Launching my podcast, Coffee Table Wisdom, reminds me of when I first launched a blog. Although my first blog wasn’t really launched; it was more like a shy tiptoe into a world where stories and essays became public and could be read by anyone. I have to admit, it’s still thrilling to click on “publish” and see my work come up on a colorful page that has pictures and headings.
Podcasting is just another way to tell a story. It’s a new take on what radio used to be when we’d gather round and listen to programs and public figures. In today’s world though, people can put in their ear buds, and listen to a podcast just about anywhere.
My podcast is about positive aging. I advocate for embracing the years as a noble passage. All of us fear getting older to some degree. That fear is un-necessarily exacerbated by toxic myths in the culture that have all of us sitting around in Depends after the age of 60, just waiting to get sick or die. And that’s why it’s time for a revolution in positive aging!
My experience of the accumulating years is that there is a tremendous potential for aging well and finding joy in the process, stereotypes be damned. I’ve invited guests from the worlds of health, psychology, spirituality and the arts to be on my podcast and share their perspective on the grace and gratitude of growing older in spite of any challenges that we may face.
Podcasting has given me an opportunity to fall in love with the
ordinary people that I interview, all of who reveal the extraordinary in their
lives. Every time I meet a new guest and
record a new show, I marvel at how much magic there is in each of us. Podcasting has truly become my labor of love
So, I’m inviting you to take a listen and enjoy the power of
story in this format. You can find Coffee
Table Wisdom wherever you get your podcasts. On my web site you can click on the Podcast
Tab to discover Season One.
We live in the most literate time in human history. We have so many writers and so many stories that can be told in virtually unlimited ways and formats. My great hope is that all of this will help to remind us of how we are connected by our stories; and that it will demonstrate how none of us is ever as alone as we think we are. Isn’t our human family just amazing? Happy listening from this grateful granny!
The memories of my father are like dreams. They exist in the ethers and have a floating sense about them. They come from younger years, when I thought of him as “daddy.” He wasn’t enough a part of my life to ever become “dad.” In my time of adolescence and angst, he was missing in action, thousands of miles away from me, never picking up the phone. When I left home, I always thought of him the formal sense of “my father.”
Looking back, I try to figure out what his absence wrought and what his presence gave. I cling to the romance of ghostly memories that have formed into stories that light up my imagination. There is quality of longing to the stories. I can see him, but he’s not there. I can feel him, but can’t touch. The stories are what I have left from our fractured life together. They console me; let me know that in spite of distance and circumstance, I really am my father’s daughter.
One story stands out like a favorite fairytale. I recall it again and again because of the magical qualities it holds. It’s 1958 and I am visiting him in Glacier National Park, Montana. I’m six-years-old. He has spent a week in the woods. He was studying something, maybe notating it. I’m not quite sure what it is that park naturalists do, but I know that my father is brave, because he knows how to talk to animals, and animals talk to him. Those things make me feel proud of him.
He’s fascinated by the natural world. Sometimes his work takes him away for a while and I stay with my brother and sister in the cabin, waiting for his return.
This time, when he came back, he came back with marks. I stared at his face, a little afraid. Both of his cheeks reveal long, red scratches that have scabbed over. “Did you fall on branches?” I asked him, trying to think of what would have caused the injury.
“No,” he replied. “I was making friends with a bear.”
I thought of my Goldilocks book. The three bears in that story were made-up, because I’d seen real bears in Glacier and was pretty sure that they didn’t sleep in real beds or eat porridge. A real bear pulls the kitchen rug off of the clothes line, taking it up a nearby tree. A real bear wakes you up in the middle of the night trying to break into the trashcan. And there was one real bear who stole a huckleberry pie off of the kitchen table where it was cooling; reached right in through the open widow. He ran off into the forest with it, leaving my sister in tears because she’d worked all day to gather those berries and then bake them into a pie. Those bears weren’t our friends, so what did my daddy mean? “How do you make friends with a bear?” I asked.
“The fellow came to where I was camped every morning, a small cabin, like this one but just big enough for one person. I saw the bear through the open window and he saw me. I was excited to see him.”
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked.
“No. Bears don’t like to get too close to people. There was no screen on the window, but I wasn’t worried. I was curious and so was the bear. So I sat there for a while talking to him. I spoke in a soft voice and I asked him how he was doing.”
I could picture my dad talking to the bear in his calm voice. I’d seen him talk to animals before. Before the divorce, a raccoon that he called Wilbur, used to visit our house. My dad would sit in his chair on the front porch and talk to her.
“Did the bear answer you?” I asked.
“In a bear sort of way,” he said. “He stood up on his hind legs and sniffed the air. He wanted to catch my scent and know whether or not I was a threat.”
I tried to imagine the little cabin, big enough for only one, and my father leaning on the windowsill having a conversation with a bear. I wanted to talk to a bear sometime. When that one bear took my sister’s huckleberry pie, I stood on the back porch with her while she cried. I yelled, “You’re a stupid bear,” hoping it would comfort her. I don’t think that my daddy would ever call a bear stupid.
“He looked like a young bear,” he continued, “and I was happy for the company.”
“But didn’t he get mad at you?” I asked, pointing to the scratches on his cheeks.
He shook his head. “No, he didn’t get mad. I think he just got brave.”
I wrinkled my forehead.
“Every morning he came by at the same time. I was alone up there and appreciative of the morning conversations. I pulled a chair up to the window and rested my arm on the sill. I drank my coffee while we talked. He mostly stood on all fours, but sometimes he’d stand up and move his head, as if he were trying to understand me. After we’d talked for a time, he headed off toward home.”
“Where does he live?”
“Probably in a cave on the mountain.”
My little girl brain pictured the large bear with a bear family living in a cave, but coming out every day to talk with my father, as though the bear were going to work.
“But how did you get the scratches?” I asked again. “Did the bear do that?”
“Yes, he did. Every day for a week,” my father said, leaning forward toward me, “the bear and I talked. I noticed that he kept coming a little bit closer to the cabin each day. On the very last morning that I was there, I’d packed up my gear and was sitting in the chair by the window. I was waiting for him while I drank my coffee. Along came the bear at his usual time. I said good morning and he studied me. He was closer to the window than ever before. The sun was shining. The air felt warm and I felt comfortable with this beautiful bear. As I was telling him goodbye, telling him that I’d be going back home to be with my family, it was as if he understood. He stood up on two legs and moved very close to the window. He was just inches from me. It was breathtaking to see him that close. I smiled at him and that’s when it happened. It was so fast. The bear raised both of his arms and moved forward, placing a paw on either side of my face. It startled me and I pulled back quickly. That’s how I got the scratches.”
“Was the bear was trying to hurt you?”
“No. I think that the bear was as curious about me as I was about him. I was alone and I got too comfortable with something wild and I forgot how unpredictable the relationship with wild things are, so I got hurt. But I don’t think the bear meant harm.”
“What did the bear do when you got scared?” I wanted to know.
“He got scared too. We both remembered who we were.”
I didn’t understand that answer for a long time. How could you forget who you were?
“Did the bear go back home?” I asked him.
“He probably went back to his den. Or maybe he roamed the mountain looking for food.”
“Do you think he’d remember you if he saw you again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
And that was the end of the story. The bear. The scratches on my father’s cheeks. It was the thing I remembered most about that summer. My father was not afraid of the animals. He knew how to talk to them.
In late August, he put me on a bus with my sister. She’d return to Glacier, but I would stay with my mom. That’s the way things were now, my siblings lived with my father and I lived with my mother. My mother and I lived next to a city park, but there were no special animals there. I told the bear story to a little boy at school and he called me a liar. After that, I only let the story belong to me.
When I was a young woman, I dreamt about my father and the bear, but I was the bear in the dream. I reached to my father’s face and put my hands on his cheeks, but he pulled back in fear, and my hands left deep scratches.
Looking back, I see that my father felt a kind belonging in the wild that he didn’t get anywhere else. He dedicated his life to studying the natural world and preserving natural environments.
When I think of him now, I think that in some ways he was afraid of getting too close to me. Maybe he saw that after a few years, we would stop being a regular part of each other’s lives. Maybe he thought his heart would be broken. I never got to ask him why we drifted so far apart and why it was at such an early age in my life.
When I saw the movie, The Horse Whisperer, it reminded me of how my father could talk to animals. I wish that I could tell him now that I’m proud to be the daughter of an animal whisperer and that I know how to whisper to animals too. Then maybe we’d both remember who we were to each other.
When I first saw Jesse, he was standing in the front yard, talking with my husband. From a distance, his body looked like a “C.” His shoulders, neck and head curved forward, as if he were studying something that lay at his feet. His stature was small. He shuffled slowly as he followed my husband into the house. How was this somewhat frail looking man in his mid to late 70’s, ever going to cut and carry stone into my house for a week to build a new fireplace?
Jesse had come with a glowing recommendation, that he was the best mason that there was, that he worked slowly, but his work was impeccable. The person who told us that also said “ . . . and he’s the best man I’ve ever known.”
Jesse stood in the corner of our living room by the old fireplace and looked up and down the wall, holding onto a piece of the dusty sample rock that he’d brought with him.
“Here,” he said pointing at the old fireplace. “We’ll place the rock in an arch around the top of the fireplace box. Then we’ll go straight up.” He gave us a timeline and told us when he could start. Leaving that day, he shook our hands, addressing us as “sir” and “m’am.” He was the kind of gentleman that has grown rare in our culture, so respectful that he compelled deep respect in return.
Limestone is easily quarried in this part of Texas. The stone comes in a few shades of white and beige. It’s soft enough to be cut into large bricks, its ragged, rough edges adding character to homes, garden walls, and in our case, a fireplace.
The whole thing was my husband’s idea. He wanted a substantial fireplace that would anchor the room. Rock from floor to ceiling. I was the one who suggested the limestone. I wanted the fireplace to be like something that you’d find in a sprawling hacienda, long before these hills became housing developments and sub-divisions.
I was relieved when Jesse showed up for work the first day with an assistant. But my relief was short lived when I realized that his assistant was just as old as Jesse. The two men shuffled in and out of the house, the air sliced by the high-pitched sound of a buzz saw that cut the stone to make it fit. Heads down, stopping only to drink water, they moved deliberately, focused on measurements and mortar; back and forth from the stone on the front porch to the fireplace. Jesse was no longer recognizable as the old mason we’d hired. Instead, I saw him as the master he was, imbuing his work with a sense of agelessness.
Cutting and chipping stone is not a glamorous job. It’s hard and it’s heavy. It’s fraught with dust. But as I watched Jesse work, I started to feel that I was in the presence of nobility. A man who can make something with his hands, something that will outlast my lifetime and his, is special. Stone by stone, the fireplace grew. Jesse climbed on and off of the scaffolding as if he were 30 and not 70-something. The stone eventually made it all the way to the ceiling. The familiar, sure-footed dance that he’d learned over 50 years of masonry was something sacred. He never dropped a stone, never dropped a tool, never swayed out of balance and never spoke anything that wasn’t positive.
My husband and I went about our daily routines, stopping now and then to view the slow progress and the accumulation of dust. One day, standing at the kitchen sink, I heard Jesse singing softly to himself as he worked. Every day thereafter, I listened and he was always singing. Sometimes he sang in Spanish and sometimes in English. Like a monk with a mantra, the sounds became part of the creation he was birthing.
In a week’s time, the three of us stood back and admired the new fireplace. Jesse held a rag in one hand having just wiped the dust from the hearth. We marveled at the monolithic art that he’d built with his hands and with his heart.
Here is the story that I made up about the new fireplace, a story more fitting of Jesse’s noble work. In my story, I tell you that my family has owned this land for 7 generations, and that the original hacienda was a majestic architecture of limestone and hand-hewn beams that looked over Lake Austin. I tell you that when the hacienda burned down and the family scattered to make new lives for themselves, that this fireplace was all that remained. So we decided to build a house around it. Of course, none of that’s true. We live in a development, but I like the story I’ve made up — because it seems more fitting for the fireplace that Jesse made.
When the work was finished, Jesse returned to looking like the old man, shaped like a “C.” When he drove away in his slightly dented truck filled with rocks, I was left with a sense of having witnessed greatness. The anchor that my husband had wanted for the room was a true masterpiece. And the original recommendation turned out to be true. Jesse did beautiful work and I he is definitely one of the best people I’ve ever known.
Friends nourish us by seeing our goodness when our own eyes are clouded.
I’ll never forget my 5th grade friend. It was Steck Elementary, a new school in a new neighborhood and I didn’t know anyone. The very first lunch break of the very first day found me sitting by myself in the lunchroom eating a sandwich my mom had packed for me. There was hardly anyone there. That’s because the kids at Steck all went home for lunch. It was uncool to eat in the lunchroom.
I didn’t finish my sandwich. I walked around the playground and watched the kids come back from their “at-home” lunches and gather in groups. Boys congregated by the fence and the monkey bars. Girls played a game called Four Square. A ball came flying at me from the Four Square games, and I dodged it just in time. The girls playing the game were staring at me. “Throw it back,” one of them yelled. I picked up the ball, but when I threw it, it went off to the side, bounced and hit a piece of playground equipment, then rolled several feet away from the Four Square game. The girls laughed at me, shook their heads, and I heard one of them say “a real knucklehead,” which made them all laugh more.
That was an all is lost moment. I fought back tears. I hated this school. Why did my mom always have to move us when she got a new job? I turned away from the laughing, balled up my fists and jammed them into my jacket pockets.
I felt her standing there before I turned around and saw her. With confidence and comfort, a little girl with thick glasses and a big smile eyes looped her arm with mine and pull me away from the side of the building. “Four Square is so stupid,” she said. “I’m Jeannie Stein. Have you ever been a Girl Scout?” And thus began a friendship that assuaged the pain of being the new kid.
What I didn’t know then, was that welcoming the stranger is a core principal of Judaism and Jeannie Stein was a Jew, but I found that out when the Girl Scout question led me to a meeting room at her temple. When I finally learned the piece about welcoming the stranger, I was in my 40’s. Memory transported me back to 10-year old Jeannie Stein, the kind little girl who had welcomed me when I was a stranger.
I didn’t get to know her for more than a year, because my mom got another job, and we moved again. But for a year, being friends with Jeannie Stein was like having another home. We played Barbies together when I was starting to feel like maybe I was too old to still be playing with dolls. She was the last little girl that I ever played dolls with. When she looped her arm through mine that day, I didn’t know that we’d be crossing a bridge together, one that led from childhood to something else.
I’ve been the new kid quite a few times since that day in the 5th grade, most recently, since my husband and I moved to Austin. It was a courageous thing that we did, uprooting and transplanting ourselves in a matter of months.
A big move is filled with risk, unknowns and excitement. Eventually, I’d adapt. I’d discover the best grocery store, the favorite restaurant, the closest bookstore. But just like it was in 5th grade, my biggest concern was whether I could make new friends. The feeling of being the new kid, standing alone on the playground comes back. My eyes are searching the horizon for a Jeannie Stein. Under the big Texas sky, my current and closest relationships currently amount to repairmen and contractors.
Women are social creatures. We need each other’s company in order to thrive. In this new place I’ve been taunted by thoughts that all the friendships have already been made, that women are already coupled and in groups and there wouldn’t be room for me. That proved not true, of course, but I had to muster the courage to reach out.
On a website called Next Door, a resource for individual neighborhoods, I posted that I’d like to find a writing group or a book group. In less than 24 hours I had 5 responses from people who shared my interests. The response that touched me the most was from a young woman who wrote that she’d moved here in April and hadn’t made any friends yet. Then added, “How do you make friends when you’re a grown up?” I reached back to her with an invitation for coffee, but she never responded. It made me think that perhaps she didn’t really want new friends, that she was closed off to them.
My new Jeannie Stein showed up in the form of a woman named Melinda who’d asked for a phone conversation. I learned that she was a 7th generation Texan who had horses and a book group, a perfect combination for a Texan in my eyes. In her gentle drawl that was as sweet as dripping honey, she extended an invitation to join her group. Metaphorically, she looped her arm through mine and I knew that everything was going to be okay.
What we learned as children continues to inform us, regardless of how grown up, sophisticated, or world wise we think we are.
Melinda told me that the book we’d discuss at the book group is Educated, by Tara Westover. Westover’s book is now a part of my extended Jeannie Stein story. The book is a memoir about self-invention and becoming the best kind of human being that you can be. I’m hoping that I will be a good friend and remember to reach out to the stranger in the same way that the Jeannie Stein’s of the world have reached out to me.
For a few weeks now I’ve been grappling with recent rejections. One day I’m strong and tough skinned and two days later, the disappointment at not having sold my novel creeps in and wraps its greasy little paws around my neck.
This morning as I sat in bed with my tea, I asked myself if I was depressed. No, not depressed. I didn’t want to hurt myself or anyone else. I wasn’t planning on staying in bed all day. Joy of life? Well, it was a little compromised, a “down, but not out” sort of thing.
I talk out loud to myself sometimes, a habit that amuses my husband but helps to bring me clarity.
Me: What do you want to do?
Me: Go into town and look for stories. I want to be a story gatherer today.
Me: Okay, take your camera.
So I did. I drove into Lithia Park and began to wander the artisan stands at the edge of the creek. I talked to a photographer who told me about his printing technique. His beautiful pictures were too perfect for my taste, but I appreciated that he’d captured the essence of the trees that shade this area like giant sentries.
I talked to a woman who makes brightly colored pillows and potholders. She told me about how her crafts are only part time and the rest of the time she works for her ex-husband in his construction business. She spoke in glowing terms of how they had found peace with each other.
People’s polite narratives are not that interesting. I long to see the heart of the matter, the source of meaning, fueled by angst and distress. It wasn’t until I got to the third booth, and met the woman who made fairy chairs, that I was ignited by a story.
I snapped a picture of the chairs.”
She pointed at my camera. “You should ask first,” she said with a thin edge of razor like sharpness.
“Sorry. Do you mind if I take a picture?”
“When did you start making fairy chairs?” I asked her.
“I had a life altering experience,” she said. “Something that changed me irrevocably.”
Story. There it is, asking to be felt, asking to connect.
“Nine years ago,” she began, “my house burned down. I lost everything. I needed to do art so I could heal. I needed to make something from the ashes inside of myself.”
I was enthralled. The violation of expectation had turned this woman’s life on its head. Her heart and soul and been consumed by the flame of that fire. And she’d found her way back, down a path of mourning to the place where fairies dance. Suddenly I knew that I had to have a chair for my writing muse.
Carefully, while believing in magic, I chose the one made of abalone shell. I would put it on my desk, and now my writing muse would have a place to sit. I took a few more photographs and we said our goodbyes.
The essence of the story is this: the fairy chair lady took brutal loss and morphed it into art, sharing the energy of healing with others. She understood the place of all consuming flame and the ashes left in the wake. Everyone has times when they must pick themselves up and keep moving forward, dust themselves off and find beauty in grief. We are never alone as much as we think we are.
And that, my friends, is the story I gathered in the morning light of a Saturday morning in Lithia Park.
Is there a story that is touching your own heart? Please share.