My Mom Died

My mom died a few months ago. It was not unexpected; she was 98 years old. I knew she was going to die. Sometimes, I even hoped she would die—she was losing memory and functions, and, perhaps selfishly, I wanted her to know who I was to the end.

And she did. At least I think she did. We had gone up the week before, and my brother joined us and we ate pie, and Mom had two-thirds of her piece of lemon meringue. We talked about upcoming Mothers’ Day, and Mom said she wanted to go to the pizza place (this is in a small town, and they treat her like a queen at that pizza place).

But she died before Mothers’ Day arrived. No last final hurrah at the pizza place where she was so well-loved.

My brother and I were with her at hospice, as well as his wife (and my best friend in high school) and daughter and her daughter (with my mother’s name). Four generations. Great-granddaughter is a year and a half, gleeful and full of curiosity. It is difficult to be sad when there are young children around, my nephew said. So true. We sat and reminisced, each taking our time to talk to Mom, exchanging stories, laughing, sometimes crying.

Mom was not responsive, but my niece told me that hearing is the last sense to go, and I totally choose to believe that. And I know that Mom knew that we were there, and she heard every word and the love and the happiness, the memories and the occasional regrets (those were mostly the private conversations, at least on my part). But there was also a good amount of laughter in that room, and a lot of fond memories. In one of my last private conversations with Mom, I alluded to something—and I’m sorry to say I don’t know if it was talking about my favorite memory (the swan ride, though I must have done that earlier) or my most embarrassing (I’m pretty sure it was this) and I swear I saw a slight smile on her face.

Oh, I miss her. I used to call her at 6:30 every night. (Not for my entire life, but since my dad died, about 10 years ago.) Sometimes she was out and sometimes I was out, but most days we had our 6:30 talk.

So I totally expected the 6:30 pang, which I still have frequently. What I did not expect was all the fodder I collected for the 6:30 talk—oh, I have to tell Mom the rhubarb is coming in, or how windy it was, or a cardinal in the back yard or the two bald eagles overhead. This I did not expect; that so many things I see and experience every day, I marked to tell my mother about.

Not a pang just at 6:30. Many times throughout the day. A long-delayed chore completed, a bicycle ride, the first mosquito, Colorado peaches, paying the bills.

Another thing I miss is sharing coupons. Mom clipped coupons from forever, and so of course I picked this up as well. We’d often send coupons back and forth (if not in person). I still sometimes stop and almost clip the coupons for her favorites.

And what I haven’t missed yet but know I will is the cards. My mother was the queen of the card. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries for relatives and friends alike. Even if everyone else forgot my birthday, I always got a card from Mom. People mostly do email and Facebook birthday greetings now. It’s just not the same. I intend to continue the tradition of birthday and anniversary cards via snail mail. Also the occasional Valentine’s, Thanksgiving, and Halloween card.

My mother absolutely loved life. It didn’t take much to make her day—a trip to the grocery store, a compliment from a friend, tulips blooming, a cardinal in the backyard, a surprise visitor.

I think she instilled a little of that in me—that love of life (with a little help from her sister, my godmother). A gift that has made so much of the world interesting.

Sometimes (not often) around 7:00 p.m., I go into a kind of panic of “I haven’t called Mom for several days! WHY??? Call Now!” and then I remember she’s dead. I still miss her.

And now, when I think about her, I think about much more of her life than the day-to-day that we always focused on. I remember how she walked me to kindergarten almost every day (I hated kindergarten); and all those times we bicycled to Grandma’s (often with the dog running along).

Death does not have to be a bad thing. Even the funeral arrangements were fun in their own way—no squabbling, no disagreements of any sort. More the opposite, in fact. There were three women at the arrangements—me, my sister-in-law, and my niece. We all had a specific dress for my mom in mind, and we all said we had a specific dress in mind as soon as the first person brought it up. And we all three wanted the same dress. It was all like that. We looked at pictures, laughed about good memories.

The funeral was more of the same. People who loved my mom or my family, so much love, so many good memories. When we got back to the church after the graveside service, everyone had finished going through the line, but lots of people had stayed specifically to talk to one or the others of us. Friends from elementary and high school, cousins not often seen, old neighbors.

I left town missing Mom, but also with a buoyancy from what really was a celebration of her life. I knew she had a lot of friends, but I had no idea how many people loved her. And I also felt like I had a place to return to, even without the reason of visiting Mom.

It surprised me what a happy experience it was, in the overall scheme of things, and I felt pretty weird about it. I had written a thank-you note to my niece for her wonderful eulogy, and she wrote back. In her card, she said something along the lines of, “it feels so weird to say this, but the planning of the funeral and all of it—it was actually kind of fun. I didn’t expect that at all.”

Neither did I. It pulled us together and brought out the best in all of us. Mom would have loved it.

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Deep Kindness

I’m nearly halfway through the kindness book, and already it’s making a difference. No, I have not become a better, kinder person overnight, but I have begun to take notice.

A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, by Donna Cameron, can be read in many ways. It comprises 52 chapters in 12 sections. You could read a section a month, a chapter a week, or just pick it up and read a chapter whenever you feel like it (which is the way I’m doing it). The chapters are short, generally 3 to 5 pages, and invariably give me something to think about.

I don’t underline in most of the books I read, but this one I am. As I finish each section (five so far), I’m writing to the friend who gave me the book, telling her what stood out for me in each chapter. Now she’s rereading the book and we discuss it each time we meet for lunch (she’s saving the cards so we can discuss later as she reads at her own pace). What fine conversations we’re having!

Here are some of the things that stood out for me in the first part of the book:

In the introduction, Cameron calls kindness a “superpower that has the capacity to transform lives and change the world.” Hmmm. That’s a bit of a tall order. I will wait and see.

In the first chapter, she talks about the difference between niceness and kindness. “Nice doesn’t ask too much of us. It isn’t all that hard to be nice. In fact, it’s easy. It’s also benign. Passive. Safe.” Kind people go beyond what’s expected of them; they go beyond the easy response. And they do it without expectation of anything in return. I am a nice person, but I am not a particularly kind person. Occasionally yes, certainly. I rarely go beyond the expected response, and I usually do expect something in return—like gratitude or a thank you.

As you can see, I have a ways to go.

One particular thing the author says in the early pages really caught my attention. She’s talking about how she’s been practicing kindness for over a year now, and she’s getting better at it.

But there are still days when, as soon as words come out of my mouth, I recognize that they were not especially kind words and contributed nothing of value.”

That made me stop and think about my own speech, and it has stayed with me. How many times every day do I say words that are not especially kind and contribute nothing of value? Far too many, I will tell you. But there is good news already: I have started to take notice of it (“That wasn’t very kind, was it?”) and I think my behavior is already slowly starting to improve. Not bad for page 24, huh?

There’s a lot of research on kindness out there, and they’re finding that acts of kindness have a positive effect on the body’s immune system, and they produce serotonin (the brain’s happy chemical). Interestingly, the recipient of the act of kindness also experiences the positive effect on the immune system and the serotonin, and—wait, there’s more!!—even bystanders who simply OBSERVE the kind act get the immune and serotonin effects! Seriously, who knew besides all these researchers and everyone who’s read this book?

It gets even better: Kindness is contagious. The giver of the kind act, the recipient, and, again, the observers are all more likely to go on and do kind acts, and it doesn’t stop there. It spreads outwards to three degrees of separation. So my kind act will cause those around me (or at least increase the likelihood) to also commit kind acts, and then those observers will commit kind acts, and the observers of those acts will commit kind acts. That’s quite a potential effect.

But even if every act doesn’t go that deep, there’s always the potential. You just never know.

On the other side of the fence, rude behavior acts in a similar manner. People who experience rude behavior are more likely to subsequently behave rudely, and even those who simply observe the rude interaction are more likely to engage in their own form of rudeness.

And there I was, stopped in my tracks again. What? A rude behavior on my part can precipitate three degrees of rudeness? Now there’s a motivator. At so many given junctures I can choose to be kind or rude. Either act will have a ripple effect on those around.

As I pondered the numbers, I realized that if more people increase kindness and decrease rudeness, then kindness will spread. And if it does indeed affect observers as well as actors, and to three degrees, it could spread quite quickly.

And that would be a very good thing. I’m going to give it a try.

Reading Geography

As February ends, I start looking ahead to the March book theme—geography. So broad as to be overwhelming, even if one limits oneself to one’s own books. (For those of you who don’t follow my reading proclivities, I have a lot of books—a few thousand. The book themes serve to bring some of the older titles to the head of the class, and I’ve discovered some gems.)

Back to topic: Geography. Going through the books I had pulled off the shelves (without a thorough scan) I found a lot of America. So I’ve decided to focus on America for the geography theme (all of a sudden I had a throwback to sixth-grade, where I decided to focus on Fort Snelling for my history theme project—don’t know where to go with that but remind you I’m in Minnesota, which is home to Fort Snelling, which we visited when I was a kid).

I’ve already started a nonfiction book in the March Geography theme. I finished a nonfiction book a few days ago, and towards the end of the month, I always like to move ahead into the next theme. As I perused titles, I noticed America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth. I’ve a keen interest in economics and the balance of consumerism and sustainability. I’m not against buying things, but living in our consumer culture (70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumption), which is basically just getting people to buy more things, has gotten a bit over the top for me. So I’m interested in different economic models (anything downwards of 70% is a good start).

And that, really, was the start of the America theme. Also in the nonfiction arena that pulled me in this direction:

  • What Is America? Ronald Wright
  • Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Stephen G. Bloom
  • Heartland, Sarah Smarsh
  • Still Life in Harlem, Eddy L. Harris
  • American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever
  • American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom

Fiction also has a number of stars. I am looking forward to:

  • Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Matthew Flaming
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Poetry is also falling into my subtheme, at least a little bit, with:

  • American Smooth, Rita Dove
  • American Primitive, Mary Oliver
  • The San Francisco Haiku Anthology

So I have decided to focus on America for the March reading theme; no generic city, country, state or territory (that could be its own theme for sure).

But America gets old, and I’d like to take a vacation or two. I have several options:

  • Versailles, Kathryn Davis
  • Murder in the Marais, Cara Black
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
  • A Palestine Affair, Jonathan Wilson
  • South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby
  • The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins

March looks promising. Thirty-one days. So long compared to February. And every day, three more minutes of sunlight. Happy reading all—spring is around the corner!

Hate Speech: Liberal Style

“All Republicans should die.”

That’s what a liberal friend said to me at lunch a few weeks ago. It gives one pause, doesn’t it? Well, at least I hope it does, whether you’re liberal, conservative, in between or above or below.

I’ve been hearing a lot of such sentiments from my many liberal friends. (Mind you, I’m a liberal myself, which is why I have so many liberal friends.)

I am of an age where I think of the Democrats and the liberals as the party of love. But over the last two years in particular, it’s gotten to a point where politics are off limits in many of my friendships. It’s a rabbit hole of negativity.

I am particularly concerned when people my friends use broad terms, like “all Republicans.” Like assuming that every asshole on the road is a Republican (I know several liberals who are bad drivers and one that might qualify as an asshole—on the road, I mean). It’s the sweeping nature of the condemnation that bothers me.

Republicans, like Democrats, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. I happen to have some Republicans that I respect in my life. My father is one of them (even though he’s dead now). He was super conservative and I was radically liberal, but we always managed to find common ground (sometimes with difficulty, and most often in the realm of economics). And I learned some of the things about why he was conservative (e.g., a small-business owner dealing with one-size-fits-all government regulations) and that has helped me to understand conservatives in a small way.

Which is to say, they are not all alike. I expect there are as many reasons for being conservative as there are for being liberal.

And for this reason, I suspect that liberals and conservatives might have a lot more in common on a lot of issues than they realize. We box each other into categories and demonize the worst in each other. So easy to do, and almost expected. A knee-jerk reaction.

A potential remedy: The next time you’re in a situation with someone on the opposite side of the political fence, spend some time finding what you have in common. It might not be as hard as you think. Talk about books or health care. Or maybe the number of people in prison. Or the price of soybeans.

Just…talk.

Resolutions: 2019

I have a thing about making New Year’s resolutions, and I have for maybe 20 years or so now. I really like them. I usually make three (that’s not a firm rule, but I’ve found it’s a good number to manage) and I usually keep them. (Not always. More to come on that.)

Resolutions for 2019:

Resolution 1: I’m keeping a gratitude journal. I decided to do this in late November, and got so excited about the idea that I started early (December 19). I’ve missed a couple of days, but given it’s been over a month now, that’s not too bad! The birds in my backyard figure highly in my gratitude, as do my friends, the sun (at least in winter), and books.

Resolution 2: Postcard Projects. I’m lumping all my postcard projects in one resolution. I have three postcard projects for 2019—my daily haiku postcard (that I’ve been doing since 2013—I can hardly believe that!); a weekly postcard to my niece (I started this last year and it’s been so fun, and we’ve gotten to know each other so much better, that I’m happy to continue it); and a weekly postcard to my brother (I started this in the fall of last year, and he’s been responding by text, and that’s been a lot of fun). No political postcard projects this year. I’ve found the family postcard projects much more rewarding.

Resolution 3: May Baskets. I don’t believe I made this resolution last year, because I was so sure I would just do it and didn’t need to resolve. But then we had that god-awful April blizzard and I just couldn’t do May Baskets because it still felt like winter. So, May Baskets go back on the resolution list, because it’s a thing I really like to do. It has introduced a small bit of playfulness in the neighborhood.

Resolution 4: This is also a postcard project, but so different, it is its own resolution. This is my big resolution for the year. The idea is this: I send out a lot of postcards every year, and to do this, I have collected large quantities of postcards. Lots of the boxes I get contain (which I miswrote complain) duplicates. And some postcards I’ve had for years never seem to fit anything—a haiku, a missive, a greeting—but perhaps they would be the perfect card for someone else. My postcards are crowding me out, and thus is born the Community Postcard Project, or, more simply, little free postcards.

Here it is in a nutshell: I cull cards out of my postcard collection and stamp them and bring them to local businesses to leave out for customers. I am completely excited about the idea. Why? Perhaps you think I’m nuts. Here’s my logic:

(1) People who get something free or unexpected—even change in a phone booth (yes, old research), are more likely to do something nice for someone they run into (e.g., buy them coffee, hold a door open) than those who didn’t. (2) Stamped mail is much more likely to be mailed than unstamped mail. People hate wasting stamps. I know this is true for me. So I stamp all the postcards I put out there. If someone grabs a postcard at a coffee shop because it catches their eye, my logic goes like this (hypothetically, of course):

The customer walks out of the shop feeling good because in addition to her usual experience, she has a free stamped postcard that she thinks is quite beautiful. Should I send it to my cousin? At the bus stop she notices a woman struggling with a stroller, and helps. The customer gets home, and decides to send the postcard to her mother instead. Her mother is thrilled (they talk on the phone a lot, but she doesn’t get much personal mail).

 Hmm. Maybe the next time I go to the coffee shop, they’ll have more free postcards, and I’ll send this one to my cousin.

Happy customers return, and recommend others (well, unless they want to keep the postcard thing to themselves).

While I get rid of postcards I don’t want, others get a beautiful/fun thing free. With luck, at least 50% of those people send the stamped postcards to someone, who might be particularly thrilled to get personal mail (as I always am) and do something nice for someone else. I can’t speculate far beyond that, but I think there is a fairly high happiness quotient in this stamped postcard project from many perspectives.

Sure, eventually I’ll run out of postcards and stamps. But think of all the happiness. Think of all the potential connections.

And maybe it will catch on. Maybe when I run out of steam the businesses and their customers will carry on. Maybe even before I lose steam (let’s not forget the best-case scenario).

Why? Why am I doing this crazy thing? Well, first off, postcard stamps are pretty cheap. It only costs $7 to send 20 postcards. And just thinking of 20 people happy to get fun postcards (I forgot to mention earlier the satisfaction one gets from filling out and mailing personal mail—it’s a wonderful thing; almost as good as getting personal mail), that in itself is a good reward.

But also, it could catch on, and that’s my hope. Little free postcard boxes everywhere. Who doesn’t have postcards sitting around their house? This is my long-term dream goal.

It could happen. You never know.

Waiting for the Mail

I’m waiting for the mail. Not hovering waiting. Writing and acutely aware that the mail could arrive any minute (some people get their mail at a regular time; ours is usually sometime in the afternoon, but occasionally early morning). I’m not waiting for any particular reason; it’s not that I’m expecting a package or an important document. I am looking forward to the new stamp catalog (I’m running low on postcard stamps and also want the dragons, John Lennon, and Art of Magic stamps—the post office is putting out some really fun stamps these days). But that’s not why I’m waiting for the mail.

You never know what the mail will bring: a magazine, a catalog you love to peruse (hello Syracuse Cultural Workers, Sur la Table), a newsletter with some good news. And then there are the calendars, address labels, notepads, and occasionally even gift wrap from nonprofits hoping to lure you in (note: sometimes it works). The peak of mail happiness is the personal mail: a postcard, greeting card, letter, and occasionally even a package. Happy dance!

I’ve enjoyed getting the mail for as long as I remember. In our small town, that meant going to the post office. I loved walking with my dad to get the mail. I was honored and delighted to be entrusted with the responsibility (and the key!) of getting the mail on my own when I was in 3rd grade. The mail was never meant for me, but getting the mail was fun and special. One of my first significant responsibilities.

In college I totally lucked out and got a summer job working at the campus post office. I’ve had a lot of good jobs in my life, but that was one of my favorites: I learned so much about the ins and outs and rules of the postal system, developed an appreciation for postage stamps, and got to interact with faculty on a much more level playing field (I was the expert in this arena, a nice turning of the tables) and thus more personally, and they weren’t nearly as scary as I had thought. I loved every aspect of the job, from sorting the mail (before we opened) to selling and ordering stamps, and figuring out postage for various package types (useful knowledge to this very day). Happy summers.

And now the mail is delivered right to our house. In summer, when the door to the front porch is open, I can hear the solid thunk as the pile hits the floor on a good mail day. Sometimes I finish the sentence I’m reading before I go retrieve it.

The mail has arrived! Today’s haul:

  • A card from a friend (who I met working at the college post office job mentioned above)
  • A postcard from a different friend confirming a lunch date in October
  • The Conservation Minnesota newsletter
  • Electric bill
  • A mailing from my health care provider about an upcoming board election

Not a bad day, and not one piece of junk mail!

Postcard Project 2018

At the beginning of the year, I started a new postcard project. (Reprise: My first postcard project was the haiku project, which is ongoing; last year, I wrote a weekly postcard to our state Senate leader and then added on a high-ranking committee member. The year before that, I sent a weekly postcard to President Obama.)

You never know what to expect from postcard projects. Best not to have expectations, I suppose. I had no expectations from the haiku project except personal satisfaction and meeting a goal (of writing a haiku every day). I’ve gotten much satisfaction, and discipline, structure, and a vast postcard collection to boot.

The political postcard projects brought me mixed satisfaction. The weekly Obama card was going great until I got stuck on a TPP track and couldn’t get off it. I was boring even myself and so I stopped the project. I did hear back from the White House at least twice, though (in that generic we feel your pain way), when I was onto a broader range of things.

The 2017 project with the Minnesota Senate leader started out okay; I thought I was connecting (I Do try to send interesting postcards and not mean ones—funny sometimes, but more often simply local). I heard back a couple times (or maybe only once). But after a few months I wondered if they weren’t going right into the trash. So at the end of 2017, I shifted my political energies in other directions, and decided to bring the postcard project closer to home.

I asked my niece if she might be interested in receiving a weekly postcard. I received an enthusiastic yes, and my new postcard adventure began.

For those who might wonder why the niece, it’s because she of everyone in the family sends me the most mail. Never misses a birthday, sends the thank-you through the snail mail. She seemed the natural choice. We see each other several times a year, at family get-togethers, but not often, and I thought this might be a different kind of way to give her some insights into my life and share some fun postcards.

I have to say, the results have been beyond gratifying. It is unbelievably super fun!

First off, within the first few weeks, she emailed me saying how much she and her husband enjoy sitting and reading the postcards together (!!) and the husband especially wants to know where do I get all these postcards that so reflect what I’m writing in the text? Such a level of interest! Be still my heart!

And I kept writing and writing, and now my “weekly” postcard total to my niece is over 50 (for 2018). I had made it clear from the start that no response was expected. But she did respond, usually via email, and the responses started to get longer. And then we went off on a long snail mail/email exchange (I switched to cards at this point over postcards) discussing things like déjà vu, reincarnation, quantum physics, and the intersection of science and religion.

Is that cool or what?

We’ve also been encouraging each other to write, mostly in the essay/memoir arena. Turns out I suggest my niece write about having a grandfather, father, and brother who are morticians, while she suggests to me writing about growing up in a funeral home. At this confluence, she mentioned a collaboration. Not sure if she’s kidding around, but it sure would be fun to give it a try. I’ve always thought there might be an audience for a story about growing up in a funeral home (note—it was mostly fun). Another point of view from another generation—well, even I want to hear that one.

Total speculation.

What’s not speculation: This postcard project with my niece has been a smashing success, and we’re starting to get to know each other personally (outside our family function roles). I never even remotely expected such a positive outcome from a bunch of postcards. The advantage of no expectations!

Take a chance. Pick a relative you don’t know well. A friend you’ve sort of lost touch with or want to be closer to. Or a politician. Start a postcard project. Be honest. Be funny. Pour out your heart. And do it again the next week, and the next, and do it for a year. Don’t do it for what it will give to your friend or relative. Do it for yourself. Connecting and communicating—it’s kind of an art.

And you never know—you might be surprised at how much fun you have.