SOLSTICES AND THE POWER OF PARADOX

An excerpt from Over the Hill and Gaining Speed, p. 210.

I was listening to a gardening report on the radio recently and it was describing the behavior of hydrangeas.  On gray, rainy days they droop.  But when the sun comes out, they straighten up and look alive again.  I think I'm a lot like a hydrangea.  The summer solstice--the longest day of our calendar year and the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere--has just passed.  The paradox, of course, is that as summer begins, our daylight gradually diminishes.  It is a bittersweet time for me.  I love summer and I love light...

The sun and its light are important to us as human beings.  So, of course, are the night and its darkness...

In Chinese philosophy, the darkness and the light are called yin and yang.  The dual symbol depicts how opposite forces are actually complementary.  Together they create an interconnected and interdependent unity.  In the symbol for yin, there is a dot of light.  In the symbol for yang, there is a dot of darkness.  In the heart of one, is the beginning of the other.

I love summer and I love light.  And yet, embedded in the beginning of one is the gradual loss of the other.  The winter solstice, however, does just the opposite.  At the cusp of cold dark winter, we embrace the gradual increase in the length of our days.  The light grows, even in the cold heart of darkness.

The life lessons embedded in the opposites of dark and light will keep my mind busy, mulling myriad levels of meaning and understanding, even as my body relaxes into the lazy days of summer, with their ever decreasing light.  Until, of course, we turn the calendar page to December 21--quite possibly the most hopeful day of the year.

AMAZING GRACE

On May 13, the day before Mother's Day, I had a scheduled reading/book signing at Barnes and Noble Willow Grove.  I had selected excerpts from my essays relating to motherhood:  having a mother, being a mother, knowing a mother, fictitious mothers, spiritual/emotional mothers,  and allegorical mothers.  Alas, it was also the day a nor'easter decided to hit our area dumping buckets of rain in biblical proportions.  I decided not to try and control that which I couldn't, and gamely showed up at the store, expecting to read to myself. 

And yet they came.  A dozen of them.  One a woman I haven't seen in 10 years, as well as some other stalwart friends and a few shoppers.  It was an amazing reception, given the weather, and I am grateful to them all.  This would have been serendipity enough.  But there was more...

                                                                 Stalwart supporters

                                                                 Stalwart supporters

Notice, off to the left of this photo, a young man seated in one of the comfy chairs.  He was busy on this computer and had earbuds in his ears.  He seemed absorbed in his world.  Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed he stopped typing.  Then he popped out one earbud.  Then the other.  He leaned back into the chair and listened.  After the reading, he came up to me and said, "I'd like to buy a copy of your book."  "Oh," I exclaimed, "is it for your mother?"  "No," he said.  "It's for me."  Amazing grace.  And we never know when or where it will appear.

He's paying attention!

He's paying attention!

Live to Read? READ TO LIVE!

Scientific research, highlighted in the March 2017 AARP Bulletin, supports the longevity benefits of reading.  Newspapers and magazines will do, but books are the best.  The study's senior author, Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale, indicated that those who engaged in "...as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read."  What's on your nightstand?

My reading habits are eclectic.  Lately I've been reading The Faith Club by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner.  What happens when a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian walk into a living room...and begin to discuss their various faiths.  In the process of exploring each others' faith, they learn more about their own as well.  Their open and honest conversations put their worst fears, stereotypes and biases on the table.  Through challenging yet caring dialogue, they came out on the other side of conflict, spiritually aware in a way they had never been before.  An important and relevant read.

Lisa Scottoline's latest, One Perfect Lie, is a perfect beach read with enough of her trademark social awareness to make us feel virtuous for having so much fun turning pages and sitting on the edges of our seats.  As always, she leavens our guilty pleasure with just enough social consciousness and insight to leave us more aware.

I have been surprised lately to see one of my all-time favorite books popping up in my social media feed.  West with the Night, a memoir by the extraordinary Beryl Markham, chronicles the life of a British woman raised in Africa, who became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.  It's as fresh and riveting today as when it was written.

 

 

And yes, this is my actual nightstand...

And yes, this is my actual nightstand...

MEMORIAL DAY MEMORIES Chapter 29 "Over the Hill and Gaining Speed"

VETERANS’ STORIES

It was the day after Hurricane Sandy, and only I, and our intrepid leader, John, showed up for the scheduled town walk through the cemetery.  The ground was littered with debris, the decorative iron fence marred by the force of a fallen tree.  As we walked the paths, John began picking up the small American flags, now strewn about the landscape, honoring the veterans buried there.  He returned the flags to their graveside medallions.

As I joined him, I was struck by the breadth of our indebtedness.  The earliest inscriptions we found were for the Spanish American War (1898).  There were many markers for GAR—Grand Army of the Republic—designating service in the American Civil War (1861-1865).  Some tombstones and medallions for the first European war (1914-1918) just said World War, devoid of a number, and serving as a reminder that this war was to be the war “to end all wars.”  But, of course, it did not.  Rows and rows of medallions, lined up like corn in an Iowa field, spoke to the apparently unending nature of war.

In quick succession we saw markers for those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Too many markers, too many wars, too many bodies.  If you stand quietly and close your eyes, you can almost hear the heartbeats.  Their presence gives one pause.

As we continued to walk we noticed a monument for the Stryker family.  We were specifically drawn to the headstone for Captain Frank P. Stryker:  “Killed in Battle at the Elbe River, April 14, 1945.  Buried in Margraten, Holland, R.I.P.”  We knew the Stryker name from our walks through Maplewood, the post-World War II neighborhood, where a grateful citizenry named the streets for Stryker and fellow comrades-in-arms:   KREUTZ, MYERS, GLEN, MILLER, KERSHAW, CHUBB, WALTON, MCLAUGHLIN, MCCONNELL, and TAIFER.   A Veterans Park and dedicated memorial site acknowledge “…the freedoms gained for us by those honored dead.”

Our liturgy last year prompted me this year to embark on a pilgrimage of sorts to other memorials around town.  The courthouse lawn at a central crossroads forcefully reminds us that “Freedom isn’t Free.”  Thanks to a project undertaken by Gold Star families and the county commissioners, we not only read the names of those who served and died, we see their faces.  I feel the stinging pinpricks of tears.  Not just names, but faces.  Names, faces, and ages—ranging from 19 to 43, most in their 20s.  Their lives given in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Our town is the county seat and memorials abound, including one of the first Civil War memorials in the country.  This defining obelisk honors the 104th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry as well as Colonel W. W. H. Davis, a prominent citizen and founder of the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.  To raise the money for the monument, surviving members of the regiment baked bread and sold it to the Union Army.  How novel—the military holding a bake sale to raise funds!

Davis established Camp Lacey on what is now Memorial Field at a local high school. His stern leadership forced weekly baths and smallpox inoculations which resulted in much grumbling among the men, but the reality of war and pestilence soon revealed Davis’ wisdom.   After their training, 1,049 men departed to become part of the Army of the Potomac.  Regimental losses are listed on the plaque, again reminding us that armies are comprised of individuals, and that freedom isn’t free.

World War II veterans are honored nearby, as are those who fought in Korea, the Persian Gulf, and Vietnam.*  The graceful arc of the Vietnam memorial offers an important reminder as it also pays tribute “… to those…who did return, yet later died or suffered due to debilitating physical or emotional pain…"

Looking around, I notice a solitary pink rose adorning the base of a small pillar and move closer to investigate.  It is a tribute to others who have died in service to their community:  police, firefighters, and other law enforcers.

Walking down Printers Alley to Pine Street, I encounter the rich mosaics of Freedom Square, commemorating the leadership and “service above self” demonstrated by two young local residents, both killed in Iraq.  This memorial not only honors the fallen, but also challenges the living, asking the provocative question, “Do we take liberty for granted?”

My journey then leads me to the County War Memorial sculpture at Broad and Main, dedicated to “…these memories of service and sacrifice” given in all wars“…in the defense of our country…”

Our beautiful community reminds us—in all its corners—of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in preserving for us the ideals of liberty and justice and freedom upon which our nation is founded.  It has been a rich and inspiring activity to move among these memorials and grave sites, acknowledging each one.  It has left my heart heavy, but also grateful.

It is important that we remember.

The Bucks County Herald, November 14, 2013

*I dedicate this article to all veterans, but most especially to my brother, Donald Steinkirchner.  He was a proud member of the navy and served in Vietnam.  He returned home to a nation that unfairly judged those who served, rather than those who made the decisions to pursue such a conflict. Despite the hostility, he used his skills, intelligence, and work ethic to develop his trade, learned on an aircraft carrier. He successfully reentered society and has provided a secure home for himself and his family ever since.  I am very proud of him.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Doylestown, PA

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Doylestown, PA

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ALLEGORICAL MOTHERS

An excerpt from Chapter 18:  "Pursuing our Dreams"

I heard the video before I saw it.  It was filled with a determined wind and the noisy flapping of brightly colored prayer flags.  My husband was standing 18,192 feet above sea level, high above Nepal's Khumbu Glacier on a peak named Kala Pathar, panning the vista with his camera, capturing the dramatic outline and cragginess of this giant massif from one of the best vantage points in the Himalaya.  Sitting on the border between Nepal and Tibet, it is called Chomolungma, "Goddess Mother of the World."  We call it Mt. Everest.

BECOMING A GRANDMOTHER

 Excerpt from Chapter 23:  "Miracles Upon Miracles"

"He's here!" my older son jubilantly announced.  I hang up the phone and rush out the door to pick up my husband at work, grateful he can get away on this momentous day.  And also grateful to have someone else drive as I am too emotional to safely make the journey across state lines.  We finally arrive at the hospital.  As I enter the room, my smiling son walks toward me and places a bundle in my arms.  Even through my tears of joy, I can see how totally beautiful and perfect is this child--our first grandson. 

What is it about grandparenting that makes it so special?  Perhaps as parents our marveling was distracted by the business of making a living and keeping up with all the minutiae of running a household and caring for a young family.  I know that as a parent I didn't feel I had the luxury to sit and marvel every time one of my children yawned or ate a cheerio.

Grand parenting is different.  For us it is intermittent, allowing the joy without the weight of day-to-day care...More subtly, grand parenting may also be an opportunity for redemption...

EMOTIONAL MOTHER

An excerpt from Chapter 26:  "Treasure Hunt"

It's that wonderful time of year for many things not the least of which is a yearly trip with my sister from upstate New York.  Younger than I by 10 years, she declared this annual event for the two of us a "must do" after our mother died. 

Given our age difference--and the amount of her care that was relegated to me as her oldest sibling--she viewed me as her mother, and mom as her grandmother.

FICTITIOUS MOTHERS

Excerpt from Chapter 15: "The Happy Cheapskate"

One of my favorite TV shows growing up was "I Remember Mama."  I'll never forget the episode when one of the children needed something and the parents gathered the family around to share ideas of how they could provide it without touching their savings account.  The children, unafraid, approached the dilemma as a game--a puzzle to solve.

Of course, unbeknownst to the children, the unspoken "gotcha" was that there was no saving account--only resilience, creativity, and discipline.

HAVING A MOTHER

An excerpt from Chapter 25:  "Remembrance"

Every April, in addition to turning to thoughts of spring, my mind and heart also turn to my mother's last days.  The year was 1998 and Easter was April 12.  She had invited a houseful of family and friends for a paschal feast, which she alone prepared.  Since I lived six hours away, I wasn't present for the festivities, but spoke to her over the phone later that evening.

Her voice was a rush of delight and enjoyment, words tumbling over themselves to describe how nice it had been, what a good time was shared, and how much she enjoyed it all.  It gladded my heart and made me even a little hopeful, although the latest oncology report gave little reason for hope.  I had a visit planned for Mother's Day and was working on a family photo album as a gift for her.  I knew she would love it.  Sadly, she ever got to see it.  She passed quietly and peacefully less than two weeks after her Easter feast.   We were all stunned by the news.  The chemo got to her even before the cancer did.  None of us got to say a final "I love you" or "Goodbye."  Worse yet, I worried I had never said "Thank you."

BEING A MOTHER

Excerpts from Chapter 30:  "Return of the Prodigal"

He has always been an exercise in detachment.  When a sophomore in high school, he and two Israeli classmates spent the summer on a kibbutz located near the Lebanese border.  And yes, there were hostilities at the time...

After graduating from high school--with special honors in mathematics--he eschewed college and set out on a life of adventure.  He and a buddy signed on as crew for a private yacht...but the owner was a bully so they jumped ship in the Dominican Republic.  Soon after, they landed in Australia working on a pig farm near Perth.

...But the siren of San Francisco called, and so he responded.  Using his carpentry, masonry, and sailing skills, he earned enough money to buy a 20-foor sailboat.  He named it Orion and moored at Fisherman's Wharf.  When rent at the marina took a big jump, he pulled anchor and sailed across the bay to Sausalito.  His teens and 20s came and went; so too his 30s.  He eventually decided to leave the seafaring life and become a landlubber.  He landed in Santa Fe.  Holy Faith.  He took odd jobs and somehow convinced a land seller to hold a mortgage on 40 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest, with minimal down payment and monthly payments.  He pitched an old army tent on his "land" and then faced the prospect of affording it.

But the Great Recession and cold, harsh winters took their toll there as well.  He struggled.  Soon the big 4-0 came and went.  He met a lovely lady.  Time passed and an announcement was made.  They'd known each other less than a year.  Fear clutched my heart.  Santa Fe.  Holy Faith.

A new baby is a powerful manifestation of hope and faith.  As the little hand curled around his finger, the new father nuzzled his baby's sweet-smelling soft dark hair and kissed his fat little cheek...  My prodigal son was home at last

Friend and Fellow Author

Attended friend and fellow author Lisa Scottoline's book signing tonight @Barnes & Noble (Willow Grove, PA). She rocked the room with her entertaining and informative presentation about her latest novel, "One Perfect Lie." I had to get this post done before I started reading her book because I know once I do, I won't be able to put it down! Yay Lisa! So good to see you as always!!
Join me at the same venue on Saturday, May 13 at 2 pm for excerpts and anecdotes from "Over the Hill and Gaining Speed." It's the day before Mother's Day, so I'll be selecting pieces about being a mother, having a mother, knowing a mother. Something for everyone!   For more information please visit my website, www.kaygrock.com.

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Will you help me beat the odds?

At a recent Writers' Conference, I learned that the average of ALL books sold in the first year is 250; over the course of the book's existence, the tally only averages 1000.

My book launched in December 2016 on the Winter Solstice.  As we crossed the 2017 Spring Equinox this March, I was close to having sold 250 copies of Over the Hill and Gaining Speed:  Reflections in Retirement.

Will you "Like" and "Share" this post (or better yet, cut and paste in your own feed) to help me beat the odds and reach 500 copies sold by the Summer Solstice?

SPRING ALWAYS REMINDS ME...Chapter 11: Circles of Connection

"These looping ties and the circles of connectivity--like little bubbles of life--keep moving and intersecting, continually mingling elements of past, present and future.  We were not created in a vacuum, nor do we live in one.  We are connected by the myriad circles of life."

Excerpt from OVER THE HILL AND GAINING SPEED, p. 41.

Spring always reminds me of the "...myriad circles of life."

Spring always reminds me of the "...myriad circles of life."

AN AMAZING QUOTE ABOUT ART AND LITERATURE

I recently read an interview with Susan Vreeland author of "Luncheon of The Boating Party"--a novel of historical fiction about Renoir and his famous painting.  The interviewer asked, "What is the value of writing fiction about art?"  Her eloquent reply seems particularly relevant to today's world:
"Paintings allow us to inhabit another culture, place, and time...Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it's a small step upward in the elevation of the human race.  When there is no imagination of others' lives, there is no human connection, and therefore no compassion.  Without compassion, the community, commitment, loving kindness, human understanding, and peace--all shrivel.  Individuals become isolated, the isolated can turn cruel, and the tragic hovers.  Art--and literature--are antidotes to that."

Wow.

Print of "Luncheon of the Boating Party," by Pierre Auguste Renoir.  Original is in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Print of "Luncheon of the Boating Party," by Pierre Auguste Renoir.  Original is in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Chapter 4: Of Baseball and Battlefields

Ah, spring!  The feel of sun on one's face, the smell of the earth, bulbs and buds popping all around.  But for baseball fans, spring doesn't really arrive until they hear the call to "Play Ball!"  To push the season, my husband and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.  Abner Doubleday, often cited as the "inventor" of baseball, lived in Cooperstown during his school years.  His role in baseball history has since been disavowed, but Doubleday Field in the center of town still proudly carries his name.

The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum are two distinct establishments.   The Hall of Fame exudes an aura of sacred space.  All conversations, as if on cue, become subdued and whispery as pilgrims enter.  Plaques commemorate owners, managers, and others who have served, including one for Abner Doubleday.

Ball fields and battlefields may not seem to have much in common, but a visit to Gettysburg proves otherwise.  There, statues come alive.  We spot a statue of Major General Abner Doubleday--the same Doubleday of Cooperstown fame.  His commander, John Reynolds, was killed 20 minutes into battle.  Doubleday was called up to lead the corps.  Although badly outnumbered, he and his soldiers acquitted themselves honorably and fought ferociously-until the corps to his right collapsed and forced retreat.  Unfortunately, that commander filed a false report to General Meade, absolving himself and blaming Doubleday for the defeat.  Doubleday, who longed to be a military leader, was replaced.  In an ironic twist of historic proportions, we remember Doubleday not for "gallant and meritorious service," but for a baseball field in upstate New York, honoring him for a game he never invented.

From OVER THE HILL AND GAINING SPEED, pp.11-17.

MARCH 25--READING AND BOOK SIGNING--FRENCHTOWN, NJ

Dear Friends and Fellow Readers,

On Saturday, March 25,  I will offer readings from "Over the Hill and Gaining Speed:  Reflections in Retirement, and book signings from 1:00 - 3:00 pm at The Book Garden, 28 Bridge Street in Frenchtown, NJ.  Light refreshments will be served.  You are invited.  Your friends are too!

For more information about the book and me, please visit my website:  kaygrock.com.

Entrance to The Book Garden, 28 Bridge Street, Frenchtown, N.J.

Entrance to The Book Garden, 28 Bridge Street, Frenchtown, N.J.

POETRY READING AND OPEN MIC

Wendy Fulton Steginsky, my friend and fellow author, will read from her latest collection of poems, "Let This Be Enough" at the Doylestown Book Shop on Thursday, March 16 at 6:30 pm. Wendy is a beautiful, lyrical poet who grew up in Bermuda and often weaves that lush landscape and sea's rhythms into her poems. An open mic will follow the reading.  Come and hear!
 

Cover shot of "Let This Be Enough" by poet Wendy Steginsky

Winter Writers Conference

Great Winter Writers' Conference in New Hope, PA this weekend. Informative and stimulating topics, presenters, and participants. Thank you Open Door Publications!

Great opportunity to share my book, Over the Hill and Gaining Speed:  Reflections in Retirement.  Appreciate all the support and kudos from participants and organizers!

Chapter 40: From President's Day to Presidents' Day

"February is a short month with many special observances, including Groundhog Day, Tu Bishvat (the New Year for trees--one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar), Valentine's Day, and President's Day...February is a busy month, possibly with the intent of helping us get through it faster.

...Many people--and I used to be among them--believe that it is actually Presidents' Day (spostrophe after the "s"), and think it honors both Washington and Lincoln.  It does not.

When the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed by Congress in 1968--designed to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal employees--it moved the celebration of Washington's birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February.  Lincoln, whose birthday was February 12, was not part of this official recognition.  A push to include acknowledgement of Lincoln as part of this federal holiday failed.  In other words, he was consciously excluded."

Excerpt from Over the Hill and Gaining Speed, p. 145.

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