Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Little Bit More...

The Grinch has long been one of my favorite Christmas stories. I would don a nasally, scratchy, grinchy like voice and read it to my children and students over the years. But there is a place in the story where my voice softens; it changes from the stingy tee hee sounding twang to a tone of disbelief. It is when the Grinch is a top the mountain with his sleigh full of stolen Who-toys. It is Christmas morning, and he can’t wait to hear all the Whos wailing and crying because they have no gifts. Instead, The Grinch hears singing and joy rising up from the valley below. And it is here where my voice changes: Maybe Christmas isn’t just packages, boxes and bows… maybe Christmas means something much more…”

I have to admit that I have never really liked Christmas, and I think it’s because I have never found a way to de-emphasize the commercialism of it all and try to find out what more is behind the true Christmas spirit. As a child, I would make a list of all the things I wanted and invariably I would be disappointed because I didn’t get something, or I didn’t like the clothes my mother picked out for me, or my sisters got something “bigger or better.” We had so much as children, but we were always looking for more. As a parent, it was fun to try to pick out things that I knew my little tykes would enjoy – and they did- for a few minutes or a few days. Although we didn’t raise our sons with the wealth of my childhood, they still had pretty much everything they needed, and we didn’t have the kind of ready cash to give them the Air Jordans and Saab turbos that many of their peers in the private school world were touting. I sensed that Christmas was never fully satisfying to anyone. Now that I’m a grandmother, the controversy of Christmas continues to plague me. Every year I look through catalogs and on line and talk to my sisters who also have grandchildren to try to find the perfect gift for each of my grandsons. It’s fun; I often go over budget; and I get frustrated with the enormous costs of sending these items across country and oceans… and then most often, I never hear about whether they were delighted, bored, or somewhere in between. The thank-you card is becoming a relic- although the ones I have received I have saved. Even when I talk to my sons, it is rare that there is a mention that they even received a Christmas package from me – let alone telling me that the recipients appreciated my gifts- leading me to conclude that the gifts were really not much appreciated. So this year I have made a small something for every member of my family, and I am seriously thinking of getting gift cards for them so they can get themselves something they like. The problem is, I will probably not hear from them about the gift cards either! And I am forced, ironically, to ask, “So What?” Isn’t just the joy of giving enough? Why do I need a response to my gifts?

Perhaps all of this proves the Grinch to be right- Maybe Christmas is something more than gifts and packages and boxes and bows. Maybe that is what my children are trying to tell me- “Mom, We really don’t care what you get us or even IF you get us anything…”

But now the hard part of this essay begins… just what IS the Christmas spirit, and how can I give it to my friends and family?
I have received gifts from friends that tell me they have given a sheep to a woman in Africa in my name. I always like receiving those kinds of gifts – as I truly do not need any things myself, but I want to be more involved with my children and grandchildren – I think I want something more personal.
I have started a web page to collect family stories – I am very excited about it, and have told all my children “all I want for Christmas is a story.” If I get those stories I will be so happy AND- it is my belief that the sharing of those stories with all the members of the family could truly be a gift for everyone… but I’m guardedly cautious that I will receive any stories. My children lead very busy lives, and I certainly recognize that writing a story is much more labor intensive than ordering a gift on-line.

But the stories may be closer to my attempt to define the spirit of Christmas. I think the spirit of Christmas has to do with connections – reaching out – sharing – being in touch – celebrating meals and traditions together.

Could we limit our material gifts this year? Could we send the message that even if we had no gifts on Christmas morning we could be joyful because we have each other? How would that fly?

I realize there is a bit of hypocrisy here for me. Our economy depends upon the greed, gluttony and insatiable appetite most of us have for the newest gadgets, up to date clothing, and the “in” games, videos, and accessories. Since I have retired, I am keenly aware that my income is tied to the success of the stock market, which is invested in the success of consumerism. So secretly I am hoping that most of America will find many presents under their trees, stuffed in their stockings, and shared throughout Hanukah and Kwanza this holiday season. At the same time I am hoping that my family spends less time and money buying presents and more effort in writing and telling stories to each other. It would be pure joy for me if “all I got for Christmas were family memoirs.”

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Where is my Voice?

"It is said in Hopi prophecy that when the Grandmothers speak, Peace will return to the Earth."

I just recently came across this quotation on a website called A Grandmothers’ Tribe.
( A Grandmother’s Tribe is a film that captures the lives of two Kenyan grandmothers who have stepped into the void created by the AIDS epidemic -- giving insight into their world of survival in village and urban life. The following is the overview about this film:
It is estimated that 63% of HIV-infected individuals in the world (approximately 25 of 40 million) live in the sub-Sahara region of Africa. These numbers have created an unprecedented 13 million orphans.

These two incredible women represent thousands of their kind who, in this late stage of life, are literally starting over again to raise orphaned children -- feeding, educating and caring for the “sickly” ones. The challenge is enormous as they deal with the grief of their own losses and poor health in order to feed, educate and care for an ever-growing number of orphaned children. They struggle on a daily basis to come to terms with a disease they do not understand -- an unnamed disease whose stigma isolates them further from the communities they depend on to survive.

Stephen Lewis, Former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and Chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation comments about the movie: “Grandmothers have emerged as the unsung heroes of Africa. These magnificently courageous women bury their own children and then look after their orphan grandchildren, calling on astonishing reserves of love and emotional resilience… They commit their frail and elderly lives – what is left of their lives – completely to the needs of the orphans.”

I am reading this Hopi wisdom, and this quotation from Stephen Lewis as I look at the web site of A Grandmother’s Tribe while I sip my afternoon latte in my local LuvAJava café in San Francisco, and it gives me pause.

I, in no way, dispute the Hopi concept that IF/WHEN grandmothers around the world speak, PEACE will be near. In fact, every part of my DNA says YES!" to this concept. There is great wisdom in older women. (If you haven’t read The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering by Sharon Mehdi, you must! This inspirational story of two grandmothers standing silently in a local park as their way to help “save the world,” is a tale that gives substance to the Hopi words.) Yet if I truly believe it, where is my voice? I am silent right now… I just retired in June… I have promised myself to be in the moment…do not commit to anything for at least a year…enjoy all that the unencumbered life has to offer… ah, and this life is so sweet.

I can so clearly remember when I was in college, majoring in sociology, and announcing to anyone who cared to listen that I was going to save the world. I worked on the Floating Hospital Boat in NYC taking women and children from the slums of New York on a day cruise- providing free medical and dental care, a good meal, and a lot of love…for the day. I remember speaking to a worn, burned out social worker who said, “Listen girl- you’ll never change the world until the world cares more about her people than her paper reports, and that ain’t coming any time soon.” I became a teacher and convinced myself that I was affecting the future of our world by challenging young minds to think independently. I became a mother – the most important and challenging role of my life, and I have made an imprint on future generations through my three amazing sons. I’ve done some good things; I’ve made some regrettable mistakes… but I’m sixty-three- and I just want to relax a bit, take it easy, take in the scenery, be open to whatever the day has to offer me.

Do you see my quandary? I believe in the Power of Grandmothers to change the course of a family, a community, the world. I love and have huge respect for those two grandmothers in Kenya- amazing women. But right now I am reveling in my afternoon latte in my small little LuvaJava café in San Francisco. Will I find my voice? What will it say?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Loss of Innocence

I have been thinking a lot of the war: how we got in to it; how will we get out of it: the enormous cost of lives, sanity, dollars - can we reverse the tide?

Eugenia Collier, in her short story, “Marigolds,” posits that it is impossible to be both innocent and compassionate. Only those who have experienced the vicissitudes and sufferings in their own lives can exercise compassion, have the ability to empathize or feel another’s pain.

I lost my innocence at the age of fifteen when I realized my father was human. If he could be wrong once, and he was so wrong, then all the order of things upon which I had built my life, was shaky. I could no longer depend upon things to work the way I had thought was forever. As parents, we protect our young children from hurt. A scraped knee is kissed and made all better; a wounded ego is held, caressed and loved until perfect peace is restored. But my innocence was lost as my father, the bedrock of my fifteen years, turned to sand. No hug or kiss could recreate the rock; it had crumbled.

Ironically, this calamitous event prepared me for life. It was the beginning of the very important lesson that “we are all human.” I, too, was headed for failure, mistakes, and wounds that would create the distinct lines in my heart. As a sixty three year old, I have compassion for people with shared experiences. I know the emptiness of losing a child, the guilt of a failed marriage, the agony of physical pain, and the helplessness in caring for an aging parent.

 But until September 11, I had no real compassion for victims of terrorism. I paused, ever so briefly, at the news of cars blowing up in Ireland or zealots with bombs strapped to their young bodies, blowing up pizza parlors. Too bad, I would think. How stupid; why can’t they learn to get along.

Now the “they” is “we,” and because of this shared experience, my innocence has been replaced by compassion. I devour the life stories from that infamous September day. The young man racing to catch his flight before the doors closed; best friends booking two different flights because they didn’t want to travel together; a young woman who discovered she was pregnant on September 13 – and her husband will never know; the young students specially selected to attend a National Geographic program; the firemen… As I listen to their stories and watch their loved ones, I whisper, “I love you. I don’t understand why you had to die. I am so sorry. What can I do for you?”

America has lost her innocence. Our perfect world order that had once naively assured all of us that our land was sacred, beyond the reach of the madness of the rest of the world, has crumbled. The bedrock of our belief that we could not be violated has turned to sand. And now it is time to begin to etch our American heart lines.

America has so much heart. New York led the way, and all of America joined in on a national hug drenched in universal tears. Our lives have forever changed and we can never revert to our infancy – our innocence. The car bomb in Ireland killed someone’s father; is it our father? A young girl tasted her last pizza, our daughter or our sister? Kabul is bombed, and a mother has lost her son; or is it our son? A man dies of Anthrax, and a child has lost his grandfather, our grandfather?  This is why the madness, the killing, the war must stop. We are a part of something larger – something that goes far beyond national boarders.

We have lost our innocence and with that loss has come the understanding that the world will never be perfectly all right. We are all human, after all. However, we have enough love to share, and it is this universal love force, etched deeply in each human heart, that will allow us to ease the pain in others. We must face our new lives with compassion that says if you suffer, I will feel your pain and hold you until you’re stronger. Then you will pass that hug on to someone else who walks through your life.

 We must all be givers of those hugs, for surely, we all have need for a hug sometime along the way. It is impossible to be both innocent and compassionate. On September 11, 2001 we lost our innocence. When will we become a compassionate nation?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007




Time to kill
Time to waste
It’s about time
Time and again
Time is money
What’s the time?
Time is of the essence
Time passes when you’re having fun

When I think of the myriad of ways we use the word and the concept of “time,” it reminds me a bit of the number of words the Eskimos have to describe “snow.” The clock radio awakes us, and the ticking away of seconds continues throughout the day. We have all noticed that time passes at different rates of speed depending upon what activity we are doing. Time does indeed, seem to pass more quickly when we’re having a good time. An hour in the dentist office can be an eternity. Have you ever noticed, too, that time almost seems to stop when we are engaged in something that requires our concentration? Even technology seems to have redefined the passage of time. Try looking at your emails and checking the latest news on the Internet in the morning… Oh my gosh! Three hours later…

Since my retirement, I have become conscious of “time” in a way I have never experienced before. When I was working, I never had enough time. As efficient as I tried to be, there were always things left undone at the end of each day. I would race through my list, confidently knocking them off, but invariably I always had to transfer some of my today’s list to tomorrow’s to-dos. I still have a list, but it doesn’t have today, tomorrow, or any particular date at the top of it. It is a list of things I would like to do; not things that I have to do. The pressure is off to have to complete anything by a certain time. Retirement has freed me from being a prisoner of a clock’s hands.

A few weeks ago, I was picking up some things in Safeway. The checkout lady asked how I was, and I replied perfunctorily, “Fine, thank you, how are you.” She shared that her ribs were killing her as she had fallen off a stepping stool while trying to get something down from a shelf over the weekend. I said I was sorry, and commiserated with her while she scanned my items.

Last week I happened to get in to her line at Safeway. Once again she said, “Hello, how are you?”
How are you?” I replied. How are your ribs? Did the soreness go away? She seemed genuinely pleased that I had remembered, and we had a nice chat.
It occurred to me that before retirement, I really didn’t have the time to engage grocery clerks in a conversation. My mind was elsewhere; on all the things I had to do; trying to sort through how I was going to get them all done. My eyes were averted- Just get the items scanned and totaled, swipe the card; bag them up; and I was off. Efficiency of time was of utmost importance.

Now spending time becomes the focus. I have it to spend – how am I going to spend it wisely and well? The choice is mine!
Other ways in which time has changed for me are when I am walking along the streets of San Francisco. Before, invariably, I had a destination: head down, feet moving in the correct direction. Now, often I am ambling…just out because walking is good for me and it’s a nice day. My head is up; my mind is not preoccupied; so I see new things and notice activity, and make eye contact with people and exchange smiles. The world seems much more humane.

Humane – Humanity - I have just finished reading Dave Egger’s newest book, What’s the What? about a young boy, Valentino, forced from his village in the Sudan, experiencing things at seven years old that would seem impossible for most of us to conceive of, living in refugee camps in Nigeria and Kenya for most of his youth, coming to America and fighting for a chance to get educated. Valentino’s story embodies the extremes of hell and heaven that human beings are capable of. Valentino has every right to be cynical, full of hatred, and completely disheartened by the inhumanity he has seen. Instead, he has a smile that lights up a room; he is articulate, positive, and has taken it upon himself to make sure the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is heard. His story is compelling, but at first I felt removed and disconnected. I live a charmed life in San Francisco. Africa – The Sudan- are so far away. At my age, I do not plan to go to Africa and volunteer. But Egger’s book took hold of me in a different way. As I sit here at a café watching people go by, I look at them and ask, “What is your story?” I don’t mean to belittle the horrendous experiences Valentino was forced to endure; certainly all of us in San Francisco are better off. Yet we all have stories of struggle and loss and triumph and disappointment and laughter and hurt and isolation. Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a Village,” but those villagers need TIME if they are going to be able to notice others. Perhaps the conclusion I must make is that compassion and humanity towards others will never be achieved unless we take the time to recognize the common struggle in each of us; unless we take the time to listen to each other's stories; until we take the time...

Friday, July 6, 2007


Well, I think it's all up and running. You can now leave a message and then just click if you want to get back to my webpage. I am new to blogs, but I think they might be very handy for all of us to begin sharing our ideas. For beginners... let me know what you think of my website and give me suggestions as to how I might make it better.