Struggling With Comparisons

Struggling With Comparisons

I have always struggled with comparisons.

Am I as smart as person X? What about the house I live in, is it okay? What about the life I have, the job I have? On and on and on.
Not a charming habit at all. I could blame a childhood living on the wrong side of the tracks (literally) or anything else I can think of. But, in fact, it is long past time that I learn to be grateful. Just that. And, I think I am learning, at least some rudiments of it.
Today I go for a PET scan and tomorrow I consult a specialist in liver ailments for the side effects of chemo treatment, not so fun. And I am not at all a sunshiny person. Well, I like humor, sort of semi dark humor, but that’s not sunshiny. Anyway, what can I think of? Well, I can be glad that the cancer seems to be tamped down, my oncolosit’s words. So, the PET scan should I hope, I hope, provide no negative surprises. Also, I am constantly amazed at the hopes of women on the advanced breast cancer sites. They are not whiners!

But I still come back to this, what I am really grateful for, not just what am I supposed to be grateful for?

Hmmm. I feel profound gratitude for my family, for Ken, for the children and their families, for my extended family. I threaten to go off to a Buddhist nunnery and their days I do feel that, but I am so grateful for the love. All that love that I did nothing to deserve. People can’t deserve the love they receive anymore than they deserve the grief they receive. We like to think so. We like to think that fair is fair, justice is rewarded. Well, it can seem like that, but truthfully I think it’s way more complicated. Karma is complex and who am I to say, “I deserve that these people should love me, after all, I took them to Zingerman’s?”
I am grateful for friends, friends who call, who come to visit, who send cards, who just extend themselves. I am grateful for neighborhood. I actually know people in my neighborhood and I am certain they would help me if needed.
But it gets so complicated. Today’s New York Times (support your papers!) has a photo of a young fifteen year old girl being led to marry a man more than twice her age. Her face is one of grief and fatalism. So, stay with me on this. What does it mean? Am I grateful that did not happen to me? That it won’t happen to my grandchildren? Of course. Of course. But such gratitude leaves me feeling squeamish. Like I am setting myself apart. Maybe gratitude is something that we are supposed to do something with? That makes sense to me. We can’t hoard it. We have to do something with it. What that is, is individual.
OK. So I will try to be grateful for the PET scan and the specialist. Even though I am still a person who would eat roots if that would help rather than go into a machine and stay there for a half hour.
I will practice gratitude for the moment, for friends, for the finches at the feeder, for Netflix, Facetime, the movies (Hidden Figures, Lion, United Kingdom, Fences…)
I am pretty certain I will forget and obsess again. Will I be around awhile? That’s the question, and just having that question (normal, I know) obliterates the moments in time that I do have.

Weeks Later: It’s been a looong eight to ten weeks.

The liver enzymes went up and we decided to watch and see. It became unnerving. I still don’t know the full story until Tuesday, but this past Tuesday, I began yet another treatment. I AM grateful for another treatment and it’s not going badly. Some extra fatigue, a fussiness about what I eat, but hey, what’s really to not be grateful for? On the worst of the days of the long wait, I had a bone scan, a Cat Scan, blood draws then had to go back to get another scan for the bones. (The radiologist was being super careful, so blessings on that radiologist!) But that day I found myself saying, “This isn’t living.” Not a remark to make Ken feel any better. That was the worst day.
But then there was the day we had our youngest son’s wife’s baby girl shower at the TEA HAUS on Fourth street in Ann Arbor. It was completely wonderful. Family came from all over. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania. At the end of the party, big brother Sean burst in on the scene and I was struck with what I do have in life, awash in gratitude. So, here’s to family and caregivers, doctors, nurses, neighbors, friends, and the stranger on the street who calls out, “I think you dropped your glove.” I am, at least for this time, grateful for all of you.
PS Liver markers better. So that’s easy to be grateful for! Also check out the children and their children. Another easy-to-be-grateful gift!

Reflections On Stage Four Cancer

Reflections On Stage Four Cancer

It’s not a group anyone would join willingly.

…But, it is a group I have joined and see every week. There’s age range and a mix of male and female. There’s a group leader. We talk and talk and sometimes we leave uplifted and sometimes we leave feeling worse than when we came.
If it sounds like an AA meeting, it isn’t. It’s a cancer support group and the goal of every person in the group is to stick around.
Everyone wants to be walking upright on this planet of ours, to write another book, sing another song, act in a play, or knit a scarf. Cancer changes the way a person thinks about time. Cancer changes every single thing in your life. So, we sit and talk about that. The group is varied. We have a range of cancers: lung, breast, brain, prostate, you name it; we all know something about all kinds of cancer from sharing our stories. We are older and younger, male and female, and we all try very hard to help each other. Many weeks I wonder what we have in common that took us to this place. Did we all drink from too many plastic bottles of water? Did we fail to exercise enough? What, oh what, did we do to end up in this group?

Sometimes I don’t want to make the turn into the driveway to be in a cancer support group again, to sign in as the Patient. I am anything but patient. I want to do what I planned to do at this stage of my life! I want to hike ten miles, write another book, work with refugees. But, I know that what I have, is now, at this moment, in this group, right now with these people that I truly care about. I have this and if I throw it away because I keep looking over my shoulder at the life I had or imagined, then I have nothing at all.
I wasn’t sure that I’d talk at all about this part of my life. But I am talking about it because I feel that people do not know much about Stage Four Cancer. It’s not their fault that they don’t know very much. There are not droves of research dollars that go into Stage Four Cancer. I admire the hard work of researchers. I am grateful for good treatment and health insurance and support. I am grateful to be able to be writing this.
I am grateful to be here.

The plea of people who have a Stage Four Cancer is: Stage Four Needs More! (Meaning funding, of course.)

More attention is good too. And hopefully, this is happening. Meanwhile, I am scouting every site, every new trail, anything that seems feasible. I listen to my oncologist and either nod in agreement or choke back fear.
Most of my friends and the people I meet are kind and respectful when they refer to my diagnosis. But sometimes, people will say, “Didn’t you have your mammogram?” I understand that it’s very hard to know what to say to someone in my situation. I understand the need to protect yourself by trying to come up with a reason that a person has cancer, in my case, currently incurable, hopefully chronic.

But, please don’t think that it’s someone’s fault that they are living with cancer.

Don’t assume that if someone has lung cancer, it is because she or he smoked. I, myself, used to think that was the case. It is not. Most lung cancer diagnoses are for NON SMOKERS. (Lung Cancer Rates Surging For Non Smokers)
Consider this, even if they smoked a carton a day, would they deserve cancer? I don’t think so. Reject the idea that if that woman had only gone for a mammogram on time, she would not be diagnosed with Stage Four. Nearly thirty percent of women with breast cancer will have Stage Four disease at some point. (Breast Is it because they didn’t live right or have bad genes? Oh, if only we had a map, a road to follow!
I, myself, believed in good living, exercise, diet, (plus the bag of chips from time to time). I still do. I really do. But I am at a loss to know how I got to Cancerland. I could consider genes, but my dad lived to ninety-nine. My mom lived to be eighty-three. And not one of my six siblings, even the two who both smoke and drink, has cancer. Scrub that idea!
It’s not horrible to want to cheer the winning team, not the struggling team. It’s not horrible to believe you will evade Cancer somehow. Surely I thought that too. But, that was before I had my diagnosis. Now, I live with cancer; now I try to value the time I have.
I want the people in this group to survive. I want them to be able to grow old, to have grandkids. At least, I want them to be around and to have a good quality of life two or three years from now. Then maybe five? Is that even possible? Time would be great.
I want the people in my group to be vocal in asserting themselves and advocating for more funds. I want the mentality of silo thinking (researchers keep their findings to themselves) to be gone. Oh I want so much! Then I need to remind myself yet again to be where I am and do the good it is possible to do. (Some days it seems like not very much.)

Anyone can receive a diagnosis of cancer and wonder how they got to Cancerland.

They were never planning to go there! Their plane must have been plane hijacked! The place they wanted to go was Italy. This place, Cancerland, is like a very bad Motel Six next to a strip mall. Who would want to be in this place at all? Heck, even the corner party store would be better… if we could only say once again with surety in our voices, “Yeah, I plan to do that in a few years.” But here we are. We make the best of it most days, some days it is much harder. Still on any given day I think the following: Yeah for life. Yeah for the cancer support group! Yeah for caregivers and family and even the gray Michigan sky!

Ken, Roo and the Groundhog

Ken, Roo and the Groundhog

Ken is a gentle person. He rarely yells.
He expects decency from people and tries to reciprocate, but he does have his quirks. He CAN get angry.
Let him see a groundhog in our yard and he goes berserk. He’ll run out of the house, waving his arms and shouting. He’ll chase it until it scuttles under the fence.
“There,” Ken says to me. I stare at him. I don’t know what to make of this. Surely he knows he can’t win?

Ken Battles the Groundhog

Now I do understand that planting collards and kale only to have them eaten by the groundhog is frustrating. Yesterday we went out to get collards and most of them were gone, gone, gone. Then, later in the day my sister who was visiting looked out the kitchen window and said, “What is that trying to jump up your tomato cage?” I knew only too well what it was.
Fortunately (both for me and the groundhog), Ken was at the University of Michigan football game. So my sister and I shooed it away. But what was the point? I knew it would be back. And, it was.
It’s a waddling slow kind of creature at times. Eating the grass, which is fine, looking around. But then it gets greedy and heads for the garden and it eats whatever it wants. It can climb up the tomato cage, dig under the fenced-in collards, and decimate the lettuce. Whatever is there, it eats.
“I’m going to throw a rock at it, “ said Ken one day in a fury. All his kale, the second new planting had been chewed to the ground. “You can’t, “ I said. “That’s cruel. And it’s bad for the grandkids if they know about it.”
“Don’t tell them.”
“You can’t throw a rock at any living thing!” (I sounded obnoxiously righteous.) He didn’t throw a rock. But he went out to the yard and started hauling big stones from the back woody area. He searched for every entrance point he could find.
He enlisted our young grandson Roo when the Mid-Michigan Korals came. Ken and Roo walked around the fence that separates our yard from out neighbors. They prowled the back woody area, lugging stones and using them to block entry points.
Roo is just a little kid, only nine, but he hustled to be with his Grand Ken. Bella and Lex turned out to help too. Lex is eleven now and Bella is seven.
I refrained from pointing out that it was hopeless. Or at least, not very hopeful. If you block one entry point, the groundhog will seek another. We would have to cement the entire back yard to keep that groundhog out.
Well they got enough stones to line the fence, about fifteen feet or so. Ken heaved a sigh of satisfaction. He and Roo and his siblings downed ice cream and discussed how great it would be to not have all the tomatoes eaten. They could make BLT’s with a combination of those summer-ripe tomatoes, the crisp lettuce from the garden combined with the crunch of bacon (turkey bacon in our family) that makes it good. Roo and his siblings nodded and planned to go out and pick the biggest tomatoes, the ones that needed only a few more days to ripen.
Once they brought the tomatoes inside, we’d toast the bread and we’d have those sandwiches with ice cream for dessert. Drumsticks are the current favorite, the vanilla ones with chocolate topping.
The Mid-Michigan Korals left for home after hugs and kisses and Ken congratulating the kids on a job well done. “ See you this weekend,” he said. “I’ll make sure everything’s ready.
We read late that night. I was engrossed in a book by Asne Seirestad, a Norwegian journalist. It’s a book about the Bosnian war, With Their Backs to the World. Ken was finishing his Henry James, a dark one where the main character suicides at the end of the novel.
You might remember that another grandson of ours is staying with us while he attends Washtenaw Community College. He gets up early to make class and he took the this photo one morning.
We will get our tomatoes from the Farmer’s Market.

A Pointless Reading

A Pointless Reading

Do I mean the reading was pointless?

No. If you look at the picture you see me with a person I admire and like to be with, Tori Tomalia.
If you are in the Ann Arbor area, chances are you might have read about Tori and her husband who opened an improv comedy venue, called Pointless Brewery & Theater. It has regulars who perform on Friday and Saturday. But the two of them are dedicated to community. So, Sunday is open mic night. You can read (which I did) sing, do an improv, play an instrument… whatever you come up with. It’s a welcoming place! I had a great time reading once I realized that I would need to focus on the page and would not be able to see people because of the stage lighting. Jason, Tori’s husband, crafts great beers that are for sale.
Find you way to Pointless and try open mic.!

Pointless Brewery & Theater

3014 Packard
Ann Arbor, MI 48108

The Free Library

The Free Library

The Free Library is up at 1643 Broadway.

People are taking books, magazines and DVD’s.  They are leaving books and magazines and an occasional DVD. So, I am excited and happy. I have wanted to do this for at least two years since I first heard about it but I dawdled.  I checked online for prices. Not so cheap.
This year, Ken said, “Do it.”  We are living  with gratitude. I am still here and pretty healthy for Stage Four Cancer.  Ken hired our great neighbor (who will be moving) Jan to dig the post hole and our grandson, a great guy who is living with us and going to college, made and painted the post. We picked out our library on line.  One summer day Dante, the live-in grandson, and Ken put it up. I was thrilled. I thought we should be dancing in the street.

It’s in the photo above.

I sent out a notice to our neighborhood group and hoped for the best.  These are books after all., not audiobooks, not on a tablet. Would anyone want one?  I waited. I looked out the window the next morning and the little library was there alright, green with a gray roof and a sky-blue post.
Ken came into the bedroom with a cup of tea and said,  “I just saw the greatest thing.  I was heading out to get the paper” ( Another fading icon. But it IS the New York Times.) “and saw a little girl opening the door to the library. She put in a book and took out the Golden Books you had there. She ran to the car where he mom was waiting with blinkers on and calling out what she had. I didn’t want to scare her, so I stayed back”. ( He was wearing his orange robe, a sunhat and pajama bottoms, a site alright!

I took the girl as a good sign.  And it seems to be true.

There are numerous free libraries  in Ann Arbor. For them to work best, they should beon a street with lots of foot traffic. Fortunately, Broadway has lots of foot traffic. What do you find of you look in one?
Well, it’s like of like hunting around at a thrift store. You never know. It changes from week to week.  There is literature, Erdrich, Ondatjee,… murder mysteries, always popular, commercial lit, Ann Tyler, kids lit, and picture books from time to time.

Why do it?

I grew up with a mom who gave meter readers ( which we had then) coffee and home made bread with apple butter.
I was one of seven kids, four uncles and my parents living in a three bedroom- one bath house. I had plenty of people who would stop to listen to what I had to say. ( Being verbal I always had a LOT to say.)  It wasn’t perfect, but it WAS connected. I had no idea when I went off with Ken far from St. Mary’s in a place where I knew almost  no one that I would not have community. How could I know and it would not have made a difference anyway.
I made my choice, likety split.  Only afterward did I realize that Ken and I had different views of what connection is. He is happy with a few people and his science.  He doesn’t need to talk all that much.  (He is a super guy. Don’t get the wrong idea! He brings me tea EVERY morning. I am crazy about this guy who almost never needs to talk that much)

I crave neighborhood.  I love connection.

Free libraries allow for people to stop in front of your house. Maybe you will get to exchange a few words. Maybe the person will just pull a book out and go on.  But it’s opportunity for connection through the books you offer and the chance to stop a while and be part of a group.
So, I put notes on some books, telling people what the book is about. I consider leaving treats, but my Grandson says that’s over-the-top.  I think I am going to do it anyway. Wrapped hard candies maybe, something that will allow people to feel safe eating them and not melt.Hershey Kisses would be best but I have to wait for cooler weather.

So I write a blog.  I have a free library.

I, in the words of Joseph Campbell, learned to let go of the life I imagined ( Did I think a research physicist would find a job in a small factory carbon town.?
Probably. How naïve. Did I think I would live without hassle? ) I am making room for the life I have. Yeah for readers and neighbors and strangers who stop and become neighbors.

Yay for Free libraries. For life.

High Seas and Hurricanes

High Seas and Hurricanes

In the last blog post, “Getting Ready To Go Home“, I suggested that I should have suspected things would not go easily.

We were travelling around southern Ireland.

But, Nooo. I was certain that once we were on our way home, life would be straightforward again. No more cringing when sirens went off. No more jumping at the sound of a blast. No more dread. Everything would be wonderful.
It’s true, the trip around southern Ireland was great, there was nothing to fuss about.
We overate on scones and soda bread and every high tea we could find. We examined The Book of Kells, sat in pubs unafraid and listened to terrific music.

Ten pounds heavier and sated, we boarded the car ferry to Liverpool.

Once there, we drove our car off the ferry and started the drive to London where we would drop off our car to be put on the ship and board for our dream, at least my dream trip, home.
The drive to drop off the car was not so easy. It was, in fact, horrible. Lots of roundabouts which we had not yet encountered at all. There was the London traffic, and finally a desperate searching for the right building at which to leave the car. I kept trying to find signs to help us. Usually it was too little, too late. I’d spot something, but Ken would have driven past by then. Driving with the steering wheel on the “wrong” side had been an issue ever since we imprudently took the car with us to Ireland. But on the country roads we drove on, the worst thing we encountered were sheep or cows. All we had to do was to wait until they crossed the road. So, the driving was not bad at all. London was a far cry from the country roads. At the first, pretty complicated roundabout, Ken said, “What’s that?” We had never seen one before. He managed it. What else could he do?

That drive into London and the docks was HARD. We were both grouchy and wiped out by the end. Still we had made it and the rest, would be easy, right? A nice sail home. We’d eat our meals, sun on deck, read, talk… Nothing but time and togetherness. That’s what was supposed to happen. That’s what the brochure promised or at least implied. Oh, I was always one to believe in words!

We boarded the ship and were greeted by the captain.

I thought that was a nice touch, a sort of good omen of good things to come. What did I know? A crew member showed us to our room. It was a small room, but it had a porthole which I counted as a plus, a small round window. No private bathroom though. That wasn’t good. Still, the trip was going to be great, great, great. We stowed our belongings and went up on deck. We could, of course, still see land, the docks, mostly. No confetti or waving people sending the voyagers off. I guess that doesn’t happen when you sail on a freighter.
We met a couple from London, St John’s Wood. They claimed there was to be a swimming pool put up eventually. They were taking the freighter all the way to the Pacific. I was impressed.
“This is, fun,” said Ken.”Let’s go forward and look at the spray.”
We did. We were fine. We had boarded later in the afternoon, so it wasn’t that long before dinner was announced.

There were linen tablecloths and napkins. The food was plated and served.

Pork chops, French fries, salad, rolls and some kind of dessert. Probably ice cream. We ate it and declared it good. We strolled around the deck again and then went to our room. I looked out the porthole into black. The beds were bunk style. Ken took the upper bunk. I took the lower. We slept and woke to a gray day. I would have preferred sun, but who cared? Still exulting at the idea of a sail home (it seemed mighty romantic in my mind) we went to breakfast: toast, scrambled eggs, orange juice and coffee. Fine. Lunch was soup and sandwich. No complaints from us or the other passengers. This was all working out just as I hoped.
However, when we sat down to dinner, it was the same menu from the evening before, pork chops, French fries… you get the picture. We diners looked at each other. Someone inquired of a server. The server explained that the cook knew how to cook pork chops and French fries. The crew liked pork chops and French fries. Pork chops and French fries would be served the entire voyage.

This was a freighter, not a passenger ship.

There were pork chops on the plates every single dinner from departure in London to arrival in Baltimore.
After supper, what had been a gray day turned rainy. Rain started to pelt down. We went to our room and tried to read. The ship started heaving.
Up and down. Up up up and down down down.
I opened the porthole to get some fresh air. Wind blew the spray into our cabin.
“Breathe the fresh air,” I said. I had a bad feeling that things were not going to be easy.
About half an hour later, Ken left the room looking green. He came back pale and ready to leave again at a moment’s notice. I didn’t last much longer.

The cabin boy, Santos, knocked on our door and said we had moved into hurricane weather.

Ropes would be stretched along the hallways and stairs, plates would be anchored. He looked at us, assessing the situation. “No good,” he said. “No good. You need to get up and find your sea legs.”
Well that wasn’t going to happen. We lay miserable all night long. We kept wondering if it would be possible to somehow get airlifted off the ship. Anything! Maybe jumping overboard?

The hurricane gained force. Books slid off the shelf. My hairbrush flew across the room.

Eventually, a pale gray light filtered into the room. I had no idea what time it was. I just kept lying there. I could hear Ken moan from the top bunk. Wind and rain were still coming into the room through the open porthole. If the whole sea had come in, I doubt I would have cared. After a while, I had no clue how long,
Santos knocked on the door again. He had tea. “This is not good,” he said. “You must eat.” He thrust tea and some French fries into the cabin. “Lunchtime,” he said. “You eat.” Ken groaned. Santos looked grieved. “ The ship will be fine,” he said in a comforting tone.
“In the Pacific we hit a typhoon where we had to drop anchor and the ship spun around for two days.” I blanched. Again he urged us to get up. But the most we could do was find the bathroom and try to keep our eyes focused on something in the distance.
Why did we have no Dramamine? Chalk it up to thoughtless youth. Chalk it up to dreams of a sea voyage. Hurricanes had not been in my picture of what the trip home would be like.
The ship heaved, over and over. It would hit a trough, go up, then come down. I went up on deck to try looking off into the distance. I encouraged Ken to come with me, but he was past that. He, for one, was convinced we were going to wreck.

Death at the bottom of the Atlantic.

I didn’t think that. Not yet, anyway. The couple from London were nowhere in sight. I held onto the ropes and made my way back to our sickroom.

Seven days. Seven long interminable days.

Santos kept knocking and bringing tea and sometimes toast. But neither of us could keep it down. Poor Santos. He grew worried. He said the captain wanted us to eat. We needed to eat. “You eat, get sick and then better,” he said. I didn’t think so. I had plenty of sick by then. I pressed his hand and shook my head.
He was so kind, so caring. One afternoon, I don’t know when it was, he came by and just talked about his family, his wife, his children in the Philippines. I listened and tried to respond. He went beyond what he was required to do and I remain grateful to him.
Finally, finally, we moved out of hurricane waters. We were approaching the shores of Delaware. Oh joy. Oh heaven. We slept deeply. We smiled. We considered eating, but we knew what the menu was and scotched that idea.
On the last day, the captain said farewell to everyone. He chided us for not eating. “You are thin,” he said. “This is not good for my ship’s reputation.” I looked ashamed. Chastised. But I shook his hand and told him that Santos has been wonderful. He liked that. I found Santos standing off to the side and gave him a hug.
We went down the plank and waited around for our car to be delivered. Ken was like a new man, ebullient. “I might just kiss the ground, “ he said. I laughed and understood; the solid earth was a gift all around us.
We drove off down the road. Glad to be going home. Glad to be on the road. Land! Green! Sun! No hurricanes and (I thought, but didn’t say) no bombs.

Suddenly, Ken said, “I’m starving. Do you want to stop and eat?” I did.

We pulled into a mom and pop restaurant and I remember what each of us had. Ken had chicken potpie. He ate as though he were starving, which I guess he was.
Seven days with no food had caught up to him. He downed one potpie and ordered a second. I had a tuna fish sandwich, and, incredibly, French fries. They tasted great. I couldn’t imagine how I had scorned French fries only a day ago. I licked salt from my fingers. Ken reached over and helped himself to a few.
We laughed over nothing and everything: the year in Belfast, the journey around southern Ireland, our young ignorance.
We laughed the laugh of two people who believed they had, if not conquered, managed to survive.

Getting Ready To Go Home

Getting Ready To Go Home

So, I made it clear after the guns clicked as we walked home in the dark.

I reiterated the message after we endured more bombings, one in which we lost a friend.
Ken said he didn’t feel that afraid.
He was willing to stay on for one more year. It was Ireland after all. There was great music, Guinness, and we could get to Dublin by train.

He argued that I was overreacting.

“Bombs, dead people, guns and soldiers; that’s what there is,” I replied. “I mean it. We need to go home. I can’t take this anymore.” Ken frowned. He had accepted a two- year position. Leaving was not going to make him any friends or look great on a resume. I was hard hearted about it. I didn’t think what the consequences for his career would be, what position I was putting him in.

I wanted out of Belfast. ASAP.

The week that I told Ken I was determined to leave, there was to be a general round up of all suspicious people. At least that was the rumor. Everybody was talking about it. Peter asked if we would allow him and his wife and child to stay with us. How could we say no?

But, I knew that if he were seriously involved, if they found him at our house, we’d be in trouble too. Still we had them come over. They slept on the sofa and a pile of blankets on the floor. That was all we had.

Sirens wailed throughout the night.

Then there was a knock at the door around eight in the morning. Peter slid into the closet under the stairs. Ken went to the door. Briad and I held our breath in the kitchen. It was only a neighbor who brought our paper by. It had been delivered to them by mistake. Peter and Briad left to go back to their house. They wheeled the baby in a carriage and turned around to wave to us. Ken looked at me. “And, that’s why we are leaving,” I said. “This is no way to live.”
So Ken told his boss he wasn’t staying on another year and, of course, it caused a furor.
People didn’t leave positions like that. And, of course, his boss was not too understanding. His pride was injured. Two young Americans saying they wanted to go home?

What about all the crime in New York City?

In most cities of the US? “Tell them at least you can plan for that,” I said. “I have no idea when something will explode here.” Ken shrugged his shoulders and seemed to agree. Maybe he didn’t want to be responsible if something did happen? I don’t know. I do know that when people ask him, even now, if he would have stayed on another year, he says he would have. My eyebrows go up and I wonder momentarily about his ability to process danger.
We packed up the car; we didn’t have all that much. We gave away our furniture (what there was of it) to Peter and Briad. It was May and we planned to drive around the coast of Ireland camping, then take a ferry to Liverpool, and drive to London where we’d catch a Greek freighter to take us home. It sounded good to me.
The first night we found ourselves headed to Donegal, a place I wanted to see. It was the last of old Ireland. Some of the people there still spoke Gaelic. There were actual thatched cottages. I was eager to see them. We found a farmer who let us pitch our tent in his field for a couple of pounds. True he wore the IRA scarf around his neck. This was IRA country, but he was perfectly kind to us.

It rained. Then it rained harder.

There were horses in the field that kept racing around. They came pounding up to our tent and stopped. Ken jerked every time he heard one pound toward us. Water started seeping in the edges of the tent. By now, there was a solid sheet of water coming down from the sky. We got up to go crawl into the car, a very small Fiat. We were wet, chilled and a tad miserable crouched together in the back seat. It wasn’t possible to use the front seat. Then somebody knocked on the car window. I rolled it down and peered out.
“If you want you can stay in one of my trailers. Nothing fancy, but it will be dry. I rent them out come summer.” We fell over ourselves in gratitude, slogged over to the trailer and put what blankets we had, that were not sopping wet, on top of the two of us, and slept curled together. Next morning, we went to say thanks and the owner was nowhere in sight. “I hope he isn’t off to blow something up,” I said. “I like him.” We left a note and an address. Would you believe we got a note back saying, “To the wet American couple. It was a pleasure to help you.

I still have the note.

So, we drove around Donegal, camping, occasionally staying at a bed and breakfast and taking in the part of Ireland that was not exploding all over the place. I loved it. “Too bad the university isn’t here,” I said to Ken. I was looking at green quiet hills, the sheep, the cattle crossing the road. We were eating soda bread and cheese for lunch. But of course that was nonsense. It wasn’t that the university was in the wrong location. It was that the space between the Ulster coalition and the southern Irish was huge. They had years of grievances between them. And the Catholic population in the north wanted to air those grievances, to merge with southern Ireland. But then the Ulsterites had their view, which was that their loyalty was to the British crown.
What a mess! However, all the bombing and tension was being pushed to the back of my mind while we drove round the coast of Donegal, ended up on the opposite coast, took a ferry across to Liverpool, and found our freighter in London to make our way home.
This was the life I could manage. But, I had no clue yet what the freighter ride home would be like.

Risk: British Barricades and the IRA

Risk: British Barricades and the IRA

I was done teaching at the country school.

Ken was busy working and I was beginning to feel antsy. I needed something to do. I decided to take a course in Irish history at the university. It was an enrichment class, not a regular university course.
We met after the regular classes were over. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the course was heavily weighted by the professor in favor of the status quo, British rule. “We’ll win,” he’d say. “ Just stay strong. We have the army on our side.” I stayed quiet, taking ideas in, trying to figure out what mattered so much. Why did the professor and most of the students (I was by far the youngest person in the class) want?…

…and was it worth all the killing and bombing?

The older women (there were a lot of them) were ready to mother me and take me to their side. They warned me against walking at night. They brought cookies to class.
They were really nice until I asked a question that suggested that maybe the minority Catholics in Ulster had a problem that was real, a problem the army couldn’t solve. (Not the smartest move on my part…
…But I was a talker by nature and I opened my mouth.)

Silence reigned.

I sat there, pretty sure that I was not going to be welcome anymore. I was right. I got up my courage to go to the next class. No one made eye contact with me. Of course, I should have stayed quiet. I was, at best, a blundering American, at worst, probably rude given the makeup of the class. I didn’t go back anymore. It would not have worked. I could have apologized, but I didn’t. Maybe I should have?
Instead I concentrated on the everyday which took plenty of time: making forays to get potatoes, cabbage and carrots. (Pretty much what we lived on) First you had to figure out where you were comfortable walking and shopping. That always caused me grief. I never could take a blithe, “what will be, will be” attitude.

And then there was the actual shopping itself.

It was nothing at all like shopping in the States, just picking what you wanted and putting cash on the counter. Oh, no! There was, I learned, an art to getting potatoes that were not sprouting, carrots that didn’t have soft spots and cabbage that wasn’t overdue for a compost heap.
First you had to approach the greengrocer as a friend, but you needed degree of certain meekness.
What did he suggest? Asking was always the best approach. It showed respect for his trade. He’d sit on a sack of potatoes and think. When he spoke I strained to understand his heavy Ulster accent. He’d get irritated by this and motion for me to follow him. The cabbages were in a heap in the back room. He rooted around and produced one for me. I smiled and asked for the potatoes and carrots. Somedays, he seemed so irritated by my lack of understanding his speech (in the beginning) that I wondered whether or not he’d even sell me the things I needed. It wasn’t as if I had many places to choose from. But, over time, I understood him and when I came in one day and offered him a slice of homemade apple pie, we became fast friends. My greengrocer. He always sat on the sack of potatoes and the women (never men) waited in line to get his attention. He smoked a pipe and never, in the year that I was there, did I ever see him hurry. His time was his own.

I was still frustrated at the lack of social interaction we had.

The Irish, by and large, did not invite us into their homes. It wasn’t all that unusual. If you wanted to socialize, you went to a pub. Well, okay, but pubs were getting blown up. I wasn’t eager to go to a pub.

I became brave.

We had had Ken’s friend Peter and his wife Briad over for tea, a tea that included sandwiches and cakes and scones. They were clearly surprised by this, but they seemed to like it and invited us over for the next Saturday night.

I was excited. I’d be in a real Irish home!

Peter liked games so he suggested beforehand that we plan to play the game called RISK. You know it, I am sure. The game of global domination, armies, strategy.

A perfect game to be playing in Belfast at that time.

Their house was about a mile’s walk away and it was a fair night, no rain. So, we walked. They lived in a row house that I found fascinating because the house stretched back, not out. All the room were off a central hallway that led to the kitchen in the back of the house. Understand, these were not New York upscale row houses. These were okay, but not at all fancy. They were basic, one next to the other with little room for light to come in. The baby played on the floor.
Briad and I played with Ken and Peter for awhile. But, we grew tired of the game long before they did. I helped Briad put the baby to bed and we made another pot of tea. She talked about life with “the troubles,” how she worried about Peter because he spoke so openly in favor of the IRA. How he went to meetings that made her nervous. “He’s a dad now,” she said,

“He needs to think about what it would mean if he went to jail. Or worse.”

I gulped and nodded. I hadn’t really thought about Peter being involved in a way that could land him in jail, or worse. And how much was he involved? The paper had just printed the ruling that anyone who even knew someone was involved and didn’t report it could be held. Whew!
Well, we liked the two of them, no matter what. (Did Peter own a gun? Did he participate in the worst of things, the bombings?) I looked over at the two of them, Ken and Peter, both of them intent on global domination. I didn’t like the game at all. I caught Ken’s eye and cocked my head. It was late. Eleven. Long past the time when it was smart to be out on the streets.

But, Ken didn’t or wouldn’t get the message.

The two of them played on and on. Briad nodded off in the chair. Eleven turned to twelve then twelve thirty. When it dragged on to one, I finally said, with a degree of ill grace, “Ken. I am falling asleep here. I need to go home.”
“Okay,” he said. Not a bit flustered.
And here’s where Risk entered, not global domination. Just survival.
We left the house which was in a Catholic district and walked toward home. Our house was located near the university in a Protestant district. So, we had to cross territories.

We had to walk past real armies.

We talked. Well, actually, I ranted. I want to go home! I had wanted to leave hours ago. My worry was that a bomb would go off somewhere. We’d be blown to bits.
That did not happen.

What happened was that we had to pass a barricade.

They were all over on street corners and in alleys. British soldiers hunkered down behind sandbags.

Young kids. Scared kids.

When we passed, they were standing there, with their guns pointed at us. I could see the barrels from the corner of my eye. This was not good. I forced myself to talk to Ken so that maybe they’d hear my accent and let us live.

I heard the guns click open ready to fire.

Click. Then silence. It seemed a long way past that barricade.

“If we get killed because you played RISK so damn long I will be really mad.”

‘Keep walking” he said. “Just keep walking.”
We walked. We made it past the barricade, past the closed pubs and home. I shivered under the sheets, too angry with Ken to burrow next to him. I shivered for a long time until Ken moved over next to me. He was still reluctant to acknowledge the possible danger we had been in. “We didn’t get shot” he said. “They were just taking precautions. They didn’t shoot us. They were ready just in case we’d try to toss a bomb.”
Sure. Sure he was right. We didn’t get shot. The soldiers were taking precautions. But it made no difference to me. I didn’t know how to live in that world and I didn’t want to learn.

I know what the click of a gun sounds like when the person’s ready to fire.

I know what the breathing of a scared soldier sounds like.
And, I made it clear lying there in the dark with Ken that the risk wasn’t worth it. I started thinking of how to go back home.

I didn’t want to play Risk ever again.

Photo Credit:

The Country School in Belfast

The Country School in Belfast

I was busy enough shopping, stoking fires, writing letters home, but I didn’t feel I was experiencing anything of the country (aside from the scary stuff of course.) Well as it happened, Ken’s friend’s father was principal of a small country school, just outside Belfast, and I had a teaching degree. No matter that it was not for lower elementary, not matter that I had zero experience, he was willing to take me on while one of his teachers was gone to have a baby. If I wanted the job, he could pick me up in the morning and drop me off in the afternoon.

An Irish country school!

It sounded exciting. Some of my romantic ideas might materialize. I pictured myself teaching. The picture was sort of hazy as a matter of fact, because I would be teaching a mixed class, grades one through three.
But, I didn’t let something like that interfere with my fantasy. I would be gentle and inspiring both. The children would listen and learn. (What world did I live in?)

Of course not much of that happened.

Not only was the class multi graded (grades one through three,) students brought their younger siblings to class if they needed taking care of. That was normal. All the regular teachers just managed it. Well I sort of managed, but some days were pure chaos. The youngest kids demanded attention while the regular kids only half-listened to the lesson.

But I loved all of them.

They were so easy to love. “Oh, teacher, I could listen all day to the way you talk,” the girls would say. Kids from other classrooms would come in to borrow chalk or paper. They wanted to hear and see the American. I was an instant celebrity! (Ha!)
There was a major problem though. What I needed to learn and had no way of learning in the time I had was how to knit. I was supposed to teach knitting the next day. Knitting? I had no idea knitting could be part of a school curriculum. But there it was, knitting on Tuesday and Thursday.

What was I going to do?

I explained to the principal that I could not knit. He was astonished, but amiable. Nothing much confounded him. He suggested I hand the lesson over to one of the older girls. I felt sheepish and pretty lame, but what else could I do? She taught them (and me) how to knit scarves.
The school was great. The children were wonderful.

There were two tea breaks

(Mid morning and mid afternoon) and one lunch break. Time was easy. No American school would follow that routine. There were no bells, no only one hallway to the upper grades and the sheep next door often wandered over to look in the window.
Of course there were some downsides. There was no running water, so the children would go next door to fill the kettle. Also, no running water meant the obvious. Teachers took it in turn to make tea and supervise the use of the outhouses, one for the boys and one for the girls.
The teachers went next door to use the “inside loo.” Of course, this was in the seventies. The school has long since changed. It has water and inside loos and they only teach knitting once a week.
We went through the routine things, math, language, and social studies. I wasn’t at all sure if I was doing a good job. Were they learning? They came to school eagerly enough, but was that perhaps because I was strange? The kids seemed to think I was out of the norm for sure. It doesn’t take much with kids, clothes that are slightly different, a backpack instead of a purse. They eyed all of it and made note.
One day a student’s mother showed up to see me. “ I want to see this item Briad talks about, the back pack.” I showed her. “ Well, that’s a lot of fuss about nothing, “ she said. I agreed with her. “You do sound different though. Myself, I would have a hard time listening to you all day. It would make my head hurt.” So much for the American!
On Monday and Wednesday we were supposed to teach singing, Irish folk songs. I didn’t know any Irish folk songs aside from Danny Boy and did that even count?
Then I had a stroke of luck. I was American. The kids in my room were getting some small bit of cross-cultural education. I could learn Irish folk songs and they could learn some American folk songs. If I started with American folk songs, I’d have time to learn the Irish tunes.
“Okay, I said to them one Monday. “ You are going to learn something from America.
I’ll teach you a folk song. I did not play the fiddle, but I could strum a bit on a battered guitar we had toted along with us. I started strumming and singing Clementine. They loved it. They got up and danced around the room. The principal heard the ruckus and came in. Was I in trouble? Not a bit. He joined in. Triumph.

I always felt as if the other teachers were a bit wary of me.

Why shouldn’t they be? I wasn’t doing everything they did, certainly not in the usual way. But when I left for home at night, I turned back to look at the whitewashed building, the teachers leaving school to walk down the road to home. The school itself, a small thing among the sheep and cows out there in the country. The children who would likely grow up to manage those sheep and cows.
The girls would manage children. Maybe if the school survived, they would send their youngest along with the older child one day while they went to market. That wouldn’t be so terrible.

I taught for three months.

When I left, the children gave great hugs and said they would come and visit me. I bought an electric kettle so the fire would not need to be stoked to make the tea. Whether that was a success or not, I don’t know.
But there was this, as I left, the children came out and stood in the lane and they sang Clementine. “Ach,” the principal said, “you put some life into the place.”
I smiled. I wondered what the returning teacher would say when she saw that not one student had finished their required scarf.

Belfast, Ireland: In the Time Before the Kids Came

Belfast, Ireland: In the Time Before the Kids Came

Tell me what you used to do.
Our kids and grandkids want to know what we used to be like before we were mom and dad, GranMary and GranKen.
I think about that and realize that after the kids came so much of our life was consumed by getting from one day to the next with lunches packed and notes to the teacher in their backpacks that I barely remember what we did before the kids came. Then, when the grandkids came it was all about them. What were we like?

I want to remember and share the early story of our lives.

So the next few blogs will tell the story of one of our more “iffy” adventures. This adventure was way bigger than trying to walk from Cleveland to St. Marys. You might remember that story from the book. In those early years, I was ready to do almost anything. Almost is the key word.

Ken had been in grad school majoring in nuclear physics. It was a field he loved and it seemed like a good investment too. But things don’t always go the way you imagine. By the time he got his PhD., government funding for research was cut and jobs in his field were almost nil. What were we going to do? How far away would we move for a job? We talked about the Peace Corps and even applied. I was hot to go someplace different. “Let’s make a different life,” I said.
I got Ken to apply with me and we were offered an assignment in Malaysia. I was geeked! Tropical, geckos… different! But Ken dragged his feet. One night when we were going over the few options again he admitted that he wanted to work in his field, not teach English or dig wells. Taking a deep breath, I asked him what he was thinking of.

I knew Malaysia was disappearing.

“Ireland,” he said. “There’s a two year Post Doc position in Ireland. and they want me.” Now when you think of Ireland, it’s almost a given that you think of southern Ireland. You know, all that green and sheep and happy Irish people singing in pubs. I certainly did. That sounded okay, more than okay. I pictured living in a thatched cottage outside of Dublin. He must have applied to Trinity, I thought.
Nope. He had NOT applied to Trinity.
He had heard about a position at Queens University in Northern Ireland. In Belfast to be exact. Who would apply to Belfast?
“Are you crazy?” I said. At that time, in the seventies, Belfast was NOT a tourist destination. It was a dangerous place. People were getting killed, not every day, but often enough. Who would apply to go there?










“Mary, we’ll be fine. We’ll be at the university and we aren’t likely to be a target since we aren’t even Irish.” I was not convinced. But, Ireland it was.
The family was, as you might guess, not enthusiastic. But they held a farewell party and said they’d come to visit (if the situation improved). I teared up. Then I sobbed.
The pictures I had seen of Belfast (sitting on the floor of the library, frantically searching travel guides and newspapers) showed shipyards and gray buildings. There were people tossing rocks at each other. Not happy Irish people raising glasses in a pub. These people were angry.

They were exploding bombs. In Pubs!

Nobody would come to see us! They would be crazy to risk it. Still implacable Ken remained calm. He assured me that we would be fine. He pointed out that his position in Belfast was at Queen’s University. It did not place him in danger. The whole thing was overplayed for the news. I was unconvinced and he knew that, but I would go almost anywhere with him even though Belfast was pushing the limits.
We flew over the Atlantic. Ken drank a Guinness. He didn’t like it, said it took getting used to, but he downed it.”Gotta get in the mode,” he said. I drank ginger ale to calm my stomach. We landed at Shannon Airport. “Oh, I thought, I wish we could get out here.” But noooo. We changed to a smaller shuttle to go north, the troubled place.
For the first few days, the weather was great, sunny and warm. It was May, so I just assumed it would stay like that, a nice balmy seventy-two. But when the local paper used the weather as a headline and warned people to refrigerate their milk and butter, I suspected the weather was not the norm. Soon enough it went back to sixty, sometimes below sixty. It stayed there and the skies clouded over. I pictured people back home walking the streets in shorts, while I wore my coat when I went out.

We found a brick cottage at 10 Cloreen Park.

Image: Google Maps

It looks charming in the photo. It WAS charming, But, there was no need to refrigerate the butter. (We didn’t have a refrigerator anyway. Lots of people in Belfast didn’t back then.) There was no central heating and the house was frigid. It was also damp. The cupboards harbored mildew, no matter how often I wiped them down. I knew I had to make the best of things, so I put on two sweaters and got busy.
We bought some chairs and a table from a sweet young guy at a consignment shop. (He will be in the story later) We made fires of coal in the fireplaces huddled in front of the fire. The fires left a film of soot over almost everything and I understood better why maids were always dusting in 19th century novels. We worked to make a place for ourselves.
Three days after we arrived and settled in, Ken went off to work and I walked the neighborhoods scouting places to buy food. It was all so different! A shop might have potatoes and cabbage and apples. That was all. Lettuce was a rare treat. Often enough I couldn’t find it. Bread, delicious bread was sold only in bakeries.
So, I’d walk to Stranmillis road (pictured below) and buy our bread for the day. I learned to buy only enough for the day so food did not spoil. If I wanted meat, I went to a butcher shop where whole pigs and lambs and cow carcasses were hanging and the smell took getting used to. The butcher was nice and sympathetic to the strange American. He took his time in talking recognizing that I struggled with the Belfast accent. One day, he gave me a butcher apron blue and white striped, which I still have. The Grandkids put it on to make cookies. Things were going along okay from day to day.

Image: Google Maps
The first sign that the trouble was real, not imagined, happened when I went to a flea market with the wife of one of Ken’s colleagues, Bridget (pictured in blue dress in second picture from the left in the header). She was young and lovely and pushed her one-year-old little boy in a stroller. I was thrilled to make a friend.
The flea market was outside market filled with chairs, and lamps and china. It was another chilly day, so I wore my coat and a red and white scarf. We needed plates, so I stopped by a table that featured china while Bridget moved on to look at something else. I held up a plate rimmed with dog roses and considered it. The price was right. We could use about six of the plates. I reached for more plates when I felt myself jerked back by someone. Hard. I struggled to breathe and hold onto my plates.

A man’s voice, angry, threatening sounded behind me.

Your not welcome here. Get out before I throttle you.” He kept tugging at my scarf while I clutched my plates. Bridget saw the ruckus and rushed over. “Go on, you, she said. She has nothing to do with this. She’s American.” The man let go of me and skulked off.
“He thinks your Protestant because of the scarf. One of the schools has red and white for their colors.” She looked remorseful.
“Oh,” I said for want of anything else to say. She seemed to think the whole thing was no big deal. I took the scarf off and crammed it in my purse.
I went home with the plates. We had potatoes and cabbage for supper. Very Irish. Very cheap. (Which was true of most of our meals that year.) Potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips were what we had to eat. Sometimes we had beef stew, but not often.

We didn’t have much money.

Post doc positions don’t pay much. In truth, we were poor. We made the rent on the house and had enough for food and occasional Sunday night suppers at the only place in Belfast that was open on a Sunday, the local Chinese restaurant on Ormeau road.
The night of the flea market incident, I told Ken the scarf story while we ate cabbage and potatoes. “Good thing Bridget was nearby,” he said. He gave me a hug, but he didn’t seem overly worried. I sort of wanted him to be worried. I wanted him to be aware that I was worried. If I could be accosted while I was shopping with a friend, what else might happen?

We would soon find out.

We slept in a bed we had bought from the sweet guy at the consignment shop. It was a monstrous oak structure with a carved lion’s head in the middle of the headboard. We had flannel sheets in a blue and white stripe, feather pillows and a blue blanket. I wore flannel pajamas. It was June by now and the house felt like December.
I was reading a travel guide to Northern Ireland that kept touting the Giant’s Causeway and figuring out when we could go to see it. Ken was reading the local paper. We were both scrunched down under the covers plenty warm if we did not get out from under the covers.

Boom! Boom!

The bedroom window rattled. I held my breath. Again another Boom! There was a pub on the corner of our street. It was not yet closing hours. Sirens sounded. I knew what had happened. Exactly what I was afraid would happen.
If I got out of bed and went down to the front gate, I would be able to see the pub, or more likely, what was left of it. Ken did. I didn’t. He came back upstairs to say it looked like the bomb had done a pretty good job of it.
‘The people?” I asked. He was quiet. He didn’t know. Other people on our street had come out, but almost everyone went back into their homes quickly. Nobody wanted to stand out or be mistaken for an IRA person. I huddled under the blankets and listened as the last of the sirens faded.

“This is not a tourist destination, “I said to Ken.

“What a thing to say,” he said. What I wanted to say was that I thought we should leave, but I couldn’t quite say that, not then.
Ken, always logical, thought I was overly distressed. We were going to be fine.
Next day in the paper, there were photos of two men who had been in the pub and were killed when the bombs went off.
“See,” I said to Ken in my I-Knew-It-All-the –Time voice. “See?”
Our neighbors took Ken’s view. “ It’s the Troubles,” they said. “It’s just a bit of trouble. We’ll win out.”
I averted my eyes when I walked down Stranmillis, past the shambles of a pub, to the university where Ken’s department was holding a tea. I went up to Ken’s department. Inside Queen’s University, there was a fireplace with a fire lit. There were sandwiches and scones and, my very favorite, Ormeau Bakery coffee boats, a kind of shortbread with a creamy mocha frosting. I tried not to make a pig of myself. The conversation never touched on the bombing, which wasn’t all that far from Queen’s. The safe topics were bandied about, the latest soccer scores, and a new group of singers come up north to perform, the Chieftains.
Ken got us tickets to go hear the Chieftains who performed at Queen’s University. Their spirit, their music, lit a fire inside me that night. And, for a time, at least for that night, I believed it could be alright. We’d be fine. The troubles would calm down.
Okay. That’s a stopping place. We heard the Chieftains two more times, once with our children. This last time at Hill auditorium in Ann Arbor. They have changed. It’s been thirty years. We have changed. But their music still gives me hope. It makes people get up from their seats and clap until their hands hurt. It makes all kinds of trouble seem far away.