Turning Points

Although I am not ready to celebrate the end of the pandemic yet, I have had the vaccine and like a sand crab inching out of his burrow, I want to inch forward, too. While excited, I know that turning points can be fraught with difficulties and stress.  But I also know that life has prepared us to face change. Like a sand crab we will find our way back to the surface. Indeed, we know that tomorrow will be better. Life has taught us this. Cancer taught me this. Friends taught me this.

Here is one story that showed me that change, even hard change, can lead to surprising growth. I arrived at Purdue University near the end of the Viet Nam War.  Like most college students, I hated that America was engulfed in a war that had no justification. The war stalemate left the campus with a perplexing malaise. Nonetheless, I was blissfully idealistic and had high hopes I could make a difference in the lives of others. I wanted to major in psychology and be a therapist, and I secretly longed to be a writer. Better yet, an author! I had no clue how those two majors would sync up, but I was determined to major in both. In high school I had won a few minor writing awards, and I did excessive listening to the problems of friends. I harbored a deep-seated belief that these subjects were my future.

Within a few months my hopes of becoming a writer had been dashed. My first writing teacher tortured me with B after B, and he slashed unexplained red marks across my papers. One day in class, he insisted we were all “sludge writers.” Although there was no way to Google the term back then, I knew it was bad. “Every one of you need to find another major,” he yelled at us. “None of you—I repeat none of you—will ever be able to make a living as a writer.”

In the coming year, my psychology instructors made their field appear to be a rabbit’s hole of research and exploration into the minds of those suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and paranoia. I searched the course catalog for just one class that was uplifting, but positive psychology did not exist yet. That semester I took my first (and last) class of psychological research, commonly called “rat lab.” In the second month of class, a virus swept through the lab and killed all the rats. I took it as a sign.

On my way home after the rat lab debacle, I ran into a friend who was heading to the Union to sign-up to tutor inner city students. On a whim, I went with her. This is how I came to spend my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons tutoring nine-year-old Rodney in the basement of the local Presbyterian church.

In our first session Rodney wore a Pacers jersey, and we argued over who was the best player on the team. When I realized he knew more about the team and their stats, it was easy to introduce his math lesson by teasing him that he certainly knew numbers. And he did. His language was basketball and math. Both were games to be played, and he liked them.

But reading was no game, and Rodney was not a fan. One day as we struggled through a story in his classroom reader, he made a confession. “I’m not like my sister!” Turns out that his three-year-old-sister Stephie loved books. “She pretends to read them aloud over and over,” he said. “It’s hilarious. She makes up all kinds of things!”

One day when Rodney’s mom dropped him off, I met Stephie.  She had a heart-shaped smile and a bouncy Afro pulled into mini ponytails tied in pink ribbons that seemed to have sprouted all over her head.  Her walk was more of a rock dance than a walk.  When Rodney introduced us, Stephie hugged my legs. I was charmed!

A week later when Rodney needed to write a character description, he decided to write about Stephie. We titled it “Rah! Rah” which was a nickname that sprung out of her mouth when she could not say Rodney. The name stuck, and so did Rodney’s memory of the antics Stephie pulled. “One day she took her baby doll in the bathtub, and they had a tea party, but Stephie drank so much soapy water her tummy hurt, and the baby doll—well she looked like she drowned!” A bit like a young comedian learning to work his audience, Rodney told me story after story as we worked on his assignment. He wrote how Stephie loved to punch holes with her straw in her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “She thinks they taste better!” he noted. “What’s the funniest thing she had said lately? I asked.  Rodney thought for a minute before answering. “Last night when we went to bed, she said, “Mommy, please wrap me up just like a Dorito!”

Later that month we finished reading a dog-eared copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I found at a second-hand bookstore. While I did most of the reading, Rodney worked at it, and I sensed it was making a difference.  He was changing. So was I.

After class one spring morning I was headed home from campus, but I kept thinking about my work with Rodney. I felt I was on the cusp of something significant. A turning point.  While tutoring was not a class, I realized it had been my most fulfilling learning experience since arriving on campus. As I walked down State Street, I became totally caught up in the shadows of the oak tree leaves that fell around me. The darkness of these shadows danced around me, and suddenly I paused to stare at them in wonder as they whispered to me. In that moment I felt the warmth of the sun on my cheeks, and as I lifted my head skyward, I could see the sun light as it filtered through the darkness and shone like diamonds in the sky.

I knew what I had to do. My start at Purdue had been bumpy, but it no longer mattered. I had discovered what I loved doing–and I could do it. Perhaps for the rest of my life. I turned around and headed back to campus counseling. I would become a teacher.


Embrace the Silence

She was silent. It was hard for her, introverted and shy, to join my book club. She had explained that she had been living amid COVID-19 and California wildfires, and still trying to align a life after the loss of her husband. But she brought a quiet, calming aura into our Zoom room with her. On the third week we read these lovely words by Mary Oliver:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

That day Elsa found her words. “I love being outside. I love the quiet. While I cannot find my words or seem to write much these days, I find comfort here. Comfort in the quiet. Comfort in being in this community.”

Her words pulled me back into my high school classroom where I remembered a beloved student who was shot in the head while chasing a customer who had walked out of Walmart with a television. I remember my classroom of bereaved teenagers who circled around the empty desk where Lucas had sat. It was in that moment that I learned my students, who wrote almost every day, could not write. They had lost their voice. They needed silence. They needed time to heal. I learned then when a personal story shatters, our brains need time to wrap ourselves in it. To understand it, to accept it, and to learn to live with it.

After Lucas death, I told my students about a powerful little book, Night. When the author, Elie Wiesel was a teen, he was herded off to the concentration camps in Germany. After these traumatic experiences, Wiesel claimed he was unable to write about them for ten years. He published Night in 1960. Fifteen years after the war.  But when he did write about his experiences at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, his words helped the world see inside the nightmare of his life during World War II. In moving his story into words, he came to understand his story and infuse it with meaning that would help him carry it forward to the world and help us understand the atrocities of living in Nazi Germany.

Recent studies support the fact that silence lowers our stress and allows us to internalize and reflect on new and painful information. With time our minds can learn to edit our difficult experiences and move forward. We can learn to interpret or hold a difficult story in a new way. After a memorial to Lucas a couple of weeks after his death, we were able to come together and create a beautiful journal of mementos and written tributes to our dear friend. We were able to find our voices and share our stories of Lucas.

Back to sweet Elsa who had lost her voice. Several weeks later, in a writing class, she began to share snippets of her painful story. First, she wrote about the shock of losing her husband John to a heart-attack. Then she wrote of her sister Margie whom she saw as strong and gifted in many areas. “She dove off the high dive on the first attempt at the L.A. High pool where we learned to swim. I crawled to the top and leaped–eyes shut, legs bicycling in a height-driven panic.” A fierce competition had splintered their relationship, and as they grew up, they grew apart. Eventually Margie charged forward as a career woman, and Elsa married John and became a teacher.

In our last class, Else shared the story of a Thanksgiving when there was a blowout with Margie angry at how John treated Elsa. The pain of the event pulled the sisters further apart until one heart-ripping night. Here is the ending to Elsa’s story that she read to us:

”It was Margie whom I called from Monterey Hospital at 2 am on April 18, 2015, to tell her John had a heart attack. In the coming days, it was Margie who drove me back and forth each day for the 45-minute drive, while John remained in intensive care. It was Margie who was there holding music up to his ear to comfort him in the last days of his life. It was Margie who brought me home to an empty house and stayed with me.

Margie has shepherded me through these last six years. She has helped me regain a sense of stability, stamina, courage, and fortitude.”

I looked around our Zoom room and as small as the screen photos were, I believe I saw glistening eyes in every box. After all these years, Elsa had found her sister.  Although it had taken time and silence, Elsa had something else, too. She had reclaimed her own beautiful voice.

A Legacy of Love

My dad wrote his first love letter in 1942.  As a Purdue engineering student at the time, he came to Richmond, Indiana, with a fraternity brother to celebrate Thanksgiving because he was short of cash for the train home to Pittsburgh. While in Richmond he had a blind date with my mom. “She was the smartest woman I ever met,” he once told me. “She was never uppity—and there was this light in those blue eyes.” He began hitch-hiking to Richmond regularly.

My dad wooed mom with Frank Sinatra music. In the coming years, he wrote a couple dozen love letters. I know because my mother admitted to me they were hidden in the nightstand by their bed. “He was no Romeo; he was an engineer,” my mom explained. “But his love letters showed me that he had a beautiful heart.” I wanted to read the letters.

Sandra's ParentsWhen dad graduated, they married and my mother followed him to Southbend, where my brother Les was born, and to Hartford, where I was born, and then back to Southbend where Charley was born, and eventually onward to Indianapolis, where we grew up in a suburb south of the city. In Indianapolis my dad helped design the first jet engine parts, and my mother undertook caring for our home and grew prize-winning roses.  Once she told me, “I missed my home in the early years of our marriage. Sometimes, I cried,” she admitted, “But your dad would hold me, and it was okay. Then we made our own home. Our own family.” She believed this was the most important thing you could do, and she did it well.

While she discouraged me from thinking I would grow up to be a homemaker, she embraced being one. I have endless images in my head of her hanging the laundry outside, scrubbing the kitchen floors, and sewing our clothes on her Singer Sewing machine. She hummed as she did her chores. Frank Sinatra tunes.

At noon each day my dad called my mom to check on the stock-market, but as I recall it now, he was really checking on mom. Telling a joke. Perhaps flirting with her. Since he was once was mistaken for Frank Sinatra, he would often insist he was the famed actor calling. Many afternoons after the school bus dropped me off, I would run up the hill, hoping for the smell of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies—my dad’s favorite. At four each afternoon my mother prepared a meatloaf or a casserole and then she took a bath and put on fresh clothes. When my dad pushed through the door with his briefcase, my mom always seemed to light up the room. Then there was a long, warm embrace. Every day.

My parents must have fought, but I only have images of them yelling at my brothers or me for bringing the neighbor’s dog in the house or forgetting to ask when we stayed late at school. When there was a disagreement brewing, dad had a tried and true line to spout, “No one can argue with a man who looks like Frank Sinatra.”

My dad met my mom on what he called “the luckiest day of my life.” They shared 72 years together, and during that time I took their love for granted, but I never doubted it. Only now do I realize my great fortune. When dad died five years ago, I asked my mom if I could read the love letters he wrote to her. She looked a little sad. “Your dad asked me to burn them a few years ago. At this moment, I am sorry I did.”

I would love to have those love letters. But at least I still hold in me the beauty of their story. Now my parents share a niche in a lovely church garden. I visit them from time to time to honor what they gave me and what they shared, a love that seems to have transcended time. This is my legacy of love. An incredibly fortune one.

What is your legacy of love?  Often we have to reach beyond the boundaries of family and even our losses to find them.  A sibling who has passed? A mentor?  A friendship? A lover? A pet? What is your legacy of love?

The Science of Love Letters

According to Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg, love is composed of three basic components–

  • Intimacy
  • Passion
  • Commitment

Which element matters the most when you are writing a love letter or declaring your love to another? While an ideal love needs all three, one study showed we prefer commitment above all else. It would a good idea to sign love letters with “Forever Yours” or “Love Always!”