A Perfect Day

(Fish Creek, WI, July, 1998) My friend, Betty’s brother and sister in law, Ralph and Helen, were scheduled to visit as they did most years during our annual Door County vacation. But this year, there was some bad news. Last spring, Helen had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Betty said it looked grim.

When they arrived, Helen seemed eager to talk about her ordeal, matter of fact, to the point, but also sad. She talked easily, realistically, but looked pale, drawn, not her usual self. Then she quickly moved from the serious to a summary of her day so far.

“We went to breakfast at the White Gull Inn,” said Helen, “I just love that place; it’s our very favorite. Then we drove past the cottage on Highway C, the one we’ve rented for the last few years. This was supposed to be our week, so the place is empty and I feel bad about that. We just couldn’t do it though. I don’t have the strength. The owners understood and wrote the nicest letter when they returned our deposit. Such nice people.”

Games were an activity that occupied much of our Door County vacation time, so it wasn’t surprising when Helen noticed a boxed set of dominos that Bonnie had brought along, hoping someone would show us how to play. Though we all remembered the game from our childhood, we were vague on the rules.

“Oh, we play dominos with our card group a lot, just for a little change of pace” Helen chimed in. “It’s an interesting game with several variations.”

Bonnie jumped on that, begged Helen who said she’d be happy to show us. Perhaps we were relieved to have something to do to lighten up this rather somber time. So, we cleared the table, set up the game and Helen proceeded to instruct us on the fine points of dominos.

We played “Mexican Train,” where each player builds their own line and wins by using all their dominos. Several hours flew by that afternoon, playing a long forgotten game on that lazy Door County day. The porch windows were open and the breeze was comforting. We were distracted occasionally by the chatter of families walking past the house to the nearby shops and by the noise of the kids at the beach across the street. We had the best time, laughing and joking, with Helen gently reminding us of the rules each time we strayed.

Later, she napped for an hour before they began their drive home. Months later, I asked Betty how Helen was and recalled how much fun we’d had that day.

“Ralph told me,” said Betty, “it was one of the best days Helen had all summer. According to Ralph, it had been a perfect day for her, she had so much energy, more than she’d had in a long time. He commented about how much she’d enjoyed playing dominos with us.”

As I listened, I thought of a book I’d read recently, Tuesdays with Morrie (by Mitch Albom, Doubleday, 1997). It’s the story of meetings between a retired professor and his former student, now a nationally known sports writer. The book was the result of the professor’s desire to leave behind a memoir, recalling how he faced his imminent death. Morrie was dying of ALS.

In one of the final chapters, they discussed what constituted “the perfect day.” For Morrie, it was the most uneventful time, passed in the company of good friends, doing what seemed to be unimportant, simple things. His perfect day would begin by going to lunch at his favorite place, then sitting in his study re-reading portions of a treasured book. Morrie’s perfect day would end by going out dancing. He loved dancing.

Until talking with Betty, I hadn’t realized we’d been a small part of Helen’s perfect day. What an honor. And what a lesson. All Morrie had, all Helen had, was their perfect day. Dancing and dominos. They’d both been determined to enjoy their lives and make the most of each day. And they each did that right up to the end.

I couldn’t help but wonder, how often I’d had a perfect day myself, but took it for granted, didn’t fully appreciate it. Since then, I’ve gained a better awareness of the, oh so important, small things. That’s included savoring relationships with family and friends, thinking more in the present instead of worrying about what has passed or what is to come.

So, what, I wonder would be my perfect day. Something very similar to Morrie’s and Helen’s. But what’s most necessary is knowing its perfect. As perfect as perfect can be.  And being satisfied with just that.

Sunny Thoughts

(Cedarburg, WI. 2005) My friend Mary went through four bouts of cancer over several years. Each time she had the full chemo treatment and each time she got a clean bill of health. Her doctor always told her he was “going for a cure.” And that’s what Mary was going for too.

When she was into her fifth time in treatment, I was both amazed and perplexed. Having talked to several physicians I worked with at the time, I’d been told with each recurrence, the likelihood of success was diminished. Mary’s doctor must be telling her that too, I figured. Still, Mary projected a totally positive attitude. There was no talking to her about other possibilities.

During her many treatment, recovery and remission times, she had jumped head first into the circuit of support and recovery group meetings where she was the featured speaker. She seemed to enjoy the spotlight and I sometimes wondered if her notoriety made it more difficult to admit many kind of struggle.

Around the same time, I’d had a different experience. A friend’s sister-in-law, Helen, had ovarian cancer. She did the chemo treatment and went into remission. Then it came back. After several consultations with her doctor, Helen had decided to face the inevitable and live the rest of her life as well as she could.

“My chances were so small. I had to decide,” she said. “I could live the rest of my life sick from the chemo or live the rest of my life enjoying each day the best way I could. I decided to feel good.”

Helen did several presentations at her church where she talked at length about her struggle, about her faith and her decision. Helen died peacefully at home surrounded by her family. Mary died in a hospital hooked up to IV’s, still fighting and insisting she would beat it. They both suffered and both have left a void in the lives of their families and friends.

Recently, Time magazine published an issue dedicated to health; reading a small sidebar article, “Can Sunny Thoughts Halt Cancer?” brought memories of Mary and Helen back to me. The article quoted a psychiatrist from a prestigious medical center in New York, saying there was no good evidence to support the popular belief that the best fight against cancer was a “doggedly optimistic outlook.”

The article recalled research conducted in the 70’s and 80’s that first popularized the idea that attitude might affect cancer outcomes. It was this research that led doctors to encourage patients to think happy thoughts and visualize their immune system blasting away at tumor cells. But now, the article stated, most of those studies were either flawed or inconclusive.

What a 2002 review of the literature published in the British Medical Journal found was that a positive outlook did correlate with the perception of less pain (and that’s a real benefit) but there was “little consistent evidence that coping styles play an important part in survival from or recurrence of cancer.“

The psychiatrist went on to speak of “the tyranny of positive thinking” which could become one more burden for the patient. Both Mary and Helen had been affected by this but in different ways.

I recall one day when Helen was visiting with us in Door County. Someone had brought along a box of dominos, that wonderful childhood game we all remembered so fondly. We were having difficulty remembering the rules. Helen joined us, saying how her card club occasionally dedicated a night to dominos. They found it a refreshing change. She sat as we played and guided us on the rules along with a reminder of the reality of her situation.

“In years to come, after I’m gone and you’re sitting here playing dominos, just know I’m looking over your shoulder as you play,” she quipped. “That will be my legacy to you. I reintroduced you to dominos.” Talking openly was good for Helen, And for us.

I recalled two occasions when Mary and I came close to a real discussion. Once, we were sitting, waiting for our husbands who’d gone into a hobby shop. As we talked, she threw out a signal of fear or uncertainty. As soon as I responded with a willingness to listen, she made a joke and changed the subject.

Another time, Mary and I were on a trip across Lake Michigan on the Badger, the first leg of our annual theater junket to Stratford in Ontario. Maybe it was the peace and quiet of open water that prompted her. She wanted to talk about depression. Not her depression, just depression. I tried to answer her general questions. Finally, she got closer to the real issue.

“My doctor insisted that I see a psychiatrist. I guess he thinks I’m depressed,” she laughed.

“Mary, I’d think anyone could be depressed, going through what you are,” I responded. Mary didn’t’ know her husband had confided how he’d gone, without her knowledge, to her doctor and told him about the crying and emotions she expressed privately, only to him. He was unable to carry the load himself and had reached out for help.

“We have another appointment and I’m not sure if I want to keep going,” Mary said. “She wants to see the whole family. What good will that do?”

“Mary, serious illness touches everyone in the family,” I responded. “Maybe she wants to help all of you cope and it might give your family pointers on how to be supportive to you. What could be bad about that?”

Mary didn’t answer my question but seemed very hung up on what “talking to someone” might entail and what that meant about the stability of her family. I could tell she wanted nothing to do with it. She’d gotten defensive and I didn’t feel I could say much more. That was the end of that conversation and we never had a chance for another. Mary went to the end, engulfed in the “tyranny of positive thinking.”

A couple of years after Mary’s death, her husband said he’d felt Mary’s doctor had done her a disservice. He thought the doctor had never addressed the possibility of stopping treatment and helping Mary use the time she had left in the best possible way.   Perhaps the doctor was operating under the same tyranny.

According to the Time article, the medical profession is saying that pressuring patients to be paragons of positive thinking is futile. Worse, it can cause people to hide their fears and shun support. Perhaps if Mary’s doctor had discussed reality with her things could have been different.

Oh, if only Mary and Helen could have met. They could have really helped each other. If only I’d been more brazen and hadn’t let Mary put me off. But how do you know when to honor someone’s privacy and when to follow your instincts. I wish I’d read that article before Mary was gone. Then I wouldn’t have these haunting feelings that I could have done something and didn’t.

Writer’s Niche—–Hidden in Plain Sight

 

All it took was a google search “finding your niche as a writer” to find a multitude of sites devoted to helping anyone find their place in the diverse world of writing. Two main themes emerged with encouragement either to write what you love or to focus on the markets.

Nick Osborn’s article, “3 Ways to Find Your Niche as a Writer,” stressed that writers must first know who they are and what they love. Then they can write in a niche that meets those needs. This seemed like a restating of the old suggestion to “write what you know.” Marika Flatt in Finding Your Niche Market, focused on marketing your work. She zeroed in on the business aspects and seemed to stress writing what consumers want rather than writing what you love.

Perhaps it’s the best of both worlds to love a certain topic that’s hot and will sell. But it seems writers who manage to get both are a rare and lucky breed. Three contemporary writers came to mind as I thought about niche writers I’ve enjoyed: Roger Welsch, Michael Perry and Jerry Apps. Two of them are retired college professors (Welsch and Apps), one a nurse (Perry), yet each took their passion (tractors and trucks) or their history (farms and small town living) and have turned them into a cottage industry.

Roger Welsch was a regular contributor on CBS’s Sunday Morning. His segment, “Postcards from Nebraska,” provided a humorous look at small town life. Roger’s hobby, restoring old Allis Chalmer tractors, was a frequent underlying theme in his commentary. His early books (Busted Tractors and Rusted Knuckles, and Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them) focused on tractor restoration and miscellaneous guy things.

Michael Perry who returned to his rural hometown after college and big city jobs, used his experiences as a local, volunteer fireman/EMT to fuel his book, Population 485. Following the small town theme, his next book, Truck: A Love Story, combined his continuing adjustments to rural living, the restoration of an old truck and his urge to get married.

Jerry Apps has built an empire founded on growing up on the farm. A retired UW Professor, Jerry’s many books could fill a library wing with witty and poignant stories of life on the farm. Country Wisdom: Timeless Values and Virtues From America’s Heartland and When Chores are Done are only two examples.

These writers each provide a slightly different perspective, but are equally adept at provoking a laugh or bringing the reader to tears in the gentle unwinding of their simple stories. Their uncanny ability, to jump with ease from the truly quirky, comic episode to a heartbreakingly, poignant incident, proves their talent.

Each could teach a class in the use of metaphor; their florid command of the language gives gears and bolts the pizzazz of precious jewels and bestows colorful, local characters with the majesty of epic heroes. What is most clear is how they love their subject matter.

The history of these prolific writers goes back to their younger days as they struggled with real life, writing what they knew best when they had the time. Little did they know this side line, this seemingly minor part of their day, would end up being the corner stone of their writing life.

The on-line advice, for writers to find their center and really know themselves, is exemplified by each of them. And that appears to be the lesson learned when searching for a writer’s niche. Niches appear in the most unlikely places and are often right in our own back yard. Giving this serious thought might provide a niche that already exists just over our shoulder. Writers simply need to look around with a new perspective.

So, I wonder what I want to accomplish as a writer and what niche interests me. The multi-million dollar book deal isn’t one of my goals. I’m satisfied with the excitement when my short, human interest piece is published in a newspaper or magazine.

Roger Welsch would encourage me to write about the intricacies and demands I’ve encountered in my long career as a social worker. Jerry Apps would appreciate my stories about memories of childhood and family relationships. Michael Perry would relate to my adjustments relocating from city to country. I think that’s enough to get me started.

Show Me The Way To Go Home

 

(Eagle River, WI, 2012) The Peace Center in Eagle River does walking meditation every week; I’m trying it out. This new philosophy makes me wonder about how this place, my latest, newest home feels both foreign and familiar at the same time.

Walking meditation helps practitioners from every spiritual tradition rediscover  their home in the here and now, as the long road we all must walk turns to quiet joy……………………Thich Nhat Hanh

The sun is sliding down through the trees as dusk approaches. The gravel road leading out from my wooded respite is perfect for walking. I stride silently, focused only on my breathing, the swishing of the wind, the clouds above me.

The amount of concentration needed is startling. How can something that looks so simple be so complex? I pace myself slowly, cautiously, breathe in, step my left foot forward. “I am.” I breathe out, step my right foot forward. “Home.” “I am home.“ “Breathe in. Breathe out.”

Mindfulness, awareness, being in the present, is described as a state of active, open attention. I hoped these ideas would help me make the adjustment to my new life. Most days, I look around and can’t believe I’m here. More accurately, I say “what the hell am I doing here!“

I’d moved to this northern Wisconsin area with a husband who’d dreamed of living here since he was a young boy, camping with his dad. I was willing to meet him half way and said I’d move if I found a job in my field. That happened. Then five years later got divorced. Now, I’m hundreds of miles from any family and old friends, a single woman living in the land of the married. I see a parallel of my life. Or maybe it’s just that compulsion to repeat.

Back in the 1970’s I’d moved far away from family and friends when my first husband wanted that. We’d moved to a rural, isolated area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We were young and he wanted to be a builder, thought going to a winter resort area would further his career. I was only too happy to go along for the ride. I see that I’ve spent large portions of my life doing what others wanted me to do. Eleven years the first time. Then after twelve years alone, seventeen years with my second husband. Now alone again.

Many people think excitement is happiness, but when you are excited, you are not peaceful. True happiness is based in peace……Thich Nhat Hahn

On one hand, I was happy to be on my own, almost excited that I could decorate my new home as I wanted to. No need to check with anyone. It was great how I’d arrive home from work and slowly walk through my entire house. Everything was exactly where I’d left it. No one was waiting with five projects that had to be done now.

Instead, I could decide how to fill my time. I could sit for hours and read that almost over-due library book. Or watch that Netflix movie that came in the mail today. Play whatever music I wanted as loud as I wanted on the car radio. Have nothing more than a bowl of cereal for supper. Leave the dishes in the sink for a day or two.

But there was another side. For the first six months after this divorce I’d been in a disbelieving fog. How could this be happening? I’d stopped writing, never got the things done that were on my many to-do lists. I was thankful to go to work each day. At least there, I was the same person I’d always been.

As time passed, I’s appreciated how I was free to spend more time with friends and try new activities that seemed fun and interesting. When I took short trips down state, I noticed how I couldn’t wait to get back to my little house in the woods. Each day, I’d drive for seven minutes on a country road to get to work. No freeways, no crowds. What a delight. Though I had few real roots in this place, I was pretty content.

Something inside urged me to go slow. I developed a lack of urgency, patience in waiting to see what would happen and watched with interest the phases or stages I seemed to be going through. I didn’t want to make a mistake. Be mindful I said. Look at what you have and know there’s no rush to change anything or make a decision.

Now a year and a half has passed and I wonder if the worst is over. I’ve built a solo life that’s satisfying. The people in my old life say come back home, move back home. This sounds strange. Aren’t I home right here? I like small town life where I’m running into at least one person I know each time I go to the grocery store. I relish the comfortable times I have with the groups I belong to. When I get lonely I know who to call and what to do.

Though I didn’t think I could see myself as a single woman, I find I’m okay with who I am. Maybe this contentment is far better than happiness. I’ve found comfort in the day to day small pleasures. Though there was an initial gap in my life without a relationship, over time I came to know I could get along just fine alone. It’s better than trying to be the impossibly perfect wife and failing miserably each day.

The fact that there’s no man in my life is inconsequential. I was the caregiver of both husbands. Now I’ll take care of myself. Any future relationship will be with someone who takes care of himself. A true partnership with another adult. Not a mother/child caretaking thing.

Life is available only in the present moment…….Thich Nhat Hanh

This change has taught me there are no guarantees and I can’t predict anything about what path my life will take. I just know that I’m ready to follow what works for me today. And then to change my mind and adjust as new things happen. Today, I’m close to saying that getting divorced was good for me. That seems a paradox. But that’s life. And I try hard to live in the present. At least once each day, I stop and look around, appreciate what I have and know the importance of being at home, feeling at home wherever it is that I’m living. “Breathe in, breathe out, I am home.”

 

 

 

Blog Stats

  • 4,567 hits

Categories