Reading about the Universe on New Year’s Eve

There’s a room upstairs in my house where I store things: my old skis, high school yearbooks, family photos.  Everyone has a place like this.  I foraged around in this room and noticed my personal journals on a shelf, journals I’d written in over a life time.  I rarely reread my old journals.  Writing in them was enough.  But I leafed through a few out of curiosity and was surprised by what I found.  I knew things in 1993 and 2001 and 2010! I was busy, in the prime of my life, but I still found time to think and read.

It occurred to me that I’d never given my younger self much credit for wisdom.

I’ve always thought wisdom and the knowledge that undergirds it takes years to acquire.  It’s the wheelhouse of the very old—but it seems I was wrong.

For example, the last day of February 1993 I was anxious for spring and the weather wasn’t cooperating.  I wrote: “The temperature outside is 20 degrees—and falling!  Forget global warming!”

Apparently, decades ago I knew about climate change.

I knew about it long before Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, or young Greta Thunberg’s climate protests.  In 1993 I was a high school reading teacher and a busy mother of four.  I remember grading papers until late in the afternoon, and then picking up my kids from after-school sports.  On the way home we ate take-out Little Caesar pizza in the car.  When did I find time to read about trapped greenhouse gases?  And, where did I read about it?

I wrote an entry in my journal in 2001, the day before the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York.  Interestingly, my topic was life and what it meant to live.  I’d just had my first colonoscopy, and I wrote: “I’ve reacted to this colonoscopy with disabling apprehension…I barely got through it…what with fear and anxiety over cancer, tumors, polyps, biopsies.  How many times will I have to live through these horrid experiences?  And then, THEN, Dr. Williams gave my colon a clean bill of health and told me she’d see me again in ten years.  My spirits went up like a kite.

I wanted to shout to the sky, ‘I’ll live!’—as if ‘living’ is solely dependent on physical health…”

In 2010 I wrote something in my journal that reminded me of a book I’m currently reading about Einstein and physics.  I barely made it through high school physics so I was intrigued to find out if The Dancing of the Wu Li Masters could explain the universe to me.  The author, Gary Zukav, wrote, “…all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually parts of one all encompassing organic pattern and …no parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other.”

The Wu Li Master’s book soothed my grieving spirit this fall when my brother suddenly died, and I felt permanently “separate” from him.

Weirdly, in the spring of 2010 I speculated about how the laws of the universe and the elasticity of space and time might have something to say about death and dying on earth. I wrote:

“…there (are) all kinds of stories:  the story of childhood with its myth and magic; the story of adulthood with its passion and suffering; the story of old age with its death and loss.  But the mitigating factor in old age, in all of life, is the story of the universe, of time and space.  This is comforting to me because in the face of our sometimes cruel natural world here on earth, we’re all part of a much bigger reality: time and space…”

When I finished reading my journals I restacked them back on their shelf, glad I took the time to revisit my younger self.  My journal writings turned out to be hopeful letters to the future me, that white-haired lady living in the year 2021.


Image Credit:  The Universe       Image Credit:  Dancing of the Wu Li Masters         Image Credit:


The Job of My Dreams

I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho.  I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens.  It was a thrill.  It was a challenge.  It was a nightmare.  No, not a nightmare—it was a dream.  My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer.  It wasn’t real.  I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement:  waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers.  My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”

“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee.  “You snored all night.”

“That wasn’t a snore.  That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor).  There was too much pressure.  I had to wake up just to get some rest.”

Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.

This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think.  In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can.  Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years.  Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies.  And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.

“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”

My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement.  Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.”  He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting.  Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.

Still, Bob had a point.  Retirement is often a process:  binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.

Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s.  Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work.  Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word.  Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction.  Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.”  He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.

For many years, my job meant a lot to me.  I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley. 

But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me.  Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member.  Just me.  And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing.  Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.  And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.



Image Credit:  Hammett sign    Image Credit: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis        Image Credit:  Walt Whitman







In the hospital . . .

I knew a man once who said the only reason to go to a hospital was to die.  I thought about what he said when my 86-year-old mother was admitted to the hospital this week due to shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate.  After spending some time with my mother there, I thought this man was completely off the mark about hospitals. Hospitals are more like gas stations than eternal rest stops.  People are mainly here for tune-ups and repairs. Then they go on their way.  And this hospital, like any good vehicle shop, was full of young, smart technicians using complex, computerized equipment, to do their repairs.  I was impressed, and more than a little intimidated.

Jack, a tall, slim nurse, probably close to thirty, tapped the veins in my mother’s arm looking for a good one to attach an IV.  Though his hair needed a wash and cut, his hand movements were quick and efficient.  He apologized when he had to stick another needle in mom’s arm to add an additional IV line.  Mom sighed and I patted her feet where they lay at the end of the bed, gently reminding her, “A feint-hearted warrior never won the battle field.” Jack didn’t look up from his work, but I saw a smile cross his face.

When Jack left, another young nurse with blue streaks running through her hair came into our room, and placed what looked like water wings, flotation devices for beginning swimmers, around my mother’s forearms.  Then she turned to a mounted computer and began rapidly typing.  Occasionally she glanced at the monitor above mom’s head, filled with line graphs and blinking numbers in different colors.  Mom’s “vitals” were all there: heart rate, oxygen level etc.

“Is my mother taking a swim?”

“Pardon?” the blue-haired girl turned to me.  I pointed to the water wings.

“Oh?” she nodded understanding. “Those are blood pressure monitors.”

I watched these highly skilled professionals wistfully, with their youthful flair and swagger.  I’d love to know what they knew, and be a part of the kind of energy that was everywhere apparent in the hospital.  I looked over at mom lying in her bed.  She once was a nurse.  Did she have these same thoughts?  But mom was quiet and seemed more relieved than anything else.  She’d been sick for a week or so, and was glad to be in a place where people could take care of her.  My brother and his wife came, and then the doctor, a petite woman with iron-grey hair and tiger-striped eye-glasses hanging from jesses around her neck.  She was one of the few doctors on duty this Sunday afternoon.  I saw her constantly checking on the status of her other patients using her cell phone.

“Mrs. Holland can you tell me a little bit about your shortness of breath,” she asked mom.

“Mom has terrible allergies . . .” I began to explain.

Without looking up from the old-school note pad she was scribbling on, the doctor waved her flat-palmed hand at me. “Thank you, but let’s let your mother speak for herself, shall we?”

I shrunk back in my seat becoming the observer I was meant to be in this tableau.  Overall, my sojourn at the hospital with mom was a humbling experience.  The man who told me the only reason to go to the hospital was to die—was wrong.  Yet in another way, he had a point.  Confronted by such a large complex institution, even one with a mission of compassion and healing, a patient (and their family) must in some sense, die to themselves.  They must give over their will in order that the hospital staff might help them.   It’s not really a devil’s bargain; it’s one of mercy—and that of course, makes all the difference.


Image Credit:  modern hospital room

Comfort Food Part 5: Eating for Comfort During WWII

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 5)

Eating food that brings you comfort is not the same thing as overeating. One is a reward and the other is a punishment. Believe me I, like many women, have dieted enough to know the difference. A craving for rich, fatty food though, is natural. Humans have evolved with a taste for the calorie-laden food we needed to stave off starvation in our distant past. I personally think every famine survival kit should include chocolate butter creams.

My dear mother has always had a sweet tooth. She told me during World War II when three of her four older brothers were stationed in war zones, her mother, Grandma Verna, made a treat with rationed sugar called “sweet cakes.”  Mom described sweet cakes as somewhere between a cookie and a cake.  Often Grandma and mom sat around the wood stove in the evening eating sweet cakes while they read books like Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, or Jean Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.

Sometimes Grandma would set her book down and walk over to the front window, staring worriedly out at the dark valley below. Then one awful evening in 1943, she saw car headlights moving jerkily down the rough road leading to their house perched on a West Virginia hilltop. A telegraph had arrived. Her son, my Uncle Ray, had been grievously wounded on a little-known island in the central Pacific: Tarawa.

Comfort Food Part 4: Funeral Potatoes

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 4)

Life would be so much easier if we could eat whatever we wanted. I think cows live like that. No one tries to boss bovines around and tell them what they should eat. One time a friend treated me to something I didn’t want, a healthy salad luncheon. I remember chomping through the lettuce like a buck-toothed mule. Evidently, my friend was worried I might get as fat as a pig. Sure, I’d rather be lithe as a graceful swan. But mules are stubborn, pigs stink, and even swans are bad-tempered (unlike cows). Eating whatever you want may not solve all our problems–but it’s a start.

I have a recipe I got from the mother of one of my daughter’s old boyfriends. The dish is called Funeral Potatoes, which I assumed meant it was a standard potluck dish to share at funerals for families grieving the loss of a loved one. Funeral Potatoes are the very definition of comfort food, the basic ingredients being hash browns, soaked and baked with a half cup of butter, two cups of sour cream, and two cups of grated cheese.

It’s sadly ironic that my daughter’s old boyfriend was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and not expected to live very long.

“He wasn’t even a smoker!” my daughter cried, trying to understand how a brain tumor could happen to someone still relatively young and healthy.

“He may not have been a smoker, but he’s a human being,” I told her. “We’re all prone to mortality.”


Comfort Food Part 3: My Father, the Foodie

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 3)

I attribute my lifelong love of rich food, and the comfort I derive from eating it, to my late father. Dad must have been one of those people with extra taste buds layered on his tongue. Other cooks might add the seasonings a recipe called for, but dad felt compelled to sniff and sample the dried chili peppers, or ground thyme, or garlic powder, before he shook any into his soup pot.

The genetic link to my foodiness extends even past my father to his mother, Grandma Nancy. She was such an enthusiastic eater, she was chubby in the 1920’s when hardly anyone was overweight. Food was still slow then and “fast” had nothing to do with time, and everything to do with abstinence.
Food may have been the only crutch Grandma Nancy had to lean on. She was a single mother of two, working long days for a coal mining company in Eastern Kentucky. Evidently life became too bleak, and Nancy felt she had to give up one of her children in order to survive. My dad was the one she gave away to a barren aunt and uncle. Such soul sick, “Sophie’s Choice” situations could easily lay the groundwork for emotional eating.
The last time my father came to see me I remember laboring in the kitchen to make a nice roast beef and gravy dinner, knowing his penchant for meat and potatoes. I even stirred up some yeast rolls which he, coming from the South, referred to as biscuits.
But he wanted to treat the hostess. He insisted we go out to the Desert Inn for dinner. We could store the food I’d made in the fridge, he said. A few years after this visit I got a call from a hospital spokesman telling me my father had not survived his heart surgery. It was midsummer, and I remember looking out the kitchen window to the field beyond. A wind had come up bending the tall grasses low.

Comfort Food Part 2: Cancer and Brownies

southern-potato-salad-10Comfort Food (Essay, Part 2)

It seems like everyone I know is on some kind of special diet: gluten-free, vegan, lo-carb, non-processed, paleo.  We’re all caught between a rock and a hard place: needing to maintain a healthy weight and driven by the pleasure only good food can provide.  I’m not saying that eating healthy can’t be tasty too.  But I’ve been to those pot luck dinner parties and buffets where the offerings are raw kale and brown rice.  Usually my bowl of home-made, mayonnaise-laden potato salad is the only plate that gets licked clean.  Everyone goes away with a full belly and a big smile on their face.

I have a dear friend, who I’ve known all my adult life.  She’s in her 80’s and battling a colon cancer diagnosis.  We’ve spent years talking and laughing over tea or coffee or wine.  I can’t imagine my life without her in it, but maybe I should.  When she first told me her diagnosis and that her oncologist recommended chemotherapy, I promised I’d help her through this trial.  I’d buy some marijuana and even if I’m not a toker, I’d find a recipe for marijuana brownies and bake a batch we could both enjoy with our coffee.  It would be a way to double-down on the nausea chemotherapy causes with two highs: dope and chocolate.  What a great idea.  But she just smiled sadly, looking at me like I was from another planet, another generation—which I was.  My friend would find her own way through this hardship.