Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Humanizing Retirement

     When I was in grad school I had a class titled "Humanizing the Classroom".  I proposed that a student's perception that time was passing rapidly was a highly correlated with the intensity of their engagement and could be a predictor of the quality of their learning.  Being mesmerized wasn't sufficient to predict coursework quality, but combining worthwhile studies and intensity of attention made meaningful courses.

   Years later when I helped start a childcare center, we had so little funding that we couldn't afford to buy a clock for the preschool classroom.  In consequence, I was often surprised by the cook alerting us that she was ready to serve lunch; we had to rush and clear the tables.  I realized that not having a clock in the classroom was a boon to the work of the day.  Lost in the moment, children and teachers pursued their ideas and play with pleasure as they worked and reworked their ideas.  What makes a good classroom isn't always obvious.  No clock?  When children are focused, discipline problems often disappear.  Classrooms become more civilized and humane.  Teachers aren't expressing dismay at children's behavior and focusing their time on correction rather than encouragement.    

     Now being retired, I have been thinking about time again.  Humanizing Retirement time, as it were.  I wake up with an expanse of time ahead.  Most days have some activity that promises swiftly passing time.  As I get older, I suppose I should be thinking about trying to make that clock hand lollygag, but here I am hoping for it to scurry about the dial whistling.  The pleasure of being intensely occupied, that I had when I was working, is the quality that I am unwilling to give up.   Today I am off to painting, yesterday it was attending the cancer support group, tomorrow I will be attending a talk on war casualties and Friday a Baha'i Feast.  I love the balance of swift time and slow time.  A humanely balanced retirement.

     Even pup likes my Humanized Retirement.  We spend more intense time together out walking. When I am home she can enjoy swiftly passing time sitting on the table next to the cat food bowls (which she has just licked clean, a daily dog service) and watch for birds and squirrels.  Ah, retirement time.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reading Historical Events in Windows

    When I travel, I find that I have a penchant for windows.  I don't think that this is odd, but my passion goes beyond mere admiration of a good reflection or design.  Windows hold historical significance and can be read as historical documents.  Social values and trends, inventions, economics and tastes are readable in the language of windows.  I particularly love walking alleys to read the history in the windows.  In the photo above a sheet of gasket circles is leaning against the window in what appears to be a machinist shop.  The reflection of a new industrial truck adds an attractive blue and yellow sheen to the window's facade.  Rusted siding frames the wooden sill.  The sill is nail-stained and dry from neglect.  History is written here in this little town in northern California.  When this building was new, stuff would not have been piled against the window.  The window's purpose was to give the workmen maximum light.  Advent of better lighting systems and the social and legal changes determining work schedules has made this window's use as a lighting system somewhat superfluous. Now often before the light fads the mechanics go home and watch T.V. and spend time with their family. The condition of the sill documents the small town's economic struggles. These are social and economic shifts written in this window.

    This faded barn on an alley was my grandpa's in Delta, Colorado.  The alley originally may have been a lane.  Grandpa would have stored his new cars in this barn.  He was a car salesman and bought new cars every year.  Now his barn is surrounded by residential blocks.  The change  reflects the transformation of a small American rural city over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Closer examination of the window reveals further details of the history of this town.

     The window in the barn's side is a recent addition and would have replaced a swinging door.  Evidence of the door is in the hinge cut-outs on the right-hand board and the addition of an up-right two-by-four to make the window fit within what was a larger opening.  Prior to 1969 a two-by-four was two inches wide.  This board is obviously the now standard inch-and-a-half sold as a "two-by-four".  A black aluminum window moves the date to something quite recent and the unfaded Mexican blanket places the change to the last year or two.  

     This barn loft no longer is a place for stuff, it is a home for someone from south of the border.  The blanket is clean and new.  Poor housing for our latest immigrants.  Not even a tenement, but a barn.  Waves of immigrants have enriched our country, assimilating slowly moving from poor housing to at least middle-class housing.  This window says that the newest immigrants are willing to make the sacrifices to begin the path to a better life.

     Now take these windows.

     Here are a pair of self-conscious windows, the shades pulled to the precise horizontal position.  The small panes, yellow tint and wooden frames all speak of old construction, but the artistic window blinds with their artful effect speak of money and time.  Historically as a society gains leisure time, artistic endeavors become possible.  Money writes messages.  Curved glass was particularly expensive to make.  The clean curved windows in the photo below are in the precise center of the financial district of London.   Money written in old windows.

      Sodium-lime, titanium and silicate.  Heat, blow, flatten and cut.  Humanity could read by the light of a window, pray for their souls under colored panes and work almost beyond endurance on long days due to the advent of windows. Windows were originally blown glass whirled to make them flatten into plates.  When the glass was cut, there would be a heavier edge on the outer rim.  The thicker part would have been installed on the bottom of the window. Later this phenomena spouted an erroneous theory that glass was actually a liquid and would sag downward over time.  This 1908 stereoscopic view of glass making in Pennsylvania demonstrates the new technology that made it possible to make larger windows.  My 1904 house has tall windows.  Glass making was still inexact with glass now rolled smoother, but with the slight imperfections of waves or bubbles.  

      Shatter proof, structural glass, triple pane, glass blocks, bullet proof glass.  Window glass hasn't yet seen it's last incarnation, nor it's last influence on historical, social and economic events.

The Shard, Tallest Building in Europe
     The small panes in old buildings let people easily read by daylight.  Glass skyscrapers gave recognition with the corner office and took it away with the cubicle.  Windows read historical shifts.  Windows make history.  In 2013 six women climbed the Shard to protest oil drilling in the Arctic.  These links show how climbing windows made history.  Read on.    


Friday, October 17, 2014

Reading Life in the Book Piles

     I sleep with books.  As a child I had a teddy bear, but as the years have passed the comforting sight of books tossed aside from the night's reading seems like a habit with origins just beyond childhood.  My mom read mysteries and my dad read westerns.  The cheap paperbacks must have galloped through the house returning to where ever they originated having left nary a pile. This was a mystery that I never solved.  No books were stacked in the living room, piled on the floor or never, not ever left on the well-make master bed .

    I will credit my mom and dad for going grocery shopping every Saturday morning and creatively leaving my sister and I at the local Reno Public Library to gather a new stack of books for that week's reading.  I read through the fairy tale section, horse stories, Nancy Drew mysteries and eventually by high school moved on to reading the classics.  A new neighbor of mine, Mo, is a writer.  When she recently shared a piece of fiction that she is working on, I realized that I have not read fiction in a very long time.  The above pile of books by my bed are all non-fiction.  Curious.

 Twice when I was around the age of twenty, I walked into houses and was unexpectedly charmed. One house was located on Long Island belonging to a college friend and one in Kansas City.  Piles of books dominated chairs, the floor and were balanced precariously on tables.  I came to associate these houses with the ideal home filled with light and books.  Although I now think that both were fairly typical suburban homes, their books gave them a distinct feeling of being grand and modern, artful expressions of elegance.  The stacks of books were like those one might see in architectural magazines with piles of coffee table books and bookshelves stretching to the ceilings conveying that the owners were discriminating and intelligent.  Only now do I understand that they had piles of books simply because the read with deep and wide interests.

     In college I read history and historical novels.  Then books on educational theories, reference books on topics like how to sail or get through life.  Late I began to read mostly books by or about women.  I wasn't intending on discriminating against male writers, I just figured that I had already read a preponderance of male writers and this needed a little balancing.  At this point in my life, I was beginning to wonder how other women made it through life juggling all of their responsibilities and still had time to read.

     And so I read mostly fiction.  With the leisure time to peruse library shelves and second-hand bookstores I could find female fiction writers.  I would read piles of books by each of these new-found writers.  When Gary and I married, he brought a love of history and politics to our home and these became part of my reading stacks again.  When Gary became sick, my library time seemed to disappear.  I no longer went to the library to find new authors.  As I read the last of the books by authors whom I had loved, my list of fiction writers diminished until there were no new books to read.  

     Here is a pile of books that I mostly just finished reading.  Only the top book is fiction and it is the only one in the pile that I have not finished reading.  I have read the first few pages, an unbreakable habit from high school.  I would read the first chapter of my pile of weekly books.  This way I knew which book would strike my fancy any time that I settled in to read.  
     Here is a current stack.  These are a few of the books that I have read in the last few months.  The Death and Life of Great American Cities took me the longest to read because I loved it the best.  I would haul it upstairs in the evening and back down during the day to read before a nap, snippets at a time.  Much of what I have been reading challenges a world view, informs an interest or just gives me joy like the Birdhouses of the World gifted by my sister. 

  Last night I went to the Whitman College Library with the intention of looking around for a novel.  I spotted Ann Patchett, a known novelist on a shelf of recommended reading and having never read her, found a chair nearby.  I had to laugh when I realized that the book was about writing, an autobiography of sorts.  But what I did find last night was that the time to explore books of fiction is back in my life.  Just in time.  As I get older the fear of loosing one's mind crosses my mind.  "Read fiction" is the latest advice from researchers.  The entranced focus that comes from following the unwinding plot keeps the brain strong and healthy.  I'll not forsake my non-fiction books, but push them aside for a new pile of books.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cosmic Blessings


      Cosmic activity brightens my day in October when cosmos, the flower of the month for October, blooms profusely in my garden.  The universal predictability of the movements of the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars inspired the name of the flower cosmos with it's predictably uniform petals. The hot pink cosmos tilting in a breeze against the dark blue shimmering pot seemed like the streak of a comet in a shining cobalt sky.  The sighting was predictable and still breathtakingly unexpected.  Cosmic luck.  Gary first planted our cosmos in a long narrow bed.  He nurtured them into profuse blooming by the best way to grow these flowers, withholding water until they begin to droop and trimming them back for a final profuse push of blooms.  A cosmically predictable event.

     I have grown cosmos now like Gary had done for a number of years following the gardening tradition of the Spanish monks who named the flower.  The word cosmos has come to have meanings tied to both the universe and to spiritual matters.  Cosmic luck circumnavigates the two.  I plant those cosmos.  They will grow and breezes will move them in delicate ways.  That I happened to be sitting in a pathway weeding and caught sight from a low angle of a single cosmos streaking across the dark glazed surface is the luck.  The spiritual part comes from the beauty of the flower and the satisfaction of being present.  That is cosmic luck.  Cosmic blessings.

      Young children believe that the moon follows them from room to room or over their shoulder while they ride in an automobile.  Their misconceptions are seemingly understandable and maybe not so different from erroneous thoughts of adults.  I unfailingly catch myself believing that cosmic luck follows me.  This isn’t voodoo magic or silliness.  Life is so often predictable and at the same time circled by universally fortuitous and unexpected events.  If I am here in October, the cosmos will bloom for me and the moon will cross my sky.  Since rarely do a few days pass without some pleasingly unexpected, but somewhat predictable event occurs, I would say that my life feels regularly cosmically blessed.

    I find that such simple things please me like the moon during an eclipse, the beauty of a pile of multi-colored peppers or a sunset with the appearance of a tractor unexpectedly blowing a cloud of dust off to the east across the photo.  With time on my hands I can have an intentional willingness to be present to appreciate the unexpected.

      I stood in line waiting to order a cup of soup yesterday at the Great Pacific Restaurant in Pendleton.  I came eye-to-eye with a sales rack of Cosmic Cowboy Coffee-dyed Brown Socks for $12 a pair.  Cosmic!  I am writing about cosmic!  Someone had maybe noticed those softly-colored brown coffee stains on their mother's lace tablecloth and clutching the memory into adulthood thought up with the idea to dye socks with coffee and sell them to coffee-drinking cowboys.  A cosmic shift from the white socks of engineers to the brown coffee-stained boot socks.  Innovations and inventions are ideas incubated between the predictable and accidental cosmic shifts in the mind.  I could hardly resist not buying a pair.  Maybe they would make me into a cowboy.  Ha, I would like that!

     Cosmic blessings.  I am trying to tell you that joy is mostly in little things.  I can give you examples like waking up seemingly at the precise moment that a flock of magpies slant across the window, shifting a rug under a chair and spying that little red straw that has gone missing for months that makes the can of WD40 spray into crevices (last seen in my car so ever long ago), crossing the path of an old friend only days before thinking of them and certainly the most universal sign of cosmic blessings getting the parking space in front of the door.  Children eventually grow up and learn that the moon circles the earth not them.  Adults grow up learning that science and math can make precise predictions and yet life is unpredictable.  Cosmically blessed.     


Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Holy Coat and Gloves

     Some twenty years ago I scavenged fir molding from a house that was going to be torn down.  I needed the molding to replace missing pieces of molding in my home.  This particular style and age of molding matched what I was missing.  As I rummaged about the house looking for the longest sections of molding, I came across a denim coat left behind by some college student.  It fit me and it seemed perfect for a work jacket.  A few snaps already didn't close properly and the cuffs seemed a little worn.  I still grab it on chilly mornings and head out to trim bushes, saw tree branches or mow; I don it fondly.  Either the day heats up or I heat up and soon the jacket is tossed aside or like last week hung on a faucet handle on the corner of the garage.  Yes, that scavenged jacket is still my work jacket twenty years and counting.

      I wore the jacket while I trimmed the willow branches so that they would be high up off of the garage roof, where they had been dragging for the last few years.  As I snipped, sawed and ducked back and forth to eye the effect, I thought about how distracted I have been for many years and how glad that I am back to be in a more attentive state.  Oddly enough the the task of pruning the willow and the passage way is like writing a message to you in tree.  I haven't been oblivious to the tree's branches laying across the roof and cascading down into the passageway that leads to the stream, but I had been feeling reluctant to open up the stream area.  I liked it being so private.  When I would notice the branches dragging on the roof tiles, I casually worried about the damage the branches might do to the roof, but not worried enough to take away my feeling of wanting to be cloistered.  Somehow I was asking the tree to guard this sacred ground, my space out of the eye of the public, while I struggled with work, with care taking and death.  Company would come, children would visit and often they were puzzled about how to get to the stream.  The willow casually waving against the garage didn't easily divulge the passageway.  The simple act of  radically pruning the willow writes "welcome" in tree.

     Pruning is a spiritual task.  Monks whose service was devoted to tending monastery orchards or the gardeners of Japanese gardens know about the holy work of pruning.  As the hands and eyes trace the puzzles of the branches discerning what to cast aside and what to keep, the mind does the same.  My worries and problems have been carted to the garden, carefully pruned and tossed on the compost pile along with the branches and twigs.  As a novice I concentrated on the task of pruning and trying to make the cuts the right ones. As the years passed the motion of gathering the tools, sharpening the blades, and donning the jacket and gloves became the ritual that would set my mind to working.

     Pruning is mostly quiet work, as is the meditative state that accompanies it.  If I caught myself being angry with some perceived injury, the pruning would become erratic and irresponsible.  As I brought my attention back to being careful, my mind would follow.  Here are a few rules of pruning and their attendant mindful correlations:

     *When overlapping twigs rub across each other causing wounds on their bark, this is not dissimilar to the cross purposes in my life that left abrasions on my heart or wrecked havoc with my intentions.  Choosing which purpose was healthier and worth keeping was a worthy task of the mind.
     *Trimming inward growing branches opens up bushes to light and air, much like cutting through dark thoughts allowed myself to be open to fresh and illuminated visions.
      * Cutting branches in such a way that the shoot remaining will grow in the direction that will best suit the shape of the plant is not unlike intentionally finding the right action to shape an outcome.
     *Pruning roses to the first outward growing group of five leaves demands careful attention with each cut.  Attending to the precise number of actions that were necessary to wend my way out of some tangled mess took similar focus.  Apologize, admit to error, identify my responsibility, consult again and make amends.  Five.  Almost always five actions.  Count, snip, count, snip.
     *Culling fruit or nuts from over-laden branches keeps the branch from breaking under the strain.  Thinking about my behavior and moderating it prevented me from the problems of overindulging.

     As I slip my old and rough denim jacket about my shoulders, I feel like I am putting on my holy coat.  I prepare for a day of pruning branches, worries, grievances and problems.  My hands slip into my holy gloves.  I have had so many pairs of gloves, but I invariably lose the right-handed one.  When I want to feel what I am doing, I strip off the right glove.  Most garden gloves, even those in size small aren't small enough for my hands.  I can't feel with the empty fingertips, so off comes the glove.  Those right-handed gloves disappear at an alarming rate.  Covered by dirt, dumped into the compost or garbage or hidden in a pile of leaves they are off and gone.  Except this green pair.  They are the only gloves that fit tightly and remain a pair.  As you can see they are my holiest gloves!  These holy gloves have seen me through many hours of pruning and meditating on life's branching tangles.  I hope to soon find a replacement pair.  Holy ones.

     My garden shed is the shrine for the holy gloves and tools.  Over the years the shed has acquired a Buddha head and a small circular posting of a prayer.  Blanche Graff had been a dear friend and a gardner until she turned 99 years old.  That black and white photo of an older lady in my opening post page is Blanche.   When she moved away from her house and gardens she gave me her pruning wheel (ha, sounds like a prayer wheel!) and a prayer on a little circle of paper edged with a flower design  The prayer had hung on a post near her tools..  The prayer is a one from the Baha'i Faith.  It says, "...if we are not happy and joyous at his season, for what other season shall we wait, and for what other time shall we look?".  Abdul Baha'  Pruning is a year-long task.  Trees are best pruned in the winter.  The prayer is a good prayer for gardeners, those holy pruners season in and season out.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014


     I am going to keep you in my sights with this singular, winsome, unblinking eye of an empty bottom of a juice pot.  I don't want you to shift away leaving me in an empty room with my thoughts regarding empty.  I have much to say to you about emptiness, yours, mine, ours and theirs. 

      The word empty was not significant enough to be recorded into the written English language until as late as the 12th century.  How did one say one's pot was empty, one's glass, one's house and one's hopes prior to the time of late Medieval England?  Try and take empty out of your vocabulary.  Would that mean you only had fullness left?  Empty came late to the written page and rushed to fill a void in a world where empty meant starvation, death or simple-mindedness.  Empty's usefulness carried a rickety, wooden cartload of sad and dire consequences.  Empty still stalks the cooking pots of much of the world.  Empty works too hard.     

     Some of my days are spent sorting through the diatribe of a houseful of people.  Not many years ago there were three teenagers, a husband, a wife, one dog and four cats.  My house was not empty.  You have seen those images of Americans with their rooms filled with stuff while a third-world family can pile their belongings in a calf-high pile in front of their feet.  Empty couldn't find a corner to stand in at my house.  Empty left in a huff, warning that it would return in full one day.  Empty is back now.  With great dignity it fills corners, emptying closets and cabinets, moving boxes off of the wooden floors and sweeping knickknacks from surfaces.  The orderliness of the home feels more peaceful with fewer belongings.  I must admit that empty was only welcomed back in slow motion.  I remember the day some time after Gary's passing, when I was finally ready to take his bathrobes off of the hook on the bedroom door and give the robes to his son.  I washed them, but then the empty hooks seemed so lonely, that I moved empty aside and hung the robes again.  A few months more passed and then empty was finally welcomed to hang it's hats on those hooks.   
     Empty nest, empty handed, emptiness.  We worry about them before they arrive.  I began to welcome empty back into my life one handshake at a time.  Not that empty held any great fear for me, but it carries a wicked reputation.  Empty for me is a little like that empty grape juice pot staring at you.  Moments before the steamer pot carried sweet dark grape juice.  Now it carries the reflection of the sky and my shadow, the sheen of purple juice and a couple of small bubbles.   The pot will be brought back into the house.  To be filled again.  Empty precedes full and full precedes empty.  And will do so again and again. 


     Those little bubbles in the pot, the fall air scented with dust, my reflection while I lean over to take the photo, the humor of seeing a pot as an eye are the fullness's that greet me from an empty pot.  I make a choice to see an empty pot filled with possibilities.  I don't let empty discourage me.  I cherish empty and its illusions while it lasts.  And it won't last.  

      If I had a pot with the last drop of water available and simply no prospect of filling it again, than that is the empty with the bad reputation.  But many of our empties are not as dire as we think that they will be.  Granted if I had no water, no food, no cover from weather and no way to refill those things, that is a difficult empty.  It is an empty with no choice.  We fear empty when we think that we have no choice.  

     The previous June when I returned from traveling for many months, I came in looking for empty.  Not because I was worried about it, but because I was looking for it's company.  The quiet of empty has let me mull over what full might look like again.  As I approach the date when I fled home last year with my belongings tucked into a car and a car top carrier, I will have come a full year.  The appreciation of having fewer things, of having emptier surfaces greets me daily.  Empty is good.  As the house fills again with guests and friends, empty sits by and watches before it arises and leaves smiling.  As good and worthy company laughs with me, sends messages, challenges my perceptions and fills in dates on my calendar, empty moves out waving.  I may miss it.  But it will be back one day, offering new visions with its inquisitive steely gaze.