Monthly Archives: September 2013

Thoughts on Caregiving, Then and Now

One of the most common results of being a caregiver is exhaustion — and I don’t think I was unusual in my depth of exhaustion.  Both while my dad was alive and after he died, I found it nearly impossible to get beyond the exhaustion.  Even now, at times, I find myself succumbing to some form of it. 


For about a year and half, I taught and took care of Dad a lot; I spent a lot of time driving. Though I didn’t commute every day for the entire time, I felt as though I were never sleeping enough.  Certainly the last semester I taught, when I did basically live with Dad and drive to Lake Charles, I never got enough sleep.


But the exhaustion was more than simple sleep deprivation.  I’d have to grade essays when I had no desire to, no energy for.  I’d prepare for classes.  Teaching itself was actually energy-producing; I always found myself on a kind of “high” after classes.  The energy of the classroom itself energized me.  In fact, I usually found it difficult to sleep after a night class.


That energy, though, sustained me temporarily.  When it dissipated, I felt even more tired. There was a kind of rebound effect.


Because Dad was pretty mobile while I was still teaching, I was fortunate that he could self-care more than he was capable of doing later.  That meant I could sleep a bit more.  I did, though, begin to do more of his housework.  I went to all of his appointments with doctors.  I could rely on friends to help get him to dialysis. 


It was as though I were living two different but overlapping lives – as I believe I really was.  Perhaps the energy level and the exhaustion level depleted at twice the rate as a result.  It was fitting the two together that took care and attention.  This also meant that any other life that was mine took third place at best. 


But that last semester I taught, I was driving him to dialysis on some days, or picking him up.  That alone shaped my schedule three days a week.  Weekends weren’t really enough time to rest, either, since they were filled with errands for both of us.  I’d try to keep my own house in Lake Charles going.


At Dad’s, I experienced more than one kind of exhaustion.  One that I hadn’t anticipated was a side effect of Dad’s television-watching habits.  First of all, as with a lot of older people, Dad had hearing issues — but he refused to get hearing aids.  As a result, he’d turn the television’s volume up pretty high.  I couldn’t escape it. And I tried, believe me — I tried. 


Another problem:  I really couldn’t stand some of the shows Dad loved.  Just why he watched “Polka Party,” I couldn’t figure out– but he did.  Every time it was on, he watched it.  I came to hate amateur polka music.  I’d try to drown it out by putting my earphones in and blasting my own iPod, but it was never quite possible to eliminate that annoying sound.


Dad loved sports, too — and while I enjoy some sports, some of the time, he loved any sport, any time.  So if there was a game on, he was watching it.  Loudly. Sometimes, I’d watch with him, but I spent a lot of time trying to ignore the games.


Dad’s love of news was in fact a spur to my own.  However, by this time he narrowed what he watched, and my own taste was not his, especially when it was blaring out at the volume it did.  Diatribes screamed from the television screen in the living room while I cringed in my bedroom, desperate for relief.  Dad slept in his chair, oblivious to it all.


I had a television, but even if I turned it on, it simply added to the cacophony in the house.  Sometimes, I’d watch a portable DVD player with a headset.  At best, these provided momentary alternatives of noises.


When I was still working, just being out of the house was a relief.  But after I retired, the only escape was when I ran errands. 


Sometimes, the cacophony overwhelmed me and I simply wanted to cry.  Sometimes, I did cry, quietly, tears streaming out of my own frustration and exhaustion.  But I’d have to dry the tears, wash my face, and leave my own room and bathroom.


By the time I retired, I was already doing all of the driving.  Once I was retired, I basically moved in with Dad, and my routine shifted again.  Retirement meant full-time work, just at Dad’s.  I did the errands, the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning.  I had to work with his time constraints, of course.  So if he had to be at dialysis at 6:30 a.m., I got up an hour earlier, to get him something to eat.  I admit, though, that I got to the point where I’d get up and throw on clothes maybe 15 minutes before I had to leave.


Living at Dad’s meant living in the bedroom I’d had since I was 16.  It hadn’t grown any larger.  It had been improved, however, when my brother Phil built in lovely closets on the outside wall, flanking the one window.  I managed to find workspace and storage space for myself.  More and more of my clothes and craft materials were now in Egan, and I had to impose some order.  In the corner of the living room, I set up a computer desk and that became my office space.


In truth, though, I was making a life there as best I could.  And it was, I think, a good thing, a reminder that I can adapt relatively easily.  It also served to remind me just how much I loved my own home.  I missed it, but didn’t regret the move.  It was necessary, and I was free to become a full-time caregiver. 


Just as I relinquished long periods of time at my house in Lake Charles, and from my friends and routine there, I also had limited control over my daily time schedule.  My time and my routine resulted from Dad’s.


Dad had dialysis three days a week, Monday/Wednesday/Friday, for three-and-a-half hours. His dialysis shift was the early shift, and I’d need to be there by 10:15.  If everything had worked out, he’d be out about 10:30, but sometimes it might be as late as 11 or 11:15 a.m.  It all depended on when Dad got in his chair, whether anyone (or Dad) had trouble with bleeding, etc.


Some days I’d go home and try to nap.  Other days, I did the shopping and other errands.  But that was my morning, three days a week.  Once Dad was home from dialysis, I’d try to get him to eat something before he fell asleep.  And sleep was just about all Dad did on those days.  I’d read or spend time online.  I’d try to make some jewelry.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Dad would be more alert and ready to visit.


Weekends were when I could have some time, if Kay came down, and I’d go to Lake Charles.  That’s when I’d try to have coffee with friends and keep in touch.  Otherwise, I slept.


As Dad became less able to take care of himself, after he fell, I had to dress him.  Once he was in rehab, I was overseeing the renovations of his house.


My time was never really my own.  I no longer determined how my time was spent, not in any major ways, or at least only occasionally.  My life felt as though it had simply disappeared.  As necessary as that was, and as glad as I was to be able to take on the role I did, I still felt the loss of so many things that I had come to take for granted.


The physical exhaustion was primary, and I suspect is for everyone who is a caregiver.  But the emotional exhaustion was not quite something I anticipated.  I had no idea that I’d get to the point where I simply felt numb.


By the time Dad died, I generally hadn’t slept for more than a couple of hours at a time.  Kay spelled me on weekends, which certainly helped.


Even after Dad died, I didn’t recover immediately.  I know it’s different for everyone, but I found myself recovering in stages and in different ways.  Initially, I was busy with legal work.  Then I went to Greece for three months and essentially hibernated.


My return to Louisiana after that respite in Greece was spent with yet more hibernation.  I still slept a lot, but I was able to catch up with friends at leisure. 


Only at the end of 2012 did I seem to return to myself.  My energy came back.  My emotional rollercoaster was over. I no longer felt lost and as though I were losing my self and my life. 


Now I could craft my own life in retirement.  And that’s been wonderful.  On Saturday night at a poetry reading, a friend said that I was glowing.  I don’t know about “glowing,” but I know that I am happier and more content than I’ve been in a long time.


Certainly there are times of stress, times when I want to do nothing more than sleep.  This weekend, I found, was one of those times.  I’ve spent a lot of time cocooning here in the house. 


But on the whole, that state of thorough exhaustion, physical and emotional, has passed.  My down times are short-lived, and I can simply enjoy my alone time.


I woke up this morning and knew I’d spend the day inside again.  But tomorrow?


I’ll be up and out by 8, meeting a friend for early morning catch-up time before he goes to work.  I’ll try to catch up with another friend whose father had a small procedure today.  I’ll have my jewelry stuff with me and work some.


Now I just am caregiver for me.  Finally.

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Traveling and Time for Observations

So I missed writing yesterday.  I slept most of the day — sort of like the day after a migraine, only for sinus issues.  I completely forgot about writing — and just slept.

But I took a lot of time yesterday to think and today as I tried to move and organize some digital photos from this summer, I realized that some of the time when I travel I simply sit and watch what’s going on around me.  Certainly I watch people — that’s always fun — but I also enjoy quieter moments when I focus on landscape and (often) cats.  And dogs too.  In Athens they’re everywhere, wandering around, lying in the shade under trees or on steps or by stores.  I found that it was similar in Istanbul, too.  Birds flying — and sometimes landing — also provide me with lots of opportunity for observing and thinking.

These are just random events, tied together by nothing other than my presence.  They’re there for anyone and everyone to see, if only people take the time.

You expect to see cats and dogs in the country, but somehow it’s a surprise when you first realize just how many cats and dogs wander the streets and neighborhoods in Athens.  It’s a huge city, filled with cars and motorcycles, trolleys and buses.  Yet look around you.  One dog seems to show up at all the demonstrations in the center of Athens at Syntagma; it’s recognized — and even has had its photograph published.

SIt on a bench or at the cafe in the National Gardens — there are literally dozens of cats there.  People bring food to them.  Dogs live there too, and are well fed.

Even when I walk on the street, I can look down and there’s a dog or a cat lazing in the shade — whatever shade it can find — on a sweltering day when the sun is beating down.

At the site of the Agora, on the street, they sprawl, the Acropolis above them.


Or across the street, at one of the sidewalk cafes where I sit and have a cool drink, one perches on a concrete block.  The waiter who serves me stoops to pet it and put some food and water down.  It is a kitten, really, and he smiles.  He clearly knows this cat.


On the other side of the Acropolis, where I sit one day waiting for a Hop-On Hop-Off double-decker bus, I first notice the flowers blooming in among the rocks and near-bare dirt.  Then I watch as a small bird lands, ignoring me as it looks for bugs.  In a bit, the bird hops onto a water faucet and dips its head and beak downward into the faucet itself, seeking water.




Even at home in the apartment,  I see cats.  They wander the few apartment buildings and the courtyards, sometimes resting in the greenery and flowering vines that provide my balcony with a semblance of a garden.  Sometimes, as this summer, if I leave a balcony door open, one will wander into the apartment and look around.



Usually I’m able to walk away from these cats and dogs.  I’m not usually tempted to stop and take any home.  Not usually.

But on the island of Spetses in summer 2009, one kitten clearly had other plans.  I was sitting at a cafe near the harbor, enjoying a diet Coke.  From the side of the cafe, a small kitten crossed the pebbled walkway, zeroing in on me with certainty.  It dodged the feet of the people passing by to head straight for me, winding around my ankles, rubbing against them, then hopping into my lap.  I made the fatal mistake of petting it.  It purred.  I petted it some more.  It then climbed up my arm and curled around my neck, settling on my shoulder like a scarf.  How could I turn it away?  I couldn’t.  I took it back to my room.  I then walked back to town and found food, later located a pet store and bought a carrier.


Friends and I discussed a name for her — for she was a female.  I thought of Bouboulina, a heroine of the Greek War for Independence; she was from Spetses and there’s a statue of her.  Unless I called her “BooBoo,” though, no one stateside would ever get that name, or remember it.  Thus I came to settle on the name Homer.  Yes, I know that we generally accept that Homer the poet was male.  But maybe not — maybe, just maybe Homer was a she.  At least, that’s how I came to name my new pet Homer.  Homer traveled from Spetses with me on a Flying Dolphin, drove from the port of Pireaus in a taxi to my apartment, and made herself at home there.

Once there, Homer made herself at home.  She quickly discovered that she enjoyed the computer — and the warmth of it.  She still does.


In Athens, a friend recommended a vet, who saw Homer and wormed her.  Homer adapted to being an indoor pet pretty easily.  She slept on my chest.  After a week, I realized that Homer had given me something quite different — something no other pet had ever given me.  Ringworms.  It took several weeks — and various creams and strong drugs — to clear up her gift.

She traveled back to Lake Charles with me, in her carrier, under the seat in front of me on two different airplanes.  She was quiet and no trouble.

And even after I returned to Lake Charles, I had a flare-up and had to see my dermatologist.  I also had to treat the other four animals.  Thanks, Homer, for a memorable treat.

Now Homer is acclimated to life in Southwest Louisiana, living with two other cats and two dogs.  She thinks she’s the queen of the universe.

I may look at kittens now, but I resist, no matter how cute they may be.

One of the things that I miss most when I’m away for several months (even a few weeks):  my own pets.  I worry about them.  Friends send me photographs to reassure me that they’re okay.  This past summer, some dear friends took my dogs for the three months I was gone.  Their chihuahua wasn’t thrilled, but she put up with them — as long as they recognized she was boss.  But every day they got to go out into the sun, sleep in the shade, get serenaded to by guitar.  They had a good time.  I just missed them.

So when I see the dozens of cats and dogs roaming Athens, I get a bit of my pet-fix soothed.  At the same time, I worry, too.  Life is precarious for these free-wheeling animals.  Dogs, especially, face dangers; if people don’t like them, or think they make too much noise (even if they’re someone’s pets, in a fenced yard), they’ll toss poisoned food for them.  It’s horrifying to me, imagining the loss.  On islands, some years, there are reports of packs of stray dogs becoming dangerous, or perceived as being so.

Here we have animal shelters and even the pound.  There, though, there are no such things.  Nor is it legal to round them up, to dispose of them.  So they wander, subject to the kindness of those people who feed them and to the cruelty of those who mistreat and poison them.  It’s a confusing attitude, I confess.

Yet the last couple of summers, I’ve noticed more Athenians with dogs on leashes — small dogs, big ones, you name it.  Maybe it’s a popular thing now, to have a pet in the city, one that’s pampered and walked.

Not far from my apartment, on Filolao Street, there’s a pet shop.  The owner puts out some cages on the sidewalk some days for people walking by to look at and perhaps stop and purchase the rabbits or the birds in them.  Song birds are popular here, on balconies and even at shops and tavernas.  Soft bird song often follows you as you walk, though you’re not necessarily able to see the birds.

At times, I stop and take photographs of the dogs or cats or birds.  I’ll probably never see them again, other than these months that I’m in Athens.  But next year, or next visit, there will be others, certainly.

I like to people-watch, true.  It’s probably the voyeur that we all secretly harbor.  It’s fun to listen, to watch, to imagine relationships and entire scenarios from the snippets we understand, the interactions we glimpse.

But life’s not complete without the context.  And even in a metropolitan area like Athens, there is life beyond the human scope.

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Dreams to Remember

Naps are something I almost never took while I was working, except if I were sick or on vacation, or if I were very tired. They were part of childhood, long abandoned to adult all-day schedules.

On vacations, though, I indulged in them. I’d run errands, perhaps take walks, or go sightseeing. Naps were for refreshing myself. And in Greece, they are just part of the culture. Indeed, when I was there on sabbatical in 1996, I was told not to call anyone between the hours of 4-6, and maybe even 2-6. Those were private, reserved for naps. Or perhaps for other private things. I quickly became addicted to those naps, but once I’d return to the U.S., there was no way to work them into a U.S. work schedule, especially an academic one. Not that I’d abandon them, but they became part of weekends or visits to the beach or at Dad’s. Lying down with a book, reading, and drifting off for a relaxing nap became a hallmark of true relaxation.

Now, though, I can take them whenever I want — if I’m home and not out and about. That’s what I did today. A sinus headache nagged me all morning and I couldn’t shake it. I simply tried to work despite it, taking a few ibuprofen and drinking some water. My brain seemed sluggish and fuzzy — I just couldn’t really focus for long on anything.

After spending some time on the computer, and time straightening up work space for crafting, I slipped into bed, between freshly changed sheets, and read for a while. I woke up a few hours later, headache gone.

But with the nap came dreaming, and when I woke up I was in one of those states where the dream is so real that it was difficult to tell what was dream and what wasn’t.
The dream wasn’t a bad one; just the opposite.

I’d been dreaming about Dad. I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I just knew that when I woke up, I felt warm and comfortable, almost as though I’d been hugged.

Before I knew it, I’d rolled over and picked up the phone to dial Dad’s phone number. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t. His phone has been disconnected; for the first time in decades, that number doesn’t belong to the Ware family. I could dial it, but don’t know who’d answer. It’s probably been re-assigned, of course.

Holding the phone, I was simply aware that I was once more empty, lost. I didn’t have anything pressing to talk to Dad about — not any crisis or problem. I just wanted to chat, to see how he was, and to connect. The phone couldn’t do what I wanted it to do.

Those moments when the desire is to connect to a parent or another loved one who’s dead, when we’ve forgotten that they’re no longer with us. That desire somehow rises despite our consciousness that they are gone, overrides it, negates it.

My brother and sister and I were fortunate in our relationships with Mother and Dad. We liked them as well as loved them. We enjoyed spending time with them. It wasn’t a chore or an obligation that made us visit them or pick up the phone and call them.
Now, though, Kay and I are left, without Mother or Phil or Dad. We have each other, and though we snip at each other and disagree, we also cherish each other. We text and email every day, since she’s not able to talk on the phone while she’s at work. We talk every few days also.

But today, wanting to talk to Dad was just overwhelming when I woke up. Naps are lovely, but sometimes awakening from the dreams that accompany them is bittersweet.

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Freedom and Structure: Retirement Realities

When I retired, I thought, I’d be free to travel when I wanted to.

Wrong. Here I am, wanting to take a trip this fall, and realizing that I really don’t have time when I can schedule anything — not for a while. Maybe in November, if I can manage.

True, I’m not working anymore, so theoretically I have all of this free time. Yet I find that I have committed myself to a few things that mean I need to be around here. A writing project of about 100 pages due in November, a couple of short editing jobs, and 3-week program to conduct at a local library. In addition, I’m trying to get some improvements finished in my kitchen.

Now these are things I’m happy to do, things I want to do — the long writing project in particular is a step in the direction of establishing a writing and editing business that I’ve set up; the shorter projects are also part of that. While the smaller projects can be done from anywhere, the long one needs to be done near here, so that I can consult when needed. The library program is something that I love doing — I get to lead discussions with a group of people who want to read and participate. These programs are part of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities series called RELIC — and I’ve participated in them since the late 1980s.

Really what I’m adjusting to is the reality of my retirement. I enjoy some level of commitment to some things. Perhaps that will change, but for now such participation is fun for me and keeps me intellectually stimulated.

Just recently I took two workshops working with precious metal clay. A couple of years ago I started making jewelry using sterling silver wire, semi-precious gems, and sterling silver findings. In reading, I became interested in PMC, and even began buying materials and tools. But the two workshops really got me excited, and I’m now part of a small number of women here who are also interested in it. So we’ve formed a group that will meet once a month with an experienced instructor/artist from Lafayette. I’ll probably join the state group as well and hope to take more workshops not only in precious metal clay but in other jewelry-making techniques. Such a commitment might seem contradictory if I want to be free, but it’s actually a reflection of a long-held interest in art and in crafting. Only now, in retirement, can I indulge myself to this level.

Only as recently as last spring I was looking online for classes that I could find in Texas or Louisiana, classes related to making jewelry. And four weeks ago, the perfect opportunity happened, right here, and it has led to new possibilities that beckon.

Clearly, “freedom” has evolved in its meanings for my life. Freedom not only applies to the time for travel. It also means freedom to explore the many artistic interests I’ve had little time for during a career I loved. If I want to take a workshop — or a series of them in another town where I have to stay for a few days or a week — then I can.

“Freedom” also lets me get up and meet friends for coffee, only to linger for hours as other friends drop by the same place between classes or for lunch. That’s what happened today. I meant to be at McDonald’s for only a hour or so, but ended up staying for six hours! By the time I left, I’d made some earrings, started practicing wire-wrapping a stone, and had great conversations with friends. Though some days I have obligations that set my agenda for the day, this morning I only had one set-in-stone obligation (bloodwork before my doctor’s appointment next week) and thus I could let my day unfold as it would. That’s a luxury.

Other days the freedom is to stay up all night if I want to do so — whether reading or writing or working on jewelry or watching television. If I want to do that, and then go to sleep at 4 or even 5 a.m. and then sleep late, I can do that.

Certainly there are some things that create a structure in my life. There’s one day a week when my friend Patty comes to help me at the house, cleaning and working on organizing and straightening. Some days I stay and work with her on a project. Some days I stay but work in the office. Other days I take off and run errands or meet people.

Structure has an entirely different meaning for me now. For years, the dominant structure revolved around university — the semester itself, my teaching schedule, and grading and preparing. Simultaneously, my dad’s needs structured my time. Summers were for a long time the only long-term period of time that I could carve out as mine, the time when I traveled to Greece for two to three months.

Maybe I’m still feeling my way here in this new life. I know I’m still having to adjust my expectations about all sorts of things. Most obviously for me is my adjustments to the timeframe in which household projects and renovations can be completed. Earlier in the year, I anticipated that two major projects would be done by the end of the year. Now I’m not certain of that. The kitchen project advances slowly, since my handyman works here in between his other job.

Some days I’d like to take off and head to the beach but can’t if he can be here working on the kitchen for a few days. I have to adapt.

Right now, I’m hoping he’ll be able to work here again soon — it’s been almost a week now since he worked. And then it was one day in a week. Though I’m frustrated, I’m learning to shrug it off. The kitchen will be finished. I just no longer am certain when that will be.

The other major project, having sheetrock installed in my living room, might happen. I’m looking now for a quote on that. If I can afford it, I hope to have that done. If I get someone other than my handyman to do that, then he can finish the kitchen and perhaps in November put insulation in my attic.

Fingers crossed.

Freedom to travel was perhaps the only real notion of my retirement goals. Now that I’m actually retired, though, travel is one of the many goals that are emerging.

Fortunately I’ve always been adaptable. For years now I’ve said that my “f” word was flexible. Indeed, I had to be flexible, given the competing responsibilities of caring for my dad, working, and trying to have my own life. Now I still must be flexible, able to quickly adapt expectations. My friend Charles says to remember this: “I’m a willow. I can bend.” And that’s true.

Freedom? It doesn’t mean a life without structure or commitments. It does mean, though, a life where the structures and commitments are those that I choose.

Today I was free to take hours to visit with friends, to work on some jewelry, and then to come home and try out the small kiln for my precious metal clay work. I fired three pieces. Tomorrow I’ll take them out of the kiln (they’re done and it’s off), clean them, and see how the kiln worked. I’ll move the kiln back to the office area (it’s on a cart). I’ll put up the folding table I was working on in the living room since it isn’t really solid enough for a secure, stable workspace.

And I can do that at my own pace, while Patty and I work around the house. Then I’ll meet Myra again to work on wire-wrapping the stones. Maybe I’ll branch out and try a cabochon.

I don’t have to decide that now.

That’s freedom.

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Libraries Without Books?

So last week in San Antonio a new library opened and there were articles about it on CNN and other news sites. Why was this such a newsworthy event?

It’s a library with no books. A modern library. A very expensive facility — a digital collection. I know it’s probably the harbinger of future libraries, but it’s just somehow wrong to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the digital possibilities — so many collections and archives are digitizing rare books and manuscripts and that is making research much easier. l enjoy the ease with which I can use academic search engines from anywhere. And how much better can it get when you can actually get to download a file of an article rather than having to physically search for it and copy it? Oh, it’s truly wonderful.

Look at how librarians are now called “information specialists” and how they must be technologically tuned in.

But I confess to missing things like a real, hard-copy card catalog. Yes, digital catalogs and specialized academic search engines are convenient. These save much time and speed up research. I spent many hours with paper MLA bibliographies and then wandering the stacks for journals to copy articles from. And hours at the card catalogue. Certainly the time saving alone is a blessing. Yet nothing can match the physical act of flipping through the cards to discover books related to what you’re searching. That’s not something that happens with a digital academic search engine. Many times, I serendipitously discovered material by sheer accident because I just looked at the cards near the one I needed.

And when there are no physical books, no stacks as we’ve known them, there’s no wandering through and making random discoveries. It’s certainly highly efficient, but it’s less fun, at least for me. I mean, once I had the call number I needed (after using the card catalogue and coming up with a list of possible books), I’d head for the stacks with that call number. But I’d wander to other shelves with similar call numbers to see what I’d missed. Again, many times I found real treasures this way.

I am typing this on my iPad mini, which has a Kindle reader. The convenience and space-saving possible with an e-reader and e-books are a real boon, especially for someone who travels a lot. Yet there’s nothing quite like a physical book for the sheer tactile experience of holding the book, feeling its heft, turning the pages. And with your own books (those for research), you have the freedom to make notes, to underline. I know that e-book readers have those features, but still making notes this way isn’t as easy or as natural.

After a career teaching literature and composition, I have acquired more books than I ever dreamed about. True, I’ve purged some. But there are probably thousands in my home. Many I’ll never use to teach from again. I could and might purge some of those. Some of my younger teacher friends might be able to use some.

In the end, though, I find it difficult to follow through with ridding myself of all of them. They’re just too much part of me — not just part of my career, but truly part of me, of who I am.

Books — physical books — have a presence. They offer themselves to us. Well-used and worn, they reflect our own lives as we age. In decorating magazines, I see far too many beautiful libraries with books that are beautiful — and that are pristine. They’re not used. They’re part of the “look” rather than authentic. The spaces look nice, but ultimately too neat and not really usable.

No, books in my house have a very different look. Most shelves have double rows of books, one stacked on top of another, or even double-double stacked shelves. And I have grouped books in a way that is useful — to me. American literature certainly dominates — with an 8×4 foot bookcase for 17th-19th centuries and half of another 8×4 bookcase for 20th century books. A smaller bookcase has yet more books, on theory, that I can’t reallly categorize. British lit — especially Shakespeare – can be found on other shelves. There are a couple of small bookcases for poetry. There’s a huge old library bookcase with novels and some textbooks. And then there are the two bookcases for Greek-related literature and language. Science fiction and mysteries live on wallshelves. Craft books are elsewhere in the house, as are my Greek language textbooks and workbooks. And then there are the books on other topics I’m interested in.

Periodically I have to remove the piles of books from my bed and return them to their proper homes. I mean, I do need room in the bed for me and for the pets.

So libraries are places that I have many fond memories of. My first library book card, for the Crowley Public Library, opened the world for me. I had the use of the school library at Egan Elementary (which had books for up to 12th grade even after the high school closed), but that wasn’t good for summertime. I’ve used libraries in every place I’ve lived. I have even managed to get into the Reading Room at the British Library.

Reading about that new library in San Antonio made me a bit sad. Books, after all, have shaped my life — as they have for so many people. I know this library will be efficient and useful. But I’m not sure it will be fun and a place of discovery.

That’s the loss.

Since this is Banned Books Week, I think it’s appropriate to think about the role of libraries in our lives and our communities. We can pick from books and magazines; they are not censored. That’s a joy many people don’t share.

Maybe I’ll go to the library tomorrow and look through the stacks.

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Monday: Mother and Family History

Tonight I was watching a new show on PBS — Genealogy Roadshow.  There were several short segments with people seeking to find something out about their respective families.  Then came a young woman who’d never known her father; apparently he and her mother had not married, and he died shortly after her mother had become pregnant.  This story stopped me from looking at my email or from thumbing through various craft books on precious metal clay.

It was so close to the story about my mother — up to a point.  But I couldn’t stop watching, and listening, and imagining my mother as this young woman related her story.  I’ve been thinking of Mother ever since.

When I was 7, when my younger sister was born, Mother had some allergic reaction to a medication she was given.  She nearly died.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hospital “lost” the records, or whatever — but never could anyone find out what Mother was so dangerously allergic to.

Shortly afterwards, within months, Mother began having panic attacks, severe ones.  In the terminology of the 1950s, she suffered “a nervous breakdown” within the year.  A psychologist became part of our weekly routine; she went to her psychologist, came home, and Dad would take me for a long truck ride to try to explain to me what was going on.  The psychologist worked in tandem with a psychiatrist, and he prescribed a tranquilizer that Mother took without fail for nearly eighteen years.  There were years, though, when I didn’t trust her or her “moods”; I was much closer to Dad, who kept the family together when many men would have left her and the three of us children.  He explained to me, at age 8 and 9 and 10, what I could barely really understand, but he wanted me to know that she didn’t hate me.  I grew up in a lot of ways, and had to be a little adult.  I resented that she was different, that I had a different mother from the one I’d known before the breakdown.  I loved her too, but I was too young to really understand or comprehend my own emotions, much less hers.

She improved over time, functioned, and never had to be committed.  Our relationship through this is another story altogether.  By the time I left home to go to college, we were both glad, and our relationship improved greatly.  We became closer, and talked more.  We were friends.  In my 30s, I was old enough finally to let all my negative emotions about her go, to just love her and see her as a person.

Why do I bring this up?  Well, when I was 21, my mother’s step-father died.  She went through another near-breakdown and I learned the truth about her own background.  My perception of her changed and over time, I’ve come to see her so differently.  This is where tonight’s Genealogy Roadshow connects.

Until I was 21, I believed that my mother and aunt were both daughters of my grandmother Ella and my Grampa Charlie, a Swedish immigrant.  He and my grandmother divorced and she later remarried Glenn, my mother’s step-father.  When Glenn died in December 1972, the story I’d grown up with changed.

My grandmother Ella had been married not twice but four times.  Her first marriage, at the age of barely 15.  This marriage produced my aunt.  My grandmother Ella left her husband when, we were told, he’d thrown battery acid at her.  She was maybe 16 1/2 by then.  Young and striking, with dark auburn hair, she remarried soon.  This second husband disappeared when she was pregnant with my mother, who was born a few months after Ella turned 18. Ella was pregnant when his car was found by the Neches River, abandoned, with his lunch still on the seat.  The story went that he was in trouble over gambling.  Or perhaps had been the victim of union problems.  The mystery shaped my mother’s entire life.  Thus my mother never knew her biological father.  

When Mother and my aunt were still toddlers, Ella married a third time — she was perhaps 21 by then.  This was Charles Steele, the man I knew as Grampa Charlie and thought was my biological grandfather.   So the family story went, Charlie didn’t want to settle down in one place and by then both the girls were ready for school.  My grandmother moved home to Beaumont, and Charlie didn’t.  They divorced but remained friends.  Ella remarried when Mother was in junior high school; this was Glenn, her fourth and last husband.  They were married until Glenn died in December 1972.  

Glenn’s death apparently meant that for whatever reasons (and I don’t know and can’t ask Dad now because he’s dead) Mother had to pull out her adoption papers.  This is when I learned that when she was 18, Mother had her name changed and had Grampa Charlie legally adopt her.  Since my grandmother was apparently the black sheep of the family because of her four marriages, Mother was always afraid of people knowing “the truth.”  Yet we’d moved to Egan when I was 5 1/2, and Egan was where my grandmother’s family was from.  I’m sure that moving there in 1957 had been difficult because Mother was moving into a very small town, one where everyone knew Ella and her history.  

Mother was afraid of my reactions; she knew that Dad had told me so that I’d understand why Mother was having the most difficult time I’d seen in over a decade.  I didn’t care — in fact, I told her, I thought her biological father was just a son-of-a-bitch.  My words without embellishment.  It made no difference to me in how I thought of her or Ella.  I didn’t think less of them.  In fact, I thought much more of my grandmother than ever before.  (Oh, she could make me angry, too, don’t get me wrong.  But maybe that’s because, as my sister often says, I’m a lot like Ella.)

A few years later when I moved to Beaumont, where my grandmother lived, she was very careful to sit me down and tell me “the truth,” expecting me to be shocked.  She was surprised, to say the least, that I knew already.  Why was she so careful to tell me?  She was afraid that someone in Beaumont would spill the beans, would be cruel.  She was also quick to assure me that she and Mother’s father had been married; she brought the marriage certificate with her to prove it.  Once more, I told her just what I thought of him, and told her that I loved her and was proud of her.  

Only after that did I begin to hear just how cruel some of Mother’s family had been to her.  Some of Ella’s brothers, and other cousins, had ridiculed Mother and her sister over and over.  They were made to feel ashamed.  When they went to school — a parochial school — they were further ridiculed by nuns.  

So by 1978, I’d come to understand my mother on a very different level.  The deeply rooted anxiety disorder that plagued her for her entire life, that could shake her to a nervous breakdown, had a context now that made sense.  

And then in the fall of 1979 or spring of 1980, her world and Ella’s changed once more.  And not in a good way.

That’s when Ella decided to write to get my mother’s father’s service records.  He’d been a Marine in World War I.  In a very typical fashion (for our family, at least), Ella wrote the letter pretending to be Mother.  The response shook her and broke her heart — and, I am convinced, made her give up on some level.  Ella became an old woman in ways I’d never thought possible.

My biological grandfather had not died in 1926, but in 1956, in Oregon, where he had a heart attack while working for the railroad.  My grandmother had the service records, with the facts, and also learned that he’d remarried.  Since he’d been married once before he married Ella, this was his third wife.  Yet on his service records, he claimed only two wives, not three, and claimed no children. 

My parents came to see me in College Station, where I was in graduate school at the time, and told me what had happened.  Mother was very disturbed, and I was angry.

For years, Mother knew that her biological father’s family lived in the Beaumont area.  They’d in fact given my grandmother $1000, I’d been told, for the baby.  They perpetuated the belief that he was dead.

In truth, he’d left a pregnant wife who was barely 18.  He was somewhere in Texas for a while.  I have found him listed in the 1930 census as living in Houston.  At some point he moved to California.  At all times, though, his family knew he was alive and they kept in touch.  Apparently he even returned to Beaumont at times for visits.

Tonight’s story of the young woman brought all this back to me.  Here she was, talking about a father who’d not married her mother, who’d died before she was born.  Yet at no time did she show any sense of being ashamed — and she shouldn’t have.  Whether she’d experienced anyone who ridiculed her or her mother, or made them feel ashamed, I don’t know — this wasn’t part of the short segment.  That in itself was striking.

What a contrast to my mother and grandmother.  Both had been made to feel ashamed of something that was not their doing, or their fault in any fashion.  Ella had survived being abandoned, pregnant; she had less success at 70 or 71.  I wish I’d been able to talk to her more about this, but that wasn’t possible.  What I could and did do, though, was — for the rest of my mother’s life — let her know I was neither ashamed nor embarrassed by her history.  

In fact, as I have said, I found even deeper love and greater pride in my grandmother’s ability to take care of herself and two small girls, to make a living, to work and be a smart businesswoman.  She was a waitress; then she was a manager of the diner; she was once held up by Bonnie and Clyde.  She then ran a boarding house.  When she married Glenn, she continued to work.  During World War II, she worked in a munitions plant and drove a forklift and heavy equipment.  By the time I was 10, she was the manager of an elementary school cafeteria.  This was no weak sister, believe me.  And her advice to me, all my life:  be able to take care of yourself, even if you marry.  

As for my relationship for Mother, this only made me see her quite differently yet again.  I think our relationship deepened, and I could talk to her about her father as I couldn’t bring myself to talk to my grandmother.  

I’m curious about him, about his family and background.  I’ve done some research; I know, thanks to the internet and genealogical databases, far more than I did ten years ago.

And frankly, my opinion of him hasn’t changed.  He was a son-of-a-bitch.

The young woman tonight didn’t have quite the same story.  Time and culture had changed so much between her birth and my mother’s.  During her segment in the show, there were photographs of her father.  Near the end of the segment, she was told that the photographs had come from her cousin, who then was brought out and introduced to her.  A family connection was made.

That I was in tears by the end of that young woman’s segment might not surprise you.  It surprised me, though.  Why, I’ve since wondered, did it move me so?

Because my mother never got the kind of recognition that she needed and deserved from her own father’s family.  She had to live her entire life in the aftermath of abandonment and denial.  And in her forties, having adapted to what she had believed for her entire life was one reality, she had to deal with a heartbreakingly different one.

All families have stories.  Many also have secrets.  And family stories are important.  They might get changed or embellished or kept secret for many reasons.  But at some point, they need to be told.  Secrets can be devastating.  The aftermath can resonate for generations.

So this is for you, Mother.  Your story is nothing to be ashamed of.  I am proud of you and Ella.  And thankful to be your daughter.

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Sounding The Day

Sunday mornings were always lovely before I retired.  Generally only on Sunday morning could I sleep late, since Saturdays were often for errands that couldn’t get done during the week.

Now, I don’t usually set the alarm clock at all unless I have an appointment to keep.  Sundays, though, are still quite special.

Most people who live near me still work, so on Mondays through Fridays they must wake up and get to work.  This means that though I can lie in, they can’t, and thus as they leave for work, their cars provide a steady background of motor sounds.  Not all cars sound the same, so the sounds vary.  Often during the week, other sounds add to the mix — the heavier rumble of the garbage truck, for example, or of lawnmowers and trimmers.  Occasionally horns pipe into the atmosphere.  

As the day goes on, bells and sirens join the noises that populate the area.  Radios or CD players turned up to maximum volume not only blare music but their turned-up bass often sends vibrations through my floor.  I can feel the pumping, throbbing both in my ears and through my body.  

On Sundays, though, as this morning, it’s usually quite different.  No one will be out too early mowing or trimming.  So nothing really stands out.

Rather, I awaken slowly, aware of little other than my own breathing and the snuffling of my dogs.  The rhythmic slap of the fan blades softly rotates above me.  As I turn to my side, the sheets rasp a bit, barely audible. If the sheets are crisp, as they were this morning, the sound is sharper than it is after the sheets are softer, a few days on the bed.

If I want, I can simply roll back over and allow myself to drift back into the dream state.  

So it went this morning, as I drifted into and out of dreams, into and out of consciousness.  Slowly, slowly, I allowed myself to surface fully.  

Once I waken, I lie there, just feeling the luxury of my body nestled into the mattress, my head resting in its hollow in a pillow.  My eyelids flutter open and closed, light entering my awareness, further waking me up.  When I’m ready, I’ll open my eyes and look around me.  The dogs are still curled on the bed, one at my hip and one often on the pillow behind me.  Homer, the cat, lies on her back with one paw thrown over her eyes, not unlike my own position at times.

When I’m ready, I begin to engage with the world.  No sounds, still, other than breaths and fan blades and sheets rustling.  Not until I reach over and grab my phone and then my iPad mini and sit up, disturbing the pets perhaps, and prop up on the pillows against the wall behind the bed. 
Now other sounds come: the click of the phone slide as I push it to open my phone and check email.  The metallic snick as I lift the cover from the iPad mini.  

As I click on newspapers and other websites, mechanical sounds multiply.  I am awake,  in the world, but still without many sounds.  No television.  No music.  No voices.

Then the dogs awaken too, and Homer.  Their morning yelps and barks and meows require me to engage in two-way conversations, at last.

Silence is broken. But gently.  

At this point, I’m still cocooned.  The silence and then the soft sounds that follow it calm me, comfort me, soothe me.  Sometimes, I simply stay home all day without any television or radio, without talking to anyone other than the pets.  Those are the days when I can regain some balance, blocking out the cacophony that too often bombards me once I’m outside the doors.

This afternoon, when I left to meet my friend Myra at McDonald’s so that her three-year-old could play while we visited and worked on jewelry, was a reminder of how much cacophony really disturbs my concentration.  And my calm.  There we sat, and two or three minutes later entered several other young boys — a couple of them clearly more than three years old (the limit for the climbing tubes).  Yet they proceeded to climb up and scoot down.

And to raise the decibel level beyond belief.  They yelled.  They shouted.  They squealed.  Four young voices in tandem, pitched at a painful level for the other (adult) people in the play area.  It was amusing at first; I forget just how inventive young children can be in calling each other names.  Nothing vulgar, just kind of funny.  But then the shouting and yelling and squealing escalated.  The parents of the other kids seemed to have simply vanished — they certainly didn’t call their boys to behave better, as Myra frequently reminded her son to do.

No, they just continued to disturb us.  My head hurt before too long.  My ears actually ached with certain pitches.  I realized that I flinched at times.  

I have no idea how long that went on.  It felt as though it lasted for hours, though I know it was less than an hour.  Then a little girl entered the room, and the volume immediately dropped.  Interesting development, to say the least.

Once the volume lowered and the squealing diminished, I stopped hunching and flinching and found myself relaxing again.

When they all left, though, I was glad.  The very air itself stopped vibrating around us almost immediately.

Once I returned home, I sought out more silence.  I was only ready for Sunday night television about two hours ago.  My ears still needed a bit of a rest.  

Now, I’m aware of the television in the room beyond the office.  There’s clock ticking on the desk behind me as I type.  Outside, there’s a sort of background hum from traffic; I can’t hear that from my bedroom.

Tomorrow I’m sure I’ll get out, visit with friends, talk a lot.  There’ll be chatter in the coffeeshop around me.  I’ll hear the traffic noises from Ryan Street on a work day.  

Tonight, though, I’m savoring my quiet space.  I’m ready to turn off the television and wind down with some reading before I turn off the light and go to sleep.

Once more, the sounds will soften to breaths and to fan blades.  I’ll sleep well.

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Rain and Ephemera

The last couple of days I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for a boat.  That’s how much it has rained.  In one town north of here (though not far) it rained 15 inches or so — yesterday alone.  We’ve had maybe 5 or 6 inches, not that much in comparison.  Yet my yard is so soggy that I can hear it squish when I walk to the car or from the car to the house.  My driveway is basically mud.  And earlier today when I drove away from home, it looked as though a lake were emerging from underneath my house (my house is up on piers, not on a slab foundation, so that’s okay).  I’m not really in danger of flooding. I think.

Some folks aren’t nearly so lucky.  Since it’s supposed to keep raining, that means that ground already saturated will just turn to mud.  And it also means that the rivers will keep rising, as the bayous fill and drain into them.  And all that water will keep coming for days, even after the rains stop.

It’s not just the rain that makes me stop and think.  I mean, we get rain — a lot of it — pretty much year round.  Our average rainfall is something like 65 inches per year, though it can be more.  We’re a semi-tropical climate, too, so figure in humidity:  the average yearly humidity is in the 70s.  In hot months, though, that humidity climbs.  Humidity in the 80s is common; in the 90s is pretty normal; and it can — and does — hit 100% more than once.

So rain?  Pretty normal.  Like many people here, I’ve got shoes that can (and do) get wet on days like today.  I’ve got rain boots.  I’ve worn rain boots to work in the past.  Now I just slosh through with sandals or flip-flops.

But what this rain makes me think about is another kind of weather phenomenon.  It’s that time of year, still — hurricane season.  It may seem late to some people, but we’ve learned not to breath easy until November.  Though there’s nothing out there right now in the Gulf that we need to pay attention to, it’s never really far from our minds here on the Gulf Coast at this time of year.  Especially when it’s been raining so much.  We pay attention to weather patterns, to tropical depressions turning to tropical storms to hurricanes.  We pay attention to predicted landfalls.  We pay attention to pressure fronts and water temperatures in the Gulf.

It’s not that we want someone else to get hammered, but we want to escape being hammered.  We’ve been hammered enough in the last few years.

Everyone remembers Hurricane Katrina.  Katrina hit as a Category 3 hurricane on August 29, 2005, in Southeast Louisiana.  New Orleans looked fine — until the levees breached.  That’s what caused massive flooding and horrendous destruction.  Mississippi was also hit very hard, since it was on the dirty side of Katrina.  The “dirty side” is the easterly side of a storm, where there is the most energy, where wind speeds are increased, where rains are heaviest, and thus where the likelihood of high storm surges is greater.

In Southwest Louisiana, we had very little direct weather from Katrina.  In fact, we took in a lot of people from the hurricane-hit areas.  Yet just less than a month later, it was our turn.

Hurricane Rita made landfall on September 24, 2005, near Sabine Pass, Texas, with 120 mph winds.  Since Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana was on the dirty side of the storm, we were hard hit.  Mandatory evacuations were called, and we didn’t ignore that.  I was amazed just how much I could pack into my RAV 4 — pets, everything I thought I needed to live.  I drove away.  When I drove back, I couldn’t get into Lake Charles — all of the interstate exits and entrances were blocked with tanks or police cars.  After a couple of weeks, we were allowed in to look and then leave.  Finally, we were allowed back home when power was restored — but with curfews.

I was fortunate with Rita.  On my street alone, something like 8 trees went through houses.  The roof of my house, though, had been picked up and set back down.  I had water damage inside as a result.  And had to get a new roof.  Debris was everywhere.  Trees were uprooted, sometimes complete with huge hunks of concrete.  Most of us made our daily passes through the Red Cross/Army lines — to get ice, to get ready-to-eat meals, to get blue tarpaulins for roof damage.

Here’s what I saw on my street — just one example of what trees could look like:


The sailboats at the marina on Lake Charles were washed under the I-10 bridge and ended up on the railroad tracks:


And my house didn’t look too bad.  Even inside —



Friends put on the blue tarp since the Army and Red Cross wouldn’t (I had asbestos slate tiles):


But others weren’t nearly so lucky.  I have friends who had to completely gut and rebuilt their houses.

Fast forward three years.  Hurricane Ike made landfall as a strong Category 2 hurricane near Galveston.  I had a small beach house on Crystal Beach, a community on Bolivar Peninsula, maybe 16 miles from Galveston, on the mainland.  That means that my house was on the dirty side.  Here’s what Ware’s Walden looked like — rather modest, but treasured nonetheless:


Since I couldn’t talk Dad into evacuating for Hurricane Ike, I loaded up pets and other treasures and headed to his house in Egan.  I made him buy a generator, even though he sputtered and protested.  It wasn’t an option, I informed him.  For as long as we could, we watched television and tried to follow the storm — where it was probably going to make landfall, etc.  We lost power during the night as the rains and winds stormed around us, and so lost the ability to follow anything.  The next morning when it was light, we got the generator started.  With that, we could watch television, run the refrigerator, and power a window air-conditioner, and I could power my laptop — and actually could get internet.  That’s when I was able to use Google Earth.

My beach house was simply gone.  I could see a white space, which wasn’t good — the roof wasn’t white.  I could see the red of one neighbor’s deck, but no house there.  No house to either side of the white spot.  Later, when I could drive down, this is what I had left:


I began referring to this as “the lovely slab.”  That’s what was left.  Nothing else — other than a single Christmas ornament that I usually left out, a resin angel with a chipped wing.  Someone found it near and knew it was mine, and it was sitting on my slab.

It was a mess on the island and on Bolivar Peninsula.  Houses were just gone.  Stairs were left going to nowhere.  Trucks and cars were piled on top of each other in fields across the highway — if they could be found.  Some cars dipped front-end into holes left by storm surges.

Yet slowly the Peninsula emerged as people cleaned up and began to rebuild.  I couldn’t.  Didn’t have the energy.  Only recently, after Dad died, did my sister and I rebuild together.  Our new house isn’t big — 824 square feet — but it’s well-built, well-designed, and insulated.  Three bedrooms, one bath.  A sand shower downstairs, as well as a locked storage room.  The deck is lovely at any time.  We’ve named it The Warehouse Too.  Here’s what it looks like now:


Though I didn’t lose my main residence, I have some sense of what my friends and too many others went through.  As Ike was hitting, I told my dad that I either wanted the house completely untouched or completely gone.  It was the in-between that I didn’t want to deal with.  I could have done so, but didn’t want to.  I’d heard from too many friends and acquaintances just how horrible that could be.

Friends who live other places, places that don’t have hurricanes, simply don’t really understand how we can live here, with the knowledge that a hurricane could wipe us out.  Yet some live where earthquakes strikes, or where tornadoes come with such ferocity and in such numbers that it’s a hurricane alley.

At least with a hurricane you’ve got some warning.  And you know how to follow a hurricane’s path on a chart.  Now, with the internet, it’s even possible to look at computer-generated possible paths.  Yes, there’s an app for this too.  Believe me, it’s on my phone and my tablet.  I check it periodically.

Knowing that The Warehouse Too could disappear just as Ware’s Walden did isn’t something I spend a lot of time contemplating.  It’s there, in the back of my mind, but just as a barely audible blip.  But it’s not just beach houses that are vulnerable.  Even here, in Lake Charles (about 30 miles, or 48 kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico) houses are vulnerable.  Though I don’t have any trees left (I had the last taken down after Rita — I saw too much), I know that a roof can have something blown through it, that a roof can be picked up.  Tornadoes come with hurricanes too — and with Hurricane Rita there were at least 200 tornadoes that were recorded.

Everything is vulnerable, in the end.  Whether to hurricanes or earthquakes or tornadoes or flooding or fires — it’s all vulnerable.

What I’ve learned is that so much that we think is important isn’t really.  If no loved ones or pets die — if we are safe and unharmed — that’s really what’s crucial.  I pack my car with what I want to survive, knowing that I might have to do so.  As I’ve evacuated several times over the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve realized that I pack less of a number of things, and more of others.  Clothing?  Just enough to get by with — and there’s always a Walmart or something somewhere to buy more.  Artwork?  Maybe a few pieces, but the rest I wrap up and put either in a closet or in my storage unit.  Photographs — too many, really — have been crammed into my car every time I’ve left; now I’m working on digitizing more.  It’s slow.  Laptop, backup hard drives, desktop computer.  Food, water, and flashlights are always ready to go.  Medicine.  And money.  If power goes — no ATMs.  Maybe no cell phones.

Today while the rain held off, I was in an 8-hour workshop working with precious metal clay, learning to make a hollow lentil bead with a bail and a pendant with both a bail and a cubic zirconia gemstone.  Someone mentioned that the art studio we were in was filled with ephemera.

That’s what I’ve been thinking of all night — how much of what we collect is, in the end, ephemera.

Right now it’s not raining.  It may well start soon, or tomorrow.  Or not.

But I’m going to spend some time with my pets tonight.  I’ll talk to my sister soon.  And my niece.  I visited with friends this afternoon and tonight.  I’ll see other family members soon.

That’s the kind of thing that’s important, really.  Not the material things we accumulate and too often deem valuable.

What would you pack in your car if you had to evacuate?

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Grave Thoughts and Memories

Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but I’ve always enjoyed visiting cemeteries.  When I was a child visiting my grandparents at their farm, every fall we’d have a “Homecoming” or “Dinner on the Ground” at their small church, specifically to clean up the graveyard and tombs.  It wasn’t unusual for us kids, after church, to play hide and seek, to roam the graveyard looking at the gravestones and trying to find the oldest one.  Even now, when I go to the farm, I always stop off at the church and visit the graveyard where my parents and brothers, grandparents, great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, uncles, and many cousins are buried.  I don’t stay long, just long enough to check that no one has vandalized anything.

And if you grew up in South Louisiana, as I did, you’re also used to grand cemetery monuments.  In part, the above-ground tombs were necessary because if the area were below sea-level, flooding could produce startling and disturbing effects.  Though now improvements in vaults mean fewer above-ground vaults, the problem of flooding still exists.

I haven’t wandered through St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans lately,  but this summer I visited a cemetery in Athens, Greece, that has always reminded me of the beautiful sculptures and tomb architecture of New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana (and in Galveston, I might add).

The cemetery is Πρώτο Νεκροταφείο Αθηνών (the First Cemetery of Athens).  Opened in 1837, it holds the tombs of many famous Greek individuals and families.  If you’re in Central Athens, it’s almost impossible to miss it.  It lies near the Panathinaiko Stadium (the 1896 Stadium where the Olympic torch is always seen prior to the Olympics) and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  Filled with pine and cedar trees, it’s bracketed between Markou Moussouro, Immitou, and Anapafseos Street (Eternal Rest Street).  The main entrance is from Anapafseos Street.  Though not a park, it is a green, peaceful site — about 500 square meters

Three churches are in the cemetery — the Church of St. Theodore, the Church of St. Lazarus, and a Catholic church.  Within the cemetery are separate areas for Protestants and Jews.  Many famous Greeks are buried here — heroes of the Greek War of Independence, politicians, actors, poets.  It’s so large, with so many areas and paths, that it’s impossible to simply “find” a grave unless you’ve a) been there before (and even that can be near-impossible) or b) have managed to finagle the site number/area from the managers.  There is no map, which is a shame.  Otherwise, it’s easy to miss some of the tombs for well-known figures, as well as some of the most spectacular tombs.

I’d wandered through the cemetery before.  This time, though, I was with the group of people in my poetry workshop.  We were on the hunt for specific tombs — of some of the most important poets of modern Greece.  Alicia (our teacher) had managed to get those precious site identifications, and slowly we managed to find them.  It was a really hot day, though, and by the end we were flagging.  It would be easy to get lost.  Paths crisscross and even create small roads.



Green cypress trees and pines and flowering oleanders and other bushes make it a calm in the middle of a very busy part of central Athens.



Flowering Bushes

Flowering Bushes

Yet it was well worth the effort and the sweat.

The first tomb we found was that of Kostis Palamas (1859-1943). Palamas was a central figure in the literary scene of the 1880s, and co-founded the New Athenian School.  Using the composition by Spiridon Samaras, he wrote the lyrics to the Olympic Hymn that was first performed in 1896; this was named the official Olympic Anthem in 1958.  When Palamas died in 1943, during the German occupation of Greece, his funeral was became a major event.  Angelos Sikelianos wrote a poem for it.  Culminating in a demonstration of about 100,000 mourners, his funeral became a central event in the Greek resistance.

Kostis Palamas

Kostis Palamas

Angelos Sikelianos ((1884-1951) was one of the leading 20th century Greek lyric poets.  Sikelianos and his first wife, Eva Palmer, instituted the Delphi Festival in 1927, hoping to foster spiritual independence and a way of  communication between people — through the principles of the ancient Greek civilization. He was the first Greek poet nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he did not win.  A prolific poet, he is not as well-known in Western countries as some of his fellow Greek poets.

Angelos Sikelianos

Angelos Sikelianos

Another grave that we sought out was that of George Seferis (1900-1971), a great poet whose poetry often speaks of exile and longing.  Seferis was the pen name he chose; his name was Γεώργιος Σεφεριάδης, George Seferiadis.   A career diplomat, Seferis won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963.  In 1969, two years into the military junta that ruled Greece, Seferis made a strong public statement denouncing the Colonel’s Regime.  Though he did not live to see the fall of the junta in 1974, he had become a popular hero for his stand against the regime.  When he died, thousands followed his coffin through the streets to the First Cemetery, singing Mikis Theodorakis’s setting of Seferis’s poem “Denial.”


Yet another major poet of the 20th century was Odysseus Elytis (born Οδυσσέας Αλεπουδέλλης, Odysseus Alepoudellis, 1911-1996).  Elystis, a romantic modernist, came to prominence in the 1930s.  Elytis, like Seferis, opposed the military junta of 1967-1974.  During the junta, he exiled himself to Paris.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979.

Odysseus Elytis

Odysseus Elytis

Besides seeking out these graves, we wandered for a long time.  In that time, I found several other notable graves.

Heinrich Schliemann, the famous German amateur archaeologist who excavated Mycenae and other sites, has a monumental tomb for himself, his Greek wife, and her family.

Schleimann's Tomb

Schleimann’s Tomb

Melina Mercouri, the actress and politician, is buried here also.

Melina Mercouri

Melina Mercouri

Near Mercouri’s tomb is that of Andreas Papandreou, the founder of the Socialist party (PASOK) and twice Prime Minister of Greece.

Andreas Papandreou

Andreas Papandreou

Perhaps the most striking bronze piece is dedicated to Greece, the mother, who starved for her children during World War II.

Η Μανα Τησ Κατοχηισ

Η Μανα Τησ Κατοχηισ

This is one of the most famous sculptures in the cemetery; by Giannoulis Chalepas,it depicts Sofia Afentaki, a girl who died at the age of eighteen from tuberculosis.  Her family commissioned this for her grave.  I’ve seen it several times, and it never fails to move me.


One monument stood out this summer — I’d not seen it before.  It’s hard to miss though — it’s a ship:



Though it was hot, there were shady areas beneath trees.  Occasionally breezes cooled us off.  Water, of course, helped a lot.  And mostly the cemetery was quiet, the quiet broken at times with birdsong,

While we were standing near the grave of Palamas, there was a man standing reverently, waiting for us to finish.  He was, he told us in English, visiting there from New York and was there to clean the grave of a relative.  That is not something that can be done without official permission, apparently, nor without paying a fee.   Many people, he told us, in these difficult economic times, cannot afford to pay someone to keep graves neat and tidy, nor can they themselves pay to do that.  As a result, many graves fall into disrepair and are overgrown or broken.  However, he also wanted us to know just how important Palamas was, even now.  “A very great man,” he said several times.  Greeks revere their poets, even those long dead, like Palamas.

There are many places that tourists seek out in Athens.  The First Cemetery is probably not one.  Even without a guide or map of the many noteworthy graves, it’s well worth a visit.  One of the great Greek poets, Constantine Cavafay, is not buried here, but I’ll leave you with one of his poems, which I think suits my blog and its inspiration.


Ideal and dearly beloved voices

of those who are dead

or of those who are lost to us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in our dreams;

sometimes in thought the mind hears them.

And for a moment with their echo

other echoes return from the first poetry of our lives —

like poetry that extinguishes the far off night.

As I close the blog tonight, it’s raining (again).  I’ve gathered several books of Greek poetry and think I’ll spend some time with them tonight.

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Vacations, Planned and Otherwise

Generally when I hear the word “vacation,” I think of trips.  The last couple of days, though, have been vacations also — from the blog.  I didn’t plan this vacation, nor did I seek it.  Instead, it just sort of happened.

On Tuesday night I got home from a Leisure Learning class.  When I sat down at the desktop, though, I could not log in to the computer.  It didn’t recognize the log-in password.  Eventually I realized that my keyboard was probably the problem.  Of course, I also saw that this was totally my own fault.

I’d left a diet Coke sitting near it.  I’d also left the door to the office open.  That meant that Homer (or Romeo, but more likely Homer) had been on the desk and knocked the drink over.  Hence the dead keyboard.  

I tried for two hours to revive that keyboard.  Short of running out and buying a new one, I just kept trying to dry it out.  I kept trying to log in.  I’d turn the computer off and back on.  I’d let it sit, turned off, and then try once more.  Finally, I gave up.  By this time I was completely and totally frustrated and the last thing I thought about was finding the laptop and logging on. 

So I simply went to bed.  No blog on Tuesday.

Yesterday, I talked to a friend, and he said that he had an extra keyboard that he would bring with him for today.  That was cool.  

Last night I could have turned on and used the laptop, but frankly I just crashed very early.  My restless leg syndrome acted up and I took my medicine for it — in the middle of the afternoon.  Let’s just say that I got a lot of sleep yesterday.  And last night.  

Once more, no blog.  And I didn’t even realize that until today.

Refreshed (well, I ought to be after all that sleep!) and out the door at 7:45 a.m., I met my friend Todd at McDonald’s across from the university.  He loaned me a keyboard.  I sat and visited with him and other friends who are still teaching.  That’s one reason that McDonald’s on Ryan Street is one of my regular hangouts.  It’s an easy place to meet up with friends who simply have to walk across the street.

We sat and talked.  By 9:30 a.m., everyone else had departed for offices and classes.  I headed home.

Confident about the keyboard, I unplugged the old one, plugged in Todd’s keyboard, and shortly afterwards I had successfully logged in to my desktop computer.  Only then was I able to set up the new wireless keyboard that I had not yet set up.  I mean, you know how frustrated I was on Tuesday night — there was a dead (wired) keyboard and a brand new wireless one, but in order to set up the wireless one, I needed a working wired keyboard first.  Sort of Catch 22.

And so it is that I had a 2-day vacation from the blog.  By this morning, I was eager to be back at work.

I appreciate so much more the comfort of the desktop computer, which I admit I’ve taken for granted.  Sometimes I blog on the iPad mini, rarely from the laptop.  Usually if I’m at home it’s the desktop.  Only when that wasn’t possible did I stop to think just how much I enjoy the larger screen of the desktop computer.  And only then did I realize that I’d been lazy in not setting up the new wireless keyboard earlier.  To cap it all off, I’d carelessly left the drink too near the keyboard and left the door open, giving the cats easy access.  

All my own fault.  All lessons to be taken to heart, too.  

Now I’m just realizing that I haven’t backed up files in a while.  It’s time to pull out the backup standalone hard drive and set it up again for regular backups.  Yikes.  Complacency gets us every time.

Time for work.  Vacation over.

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