Saturday, May 16, 2009

Timekeeper timeout


I read in this morning's Trib that parking at some of my favorite beaches will now cost $1 per hour. That would include the beach next to the planetarium and the 63rd street beach. I'm hotter than my tender toes on the sand of an August afternoon!

The problem is not the money, it's that there's now another place I have to keep track of time. Since I don't wear a watch, I'll have to take my cell phone to know if my meter's running out. It feels like such an invasion of my privacy. I just don't want to have to keep track of time everywhere I go.

I don't like to know what time it is down the very minute, the exact purpose of a parking meter. In our home, the hands on clocks throughout the house are at various times. It was once suggested that I live on MST, Marji Standard Time. My own time zone.
How cool is that?

I haven't had enough time to figure out a solution but I'm leaning toward putting a stick in the sand and guesstimating when an hour has passed based on my sundial. Or maybe an hour glass.

Regardless of the time piece, this is just another reminder of how the passing of time always has a cost. But do we really have to measure it on parking meters at the beach and pay for it on a credit card as well? Time will tell.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The passing of the seasons


My favorite gardener turned 100 while the flowers were still vibrant and lush. Since the days of 100 degrees to nights flirting with freezing, the days have become dark by 5 and not bright until after 7. The gifts of the growing season have been overflowing this year. Yet one simple act by my real life sage remains in my hand: seeds from her garden.

I was over visiting and she came out in her housecoat and slippers with her cane by her side. She was so glad to see me as she had a flower she wanted me to identify. She had told me about it at her birthday party - white with dark purple edges, very fragrant and prickly pods. Did I know it? Not exactly. But upon seeing it, I knew it was a variety of Datura stramonium (just for you, Nancy), or Jimsonweed. I've also heard the white variety called Angel's trumpet and the purple edged the nighttime counterpart, Devil's trumpet. While tempted to go into great detail, for this post, I won't wander toward green nirvana (although I could as almost all parts of the plant are poisonous and known for medicinal uses, including hallucinations).

Back on terra firma, she pressed the seed pod in my hand.

And in that act I realized she would be with me for as long as I planted those seeds and harvested them for another year. As long as I live her stories and pass on her lessons, which come with no warning or instruction book.

She went on to tell me about her great dreams. "I wake up laughing," she giggled. "I've been dancing and hearing music and it's so beautiful and sunny and warm ..."

We move toward her sunflowers. "I watch them all day. They follow the sun from morning till night." Her smooth hands, wrapped with ageless supple coffee brown skin, reach the marigolds, a mixture of new blooms and some from a day gone by. She fingers the small seed heads, snapping them off and passing them to me. Hers are tall, a mixture of dark burgundy and red and yellow. My mind takes a snapshot, hoping I'll never forget this moment: Standing in the sun, sharing her stories, collecting seeds.

The passing of seasons through seeds. The simplest and most profound act. It's more than a silver lining, it's wide open blue skies that never end.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

No child left inside



Two months ago the Chicago Tribune ran a glorious article about children finding a peaceful oasis in the rooftop garden. Friends wrote to tell me the article made them cry. It brought tears to my eyes, too, but not because of the tender image drawn by the Trib writer.

Tragically, the same day the article ran, a 16-year-old male youth was gunned down just two blocks away from that sky high oasis.

A sliver of ice ran through me.

The next week I attended a discussion about the No Child Left Inside initiative. Many of the attendees had a slew of inspiring ideas. Yet I couldn't answer one question:
What to do when it isn't safe outside?

Driving home that day, I heard breaking news reports of a student being killed by a classmate at Crane High School, only blocks from where I spent the day brainstorming about how to get kids outside to play. Our slogan pitches -- Get OUT! and Be a Player! rang hollow.

I have been wanting to post about this for some time but could not find the words.

Until this week when my favorite gardener showed up at the rooftop garden.

Only a few months shy of 100, my green guide walked through the neighborhood where pockets of violence mar the sidewalks flanked by long-time residents, who call this half-block street home.

She didn't have a police escort or the blessing of her 70-plus daughter or 60-plus son, who thought she was better off inside. She didn't call ahead or rely on the buddy system. Certainly wasn't carrying a GPS-enabled cell phone with a finder chip. Nothing made me think she knew where the police cameras were in the alley. She didn't know if I'd be there or not. She hadn't been over to the garden in more than a year. Her broken hand and hip, my broken elbow ... icy steps, cautious family members. Time had passed.

But when the 99-year-old with a green thumb arrived unannounced Thursday afternoon, I was in shock. Here? Now? How? I was waiting for my 3 p.m. gardeners to arrive but I had no explanation as to their whereabouts.

I ran down to meet her, enjoyed a bone-crushing hug, saw her infectious smile and was called "Ma'am" for the first time in more than a year.

"I wondered what you were up to in the garden," she said, as simply as she always does.

We went to the rooftop garden. Talked about collards. Ours went to seed last summer and I've been asking everyone about what happened. Told her about our Earth Day Greens Cook-Off contest and learned how she cooks greens.

Then we went out to the garden, with dark skies hovering and a cool wind on its way. We harvested a nice bag of collards, a handful of chives, the remnants of the winter spinach, a few small heads of lime green lettuce. Each earning accolades from her.

Then a question: "What's that purple flower?" I had to look myself. Astonishingly, she was asking about flowers more than 50 feet away from us. I couldn't believe she could make them out.

So we made our way over to the hyacinths. "Never smelled them before ... oooh, are they beautiful," she cooed.

Just then two 6th grade girls bounded out to tell me they were late for class because they had been at the Chicago Botanic Garden. They were bubbling with recollections of what they saw on their first trip to those acres of green.

Three generations of gardeners: The tender young shoots, me in the middle (the sturdy stem?) and the deep-rooted gardener. Despite our age differences, we got on just fine. All eyes were filled with awe -- at youth, at age, at being together.

The girls needed to get to dance class, and I wanted to walk my hardest worker home.

My astonishment at her visit still hadn't been quelled. I swooped in with helicopter parent questions about her one-block long trip along the alley, past a deserted lot, stepping across broken glass, behind houses in need of more than TLC. How? When? Why? Whaaat???

She patiently filled in the blanks but really had only one answer:

"I needed to get to walking," she giggled, while holding on to her three-pronged cane in her hand that "opens and closes but can't hold much anymore". She went on to say she wants to get back to gardening and exercise classes. "I'm tired of being inside."

I looked in to her cloudy eyes, surrounded by her beautiful, rich skin, and felt blessed, relieved, giddy.

No child of any age should be left inside.

My silver lining, at last.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mein gutes, geliebtes Sch├Ątzele


The other night I realized I had nothing to blog about. Not a noteworthy thought in my head. Somewhat sobering to think I'd subtitled my blog "What's On My Mind" only to find in month #3 of blogging my mind has gone blank.

So in this trolling-for-ideas mood, I glanced to the left of my computer to see a familiar water-stained cardboard box, teeming with letters from Paul to Dr. Erika Oppenheimer, in Apeldoorn, Holland. Since acquiring this box of letters in the spring of 2006, I have been both intrigued and stumped to identify the people involved in the correspondence.
The intrigue stems from a number of sources:
  • the dates on the letters (1936 - 1937)
  • the language (German)
  • the handwriting (distinctive, long, thin letters)
  • the volume of letters (written almost daily)
  • the content (those that I have been able to decipher, mostly typewritten, are love letters, written no matter how tired the scribe)
  • the various locales from which the letters are sent (all the old European capitals - Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin, towns in Poland)
  • the letters are written on either N. Fromm Weinbau postcards (showing an extensive wine operation with rows of wine barrels, modern equipment, loading vehicles, along with a full view of the entire building -- three or four stories tall, anchored on the bank of the Rhein, surrounded by vineyards)
  • or N. Fromm letterhead (with a list of international banking and telecommunication information)
  • or letterhead from what seem to be rather exclusive hotels (Hotel Metropole, Berlin)
  • A few letters are from others but they know Paul, too. I'd estimate one is a sister, another a family friend.
All of the letters are written to Erika Oppenheimer in Apeldoorn, Holland.

Now you must be thinking "Google". And so did I. So over the last two years I have googled all sorts of combinations. Two of my nieces, both fluent in German, even checked Google.de. From those searches, we did piece together that Paul (no last name) was working for the N. Fromm Weinbau, a large wine distributor, producer and/or wholesaler based in Bingen on the Rhein in Germany. The wine business had an extensive distribution network throughout middle Europe. I concluded that initially he was writing from the wine distributorship in Germany (1936) and then Paul was traveling, selling wine across the region to top hotels and restaurants (1937).

Wherever he was, he wrote to Erika.

The Web search did turn up information about Max Fromm, (son of N. Fromm? grandson?) identified as a leading Jewish businessman in another wine town, Kitzingen. In this town, there was a large Jewish population involved in the wine business. There wasn't much detail as to what happened but given the time period, my next thought was that the family business must have been taken over by the Nazis. Did the family face the Nazi takeover of Germany, the horror of the Holocaust? The names and dates point in that direction but there's nothing to explain it, to fill in the blanks.

And at that point I have been stumped. But stubbornly so. How can an entire brick building clearly identified "N. Fromm ..." simply disappear without a trace? What happened to all the people in the postcards? The letters stop in 1938. Did Paul get out alive? Did he ever get reunited with Erika Oppenheimer?

But on this night of blog-theme trolling, I looked through the box again. My eye stopped on one letter addressed not to Erika Oppenheimer but Erika Fromm. That rang a bell ... and a new search thread on Google. Suddenly all the pieces started coming together. One quick Google search popped up her obituary and identified Paul as her husband.

(An aside: My loyal Blog readers may recall I referenced Erika Fromm in my other blog about the butterfly and spider -- and you know how much I am intrigued by seeming coincidences and signs, i.e. car kindness. So now I am pondering whether the one letter with "Fromm" stuck out because I had, at some level, become familiar with her name. )

Now I am clicking and have become, well, obsessed. I feel as though there is so much to learn about Erika and Paul Fromm -- and how their letters ended up in the alley near my house on a rainy morning two years ago.

Many of the connections are touched upon in Erika Fromm's obituary in the University of Chicago's Chronicle: “Fromm, challenged Freud, helped pioneer hypnosis." Turns out she passed away in 2003 at the age of 93 in her Hyde Park home. She was described as "one of the nation's leading scholars of hypnosis".

The obituary also tells about her life as a teen-ager growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, to her emigration to Chicago:

As a teen-ager growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, Erika Oppenheimer developed an interest in psychoanalysis and read books by Freud in her parents' library. She decided to pursue a life in academia as a child.

"When I was 17 or 18, the Nazis began to gain great influence, and it became clear that, being a Jew, I either would get a Ph.D. very fast, or I would not be able to become a professional at all," she wrote in her memoirs. She corresponded with Freud and Albert Einstein on a graduate project on scientific creativity.

She received her Ph.D. in 1933 from the University of Frankfurt just a few days before her 24th birthday. At Frankfurt, she studied with Max Wertheimer, known as the father of Gestalt Theory.

She spent the next four years in the Netherlands as a research associate and director of a psychology laboratory. She became engaged in 1936 to Paul Fromm, a wine merchant with a deep interest in contemporary music. The couple married and came to the United States in 1938, as the Nazis increased their persecution of the Jews. Her husband died in 1987.

As for Paul, my previous Google searches for "Paul Fromm" had only turned up information about a Canadian Neo-Nazi and far-right leader. (How ironic.) However, with the Erika Fromm link, finally, another Paul Fromm came to light.

Born in Kitzingen, Germany to a prominent family of vintners, Fromm was an early supporter of contemporary classical music in that country. . . A Jew, he was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938 and immigrated to the United States where he settled in Chicago where he co-founded a wine importing firm, the Geeting and Fromm Corporation in 1939 and then founded the Great Lakes Wine Company in 1943.

By 1952, his business was established enough for him to focus to establish the Fromm Music Foundation, financially supporting young composers through grants awarded on the recommendation of its staff of musicians and experts.

An annual "Paul Fromm Concert" of contemporary classical music is performed annually at the University of Chicago in his memory. The Paul Fromm Award is given annually by the Tanglewood Music Center in his name.

Tonight I could not find information about the 2008 Paul Fromm Concert, which I would love to attend. It would be a small way to connect to Erika and Paul.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A flutter



This beautiful black swallowtail butterfly greeted me on my first day back at the center. I came in to the garden workroom and was filled with awe. After all the broken bones of 2007, its unexpected presence on this cold, snowy day seemed like a blessing from above. A sign of the beauty that would unfold in the new year.

But you've probably also noticed that spider lurking above the swallowtail. Yes, just as quickly as I sliced an orange to nourish my fluttering friend, the resident jumping spider took a leap on to the butterfly's body, startling it into an unnatural stiffness, incongruent with its graceful flight of a few minutes prior.

I've told the butterfly's story (notice I don't think of it as the spider's saga) to a number of people, looking for an answer as to why this symbol of my beautiful new year had to come to an end by Jan. 3rd at noon!

Max joined me in my quest for meaning. He examined the specimen I brought home in a takeaway salad container, heard the story and looked at the photos. He went from budding entomologist to a nurturing naturalist as the story unfolded. At the end, he was sad and shed a few tears. "Why did the spider have to do that to the butterfly?"

We had already planned to go to the Nature Museum that day so we took our photo and story with us. The docent in the butterfly haven there was not moved by the story. "Yes, that can happen," she explained in a disinterested way. We pressed her to speculate on why it happened. "The spider must have been very hungry," she added. "It never could have done anything with the wings, so it was a lot of effort for just the head and body". Would it happen again? What could we do to prevent it? Her answers were so nondescript I can't even remember them.

A scientist at the University emailed: "Well, at least something good came out of it." referring to the spider's full belly (thorax? body? Whatever). His Darwinian explanation sat there as still as the butterfly but not nearly as endearing.

A few days later I found my answer in a book I am loving, "Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening" by Fran Sorin (who studied at the U of C with Erika Fromm). It is a perfect read as I start another quarter of garden classes with youth and continue to plan this year's garden. It's a bit of a self-help book with a garden bed in place of a therapist's couch. Still thinking about the spider and butterfly saga, the chapter of living with ambiguity held my attention.

A few favorite excerpts:

"But one of the crucial elements of any creative personality is the ability to live with ambiguity; that is, to be able to sit comfortably in the not-knowingness and let things unfold as they will."

"Try to use your garden as an opportunity to learn to live with ambiguity. Sit with the 'not-knowing' for awhile and see what happens. I think you'll be surprised at how much more inspired you are when you remove the pressure of having to figure it all out and just let yourself meander through it, piece by gentle piece."

So instead of "mentally burning my way through" I took a deep breath and wandered under the 60-degree sunshine, letting myself get entranced with all the wonders of nature ... garlic waking up from its fall sleep, lettuce curling crisply after being buried under 1 foot of snow, scrumptious spinach bursting out of its icy jacket, even a dandelion waiting to wave its buttery yellow flower and then turn into a puff of wishes blown to the wind.

I still don't have a tidy answer to the spider and butterfly story but I'm also not trying too hard to find one, either.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Intimates A (2) Z

My mom gave me new pajamas for Christmas. We all get PJs on Christmas Eve to make sure we are wearing something suitable for the morning photos. She hasn't figured anything out for smushed hair or leftover traces of makeup from the Eve's party, though. A hot cup of coffee with a splash of eggnog usually masks morning breath, however.

This year's set features cute capris, a long-sleeved scooped neck top and a snappy short robe with hood. The three-piece ensemble is turquoise and pink, and it's even reversible - polka dots on one side and stripes on the other. Pretty, practical and photogenic. Really, what more can you ask from a new set of PJs?

Well, according to the makers of this nightwear, A (2) Z Intimates, lots more. There is actually the power of positive psychology woven right in to this trio. A glance of the ever-so-cute rose-embellished tag promised more than I had ever expected:

"Look with wonder at that which is before you."

"Cultivate the feeling that miracles are coming your way."

"Always love with your heart."

"Wear our garment with hope that life will bring you all you desire."

All I desire? Miracles coming my way? Sounds as though I'm more or less guaranteed not only a good night's sleep filled with dreams of contentment, luxury and self-fulfillment but everything else from A (2) Zzzzzzzz. See you in the morning!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

To give or to receive?

I won the family's 1st ever Sympathy Award on Christmas Eve. This award was given to the person who deserved the most sympathy. It was a year filled with operations and broken bones, so it was a way for us to laugh together about the various ailments. Laughter is good medicine.

Interestingly, my two aunts told me they voted for me because I was taking care of my husband with his broken ankle, not because of my broken elbow and surgery this summer. "Taking care of a man! Oh, do you ever have my sympathy!"

Actually, giving extra care to John has not been nearly as painful as being taken care of this summer. I was a disgruntled patient: Impatient with myself and the entire ordeal, rather demanding when I wanted to do something. Why didn't I like all the kindness and pampering? What was so hard about reading in bed and sleeping?

I think it had to do with the losses I felt. Physically, I had lost the use of my arm. I truly experienced pain in the neck after surgery. But I also lost the ability to work at the rooftop garden, to be the kind of mom I love to be, to be able to do all the things that make me feel like me. Somehow having others care for me meant I couldn't be me. For those of you who helped me this summer, you know how hard I tried at being better at getting better. Thank you, again, for your books and kind words and good meals ... and for being patient with me.

Six months later, I think I did get better in many ways. I'm pretty much physically healed. I had the chance to re-evaluate much of what I had been doing in the months prior to the surgical summer. Was it all so important to being me? It was freeing at some point to have everything taken off the to-do list. I tried this fall to add things back with some scrutiny and care. Being a thoughtful, hands-on mom and partner are still at the top. I felt recommitted to my job at a youth center. Not just the gardening part but to reaching youth through gardening. I have tried to be a better listener and to really hear what others are saying. To affirm their experience and try to put myself in their position. I don't think I'm as quick to try to fix things for myself and people in my life. An injury slows you down. While I wouldn't recommend it as the best way to achieve that state, slowing down can be a very good thing.

Getting sympathy for taking care of John seems misplaced. Giving care is exactly what I like to do. John's broken ankle is certainly slowing him down. He has been home a lot, which has provided opportunities to read to Max, to watch DVDs with Zack. We all check in on John, offering something to him ... humor, love, a glass of water, a fluffier pillow, a chance to hang out. I do not underestimate what John is dealing with. He has a long road ahead before he can fulfill the many roles of his life. I hope we can give him the gift of receiving care from all of us.

My uncle, who underwent foot surgery and was a difficult patient for my aunt, said I wasn't the winner of the award but the best whiner for the award. And then I thought, well, anything to get a little sympathy!