Along the Way

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.

Making Peace, Finding Peace, Seeing Peace, Giving Peace

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 Focus

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

  1. Never having married
  2. Never having children and grandchildren
  3. Not sustaining the kind of meaningful career I hoped to have
  4. The men (the “Rogues”) I dated
  5. Having not been the daughter that I wish I’d been and that my parents deserved
  6. Not standing up to bullies in my life
  7. Aging and its unknowns
  8. Perfectionism
  9. Feeling less-than
  10. The possibility of rejection
  11. Not keeping up with my study of literature and earning a PhD.
  12. Not becoming a successful writer
  13. Not keeping up with my music
  14. Going in many directions without finding my purpose
  15. My weaknesses

I will examine the areas of finding, seeing, and giving peace in the context of

  1. Community
  2. Friendship
  3. Nature, the Earth, and Creation
  4. Empathy for others
  5. Encouraging others
  6. Giving pleasure through my abilities
  7. Creating without achievement expectations
  8. My conviction that life is ongoing
  9. Teaching in settings still open to me
  10. Kindness
  11. Learning without achievement expectations
  12. Exploring and sharing ideas
  13. Spiritual life
  14. Seeing more of the past’s great gifts
  15. Mutual respect—honoring others and not belittling myself

Themes and Underlying Beliefs

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:

  1. Know that it’s not too late.
  2. Know that you’re not too old.
  3. Cultivate your own individual style.
  4. Be yourself; let others do the same.  And avoid trying to find your satisfaction vicariously through someone else’s life.
  5. Be able to articulate your values and beliefs.
  6. Each day, use your creativity, interests, and talents in some way.
  7. Write/Draw/Dance/Play music . . . to satisfy yourself, not for anyone else’s approval.
  8. 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.
  9. Acknowledge that if you’re procrastinating, there’s something wrong with the situation.  Figure out and address the problem.
  10. Learn something new every day.
  11. Learn for the pleasure of learning.
  12. Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.
  13. 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”).
  14. Develop and keep routines and traditions that support order and meaning in your life.  Include time for meditation and reflection.
  15. Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life.
  16. Keep a journal so that ideas, impressions, and memories don’t fade and days don’t get lost in the tide of years.
  17. Practice being fully present in the moment.
  18. Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting.
  19. Discover the positive potential and lessons in difficult situations.
  20. Value your blessings while you have them, and not just in hindsight.
  21. 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?”
  22. Once a situation is past, forgive everyone for everything (which does not mean letting bad situations recur).
  23. Realize that other peoples’ behavior makes sense from their frame of reference.
  24. Don’t try to change other people, but allow for the possibility of their changing.  (Your example is more powerful than your arguments.)
  25. Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.
  26. Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.
  27. 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.
  28. Look for and take opportunities to give honest encouragement.
  29. Recognize that encouraging others doesn’t mean trying to please them to win their favor.
  30. Don’t allow yourself to act out of fear of rejection or criticism.
  31. In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.
  32. 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.
  33. Find and seize opportunities to see life from others’ perspectives and situations.
  34. If you’re lonely, reach out to someone to whom you could give pleasure.
  35. Be aware that reaching out to and helping others can take many forms, including writing and other creative endeavors.
  36. 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.
  37. Realize that if you fail to honor your own fundamental needs, you won’t be able to continue helping others over the long haul.
  38. 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.
  39. Accept that getting stressed won’t lead to greater punctuality/perfection/approval than will staying calm.
  40. Strive, in your own way, to advance justice and kindness.

(The above list was posted earlier as “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic.” Now I will try to explore these beliefs in more depth.)

Garnet Light

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.

Our home, drawing by Mason Hayek

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.

Eve’s Footsteps

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.

First Night at the Met

Looking at night into the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, by Paul Masck – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons.

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[1] 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,[2] 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.

By Adolfo Hohenstein – Allposters, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

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,[3] 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 is.

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.


[1] The store we visited is Gary Null’s Uptown Whole Foods.

[2] The restaurant was wonderful and the site of many memories for me, but it has since closed.

[3] This restaurant is also permanently closed.

Outside the Lines

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.

A lovely part of my father’s legacy is the beautiful collection of drawings that he created. His pen-and-ink (here: Birmingham Meetinghouse, West Chester, Pennsylvania, by Mason Hayek) and pencil drawings express his vision and values.

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.

Outside the Lines[1]

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 crayon.

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.

I do still play my flute from time to time–I was teaching high school in Maine at the time this photo was taken.

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 Inner Light,[2] 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’ expectations.

My mother was a gifted storyteller. Her stories–many of which are collected in her book Paint Lick, by Doris Burgess Hayek–both recreate the life she knew in her small childhood village and share life lessons she learned in her early years.

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.


[1] Part of this post appears in A Woman in Time, by Winifred Burgess Hayek.

[2] The “Inner Light” is a Quaker term for “that of God within.”

Why Dance?

“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.

Miss Peggy also taught us to tap dance.

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.


[*] From my book A Woman in Time.

Snapshots of the Mind

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 good.”

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 reject me.

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 player.

Sunlight filtered through light-green leaves on the first morning after the last day of school.

The woods behind our house, drawing by Mason Hayek

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.

Dulcimer Tunes

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.

My mother’s girlhood home, Paint Lick, Kentucky

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.

A noter

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?

Piano Notes

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 after all:

It’s 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?