Saturday, December 24, 2016

Goodbye to 2016

A year is only defined by the changing seasons and numbers on a calendar, but God must have known that we needed to start things over once in a while.   As a teacher the end of August brought fresh hope for a better school year than the last. We had packed up the old year in all of our classrooms and then in two months time reopened them in anticipation. As 2016 closes I am happy to look on the number 2017 as a new start in my life even though it is only one day passing to the next.

In the past two years I have lost my father and my mother. They lived full and long lives, but sometimes that makes their absence even more painful. They were the two people in the world who were the happiest to see me when I walked through their door. No one will love me like that again. I know that now. It is a life-changing realization.

I spent most of this year dealing with their home and the possessions and memories of over sixty years—the only place that was truly home for me.  I had to empty it of every tangible item and relive my life and theirs along with each discovery.  I read their love letters. I found all my cards and letters to them. It was at once excruciating and also comforting.  I sorrowfully had to sell the home to a new young family—only the second family to ever live there. I feel unnaturally attached to them as I dream about their little boys playing in the same yard I did.

One year ago today my mother was in a rehabilitation facility—a place I despise with all my heart for its loneliness, boredom and isolation. She had clearly lost her will to live since my father had died one year before. To remember last Christmas is reliving a nightmare.  In two weeks time she would have a massive stroke and a week after that we would bring her home and wait for six days for her to die in her living room, not really sure if she knew she was there or not. It was not a peaceful ending to a well-lived life. 

All the formalities are complete; the graves, the memorial services, the sale of the house, the bills, the matters of the estate. Suddenly, I am left with a life bereft of the caregiving responsibilities. But not really....

In the month of May a new person was born to fill my heart with love. My second grandson. Two beloveds are gone and two have come from heaven to bring light back into my life. This is life. So in 2017 I will embrace the new hope that God has sent me and I will honor and treasure the losses of the past as we all must do.

Happy New Year

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My Cleveland Christmas Memories

This essay was previously published in the book Cleveland Christmas Memories - edited by Gail Bellamy

It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t born in the 40’s or I would have morphed “A Christmas Story” into my own Cleveland Christmas memories by now. However, there are moments in the iconic movie that are very reminiscent of my own youth.  To be born in the 50’s and raised in the 60’s in a middle class family meant that nothing much happened. 

It is difficult to describe the simplicity of those years to the current generation. It is the  scarcity of material possessions, the absence of media and ubiquitous electronic communication devices that make my generation's Christmas memories so unique.

The truth of the matter is that my memories, I am sure, are almost exactly like all the children of my era—those of us fortunate enough to have parents who took the time to carry out all the relatively new traditions of an American Christmas.

How unique is a Mr. Jingaling or the Captain Penny show he appeared on? What about the enormous Sterling-Lindner tree with basketball-sized ornaments? There were animated figures in store windows that were thrilling.  Cleveland was a greatly endowed city and the 40’s and 50’s were glory days. Downtown Cleveland was a shopping mecca before the malls appeared.

My great Aunt Irene worked at the May Company. She was the only person I knew with a connection to downtown—the place of buses spewing gas fumes and people of color I had never seen in my east side suburb.  (I was also duly impressed that she had Dorothy Fuldheim for a neighbor.)

My mother would dress me up in my best dress and patent leather shoes and we rode the bus downtown so my mother could shop.  We would meet Aunt Irene in her May Company office cubicle and I would be ushered off to a playroom with strangers who would look after me while my mom shopped. (Stranger danger!)  I can still picture the playroom as a dark cavernous space.

There is one distinct memory I have of shopping on my own. I had to return a gift and was allowed to choose another. I remember visiting one of the downtown stores and becoming completely overwhelmed at the sight of shelves upon shelves of dolls. Dolls were my favorite thing in the world. Never in my young life had I faced such a decision. After a long deliberation I chose an angel ensconced in a pink dress with wings.   That’s the whole memory, so why is that image of a wall of dolls still stuck in my mind from so long ago?  It is because of the sparseness of images our minds held in those decades. The abundance and onslaught of visual information that children now know from birth was missing. Every new experience was formidable and memorable. None were made from movies or television—they were real experiences.

Standing on a sidewalk in blustery Public Square to see mechanical characters in a store window would hardly be a destination now, but then it was a thing of beauty.  Christmas shopping at Twigbee’s with our few dollars or coins is nothing to the amount of time children spend at Walmart or Target now.


And Mr. Jingaling? What a weird old guy! Can you imagine treasuring a cardboard key? Yet, we did, and life was grand.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Give Thanks

Give Thanks 

When you take a breath, your lungs filling,
your heart pulsing with your life 
give thanks
for the daily unending gift.

When you gaze upward at the untouchable sky
give thanks
for it is infinite and awesome 
beyond human understanding.

When you look into the eyes of someone you love
and see those eyes looking back at you
give thanks
for only a loving God could create and sustain that love.

When you sit at a table with an abundance 
of food for your taking
give thanks
for you are among the privileged on this Earth.

When you look up from your day, your life,
your fears and sorrows
give thanks

and remember God.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Just Want to Understand



I have read and conversed a lot about the election this week, not to fortify my side, but  in a sincere attempt to understand what kind of desperation in America led to this decision. Initially I was appalled that our country voted for such a contentious person, a man who seemed to offend everyone except white straight males who celebrate Christmas (and many of them too). We have reacted strongly, not out of anger, but out of fear. We don’t want him to be the role model for our children or grandchildren.  We wonder how someone who used his entire campaign to provoke anger and bigotry can then accept his win by telling us he will be a president for all Americans. 

I have read repeatedly that Mr. Trump is giving a voice to the working class. I will admit this was news to me.  It seems impossible that the unemployed and working class can relate to a billionaire who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but I am starting to understand why.  I’m sure that some voters truly are racist and would like an all-white America, but there are many more that are calling out for a better life for themselves. They can’t afford to care about the issues that  many of us put first and foremost.

I was a teacher and now am comfortably retired. I acknowledge every day how fortunate I am. But many years ago I was a single parent of two young children, I lost my job and was in debt. I will never forget the despair at the thought of losing my home, or the shame of ever having to ask for help. The only thing I cared about at that time was survival and keeping what I had. I had a college degree. I had done the right things and yet I was a poor person living in the suburbs.  If I had not been offered a teaching job on the day before school started that year I would not have lived the life I have now. That doesn’t happen to everyone.

I am nothing if not empathetic. I cry at the misfortunes of others on the nightly news and while reading the obituaries. But that is also why my focus is on social issues.  I equate social issues with progress and gaining equality for our fellow Americans.  But there is another side to the story of America. Like many Americans I have never been stuck in a dead-end job. I never had to go on public assistance to feed my family. I’ve never seen my town decimated by the closing of industries that sustained it. These are the people crying out for help. I now understand that the Republican focus on the economy and jobs is what is reaching working class Americans.  They are sick of hearing about the rights of other people. How can you care about the lives of immigrants if you can’t feed your own family? 

These struggling people deserve a better life, but at what cost have we ignored them? Why did we end up with what have been called the “two most unpopular candidates in history.”  The strongest leaders are most likely not willing to do the job. In the age of Internet trolls, 24 hour-a-day ranting on news channels and too many late night shows that make fun of them, most people wouldn’t subject themselves to exactly what we’ve seen this past year. 

The problem is that Mr. Trump should have never been nominated. There were plenty of others willing to do the job. The fact that a Republican won the White House is not shocking to me—that someone like Trump was even nominated is what disturbs me. What kind of desperation does that indicate?

You see, I am really trying to make sense of all of this. I will be heartbroken if advances Obama made on saving our environment disappear because I want a safe and healthy world for my grandchildren. I will be disappointed if the marriages of my gay friends are revoked because they are our fellow Americans. I can’t imagine finally gaining health insurance and then losing it.  I will be saddened if our Muslim citizens become more marginalized than they already are. We are already seeing reports of more bullying and white supremacy in this country. That is not acceptable. Maya Angelou wisely said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” This is what is scaring so many of us.

Trump supporters now want us to come together. Some are blaming the protesters for the division in our country even though Mr. Trump’s campaign set the stage for what is happening now. I read that his campaign insults should not be taken seriously. But if not, how can we believe anything he says?  If Mr. Trump truly wants to be a president for all Americans he should be addressing the protesters deepest fears right now. 

Those of us who felt despair at this election need to have the time to process what has happened. I cannot change what the next four years will hold for this country I love except to be the best citizen I can be and to live out my values and beliefs.


And as an American I will continue to try to understand. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Responsibility of Trump Supporters

I am reading a lot of upbeat posts and articles about how everything is going to be okay in this country written by people who would suddenly like us to come together now.  The responsibility you must take if you have supported Trump in any way is that the clear and daily messages he spoke with his own mouth—disrespecting women, racial slurs, bullying the disabled, treating Muslims like criminals, taking away healthcare, loving war and bombs is ALL OKAY WITH YOU.  You voted for hate and intolerance, not for coming together. 

Maybe there is as much of chance of this country coming together as the past eight years of President Obama being obstructed by the majority every step of the way. Those same politicians are still in charge and now they expect the collaboration they admit they never gave. They are completely capable of taking this country into a dangerous and even more divisive direction.

Trump supporters voted for progress to be reversed, which may not affect you, but it deeply affects many of your fellow citizens. If you’re not afraid then it probably will be okay for you because you haven’t had to fight for equality as so many of our citizens do everyday.


This inexperienced narcissist should have never even been nominated. There were plenty of other candidates anxious to be our president. But if you supported Trump over all of those choices don’t tell me everything is going to be okay. We are not poor losers or angry —we are afraid.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election Day 2016

2016

By Diane Vogel Ferri

I do not believe in living in fear, but fear 
is trapped under my skin this election day

half of us drowning in stunned disbelief
for this turn in democracy to 

the power of groupthink, denial, bigotry
and the intolerance of a bully

teaching our children what we never
want them to be

it’s not about opinion or party
but the danger of a demagogue

a lover of war and hater of immigrants
without knowledge or experience

an abuser of women, a bankrupt failure
a cheater at marriage, a childish name caller

the gullibility of America
is on display for the world to laugh at

journalists question the impossibility of this day
with no explanation or comfort

like never before messages of despair
flood our lines of communication in collective grief

for the America we thought we knew
not one of bombs and walls and the reversal of human rights

but one of We the People, the melting pot of the world
where others once wanted to come for a better life



Monday, August 22, 2016

When Was America Great?



By  Diane Vogel Ferri

The slogan “Make America Great Again” puzzles me. No one will tell me when America was great and the assumption is that it is not great now.  The state of politics makes one feel that things are definitely not great, I will agree. The notion of when America was great depends on your own personal experience and perhaps your refusal to accept that it wasn’t great for everyone even if it was for you.

Was it back in the thirties during the Great Depression when millions of Americans lost everything they had and were starving to death? No?  Was it in the forties when  405,000 of our young men died in World War II? Oh, but remember all those romantic war movies? It seemed great in the movies. 

America must have been great in the fifties when we all lived in little middle-class towns like Mayberry and all our neighbors and teachers were white and went to the same church?  We like watching the Cleavers and the Ricardos because that’s the way it was in the Good Old Days, right?  Oh, wait! That was before the Civil Rights Movement, so there were many Americans being discriminated against, segregated and excluded from voting, from going to restaurants, public schools, and of course, being hanged and beaten for being black. Was that when it was great—when you only had to believe in what you saw on TV?

How about the sixties—all peace and love, right?  But that was when those black Americans started fighting back and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for it. Riots in the major cities of the country.  John and Bobby murdered too.  Then there were the 58,000 men and women that died in Viet Nam—for reasons that are still debatable today—and those same young people came home to be spat upon and treated like dirt.  No one said, “thank you for your service” back then.

The seventies seemed pretty cool. Although in the early 70s disabled children did not have the right to attend a public school. They either did not go to school or were relegated to special schools. Hillary Clinton was instrumental, working for the Children’s Defense Fund, in preparing a landmark report called “Children Out of School” which led to the enactment of  Education for All Handicapped Children Act (which is now the Individuals with Disabilities Act) ensuring all children the right to a free public education.  But even then, disabled Americans had no access to public buildings and parking—not so great, huh?

The 80s brought continuing issues with the Cold War and a massive rally of over a million people in Central Park for a “nuclear freeze,”  AIDS began to kill millions of Americans, we were in a big recession. The 90’s brought more involvement in the Middle East with the Gulf War. It was only in 1990 that Bill Clinton passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. So less than three decades ago people in wheelchairs couldn’t get into public buildings like concert venues or restaurants, or use public bathrooms.  Before 1990 life wasn’t so great for disabled Americans, including our wounded vets.  By the end of the Clinton Administration 1.7 million new jobs were added, there was a federal budget surplus, unemployment was at 4% and the Dow Jones closed above 10,000 for the first time.  Ok, the 90’s were pretty good, but the people who want to make America great again reject the policies of the Clinton era so I’m not sure how we’re going to get back to that.

September 11th, 2001 changed America forever and brought real fear into our lives for the first time. We suddenly became vulnerable and more new wars began. We lost over 4400 Americans in Iraq and over 2000 in Afghanistan. American life wasn’t even close to great if you were an LGBT person until 2015 when you finally got the rights to marry and have a family like everyone else in this country. There are over 30 million children that go to bed hungry in America every night and many of our public schools are failing for lack of priorities and funding by  our present Congress. There is a lot that can and should improve. I think we can all agree on that. But to suggest that going backwards will make us great is to ignore how far we’ve come.


So that brings us up to date.  Which decade or era do you choose as great? When was it great for you personally?  Is the fact that it wasn’t always great for millions of other American citizens make a difference to you?  Is it okay that so many Americans have been discriminated against, disrespected and hated through America’s history?  America thrives because we do move forward—not quickly enough for many of our citizens—but we eventually pass laws and change attitudes that make life better for many Americans.  All of the legislation I’ve mentioned have happened just in my lifetime.   So we are great now, and can become even greater, but that will only happen when we choose to be united and not divided by our own ignorance and we accept the beautiful diversity of this country, acknowledge that we are more alike than different, and respect the right of all Americans—not just the ones like ourselves. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Summer of Cicadas and One Lonely Wren


There is the whistling tinnitus like a not-so-distant siren,
the bulging red eyes, the crunchy wings under our feet, 
dogs snap and snack, I duck and dodge 
their aimless flight on my daily walk.

They are ugly and stupid as they wander through the air
until smacking into something solid
upon discovering it is not a lover they move on
finding refuge on a mailbox or a telephone pole.

A lonely male wren sings every moment of daylight
somehow confined to the hemlock tree near my window
his loud tenacious call is incongruent with his tiny bird-body
always prepared for his lady, he wakes me each morning at 5:15.

Owls and coyotes in the dark 
birds and bugs in the light
in the jungle of my suburban wooded backyard
everyone just wants to get laid.


Friday, April 29, 2016

I Want to Party Like It's 1999

Well, it's happened again. I don't really believe in the supernatural, but I can be open-minded. Someone is haunting me. This has happened two other times before. First, Michael Jackson, then Whitney Houston and now Prince.  This time is most surprising because I didn't even know I was a Prince fan.

I awake in the morning with his songs in my head and it goes on all day. With Michael it went on for months, and they weren't just songs that I had recently heard in the overwhelming news coverage of his death. They were just songs from my life—from everyone's life, because Michael had always just been there. That was the shock of it. People who grew up in the 60's like me had never been without his music, his presence, his sad I-missed-my-childhood story. I found that women my age had maternal feelings towards Michael Jackson.  His talent was vast and unique, but his story was just as compelling.

Michael was mysterious and that is the trademark of Prince as well.  They both knew how to create striking and memorable visual images of themselves—often wearing things no one else would wear.  There's Michael in his white socks, flood pants and his mother's sequined jacket.  There's Prince with his make-up, high heels, a scarf on his head and a boyish bare chest.

I think we all feel an extra sense of loss when someone dies with so much talent left to give. Musicians that we love are simply a part of our lives. Music, as we all know, can bring a sense of deja vu. Oh, that song was playing during my first kiss. Someone sang that at my wedding, or we danced to it on that special date.

And, of course there is the notion that all three of these artists died much too soon. It was unexpected. The fact that there are drugs involved does not seem to alter our grief. As I write this, we don't know about Prince, but prescription painkillers have been mentioned.

I have a theory about why people so iconic, so loved and so in demand take drugs. Simply because it is not normal to be idolized.  Yes, they asked for it, maybe craved the attention. I think the way they must give to everyone around them every day of their lives just wears them out.  I myself cannot imagine never being able to be anonymous, to never have peace, to always be sought after, to have to hide to have anything resembling a normal life.

So why do they continue to lay themselves out to the public? Because they must. They were given a singular gift of music and unbounded talent, and in my estimation, they had no choice.  It was what they were born to do.

I  have a small, meek comparison to share. I have been singing solos, mostly in a church setting, since I was 14 years-old.  I still am a nervous wreck before I sing. I  have anxiety dreams without fail in the few moments of actual sleep I get before singing.  I question why I torture myself. At this age, I could easily give it up—but something inside me will not let me. I don't think I'm a great singer, but time and time again people have been touched by my songs. So I have been given a gift by God, however small, and I believe I am meant to share it.  Just imagine if my gift was enormous, unique, powerful enough to move millions of people.

This society is celebrity obsessed and we treat these people like they are there to serve us and meet our expectations. These three particular artists didn't mean to leave the earth so soon, but they left us with an abundance of memories and music. It just could have been so much more...

Waiting

Waiting

I am waiting for a Seals and Crofts reunion,
waiting for those days of decision to reverse,
waiting to feel like the adult I thought I saw in my elders,
the sense of consolation for a life well-lived.

I am waiting to see dignity in the mirror, not a fallen face,
waiting for my children to be all I am not,
searching for an understanding in them I did not possess,
waiting to find myself in all the reinventions and good intentions.

I am pondering what I didn’t do when I was being good,
what I slammed doors on without ever peeking outside,
wondering where all the prayers went,
and measuring my worth by my lack of change.

I am strip-mining now for a whole soul.
I am in love with my abstruse dreams.
The confounded past wakes me at night,


and the day is all too peaceful and resolved.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Remnants of Life

February 10, 2016

I spent the day going through the remnants of my parents’ lives.  Every bill and check with their names, every list and note in their handwriting, sixty years of photos and piles and piles of clothes—that is all that is left of the two people I loved every day of my life. 

I lost them both within fourteen months and I am grieving for the set of two, the unconditional love that no one on earth will ever have for me again, the smiles every time I came into their presence. That love and that joy is known to me because I have it for my own children. It is irreplaceable and eternal.

They lived their last days in the home they built sixty-two years ago, the house I came to from the hospital in the beginning of my life. I will grieve that house too—the place that has always been home no matter where life took me. When life brought upheaval and fear I could walk in that door and find solace. Now it is just empty space. No one will come home there ever again because they are gone. 

As the day wore on I became enveloped in their presence. I discovered that the mother I thought was not very sentimental kept every note, card and letter I ever wrote to her. Copies of every poem and article I wrote as an adult were kept in labeled envelopes.  An ancient box was hidden with the memorabilia of her wedding and honeymoon in 1953.  

My dad’s bowling and golf scores pads, my mom’s inspiration for all her artwork, Dad’s meticulous checkbooks dating from 1980, cards and letters saved from friends and relatives, scrapbooks and photo albums I made for them, cards and artwork from their grandchildren, fifty years worth of manuals and warranties from everything they ever owned—it is overwhelming. It is all that a life is made up of. 

All of it is precious and none of it matters at the same time. I felt their presence so strongly today that it is all I need for now. So many memories and relationships fade with time, but I do not think the people that created and loved you from the day of your birth can ever fade away. We are one in the same.

I bring home boxes of photos and tangible items that will always remind me of them, but I think about my own children having to go through all of that and more someday and I wonder if it really matters at all. 

Never have I sensed the presence of love as strongly and deeply as I did today. Amidst my sorrow and tears I have had a revelation of the eternal that I have never experienced before. My mother and father were there with me today just as they have been every day of my life.  That is not something I am creating to comfort myself—it is something I experienced deep in my soul. 




Monday, February 8, 2016

Carry

Carry
(song lyrics) by Tori Amos

Love, hold my hand, help me see with the dawn
that those that have left are not gone

But they carry on as stars looking down
as Nature's Sons and Daughters of the Heavens

You will not ever be forgotten by me
In the precession of the mighty stars

Your name is sung and tattooed on my heart
here I will carry you forever

You have touched my life
so that now cathedrals of sound are singing

The waves have come to walk with you
to where you will live in the Land of Youth

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Mother











For Martha Jane Vogel 
July 28, 1929- January 19, 2016

My Mother’s Art

She does not compromise what she alone sees.
The generosity of her hands on the canvas or the piano,
the counterpoint of her brushstrokes and her voice,
the walls become a pastiche or hold a rhapsody.

Moving through eras of little expectancy, rising up
out of her service, when her world turned to face 
the sun she did not rebel but floated forward
and now beauty exists where there had been voids.

We are juxtaposed in the choir lofts for decades
and still there are songs we haven’t sung.
When her fingers were on the piano keys for me
my small voice strained to equal the passion,
the music eternally suspended in me.

What my mother can do always has a future
without a murmur of leaving it behind.
So I understand what I can become, what I must become
for the infinity of mothers and daughters

for her mother, for my daughter.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What is a Living Will?

My dear mother had a massive stroke five days ago. The only ability she has is to open her eyes. Otherwise she is trapped in her body, unable to express herself in any way, and we have no way of knowing the extent of her suffering.  She looks at us as we cry and speak of our love, but are we just adding to her pain? As a mother I know that the worst thing in life is to see your children suffer.

My mother was my accompanist on the piano as I sang from the time I entered my first solo and ensemble contest at age 14, up until she sent me a resignation letter about thirty years later. She had arthritis and was afraid she would make a mistake as I sang in church. (She never made nearly as many mistakes as I did).  About 15 years ago I recorded a CD for my parents for Christmas. So yesterday I played the CD and sang along for her. Her eyes were open and focused on me for a solid half hour. She is unable to make a facial expression, but her attention allowed me to communicate with her in some small way.

She is in ICU attached to multiple IV's that contain medications, nutrition and hydration. There are inflatable wraps around her legs for circulation. There are boots on her feet to prevent sores. There are pillow and  pads surrounding her to keep her in place because her body randomly moves in instinctive or reactive movements.  Her right side is paralyzed and still, but her left arms flies up in distressed movements as she seems to try to remove the paraphernalia attached to her body. There is a feeding tube in her nose because she cannot swallow.

She pulled the feeding tube out last night. The feeding tube is keeping her alive. Is she communicating with us?

My mom has a living will. It says that if she in unconscious she wants no life-sustaining measures, but she is not unconscious.  It says that if she in a terminal condition she wants no life-sustaining measures. But is a massive stroke a terminal condition? One doctor says yes because her body is shutting down and it may be a matter of hours or days. But another doctor walks in the room and says it is "in the realm of possibility" that she could get better.  What is better? Is it being able to keep her eyes open all day? Is it being able to eat and speak again?  No one knows. Every specialist has a different opinion and perspective.  Is a feeding tube even considered a life-sustaining measure if she is still breathing on her own?

So if you have a living will maybe it needs to be much more specific.  What if you are permanently non-communicative?  What if you can never squeeze a hand or blink an eye again.  Everything we do all day long as a humans is communicate our thoughts, feelings, and desires. Are you living when that is over?

It is too late to ask my mom. We thought everything was in place but life has shown us otherwise.