Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton 

Not Everyone Likes Listening to an Exercise Evangelist

When I was in college I remember putting on a pair of cut-off pants and sneakers and trying to jog four blocks in the Park View residential area near campus. I weighed much less than I do now, and though my heart was younger and stronger, I was completely exhausted, sweating profusely by the time I finished my jog. The next day my leg muscles hurt so much I could barely walk up the hill from my dorm room to class. I was convinced then, that a lifetime of exercise was not in my future.

The only reason I’d attempted a run that day was to lose weight and a four-block jog did nothing to move the stubborn numbers on my bathroom scale.

Fast forward forty-seven years, an aging body and the beginnings of arthritis, and now I’m an exercise evangelist.  Movement, I told my 87-year-old mother, is key. Mom grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when people believed preserving energy was much more important than expending it.

“Living in the country we worked for exercise!  We hauled water up from the well house. My mother stood over a hot iron ironing clothes. Dad hoed corn and built fences.”

She almost sneered comparing modern-day notions of physical activity with how hard people worked when she was a girl.

I was a little frustrated because mom has some heart problems, and yet she enjoys sitting in her grey recliner watching the neighbor kids play outside her picture window. When I went for my yearly physical, I complained to my doctor about mom’s sedentary habit.

“Oh,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly, “lots of older people like to sit in their chair much of the day. Their energy levels are low, and they’re often worried about falling. Sometimes it hurts to move. I understand why they feel this way. Find some ‘exercises-for-seniors’ videos for your mom. That might help.”

I made my doctor laugh when I compared the importance of exercise for good health with my farmer-husband’s observations about cows.  He said if cows don’t stand up and move around, they’ll “go down and stay down!” He said it’s important to get new-born calves up and moving, looking for their mother’s milk.  And, if a cow is injured or sick, she’ll often do better if you can get her on her feet and foraging, as opposed to laying in the barn stall.

Mom is taking drugs to combat her heart problems, but I wanted her to read an article with a compelling title:

“Closest Thing to A Wonder Drug?  Try Exercise!” (New York Times, 6/20/2016).

She batted away my outstretched hand when I offered my cell phone to her.  I thought she might want to scroll down and read the article online. I knew I was being pushy, but I couldn’t help myself.  I cared about her.

“Why don’t you just tell me the gist of it?” she kindly suggested.

“It says,” I gazed down at my cell phone, “‘…of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity.’ And then here it says that exercise is the ‘miracle cure.’  It helps your heart, your arthritis, depression, diabetes, and other diseases. It says to realize a benefit you only need to exercise just 30 minutes—on weekdays. That means weekends are off!”

I looked up excitedly from my cell phone to gauge mom’s reaction, only to find her eye lids drooping, ready for her nap. I was reminded then the many times she’d tried to school me: “You just don’t know what it feels like to be this old,” or “When you get my age you’ll think differently.”

The clock ticked quietly in the kitchen, and I waited a moment before I pocketed my cell phone and left. I lightly patted my mom’s hand, “Hey, I need to go. I’ll give you a call this weekend and see how you’re doing.”

As I gently clicked the front door shut behind me, I smiled thinking how ironic life is. I disliked exercising as a young college co-ed, and now my elderly mother feels the same way. Yet another example of the circle of life.

 

Image credit:  Jogger     Image credit:  Hoeing corn      Image credit:  Circle of Life

 

Reality TV Has the Answers

I am not a voyeur.  Yet, when Covid struck and channel surfing seemed more likely than ocean surfing, I clicked the remote until I came upon a couple of reality TV shows that hooked me.  My 600-Pound Life and Naked and Afraid are both full of lurid, ooh-ah moments designed to keep the TV viewers tuned in.

What can I say?  Last summer at this time I was reading a prize-winning book about brain chemistry, and this summer I’m into fat and naked people.

(Please note I didn’t combine those adjectives:  Six Hundred Pounds, Naked, and Afraid is a TV show still searching for an audience.)

These TV shows may offend more discerning tastes, but I have to say, I’ve learned a few things about human behavior watching them.  For example, people will eat anything, ANYTHING, when they are hungry.  A dieting, obese person will claw through the garbage, past coffee grounds and slimy peach pits, to get to the bag of potato chips they nobly threw away the day before.  Naked people may be afraid of the panther in the jungle, but they’re fearless about eating stinky skunk meat.  I’ve also learned will power is not necessarily won’t power, as in I won’t abandon this challenge.  People will “tap out” of the jungle and put on a pair of underwear if the chiggers get bad enough.  Obese people will go back to fried mayonnaise sandwiches if their only other option is lettuce (I don’t blame them).

A fascinating lesson from these shows has to do with resilience, the very trait needed to get through tough times.  I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately with our pandemic, job losses, and social unrest.  How can we still be okay when life gets difficult?  How do some people on Naked and Afraid survive 21 days without food, water, or shelter being provided?  How is the 600-pound woman able to withstand a year of only 1200 calories-a-day, or less?  They somehow find the resilience they need to meet their challenge.

From the comfort of my couch I cheer them on, thankful I’m not in their situation—but wait, I AM in their situation.

We all live with some kind of struggle.  It may not be worthy of a reality TV program, but we all have some kind of problem we have to deal with, often on a daily basis.

One thing I try to keep in mind about reality TV is how orchestrated these shows are. There’s a certain amount of character and plot manipulation going on (remember that 1998 movie, The Truman Show?)  Yet, there’s also obvious instances of genuine human suffering on reality TV.  I’ve noticed successful show participants think and act more flexibly.  They demonstrate their resilience by making things better, even in the worst of circumstances. The couple abandoned in the wilds of Indonesia built a cozy hut and figured out how to turn a piece of bamboo into a water filter. The 600-pound man found a way to make his meals more appetizing without the extra calories.  He added colorful chopped vegetables and began experimenting with fresh fruit. They made their hardship less hard.

I thought about reality TV when I visited an old friend of mine who’s suffering from a re-occurrence of her cancer.  I’d been meaning to visit her, to see how she was doing, but couldn’t find a good time.  Finally, one day when I was running errands I stopped by her house.  I felt bad about not calling ahead and hoped, considering her recent bad news, she’d feel like talking with me.  I rang the doorbell and when no one answered, peeked into her back yard.  I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I didn’t anticipate my friend smiling and sitting with her husband in lawn chairs.  They were drinking a glass of wine and looking at the lovely white phlox blooming in her flower bed.  In the background I heard the sweet strains of violin music coming from speakers mounted above the patio.

My friend may only weigh 120 pounds, and she would never think of leaving her home without her clothes on, but she does have something in common with the people on reality TV:  she’s knows how to be resilient in a challenging time.

 

 

Image Credit:  Naked and Afraid    Image Credit:  photo by Diana Hooley

Image Credit:  Resilience

Science Doesn’t Care About Your Feelings

Who was my grandfather?

It was a family mystery I attempted to solve several years ago when I visited ninety-five year old Uncle Clay.  Clay was the only one left alive who could tell me if it was true, that my dad’s adopted father, Charlie Holland, was in fact my true, genetic grandfather.

“Hey girl?” Uncle Clay whipped his head this way and that, trying to use the pigeon-holed vision he had in his one remaining eye to see me.  I sat about two feet in front of him.

“I’m here,” I reached out and touched the loose skin on his bony hand.  “So Grandpa Holland had an affair while he was married to grandma, and then adopted the child from that affair, right?  Nobody knew dad was Grandpa Holland’s real son, but he is isn’t he?”

“Charlie …” Uncle Clay began then stared blankly into space for a moment, “okay…sure, sure.  It’s what you say.”

He might have been mostly deaf and certainly blind, but Clay’s acknowledgement of the truth of this story was good enough for me.  I wanted the riddle solved.  I wanted to believe Charlie Holland, the grandfather I’d known all of my life, was also my real grandfather in every sense of the word.

Ancestry-dot-com had not even entered the scene when I visited Uncle Clay back in 1998.  It would be some time before I, like 26 million other people (according to CNBC), used consumer DNA tests to find information on my heritage.  With a 99.9 accuracy rate, DNA testing is not wishful thinking, it is science and as such, these tests are not swayed by the emotional needs of their customers.   So it was with great disappointment that I eventually discovered I have Scotland and Ireland in me, but no Holland—either the country or the surname.  Uncle Clay had fudged the truth.  Of course, I set him up and lead him to this lie.

I pushed my frail, great-uncle (by adoption) until he told me what I wanted to hear.

After I found out about my ancestry through DNA analysis, I called an old friend of mine who I don’t see very often, just to talk and catch up.  He confessed how disappointed he was with DNA testing too.

“I know I’m a quarter Cree Indian—I don’t care what their test says,” my friend was adamant.

He and I both grew up in the 60’s when claiming Native American ancestry was counter-culture and cool.  Paul Revere and the Raiders sang songs with lyrics like, “Cherokee nation, Cherokee tribe, so proud to live, so proud to die…”  A movie came out in 1971, Billy Jack, starring a handsome lead actor who played a part-Indian, Viet Nam vet with some serious butt-kicking skills.  Obviously, my friend had been taken in by these romanticized images of being a half-breed.

“But your DNA tests show your ancestors were from Europe.  Surely you’re not going to argue with the science?”

But he could argue, and he did. “I’m not too big on science anymore,” he said as easily as disclosing he didn’t like broccoli.

I was dismayed and surprised by this comment.  If he didn’t trust or believe in science anymore, why didn’t he get rid of his cell phone, computer, and car?  Conveniences like these were given to him by science.  My friend had become very religious though.  He told me he preferred to trust his feelings rather than some DNA laboratory.

This summer I thought about that long-ago phone conversation when I read a New York Times op-ed entitled:  “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling our Coronavirus Response.” Some lies are harmless and maybe even make us feel better:  Grandpa Holland is, and always will be, my grandfather.  Other stories we tell ourselves though, can be absolutely deadly.

 

Image Credit:  Grandpa Charlie Holland        Image Credit:  Ancestry Dot Com       Image Credit:  Billy Jack

A Way to Cope, a Way to Rest

People find all kinds of ways to cope during difficult times. The plague of coronavirus coupled with the anger and divisiveness that’s rocking our nation currently, has sent many people to their therapists seeking help.  My daughter, who’s a mental health counselor, says her online client load has tripled.

I’ve benefited at different times in my life from therapy, but one of my mainstays for good mental health, something that is both free and easily accessible, has been meditational prayer.

I learned to pray going to church as a young girl when God was a magical, white-bearded being that looked and acted a lot like Santa Claus.  My every wish was his to grant.  If I just prayed hard enough and long enough, always humbly on my knees, I would be blessed with getting what I wanted.

As I grew up and changed, so did my prayers.  They became less about God doing my will, and more about me finding answers within myself.  And, in order to gain this understanding I had to inventory my thoughts and feelings in an honest, nonjudgmental way.  I talked to the “god within me” to help sort out my life—and found in the process not only comfort, but clarity.

For example, when I first married a desert farmer, I had a bad case of buyer’s remorse.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my new husband, I just missed my home back East, the spreading oak trees and grassy lawns, the friends and neighbors I’d known growing up in a small town.

One time I felt so trapped and isolated living in a trailer in the neck of a canyon, I threw open the trailer door in a rage, and started walking.

I wasn’t watching where I was going, I just stomped out into the sagebrush, tears of frustration rolling down my cheeks. I ranted and swore at God about how I’d become this lonely farm wife.  Love or lust had kidnapped my life plans.  I lamented a languishing college degree and lost career.  I didn’t like living on a farm.  I didn’t want to plant a vegetable garden or sew curtains.  I just wanted some television reception, which seemed near impossible, a shaky antennae the only conduit for a few radio waves that managed to find their way to us.

When I was done praying, I felt better. I stood there a moment staring at the canyon wall in front of me, my eyelashes still moist from crying, and noticed some kind of trail going up the side. From a distance it looked like a path animals might use, maybe the deer I spotted out the window this morning, or the coyotes I heard baying at night.  Suddenly, I wanted to follow this trail, just to see where it led.

When I got to the top of the canyon wall I was sweaty and hot from climbing, but the view of peaceful farm fields along the Snake River was magnificent.  I experienced an incredible sense of calm, and knew then that everything would be okay.

Dr. David Rosmarin from the Harvard Medical School discussed prayer and praying in The Wall Street Journal recently.  He said research shows prayer calms the central nervous system and the “fight or flight” instinct. Prayer, much like meditation, rests our brains because it turns off our anxiety switch, and turns on our ability to self-reflect.  Praying is a time when we can be thoughtful, rather than reactive, about our life.

I’m a very relaxed pray-er.  So much so that I’ve had to be conscious about people nearby who might think I’m a little crazy, muttering to myself.  Mostly though, I pray alone, walking outdoors where the natural world almost always puts me in a spiritual space. Praying is especially doable during the Covid-19 pandemic. You may be six feet apart from everybody else, but when you pray, you get very close to yourself.

 

Image credit:  Coronavirus Prayer    Image credit:  Trailer House    Image credit:  From the top of the Canyon by Diana Hooley

I’ll Cry Tomorrow…

In the midst of a pandemic I find myself late afternoon channel surfing and old movies always catch my eye.  Today I watched the 1955 biopic, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about the Broadway star Lillian Roth and her descent into alcoholism.  Roth eventually found her path to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous.  My husband thought the movie and its formulaic ending dated and archaic, but I was fascinated.  I realized how much attitudes about alcoholism have changed since 1955.

Today, alcoholism is classified as a disease, and a certain segment of alcoholics prefer to manage their addiction as opposed to fully abstain.  Sixty years ago though, alcoholism was viewed as a slippery slope to Hell, a shame-filled tragedy.

Watching I’ll Cry Tomorrow brought to my mind an encounter I had with a friend of a friend, a man who’d been to rehab for alcoholism and met regularly with his AA group.  I saw this man not too long ago at a gathering where the alcohol flowed.  I left the party early and was surprised to run into my friend’s friend in the parking lot.  He was just standing there with his hands in his pockets looking out toward the lowering sun.

“Hey,” I greeted him as I passed by on my way to the car, “That was some party, wasn’t it?”

“Yep,” he nodded, noncommittally.

I stopped and looked back at him.  There was something about the tone of his voice.  I added, “But I’m not a drinker—so it was past time for me to leave.”  I nodded toward the horizon, “Nice sunset though.”

As I drove away I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw my friend’s friend open his car door.

Four years ago when my doctor mentioned the adverse effects of alcohol on aging internal organs, and that it was a known suspect in breast cancer, I decided to quit drinking.  It wasn’t that hard for me, but I did miss having a glass or two of wine when I ate out at restaurants.  I don’t really understand how difficult it is for an alcoholic to give up alcohol.  But I do know a little about being human and having limitations.  Like most people, I’ve had personal situations in my life where acknowledgement and acceptance were the greatest things I could do.

That was probably the most powerful part of I’ll Cry Tomorrow for me.  I choked up when Lillian Roth finally went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to get the help she so desperately needed.   She stood courageously before a group of men wearing boxy 1950’s suits and women in pencil skirts, and said, “My name is Lillian Roth and I’m an alcoholic.”

My husband shook his head when he heard this. “She shouldn’t have to shame herself like that,” he said.

In a way, he was right.  I taught educational psychology at a local university and I warned my students how damaging labels and labeling were.  Still, for adults, confession can be good for the soul.  It can be cathartic: a letting go, in order to begin anew.

In 2015 an Atlantic Monthly article criticized AA and their 12-step program, saying the program had no scientific basis.  The article, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” said that other more modern treatments like therapy and drugs worked better. Interestingly, five years later, this past spring of 2020, the Stanford School of Medicine finally remedied the absence of research behind AA.  The Stanford article entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous Most Effective Path to Alcohol Abstinence” stated:

After evaluating 35 studies—involving the work of 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 participants…AA was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence.  In addition, most studies showed that AA participation lowered health care costs.”

For the many people that have been helped by AA, this is probably not news.  We are all individuals with our own unique paths.  Sometimes though, the old ways, the solutions used by our grandparents in the 1940’s and 50’s, still have merit.

 

Image credit: I’ll Cry Tomorrow           Image credit: Sober

Remember the Life You Led in the 1990’s?

One of my cherished morning rituals, when I couldn’t get my kids out of bed to go to school, was to blast Guns N’ Rose’s “Welcome to the Jungle” throughout the house. I thought of that ritual this morning as I poured a cup a black coffee and sat quietly in the big leather chair to watch the sun rise.  My solitude was only disturbed by the sound of wrens and robins waking up on the pear tree outside.  It was a thoughtful morning, the kind I like now that I’m older, so I took a sip of coffee and picked up a book sitting next to my cup.  I was struck by the first sentence I read: “There are many lifetimes, in a lifetime.”

Was this some sort of pitch for reincarnation, I wondered?  Then I reread the sentence and glanced up to watch the sun’s rays inch over the canyon wall.  Because I’d been thinking about my children, I considered that lifetime, the one I’d led in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  I was rushed and harried, always managing meals, clothing, appointments, and celebrations.  But I was young.  I had thick dark hair and firm, line-less skin.

I could do push-ups, and climb mountains, and eat a plate of spicy spaghetti without a hint of acid indigestion.

That lifetime, the 1990’s, was truly another lifetime.  The internet had not been invented yet so we spent time on telephones, looking up information in encyclopedias, and watching VHS videotapes we rented from Blockbuster Video.  We didn’t just look different back then, we were different, even at the cellular level.  According to Stanford University, the human body replaces itself with new cells every seven to ten years.

More importantly, we were not the same people emotionally and intellectually in that 1990 lifetime. Which is a good thing, considering some of the misses (mis-takes, mis-haps, and mis-steps) I made back then.  Like that time I drank too much at a faculty Christmas party.  I lost my balance and tossed a plate of chicken wings down the front of some glittery dress next to me.  I don’t like loud parties anymore, and I care even less about drinking too much.

Sometimes we forget that though our past belongs to us, we do not belong to our past.  We live many lifetimes in a lifetime.  That was then, this is now.  We do not have to be defined by our crazy youth, frustrated parenthood, or career-driven mid-life. Those were all our identities at one time, but I live now, in this space—and it’s different.

In fact, if we don’t move on to the next lifetime, we’ll inevitably run into trouble.

For example, a friend of mine was traveling through Kalispell, Montana with her husband when she decided to look up an old boyfriend who lived there.  She said it’d been nearly twenty years since she’d last seen this fellow.  They decided to have lunch together at a downtown restaurant, my friend and her husband, and her old beau and his newly pregnant wife.  She said it was so great to see her ex.  She laughed and talked to him in that old, familiar way.  She looked at her former boyfriend and said, “Oh, you were always such a renegade!”  Then suddenly the boyfriend moved closer to his wife and picked up her hand to hold it. “Am I a renegade honey?” he asked his wife.  My friend said she felt so embarrassed.  She’d temporarily lost herself in another lifetime when she’d had a relationship with this man.

I saw a movie in about 1990, a videotape I must have rented from Blockbuster.  The Mission starred that handsome young actor Robert De Niro.  De Niro played a conquistador in the 1600’s who’d killed his brother in a jealous rage.  Broken with shame and regret, De Niro’s conquistador turned to the church for help. He made a harrowing trek up the face of a cliff to a church mission at the top.  His journey up the cliff was made infinitely more dangerous because the conquistador insisted on carrying his armor, and the sword he killed his brother with, on his back.  When he finally clawed his way over the rim of the precipice, a priest came and cut away his heavy back pack.

I’ll never forget that scene, De Niro as the conquistador, laughing into the sky, free finally from the bonds of his past.  It’s a lesson for all of us.  We are fortunate to live many lifetimes in a lifetime.

 

 

 

Image Credit:  1990 Diana Hooley     Image Credit:  Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher     Image Credit:  The Mission

The Upside of Emotional Eating

Liver and onions?  Really?  A friend told me about this women serving a dinner of liver and onions to a man on their first date. The woman, she said, was from Oklahoma, an Oakie from Muskogee—as if that explained the meal choice.  I wondered later if liver and onions was “home” food for Oklahoman’s.

Living with our current viral pandemic, we all feel like eating comfort food. Some of us are “hangry” (hungry and angry both) stuck in our homes the past several weeks.

Others are more hanxious and full of hension.  My daughter messaged me a selfie with her head tilted back and a can of Cheez Whiz above her mouth.  Her finger was ready to push the can’s nozzle.  She wrote under the picture that after weeks of homeschooling her kids, she was now mainlining Cheez Whiz.

Really, it’s unremarkable and so characteristic of humans to turn to food in times of duress.  We’re programmed to be emotional eaters.  Food, like certain smells or an old song, can take us out of the misery of the here and now and transport us to another time and place entirely.  Food is our history, our culture. When my husband takes a bite from a slice of berry pie, he sees his Mennonite mother bent over her berry patch pruning raspberry stalks in early spring.

My father who looked Italian—but wasn’t, made the best spaghetti sauce ever, for a West Virginia hillbilly.

I can see him now, standing at the hot stove, stirring and taste-testing his bubbling sauce.  He’d cook shirtless with a tomato-stained tea towel thrown over a bare shoulder.  Dad cleaned out the fridge when he made spaghetti sauce, and caused not a few complaints from my brothers when they found bits of canned corn in their spaghetti dinner.  Still, I loved dad’s home-made sauce.  Just writing about it makes me want to grab my face mask and drive to the store to buy a couple of cans of tomatoes.

I read a poem online this week that had to do with food during a pandemic.

The poem was written by J. P. McEvoy in the fall of 1918 when the Spanish flu was killing thousands of Americans.  McEvoy colorfully captured what having the Spanish flu felt like: “When your food taste like a hard-boiled hearse … you’ve got the flu, boy, you’ve got the flu.”  I don’t know what a hard-boiled hearse tastes like, but I do understand the connection between food and fear.

While I was going to school to get my doctorate, I lived in a tiny apartment, one of several, in a large old house.  I used to lay on my bed and look up at the crumbly ceiling and the spider web hanging down in the corner. One morning I woke up and happen to brush my hand across my chest.  I felt a small raised area just under the skin.  I sat up, suddenly alert, and performed a more thorough exploration.  I definitely had a breast lump. Soon the doctor was called and a diagnostic mammogram scheduled at the hospital.  When I found out I didn’t have breast cancer, I was ecstatic.  In fact, the doctor told me I didn’t have any breast disease at all, but a reaction to a spider bite.  Imagine that.

When I left the hospital, I got into my car and drove to a ritzy restaurant downtown.  It was time to celebrate.

Food works in all kinds of situations: sad, bad, or happy. 

After I ordered a three-course meal, appetizer and dessert included, I tipped my waitress generously.

 

 

Image Credit:  My dad, photo by Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  Spanish flu

 

The Past is Not Dead

 

I had a time travel experience.

No, it wasn’t a dream, but I felt dazed, like I’d taken too long a nap. Maybe I time traveled because I’d spent part of this winter in a motel room in Salt Lake City—relocated here since my husband’s surgery. I needed to get outside, smell fresh air, and feel the sunshine on my face. Yes, I wanted to shake the cold off, and move around—but not necessarily travel in time.

My experience began with a simple walk. Some of my best flights (of imagination) happen walking. I’d seen a city park driving through downtown Salt Lake that had a nice footpath circling a pond full of ducks.  Finding the entrance to the park though, proved difficult. I drove past tennis courts, an aviary, and an outdoor stage, all located within the park confines, but couldn’t find the entryway. This park seemed a world of its own–and at 80 acres (I read later)—it was its own sphere. On a side street, I finally spotted the park entrance and central pathway, lined on either side by poplars and mulberry trees.

It was amazing such a large park was located in the middle of this big city. As soon as I got out of the car, I took a deep breath of fragrant wood-scented air, and closed my eyes. In the background I heard traffic honking, an ambulance siren, and faint, car-radio music.

I can’t explain the rush of feeling at that moment, but suddenly I was in Central Park, New York City, several years ago.

It was the time I’d taken my teenage children to New York for a “cultural experience.” But they, being teenagers, weren’t interested in culture. Aubrey kept dodging around corners in Little Italy, trying to avoid my camera. And Sammy had his nose so deep in a fantasy novel, he hardly noticed the Statue of Liberty.  Liberty Park, that was the name of this urban escape in Salt Lake.  I saw it clearly labeled on a nature-friendly, green sign. As I read it I felt such a deep longing, a missing of my younger children.

A good heart-pounding walk, not just a stroll, would probably clear my head and shake me out of my fugue.  I saw plenty of power walkers and joggers around me, so I joined the flow. Fifty minutes later and just past the Chase House, a folk art museum in the park, I was gratifyingly flushed and sweaty.

I leaned an arm up against a tree for a brief rest-stop, and soon found myself staring at a little girl skipping along the park sidewalk near me. It was late afternoon and the shadows on the sidewalk caught my attention. Maybe it was the angle of the light, soft and buttery, but an ancient memory arose, and then, I was a little girl again, in Chicago in the 1950’s. I was playing in front of our big, white apartment building. As I hop-scotched I saw my shadow on the cinder block wall.

What stood out was how rich my emotions were, the joy and wonder I felt then, not yet muted by time and age. 

Next to my tree in Salt Lake, I felt momentarily elated.

I slowly made my way back to the parking lot.  As I opened my car door, I glanced above the park trees and saw the high, snow-clad peaks of the Wasatch Mountains. I smiled to myself.  The great American author, William Faulkner, once wrote, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” This late afternoon, at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

 

Image credit: Diana Hooley      Image credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

Sleeping with Strangers

I never dreamed of living in a motel.  Then my husband had surgery, and the doctor told us we’d need to move 278 miles away for a period of five weeks to be near the hospital.  Suddenly visions of room service danced in my head.  I’ve only known one man, Stu (not his real name), who lived in a hotel.  Stu moved into a big hotel downtown with a ballroom and a red-carpeted staircase.  He dreamed of becoming a movie star and didn’t want to deny himself the finer things of life.  When Stu’s money ran out, he borrowed more.

Reportedly, Stu spent many hours in the hotel hot tub waiting for the call from Hollywood.

But motels are mainly built for transient customers.  The word “motel” is a combination of “motor” and “hotel” and came into common parlance in the 1920’s when people began traveling around in their new horseless carriages.  Motels were never meant to be homes.  When my husband first got the word that a temporary relocation was in our future, I searched for vacation rentals, Airbnb’s, and apartments.  It was only when I lowered my standards from “looking-for-a home” to “looking-for-a bed” that I found a reasonably priced motel room we could live in.

You may be wondering, what’s it like to live in a motel?  Tight, it’s tight.

Motels are not for the obese.  Or clumsy.  If you have great coordination, maybe not elite athlete level, but still you’re flexible enough to move between beds, desks, and sundry other furniture squeezed into a 14 by 12 space—you’re gold.  I am not an elite athlete, but I’m coordinated enough to do the salsa.  This talent, I’m convinced, has helped me avoid serious injury in our motel room.

Motel living presents other challenges too.  With only a microwave and a mini-fridge for kitchen appliances, your menu suddenly becomes very limited.  I’m here to tell you there’s a reason frozen entrees are called that.  If you don’t microwave them a minute more than the package directions, these meals are so icy your teeth can’t “entrée” them.  That’s why we’ve been eating a lot of take-out–and having a lot of take-out, fall out, of the mini-fridge.

I try not to think about all the people that have stayed in our motel room before us.

Still, my eyes glide dubiously over the bed coverlet.  I glare suspiciously in the bathtub.  Yesterday when I swam in the motel pool, a large hairy man with pimples on his back was in the pool with me.  The thought crossed my mind that this man is probably not unlike many who’ve slept in my motel bed.  Slept and farted on my mattress.  That’s the thing about living in a motel room.  Of course people have dragged their crusty skin and weeping sores (of indeterminate origin) across your bed.

Still, I’ve tried to comfort myself with how fresh and clean our motel room smells.  It doesn’t smell like foot fungus.  Then I passed the housekeeper’s cart loaded with linens, towels, and cleaning products.  I noticed instead of multiple bottles of bleach or disinfectant in the cart, several bottles of room deodorant.  Room deodorants, for the uninitiated, are chemical sprays meant to mask offensive odor more than kill the bacteria that caused it.  So our room may smell like a rose, but no doubt there’s bugs on the stem.

And that’s another risk of motel rooms:  bed bugs.

Surely you say, this problem is found only in third world countries where donkeys rule the road.  No, according to www.travelpulse.com at least 45% of hotels IN AMERICA have faced legal action over bed bugs.  That’s enough information to keep me squirming on our motel bed for hours. My farmer husband says sleeping with me is like sleeping with a cow dog who keeps circling the gunny sack in an effort to get comfortable.

I’m not a cow or a dog, but I can say after two weeks in a motel, home on the range sounds much better than home in a motel room.

 

Image credit:  El Rancho Motel      Image credit:  Diana Hooley      Image credit:  Diana Hooley