Friday, February 24, 2017

Burning Bush: Erica Turns 40 and Levels Up


Please know that I am in the middle of a beautiful, powerful, terrifying transition, and our past relationships may be changing.

With New Year 2017, our business started calling us back to work.
With February, I got feverish sick for a week, then started to recover by my birthday (the 10th).
That recovery surge of energy, overlaid on my re-discovery of my calling to creative collaboration and teamwork through stepping up at Mt. Hull Fire District 12, overlaid on a surge of good wishes from family elders and supportive fans.  Like when many waves temporarily align into a super-wave.

I thought turning 40 might be depressing, and make me feel old, but no - it's incredibly powerful, called to cast off my self-imposed limitations, false humility, false pride, false obligation and self-destructive habits. 
I have done my time.  I have defined myself as a crisis victim, and a crisis survivor.  I am now an experienced crisis manager.

Self-pity about unfinished plans, distance from loved ones, roots in too many places is dropping away.  This is my mountain, MOTA is my church, you are my tribe, and there is no conflict because this is my world.
earth.nullschool.net

My call to serve as a volunteer firefighter is teaching me powerful things about chain of command, scope of leadership, and how to share immense responsibilities within achievable human skills and capacities.

Ernie and I both feel I may be called to progress in the nationwide disaster-response qualifications toward "IC," Incident Commander. On my part, I just felt a hunch that this may be the year that I get my first call-out where I'm the senior person who responds to a call in our district, and I'd like to be fully prepared to do that safely by whenever it happens.
Ernie feels that I might need to get fast-tracked to finish the appropriate training and experience, toward my natural leadership level, and he also calls that "IC track."  Could be some other thing - safety officer, train-the-trainer, research and development of disaster-prevention and community preparedness.
What training path do I take toward people-puzzle leadership?

My district's fractured chain of command has resolved itself into a department running on ten good men and two good women.  The flustercluck has resolved into at least 6 wheels on the ground and tieing in.  And the core meeting I tried to facilitate (on 3 days with about 4 hours' sleep) has fully endorsed my acting as a non-officer coordinator for now (trainings/transition help), and pursuing my own training opportunities as far and as fast as I care to try.  I said, "If you can tolerate me in this state of sleep deprivation, we might be able to work together," and they seem to be all for it.

My previous calls to serve with Ernie in disaster prevention, building resilient communities, and working to mitigate the Long Emergency are aligning with this one. Our district has a similar image problem, of "Mt. Hull Specials" and hot messes.  Like many small rural districts, people who buy cheap land are either amazingly resilient survivors with their eyes open, or people making a poor decision that may be part of a pattern.

Mt. Hull is now "My Mountain," a proving ground for demonstrating what can be done using only what you have.  As I experiment with how I can facilitate better community support, it might become an exemplarly Permaculture Fire District, creatively using goats to mow medevac and safety zones, for example, or hosting small business and web marketing seminars at the fire hall as bait for good treasurers and secretaries to volunteer.

The wonderful friends and allies that I've been gathering since before I was born are now showing up as beacons of potential, awaiting connection.  The light of these visions are keeping me from sleep.

Be careful what you pray for:
I have asked many people to help hold me in their care, and to help me find good boundaries, listening instead of over-talking, and a 90-day trial period in case I can't do this without burning myself out.

I have mentors in mind, and will be reaching out for support crew.

However, it does not appear that the Universe is going to allow me to think my way through the process on my usual terms.
It has turned into a sort of vision quest, or sword of Damocles, or trial by fire.   

My body is giving me clear signals, which make it physically uncomfortable or painful when I over-commit, micro-manage, or do things that it's not time to do.  This physical discomfort, combined with the excitement, makes it hard to sleep more than an hour to three hours at a time.
I realize that's a grave health concern, and so does my team.  Please listen to the RadioLab podcast about RAAM and human limits, and realize that my beloved Ernie is a former RAAM completion athlete.  He will do what he feels necessary if he sees symptoms that I have gone beyond "incredible superwoman lifting car off baby" human capacity, and am in danger of entering the death zone.
Please tie in with Ernie if you feel you have a key element or emergency intervention option for my well being.  eawisner@gmail.com

My own sense is that this might be a crash course in leadership from God.  Listen to those body-sense cues, find effective support, because the alternative is intolerable.  Surviving it will mean I have a much better knowledge of my actual limits, with many self-defeating fears and follies burned away. 

If you are Catholic, this feels like Sacred Heart.
It feels like I am a hero-in-training going through my qualifying exam.
It feels like a rite of passage that is being coordinated by the universe itself.
It feels like being divinely whipped into shape for the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker / Quaker practices.
It feels like the Shamanic status of becoming a "hollow reed," through which the spirit acts in the world.

As I write, I am using my body cues to find my best words.  Overstatement or falseness causes physical discomfort in my heart, throat, or gut.  Right words, right actions, bring relief.

These sensations are like a dowsing-rod; I am using them to guide me toward food, drink, healthy activity and requests for guidance, or time to rest again.  My need to relieve the discomfort is also my guide to pinpoint the support that feels best from the many 'sleep coaches' and aunties I've enlisted. 

If you have experienced such a transformative crisis yourself, and feel called to help me with this one, please email me using the topic "Burning Bush" in the title with your offer. Or call me on whatever line you have.

Boundaries for phone calls, until further notice:  
- No phone calls during the hours of darkness, especially after 9pm, unless it's a life-or-death emergency, or a pre-arranged exception.
- For those we specifically asked to return a call, please call between 9am-6pm. 
- No Unsolicited Advice By Phone Please, see below.

- Hand-picked sleep coaches are helping me try for bedtime at 9pm.
- I am trying to stop working, bringing myself down from exciting brainstorming, connection, and puzzle-type work, starting around 6pm.  Including "solving" this crisis by thinking about it.  Because my entire life's work and play and family history is in the process of unifying into a coherent calling, EVERYTHING that I normally love to talk about will also wind me up and make it harder to sleep.  But we may not unplug the phone if I expect a return call about urgent/important support.  

Re: Unsolicited Advice: Ernie and I are contacting hand-picked advisors; as you can imagine, our medical adventures have led us to meet some awesome ones.

If we have not requested your personal involvement or call, take a deep breath. Check your heart and gut before dialing the phone.  Is it worth the phone ring possibly waking me up from a much-needed nap?
If you're not sure, please offer quietly: email, call Ernie's dad's line, or send a prayer/intention instead.  Could you use the phone to find us a master/teacher/resourceful and humble medical or stress-care expert, and send them our way

Exceptions/Solicited advice:
- leads on excellent local doctors, social workers, mental health, self-care (massage therapists?) in Okanogan County.  Or world-class health advisors.
- on-site caregiver relief, as Erica can't help Ernie with ADLs and Ron is a bit laid up (ADLs and health care and errands)
- Anyone we contacted since Feb. 18th, we see you as part of the solution

If you feel called to help in any way, offers of substantial help/offloading the excess are welcome.  Please respond in the comments or tie in with Ernie: eawisner@gmail.com
 
My nightly mantra, as I breath in silver light and exhale all the dark clouds and hope for sleep, is "Thank You God for Everything," and that includes you, beloved readers.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

DIY Cancer Care (short version: not fun)

Breaking radio silence, I wanted to let some concerned friends and family know that we are OK.
We have had a series of disappointing medical appointments for Ernie, resulting in a lot of not much happening, and we are coming out of an extended paperwork-and-logistics crunch on long-term care for Ernie's mom.

Ernie's mom has late-stage cancer, and is medically considered beyond treatment (which she resisted for years anyway).

In the unfortunate event that you are going through something similar, here are some resources we've found useful:

- If you are doing OK, medically and financially, but starting to slow down a bit,  Meals on Wheels has been surprisingly helpful in helping elders stay independent in their own homes.  Not just food, but a daily visit from a friendly face, and in my grandma's case they were also able to call a designated number if she didn't answer the door.  (Which means family could visit when convenient, but didn't need to hover.)

- Long Term Care:
Illness is expensive, and so is long-term care. 
One website showing places to apply for food and medical help:
http://www.in.gov/fssa/dfr/2691.htm
A lot of communities have other resources, such as private organizations or funds. A good local social worker should know a lot of them.

Medicaid can help with long-term care, based on financial and functional eligibility, they may offer anything from a few hours a week of light household help, to 24-hour care in a nursing home.

- Power of Attorney:
If a person becomes incapacitated, or just starts having trouble doing paperwork in a timely way, they may need to designate a trusted person to have access to their affairs.  (This is kind of like adding someone to your joint bank account - an untrustworthy person can really mess up your life.)
  There are lots of generic POA forms online.  You can X out sections that don't apply.  Consult a lawyer if needed.  A power of attorney is not the same as a will, and may not allow access to affairs or resources after a person dies.

Hospice: comfort care, including in-home or residential nursing:
http://www.hospicedirectory.org/ 
 http://www.nhpco.org/find-hospice
(Ask your doctor what hospice programs they work with/recommend.  Generally, your doctor must confirm your eligibility (within about 6 months of end of life), but there are no limits to how long you can receive care.  The hospice coordinators or social workers can help you find out what's covered by your insurance.  They are incredibly helpful, compassionate, and well-informed. Even if you don't sign up now, they may be able to walk you through your best options and local resources.)

- American Cancer Society:
A good summary of end-of-life processes and symptoms:
http://www.cancer.org/treatment/nearingtheendoflife/nearingtheendoflife/nearing-the-end-of-life-death

What Happens When Someone Dies?
If you are young and lucky, you may never have been present at another person's death.   What do you do?
If the dead person was on Hospice, you call the Hospice main number, and generally a nurse will come out to handle things.
If not on Hospice, the death must be reported to the county Medical Examiner, usually by calling the sherriff's office at 911. Don't move the body until the medical examiner releases it. (Sometimes they just ask a few questions over the phone, depending who's there, but usually a medical person has to verify the death in person.)
  It's a good idea to make arrangements ahead of time (funeral home, body donation, or whatever), because there are limits to how long you can discuss these things, or second-guess the person's wishes, after death.  Funeral homes will provide a price list on request; both basics and extras can be expensive.  Although it can be depressing to contemplate, making decisions ahead of time is a huge weight off friends and family afterwards.

- Informal Social Support and Reciprocity:
  We owe a big debt of gratitude to the church family, friends, and neighbors, all of whom have been providing a lot of day-to-day help for Ernie's mom.  Most of them say that she has done the same for them, or for other friends and families they know.
  Most of the above programs, and many others, accept donations or volunteers. My gran'ma and I enjoyed donating boxes of fresh fruit from her backyard trees to Meals on Wheels; another friend enjoyed delivering meals by bicycle.

We all make our own beds, and lie in them.  There are worse things than toughing out a deadly illness in your own home, on your own terms, with daily visits from friends and family.
...
Not useful, in our opinion:
- sales websites promising to cure your cancer in a few easy steps (and turning the blame back on you if you don't follow their impossible steps exactly, or if following their steps caused other and possibly worse health problems)
- faith healers who tell a person casually over the phone that they are healed, regardless of medical circumstances, or any discernible divine intervention
- people who snoop or gossip about someone's situation without actually helping.

We occasionally have the benign problem of 'too many cooks,' where well-meaning people see a need, and try to do something about it (like "re-organize" or shuffle important papers).  But if it is not a task they can complete (often because it's not really their job), messing with it can make things worse.

One of the most difficult things as a care giver is to recognize when to leave well enough alone.
Being present, and listening, are often more important than bustling or effort.  Between Ernie's medical appointments and our physical distance, we're not able to be present as much as his mom might prefer.  So a lot of what we can do is by phone, fax, email, and second-hand.

I often wonder whether I'm doing enough, whether I'm doing too much.  I am in this as Ernie's proxy; I often talk to his mother more than he does.  And I may be stepping on toes.

There are a lot of emotionally difficult, physically uncomfortable things that happen when a person needs care. Everyone has their own opinions about how things ought to be done. I want us to hear about it if care isn't adequate - and I also want Ernie's mom to be allowed to make her own decisions as long as she is able.  Friendly nagging or insisting can quickly become harassment - or just add to the indignity and confusion of an older adult having to ask for help.

Between consenting adults, "No" means No.  Either the care giver, or the person receiving care, can decline if they are uncomfortable. (Physical, emotional, or time limits; inappropriate medical training or skill; or a private reason or personal preference are all adequate grounds for declining.)

There are specific legal and medical situations where a person's right to self-determination may be over-ruled.  But unless and until you are appointed to make decisions on someone else's behalf, that is not your job. 

I keep reminding myself that we are all doing the best we can - and not even the most perfect care can make a loved one immortal. 
Hold onto the love, compassion, and gratitude that brought you together in the first place.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Woodshed DIY Resources


August DIY Update: 
Woodsheds Again

In the Western states, our summer dry season is approaching its end. (Sometimes in a fiery burst of heat. Our sympathy to the folks currently threatened by active wild fires; we're feeling very lucky NOT to be fighting big wildfires yet in the Okanogan County this year, for once.)

Our wood shed - already stocked
with about 1 winter's supply
for our rocket mass heater
If you need a woodshed, or a bigger or better woodshed, to hold all that lovely wood you've harvested and split this spring, it would be a REALLY good end-of-August project for this week.

Properly dried and stored fire wood can provide more than double the same heating energy as damp or green wood. (Soaking-wet wood can act as a fire extinguisher, meaning dry wood is infinitely more effective as a heating fuel.)

A good woodshed is not just storage out of the rain – it's a clever wood-drying machine. The shape and structure promote great ventilation, often using slatted sides or racks, and sometimes featuring dividers so you can run two years' supply side-by-side with ventilation between each row. Good wood sheds keep not just rain but groundwater and evaporating moisture from remaining anywhere near your precious fuel stores. 

A good wood shed should be so well-ventilated it's almost windy inside. If your climate is very humid and foggy, you might need to consider a design with some heating function to dry the air - perhaps an enclosed shed whose metal or clear plastic roof helps it functions like a solar dehydrator, or a storage attached to your heated space such as a mud-room, lean-to, or the back corner of a shop or barn. 
(In most climates, these heated spaces are not necessary to achieve dry wood, and the risk of bringing wood-eating bugs into a large wooden building may outweigh the convenience and drying speed associated with heated spaces.) 

Common structures that can double as wood-drying storage include a well-ventilated greenhouse, barn, daylight basement, or a temporary fabric structure such as a canopy tent or suspended rain-fly tarp. 

Bad ideas for wood sheds include almost all tarped-over woodpiles on the ground.  Unfortunately, these often act more as moisture-trapping mushroom farms than as dry storage. Basements are another location that may be useable for storing already-dried wood, but may be too damp or lack the necessary ventilation for a reasonably fast initial drying and curing process.

If you would not leave books or linens in your wood storage, for fear of damp and mold, consider improving it.
Assembling a 24-foot-wide bow shed carport
(yes, it's taller than our 24x36 cabin)

We are also in the middle of building an extra-big carport, using the largest approved size of “bow-truss” from some university extension service barn plans we found online. 

The main motive for this project is actually ice-free access to our vehicles while Ernie recovers from an elective surgery this fall.  But I'm definitely looking forward to stacking a little bit of extra firewood in here for convenient access this winter.  (and possibly to creating an entryway/greenhouse....)



Here are some great resources for building an inexpensive, spacious woodshed:

Simple shed roof with tilt-up walls:

A bow-shed greenhouse much like ours (this company does sell plans and accessories, but similar plans are also available elsewhere for free).

Barn construction details for those with loftier ambitions - MANY designs and details free to download from North Dakota extension service, well-adapted for snow and wind loads:

Many barn and shed (and other ag building) plans from Tennesee extension service– try #6100 for a nice simple shed, or #6298 for a gothic-arch bow-shed, greenhouse, or carport:

If you already have a woodshed you love, please send a picture, or share pictures or links in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!
Yours,
Erica and Ernie

Countdown to the New Normal

If our bodies made logical sense, we would be robots.

A lot has happened since I wrote the posts for May - including some lovely professional opportunities, re-connecting with old friends and colleagues, and making new memories.

But in the last couple of months, the excitement about bringing out The Book has been overshadowed by health concerns.  We have two relatively urgent medical upheavals in our lives right now. (Along with the usual number of chronic concerns, if there is such a thing as "usual number" of those.)

One is the news that Ernie's mother Peggy has had a serious downturn in her longstanding battle with cancer. The other is that after trying a lot of alternatives, we finally have been referred to an excellent surgeon, who says there is a very good chance of a successful below-the-knee amputation for Ernie.  This is a HUGE decision, but it's one that Ernie has already researched, and made up his mind a few years ago was the next logical step to move forward.

(The weeks between organizing Peggy's hospice care, and going to meet this new surgeon and find out what was possible for Ernie, have been a VERY difficult time to stay focused on work tasks.  But now I seem to be back in the saddle for logistics and follow-through.)

If Ernie's insurance gives the green light for this surgery, we need to allow for a year to 18 months of post-surgery recovery and adaptation.  After that, we get to discover our "new normal." 
  We can look forward to possible reductions in pain (currently between 7-10 pain level most days), and significant reduction in the infections he's been experiencing the past year and a half. 
  I hope we can enjoy a lot more water-sports (many amputees are active kayakers, sailors, and swimmers), and better options for bicycling again.  Most travel should become significantly less painful and risky, as well, though we may need to be stricter in our criteria for ADA-accessible destinations.

We have also been warned to expect that construction, especially lifting, twisting, and balance-type activities, are extremely difficult after any leg amputation. The prosthetic socket represents sort of a bendy break in the lower leg, which is a weak point under sideways stresses such as torque, bending, or shear (unstable as well as very uncomfortable).  The surgeon and prosthetist we talked to have worked with a number of drywallers, builders, firefighters, and fishermen, and these folks rarely return to the same work after an amputation.  (The longest example the surgeon has seen lasted about 2 years at drywalling, and that was a guy who was highly motivated to keep supporting his family.  It was just extremely difficult to do that kind of work.)
  The most successful people in adapting to life after amputation are good "outside the box" thinkers, who can find new ways to perform familiar tasks now that their body has a new shape and new limits.  We all agreed that Ernie is very likely to remain well above average activity levels; he is intrinsically highly motivated, and highly adaptable.

You can imagine this involves a lot of discussion about our work and life together.  We may be sending me alone to honor some existing commitments, and identifying and cancelling those optional things that have to give way to higher priorities. 

Ernie wants to "support me" in going ahead and doing things without him, things that might take my mind off all this, like fire fighting, book signing, and scheduled events where I get to shine as a featured expert. 
However, I find fame is a poor substitute for creative partnership.  Performing under the limelight doesn't come naturally to me when my heart's priorities are on what's going on back home.



I've resumed mutually-supportive dates with two of our local friends, and phone check-ins with a couple of family members.  A few regular people who ask me how it's going once a week, and especially those who don't mind taking the time to discuss detailed work logistics, family concerns, and other problems, are much appreciated.

We had a lovely "angel visit" from our friend Tyler this weekend, who helped with construction (see next post) as well as prep and playing with natural plasters and goat cheese.

I'm currently organizing my chore lists, so I can delegate somewhat in case of offers from other angels with time to spare.

Yours,
Erica (and Ernie) Wisner

Sunday, May 22, 2016

All the Pretty, Amazing Mothers (part 4 of 4)

Among my earliest memories is a beloved and familiar voice singing a lullaby in my childhood bedroom.  The warm coverlet with its broad plaid stripes in shades of brown, orange, gold, and green.  Darkness obscuring the shapes in the wallpaper.  And the mellow, sweet voice, familiar and unforgettable:

"Way out yonder, in the meadow,
All the pretty little horses...
Dapples and greys, pintos and bays,
all the pretty little horses!
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses..."

I'm sure there was a "go to sleep" in there somewhere, but it was lost among all the pretty horses.

With a godmother like Mary Ann, it would have been difficult to avoid going horse crazy.  She was in her teens when I was born, and I remember a later visit to Portland where she carefully offered me a selection of her almost-best model horses.  I probably still have the grey appaloosa, with the same broken foot that it had when she gave it to me, and its beautifully detailed conformation. Appaloosas were always her favorite.  I preferred bays as a child (to the point where my parents got me a Lone Ranger Silver horse toy with articulated legs, but repainted it brown with a black mane and tail for me).  I had a Grizzly Adams donkey whose muzzle I shaved after it became apparent to me that real horse-kind had velvety muzzles, not fuzzy hairy ones.

When I was about 10, Mary Ann was instrumental in setting me up with a skilled, pragmatic, and foxy riding trainer called Christina Traunweiser.  Some years my parents would pay for lessons, some years I would work for them.  The process of mucking out stalls every weekend in my formative years means a shovel is still the tool I know best (aside from paper and pencil).

Mary Anne teaching a horse and rider
Unlike Mary Anne, I eventually got over the "I want a pony" feeling.  I know exactly how much work a horse is, and unless I achieve a rare state of rural life and surplus income (or have work suitable for a horse or mule to earn its keep), I am more than content to share the pleasures of other people's horses.

Mary Ann finally got her ponies when she married Craig Stevens, and now teaches classical equitation in Snohomish, WA.  (I delight in hearing stories of my nieces, and my mother, getting a riding lesson from Mary Ann on their visits.)

The music continued too. I loved singing together at family gatherings, and Mary Ann and my dad were definitely ringleaders in that regard.

And although glittery pink ballgowns were not really her style, she did play "dress you up for the ball" one school-shopping trip when we blew our budget on a formal dress jacket instead of the expected jeans.  I wore it to a variety of dances and formal occasions for years.

....

Wicked Evil Stepmother
Kacy claims to be our W.E.S., but she is not very good at it. She married my father at a time when all of us kids were lining up to get married, and just so happened to have ten years as a professional wedding planner under her belt.  And she's a highly skilled photographer.

(Since she doesn't love being in front of the camera very much, I was just going to represent her with a casual selection of her work.  But someone caught her on her way to ride bikes with my Dad for his birthday last month - something he used to do daily, but she hasn't done since getting hit by a car at age 13... a pretty special birthday treat for him.  I'll let Facebook decide how long it's available to show here.)

For our brief attempt at being commercial chocolateurs, she took sumptuous process shots, jazzed up our table with bronze chiffon and sparkle lights, and then presented us with matching chocolate-themed aprons to wear at the event.

But my most wicked-favorite thing about Kacy (besides how much she and my dad care for each other), is her sense of humor.

She and Ernie are closer in age than either is to their spouse, and they can make each other laugh like few people I know.  As a result, Kacy has gotten some truly charming photos of Ernie. Most other photographers capture dramatic tension, rugged intensity, self-criticism, or just a stern thousand-yard stare.  But with Kacy around, you get to see in pictures some of the genuine fondness and delight he usually reserves for trusted family.

Kacy has that rare combination of creative genius, organizational planning ability, and deep loyalty.

All in all, catastrophically mis-cast in the "wicked evil stepmother" role.

...

My mother-in-law and mother-out-law (not sure which is which) are very different from each other, but both are fun to be with.

Peggy enjoying Ernie and Erica's wedding
Peggy Myers is spunky, full of curiosity and enthusiasm, a stalwart Believer (though the church may vary, the faith remains strong).  I love hearing her pronounce her delight in a new discovery, a charming shop, or a clever gardening trick: "I just think that's neat!"  Peggy loves trying new restaurants, finding a tea shop we can share, learning more about local businesses, getting involved with neighbors, and introducing friends to each other. She has remained close friends with neighbors from our former shared address in Portland, and is probably the single most reliable person to give us a call and say "How was your day?"
 
Jeanine and Tai,
a rescued Arab horse.

Jeanine Wisner is enjoying retirement on her one-horse ranch, after a career as a small-business accountant, commercial fishing, and a memorable sojourn in Japan.

We definitely took advantage of her accounting advice early in the business setup.

It's nice to have someone right within walking distance for the occasional "girl chat." Sometimes with cream puffs, white wine, or a hot cup of tea. Sometimes with deep forays into social mores, politics, or the right relationship between humans and the rest of life on Earth.

When we're not being profound, we like cooking treats for each other (she makes wicked fried chicken; Ernie has perfected a honey-shrimp recipe that was one of her favorites at a Chinese restaurant; and I seem to be most popular lately for those cream puffs.) And swapping fiction novels for some mental R&R.
...


My sisters and sister-in-law are amazing mothers, too.  As are many of our cousins and friends.

I continue to admire every gal who manages to wear the "mother" hat and be herself at the same time.  It's not easy to be the focus of someone's fantasies, physical needs, and developing personality 24/7.  Raising children is a collaborative art, with the parents, the child, extended family, and the larger society all playing a role.


Some writers have started wishing "happy mother's day" to men, especially those with the courage and stamina to take on the critically important, early-childhood parenting that remains a bastion of feminine influences and expectations.  Most mothers do not have the police called on them when they sit on a park bench supervising their child's play, for example.  Fathers, uncles, aunts, in-laws, grandparents, and friendly neighbors who participate in raising healthy children, alongside those iconic mothers young and old, create a richer life for the family and our future.

Keep it up.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Grandmothers' Secret Lives (Moms part 3 of 4)

When I say "grandma," what comes to mind?

Extra-emphatic smile lines and grey hair?  The world's best babysitter, baking cookies, knitting booties, tending colic?  "You drive like a grandma," implying excessive caution, or perhaps the terror of failing eyesight and reflexes?
A few people will have specific memories of meddling mentors, mother surrogates, or creative elders sweeping in like a fairy godmother.

I do have vivid memories of knitting and sewing projects with both my grandmothers, both for fun, and for events like weddings and school plays.

I also have is something that many people my age didn't.  Our hallway wall sported portraits of my grandmother Mary in a lab coat, my great-grandmother with a superb horse.  Grandma Enid's name once listed at #6 on the top-ten list for welding yardage in her Swan Island ship-yard.

Seeing those examples before I was old enough to read meant that I grew up without certain mental barriers, with a wider field to imagine my own future.

There was no sense that women couldn't, or shouldn't, or weren't capable, of ANYTHING.  The unspoken assumptions that stopped many friends from considering a career in the sciences, or the trades, didn't seem to affect me in the same way.

The lab coat didn't stop GrandMary from being elegant when she wanted to be, either.
This image first appeared on my brother's blog,
in his 2016 post entitled "Lady Science."
https://rwillritter.wordpress.com/
The other thing I remember about that hallway is that while Grandmary looks attentively elegant in her pearls, the expression is almost bored compared with the lab picture.  In her lab coat, she is not looking at the camera - she is handling some test tubes in a rack, and smiling to herself.

The intrinsic pleasure of challenging work, done well, seems like a critical value to absorb in childhood (or as soon as possible thereafter).

I don't have a photo of Grandma Enid in her welding gear, but I have vivid mental pictures from her stories.  Stunts like driving off a feckless teen admirer by shocking him with her welding stinger, if possible while he was standing in a puddle; racing across the logs in the parking lot for the carpool home; swapping jobs with some of the bigger welders and squeezing into interior spaces that were more accessible to her small frame, until the supervisors insisted that everyone do their fair share of all types of assignments. 

Her talent for writing great stories made all her other careers come alive: being a 19-year-old high-production welder. A gifted seamstress whose family managed to publish her wedding banns on 2 weeks' notice, compelling her to come up with a wedding dress in the middle of what she thought was a normal 2-week visit home.  Being a student of home architecture and a resourceful homemaker (she had to be, raising 4 children in 27 different homes while Grandpa's career on hydropower plants took them all over the Western USA).
She even wrote evocatively about the embarrassment of being a rural cousin bathing in a bucket during the Dust Bowl (it wiped out their indoor plumbing when the well filled with mud), and about the hallmarks of widowhood.

Through all the stories, there run threads of humor, resilience, and the pluck to make the best of any situation.  It was my privilege to spend a couple of Grandma Enid's final years in close contact, as a part-time caregiver, and she is one of the most intimate ancestors in my personal pantheon.


Mycology, welding, and throwing convention to the winds.  My great-grandmother Nan was known for bypassing the hounds on a fox-hunt, and for starting a successful business after the family fortunes tanked in 1929.  My great-great-grandmother accompanied her missionary husband to the Dakotas, figured out how to pluck chickens in kid opera gloves, and walked through a blizzard to give birth to her first child.

My lady ancestors always set their own definition for "ladylike."

My forefathers had their own creative quirks, but that's a story for another time.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Thank You, Mom (Part 2 of 4)

This is for my first-and-always mother, Eleanor. 


I have plenty of second-hand anecdotes and fragments of my early life, including snow bunnies and snow dolphins, mountain walks identifying iconic Northwest plants, and little sailboats made of Tupperware with clay mast-steps and leaf or paper sails in the rare California rains.

The earliest memory that I clearly recall is her absence.

While she was giving birth to my next sister, at home, I was sent to the neighbors across the way for the night.  It may have been my first night away from home (surely at 2 years old, there would not have been many sleep-overs yet? Unless you count being born, myself, in a hospital).

I know this is my first memory, not my mother's, because I remember something she never knew: not fear, nor just separation or strangeness, but CANDY.

These well-intentioned neighbors had an ENORMOUS jar of COLORFUL candy - I believe it was something like Jelly Bellies.  Throughout the night, I seem to remember being allowed to choose one more candy from the jar a COUNTLESS number of times.  Countless as only unforseen abundance can be to a pre-literate child - a candy jar taller than oneself, like a magical apparition to a child accustomed to firm, healthful, and thrifty limits.

I don't know if I actually fell asleep.  But regardless of the fussing and screaming that I'm sure they put up with, they would probably be pleased to know that the glow of hindsight they are remembered for their kindness and generosity (with CANDY!).

In later years, I have given up sugar and candy.  And I have discovered and begun appreciate a number of things about my mother that were not obvious to a child's perspective.  

A few highlights that I've been appreciating lately:

Brilliance: anyone who knows my mother will tell you she's highly intelligent.  This intelligence lends itself to practical problem-solving, prudent planning, and an endless creative study of the world.

My mother is an avid student of languages, literature, and education in its original Greek sense: how to draw forth the best in people.

I had the luxury of being raised by an expert in child development and adolescent psychology, and later getting to "talk shop" around the table.

I think she would have been a darn good natural mother without all that the extra book work, but the combination of practice and theory made her both an excellent teacher and an excellent mother.


Although I'm sure I was occasionally sullen, I feel like I somehow missed my "rebel" phase due in part to her savvy and respectful handling of potential discord.  Somehow it got into my head as early as 16 that my privileges came with responsibilities, and it would be... ill mannered? dishonorable? disloyal? to sneak out without permission after being trusted with the car keys and a room near the back door.  I remember shocking my cousins at a lakeside vacation by letting my aunt know we were going for a midnight swim.  It hadn't occurred to me that they would NOT inform their guardians about such things, or have their consent; and it hadn't occurred to them that I would need to be told not to "tell."

So many families seem to have a merry war between the generations; but somehow I felt like my mom and I were always on the same side.

In addition to speaking three or four languages well enough to be certified to teach them at the high school level, my mother routinely picks up another language, either for teaching, or for travel.  After taking her translation abilities for granted in childhood, I didn't study these languages with her beyond a few months' dabbling. To my chagrin, at 22 years old, I finally realized I might one day want to travel without my mother along as a translator. 

My mother also studied how to bring out the best in herself: to find a peaceful center from which to ride out life's troubles.  God knows there were many hurts, and I know more of them now, despite both my parents' relative success in shielding us from them early on.  I remember her practising stretches from aikido class, and showing me how to find lines of force, or do rolls on the living room carpet.  She taught me a number of meditation and comfort techniques that I still use today: massage or back-scratches, melting oneself from the toes all the way up to the head, imagining one's 'house of the soul', poetry and prayers, counting one's blessings.

My mother was young, and has always remained beautiful.  I was born when she was 21 years old.  It's strange to think of myself as "older than my mother," though of course in another sense that will never happen.  But now that 21-year-olds seem young to me, I notice a number of remarkable ways my mother was mature for her age.
- the courage to set her own path: perhaps not surprising in a child whose family marched her up the glacier-peaked Cascades at age 12, she knew in her teens that she wanted both a career and a family, and undertook both with great success.  When she married my Catholic father, the bishops had their hands full dickering over her conversion.  She always held authorities to a higher standard of integrity, with the same gentle firmness with which she confessed her "disappointment" in our childish ill deeds.
- the grace to be an excellent mother, and to accept help from others, after her own parents' untimely deaths.  Her father died suddenly when she was 13; her mother died at 59 before my brother was born.  Even before Grandmary passed away, my mother was on firmly friendly terms with my father's mother Enid, and I remember her later treating her as "Mom," a mentor and confidante.  They remained steadfast friends, if a bit more circumspect, even after my parent's divorce 24 years later. 
- the brilliance and perseverance to complete a Stanford bachelor's degree in 3 years, and follow up with a Masters while raising 4 children;
- and the practical sensibility to fix a garden gate, mend or sew as needed, and generally apply her gifts in a spirit of generous service.

The Spider Says: But was she a "perfect" mother?  Nobody is, of course.
If I had to pick a tragic flaw in my mother, it might be her self-imposed standards of excellence.

There is no cost to tickle a happy baby; it's emotionally rewarding and politically correct.  My mother can coo at babies with the best of them, but hand her a fussy one, and not only will she take it - she will most likely change the diaper or find the pinching pin, rather than just hand it back.

Being a diaper-changer in a cooing world can get exhausting.  If she can't be at her best, with enough energy to help, my mother will withdraw for some quiet time to herself.  It's usually healthy self-preservation, unless it's not.

When my parents divorced, I realized that I could not remember hearing them fight or argue through most of my childhood.  And I suddenly realized that might not be such a good thing as I had imagined it to be.  Maybe someone had tacitly turned a blind eye, or given up on some things, somewhere.  Maybe some of those things were important enough to fight for.

I remember actively seeking out other families who could indulge in a good loud fight without threatening their relationship, to see how they did it.  (They did it in various ways, not necessarily any healthier than my parent's intense "discussions." But I did learn there are ways to fight fair, and am gradually learning to practice them in my own marriage.)


I'm grateful to have absorbed the practice of lifelong learning, of delight in words and ideas, and the pragmatism to cope with whatever life throws at you (while doing your best to provide fairness and decency for others).

And I'm extremely grateful that my own parents are still around for weekly phone chats and visits, so that I can enjoy the beloved sound of my mother's voice, or the imprompetu intimacy of a walk in the rain.

So happy Mother's Day, Mom. 
A virtual walk in the woods, with May flowers, especially for you.