Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Magically Aligned

It has been a year since we sold our childhood home. “Our mother’s house” is how we refer to it, even though she shared it with my father for 56 years. She was the one who was left in the end, so it became her house and remains so in description even after death. Occasionally I talk with my sister about going back to our hometown to visit. There really isn’t a practical reason anymore. The house is sold, the unveiling past, but I have friends there. People from my early years in college, or as I began my career, who I reconnected with on my regular visits to my mother. The last time I was there was for the closing on the house, when we sold it to the neighbor’s parents. The neighbors are from the Philippines and their immigrant parents lived with them. Now they have a family compound, two houses side by side on the block. As the children of immigrants, my parents would have appreciated the symmetry.

My parents set up two scholarship funds at the university where my father taught. I contribute each year on their birthdays. One of the things I’ve inherited is the reporting. Every so often I get a report on the funds and every year I get an invitation to the scholarship lunch. My parents used to love that lunch. They would go each year and meet the recipients, tickled that they could help someone attend college, once a dream so distant from their world. My father made it to college on the GI bill and my mother attended as an adult. The university was central to their lives. I’ve been considering driving to downstate Illinois, with a stop to pick up my sister, attending the scholarship lunch in honor of my parents. It is a commitment, an eight hour drive to a place with the echo of home, but none of the trappings, no mother, no home.

Many years back we went on a bit of a pre-commemorative tour with my father. A portrait of him had just been painted for the university. We stopped at the home of the artist to see the finished product, having my father pose behind his dignified image in that silly hat he wore with ear flaps. We evaluated the polish of that public image against the real person we grew up with. Later with my mother along, my parents took us to see the gravesite they had just purchased. It is in the Jewish section of the cemetery and familiar names populate the graveyard.  That tour was a precursor of what was to come. At my dad’s funeral we took a family picture around that portrait as it stood in for my father. Now, we visit them in the graveyard they introduced us to that day, both names now carved in stone.

We no longer have a childhood home as our destination. Now we are visitors. I can vividly picture our childhood room with my father’s clutter gradually filling it after we departed for college. In recent years when I visited I nested among clutter and memories, now only memories remain. I remember my mother on my last visit in the home, peeking in to reassure herself that I was there. "I thought I remembered that you were visiting," she said happily, unsure about trusting her shaky memory. 

“I wonder what they changed about the house?” I said to my sister in one of our lengthy calls. It occurred to us that we could pull it up on Google and view the exterior. I typed in the address and there was the house, largely hidden behind the enormous tree that they had grown from a twig, planted when I was a child.  A squirrel mid-run was immortalized in the driveway. My mother’s old car was parked down the hill. We tried to discern when the picture was taken. "It still has the old sidewalk," my sister noted. "And the bush at the end of the walk," I added. It's an old picture we agreed, one that predated her death and would not reveal changes. 

In that moment, it occurred to me that my mother was still alive at that time, behind the front door with its sign written in her hand - "Rose and Roo welcome you." Roo was her loaner cat and beloved companion. The door stood behind the enormous tree and inside was my mother, maybe Roo sat in his favorite spot looking out. "Mom, come out," I called, half-facetiously, but just for a moment wondering if I could stop the laws of time. "Mom!" I called plaintively, as if she might respond. In that moment, I almost believed she could, our two slices of time magically aligned. She perhaps feeling a twinge, looking around for her child, shaking her head with a rueful smile at her imagination playing tricks.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Venturing into the Unknown

Are you a risk-taker?  If so, have you always been or did you grow into it?  I was talking recently with my stepdaughter who remarked that she sees me as a risk-taker. Now if I am a risk-taker, I am definitely of the calculated risk variety, the one that assesses the best and worst-case scenario and decides if she could live with the downside in exchange for the upside. Then I hold my breath and jump. It does not come naturally to me, which means it brings its share of agonizing along with it. I’m curious if natural risk-takers go through a different process before they jump in. Or perhaps for them it is not even a jump.

My stepdaughter has a 12-year-old daughter who we watch with some awe and a little bit of envy. She has always been comfortable with risk. She’s a performer and she has great confidence in her abilities, even when they are still developing. Neither of us are built that way and view it as a leg up on life to be like that. I certainly wasted a lot of time being fearful of unknowns. On the flip-side, I’m pretty good at assessing risk, parsing the danger from the possibilities.   

There are two times in our life which are especially good for taking risk; when we are young and have little to lose and lots of time to recover, and when we are older and have left our career, once again with little to lose.  The latter is the stage that I am in currently so let’s take a closer look at it. I’ve proven myself to be a competent and capable person in a few arenas so I no longer need to prove myself. That’s not to say I don’t want to test my mettle in a new arena, just that it is optional. The pressure has lifted. I’ve done all the responsible adult things that allow me a certain degree of freedom now. Time to recover is really no longer as relevant, but using my time in a meaningful way is of great importance.

So how does one go from a fear of the world to tackling it and venturing into uncharted territory? I once had someone tell me that he thought I used fear as an engine of sorts to propel me forward.  I think there is some truth to that. I am most afraid of becoming a person whose world is conscribed by fear. That is what drives me forward. I picture a slingshot as I throw myself against that taut band of nerves within me that then shoots me forward into the unknown.  I learned to deal with fear from my mother who had a lot of fears, but the determination not to let them paralyze her. I am sure I was not an easy child for her as she saw herself in me, all the challenges that she struggled with and didn’t want me to echo.  She taught me not to give in to fear, but to step into it, slowly working my way through it.  Over time I learned to plunge forward until I could no longer easily return to safety. I was fortunate to have a mother who understood my inner workings. My father had no fear and would not have known what to make of mine. As I got better at wading through fear, I became more like my father, more ready to tackle the unknown, a risk-taker, but a very rational one, not one of those high on dopamine risk-takers in search of an adrenaline rush.

by Eve Liddell - Morguefile.com
We all are forced to take risks in our life. Some do it willingly and seemingly easily. Others are thrust into it kicking and screaming. And there are those of us who learn to accept it as a necessary part of life and possibly a doorway to new opportunities. We assess and we agonize and then we take the plunge.