Inventing a Life

During recent conversations with friends, I realized that each of us is considering how to reinvent our lives. One is widowed at 65. Another’s ailing father recently died, ending her time-consuming caretaking responsibilities. A third friend is trying to understand what retirement will look like. I’m contemplating how my life will change when my oldest son moves to the West Coast in a few weeks.

The widow said, “What do I do with all of the expectations I had?” Unspoken is how devastating her loss is. Her best friend is gone. Her children live out of town. This is not what she imagined for her life.

The friend whose father died now has the ability think about how she wants to use her free time. She said, “Now is the time to enlarge my circle of friends and activities. I’m going to need them as I get older.” Unspoken was the awareness that some friends might move away—to warmer climates or to be closer to grandkids—and some will get sick or die. During the next 30 years, the ranks will thin out. Better to cast a wider net.

My semi-retired friend is also considering how to enrich her next 30 years. She already has a full life—plenty of friends, her writing projects, yoga, biking and more. She asked, “What experiences do I still want to have?”

I don’t have answers for my friends, but I do understand the questions. Numerous times, I’ve had to re-envision my life.

Sometimes I’ve embraced the need for a major life change, like when my husband and I decided to downsize and move from the suburbs to the city. We eagerly searched for a new house and tried to picture ourselves in a variety of neighborhoods. We were seeking a new lifestyle, and I was excited about the possibilities.

Other major changes were thrust on me, like family illnesses. When my younger son severely injured his knee and needed to rehab with my husband and me, we all had to figure out the new dynamics.

How odd he must have felt to move into one of our spare bedrooms at 25. He’d been on his own and managing well since he was 19. While he was bedridden, we cooked for him and helped him wash up. He could make his own health care and financial decisions, but little else was under his control at first. When he wanted privacy, he even had to ask someone else to close his door.

Seeing him grimacing in pain and knowing that I couldn’t fix that was hard for me. I also had to walk the line between suitable caretaking like fetching ice packs or water and fussing too much. None of us knew what the next day or next week would bring, but I knew we’d figure it out. And we did.

Image taken by Daniel Schwen. Made available through Wikimedia Commons.

Some big changes are mixed blessings, like my oldest son moving out west. He and his significant other have dreamed about new opportunities for him and a well-regarded medical residency program for her. After months of uncertainty, their life is unfolding as they had hoped. I’m excited for them and think the Bay area will be fun to visit. But I’ll really miss them and know our time together will work differently. We won’t have the impromptu dinners and walks we all love. Instead, our future visits will be planned well in advance. We will need to create different rituals for birthdays and holidays. Inevitably, he’ll be far away and miss out on some events, like going for a beer with his brother, hearing my husband’s band perform, or attending one of my publication readings.

Whenever I’ve undergone a major life change, I’ve had to invent a life that better fits my new circumstances. That requires emotional energy, and sometimes that’s hard to find. But I’ve been separated from family before. My husband and I moved away from my Ohio family nearly 30 years ago. I know a lot about maintaining strong long distance connections.

So I’ve begun thinking about how we can use phone calls and FaceTime to maintain close ties with my son after he moves. I’ve checked out airfares. Bit by bit I’m inventing the new shape of my life.

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It’s A Different World

A few weeks ago, my job was expanded to include another plant under my human resources umbrella. I introduced myself to the General Manager and the office and production employees. I started with the personal.

“My partner and I have two children. They are 14 years old. We adopted them from Guatemala as infants.”

I shared my philosophy of human resources. I view my human resources department as a service to employees. I explained how they would see me on the manufacturing floor. I welcomed them to stop me and ask for a W2 form, address change form, vacation slip, etc.

Their eyes lit up when they understood that I would come to them instead of them having to come to me.

I marveled that I could bring me to them. The all of me. Specifically, having a partner.

It wasn’t that long ago that I never mentioned the word ‘partner’ at work. I kept the personal to myself. I wanted people to judge my human resources style not my personal life.

What changed for me was that same sex marriage became legal in Minnesota on August 1, 2013.

I am legitimate. I don’t need to hide behind unspoken words. I don’t need to say anything about my personal life. Or, I can.

This past January, Jody accompanied me to a work outing. I introduced her to the President, Vice President and others as my partner.

It’s been 4 years of living in a different world.

It’s a good thing for all of us.

The Secret Life of Jewelry

Every morning, I indulge in a small ritual—choosing what jewelry to wear. What I reach for depends on my mood and what clothes I’m wearing. It’s an expression of my taste. But I’m also choosing talismans. The pieces I wear don’t offer magical protection, exactly, but they do offer a tiny bit of power—to keep people close to me.

Many of the earrings, rings, and necklaces I have were gifts. Slipping them on reminds me that I’m loved. Or if I wear something that belonged to my mother, grandmothers or aunts, I am drawing on memories of them to give me strength.

I’m not alone in assigning secret meanings to my jewelry.

When I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jewelry exhibit in London last fall, I learned that since ancient times, whether jewelry was made from bones and shells or wrought from gold and precious gems, it has had meanings that go beyond adornment and self-expression.

Seringapatam Jewels at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England.

Often the additional meanings are obvious—to show status and wealth (crown jewels), to express love and affection (wedding bands), as a sign of faith (the cross for Christians and the Star of David for Jews). Jewelry is also worn for protection or in remembrance.

The ancients thought certain stones and gems protected the wearer from illness and evil spirits. For example, rubies are supposed to confer health, strength and fearlessness. I didn’t know that when I chose a wedding band with rubies in it. I just liked rubies—I wasn’t hoping to feel more powerful.

Wearing jewelry as keepsakes is the meaning I most relate to.

After my mother died, I began to wear her wedding band on a chain as a way to keep her close. Not every day, but more intentionally, when I specifically want to think of her.

The opal ring my husband gave me, when I was depressed about turning 60, reminds me of his enduring love and how well he understands me.

An inexpensive craft fair ring with chips of peridot and garnet in it reminds me of my father and a sunny day when I visited Dad and Mom in Florida. Their health was still good and we were carefree.

The oval garnet ring my sister gave me when I became a mother brings to mind our strong bond.

garnet

So many of the pieces I love and wear often—the bracelet my sister-in-law made for me, the necklaces a friend has sent me over the years, and the earrings my sons have given me—remind me of some of the special people in my life. Wearing these gifts is a secret source of joy.

3 gifts

 

Be Safe. Don’t Die.

img_1806Be Safe. Don’t Die.

I was half way out the door when I heard, “Be safe. Don’t die.” It was Crystel’s voice. I cringed. She was 12-years-old. I thought of turning around to tell her not to say that. That it would be ‘nicer’ to say, “I love you.”

I paused. She was sincere. I didn’t say anything.

Instead, I asked myself backing out of the driveway, “Why am I uncomfortable? That it’s true? That at any moment I could die, be in a car accident, be shot in an airport, or fall on the Minnesota ice?”

Be safe, don’t die, has all the realness one can ask for in an adieu. It means, “I want to see you again. It means, don’t leave me. It means, I want you to come home.”

Jody remembers that it was after Crystel saw the movie, “If I Stay,” that she started saying, “Be Safe, Don’t Die.”

img_1808It was as if she understood that death happens. That people could leave their home and their life could forever be altered.

In the movie, life changes in an instant for Mia after a car accident puts her in a coma. During an out-of-body experience, she must decide whether to wake up and live a life far different than she had imagined. The choice is hers if she can go on.

Crystel is 14 now. She’s still telling me and her other family members to be safe and not to die. I find this comforting. She wants me around. She doesn’t want me to disappear from her earth. “Be safe. Don’t die,” has all the fondness of an “I love you.”

Now, Jody and I also tell her, “Be safe. Don’t die.” Our way of telling her that we love her.

Finding Common Ground in the Essence of the Holidays

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago - Table set for 16 - before the  carnage

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago – Table set for 16 – before the dinner carnage

In the class where I assist, explaining the customs surrounding Halloween and Thanksgiving to adult immigrants who are learning English is challenging. Understanding American customs helps immigrants fit in, even if they aren’t likely to celebrate the holidays the exact same way long-time Americans do. However, Halloween and Thanksgiving have evolved so much from their original meanings that often it’s hard to make sense of our current practices.

When I try to explain Halloween, it sounds absurd.

In class, I hear myself say, “Halloween” comes from “All Hallowed’s Eve.” “Hallowed” refers to people who have died—their souls are “hallowed” or “holy,” and Christians believe good souls go to heaven after they die . . . .”

I write the words on the board and think, How can I possibly explain the history? I try this, “Hundreds of years ago the Celts—people who lived in Great Britain and northern Europe—believed that October 31st was the end of one year and November 1st was the start of a new year. At that time of year, dead souls could visit earth. People dressed in costumes to trick the returning spirits, so the spirits or ghosts couldn’t harm them.” Wow. That sounds completely bizarre. Why is this still a holiday?

I say, “Most people don’t really worry about ghosts, but people still enjoy dressing in costumes.” I pause after that semi-lame comment. Moving along, I start to describe how trick or treating works, but falter when explaining the reasons why that custom is acceptable. Give me a treat or else I’ll play a trick on you? On the face of it, that custom sounds like blackmail. Umm, in America, that how we do things??

Given the language barrier, I’m not sure how much the students understand.

cemetary

Photo from traditionscustoms.com

The students from Mexico and Central America see the connection between American Halloween and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in which families visit cemeteries with food and mementoes, and they picnic at the gravesites. At best, the students from Africa and Asia look baffled by Halloween and Dia de Muertos, and at worst, they look repelled.

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar - originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar – originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights (Diwali)

I extend our discussion to describe Diwali (also called Deepavali). It’s a Hindu festival of lights that’s celebrated in late autumn in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, and other countries in the region. People light candles and lamps, create intricate decorations called “rangoli” using colored powder, and families exchange small gifts to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.

The Muslim Africans and Buddhists from Asia and begin to nod. They see that in countries across the world, celebrations take place in late autumn when the days grow shorter and darker. They understand that people need light, to gather together, and to celebrate with special food.

When we discuss Thanksgiving, I feel a different sort of disconnect.

The official story of Thanksgiving is that Native Americans selflessly rescued starving Pilgrims by teaching them about North American foods—how to grow corn and squash and how to hunt local game and fish. To show gratitude after the first harvest, the Pilgrims prepared a feast and shared it with the local tribe. That’s the version I learned years ago in school, and it’s still favored today in many public schools.

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving Historical postcard c. 1910 from Plimoth Plantation collection

But, I think, it’s only half of the story. European settlers also introduced smallpox and other diseases to Native Americans, who had no resistance to them. Thousands died. Often the Pilgrims’ interactions with local Indian tribes were disrespectful. Native Americans were seen as “savages” who had no religion of their own. For a long while after the Pilgrims claimed New England for their own, the invading European settlers and Native Americans engaged in raids and massacres. Millions were killed.

How far do I delve into the historical details? After the trouble explaining Halloween customs, I decide to mention, but only summarize, the difficulties between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. Perhaps it’s wrong to round off history’s sharp edges, but I decide to focus on what connects people of different cultures. I describe the current meaning of Thanksgiving—to be grateful for what you have and to share a good meal (of whatever cuisine) with family and friends. When put in the simplest terms, the students understand the point of Thanksgiving.

By focusing on the essence of these customs—remembering the dead, pushing back darkness, being grateful for a plentiful harvest, and sharing a good meal with family and friends—students who come from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Vietnam find common ground with each other and with Americans.