whence this clarity?

[NOTE: Regular readers know that my last post was called “the resilience of memory, part 1.” Part 2 was supposed to chronicle some of my adventures during the 10 years I taught in public schools, but there is way too much to say about that for one post. Instead, I will memorialize one of my students at the bottom of each post. I’m not going to change the title of the previous post, though, in rebellion against teachers who told me that you should never have a #1 in an outline without having a #2. So there.]

I have watched and marveled at some of my friends and family — Barb K, Susan B, and my brother Mark and his wife, Karen, in particular — as they efficiently prepared food, cleared away dishes, and performed other quotidian tasks efficiently and impeccably. Their houses are miracles of order, which I envy, but in general, have not achieved. I have been able to approximate their organized effectiveness in spurts throughout my life, but only when I had complete control over my surroundings. Three examples:

Living at home with my parents & siblings

I always shared a bedroom with at least one of my two sisters until we moved to a house in which there was one more available bedroom when I was 12. With that addition, every six months, we rotated and one of us got a room of our own while the other two shared a bedroom. My turns at having a room of my own were glorious. I had an old stereo in that room, and often played classical music from a 10-record set of “Best-Loved Classics,” absorbing Handel’s Water Music, Bach’s Brandenburg #1, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6, the “Pathetique,” and various other works. We also had an LP with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on one side, Piano Concerto in F on the other. Though more people know and love the Rhapsody, it was the Concerto in F that took my breath away. Lastly, as a bonus when my parents bought our first record-player that had stereophonic sound, they got a bonus LP of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite, probably because the Troika movement demonstrated the wonders of stereo so effectively, but the whole suite is brilliant and fun. During my six-month turns, in addition to immersing myself in music, I kept my room in perfect order, which gave me a sense of calm within that space.

college – single dorm room

The same phenomenon occurred when, in my senior year of college, I got a dorm room of my own. At first, it was on the “girls’ floor” of the dorm, but the propensity of my fellow females students to run around the hall screaming at all hours drove me nuts, so when one of the males on the first floor moved out, I got that room. Again, everything was in its place. One thing that puzzled guests when they visited me was that I had installed a curtain rod on the back of the door above a large mirror and sewed some little curtains to hide the mirror, except for a quick look to make sure I didn’t have boogers on my face or spinach in my teeth before going out. That was, of course, long before I wrote the post “growing accustomed to my face.” Back then, even glimpsing my visage without warning made me very uncomfortable, partly because I was very self-critical, partly because it felt vain and mildly sinful. [Writing that post, by the way, was healing for me.] Visitors often remarked that my room looked very much looked like a nun’s cell in a convent, and it did, but it was an orderly refuge for me.

my own apartment – an adult, finally

When I moved to Phoenix in 1975, I had a series of roommate situations, but when I got my first teaching job in the fall of 1976, I rented an apartment of my own. For the first time, I had a “real job.” I didn’t make much money ($8K per annum my first year with tiny increases in the years to follow), but I made it work, reminding myself of the definition of wealth I had adopted during the lean years since graduating college in 1973: If I can afford to buy myself a cup of coffee in a café, people-watch a little and sit and read, I am rich. Life wasn’t perfect, my insecurities remained, but in general, I was content and satisfied — and my apartment was spotless.


family life v. Pandemic life

During my 41 years of living with Richard (19 years of which included Sam, Katie or both), I tried SO hard to control my environment — mostly in vain. I dearly loved all three of my “roommates,” but was constantly frustrated at my inability to enlist them in helping me achieve order. By the time our kids were born, Richard and I were more or less working well together, though my standards were, I would say, somewhat higher than his. Once the kids were born, however, it was a constant struggle. Looking back, I remember so many evenings where Richard, Sam and Katie were sitting an enjoying a movie or something, while I fussed with all kinds of household tasks. I often wonder now just how necessary all that fussing was…

Keeping an orderly environment mattered little to Katie and not at all to Sam. Sam once defined a cleaned-up room as one where he could “OK, if I go down the [lighted] hallway at night and into my [dark] bedroom and, before my eyes can adjust to the dark, I can get to my bed without tripping and falling down.” Oy. I keep running across old documents on my computer that I created over the years S & K were at home: signs I posted as reminders, lists of household tasks, chore check-off lists, etc. What a waste of time. I was outnumbered, and despite my efforts, I remember those as years of barely controlled chaos, made tolerable (and even, many times, enjoyable) by the fact that Sam and Katie were creative, interesting and made us laugh a lot.

The pandemic, I say with constant consciousness of its horrendous effect on so many, has given me an opportunity to breathe, reassess, and release myself from the obligations that made my life frantic and frustrating. There was a months-long adjustment period during which my inborn sense of duty and feeling of guilt left me depressed and floundering at times, but I also spent that time finding some order again, piece by piece — not unlike putting a jigsaw together. I remember a few Bible passages from the time when I used to spend time reading it, especially the Psalms. One line I remember that reflects my current contentment is Psalm 16:6 (I had to look that up): The lines fall for me in pleasant places; indeed I am well content with my inheritance. (New English Bible). My hope is that all humans get at least moments when this is true for them.

My office area and the adjoining room have been newly painted, and furniture inherited from my in-laws has been repurposed. The teak shelves and cabinet that they used for a couple of sets of nice china, photos and tchotchkes now houses my teaching and office supplies. The little table that we purchased for Milton (father-in-law) when he moved to an apartment is my teaching table that I’ll use when I’m finally able to see my very limited number of continuing students in person. My whiteboard is on the wall in a convenient place I can swivel to from my desk or the teaching table. Best of all, I have carefully curated the pictures on the wall, choosing only the ones I love, all of which have stories behind them. I had the walls in the office area painted a soothing, light spring green; the ones in the guest/sewing room are a more neutral warm stone gray/tan color. Spots of color are provided by a beautiful quilt my mother made, her sewing and embroidery thread, a colonial-era contortionist alphabet towel I had framed, and various other delights.

Life, in other words, is so good at the moment. I’m still the dutiful person I always have been, but I’ve discovered I have the capacity to be content — so content that I started this post three weeks ago, and kept letting it slide until the past couple of days. I know, however, good times can’t last indefinitely, so I’d better hurry and get this done NOW before life inevitably brings me new challenges.

This flower, a Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogallum umbellatum) was pressed by my family’s friend Cora Thisbe Peck, AKA Codie, in June of 1898 when she was 18 years old. I wish it were clear enough for you to see her calligraphy.
These two are yet to be hung above the sewing machine. I did the one on the left when I was in a college botany class. It’s a yellow columbine (Ranunculaceae, Aguilega chrysantha).

For the first profile of a former student, I introduce you to…


Tammy Blackburn, 5th grade, Williams AFB c. 1978

I have so many memories of this sweet kid. She had an innocence and earnestness about her, along with a drawling Southern accent. Remember dittos? Anyone who was teaching during the era of “running off” dittos probably remembers what happened when you handed out freshly printed dittos: the students held them up to their faces and took a big whiff of the probably brain-cell-killing solvent used to get the ink off the master and on to the page. On this paper, Tammy was asked to add adjectives and adverbs to boring sentences. I think I kept this paper because it made me laugh — she clearly needed a more extensive repertoire of describing words, and she may be the only student I ever had who confused b and d when writing in cursive (rain brops).

The incident that most sticks in my mind about Tammy, though, happened one day when she had learned the first steps in how to “borrow” (now properly called “regroup”) in subtraction. She was doing great, but one day I prematurely gave her some problems like those in the 2nd row, where there is a zero in the tens place, without showing her what to do in such cases. When she brought it to me to check, I could NOT figure out what she had done, so I gently asked her. She replied (with the Southern accent, of course), “Well, I went next door to borrow one, but they didn’t have any so I went downstairs!”

I thought that Instamatic camera was a wonder at the time, but the resolution really stunk. But you can still tell we loved each other.

Here are the puzzles I’ve completed since my last post. As I said above, I’ve had some delightful, discretionary time on my hands!

6 comments

  1. Lovely, as always.

    Richard S. Plattner
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  2. Thanks, Susan, lovely, and congratulations on the room(s) re-do! Love the quilt by your Mom, and the pencil you can’t lose. Today I was just using a beats/in/measure technique today that you taught me in choir; thanks.
    Happy Birthday soon!
    Carolyn

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  3. Thank you, Susan. I lost my serene and orderly monastery cell(s) 26 years ago, and still hope to get one back, some time. Perhaps when I officially retire from my Westin job at the end of next month, I will find the courage to address a quarter of a century worth of chaos buildup. Ha! Sending love, Uli

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  4. Love your blogs, Susan. Funny how it seemed so important to keep our homes neat and tidy when the kids were growing up. If only we knew then, what we knew now. They really do grow up too quickly, and our time is better spent enjoying time together. Great story about your young student. I can tell you were a wonderful teacher, and I’m sure you had a positive impact on so many of your students. 

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  5. It took me a few days to find the time to read this with focus. It was worth the wait. I love your reflections, observations and insights Susan. I always have.

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