The last post for March

This blog post was published almost 10 years ago. It is a reprint of a column that appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal on Sept. 14, 2008, by Tom Chandler, former state poet laureate for Rhode Island and a professor at Bryant University.

The newspaper no longer runs the poetry column. I no longer live in Rhode Island. But I still like the memory in the poem. And I am still dorky. 🙂

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From oh-so-long ago.

Childhood is an endless wellspring

All poets face the blank computer screen with exactly the same thought: If the next poem could be about anything, what shall it be about? After all, the imagination is a wide highway, with exit ramps leading to sparks of ideas and dead ends in pretty much equal abundance. In my poetry writing classes I am regularly asked by students for topic ideas. I politely refuse such requests, since coming up with a compelling topic is really the heavy lifting of the art, its most difficult task. However, I do try to steer them in the direction of their own lives, explaining that their experiences as unique individuals are a never-ending source, both rich and fragile, and that looking back into childhood’s mirror will almost always provide the necessary prompt.

Julia Meylor Simpson grew up on a farm in Iowa, one of seven children. A few years ago her sister sent her a photo taken on her 10th birthday, a joking way of reminding her of her dorky past. Naturally, the picture triggered memories, and Julia found herself suddenly reliving that single day, lost among the thousands since. As she puts it:

“It was easy to crawl back inside the frame and remember when a two-digit birthday was something significant to look forward to for weeks. I’m sure my parents felt the hardships of that life every day, but they gave us all they could. And for me, looking back, that meant a rich, imaginative world where anything could be something else. The idea that an old pig house could ever be used as a playhouse is almost unthinkable in today’s plastic-wrapped, antibacterial-gelled world. But my father moved it close to my mother’s garden, and it was perfect — three child-sized doors and screened windows. Actually, the barn, the corn crib, even the grove of trees that shielded the house from the northern winds were magical places, each with its own smells and fears and stories.”

Julia has worked as a reporter and editor on a daily newspaper in New Jersey, and was an English teacher at Seekonk High School for 12 years. She works now in corporate communications, handling a variety of writing projects for Amica Insurance in Lincoln. Her poems have appeared in English Journal, South Dakota Review, and Connecticut River Review, among others. She is also a member of the Rhode Island Writers’ Circle, and has published her work in its annual anthologies.

Found a Photo from Forty Years Ago

A girl stands outside in patchy snow.
Bird-bone arms pinned to sides,
hair whacked short, Coke-bottle glasses.
Today’s her birthday.
There will be angel food cake
speckled with colors,
ten candles sinking in buttercream icing.
Behind her,
an exposed oak tree scratches blackboard sky,
a pig shed serves as a playhouse,
a mile of frozen earth borders a ditch
and two-lane blacktop.
The birthday girl smirks: Ten, one-zero.
She is a wizard in training,
charming endless acres of constancy
into forest, castle, jungle,
offering to the gods, a great journey.
Ten! Ten! Ten!
She thinks her adventure’s just begun.
She skips into the farmhouse,
neglecting a slipper,
trailing a few magic beans.

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Weekly photo challenge: Favorite place(s)

This week’s photo challenge is your favorite place. Since I recently moved, I’m going to go back to a few places from the past because I haven’t found a favorite place here in Connecticut yet (but I will).

iowa-2006092.jpgDriving down empty gravel roads in Iowa on a hot August afternoon.

img_0960.jpgBike riding on the East Bay Bike Path on the first nice morning in May.

newimg_5236.jpgEvery nook and cranny of Ireland.

img_1131.jpgAnd a Block Island getaway in the summertime when the flowers are all blooming.

Thinking about a volunteer vacation?

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Google “volunteer vacations” and you’ll find lots of information and many opportunities. It’s probably one of the most up-and-coming vacation options out there today.

Why?

Well, look at all those people in the photo above. They’re mostly working professional women (sorry, Anthony and Vireak) or newly retired, over 50, looking for something different to do. They are people who want to travel to exotic places they’ve never been to before, but maybe not all by themselves. Add in animal lovers who’ve been around the world. Add in people who’ve grown tired of the beach and cruise vacations. Add in people who want to do some good, who want to feel the pulse of the countries they visit and get to know the people.

And that’s why I’m on my tiptoes in the back row at the far left. I had just met these people, and we were visiting the temples of Bangkok when this photo was taken.

I’ve already talked about the trip in other blog posts (this one and this one), so this one offers 10 tips for those who think they’d like to try a volunteer vacation. Again, these are based solely on my experience, or, more honestly, what I’d do if I were to sign up for another. 🙂

  1. Carefully research the places and experiences you want to have. You can find volunteer experiences on every continent. Where do you want to go and what do you want to do? I chose Thailand and Cambodia because I knew I’d never go there on my own. I also wanted to learn more about elephants, and I wanted to meet people and do something that made a difference. Did I do research? Honestly, no. But then I also had no idea that volunteer vacations were such a thing. I was targeted by Facebook advertising, I checked out Bamboo, and fell in love with their programs and their friendly and casual brand voice (sorry, only someone who’s written copy for a brand even knows what that means). Happily, Bamboo lived up to the image they create in their marketing materials.
  2. Admit it — compare the cost of a volunteer vacation to a typical tourism vacation. I never could have afforded a trip to Thailand and Cambodia as a regular tourist in high-end hotels for two weeks. But there was more to it. Maybe the lure of the volunteer vacation was a reaction to my trip to Jamaica the year before. I sat on a beach in a couples-only resort and drank a different colored rum drink (make that plural) every day. I dressed up and went to dinner every night in a different restaurant. Honestly, I loved riding the bus through the crowded Jamaican towns more than the mindless hours I spent on the beach. And so it goes.
  3. When you’re ready to sign up, think carefully about what else is on your calendar. In other words, don’t do what I did. I retired from work on December 8, moved out of my condo in Rhode Island and into my condo in Connecticut one week later (while windows were replaced and carpet was laid, and I started painting the rooms). I enjoyed Christmas with my daughters and their families, and then stayed at one daughter’s house to babysit my sick grandson for a week. Of course, I, too, got sick with a cold (or was it the flu?), and then returned to my place to pack and get ready for my trip to Thailand (still hacking away with the worst cold I’d had in years). In my defense, I had chosen the date for the trip because I wanted to mark my retirement with a big exclamation mark. Little did I know that pushing it back another month would have been just as memorable. That leads me to the next tip.
  4. Make sure you are 100% healthy when you take off. During the week before I left, I slept as much as I could, went to CVS several times to get meds, and finally went to the clinic to get antibiotics (which probably didn’t do a thing). I kept thinking that I was getting better and that a cold couldn’t last this long. But it did. I was still coughing when I left for Logan Airport in Boston. Over the course of the two weeks, I felt much better, although tired. By the end of the trip, I’d hit a wall because I’d chosen to work on the building project instead of teaching. I enjoyed the physical work, but by the fourth day I was flat on my back, coughing again. I was disappointed in myself, but I knew I had nothing left to give. In fact, when I got home, it would be another two weeks before I was myself again. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, but just know there’s not a lot of down time.
  5. Check off ALL the requirements before you go. You’ll be expected to get the required shots for the countries you’re visiting. You’ll also be expected to get airline ticket travel insurance, a background check and have an up-to-date passport and any required visas. With that said, my team was from all over — Canada, the States (as they called it), England and Australia — and everyone had different lists of shots. My doctor didn’t provide some of the more obscure shots, so I had to go to a travel clinic. And, again, I offer words of caution. I didn’t ask the ALL-IMPORTANT question in advance: Does my medical insurance cover these shots? I found out as the nice nurse pushed the $$$ syringe into my arm that she had no idea — and really didn’t care. It wasn’t her job to know. In other words, it wasn’t covered. Now, I don’t know if these shots would have been covered if I had checked with my medical insurance in advance and gone somewhere else. Why? Because after paying the money and the claim was denied (out-of-network and the cost only went toward my deductible), it really didn’t make a difference.  But I WILL check first the next time.
  6. You’ll room with one or more roommates, unless you choose to pay extra for single accommodations. Everyone on my trip was 50 and over, which meant the probability of snoring was high. I live by myself now, and I have no idea how loud my own snoring might be, or if I even snore at all. (Well, I think I’ve woken myself up from snoring, so the likelihood is a tad bit high.) And for the first two nights, our hotel rooms were right over a busy Bangkok road that never slept (just like Las Vegas). At 3, 4, yes, 5 a.m., you could hear people whooping it up and partying on the street below. And for another part of our trip, we lived in a Thai elephant village for several days, and the local roosters got their kicks out of announcing the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. Needless to say, earplugs are a necessity for all these reasons. Make sure you have a pair (and extras) that mold to your ears and really work. (I’ve tried many.) You will be forever thankful.
  7. You will work … hard. For some reason I thought we’d get off easy because our group was comprised of mostly women age 50 and over. Not so. We chopped bamboo to feed the elephants (not in the cool of the morning, but in the hottest part of the afternoon). We ripped out broken concrete from a waterway and helped to build an outdoor bathroom at a school in Thailand. And, as I’ve already noted, we dug the foundation, carried bricks, mixed cement, hammered rebar, and laid the first bricks for the walls of another multi-roomed school building in Cambodia. All in all, this is where we worked the hardest and were most proud of our service. Two months later, Bamboo volunteers have completed that school — and it feels amazing to know that we, or at least I, left sweat in the ground.
  8. You will visit amazing places and meet amazing people. The temples of Bangkok, the endless markets (the fresh vegetables, the cooking smells, the colorful fabrics) the boat ride along the canals and the floating market, Angkor Wat (the most extensive and intricate remains of an ancient culture you will ever encounter), the tuk tuk rides, the silk village, the elephant graveyard, the Bamboo guides (their passion, their knowledge, their humanity, their kindness), the villagers, your host family, the children, the teachers, the everyday flow of humans through the streets who smile shyly and wave. I was overwhelmed by it all and my senses were overloaded. I’m sure my energy was low from the cold, but I found that I needed some quiet time and went to bed early a few nights in the Thai elephant village. Do what you need to do — no one will judge you.
  9. Go with the flow. That’s why you’re here, right? You chose this experience, so don’t expect it to be even remotely similar to your life in the States (or wherever you’re from). You’ll enjoy nights by the pool with a martini and other nights under mosquito nets on a wooden platform; hot showers and not-so-hot showers … and, maybe, no showers. And toilets — that’s another story. But you’ll do fine. The food was not an issue for me. But I’m not picky. And I love Thai food. I didn’t munch on fried cockroaches, but others did. The beer was cheap and the wine was from Australia. And my travel clinic had loaded me up (yeah, more $$$) with every kind of diarrhea medication under the sun. 🙂 I only took it once.
  10. Be ready to be amazed by your team. Over the course of two weeks, the people you’re with will share their stories. You will learn that these people are professionals in a variety of areas — but mostly they are helpers, people who care for others. And they are world travelers who don’t fear taking off by themselves and exploring all the corners of the world. People who’ve lost significant others and people who’ve battled illness. You will think you came on this trip to give, but you will realize that you’ve gained much more than you gave. You will learn your limits and you will laugh and you will realize that people are the same the world over. You will let children put flowers in your hair, and you will wonder why fear controls so many and why walls exist.  You will find hope again.  So much hope.

Doubt

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This is a raw memory, but I share it because I believe others may have experienced some similar doubt about themselves because of another’s judgment. It’s still painful, but I need to be more honest and kick this ugly moment out of my new life. My only lesson to others is to listen to your gut feelings. You’ll feel something is not right long before you’ll see the evidence.

Doubt

One day in the middle of my life, I went to an office building where a friendly woman tested me for attention deficit syndrome.

Because my significant other said I was wanting. I was broken. I forgot too many things.

I was a teacher. A mother. A wife. A volunteer. A supporter. A helper. A giver. A worrier.

And he judged me as less than whole.

When I told this kind professional why I was there, she looked at me.

“Are you serious?”

“No, he thinks I’m losing my mind.”

And so, hours of testing began. She gave me a battery of tests to determine the strength, the worth, the ability of my mind.

And, honestly, I enjoyed those hours with her. I liked the challenge. I was excited to see where it could go. To find out what knowledge would be dredged up.

Several weeks later, a binder of results showed up in the mail.

I passed with flying colors. I was whole. My mind was strong. Dare I gloat, superior.

I showed it to the person who once said he loved me.

He shook his head.

I still was not whole in his estimation.

Judged not enough.

I should have known

I would not pass

his test.

10 things I know to be true

 

 

Hard to believe, but I’ve been writing this blog for almost 10 years. When I looked back at the stats tonight, I found that the post below, which ran in October 2011, had the most hits of any post ever.  In one day, the blog had more than 1,000 hits. (Believe me, that is insanely out of the ball park for me.) The site must have gotten linked or shared somewhere. The next day, I had more than 600 hits, and after that, it went back to normal. Anyway, I thought I’d look back at the list and see if it holds up in 2018, and I thought I’d add some new photos.

1. Stories, books, reading, writing, words keep me whole. Forever.

2. So do love, family and friends. Some gone, some still thankfully here. And so it goes. Oh! And two grandsons to love!

3. And place, a sense of being from somewhere grounds me. Always.

4. The open road will always call to me. Even more so.

5. As will wide skies. Love. 

6. And an empty beach.  All still true.

7. I take photos — I’m rarely in them. Looking back at all the photos, they help me remember, which is good. I do wish someone had taken a few more of me (when I was younger). 

8. White wine is better than red. Went through a red period, but now I’m back to white. I realize this isn’t earth-shaking. Oh, well.

9. Coffee in the morning is a good thing. Life-saving thing.

10. I spent too much time in the sun as a kid — and I’m paying for it now — but I’d probably do it again. Yup.

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Although my life looks a lot different from what it did in 2011, I’d say these still are the 10 things I know for sure.

What’s on your list? Share it with me!

 

 

What will you remember?

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How she held her pregnant belly as she scooted away on a mini-bike.

A shaken martini with lemongrass and a bamboo straw.

Listening to the roosters crow at 3 a.m. across the elephant village.

Walking along the length of a golden reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

Biting into the hot steamed bun at the local night market.

 

How he looked down when he recalled how his father hid him during the war in this lovely country.

A curious baby elephant that tested his mother’s patience.

Hearing him yell that he’d cut his leg as we chopped bamboo with machetes in a village field.

Wearing elephant pants as thin as gauze to stay cool.

Riding in tuk tuks through Siem Reap’s traffic, poverty and riches to the school.

 

How they shared the rich stories of their over-55 lives filled with loss, hope and leaps of faith.

A bucket of cement, a trowel and the endless bricks.

Laughing and singing along to songs from an iPad amplified by a kitchen pot.

Riding in the back of a pickup truck on gravel roads that looked like my childhood.

Watching the silk-makers create rich patterns using ancient ways on intricate looms.

 

How these kind people always greeted us with palms together and heads down.

A pre-dawn ride to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise.

Climbing steep stairs to ten platform beds under hot pink mosquito netting.

Buying coconut ice cream flavors from the man with a cooler hitched to his bicycle.

Feeling the power of an elephant’s trunk as she grabbed her bamboo snacks.

 

How difficult it is to lay a foundation, build walls — how fulfilling to see them rise.

A sky full of stars.

Questioning.

Learning.

Leaping.