Thoughts for a New Year

Did you make a resolution for the new year? Are you sticking to it?

Here’s a question that’s always puzzled me: Why wait for January? Every day is the start of a new year!

None of us is guaranteed another year on this planet. Or even another day. I make resolutions all year long. I call them goals. If you want to accomplish something, plan it into your life. Now! Make it a concrete goal, today, with tiny baby-steps that will get you closer and closer.

Take writing, for example. Writing a book – doesn’t that sound atrocious?! A whole book?! Never! But…do you think you could write one paragraph? Okay, then, do you think you could write one page? No? Then just write one paragraph a day. That’ll get you there, too. Eventually, those paragraphs will become a book.

If you can write one paragraph, you can write two. As my son said before my jogging with our dog became real running, “If you can run a mile, Mom, you can run a mile and a half.”

Four marathons later, I can state without any doubt that he’s absolutely right. Baby steps will get you wherever you want to go. As the French say,

Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.

Little by little, one twig at a time, the bird makes its nest. Don’t set out to conquer the whole world – just your little corner of it.

I hope your new year – whenever you started it (or plan to) – gets you where you want to go!

Did you recognize my Christmas cactus at the top?

And here’s a little winter beauty to inspire your winter goals. This is Multnomah Falls, in Oregon.

(Photo credit: Stasia Honnold.)

Changing Gears

In my blog of January 2016, “The Monster on my Desk,” I talked about the magic of writing. Whether you do it on paper with a pen, on a typewriter, on a computer, or by dictation, the act of creating a written opus is rich with mystery and satisfaction. I hope you have the time to go back and read that blog, especially the comments people left about being driven. What drives you?

Writing drives me. This year, I moved on from full-time college teaching to full-time writing. I’m always puzzled when people ask me if I’m enjoying retirement. I guess, for most people, the verb ‘to retire’ means to no longer work.

But if you’re a writer, you’re always working! Ideas won’t leave my head alone! I’ll go to my grave revising.

But before I ‘change gears’ here — morphing from a p-t ‘everything’ blog to a f-t writer’s blog — I’d like to share with you my most recent adventure.

This past June, my son’s first book (Alone on the Wall, a NYT Bestseller!) launched in several countries in Europe. In Paris, he spoke to a sell-out audience at Paris’ biggest, oldest theater, Le Grand Rex. And he spoke in French this time! (He speaks all over the world, in English with an interpreter.) So of course, Mom had to be there.

So here are some memories from my trip. Enjoy!

First, at le Grand Rex, the biggest movie theater in all of Europe, and the biggest screen in Paris (my son in red, on stage and signing books before the show):

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All of Europe experienced major flooding this summer, Paris included. The staircase in this photo, which ends under water, normally leads down to the walkway along the Seine, famed for its lovers, strollers, picnickers, skaters and generally anyone who enjoys life:

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One of my favorite Arcs de Triomphe (there are many in Paris). This one dominates the Tuileries Gardens. The building to the left is the west end of the Louvre Museum. This is the kind of weather that led to the flooding this June.

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The oldest living tree in Paris, planted in 1601 and still going strong — with a little support. You can see one of the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in the background (across the river).

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I didn’t stay in Paris the whole time. During my 44-year teaching career, I taught more French than any of my 4 other languages, so I have lots of friends to visit in France. Here, la Montagne de Reims (Mountain of Reims).

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Reims is an ancient city in the heart of Champagne country. These are Champagne vineyards around the Mountain, with its famed windmill visible from miles around the relatively flat region.

Some of the many Champagne houses in the region. In the U.S., we know only the biggest exporters. There are hundreds that we don’t know here.

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The village of Milly-la-Forêt, near Fontainebleau (south of Paris), where more of my friends live. If you’re a climber (especially a boulderer), you know the name Fontainebleau, which is a world-wide center of bouldering.) In centuries past, it was the exclusive domain of royalty, the forests of the King.

 

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After a few weeks seeing friends in France, I flew to Poland to see some Polish friends. I stayed in Gdynia, a small city on the Baltic Sea (the northern boundary of Poland). The tri-city region of Gdynia-Sopot-Gdansk, with its beautiful, extensive white sand beaches, has long been a playground for the rich and the powerful. Amber shops dot the walkways — and fill the cellars (dungeons) of medieval castles:

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this tiny tour of France and Poland.

 

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“We are our Geography”

Do we bond with the place where we spend our formative years? I’ve always believed that our heart holds a soft spot for the climate we experience as babies and small children. We remember the daily or seasonal gray skies, or the brilliant sun, or the downpours, or the snow, as the background of our life. Later, when we move on from that place, we take those memories with us, and they become our ‘normal’.

My daughter was born in Japan, and lived there until she was two. Twenty-five or so years later, she chose to re-locate to a climate like the one where she started life. The one she bonded with. She’s crazy about it. As she waxes poetic about the beautiful rain, the mysterious fog, I can’t help but think about the months and months when we never saw the sun, in Japan. About the incessant rain. The umbrellas we wore out. Coincidence?

I grew up in New York, and moved to California when I was 26. I’ve now lived in California longer than I did in NY, but it will never, ever seem normal for summer to be brown and winter to be green. That is just so wrong! Trees and bushes sleep during the winter; the whole landscape sleeps. Even in the city that never sleeps! But not, apparently, in California.

And people all over the world know that poppies are red! After church on each Veteran’s Day, all the fathers (who had been in WWII, when I was a kid) received a red poppy for their lapel. (Yes, everyone had lapels back then.) The famous Russian ballet is called “The Red Poppy.” Of course. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I learned they come in other colors.

So some people, like my daughter and me, never shake the ‘normal’ from our childhood. We crave it. We look for it everywhere, and don’t feel right without it.

But some don’t. Some, like my brother, never bond with their original climate at all. Raised in NYC, my brother couldn’t wait to move to a place where he could wear T-shirts all year long! He found it. And he’s happy there.

I believe it was the poet laureate of California from a few years ago, Dennis Schmitz, who said it succinctly: “We are our geography.”

Which type are you? Did you bond with your climate, and go on to settle in a similar place? Or are you still looking for that perfect place that’s unlike where you grew up?

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Encouraging Words

We’re running through downtown Portland, my daughter, me and thousands of other runners. June 2, the Starlight Run. Everyone knows it doesn’t get really hot in Portland. Today, though, it’s in the 90s. Sweat drips from my hair, my chin, into my eyes; everything I’m wearing is soaked.

I slow a little, thinking that if it doesn’t get noticeably cooler in the next five minutes, I’m calling it. I’ll walk back to the Start, find my friends. They’ll understand. I’m not a real runner anyway. Too old. Too unfit. Not dedicated enough. My shoes are too clunky. I hate the heat. I’m a fair-weather runner, and this is definitely not fair weather.

Then we turn the corner, the people in costumes and all the other runners and me, into a canyon of tall buildings. People are still at work, up there. And they’re cheering!

They’re hanging out of all the windows, waving and cheering as if they knew each and every one of us! They’re throwing confetti onto us, they’re yelling encouragement, shouting names, identifying some of us by costume or hair color or whatever they can see. They’re cheering us!

Me! They were cheering me!

Suddenly my feet moved faster. I looked up, smiled at them. My head came up, my back got a bit straighter, my stride got a bit longer. I was really running.

They were cheering me!

I ran on, through the canyon of buildings, back out into sweltering Portland, and on to the Finish line. I finished!

Would I have, otherwise? Surely I’m disciplined enough to carry through with a project, to finish what I start, without that.

And yet….

When you’re at the end of your rope, digging deep, other people matter. Deep in our psyches, we’re tied to each other. Strangers affect us more than we care to admit.

When I started rock climbing, I discovered this again. Some partners manage the rope for you as you climb without a word. You know they’ll catch you if you fall. But they don’t participate.

Some do. Some encourage, cheer, shout helpful things or silly things, or just words to make you smile. They help you climb.

I like to think I could do it just on my own. But when you know that someone else is pulling for you, hoping for you, things go better. Every parent knows this; kids need a great deal of encouragement. But don’t we all?

Will a day come when I no longer need that? Or is that a lifelong need? For where I am in life right now, it can be the difference between doing a climb, or backing off. Finishing a race, or walking back.

Or writing another blog. Or book. Or article. Writing is the loneliest job. One works alone, at a desk, at the kitchen table, in a car or in a café hunched over a keyboard, making thoughts visible. Alone.

If you’re lucky, you have an editor to read and enthuse. Or critique. If you’re lucky, you have an audience to read and react. Even luckier, people pay you for it.

People are the common factor in this equation. We need each other. I always knew that was true. But it took becoming an athlete for me to realize just how true it is.

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Hats off to Mom!

 

Did you call your mother “Mom” when you were little? I never did. On my block, where I grew up, each house had a different name for her. Matka. Mamaka. Mamma. Ma. Mutter. Depended on where they were from.

On our block in Queens, 25 two-story houses lined each side of the street, and the people who lived in them came from all over Europe. After World War II, New York was filled with “displaced persons,” as they were called, and immigrants. Our block was typical of a lot of New York, back then.

Decades later, I would read in the N. Y. Times that Jackson Heights, the neighborhood I lived in, was the single most diverse neighborhood in any city in the U.S. To us, it was just home. That’s how I got started learning lots of languages. Whenever I went to visit or play with a friend, I had to be civil to the parents or grandparents who let me in.

In that neighborhood, the terms “Mom” or “Dad” were pure Hollywood. The only time I ever heard those words was on “Leave it to Beaver” on TV, or in movies.

Whatever you used to call her — or still do, if you’re lucky — whether you are a mother, or have one, or had one you’d like to honor on this day, or hope to be one someday — I wish you a very

Happy Mother’s Day!

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4 Peaks…and a Dream

On May 17, 2016 at the Carmichael Library, starting at 4pm, I’ll be showing a slideshow and talking about my adventures summiting the 5 amazing peaks I climbed with my son. Come see some outstanding scenery  — right in our backyard! (The northern Sierra Nevada)

Here’s what the Library has to say about the show:

“Dierdre W — climber, runner, writer, musician and retired professor — will talk about conquering the peaks she dreamed of summiting ever since she started climbing a few years ago…with a bonus. Sharing a rope with her son, the most famous climber in the world, Dierdre has conquered 5 of America’s outstanding peaks, and written about them for magazines in the US and abroad. Come listen to her share some of her exciting stories!”

I hope you can make it! Bring all your questions. Bring the family. We’re going to have fun looking at the most unforgettable, incredible scenery!

See you there. 🙂295268_326306457423663_1386992583_n

 

 

A supremely inspiring marathon

I started this series of blogs by writing about inspiring others. Most of the time, we never know who we touch by our example. More often than not, we don’t even know them (as you read in my first blog).

Several years ago, my daughter asked me, a beginning runner, if I would drive her to her first marathon, in the Napa Valley (from the Sacramento Valley, about an hour away). A marathon! I was in awe. “Marathon”…a term used in hyperbole, to mean anything so grandiose as to be unattainable or unimaginable, as in, “The project was a marathon of work!”

My little baby was going to run so far that other people (including me) find it unattainable. Wow.

So of course I said yes. And since I was beginning to run, too, I checked out the map of Napa, to see where I could run while I waited for her.

The idea of running 26.2 miles seemed outrageous to me. At that distance, you could probably run across the whole country of Liechtenstein! The entire principality of Monaco! Closer to home, 26.2 miles could take you through five cities, from Folsom all the way to Sacramento — the course of the California International Marathon.

Unthinkable!

The day of the marathon was dark, gray, cold, windy and wet. Fortunately, Stasia is very experienced at running in the rain (she lives in Portland, and loves it). After I dropped her off at the northern end of the Napa Valley, I drove back down to the town of Napa at the south end, and parked.

The route I had planned for myself was about six miles long. Doable, no matter how slowly I ran (I hate running in the rain!), and I’d still be able to be there when she ran in at the Finish.

I had watched Stasia get ready that morning. Special tights that don’t bind, even in the rain, special socks that don’t ride up or down, special shoes that don’t weigh anything, special light-weight jacket (rain resistant!) — it seemed that everything she owned was different. Special. I had no clue what some of it was for.

After my run, I changed my shoes, got my umbrella out of the car and walked to the Finish line. I had never been to a marathon. I only knew that they blocked traffic and caused street closures all around town. It all seemed unnecessary, just to allow a bunch of people to go running. Couldn’t they just run on their own?

As I huddled under my umbrella watching runners come in, I thought about the carbo-load dinner the night before. There were speeches, stories, lots of laughter. But I was an outsider. It was like going to someone else’s house for the holidays, where everyone talks about past events and silly family anecdotes and all you can do is smile and pretend you belong.

Now, as I stood in the pouring rain watching them run in to the Finish line, it hit me just how far outside their circle I was. My daughter had just done something that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. But I wanted to.

Suddenly, I wanted to feel the depth of joy that I saw on their faces, even on the ones contorted in pain, as they realized they’d finished.

I wanted to know what that kind of determination felt like.

I wanted to understand!

So the next week, I signed up for my first marathon. To friends who asked, I said that, well, yes, I’d signed up…but who knew if I was actually going to do it? But I knew.

As I began to train for it, I told myself that I wasn’t going to let myself waste all that money (it costs big bucks to run in a marathon — another surprise!). But it had nothing to do with money. In that part of you where you just can’t lie to yourself, I knew I had to do this.

It made no sense, logically. I wasn’t a real runner. I had trouble breathing. I didn’t have the time to train for it. I was a teacher and a writer; I spent my days at a desk or in a classroom. Sitting. It made absolutely no sense.

And yet.

I did finish that first marathon, a few months after Stasia’s. And then I went on to do three more.

I get it now.

Stasia probably has no idea how much she inspired me that day. Made me believe. Until that day, I was a bystander.

Now I believe I can do what I had thought was impossible. Now I know why the car decals given out at the marathon say “I believe in 26.2.” I used to think that was just hokey marketing.

Now I know.

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A different sense of Proust (can you smell the music?)

Do you have a favorite song, or piece of music, that whisks you back to a memorable point in your life the instant you hear it? Maybe makes you cry, or remember your first love, your Grandma, or a pet you still miss?

The French writer Marcel Proust began his famous, epic-length novel series “In Search of Lost Time” (also called, in English, “In Remembrance of Things Past”), with a scene where the smell and taste of a madeleine dipped in tea creates a sudden overwhelming string of memories he can’t resist.

In his world, and I’ve read this in many articles since studying Proust, the sense of smell jolts the strongest memories, stronger than from any other of the five senses.

That may be — but for me, a strain of music can accomplish the same thing.

Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” always stops me in my tracks. As a little kid of 4 or 5, I saw it performed outdoors, complete with fireworks and cannon and chimes. And not just plain fireworks, but the kind that form real pictures as they blossom in the sky. These were of soldiers kneeling and shooting their rifles, from one side of the sky to the other.

I haven’t seen fireworks like that since I was little.

Any time I hear the “Zampa” Overture, by Héraut, I have to hop up and crank up the volume. My orchestra worked on that for months, and once we had it down, we performed it at every concert where it was an appropriate-length piece. The violins worked furiously! The tempo was wild! Toes tap intently, rapidly. Body parts move to the incessant push of it. It’s irresistible, and it was ours.

A movie that marked me as a little kid was one you’ve probably never heard of, “Miracle of the White Stallions.” During WWII, the Lippizaner stallions from the world-famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna were in danger. They had to be moved, for their safety; it was war movie, but for me, it was a horse movie. What little girl doesn’t love horses?!

And what horses they were! They danced, and pranced, and pirouetted to classical music, my first love. Throughout the movie, they played Schubert’s “Marche Militaire” (Military March), and still today, decades later, that march always whisks me back to the grand, panoramic scenes (a movie screen is enormous, when you’re five) of those impressive animals, dancing to that music.

Any time I hear Lara’s theme from the movie “Dr. Zhivago,” I see my father, sitting in his favorite stuffed flute-back chair next to the piano, reading his Sunday New York Times and listening dreamily as I played it. Each time I finished, he’d nod slowly, as if he’d just finally understood something, and say, “Play it again.”

The list is long! I have a slew of pieces that evoke instant memories, good or bad. How about you?

Go ahead — try it. Dig back. Think of a song or an instrumental piece you used to love. Where were you when you first heard it? How about the thousandth time? What need did it fill for you? Does it still?

Music can be a powerful experience. I hope you get to experience that power.

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Happy Easter! Happy spring!

“In your Easter bonnet

With all the frills upon it…”

Anybody remember that song?

I miss church bells! When I moved to California, I noticed the absence. And on a day like Easter, it’s particularly noticeable.

I grew up in a European neighborhood of New York City called Jackson Heights, which has been called “the most diverse neighborhood in the country” by the NYTimes. It has always been diverse, although the demographics change.

Holidays there back then had a European character to them. Our family was from “the old country,” Poland, but on our block, every household celebrated holidays in different fashions. But whether a family was Polish, Slovak, German, Greek, eastern-European Jewish, whatever, decorations adorned doorways and windows, lights were lit, and all holidays were a noisy, wonderful, magical time. And the music of church bells played a large role in those celebrations.

Have you ever rung a church bell? One of the monstrous big ones that live high up in the belfry? You pull with all your might on the rope that’s as thick as your arm, and the whole church shudders before the vibration of the bell takes over. As the heavy bell begins to swing, you rise high up into the air, scared, holding on, wondering whether you should let go — but before you can decide, it swings back the other way and you touch the floor again…and then it begins to swing back and up you go again….

Whether you believed in the religious significance of Easter or not, the church offered enough pageantry and symbolism to make the season unforgettable. Statues, symbols, all depictions in the church were draped in purple cloth — the color of mourning — from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. No one could play music. I wasn’t allowed to play my piano!

Did you ever wonder why the Easter Rabbit delivers eggs? When’s the last time you saw a rabbit lay an egg?

In Germanic legend, the goddess Eastre / Oestre / Austra / Ostara (she had lots of different names in different places) found a wounded bird in the forest, and to save its life, she changed it into a hare (rabbit). But it retained some of its bird-like qualities, and out of gratitude, each year it laid an egg for Eastre, the goddess.

So the baskets of food that everyone took across the street to the Polish church to be blessed for Easter always contained eggs, and ham, butter, bread, some salt. Each food represented something. The old folks from the ‘old country’ all had tales of what each food represented in their village, what they called it, who used to make it, out of what, who used to prepare it and how, where the baskets came from…. But one of the casualties of WWII was that no one from ‘the old country’ wanted to be considered different, or identifiable. Everyone wanted to be American. And the old ways were lost.

So the kids — my generation — knew only that the old folks carried baskets across the street, and the priest blessed them. So much more than just cultural folklore was lost! — but that’s what happens when people move to another place.

Even seasonal Easter, or spring, is no big deal in a place like California, where I live now. Back in New York, I used to get so sick of shivering, of being unable to feel my fingers or toes, of being wet and freezing outside and dry and freezing inside! So sick of winter!

Easter there was truly symbolic, as it must have been in Europe where it began millennia ago. It was the oh-so-long-awaited warmth, the throwing off of the woolens and heavy protection against ice, snow, freezing winds.

Here, it’s all about chocolate and candy and flowers. And church, if your family still goes.

How much of Easter is religious and how much is seasonal? Or cultural?

It’s been a seasonal holiday for thousands of years. The name Easter comes from ancient cultures in the mid-east (Ishtar) and northern Europe. The symbol of the rabbit delivering eggs is from ancient Germanic peoples, before there was a country called Germany. The symbol of the egg has probably always been a symbol of re-birth and renewal, as long as there have been people, and eggs. And people have decorated, carved and colored those symbolic eggs all over Europe and the mid-east for thousands of years.

So whatever your take on this season of renewal, I hope this spring is a time of good new things for you!

Happy Easter! Happy spring!

Going abroad with (little) kids

When I was young, taking small children abroad was practically unheard-of. Nowadays, everybody and his uncle is writing about taking the tikes to Timbuktu. When mine were little, so were my best friend’s, in France. So off we went when mine were almost-4 and almost-6, just the three of us, for a few weeks in France and England to get acquainted.

The first test came even before we took off; a 5-hour delay at San Francisco Airport — announced after we were dropped off, of course. Fortunately, there’s almost nothing to climb on, in an airport, just glass walls and plastic chairs. And an endless array of luggage conveyor belts, many of which were in constant motion — as was my son.

If you’ve been to Paris, you know that the French frown on walking on the huge lawns in the parks. All that beautiful, manicured grass…unusable! Just for looking at. Unfortunately, the oldest, most climbable trees sit out in the middle of those lawns.

So any time I heard a police whistle, I’d cringe. I knew who they were shouting at. Fortunately, my French is fluent, and I’d shrug a very apologetic Gallic shrug, shake my head and say something about “Kids!” in French. They never cited us.

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Boundless physical energy drives both my kids — but their little legs were shorter than mine. So we walked mile after fascinating mile every day, until everyone was ready to fall into bed and stay there all night.

That’s really the key to traveling with kids successfully. Kids and dogs are alike in that; as the old axiom goes, ‘a tired dog is a happy dog.’ Same for kids — especially very athletic ones!

So we visited every playground we passed (and stayed until the other mothers got upset with my son’s climbing antics). We walked miles of subway tunnels and staircases.

And, of course, Alex being who he is, that is, someone who can — and must — climb everything, I have lots of stories about the unforgettable moments, the ones I’ll never be able to erase from my memory, no matter how hard I try! Someday I’ll put those all together for you to enjoy (maybe ‘enjoy’ is not quite the word!).

But we survived — and had a blast!

If you’re curious how to survive an 8-week-long trip abroad alone with little kids, send Version 2me your questions, and I’ll write about that later. I have piles of tips!