Category Archives: Memoir

Smart Connection

I had never heard of Christopher Smart, though as an English major I should have. My passion was Renaissance and 20th century poetry, and I kissed off the 18th century with one semester.

At the Poetry Circle at my elder residence, Stonebridge at Montgomery, curated by my new friend Hope, some read selections and some listen. Yesterday the coincidental links were giving me, as a wanna-be English teacher, delight. Perhaps “time present and time past” lurks in lots of poems, but every poem read that day — by Joyce, by Len, by Lois and by me — seemed to connect to that subject. Len’s contribution, a poem that he wrote to go with one of his collages, was even called ‘Connections.’

My contribution was potentially daunting: ‘Burnt Norton,’ the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I had lived into these lines in college and choreographed a dance about them:

….Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
….

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always presen
t.

but since I’d handed out copies and distributed the reading, everyone happily dived in to share Eliot memories and favorite lines. So satisfying.

Then Nancy came up with a long but wryly amusing selection written by 18th century poet Christopher Smart. Drat, I thought, that’s the only poem read today that doesn’t have something to do with time. It doesn’t have a connection to the others.

I like connections. Sometimes I allow myself the belief that they are arranged by a higher power.

This morning I reached for my daily devotional guide, couldn’t find it, and absentmindedly opened a book that I hadn’t allowed myself the time to read, Lawrence Block’s’ The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, given me by button friend Ann Wilson, who promises that ‘buttons’ are featured in the plot. Fast skimming to page 19 and, lo, there is Christopher Smart, explained as a contemporary of Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. Says the first person narrator: He was unquestionably talented, but he was also mad as a hatter, and given to fits of religious mania that led him to implore his fellows to join him in public prayer. “I’d as soon pray in the street with Kit Smart as anyone else in London,” Johnson allowed, but others were less tolerant, and Smart spent the better part of his mature years clapped in a cell in Bedlam, where he wrote a line of poetry every day.

I choose to believe that it was not a coincidence that I picked up that book, read to page 19, and found the connection to what Nancy read the previous day.

You may believe what you will. And I won’t ask you to pray in the street.

M

Dear dear Dr. Ruth

Here’s my confession: I’m such a Dr. Ruth fan. A couple of decades ago, when I was scheduling an interview with her, she left a message on my phone mail that I kept for weeks, delighting in that throaty signature voice.

Here is Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s prescription for Covid positivity, published in the AARP newsletter. Memo to freelancers: she pitched her own story. It wasn’t the editors’ idea but they bought it. Memo to photographers and stylists: This is how to make an elder look good!

Mem

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Wassail Memories

My family in 1954. I’m on the right.

Wassail – the drink and the song – evokes pungent memories. At Christmas my Senior Girl Scout troop went caroling to the Baltimore County jail. Singing our way, “Here we come a wassailing.. Love and joy come to you…” through the cell blocks, we tried not to be daunted by what we didn’t want to see.

Yet wassail, as a festive drink, is a jubilant memory. My parents made it by the gallon jugs for our four-hour Christmas open house.  Creating the base required simmering spices and sugar; later they added squeezed-by-hand juice and cider. I still have my father’s aluminum citrus squeezer.

Our house was small, so the nearly 100 guests came in waves – medical school colleagues from 1 to 3, friends of my sister and me from 2 to 4, and everybody else from 3 to 5.

Because the hot wassail was such a spicily unusual drink, the teen boys judged it “spiked” and claimed the bowl, ignoring the (delicately flavored with very good whisky) eggnog. Everyone looked forward to our Smithfield ham (an annual gift from a former med student) and cocktail shrimp (in the early ‘50s shrimp was not yet standard party fare).  

At these parties I learned to love to entertain.

When my parents brought wassail to me at college, I learned how much parents will do to help their children. They brought not just one jug of wassail, but enough for more than a hundred people. With the modern dance group at Duke University, I had produced the first-ever multi-art Yule Fest. We danced to Christmas carols, accompanied by a medieval combo plus recitations by drama students. After the applause, dancers came down the aisles of the ‘theater in the round’ with glass cups of hot wassail for all.

Here is the Figge family wassail recipe in the small quantity (with medium and largest quantities in parentheses). My father’s notes say the largest quantity will be enough for 50 people (if you also have 3 gallons of eggnog!)

Boil 2 cups sugar (8 cups or 5 lbs.) in 2-cups water (8 cups or about 1½ gallons water) for 10 minutes. Add

6 cloves (24 or48)

1 stick cinnamon (4 or 8)

6 allspice or ¼ t ground (or 24- 48 allspice

1 T grated lemon rind (or 4 or 8 T)

1 T grated orange rind (or 4 or-8 T)

1 T chopped ginger (use your judgment for larger amounts)

Cover, stand 2 hours. Put in gallon jug, preferably glass. (At this point you can store the base, outside if it’s cold).

On the day of the party, strain it into a large kettle and add

 1 1/2 cups orange juice (6 or 12 c) preferably fresh squeezed

3/4 cups lemon juice (3 or 6) preferably fresh squeezed

2 cups sweet cider (or 8 or 16)

Before you reheat and serve this, dilute with 2 quarts cider or water, by taste.

Helping One Helps All

Best Buy’s landmark employee handbook

Reading this post I watched an interview with a nationally known HR guru on how taking care of caregivers can help everyone – including the employer.

Charles Montreuil, SVP of Human Resources at Best Buy, was interviewed by Alexandra Drane, co-founder and CEO of Rebel Health and ARCHANGELS, a national movement that recognizes and honors caregivers.

Montreuil broke new ground in ways for a corporation to care for its workers who are caregivers, and as both a recipient of care and a caregiver myself, his ‘corporatized empathy’ has special meaning for me.

Charles Montreuil and Alexandra Drane

At minute 23 came my AHA moment about why my church’s new arrangements for “taking care” are so meaningful. Montreuil says that having a caregiving system in place will reduce stress — not only for the employee caregiver — but also for everyone who works with or who knows that person. Stress for one person affects those around her. When the employee’s friends – her team – know that she can get help if she needs it — they can relax too.

I tend to carry a lot of that kind of stress. As an empath and a diagnosed worrywart, I am prone to worrying about who isn’t being taken care of. Ten years ago I helped manage an informal team to look after a beloved church member who lived alone but had dementia and other health problems. Refusing to move from her fourth floor walk-up Palmer Square apartment, she charmed everyone in sight, inspiring them to help her. But it took 10 of us to manage all aspects of her care.

What org”>Princeton United Methodist Church lacked then was an organized system of tracking who else needed care. We did have had other formal systems in place. In addition to the pastors, they included:

Stephen Ministry, which I knew pretty well since my late husband worked, as the lay leader, with then -pastors Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash and Rev. Catherine Williams and the lay team of Stephen Ministers — caring Christians trained to walk alongside those in need for as long as necessary to provide emotional and spiritual care.

From Stephen Ministry grew a caring group for widows and widowers, called Love Lives On.

The Prayer Chain, for as long as I can remember, offers solace to many. To be able to say “our prayer warriors will pray for your loved one” seems to help even those (perhaps especially those) without a firm faith.

Until Covid, several 12-step groups had, for decades, found a warm and welcoming meeting home in the church’s building on the town’s main drag. (After Covid, they will return).

Then. last year, Pastor Ginny Cetuk and an experienced lay member, Laverna Albury, put together a program, Circle of Care, to try to ensure that no one in our flock would “fall through the cracks.” This 12-member team “provides services and support to individuals or families who find themselves in acute distress due to illness, injury or family stress. ” When Covid came along, Circle of Care was in place and ramped up its efforts.

My AHA moment: When Best Buy’s HR guy, Montreuil, acknowledged that help for a stressed out caregiver could reduce the stress among that worker’s associates. “When you take care of one employee you are influencing the rest of the store. ‘Look at how this store takes care of us.'” Just knowing that respite care is available for the co-worker makes everyone breathe easier.

Yes! I realized. With the Circle of Care in place I can put that particular worry, that particular reason to be anxious, on a shelf. Other folks are in charge!

Full disclosure: I found this video on the website of my daughter, Susannah Fox. She bills herself as an “internet geologist” who helps people navigate healthcare and technology. At the end of her post she gave a link to Best Buy’s caregiver handbook.

The photograph below shows the elder in the fourth floor walkup, barely able to walk herself, charming a 10-yea-old stilt walker.

The Ordinary Made Holy

liturgy

Sometimes “chance” happenings are just too grace-filled to be chance. On August 2, Rebekah Anderson’s sermon text and a chance-read book “happened” to coincide with (shh) my colonoscopy prep. A former church member gave me a book her group had read, “Liturgy of the Ordinary: sacred practices in everyday life,” by Tish Harrison Warren. I perused the first chapter. It was about making your bed in the morning and it helped me to enjoy doing that.

This morning, with creaky bones and foreboding spirit, facing a 36 hour fast for my colonoscopy, I happened to pick it up again. The next chapter is about “living in a body” and it was so perfect that I feel impelled to share this passage.

Jewish faith, the soil from which Christianity sprang, is delightfully, at times shockingly, earthly and embodied. Observant Jews use a prayer called the Asher Yatzar, which they recite after using the bathroom. 

Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for a short period). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

It’s embarrassing and perhaps a bit uncomfortably graphic, but there is a baldness and beauty in this Jewish blessing. it dares us to believe that the God who holds the planets in orbit deigns to be involved with even the most mundane, pedestrian, and scatological parts of human embodiment. It calls us to gratitude and worship in the most undignified parts of our day. 

Then the author, who began the chapter by pondering on the act of brushing teeth, continues  ..these small tasks of caring for our bodies, as quotidian as they are, act as an embodied confession that our Creator…who mysteriously became flesh … has made our bodies well and deserves worship in and through our very cells, muscles, and teeth. 

Oh yes, the text for that Sermon “An Invitation to New Life,” available on video here.(at minute 35, and at minute 25 is an amazing handbell solo). The text was Isaiah 58:

ALL ABOUT HOW TO FAST!

Dancing at 20, 50 — and now 80

1990 group birthdayIn six months I’ll be 80.

I’m dependent for my health and strength on Pilates, as taught in the Anthony Rabara studio, and I’m learning new strengthening moves at Princeton Fitness and Wellness, but nothing beats actual DANCE.

Dancing (modern dance) used to be my life. I danced a lot, in college.  Some, in my 30s. Less, in my 50s. (The image* is of my 50th birthday party, led by my then dance teacher,Esther Arnhold Seligmann.  Even less in my ’60s, though with Alma Concepcion I did try to learn flamenco, until I realized what it was doing to my knees.

Absolutely no dance in my 70s.

Now, on the cusp of 80, I have rediscovered the joy of moving through space.

SPACE.

You don’t get it in Pilates, you don’t get to move through space in a gym, you can move through space only in a dance studio, and dance studios are notoriously unfriendly to old bones.

mary pat robertsonSo I am beyond thrilled to find a dance class geared for seniors, one that satisfies my desire (yea, my need) to move through space but honors my arthritis. Mary Pat Robertson,who had extensive experience in Merce Cunningham technique as well as being a master teacher of ballet, has begun a class for mature dancers of 50 plus years (that’s me), ranging from beginners to former professionals (I’m in between), to”retain flexibility, balance, and core strength.”

It’s at the new Martin Center for Dance, established by Douglas Martin and Mary Barton martin center logoupon their untimely exit from American Repertory Ballet. (This article in U.S. 1 explains some of the details and here is an earlier Town Topics article by Anne Levin).

I had studied Humphrey/Weidman technique and ‘experienced’ Graham technique, and I’m finding that Cunningham technique is kinder to old bones. Robertson merges what she learned at the Cunningham studio with what she experienced at a special “over 50” class in London.

It’s good for me. It’s fun. It has me moving (safely) through space.

Intrigued? Come and see! Robertson teaches the “over 50” class on Mondays and Thursdays, 11 AM to 12:30 p.m. at the Martin Center for Dance11 Princess Road, Suite 5. What used to be a warehouse is now a stylish space for two dance studios and a black box theater.

*Recognizable faces in the 50th birthday picture: top row, Mary Hultse, Sandy Goettinger, Barbara Palfy, ?, Ann Yasuhara, ?, Pat Hatton, Joan Crespi.  First row, Esther Seligmann, ?, ?, Barbara Figge Fox, Anna Rosa Kohn, Brenda Fallon, Nicole Plett. (Additional IDs welcome. With little provocation I will show you the video. It reflects Esther’s amazingly free spirit.) 

Dear Abby: elders need to share family history

dear abbyDear Abby:

In your column today, “Not Interested” kvetches about his mother, “obsessed with family history and preserving attachments to relatives…her house is stuffed with furniture, books, legal documents, photos, and the like. Each has a story that goes with it.”

Instantly I identify with both of them, the young person who yearns to accomplish goals in the future, and the old person who wants to pass down her heritage (memories, objects, collections, pick one) to her descendants. I was that young person, dealing with a memory-preserving mother, and at age 79 I still share the lofty goal of :making a difference’  with the time I have left to me.  I am that old person, yearning rather desperately to leave ‘something of me’ behind.

Abby, your advice was practical but insufficient. You tell the son to find other relatives who might want the collection. You tell him not to make any promises he does not intend to keep.

As a former print journalist, I honor your word limitation. But you failed to acknowledge the deep almost desperate desire of elders to preserve their heritage. Perhaps later you can suggest ways for young people to help us do that. Videotape us telling our stories. Photograph our objects and make a book for us to keep. Set up storytelling sessions with our grandchildren. At the very least, be lovingly polite about our desperate need – as we face the end of our lives — to pass along a bit of ourselves.

And on the other side, we elders need someone to help us face the River Styx. Someone to remind us that, regardless of the objects that anyone keeps or does not keep, whatever we said or did in the past is what they will remember.

PS. Here’s a shout out to my sister, RosalieAnn Figge Beasley, and family genealogists everywhere. Those of us who don’t want to do that work now — we are likely to be grateful later.

 

 

 

Swimming upstream in the workplace

At the time, I didn’t notice it, how hard it was. In the ’60s and ’70s, we moms didn’t even think of having it “all” or “leaning in.” We thought we were lucky to have a smidgen. We were swimming ‘in the water.”

Then I read Tom Watson’s account of how the Watson dynasty built IBM  (“Father, Son & Company..”)  and I came across my old yellowed copy of a Rockefeller funded book project to encourage women to enter the workforce entitled (get ready) “How to go to work when your husband is against it, your children aren’t old enough, and there’s nothing you can do anyhow.”

You may have my copy of the latter. It was put out by Catalyst, founded in 1961 to make workplaces better for women. That was the year I graduated from college and — newly married and out of the workforce — I had NO idea how hard things were for women.

Watson’s book is a good read. But if somebody like Watson had published his autobiography in the ’70s, I might have recognized how badly the deck was stacked against women.  Everywhere where you  might think Watson would refer to “they,” “employees,” “managers,” whatever term — he uses the pronoun MEN. There simply weren’t any women in his ken. All men. 

That was the way it was, then. It was ordinary. When my husband went to a summer training program at IBM, the class picture had two women and 30 men.  It was in the water.

Einstein Ever Fascinates

einstein house
Einstein lived at 110 Mercer Street, now a private home with no house number.

While on duty to give tours of the Tiffany window at Princeton United Methodist Church, I encountered a visitor who wanted to take an historical tour, shorter than the ones offered by the Historical Society of Princeton.

Princeton Tour Company is your answer, I said, but you will still have to hoof it.

Vainly I looked in online files to find one of my 20 minute driving tours, titled “Gossips’ Guide to Princeton,” but I did find this “Einstein Tour,” written in 2005. It’s longer than 20 minutes if you get out at each stop. I’ve updated it a little. It begins:

Einstein has always been Princeton’s most sought-after celebrity. Visitors from Europe who are visibly unimpressed by “old” buildings like Nassau Hall, and those from other continents who turn a deaf ear to stories of the town’s role in the Revolutionary War – they all know about Albert Einstein and are eager to view any signs of the great man’s legacy.

Continue on the Einstein journey

The newest addition to the Einstein tour might be the sculpture that intends to represent Einstein’s brain, pictured in this article on the Arts Council of Princeton website. 

sculpture of einstein's brain

Finding your ender: Here’s help

 

DSCF3202
Tabernacle by sculptor Adam Kraft at St. Lorenz Kirche in Nurnberg.

Good writers supposedly know how they will end an article before they start. Enders were always my burden (as in this gratuituous photo of a 15th=century stone sculptor). 

From Medium, here is extensive help, by Jason Shen, filed for my personal  use and perhaps useful to you.

How Great Writers End Their Articles: What you can learn from the final paragraphs of 100 top feature articles from Malcolm Gladwell, the Atlantic, Fast Company, and the New York Times