The Limoges Teacup

 June 2008

Mama gave me her complete set of Havilland Limoges when I became a diplomat’s wife in 1975.  How she loved the ring of those words, “diplomat’s wife,” and loved to brag to her friends about her younger daughter.  She was so proud of me, and she wanted me to use the best items possible when I was entertaining and representing our country overseas.   But as it turned out, I was required to use the embassy china for the many dinner parties I gave in the countries I lived in.  I don’t know why.  I remember the waiters coming to the house and unpacking all the gold and white china, only to pack it up the next day after it had been carefully washed and dried by my kitchen staff.  It seems like it would have been simpler to let me use my own china.  But oh yes, of course, I only had a service for twelve, and our parties were attended by four to six times that number of people.  And so my handsome set of Limoges sat in my pantry, lonely and collecting dust, except for an occasional holiday meal over the next thirty-three years—until I retired from Washington-Lee High School.  That’s when I actually needed a teacup.

That would be the first of several celebrations to make me feel especially valued as an educator.  It was a very difficult time in my life, a very poignant time.  And I needed a teacup.  I suppose I could have brought a mug or a plain teacup.  I have many from all my travels.  But I thought I’d dust off one of Mama’s teacups for a tea the school was having in my honor.  In my honor…imagine that!  This was a real tea with scones, cucumber sandwiches, and people who came to wish me well in my new life.  My new life…but that was a story that hadn’t unfolded yet.

Mama was thrilled when I told her.  She felt that in some way my life had come full circle, as if my life had revolved around her Limoges china.  And in some ways my adult life had.  As I wrote this upon my retirement, I was seeing how.

I’d been an ESL teacher for over twenty years.  I taught in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, and Greece.  I trained to be a teacher in college and was fully certified. Still, in my first years as a teacher overseas, I had little or no idea what I was doing.  It wasn’t until I landed in Arlington, VA, that I truly learned how to teach.  Teaching and learning: that endless hermeneutic circle that would define much of who I had become as an adult.  I stayed at the same school for seventeen years, taught hundreds of students, and I was tremendously happy in my work.  Getting my Master’s Degree in reflective practice only intensified my fulfillment as an educator. I enjoyed writing in my reflective journal about how my earlier life had impacted me as a teacher. I loved discovering connections between certain life events and my experience with students. In my 60th year, however, a personal challenge presented me with difficult lessons that needed learning.  For a time, I felt more like a student than a teacher.  And so I knew, then, that it was time for me to step down and refocus my energies, though I wanted to remain in education on some level.

It’s hard leaving work that you love, for whatever reason.  So much of whom I’d evolved into at that time centered on my work.  When I left my husband in 1991and brought my children back to Virginia, I threw myself into career mode out of necessity.  I knew I needed to work to minimize the effects of the divorce on my children.  So I went back into teaching, a demanding profession by any standards.  Day and night I taught for a while, going to graduate school at the same time to upgrade my credentials.  After a year I started full-time at Washington-Lee High School.  My children eventually got through high school and college and, being so close in age, all three of them left home within six months of each other in 2000.  Suddenly my job became everything to me. And for the next eight years it had consumed me.  I knew then that jumping off the fast track wouldn’t be easy.

  But I made my decision and was busy planning for semi-retirement.  I knew people didn’t want me to leave; but I still hoped to fade away without a fuss.  No such luck! This shy woman who avoided attention like the plague, who once lost her voice on the stage when it was time for her solo, was suddenly being celebrated multiple times.

“Please join us to wish a cherished colleague a happy retirement,” the invitation read.  Cherished!  My goodness, I was stunned by the word!  This looked like my moment in the sun, and they don’t often come twice, so I wanted to enjoy it.  One of life’s lessons I’d been learning was that we couldn’t go back and do things over…and we couldn’t go forward. All we could do, if we wanted to enjoy our lives, was to make the most of what was right in front of us. And this was my moment in my career as a teacher.  What better symbol of my self-regard in this profession, my worth as a teacher which came to me at great personal cost, than to share my mother’s Limoges, not a Styrofoam cup, at a celebration in my honor.

The making of this china was difficult, like many hard-won accomplishments.  But I’m glad I brought Mama’s china teacup.  What had long since ceased to matter to my now-deceased mother has now taken on a new meaning for me:  “Don’t be afraid to do the difficult,” she told me when I got divorced. “It will make you stronger.””

Seasonal Prompts

I love observing the seasons and the months they represent. They are the embodiment of the natural flow of life—and a constant reminder of change and renewal.

I was a high school teacher for twenty years. Summers were times for me to breathe, relax, and get off the treadmill. Then in August the anxiety and excitement would build, as I felt hungry to return to school and start using my skills in the classroom again.

Just as our lives change and new routines replace old ones, our feelings about the months of the year change as well. Bright red chili festivals have replaced pumpkin cutting in the classroom for me. Life is never static, and I do well to remain open to new opportunities as they present themselves.  Change is good. Change is very, very good.

Now, some months are times of remembrance. I’ve been retired for just over a decade, and August/September has a new meaning for me. August 16 is the birthday of my mother, who died eleven years ago. And August 23 is the birthday of my estranged daughter, Annie. But now I celebrate my granddaughter Emily’s birthday on August 9 by going to her birthday party every year. I never miss either of my granddaughters’ birthdays. In focusing on my blessings, I feel a sense of abundance every day.

September/October start to herald in autumn for me. In Albuquerque, where I used to live, the leaves change color from the frosty night air. This is a welcome change from the oppressive heat of the summer. But there, the leaves turn yellow, not the reds I used to see in New England. 

In New Mexico, autumn is a gorgeous and productive lingering—well past Thanksgiving. It’s harvest season and the farmer’s markets overflow with abundance from the ground. Many holidays come in autumn and on the cusp of winter. These are always poignant times of the year for me, but now more than ever they are times to take stock and savor all that I have. 

Winter drops like a curtain, in some states more than others. A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mother Nature lowers the boom. Winter is bitter in the high desert. Where I lived, there was very little snow. Sandia Mountain, across the rift valley from my farmhouse, attracts all the “weather.” At nearly 6000 feet, the air is cold even with the sun shining, though the temperature rarely drops below freezing.

Winter rings in differently state to state. But universal, in the areas where cold weather does settle into our bones, is the wish to smell spring in the air. 

Many of us enjoy watching the trees coming out of dormancy and preening like peacocks, their colorful buds in bloom. We thrill to see the first flowers peek up from the ground. And gradually, though differently from state to state, we see the resurgence of nature, in all its glory. It is the season of renewal, of new beginnings. 

Life goes on, and we with it.

Spelunking

This essay was first posted in The Memoir Network, 7/21/17.

I enjoy many forms of physical exercise, from climbing mountains, to backpacking along trails, to bicycling, and even swimming. But mostly nowadays I just go hiking, sometimes with my grandchildren and partner, but often alone. Working the muscles of my body is good for me and helps keep my joints working. I feel better after a long walk.

So, too, my mental muscles feel better after a good writing workout. I’ve been writing diaries ever since I was very young, and I keep boxes of them wherever I’m living at the moment. I draw on them a great deal in my memoir writing. They offer a panoramic view of my life.

I’ve been scribbling “Morning Pages” ever since Julia Cameron’s Sound of Paper came out. Every day along with my morning writing I include entries in my gratitude journal as well as ideas for my recovery blog.

But memory can be selective; and memoir is a tricky animal to tame. Mining our depths, it’s like spelunking in a cave. But how much do we see on those walls of rock? How bright is the lantern we’re holding? We’re swinging from a rope, trying to hold ourselves erect, trying to see what’s there.

And who are we doing the seeing? Not the same person we were last year, or when we were five. What’s etched into those rocks that might read very differently to us now?

Darkness often comes to light when I read pages I wrote when I was ten years old. I may not be that hurting ten-year-old anymore, but I can remember that ten-year-old hurting. The essence of memoir is the change that has occurred in the years in between.

Stringing thoughts together and writing them down keeps my mind agile and open to understanding myself better. At times, I feel confused or I want answers, and when I write about it, the mud often sinks to the bottom and I can see things more clearly.

It’s a clarification process.

Sometimes I start a piece, and by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve answered some questions. It’s sort of like, as Lillian Hellman once described the term “pentimento:” my “old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

“Pentimento”—a term in art where sometimes, the artist changing his mind, paints over what he had previously put on the canvas. Thus, he repented. 

Many times, I’ve written stories that ended up nowhere I had intended. I thought I wanted to write about one thing, but ended up writing about something else. My first memoir started out as an angry rant about losing my daughter to a horrific illness. But in the two years it took me to write it, it evolved into a memoir of recovery. I was changing and transforming myself even as I was writing it—a very organic process.

So, writing for me is self-discovery. It’s a real excavation process, as we mine our depths often coming out so much richer in self-knowledge than we were in the beginning.

Something Unexpected

Grampy Gene doesn’t have any grandchildren of his own, but they call him that anyway because he’s my partner of nearly twenty-five years and I’m their grandmother. They lost their birth grandfather to cancer only six months ago, so he’s taken on a bigger significance in their lives. He’s still just a step-granddaddy.

But how do we measure love?

We spent the winter at our house up on Puget Sound and spent a lot of quality time there with these two granddaughters, aged five and seven. My son brought them up to the island to celebrate Christmas, a tradition I hope to repeat every year. 

I made dough-daddies just like my mother did on Christmas mornings when I was a child. As I drift into old age, reenacting moments like that are like grabbing a little piece of immortality, carrying things down to be repeated, keeping traditions alive.

Gene and I love to ice skate and we wanted to teach the girls. So we all met at a rink in Shoreline, rented skates and took off on the ice.

Catherine was game from the beginning. She grimly pushed herself out there, counting her splatters on the ice like a punishment. Emily clung to the sides mostly but braved the ice if I held her hand.

And Gramps was doing great. He’s a good skater, back on the ice after a few years. He was just getting his “ice legs,” skating backwards and doing leg lifts on one skate, but keeping his eyes on the girls.

Oops! He’s not so young anymore. Splat! Right on all fours on the ice.

“No, no, it’s nothing. I’ll just get some ice,” he insisted.

“Marilea, will you drive? My wrist hurts,” he whispered privately later.

Next day, x-rays at Urgent Care, double wrist fracture, painkillers.

“Geez, Marilea! Why’d you tell the kids? Now they’ll feel guilty we took them skating.”

Next morning, before she left for school, Catherine softly climbed into bed where Gene was sleeping, kissing him on the cheek.

“I love you, Gramps. Feel better soon.”

Karma

This is an excerpt from my second memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.

“Our first house in Virginia boasted an outdoor speaker system so we could listen to music on the patio. But it was broken and we never had it fixed. 

Instead, the speaker provided a nesting place for a number of birds in the six years we lived there. Every spring, forgetting that it was right next to our kitchen door but high enough for the birds to feel safe from curious humans, I would start to notice the flight of a couple of birds back and forth to the same spot. And there was a maple tree in front of our fence where one of the birds often sat, waiting its turn to be a parent.

“They’re back!” I yelped to my neighbor who was pulling up weeds. I felt foolish, tipping the birds off.

“I want to see how many eggs she’s laid, Angel. Please bring the ladder outside,” I asked as he was hanging up a picture in the dining room.

“Don’t be crazy; if they see you go anywhere near their nest, they’ll abandon it.”

So I left it alone, watching Mom and Pop swoop in and take turns sitting on the eggs.

One May morning I heard a lot of chirping coming from inside the broken speaker, and I observed the parents, one at a time, bringing food to their hatchlings. Such a simple cooperative effort, ensuring the welfare of their young.

Hatchlings became nestlings, and then came the end of the swooping. There were no more parents taking turns at the nest, and the comforting sounds of life, the chirping, had stopped. 

I realized the babies must have been strong enough to leave the nest and test their wings. They had become fledglings, and they were off.

But I saw the female soon afterwards in the maple nearby singing. 

Gosh, those baby birds must be miles away by now. And there was Mom hovering nearby, probably thinking the same thing.

Still I wonder, sometimes, if they can hear their mother singing.”

The Sacrifice

Time was passing:
The voice inside me would not be stilled.
For years I covered my ears
And prayed for peace.
But my road was not destined to be an easy one.
The mettle still needed much testing.
My real work was about to begin.

One day I woke up and
Prepared to take up the yoke.
Step by step, I plowed the field.
Hitting rocks, one by one, I
Moved them aside.
They weren’t too heavy.  I found myself
Getting stronger the more I worked.

It’s a bittersweet victory, my field of flowers.
There was a price that was paid along the way.
As I stand and admire the smells and beauty
I see three smiling shadows darting behind the trees.
I remember when those happy smiles
Had form and function in my life.
But the Voice would not be stilled.

It consumed me.
And together, the Voice and I, watched helplessly
As the forms became shadows
Hiding behind trees.

My Spirituality

The road to my spiritual life began when I was a young child growing up in an alcoholic family. But I didn’t start to walk this road until halfway through my life when my daughter fell ill with drug addiction. 

I was very unhappy growing up. It’s a classic story of family dysfunction that many of us have experienced as children. But back then I didn’t have Alateen to go to. My father was never treated and died prematurely because of his illness.  I, too, was untreated for the effects of alcoholism, and grew into an adult child.

Well, many of us know how rocky that road is: low self-esteem, intense self-judgment, inflated sense of responsibility, people pleasing and loss of integrity, and above all, the need to control. I carried all of these defects and more into my role as a mother to my sick daughter, and predictably the situation only got worse. 

I was a very hard sell on the first three steps, and my stubbornness cost me my health and my career. But once I did let go of my self-reliance, my whole life changed for the better.  The Serenity Prayer has been my mantra every day. I’ve learned to let go of what I can’t change. I don’t have the power to free Annie of her disease, but I can work hard to be healed from my own.  This is where I’ve focused my work in the program.

My daughter has gone up and down on this roller coaster for twelve years, and right now she’s in a very bad place. But that has only tested me more. My faith grows stronger every day when I release my daughter with love to her higher power, and I am able to firmly trust in mine. 

Friends of mine ask me, “How do you do that? You make it sound so simple!”  I tell them, “First of all getting here hasn’t been simple. It’s the result of years of poisoning my most important relationships with the defects I talked about earlier. I knew I had to change in order to be happy. Secondly, I surround my heart with faith-based unconditional acceptance of whatever happens in my life. It’s my choice.

Somewhere in the readings, someone wrote ‘Pain is not in acceptance or surrender; it’s in resistance.’ It’s much more painless to just let go and have faith that things are unfolding as they are meant to. There’s a reason that HP is running the show the way he is. I just have to get out of the way; I’m not in charge. I also read somewhere the difference between submission and surrender: submission is: I’ll do this if I get XYZ; surrender, on the other hand, is unconditional acceptance.  Well, the latter is easier because I’m not holding my breath waiting for the outcome. I just let go – and have faith. Again, it’s a very conscious choice. 

We all have different stories. What has blessed me about a spiritual life is that I can always look within myself and find peace regardless of the storms raging around me. I’m learning how to dance in the rain.

Snakes on Camano

No, not the kind that slither across the road 
Until they get squashed by a fast-moving car.
I’ve seen a few of them on my morning walks.
Poor creatures: don’t snakes have ears?

No, these snakes are an invasive plant, 
Burgeoning out everywhere.
But, like the vipers that don’t exist on this island,
These snakes have fangs.

Oh, don’t fall into a blackberry patch!
I think I’d rather drink poison and die a slow death
Than impale my whole body on those thorns.
I’d pass out from the pain, I’m sure.

They’re vicious and relentless, the way
They rise up over existing bushes
Like snakes ready to strike.
But I’m at the ready with my clippers.

Cutting them back as soon as I see them.
Some are just skinny babies.
Others half an inch thick.
But my clippers win today.



Tomorrow, more snakes will rise up out of the woods
And try to take over my landscaped grounds.
I won’t spray, though.
My deer family live here.

Pangs

When we were still teachers in Virginia more than a decade ago, it was a rare summer that my partner, Gene, and I didn’t visit one of our wondrous national parks in the United States. In another life I’d seen much of the world in the Foreign Service, yet had known little of my own country. 

But Gene had, and he was determined to share with me the wealth of his experiences. He has loved and appreciated the diversity of many of them, from the Adirondacks to Capital Reef to Yosemite. And the sheer beauty of them is enough to take your breath away. 

One hot July in 2007, we traveled almost as far away from Virginia as you can get on the North American continent. We flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, to see the northern Rockies. On the highway to Whistler, where the Winter Olympics were held one year, Gene shouted suddenly, “Stop the car! I want to show you a beautiful lake. Drop dead gorgeous, jes like you,” planting a wet kiss on my cheek.

Well, he was a charmer. That’s one reason I fell for him. But I was the sensible one.  Mix dreamer with practical and sometimes you just get vinegar…

Gene felt we needed to get far away that summer. A difficult personal challenge was proving to be too much for me to handle. I thought if I could knead the pain out of me by climbing a mountain, I might start to feel better. But I wasn’t twenty-five anymore. The physical challenge facing me now would be considerable. And the spiritual one, even greater.

Fifteen switchbacks: I counted ‘em. It was a long hike. The trail seemed to go for  a mile before it mercifully turned the other way. Is that fifteen miles? Or does it just seem like that? We were backpacking on an elevated trail. And we had full loads. There’s only one way to go, and that’s up. 

After a while I started fantasizing about being airlifted to our destination: powerful fairies swooping down and grabbing us by the shoulders, bypassing the trail and slicing straight up through the thickly stacked trees, gently placing our grateful bodies down at the campsite and returning to the air without so much as a thank you or a tip. Then I tripped over a rock and awoke from my reverie.

“Gene, for Chrissake, we didn’t plan this at all! We should have gone shopping first and gotten enough food to sustain us. How are we gonna live on so little protein?” I yelled, already anticipating disaster. My gnawing hunger brought out the worst in me, and my recovery was going to be sorely tested.

“Darlin’, when you see the turquoise lake at the top, you won’t care,” he assured me.

“Yes I will,” I whined, “Oh, yes I will…”

Every day when we wake up, life happens to us. We can’t escape from what comes. How we face it, the choices we make, with or without a problem to wrestle with, is a test of our mettle. I’m like everyone else: I have strengths and weaknesses. On this particular hike, out of the many we have taken, I failed to meet our difficulties with any grace. But, as with most of the failures littering my deck overlooking the water, this one in the Canadian Rockies contained a gem of wisdom to add to the many others I’ve collected over the years. It’s a highly recurrent one.

About halfway up, tired, sweaty, and irritable, we decided to lighten our loads by eating our hamburgers. That was a grave error in judgment, cutting down on our food supply so early in the trip. We would dream of eating those hamburgers two days later when we were running out of food and the stamina to keep hiking.

Another mistake was impulsively starting the hike at two o’clock in the afternoon. The only thing that might have saved us in that regard was the lingering light at that latitude in the summer months. But we would be cursed again, this time by the weather; we would not experience any evening lightness.

Gene and I soldiered on. We were both too proud to turn around and go back down. I kept thinking of that turquoise lake, and Gene kept belting out arias from Samuel Ramey in “Mefistofele.” Not a good choice, but I guess we were wrestling with the devil in some ways. My own dark side was coming out in glossy technicolor.

Five hours later, the sky grew dark and we knew what was coming. We got caught in a drenching downpour. If I’d adopted a better attitude, I’d have been grateful for the free air conditioning about to cool us off. We were near the end of the trail and came upon the lake Gene had been talking about. He marveled at it through the trees and pointed it out to me. But I didn’t care. My stomach was already growling. And I was soaked. I was in no mood for silver linings.

As we arrived at the campsite and prepared to pitch our tent, we were presented with one: the rain had let up just in time to appreciate our elevated spot overlooking Lake Garibaldi and Sphinx Glacier. A gorgeous spot that Gene photographed multiple times. It’s still one of his favorite photographs. But I was not yet able to distinguish between happiness and joy.

So began three days of wilderness camping and hiking on a subsistence level diet. It was necessary to ration all our food. Ration our food? On a demanding hike in the Canadian Rockies? That’s the one thing we should have had enough of. Primitive camping carries with it enough discomforts without adding that to the list. Gene has always added to his own backpack the weight of extra food so we’d never run short. 

This was not the first nor would it be the last time we were swept away and allowed good judgment to take a back seat.

The next day we walked around that lake, eating half a sandwich each for lunch. I learned to eat slowly, savoring every morsel, which is how I should eat anyway. I never appreciated gorp so much. Dinner was half rations again and sleep was fitful. I was hungry.

We tackled the real focus of our trip on our second day at the campsite: a demanding trek up to the base of the Black Tusk, a volcanic neck on the shoulder of Mt. Garibaldi.  We made it, trudged all the way up to the snow line. Took congratulatory pictures. Then we went back down with little to look forward to but half a sandwich.

The thing about hunger is, like pain, it’s a nasty distraction. Loading up on plenty of filling food every day, like most intelligent hikers, I should have been enjoying the breathtaking views. Instead, I was guzzling water to quell my hunger pangs—and dreaming about food.

The third morning, humbled for a couple of seasoned backpackers, we asked people for any extra food as they were packing out. They gave us apples and more gorp. And sorry looks.

Flying down those same fifteen switchbacks the next day, we jumped into the car and barreled down the road to a Chinese restaurant in Squamish. Spring rolls the width of thermoses, chicken and this, noodles and that, we gobbled up each dish like it was our last meal. Food had never tasted so good.

I’m certain I’ve never experienced true hunger or anything close to starvation. But food for the soul, that was what I was missing those three days. Had I been more willing to recognize silver linings in the midst of difficulties, I’d have ignored the discomfort and focused on the stunning landscape surrounding me. That would have been a deliberate and preferable choice. 

Happiness involves many good feelings and happenings: nice weather, friendly people, a delicious meal. But I have found in my experience that it’s necessary to dig down much deeper to access the channels to joy. 

On this Canadian hike the gem of wisdom most shimmering to me was that despite the outward and transitory nature of many things, both pleasant and otherwise, the joy that comes from gratitude at having persevered through any difficulty is most profound—and the most salient lesson of all.

Air Currents

This is an excerpt from my second memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.

Carter and I had been driving home from his friend Chris’s house one Saturday afternoon. Chris lived near Mount Pentelicus, one of my favorite haunts outside of Athens. From the crest of this hill on a clear day in winter, you could see the whole bowl of Athens with the smog hovering overhead. This was where the Brits came to celebrate Boxing Day every December 26.

Crowds of people also came to fly kites on Mount Pentelicus in December when the weather changed. As we turned the corner, we saw the tail of a kite peeking out from under a pile of rubbish, flags zigzagging down the string. Its owners must have had no more use for it when it lost its wind, and so it lay abandoned in the field.

Our curiosity taking over, we stopped the car, got out, and went to investigate. We wanted to breathe new life into this broken and tattered kite. I never thought that something inanimate could come to life. But at that time in my life, there was a dying in me that I knew I had to defeat or it would defeat me. My son was part of this tragedy, and somehow we knew that the road to healing could start with repairing that kite and watching it fly again. A dust-covered old TV pinning it down to the ground was holding the kite hostage. Its colorful tail saved it from certain death.

So we took the kite home and repaired it with glue and tape. We waited for a day with just enough wind to try and fly it.

I was restless inside, as though we were testing something other than the kite. Lying on the sofa for weeks, staring at our beautiful Christmas tree, I had been questioning my decision over and over. How could I do this to my family? How could I be so selfish? My mother stayed, I remember thinking to myself. And when I was much younger, she was one of the saddest, most guilt-ridden women I knew. I wanted to be happier than she had been.

The day to test the kite finally came, a clear, sunny day with a nice breeze. Together we took the kite back to the mountain. We watched it continue to rise and float in the air until all the string was used up. We ran with it as it leaped in the wind, flying like it was brand-new. A miracle!

We brought it down and carefully put it in the car. We would probably never fly it again, but I couldn’t let go of something that had taught me such an eloquent lesson: I was sure from that day on that there are second chances in life for those who have the heart to reach for them.