Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pictures on the Piano

“Look! I’ve turned into my grandmother,” said my friend Glenda, gesturing toward the many framed photos on her walls and bookshelves. “I thought it was so tacky the way Grandma cluttered the top of the family piano with photos. Now I’m doing it.”

I smiled. “Me too.”

At some point in life, almost like a primal urge, we start surrounding ourselves with reminders of family.
Why do photographs matter so much? Why do people whose homes are destroyed by fire or flood weep the most for their lost scraps of Kodak paper?

Because memories fade. Your toddler’s impish grin, caught—just so—on a certain day may not stay in your memory bank. And have you ever blurted when coming across a 20-year-old photo, “Oh, I’d forgotten all about that!”

For many of us, our refrigerators become colorful art galleries. My friend Dots calls it her visual collection of begats. “It’s like the Bible says: “Frank begat John who begat Sarah who begat Kim who begat my adorable grandson Timmy.”

Have you ever walked into a house where family photos are missing? You become aware of a certain emptiness, subtle but real. Where are the framed reminders of the begats: the connections of one generation to another?

A divorced friend said sadly, “My angry ex-wife cut me out of every family photo. I felt as if she’d cut me out of my place as daddy to our children.”

Another couple didn’t take photos in the early years of their marriage. When the husband died unexpectedly, his widow grieved because she had no visual reminders of their happy early years.

Framed photos are never tacky. They’re loving reminders of all that binds us together. When I look at two framed photos of my now deceased parents, hanging next to photos of my grandchildren, I’m reminded of the blessed continuum of life.

Is now a good time to display some of your family photos?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

When your personal world fills the screen

All of us focus on our own particular worlds, inevitably insulated to a certain degree from what’s happening in the larger world around us.

After publishing nine non-fiction books, I’m now writing a novel. I have followed the adage, write about what you know, so it’s a story about Naval aviators and their wives in the late sixties. Forty years later, those years are history, so I’m supplementing memory with some research.

And I find myself amazed at events that made headlines but seemed to pass me by at the time. For instance, in 1968 Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. There were riots among cities’ black populations. Vietnam War protestors tangled in a bloody melee with the Chicago police at the Democratic Party convention.

But in 1968, my world was focused on my husband John, a Navy fighter pilot who was deploying on his second combat cruise to “Yankee Station” off the coast of Vietnam.

During my husband’s earlier deployment in 1967, his squadron had lost a fourth of their pilots, so there was a fearful awareness that our three young children could lose their daddy.

My attention was so focused on the personal impact that the Vietnam War had on my life that news of the murder of two national leaders failed to imprint me.

And at the end of August, 1968, my worst fears were realized: my husband was killed while flying a night mission, his body lost at sea. What did I care then about the Democratic convention? All I remember about the rest of that year is cataclysmic grief.

Isn’t this true for most of us? If there is a calamitous personal event --if your child dies or you get divorced or you or your spouse loses a job or you learn you have cancer—other world happenings fade into shadows “out there.”

No need to feel remorseful if you realize, months or years later, “Wow. How come I paid so little attention to [the earthquake in China, the hurricane in Mexico, the warring tribes in Pakistan, or…fill in the blank]

When trouble spills over in our lives, we must recover our own strength before we can find the strength and compassion to pay attention to the larger world.

The question is not, “What is happening out there?” but “How do I recover in here, in my heart and soul?”

Monday, October 12, 2009

The power of commitment

My brother Rob and Holly have been together 15 years. Yet last week, as I watched them exchange marriage vows, my heart fluttered with reawakened awareness. What power there is in making a commitment—out loud and before the world.

Whatever the relationship is that calls you---whether to a man, to a woman, to an ideal, to a vocation, to a community---until a public commitment is made, until you say “YES” out loud, you are merely showing a certain degree of interest. When you’re interested in something, you adhere to it only as long as circumstances and pleasure calls you.

Ah, but a public commitment says, “Listen up, world. I’m in this for the long haul: when it’s easy and happy and even when it’s tough and difficult. Whatever the future may hold, I will hold steady.”

There is strength and power in making a commitment. Is today a good day to ask yourself, “What am I committed to?"