Monday, April 4, 2011

April is National Poetry Month!

When it comes to writing, poetry has always been my first love. In honor of National Poetry Month, I thought I'd share some of my favorite poets and poems with you, including a few of my own.

Several years ago, I read an article about "Taking Flight" in which the phrase "rare bird" was mentioned. It reminded me of an English professor I had in college. No matter how badly we stumbled when reading aloud, or how poorly we answered his questions, he always found a way to encourage us and make us feel we had potential. "Jonesy" flew the bonds of earth many years ago, but through this poem, I can see him once again flitting about our classroom, trying to teach a young nest full of English majors how to fly. I wrote this poem in March, 2005, based on an incident from a class in the late 1960s. The name "Miss White" is fictitious.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a 14th century poet and author, and is referred to as the Father of English Literature. He is perhaps best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of short stories told by travelers to entertain one another while on their journey.

              "A Rare Bird"

File:Geoffrey Chaucer (17th century).jpg
Anon. 17th c.  portrait G. Chaucer
(Wikipedia public domain)
A rare bird, lanky, toothless, gaunt,
he perched before his callow clutch,
and from one scrawny, gray-tipped
dangled Chaucer, like a juicy worm,
before our unfledged eyes and ears.

"How old is Absalom...Miss White?"
I've never been much good at this
so to his, "Come on, take a guess,"
"From thirty-five to sixty-eight?"
I lamely peep, embarrassed, now.

Canadian Geese
photo by Donna B. Russell
He cocks his head, all smiles, and coos,
"Can you narrow that a little? No?"
He bobs across the room and nods.
Another nestling quickly chirps
a more precise, correct response.

Then turning, he commends us both,
and I am left perplexed, that he
would remove the sting of my distress.
But wisdom knows that confidence
is the lift on which young wings will soar.

                   * * *

How about you? Did you have a special teacher or professor who made an impact on your life? Please share your comments.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Signs of Spring?

As I sit and look out the window at mountains of snow piled in every available spot in our apartment complex, it's hard to imagine that spring begins this month--at least on the calendar.

March 8: Residents help dig out the last car.
(Photo by Donna B. Russell)

And, yet, there are signs. Yesterday, on the way to the doctor's office for my annual physical, we noticed that the ice on the bay is beginning to wear thin, and there were actually rather large, green patches of grass in several yards as we passed by. We even saw a big fat Robin Redbreast perched on a mound of snow! (Alas, I didn't have my camera with me.)

Mardi Gras memories: Sarah, Davy, Jen
(Photo by David A. Russsell)

Mardi Gras has come and gone, and the countdown to Easter has begun as evidenced by the ads on TV featuring the Cadbury bunny, and the pastel M&Ms and jelly beans in the stores. We're also counting down the final five weeks until the birth of our first grandchild, which means Gramma had better get busy finishing that sweater! As you can see, one side of the front is finished (and I have started on the other side).

Making progress
(Photo by Donna B. Russell)

I've also received a couple of seed catalogs in the mail--always a sign of spring. I used to enjoy growing my own tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, radishes, swiss chard, etc. When the kids were little, we called it "growing a salad." I still love the smell and feel of digging in the dirt, although I can no longer keep up a garden. Instead, I'm thinking of growing a few things in containers this year. For the rest, I'll frequent our local vegetable stands and farmers' markets for fresh, organic produce.

Image: Suat Eman /

And, while I'm thinking about spring, and dirt, I just joined Sharon Lovejoy's "Grimy Hands Girls Club." If you'd like to know more about the club, or about Sharon, who is also the author of Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars: A Grandma's Bag of Tricks, among others, please visit her website at or her blog at

What are you doing to get ready for Spring?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Remembering My Father--"The Longest Night"

[As I prepare to become a grandmother for the first time, I am thinking today of my father, who died on this date in 1962. I think of all the things he never got to see me do--learn to drive, sing in the choir, play in the high school band. He never got to read my articles in the high school newspaper, or guide me through the teen years, witness my first prom and graduation from high school, then college. He didn't get to meet the man I married, walk me down the aisle and give me away, nor see my children and watch them grow up. And, yet, in a way, I feel like he has been watching over me all these years. The following is an article I wrote last year (unchanged except for updating the number of years), which includes a poem I wrote about the night he died. When you lose a loved one, you learn how to cope, how to adjust, because life goes on, and because you must; but you never forget because they are a part of you.]

Today is the anniversary of my father's death forty-nine years ago. He died the day before my oldest brother's birthday, and just two and a half weeks before mine. My father had rarely been sick, and had never missed work due to illness. He always said that the day he couldn't go to work was the day he would die.

That morning, I remember my mother calling to me, worry and urgency in her voice. When I emerged from my bedroom, my father was sitting on the bathroom floor, my mother steadying him so he wouldn't fall over. She told me to take her place while she ran to the phone to call for an ambulance. He had vomited blood, then collapsed from weakness. Two weeks earlier, he had been diagnosed with what the doctor thought was the flu and told to stay home from work and go to bed. Today, it was clear that something much more than the flu was wrong with him, and what he'd said about not being able to go to work went through my mind.

For years, my father had been plagued by heartburn. Today, he most likely would have been given medication to treat his symptoms and protect his esophagus, but back then he was told to take an antacid, such as Tums, and cut out spicy foods. He was rushed to the hospital, tests were done, and we received the diagnosis--cancer of the esophagus. Surgery was the only thing that might save his life, and the odds were 80/20 against him. But when the doctors opened him up, the odds dropped to zero--every organ in his body, except his heart, had been invaded by cancer. The doctors said they were amazed he had kept going as long as he did, and that there was nothing they could do. They closed him up, returned him to his room, and the family took up vigil at the foot of his bed, waiting for him to wake up. He never did.

I remember sitting in his darkened room with my mother, my three brothers, and my aunt. I remember the nurse speaking to my father, trying to wake him from the anesthesia. I remember the sound of his breathing, the sounds of monitors to which he was connected, and the sound of the clock on the wall. When he stopped breathing, all of the other sounds stopped, too...except for the ticking of that clock. In addition to losing my father, I felt I had lost my sense of security, as well as my childhood.

The Longest Night

When I was thirteen,
I sat beside my mother
at the foot of his bed,
listening to the steady

t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k

of the clock on the wall,
to the steady

drip - drip - drip of the IV,

the s t e a d y
R I S E and f a l l
as the lungs
F I L L, e m p t y, F I L L

as the nurse takes his pulse,
as the light outside grays to dusk,
blackens to night,
as the steady

t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k

of the clock on the wall
counts out my father's life
second by second,

as the drip - drip - drip - of the IV goes on,

the breathing becomes labored
the chest RISES . . . p a u s e s . . . fa l l s,

and the lungs begin shutting down
as the nurse takes his pulse again
and shakes her head,

and the steady t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k
of the clock goes on,

the chest R I S E S . . . f a l l s . . . stops,

as the nurse removes the IV,
and shakes her head,
the light of my childhood
grays to dusk,
blackens to night,
and he's gone.

--Donna B. Russell
© March 30, 2005

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fast Away the [New] Year Passes...

"Fast away the old year passes..." So says the Christmas carol, "Deck the Halls," and I think we'd all agree. But it feels like the new year is rapidly passing away, too. Where did January go?

Bust of Janus - Vatican Museum/Public Domain

January, named for the Greek god Janus, who had two heads--one facing backward toward the past, the other facing forward to the future--is when most of us set "resolutions" or "goals" for the coming year. To do that, we reflect on the year that has just ended, see how much progress (or not) we've made on last year's goals, and what areas still need work. The idea here is not to beat ourselves up over our failures, but to take the lessons we've learned from them and build on those. There will be some things we will need to "let go" of, but it's not always easy deciding what to carry into the new year with us, and what to purge.

A few months ago, my son and daughter-in-law decided to leave Chicago and spend the winter in Mexico. To accomplish this goal, they had to make some hard decisions about what they could keep and what they had to leave behind or sell. Reducing their possessions to what would fit into two suitcases was both a challenge and a sacrifice. But after storing a few things, packing the essentials, and selling the rest, they headed south of the border to fulfill a dream. (You can read their story at and click on the "About" and "Blog" tabs.)

Davy and Tracy (photo by Davy Russell)

The older I get, the less "baggage" I want to carry around. I don't want to waste precious energy on things that hold me back, drag me down, or generate negativity. I want to travel light entering the new year. So, I have adjusted my goals for 2011 accordingly.

One of my biggest challenges is paper. I read 90-100+ books a year, plus magazines, newsletters, and online blogs, e-newsletters, e-mail, articles, etc. Paper multiplies in my household, and I have found that it is my biggest source of clutter. Last year, I began sorting through and throwing out; but there's still a long way to go. So, I decided that one of my goals for this year would be to only subscribe to those publications I have time to read--both online and in print. Those that accumulate unopened, will not be renewed, no matter how good a deal is offered. If I'm paying for something that is going into the recycle bin unread, it's NOT a bargain! Several January invitations to subscribe to publications have already found their way into my recycle box or shredder.

Similarly, I decided to only buy the print and paper editions of books that have some special value to me, such as those by my favorite authors that I wish to collect, or those that have some other lasting significance such as books on writing, or books needed for learning a new language or skill. As I sort through my books this year, I hope to donate or recycle the vast majority of them. For all other books and publications, I'll use the Kindle I received for Christmas. I have already donated the first batch of books, and the Kindle is earning its keep.

Another goal was to greatly reduce the use of credit cards. This means paying off credit card balances on a monthly basis (or, if unable to do this, to pay more than the minimum), and planning ahead and saving up for things instead of whipping out the plastic. Credit cards will be used for emergencies (and, hopefully, there won't be too many of those this year) or for purchases that can be paid in full when the statement arrives. Seeing those "zero" interest charges is a great morale boost!

Baby sweater--the "before" photo
 (photo by Donna B. Russell)

Third, I wanted to be more "crafty" this year by knitting some things for my grandson who is due in April, and maybe brushing up on crocheting, as well. I also wanted to take more time to practice sketching, and learning to paint on glass and ceramics. The yarn, needles, and pattern for a baby sweater were ordered at the end of January, and I'll be starting the actual knitting this weekend.

And last, I want to create a more workable daily schedule that includes time set aside for writing, being more consistent with blogging, and participating more fully in one or two online writing groups. One of my writing goals was to launch an online version of the print "PetWise" column I write. I'm happy to say that "PetWise Online" launched February 1, with my guest, Nadine M. Rosin, author of The Healing Art of Pet Parenthood. You can read it and give me your feedback at

What goals did you set for 2011? Did you make a good start in January, or have they already fallen by the wayside? Share your goals and your plan for achieving them in the comments section.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Gift of a Family Tradition

[Note: I'm posting this early in case you'd like to establish this as a tradition for your own family.]

It had been a difficult year. My widowed mother was nearing retirement from her job at IBM, I was a single mom in my final year of college (having returned two years before to complete my degree in English and Elementary Education, when my daughter Jen started kindergarten), and January seemed like a long, bleak month stretching out before us. The gray days of winter sapped what little energy we'd had after the hustle and bustle between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As usual, we had taken down the Christmas decorations right after New Year's Day. We were exhausted, and the post-Christmas let-down was affecting all of us, but it hit my mom especially hard. So, Jen and I planned to surprise Grammy by celebrating Twelfth Night, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas that culminates with Epiphany on January 6.

We didn't have much money, but decided to buy one gift for Grammy from both of us. We also planned a special supper to have ready when she came home from work. Then I set up, and Jen helped decorate, a three-foot tall, table-top, artificial tree that I had used for the Pioneer Girls group of which I was leader. We placed the tree on the living room coffee table so that mom wouldn't see it when she came in through the kitchen door from the garage. Jen was so excited it was hard for her (and me, too) to not give anything away.

When mom came home from work, she was tired but surprised and pleased to see supper cooking on the stove. As she removed her coat and boots, and stepped into her slippers, I said, "Supper will be ready soon. Why don't you go sit down in the living room and warm up." She nodded and headed into the living room. But when she saw the tree, with its glowing lights and decorations, she stood stock still and just stared, open-mouthed.

Jen and I both shouted, "Happy Twelfth Night!"

Mom gaped at the tree, then at us, then back at the tree.

"What did you do?" she asked, awe-struck.

We had her sit down in her rocking chair, and Jen played "Santa," handing my mother her gift.

"But I don't have anything for you!" she protested.

"Our gift was doing this for you," I said.

I have long-since forgotten what the present was that she unwrapped that night; but I will never forget the look of wonder and joy that lit up her face when she saw that little tree and as she opened that solitary gift. We had a delicious supper, and all of the exhaustion and post-holiday depression melted away in the warmth of each others' company. It was a wonderful night.

Thus began our family tradition of celebrating Twelfth Night--a tradition I continued when David and I married two years later, and which has endured to the present. Each year, on New Year's Eve, those family members who are able to participate, put their names on slips of paper, we each draw a name, then buy that person a modest gift. On Twelfth Night, we gather around the Christmas tree (which we leave up until after January 6) one last time, light candles and enjoy the lights, often read the story of the Wisemen bringing their gifts to the Christ Child and sing "We Three Kings," and exchange our gifts. We have found it a wonderful way to bring the holidays to a close, and to diminish, if not entirely dispel, the post-holiday melancholy that many people experience.

Do you have any post-holiday traditions that you celebrate? Do you have a ritual for taking down the tree and packing away the decorations? If so, please share them in the comment section below.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shelter Pets: Love on Four Legs

Today is the last day of November. It is also Shelter Pets Day on Facebook! In celebration, people have been encouraged to share their own shelter pet stories, so I'd like to share mine. Both of our current cats and my service dog were shelter animals. Yes, I said my service dog is a shelter alumni, but more on that in a minute.

We adopted Meisha, a 3-year-old torti cat, on April 6, 2000. We had been to the Humane Society of Chittenden County the day before to look at cats, and had seen this shy, scared beauty huddled in the farthest corner of her cage. We didn't know until the next day that she was just getting over a urinary tract infection. Not wanting to further traumatize her, we left her alone and socialized with a few others that needed homes, but none seemed to "click."

The following day, we went back to the shelter and decided to ask if we could take the torti into a room to see if she would feel a bit more at ease. Soon after we were settled, she jumped up in my arms and cuddled against my shoulder, purring. She also let my husband and children hold her, and we knew she was the one for us.

However, when we got her home, she refused to let us pick her up and seemed rather aloof. Having had two previous homes before coming to ours, she had no way of knowing that ours would be permanent, and most likely didn't dare risk getting attached. Three months later, she developed a life-threatening liver infection. She stopped eating, her weight plummeted from 9 pounds to 7, and we rushed her to our vet, where the prognosis wasn't good. However, with the excellent care from the vets at VCA Brown Animal Hospital, and our love and support, Meisha pulled through. From that point on, she began to open up to us, but very slowly. It took two years of patience and encouragement on our part, another life-threatening illness, and surgery to remove several bladder stones (the cause of her chronic urinary tract infections) before she learned to fully trust us and blossomed into the confident, happy, "Queen of the house" that she is today.

Meisha hasn't had it easy. A couple of years ago, she developed a very rare eye condition that has caused her to lose her sight in one eye, and will at some point, most likely cause total blindness. At nearly 14 years of age, in spite of her health issues, she still gets around well, is an incredibly loving, confident companion, and we feel blessed to share her life.

In 2005, my doctor told me it was time to get a service dog. I'd had dogs growing up, but after my husband and I married, we lived in apartments where either dogs were not allowed, or pets were banned altogether. Although dogs are not allowed as pets where we currently live, service dogs are. The first place I looked was the website for the Humane Society of Chittenden County, and there I found the photo of a gorgeous Australian Shepherd-Collie mix. Having had two Border Collies in my late teens and twenties, I had a deep love for the herding breeds and knew them to be intelligent, easy to train, and good with children. Since a lot of children live in our apartment complex, this was one of my main concerns.

My husband had not grown up with dogs, and had somewhat of a phobia since he'd been attacked by one in the past. However, he trusted my instincts when it came to picking out a dog. When he saw Mindy, his first thought was, "My gosh, she's HUGE!" Weighing in at around 100 lb., she certainly was a big girl; but she was just what I needed. As we were filling out the adoption papers, another family came in to look at her. Had we been five minutes later, we might have missed out. And so, Mindy joined our family.

Service dogs usually begin training as puppies, and most training programs will not accept dogs that are older than two years of age. Mindy was six years old with a crooked paw (the result of being shot as a puppy) and no training except what they had done at the shelter. We enrolled her in an obedience class at HSCC which she passed with flying colors. Then, through a group in Arizona that helps people train their own service dogs, I began training Mindy in the service behaviors I needed her to perform. She learned very quickly, even adapting some of the procedures to make them easier on both of us. And if she saw a need, she stepped in to fill it. For example, we have railings on our stairs, but the railing doesn't extend around the landing. About two nights after she'd been with us, Mindy started up the stairs behind me, timing her ascent to arrive at the landing just as I had to let go of the railing so I could place my hand on her back for balance. Then she repeated the process at the top of the stairs, escorting me to the bedroom door.

Because we live in multi-family housing, we didn't want her to bark and annoy the neighbors, so I taught her to use her "indoor voice," a soft woof, when she needed to go out. The only time she barks out loud is to alert me that someone is at the door, or if there is something unusual going on outside so I can check it out. She even has a special UPS bark, and loves the "boys in brown" because they sometimes give her a biscuit.

Mindy will be 12 years old in January, and in spite of showing signs of aging, still fulfills her service duties, and has brought a world of love and joy into our lives--and cured my husband of his dog phobia! We feel so privileged to have her in our family.

Last, but not least, is Micau, a 3-year-old cat we adopted in January of this year from HSCC. When we arrived at the shelter, we told them we needed a cat that was good both with other cats and with dogs. One of the young women there said, "I think we have just what you're looking for," and introduced us to a beautiful, long-haired black and white female. She immediately came over to us, rubbed against our legs, began purring, and let us pick her up. She seemed equally comfortable with both of us, and she had previously lived with cats, dogs, and other animals. We needed to look no further.

Meisha immediately established her superior ranking in the pecking order, and, as she had with Mindy, stood her ground when challenged by our new addition. Mindy accepted Micau right away. Within minutes of bringing her home, Micau found and used the litter pan and began exploring her new domain. She is a very loving, affectionate cat who divides her time between David and me, but will also greet guests and, if they are willing, curl up in their laps. In some ways, Micau is more like a dog--she'll come when called (most of the time--she IS a cat, after all), will follow us from room-to-room, and has learned to tap my hand when she wants a treat. She is a healthy, playful, welcome addition to our household.

Shelter animals make wonderful companions. They truly appreciate being given a second chance to have a forever home, give unconditional love and affection, provide comfort and companionship, are loyal, and worth every penny of what it costs to provide for their care. We feel so fortunate to be able to learn from these animals, to love them, and to share our lives with them. If you're looking for a companion animal, please give those in your local shelters your first consideration. You'll be saving a life and enriching your own.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Case of the Not-So-Warm Fuzzies

While reading an article about autumn in the Adirondacks, the photo of a granite water tub/fountain caught my eye. Since the husband of one of my online friends does sculpting, I thought they might enjoy it, too, so I sent her a message to that effect. When she replied that she'd love to see it if I would send the link, I was surprised because I thought I had; but when I checked my original message, there was no link to be found. Fibro-fog strikes again!

What is fibro-fog? People talk about the "warm fuzzies"--things that make us feel good or give us a sense of well-being. Fibro-fog is the "fuzzies" without the "warmth." You realize you have it when you start to say a word and can't quite seem to latch onto it, or you begin to share some item you've read about or seen on the news, and use a different word from the one you had intended. Sometimes I go through a bit of mental acrobatics trying to capture that word--a bit like two people on separate trapeze bars, swinging, but not quite in synch, who keep missing each other when they try to grasp hands. Sometimes a bit of word association helps: Can you hand me's red, made from tomatoes, on the bottom shelf of the fridge door...CATSUP! Hah! Got it!

Almost everyone will occasionally forget a name or draw a blank when trying to remember something. But fibro fog is more than a momentary lapse. It involves temporary, short-term memory impairment (often in conjunction with a pain flare), that can make conversation difficult, stressful, and hard to follow or remember. Someone will tell you they're going to the store--you know what they said, you understood it, but as soon as their mouth stops moving, it's gone. For anything important to remember, it helps to write it down--just remember where you wrote it!

Fibro-fog may also cause you to transpose numbers and letters (even though you're not dyslexic), forget appointments, or temporarily forget how to do even a simple task or spell a common word. Those who experience fibro fog have occasionally found some of their possessions in unexpected places, such as their keys in the fridge and their milk in the cupboard. So, if you're having a "foggy" day, don't try to do more than one thing at a time, and try to focus on what you're doing and where you set things down. Don't tackle things like paying bills or balancing the checkbook until the fog clears.

Fibro fog can take a toll on your self-esteem. When you know in your mind what you want to say, but the message isn't getting from your brain to your mouth, it can be embarrassing, humiliating, and make you feel stupid because you know it's happening, and you can't do anything but ride it out. I used to quip that if I ever developed Alzheimers, no one would know the difference! Now, scientists have discovered that those who have fibromyalgia may have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Fibrofog can also have a negative impact on self-care because you are apt to forget to exercise or take medications consistently that would help alleviate other symptoms, such as pain. Since pain interferes with the brain's ability to process new information (as does lack of sleep, stress, and the decrease in seratonin production), it can become a vicious cycle.

Fortunately, these episodes usually only last a few hours, and disappear when the pain flare ends or when you have been able to get restorative sleep.

To minimize fibro-fog, here are some things that may help:
  • Try to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night (easier said than done if you suffer from insomnia);
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet that includes "brain food" like fish (especially fish high in omega-3s, such as wild salmon and tuna), blueberries, green tea, and organic dark chocolate or cacao beans; foods high in B-vitamins (especially folic acid, B6 and B12);
  • Keep your brain active with another kind of "brain food"--puzzles (crosswords, Sudoku, brain teasers, riddles, etc.), reading, learning a new language, learning anything new such as knitting, crocheting, painting, wood-working, sculpting, etc.
  • Aerobic exercise, especially walking (a US study found that walking appears to help minimize brain shrinkage as we age, and may offer some protection against, or delay the onset of, dementia and Alzheimers);
  • Minimize stress (exercise can help with this, too, but so can calming meditation, listening to soothing music, watching an aquarium full of fish, or some other relaxing activity--or just deep breathing and closing your eyes for a few minutes);
  • Keep your sense of humor--Laughter can help minimize stress, lower anxiety, oxygenate your blood, and provide an internal massage;
  • Accentuate the positive--find that cloud's silver lining, look for the good, change negative thoughts into positive ones, focus on what you CAN do instead of what you CAN'T do.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously--most problems eventually are solved, situations change, and something can be learned from the most devastating of life's experiences.
We can't control fibro fog (or much of what life throws at us), but we can control how we choose to handle it. We can worry about it, or we can recognize it as part of the challenge of living with Fibromyalgia, and determine to live the best life we can in spite of it.

How do you cope with fibro-fog or other challenges of living with a chronic illness? Post your thoughts, questions, suggestions in the comment section below.

Now, I'm going to go spend some time with MY warm fuzzies--Mindy, Meisha, Micau, and...David!