because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Learning To See

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April is National Poetry Month, so I’m sharing words in a different way. 

Click on the photo to see more work by Sean McMenemy. Photograph, used with permission of the artist.

There was only one crayon

I liked in the whole box,

a cracked black Crayola,

and I settled beside a coloring book —

gray outlines on white pages, scribbling

until I noticed Grandma pulling on

walking shoes, heavy

with stiff laces, brown like snakes.

Down the shaded walk I followed

until the lawn stopped

and weeds grew wild, sloppy and carefree.

Gardening gloves parted prickly shoots

to step inside, swallowed

I followed, tripped on rocks

and roots, got stuck

on sticky burrs while Grandma cooed

soft water words

wintergreen

witch hazel

windflowers

 words which sounded like colors

from my crayon box, words

which until then I thought strange and

separate from me.

Later, I took my crayons outside, filled

my lap with colors

drew giant spotted, all-color polka dotted

butterflies, purple and red winged smears

dipping and soaring, winding, rising transparent

as April air, until one little one

found its way above gnarled branches

and swirled

                                                            right off the page.

What are you looking forward to this Spring?

Calculated Chances: A #LessonLearned by Darlene Steelman

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Darlene Steelman grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: a misunderstood kid with a crazy mind. Finally, at the age of 38, she decided to put that crazy mind to good use and write. When she’s not stopping her car in the middle of the road to protect crossing ducks, she passes time with an office job, writing on her lunch hour, and singing off-key in the car.

By night she works on her first novel. (She also plays me at Words with Friends.)

Darlene’s blog is called Living Sober – Life at Full Throttle. You can also find her on Facebook and stalk her on Twitter at @DarleneSteelman.

Click on the teacher lady's nose to see other folks who have shared their lessons.

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Calculated Chances

As I push 40, there are many things I have learned over the course of those years.  Always say please and thank you; hold the door for old people and be very sure to take the trash outside if it has raw onions in it.

But are any of these really lessons? Maybe the last one.  Maybe.

As a kid I (like most kids) did really dumb things. I once roller skated down my grandmother’s driveway straight into the garage knowing I would fall flat onto my face when I didn’t lift my feet over the lip to get into the garage.

I knew this.  But I wanted to know what would happen.  So I kept my skates on the ground.  Those skates stopped propelling forward when they hit that cement lip. I hurled forward, but not onto my face (thankfully!).  I landed on both knees.  My knees screamed in a bloody fashion as I cried for my grandmother.

My grandmother (who grew up a poor, coal miner’s daughter) called me a horse’s ass and said, “Darlene, get up. Stop crying.  You’ll be fine.”

I was an eight year old in shock at that point.

“Get up?” “Stop crying?” Fine?!”

Turns out my grandmother’s refusal to coddle and baby me worked to my advantage as the years passed.

Well, most of the time.  I still have that “ooh I wonder what will happen if I do this?” mentality.

When I was somewhere between eight and eleven years old, I was in the bathroom at my parents’ house and brushing my teeth with Crest toothpaste or something. My parents used Pepsodent, which is the equivalent of brushing your teeth with gasoline.

Pepsodent toothpaste
Pepsodent toothpaste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My mind started going as my eyes drifted over to the Pepsodent.  Pepsodent.  Hmm.  This stuff is pretty strong.  I wonder what would happen if I put it on my eyelids, like eye shadow?

Yes.  That is a thought process I actually had when I was a little girl.

And to keep you from suspense any longer, I did put the toothpaste made with real gasoline on my eyelids.  It burned like hell.  Yet, there was a cool mentholated feeling.

I really think there was potential there to permanently blind myself.

The next three minutes in the bathroom went something like:

“Owwwww!” as I frantically searched around for a towel or something to wipe the damn gasoline off of my eyes.  It was piercing the lids as it seeped into my eyeballs. As I write this I am laughing because I can see myself with flailing arms (much like Jodi Foster in the dark room in Silence of the Lambs) trying to find a wash rag or towel or something in the bathroom to wipe off my eyelids.

Nope. Nothing.  Had I prepared I would have remembered there was never a towel in the bathroom at my parents.  Never.

“Oh my God, I am gonna go blind!” I whispered to myself as I refused to cry.  I could not cry.  Only sissies cried.  I was no sissy.  Gram would not tolerate me crying.

I managed to get myself out of the bathroom and into my bedroom (which thankfully was right next to the bathroom) and get the toothpaste off of my eyelids.  I was able to see clearly about an hour later.

The lesson I learned was this: take chances!  Unless it involves putting chemicals in a creamy mentholated form on your body, then be sure to read the fine print first.

Calculated chances are important.  They build our character and sometimes we learn that the one thing we feared became that thing we loved the most.

When is the last time you really took a chance at something? Did you succeed or fail? Or did you burn your eyelids?

Grandma’s Charms

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My grandma had an awesome chunky, clunky charm bracelet.

It had sixty-five bajillion charms on it, and it clanked whenever she shook her wrist.

She died in 1982, while I was at summer camp.

I don’t know to whom her charm bracelet was willed, but I never saw  — or heard — it again.

Fast forward three years. My senior year of high school, two friends of mine and I fancied ourselves jewelry makers and set up shop stringing rainbow-colored beads onto tiny black fishing lures.

Our plan?

To become famous jewelry makers.

Or maybe to earn just enough money to see the next Grateful Dead Show.

{Or maybe that was just my plan.}

Anyway, after school and on weekends, we bought miniscule black fishing lures and itsy-bitsy multi-colored seed beads and transformed these cheap components into semi-hideous totally fabulous earrings, bracelets and necklaces.

We hawked our wares during periods 5, 6 and 7 lunch and sold everything for under $5.

And then my left thumbnail split in two.

And that was it; we were out of business.

Still, it was good while it lasted.

While our little business was booming, I got to table together with two friends. And as we slumped over flat surfaces sorting beads and determining color schemes, we talked about our lives: the boys we liked, what we thought we might do after college, where we might eventually land.

Our stuff was not fancy, but people seemed to like it. And it was wonderful to see someone delight in wearing something that we had made.

Recently, I saw these really adorable bracelets.

They don’t call ’em cutey for nothin’!

I immediately liked the colorful bead combinations, especially one bracelet with a whimsical heart-drop dangle featuring two people smooching.

I like that bauble a lot.

I like to roll the round smooth beads between my fingers and see if I can guess which one is which just by the way it feels.

Even though this bracelet is nothing like the junk kind my friends and I created in high school — nor is it like the one my grandmother wore — the clinking sounds strangely familiar.

So now I jingle a bit, and — happily — it reminds me of old friends.

And of my grandmother.

Pieces of my life’s history in metal and beads.

Who could have known that this little bracelet would bring me such sweet memories?

Tell me about a favorite piece of symbolic jewelry.

tweet me @rasjacobson

Lessons From Nan, Who Passed On June 16, 2004

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Nan (Tilly Epstein) & Pop (Irving Schuls)

My grandmother’s name was Tilly. As a child, I wrote her name on envelopes and birthday cards and doodled it on pictures. I never questioned the authenticity of my grandmother’s name because no one had ever said anything about it. And frankly, her name didn’t much matter to me because I called my grandmother Nanny, or sometimes Nan for short.

In 6th grade, my social studies class did a genealogy project, and I sat down with Nan to ask her about her siblings, about her childhood, about her memories, how she met my Pop – all kinds of questions. It was during this interview that Nan told me that her name wasn’t really “Tilly.” She informed me that her real name was Telia, which she thought was a pretty name, but that no one had ever called her by that name so she just went by Tilly, the nickname that was given to her by her parents and siblings. To me, this story is emblematic of the grandmother I knew all my life.

Nan didn’t complain. She didn’t pick fights or confront. She didn’t sweat the small stuff. Unless someone had really wronged her (or flirted with Pop), in general, Nan just kind of accepted things. She found in my grandfather a soulmate and, while they would never be rich in dollars, she was satisfied to be rich in love.

When we four grandchildren were young, we would run down to Nan and Pop’s apartment after a lazy day of swimming in the pool located in the middle of their apartment complex and demand drinks and snacks and candy and cartoons. Nan always opened the door with a smile, ushered us in, and quietly delivered the goods. When her french-fried potatoes became our summertime obsession, she dutifully peeled and sliced and fried those potatoes to golden perfection – sometimes in a very hot apartment – and we would devour them hungrily, asking for seconds and thirds and sometimes probably even forgetting to thank her for her efforts.

Nan never asked for thanks or looked for recognition. And while some people spend their lives dissatisfied or longing for things they do not have, Nan truly had the ability to appreciate life’s simple gifts: the gift of good health and the gift of a loving family.

Nan was intimately connected to her family. She somehow managed to keep both of her children close to her. While she never learned to drive, Nan always found a way to get what she needed. She was resourceful. Nan was not cocky, but she was proud: proud, first, of her children, then her grandchildren and, finally, proud of her great-grandchildren.

While moving Nan’s belongings into a nursing home, I was amazed to find a small wicker basket filled with hundreds of scraps of papers inside of it. Each scrap bore an address of someone Nan had cared about. At the very bottom, there was a calling card bearing the address of the house she and Pop had lived in on Ranier Avenue, a street lost long ago. She had kept my various college and graduate school addresses, though I hadn’t lived in any of those places for decades. She had my brother’s addresses in Ithaca, NY and Charleston, South Carolina, my cousins’ addresses at Oneonta, and other names I didn’t know attached to addresses I didn’t recognize – little scraps of paper with numbers and letters representing much more to Nan.

Nan was home-loving and intensely private. She was unobtrusive, but involved. A tiny woman, who seemed to grow shorter each year, Nan was truly a matriarch. When her husband, my Pop, died in 1990, Nan swore she’d never leave her apartment again: never return to the Jewish Community Center, or to shul, or to the grocery store – but eventually, she did all of these things. Though she appeared frail, she was strong and – when feeling good – had a hearty appetite that never ceased to amaze us. And, even in the end, when she suffered a broken pelvis and arthritis and weakening knees, she went to physical therapy and strove to walk independently. Nan possessed an inner fortitude that is indicative of a great strength.

I will always remember Nan, wearing a snazzy pair of purple pants, sitting on the gold couch in my parents’ living room. Just sitting quietly, patiently, watching my brother and me as we made up games or put on little shows. Many years later, she would sit in the same place, dozing off and on, awaking with an almost apologetic smile.

Agatha Christie once said, “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable . . . but through it all, I know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.” I believe Nan knew this, too.

Seven years and six months later, I still think about her.

Who do you miss and what did they teach you?

The Blessing of Broken Dishes

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Fiestaware, originally uploaded by Choconancy1.

For years, I worked as a Professional Organizer, helping people declutter their little messes. I learned a lot on that little job. I saw how things could represent people and discovered that people could be connected to the strangest things: pantyhose, flip-flops, even mismatched drinking glasses.

I’m not the most sentimental gal, but I collect Fiestaware. The brightly colored pieces make putting the dishes away less of a chore and more of a joy. One or two of the pieces are from my grandmother’s own collection and, though I rarely eat from them, I like opening my doors to my cabinet and seeing them there all nestled in amongst the rest of the pieces. Since she passed away, these few bowls have served as a daily special reminder of our connectedness.

A few years ago, a shelf that held a lot of my beautiful Fiestaware collection caved in and I found myself desperately trying to catch the dishes as they fell, rainbows-colored disks crashing around me. Strangely, in that instant, I remembered all the smashing and crashing in my life. Broken teacups and broken hearts. I realized that when things break, a person has to make choices.

Initially, I wanted to try to Super-glue the smithereens together and attempt to make imperfect things perfect again, but I learned long ago perfection is temporary, at best. I briefly considered taking the busted up pieces and trying to make some kind of mosaic out of all the funky colors and sharp edges, but who has time for that, really? Eventually, I shrugged my shoulders, got my broom and old green dustpan, swept everything up, vacuumed for good measure, and threw all the pieces-parts into the garbage. Not everything can be saved.

by turkeychik at flickr.com

I quickly remembered that I am blessed with good health, a strong family, and good friends. I reminded myself that stuff, while we often like to surround ourselves with it, is just filler.

After I cried a little, I decided I was like an ant whose home had just been knocked over by an unforeseen storm. And everyone knows what ants do; they rebuild. So I pretended that my collection had been cosmically revised and started collecting again. Losing my chartreuse platter was a bummer, but my grandmother’s pieces were spared and, for that, I was grateful.

Over time, I’ve practiced patience, continued collecting, slowly rebuilding. For my 40th birthday a few years ago, several friends bought me a few vintage pieces of Fiestaware; one piece was even chartreuse! Joy can be found in the strangest of places. Who would have thought I’d find so much in my daily dishes?

To what physical items are you connected?


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