Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? Isabella Bishop

While still in Korea, I purchased a book, Korea's Cultural Roots, by Dr. Jon Carter Covell.  In it, she describes a "Scotswoman," Mrs. Bishop who, at the age of sixty-three (my age during that first year in Korea), traveled around Korea on her own in the 1890's. Covell recommends:  "...that the reader get a copy of this book, to contrast the pitiful conditions of life in the Hermit Kingdom of the 1890's with the bustling prosperity and modernization of today.”  After returning to the United States and pulling together some recollections of my stay in Korea, I decided to find out who this Mrs. Bishop was.  A Google search turned up several references to her and her work, including a book on Korea entitled:  Korea and her Neighbors (first published in 1897), which happened to be available in facsimile edition.

Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop was already a seasoned traveler and respected travel writer, known to most as Isabella Bird, when she undertook her two-year sojourn in Korea and nearby regions of China, Russia and Japan.  Bishop traveled into the mountainous Korean back-country under grueling conditions, and she was probably the first Western female to be seen in Korea outside its major cities.  As it happened, her travels occurred just as events were wrenching Korea from its 600-year-long, traditional Asian existence as an "independent" kingdom ruled by the Yi dynasty (although acknowledging China's suzerainty) into the turmoil of the twentieth century, a century of  subjugation, war, and occupation. Indeed, Bishop's itinerary during the last year of her journey was determined to a considerable extent by political events of the time, particularly the war between Japan and China of 1894 - 95. Ironically, that brief war was fought over which of those two nations had the right to protect Korea's independence!
As a consequence of the disastrous defeat of the Chinese in Korea and Manchuria during that war, Japan effectively took political control of Korea and subsequently (1910) annexed the country and ruled it as a Japanese colony for nearly a half century.  It was during the initial phases of this disastrous series of events, culminating in the Korean Conflict, that Isabella Bishop traveled to Korea.  Between the end of the Korean Conflict and the time I arrived in Korea, the peninsula and its people had suffered an additional half century of insult and deprivation:  artificial division of its land into two countries, domination by superpowers espousing very different ideologies, and oppression by Korean military dictators.  During those five decades, the United States has had military troops stationed on Korean soil.
Bishop and I both experienced chaos and confusion on initial contact with the totally unfamiliar Korean culture, followed by the more seasoned sense of acculturation and appreciation that comes with familiarity.  Isabella Bird Bishop was assisted in her travels in Korea primarily by missionaries and their organizations, and secondarily by British diplomatic officers.  By contrast, my sponsor was an educational institution (UMUC) under contract to U.S. Armed Forces Overseas. 
One might see parallels between nineteenth century missionary efforts to convert non-Europeans to Christianity and twentieth century military efforts to convert those same populations to "democratic" (capitalist or communist) political systems.

Friday, December 24, 2010


I have always considered myself politically independent, but I became involved in politics this fall.  I really wanted to see Jim DeMint defeated as senator, and I also hoped the Democrats would hold onto their margins in the House and Senate so that we could continue to pull out of the national disasters (wars and financial irresponsibility) brought about by the previous administration.  I sent money to candidates; I volunteered at the local Democratic Headquarters; I sent money to the DCCC; I called registered voters; I sent more money to the DNC; I canvassed local neighborhoods; I went to rallies for the Democratic candidate for Governor.

And it was all for naught.  Worse than that, it was a disaster.  I should know enough to stay out of politics - that is, if I really want a candidate of my choice to win an election.  I have voted in every presidential election (and in most mid-terms) since I first became eligible to vote in 1958.  And not one of the presidential candidates I voted for - in my first three decades of going to the polls - won an election.  Not until Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 did a candidate I favored actually win.  (A colleague at the time said he hoped I’d vote for Clinton, because that would be a likely sign he’d lose.)  I must be totally out of synch with the American public, or else my criteria differ from those of most folks when it comes to choosing public servants/officials.
After George Bush was elected in 2000, I was heart-sick; I had a bout of despair like I had not felt since Kennedy was shot. In a lament over the phone to my sister, I said (with the kind of understated sarcasm that few non-Midwesterners understand):  “The American people finally got the president they so richly deserve.”  I hope Sarah Palin doesn’t pull a George Bush.  It could spell doom for our country as a significant world power.  We might become the Great Britain of the Western Hemisphere, glorying in our past while drinking beer and watching our favorite entertainment.

In the 2008 primaries, I initially favored John Edwards, and when he left the race, I put my support (and money) behind Hillary Clinton.  Of course, I voted for Barack Obama in the election, and was glad he won, but I was afraid he would get macerated by Washington politics.  In this past (2010) election, I supported several upstanding candidates; two of them were defeated in the primary, including a prospective democrat who might have had a chance against Jim DeMint.  I didn’t vote a straight ticket in that election; I don’t believe I ever have.  But it was especially painful not to be able to vote for a viable democratic candidate for senator.  Other excellent candidates for non-partisan offices were also defeated, and I wondered if that was because a great many of the voters simply pulled the straight-ticket lever.
I believe it was Winston Churchill who said something like:  Democracy is a terrible form of government, but it’s better than anything else that’s been tried.*  So I guess we’re stuck with it.  But I think I’ll just try not to show enthusiasm for future political candidates.  I don't want my support to be a curse.
*The actual quote is:  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? The DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is a four-kilometer (2.5 mile) wide and 250-kilometer (155 mile) long gash across the Korean peninsula at roughly the 38th parallel, although it deviates in several places.  It symbolizes a wound that continues to fester in the Korean psyche, the wound of forced division of a country that had been culturally and linguistically unified, as well as forced separation of friends and relatives from one another across a politically arbitrary divide.  It is a living reminder of the Korean Conflict (Korean War), a war that should never have occurred, and never really ended. And it symbolizes the national helplessness experienced by a small country in the face of the military might of other world powers (USSR, USA and China) that wish to control its fate.  Those countries might have saved Korea from an oppressor (Japan) at the end of WWII, but in exchange, they have robbed the country of its power of self-determination, creating two puppet states, one of which continues in the North, although the South is now virtually autonomous.
Panmunjom, located in the middle of the DMZ, was the village where an armistice was signed terminating the vicious three year Korean Conflict (1950 – 1953).  This truce, brokered by the USSR and the UN, included all parties involved:  North and South Korea, the Soviet Union, the United States, and China.  But it was a truce, not a peace treaty, and the Korean War has still not ended, and will not end--at least in the minds of most Koreans--until the country is reunited.  In the intervening half century, the politics and collective experiences of the populations in the two halves of the riven country have diverged so radically that reuniting them could be as traumatic as the original rift.
After about two months in Korea, I visited the DMZ on a trip organized by the American military, intended primarily for service personnel and their families.  It was a sobering experience. Until the DMZ trip, I hadn't reflected much on the kind of political stalemate and military time bomb that still exists in Korea half century after the truce. The U.N. troops at Panmunjom, within the DMZ itself, are always on high alert, and the tension in the air is palpable. The North Koreans have dug several tunnels beneath the DMZ with the objective of providing surprise attack routes into South Korea.  Four tunnels have been discovered so far, one of which we visited during the trip; another twenty are rumored to exist.  The trek back up after an easy but slippery descent into the bowel of the tunnel was exhausting. I'm sure any soldiers passing through the tunnel would be in better shape than I was; nonetheless, given the narrowness of the tunnel, the steepness of the grade, and the uneven terrain, this would NOT be an efficient way to get many soldiers from North to South, so I doubt seriously any surprise attack is planned via that route.  Still, the very presence of tunnels creates a fear factor.
North and South Korean military troops occupy separate buildings at Panmunjom and peer through binoculars at each other and at the intrepid tourists who venture to the site. There are towers on both sides of the no-man's land, the demilitarized line or DML, about the width of a football field that separates the hostile factions. The South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) soldiers adopt a Tae Kuon Do stance, fists at their sides, knees bent, shoulders hunched, as if they were crouching animals ready to strike. This is intended to intimidate the North Koreans.  Soldiers from both sides glare at each other across the distance, daring each other to make a move. There have been a few incidents in which soldiers were killed. One of the towers on the U.N. side (the only side we visited) was constructed with a Korean Buddhist temple motif: colorful roof tiles and graceful wall paintings in bright contrast to the gray reality of the half-century-long stand-off.
We also visited the actual room where the temporary truce was signed in 1953. Our guide, an American soldier stationed at the DMZ, emphasized that what existed between North Korea and South Korea was a truce, not a peace treaty, and that they were still officially at war. That was a sobering realization.
On the southern edge of the DMZ is a concrete wall, "the Korean Wall,”built by the South and intended as an anti-tank barrier.  Along the northern border of the DMZ is a heavily electrified (3kV) triple fence built by the North.  And the land between them is strewn with mines.
A small, positive result of this DMZ no-man's-land is that the thin empty swath across the Korean peninsula has become a de facto wildlife sanctuary teeming with birds, including a large flock of Manchurian cranes, and small mammals, and even some endangered larger animals such as the Asiatic black bear.  Indeed, some of the flora and fauna found there may no longer exist elsewhere on the Korean peninsula.  Environmentalists everywhere hope that, if the country is re-united, the DMZ will remain uninhabited by humans.  At present, an international effort is underway by an ecologic advocacy group, the DMZ Forum, ( to preserve this once-grim symbol of war as a monument to peace and preservation.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Women Aren’t There

I’m in the process of revising a book entitled:  Korea, Are You at Peace, based on a two year sojourn  in Korea and am incorporating into my narrative some portions of a memoir by Isabella Bird-Bishop, a Victorian travel writer who visited Korea a century earlier.  She was well-known – one could even say famous – in her time; she traveled around the world, published numerous travelogues, and was the first woman to be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society.  Indeed, her presence in the RGS created such a furor from misogynistic members that she quietly withdrew the following year.  She refused to rejoin upon being invited once again, although other women had since become members.
Still, when I tried to find her in my copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, she wasn’t there.  She wasn’t there under the name Bird, by which name she is identified by most who refer to her historically, or under the name Bishop, which she acquired rather late in life at the age of 50.  Admittedly, my version of the Encyclopedia Britannica is one we had when the children were young.  It dates to 1978.  Jimmy Carter was then president of the United States, which seems like a long time ago, although he is still a force in the world.  And Queen Elizabeth was then sovereign of Great Britain, which she amazingly still is.  
Queen Victoria, a model for many nascent British feminists, was sovereign when Isabella Bishop traveled to Korea.  Bishop was one of several noted female Victorian adventurers and travel writers, including Gertrude Bell and Florence Nightingale, who courageously navigated the non-Western world, often on their own.
I’ve checked that encyclopedia for three other women who came up in conversation and reading this past week:  Maria Montessori, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun.  I’ll admit that two of them (Montessori and Gaskell) were there, so it’s not that women aren’t represented in the most prestigious encyclopedia in the English language.  It’s just that there are very few of them, and those are quite famous.  I often start reading an article in the encyclopedia then peruse the pages beyond and behind, just for the compulsive pleasure of learning something new.  There are lots of articles on old guys no one knows about, but essentially no articles on old women nobody has heard of before.
I don’t know what the current Encyclopedia Britannica contains.  Perhaps all four of these women are now there.  You might ask:  “Why don’t you just go online and get information there?”  Of course I do, and I have.  But I like a written encyclopedia, particularly this one.  I trust it to be accurate.  But I realize I can’t trust it to be comprehensive.  And I like to simply peruse it for random information.  You really can’t do that with an online search.
But women are now getting into history through the back door, via sites like the National Museum of Women in the Arts ( and the projected National Women’s History Museum (  The latter had a small blurb on Isabella Bird Bishop and her environmental descriptions of Hawaii (“The Sandwich Islands”) in a recent newsletter article extolling women pioneers in environmental awareness and protection.
Let’s resurrect the women and save the planet.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Media of Memory

A Meditation on the Theme:  Trouble with Technology
We have this brain that experiences and remembers things, but it’s an imperfect instrument and, furthermore, one day it will no longer exist.  So we would like to find another, more reliable--and durable--vehicle for sustaining and transmitting the wisdom and intention of our individual brains.
Language was the first “reliable” vehicle of transmission of thought from one brain to another, and may indeed have been the vehicle for the differentiation of Homo sapiens from other hominids - maybe as long ago as a hundred millennia.  When we speak to each other, we transmit information, thoughts and feelings, termed “memes” to others who hear our words.  We embed a fragment of our mind into theirs.  For most of human history, language was essentially the only vehicle for thought transmission – the only medium of memory.
Probably, sometime after language developed, humans began to make pictographic images of objects in their environment and ideas in their minds, and these images often took on a mystical aura as representing the essence or spirit of the thing depicted.  No doubt, music also developed along with pictographic images as a medium for transmitting rituals of words and movements.  Words somehow seem easier to remember if set to music.
Then came writing, perhaps five millennia ago, arising, no doubt, from pictures and dots and lines used as symbols for things and numbers.  This allowed transmission of memes across a broader field in both space and time than was possible with one-on-one or small-group verbal contact.  The extent to which writing survived the millennia depended upon the medium on which it was engraved:  inorganic media such as stone or clay had greater durability; organic media such as paper or parchment were easier to transport and store, but were subject to decomposition and hence, permanent loss.
Then, just half a millennium ago, came the printing press, the medium of mass dissemination that ultimately transformed the mindset of Western civilization.  The disadvantage of paper’s fragility in preserving content was offset by the numerical advantage of multiple copies of a single piece of literature, (e.g., the bible) for preserving works of written words that touched innumerable minds - concurrently and down through the centuries.  In the same way, images – once unique and created individually - were etched and reproduced in multiple copies, often as an integral part of a printed book.
A century and a half ago, photography was developed, with its capacity to capture, at a given moment in time, images of people or activities or objects of art, allowing the preservation and wide dissemination of visual as well as verbal memes.  So “A picture is worth a thousand words,” became a new mantra.  Half a century later, movies developed that gave us the illusion we were seeing things in motion on a still screen.  Photographic technology eventually took over the reproduction of verbal information (books, magazines and newspapers) as well as of visual images.
With television, in the middle of the 20th century, the illusion of motion came into family homes in the form of electronic images.  Photons of light were translated in a cathode-ray tube into electrical pulses that danced across the screen at unimaginable speed, generating images that the average person had no ability (or inclination) to recreate.  The cathode-ray tube (CRT) has recently been replaced by the liquid-crystal display (LCD), and the dance of electrons has been replaced by shimmering dyes stimulated digitally on a thin, unimaginably fine grid. 
Now we have the digital age, in which words and images are preserved digitally in technologies that change every half decade.  The blips and bleeps of fragmented memories are disseminated widely through the “ether” at the speed of light.  In theory, any given image (picture) or any sequence of images (video) could be viewed simultaneously by everyone in the world who had access to the internet, which amounts to hundreds of millions of individuals.  When even a thousandth of that number of individuals views an image or video, it is said to “go viral,” which means that a large portion of the human population has that meme embedded in its psyche. 
Even more than the organic media such as paper and parchment, the electronic media are truly impermanent.  Their words and pictures are not etched in anything that will be accessible to future minds or media and are bound to disappear from the record of time unless they are copied and transmitted and retransmitted indefinitely.  And who would do that?
How long do the memes we absorb visually and passively last?  How much of what we see and hear endures in our minds as memory?  And how long before our present media will be obsolete and our memories will dissipate, flying free as photons into the cosmic background radiation?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? Sounds


When I arrived in Songtan, which was to be my home during that first year in Korea, the temperature was hot, oppressively hot, and muggy, though neither hotter nor muggier than my home in Charleston, South Carolina would probably be without air conditioning. My apartment, like most places off-base, was not air-conditioned.  Sounds, mostly unfamiliar sounds, rang through open windows.  The shriek of jets and the thump-thump of helicopters reverberated in the air above Osan AFB only a few blocks away. Shrill sirens announced tests of emergency sound systems. Taps and anthems were blurred and muffled in the dense air. In trees and grasses, insects whirred and tittered.  From the streets and houses behind my apartment, voices and animal sounds penetrated into my not-quite-private space.

And then there were the cicadas, which seemed louder and more insistent than Charleston cicadas. A particularly loud colony inhabited a poplar tree outside the Education Center on base. It was almost deafening to walk beneath that tree when I first went there to introduce myself to the staff at the University of Maryland office, and to pick up the keys to a very cheap old car I had bought with another faculty member. For two or three days, the cicadas screeched and scolded every time I walked under that tree.  Then a cold snap hit and the tree was silent. A few mornings later, the cicadas were again strumming their fierce trills, so I knew that the weather had warmed.  However, a cold spell so early in autumn suggested that rumors of frigid Korean winters were probably not idle.

Of course, another unfamiliar sound heard through the windows and on the streets was the Korean language. Its guttural exclamations rang through the Songtan alleyways, and a gentler version was exchanged between people on Osan Air Base (mostly women) who performed much of the service work--secretaries in offices, bank tellers, food servers at the Taco Bell or Antonio's Pizza, check-out clerks at the commissary and base exchange, agents in the on-base travel office.  When Koreans spoke to each other on base, they spoke Korean; when they addressed customers (mostly military personel), they spoke English with variable success.

Behind my apartment building were two houses whose roofs were on a level with my balcony. When the frosted glass door was open to let in whatever sullen breeze might stir, I could see across the garden patches to kim-chi pots and clothes lines dotting the flat roofs.  In one of those buildings lived a family in which the father shouted a lot. Of course, I couldn't understand what he was saying--it often sounded simply like grunts that varied in pitch. Sometimes a woman would yell back, sometimes there was wailing, sometimes I could hear a child cry or a dog bark.  

One day, I watched a man on his roof strike a woman (I assumed it was his wife).  And another night, I awoke to sounds of yelling and thumping and wailing that lasted for half an hour or so.  I had trouble going back to sleep, thinking about that not-so-distant drama and another woman's helplessness - as well as my own.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Scanning Photos

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the morning scanning a few photos selected from photo albums of 1981 & 1982, and saved, digitally, a total of 20 scans, or some 50 photos (2 – 4 in most scans), which includes about a fourth of the photos that I had saved from the albums (already triaged by half).
That represents two years--and two albums--out of perhaps forty.  So I’ve done maybe 5% of the job that needs to be done to excerpt and “preserve” the family photos.  Once the photos have been scanned and saved digitally, I asked myself:  How long will it be possible to retrieve them as technology marches on?  This gave rise to one of my trouble-with-technology moments, as I contemplated some infinite regression as I and my offspring endlessly copied increasingly distorted images of past events into more compressed and less visually accessible storage devices, for the sake of... 
I have a few photographs of one grandmother and only two of the other.   One of the photos is a copy of the original, and the graininess shows.  That grandmother seems to have been beautiful but sad even as she was smiling slightly, her head tilted to one side for the camera.  She died when my father was 15 years old, and I think he always felt her absence as an emptiness, although he almost never spoke of her.  When we named my middle daughter Elisabeth, he seemed pleased to remind me that Elizabeth Adams had been his mother’s maiden name.
My mother photographed family events (Christmases, reunions, trips) with a movie camera using “Super-8” film which, after developing, we could view on a standing white screen using a projector that wound the film through it.  I, too, took movies of family events, first with Super-8 film and then with a video camera (VHS).  I had most of the family movies, including some of those from my mother, “copied” to VHS video tape, so that we would be able to view them on the  TV screen, thinking that way to preserve them for future generations.  But now, it’s virtually impossible to purchase the technology needed to view VHS videos.  Luckily, I have an old TV with a video slot that still works, so I could watch them if I wished, as long as the video mechanism doesn’t jam or quit working (which has happened in the past with other machines). 
I recently bought a VHS-DVD player/copier that, in theory, should be able to copy the VHS videos to DVDs.  When I went looking for one at Best Buy, the sales person said they were on sale because the store wouldn’t be carrying VHS-compatible machines in the future.
So I sometimes feel like a monk in a scriptorium trying to copy, copy, copy, in the hope that at least some of what has been seen, done and thought by those I know and care about might, with luck, survive into the future, along with their blind and thoughtless DNA.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

In Medias Res

I started looking at photo albums “in the middle of things” - from 1981 to 1985.  There were three albums, and it seemed like the events recorded in them happened just recently.  But they happened, in fact, nearly half a lifetime ago!  We had a foreign exchange student living with us during part of that time.  I visited him and his family this summer and he is now as old as I was when he was living in the U.S.
Events photographed during that time - besides the obligatory children’s birthday parties, Easters, Halloweens, Thanksgivings and Christmases - included a disastrous family reunion in Tennessee in 1981, during which both sons-in-law (my sister's husband and mine) became terrified of my father.  The drama doesn’t show in the photos, but the photos bring it all too sharply to mind.  I also visited several regions of the country while attending scientific meetings - in the north-east (NYC & DC), north-west (Seattle & Vancouver) and south-west.  While there, I also visited friends and relatives nearby and have photos of those visits.  In 1983, my middle daughter, Lis, became very ill and spent several days in the hospital.  The children and I visited Disney World a couple of times in the early ‘80s, once with my folks, and once with our visiting student.
Our foreign-exchange student, Guido, came to live with us in the fall of 1983, and graduated from high school in 1984.  My eldest daughter, Maria, finished Swarthmore that same year (got her B.S. a few years later after making up a P.E. requirement – another story), and my star graduate student, Debra, received her Ph.D. from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). So 1984 was a year of graduations.
In 1985, my cousin, John, was married (after a long, live-in engagement) in an idyllic setting in Upstate New York.  My mother and I visited several Hudson Valley sites afterwards, including the Roosevelt mansion and the home of Frederick Church, one of my favorite Hudson Valley painters.  And Arlene, one of my two best, long-time friends had a wonderful new baby as an “older mother.”  Another graduate student, Susan, received her M.S. from MUSC in 1985.
In the summer of 1985, I began backpacking to try to get back into shape after noticing the flab that was accumulating from my occupation as a sedentary desk-and-bench scientist.  The first trip was a Sierra Club service trip to Mount Ranier, not far from Seattle, Washington.  The trekking and the work were arduous, the scenery was splendid, and the camaraderie was rewarding, even though I was one of the “old ladies” in the group.  I came back from the experience psychologically (and physically) renewed.  Thereafter, I usually took at least one service trip a year until 1992, when I went to Lake Baikal (Siberia) with the Sierra Club. 
So now I have triaged photos from those experiences, saving half or fewer of them, intending to send many to family and friends.  The albums have gone out with the garbage, photos still stuck in them.  The remaining albums are stacked on shelves and on the floor in my bedroom, posing a hazard, and reminding me to deal with them or they’ll trip me up.
But that was just a five-year slice of my life.  In medias res.  May I have the courage and persistence to do the rest.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Keeping a Journal

The life-long journal I began as a thirteen-year-old (my diary, named “Henri”) probably came about as an effort to sort out and mollify my own feelings.  I found that, when experiencing internal turmoil or depression or heartache or despair, if I simply sat down and wrote about it (or even about something else), I felt better afterwards.  I term the process “writing it out.”  It has probably saved my sanity on more than one occasion.  Still, anyone reading my journals might think I had been depressed much of my life, which is not the case.  I have lived many happy years.  In fact most of my life has been good; I have loved often and well; and I have fulfilled most of the dreams and aspirations I’ve ever had.  Perhaps one year out of five was clouded by grief, but I learned to endure and to seek solace from friends.  And new sources of joy, meaning and pleasure always came, eventually, to cancel out the grief.  Moreover, I’ve had no episodes of depression in the past twenty years.
Nonetheless, I have sought professional help from psychologists on more than one occasion, earlier in my life, because of intermittent suicidal thoughts.  I probably suffered from a form of periodic, unipolar depression that sent me into despair at roughly four or five year intervals during my adult life.  Those periods of grief usually seemed to come when I was in the midst of difficult relationships, although one of the episodes occurred while I was living in a ghetto in Philadelphia, a gray and unpleasant city.  The depressions were probably at least partly hormonally conditioned.  I have not suffered from depression since the end of menopause, some twenty years ago.  I have also been a lax journal writer since then, except for journal entries written during trips when the newness and mystery of unfamiliar scenes and cultures (and the absence of distractions from family, friends, and household duties) fostered the urge to analyze and paint word pictures of those experiences.  I’ve also been living alone during most of that time. 
Here starts the effort to organize and articulate the meaning of this life lived broadly and, I believe, largely well.  I have taken many risks in my life but have usually been a cautious risk-taker.  I lived abroad for five years – three of them in Europe and two in Asia.  I’ve also done many conventional things:  been married, had children, had a stable professional life of 27 years, and have several friendships that have continued for decades. 
This blog, which I intend to update once or twice a week, is intended for family and friends who might be curious about what I have to say, as well as for others who wish to share this journey. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I believe I have found the last box of photo albums and loose photos, stacked by movers in the garage, interspersed with boxes of books, hiking equipment, children’s games, kitchen utensils mementos...  I wanted to bring the photos into the house and sort them as soon as possible, because it’s late summer, the weather is hot and muggy - as is the garage - and photos just don’t keep well under such conditions.  Indeed, as I’ve been looking through photos, it’s obvious that many didn’t keep well even in an air-conditioned house or in a climate-controlled storage unit.
Apparently, my memory also hasn’t kept well, because several of the photos are of people and places I don’t remember.  Fortunately, I had the good sense to date many of the albums, but some weren’t even dated.  I’m sure I had them in chronological order on shelves in my home of 34 years.  But when albums were transferred to boxes, the order didn’t hold.
I do like order and organization, and the amount of moving I’ve done since retirement has disrupted whatever tenuous order I had previously managed to sustain.  Added to the chaotogenic (a made-up word meaning chaos-inducing) effect of moving, is the sheer volume of stuff I have accumulated.  I’m a historian at heart and keep records of many things.  Written records.  Photographic records.  Financial records.  Musical records.  Magazine articles.  Lecture outlines.  Textbooks.  Mementos.  Much of that was in storage while I lived either abroad or in a small condo space during the past ten years.  But now, what has not been put away in the new house is still in boxes in the garage.  And the shelves and floor space in the house seem pretty much filled.  A lot of what’s left in the garage will have to go.
Starting with the photos.  Many folks say that, if their house was on fire, what they'd most want to save – after family and pets – would be their photos.  But I would need a cart to transport all the photo albums I have accumulated.  I’ve made it through three albums, already, from 1980 through 1985.  It all seems daunting!  If I hadn’t already learned, by long, grim experience, that things get finished simply by doing a little bit at a time, I’d abandon the whole project.
How will I triage the photos?  Many of them will simply be thrown away, particularly if I have multiple pictures of a place or an occasion, or if I don’t remember the source of the photo or the people in it.  Many will go to my three daughters.   Some will go to friends.  In all cases, the photos need to be dated and located for the sake of their recipients.  What a job!  I hope to scan and keep electronic copies of a few of the most interesting ones.
Maybe scanned pictures can dapple the pages of the excerpted journals – at least those of the past 30 years.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Excerpting a Life

My eldest daughter recently asked me to summarize and excerpt a journal, written intermittently since I was a dreamy, thirteen-year-old teenager some sixty years ago. 
This initiates that summary.  I deem it a good time to begin, having just moved into a house which, barring catastrophe, should be home for the rest of my life.  I’m sorting through possessions, including boxes of books and photos and mementos accumulated over a lifetime.  I intend to go through every box that fills the garage and lines the hallway.  And as I unearth each item, I need to decide whether to:  “Put it away, give it away or throw it away” (my new motto).  This will be difficult, since I am something of a collector.  The project will no doubt prove to be a sort of personal archeology.
Everything is now out of storage.  I have already put away a great deal – dishes and other kitchenware, books (many more are still in boxes), a collection of eggs accumulated from around the world, office supplies.  Ten rolls of scotch tape were scattered in various locations around my previous home.  There are first-aid health supplies (band-aids, cotton balls, tubes of antibiotic and ointments), two or three boxes of them, some from the other house, some from trip supplies, some from boxes I’d mailed back at the end of those years I lived abroad.
Almost everything I put away evokes a memory.  A dishwasher magnet (green for washed and orange for dirty) given to me by my (ex-)mother-in-law (now deceased) during a time in my life that was so hectic (job, children, housekeeping, church) I couldn’t keep track of whether the dishes had been run through or not.  I think of her every time I turn it over from green to orange or back.  And I still have it affixed to the dishwasher, even though my much more modern dishwasher tells me (if I bother to look) whether or not the dishes are clean.   A wooden totem pole I carved as a child sitting on the porch of our house in Waterford, Michigan reminds me of the feel and smell of the countryside and of Native Americans, who still live in that area.
The past is always just behind us if we turn around and look back.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Solo Woman

A lifetime is a unique tapestry of many threads - complex, colorful, and often frayed around the edges. Or it is a dance - a pull-and-push of solitude and engagement, of being alone and being with others, of personal self-interest and generous love. From the time we are born, when the umbilical cord is cut, we are expelled into the world alone. We may be surrounded by others, but we have lost the comfort of - and the intimate connection to - our mother in the womb. And when we die, we are also fundamentally alone, although we may then, too, be surrounded by others.
Women, particularly, are often alone. We are alone in our homes when children are at school.  We are alone if husbands desert us or divorce us or die before us. We may have children, and grandchildren for company and comfort, but they also leave us to lead lives of their own.
Solo women are sustained by a special type of inner strength, a unique female courage. Female courage is different from the outer strength and courage more typical of men.  Woman’s courage arises from a source within her being that knows she must survive no matter what is happening around her. She must survive and thrive for the sake of her children and for the sake of those in her community who depend upon her.  

A particularly important source of sustenance for women is the friendship and support of other women. 
In my own life, travel and exploration have also sustained my soul because they draw me out of myself into the larger world. Spurred by an urge to travel, I have lived for five years in four different countries outside the U.S. - three years in Europe and two years in Asia. Some of these experiences will be recounted in this blog.
Women often find it difficult to strike out on their own because they/we fear the consequences of being without protection, particularly the protection of a male, one who may be stronger and more savvy in the ways of the world. But if a woman gives over her safety and well-being to a man, she is playing dice with her life. The field of my friendships and acquaintances is littered with women who have been duped, betrayed, abused, abandoned, and otherwise misused by men in their lives. I know some women who have had good and lasting relationships with men, but in those cases, they – the women – have insisted upon, received and maintained equal partnership with their men.

And life is a journey - full of side-trips, pitfalls, amazing views, accidents, and moments of insights. On this site, I'll share some of mine with you.