A normal-rare event

On July tenth, there was a rare island of normalcy.

Or an almost normal version of a rare event.

I participated in a live poetry reading in conjunction with the Empty the Inkpots exhibit at the Vestal Museum. The reading was part of the Summer Art Festival, a collaboration of the Museum and the Vestal Public Library. Several of the poets from the Binghamton Poetry Project who have work included in Empty the Inkpots read from the stage/deck at the Museum with the audience arrayed in scattered chairs and benches and on the lawn. It was the first time in many months that I have participated in a live-and-in-person poetry reading. It had been even longer since I had had to read with a microphone. The amplification was useful because the museum is near a busy roadway.

I chose not to read the poem I had on display, which is about the early months of the pandemic; it is available at the link above. Instead, I read three poems from my manuscript about the North Adams, Massachusetts where I grew up. “Conveyance” appeared in the spring 2021 anthology of the Binghamton Poetry Project. The other two poems, “North Adams Public Library” and “Monroe Bridge Mail”, are currently unpublished so I won’t share them here.

I was very happy with the reading on a number of counts. First, there were people in the audience who came at my invitation, including one who saw my Facebook announcement of the event. Second, though I was nervous before, I was reasonably comfortable during the reading, even managing the microphone adjustment without much trouble. Third, the reading was well-appreciated by our audience. We had six poets, with diverse styles and viewpoints, represented. We read in alphabetical order. Uncharacteristically, I was not first, which was helpful for me. I like to read early in the order, but I’m better at reading second than first. I was also grateful that the most experienced poet and performer was last as it gave a strong finish to event. No one should have to follow J. Barrett Wolf at a reading!

Lastly, I was pleased to receive personal compliments after the reading from family and friends, some of whom are also poets. What was most heart-warming was that a woman that I did not know came up to me afterward and told me how much she enjoyed my poems and asked where she could find my work. Of course, I don’t have any books of my own out, but I was able to give her my paper copies of my poems, which included my bio for the exhibit and the address for Top of JC’s Mind.

The reading was an island of normalcy not only because of the pandemic but also because most of my time these days has been wrapped up in dealing with the care of my 96-year-old dad who is currently in a rehab/skilled nursing facility after a fall and ensuing complications. It’s why it has taken me so long to post about the reading.

It’s also why, for the first time in years, I am not registered for the current sessions of the Binghamton Poetry Project. I am usually visiting my father in the early evenings. Even if another family member is available to visit, I can’t predict if I will have any creativity/brainpower left late in the day.

It’s made the reading that much more important as a reminder that my poetry life is still there, waiting for me to go back to it when things are more settled.

Someday.

SoCS: going out for a drive

One of the changes with the rules in New York State and with my father’s assisted living home is that I can now sign him out and take him for a drive. Previously, I could only take him to medical appointments.

My father, who is known here as Paco, loved to drive. He drove quite a bit when he worked for New England Power Company for 43 years and, given that our town was twenty miles from a grocery store, other stores, our grandparents and other relatives, the movie theater, and just about anything else that wasn’t work-related, he drove quite a bit on evenings and weekends, too. (My mom also drove, especially taking us to piano lessons and my sister’s dance lessons, but, if the five of us were going somewhere together, Paco always drove.)

In those days, it wasn’t unusual to “go for a drive” as a form of recreation. Given that we lived in the Massachusetts/Vermont border area, there was beautiful scenery in any direction you chose to drive. And hills. And what to us was normal but in retrospect were narrow, winding, and largely unmarked roads. It didn’t matter. Paco was used to it and was a very good driver with a very good sense of direction.

Paco had said that he would stop driving when he turned 90. That turned out to be not quite true. I think he stopped when he was 92. By then, my mother was entering her final battle with congestive heart failure and Paco was staying with her in their apartment nearly all the time. Their senior community offered transportation for the occasional trip to the grocery store or for medical appointments and I was nearby and there every day and could drive for errands or deliver things to them. They decided to sell their car and Paco replaced his driver’s license with an official state ID.

The IDs have a longer renewal term than driver’s licenses do, so his current ID is good until he is 103. He’s currently 96. He says he doesn’t think he will make it to 100.

We’ll see.

Paco is famous among family for always saying “One day at a time.”

It’s all any of us can do.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “drive.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/06/11/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-june-12-2021/

One-Liner Wednesday: pain

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.
~~~ Richard Rohr

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/05/12/one-liner-wednesday-maybe-i-just-wish-it-was-warmer/

SoCS: last year and the year before

There is an old song “What a Difference a Day Makes” but today I’m thinking about what a difference a year makes.

Or two.

Two years ago this spring, my mom, known here as Nana, was living in the skilled nursing section of the senior community where she and my father, Paco, had lived for ten years. She was under hospice care as she was nearing the end of her battle with heart failure. My father and I visited every day for hours with frequent visits from my daughters and granddaughter ABC, who were living with us at the time. My out-of-town sisters were able to come to visit often, too.

Nana passed away in May 2019, a few days after her 87th birthday. We were able to hold her funeral in her parish church with a visiting hour before with friends coming to comfort us. There was also a gathering at her and Paco’s senior community.

Last spring, we were all in COVID lockdown. Visiting nursing homes was totally shut down with very limited exceptions for end-of-life situations. I often thought of what that would have looked like for us, if Nana had been facing death in spring 2020 rather than 2019. We would have lost those last few weeks with her, which were painful but also filled with precious moments. We were able to bring her flowers, including her beloved lilies-of-the-valley which blossom in May, just in time for Mother’s Day and her birthday. One of the last things she was able to eat was a little fruit tart I had brought for her birthday. I helped her by cutting it and fed her as she had me when I was a baby…

In 2020, we would likely not have been allowed to visit until the very end when she was unconscious. The church was totally closed, so there would have been no funeral, not even for family.

It was hard last spring, too, because we could no longer visit Paco every day in his apartment. Although visits to independent living apartments were not totally forbidden, they were supposed to be limited, with some masked outdoor visits preferred over anything indoors. My sisters had planned to visit for Paco’s 95th birthday in March but that had to be postponed. Little did we realize at the time that that postponement would turn into cancellation.

That brings us to this spring, which is just getting underway here with some of the early bulbs flowering and the first trees starting to bud. Paco is now living in assisted living which is part of the health care center. While visiting and gathering there are still limited, my younger sister and I were able to visit him for half an hour in his apartment on his birthday and he was able to share a large birthday cake we provided with the other residents and staff on his unit later in the day. Later this month, my elder sister will be able to visit in person for the first time since last summer. She lives out-of-state so hasn’t been able to travel to New York without prohibitively lengthy quarantine, but now, with vaccines available and changes in state policy, she will finally be able to see Paco again.

We have no idea, though, if or when daughter E and granddaughter ABC will be able to visit. They moved permanently to the UK in fall 2019, joining son-in-law L in London. They have since been joined by granddaughter JG, who recently had her first tooth break through.

Spouse B, daughter T, and I would love to think that this spring we could jet off to London to meet JG in person for the first time, but it isn’t possible. Maybe this summer? It depends on conditions with the pandemic and travel restrictions.

Will we get to hold her while she is still a baby or will she be an on-the-move toddler by that time?

Will Paco ever get to meet her in person? For the UK family branch to visit the US is much more complicated and we have no idea when that will be feasible. We also, sadly, don’t know how things will go with Paco’s cognitive decline. While sometimes he remembers names of family members, sometimes he forgets them.

Sometimes, he forgets that he has great-grandchildren at all.

In 2019, I knew that spring 2020 would be very different because my mother would not be there. I could not have imagined how different 2020 would turn out to be.

Or 2021.

I dare not project to spring 2022.

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “difference.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/04/09/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-april-10-2021/

One-Liner Wednesday: Simplicity

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

*****
Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/02/24/one-liner-wednesday-art/

Lessons (re)learned

I’ve spent the bulk of my time over the last (more than I care to tally) years taking care of various generations of my family, which has involved a lot of interfacing with medical, educational, financial, insurance, religious, and other institutions. Since mid-December, I’ve been mired in dealing with issues around Paco’s health and his move from his independent living apartment into the assisted living unit of his senior community via a hospital stay and a stint in the rehab/skilled nursing unit. There has been an avalanche of problems with medical and caregiving issues, as well as the seemingly more mundane issues of changing addresses, getting mail forwarded, etc.

The intensity of it all has reminded me of lessons I once knew about dealing with institutions, but had managed to forget until they were in front of me, again and often. A caveat on the following list: some institutions or, perhaps more precisely, some individuals within the institution do manage to react both competently and compassionately to individuals in difficult circumstances, but this is more the exception than the rule in my experience.

  1. Institutions are set up to deal with things that fit a certain pattern. If your situation is different in some way, they don’t adjust well – or at all.
  2. Institutions care more about their rules, dogmas, and self-perpetuation than they do about you. This holds true, sadly, even for medical, caregiving, and religious institutions.
  3. Institutions are slow to react to changing circumstances. An example: insisting that you have a special form notarized in order to process an address change, even though you are already sending them a durable power of attorney and a death certificate proving that you have legal authority to do so, when, during a pandemic, this adds personal risk to their client and the notary.
  4. When an employee of the institution makes a mistake, the person can follow those instructions to the letter, but the consequences of the mistake will redound to the person or their loved one. The institution will not make allowances for their employee’s mistake and make things right, even though you were acting in good faith and doing what you were told to do.
  5. Lots of balls get dropped. You can been assured that thing X will take place tomorrow, only to find out the next week that it hasn’t – and that no one remembers that it was supposed to have taken place.
  6. It’s very difficult to get accurate information through when it needs to be relayed through multiple people. I can’t tell you how many times the answer to my question has no bearing on the question I actually asked.
  7. People hear what they want to rather than what you actually say. This is a corollary of point 1.
  8. Institutions don’t want to accept responsibility for their decisions, policies, and errors. They will blame you or the computer or something other than themselves. In New York State, they often blame Governor Cuomo.
  9. Institutions are defensive. A neutral re-telling of facts can be taken by an official as an accusation. This is a corollary of point 7.
  10. Institutions think they know more than you do. Sometimes, this is true. However, it is not true that they can understand someone as well after fifteen minutes of interaction as you do after knowing the person for years/decades.
  11. Having to do everything at a distance makes it harder. While some things are best handled electronically or in writing, others are easiest to take care of in person. One particularly gut-wrenching aspect of our current situation is that we can’t see Paco in person, so we can’t keep on top of what parts of his care plan aren’t being consistently followed. When I do see him and see that he hasn’t shaved for several days, it’s very disconcerting, knowing that someone is supposed to be helping him with that daily and that he isn’t able to articulate that to me or the staff himself. See points 4,5, 8, and 9.

I wish I could say that my relearned lessons made things easier or less upsetting, but they haven’t. I’m tired and frustrated and dreading the next set of problems/tasks awaiting me this week added to the unresolved things from last week.

Wish me luck.

I need it.

Christmas tree 2020/21

It’s January 12th and our Christmas tree is still up.

We are lucky that fresh-cut Canaan firs are so resilient. It is not shedding needles and is still exuding a lovely scent.

It is still adorned with our usual assortment of ornaments – glass, ceramic, wood, metal, cloth – many of which were gifts or handed down to us or collected on our travels. There are LED light strands, which are great because they don’t use much energy, don’t get hot, and don’t dry out the needles. The angel I made with the help of a friend years ago is perched on top.

Ordinarily, we decorate our tree in mid-December and take it down at Epiphany. This year, we put it up in early December. It was the first time in several years that I actually wanted to decorate the tree, after several stressful years, although I admit that my energy to do so flagged mid-way through, sapped by memories of loss.

Still, it was nice to have it all decorated and glowing near the living room window.

And then, an avalanche of things happened.

Everyone knows about the horrific toll of the coronavirus around the world and particularly in the United States. The single day death toll topped 4,000 deaths for the first time on January 7th. More virulent strains are spreading. The vaccine rollout is too little, too late to tamp the spread for the winter, although it is offering some hope.

Everyone also knows about the precarious and dangerous political situation in the United States. The breach of the US Capitol by insurrectionist followers of DT and the destruction, violence, injury, and death they caused, coupled with the craven complicity/opportunism of dozens of Republican members of Congress, have thrown us into the most dangerous situation of my lifetime. I think the best course would be for both DT and Pence to resign, giving Nancy Pelosi the powers and protection of the presidency for a few days to try to stabilize the government before the January 20th inauguration. I know this is another exercise of my penchant for political fantasy, but I think it is perhaps the least dangerous of the possible paths, given that both Pence’s and Pelosi’s lives were threatened by the mob on January 6th.

While both of those situations are sapping my brainpower and motivation, the biggest factor in not taking down the tree is that I am spending a lot of time in trying to get my father settled into his new unit in assisted living without being able to physically go into the building to tend to things due to COVID restrictions, while dealing with cleaning out his apartment in independent living and handling all the nuts and blots of changing contact information with all the businesses, doctors, insurance, financial institutions, etc. [I have also been dealing with the aftereffects of my second shingles vaccine, which, while not as severe as after the first, are still bothersome.]

I was so proud of what I accomplished yesterday and had hoped to get more done today. Instead, I’ve had to spend most of the day so far on the couch. I can’t even wrap my head around making the string of phone calls waiting for me.

Tomorrow, I’ll need to get back at it, especially with the apartment packing and such. B, T, and I are hoping to have everything cleared out by the end of the long weekend for MLK Day.

The tree?

Maybe we’ll get to it over the weekend, too.

*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/12/jusjojan-prompt-the-12th-sing/

some assembly required

As I wrote about Saturday, I’m not doing what I expected I would be today, arriving in London, UK for a month, with two weeks in quarantine and two visiting family, including meeting our newest grandchild JG.

I had spent weeks making arrangements for the trip, letting lots of other things, such as writing blog posts, slide. Instead, I spent a lot of time on the phone and online covering personal and family obligations for the four weeks of the trip plus the two weeks of quarantine required by New York State when we returned. I, along with B and T, also spent hours and hours organizing and cleaning the house to be ready for my sisters to stay here to be on hand for our dad, known here as Paco, while we were away. I had planned time to work on my poetry collection while we were in quarantine. I also had some reading and blogging work lined up.

And now, I need to figure out how to organize myself for the next six weeks.

And in general.

Again.

Still.

In my experience, the thought that I can organize my life and have things go according to plan is an act of hubris or, perhaps, folly. Over these last decades, my life plans have seldom unfolded as envisioned. Things happen. Priorities change. Plans get abandoned or put on hold. This is not a complaint, but an observation.

I know I have limited control, yet I somehow feel the need to make a plan when I sense there is a turning point, or, at least, a juncture when circumstances have changed.

A consequence of the household re-organizing we did to get ready for my sisters to come house-sit is that, for the first time in almost four years, B and I have moved back into the master bedroom, which we had given over to daughter E when she moved back home for almost three years while waiting for her spousal visa to be approved in the UK. The nearby room that had served as ABC’s nursery has now become B’s at-home office; his office building closed in March due to the pandemic and no one knows if or when it will re-open. My desktop computer is now in a guest room upstairs, opposite where T’s room is and has been throughout all the rest of the configuration changes. The living room, dining room, and kitchen are more organized than they have been in years.

I suppose the first part of my plan should be to keep things clean and organized, which would be an ongoing chore as I don’t enjoy cleaning and organizing. One of the things that made the task of getting ready to leave so daunting was the psychic strain of dealing with sorting and packing cards and other memorabilia from the last few years which included my mother’s final illness and death and E and ABC living with us. In truth, I will most likely never have a minimalist house, especially as we are storing things from both my and B’s parents’ homes and our adult daughters’. Some of it may migrate to E and T eventually…

But I digress. There is some hope that I can use our new configuration to my advantage, such as getting used to writing sequestered with my desktop rather than my laptop in the midst of the household.

The larger issue may be to de-clutter my mind. Over these last few years, when intergenerational care responsibilities have been my primary focus, I have gradually been shedding more and more of the things that used to occupy my time, such as extensive research and commentary on environmental/social justice issues and on women’s equality in the Catholic Church. I still care about those things and keep up on them to an extent, but I have let my membership in a lot of the related organizations lapse as I attended to in-person responsibilities. Admittedly, my email inbox is still overflowing with news – and requests for money – from too many entities, but I’m hoping to whittle down further after the election to free up more time and brainpower for other things.

It’s not that I don’t still care about these issues. I am heartened by the convergence of social and environmental justice issues that has happened this year and I will continue to lend support, but I will do it through a few select organizations with which I have a special connection, such as NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby that I joined in observance of the Jubilee in 2000. I am also heartened by the witness and energy of the Millenials and Gen Z in this convergence of social, racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice and will gratefully support their leadership with what experience and wisdom I can offer.

I’m hoping that 2021 will bring a new administration and Congress to Washington that will restore functionality and care for the common good to our national government. The last four years have been disturbing and exhausting and keeping up with the news has become an obsession and a time sink. I’m hoping to get back to a place where it doesn’t take so much energy to keep up with the news so that I can concentrate on writing and other mental work.

One of the very immediate conundrums is that I have to wrap my head around being at home on election day this Tuesday. We voted early last Monday and I had myself mentally prepared to be in London, five hours ahead as the election results began to come in. Instead, I think I will be staying up late Tuesday night into the wee hours of Wednesday, as results begin to be reported. We all know that the vote count will take several days, but the early numbers may allow some states to be called on election night. I’m hoping that everyone – the politicians, pundits, and public – will stay calm and that there will be an orderly transfer to a new administration and Congress.

Personally, I’m hoping that I will be able to spend more time writing. I promise that will include some blog posts, although I’m sure I will never be the on-topic, on-schedule blogger-type. I most want to write more poems and do revisions to produce a new version of my collection that centers on the North Adams MA area where I grew up and to which I have returned as a member of the Boiler House Poets Collective. Optimally, I’d like to have it together by spring so that I can do a manuscript review with my poet-friends. I also need to do some more submissions for my chapbook. Rejections have been coming in and two contests that I had planned to enter this fall have been pushed back, so I will need to hunt out more opportunities. I should also send out some individual poems to journals; I’ve been ignoring this for the most part over the last several years but need to get back to it.

I suppose I’d better plan some time for writing holiday cards and letters…

I also need to factor in time for essential shopping and errands for our household and for Paco. The pandemic and the supply chain problems it has caused have made shopping a major undertaking. It has also changed the way I help Paco, as I try to minimize time indoors his senior community’s building. Eventually, when there is widespread vaccine use, I’ll be able to resume regular in-person visits, but for now I am trying to deal with most things by phone and quick drop-offs.

I don’t know whether or not I can make some semblance of a schedule for myself or a plan to better work toward these goals. I had some hope as I started to write this post yesterday, but now I have all the uncertainties of the election, the pandemic, and personal life swirling about in my head.

But, hey, here is a long blog post about to be published, which is in line with my goals, so….

Progress?

Stay tuned.

And send good vibes.

Old haunts

This is my last full day in the North Adams area. MASS MoCA is closed today, so I planned to go back to Monroe Bridge, Paco (my dad) and my hometown, and Hoosac Tunnel, Nana’s (my mom) hometown. I thought it would take a couple of hours this morning and I’d be back to the hotel by noon.

I got carried away.

I wound up stopping at a lot of old-but-changed haunts and taking tons of photos. (Don’t worry. I’ll only share a few.) Many of the ones I won’t show are unlikely to be meaningful to anyone without long-standing personal history in the area, as there is a lot of “what used to be here” in play. Warning: There will also be a lot of dams and reservoirs and hydroelectric plants. Paco was superintendent of the Upper Deerfield River (southern Vermont/western Massachusetts) for what was then New England Power Company and my sisters and I grew up traipsing around powerplants and such.

Sherman Reservoir – our house, which is no longer there, was near the dam that created the reservoir
Sherman Station, the hydroelectric plant just below the dam and our “neighbor”

The building in the photo below was built by the WPA in the 1930’s. My father and some of his siblings attended school there when it was new. It also housed the town office and library. They are still there, but most of the building is now offices for the current successor of New England Power Company. The array of mailboxes is a poor substitute for the post office, which was the center of town life for many years. Olga, the postmistress was a good friend of my mom’s; they saw each other nearly every day and stayed in touch after retirement and moves put them at a distance.

Front of the former school with tree dedicated to Olga Simonetti, former postmistress
Olga’s memorial plaque

I went down to the river and crossed the bridge; our town’s name was Monroe, but the mailing address became Monroe Bridge because they would leave the mail at the Monroe bridge. This iteration of the bridge was built in 2015. The dam is quite a lot older. Part of the old paper mill was torn down and replaced with a little park. The rest is still there, although the worse for wear.

I continued downriver. I visited the Dunbar Brook picnic area, which was deserted except for a toad that I startled as I walked across the grass. I got to take a ride on a swing, which was refreshing and nostalgic. When I went back to my car, I was surprised to see that the old road along the river leading toward the Bear Swamp lower reservoir was open. I drove all the way down to the gate just before the Number 5 Station.

Number 5 Station and the Deerfield becoming the lower reservoir for Bear Swamp pumped storage

When I went back up to the main road, I stopped to pay my respects at the Legate family cemetery. When Nana and Paco were first married, they lived in the old Legate House, which was then owned by New England Power. The house was torn down decades ago, but the little cemetery is still tended to.

I wish I could show you a decent photo of the lower reservoir for Bear Swamp. I wish even more that I could tour the underground powerhouse that we visited with Paco so many times as it was being built and after it was completed, but it is all fenced in for safety and security reasons. I will close, though, with a photo of the Hoosac Tunnel. Nana grew up in Hoosac Tunnel, a part of the town of Florida, Massachusetts, because her father headed a maintenance crew for the Boston and Maine Railroad. At the time it was built, the Hoosac Tunnel was an engineering marvel. This is the less-fancy eastern portal. The North Adams side was more decorative, befitting a growing city in the late 1800s.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to revisit my roots. I hope that the sense of connection and the energy and the comfort of familiarity will stay with me so that I can make progress on my poetry collection after I am home.

If not, I may have to come back.

Or, maybe, I’ll come back regardless.

a pandemic paradox

Over the past several years of spending a lot of time as a caregiver, I’ve valiantly tried to cut down the size of my email inbox, which is often overflowing with news, newsletters, and calls to action from various charitable, social justice, and environmental causes, along with personal and poetry-related emails. Even with my diligent attempts, I routinely handle over a hundred emails a day, which is still a lot, so I am unsubscribing from even more email lists and trying to avoid signing too many petitions which lead to my being on even more lists.

Paradoxically, as we have been avoiding in-person meetings over these last months, my inbox is full of invitations to connect via Zoom or Go to Webinar or some other platform. Instead of having fewer demands on my time, there seem to be more.

I can’t keep up.

In order to create some semblance of order, I’ve decided to narrow the selection of online events that I will accept. Of course, I will continue with my local poetry circle, which I call the Grapevine Group after the cafe where we used to meet pre-pandemic. I am also looking forward to the five-week summer session of the Binghamton Poetry Project, which, for the first time, is breaking into a beginner and a more experienced section. I am also signed up for six summer sessions with a local spirituality center that has had to re-convene virtually rather than offering in-person programs and retreats.

Beyond that, I plan to accept a very limited number of educational/advocacy meetings on social/environmental justice to keep informed and to take directed action. I am heartened by the increasing convergence of climate/environmental justice with racial/economic justice and want to advocate for effective change.

Beyond that, I hope to say “No” and continue to unsubscribe so that I have more time to accomplish what I need to and respond to ever-shifting circumstances.

(She writes, hoping she can actually manage to do so.)