Monday, May 28, 2007

Judy Dothard Simmons: A Friend On Our Level

Listen to the words of someone who knew Judy Dothard Simmons way-back-when, and try not to smile. Okay, go ahead and smile. Says Winifred Wrisley, Judy Dothard Simmons' high school music teacher, who met Judy when Judy was just 14 years-young:

"(Judy) was unlike any other person who has ever come through my life. She had a lot to give to people who cared to understand her. And (Judy) was not terribly understood."

"She sailed right through, making enemies all over the place, because she was so far ahead of everyone."

"I couldn't keep up with her when it came to the piano. She refused to practice -- she didn't need to practice. I think I was smart enough to realize that I wouldn't help Judy any if I tried to hold her back."

Another pupil who went through the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, N.C., a few years before Judy arrived was a young musical talent who later adopted the name of Nina Simone. Said Wrisley: "Judy was that much ahead of the modern stuff that was coming out. Nina Simone -- Judy was ahead of (her). There was something in Judy that was pretty much ahead of what most people were doing."

And that was in the late-1950s. Fifty years later, I'm not sure many of us ever managed to catch up with Judy. But I don't recall her ever - ever - wanting me to feel dumb or deficient. Judy had a way of finding your gift and pointing it out to you. She didn't flatter or stroke -- she wanted to share what she knew, and learn from you, too. Conversations with Judy - at least those "let's update each other on our lives" phone conversations I'd have with her -- were pleasant respites from a normally harried life. Judy served as Confessor Priest to me, when I thought I didn't have time to reflect on my days. A call from Judy was permission to relax. Maybe I can say that because I was never Judy's editor. (Editing Judy could be like trying to comb a lion's mane. You needed to have the touch.)

But we did have a relationship as writerly colleagues. A few years ago Judy got me involved in writing book reviews for a print-on-demand publishing company called iUniverse. Before their self-published books went to print, aspiring authors would pay iUniverse to have folks like Judy and me (Judy and I? Help, Judy, help!) grade their work and either launch it to "star" status or make recommendations for improvement. At just $75 to read and review a work, it didn't pay to dwell too long on any one title. But Judy wrote pages upon pages of analysis and suggestions, far more than she was getting paid to generate. I'd challenge her on this, but she admittedly could not help herself from being helpful. If an author showed just an ounce of literary promise, Judy offered a pound of literary therapy. I should never have begrudged her that gift she gave others. She was my best reader, too, and she didn't charge me a slim nickel.

Judy channeled Ancient Greek poets and philosophers - in their own vernacular, of course - while providing no-nonsense modern language to the issues of the day. When I tried to engage her in conversations on politics I was usually disappointed ... in my own lack of vocabulary. As her teacher Wrisley said: "Judy was so far ahead of everyone." Certainly, she was over the heads of our politicians of today who find success in keeping their messages simple. Very ... simple. (Here envision Judy miming a robot as she recites, "Very ... simple.") Perhaps Judy was a political idealist, but if so, hers wasn't a simplistic idealism. It had nuance to it - for those who cared to understand it.

Judy - in the few years leading up to her mother's death and the years since - also developed a spirituality with nuance. She thought about spirit no less rigorously than she thought about other things in her life. In 2002, Judy sent Wrisley a book by Bishop John Shelby Spong, "A New Christianity for a New World," all lit up in highlighter pen. Here are a few highlights of Judy's highlighting:

"To suggest that God and one's own understanding of God are the same is not only to stop growing, it is to die to the quest for truth."

"I will attempt to free Christianity of its exclusive claims and its power-needs, which have totally distorted its message." (Judy was very skeptical of power as a corruptive force. Probably none of us will ever reach Judy's level of skepticism, but shouldn't we all be a little more skeptical than we are?)

Judy goes on with her Bishop Spong highlighter:

"I speak ... of the God I experience as the Ground and Source of All Being and therefore the presence that calls me to step beyond every boundary ... into the fulness of life with all its exhilarating insecurities."

"If God is the Ground of Being, you worship this divine reality by having the courage to be all that you can be -- your deepest, fullest self."

And this, my favorite of Judy's highlights:

"God is the ultimate source of love. One worships this God by loving wastefully, by spreading love frivolously, by giving love away without stopping to count the cost."

My, my, was Judy uneconomical - in personal finance - but most of all her friendships. Her friendship circles are multiple and vast, like ripples in a pool from a dropped pebble. She had her print journalist friends like me, but also the friends she made through her piano performances, the caretaker friends she made in the eight-plus years of caring for her mother, and the friends she made of friends of friends. (When Judy came to my wedding in October 2000, she befriended my Uncle Mike from St. Paul and they talked forever about their favorite presidential candidate: Ralph Nader.) There are the New York crowd who, likewise, occupy several different rings of her life, from her years training as a poet at Columbia University to the radio station and so on, and so on. Judy, the consummate journalist, could hang with anybody - and I mean anybody. She dealt with people, not in the world of appearances, but on the soul level. You weren't dealing with someone who fit into a demographic cubby-hole. You were dealing with a human being.

I like the image of Judy's friendships being like ripples in a pool, on a single plane, because I don't believe Judy put friends on pedestals or played favorites. She was far too democratic for that. When I expressed awe upon learning from her that she'd once accompanied the now famous jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson on piano, her response was not pride, but something like: "Playing with her was hard. We couldn't keep up with each other. It was a mess." I suggested that she might have established a beat and let Cassandra keep pace with her. "Is that the way it's done?" she asked, possibly teasing me, as she loved to do, usually signaling a tease with her delighted - and delightful - girlish snicker.

I strongly suspect Judy was most comfortable in life playing her music solo - though "solo" certainly does not mean "alone." Never alone. We know that well, having known Judy like we do.


About three weeks before Judy died, I received a last phone call from her. There was no way I could have known it to be a final word from her. It sounded to me like -- not the recently tired, old and sickly Judy -- but the more familiar, serene, magnanimous, unencumbered Judy. I can only imagine she is all those things still.

Bossy and other personality disorders

Stella, for all her endearing qualities, is bossy. We think she may border on OCD as well. And I'm not just using that term colloquially. Here's a conversation (I guess that's what you could call it) that she had tonight with me and Eric.

Scenario: She's just been put to bed. All of her expected requests have been made: both mom and dad have tucked her in, with multiple hugs and kisses. We all three sang B-I-N-G-O and the ABC song, which she calls E-I-E-I-O. She has her cup of water next to her bed and her seven (no joke) things that she must sleep with: brown bear, blue bear, new baby, big baby, little baby, sheep, football (yes, a football), and of course, bumpy, her blanket. OK, so it's eight.

We close the door and two minutes later she starts to scream.

Stella: Clean that up, Mommy! Mommy, clean that up. (louder now) Come clean that up, Mommy!

I open her door.

Me: First of all, you're not going to get anything asking like that. How do you ask nicely?

Stella: Peez, clean that up.

The child is referring to a puzzle that she left on her floor.

Me: Thank you for saying please. No, I'm not cleaning that up. Get out of bed and do it yourself.

So she does. Problem is, her overhead light is broken, and it's very dark in there. So it takes her forever to put the puzzle back together and in the right place. I tell her goodnight and walk out.

Two more minutes pass, and she starts up.

Stella: Where's that piece? That piece! Need that piece!

Eric goes this time.

Eric: Sweetie, what's wrong? (his patience isn't worn as thin by this time of day as mine has)

Stella: Need that piece!

OK, so the puzzle that she just cleaned up was missing a piece.

Eric: Stella, we can look for that tomorrow, but it's dark in here and it's time for bed.

Screams, cries, wails, and more begging ensue, all over the missing puzzle piece. Eric somehow has the touch, saying the right thing and eventually calming her down. He walks out of her room, and we just look at each other and laugh. Stuff like this happens all day in this house.

Considering I've had no other children, nor do I have much experience with two year olds, every day is an experiment with us. How can she one minute be such a maniac, but the next minute hear me clear my throat in another room, run in, and ask in the sweetest, most concerned voice, "You OK, mommy?"

Here's a shot of her being irresistable (from last fall). Hope everyone had a great holiday weekend!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Trip to Max Patch

We headed back to our FAVORITE spot in these mountains, at least that we've found so far. Good friends Kate and Kevin (Kate's an old Peace Corps friend) came for a long weekend, and we took them there....Not much news to write, but here are a few photos from our lovely hike on Sunday. Enjoy!

A requested belly-shot. This took some serious guts to post.

Stella acting like she's peeing like our dog

A hiker on the Appalachian Trail


Our gal

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Seeing the World Anew

Being able to see the world clearly seems like a simple enough thing, right? But you can't take it for granted.

In the sixth grade I had my eyes checked by the optomitrist and left with my first pair of glasses. I actually thought it was cool to have glasses. That just shows how dumb sixth-graders are.

By high school I was ready to try contact lenses. So I saved my cash from mowing lawns and bought the lenses. Loved them. My high school love life, lame as it was, might have been a lot lamer without them.

Not long after graduation my eyes decided they had enough of lenses. I tried disposables, etc., and nothing worked. So in college I was back to being a four-eyes.

Glasses are a blessing for folks with really terrible eyesight like mine. I never HATED my glasses. I was actually thankful I had them. Prescription swimming goggles, prescription snorkling lenses -- they were expensive, but I was blessed to be able to see underwater. Most folks don't have access to glasses. (The Lions Club has a great project to take old eyeglasses to folks who need them.)

But glasses rubbed my face and caused small infections near my eyes that moved to my eyes themselves - about an infection a year. If I woke up to my daughter crying, I had to fumble for my glasses to be able to help her. I didn't want to lose precious time if there was an emergency worse than a missing paci.

About two weeks ago I had Lasik surgery. The biggest issue for me was trusting a doctor to do such a delicate procedure. I found the trusting doctor in Clayton Blehm of Waynesville. I met him through the network of parents in our town who trade babysitting. And I asked my family doctor who did his Lasik: Clayton Blehm. "You'd have to be pretty drunk to mess up Lasik," my doctor said. And Clayton is Seventh Day Adventist. He doesn't drink. All taken, choosing Clayton to operate on my eyes was a no-brainer.

I was so confident and relaxed the morning of surgery, I didn't even really NEED the two Valium they gave me before the procedure. (Okay, so maybe the drugs didn't HURT.)

The operation was painless, took about 15 minutes, and was kind of cool with all the green and red lights, actually. I slept for 24 hours (the Valium had something to do with that). I was driving short distances in three days. The fourth day was a little uncomfortable when Clayton took the protective lenses off my eyes, but it wasn't too bad. A week later I was driving 800 miles to Milwaukee, with just a tiny bit of blurriness in the distance. Two weeks later I have 20/20 vision. (He's never had a patient who DIDN'T achieve 20/20. How's that for batting average?!)

I can now wrestle with my kid without getting my glasses jarred. "Where are your glasses, Daddy?" my girl asked this morning. "My eyes are fixed," I said. "I don't need glasses. I can see you now."

She never looked prettier.

What else did this do for me? I'm motivated to see the world more clearly around me in everything and ACT to make it a better place.

Being able to see is that simple. And that profound. I'll never take it for granted.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Paci-Free Household

It worked!

The first day or two was pretty rough, especially at sleep times, but after that - no sweat. It's now been 10 days and she is 100% pacifier free. We're so proud of her!

Now, any suggestions on getting the child out of diapers?

Let's see - what else is going on with us? We went to Relay for Life tonight in Waynesville. For those who don't know what it is, it's an American Cancer Society fundraiser whereby teams are sponsored to walk - all night long. This local event runs from 6 pm to 6 am. at the Waynesville Recreation Center, which has expansive green space and an outdoor track.

Teams sell food and goodies, music is playing, kids are throwing footballs, families are hanging out in tents, etc. - it's just a good, community atmosphere. Eric, Stella and I ate dinner there and walked the track a few times too.

I had my glucose test today at the doctor, and it's a bit high, so I have to go back for the more extensive blood sugar test. It's frustrating - not only b/c it's a hassle to have to sit in the hospital for 4 hours getting poked and prodded - but more than that, I want this baby to be healthy. The same thing happened with Stella, and I got myself all in a tizzy convinced that I had gestational diabetes, and I didn't. So though it's probably nothing, I still left the office with a bad feeling.

I'm a Libra, OK - I want everything to be perfect all the time, and any imbalance of the scales throws me for a loop! Then multiply that by 1000 when it comes to my own babies.

I'll hopefully have more photos to post after our Mother's Day hike that I've (yes, me) planned. I can't wait! For now, you'll have to look at our child, with busted up knees, a sty in her eye, and missing one sock. She's still beautiful to us!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Pacifier Crisis

May Day, May Day! We took away Stella's pacifiers today. Lord help us.

It started off pleasant enough. We decided that there were babies in the world that needed pacis, and since Stella is a big girl now, we would mail her pacis to those needy babies. She complied beautifully, dropping all the pacis in the house into an envelope, along with a letter that we wrote to the babies. We took it to the post office, and she gave it and her dollar bill to the postmaster.

After tons of praise, we went to Whitman's, a local bakery, for a treat. She chose a sugar cookie. We sat and ate, talking about how big she was and how proud we were of her. Next was a stop at the local toy store, where she got to choose her very own big girl toy to take home. Of all things, the child chose a baby doll, glitter, and a football.

On to the house, where I fixed her favorite lunch, macaroni and cheese. She even ate some of the broccoli that I snuck in there.

Oh, life was so easy this morning.

After lunch comes naptime, which includes "bumpy" (her blanket) and of course, paci. She asked for it, but I reminded her of what we had done this morning. It seemed to work a little bit as we read a few stories, but when it was time for sleep, the shit hit the fan. Excuse my language, but that really is the only way to describe it.

I'd say she cried for a good hour, with many visits from mom, before she crashed. That sleep only lasted 45 minutes - this is the kid that takes 3 hour naps - and when she woke up, she was really pissed. "PACI PACI PACI PACI PACI WANT IT NOW WANT IT NOW MOMMY DADDY PEEEZZZZ NOW" pretty much sums it up. We finally got her calmed down, where she whined herself to sleep for another hour or so late afternoon.

We're not an anti-paci family by any means, not do we care what anyone thinks about whether our kid is too old for this or that. Our reasoning behind doing this was that with a new baby coming in 3 1/2 months, we decided getting rid of the paci now would be easier than having to explain one day why the baby can have one but she can't. Her transition to a big girl bed was so seamless, so we had high hopes for this milestone too.

And our hopes are still high. But seeing her so inconsolable, so out of control - and knowing that it is a direct reaction of something that I took from her - well, it's hard. I mean, these days I burst into tears if I see a goldfish on my newly-vacuumed floor. Hormones are raging, and stronger than ever is my love for this kid of ours. I say kid because she is no parts baby anymore. It's hitting me that this creature won't be the baby much longer, and though I feel confident that she'll accept her big sister role with typical Stella bossiness, it's still a period of change for all of us.

OK, enough mushiness now. It's not yet bedtime so more drama may ensue. Say prayers for us!

And here's a photo of our big girl, just being her.