This too shall pass

Of the many gifts I received from my father, this little snippet, “this too shall pass,” has helped me through what I thought were the worst times of my life. There were instances when my dad would say this line and I’d think, geez dad, how callous of you. Can’t you empathize for me in an unhealthy way just once and wallow with me in whatever ridiculous negativity I have dug for myself? Can’t you for once say to me, honey I can’t believe the universe has dealt you such a low blow. You deserve so much better than this and it’s only a matter of time before the entire world understands what riches you deserve.

Nope, my dad was not one for blowin’ smoke. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great dad. He’d help in whatever way he could. He’d give you a place to stay if you needed it, he’d pay your rent if you ran out of money. For cryin’ out loud, he paid college tuition for five kids to go to college, a feat no one on our middle class income could do any more.

But did he tell you you were the most beautiful person in the world and that everything would be perfect for you because you deserve at least that? No way.

See, my dad was a post-WWII, G.I. Bill educated electrical engineer. For those of you out there who were raised by engineers, you understand the significance of this statement. Some of these men are WWII vets, but my dad was a little younger than that. He served in the Navy on the tail end of the Korean War.

But many of the same rules apply. Somewhere between a rough childhood rearing by a strict dad, service in the armed forces, and the school of engineering at Purdue, my dad learned what he knew about being a man and a father. That included learning to do what the post 70s era of self-help refers to as compartmentalizing. To some, he may have done this to a fault, showing little emotion to his kids unless he was getting angry. By today’s standards this seems harsh, particularly in this era of helicopter parents who shepherd their kids as though they are lost sheep up until the moment they cut the umbilical cord as they drop them off at their first year of college (I know, I know, way too many metaphors in that one sentence). Conversely, my dad was the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” generation, confident that if we all keep our noses to the grindstone and work hard, we can do anything. The “sink or swim” type of life coaches. “Get in there kid, you can do it. Quit yer whinin’,” were their mantras.

You may have had one of these fathers. Some of my friends and I who were raised by engineers of that generation joke around that we need a support group we have lovingly dubbed ACOE (Adult Children of Engineers). But all joking aside, even with all his faults—and they all have them—I received many, many gifts from my father. My fearlessness, my ability to compartmentalize (although I gotta thank mom for some of that too), my math skills, my love of female jazz vocalists, my wandering eye (oops, I said I wasn’t gonna kiss and tell in this blog), my understanding that life is not fair, and the mantra “this too shall pass.”

For a man who was basically a devout atheist, who did not subscribe to any religion and did not once even mention the word God in my presence, his continual reference to the idea that “this too shall pass” showed him, in my opinion, to be a man of great faith. And this gift is the one I am most thankful for. This gift has taught me that regardless of how bad things seem today, things will get better. That even though I am incredibly depressed and cannot see my way out of this mess, that something will change and it will not turn out as badly as I think.

Faith in yourself as a person, as a father, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, as a golfer, faith in the physical world that has some rules and logic guaranteed to continue to be true tomorrow the same way they are true today, faith that the sun will again come up, regardless of how shitty today was, faith that the friends you have today will still be your friends tomorrow, faith that your family loves you. These things are the essence of a life of faith to me, regardless of whether we ever put a label on it, divine or otherwise.

I am thinking of my niece today. She has just lost her father. She is 10 years old. Our family are gathered around her to hold her up emotionally and physically in the same way we did for one another just 9 years ago when my father passed. We shed a lot of tears in the days after my dad died. And we did what we could to honor his memory and give him a good sending off. We told stories about times we shared, looked at lots of pictures, wrote down our memories, held each other, laughed and cried. We will join my niece to honor her dad in the same way.

And we will continue to help her hold her father dearly in her heart and be mindful of all the gifts she received from him. And they are many.

As time goes by, the sadness will begin to fade. And even though she will become suddenly overwhelmed with grief when she least expects it, this too shall pass. And the love and understanding of the gifts she has received will take the place of the sadness, giving way to gratitude, and, hopefully, a life of great faith.

I love you Dad.

I love you Syd.

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I will offer thanks for what has been and what’s to come

I’ve had a rougher time in the last year than I’ve had in a long time. Life brings unexpected changes and often when we are not prepared for them. I was not prepared for my relationship of ten years to disintegrate, but it did. I was not prepared to lose my job and spend two months in a sheer panic until I found another one, but it happened. I was not prepared to be overwhelmed with feelings for someone new at the ripe ole age of fifty, but I was.

Now, a full year after I set out to write 50 blogs in 50 weeks in my 50th year, I have lost the new job I thought was so great, and I am questioning the romantic feelings I have because I rushed into something out of habit and did not let it blossom naturally.

I see in retrospect that I should have stuck to what my instincts told me to do one year ago—to take time to reflect on my life thus far, reflect on how I have become the person I am in an effort to mindfully move toward my future with purpose and intent rather than fumbling in panic for the next adventure, the next job, the next lover.

If I was one of those people that believes in “destiny” or the idea that the universe is trying to tell me something, I’d say that the universe tried to tell me something and when it found I wasn’t listening, it stuck its big foot out while I was running down the steps just to watch me trip and fall so it could laugh at me.

But I am not so easily discouraged. I will begin again. This time not making any promises, not setting myself up for failure. Just declaring that I will take the time I need to reflect. That is, until I become distracted by the next shiny object.

Work is love made visible –Khalil Gibran

 I spent last night visiting with an old friend from Block Island, RI. She and her mate are friends and former bosses, two of the best bosses I’ve ever had, in fact. When the person I’m working for works hard and doesn’t ask me to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, it makes me want to work as hard as I can for her. Some people might call that a work ethic. I think it ends up being more about human relationships than it is about the work. I hate to disappoint people I like or admire, so in an employment situation, that makes me want to work hard. And it doesn’t matter so much what I am doing. For the right person, I will scrub toilets and floors and enjoy it.

I wasn’t always a hard worker. My first job was at a Thom McCann shoe store. I have no clue why I thought that, at the age of 16, working at a retail shoe store was a good idea. I had no particular interest in shoes at that time (she said as she looked down at her new blue suede cowboy boots; I guess I grew into that girlie fetish). Nor did I have any particular interest in retail sales. I had turned 16 and in my house, when you turned 16, you got a job so you could have your own money to spend on undoubtedly nefarious activities you were unable to spend your parents’ money on.

I was not employed at the shoe store for long. I wasn’t particularly fond of helping people try on shoes, nor did I take the time to learn the convoluted numbering and storage system in the crowded back hallways where the shoes were stored. In fact, I found myself avoiding the back hallways of the shoe store altogether. The manager and assistant manager were snorting black beauties in the back office all the time and I simply could not keep up with that sort of lifestyle at the age of 16.

Then my sister and her boyfriend, Steve, devised a plan to get me a job at the local record store where Steve worked. This seemed like the perfect job for me. As a child of the seventies, I loved music. We were driving to concerts in Columbus and Cleveland all the time, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, David Bowie. So working at a record store seemed like it would be a great fit. We’d stand around, smoke cigarettes and listen to records, right?

To my surprise, they actually wanted me to work. Sort records, file new records, re-order records, re-sort records when customers didn’t put them back where they were supposed to go. But such great demands were cutting into my smoke time and my ability to hang out with my friends. I didn’t last long at the record store either.

I did not yet know how to work. Sure I had worked in my mother’s home, as a housemaid, chambermaid, bathroom scrubber, dishwasher, and occasional gardener. And I did those things, slightly grudgingly, because my mother cared about them more than I did. I don’t think I really learned to work until I went to work in my father’s factory.

You might think that working for my father would be a cakewalk. Ahhh, she’s the boss’s daughter, she’ll get away with anything. With my dad, the opposite was true. He made sure you understood that his expectations of you were higher than for those of his other employees. You weren’t going to embarrass him by being the spoiled rotten boss’s kid.

My father owned a small manufacturing plant that made a variety of non-metallic parts, mainly for the then thriving Ohio automotive and appliance industries. I first went to work there the summer after my junior year, at age 17. Since I was not yet 18, I could not operate the punch presses, so I worked on various assembly jobs. My father’s employees were mostly women doing assembly and operating punch presses, with a couple men to cut and move material around and fix the equipment.

One particular job I had to do was putting a small bit of metal screen around a fibrous white donut-shaped piece that would eventually go into a catalytic converter. This job was piece work for the women in the shop. The more you could produce, the more you were paid. The job was done in pairs and your work was measured with that of your other team member to record your final numbers and determine your pay at the end of the day. All the other women in the shop had been doing this for years, and had certain expectations and a healthy competition about how much they could produce in a day. Two things weighed heavy on me: first, I’m the boss’s daughter and if I didn’t work my ass off, he’d be pissed. Second, these women needed to make money and I’d be mortified if my teammate made less money because I couldn’t produce. I worked my butt off to get up to speed, and it had absolutely nothing to do with how much money I would make at the end of the day.

More than a year later, I headed to college, and the second job I found—the first one was in a fast food joint and I was obviously not fast food material—was in a family owned coffee shop where the father, mother and son prepared and served breakfast and coffee to hundreds of college students. They were close-knit, hard-working, and anal retentive about how to do every little task in the place and I was determined not to be embarrassed so I hustled and learned how to get along. Again, it was more about relationships than about the money I was making, which was only enough to keep me in tea, cigarettes and an occasional beer.

Then after my second year of college, I headed to Block Island for the summer. And in my second summer on Block Island, I worked for Diane. Diane was running the airport diner and she had this bright idea that I could learn to be a short order cook. So I did that, and I lived in the little apartment above her garage for the summer. What I learned from Diane is immeasurable and I am proud to still call her friend after all these years. In those days, when her son Nathaniel was 4 years old and she was raising him by herself, she was running the airport restaurant, tending a huge vegetable garden, making soup every day for the restaurant, caring for her aging mother, and still finding time to go to the beach and teach me what eating fresh fish is really about.

Maybe it was the fact that I was slinging hash in the mornings and laying on the beach in the afternoon. Maybe it was the fact that I lived in this enchanting garage apartment where I had to carry in bottled water and shower down the street at the marina. Maybe it was the fact that I discovered that a piece of swordfish caught wild in the morning and broiled that afternoon could melt in your mouth like a good piece of prime rib. But I felt like Diane had been the shepherd of one of the most magical summers of my life. She was giving and tireless and I’d have done anything for her.

Diane

I’m thinking a lot about those days because I am sitting at Diane’s kitchen table looking out on a sunny day on Block Island, taking a brief vacation before I begin a new job in a week. Likewise, Diane and Donn are getting ready to start yet another new restaurant venture. I told them, if I hadn’t already found a job, I would have been happy to stay and help them open the new place. In fact, I believe I said “I would love nothing more than to let you guys work me like a dog.” I’ve always said that it’s important to me that I work for someone who shares my core values, someone who values the people who work for her, someone who wouldn’t ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. Someone with a generous spirit who is motivated to work is someone I will always want to work tirelessly for. If that’s what you wanna call a work ethic, I guess I acquired that somewhere along the way.

Who told you life was gonna be fair?

Union members and supporters outside Ohio Statehouse 2/22/11 waiting to be let in to hear testimony on S.B.5

Today I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of Ohio’s unionized state workers, teachers, firefighters, and F.O.P. members as we listened to the introduction of S.B. 5 by one of its co-sponsors, a bill that seeks to completely eliminate collective bargaining in the state of Ohio. Our numbers—which some estimate to be as much as 1500—filled the chambers of the Senate Hearing room at Ohio’s Statehouse, overflowing into the hallways, packing the atrium, and filling several secondary hearing rooms into which they had to pipe the audio of the hearing’s proceedings so the multitude of concerned workers could hear every word uttered in the hearing.

For those who may not know it, last year’s Ohio election mirrored many others in the country, turning over many state offices previously held by Democrats into the hands of Republicans. And as one of their first orders of business, the now Republican majority seeks to bust the state workers’ union and every other union in the public sector in this state with the sole intention of disarming the unions in order to take back the White House in 2012.

Needless to say, having two union teachers in the family and two family members that work directly for a union, I stand with my union brothers and sisters for their right to have a place at the table to collectively bargain their work contracts with the State of Ohio.

But my support for the right of workers to bargain collectively is not something I came upon late in life, or even as a young adult. I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade when the teachers in my school district went out on strike. It was during this strike that I learned about the right of workers to organize.

I got the sense from my mother that some kids’ parents were very upset about the strike. Many had vowed to cross the picket line and teach in order to keep the schools from shutting down. I don’t remember who’s mother taught our sixth grade class, but my mother crossed the picket line to teach first grade, and my younger sister had to endure the trauma of having her mother for a teacher.

What I remember most about that week is recess. During recess, a handful of other students and I walked around the perimeter of the school (the picket line) with Mr. “E.”, which was our nickname for the gym teacher, Mr. Elias.

Mr. E. gave us an education I have never forgotten. He talked to us about fair wages for teachers. He talked about the personal hardship involved in being on strike, not just for him but for others he knew that had families and were now on strike. He talked candidly and openly, not lecturing, not proselytizing, not angry. He answered our questions and then signaled when it was time for us to go back into the school. And with his answers, I began to understand that working people sometimes had to fight in order to be treated fairly.

Other similar thoughts started to occur to me around the same age. I had been placed in the “gifted” program in both 5th and 6th grade. In each of those grades, we had three classrooms of kids. One out of the three classrooms in each grade was designated as “gifted.” The majority of the kids in each of those classes came from our school, but in each class there were two or three kids who were bused in from other elementary schools on the north end of town. I knew it was not possible that out of all those schools on the north end of town, there were only a handful of kids who were as smart as the 50 of us that came from my school to fill those two classrooms.

And it started to register with me that the schools north of us were in poorer school districts. My elementary school sat squarely in between poorer neighborhoods and more affluent neighborhoods to the south, which most assuredly had their own “gifted” classrooms. But the schools on the north end didn’t have gifted classrooms. And even in my young mind, I knew that it simply was not possible that these two girls—for their were only two girls in my 6th grade class that came from other schools—were the only smart kids in 6th grade at their schools. And why exactly wouldn’t they have their own “gifted” class at their schools?

I began to ask questions that lead me to understand that school funding in our state was (and still is) dependent upon property taxes and that the property taxes in poorer school districts simply wouldn’t afford those schools the same advantages that we had.

So 6th grade is a crucial time for a lot of reasons, I guess. It’s the year that I became aware of class issues even within the middle class, aware of how working people have to fight to be treated fairly, even if they are college-educated, and aware of how some kids will never have the advantages I have had, no matter how smart they are. My father had often defused us kids when we were complaining about this or that by saying “Who told you life was gonna be fair?” At age 11, I was beginning to understand exactly what that meant. And by the same token, I was beginning to understand that life was gonna be a little fairer to me than it would be to a lot of others.

The Beatles, the hippies, Jesus, and my brother

 

My oldest brother, Jeff, ran away from home the first time when I was probably only 7 or 8 years old. He played guitar in a band and he played music in his room all the time. I don’t have great recollection of specific memories of my older brother at that age. What I have instead is a sense of comfort, awe, longing, and a sense that he was connected to something greater going on in the world that I was unable to comprehend fully.

Our house had two bedrooms on the second floor, one of which was intended to be the master bedroom boasting three walk-in closets and a bathroom. But at that age, my older sister and I were sharing the larger bedroom and Jeff had the room across the hall. I’m guessing the year was about 1967 or 68. My brother’s room had peace signs and pictures of the Beatles from the Let It Be album hanging on the walls.

What I remember most prior to his departure is going to sleep at night to the sound of his music. Whether he was playing guitar himself or playing records, there was always music playing at night as I went to sleep. Then one day he was gone. And the music stopped. And I couldn’t get to sleep without it.

I was very young. I had not experienced a loss. My father’s parents had both died by that time, but they did not live nearby and I had not been close to either of them.

And with 8 years between us, it’s not as if I was very close to my older brother. But when he left, I felt a big empty space that eventually became filled with longing.

Other memories around that time are more like sense memories than actual events.

I have a vague memory of my parents’ dread as they waited for Jeff’s draft number, and the slight sense of relief as they explained after receiving it that they had reason to believe he would be safe. I can remember that the older boy who lived across the street was drafted and how the news came back that he had refused to carry a gun in boot camp and so was told to go home. I remember thinking, well if that’s all you have to do to get out of going to war, that doesn’t seem too bad. I had no notion of what a dishonorable discharge might mean.

I began to romanticize the journey my brother must be on. I was drawn to any movie that romanticized the hippie way of life or running away from home or a road trip. Even if the story didn’t intend to romanticize the idea, I could look past a story of a troubled teen addicted to downers and see, instead, a triumphant story of a young person striking out on her own to discover the world on her own terms.

Meanwhile, my brother’s journey was far less glamorous than I let myself believe. Struggling with his own demons, and after a requisite west coast hitch-hiking journey, he settled down on “The Farm,” a born-again Christian community not far from our house run by a very kind man with five beautiful dark-haired daughters. Having accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, much to my mother’s dismay, he finished high school, continued playing music and went about his new life.

Lucky for me, he still looked like a hippie, with long scraggly hair and tunics, so I could continue to romanticize the role I had cast for him upon his departure. And I filled the empty space he left with a sense of longing—longing for adventure, for hitch-hiking, for discovering the rest of our country, for long hair, long flowing skirts, and the need to get away.

By the time I reached fifth grade, I found an old army shirt with the sleeves cut off that must have belonged to Jeff and wore it to school. Enduring ridicule for my fashion choice, I told the most popular girl in our class—a girl who regularly teased me even after she had invited me to her house for a sleepover—to “drop dead” loudly in front of the whole class, a move that was accompanied by sympathetic and admiring jeers from many classmates. I began to see that I was not going to lead a conventional life and I embraced the idea fully. Instead of feeling left out by the popular girls and ashamed to hang out with my second cousin, who was pretending to be a horse pretty much 24/7 at that age, I embraced my outsider status, reveled in being picked last for all team sports, and ran around the playground during recess with my second cousin, the horse.

Jeff still was a peripheral part of our lives. He had gone off to college to study music, was still one with Jesus, and soon brought home a girl he said he intended to marry. I was probably in seventh or eighth grade by then. His girlfriend was a buxom blonde with wild eyes and big full lips. She was loud, like us, and was a voice major in college. They kissed in ways my parents never had. They seemed very sure of themselves and full of the promise. I was infinitely interested in them, and they were willing to talk. I asked her about sex and she gave me frank and open answers to my questions. I asked them questions about their faith, not so much because of any spiritual needs or inclinations of my own, but because it was obviously very dear to them, and I wanted to be close to my older brother. Maybe I wanted to feel some of the things he must have experienced, what I assumed were the same things I was longing for, gain some sense of the adventures he must be having. Mostly, I wanted to feel that comforting feeling of being lulled to sleep by the sound of his guitar across the hall from my room.

brother, Jeff, and his oldest daughter, Rachel

It’s been many years since then. Jeff’s life has taken him many places, as has my own. Jeff and I have spent time getting to know one another through the years at various periods of our lives, whether here in Columbus, or in D.C., or on Block Island, or in upstate New York. He is as much a part of my family as the three other siblings I have. You might attribute my memory of it being otherwise during my youth to a combination of pre-pubescent angst and sibling adoration. But that wouldn’t be the whole story. For even now, we are not happy at family reunions until Jeff plays the guitar for us.

Soup’s On!

I make a mean soup. The whole process of making soup, even making the stock if that’s what I’m going to do, fills me with a sense of care. Care because making soup says to me “I like myself enough to create something really comforting and delicious for me to eat.” And because soup is best made in big over-brimming steamy batches, that care gets extended to my family and friends.

The story of how I became a soup maker goes back to Block Island, Rhode Island, and my first waitress job. I was nearing the end of my second year of college, in that transition from “aspiring actor” to “aspiring writer,” when my friend Mary came to me and said “I know this great place where we could go work all summer and have lots and lots of fun, too.”

Turned out she was talking about Block Island, a gourd-shaped mass of land 14 miles off the southern Rhode Island coast, dotted with freshwater ponds and rimmed with a combination of majestic cliffs, beautiful sandy beaches and tumbled rock-covered beaches.

So we loaded up her Renault Le Car (oh yes, you heard that right) and traveled through the middle of the night in order to make the first ferry at the break of dawn. The only plan we had was that Mary had arranged a room for herself in a rooming house. Neither she nor I had a job and I didn’t even have a place to stay.

But Block Island was an easy mistress; she lay wide open that late May and showed us how to work her. We were quickly able to secure housing for myself and jobs for both.

I soon tired of the first job I found working as a chambermaid for the biggest bitch hotel owner on the island, so I lied through my teeth in order to be a waitress at the airport diner. It was nothing but a little hole-in-the-wall with 14 seats at a counter, but I was ecstatic about slinging hash instead of making beds and cleaning toilets. The shift was 6 a.m. To 2 p.m., leaving me some afternoon time on the beach and some early-evening partying. Perfect!

My boss at the diner was a man who claimed to have been an executive chef at the Black Pearl in Newport, a fine-dining 5-star, yada yada yada. His long-haired, blonde, chiseled, 16-year-old son . . . oops, I said I wasn’t gonna kiss and tell in this blog. Okay, scrap that.

The morning cook at the diner was Laurie, a sweet, incredibly competent short-order cook who worked with unbelievable efficiency and ease. The afternoon cook was Robin, a bright, quirky west coaster with dark shiny hair down past her ass, wire-rimmed glasses, and a kind laugh–even when she was cackling. We hit it off immediately. Our birthdays are 1 day and 5 years apart.

Robin’s style of cooking was much different than Laurie’s. She was all over the place, experimenting with different specials, putting chili in omelets, scattering greasy burgers all over the grill. And always with incredible energy, distraction, and sometimes consternation.

And it is Robin who taught me how incredible soup-making can be.

Where Laurie was a model of efficiency and economy, Robin’s cooking was about creativity, expression, caring, and fun. She’d make a minestrone soup as if she made up the word “minestrone” all by herself. My mother never made soup from scratch, so watching Robin make soup was like a whole new world to me. Each ingredient was like a discovery she’d made all on her own. For all I knew about making soup, which at that time was nothing, I learned mountains from Robin, watching her combine onion, carrots, and celery, then add tomatoes, green beans, corn, whatever she could get her hands on. Some days she’d take her time, slowly adding things in between cups of coffee and cigarettes. Other days she would frantically jump around the kitchen, adding this and that, digging through the coolers to find what she needed.

The soup I remember her most for is a beef barley soup. “I love barley,” she would say to me, her eyes bright and wild, “I think I’ll add barley to that.” Barley was this great comforter that could wrap up a simple stock and a few vegetables into a warm and hearty bowl of love.

It was a few years after college before I started to approach the soup-making realm. But once I did, I found it to be one of the most rewarding cooking experiences ever. Particularly when I’m making stock from scratch and then making the soup. The time involved, the care put in to making a flavorful stock, whether with chicken, or vegetables, or whatever. And then the decision-making, deciding upon what spices to rely on, whether they’ll be dry or fresh this time, what vegetables to add, whether it will be cream-based, whether to go vegan. Sometimes I think of my audience, who among my friends or family needs the warmth and care of a homemade soup today? Sometimes I think only of myself. Today, I’m thinking of Robin, the dear friend who inspired me to become a soup-maker. Maybe I’ll add barley to this one.

It’s a beautiful day—get outside!

I’m very thankful for a childhood spent outside. I

a lake in the Poconos

don’t remember my mother being too insistent that we make a decision one way or another about being outside or inside. Although she often got tired of hearing the screen door slam and would utter the familiar “In or out, kids!” mantra of so many mothers in my neighborhood. But in my mind, we were outside kids.

We had freedom to roam the neighborhood from a very early age. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill. Three houses past ours was a dead end. Past the dead end was a patch of woods that reached all the way to a thru-way street. This patch of woods only stretched one block from one end to the other, but it seemed immense to me. It was dense and it was ours.

We had a good sized back yard with lots of trees. At the back end of our property stood a majestic weeping willow tree and just beyond it a creek. Well, not so much a creek but an open part of a massive run-off drainage system. The end of a large cement pipe jutted out from the very back of our property and then the open creek led back through what seemed like a vast field behind our house.

The willow tree, the creek, the field, and the woods down past the dead end, that’s where I grew up in my early childhood.

Halfway through the patch of woods and on the side of the woods that faced the field sat one of our many forts. This fort was the most elaborate of all our neighborhood forts. It was constructed of rock, big, hefty foundation-type rocks. Probably left in the woods from some old homestead long-since torn down. The rocks were stacked in a circle about two to three feet high. Two entrances were left open where the two different paths led to the fort. This was the most secluded and remote fort we had. Here we were completely cut off from the neighborhood. No one could see us or hear us and likewise, we couldn’t hear anybody’s mother calling. It was a world to imagine and construct with no adult intervention.

Along the creek in back of our house we had another fort. It sat on the bank of the creek maybe 50 feet from the back of our property where the willow tree stood. This fort was of much simpler construction. It was a small square clearing in the field. There were logs marking its outer edges. Even though it was not far from our house, because the field grew tall around it, you could be in that fort and not be seen even from our backyards. But we could still hear our mothers calling if they stood in the backyard and yelled.

The willow tree was the fort closest to home, and in many ways, the most memorable since so much of my childhood took place in and around that mighty tree. There was a single rope swing hanging from a high branch. We could swing out over the creek and back. The more daring, like the boys in the neighborhood, would swing out over the creek and jump off. The ground around the tree was mostly dry dirt, no grass because it was so heavily traveled by all kids in the neighborhood. But on rainy days, it was perfect for making mud pies. Those are my earliest memories of life around the great willow.

The tree stood with a wide trunk that rose up 7 or 8 feet, at which point the trunk had divided itself into several secondary trunks that formed a natural fortress in the center of the tree. And as luck would have it, about 6 feet up the tree was a branch sticking straight out of the front of the tree about 4 inches in diameter, having been cut off about two and a half feet from the tree’s trunk. The branch was your ticket up into paradise. Without it, the tree would have required a ladder, a rope, something that you could use to climb up the first eight feet.

I’d hoist myself up by grabbing that first branch with both hands, hooking one leg up and over it and pulling myself up to sit then stand on it. The bark was worn off so that, even in shorts, it was an easy maneuver. The next step was the tricky part because for an instant while I clumsily hung onto branches way too big to get my small arm around, I had to balance on that small branch and get a foot hold in the crook of two big secondary trunks while pulling myself through to the center of the fortress. Once there, there were crooks in which to lean, a large branch on an angle a little further up where one could perch, all sorts of places to lean, sit, and hang out. The tree could easily hold 3 or 4 of us, more if you were willing to climb higher. I was not so adventurous. I happily hung out in the folds of those larger branches. I’d sit staring up at the willow’s canopy swaying in the summer wind.

Years later the city authorities decided that the willow tree was causing the storm sewer to back up and our basement to flood. I must have been about 13 or 14 years old when they came and cut it down. I sat in my second floor bedroom overlooking the backyard and cried the whole afternoon while they did it. I was crushed. That tree cradled what seemed at my tender young age to be a lifetime of exhilarating memories going all the way back to making mud pies as a toddler on rainy days underneath it, swinging out over the creek on the rope swing, and pretending that the crook of that tree was a lost world belonging only to us, the kids in the neighborhood. I cannot pass by a willow tree to this day without feeling a rush of summer glee.

Yes, we were outside kids. And it’s made me an outside adult–gardening in spring and summer, camping, or walking in one of my favorite parks. Undaunted by cold and snow, I’m out sledding or tubing with my niece in the winter. I even like shoveling snow. Yep, I’m an outside girl. Always have been.

All of these lines across my face . . .

waterfall in the Poconos

So begins a song by Brandi Carlisle, the upshot of which is that the stories of one’s life mean nothing if no one hears them.

It’s the start of 2011, the year in which I will turn 50. I’m sitting in my brand new recliner, an item I probably shouldn’t have purchased considering I will probably be laid-off from my job soon. But there’s nothing like turning 50 and losing your job to bring about some introspection, perhaps some reassessment. What am I reassessing exactly? Probably everything–my life, my goals over the years, my views–in other words, I’ll be using this blog to address the following: who am I and how the hell did I get here?

About thirty years ago I was pursuing a theatre degree at Kent State University. I was in an acting class with an instructor whose name I seem to have blocked out of my memory. I was doing a monologue from Death of a Salesman, the one where Linda Loman, wife of Willy, is kneeling over his grave at the very end of the play. I barely remember the text of this monologue. But I remember very clearly the old-fashioned humiliation the instructor was putting me through as she made me do the scene over and over and over again repeatedly declaring that I was flat, that I was not conveying anything.

She was right, of course. I had never related to the play, much less the character of Linda Loman, wife to the do-nothing washed-up salesman Willy. But I remember very clearly doing the scene over and over and over until, by about the fourth time, I was so pissed off at the instructor that I was positively seething. I was delivering the lines through clenched teeth and tensed shoulders, fighting back tears of humiliation, when at the close of the monologue, the instructor practically yelled as she jumped up and said “Yes! That’s it! Much better. Do you see the difference?”

I did not. I was completely perplexed. I had no further understanding of the text, no intimate connection with the character. How could I possibly relate to the feelings of a middle-aged woman whose husband, the man she’d invested everything in, had just committed suicide? I was 20 years old. I’d never been in love. The only loss I’d experienced thus far was the loss of two high school friends who tragically lost their lives when the driver of their car drove into a large tree trunk.

Anyway, the whole experience made me reconsider my major and my life’s trejectory. I’d been doing theatre since I was 4 years old, mostly musicals and comedies, nothing real heavy. I had a decent singing voice and a genuine lack of inhibition that made it easy for me to get on stage and make a fool of myself. But the idea of suffering this kind of humiliation on a constant basis, enduring constant rejection, subjecting myself to the starvation that comes with living in New York, Chicago or L.A. to pursue such a crazy career objective, and the real likelihood of success, which was virtually zero, made me think it was probably time to switch majors.

So I thought about it for the remainder of the semester and then switched my major to the only other thing I really enjoyed doing in high school—reading and writing. Yes, you guessed it, I became an English major. You may be thinking, why switch from one useless undergraduate degree to another? I received two awards at my senior graduation awards ceremony—one was for theatre and the other was for advanced composition. Truth be told, I was proudest of the advanced comp award. My senior year English teacher was a wise-ass Brit who loved the existentialists and who tried his best to get me to understand that there were jobs for good writers in the world.

So over the years, I have worked mostly in the communications field, writing for corporations, government entities, non-profits, and eventually writing content for secondary level textbooks.

However, back when I was still in my twenties, I also wrote for myself. I wrote short stories that never got published, began a novel that was never finished, did lots and lots of letter writing for which I received many accolades, mostly from people who received my letters, of course. By about age 30, I had to switch my focus to making a living and writing for myself kind of faded away.

Having decided to treat my fiftieth year with a certain amount of reflection and mindfulness, what better means than to engage in the craft of writing for myself, an activity that felt so much a part of me during my twenties, the time in our lives when we are so full of hope and promise, wound up with energy, and performing at the top of our game (at least that’s how I remember it). So I’ve committed to writing 50 blog entries in 50 weeks in my 50th year. I will blog about who I am and how I got to be who I am. It won’t be a tell-all, so those of my friends who are out there fearing that I might be finally ready to kiss and tell, worry not. I will try to show respect for the people I’ve had the privilege to know and learn from, and gratitude for the life I’ve had in an effort to take a deeper look at myself and think about what lies ahead for me. All the while, I hope to rekindle the craft of writing for myself, something I set aside so many years ago.

Thanks for taking the time . . .