Fear and Longing

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My granddaughters live three states away. I haven’t seen them since January. The enforced separation is causing tears and heartache—on both sides. For me, though, as the aging adult, the longing is confused and aggravated by fear.

I’m close to seventy years old. What if I die before we can be together again? This strange and virulent disease could be the end of me. Other younger folk are often less anxious. Today we ventured out to a D.IY. store to get some needed house supplies. Although most of the customers had on masks, there was an atmosphere of laxity that I found alarming.

I hurried through the store, flinging air filters and bug spray into our cart. On the checkout line, the man in front of us had no mask. I commented on this and pulled back further. My husband, whose dementia blanks out the crisis daily, made a joke about the fellow being a tough guy.

“It’s not funny!” I shouted. I moved our cart to the self-checkout lane and rushed out of the store.

I don’t know if we’ll attempt another shopping trip. I truly felt unsafe, and also angry that others’ cavalier attitudes force me to take risks.

When I asked my doctor about the advisability of visiting the family, he said, “Sure, you can walk with them outdoors.”

“Oh, no, but they live five hours away,” I said.

“Nope.”

If this social isolation lasts months longer, I may reassess the risks versus the emptiness. For now, though, we’re back in the apartment, too far away.

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Jigsaw Puzzles in the Time of COVID

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Next to our kitchen we have a folding table devoted to a jigsaw puzzle. How many have we completed since March? Maybe five or six. Most have 1000 pieces. Some, like the one below, were difficult and frustrating. Usually the hardest bits are large areas of one color or a gradation of similar colors, like an expanse of ocean or sky.

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My husband likes to join me when I work on a puzzle. His struggles are doubled because of his dementia and his red-green color weakness. Still, he likes the companionship of doing this together.

The most difficult puzzle came as a holiday gift. It involved puzzles within a puzzle. First challenge: there were only two shapes in the edges. Usually we start by searching out all the flat edge pieces that make the frame. To assemble the frame of this “Escape” puzzle, we had to match the colors and design. But—second challenge–the picture of the puzzle IS NOT the picture on the cover! So we were left without a reliable reference.

It took me a while to figure that out. For example, on the cover there is a black and white cat sitting on a pink stool. In the puzzle–no cat.

Once we had all the pieces in place—not necessarily the right place—we realized that there were codes and math problems to solve in order to find the antidote to the poison taken by the chef in the story that accompanies the puzzle. Along with the story came a sealed envelope with the solution. We were able to decipher some of the codes and runes, but (I sadly confess) we gave up and peeked at the answer.

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Some of our friends say vehemently, “I hate jigsaw puzzles.” I, for one, enjoy the challenge, and the satisfaction of tapping a piece into place. A while ago, a puzzle aficionado and friend purchased several boxes of jigsaw puzzles. We’ve been passing them around among our socially distanced group. Each time someone finishes a puzzle, she signs the inside of the box top.

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Sometimes a critical voice in my head asks me why I’m wasting my time on this activity. “It’s relaxing and it’s fun,” I say, so I tell the voice to shut up, and go back to peacefully doing the puzzle.

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Bird Feeder, Briefly

 

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Photo by daniyal ghanavati on Pexels.com

Three days ago, we hung a bird feeder from our balcony. The first day, we had no customers.  By day two, the birds had discovered this new, no-work source of food.  The sparrows and finches came in hoards.  My husband said, “This is better than TV!”

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That same day, we moved the feeder to the corner of the balcony so the wasted seeds would fall away from the neighbor’s deck below us.  The birds were going through the seeds so fast that I ordered two more bags and a suet cake.

We had some special visitors: a redwing blackbird, and a downy woodpecker came by.  Our downstairs neighbor to the left installed a gigantic tube feeder on day three.  The birds told all their friends.

On day four, I got an email from the manager of our apartment complex.  We are asking everyone to take down their bird feeders.  They cause a mess and draw unwanted pests.

Down came the bird feeder.  In its place we hung our wind chimes. I canceled the order for more seed and suet.  I cleaned the bird poop off the railing.

We’ll miss watching the bird show out our glass door.  Now we’ll have to get our bird watching at the college pond and friends’ houses.  Too bad.

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Photo by Dariusz Grosa on Pexels.com

The Wrong Poem

I am not wrong. Wrong is not my name.
– writing prompt from June Jordan 

 

An old boyfriend of mine once asked me, “What would be the defining phrase of your life?”

 

 

My name is not wrong.

My name is not good enough.

The pink eraser is there

on top of the pencil,

but if I use it,

I am not good enough.

 

The algebra twists me

into paroxysms of wails

x is unknown

y is imperfect.

I am not A or B, but

my C is wrong, and

I am not good enough.

 

The big father raises his eyebrow

when I say what I know.

He doesn’t like what I know.

He says I can think it

but I can’t say it

because my truth is wrong, and

I am not good enough.

 

The yogi man and his ex-wife

tell me how

to bring back a slackening brain,

to fight the blackening blankness,

with COQ10 and mushroom powder,

exercise and cortex power.

Even if I do all they say, all day,

every day.

I will still be

not good enough.

 

NGE

My Musical Ambitions

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When I was ten years old, I told my mother, “I don’t want to take piano lessons anymore.” She answered that she’d let me stop lessons, but added, “You’ll regret it when you’re older.”

Truer words…

At age nine, I had already begun playing guitar. After a few lessons from a college student, I learned to play enough chords to accompany myself as I sang. Although I’ve never gotten much better, the guitar has been a mainstay. But spurred by fantasies–I kept acquiring other instruments.

Sometime during college I bought a cheap dulcimer. It was little more than a trapezoid box with four strings. I tried hard but unsuccessfully to figure out the chords Joni Mitchell used in her recordings. Later, my first husband gave me an exquisite dulcimer. Made in Asheville, N.C., it had a matched wood back and friction tuning pegs (tricky). Its beauty did not improve my playing.

During my college years, I also bought a saz. What was I thinking? I probably got it because it was so pretty. This I never learned to play.

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Another instrument attempt was a violin. I may have traded in my classical Aria guitar for the fiddle. I even took lessons from a master fiddler. My cat would be stretched out in a patch of sun. When I opened the violin case, he’d sit up in alarm. Then he’d bolt for the nearest exit.

Now let me pause here and say that I did actually practice these instruments—for a while. The desire to play didn’t carry over into the rigor of daily scales. My interest wasn’t focused and I’d drift away.

By this time, I knew quite well that musical proficiency requires obsessive practice. It didn’t stop my musical dreams. In Ireland, I bought a couple of pennywhistles and a bodhran (round Irish drum). At home in New York, a little red concertina caught my eye.

My most recent indulgence was a harmonium. I intended to accompany the chanting of kirtan. The instrument still sits in the corner of the living room under a yellow quilted cover. To play this particular harmonium, it must be lifted out of its box to rest on two tiny supports. That in itself makes access difficult. Soon after I bought it, the harmonium developed a sticky key. It’s not hard to pick out simple melodies on the keyboard. But, as with all my musical acquisitions, the harmonium languishes in the corner while I engage in my preferred creative pursuits.

We sold most of the other instruments when we downsized to the apartment. I still have my guitar, the harmonium, and a couple of pennywhistles. In my next lifetime, if I can’t be enlightened, I hope to become a proficient musician.

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The Help

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While reading Expecting Adam by Martha Beck, I had an epiphany of sorts. In her memoir, Beck tells the story of the birth of her second child, a son named Adam, who has Down syndrome. During the gestation period, Beck experiences multiple contacts with a spiritual presence or presences. She calls them “Bunraku puppeteers,” likening them to the black-clad artists who manipulate the life-sized puppets in Bunraku plays in Japan.

Beck’s pregnancy is harrowing, plagued with serious ill health and emotional trauma as she and her husband anticipate the birth of this “imperfect” child. And yet she continues to get loving help and messages from the “puppeteers” and from her unborn son. Her husband also receives guidance from this other realm.

While reading this story, I recalled events in my life that have indicated the presence of benevolent helpers. These helpers seem to form four groups.

  1. The Nudgers

The Nudgers either insert thoughts of kind action into our minds, or push us to put an idea into action. Particularly when I’m in meditation, I’ll be given a thought that may persist for days until I finally act on the suggestion.

  1. The Visitors

The Visitors are spirit presences who briefly come into the physical world to assist in a particular situation, often a dangerous one. The best and most recent example in my experience occurred on a warm day last fall.

My husband and I were returning to New Paltz on Albany Post Road. I was driving. After the stop sign at the fork of Albany Post Road and Route 299, I turned right, coming up on Wallkill View Farms. There were many cars in the parking lot, and Route 299 was also busy with traffic. I’m not a speedy driver, so I was probably going about 40 miles per hour when a white car pulled out from the parking lot, directly in front of me. To the right were a fence and rows of parked cars. To the left was the other side of the road. With no time to consider, I slammed on the brakes and swung left into the opposite lane.

A black sporty car was barreling toward us. The driver swerved off the road. It  almost felt choreographed. No cars crashed. Shakily, I pulled into the parking lot. The black car came and stopped next to us. The driver was livid. He sputtered and yelled, but I don’t recall his words. I do remember babbling something about angels, either that he was one or one had been present. He made a snarky reply. For me, the sense of presence was strong, and still is.

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  1. The Saints

The Saints are those enlightened souls who have chosen to incarnate and assist us blundering human beings in our lives on planet Earth. I am blessed to have spent time in the loving presence of one of these amazing personages, but that’s another story.

  1. The Avatars

The Avatars are God incarnate. These are the great leaders. Some, like Jesus, were/are quite prominent, and some have done—and do–their work modestly and quietly.

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For Beck, the birth of her son and raising him changed her entire way of being in the world. Her story reinforced my experience that helpers are there if we only open up and let them come in.

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                                                                            Martha Beck and Adam

Ferns in Santa Barbara

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This maidenhair fern is flourishing in our apartment.  It’s a first for me, having success with a fern.  But all of our houseplants are happy. The light is diffused by the curtains and it shines all day through the glass doors of the dining area.

Whenever I water my plants, I’m reminded of my brief employment as a worker in a commercial greenhouse in Santa Barbara.  It’s amazing that the manager even hired me, because all the other workers there were Latinos.  He assigned me to the Boston ferns.

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The greenhouse itself was huge.  The ferns were propagated on one end.  At the other end were the more delicate tropical plants, like African violets.  Massive fans at either end cooled the building.  Despite the constant wind, the greenhouse was hot and humid.

Only women worked in the ferns.  We moved among long  raised boxes of soil with racks of hanging ferns overhead.  The process, as I remember it, was to remove baby ferns from the mature hanging plants and put them in the beds below.  When the babies grew large enough, we transferred them to small plastic pots.  Eventually, those ferns were ready to be put into a hanging pot.

I liked working with the ferns.  It was often quiet, although Spanish erupted and flew around in bursts.  The women were cheery and kind.  They taught me what to do.  I learned their names, but not much else.  Today, were I in the same job, I would have asked more questions and learned more Spanish.   At that time, I was in my twenties and the boundaries of my world were more self-involved and limited.

After a few weeks, we were joined by another white woman.  She had a couple of kids and was struggling to provide for them.  Cindy had a wry sense of humor.  She kept me entertained.  I enjoyed working with her until she started pushing her religion on me.  Cindy was Christian.  She seemed to feel it was her duty to convert me.  Things weren’t so amusing after that.

One afternoon, an official-looking van parked outside the greenhouse.  Two of the male workers were taken away by the I.N.S.  The women huddled together and whispered. I didn’t know much about illegal immigrants.  The event confused me more than anything else.  Of course, the majority of the greenhouse workers were probably illegal.

A couple of months into the job, the other workers and I began to suffer from sore throats and headaches.  It wasn’t difficult to connect these symptoms to the pesticides being sprayed at the other end of the greenhouse.

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I complained to the manager.  “The chemicals are making us sick.  Can’t you spray after hours?”

“You only smell the additives they put in.  It’s not harmful,” he answered.

But I could see the skull and crossbones and read the instructions on the bottles.  I could see the special masks worn by the men who sprayed the plants.

A couple of days later, I was “let go.”

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Nose Power

patchouli

 

If you’re close to my age, the scent of patchouli oil is likely to evoke memories of dark, stuffy dorm rooms, tie-dyed clothing or marijuana highs. Although I wasn’t deeply into that sixties scene, I do like the fragrance of patchouli. So does my much younger daughter-in-law. My best friend from college years hates it. These days, I prefer to use the oil in my diffuser, along with geranium and sweet orange.

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The nose and the brain work together to detect smells. Olfaction, the sense of smell, is the process of detecting and processing chemicals present in the air. When these chemicals enter the nose, the olfactory system takes over to process them. Sometimes a fragrance may be enjoyable, such as perfume or the smell of cookies baking in the oven. The olfactory system also processes undesirable scents in conjunction with the brain.   The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses that delivers immediate responses with instantaneous recognition and response.

                                                                                    —         http://www.fragrancex.com

 

Another scent that I enjoy is chlorine. The only explanation I can find is that it connects with my childhood and the swimming pool we had in Los Angeles. I practically lived in that pool as soon as the weather permitted. My father was in charge of pool maintenance. We had a filter system with three huge tanks that he monitored, regularly releasing the chlorine gas from a valve on the top. So, today I like the smell of bleach.

 

As a kid, I liked the smell of gasoline. That carried over to sniffing the top of my father’s cigarette lighter. These days I find those odors repugnant, as well as the smoke of cigarettes and cigars, even though I grew up smelling all of them.

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The odor of coffee is another favorite of mine, as I imagine it is for many people. I don’t drink coffee, but the smell evokes pleasant childhood memories of early mornings in California, with my mother seated at the dining room table, a steaming cup in front of her.

 

Two smells I don’t like are vanilla and coconut, but only in cosmetics. I love foods with coconut in them, and I enjoy the flavor of vanilla in ice cream and cake. I can detect both odors in lotions and shampoos, and they make me recoil. I have no explanation for that.

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As the brain processes scents, it accesses connections between specific smells and memories. This is why a scent can conjure up a memory of an event, place, time, or person. The limbic system sits in the center of the brain, and it has a direct connection with the central nervous system.

                                                                                                — www.fragrancex.com

 

I have a particularly sensitive sense of smell. Sometimes I find myself in a place where the odor of a person or air freshener or food makes it almost impossible for me to stay put. I can even tell when someone has not showered before dressing in the morning. There’s a certain bed odor that clings to the body.

 

In humans, about 300 active olfactory receptor genes are devoted to detecting thousands of different fragrance molecules through a large family of olfactory receptors of a diverse protein sequence. The sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity.

                                                                                                — www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

 

 

What odors do you love? What memories do they evoke?

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Ripples of Magic: Available Now!

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I enjoyed writing this story about the half-selkie girl, Demara, who thinks she’d be happiest living in the sea with her selkie father.  Demara journeys across Karakesh Kingdom, seeking a way to achieve her desire.  As we travel with her, we return to familiar places in Karakesh, like Mahti’s Honey House, whose house is the beehive, and Hawk Hill Manse, near the faerie queen’s abode.  Confronted by hard choices and unexpected developments, Demara must make her own decision: land or sea?

Lunila and Demara

                                                           Demara with her mother, by K.E.

 

Ripples of Magic, and the three other books in the series, are available on Amazon (www.amazon.com) and also from Handersen Publishing at www.handersenpublishing.com

 

Cleaning Houses

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When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked part-time cleaning houses. I had just gotten my teaching certification, but there were no jobs for teachers in or around Santa Barbara. So in the mornings, I supported myself working as an aide in a fourth grade classroom. In the afternoons, I cleaned houses.

I like cleaning. It’s active and productive. When you’re done, you can see the difference. In those days, I worked fast and often finished early. I was paid under the table, too. All in all, it was satisfactory employment.

My first job was for a thirty-something woman with a couple of kids and a husband. They lived in one of those rambling Spanish style houses above Santa Barbara. Curry—that was her name—stuck around for the first couple of times I cleaned for her, and then she decided I was trustworthy and left me alone. I would put a record on her great stereo system, and blast the music while I cleaned. She had a lousy old vacuum, so I brought my own. I liked working there. It was an interesting house and Curry was a crunchy granola Californian like me.

Another regular job took me into a large house in a new development. It was way up on a bare hillside overlooking the town. My employer was an older WASP woman, maybe in her mid-sixties. She was slim with poofy gray hair, and she dressed in cashmere sweater sets. She had one of those white miniature poodles with eyes that drip dark tracks on its face. I met her husband only once, when he forgot something at home. He appeared to be about ten years younger than she, a tall, paunchy, florid man who barely acknowledged my presence.

One of my tasks was to empty and wipe out the refrigerator. I’d been a vegetarian for a while by then. Some of the food in that fridge was nauseating. I particularly remember a container of some ham aspic that wobbled and looked like vomit in Jello.

Right below the ceiling in the living room was a shelf displaying Louis XIV china figurines. They were each about twelve inches high. Ceramic lace edged their clothing. When Mrs. WASP asked me to dust, I would climb up on a stepladder with the feather duster and flap away at the china figures, and—oops!–occasionally knock off fragments of lace. Oh, well, I figured, the Mrs. will never see those broken bits from below.

Unlike Curry, Mrs. WASP supervised my work. When we changed the sheets in the bedroom, she made sure that I had the top sheet with the right side facing down, so that it folded over right side up. “Who cares?” I scoffed to my best friend.

The job with Mrs. WASP was short–lived. I didn’t like her dog or her refrigerator, and I think she didn’t mind seeing the last of me.

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The teacher I worked for hired me to clean his house. I had plenty of opportunity to observe him in his fourth grade classroom, where he presented himself as a Cool Dude. The tasks he assigned to me were mostly organizational: sorting kids’ work, checking worksheets, and handing out papers. He didn’t share the teaching with me. Mr. Cool was still in his classroom when I cleaned his house in the afternoon.

He lived in a small cottage in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara’s poorer southern sister. The color scheme inside the cottage was brown and yellow, in abundance. I didn’t discover anything revealing or unsavory about Mr. Cool when I cleaned his house. Somehow, though, I learned that he was dating the mother of one of his students. The boy’s affect in class demonstrated how confused and uncomfortable he felt. He was quiet and withdrawn, almost sullen. I felt badly for him, having his mom’s boyfriend as his teacher.

My favorite employer was a motherly woman whose children were grown and no longer living at home. Mrs. M. and I worked together, organizing her spices and her messy pantry. One day she asked me to clean the grill in the enclosed patio. I went at it with vigor and steel wool, scrubbing that blackened grill clean. When Mrs. M. saw the results, she turned pale. I had taken the Teflon coating right off.

A friend and fellow cleaner passed her job on to me. I never saw the man whose house I cleaned. I’d let myself in—I don’t remember if I had a key or one was hidden—and I’d clean the house, pick up my check and leave. I noticed a lot of sex related items in the bedroom, including a large, schmaltzy reproduction of a semi-nude woman, condoms and lubricants. These made for snickering conversations with my girlfriends.   Beware of what you leave around when the cleaning lady comes!

The cleaning jobs slid away when I found work at the Migrant Children’s Center. Yet my days as a cleaner were instructive. I’m glad I did that work and stood in those shoes.   All these years later, I still prefer cleaning to cooking. The results last longer.

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