Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes: A Journalist’s Memoir of Challenge, Change and Growth” by Marilyn Murray Willison

I wanted to finish reading the book, “One Woman, FourDecades, Eight Wishes: A Journalist’s Memoir of Challenge, Change and Growth” by Marilyn Murray Willison before I wrote a review of it (which is why it’s taken me so long!) because I wanted it to be thorough. But I could have written it after only having read the first chapter; the author’s positive outlook and easy way of writing was an inspiration from the start. Organized into eight sections--the words from a nerve-calming mantra that evolved into a wish list--the book looks at all the changes and challenges that she faced during her well-lived and often enviable life.

From her early memories as an adopted child to the crushing diagnosis of MS, Ms. Willison shares the ups and downs of her life as if she were confiding in a close friend. Her writing is so accessible, I could feel the despondency as she detailed the frustrations of being wheelchair bound and the delight in finding love again. Through it all, even though I put the book down (more times than I'd like to admit) I always picked it back up again. I never gave up because she didn’t-- this book is a testament to her strength and courage. And when I say it’s an inspiration, I don’t use the term lightly: her words about her own life have inspired me to understand some of my own challenges differently.

Ms. Willison has had a long and rewarding life and career including the times of sadness and loss. Would that everyone could regard their life in such an honest and open way. Ms. Willison deserves all the accolades she can get. More power to her.

Note: Ms. Willison reached out to me asking if I'd read her book and graciously offered to read and review mine as well. This she completed promptly, while it took me an additional year to finish reading hers. I am grateful to have been the recipient of her outreach, since it gave me the opportunity to not only read an enjoyable and motivating memoir, but to get to know this wonderfully strong woman in the process. The link is included in the review--get the book and see for yourself! 

Also: I recently became aware of an effort to help Ms. Willison stay in her home...this is the information page: Help For Marilyn 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Wattle Field Guide

Like a baby that finally drops into your pelvis to signal impending motherhood, my wattle dropped the other day to herald impending death. Too dramatic? Maybe, but we all know there’s no coming back from a wattle drop. You can color your hair, peel your skin, lift your eyebrows or Botox your lips, but when the wattle drops, it’s committed. The wattle hangs there, under your chin, as if suspended from each of your ears like a hammock, but without the relaxing effect. It’s just skin that stopped trying. 

Unless you choose to go under the knife, there’s no escaping the wattle. Oh sure, you can buy all the turtlenecks you can afford, but what to do in June, July and August? Scarves you’re thinking, and you’d be right, but even scarves have their limitations. Besides being completely useless in a swimming pool, what happens when you wrap a couple of yards of chiffon around your neck on an 85-degree summer day? Hot flashes. At least a scarf can sop up the sweat dripping down your face. Otherwise, you’re on your own with a wattle. There are times you might get away with coyly resting your chin in your cupped hand. But you can’t walk around that way. How do you drive? How do you drink wine?

My wattle lurked menacingly above my neck for the last several years, just waiting for the day to ambush me. It’s tricky, the wattle; some days it retreated and let me believe I could be mistaken for Audrey Hepburn. But after a couple of margaritas and a little water retention, it would be back in all its threatening sagginess. Eventually I’d have to deal with it permanently, but until then it was forgotten as easily as my children’s names.

And then, one day, there it was. A flap of wrinkled skin, quivering ever so slightly just under my jaw line. Remember when quivering used to be sexy? IngĂ©nues used to quiver. Now it’s an ever-present indicator of getting older: quivering chins, hands, gaits, memories. Wikipedia describes wattles as “such a striking morphological characteristic of animals that it features in their common name.” Wattles are for turkeys, goats and lizards. How in the world did it become a feature of an aging woman?

Resigned, I practiced tilting my head upwards in my bathroom mirror. That worked until I had to pick up my grandson from school. “Gramma. Why are you walking that way? You just stepped in dog-doo!”  Apparently no amount of camouflage or physical adaptation is going to prevent the fact that I am now a member of a new species.

Just call me The Silver-Haired Single-Wattled American Female.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

One Man

I’ve never really been a political person, or at least I wasn’t until the November 2016 election. After Trump was elected president, I became involved in our local Democratic Town Committee. The following year I ran, and was elected to, our school board. It wasn’t a monumental win; it was going to either be me or the other Democrat running who made it to a seat on the board. It happened to be me by a few votes. It is my first foray into politics and so far, so good.

What isn’t so good so far is the state of our national politics. Pick your own reasons, but the level of petty and vindictive behavior, as opposed to actual governing, coming from the Oval Office on nearly a daily basis is astounding. I believe Trump has brought his own brand of arrogance and negligence to the highest office in the land and it is embarrassing, distressing and dangerous. I know there are others who agree with me...but when I see cars driving around town already emblazoned with “Trump 2020” stickers on them, I can’t even believe there are people watching the despicable reality show that is our current administration and think having Trump there for four more years, much less the remaining two, is a good idea.

The point was driven home for me when I heard a story on NPR about the My Lai massacre, which happened over 50 years ago. One man, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, on a mission near the My Lai village, saw what was happening and literally flew in the face of danger to set down his chopper, again and again, to save innocent Vietnamese women, children and babies. It was his report, first covered up by the Army, that eventually got out into the press and resulted in the court-martial conviction of Lt. William Calley and to the terrible awakening of the fact that our military was as capable of the horrors of war we used to believe were only at the hands of “others.”

This story now about one man who stood strong in the face of injustice struck me as a startling contrast to the actions of many Republican congressmen and Cabinet members who appear to be blind to the needs of the many rather than the needs of the few--needs which seem to be their own. Hugh Thompson stood up to his superiors, his own crew and confronted the soldiers of his own army in order to stop the murder of innocent people. He wasn’t elected by his constituents to do this, he wasn’t tasked by a superior to do this--he took it upon himself to act in the face of wrong and make it right. With guns pointing at him and dire consequences as a possibility, including being murdered on the spot by his own men.

The revolving door in this administration's staff should be a red flag to the vindictiveness of the president's dubious leadership skills. So many Republican representatives have turned their backs on the will of their constituents to pay some baffling loyalty to this president, who has yet to demonstrate that he is looking out for all of US. In fact, it seems that there are only a few people, mostly in his family, who he is looking out for--after himself--and everyone else risks being thrown under the bus at his whim. It is staggering and bizarre. It’s beyond snowflakes and Russian interference; this man demonstrates on a daily basis that he is only in it for himself and he has an endless supply of toadies to help him make it happen.

Hearing the story of Hugh Thompson first left me feeling hopeless and helpless. Where are the Hugh Thompsons when you need them? And then I remembered: they’re everywhere. They’re in the high school students marching for gun reform and school safety, they’re in the folks lending  support to immigrants and the many women...getting involved in their towns and cities. Snowflakes my want strength? It’s strength that drives people in the face of injustice. It doesn’t take any strength at all to do what Sessions, Nunes, McConnell, Ryan or any number of so-called representatives do in their offices every day.

That’s what I think the truth of Hugh Thompson’s story is... to remind us--once again--that, in times of danger and uncertainty, it still matters to stand strong. Even if you’re only one person. Or as Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Proper Care and Feeding of your Caretaker

Positano, Italy Photo by Yoosun Won on Unsplash

When one is a caretaker for another human being, there is a tacit understanding that said caretaker will be available to the other human at any given time. This means lunches, appointments, errands, light housekeeping. There is much the caretaker does in service for another that is done in person, even just being present in the same room. However, the caretaker definitely needs a break from time to time. Well-intentioned family and friends will urge the caretaker to “take time for you!” or “don’t forget to self-care!” These are legitimate suggestions, but the problem, of course, is that unless someone else is around to sub in for the caretaker, the caretaker isn’t going anywhere. No matter how urgently he or she needs to flee.

For example, the following is a really generous offer: “I can come over and sit with your (father, mother, grandmother, sister, brother, cousin) for an hour if you need to get something done.”
But it’s a little vague. The need to get something done might come up at any time during the day or evening and the Offerer might be off having their own life. That is reasonable. Here’s how to make that offer a little more solid: “I can come over on Friday at 3 for an hour if you need to run out and get some errands done.” Now the caretaker can respond with something like: “We have Mah jongg at 3 on Friday, but I’d love to run out to the grocery at 1.” Definite days and times give the caretaker something to plan on.

One day I was complaining to my friend David about my urgent need for a haircut and a general all-round lack of time. He listened patiently while I vented and then he suggested I make a wish list. (Thank God he didn’t offer to cut my hair.)
“Why? To give myself more to do?” I shot back.
He ignored that.  “Why not write down everything that would make your life easier, no matter how unlikely it sounds.”
“That will just make me sound whiny,” I whined.
“No, it won’t. It might help you get a clear idea of what would be actually helpful to you as opposed to simply accepting offers of help that don’t really do anything. It doesn’t do you any good to accept an offer that isn’t what you need—then you’re just helping your friend feel better.  Plus, it might be fun to give your imagination a whirl and wish for a foot massage by Brad Pitt. It will never happen, but a girl can dream.”

As reasonable as he sounded, the idea fluttered away as I stopped at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and grab some almond milk at the market on the way home. Later, though, when I thought about it, I realized stress does tend to dampen the imagination. It might be fun to take my mind off of the week’s To-Do list and see if I could come up with a “For-Me” list. Turns out, David was right. Not only was it fun to indulge in my wildest dreams, but creating a list actually helped clarify some real needs I have been overlooking. And knowing exactly what I need can help me take care of it, whether or not someone is offering to help. Unless it’s that foot massage thing. That I’ll let Brad Pitt take care of.

My Wish List

…Sometimes I wish I could open the fridge and have the evening meal all ready to pop in the oven.

… I wish I knew someone who could manage the mountain of paperwork that comes along with old age. Medicare, insurance, doctors, prescriptions…piles are accumulating in my office. This person could also make all the phone calls that accompany the paperwork.

…I wish I could spend a weekend alone in a hotel with a pillow top mattress, room service, wi-fi and an electrical outlet right next to the bed. Oh, a bottle of old vine Zin would be a nice touch.

…I wish that, when I found I had an afternoon free, I had a gift card for a pedicure, a haircut, the movies or a bookstore so I would know what to do with my unexpected free time.

…I wish someone could come over and tell me what to do with my garden. (This really doesn’t have to do with being a caretaker, but I really need help with my garden. It’s a wish list after all...)

…Every once in awhile, especially on high maintenance days, it’s nice to get a quick, supportive text, email or voicemail. Such a message is a nice little pick-me-up especially when I can’t get to the phone. An actual card in the mail is like winning the lottery.

…And speaking of winning the lottery, I wish I could put an in-law addition onto my house so my dad could have his own “quarters” rather than just live in my remodeled dining room.

…I wish my dad’s doctors could be the ones who decide his medical care and not the insurance companies.

…It might be kind of nice if that foot massage could be arranged. It doesn’t even have to be Brad Pitt. I’d be okay with my husband providing it. In Amalfi, Italy.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Adjustments

This is why it snows...
The New Year’s resolution. Who thought up this idea: this national, subversive trend supposedly designed to empower people to change their lives for the better but that ultimately sabotages
all behavior aimed at self-reflection? Probably Hallmark.

The theory is plausible: examine your life and make note of where some change is due. At the first breath of the New Year, the launch of twelve months of possibility, the threshold of potential, vow to all humankind (or any of your close, personal friends who happen to be around) that you will make that change to the best of your ability. You will lose ten pounds, you most definitely will quit smoking, and you will finally put away some money for a rainy day
(or a sunny day, say, in Jamaica). This will happen—as God is your witness, let no man put asunder. Then you order another plate of nachos, light up a cigarette, and buy another round of champagne cocktails for yourself and your friends to celebrate the new you.

Some resolutions may have a longer life than the few seconds after they are uttered. I’m sure there are people out there who take them seriously. All that introspection and taking stock must be good for the soul (or something). People take more time noticing what they aren’t doing in their lives, what they haven’t accomplished, or who they haven’t been nice to today than they did in the past. I don’t imagine that the pioneers gathering at the town well on New Year’s Eve two hundred years ago were figuring out which piece of their emotional baggage to work on. Today, however, we are encouraged by shrinks, friends, therapists, books, websites, magazine articles, and television infomercials to excavate our psyches. If you find something amiss in your life and it needs improvement, I am willing to bet a study has already been done on it and there’s a book and series of workshops out there that will help you fix it. To be honest, I admire such self-repair; I just don’t want you to invite me to the party. We all know how much fun it is to hang out with people who spend a lot of time thinking about themselves and then hashing it out with you.

I’m sure I will get in trouble with some of you for being insensitive to those among us who are reflective. Socrates suggested that an unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe so—but an over-examined life is boring. Whatever happened to the natural process of figuring out what needs to be changed? Like listening—not only to yourself, but also to the people around you. Picking up clues from our environment about how to behave is pretty much how people did it before we were all urged to look inside. My opinion? The pendulum has swung a little wide, and in doing so, it has closed many of us off from one another. Eventually, though, it will come back to the middle and we will all live happily ever after in an effectively communicative society that balances self-introspection with symbiosis. Just like algae on lichen—that’s how I like to live.

As for New Year’s resolutions, I’ll give them a shot. Doing what everybody else is doing can’t be all bad—in moderation. But, just to be different (something I constantly do, something that I should perhaps consider changing), I will modify the process just a little to give myself a fighting chance. Instead of New Year’s resolutions, I will make New Year’s adjustments.
Here goes:
1. I will keep at that ten pounds. (Fine. Twenty.) But in my defense, I did join a gym once, and those pounds haven’t gone anywhere yet, except on vacation for a little while in the summer. They came right back right between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
2. I will try to be more patient with my husband . . . as long as his resolution is to keep his paintbrushes out of the kitchen sink.
3. I’ll save some money. I’ll save. I’ll save twenty dollars between January 1st and December 31st, just to prove I can do it.

I think three is enough. Wish me luck.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


When our President announces, garrulously, that  "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen," he threatens all of our well-being and safety while simultaneously showing his ignorance of the horrors of war. I've dragged out this old essay--written almost 15 years ago--because the words and actions of this inadequate, self-serving, fear-mongering poser compel me to take a stand. Once again. 


I am not a patriot.  That’s what I hear on the news anyway, or read in the paper from any number of people who insist that, to be a patriot, I must support a war. I don’t support the war.  I don’t support any war.  It was bad enough to see on the news every night that my principles were being maligned as unpatriotic, but then co-workers began to look at me suspiciously as I joined in conversations at work.  Me – unpatriotic? That had never been called into question in my life, except once after a trip to France in my junior year of high school when I announced I was moving back to Montpelier as soon as possible because I liked it better there and Madame Samuelson almost failed me on the spot for being unpatriotic as well as kind of impetuous.  As it was being called into question by anonymous countrymen and women as well as people who actually know me, I decided it was time to take a look at that which I long thought was intrinsically mine – as an American.  And I found, both to my dismay and surprise that I am, in fact, not a patriot at all.  I am a matriot. 

Don’t look it up – it’s not there.  Patriot is, of course.  The Oxford-English Dictionary defines “patriot” as “one who self-sacrificingly exerts himself to promote the well being of his country; one whose ruling passion is the love of his country; one who maintains and defends his country’s freedom or rights”.  And in fact “matriotism” is in the OED as well.  “Love of one’s mother-land, alma mater” it said.  If patriot is love of fatherland, then I am a matriot - of the mother land.  I represent those softer, nurturing qualities that only a mother can get away with and, in addition, I will defend my country’s freedom and rights. I just won’t do it with a gun. What I will do is mourn every single name on the news each night that tallies another life lost.  I will turn the TV off when I can’t watch the “tank-cam” any longer or one more inch of footage of an actual firefight.  All I want to do is figure out how to bring home the brand new orphans.  My arms literally ache when I see another stretcher bearing wounded.  Because I am anti-war, it does not mean I am not supporting our troops over in Iraq – or wherever they may be sent.  I want them home – all of them. Safe, sound and mowing lawns, preparing tax returns and taking care of their own children.  But since they are there, I will pray for them and I will pray for those who stand in their way as they try and achieve their goals – invasion, destruction, death.  War for me is not a means to an end, an “operation”, a strategic plan with acceptable loss.  It is broken down into hundreds of thousands of individuals, many of them children, who will block bullets with their bodies as heads of state check daily updates from CentCom.  It is a tragic event, no matter how I look at it and I can’t help but be sad, as if every single one of those people were my own child.  There was no definition in the OED for one who cannot send off those to whom she has given birth, literally or metaphorically, to kill or be killed in a war calculated by men who will never set foot in the place.  So I made one up. Matriot – (NOT an antonym to patriot); one who self sacrificingly exerts herself to promote the well-being of her fellow countrypeople; one whose ruling passion is love. 

We live in a bounteous nation with such a wide array of natural resources available to us it is almost shameful.  There is such beauty in our endless landscapes, unbroken coastlines and glorious mountains that it seems impossible that it all exists between two shores and beholding it is literally breathtaking.  The creativity and ingenuity that is nurtured and allowed free reign in this country rockets past conventional boundaries; and our country’s great minds outdo each other in feats of genius and discovery.  No, I love my country.  I am grateful to be in America. I don’t think many of us even get that the freedoms we enjoy as a nation don’t even exist in many countries. I would protect that, definitely.  But I don’t just want to stand up and wave the flag without some substance behind it. And the best substance I can think of is to take care of those who are my responsibility. 

If I could go to Iraq right now and help by comforting, holding or soothing, I would, because I sure couldn’t help anyone by bringing a gun with me. It doesn’t have to be an American soldier – it could be a British soldier or even an Iraqi civilian.  I don’t want to feel that my loyalty to country is called into question because I don’t condone killing.  I simply feel, as a mother, that before – or even at the same time – that Congress approves nearly 80 million dollars for the war in Iraq and its aftermath, that we should make sure that our own house is in order.  That our children are fed. And that they are clothed and adequately educated.  Could it be a priority that our countrymen and women don’t freeze in the streets because they have no homes or that other countrymen and women are denied anything because of race or gender?  If 80 billion dollars is available through this government to execute a plan to wage war in another country and then rebuild that country, then couldn’t even half of that unimaginable sum of money be available for children right here in the United States? I only pose these questions because I am a mother. I have borne children of my own and I have taught hundreds of others in elementary school.  If there is one thing I believe for sure it is that children need to be looked after. And so do some others who can’t take care of themselves. I believe it is our country’s duty to take care of our own.  I believe that killing is wrong and that, as Dr. King said, “peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal”.  And I am pretty sure I believe all of this without hesitancy because I am a matriot. 

Cynthia Eastman

April 12, 2003

Friday, May 26, 2017

What She Thought

My mother died four months ago. In the ensuing months, after the funeral, we went through her things, bequeathing them to family, friends and her favorite homeless shelter. It’s not easy, going through someone’s things. Almost every sweater, every blouse held a memory. How could I give them away? I wanted to hear from her. I tried to listen: “You should give that gauzy teal scarf to Gerry. She’ll wear it.” I channeled her wishes the best I could and probably got some wrong. But you can’t live your whole life with someone without knowing a little about what she might think.

Then we had to help my dad. I don’t know how we did in helping him deal with his loss, because the more immediate decision was where he would live. He couldn’t stay alone in Florida, nor were there any real adequate solutions available--in our opinion. We packed up as much of the apartment as would fit into my house and garage and moved him over a thousand miles away from the home he shared with my mom to Connecticut.

Four months. It seems impossible that we were able to accomplish so much in such a relatively short amount of time. Now that all the big decisions have been made; remodeling, moving, donating, we’ve come to the job of living with our loss. Did we care for her the best way we could? It’s hard not to have regrets, but were there any really big ones for her? It’s just so hard to know, especially when a loved one--your parent--is taken so suddenly.

There are boxes and boxes of belongings stacked in my garage, but when I packed up my parents’ things in Florida, I bought a plastic crate for “papers.” There were tons of papers having to do with life and death: doctor’s bills, prescription statements, rehab agreements, hospice booklets. I dragged that box upstairs to my office, leaving the others for “later,” in an effort to tackle any real, burning issues first. My eyes glazed over from trying to interpret one form after another, until, in between another hospital bill and insurance statement, I saw my mother’s distinct handwriting on a folded sheet of paper. I pushed the pile aside and unfolded the paper. A full page of handwriting in pencil on the back of one of the New York Times crossword puzzles she liked to print out and solve in between reading her books. It was dated 6/22/16 and it appeared to be entitled “My Outrage. ” After those titular words, it launched into a rant about my dad’s most recent medical issue--a fall which put him in the hospital. It goes like this:

My Outrage
is with the Hospital and its [June] 7th emergency room assessment of my husband--
Here is all:
            85 year old man -
            Legally blind w/
            A pacemaker
Brought into Emergency with--
            A broken shoulder bone
            A shattered? burst?
            broken patella (knee cap)
            (both on the left side!)
            He will need 4-6 weeks of Rehab. And they send him to Rehab care knowing all this and with no consideration of his insurance [coverage]--

I feel like an anonymous number in an anonymous system and I feel helpless


I can’t afford to expend my energy in a negative way. I need me to be upbeat, positive and creative and mostly loving, caring and kind. It’s getting hard, but that has to be my focus.

It is what it is, but it will be what you make it!

Hopefully, others will take up the cause!

I remember this time in their lives, when my dad fell and was taken to the hospital. He stayed more than three days and he was recommended to skilled care, fortunately available in their retirement community apartment building. What wasn’t fortunate was that, because he was never officially admitted to the hospital, his rehab wasn’t covered by Medicare and they had to pay out of pocket for the six weeks of rehab. Their savings account wasn’t meant for this, but they were lucky to be able to cover it. This isn’t the only time it happened. He fell again, in November, in the midst of my mom’s escalating physical decline and cancer diagnosis. They--the hospital, the doctors, the case managers--did it again: kept him for more than three days, discharged him to skilled care and left it all on my parents’ shoulders because he wasn’t officially admitted. He was there under “observation.” And observation isn’t covered. It’s a break down in the system of care that many people aren’t aware of. But the hospitals are. So are the rehab centers.

I don’t have to guess about what she thinks this time--I read it with my own eyes. I want to share her thoughts here, not for some redress or malice, but because her voice deserves to be heard. My mom's outrage doesn't have to remain hidden in a file folder among unsympathetic statements. If sharing it does nothing but help one person be aware of this glaring neglect of care in the system, then great. But even more importantly, I want to share that part of her that experienced this maltreatment and pushed it aside so she could focus on the task at hand. Anybody can point out unfairness, but it takes real strength to move forward despite it. That’s her cause. One I take up gladly by sharing this now.