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Friends: 30 Days of Gratitude: Day 29

@ debra valentino, all rights reserved

Sweet 16 and cracking each other up with our own impromptu comedy skit.

Day 29: I am grateful for friends.

Friends often represent much of the best in life–fun, adventure, laughter, loyalty. It’s interesting how we choose friends, and what they tell us about ourselves. Have you ever given much thought to the kinds of people you call friends? Years ago, when I was more extroverted than I am today, I mused over what it would be like to have all of my friends in one room together. With the diversity of friends I was drawn to, I couldn’t imagine it being a comfortable place for some.

http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/o/oliverwend391092.html

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Nearly all of the friends I chose as a child and as a teenager had one specific trait in common; they were all funny. I found this to be an intriguing fact, since I don’t recall consciously choosing people as friends primarily because of their wit or good humor. I guess it was just what I was drawn to. In the end, it made me feel fortunate, because long after I had seen them, thoughts of my old friends always drew instant smiles and even laughter. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “There’s no friend like an old friend,” and as George Herbert said, “the best mirror is an old friend.” Indeed, I was once a happy girl who smiled readily and mostly loved to laugh.

Then I morphed into a more serious, contemplative, politically concerned young adult. The friendships I was drawn to became more intense, with many characteristically deep, philosophic ponderings. I didn’t have much interest in anything superficial, particularly small talk. Some of my friends were able to bridge the gap between intellect and humor, and those of course became my favorite friends–or at least the ones I spent the longest hours conversing with. Some of my friends, however, were not as funny as they were just plain good. Not that they weren’t funny, they were just extraordinarily good…soulful, kind, supportive, encouraging and loyal friends.

http://www.celebrateboston.com/oliver-wendell-holmes/no-time-like-old-time.htm

Oliver Wendell Holmes poem

~

I have been so blessed to know my share of this high caliber of people. These are the friends you can pick up with wherever you left off, and no matter how many decades have passed, feel that almost nothing has changed. These are the friends you still want to call, write or email, and the ones that will find you when you’re not that easy to locate. These are the friends that give you the best memories to draw on, no strife or almost none, just plain, pure good times. They are the treasure of your life, as precious almost as your own children–true gifts.

This past Thanksgiving I heard unexpectedly from one of these really good friends, and naturally it made my day…because it is always a day maker to hear from a friend like this. When we were just fourteen years old, more than four whole decades ago, we rode our bikes to the park and hung out with friends under a tree. We called ourselves “the tree birds,” because we thought that was clever and on some level meaningful–a naturalistic, environmental one, no doubt.

Steve was a boy everyone liked, freckle-faced with Christmas in his eyes, a big floppy head of curly hair like my own, the best heart, a soaring spirit, and musically talented to boot. He never seemed like a love interest to me, but that was what made him even more special. He was too good to be a boyfriend. You inherently felt you could trust him, and like he’d be around forever. We all know, boyfriends come and go–he just didn’t qualify on that level–at least not to me…or to him. Which is good…and which is not at all to say that he was without his charms. He always had girlfriends, I just wasn’t one of them. Years later, in fact, we discovered a whole cadre of women who laid claim to being the girl he chose to serenade. Oh, the stories flew. Steve played his guitar and sang to this person at this location on this date; it was wild…and he says mostly inflated.

Truth be told, he just brought his guitar and played wherever he was, for not just anyone who would listen, but kinda. Of course, we all listened. It was the early seventies, and the Carol King song “You Got A Friend” was a hit song. This boy, our friend Steve Wells, was so smart and so gifted that he already figured out how to play this song on his guitar, and of course sing it well, too. I honestly cannot recall his playing any other song, but I’m sure he did–oh yes, I believe he could also play “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago. But “You Got a Friend”–that was Steve’s signature song…and many many years later, he confirmed it was my song–because in his mind I was the friend who most came to mind whenever he heard it.

We had lots of fun over the years determining who Steve’s true muse is or was, and many laughs along the way, but when he sent me a promo video accompanying his Thanksgiving email, I was struck truly by how old we have gotten. Of course, it has been 45 years…and of course, I enjoyed the music in the promo video and his and his band’s talent, but

It just doesn’t feel like we could both be this–um–old?

@ debra valentino, all rights reserved

My friend Steve and me, 45 years down the road.

Alas the years go by.

As they say, it is better than the alternative, and…

All the more reason to get in touch with those old friends we love and cherish, and truly are privileged to know. At our 40th high school reunion, Steve not only played an emotional round of “You Got A Friend,” he also dedicated the Van Morrison hit of our day “Brown-eyed Girl” to me, which broke out the crowd into chants of “‘Debbie!’ ‘Debbie!’ ‘Debbie!'” (that would be me). So, some new wild memories, thanks to an old, old friend. Not that old, though–he can still play his guitar and still run for miles, and he has all sorts of energy. Maybe I’m just the old granny in our little duo.

We survived, and that is what counts.

Here, with his permission, are video clips of my friend Steve (the white haired man on the left) playing some tunes with one of his bands.

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0BybHrZEEuY8uNVA4UmdoeVRiM00&usp=sharing

Ahh, so fun! As Ricky Nelson said, “To reminisce with my old friends, a chance to share some memories, and play our songs again.” Those were the days. Here are two of “our songs,” which may or may not be exclusive to Steve and me, but it’s all good, because good songs are universal, and good friendships are forever anyway.

~~

 

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~~~

© debra valentino, www.firstlightofevening.com, all rights reserved

My Doggy Dog: 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 22

the first snowfall of 2015

the first snowfall of 2015

Day 22: I am grateful for my dog.

I rescued my dog from an animal shelter twelve years ago. He was very ill as a puppy, having been fed rat poison, and abandoned in a shopping mall parking lot. He was hemophiliac and needed much medical attention, including eye surgery for glaucoma, which left him one-eyed. When he was small, he was very afraid of traffic; you couldn’t bring him anywhere near a roadway. He overcame his fear in time, and now is very well adjusted and unafraid. He has such a serene nature, we often refer to him as our “Buddha dog.”

Most people love their dogs. Many would say that they have the best dog in the world. The truth is that I love my dog, and I really do have the best dog in the world.

Our dog doesn’t bark. He loves people and people love him. Of all the ways I have been lucky, I have been luckiest when it comes to rescuing the best dog. The shelter said he is a Swiss Bernese Mountain Mix, and that he was abandoned because he wasn’t a full breed. Although I do not know for certain, I think his mix is what makes him perfect. Some people say he looks like a Border Collie. We say, whatever he is, he is forever our sweet Romeo.

I love my dog, and I am so grateful for him every single day!

dog

Hanging out, just enjoying the day with one of the neighborhood kids.

 

kids and dogs

Everyone loves to visit Romeo. He is popular.

 

Romeo on a walk...dogs and kids.

Taking Romeo on a walk means children running over, asking if they can pet him.

 

dog

More children loving on Romeo.

dog, baby

Romeo is very gentle, and babies are completely safe petting him.

dog

Romeo running into his friend Daisy on their walks.

dog

Romeo lost an eye to glaucoma, just weeks after I rescued him. His eye swelled to the size of a softball, and had to be surgically removed.

dog

I love to watch Romeo look and look and look. He does this for hours.

dog

Romeo smiles all the time, even as he pants from a brisk autumn walk.

___

© debra valentino, www.firstlightofevening.com, all rights reserved

original photos; may only be shared with credit

My Tired Heart, Filled with Song

Phew.  My father’s surprise party is now over, and as soon as I publish this blog post for the 19th day of this 31 Day Writing Challenge, I will be able to take a long-awaited sigh of relief before enjoying a nice, peaceful sleep.  The party was a huge success.  My daughter woke up early this morning in much better spirits than she (and I) retired in last evening.  She was helpful all day, and even took most of the photos at the party, which is usually something I do.

My dad did not have a clue until he was on his way to the restaurant, but even once he arrived he was surprised by all the people there.  Several people canceled last minute, but we still had a nice crowd of about 37, down from 45.  The balloon bouquets were beautiful, the food was excellent, most of the company cheerful, and the cake outstanding.

Believe it or not, the homemade carrot cake my husband and I made was even a bigger hit than the bakery cake, but there were certainly no complaints about it.

I welcomed everyone to the party, my husband said grace, and then the grandchildren and great grandchildren gave tributes that really touched my father’s and everyone else’s hearts.   I wasn’t up to giving the speech I had prepared, but instead told a few short stories about my dad and me…in particular, two stories from when I was under five years old that I still remember fondly.  Everyone seemed to enjoy my stories, and my great niece and great nephew kept coming up to me afterwards begging me to tell more stories from when I was a baby.

My dad asked for photos of himself with his brother and sister and several other people, and enjoyed visiting with everyone there.

It was a great night start to finish.  I feel like I ran a marathon, so I am going to turn in at last, with thanks to anyone reading this series of posts.  Many of the other 31 Day writers are complaining about how tired they are, and I have to say that tonight, it feels like just about everything has caught up with me.  I am so tired, I am not even going to proofread this, so please forgive the mistakes I make; I really need some rest!

As I say goodnight, I leave you with the song that most reminds me of my dad, who has a great singing voice.  In fact, I think he sings this song better than anyone I have ever heard sing it.  I was about this girl’s age (8) the first time I ever heard my father sing “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Goodnight!  And enjoy:

FLY ME TO THE MOON

This is Day 19 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue

#write31days

© debra valentino, all rights reserved, www.firstlightofevening.com

Remembering John Denver

 John PEACE

Today is the 18th anniversary of the fatal air tragedy that took the life of popular American folklorist/singer/songwriter John Denver.  You can find a vast amount of information about John’s accident and his career on the internet.

I have also written about John Denver frequently on this blog.  A lifelong fan, I was led to an even deeper appreciation of his work during my recovery from acquired head trauma.

Please feel free to remember John by visiting any of the following links:

On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

On Writing It Down

Aspen In October 2012, Introduction, Part 1

(there are three posts that follow this):

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg

__________________

This is Day 12 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue

#write31days

© debra valentino, all rights reserved, www.firstlightofevening.com

Life from Both Sides

“So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.”

Yesterday, I ran into a man I have known since I was 18 years old…that’s four decades ago. It brought back a torrent of memories from a life that wasn’t always easy, but nonetheless has changed in every way since.

I wondered if seeing me had half the impact on him that seeing him had on me.  I doubt it.  Still, so many memories swirled through my mind…did he remember any of them? Surely he remembered some. We were both dignified in our meeting, never showing to any of our family members the intersections our lives had passed. All these years later, would our families even care anyway? I tried to tell my father, who happened to be with my husband and me: “Dad, I’ve known that man since I was a college freshman. He knew both your sons, too,” I said, wondering what thoughts might have crossed this other man’s mind as he sat across the restaurant from the father of three kids he generally liked, respected–you might even say to some extent, admired.  “You ought to go to law school,” this man once told me.  “I thought of that,” I answered, “but my brother’s a lawyer, and he’s an asshole.”  We both laughed–as did my dad when I relayed this story at breakfast.  Because, you know, lawyer jokes.

For me, even if I had been this man, such a meeting would have been a meaningful encounter.  I mean, if nothing else, it was like “WHOOSH–Here is your life, fast-forwarded.”

I cannot say that the meeting wasn’t equally resonant for him; I just do not know.  I would never now invite such thoughts from him, nor have the opportunity to hear them. I might have changed this in our meeting, but I didn’t.  It actually did not even occur to me until he was preparing to leave, knowing this could be the last time I ever see him, which was a thought I really did not want to entertain. More precisely, I suppose I already knew that some things are best left in one’s memories and in the past.   I’m comfortable with that, although I like this person.  If things had been different he would surely still be my friend…I mean, actively, not merely by consequence.  This chance encounter certainly has me thinking some about change…about time.

All this month, I have been participating in a photo challenge called April Love, and lo and behold, we are Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 11.28.20 AMalready on Day 28.  Each day we are given a pre-set photo prompt, provided by everyone’s favorite online creative goddess (or at least mine), Susannah Conway. We take or find a photograph and then share it either on Instagram, Flicker, or Facebook.  Most of us use our own original photographs, and sometimes we share personal details from our own lives.  It’s amazing how one photograph can stir so many thoughts and so much dialogue.  It’s amazing how much fun it is, how the creative process works.These images become intriguing prompts for reviewing one’s perceptions, but more notably they become great prompts for writing.  I have been amazed both by what they have allowed me to say and by what others have shared. As such, we are meeting people (mostly women) from around the world, and we have become a new tribe of sorts–so much so that we have agreed to continue sharing far beyond this month–weekly instead of daily, with prompts already reserved for and continuing into the next year (at least)!  It’s been a fun and enlightening experience with new, mostly unanticipated, friendships being formed and still forming.

The focus of April Love on self-love has given me much to think about with my accident (see previous posts–not an automobile accident–I was hit by a malfunctioning electronic steel door while exiting a retail store). Some things I really should blog about (self esteem, self-love, self-care–so much to say about all of that). As I continue to work to come to terms with the physical changes that that incident brought, I find some relief from my former profession of university teaching.  Teaching college English had many requirements, unlike the fully-creative life I have adopted in its place, which joyfully allows me to stretch beyond pedagogy.  Not that pedagogy is a bad thing.  I love pedagogy.  It’s just that sometimes students begged me to do some of the things I do freely now and would have done freely then, that really had no place in a college course.  At least not the ones I was being paid to teach.

When I taught, I gave my students photo prompts to write from, but they were nearly always of famous works or even of media propaganda.  The aim was to try to get them to think and to sharpen their critical, analytical and expository writing skills.  It wasn’t solely my preference; it was in line with the courses I was assigned to teach.  Students were discouraged, in fact forbidden, from writing expressively about anything personal, as the objective was to get them to look outside themselves, to see beyond their young cocoons, to find the bigger picture and to examine it intellectually, not just feel it on an emotional level.

Expository writing certainly has its place, and I don’t feel I did anyone a disservice by teaching it.  It’s a crucial step toward becoming an educated person and securing a college degree.

However.

Once a person has been broken by one tragedy or another, it is important to process and to move forward…therefore, to see things from their origins.  To look carefully from the heart and in the soul…and to see just where they land–in the mind, and in the heart and in the soul.  Simply put, not everything can be processed from the mind alone–or from the mind first.  For me, April Love encourages this vision…one that looks outward to the image, then back in to one’s perception.  While the discoveries aren’t generally political, they are somewhat social–certainly more universal than strictly personal.  In some ways, it is a catalog into the lives of women.  We aren’t solving world problems, but we are solving our own–and indirectly, one another’s.  Even more than solving anything, we are just sharing.  Sharing through the art forms of photography and language, and acknowledging the world as we see it today–which is usually much different from how we saw it at one time.

In many of our shares, there is a collective sigh.  We are all living in the moment, taking a subtle backward glance.  It is funny how relieved many of us are to leave some things in the past.  And then, too, how much of the past still warms us.  We are still learning, even from what we thought we already understood.

Today’s prompt was pedestrian enough: it was “Clouds.”  At first, I shut completely down and said I wasn’t going to participate. I’ve got nothing against clouds, but…too cliched, perhaps?  I’ve been taking photographs of clouds for years.  I thought it would be best to be a sort of non-active participant; just to read and enjoy others’ posts.  Somehow, I admit, I thought, “Ho Hum.”  That was scary…because that is not like me at all.  Instantly, my own attitude reminded me of a friend I once had who couldn’t be encouraged to enjoy the sunset. “I’ve seen sunsets before,” she grumbled.  What a horrifying stance, I thought–I certainly do not ever want to become that jaded…

Fortunately, immediately following my reticence, cloud shots from days passed moved through my mind like a slideshow.  I still thought I wasn’t going to share anything in the group, when suddenly a favorite came to mind–a gift, actually. I wondered if it would be acceptable to share a gift.  I had received this photograph from a student the summer of the last spring semester I taught.  He said he had been driving to work early one morning, saw this image and instantly knew I would like it.  He emailed it, and said it made him think of me.  The magnificence of the shot impressed me, and it meant a great deal that when he had nothing at all to gain, he still wanted to share it with me.  It let me know that I had taught him something beyond expository writing.

Here is that photograph, taken with his cell phone:

mathias' clouds

It is funny how our paths cross and how our lives play out, what we think and what we realize.  How beat up we get.  How we recover.  As I write this, the legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is fighting to recover her own health.  I have been watching the news for updates, reading online about her, watching videos, replaying “Shine” (my favorite CD of hers), and adding to my reading list her biography by Malka Marom, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words.

Then today, on the day I thought I would not participate in April Love as I have done all month, with the prompt being “clouds,” one of the participants shared this video.  So obvious, right? And yet, the video stopped me cold.  So many connections.  Is it any wonder we look to the clouds to see what we already know?  What could or should ever be more obvious than the clouds?  How can we possibly overlook them…in any way, really?

And that is how one spring day I went from not sharing a photograph to writing a whole blog post.

May all your Aprils be filled with love.

Both Sides Now lyrics

Additional reading:  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/04/not-easy-to-be-joni-mitchell-fan-but-illness-devastates-me?CMP=share_btn_fb

© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved.

After Grief and Loss: Princess Mommy and the Grandbaby

mast

2013 was a horrible year for me as a case of pneumonia ended up leading my mother to require a medical ventilator that she did not authorize, even though afterward doctors said she could recover.  Her removal from life support and subsequent death was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life, and something I’m still processing.

2014 was not much better.  Although I took a memorial trip with my daughter in my mother’s honor, the minute I returned, I had to break down my parents’ home and move my father to a new environment in order to help him adjust to being a widower.  The work was extensive, exhausting, and disruptive to whatever serenity might be available to those in deep grief.

We all have similar trials of one kind or another.  The trick is how to hold on–how to endure during the hard times, how to move forward and when.

In much of life, if we can just get through the storm, somehow a rainbow appears.

One day, somewhere in the mix of so much upheaval, my step daughter-in-law invited my husband (her father-in-law) and me to be present at the birth of her (second) child.  Since their first daughter had been born to her and her husband (my adult stepson) years before (long before I entered the family), I felt especially surprised and honored to be included. At the time, we weren’t at all anticipating any new grandchildren.  Also, until now we hadn’t grown very close to my husband’s children, primarily because there had been some unwarranted distance in the family.  At last, this was an opportunity to improve our relationships.

This baby is my husband’s fourth grandchild, following a second grandson born several years before–the same month that my husband’s first wife passed away after an extended illness.  When I entered the scene, there was plenty of ongoing grief still happening in my husband’s family, which I accepted with compassion. Even before losing my own mother, I understood that sorrow doesn’t always make for the easiest transitions.  But then there was the break down of my husband’s family homestead, a few moves, and mounting anger by family members who were not ready for all the changes.  I, of all people, got it.

Through it all, I was not exactly welcomed by all of my husband’s family members.  This was obviously an additional source of heartache for my husband, who also found himself caught in one unanticipated storm after another.  It seemed at the time that no one was being empathetic to anyone’s plight.  We felt we finally had little choice but to let everyone adjust on their own timetable.  At least we hoped that everyone would adjust.  Even without the challenges of being blended, families can be complicated.

With family tension still thriving, my husband and I were nevertheless excited to join his son and family.  We prepared for the big day and left in the dark of night to drive hundreds of miles for the birth of this first grandchild born to our marriage.  In the end, we would be utterly amazed by the healing delivered with this baby, a granddaughter–the baby sister to my husband’s firstborn granddaughter, now a teenager (in pre-school at the time of her paternal grandmother’s passing).

If we can just get through the storm, somehow a rainbow appears.

The thing that intrigues me about the rift in my husband’s family is both how unnecessary it is and also how the mother of this first grandchild of mine (my own children are not parents yet) has risen to the occasion to create a solid and nurturing environment for her child.

t-shirtIt is as if she did some hard thinking, made some tough choices (hopefully with the aid of her husband, my husband’s firstborn son) and emerged from it all with good sense, like the regal queen that she is. “Princess Mommy,” I call her affectionately.  “Glamma,” she refers to me, as I joyfully accept the task of bringing the glamour…the sprinkles and the sparkles (both literal and metaphoric).  It is fun, because together we make it that way.  We share so many joys now.

This is an amazing shift that my step daughter-in-law created in our family–accomplished simply by making the choice to include me.  A shift I alone could not secure.  By including me, she provides both of her daughters an additional set of grandparents, her husband a renewed relationship with his beloved father, and endless opportunity for the family to grow healthier.  “Family is Everything” the graphic on her family wall displays.  These are words she has chosen both to display AND to honor.  Clearly, she recognizes that “family” often extends beyond blood, beyond DNA–and not just to in-laws, but to in-laws through re-marriage.  Surely this could not have been any less an adjustment for she who loved her mother-in-law, who honors her husband’s grief, than it would be for anyone else in the family.  Yet somehow, she decidedly made this leap.  In so doing, she also created a new relationship for herself, a new support system for her parenting.  She includes me, and in turn, I am her biggest cheerleader.  This is also remarkable because we have different talents, some differing interests, and almost completely different politics. We overlook any and all differences seemingly with ease,  find common ground, and have even become good friends.  In fact, we both make all of this work profoundly well.  It’s amazing what a cooperative spirit can bring about.

orange chair

I have one sister-in-law like this, and if you have one, too, you know what a blessing it is of which I speak. Our daughter-in-law’s inclusion has fostered a friendship between herself and me that feels ideal.  She stays connected and texts me frequently.  She sends pictures of the baby, which make me burst with glee.  In fact, it feels like I go into some sort of withdrawal without them.  I am crazy about this kid!  I am always thinking about her and her sister; I have become quite attached to both.

We visit now as often as possible, spend holidays and birthdays together–and when we can’t do so, I send gifts, cards and letters to the girls who look forward to receiving them.  We’ve got a sort of rhythm going, and together we had the best time sharing the baby’s first Christmas and first birthday–for which I designed the decorations (shown partly in these photos).  We have genuinely developed a rapport that is a gift to us all — one where we can talk comfortably, laugh readily, plan and execute, and where we treat each other with sincere love and respect.

IMG_6470

Above all else, I am amazed at how connected I feel to this new grandbaby.  It truly feels as if she is my own.  And she represents to me not only that rainbow, but indeed the sunshine that comes after so much stormy darkness. She is like the mythical phoenix bird rising from the ashes, helping to revive my fallen spirit–and for that she will always hold a special place.

Indeed, I feel privileged to be one of the adult stewards of her well being.  I want her to thrive and be joyous…to know beyond question that she is loved and valued by many, including myself.  I want to encourage her to read and think, to love literature, and maybe even to write.  Why not?

o n e
Perhaps this happy turn of events gives us all something to consider.

Some people like to defy definitions and/or fight their role in a family.  Some people insist on rebelling, on forging a new way, on walking their own path.  There is certainly a lot to be said for individuality…

Yet, it seems that when it comes to family, if everyone would just do his or her part, the family would thrive.

Unfortunately (and probably far too often), some people work to create harmony, while others feel compelled to cause disharmony.

If you feel you cannot create family, perhaps at least you can understand why.

Here are some questions to consider about family relationships:

  •    Where do you fit in your family?
  •    Are you a harmonizer, a peacemaker–or are you trouble-maker, a divider?
  •    Who are you rejecting (and why)?
  •    Who are you including (and why)?
  •    What action can you take to improve your family dynamic?
  •    What is beyond your control?
  •    How much time will it take for you to embrace a fully functioning, nurturing family?

IMG_6569

“We do not heal the past by dwelling there;

we heal the past by living fully in the present.”

— Marianne Williamson

© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved

On The Pursuit of Gratitude and Compassion

I am at my daughter’s home in Denver, Colorado. This is a significant trip, because it marks my second solo travel since my head injury: my second flight unaccompanied. Plus, I am here to help her sort, organize and pack in preparation for a move to a new house. This is significant because having a blow to the forehead meant a decrease in “executive functioning,” and these are among the very skills–sorting, organizing, packing–that to this day cause me some of the greatest fatigue. I have to take these tasks in small amounts of time, but I’m grateful to be able to do them once again, even though I am sadly not as quick or as efficient at any of them as I once was.  No more marathon cleaning sessions for me.  I actually miss that a lot, though.

The flight here was as ideal as air travel can be, save for the stale diet coke and the four-month-old who cried for one hour and forty-five minutes.  It was agitating to listen to, but I felt sorry for the baby’s mother, who seemed to be passing all her anxiety and neuroses onto her child.  I wanted to intervene, but instead of reaching and grabbing the baby to settle it, I just smiled and asked how old he was, while offering the kindness of approval.  She and the father were friendly, and seemed relieved.  They were clearly nervous, and trying everything they knew to quiet the infant–which involved a lot of jostling and shaking and shh shh shh-ing, with lighted toys and rattles and such that only seemed to agitate the baby further.  The baby seemed to want a good swaddle or holding, instead of all the stimulation they were giving him, which required more effort and concentration than he had on this crowded flight.

The gentleman seated next to me on the airplane started the flight by nodding beyond my aisle seat toward his center seat, saying, “I just ruined your day.” I could only guess he was referring to his size; he was a large man.  He was very nicely dressed, and obviously on a business trip.  He said he was Boston bound, but because of the snowstorm out east had had to reroute to business in Denver (which by the way, is enjoying temperatures in the 70s, mid-winter).

Toward the end of the flight, just before landing, and once the baby had finally settled, I spoke to the businessman in the next seat.  He noticed my reading, so I inadvertently started telling him how my reading skills had changed since sustaining a head injury.  He asked how it happened, and when I told him, he seemed stunned.  I went on to explain that I had temporarily lost the ability to read and speak, and that the end result for my reading skills, which had previously grown to be rather sophisticated, was that they had reverted to a junior high or high school level–but that I was grateful to be able to read again, and especially on an airplane while in flight.  As we chatted, I learned that he currently lives in Notting Hill, a swanky area that I coincidentally had just toured in London on my first solo trip just last November.  I asked him if he was familiar with this place, and of course he was:

It’s a small and wonderful world.

daughter
My daughter is a terrific host.  She is also a consummate planner, and very thoughtful.  This morning I got to sleep in and woke up to a darling note with the day’s itinerary (hers and ours) and a full pot of freshly brewed coffee.  I am so grateful to have such a wonderful daughter, and to have this time with her, even though I feel like I am back on retreat!  Maybe especially because of that.  My proudest life’s achievement, she just warms my heart and makes it sing.

It must be serendipity that when I fired up my computer this morning, one of first things I saw was this video, called “A Very Happy Brain.”

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZZ0zpUQhBQ&app=desktop 

 

May all your days be blessed!

 

© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved

Veterans Day 2014: On Re-entering and Honoring my Favorite Veteran

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Re-entering one’s life is difficult whether one has experienced a traumatic event (such as war…or a debilitating head injury, which some veterans have experienced), or something magical (such as a honeymoon…or the women’s retreat I just returned from yesterday).

For one thing, time presses on and never seems to afford enough space to process all one has experienced. After all, you can’t exactly just sit around all day reflecting, whether you would like to or not.  In addition, something is always needing to be done; people may be waiting and perhaps needing or expecting something–like the old you to show up!

Such was certainly the case when I returned from London yesterday afternoon.  I also held the desire of seeming like the same familiar person that left–not floating on some foreign cloud (like I felt)–yet internally desiring to do better on every level.

After reveling in a walk with my dog in surprisingly warm, breezy, unseasonal and unforgettable weather, then dinner out with my family, I felt both jet lagged and exhilarated.  The phenomenal experience of traveling on my own for the first time since my injury seven years ago taught me not only just how far I have come, but also how far I still have to go.

Though I purposely planned the retreat to advance my own continued healing, I also missed my husband every bit as much as I feared I would.  Traveling without him confirmed all the things I knew I had grown dependent on him for, in ways I was previously independent, and I wanted to thank him once again for his steadfast devotion, particularly during the hardest days of my convalescence (months…years!), and even now as I navigate what I hope are the last vestiges of my condition.

Returning to the U.S. on Veterans Day seemed the perfect time to thank my Navy Seabee spouse for his service, both to me over the years and to our country.  I think of my husband at just 19 years old, working midnights and entering his 8 a.m. college chemistry course one ordinary day to find a group of his fellow classmates reading the newspaper, calling out to him, “Hey, when is your birthday?”….And my husband telling them as they looked up his date on the draft lottery.  And then their exclaiming, “EIGHT!  YOU’RE NUMBER 8!”  And I remember the fear and the anxiety the Vietnam draft instilled at the time, 1969. Monday, December 2, 1969, to be exact. My husband will never forget.  And fast forwarding to today when he happily sings in his deep baritone marching voice as he “swabs the deck” (aka., mops the kitchen floor), swishing and swaying enthusiastically, “In the Navy”!  And how he always says he served, “Three years, nine months, and fifteen days”…(and sometimes adds with a smile, “in the world’s second largest nuclear navy” to underscore the irony of the Soviet Union’s threat at the time).

So in deference to all that, on my first morning back, I left the unpacking and reflecting for another day and planned a few outings to honor him.

First, I took him to a nearby bakery, Sweet T’s, that was offering free coffee and pastry to all veterans today.  As it turns out, this is also the same bakery where I recently ordered our granddaughter’s first birthday party cookies, which just so happened to be delicious.  I also wanted to register there for an upcoming workshop.

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So I brought my husband to the bakery, where he received his free veteran’s cup of coffee and he got to pick out one of his favoriteIMG_2073 pastries–a cinnamon roll, which always brings him happy memories of his maternal grandparents, “Mom and Pop.” While he was enjoying the cinnamon roll (with a little help from me), one of his favorite songs came on in the bakery.  It was a magical gift in its entirety, which left him touched and flattered, particularly after serving in an unpopular war, which always made him otherwise feel like “just an appendage.”

IMG_2115After the bakery, I took him to a nearby optometrist to schedule our eye examinations, which are long overdue. It felt good to get something so important accomplished.  Next, we went to the bookstore, and I encouraged him to pick out a book–my thanks, once again, to him on Veterans Day.  He was hesitant to accept the gift since, as new retirees and consequent “minimalists,” instead of purchasing books, we now prefer to patronize the local library.  He finally settled on a new novel by one of his favorite authors, LILA by Marilynne Robinson, which he already began reading this evening, proclaiming aloud, “She’s such a good writer!”

By this time, my husband was feeling so charged that he made an unexpected turn into the home improvement store, where we spent the next hour or so picking out a lavatory, pedestal and faucet for a bathroom we are renovating, as well as a new light fixture for our dining room.  This is an errand I left for London miserable not to have accomplished, so my plan of gratitude paid back in unanticipated spades!  My day of surprises was not over yet, however…

For our last stop, I took my husband to a local park, which houses our veterans memorial.  We spent time there listening to the rush of the fountain waters, reading the names on the memorial bricks, and snapping a few photos with our cell phones.  Then it was time to return home to walk the dog who had waited for us patiently.  By now the sky had darkened, the wind was biting, and the weather had changed to near freezing.

Just to show how really thankful I am, I insisted that I take the dog for his walk, and I left my husband to enjoy some well deserved down time, warming up and reflecting…I hope on what a great guy he truly is.

Thanks to all our veterans for their service to the armed forces.

 

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On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

“Sentimentality is indulgence in emotion of its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants…. Sentimental literature is “tear-jerking” literature. It aims primarily at stimulating the emotions directly rather than at communicating experience truly and freshly; it depends on trite and well-tried formulas for exciting emotion; it revels in old oaken buckets, rocking chairs, mother love, and the pitter-patter of little feet; it oversimplifies; it is unfaithful to the full complexity of human experience.” — Laurence Perrine, from Sound and Sense

 

 

We love people for all sorts of reasons.  We love celebrities, it seems, for fewer reasons.  Sometimes it is their looks, but more often it is a celebrity’s talent that captures our attention.  We are fortunate when celebrities take up causes that we care about, and sometimes we care about the celebrity because they care about the same things we do.  John Denver’s interests in the beauty of nature, a sustainable environment, ending world hunger and attaining world peace are revered by so many that he has secured an audience of hundreds of thousands of faithful followers since the 1970s, most still active today, even though he’s been gone from this earth since 1997.

As a former college English instructor, I became interested in the history of a letter writing tradition that once took place during the annual John Denver Tribute Week in Aspen, Colorado.  It was difficult finding locals who knew of this event or who were wiling to discuss it.   Instead, I located representatives from Australia (where John has a huge fan base to this day) and Monterey, California, USA (where John’s experimental aircraft went down).  These affiliates very much wanted to see the tradition revived in Aspen.  When I was unsuccessful at securing interest or writers, I found a tribute radio show that would run live from Aspen that was willing to let the letters be read on air during the broadcast.  I gathered the letters written by fans in California and Australia, and when I couldn’t find anyone willing to write one from Aspen, composed one myself.  When it came time to read the letters on air, I looked for volunteers and found one woman visiting from Australia and one woman who used to live in California willing to fill in as readers — and I read my own letter.

How long has it been since you wrote a tribute to someone?  A love letter?  It’s an interesting exercise worth pursuing.  However, love letters are sentimental, and as such are off the radar of most English teachers, who are consumed with form, with style, with craft.  My training taught me to be self-conscious and dissatisfied by such sentimentality.  Yet given the kind of October I was having (stuck with an unusual and persistent cough that went on for six weeks, along with lingering grief from the loss of my mother the spring before), the opportunity to express such heartfelt sentiments seemed somewhat healing and oddly liberating.  Maybe expressing our love for something or someone–no matter how schmaltzy the end product turns out–isn’t such a bad idea after all.  Remember, in his songwriting, John Denver himself was often accused of this sort of simplicity by jealous critics and fellow artists who never reached the peak of popularity he still receives. There’s something inspired, it turns out, about writing straight from the heart.  At any rate, here is the text of the letter I wrote and read last October to the great spirit of John Denver:

 

Aspen, Colorado / October 11, 2013

Dear John,

It is hard to imagine all that this world lost when we lost you sixteen years ago. Not only did we lose a man we all felt close to, a man who just happened to be of incomparable talent and perspective, a man of keen wit and perception, but it seems even more evident than ever before that when we lost you, we also lost a treasured compass–our guide and our guru. We knew when we lost you that the road ahead would never be the same, but we never envisioned how we would carry on—what it actually meant to live without your remarkable influence.

All these years later, we lament that many of the causes you dedicated so much passion to continue to go unresolved. We haven’t ended poverty or world hunger. We are only marginally closer to non-polluting sources of energy independence. We continue to make weapons and feed the war machine, spilling untold billions of dollars and tens of thousands of human lives each year. Our economy has been suffering as you predicted it would, and we are probably more politically divided as a nation than in any time since the Civil War. Without your voice, we are left yearning for the kind of comfort, optimism, leadership, and direction your songs so triumphantly celebrate.

We want you to know that we continue to honor your memory. Inspired by your work, we have stayed close to your ideals. We care for our land in small ways and big. We walk and we ponder, and often we look anew with the eyes you taught us to use. We see the hawk and the eagle, and we continue to marvel at the wondrous skies and the beauty you saw and now we see in all of nature. In these ways, we are consoled, and yet we still grieve.

Every October on the days surrounding the anniversary of your death, many of us who love you most gather across the continents to pay tribute to the gifts you so lovingly shared with all of us. Here in Aspen, we visit your Sanctuary; we travel to Windstar to see Spirit and walk the land, which to our dismay was recently sold. We ride the gondolas up Aspen Mountain. We renew old friendships and make new ones with people from around the globe. We share stories, sing your songs together, hang out into the wee hours of the night at Mountain Chalet sing-alongs.  We laugh and we hug, grow closer, smile a lot, find the healing we seek, and say, “FAR OUT!,” and even occasionally “MAGOOMBA!!!” And sometimes we cry.

We attend concerts and campfires, go on hayrides, enjoy the fresh mountain air, and have a luncheon at the Cookhouse. The thing we want you most to know is that we have become a family. We call it, “Our John Denver Family.”

We know that you would be so pleased with the friendships we develop, and we feel a fulfilling sense of pride in all that you gave to us, not the least of which are these shared experiences. We remember that this level of recognition, this sense of community and at oneness is something you always wanted for yourself and for all of humankind.

In addition, because current times provide us with a wealth of resources such as text messaging and Facebook, we even manage to communicate with one another daily. You are always the main topic of conversation. On the internet, we also have access to your autobiography.  We have websites and Facebook groups dedicated to your memory. Nightly, we visit recordings of your concert performances, music videos, and television appearances. We feel incredibly fortunate to be your fans and your family. We feel lucky to have known you, to understand what you were all about.

Our dearest John, you gave us your energy, your talent, your spirit and your time, and we celebrate it all with unfaltering gratitude. We are the brothers and sisters your vision created. We are the world peace you sang for with all your heart. Your grand life was full of purpose, and it mattered to all of us and it continues to matter. We love you, we miss you, we appreciate you, and we thank you.

All rights reserved, © Debra A. Valentino

 

Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg

death is not rock

Steve Weisberg
November 14, 1949–May 22, 2014

John Denver fans from all over the world, affectionately known by many as the “John Denver Family” grieve today the passing Thursday evening of John’s lead guitarist from the 1970s, Steve Weisberg.  Steve was diagnosed in March 2013 with a lymphatic cancer he thought he’d beat.

For eighteen months, Steve rode the oscillating wave of cancer treatment, even while traveling to play in concerts across the country, most recently in Florida, Milwaukee, and Texas.  He had another concert scheduled just ahead, in early June.  Steve, lovingly known as “Pokey” to his friends in the music industry (for having shown up late one time to a recording session), was otherwise generous of time and spirit, a passionate man with a tender heart.  You might say he died as he lived, playing his famed guitar and expressing to the untimely end both love and gratitude for his friends, his life and talent, and all his many blessings.

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Steve Weisberg, a boy with big dreams in the experimental decade of the musical ’70s, was a man who, in the end, seemed to have his head screwed on straight. He not only didn’t take himself too seriously, he found humor in most situations and he laughed readily and heartily.  His laughter was so infectious that whenever he laughed, you laughed, whether or not it was as funny as Steve seemed to find it.  Never oblivious to the ironic or to the facetious, his trademark saying–also attached in his email signature–was Steven Covey’s, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

A liberal arts major in college and an accomplished songwriter in his own right, Pokey loved a good story, and he created them regularly, both out of ordinary experience and out of the extraordinary. He was in every way a lively and natural communicator, never hesitant to pick up the phone and call friends to share an idea or just connect.  Like his famed boss and band mate John Denver, Pokey was truly a people person, “invested in the human race.”  He made himself accessible to everyone he met and cared for–and if he met you, he generally cared for you.  So friendly was he that he even included a direct telephone number on his website.  In his way, he was a regular sort of guy, and in including the telephone number he likely figured, “How else are they going to find me?”  He frequently helped up-and-coming musicians by encouraging them, and even by playing with them in gigs and informal jams wherever life brought him.  It was in this way that he came to know personally many John Denver enthusiasts, who now remain “family” 17 years after Denver’s fatal plane crash in Monterey Bay, California.

About his condition, in a public Facebook post in May 2013, Weisberg wrote:

When I was referred to the oncologist 2 months ago I was ready for the worst. But what he told me was too good to be true: That my type is now so utterly and completely curable, I have a 98% chance of it being gone forever by July. This is not remission, which expects a return visit. This is…’gone forever after round one of chemo’. I’m now halfway through a very easy, uneventful treatment program. He said my optimism would let me handle this little ordeal much better than another person might. The optimism came from being 24 years in recovery, which led me to God. And getting to know God led me to the actual belief that everything (everything) will always, somehow, be okay.

They say we’re only as sick as our deepest secret, and I do believe this. This illness has brought me closer to God than anything I could have imagined. But trying to hide such a big secret has distanced me…from God, and from those who would help me celebrate the fact that I was spared the expected rigors and outcome of other forms of lymphoma. Mine is called Diffuse Large B-Cell lymphoma. It’s a laydown pussycat for today’s sophisticated chemos, unless it’s spread to the brain, or detected too late. Medical science has deduced that I do have a brain; that it is cancer-free; and that we detected this in time. The new look I’m sporting, as many of you guessed…was not optional.

Those of us in any type of 12 Step program know our illness became our greatest asset….once we had a little recovery under our belts. Life is sweeter than before that problem existed.

Recovery from cancer is an even bigger cause, for me, of celebration. I wish all others with the disease could be so lucky. Bizarre as it sounds, I have never had a more joyous experience being alive…..than right now.

Photos and tributes to Steve are being shared in abundance today on social media, as fellow musicians, friends and family express their shock at his passing and their gratitude for his many contributions.  In a correspondence with Shawn Garvey, Weisberg’s friend and a minister by trade, who recently performed in concert with Steve in February, he muses, “Pokey and I had a special friendship based upon things that ran very deep within us, and I’m profoundly blessed that was where our friendship resided.”

In his Facebook tribute, Pastor Garvey goes on to say:

By virtue of the kind of chemistry we had, and my vocation (I’m an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ), our friendship very quickly developed around matters of profound depth. Steve was a man on a journey, and he felt comfortable enough with me to share a very personal, spiritual side of himself that led us down all sorts of conversational pathways. I met him at a point in his life when he was re-discovering his love and spiritual connection with music–especially John’s; and he’s the first to admit that at the time it was all happening with John, he was too young to truly appreciate what that music was doing for people. In the time that I was blessed to know him, he got it.

He not only got it, he was profoundly appreciative for the genuine and miraculous gift that it was; to the millions it reached and to himself. He began to find more avenues and opportunities to share in his gift, and by the last few years he’d been able to do what we talked about at length for such a long time: go back to playing music full time as his vocation. I was so incredibly happy for him that he’d achieved that after such a long and complicated road since his days with John.

Garvey concludes:

I think what I’d share for those of you who primarily connected with Steve through the music was that he’d come to a very deep understanding of how the music touched all of you, and how there was great power, healing, joy and transformation inherent in that. John’s music and John’s personality continues to do that for people, and Steve came to a very special understanding not only of that reality, but that he played a part in it and continued to do so these last few years. This was something he regarded as a magnificent blessing.

He’d want all of you to know that – and that it meant the world to him.

In the video that follows below (linked “Sunshine on My Shoulders”), we find the two friends sharing in synch a song written by the beloved John Denver, whose music brought them together five years ago when Garvey reached out to Weisberg in a fashion similar to that which, many years before, Weisberg reached out to Denver. In both instances, Denver received Weisberg’s enthusiasm and talent as Weisberg received Garvey’s…and (to echo another famous John Denver song) this reception opened doors for both musicians.

Filmed in 2011 at Stanley Congregational Church in Chatham, NJ, it is also apparent in this video clip that Weisberg himself was inherently touched by the music he made (see link below).  In this example of one of Steve’s many musical encounters, this time with a fan who became his friend and spiritual confidant, we see clearly that Weisberg himself exuded the musical element.  With Garvey on vocals and Weisberg on lead, we see Weisberg “in the groove” he often referenced.  As he plays, we observe the guitar riff resonating in his body–so much so, that his fingerpicking becomes not just an accompaniment to the song, but seemingly a dance his body cannot contain. A beautiful dance of joy, a celebration.  We witness firsthand the music that lived gloriously in the man we now grieve.

Shawn Garvey and Steve Weisberg perform “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

RIP, Steve Weisberg


With permission.

All rights reserved, © Debra Valentino.