My last post, “Everybody Must Get Stoned” was a bit dark and discouraging. I guess my intention was to sound the alarm about where we are headed as human beings if we don’t get our act together. I’m really an optimist and I owe my resilience to my mom who repeated the same mantra over and over,”don’t worry, we will figure something out”.
My family was poor and we faced a lot obstacles that I won’t go into now. My parents didn’t go beyond an eighth grade education and, like all of us, they made some bad choices in their lives. But they did manage to give their children some important skills
Because of her promise that we would figure things out, my mom gave me a sense of power. When things broke or didn’t meet the required expectations, confident problem solving was always invoked and we persevered until things were back on track again.
In the peace of my camping trip a few weeks ago, I found the time to think about a lot of things including my childhood, my mom, and who she helped me to become. Because of her, I don’t give up, have chosen a life of action, and I’m a happy person. And I’m proud to say that I haven’t given in to any addictions (well, maybe, a small Pecan Turtle Blizzard at Dairy Queen from time to time.) The hard times in my life, have always been motivators for me, opportunities to figure things out and move on to the the next or an alternative step.
Before doing this blog, my approach to writing used be all screwed up. I would start something and then label it “dumb” and give up. It took a long time for me to finally hear my mom whispering, “don’t worry, just revise. You’ll figure it out”.
There is a funny story about the lengths my mom and I went to solve a particular problem. I was going to a formal dance and I needed the appropriate clothes that we just couldn’t afford. My aunt let us borrow a long white brocade dress and my mom added a lovely pink satin ribbon to the waist, letting it cascade down in the back. I needed a shawl and after some creative brainstorming we decided to buy a pink faux fur bath mat and line it with satin fabric. We devised a clasp hidden under more pink ribbon that matched my dress.
Well, I went to the formal event and people said my shawl looked like a bath mat. I guess what was important was that they didn’t figure out that it actually was a bath mat.
I can laugh about this now. It was one humorous glitch in a long line of my mom’s victories. She was determined that all three of her daughters would go to college and, beating almost impossible odds, she made that come true. She did other incredible things, too, that only came to light after she died.
When I was looking for a picture of a pink fur bath mat for this post, I came across pictures of pink fuzzy pillows that were for sale. I’m going to buy one so from time to time when life presents me with a problem I don’t think I can handle, I can hold the pillow, remember my mom, and know everything will be okay.
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“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” written by Bob Dylan, released in 1966
“Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good They’ll stone you just like they said they would They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home And they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone But I would not feel so all alone Everybody must get stoned”
There are a lot of interpretations of this song. Some say it’s about drugs or the songwriter’s critics. Bob Dylan named the piece “Rainy Day Women #12& 35”. In explaining the meaning, Dylan told about two women, ages 12 and 35, who came into his studio. He had just read an article about the stoning of females in a Middle Eastern country and he was pondering whether all relationships were about stoning.
53 years after this song was released, I tend to agree with Bob Dylan’s message and it is just as intense, maybe even more intense today. We are tribal , so eager to label others. We are not living in a supportive world where we recognize the good in others. We gossip about, evaluate and assess everything and everyone we come in contact with. As we become more and more stressed we tend not to acknowledge our own human failings and the counterproductiveness of our actions. We only look for people to blame. We join with others who might think like us because being in a group gives us strength and anonymity. And as we herd together, we turn over our sense of rationality and justice to the power and force of the emotional mob we identify with. We seek out scapegoats and we stone them.
The examples of this condemnation abound. Atheists condemn Christians. Muslims dislike Jews. Liberals look down on conservatives. Immigrants are seen as unworthy. Minorities are distrusted. All rich people are seen as greedy and dishonest. All poor people are viewed as lazy. Intellects see the uneducated as dumb. Republicans fight Democrats. The two coasts of America look down on the fly over states. Mets fans boo the fans of Yankees. It goes on and until “everyone must get stoned”.
When I was doing my graduate work at Saint Lawrence University, my advisor, Dr. Bill Fox, taught a required course called General Semantics. He was a great teacher and I learned a lot, especially the practice of avoiding dividing any situation or idea into the two neat parts of either/or. Dr. Fox helped us see beyond the illusions of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, black and white. He encouraged us to seek out all the shades of gray and, in doing so, led us to all the colors in the rainbow.
When I was an elementary teacher, I found a great book on critical thinking skills for kids. One of my favorite lessons concerned the dangers of absolutes, using words like always, never, all, everybody, perfect. We had a lot of great discusses about coming to better understandings.
I think I’m personally sensitive to wide label brush strokes because I’m 100% Polish-American. I spent a lot of my childhood listening to Polish jokes that labeled the people of my nationality as “dumb”. The pain is long gone and hopefully it has made me person who approaches the people I meet with an open mind, eager to understand who they are.
We all share a common destiny. Each time we do an injustice to one person we are doing an injustice to all of us. It’s as if the world is standing in a big circle, not a circle of unity but one of destruction. And I fear that if we keep throwing rocks at each other no one will be left standing.
I’m very scared.
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Because of family dynamics and the fact that I was very shy, I spent a lot of time alone when I was growing up. But life is about adaptability and I came to enjoy my own company. I always found things to do, to see , to ponder. When my life became too overwhelming I would ride my bike through my neighbor’s orchard, across a wide field and visit an old friend, a tall maple tree that for some reason was left standing in the acres that had been cleared so long ago for crops. Like me the the tree was alone but it was so much more, beautiful and majestic in its solitude, happy to just be. It became known as my “thinking tree” where I sat under its sturdiness and tried to find peace and some of my own strength.
There was also a woods near my home. My parents used fear to keep us safe and told us that terrible things would happen to us if we wondered there. I remember that when I was about six or seven I wished that I could own a gun, a very strange thing for a little girl to want in the 1950’s. I wanted to know the trees that lived in the cool darkness. I’m proud to say with determination and no gun, I eventually came to know them and added them to my group of acquaintances.
I am no longer shy and I have evolved into quite a people person but I still enjoy my own company and the company of trees. Last week, I returned from a camping trip near Lake Placid in my beloved Adirondack Mountains. I spent six days tenting. A friend who loves creature comforts wanted to know what I could possibly do for six days without a hotel bed and with only a gas camp stove to cook on. Here is my answer.
I set up a well organized, cozy campsite. It takes awhile but I made myself a very comfortable home on my site at the KOA in Lake Placid. I always have flowers on the tablecloth that covers the picnic table provided.
I caught up on my reading. In 2020, I’m taking an 80 day solo road trip through the southern states, going as far as New Orleans, and writing about it on my blog. Every morning at the campsite, I made coffee, build a fire and delved into two American history books, These Truths by Jill Lepore and The Half has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. I was brought to tears as I read about the horrors of slavery in our country.
I visited the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington. One of my sorority sister’s who lives in the area told me about this place which was not far from my campgrounds. I was thrilled to see so many animals that I had come to know and love, especially a red tailed hawk which I have chosen as my totem.
I listened to the whisper of the pines. They make their own mysterious sound and seemed to inspire me. As I looked up into their lacey beauty, the clutter of my thoughts and feelings seemed to sort themselves out into words and ideas that I might be able to write about in my blog.
I figured out a way to go for ice cream even though it was the day of the Iron Man races and all south bound lanes were closed near my campgrounds. Because of a good sense of direction and a little luck, I got my treat and was able to get back to my site by taking back roads.
I had the same bird visit me each day. I soon learned that it didn’t like bits of hot dog rolls but loved whole wheat crackers.
I thought of my dad and how he had instilled in me the love of trees and nature. He took my family to Canada to show us where he liked to fish and he bought us to Wilmington Notch Campground long ago when the white birches there were still alive.When we moved to a new house, one of the first things he did was plant trees all over our property.
Decades later, I realized that, through his example, he also taught me to take an interest in people and seek out their stories. He had a great sense of humor and loved “shooting the breeze” with anyone who wished to converse.
I drove to Keene Valley I remembered when I had passed through this valley on the Saturday after the Twin Towers had collapsed after the attack on September 11. I wondered then how something so beautiful and peaceful could exist when the rest of our world was falling apart
I stopped at Noon Mark Diner named after Noonmark Mountain. An elderly lady was looking for a table as she proclaimed to some people that her usual lunch spot wasn’t serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that day. Like my dad would have done, I started a conversation with her by commenting on her “Adirondack Women, Forever Wild”. I had a t-shirt that said the same thing. I asked her if she wanted to join me for lunch since the waitress hadn’t come yet and I thought that maybe two of us would be easier for her to notice.
We compared our Adirondack experiences. I had climbed eight of the High Peaks and she had climbed twenty-seven of them. Her name was Elizabeth Clark Eldridge, “Betty” for short, and her family had founded The North Country School, a prestigious progressive private boarding school attended by kids from all over world. In fact, she had become friends with one of its famous alumni, Peter Wilcox, the Greenpeace captain and environmental activist. She sailed with him on several excursions and was the ship’s cook. She was proud to say that Peter always corrected her by calling her “The Greenpeace Chef”. Betty was joyous, kind, and a very interesting person.. We are going to be pen pals and it all started with a passing word about her T-shirt.
I went swimming in The Ausable River! In Jay, by the old covered bridge, are lovely grey rocks that allow the Ausable River to jump and laugh and dance. I went there, hair tied back wearing my ugly black cover up and swam in my bathing suit in a quiet pool, unashamed of what I looked like as the younger swimmers dove and slid with daredevil enthusiasm. I’m sure I got as much joy out of the experience as them, maybe even more.
I finally visited the John Brown historic site. In my fireside readings about slavery, of course, this famous abolitionist was mentioned. Like a lot of Americans who are inadequately taught history, I had not paid attention to this man’s homestead and eventual resting place in Lake Placid. He was an quite a person, a man who wouldn’t support the injustices of his time and tried to do something about it.
I was carrying my copy of The Half has Never Been Told, the book about American slavery as I walked around the grounds. A woman stopped to talk to me. I think she heard me tell the site ranger that I would be touring The South and writing about it on my blog. Her name was Marsha Southgate and I later found out she was a published author. But what was important to her was that I knew about her mom who in 2002 walked through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Canada to retrace the steps of history. I have since ordered the book her mom wrote, In Their Path: A Grandmother’s 519-Mile Underground Railroad Walk. Mrs. Joan Southgate also helped establish Restore Cleveland Hope, an education center dedicated to the anti-slavery and Underground Railroad history of the area. What a wonderful coincidence to become connected to these two women.
I stopped at the iron bridge to remember Sharon. Sharon taught Bonnie and I how to fly fish on the Ausable River. The two of us came to the iron bridge after Sharon died to recognize her spirit, to thank her for all she had taught us, and to say “goodbye”.
I observed the first goldenrod of the summer. For my children and I, these yellow flowers always seemed to announce that school would be starting soon and summer was almost done. I’m retired from teaching now and my kids are grown. The message of the goldenrod is now different but in many ways more intense. These flowers seemed to be telling me to live these days of sunshine and warmth to the fullest, warning me not take them for granted.
So that’s some of what I did for six days without a hotel bed and only a camp stove to cook on. I connected with my friends the trees and the rest of nature. How could I be alone when I am a part of them and they are a part of me? They have taught me to look around and see the significance of even the smallest parts of our existence. They have opened my heart and mind to other human beings showing me that I’m connected to them, too. Thank you, trees. Thanks, Dad.
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