I grew up in western Michigan, where fun is the way of life for all. Summer camps, swimming, canoeing down the Pere Marquette River, climbing sand dunes and jumping in the waves of Lake Michigan, picnics all through the Manistee National Forest, hay rides in the fall and horseback riding across fields, ice skating on real ponds and tobogganing down steep hills, all were part of my formation and have had great influence on my writing style. “A certain fresh naturalness” someone has called it. “There’s a simplicity and playfulness in your style.”
Perhaps I also owe it to my French-Canadian father who certainly had a taste for enjoying life, that Joie d’ vivre that bounces back in me even when life takes a bad turn. Plus my always cheerful Swedish grandfather, who I watched live through many challenges of spirit with quiet gracefulness. I can find the rainbow in the rain, eventually and always. Much of my writing, then, is an attempt to share the positives that I’ve gotten out of the negatives of my life. Much of it are learnings I wish I’d known as a child. I instinctively try to express what I’ve learned in a way that either a child or adult might enjoy taking in this learning.
After plodding through the brain-exhausting college years, I married and immediately began the completely different work of raising a human being, for which NONE of my education had prepared me. As I walked out the hospital door to get into our car, the nurse handed me this fragile little being, wrapped in a snuggy blanket and quietly looking up at me. I took him in my arms, climbed into the front seat holding him delicately, and we were off! I thought to myself “What am I supposed to do with it? How on earth do I care for this? I know nothing about babies!” I could not believe the nurse was entrusting this precious life with me.
Two ignorant humans are a little more help than only one, and my husband and I began to figure things out. “He’s crying! I’ve fed him, he’s napped, I held him and rocked him and he’s still crying! I exclaimed in fear and frustration. “How about his diaper? Said the other brain. …. “Oh! The diaper!” I remember throwing the pampers down the toilet – I thought that was how we dispose of them – but it plugged up the plumbing badly and the landlord was most unhappy with us. I sat the baby on the kitchen table facing me and watching the fishbowl in front of him. Next thing I knew he’d pushed his feet against the fishbowl and fallen on the floor, still strapped in his infant seat. Yes, we were off to the doctor, and yes, a concussion. “It will heal by itself,” the experienced pediatrician assured me. “Their heads are malleable in the beginning.” How did the first one survive my ignorance? Somewhere I read that the miracle of raising children is not so much that parents raise children to become adults but that children raise parents to become adults.
From those first tender exhausting years, finally we arrived at kindergarten with the firstborn. At the school door, the little Hungarian boy from up the street stood crying pathetically and hanging on his mother’s skirt. He did not know English yet and was completely scared to leave her. My heart went out to the child and next thing I knew I’d volunteered to come to school twice a week and help that particular child learn English. I had no training, just the intuitions of mothers about children and language. The teacher gave us chairs in the coat room, I brought magazine pictures, and thus began many years of teaching English as a Second Language with immigrants. From there a Cuban friend who was a social worker asked me to teach Mexican mothers English. Again, I just jumped in with no training, we all brought our babies and the social worker watched them while I used my simple magazine-pictures technique and we did something with the English language. I went on to paid positions with titles without even knowing there was a profession called “teaching English as a Second Language” and one could be trained for this work.
Again with no education in how to raise a child, we grew on with our two children, learning as we went. Fortunately my husband, Tom, was a problem solver (a math major) and he had a great sense of humor and play so we relaxed into the years with many happy times. We did tent camping and eventually were able to get an old popup trailer so we could sleep off the ground. Tom had a telescope so we’d often stay up late into the night out in the state parks looking at the stars. Teaching the children to swim was a must for me, being a Michigander. Soon it was time for Cub Scouts! And then Brownie Scouts followed. We “got involved”, as parents must in volunteer programs like these. I recruited and trained leaders and Tom was Scoutmaster. Then I led a day camp for the Girl Scouts. Such fun! I got to sing all those wonderful songs I’d learned myself as a Brownie and Girl Scout! Games and crafts and fun, fun, fun; I, the director, took the name “Stretch” because I’m so short. Then the next summer our local professional Girl Scout trainer and I designed a two week camp for both boys and girls in the area who were from other countries. The neighborhood was a little United Nations, 32 different languages were spoken in the elementary school! In the summer the children lost much of their language learning while out of school, besides needing to get to know the Chicago area. I directed this two week program, with field trips, and recruiting the shy parents to help out.
Meanwhile, back in the back of my mind I had realized I wanted to get some practical education so I could do something professional and financially helpful. I’d begun taking college courses preparing to direct Religious Education programs for Catholic public school children. I received my Masters of Arts in Religious Studies, focusing on religious education, and I took a full time position in a Catholic parish. What a joyous opportunity! I’d grown up in a rural Michigan town where my own Catholic parish did almost nothing for the children because they believed that nothing can be done with the public school situation; “someday” they’d be able to build a school and then the children could learn about their faith. I’d observed my Baptist friends at school: not allowed to go to movies or dances at all, yet the Baptist kids enjoyed being Baptist and learned their Bible and beliefs well. They had all kinds of sports teams and outings and fun together. All the Protestant churches had very lively summer camps. I knew we could work with Catholic children in public school situations if we wanted to do it and I began to dig in as Director. I was responsible for 1,000 children, preschool through high school, to design the program, recruit and train all the teachers, order all materials, supervise the class times, and also be in charge of the religion program in the parochial school! The nun who’d tried to run this before me had also taught eighth grade! She’d had a nervous breakdown.
I worked there two years, often hurrying home to pick up my two children after school and then bringing them back to my office with me. I felt exhausted but happily satisfied that I did begin a thriving program for all ages, including a social and learning program for the high school students. However, it was at this point that I hit bottom with my Catholic faith, feeling entirely discriminated against as an intelligent competent woman. Strangely, also, when the Mass had been put into English this had turned counter-productive for me; it felt like there was too much talking, too many thoughts to handle too quickly! When I’d had to deal with Latin, I’d become used to more quiet, contemplative worship.
I looked for a new spiritual home to feed my spirit, and was led by slim chances to discover the unprogrammed Quakers, who worship in silence and equality, waiting for Spirit to lead anyone present to speak out of the worship. I joyfully embraced this new spiritual family. However, these Friends do not hire anyone, not even pastors! There were no jobs in religious education in this denomination. I began serving on the religious education committee for my Meeting and then also for the regional gatherings, called Yearly Meetings. At summer Yearly Meetings I often taught the middle grade children and then eventually the high school students. These were dear and rollicking times, as we all camped out in tents and wooden dorms in the middle of corn and soybean fields in central Illinois. Campfires and singing at night, dancing children and adults on the lawn with live fiddle music, doing crafts with the children under tents in the afternoons, carting all to the nearby town to swim, I got to go back and forth between being an adult with the children and being a child with the children.
My own two children continued to grow and we all together entered the world of high school and challenges of the teens. I went back to college and took courses in teaching at the high school level and began to substitute in the four local high schools. Every day was a different “adventure,” directing choirs, teaching languages and subjects I didn’t know, trying to keep a balance between seriously trying to teach something and just relating to these young people as human beings.
These years were interrupted by the sudden death of my husband from a heart attack , the result of having been given too much radiation for cancer. My life took a break here; my son fortuitously was able to get good scholarships to a Quaker college. My daughter and I had three close years as I tried to accompany her through a serious high school attempt at a music career. Finances were more difficult for her college as a music major. During these years I taught English as a Second Language in local junior colleges and designed and taught E.S.L. programs for factory workers.
Somewhere in between all I’ve remembered here were a few other children’s activities. I was trained in the Children’s Creative Response to Conflict Program of the Fellowship of Reconciliation; from that, I and my daughter led a two week summer camp for poor children in the inner city of Chicago at The People’s Church in Uptown.
I also worked with Illinois Quakers to revive the work camp opportunities that Friends had done after World War II in Europe. We helped our own young people develop leadership skills working with us in committee work, and later several went on to design what is now called Quaker Volunteer Service, an internship program for young adults.
I had taken training in counseling in the method of Carl Rogers and was certified in Client Centered Counseling. When my children were both launched off into college, I took a position in Triton Community College as counselor for the Adult Basic Education Department. I counseled adults and young people learning English as a Second Language or getting their high school G.E.D. or still learning to read in the Literacy program. This work was the richest work of my life. It was so deeply touching, such an honor, to help support the lives of people struggling against so many odds to build a future. All these students worked while going to school, many had children to raise, too.
Eventually, my life took another sharp turn when my adult son died of melanoma at the age of 40. I had remarried after my first husband died but my second marriage had been short when that second dear man had a brainstem stroke and eventually also died, after I cared for him for 2 ½ years. Now the death of my first born and only son really brought me low. I did immediately try to pick up where he left off with his high school students in their Robotics Club and in the creative contests of Destination Imagination. I worked with these delightful high school students for three years but then decided to move closer to my daughter, now married with her own two children.
I had followed the lives of children now from newborns through elementary school, through the teen years, and the college years and young adulthood. Where I am now is back at the beginning, immensely enjoying the best job I ever had – being a grandmother! And finally, I have no responsibilities except doing my writing, which has been waiting patiently in my heart. I look forward to sharing more from my life experiences with children, youth, and adults in interesting and creative self expressions.
It feels just a few short years
since shyly we began to hug.
And now – we must back off!
We stand 6 feet apart
and long to touch the bare skin
of another human being.
To take and shake a hand today
Could bring me tears.
To hear the phone ring – a dear voice!
brings life into my being.
Am I so low I cannot lift another?
A storm came through with fury.
Now all is still.
I arise from sleep and sleep and sleep
like a daffodil
long wintered in the ground.
and then awake
and feel a new person trying to break my shell,
letting off old ways,
familiar thoughts and patterns.
I will let Death change me
Before I let him enter through my door.
I will stop my doing,
be a different person,
What wants changing in this life?
In this body?
In these habits that I wear?
Who do I need?
What do I really require?
Where have I been headed?
How can I change course?
Can I still tack with the wind?
How close or far away is this boat to port?
The White Saddle Band, one of the best-known Country Western bands in the Chicago area, was
playing for my old circle of friends called Special People, a support group for the handicapped. I
playing for my old circle of friends called Special People, a support group for the handicapped. I
hadn’t danced in the last four years since the death of my husband Tom; he and I had loved Country
Western dancing. Tonight something in me felt pulled to give this a try.
I hadn’t been involved with Special People since moving from Des Plaines to Oak Park, farther away from their meetings. The dance brought back memories of the hard and frightening times after Tom’s death. Supporting myself and putting our two teenagers through college, while limited by my back curvature, was a scary situation. This was why I’d sought out the support group for the handicapped., looking for any helpful ideas.
My attendance was irregular with the group as time was tight and the situation of the others was often different from mine. I was able to look almost normal and function fairly well, with my limitations hidden, and so I felt “borderline handicapped”. It was actually a new step to publicly see myself belonging with this group. Maybe I was coming to the dance alone to keep my association with the handicapped anonymous.
They were quite a mishmash of humanity. Every kind of disability, ailment, and limitation imaginable were all brought together by suffering and needs. Poverty, loneliness, discrimination, and the frustrations of trying to do minimal daily activities were constant experiences for most. Some were subjected to emotional abuse or felt harshly judged by others. Most all felt the temptation to feel inferior. All these kinds of daily experiences united this clan of the Anawim, God’s beloved poor. (Zephaniah 2:3 “the humble of the earth”)
The program was directed by a fine and competent man named Ron. He had survived polio when he was young; he was now maybe 45, about 5’3” and verythin. Sometimes he had to hold his hand to his throat to strengthen his vocal chords in order to talk. He drove a car capably, but walking was difficult. His parents were dead and he lived alone, doing graphic artwork and directing this group Special People to supplement his small disability income. Ron was intelligent and caring, he never complained, just continued to do his best under circumstances that silenced my own small complaints. I felt such respect for his courage as I did for all the people in the group.
Ron and I became friends. He was upfront about his wish to love someone, describing what life would be like if one were to live with him, such as sleeping with his breathing machine. I had such admiration for him that I considered this relationship, but had enough to take care of already; this did not fit my own needs.
This night I wanted to come to the dance because I knew that with these people I could do whatever I felt up to doing or not doing, without embarrassment. Dancing was in my heart but my curvature made standing on my feet difficult and painful, let alone dancing. Yet strangely, I still could never quite see it – that yes, I am handicapped! How many dance classes had I started and dropped because they were too hard? Polish polka dancing, Appalachian clogging, Irish step dancing, Scottish country dancing and the Highland Fling (where I’d broken my steel arch support). Even Hawaiian dancing had been hard because I had to take off my orthopedic shoes and dance in my flat feet. I was coming to this event by instinct and the longing to dance, but my brain still didn’t admit that this was my tribe.
The event was being held at Oakton Community College, located back in the beautiful woods along Golf Road. As with all handicapped people, I was anxious to park where I wouldn’t have to walk too far, but I had no idea where on the campus the dance was being held. After randomly parking somewhere and walking with difficulty through many halls, I found the room. To my surprise it was a large ballroom and packed with people. Evidently the network of handicapped people that Ron’s newsletter reached was much larger than our small monthly group.
No one looked familiar, so grabbing a bottle of pop and I sat down at a the nearest table. The room was not decorated but was well lit and just the right size for the crowd: plenty of room to dance but not so spacey to leave anyone feeling alone.
The room was filled with much chattering, excited energy, and a happy feeling. I surveyed the gathering. People were dressed in street clothes and jeans, nothing fancy, expensive, or even western. Many people were in groups with group leaders while others seemed to be with family or friends.
The band warmed up and began to play. Immediately I realized that these people were not going to be doing the normal line dancing – “Slapping Leather,” “Bootin’ Scootin’ Boogie,” and other fast-foot dances. Nor were they going to glide as couples elegantly around the edge of the floor in cowboy-style waltzing. They could hardly stand up, probably not even do the slow zipper-melting, buckle-polishing body-to-body dance/walk that couples did at bars. Nope. This crowd was not going to do anything fancy at all, but they were going to have a good time.
The band was fantastic; I could see from their smiles and enthusiastic music that they received great joy from playing for this crowd. In spite of how these people looked, they were normal. Like everyone else in the world, they wanted to move their bodies to good music, to be revitalized by movement and rhythm, to express and experience joy in being alive. For some it took heroic effort because their bodies did not easily do what their spirits so wanted to do. People got out and stood on the floor and mostly moved the upper halves of their bodies. Everyone just did whatever they could. Many held the hand of someone beside them, perhaps encouraging each other, or perhaps just enjoying the feeling of belonging in the human community.
Off to one side was a circle of deaf people who stood right in front of the five foot high speakers, seeming to feel the beat. They moved in interesting ways, different from the rest of the crowd, and they talked to each other with sign language while they laughed and danced.
There were people on scooters who rode onto the floor and waved their arms around while sitting. Some danced as couples; the standing one would grab the hands of the seated person and jump around with the seated one laughing and moving any way possible.
A few groups had lovely youngish women with them who would drag some of their group onto the floor and dance with them, smiling wholeheartedly, glad to help them have fun. After watching a bit as an outsider, I finally got up, went onto the floor, and like everyone else, just moved to the music – nothing special, just pure natural response to great rhythm and sound.
Eventually the band took a break. I wandered around looking for Ron. This was his night, he would surely be here. Someone told me Ron and his wife were taking tickets on the other side of the ballroom. Then I remembered that he’d announced in a newsletter that he’d married. He was on a scooter over at one side of the room, surrounded by people. His health had clearly deteriorated. It wasn’t hard to identify his wife. Joy was a non-handicapped woman who showed on her lovely face that she was clearly proud to be married to such a fine person.
Ron was busy with his responsibilities and the many people needing his attention, so I wandered around in the hallway, then back into the ballroom. The band was warming up again, and soon they were playing in full swing, their music inviting our bodies to come and move. I leaned then into my identity as a “normal” non-handicapped person and became one of the “responsible” caretakers trying to get shy people out on the floor. The first person I approached declined but I succeeded with the next one. The woman and I danced beside each other and enjoyed ourselves.
A young man on a scooter was sitting on the sidelines, swaying to the music alone. I went over and grabbed his hands to dance with him. He responded with enthusiasm. As the music went on he actually got up on his feet, stood on his scooter, and continued to hold my hands and sway. When the song ended, we talked a bit. Another really nice person living a difficult life.
The groups on the floor morphed around so I found myself dancing with any number of people, individuals and circles. Before I knew it and to my surprise, the end of the evening arrived as the band played their final joyful, wild finale. Then we all reluctantly donned our coats and headed chatting down the halls, wandering out to find our cars.
Strangely now, as I drove home I felt more normal than I had in a long time. I had given in and participated as one of this group, as a handicapped person. Having accepted both of my contrary identities, handicapped and non, I felt at peace. And the music and joy had given me a vacation from my sadness and worries. I drove home emotionally relaxed by the self-acceptance, while my body felt rejuvenated by the joyful movement to music.
Someday I’ll read all these 280 books on my shelves.
And then, after that, Someday
I’ll mark every photograph in
those five bank boxes, plus the one in the garage,
with dates and identities
for the sake of the grandkids.
I’m going to one-of-these-days develop a
whole chronology of my life
because I can’t remember the years
when things happened.
And then I’m going to clean off my computer and toss
these 1300 old emails, but
I have to read them first.
I have about seven boxes marked “family mementos” which
Someday I really should go through and
see what they are.
But the old financial records – they really must
get sorted and organized and tossed or shredded.
There are family histories from several different branches of the family tree
that should just be gathered together into one place.
I’d like to go back to Sweden Someday and maybe Ireland, too; they were delightful,
but I also haven’t seen Germany or England yet.
But tomorrow I have to return a faucet handle to the hardware,
buy groceries and cook some chicken,
also cook the whole cauliflower before it spoils,
and do at least one load of laundry, water the plants,
pay the tax estimates and
balance the checking account. I really should
call Graciella: she needs encouragement.
I’ll have to wait till Wednesday to start
marking the photographs or
Whoops, – doctors appointment on Wednesday.
If I have any energy left tonight after washing dishes
and reading emails, I’ll start one of those 280
books I want to read.
Oh yes. I still could start working on my PhD.!
Also, Someday I’m going to
lose 20 pounds.
Christmas and my mind is full of shoulds.
“Buy, wrap, mail, clean, cook!
Give, get, thank, visit, “Enjoy”!
Little shoulder-devil mutters
I see the cat stretched long
on sofa pillows.
Window-sun shines bright and warm
across his fur:
“Contentment” says the scene.
Pulled magically, I find
myself stretched out beside the cat.
The winter sun commands me “Rest!”
Caving, heart and breath slow down,
smile floats to surface.
Little sounds and motions other side of glass!
One eye opens cat and I.
Flitter flutter birds and squirrels
trees to feeder, round the ground.
With interest and disinterest,
we watch the fun;
sink back to deep contentment
in solstice sun,
The cat and I. December 21, 2019, Marti Matthews
These are our inadequate attempts to report a death to others. We usually try to say it gently or consolingly, or to make it lighter than we feel. Generally, we express that we hope the Dead still live “Somewhere”. Or not: perhaps this explains the sometimes bluntness.
He “died”. He’s dead.
He’s gone to heaven.
She “returned to spirit” (my own language)
He “went to the rainbow bridge” Focusing friend John J., speaking of his pet.
“My sister-in-law, L., has crossed the bridge and is no longer suffering.” (said by a friend)
“Going Home” “Returning home” “To be called home” “He returned home to his Heavenly Father” “She went to her heavenly home on Sunday” (obituaries)
She went home to Gloryland
“passing over” She passed peacefully in her sleep.
“walking on” (Native American)
“Meeting one’s Maker”
He’s resting in peace now R.I.P.
We laid her to rest. She’s gone to rest
“before I leave this earth”
He transitioned. “At a Buddhist temple outside Hue, Vietnam’s onetime capital, 92-year–old Thich Nhat Hanh has come to quietly “transition,” as his [Buddhist] disciples put it.”
She “passed to Spirit” or “passing to the Spirit World” National Spiritualist Asso. of Churches
He ”is no longer with us.”
Gordy is with Jesus this morning. (a friend about a friend)
He’s in the arms of the Savior.
“She was the seventh of the nine children Roxana Foote bore Lyman Beecher before being gathered to her reward,” … David McCullough in Brave Companions, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1992, in the chapter on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
“…his departure from this earth was said to be imminent. (John Connolly, The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository, Mysterious Bookshop, NY, 2013)
#21 ”I learned that most of them were Jews who were waiting for what the SS called “transfer to the sky.” They all knew they would soon die.” P.169, “Poetry in Buchenwald”, in Against the Pollution of the I, by Jacques Lusseyran.
#22 He’s got to go and stand before his Judge. He’s meeting his maker.
He transpired. He expired.
He took his life.
The disease won; she succumbed to cancer.
He was killed in action.
She was murdered.
He’s gone forever.
She’s six feet under now.
“He departed from the earth plane in 1901.” (Geraldine Cummins)
He bought the farm!
She’s crossed into Hades (Greek)
He’s safe in the harbor.
She’s pushing daisies now
We “put him to sleep; “we put him down” – common reports for mercy killing our pets
…going up to the spirit in the sky (60s pop song)
Marching to Zion (Isaac Watts)
…found everlasting life (Methodist, 653)
…in Christ have eternal life, released from all the bonds of time (Methodist, 654)
…Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home (Methodist, 703)
We’re going to see the King. (Methodist, 706)
…then he’ll call me some day to my home far away (Methodist, 504)
Happy hunting ground
before I “shuffle off this mortal coil.” –Hamlet (48)