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.