Sunday, December 30, 2007

Coming to Terms with 2007 (Or 2007 with Coming to Terms...)

I got this idea from Judi this morning. She, in turn, got it from a couple other blogs she frequents. The idea is to review the past year by taking the first line from the first post of each month. It looked like fun, so I thought I would try it. The results surprised me, a little.

I should preface this by saying that I am not one of those who never goes back and reads my own writing. On the contrary, I derive a measure of satisfaction from going back into my archives from time to time. I guess I just need constant reassurance that I can string together a coherent sentence or two.

So, let’s take a look at those first lines, first posts of the months of 2007---

January--Last Saturday evening we tuned in to NPR to be treated to "Special Coverage" of the execution of Sadaam Hussein.

February--Thirty years of childless marriage have by no means meant that our nest, or our hearts, have been empty.

March--I decided to post something pretty, because today was SO not.

April--Early last week, Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards stood beside his wife and announced that the deadly specter of cancer had returned to Elizabeth Edwards’ life.

May--These days, American government is like a bad case of hives: crazy-making and torturous, and you don’t know which itch to scratch first.

June--The ever-shrinking neighborhood of the blogosphere into which I sank my roots almost four years ago, is once again twisting, turning, contracting...fading.

July--I did indeed have to terminate Mr. Hawaiian Shirt.

August--My next thirty hours will be spent preparing to step out of my new life and back into my old one.

September--After school, while my sisters glued themselves to soap operas on the big color console in the living room, I would hole up in my folks’ bedroom and watch the Cubs on their little black and white portable.

October--From time to time, I try to look back and assess the progress I’ve made in any given area of running the café.

November--Fall arrived at the café last month, dropping duffel bags full of problems into our laps.

December--In the last six weeks, my mother has been in the hospital; in a nursing home; a day away from going back to her apartment…then back to the hospital, and back to the nursing home.

Honestly, I thought I had spent the last 365 days (and more) coming here to whine about how tired, abused, put-upon and overwhelmed I was by the challenges faced by an over-the-hill small business owner. But, look! Only four of these twelve first lines are lead-ins to bitch-fests about my café struggles. This truly amazes me. Knowing how much of my life force really was poured into my business over the past year, I’m surprised (and happy) that the café apparently is not all I’m about.

What surprised me even more is that three of these posts are political rants. I can’t say how happy that makes me. I’d started to think that my political fire had been snuffed under tons of the chaff of everyday living. It was easy to explore and promote lofty ideals when I was half-retired and didn’t have anything else to do. Not so easy to write about, or even care about, those things when life is coming at you at 100 miles an hour. And yet…and yet, obviously, I still have my political wits about me. It remains to be seen how that will play out in the new year (2008, folks! I’ll have to get a new graphic for my sidebar…)

And then there were the posts about the losses…in February, we lost one of our dearest animal "children," and in December, my mom slipped away to the other side.

There’s even one post about one of my favorite subjects on which to rant—my ever-changing, ever-shifting relationship to this—my four-year-old ethereal brain-child. I’ve gone full-circle—from no readers, to lots of readers, back to (almost) no readers and all the places in between. I’ve been inside the community, and (more often than not) outside of it. I’ve had friends, and lost them, too. They’ve disappeared **poof** into the ether, never to be heard from again. But…I stick around. Never one to be unduly influenced by the actions of others, I soldier on. I like it here. I write here. I do it for me.

And to those of you who drop in from time to time to see what I have to say…thanks.

And Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Old Life, New Life, and Benazir Bhutto

This morning, my clock radio woke me with the unhappy news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I’m not well-informed about the politics of our "ally" Pakistan. I know I don’t trust Pervez Musharraf any further than I could throw a tank. I know I feel a little soiled, a little jaded, every time I hear Dubya go on about what a great partner Musharraf is in our "War on Terrah." It doesn’t seem to matter that Musharraf’s government presents only the flimsiest pretense of democracy, and only when it doesn’t inconvenience Musharraf.

Benazir Bhutto, as the leader of Musharraf’s chief opposition, was many things. She was loved and revered, discredited and exiled, and tainted by corruption. Who can say, entangled as she was in the political strife inherent to Pakistan, what Bhutto really was. I can only believe that to have become Prime Minister of an Islamic nation—even an unsuccessful and ultimately deposed Prime Minister—she must have been a remarkable woman. I admired her. And I feared for her life when she decided to end her exile and return to Pakistan. May she rest in the peace she was fated never to know in this life.

I considered posting a quick tribute to Bhutto this morning, since I thought I didn’t have to work until 11 am. My life being what it is, however, half my crew crapped out on me today, so I had to give up any nobler aspirations and run to the café.

I get to work, and thoughts of Mrs. Bhutto are still swimming around in my head. I say to my counter girl, "So they killed Benazir Bhutto…!" And she says, "Who?" I say, "Benazir Bhutto." Totally blank face. "Do you know who Benazir Bhutto is?" "Uh, noooo…"

Okay. Counter girl is only nineteen. But she is also in her second year of college. What made me think a college student must have somehow heard of Benazir Bhutto?

Toward the end of this exchange with clueless college student counter girl, my cook walks through the door. Cook is in her late thirties, never struck me as being particularly well-educated…but I also know she is a total internet junkie. "P, do you know who Benazir Bhutto is?" "Who?" No surprise there, really. Apparently, cook zaps right past the news blurbs on her home page…

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had such a hard time letting go of my "old life" and embracing my new life as a (completely lost-in-the-weeds) entrepreneur. And I’ve been trying to figure out what my problem is. Though I’m inching closer to the total immersion I think I need in order to be successful, I really feel like I’ve been dragged to that place kicking and screaming. After today, I have a little better idea of why that is.

I work in the freaking Twilight Zone. I’m surrounded by people who have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world beyond the ends of their own noses. For someone who has spent much of the last four years nurturing and immersed in her personal political identity, this is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. I feel like I’m finding a life, but losing myself. And I’m not entirely sure that’s a trade I’m willing to make.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas 2007

Around Thanksgiving (was that only last month?) I predicted a hard holiday for my family, and wished for Spring. It did indeed come to pass, that sad and difficult season. Thanksgiving was a non-starter…we were even then in that watching and waiting pattern that establishes itself as a loved one dwindles. Mom passed away on December 3. Her memorial service, and our ability not to tear each other to shreds in the preparation of it, was the single shining moment for the Baldwin family this season. We sent Mom to her rest with love and dignity.

We didn’t feel like celebrating the holidays, but we thought that not celebrating would be too sad and empty. After the funeral, and the unhappy task of cleaning out Mom’s apartment, sifting through her prodigious angel collection and her sixty years’ accumulation of costume jewelry brought us the comfort of fond memories. Each of us chose one or two pieces to hold and remember. By mid-December, that business was mostly concluded, and we tried to scrape together some kind of family holiday. But we just…ran out of gas. Yesterday saw some of the sniping and the anger and the tears that we had worked so hard to avoid.

In the end, maybe it would have been better to just…give Christmas a pass this year. It was so hard not to compare last night’s somber little celebration to "The Good Years" and find it pitiably wanting. No one was really in the mood to count our blessings and put a good face on it. Mostly there was a lot of food that nobody needed, and a few presents that nobody really wanted. Christmas 2007 is just about over now, and nobody in our family is going to miss it, I think.

Hard to believe that the bright spot of my life the last few weeks has been…the café. That thing which has been more inclined to kick my butt than feed my ego for the past nineteen months…

This may be the worst Christmas since the Grinch licked his evil lips over Whoville, but Old Town Café is chugging along at a record pace. Not world record, of course, but record in relation to our own history. The first week of December, while I was in Eugene tending to my sad family business, my crew piloted the good ship OTC to its highest December sales week in its three-year history. And we’ve repeated that performance in each of the last two weeks. As of today, we’re showing a 1% increase in sales over last year’s total December sales, and we still have six sales days remaining. And I haven’t laid out one dime in advertising money all month. I’m having a hard time believing we’re the same restaurant we were one year ago.

Oh, do I remember the goings on of a year ago, though I’d rather forget. 2006—the year of the chronically sick, reliably unreliable and/or disappearing employees, and sales so bad it didn’t really matter whether I had employees or not. The year of no mercy, which threatened to chew me up, spit me out, and grind me into the pavement. The year where the best I could say of it, as it dwindled into its final hours on New Years Eve, was that I had survived. (And yet, I felt giddily victorious to be able to say that much…)

Last year, my family was my life preserver, the thing that kept my head above the waters surrounding my foundering business ship. This year, my business is the thing that my hands are grasping as the waves of grief and loss toss me about. I suppose I should be grateful—and I am—that there is always something to keep me afloat. But I’m still hoping that next year will be a little less tempest-tossed.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reinventing Christmas

Christmas, to me, has always been about tradition. When I was a kid, we had our family rituals. We cleared the everyday chotchkes from the shelves, laid them away and brought out the Christmas knick-knacks. The plastic magi—identical but for their colored robes—one pink, one blue, one green--astride their shiny silver camels; the caroling china angel quartet, their mouths eternally frozen in cherry-red circles; the candy-cane striped "N-O-E-L." My mother’s creche with the hand-repainted figures that she rescued from an attic fire in the ‘forties. We left the manger expectantly empty until Christmas Eve, when we placed the tiny plaster Jesus gently in his crib before we went to bed. To the mouldings around every doorway in the house were taped the scores of Christmas cards we received from every person my parents ever knew.

Dad cooked a turkey for Christmas dinner, Aunt Mary brought her jello molds—strawberry (yay!) and carrot (yuck!) There were pumpkin and mince pies, always over-baked and a tad leathery. The pumpkin was perfect, piled with enough whipped cream to overpower any other flavor. The mince was…well, Dad liked it. After dinner, we’d clear the table, scavenge the leftovers and fearfully wash my mother’s china. With those chores done, we’d adjourn to the living room, where there always lingered that particular smell of hot tree lights inexorably singeing the scotch pine or balsam fir needles.  In the warm glow of those lights, we'd talk quietly, tell jokes or sing carols.  The youngest among us would remain conscious only long enough to nestle a head into the soft lap of the nearest willing adult.

Those were the traditions of a post-war suburban baby-boom family. Quaint, comforting, with deep connections to the past. Written in stone. For about a decade. Until the sixties hit and tweaked everything in the direction of the pop culture of that decade.  Shiny aluminum Christmas trees, Charlie Brown and Barbie... 

The thing is, our family’s traditions never were written in stone. They were liquid, changing with the complexion and demands of the times. As we changed and grew, our rituals evolved to accommodate the growth. When I hear folks wax nostalgic about the traditions their families have followed for decades, I have to wonder how they do that. How can they be so…static?

This year, I’m particularly aware of the temporal nature of our family traditions. In this season of change and loss, the keeper of the last traditions is no longer with us. There’s no call to indulge in the faded remnants of the old rituals, and the traditions that we had built around her decreasing mobility are suddenly unnecessary. There was no trundling her wheelchair around the World’s Largest ChristmasBazaar on Thanksgiving Friday. No Dollar Store shopping sprees. No casting call for the 2007 additions to the heavenly host adorning every inch of her apartment and overflowing into the hallways. In her last years, she was at once matriarch and the child some of us had never had. Christmas, in many ways, was for her. And now, it’s….not.

And so we’re stumbling through this Christmas season, liberated yet bereft. Finding new meanings, missing the old ones. Stepping forward, but with one foot stuck in the past. There will be moments of beauty and magic, punctuated with wistful sighs. We will miss her. But we will take our memories of her, as we did those of Dad and my sweet sister, into our futures. Always part of our ever-evolving traditions.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Another Goodbye

This made me so sad today:

Singer Dan Fogelberg Dies of Cancer at Age 56

A friend introduced me to Dan Fogelberg's music back in 1974.  He was one of two artists I've ever seen in concert multiple times (the other being John Denver--gone ten years, now.) 

Dan Fogelberg was only four years older than I am.  He hailed, as I did, from the cornfield quilted Land of Lincoln.  He sang of love and loss during the years I went through those very things.  He sang about the earth back when we all used to care about it. I feel like we grew up together. 

We never met, but he was part of my youth, part of my history as much as any friend or lover. Of course this is not a personal loss.  But, then again, it is

So much of my history has been swallowed up by death lately.

And it's really starting to piss me off... 

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vanity, Thy Name is...Uh, What's Thy Name Again?

Even had it not been for the sad events of the past couple of weeks, this holiday season was destined to be different from the last several.

I just couldn’t consider tearing every room in my house apart and reconstructing the "Christmas Zone" I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. And not really because I don’t have any time to DO the decorating (though I truly don’t...) More because the thought of UNDOING the decorating come mid-January left me absolutely cold.


No five trees in the house; we’ve cut the population to two. And neither of these is in my bedroom. The bedroom will remain holiday neutral this season. No tree, no snow-kitties on the mantel, no candles in the fireplace, no glitter stuck to my face when I wake up.

Nor will the family room get bedecked this year. Hardly seems worth it, since we spend about two hours a week relaxing there anymore.

The living room will harbor one barely over-decorated tree. Easy up, easy down…

Worst of all, one of my favorite holiday indulgences has finally been made redundant by the hands-on nature of living the dream…


Friday, December 7, 2007

My Mother's Hands

All through preparations for my mom's funeral, I knew that what I needed to do was to give of my talent, from my heart.  An artist would paint, a photographer would snap, a seamstress would sew...and I--needed to write.  Something.  But the words refused to come.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday went by...  I understood the imperative, but could not find the inspiration.  The funeral was this morning--Friday.  It was now or never.

No time to fuss, no time to edit and re-arrange and tweak.  And it came, in a rush...

I remember my mother’s hands
Not elegant nor slender
But stout and strong and
always busy

My earliest memories are of those capable hands
Wielding a dust cloth, a dish rag, a scrub brush,
Feeding laundry through the wringer washer
pegging it out on the line to dry
Dipping a spoon into the magic paste
that would become the lumpy dumplings
in our favorite chicken soup

We coveted the gentle stroke
that would calm a fevered temple
And dreaded the near-scalping
when those hands came in contact with
any object surrounding a
shock of hair attached to the backs of our heads
("It’ll only hurt for a second…!)

Those hands, nearly forty years old, were introduced
to the steering wheel of a station wagon in 1961
and carried on a love/hate relationship with that object
for the next thirty years
And in 1966, they traded the dust cloth and mop
for the pencil and the adding machine
The kitchen table for the desk at Woolworth’s--
another love-hate relationship that lasted nearly twenty years.

I remember those hands
fussing with the filmy folds of a veil around my face
taking needle and thread to the great hole in that veil
after I wrapped it around a barberry bush fleeing the rice-throwers
on a chilly October morning in 1976
Those loving hands…those mother’s hands

In retirement, those hands
Clutched a fishing pole or a handful of playing cards
("I’ve got a hand like a foot!!")
Tipped a watering can into one green thing or another
that always responded enthusiastically to her touch
stroked the soft fur of the latest adoptee
or sneaked forbidden bits to furry family members
waiting confidently at her feet under the dining table
Wrapped around a pen, dispatching volumes upon volumes of word puzzles
heavy with the rings and bracelets she loved to pile on
But busy…always busy

I hope now, wherever her spirit is going
they give her hands, as well as wings

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Elsie B. 1922-2007


Fold thy hands sleeping!
Angels are keeping
     Watch o’er thee now.
See, it is dawning!
Light of the morning
     Falls on thy brow.

White wings are flying!
No more shall dying
     Darken thy day.
Leave thou Death’s portal!
Spirit immortal
     Speed on thy way!

When skies are paling
And clouds are sailing
     Over Earth’s night,
Only in dreaming
Shall thou be seeming
     Lost to our sight.

Dream mists are drifting!
Fingers are lifting
     Curtains of space!
Framed in its splendor
Wistful and tender,
     Smiles thy dear face.

                                      --J. Wilmer Gresham

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Stormy Peace

We saw Mom on Saturday for a few minutes. Spent the rest of the day helping my sisters decompress a little. And then stopped by to see her again Sunday morning. Saturday, she was awake and in distress. Sunday, not so much.

We drove home, through the wind and rain of a nasty Pacific Northwest winter storm, no wiser about what was going to happen with Mom, or when.  It could be hours...days...a week. 

When we got home, we called for news. Mom's condition was rapidly deteriorating. Sister D would spend the night at her bedside.

I would sleep fitfully, waking to hour after hour of howling wind and pelting rain. Remembering that when my Dad died, the weather was almost exactly the same.

Mom died this morning around 7:30 am.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Long, Slow Pain

In the last six weeks, my mother has been in the hospital; in a nursing home; a day away from going back to her apartment…then back to the hospital, and back to the nursing home. It has been an arduous ordeal.

I can wish that her trials had ended with that first episode back in October. When her heart slowed and stopped, but the paramedics didn’t know enough to let it be. I can say that was her time, and she was cheated out of it. But that’s not really my call to make, is it?

Six weeks ago, Mom was not ready. She was just approaching the steep end of her final decline. She wasn’t tired enough, wasn’t near done fighting.

My sisters weren’t ready, either. Having been charged with her care since my dad’s death, they were so invested in keeping her going, that they didn’t recognize that the time was approaching to let her go.

Now. Now is the time. Six weeks of pain, confusion and fear have pried loose Mom’s vise-like hold on life. Six weeks of trying to alleviate that same pain, confusion and fear have ultimately served to redirect my sisters’ energies from keeping Mom alive at all costs, to keeping her comfortable as she completes her final journey.

So today, we will make the trip 100 miles south. Who knows, she may not even wait for us to get there. But it doesn’t matter. None of the bickering or the sniping, or the estrangements or the hurt feelings, or the bossiness or the passive-aggressive posturing…none of that matters now. My first thought was of these things, and how I didn’t want to deal with them. Not now, my heart argued. Not in my current sleep-deprived, chronically stressed-out condition. I have done my filial duty. I was at my dad’s bedside when he died. Surely that should give me a credible pass on this one. I told my sister we probably wouldn’t be coming. Call me when it’s over.

A few hours later, in a saner moment, I realized that was the wrong choice. You go to the bedside of your dying parent. You put aside all the dread and the stinging memories and the sibling bullshit, and you go. Not to say goodbye…she will not hear. Most certainly not to make some kind of show for anyone else. You go in love. In thanks. In honor of an eternal connection. In appreciation of a life well-lived.

Memories…they are a double-edged sword, are they not?