She Did Good

There is much to be said about my mother that is negative.

There is much to be said about my mother that is negative. My brothers and I have talked about a lot of it. And a lot of it has been left unsaid. I, at least, keep my secrets, stories too horrible to share around a reunion picnic table when the nieces and nephews and grandkids are bringing snakes over for approval and babies are crying and being passed from one adult to another like sacks of sugar.

But what I wanted to say was that, despite all of the negatives, there was good in that woman. She had a rich and productive professional life, in her later years, and held a very fine reputation among her coworkers. She was a school counselor, and—apparently—a very good one. She helped many junior high school children who were troubled in various ways. At her funeral, a lot of people came to my brothers and me and told us what a fine person she was. We had difficulty accepting that view of her, knowing her as we had. But, since then, I have thought about her, and about many things she did and things I know about her, and I have come to understand much.

For Easter, when I was almost two years old, I received a stuffed dog. I named him Mac, after the dog next door. I still have Mac. He was my guardian, my confidant, my protector, my soul mate all the way through college. Actually, the Mac I have now is not the original Mac. I threw up on the first one, and my mother was unable to wash out the smell. The second one fell victim to Brother Jim’s reaction to typhoid inoculation: we were supposed to lie still in the lawn chairs, but he took Mac across the yard to the bird bath and rolled him in the slimy green water, then took him to the sandbox and rolled him in the sand. Our mother’s response to my screaming was not fast enough to prevent irreparable damage. The third Mac was the last Mac to be found in the metropolitan Detroit area. Stern injunctions were imparted to Jim and me to never let anything bad happen to him.

Jim had Bear, who was to him as Mac was to me. Mac and Bear, about every three years, would lose all their fur, or what passed for fur, and become pretty threadbare. Our mother never once suggested that we give them up, or put them away. With absolute sympathy, she simply said, “Mac needs a new coat! I will make him a slipcover. You sit here and watch.” And so we did. 

The first time she cut Mac’s skin open with scissors I was almost sick. I thought I would throw up. But she was very considerate. She cut on the seams, and she took off only one piece at a time, explaining to me that she would do that so he wouldn’t come apart. She put the piece down on paper, and drew a pattern, which—as she explained—she would always have for the future. Then she put that piece back on Mac, and cut loose the next piece, and made the pattern for it, and so on until she had pattern pieces for the whole Mac, even his ears and tail. 

While my mother made a slipcover for Mac, she told stories about her own childhood and growing up. We lived in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, but she had grown up in Washington, DC. She had lived in apartment houses, and—from the stories she told—that always sounded exciting and glamorous to me. One of the apartment houses was razed, because the U.S. Supreme Courthouse was built on that site. She talked about going to the Montessori school where her mother, my grandmother, taught, and having learned so much there that, when she started regular school when she was five, they had to put her in second grade.  ….  She almost failed the intelligence test, however, because—among other things—when she was asked what she would do if she found she was late on her way to school, she answered that she would turn around and go home. The “correct” answer was “Run!” But she knew that, if you were late, you had to have a note from your mother!

She talked about roller skating on the steps and in the halls of the Capital Building, and riding the Senate subway. She talked about summer camp, and the rest of the summer at a beach house on the Chesapeake Bay. She told many stories about her life after she and my grandmother moved to Detroit when she was fifteen. She especially liked to talk about her volunteer work in a community center working with a group of junior high age girls putting on plays. And she told the story of going to the summer camp for disadvantaged boys, where she was to be the store-keeper, and how – upon climbing out of the car and seeing an athletic young man, a counselor, across the way – she said, “I wouldn’t marry that man if he were the last man on earth!” Two      years later, that young man became my father.

And there was the milk. When I was fifteen, my mother became pregnant with her fifth, and last, child. Concurrently, I was in my last growth spurt—my long bones were stretching almost visibly, and they hurt. At night, the pain was virtually unbearable; I was near tears, and could not sleep. The doctor prescribed a quart of whole milk for my mother, for the baby’s development; it was mandatory, he said. The rest of us drank the God Awful reconstituted powdered skim milk that we had been drinking for the past three or four years. It was my job to mix the daily gallon of the stuff, and I had to hold my head away to do it, because the smell of it made me gag. I couldn’t drink it. The residual twelve cents from my lunch money each week did not go for candy, as did that of my brothers. It went straight back to the cafeteria for extra milk—and it still was not enough. I craved more.

My mother, with misgivings, started giving me a glass of her whole milk every night. We didn’t talk about it; I just drank it, pretty fast, immensely grateful for both the nutrition and the nurturing gesture. One night, my father saw her give me the glass of milk. He became enraged, and—while putting on his pajamas—shouted that the milk was for the baby, he could not afford milk for me, there was to be no milk for me!

I stood, glass in hand, stunned and hurt. My mother stood stock still, then raised her glass of milk over her head and hurled it the length of the room. The glass bounced off the keyboard of the piano and fell to the floor. For just a moment, a curtain of milk hung suspended in midair, arced at the top, single beads in strings at the curved bottom, above and between my father and my mother and me. It was uncommonly beautiful! Then it collapsed and fell, a gift no more. 

For a few more weeks, I continued to get a glass of whole milk every night. My fourth brother was born, quite healthy. He is now sixty-six years old and shows no signs of early malnutrition. 

Neither my parents nor I ever spoke a word about the curtain of milk. 

I finally understand that my mother, who did so many things that were hurtful, also was able to feel compassion and to respond to real needs. I believe she did the best that she could do, given the life she had. Most of all, I feel sorry—for her—that she did not have a better life.

The Meanings of Change

Part of my belief about change was expressed by my friend, Pat. As I visited with her one day, she told me about her recent visit with another friend, whom she had not seen for many years.

Part of my belief about change was expressed by my friend, Pat. As I visited with her one day, she told me about her recent visit with another friend, whom she had not seen for many years. 

Her friend said to her, “My, Pat! How you’ve changed!” 

Pat replied, “No! I have not changed. I have merely become that which I’ve always been becoming.” 

This is one of the best explanations of change that I have ever heard or read.

Think about all the changes that have occurred “since we were young.” Many things have changed. When I was still small, we lived in what would now be called “Yuppie” suburban Detroit. Waking up lazily on a late summer Sunday morning brought through the open window myriad neighborhood sounds. First, the clatter of Mr. Phelger’s hand-pushed lawn mower brought with it the smell of the fresh-mown grass. Later in the morning, we heard Kenny Miller’s gas-powered model airplane. Even later, I heard the slap of the Martins’ kitchen screen door as Dr. Martin went out to check his rose bushes for aphids. 

In the summer of 2005, I drove down our old street. The front yards were run down and the lawns were no longer neatly mown. The houses were unkempt. Surely no Yuppie would be caught with an SUV in any driveway on that street. We had left there a month before I turned eleven, on June 19, 1950, the day the Korean War started. I’m pretty sure, from letters my parents received from our former neighbors, that we—not at all on purpose—were the first to leave in what became a veritable exodus. 

When we arrived in Tennessee, seven of us lived for a year-and-a-half in a two-room log cabin with an add-on kitchen and nominal—but not-functional—bathroom that for the first summer had no electricity, running water, plumbing, or other amenities. The family doctor still made house calls when I left for college. We’d had a telephone in Michigan, but we did not get one in Tennessee until I turned seventeen. I had a panic attack the first time I had to call home during my first semester in college—long distance, on a dial phone in a booth. 

I never lived in a home with a TV until I married in 1964. Only five years later, in July, 1969, that TV died an untimely death while my first husband, Richard, and our children and I waited for the live video to return the pictures of the last moments of the Lunar Excursion Module’s descent to the moon. We rushed three blocks to Montgomery Ward and bought a tiny new TV. We got back just in time to see the lunar landing and hear Neil Armstrong announce: “One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” 

Look in our homes, in our driveways, in the stores, on our map, out in space. Can you point to any place at all where nothing has changed? Can you name a single change, any one of them, that happened all by itself without a (human) cause? Can you point to any single place where you have not had an effect, in some way? 

All these new technical gadgets! Games! Cell phones! Computers! Blogs! Twitter! Texting! WiFi! Who needs them? Do you have a GPS navigation system in your car? Have you thought about getting one? Why? Who among us does not have a cell phone? Or a computer? Did you have one when you were 25? Well, why do you have one now?  

If this is not your first cell phone or TV, how did you decide which one to buy this time? Did you just walk into the store and buy the first one you came to? Not on your life! You had some ideas about which features you wanted, and you looked at a bunch of models and compared them, and decided which had the best combination of features for the money, and bought that one. You drove change, because the manufacturer took note of the features you bought. When a new TV is designed, the most frequently chosen features this month will be built into the next technology for a new TV, cell phone, GPS, computer game, car, microwave, and food on the Space Shuttle. You’ve bought re-constituted freeze-dried food, even if you haven’t thought about it, and “they” have counted up how many “orange-flavored” boxes were bought, and how many “lemon-flavored” boxes were bought; you can bet your sweet bippy!

If you read the paper and watch the news on TV and engage in loud discussions about the “state the world is coming to,” do you go beyond that to act in such a way as to change the course of events? Or are you like me? I have not watched TV for more than thirteen years, I refuse to read a newspaper, and I have no desire to talk about any of it. Other than the unavoidable impact of the covert and hidden things over which I have no control, there seems to be no way I can have any real impact on (the results of) events that are controlled by powers and powerful people far beyond my reach. I do feel guilty about the impact I implicitly have but do not exercise. Most definitely, I am aware that my failure to act has an impact, a result, makes a difference, changes the outcome. 

Go back to the beginning of what I said. Even though the measure of my impact, of that change on the outcome, is minute, remember that it is permanent. So, even though I am human and forgetful, I try always to be Mindful. I try as much as I can to make my every action thoughtful because, even though I have no idea what—in some far off time or place—the effect may be, there will be an effect. I want it to be a good effect. I intend a good change, insofar as good means beneficial to the whole, to the unity and all there is in it. If that happens, every individual, also, will benefit. 

With all of the above in mind, and the knowledge that so many drastic changes have happened and are happening, I believe that the process of change, itself, is neither good nor bad. It is simply a major facet of existence. It is part of “becoming what always has been becoming.” Societies, cultures, nations, peoples, governments, policies, mores, machines, tools, toys will change. Some of the changes will seem pleasant to some people; some will undoubtedly be very unpleasant. All we can do is work hard. We can, and must, do the best we can do, where we are, with what we have to work in the moment. We cannot stop change. We cannot even change the fact of its occurrence. 

The French say, “C’est la vie!” 

Many Americans say, “Get used to it!” 

I say, “Do your best, whatever that’s supposed to mean!”


In 1979, we lived in Yorba Linda, CA, and wanted to move to Laguna Beach, a dream shared by many. We’d become such frequent lookie-loos in Laguna that our real estate agent, Annette, knew someday a sale would happen. She and I were friends by then.  “Whenever you’re in town,” she said, “give me a call and we’ll find a few houses to look at.” 

For two weeks that summer, we house-sat for some friends who lived in Laguna Beach. During our house-sitting stint, Richard was sent on a quick business trip to England. While Richard toiled away in England, I called Annette and set up an afternoon of house searching. We met at 1:30 and drove through several neighborhoods, viewing seven or eight houses, not one of which inspired me. Finally, at about 4:00, Annette pulled up in front of what looked like a dark gray concrete block water tank. She turned off the engine and put her hand on my arm. 

She looked at me seriously and said, “Before we go in, I feel I have to warn you about this house. It’s called Infinity.”

 I was curious. House? This is a house? Looks like a water tank to me. 

Annette continued, “Many people do not like this house. A few people do. However they feel about it, they feel strongly. I’ll be interested in your reaction.” 

“Okay,” I assured her. “I’ll let you know.”

We entered the house through a plain wooden door that was slightly to the left of the center of the rounded face of the structure. The door had a round window in it, a bit too high for my short stature. Inside, we walked through a curved entry to get to the hall. The kitchen was to the right and a guest bath to the left.

The kitchen was round, with a high service bar that opened out into the end of the large room to the right. Through the opening appeared a view down the canyon all the way to Main Beach and the ocean beyond. In the kitchen, all of the appliances were brushed stainless steel, which had not become popular as it is today. The surface of the countertops was dark Corian, also not yet commonly seen. The cabinetry was light-colored wood, ash or maple, and when I tested several of them, the drawers opened and closed silently and smoothly, as though they floated on air. The only color in the room was the royal blue of the ceramic tiles on the wall behind the countertops. Because the house was vacant, all surfaces were bare and starkly beautiful. 

From the kitchen we moved along the round wall to the large living room. Its back wall comprised the inside of the concrete blocks that formed the outer wall of the building. This wall curved to form an arc that came to a point where it was joined by the inner wall of the room. The inner wall, too, was an arc, made up of a series of large French doors that fronted on the canyon and presented the full view that I’d first glimpsed through the pass-through in the kitchen. The view also included the houses on the other side of the canyon, probably a half-mile distant. 

The wood frames of the glass French doors were painted white and from the far end of the room I saw that the inner arc continued all the way around to the other end of the house, where it again met the other end of the concrete block outer arc. Thus, the whole structure formed a section like a quarter moon. Except in the kitchen and bathrooms, all the floors in the house were covered with a deep-pile white carpet.

The living room, almost completely unfurnished, had three levels that stepped down from the same level as the kitchen to the lowest level that led out through the French doors onto a deck. On that lowest level, a white painted free-standing wood-burning stove was the only object in the room. The middle level was, to my eye, meant to hold huge pillows and afghans, and lounging conversations, while a grand piano surely should occupy the topmost level. Also, in front of the kitchen, outside the pass-through, there stood several tall stools for people who chose either to watch the cook or to eat what had been cooked. 

When I walked along the inner arc of French doors past the stools and the kitchen area, I came to the other large room on the lowest level. This room, intended to be either an office or a guest bedroom, also looked through its French doors across the deck to the houses on the opposite side of the canyon. The bathroom adjacent to this room had the same excellent cabinetry and counter surfaces as the kitchen. It also had a spiral shower. To get into where the water rained down, one walked through a spiral entry, so no shower curtain was necessary. 

On the second floor, the central circle directly above the kitchen was a studio or office space. When I saw it, it contained an architect’s drawing desk that displayed plans for the house. 

Most of the area over the living room was open to the roof, but—along the inner arc where the French doors were downstairs and similarly framed windows faced the arc upstairs—a walkway with a handrail extended across from the opening to the studio to the point where the two arcs met. This space immensely appealed to the child in me.

On the other side of the central circle, the master bedroom was a vast open space. The master bath contained a huge Jacuzzi tub and a separate, glass-walled shower. The cabinetry, of course, did not disappoint.

I felt I had come home at last, that Infinity was designed and built with me in mind. I felt more than that. I felt I was in a church. There was a unity in that house. It made me complete and, somehow, I completed it. It was not just a building, it was not just a home, it was a spiritual experience. Being in that space was a spiritual completion by, for, and of me. I had to live in that house.

Annette was patient. She left me alone and let me take my time. I went back and forth between the rooms. I tried all the drawers and doors. I checked the view from each room more than once. 

Finally I said, “We can go now.”

In the car on the way back to Annette’s office, I let her run through the list of the other houses we’d seen that afternoon. I made comments about each one and its good and bad points in the way we had of talking about houses, both of us knowing that I was not serious about any of them.

We went into her office and sat down. She fussed with some memos about calls that had come in. Then she said, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“Well, I can’t tell.” Annette, a supremely confident person, looked puzzled, uncertain. “Usually, you babble on and on and I can’t get a word in edgewise. You’ve hardly said a word for an hour. What is it? Didn’t you like it?”

“I must have it.” My voice was strong, but it trembled slightly, too.

“Oh! I see.”

“There’s a problem,” I stated flatly.

“Yes,” Annette agreed.

“Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” I quoted the listed price of Infinity in an emotion-free monotone, as though it didn’t matter.

“Well, that’s only the asking price,” Annette reminded me. “They usually come down some. I’d guess three hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, for real.”

“I’m willing to commit any crime. Possibly even murder. But I can’t get caught. There’d be no point.” I paused for a moment. “I’m going to have to think about this. How long do you think I have before there’s a serious buyer?”

“Well, I think (Annette named another agent) has someone ready to make an offer this week.”

“Oh. That’s a big problem. I don’t think I can move that fast.” I wanted to be realistic.

Annette looked at me inquisitively. She was beginning to understand how serious I was. “What are you going to tell Richard?”

“I don’t know,” I said a bit sharply. “That I have to have that house. He will say it’s impossible. And he will think that’s the end of it and he’ll forget about it and go on as if nothing had been said. But I won’t forget about it. I have to have that house.” I went on, “Can you help me figure out all the stuff about selling the house in Yorba Linda and all the available funds we have and all that crap, so I’ll know what the gap is I’m working to fill?”

Annette smiled. That was something she could do something about. “Sure.”

She and I met again in two days, and went through that exercise. The gap was pretty big. It was daunting. Terrifying. I had no idea where to turn, how to go about coming up with such a huge sum of money at all, let alone within a week.

*  *  *  *  *

The next day, Richard returned from England, exhausted from his travels. I barely greeted him. I let him get some sleep.

At breakfast the next morning, I said, “Richard, I have found the perfect house for us here in Laguna Beach. You have to see it right away. There’s a potential buyer.”

“Can’t it wait until the weekend?” he nearly whined.

“No,” I said. “That’s too late. We have to go this evening as soon as you get back from work.”

Richard saw Infinity. I saw that he thought it was interesting, but that was all. 

He spoke practically. “Our furniture will not all fit in that house. We’d have to give up some of it.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “The house is worth it.”

“How much is that house, anyway?” he asked.

I told him, “Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars is the asking price. But you know they’ll come down. Everybody does.”

“Not enough for us to come near affording it.” He was almost triumphant.

I felt deep disappointment that Richard did not experience Infinity in the same way I did. “Richard, I have to live in that house. It belongs to me. I belong to it. I belong in it. This is not a choice. The only dilemma is how to make it happen. Not whether to make it happen. Do you hear that?”

“I hear you say those words.” His voice revealed more than a little irritation. “But you are wrong. We cannot make it happen. Do you hear that?”

“Then I will have to make it happen by myself. Stand back.”

*   *   *   *   *

Annette showed me a way to get into the house without a key. For nearly a month I made two or three trips a week to visit Infinity. I went at different times of day, during the week and on weekends. Richard never went back. He had made his pronouncement and he, indeed, never gave it another thought. 

I spent every waking minute thinking about Infinity. I knew nothing about creative financing. I didn’t know anyone who did. I never did an illegal thing in my efforts to find the necessary money. Perhaps I should have, but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t know what to do, short of finding someone rich (I did not know anyone rich enough) and murdering them after I made sure they had a cool one-third of a million dollars on their person.

Then, early one afternoon when I arrived prepared to again break and enter, a car with a realtor’s tag on it was parked in the driveway. I crept around to the back and—idiot that I was—slipped through one of the French doors. A stereo on the middle level of the living room tiers played Smetana’s “The Moldau,” and when I sneaked up to the master bathroom I found the Jacuzzi bathtub full of hot water and bubbles. I knew I’d been overpowered. I beat a hasty retreat downtown to Annette’s office.

“Yes. I was going to call you later,” she said. “This morning, the agent closed the deal I told you about. They paid $328,000. You could never have come close. I’m so sorry. Oh Carolyn, I am so very sorry.”

“Well, I can’t really say it’s alright, because it isn’t. This is a unique experience. I’ve never been obsessed by anything, a person or an object, in my life before. But I have, now. It will take me a while to recover from this.”

 “Yes, you will recover. And we’ll keep on looking at houses. No other house will ever in your life be as wonderful to you as Infinity. But we will find one that you can live in, and live with. I promise.” Annette handed me a tissue to blot away the tears that had started rolling down my cheeks.

*   *   *   *   *

That was then and now is now. I know many things now that I did not know then. Had I known some of them then, I might have pulled it off. But thinking and saying that is merely second guessing. Many other paths have taken me in myriad unexpected directions since then. I cannot begin to wonder at how my life would be different now had I somehow manifested my passion. I know only that it was, indeed, a magnificent obsession while it lasted.

Thoughts About Aging

One day five years ago, while I cruised the Internet, I found a website that used certain information about the reader to predict their life expectancy. I answered all the questions and learned I can expect to live to the ripe old age of ninety-two-and-a-half.

That is twelve years from now, give or take a few days. Or one hundred-forty-five-and-a-half months, or six hundred and thirty-three weeks, or four thousand, three hundred and twenty-nine days. That’s a lot of opportunities!

I’m in excellent health, so there’s a good chance I will beat even those odds. That’s encouraging. I used to go to a Saturday morning Yoga class. There were a number of ninety-plus women in there, and they gave me a run for my money when it came to doing those exercises. That, too, made me feel optimistic.

I think “aging” is pretty much a matter of how you think and where and how you look. Until about two years ago, I thought of myself as a twenty-three year-old. Now, my initial, fleeting, thought is I am thirty-seven. My visual picture of myself, still, is the “girl” my first husband met when I was almost twenty-four. I get a big surprise when I look in the mirror. In truth, if I don’t look carefully right away when I look in a mirror, I do not see myself as I actually look now. It is as if I must clear away the young girl. I don’t think this is “foolish,” or “bad,” or “crazy.” I think it is one way I remain lively and energetic.

Another place to look is your calendar. If it is empty, so are you. Yes, you might “enrich” yourself by reading, even, perhaps, by watching television or doing puzzles but, if you do not truly interact with other people, that enrichment will become so much waste material.

Consider those people with whom you do interact. How old are they? Are they your age? Older? Younger? Why do you think you are attracted to them? For many years, now, I’ve had two distinct groups of friends. The members of one group, mostly women, are about five years older than I. These are the friends with whom I share both commiseration about the miseries of old age we all experience and fond memories of past decades, with a generous smattering of tales about grand- (and great-grand-) children. 

The second group, which for most of the past four decades has included more men than women, is made up of folks who are about fifteen years younger than I. We share interests in music, building things, science (with emphases on computers and aerospace), and books on many subjects, all written by exceptionally good authors. 

Last, but not least, my fourteen-year-old autistic great-nephew recently entered my life with persistence and a variety of interests to explore. He’s a keeper, too. Maybe he’s the harbinger of a new group of compatible souls? 

A good sense of humor is required, and characteristic, of all my friends.

Finally, look to the place where you find whatever it is that you know as spiritual connection. Some follow a proscribed system of beliefs and practices; others commune with nature; some claim no spirituality, but find communal spirit in the company of like-minded others. Whatever the form of connection, your relationship with it—the strength of your experience, the frequency of your conscious practice and, most important, the expression of it in your everyday life—becomes, in the final analysis, the ultimate summation of your entire life. It is how you will be remembered.

Review of Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Today I introduce a book in a review about five books, but especially about one of them, Teacher. The author is Sylvia Ashton-Warner, an English woman who went to New Zealand to teach five-year old children for two years and, instead, stayed there for the rest of her life. The main story of the five books is of romance but perhaps the stronger story is of her work with the Maori children. 

It is difficult to say who benefits most from that work—Ms. Ashton-Warner, the children, or the reader of the books. Ms. Ashton-Warner is a gifted writer; there’s no doubt about that. She was a gifted teacher, too, a teacher who instinctively understood that these children lived in a time and space, a world, entirely different from that she’d left behind. The rigid, proscribed and goal-driven methods of teaching would not, could not work within the Maori context. She must begin where these children were, and work from there. Not only that, she must do so for each child, not for the class as a whole. Each life, even by age five, was unique in experience and interpretation of reality.

Ms. Ashton-Warner listened to each child. She created a set of cards for each child. She asked the child for a word, then another. She added those words to that child’s set of cards. As time went on, they added more words; so grew each stack of cards. That set of words became that child’s Key Vocabulary. The Key Vocabulary was easily read; it rapidly became the basis of early writing. From that set of building blocks, work in other subject areas developed.

There’s not time and space here to do justice to Ms. Ashton-Warner’s insight and method. I encourage you to find and read a copy of Teacher. You will soon understand that this woman instinctively understood what most of us who love and work with people with autism learn as a way to teach them that quite often works, and works well. As one such parent, I can say only that I know this well. Before I read her book, I had done most of the things she did, and they worked for my son and me. I haven’t her talent as an author, but I can, and do, recommend a good story, a good read, and a good result when I see them!