Milestones and Memories

Today is my Dad’s 93rd birthday. He has his mind, and his body is (relatively) healthy, if a bit frail. I live several hundred miles away and due to work don’t visit as often as I should. Over the Christmas holidays he gave me some precious items as part of his passing of the torch to the next generation.  On the one hand, this was a lovely gesture, but on the other it was a bit sad to see him not decluttering (one of my favorite topics on this blog), but in some way preparing for the day when he is not around to make the decisions. Admirable, but poignant as well.

We had a lovely time going through an old photo album and he expressed delight that I recognized so many of the people and could reminisce with him about folks long gone. It made him so happy to know that I would be able to recount these stories to my children.

Aging is hard.

I am on the cusp of it myself, observing the wrinkles as they decorate my face, working ever harder to preserve my fitness as an insurance policy against old age disability as much as in vain desire to fit into my size 27 skinny jeans.

I have hung my Dad’s medical school diploma and a fun original cartoon given to him at a surprise 40th birthday party in my home office. I only have images in this space that remind me of who I am and where I have come from and who I love. Instead of a mood board or a “decorated” room it is my identity space, inspiring me to be my best and truest self.

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Like so many men of his generation, my dad  is not given to many words of praise or outward expressions of love and affection. At times I have felt the sting of his critical temperament, and at times I have checked that tendency in myself — remembering what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a sarcastic comment or a cutting remark.

But there is much to admire in my father, and much to be grateful for. He had the kind of inseparable, loving sibling relationship with his two – years – younger brother that most of us could only wish for. He instilled in me a work ethic that not only contributed to my own success, but made me respect and acknowledge hard work in others, be they custodians or astronauts or students or drywall hangers. “All work is noble” he always said, and he really believed it, and so do I. He was his best self in his own work.  As a physician he had patience for the human foibles that lead to obesity, addiction or failure to comply. He was revered by his patients and his colleagues.

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Happy Birthday, Dad, and thanks for the life and the values you have given me. While I don’t expect you to say it, I know you are as proud of me as I am of you.

Trees

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”Joyce Kilmer

ImageTrees.  They pose in the forest in all of the states of aging, sometimes graceful and sometimes in a tangle of sudden felling.

ImageDuring a lovely long hike in the park this cold, raw March afternoon I saw this:

ImageAnd this:

ImageAnd this:

ImageAnd wondered.

Did these trees consent to be tattooed? Did it hurt?

I learned this about bark:

“Each year a tree essentially grows a new “coat of wood” over the older wood. The outside layer of the tree is dead bark which provides protection from the environment. The inner bark layer is composed of live tissue that transports food downward. Between the bark and wood is the cambium layer which is responsible for increases in tree diameter (by creating annual rings) and responds to injury by producing callus tissue.” http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/trees-new/text/tree_anatomy.html

I’m guessing that the bite of the knives that carved these mementos, or messages, or signs of personal ego was not stronger than the bark.

But what of the scars brought about by quick, unexpected bolts of lightening? Or of the slow and steady, chronic irritation inflicted by woodpeckers and tiny insects invading the cambium?

ImageWhen I do a tree pose next I will think about, not my precarious balance, but the strength of my cambium, which has been so tested by the lightening bolt of marital infidelity, the steady irritation of a thousand tiny bangs and cuts and sappings of energy brought about by daily life in the forest of humanity.

No sapling I, may the gnarls of time make me as majestic as this:

ImageAnd when I am cut down by time, may my fall be heard . . . and respected.

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MsD Leaves Downton Abbey

My readers know that I am a Downton Abbey fan. In anticipation of tonight’s Season 3 finale, I give you this:

While I have enjoyed the ability to create synthesis, to cultivate intellectual collision, to learn new things as a vehicle for teaching new classes, to follow my passion for watching young minds open and grow, I have seen over the course of my career my chosen field turned from somewhat shabby gentility to a customer service profession.

I’ve moved, metaphorically speaking, from a small apartment in a remote wing of Downton Abbey reserved for an interesting if unfortunately less wealthy second cousin of the main Grantham line, to the downstairs apartment of, say, Mrs. Hughes – not exactly banned from upstairs, somewhat in charge, but ultimately a paid employee expected to keep scandal at bay and insure the proper care and feeding of the household.

phyllis-logan-as-mrs-hughes-in-downton-abbey-126150857At least when Mrs. Hughes had her cancer scare, Lady Grantham assured her that she would always be taken care of by the family (and probably not, lucky for her, by that snooty titled doctor who killed Sybil). Spoiler alert: who knows what will happen to Mrs. Hughes when Lord Grantham runs the place into bankruptcy – again! Drumroll: “socialized” medicine to the rescue, but not until 1948 when she will presumably be buried out back next to Carson.

I will leave teaching to cultivate full-time, with COBRA for my health insurance, which, after eighteen months will be replaced with Medicare. Naming time-limited healthcare continuation after a venomous snake is perfectly fitting given the paralyzing effect that acquiring individual healthcare has on one’s ability to work for one’s self!

Keeping ledgers, managing drama, cajoling callow under-performers and bowing to the sweet but out-of-touch and occasionally imperious Carson – Mrs. Hughes and I share a similar lot. It’s modern form is bowing to the vision of my superiors, constant grade transparency, endless meetings, documentation and communication of my and my students productivity at the expense of real time to think, protection of the “brand” of my school and “innovation” that is really just superficial wrapping on what good teachers have been doing all along. Think Daisy resenting the attention received by Cora’s mother’s American maid, or the new bright and shiny scullery maid Ivy (and I don’t mean League).

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Through a plot twist, Daisy has been given the chance to become her own boss, moving a step up from the world of service to tenancy, thanks to her father-in-law, who has no heirs but this one-day bride of his fallen son. Will she take it?

I may be Mrs. Hughes — in age if not appearance– but the Daisy in me is turning in her notice, off to cultivate new fields of endeavor in a plot (twist) of her own. I may not be moving upstairs, but I am definitely moving out. Stay tuned for the next season.

Cultivation

It’s time to order the new raised beds to reinstate the vegetable patch that was leveled to make room for my daughter’s garden wedding dance floor. Here is what I have in mind, white cedar raised, stacked mortise and tenon  beds from The Farmstead:

You can watch a YouTube video here showing how easy it will be to put together (in under five minutes per layer no less).

I bought packets of organic seeds at Home Depot yesterday, but will have to supplement with market packs when the time comes as I haven’t started early enough for some things which should already be seedlings in the greenhouse out back (currently a bit sad and in need of a good cleaning and some caulk).

I’ve been thinking a lot about cultivation lately.  The word itself has so many connotations — of civility and refinement, of nurture, of down in the dirt effort, of looking for approval and/or goodwill.  In my yoga practice, cultivation means finding strength in patience, a letting go of ego balanced by a will to push onward toward what yogis refer to as “the edge.”  In the garden, cultivation means a loosening of the soil to enhance the growing process and allow plants to stretch out their roots to obtain stability and moisture. In my teaching, cultivation means carefully stretching the budding intellects in my classroom toward making connections that transcend the literal, that express individuality of thought and argumentation.  In my writing, cultivation means tending language, weeding out the unnecessary and cross-pollinating my real and imaginative experiences.

I’ve been reading and thinking about creativity and where it comes from. There too, there is a balance between connecting disparate ideas in novel ways while yet remaining grounded in a utilitarian universe so as not just to be merely quirky or so much an inhabitant of a private mental universe as to be beyond comprehension.   Recent studies of creativity have found that the left brain and the right brain must cooperate, with neither becoming too dominant, for true innovation to occur.  Grey matter must not be overdeveloped; white matter must be plentiful enough to fend off the bossy grey.

In a wonderful post about the creative process, brainpickings.org writes “Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction.” The enemy of this collision, of this cross-pollination, is oddly enough, effort. A piece by Tony Schwatrz in the opinion section of the New York Times this morning rightly suggested that our modern, workaholic culture actually makes us less productive than does 90 minute bouts of effort interspersed with periods of restoration and rejuvenation.

Workplaces that encourage people to work at their own pace, to take chances, to think rather than to do, not only have higher retention rates but higher productivity and greater innovation.  It is the mindless busy work engendered by being tethered to our electronics — the hard work of not just being but looking constantly “busy” — that saps the creative juices and produces nothing more than conformity and burnout. 

Some of my best ideas have come in the garden.  The hours pass with little notice.  My left brain is satisfied by the methodical work of weeding, planting, accomplishing a tangible result.  My right brain is free to wander, literally to smell the flowers and to roam through the pathways of my experience, cultivating the garden of my imagination.