Surprises from the past

my grandparents' grave

my grandparents’ grave

I always thought researching one’s ancestors was a job for old people.  I’m researching mine now and I’m old, so I guess I was right.

Years ago, my mother gave me a short family history prepared by a relative of ours. I looked it over. A few pages caught my attention, but most of the information — when each ancestor was born and died, and who married whom — was too dull to bother with. I put the papers aside.

Now I’m enrolled in a yearlong program at the University of Washington called Genealogy and Historical Research. My goal is to take the few pages from my relative’s document that I found interesting and, based on more research, turn them into a novel.

The program has two instructors, one who focuses on genealogy and the other on historical context.  Our end-of-program assignment is to blend the facts of our ancestors lives with information about the times they lived in. What was life like when our great-grandparents or great-great grandparents were young?  What were the mores, politics, entertainments, foods, and fashions of their era?

So what have I learned about my ancestors? They all seem to have been Southern Baptists and they produced lots of preachers. Family members the age of my grandparents and great-grandparents stood on the side of the South in the Civil War. It is likely that ones going even further back were slave owners.

Among relatives alive in my lifetime, I found out that one grandmother had only a fourth-grade education. Not sure why, but I found this tidbit distressing.

My research project is focusing on a woman who lived between 1869 and 1945. She married a “gospel preacher” and the two of them traveled to Peru as missionary and missionary’s wife.

Researching one’s relatives is time-consuming and like other kinds of detective work will lead to many dead ends. It also offers surprises and a certain level of satisfaction with pieces from your past. In searching for information on the missionary’s wife, I’ve learned more about her daughter, a writer of children’s books who lived in the Seattle for many years. I found a photo dated 1961 in the “Seattle Times,” which features her and four other women, who were planning the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference, an event still going on. I’ve attended it for the last five years.

In another local newspaper article, this relative encourages writers not to give up, to learn to live with rejections from agents and editors, because they are a fact of the writing life.  I received my first rejection last week. While disappointed, I didn’t feel at all defeated. Maybe because I thought back to my relative’s advice. She had not known anything about my writing aspirations in life, but it felt like in death she was giving me encouragement.


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A way to mark past memories

I probably have three thousand travel photos, maybe more. I look at them once a year. Maybe twice. Don’t get me wrong.  I love my photos and the memories they conjure.  But I rarely devote any time to them, not just to those stored in my computer, but to all the ones  tucked into the bound photo albums of yesteryear.

The things that call my attention to the past more often than photos are the lowly bookmarks I’ve collected from places I’ve visited, near and far. These pull me back in time as quickly as a picture. And since I usually have a stack of books on my nightstand, the reminders come often.

As an aside, bookmarks have an interesting history. Detached bookmarks (as opposed to a thin silk ribbon bound into a book) became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and early examples have become collectibles.  Makers of today’s bookmarks don’t restrict themselves to paper, as you can see in this photo of strips of metal, carved wood, embroidered fabric and beads attached to a miniature shepherd’s staff.

a few of my bookmarks

a few of my non-traditional bookmarks

But back to bookmarks collected while traveling. Whenever I see this creased one with worn edges, a painting of the Parrish church in San Miguel de Allende, I think of our first foray into Spanish language schParroquiaools in Mexico and remember the kind and funny sisters — Alma and Blanca –who opened their house to us for a month.  I’ll never forget their table setting for the main meal of the day, which included a centerpiece consisting of a huge mound of tiny red chilies and circled by shot glasses for tequila.

Besides the travel-inspired bookmarks, I have others that were gifts from friends.  The most special ones are those made by my friend Marilyn, who recently passed away. Some of these combine her wonderful talents as a haiku poet and a photographer.FullSizeRender



And I, who devote part of my life to fighting the battle against clutter and a house full of  stuff, hang on to ticket stubs from European museums, and add these to the collection of bookmarks that rekindle fond memories. There’s nothing like a ticket showing the kitchen of Monet’s house at Giverny, or one covered in sunflowers from the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum to brighten up our dark, soggy winters and, for a moment, let me relive a treasured experience.



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Pay attention and change your life


Paying close attention in case I have food

Why pay attention? In my last blog post I talked about paying attention while walking outdoors as a way to become more aware of our surroundings.  But paying attention can do much more.  The people at the ToDo Institute focus much of their effort on helping clients use their attention as a way to reframe the stories they tell themselves about their lives.

Where do we normally focus our attention? We concentrate on “my feelings, my thoughts, my comfort, my convenience, my aches and pains, my problems.”* But what if these are examples of misdirected attention? As we zero in on ourselves, maybe we’re thinking about a recent unpleasant incident that’s still bothering us. Or we’re anticipating an upcoming event.  Or a potentially difficult encounter ahead. What does this self-focused attention get us? Anger? Disappointment? Anxiety?

Popular wisdom tells us that if we focus on a negative experience and talk it through with a professional — what happened, how we felt when it occurred, how we feel now — eventually we will get over it.  But not everyone agrees with this solution to personal problems. What if, instead of healing, this practice keeps us from ever letting go of the past? Some say that “Psychological suffering is generally associated with a heightened degree of self-focused attention.”** In other words, attending to ourselves can make our problems worse.

So what happens if we focus on something other than our lives? First, we start to notice the environment outside ourselves.  We become less aware of our aches and pains. We discover a world larger than “me.” As we pay attention to the world outside us, we might change our habit of believing we are the center of the universe all the time, and only believe it most of the time. Our powers of observation expand. Finally, getting into the habit of paying attention has the potential to help us realize that we live at the expense of other beings, and we might even come to feel gratitude for all we receive from the outside.

*from; **same site but quoting psychologist Rick Ingram.


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Meditation on nature

large mushroom

Amanita mushroom

“Pay attention,” is a demand most of us have heard from teachers, parents or spouses. It usually means, “Listen to me.” But paying attention means more than listening.

I attended a recent conference, in which speaker Linda Anderson Krech spoke about a rule she and her husband made about paying attention when taking a walk.  While they moved from their home to the end of the driveway, they could bring up any topic. But once they’d left that zone, they could only talk about what they were noticing around them.yellow leaves

I shared her story with my husband on our last walk. Neither of us is interested in creating new rules, but we were intrigued by the notion of paying attention to our surroundings.  Although we walk on busy streets, nature surrounds us. We pass by mini-forests, a tree-lined boulevard, plenty of home flower gardens, and an osprey nest, from which mournful cries arise every spring and continue through the summer. But how often do we really pay attention?

halloween yardMore often than not, we carry on conversations about random events or walk silently, lost in our thoughts. On this keeping-our-eyes-open-and-mouths-shut walk, we noticed crops of shaggy mane and amanita mushrooms pushing up from under piles of fallen leaves. We commented on changes in trees since we’d last covered this territory, and felt energized by conversation that focused on our beautiful surroundings.

Paying attention has value beyond seeing familiar objects through fresh eyes. I’m inspired to write more about this topic, but plan to portion it out, making it easier to hold readers’ attention.

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Happy to be an only child

IMG_2614As an only child, I was surprised to read a recent Seattle Times article in which the writer urges parents who have only one child not to panic.  Apparently the prevailing fear in this era of hyper-parenting is that the single child will have no friends, and without siblings he or she will be messed up for life. I’m thankful to the writer for reporting recent research that shows it’s possible for only children to turn out O.K.  Otherwise I might never have known.

When I was growing up, I remember one common criticism about only children from my friends: “You must be spoiled.” Was I? I don’t know.

What most people don’t understand is that only children have no basis for comparison.  My husband and I traveled to China with a couple who’d been divorced, but through a second marriage had added many grandchildren, nieces and nephews. They bemoaned the fact that in a country with a mostly one-child policy, children would not have the pleasure of siblings and they’d also miss out on cousins. They needn’t have felt sorry for the Chinese children.  These children will not feel bad. Everyone they know has the same history.

I checked in with a friend, another only child, who, like me, was surprised to learn that finding friends was a challenge for only children, and surprised that parents needed reassurance. Neither of us has ever felt a shortage of companions.

Most of my friends have siblings, and some have formed close-knit families. Some siblings’ lives take them in different directions and they find they don’t have much in common as adults. Rarely do friends ever talk about their brothers and sisters, so I don’t have a sense about who’s happily related and who’s not. Those who do talk don’t always have nice things to say. Sibling rivalry doesn’t end at age twenty-one. And, as I’ve written before, comparing yourself to others, especially making financial comparisons, almost guarantees the blossoming of resentment. Fights over what “Mom and Dad” really intended the kids to inherit even though they didn’t specify it in their wills are not uncommon. I was thankful I could handle my parents affairs without family squabbles.

But these are only stories I hear.  I really wouldn’t know.  I only know I loved being an only child and don’t miss any brothers or sisters I might have had. And I’m glad my parents never seemed troubled by raising only me.  My dad was thirty-seven when I was born.  He was probably relieved to stop at one.




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Ceramic painting for dummies

For many years, a group of friends and I visited arts and craft shows together and came up with a simple mantra — “We can do that”– which we intoned after each show. After years of completing, collectively, dozens of craft projects, a recent experience challenged that mantra.

On a guided tour of Portugal, our group visited Ceramicas de Coimbra and saw demonstrations of the steps involved in creating glazed ceramic ware — vases, dishes, flower pots, trays, pitchers, tea pots, and more — also called majolica. Painting the completed pieces was the mosDSC01696t intricate step in the production, and probably a fast road to slumped shoulders and poor eyesight. Yet the all-female painting team worked silently and efficiently, too busy to utter a discouraging word.

We saw about a thousand ceramic pieces waiting for someone to paint them. I DSC01672imagined a painter completing one project, and shouting out, “Hooray! I’m done,” then looking up at the shelves filling the warehouse and crying. Sisyphus, who was only required to roll a boulder uphill for eternity, had it easy. Still, countless completed pieces were stacked on other shelves, proving these women weren’t quitters.

DSC01698After the tour, our guide, Cristina, ushered us into the factory lunchroom. There she gave each of us a white tile. Our instructions? Simply turn out a beautifully decorated tile and finish before the employees needed the space for lunch, that is, in twenty or twenty-five minutes.

“I’m not doing it,” said my husband, who, unlike me, actually does have artistic talents.  “I’ll watch you paint.”

Six of us sat around each table.  Bowls of paint — primary colors, plus black and brown — filled the center.

We could choose a stencil or paint freehand. I went for a stencil of a pear, because it was the simplest design among the dozen available. The first step involved tamping black powder over the stencil. It was not a difficult task and lowered my stress level…for a second.

Now that I had my design, all I needed was to fill in the blank spaces, a sort of paint-by-numbers without the numbers.  I reached into the container of brushes and pulled one out, only to find that each was a two-in-one. One half contained spindly bristles for fine work, and the other half broader bristles to make sweeping strokes.

It took only seconds to discover I could not make the spindly brush paint anything fine, and using the larger one I swept far outside the lines of my stencil. Enter my husband.  His strategy was to add borders and extra lines to take the viewer’s eyes entirely off the pear. I glanced at other people’s tiles. Not too bad.  Their brushes must have been better than mine.

Finally, Cristina announced that we needed to clear out.  Before I could search out a waste basket, the owner of the factory had collected all the tiles.

pear tileFour days later in another city, Cristina invited us to a happy hour on the rooftop of our hotel. She had laid out every tile. “Quick. Find ours,” I said to my husband, “so we can hide it.” Regrettably, before we found it, twenty-six pairs of eyes had already viewed it.

We packed our tile and took it home with us.  It lasted as long as the walk from the suitcase to the garbage can. Scrapping the evidence allows me to keep saying, “I can do that.”










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Pack light, gripe less

Map of Portugal and our route

Map of Portugal and our route

We recently returned from two weeks spent touring Portugal. The Rick Steves’ tour we were on involved white wine; a cork farm; cathedrals and medieval monasteries; ancient Roman cities; red wine; beautiful landscapes; Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque, and Rococo architecture; walled towns; art museums; aqueducts; and port wine. (By day eleven most of us were vowing to take a long break from wine.)

We were fortunate to have a well-informed guide, who was passionate about her country and its history, and very funny. We were in a companionable group of fellow travelers, ate ginormous meals, met and dined with members of two dynasties of wine and/or cork and olive oil producers, one in an area the typical traveler might miss, and another limited to Rick Steves’ groups.

Despite having most everything taken care of for us, from lodging to meals to city transportation, I found something to complain about. I had to refold my clothes and repack my suitcase daily, and after doing this, still couldn’t find what I needed. On day five I found the hairbrush I thought I’d left back home, and on day eleven I found the makeup I thought I’d lost on day four. Also, one compartment in my suitcase still contained brochures from a trip to Hawaii, which weren’t helpful when it came to locating the day’s agenda for this vacation.

Then a blog called Jane’s Journals arrived in my inbox. The title was “What would you pack?” The question referred to what Syrian refugees were bringing with them to Europe. The blogger linked to a website called Quartz, which shared photos from the International Rescue Committee of the contents of a few of the refugees’ backpacks.

For a mother: “A hat and a pair of socks for the baby; an assortment of medication, a bottle of sterile water, and a jar of baby food; a small supply of napkins for diaper changes; assortment of pain relievers, sunscreen and sunburn ointment, toothpaste; personal documents; wallet; cell phone charger; yellow headband.”

And from a six-year-old boy: “One pair of pants, one shirt; a syringe; marshmallows and sweet cream; soap, toothbrush and toothpaste; bandages.”

None of the backpackers sampled seemed concerned about a hairbrush or makeup. And none carried an itinerary. For them there were no schedules, no menus set in advance, and no means of transportation except their feet. Maybe for future trips I should pack fewer things, organize my suitcase better, and stop complaining.

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