Monday, October 26, 2009

Amazing Women Are All Around Us

As anyone knows who works fulltime, days off are few and precious. Yet Heidi took the day off for my birthday.

Somehow my daughter manages to enjoy her career, raise two sons, cook delicious meals from French and Greek cookbooks, decorate her house, run numerous miles per week, spend time with her husband, be a caring friend to others. She has gone beyond what I ever imagined for her. A woman I admire.

Since the Daily News-Record began publishing Bloom magazine, I’ve had the honor of writing profiles about numerous local women. It is such a privilege to visit these women in their workplaces and homes, to learn about where they come from, the obstacles they’ve overcome, the challenges they still face, what makes them tick. Then there are the women in my life whose lives inspire me.

On my birthday, Heidi drove me, my sister and my niece to tour vineyards in Albemarle County. It was a warm, sunny day. It could not have been more perfect.

My sister, Lindsey, is visiting from Ireland. She moved there nearly 30 years ago to marry the man she still loves. All her adult life, she’s been helping people through her career in community work: empowering women, advocating for the weak, making her city and county a better place for everyone—rich and poor—to live. She has a compassionate heart, keeps a lovely home and is a great mother to her children. When I visit, she is a tireless hostess who cooks great meals and shows me the best that Ireland has to offer.

Lindsey’s daughter, Kendall, is one of those recent college graduates for whom there is no job. Unemployment is bad here; in Ireland it’s even worse. In spite of this, Kendall makes do with a very part-time job, does volunteer work, and has been nurturing her homemaking skills. She remains cheerful and optimistic about her future.

Then there’s my sister, Patti. I love her career journey. She is so not stuck in a rut, but has adapted to moves and changes in her life. Each job seems to bring her closer to what she’s really all about. In spite of working full-time, she, too, keeps a lovely home, spends time with her teenage daughter, and takes care of herself. She’s overcome obstacles that have stymied other women. Her daughter, Emily, is a talented girl. She enjoys soccer, plays the piano and loves to read. A girl after my own heart.

When it comes to thoughtfulness, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, wins hands-down. She’s one of those people who knows intuitively what to do for her family and friends in times of need. A treasure.

And then there’s Rachel. She’s the daughter who left for school and did not come back to live. She’s the world traveling musician, living the life she dreamed of as a child. She also uses her voice to speak for the homeless in the city where she lives. Rachel feels life deeply and shares that in her music and friendships.

My daughter-in-law, Heather, a strong young woman, uses her strength to serve others: the mentally ill, my son, her daughters, family and friends. A caring mother and talented cook, Heather has been a gift to our family.

Oh my, then there are the Bloom women: the Heatwole sisters, who gather for an annual quilting retreat, producing beautiful heirloom works of art. Judith Trumbo, who is managing the move of 2,300 employees to the new Rockingham Memorial Hospital, yet who is always serene and smiling. Jennifer Shirkey, who is managing three young children while sustaining a highly successful career in business law. Betsy Neff Hay, who is spending herself on making the world a better place for the vulnerable ones among us.

There are so many others: Peggy, Hannah, Ginna, Katheryn, Nicole, Paula, Barbara. On and on. It’s dangerous to compare myself to any of these women. When I do that, I feel pretty crummy about my lack of admirable attributes. It paralyzes me.

Ah, but when I am inspired by them to reach out, try something new, help someone, read a different book, use a new spice, study a subject, hop on my bicycle—anything that causes me to grow—then having them in my life has made me a better person.

And where, oh where, would we be without our girlfriends?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Step Outside and Listen

It is 6 a.m. In the yard outside my window, a chorus of insects softly holds a constant shrill note. Down the road a rooster is crowing. From the far distance comes the noise of hundreds, thousands, of cars, buses and trucks traveling on I-81.


One of the exercises I assigned my kids long ago in home school was to go outside with a notepad and pen, and to write down all that they heard. I did it, too. This is when we lived in a mountain hollow. At first we wrote down the most obvious sounds, the sounds we are always conscious of: the neighbor’s hogs grunting, trucks rumbling by, dogs barking. Then we heard the birds and insects, the breeze rustling the trees. Then we noticed particular birds singing particular songs. We heard the way the wind made the leaves sound in the hickory leaves as opposed to the more crackly oaks and the tall brown grasses of the field.

It helped to close our eyes, to block out the sense of sight, so that we were not looking for sounds, just hearing them. Just listening.

Have you ever sensed a call from somewhere deep inside you to listen? To pull away from daily distractions and listen?

As a child, I lived outdoors. I knew how to listen. I lived on the water, on the Great South Bay, and it had much to say. I lived by a tiny woods – there were such untouched lots in every development – and went there to play, and the trees and earth had much to say. On my way home from school every day, I turned off the sidewalk to take the path down to Corey Creek, where I sat alone, watching and listening to the water.

Out there in creation, somewhere deep inside my child’s heart, I heard beyond what I could see and hear. I never went to church, was not taught about a deity, had no religious instruction, yet I knew about God. My God had no name.

“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made,” says Romans 1:20.
In my mid-20s, I had a more direct encounter with this God and, in an effort to know more, began attending church. For the most part, this was a good experience. But there were things that bothered me.

One thing that immediately endeared me to Jesus was all the time he spent outdoors. Oh, he went into the synagogues on the Sabbath, but he always had problems there with religious leaders. He spent most of his time preaching, teaching and healing outside, in the marketplace, out in the hills, on the beach. The people who came to see him did not sit in chairs in rows in a big box, but on the ground, leaning against trees, on their mothers’ laps.

When Jesus preached about how God cares for the birds of the air, the people’s ears were filled with birdsong, and birds flitted about overhead and among branches. When he taught the Lord’s prayer, about asking for “our daily bread,” the people could see the golden wheat ripening in the fields. When he healed a blind man, he made clay of the earth to rub in his eyes, and water from the river to wash them.

When Jesus prayed, it was not “heads bowed, eyes closed.” He looked up at the sky, to the heavens, to beyond what could be seen with his eyes.

John Muir, while exploring the western wilderness of America, said that the forests, mountains and wildlife was a better Sunday school for him than any in his strict Presbyterian upbringing, and that all children should learn of God out-of-doors.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening at once a thousand windows to God,” Muir wrote. This kind of outdoor experience can be had only when you’re alone, or with somebody who also wants to listen, to hear. R.S. Thomas’s poem, “The Moor,” says it perfectly:

It was like a church to me.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

The sun is higher in the sky now. The rooster is silent, perhaps taking a nap. An airplane flies overhead. Trucks cruise by. What else do I hear? What else is there to hear?

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Experiences the Antidote to Aging

OK, ladies, what do we think about turning 50? If I had known what a milestone turning 50 was going to be, I would have paid it more attention. And now I’m turning 55. Is there no way to stop the passage of time?

Turning 20, 30 and 40 changed nothing for me. For women, turning 40 is supposed to launch you into old age. All those magazine articles about keeping your skin young-looking and staying “fit over 40.” Piece of cake. Thanks to both my parents’ genes, my skin was always on the oily side. A hassle to care for, yes, but it stayed smooth and supple. As for staying fit, I was already in a routine. I ran several miles a day and worked out with weights. Believe me, staying fit is much easier than getting fit.

Then, at 50, everything started to fall apart. From my vantage point five years later, it’s clear that turning 50 was a watershed experience. Literally. It’s when everything catches up with you. Not to mention menopause.

If, in your youthful 40s, you could get away with overindulging in a few extra calories now and then, forget about it. Now, you pay for each bite. If you could stay slender and strong by running or walking 30 minutes a day and doing a few reps with light weights, forget about it. Now it takes at least twice the work. If you could forgo the lotions and creams and still have silky smooth skin, forget about it. Now, lathering is always followed by slathering.

Even so, gravity and time have the final say. But there are advantages. There is something liberating about walking down the street and not being gawked at by males of all ages. "After a lifetime of living under the gaze, one day you realize that you are getting older and any beauty that you had or hoped for is fading,” writes Lilian Calles Barger in “Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body.” “Younger men no longer look at you. Older men are too busy gazing at younger women.”

Barger goes on to say that instead of feeling relieved, we feel invisible. We realize how our identity was tied up with “constantly being gazed at.” So now I grapple with that identity. Who am I? Who do I want to be?

I admire women who are comfortable enough with themselves to let their hair go gray. I was going to let it happen when my virgin hair grew in after the chemotherapy (another after-50 event). But when I actually saw it, I couldn’t do it.

My Grandma Still had fluffy white hair at my age. While I can’t imagine her lacing up a pair of hiking boots to hit a Catskills mountain trail with me, she was quite fit. She would get so mad if the bus was late that she just walked the two miles to Patchogue. Back then, women didn’t walk for fitness. But Grandma Still did not drive, so walking was often her only option.

Grandma Brown always looked old to me, too. She was petite, with short, permed hair. At my age, though, she had a convertible and a big boat. She’d pick me up in her car, top down, cruise to the bay, and hop on the boat to go clamming or crabbing.

Still, I can’t imagine my grandmothers rolling down the back hill with me, as I did with my granddaughters last week. I can still do all the things I could in my 20s. However, I pay for it afterwards with aches and pains.

Two years ago when picking a physical education class at Blue Ridge Community College, I signed up for the soccer team. I love soccer. Then I talked to the coach. He said the team mostly consisted of 19-year-old guys. Hmmm, should a 54-year-old woman be playing soccer with teenage boys? An injury would lay me up for months. Then how fit would I be? I switched to yoga.
Of course, aging is largely a state of mind. As Chili Davis said, “Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.” The key is to not be stuck in a rut, in your mind or behavior. You should always be ready for change, and to have fun. One man I know does not accept invitations to do anything on Saturday morning because that’s the day he takes his garbage to the dumpster.

Now that is old.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Self-Sufficiency Is Too Much Work

The laughing days of summer have given way to the decaying beauty of fall. The summer wine is corked nicely into bottles and aging on the rack. What vegetables can be preserved are preserved. The Valley’s fields of corn have been cut, chopped and stored.

It’s been quite a summer at the Austin homestead. Neither the husband nor I were raised on a farm, but we do what we can, albeit with a mix of traditional wisdom and our own ideas about how to do things. You’ll hear no stories from me about putting up 200 jars of green beans. I don’t spend whole mornings weeding or afternoons snapping beans. On the farm, I do no more work than I have to.

That’s not to say I’m a slouch. My city friend who stayed for a few weeks in August was impressed with my energy. Every morning after my three-mile walk, I picked enough weeds in the garden to fill a wheelbarrow to feed to the chickens. Yup, chickens love greens. Doesn’t matter if it’s Romaine lettuce or dandelion greens.

Remember the chickens? In early summer we ordered 125 peeps: 100 buff orpingtons for meat and 25 leghorns for laying. When the post office called, we drove to Staunton to pick up our chirping cartons. Their warming box was all set for them.

Peeps are so cute, but they don’t stay peeps for long. In a few days their legs were longer. The soft baby down was replaced by adult feathers. When they were big enough, we moved them out to the henhouse.

The husband built an impregnable henhouse from materials we had laying around. He built it Salatin-style, as everyone does these days, to be moveable. He made ours on skids. When he pulls the building with his tractor, it glides right over the pasture. Thus do the birds fertilize our field.

After the husband built another coop for the roosters, we moved the 100 buff orpingtons out of the henhouse. Now all we need do is wait for the hens to start laying eggs and the roosters to get large enough to butcher.

Then came the day when we heard crowing. Our young men had reached adolescence. We were happy about that until we realized the crowing was coming from the henhouse.

What? I thought it was a fluke, that a few leghorn roosters had mixed in with the hen peeps. The husband was convinced that the hatchery had mixed up our order. I shot some digital photos of both kinds of chickens so the husband could e-mail them to the company. Sure enough, they’d reversed our order.

So. Now we have 25 leghorn roosters, bred for leanness and laying, and 100 buff orpingtons, bred to be huge and meaty. The hatchery kindly refunded our money, but still. Not according to the plan, but we can make it work.

Regardless, our summer days fell into an easy rhythm. After feeding weeds to the chickens, I picked vegetables: green beans, zucchini squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers. I ate Greek salad nearly every day this summer. Even now, I’m using Roma tomatoes to make it: English cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh basil, feta cheese, kalamata olives, olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Sometimes a bit of red onion and green pepper. My ideal meal this summer was Greek salad, bass or catfish caught in our pond and fresh-baked bread.

Instead of canning tomatoes, I dried them. As I told the husband, canned tomatoes are cheap, but sun-dried tomatoes are expensive and delicious. I hope to marinate them for use in salads instead of the cardboard tomatoes sold in winter.

I have perfected making yogurt. Using raw milk, I incubate it with the culture in my oven with the light on. In just a few hours I have a bowl of yogurt. Then, to make Greek yogurt, I line a bowl with cheesecloth and pour in a quart of yogurt. Gather the ends, tie with a rubber band, and hang from a cabinet handle over a bowl to catch the whey. It gets as thick as sour cream and is delicious with our homemade maple syrup.

As for ever being self-sufficient, I don’t see that happening. It’s too much work. But there is something to be said about setting the table with vegetables you’ve grown, fish you’ve caught, bread you’ve made with locally-grown wheat and wine you’ve fermented with your backyard berries.


Friday, October 02, 2009

Undercover! Click Click Leads To Dancing in the Rain

So Trent Wagler posts a note last Thursday on Facebook offering tickets for SpaghettiFest at a discounted price “until midnight.”

“Hmm, I wonder who’s playing this year?” I says to myself.

There is no reason why I should recognize any bands playing at SpaghettiFest, an annual indie rock festival at Natural Chimneys, because I always check and I never have. But I do like Steel Wheels, Wagler’s band. I log on to the SpaghettiFest website anyway, just to check it out. The festival’s home page lists all the bands scheduled to appear. No familiar names. Oh, but what’s this?

Undercover? No. It can’t be THE Undercover.

Undercover has been my favorite rock band since the 1980s. I was not (am not) interested in the mass-produced pedestrian music coming from the contemporary Christian music bunch. I call it “changed and rearranged” music. Then I heard Undercover. The music was punk, rebellious and worshipful. They did a version of “Holy, Holy, Holy” that was loud and fast. “God Rules” was a shouted hard rock testimony to God’s presence in our lives. “Boys and Girls Renounce the World” was a challenge to do just that.

Undercover was original. You couldn’t say they “sound like” any other band.

Then came “Branded.” Undercover was already real, but their new album, “Branded,” was outright raw. No holds barred, nothing covered up, no making nice.

At the time, I was struggling with some hard stuff. And I was utterly alone. Why? Because when I tried to talk with my friends about it, they acted like I had cooties. Christian women don’t talk about those things. We don’t even think about such things. Christian women are nice. We’re nice. Leave us alone. We’re nice.

Yeah, nice.

Lyrics like this spoke to me:
It’s hard to fall asleep
When I hate the life I lead
And it’s hard to face the day
Cuz the night’s not far away
Cry, cry myself to sleep
It’s easier telling lies
When I’m dying inside
Than to open up my heart
And have it torn apart
Cry, cry myself to sleep
God in heaven above
Has compassion and love
His hands wet with my tears
He’s been drying them for years
Cry, cry myself to sleep.

I listened to “Branded”—all the songs spoke to me—over and over. My brothers in Undercover were the only people in the world who understood what I was going through. And the music was primo.

I never got to see Undercover in concert because they were a West Coast band and they just didn’t come this way. Then they nearly stopped performing. A gig in 2000, another in 2005. After the 1994 album, “Forum,” there was a live one in 2000, then “I Rose Falling” in 2002. That was it.

So on the SpaghettiFest site, I click on Undercover, and it takes me to Ojo Taylor’s MySpace! Ojo is the founder/main songwriter/keyboard guy. And there in his blog is a note about “Steve Reich at JMU.”

JMU? Why should Ojo care about anything at JMU? Then I read that he’s teaching in the music department at JMU.

What? What? How could this happen and me not know about it?

I scream. I jump up and go tearing out to the chicken coop where the husband is working. I am so excited, shaking even, that I can barely get out the words.

Of course, I immediately buy tickets to SpaghettiFest, held at Natural Chimneys in Mount Solon.
On Saturday afternoon, when then come onstage, I’m surprised to see it’s really them: Ojo Taylor, Sim Wilson, Gym Nicholson and Gary Olson. They put on an awesome rock and roll show. They play many of my favorite songs—“Mea Culpa,” “Come Away With Me,” “World Come Crashing Down”—but then, they’re all my favorites. The husband and I dance hilariously in the rain. A fitting metaphor.

The. Best. Concert. Ever. And I have seen the best.

I’m wearing my Undercover t-shirt, with the big “U” on front. The band is surprised to see a fan in the audience. Sim’s wife sidles up next to me and says they want to meet me, too.

Tell me how to keep the flame when seasons pass the time away… Remember me.

Wow. God brought my favorite band in the world to Mount Solon, in Augusta County where I live, just a few minutes from my house. Does he love me dangerously or what?