I can set out again, Even at seventy— Just now I resisted Writing “seventy,” Fearing others will see Me as less Than I think I am Or try to be.
I walk fast, Dance, Make a point Of lifting, Bending, Being the go-to kid— Happy I can, Glad to help, And with something to prove To me, Working to be needed, Wanted, Included, Useful, Not left out.
So much is behind: Though I do not know The time ahead, I understand the difference Between potential And impossible.
But yes, I can set out each new day Better ready for the journey Than I have been before; The decades Nourish seventy: Years of stumbling And years of blessings Give a measure of guidance— Where to explore And where not to step again— Offer endurance, Acceptance, Optimism, Courage, Joy Discovering, Embracing New and familiar vistas Gracing Whatever is still to come.
I am beginning a new memoir project, whose tentative title is Making Peace, Finding Peace, Seeing Peace,
Giving Peace. Here are my project plans.
I recently turned 70, an age younger people often consider
elderly and generally past it. I am
blessed, however, to be active and lively—as are many others my age and
older. I am even inclined to be a bit of
a Peter (Petra?) Pan. I do understand
that more of this life is behind me than ahead, and no one gets to my age
without suffering loss and regret.
Although I am happy and so busy with activities I enjoy that I sometimes
don’t sleep enough, I look back on my life so far and see vast swathes I wish I
had lived differently. And the future
is, of course, filled with unknowns. And
so I want to examine my life from my current place within it, exploring how I
can better understand and reframe the past, find greater serenity, meaningfully
serve others now, and embrace what life still has in store. I would like for my new memoir to encourage
readers to see and value their own lives; I want to bring them hope, courage,
and peace of mind.
The central question of my memoir is this: How
can I make, find, see, and give peace now—at this point in my life—and in the
years to come?
In the area of making peace, I will explore my need
to make peace with
Never having married
Never having children and grandchildren
Not sustaining the kind of meaningful career I hoped
The men (the “Rogues”) I dated
Having not been the daughter that I wish I’d
been and that my parents deserved
Not standing up to bullies in my life
Aging and its unknowns
possibility of rejection
keeping up with my study of literature and earning a PhD.
becoming a successful writer
keeping up with my music
in many directions without finding my purpose
I will examine the areas of finding, seeing, and giving peace
in the context of
Nature, the Earth, and Creation
Empathy for others
Giving pleasure through my abilities
Creating without achievement expectations
My conviction that life is ongoing
Teaching in settings still open to me
without achievement expectations
and sharing ideas
more of the past’s great gifts
respect—honoring others and not belittling myself
Themes and Underlying
In the course of my memoir, I hope to illustrate, explore,
and establish ways to implement more fully these beliefs about paths to a
serene and meaningful life:
Know that it’s not too late.
Know that you’re not too old.
Cultivate your own individual style.
Be yourself; let others do the same. And avoid trying to find your satisfaction vicariously through someone else’s life.
Be able to articulate your values and beliefs.
Each day, use your creativity, interests, and talents in some way.
Write/Draw/Dance/Play music . . . to satisfy yourself, not for anyone else’s approval.
Embrace this truth: If you try to do something according to someone else’s opinions—in place of your own—you’ll probably either not like the results or give up before finishing.
Acknowledge that if you’re procrastinating, there’s something wrong with the situation. Figure out and address the problem.
Learn something new every day.
Learn for the pleasure of learning.
Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.
Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).
Develop and keep routines and traditions that support order and meaning in your life. Include time for meditation and reflection.
Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life.
Keep a journal so that ideas, impressions, and memories don’t fade and days don’t get lost in the tide of years.
Practice being fully present in the moment.
Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting.
Discover the positive potential and lessons in difficult situations.
Value your blessings while you have them, and not just in hindsight.
Do the best you can and then let it go. Don’t rehash the past by asking, “Did I really do my best and try my hardest?”
Once a situation is past, forgive everyone for everything (which does not mean letting bad situations recur).
Realize that other peoples’ behavior makes sense from their frame of reference.
Don’t try to change other people, but allow for the possibility of their changing. (Your example is more powerful than your arguments.)
Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.
Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.
Don’t allow yourself to feel like a child who has misbehaved. You acted as you did for a reason, even if you will look at the situation differently next time.
Look for and take opportunities to give honest encouragement.
Recognize that encouraging others doesn’t mean trying to please them to win their favor.
Don’t allow yourself to act out of fear of rejection or criticism.
In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.
Identify a mentor to help you strengthen your confidence, courage, and dedication to your values and life focus. A mentor can be someone you admire but don’t know personally.
Find and seize opportunities to see life from others’ perspectives and situations.
If you’re lonely, reach out to someone to whom you could give pleasure.
Be aware that reaching out to and helping others can take many forms, including writing and other creative endeavors.
Don’t value helping strangers above helping family members and other loved ones: both kinds of service are infinitely important, so serve where and how you can.
Realize that if you fail to honor your own fundamental needs, you won’t be able to continue helping others over the long haul.
If you are doing an assignment or task for someone else, first accept it consciously as something you are choosing to do, and then put your own stamp on it.
Accept that getting stressed won’t lead to greater punctuality/perfection/approval than will staying calm.
Strive, in your own way, to advance justice and kindness.
I am twelve, Loving summer camp With its quests Unexpected and new, Its routines and scenes, Moose Pond in the morning mist— A wide lake in spite of its name— The cloud wisps decorating Pleasant Mountain, Honeymoon and Japanese Islands Present unseen, Loving summer camp especially this summer Because I have a best friend, Louise; We explore, discuss, absorb The Maine woods and our unfolding lives.
Excursions and camping trips Are my pinnacle delight; For some, we paddle across or down our lake; For others, we ride, singing, In the open wooden-gated back of a truck, Sometimes to a distant lake or river That will carry our canoes to our sleeping cove, Other times to a single day’s new source of happiness.
As on the day we campers climb Over the face of a garnet hillside Collecting beauty from the center of the Earth.
I love rocks—geology has risen high Among the fascinations That will rise and fall and rise in new forms Across the eras of my life.
I am jubilant Tapping on the cliff In the warm Maine sun, Loosening treasures, Small rocks sparkling with deep-red gems To carry home with me at the end of summer In a footlocker weighing three times Its going-to-Maine weight.
Back home I am snared in the unhappiness of junior high; My Maine rocks join the granite boulders in our backyard.
As my years continue, Rocks give way to new passions— Folk music, the great apes, ice skating, literature— I live a floating life, Grasping the possibilities in view, Leaving left-behind possibilities on the shores of memory.
I meet rapids And create whirlpools where none are intended; I flail against benevolent waters Because they are not the waters I seek Or believe I need to find.
After journeying to distant shores Seeking elusive settling, I return eventually to Delaware, To our little white house.
Daddy shows me he has kept my loveliest garnet rock, Stored safely against our sheltering home.
Now the garnet-filled rock carries in its crystals Twelve-year-old me Held among the eons its gems have shone Within and on the surface Of our miraculous Earth.
My rock carries within itself Its ancient molten infancy And refracts the Light To bathe my ephemeral now With insight outside of passing time.
The girl I was is not lost But held inside of me; The future I wanted but did not find Forms strata in my knowing, In the strength I have to share.
God’s garnets in my hand Shine their peace-giving glow On who I was, Who I am, And who I still can be.
Were you walking by the water to watch the waves and the shore birds? Were you worried, angry, lonely, Peaceful, reflective, in love? Where was Adam? Did he help you with the cooking? What did you long for in your life— A pretty face? Appreciation? A kinder man? Bright children? A room of your own, or the 115,000 BC equivalent? Likely the possibility of warmth, ample food, and shelter was sufficient dream. I want to know If you worried about dying, If growing older was a curse or a relief, If your children minded you, If you asked yourself the point of living. I wonder how you passed the time, How you spoke and dressed, What you thought about when you woke in the morning, What kept you awake at night. Were the myths already in place— That you were created from Adam to be his, That too much willfulness in a woman is dangerous to a man, That women are weak and easily swayed by a glib tongue? Did you bother to rebel? Something of your physical self is in every woman, and every man, too, But we women of 1,170 centuries later Also share your eternity. When we wander along the beach Thronged with people, sullied by debris— The ocean still grand and powerful— You walk with us, The solitary mother of all women, The young girl at the beginning of time, The woman who has seen all ages and carries us each inside of her.
I am blessed to have numerous interests and to have been able to sample many of them so far in my life. For instance, while I’m no ballerina, I did get to take ballet lessons and to see Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake. My French and Italian have notable flaws, but I’ve been fortunate to have visited France, to have traveled in Italy twice, and to have had happy adventures in both places. I’m no singer, but I do get to be in a church choir, have had season tickets to the Delaware and Philadelphia Operas, and have been in the audience at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, a handful of times. This story tells about some of the adventures surrounding and during my first opera at the Met, twenty years ago this month. I hope the story inspires you to revisit your own special times.
The health-food-store lentil soup is memorable for its setting on the Upper West Side. The only grumpy person I will cross paths with in New York is the middle-aged woman at the check-out counter. She is in an area that serves also as a juice bar. At first she tells me I can’t pay at her register, but I say my tea is from the juice bar, so can I pay her, after all? She grunts. I ask if she said yes. She grunts. I pay her.
As my companions, Tina and Alice, and I finish our lunch on a wide island in the middle of Broadway just south of 90th Street, I sense myself apart, of the city but separate from it, observing. I am with Tina and Alice but also alone with my own thoughts and the images passing in front of me. A heavy-set woman in running shoes sits down next to me on the bench, but we never acknowledge each other or look each other in the face.
While Alice was driving us to the hotel, she was repeatedly frustrated in efforts to turn a corner by the pedestrians crossing the street. But when we exchange driving for walking, we become part of the ruling pedestrian tyranny, forging across the street with the light, or before it, watching out only for taxis who don’t care if we have the right-of-way.
Having finished our lunch, we walk down Broadway, stopping at Zabar’s to explore what must be the world’s most complete selection of kitchenware. It makes me think that cooking might not be too bad. I like the colored vases and glasses made in Italy, the hot mitts with puppet faces sewn onto them, and the huge copper kettles. On the first floor, the rich smell of cheese almost overcomes the odor of raw fish. A child in a stroller squalls as his mother tries to push him through the narrow, crowded aisles. “We’ll go home right after this. I promise,” she tells him.
Back on the street, children pass in Halloween costumes, a tiny girl in a long organdy dress, a little boy dressed as an unidentifiable (to me) cartoon superhero. A woman walking with her elementary-school-aged son and daughter talks on a cell phone: “I’ll take Ella to her music lesson, and you can take. . . .” The dogs are the most interesting of all. No one in New York has a dull-looking dog.
An elderly homeless man sleeps in a doorway with his head on one of the run-down Nikes he’s removed. Other homeless men ask for money. One man I will wish later I had helped is both old and frail. I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing.
We walk about fifteen blocks south of our hotel and then return so that Tina and Alice can change their shoes. Fortunately, we have to be at the restaurant, Josephina, at 5:00, so we can’t waste time in the hotel. After a quick return stop at the health-food store to buy dessert for later, we hustle down Broadway and make it to Josephina exactly on time. Alice called for reservations after we finished eating lunch and was told that all the reservations for times we could come were filled, but that if we come right at 5:00 and leave by 6:15, we can probably get in. That’s what we do.
On the way to the restaurant, we pass Giuseppe Verdi Square, a pleasant little elongated rectangle of ivy and trees, but on some of the trees a sign has been tacked: “Rat poison in use in the area.” Down closer to Josephina and Lincoln Center, we find Richard Tucker Park (with no mention of rats).
Josephina has a clean, open, peaceful, and well-polished feel. On two of the walls are large, colorful murals of Italy, done in a Cézanne-like style and emphasizing hills and cypresses, houses with red-tiled roofs, and people having fun in outdoor cafés. On another wall is a mural of Cézanne-like fruit. A large and pretty portrait of the real Josephina, someone’s grandmother, hangs over the bar, and on a post is a huge photograph of her wedding in a crowded village church. The wedding couple and their guests were intensely alive then. Now their day has passed and we are trying to live our lives.
For dinner, I have St. Peter’s fish, which I have never heard of before but which is about the best fish I ever ate. I can enjoy the meal because the opera will not start until eight, and all we have to do is cross the street. Walking down the block ending with Josephina, we passed Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera to our right—a dream, a mirage become real.
After dinner, Tina and Alice want to sit on the wall around the fountain, but I can’t be that close and not go in. In the Met store I find—and buy—the copy of the original La Bohème poster that I’ve wanted since I first saw a photo of it on the Internet, a box of notecards that have prints of several old opera posters, and Christmas cards that show a painting of the Met from the perspective of a balcony looking out over the chandeliers in the entrance and a Christmas tree outside. The inscription talks about singing. Simply to be in the shop thrills me. I can pass up the pretty cloth purses made from the fabric of old Met costumes—and sold for high prices—but seeing all the CDs and videos of operas and singers makes me feel like a mouse loose in a cheese shop.
When I’ve temporarily had my fill, I go back out to Tina and Alice. They share their chocolate cupcake between them, and I eat half my cookie while we watch the gathering crowd and a couple of men trying to interest passers-by in their tickets. Just indoors, Chagall murals on musical themes hang on either side of the opera house as an integral part of the Met’s facade.
Tina and Alice want to see the store, so I happily go back in with them. Franco Corelli is singing Puccini over the loudspeakers, and the store is crowded now. We join the line waiting to go into the theater itself. We see a couple of beautiful sequined tops, but many people are dressed as we are and could have come right from the office to the opera. The somewhat chaotic line of waiting people is happy, excited, or maybe I am so happy and excited that everyone else looks that way, too. One older couple cuts in line, as if waiting an extra thirty seconds after the ticket-takers let us past would be too much.
“All the way up,” the man who takes our tickets tells us. I don’t mind being very used to hearing, “All the way up,” in concert halls and opera houses. The Met carpets and seats are red, as they should be. Our seats are on stage left in the fourth row of the highest section, which goes on to slope gradually upward, far above us. We love our seats, although no sequins make it up that high.
As we wait for the curtain to rise, the chandeliers float above us like masses of delicate, sparkling Christmas stars suspended below the gold ceiling. The house begins to darken and the still-lighted small chandeliers that have been below our line of sight rise slowly to the ceiling. “I’m going to cry,” says Alice, overcome by the beauty. I feel the same way.
The overture to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro—and among the peak evenings of my life—begins. How can I describe perfection of sound? Some of the voices are perfect, and others are beyond perfection to celestial: Susan Graham’s as Cherubino and Hei Kyung Hong’s as the Countess. I think to myself, “For the rest of my life, I want to listen to music like this without pause.”
Except for the applause and bravos, the audience is quiet and attentive—no candy-wrapper rattlers—and I don’t see any empty seats. Instead of being projected over or beside the stage, the translations are on a small screen on the back of each seat; one can engage them or not. I love the system—no getting behind, as occasionally happens at OperaDelaware, no trying to look up at the titles and down at the action simultaneously. Some of the words to Le Nozze di Figaro are delightfully humorous.
During the second intermission, my friends and I buy $3 glasses of mineral water to quench our thirst from the salty dinner. After each act, I am happy that more is to come. But then the opera ends. Although I am tired from not enough sleep and too much walking, I would gladly watch the opera through again immediately, and then again, and then again. Even in the Met, some people rush out during the applause. I have a passing urge to trip them.
If it didn’t mean my first evening at the Met is over, I would love being in the milling crowd making its way downstairs. Outside, a row of limousines waits. It is midnight as we walk a few blocks to the Mozart Café, for which Alice has seen an ad mentioning live classical music. The live music turns out to be jazz tonight, but the place is open until 3 a.m. and serves unsweetened apple pie, which Tina and Alice order. I choose a pot of passion-fruit-and-peppermint tea, which turns out to be about the best herbal tea I ever tasted. The crowd is nearly all young. At a table near us, a handsome couple spends as much time gazing at each other as talking or eating. Another nearby table is full of wholesome-looking young people who remind me of the music students at West Chester University, where I work.
We leave the restaurant around one in the morning and walk all the way home—about thirty blocks—although we could have taken the M104 bus, which seems to run all night. I am a little nervous walking in some of the quieter spots, although we are far from the only folks out tonight. Alice says a few times, “You’re going too fast.”
Two boys on bicycles aim their bikes right at Alice and me. A young man passes us as he talks—or pretends
to talk—on a cell phone in a frighteningly crazed rush of words. After these encounters, we speed up and Alice
doesn’t seem to think we’re going too fast at all. I am glad to see the hotel. It has been one of those times when I’ve
heard but haven’t heeded my better judgment, thinking that I don’t want to be
difficult and that probably, possibly, everything will be okay. Fortunately, for the three of us this night, it
Alice is quick in the bathroom, and then it is my turn. I cannot go to sleep while someone else is stirring in the room, and back and forth Tina goes, back and forth, back and forth. I think, this time will be it, but then the back and forth repeats. Finally Tina goes to bed. I fall deeply asleep.
 The store we
visited is Gary Null’s Uptown Whole Foods.
restaurant was wonderful and the site of many memories for me, but it has since
At the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong learning Institute (OLLI), I’m co-teaching a course called Weaving Your Legacy. My colleague teacher designed the course. It provides a setting and encouragement for class members to work on substantial projects, projects that weave life experiences into meaningful “tapestries” for the benefit and pleasure of current and future generations. While most members of the class are focusing on written work such as memoirs, blogs, fiction, or poetry, projects using other types of creative expression—for example, photograph collections, oral histories, needlework, or drawings—are equally at home in the class.
One of our texts for the course, Creating a Spiritual Legacy: How to Share Your Stories, Values, and Wisdom, by Daniel Taylor, includes a chapter on the “spiritual will,” a document that explicitly or implicitly shares what the author has learned about living a meaningful, satisfying life. A spiritual will can take many forms—among these, a short list of the author’s “truths” (as of that point in the writer’s life), a letter, an essay, or a complete book. The short essay that follows is an example of a spiritual will.
“Outside the Lines” expresses some of my truths, however limited or subject to change, and tells a little bit about how I learned these life lessons. The essay also provides an example of a piece written in the second person (“You. . . .”). I find that writing in the second person, imagining—or perhaps hearing in my mind—what a friend, a mentor, or the wisdom living within us all would say to me, can help me be more objective about challenging topics.
When you were four, your Sunday school teacher asked, “Why
don’t you color nicely the way Chrissie does?” You stopped thinking about how
you wanted to color the picture and instead scribbled all over it in black
A couple of years later, your
elementary-school classmate criticized your shoes, your voice, your answers to
the homework, the way you ran in gym class—pretty much any fodder she could
find. You thought the lesson was that people didn’t like you, and you learned
it well for life.
Beginning in fourth grade, your
flute teacher talked a lot about intonation, breath control, and accidentals
but never mentioned your expressive sense of melody. You no longer wished to
take flute lessons because they were filled with unmet rules. You understood
only what you still did wrong, not the musical strengths already your own.
Not only childhood but all of life is filled with such teachers. To move forward and find your peace, you must release these damaging teachers now. Most have done their best as they knew how. Retain the good they have given you, but then no more.
In nearly every facet of life, we
all are teachers, as well as students. When we share our knowledge, we can
contribute much. When we encourage others to nourish their individual gifts, we
contribute vastly more. You, led by your
are the wisest teacher for your own talents, vision, and possibilities.
Also take as your teachers those
who have kept their courage in spite of life’s buffeting. After editors
tampered with her poems to make them fit the poetry rules of the day, Emily
Dickinson no longer published her work but continued to write prolifically.
Most would instead have tried to write for the market or given up entirely, but
Emily valued her own voice above pleasing those who saw themselves as experts. Think
of what the world would have lost if Emily had succumbed to meeting others’
Whether your gifts are in dancing or painting, cooking or planting, inventing or healing, solving equations or easing suffering, being cheerful or being kind, you give most to the world through what makes you different: your unique voice and ways of being. If you believe in others’ dictates while denying your own, you will spend your life seeking to fill gaps and fix flaws with borrowed wisdom, rules, and ways. Learn from others, but recast their lessons to match the best of who you are and are becoming, from youth through oldest age.
 Part of this post appears in A Woman in Time, by Winifred Burgess Hayek.
The “Inner Light” is a Quaker term for “that of God within.”
“Why Dance?” grows out of some of the memories in “Snapshots of the Mind,” a collection of random recollections that came when I allowed my mind to float by free association from memory to memory. The essay below expands the recollections about dancing. A quick read of “Why Dance?” may give a few ideas for exploring one of your own lifetime passions—its roots and history, its highlights and byways.
Dancing designs a new reality Within but apart from the old.
Dancing is motion Inside of rhythm and melody.
Dancing releases everyday rules of being To follow the reign of music.
Dancing aligns the life force In all the muscles and organs of the body, Especially the heart.
The patterns of the dance Invite my spirit in To paint a scene And describe a dream Made of feeling and flair Enveloped in music.
At supper one evening when I was four, as we sat at our table in the kitchen of our little white house on Nichols Avenue, Mother and Daddy asked me if I would like to take ballet. I couldn’t believe such a magnificent possibility was mine. I rose from the table and spun around the kitchen, spinning my joy that I was now a ballerina.
My ballet teacher was Miss Peggy. Her mother played the piano as we little girls in pink leotards crossed the room with our small grands jetés, as we stood at the bar for our pliés in the five positions, and as we practiced our routines for the recitals we gave for our families. Before the recitals, our mothers basted short net skirts onto our leotards, and then more than ever we were real ballerinas. I wished I could wear my pink ballet slippers every day, and not just once a week to dancing class. We carried our slippers to class in little cases with felt dancers glued to the front.
For Christmas when I
was six, Santa brought me a recording of The
Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty
along with a little blue record player, which could be snapped together like an
overnight case. Sometimes I put on my
ballet slippers, rolled up the rugs in my bedroom, and twirled to Tchaikovsky’s
music playing on my record player.
Beginning in first grade, Friday afternoons brought ballroom dancing lessons: the foxtrot, waltz, cha cha, and Lindy Hop. I especially liked the cha cha and Lindy for their turns and speed. At the end of each class, we marched around the room to the Grand March from Aida. We little girls wore our party dresses and white gloves, which covered the eczema on my hands and joined the music in giving me confidence. The boys wore their Sunday suits and seemed happy to be dancing and to dance with me. I remember that a friend’s mother told my mother that I was graceful. I wasn’t a particularly vain child, but I was proud of the things I could do well, and so I kept the compliment in memory.
Mother and Daddy took dancing lessons for many years at the DuPont Country Club, to which any DuPont employee could belong. I felt relaxed and happy hearing their bossa nova and tango music floating up from the basement, where they practiced while their dance records spun on my little blue record player. Mother was exceedingly graceful, and Daddy, like me, had most enjoyed gymnastics in gym class and so also danced easily. In the kitchen, when I was grown, Daddy sometimes taught me the steps to the Latin dances; that night, I‘d go with my parents to the Saturday dance at the country club. Not only Daddy but also a couple of my parents’ friends would dance with me.
Boyfriends who could dance were scarcer. Karl was a top-of-the-line jitterbugger, and we polkaed together at the rollicking German House parties at the University of Delaware. But then until Fred, with whom I only danced on three occasions, all the other men of my generation with whom I danced did the shake-it-all-around and make-it-up-as-you-go moves that went well with “Proud Mary,” “My Guy,” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” I liked the self-expressive, free-for-all dancing, too. It could even be done alone, if necessary.
Fred had evidently gone to childhood ballroom lessons, also. We danced together briefly the night we met and then during a visit with my parents, when we attended a Saturday-night dance at the country club. As we stood in the middle of the floor, Fred and I had words over the correct execution of the foxtrot. But then on New Year’s Eve, a couple of months before we’d utterly and completely had more than enough of each other, we whirled on the red carpet of the Kennedy Center as National Symphony musicians played Viennese waltzes.
Other opportunities to ballroom dance with a man have been scarce. I’ve spent a couple of evenings at dances with guys who needed to be steered around the dance floor as if they were lawn mowers. One lovely evening in Massachusetts, I attended a singles’ dance with three friends—interestingly, they were all former nuns. An Italian man who was a miraculous dancer (and quite beautiful himself) danced with me much of the night, but only because my skills were the best he could come up with on that occasion.
I have always loved to move my body, even before the time of swinging on the jungle gym that Daddy built for me in the backyard and of showing off my handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults. In motion, then and now, I am cleansed of shyness and self-doubt. In some adult decades when dancing was scarce, ice skating was my happiest way of moving. Ice skating felt like dancing with extra speed, a lovely combination. In recent years, as I danced around the apartment after an episode of Dancing with the Stars, I thought how fine it would be to find enough fame to join the show for a season, to dance hour after hour and day after day.
In my earlier years, I could not have imagined that the greatest outlet for my grownup dancing drive would come after I retired: tap dancing on Mondays and line dancing twice a week. Then at a recent Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program in Kentucky, I was probably the most enthusiastic participant in our daily square-dancing and line-dancing lessons. In retirement, I can once again dance as often as I did as a child.
I do still sometimes dream of dancing with a willing partner:
Wishing for a man— To love and be loved— Crept back today As I danced with the women In our line-dancing club To a country tune our leader played.
The singer was holding his lady dear, And I waltzed-two-three, Turned-two-three, Wrapped within motion, And the words pulled longing Out from under the years, And it waltzed with me Again-two-three.[*]
But my life is full and happy, and I don’t think I have time for a dancing boyfriend just now—even if a man should decide he’d like to fill that role. When our dance groups perform, I seem to give some pleasure to audience members, and I am grateful for that blessing—it and the joy inherent in dancing are treasure enough.
When the urge to write is not accompanied by a promising subject or theme, one possibility for answering the writing call is to begin with an image, a scene—any image, any scene. Then free associate, letting one image, one scene, lead to the next, no matter how circuitous the path through memory. Taken together, the seemingly random recollections create a sketch of the past and suggest ways the past has led to the present. Here’s a short example of the approach that does, in fact, help to remind me of who I was, and still am. If I choose, I can mine these memories for subjects to explore in more depth.
I carried my pink ballet slippers in a blue case decorated with
a felt ballerina.
I liked spending school lunch hours in the clearing under
the weeping willow beyond our playground.
I wove bracelets from the long willow branches, but I don’t remember
wearing or even keeping the bracelets.
The act of braiding the pliable thin branches was the pleasure, much as
with making clover chains in the front yard at home. With my fingernail I poked a slot near the
end of the stem of one clover and inserted the stem of the next through the
slot. Sometimes I put a clover crown on
my head or tested a clover jump rope, but any such usefulness was
superfluous. I imagine Daddy had to deal
with piles of discarded clover chains when he mowed the grass.
One afternoon when I was in first grade, I was showing off
my handstand skills for a neighbor girl and a boy from school. When I flipped over after the handstand, I
sat in a pile of manure that the girl’s dog had left behind. My patient mother took crying me to a sink in
our basement to clean off the mess. I
was mortified by the outcome of my effort to impress my friends.
Daddy made me a pair of wooden stilts, and I was proud of
being able to tramp around the yard on them.
When I was small, Mother helped me bake a chocolate
cake. A picture from that afternoon
shows frosting smeared across my smile.
Mother told me I once said, “It’s the frossin’ what makes it
We put salt or sugar on grapefruit in those days to cut the
sour taste; I preferred sugar.
I made meatloaf for some of my fellow teachers at the
boarding school where we taught. I put
eggs, ketchup, and breadcrumbs in my meatloaf, which was the centerpiece of my
most reliable menu. When my friend David
came to eat meatloaf with me one night, my dog, Maggie, chewed his wallet, so I
had to buy him a new one. I don’t recall
having to replace any cash.
On the first evening David and I were in Germany with the
students we were chaperoning, I asked him how to say, “Could I please have some
change?” in German. On subsequent days,
when I had a chance to get away from David and the students, I used my
phrasebook to figure out how to meet my needs.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I cried listening to Gerry
and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I wanted a boyfriend—if not a Beatle then one
of the boys at school.
Ringo was my favorite Beatle, probably because in the early
days he looked more like a little boy than like an intimidating young man who might
My love for Ringo—if not my affection—faded by the time I
was in college. My love for Andrea
Bocelli hasn’t diminished in twenty-two years.
When I was six, Santa Claus gave me a record player in the
form of a small blue suitcase.
Coordinating with Santa that Christmas, my parents gave me two
records. The first included Tchaikovsky’s
The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. The second was Haydn’s Surprise Symphony and the Toy
Symphony, then attributed to Haydn but now more often attributed to Leopold
Mozart, Wolfgang’s dad. Even after we
moved to our new home, I often rolled up the small blue hooked rugs in my
bedroom so I could dance to a Tchaikovsky ballet playing on my little record
Sunlight filtered through light-green leaves on the first
morning after the last day of school.
At summer camp in Maine, after we campers were in bed, the
camp director’s Doberman thundered down the cabin line like a galloping pony.
When I was a camp counselor, I played taps on my flute in
the evening. The sound drifted out over
the lake as infinite stars drifted overhead.
The Milky Way was a broad stripe across the sky.
And so, as perhaps these memories suggest, it’s nearly impossible not to be able to write if the mind is set
free to jump here, there, and anywhere.
About thirty years ago, my parents bought
me a mountain dulcimer in Berea, Kentucky.
We were in Kentucky to attend a cousin’s wedding in Harrodsburg; it was
the last Kentucky trip the three of us would take together. Since the passing earlier in the 1980s of my
mother’s mother and sisters, my parents and I were no longer making our frequent
trips to Harrodsburg, where my mother’s sisters and parents had moved after my
mother was grown. While my mother and
her sisters were growing up, their family had lived in the little village of
Paint Lick, Kentucky, about forty miles south of Lexington. My dulcimer symbolizes for me both my parents’
infinite kindness and encouragement and Kentucky’s vast place in my heart. Seeing, holding, or playing my dulcimer opens
a trove of memories.
When I was a child, Harrodsburg, the
oldest town in Kentucky, was thriving, with Main Street filled with busy stores,
including the Gem Drug Store—my uncle’s store.
The “Gem Store,” as we called it, had a jewelry counter and a lunch
counter, two amenities that especially attracted me as a child. My Aunt Winnie worked nearby, managing the
office of the Landrum Insurance Agency.
She and others who worked in town regularly took their coffee breaks or
ate lunch at the Gem Store, which my Aunt Ruth kept supplied with her homemade
pies. When my parents and I were
visiting Harrodsburg, we and our relatives often ate at the Gem Store after
church on Sundays. I was particularly
partial to the five-cent ice-cream cones.
By the time my cousin married in the backyard of his grandfather’s (my uncle’s) home, my grandmother and aunts—who, other than my parents, most meant Kentucky and family to me—were gone. The wedding ceremony itself was something of a miracle since the day had begun with torrential rain and a backed-up sewer, but by wedding time, the backyard was dry and lovely and filled with family and friends, including a friend who sang and accompanied herself on a small harp. Nevertheless, I strongly felt the absence of departed dear ones and later wrote a poem that began, “If you are avoiding ghosts, / Do not go downstairs in search of an extra platter or chair. / Downstairs, no living voices muffle the past.” By contrast, “Upstairs, their voices mingle with ours, / And I watch them being as they were. / Aunt Ruth is cooking oyster stew. . . .” I could imagine our lost loved ones mingling with us as we tidied the house in preparation for the wedding guests.
The day following the wedding, my parents and I visited some of the several friends still living in my mother’s girlhood village of Paint Lick, and I had the joy of going inside the home where my mother grew up. What a treasure to be able to picture the rooms my mother talks about in her memoir of her Paint Lick years. The house was torn down four or five years ago to allow for highway construction. I feel pain when I think of my mother’s home being gone.
With its Kentucky roots and heritage, my dulcimer carries with it what was, not only for me but especially for my parents. My father, who was from St. Paul, Minnesota, moved to Louisville for his work in May 1943. There he met my mother, who was then teaching school in Louisville.
On another day after my cousin’s
wedding, my parents and I visited Berea, not far from Paint Lick. Berea is the site of Berea College and of numerous
notable craftspeople and craft shops, many of them associated with the
college. My grandfather played football
for Berea College more than 110 years ago, and my grandmother attended the
academy that was on the college grounds.
My parents and I stopped by Boone Tavern, the inn where my parents had
had their wedding dinner, on October 18, 1944, and had stayed before heading on
to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for their honeymoon.
Not far from Boone Tavern is the shop of woodworker Warren A. May, who is especially known for his beautiful handmade mountain dulcimers. On our visit to his shop, my parents bought me a lovely cherry dulcimer with traditional wooden pegs and a traditional fretboard (the metal spacers that make it easy to play the notes of a scale or melody). I had spoken for years of wanting a dulcimer, and my parents, as with so many of my interests, had encouraged my desire to own and play the instrument.
I’ve been back to Kentucky four times since my parents have been gone. Their ashes are buried in Harrodsburg in our family plot, and even though I know my parents’ souls are not there in the cemetery, I sit among the quiet stones for a visit when I am in Harrodsburg. And I visit, too, the places that were part of Kentucky as I knew it when all my dear ones were present in this life. When I was in Kentucky in 2015, my cousins took me to Boone Tavern for lunch, and then we visited Warren May’s workshop, where I bought a music book for the dulcimer, new strings for my instrument, and a CD of Warren May’s dulcimer playing.
But until a few weeks ago, I had far from done justice to my beautiful instrument. I had played with it but never joined a group or taken lessons that would have given me a clear sense of the instrument. Finally, this month I attended the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program Appalachian Folkways, held in south-central Kentucky near Lake Cumberland. I chose this Road Scholar program in part because I wanted to spend time with and honor Kentucky itself. And I wanted to begin playing my dulcimer in earnest.
Every morning of our Road Scholar program, musician-songwriter Anne MacFie played traditional music for us, often on a dulcimer. Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachians—perhaps some of my own relatives—played dulcimers beginning in the early 1800s. Our music teacher, Anne, gave dulcimer lessons in the late afternoons to the four of us who wanted to learn to play. Sitting on the porch of the comfortably rustic Lake Cumberland 4-H Education Center, part of the University of Kentucky, I didn’t want to stop playing on those afternoons to get ready for dinner.
Now I better understand my dulcimer’s range of musical possibilities. The simplest approach is to play the melody line on the two closely spaced melody strings, with the two other strings creating a drone effect as with a bagpipe. (Some dulcimers don’t double the melody string, or the two strings may be spaced farther apart. Other variations include metal tuning pegs, which make tuning somewhat easier, and a 6½ fret—in the middle of the seventh space from the left—which allows the player to add a sharp.) In the drone style, the player may use a noter, which is a wooden dowel used to press down the melody string or strings and to slide from note to note.
Dulcimer players may also create
chords with their left hand, somewhat as a guitar player would. Chords substantially expand the pleasing musicality
and versatility of the instrument. I most
enjoy playing hymns and folksongs, and I get excited when a few chords make a
song especially satisfying to my ears. Whatever
approach the left hand uses, the right hand sounds the strings by strumming
with a pick or the fingers or by plucking the strings.
I have a very long way to go in my dulcimer learning—including building up calluses on my left-hand fingertips, which get rather chewed up now on the metal strings as I practice my chords. But if I wait until I have wonderful skills—not to mention impressive calluses—my dulcimer will go back to sitting nearly ignored in its case for many more years. The dulcimer is an instrument on which would-be musicians can make music from almost the first moment of holding it on their lap. So the dulcimer offers an excellent opportunity for me to send into the past one more vestige of my perfectionism, my tendency not to do something at all if I can’t do it well.
I vow to hold in my mind—and
regularly recreate—the pleasure I felt strumming away on the porch of the 4-H
center in Kentucky. In addition to the delight
of its music, my dulcimer carries deep meaning. Instead of feeling I can never do it justice,
I will play my dulcimer at least a little nearly every day in honor of my dear
parents who gave it to me and the memories of Kentucky that resonate through
its vibrating strings.
When you create—whatever
you create, from music to meals—what memories and meanings are carried on your
acts of creation?
One of the goals on my
Becoming a Classic—for Ourselves and
Others list is to play the piano at
least once a week. I played this
week. Here is what I felt, remembered,
and realized as I played. Perhaps my
experience will be relevant to you, whatever the creative endeavor you might
like to resume.
I played the piano for perhaps an
hour and found joy and longing in doing so.
The session began in a review of the songs I need to know for our
community’s production of South Pacific. Then came the “Maple Leaf Rag,” a relatively
easy Beethoven sonata I first learned when I was thirteen or fourteen, and
Handel’s Largo, which is also the melody for Handel’s aria “Ombra mai fu.”
When I left my apartment later in
the afternoon, two of my neighbors were talking in the hall. One said, “We enjoyed the concert.” Then she added, “You don’t do that much, do
you.” As I was playing, I both regretted
not having played more in recent years and understood why I haven’t.
I haven’t played the piano much because playing reminds me forcefully that I haven’t kept up with my music (Playing reminds me that I haven’t played!) and that I never fulfilled whatever musical promise I showed as a child. In truth, though, I am not suited to a career in music, to the long hours of practicing, to focusing on a single pursuit. I am a wandering explorer of varied life experiences rather than an expert, a specialist in one field.
As I played this week, I revisited memories
flowing over me, recollections riding on the music:
Twelve years ago, shortly after she moved to the
apartment we would later share, sweet Mother loved looking at photographs of her
newborn great-grandniece Sadie as I played Handel’s Largo.
Over many years, Mother played the “Maple Leaf
Rag” and other Scott Joplin pieces with skill and joy.
On July 21, 1998, as I waited for a friend to
pick me up so that we could drive to Philadelphia and my first Andrea Bocelli
concert, I played the “Maple Leaf Rag” over and over, and with increasing speed
and volume as the time grew later and later.
A somewhat older girl named Julia gave me my
first formal piano lessons. My parents
stopped those lessons and signed me up for the Wilmington Music School when
they realized that Julia didn’t want me to learn much on the piano—out of her concern
I might become competition for her.
When I was in junior high, I usually practiced
the piano before dinner with my parents.
In our first little house, before I started school, I was banging on the
piano one afternoon when Daddy arrived home from work. He thrilled me by kindly telling me I was
playing just what was written on the music in front of me.
When I was fourteen, I waited with painful
anxiety to play a Beethoven sonata—the one I still play—for a contest at the
University of Delaware. I received an
honorable mention. The year before I’d received
an actual award. I still feel rather ashamed—as
if I didn’t try hard enough—over the honorable mention. I eventually gave up piano lessons in large
measure because I didn’t want to pursue the contests and competitions my piano
teacher had in mind for me. I also wanted
more time to be with friends. I tried
briefly to major in music in college, but again the will was not there.
At summer camp and, later, after dinner when I
was living in the French House at the University of Delaware, I often played
show tunes on the piano, proving that at least for brief spells, I was capable
of playing the piano just for fun.
And as I played this week, I
meditated as follows, showing myself that maybe I can overcome some of my hang-ups
okay that I didn’t keep up my piano studies to become a professional
musician. I clearly lack the temperament
for such a life, whether or not I might have had the potential. Studying the piano has given me a deeper
connection to music and a pastime I still enjoy—that is, when I throw out the regrets
and sense of insufficiency and simply play.
Playing the piano stirs countless memories, from the bittersweet to the
painful to the blissful and beautiful; memories are to be welcomed as a life
garden. I am blessed that piano music is
woven through my life, sometimes creating a bold pattern and sometimes present
only in an almost invisible thread. I
honor the piano’s gifts to me by playing with pleasure now as inspiration
strikes. I dishonor its gifts by still
imagining I must find a way to achieve some lofty level of mastery.
Is there a pleasure
from your past that you would like to rekindle?