Forsythia x intermedia

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”
Emily Dickinson

                              Photo:  David et Magali

Forsythia x intermedia

Winter disappeared today
gone in a splash of yellow,
branches arching up and over,
skimming the still partially frozen ground.

One day brown branches wait in anticipation,
then with a swift surprise
vibrant yellow bells appear
heralding warmth and hope
born in the soft soothing colors of spring.

Its golden friendliness is apparent to all
even in its wildness
when later cheery yellow blossoms
turn to summer green.

Asking so little of us
yet giving so much,
its soft message perhaps is not
look at me in all my splendor
but be like me with all my hope.

© Barbara Flass 2012

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Compliments are Addictive

Compliments are Addictive

I am normally a very shy, quiet, sometimes sad person.  My family and friends all know this and accept it.  It’s an effort for me to be more outgoing.  Talking to strangers is especially hard, but since I retired from teaching, I seem to be desperate for human contact.

Recently on a day when I was feeling a little down, something came over me and my desire to talk to others got the best of my shyness.  I stopped at the bank, pulled up to the drive-through window, and saw one of my favorite tellers.  She is young, pretty, and energetic.  She completed the transaction for me, and I found myself gushing, “Thank you.  I love coming here.  You are so happy and cheerful all the time.  You really make my day!”

She smiled back at me, thanked me, and I pulled away.  I am probably one of the few human beings alive today without an ATM card.  I really just don’t want one.  I know they are so much more convenient than having to write a check, but I worry I won’t remember to note it in my checkbook.  I hate to admit it, but I also don’t use a debit card.  Most people would wonder how I survive such antiquated financial choices.  I still remember my parents using money orders before finally getting a checking account and then one credit card which they seldom used.  It worked for them!  Anyway, if I didn’t have to go to a bank directly, I wouldn’t have human contact with people who really seem to enjoy their jobs.

After the bank, I took my mother to the lab for some blood work.  We didn’t have much time, since my mother had some tests scheduled at the hospital, and she had to fast for the blood work, so I was hoping to get her to a restaurant for some breakfast.  The waiting room was almost empty and we sat down to wait.  Then a man came in and the nurse/receptionist took him in right away.  I was a little annoyed, and so when we were finally called, I said I wondered if we had been overlooked since someone had come in after we had but had been taken before us.  The woman rather rudely and abruptly informed me that he had an appointment and we did not.  She took my mother back to the lab and drew the blood without saying much to either one of us.  Then I noticed she had on a cute smock designed with cats and dogs lying in hospital beds.  I began a conversation.

“What a cute smock!”  I said.  “That must really cheer patients up.”

Suddenly she smiled and said,  “We’re supposed to wear uniforms but we only get two, and by the end of the week I run out, so I bought a few cute smocks.  I wish I could wear them all the time.”

“That would be great!”  I said.  Then she put the bandage on my mother’s arm and she escorted us to the door.  I felt even better than I had before.

Next was breakfast.  We stopped at a diner I knew my parents used to like.  I had never been there, but my mother liked it.  Who wouldn’t like a restaurant called Shirley’s?

We seated ourselves and I read the menu to my mother.  She loves bacon and pancakes so she was excited to be there.  I noticed that most of the people in there were senior citizens.  An elderly man came in with a walker, took what I suspected was his usual seat, and after ordering, got up to go to the restroom.  A few minutes after he returned to his seat, he got up again to go to the restroom.  One of the waitresses stopped to talk to him.  She obviously knew him.   She told him to just rest a minute and let her know if he needed anything.  He continued to just sit without eating.

As we got up to pay the bill, the waitress called over to him that his meal had been taken care of and she hoped he felt better.  I commented to the waitress, “Your job involves more than just being a waitress, doesn’t it?  You seem to take special care of your customers.”  She smiled at me and agreed that she did many jobs in her line of work.  We paid the bill and left.

It was only three brief encounters, only three moments of kindness on my part, but somehow those three moments made me feel better.  This was a difficult day because my mother at age 89 was having health problems and had to endure several lengthy tests that morning, but I felt connected to other people, watching them at work as I had once worked.   I know my teaching days were always easier on those rare occasions when I heard a few kind words of appreciation.

Complimenting others is a way to feel good at those times when you need a lift.  Even when something goes wrong, I’ve discovered I can get satisfaction when I am pleasant instead of angry.  One of my sister’s greatest traits was her ability to find humor and joy in those moments that were life’s greatest challenges.  More and more often now I find myself trying to view life the way she would have, and it comforts me.

Swinging on a Dream

“There is no better view than the view from a swing.”   — author unknown

Empty Swing by Petr Kratochvil

Swinging on a Dream

She curled her tiny fingers around the thick, rough rope,
sat gingerly on the smooth, flat board hanging from her favorite tree
and began to move,
pushing off with her feet from the sandy mound beneath the tree,
then pumping her legs back and forth slowly at first
momentum rising with her as she moved higher and higher
until the ruffles on her pink dress moved in a rhythmic pattern
and the green leaves came closer and closer,
so high now the squeak began, the rope rubbing on the branch,
as she flew back and forth, strands of blond hair
blowing out behind her,
and she began to dream again her favorite dream
that maybe beyond the trees
up where the blue sky peeks through the branches,
there was a kingdom where princesses waited for their princes
and fairy godmothers protected the little ones from all harm.
She held on tightly wondering for a minute if she should simply let go
just in case there was room there
for one more princess in a soft pink dress,
there in a place where she could finally feel safe.
The swing began to slow, her legs resting now
until her feet landed softly in the dust
and she sat a little while longer there on her swing
reluctant to leave
alone with her fear.

© Barbara Flass 2012

Fragonard’s The Swing, 1767

“A picture is a poem without words.” —-Horace

Fragonard’s The Swing

The first painting I ever loved besides the ones my father painted was Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing.  I discovered Fragonard in my art history class my senior year in college.  The class met at 8 a.m. Saturday mornings my final semester of college.  I loved the class more than sleeping in after a Friday night fraternity party.

The professor set up slides every week and we sat with pen in hand sketching the paintings or sculptures or cathedrals and furiously taking notes at the same time.  Exams for the class consisted of the professor putting up a series of slides we had to identify and write about.

When Fragonard’s The Swing appeared on the screen in the darkened room, I was mesmerized, unable to start my drawing for a full minute.  The way the light seemed to emanate from the painting was almost magical.  The light seemed to shine from behind the pink fabric of the girl’s dress, and the lush greenness around her, the statues and carvings, all were forever engraved in my mind.

I remember taking my art history textbook home to show my father that summer after graduation.  Fragonard’s painting was in the book, and my father sat for hours looking over all the paintings in the book, sharing my love of art.

When my youngest daughter went to college at Boston University, we spent lots of time in Boston art galleries.  In Harvard Square there was a great bookstore with an entire upper level filled with art prints.  I was sure I would find Fragonard’s The Swing, but I didn’t.  I settled for a print of A Young Girl Reading, and I love the way it looks on the wall next to my writing desk.

The story behind the painting The Swing was something I discovered only recently.  The painter Gabriel-Francois Doyen was originally approached by the baron de Saint-Julien to paint a picture of his mistress being pushed in a swing by a bishop.  The baron was to be in the painting also underneath the swing looking up.  Boyen, however, felt the painting was a little scandalous, so he suggested that Fragonard do the painting.  Fragonard had a reputation as a little unconventional with a good sense of humor, and so he agreed to do the painting.  When I was a college student, all I learned about the painting was the way Fragonard used light.   I didn’t learn about the subjects of the painting, or notice the statue of Cupid with his fingers to his lips, the nude couple on the statue base, or the other symbolism in the painting.  I just knew I loved the color and the light, the pinks and the greens and the playfulness of the girl as she tossed her slipper to the gentleman on the ground (Massangale 88).

I don’t know why certain paintings become our favorites.  I wish I had a print of this painting hanging on a wall in my house somewhere (maybe next to A Young Girl Reading) because I suspect it would remind me of my college days when getting up early on a Saturday morning excited me and when every day that I learned something new thrilled me in ways new knowledge does not as an adult.

I never developed an ability to paint like my father, so instead I work with words, but it’s much harder to show how light illuminates the world around us, how it can seem to shine through objects until it enters in to the very core of our souls.  The closest I can come to that is a poem.

References:  Massengale, Jean Montague.  Fragonard.  New York:  Harry M. Abrams, Inc., 1993.

Survivor Guilt

“These tough and painful experiences provide the opportunity to see who you are and what you are made of….Only a courageous person can accept and pursue the opportunity to face herself, to dive into a sea of hurt, unanswered questions, and loneliness in order to find the light.  To find answers.  To find out who you are.”
—Michelle Akers

Survivor Guilt

Yesterday CNN did an interview with Dr. Dale Archer, clinical psychologist, who spoke about the psychological aftermath of the tornadoes that swept through states in the south and Midwest.  He talked specifically about the kind of survivor guilt experienced by Jason Miller, the only survivor out of six who took cover in his double-wide trailer in Pekin, Indiana.

Mr. Miller had urged the family who lived next to him in a smaller trailer to take shelter in his trailer.  The force of the tornado blew all of them into the air and they landed in a field nearby.  One of the children survived briefly before she died later in the hospital.  Mr. Miller had multiple broken bones, but his real pain was emotional.  He was suffering from survivor guilt, feeling responsible for the deaths of the family he had tried to help.

I always pay attention to anything related to survivor guilt since I struggle with it every day since my sister died.  We both fought breast cancer at the same time, but I lived and she didn’t.  It was months after her death before I sought out a grief counselor who talked to me about survivor guilt.   While it was comforting to know there was actually a name for what I was experiencing, I was left wondering what to do about it.  I often feel that the wrong sister died.

Dr. Archer said there are three kinds of survivor guilt—logical guilt, illogical guilt, and depressive guilt.  Obviously, Mr. Miller was suffering from illogical guilt.  He was not really responsible for the death of the family he had tried to help.  Logically, staying in their more fragile trailer would inevitably have meant disaster for them anyway.

Logical guilt is harder to overcome because the person has actually done something to cause the death of another, perhaps driving drunk for example.

I was not responsible for my sister’s death, but I think the fact that I survived breast cancer and she did not, made it borderline depressive survivor guilt for me.  Dr. Miller said that survivor guilt is now included in the broader term of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   We have all read stories about the aftermath of 9/11 and the problems faced by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I found a very informative website that actually does offer some assistance in moving beyond the guilt (www.giftfromwithin.org/html/guilt-Following-Traumatic-Events.html).

Dr. Kathleen Nader, D.S.W., offers information on survivor guilt and also provides a list of questions to help deal with the problem.  Getting beyond the guilt is something I wish I could do.   I sympathize with anyone who struggles with it, and I wish them well in their attempts to overcome it.

A Phone Call That Ended My Breast Cancer Donations

“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke

A Phone Call That Ended My Breast Cancer Donations

This past week I received two phone calls soliciting donations for breast cancer treatment and research.  I am a breast cancer survivor and my sister died of breast cancer, so I know how important these organizations are.  However, the phone calls this week changed my willingness to donate.

I usually just hang up when I receive phone call solicitations, but when the calls relate to breast cancer, I sometimes am willing to at least listen.  One call came from an organization I was not familiar with.  Many of them sound similar:  Breast Cancer Research Foundation, The International Breast Cancer Research Foundation, The National Breast Cancer Coalition, The Breast Cancer Fund, The Breast Cancer Alliance, and many others.  They all want my money.  But what I want is prevention.  What I want is a cleaner environment.  I want chemicals, especially parabens, removed from the products we buy and use every day.  All the money poured into research so far has still not produced a cure.

The first phone call I got was fairly high-pressure, even after I explained that I specifically choose local organizations to support and I don’t contribute money over the phone.  The caller would not give up, so I had to just hang up. The second call the next day came from Memorial Sloan-Kettering.  I have supported the hospital with small donations because my sister went there for a consultation after her cancer returned.  I don’t send much.  I am now retired and on limited income.  I do support two local organizations, CRAAB and To Life! and I will be volunteering more for them.  After the phone call this week from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, I will no longer be donating there.

It would be an understatement to say that this caller was more than persistent.  He began by saying how much they appreciated my past donations.  That would have been a nice phone call to receive.  But he went on to ask me to donate more.  I explained I could not, but he would not take no for an answer.  He continued to ignore me, interrupt me, and ask me to contribute $1.00 a day, just $30 a month.  I didn’t want to know if this was a one-time donation or if he meant every month because at that point it didn’t matter.  I told him he was not listening to me when I said I was doing all I could and I was beginning to resent his suggestion that it was not enough.  He countered by saying he was appreciative of what I had done in the past and he wasn’t suggesting it wasn’t enough, but then he went on to say he was simply asking me to contribute more.  It was a little bizarre to hear him deny what he was obviously saying, so at that point, I told him I would no longer contribute to Memorial Sloan-Kettering.  I would instead keep my money supporting local organizations where I could see where the money went.

Every time I send money anywhere for breast cancer research, I hesitate because no cure is coming.  The pharmaceutical companies and the entire oncology industry seem to me to be profiting from this disease more than they want to eradicate it.  I know that probably sounds crazy to some people.  I know it is my grief speaking through anger at the loss of my sister.  I am much more at peace now as I plan to volunteer my time to help local groups and send a little money to these groups when I can afford it.  But I will no longer respond to phone call solicitations or mailings from companies that send me note paper, address labels, calendars, and memo pads in the hopes that I will continue to support them. I won’t.

Winter Artist

Winter Artist

Today I wish I had my father’s talent for painting.  A snowstorm has finally coated the forest in white.  The pine branches hang low over the newly fallen snow.  A squirrel digs a hole under the birdfeeder looking for seed, burying himself part way so just his flitting tail rises up above the piles of snow.  A chickadee pecks at the seed in the feeder attached to the kitchen window where my cat Hanna is sitting on her inside perch, tail swishing in excitement.

My father’s brushstrokes would capture the way the pure white of the snow lines the brown branches of the cherry tree, the way the dark green of the evergreen boughs dip downward under their snow cover, the way the garden bench rests undisturbed by the heaviness of a white blanket.

He could take this rare day in the north this winter and preserve it forever with his acrylics,  starting with the blank white canvas, drawing a rough sketch, setting out his paints on the palette, switching between a flat and pointed round brush, filling in the sky with Payne’s gray, the trees with burnt umber under titanium white, the pines sap green under sparkling pearl, blending colors as he goes, life recreated on canvas.

I guess it’s the same with writing, yet it doesn’t feel quite the same to me.  Blank page coming to life, recreating a scene with words, phrases, similes and metaphors, pen imitating brush, adjectives imitating the colors of the acrylics—it’s still art.  My father’s paintings line the walls of my home, his painted signature in the bottom right corner.  I sometimes touch the letters of his name, remembering how reluctant he sometimes was to identify his work as his, modesty one of his most endearing traits.  In the early morning, the first thing I see is my father’s painting on the wall next to the bed, a New England scene of a mill with a water wheel attached, and memories flow through me.  I’m a child watching my father at his easel, pipe in his mouth, pouring splotches of color from much-used tubes, mixing, brushing, creating.

I wonder if my children will someday touch a poem I have written, maybe the original copy in my handwriting that I always save, and remember me the way I remember my father.  I hope they will.