Scraps and fragments

I have always loved time travel stories.  There are some amazing theories about time, how we experience it, what exists within and perhaps outside the flow as we move through it.  But eventually we are left only with stories, photos, documents and memories.  Learning my own family stories gave me both hope and courage to move ahead with some of life’s most difficult challenges – and I have come to believe that it is the experiences of struggle, conflict, even despair, that sometimes have the most power for our lives.  

So here I will be sharing those stories, those discoveries.  You might well think that the details of these moments from the past have no meaning for anyone but me or some relatives somewhere – but I suggest otherwise.  So, I am going to write about them here.  They are not all pretty, or happy endings (perhaps) – but they are real, at least in the sense they are truth that I know, which is never of course all of it.  And I will do my best to share them honestly. 

Many of them I have because my Mom was in many ways a hoarder.  She was a disabled single mother with two boys, age 9 and 6 at the time of her divorce; in time, hopefully, I can share more about her life, but what is relevant today is that she kept a room in our childhood home crammed with boxes, things that we were supposed to stay away from, never to be touched.  It is odd she preserved the past yet wanted to perhaps insulate herself from it at the same time; whatever her motives, I am grateful that I was eventually able to sort through it and review some of it in her later years, while she was in a care facility.  She passed there in May 2006, Memorial day weekend. 

Before her passing, and that of my father nearly a year later, along with the passing over that same two years of my uncle, stepmother, and my Dad’s cousin Bill, I was able to talk with them, reconnect with relatives and meet others for the first time, visit family sites, and learn more about the people whose messages were preserved in the cards, letters, photos, documents and diaries.  Now, “sheltering at home”, I am beginning the process of culling from them something to preserve for my broader family – no children of my own, of course, but cousins, nieces, nephews and others who share this heritage. 

There is a mountain of paper.  I haven’t really looked at these files since my move to SF move than two years ago – it was always “important” but now that circumstances force me to stay home, it is time to climb the mountain.  This past week or so our dining room table has been covered in files, and some of it – has gone in the trash.  Deciding what is worth keeping is daunting.  I kind of feel like I am throwing out irreplaceable items, and yes, they are – but irreplaceable is not the same as worthwhile.  

Among the fragments, envelopes, plastic baggies and other stacks of what have you were the kind of things we stick in drawers thinking we might need someday, but never do.  As I went through them and started to toss things in the trash, I realized these little scraps of paper reflected not just the ordinary items in my Mom’s life, but something more. There were business cards for doctors, for gift shops and florists;  receipts for books orders, thank you notes from friends.  Birth announcements and baby showers;  on the other end, death notices. Neighbors going back to the 60’s.  Lists of members of her bible study groups, where they had moved to, their children.  My Mom … cared.  She really did care about all these people, and many names I had not seen for decades.  

These were pieces of my mother’s heart, of her life and memories, now … gone, with her. 

In time I will share more about my Mom … her love, and the limits on it, and how that affected me and others.  She was a person of faith, in many ways turning to that to cope with the physical – and emotional – pain of her disability, and her past.  For now, I just want to share some pictures of what I found, little pieces of a life not to be remembered by many, not particularly distinctive or world changing, yet meaningful, just as many of your parents or your own lives – lives that matter in small ways but nevertheless do indeed matter. 

Here is a 1954 letter from Humphrey’s music co. before my parent’s marriage, for the “splendid manner in which you have paid your contract obligation” and assuring her “You have compiled an enviable credit rating in Long Beach”.   There was a cultural politeness, an etiquette (for some) then, which no longer exists.  Why she kept this all those years is a mystery, just like some of the other weird items like the thank you note from J. Edgar Hoover. 

A small scrap of an ad for a backyard children’s swingset from the LA Times in 1962 with a handwritten notation “Hope to buy for James and Norman in our new home”.  They had been married 8 years or so by this point – about 2 years remained before that ended, but the swingset was in our yard, rusting and deteriorated, well into the 1990’s when I returned to care for the house once she was unable to remain.  We had fun on that, in our little tract house backyard.  All that for $33 in 1962!!

From somewhere in between those dates, or maybe even earlier when she worked for McDonnel Douglas Aircraft in Long beach – “Your Social Security account card” pamphlet filled with helpful advice.  Funny how most of the information is pretty much the same today. 

An unused thank you note with a scripture and an illustration of a cat – she always loved cats, but we never had pets of our own.  “May your day be blessed with simple pleasures”.  She was a stickler for sending cards, all occasions, and kept many that she received from family. A tradition that is becoming lost along with many others.

Including this one – which I will be keeping to pass on to my oldest niece – her birth announcement from 1994.  My Mom loved her grandchildren, but did not get to have what many grandparents share, due to distance and other factors.  “There is no such thing as a small miracle”, with pink ribbon.  She also had handwritten notes for each birth with weights and time. 

I am sure my Mom would think of my older brother’s children as her most lasting legacy, one I could not offer, but there are others in the way she touched our lives.  She was by no means a saint – saints are mythical figures, for the most part – but she tried to share love with people around her.  Like her parents before her, the marriage she had looked forward to ultimately failed, and she was left broken in more ways than physically.  She turned to faith for encouragement, and to share it with others as best she could.  We did not always have the relationship that she wanted – I could not be the son she had hoped I would become, and that was something that was never resolved between us – but we still shared love. 

So what do I take away from this tiny scoop out of the mountain of paper that lies now in folders and boxes awaiting the judgement of “keep” or “trash”. Little scraps of paper, soon to be picked up in our recyclable barrel, on to the dump.  Names, addresses, most of people long gone, like Mom.  Someday, someone will be throwing out my scraps of paper – and yours.  Little fragments of our lives and memories, moments that only we remember, already perhaps fading.  But it is not the paper which we need to preserve.

There are people in our lives today that will not be here perhaps sooner than we imagine, and they have loved us, and fought with us, disappointed us and rejected us but also lifted us up.  We have done the same to others in our lives.  Perhaps we should search the fragments and notes in our drawers and address books and reach out, one more time.  While we can.  Take their hands, sit with them; thank them.  And for those we cannot thank here and now, to take the time to preserve them.  To ensure their love, and sacrifice, lives on – in our actions in the days to come, as well as in the memories, faded photos, and scraps we leave behind.  

Thank you Mom.  I am glad we came to a place of peace together.  Not all your lessons were good ones, but you taught me love, and I am grateful even today you are teaching me still.  

Forgetting what was not

Wow, April is just barely half over, and it’s already been a very busy month!  We started off with our monthly “Mah Johng” group dinner and play – it’s not the easiest game to win but we do have a lot of fun and have made new friends there.  Then we attended a wonderful live program at the newly restored Presidio theater – a tribute to Billie Holiday – preceded by a delightful dinner at “our” restaurant, Arguello’s (we had our wedding near both).  The following Tuesday, I finally saw the famed “Book of Mormon” which Bob had seen more than once – it was hilarious, and we really had a great time.  The next weekend brought the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate park – I had volunteered to help with a very memorable “AIDS Quilt” display and will share those pics another time, it was very moving, and I am so glad I could support it. We enjoyed a visit with our friends from So Cal that same weekend, and took just a few days off before seeing a local production of the 50’s musical, the rarely seen “Pajama Game” by 42ndstreet moon – I had seen it once when my 6th grade class went to the Corona Civic Center to see our teacher, Mr. Compton, in the lead role.  Love that “Hernando’s hideaway” number!  Bob enjoyed the NY Met Opera streaming of Tosca, one of his favorites, and this weekend we will be attending the SF Symphony as they welcome a very special international orchestra – part of our subscription that has really been a great experience.  We really need a break from all this fun!   Before the month ends, we have a special tour of the Sales Force Tower complex by SF City Guides, a weekend getaway to nearby friends, and yes, a dentist appointment (ugh!)

Of course … all that was only on our calendar. They were our plans for the month – but, they never happened.   Most never will. Along with your plans and all the routine, ordinary events of what we considered everyday life. What we took for granted.

When I established this blog several months ago, I wanted to share my thoughts about life as I dealt with constant changes.  As I became the “new Norm L”.   But just weeks ago, no one really envisioned how drastically life would change and how soon.  Now, it seems like there is some sort of expectation that people want to hold on to – I know I do – that things will “return to normal”. 

Time to let go of that expectation, at least from my perspective.

In order to take hold of something, first, you must have a free hand.  Letting go of hopes, expectations – long held dreams and goals – is almost like a loss.   But letting go of what your life was already like – all the things you took for granted, that seemed guaranteed to just be the way they were forever – that is a different kind of difficult.  My friends, we MUST face that challenge, individually and together, to build a new life that has meaning.

Our future will be much better, and we will find our way to it easier, by not expecting it to be “what it used to be”.   What do you, or I, need to release from our expectations?  Maybe that is worth thinking about for a while.  Because being a prisoner to what “ought to be” prevents us from enjoying what is, and what can be.  It takes strength to hold on – and strength to let go – but it takes wisdom to know when to do either. And faith.

It is not easy to practice gratitude for things that aren’t the way you want them to be.  But for me, this is the time to do just that.  To be thankful in the midst of all this, to express hope for an uncertain future – that is a light in the murky greys ahead.  A light for now, and for tomorrow.  

Walking in the darkness

Being trained as an accountant had many, many advantages. For one, it kept me employed, and I am grateful for that. I was drawn math from an early age in school, because I wanted to be able to “get the right answer” – in class, on papers, for grades … and then, in life. Being “right” was just SOOOO important, I am sure I tried the patience of many people over my life with that so called “need”. A lonely child, I didn’t have many close friends in school – so I got some sense of worth by getting grades.

However, life is not a math problem you can solve. Insisting on being “right” didn’t lead me to the life I wanted in my heart. The older I get, the more I begin to see that wisdom is not having knowledge, not having answers, not knowing what is right – but wisdom is rather knowing, even celebrating, that you cannot have the answers all the time. Then, finding a way to live without them, or at least all of them. And in that fundamental ignorance, that powerlessness to know absolutely – to not be able to be “right” – to find contentment. To be at peace with the limitations of your ability to understand.

This week, nearly a month into “shelter in place”, many around the world find they cannot hold their traditional commemorations of traditions of faith together – in particular, Passover and Easter. As a child, I have many memories of Easter morning excitement, egg coloring and hunts, church services, dinners and stories about bunnies and about Christ. And, as was true for many in that time and our society, I was told these things were very, very certain and absolute. In my teens, down the street, I became friends with someone from my junior high whose heritage was Jewish, and came to realize they had very different celebrations. Over the years, through relationships, travel, reading and a lot of personal reflection, I realized that there were a lot of questions about truths that I had been taught – questions I could not answer. Reasonable questions, that for some, could not be discussed or considered.

So today is Easter 2020, one quite different than most of us have known in our lifetimes. Last year we attended a beautiful service at Grace Cathedral, a San Francisco landmark and refuge for decades, with traditional music, ceremony, and readings. This year, Grace and other houses of worship and reflection lie empty. I awoke and made a short trip to our local park with a hillside view to watch the sunrise – trudging along the dark path alone, only the birdsong to greet the dawn. But the dark only turned into a dreary gray, clouds and fog making no space for sun to burst through in glory. Still, I knew it was there, and found comfort in that quiet hour, watching our city awaken.

When we “hold certain truths to be self evident”, or grab tightly on to some belief system because it is so central to our identity that we cannot bear to open our mind to the possibility that it has never been true – we burrow into a cave, close our eyes, and die. Our spirits die, hiding in the dark, afraid to be found out, to be discovered as somehow being “wrong”. But it is in admitting my own flawed character and my ignorance that I begin to see light – a love that transcends the rules and limitations of the past. Our world needs that love. I have many, many friends who have extreme bitterness about their treatment at the hands of people of faith – many faiths – because they did not conform. That works both ways – there is plenty of finger pointing to go around, plenty of blame, plenty of “practice what you preach” and “you didn’t live up to what you expect of me”. Maybe we need to let go of some of the things we grasp and take hold of one another hands instead.

People of faith, many faiths – the world religions but also the smaller, less traditional or more personal belief systems – have done much to reach out with love, to build our world, to support understanding and peace. Great damage has been done as well in the name of religion – power, conquest, dominion, riches at the expense of others. Many have been so hurt by actions done in the name of deity that even the concept of a loving creator is unthinkable. Perhaps they are right, but I have reached a place where I can understand that the actions of individuals or groups don’t necessarily support or refute deeper truths – but also that ultimately I won’t probably ever have the answers to my questions. Being at peace about my lack of answers allows me to acknowledge my own fallibility, and embrace that others imperfections, and move beyond those limits to share with those around me what we have to offer in love and acceptance.

In my friends and family there are many ways of thinking embraced, but every one of those people in my life demonstrate love, and I treasure them all. I still hold many beliefs – some that continue to grow and evolve. I don’t try to explain them or make them fit every situation, because – they don’t. So, at Easter, and Passover, and other times of memories and celebration, in part because my knowledge of them both has increased over the years, I respect the needs of all around me to reach out and be in touch with something Eternal outside themselves. Whether through ritual cleansing, special prayers, songs or moments of reflection – or perhaps outreach and community gatherings – I see the value of holding on and expressing faith in a greater Power.

At last, I am a least a little closer to be able to accept a love that comes from beyond my understanding, walk in it, and try to share it – without understanding it, or labeling it, or trying to put it in a box with a bow for others to accept. Without trying to prove it or convince someone, but … trying to live it a little better. And I feel a kind of peace, at least, in no longer needing to have the answers. For me, the answers are in the hearts, and the loving smiles and acts, of those who turn their eyes upward and seek deliverance, seek forgiveness, even though we sense that on their own, we are undeserving, but the source of that Love they feel offers it freely. Perhaps that is a kind of wisdom, but even if foolish, I will gladly be a fool for the gift of giving and receiving grace. And love. Love, always.

Welcome to – and from- the new NormL

What on earth am I doing?

This is a deeply personal blog – that I am sharing publicly.  Why? And why NOW??  Read on. 

Most of my life, I just wanted to be like everyone else.  To be what I was “supposed to be”.   To meet the expectations of those whose approval I so craved but felt I never lived up to – family, peer groups, social norms.  

But try as I could, I never felt … good enough.  I never lived up to what I though was my potential.  I suffered from depression, low self esteem, loneliness – those grew into other behaviors that drew me further away from really connecting or belonging.  I was always trying to be … someone I wasn’t.

“NORMAL”.     

As the one panel comic once illustrates in 50’s advertising style, with a mother telling her daughter … “oh honey, normal is just a setting on a dryer”. 

Over the years, I have been through a lot of change.  Not always the change I sought, not always the destinations I would have picked.  Some would say I grew, matured; some would say I lost my way and strayed from “the Truth”.   One thing is for sure … my life is very different now.  And … a lot better. Not all easy, but … on the right path, finally.

So, in late 2019, I decided I wanted to start a blog.  A place where I could share whatever lessons my life had to offer, and my adventures, and maybe some humor.  Over the years, when I have written from my heart to family and friends, there have been times I know my words somehow touched them, and I guess my ego was nudging me to put whatever I had “out there”, perhaps in hope that the life education that came at a high price for me might have benefit to someone, somewhere. 

I decided, since my last name  starts with L, that I would call my blog … the new NormL.  Not trying to be normal … but learning to be me.   To somehow through my small little voice among the billions of words flying through consciousness, say something that might help others going through the same questions I was.  The big questions.    Dealing with change, reconsidering priorities, sharing discoveries.  

Being somewhat of a perfectionist, one who never achieved anything close to it but still deludes themselves into the illusion of it’s possibility, I put starting off  “The New NormL” for several months.  Truth is, I wanted to present my blog with all the bells and whistles, learn all the keys, make a splash.  Like we all do with dreams …. Wait for a better day, when you can do it right.  Wait until it’s too late.  

Then, in the last month for many of us, abruptly – our world changed. Maybe, as some say, “the universe” had a different plan.  Maybe not.  Bottom line … all that was before stories started to circulate about an illness in China.  And you know the rest.   

So most of us are holding our breath right now, spring 2020 … waiting.  Waiting for answers.  Wondering what life will look like on the “other side” of all this – will we return to normal?  Well …. Were we ever there?   Or did we accept what was, as what “should be”??   Whatever the truth is about the world before 2020 … I don’t think anyone can honestly say it is going to be the same, someday down the road.  

So now … my blog is finally kicking off without me having learned how to use the software or graphics, without backgrounds and really without much of anything except my thoughts.   This is a place where I am going to write about what I am learning in life, and what I think I learned – in hopes it might help some out there dealing with change.  Maybe you. Maybe someone you love. It will be worth the effort, the honesty, the openness if what I paid a high price for can bring good to another life, in some little way. Change is possible but it doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t happen alone – but with the love and support of others.  If there was ever a time we cannot ignore the need for change, it is now.  

So, here we go.  I have no plan, just lots of ideas, thoughts … a place for me to share, and maybe for some of you to get something out of what I put out here.  Whether you come along from the start or discover me down the way a bit,  I hope you find your way to your best and truest self – because that’s what our new world needs.  I’m working on it, just like you.  Love always.