Monday, February 3, 2014

When we change the way we look at things...and people...

It’s been at least 20 years, but I can still see her, still hear her. Looking professional in gray wool slacks and a blue sweater, she spoke with quiet conviction. “I was so unhappy in my marriage. I wanted to leave my husband, but I thought I should have a better reason than general unhappiness. He wasn’t unfaithful. He didn’t hit me. He wasn’t verbally abusive,” she added.  “I wanted to leave, but I felt like I needed something definitive. Each day I was measuring my unhappiness.”  Being on the fence was exhausting, she said. She needed to make a decision. “Finally, I realized he wasn’t committed to the marriage. That was reason enough! I felt so relieved.”
The woman talked about planning where she’d look for an apartment, what furniture she’d take. She thought about the freedom she’d have. She thought about how she’d find the perfect husband, and happiness would be hers. Then another thought arose. “I realized I was the one who wasn’t committed to the marriage. Maybe before I threw the towel in, I should try being committed to the relationship.”
Among her complaints had been her husband’s drinking. He’d given it up, going to 12-step meetings. Though she seldom went to support group meetings herself, she did attend one the day after her new resolve to try commitment. She described what she heard. “A woman at the meeting talked about how she’d recently made a practice of focusing on her husband’s good qualities instead of the ones she disliked.  After some time, the negative qualities receded, while the positive qualities came to the fore more often. I realized I always focused on my husband’s shortcomings. I decided to adopt the practice of gratitude for his good qualities.”
I was listening intently, waiting to hear how her new eyesight was working. “That was 30 years ago,” the woman said.
I was stunned. I thought her insights were much more recent.
“I learned I was responsible for my own happiness,” the woman continued.  “I learned by loving the aspects of my husband I’d once found unlovable, I healed myself as well as our relationship. I learned to love myself. In practicing gratitude, I opened myself up to the love that had been there all along.”
It’s been many years since I’ve been in a romantic relationship. I’ve learned, though, I can apply the revelations I heard that day to any relationship whether it be work, family or neighbor. It isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes it feels almost impossible. I think of a former coworker who made fun of her husband’s disability. I wanted to slap her! Every time I saw her, I thought of the heartless comment she’d made. But as I wrote down her good qualities each night, I realized her husband was a mirror and how she treated him might reflect how she felt about herself. 
Sometimes, all I could write was how she came to work on time each day. But I noted when she stopped to chat with coworkers or offered to help with a project. I don’t know if she ever treated her husband differently, but she did become a kinder person at work. Or perhaps my vision change helped me see the person who had been there all along.
It’s so automatic for some of us to zero in on the negative. It’s such a groove in my brain. Making a gratitude list every night has helped me make a new groove. Sure, the train of my mind still wants to jump the track and get back in the old one. But I catch myself more often.

I can still hear the woman in blue sweater, “We have a wonderful marriage.”

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Acts of Kindness

Acts of kindness on Christmas Eve

When my children were little, each Christmas Eve we read the Christmas chapter out of one of the Little House on the Prairie books, all set in the 1860s. Often there were tremendous blizzards, and once a flood forced Santa to recruit Mr. Edwards to deliver gifts to his neighbors, the Ingalls children.

As the snow kept accumulating in Forest Grove, Oregon, one year, I wondered if I’d get to my children’s homes in North Portland. It was virtually impossible to drive in a city with very few snow plows and 1 foot of snow! Unlike the 1860s, I could take public transportation.

And so, at noon on Christmas Eve, I boarded the #57 bus in Forest Grove. The driver was expert at keeping the bus in the ruts created by other drivers. I thanked him for his skill, adding that while Santa was the most important visitor to my grandson’s house, I was right up there. I got off in Hillsboro and boarded the Max train to downtown where I’d get a yellow-line train to North Portland. At Pioneer Courthouse Square, as I stepped off the train, a man said, “If you're planning on the yellow train, it’s out of service.”

I called Jessica, my daughter, who, checking Trimet's website, confirmed this news and told me to walk 3 blocks and catch the #4 bus. I waited for half an hour in the freezing rain, chatting amiably with a young woman, a concert pianist, who was also waiting for the #4. The pass I had was good for 2 ½ hours. It was approaching 2:30. “My pass is about to become invalid,” I remarked. The young woman handed me another. I told her I couldn’t take it. “Please, take it,” she insisted. “I have plenty of them. Please. It’s Christmas.” I thanked her.

I called Jessica again and said I’d seen about 30 buses go by, but no #4s. My feet were so cold, I considered telling her I was going to back to Forest Grove, but I knew Christmas with a 7-year-old was not to be missed. And unlike Mr. Edwards, I wouldn’t have to ford any rivers.

She told me to go back and catch a different bus to the Rose Quarter where there were buses running up Interstate Ave. in place of the yellow line train. I did. The bus was packed, and warm. I was relieved, grateful I’d soon be taking my boots off on my daughter and son-in-law’s heated floors.

When my stop came, I had no choice but to step into a snow bank. I looked up and there were two women each extending their hands to help me out of the snow. I thanked them. It was just a four-block walk to my daughter’s house. Then I saw her, a fearless driver, in her car. I waved and got in, telling her I could have walked the 4 blocks to their house. “I’m going to Fred Meyer,” she said.  I considered crying, but decided I could choose to be happy no matter what. “Great,” I said.

Fred Meyer was so packed with people, it felt almost tropical. The lines were the longest I’d ever seen. Yet people were jovial. I stood in a long line with the cart while my daughter ran back and forth, dropping in a few items and then going off again to get the other things on her list. The woman ahead of me smiled. “That’s teamwork!” she said. A man nearby laughed as he remembered how he wound up in these long lines every Christmas Eve. Another man smiled and said, “I think of it as a cherished Christmas tradition.” We all laughed.

The time flew by and soon Jessica and I were headed to her home. My grandson screamed when he saw me. “NONNA!” he yelled, giving me a hug.

Later that night, as we tucked my grandson into bed, Jessica opened a small book. It was a collection of the Christmas chapters from the Little House books. She began to read about the Christmas when Santa asked Mr. Edwards to help him out. Thanks to his kindness, the Ingalls children had Christmas gifts. And thanks to the kindness of strangers, so did I.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Nothing to fear in the present

Nothing to fear in the present

By Debby de Carlo

A friend once said that when he died, he wanted his gravestone inscribed “95 percent of the things I worried about never happened.”

Over time, my friend learned to spend less time worrying. I’ve learned the same thing. It takes practice. The key, as so many books point out, is staying in the present moment. When I start to worry, invariably, I’m spiraling into the future, and as I do, fear spirals too. Feeling fear is a signal for me to come back to the present moment. In the present moment, I’m not alone. I’m connected to the world. Usually, all is well in the present. If there are problems, the answers are found in the present, too.

I have a mundane but interesting example. It was 1999 and I was a month away from moving to the Pacific Northwest. I was returning home to Madison after visiting friends in Iowa when the engine in my car stopped as I drove east on the highway. I coasted to the shoulder and got out of the car with my 75-pound golden retriever, Ernie. It was 95 degrees. I thought to myself, all is well. We’re fine. I’m not alone.
At that moment, a woman in a mini van pulled up and said she’d give me a lift to the next exit. (This was before I owned a cell phone.) I pointed to my dog. “That’s fine, hop in,” she said. We did. The next exit was just a few miles down the highway. I realized it was the hometown of my best friend from Madison, and I knew she and her husband were there in Iowa that weekend, visiting her mother.

The good samaritan dropped me off at a gas station. I described where my car was and one of the gas station attendants drove off to check my car. Meanwhile, I remembered Nancy’s maiden name and called her mother’s house. Nancy answered. If my car was not drivable, she and Jay would be happy to give Ernie and me a ride home.

The mechanic arrived back at the station. “I think it’s your timing belt,” he said.
“That can’t be,” I said. “I just had it replaced a few days ago.”
“Well, take it back to where you had the work done,” he replied.
“How am I going to do that?” I asked. “I live in Madison, 100 miles from here.”
“Well, you’ve got triple A Plus," he explained.  "It covers 100 miles of towing.”

Nancy and Jay picked Ernie and me up and we headed to Madison. The next day, my car was delivered to my mechanic who fixed it. (It turned out to be a defect in the starter motor that Ford later described, but we didn’t know it at the time.)

I’m convinced that fear keeps us from seeing solutions that are always available to us, solutions that we can see when we stay in the present. The fear causes us to lose perspective. One of the great things about prayer and meditation is that they quiet the mind, bringing us to the present.

Try experimenting. I’m not advocating getting into the car of a stranger, by any means. But the next time you feel anxiety, remind yourself that you are in the present, and that in the moment, you’re connected to the world. Notice what happens. And if you’re like me, keep practicing.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


The Gift of Forgiveness

In recent months, two people I knew all too briefly died. The first was Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, prolific writer, and my neighbor in the 1970s. He died Sept. 24, the day after his sixty-first birthday.

The second was Vernor Schenck, who died Oct. 16 after learning a little more than a month earlier he had cancer. He was 90. I’d met him last January during an interview after he’d learned the Public Relations Society of America had named its lifetime achievement award after him. During the interview, he said he had written about his life. “It was therapeutic, and it led to a much better relationship with my grown children. I’m happy to say I have a good relationship with all of them today,” he said. He made it clear that was his greatest achievement.

When Schenck walked into the office a couple of months ago, I asked him how he was. “I’ve got cancer,” he said, “and it’s closing in fast.”
I told him I was sorry. “Don’t be,” he said. “I’ve had a great life. I’m 90 years old. I’ve told the doctors I don’t want any treatment. I’ll have hospice, but right now I’m not in any pain.”
I told him he had done the really important things in life, including healing relationships with his children. “That’s right,” he said, smiling.

After Church learned in 2006 that he had esophageal cancer, I heard him speak on public radio a couple of times. We all die in the middle of our story, he said. The important thing, he underscored, was to die without any unfinished business. He meant making amends for past wrongs and extending forgiveness to others.
Church had taken care of a lot of his own unfinished business when he quit drinking in 2001. In his book Bringing God Home, he described how he had neglected his family and even himself because of what he called his affair with alcohol. By taking responsibility for actions and making amends, Church transformed resentments into peace.

I had been divorced many years before I made amends to my ex-husband. For a long time, I stubbornly said I wouldn’t talk about my part in the dissolution of our marriage until he talked about his. Then I realized two things: His part was none of my business, and my continuing refusal to look at my part was poisoning me. Resentment, I’ve heard it said, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.  I wrote a letter to my ex-husband, listing instances I had been self-centered and less than an ideal and supportive mate. To this day, I have no idea if he ever read it or simply put it in the waste basket. It doesn’t matter. I wrote the letter for my own spiritual health, and I felt wonderful after I dropped it in the mail. When I accepted responsibility, I stopped drinking the poison of resentment.

After my father died years ago, I still had some resentment toward him. He hadn’t been a perfect father, but I hadn’t been a perfect daughter either. For years I’d focused on his shortcomings—his temper and his prejudices. I wrote a letter, forgiving him his outbursts and thanking him for exposing me to culture, including plays in New York, and providing my sisters and brother and me with all the books we could want between our house and the library across the street. I apologized for wasting a semester’s worth of private college tuition while I stayed up late in the dorm discussing the war or playing bridge until the wee hours.

Of course, I’ve had plenty of others to make amends to and to forgive. Sometimes I create new resentments. Some resentments take time to reach my consciousness. I’m convinced they do only when I’m ready to see them. I can help the process by going into the silence of prayer and meditation, something I resist too easily. Once I see my part, I can apologize. That’s all I can do. The outcome is never in my hands. I know, though, that if I don’t feel peace afterward, I haven’t wiped the slate clean. It’s a sign I still hold resentments and need to get back to the work of forgiveness or making amends to others. It’s an ongoing process.

These thoughtful, articulate men reminded me by their actions in life the peace that comes from taking care of business. Their deaths emphasize the need to not waste another minute.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spring Cleaning

How I cleaned my closets and found myself

My spring cleaning, such as it is, has changed over the years. As I tackle closets and files, I become ruthless. Each item I get rid of gives me a sense of freedom. And self.

There was a time when spring cleaning meant moving everything, cleaning, and then putting everything—everything—back. I had all the clothes I’d bought over the years. Some I hated and never wore. Many were just too small. I figured I might drop 20 pounds one day, so I hung on to slacks I couldn’t begin to squeeze into.

What was really incredible, however, was the amount of other stuff I had accumulated: knitting needles and yarn even though I hadn’t picked them up in years. Crochet hooks even though I’d never crocheted. A piano. Canning equipment. If the day ever came when I felt like learning to play the piano or putting up a harvest of vegetables, I’d be ready!

Sometimes I avoided closets. They were reminders of goals I’d set and hadn’t begun to reach--of dresses I wasn’t sewing, sweaters I wasn’t knitting. I began to realize that perhaps one reason I didn’t knit anymore was that I designed and made quilts. And I didn’t can vegetables because I was out watching birds or writing a story. As I came to accept who I was, I also came to accept who I wasn’t.

That spring years ago, my cleaning became a purge. I called a friend who’d always wanted a piano. “Your piano is in my house,” I told her. “Can you come and get it?” She did. I gave the canning equipment to a friend who cans, and the size smalls to Goodwill.

Instead of guilt, I now feel something approaching joy when I get rid of things. Joy that I know who I am, that I know I’m happy making use of the gifts and talents I have. Joy that I’m passing on things to people who can use them. Joy that I make time for the really important things and people in my life, especially my grandson.

This sense of self has brought order to my life. But not too much. Books will always litter my living room. The floors need polishing because I’ve been out watching migrating sandhill cranes.

My closets are free of knitting needles and crochet hooks, though. My attic is empty. I’m not totally free of illusions, however. I’m hanging on to a couple too-small dresses.
© 1987 Updated 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008


I’d planned on making the trip to the Skagit valley in January. A book packager I was working with told me to wait, pointing out I could combine the trip with research I’d be doing in British Columbia. By the end of January the book was in doubt. I plugged away at a technical assignment, reading hundreds of pages of laws. By the last week in February, I’d finished. Though it would be the end of a steady paycheck for a little while, I felt like celebrating, even if gas was $3.30 a gallon, a near record so far in 2008. Before prudence could get the better of me, I put my binoculars and a change of clothes in the car and headed north. It was early March and I knew it was now or never for this year, anyway. Before much longer, wintering swans and snow geese would leave the Skagit valley to nest in the tundra.

From Portland, it’s not a bad drive on I-5. I crossed the Columbia River at 10:10 a.m. and arrived at the LaConner exit at 2 p.m. There were about 200 swans in a field along the west side the interstate before I reached the exit. On a clear day, the Cascades are a majestic backdrop to the east. This day, though, they were shrouded by clouds, making it easier to focus on birds. My first stop was a parking lot on Fir Island, a fan-shaped estuary where alternating fingers of land and water from the Skagit River meet Puget Sound. The lot was half full as people came to watch snow geese descend in a field adjacent to the Sound. There were close to 8000 of the geese, with more arriving each minute. I walked up to a fence, joining other birders. The geese, white with black wing tips, seemed to greet each other, so much honking. The juveniles were present in almost equal numbers, easily distinguishable by their gray feathers.

After so much anticipation, I stood there, present, taking in the sight and sound of snow geese. I turned, and there, in a large, deciduous tree, were two adult bald eagles and what looked to be a fairly new nest. Turning back to the Sound, I walked out, seeing a few ducks in the distance before returning to the geese. By now, another section of the field had turned from green to white and black and gray.

I got back in the car and went in search of swans. They’re found in fields, and the best place to observe them is from the side of the road. This can be tricky in the Skagit area where shoulders have been replaced by ditches to catch water. Here and there are tractor roads, little graveled places where one can park and watch swans.

The year before I’d spent two days driving up and down nearly every road in the area, carefully looking at each swan in search of a whooper swan usually found wintering the Aleutians. This year I could relax and simple drink in the beauty of these birds. There were a couple of hundred here, a hundred there. In fact, there are hundreds of wintering swans near my home west of Portland. But not in the numbers seen in the Skagit flats. And here, the swans are closer, easier to see. Perhaps they’re used to reverent tourists like me. Trumpeters are bigger and lack the little bit of yellow between the black beak and eye found often, but not always, in the tundra swan. Watching them at rest in a lush, green field, I was reminded swans represent transcendence to some native tribes.
A male Northern harrier, or marsh hawk, swooped in and hopped along the edge of the field, looking for rodents. 

I could spend the remaining hours of daylight here but a friend offering a place to stay east of Blaine was waiting for me. I took the Mt. Baker Highway at the southern end of Bellingham and drove east /northeast to my friend’s country place. I love the drive, and knew I’d see bald eagles and their nests regularly in the intervening 40 miles or so. I stopped at a couple of flooded fields and saw American wigeons and green winged teal. There were a few swans still wandering about, but most had already flown north. Within a mile of my friend’s house, I saw eagles on the ground in a nearby field. I pulled the car over to the shoulder and grabbed my binoculars. There were 2 adult and 3 immature bald eagles. One adult and two immatures were about 20 feet from 2 Labrador retrievers. The other birds were further away. One dog trotted toward them. As the dog neared, the birds took off, landing close to the other birds. The other dog, so close now to 5 eagles, seemed totally uninterested.

On a clear day, you can see Mt. Baker out my friend’s kitchen window. The next morning, however, it and the surrounding mountains were hidden by clouds. There was a steady, light rain. I didn’t care. I gobbled oatmeal, threw on my slicker and offered to drive. We headed to Birch Bay first, stopping along the way to check out eagles and nests.

The rain was a fine mist when we got to the bay. We got our scopes out. Mine is old and inexpensive, perfect really: powerful enough to see birds in the distance, and old enough that I don’t mind if it gets a little wet. There were loons, scoters, and my favorite duck…well, one of my favorites…harlequin. Its blue, white and rust colors remind me of Northwest Native art. These ducks winter along the coast, going inland in late spring to nest inland on rivers and streams.

Next we went to Semiahmoo, a resort across from the Blaine. In past years, we’ve seen long-tailed ducks here, along with yellow-billed loons. On this day, there were rafts of pacific and common loons floating north toward Canada, a stone’s throw away. We walked down an old pier and saw a red-throated merganser.

The next morning the sun was shining on all the mountains, now revealed, sparkling against the blue sky. I moved out here almost 9 years ago, yet the mountains are still riveting. I could take the diagonal route to I-5, but instead, I drove due west to Blaine. The early morning sun glistened on evergreens and field after field of raspberry canes.

Once on I-5, it was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road. To east are the Cascades, to the west, the Olympic Mountains. Even the Seattle skyline was beautiful. I drove a little over a hundred and fifty miles to Gig Harbor and had lunch with my friend Wendy. I’ve spent a lot of time hiking on the Olympic Peninsula, and I was tempted to stay a little longer. But the call toward home and family was stronger. The night before, my grandson had called me. “Where are you, Nonna?” he’d asked. “I’m in northern Washington, watching birds,” I replied.
“But Nonna, it’s dark outside. How can you see any birds?”
We’ll have to go owling some night.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Oregon springs from winter

Photo of back yard taken last fall, with granddog, Milo.

Before moving to the Northwest from Wisconsin in 1999, I talked to a former coworker who had moved to Portland several years earlier. “Don’t the winters get to you?” I asked. She replied, “It’s not as if you live in Arizona.”

Indeed, that first winter on the Olympic Peninsula was a pleasant surprise. The rain didn’t come until November, and then, for the most part, only on work days. Just about every weekend was sunny. Incredible. And, I now realize, very unusual.

Wisconsin has a few more days of sun than Oregon or Washington. The sunlight is scattered, however, throughout the year. In the Northwest, sun is concentrated in the summer. It can sometimes go for two months without rain, or even many clouds to speak of. But winter. Well, it does get cloudy. And rainy. There are compensations. Here in Oregon’s mild Willamette Valley, it seldom freezes. Ponds and lakes fill up with wintering waterfowl. I can drive a mile and see hundreds of swans. Or I can drive north of Seattle and see thousands of them. I can drive to the coast and see wintering loons.

I remember that first winter in Washington, 1999-2000. I was at work. It was February. My office faced woods. I heard a motor, like a snow blower or a lawnmower. It couldn’t be a snow blower. There wasn’t any snow. I got up and walked down the hall to look out another window. Someone was cutting the grass. In February. What brave new world had I landed in?

Today is February 12. I worked for a couple of hours in my very compact but lovely backyard. This year, we’ve had some pretty cold weather by our standards. Shallow ponds and flooded fields froze for a week. The geranium I always plant in honor of an old friend had green on it until the latest deep freeze. The petunias still have some green. But the snapdragons in the window box have buds. The heather is in bloom. And the daffodil and tulip bulbs popping through are hardly worth mentioning. But I will mention it because I spent so many years in Wisconsin. A beautiful place, to be sure, with cardinals and indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers—and lots of winter snow. Still, there I was, trimming roses and noting buds on evergreen clematis and rhododendrons and even the flowering dogwood.

This afternoon, I’ll look for a certain pair of bald eagles that have begun nesting in earnest Feb. 14 each winter, not far from where I live. Other eagles will nest later throughout the spring. The rain and clouds will keep coming for few more months. I can take it though. Seeing plants bud and birds nest is as good as a sunny day.