Of the 26 letters in our alphabet, there are two I have recently found distasteful: W and V. Like Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I’ve discovered each of these letters pinned to my chest in the last few months and I have wanted to rip them off.
The letter W— for Widow. Did I think ignoring or getting rid of that one would somehow change my reality???!!!
The letter V— for Vulnerable. A word that probably most people don’t want to have attached to themselves; and oldest daughters generally— and particularly this one — really reject.
Last week I watched an interview with NY Times columnist David Brooks about his new book, The Road to Character. One of the key points he makes is that we are all flawed and that the key to becoming a better person is identifying your weak spot.
That’s where the V word comes back in. A definite weak spot for me. I don’t like being vulnerable. I much prefer being in control. Ask for help? Huh uh. Against my nature. Lead the way. Meet challenges and plow right on through.
But God/the universe/whatever you choose as a name knows just when to step in. And nothing subtle . After watching the interview, I couldn’t miss a regular, morning meditation that appeared that day in my inbox with the title, Ask for Help.
For the past several months I’d been ignoring a hospice-sponsored newsletter with information about grief-support groups. My thinking: If I called them, if I went to a meeting, I’d just be reinforcing the W and V words. I so didn’t want to do that. But I could no longer refuse.
Yesterday I went to my first meeting. I cried through half of it. It was a safe place to do so. No need to put on a “just fine” face. Everyone there — those mourning the loss of spouses, or a daughter, a son, a parent, a pet — understood. The boxes of Kleenex at each end of the long table were reached for frequently. As were the pitchers of water. (Did you know that there’s a need for the body to replenish the water lost through tears?)
We are all in this Together. It’s an expression I’ve heard so many times, it had lost it’s meaning. As had the adage, It’s by our weakness that we are made strong.
I’ll go back to the meetings. The W and V are still on my chest. But I’ve added a bigger one: T.
An Arabic “N.” A single letter in red on a white background, graces a round, button-shaped pin that has been on my desk for the last several weeks. The intended message of the pin: “I am with you.”
The Arabic “N,” pronounced either “noon” or “nun,” is the letter with which ISIS marks the homes of those who follow the Nazarene (Christians) after overtaking a town. The mark tells the marauding militants that everything and everyone within, including the elderly, women and children, are there for the taking. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to know what that means.
The pins are the project of a Colorado businessman who uses his own resources to produce them. It’s his goal to raise awareness about the brutality occurring to those he calls “our brothers and sisters” and to promote solidarity with them. I learned about the “N” buttons several weeks ago when Mike, the businessman, was making them available at the back of the church I attend. I made a donation and asked him for several to give to friends and family. Handing the pins to me, Mike said, “All I ask is that you wear the button and explain what’s going on when people ask.”
That should be the end of my story, but it’s not. As I headed for the mall the next day and started to put on the pin, I stopped. What if people don’t ask and instead assume that this Arabic letter means that I’m a sympathizer with Islamic radicals? Or–and possibly more worrisome–What if by wearing it I make myself a target for some faceless radical?
An oldest daughter, I grew up with the expectation that I would do what is right, be an example for my younger siblings. Now suddenly, I was having to ask myself some uncomfortable questions. Am I willing to forego the comfort of anonymity by taking even a small, personal yet visible stand against violence? I remembered the quote usually attributed to Gandhi, “The only thing worse than violence is cowardice in the face of violence.”
Yesterday Paris and much of the western world was shocked by the brutal slaughter of journalists by Islamic radicals. The journalists, writers, editors, and especially cartoonists had used the power of the pen in ways that made them targets. Today newspapers around the world, government officials, and tens of thousands on the streets of Paris and the tweets of social medial are finding ways to stand together for freedom of the press – to prove that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
I don’t know if the pin can also be mightier than the sword; but it is one, small personal way I can stand with those whose very lives are threatened. A pin is personal. It says something about what is valuable to the wearer. Today I pinned the “N” to my jacket and headed for the mall.
More information about the “N” project is available through firstname.lastname@example.org .
Here in my neck of the woods, it is C-O-L-D. Tonight’s actual temp is predicted to be 15 below zero with a windchill of 35 below!!!! I’ve been staying snug indoors with books, movies, and a puzzle. And what a puzzle it is. One thousand pieces that when all put together will look like Mount Rushmore.
Yesterday I began sorting the 1000 pieces according to color and shapes. This afternoon I finally got to the fun part and have now succeeded in putting all the edge pieces together to form a completed frame. Sort of. A couple of the pieces had required force fitting and so don’t lie completely flat. I’ve discovered that some of the pieces that look almost alike are not interchangeable. Each of the lookalikes would really fit better and the puzzle would lie flat as intended, instead of with ever-so-tiny bumps, if I found the correct place and switched the pieces.
As I was comparing pieces and moving them around, I realized the multi-colored puzzle is actually a good metaphor for where I am in life.
Where do I fit in this new, upcoming year?
What/where can I make a contribution to this world I am part of?
I don’t want to find that I’m forcing myself into a position that would appear at first glance to work only because I haven’t looked around to see what other options might be a better fit.
With six bowls filled with color-organized pieces and my mind filled with questions about the future, I’m aware that both the puzzle on my mat and the one in my spirit will probably take longer to figure out than the current cold snap will last. That’s okay.
It is, after all, the time of year to sort things out and then start to put the pieces together. And to remember that — though sometimes frustrating — completing a puzzle is most often fun and rewarding.
Happy New Year to all!
Tis the season for The Family Holiday Dinner. And with it come the annual questions. Who is having it or who is expected to? Who’s bringing what and who gets to decide?
And what are the unspoken “great expectations” when we get together? Dickens of dilemmas, possibly, as shown in two conversations – one I had just the other day, one a few years ago.
I mentioned to one of my oldest-daughter friends last week that I was thinkingabout writing about the expectations created by holiday dinners. She immediately said,“You mean like the expectation that, of course, well have the dinner????”
The other comment came from “Susan,” who is not an oldest daughter. She had some image-pricking thoughts that have stayed with me about the same topic:
It’s interesting. Oldest daughters seem to always have the dinner and then complain about it. Like one of my friends whose younger sisters now have their own families. Since she says she ends up feeling like she’s being “used,” I asked her why she didn’t suggest that someone else host the dinner for a change. But she can’t relinquish it — though I even asked her, ‘How is it helping anybody if you’re feeling resentful?’
In addition to experiencing a few uncomfortable twinges at Susan’s observation (particularly her reference to the inability to relinquish), I also felt compelled to ask a follow-up question. It’s one I know a lot of oldest daughters would be interested in: But what if nobody steps up and offers to have the dinner? My non-oldest friend’s response reflected more realism than idealism. “Then you say, I guess we won’t have a family dinner for everybody this year.”
Now that’s talking turkey. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Because the reality is, if it’s important for families to come together, a way will be found. Maybe it won’t be a dinner the way Grandma always had it. Perhaps it will be a potluck of each family’s favorite dishes or just pumpkin pie and coffee. Maybe it’ll take place each year or every other year in rotating homes.
Whatever — as this season of holiday dinners is getting underway, it’s worth remembering that it’s not about what’s on the table, but whose feet are under it. And that the two most important guests, wherever that table is found, are gratitude and love.
October is National Fire Prevention Month — an unlikely topic for this blog except for two at-first, seemingly unrelated occurrences.
The first produced national headlines and commentary: an armed intruder able to get into the White House without being detected and make his way toward the President’s private quarters before being forcibly brought down. How was that possible? The alarm system, intended to alert the Secret Service to the presence of any intruders, had been muted (some reports said turned off) because it made an annoying sound.
Story seem familiar? What could improbably happen in the “The People’s House” could and does all too easily happen in other people’s houses, as attested to by the second occurrence, an email from Judy Kashka. You may recall that she is an oldest daughter who wrote an earlier blog for this column. Like the first, she shares her following personal story in hopes that doing so will spare others the unnecessary heartache her family experienced.
My husband, Leroy, and I were away celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary three years ago when the phone rang around midnight. Our daughter Terri told us her daughter Taylor had spent the night with her best friend, as she had done countless times before. An electrical fire had broken out in the home. Taylor’s friend woke up to the smoke, could not get Taylor awake, went down to find her Mother, and they could not get back upstairs to get Taylor. She was eight years old.
We learned that the family of Taylor’s friend had taken their smoke detectors down to replace them, but had not gotten around to installing the new ones.
Following the tragedy, the fire department asked Terri to tell Taylor’s story every chance she got because when the fire chief asks people to check their smoke detectors, he often gets a “yea, right” response. When Terri tells Taylor’s story, she gets an “OMG, I will go home and check them immediately.” The Fire Chief tells our daughter that she will never have any idea how many tragedies she has prevented by telling Taylor’s story.
Numerous television interviews and newspaper articles both at the time of Taylor’s death and on the anniversaries have told her story. Terri also spoke at a press conference at the Kansas State Capital with the State Fire Marshall and the Governor. Most people are unaware that many local Fire Departments will come inspect your home for placement of smoke detectors and will even provide and install them at no cost if you cannot afford one.
Terri has since created an ongoing campaign, appropriately named “Taylor Your Home 4 Safety.” A logo was designed with a slogan and a ladybug (Taylor’s nickname was “Bug”) sitting on a smoke detector; a Facebook page with the campaign name was created; and wristbands with the campaign message have been made available through the Facebook page via an IM to the administrator — all to help spread the word about the importance of smoke detectors.
I would not wish what has happened to our family on anyone! But Leroy and I are so proud of our daughter for having had the courage to turn a personal tragedy into something that is helping other families.
As adult oldest daughters, we often continue to be looked to for our responses to various situations and challenges. Judy’s story provides an opportunity for each of us to remind family and friends to check/replace our smoke alarm batteries. The end of Daylight Savings Time is regularly suggested as a good time to do that checking. This year that day is November 2 – a good day to Taylor Your Home 4 Safety.
My husband has been in the hospital for the past several days for a barrage of tests. I mention this because in my last post I asked, “What now, oldest daughter?” How are we to use the leadership and/or nurturing that is such a part of us? How are we to honor what makes us feel most alive? Especially when when uninvited interrupters shred our plans? That was the situation facing Judy, a professional musician, wife, mother and grandmother, who shares her story of “what now” in the following guest blog.
My husband, Leroy, and I had five children. Thirty years ago Sarah, our 15-year-old daughter was abducted walking home. They found her body five days later, but her killer has never been found. What happened affected us as parents, her younger sister and older brothers, all our friends, and even the people we tell now 30 years later.
After Sarah’s death, I became a leader with my husband in talking to young people and to parents and a nurturer in hopefully providing some comfort to those who are grieving the loss of a child or by grandchild by sharing our own loss with them and then helping them plan a meaningful memorial/funeral service to celebrate the life of the one they lost.
Our message to young people is three-fold:
1. Sometimes your parents do know what they are talking about. They have your best interests at heart, so think before you do something you are told not to. Our daughter went somewhere she was specifically told not to go and got herself into a situation she couldn’t handle. Had she listened, she might be here today. Instead she was abducted and murdered.
2. You won’t get through this life without faith. Even if life doesn’t deal you the hand we have been dealt, if you do have major events you sure will need faith.
3. You may have seen us in church or me at the piano and had no idea this had happened in our life. So if you see someone having a bad day, cut them a little slack, you never know what is going on in their life.
If we get one young person to listen it is worth telling our story.
I keep saying some day I am going to write a list of things NOT TO SAY when you offer condolences to someone who has lost a child. I have a few doozies like “God didn’t give you more than you can handle.” (God didn’t give me this!) or “At least you have other children.” (We didn’t have spares. They’re not interchangeable.) People mean well, but the best thing is to say simply, “I’m sorry.”
What kept us going initially was the fact that we had four other children. We had to function – they needed us!
Now what motivates me – what makes me feel most alive – is doing things with my grandchildren. Plus panning services for the families makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
I am a lineswoman. For those of you who know me personally, no worries. I’m not talking sports. I’m referring to quotes.
Lines I have read or heard often come to me when I’m out walking early in the morning.
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”
The question repeats itself as I walk. I’d read it a few days before in Anthony Doerr’s gripping new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. It’s asked by an older woman who is challenging her friends to take potentially dangerous actions against the Nazis occupying their small coastal town. We don’t know very much about the woman, except that she’s in charge of a bakery. We witness the courage and leadership required to take the action she proposes and then the impact on her friends, the community and the novel’s young protagonist.
Though thankfully no comparable dilemma confronts me, the French woman’s question takes on talons and sticks in my brain. I find myself asking, “What does it mean to be, to feel “alive”?
Maybe it means taking a look at my bucket list. Maybe it means evaluating if I need to become involved in issues affecting my life. For sure, it means cutting any coasting and recognizing that what I do with my time matters.
“Are you having any fun?”
Ironic question to pop into my head as I hit the hardest, mostly uphill part of my morning walk. This quote comes compliments of the movie Quartet, which my husband and I had watched again a few nights ago. It replays, complete with melody, as I head up the first semi-steep incline that lies between me and home. Am I having any fun? Such an important question. Even now as I do my self-imposed exercise, begin to pant and at the same time hear the chirps of the nearby prairie dogs, I recognize that “fun” includes things which give me satisfaction, make me feel good about myself and what I’m doing.
That’s when as I round the last uphill curve, the final quote comes to mind, one penned more than a century ago by American philosopher and psychologist William James. A copy of it was push-pinned into the corner of my office cork board for years: “Seek out that which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive…the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real you.’”