Friday, November 30, 2012

What Happened to my Peace Corps Personna?

My Peace Corps personna embraced patience, understanding, listening, non-reactive, non-judgmental pauses, patience, and more patience.  Why can’t I continue these pleasant traits here at home?

Take, for example, helping my grandsons Joshua and Kyle with their homework. In a panic Michelle calls to say Josh has a huge report, due tomorrow, yes tomorrow, and so does Kyle.  Can you work with Josh at your place, so I can work with Kyle at mine? 

Michelle with Kyle and Josh.
Above: Yahoo image.
Sure, I can do that. 

Josh comes over with his big Biology project, which involves making up a test, answer sheet and study guide, and some drawings and diagrams, for chapter 6 of his text, all about cells, their different parts, how they work.  Good lord.  I haven’t looked at this stuff since high school, which is a few years back.  I find the reading tough and the long sentences with scientific terms incomprehensible.   This is a high school text?

"Don't worry Nana, I get it."  I let Josh take the lead, and some 4 hours later, with several glitches, advice not taken, revising, correcting, and a few stressful moments, Josh gets it done.  I wasn't the saint of patience; I become rather insistent on two or three issues, which Josh argued about, and then we went on.  It would have been a lot easier not to argue.  

Where is my Peace Corps personna?  We went back to Michelle's to print out the assignment (my printer isn't working). Turns out Michelle and Kyle hadn't even started on Kyle’s report.  We have dinner and Shel asks if I can get Kyle started. 

Sure, I can do that.

Kyle and I read the instructions: Pick a planet and write a report on its history and climate and note 3 unique characteristics. Add drawings and photos from the internet.

Kyle picked Saturn.  Good start.  Then we went online and Kyle found a site with tons of photos.  Great, we’ll print out a couple for your report.  An hour or so later, Kyle was still on the photos; he couldn’t make up his mind which two to choose.  Good lord, Kyle, just pick two.  How about these. Let's just go with them for now.  Then we had trouble printing them.  Then he was back to choosing again.

Meanwhile, I’m aware of the time, and the need to get this project done.  Kyle didn’t want to focus on it. He wandered off and that was it.  He got interested in more photos. "Kyle, there are tons of sites and tons of photos, let's go on to the assignment."    

Trying to move the process along, I asked some questions.  Who discovered the planet? How did it get those rings around it? Is it cold on Saturn?  How far away is it from the sun.  How many moons does it have? As Kyle focused on the photos on various sites, I’d look at the text, and wrote down a few trial answers.

Kyle let’s focus on these questions.  Kyle got frustrated and teared up.  I got exasperated, and almost teared up myself.  Michelle came over to  help.  "Okay, mom, thanks. We'll take it from here."  Good thing.  I was about to tear out my hair, and it was almost 10:00 pm. 

I drove home asking myself why I couldnt be as as patient with Kyle as I was in Ukraine, where I didn't understand the people and they didn't understand me, and everything took forever? 

Maybe I got too goal-oriented, which I learned in Ukraine was NOT a good thing; it just caused lots of frustration.  Slow down, drink many cups of tea, have long conversations that you can barely engage in, call it a day, go back tomorrow and do the same thing.  

Missed a deadline? Cant be helped. Try for the next one. No one showed up for the grant meeting? Do it another day.  Can't get hold of the Library to cancel an English Club meeting.  Trek to the library through snow and ice and tack a notice on the door.  Broke your arm and the local Xrays are bad, the doctor unable to help, and PC headquarters orders you to Kyiv to see one of their doctors? So be it. Get your Tylenol and take the 2-hour bus ride to Lugansk and the 22 hour overnight train ride to Kyiv.      

"You did all that?"  Yep. 
"So helping the grandkids with homework is a piece of cake?"  Yep. 
"So next time you'll remember to unlock your Peace Corps personna and be a better helper?"  Yep.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Going to Church

Outside and inside the church. the peace pole with balloons;
a few banners.

I haven’t been to church in a long time, I mean a church service, so I decided to try the nearby Sylvania United Church of Christ.  I pass it all the time, thinking to myself that I should try it. It's where I vote.  The church itself is a newer building, bricks and mortar, stark and simple, far from the ornate cathedrals of American cities, or Ukraine or Europe or Mexico.  The decorations are simple, a front alter with a plain wooden cross, the organ, and a few banners here and there. The service was simple too; this Sunday the focus was on peace on earth, which I found fortuitous. The pastors were very good and the people were friendly.  I was told by an enthusiastic greeter that this is a transition period for the church, whose long-time popular pastor died a year ago.  A new pastor has been selected and will begin in January.  “We’re run from the bottom up,” he said, “from the congregation up, that is.”  Choosing a pastor is the congregation’s most important task.

I understood, just like choosing a leader in a democracy.  And thinking of elections, in particular the recent one, my mind turned to the nature of the congregation.  As I found a seat and looked around I thought to myself:   I don’t think I would diversify the demographics much, lots of white folks and old-timers, who have been going for years I was told, but there seemed to be a good number of families with kids as well, and the regular church service included a special program just for kids.  One enthusiastic pre-schooler shouted a loud “AMEN” after a prayer, and delighted the entire congregation.

I liked the focus on peace in the world—through the music, scripture readings, talks, and the “Litany for Peace” we all read together.  “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...grant us us address the inequality that breeds poverty....grant us voices to speak for the voiceless, to speak up for justice...teach us to listen and us fulfill your vision of a peaceable kingdom on earth...”

The message was strong and heartfelt. Universal.  The congregation seemed committed to it, moved by it.  So was I.  There was a sense as well of an openness to and tolerance of different religions and perspectives, important to me.  The younger pastor made a point to talk about compassion and acceptance of all people, no matter where they live or how they believe.  

I’m kind of lazy on Sunday mornings, with my own Sabbath rituals going way back to my working days.  A day of rest!  I seldom went to church in Ukraine either, mostly Russian Orthodox, mostly beautiful works of art and architecture, like a venerable museum.  But going to this simple church  on a cool, sunny morning felt okay; it was a good way to begin the day.  I’ll have to do it again.    AMEN! 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Different Thanksgivings

This was a different Thanksgiving, as most of my Thanksgivings have been over the past few decades.  I'm remembering Thanksgivings with friends in Washington, DC and at outdoor cafes on 17th Street; with friends in St. Petersburg, Florida, where it was balmy and we ended the day with a walk on the beach at sunset.  I traveled to Toledo and Tallahassee, from wherever I happened to be, to spend Thanksgivings with my kids, my mom and Loren, Andy and her family. I remember Thanksgivings in Ukraine with host moms, Peace Corps friends, and members of the English Club (explaining the meaning of the day), as well as in other far away places. My first year in Starobelsk Luba made borscht, verenaky and a fresh pumpkin pie, just for her Amerikanka.  Last year we had a traditional family Thanksgiving at Michelle's, in her new home, decorated for the season, with all the grandkids around. Shel cooked up a storm: Turkey and all the trimmings, and then some.  We gave thanks and felt blessed to share time together.  

This year? Different yet again. All the grandkids are with their dads and other extended family and Michelle is working the holiday and through the weekend, 12 to 16-hour shifts at the hospital.  Women are having difficult pregnancies or going into labor too soon; babies are being born.  

So, it was just me and daughter Elissa this year. We decided to have our meal at the Dragonfly cafe, down the Street.  She walked a block north, I walked a block south, and we met in the middle. 

It felt just right.  It was a calm, sunny, blue-sky day. Christmas decorations graced Main Street.  Elissa looked beautiful.  The "Fly's" great cook, manager and owner, Jennifer Miller Blakeman, and her crew of dedicated helpers, in and out of the kitchen, presented a delicious meal.  We filled up on roasted gluton-free chicken and cornish hen, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans and other vegetables, great salad and fruit, nice desserts.  The place filled up; the guests were friendly, the atmosphere homey and warm.   We greeted each other, smiled, chatted a bit, and agreed that this was a great way to spend Thanksgiving, with whomever we were with--spouses, moms, children, grandchildren, strangers--letting someone else do the cooking and play host.  I was happy to be with Elissa.

Then Jennifer announced that dinner was on her! My treat, she told us; she wanted to give back to those who had given to her. Her grateful guests left money, whatever we could, in a glass donation jar, grateful that the spirit of Thanksgiving was alive and well. That's why the Dragonfly is special. 

A graceful spirit hovered, maybe an angel, maybe my brother Loren, for sure an aura of gratitude and harmony.      

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things: family and friends, adventures I've had, experiences that help me grow.  I am also grateful for the work of caring people and grassroots organizations, like Cherry Street Mission Ministries, that house, feed  and clothe the homeless, the addicted, the abused, the hopeless.

Cherry St. Mission in downtown Toledo has been helping individuals and families in need for over 65 years.  It serves the northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan areas.  The Mission's brochure (right) tells the story:  Every year it provides over 273,000 meals for the hungry, 84,061 nights of refuge for men and women, 814 families with furniture,  close to 7,000 with clothing and household items.  It helps people find housing and employment, provides educational resources and spiritual growth and, most of all, it offers hope.  "Every meal, every program offers hope for new life!" That is the guiding vision of Cherry Street Mission.

Cherry Street Mission is 65 years old.  That's how old my brother Loren is now. His compassionate and giving spirit continues to move me. He's an angel of hope. That's why I support the Mission, along with Toledo Streets, the newspaper sold by vendors seeking empowerment and their own means of support. Hope and gratitude.  It's what Thanksgiving is all about.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Remembering Aunt Loretta, my mom's sister, 19 November 1917 to 3 May 2012

Aunt Loretta and Roz Miller Walker, her granddaughter, visiting Sylvania and Bill Form and his wife Joan Huber in Columbus (August 2011), a historic and memorable reunion that we will always cherish.  Top photos: Aunt Loretta with a pregnant Michelle (Chase was born August 16, the day after she left); Roz  (blue sweater) and Elissa (lavender shirt).  Historic photos of Aunt Loretta at 16, in pastel (she gave me her age when I visited in Charlotte a few days before she died), & next to her in black and white, my mom, and  next photo, Aunt Loretta with her daughter Maria, my sister Andy, and me, visiting our grandparents Luchetti in Rochester (in early 1950s).  Love that photo, a page from mom's old album, with a note in her hand. I prize that, too.
Today is my Aunt Loretta's birthday.  She died peacefully in her sleep on 3 May 2012, six months ago. She was ready.  I miss her and all those who are with her. 

Aunt Loretta had a good life, but it was marred by tragedy: both her children, my first cousins Maria and Skip, had MS, the kind that gets progressively worse, the blinding, crippling, disabling kind.  Both died young, in their 50s.  Losing your children too soon, and so tragically, is too painful to contemplate.  I cannot imagine it.  My aunt and uncle suffered. Their grandchildren suffered.  My aunt Loretta lived with grief all her life. 

Aunt Loretta was my mom's sister, her only sibling.  She was a beautiful young woman with a sense of style, a devoted wife and mother, a good traveler and great cook.  She remained a pretty woman into her senior years, when she moved from Florida to North Carolina (and back and forth several times), but was closer to her grandkids Roz, Kris, and Dan.  

Aunt Loretta and my mom spent a few months together in Haiti, when my Uncle Steve worked for an American company there in the 1970s.  It was a highlight of their lives.  My mom remembered the poverty, getting to know and speak the language (she was a whiz at languages, a gene I didn’t inherit), and helping out at a Catholic orphanage.  She remembered the vibrant culture, art and beauty of that place.  It’s why I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Haiti.  

My mom was two-years older than her sister, so to her our aunt was always “my little sister.”   Aunt Loretta, like my mom, was bi-lingual, both speaking Italian and English.  How I envied that, but we kids were never taught to speak our grandparents’ language; our parents felt we should know only English and become successful American citizens.  My cousin Maria, who spent several years living in Verona  when her former husband, a doctor, was with the US army, did pick up Italian ; she loved sharing  Italian  cultural and cooking traditions with her kids and all of us, like her Christmas decorations, which I take out every year and prize, and her delicious chicken parmesian and lasagna.   

My sister Andy and I had a great
85th birthday party for Aunt Loretta
 in Tallahassee (19 Nov 2002).
  Our mom was with us.
Happy memories sustain us.  Aunt Loretta visited her father’s family outside of Rome several times, which made her happy.   We celebrated her 85th birthday in Tallahassee at Andy's house, my mom still with us but frail.  Mom died about four months later.  Aunt Loretta at 85 looked fantastic and was full of vim and vigor.

She looked pretty good at 94, too, when she came to visit us in Sylvania with her granddaughter Roz in August 2011 (hard to believe it was only a little over a year ago). She visited every single person in our family, missing baby Chase by only 1 day.  She had a great time, and so did we.  We are filled with happy memories because of that visit.  We were hoping she’d come back, this Spring.  It was not meant be.

Now my aunt is at peace, like her children, my parents and my dear brother Loren.  "She's in a beautiful place," my daughter Elissa believes.  "I know you're not sure about this mom, but I am!"    

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Big GIfts?" Meaning Bribes? Even Rs are Disturbed by Romney's Views

"What Jindal [Governor of Louisiana] says is not political rocket science," says Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice. If the GOP "wants to thrive and even survive nationally, it must expand its tent and compete to get more voters inside its tent," not by offering better "gifts," but by offering "policies relevant to their dreams and lives."   (Yahoo, The Week’s Editorial Staff, 11/15/2012.)

How could Romney call national policies that affect the lives of all citizens “big gifts?”  How could he imagine these national policies as “bribes” to minority voters and young constituencies?   How could he be so full of hubris and arrogance to think thoughtful people of either major party would fall behind such thinking? 

So “the corporate boss we fear,” as James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio characterized  Mitt Romney,  the boss who wants to tell us how to do things, how high to jump;  who wants us to laugh at his jokes whether we think they’re funny or not, continues to show his true colors.  Like the 47% comment he made to big donors before the election.       

Governor Bobby Jindal of Lousiana called it “wrong” thinking.  Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, at the recent Republican Governor’s Convention, said “such comments set us back as a party....We have to reach out...”  Gov. Chris Christie, R of New Jersey,  noted that “you can’t be leader of all the people and be divisive.”   

The Republican governors, and Republican Mayors, too, are more in touch with the grassroots, with their constituencies, than Romney ever was.

Romney is shooting himself in the foot.  The Republican party is  now distancing itself from its candidate for president faster than a speeding bullet.  No matter how much some voters hate Obama, I don’t see how thoughtful Republicans, who want their party to survive, could still support such views.  We need to listen to saner voices than those coming from the Romney camp.  

As Gov. Martinez put it: “As a party we need to ask, not tell.  We need to stop making assumptions and ask, ‘What can we do better?’”   Asking, not telling.  Not making assumptions.  This is the exact opposite of the true character of Mitt Romney.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pride Goeth before the Fall

Undone by our Inner Demons.  This whole Petraeus affair, or more precisely the chain of events it has unraveled, is terribly overblown, and the media is feasting on the carcasses.

So why have you glommed onto it?  my sister Andy asked.  It's just your typical Washington nastiness, she said, and the media on a high of its own making. Good for business, too.

Yeah, sis, I replied, but I think what fascinates is the human frailties, the hubris.  Iago going after Othello, Brutus after Julius Caesar, the Republicans going after the Democrats, Congressmen like Livingston and Gingrich going after President Clinton for the very same offenses they themselves were committing, revisiting Watergate, Romney undoing himself (and showing his true character) with his “gifts” gaffe to augment his 47% gaffe.

As a modern-day philosopher said: "the next step after being puffed up with arrogance could be falling flat on your face."    

That's it in a nutshell.  

Everyone is caught up in a hubris-spun web of intrigue and poor judgment that brings down heroes and anti-heroes alike.  Not only the mighty, like Petraeus, but also the ordinary, the overzealous FBI agent, the bored social-climbing housewife, the lonely warrior monk, the infatuated scholar wannabe.  Conspiracy theories?  C’mon. It’s just plain, old fashion hubris and temptation, going back to ancient Greece again, even to Adam and Eve some say.  

Are we hardwired for self-defeating behavior? Don’t we all have inner demons that come up and undo us,  especially if we're "puffed up" and not paying attention to them, unmindful and unaware of the unconscious motivations buried deep within us from childhood? Are we all narcissists at heart?   

Dr. Sam Vaknin (Malignant Self-love, 2010) describes narcissists this way:  they "are masochists; they destroy and defeat themselves by behaving recklessly, by retarding intimacy, by sabotaging careers and relationships, and by being obstructive, negativist and passive-aggressive.”  Dr. Phil had a field-day with this one, where I discovered Dr. Vaknin. 

It sounds like the old proverb that “Pride goes before the fall.”  Human frailties. Hubris. Narcissism.  Acting in foolish ways that defy common sense.    

Do politics and hubris go hand in hand? Seems so, as the unraveling Patraeus connections and the media circus attest. Like a Greek tragedy, hubris is catching everyone in its self-destructive path.   I guess the story doesn't end until the mighty have fallen, and the ordinary along with them. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Petraeus: What's in a Name? A Greek Tragedy

General David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director, apparently because of an affair with a Paula Broadwell, gives new meaning to the word “embedded.”  Broadwell, an army intelligence reservist, was “embedded” with the general in Afghanistan for a few years while ostensibly co-authoring a biography. She remained "embedded" in some way when he became CIA director. 
Centaur by Elvira

The double entendres--the double meanings and play on words--are inevitable.  

Broadwell's writing, as well as her behavior, raise questions.  She has written, for example, that the general’s “sheer energy, whether applied to soldiering, scholarly pursuits, public outreach or mentoring,” are breathtaking.  Public outreach? Mentoring? So we can now add to that sentence “sheer energy” in bed, too?  In fact, the reviews of the Petraeus biography, "All In," add fuel to the flames when read in the current context.  (See for example Kimberly Dozier's review in Huffington Post, 11/29/11.)  In hindsight, they raise doubts about the wildly-enthusiastic-bordering on-the-ecstatic nature of the biography as well.   

Petraeus in Greek mythology was a centaur, one of those half-men, half-horse warriors who drank too much, partied too long, but also fought hard in battle.  Petraeus the centaur. Petraeus was also related to Poseidon, so there’s a sea-worthy connection of some sort according to scholars. I learned while doing a little research that General Petraeus’s father, Sixtus Petraeus, was in fact a navy captain during World War II.  A confluence of influences, from Athens to America, from 5th century BC to the present, on land and on sea.

General David Petraeus’s contributions to our country are widely acknowledged, from the President on down. It’s a shame he was undone by his “sheer energy” and the policy of “embedding” civilians and reporters in the fields of battle.  

It's a Greek tragedy, worthy of Homer and Shakespeare.  It seems to be about 
betrayal: "Et tu Brutus?"  About enemies who bring down heroes, as in Othello and Julius Caesar.  About humans defying the gods.  About an inner flaw, buried deep but powerful, that brings down our earthly giants.  

Petraeus betrayed us, and a whole fabric of duplicity is unraveling. But more tragic, Petraeus betrayed his own values. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy birthday, my dearest brother Loren

Dearest Loren,
You are 65 years old today.  You’re retired for sure. Are you having a party somewhere? In that place beyond life that some call heaven and others view as a cosmic space where souls live forever?  Do they celebrate birthdays and holidays and deaths wherever you are?  

For me your birthday still brings a profound sense of loss, deeper than any I've ever felt.  I should be over my grieving after two years, some say, but it goes on.  I want to see you.  I want to talk with you about the recent elections, the environmental disasters and political disasters.  I want to hear you tie it all together: “All things are connected,” you used to say, quoting your favorite Chief Seneca.  And “There are no ends in nature, only beginnings.”  I want to hear you tell me about your new “beginnings,” if there really is such a thing.

I thought there was a possibility you would move up North from Tallahassee when you turned 65.  You talked about returning to our hometown of Rochester, NY.  I remember how much you loved the history and folklore of that whole western New York State region, down to and around the Finger Lakes and Seneca Falls.  “New York City is NOT the whole state of New York,” you used to say emphatically. You studied Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage and the roots of the woman’s movement and the civil rights movement.  You knew the history, culture and enduring impact of the Iroquois Nation.  You understood the social ecology of the region. How well I remember your Master’s thesis,  combining all your knowledge and interests.  You tell about it in your autobiography, An Asperger Journey, which is so special to all of us who know your story and love you. You are still helping people, Loren.

But I would try to convince you to come to Sylvania.  Our history is almost as good as the Rochester-area, in fact it started there!  We have our native peoples' history, an interesting agricultural, labor and immigrant history, and we even had an underground railroad here during the Civil War. I live next door to a lovely boutique called “Harmony in Life” and can feel the spiritual vibes from that place, the aura of feminine spirituality.  You’d like it.  This area has many environmental organizations, and a lot of political and community activism, too.  You’d like the Toledo Streets newspaper, the Cherry Street Mission, the urban art and garden projects downtown, our metroparks.  We could hike together, hike into the sunsets and the moon rises, so clear and beautiful in this part of the Midwest.  

Would you have considered it, moving to Sylvania, that is? Or doesn’t it matter anymore?  Maybe you are here, but I don't know it. Maybe where you are now you don’t have to fight the good fight for peace and justice. Maybe you are actually living it.  Lots of people tell me that’s so.  I want to believe it.  But I don’t know.  Maybe if I could hear you, Loren, I’d believe.  

No matter where you are, dearest brother, my soul mate and spiritual twin, I send you blessed birthday wishes.  I miss you more than words can say.   The world is not the same without you in it.  I hope that we will be together again some day.  Some day soon.  Your ever-loving sister, Fran


Some other blogs about my brother (can't list them all, there are too many, but my way of keeping track):
 I did a whole series on Loren and HH, Jean Auel, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Mark Twain, Scottie Pippen, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and other heroes he admired.

I wrote the following essay soon after getting settled in Starobelsk, Ukraine, with the Peace Corps, before my brother died. I'll never forget that phone call from my sister on an early Saturday morning in May, as I was sitting in the living room of the little house on Panfelova where I had a room.  I cried to the heavens. And then I began the longest, saddest journey of my life, back to Tallahassee for my brother's memorial service. 
My Brother Loren
My brother Loren is in Tallahassee, Florida, but he is also here in Starobilsk, Ukraine with me.    That's because we are soulmates.  We share a way of looking at the world and a way of being that transcends space and time.  Although eight years apart, we are almost twins, as my poet friend Anton would put it. 
Loren is having a birthday this week, 12 November (this was 2009), so I think of him a lot at this time of year.  He's a Scorpio with compassion.   I also take him places with me.  When he drove me to the airport to see me off on my Peace Corps adventure at the end of March, I took his spirit with me.  When I discovered Chernigov during my training, he was there, encouraging me to forge ahead.  When I broke my arm, he was with me in Kiev.  Whenever I see the moon, I see Loren, because I know he is looking at it too, and glorying in the fullness of being and the grandeur of the universe.
As I get to know Ukraine, he is by my side, giving me the ancient history of this place.  He reminds me that this geograhy and culture go back thousands of years, to the time Jean Auel describes  in her best-selling  novel (and Loren's favorite book), Clan of the Cave Bear.  He reminds me that the names of people I write about in my blog, Anton, Natasha, Lara, Anna are characters in his favorite novels by Tolstoy.
Loren is one with the goddess who watches over the earth with compassion and goodness, the female counterpart of God who teaches us to live in peace, to take care of her planet, to see the oneness and unity of people and the earth. "All things are connected,"  Chief Seneca said, exemplifying the ancient wisdom of the Goddess and the native peoples of America.  That why while I am in Ukraine and Loren is in Florida, we are really sharing the same place, mother earth.
Now Loren is writing his memoirs about growing up with Asperger's Syndrome.  My brother is a fierce warrior who fought a beast that held him back all his life.  He never gave up.  He kept fighting, even when he wasn't sure what he was fighting against.  There was no name for it when he was a child in the 1950s or a young man in his 30s and 40s.  Loren searched for himself without a guide, on his own, with grit and determination.  Only our mother took Loren under her wing and gave him hope.  His story is one of struggle against the odds, and achievement. He has come to understand himself and the path he was put on at birth.  It hasn't been easy.  I am proud of my brother for making his life one of purpose and meaning.  So Happy Birthday, Loren.  Good luck with your book. You're in my heart and soul.  Your big sister, Fran                                                                                 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Soldier's Wife: Libbie Custer

Sandy Gratop (top left) introduces Judy Justus (center).
Libbie Custer's hat (a replica); copy of her first book,
Boots and Saddles, with Civil War memorabilia.
Olander Park, 11 November 2012 
“You eat your heart out slowly with anxiety...and to endure it is simply the hardest of all trials that come to the soldier’s wife.”   Elizabeth (Libbie) Bacon Custer, born in Monroe, Michigan in 1842, the daughter of a distinguished Judge, and the wife of General George Armstrong Custer, thus recalled her life as a “soldier’s wife.”  Libbie wrote and published (with the help of Mark Twain) several books after her husband’s death at the Battle of Little Big Horn, beginning with Boots and Saddles: Life in the Dakotas, written in the mid-1880s.  It seems a good reminder in these times, as soldiers come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, to acknowledge the burden of anxiety and terror experienced by soldiers’ spouses.

Of course it was a very different time.  Custer’s “last stand” took place in June 1876, the Seventh Cavalry's disastrous losing battle against Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne who refused to be confined to a reservation as mandated at the time. It was a massacre.

The general’s “last stand,” turned out to be Libbie's "first stand" in a  lifelong one-woman campaign to restore her husband’s glory as an American hero, a campaign she carried on until her death in 1933.  A statue in Custer’s honor now sits silently but grandly in Monroe, Michigan, Libbie’s hometown, the result of her ceaseless efforts. Thus was Custer considered a hero for almost a century after his death. 

It’s a slant on General Custer I knew nothing about, so I went to Olander Park (TOPS) on  Veteran’s Day to hear Joyce Justis, local historian and president of  the Perrysburg Historical Society, tell the story.  Organized and introduced by the indefatigable Sandy Gratop, TOPS's program director, Justis put on her bonnet (a replica of one worn by Libbie Custer) and presented a fascinating history of General Custer, his role in the Civil War, his assignments out West, and the experiences and travails of Libbie, who followed him wherever he went, from fort to fort. The extensive research, diary entries, photos and memorabilia, plus copies of Libbie's books, added to the program.
War, battlefields, and the military became Libbie Custer's milieu for the rest of her life after meeting "Autie" Custer in Washington in the midst of the Civil War.  They were married in Virginia in 1864, just before the Battle of Gettysburg; it seems she never left his side thereafter, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

She stood by him during and after his last stand, loyal to the end and beyond. She was a creative and entrepreneurial woman, fiercely determined, who supported herself by writing, speaking and traveling.  She left over $100,000 to various charities after she died, a large sum at the time.

Although history has not been as kind to General Custer as his wife, the program reminds us that history is a complicated and ever-changing discipline, revised and revisioned by the storytellers' times and environment, the kinds of questions they ask, and the perspective they bring to their subjects.  

PS For a novel take on Custer, and fun to read: Lorin Lee Cary's "The Custer Conspiracy: A Novel ( or 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Jump-Start on the Holidays

5753 Main Street North, Sylvania, Ohio, USA
Front porch wreath and big basket of evergreens, tin barn with clock, Loren's altar,
my tree with red bow, angels and snowmen, candles;
back door wreath with bright green ribbon.
Reminds me of the song "Baubles, Bangles and Beads,"
which my dear Mom, Andy, and I sang together
for some program, maybe at church one year.
I don’t know what possessed me, but I’m putting up Christmas decorations and it isn’t even Thanksgiving.  I’m getting a jump on the holidays.  Maybe it’s my Dad and Loren, with their Christmas music already blaring. Frank Sinatra and all the oldies but goodies. Or mom baking cookies and fruitcake.  I'd like to think it’s the ghosts of Christmases past.  

But actually, I had to clean out my closets to make room for storing my window air conditioners, and that meant moving out all the holiday decorations first.  So now the ACs are stored, and the decorations are up.

I started with the new fake tree I bought at the end of last season, on sale.  I’ve never had a fake tree, but downstairs neighbor Judi has one and it seems okay. Small and pretty.  She just brings it out of a box, decorations and all, shakes it up, straightens the branches here and there, and voila! A Christmas tree. I bought pine-scented candles to make up the difference in having the real thing.  I added new decorations to the old traditional ones, glitzy things I got at Bumbles when they had a huge going-out-of-business sale last January. I added bows, bells, and bulbs, greens with reds and burgundy, and of course angels, everywhere.  I have a little holiday altar for Loren, because it’s his birthday soon and he loved (loves?) the season.

I went “greens hunting,” as I put it to Kyle the other day, all around the neighborhood and into the little parks, collecting evergreen branches.  They are now wreaths on the doors and decorations on the front porch and back porch. I got some for Michelle’s flower boxes, too, although they warned me to be discreet about walking around the neighborhood, in my blue coat that everyone recognizes, with large clippers in my lavender-gloved hands. When I came home with a huge bouquet of varied evergreens, Kyle put his hands on his hips, gave me a wry smile, and seemed resigned to his Nana’s acting out!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Kyle's Photos

Sylvania benches, Historic village, the Bakery (we stopped for a cookie), Harmony, the new doghouse store (upper right), Dragonfly, the Christmas tree, designer white trees, Elements,  historic buildings. Kyle in the Park noting the Sylvania maple leaf.  PHOTOS BY KYLE.
My 10-year-old grandson Kyle and I took a walk around downtown Sylvania today, up and down Main Street. It was a beautiful sunny blue-sky day. We had done the same last night, when they lit up the annual Christmas Tree. But today I handed him my camera and said: "Here, take photos of some of your favorite things!"  He was happy to do it.  The collage above shows some of his photos, and one I took of Kyle standing next to the Sylvania symbol of a planted maple leaf. The city of trees. He pointed that out to me.  He loves his hometown, and he knows it well.  I learn from him. And I see things differently through his eyes.  It's a wonderful world!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

America's Demographics Rule

photos: the,
So it all came down to demographics.

The "demographic time bomb exploded," as "Morning Joe" Scarsborough, a hardcore R from the Florida panhandle, put it.

"Demographics is destiny," said Julian Castro, the popular Latino Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, whose twin brother was just elected to the US Congress.  They are both Democrats.

Latinos in every state across the country, from Florida to Texas, East to West, North and South, came out big for Obama.  He won 71% of the Latino vote, at a time when Latinos are becoming a greater share of the electorate. It's been predicted for a while.

Coming up behind them, I think, are pan-Asians and their American-born offspring, from America's older Japanese and Chinese immigrants to the current inflow from  Korea, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam.  This demographic is growing, and fast. This is not to mention the growing percentage of Americans who consider themselves multi-ethnic.  Or young people, of whom 47% under 18 years of age are minority and non-white.

"We have to recognize the demographic changes in this country," Republican strategist Mike Murphy said, in a frank assessment of the election outcome.  "It's not enough to get 55% of the rural white vote. We have to appeal beyond our base."

"If you don't understand this brave new world, you can't understand politics," Jeff Greenfield wrote (Yahoo news, 11/07/12).

The United States is a nation of immigrants, a nation of great diversity, now more than ever. The Latino vote reflects this rich cultural history and this long-emerging trend that has changed, and will continue to change, the electoral landscape of  our great country. America's demographics rule. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election's Coming Up

The election is upon us, and I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, or behind for that matter.  Not much we can do now but let the money do the talking.  I’ll make some phone calls, even make another contribution, but today it’s better just to stick to....the "now." And pray. I don't want to hear the pundits or see the polls.   

In that spirit I reprint an old blog from my Ukraine days.  I’m going through them all to find the pieces I wrote about and for my brother Loren. I’ve now got a bulging file, and re-reading them is, frankly, sad.  But Loren’s birthday is coming up.  And these “anniversaries” get to you. He would have been 65.  He might have considered moving up North.  I don’t know.  I know I miss him. I know he’s really retired. Wherever he is.  I know for whom he would vote, for whom the bell tolls.  If only he could vote.   

But let's get back to the NOW. "If onlys" don't matter, according to philosophers like Chopra and Tolle. The past is gone.  Tomorrow's not here. We only have today. What will be, will be.  I'll vote tomorrow, for sure, and let the people decide where America will go from there.   On the other hand, isn't voting a way to control our future?  

Thinking about the “Now,” again (2010)

The One for Whom You Create, by Mitch Ditkoff
Poets, lose your pens,
Painters, toss your brushes
in the sea,
Musicians, give your instruments
then go for a long walk.

When you're done,
keep walking,
notice the beauty all around you.
Don't try to remember
a single thing,

This holy moment is your poetry,
your art, your song.
Do not concern yourself with giving it form.

From Mitch Ditkoff’s Blog, Heart of the Matter

This is a nice poem, found by accident on a blog called “Heart of the Matter.”  Sounds like Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle.  As usual I struggle with the concept.  I have some qualms about the message of this poem. I think this is taking the “NOW” to the extreme.  Sure we breathe and take in the moment.  We go for long walks and notice the beauty around us.  

But do we want to breathe in a world without poetry, music, art?  I have experienced  many “a holy moment” in reading the poetry of Mary Oliver, listening to Bach or the Beatles, admiring the paintings of Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, the sculpture of David Smith.  I, for one, am glad that these artists and every artist on earth in all times and places have concerned themselves “with giving it form.” 

I might be off base here.  I’m open to suggestions.  I welcome your insights.  But now I will take a long walk, and breath in the moment.      

Glaring Contrasts: Trump Rebuked in George H.W. Bush's Eulogies

photo Huff post. The state funeral of president George H.W. Bush, for a brief moment in time, was orchestrated to restore a sense of...