January 24, 2017

Private vs. Public Education

We're, by and large, Catholic school kids in my my family. I put in 12 years (grade school and high school), my sister did an 11 year sentence (8th grade in public school as the family moved to CT). My brothers less so - one had a single year (1st grade) until a sharp nun diagnosed dyslexia and suggested a better resourced public school, and one got public school grade school and four years of Catholic high school. And we definitely had a Catholic school bias; as a smart, soft, bullied kid, I appreciated the Catholic school discipline that was no doubt abetted by the threat of expulsion; public schools (our mythology went) had to keep trouble-makers, making the school less safe for a kid like me.

Early on, I realized my father was playing a little fast and loose with the tax laws. He realized that our catholic school tuition payment checks were coming back endorsed by the Archdiocese of Harrisburg, so he started making them out to the same.  And since those checks were indistinguishable from those he put in the offertory envelope, he took those payments as a charitable deduction on his taxes.

Kinda sketchy from a tax law standpoint, yes. But his logical argument in favor had some merit - he was paying for public school tuition through his taxes; and we were not using that resource, so he'd at least get a bit of tax relief from that. Dad was the kinda guy who would discuss such legal / ethical issues with me, which was kind of cool.

So thinking about Trump's education secretary, I kind of see the side of the argument that private schools could perhaps be subsidized or in some way given tax relief. Every child not in the public school system provides less of a drain on public resources; parents who make those choices should get some sort of relief.  I'm not a fan of any of Trump's nominees but I definitely see the draw of that sort of opinion.

Yes, there are HUGE ramifications in terms of the haves and have-nots, in terms of privilege, race, class, wealth. Mom and Dad were not wealthy, but they valued education and put us kids first. Not every parent has those priorities or the tools to make that happen. And yeah, as the public school system suffers a brain and wealth drain of kids going to private sector schools, the whole system suffers but especially poor / urban towns and cities.  

I do not have kids, so the reality is *I* am paying to educate all of your little rug rats. And I definitely get that educated kids with opportunities and a future benefit all of us. And I have many friends with kids with special needs that are dependent on public education.

No good answers here. Unfortunately, so much hinges on parents that are functional, educated, have resources, and prioritize their kids education. As someone whose parents had all that, we benefited. Many kids, through no fault of their own, have less effective parents. 

January 21, 2017

Lamination Nation

If I were a super-hero and had a super-hero "powers" listing, one would have to put "Laminating" near the top of that list. I'm kind of a laminating fiend.

It started with my folk festival; when I took over the performer merchandise back in 2007; I started to laminate the festival schedule for the merch tent tables. The nature of Falcon Ridge is that any paper left out overnight become dew sodden and damp; laminating the schedules mean they stay fresh and useful throughout the fest; taped down to tables throughout the tent. I would also laminate signs for yoga classes (posted at the festival entrance).

In 2010, I got drawn into the yoga studio teacher training program. It took me a few years to feel comfortable making suggestions / changes; it also took a few years for my name to appear anywhere in the literature or digital marketing, so it felt a little like probationary period. But in 2013, I realized that a document with all the teacher trainees smiling mug shots would be useful for the staff. It's a big group (35 - 45 trainees) and skewed a bit towards younger, female, and healthy, so there's a lot of folks who kind of look alike. So having a photographic class roster really helps us to get to know the trainees sooner.

Yesterday, as the trainees showed up and signed in, I grabbed a quick photo (sort of like a passport or photo booth; not the best pictures to be sure) and this morning, I cropped and imported into a document that has been reused each year. It's kind of a "final nail in the coffin" for the Class of 2016 (who are now alumni) and an official recognition of the Class of 2017.  Sent them off to Fedex Office (nee Kinko's) to be printed, picked them up, and laminated them just now.

Looking back, I've got a similar document for the past five years - 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and now 2017. I ought to print those out someday and make a poster. All the lives that this training has touched.  Our legacy as a studio. And my legacy for whatever I've contributed.

January 17, 2017

Two Bibles and a Birthday Card

As we sifted through the small pile of personnel effects from mom's assisted living apartment, we found a box of mom's treasures. Each of got a small priority mail box last week; of things in mom's memory box that pertained to us. I jokingly called it a crying box this weekend; because opening the box and going through it elicited many tears.

In my box, a handful of cards that mom had saved; a few pictures, an envelope full of colorful Indonesian money. I must have given mom the remnants from a business trip to look at, and she had saved it.

I was particularly moved by a birthday card I had given her in 1991; long before mom's illness began to take her down, long before she knew of my gender issues, in the middle period when I was starting to deal with my big life project via therapy. I knew gender was an issue - but had not yet started to deal with it.

An odd card for a 30 year old (then) son to give to a mother. An odd card for a mother to decide to save.

Also in the Jude pile, a large print edition of the New American Bible that I had apparently gifted mom in 2001.  No doubt it was on her list; for many years we'd pass around lists in the weeks before Christmas to facilitate appropriate gifting.

I actually have a New American Bible, procured somewhere along the line. As a Catholic high school student, we studied the bible at least one of our four years; I have vague memory of a different bible that got beat up quite a bit (name written on the fore edge, highlighting, notes in the margins, ragged cover through use and rough transit). I think I picked my present copy up during a retreat as a young adult; it's in pretty good shape. I actually had it out recently (looking for appropriate readings for mom's service, before we knew we were restricted to a handful of readings).

Also strange for someone like me to have two Bibles. I'm pretty avowedly non-Christian - not because I strongly disagree with the teachings and beliefs, but because:
  • In this country it's such a dominant faith
  • It's invariably seen as exclusive and it leaves out so many non-Christians
  • If / when faith-based judgement and hate comes my way it's invariably Christian rooted. 
  • I've read up on the apocrypha sufficiently to realize that what has come down as canon is not the sum total of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth; and perhaps not even the best part of those teachings 
I am a spiritual person; and while I strongly identify as a former or recovering Catholic, I no longer consider myself a Christian. And now I have two bibles....strange.

Long Lost

Found in a photo box of mom's photos:

That's my father, William J. Russell, and me, circa 1961. We shared the planet for 18 years; but as far as I know, this is the only photo I've seen of the two of us together. And a photo I never knew existed until today.

In the midst of mourning, small shards of joy....

January 08, 2017

Agnes Russell Memorial Slideshow

Put this together to show at mom's memorial luncheon - sped up the transitions for YouTube...

Eulogy for Agnes Russell

As I began to contemplate mom’s life, the first lines to a poem by Mary Oliver kept coming to me:
I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
And it struck me that mom has had more than her share of disappointment and sorrow in her 80 years.

As a young woman, fresh from nursing school and with a job and income of her own, she excitedly purchased Christmas gifts for her friends and large family.  She was heartbroken when her gifts were stolen from her car. Some folks would let something like this harden them, embitter them - yet for mom, Christmas remained her biggest joy. Regardless of our family finances or situation, Christmas was always a time for church, for family, for effusive gifting. Each December 26th I’d get a call from mom, reflecting “what a nice Christmas we had”. Mom collected angels, religious figures, and Santa Claus figurines – her home was filled with them each December. In the words of Charles Dickens, she “kept Christmas well”.

I added this extemporaneously: And looking around this church, beautifully decorated for the Christmas season, I have to believe that this is exactly how mom would want her funeral to look. Well played, mom!

In the mid-70s, our father Bill lost his job in York, PA; and after a few lean years, found work in Framingham, MA. It was with deep sorrow that mom left her friends and family in Pennsylvania for an unfamiliar New England. She made a life here, yet her heart remained rooted in Pennsylvania. Never one to spend lavishly, she purchased beautiful Amish inspired artwork for her home which brought her much comfort. And she has stayed in close touch with her family through these many years.

In 1979, her husband died. As we each aged into our 40s, we reflected on how painful and difficult it must have been for our young mother, newly widowed and raising four children alone without nearby family or old friends. She had to quickly learn how to run the household, manage money, re-enter the workplace, and take on both parental roles. She got all four of us through college, and only one of us has been arrested. (point to self)

After dad died, she could have packed up her brood and moved back to Pennsylvania to be closer to her family and old friends. But she knew that we had established lives in Massachusetts, that we had been uprooted once already, that it would be best for us kids in many ways to stay where we were. So she stayed put; sacrificing her own needs for ours, maintaining the family home until we were fledged, then moving into a condo in Framingham where she lived until recently. Mom’s residence, wherever it was, remained the place that we gathered together, the place we called home.

I know that she struggled deeply, being a single woman in a world that revolved around marriage and couples. Over time, she gathered a circle of beloved women friends, and each time a friend became widowed or single, took that person under her wing.

And finally, when her health began to fail, and took her into retirement in the mid 90s, it would have been easy to drop into sadness, into infirmity, into victimhood. But mom drew upon her nursing skills and began to manage her heath, without complaint. When her health issues began to overwhelm her at the start of 2016, she finally (and reluctantly) allowed us to help her. “Now we’re all on the same page” she said at the time, and we began to realize the cross that mom had been carrying quietly and bravely over many decades.

I know it’s a strange remembrance, this litany of disappointments, of struggle. Mary Oliver’s poem goes on to describe a life lived in bitterness.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
But that is not the life that Agnes Russell led. Though life often dealt her sorrow, she was forever looking on the bright side. That optimism was perhaps best expressed by her love of games – bridge, bingo, scratch tickets, not to mention occasional trips to the casino with her friend June, first to visit “The Donald” in Atlantic City, and later the casinos in Connecticut.  She loved to make things – quilting, knitting, crafts, cooking & baking – often for a worthy cause or for those less fortunate.

She was, first and foremost, a mother. If she had a fault, it was in loving us too deeply; in not wanting us to be hurt. We have each had to learn how to take risks; that to fully live and to fully love we must take chances, must risk being hurt. But as we made our way through the world, we did so with the confidence that mom was there to catch us and to comfort us if we were to fall.

Her favorite day of the year was Mother’s Day, when the Birthright folks would pass out carnations at church, and she always took an extra one for our brother Tom’s birth mother. Of all of us, his connection to mom has always been something very special – mother and child, yes, but also very deep and sacred friends.

The four of us shared a little “inside humor” about mom - if one of us was going through a hard time – work, relationship, money, life – we knew that child would become #1 on mom’s worry list; and the others would breathe a sigh of relief for having dropped down to 2nd, 3rd or 4th on the list. We’ve each spent some time in the #1 spot over the years.

She took keen interest in our lives – in childhood surely but also as we moved to adulthood. And that interest extended to her grandchildren – she was a grandmother who showed up for every concert, play, sporting event, graduation, and birthday. And her large heart and interest extended to the friends and classmates of each of us, as well as her grandchildren – she was everybody’s mother, everybody’s grandmother. We’ve only managed to get her four grandkids, but she had room in her heart for 40. Kevin’s young son Griffin has been the apple of her eye the last years of her life. It was so lovely to see her mothering emerge even in the midst of her illness.

Kathy’s kids – Joe, Sara, and Sean – have a funny “Nana” story. She was attending a play at Sara’s school, and at intermission went to the refreshment table where the kids were selling cookies and cupcakes. Mom had a hankering for a bagel and asked if they had any. She was forever after “Nana Bagel” in the Quirk household, and she laughed along with the joke.

And she was always looking out for the underdog – taking special time and energy with nieces, nephews, and friends who perhaps had a harder time, making a point to stay connected to relatives that had moved away from Pennsylvania. When she gave up driving, it was not her own independence that she mourned, but concern for her friends who she had been driving to events, shopping, church, and errands all these years. And to the very end of her life she was knitting blankets for newborns, concerned about the other residents at her assisted living facility, concerned that she was taking up too much of our time.

Mom has taken to reading Mother Teresa’s book in the past few years; it was always by her bedside, and she was so thrilled to see Teresa canonized this past year. So I’ll close this morning with a quote from St. Teresa of Calcutta
“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones - the ones at home.”
Love us and take care of us, mom, you most certainly did. And we so very much love you, miss you, and are grateful to have been your children.

Agnes (Trees) Russell

MARLBOROUGH: Agnes (Trees) Russell, 80, a longtime resident of Framingham, MA found peace Friday December 30, 2016 at Christopher Heights Assisted Living In Marlborough,MA. Born in 1936 in Lancaster, PA., Agnes received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing in Lancaster. She served in the US Navy (RN/Lieutenant), and worked as a dental receptionist and as a food technologist for the US Army Labs in Natick, MA. However her highest vocation was raising and loving her children and grandchildren. Widowed in 1979, Agnes found deep reserves of strength, love and humor which she has passed along to her children and to all who knew her in life. She was active in St. George Catholic Church in Framingham.

Agnes' heart remained in Lancaster Co., PA- her home was filled with Pennsylvania Dutch art, her recipe book was full of German family favorites, and her fondest times were reconnecting with her family at reunions and weddings. Games brought her much joy- joining friends for bridge or bingo, a trip to the casino, or sharing a lottery scratch ticket.

Pre-deceased by her beloved husband William, she is survived by her children: Judith, Kathleen (Quirk), Thomas and Kevin; a son-in-law: Thomas Quirk and grandchildren: Joseph, Sara, Sean and Griffin. Agnes will always be "Sis" to her siblings: Gerald, Robert, Charles,Donald, Jean, William, Elizabeth, Mary and Joan. She is fondly remembered by many wonderful sisters and brothers-in-law, as well as 43 nieces and nephews, and scores of the next generation. She also leaves her life-long friend and partner-in-crime, June Quinn of Cherry Hill, NJ. She joins her parents Agnes and Charles, her brother Gerald, niece Angie (Trees) Wilson and dear friend Rose DiStefano in God's loving arms.

There are no public funeral home visiting hours. A memorial Mass will be celebrated Saturday January 7, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. at St. George's Church, 74 School St., Framingham (Saxonville). Her urn burial will take place at a later date in St. Joseph's Cemetery, Bausman, PA. Memorial gifts in lieu of flowers may be made to The National Parkinson Foundation, 200 SE 1st Street, Suite 800, Miami, FL 33131 in honor of her brother Jerry; also online at www.parkinson.org. Memorial page www.boylebrothers.com