Mother Nature — Who Is She, Really?

I HAVE SPENT A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT MOTHER NATURE

I have spent a lot of time thinking about Mother Nature, especially lately, and wondering about the relationship between God and Nature. I’ve never blamed God for bad things, even when I had breast cancer. In fact, when I attended a support group and found out it was called Why Me? I thought, “Why not me?”

This COVID-19 pandemic gives one pause and makes me want to understand how the world works when one believes in a caring God.

Coronavirus Resource Center - Harvard Health
coronavirus

In his May 19th Opinion piece in The New York Times, Tom Friedman describes Mother Nature as “just chemistry, biology and physics… Mother Nature is not only all powerful, she’s also unfeeling. Unlike that merciful God that most humans worship, Mother Nature doesn’t keep score. She can inflict her virus on your grandmother on Monday and blow down your house with a tornado on Wednesday and come back on Friday and flood your basement. She can hit you in the spring, give you a warm hug in summer and hammer you in the fall.“As such, telling her that you’re fed up with being locked down — that it’s enough already! — doesn’t actually register with her.”

I recently listened to a sermon by an Episcopal priest in which the priest, in discussing the Trinity, compared God the Father to Mother Nature. Well, I can’t buy that. No, I believe in a God who created us and Mother Nature. I believe God cares, that telling God you’re fed up does register, and that helps me accept the current situation and turn to God for solace, even as the world is running amok.

C.S. Lewis, the British writer and lay theologian, in his 1948 essay entitled “On Living in an Atomic Age,” put it this way: “What, then, is Nature, and how do we come to be imprisoned in a system so alien to us? Oddly enough, the question becomes much less sinister the moment one realizes that Nature is not all. Mistaken for our mother, she is terrifying and even abominable. But if she is only our sister – if she and we have a common Creator – if she is our sparring partner – then the situation is quite tolerable.”

Of course, Lewis is talking hypothetically about the atomic bomb; we are living with a virus that is actually killing people all over the world by the thousands. So the situation is not “quite tolerable” for the many who are suffering and those who love them.

But still, if we listen to Lewis’s words and substitute COVID-19 for the atomic bomb, our situation can be seen in a new light: “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb (COVID-19) was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb (COVID-19), let that bomb (coronavirus) when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children… not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs (viruses). They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

C.S. Lewis on Pornography and Masturbation
C.S. Lewis

I am convinced that fear lowers your resistance. I’m also convinced that thinking and talking about bad things gives them power and contributes to that fear. I’m taking COVID-19 seriously. I’m wearing a face mask when it’s appropriate and I’m practicing social distancing. But I’m not going to let it dominate my mind. I’m going to continue to do “sensible and human things.”

And I hope and pray that you will, too.

A Different Kind of Dad

A tribute to my FATHER, a complex man

My father, Paul DeWitt Urbano, was born in 1917 in New York City to an Italian Episcopal priest and an upstate New York lady of Dutch heritage. He grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, went to Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and graduated from Williams College.

Upon graduation, much to my grandmother’s dismay, he got his hunting and trapping license in Juneau, Alaska, worked as a long-shoreman at the Yukon docks for $.99 an hour, went to Fairbanks, and then on to Lake Minchumina to trap for the winter.

The weather was treacherous, and he and his partner nearly died.  It was there, near Lake Minchumina, that my father discovered Jesus Christ and made Him a promise. He returned east to the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

My father, Paul Urbano, in 1941

He didn’t finish at that time because the day after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was trained for the Ski Troopers in Camp Hail, Colorado, in the 10th Mountain Division, 87th Regiment, and sent to the Aleutian Islands. He later became a Medic and served in Italy. He spoke very little of the War.

The 10th Mountain Division during WWII

While home on leave in 1943, my father met Mary-Louise Strong at a cocktail party in Manhattan. She was a Juilliard-educated concert pianist and a beauty. After a courtship-by-correspondence, they were married on December 31, 1943, at St. James Church in New York City, where Mary-Louise had grown up.

My Mother, Mary-Louise Strong circa 1943

My sister Marilou was born during the War, and my mother and Marilou stayed with Mamá’s parents in New York City until my father returned for good and graduated from seminary. He was then called to be a curate at St. James Church in South Pasadena, California, where I was born, and ordained a priest in May of 1948.

In 1952, after positions in San Gabriel, where my sister Alice was born, and Beaumont, we moved to Phoenix, where my father had accepted a position as curate and soon became the first rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

My father’s preaching was an amazing mix of scholarship, sound theology, and beautiful writing. He was tall, handsome, and had a deep voice. He would place his hands over the top of either side of the pulpit and wait patiently for people to settle down before speaking.

God help you if you had to blow your nose.

He would say a lot in 10 minutes — his self-imposed timeframe – make his point and end the thing. People loved that. And his reputation as a brilliant preacher quickly  spread, taking church services from a date barn to a parish hall to the large structure that stands today at 6300 N. Central Avenue.

The Rectory was built for us at the end of the property, and we moved in when I was in the fourth grade. By then we had two more kids in the family, Francesca and Paul. My mother was the busy mother of five and a piano teacher.

The parish had grown into the largest Episcopal church in Arizona, and my father began to plan a day school, which now sits next to the church and has spread out over the adjacent 10 acres.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Phoenix, AZ

In spite of the demands placed on him, my father made time for me and encouraged me. He took me out to the desert to practice target-shooting with a rife and a pistol, and taught me how to fly-cast and shoot a bow and arrow. When I got to high school and had learned to sew, he made a deal with me that he would pay for the clothes I made. So, I sewed up a storm.

One summer when I was about 12 and my siblings were off on junkets with my grandmother, my mom, and friends of the family, I stayed home to take care of Papá. I planted flowers so that I could put then in his study. I learned to cook. And I read voraciously. He loved horror movies, and we saw “Godzilla” and “King Kong” that summer.

Papá loved toys, and somehow managed to have them, despite his minister’s salary. He had a string of sports cars, beginning with a TR3. Next came an Alpha Romeo, and several Porsche 911s (which I was not above “borrowing” to go to orthodontic appointments, cruising Central Avenue on the way), and finally, a “Benz” convertible. He had a 16′ Glasspar boat, and he would occasionally let me skip school and go fishing with him on Canyon Lake. And when I was 17 or so, he was given a BMW 1200 motorcycle. I’ll never forget my dad riding around in his clerical collar, fringed leather cowboy jacket, and ropers.

During high school, I read lots of books my father was reading because I found them lying around, and they looked interesting. Some that stayed with me are The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant, Madame Bovary, Mere Christianity, and Sri Ramakrishna. The last one was fascinating, and an example of my father’s open mind and curiosity. He felt that there were many paths to the same God, and I do, too.

My father told me I was intelligent, wise, and beautiful, and made me believe it (even during my skinny, flat-chested girl-with-braces stage). His attention made me feel loved and confident. But much as he loved and appreciated women and said more than once that women are the superior sex, he could be sexist. For example, he did not like having females as acolytes; he felt they were a distraction at the altar. And he did not see the need for girls to go to college, although he helped me when I pushed back and began applying to small liberal arts schools.

My parents were beautiful dancers, and I learned to dance standing on my father’s feet. I remember with great pride the night he presented me at St. Luke’s Ball, and I curtsied and danced with him in each of the three ballrooms at the old Westward Ho Hotel.

Papá and I 1966

 I loved dancing with my dad, and as it happened, so did others. He and my mom were divorced during my freshman year of college. His was the first divorce in Arizona of an Episcopal priest. He and my mother had to ask Bishop Harte for special permission, and it took some time for the bishop to agree. 

Men loved my dad, too, because he was brilliant, original, and accomplished. He was an outdoorsman, having trapped fur in Alaska. He tied his own flies and made his own bullets. When he decided something was interesting, he threw himself into it, whether it was the Bible or fish. He had a bank of aquariums in his study filled with all manner of fish. He taught me a lot about them and raised Bettas and even sea horses and the brine shrimp to feed to them.

Papá’s study was a fascinating place. It was the room where he did his counselling of parishioners, where he wrote his sermons on Saturday mornings (using two fingers, smoking, and nursing a vodka), and where he entertained his friends. It had sliding wood doors along one end, which, when opened, revealed a wall of equipment for tying flies, reloading shotgun shells, and making bullets (which he did on the patio).

Papá spoke Spanish and French, played the banjo, and practiced the same piece on the clarinet – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major – over and over the whole time I was growing up. I never heard him finish it.  And I never tired of it.

Papá was a Barry Goldwater conservative. And his best friend was Paul Roca, a true liberal. The relationship worked because they shared the same values. They were both Episcopalians, they believed in the innate goodness in all people, and they were kind. The two men explored Sonora every springtime, Roca writing two books on the old Spanish missions and Papá collaborating and taking a lot of the pictures. In one of Roca’s books, The Paths of the Padres, they mapped out all the missions they had visited.

The adventures on these trips were numerous, from finding cave people to eating raw meat to sleeping in a rat-infested barn. Papá was bitten by rat fleas on that trip and came down with the first case of Typhus in Arizona in 20 years. He never recovered completely.

Papá had remarried in 1972 to a remarkable woman 20 years his junior, Carol Belcher. Carol got his finances in order and was content to live a quiet life with a man who had lived a life of adventure. 

In 1975, Papa was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He let Carol and my stepsister Teri take care of him. He stopped smoking. He drank all sorts of concoctions Carol and Teri made from the enzyme juicer. He ate tons of almonds. And when the cancer metastasized to his brain, I remember sitting in his study with Roca, his wife Lucy, and Carol, hearing him say, “I won’t live that way.” Four months later, at age 61, he was gone.

People still tell me how wonderful my father was, how much they loved him, and how he brought them to Christ. I believe he was a great teacher, and I know he was a great preacher. I adored him, warts and all. And I miss him every day.

Now’s a Good Time

it’s crazy, but it’s true

It’s crazy, but it’s true. Despite the hardships many are facing, others are finding they have more money than usual and more time.  

Twice this week I’ve heard from friends who recently have done something creative and generous.

My friend Julia discovered that she has extra money since she began staying home. She’s decided to buy a new bed she needs and give a nice gift each month to causes she cares about. She is filled with excitement by the prospect of being a donor, as she has been living very carefully for some time.

My friends Dave and Dancy have been cleaning out and remodeling their garage. Dave, a talented finish carpenter, has built a fantastic area for Dancy, who is a gardener and flower arranger extraordinaire. She now has shelves and drawers for gardening tools, vases, etc. And instead of putting the 14 vases she no longer needs in a Goodwill bin, Dancy  made 14 arrangements with flowers from her garden and put them on a community table for the neighbors, with a sign that said, “Please take an arrangement and enjoy!”

And here’s another example: Several of the women in my Dining for Women chapter received stimulus checks, which they felt were unnecessary. They’re donating the money to our local food bank.

These stories remind me of a book I read years ago by Lynne Twist, called The Soul of Money. In it, Twist describes a life-changing experience in Harlem, in the basement of an old church with a leaky roof. She was a new fundraiser for The Hunger Project and had been asked to speak at a fundraiser at the church. Twist, who is white, says, “I looked out at the audience, and I knew that the people sitting there did not have much money to give. I spoke to them about The Hunger Project’s commitment to Africa, as I thought it would be the most relevant to their own lives and their heritage. When it came time to ask for donations, my palms were sweating and I began to wonder if it was the right thing to do. I went ahead and made the request, and the room fell absolutely silent.

“After what seemed like a long silent pause, a woman stood up. She was sitting on the aisle in a row near the back. She was in her late sixties or early seventies, and she had gray hair parted down the middle and swept up into a tidy bun. When she stood up she was tall, slender, erect, and proud.

“’Girl,” she said, ‘My name is Gertrude and I like what you’ve said and I like you. Now, I ain’t got no checkbook and I ain’t got no credit cards. To me, money is a lot like water. For some folks it rushes through their life like a raging river. Money comes through my life like a little trickle. But I want to pass it on in a way that does the most good for the most folks. I see that as my right and as my responsibility. It’s also my joy. I have fifty dollars in my purse that I earned from doing a white woman’s wash and I want to give it to you.’”

Twist goes on to say, “It’s my experience that money is an inanimate object that we made up, and it has no power or authority other than what we assign to it. I see money as being a little bit like water. When water is moving and flowing, it cleanses, it purifies, it makes things green, it creates growth, it’s beautiful. But when it slows down, starts to sludge, and is still, it becomes toxic and stagnant.  One of my missions in this lifetime,” she says, “is to enable people to keep money flowing and to assign money to fulfill their highest commitments and to send it off into the world with love, with voice, with vision.”

Now is a great time, if you’re one of the lucky ones, to assign your money to fulfill your highest commitment, and to sent it off into this troubled world with love.

Let me know how it goes.

A Meaningful Coincidence

If you ask a scientist

If you ask a scientist about coincidences, chances are they’ll tell you that coincidences are the result of mathematical probability, i.e., “with a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” – Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller in Methods for Studying Coincidences (taken from an article by Julie Beck in “The Atlantic,” February 23, 2016)

I disagree. But then, I have faith – faith that all will be well, faith in my family and friends, faith in God. And faith isn’t measurable, at least not mathematically. I agree with Frederick Buechner, who said, “Coincidences are God’s way of getting our attention.”

In fact, sometimes they feel like little miracles.

I’ve been slowly working my way through poet and meditation teacher Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live: How to Live this Year as if It Were Your Last. It’s a powerful book that has changed my life.  But that’s another blog.

Levine worked for years with people in hospice care, helping them prepare to die. In his book, he shares a series of meditations and exercises that help us lose our fear of dying and feel prepared for the inevitable, whether we’re facing imminent death or just going about our lives, knowing that death comes to us all. He helps us understand and remember that death is just part of the cycle of life.

One of the things he learned from his patients is that they were greatly helped by making amends with those they had hurt along life’s journey. Forgiving ourselves is hard enough, but especially if we have unfinished business. He suggests we make a list of people we have wronged, and then approach them to see if they are willing to talk with us and let us apologize for our mistakes.

I started my list about a year ago. It was hard work. On it was a wonderful woman who was the unwitting victim of my petty jealousy some 40 years ago. Her name is Nancy, and she is one of the smartest, funniest, most open people you’ll ever be fortunate enough to know. I haven’t seen Nancy in at least 20 years.

I have been thinking about the need to get in touch with Nancy all this time. Months went by and it didn’t happen. I told myself that since Gene and I were back in Phoenix, I would run into her and could take it from there. One day I found her contact information but couldn’t bring myself to call her. What would I say? “Hi Nancy. It’s Pauline. I’m wondering if we could get together. I need to apologize to you.”

Then last night I was unable to sleep, and I happened onto Facebook. Who should be on the People You May Know list but Nancy. I immediately asked her to be my Friend, and she accepted. And now we are talking, catching up on each other’s lives and families. As soon as I can, I will apologize for my petty behavior.

And I will be one step closer to peace.

Backstories: I Make Them Up for Real People

I JUST READ “A MAN CALLED OVE,” BY FREDRIK BACKMAN.

I just read A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. It’s a wonderful novel about the grouchiest, rudest, most stubborn person you can imagine. His name is Ove (he’s Swedish), and as you follow him on his daily reconnaissance walks through the neighborhood, you learn things about him that help you understand his behavior. Turns out, Ove has had many disappointments in his life, starting with the death of his mother when he was seven years old. As his life unfolds in rhythm with the story, you begin to  understand his behavior and your heart goes out to him. You have compassion for Ove. You care about him.

One day, when I was reading Steven Covey’s leadership book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I had an epiphany. Covey tells the story of being on a New York City subway one Sunday morning, when a man and his children enter the car. The children are out of control, yelling, “throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers.” The man just sits there until Covey finally asks him politely if he could please control his children, as they are “really disturbing a lot of people.”

The man lifts his gaze and explains that they have just come from the hospital, where the children’s mother has died about an hour before. “I don’t know what to think,” the father says, “and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?” asks Covey. “My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.”

Compassion* is needed more than ever right now. The coronavirus has robbed people across the globe of their jobs, milestones, closeness with extended family, school, special trips, social time, sports and other activities, even basic things like food, water, and healthcare.

The kindest people, people who have all the basics, are being pushed by fear, frustration, and disappointment to the end of their proverbial ropes. And it’s hard to be patient with them when we’re the target of their anger

Ever since reading “7 Habits,” I have been making up backstories for people who lash out at me, whether it’s someone driving by me honking and giving me the finger or one of my kids snapping at me. Rather than taking their behavior personally, I make up a backstory for them. Maybe the guy who got exasperated following me as I went my usual five miles only over the speed limit was on his way to meet his pregnant wife at the hospital. Perhaps my daughter is having a hard time with her children, and is feeling overwhelmed. Maybe my husband is feeling out of control because there’s nothing he can do to fix this situation.

I think about the wisdom in the book, The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, and remember not to take anything personally, because “nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dreams.”

And that is how I’m getting through this challenging time: making up stories for other’s behavior, remembering it’s not about me, and giving people the benefit of the doubt, so that I can feel compassion for them.

Perhaps if those of us who are up to it can consciously practice compassion, the world will be a kinder place when this thing is over. And if it takes a long time, at least life will be more pleasant while we’re waiting.

* Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ― Frederick Buechner

A Gift Returned

nyc: TODAY i GET TO DO SOMETHING SPECIAL

Introduction: This blog is based on a story I wrote for Facebook last year about this time. I have elaborated on a couple of points.

NYC, 6/20/2019: Today I get to do something special. Here’s the backstory:

My great-grandfather Salvatore Urbano, a school teacher and mayor of Palermo, Sicily, killed a member of the mafia in a duel. Fearing for his son Francesco’s life, Salvatore put Francesco (who would become my grandfather) on a ship to America. Upon arriving in New York City from Ellis Island, Francesco, an Anglican, walked to Grace Church on Broadway and East 10th Street and was taken under the wing of Episcopal Deaconess Jesse Gardner.

Grace Church, Manhattan

Deaconess Gardner put him to work washing windows and ended up sending him to Phillips Andover Academy. From there, he attended Rutgers University, where he received his BA and MA. He then attended Yale and Yale General Theological Seminary, after which he was ordained an Episcopal priest.

The Rev. Francesco Giglio Urbano, 1913

During his years at Rutgers and Yale, Francesco (We grandchildren called him “Padre.”) returned on weekends to Grace Parish, a smaller church down the street from Grace, now Immaculate Conception (purchased by the Catholic Diocese), where he had an Italian ministry. According to an article in “The Churchman,” dated July 11, 1913, Deaconess Gardner had begun to take care of the children in the Nursery, mostly Italians, and their parents who, “for the most part, had ceased to care for the Church of Rome.” Padre became their minister.

Fast forward to this winter: My stepsister Teri Fitch found Padre’s traveling communion set among her mother’s things. It was a gift to Padre from the Italian Congregation at Grace Chapel upon his ordination in 1913, after having worked with them for eight years. Teri, with the blessing of my sisters Marilou Urbano Rolfe and Francesca Urbano Kerr, sent it to me to take to Grace Church, since I had this trip planned.

My grandfather’s traveling communion set

So today I take Padre’s 1913 communion set to the Rev. J. Donald Waring, Rector of Grace Church in New York. Don is expecting us and has been incredibly gracious. Gene and I can’t wait to meet him!

Epilogue:

Don welcomed us into his study in the Rectory and had all kinds of archived goodies waiting for us, from my grandfather’s wedding record to 3×5 cards with different members of the Urbano family on them.

My grandparents’ wedding record from 10/10/1911

He had some wonderful information on Deaconess Gardner, too, documenting her work with the Italian immigrants Padre ministered to. (Deaconess Gardner had a summer home in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, across the Sound from Nantucket. My father spent many summers there as a boy, with his mother, Pauline, and brother David. I have a pair of whale oil lamps from her house in Edgartown, which was once a major whaling port.)

Don then walked us through the church, constructed in 1843-46 of unfinished marble, and the gym of the day school for boys and girls from pre-K to twelfth grade. The church has about 1,000 parishioners and is doing much good in the world.

The whole experience filled me with joy!

The Rev. J. Donald Waring, Rector of Grace Church, New York City

Streetlight Effect

THIS PANDEMIC IS TEACHING ME SOMETHING IMPORTANT ABOUT MYSELF

This pandemic is teaching me something important about myself. Too often lately, I’m falling prey to the Streetlight Effect. (If you’re familiar with it, you can skip this next part and go to “Human beings…”)

What is the Streetlight effect? Here’s the usual story that explains it:

A policeman is walking by a bar one night, and he sees a drunk man crawling around on the ground beneath a lamp post.

“What are you looking for?” the cop asks the drunk man.

“I’m looking for my house keys,” the man says. “I lost them around here.”

“I’ll help you,” the cop says. Together, they begin to look around under the streetlight.

But after a few minutes, neither one of them can find the keys.

“Are you sure this is where you lost your keys?” the cop asks.

No, I’m not sure of that at all,” the man says. “I might’ve lost them in the alley.”

“Then why aren’t you looking in the alley?” the cop asks.

“Well, this is where the light is,” the drunk man says.

Human beings tend to look for the truth in the places where it’s easiest to search, rather than the places where it’s likely to be.

I’m guilty of this. And in these crazy days of the coronavirus, we tend to look to our favorite media and the people we trust (our streetlights) for the truth. But given the confusion and lack of real knowledge that exists about the virus, we need to be careful not to be too sure of ourselves. Because nobody really has the answers. Right now, it’s all guesswork.

Case in point: On Wednesday, I read a long scientific paper stating that it could take 10 years before we know if the coronavirus is something we can actually protect ourselves from, either from a vaccine or by catching it and building the antibodies that will stay with us for the rest of our lives — if indeed they will. Even the experts really aren’t sure.

In the meantime, do we continue to stay home until the cases throughout the country peak? Until a vaccine is developed? (President Trump is promising one by the end of the year, but the experts say it won’t happen until next spring at the earliest.) And while we wait, there are children to educate (not to mention hold and hug), jobs to do, people to take care of, lives to live. How long do we wait? And just how flat does the curve have to be?

On Thursday, Gene and I had socially distant drinks with a couple we know from business. He’s a cardiologist and, like many doctors, speaks with a very authoritative tone. I asked him where he stood on the coronavirus and whether people should begin venturing out. He talked about the folly in trying to totally avoid the germs all around us, that only a very small percentage of the people who come down with COVID-19 die from it, and they, for the most part, are already not well.

His attitude seemed so cold and objective. I think he was speaking the truth, but his apparent lack of concern for the vulnerable was troubling. I guess there are those who feel that most of us should simply go about our business, and let nature take its course.

He made me think, and that’s a good thing. But I don’t want to disregard my humanity in exchange for practicality. Surely there’s a way to proceed that acknowledges the need for people to work and support themselves and their families, but also protects the vulnerable.

So what is the way? A lot of people on both sides of the aisle are trying to figure that out. And in the meantime, I’m going to do my best not to judge how others choose to deal with that question, providing they’re taking a thoughtful approach. Because we won’t know for a long time what the best course of action may have been.

I’m going to do what’s comfortable for me, and within reason, allow others the same right. And I hope they will do the same for me. After all, we’re in this together.

My Other Mother

Grace Suft had A CERTAIN JE NE SAIS QUOI

Grace Suft had a certain je ne sais quoi. (Bear with me while I practice my French.) I think of her as my other mother. I know her children and grandchildren were much closer to her, and I would never presume to be part of the family. But, still, with Mother’s Day right around the corner, this is a good time to tell you about Grace. Because she always had time for me.

We moved to North 11th Street in Phoenix when I was five. My father was the brilliant, charismatic rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and my mother was a beautiful pianist, Juilliard-educated, who did her best to raise five children. She brought us music, dancing, and fun, but we were often on our own to figure things out.

Here’s my mother with (l to r) Alice, Francesca, me, Marilou, and Paul.

It just happened that the new neighborhood was filled with parishioners, and, lucky for me, just down the street were the Sufts — Walt, Grace, Judy and Jimmy. Judy babysat for us. And I used to stop for Jimmy on the way to the school bus. Sometimes Grace would ask me in for breakfast, which on at least one occasion was pancakes. I had three siblings by then, and our house was a bit chaotic, so pancakes on a school day made a big impression on me.

There was a lot going on in the neighborhood, if you know what I mean. The woman across the street was crazy about my father, and even though I didn’t understand, I could sense my mother’s distress. Grace was like a light house, and I felt secure just knowing she was there. Because even then, I knew Grace cared about me, and I loved her.

We moved across town after a few years, and I didn’t see Grace much while I was growing up. My parents were divorced while I was in college, and Mamá moved to North Carolina the day after I was married, to be near her parents. We saw each other once or twice a year over the next 40 years.

When my husband and I and our new baby, Annie, moved back to Phoenix from Minnesota, I used to take Annie to the garden at All Saints’. She would sleep on a quilt while Grace took charge of our little group of volunteers. We would trim, weed, plant and feed the flowers. When Phoebe, my second child, was born, I continued to volunteer, and loved that time with three awesome women — my stepmother, Carol, Phoebe’s Godmother, Diana Hayward-Butt, and Grace.

We worked hard, stopped for Teatime, then worked some more. Grace taught me most of what I know about flowers and, without saying so, that hard work is fun if you’re doing something you love.

Grace became my other mother and my confidante. She remained a woman of her generation, but never judged me. I remember telling her I was going to ask for a divorce. She said, “Well, honey, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I think it’s important for a woman to have someone to go to, if she’s going to leave.” You see, Grace had been through that herself, and knew what I was in for.

Five years later, I remarried and moved to Tucson. Grace and Diana came to visit Gene and me one weekend in 2005. Grace was 90. had macular degeneration, and couldn’t hear very well. We had a tri-level house, and I worried about her on the stairs, but she went up and down like Loretta Young. She rode the tram into Sabino Canyon and walked around a number of local sites without a single complaint.

Grace and Diana, Tohono Chul Park, 9/05

I saw Grace occasionally when I was in town. One May morning in 2006, I was driving Grace to church, and as we were waiting to turn left into the parking lot, a woman (who told us later she was praying at the time) rear-ended us going 40 miles an hour. My glasses flew off my nose, and after a pause to recover, I looked over at Grace, afraid of what I might find. She was looking right at me and said, “Are you OK, dear?” Grace was resilient.

You know how, when you haven’t been with someone in a while and you have a little trouble seeing them clearly in your mind’s eye? Well, it was never like that with Grace. Her slim figure, bright blue eyes, beautiful smile and gorgeous, perfectly coiffed white hair have always been easy for me to picture. She was witty, irresistibly honest, and had an amazing gift: she made you feel special.

Grace was flexible, a marvelous trait in anyone, but especially in an older person. I could call at the last minute to see if I could come by, and if she was up, she always said, “Sure, Honey. I would love to see you.”

Grace was a listener, a happy listener, because she was truly interested in others. And while maintaining that Stephens College elegance, Grace got such a kick out of things. When she heard something funny, she would slap her hands together and laugh out loud. And she had terrific stories. I once asked her to tell me about something exciting she had done, and she described learning to fly a plane. Yes, Grace was a pilot.

When I came up to Phoenix on business, I often spent the night with Grace. One night after dinner, I had my iPad out, and she said, “Show me how that thing works.” So, I showed her how I could access my calendar, my contacts, my email and the internet, and how I could play Words with Friends with my sister in Seattle. Grace took it all in and said, “Boy that’s neat; I think I was born too soon.”

When Grace was 96 and still beautiful, I remember sitting outside with her at dusk, watching the peach-faced lovebirds at her backyard feeders. She could barely hear, and I was a blur. We just sat in each other’s company, bathed in the joy of being alive.

On Grace’s patio 3/12

You see, Grace had faith. She had faith in herself, faith in you, and faith in God. And it gave her a glorious sparkle. And when she took your face in her hands and looked you over, you knew you were loved. She was that wonderful.

Grace lived to be 101. And I have to say that the thought of death is a lot more appealing, knowing Grace will be there to greet me in the afterlife.

France Is Not to Be

GENE AND i SHOULD BE PACKING

Introduction: I almost bagged this blog. I was concerned that I might sound insensitive to what’s going on in the world. So I slept on it, and decided this morning that we all need diversion right now, a break from this damned pandemic. So here you go…

Gene and I should be packing for France. We had a great adventure planned, and reservations to fly out of Phoenix this Tuesday. We were to land in Paris and take the high-speed train to Normandy. 

We had a charming hotel reserved in Bayeux, and two tours scheduled. The first was a tour of Omaha Beach, where the Allied forces landed nearly 76 years ago during the largest seaborne invasion in history, and 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives that tragic day.

The second was a tour of Mont-Saint-Michel, the tidal island off the northwest coast of France. “Mindwalk,” the 1990 film starring Liv Ullman, Sam Waterston, and John Heard had a life-changing effect on me. It’s a fascinating conversation among a physicist, a U.S. senator, and a poet, about how the world works. (Is it more like a clock or a tree?) And the movie is set in The Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel.

From Normandy, we were going to drive to Beaune, Burgundy, where we were excited to explore the 15th Century walled town and taste the fabulous wines made from the Côte d’Or vineyards surrounding Beaune, “the very epicenter of wine porn.” – Robert Draper, The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2015.

We are wine-lovers, and have been to vineyards in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and – last May — Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where we sat in a restored 13th Century wine cellar and tasted eight wines. We could hardly wait to sample the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in Burgundy.

Next, we planned to drive to Paris for eight days. I had found a charming apartment through Airbnb in the first arrondissement*, near the Louvre. When we travel, we like to immerse ourselves in the place, pretend we live there, and site-see as the mood strikes. While we still can, we decide for ourselves what we’re going to do and figure out the local transportation.

The downside to this approach is you don’t see as much as you would on a tour, you get lost a lot, and sometimes you order a liter of wine, instead of a glass. The upside is, you don’t feel rushed, you have more interaction with the people who live and work there, you learn how to navigate the city, and sometimes you order a liter of wine, instead of a glass. (Yes, this happened to us in Avignon last May, and we had to hold each other up all the way back to our hotel.)

Last May was our first trip to Paris together. We stayed in the Marais district, which is filled with young families and interesting museums. We hung out each morning in a different café, eating the best croissants in the world, drinking lattes and freshly squeezed orange juice, and watching parents walk their children to school and day care before work. It’s an amazing way to start the day!

We were hoping to do that again this year, as well as some things we haven’t done together: tour the Louvre, not just take pictures of it; have lunch at the Jules Verne on the 2nd Floor of the Eiffel Tower; walk to Montmartre and climb the steps of the Sacré-Cœur (and the additional 300 to the dome); walk through the Musée d’Orsay, see the Chagall on the ceiling of the Palais Garnier opera house; and take a blanket to the Champ de Mars and watch the light show on the Eiffel Tower at dusk (with a bottle of wine, of course).

But back to reality. Here we are in Phoenix, Arizona, 32 days into Governor Ducey’s “stay at home” order. It’s 97°, and I’m trying to look on the bright side. After all, we have plenty of food and toilet paper; we have a home we love in a neighborhood where we can walk in safety; we can be with friends and neighbors (at a safe distance or on Zoom); we have access to wonderful entertainment through Netflix and Amazon Prime; all our children and grandchildren are within 30 minutes of us; we have two sweet kitty cats; and we have each other.

So, no France this year. But we are among the lucky ones. And don’t we know it.

*The 20 arrondissements are arranged in the form of a clockwise spiral, starting from the middle of Paris, on the Right Bank of the Seine.

Becoming the One

WE’RE IN OUR 24TH DAY

We’re in our 24th day of Arizona’s “Stay at Home” order, and I’m surprisingly busy and content. Why is that?

I have a considerate, understanding husband who is thoughtful enough to leave me alone in my office for hours at a time. We go for long walks. We take turns cooking and watch a lot of good stuff on TV. We have sex. We go camping and fishing to break up the monotony of being at home day after day. I bake. I work in the garden. I organize my shoes.

But honestly, if I didn’t have my women friends, I think I would be in a terrible funk. Men may feel the same way about their male friends; I’m not sure. You see, we women reach out to each other. We send each other texts, emails, and notes. We call and check on each other. We ask each other for advice. We FaceTime and meet in the park for lunch. We share our recipes, books, TV shows, feelings. We organize happy hours on Zoom. We do these things because we are women, and women prioritize connection. They initiate.

And when I don’t initiate, one of my friends does. I have several who are especially good about that. I get busy and weeks may go by. They don’t give up on me or assume I don’t love them. They reach out. And I’m grateful. Because women can talk to each other about things the men in our lives just wouldn’t know or care about. Let’s face it: while I’m talking about my sick friend, Gene is thinking about the exhaust manifold in his truck… or the weeds that need spraying… or his testosterone level.

There are some big differences between the sexes. And I gave up long ago expecting to get everything I need from my man. I need to be loved by others, too, and I need to express my love for them by giving them my attention.

So I’m trying to become “the one” in Hafez’s beautiful 14th Century poem, “With that Moon Language.” Because I love my girlfriends. And they love me.

With that Moon Language

Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them,

     “Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;

     Otherwise,

Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,

This great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one

Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying

With that sweet moon

     Language

What every other eye in this world

     Is dying to

     Hear.