible, coat, and shoes when the phone rang.  I grabbed it distractedly, wondering where my car keys were and glancing up at the clock.  It was Alvaro, the husband of my friend Marie.  Marie and I had met at our daughters’ 4-H club and we’d become good friends.  A beautiful, creative, and wonderful woman, she’d been waging a 3-year war with breast cancer, but she was losing.  She had taken to her bed and needed someone with her round the clock. Alvaro and their teenage daughter had risen to the task, but it was difficult for them.  I’d told Alvaro, a very private and reserved KU professor, to call on me if he ever needed a break.  Marie was close to the end.  Alvaro explained he just had to get out of the house for the evening — could I come over and sit with Marie?  “Oh, Alvaro,” I said.  “I am so sorry!  It’s prayer group night and I’m just on my way out the door!” We quickly hung up. 

Within 2 seconds I thought, “What did I just say?”  and immediately called him back.  “Alvaro, forgive me, I can’t believe I said that!  I’ll be right over.”

I still smile when I think about what an idiot I was and how kind God was to let me see it.  Marie and I spent a little more time together, and she knew I was there.  Her husband and daughter had a bit of a break.  How tender of God to arrange it.  Above all, how brilliant God was to introduce me to caregiving. 

“Care” and “giving.”  Now there are 2 words I love!  I’ve spent so much of my adult life caring and giving in one way or another — teaching, parenting, foster parenting, grandparenting, slogging gallons of homemade soup up one country road and down another, letting out dogs and feeding cats and horses, volunteering for Hospice, taking my mom in when her dementia made it impossible for her to live alone, coming alongside homeless families through Family Promise, and wrapping and delivering (or leaving unwrapped — as instructed) food and Christmas gifts for people who need help on the holidays. It has been the framework of my life. “How can I help?” comes naturally to me. It’s what I do. It just seems to make sense.

But I like to joke that “caregiving” is a lousy career choice — there’s no future in it!  And this is quite true.  The children (original, grand, or foster) grow up and move away.  The old and terminally ill surely die.  And it’s so relentless. Christmas always comes again in 364 days, and there will be another needy child who wants a video game or a pink bedspread.  When you “caregive” full time, the shift never ends and you seldom go off duty, unless you’ve asked or hired a friend to take your place.  There is no pay and no pension plan….no glamorous trade shows in Vegas… and you will never get a tantalizing brochure inviting you to a caregiver’s conference on St. Kitts.  There are rewards, but nothing tangible you can post on Facebook — even IF you had the time.  BUT — caregiving is the most REAL thing I have ever done. I have never regretted a moment of it.

Why do I care to give?  I can’t say.  I CAN say that in a world that grows more divided, cold, and lonely it seems to me it is very important work — the only work that makes sense.  We are all we have.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.  It’s time to get on with our loving.  It is time to care. 

Life will give you many opportunities to be a caregiver.  Recognize them, and step up when they come, for come they will. The needs may be small or large.  It might be a ride to the airport or helping someone move. Maybe your spouse or partner will have an accident, or get a dreaded diagnosis.  Perhaps a relative will need a place to live. A sick friend might need rides to appointments, or a meal once a week.  Or a child, one you haven’t met yet, will need you somehow, and maybe even need a home. Yes — it’s inconvenient. You will feel that your life has been interrupted — may I say, what you THOUGHT was your life.  But as hard or inconvenient as it may seem (and actually BE) at times, when you are able to look back, you will be so incredibly glad you cared and gave. That small light will not go out, that light that you gave life to, that light that you became for just a moment.  I smile as I write this.

Several years ago husband Steve and I were driving home from a family wedding in Minneapolis.  We were 8 hours into the 12 hour ride on a hot August day, somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa.  The interstate had numbed our minds and ears, and the excitement of seeing so much family and experiencing so much celebration had drained us of conversation.  As we pulled off the road and into a gas station, I noticed a woman standing by the edge of the parking lot holding a sign.  She had her back to us.  She was facing the oncoming cars exiting the lot.  It alarmed me.  Time was, hitchhikers were a common sight, but not so much these days — particularly a lone woman.  In full “travel-mode stupor” we got to the business at hand (gas, restroom, obligatory glance at the seductive snack orgy inside), jumped in the car, and started back towards the road. We were tired.  It was our last push to home.  We were focused.

The woman was still there.  We could see her now. She was young.  She had the posture and presence of a Madonna.  She had long dark blonde hair that blew across her face in the hot wind.  She wore a long skirt and a shawl of some kind over her head and shoulders.  Her face was serene and beautiful. She was looking down.  A gas can, spout pulled out, was on the ground at her feet.  Her arms gracefully held a sign over her very pregnant belly:  SEEKING HUMAN KINDNESS.  In the nanosecond it took us to pass her by, she looked up and made eye contact with Steve.  I thought to ask him to stop, see what she needed, help her.  But he was tired, hot, and ready to get home.  And I was the same, truth be told.  I didn’t ask him. We didn’t stop.  But she traveled with us anyway all the way to Kansas.  It took us two days to dare to talk about her, and speak of our shame for not stopping to help her.

Who was she?   I’ve seen signs reading “Anything helps” and “Need gas money” and even (once in San Francisco) “Please give to the United Negro Pizza Fund” — I loved that one.  But this was so different.  Otherworldly.  Was she real?  Was she FOR REAL?  Did anyone else see her?  Did someone help her?  I will never know.  And I will never forget her.

Friends, it seems to me that we are ALL that woman.  Some of us have signs, and some of us don’t, but we are all, every one of us, seeking human kindness. We say “modern life” is very busy, and it’s true, but busy with what?  It’s awfully easy to get lost in ourselves and our agendas. We all want to “get there” – wherever we think that is. It has never been convenient to care for one another. And aren’t there social services for such things?

Rumi, a 12 century sufi mystic, wrote “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.  Walk out of your house each day like a shepherd.” What a lovely image.  What a lovely calling.  What a lovely purpose. Like that lady said to the waiter in When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what he’s having!” To me, giving care to one another is the only thing that makes sense. It’s why we are here.

Who cares?  A good question.  I’ll give you (and me) time to think about that.  Take care! And thanks for caring to listen.

A Fine Recess Stew

I used to roll my eyes and speak disparagingly of “the intrinsic rewards” of  teaching, but God knew even then I was never in it for the money, and as I look back I realize it too.  It was ALWAYS about the children. What follows is a fine recipe for life taken from the blood, sweat, and tear-stained cookbook I compiled during my 20 year career as a line cook in the public schools.  This recipe still yields many smiles.

Start with a fine sunny afternoon in May of 1999 and spread 100 or so 10 year old children randomly over a 200 x 300 foot playground.  Warm slowly with exercise, sunshine, add a dash of afternoon fatigue, and dust gently with prepubescent hormones.  Select a sweet blue-eyed blonde with freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks, a girl named Ali who unknowingly has been capturing the confused attention of Garrett, an athletic “all boy” classmate.  I never did find out what the dust up between them was but when it reached the boiling point, Garrett yelled at her, “Well, you’re a big lesbian!”  Sweet Ali wasn’t sure how to handle this attention and dissolved into salty tears, still on her pink face when the kids tumbled back into our classroom when the bell rang.

“Mrs. Lewis!  Mrs. Lewis!” Ali and her handmaidens cried.  “Garrett called Ali a lesbian!” and Ali’s red face and trembling lip bore witness to the outrage.  I was pretty sure neither Ali or Garrett had any idea what a lesbian was, and if they DID, how this fact was discerned during a hot game of tag, so I decided to try to bring this down to a simmer.  That didn’t matter anyway.  They did.

“Ali, would you like to get a drink?” I asked, and she nodded and headed off for the hall and the sanctuary of the girls’ washroom.  I turned to Garrett.  He was guilty as charged and he knew it.  He looked down.

Inspiration struck.  “Garrett, school’s out in 15 minutes and we’ve got papers to hand out and homework to add to our planners.  Let me think about what just happened,  and I’ll get back to you tomorrow morning,” I said.  The class settled in, and we got to the task at hand.  The bell rang, the chairs went up, and out they flew.  I guess you could say we let it steep overnight.

The next morning everything was fresh — the faces, the t-shirts, the hair gel and braids, the very day itself.  We worked quietly and well all morning.  As the kids lined up for first recess I asked Garrett to stay in with me to discuss the incident.  He was obedient and contrite.

We sat at the round book table, and I pointed to a laminated poster on the wall — “USD 497 Policy on Harassment” — a recent district-mandated addition to every classroom in town.

 “Garrett,”  I said, ” do you know what ‘harassment’ is?”

 Garrett shook his head no.

 “Then let’s look it up.”

He grabbed a classroom dictionary off the shelf and I, ever the seeker of the elusive “teachable moment,” let him struggle a bit with the alphabet and initial consonant sounds.

He labored and brought forth. “Here it is,”  he said quietly.

“Read it to me,” I asked.  Might as well practice his reading aloud skills as well.

“Harass: to pester, bother, disturb or worry.  To make repeated small attacks on another or an enemy,” he read.

“What do you think that means?”  Ah!  Cognition and summarizing!

“To bother somebody, I guess,” he mumbled.

“Right you are — and you know, we have a brand new district policy against that.  I am supposed to report this.  You could be in trouble there.”

He was silent.  So was I.  Critical thinking was taking place.

 “What do you think you can do about this?”  I asked helpfully.  Ah.  Problem solving skills!

He thought hard.  “Maybe write a letter to her to apologize?”  he offered.  I haven’t kept track of him, but he may now be a lawyer!

“Sounds good to me, Garrett.  Why don’t you work on that while I get our math lesson ready.  Let me see it when you’re done.”  Bingo!  Writing skills to boot!  We both got to work.

Our time at the table took away most of my 15 minutes of mid-morning prep time, but it also burned up Garrett’s recess, not a small thing as he was an avid kickball man.  I read his note as the bell rang, and when Ali appeared at the classroom door he folded it over and handed it to her as discreetly as he could.  She looked at it, nodded, and we all settled in and turned our attention to the mystery of fractions.  The rest of the morning was as smooth and sweet as buttercream frosting.  Justice — and the district mandate — had been served.

But sometimes things are just a bit better on the second day.  So it was with our recess stew.

Next morning before the kids came in I got a call over the intercom to take a phone call from a parent on line 2.  I made my way to the workroom.  It was Garrett’s mother.  My heart sank, and I drew a deep breath.  I readied myself for the frying pan.  Parents have an awful lot of feelings.

“Mrs. Lewis, I just wanted to talk to you about that incident at school — how Garrett missed recess yesterday.”

 I heard the burner click on.

 “Yes?” I offered.

 “Garrett was really miserable when he came home from school that day.  He went to his room and hardly ate any supper.  When we asked him what was wrong he told us he’d gotten in trouble on the playground and that you’d talk to him about it the next day.”

“Yes, he had a little run in with another student.”  I got a whiff of olive oil hitting the pan.

“Yes,” the mom offered.  “He likes Ali an awful lot.  He felt terrible about it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” I said, and I meant it, too, because I loved Garrett as much as I loved Ali.

“But let me finish,” she said.  “Garrett was so low the night before his Dad and I asked him about it at dinner last night.  ‘How’d it go with Mrs. Lewis today?’ my husband asked. ‘Oh!’ says Garrett, ‘Not bad at all.  Mrs. Lewis just made me stay in at recess and look up harass!’  Oh my God, Mrs. Lewis — we nearly DIED trying not to laugh out loud!  Just thought you’d enjoy it too.  Have a great day.  Thanks for everything, Mrs. Lewis!”

Schools are like pressure cookers most of the time.  So many kids, emotions, abilities and expectations, mixed together, chopped up by time schedules, and weighted down by district outcomes and state regulations.  We line cooks show up everyday and do the best we can with the produce we are given.  Our yields always vary: some rise.  Some fall.  Some are delicious, some are acceptable, and some give you heartburn.  Not one ever made me bitter, and more than one made me cry.  But this one was just so sweet.

I still savor it.