Ask Me About My Bracelets – Alex and Ani

alexandaniIn recent months I’ve been walking around with a little jingle jangle on my wrist.  These bangle bracelets are not just for glamor, though; these bracelets have meaning.

The bracelets themselves are from a company called Alex and Ani.  Popular in the U.S., the company mission embraces values such as mindfulness, positive energy, sustainability and corporate consciousness. They pride themselves on supporting local business and manufacturing in the United States.  Every piece of their jewelry is accompanied by an explanation of its meaning and phrases of empowerment.  It is a great business model to support.

My first bracelet was a birthday gift.  My darling friend Bonnie’s daughter bought it for me.  Bonnie’s birthday is just a few weeks after mine, and Julia (age 15) bought the best friend bracelets for us.  (Bonnie is the friend who managed my cancer care from start to finish, you might remember) I treasure the meaning of the charm, the sentiment behind gift, and most of all, the friendship it represents.

My second bracelet I bought myself in November, just a few weeks after Dr. Siegel pronounced me cured of lymphoma.  It says “Live a Happy Life” on it.  The card it came with says that the bracelet embodies the spirit of courage, appreciation and choice. The full content says,  “Choose kindness, love, and joy.  Live life to the absolute fullest and open your mind up to spontaneous ideas.  Live fearlessly, be optimistic, and become blissfully aware of life’s gifts. Adorn yourself with the Live A Happy Life Charm to acknowledge the blessings in your existence and to be an inspiration to all.”

I don’t know about inspiration, but I do know that I strive to live every day acknowledging my blessings, for they are myriad. The jingle that I wear reminds me all the time that I am loved and even in times of challenge, I am strong and lucky.

So please, next time you see me, ask me about my bracelets; I’m proud to show them to you.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way out of the Chemo Room

Katie and me!

Katy and me!

Today, as I do the day after every chemotherapy session, I took myself back to the chemo room to get a shot of Neulasta, the wonder drug that boosts my white blood cells, which chemo kills off, rendering me immunosuppressed.  The Neulasta rebuilds the white blood cells within about 10 days, and in the meantime, I take a prophylactic antibiotic.

Katy, you may remember, is MY nurse, and she was her usual cheery self as we discussed podcasts and walking, and other inane things as she readied the shot and my arm.  The whole process took about ten minutes.

Just as Katy was walking away, another patient was walking toward us.  “What can I do for you Florence?” Katy asked.  Florence was an older, maybe 75-year-old, African American woman with not too many teeth in her head.  She limped slowly toward us, and anyone could see that with her beautiful hair and flashing eyes, she had once been a real spitfire.

“I want to talk to this young lady,” Florence said, motioning toward me.  She proceeded, with Katy’s help, to sit on a stool near my feet, as I was still sitting in one of the big chemo recliners.  Katy looked a little nervous, truth be told.

“Young lady,” Florence began, “I want you and Katy to hear this because it doesn’t get said enough.  I was diagnosed with the cancer about ten years ago and this here Katy lady has been here for me the whole time. Now I’m not always in the best mood when I come here, but Katy and these other ladies are always as nice and as sweet as can be.  It don’t get said enough and I want her to hear it, but Miss Katy is always patient with me even when I’m as ornery as can be.”

“She’s wonderful,” I replied, awestruck.

“She’s the best there is,” Florence agreed, “I don’t believe it’s a job for her to be here. I believe she was brought here for a reason and she is as wonderful and patient as can be even when I’m in a bad mood and hard to deal with.”

With that, Florence started to get up off the stool, and Katy again moved to hold her arm and help her with her two bags.  “You’re a nice young lady and you’re going to do just fine,” Florence pronounced.

I couldn’t reply that time.  She shuffled away with her cane, and I just sat there, dumbstruck.

“Are you okay?” Katy asked.

“I am,” I said and realized that there were tears flowing down my face.  Katy hopped over to the desk and got me a tissue box. She patted my back for a minute.  “Are you okay?” she asked again.

“I’m just feeling so lucky, so blessed,” I sobbed, unable to stop myself.  For all of the crap of cancer, there are a whole lot of wonderful people who’ve been watching over me from near and far.

“Well there’s a good energy coming off from you, Miss Aimee,” Katy said.

I finally got myself under control, stood and hugged Katy.  She patted my back again.  “See you next time,” she said with a smile and went to minister to her next lucky patient.  I hope she felt as good as both Florence and I meant her to.

I don’t know where Florence came from or who sent her to me when I’m feeling so crappy today, like I always do one day post-chemo, but I am grateful.  I know I’ll feel better tomorrow.  And I just know in my heart of hearts that Florence is right: I’m going to be okay.  I’m going to do just fine.

Writing, Editing and um… Cleaning Up The Mess.

clock“There’s a blog post in there somewhere,” said my writing partner, A, after a lengthy and funny conversation about time management, drafting and editing.

Of course she’s right; she’s always right.

The whole discussion started because we both receive the daily email from a group of female writers called “The Girlfriends Book Club.” Some of the entries are truly great –ranging from tips on publication, traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, and various other topics including the work/family balance thing.  And then some of the posts are mediocre. But I’m always glad I get them and have the choice to read and learn, or to press the delete button.

The post that really struck A and me was by a woman named Maria Geraci, who discussed her “Secret Time Management Weapon.”  Well what woman wouldn’t want to know about a weapon for managing time??  Geraci, like most writers, has a “day job” – one that she loves. She says that writing completes her as a person, but nursing is part of who she is.  She is lucky to be able to juggle both careers, and she doesn’t take that for granted.  The big piece of advice Geraci offers is that there is value in the fifteen-minute pocket of time.  If you have 15-minutes, she says, you can write one sentence or maybe edit two. Even that little bit counts as progress. It’s all how you take advantage of the increments of time you’re given.

Much of what A and I do with and for each other follows this principle.  With writing, there are no bosses to answer to – no one cares if we spend one hour or one minute on the writing. So we hold each other accountable. Weekly, we each set goals and check in with each other pretty much every day to see if we’ve met the goals or not.  There’s accountability to each other which makes goal setting worthwhile, but we don’t have penalties for each other if goals aren’t met.  Both of us are able to follow this system because one personality trait that we share is how hard we are on ourselves.  Not meeting the goal of the day causes both of us to engage in more self-flagellation than we could ever envision inflicting on each other.

Time management is something A and I also discuss ad nauseum because I am a teacher in my “other” life and she is very active in Japanese/English translation, as well as journalism and other writing-related pursuits, including a recently debuted text book.  We both have kids. So our time is precious and valuable to us and our families.

What was funny about the conversation however, is the different tack we take for writing.  A is a wonderful writer, but she is also a crackerjack editor.  She can labor over a sentence until its perfect, with the result being these beautiful sentences that flow magically into each other to weave a story or article.  I, on the other hand, can spew out 1000 words in an hour without blinking – sometimes more, but when the story is done, so am I.  I don’t mean to denigrate my own writing or anything, but let’s face it: editing and revising are not my strong suits.  I would rather write a great story and hate taking the time to really refine it for the public.  A would like to refine and refine and refine – though she has great ideas, getting them out of her head isn’t always so simple for her.

What that means for time management is that she needs to spend her chunks of time committed to initial writing and I need to schedule dedicated time for editing and revising.  A different type of time management for both of us.

“Yeah,” says A, “Maybe we should pair up.  You puke out the mass and I clean up the mess!”

And this is why I love her.

Fifteen minute chunks of time.  We’re trying it – without the blowing of chunks, of course.  But hey, if you can’t have fun when you’re writing and holding each other accountable, then what’s the point??

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

clock2Writing has been part of my life since I could first use a pencil and left scraps of paper all over my grandmother’s house – my “notes” – when I visited.  She said that from the time I was about six years old, cleaning up after I had spent time with her was entertaining. She never wondered what was on my mind – I wrote everything down. I planned on being a writer all the way through college and graduate school when I realized that I needed a day job to pay the bills.  I resisted teaching for a long while because it was sort of my “family business” – Mom still teaches elementary school (finishing her 46th classroom!), my father was on the board of education for years, my uncle teaches law, another uncle was the vice-chancellor of a big university, and even my grandmother was assistant superintendent of schools in a system in Connecticut when I was little.  I didn’t want any part of it.  I tried advertising, public relations and even a computer firm until I finally caved in and got a doctorate in English education and started teaching writing on the college level.

As any woman knows, balancing the demands and rewards of work and family is no easy feat.  When our family moved to Japan, I was lucky enough to find part time work at Temple University where I could teach two courses a semester and still have plenty of time to not only be a participatory mother, but even volunteer in the kids’ schools and never miss an event.  Adjunct teaching isn’t for everyone, but I was lucky enough to have a husband with a steady job so my career didn’t have to be primary and I could focus on the kids.

Babies tend to do this funny thing: they grow.  A lot.  Quickly.  Though it seems like only seconds ago I walked down a street holding the hands of a toddler and a kindergartener, my current reality has one child graduating from middle school and the other graduating from elementary school.  Yep, in a few short months I will be the parent of a high schooler and middle schooler.

More often than not, the kids are busy after school these days and not home until close to dinner time.  I don’t always have to go with them to these activities because many of them are associated with the school and they have busing.  So that leads me to the question of what I’m going to do next.  It’s an interesting question for any woman at any time, but in Japan, where I’m a trailing spouse, sometimes the issues seem insurmountable.  I don’t speak or read the language, and most Japanese companies don’t want a foreigner working for them anyway.  In addition, with my children’s school schedules, I want to be able to take them to the US for a long summer holiday so they can reconnect with our extended family and American roots.  I can’t take just any full time job, so the Temple University position, for just two semesters a year, is ideal.

Luckily, as a writer I have a lot of other options too.  There are blog posts to read and write, contests to enter, and even English-language magazines for which to write.  I’ll do another posting on writing vs. editing and the challenges therein, but this leads me to another point – focus.  I can’t do everything.  I have to pick what it is that’s important to me and focus on those things, otherwise I’ll do many things and none of them very well or successfully.

So now it’s time to raise the bar and figure out what it is that will claim my focus going forward.  Teaching will hopefully be part of the equation, but what I choose to write and how I choose to organize my time in the next few months remains to be seen.

One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that what I want to be when I grow up is not a static thing.  The idea of it can grow and change as I grow and change – emotionally, physically and even situationally.  That same grandmother who found my scraps of paper when I was little used to tell me, “when I stop learning, that’s how you’ll know I’m dead.” I subscribe to that theory. I’m not sure what exactly I want to be when I grow up, but figuring it out is a great journey

Scavenger Hunt Contest! Author and Friend Trisha Wooldridge’s New Book Cover

thekelpie_front_onlyAuthor and friend Trisha Wooldridge from Massachusetts has a new book coming out before the end of this year and I am privileged to help her reveal pieces of the cover of her book – scavenger hunt style!  The book is a wonderful story of mystery and kids – and wisdom and maturity.  My blog here is but one of the places you need to go to find pieces of the cover, put together the puzzle – a poem – and WIN! Please go to Trish’s blog for details of the contest – more about the story and how to win fun prizes!

This is but one piece of the cover and puzzle – a special piece as you can read below.

 

The MacArthur Tartan

“Once upon a time…a great-great uncle that we hadn’t known prior […] saw my dad on the show Who Do You Think You Are? where he tried looking into his dad’s line back to the Clan Arthur but only found a dead end. Great-great Uncle William MacArthur sent us family records and the deed to the falling-apart castle just before he died.”

My friend Aimee Weinstein was one of my first beta readers for The Kelpie, and she gave me a lot of great feedback.  We’ve been friends for some years since we shared an online tutoring job, and I adore her blog posts about modern culture and anthropology as she discusses being an American ex-pat over in Tokyo. Because she does so much with culture, I wanted to give her the MacArthur Tartan to display on her blog.

macarthurclantartanAlso, I stole Aimee’s name and spelling for Heather’s mom.

If you look very closely on the cover, you’ll see the strips of this tartan, especially when you see the full wraparound cover. This is my artist, Vic’s, rendition of the MacArthur Tartan (because tartans can be copyrighted.)

I chose Clan Arthur from Scotland because there actually happens to be a lovely hole in the clan history over in Scotland that I could squeeze my family into, giving them a long-forgotten castle with a mysterious past.  The MacArthur Clan also has a lot of American history; I found more on that than about those left in Scotland.  This also fits because Heather’s family is a mix of American and Scottish.

Thank you very much, Aimee, for being part of my Scavenger Hunt and the journey of The Kelpie!

How Do You Want To Be When You’re Old?

My grandmother, Shirley Bernstein, bottom right, and the "girls" - her table-mates.

My grandmother, Shirley Bernstein, bottom right, and the “girls” – her table-mates.

Old, I have discovered lately, is a state of mind.  Look at these ladies here.  The one on the far right next to the empty chair is my grandmother.  She’s ninety and these are her buddies – her table-mates at the independent living establishment where they reside.  A few weeks ago I had the privilege of dining with them, and what an experience it was!  All of them are over eighty and living on their own in an apartment in the building.  They have dinner together in the building’s dining room nightly.  But it’s not just a cafeteria; this is a place where you’re required to dress for dinner.  No schlumpy jeans and t-shirt for this dining room.  Every night they dine on soup, salad, entree and desert.  And the apartments are regular apartments that anyone might live in.  My grandmother’s is a one-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom unit on the third floor.  It’s lovely and perfect for her.  She has someone in to clean, but she does most of her own laundry and gets herself meals other than dinner.  The dining room is open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch, so sometimes she lunches there, but mostly it’s just dinner.

I was visiting to give a speech that night about my experiences as an expat in Tokyo.  The place has a great auditorium and I was able to connect my laptop to the projector and give a Powerpoint presentation like at any other lecture hall I’ve attended.  The lecture was at 8pm, after dinner, and I didn’t know really what to expect, but there was a pretty good turnout – 40 or 50 people there.  But really, I learned more from these six women before the speech that evening than I could ever have presented to them.

Over dinner, these women acted just like me and my thirty and forty-something girlfriends.  They complained about men, they discussed fashion and shopping, and there were two condom jokes told, making us all roar in laughter.  I must admit that heads at other tables turned toward us to wonder why we were laughing so much and so hard!

This is just how I want to be when I get to be ninety, I decided.  All of them play either mah jong or bridge weekly.  They are active in local women’s organizations, and some of them, including my grandmother, volunteer in a local elementary school.  They care about their hair and makeup and clothing like anyone else.  They demand to be taken seriously, as well they should.  Each one of them is a formidable force in her own right with a good brain and thoughtful ideas.  So some of them, also including my grandmother, use a walker to keep them steady or take a catnap in the afternoon to refresh them.  They are all making the most of the opportunities afforded them at this time in their lives.  Of course it’s different and life is different for them now than it was twenty years ago, but truly, which one of us is the same as she was twenty years ago?

My grandmother, as I’ve mentioned before, has been my best friend for all of my forty-something years, and there are very few days that I don’t speak to her on the phone even though we live thousands and thousands of miles apart.  Somehow we both make the effort to keep our bond close and I don’t take it for granted. I know how lucky I am to have her in my life.  She’s the person who taught me to always strive to be my best self and for that, I am grateful.

I plan to be happy and forward-thinking well into my nineties, or as long as my health will allow me.  These ladies know the meaning of a life well-lived, and they continue living it with great gusto.  They’re my heroes and I love them all.

The Umeshu!

This past Sunday was the long-awaited unveiling of the umeshu (plum wine) that my good friend, Saori, and I put together back in June.  We had been storing it in a cool, dry place (as cool as we could get in sweltering Tokyo) for at least two months.  When we took it out, it was a beautiful golden color with the plums swirling and beckoning within.  When we poured it out of the mundane container, it sloshed lightly in the glass, catching the glint of the light.  Both Saori and I like it over ice, so the cubes clinked against each other to welcome the liquid.

The taste was just the right amount of sweet: tangy, but not insipid.  It was strong – we could taste a quick hint of the alcohol as it warmed our throats.  It was, in short, perfect.

The amount we made should, perhaps, last us through the winter – or at least until we can make another batch again in the spring.  I sense this become a yearly event.  Kampai!